Dec 30, 2015

Atterberg: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Rhapsody; Ballade & Passacaglia. Love Derwinger, piano; Ari Rasilainen, Radio-Philharmonie Hanover des NDR. CPO  999 732-2.

If the first few moments of Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg's Piano Concerto sound a lot like the Grieg Concerto, it probably isn't coincidence. Atterberg freely admitted an admiration for his fellow Scandinavian. Atterberg (1887-1974) is another of those artists whose works are important but seldom recorded. Perhaps they were only important in their time, and their time has come and gone. Nonetheless, it's lucky for us that companies like CPO (and Naxos and so many other labels) are keeping lesser-known composers in the public eye.

The Piano Concerto is the focus of this disc, although it's preceded by a delightful little Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra that's full of exotic charm, and it's followed by the Ballad and Passacaglia, equally brief (about ten minutes) but equally fetching.

Ari Rasilainen
Then, in between, comes the Piano Concerto of 1936, which is foremost on the program, as well it should be. Besides beginning with a homage to Grieg, it settles into a series of powerful and rhapsodic statements of quite sophisticated, albeit slightly melancholy, orchestral proportions. After that is one of the loveliest (and again slightly melancholic) slow movements I've heard in some time. The finale, marked "Furioso," seems to me a little out of keeping with its somewhat subdued antecedents, but it does ease up at the end.

I admit that a previous disc of this composer's Third and Sixth Symphonies (CPO 999 640-2) did not impress as much as this one did, perhaps because of the Piano Concerto's further infusion of folk and blues elements. Whatever, I found it a minor treasure that I'm glad I got to hear. What's more, pianist Love Derwinger plays enchantingly, Maestro Ari Rasilainen keeps the pace moving sweetly, and the orchestra play it with a marked degree of enthusiasm.

As with CPO's earlier disc of Atterberg material, however, the sound is not overly impressive. There's nothing really wrong with it per se, mind you, but it doesn't impress one with any degree of transparency, impact, or stage depth. Rather, it just sort of hangs out there doing its own thing unobtrusively, if a bit softly and flatly.


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

Dec 27, 2015

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra. HDTT remaster.

Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for about as long as any conductor has ever been the conductor of any one orchestra: He was at the helm for forty-four years. He took over the orchestra from Leopold Stokowski in the mid 1930's and recorded for several labels thereafter: primarily Columbia/CBS, RCA, and EMI until the late 70's. It was 1972 that Ormandy made the RCA recording under review, using the short-lived technology known at the time as Quadraphonic. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) translated the Quadraphonic tape to various newer formats in 2015.

When I started acquiring recordings at the beginning of the stereo age (mid 1950's), Ormandy had already well established himself as one of the world's leading conductors. But I didn't really take much notice of him and bought very little of his work because he always seemed a rather foursquare conductor to me. That is, while I never found anything wrong or deficient about his conducting, I usually never found much spark to it, either. He appeared to give the public exactly what they wanted, which wasn't bad: that is, reliable, straightforward interpretations of popular classical music from a world-class orchestra. Unfortunately, too, in the vinyl days his record companies weren't always good to him, producing LP's that sounded thin, noisy, compressed, sometimes harsh, and bass-shy. By the time EMI started recording him, things got a little better; and then when the CD era arrived in the early 1980's, it surprised me to hear how good some of his early stereo work sounded when properly transferred to the new medium. Apparently, Columbia and RCA had not always been kind to the sound when translating the original master tapes to LP. While Ormandy's performances still didn't impress me too much, at least I could hear them in improved sonics. This HDTT transfer gives us some idea of what Ormandy and his Philadelphians really sounded like back then.

Anyway, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and over the past hundred-odd years it has become probably his most-popular work. The listening public dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence," although musical scholars are as yet unsure whether Sibelius meant to attribute any symbolic significance to the piece. Whatever, it ends in a splendidly victorious finale that certainly draws out a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.

The work begins in a generally sunny mood, building to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure. Ormandy had recorded the symphony once before in stereo (for Columbia in the late 1950's, if memory serves), and this '72 performance is much as I remember the first one. Ormandy takes a fairly relaxed view of the opening movement, building the excitement in smoothly articulated stages with no jarring transitions. It's popular music made even more palatable in Ormandy's essentially idiocyncratic-free approach.

