Dec 26, 2016

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (CD review)

Also, Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Evgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is something of an odd duck, and it's one that many movie buffs may recognize from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) wrote it in 1936 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester, and it has since become one of the composers most well-known works. It is a somewhat strange, curious, even eerie piece of music, at least the way most conductors have approached it. I always think of it as atmospheric, with several of my favorite recordings of it coming at it from distinctly different directions: Leonard Bernstein (Sony) gave it an energetic reading; Herbert von Karajan (DG) provided a cushier, more glamorous setting; Pierre Boulez (Sony and DG) was more precise and exacting; Eugene Ormandy (EMI) was most eloquent; Sir Georg Solti (Decca) was a bit more brazen and robust; Sir Charles Mackerras (Linn) added a greater element of lyricism to the mix; and, for me, Fritz Reiner (RCA) delivered probably the best, most authoritative all-around interpretation.

Then there's the Russian conductor Evgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) who gave us this 1965 recording, now remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). Mravinsky's version doesn't really fit any of the traditional categories, and listeners may either love it or hate it for its almost diabolical intensity. What's more, listeners may either love or hate the live sound, too, which the folks at HDTT have remastered quite well. But it's still live, with all its attendant charms and problems, depending on one's point of view.

Whatever, the first movement is like a slow fugue, its tempos changing up repeatedly. It starts out with extremely subdued strings and becomes louder and thicker as more instruments join the mix. After a quickened climax, the music eventually settles back into quietness. While Mravinsky doesn't necessarily take any of this quicker than other conductors, he does seem to intensify it more. There is little of the moody, atmospheric tone one usually hears, the aura replaced by more of an aggressive dynamism. Still, it's not entirely out of the mainstream, and if it weren't for the distracting audience noises throughout the quieter passages, it would be quite thrilling.

Evgeny Mravinsky
The second movement is fairly fast, distinguished by syncopated piano and percussion tones, a swirling dance subject, a lengthy pizzicato segment, and a vigorous conclusion. I found this section most effective under Mravinsky, the tension mounting appropriately, the contrasts nicely projected, the excitement well articulated.

The third, slow-movement Adagio is Bartók's "Night Music." It showcases a gliding effect for timpani, including a prominent part for xylophone. For me, Mravinsky's melodramatic take on it is more Halloween spooky than mysterious, expressionistic, or unearthly. That said, it remains a fascinating piece of writing, and the conductor does seem to be having fun voicing it, even if it appears to be more Mravinsky's voice than Bartok's.

The final movement begins with timpani and strummed pizzicato string chords and quickly moves into the lively flavor of a Hungarian folk dance. Here, I loved Mravinsky's vigorous attack on the music and its swirling rhythms. So, all's well that ends well.

The other selection on the album is Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"), a brief tone poem for orchestra premiered in 1894 by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Even if Debussy disliked the term "impressionist" applied to his work, there can hardly be a better word to describe the Prelude. My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines musical impressionism as a "style of composition in which lush harmonies, subtle rhythms, and unusual tonal colors are used to evoke moods and impressions."

Debussy wrote of the Prelude that it "is a very free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature."

So, how sensuous or sensual is Mravinsky's faun and his daydreams? Put it this way: Don't expect the lavish textures of a Karajan here. Do expect a precise, well-chiseled account of the score, maybe not as sinuous or sexy as it could be but well outlined in any case.

The Russian record label Melodiya recorded the music live at the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic in March 1965. HDTT transferred it from a 15ips tape to DSD256 in 2016, and they make it available in a variety of formats: DSD256, DSD128, DSD64, DXD PCM, and PCM Flac digital downloads; DVD Audio; and compact disc.

Anyway, it is live, and one always knows it. If you don't mind the sound of the audience--coughs, shuffling, breathing, wheezing, gagging, and, as if you couldn't guess, plenty of applause--it shouldn't bother you. It did me. But if the audience noises don't annoy you, the sound is clean and detailed, if somewhat thin and hard. Dynamics are wide, impact moderately good, highs sparkling, and orchestral depth rewardingly realistic.

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


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Dec 21, 2016

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Also, Harpsichord Concertos; Violin Concertos. Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Koln; Simon Standage, violin, with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. DG Panorama 289 469 103-2 (2-disc set).

This two-disc set is a part of DG's series of important classical works culled from their back catalog. It features the six Brandenburg Concertos, the two Harpsichord Concertos, and the two Violin Concertos, all done on period instruments. The concept is fine, but I have to question DG's choice of representative recordings.

The centerpiece of the collection is, of course, the group of Brandenburgs, and here lies the main problem. Why did DG choose violinist and conductor Reinhard Goebel's 1987 performances, when they had Trevor Pinnock's superb realizations at hand? Goebel's interpretations are among those that put breakneck speed above everything else. They're mostly hell-bent-for-leather affairs, attempts to show off the band's virtuosity at the expense of presenting anything worth listening to. I frankly doubt that in Bach's time many orchestras would have played the pieces at such reckless tempos. For one thing, the eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, and I doubt that listeners would have countenanced such hectic, almost foolhardy playing; for another, there probably weren't many house bands in Germany masterly enough to have accomplished the deed. So what's the point of "authenticity" if the interpretations probably bear little relation to reality?

Reinhard Goebel
Anyway, I recognize that a lot of people will find Goebel's Brandenburg readings invigorating and fun. However, I found them almost totally devoid of the charm, zest, delight, and refinement I hear in so many other period performances, like those from Trevor Pinnock and either the European Brandenburg Ensemble (Avie) or English Concert (DG Archiv), Jeanne Lamon and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (Tafelmusik or Sony), Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo's Fire (Avie), Jordi Savall and Les Concert des Nations (Astree), or the Leonhardt Ensemble (Sony), among others.

Fortunately, the accompanying Harpsichord and Violin Concertos are excellent, particularly the latter, featuring Simon Standage as violinist with Pinnock and his English Concert in accompiment. Pinnock and company play the works with appropriate zeal, yet they never sound anything but cultured and comfortable.

The early Eighties sound in the Violin Concertos is also quite fetching--cleaner, smoother, and more natural than in the other pieces on the discs. At a modest price, this DG set may seem inviting, but, overall, I'd stick with recommended individual accounts, even if the asking price is higher.


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Dec 18, 2016

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 "Romantic" (CD review)

Valery Gergiev, Munich Philharmonic. Munchner Philharmoniker MPHL0002.

The album's booklet notes begin with German composer Hans Pfitzner's now-famous remark that Bruckner wrote only one symphony but wrote it nine times in all. That may not be entirely true as one could say the same thing about any number of composers, like most of Wagner and Vivaldi and the early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Nonetheless, I suppose, there is a point to the remark, namely that Bruckner did have a uniquely personal, spiritually Romantic musical style that he repeated in most of his symphonies. If that is the case, then there was probably no better example of it than his Fourth Symphony, possibly his most-popular work.

