Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 57, 67 & 68 (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-08.

Let me begin by saying that nobody does Haydn better than Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Well, OK, nobody does music of the Baroque or Classical eras better than McGegan and the period-instrument band Philharmonia Baroque. I say this partly because I've been listening to the PBO in concert since their founding in the early 1980's. As a follower of this ensemble native to my San Francisco Bay Area, I've had the pleasure of hearing them in a number of different venues, including First Congregational Church in Berkeley where they made the present album. I know, therefore, that it's dreadfully partisan of me to say so, but I've never heard anybody do Baroque or Classical music better.

What's more, I can't think of any other period-instrument band that does Haydn better than Philharmonia Baroque. The thing is, though, that on this album they're doing some mid-symphony Haydn, Nos. 57, 67, and 68. They are symphonies even dedicated Haydn enthusiasts may have trouble identifying. Of course, McGegan and his players have already done a number of the later and better-known Haydn symphonies, so I guess it's good to hear them in the less-well-known stuff, too. (I say "I guess" because I still wish I could hear the ensemble playing the more-popular and, frankly, better Haydn repertoire.)

The thing about Haydn is that he produced a great deal of music, much of it during short periods of time. During the 1770's, when he wrote the three symphonies on this disc while working in the court of his patron, Prince Nikolaus Eszterhdzy, he averaged some three or four symphonies a year. If some of them began sounding a little alike, well, it's understandable. Nevertheless, the amazing thing about Haydn is not that some of his works sounded like some of his other works but that so much of it sounded fresh and original. Genius will out.

Anyway, McGegan and his players begin with Symphony No. 57 in D major, written in 1774 and scored for two horns, two oboes, and strings. The nice thing about McGegan's direction is that he never goes all crazy on us as some conductors of period-instrument groups do. McGegan's tempos always sound well judged, always resilient and flowing, energetic without being rushed or wearying. In No. 57 he presents some thoughtfully measured contrasts that keep the music vital and alive, the outer movements cheerful and the seemingly simple slow-movement variations delightful.

Nicholas McGegan
Next is Symphony No. 67 in F major, written in 1779 and a little more ambitiously scored for two bassoons, two oboes, two horns, and strings. It begins, perhaps surprisingly, with a charming little Presto that McGegan keeps bouncing along with an effervescent spring. I kept picturing McGegan himself on the podium bouncing along to the score, one of the most striking things about Maestro McGegan being the enjoyment he appears to be having directing music of any kind. This symphony gives him ample opportunity to have fun. Then, the lyric slow movement gives everybody a chance to rest after the liveliness of the opening.

Finally, in this well-filled-out album (over seventy-eight minutes) we get the Symphony No. 68 in B-flat major, again written in 1779 and again scored for two bassoons, two oboes, two horns, and strings. It opens vigorously with a movement marked Vivace. However, McGegan doesn't treat it with any undue briskness. Instead, the music moves almost gently in a fluid yet outgoing pace, always alert, always stimulating. As he does with the other slow movements on the program, McGegan handles this one with grace and refinement, all the while maintaining a sweet lilt and buoyant cadence. The music goes out with a most-pleasing forcefulness that shows us Haydn had a wealth of ideas to supply, and Maestro McGegan is fully up to enriching them.

These are among the finest Haydn performances you'll find, and even if you are unfamiliar with the material, you'll probably enjoy them under McGegan's always charismatic guidance. And, also as always, the Philharmonia Baroque play with an exacting refinement beyond reproach.

David v.R. Bowles of Swineshead Productions produced, recorded, edited, and mastered the recording, so you know exactly who to blame if you don't like the sound. He recorded the album live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA in February and October 2014. It's that "live" part that gets to me. I know some people love live recordings, but I'm not one of them. Except for maybe 2% of all the live recordings I've heard over these many years, I've seldom heard one that I didn't think would have sounded better recorded in a studio or without an audience. Fortunately, this is one of the better live recordings I've heard, almost making that 2% you could say. And, most fortunately, one of its merits is a lack of applause, which Mr. Bowles has thankfully edited out.

It's miked fairly close, as we might expect of a live recording, yet it still shows a good deal of air and space around the ensemble, as well as displaying a fine sense of depth and dimensionality. So expect maybe a fourth or fifth-row seat, with the orchestra well spread out ahead of us. Yet the sound remains fairly smooth, with no excessive brightness or forwardness in the midrange or treble, just a pleasant, natural clarity. Bass seems a tad light, though, and might have benefited from a modicum more warmth. The audience is remarkably silent, and there is little sense of their presence even during the quietest moments.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Kashif: The Queen Symphony (CD review)

Tolga Kashif, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57395 2.

I admit it: I have always liked the music of British rock band Queen. For instance, I still think their 1975 album A Night at the Opera (a gratifying reference to one of my favorite Marx brothers films) is brilliant. Nor have I any objection to people reorchestrating pop tunes and playing them via full-scale symphony orchestras. So back in 2002 when conductor and composer Tolga Kashif orchestrated an EMI disc of tunes by Queen and played by the Royal Philharmonic, I merely shrugged and thought, "Why not?" Then I listened to the album, in which Kashif arranged some of Queen's songs into what he called a symphony, and it all seemed more than a bit exaggerated to me. Still, what do I know: The disc garnered "Album of the Year" honors in some circles, attracted a host of devoted followers, and became a best-seller.

Kashif's symphonic creation, which is close to an hour long, contains bits and pieces of songwriter and lead singer Freddie Mercury's work for Queen divided into six movements. The trouble is, I found little continuity among the movements, little cohesion, just fragments of this and that held together through the brute force of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Kashif's fancy orchestration. Because I found much of the production a little tedious, about the only thing it made me want to do more than anything else was to listen to an actual Queen album and hear what the music originally sounded like.

You'll find a Queen song such as "Love of My Life" coming up best due to its inherent lyricism, and the whole symphony certainly starts out well, everything lushly orchestrated. But then you'll also find Kashif providing tempo markings within the movements like Allegro Scherzando and Moderato Cantabile, which seem overly pretentious to me. This self-reverential tone appears especially evident when Kashif, who not only arranged the music but conducts it as well, insists that this is a genuine symphony and not just a new arrangement of older music. I dunno; maybe Kashif meant the whole thing humorously, like some of Queen's own music. Despite Kashif's claim that it's a serious symphony, however, the music just sounds to my ears like an inflated collection of disparate pop harmonies, with little musical focus other than what Kashif's score attempts to segue into next.

Anyway, you'll hear snatches of "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions," and "Who Wants to Live Forever" tenuously woven into a single movement with little rhyme or reason. I admit it's pleasant enough from time to time, especially if you're already a Queen fan, but as a whole it fails to hang together any more than a multitude of ordinary theme albums do.

Moreover, the sound doesn't help much, either. To my ears EMI recorded the orchestra too close up and in too many multi-miked segments, with a constricted frequency response, a slightly muted high end, a soft midrange, a weak deep bass, and a nonexistent depth of image. In other words, it sounds exactly like a lot of pop recordings, which, given that EMI made it at least partly in Abbey Road's famous Studio 1, means it bears little resemblance to the kind of classical recording it would seem striving to emulate. So, in short, it sounds like a good pop album, which essentially it is. There's nothing wrong with that as long as we're not pretending it's something more.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, Sinfonia Concertante. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Lipman, viola; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Avie AV2317 (2-disc set).

