Jun 30, 2015

Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, complete ballet (SACD review)

Also, Pavane pour une infante defunte. Netherlands Radio Choir; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS BIS-1850 SACD.

French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel began writing his one-act, three-scene ballet Daphnis et Chloe in 1909, premiering it in 1912 under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Ravel described the work as a "symphonie choréographique," a choreographed symphony. I mention this because there are times, such as listening to the suites alone, when one gets the sense that the conductors were simply stringing together a random selection of tone paintings. The work should feel of a piece, something the aforementioned Monteux and other conductors like Charles Munch and Charles Dutoit succeed at doing admirably. Which brings us to the present recording with Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

It may be a measure of Nezet-Seguin's energy and enthusiasm that he manages to be the principal conductor of two major orchestras, both the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He usually communicates that energy in his recordings, sometimes to the detriment of the performance, but most of the time not. Here, he is in flying colors, pouring a good deal of vitality into a vivid score that undoubtedly benefits from his passion.

The story of the ballet deals with the love between a goatherd, Daphnis, and a shepherdess, Chloe. Choreographer Michel Fokine adapted the tale from the Greek writer Longus, dating back to somewhere around the second century A.D. It's colorful, poignant, and exciting, the music communicating a variety of moods.

Even though Nezet-Seguin puts a good deal of zeal into his interpretation, as I say, particularly in the middle of the second part and the final movement of the third part, he is not without a delicate touch in the more-peaceful, atmospheric sections. There were a few times when I thought his musical descriptions appeared a bit too plodding, as in the "Danse grotesque," but at least he has good reason for approaching the characterization this way. When the conductor appears fully engaged, which is most of the time, the music sounds graceful and fluid, generally flowing through the transitions elegantly.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Most important, Nezet-Seguin does a good job conveying the more-atmospheric features of the music, never letting it sink into mere picturesqueness, sentimentality, or bombast. Let's say, it never gets boring and mostly remains quite beautiful. He seems to get the most out of the orchestra, too, as they sound lustrous and luxuriant from softest pianissimo to loudest crescendo. The wordless chorus also do a fine job, never overpowering the orchestral contribution but becoming an integral part of it.

Accompanying the ballet we get the Pavane pour une infante defunte ("a slow dance for a dead princess"), which Ravel originally wrote for piano in 1899 and didn't get the orchestral version heard here until 1910. Nezet-Seguin takes it rather differently than other conductors, starting more slowly and gradually but modestly quickening the gait toward the middle, easing down again at the end. It keeps the piece from dragging, to be sure, but it perhaps robs it of some of its melancholy bearing.

Producer Robert Suff and engineer Thore Brinkmann of Take5 Music Production recorded the album at DeDoelen Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2012 and 2014. They made and mixed it for hybrid CD/SACD playback, meaning, of course, that you can play the regular two-channel layer on any standard CD player, but you'll need an SACD player to play the two-channel and multichannel SACD layers. I listened to the two-channel SACD playback using a Sony SACD player.

The first thing one cannot help noticing about the sound is the huge dynamic range involved. It begins so softly, it may tempt you into turning up the volume. I advise against doing so because it isn't long before the louder sections kick in, and you may be sorry. Anyway, there is a commendable range and impact to the dynamics, with a reasonably good deep bass. The next things one notices about the sound are its sense of airiness, openness, depth, and space.

The "however" in all of this is that while the dynamics, air, and depth sound excellent, the midrange clarity is only average, there's a somewhat forward quality to the upper mids, and there isn't much sparkle in the highs. There is also a very slight coarseness about the sound, noticeable especially in the chorus.


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

Jun 28, 2015

Bach: Orchestral Suites (CD review)

Ludwig Guttler, Virtuosi Saxoniae. Brilliant Classics 95018.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) produced some of his best orchestral music (Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, Violin Concertos) during the years 1718 to 1723 while working in the court of Prince Leopold of Cothen. The Prince enjoyed and played music, and as he did not require that his musicians produce too much elaborately religious material, he left Bach to compose largely instrumental music. Although there is no record of Bach's actual obligations to the Prince, scholars agree that he probably served in attendance at all courtly occasions, supplying background music for meals, balls, weddings, funerals, processions, and the like. Unfortunately, scholars are not in agreement on exactly what the occasion was for the four Orchestral Suites, but with their enjoyable, largely dance-like character, one can safely guess that Bach composed them for the enjoyment of the Prince's guests, possibly at dinnertime. Later, Bach would perform them regularly in concerts in Leipzig.

Although Bach wrote the four suites in the French-influenced Baroque style much favored in his day, he also included extensive parts for solo instruments with ensemble backup. Bach didn't even want to call them "suites," although they are sets of five to seven movements each; he called them "overtures," a custom of the day in referring to a complete set by just its first movement. Anyway, why he wrote them and what he called them are beside the point; the main thing is that they continue to entertain us with their wit and charm.

There are any number of fine recordings of Bach's four orchestral suites, and this one reissued by Brilliant Classics is a safe rendering of the music. The virtuoso trumpeter and conductor Ludwig Guttler formed the chamber orchestra Virtuosi Saxoniae in 1978, drawing members from the Dresden Staatskapelle. They are very good, and under Guttler's careful and somewhat conservative guidance, they sound remarkably fluent and articulate.

Guttler adopts generally moderate tempos throughout the four suites, so you'll find no surprises here. Played on modern instruments, it isn't the hell-bent-for-leather approach taken by some bands, especially those striving for an authentic, period interpretation; nor is it a slow, leaden rendition. In fact, Guttler and his musicians play it pretty middle-of-the-road. While I wouldn't call these readings old-fashioned, they are not exactly innovative or daring, either.

In fact, Guttler takes everything at such a steady pace, it seems as though his main intent is not to offend anybody. He won't; but he may win over a few listeners who find most other performances of Bach a little too shrill or "tinkly-tinkly" for them, as an old friend used to characterize Baroque music. The Virtuosi Saxoniae are a smooth, elegant group of players who produce a smooth and elegant set of suites. They may miss out on some of the outright fun of this music, but they make up for it the sophistication of their playing.

Ludwig Guttler
The highlight of the set for me was the Suite in D BWV1068, with its regal Ouverture, its lovely Air, its lively Gavottes and Bourrée, and its stately Gigue. What's more, it seems almost as though Guttler directed most of these suites in just such a manner as Bach intended them: as background music for dinner gatherings. And I don't mean that characterization as negatively as it may sound because there are no doubt any number of listeners who are looking for exactly that kind direction.