Austrian composer and organist Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" in 1874, revising it several times before his death. (Here, conductor Valery Gergiev uses the 1878-80 revision edited by Leopold Nowak in 1953). The work's popularity no doubt stems largely from its abundance of Romantic, programmatic qualities, which Maestro Gergiev plays with a melodramatic fullness. Bruckner was a profoundly spiritual man, and his symphonies illustrate the point. Plus, you may recall that the composer tells us what each of the movements in the symphony represents, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a funeral, then a hunt, complete with horn calls, and finally a brilliant culminating summation.

The question, though, is not if or why people like the Fourth Symphony nor what the symphony is "about." The question is whether Maestro Gergiev brings to his performance anything new, anything we haven't heard before, anything that might set it apart from the many fine recordings that have come before it. After all, we already have performances by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Karl Bohm and Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), Eugen Jochum with both the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) and the Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Gunther Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG), and Georg Tintner and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos), to name a few.

My answer to the above question about Gergiev is, well, maybe not. Let's take a look.

In the first movement Bruckner offers us a vision of Nature, and the composer's several scenic landscapes should remind us of how much Bruckner admired Beethoven and Wagner. Here, composer wants us to see a morning breaking, the mists around a medieval castle giving way to dawn, whereupon an army of knights bursts forth from the castle gates in a blaze of glory. In this first section, Gergiev does what he does best: he gives us a highly theatrical reading. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of the spiritual majesty Bruckner seems to have intended, either, just the theatrics of the programmatic music.

Valery Gergiev
The second-movement Andante is a serenade--night music that represents in this instance a young lad's amorous but ultimately hopeless longings and expressions. I've always thought it sounded elegiac, halfway between a nocturne and a funeral march, the composer indicating he wanted a slow but comfortably moderate pace (quasi Allegretto). Here's the thing, though: I'm not sure Gergiev really gives us a "comfortably moderate pace." It's more like a slow dirge, and it appears to represent not so much a lad's hopeless amorous longings as it does his total defeat at the hands of his would-be lover.

Bruckner teasingly called the lively third-movement Scherzo "a rabbit hunt," and it should build a proper momentum as it goes forward. It's in this faster section that I found Gergiev most at home, perhaps the livelier spirits inspiring him. It moves along with high good cheer, and the Munich players seem to delight in it.

The Finale, which like the Scherzo opens with a heroic theme, works its way into a more-idyllic second subject and then reworks them both into a closing statement. This movement begins rather ominously, with dark clouds overhead, leading before long to a thunderstorm; however, the storm eventually breaks and gives way to variations on the symphony's heroic opening theme and a summation of all the parts. If you're wondering what it means, even Bruckner himself was at something of a loss when asked. He said, "...even I myself can't say what I was thinking about at the time." Whatever, Gergiev handles it about as he did the first movement, emphasizing the dramatic contrasts at the expense of any refined, high-flown ethereal qualities. It's a fairly direct reading, then, mostly serious, leaning to the sullen side, slightly slow and calculated, and highly theatrical. If that's the way you view Bruckner, Gergiev is your man.

Producer Johannes Muller and engineer Gerald Junge recorded the music at the Gasteig Culture Center, Munich in September 2015. The first thing one notices about the recording is that it displays an enormous dynamic range. It will start very softly and build to huge climaxes. This is good; it's what happens in live music, even though it annoys some home listeners. So, when it begins, avoid the temptation to turn it up, or the volume may knock you out of your seat. Also good are the sound of the hall itself, a mild ambient bloom, and the stereo spread and depth.

Not so good, however, is that the sound isn't exactly the most transparent. In fact, there's a slight veil over the proceedings, and detailing that we might want to hear is not always present. There are some odd pre-echoes, too, as well as a small degree of fuzziness in the upper frequencies. So, you get a big, wide, somewhat dark, soft, shrouded sound that makes the recording seem as though you were listening from a farther distance away from the orchestra than you might like.


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Dec 14, 2016

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (CD review)

Also, The Tempest, Suite No. 2. Petri Sakari, Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.554387.

In order for any performance of a work by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) to reach a level of excellence, it must display equal measures of boreal iciness and dreamy northern vistas. It helps, I suppose, that a Finnish conductor, Petri Sakari, and an Icelandic orchestra play the music on the present Naxos disc.

The cold is probably in their bones, and it's especially evident in the opening movement of the Sixth Symphony, the star of the set. There is an air of chill in the soft winds, leading to a gentle but coolly illuminated second movement, a fairly active scherzo, and a strong finale, wanting only in a touch of mystery.

Petri Sakari
The Seventh Symphony is somewhat different from the Sixth. It is quite brief at little over twenty minutes in length, and while demonstrating the traditional four-movement layout, we usually hear it as a single, uninterrupted unit. Still, the Seventh appears more massive and more substantial than the Sixth, a kind of synthesis, perhaps, of all that the composer had done before it. Sibelius seems to have condensed the essence of his bucolic wintry spirit into the work, and Maestro Sakari understands the importance of keeping the piece together and not letting it flake off into separate icy splinters. He maintains the work's cohesion and conveys its solemnity and triumph quite well.

Three of my comparison discs in these works were from Sir Colin Davis (RCA and Philips) and Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), the latter of whom has long been a favorite of mine. Unfortunately, making comparisons with well-established favorites may come out unfairly biased, so it's maybe no wonder I preferred them. Nevertheless, it is a measure of Sakari's skill that he more than holds his own with the other conductors, if never with quite the same characterful personality to his music-making.

Sound is another matter, and the Naxos engineers have served up a distinctive recording. It is a bit more rounded and more natural than the much older EMI recording, while not so transparent or robust as the RCA (or even the Philips). Still, this 2000 Naxos release has good range, good breadth, and good imaging, although I felt the cellos and first violins sounded a bit too close.

Overall, for its modest price, to get both the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and a fascinating filler in Sibelius's incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest seems a pretty good deal.


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Dec 11, 2016

Schulhoff: Complete Music for Violin and Piano (CD review)

Bruno Monteiro, violin; Joao Paulo Santos, piano. Brilliant Classics 95324.

First, who is Erwin Schulhoff? According to Wikipedia, "Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a Czech composer and pianist. He was one of the figures in the generation of European musicians whose successful careers were prematurely terminated by the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany and whose works have been rarely noted or performed. Antonín Dvorak encouraged Schulhoff's earliest musical studies, which began at the Prague Conservatory when he was ten years old. He studied composition and piano there and later in Vienna, Leipzig, and Cologne, where his teachers included Claude Debussy, Max Reger, Fritz Steinbach, and Willi Thern.