What do you get when you combine all five of Mozart's violin concertos along with the Sinfonia Concertante in a single set? And then you have them performed by one of the world's leading violinists, Rachel Barton Pine? And you find her accompanied not only by the great Academy of St. Martin in the Fields but by its founding director, Sir Neville Marriner? And Avie does all of it up in good, natural sound? You get a darned fine recording all the way around, that's what you get.

Mozart wrote his violin concertos in Salzburg around 1775 or a little before when he still in his late teens. Audiences for the past two hundred-odd years have appreciated their appealing melodies and expressive style. Interestingly, Mozart never returned to the violin concerto as such for the rest of his life, probably because as a piano virtuoso he liked composing for that instrument, writing over twenty-seven piano concertos. (Although, to be fair, Mozart was also a violin prodigy, but later apparently preferring the piano.) In any case, one usually has to buy two or three albums to own all five violin concertos by a single performer, so already it's a good deal to find Ms. Barton Pine doing all of them in one set. Also interestingly, Ms. Barton Pine has recently been playing all five concertos in single concerts. Those must be some programs.

As welcome as Ms. Barton Pine is in this music, we must also welcome Sir Neville back conducting the group he co-founded in 1958. You would think that at nearly ninety years of age (at the time of this recording) he might be slowing down, but apparently not. His accompaniment is as alert as ever, and it goes without saying that the Academy play as smoothly and precisely as ever.

Now, as to the performances: Don't expect anything quite like the quick, fleet-footed readings of Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Philharmonic (DG) or Lara St. John and The Knights (Ancalagon), to name a couple of my favorites in this repertoire. No, Barton Pine and company adopt tempos closer to Ms. Mutter's early recordings with Karajan (DG) and Muti (EMI), moderate tempos that nevertheless bring out all the beauty and expressiveness these concertos have to offer. As we might expect from Marriner and the Academy, especially, these are elegant, stylish performances, filled with delicate nuances and ravishing lines.

The powers that be at Avie Records arranged the concertos with Nos. 4, 1, and 3 on disc one and Nos. 5, 2, and the Concertante on disc two. Well, I don't suppose the order makes any difference; Mozart wrote all of them at about the same time. Except when it comes to trying to find something in the set; then you have to check the packaging to see where to find a specific concerto. Did Avie just want to start with a popular concerto by beginning with No. 4? Or was it a matter of what they fit on each disc? I dunno. But how hard would it have been to put the longest work, the Concertante, first, followed by Nos. 1 and 2 on disc one? They would easily have fit, as would Nos. 3-5 on disc two. A trivial criticism, in any event.

So, things begin with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K218, certainly one of the most well-known and possibly most-beloved of the concertos. OK, one can understand why Avie started with No. 4. In Ms. Barton Pine's capable hands and with Marriner and company providing such expert support, the whole thing is a delight. Oh, and Mozart left no cadenzas for any of the five concertos, so Ms. Barton Pine has written her own. She says she feels more comfortable playing her own personal cadenzas, and certainly they seem to fit Mozart's style and moods.

Rachel Barton Pine
And so it goes. The Concerto No. 1 has a zippy poise about it, energetic yet never rushed, with a charming Adagio, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra always an attractive two-way affair. No. 3 Barton Pine says is her favorite, and it shows in her enthusiasm and loving attention. She claims it's Mozart's "friendliest" key, G major, and the first movement most resembles an aria. She performs in a most songlike manner, the second-movement Adagio soaring plaintively.

No. 5, which leads off the second disc, is the longest of the violin concertos and among the most creative. Barton Pine and her fellow players handle it in stride, highlighting its playful yet contrasting tones start to finish. The first movement alone plays like a miniature concerto in three parts: fast, slow, fast. The second and third movements, an Adagio and Minuet, are graceful and smiling, with Ms. Barton Pine again bringing these qualities to the fore. The final violin concerto in the set, No. 2, seems a little simple, almost old-fashioned, by comparison to the previous piece, yet the performers again bring out the best in it, with a pleasingly infectious cadence throughout.

The album concludes with the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364, from 1779, and here violist Matthew Lippman appears with Barton Pine. Mozart's mother had died the year before he wrote it, and most critics agree that the music reflects this loss. It shows a greater seriousness and maturity than the violin concertos and more-ambitious orchestration. Ms. Barton Pine and her companions play it in a wholly appropriate fashion, emphasizing its solemn nature without making it sorrowful or overly sentimental. It's maybe the most-brilliant and impressive work on the program, and Barton Pine and company execute it with both passion and compassion.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the album at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London in August and September 2013. There's a sweet warmth around the sound, with a flattering hall resonance providing a realistic ambience. Yet the bloom is not so great that takes anything away from the recording's clarity, which remains good. The soloist appears well integrated into the ensemble, just out ahead of the orchestra and to the left. The orchestral detail is fine, as is the depth and dimensionality of the group; and Ms. Barton Pine's violin sounds wonderfully transparent, almost glowing in its excellence.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Jongen: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Fantasia; Adagio symphonique. Lazzari: Rapsodie. Philippe Graffin, violin; Martyn Brabbins, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Hyperion CDA68005.

This album is the eighteenth installment in the Hyperion Records "Romantic Violin Concerto" series and headlines the Violin Concerto in B minor by Belgian organist, composer, and music teacher Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). If you're not too familiar with Jongen or his violin concerto, you may understand why it took eighteen volumes in Hyperion's violin series to get to him.

Modern audiences probably know Jongen best for his organ works, his Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra among the most-popular things he did. On the other hand, his Violin Concerto in B minor, which he wrote in 1899, didn't see publication or a public performance until 1914, where after it fell into neglect. Its next performance wasn't until 1930, but it didn't attract any serious attention until 1938, nearly four decades after its composition. Then, people started taking notice of it, and critics of the time recognized that it might be pretty good after all. Is it possible that at the time of its first performance, audiences were already beginning to shy away from Romantic concertos and leaning more to the emerging Modernism? Was Jongen's timing just off? More in a moment. The main thing is that the piece is finally getting a little more recognition with this Hyperion recording from violinist Philippe Graffin, conductor Martyn Brabbins, and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.

Incidentally, for those of you unfamiliar with the soloist or conductor, Mr. Graffin is a French violinist (b. 1964) with a reputation for championing forgotten or original settings of concertos by Faure, Chausson, Ravel, Coleridge-Taylor, and others. His speciality is Romantic French repertoire, playing on a Domenico Busano violin made in Venice in 1730. Maestro Brabbins is the Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Both men have been active in Hyperion's "Romantic Violin Concerto" series since the outset of the project in 1999.

Anyway, about the Jongen Violin Concerto and the present performance of it: The opening movement, the longest of the three at about eleven minutes, is somewhat severe in its straightlaced seriousness, and if one had to judge the entire concerto simply from this start, one could understand the reticence of early audiences to embrace it. It also suffers from a certain lack of direction and no really big tune to latch onto. Nevertheless, there is a pleasant lyricism that emerges from time to time that anticipates the more sweetly flowing second-movement Adagio. Meanwhile, Graffin and company appear to do their utmost to give the music its due, even if a good part of it is a tad too melodramatic for its own good.

It is, in fact, in the Adagio that Jongen scores his best points, although it still tends to wander aimlessly too often. Graffin's solo playing throughout seems effortless, and he brings a gentle persuasion to the second movement that I found charming.

