Apr 30, 2015

Beethoven: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Romances for Violin and Orchestra. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestre Zurich. Brilliant Classics 94857.

If you're a fan of what of what Maestro David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestre Zurich did with Beethoven's symphonies, you'll probably like what they and German violinist Christian Tetzlaff do with the Violin Concerto. The performances are of the same mold.

This is not to suggest that everyone will like Zinman/Tetzlaff's interpretation, however. Zinman adopts speeds that approach Beethoven's own tempo markings, which is to say zippy, and Tetzlaff uses several solo cadenzas that the composer originally wrote for one of the piano concertos. (Beethoven had later transcribed his violin concerto as a piano concerto, and Tetzlaff borrowed the cadenzas from it because he didn't think any of the other cadenzas written by other people fit in properly.)

Whatever, a lot of folks have grown up with slower, now more-traditional tempi in the concerto, and just as they might rebel against period-instrument groups following faster speeds, they might protest the fast speeds Zinman and his modern orchestra embrace. Likewise, a lot of especially older folks may have gotten so used to the cadenzas written by such notables as Fritz Kreisler or Joseph Joachim, that they could find Beethoven's own cadenzas, albeit for another work, alien to the violin piece. So the Zinman-Tetzlaff performance is not without its idiosyncrasies, for good or for bad.

My own reaction to the tempos and cadenzas was one of indifference given the spirit and vitality of the performance as a whole. While theirs does not sound like a conventional reading, the artists present a thoroughly enjoyable realization of the score. Tetzlaff offers up violin playing that sounds sweet, pure, and extremely articulate, while Zinman and his ensemble accompany him with a warm, lyrical, affectionate support. Together, one hardly notices the gait is quicker than usual (except in period-instrument renditions where we expect a speedier attack) or that the cadenzas are at all out of place.

Tetzlaff shows a fine craftsmanship and virtuosity throughout his playing yet never resorts to any undue showmanship. His performance is a welcome antidote to many of the more dreamy-eyed, sentimental interpretations available on record. While Tetzlaff's clearly focused reading cuts more quickly to the core than many of his competitors, however, it never fails to retain the emotional spirit of Beethoven. He succeeds in balancing the composer's more somber moods with the work's generally cheerful, uplifting countenance.

David Zinman
Moreover, Maestro Zinman accompanies Tetzlaff with an appropriate vigor (just listen to the intensity of those drumbeats in the first movement), and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra prove that their musical skills are every bit as virtuosic as the soloist's. Altogether, this rendition of Beethoven may or may not conform to everybody's idea of what the violin concerto should sound like, but one can hardly deny that Tetzlaff and company don't execute it well. While it may not be an absolute number-one choice in this repertoire, it is surely a feasible alternative.

As a coupling, Tetzlaff provides Beethoven's Romances for Violin and Orchestra, Nos. 1 and 2. Interestingly, the composer wrote the second of the Romances several years before he wrote the first one, but because of their order of publication, the latter one gets the earlier number. And it's not even clear why Beethoven wrote them; that is, for what occasion. In any case, they are highly popular and strongly Romantic. The Romance No. 1 is the slightly more serious of the two, which may have something to do with Beethoven's own development as a composer. Accordingly, Tetzlaff approaches the first piece with sense of loving restraint, beautifully carried out and offering a touch of nostalgia along the way. In No. 2 we hear Tetzlaff in a somewhat more-imposing though still highly refined mode. Very nice.

Producer Chris Hazell and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the music at Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland in May 2005, originally releasing it on the Arte Nova label. Brilliant Classics rereleased it in 2015 under license from Sony Music Entertainment. The sound displays a good sense of depth in the orchestra, as well as a clean overall appearance, with little bass overhang. There's a good dynamic impact and range, too, and a fairly well balanced frequency response, showing little brightness, edginess, or dullness. If anything, there appears to be a small degree of upper midrange forwardness, although it's hardly noticeable and, in fact, adds to the overall clarity of the sonics. Both the high and low ends seem pretty well extended, though not exaggerated in any way, and the midrange is nicely transparent. The sound, in short, complements the unexaggerated nature of the music making.


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

Apr 29, 2015

Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (CD review)

Also, Overture, Scherzo & Finale. Wolfgang Sawallisch, Staatskapelle Dresden. EMI 7243 5 67771 2 5 (2-disc set).

I first bought these four symphonies with the late conductor and pianist Wolfgang Sawallisch just shortly after he recorded them in 1972. I instantly fell in love with the performances, but I thought the sound was rather obscure, wallowing, I felt, in excessive hall reverberation, details clouded and fogged over. A few years later I found and bought an imported set of the LPs pressed in Germany, which rendered them in slightly clearer but still rather veiled sound. That set sufficed until EMI transferred the recordings to CD in 1988 in their Studio line. This time, I found the sound substantially improved, but it still retained a small degree of veiling that bothered me.

Which brings us to the present set. In 2002 EMI reissued all four symphonies plus the Overture, Scherzo & Finale in a two-disc "Great Recordings of the Century" set remastered in their ART (Abbey Road Technology) format. The sound appeared a jot smoother and a tad clearer yet, making it the best transfer of these imposing interpretations I had yet encountered. But, who knows? Now that Warner Classics own the rights to EMI recordings, maybe they'll reissue them yet again in America (as they have, apparently, in Japan--in SACD, no less), and we'll be able to hear the master tapes better than ever.

Anyway, EMI wisely chose to bundle the pieces in the order Schumann wrote them, with Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 on the first disc, along with the Overture, and Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 on the second disc. (No. 4 may have a later number, but Schumann actually wrote it second. It came by its present designation because Schumann made extensive revisions to it later.)

Wolfgang Sawallisch
Sawallisch presents all four works in excellent readings, with an emphasis on structure that may remind one somewhat of Klemperer's readings of the symphonies. No. 1, the "Spring" Symphony, Sawallisch appropriately fills with joyous, youthful exuberance, all of it encompassed in the maestro's big, rock-solid style. No. 4 sounds equally filled with felicitous touches, its closing movement appearing for all the world like a continuation of the First Symphony's opening Andante. Then, the conductor keeps the Overture, Scherzo & Finale--which Schumann viewed as a mini symphony or "symphonette" as he called it--purposely more transparent in texture than the other large-scale pieces. So, disc one includes Schumann's lighter-weight material.

Disc two starts with the Second Symphony, the more somber of the lot and the longest the composer wrote, continuing with the most complex piece, the Third or "Rhenish" Symphony ("Life Along the Rhine"). It is this latter work (along with the joyous First) that perhaps best exemplifies what the man was capable of doing. The Third appears the most unified of the four symphonies, especially under Sawallisch, and in many ways the most memorable in its grand, expansive motifs.

Sawallisch has the measure of each symphony, seldom imposing his any overt idiosyncrasies on them, beyond his own sense of ultimate structure, allowing the music to flow naturally and fully. The Dresden State Orchestra seems the perfect choice of orchestras to play it, too, Dresden being Schumann's home for some of the years preceding his death, besides their being one of the world's great musical ensembles.