"He won the Mendelssohn Prize twice, for piano in 1913 and for composition in 1918. He served on the Russian front in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was wounded and was in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp when the war ended. He lived in Germany after the war until returning to Prague in 1923 where he joined the faculty of the conservatory in 1929. He was one of the first generation of classical composers to find inspiration in the rhythms of jazz music. Schulhoff also embraced the avant-garde influence of Dadaism in his performances and compositions after World War I. When organizing concerts of avant-garde music in 1919, he included this manifesto: 'Absolute art is revolution, it requires additional facets for development, leads to overthrow (coups) in order to open new paths...and is the most powerful in music....'" Unfortunately, because of his Jewish heritage, this fine musician and composer died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Second, who are Bruno Monteiro and Joao Paulo Santos? According to his biography, Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro is "heralded by the daily Publico as 'one of Portugal's premier violinists' and by the weekly Expresso as 'one of today's most renowned Portuguese musicians.' Bruno Monteiro is internationally recognized as a distinguished violinist of his generation. Fanfare describes him as having a 'burnished golden tone' and Strad states that his 'generous vibrato produces radiant colors.' Music Web International refers to interpretations that have a 'vitality and an imagination that are looking unequivocally to the future' and that reach an 'almost ideal balance between the expressive and the intellectual.' Gramophone praises his 'unfailing assurance and eloquence' and Strings Magazine summarises that he is 'a young chamber musician of extraordinary sensitivity.'"

Bruno Monteiro
Spanish pianist Joao Paulo Santos is a graduate of the Lisbon National Conservatory, and with a sponsorship from the Gulbenkian Foundation, he completed his piano studies in Paris with Aldo Ciccolini. For the past forty years he has worked with the Teatro Nacional de S. Carlos, the Lisbon Opera House, first as Chief Chorus Conductor and more recently as Director of Musical and Stage Studies. He has also distinguished himself as an opera conductor, concert pianist, and researcher of less-known and forgotten Portuguese composers.

In an earlier review of Monteiro and Santos performing the music of Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graca, I said of them that they play "so affectionately, so enchantingly, I look forward to hearing them again." Now, I've gotten that chance, and I am no less impressed.

The program contains four works: one suite for violin and piano, two sonatas for violin and piano, and one sonata for solo violin. The thing you have to remember, though, is that Schulhoff began composing at about the time the modern era of music began, and while he is clearly avant-garde, innovative, and experimental for his day, he also has one foot firmly planted in the melodies and harmonies of the older Romantic generation. So his music is a kind of fascinating amalgam of the old and the new.

Anyway, Monteiro has arranged the order of the program in chronological order, starting with the five-movement suite, dating from 1911. It has a generally positive and happy outlook, with the violinist delighting in its almost-classical demeanor. Monteiro's tone is always clean, golden, and vibrant, qualities he maintains throughout the program. The interior minuet and waltz segments appear most adventurous, yet they never become objectionable in their eccentricities. The final movement ends the piece with something originally titled "Dance of the Little Devils," and it's charming in its impish delights, at least the way Monteiro and Santos play it.

The next three items are more overtly "modern," being somewhat less harmonious or melodic. The first sonata has more starts and stops to it, with more contrasting sections and a more emphatic rhythmic drive. Nevertheless, for all of its oddities it comes over with an appealingly pensive mood under the guidance of Monteiro and Santos.

In the solo violin work Monteiro not only gets to show off his more virtuosic talents, he gets to display his knowledge and feeling for the jazz idioms Schulhoff adopted. Finally, in the second sonata we hear a more dance-like feeling from the composer, probably from his embracing more of the native folk elements of his country. Don't expect Dvorak, but you get the idea. It begins briskly, energetically, followed by a highly expressive slow movement and returning in the final segments to some of the same themes with which the music started. Again, Monteiro and Santos make a splendid team, keeping the drama of the piece moving forward with a pulsating, scintillating enchantment.

Producer Bruno Monteiro and engineer and editor Jose Fortes recorded the album at Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal in April 2016. The church makes an excellent setting for the musicians, the sound taking on a touch of hall resonance without in any way affecting the overall transparency of the instruments. We get clarity and dynamic impact aplenty, plus a realistic separation of players, making the listening both pleasurable and lifelike.


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Dec 7, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Maid of Pskov Suite (CD review)

Also, The Legend of the Invisible City Suite; Fairy Tale; Fantasia on Serbian Themes. Igor Golovchin, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.553513.

The music for The Maid of Pskov is incidental to the play on which Rimsky-Korsakov based his troubled opera (1872). The suite, frankly, left me a little bored. Perhaps I was expecting Scheherazade or the Russian Easter Festival Overture. In any event, most of the five movements are Entr'actes, meant to set various scenes rather than elaborate upon them. Maestro Igor Golovchin and the Moscow Symphony players do the best they can with it, I'm sure, the orchestra sounding finely polished.

The second work, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, from 1903, is much more evocative and has an especially elaborate and fanciful finale that is, in fact, reminiscent of the composer's earlier Scheherazade. Here, however, Golovchin seems a little understated when more color might have helped.

Igor Golovchin
Probably the best piece on the disc, though, is Fairy Tale (1880), a brief, thirteen-minute tone poem for which Rimsky-Korsakov felt forced to suggest a few guidelines to listeners, suggestions like the sounds of the forest, the call of a mythical bird, a water nymph, and the famous witch, Baba Yaga. It holds up pretty well under Golovchin's still somewhat conservative approach.

The program concludes with another short work, the eight-minute Fantasia on Serbian Themes (1887), which again seems better focused and more impressionistic than the Maid music. My only concern in the performance was for conductor Igor Golovchin's rather measured, somewhat foursquare interpretations. I was hoping he would let loose with some real Russian zeal, at least in the closing moments of the piece, but it was not to be.

The sound the Naxos engineers provide for the Moscow Symphony is typically firm and solid for the company. It's a bit warm and soft and doesn't have much sparkle, but it does come across as rock steady, clean, and sturdy. Stereo spread appears quite wide, depth is moderate, dynamics are fine, and bass, particularly from a prominent bass drum, shows up firm and deep. No real complaints here.

With an ample seventy-two minutes of music, the Naxos label again provides one's money's worth in terms of material offered. And at the very least the little Fairy Tale is worth one's time.


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Dec 4, 2016

Antal Dorati Conducts Albeniz, Kodaly & Prokofiev (CD review)

Antal Dorati, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

If you're an audiophile, I don't need to tell you that a lot of folks have prized the mid 1950's to early 1960's recordings from RCA "Living Stereo" and Mercury "Living Presence" as collector's items. So it's always a pleasure to hear another of the latter recordings from this era remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), this time with Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony from 1956-57 and the London Symphony from 1957.

First up are five of the twelve piano "impressions" from Iberia by Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albeniz (1860–1909), orchestrated by E. Fernandez Arbos. Color and atmosphere fill the music, and those are things Hungarian-born conductor Dorati (1906-1988) did exceptionally well. This is important because Arbos's orchestration is lush and varied, and Dorati does it justice throughout all the sections.

