Sep 29, 2015

Waltzes by the Strauss Family (CD review)

Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony; Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops Orchestra. HDTT HDCD406.

Richard M. Daley, Mayor of Chicago, said of Sir Georg Solti, "Under his direction, the Chicago Symphony has achieved new heights, and is respected internationally as a world-class organization."  Any number of other people, including Solti himself, expressed that misleading sentiment, proving that people have short memories. Apparently, they had all forgotten that half a dozen years before Solti, the great Fritz Reiner conducted the Chicago Symphony (from 1953 to 1963), raising it to international prominence, and through his RCA Living Stereo recordings helping to pioneer the stereo age.

I mention this information because I always welcome any new remasterings of Reiner's work, especially when they are as good as this one from HDTT (High Definition Tape Masters).

It was with Richard Strauss that Austro-Hungarian born Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) made his name with some of the earliest (1954) stereo recordings of R. Strauss's work; however, Reiner was no slouch when it came to Johann Strauss and family, either, as demonstrated by this brief collection of waltzes by Johann II and Josef Strauss. As I said about Reiner's Johann Strauss music in an earlier review of JVC's remastering of the same material, I like the music, and I like the way Reiner plays it. Almost everything Reiner conducted came out fresher, more pointed, more secure, more clarified, and more refined than ever before. Sure, Willi Boskovsky, another of my favorites in the Strauss family, put a touch more bounce, more verve, into in Strauss waltzes, but Reiner added the element of purity. I like the selections here, too: three Strauss Jr. waltzes: "Morning Papers," "Emperor Waltz," and "On the Beautiful Blue Danube"; and Strauss Jr.'s brother Josef Strauss's waltz "Village Swallows."

For good measure, HDTT have coupled Reiner's J. Strauss recordings with Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops accounts of Edward Strauss's "Doctrines," Josef Strauss's "Music of the Sphere," and Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Roses from the South." Fiedler, the longtime conductor of the Boston Pops, probably sold more albums in his lifetime than any single conductor in history, and we generally associate him with light music. Perhaps that's why he handles Edward, Josef, and Johann Strauss's music so handily. It may not have quite the same elegant charm of Reiner's Strauss, but it has plenty of pizzazz to compensate.

Fritz Reiner
RCA recorded the music in 1957, and HDTT transferred it from several RCA 2-track tapes. I alluded above that I had reviewed some time ago another remastered edition of the Reiner Strauss music, that one by JVC in their XRCD audiophile series. Naturally, I wondered how the HDTT product would compare to something costing quite a lot more, so I put them in two separate CD players and listened back and forth. Not fair, I hear someone say. JVC not only used a costlier process but took their music directly from the original RCA master tapes, whereas HDTT had only the commercial RCA tapes to work with. Never mind, comparisons are comparisons.

Now, here's the thing: As expected, the JVC product did sound a tad better than the HDTT. The JVC seemed a trifle clearer and cleaner to me, with a bit tauter, deeper bass. Keep in mind, however, that you pay anywhere from two to four times as much for the JVC disc, depending on the HDTT format you choose; and if you didn't have the two discs playing side by side, I doubt that even the most golden ears would know there was a difference at all.

Which means that the HDTT remastering sounds darned good. Like its more-costly JVC counterpart, the HDTT disc sounds smoother and better detailed than the standard RCA product and captures the natural warmth of the venue better, too, at least in the case of the Reiner. I did not have a comparison to make for the Fiedler recordings. However, I can assure you the Fiedler performances sound excellent as well. If anything, they appear even wider in stereo spread and a little more forward in frequency balance than the Reiner things.

Of the two orchestras and concert halls represented here in Chicago and Boston, I preferred the Chicago recordings for their slightly warmer, more realistic sound to the Boston recordings with their more hi-fi-oriented sonics. Nevertheless, preferring the one very slightly over the other takes nothing away from the Boston recordings or performances. Everything on the album is first-rate.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


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

Sep 27, 2015

Sarasate: Opera Phantasies, Volume 2 (SACD review)

Volker Reinhold, violin; Ralph Zedler, piano. MDG 903 1909-6.

You'll remember that about a year earlier, violinist Volker Reinhold and pianist Ralph Zedler made a recording of six opera fantasies by the Spanish composer and virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). With the present album they have given us seven more of Sarasate's fantasies, completing the number the composer wrote. Although the selections on volume two are not quite as famous as those on volume one, it is perhaps understandable, and the works are certainly as commendable.

First, however, a word about the artists, of whom you may not know much more than I told you last time. Since 1989 violinist Volker Reinhold has been the concertmaster of the Mecklenburg State Orchestra, which performs operas, operettas, musicals, ballets, and concerts at the Mecklenburg State Theater in Schwerin, Germany. According to his Web site, Mr. Reinhold "has gone on to perform a wide range of solo assignments and to dedicate himself intensively to chamber music. Additionally, for some years he has often assisted as a concertmaster with several Northern German orchestras. He has a special predilection for the virtuosic violin literature, above all Fritz Kreisler and also Pablo de Sarasate. He has incorporated practically all of the former's music into his repertoire. For many years he has performed successfully with his regular piano partner Ralph Zedler. Mr. Reinhold performs on a 'Mougeot,' a French violin from the nineteenth century."

"In 1999 pianist Ralph Zedler graduated from Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. He worked regularly in the singing classes of Liselotte Hammes, Klesie Kelly, Kurt Moll, Edda Moser. From the autumn of 1999 to January 2011 Mr. Zedler was engaged at the Mecklenburg State Theatre in Schwerin as soloist and Ballettrepetitor, participating in over seventy productions of opera, operetta, musical, oratorio, and ballet. Since 2011 he has worked at capital Opera, the smallest Opera Berlin devoting himself to the repertoire of forgotten one-act plays. Mr. Zedler's concert career has taken him along with prominent figures such as singers Agnes Giebel, Ulrich Hielscher, Jean van Ree, and Edda Moser."

On the album under review, Reinhold and Zedler offer, as I say, seven more Sarasate fantasies. Since Sarasate loved to dazzle his audiences with his virtuosic pyrotechnics, what better way to do so than by playing some of his own transcriptions of already famous music. The program Reinhold and Zedler present here includes concert-fantasy arrangements for violin and piano of La Dame Blanche by Francois-Adrien Boieldieu; two fantasies on Faust by Charles Gounod; Mirelle by Gounod; Mignon by Ambrose Thomas; Don Juan (Don Giovanni) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Zampa by Ferdinand Herold.

Volker Reinhold
Volker Reinhold plays a mean fiddle; yet he is no extrovert showman for its own sake. Now, understand, Sarasate arranged these pieces to show off his brilliant playing ability, so understandably there is going to be plenty of opportunity for any soloist to demonstrate his worth. But, as I say, while Reinhold is a consummate violinist, he never seems to want to draw too much attention to himself but rather to the music. This means that while you may find greater pyrotechnics from other violinists, you'll find none who demonstrate the value of the music better than Reinhold.