The problem may be that there are so many fine recordings of this music available, listeners may find Guttler's disc noncompetitive. After all, we already have excellent renditions on period and modern instruments from Marriner, Savall, Pinnock, Hogwood, Linde, Gardiner, Koopman, Pearlman, Kuijken, Leppard, Clark, Suzuki, Goodman, Egarr, and others I've no doubt forgotten just now. Guttler's more sedate readings may not stand close comparison.

So, what are the advantages of Guttler's disc? For one, it is just a single disc. Many competing versions take two discs to accommodate the four suites. For another, Guttler's disc is relatively inexpensive. Then there are the polished, ultrasmooth performances and equally smooth sound. These may count for something. Finally, there is plain old curiosity; for the Bach lover who wants to hear or own everything Bach, the price point makes an easy purchase.

Producer Bernd Runge, balance engineer Eberhard Richter, and recording engineer Horst-Dieter Kappler made the album at Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany in 1991-92. Like the performances, the sound is quite smooth and refined, and since the Virtuosi Saxoniae are a fairly small group, the sound is also reasonably clear, if a tad soft. A mild room resonance provides a warm, golden glow to the proceedings. Although there isn't a lot of sparkle or dynamic punch to the sound, the whole thing is attractive in its own unassuming way.


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

Jun 25, 2015

The Matter of Sight-Reading

A short while ago a good friend, Sonja Fischer, brought to my attention a subject I hadn't thought about much: the matter of sight-reading for singers.

In the following article, Christopher Gillett--the tenor, blogger, and author of Who's My Bottom and Scraping the Bottom--reflects on the idea of whether being able to sight-read is really all that important to opera singers:

"A few years ago, I was queueing for a flight home from Israel's Ben Gurion airport when I was pulled to one side for a security check. Rummaging through my bag, a security officer found my score of Bach's St Matthew Passion, which I was about to perform back home in England.

"'How can you read this?' he asked aggressively, flicking through the pages. 'Sorry?' I whimpered, while it dawned on me that St Matthew didn't exactly do the Jews many favours in his telling of the Easter story.

"'This... THIS! What is it? How do you read it?'

"Ah. I realised that to him, presumably a non-reader of music, my score looked like a load of gibberish, as legible as the Rosetta Stone. Worryingly, to him it probably looked like dodgy code.

"'Um, well, this thing here is called a stave and this is a treble clef...' I was just beginning to picture myself spending a week or so in a sweaty, darkened room when a superior chimed in and I was allowed to board my flight.

"Now,  this is a problem that probably would never have faced Pavarotti, for three reasons:

a) He was Pavarotti and universally recognisable, not some poxy tenor from England.

b) The St Matthew Passion was hardly his bag.

c) A score was probably as intelligible to him as it was to the security guard because, by most accounts, he was very poor at reading music.

"Years ago, this bothered me. Well, to be honest, it didn't bother me so much as make me feel unbearably smug. How could you possibly call yourself a musician and not be able to read music? And indeed a certain odour of prejudice still hangs around when it comes to the definition of Musician, especially against singers.

"I don't know if this is true – it certainly has the ring of truth – but I was told that the Musicians Union once debated whether it would be acceptable to let singers join the union (singers tend to be represented by Equity) but the prevailing opinion was that in order to qualify, singers would first have to undergo a sight-reading test to prove their musicianship. (Meanwhile, a trumpeter friend of mine managed to enroll his cat in the MU, just because he could.)

"I was well-schooled in sight-reading. When I was at Cambridge in the King's College Choir, an inability to learn a lot of music very rapidly would have seriously hindered the whole ensemble. Later, as a young soloist with a lot of new repertoire to perform, good sight-reading was very useful; the downside being that I could turn up and perform a piece without spending as much time practising it as I probably should.

"But that was in the realm of concert work, where you use a score. Opera is a very different beast and singing from memory is an altogether different skill. And the very suggestion that Pavarotti was not a musical singer is patently absurd. I also think he was a rather lovely actor, certainly with his voice  – you just wouldn't want him in your choir when something tricky like Herbert Howell's 'Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing' is on the service sheet, with only ten minutes in which to rehearse it.

"It's all too easy for well-trained musicians to forget that musical notation is not the be-all and end-all; that music is an aural art rather than a visual one. I find myself wondering whether criticising an opera singer because he's not good at reading music might make as much sense as belittling an actor who's dyslexic. As long as he's getting it right, what does it matter?

"Besides, there's surely a definite upside to not being able to read music. Many opera vocal scores are very heavy. Der Rosenkavalier weighs in at over 1.5 kilos – a few of those in your suitcase can make a serious dent in your luggage allowance. Imagine not having to carry that lot around.

Getting through Ben Gurion airport would be an absolute doddle."

--Christopher Gillett

To read the article in its entirety, visit http://www.sinfinimusic.com/uk/features/blogs/christopher-gillett/should-opera-and-classical-singers-like-pavarotti-be-able-to-sight-read-music

To read more about classical music from Sinfini Music, visit http://www.sinfinimusic.com/uk#

To read more from Christopher Gillett, visit http://christophergillett.co.uk/


Jun 23, 2015

Dvorak: Rhapsodies (CD review)

Rhapsody in A minor; Slavonic Rhapsodies. Tomas Brauner, Pilsen Philharmonic. ArcoDiva UP 0171-2 031.

Pilsen is one of the biggest cities in the Czech Republic. The Pilsen Philharmonic, which traces its origins to the nineteenth century, is one of the oldest orchestras in the Czech Republic. Maestro Tomas Brauner, one of the world's foremost young conductors, was born in Prague, Czech Republic. I mention all of this because the subjects of the present album are the orchestral rhapsodies of Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), probably the most famous Czech composer of all time. What could be more appropriate than a Czech orchestra and a Czech conductor recording Czech music in a Czech studio?

Dvorak was proudly nationalistic, often using Czech folk influences in his music, particularly in matters of rhythm. Certainly, the composer's style appears no more explicitly than in his rhapsodies, for which Maestro Brauner seems to have a strong affinity. And, I might add, the Pilsen Philharmonic follow his lead commendably. It appears that not only does the city of Pilsen make a celebrated Pilsner beer, they have a fine orchestra, too.