Philippe Graffin
Jongen marks the finale Animé, and certainly Graffin and his supporting players handle it in an appropriately animated style. The music here is big and lush and rhythmic, although it also seems more disjointed than it does melodic or coherent, running as it does from one subject to another. Still, Brabbins and the orchestra seem able to hold it all together and perhaps make more of it than is actually there, while Graffin takes the solo passages and helps make them soar.

So, I asked earlier if audiences in 1914 hadn't given the concerto short shrift, and I'm still not sure. Maybe they were looking for something less overtly Romantic, yet they embraced Rachmaninov's music at the time, as Romantic as any. Maybe they just wanted something more individualistic and memorable.

Coupled with the concerto we find Jongen's Fantasia in E major and his Adagio symphonique in B major, along with Sylvio Lazzari's Rhapsodie in E minor. Of these three, I enjoyed the Fantasia, one of Jongen's earliest pieces, most of all for the soaring beauty of its line. Graffin manages it with an expressive purity that does justice to the music's songlike simplicity. Jongen's Adagio symphonique was a touch too sentimental for my taste without being really as touching as might have been. That's no reflection on Graffin's performance, by the way, which is as sympathetic as possible.

Finally, there's the Lazzari piece, the Rhapsodie, from 1922. Like Jongen's work, it harks back to a more old-fashioned manner of music making, with plush melodies and dramatic mood swings. One hears in it flashes of Chausson, Saint-Saens, and Gounod, even Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner. Graffin and his fellow performers carry it out with a suitable dignity and a good deal of sensitive refinement.

Producers Rachel Smith and Simon Perry and recording engineer Ben Connellan made the album at the Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven, Netherlands in July 2013. As usual with Hyperion, we get a warm, natural, nicely detailed sound. It may be a little close for the smooth, warm tone we hear from the orchestra, which might suggest a bit more distance, yet it's a sound that radiates a pleasant acoustic bloom and enough clarity to satisfy most listeners. While I wouldn't call it exactly audiophile, it is rather lifelike, as one might hear an orchestra live from a midway point in the hall.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (SACD review)

Florilegium. Channel Classics CCS SA 35914 (2-disc set).

The nice thing about the years passing is that music lovers have more to choose from than ever before. Not only do we have recent recordings of old favorites such as this release of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos from the period-instrument ensemble Florilegium, but we have everything available that people recorded before it; and what we can't buy new, we can easily find used via the Internet. So, today we can choose from among any number of great period-instrument recordings like those from Trevor Pinnock and his handpicked Baroque Ensemble (Avie), Pinnock's earlier recording with the English Concert (DG), Jeanne Lamon's with Tafelmusik (Tafelmusik or Sony), Jeannette Sorrell's with Apollo's Fire (Avie), Jordi Savall's (Astree), Gustav Leonhardt's (Sony), the Freiburger Barockorchester's (Harmonia Mundi), and many others. Choices, choices.

In the event you're unfamiliar with Florilegium, according to their Web site, they are "one of Britain's most outstanding period instrument ensembles. Since their formation in 1991 they have established a reputation for stylish and exciting interpretations, from intimate chamber works to large-scale orchestral and choral repertoire. Florilegium regularly collaborate with some of the world's finest musicians including Dame Emma Kirkby, Robin Blaze and Elin Manahan Thomas." What more, "Florilegium's recordings for Channel Classics have been awarded many prizes including a Gramophone Award nomination, Editor's Choice from Gramophone, Diapasons d'Or and Chocs de la Musique." Let it suffice that they are quite good at what they do.

Anyhow, as you know, Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them as a single, unified group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several musical works for him, and what he got a couple of years later was a collection of concertos for various-sized ensembles and various solo instruments that Bach had probably written earlier for various other occasions.

The Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. It's not a personal favorite, but that's of no concern. The main thing here is that nothing about Florilegium's performance of it changes my basic impression that it's the least successful of Bach's Brandenburgs. Florilegium's rather cautious, stately approach to it only confirms my opinion.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the concertos and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting in the lion's share of attention. Florilegium give the outer movements a good, zippy treatment, the trumpet player standing out for his lively style, the whole thing nicely presented, with the soloists well integrated into the whole. The middle, slow movement, sans trumpet, has a sweetly lyrical character well captured by the group.

Bach listeners probably know the Concerto No. 3 as well as they know No. 2, maybe even more so; therefore, it's equally probable that listeners have certain expectations. For better or for worse, Florilegium take the fast movement a touch slower than most other historically informed ensembles in my experience and the slow movement a tad faster. Then they speed up at the end to a tempo that seems maybe a little out of place, given the context. No matter; they play gracefully, and the period instruments are not nearly so abrasive as they can be in some other recordings.

For me, Concerto No. 4 is Bach's most playful piece, with the soloists darting in and out of the work's structure. For some reason, it always reminds me of children's music, like Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony or something like that. Whatever, the recorders are the stars of the show, and they make this piece the highlight of the set. It's really quite delightful all the way through, the Florilegium ensemble playing effortlessly and beguilingly.

Concerto No. 5 is another of my favorites, highlighting as it does solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Also, because it involves a relatively small ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound than the other concertos. Here, maybe for the first time ever, the harpsichord gets its day in the sun, not merely accompanying the other instruments but playing an equal part in the proceedings. Florilegium's harpsichordist, Terrence Charlston, does an excellent job in the part, and the final movement displays an especially rhythmic bounce.

Finally, Concerto No. 6 uses the smallest ensemble but never seems to feel small. Its only real drawbacks for me are its melodic similarity to Concerto No. 3 and its consequent lack of real distinctiveness. Nevertheless, it's hard for one seriously to dislike it. With Florilegium, No. 6 exhibits an appropriately rich, mellow tone thanks to its two violas and cello (and a slightly slower tempo throughout than many other renditions I've heard). It holds up as well as one can expect, despite its familiarity, Florilegium providing it with a somewhat solemn (or sedate) interpretation.

In all, these are refined, well-considered performances, perhaps lacking only in the last degree of excitement and exhilaration offered by some of the bands I mentioned at the outset of this review.

A couple of things concerned me about the set, though: First, the producers put concertos 6, 5, and 4 on disc one and numbers 3, 2, and 1 on disc two, in that order. Since no one is entirely sure of the composition dates or in what lineup Bach intended their performance, producers can, of course, put them in whatever order they choose. But, really, why not just present them as numbers 1-3 and 4-6 for the ease of one's finding them on the two discs? Worse, the producers have stacked the two SACD's in one of those heavy-duty single-disc SACD cases, the two discs one atop the other. For a product otherwise so quality oriented, I can't imagine why they stacked the discs as they did rather than use a two-disc case. (Or was the case I received an aberration? I don't know.)

Producer and engineer Jared Sacks and producer Ashley Solomon recorded the concertos at St. John the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood, London in November 2013. They made the album for SACD playback using Bruel & Kjaer and Schoeps microphones, a DSD Super Audio digital converter, Audiolab and B&W speakers, a Van Medevoort amplifier, Van den Hul cables, a Rens Heijnis custom design mixing board, and so forth. Obviously, it's a product from people who care about sound. As with most SACD's, you can play this one in SACD two-channel stereo or SACD 5-channel if you have an SACD player and two or five speakers; or you can play the regular CD layer if you have an ordinary CD player. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer.

