Rolla: Music for Viola and Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Divertimento for viola and strings; Concerto in E flat; Concertino in E flat; two Sinfonias. Simonide Braconi, viola; Massimo Belli, Orchestra da camera 'Ferruccio Busoni.' Brilliant Classics 94971.

If you're familiar with Italian composer and viola and violin virtuoso Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841), you're more knowledgeable with eighteenth and nineteenth-century musicians than I am. This was my introduction to Rolla's music, and I'm sure few other albums are better than this one of Rolla's viola and orchestra music as performed by Simonide Braconi, viola, Maestro Massimo Belli, and the chamber ensemble Orchestra da camera 'Ferruccio Busoni.'

For those you who want to know a little more about Rolla and why he was (and remains) important, Wikipedia tells us that "his fame now rests mainly as 'teacher of the great Paganini,' yet his role was very important in the development of violin and viola technique. Some of the technical innovations that Paganini later used largely, such as left-hand pizzicato, chromatic ascending and descending scales, the use of very high positions on violin and viola, octave passages, were first introduced by Rolla.

"He was a musician of European vision, an innovator in his own field who was also able to learn from the best of his contemporaries. Also being so deeply immersed in opera environment undoubtedly had an influence on his style as a composer. Because of the technical innovations introduced, his work might be considered helpful for the development of viola technique. His style varies from the very melodic phrases, typically operatic in character, rich in fiorituras, to the extremely virtuoso writing, the style we are used to identify with Paganini. This intense virtuosity was a new innovation for viola technique, practically unheard of in previous times. Bertini, a historian of his time, in a dictionary of musicians reported that Rolla was prohibited to play in public because women could not hear him without fainting or being struck by attacks of nerves."

At the risk, then, of fainting dead away, let us move on. The first item we find on the program is Rolla's Divertimento for viola and strings, BI330, a brief, two-movement piece that is quite charming. The first movement of the piece is slightly melancholy and fully haunting, beautifully played by the soloists and ensemble. The second (and final) movement is a more lively Allegro that includes some well-executed solo passages.

Massimo Belli
Next, there are the Concerto in E flat for viola and orchestra, BI545 and the Concertino in E flat for viola and strings, BI328. The Concerto is more elaborate than the preceding Divertimento, of course, and more grand in scope, yet it is very Mozartian in nature and style. Its format follows the traditional format of fast, slow, fast, ending in a bouncy tune that Belli and company handle with a touch of merriment. The Concertino is even more flamboyant, and it allows the violist to show off a bit, which Mr. Braconi seems delighted to do. It's fun, the subject matter running the gamut from formal and dignified to happy and cheerful, from sedate, even gloomy, to rhythmically melodic.

Finally, we get two sinfonias, the Sinfonia in D, BI530 and the Sinfonia in D, BI531, the former in a revision by Maestro Belli. They are in the nature of twin symphonies, the biggest difference being the presence of a solo violin in BI531 (Lucio Degani, violin). Both sinfonias are brief, under nine minutes apiece, and contain contrasting elements of gaiety and solemnity. Again, Maestro Belli and his players perform with a crisp execution, exacting but with commitment and apt passion.

Having never heard this music before, I couldn't tell you if the present interpretations are the ultimate realizations possible. Certainly, they sound well crafted, well played, and expertly presented. If they lack a little something in intangibles like a joyous demeanor, they make up for it in the precision of their attack. The performances are enjoyable, which is really all that matters.

Artistic directors Massimo Belli and Simonide Braconi and engineer Raffaele Cacciola recorded the music at the Church of St. Francis, Muggia, Trieste, Italy in September 2013. As we might expect from so small a group of players (about eighteen or so), the sound is sweetly transparent, without being at all bright or edgy. In fact, it appears warm, smooth, a tad soft, and still detailed. The soloists are realistically integrated into the ensemble accompaniment, and a mildly pleasant hall resonance sets everything apart in a most-natural manner. There are, I might add, some extraneous low notes that occur from time to time that seem to be coming either from the instruments or from one or more of the performers or the conductor. I'm not sure what that's about, but, fortunately, it's hardly noticeable.


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

Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 "Organ" (HDCD review)

Also, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso; La muse et le poete. Jan Kraybill, organ; Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-136.

We have come to expect only the best from Reference Recordings, especially those releases made by their chief engineer and company co-founder Keith Johnson. The present disc is no exception.

Now, as I've said before, any time a company records a major repertoire item, it faces stiff competition from dozens, sometimes hundreds, of alternative recordings. So, to entice a potential buyer, the record company has to offer either a performance of superior quality or sound that knocks your socks off. Preferably both. With RR's release of Saint-Saens's "Organ" Symphony, they almost succeed with the former and certainly accomplish the latter. It's another fine Reference Recordings issue.

French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) said of himself, "I produce music as an apple tree produces apples," by which I suppose he meant he was quite prolific and everything came naturally to him. By the time the Philharmonic Society commissioned him to write his Symphony No. 3 in 1886, audiences already recognized him as the greatest living French composer of his time. These days, we know him particularly for his opera Samson et Dalila, the tone poems in Carnival of the Animals, the First Cello Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto, the Third Violin Concerto, the little Dance macabre, and, of course, the Third Symphony.

The Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, is a colorful, sometimes bombastic, but thoroughly enjoyable piece of music. Although audiences recognize the piece by its nickname, the "Organ Symphony," the organ really has only a part in the second-movement Adagio and the later segment of the Finale. Saint-Saëns called the work a symphony with organ, and said of it, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." It appears he knew what he was talking about (or he was too contrary to go back on his words) because even though he lived another thirty-five years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

Anyway, I have to say something up front about Maestro Stern's interpretation of the symphony: Although I like it, it lacks the sheer adrenaline rush of Charles Munch's performance with the Boston Symphony (RCA or JVC), the suave lyricism of Jean Martinon's rendering with the Orchestre National de l'ORTF (EMI or Brilliant Classics), and the overall thrilling and poetic moments of Louis Fremaux's account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI or Klavier). That said, Stern holds his own pretty well.

Michael Stern
Under Stern, the symphony's opening movement is appropriately restless, its familiar theme reworked several times over in various guises and tempos. It leads smoothly into the Poco adagio, which sounds just as serene as Saint-Saens intended (the composer described it as "extremely peaceful and contemplative"). When the organ enters (Jan Kraybill performing on the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ), it should appear as a huge, warm, gentle wave rolling over us at the beach, and it does. It's a most-refreshing experience, because in some recordings the primary notes are so low the recording barely reproduces them. Here, we actually feel them.