In addition, Ralph Zedler's piano accompaniment always complements Reinhold's violin. There is neither a lagging letdown in Zedler's playing nor any attempt at upstaging. It is, after all, the violin that should be center stage in these pieces, and even though Zedler is an excellent pianist, he recognizes that it's his job to accompany the violin, which he does with admirable skill and attentiveness.

The opening number, La Dame Blanche, is a good example of how the two men enrich one another's skills. When the violin comes to the fore, the piano gently recedes into the background and vice versa, each artist giving the other plenty of room to shine. Again, neither man tries to give a bravura performance, just an honest representation of the music. And that honesty works because the resultant performance is delightful.

In Faust, by the time we get to the famous waltz segment, we get the charmer we have come to expect. Reinhold and Zedler don't try to force us to hear it in any other way than how we hope to hear it, lilting and light. There's no puffery about it, no attempt overemphasize it through excessive tempo or dynamic changes; it's just beautiful music, pure and simple.

And so it goes. Each selection is delectable, as we might anticipate from Sarasate and from the two performers. The Gavotte from Mignon has an appropriate cockiness; Don Juan is dramatically musical, even if Sarasate purposely left out some of the opera's more-familiar music; and Zampa is alternately tranquil, passionate, and stirring.

Mr. Reinhold and Mr. Zedler fill out the disc with a generous seventy-seven-plus minutes of material, and the label, MDG, provide the disc with some attractive cover art.

Producers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm and recording and mixing engineer Holger Schlegel recorded the music at the Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmunster in February 2015. Yet again they made the album in just about every audio format you can think of on a single disc: CD, SACD, DVD, 2.0, 5.1, and 2+2+2. That last one still puzzles me. It appears that 2+2+2 utilizes all six channels on an SACD layer to present music not just in two channels front and two channels back but two channels up and down as well. So 2+2+2 captures all the reflected sound of a musical event in true three dimension. However, I have my SACD player hooked up only to two channels, so that's the way I listened, in two-channel SACD.

The instruments appear at a modest distance, providing an ultraclean sound, and there is a modicum of room reflection to dampen any hint of hardness or brightness that might otherwise creep into play. There is also a good sense of the two performers being side by side instead of miked too far apart for a greater (but not as realistic) stereo spread. The sound is slightly warm, full, resonant, and, in fact, quite natural.


Sep 24, 2015

Strauss, Johann II: 19 Waltzes (CD review)

Willi Boskovsky, the Johann Strauss Orchestra of Vienna. Warner Classics 0094638152422 (2-disc set).

According to what I've read about Austrian violinist and conductor Willi Boskovsky (1909-1991), his orchestras didn't particularly like him as a music director. Nevertheless, from playing violin with the Vienna Philharmonic he went on to leading the orchestra in music largely of Johann Strauss in the Fifties, and audiences adored him, which is all that mattered. His Decca recordings from those early years are still among the yardsticks by which people judge Strauss music today. By the early Seventies, however, he was recording for EMI with the Johann Strauss Orchestra of Vienna, and he re-recorded most of the major Strauss repertoire for them. Then, when digital entered the scene, he re-recorded them yet again. You might say he became a specialist in the field. What we have in this 2007 rerelease from Warner Classics of the original EMI set is a collection of nineteen of Strauss's most famous waltzes from the early digital age of the Eighties.

Interestingly, many of these digital recordings are more sprightly and open than his analogue recordings with the same orchestra had been a decade before. The digital sound is less warm and less full, true, but the sound is a bit more detailed and carries with it little obvious digital brightness or edginess. More important, the performances themselves are a fraction quicker and more spontaneous, a delight in every way, almost matching his Decca renditions of much earlier. Although, to be fair, I still think the Vienna recordings are richer and more elegant than any of Boskovsky's later productions.

Willi Boskovsky
Among the nineteen waltzes on these two Warner discs are practically everything you've ever heard of: "The Blue Danube," of course, "Roses from the South," "Vienna Blood," "Voices of Spring," "Artist's Life," "Tales from the Vienna Woods," "Emperor Waltz," "Morning Papers," "Accelerations," "Lagoon Waltz," "Du und Du," "Wine, Women and Song," "Danube Maiden," and a few you might not have heard of like "Literary Essay," "Leading Article," "Pamphlets," and "Flight of Fancy."

It's a terrific collection of waltzes, really, at an incredibly reasonable price. One minor concern, though. The booklet lists "Tales from the Vienna Woods" as being recorded with Rudi Knabl on zither, and the booklet article notes the piece "with its important part for the zither." But not here; there's not a zither in sight or sound. The original EMI booklet notes correctly list the work's recording date as 1982, but in that recording Boskovsky chose to bypass the zither and use a violin. At the time of putting together this collection, EMI must have been thinking of Boskovsky's 1985 recording, which I had on hand, where he reinstated the instrument with Mr. Knabl playing it. I can only guess that the mix-up was an oversight on EMI's part, a confusion not hard to understand given that Boskovsky recorded "Tales" at least four times in stereo: 1963, 1972, 1982, and 1985.

I prefer the zither, by the way, but other than that there is no reason not to enjoy the set fully.


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

Sep 22, 2015

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 "Titan" (SACD review)

Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-715 SACD.

Since 1997 the Swiss conductor and flutist Thierry Fischer has been the chief or principal conductor of the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, the Ulster Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, and as of 2009 the Utah Symphony. His most-illustrious predecessor in Utah was Maurice Abravanel, who recorded a well-received Mahler cycle that included a particularly good Mahler First. In commemoration of Maestro Abravanel, among the first things Fischer chose to perform was a complete Mahler cycle himself, and this is perhaps why he has recorded this new disc of Mahler's First. One assumes it may be the beginning of his own new cycle of Mahler recordings with the Utah orchestra.

Anyway, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, saying at first it was a five-movement symphonic poem and, at least temporarily, giving it the subtitle "Titan." It was not long, however, before he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today and dropped the "Titan" business. The work became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age, I'm guessing because with its large orchestra, soaring melodies, enormous impact, and dramatic contrasts the symphony can make a spectacular listening experience, and it became a perfect way for audiophiles to show off their new stereo systems. In addition, we must not forget that the First is one of Mahler's shortest symphonies, making it a good length for home listening.

In his Symphony No. 1 Mahler explained he was trying to describe his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. Under Fischer, the coming of spring unfolds at a comfortable rate, unhurried but somewhat perfunctory. Then, too, Fischer keeps his tempos on the modest side, but doesn't vary them quite enough to provide a needed contrast. When spring finally does come into full bloom, it seems something of an afterthought. Dynamic levels, while strong, also appear a touch on the same side, so, again, there isn't a whole lot of contrast, even at the end where things should erupt with a bit more passion than heard here. In other words, Fischer's first movement didn't affect me the way other conductors have (Solti, Horenstein, Kubelik, Mackerras, Haitink, Bernstein, to name a few).