Now, to the music at hand: The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, and Wikipedia all agree that a rhapsody is a single-movement, instrumental composition irregular in form, episodic yet integrated and suggestive of improvisation or spontaneity. A rhapsody generally appears as a free-flowing work that uses a range of moods, colors, and tones to evoke a feeling of epic, heroic, or national character. Dvorak wrote four of them.

Brauner presents the rhapsodies in their order of composition, starting with the Rhapsody in A minor, Op. 14, B44, written in 1874. According to a booklet note, it was the tone poem meditations of Franz Liszt that most influenced Dvorak to write the piece, combining the dramatic, melodic ideas of his homeland with the tone painting of Liszt. He even called it a "Symphonic Poem in A minor." However, the composer did not feel the work worthy of performance, so it was not until he died that the public finally heard it.

The Rhapsody itself sounds a bit disconnected at times, which may be part of the reason Dvorak refused to allow performances of it. Despite this tendency, however, the work also displays an abundance of attractive melodies, maybe too many, all of them affectionately presented by Maestro Brauner, who does his best to make the contrasting elements come together.

Tomas Brauner
It would be another four years before Dvorak returned to the idea of composing an orchestral rhapsody with his three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Op. 45, and with these he seemed a little happier. I enjoyed the first of these three rhapsodies best of all for its peaceful, idealized, and clearly Romantic attributes. Not that Maestro Brauner doesn't play up the dramatic effects when they arise, but it's clearly the pastoral element of the music that I found most appealing. Or maybe it's because the music reminded me a lot of Smetana's "Moldau," I'm not sure. In any case, Brauner applies a sweet, light touch to the score, and the result is quite charming.

Rhapsodies 2 and 3 are more theatrical, more striking musically, especially No. 2, than No. 1, with No. 3 being a sort of cross between the first two and sounding more than ever like Smetana. Whatever, I appreciated Brauner's rhythmic yet highly lyrical approach to the music. It may be relatively lightweight material, but Brauner makes it a worthwhile listen.

Recording director Sylva Stejskalova and engineers Vaclav Roubal and Karel Soukenik made the album at the studio of the Czech Radio Pilsen in 2013. There is a moderate degree of room ambience present, a resonance that enhances the believability of the sound. There is also a fair degree of transparency, air, space, depth, and solid deep bass involved. However, a frequency response that tends slightly to favor the upper midrange somewhat offsets these otherwise excellent qualities, making the sonics a tad top-heavy. Nevertheless, it's good sound overall, clean, clear, and reasonably natural.


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

Jun 21, 2015

Totally Telemann (CD review)

Music for Orchestra. Barokkanerne, Kati Debretzeni, Ingeborg Christophersen, Alfredo Bernardini, Torun Kirby Torbo. LAWQ Classics LWC1074.

Being unfamiliar with the group Barokkanerne, I looked them up at our friends from Wikipedia, who inform us that "Barokkanerne is a Norwegian baroque ensemble based in Oslo, Norway. The ensemble was founded in 1989, playing on period instruments and gives concerts both as a chamber music group and orchestra. The ensemble has toured in Israel and Lithuania, participated in the Oslo Chamber Music Festival, the Oslo International Church Music Festival and has done productions for NRK TV and radio. Barokkanerne has its own concert series, called Cafebarokk, at Cafe Teatret in Oslo.

"The ensemble consists of professional musicians, permanent employees in the Oslo Philharmonic and the Radio Orchestra, as well as freelance musicians." Thank you, Wiki folk. Barokkanerne have made a small number of recordings over the past quarter century, so it seems odd that I've never run into them before. Nevertheless, better late than never, and I'm glad I found them.

Here, Barokkanerne are playing Telemann. That would be German Baroque composer and instrumentalist Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), one of the most-prolific composers of all time and considered by his contemporaries the leading German composer of his day. On the present album, Barokkanerne accompany soloists Kati Debretzeni, violin, Ingeborg Christophersen, recorder, Alfredo Bernardini, oboe, and Torun Kirby Torbo, flute on four brief concertos by Telemann, along with the orchestral suite La Bourse.

The concertos, which dominate the program, are the Concerto in E minor for Flute, Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo, TWV52:33; the Concerto in C Minor for Oboe, Strings and Basso Continuo, TWV 51:c1; the Concerto in B-flat Major for Violin, Strings and Basso Continuo, TWV 51:B1, and the Concerto in E Minor for Flute, Recorder, Strings and Basso Continuo, TWV 52:e1. In addition, there is La Bourse, Suite in B-flat Major, TWV 55:B11.

As far as period-instrument bands go, Barokkanerne are quite good. They never sound rough or raggedy as can sometimes be the case with such ensembles. Indeed, if anything, they sound too polished, too precise. They apparently play without a conductor, but it doesn't seem to have any effect on the sophistication of their performances. I have to admit, however, that I've gotten rather used to the lighter, more buoyant style of a period-instrument group like Philharmonia Baroque than the more sedate, more straightlaced approach usually taken by Barokkanerne. Still, there is much one can praise about Barokkanerne's interpretations of Baroque music. After all, people nowadays call the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries "The Age of Reason," so there is good cause for Barokkanerne to perform Telemann in a somewhat analytical fashion.

In any case, Barokkanerne and the various soloists do a splendid job playing as one, supporting each other, and creating a rich tapestry of musical colors. Among my favorite items were the opening piece for flute and violin solos and the later orchestral suite, both of them vibrant and fun, even if they don't exactly bubble over with mirth. Barokkanerne, as I say, go after elegance and refinement above all; and here they succeed. The Adagio of the B-flat Concerto for Violin and Strings is also quite lovely and alone should win the album a flock of fans, as should the final movement of the E minor Concerto for Flute and Recorder for its virtuoso playing.

Producer Jorn Pedersen and engineer Thomas Wolden recorded the album at Jar Church, Baerum, Norway in March 2014. They made it for playback via hybrid SACD, two-channel stereo (CD and SACD) and, I assume, multichannel (SACD). I say that "I assume" there's a multichannel SACD layer because nowhere on the packaging or within the booklet insert could I find any word about the disc's playback capabilities, and since I only have my SACD player hooked up in two-channel, I was unable to determine for myself the disc's multichannel functions.