In the final movements, Stern allows the music to expand from a relatively controlled opening to an explosive conclusion. By leaving the bulk of the fireworks to the end, Stern builds a cumulative effect, which may not be initially very impressive but leaves one with a satisfying feeling of exhilaration by the time it's over. Oh, and when that organ thunders in at the last, it does so with authority. If you live close to neighbors, keep it down.

The disc couplings for the symphony are Saint-Saens's fairly well known Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and the less well known La muse et le poete. Violinist Noah Geller in the Capriccioso and violinist Noah Geller and cellist Mark Gibbs in La muse play some lovely notes, and the orchestral accompaniment sounds flawless. Because Saint-Saens composed the Capriccioso for the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, you would figure on its being a vehicle for showing off the soloist's skills, and Mr. Geller is up to the challenge. In Le muse et le poete--a late work (1910) combining elements of a double concerto and tone poem--the violin takes the Muse's part and the cello voices the Poet. This was the first time I'd heard it, and it's beautiful. What a great revelation.

Producer and editor David Frost, executive producers J. Tamblyn Henderson and Marcia Gordon Martin, recordist Sean Royce Martin, and engineer Keith O. Johnson recorded the music at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in June 2013. "Professor" Johnson made the 24-bit recording using his patented HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) encoding process.

The resultant sound is resplendent and ideally captures the grandeur of Saint-Saens's music. The orchestra displays wonderful dimensionality. We hear it laid out before us in four dimensions: side to side and front to back, with air around the instruments. There is also a great dynamic spread with plenty of punch (meaning it sounds like a real orchestra should sound), a modest distancing, good midrange transparency, and a mild hall resonance to set it all off in a most-natural manner. Most important for the symphony, the organ sounds deep, rich, solid, and clean. As usual with Reference Recordings, this is splendidly lifelike sound, with no artificial enhancement, close-up miking, or editing-console gimmicky.


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

Sarasate: Carmen-Fantasie (SACD review)

Also, Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen; Tartini: "Devil's Trill"; Ravel: Tzigane, Massenet: "Meditation"; Faure: Berceuse. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; James Levine, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 00289 477 5721.

When SACD came out in 1999, any number of record companies jumped on it, many of them in an effort to repackage some of their older material in the new format. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Discs have, after all, the potential for reproducing multiple channels, not just two channels like regular CDs and, because of their greater storage capacity, reproduce things on the SACD layer in what is theoretically better sound. The discs, as you know, have several layers, enabling them, for instance, to include multitrack SACD recordings and two-channel SACD recordings on a high-density layer and conventional two-channel CD recordings on a separate layer. Such is the case with this 2005 DG release of Anne-Sophie Mutter, James Levine, and the Vienna Philharmonic playing, among other things, Pablo de Sarasate's Carmen-Fantasie.

DG initially made the recording in 1992, issuing it in 1993 only on CD in regular two-track stereo. But with the advent of SACD, the company went back into the vaults for the original multichannel tracks and transferred them to this hybrid surround-sound SACD, along with SACD stereo and CD stereo versions as well. But first, the music.

Ms. Mutter was a child prodigy who proved herself one of the world's foremost violinists. While she usually tackles things heavier than the material on this disc, it's a pleasure to hear her let her hair down, so to speak. The Carmen-Fantasie is delightful, as are the other popular favorites that accompany it: Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, Tartini's "Devil's Trill," Ravel's Tzigane, Massenet's "Meditation" from Thais, and Faure's Berceuse. Although Ms. Mutter's account of the Sarasate piece may not display the all-out thrills of Ruggiero Ricci's famous recording with Pierino Gamba and the LSO on Decca (and remastered on JVC), it offers the elegant, refined playing that we have come to expect from her.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
The only minor snag for some listener's may be DG's actual sound; not the multiple channels (I listened only to the SACD two-channel layer from a Sony SACD player) or the possibly improved SACD audio quality, mind you, but the closeness of the miking. I can't remember hearing a more closely miked DG recording in my life. Combined with a very high output level and some extremely wide dynamics, the disc practically blows you out of your seat until you can run and adjust the volume. Even then, there is no getting around the closeness of the violin. However, this said, I have seldom heard a DG recording with more clarity and definition, either, so maybe there is compensation in all things, as Emerson said. The sonics may not be entirely natural, but they do carry an impact. Unfortunately, the impact comes mainly in the violin parts, because the orchestra sometimes gets lost in the background; nor is there much deep bass response to remind us that they are there.

Be that as it may, these are beautiful performances by a totally committed and assured artist, and the Vienna Philharmonic is still one of the world's great ensembles. If I still prefer the accounts of the Carmen-Fantasie by Itzhak Perlman on EMI (coupled with an equally good Paganini Violin Concerto) and with the aforementioned Ricci, it is only because I have enjoyed their recordings for many years and find them comfortable old friends. However, if you have an SACD player, the fun of experimenting with the various modes may be half your entertainment. Whichever way you play the Mutter disc, you'll hear a great violinist enjoying herself with some familiar old chestnuts.


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

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Hannes Minnaar, piano; Jan Willem de Vriend, The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Challenge Classics CC72672.

I wasn't familiar with the Dutch pianist Hannes Minnaar (b. 1984), so I visited his biography Web page, where I found the following information: "Hannes Minnaar received international acclaim after winning prizes at the Queen Elisabeth Competition (3rd prize) and the Geneva International Music Competition (2nd prize). He studied with Jan Wijn at the Amsterdam Conservatory, graduating with the highest distinction and took Master classes with Alfred Brendel, Menahem Pressler and Ferenc Rados. In addition, he studied organ with Jacques van Oortmerssen.

"Minnaar was soloist with various orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, during which time he worded with conductors such as Marin Alsop, Herbert Blomstedt, Frans Brüggen, Eliahu Inbal and Edo de Waart. He gives recitals in many European countries and around the world. He performed at the Royal Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Gewandhaus (Leipzig) and Musashino Hall (Tokyo) and was invited to the festivals of La Roque d'Anthéron, Bordeaux (Jacobins), Bahrein and Guangzhou."

With that in mind, I would add that this release of Beethoven's Piano Concertos 4 and 5 with Maestro Jan Willem de Vriend and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra would appear to be Mr. Minnaar's fourth recording overall and his first album working with a full symphony orchestra. The results sound generally good, although some idiosyncrasies arise in the performance that may either make the disc a favorite for life or a questionable choice. I found it appealing in several ways, but I'm not entirely sure I'll be returning to it very often.