Eugene Ormandy
Sibelius marked the second movement an Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow a conductor more personal expression. This second movement begins with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses. Again Ormandy handles the music with his customary, gentle evenhandedness, with the insistent staccato rhythms made more comfortable in the process.

The third-movement scherzo displays a fair degree of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme before seamlessly making its transition into the Finale. Sibelius labeled the movement "Vivacissimo," meaning a tempo taken in a lively and vivacious manner. Under Ormandy, the music moves along at a reasonably quick gait without seeming in any way hurried, rushed, or hectic. He judges his rubato well, too, so again we get no incongruous shocks to the senses as the music moves from one contrasting element to the next.

Then, the Finale should burst forth in an explosive radiance--thrilling and patriotic. Ormandy maneuvers his way into this big fourth-movement victory celebration with a kind of polished cushiness that doesn't quite inspire a listener the way, say, Karajan does. Yet it suffices, and one could hardly call it dull. And he does build up to the score's several rousing climaxes with an appropriate amount of success. So, if Ormandy's interpretation is hardly pulse-pounding, it's also hard to fault.

As I say, Ormandy is good at what he does, and there is nothing about the recording that anyone can point to as inadequate or lacking, especially with an orchestra that plays so wonderfully and with such precision at the Philadelphia. It's just that there are already any number of fine recordings I find more rewarding from people like John Barbirolli and the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky Gold), Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra (EMI), Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony (HDTT),
George Szell and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), Colin Davis and the Boston or London Symphony Orchestras (Philips or RCA),
Thomas Sondergard and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Linn), Osmo Vanska and the Lahti Symphony (BIS), among others. Nevertheless, I doubt that Ormandy would disappoint too many people.

Producer Max Wilcox and engineer Paul Goodman recorded the music for RCA in 1972. In 2015 HDTT transferred it to various formats including two-channel CD, DVD and DVD-A Audio physical disc, DSD or PCM FLAC download, or four-channel surround Blu-ray from an RCA discrete Quadraphonic tape. I listened to the two-channel CD.

The sound is a little closer than I like and a trifle too rounded and soft for me. Still, it beats by a long shot the old sound I remember from Philadelphia, which was often hard, bright, and brittle. Here, we get a most-listenable sound, with strong, wide dynamics and a decent if not wholly satisfying sense of orchestral depth. It seems a good sound for most of the music here--sunny, open, big, and bold, with a warm hall bloom to the instrumental setting. Although midrange transparency suffers a bit, it's a good trade-off for the added ambient glow.

Moreover, for those of you interested in what the original four-channel Quadraphonic sounds like, HDTT also make the recording available in Blu-ray 4.0 surround.

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:

Dec 23, 2015

Chopin: Nocturnes (CD review)

Also, Barcarolle; Fantaisie. Claudio Arrau, piano. Philips 289 464 694-2 (2-disc set).

Chopin didn't invent the nocturne; Wikipedia defines it as "a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. Historically, 'nocturne' is a very old term applied to night Offices and, since the Middle Ages, to divisions in the canonical hour of Matins." Credit goes to Irish composer John Field for writing the first nocturnes under the specific title 'nocturne,' but Chopin did quite a lot to perfect and popularize the genre in the early decades of the nineteenth century. We think of nocturnes today as romantic mood pieces with expressive melodies and broad, buoyant, sustained accompaniment, and no one before or since has done them quite as eloquently as Chopin.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) must have loved the form because he continued writing nocturnes all his short life, the first ones penned in his teens and early twenties, the final ones written just a couple of years before his death. They're all here in the present collection, exquisitely beautiful, done up in raptly concentrated and deeply committed performances by Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. In addition to the Nocturnes, including the posthumous C sharp minor, Arrau adds the Barcarolle in F sharp and the popular Fantaisie in F minor.

Arrau's way with these nocturnes is strong and emotional rather than purely poetic. Not that they aren't also warm and loving, especially as taken at the moderately slow speeds Arrau adopts, but they have a firm cohesiveness about them, along with some deliberate, solidly molded phrasing. Arrau's playing may not be as lyrical as Arthur Rubinstein's (RCA), who for me still holds pride of place, but Arrau's approach is still among the better, more-decisive interpretations of these works you'll find on disc.