Anyway, I listened in two-channel SACD and thought the sound was fine. Barokkanerne is a pretty small group, so you would expect the sound to appear fairly transparent, which is the case. Although they seem a little too up-close for my taste, the sound is both warm and natural, with a pleasantly mild room resonance to add further to the lifelike effect. Instruments show up clearly separated and cleanly delineated, with a wide stereo spread. It's a good listen.


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

Jun 18, 2015

Elgar: Enigma Variations (CD review)

Also, In the South; Introduction and Allegro for Strings; Sospiri. John Eliot Gardiner, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 463 265-2.

I don't know why it so pleasantly surprised me that John Eliot Gardiner handled these perennial English favorites so affectionately, but surprise me it did, and delighted me as well. I suppose I expected the conductor to be more matter-of-fact or more Germanic in his approach, because so many of his previous recordings have been in the German baroque repertoire. Anyway, Gardiner does a splendid job illuminating four of Elgar's early twentieth-century tone poems.

That anyone might call these pieces "tone poems" at all may itself be a misnomer. I doubt that English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) would have described them as such. But certainly they conjure up pictures and feelings beyond their abstract musical values, and especially as the first work on the disc, In the South, sounds so very much like Richard Strauss, the term "tone poem" comes readily to mind and seems appropriate. Whatever, Maestro Gardiner conveys the sweep and grandeur of each piece quite well, perhaps missing out on some of the commanding scope expressed in the performances of Sir Adrian Boult or the ethereal beauty of readings by Sir John Barbirolli, but worth a listen in their own, darker, more introspective way. Needless to say, too, the Vienna Philharmonic sound wonderful, whether or not they're fully experienced in playing English music.

John Eliot Gardiner
Yes, Gardiner displays his own merits, particularly in the lovely Sospiri, where the strings, harp, and organ so delicately intertwine. As for the centerpiece of the collection, the Enigma Variations, well, Gardiner does try to differentiate each of the themes well enough that whatever puzzles may be there a person might find clearly delineated. You'll recall that Elgar premiered the work in 1899, and it was his first big success. He began his fourteen variations by writing an improvisation and then continued to toy with each one, bringing into the work all kinds of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Gardiner adds his own personal insights into these variations, successfully integrating them into some kind of whole rather than sounding like a collection of disparate items.

My only concern with the disc is that the engineers appear to have miked the Vienna Philharmonic rather close and flat. My comparisons to the aforementioned Boult and Barbirolli discs (both on EMI) found the older recordings more transparent and more three dimensional. This is isn't a big fault, as the DG disc, recorded in 1998, at least appears nicely balanced in its frequency response, extremely smooth in its tonal response, and fairly wide ranging throughout. But it is a little disappointing to hear any newer recording sounding less natural than ones made decades earlier.

Of course, who am I kidding? Audiophiles will swear that good analogue recordings from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies beat anything being made today. Maybe so. Maybe so.


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

Jun 16, 2015

Bach to Moog (CD review)

Jennifer Pike, violin; Craig Leon, Moog synthesizers and conductor; Sinfonietta Cracovia. Sony 88875052612.

Turn back the clock; we're all young again.

In the mid Sixties Dr. Robert Moog invented the Moog music synthesizer. A couple of years later, American composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos put the instrument on the map with the best-selling album Switched-On Bach. Now, we go back to the future with Bach to Moog, an updated realization of that landmark release, this time performed by Craig Leon, complete with a newly reconstructed Moog synthesizer and accompanied by violinist Jennifer Pike and a small ensemble of players, the Sinfonietta Cracovia.

As producer, performer, and conductor Leon explains, "I had a discussion with the folks at Moog Music about creating a recording that would coincide with two significant events that they were going to be celebrating. The first was the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Moog Modular synthesizer, which was occurring in 2014-15. The second was the upcoming 10th anniversary of the death of Robert A. 'Bob' Moog, their founder, who was the pioneer who brought the synthesizer to the world's musical stage.

"For the anniversary events, Moog Music manufactured a carefully reconstructed version of the Moog modular 55, which, though not the actual instrument that was used on Switched-On Bach, was very close to the original instrument on the recording. This was the instrument that was to feature on my project and indeed I would be the first person to record with it.

"I was faced with the daunting task of ensuring that the piece was not simply another retro version of the original Switched-On Bach. That was an album that has stood the test of time and remains a classic to this day. Instead I wanted to find a place for the synthesizer as an equal to acoustic instruments in the modern recording environment, both as a solo instrument and as a member of an ensemble. Doing research with theremins and a DI'd string bass as an audio source for processing via the Moog, I felt that string instruments would be the most useful for my purpose.

"The arrangements were written for small string ensemble, solo violin and solo Moog, using Moog as a processor for the acoustic instruments."

Craig Leon
So, is Leon's new release an improvement on its famous precursor? That's hard to answer because it may depend on one's attitude toward the original. Most of the classical-music listeners I knew in the late Sixties viewed Switched-On Bach as a sort of novelty; I mean, if you wanted to hear Bach played by an organ or a harpsichord or an orchestra, that's the way you bought it. But a synthesizer? While it was fun and began to tap the potential of electronic instruments, I'm not too sure a lot of Bach fans took it seriously. After all, not every Bach fan appreciated Stokowski's orchestral arrangements of Bach, either. Bach to Moog may find itself in the same company today. It's fun but obviously far from authentic and probably another novelty.

Here's a lineup of what's on the program:
Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, Preludio
Violin Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Siciliano
"Herz Und Mund Und Tat Und Leben"
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
"Ich Steh Mit Einem Fuß Im Grabe"
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Orchestral Suite No. 3: Air
Goldberg Variations: Aria
Fourteen Canons on the Goldberg ground

It's all pretty familiar territory, but only a couple of items duplicate material from Carlos's album. The opening number, the Violin Partita No. 3, sets the tone for the rest of the program. The arrangement is tasteful, and Leon's playing and conducting are basically pretty conventional, with no helter-skelter tempos or exaggerated pauses, lengthening or shortening of notes, or tonal contrasts. Indeed, Leon could just as well be leading a traditional chamber version of Bach, except that we get a healthier amount of electronic music-making along with it.

The famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor sounds for all the world as though Leon is playing it on a typical church organ, so I'm not entirely sure what the point is. Fans of the Moog, of course, will point out that I'm simply untutored in the art of the instrument, and surely they would be correct. The Moog is capable of producing a remarkable variety of tones, so it can duplicate the sound of almost anything you program and play on it. The entire presentation from everyone involved seems energetic and enjoyable, with only the slight buzzing and burbling of the Moog a minor distraction for non-Moog enthusiasts.