The program begins with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58, which he wrote between 1805 and 1806 (around the same time he wrote the Fourth Symphony and parts of the Fifth Symphony) premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself as soloist. The opening movement is melodic, with the piano part often sounding improvisatory. Beethoven scored the slow movement for piano and strings, keeping it fairly poetic with a slightly agitated orchestral accompaniment, leading quietly into the finale. Then, we get a passionate, tempestuous, rhythmic, stormy, graceful third movement; you name it, Beethoven goes for broke.

Minnaar's piano playing throughout both concertos is smooth, fluid, virtuosic, and sweetly lyrical. It sounds particularly effective in the opening of the Fourth Concerto, nicely capturing the autumnal glow of the music while still projecting a good deal of spirit and vivacity. Indeed, the solo parts are most attractive in their soaring lines, which manage to convey a poetic beauty along with their sometimes almost explosive tone.

Hannes Minnaar
The controversy might come, however, in the speeds the performers adopt. Minaar and de Vriend appear to take Beethoven at his word in terms of tempo, whether the composer intended his metronome markings be taken literally or not. Nor am I sure whether it was Minnaar's decision to play things as fast as they do or Maestro de Vriend's, but, whatever, the relatively quick tempos can be a bit distracting at times, especially in the slow movements. I compared the timings of both concertos to those of several other recordings I had on hand--Wilhelm Kempff, Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel, Francois-Frederic Guy, Stephen Kovacevich, Leif Ove Andsnes, and others--and found that in almost every movement Minnaar and his accompaniment were faster. Interestingly, the only recordings that took a faster gait were those of Melvyn Tan and Sir Roger Norrington, who play on period instruments in a historical style and, thus, adhere as strictly as possible to Beethoven's actual tempo markings. I can't say I care overly much for Tan/Norrington's "authentic" approach, either, but at least with a period-instrument presentation we expect the brisker pace. Not so with Minnaar and his modern support; instead, it just sounds a little odd.

Anyway, minor tempo concerns aside, the performance of No. 4 well captures, as I say, the work's mostly gentle mood swings, and it provides enough energy along the way to keep one interested.

Beethoven wrote the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. The piece begins with a big, bravura opening Allegro, the piano entering immediately. In the central Adagio we get one of the Beethoven's loveliest melodies, a brief duet between piano and orchestra. Then, there is a hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro, which takes the concerto to a glowing conclusion.

Beethoven intended No. 5 to sound monumental, and Minnaar and company supply some decent fireworks. The Adagio loses a little something in sheer beauty, due to the quick pace, perhaps, but the elegance of Minnaar's playing helps mitigate the situation. Then, things end in an appropriate blaze of notes.

Producer, engineer, editor, and mastering supervisor Bert van der Wolf made the recording for stereo and multichannel playback via hybrid SACD at the Muziekcentrum Enschede, The Netherlands, in May 2014. I listened to the disc's two-channel SACD layer using a Sony SACD player, although a person can, of course, also listen in two-channel from the regular stereo layer with any standard CD player.

The orchestral sound is slightly soft and warm, possibly the result of the mildly reverberant hall used for the recording. The piano appears isolated in front of the ensemble, also sounding just a touch soft and warm. I don't mean this to appear disparaging, by the way; both the orchestra and the piano sound about as they might during a live concert from a moderate distance. Otherwise, detailing is fine, dynamics can be robust, stereo spread is wide, and dimensionality is fairly realistic (with some instruments seeming even farther away than they might sound live).


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

Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia (CD review)

The Monks of Norcia. De Montfort Music - Decca 002315302.

Ever since De Montfort Music released a recording of sacred songs performed by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles several years ago, the company has been turning out more and more such discs of religious-inspired tunes. Their latest project is from the Monks of Norcia, and, as anticipated, the singing is very good and the material very old and deeply ingrained in the Catholic faith.

Marian antiphons (pieces in a call-and-response style of singing) are a group of hymns in the Gregorian chant collection of the Catholic Church, sung in honor of the Virgin Mary. Here, the Monks of Norcia sing thirty-three such antiphons, including the four in most common usage for the past 700 years: "Alma Redemptoris Mater," "Ave Regina Caelorum," "Regina Coeli," and "Salve Regina." In addition, their repertoire embraces several previously unrecorded chant versions of responsories, plus a work originally composed by the singers.

The Benedictine Monks of Norcia are members of the Order of St. Benedict, and their monastery is in Norcia, Italy. The Monks take care of the spiritual, pastoral, and temporal needs of some 50,000 pilgrims from around the world who annually visit the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. And some of the monks sing in a choir, which is where we are here. The entire choir sing most of the pieces on the album, although smaller assemblies and soloists take on a few of the numbers, giving the program a good assortment of music that doesn't easily tire one out.

After a brief peal of the basilica's bells, the agenda begins with "Ave Maria... Virgo Serena." As with all of the selections on the program, it sounds cleanly enunciated by the monks, smoothly handled, and enthusiastically nuanced. My only quibble with the numbers is that most of them are so brief, one or two minutes apiece. Still, that can't be helped; these tunes have been around and sung for hundreds of years, and we have what we have, all of it very well rendered.

The Monks of Norcia
Favorites? Well, the four popular hymns I mentioned above, and also "Regali Ex Progenie" for the strength and fullness of the monks' voices; "Ecce Virgo Concipient" and "Tuam Ipsius Animam" for their refined solo and choir singing; "Gabriel Angelus" and "Concordi Laetitia" for their sweet spirit; and "O Gloriosa Domina" for its free-flowing melody.

Now, philistine that I am, I couldn't help wondering as I listened to this album what a mixed choir of the Monks of Norcia and the Benedictines of Mary might sound like. De Montfort, take note.

Grammy Award-winning producer Christopher Alder and engineer Jonathan Stokes recorded the music on location at the Monks' monastery in Norcia, Italy. As we might expect from a recording done on location in a church chapel, the sound is fairly reverberant. Not only do we expect it, we desire it. The setting helps transport us to the venue, the hall resonance every bit a part of the presentation as the singing itself. In any case, the room reflections are not so severe as to muffle any of the music, and, indeed, the ambient bloom actually enhances the tunes, giving the choir and soloists a rich, vibrant quality. The voices are clear, well focused, without sounding bright, forward, or edgy. In fact, the voices are warm and rounded, with a lifelike sense of depth to the choir, just as the monks might appear in a live recital. In other words, this is a fine, realistic recording of a choir in its natural environment.