Claudio Arrau
Philips recorded the music in 1978 analogue and remastered them in 2001 using 96 kHz, 24-bit Super Digital technology for smooth all-around sound and reasonably low noise. The resultant sound isn't as quiet or as dynamic as some of today's all-digital recordings, to be sure, but after the first few seconds of listening you hardly notice the small amount of background noise present, and the dynamic range seems as wide as necessary. Otherwise, the sonics are rich and smooth.

This Chopin set was among the first of Philips's line of remastered classics, among which I can also recommend Bernard Haitink's Mahler Ninth Symphony (289 464 714-2), Stephen Kovacevich's Grieg Piano Concerto (289 464 702-2), Kiril Kondrashin's Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade (289 464 735-2), and John Eliot Gardiner's Handel Water Music (289 464 706-2). Philips used these and other recordings to celebrate their first fifty years of music making and, thus, they called the series "Philips 50: Great Recordings." Unfortunately, Philips went out of business shortly thereafter. Such is fate, I suppose. In any case, in my comparisons of a few of the remasters to their previous CD counterparts, the remasterings bring a touch more refinement and polish to the sound, without losing much vitality in the process. And the good thing is that you can still find most of these discs new or used.


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

Dec 20, 2015

Garrop: Mythology Symphony (CD review)

Also, Thunderwalker; Shadow. Alondra de la Parra, Markland Thakar, CCPA Symphony and the CCPA Chamber Orchestra. Cedille CDR 90000 160.

First off, you're maybe wondering who Stacy Garrop is. For those of you who don't know her, Ms. Garrop is an award-winning composer, an Associate Professor of Composition at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, and a Cedille Records artist with compositions on nine CD's. Here, we find three of her works spanning the years 1999-2013, presented by two different conductors, Alondra de la Parra and Markland Thakar, leading the Chicago College of Performing Arts Symphony and the CCPA Chamber Orchestra.

At Ms. Garrop's Web site, we read that her music centers "on direct and dramatic narrative. The sharing of stories is a defining element of our humanity; we strive to share the experiences and concepts that we find compelling with others. In her works, this manifests in programmatic pieces without text (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) and more directly in pieces that draw upon poets and writers for source material." So, unlike so much modern music that often sounds like experimental exercises in pure soundscapes, Ms. Garrop's music most often has a narrative attached, little tone poems that unfold clearly enough without too much guidance from program summaries.

The first of these pieces on the program is the Mythology Symphony, which premiered in 2015. (These are world-premiere recordings for all three works on the disc.) Ms. Garrop has divided the symphony into five parts with almost self-explanatory titles: "Becoming Medusa," "Penelope Waits," "The Lovely Sirens," "The Fates of Man," and "Pandora Undone."

As you would expect from a score about mythologic characters, there is plenty of excitement, creativity, and impact from the music, without its ever appearing bombastic or overwrought. Not that I found it particularly groundbreaking in any way, but it is highly accessible and reasonably entertaining. Parts of it bear an unmistakable resemblance to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, so be prepared for that kind of vigorous action.

The quieter sections of the symphony, like "Penelope Waits" and "The Fates of Man," sound appropriately atmospheric, although I could have used a tad more melody to get me through them (the whole work is some forty minutes long). I probably enjoyed the segment on "The Sirens" best of all because of its impressionistic picture painting. Unfortunately (for me), it is also the briefest movement in the piece. I was hoping it would go on a bit longer.

The symphony ends in a finale both carefree and profound. Its rhythms alternate between contrasting moods, accompanied by the tolling of a bell and an ominous drumroll. Yet, all is well, and even though Pandora unleashes great evil into the world, she also manages to undo some of the mischief she's created. So the music ends on a calming note.

Alondra de la Parra
Most important, Maestro de la Parra handles all of the symphony's differing emotions with both energy and resolve. Likewise, the orchestra plays with enthusiasm and refinement, producing a lustrous, polished sound.

Next is Thunderwalker, a three-movement work from 1999, written as Ms. Garrop's doctoral thesis. It, too, has descriptive titles for the movements: "Ritual," "Invoking the Gods," and "Summoned." This piece is shorter than the symphony, and because a chamber ensemble play it, it displays a greater transparency and, in a few places, a greater intimacy. While I found it a little too rambunctious for my taste, I'm sure a lot of listeners will appreciate its imposing gestures.