Probably my favorite selection on the program, though, was the complete Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. But my reason for liking it may not be a compliment to the Moog because it is the very fact that the electronic sound is less obvious in these tracks than in any of the others. Whatever, I liked it.

Anyway, I found Leon's way with Bach more to more liking than Carlos's, more cultured and refined. And, of course, the addition of the violin solos and chamber accompaniment provides for a fuller, more-complete sound. The main thing is that it's all quite pleasurable, and none of it does any harm to Bach.

Producer and engineer Craig Leon and engineer Piotr Witkowski recorded the music at Bottomwood Recording, Buckinghamshire, UK, and Alvernia Studios, Alvernia, Poland and released the disc in May 2015. It's hard to judge the electronic part of this music as there is no absolute counterpart in the real world with which to compare it. The "sound" of electronically generated music in concert is often a matter of the kind of loudspeakers employed and their placement. Nevertheless, the sound on this disc will not disappoint fans of the Moog instrument or chamber orchestras, as it all sounds very close, very dynamic, and very clear. Yet the sound is not at all bright, steely, metallic, or edgy. In fact, everything appears exceptionally smooth, smoother than the old Carlos album. It's also a very big sound, the ensemble stretching very wide left to right. Expect room-filling sound with strong impact in a fairly warm acoustic setting.


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

Jun 14, 2015

Haydn: Sinfonia concertante (CD review)

Also, Mozart: Oboe Concerto in C major; Bassoon Concerto in B flat major. Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo. Hyperion CDA68090.

What is Arcangelo? According to their Web site, "Arcangelo is one of the world's leading ensembles bringing together exceptional musicians who excel on both historical and modern instruments, under the direction of founder and artistic director & conductor Jonathan Cohen.

"Its players believe that the collaboration required in chamber music, whether working in duos or as a chamber orchestra, is the highest expression of what it means to make music. Setting it apart from other ensembles, all performers are committed to this chamber ideal and as such Arcangelo attracts an outstanding calibre of performers who already have flourishing solo and chamber music careers. These are performers of dazzling technical ability, but they also have a passion for faithful interpretation that goes far beyond historical understanding.

"Formed in 2010, Arcangelo has exploded onto the musical scene with verve and energy and has since enjoyed numerous invitations to appear at major festivals and concert halls in Europe and America."

The first and only other time I encountered Maestro Cohen and Arcangelo, they were providing the accompaniment for violinist Vilda Frang on an excellent album of Mozart violin concertos. It was a pleasure at the time hearing them play, and it's an equal pleasure listening to them here.

On the present album, Arcangelo play three selections, one from Haydn and two from Mozart, all from approximately the same period, the late eighteenth century. The first item is the Sinfonia concertante in B flat major by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), a piece he wrote in 1792. A sinfonia concertante is kind of a mix of symphony and concerto, this one featuring a violin (Ilya Gringolts), cello (Nicolas Altstaedt), oboe (Alfredo Bernardini), and bassoon (Peter Whelan).

Jonathan Cohen
The playing of Arcangelo appears silky smooth, every phrase, every note, every nuance gliding effortlessly from one to another. And since this is Haydn, we can expect a plenitude of charming tunes strung together in a seemingly unending display of delightful music making. Arcangelo do Haydn justice with a reasonably lively, always graceful and elegant performance. I should also single out the soloists for their commendably gentle yet virtuosic work. Everything about the production displays a glistening polish that is most enjoyable. They go on to create a lovely Andante and a most-spirited conclusion.

Next, we get the Oboe Concerto in C major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), a piece he wrote in 1777. The featured player is Alfredo Bernardini, oboe. The two Mozart works are both equally felicitous, and Arcangelo perform them with refinement and finesse, Mr. Bernardini playing a mean oboe.

The program concludes with Mozart's Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, written in 1774. It features Peter Whelan, bassoon. Again the ease of Arcangelo's playing perfectly enhances the mellow nature of the oboe, as the ensemble also seem well attuned to the concerto's sense of fun in the opening movement. In the middle Andante, Mr. Whelan's oboe plangently voices an operatic voice, a touch of melancholy present but not overpowering. The finale seems a tad too formal to me, but I suppose it's in keeping with the cultured nature of the rest of Arcangelo's approach.

Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt recorded the music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London in February 2012, November 2013, and April 2014. Ultrasmooth sound marks the key feature of this release, complementing the ultrasmooth performances. Not that there isn't a good deal of detail, too, but the smoothness seems paramount. There is also a wide stereo spread, a fairly good dynamic response, and a pleasantly enveloping ambient bloom. It makes for a big, satisfying sound.


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

Jun 11, 2015

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on the Bare Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov); Khovanshchina Prelude (orch. Shostakovich), Gopak from Sorochintsy (orch. Liadov). Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Philips 289 468 526-2.

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) has been an excellent work for the recording medium because it easily demonstrates what most music lovers and hi-fi buffs alike appreciate most. It has all the tonal color, orchestral virtuosity, and aural dynamics to keep everybody happy. Conductor Valery Gergiev must realize this because he has recorded it at least four times, and this 2003 release with the Vienna Philharmonic manages to satisfy most of the criteria for good music listening. Whether Gergiev will satisfy everyone is another question.

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

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

The single most important quality for any recording of Pictures is that the conductor makes sure every movement, every "portrait," sounds expressively developed and subtly shaded enough to bring to life the subject of the painting. In this regard, Gergiev is reasonably successful. Just don't expect the usual pyrotechnics from the piece; Gergiev prefers in this reading to evoke a big, earthy, yet still refined set of tonal images.

Valery Gergiev
Like his other recordings of the piece, Gergiev takes the "Promenades" at a fairly leisurely pace as the viewer (or whoever) strolls about the exhibition gallery; and most of the individual sections are picturesque enough if not always particularly creative. In other words, everything is neat and tidy, but there is not always that extra spark in every piece. Fortunately, Gergiev has the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic to bring the music to life, and they come through splendidly.

I liked the eeriness of "Il vecchio castello" and the fun in the "Ballet of the Chicks, although I still missed the sense of character contributed by a conductor like Fritz Reiner (RCA). Likewise, Gergiev's "Baba Yaga" and "Great Gate of Kiev," while still meaningful, seem to lack much of the kick that a conductor like Riccardo Muti (EMI) put into them. Well, you see what I mean; Gergiev's recording is fine but not among my favorites.