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

Mozart: Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra (SACD review)

Also, Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds. Per Flemstrom, flute; Birgitte Volan Havik, harp; Pavel Sokolov, oboe; Leif Arne Pedersen, clarinet; Per Hannisdal, bassoon; Inger Besserrudhagen, horn. Alan Buribayev and Arvid Engegard, conductors; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. LAWO Classics LWC1071.

The Flute and Harp Concerto is one of the most charming things Mozart ever wrote. It always surprises me that more artists don't record it. Still, there are plenty of good recordings of it to choose among, and this one from flutist Per Flemstrom and harpist Birgitte Volan Havik with Alan Buribayev conducting the Oslo Philharmonic takes its place among the best. It's a lovely work, given a lovely performance. The Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds as a coupling is like icing on the cake.

Mozart wrote his Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C Major, K. 299, in 1778, and, interestingly, it's the only concerto he wrote that includes a harp. Given that people back then still considered the harp an unusual instrument, there wasn't much of a repertoire for it as yet, and listeners found Mozart's combination of flute and harp rather unique. Anyway, my own favorite recording of the concerto is the one featuring Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lilly Laskine on the Erato label, which is neither here nor there except to say that the pairing of Flemstrom and Havik does not suffer by comparison.

Maestro Buribayev and his Oslo players maintain an expressive musical demeanor throughout the concerto, and the soloists play with grace and finesse. Above all, this concerto needs a relaxed, flowing gait, and that's exactly the way Buribayev leads it, taking a cultured, refined approach yet one with a positive, pleasing countenance, too. As I say, it's a lovely performance, with an especially beautiful slow movement in which the performers bring out all of the music's most-shimmering, radiant qualities.

Alan Buribayev
In addition, we get Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds in E-flat Major, K. 297B, (for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and orchestra, originally written in 1778 for flute, oboe, horn, bassoon, and orchestra). Somehow, the version we usually hear today (and the one this disc) substitutes a clarinet for the flute, as well as including other changes, leading some scholars to doubt K. 297B's authenticity. Whatever, we have what we have, and the soloists and orchestra on the present recording do a fine job with it.

For the Sinfonia we get an entirely different set of soloists, of course, but also a different conductor, Arvid Engegard. Whatever, the work sounds happy enough, and the soloists are all quite good at their jobs. OK, I thought Buribayev might have brought a slightly greater sense of exuberance to his part of the show than Engegard does, while Engegard follows a bit more-exacting course. Still, the final Andante con variazoni comes off with more than a little pizzazz and makes a fitting ending for the program.

Producer Vegard Landaas and engineers Arne Akselberg and Thomas Wolden recorded the music at the Oslo Concert Hall, Oslo, Norway in November 2012 and January 2013. They made the album for hybrid SACD playback, so you have the choice of two-channel stereo or multichannel playback using an SACD player or two-channel stereo from a standard CD player. I listened to the disc's SACD layer in two-channel stereo.

The sound appears extremely well balanced in terms of left-to-right stereo spread and overall frequency response. No part of the range stands out as too bright or too dull, and the solo instruments appear well integrated into the rest of the ensemble, not too far forward from the rest of the orchestra. The dynamic range seems a little restricted, and there isn't a lot of impact involved, but that's perhaps as it should be with this kind of music. Bass and treble extensions are also a bit limited, and midrange transparency is only moderate. Nevertheless, it's a fairly natural sound, coming through pretty much as one would hear this music in a concert hall from a modest distance.


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

Handel: Water Music (CD review)

Also, trumpet concertos of Handel, Torelli, and Vivaldi. Roger Delmotte and Arthur Haneuse, trumpets; Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Westminster 471 276-2.

This was another of Universal's reissues of a decade or so ago, taken from the old Westminster label. It features Handel's Water Music recorded by Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in 1961. It is a decidedly and wonderfully old-fashioned interpretation by today's standards, yet it's one a person might not want to miss.

In the booklet notes we find a quote from the conductor regarding the then-emerging move toward "authentic" performing practice: "All that can be said here is that historical fidelity for fidelity's sake would be absurd, given our large concert halls and the vast audiences that fill them; the modern concert hall demands the piano, just as it demands today's more powerful strings." Apparently, Maestro Scherchen had little regard for small ensembles playing Baroque music on period instruments. Instead, he offers a large-scale performance playing in a most Romantic tradition, some of which can be downright disconcerting to folks who have grown up with period-performance practices.

Hermann Scherchen
Scherchen takes the "Overture" and "Alla Hornpipe," for instance, at ooooh soooooo sloooow a pace, and with such a mass of strings you may hardly recognize things. Still, taken purely as music, without counting prejudices one way or the other about what music it is and how one should play it, this set of Water Music holds its own. Scherchen presents it beautifully, the orchestra performs it eloquently, and the whole set of movements appears uniformly well integrated. Once you listen to it all the way through, today's newer, leaner, quicker-paced readings may seem less musical to you.

Performers today most commonly divide the Water Music into suites according to key signatures, but as there is no documented proof as to how folks originally played the various movements, Scherchen has chosen to offer them in a single, extended suite. It works just fine, as does the early stereo sound. Unlike a previous release I reviewed from this source (of Liszt), which Westminster recorded several years earlier than the Water Music and sounded noisy, this issue is dead quiet. Fortunately, too, like the Liszt, the orchestral spread is wide and deep, the sonics rich, full, and smooth, and the natural balance remarkable.

Indeed, the audiophile listener may find interest in this disc for its audio reproduction alone, with the older performance style coming as an added attraction. As the Water Music also comes coupled with several very brief trumpet concertos by Handel (Concerto in D major), Torelli (Sinfonia for trumpet, strings & continuo in D major), and Vivaldi (Trumpet Concerto for 2 trumpets, strings & continuo in C major), I can only recommend the package; certainly not as a first choice in this repertoire, but as an alternative view at least.


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

Waller: The South Shore (CD review)

Music of Michael Vincent Waller. Various artists. XI Records XI 136 (2-disc set).

Not a lot of recent modern music--that is, music of the past thirty or forty years--appeals to me. Too often it sounds like mere academic exercises in noise shaping rather than anything that might entertain people. Indeed, the very thought of "entertaining" an audience would seem anathema to many modern composers; after all, that would smack of pandering to popular taste, something no respectable modernist would want critics to accuse them of. Then, just when I think that future generations will remember little from our current classical era, along comes a young composer like Michael Vincent Waller who breaks with the prevailing tide and produces serious music with a genuinely wide appeal. It's kind of refreshing.