In the second-movement Scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he may have meant as ironic. Things here look up for Fischer, where he seems to be having a little more fun, particularly in the lovely middle segment. Still, there seems a certain element of calculation to the music making, which tends to hold it back from full realization.

In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he was up to. Whatever, Fischer's rendering of the funeral march is a rather somber affair and tends lack some of the macabre humor we find in other conductor's handling of the piece. Which conductor is more correct or closer to Mahler's intentions in this regard I have no idea; Fischer's approach just appeared somewhat leaden to me.

Thierry Fischer
Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing. It is only in this finale, though, that Fischer seems to take things a bit too quickly. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a thoughtful interpretation, the momentary confusions well realized despite the orchestra all aswirl, the whole thing ending in an appropriate triumph. Again, however, I didn't hear enough gradation in the volume of various parts of the score to emphasize the music's differences. So it all tends to come at the listener in a slightly unvarying, slightly humdrum manner.

The Soundmirror production team of producer Dirk Sobotka, recording engineer John Newton, and mixing and master technician Mark Donahue made the recording live at Maurice Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah, in September 2014 as a part of the Reference Recordings Fresh! series. Soundmirror chose 5 DPA 4006 microphones as their main array, supplementing them with "spot mics" to clarify the detail of the orchestration. Moreover, they made the recording for hybrid SACD playback, so you can listen to a two-channel or multichannel SACD layer if you have an SACD player and a two-channel CD layer if you have only a regular CD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer.

The sound is good, with the only fly in the ointment for me being the "live" part of the recording. As I keep repeating in these pages, I have seldom heard a live recording I didn't think would have sounded better recorded in a studio or without an audience present. That goes for this one, too.

Of course, the miking has to be relatively close in order to minimize audience noise, yet here it is not so close as it is in many other live recordings. The result is a fairly natural perspective if you're sitting close to the orchestra. Unfortunately, there are times when individual instruments appear too close for realism's sake, even though there are other times when a lifelike sense of orchestral presence seems evident. Dynamics are strong, frequency response reasonably wide (with a solid deep bass), and transparency good without being bright or hard. Overall, the sonics are round, warm, detailed, and natural, as though heard from a moderate distance instead of so close up.

The audience, by the way, is very quiet; you won't hear a peep, a cough, or a rustle from them. And the disc's producers have mercifully edited out any closing applause.


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

Sep 20, 2015

Sibelius: Popular Tone Poems (CD review)

Finlandia and others. Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic. Warner Classics 0724347684623.

One of the nice things to come out of Warner Classics taking over the EMI catalogue is that Warner has started reissuing some of the classic titles from the EMI ranks. This rerelease of Sibelius tone poems from Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic is a good example: The performances are first-rate; the disc includes two more selections than found on the LP; the sound is quite good; and the mid price is welcome.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear the folks at Warner knew what to call the collection once they put it together. The old LP simply listed on the front cover the tone poems it contained. This reissue uses the original LP artwork, so it's a little misleading by not having all the CD's titles on it. Additionally confusing, the CD spine calls the album "Famous Tone Poems," while the disc itself says "Popular Tone Poems." Growing pains, I suppose, as Warner Classics finds its way; eventually, I'm sure the left hand will know what the right hand is doing.

In any case, the slight confusion in labeling doesn't diminish the quality of the music or the music making. Karajan and his Berlin players are in top form as they offer up six short Sibelius works, pieces they would record two or three times for DG and EMI before Karajan's passing.

Herbert von Karajan was among the most-popular conductors of the twentieth century, particularly leading the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. However, that didn't mean that everybody loved him, and his critics often complained that he often glamorized the music he was playing with his flowing tempos and luxuriant orchestral sound. Anyway, love him or leave him, Karajan had a special affinity for the music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), as this disc demonstrates.

First up on the program is En Saga, from 1892 Sibelius's first purely orchestral work. It doesn't appear to have any specific story behind but, rather as Sibelius explained, "En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien." Under Karajan the music conveys a strong harmonic structure. While maybe it doesn't project as much atmosphere as some other recordings or as much excitement, it has a taut yet resilient integrity and a somewhat brisk pace that make for a powerful narrative, and Karajan's handling of the slower parts is really quite fetching.

Herbert von Karajan
Next is the lovely Swan of Tuonela, made even more appealing under Karajan's loving guidance. Sibelius wrote it in 1895 as a section of the Lemminkäinen Suite, four legends from Finnish mythology. Like his earlier DG account, the performance is fluid and serene in almost majestic terms. With Karajan's fondness for poetry and the orchestra's opulent, luxurious effect, the piece sounds quite lovely.

After that is a selection not included on the original LP: the Karelia Suite from 1893. Its three movements are a jaunty, marchlike Intermezzo; a medieval Ballade; and a rousing Alla Marcia. Here, the grandeur of the Berlin orchestra really comes to fore. Even if the music itself may be a little bombastic, Karajan and his players infuse it with an impressive richness, and again the conductor handles the slow movement with a deft hand.

Then, we get probably Sibelius's single most famous piece of music, Finlandia, a patriotic piece written in 1899 as a protest against increasing Russian censorship in Finland (the country was at the time under the rule of the Russian Empire). Karajan's way with this familiar music is almost overwhelming. It's not the most subtle approach, but it is undoubtedly just what such vigorous music demands: strong, uplifting, and magnificently performed.

Valse triste is another track not found on the original LP. Sibelius composed it in 1903 as a part of the incidental music for a play by his brother-in-law. Today, though, we mostly know it for itself. Karajan takes it at a rather slow, almost gloomy pace, bringing out the melancholy element of the music more so than many other conductors. Given the nature of what the music represents in the play (a dying woman mistaking death for her husband), the conductor's approach seems entirely appropriate.

The album concludes with Tapiola, Sibelius's last major work, premiered in 1926. The music depicts Tapio, a spirit or god of the forest in Finnish legend, and the tone poem describes the forest in which Tapio lives. This is the most atmospheric of Karajan's Sibelius. The conductor's tempos are broad and the rhythms sweeping. He builds a most-evocative picture of the god and his misty, snowy, desolate northern woods. The storm section is especially thrilling as it arises from the quiet that precedes it.

Producer Michel Glotz and engineer Wolfgang Gulich recorded the music at the Philharmonie, Berlin in 1976, 1980, and 1981. According to the Warner booklet notes, this disc uses the Abbey Road remasterings from 2002 and 2005, so if you already have EMI's issues from back then, these should sound the same. There's a fairly balanced frequency response involved; good, though seldom extreme, dynamics; some small degree of warmth but with decent detail; and moderately good lows and highs. These are relatively clean, clear recordings, in fact, although perhaps a trifle hard in the upper midrange, hardly noticeable.