Although the sound differs a bit from concerto to concerto as the number of players varies, it's mostly always warm, smooth, and natural. The ensemble extends from just within the two speakers, providing a good stereo spread without seeming overly wide or overly constricted. Dimensionality, depth, air, and dynamics are also consistent with lifelike reproduction, and a small amount of hall resonance further enhances this effect.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Grofe: Death Valley Suite (CD review)

Also, Hudson River Suite; Hollywood Suite. William Stromberg, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559017.

While the reputation of American composer, arranger, and pianist Ferde Grofe (1892-1972) lies squarely with the Grand Canyon Suite from 1931, he composed any number of other such pictorial pieces of music, most of them coming after the success of the Grand Canyon Suite and most of them either less inspired or more imitative. The three works on this disc, the Hollywood Suite, the Death Valley Suite, and the Hudson River Suite, dating from around 1939, 1949, and 1955 respectively, are typical examples.

The Hollywood Suite is, in my opinion, the least winning of the three. Like Hollywood itself, the music is flashy and flamboyant, starting out with a rather silly movement called "On the Set--Sweepers," complete with the sounds of sweeping brooms, and ending with "Director-Star-Ensemble," a big, largely forgettable production number. Nevertheless, Maestro William Stromberg and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra give it their all, and while the music may be rather lightweight, it is undeniably fun.

The Death Valley Suite is supposed to be the disc's big attraction, but it, too, is rather overambitious. It attempts to be another Grand Canyon affair, adding local color with the sounds of wagon trains, whinnying horses, dust storms, and the like. Sorry, I wasn't buying it. Again Maestro Stromberg injects as much vigor into the proceedings as one might expect, even if it's all a bit over-the-top.

For me, the Hudson River Suite was the prize of the lot, especially the "Rip Van Winkle" movement. In this suite, the composer adds color to support the tone pictures he's drawing and not color for the sake of color alone. The Hudson River music includes a lovely introduction called "The River," swings into "Henry Hudson" and "Rip" (Van Winkle), takes us on an "Albany Night Boat," and ends boisterously in "New York!" The music still may not possess any great substance, but it's probably the closest to Grofe's Grand Canyon work represented on the album, with Stromberg providing all the show, nuance, and imagination it needs.

The music-making under Stromberg's direction is, as I say, excellent as usual, the conductor having done this sort of thing for Naxos for years. Equally impressive, in this 2002 release Naxos provided Stromberg with one of their showcase audio editions, the sound clean and clear, with good detail, impressive percussion, and very wide dynamics. Indeed, the wide dynamic range may annoy some listeners because the difference in softest and loudest passages can make it difficult to find a compromise volume setting that won't blow you out of your seat. Still, the wide dynamics are what every audiophile looks for in a good recording.

Anyway, the Hudson River Suite may last only a little more than eighteen minutes, but with sound as good as this, it makes the disc worth its relatively inexpensive price.


To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:

Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets (CD review)

Cypress String Quartet. Avie Records AV2318 (3-disc set).

The last time I listened to the Cypress String Quartet, it was an Avie recording of Schubert's String Quintet with the addition of Gary Hoffman, cello, and I liked very much what I heard. This time out the Cypress Quartet play the middle Beethoven quartets: the String Quartet in F, Op. 59, No. 1 "Razumovsky"; the String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 "Razumovsky"; the String Quartet in C, Op. 59, No. 3 "Razumovsky"; the String Quartet in E flat, Op. 74 "Harp"; and the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 "Serioso." I still like what I hear.

The Cypress String Quartet comprises Cecily Ward, violin; Tom Stone, violin; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello. They formed in San Francisco in 1996 and haven't slowed down in the past decade and a half. They are building a healthy discography, they perform on major stages all over the world, they receive commissions and play premieres extensively, and their members have received degrees from prominent universities, including The Juilliard School, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the Royal College of Music (London), Indiana University, The Cleveland Institute of Music, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They have impressive credentials.

I said of the Cypress players the last time out that they provided rich, active, enthusiastic, and highly polished presentations, just as they do here. Having already successfully covered the late Beethoven string quartets in a 3-disc set on their own label, they now tackle the middle quartets in like style for Avie Records. As before, the Cypress Quartet is a remarkable music-making ensemble. Their playing is the utmost in clarity and refinement, yet they always maintain a vigorous and dynamic attack, rendering everything they play both authoritative and pleasurable. They are simply fun to listen to.

It's hard for me to point out any one or two of the performances as the absolute best of the set, but I can tell you a little about each one and single out a few things I enjoyed. Certainly, the first three quartets on the programs are interesting, the "Razumovsky" quartets that Beethoven wrote in 1806 on commission from Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna at the time. The first two of them have distinctly Russian folk inflections in them, probably to honor their patron.

The ensemble maintains a moderate pace in the faster movements, not so fast as I've heard but faster than, say, the older Quartetto Italiano, which seems perhaps a tad more relaxed. Interestingly, the Cypress players tend to slow down more so in the Adagios and such than I expected. It serves them well, as it complements the diverse but always welcome phrasing they employ throughout the set. Most important, though, is the heroic sweep they provide in this music, matching the broad, grand manner of Beethoven's ideas.

The Cypress performers are ideal in creating and releasing tensions, building incrementally and transitioning from one dynamic to another. And the fact that they keep such a full, rich, yet lucid and flowing line just adds to our enjoyment. This is a group of four musicians who sound like a small chamber orchestra yet reveal a wealth of detail in their interactions. You could hardly ask for more.

Cypress String Quartet
The so-called "Harp" quartet of 1809 is enjoyable, too, although it doesn't actually use a harp in it. It got its name from pizzicato arpeggios that may remind listeners of a plucked harp. Apparently, the publisher gave it the name "Harp" because musical compositions with nicknames are easier for people to remember, and, thus, there's the possibility of their becoming more popular. There's a lovely "Romantic" spirit to the Cypress's playing of the "Harp" quartet, their development of the work's inherent lyricism most touching.

The "Serioso" quartet premiered in 1814 but Beethoven probably wrote it several years earlier. The composer said he had never intended it for public performance but only for a small circle of friends; indeed, it is somewhat different from his other pieces, perhaps experimental in nature and looking forward to his later work. The "Serioso" business is Beethoven's own title for the piece and from a tempo marking for the third movement.

The "Serioso" quartet makes a good contrast with the preceding "Harp," in that the "Serioso" is far more dramatic and, well, serious. The Cypress players emphasize its decidedly bare, angular nature, yet they never make it feel uncomfortable or self-consciously gloomy or artsy. They are a most-expressive group, insistent in their aim to be both thoughtful and entertaining.

So, are these the recordings of the middle quartets to own? It's pretty hard not like competing performances from the Quartetto Italiano (Philips), which have stood the test of time, or the ones from the Kodaly Quartet (Naxos), which sound equally well played and as well recorded. Nevertheless, the Cypress interpretations are sensitive and well controlled, and the Avie sound is beyond reproach.

Producer Cecily Ward and engineer Mark Willsher recorded the quartets at the Skywalker Sound scoring stage in December 2012 through July 2014. There, they used a matched pair of Sanken CO-100K microphones and recorded in 96k Hz 24-bit sound, resulting in some pretty impressive sonics. The engineers miked the performers at a modest distance, allowing plenty of warm, natural studio ambience to flatter the music. The instruments appear clearly delineated and realistically grouped, not too wide apart yet not all squeezed together. It's a fine, lifelike presentation, with a smooth response. Love that cello, too.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

The Knights: The Ground Beneath Our Feet (CD review)

The Knights. Warner Classics 0825646170982.