According to his Wikipedia article, "Michael Vincent Waller (b. 1985, Staten Island, New York) is an American composer of contemporary classical music. He has studied with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Bunita Marcus. His recent compositions have been compared to Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Keith Jarrett, and Morton Feldman blending elements of minimalism, impressionism, gamelan, world music, and melodic classicism. His piano works have been described as 'evoking Debussy but refracted through a 21st century prism.'" Certainly, the music on his two-disc set The South Shore--solo and chamber works--fully illustrates these characteristics. More important, the compositions entertain both the mind and the heart.

Waller's music, at least as represented on this two-disc set, sounds melodic and a touch melancholy yet never sentimental. The program derives from compositions he wrote in the past four years, music that evokes memories, emotions, vaguely nostalgic and yearning, always sweet and flowing.

The musicians and ensembles who perform on the disc include Christine Kim, cello, and Pauline Kim-Harris, violin (Project SiS) with Conrad Harris, violin, Daniel Panner, viola, Charity Wicks, piano; Dedalus Ensemble with Didier Aschour, electric guitar, Amélie Berson, flute, Cyprien Busolini, viola, Thierry Madiot, trombone, Pierre Stéphane Meugé, alto sax, Deborah Walker, cello; 20>>21 Ensemble with Yael Manor, piano; Itay Lantner, flute, Erin Wight, viola, Clara Kennedy, cello, and Jessica Park, violin; Nicolas Horvath, piano; Esther Noh, violin; Carson Cooman, organ; Katie Porter, clarinet, and Devin Maxwell, gong percussion (Red Desert); Luna Cholong Kang, flute; and Marija Ilic, piano.

Being the old Romantic that I am, I tended to favor the more lyrical numbers in the set, starting at the beginning with Anthems for cello and piano. Like most of the pieces, it's brief and to the point, about two-and-a-half minutes, with a graceful beauty that envelops one in its welcoming tone. Likewise, Atmosfera di Tempo for string quartet is a gentle set of variations, quite beautiful in its wistful longing.

Waller describes Profondo Rosso for piano trio as a Valentine for his muse, Mia. As with any Valentine, it is pure, loving, and ultimately comforting.

And so it goes. Each piece has a haunting quality, moody and atmospheric, delightful in the moment, quickly forgotten. The pieces invite repetition of those moments, however. Tre Pezzi per Trio di Pianoforte for piano trio is probably the most impressionistic music in the set, with shadings of light and dark colors interweaving to create visions of nature, the seasons, and memories sad and anxious.

After that, there's a wonderfully evocative piece for organ called Organum that recalls music of the late Medieval-early Renaissance period in a large, airy, but very quiet cathedral. It's quiet organ music, if such a thing is to your liking; it is mine.

Michael Vincent Waller
Ritratto is the largest-scale work on the program, written for a sextet of flute, alto sax, electric guitar, viola, cello, and trombone. Again we hear a kind of Renaissance quality in the music, especially with the entrance of the guitar. It's quite charming, with each instrument highlighted for its own individual contribution to the whole.

The title piece, La Riva Sud ("The South Shore," of Staten Island, close to the composer's birthplace) for piano and viola involves memories of Waller's childhood. As such, it is among the most reflective and nostalgic of the works in the set.

Some of the pieces may remind you of the flute playing of Paul Horn, others of the piano of George Winston, two musicians who influenced a generation of popular artists. Yet Michael Vincent Waller's music is more complex than that, richer, subtler, and more varied.

If there is any drawback to the set, though, it is that there may be an overabundance of good things. That is, a little goes a long way and a single disc of this material might have sufficed for most of us. As it is, Waller and his team offer the two-disc set for the price of one disc, and if over two hours of his gentle compositions seem a bit much, the listener always has the choice to play only one disc at a sitting. (I had a slight preference for disc one and may be playing it often.)

I could go on, but you're getting the idea. Of course, none of the music would be of value if the musicians didn't play it well, and each of the artists involved plays with feeling and conviction. It's a lovely album all the way around.

Is Waller's music of such a quality as may become truly classic, music that people might play a hundred and more years from now? Who knows? Personally, I doubt it. Yet it is positively enjoyable in the moment, which is all that counts for us today. Equally significant, it is music that one hopes presages more good things from the composer, who is young enough to be a serious force in the world of original, avant-garde classical works.

Producers Michael Vincent Waller, Ryan Streber (who also did the mixing and mastering), and Christine Kim plus a variety of audio engineers made the recordings at several studios and a couple of live venues, XI Records releasing the album in March 2015. Although the sound derives from a number of different sources, it's all basically of a kind: warm, mildly resonant, moderately close up, and slightly soft in keeping with the nature of the tunes.


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

Grieg: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, Lyric Pieces. Javier Perianes, piano; Oramo Sakari, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902205.

In the event you didn't know, Javier Perianes (b. 1978) is a Spanish concert pianist, who has won any number of prizes and played with many of the world's leading orchestras and conductors. Although he has done over half a dozen solo albums, he has recorded only a couple of pieces with orchestra. This disc of the Grieg Piano Concerto with Maestro Oramo Sakari and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is one of them. To be fair, however, he still goes it alone in the accompanying Lyric Pieces for solo piano.

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, in 1868, his first and only piano concerto. Odd, perhaps, given that Grieg was also a pianist. Anyway, with its wonderfully big opening moments and hints throughout of Norwegian folk music, the concerto quickly became one of the staples of the piano concerto repertoire.

The first movement opens with a famous and dramatic timpani roll, complete with cascading crescendos from the piano. Perianes captures the theatrical effect of these flourishes with energy galore, and, indeed, the whole of the first movement follows closely the excitement set out in the beginning. Tempos remain moderate; intonation is well nuanced; transitions, as into the second subject, are smooth and fluid; and Perianes seems always attentive to Grieg's designs.

The performance, in essence, is as big as they come, and Harmonia Mundi's close-up miking makes it seem all the bigger. Thus, if it's a grandiose reading you're looking for, this one is as massive and ambitious as they come. As I say, Perianes attacks the opening Allegro with vigor, practically banging the keys through the floor. And Maestro Sakari and the BBC Symphony accompany him with a flawless vitality of their own.

Javier Perianes
The second movement should be hushed and lyrical and continue to portray Grieg's ideas on the beauty of nature. Happily, Perianes balances the more robust sections of the score with an honest, gentle lyricism in these quieter parts. The middle of the first movement and this following Adagio sound lovely, and the final movement is as dashing, colorful, and beautiful as anyone could want. (Incidentally, Harmonia Mundi divides the second and third movements differently than we have come to expect, actually starting what most of us consider the final movement in the middle of the second track. The disc booklet provides no explanation.)