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

Sep 17, 2015

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Brahms: Violin Concerto. Kyung Wha Chung, violin; Sir Simon Rattle, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57165 2 1.

Time was you would only get a single major repertoire item on an LP or CD, filled out if needed with one or two shorter pieces. Now, major labels think nothing of coupling the Beethoven Fifth Symphony with the Brahms Violin Concerto. It could have been a sign of the times when EMI released this disc in 2001; the music industry was slumping, and budget discs and remastered older material were the order of the day. The companies were doing anything they could to attract buyers. Here, EMI have given us some of the world's top performers in violinist Kyung Wha Chung, conductor Sir Simon Rattle, and the Vienna Philharmonic. The results are not unexpectedly impressive in many ways, yet they're strangely underwhelming in others.

Much is made in the booklet notes about Rattle performing this live recording of the Beethoven from the Jonathan Del Mar edition of the score, a version that attempts to strip the music of all the barnacles and appendages that conductors added since Beethoven's day to accommodate new instruments and new styles. So it's a kind of "authentic," historical approach but without any period instruments. What this inevitably means is that the tempos are quicker, and certainly Rattle doesn't hold back; the textures are leaner, and despite the rich sonority of the orchestra, they are; and the sound is more transparent. But faster is not always better, and in the first movement, especially, Rattle's hell-bent-for-leather attack soon becomes a bit wearying. Don't get me wrong; it's not that it isn't thrilling because much of it is, and the Vienna Philharmonic continues to sound like one of the world's great ensembles. It's just that the performance becomes a little monotonous at so unvarying a pace, with Rattle showing little enthusiasm for the finer points of the music. However, after the first movement, the rest of the symphony fares better, actually becoming something near traditional by the end. The interpretation is different, to be sure, and rewarding in its own way, but it is still not so electrifying or so exciting as the renditions by, say, Carlos Kleiber (DG) or Fritz Reiner (RCA or JVC).

Sir Simon Rattle
Whatever, the Brahms concerto inhabits a slightly better world, and in at least one instance, a literally different world. Recorded in a studio, Ms. Chung produces an exceptionally exhilarating Brahms Violin Concerto. She storms, she rants, she rages through the monumental opening movement and then concludes it in a heartbreaking episode of sweetness and light. I like what Sarasate remarked when somebody asked him to play the piece; he said he declined on the grounds that he had no intention of listening, violin in hand, while the solo oboe played the only melody in the whole score. Well, the Brahms has never been my favorite concerto, either. In fact, every time I hear it I wonder if the violin is ever going to make its entrance at all. But in Ms. Chung's hands, it sounds rather captivating, at least for a while. She may exaggerate the stormier moments, but she handles the softer passages with such delicacy you can almost forgive her excesses elsewhere.

EMI's sonics are pretty good for a live recording (2000) and even better in the studio (2001). The orchestra sounds leaner than usual in the Beethoven, thanks to the new edition, and the engineers take full advantage of the work's new clarity. The live sound is close but detailed. The stereo spread is wide, yet without leaving any holes in the middle. Ambiance is subtle but adequate for replicating a large environment. And in the concerto Ms. Chung's violin seems almost ideally balanced with the orchestral support. With at least an interesting Beethoven and a fairly nice Brahms, the disc makes a reasonably appealing though not entirely satisfying listening experience.


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

Sep 15, 2015

Adams: Absolute Jest (SACD review)

Also, Grand Pianola Music. St. Lawrence String Quartet; Michael Tilson Thomas; John Adams; San Francisco Symphony. SFS Media SFS 821936-0063-2.

It is isn't hard to see why American John Adams (b. 1947) is among the world's most-popular living classical composers. Wikipedia says "The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although in interview he has categorised himself as a 'post-style' composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement." No, more likely, people don't really categorize Adams; they simply like his stuff. He produces a kind of modern music that, dare I say it, audiences actually enjoy. I tease, of course, but it seems like a lot of modern classical composers resent listeners liking their music; it smacks too much of populism. What am I doing wrong? People like it.

Well, Adams seldom does anything musically wrong, and here he gives us one of his newest works, Absolute Jest, along with another piece in a similar vein from thirty-odd years earlier, Grand Pianola Music. Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in the newer work, while the composer himself leads the orchestra in the older one.

The first work on the album is Absolute Jest (2013), which Adams describes as "a colossal twenty-five-minute scherzo in which I take fragments of Beethoven's music and subject them to my own peculiar developmental techniques, some of which I've derived over years of using 'radicalizing' musical software. The Beethoven ideas, mostly from the quartets Opus 131, 135, and the Grosse Fugue, are compact and succinct, lending themselves naturally to fantasy and invention. A swinging 6/8 figure reminiscent of the Seventh Symphony launches the piece, but this is interlaced with some famous 'tattoos' including the Ninth Symphony scherzo." Then music historian Larry Rothe adds, "Absolute Jest is post Minimalist Adams. The seed came when he heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct Pulcinella, in which Stravinsky recast works by eighteenth-century Italian composers in his own musical language. Adams conceived a similar scheme, riffing on Beethoven scherzos. Beethoven's scherzos may be jokes, but Adams emphasizes they are jokes on a high plane. He loves the word 'jest,' derived from the Latin 'gesta,' a notable deed. A jest is not therefore by definition a thigh-slapper, nor is Absolute Jest a comedy." Rothe goes on to quote Adams: "To Beethoven, a scherzo is this inspired sense of movement and happiness. I wanted my work to be invested with that happiness."

Although Adams may not have intended Absolute Jest as a comedy, one cannot help but smile when the music breaks out into familiar bits and pieces of Beethoven. And Tilson Thomas does not shy away from the music's wittier passages, making it sound like high, good fun.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Adams wrote the piece in eight movements for orchestra and string quartet, the "Beginning" a lengthy, spacious, swooping affair, with intermittent hints of Beethoven, the most obvious coming from the Ninth Symphony. The remaining movements last about one to five minutes each, most of them more animated than the opening section, except for the somewhat eerie, haunting fourth segment. The music is easily accessible, and Tilson Thomas and company make it highly enjoyable.

The second work on the disc is the Grand Pianola Music from 1982. Adams says of it, "...from the start I knew that I would have to shape my own language and find a way to get around Minimalism's rigor and endless pattern-weaving and form a language that was more dramatic and emotionally complex. ...Grand Pianola Music does it in a way that is not only meditative and trance-like, but also brash and picaresque."