As you probably know if you've been following the classical music scene this past decade, The Knights are a New York-based chamber orchestra, formed in the late Nineties by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen. They began by holding informal chamber-music sessions in their home, inviting friends to share performances with them of new and historical music. Even as their public performances increased and the group grew in size to almost three dozen members (flexible according to need from about a dozen to the full complement), they have retained their original collaborative spirit. According to their Web site, the ensemble's name symbolizes their unceasing quest for searching out things bold and true in the music they play.

The group's Artistic Director, Colin Jacobsen, describes the present album, The Ground Beneath Our Feet, as "a celebration of the concerto grosso, a musical conversation in which two or more instruments are invited to lead a dialogue with the larger whole.... By revisiting the concerto grosso today, we explore the amalgamation of personalities and perspectives that is The Knights, with individual voices coming to the fore throughout the album." Accordingly, the album offers something old (Stravinsky), something very old (Bach), something new (Reich), and something very new (Jacobsen, Aghaei, and The Knights), all of them concertos in their own way.

The more I hear from The Knights, the more I like them. In fact, along with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, The Knights have become one of my favorite American chamber orchestras. They play with a lively precision that always invigorates any music they're performing, and they never seem to stray from the central intent of the score. The selections on this disc are good examples of what I mean.

First up on the program is something new, the Duet for Two Violins and Strings by Steve Reich (b. 1936), with Ariana Kim and Guillaume Pirard, violins. Reich wrote the piece in 1993 and dedicated it to Yuhudi Menuhin. The Knights handle Reich's gently soaring lyricism gently and, well, soaringly. The music and the interpretation enjoy a simplicity and grace that make it a pleasure to return to time and again.

The Knights
Next is something very old, the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060R, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The Bach performance is both lively and graceful, something we don't always find in renderings of Baroque music. In my experience you get either one or the other. Yet The Knights have their cake and eat it, too. It's quite a lovely rendering of the piece, with Adam Hollander's oboe blending nicely into the framework of the ensemble, always highlighting the music yet never dominating it. The Adagio displays a special lilt that is quite charming.

After that is something less old, the Concerto in E-flat "Dumbarton Oaks" by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Stravinsky named his concerto after the historic estate on which The Knights made this recording. The composer was in one of his newer-older moods when he wrote it in 1937, and most of it, inspired by Bach, is rather playful. The Knights seem intent on pointing up this playfulness throughout, and their performance is appropriately joyous. What's more, it's remarkable how effortlessly they can transition from one era in music to another.

Then, we get two pieces that are fairly new. The first of these is the Concerto for Santur, Violin and Orchestra by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei. The santur is an ancient instrument, a stringed, hammered dulcimer of Babylonian origin, and here it makes a fine counterpoint to the previous violin concertos. Nevertheless, like them, it produces a sweet, flowing sound, and the rhythms of the music, premiered in 2013, agree with it nicely. When the violin and accompanying strings join in, they produce a most agreeable arrangement.

The final piece is The Ground Beneath Our Feet, written collectively by The Knights. As we might expect from such a collaborative work, the music appears more improvisational than the rest. Jacobsen says that it should sound different each time people play it, so it has a flexible, malleable nature to its moods, tempos, dynamics, stresses, patterns, and tones. There are some interesting Irish, Scottish, and Gypsy inflections in the piece that are fun, as are some closing vocals by Christina Courtin. The Knights are a talented group all the way around.

Like a lot of albums these days, too many for me, this one is a live recording. I suppose it's the most economical way to make records anymore, but it does no favors to the sound. Anyway, producer Jesse Lewis and engineers Jesse Brayman and Jesse Lewis recorded the music live at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC in October 2013.

The miking is a little closer than I would have liked, but I suppose that's the consequence of having to record live and minimize audience noise. The violins seem a tad bright and the whole image a bit too forward for my taste. Still, taste differs, and other listeners may find the sound exactly to their liking. It's certainly clear and detailed, with a realistic dimensionality and a modest touch of acoustic resonance to add to the warmth and flavor of the presentation.

However, I really, really could have done without the applause, which follows each item.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Mozart: Horn Concertos (CD review)

Also, Horn Quintet. Pip Eastop, natural horn; Anthony Halstead, The Hanover Band; Eroica Quartet. Hyperion CDA68097.

Who can resist the verve of Mozart's four horn concertos? And how many old English teachers can overlook the name Pip? Thus, it was with great expectations that I approached this Mozart recording with Pip Eastop on natural horn and Anthony Halstead leading the period-instrument Hanover Band.

A little background: Pip Eastop studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1974 to 1976, subsequently becoming Principal Horn with the Antwerp Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Wallace Collection, and the Gabrieli Consort; since 2005 he has been the Principal Horn with the London Chamber Orchestra. In addition, he has served as a professor of horn at the Royal Academy of Music since 1993 and at the Royal College of Music since 1995. He is no stranger to the instrument.

Anthony Halstead was first horn with the English Chamber Orchestra from 1972 to 1986 as well as with other noted orchestras such as the London Symphony and served as a professor at the Guildhall School of Music. During the 1980s and 90s, Halstead was a member of the horn section and a horn soloist with several period-instrument groups, including the English Concert, notably recording the Mozart horn concertos for Nimbus Records with Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band. For the past two decades or so he has lead the English Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Hanover Band, and other esteemed ensembles. He is no stranger to period and modern orchestras.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed his four horn concertos between 1783 and 1791, never finishing the final one (numbered first), the second movement reconstructed here by Stephen Roberts. Mozart wrote the concertos for his lifelong friend, the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, as virtuoso showpieces for soloists to display their skills on the valveless horns of the day.

Pip Eastop
On the present recording we find Mr. Eastop playing a valveless natural horn, accompanied by The Hanover Band playing on period instruments. Heretofore, my favorite such period recordings have been with Lowell Greer, horn, Nicholas McGegan, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi; and with Ab Koster, horn, Bruno Weil, and Tafelmusik on Sony or Newton Classics. In my book, Eastop and company now join this select group.

The Hyperion producers have organized the concertos on this disc according to their order of composition, starting with No. 2, which Mozart wrote first (1783). This opening concerto well exemplifies the work of the soloist and orchestra. The performers follow modestly vigorous tempos throughout, with little undue rushing about. The phrasing is likewise excellent, almost always at the service of the music. Maestro Halstead and Mr. Eastop partially reconstructed the opening Allegro, which sounds to me a little too weighty in tone but I suppose works to the advantage of the score in any case.

Next we hear Concerto No. 4 from 1786, always a delightful piece, which Eastop and company carry off successfully, especially in the flow of the Romance. The closing Allegro is lively, but some listeners might find it a tad too quick for their liking. To me, it sounded just right and invigorated the proceedings.

And so it goes through Nos. 3 and the unfinished No. 1, with playing of utmost refinement and spontaneity from Eastop and the Hanover Band. The opening of No. 1 appears particularly smooth and lyrical.

The program ends with Mozart's Horn Quintet in E flat major, K407, from 1782, Mr. Eastop accompanied by the estimable Eroica Quartet. It was the first work the composer wrote for his friend Leutgeb. In the arrangement, Mozart used two violas, which lends the piece a deeper, more mellow sound to complement the horn. Interestingly, the music seems to put more of a virtuosic demand on the horn player than the concertos, and Eastop comes through splendidly, every note the epitome of grace, color, and beauty.