For a coupling, Perianes gives us eleven of Grieg's Lyric Pieces for solo piano. It is a good representative sampling of these little works, of which Grieg wrote sixty-six over a period of some forty years. Here again Perianes displays his softer, more-sensitive side, each piece sparkling. These are very Romanic, melodious works, which the pianist carefully executes with a straightforward delicacy and refinement. There is no hint of sentimentality about his playing. Still, when the occasion calls for an energetic virtuosity, as in "The March of the Trolls," he is on top of the situation. As a pianist Perianes can be both exciting and poetic, qualities that serve him well.

Producer Ann McKay and engineer Neil Pemberton recorded the Concerto live at the Barbican Centre, London in October 2014, and producer Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann recorded the Lyric Pieces at Teldex Studio Berlin in June 2014. As with most live recordings, the engineers miked the concerto quite close up, especially the piano, which looms very large, practically in one's face. The orchestra, too, seems much too close, making for excellent detail and impact at the expense of its picking up some midrange brightness and edge. Fortunately, the producers edited out any applause, and audience noise is practically nil. Still, one gets a rather one-dimensional presentation, with good left-to-right stereo spread but almost no depth, air, or room ambience. The solo piano pieces, however, sound excellent, with a slightly more distanced perspective and more room resonance to give the instrument a greater natural warmth.


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

Sibelius: Symphonies 2 & 7 (SACD review)

Thomas Sondergard, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Linn Records CKD 462.

If the number of releases in the CD catalogue is any indication, Sibelius's first two symphonies remain his most popular, with No. 2 taking a slight edge. This is no doubt why most conductors begin their Sibelius symphony recording cycles with one of the first two works, which is what Maestro Thomas Sondergard and his BBC National Orchestra of Wales do here, giving the Second a fairly lively, and welcome, reading. With room left over, the little Seventh Symphony is also a welcome delight.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and the listening public quickly dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence," although no one is sure whether Sibelius really intended any symbolic significance in the piece. Even so, it ends in a gloriously victorious finale that surely draws out a feeling of freedom and self-reliance from the music. The piece begins in a generally sunny style, though, then builds to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure.

Sondergard takes all four movements more quickly than do the conductors on any of the half dozen recordings I had on hand for comparison, yet his tempi are not at all breathless. Indeed, his handling of the faster sections of the first movement is fleet and agile, the change-ups smooth and entirely natural. When he pauses momentarily, when he increases the volume, when he goes into a hushed whisper, or whatever, it is with purpose; and that purpose always seems to be in the service of the music. With evenly tuned transitions from warm to cool and back, Sondergard's interpretation places the first movement among the best you will find.

The second movement Sibelius marked as an Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow conductors more personal expression. The movement begins with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses. Under Sondergard this slow movement is appropriately somber, yet he imbues the music with a degree of comfortable affection, too, so it's not entirely melancholy. And again, Sondergard ensures that when he reaches the intense middle section, it doesn't appear to be coming out of nowhere but is intrinsic to the rest of the music.

Sibelius makes the third movement a scherzo, one that provides a dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme. The whole thing should bounce around from an admirable liveliness to a more pastoral theme, then a stormy midsection, and a tranquil conclusion. This fast movement is sort of the opposite in structure of the preceding movement: instead of two slow sections enclosing a fast one, we get two fast sections surrounding a slow one. Sondergard generates a good deal of enthusiasm throughout this segment, keeping both the orchestra and the audience on their toes.

In closing, the final movement bursts forth in explosive radiance--both thrilling and patriotic. When the third movement glides directly into the fourth, Sondergard might have increased the horsepower just a bit more, highlighting the heroics. Instead, he is content to let the music speak effortlessly for itself, and perhaps he was right in doing so. He makes a rather eloquent statement by eschewing a certain degree of exaggeration. In the final analysis, Sondergard's treatment of Sibelius's Second Symphony is one of the best (and best sounding) you'll find.

Completed in 1924 the Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105, was Sibelius's final published symphony. It is notable for being in a single, relatively brief movement. For its first performance, he called it Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, a "symphonic fantasy." It was only a year later, when he actually published it, that he decided he would simply call it his Symphony No. 7. Whatever, the composer said he wanted to express in it a "joy of life and vitality with appassionato sections." To that extent, Sondergard takes him at his word.

One movement or not, the music flows structurally as a symphony might, just with more seamless continuity and cogency. Sondergard's rendering of it is, frankly, gorgeous, one of the most brilliant, moving performances I've heard. As with the previous work, the conductor fashions it all of a piece, with nothing that doesn't perfectly belong. And throughout all of this music, the orchestra adds a rich, polished luster to the proceedings. It's quite becoming.

Producer and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the symphonies in stereo and multichannel at BBC Hoddinot Hall, Ckardiff, UK in March 2014. Linn Records released the hybrid SACD for both SACD stereo and multichannel and regular CD stereo playback. I listened to the SACD two-channel stereo layer.

The sound has a nice airy quality, with a lifelike dimensionality about it. You can hear the orchestra not only from side to side in a realistic spread but front to back as though actually sitting in the audience in a concert hall. This is typical, though, of Linn Records, who usually do their utmost to make listeners feel as though the event were live and the ensemble were actually there in front of you. Dynamics, frequency response, impact, and overall clarity are also quite good, with the hall itself lending a modest resonance to the occasion.


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

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (SACD review)

Also, Concerto in B minor; Concerto in A minor; Largo from Concerto in D; Grave from Concerto in D; Sinfonia from La Verita in Cimento. Richard Tognetti, Australian Chamber Orchestra. BIS 2103.

By my count this BIS album from Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra makes the eight-hundred-and-first recording of Vivaldi's perennial favorite to appear in the last two-and-a-half weeks. Or so it seems.

Not that that's bad. It simply means that people love Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as well they should. The four concertos are remarkable for the impressions they can make on folks. And artists generally give people what they like, the fact that we probably don't need quite so much of a good thing notwithstanding. All that said, Tognetti and his Australian players do a pretty job with this new entry in the field.

As you know, Italian composer, violinist, teacher, and Catholic priest Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote his Four Seasons as little three-movement tone poems, complete with the musical sounds of chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, howling winds, and the like. The composer meant them to accompany descriptive sonnets, making up the first four concertos of a longer work he wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). Most people hardly remember the other concertos in the set.

Tognetti and company adopt some fairly moderate tempos for the four concertos, not as slow as most older, more-traditional approaches yet not as hurried as some more-recent period-instrument renditions. Tognetti, who conducts and plays the lead violin, takes a halfway path, a compromise if you will, that should offend no one. It's a sensible approach, to be sure, but one that might not be different enough, exciting enough, poetic enough, or descriptive enough to attract a lot of attention.