Adams divided this one into three parts (fast, slow, fast), although the entire work is about six minutes longer than the newer one. It appears a tad simpler and more repetitive than the newer work, too, with traces of Ives and even Copland in its structure and wordless vocals interspersed with piano solos and accompaniment (Orli Shaham). Like the music of Ives, you'll hear a little of everything here, from the aforementioned vocals and piano to marches, gospel, and church hymns. Of the final movement, Adams explains that it yields up "a tune that seems like an 'oldie,' the words for which no one can quite remember." It's quite a lot of fun, actually.

Producer Jack Vad and engineers Roni Jules, Gus Pollek, Jonathan Stevens, and Dann Thompson recorded the music live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA in May 2013 and January 2015. They recorded it in 96kHz/24-bit audio (Absolute Jest) and PCM 192kHz/24-bit (Grand Pianola Music) for hybrid SACD two-channel stereo or multichannel playback. I listened to the two-channel stereo SACD track.

Before I talk about the sound, however, I suppose for the benefit of those of you interested in live recordings, I should say a word about audience noise. For the most part, there isn't any. But there is applause. I say "but" because some listeners don't mind it, while for me it tends to draw my attention away from a performance. In this case, the disc's producers have edited out any applause between the two major works but left it in at the end. So, for me it's still annoying but at least not as annoying as it could have been.

Now, to the sound: It's slightly less close than usual in a live recording, and hall reflections and long decay times appear more in evidence. If anything, the sound seems softer than I've heard it before from this venue and ensemble, and even more natural and easy on the ear. The orchestral spread is quite wide and natural, with a reasonable amount of depth; and the frequency response, while not exactly reaching the heights of the treble or depths of the bass sound more than adequate for the occasion.


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

Sep 13, 2015

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Byron Janis, piano; Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.

There has never been a lot of disagreement about Byron Janis's two primary stereo interpretations of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto--the earlier, 1957 RCA account with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony remastered here by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) and the slightly later, 1961 Mercury version with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony. Listeners have enjoyed both recordings almost equally over the years and both have received strong critical acclaim. No, what disagreement there is comes in which of the two is actually better. There, you may get some argument, as taste differs.

My own early introduction to the two Janis recordings came in the LP era, sometime in the mid Sixties. At that time, I favored the earlier rendering with Munch for its performance, which I found powerful yet still lyrical, and the one with Dorati for its cleaner, clearer sound. The "however" is that I could hardly stand to listen to Janis's RCA LP with Munch because of its bright edginess and noisy vinyl surface, and I thought Janis's Mercury performance with Dorati was a little too brash and reckless by comparison. So I was never completely satisfied with either LP.

Now, we have the HDTT remastering of Janis/Munch, and all is right again with the world. I can have my cake (the Janis/Munch recording) and eat it, too (listen to it without fatigue).

For those of you not fully acquainted with Mr. Janis, his Web site describes him thusly: "Byron Janis is internationally renowned as one of the world's greatest pianists. He made his orchestral debut at age 15 with Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra and, the following year, was chosen by Vladimir Horowitz as his first student. At 18, he became the youngest artist ever signed to a contract by RCA Victor Records. Two years later, in 1948, he made his Carnegie Hall debut which was hailed as an unparalleled success. He has played with every major symphony orchestra in both the U.S. and abroad.

Byron Janis
"Mr. Janis was the first American artist chosen to participate in the 1960 Cultural Exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union and was hailed on the front page of The New York Times as, 'an ambassador in breaking down cold war barriers.' His many recordings appear on the RCA and Mercury Phillips labels. His two latest recordings for EMI are 'Byron Janis Plays Chopin,' which received National Public Radio's 'Performance Today Critics Choice Award' and the Chopin/Liszt CD 'Byron Janis True Romantic.'"

As far as the music goes, the Russian pianist, composer, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor in 1909, and it quickly picked up a reputation for its difficulty in playing. Today, however, most pianists take it in stride, and there are any number of fine recordings of it, Janis's among them.

Janis's interpretation is basically a lyrical one, although he is fully up the big virtuosic parts, too. Yet, as I say, he seems a touch more in control with Munch than he does in his later Mercury recording with Dorati. Moreover, Munch and the Boston Symphony provide him with a matchlessly fluid, velvety accompaniment coated with splashes of Romantic color. This is a performance with no sign of grandstanding yet one that keeps you riveted with its poetic insight and beauty.

In fact, Janis's is an astonishing performance, one that anybody interested in this work owes it to himself to hear. It may not quite sizzle the way Argerich's account does or Horowitz's or the composer's own (mono), but it makes up for it by being better proportioned than most, combining the right amount of vigorous showmanship and flourish it needs with the melodic introspection so necessary, too.

I love the performance, and now I love the sound. It's a winning recording.

Drawbacks of the HDTT disc? Only the same one I've mentioned before about HDTT's products. Namely, they most often provide just the material found on the original tapes or LP's and nothing more. While it has become common practice among most of the record companies these days to include two Rachmaninov concertos on a single CD, the folks at HDTT give us merely the one concerto, which lasts but a little over thirty-seven minutes. Still, if it's simply the concerto you want, you won't find it sounding any better than here.

RCA recorded the concerto in 1957, and HDTT remastered it in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) from an RCA 15ips 2-track tape. Sonically, this is nothing like the old LP I remember. This remastering is smooth and natural, with a pleasingly resonant warmth that gives it a realistic ambience. I love the sound, the Boston Symphony spread out widely behind the soloist, the pianist well integrated into the surroundings and not too far out in front of the other players as so often happens in concertos. Frequency balance, dynamics, and overall clarity are also quite good, so anyone, like me, who recalls the old LP as being too bright or hard or edgy should have no fears about this remaster.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


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

Sep 10, 2015

Gubaidulina: The Canticle of the Sun (CD review)

Also, Music for Flute, Strings, and Percussion. Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Ryusuke Numajiri, London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices. EMI 7423 5 57153 2 6.

I want to commend this EMI recording of prizewinning Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's 1997 work The Canticle of the Sun for one thing in particular: it gave me one of the best snoozes I've had in many afternoons. About fifteen minutes into the forty-minute piece I fell asleep on the couch, and twenty minutes later when I awakened I swear I was taking up right where I'd left off. I gave it a second chance, of course, but it wasn't much better for me. Let us say, then, that it's a strange but fascinating work that probably appeals to a very personal musical taste, and that taste may very well be more yours than mine.

Ms. Gubaidulina, who admits to being a "profoundly spiritual person," based The Canticle of the Sun on a text by Saint Francis of Assisi, and the composer dedicated the work to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who here leads the London Symphony Orchestra in another of their meticulous performances. I believe this 2001 disc was the work's premiere recording.