Philips recorded the music live in the Musikverein, Vienna, April, 2000, and released it on both a regular stereo CD and a hybrid multichannel SACD; I listened to the regular stereo CD. As far as the sound goes, it's good without being absolutely topflight, perhaps the live recording being a part of the problem. Things appear dynamic enough, to be sure, well balanced, very slightly veiled, and, thankfully, quiet. Yet there is a lack of truly deep bass that tends to rob a few movements in Pictures of their power and eloquence. The "Catacombs" segment, for example, really needs that low bass underpinning, as do the final two movements, "Baba Yaga" and "Great Gate of Kiev"; and it is here that both the Reiner and Muti discs again sweep the field.

So, the recording remains a slightly mixed bag for me. I expected Gergiev to be outgoing, red-blooded, but I found him a bit more conservative than I would have liked. Still, these are minor quibbles, I suppose, for folks looking for a serviceable digital recording of the Pictures, with three good, spirited couplings in A Night on the Bare Mountain, the Prelude to Khovanshchina, and the Gopak from Sorochintsy Fair to boot. Come to think of it, the couplings may be better interpreteted than the star attraction.


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

Jun 9, 2015

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 "Emperor" (SACD review)

Christoph Eschenbach, piano; Hans Werner Henze, London Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 201.

It wasn't too long ago that Brilliant Classics re-released these 1973 DG recordings by Christoph Eschenbach on a regular CD. Now, the folks at Pentatone Music have re-mastered and re-released them all over again, this time on a hybrid SACD. They were fine performances in their day, and they still remain fine performances. Whether they are good enough to warrant such lavish treatment as these continued rereleases, I'm not sure. Nevertheless, like all of Beethoven's work, things of beauty are joys forever, so maybe we should be grateful for what we get.

Although I couldn't recall much about Eschenbach's recording of the Third Piano Concerto until I heard it on the Brilliant Classics reissue), I had fond memories of his Fifth Concerto, which comes up first on the new SACD. I used to own the recording on Deutsche Grammophon back in the old LP days but never got around to replacing it on CD. Still, it maintained a high place in my LP collection for many years, so it's good to hear it in such good sound. Eschenbach combines brilliant technique and careful thought in equal measure to produce what remains one of the best "Emperor" Concerto recordings you'll find.

As you know, Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his 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. It would be Beethoven's final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of the man's most-popular pieces of music. However, the work's nickname, "Emperor," was not Beethoven's idea. In fact, he might not have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor Napoleon. It was most likely Beethoven's publisher who called the piece "Emperor," possibly because Beethoven premiered it in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday. Who knows.

Anyway, any rendition of the "Emperor" must provide a big, bold, imposing opening Allegro, and Eschenbach does just that, the whole thing full of energy, virtuosity, and daring skill. That first movement is as grand as you'd want. Yet Eschenbach offers much poetry; energetic, to be sure, but lyrical as well. Maestro Ozawa keeps the tempos brisk, yet they are never fast or rushed. So both the piano playing and the orchestral accompaniment are in accord, being enthusiastic and entirely within the Romantic tradition. The interpretation is never fierce, while always maintaining that belligerent attitude the composer was famous for.

Christoph Eschenbach
Eschenbach and Ozawa take the slow movement even slower than usual, reinforcing the romanticism of the piece. Certainly, Eschenbach captures the melancholy of the music as well as anyone ever has. Then the team produce a rousingly heroic finale to cap off a wholly satisfying reading, one that never wanders off into extrovert showmanship for its own sake.

Interestingly, DG originally released this recording of the Fifth Piano Concerto the same year Decca released their own version with Ashkenazy, Solti, and the Chicago Symphony, which tended to overshadow Eschenbach and company. Both recordings are in the same class, though. Interestingly, too, both Eschenbach and Ashkenazy went on to successful conducting careers along with their piano playing.

The Pentatone disc's accompanying work, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, is not quite as successful under Eschenbach, Maestro Hans Henze, and the London Symphony Orchestra. It's not a matter of tempos so much--they are moderate--but contrasts and emphases. In any case, it's still a distinctive interpretation, the performers more than willing to stamp the music with the force of their own wills. I'm not sure, however, that it's all that playful, imaginative, or charming as it is lyrically expressive. Henze and Eschenbach here seem a little more intent on forcing us to like the music than in allowing us to like it.

DG recorded the Fifth Piano Concerto in 1973 at Symphony Hall, Boston, and the Third Piano Concerto in 1971 at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, London. Polyhymnia International remastered the recordings for Pentatone at Baarn, The Netherlands in August 2014, releasing them for hybrid SACD multichannel and two-channel playback. I did my listening in SACD two-channel using a Sony SACD player.

All of the sound in No. 5 is crisp and clear, the piano a tad forward in the hall, making it appear rather wider than it might sound in actuality. There is also a considerable sense of air and space from the ambient field, perhaps even too much, and a fine dynamic response. Timpani seem to benefit particularly well from the new mastering.

The orchestra in No. 3 appears very slightly more recessed than in No. 5, the piano still fairly close up although not quite as close as in No. 5. Overall, I found the sound here a little more convincing, more natural, smoother, and more lifelike than in No. 5.

Pentatone have issued the disc in a standard SACD case and a light-cardboard slipcover.


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

Jun 8, 2015

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

No, it's not a review or news or anything like that. It's just a picture I like. Fans of German artist Michael Sowa know his work for its satire and whimsy. Thank you, Michael.


Jun 7, 2015

Great Comedy Overtures (CD review)

Lance Friedel, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.573418.

The best place to begin a review of an album titled Great Comedy Overtures would probably be with a definition of "comedy." My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines the term as "a play, movie, etc., of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion." Not that there aren't comic operas that are pretty funny, but the emphasis for opera might be on the idea of triumph over adversity, with a successful or happy ending.