The final piece is the briefest: Shadow, a chronicle of Ms. Garrop's stay at the Yaddo artist colony in New York in the summer of 2001. The work is a combination of light music with threatening overtones, rather like dark shadows on a sunny, otherwise peaceful day. Maestro Thakar's delivery emphasizes the overall tragic qualities of the music. It's a strikingly evocative piece, well executed by the director and orchestra.

Producer James Ginsburg and Cedille chief engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music in March 2014 and January 2015 at Benito Juarez Community Academy Performing Arts Center, Chicago, Illinois. As always, Maylone does a terrific job with the sound, this time in fact outdoing himself. It's one of the most dynamic, realistic, reach-out-and-touch-it affairs I've heard in a long while. It is, in fact, one of the better-recorded new recordings I've heard all year.

The sound has an enormous dynamic range, with a realistic wallop to the timpani. It's also smoothly articulated, with a lifelike depth of field, a flat frequency response, strong bass, clean highs, and an overall natural ambient glow. The sound pretty much replicates real players and instruments in a real acoustic setting, so you get a fine sense of being there live without its being a live recording.


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

Dec 16, 2015

Concerto Veneziano (SACD review)

Giuliano Carmignola, violin; Andrea Marcon, Venice Baroque Orchestra. Archiv SACD 00289 474 8952.

Absolutely splendid sound and performances drive this collection of Baroque works straight to the top not only of the recording pile, but to the top of the Baroque pile, the top of the classical-music pile, and the top of the music-in-general pile. Even though it's been around for a while, you may have missed it; thus, the reminder.

We've got a combination of assets working here. First, there is the selection of violin concertos from stalwart Baroque composers Antonio Vivaldi, Pietro Locatelli, and Giuseppi Tartini. The various works included (Vivaldi's RV 583 and RV 278; Locatelli's Concerto for Violin in G major; and Tartini's Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo in A major) are not as familiar as some others by these men and, therefore, come off sounding somewhat new.

Andrea Marcon
Second, violinist Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra play the pieces with a fresh vigor and spontaneity that communicate smoothly and easily to the senses. Their interpretations sound relaxed without being lax, vigorous without being overbearing. They simply appear graceful, spontaneous, well judged, and well executed, which is as much as I, at least, could reasonably expect from this music without the scores sounding distorted for the sake of eccentricity.

And, third, the sonics are about as good as it comes. DG released it on their Archiv label in April 2005, and it remains one of the best of its kind. There is a breadth and depth to the ensemble more than amply reproduced by Archiv's fully compatible (hybrid CD/SACD) SACD recording. Although the number of players is relatively small and, therefore, one would expect a good degree of transparency to the sound, we also get here a good deal of warmth, resonance, and natural hall ambiance. The result puts the listener closer to the actual orchestral experience than we would normally get in a period-instrument performance, where sometimes a hard, dry, brittle sound seems the norm.

It's hard to argue with the music, the performances, or the sound of this impressive entry from Carmignola, Marcon, and company.


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

Dec 13, 2015

Fucik: A Festival of Fucik (SACD review)

Neeme Jarvi, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Chandos CHSA 5158.

If you're not quite sure about the name Julius Ernst Wilhelm Fucik (1872-1916), it would probably take you no more than a couple of seconds into the "Entry of the Gladiators" to recognize the music. Oh, yes, Barnum & Bailey, to be sure.

Fucik was a Czech composer as well as conductor of military bands, with marches, polkas, and waltzes his specialties. Bands still play his music, although symphony orchestras seem to overlook him, probably because much of his work is, frankly, less than subtle and not particularly innovative. Maestro Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, however, attempt to rectify the situation somewhat with this collection of fourteen of Fucik's most-popular pieces, including the aforementioned "Gladiators" as well as the "Florentine" march and "The Old Grumbler."

The subject matter may be lightweight, but Jarvi and company embrace it with good-hearted enthusiasm and make the most of what they have. I must admit, though, that Jarvi's view of Fucik may be a tad too enthusiastic for some listeners. The Fucik disc of tunes I've had on the shelf for years is one by Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic on Teldec, which sounds a fair bit more refined than Jarvi's, if not quite so exciting. They make a nice contrasting pair, the Neumann disc taming Fuck's typical bombast more than Jarvi's recording, while Jarvi goes more hell-bent-for-leather in sound as well as performance.