I have mentioned before that I have little understanding of or appreciation for much modern music. Certainly, my limitations as a critic of such music are no more in evidence than with this piece: I found Ms. Gubaidulina's work repetitive and not a little tedious; yet at the same time I did not find her minimalist view at all disconcerting or inharmonious as so much modern music can be. Indeed, some of Ms. Gubaidulina's piece is quite beautiful. Her seemingly random selection of slowly played cello notes, percussion dings, and eerie vocal phrasings actually demonstrate a certain brilliance, and there is no questioning Ms. Gubaidulina's sincerity or the LSO's intensity.

Mstislav Rostropovich
Ms. Gubaidulina writes in a booklet insert that she was trying to "reveal the sunny personality of a brilliant musician, Mstislav Rostropovich." Well, there you could have fooled me; the music seems anything but sunny. She also writes, "Under no circumstances should the expression of this canticle be intensified by music." I'd say she succeeded there beyond expectation. "This is the glorification of the Creator and His Creation by a very humble, simple Christian friar." This would account for the seeming simplicity of the music, I suppose, but I hope that the good Saint Francis was not so unusual as I found some of Ms. Gubaidulina's material.

On the other hand, I quite liked the Music for Flute, Strings, and Percussion, which Gubaidulina wrote in 1994. Although it tends to go on at times for too long, occasionally losing its rhythm, it exhibits an honest and uplifting soul in its more-accessible sonorities, helped no doubt by Mr. Pahud's playing.

Anyway, as I say, lovers of contemporary classical music will undoubtedly vilify me for not understanding much of Ms. Gubaidulina's Canticle; I stand open to the criticism and admit my ignorance. The work seldom entertained, uplifted, or enlightened me in the way I'm sure the composer intended. Indeed, until I read Ms. Gubaidulina's notes afterwards, I had no idea what she was up to. And then, after I read her notes, I still didn't know what it was about. Nevertheless, I cannot suggest that other listeners should not try it for themselves, especially when the accompanying work is so haunting.

In its favor, too, I can say assuredly that EMI recorded the music exceptionally well. The cello and flute sound most natural, the percussion is clean and transparent, and the voices are realistically integrated into the aural stage. For lovers of pure sound alone, the disc may prove a worthwhile investment. More important, fans of modern music may also find the disc of interest.


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

Sep 8, 2015

Juska: Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say (Book review)

A novel by Jane Juska. Berkley Books/Penguin Group, 2015.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that every man in possession of a wife must be in want of a son." --Mr. Edward Bennet

"If only poor Mother had lived to tell me of the infamy that would be my wedding night." --Mrs. Marianne Bennet

Having read some time ago Jane Juska's hugely successful autobiographical memoir A Round-Heeled Woman (2003) and recognized what a splendid writer she is, I should never have had any doubts about her latest book, Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say. However, this time was different. She was writing a novel, a fiction, and a historical-literary one at that. Happily, my concerns were quickly dispelled. Before I was little more than a few pages in, I realized that Ms. Juska could write a zombie apocalypse chronicle and it would be head and shoulders above anything else written in the field. Although Mrs. Bennet features no zombies, it is delightfully charming, witty, and outright funny.

Juska chose as the starting point of her novel a work she had known for many years, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But, I hear you say, haven't other authors done this sort of thing before? Haven't we had, for example, any number of prefaces to or continuations of Elizabeth Bennet's misadventures, some of them even set in modern times? Of course we have, so Ms. Juska takes a different approach while examining much the same social and cultural landscape as the original. Juska writes her novel from the points of view of the Bennet family parents, Edward and Marianne, when they were young and in the first years of their marriage, some twenty-odd years before the circumstances of Pride and Prejudice. So, no, this is neither a pastiche (Ms. Juska is very much her own person with her own style, and while her writing may remind one of Ms. Austen's, it is still Juska all the way) nor a sequel (a prequel is more like it, yet even then the change in emphasis to the parents dispels any notion of imitation).

Here, in order not to give away too much of the book's plot, I quote from the publisher's notes: "1785 was to be the most marvelous year of Marianne's life, until an unfortunate turn of events left her in a compromised state and desperate for a husband to care--or rather cover--for her. Now, she is stuck in an undesirable marriage to Mr. Edward Bennet, a man desperate in his own way for a male heir. But as she is still carrying a smoldering desire for the handsome Colonel Miller, Mrs. Bennet must constantly find new, clever ways to avoid her husband's lascivious advances until she is once again reunited with her dashing Colonel. Except that the best-laid plans of a woman in good standing can so often go awry, especially when her contrary husband has plans and desires of his own. . . ."

Jane Juska
In other words, both the husband and wife have married for reasons other than love: The husband to provide a male heir for his estate (women had no rights of inheritance in those days or many rights of any kind) and to provide himself a measure of relief from his own lust; the wife because she needs a husband to maintain her respectability. They are not happy with their lots in life when the husband discovers that his wife does not share his more-carnal desires, and the wife recognizes that she cannot have the man she really wants and, worse, that the husband she does have is, as he himself admits, "a boorish, awkward, country lout." Life can be so cruel. "O la!"

OK, now I must admit to another misgiving I had before starting the book, a misgiving related to my own recent literary proclivities. I had been reading almost exclusively crime, mystery, and detective novels for the previous half dozen years (Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Grisham, Paula Hawkins, David Baldacci, that kind of thing), laced with the occasional popular-science book. Would suddenly turning my attentions to an eighteenth-century comedy of manners really be my cup of English tea? Again, I should have had no such worries so long as Jane Juska was in charge. And imagine my surprise when as things turned out the Bennets were not as genteel as I had expected them to be. The book is a frisky, satiric romp, never explicit in the nature of so many modern titles but playfully sexual enough to hold one's interest.

Anyway, Ms. Juska tells the story through a series of writings by her two main characters (Mr. Bennet in a diary and Mrs. Bennet in letters to her sister). In establishing this alternating framework, Juska is able to explore two very differing points of view on essentially the same topics. Marianne will describe an event, and in the next chapter Edward will usually describe the same event from his own perspective. Often the views are hilariously at odds, as the wife is something of an airhead (or, to be fair, naive, as she is still in her teens) and the husband a confirmed loggerhead (no other way to sugarcoat that one). The husband's diary, he says, is a private affair detailing his lascivious desires for his wife, his tenant farmer's daughter, and any other girl he sees, insisting he wants the whole thing burned to ashes when he dies. The wife's letters describe her continued longings for her dear colonel, and she doesn't want her sister sharing them with anybody. "Be still, my heart."

That Ms. Juska should look more favorably on the nincompoopery of the wife over the blunders of the husband is the author's understandable prerogative. (Mrs. Bennet is the titular heroine of the novel, after all.) As Juska writes in an Afterword, "You know, I think Mrs. Bennet got a bad deal. Five children in eight years is enough to unsettle anybody. On the other hand, maybe she was always dotty, or do you think she got that way after she married Mr. Bennet or only as all those daughters were being born?"