Such is the case with the eleven selections in the album under review, selections that include just about every famous comedy overture you can think of, all of them vigorously presented by Maestro Lance Friedel and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. A look at the track titles will give you the idea of the material:

1. Herold: Zampa
2. Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
3. Wolf-Ferrari: Il segreto di Susanna
4. Thomas: Mignon
5. Reznicek: Donna Diana
6. Flotow: Martha
7. Auber: Fra Diavolo
8. Lortzing: Zar und Zimmermann
9. Cimarosa: Il matrimonio segreto
10. Adam: Si j'etais roi
11. Cornelius: Der Barbier von Bagdad (arr. F. Mottl for orchestra)

Lance Friedel
Maestro Friedel and his Scottish orchestra attack each overture with a commendable enthusiasm. The composers of these pieces meant them, after all, as curtain raisers. They should get our attention, and they do. However, I can't say we really needed another album of overtures, nor can I say that Friedel injects them with as much creative nuance as I've heard. While the music moves right along at a healthy gait, it never seems to catch fire and inspire or thrill one as it might. Nevertheless, these are personal quibbles, and one cannot deny that Friedel and company offer the tunes in a most serviceable fashion.

Favorites? Under Maestro Friedel, Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor has a lovely romantic spirit in its opening and a lively bounce in the Allegro section. Wolf-Ferrari's Il segreto di Susanna probably has the most-charming spirit of the bunch. Thomas's Mignon sounds most elegant. Since I grew up with Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, how could I fail to like Reznicek's Donna Dianna? Auber's Fra Diavolo shows plenty of spunk. And there's an appealing lightheartedness about Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto.

The total playing time for the disc is nearly eighty minutes (79:44), a most-generous number that approaches the limit of a standard CD.

Producer Tim Handley and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the album at Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, Scotland in January 2014. The producers seem to have miked this one for maximum realism rather than any kind of close-up clarity. The result is a little different and does, indeed, sound fairly lifelike. The orchestra shows up at a moderate distance, with lots of hall resonance to give it a properly natural bloom. Although detailing suffers somewhat and the sound appears a bit narrower and more muted than we usually hear from most modern recordings, there is a good depth of field and some strong dynamics involved.


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

Jun 4, 2015

Red Priest: Handel in the Wind (CD review)

The Messiah and other masterworks. Red Priest. Red Priest Recordings RP012.

While Red Priest may sound like the name of a heavy-metal band, it is, in fact, a British Baroque ensemble of four talented classical musicians, folks who take a good deal of pleasure playing period music on period instruments in their own uniquely flashy yet dazzling way. On the present recording the members are Piers Adams, recorder; Julia Bishop, violin; Angela East, cello; and David Wright, harpsichord. As a measure of their typically irreverent, tongue-in-cheek style, the group, which formed in 1997, took their name from the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, nicknamed "The Red Priest" because he was a priest with red hair. The fact that the name should also remind listeners of Judas Priest is part of the fun.

Handel in the Wind marks the group's sixth album together (members have also released albums separately), and it represents their usual playfulness in reinventing the classics. However, I must note that despite their sometimes overzealous pursuit of giving old tunes new meaning, they really do little harm to the originals. Here, Handel remains Handel no matter how unusual the arrangements or cheeky the performances.

Indeed, their reimaginings may win new fans for the old masters. As the group write in a booklet note: "Although Handel might raise an eyebrow if he were to hear our more far-fetched transcriptions, he was no stranger to the concept of arrangement in general--and clearly he knew a good tune when he heard (or wrote) one, shamelessly re-adapting his own material for different contexts. In fact, the very idea of attempting to perform music exactly as the composer would have done (upon which concept the entire edifice of 'authentic performance' is built) is historically invalid; in baroque times the personal whim and creativity of the performer was paramount. And thus this recording came into being, and the Lord saw that it was good."

A lot of people will no doubt find Red Priest's mischief making offensive, especially purists who may think the group is purposely making fun of the music. Other listeners will find it too silly for them. Certainly, the material on the present disc represents an acquired taste, where you will hear mixed in with Handel echoes of Jaws, Harry Potter, James Bond, a little Spike Jones and Marx Brothers, and a good deal of Monty Python. I found it occasionally amusing, often virtuosic, and always entertaining. But, then, I've always been a fan of Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach, too. Part serious, part parody, the crew of Red Priest don't make fun of classical music but make classical music fun, which is all that matters.

Here's the playlist:
  1-15: Suite from The Messiah
     16: Lascia ch'io Pianga
17-20: Trio Sonata in F major, Op. 2 No. 4
     22: The Harmonious Blacksmith Variations
23-24: Largo and Passacaglia in G minor
     25: Zadok the Red Priest
     26: Aria Amorosa (bonus track)

Without paying close attention, the nonclassical listener might mistake much of Red Priest's music as perfectly straight. Listen a little more attentively, and you'll find combinations of eras and composers cobbled together in amusing fashion. Then there are other selections that one cannot mistake for anything but humor, like "The Jaws of Darkness," "Despised and Rejected," "Siciliano Pedicuro," or "Hallelujah." And there are parts, like "The Recorder Shall Sound," that are both fun and astonishingly virtuosic. Often, the music begins in earnest and then sails off into its own playfully decorated world. As I say, fun stuff.

The producers generously fill out the disc with seventy-one minutes of music, including an encore bonus track, "Aria Amorosa," from a previous album.

Producers Gary Cole and Piers Adams and engineer Gary Cole recorded the album at Birley Centre, Eastbourne College, England in May 2014. The sound is pretty much as one would expect from four instrumentalists performing together. They stretch across the sound stage in a fairly close-up manner, the harpsichord slightly recessed, but they don't appear bright or edgy, just smooth warm. Even though I would have preferred a more natural perspective, the sound is more than adequate for the occasion; we shouldn't take any of it too seriously.


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

Jun 3, 2015

Field: Piano Concertos Nos. 5 and 6 (CD review)

Benjamin Frith, piano; David Haslam, Northern Sinfonia. Naxos 8.554221.

If you aren't familiar with Irish composer John Field (1782-1837), Naxos makes it easy to become acquainted with him. Pianist Benjamin Frith, together with conductor David Haslam and the Northern Sinfonia, have issued almost all of Field's piano concertos, six of seven I believe, in winning performances and pretty good Naxos sound.

I reviewed the First and Third Concertos from Frith several years before this issue and found them entirely fetching; needless to say, I found this newer, 2002 release of the Fifth and Sixth Concertos equally fine. Of course, if you are new to the man's work, I'd advise starting with No. 1 because it remains his most felicitous (and probably most popular) concerto. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Nos. 5 and 6 as well. The Fifth is especially noteworthy for its depiction of a fire and storm, perhaps some allusion to the war of 1812; it's unclear. I know, however, I had a marginal preference for the greater poetic invention of No. 6. Both concertos sound like pieces from the late Romantic period, but, in fact, they date from 1817 and 1819 respectively, early Romantic.

