Feb 26, 2015

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (XRCD24/K2 review)

Carlo Maria Giulini, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD35.

Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was among the most elegant, most sophisticated, most refined conductors the world of classical music has ever known. He was, however, also among the last conductors I would have considered a top choice in the Mahler First Symphony, a youthful, zealous, even ostentatious work. It always seemed to me that Giulini's style better suited the music of Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, and the like, than to Mahler, and that we were better off leaving Mahler's outgoing music to someone more like Georg Solti. But what do I know? I had never heard Giulini's Mahler First before, so I approached listening to this audiophile-remastered, 1971 EMI recording from Hi-Q Records with some small degree of hesitation, even trepidation. I should not have.

Whatever, let's start with some background on the music itself. As you no doubt know, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, saying at first it was a five-movement symphonic poem and, at least temporarily, being persuaded to give it the name "Titan." Before long, though, he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" designation. The work became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age, probably because with its large orchestra, soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts the symphony makes a spectacular listening experience, and it became an ideal way for audiophiles to show off their newly acquired stereo systems. And we can't forget that the First is one of Mahler's shortest symphonies, making it an ideal length for home listening.

In the Symphony No. 1 Mahler said he was trying to describe his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the second-movement Scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he was up to. Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing.

Carlo Maria Giulini
So, what does Giulini do with all this? Quite a lot, actually. Contrary to my worry that Giulini's demeanor might sound too polished and sophisticated for the work, his performance is mostly vibrant and alive, though not to excess. Although he keeps tempos on the modest side, he nevertheless creates a healthy degree of excitement in an interpretation as big, bold, and exhilarating as most any you'll find, yet with nothing false about it, nothing done for show alone. More important, Giulini projects the more-sensitive elements of the score with intensity, without over sentimentalizing them.

Giulini's reserved manner serves him well in the atmospheric introductory moments of the symphony, as spring awakens. From there, the conductor's innate poetic vision takes over, and the first movement has a sweet sense of beauty and repose leading to a vigorous conclusion.

Under Giulini the second movement seemed initially a touch slack to me, but it picks up as it goes along, and there's an attractive sweetness in the overall line. The funeral march, too, seemed at first a pinch underpowered, yet as with the second movement it's Giulini's way to build incrementally, and he does so with a satisfactorily mounting tension. Then the conductor opens the final movement with the huge burst of noise we know so well, and it is effective enough in startling us from the melancholy of the funeral march. Furthermore, Giulini again handles the lyrical sections with an easy lilt, the big Romantic melody blooming nicely, and he ends the score on an appropriately happy and positive note.

If I have any small reservation about Giulini's reading, though, it's that from time to time he tends to fall into a fairly conservative, somewhat studied rhythm rather than letting the momentum carry the day. In other words, the flow of the music occasionally seems impeded by Giulini's tendency to become too careful and slow the pace to a rather steady, predictable, and clocklike gait. Maybe the conductor lets his own sense of propriety get in the way of Mahler's exuberance, where a little more spontaneity might have been the order of the day. Despite this relatively small concern, however, Giulini's is an enlightened, heartfelt interpretation, full of passion and zest, if on a slightly reserved scale.

EMI producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Carson Taylor recorded the album at Medinah Temple, Chicago in March 1971. Engineer Tohru Kotetsu remastered the original tape at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan in 2014 using XRCD processing and 24-bit K2 technology. The results are much better than I expected, given that in my recollection of EMI's Chicago recordings of the period, the sound never seemed that great to me. Here, things sound considerably improved.

While the sonics are still a tad too bright for my taste, they are quite smooth, rich, spacious, and resonant, highly dimensional, and extremely dynamic. Indeed, the impact will have you thinking you're in the concert hall, with hushed silences building to huge climaxes before you know it. The sound is not at all hard or harsh as some of EMI's Chicago sound could be. Just don't play it too loudly, or it may appear to get a little piercing. Well, with its wide dynamic range, you shouldn't have the gain set too high, in any case, or the music will knock out of your seat in its stronger parts. If you like the performance, this remastering is undoubtedly the best you'll find, even though I would have welcomed a more-natural reaction from the upper mids and lower treble, a bit more lower range warmth, and perhaps a stronger deep bass response. OK, I'm being petty. It sounds great.

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

Feb 25, 2015

Pleyel: Symphonies (CD review)

Jakub Dzialak, piano; Riccardo Bovino, violin; Howard Griffiths, Zurcher Kammerorchester. CPO 999 759-2.

If the music sounds like Haydn or Mozart, don't be surprised. Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831) was a contemporary of those men, and, perhaps surprisingly, in his day people thought he might be greater than Mozart and the successor to Haydn. OK, if you are an enthusiastic classical-music fan, you already know that.

Pleyel was a prominent figure in his time, a French composer and piano builder born in Austria, a pupil of Joseph Haydn, and the prolific writer of some fifty classical symphonies and a ton of other stuff before retiring from music into the world of business. Today he's all but forgotten except in occasional recordings like this one that, alas, I would guess few people will have even heard of. Nevertheless, this 2002 recording could still make Pleyel a few new friends. His music may be outdated but not any the less fun.

Howard Griffiths
The three works on the album are his Symphony in D major, Op. 3; his Second Symphonie Concertante for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra; and his Sixth Symphonie Periodique. These from a man who wrote more symphonies than Mozart. Yet by the end of his lifetime his critics were calling his music old-fashioned, lightweight, and facile, the emerging style of Beethoven having swept the Continent. Well, Pleyel is lightweight, no doubt, but for modern listeners that may be his strongest suit. The fact is, there isn't much going on in Pleyel's music that we can't anticipate before ever hearing it, yet one can say much the same thing of most other composers of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Anyway, of the three works represented here, I preferred the Symphony Concertante best, it being a sort of minor-league Mozart violin-and-piano concerto. It has zip and zest and all manner of wit and humor about it, with violinist Jakub Dzialak and pianist Riccardo Bovino playing their hearts out as if it were, indeed, Beethoven; and Howard Griffiths and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra give them splendid support.

What's more, CPO do their part, too, by providing a good, open acoustic and reasonably well detailed sonics; fairly strong dynamics; a modicum of hall warmth and bloom; and a realistic dimensionality to the presentation. True, the music may sound imitative, but for me it was worth hearing.


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

Feb 23, 2015

Simone Dinnerstein: Broadway-Lafayette (CD review)

Music of Ravel, Lasser, and Gershwin. Simone Dinnerstein, piano; Kristjan Jarvi, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical 88875032452.