Incidentally, there are more Janes involved with this book than you can shake a stick at (if that's your idea of a good time). There's Jane Juska, there's Jane Austen, and there's the main character's sister Jane to whom she writes her letters. My Random House Unabridged says that "Jane is a female given name derived from French Jeanne, Old French Jehane, from Medieval Latin Johanna (John). As a generic name for 'girl, girlfriend' it is attested from 1906 in U.S. slang. It may owe its 'everywoman' reputation rather to its association with John." I dunno; maybe Ms. Juska liked having Mrs. Bennet write to Jane in order to personalize the messages, as though the main character were speaking directly to the book's author. Or not.

Ms. Juska's strong suit has always been her ability to shape and tone her writing. She is a true wordsmith, whether she's describing Mrs. Bennet's visits to the neighbors, a trip to Bath, or a grand ball. The old dictum of "show not tell" is in evidence in everything Jane Juska writes, and we get a genuine feel for being there with the characters and a sincere understanding of their situations. More important, Juska does it all with grace, elegance, wit, and good humor. There isn't a page goes by that won't have you at the very least smiling and at the very best laughing out loud.

Flaws? Yes. For me, the story's 300-or-so page length seemed too short. No sooner do you get engrossed in it than it's over. Well, I suppose that is also a tribute to Juska's writing style. She pulls you in, and you want more. Although the book may fly by, its large number of very short chapters maintains a healthy, lively rhythm and forward-moving pace.

Jane Juska's Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say is an entertaining read, more amusing and more engaging as it goes along. You can't ask much more of an author than that.


To listen to actress Lindy Nettleton read a brief excerpt from the book, click here:

Sep 6, 2015

James Brawn in Recital, Volume 2 (CD review)

"The Time Traveller and His Muse." James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1502 (2-disc set).

This is by my count British concert pianist James Brawn's sixth album for MSR Classics, and in that time he has become one of my favorite classical performers. His work never fails to impress and delight me, the present collection no exception.

As I said about Mr. Brawn the first time I heard him, "He's been winning awards since he was a child, teaching, and performing (mainly in New Zealand, Australia, and England) to great acclaim, and this new recording makes one understand his appeal. He is a consummate artist."

Mr. Brawn has subtitled the album "The Time Traveller and His Muse," which is also the title of many of his concert recitals. Certainly, with this collection he is a time traveller, indeed, as the selections on the program span some four centuries, from Domenico Scarlatti to George Gershwin. Brawn has arranged the tracks chronologically as follows.

Disc One:
  1. Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in E major, K.380
  2. Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in C major, K.159 La Caccia
  3. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in C major, BWV 846
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in C minor, BWV 847
  5. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in D major, BWV 850
  6. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in E-flat minor, BWV 853
  7. Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk I - Prelude in E major, BWV 854
  8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No.11 in A major, K.331 Rondo alla Turca
  9. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia in D minor, K.397
10. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise (Bagatelle in A minor)
11. Franz Schubert: Moment Musicale No. 3 in F minor, D.780
12. Franz Schubert: Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major, D.899
13. Frederic Chopin: Prelude No. 4 in E minor, Op. 28
14. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 12 in C minor, Op. 25 Ocean
15. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 3 in E major, Op. 10 La Tristesse
16. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 25 Aeolian Harp
17. Frederic Chopin: Étude No. 5 in G-flat major, Op. 10 Black Key

Disc Two:
  1. Frederic Chopin: Prelude No. 15 in D-flat major, Op. 28 Raindrop
  2. Frederic Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45
  3. Franz Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major, S.172
  4. Johannes Brahms: Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 39, No. 15
  5. Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2
  6. Edvard Grieg: Arietta in E-flat major, Op. 12, No. 1
  7. Alexander Scriabin: Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
  8. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2
  9. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12
10. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10
11. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in D major, Op. 23, No. 4
12. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5
13. Sergei Prokofiev: Toccata in D minor, Op. 11
14. George Gershwin: I Got Rhythm

I continue to marvel that everything Brawn touches turns to magic. I have yet to hear him play anything I didn't like, that didn't sound just the way I imagine the composer intended yet with the added merit of Brawn's personal touch. Brawn never distorts the music and never uses it to call attention to himself and his virtuosic skills, yet he is also able to make all of it his own, reveling in every nuance of phrasing, contrast, tempo, and dynamics.

Of course, that doesn't mean listeners won't have their favorites among the selections. Mine are probably just favorite pieces of music that I took pleasure in hearing anew and so well played. For instance, while I am not the biggest fan of the Scarlattis, the father Allessandro or the son Domenico recorded here, I have to admit the two pieces he plays make a good, dashing opening for the album, with Brawn providing a healthy splash of élan.

James Brawn
Then we get five of Bach preludes, which Brawn calls "the Old Testament of keyboard repertoire." Never mind that Bach wrote them for harpsichord or clavichord because under Brawn's ever-watchful control they make beautiful pieces for the piano. The ones Brawn has chosen to play alternate between fast and slow, the juxtaposition quite flattering.

Of course, it's always fun to hear Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca," yet Brawn doesn't overplay it to show off his skills. It's just as exciting played with care for the music rather than care for the thrills alone. Brawn's sensitive handling of the Fantasia that follows is exquisite in its subtle detail.

The only piece we get from Beethoven is the little bagatelle "Fur Elise." Along with the opening movement of the "Moonlight Sonata" it may be the composer's most familiar piece of solo piano music. I doubt that anyone hasn't heard it and wouldn't recognize it, so it isn't easy to bring anything to it that pianists before Brawn haven't already done. Nevertheless, it comes off as perfectly as one could imagine, filled with nostalgic remembrances and an ever-sweet charm.

And speaking of charm, whose music was ever more charming than Schubert's? Brawn approaches it with refinement, wit, and grace.

Then disc one ends (and disc two begins) with what I found the highlights of the album: the music of Chopin: preludes and études. Brawn seems to have a natural affinity for Chopin, and the snippets he provides only whetted my appetite for more of the same. If you find the playing of Rubinstein a tad too cold or distant or Pollini a bit too quick or calculated and other noted pianists a touch too sentimental or matter-of-fact or romanticized or whatever, you might find Brawn exactly what you want. His Chopin is big when it needs to be big, extrovert when necessary, gentle, passionate, delicate, brilliant, you name it as the occasion requires. One listen to the Etude No. 3, Op. 10 or the Prelude No. 15, Op. 28, and you may find them as meltingly beautiful and as perfectly executed as I did.

And so it goes. The Liszt is heavenly; the Brahms has a genuine lilt and lyricism without appearing excessively sad or melancholy for its own sake; the Grieg and Scriabin are flowing and melodic.