Benjamin Frith
Field was ahead of his time, and to mark how far ahead, he's the fellow who practically invented the piano nocturne. Odd, then, that these two concertos should have such brief slow movements, No. 2's Adagio lasting a mere two minutes. In each of the concertos, the opening movements last twice as long as the second and third movements combined. Go figure.

The Naxos sound (recorded in 1997, and I don't know why it took them so long to get the disc to market) appears full, warm, and robust when played at a volume approximate to what one might hear from a moderate distance at a live concert. Played back softly, though, the reproduction might disappoint you, because it can sound a bit dull and soggy. The piano seems generally well integrated into the acoustic field, and the occasional loud orchestral outburst will testify to the disc's reasonably wide dynamic range.

Field was once the toast of Europe, but admiration for his work fell off over time. Fortunately, this Naxos series and several Chandos releases among others have helped revive his popularity. It's about time.


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

Jun 1, 2015

Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering (CD review)

Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire Baroque Orchestra. Avie Records AV2329.

Director and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell formed the small, period-instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire in 1992 in order to create a new baroque orchestra in Cleveland, Ohio. As a previous booklet note observed, "Sorrell envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the various Affekts or passions in the listeners. Apollo's Fire, named after the classical god of music and the sun, is a collection of creative artists who share Sorrell's passion for drama and rhetoric."

The members of Apollo's Fire on the present album include Amanda Powell, soprano; Ross Hauck, tenor; Susanna Perry Gilmore, fiddle; Kathie Stewart, wooden flutes and penny whistle; Tina Bergmann, vocals and hammered dulcimer; Rene Schiffer, cello; Brian Kay, vocals, lute, guitar, gourd banjo, and long-neck dulcimer; and Jennette Sorrell, harpsichord and direction.

While Sorrell and her ensemble generally stick to early classical music, the success of their album Come to the River: An Early American Gathering, which evoked the spirit of early 19th-century rural Americana, seems to have spurred them to do this follow-up, Sugarloaf Mountain: An Appalachian Gathering.

According to the source of all knowledge (at least mine at the moment), Wikipedia, "Appalachia is a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from Southern New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. As of the 2010 census, the region was home to approximately 25 million people." More important to this album, it's the region where a lot of America's earliest settlers located, mostly immigrants from the British isles. It's also a region in which Ms. Sorrell, Ms. Powell, and Ms. Stewart grew up, so the album is something of a homecoming for them. And, as Ms. Sorrell explains, "This new disc is not a sequel to Come to the River. If anything, it is a prequel--reaching back in time to explore the earliest roots of Appalachian heritage."

Anyway, Ms. Sorrell has divided the program into seven sections and sixteen tunes, covering the migrants' journey to America ("Prologue" and "Coming to the New World"), their settling in the Appalachian Mountains ("Dark Mountain Home"), and their life here ("Cornshuck Party," "Love & Loss," "Glory on the Mountain," and "Appalachian Home"). The program's organization gives the album a focus and continuity rather than the album being merely another random selection of folk songs.

Apollo's Fire
Apollo's Fire bring a classic sensibility to the simple folk numbers in thoroughly refined musical presentations of the highest caliber. Listeners will either appreciate the beauty of their playing, or they will reject it as too good, too sophisticated. After all, the songs they perform are ones that traditionally only unpretentious country folk performed or occasional folk artists recorded. This, of course, has always been a danger with professional artists recording folk music: critics of an earlier day accused the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, even the Weavers of corrupting the term "folk music" with their scrubbed and polished versions of traditional tunes. So be it; if you don't like the idea, don't listen to it. At least Ms. Sorrell and several other members of Apollo's Fire grew up with this music, and you can hardly blame them for being good at performing it so well.

Here's a list on the songs on the disc:

  1. The Mountains of Rhùm
  2. Farewell to Ireland - Highlander's Farewell
  3. We'll Rant and We'll Road (Farewell to the Isles)
  4. The Cruel Sister
  5. Se fath mo buart ha (The Cause of All My Sorrow) - The Butterfly Barney Brallaghan
  6. Nottamun Town
  7. Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair
  8. I Wonder as I Wander - The Gravel Walk Over the Isles to America
  9. The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night
10. Oh Susanna! - Pretty Peg - Far From Home
11. Once I had a Sweetheart - Wayfaring Stranger
12. Pretty Betty Martin - Katy Did - Red Rockin' Chair
13. Just Before the Battle, Mother - Go March Along
14. Glory in the Meeting House
15. Oh Mary, Don't You Weep
16. Sugarloaf Mountain

Favorites? The opening number is lovely in a nostalgic sort of way. "We'll Rant and We'll Roar" is lively and familiar, and it may remind some listeners of "Spanish Ladies," the old sea shanty Robert Shaw sang in the movie Jaws. In keeping with the immigrants coming to the new land from England and Ireland, many of the songs have a Celtic influence to them; such is the case with the purely instrumental numbers in particular. "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night" has a splendidly mischievous tone. "Oh Susanna!" offers a welcoming comfort; Hauck's solo "Don't Forget Me, Mother" glides seamlessly into Powell's "Go March Along" and the result is heartbreaking; and Powell's work in the spiritual "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep" is inspirational. The final number, the titular "Sugarloaf Mountain," is a further exploration of the opening tune, this time with a slightly greater emphasis on the flavor of Appalachia.

I might add if it isn't obvious by now that Ms. Powell has a fine, expressive soprano voice and Mr. Hauck a robust tenor. The rest of the ensemble sound expectedly accomplished, perhaps more so than a lot of purists would like. As I say, so be it.

Producers Jeannette Sorrell and Erica Brenner, recording and mastering engineer Thomas Knab, and editor Erica Brenner made the recordings in June 2014 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The sound is clean, warm, and well rounded, a natural response from instruments and vocals. The stereo spread extends from speaker to speaker but not beyond, making for a realistic perspective. The instrumental sound appears detailed and well projected, with a mild hall resonance to provide a bit of ambient bloom. Voices seem modestly distanced and are set pleasingly within the instrumental background. It's all quite well recorded in a fairly natural way, with no hint of close-up pop style.


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