Producer and engineer Adrian Hunter recorded the concertos at All Saint's Church, East Finchley, London in October 2013 and the quintet at the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex in February 2011. The sound in the concertos appears quite realistic, the orchestra miked at a moderate distance, just enough to provide some breadth and depth to the ensemble and plenty of air and space around it. The horn sounds rich and mellifluous and well integrated into the orchestral setting, up front but not in your face. Detailing on the instruments is good in a lifelike sense, meaning it's warm and smooth, with no edge, no forwardness, no brightness. What's more, there is a strong dynamic impact and a wide frequency range to enhance the naturalness of the presentation. In short, this album is sonically among the best recordings of Mozart's horn concertos available. The quintet isn't bad, either, if a little more closely miked.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Debussy: Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (CD review)

Also, Three Nocturnes; Pelleas et Melisande, concert suite. Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Rundfunkchor Berlin; Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 289 471 3322.

It's always a joy, of course, to listen to the Berlin Philharmonic, but I wonder why the powers that be at DG so often keep these things under wraps for so long? They made this recording in 1998 and didn't release it in America until 2002. Oh, well. It's rapturous music played in rapturous style by the late Claudio Abbado and his distinguished orchestra, and I suppose we should count it a blessing we got it at all.

In fact, the orchestra sounds almost as luxurious as it did under Herbert von Karajan, no small compliment to maestro Abbado. Naturally, the three works included on the disc have something to do with it. They fairly define impressionistic music. The Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune with Emmanuel Pahud, flute, is probably the best known of the bunch, and while practically every conductor in the world has made a recording of it over the years, most of which are still available, Abbado's interpretation is among the most seductive, lithe, and sinuous of all. I loved it.

I found the three Nocturnes impressive, too--gentle and graceful--but other conductors have done them up just as well. Nevertheless, Abbado gets excellent support from members of the Berlin Radio Choir in the Sirens segment.

Nevertheless, it's the Pelleas et Melisande suite, arranged years ago by conductor Erich Leinsdorf, that carries the day. It is gorgeous in its Delius-like meandering manner, with waves of sound rolling over the listener in sweet profusion like spring breezes on a warm day. The concert suite leaves out much of the overt action of the complete work, contenting itself mainly with the linking material, which is just fine by me for its relaxed tone and romantic atmosphere, especially as Abbado presents it. And then there's the sheer beauty of the Berlin orchestra; it's hard to resist.

The sound quality varies, though. DG recorded the first two items in Jesus-Christus Kirche without an audience, while they recorded the Pelleas music live and closer up at the Berlin Philharmonie. Now, normally I don't fancy live recordings, but in this case it actually outshines its companions in brilliance, transparency, and dynamics. It simply sounds more alive, although in all fairness the more distanced and veiled sound of the first pieces rather fits their mood. In any case, as I say, it's Abbado's conducting and the magnificence of the Berlin ensemble that are probably most at issue here, and they're so good I wouldn't let a little matter like ordinary sonics interfere with a good time.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Varese: Ameriques. Wei Lu, violin; Ingo Metzmacher, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Challenge Classics CC72644.

I've said this before but it bears repeating: I don't think it's such big leap from the heroic swagger of Franz Liszt's Les Preludes to the heroic swagger of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. Or from Strauss's Ein Heldenleben to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Sea Hawk. Or from Korngold's Sea Hawk to John Williams's Star Wars. All composers owe something to those who went before them, and Strauss's Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") was a natural step in the progression of the tone poem, here executed with an exceptionally clearheaded precision by Maestro Igo Metmacher and the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin.

American occupation forces, by the way, founded the German orchestra in 1946, just after the Second World War, and it has known any number of notable principal conductors in its time, including Ferenc Fricsay (1948-1963), Lorin Maazel (1964-1975), Riccardo Chailly (1982-1989), Vladimir Ashkenazy (1989-1999), Kent Nagano (2000-2006), Ingo Metzmacher (2007-2010), and currently Tugan Sokhiev (2012-present). So, yes, it's a fine, world-class ensemble.

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a kind of tongue-in-cheek autobiography, a semi-serious self-portrait. Strauss was only thirty-four years old when he wrote it, showing his supreme self-confidence by composing a musical autobiography as he did at such an early age. Mainly, though, he seems to have written it to get in a few digs at his critics, whom he convincingly silences through the music. Many critics in response took their digs at Strauss, suggesting he was merely being indulgent and narcissistic.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into several parts describing the stages in the artist's life. The first segment, "The Hero," obviously describes Strauss himself and does so on a large, swashbuckling scale. Here, Maestro Metzmacher zips through the heroics in short order, perhaps to de-emphasize the mocking implications of the composer engaging in serious heroic deeds. Certainly, Metzmacher has an ear for the lines and arguments of the score, his phrasing and dynamic contrasts bringing out the work's rhythmic appeal at the expense of a little of its more Romantic qualities.

Next, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion; Metzmacher captures their pettinesses pretty clearly. Following that is "The Hero's Companion," his wife, whom violinist Wei Lu sweetly defines in solo. In fact, Lu's violin as the wife is quite charming, a highlight of the disc.

"The Hero's Battlefield" is where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them (musically) of his accomplishments by throwing in bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. In these warring sections and in the conclusion, Metzmacher again de-emphasizes the purely battle music while trying to impress upon listeners the overall sonic picture. Strauss was, after all, creating sound pictures, and sometimes he intended the sound to reflect merely an impression rather than a specific incident. Not that Metzmacher doesn't inject a good deal of liveliness and energy into the music, though, and, indeed, his manner with it is quite exhilarating.

Ingo Metzmacher
The disc's coupling is perhaps a surprising one: Ameriques by the French-born composer and conductor Edgard Varese (1883-1965). The idea of the pairing is that Richard Strauss was really ahead of his time, and Varese's work, written between 1918 and 1921 and premiered in 1926, fits in a similar modernistic mold. Like the Strauss piece, Varese wrote his work for a very large orchestra, organizing it into blocks of self-contained music and, like most of his work, with a greater emphasis on texture, tone colors, and rhythm than on any formal melodies. He called the piece Ameriques ("Americas") presumably because it was the first thing he wrote after moving to the U.S. in 1915.

Varese termed his music "organized sound," and it helped usher in the modern musical age. Maestro Metzmacher does his best to play up the similarities in the Strauss and Varese music, and to some extent succeeds. However, be aware that by comparison to Varese, Strauss's music still sounds the more Romantically old-fashioned, no matter how much Metzmacher tries to clarify and reinforce the modern elements.

Anyway, in Ameriques Varese attempted to capture the often cacophonous sounds of New York City, and Metzmacher helps make these sounds more comprehensible through his careful handling and execution of the ideas. There's a strong sense of transparency in the music as Metzmacher shapes it, with the noises of traffic, sirens, steamboat whistles, and crowds coming across in shimmering, sometimes electrifying, immediacy. Like Strauss, Varese was creating tone pictures, and if anything they are even more localized and startling. Metzmacher ensures that we hear it that way and offers up a colorful and scintillating interpretation in every way.

Incidentally, Metzmacher plays both works on the program in their original versions, and a booklet note explains the differences between the originals and later versions.