Next is the Hary Janos Suite by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882–1967). Kodaly extracted the orchestral suite from his comic opera of the same name, which he prefaced saying, "Hary is a peasant, a veteran soldier who day after day sits at the tavern spinning yarns about his heroic exploits. The stories released by his imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naivety, of comic humour and pathos." The music begins with an orchestral "sneeze," and from there it gets even more picturesque as it goes along. Dorati gives the piece a fine combination of vigor and excitement, and the Minneapolis players provide him all the zip and polish the work needs.

Antal Dorati
The final item on the program is the six-movement concert suite from the comic opera The Love of Three Oranges by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). If anything, this work is more outwardly exciting than the others, and again Dorati is up the challenge. What's more, the LSO play with all the zeal the music needs, so we get another triumph from the conductor and orchestra.

If I had to find any fault in the album (which I don't have to but will anyway, because, you know, it's what critics do), it's that the there are only three track points, one for each major item. I would have liked track points for each selection within each suite. Oh, well, a minor quibble.

Producer Wilma Cozart (Fine), editor Harold Lawrence, and engineer C. R. Fine recorded the Kodaly at the Northrop Memorial Auditorium, Minneapolis, Minnesota in November 1956; the Albeniz in April 1957; and the Prokofiev at Watford Town Hall, London, England in July 1957. HDTT transferred the recordings from Mercury two-track tapes.

The recordings from Minneapolis are as vivid as they can be. Highs seem a trifle hard and sharp at times, but, otherwise, the sound is as spectacular as a listener could want. I remember owning these recordings on vinyl many years ago, but I don't remember them sounding as good as they do here. The frequency and dynamic ranges are very wide, with strong impact all through the spectrum and as quick a transient response as you'll find. The midrange sounds beautifully balanced and transparent. The stereo spread is wide without being too close up. The London recording is similarly clear and dynamic, but it adds a touch more roundness and resonance from Watford Town Hall, making it even more lifelike. Really fine listening.

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


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Nov 30, 2016

African Heritage Symphonic Series, Volume 1 (CD review)

Music of  William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Fela Sowande. Paul Freeman, Chicago Sinfonietta. Cedille Records CDR 90000 055.

Look. I'm only going to say this one more time (or until I hear another disc from this source), so listen up. The folks at Cedille produce some of the best-sounding records in the industry. And as usual I'd like to commend engineer Bill Maylone for his contributions to the audiophile cause.

This 2003 release with the Chicago Sinfonietta under the directorship of its founder, Paul Freeman, is outstanding in every way. The sound is spectacularly wide, robust, dynamic, detailed, and wholly natural. Highs are sparkling, bass is deep and strong (with a drum rivaling the old Telarcs), depth perception is excellent, and imaging is superb. If the sonics have any weakness at all it's in the slightly soft midrange, yet even here it matches what I normally hear live in a concert hall.

But don't just buy the disc for its sound. The music is more than worthwhile, too. Volume One in Cedille's "African Heritage Symphonic Series," the album includes works by three prominent African American composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The program begins with two pieces by British-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), "Danse Negre" from his African Suite and Petite Suite de Concert. They are lightweight and highly accessible orchestral works from the man most famous for his big choral extravaganza, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. Following them, we find an even more sprightly set of selections from Nigerian-born Fela Sowande (1905-1987), three movements from his African Suite.

Paul Freeman
Nevertheless, the Coleridge-Taylor and Sowande works are mere introduction to the disc's big number, William Grant Still's wonderful Symphony No. 1. Composer Still (1895-1978) came from a mixed background--African American, Native American, Anglo, and Hispanic--but never rejected his birth certificate identification as "Negro." His First Symphony from 1930, for those who've never heard it, will be a godsend for music lovers who enjoy Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, written half dozen years earlier. Still's symphony displays elements of blues, minstrel, ragtime, and Southern folk tunes, all fundamentally American idioms. The composer structured it in a traditional four-movement layout, with a big opening reminiscent of Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess, followed by a lovely Adagio, a brief but rousing Scherzo, and a surprisingly subdued but noble finale, all of which Maestro Freeman and ensemble play to perfection.

There is also a fine booklet essay on the three composers by music professor Dominque-Rene de Lerma included that does much to clarify the position of each man in the scheme of American musical life. All around, this disc was a sure crowd-pleaser to open Cedille's "African Heritage" series of recordings, and if you can find any of the series, I continue to highly recommend them.


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Nov 27, 2016

Tharaud Plays Rachmaninov (CD review)

Piano Concerto No. 2; Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie for solo piano; Vocalise for piano and voice; Pieces for six hands. Alexandre Tharaud, piano; Alexander Vedernikov, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Erato 019029595469.

French concert pianist Alexandre Tharaud (b. 1968) is one of a growing number of fine, younger pianists who have developed almost fanatical followings in the past decade or two. The several dozen albums Tharaud has produced bear testament to his popularity, and the present one in which he plays the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto should do nothing to dispel his acclaim.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, premiered by Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) in 1901, is one of the last of the great Romantic concertos. Well, OK, not really the last; that would probably be the composer's Third Piano Concerto. But the Second, with its grand, rhapsodic gestures epitomizes the Romantic tradition, so, close enough.

The history of the concerto is well known. Rachmaninov wrote it after recovering from a fit of depression brought on by the relative failure of his First Symphony and some severe complications in his personal life. As the story goes, it was only through hypnotherapy that he reestablished and revived his career. The Concerto would appear the perfect vehicle for the creative and energetic Tharaud.

Can one play the Second Concerto too Romantically? Tharaud seems to try, although I don't mean this as a bad thing. He plays with an assured calm and a sweet lyrical flourish. There is little overstatement in the performance, except perhaps to keep the music as smoothly polished as possible. Furthermore, Tharaud plays with a confident dexterity, and the Liverpool players give him a solid backup, without overwhelming him in the bigger sections of the score.

Tharaud's interpretation of the central Adagio glides along as tranquilly as we might expect from hearing a similar treatment of the first movement, with no inordinate surprises. It's quite lovely, in fact, even if it seems a little too leisurely and measured at times. Then, in the final movement we get a healthy but again not overheated influx of adrenaline. Indeed, the listener may find this either refreshing or too tame, take your choice.

Alexandre Tharaud
The question remains, though, how Tharaud's performance stacks up against great recordings of the past, ones from Ashkenazy, Janis, Horowitz, Richter, Wild, even Rachmaninov himself. Here, the case for Tharaud is not quite so compelling. In fact, a quick comparison to the composer's own version finds Tharaud lacking a good deal of potency, passion, and drama. Still, those things may not be what every listener wants, and Tharaud's gentler approach may be a good antidote to the more-melodramatic renderings we often hear.