Which brings us to Rachmaninoff, the great twentieth-century pianist-composer who never quite left the nineteenth century behind. Brawn shows us that despite Rachmaninoff's reputation, he incorporated any number of modern elements in his style, particularly in the five preludes presented here. In fact, they never sound overtly "Romantic," except, perhaps, in their sometimes melodramatic underpinnings. In any case, Brawn pulls them off as well as anybody, with little or no exaggeration.

The program ends with Prokofiev and Gershwin, both of them providing the kind of zingers the album needs to close strong. The Gershwin, incidentally, Brawn plays in a transcription he first heard played by Jon Kimura Parker, another of my favorite pianists.

Now, Mr. Brawn: How about an entire album of Chopin? The nocturnes would be wonderful.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Ben Connellan recorded Mr. Brawn at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom in August and November 2014. The piano sound, as before, is clean, clear, rich, and resonant. The venue provides just enough ambient bloom to make the instrument come alive and appear lifelike. The natural warmth provides a realistic-sounding response, as though the listener were actually in the room with the piano, albeit at a moderate distance. Transient response, dynamics, and frequency balance are exemplary as well, nothing too hard, too soft, too bright, or too edgy. In other words, excellent sound.


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

Sep 3, 2015

Whitlock: Holiday Suite (CD review)

Malcolm Riley, organ; Gavin Sutherland, RTE Concert Orchestra. Marco Polo 8.225162.

Isn't it remarkable how many early twentieth-century British composers of light orchestral music sound alike? Percy Whitlock lived from 1903 to 1946, producing the bulk of his musical output during the Twenties and Thirties. Although primarily known as a composer of organ music, he also wrote light music, and Marco Polo have resurrected some of this material for its series of discs called "British Light Music." Unfortunately, "Light" is hardly the word for it. Most of this stuff is in danger of floating right out of the CD player.

The music is all over the board, from waltzes to marches to polkas to romantic ballads. The program begins with a rambling "Concert Overture: The Feast of St. Benedict," and then proceeds through three suites: the derivative "Wessex Suite," the relatively delightful "Music for Orchestra," and the mundane "Holiday Suite," with shorter pieces like "Ballet of the Wood Creatures," "Come along Marnie," "Balloon Ballet," and "Susan, the Doggie and Me" in between. To be fair, the "Ballet" is often quite charming, while the others are mainly unmemorable.

Gavin Sutherland
The titles pretty much sum up the substance of these things. Best of all I liked the concluding march called "Dignity and Impudence," the title taken from a Victorian oil painting of two dogs but sounding like a take-off on Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance." Indeed, it does sound exactly like a parody of the more-familiar march. So, at least if you view it as a spoof, as I did, it works. But maybe the composer meant it seriously, who knows.

Largely, though, this is a disc of cheerful, frothy, carefree, and totally forgettable music, mostly reminiscent of some of the folk melodies of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Percy Grainger, and the like, but with not nearly their soul or essence. What's more, Maestro Gavin Sutherland and the RTE Concert Orchestra play almost everything in a wholly nondescript manner, serviceable, to be sure, but without too much flair, which might have helped the music out.

Likewise, Marco Polo's sound seems rather lacking in distinction. While not being bad in any obvious way, it is, nonetheless, somewhat soft and lifeless, with little depth and even less sparkle. This is the kind of album that might appeal to the completest who wants every piece of early twentieth-century British music he can lay his hands on. For the rest of us, it should come with a mild warning label.


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

Sep 1, 2015

Wagner: Orchestral Music (CD review)

Leopold Stokowski, Symphony of the Air and Chorus. HDTT HDCD127.

Stokowski was Stokowski. There's nothing we can do about that. The man certainly had his fair share of detractors, who claimed he pulled and tugged, twisted, distorted, and exaggerated the music he conducted so far out of shape it was hardly recognizable anymore. Fortunately, he had a lot more fans than critics, and he became one of the most well-loved conductors of the twentieth century. And he probably did more to popularize classical music than any single conductor of the century, too.

On this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastering of some of Stokowski's Wagner orchestral music with the Symphony of the Air and Chorus, we hear mostly the best of what the man could do when he tried.

First, a word about the orchestra. The Symphony of the Air was a follow-up to the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a house orchestra for the NBC radio network led primarily by Arturo Toscanini. When it disbanded in 1954, a new orchestra, the Symphony of the Air, no longer affiliated with the network, formed using many of the NBC Symphony's players and led primarily by Leopold Stokowski. The Symphony of the Air performed from 1954 to 1963, and on this 1961 recording we hear both Stokowski and the orchestra (plus chorus) at their best.

Opening the program is the longest track, the Overture and Venusberg music from the opera Tannhauser. The overture is, in fact, the perfect introduction to the Stokowski style. It is opulent as only the old Maestro could make it. OK, it might not be everything the Wagner fan could want; it's probably not introspective enough or dramatic enough; but it's so smooth, so free and flowing, it makes a lot of other Wagner performances sound crude by it side. This is Wagner for the true Romantic, never quite sentimentalized but positively glowing in its overall rich, luscious, sensuous effect. When the chorus enters briefly at the end, it sounds vividly clean yet still lustrous and otherworldly; maybe not quite as soulfully uplifting as it could be but wonderfully exciting.

Leopold Stokowski
Next, we hear the Prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde. If anything, under Stokowski's direction the prelude appears grander and more imposing than the opening track, even though it might be just as familiar music. Stokowski shapes and molds the music into a huge tapestry of immense power. The effect appears sometimes startlingly imposing, the orchestra sounding like one immense organ playing.

Finally, Stokowski closes the show with The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold. Stokowski's handling of this last number is as grand as they come. The conductor paints as intense and memorable a picture of the proceedings as I've heard from anybody.

If there is any minor misgiving I have about the album, it's that I seem to remember the LP edition I used to have including The Ride of the Valkyries. Here, we get only three selections, and they are relatively brief, with a total disc playing time of only forty-three minutes. This is, apparently, the entirety of the tape from which HDTT transferred the music.

Producer Richard Mohr and engineer Robert Layton recorded the music for RCA in 1961. HDTT remastered it in 2013, transferring it from an RCA 4-track tape. The resultant sound is big and full, with an excellent frequency balance. There's a pleasantly realistic upper bass warmth that helps the music come alive. The orchestral depth is quite good, and the stereo spread is fairly wide. The dynamic range accounts for another factor in the music's lifelike quality, along with good impact and a sparkling high end. What's more, the chorus sounds natural, not bright or shrill, the voices clear but sweetly rounded as in real life. This is, in brief, the perfect way to listen to Wagner: plush, lush, opulent, part and parcel of the silky-smooth sound Stokowski always tried to achieve.

If you have any of Stokowski's RCA Wagner recordings, you might want to hear the same music remastered on this HDTT disc; it might impress you as much as it did me. Even the imported German RCA CD I used for comparison purposes, transferred using 24-bit/96kHz technology, didn't have the clarity of the HDTT disc.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, 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