This is another of those kind of, sort of theme albums, the producers telling us that "the music on this album celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America through the music of three composers--George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel and Philip Lasser." It suggest also "the French-American connection as the Marquis de Lafayette and his French troops helped the American colonists out against the British during the American Revolution." OK, a tenuous link if you ask me, but it's awfully good music and well handled by American pianist Simone Dinnerstein, conductor Kristjan Jarvi (another in the musical Jarvi family, son of conductor Neeme Jarvi and brother of conductor Paavo Jarvi), and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The program opens with the Piano Concerto in G major by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The Concerto has always struck me as one of Ravel's most-imaginative works, full of jazzy bustle one moment and the tenderest grace the next. It's done up not only in Ravel's usual impressionist style but most expressive as well, and unless the pianist is careful the piece can appear merely as a series of clamorous rants and dreamy allusions. One past master of taming this sometimes unwieldy beast was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who in a 1957 recording for EMI (now Warners) showed how beautifully crystalline and elegant the music could sound. Now, Ms. Dinnerstein gives it a shot, and she, too, finds joy in the work.

Dinnerstein emphasizes the jazz element in the first movement, perhaps to show the work's connection to Gershwin all the better. Yet she keeps it fairly light and atmospheric, too, never making the music appear too showy. Does it fully capture Michelangeli's magic? No, but it's close. Ms. Dinnerstein does even better in the touching second-movement Adagio assai, which embraces a sweet, Chopin-like quality. In the final Presto, Dinnerstein fully engages the composer's blazing technical displays, yet also manages to find some respite along the way. If the whole is still not quite so coherent as Michelangeli's account, it is nevertheless satisfying, with good support from Maestro Jarvi and the MDR orchestra.

Simone Dinnerstein
Next, we find the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra "The Circle and the Child" by American composer and pianist Philip Lasser (b. 1963). Lasser's work, composed in 2012 especially for Ms. Dinnerstein and here receiving its premiere recording, is a different sort of animal from the others on the program. Lasser says of the concerto that it "speaks of memory, inner voyage and closeness," the circle "a powerful metaphor for life." Fair enough, if fairly vague and ambiguous. He uses as the basis for his composition a Bach chorale, and the piece does possess a delightfully melodious nature. Like most modern music, though, it doesn't rely too heavily on memorable tunes, relying mostly on creating mood, which Dinnerstein provides nicely, along with the orchestra's continual reinforcement.

Things close with the perennial favorite Rhapsody in Blue by American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). In Gershwin it's hard for me not to think of Bernstein's classic recording for Columbia (now Sony) or Previn's (EMI) or Gershwin's own, reworked by Tilson-Thomas (Sony). Still, Ms. Dinnerstein puts her own stamp on the piece and makes the music a bit more tender than we usually hear it, a bit milder and gentler, though still filled with dazzling finger work. While I wouldn't call it as energetic an approach as the ones mentioned above, it's an interpretation that's easy to live with, and it reveals a sensitive side to Gershwin that is most flattering.

Adam Abeshouse produced and engineered the album, recording it at the MDR Orchestersaal, Leipzig, Germany in July 2014. The sound is warm and smooth, with no rough or jagged edges in sight. Nor have the engineers recorded it too close up; instead, it has a moderate distance involved, making it sound all the more realistic (if at the expense of sounding a trifle soft). Ultimate transparency, therefore, is only so-so, yet that's the case with many concert-hall performances, so one can hardly complain. Figuring into the equation a mild resonance as well, let's just say the sound is pleasingly comfortable.


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

Aurora Orchestra: Road Trip (CD review)

Sam Amidon, voice and guitar; Dawn Landes, voice; Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646327911.

Conductors Nicholas Collon and Robin Ticciati founded the adventurous young British chamber orchestra Aurora in 2005. Since then, they have been receiving good reviews not only for their performance style but for their diverse programming, playing everything from Baroque to modern music. Road Trip (oddly misspelled as one word on the cover and the disc) appears to be the orchestra's debut album.

The ensemble plays beautifully, a precision instrument yet full of spunk and spark. They remind me a lot of San Francisco's New Century Chamber Orchestra and New York City's The Knights. The question I have, though, is how many classical listeners buy record albums because of favorite orchestras rather than favorite soloists or favorite composers. I dunno; well, not my business.

A look at the disc's program shows just how diverse Aurora's material is with works by American composers John Adams, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Paul Simon, and several traditional numbers arranged by Nico Muhly. The program is both daring and conventional at the same time.

Whatever, first up (after a brief introduction) is Chamber Symphony by John Adams (b. 1947). Adams himself writes that Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony was his inspiration for this 1992 composition, as were some animated cartoons. So, it's understandable the work involves a good degree of high spirits and kinetic energy. The Aurora Orchestra capture the fun of the three-movement piece with apparent glee, right up until the closing mixture of clashing gaiety.

Next are several tunes arranged by Nico Muhly (b. 1981): "Reynardine," "The Brown Girl," and, closing the set, Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones." "Reynardine" tells the story of a young girl and a werewolf, nicely sung by Sam Amidon and smartly accompanied by Aurora. Singer Dawn Landes does a sweet-voiced rendition of "The Brown Girl," a lovely lilt always present in the music. Then Sam Amidon again does the voice and guitar work on Simon's tune, making a fitting conclusion to this "road trip."

Nicholas Collon
The Housatonic at Stockbridge from Three Places in New England by Charles Ives (1874-1954) was for me the highlight of the program. The work, though brief, captures the soft, misty moods of a quiet river at night, the orchestra always at the command of the music. It's wonderfully evocative in a gentle, comforting manner, culminating in the sound of a church spiritual across the way before falling back into silence.

And there is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), the familiar piece performed in its original version for thirteen instruments. Because Copland's work is probably the most familiar thing on the program, it has the most competition on disc, including the composer's own 1973 recording for chamber orchestra (which is a bit longer and more complete than the suite we get here). Copland marks the first movement "Very slowly," and that's exactly how the Aurora Orchestra plays it, very slowly indeed. It sets the tone and creates the atmosphere for the remainder of the work. Although taking things a tad more leisurely than other recorded performances I've heard, the Aurora players make the composition as colorful and engaging as any you'll find, and they do up the famous variations on a Shaker hymn in a most-gentle and poignant fashion.

Raphael Mouterde engineered and produced the album, recorded at Kings Place, London in January and April 2014. The sound is about as ideal as one could want, with plenty of transparency in the midrange and bloom and air around the instruments. In other words, it sounds real, dimensional, each player in the ensemble clearly delineated yet blending into the whole. With its smooth, detailed response, the sound is among the best I've heard from a new recording in quite some time.


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

Feb 19, 2015

Bach: English Suites 1, 3 & 5 (CD review)

Piotr Anderszewski, piano. Warner Classics 0825646219391.

Somewhere around 1715-1723, early in his career, Bach wrote six keyboard suites, which he would have played on the harpsichord. Nobody's quite sure how or why these keyboard pieces got the nickname "English," though. Bach didn't even call them the "English Suites"; he called them "Suittes avec leur Preludes pour le Clavecin." They didn't actually acquire the title "English Suites" until the nineteenth century when one of Bach's biographers, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, declared that Bach "made them for an Englishman of rank." However, Forkel never backed up his claim, so who knows. The funny thing is that these suites have more in common with French suites of the period than English, particularly their preludes.

Whatever, what we have here are three of the six suites, Nos. 1, 3, and 5 (BWV 806, 808, and 810), played on a Steinway D piano by noted Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Anderszewski, he first came to prominence in the early 1990's and has since performed with many of the world's leading orchestras as well as conducting from the keyboard various chamber orchestras. In the past quarter-odd century he has made a number of recordings for Harmonia Mundi, Accord, and Philips before signing exclusively to Virgin Classics in 2000 (now Warner Classics); and he has won any number of awards for his discs and performances.

Each of Bach's suites begins with a prelude, followed by six or eight dance movements--allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, bourrees, passepieds, and concluding gigues. While the melodies pour forth graciously from all the suites, it's No. 5 in E minor I like best for its refined, flowing lines and noble heart. But that's no matter. If you like the suites, you'll probably appreciate what Anderszewski does with them.

Mr. Anderszewski begins the program with No. 3 in G minor, and it sets the tone for the rest of the suites. No, Anderszewski doesn't display the crisp articulation and crystal clarity of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who probably did as much as anyone to popularize Bach on the piano. But I doubt that Anderszewski is making any attempt to duplicate what Gould and others have already done. Anderszewski is his own man with his own style, which is smooth and agreeable. Of course, how you view "smooth and agreeable" in Bach is a matter of taste, and it may not be yours.

You see, here's the thing: There's a great deal of difference between the sound of a harpsichord and the sound of a modern Steinway. So right there the performance finds itself at odds with the period-instrument crowd. An old friend of mine used to call music of the Baroque period "all that tinkly stuff." I'd say Anderszewski's performances are for people who already have enough recordings of that tinkly stuff or, like my friend, simply don't like it. The question, then, is how smooth is too smooth for Bach? How mellifluous is too mellifluous? How refined is too refined? How sophisticated is too sophisticated? In other words, there may be a few listeners who will not take to Anderszewski's gently expressive, carefully reasoned renditions of Bach.

Piotr Anderszewski
Anyway, No. 3 pretty much shows us where Anderszewski is coming from. His tempos appear well judged, never too lickety-split or helter-skelter nor too leisurely, except when necessary. The playing sounds free, fluid, and flowing, the technical qualities of the performance nigh well flawless. Everything, in fact, seems perfectly in order and, as I say, calculated to please most listeners.

However, I couldn't help questioning from time to time whether Anderszewski wasn't just a tad too calculating; I mean, these interpretations may sound letter-perfect, with some dazzling finger work, but they didn't always strike me as the most spontaneous or joyous I've heard. One might even go so far as to say they sound a bit dreamy-eyed and Romantic (or maybe that's the result of the piano sounding so warm and musical in this recording).

I don't know about the "authenticity" of Anderszewski's approach (the use of a modern piano aside), but I do know that he makes Bach's keyboard works quite accessible, treating each tune with affectionate care and a delicate touch. I know, too, that I enjoyed his readings, especially his handling of the slow movements, where he sometimes finds a sweet melancholy in the music I had never before appreciated as much as here.

Some listeners, particularly Anderszewski's fans, will doubtless praise the man's ability to plumb the depths of intellect and emotion in Bach. Maybe, and surely he does so in No. 5, to me the most serious of the suites; but mainly I just thought Anderszewski's work sounded nice. Then again, I'm a pretty simple guy.

Producers and recording engineers Andrzej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagorko recorded the album in March-June 2014 at the Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland. The piano sound, like the playing, is smooth and mellow. The engineers have given the piano a little space, meaning it sounds moderately distanced and does not extend from one speaker to the other. There is also enough room resonance to simulate a real experience, and a small degree of reverb adds to the piano's slightly soft, warm tone.


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

Feb 18, 2015

Vivaldi: Concerti per mandolini (CD review)

Also, Concerti con molti strumenti. Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Erato/Virgin Veritas 7 243-5-45527-2 4.

After reviewing another album, a new album, of Vivaldi's music on mandolin from Avi Avital on DG, I remembered this older disc of Vivaldi mandolin music from Erato/Virgin Classics, released in 2003. Not that any of the selections on the two albums are the same, but if you like the tone of the mandolin, you might like both albums. More important, although I haven't always cared for Fabio Biondi's recordings with Europa Galante, I loved this one. It is, in fact, one of the best things he's ever done.

Anyway, there was a time a dozen or so years ago that you hardly knew there was a slowdown in the classical music industry if judged by the frequency of recordings from Biondi and his band. He and his period-instrument Europa Galante seemed to issue about a dozen discs a year, most of them covering Vivaldi. I'm kidding, of course, but theses players continue to enjoy a goodly success rate with Baroque releases, their Four Seasons for Opus 111 selling over half a million copies a few years before this one. More power to them.

Here on Erato/Virgin Veritas, Biondi and company present a series of concertos by Vivaldi, several with mandolins and the others with various other instruments. These concertos include the Concerto in G major for 2 mandolines and strings, RV532; Concerto in C major for 2 violini in tromba marina, 2 flauti dritti, 2 madolini, 2 salmoe, and 2 teorbe e violoncello, RV558; Concerto in G minor per violino, 2 flauti dritti, 2 oboi, and fagotto, RV576; Concerto in D major per 2 violini, and 2 celli, RV564; Concerto in G minor per violino solo, 2 pboi, and fagotto, RV 319; Concerto in C major per mandolino, RV425; and Concerto in C major per 3 violini, oboe, 2 flauti dritti, 2 ciole all`inglese, salmoe, 2 celli, 2 cembali, and 2 violini in tromba marina, RV555.

For me the best of the best were the opening and closing concertos: the gentle and persuasive Concerto for 2 Mandolins, RV532, and the robust Concerto in C major, RV555, scored for three violins, two recorders, two viole all'inglese, chalumeau, two cellos, two harpsichords, and two violini in tromba marina. The former, RV532, sometimes called the "Double Mandolin Concerto," presents all the color and nuance of the mandolin in a performance that is at once subtle and invigorating.

Fabio Biondi
The latter work, RV555, is unique for the early eighteenth century in its combination of instruments in such prodigious proportions. The accompanying works tend to sound rather alike to me, but they include five more concertos, these for violin, tromba, recorders, oboes, bassoons, and others. Somehow, they're all quite enjoyable while listening to them but almost instantly forgettable. I mean no disrespect in saying that, however, because it's just me. Most important, Biondi, as violinist and conductor, and his players perform with zest, style, and authority. While on some of their recordings they can sound a little overzealous in regard to tempos and rubato, I heard none of that here, and there is little doubt the results are lovely and exhilarating.

I also liked the sound Erato/Virgin provided the ensemble better than I liked what Opus 111 did for them earlier. I thought the Opus 111 acoustic was often too bright and reverberant to the point of obscuring inner detail. But the sound on Erato/Virgin, recorded at the San Giovanni Evangelista church, Parma, Italy in 2001, is quite natural and well balanced. And even though Europa Galante's earlier Opus 111 recordings often featured breakneck interpretations, this time out there is a touch of sonic warmth to the music that nicely complements the warmth of the performances themselves.

If you're a fan of Biondi and Europa Galante or of Vivaldi or of Baroque music in general, you might find a home for this Erato/Virgin disc in your CD collection, especially now that you can find it so easily at such a good price on-line. Then again, to other listeners it may seem like "more of the same." Who knows.


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

Feb 17, 2015

Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano (CD review)

Music of Bruce Broughton, Michael Giacchino, Don Davis, Alexandre Desplat, John Williams, and Randy Newman. Gloria Cheng, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907635.

I once remarked to a friend that I thought film composers were writing some of the most-memorable orchestral music of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He merely scoffed at the idea. But I don't think we should reject out of hand the work of these folks just because they write primarily for the mass media. That was also the opinion of pianist Gloria Cheng a few years ago when in concert she began playing some of the piano music of famous Hollywood film composers. No, she wasn't playing movie scores; she was playing music specifically written by film composers for concert piano. Apparently, audiences greeted these concerts with overwhelming enthusiasm, and now Ms. Cheng gives us an album of such music, Montage, all of it written within the past few years, and most of it expressly for Ms. Cheng to play.

In the event you need a little background on Ms. Cheng, she won the Grammy award in 2009 for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance and in 2014 for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. She holds degrees from Stanford University, UCLA, and the University of Southern California, and she served as Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Now, here's the thing: Despite Ms. Cheng's best efforts, these concert piano pieces probably will not remain in the public consciousness for as long as the composers' film scores do. It's just the nature of the game. Fifty or a hundred years from now, audiences will still be enjoying the movies these composers wrote for--watching the films at home, in retrospectives, or listening to albums of classic film music--while audiences may only run into the piano pieces at the very occasional live performance. The music business, like so much of life, has never been fair.

Anyway, first up on Ms. Cheng's program is Five Pieces for Piano by Bruce Broughton (Silverado, Tombstone, Young Sherlock Holmes), a five-movement suite Mr. Broughton presented to Ms. Cheng in 2010. Broughton alternates fast, flowing movements with slower, more languid ones and a set of variations in the middle. Ms. Cheng plays all of it with a good deal of bravura finger work combined with a sweet sensitivity. This may not be great music, but Ms. Cheng treats it as such.

Next up is Composition 430 (2013) by Michael Giacchino (Up, Lost, Ratatouille). Mr. Giacchino tells us it's "the reflection of a memory I have from a particular moment in time while growing up in New Jersey. I remember the feeling of freedom I had while riding my bike around the neighborhood and the sense of self that it brought me." Giacchino's music is sweetly nostalgic, becoming more outwardly expressive as it goes along, and Ms. Cheng carries it off with a fine sense of sentiment without being sentimental. At around six minutes, it's also about the right length to maintain this mood.

After that is Surface Tension (2013) by Don Davis (The Matrix, Beauty and the Beast). Mr. Davis tells us the music "explores the tension created by the juxtaposition of sound/time surfaces as expressed by the metaphor of a well-integrated visual object in which curvature changes systematically." I confess I know next to nothing about modern music, and while I admired Davis's use of tension and release and differing tempos and rhythms, the overall effect did not really impress me much. I enjoyed Ms. Cheng's handing of it and cannot imagine it better played, technically or intellectually; and I liked her handling of the softer middle section best because it was the only part I could much understand.

Gloria Cheng
Then, there is L'Etreinte ("The Embrace") from Trois Etudes by Alexandre Desplat (Argo, The King's Speech, The Grand Budapest Hotel), which Mr. Desplat says "are dedicated to Solre, who is my concertmaster, my artistic director, and also my wife." Lang Lang premiered them in 2012. Desplat's piece may remind some listeners of Debussy with its dreamy lyricism, and that's a compliment. Ms. Cheng approaches its delicate tone in a lovely, subtle fashion.

Following Desplat's L'Etreinte is Conversations (2012) by John Williams (Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters, Indiana Jones). Mr. Williams explains that it represents a conversation "between the great jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mumbett, a resident of western Massachusetts and a former slave who sued the state of Massachusetts in 1781 for her freedom...and she won!" The Williams piece is the longest work on the program, as perhaps befits his stature as a leading composer of our day. His "conversations" take us through several musical genres, most of it quiet and meditative, which Ms. Cheng negotiates nicely.

The program concludes with Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman (2013) by Randy Newman (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Cars), written at Ms. Cheng's request. As we might expect, Newman's music is light, joyful, tuneful, often playful, and almost old-fashioned compared to some of the other pieces on the album. It's also delightfully accessible as it takes us through several musical eras with various references to familiar tunes of the day. If I had to put money on the lasting power of any of the music on this disc, I'd put it on Newman's material, not because it's any better than the rest but because, as I say, it's so listener friendly. Ms. Cheng handles it with loving care.

Producer Judith Sherman and engineer Ben Maas of Fifth Circle Audio recorded the music at Zipper Hall, The Colburn School, Los Angeles, California in April 2014. The piano sounds a trifle close, but there is a fine sense of room ambience around it, the notes displaying a pleasant bloom and resonance. Clarity, too, is quite good, without ever sounding bright or hard.


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

Feb 15, 2015

Avi Avital: Vivaldi (CD review)

Avi Avital, mandolin; Juan Diego Florez, tenor; Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord; Ophira Zakai, lute; Patrick Sepec, cello; Venice Baroque Orchestra. DG B0022627-02.

Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital made his debut album a few years ago for Naxos and has followed it up since with several more albums on the DG label. His speciality is music of the Baroque period, particularly the music he has himself transcribed for mandolin from other instruments. On the present album, simply titled Vivaldi, Mr. Avital presents seven selections, six from Italian baroque composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), although only one Vivaldi composed specifically for the mandolin, and one traditional Venetian song. Accompanied by the talented and prolific Venice Baroque Orchestra, the album offers an enjoyable fifty-odd minutes of virtuoso mandolin playing.

The program includes the Concerto in A minor RV 356, originally for violin; the Concerto in D major RV 93, also originally for violin; the Mandolin Concerto in C major RV 425; the Largo from the Concerto in C major RV 443, originally for flautina; the Trio Sonata in C major RV 82, originally for violin and lute; the Concerto in G minor RV 315 "Summer," from The Four Seasons, originally for violin; and the traditional Venetian song "La biondina in gondoleta." In addition to the Venice Baroque Orchestra, various titles include the support of tenor Juan Diego Florez, lutenist Ivano Zanenghi, cellist Daniel Bovo, harpsichordist Lorenzo Feder, and baroque guitarist Fabio Tricomil.

Avital is unquestionably a fine mandolin player, his tone sweet and fluid, his tempos well judged, neither too breakneck fast nor too maddeningly slack, and his natural affinity for the instrument always in evidence in his intonation and flexibility. I mean, the thing about Avital is that he makes Vivaldi fun again. After so many Vivaldi recordings that all sound alike, it's refreshing to hear Avital's mandolin take on things. His transcriptions are a breath of fresh air, even giving new life to that old chestnut "Summer."

Favorites? I must confess to liking all of them. But I especially enjoyed the dreamy Largos in RV 356 and RV 318; the zesty opening Allegro in RV 318; the entire RV 425, which Vivaldi wrote for mandolin and needed little transcription (interestingly, Avital replaces the harpsichord with an organ); the lovely, delicate Trio Sonata; the sweet yet lusty and fanciful spirit Avital brings to the "Summer" concerto (here, you can practically feel the heat rising from the Venetian pavement in the Adagio); and the longing melancholy in the final song, sung by Juan Diego Florez to Avital's accompaniment. But, as I say, they all sound fresh and beautiful.

Avi Avital
If there's any one minor concern I had about the album, it's the way the folks at DG (like most other record companies with rising young artists) are promoting Avital like a rock star. With fully eight photos of the performer in various fashion-model poses and even an article in the accompanying booklet titled "Rocking Vivaldi," I hope the company doesn't wear him out through overexposure and unrelenting hype.

But that's neither here nor there: Avital has shown the talent and proved his worth. Now, let's hope he just doesn't run out of mandolin material to play (although, to be fair, if he keeps doing mandolin transcriptions of Vivaldi's work alone, he'll have enough material to carry him through the next two hundred years).

Producer Sid McLauchlan and engineers Filippo Lanteri and Rainer Maillard recorded the music at Teatro delle Voci, Treviso, Italy and the Meistersaal, Berlin, German (Trio Sonata) in September and October 2014. The engineers have captured the sound of the mandolin pretty well, the instrument very clean, very clear, with excellent transient response, and they have integrated the soloist well within the context of the orchestra. However, the sound is also a bit thin and top heavy, emphasizing the mandolin and strings at the expense of the lower midrange and bass response. So, while the mandolin is not in one's face, there is no mistaking who the star of the show is. I would have appreciated a warmer, stronger orchestral sound, but that's just me, and others may find the sonics nigh well perfect.


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

Feb 12, 2015

Brahms: Symphony No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Tragic Overture; Academic Festival Overture. Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra. Channel Classics CCS SA 33514.

German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, in 1877, taking the composer considerably less time to write it than it did his First Symphony, which took him some fifteen years. One can probably attribute his late-blooming symphonic output to his worries that the public expected him to be Beethoven's successor, and he figured he could never live up to what Beethoven had already done. Anyway, by the time he got his initial symphony under his belt, the second one came easier, and he finished it in less than a year, scoring it for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Unlike the First Symphony, which has a grand, imposing sweep, the Second Symphony sounds rather cheery and pastoral, which inevitably forces some listeners to think of it in the same light as Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral" Symphony. Be that as it may, Brahms wasn't quite so sure about it, writing to his publisher that the symphony "is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning." One assumes he was teasing.

Over the years any number of conductors have successfully negotiated the score. Among my own favorite recordings are those from Sir Adrian Boult (EMI), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Claudio Abbado (DG), George Szell (Sony), Herbert von Karajan (DG), even old Leopold Stokowski (Cala). Now, we hear what Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra do with the music. To be honest, I was a little disappointed in the only other Fischer recording I reviewed, his rather static and underpowered Stravinsky Rite of Spring. So I was hoping the gentler nature of the Brahms would better suit his approach.

Anyway, the first movement begins in an appropriately tranquil mood before increasing into a full-blooded loud section. Then, by the end it returns to a more tranquil mood that closes the movement. It is in this first segment of the symphony that we hear Brahms's famous "lullaby," although the composer continually reshapes variations on the tune. Fischer does very well with the lyrical aspects of this movement, even if he handles things so gently that the big, rhapsodic main theme doesn't quite open up and bloom as well as I've heard it. This rendering comes across as more of a languid, leisurely Brahms than most of the conductors cited above have given us. Be that as it may, it's a lovely rendition of the score, full of sweet, sunny moments.

Ivan Fischer
Next, we get a brooding Adagio, again with variations. Under Fischer's direction there is a suitably rustic air to the proceedings, although the conductor tends to smooth out a bit the movement's melancholy effect. Let's say it's a kind of sophisticated countryside we hear in the music.

Brahms marks the third-movement an Allegretto grazioso, a scherzo that alternates a lilting oboe melody with a quick-paced melody in the strings, finally closing in a placid mood. Fischer puts a note of urgency and energy into this segment, making it one of the highlights of his reading. Yet it still sounds a tad reticent to me, again compared to other performances in my experience, like the one I coincidentally heard in person a short while before this listening from the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.

A vivacious Allegro con spirito finishes up the symphony, parts of it loud, then calm, then tranquil, ending in a joyful conclusion. This finale goes off as before, with Fischer lending a note of happy celebration to the affair and again an emphasis on the lyrical qualities of the music at perhaps the expense of all-out glitter and exuberance.

Accompanying the symphony, we find two Brahms overtures, the Tragic and the Academic Festival. Could they be any different in mood? The Tragic seems to fit Fischer best, and he injects a proper dose of doom-and-gloom into the music. OK, maybe he loses a little something in terms of sheer drama, but I liked it overall. In the Academic Festival Overture, though, Fischer doesn't work up quite the sense of full-blown ebullience he might have, content with making the piece more a study of college professors than the pupils I believe Brahms had in mind. So, the interpretation is a little too sedate for my taste, yet it is still full of mischief and student mayhem. It's hard to go wrong in this music.

Producer Hein Dekker and recording engineers Hein Dekker and Jared Sacks made the SACD for Channel Classics Records at the Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary, in February 2012. The state-of-the-art equipment they used includes B&K and Schoeps microphones, a Grimm Audio DSD Super Audio digital converter and Pyramix editing, Audio Lab and B&W 803d speakers, van Medevoort amplifiers, a Rens Heijnis custom mixing board, and Van den Hul cables. The hybrid SACD has a 5.0 multichannel layer, a 2.0 stereo SACD layer, and a 2.0 stereo regular layer, and I listened to the 2.0 stereo SACD.

There is a realistic distance and presence about the orchestral sound, with moderate depth and dimensionality to the ensemble. It's also a slightly warm, somewhat soft sound, with nevertheless more than adequate detailing in the midrange and just a touch of brightness in the treble. The dynamic range is also more than acceptable if not appearing to develop to full strength, and there is a fine sense hall ambience present.


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

Feb 11, 2015

Orff: Carmina Burana (SACD review)

Hei-Kwung Hong, soprano; Stanford Olsen, tenor; Earl Patriarco, baritone; Gwinnett Young Singers; Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc SACD-60575.

Way back in 2002 when I first reviewed this disc, people didn't know if the SACD or the DVD-Audio high-end format would eventually win the day, or whether, as I predicted, both formats would bite the dust. Well, it turns out that founder Sony Corporation gave up on SACD far sooner than many other record companies did, a number of them still using the format. It was clear back then, however, that the folks at Telarc were counting on SACD and trying to have it two ways; that is, they issued a number of releases like this one both on hybrid SACD's and on standard CD's (in other words, on separate discs). On SACD, there's a layer of the disc that an ordinary CD player can read and on a second layer is SACD material, multichannel surround and two-channel stereo that requires an SACD player to read. And, as I say, Telarc also offered a straight CD-only version of the recording for those listeners with no interest then, now, or ever in SACD.

I did my listening to this Orff disc from the two-channel stereo layer of the SACD, using a Sony SACD player. It sounded fine, almost as good as any of the Telarc SACD's I had listened to previously. It's true the Carmina Burana sounded a bit limp at first until I turned the volume up, but then it came to life reasonably well. The disc's extremely smooth response enables one to set the gain fairly high and still have the sonics come off sounding reasonably good. Unfortunately, I also found the sound rather flat, one-dimensional, in terms of stage depth, and, surprisingly, somewhat bass-shy, something that struck me even more forcibly when I compared it to Andre Previn's 1975 EMI recording of Carmina Burana with the London Symphony (remastered on an Hi-Q audiophile disc). Yes, the older EMI recording was a touch brighter and marginally more ragged at high volume, but because of its more realistic stage depth, it conveyed a better sense of the live experience for me. That was also the case with several other favorite Carmina Burana recordings I had on hand from Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony (Decca), Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony), and Eugen Jochum and the German Opera Orchestra (DG). All sounded better to me than the Telarc.

Donald Runnicles
As far as Donald Runnicles and his Atlanta Symphony performance is concerned, it's fairly exciting. However, by comparison I again preferred the interpretations listed above. As we might expect, Runnicles and his crew produce a solid reading of this lusty music, but a more flexible rubato in the other performances provided more variety in the proceedings, enlivening the merriness of the tavern drinking songs and, ironically, the courtly love tunes as well. By comparison to Previn, for example, Runnicles seemed to me more than a tad too polished, too sedate, and too matter-of-fact; and surely Orff, writing in 1936, intended these thirteenth-century snippets to be more robust and just a shade more, shall we say, vulgar? To my ears, the Previn, Blomstedt, Ormandy, and Jochum performances still offer a better balance of refinement and impropriety.

Anyway, none of this may be to the point, the actual reason for buying the disc being to listen to the sound of Carmina Burana from five speakers in a surround-sound system, plus a subwoofer, which, unfortunately, I never got to hear. That requires multichannel SACD, which, as I've said, I don't have. Maybe a reader with the appropriate playback equipment could render us a opinion on the disc's multichannel sound.


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

Feb 10, 2015

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-713SACD.

The first thing you need to know is that any time you see the name Reference Recordings on a disc, you know you're going to get something pretty good. The second thing you need to know is that the present disc is a part of their "Fresh!" series, meaning the usual Reference Recordings team did not make it; RR is only helping to distribute and promote it. The third thing you need to know is that the production team that did make it recorded it live. Depending on your attitude toward live recordings, you may want to stop right there. This one, though, is, as I say, pretty good.

So, the album's subject matter is the Fourth Symphony, the "Romantic" Symphony, of Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). It is possibly the most-popular piece of music Bruckner wrote, which means there is a surplus of competing recordings of it in the marketplace. The question is what makes this one by Maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra any better than those from Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), Bohm and Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) or Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA), Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos), to name a few of my favorites, or any number of others. That's what we'll explore.

Bruckner wrote his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" in 1874, revising it several times before his death. (Honeck uses the Nowak edition of the 1878-80 revision). The symphony's popularity is due largely to its abundance of Romantic, programmatic, dramatic, and spiritual qualities, which Maestro Honeck plays to the fullest as you may recall, the composer tells us what each of the movements represents, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a funeral, then a hunt, complete with horn calls, and then a brilliant culminating summation. Bruckner was a profoundly spiritual man, and his symphonies illustrate the point, with the Fourth Symphony being the most programmatic of all.

The first movement offers Bruckner's vision of Nature, and his several scenic landscapes should remind us of how much the composer admired both Beethoven and Wagner. In the opening movement Bruckner wants us to see a morning breaking, the mists around a medieval castle-city finally giving way to dawn, whereupon that army of knights I mentioned above burst forth from the gates in a blaze of glory. Honeck does a pretty good job creating these mists, taking the first section slowly and deliberately. Then, he lets loose the big, grand theme quite energetically. Bruckner's continuous alternation of fast and slow passages can sometimes appear repetitious, but Honeck manages to transition evenly from one segment to the next, with a good control in both the lyrical elements and the more-momentous outbursts. It works out well.

The second-movement Andante is a serenade, night music representing a young lad's amorous but ultimately hopeless longings and expressions. To me, it always sounds vaguely elegiac, halfway between a nocturne and a march, the composer indicating he wanted a slow but comfortably moderate pace (quasi Allegretto). Here, Honeck coaxes some lovely sounds from the violas, providing the music a lonely kind of melancholy. The conductor takes it in perhaps a more leisurely fashion than I'm used to, yet it allows full expression of the lyrical elements (if losing a bit of forward impetus in the process). The result is that the music never quite attains the level of spiritual expression it could.

Manfred Honeck
Next, we have a lively Scherzo, which Bruckner teasingly called "a rabbit hunt," and which should build a proper momentum as it progresses. Honeck and his forces produce some lively hunting rhythms in this movement, along with a reasonably rustic feeling in the hunters' dance trio.

Then, there's the Finale, in which, as with the Scherzo, Bruckner again opens with a heroic theme, works into a more-idyllic second subject, and reworks them both into a closing statement. This movement begins rather ominously, with dark clouds overhead, which lead before long to a thunderstorm; however, the storm eventually breaks and gives way to variations on the symphony's heroic opening theme. Given the scope of the finale, Honeck has his hands full yet does a reasonably good job keeping the music flowing forward and the listener entertained (and not wondering when, in fact, the thing is finally going to end). Unfortunately for me, I still found the movement too long for my liking with its never-ending succession of false climaxes, and not even Honeck could quite warm me up to it.

Honeck is capable conductor, and while the present Bruckner performance may not go directly to the top of my list of favorite interpretations, it certainly places high. His approach to the Fourth Symphony is as pictorial, as emotional, and as tuneful as any you'll find, even if it's sometimes a little more leisurely than some competing versions and just misses their epic grandeur.

Producer and editor Dirk Sobotka, balancing and mastering engineer Mark Donahue, and recording engineer John Newton of Soundmirror, Boston made the album live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in December 2013. They made the album for hybrid SACD playback, too, meaning you can play it in multichannel SACD or two-channel SACD (to which I listened) through an SACD player or in two-channel stereo through a regular CD player.

In two-channel SACD you'll find a very wide dynamic range, with the softest notes barely audible and the loudest notes almost overpowering. For the audiophile, this is a joy; for the casual listener, it may present a problem adjusting the volume setting for a compromise position that's realistic, listenable, and enjoyable. Nevertheless, once one settles in, one finds good, comfortable sound, a little forward and bright at the highest levels but generally warm and smooth, with firm body, a mildly resonant ambience, and fairly sharp definition. Now, if it weren't for that darned audience that always seems present. Thankfully, though, the engineers have edited out any concluding applause, albeit at the expense of the final note not quite fading out for as long it could.


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

Feb 8, 2015

Robert Burns: The Complete Songs, Volume 1 (CD review)

Tony Cuffe, Rod Paterson, Janet Russell, Billy Ross, Ian F. Benzie, Christine Kydd, Alan Reid; various accompanists. Linn Records CKD 801.

"My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed--which is generally the most difficult part of the business--I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. When I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes." --Robert Burns

The Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote hundreds of poems and songs and as a folklorist collected and sometimes revised many old Scottish tunes. In the mid 1990's Linn Records decided to issue all of Burns's songs on CD, completing a set of twelve volumes, which they are now re-releasing. The present disc is Volume One in that set.

The singers are Tony Cuffe, Rod Paterson, Janet Russell, Billy Ross, Ian F. Benzie, Christine Kydd, and Alan Reid; the accompanists are Davy Catanach, Norman Chalmers, Jack Evans, Jonny Hardie, Billy Jackson, John McCusker, and Buzzby McMillan. Volume one contains the following songs performed by the singers in parentheses, plus assorted spare accompaniment including guitar, djembe, concertina, bodhran, whistle, shakers, mbira, mandolin, fiddle, cittern, and harp.

 1. "When rosy May comes in wi flowers" (Tony Cuffe)
 2. "O that I had ne'er been married" (Rod Paterson)
 3. "Wee Willie Gray" (Tony Cuffe & Rod Paterson)
 4. "O wha'll mow me now?" (Janet Russell)
 5. "Brose and butter" (Billy Ross)
 6. "The wintry west extends his blast" (Ian F. Benzie)
 7. "Sweet Afton" (Tony Cuffe)
 8. "Duncan Gray" (Janet Russell & Christine Kydd)
 9. "The winter it is past" (Billy Ross)
10. "Gudeen to you kimmer" (Christine Kydd & Rod Paterson)
11. "Kellyburn Braes" (Alan Reid)
12. "The slave's lament" (Christine Kydd)
13. "O aa the airts the wind can blaw" (Rod Paterson
14. "What can a young lassie do wi an auld man" (Ian F. Benzie)
15. "Ay waukin, O" (Tony Cuffe)
16. "O, steer her up an haud her gaun" (Rod Paterson)
17. "The Cooper O Cuddy" (Tony Cuffe)
18. "O, rattlin, roarin Willie" (Rod Paterson)
19. "To the weaver's gin you go" (Janet Russell)
20. "Lady Mary Ann" (Billy Ross)
21. "Montgomerie's Peggy" (Ian F. Benzie)
22. "The lea-rigg" (Rod Paterson)
23. "Yestreen I had a pint o wine" (Tony Cuffe)

If you already own or have heard any of the songs in this Burns collection, you know how successful it is. However, if you are not already familiar with it, there are three things you should know: First, Burns wrote a good deal of his material in a Scottish dialect; this "common touch" is a part of what has made him so popular not only with the Scottish people but with the world at large. But it also means that if you don't know or understand the dialect, you might not understand the words of the songs; and Linn Records do not provide lyrics in these reissues.

Tony Cuffe
Second, the performers on the album do not attempt to smooth out or popularize the songs. These are straightforward performances by folksingers who are trying to be as honest in their presentations as possible, offering the songs in their original, occasionally unpolished settings. The singing is always good, but it is not of the cultured, operatically trained kind; instead, it is singing of a more informal style, perfectly suited to the needs of the music.

Third, this first volume in the set is only a small part of the whole, one-twelfth of the set. If you're looking for a "Best of Burns" album, you won't find it here. Of the twenty-three songs on the program, probably only the avid Robert Burns fan or collector would recognize or even appreciate all the titles. Therefore, if you are like me, you may be surprised and delighted by a good deal of material new to you. And if you don't see your favorite Robert Burns song here, look to the other discs in the series.

Favorites? Sure. "O that I ne'er been married" is humorous and outgoing. The duet of Cuffe and Paterson works charmingly on "Wee Willie Gray." Janet Russell's unaccompanied voice on "O wha'll mow me now" is pleasant, indeed. Ian F. Benzie's robust, mellow voice does justice to "The wintry west extends his blast." And Kidd and Paterson do a great a capella job on "Gudeen to you kimmer," even if I didn't have a clue what they were saying. OK, I liked them all; what can I say?

Producer Fred Freeman and engineer Calum Malcolm recorded the songs back in 1995 at Castle Cava Studios, Pencaitland, Scotland, and, as I said at the beginning, the folks at Linn Records are now reissuing the complete set in twelve individual volumes. The voice in each selection appears fairly closely miked and firmly defined. The instrumental accompaniment is very slightly less prominent, as it should be, yet just as well delineated. The result sounds well balanced, well centered, and realistic. Linn always do a good job with their recordings, and this one is no exception.

As recently as 2009, by the way, Scottish Television (STV) conducted a public vote on who was "The Greatest Scot" of all time. The winner was Robert Burns.


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

Feb 5, 2015

New Year's Concert 2015 (CD review)

Zubin Mehta, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony 88875037912 (2-disc set).

"Oh, my," I said under my breath when I received Sony's PR release about their New Year's Concert 2015. I mean, I had just reviewed the 2014 concert not more than...than, yes, a full year before. Incredible how time goes by.

Anyway, as I'm sure you know, the Vienna Philharmonic's custom of offering a New Year's Concert started in 1941, and it's been going strong ever since. EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and Sony are among some of the companies that have recorded the concerts over the past few decades, and in keeping with the orchestra's tradition of having no permanent conductor, they invite a different conductor to perform the New Year's duties each year. These conductors in recent times have included some of the biggest names in the business, including Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Franz Welser-Most, Daniel Barenboim, and for 2015 Zubin Mehta

This latest 2-disc concert from Maestro Mehta contains the usual assortment of familiar tunes from the Strauss family and Strauss contemporaries: Franz von Suppe's Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, Josef Strauss's Village Swallows of Austria, Eduard Strauss's At Full Steam, and Johann Strauss II's Student Polka, Wine, Women and Song, and Explosions, the evening concluding, of course, with The Blue Danube and the Radetzky March, complete with audience participation. Austrian law or something requires the latter two numbers, and if the orchestra didn't play them, the audience would stand up and start throwing things.

But there are some numbers that are firsts for a New Year's Concert, like Josef Strauss's Vienna Life, Johann Strauss I's Freedom March, Eduard Strauss's Where One Laughs and Lives, and Johann Strauss II's By the Elbe and Student Polka. Plus, other pleasant surprises.

Maestro Zubin Mehta is the longest-serving conductor in the Vienna Philharmonic's history, having first conducted the orchestra in 1961. The present event marks the fifth time he has conducted a New Year's concert, his last appearance being in 2007.

Mehta is in good form, as always. He puts a great deal of energy into each piece, as exemplified by the first number, the Suppe overture, which fairly bristles with life. The waltzes, too, have a nice sense of vitality to them and a lovely lilt. However, he doesn't bring to them as much warmth and grace as some other conductors do, so be prepared for more matter-of-fact readings than you might like. That said, the undoubted excitement Mehta creates may be enough to make you not care. Certainly, the polkas, marches, and galopps sound grand under his direction.

Favorites? Sure. It's always nice to hear Village Swallows from Austria, with its little bird sounds in the background, and it's one of Mehta's best handling of a waltz. Then, there's a sweet poignancy to By the Elba. I swear, the Vienna Phil could play this stuff in their sleep, and they always do it better than anyone else. It's in their genes.

In all, this is another good entry in the New Year's series, even if I wouldn't count it among the very best or most adventuresome, despite its few newcomers to the scene.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and balance engineers Tobias Lehman and Rene Moller recorded the music live on January 1, 2015 in the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins, Vienna, Austria. Naturally, the sound appears very close up in order to minimize audience noise. Nevertheless, one is always aware of the audience, during quiet passages and in between notes. Of course, being there with the audience is part of the CD listener's experience, and I'm sure the CD listener wouldn't want it any other way, constant applause and all. Otherwise, the sound is clear, clean, dynamic, and dimensionally flat. Just remember that it puts you in the first row, so the upper range, especially, is a bit bright and bass could be a tad heavier.


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

Feb 4, 2015

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57385 2.

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" --Educating Rita, 1983.

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven may still reign supreme over the classical concert hall, but I doubt that anyone has sold more high-end audio systems than Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). His music is so dynamic, so diverse, so melodic, and so instantly recognizable that it has been the darling of the home listener for over fifty years, ever since the days when Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, and others reintroduced Mahler to the musical world. It is appropriate, then, if maybe a trifle redundant, to have an additional solid entry in the field, this one from Sir Simon Rattle and his then newly acquired Berlin Philharmonic (a recording originally on EMI, now on Warner Classics).

The Fifth Symphony is another of those massive Mahler works that displays the composer's extensive imagination, and conductors can and do interpret it in an extended variety of ways. My own favorite recording has long been the heart-on-its-sleeve approach of another "Sir," Sir John Barbirolli, from 1969, also on EMI, but I suppose I'm just sentimental. Still, it's good to hear the contrasts another conductor like Simon Rattle brings to the work.

Perhaps it's just me, too, but I've never been fully able to reconcile all the disparate elements of the Fifth Symphony, and it's only been Barbirolli who has made the piece seem of a whole. The work begins with two serious, heavy-duty movements that Mahler considered one long, boisterous funeral march. For all the world they sound to me more like an Irish wake than a funeral. These are followed by a typically bizarre Mahlerian Scherzo that changes the tone entirely to the lighter side; succeeded by the well-known Adagietto, which the composer wrote as a love letter to his wife and acts as an isle of tranquility; and concludes with a huge Rondo-Finale that returns us to the clamorous mood of the beginning but without a hint of the earlier portentousness.

Rattle does a sensible job keeping everything moving apace, but even he has a hard time making all of these elements conform. His sensible and well-considered tempos place emphases on most of the work's kinetic energy, finding perhaps a tad more joy in the piece than some of his rivals, while the Adagietto provides the dreamy interlude it implies. I might add that Rattle does not do anything unusual with the Adagietto, either; that is, he does not appear to subscribe to the relatively recent notion that Mahler intended the movement be taken at a much faster pace than most conductors have given it in the past. Rattle's timing is almost as slow as Barbirolli's, although I must admit it seems quicker.

Like most of Rattle's Berlin records, he made this 2002 recording of the Fifth live over a period of several performances, a wont of Sir Simon's I suppose to capture the spirit of the moment (and a wont of many record companies to save money). The sound will not appeal to everyone, however, for while it is certainly realistic in its moderately distanced miking, it is somewhat bright and hard at the top end and a bit thin at the bottom. There is a good sense of the concert hall environment about it, too, although there is also the sense that the listener is not quite close enough to the orchestra to receive the full impact of the music. Audience noise is almost nonexistent, for which I am grateful, nor is there any applause included; but I was aware from the outset that the engineers had recorded it live without ever looking at the booklet information. A quick comparison of the sound to the many decades old, EMI analogue Barbirolli disc made me appreciate all the more the merits of the older recording--it's warmer, fuller, deeper, and generally more listenable. Considering that the older recording is available at mid price, I'd still have to recommend it over Rattle's issue, at least sonically.

Of course, if you're a Mahler fan, there's nothing wrong with any additional recording. And Rattle is among our current foremost Mahler interpreters, his recordings almost always a pleasure to hear.


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