Most of the fast movements Vivaldi marked as allegros, brisk tempos. However, just how "brisk" is open to interpretation, as are most tempo markings, within reason. Therefore, you'll hear some Vivaldi recordings where the allegros are really quite slow and others where the players attack them with more speed and vigor. Again, Tognetti likes taking things at a healthy but not breathtaking gait.

As far as concerns rubato, Tognetti and his group provide a nuanced performance, hesitating when necessary, pulling up here and there, slowing up or speeding ahead whenever they feel the picture they are painting needs added punctuation. The result is a pleasantly vibrant set of variations within the movements that is isn't overly obvious or distracting but pleasingly entertaining. (Yeah, I might have liked a sweeter, more relaxed rendering of the Winter Largo, but that's simply a matter of taste.)

Richard Tognetti
OK, so maybe you don't need another Four Seasons. Tognetti and his ensemble have it covered with the coupling, which maybe you do or maybe you don't have. They provide Vivaldi's Concerto in B minor for 4 violins, cello, strings and basso continuo, RV580; his Concerto in A minor for violin, strings and basso continuo, RV356; the Largo from the Concerto in D major, RV226; the Grave from the Concerto in D major, RV562; and the Sinfonia from La Verita in Cimento, RV739. These are certainly welcome, even if they do tend to sound more than a bit the same.

Like the Seasons, these supplementary pieces are satisfying realizations of music that can all too often sound merely tossed off. Tognetti offers us thoughtful accounts of the scores that sound imaginative yet not too extreme, with fine virtuosic playing from Tognetti himself and smooth, flowing accompaniment from his ensemble. Of all of them, I enjoyed the Concerto in D Largo best; beautiful music and beautifully sensitive playing.

Producer and engineer Jens Braun (Take5 Music Production) made the recording at the Concourse Chatswood Concert Hall, Sydney, Australia in March 2014. BIS have released the record on a hybrid SACD for stereo and multichannel playback (two channels from both the SACD and regular CD layers and multichannel from the SACD layer only, meaning you need an SACD player for SACD playback but just a standard CD player for two-channel CD playback). I listened to the SACD two-channel layer using a Sony SACD player.

As we have come to expect from BIS over the years, the sound is quite good. There's a nice, airy high end, a fairly well detailed midrange, and a bass and dynamic impact more than adequate for the job. The chamber orchestra, numbering about sixteen players, appears well positioned, not too close or too distant and extending left to right in a realistic spread. The solo violin is a tad close, but the ear quickly adjusts. Here, as anticipated, the clarity is even better than with the ensemble as a whole. A modest hall resonance adds to the natural effect of the proceedings without muffling any of the notes. A slight forwardness in the upper frequency range amplifies the disc's transparency without sounding too harsh or edgy. No objections here.


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

Shall I Compare Thee? (CD review)

Choral Songs on Shakespeare Texts. Chicago a cappella. Cedille CDR 900000 085.

If the success of a CD depends on the number of times one throws it into the player, then the 2005 Cedille release Shall I Compare? must be a record of the year, at least for me. This disc features one-of-a-kind songs based on Shakespearean texts, good a cappella singing, and an equally fine recording. The results I find hard to resist.

The Chicago a cappella ensemble consists of nine voices: four women (two sopranos and two mezzos) and five men (two tenors, two baritones, and a bass). They sing like nineteen voices. Such is the case with a good a cappella choir, such as the all-male Chanticleer group that I like so much. But I sometimes find Chanticleer's releases a bit tedious and their recordings often more resonant than I care for. Not so here. The music on the Shall I Compare Thee? album is continuously fascinating, and the recording (by Cedille Records engineer Bill Maylone, whose work I have complimented before) could hardly sound better.

Chicago a cappella
All of the songs have their roots in the words of Shakespeare, either from the plays or sonnets, and they are unique in that contemporary composers wrote all of the music. Of the nine composers, eight of them were still alive (and I assume well and thriving) at the time of the disc's release. In 2002 Chicago a cappella sent out an invitation for scores based on Shakespearean texts for a concert they performed in early 2003. They included only the best scores in the concert, and they recorded many of them here, twenty-four in all. As the group's leader, Jonathan Miller, explains in the booklet insert, "...the intent of this disc remains to showcase the music of composers of our time, who have so deftly and lovingly set to music the immortal words of Shakespeare."

The album includes the music of composers Kevin Olson, Martha Sullivan, Jaakko Mantyjarvi, Mattheew Harris, Nils Lindberg, Hakan Parkman, Gyorgy Orban, Juhani Komulainen, Robert Applebaum, and most famous of all, John Rutter. Seven of the twenty-four selections are world-première recordings, while the rest date from fairly recent vintage.

Among my favorites: The opening "Summer Sonnet" and "Blow, blow, thou winter wind"; a jazzy "Take, O Take Those Lips Away"; a truly astonishing "O Weary Night" from A Midsummer Night's Dream with cascading voices; a fairly silly "Witches' Blues" from Macbeth; and several versions of "Shall I Compare Thee." If you enjoy the sound of the unaccompanied human voice, and you enjoy the sound of a matchless recording, not too close, not too distant, not too reverberant nor too dry, then Shall I Compare Thee? is an album to cherish.


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

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (SACD review)

Also, Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2. Kirill Gerstein, piano; James Gaffigan, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Myrios Classics MYR016.

As I've said a number of times before, there has to be some pretty good reason for a person to buy another recording of an old favorite: Usually, the person is an avid collector of everything by a certain composer; possibly, the person thinks the recording in question is better in performance or sound than what he or she has already got; or maybe the person finds the disc's coupling attractive. That's usually. But there is another possibility; namely, that the person is curious about something new or innovative about a new recording. Such is mainly the case with this release from Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein, conductor James Gaffigan, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.

The "something new" is that Gerstein's recording is the first to use a new edition of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, published by the Tchaikovsky Archive and Museum in Moscow, an edition that derives from the 1879 version of the concerto that the composer himself approved and conducted until his last public appearance in 1893. It seems that the version the rest of us have been hearing all these years is an unauthorized edition containing many alterations added after Tchaikovsky's death. Who'da thunk?

So, how different is this new version? In an accompanying booklet note we learn that sometime after the first and second editions appeared, a young musician played the opening chords for Tchaikovsky on the piano. "That's what you want, isn't it?" he asked the composer. "Why, yes," answered Tchaikovsky. "It's what I've written, isn't it?" The young pianist answered, "No. That's just the point. It's what I've played." The young pianist, Alexander Siloti, a student of Tchaikovsky, had transposed the opening chords of the right hand an octave higher than the composer had originally written them, and that's now part of what we hear today, along with quite few other changes. Is the story true? Who knows? Did I notice the differences in Gerstein's reading? Like the composer in the possibly questionable story, if I hadn't known about the changes, no, I wouldn't have noticed them.

More to the point, did I like this new recording of the concerto, regardless of the edition played? Here, the answer is a little clearer: Not as much as I'd liked. The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto requires a good deal from any pianist in the way of sheer virtuosity, and I have no doubt Mr. Gerstein handles that part of the show admirably. He was, after all, the first prize winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in 2001, received a Gilmore Young Artist Award in 2002, and became a Carnegie Hall "Rising Star" for 2005–2006. The man undoubtedly has talent.

But the concerto contains bravura, pathos, heroism, and lyricism in equal measures, and I'm afraid that whether it's because Gerstein plays a new edition or whether the sound lets him down, the performance seemed rather underwhelming to me. This is especially the case as I had just a few weeks before listened to the extremely outgoing rendition by Stewart Goodyear, which, to be fair, sounded much better recorded to me.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine anyone taking objection to Gerstein's performance, which is still quite accomplished. It's just that the competition is so intense in this work that it's hard for any newcomer to make an impression. That said, Gerstein's account of Tchaikovsky's original score provides a more lyrical, more-poetic vision than most I've heard, and that in itself may be enough to persuade potential buyers to sample the performance. I especially liked the slow second movement, with its graceful, lilting lines and moderately paced middle section.

In compensation for any minor lack of overt brilliance or flashy showmanship in the Tchaikovsky, Goldstein offers as a coupling the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Prokofiev completed it in 1913, but about ten years later a fire destroyed the original composition, and Prokofiev had to reconstruct and revise the piece from a piano score. So, interestingly, on this album Mr. Gerstein plays two works in their revised editions.

At the time of its premiere, some listeners loved the wild excitement of Prokofiev's new piece, while others found it too jarring and "modern." Today, we sort of take it all for granted. Nevertheless, Gerstein was wise to pair the two works, one of them representing the end of a musical age and the second of them the beginning of another.

Anyway, with the Prokofiev, Gerstein enters a different musical world altogether, one that he handles with thought and care yet with a good deal of enthusiasm as well. His finger work is remarkable, and his ability to make the work come alive without sounding particularly unsettling is most welcome in a piece of music that can sometimes just sound loud and noisy. Under Gerstein's control, it remains quite adventurous and tempestuous while retaining an elegant grace and sensitivity.

Producers Stephan Cahen and Rainer Pollmann and engineers Stephan Flock and Stephan Cahen recorded the concertos at Funkhaus Berlin Nalepastrasse Saal 1, in June 2014. They released the disc for hybrid SACD playback, meaning if you have an SACD player, you can play it in multichannel or two-channel, and if you have a regular CD player, you can play it in regular two-channel stereo. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer using a Sony SACD player.

The sound the engineers obtained is big and warm and a little soft, so you don't get an abundance of sparkling detail. What's more, dynamics and impact are only moderate, so we also don't hear all of the excitement of some competing recordings. Depth perception in the orchestra is excellent, however, and the engineers have nicely balanced the piano with the ensemble to produce a lifelike result. Although this is more easy-listening than purely audiophile sound, it is comfortable and natural and miked from a modest distance. Overall, it's fairly realistic sound, specifically in terms of frequency response and front-to-back dimensionality. I enjoyed it.


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

Shostakovich: Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano (CD review)

Also, Brahms: Trio for Piano and Strings, No. 2. Daniil Shafran, cello, and Lydia Pecherskaya, piano; Gary Graffman, piano, Berl Senofsky, violin, and Shirley Trepel, cello. HDTT HDCD184.

Question: What do the two pieces of music on this disc have in common? After all, they are by two completely different composers from two completely different centuries.

Answer: They're both great pieces of music given excellent performances in top-notch remastered 1960's sound from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

First up on the agenda is the Sonata in D minor for Cello for Piano, Op. 40, by Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). The sonata, written in 1934, was one of the composer's earlier pieces, making it just under the wire before the Soviet government imposed strict rules on the music its people could write. If parts of the sonata sound melancholy, it's probably because Shostakovich was going through some emotional tensions in his personal life. Whatever, in its four movements the sonata drifts from somewhat sad and despondent to energetic to somber to exuberant and joyful. It's quite a ride.

Russian cellist Daniil Shafran and pianist Lydia Pecherskaya handle the work nicely, negotiating the mood swings in smooth, orderly fashion. This should come as no surprise from the late Mr. Shafran; early on, critics regarded him and Mstislav Rostropovich, both close in age, as two of the great young cellists of the day. Shafran's enthusiastic yet poetically lyrical style suits Shostakovich's music flawlessly.

If there are any expressive nuances Shafran leaves out of the music, I don't know what they are. Shafran's part in the proceedings largely overshadows Ms. Pecherskaya's, but she accompanies him with a sympathetic air. There is a special exuberance about the second-movement Allegro, a wistful yearning in the Largo, and a playfulness in the finale that are hard to resist.

Daniil Shafran
The coupling is the Trio for Piano and Strings No. 2 in C major, Op. 87, by German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Composed around 1882, the four-movement Piano Trio remains one of Brahms's most-popular chamber pieces. American pianist and teacher Gary Graffman, violinist Berl Senofsky, and cellist Shirley Trepel play the piece at least as well as the disc's accompanying performance, so we get a two-for-the-price-of-one kind of deal here.

The Brahms is clearly more Romantic in tone than the Shostakovich, and Graffman and company have it well in hand. Although I've heard more-ebullient renditions of the piece, the present trio members offer a warm, satisfying reading, highly charged with musical subtlety.

RCA originally recorded the Shostakovich in 1961 and the Brahms in 1964. HDTT remastered and transferred the music from 15-ips 2-track tapes and released their coupling in 2015. The miking is a tad close, and the instrumentalists loom somewhat large; yet they sound so lifelike, one can hardly complain. There is a sweet warmth to the sound as well, so despite the proximity to the players, there is no trace of steeliness, brightness, or edge. Because of the miking, the instruments appear well separated, with plenty of space around each of them. It is smooth, clear, well judged, finely balanced sound that brings out the best in the performance. HDTT did an extremely good job processing the tape for a clean CD playback.

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


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