At its modest price these days, particularly when one considers its availability used, this EMI set seems almost too good to pass up.


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

Apr 27, 2015

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 4 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 15, 24, 25, and 27. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1468. 

Every time I listen to a new album by British pianist James Brawn (James Brawn in RecitalA Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 2), I remember again why I so look forward to his releases. He is one of the preeminent pianists of our day and, certainly, one of the handful of relatively young pianists destined for greatness. On this latest disc, A Beethoven Odyssey Volume 4, Brawn continues his cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas. If, and I assume when, he finishes his survey of all the sonatas, he will have no doubt completed one of the finest sets of Beethoven sonata recordings in the catalogue.

The thing about Brawn that makes his playing stand out is that it's big and full without being big and flashy. That is, while Brawn is as virtuosic as any pianist you'll hear, his virtuosity always serves the music. Like others in his company, he can appear to have ten fingers on each hand, yet he never uses his dexterity to draw attention to himself. His performances are always more subtle and nuanced than that, which probably means he will have more trouble becoming the superstar some record companies encourage. Instead, he reminds me more of a Brendel or Kovacevich in that his playing is thoughtful and purposeful as well as thoroughly entertaining.

Brawn chose five of Beethoven's piano sonatas for this current program, sonatas that he says are "lyrical and life affirming," exhibiting Beethoven's "lighter, more positive nature." As you probably know, Ludwig Beethoven ((1770-1827) wrote thirty-two piano sonatas between the years 1795 and 1822, which means he was writing these pieces throughout most of his adult musical career. Brawn has selected five of these sonatas spanning most of those years, from 1798-1814. Thus, on the present album Brawn's own Beethoven odyssey covers much of Beethoven's own adventurous, musical journey.

First up on the agenda is the Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, a youthful work that Brawn describes as being in "the spirited key of E." Beethoven would later rearrange it for his String Quartet in F major. Beethoven intentionally left out a conventional slow movement to ensure the piece would maintain its upbeat quality, and Brawn's approach from the outset is lively and sparkling. In fact, the performance is a total delight.

Next, we hear the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, nicknamed by Beethoven's publisher the "Pastorale." Surely, one can sense the composer's connection with nature throughout the piece. Here, Beethoven was back to a traditional four-movement setting. Brawn does a terrific job emphasizing the tensions between softer and louder segments, between slower and faster passages whilst never exaggerating the contrasts to the point of drawing our attention wholly to them. His playing seems all of one accord, flowing naturally and seamlessly from note to note, from section to section. In other words, with Brawn every work is an organic whole, not an assembly of random ideas meant to impress the listener in spurts.

James Brawn
After that is the Piano Sonata No. 24 in f-sharp major. Its uplifting moods stand, says Brawn, in sharp contrast to the tragic "Appassionata," written a few years earlier. As Beethoven dedicated No. 24 to his friend and patron Countess Thérèse von Brunsvik, one can understand the nickname "A Thérèse." Of all the sonatas on the program, "A Thérèse" is probably the most gentle and expressive, at least in its first movement. Consequently, Brawn accords it a full measure of sweetness and sensitivity, yet with no hint of sentimentality; and, indeed, he affords the closing Allegro vivace an appropriately energetic reading.

Then, we find the Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, written in the same year as No. 24. In this sonata Brawn gets to show off a bit, the opening movement requiring an extremely quick and nimble bit of finger work. Nevertheless, there is never any hint that Brawn is actually showing off, and he doesn't so much amaze the listener with his agility as he does amaze one at how musical the piece sounds. With Brawn, it's always about the music, not himself. And there's always that gorgeous Andante to consider, again beautifully played.

Brawn concludes the program with the Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor from 1814. Musical scholars generally view No. 27 as the transitional work from Beethoven's middle to late piano sonatas, the "Late" sonatas being his final five, Nos. 28-31. Anyway, this last work on the card is clearly more mature than the preceding pieces, seemingly more complex yet equally direct. So is Mr. Brawn's piano playing. He communicates with feeling, with a yearning of the heart and mind. One senses the performer's commitment in every tone, every pitch, every pause, every phrase. Above all, then, Brawn is a communicator, a consummate artist.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan recorded the sonatas in July 2013, August 2014, and November 2014 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom. The sound matches Mr. Brawn's style in that it's big and warm without being big and flashy. It sounds like a live piano (it's a Steinway grand) played a few yards away from the listener. The room provides a mild and flattering ambient bloom that further enhances the lifelike illusion. Although the piano does not stretch across from one speaker to the other, it is reasonably and realistically close, enough so to remind one of an actual piano in the room with you.


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

Apr 26, 2015

Bach: The Musical Offering (CD review)

Enrico Gatti, Ensemble Aurora. Outhere Music Arcana A384.

As you probably know, The Musical Offering by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a set of fugues and canons and such that Bach based on a musical theme King Frederick II of Prussia gave him. It came about during a meeting between Bach and Frederick in 1747, the meeting taking place because Frederick employed Bach's son C.P.E. Bach as a court musician. Frederick wanted to show off a new musical instrument, the fortepiano, which he had recently obtained. The King challenged Bach to improvise a six-voice fugue on a theme he gave him, which, eventually, Bach did, about two months afterwards presenting the king with his "musical offering," later publishing the variations as the set we now know.

The trouble is, no one is exactly sure about the specifics of the set. That is, it's unclear for exactly what instruments Bach originally intended the work and in what order he wanted the movements played. Indeed, the composer himself wrote out the trio sonata for flute, violin, and basso continuo, writing the other sections possibly for solo fortepiano, although small chamber ensembles often handle the canons these days. Nor does it help that the work contains musical riddles, which no one has indisputably solved. So you'll hear a good deal of musical interpretation from the various recordings currently in the catalogue. My own personal favorites are those from Ensemble Sonniere (Virgin) and the Linde-Consort (EMI), both sounding significantly different from one another even though both groups use period instruments.

Now, we get a reissue of a 1999 recording by Ensemble Aurora, a group comprised of four players: Enrico Gatti, violin; Marcello Gatti, traverse flute; Gaetano Nasillo, cello; and Guido Morini, harpsichord. They have their own ideas about The Musical Offering, and while one can hardly argue with their playing, which is excellent, one might not like everything about their rendition of the piece.

It seemed to me as I was listening to the Ensemble Aurora account that the performers are either hell bent for leather or exceedingly somber in their readings--usually both at the same time--with little room anything else. By comparison, both Ensemble Sonniere and the Linde-Consort sound more lively, more sparkling, than Ensemble Aurora yet equally serious and equally refined in their playing. Nevertheless, being different doesn't mean Aurora's view of the work is wrong or wrongheaded, just different. Such is the drawback in making comparisons.