The remainder of the program consists of a series of shorter Rachmaninov pieces: Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie for solo piano; Vocalise for piano and voice (with soprano Sabine Devieilhe); and Pieces for six hands (with pianists Alexander Melnikov and Aleksandar Madzar). Given that all three of the album's pianists plus the conductor are Alexanders (of various spellings), one wonders if Tharaud or his producer chose them to perform as some kind of in-joke. Or was it really coincidence? In any case, I enjoyed these smaller pieces, Tharaud displaying all the sensitivity he showed in the concerto but on a more-intimate and, perhaps, more-appropriate scale. (Well, OK, maybe he needs to be more theatrically menacing in the Prelude in C sharp minor if he's going to hope to compete with the best.)

Producer, editor, and mixer Cecile Lenoir and engineer Philip Siney recorded the concerto at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, UK in 2016 and the chamber music at Salle Colonne, Paris, in the same year.

In the concerto, the piano is well out in front of orchestra. Fortunately, it sounds smoothly recorded, if a trifle soft, and the orchestra likewise, making the entire enterprise quite easy on the ears. So, while the piano appears most natural, the orchestral transparency could have been a bit more pronounced. In the smaller pieces at the end, the piano seems even more lifelike, with a tad more definition. And without a full orchestra behind it, the piano seems more realistically alive.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Nov 23, 2016

Paul Kletzki: Great Conductors of the 20th Century (CD review)

Paul Kletzki, various orchestras. EMI 7243 5 75468 2 9 (2-CD set).

The bigger studios continue to mine their vaults for old material in new packaging, sometimes becoming redundant, sometimes finding gold. In the case of EMI's latest issue of remasterings, titled "Great Conductors of the 20th Century," they have provided a service in offering us much material never before available on CD.

Each release is a mid-priced two-disc set, and there are thirteen releases in EMI's first batch. They cover Sir Adrian Boult, Albert Coates, Carlo Maria Giulini, Erich Kleiber, Paul Kletzki, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Leopold Stokowski, Vaclav Talich, Eugene Ormandy, Carl Schuricht, and Bruno Walter. I chose to review Paul Kletzki because I think he's one of the great overlooked conductors of the last century, comparatively few of his recordings presently available on CD.

Each of these sets includes recordings the conductors made throughout their lives, irrespective of whether they are in mono or stereo. Thus, each set usually contains a mixture of both. In the case of the Kletzki discs, three of the items are in mono and five are in stereo. Actually, none of the items are marked mono or stereo, but the recording dates are given and one's ears can do the rest. One live recording from 1965 turned out to be in monaural.

Paul Kletzki
Of the Kletzki selections, I enjoyed the Tchaikovsky most of all, the Fifth Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1967 and the Capriccio italien with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1958. EMI released both of them in stereo and both are decently recorded, although perhaps a bit thin and scrawny by today's standards. In some parts, the Capriccio can be downright spectacular in vividness and impact, while slightly scratchy in others; the interpretations are heartfelt in the case of the Symphony and robust and thrusting in the case of the Capriccio.

The thing with Kletzki, as with all of the great conductors listed above, is that he wasn't afraid to be himself and impose at least some of his own will on the music, as opposed to so many of today's conductors who all tend to sound alike. Kletzki had a great ear for the rhythms of a piece, a musician's ear, and you can feel the lyrical and dance-like qualities he brings out in many of the works, as well as the driving vigor of others.

Among the further delights in the set are Berlioz's Bevenuto Cellini overture; Schubert's Rosamunde Entr'acte No. 5; Dvorak's Slavonic Dances in D major, C minor, and C major; Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Brahms's Symphony No. 4; and Wagner's Traume No. 5. In addition to the orchestras mentioned, the groups employed include the Royal Philharmonic, the French Radio National Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Czech Philharmonic.

So, there's quite a variety of music here, and all of it worthwhile.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Nov 20, 2016

For the Love of Brahms (CD review)

Double Concerto; Piano Trio; Schumann: Violin Concerto. Joshua Bell, Music Director and violin; Steven Isserlis, cello; Jeremy Denk, piano; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical 88985 32179 2. 

So, if Music Director Joshua Bell and producer Adam Abeshouse decided to title the album "For the Love of Brahms," why did they include Schumann's Violin Concerto as the second item on the program? The answer, of course, lies in the friendship and inspiration resulting from an early meeting of the young Brahms with the older Schumann (and his wife Clara). Let it suffice that Brahms found much encouragement from the older composer and his spouse.

Anyway, the first item on the program is the Double Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Brahms wrote it in 1887 as a kind of peace offering for his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he had just had a dispute. The work would be Brahms's final composition for orchestra.

The Double Concerto is an odd work, with critics of the day variously describing it as "inapproachable and joyless" on the one hand and as having "vast and sweeping humour" on the other. Certainly, Brahms intended it in good faith and said of it, "I had the jolly idea of writing a concerto for violin and cello. If it succeeds at all, we may well have some fun with it." One thing all critics agreed upon, though, was that it required a pair of distinguished performers on violin and cello, which is what we get in Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis.

One can see from the outset what may have initially divided critics and listeners. The opening movement starts out in a fairly dark mood, the cello contributing heavily. The soloists both contribute to the music equally, the cello sounding appropriately sonorous and the violin aptly sweet. Then, as the work opens up, it gets lighter and brighter, with the Andante appearing warmer and more harmonious than ever and the finale as lively as expected. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, always a welcome treat for me, accompanies the soloists with their usual polish and élan, Bell leading the ensemble with grace and passion. Moreover, because the flexible but essentially chamber-sized ASMF isn't as massive as some larger orchestras, they never overwhelm the soloists but complement them as equivalent partners.

Next we get the second, slow movement of the Violin Concerto in D minor by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), a work with an even more erratic history than the Brahms. Schumann wrote the piece in 1853, but because of a series of bizarre events (including spirit voices and Adolph Hitler), it didn't see a premiere until 1937. Here, we find the Langsam (slow, in the sense of slow physical movement and limited forward momentum), one of the loveliest of Schumann's creations. The performance is beautiful, heavenly even.

Joshua Bell
The program ends with Jeremy Denk, piano, Joshua Bell, violin, and Steven Isserlis, cello, playing Brahms's Piano Trio in B major (1854 version), the composer's very first published piece of chamber music. Again, it was Robert and Clara Schumann who inspired the young Brahms to write it. Under the careful guidance of the three soloists, the piece is glowing with good cheer, youthful buoyancy, captivating lyricism, and moody reflection.