If you think any of this might interest you, the track list goes as follows:

  1. Marinarella, Op. 215
  2. Onkel Teddy (Uncle Teddy), Op. 239 (version for orchestra)
  3. Donausagen, Op. 233: Andantino
  4. Donausagen, Op. 233: I. Tempo di valse
  5. Donausagen, Op. 233: II. Con dolcezza
  6. Donausagen, Op. 233: III
  7. Donausagen, Op. 233: Coda
  8. Die lustigen Dorfschmiede (The Merry Blacksmiths), Op. 218
  9. Der alte Brummbar (The Old Grumbler), Op. 210
10. Einzug der Gladiatoren (The Entry of the Gladiators), Op. 68, "Triumph March"
11. Miramare, Op. 247
12. Florentiner Marsch (Florentine March), Op. 214, "Grande marcia Italiana"
13. Wintersturme (Winter Storms), Op. 184 (arr. P. Stanek for orchestra)
14. Hercegovac, Op. 235
15. Regimentskinder (Children of the Regiment), Op. 169
16. Ballettratten, Op. 226: Allegretto
17. Ballettratten, Op. 226: I. Tempo di valse
18. Ballettratten, Op. 226: II. Meno con delicatezza
19. Ballettratten, Op. 226: III. Meno mosso
20. Ballettratten, Op. 226: Coda
21. The Mississippi River, Op. 160
22. Unter der Admiralsflagge (Under the Admiral's Flag), Op. 82

Neeme Jarvi
All of the selections are brief, three-to-five minutes apiece, with the exceptions of "Danube Legends" and "Little Ballerina," which have five sections each.

The Scottish orchestra plays them with finesse, despite the sometimes rowdy nature of the music, and the musicians are especially felicitous during the softer, gentler interludes (and almost every selection has such quieter moments, believe it or not).

My own favorites include the "Marinarella" overture that opens the program for the grace intermixed with its thrills; the march "Uncle Teddy" for its Sousa-like swagger; "Danube Legends" for its lilting (and for me familiar) waltz tunes; "The Old Grumbler" for its humorous bassoon solo; of course, "The Entry of the Gladiators," also known as "Thunder and Blazes," here given an invigorating workout; and the "Florentine March," also enthusiastically handled.

Although there is not a lot of substance to these pieces, Jarvi finds the sparkle and merriment in each selection and capitalizes on it. For march and waltz fans, it's not a bad collection, particularly when Chandos recorded it so well.

Producer Brian Pidgeon and sound engineer Ralph Couzens made the recording at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland in February 2015. They made it for hybrid SACD and CD playback in multichannel and two-channel stereo. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer.

As we might expect from Chandos and Couzens, the sound is quite natural, quite robust, and quite dynamic. The lower midrange and bass have a real heft, the transient impact is palpable, and the ambient bloom of the hall is always in evidence. The engineers appear to have set up the microphones at a moderate distance, so we get a fairly lifelike response from a listening distance not too close up, with a good depth of field, as well. The engineers give up a little in the way of ultimate transparency for a feeling of being in the auditorium with the musicians.


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

Dec 9, 2015

Vivaldi: Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (CD review)

Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45465 2 (2-CD set).

Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, "The contest between harmony and invention," put Vivaldi on the map insofar as concerns modern audiences because it begins with history's most famous collection of early tone poems, The Four Seasons. Vivaldi's publisher put them out in 1725, a time when the musical world seemed little used to music representing the sights and sounds of the environment around them. The works obviously continue to excite the imagination today, which is probably why there are so many recordings of them in the catalogue.

"The tempos are spectacularly exhilarating from the very opening pages, yet Biondi maintains a remarkably smooth pace throughout.... It is exciting, creative, and rewarding for anyone looking for something new in an old warhorse." That's what I wrote back in 1992 about the first recording Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante ensemble made for the Opus 111 label of the concertos comprising The Four Seasons. Having switched record companies some time ago, Biondi and his group of period-instrument players finally decided in 2001 to get around to the whole set of twelve concertos, which meant, of course, re-recording the famous first four. His performances remain very much the same as I remember them from the Opus 111 recording, the interpretations based on original manuscripts rather than the more familiar published ones. Whether the small variations in the present recording are worth the bother will probably only concern the Vivaldi connoisseur. What's more important is that Biondi and his players will take you on a whirlwind ride through the music. It makes me wonder, however, if there were really so many virtuoso orchestras around in the early eighteenth century that could play these pieces with the kind of ruthless yet lyrical abandon and exacting precision that Biondi and his people display.

Fabio Biondi
Anyway, I found the familiar four concertos at this pace stirring enough, but by the time I finished all twelve I was a little fatigued. So, I would advise taking them a few at a time, unless you're just playing them as background music.

The sound is exceptionally clean and somewhat close-up. At first blush I thought it a tad bright, but I became used to it. The clarity comes at the expense of some mid bass warmth, however, so the overall impression is not necessarily one of a live, concert-hall experience. I doubt that any reader of this site doesn't already have three or four favored Four Seasons, and maybe a favored recording or more of the whole set of twelve concertos in the set, so I won't bother with a recommendation. My own favorites in The Four Seasons alone remain: McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), Pinnock and the English Concert (DG Argo), Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca), I Musici (Eloquence), and Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik (Sony or Tafelmusik); with the stylish and refined I Solisti Italiani (Denon) doing the whole set of Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione as well as anybody.

There are, incidentally, good booklet notes on these works in the Virgin set--two essays, in fact: one on the history of the music and a second by Biondi on why he chose to go back to the original manuscripts for his inspiration. As he says, "I believe it is absolutely legitimate to consider research into manuscript sources of these concertos as a contribution towards a more thorough knowledge of the multiplicity of instrumental techniques appropriate to the performing practice of Vivaldi and his school." As I say, though, whether original sources make the music sound any better is a matter of taste.


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

Dec 6, 2015

Schubert: Rosamunde, complete incidental music (CD review)

Ileana Cotrubas, soprano; Rundfunkchor Leipzig; Willi Boskovsky, Staatskapelle Dresden. Brilliant Classics 95122.

As you know, only a relative handful of people heard any of Schubert's prolific musical output during his lifetime, the lucky few being mainly family and friends. However, one work that did get a fairly large audience, at least initially, was Schubert's incidental music to the play Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus by Helmina von Chezy. The premiere took place at the Theater an der Wien in 1825, but it failed and had only two performances. Fortunately for fans of Schubert, his music gained popularity after his death, the Rosamunde score remaining a treasure for us today.

Oddly, though, there aren't a lot of recordings of the complete incidental music, the one I've been living with quite happily until now being from Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra on Philips from 1983. However, the Brilliant Classics reissue here under review from Willi Boskovsky and the Staatskapelle Dresden provides a good alternative. Recorded a few years earlier, 1977, than Masur's, it sounds marginally clearer (if not so rich), with Boskovsky putting in a slightly more energetic performance than Masur.

So, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote the Rosamunde music in 1823 on a commission from the Theater an der Wien, and he completed it in barely two weeks (in some accounts less than five days). Although the play closed, as I say, quickly, critics and audiences rather enjoyed the music, and it has delighted listeners ever since (or, at least, ever since people like Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Brahms got behind it after the composer's death). The play itself doesn't matter anymore, lost to history--the plot and characters apparently being quite melodramatic, even corny by today's standards of entertainment--but Schubert's music remains forever charming.

Maestro Boskovsky, perhaps better remembered as a conductor of German waltz music, especially the Strauss family, does a good job with this light music from Schubert. Things begin with an overture, which Schubert didn't have time to write, so concert performances usually use either the one we have here, written a year earlier for Alfonso and Estrella, or the one from 1820 for the fairy-tale play Die Zauberharfe ("The Magic Harp").

Boskovsky takes a characteristically chipper view of the music, even if the story was evidently rather depressing (some referred to it as "a grand romantic play"). Not that Boskovsky doesn't sufficiently address the more-dramatic elements; he does. It's just that his interpretation dwells more on the purely sweet, lilting aspects of the score, allowing a free flow of rhythms throughout.

Willi Boskovsky
In addition, there's the matter of tempos. In comparison to the aforementioned Masur performance, Boskovsky is consistently faster. He's faster, in fact, in every single movement (except in the overture because the conductors use two different ones). Yet Boskovsky never hurries the music. It's really lovely, dancing along as it does on its sprightly airs.

My own favorite parts of the score are the gentler sections--the ballets, andantes, and, of course, the Entr'acte No. 3. Then, too, the Staatskapelle Dresden play beautifully, and Ms. Cotrubas and the Leipzig Radio Choir add brief but effectively touching contributions to the affair.

As a bonus coupling, the program provides the overture to Die Zauberharfe, the music Schubert eventually decided would be best for the score rather than the more-hastily chosen Alfonso und Estrella, which he used for the first public performances. So, with this recording, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Producer John Mordler and engineers Horst Kunze and Gerald Junge made the recording at Lukaskirch, Dresden, Germany in March 1977. Compared to the Philips/Masur disc I had on hand, which sounds warm, spacious, dark-hued, and mellow, the Brilliant Classics/Boskovsky reissue sounds more close-up and more sharply focused. The Masur disc seems like a sixteenth-century tapestry compared to Boskovsky's twentieth-century photograph. I enjoyed the sound of both, but they are different.

Anyway, the Boskovsky recording displays a fair amount of transparency without sacrificing much in the way of natural ambience or dimensionality. Dynamics are good, too, as are stereo spread and transient response. Highs are adequate, although bass could be deeper and some midrange frequencies betray a slight degree of fuzz around the notes.


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

Dec 2, 2015

Concerti Virtuosi (CD review)

Music of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Locatelli, Fasch, and Leo. Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Analekta AN 2 9815.

The Canadian period-instrument ensemble Tafelmusik is one of today's leading early music orchestras, the group as refined yet as exciting playing historical instruments as, say, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is playing modern instruments. The only trouble is finding enough good Baroque music to make the ensemble worth hearing, which is perhaps why they have reached out as far as the early Romantic period in their performances.

In any case, I know it sounds a bit harsh of me to criticize Baroque music, and it probably says more about me and my attitudes toward music than anything else. The fact is, I'm in a minority. The music of the Baroque and Classical periods make up the biggest part of the air time on most classical radio stations; it's that popular. Apparently, radio listeners love it as a sort of background music to whatever else they're doing during the day or night: driving or working or reading the newspaper. Perhaps I'm being unfair suggesting that Baroque music takes less concentration to enjoy than other types of music, but there is a fairly static quality about most of it that makes it akin to radio's "easy listening."

In any case, the Baroque music on this 2005 release from Tafelmusik comprises various concerti, a term that the booklet note explains got its meaning in part from the Latin word concertare, meaning "to contend, dispute, debate," and from the Italian, meaning "to agree, arrange, get together." The definitions would seem to be contradictory, and in a way so is the music, with the trio sections contending against yet blending with the rest of the orchestra.

All of the works on the disc come from the early seventeenth century, the composers being the ever-popular Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Friedrich Handel, of course; the lesser-known Pietro Locatelli and Johann Friedrich Fasch; and the least-known Leonardo Leo. What they all have in common is that their concerti sound pretty much alike to the uninformed ear. Count me among those; I doubt that I could identify any single snippet of music from any of these works two minutes after listening to them. While I know that makes me sound like Barbarian, I nevertheless enjoyed every minute of every note.

Jeanne Lamon
What's on the disc? Vivaldi's Concerto in A Minor for Two Oboes and Strings and his Concerto in E Minor for Four Violins; Leo's Concerto in D Minor for Violoncello; Bach's Concerto for Oboe D'amore in G Major; Locatelli's Concerto Grosso in D Major; Fasch's Concerto in C Minor for Bassoon, Two Oboes, and Strings; and Handel's Concerto Grosso in A Minor.

Jeanne Lamon and her Tafelmusik ensemble make the music come alive, all the while sounding as graceful and elegant as any orchestra you'll find. It's no wonder Tafelmusik has become one of the leading period-instrument bands in the world. Along with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, among others, they perform with a lively yet moderate style, never overemphasizing the period qualities of their playing and always allowing the tempos, phrasing, bowing, and various nuances to serve the music and not spotlight the players.

The sonics are typical of what the Tafelmusik players have been doing since switching to their own Analekta label some years ago. The recording sounds smooth, rich, wide ranging, vivid, and alive, without appearing in any way spectacular. The sonics are not bright, hard, or edgy as so many period-instrument recordings can sound; nor are the sonics as clear, open, and transparent as a few audiophile discs can be. The sound is simply natural and pleasant, never drawing attention to itself. The recording places the music above all else, which is as it should be.

With over seventy records to their credit, if any group can help a listener appreciate Baroque music, it's Tafelmusik.


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