Enrico Gatti
In the accompanying booklet, author Gilles Cantagrel refers to a 1980 article by musicologist Ursula Kirkendale that offers an explanation of Bach's rhetoric and oratorical art in the work. It is this treatise that the Ensemble Aurora seem to have taken to heart and illustrated on the present album. For me, it all seemed too scholarly, both the musical argument and the performance.

The opening Ricercar a 3, taken by the harpsichord, sets the tone for the rest of the piece, and that is at a fairly quick pace. It suggests that the members of Ensemble Aurora appear more interested in simply presenting the musical argument than in entertaining the listener with the lovely melodies involved. As with the rest of the album, the playing is quite fine, though not particularly well nuanced. Meaning it sounds a tad the same and hurried throughout.

The Canons diversi come off pretty well, although again there seems an overriding earnestness about them that rather clouds their overall beauty. The Ricercar a 6, which forms the heart of the piece, like most of the music seems taken too fast, the Ensemble Aurora pushing through it with an eye toward pleasing the mind over the senses.

And so it goes. As I continued listening to the Ensemble Aurora's reading, I continued to long for the fuller, more flowing, more graceful lines of the Ensemble Sonnerie. Still, the Ensemble Aurora provide at least an interesting alternative, one that seems more academic than most others, if that's the kind of thing you prefer.

Given the speeds Ensemble Aurora adopt, there is room left on the CD for two more works: the Sonata in G major for Violin and Basso continuo, BWV 1021, discovered in 1928, and the Sonata in G major for Flute, Violin and Continuo, BWV 1038. These pieces come across as a little more animated than the primary work and probably provide a better idea of what the Aurora players can do when academic constraints don't inhibit them. Even so, there remains a small degree of blandness about the presentations, perhaps heightened by the softness of the sound.

Producer and engineer Michel Bernstein and engineer Charlotte Gilart de Keranflec'h recorded the music at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, France in November 1999. Arcana first released the album in 2001 and then rereleased it in 2015. The sound of the solo harpsichord is quite good, if a little close and a trifle thin. Certainly, the sound projects a good presence, with plenty of detail. The sound of the ensemble itself is richer, of course, and a bit on the warm, soft side with a mild resonance. However, the instruments don't appear particularly well positioned for a lifelike perspective; it's more as though they're individually miked and then thrown together on the mixing board. So we get the sense of four separate instruments rather than a single, cohesive group. Nevertheless, the resultant sound is ultrasmooth and round and fairly easy on the ear.


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

Apr 23, 2015

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD354.

Let me admit up front that I have never been the biggest fan of Herbert von Karajan except in grand opera, where I think he excelled. Indeed, it often seemed to me that the maestro wanted to turn everything into grand opera, glamorizing much of the music he performed whether it needed it or not. Still, this was only a personal reaction to a conductor who was enormously popular, and the opinion does not apply to everything the man conducted. Certainly, that's the case with his 1968 recording of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony for DG, which, in fact, is among the finest in the catalogue. Therefore, it comes as a treat to find that the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered and reissued it in better sound than I have ever heard from this recording.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-53) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100, in 1944, near the end of the Second World War. Next to his First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony is probably his most well liked. The composer called the piece "a symphony about the spirit of man," his response to the turmoil of the War. Accordingly, it opens with the pain of that nightmare, a kind of prelude to the peace to come. By 1944 the Soviets could see an end to the War, and a relatively restrained opening Andante builds slowly, seriously and grandly. Karajan sounds at his most engaged with this music, perhaps as a result of his own wartime experiences with Berlin orchestras of the day. He creates a growing sense of menace throughout the first movement, yet tinged with a lyrical grace, and he benefits from one of the truly great ensembles at his disposal in the Berlin Philharmonic, which sounds as glorious as ever.

A scherzo (Allegro marcato) follows, which lightens the mood a bit. I've read that the composer had initially intended this music for his Romeo and Juliet ballet, and you can feel a similar spirit present. Anyway, Karajan maintains a vigorous pace here, providing increasing tensions with the force of the dance-like rhythms.

Then, there is a long, brooding third-movement Adagio. Like the opening movement but a touch slower, it is quite lyrical, but it builds in strength and vigor as it goes along, with Karajan always in firm control. In fact, this may be Karajan's finest hour as he leads the music with no unwarranted excitement or exaggeration. He allows the music to speak for itself, which it does quite eloquently.

Herbert von Karajan
The final Allegro giocoso (brisk and merry, playful) brings the symphony to a joyful, if somewhat ironic, perhaps enigmatic, close. This finale kind of sums up everything that went before: the lyricism, the forward-pulsating rhythms, even a quotation from the first movement, with Karajan stringing them all together smoothly and convincingly.

DG originally recorded the music in 1968, and HDTT transferred it from a 4-track tape in 2015. The remastering adds some weight to the sound, a bit more dynamic contrast, and a little less glare. There remains a very slight upper midrange forwardness, a mild brightness that nevertheless adds to the overall clarity of the recording and is seldom hard or edgy. There is a fine sense of depth to the orchestra, too, with a wide but not inflated stereo width. Deepest bass might still be a tad short, but one hardly notices it unless one compares it, say, to Telarc's Paavo Jarvi release, which is a little more robust at the low end, if a little less revealing than the HDTT in the mids. Overall, this Karajan recording is quite good in its new, remastered incarnation and rivals most of its competitors for sound.

I suppose the one drawback you could find with this HDTT release is that, like the original LP, it contains only the one symphony. After all, you can still find several different DG compact disc configurations that couple the symphony with either Karajan's recording of Prokofiev's First Symphony or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. So, the question becomes a matter of sound. How much are you willing to pay for the better sound of the HDTT remaster? That, of course, is up to you.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), discs, downloads, and prices, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.


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

Apr 22, 2015

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos & Orchestral Suites (CD review)

Also, Violin Concertos; Concerto for Two Violins. Henryk Szeryng, violin; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Philips Trio 289 470 934-2 (3-disc set).

Way back in the days when I first reviewed this set, it was for the long-gone $ensible Sound magazine. I mention this because it always seemed to me that the word sensible in the publication's title referred to spending one's time and money reasonably, knowingly, for the best possible performance and sound. That would apply in uncommon measure to this release of Bach's most popular orchestral music in Philips's old "Trio" series of mid-priced, three-disc sets. The performances on this Bach album are among the best you'll find, and to have them together at so moderate cost is a sensible value, particularly now, since Philips is no more.

The stars of the show are no doubt the Brandenburg Concertos, recorded in 1981 by Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and a slew of all-star soloists. Each of the six concertos features well-known performers like Henryk Szeryng, Kenneth Sillito and Carlo Pini on violin; Heinz Holliger, oboe; Andre Bernard, trumpet; Michala Petri, recorder; George Malcolm, harpsichord; and Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute. Because Bach intended the concertos to highlight specific instruments and specific instrumentations, these pieces work splendidly as star vehicles for their soloists. In fact, the only reservation a person might have is that the Academy play on modern instruments, and many listeners have by now gotten used to hearing Baroque music played a bit faster and on period instruments. That aside, if you are in the mood for a refined, elegant, and entertainingly traditional approach to the Brandenburgs, this set is as good as it gets.