Producer and editor Florian B. Schmidt and engineers Martin Eichberg and Boris Manych recorded the music at the Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany in September 2007. Although there is no mention on the packaging or in the accompanying booklet about their recording it live, it appears to be so, given the occasional audience noise present. Also, I have no idea why Challenge Classics waited so long to release the disc in 2014, but I'm glad they finally did.

The engineers miked the music fairly close up, probably to minimize audience noise, and in this regard they did a good job. Only in the quietest parts of the music can one hear any coughs or rustling of feet, and there is no applause involved to spoil our enjoyment of the presentation. In any case, live or not, the close-up sound provides plenty of definition and impact but doesn't always offer much in the way of depth or dimensionality. Fortunately, the space and air around the instruments appear realistic enough, and a small degree of room resonance flatters the general sonic impression.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Some Favorite Recordings of 2014

As you may know, I don't do "best-of" lists. I find "best" too subjective, implying too many things to too many people. Besides, "best" implies that I've sampled everything available in order to come to a decision, and even though I review hundreds of discs a year, I confess I have heard but a fraction of what's out there. So I prefer to do "favorites" lists. Here are just a few of the recordings (listed alphabetically, to be fair) I heard last year that I enjoyed for their performance and sound. I know I've forgotten a few; forgive me. These stood out, some of them new releases and some of them remasters of old favorites.

"Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War." Anonymous 4, with Bruce Molsky. Harmonia Mundi.
To read the full review, click here:

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2
Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 19, 20, and 21. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics.
To read the full review, click here:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral"
Also, Egmont Overture. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.
To read the full review, click here:

Chopin: A Chopin Recital
Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons.
To read the full review, click here:

Chopin: Life According to Chopin
Jeffrey Biegel, piano. GPR Records.
To read the full review, click here:

Chopin: Preludes
Ingrid Fliter, piano. Linn Records
To read the full review, click here:

Piano Fantasies of Schubert, Hirtz, Mozart, Di Liberto, and Schumann. Jon Kimura Parker, piano. FP.
To read the full review, click here:

French Fantasy
Music of Saint-Saens, Faure, and Ravel for duo pianists. Susan Merdinger and Steven Greene, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.
To read the full review, click here:

Myung Whun Chung: Piano
Myung Whun Chung, piano. ECM New Series.
To read the full review, click here:

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1
Also, Wieniawski: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Michael Rabin, violin; Sir Eugene Goossens, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI Japan.
To read the full review, click here:

Sharon Kam: Opera!
Sharon Kam, clarinet; Ruben Gazarian, Wurttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn. Berlin Classics.
To read the full review, click here:

Schubert: Arpeggione
Also, music by Debussy, Britten, and Schumann. Gautier Capucon, cello; Frank Braley, piano. Erato.
To read the full review, click here:

Schubert: Songs of the Harper (SACD review)
Also, Sonatina for Violin and Piano; Impromptus Nos. 2-4; Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel; Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano; Piano Trio in B-flat Major. Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp; Anna Prohaska, soprano; Ludwig Quandt, cello; Lara St. John, violin. Ancalagon.
To read the full review, click here:

Thomson: The Plow That Broke the Plains
Also, The River. Leopold Stokowski, Symphony of the Air. HDTT.
To read the full review, click here:


Decca: Supreme Stereophonic Legacy (UltraHD review)

Various composers and artists. FIM UHD 088 (4-disc box set).

British Decca is one of the oldest, most-prestigious, and most-innovative record companies in the world, producing classical, popular, jazz, even country-Western recordings since the 1920's. To help celebrate Decca's accomplishments, the audiophile company FIM (First Impression Music) have put together this four-disc box set of Decca stereo recordings, remastered in FIM's 32-bit Ultra High Definition PureFlection processing. The recordings represent some of Decca's best work of the past fifty-odd years, and the remasterings reflect some of the best sound possible with today's compact-disc technology. Along with a sturdy clothbound box, a hardbound book of Decca history, and another hardbound book of production notes and disc sleeves, the set makes an attractive package for the music lover and audiophile alike. An expensive but attractive package.

FIM owner, president, and producer Winston Ma tells us in an introduction to the set that the Decca name goes back to 1914 when Barnett Samuel and Sons introduced a portable gramophone they called the Decca Dulcephone. Shortly afterwards, they renamed the company The Decca Gramophone Co. Ltd., and in 1929 sold it to Edward Lewis. It wasn't long afterward that Decca Records Ltd. became the second-largest record company in the world, calling itself at the time "The Supreme Record Company" (and, thus, the present set's "Supreme Stereophonic Legacy" title). Wilfred S. Samuel created the actual name "Decca" by combining the word "Mecca" with the initial "D" of their logo "Dulcet" (or their trademark "Dulcephone"). Samuel figured "Decca" would be a good brand name for the company because almost anybody could pronounce it in almost any language. Clearly, the idea worked and the name stuck. For a few decades in the mid twentieth century, a conflict with American Decca caused a minor problem, resulting in the parent British company calling their American product "London Records," but things have settled back to "Decca" worldwide for these past many years.

As I say, FIM selected the tracks from among some of Decca's best stereo releases. What's more, if you have already collected any of FIM's previous remasterings, you will recognize the selections from their previous work. This time, however, the FIM folks have reassembled them and rereleased them to their latest audio standards. Here's the track listing;

Volume One (UHD 089)
1. Glinka: Overture - Russlan and Ludmilla (Solti, LSO)
2. Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor - Movement 1 (Lupu, Previn, LSO)
3. Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor - Movements 2 and 3 (Lupu, Previn, LSO)
4. Granados: Intermezzo from Goyescas (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
5. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 1, Valse (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
6. Bernstein Elmer: The Magnificent Seven (Stanley Black)
7. Strauss, Johann Jr.: Voices of Spring (Boskovsky, VPO)
8. Strauss, Johann Jr.: Perpetuum Mobile (Boskovsky, VPO)
9. Loewe: "I Could Have Danced All Night" (Edmundo Ros)
10. Di Capua: "O Sole Mio" (Pavarotti)

Volume Two (UHD 090)
1. Verdi: Aida - Gloria all Egitto (Carlo Franci)
2. Albeniz: Castilla (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
3. Albeniz: Austurias (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
4. Rimsky-Korsakoff: Capriccio Espagnol (Argenta, LSO)
5. Chabrier: Espana (Argenta, LSO)
6. Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain (Solti, LSO)
7. Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina - Prelude (Solti, LSO)
8. Bernstein, Leonard: On the Waterfront, Symphonic Suite (Stanley Black)
9. Rodgers: "I Whistle a Happy Tune" (Edmundo Ros)

Volume Three (UHD 091)
1. Strauss, Richard: Also Sprach Zarathustra - Prelude (Mehta, LAPO)
2. Falla: The Three Cornered Hat - Act 1 (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
3. Falla: Ritual Fire Dance (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
4. Verdi: Nabucco - Act 1, Gli arredi festivi (Carlo Franci)
5. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 2 - Tempo di Valse (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
6. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 2 - Andante non Troppo (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
7. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 2 - Allegro Moderato (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
8. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 3 - Danse Espagnole (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
9. Herold/ Lanchbery: La Fille Mal Gardee - Introduction (Lanchbery, ROHO)
10. Herold/ Lanchbery: La Fille Mal Gardee - Pas-de-Deux (Lanchbery, ROHO)
11. Strauss, Johann, Jr. and Josef: Pizzicato Polka (Boskovsky, VPO)
12. Steiner: Gone with the Wind - Tara's Theme (Stanley Black)