Producer, recording engineer, mixer, and editor Adam Abeshouse made the album at Cadogan Hall, London, and DiMenna Center, New York City, in January and May 2016. The sound Abeshouse obtains is quite good, but don't expect it to be too much like that of Philips, Argo, and EMI in their earlier recordings of the Academy. Those recordings were slightly rounder (especially the Philips) and more reverberant than this Sony recording. This time out, the Academy is a slight bit closer yet a slight bit warmer. That doesn't make the newer recording better or worse, only a bit different, and listeners will decide for themselves whether it meets their taste.

For myself, I don't care for live recordings, but I do like recordings that strive to emulate the sound of a real orchestra in a real concert hall, which this one doesn't entirely achieve but comes close enough. The sound has a healthy, natural appeal to it, with a wide stereo stage, a wide frequency response, and a wide dynamic range. While there isn't an overabundance of resonant bloom, there is enough to recreate a pleasantly ambient environment, one that again seems to represent a lifelike venue pretty well. Detailing hasn't the reach-out-and-touch-it clarity of some hi-fi recordings, yet it scores with a remarkably truthful definition, about what one would find of a real-life event. Yes, the recording might have used a tad more sparkle, but maybe that's just me. The piano in the final number seems a touch too big for the other instruments, too, but, again, it's of minor matter. In all, it sounds quite nice, which is the main thing.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Nov 16, 2016

Rossini: Six Sonatas for Strings (CD review)

Antonio Janigro, I Solisti di Zagreb. Vanguard Classics SVC-144.

Here is one of my favorite old groups, I Solisti di Zagreb, led by their founder, conductor and cellist Antonio Janigro (1918-1989) performing the ever-delightful Sonatas for Strings by Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868). I could hardly recommend a set of performances more highly.

Rossini claimed much later in life that he wrote the six little sonatas for string orchestra when he was twelve years old and knew next to nothing about musical composition. Some people take him at his word; others think the old man was embroidering his youth or just plain kidding around. In any case, in the mid-twentieth century the original scores, dating from 1804, showed up in the Library of Congress, so I guess the composer wasn't kidding. Rossini rearranged the works for string quartet some time after their composition, but the chamber orchestra versions we get here are the ones we often hear these days.

Antonio Janigro
The sonatas are charming in every way, displaying the vigor and zest of youth with lovely, tranquil interludes. Of the various recordings of the chamber-ensemble scores available, only Marriner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Decca and I Solisti Veneti on Erato equal Janigro and his group for bringing out the most felicitous moods of the music.

Vanguard's sound derives from 1956 and 1957 recording sessions, and it is really quite excellent, very clear, very nicely delineated, thanks to the Super Bit Map remastering the company did for the 2001 rerelease. What's more, there is very little background noise, just clean, transparent sound throughout.

But here's the kicker: The first four sonatas are in monaural. I swear, I didn't even realize it until I was about twenty minutes into the disc and began wondering why the sound field seemed a tad too narrow for stereo. You see, at first I was so bowled over by the clarity of the sonics, I didn't even notice the lack of stereo spread. Then, I thought, this is so clear and so narrow, I wonder if it isn't the quartet edition after all. Finally, I read a small notation on the back of the jewel box that notified me of the truth. The mono should not deter anyone. The fact is, the monaural tracks are just as transparent than the stereo ones and one hardly notices their narrow spread. The whole package really is a lovely listening experience.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Nov 13, 2016

Vangelis: Rosetta (CD review)

Vangelis. Electronic music commemorating the Rosetta space mission. Decca 5700631.

Vangelis. Yes, that Vangelis is back. Not that he's ever left. The fellow who gave us the soundtracks for Cosmos, Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire, The Bounty, Alexander, El Greco, and many more has returned with another album of electronic music, this time honoring the European Space Agency's Rosetta space mission. If you think Vangelis's music is beginning to sound a lot the same to you, though, don't feel bad; there are at least two of us who feel that way.

Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (b. 1943), better known by his professional name, Vangelis, is a Greek composer of, according to Wikipedia, "electronic, progressive, ambient, jazz, and orchestral music." Mostly, I suppose, we know him for his electronic, synthesizer work, much of which is fascinating, especially when accompanying motion pictures. Taken alone, however, it may sound a bit too spacey and New Age for some listeners, although Vangelis himself denies such a categorization, saying New Age material "gave the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music." Whatever the case, for me a single listening session with Rosetta was enough, and I'm not sure I'll be going back to it again too often. But, obviously, all music is a very personal preference, and, as Vangelis points out, music can be "one of the greatest forces in the universe." Very true. And whether Rosetta turns out to be such force, you'll have to decide for yourself.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched their Rosetta Mission in 2004, naming it after the Rosetta Stone, inscriptions on an ancient stone that led to the modern translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The goal of the mission was to do a detailed study of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and the spacecraft ended its calling by actually landing on the comet.

Here are the track titles to give you some idea of the album's content:
  1. "Origins (Arrival)"
  2. "Starstuff"
  3. "Infinitude"
  4. "Exo Genesis"
  5. "Celestial Whispers"
  6. "Albedo 0.06"
  7. "Sunlight"
  8. "Rosetta"
  9. "Philae's Descent"
10. "Mission Accomplie (Rosetta's Waltz)"
11. "Perihelion"
12. "Elegy"
13. "Return to the Void"

Vangelis understands that music about an unmanned space probe needs to convey a number of things, including the human emotions of the people who sent it up there in the first place. So, his music conveys plenty of atmosphere, majesty, suspense, and thrills. Most of all, though, it conveys a feeling for the vastness of space, the isolation, the desolation, and the loneliness, even though no one is aboard the spacecraft. The only problem with this is, as I suggested earlier, that a little can go a long way, and after the first few of the album's tracks I had the feeling I had heard it all before.

Anyway, my own favorite tracks included the first one, "Origins," for its depiction of the grandeur of space and the splendor of the mission; the fourth track, "Exo Genesis," for its quiet restraint; the fifth, "Celestial Whispers," for its placid calm; the eighth track, "Rosetta," for its lovely melody, which sounds familiar but is hard to place; then "Perihelion" for its insistent rhythms; and the final track, "Return to the Void," for its otherworldly moods.

One minor qualm: Decca chose to package the disc in a rather cheap folded cardboard layout, with a small booklet in the front sleeve and the CD in the rear. Either you have to shake the disc out of the sleeve, or you have to use your fingers to pry it loose. Either way, you risk scratching the disc surface or getting your fingerprints on it. Neither is a good idea.

Vangelis composed, arranged, produced, and performed the music; Philippe Colonna engineered the album; and Decca released it in 2016 to coincide with the completion of the Rosetta Mission. In order for music like Vangelis's to work properly, it needs a full-scale, big-time sonic production, and that's what it gets here. The sound is wide ranging, with plenty of deep bass and shimmering highs; it's clear and vibrant; and it's quite dynamic, providing all the ambiance and impact it needs. The sound itself is fun to listen to.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Nov 9, 2016

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (CD review)

Also, Khachaturian: Violin Concerto. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Leonid Kogan, violin; Pierre Monteux, Boston Symphony Orchestra. RCA 09026-63708-2.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his cantata Alexander Nevsky for the soundtrack of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 motion picture of the same name. The film epic and the music commemorate the Russian repelling of a German invasion in the thirteenth century. In the tale, Prince Alexander Nevsky gathered an enormous army and met the enemy on the frozen ice of Lake Chud, where he dealt the Knights of the Teutonic Order a huge defeat. Today, people admire the film quite a lot, but I daresay even more folks know film's score better.

Eisenstein said of Prokofiev that he "...makes it possible for the screen to reveal not only the appearance and subjects of objects, but also, and particularly, their special inner structure...and forces the whole inflexible structure to blossom into the emotional fullness of orchestration." The movement titles say it all the better: "Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke," "Song About Alexander Nevsky," "The Crusaders in Pskov," "Arise, Ye Russian People," "The Battle on the Ice," "Field of the Dead," and "Alexander's Entry Into Pskov."

Fritz Reiner
The 1959 recording of the score by Fritz Reiner and his Chicago Symphony does full justice to the music, bringing out the anxiety of anticipation, the brutality of fighting, the heartache of loss, and the exhilaration of victory. Equally important, RCA's "Living Stereo" sound is entirely up to the task of conveying the nuances and explosiveness of the music. The hitch is that Andre Previn recorded an equally good account for EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972, and Warner still have the EMI disc in their catalogue, offering it at a very low price.

Here are some of the differences between the Reiner and Previn recordings: Reiner's interpretation is a tad more heartfelt, and RCA's sound is wider and clearer. Previn's performance is a shade quicker and more energetic, and EMI's sound is a bit warmer. On the loudest choral climaxes, the EMI tends to break up slightly more than the RCA. Additionally, Previn's chorus sings in the original Russian, while Reiner's forces sing in English.

Choice between the two may rest with their couplings. The EMI/Previn disc gives us a superb realization of Rachmaninov's The Bells, based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem; the RCA disc offers Khachaturian's Violin Concerto with Leonid Kogan on violin and the Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux, recorded in 1958. Sonically, the Khachaturian is not as smooth or comfortable as the Prokofiev, and while Monteux, Kogan, and company play exceedingly well, personally I have never cared overmuch for the Violin Concerto. So it's an easy choice for me to pick the EMI disc. , For you, however, it may be quite different, and Reiner's performance is very persuasive.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Nov 6, 2016

Messiaen: L'Ascension (CD review)

Also, Ives: Orchestral Set Number 2. Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

This 1970 Decca release, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), combines a very popular but somewhat controversial conductor with an equally popular but almost equally controversial recording format. I suspect that despite the high quality of the performance and sound, the listening public may still find the disc at least slightly suspect. Let me explain.

First, the conductor. English-born U.S. orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) established an enormous following with his often highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the basic classical repertoire. His long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his starring role in Disney's Fantasia didn't hurt his reputation, either. People then and now found his music making enormous entertaining. But it was sometimes this same eccentricity so many folks thought charming that at the same time annoyed other people. His unusual tempo changes, his stops and starts and pauses and elongations, could at times twist familiar music into something unbearable to dedicated classical music lovers. Add to that his own orchestral arrangements and transcriptions of well-known music, and it could be too much for some listeners.

Second, there was Decca's Phase 4 sound. Stokowski lived into his mid nineties, long enough to have made a number of stereo recordings for companies like RCA, EMI, and Decca. By the time of this Messiaen disc, Decca was well into their Phase 4 era. According to Decca, "Phase 4 was a special series of recordings from the '60s and '70s which presented music in spectacularly vivid sound." And according to Wikipedia, this sound "was characterised by an aggressive use of the highest and lowest frequencies and a daring use of tape saturation and out-of-phase sound to convey a lively and impactful hall ambiance, plus considerable bar-to-bar rebalancing by the recording staff of orchestral voices, known as 'spotlighting.' In the 1960s and 1970s, the company developed its 'Phase 4' process, which produced even greater sonic impact through even more interventionist engineering techniques." The fact is, Phase 4 sound used multi-miking to the extreme, often producing a close-up, compartmentalized sound field that dazzled some listeners with its clarity and detail yet exasperated others, especially audiophiles with its frequently unnatural perspective.

Leopold Stokowski
Fortunately, neither the performances on the program nor the sound on this HDTT remastering should concern Stokowski or Phase 4 critics. Both hold up pretty well.

First up on the agenda is L'Ascension ("The Ascension" of Christ into Heaven after the Resurrection) by the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). He wrote the orchestral suite between 1932-33, the composer describing its four brief movements as "meditations for orchestra." He labeled the sections "Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père" ("The majesty of Christ demanding its glory of the Father"), "Alleluias sereins d'une âme qui désire le ciel" ("Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven"), "Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale" ("Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal"), and "Prière du Christ montant vers son Père" ("Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father").

Stokowski handles the score with a characteristic élan, most often elevating it to graceful heights. It's fairly quiet music, yet it has a distinctive rhythmic drive, which the conductor invariably observes. The orchestra, always on its toes at a moment's notice, plays compellingly for the old man and, if anything, sounds almost too lush and luxuriant for the relative modesty of the music. Or perhaps it's just the richness of the Phase 4 sound that sometimes overwhelms the score. In any case, it's a lovely interpretation, with just the right mixture of wonder and inspiration to keep a listener transfixed.

The other item on the program is also a modern piece but quite different from the Messiaen. It's the Orchestral Set No. 2 by American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). He wrote it between 1915 and 1919, a three-movement suite based on musical reminiscences: "An Elegy to Our Forefathers," a kind of memory of Stephen Foster music; "The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People's Outdoor Meeting," memories of camp-revival meetings; and "From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day, The Voice of the People Again Arose," a recollection of the day news broke of the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyst for the U.S. entering World War I.

Here, Stokowski seems to relish in indulging the composer's eccentricities. The reading is crammed full of grand sweeps and dramatic gestures, the conductor capturing the atmospheric theatrics of Ives's vision of Americana. If the Messiaen work is spiritually uplifting, the Ives is just plain fun.

The only catch to the album: its length. The two pieces combined total just a little over thirty-five minutes. If that doesn't bother you, and it's quality of performance and sound over quantity of material, the length shouldn't be a problem.

Producer Tony d'Amato and engineer Arthur Lilley recorded the music for Decca Records at Kingsway Hall, London, in June 1970. HDTT remastered it in 2016 from a London 4-track tape, and they make it available in a wide number of formats, from CD and DVD to various HD digital downloads.

The remastered sound conveys all of the characteristics of Phase 4 described earlier, yet it exhibits a good deal of orchestral depth and warmth as well. The result is that the sonics may be a tad too close for comfort and too spotlighted, yet they also sound fairly natural, with the ambience of Kingsway Hall in ample evidence. While the strings tend to appear too hard and steely at times, it's only in isolated instances that it happens, the rest of time sounding just fine.

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 on the forward arrow:

Nov 2, 2016

MacDowell: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, Hamlet and Ophelia. Takuo Yuasa, Ulster Orchestra. Naxos 8.559075.

There was a time just before the turn of the twentieth century when composer and pianist Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was maybe the most-popular American composer in the world. But times change, and MacDowell's brand of high Romanticism has long been on the decline. This 2001 Naxos disc presents three of the man's orchestral works, none of which match the grace or beauty of his piano concertos but which make for pleasant, easy listening.

The program begins with the Suite No. 1, premiered in 1895. It is a series of tone poems, the names of which will give some idea of their content: "In a Haunted Forest," "Summer Idyll," "In October," "The Shepherdess Song," and "Forest Spirits." Obviously, these are pastoral pursuits, mostly calm and serene set pieces. They are remarkably unremarkable, and there is no particular order discernible in their arrangement. Nevertheless, Maestro Takuo Yuasa and the Ulster Orchestra take them at a sweet, lyrical gait, the orchestra playing with grace and sensitivity, the whole thing coming off pleasantly enough.

Takuo Yuasa
Less disjointed is the Suite No. 2, written several years before the Suite No. 1 but not performed until a year later. MacDowell subtitled it "Indian," and it hangs together better symphonically, using material attributed to various Native American peoples. The headings here are "Legend," "Love Song," "In Wartime," "Dirge," and "Village Festival." Of the five movements, "Love Song" and "Dirge" stand out for me as the most original and most affecting.

The disc concludes with another tone poem, the thirteen-minute Hamlet and Ophelia, which doesn't try to tell their Shakespearean story so much as simply describe the two characters. For what it's worth, I preferred MacDowell's description of Ophelia to that of the indecisive Dane. Maybe MacDowell didn't understand the young prince any better than the young prince understood himself.

I would commend the Naxos sound for its depth of field, its excellent dynamics, and its natural, concert-hall ambiance. Yet for all that, it surprisingly never seems to come to life. I suspect it's a bit more backwardly miked than a lot of other recordings, and while it provides a pleasing resonance, it sounds a trifle dull and veiled. Perhaps it suits the music, though, which also sounds a little laid back.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Oct 30, 2016

Danse macabre (CD review)

Music of Saint-Saens, Mussorgsky, Dukas, Dvorak, Balakirev, and Ives. Kent Nagano, Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Decca 483 0396.

Witches and devils and demons. Oh, my!

This album showed up just in time for Halloween. Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra present a program of mostly familiar and some maybe unfamiliar symphonic music inspired by traditional supernatural folk tales. It's fun stuff, although listeners will probably find they already have most of the material on their shelves. Still, it's nice having it all in one place, even if Decca chose to record it live in concert.

I have long enjoyed the work of the Montreal Symphony. In fact, the very first CD I ever played in my home featured them, at the time led by Charles Dutoit. That was back in the early 80's, as I recall, a Decca/London recording of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, which I still have. The Montreal Symphony remain a terrific ensemble, so it's always good to hear them again.

I've also long enjoyed the work of Kent Nagano. He was the longtime conductor of the Berkeley Symphony (from the late 70's to the mid 2000's), a local group for me, so I had the pleasure of hearing Maestro Nagano on many occasions. He always added an extra spark to the music that made it enjoyable, no matter what the subject matter. He continues that tradition with the Montreal players.

So, first up on the agenda is The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a tone poem by French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935). As with Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain below, the Apprentice may have achieved a measure of immortality through Leopold Stokowski's performance of it in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Here, Maestro Nagano gives us a smooth, atmospheric rendering of the work. It perhaps lacks some of Stokowski's dramatic flair, but it conveys more than its fair share of requisite thrills. What's more, the Montreal forces are in fine form, sounding luxuriously rich and exuberant.

Next, we get The Noonday Witch, a tone poem by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). This one relies a good deal on mood to tell its gruesome story of a mother who warns her unruly son that if he doesn't behave she'll call on a witch to quiet him. When the demon actually appears, the mother becomes so overwrought with fear, she winds up smothering the child to death. Sweet. Although I thought Nagano could have used a bit more melodrama here, the music is grim enough to pretty much take care of itself.

Kent Nagano
After that is the Halloween favorite A Night on the Bare Mountain by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1837-1881). In Rimsky-Korsakov's reorchestration, it's the centerpiece of the program, and again Nagano has to contend with the specter of Stokowski for our attention. Still, Nagano whips up a good deal of excitement in this unwholesome Sabbath, and its witches and devils frolic gleefully about.

Then we come to what may be a less well-known number, the tone poem Tamara by Russian composer and pianist Mily Balakirev (1837-1910). Less well known, perhaps, but considered by many musical scholars as one of Balakirev's best works. It tells the legend of Tamara, a beautiful but evil queen who lures men to their deaths and tosses their bodies from her castle into the river below it. Under Nagano's guidance the piece runs along elegantly at first, becoming more ominous as it goes along and reaching its theatrical climaxes with appropriate flair.

After that we find the album's title tune, Danse macabre, by the French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). In this one, Death calls forth lost souls with the fiendish music of his violin, and under Nagano it's probably the most effectively frightening track in the album. It can be scary stuff.

Things conclude with what may be for most listeners the least-famous piece on the program, Hallowe'en, one of Three Outdoor Scenes by the American modernist Charles Ives (1874-1954). It's very brief and every bit as eccentric as you would expect it to be from this composer. Nagano makes it more than palatable.

Producers Dominic Fyfe and Carl Talbot and engineers Carl Talbot and Christopher Johns recorded the album during concerts presented at the OSM's new home, the Maison symphonique de Montreal in October 2015. It's a shame, really, about the audience presence because the listener always feels aware of them during quieter passages. It's not terribly intrusive, but for people like myself who prefer hearing the best possible sound without distraction, the coughs and rustling are a little annoying.

For comparison purposes, I first listened to a few excerpts from the 1980 Daphnis et Chloe album I mentioned earlier. Although it was a different venue for the Montreal Symphony back then, I found the older sound big, warm, detailed, and pleasantly ambient. Ironically, although (or because) the newer release has a live audience, I found it less realistic. The newer sound is closer, brighter in the midrange, and slightly harder. It still retains a good degree of concert hall bloom, and it's certainly transparent enough, yet it didn't make me feel as though I were really in the same room with the performers.

In short, the newer Decca recording with Nagano and the Montreal Symphony, despite its cleanness and clarity, did not sound as natural to me as the older one with Dutoit. Then there's the matter of the applause at the end of the Nagano concert, but I suppose we can at least be grateful to Decca for not including applause after every selection.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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