Sir Neville Marriner
The next four works on the program are Bach's Orchestral Suites, here rendered in the Academy's 1978 recordings. This is a little unfortunate because the group had recorded them a few years earlier for Argo, and the earlier performances were actually a little more lively and sparkling than these later ones. Nevertheless, these interpretations sound very polished and very graceful, and they should find much favor among those fans who want a relatively relaxed, laid-back approach to the suites.

Rounding out the set are Bach's two Concertos for Violin and his Concerto for Two Violins, with Henryk Szeryng in the former two and accompanied in the latter by Maurice Hasson. Szeryng was a master craftsman whose performances were not always the most animated but were always impeccably executed. Such is the case here.

The late Seventies-Early Eighties sound is vintage Philips, which is to say it is mostly soft and warm and remarkably listenable. Although there is never much sense of transparency about the sound, the detail is there regardless, and it all seems quite right for the kind of music and the kind of interpretations that Marriner and the Academy provide.

Given that one can still find this set new at a reasonable price and used at a ridiculously low price, I could hardly recommend it higher.


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

Apr 20, 2015

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 (CD review)

Stewart Goodyear, piano; Heiko Mathias Forster, Czech National Symphony. Steinway & Sons 30047.

There was a time--and not too long ago--that many concert pianists shied away from playing the Rachmaninov concertos, especially No. 3, because of their difficulty. Then there was also a time when record companies shied away from releasing both Nos. 2 and 3 on the same disc because the popularity of the pieces was such that they knew they could sell two albums if they issued them separately. Times change.

The relatively young Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear provides both of Rachmaninov's well-loved concertos with Heiko Mathias Forster and the Czech National Symphony on a Steinway & Sons CD. But this shouldn't surprise anyone; Goodyear's last time out, he gave us both the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos on a single disc. You can't say Goodyear shies away from anything.

For those of you who don't know him, Stewart Goodyear began his studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada, received a B.A. from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and completed an M.A. at the Juilliard School of Music. He now calls New York his home and performs with the major orchestras of the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As one of the hottest new pianists around, he is very good.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 in 1901 after the composer underwent hypnotherapy. It seems the failure of his First Symphony so shook him that he feared he'd never write another note of music, so decided he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy apparently worked because the Concerto No. 2 became an immediate success.

Goodyear plays with a good deal of heart, which is exactly what Rachmaninov needs, particularly the Second Concerto. There's a fine lyrical sweep to Goodyear's interpretation, without exaggerating rubato or contrasts, and his articulation remains refreshingly clear and clean. Moreover, the  Czech National Symphony play with great assurance, always welcome when one considers that the Rachmaninov concertos rely a good deal on the orchestra for long stretches.

The pianist's handling of the central Adagio flows along peacefully, with no undue jolts or jitters. And in the finale we get a properly robust and Romantic projection of Rachmaninov's sentiment. Yet Goodyear eschews any overt sentimentality, presenting the music directly and cogently.

By the time Rachmaninov wrote the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor in 1909, it seemed like a continuation of the Second Concerto. The composer had apparently found his voice. He said he wanted the first movement to "sing," and so it does, in a soaring, graceful manner. The music is a little more serious and demanding than the Second Concerto, and even though Goodyear has his hands full, to be sure, he comes out relatively unscathed.

Stewart Goodyear
Still, as I say, with the Third Concerto we enter a more dazzling (and longer and more complex) musical world, the piano showing off the soloist's dexterity at the keyboard more so than the Second does. There is no question that Goodyear is up to the task, his finger work impressive in playing the work complete. Nevertheless, I never felt quite as thrilled with his performance as I have with those of several other pianists, most notably Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz. Goodyear's reading seems more subdued, more cerebral, and less explosive. Not that there is anything wrong with this; it's surely a valid approach. It's just that I expected the pianist to uplift and inspire me more than he did.

The question one must ask of any new recording of an old favorite is, surely, Is it any better or any different than existing, competing albums? Does the new recording provide a better performance than those that preceded it, or is the sound any better? In this case, not really. While these are certainly good interpretations from Goodyear in reasonably good sound from Steinway & Sons, unless one is simply an avid collector of all things Rachmaninov, I'd have to recommend the first-time buyer also consider the alternatives in this repertoire: Argerich, Horowitz, Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Janis, Wild, and the like, as well as Rachmaninov himself if one doesn't mind monaural sound.

Producer Keith Horner and engineer Jan Kotzmann recorded the concertos at CNSO Studio No. 1, Prague, Czech Republic in October 2014. The piano sounds fine, if a little too wide compared to the orchestral contribution. In fact, the piano sounds as though it's as broad across as the orchestra is, which is not exactly how a piano would appear in a real setting. But this is a mere quibble; the sound generally seems pretty good, warm and smooth. Except for the rather large effect of the piano, it would all be most natural and lifelike. As to the piano sound itself, it, too, is fairly warm and natural, yet with decent definition and a modest impact. Perhaps a greater degree of depth and dimensionality would have helped the aural presentation as well, I don't know. In any case, the modest ambient bloom of the hall further helps make the sound easy on the ears. If the perspective doesn't bother you, you might enjoy it.


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

Apr 19, 2015

Wagner: Preludes and Interludes (CD review)

Fabio Luisi, Philharmonia Zurich. Philharmonia Records PHR 0102 (2-disc set).

Do we really need another recording of Wagner orchestral excerpts, as in Fabio Luisi's 2014, two-disc recording of the composer's preludes and interludes? After all, you can find most of this material from such heavyweights in the field as Otto Klemperer, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, George Szell, Adrian Boult, Klaus Tennstedt, Leopold Stokowski, and others. Does Maestro Luisi and his Philharmonia Zurich bring anything new to the table in the way of performance or sound? Needless to say, the answer is a very personal matter, and it may depend entirely on either your love for Wagner or your devotion to collecting everything of his ever recorded. For me, Luisi's collection is OK, but I wouldn't say it displaces the sets from any of the aforementioned conductors. Let's start with what's in the set.

Disc 1:
Parsifal, Act I: Prelude
Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), Act I: Siegfried's Rhine Journey
Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), Act III: Siegfried's Funeral March
Die Walkure, Act III: Ride of the Valkyries
Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), Act I: Prelude
Tristan und Isolde, Act I: Prelude
Tristan und Isolde, Act III: Isolde's Liebestod

Disc 2:
Lohengrin, Act I: Prelude
Tannhauser: Overture
Rienzi: Overture
Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), Act I: Overture
Die Feen (The Fairies), Act I: Overture

As you can see, most of the program includes the old favorites. However, Luisi does finish up the album with music from two early and relatively little-known Wagner works, Das Liebesverbot and Die Feen (his very first opera), and we'll get to those in a minute.

In the booklet notes Maestro Luisi tells us that he chose to record these opera preludes and interludes because "Wagner was a genius not only in the dramaturgical construction of his works, but also because he used the orchestra in a way it had rarely been used in an opera before. One can see an evolution in the language of the orchestra. Over the course of his creative career Wagner came to regard and use the orchestra less and less as an accompaniment to the action, and to give it an increasingly prominent role in the whole artistic creation." Fair enough, if a tad vague on details. But the music's the thing, and here Luisi does fairly well, especially with Wagner's more-subtle moments, as with the opening selection, the Parsifal Prelude, which sounds mostly subdued and atmospheric.

Siegfried's Rhine Journey appears likewise moody and subdued, which may seem an odd way to begin an album of Wagner orchestral music because there are no seriously big thrills here; yet Luisi does set the scenes up nicely and builds to some heavy-duty climaxes.

Then we get Siegfried's Funeral March, which does carry some serious thrills, which Luisi handles at least adequately. Perhaps his sense of propriety holds him back a little, though, because his reading of the segment's biggest moments lack some of the urgency and excitement of competing recordings.

Fabio Luisi
So, how does the famous Ride of the Valkyries come off? Pretty well, actually. It's here, however, that the sound lets it down a bit. The music needs more bass and greater impact than the engineers provide it. Oh, well....

And so it goes, with Luisi emphasizing the music's Romantic mood swings and lyrical qualities over its more overtly exciting or emotional outbursts. Thus, the power of Wagner's music gets somewhat shortchanged. I wouldn't necessarily count this a disadvantage, though, as there are plenty of conductors who give one primarily the throbs of excitement in Wagner. At least Luisi tries to get to the more introspective side of things, even if it does rob the music of some of its pulse.

If any of this makes sense to you, then, it will not surprise you that I found Isolde's Liebestod one of the highlights of the disc. Luisi captures the passion, beauty, and grace of the piece with a fine, flowing ease.

The Lohengrin, Tannhauser, and Rienzi tracks come off comfortably if a bit prosaically. Then the two seldom-heard concluding pieces remind us why people seldom hear them. They seem rather ordinary, if not a little bombastic, compared to Wagner's more-mature output. But Luisi gives them splendid workouts, and the music can be invigorating at the very least.

Producer Andreas Werner and engineer Jakob Handel made the recording at Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland in November 2014. The best thing about the sound, among other things, is its depth of image. You can actually listen into the orchestra and appreciate its front-to-back perspective as well as its left-to-right stereo spread. Yet with a modestly distanced miking the stereo spread remains realistically between the speakers, providing a lifelike seating arrangement for the listener. The hall itself adds to the illusion of realism by providing a soft resonance; not enough to obscure the sound's detailing but enough to offer a little ambient bloom. Quibbles? as I hinted before, I would have liked a deeper bass and a stronger dynamic impact. They would have contributed to an even more-powerful presentation. Nevertheless, what we get is still welcome, if a touch underwhelming.


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

Apr 16, 2015

Haydn: Seven Last Words (CD review)

Attacca Quartet. Azica Records ACD-71299.

As you probably know, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross at the request of a priest to mark Good Friday, and he published the work in 1787. The title refers to the seven brief phrases Jesus spoke on the cross, as the words appear in the four Gospels of the Bible. Along with an introduction and an "Earthquake" conclusion, the work contains nine movements (or ten on present recording, the final movement broken up into two tracks), each movement slow, thoughtful, and reflective.

But here's the thing: Haydn wrote the music initially as a meditation for orchestra, for listeners to hear as the Bishop descended from the pulpit to pray. It was only later that Haydn arranged the piece for string quartet (which we have here) and then as an oratorio for chorus and orchestra.

Now, here's another thing: I've never heard a recording of the Haydn piece I didn't like. I guess I just enjoy the music so much I have yet to find anyone who could seriously mess it up. Whatever, the Attacca Quartet decidedly don't mess it up.

The Attacca Quartet comprise Amy Schroeder, violin; Keiko Tokunaga, violin; Luke Fleming, viola; and Andrew Yee, cello. Among their many honors, they are First Prize winners of the 7th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in 2011 and top prizewinners and Listeners' Choice Award recipients in the 2011 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. For the 2014-15 season the Attacca ensemble are the Quartet-in-Residence for both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Virginia Arts Festival. The list of accomplishments for the last few years goes on and on. You get the idea: They're very good.

As I mentioned above, there are different arrangements of the work for differing performance groups. The Attacca's cellist, Andrew Yee, provides the following notes about their arrangement of the string quartet version: "In examining the arrangement for string quartet, one is struck that this version bears little of the careful crafting typical of the Father of the String Quartet. The string parts from the orchestral version remain mostly intact, and the crucial wind parts are left out almost entirely. The orchestral version also included a double bass part, which is necessary in my mind since much of the orchestral version has the violas and celli playing in unison with the bass providing the lower octave. When we were learning the piece, we were midway through our journey playing 68 Haydn quartets, so we had become accustomed to Haydn's exceedingly exacting skill in voice writing for the string quartet. It became clear, therefore, that the arrangement as it was presented to us was not going to work." About their changes, Yee goes on to say they included "adding double stops in individual parts, changing octaves to avoid unisons, and adding melodies and countermelodies to an otherwise silent player. Most changes were to individual parts, where the voicing was changed to give that instrument a more prominent role, thereby adding needed texture. In some cases, changes were made to add a melody that had inexplicably been omitted."

Whether you enjoy what the Attacca players do with Haydn may depend on whether you think it's sacrilege to tamper with a composer's score. That's up to you. For me, the Attacca group do no harm to Haydn's beautiful music, and the resulting performance is as lofty and moving as any I've heard. Personally, I think Haydn would approve, but what do I know?

The Attacca's arrangement adheres to the following plan:

Chorale - Sonata I "Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt" ("Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do")
Chorale - Sonata II "Hodie mecum eris in paradiso" ("Today you will be in paradise")
Chorale - Sonata III "Mulier, ecce filius tuus" ("Woman, behold your son")
Chorale - Sonata IV "Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?")
L'introduzione II (trans. Yee)
Sonata V "Sitio" ("I thirst")
Chorale - Sonata VI "Consummatum est" ("It is finished")
Chorale - Sonata VII "In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum" ("Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit")
Il Terremoto ("The earthquake")

Attacca Quartet
If you are familiar with Haydn's score, you will notice that the Attaccas include a second L'introduzione into the arrangement, one that exists only in Haydn's oratorio version, here transcribed by cellist Yee; and they include the oratorio's chorales that precede each sonata. Again, they do no harm to the original version and encourage an even more spiritual mood, without upsetting the intimacy of the quartet arrangement.

Needless to say, the Attacca Quartet play all of this wonderfully well, clearly and self-assuredly expressed. What they offer that is most appealing is their sense of rhythm and diversity. While they indulge in the usual rubato, it is not excessive and adds to the variety of the music. Not that one should take Haydn's work lightly, yet with the Attacca players there is a genuine feeling of fun and excitement in the notes. They eschew a certain amount of solemnity for a more spirited, though always dignified and appropriately respectful, interpretation. The result is thoughtful and meditative, while sounding impassioned, sincere, and unaffected, too.

In short, the Attacca reading is rich, dynamic, emotional, uplifting, and inspiring. When you add the excellence of Azica's sound into the mix, their performance surely stands among the best available.

Producer Alan Bise and recording engineer Bruce Egre made the album for Azica Records, releasing it in 2015. Although the miking is just a tad close, there is still a sensible stereo spread and a modest degree of room resonance to provide a realistic presentation. Detailing and transparency are likewise excellent, with a fine sense of air and separation among the instruments. There is also a slightly soft, warm quality about the sound that is most listenable; you get no hard, bright, or edgy string tone here. Played at a reasonable level, what you do get is a most-lifelike account of a string quartet in a natural environment.


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

Apr 15, 2015

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Marin Alsop, Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.555714.

When I reviewed it over a decade ago, my impression of Marin Alsop's interpretation of Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Fourth Symphony was not entirely favorable, at least, not at first. The opening movement seemed lax, if not entirely leaden. Transitions never seemed to have much continuity and nothing seemed to have much zip. Naxos's live, close-up, mid bass-heavy sound didn't help this impression, making everything appear that much more ponderous. However, by the time the two final movements rolled around, Ms. Alsop started to hit her stride, and the symphony reached its customary fiery levels of excitement.

I don't know. Maybe because Ms. Alsop begins more slowly than I expected, she intensifies the overall effect. Nevertheless, for comparison purposes, I put on several competing recordings, including Monteux and Boston Symphony (JVC), Szell and the LSO (Decca), Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic (Chandos), Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Decca), Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips). I found all of these performances and their sound preferable in almost every respect to the Naxos disc. Not only were the performances crisper and more pointed, the sound appeared better focused as well. Add to that the fact that orchestras like the Concertgebouw and Berlin Philharmonic make the Colorado Symphony sound like a much-smaller ensemble--and I say this with no disrespect intended toward the Colorado Symphony, which plays quite well. Anyway, maybe you get the idea.

Marin Alsop
Be that as it may, I know what you're going to say: comparisons are unfair. People like Monteux, Szell, Karajan, and Haitink are the more-notable conductors in this work, and they have the advantage of some of the truly great orchestras of the world; and, after all, is it fair to compare the relatively inexpensive Naxos disc to these other big names?

Fair enough, and for a low-cost recording, the Naxos disc is fine. With its coupling of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, it makes a decent bargain. Besides, I doubt that one can even find all of the comparison discs I've mentioned, the Haitink disc not even issued anymore. Still, when you consider the alternatives, I'm not sure Alsop is entirely in the running, price advantage or not.

I suppose it all comes down to why a person might be considering buying the Naxos disc in the first place. If it's as a primary and only purchase, I should think any of the aforementioned conductors would be better choices. If it's to supplement a Tchaikovsky fan's collection of Fourths, then Alsop's rendering makes a good, fairly inexpensive option.


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

Apr 13, 2015

Falla: El Sombrero de tre picos (CD review)

Also, Chabrier: Espana. Teresa Berganza, mezzo-soprano; Ernest Ansermet, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. HDTT.

I wrote about this recording of Manuel de Falla's ballet El Sombrero de tre picos ("The Three Cornered Hat") some while ago when FIM remastered it. Now, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered it as well, and they provide it on a physical disc or a digital download in a variety of formats and price points. No matter which company or which format you choose, the remasterings provide clear improvements in sound over the original Decca product.

El Sombrero de tre picos is a lighthearted tale of attempted seduction, which the composer wrote in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The music, based on a well-known Spanish folk tale and several popular Spanish folk tunes, is continuously rhythmic, colorful, and infectious.

Moreover, Ernest Ansermet's 1961 Decca recording of it contains one of the best all-around performances of the ballet you'll find, and the sound remains among the best as well. That the performance and sound are so good should not surprise anyone, though, considering that Ansermet premiered the work in 1919, and the folks at Decca in the early Sixties were at the peak of their recording prowess.

Anyway, Ansermet has a genuine feeling for this music, presenting it as well as any conductor could, the rhythms vibrant and the spirits high. Moreover, Ansermet provides all the wit, charm, beauty, and, yes, melodrama the score has to offer, making it a most-entertaining affair.

Oddly, after all the sparkle and vitality Ansermet offers up in the Falla piece, he seems rather casual in the coupling, Espana, by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier (18411-1894). In fact, you could say Ansermet actually gives us a fairly lackluster interpretation. Three years had gone by between the two performances; maybe the conductor was just getting older and slowing down. In any case, I couldn't recommend this recording of the Chabrier very high on my list; there are too many other, more lively accounts. Still, with so splendid a rendering of the Falla work at hand, I can certainly get behind the disc as a whole.

Ernest Ansermet
Producer Michael Bremner and engineer James Walker recorded the Falla music in February 1961 at Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, and HDTT remastered and transferred it to disc from a London 4-track tape. Producer John Mordler and engineer James Lock recorded the Chabrier piece in December 1964 at Victoria Hall, Geneva, and HDTT remastered and transferred it to disc from a 15ips 2-track tape.

Of course, the Falla recording has been a favorite among audiophiles since the very beginning, but my trouble with it was that my first experience hearing it was on vinyl at a friend's house in the early Seventies, and I thought at the time it sounded hard, bright, edgy, and glassy. Now, remastered, I find splendid. It comes across sounding very dynamic, with excellent range and impact. In addition, the acoustic displays plenty of depth and air, as well a pleasingly natural hall ambience. You listen not just to the music but into it. The combination of dynamics and dimensionality makes the aural presentation as lifelike as one could want. Midrange definition is smooth and transparent, with no forwardness or edge. Highs extend out nicely and contribute to the sound's realism. Bass comes through strongly and deeply, further enhancing the you-are-there experience.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), discs, downloads, and prices, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.


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

Apr 12, 2015

Britten and Barber: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Also, Britten: Night Piece; Barber: Nocturne for Piano. Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano; Emil Tabakov, London Symphony Orchestra. Decca 478 8189.

This recording of the Britten and Barber piano concertos makes a fine orchestral debut for American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe. As she puts it, "This album unites my American roots with my longstanding affinity for England, as well as my fascination with the night, the idea of place, and eras past. With emotional immediacy and eloquence, each work on this album evokes milieu, mood, and memory to virtually cinematic effect, while striking resonant chords both comforting and haunting. The music of both Britten and Barber shaped my artistic development at pivotal points in my life, introducing me to illuminating new soundscapes and techniques, and inspiring me to approach my music-making with greater boldness and honesty."

It may come as something of a relief that she is doing the Britten and Barber pieces for her concerto album debut and that neither she nor Decca decided she should undertake a more massive or well known work like the Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov concertos, where competition among recordings is already pretty intense. Her style seems well suited to Britten and Barber, and she is able to display both her bravura finger work as well as her delicate, sensitive side. Not that she doesn't have some formidable competition among Britten and Barber recordings, however: She has to go head to head with Sviatoslav Richter and the composer himself in the Britten concerto (Decca) and with Barber's intended soloist, John Browning, and George Szell (Sony) in the Barber concerto. Still, Ms. Roe holds her own, and even though after hearing Ms. Roe's recording many listeners may still have clear preferences for other performers, it takes little away from Ms. Roe's interpretations.

The first thing on the program is the Piano Concerto Op. 13 by English composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), written in 1938 and revised in 1945. The concerto is in four movements, the third movement originally a Recitative and Aria and later changed to an Impromptu: Andante lento. Ms. Roe plays the revised version. The composer described the piece as "simple and in direct form," dedicating it to the English composer Lennox Berkeley.

Britten may have said his work was simple and direct, but, in fact, it is also rather flashy, especially the opening movement, which exhibits a good deal of brilliant daring. It's here that Ms. Roe sounds just a tad reticent, but, again, that's in comparison to a towering performance from Richter. On its own, Roe sounds just fine, just a touch softer and more glowing than Richter and maybe a little less lively. I would chalk this up to Ms. Roe's inherent sensitivity, because she certainly captures the varying moods of the music pretty well, in particular the more poetic moments.

Ms. Roe comes into her own in the second-movement waltz, which is hardly a waltz at all, appearing more like something Mahler might have written in its slightly playful, slightly sinister, slightly ironic manner. Ms. Roe handles it beautifully, just as she does the sorrowful, moody third movement and the dramatically martial finale.

Elizabeth Joy Roe
Then, we get the Piano Concerto Op. 38 by American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Barber premiered it in 1962, with John Browning as soloist. By coincidence, the Delaware Symphony asked Ms. Roe to replace Mr. Browning in subscription performances of the work in 2003 when Browning passed away. Much as I enjoyed Ms. Roe's playing in the Britten concerto, I enjoyed it even more in the Barber. She calls it "arguably the preeminent American piano concerto," and one can hardly argue the point. Roe handles it with much grace and beauty, with an ethereal touch in the slow movement that brings out all of its light, wispy, gossamer qualities. Then we get to the finale, and one can see why several prominent pianists of Barber's day refused to play it before the composer revised and simplified it. Even reworked, it has quite a lot of dazzling finger work required, which again Ms. Roe has no trouble negotiating.

For brief companion works, Ms. Roe chose Barber's Nocturne for Piano, Op. 33 and Britten's Night Piece. The album keeps getting better and better as it goes along, with these final two nocturnes quite lovely, thanks, as I say, to Ms. Roe's essential lyricism. She brings out all the Chopin and Debussy-like qualities of the music while making them highly individual, too.

I doubt that anyone who already owns the Richter or Browning recordings of the two concertos are going to be eager about buying something new unless it's significantly better, unless the person is an avid collector of everything ever recorded by the composers involved. Ms. Roe's performances are not significantly better; they are simply different--softer and lighter--and there is always room for different.

Producers Jimmy Kim and Stephan Cahen and engineer Jin Choi of Sempre la Musica recorded the album for the Decca Music Group at Cadogan Hall, London in September 2013. One thing this album's got that many of its competitors don't have is an extremely natural and dynamic sound. In the concertos the piano appears nicely integrated with the orchestra, placed just ahead of it, the rest of the instruments slightly more recessed and displaying a fine sense of depth and dimensionality. The midrange is mostly warm and comfortable, not at all bright, forward, or glassy; and the bass and treble emerge modestly extended. The whole affair sounds like a good soloist and orchestra playing in a real concert hall.


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

Apr 9, 2015

Leroy Anderson: Our Band Heritage, Vol. 28 (CD review)

Ronald Demkee, the Allentown Band. AMP 2E119.

One of the nice things about reviewing music is getting to learn something new almost every day. For instance, I learned while listening to this album of music by Leroy Anderson that the Allentown Band (Allentown, Pennsylvania) is the oldest civilian concert band in the United States, the ensemble tracing its origins back to the early 1820's. On the present disc, their twenty-eighth collection of band music, Ronald Demkee, their current conductor for the past thirty-odd years, leads the players.

Anyway, you already know American composer Leroy Anderson (1908-1975). Or if you don't recognize the name, you'd recognize his tunes. He wrote practically every piece of light music you can think of, including "Sleigh Ride" (conspicuously absent from Allentown's collection), "The Syncopated Clock," "The Waltzing Cat," "The Typewriter," "Blue Tango," "China Doll," "The Girl in Satin," "Sandpaper Ballet," "Homestretch," and many more (much of which the band include here, a couple of dozen selections). John Williams described Leroy Anderson as "one of the great American masters of light orchestral music."

Anderson wrote in the creative style of other miniaturists of his day and before, people like Percy Grainger, Eric Coates, and Albert Ketelbey, who created tiny, descriptive tone poems that perfectly encapsulated a place, a moment, or an event. As you listen to the twenty-four pieces on this disc, none of them lasting more than three or four minutes, you marvel at the man's ingenuity, his creativity, and his sheer sense of fun.

The band begins the program with "Belle of the Ball" and then launches into Anderson's Irish Suite, made up of traditional Irish ballads Anderson arranged for concert band. Following these first six or eight items we find selections original to Anderson, including the numbers mentioned in the previous paragraph. The total disc time is a healthy seventy-two minutes, so one could hardly ask for more material.

Ronald Demkee
Favorites? Of course, the more-familiar music will always be favorites: "Song of the Bells" rings out delightfully; Gregory Seifert does a splendid job in "Trumpeter's Holiday"; "Blue Tango" and "The Girl in Satin" project an infectious tango spirit; "The Phantom Regiment" displays an eerie martial tone; then, the band eagerly plays the most-famous items on the program: "The Syncopated Clock," "The Waltzing Cat," "Sandpaper Ballet," and "The Typewriter." Demkee ends the program with an appropriately dashing (pun intended) rendition of "Homestretch."

Demkee and his band do a fine job with all of the tunes, even if for sheer élan they don't quite match the performances of Frederick Fennell in his old Mercury recordings from the late Fifties and early Sixties. Still, you can hear the enthusiasm Demkee and his players put into the performances. The performances. like the music, are lively and playful and, best of all, descriptive.

The only serious drawback I found with the album was its lack of documentation. The accompanying booklet lists all of the band members but says nothing about Leroy Anderson or any of the selections on the disc.

Engineer Jerry Tyson of AMP Recording and Duplicating Services, Maple Shade, New Jersey, made the album at Union Evangelical Lutheran Church, Schnecksville, Pennsylvania in 2014. The engineer miked it somewhat closely, with a resulting immediacy about the sound. Although there isn't a lot of depth present, there is a fine sense of hall resonance and bloom, plus a wide dynamic range, and these things go a long way toward creating a lifelike presentation. The impact of the band is quite realistic, too, especially with the recording's ample bass support. Midrange is not quite as transparent as I would have expected, the overall impression sounding a touch dark, but it seems in keeping with the natural sound of a wind ensemble in a real-life environment.


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

Apr 8, 2015

Essential Debussy: 26 of His Greatest Masterpieces (CD review)

Various artists. DG 289 472 505-2 (2-disc set).

By the turn of the twenty-first century, times were starting to get hard all over the music industry, and that included classical music, which saw an impact. Giants like Sony, Philips, and EMI were slowing down, the latter two companies soon to dissolve or be taken over by other companies; Decca and DG had fewer new releases each month; and Michael Tilson Thomas became so annoyed with RCA for not continuing his orchestra's contract, he and his San Francisco Symphony formed their own recording company. He and his orchestra were not alone. It seemed as though only Telarc and Naxos kept plugging along.

In any case, the bigger companies began also finding that there was more money in their back catalog than in re-recording the same repertoire with expensive orchestras, so for a time they started assembling more reissues than creating brand-new releases. Thank goodness for small favors because at least we began getting some of the best older material than ever in greater quantity and for lower prices. This 2002 release, Essential Debussy, from DG is a case in point. It contains twenty-six of the composer's most popular works from some of DG's biggest stars.

Herbert von Karajan
The highlight of the two-disc set is probably Herbert von Karajan's mid-Sixties' Berlin Philharmonic rendition of La Mer. It sounds splendidly resonant with atmosphere and color, all awash in Karajan's lushly extravagant orchestral style. Then, too, you'll find bits of Iberia with Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra, The Children's Corner suite with Charles Dutoit and his Montreal forces, sections of the Nocturnes from Claudio Abbado and the Boston Symphony, and so on, plus about a dozen piano pieces from people like Roge, Vasary, Michelangeli, Weissenberg, Arrau, Bolet, Kocsis, Richter, and others. There really isn't anything by Debussy you can think of off the top of your head that isn't here, at least in part.

The sound spans the years from 1958 to close to 2002, with the median age being around twenty-five to thirty years old. Some of it sounds a bit better than others, of course, but most of the material has a kind of bright quality that doesn't quite add up to luster or brilliance. It's more like a forward upper midrange with little deep bass or high treble, resulting in a sound that's easy to listen to but not particularly state-of-the-art. Still, you get value for your money here, and for the casual listener, especially, it makes a fine introduction to Debussy.


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

Apr 6, 2015

Brahms: Serenades (CD review)

Riccardo Chailly, Gewandhausorchester. Decca 478 6775.

A big-name record label (Decca). A big-name conductor (Chailly). A big-name orchestra (the Gewandhaus). And a non-live recording. Seems like old times. Especially since Decca also just announced a new, five-year recording contract with the Montreal Symphony. All of this comes as a welcome relief from the constant stream of "live" orchestral recordings we've seen in recent years, complete with one-dimensional, close-up sonics. I recognize it's expensive to record the bigger symphony orchestras in the studio anymore, so kudos to Decca for trying to keep the old tradition alive.

Speaking of old, just how old is the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra? They trace their origins to 1743, making them one of the oldest ensembles in the world. In 1835 Felix Mendelssohn became the Music Director; it's that old. The Gewandhaus Orchestra's history includes such other notable conductors as Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Václav Neumann, Kurt Masur, and Herbert Blomstedt. Its current Music Director, Riccardo Chailly, has been in the post since 2005.

Having completed his recordings of the Brahms symphonies for Decca, Chailly now turns his attention to the two Serenades. As you probably know, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) didn't complete his first symphony until he was in his early forties, supposedly because of the intimidating shadow of Beethoven. In the meantime, the closest he came was contenting himself with writing two Serenades in the late 1850's. No matter; his Serenade No. 1 is pretty close to a symphony, and it's the match for most of the composer's other orchestral material, even if it did predate the première of his symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

Brahms wrote the Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, between 1857 and 1859. Its six movements are alternately gentle, warm, lyrical, and always cheerful, a typically youthful work, the composer just in his mid twenties at the time he wrote it. It is also a fairly long work of its kind, close to fifty minutes, yet quite delightful, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies.

Now, how well you respond to Maestro Chailly's interpretation of the music may depend on your definition of a "serenade." Wikipedia notes that in music "serenades are typically calm, light music. The word serenade is the translation of the Italian word serenata, derived from the word sereno, which means 'calm.'" In the Romantic period, "usually the character of the work is lighter than other multiple-movement works for large ensemble (for example the symphony), with tunefulness being more important than thematic development or dramatic intensity." Chailly apparently sees dramatic intensity as more important than mere tunefulness, however, and his readings are rather quick-paced, with a strong emphasis on dynamic contrasts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and it can be quite exciting. It's just little different.

Riccardo Chailly
What Chailly does best is catch the exhilaration of the young Brahms (remember, the composer was still in his twenties when he wrote both his serenades). The fleet-footed tempos and constantly varying rubato and dynamics make for a pleasantly animated performance. Chailly has apparently chosen the risk of turning off a few old-timers accustomed to a more-tranquil Brahms in exchange for blazing a new trail into a more-vibrant Brahms. The only time I thought his high-speed approach worked less than well was in the closing movement, where the gusto is there but little of the Brahmsian charm I expected. Still, more power to Chailly for trying something out of the ordinary.

Brahms wrote the Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16, in 1859 and premiered it in 1860. It's shorter than No. 1, about half its length and in five movements, the tone slightly darker and less outgoing, if still youthful and spirited. Among the special appeals of the Second Serenade is its scoring for chamber orchestra in which the winds predominate, omitting trumpets, trombones, percussion, and violins. The remaining strings lend the wind instruments a pleasantly dusky shading.

I found Chailly's handling of the Second Serenade more to my personal liking than his dealing with the First. Here, the Second sheds some of its darkness and emerges more sunnily vibrant. Chailly also seems to find a more lyrical elegance in the music than he did in the First Serenade. Even the Adagio has a more graceful flow than in the earlier piece and the finale a robust rhythm. Very nicely done.

As much as I admired some of Chailly's work in the Serenades, however, I would hesitate to recommend his recording as a first choice in this repertoire. My own favorites remain Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony (Decca), and for a period-instrument rendition, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBP). They all exhibit a greater degree of tranquil serenity, youthful exuberance, and all-around good cheer. Nevertheless, for brawnier, more energetic realizations of these works, Chailly certainly fills the bill.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Philip Siney recorded the Serenades at the Gewandhaus Leipzig in May 2014. The sound appears nicely distanced, not too far away as to obscure inner detail or become too resonant or dull and not too close as to lose all dimensionality. There is, in fact, a decent sense of front-to-back depth as well as left-to-right spread, although one still notices the multi-miking on occasion. This is, in short, typical Decca sound, with good frequency and dynamic ranges and just the right amount of soft warmth. While it hasn't the ultimate midrange transparency, the deepest bass, or the most extended highs I've ever heard, it is a big, full, fairly smooth and comfortable sound that makes for easy listening.


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