Volume Four (UHD 092)
1. Bruch: Scottish Fantasia, Op. 46 - Movement 1 Oistrakh, Horenstein, LSO)
2. Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante - Movement 1 (Oistrakhs, Kondrashin, MPO)
3. Mozart: Divertimento L. 136 I. - Allegro (Marriner, ASMF)
4. Mozart: Divertimento L. 136 II. - Allegro (Marriner, ASMF)
5. Mozart: Divertimento L. 136 III. - Allegro (Marriner, ASMF)
6. Mozart: Serenata Notturna K.239 I. - Marcia (Marriner, ASMF)
7. Mozart: Serenata Notturna K.239 II. - Minuet (Marriner, ASMF)
8. Mozart: Serenata Notturna K.239 III. - Rondo (Marriner, ASMF)
9. Strauss, Johann Sr: Tivoli-Rutsch Waltz (Boskovsky, VPO)
10. Strauss, Johann Jr: Blue Danube (Boskovsky, VPO)
11. Rapee: Charmaine (Mantovani)

I suppose there is some rhyme or reason behind the grouping of the selections, but what that reasoning is, I could not discern. The pieces do not appear arranged by composer or conductor or even by composition or recording date. My guess is that the set's producers merely grouped the various items according to personal fancy. In any case, the music is so good and so well recorded and remastered, one need only sit back and enjoy it. Of course, it means not being able to hear too much of one thing, so except for the Mozart it's mainly bits and pieces and short works. But it makes picking out and playing back favorite items for relatively brief listening sessions quite easy. Or you might find a favorite disc among the four and replay it time and again. Who knows.

Sir Georg Solti
In my case, having reviewed this music before from FIM, it made picking favorites easy because of familiarity but hard because I really liked them all. Nevertheless, let me comment on just a few of the set's most outstanding tracks.

Sir Georg Solti's conducting could sometimes sound hard-driven, even frenetic, but when he was on, as he was here in selections from Glinka (Russlan and Ludmilla) and Mussorgsky (Night on the Bare Mountain) with the London Symphony Orchestra, he was electrifying.

For a while (too long a while), Decca experimented with a recording technique they called "Phase 4." It employed the use of about two hundred microphones per instrument and resulted in a sound that was strongly dynamic, ultra clear, flat, forward, compartmentalized, and anything but natural. However, no one could argue that it wasn't spectacular, and that's what we get in Stanley Black's rendition of Elmer Bernstein's theme from The Magnificent Seven, recorded with the London Festival Orchestra. The recording has a clarity and impact I guarantee will impress almost any listener.

Nobody did Johann Strauss Jr.'s music as well as Willi Boskovsky, especially in his recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, as we hear on Voices of Spring and Perpetuum Mobile. The grandness of the orchestra matches the grandness of the music, and the musical lilt is nigh-well perfect.

And so it goes, with each selection a little gem. Ataulfo Argenta's way with Rimsky-Korsakoff's Capriccio Espagnol and Emmanuel Chabrier's Espana is a joy to behold; John Lanchbery does up Herold's La Fille Mal Gardee better than anyone before or since; and Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields are as polished and precise as ever in Mozart's Divertimento and Serenata Notturna, with sound that Decca (on their Argo label) never topped. It's all a pleasure to hear.

Along with the four discs come two hardbound books measuring about 7 1/4" square. The first one contains four paper sleeves for the discs, with each disc slipped into its own static-proof jacket. Then, there are 108 glossy pages of technical information on the composers, the compositions, the original Decca recording processes, and the FIM remasterings. The second book is 264 pages long and chronicles a history of the Decca organization, its major artists, its labels, its products, and just about anything else you'd ever want to know about the company. The books strike me as well written and lavishly illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs.

Insofar as concerns the sound of FIM's remasterings, it's obviously excellent. Although, as I've mentioned, FIM had remastered and released these selections before, they went back and replicated them over again using their newest 32-bit UltraHD and PureFlection processing formats. According producer Winston Ma, this technology yields the highest degree of fidelity possible from a standard Red Book CD, so you can play the discs back on a regular CD player rather than use some exotic equipment. (OK, I know what you're thinking: If you can afford a set as costly as this one, you probably already own an exotic audio system. But that's beside the point.)

Anyway, I sat down and compared the sound of these new remasterings with the sound of many of the equivalent FIM discs I had in my library. This was fun for a few minutes until I recognized that I was hearing the same differences with every recording. The sound of the new transfers is smoother than that of the older ones. Sure, there is tremendous fidelity in both old and new, but the newer discs take some of the edge off the often brighter sound of the older ones. Not that there is anything wrong with the older transfers; they are certainly better than the original Decca releases; it's just that the new FIM product is that much easier on the ears, detailed yet ultraclean, clear, dynamic, and effortless.

Naturally, which sound one prefers may depend upon one's playback equipment. If your stereo system favors the high end, you may prefer FIM's new UltraHD masterings without question. If your system is at all soft or subdued, you might actually prefer the very slightly more forward sound of the older FIM issues. Personally, I preferred the newer sound, but without the master tapes with which to make comparisons, I have no way of knowing which transfers are the more accurate. Let's just say that if you have deep enough pockets, this "Decca: Supreme Stereophonic Legacy" box won't disappoint.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks (CD review)

Also, Water Music. Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque. Telarc CD-80594.

There was a time you couldn't get both Handel's Fireworks Music and Water Music on a single album. In the old days of vinyl records, they simply wouldn't fit. Then in the early days of CD, record companies apparently thought the two works were too important to couple together, charging buyers double for separate discs.

Today, there are any number of recordings of the two pieces paired together, but there is still a good deal of variety on separate discs as well. For instance, do you want your Handel on period or modern instruments? Do you want the Fireworks Music with or without strings? (The King who commissioned the work, George II of Great Britain, specified "no fiddles.") Do you want a chamber-sized ensemble or something approaching the one hundred players that at least one listener at the time said first performed the piece? Decisions, decisions. McGegan, Pinnock, Savall, Leppard, Orpheus, Lamon, Mackerras? They're all among my favorites, but this 2003 entry from Martin Pearlman and his original-instrument group, Boston Baroque, is as good a choice as  any for the beginning collector or the Handel fan who has everything.
Martin Pearlman

I wasn't too sure about Pearlman's interpretation when he began the Fireworks Overture at almost a funereal pace and then launched headlong into a tempo so quick it might have taxed the abilities of all but the most talented musicians of Handel's day. But things settle down quickly enough, and one gets used to Pearlman's often brisk pace. The Fireworks Music is certainly invigorating as are the opening and closing Water Music Suites, with the Suite in G major appropriately more relaxed (supposedly for the actual dinner accompaniment aboard the royal barge).

In short, Pearlman's approach to the music is both scholarly and vivid, done up in a manner that modern research says at least approximates that which Handel might have heard. The performances are poised yet enthusiastic, attentive yet stimulating, polished yet vigorous.

The sound Telarc affords the music, recorded in January 2002 by longtime Telarc engineer Jack Renner, is pleasantly free of undue brightness, harshness, tubbiness, or reverberation. It's really quite well balanced, although I thought it missed the last degree of weight in the bass, giving the sonics some clear textures but not always the warmth I like. Well, in the last analysis Handel presented both of these works outdoors (in a park concert and on a barge), so maybe bass resonance wouldn't have been a factor, anyway. As always with Telarc, the percussion sounds impressive.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa