Mar 31, 2015

Mozert: The Last Lost Manuscripts (LED review)

Marion Morrison, mezzo-soprano; Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, Nor'western Clyde Symphonic Symphony. Deutsche Grammerphone Gesundheit 928-435-7728.

People today probably recognize Epicurean composer, electrician, and skateboard enthusiast Lonnigan O. Lochinvar Mozert (1548-1697) best for his musical drama about overweight Italian opera singers, I Eata; or perhaps for his oratorio about automobile mechanics, Car Men. But all of that may be acqua sotto i ponti ("the Pontiff is green"), as they say, given several startling new finds. Dr. Karlheinz Klopweisser of the Arkham Institute for Arcane Musicology (Miskatonic University) recently unearthed two new lost Mozert manuscripts, although having found them, the manuscripts are obviously no longer lost and are certainly not new. Moreover, these newly discovered no-longer-lost lost old manuscripts may only be the beginning of a veritable treasure trove of Mozert music soon to be revealed. Thus, the scores we have here might not be the last of the manuscripts Professor Klopweisser uncovers; they might just be the last ones he found. Or they might simply be the first of the last lost but no-longer-lost lost scores. Such is the fascination of modern musical scholarship.

Anyway, as you know, young Mozert rose to prominence in the early 1640's through a whirlwind courtship with German national archery champion Kathoid Everlast, but the romance broke up. This was understandable, of course, as it was the Baroque age. Following the breakup, Mozert fell back into obscurity, fracturing several ribs and a pinky finger in the process. Still, it didn't stop him, and he continued pursuing his life's dream of working in his stepfather's knight, rook, and pawn shop, a dream, alas, like his love, unrequited. Still later, he took over editorship of the local newspaper in Wiley, North Dakota, The Wiley Post. And from somewhere came the menacing pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the new flame-throwers.

Controversy surrounds the manuscripts, found by Professor Klopweisser tucked beneath an Egyptian mummy mask at the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Were the manuscripts really lost, or were they temporarily misplaced for several centuries? Were they Mozert's magnum opus, or were they a shopping list for his daily groceries? Were they the great man's final words on the subject of musical composition, or is it possible, as many ancient astronaut theorists believe, that they are fragments of the Gospel of St. Mark? The mystery has only increased over the past four hundred years since no one actually knew that the manuscripts existed.

Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite
Whatever the case, Professor Klopweisser and Maestro Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite have collaborated on a complete reconstruction of The Shroud, resulting in a stunning new winding-sheet, the context of which can only be realized through a complete reappraisal of the musical and archaeological worlds' accepted, predisposed, and wholly anthropomorphous perspective. Given that the lost manuscripts contained but a few miscellaneous shards, the twelve-hour epic created by Klopweisser and Twitt-Thornwaite is all the more astonishing. Indeed, it is a shame the present recording provides only about a minute and half of the completed score, the rest of the transcript having been lost in a presumptive gaming transaction at the Luxor.

But wait: If you order today, we'll double the offer. You'll receive not only The Shroud of Turing but The Shroud of Schenectady as well, absolutely free (just pay $39.95 shipping and handling). Remember, Carpe Diem ("Seize the carp").

As for the album's miserable sound, we must blame the producer and recording engineer, Jonathan O'Konnell Edwards, who is obviously an idiot. Anybody who would make an album as offensive as this one must also beat his wife, drown small puppies, and murder neighborhood children. He is clearly a wretched pile of.... (Ed.: John, you can't say these things about people. Mr. Edwards could sue you for slander. Interpol could come to your door and drag you away. John? John? John?)

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

Mar 29, 2015

Sibelius: Symphony No. 4 (HDCD review)

Also, The Swan of Tuonela. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD362.

Even though Herbert von Karajan was enormously popular, not everyone loved him. For me, he always sounded as though he wanted to glamorize the music he conducted more than necessary with long, flowing tempos and a luxuriant orchestral sound. While Karajan's approach pleases me in grand opera, I never entirely cared for it in orchestral music. That's probably why I never bothered to listen to his 1965 DG recording of the Sibelius Fourth Symphony. I figured that if any piece of music cried out for a simpler and more-rugged style than Karajan's, it was the Fourth, even though I rather liked conductor's later, 1976 EMI recording. Now, with this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfer) remastering of the DG recording, I can see what Karajan might have been on to all along.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1911, and it has always reminded me of a vast, flat, icy plain, maybe in Lapland, brooding in silence. It's certainly one of the Sibelius's bleaker yet more-characterful works. Karajan's somewhat measured interpretation and the magnificent playing of the Berlin Philharmonic make the music sound as bleak and melancholy as ever, the desolation of the landscape all the more complete with the conductor's slow pace. Yes, Karajan still tends to make the music sound a little too outright pretty for my taste, but it's a legitimate reading, and one can hardly deny the virtuosity and sheer beauty of his Berlin ensemble.

Sibelius felt he was near death when he wrote the piece; however, he would live for another forty-six years, so I suppose you could say it was a false alarm. Later, Sibelius said of the symphony, quoting the Swedish author Strindberg, "Being human is misery." Therefore, don't expect much joy here. Nevertheless, Karajan's extraordinarily broad tempos keep one involved, making the work seem more lofty and more emotional than some competing versions. I would place this Karajan performance along with his later EMI recording and those of Ashkenazy (Decca), Barbirolli (EMI), Berglund (EMI), and Vanska (BIS) at the head of my list of recommendations.

Herbert von Karajan
The symphony opens with a theme "as harsh as Fate," as the composer described it, and that's the way Karajan sees it: desolate, cold, and powerful. The succeeding Allegro molto vivace brings a note of serenity to the otherwise dark proceedings, but it also turns slightly sinister (though never threatening).

Originally Sibelius labeled the slow Largo section "The Thoughts of a Wayfarer." It continues the sullen atmosphere of the piece, with Karajan emphasizing its mysterious mood shifts and establishing a truly lonely place. Then, while the final Allegro opens brightly, even cheerfully, promising a sudden change of temperament, it soon reverts to the desolation of the opening movement. Here, too, Karajan skillfully outlines the bleak, expansive landscapes.

Although the performance may be a tad too cushy and comfortable for this music, Karajan nevertheless leads us through a powerful reading of the score, thanks, too, no doubt, to the excellence of the orchestra and to the impressive remastering HDTT provide us.

Karajan succeeds in the coupling, too. The Swan of Tuonela moves as gracefully as any you'll hear. With Karajan's fondness for poetic renditions and the orchestra's rich, luxurious effect, the piece sounds quite lovely.

Deutsche Grammophon originally recorded the music at Christ Church, West Berlin, Germany in 1965, and HDTT transferred it from a DGG 4-track tape in 2015. I never much cared for the sound DG afforded Karajan and his Berlin players. Early on, in the analogue age, it seemed a bit too vague to me, with little or no deep bass. Later, with the introduction of digital, the Berlin Philharmonic sounded too glassy, edgy, and still bass-shy to me, despite an enormous dynamic range. But maybe it was all in DG's masterings of Karajan's recordings for vinyl and CD because here the HDTT remastering is excellent.

The HDTT remastered sound has great power, as much to match the performance. Moreover, there is good clarity in the midrange, although not so much as to sound artificial. The plush sound of the Berlin Philharmonic comes through splendidly, without any unnatural wispiness or, conversely, glassiness. The miking is just distant enough to provide a decent perspective, the orchestra nicely centered between the speakers and not extending too far beyond them. Additionally, we hear a modicum of depth in the ensemble as well, so we get some dimensionality in the sonics. Most important, though, is the disc's dynamic range, which impresses one with its strength and impact (especially in the mid and upper bass). Here is a recording to match the lofty darkness of the music.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), and prices, you can visit their Web site at


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

Mar 26, 2015

Williams: The Very Best Movie Soundtracks (CD review)

Evan Christ, Philharmonisches Orchester des Staatstheaters Cottbus. Telos Music CD TLS 210.

Founded in 1908, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the State Theater Cottbus in Brandenburg, Germany dates back more than a hundred years. Today, under its energetic and relatively youthful Music Director, American Evan Christ, the ensemble plays a wide variety of music, from Bach to Mahler and beyond. In 2010 they performed their first concert of tunes by John Williams to sold-out audiences. The present album gives you some idea why.

Spanning a career that so far covers over sixty years and includes over forty Oscar nominations, American composer, conductor, and pianist John Williams (b. 1932) has become probably the most-popular writer of orchestral music in the world. I would be willing to bet that more people worldwide recognize and admire his scores for such films as Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter than they do most anything by Mozart or Beethoven. Understand, I'm not suggesting that Williams is a better composer than Mozart or Beethoven, only that possibly more people have heard Williams's orchestral music than any other. My guess is that, at the least, in a hundred years people may still listen to Williams's orchestral output more than they do any other twentieth-century composer. But that's speculation on my part, and probably not relevant to anything in particular.

Anyway, Christ and his Cottbus orchestra play segments from all the soundtracks named above, with the Olympic and Liberty Fanfares thrown in for good measure. So what sets these interpretations apart from the 800 other recordings of John Williams's music? I'd say it's mainly the enthusiasm of Maestro Christ, which one can feel throughout the program. Also, it's the obvious sensitivity of the conductor, his feeling for nuance, tension and release, as, for example, expressed in his readings of the scores for Jaws and Superman, which come off sounding more serious, more important, than they often do. Sometimes this sensitivity comes at the expense of the utmost degree of excitement and thrills, but that's the price you pay. It's what sets Christ's renditions of this familiar music apart from the rest. You take what you get.

Evan Christ
I'm not sure why Christ felt the need to include the two fanfares in an album titled "The Very Best Movie Soundtracks by John Williams" since to my knowledge neither fanfare featured in a motion picture. Still, it's nice to have them, and I suppose they give the program a touch more gravitas. A listener just might not find them as well known as the other material.

Saving the best for last, Christ gives us a rousing version of the Star Wars title music, among the best you'll find by anyone anywhere.

Overall, though, this is probably not music you need to hear again, as most folks have at least a few albums with the most popular John Williams scores on it. But if you want a good all-around selection of Williams's most-celebrated tunes, certainly Christ's album fills the bill.

Balance engineer Hans-Ulrich Holst and recording director Joachim Krist made the album in 2014 at what I assume to be the orchestra's home hall. Although the sound is a bit more resonant and distanced than you usually hear, it provides for a lifelike seating position and fairly well emulates a real-life concert-hall listening experience. Highs glisten; mids are a bit soft; deepest bass is rather shy; orchestral depth is good; and dynamics seem about average. Overall, the sound slightly favors the high end, yet it isn't especially bright or edgy; it could just use a little more bass substance and warmth.


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

Mar 25, 2015

Russo: Street Music (CD review)

Also, Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra; Gershwin: An American in Paris. Corky Siegel, Siegel-Schwall Band; Seiji Ozawa, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. DG Originals 463 665-2.

Things are seldom so easy as they appear. Despite the cover picture on the front of this CD, these Russo and Gershwin recordings derive from two separate DG releases made in 1972 and 1977 respectively. The first LP coupled Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story with William Russo's Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra. The second LP coupled George Gershwin's An American in Paris with Russo's Street Music. The idea behind both LPs was to demonstrate the successful fusion of classical music and jazz, something only the Gershwin work succeeded in doing completely.

In any case, when the CD era dawned, DG put together a different package from the two LPs. It had the Bernstein and Gershwin pieces coupled with Russo's Street Music. Since these were the most popular of the works on both previous records, it seemed like a good idea. Moreover, as the sound was among DG's finest, it made for an easy recommendation.

Seiji Ozawa
Then in 2002, DG remastered and repackaged the works in their "Originals" line of classics, reviewed here. This time they again used three of the four works, but they chose to use Russo's Street Music and Three Pieces and Gershwin's American in Paris and omit Bernstein's Symphonic Dances. This was a shame because the Bernstein stuff was the best recording of it that music had ever seen, and the second Russo piece is much like the first one, anyway. So, what gives? I wondered if DG were going to give us the Bernstein piece remastered at a later date, or if it would slip through the cracks, never to be heard from again? As it turns out, there is a CD available of the Gershwin/Bernstein/Russo music now available from DG, although I see it marked as an import and a rather expensive one at that. Who knows their thinking.

Oh, well, what we have here is quite good, if a bit repetitious in the relatively lightweight Russo material. The Gershwin sounds quite lively and strongly flavorful, though, and the remastered sound is ever so slightly better than what DG provided on their first CD release. The bass seems especially better focused and carries more impact, and the midrange likewise sounds better defined. It's a good but disappointing re-issue at the same time because I'd really liked to have heard what DG's "Original Image Bit Processing" could have done with the Bernstein piece. Maybe we'll just have to continue to wait and see.


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

Mar 23, 2015

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Cockaigne Overture. Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Onyx 4145.

Yes, Elgar wrote more than the Violin and Cello Concertos, the Enigma Variations, and a series of marches. But, of course, you knew that. Especially if you are a classical music fan, or if you are English. Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was one of England's greatest and most-famous composers. On the current disc, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic present the first of Elgar's two symphonies, along with the Cockaigne Overture. The symphony can be pretty heady stuff, unless you already enjoy the pomp and circumstance of Elgar's marches, in which case you'll find yourself right at home with it. It's all very grand, very imposing, very Elgarian.

Anyway, Elgar wrote his Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55, in 1908, just a few years after he completed the first four of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, and he apparently had plenty of pomp and circumstance left over for the symphony. In describing the music, Elgar said "There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future." So, yes, it is an optimistic work, full of noble ambition.

Maestro Petrenko's handling of the symphony is very optimistic and ambitious, indeed, although I confess while listening to it that I couldn't completely erase my own fondness for the recordings of my earlier days: Sir Adrian Boult's account with the London Philharmonic (EMI); Sir John Barbirolli's recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI); Sir Georg Solti's rendering with the London Philharmonic (Decca); and later recordings from Richard Hickox, Vernon Handley, and Mark Elder among others. By comparison, this new reading by Maestro Petrenko seems just a tad staid, reticent, less grand. But comparisons are sometimes deceiving, and certainly there is much to commend about Petrenko's performance.

The first movement alternates from the noble and processional to the simple and straightforward, and Petrenko does his best to make the transitions as seamless as possible. Still, he seems a bit reluctant to let loose, perhaps fearing that the music can too easily become bombastic if he does so. Nevertheless, he keeps tempos on the moderately brisk side, so the music flows effortlessly and eloquently along, ending in a proper tranquility.

The second-movement Allegro acts as a scherzo, which Petrenko plays with a vigorous, masculine security. Under this conductor, the music marches relentlessly forward, interrupted only briefly here and there by several kind of pastoral interludes, then back to its relentless martial attitude. Again, it's not easy to hold all this together without the pieces seeming disparate and even unhinged, but Petrenko again does his best, and his Liverpool players do an admirable job smoothly following his lead.

Vasily Petrenko
The Adagio that follows is a sort of replica of the preceding music but at a much slower pace. Here, Petrenko does, indeed, slow down, even to the point I thought a tad too much. Still, it makes for a pleasant, tranquil pause in the action.

Then we get the finale, which returns us to Elgar's alternating slow-fast-slow-fast design, with Petrenko handling the march segments with a fine gusto. At the conclusion, the conductor makes sure we understand Elgar's themes, as he re-emphasizes the pomp-and-circumstance elements of the music.

The coupling actually comes first on the disc, the Cockaigne Overture, so named because, as Elgar explained, "Cockaigne is the old, humorous (classical) name for London and from it we get the Cockney." However, the work doesn't really describe the London of Elgar's day (he premiered it in 1901) with any precision, nor did he intend it to be an accurate tone poem; in fact, Elgar had hardly spent much time in London at all. Instead, the score is more of a merry, energetic, effervescent romp through the city's streets as Elgar's rather optimistic mind envisioned the place. I rather enjoyed Petrenko's handling of the overture because he adds a light, fleet touch to the music that brings out its playful, even celebratory qualities.

Producers John Fraser (Symphony) and Andrew Cornall (Cockaigne) and engineer David Pigott recorded the music at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in July and September 2009. I'm not sure why it's taken so long for Onyx to release the disc. Whatever, the sound is warm and natural and moderately distanced rather than being anything close-up, bright, or edgy. It's also nicely centered left-to-right, with at least a modicum of orchestral depth and a decently robust dynamic range. A little hall resonance adds a bloom to the sound, too, making it fairly lifelike, though somewhat soft and not particularly transparent or impactful in any audiophile sense (except in parts of the overture, which sound more dynamic to me than the symphony).


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

Mar 22, 2015

Easter at Ephesus (CD review)

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca B0022686-02.

Easter at Ephesus is the fourth album by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, and if it sells as many copies as their previous discs, the sisters will be close to challenging the Beatles for most albums sold. Maybe we'll hear them singing The Beatles Songbook next. I tease, of course. The sisters sing like angels, and they deserve every bit of respect, praise, and admiration they receive.

As the accompanying booklet describes them, "The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles is a monastic institute of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph under the authority of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Consecrated to the Queen of Apostles, their lives are dedicated to contemplative prayer especially for priests. They support themselves primarily by making priestly vestments and tending a small farm. Professing obedience to the Church's teaching, the community
upholds a loving commitment to preserving the liturgical heritage of the Church in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and traditional monastic Office." Furthermore, "All proceeds designated by the contract either by flat fee, advance or royalties will be directed to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, which is a registered charity. The funds will be used to assist the nuns in all aspects of their community."

Their aim this time out is the observance of Easter, the Resurrection of Christ, in twenty-seven musical selections. They describe the program in this way: "The holy season of Easter spans fifty days from Easter (tracks 1-18) through Ascension and the Feast of Mary, Queen of Apostles (tracks 19-23) and finally crowned by Pentecost (tracks 24-27). We pray that all who hear these hymns will be strengthened in their faith in the Risen Lord."

Here's the track list:

  1. Anonymous: "This Is the Day"
  2. Aichinger: "Regina Caeli"
  3. Köln Jesuit: "The Clouds of Night"
  4. Wipo: "Victimae Paschali"
  5. Traditional: "Alle Psallite Cum Luya"
  6. Anonymous: "Christ the Lord Hath Risen"
  7. Ravanello: "Haec Dies" (4 Part)
  8. Ravanello: "Pascha Nostrum"
  9. Anonymous: "Jesus Christ Is Ris'n Today"
10. Kichengesäng: "Regina Caeli Jubila"
11. Palestrina: "Alleluia Ye Sons"
12. Palestrina: "Sicut Cervus"
13. Tisserand: "O Sons and Daughters"
14. Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles: "Regina Caeli"
15. Saint Venance de Fortunat: "Salve Festa Dies"
16. Gallus: "Haec Dies" (8 Part)
17. Anonymous: "Exultemus Et Laetemur"
18. Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles: "Her Triumph"
19. Carturan: "Ascendit Deus"
20. Anonymous: "Sing We Triumphant Hymns of Praise"
21. Lassus: "Oculus Non Vidit"
22. De Corbeil: "Concordi Laetitia"
23. Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles: "Queen of Priests"
24. Herman: "Veni Sancte Spiritus"
25. Ravanello: "Confirma Hoc Deus"
26. Ravanello: "Veni Creator"
27. Lambilotte: "Come Holy Ghost"

The sisters sing some of the pieces in Latin, some in English. The composers noted above wrote most of the selections, although some are traditional, some anonymous, and some original to the choir. And, yes, they all my favorites, but if you're going to press me, here are a few I liked best: "Regina Caeli" and "The Clouds of Night" reflect the simplicity and grace of the choir. The Medieval flavor of "Victimae Paschali" takes us back to another age, as does "Alle Psallite Cum Luya," and they remind us just how long folks have been singing and enjoying these tunes. I loved the individual voices and harmonies in "Haec Dies," both 4 part and 8 part. "Confirma Hoc Deus" and "Veni Creator" also have a wonderfully grand, triumphant, yet gentle spirit about them.

As always, the sisters sing in sweet, heavenly harmony, their voices fluid and precise. You almost expect Julie Andrews to step out for a solo. And I suppose the two most striking aspects about the singers beyond their unquestioned musicality are their gentleness and simplicity. Their wholly unaffected vocals bring an added conviction and beauty to each piece they sing. They are quite remarkable.

Producer Christopher Alder and engineer Philip Siney recorded the songs for Decca Records and de Montfort Music at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus, December 2014. The first thing one would probably notice about the sound is the realistically reverberant acoustic of its setting. The sisters really do sound as though they're singing in a natural acoustic. No close-up studio miking here, just a lifelike a flow of voices with a pleasant ambient bloom around them. Beyond that, the voices are clear and vibrantly captured, from the softest whisper to the loudest climax. The sound is wide, full, rich, and entirely satisfying.


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

Mar 19, 2015

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, Songs and Dances of Death; Night on Bare Mountain. Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass; Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra. Mariinsky MAR0553.

It seems like I've reviewed an uncommon number Mussorgsky recordings lately, most of them of Pictures at an Exhibition. Understandably, it's a popular piece of music, here rendered by Maestro Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (now known more simply as the Mariinsky Orchestra) in the popular orchestral version by Ravel. How popular is the piece? Mr. Gergiev himself has practically made a career of it, recording the work previously on various labels with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Kirov Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, and the Leningrad Philharmonic. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

Anyway, you already know that the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 originally as a piano suite. He called his little collection of tone poems "sound pictures," but they didn't catch on too well with the public until years later when several different people orchestrated the suite, the most famous and most often recorded arrangement being the 1922 version we have here by French composer Maurice Ravel. Mussorgsky based the movements of the suite on his musical impressions of paintings by his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. The idea is that someone (the composer? the conductor? the listener?) is wandering through a picture gallery viewing the paintings, which the composer recreates in music, going so far as to give us a musical number, a "Promenade," to accompany our stroll from time to time.

Each conductor who approaches the music gives us his or her take on the paintings, adding nuances of phrasing, rubato, contrast, dynamics, pauses, etc., to recreate as vivid a picture in our mind of each painting. How well you like Gergiev's approach may depend upon how you view the pictures yourself from past experience. Among my own favorite recordings of the music are those by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA and JVC) and Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI), but everybody surely has a preferred account with which to compare any newcomer. For me, Gergiev's account holds up well enough interpretively, if not quite so vividly as my own favorites.

After many years of refining his reading of Mussorgsky, you'd think he'd have it down pat by now. And maybe that's the problem. The reading sounds a little too pat to me. Tempos are never too fast nor too slow. Shadings of character and description are never too extreme nor too restrained. Things are essentially just right. Too right. While there is hardly a thing to fault, the whole rendition does not seem to me as colorful, as exciting, as impressive, as graphically pictorial as it might be, could be, or should be. But I'm probably overreacting. Most listeners will find the performance flawless, which it no doubt is.

Gergiev's best characterized sections I thought were "Children quarreling after play," if more like a somewhat subdued bickering; "The ballet of unhatched chicks," always pleasant fun; "The Market at Limoges," full of energetic bustle; "Catacombs" and "With the dead" enveloped in dark mystery; and "The hut on fowl's legs," which takes off splendidly.

Valery Gergiev
The other segments, though, left me a tad unmoved, and the concluding "Great Gate of Kiev" seemed more than a touch underwhelming.

More to my liking were the accompanying pieces, the four-movement Songs and Dances of Death (orchestrated by Dimitri Shostakovich) and Night on Bare Mountain (in the composer's own final version). In the former, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto handles the pathos, tragedy, and drama of the music with deep sympathy. In the latter, Gergiev conjures up a genuinely frightening sense of menace and dread.

Producers James Mallinson (Songs and Dances) and Vladimir Ryabenko (Pictures, Bare Mountain), and engineers Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson (Songs and Dances) and Vladimir Ryanbenko (Pictures, Bare Mountain) recorded the music in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia between 2010 and 2014. They made it in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for SACD (Super Audio CD) playback. But since this is a hybrid disc, the listener can play it back using either an SACD player for multichannel or two-channel stereo or a common CD player for regular two-channel. I listened in two-channel SACD from a Sony SACD player.

There is good clarity involved, the midrange free of edge, brightness, or dullness. Left-to-right stereo spread is also fine, with a realistic frequency balance and a moderate degree of depth perception and hall resonance. My only two areas of concern, at least initially, were with the dynamic range and the deep-bass response, both of which sounded a bit limited to me until the very end. Fortunately, they come to life when the music needs them most, in "The Hut" and "Great Gate." Overall, the sonics are fairly natural, and they probably reflect the sound of the Marinsky players pretty accurately in their own hall.


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

Mar 18, 2015

Toch: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Tanz-Suite. Susanne Muller-Hornbach, cello; Gerhard Muller-Hornbach, Mutare Ensemble. CPO 999 688-2.

Ernst Toch (1887-1964) was a Vienna-born Jewish composer much more well known in the 1920's than he is today. His career fell into decline when the Nazis forced him out of Germany in the 1930's, and he came to America to teach and write film scores. Still, his music has much to commend it. The two pieces represented on this 2002 CPO release, the Dance Suite and the Cello Concerto, derive from 1922 and 1925 respectively.

In the opening work, the Dance Suite, Toch has one foot set firmly in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth. Like his early twentieth-century contemporaries, Toch provides the Dance Suite with an abundance of pleasant, Romantic tunes, concluding with a traditional Viennese waltz. However, along the way he borrows heavily from people like Stravinsky, experimenting with sudden interruptions and occasional dissonant lines. He scored the piece for a small chamber ensemble of half a dozen players, and CPO's sound picks them up cleanly and accurately, if not with the greatest transparency I've heard from this label. Gerhard Muller-Hornbach and the Mutare Ensemble, a group I had never heard (or heard of) before play this and the accompanying concerto in efficient fashion. For the record, so to speak, the Mutare Ensemble has been around since its founding in 1982 in Frankfurt, Germany and has been going strong ever since.

The major piece on the disc is the Cello Concerto, and here I found things a bit less accessible. Toch wrote it for a competition and won fifth prize, the work becoming quite popular in Europe for several years thereafter. It's a concerto with much like the structure of a classical symphony (a medium Toch rejected in his early career but found quite agreeable in later life), although it emphasizes the accompanying instruments, about a dozen of them, almost as much as the featured cello. While there's some degree of imaginative writing in the Concerto and cellist Susanne Muller-Hornbch does what she can with it, it ultimately seems to me a somewhat barren affair.

Although CPO's sound is a bit overly warm and soft for my taste, at least for the nature of the music, it's a minor distraction. As usual with this label, the overall orchestral dimensions are solid; the dynamics are strong; and the frequency response, aside from being, as I say, a tad soft in the upper mids and lower treble, appears fairly well balanced.


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

Mar 16, 2015

Waxman: The Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman (HDCD review)

Charles Gerhardt, National Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD423.

Franz Waxman (1906-1967) was one of a handful of great film composers born and educated in Europe--in his case Germany--who came to Hollywood just after the introduction of sound to motion pictures. Waxman took his place alongside such other notables as Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

In 1972 RCA asked American conductor Charles Gerhardt (1927-1999) and the National Philharmonic Orchestra to make a series of classic film score albums, which they did, completing fourteen of them between 1972 and 1978. They were highly successful largely because of Gerhardt's personal pride in the music and careful preparation of the texts and because of the excellence of the sound RCA afforded him. On the present disc, we have Gerhardt's renditions of eight Franz Waxman film scores in abbreviated form (obviously, Gerhardt didn't have room for the complete soundtrack scores of all eight movies). More important, we have the music remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), who always do such a fine job ensuring that we hear the best sound possible.

The selections included on the program are "Music from Prince Valiant," "A Place in the Sun Suite," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Music from Sunset Boulevard," "Old Acquaintance Elegy for Strings," "Music from Rebecca," "Music from The Philadelphia Story," and "Tara Bulba: The Ride to Dubno."

Gerhardt, as I say, had a flair for this kind of thing. Take the opening track, for instance, the "Prince Valiant" music. It begins with the kind of swashbuckling fanfare pioneered by Franz Liszt in Les Preludes, Richard Strauss in Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, and Erich Korngold in "The Sea Hawk," a tradition that John Williams would continue in "Star Wars." Here, Gerhardt has fun with it, emphasizing the connections to its antecedents and making a grand, sweeping statement. Yet when the suite comes to its gentler passages, Gerhardt is up the task with a sweet, smooth touch.

And so it goes throughout the program. I liked the lush, bluesy feeling of "A Place in the Sun"; the busy-then-languid L.A.-Hollywood atmosphere of "Sunset Boulevard"; the mysterious yet romantic moods of Hitchcock's "Rebecca"; the excitement of "Taras Bulba"; heck, I even liked the MGM lion's roar in "The Philadelphia Story."

Probably my absolute favorite music among the bunch, though, is the selection from "The Bride of Frankenstein." The movie itself is, for me, a milestone in filmmaking, from its impressionistic set design, contrasting shadow effects, free-flowing camera work, and innovative direction to Waxman's eerie, grotesque, expressionistic musical score, with its haunting central subject. Gerhardt plays it wonderfully, exposing every dark corner of the story.

Producer George Korngold and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the scores at Kingsway Hall, London in July 1974, and HDTT transferred the recording from an RCA 4-track Dolby-encoded Quadraphonic tape in 2015. HDTT make the disc available in 4.0 multichannel-surround 24-bit/192 kHz downloads on FLAC or Blu-ray and in two-channel stereo on CD, DVD, HQCD, and various downloads including PCM FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz and 24-bit 192 kHz.

There's a very wide dynamic range involved, so be prepared for some realistic sonics, with excellent impact. It also sounds well balanced, a tad dark in tone but with none of the frequencies appearing to upstage the others. The bass is strong and firm; the midrange is clear, well focused; and the highs sparkle. Moreover, there is a good deal of dimensionality to the sound, left-right, front-back, and enough hall resonance to remind one of a real concert. This is very impressive, very lifelike sound, the kind we don't find in much of today's close-up and made-live recordings.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), and prices, you can visit their Web site at


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

Mar 15, 2015

Russian Recital (CD review)

Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 153.

Jorge Federico Osorio is a virtuoso pianist of international repute, with any number of fine recordings to his credit. Although he has released discs for Vox, ASV, Regis, O.M., Artek, EMI, and others, lately he's been recording for Cedille. In my experience listening to the man's performances, he has never demonstrated anything but sensitive, committed playing. He continues that tradition here, performing four Russian pieces by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Mussorgsky.

The first item on Osorio's program is the Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). One of the composer's "war sonatas" because he wrote it near the beginning of the Second World War, the piece displays an uncommon belligerence, at one point Prokofiev instructing the pianist to strike the keyboard with his fist. The work's four movements have an inevitability about their forward momentum, and Osorio nicely conveys that sense of continual motion and power. He punctuates everything with a kind of nervous energy that heightens the violence of the mood. Still, when it comes to the third-movement waltz, Osorio takes it softly and slowly, emphasizing the melancholy of the music, the degree of human suffering that war produces. Then it's back to that nervous energy again in the finale, where Osorio accents every note with an urgency of feeling and imagination.

Next is "Romeo and Juliet Before Parting" from Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75. The ballet music couldn't be more different from the sonata in mood, so it makes a fine contrast. More important, Osorio plays it with a comfortable longing. It's beautiful, moving music, played beautifully and movingly.

After that is the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1957). These tunes were the composer's homage to Bach, with nods to Chopin and Debussy. They are a brief collection of descriptive musical episodes based in part on Russian folk tunes. Osorio's wide-ranging performance easily encompasses the varied passions of the numbers, connecting the dots efficiently as he goes along and unifying what can sometimes sound like a merely eclectic and disconnected set of parts.

Jorge Federico Osorio
Concluding the program, we find the real highlight: the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition, subtitled "A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann," by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). It is, of course, a suite of "pictures," tone poems, based on drawings and watercolors by the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. Although the world probably knows the several orchestral versions of the work better than the piano version, the piano version holds its own pretty well, especially when played as expressively as Osorio plays it.

One needs to understand going in, however, that Osorio's walk through the gallery is not so much a leisurely stroll as it is almost a sprint. In other words, he takes the "promenades" at a fairly brisk pace. But, fortunately, when it comes to the actual "pictures," he slows down to contemplate each piece and does a pretty good job with their characterizations. While perhaps the clarity of Osorio's vision (and playing) is a trifle too astringent at times for a full appreciation of every nuance Mussorgsky intends, it does add to the vividness of each scene. "The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" is especially persuasive, as are "Bydlo" and "The Catacombs." I found "The Marketplace," though, a little too busy. As for the big finish, "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" and "The Great Gate of Kiev," Osorio does them up pretty well, even though I longed for a bit more excitement and grandness in these closing pages, which Osorio unexpectedly takes at a slightly less lively gait than he provided at the start. Nevertheless, he captures much of their color, and that's what matters most.

What else do we need to know about the sound except that Bill Maylone engineered it? OK, it's a Cedille release, produced by James Ginsburg, and Maylone did the sound. That combination automatically makes it a good recording. The sound comes through with the kind of crystalline clarity that only a good piano in an acoustically desirable room can provide. While there is a mild ambient bloom present, the overall impression one gets is of utmost transparency, with quick transients and strong impact on the keys. Maylone has miked the instrument at a modest distance, so the piano is neither too large nor too distant. The listener is close enough to enjoy the full force of the piano yet far enough way for the instrument to take on a sweet, resonant bloom.


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

Mar 12, 2015

Music of the Civil War (HDCD review)

Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble. HDTT HDCD408.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the ugliest, bloodiest, most-destructive, most-divisive conflicts in the country's history. Moreover, it came smack dab in the middle of the Romantic period of classical music. I mention these two items at the outset because it may give you some idea of the popular music of the day. The music of the War had to serve a purpose, in part sad and sentimental and in part lively and uplifting. So that's the way conductor Frederick Fennell (1914-2004) plays it, depending on the piece in this classic, 1958 Mercury recording with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

In the New York Times obituary of Fennell, colleague Jerry F. Junkin said of him, "He was arguably the most famous band conductor since John Philip Sousa." Certainly, Fennell did as much as anyone in the twentieth century to promote the wind ensemble as a serious orchestral group, something more than simply a band for performing marching music. As a result, on this disc Fennell does not attempt to make his collection of Civil War tunes of the North and the South a simple entertainment, although entertaining it is. The opening song, "Hail to the Chief," the Presidential anthem we usually hear done in quickstep time, is a good example. Fennell remembers the context of the Civil War and plays it almost as a dirge. This was no time to think of the President (both the North and the South used the song for their respective Presidents) in a joyous, festive, up-tempo manner; these were grave times, reflected in the gravity of the songs.

Anyway, Fennell does not do up all the tunes as gravely as "Hail to the Chief," with a few of them intended to buck up the spirits of the soldiers and the general population. It helps, too, that wherever possible he uses the original Civil War-era arrangements of the songs and something approaching the original instruments intended. The album includes eighteen selections, about half of them representing the North and half the South:

  1. "Hail to the Chief"
  2. "Listen to the Mocking Bird"
  3. "Palmyra Schottische"
  4. "Hail Columbia"
  5. "Freischutz Quickstep"
  6. "Parade"
  7. "Port Royal Galop"
  8. "Nightingale Waltz"
  9. "La Marseillaise"
10. "Dixie" and "Bonnie Blue Flag"
11. "Cheer Boys Cheer"
12. "Luto Quickstep"
13. "Old North State"
14. "Easter Galop"
15. "Come, Dearest, the Daylight Is Gone"
16. "Maryland, My Maryland"
17. "Waltz No. 19"
18. "Old Hundreth"

Frederick Fennell
Favorites? Sure thing. I liked the "Palmyra Schottische" for its vigor and vitality. "Hail Columbia" has a regal presence. "Freischutz Quickstep" is an invigorating march take on an old and familiar favorite, with Fennell appearing to have great fun with it. "Dixie" and "Bonnie Blue Flag" have an appropriate swagger to them. The "Ludo Quickstep" exhibits virtuoso playing. "Come, Dearest, the Daylight Is Gone" reflects the nostalgic Romanticism of the age. And if "Maryland, My Maryland" reminds you of "O Tannenbaum," well, it should, both songs based on the same sixteenth-century folk melody.

Conspicuous by its absence is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Perhaps Fennell never recorded it for this particular collection. I don't know. In any case, I can't think of another disc of Civil War music better played or sounding more authentic than Fennell's. Kudos to HDTT for remastering this outstanding set.

Producer and recording director Wilma Cozart, co-engineer Robert W. Eberenz, and engineer and recording supervisor C. Robert Fine recorded the album in 1958 on 35mm film, and HDTT transferred the music to CD in 2014 from a Philips/Mercury 4-track tape. As with most Mercury recordings of the time, this one exhibits excellent imaging, both across the soundstage and into it. So we get dimensionality and depth, things often lacking in modern recordings. There is also good transparency, although not quite so much as on some of Ms. Cozart's own CD transfers; I suspect a touch of noise reduction reduced a little of the high-end sparkle. Nevertheless, the sound is very natural, warm and resonant, with good frequency balance and quick transients. The sonics clearly delineate each of the instruments while retaining a realistic roundness and lifelike hall ambience.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), and prices, you can visit their Web site at


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

Mar 11, 2015

Rott: Symphony in E major (CD review)

Also, Pastorales Vorspiel. Dennis Russell Davies, Radio Symphonieorchester Wien. CPO 999 854-2.

The classical music world, like any other, can be pretty freakish sometimes. Take, for instance, the case of Austrian composer and organist Hans Rott (1858-1884). He was a contemporary of and fellow student with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Conservatory (they even roomed together for a short time), but how many people know that? As a composer, Rott wrote only a couple of pieces of music, then went mad and died young. After writing his Symphony in E in 1880 Rott tried pressing it on Brahms and Bruckner, but to no avail. Brahms even became annoyed with Rott's pushiness (and possibly with some of the symphony's content, which mimicked his own work), telling him he had no talent whatsoever. As a result of these and other obstacles in his life, Rott became depressed, delusional, hostile, and dangerous. The state locked him up in a mental institution while he was in his early twenties, and he died there several years later, both the man and his music largely forgotten.

Now, none of this would be of any concern to us today if nobody had rediscovered his Symphony in E just a few years back and re-evaluated it. It seems scholars took notice of the fact that it bears striking resemblances to the work of Brahms, Schumann, and Wagner, but, more important, to Mahler. The trouble is, however, Rott's piece predates most of Mahler's work (Rott wrote his Symphony in E more than half a dozen years before Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 1). The immediate conclusion reached by some musicologists, therefore, was that Mahler, who knew and openly appreciated Rott's work, may have stolen from him. Wouldn't that be something?

Modern listeners are welcome to draw their own conclusions after listening to Rott's symphony. It does remind one a bit of Schumann in the opening, Wagner in some of bigger, grander passages, and Brahms in the Finale. Then, when you listen to the third-movement Scherzo, you would, indeed, swear it was Mahler; the similarities being much too obvious to have been mere coincidence. Clearly, one of the two men influenced the other. But it may take a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot to figure out who most influenced whom.

Whatever the case, the Symphony in E is filled with intriguing, atmospheric, and pleasurable (if not all that memorable) passages, interesting in spite their similarities to the work of the aforementioned composers. In the end, for me the symphony sounds too much like a pastiche, and not the very best at that. Yet I did like that bizarre Scherzo and the overall Romanticism of the piece. And in particular I liked the conducting of Dennis Russell Davies and the musicianship of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. I figure if they couldn't do any more with the work, nobody could.

The disc's coupling, the Pastorale Vorspiel, interested me even less and, in fact, almost put me to sleep. Rott didn't call the piece a "pastorale" for nothing. Then again, maybe it was the sonics on this 2002 release that bored me, sonics I found wispy and vague and never particularly vibrant or alive despite an enormous dynamic range. The imaging is fine, and there's even a modicum of depth to the orchestra, but it's such bland sound I kept wanting to turn the volume up just to help bring it to life; then, when I did, the loudest passages were, of course, too loud.

Anyway, the album makes an interesting historical document, although, again for me, not an especially rewarding musical experience.


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

Mar 9, 2015

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (XRCD24/K2 review)

Also, Franck: Symphonic Variations. John Ogdon, piano; Sir John Barbirolli, Philharmonia Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD37.

About the time I first began seriously collecting classical recordings in the early 1960's, there were four young pianists I remember just coming along: Van Cliburn, who won the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958; Maurizio Pollini, who won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1960; and Vladimir Ashkenazy and John Ogdon, who shared the first prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition. While Cliburn, Pollini, and Ashkenazy went on to become giants in the classical world, British pianist Ogdon experienced less good fortune. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder disrupted his life in the early 1970's, and he died in 1989 of pneumonia, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes.

Fortunately, we have the magic of records to preserve at least some of Ogdon's work, although the present disc is perhaps not the very best of his legacy. For a man who had co-won the Tchaikovsky Competition, he seems more than a bit reticent about showing off his skills in this 1962 Tchaikovsky recording.

Anyway, the star attraction on the program is the Concerto for Piano No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He finished it in 1875, then revised it in 1879 and again in 1888. Tchaikovsky may have just been overly sensitive to the criticism that came before and after the concerto's première, or maybe he didn't care for the way the first performers played the piece. Whatever the case, the final version has become a staple, perhaps THE staple, of the concert-piano stage, and it requires a good deal of virtuosic bravura for performers to find a place for themselves among the many competing recordings of the work. Here, Ogdon never lacks for virtuosity; it's his bravado that's oddly lacking.

It's possible, of course, that Ogdon wanted to show the world that the Tchaikovsky work was more than just a grandiose blockbuster, which is why he may have put on the brakes and gone after a less-robust, more sensitive reading. I dunno; it just doesn't make the impression on the listener the way some competing performances do.

Ogdon opens the concerto with a properly grand flourish, and Maestro Sir John Barbirolli adds some strong support throughout, but from a few minutes in, Ogdon's reading seems curiously underpowered. His finger work remains dazzling, of course, yet he appears more interested in clarity and articulation than in stirring up any red-blooded interpretation. Not that this is bad, mind you, just different. And, surprisingly, it doesn't appear to have anything to do with the overall lengths of the movements, which remain well within the boundaries of average for this work; it's more a matter of pauses and general rubato, abrupt changes in tempo and such that give the impression of slackness in the whole.

Still, this approach works wonderfully well in the second-movement Andantino semplice, where Ogdon's carefully crafted, poetic approach is simplicity itself--very affecting, touching, lyrical, serene, a tad playful, and utterly charming.

However, with Ogdon the closing Rondo doesn't quite capture the lighthearted romp Tchaikovsky might have imagined. Again, Ogdon's technical artistry is never in question; it's that he seems unnecessarily serious, even though Barbirolli appears to be prodding him to loosen up.

The coupling, Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, comes off better than the concerto. Maybe it's the more-poetic nature of the music that suited Ogdon's frame of mind when he recorded it. Whatever, both Ogdon and Barbirolli seem of one accord here, with the Philharmonia, as always, playing brilliantly. There's a delicacy and balance to the performance that is most beguiling.

The folks at Hi-Q provide another of their classy packages, using a glossy, hard-cardboard Digipak-type container with the disc and booklet notes fastened within.

Producers Victor Olof and Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Robert Gooch originally recorded the music for EMI at No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London in December 1962. Tohru Kotetsu, Shizuo Nomiyama, and Kazuo Kiuchi remastered the album using 24-bit Super Analog XRCD24 processing and K2 replication at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan in 2014. From the opening notes, there is no question this remaster is one of the best-sounding recordings of the Tchaikovsky you'll find. There is a huge dynamic range, with thundering climaxes and whisper-quiet soft passages. What's more, there is a pleasant warmth about the music, good impact, decent midrange transparency, shimmering highs, and only the faintest touch of tape hiss.

If I have any reservation, however, it's that the sound field in the Tchaikovsky piece tends to favor the left side, with the piano and virtually all of the strings slightly to the left of center. I suppose this is the way the engineers recorded it, so I shouldn't fuss. But I immediately worried that perhaps either my playback equipment or my ears were at fault. A quick listen to three other recordings of the Tchaikovsky confirmed, however, that it was, indeed, a minor issue with the Hi-Q/EMI recording; the other CD's sounded appropriately centered. Nonetheless, it is, as I say, a trivial concern in a recording of such otherwise exemplary audio; if it bothers you, just turn your balance control a decibel or two to the right. The Franck piece sounds nicely centered, though; go figure.

For some of the best prices and availability of Hi-Q products, you might want to visit Elusive Disc at


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

Mar 8, 2015

A Billie Holiday Songbook (CD review)

Lara Downes, solo piano. Steinway & Sons 30026.

Practically everybody knows who Billie Holiday was. Perhaps not as many people know Lara Downes. So, a little about both of them.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter, dubbed "Lady Day" by her friend and musical partner Lester Young. Ms. Holiday had a strong influence on jazz (and pop), her singing style, largely inspired by jazz players, beginning an innovative way of handling tempo changes and phrasing. During her heyday in the 1930's, 1940's, and 50's she toured and recorded with Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman, among others, culminating in both legal troubles and sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall. She was, and remains, an American icon.

Lara Downes is a Steinway artist whose work exhibits an exceptionally lyric and dramatic presence. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Ms. Downes began piano lessons at age four and later "spent a decade studying and performing with her sisters in Europe, in what she calls 'a gypsy-like existence' that took the family from Paris to Venice, Vienna, Basel and Rome."

Since making concert debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Salle Gaveau, Paris, Ms. Downes "has won over audiences on the world's stages, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center." What's more, her recordings have won her new fans all over the world, with excellent critical and public acclaim. My own reactions to her previous albums Some Other Time (with cellist Zuill Bailey), 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, and Exiles' Cafe have been uniformly favorable, Ms. Downes impressing me with her imagination, playfulness, and straightforward, unadorned virtuosity.

On A Billie Holiday Songbook, Ms Downes plays twenty-two songs made famous by Billie Holiday, most of them arranged for piano by Jed Distler, one by Teddy Wilson ("Blue Moon"), and one by Marian McPartland ("Willow Weep for Me"). Here's the track list:

  1. "Yesterdays"
  2. "God Bless the Child"
  3. "Blue Moon"
  4. "Willow Weep for Me"
  5. "Don't Explain"
  6. "Body and Soul"
  7. "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You"
  8. "I Wished on the Moon"
  9. "Them There Eyes"
10. "Billie's Blues"
11. "Good Morning Heartache"
12. "The End of a Love Affair"
13. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"
14. "Ain't Nobody's Business"
15. "Strange Fruit"
16. "I'll Be Seeing You"
17. "Lover Man"
18. "I'm a Fool to Want You"
19. "I'll Be Around"
20. "I Cover the Waterfront"
21. "(In My) Solitude"
22. "But Beautiful"

Lara Downes
As always, Ms. Downes plays each piece lovingly, caressingly, soulfully. I suppose one could say that it is something of overkill to have a classical concert pianist play popular tunes, but when you hear the results, you have to concede that no one could do them any better. And for most of us music is music; we just want it rendered as well as possible, and that's what Ms. Downes does.

Favorites? Yep. "God Bless the Child" displays Ms. Downes's ability to convey a high emotional content along with an abundance of showmanship. "Blue Moon" is a perennial favorite, and in its original piano arrangement it projects a wonderfully upbeat yet bluesy quality nurtured by Ms. Downes's playing. "Body and Soul" is predictably fine, with the piano performance reflecting Ms. Holiday's vocal style remarkably well. We practically hear Holiday behind the piano.

"Billie's Blues" bubbles over with the kind of jazz mannerisms we've come to expect from Ms. Holiday herself. "Ain't Nobody's Business" is simply a favorite song of mine, so I was delighted to hear Ms. Downes do it such credit in a smoky nightclub style. "I'll Be Seeing You" is a song I personally associate more with Jimmy Durante than Billie Holiday, but in any case Ms. Downes gives it a sweet, lovely new life, as she does with all of these songs. It's a lovely album.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the piano at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in June 2014. As usual, we can depend on good sound from Sono Luminus. The piano looms a bit larger and closer than I anticipated, but it's comfortably warm and natural, with a mild room resonance making it appear rich and powerful. Although I would have preferred a tad more distance and a little more definition, there is no denying the instrument's presence and impact.


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

Mar 5, 2015

Lost and Found (CD review)

Albrecht Mayer, oboe and English horn. Kammerakademie Potsdam. DG 479 2942.

As oboe virtuoso Albrecht Mayer explains, "the oboe was omnipresent in the musical life of Mozart's day. There were countless outstanding wind players who were active in Austria and Bohemia during the second half of the 18th century, with the result that many of the composers associated with Viennese Classicism wrote concertos for the oboe, most of them musicians whose names have fallen into near or total oblivion." Thus, the theme of the present album, in which Mr. Mayer and the Chamber Academy of Potsdam play four wind concertos for oboe or English horn from composers most of us have never heard of: Lost and now found. The concertos are pleasant, to be sure, and obviously well played, but there is usually a reason why some music loses favor with the public and falls into obscurity.

First up on the program is the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C major by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812). Like the other concertos in the set, Hoffmeister's is in a conventional three-movement arrangement: fast, slow, fast. There is a certain Haydn-like charm to the music, which displays ample opportunities for Mayer's oboe to find a sweet, fluid voice, especially in the Adagio.

Albrecht Mayer
Next is the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in G minor by Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790). Lebrun's work sounds a tad more mature in tone than Hoffmeister's, yet it conveys plenty of enchantment. Schubert was one of Lebrun's many admirers, and if one can see something of Haydn in Hoffmeister, one can also see a bit of Schubert in Lebrun. There are some pleasantly lilting melodies throughout the concerto as well as some fanciful and lighthearted moments. For me it was the highlight of the program.

After that we find the Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra in C major by Joseph Fiala (1748-1816). The English horn, the tenor member of the oboe family, makes a nice contrast in this piece to the sound of the oboe in the others. Otherwise, I'm not sure Fiala's concerto is one I'll be returning to very often. While undoubtedly friendly and likeable, with a wonderfully flowing Adagio cantabile, it isn't exactly memorable.

Mayer concludes the program with the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in F major by Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814). With the Kozeluh work, it isn't until we get to the final Rondo that we get anything worthy of being rediscovered. Here, we find a lovely, catchy tune that bounces along in good cheer.

Mayer's playing is exemplary. He is always spot on and never tries to overshadow his accompaniment. And that accompaniment from the Potsdam Chamber Orchestra conducted by Mayer is also spot on: precise, sympathetic, always right with Mayer as though a single instrument at the soloist-leader's disposal.

Recording producer Christoph Franke and engineer Martin Eichberg made the album at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, in January 2013. We get full, rich sound from the orchestra and a realistic presence from the oboe and English horn. Dimensionality could be better, though; there's not a lot of depth to the ensemble nor much air around the instruments. Fortunately, the engineers have recorded Mayer's solo parts at a moderate enough distance that he doesn't completely dominate the show by being too close up. Overall, it's smooth, well-balanced sound, with a modest degree of transparency and makes for easy listening.


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

Mar 4, 2015

Harris: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9 (CD review)

Also, Epilogue to Profiles in Courage--J.F.K. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.559050.

Naxos's American composer series was strongly underway when they released this album in 2002, and the disc continued one of the most-comprehensive surveys of American classical music any single record label has ever attempted. The fact that Naxos initially chose a Ukrainian orchestra to play many of the pieces in the series may strike one as a bit odd considering Naxos's contracts with American ensembles, but the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine play beautifully, and I'm sure no one has ever minded their origins.

American composer Roy Harris (1898-1979) wrote thirteen symphonies between 1933 and 1976, along with almost every other kind of music. His Seventh Symphony derives from 1951-52 (revised in 1955) and the Ninth from 1962. In addition (probably because the two symphonies are relatively short), Naxos have also included Harris's Epilogue to Profiles in Courage--J.F.K.

Of the three works represented on the disc, none of which I had heard before, I found the Seventh Symphony the most rewarding. It is a single-movement piece lasting about nineteen minutes, developing a solitary theme from a moody, evocative opening to a rousing, energetic climax. If Harris hadn't labeled it a "symphony," I'd have considered it more of a tone poem or possibly a set of variations, but Harris insisted on calling it a symphony so who's to argue. Anyway, Maestro Theodore Kuchar and the Ukraine National Symphony do a good job opening up the music and letting it flow freely and atmospherically.

Theodore Kuchar
The Ninth Symphony is more conventional in its movements (although there are still only three of them instead of the traditional four) and more conventional in its purely American material, in this case the "Preamble" to the Constitution and quotes from poet Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. My problem with the Ninth is that I felt there was a degree of sameness in it and a degree of similarity to works by other American composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. By its final segment I thought the Ninth hadn't really gone very far, meandering a bit too leisurely for my taste. Still, Kuchar holds things together as best as possible, and his orchestra is good enough to make it sound all of a piece.

The brief Epilogue to Profiles in Courage--J.F.K., written in 1963 in commemoration of President Kennedy's assassination and used here as a companion piece, sounds appropriately solemn but not particularly memorable. Kuchar and his ensemble do their best with it, and the orchestra really does sound good; however, they couldn't do quite enough to make me fall in love with the score.

What is most remarkable about the disc is Naxos's exemplary audio throughout the three works. The engineers miked the orchestra at a moderate enough distance that they ensured a natural-sounding response. The stereo spread appears wide, the stage depth reproduced realistically, and the dynamic range, while not overwhelming, impressive. The deep end does not go through the floor, but it, too, makes its presence felt in the bass drum, especially in the Seventh Symphony. This is not spectacular sound, but it does its job unobtrusively and commendably well.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa