Jan 31, 2016

Acústica: Cuatro Vidas (CD review)

Dolores Villareal, John Orr, Dave Ambrose, Matt Crichton, Ray Coffey. Acústica World Music CD.

During the holidays my wife and I met a charming couple one morning at a bed-and-breakfast. Through the course of conversation we learned they were on their honeymoon, and they were musicians. At the time we knew they were a most-gracious and engaging pair. What we didn't know until we got home and listened to their present album was how good musicians they were.

Their group is Acústica ("acoustics" or "sounds"), and the name of their disc is Cuatro Vidas ("Four Lives"). The members of the band represented on the album are Dolores Villareal, vocals; John Orr, guitar and vocals; Dave Ambrose, bass guitar; Matt Crichton, percussion; and Ray Coffey, guest saxophone and flute.

The star of the show is Ms. Villareal, a multi-linguist singer, percussionist, and songwriter. Ms. Villareal sings in nine different languages, her most-recent Finnish. On the album's program she sings in Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, and Cape Verde creole. Her voice is lovely--sweet and tender one moment, big and powerful another. More important, she uses a good deal of flexibility and nuance to create a wide range of emotions in the songs.

The accompanying players add their own special blend of enthusiasm, imagination, precision, and professionalism to the proceedings. On their own, they are fun to listen to; along with Ms. Villareal, they are even better.

The songs on the album follow:
  1. "Amor Di Mundo"
  2. "Piel Canela"
  3. "Sous Le Ciel de Paris"
  4. "Historia Do Samba"
  5. "Cuatro Vidas"
  6. "Mas Que Nada"
  7. "La Vie En Rose"
  8. "O Barquinho"
  9. "Il Condor"
10. "Frenesi"
11. "Whatever Lola Wants"

Dolores Villareal
Favorites? Of course. Although I enjoyed all of the tracks, I especially enjoyed "Piel Canela" for its pervasive zest; "Sous le ciel de Paris" for its buoyant romanticism; the title song for its fluidly engaging lyricism; and, well, they all sounded good to me. A most-entertaining album.

Are there any drawbacks I could find? The only one I can think of is the usual one I find in pop and jazz programs: It's too short. I suppose I've just become used to classical albums providing something close to a CD's near eighty-minute limit, and this one gives us something more like half that playing time. Oh, well. As they say, it's the quality, not the quantity that counts.

Dave Gager of Bentrabbit Multimedia Studios and Dolores Villareal produced, recorded, engineered, and mastered the album for Acústica World Music in 2013. The sound is up close, as most popular albums tend to be. It provides good detail, though, and here we get no brightness or edginess, just a smooth, natural response. There is also a mild studio bloom that provides a realistic ambience for the group, and Ms. Villareal's voice sounds sweetly lifelike. While there is not a lot of air or depth to the sonics, there is a good, wide dynamic range and strong, quick impact, so we get a pleasantly listenable album.


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

Amazon sells the songs for individual download but, oddly, not the CD. You'll find that at Acustica World Music: http://www.acusticaworldmusic.com/.

Jan 27, 2016

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies (CD review)

Also, Les Preludes; Mazeppa; Battle of the Huns; Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Westminster Legacy 289 471 237-2 (2-disc set).

For those of you old enough to remember the original Westminster label, it was one of the most "major" of the minor record companies and produced classical LPs from the early Fifties to the mid Sixties. At various times ABC, MCA, and most recently DG owned or distributed the recordings themselves, and one could also often find them under the "Music Guild" appellation. Anyway, in the early 2000's they began reappearing again on the original Westminster label, and I found a few of their reissues quite welcome, like this one.

Hermann Scherchen, one of the old Westminster company's biggest stars, conducts the present release, and it features Westminster's famous "natural balance" sound. Scherchen (1881-1966) could hold his own with any modern interpreter, and given the age of the recordings, 1958-1960, they, too, sound remarkably good. Here, Scherchen is leading the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, which included mainly members of the Vienna Philharmonic, so there's not a lot of doubt about the quality of the music making, even though the Opera Orchestra doesn't sound as luxuriously polished as the Philharmonic, and intonation doesn't appear as solid. Who knows.

Hermann Scherchen
While Scherchen could occasionally be overly enthusiastic in his conducting, even leaning to eccentricity at times, here he eschews too much bombast, something these Liszt works can easily succumb to, the conductor handling some of the showier sections with a pleasing refinement and nuance. The Rhapsodies, which appear to be mainly Liszt's own orchestrations of his piano works rather than some of the more popular reworkings, don't always come off as glamorously or dynamically as, say, Dorati's (Mercury), Boskovsky's (EMI), or Stokowski's (JVC or RCA), but Scherchen skillfully manages each piece, providing them with plenty of reserved flair and inner feeling. OK, to be fair, maybe he's too cultured in these pieces for some tastes, but, whatever.

Les Preludes, Mazeppa, and the Battle of the Huns on the other hand, sound as powerful as they come, so I suppose that makes up for a little less drama earlier. Then, oddly, the Mephisto Waltz appears to drag a bit. Go figure. What's important is that each listener will have his or her own personal likes and dislikes.

The remastered sound from 2001, using a process called "Original Image-Bit Processing," is fine and captures the natural quality of the music making. There is, however, a fair degree of background noise on some of the 1958 recordings, especially, tape hiss and miscellaneous soft thumps and gurgles. It's not enough of a distraction to put one off the music, but it is present, nonetheless, so I thought I'd mention it. Otherwise, the sound is very slightly soft and a tad rough, but it is extremely well imaged left to right, with a reasonable amount of detail and orchestral depth. Offered at a low price, this two-disc set seems a safe bet for the Liszt lover.


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

Jan 26, 2016

Bizet: Symphony in C (CD review)

Also, L'Arlesienne Suites 1 & 2. Sir Thomas Beecham, Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 0724356723122.

You've heard me ask this before, I'm sure, but it bears repeating: Who would you rather have conducting French orchestral music more than Sir Thomas Beecham? I can think of no one. Whether it's Bizet or Berlioz or Franck or Debussy or Delibes or Faure or Saint-Saens or Massenet or Chabrier or whomever, Sir Thomas's name stands out a leading contender for best conductor of French music. Not that he didn't do well conducting other music, especially English pastoral music, but he seemed to have a special affinity for French music. The Bizet Symphony in C and L'Arlesienne album under review is a good example: Recorded in 1956 and 1959 by EMI, remastered by EMI in 2000 for their "Great Recordings of the Century" series, and rereleased by Warner Classics in 2015, it remains the one to beat in this repertoire.

Anyway, the Symphony in C is a composition French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) wrote as a student exercise at the age of seventeen. It's a remarkable work for any age, but doubly so given the composer's youth. What's more, it's held up well, considering that Bizet thought so little of it that he filed it away and forgot about it. It lay undiscovered in the Paris Conservatoire archives for some eighty years until Bizet biographer D.C. Parker found it, the work receiving its première in 1935.

Over the years there have been any number of fine recordings made of the Symphony in C, ones from the stereo era including those of Marriner and the Academy (Decca), Bernstein and the NYPO (Sony), Ansermet and the Suisse Romande O. (Decca), Barenboim and the Paris Orchestra (EMI), Plasson and the Toulouse Orchestra (EMI), Pretre and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hanssler Classics), West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra (Reference Recordings), among others. But, as I said before, none of them have really topped the performance of Sir Thomas Beecham and the French National Radio Orchestra.

Beecham's performance possesses all the drive, energy, dazzling radiance, and youthful charm (though the conductor was nearing the end of his life when he recorded it) one could possibly want from this symphony. There is never a lag or a lull in the music, yet Beecham never overdrives it, either; it simply sounds "right" at all times. Thus, an Allegro vivo really does exhibit a brisk, lively manner, with more than a hint of impish enthusiasm added. The Adagio moves at a comfortable, leisurely, rhythmic, but not at all sluggish pace. The scherzo is elegant as well as energetic; and the finale is as playful and exciting as any you'll hear.

Sir Thomas Beecham
When Bizet wrote his incidental music to Andre Daudet's play L'Arlesienne (The Girl from Arles) in 1872, the public and critics thought it a distraction from the rest of the production. More likely, the music was probably better than the drama (which I haven't seen) and simply upstaged it. Whatever the case, neither the play nor the complete incidental music has fared all that well since then. However, the wily Bizet recognized a good thing when he heard it and extracted a suite from the work (and his friend Ernest Guiraud orchestrated a second suite after the composer's death, one that adds a little minuet from La jolle fille de Perth). These suites, of course, have gone on to become the classics that many of us prize in our collections.

As with the Symphony in C, no one in my experience has conducted the L'Arlesienne music any better than Sir Thomas. He dispatches every movement of these two suites with characteristic humor, refinement, and swagger, as the situation demands. And the orchestra plays with an assured air of authority, as though they knew that no one would ever match them in these performances. No one ever has, really.

Producers Victor Olof and Lawrence Collingwood and engineers Paul Vavasseur and Douglas Larter recorded the music at Salle Wagram, Paris, 1959 (Symphony) and Abbey Road Studio No. 2, London, 1956 (L'Arlesienne). You'd never know it. The clarity and cleanness of the recordings continue to sound impressive.

In the Symphony, the sound displays good detail, a natural room resonance, a smooth overall response, and decent orchestral depth. You would not think this a sixty-odd-year recording, particularly as the remastering engineers have so well removed any background noise from the master tape. In the L'Arlesienne suites, recorded a few years earlier in London, the sound is very similar to the later production. It's realistically warm, with a pleasant ambient glow, if maybe a touch rougher, less wide, and less clear. Still, early stereo or not, it holds up about as well as most of today's recordings.


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

Jan 24, 2016

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Dorothea Roschmann, soprano; Mariss Jansons, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. RCO Live RCO15004.

This disc interested me not because I thought the world needed yet another recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony (I mean, we only have about 800 of them already, and one can never have enough) but because I was curious about the newly recorded sound. The Concertgebouw hall and orchestra have long been among my favorite venues and ensembles, and I wondered if they sounded as good as ever, especially as this new release sports a live SACD recording. Is the latest up-the-minute digital technology any better than what we've heard in the past? The answer is a resounding "Who knows?" (Or for non-audiophile types, "Who cares?") The performance and sound are both up to snuff, and certainly the orchestra remains among the most glorious in the world. Yet, do they sound any better than what we already have? Not really.

As I'm sure you know, the Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in C Major in 1901, but not everybody liked it. Today, however, it's probably Mahler's most popular work. Modern audiences seem to find it accessible, tuneful, and mature. Then, too, while the music is big scale, it also feels quite intimate, and listeners appreciate the music's contrasts going from grand, eloquent sections to quiet, personal ones, from deadly serious passages to mischievously satiric ones. In other words, it has a lot to offer, particularly to audiophiles because the piece uses a huge orchestra, with plenty of room to show off one's playback system.

Anyway, Mahler appears to have intended his Fourth Symphony as something more than absolute, nonrepresentational music, and even though he didn't leave a detailed program for it, he did leave enough specific directions for each movement to give people an idea of what the music was all about. One of the composer's followers, conductor Bruno Walter, said of the symphony: "In the Fourth, a joyous dream of happiness and of eternal life promises him, and us also, that we have been saved."

Mahler marks the first movement as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," and he begins it playfully with the jingling of sleigh bells, an effect that also provides a positive sign of youthful hope. In the second movement, Mahler introduces Death, using a vaguely sinister violin motif. He marks the slow, third-movement Adagio as "peacefully," and it is a kind of respite from the oddities of Mr. Death in the preceding section. In the fourth and final movement, Mahler gives us his vision of heaven and salvation as exemplified by the simple innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler loved. Here, the composer wanted the movement to sound so unaffected he insisted upon a soprano's part sung with "child-like bright expression, always without parody."

Mariss Jansons
So, how does Maestro Mariss Jansons and his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra handle all of this? Pretty well, if a little overly fussy for my taste.

Jansons maintains a steady, fairly well judged tempo throughout the first movement, although he doesn't seem quite as smoothly flowing as the conductors of several other favorites of mine, including Bernard Haitink (Philips), George Szell (HDTT or Sony), Fritz Reiner (JVC or RCA), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Lorin Maazel (Sony), Herbert von Karajan (DG), Antoni Wit (Naxos), Simon Rattle (EMI), and Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), to name a few. Jansons seems to emphasize the contrasts more than other conductors and linger momentarily over some points while scurrying through others. It's not at all distracting or disconcerting, just a little more fastidious than probably necessary.

In the second movement Jansons tends to be a tad more perfunctory than Mahler probably meant a conductor to be. He seems not to delight so much in the eccentricities of the music but rather gloss over them. Of course, that's just the impression I get, and other listeners will no doubt appreciate the maestro's nuanced approach to the middle section in particular.

The Adagio is hauntingly beautiful, and unlike a few conductors who take it so slowly it loses any sense of forward momentum, Jansons keeps the music light and refreshing. It's a lovely interlude.

Dorothea Roschmann's contribution to the finale didn't quite work for me. Although she projects a fine soprano voice, it doesn't exactly display all the childlike qualities I associate with this part. Nor is the conductor's rather insistent accompaniment as sublime as I'd have preferred. Nevertheless, the whole project comes across efficiently, and my qualms are minor. Besides, it's hard to argue with the splendid playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. They make everything sound good.

Producer and engineer Everett Porter made the 96 kHz recording live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in February 2015, recording the music for hybrid 5-channel/2-channel SACD/CD playback. I listened to the 2-channel SACD layer.

However, before listening to this live recording, I listened to a few minutes of one of my favorite Mahler Fourths, the 1983 Philips digital release with Bernard Haitink, Roberta Alexander, and this very same Concertgebouw Orchestra. Obviously, I was curious to see what differences there might be in the sound after some thirty-two years of audio evolution.

What I found was that there wasn't a whole lot of improvement in sound, despite the SACD processing. Whereas the older recording sounds warm, ambient, spacious, and rich, the newer one is closer and slightly harder, with less of a feeling for the venue. Still, the SACD sound is dynamic and well detailed, with a modest sense of orchestral depth (though no match for the older recording in this regard). Fortunately, it isn't as bright or forward as many live recordings, and it retains a touch of warmth. While I could have done without the occasional grunts and heavy breathing of the audience, at least the engineers save us the grief of any closing applause, and the music's final note fades smoothly and quietly into the distance.

Incidental note: Either by accident or by intent, RCO Live omit any identification of the symphony from the disc itself. The SACD bears only the words "RCO Live" on it; no symphony number, no conductor or orchestra; no record number. I suggest owners of the disc keep it safely in its case when not in the player, or one could easily lose track of what it is. Of course, a marking pen might also help, but who wants to deface a disc?


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

Jan 20, 2016

J.C. Bach: Symphonies Concertantes, Vol. 5 (CD review)

Anthony Halstead, the Hanover Band. CPO 999 628-2. 

The Symphonie Concertante genre may remind some people of the form's predecessor, the Concerto Grosso, or the form's successor, today's Concerto. But, in fact, it differs from both. It is somewhat lighter in weight and tone than the former and does not emphasize individual instruments as much as the latter. Listeners of the day (as well as modern listeners) considered Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), who was one of the multitudinous children of Johann Sebastian (actually, the eleventh surviving and youngest child of J.S.), the leading exponent in the field, and this 2001 release from Anthony Halstead features three such works--the Symphonies Concertantes in C major, CW C36a; D major, CW C39; and Noturno in E-flat major, CW C40--all composed probably some time in the late 1760's (the manuscripts, only one of which is in Bach's own hand, bear no dates).

Bach scored the first Concertante on the program with the emphasis on two violins and cello; the second with the emphasis on two flutes, two violins, and cello; and the third with the emphasis on two oboes, two horns, two violins, two violas, and cello. You can see from these descriptions that they hardly have time for more than passing concentration on any single instrument. Yet they are charming through and through, most particularly the first movement of the C major work, and they certainly deserve the attention they got from CPO.

This fifth volume in a series of six was, I believe, the fourth CPO recording I had reviewed of J.C. Bach played by Anthony Halstead and his period-instrument Hanover Band; and it was possibly the fourth or fifth I had listened to over the years. It seemed as though each time I heard a new one from Halstead, I liked it better than the last. The sound continued to appear smooth and natural, the acoustic realistic, and the playing delightfully elegant and polished.

Not only do the Hanover Band performances sound refined, so do the various soloists in the works: Andrew Byrt (viola), Robert Montgomery (French horn), Judith Tarling (viola), Gavin Edwards (French horn), Graham Cracknell (violin), Gail Hennessy (oboe), Anthony Robson (oboe), Sebastian Comberti (cello), and Peter Hanson (violin). It's an impressive team.

If any of Halstead's previous work in this area impressed you, you can feel safe with this one as well. It is among the best of the bunch.


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

Jan 13, 2016

Arnold: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (CD review)

Andrew Penny, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Naxos 8.552001.

Twentieth-century English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) wrote a multitude of film scores (The Captain's Paradise, Hobson's Choice, Trapeze, Island in the Sun, The Bridge on the River Kwai, etc.), and as a result people often think of him only as a composer of light music. But his nine symphonies and many overtures and marches show us a musician who could move from the serene to the rollicking and from the sublime to the ridiculous in grand fashion. Arnold was a kind of throwback to another era, a Romanticist in the Modern Age, a man whose music could be serious but never self-righteous. That said, the two symphonies recorded here represent Arnold's more earnest and more darkly creative side.

The Seventh Symphony (1973) opens with a long, colorful, somewhat rambunctious, and vaguely ominous movement that makes us wonder where its sudden jazz infusion comes from. It turns out it's a leftover from Arnold's Sixth Symphony, just one of many connections his admirers make in showing the coherence of the man's complete symphony cycle. The second movement comes out of left field with a beautifully evocative mood, followed by an odd, cantankerous finale. The fact that most of it holds together so well is a tribute to the composer's musical imagination and skill.

Andrew Penny
The much shorter Eighth Symphony (1978), about twenty-five minutes, is probably more characteristic of the man. It's sprightlier and more optimistic, although it, too, finds room for odd, sometimes discordant tones. Listeners have enjoyed its Irish march as well (which originated in one of the film scores Arnold wrote), the music itself probably a result of Arnold's having lived in Ireland for a while.

Maestro Andrew Penny and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland perform both works in precise terms, leaning heavily to clarification rather than overt dramatics. It's probably the best way to perform the music, leaving the histrionics to the scores themselves without unduly emphasizing them. The results are as felicitous as one could desire.

The Naxos engineers provide a clear, true sound for the 2001 recording. The clarity does come at the expense of a small degree of brightness, however, that some playback systems may tend to exacerbate. The recording also provides a good separation of instruments, but one could also interpret this as a degree of compartmentalization. In any case, I enjoyed the disc's sonic character, especially its lucidity, because it seems to me that Arnold's music benefits from an extra bit of illumination.

In all, we get a pleasant and in some ways stimulating musical coupling, framed in clean, modern digital sound, and costing a relative pittance. Interesting stuff.


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

Jan 10, 2016

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Tartini: Violin Sonata in G-minor; Leclair: Violin Sonata in D. James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano; Sydney Symphony. Onyx Classics 4134.

Another Four Seasons?

There must be more recordings of Vivaldi's Four Seasons than there are leaves in the autumn wind. And they already come in every variety imaginable, from chamber orchestras to large ensembles, from period instruments to modern. In order for a new recording of the Seasons to make any impression at all, it has to have some unique characteristic going for it. A recently unearthed original manuscript perhaps; a new transcription for accordion or flugelhorn; or a performance by a noted soloist. In this case, it's a noted soloist: the Canadian concert violinist James Ehnes, who has over three dozen albums to his credit.

The next question is whether even a noted soloist can do anything different with the music. In this case, I'm not persuaded. Ehnes is a fine violinist, and he gives it his best shot. But, frankly, the results don't sound much different from a hundred other interpretations of the music. Which is not to say there is anything wrong with Ehnes's performance. It's quite good, in fact. It's just that there are so many other competing versions that offer something a little more in the way of imagination, zip, energy, brilliance, subtlety, nuance, sound, or what have you.

Anyway, as you doubtless know, Italian composer, violinist, and Catholic priest Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote The Four Seasons as a part of a longer work, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, "The Contest between harmony and invention." Vivaldi's publisher released them in 1725, a time when the musical world was little used to music representing the sights and sounds of the environment around them. Vivaldi's little three-movement concertos were complete with the musical sounds of chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, howling winds, and the like, meaning for them to accompany descriptive sonnets. The music became among the first and probably most-famous tone poems ever written.

Even though the sonatas appear first on the present disc's program, I listened to the concertos before anything else. Here, Ehnes, leading players from the Sydney Symphony, impressed me with his levelheaded approach to the music. It is neither dizzyingly fast nor mind-numbingly slow. I suppose a lot of Vivaldi fans will find it lacking the excitement of, say, Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante, yet its moderate tempos seem properly judged. What's more, the cushy, comfortable sound of the Sydney players helps make the music appear less abrasive than it can sometimes sound. Indeed, almost everything Ehnes does here seems well judged, from the pacing to the early musical impressionism.

James Ehnes
However, what struck me most was Ehnes's handling of the concertos' slow movements. The violinist's manner is elegant and graceful, the slow movements especially fluid and refined. And it's not that Ehnes doesn't whip up a requisite degree of excitement elsewhere, either; a listen to his handling of the contrasting elements of the allegros proves that. It's just that there is a delicacy about the largos and adagios that sounds quite charming.

Ehnes plays with a consummate skill and virtuosity, and his Sydney ensemble provide him a warm, comfortable accompaniment. One can only admire the musicianship throughout.

Would I recommend Ehnes, however, as a first choice in this repertoire? Probably not because I still think folks like McGegan (PBP), Kuijken (Sony), Sparf (BIS), Pinnock (DG Archiv), Lamon (Sony), Perlman (EMI or Hi-Q), Marriner (Decca), Silverstein (FIM or Telarc), Biondi (Virgin), Jansen (Denon), and I Solisti Italiani (Denon) among others have made more of these scores in terms of inventiveness. Nevertheless, Ehnes is a good middle-of-the-road possibility for those music listeners who want something a little more conservative yet still highly musical and satisfying.

Accompanying The Four Seasons, we find the Violin Sonata "Il trillo del diavolo' in G minor by Italian violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) and the Violin Sonata 'Tambourin' in D by French violinist and composer Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764). Maybe because I was so much more familiar with the concertos and had heard them so often over the years, I found these sonata couplings more to my liking. Ehnes displays a gentle and persuasive touch and Andrew Armstrong a calm, temperate accompaniment, making these works enormously enjoyable.

Producers Simon Kiln (Tartini and Leclair) and Philip Powers (Vivaldi) and engineers Mike Clements (Tartini and Leclair) and Bob Scott (Vivaldi) recorded the music at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk UK (Tartini and Leclair) and Angel Hall, Sydney, Australia in May and October 2014.

The sound in the concertos is a bit forward but quite clear. Although the somewhat close-up miking and the slight upper-midrange brightness may be little distracting for some listeners, one cannot deny they help immensely in terms of detail and transparency. There isn't a lot of dimensionality front-to-back, either; still, the left-to-right stereo spread sounds realistic, and the whole enterprise appears brilliantly and cleanly alive. The sound in the sonatas is warmer than in the concertos, the two instrumentalists appearing quite natural in terms of overall frequency balance and their environmental setting. No complaints here.


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

Jan 6, 2016

Dvorak: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra. Philips 289 464 640-2.

Clearly, the years have jaded me. Any recording of something so popular as Dvorak's "New World" Symphony has to be pretty special to make a dent in my well-established hierarchy of favorites. I'm afraid that even so distinguished a crew as Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra couldn't quite do that, although they give it a good shot.

Fischer's 2001 Philips release of the Ninth goes along without a snag; fact is, I can't fault it on much of any grounds. My hesitation in fully recommending the disc is that if you compare it to the company of Kertesz (Decca), Kondrashin (Decca), Reiner (RCA), Horenstein (Chesky), Macal (EMI Classics for Pleasure), Neumann (Denon), Kubelik (DG), Davis (Philips), and others, Fischer sounds somewhat ordinary. The performance is not without spirit, however, and one cannot complain about its not being lyrical enough or even thrilling enough. Indeed, Fischer handles the slow movement as beautifully as anyone I've heard. Yet maybe he overdoes things a bit, trying too hard to inject moments of excitement where a more steady hand might have sufficed.

Ivan Fischer
What's more important, though, is that Fischer's interpretation of the accompanying Eighth Symphony is even more invigorating than his Ninth. Indeed, if it weren't for price (and I'd say availability, too, now that Philips is no more, but I believe both Decca and Channel Classics have revived it, in SACD, too), I'd recommend this disc for the latter piece alone. In the Eighth Symphony Fischer persuasively captures the feelings both of bucolic warmth and of native Czech flair. It's a lovely reading.

Nor can I say too much against Philips's sound, which is warm, spacious, and natural throughout. Yet I find it difficult to find anything about the sound to praise over its rivals, either, the rivals themselves either warm and natural or in most cases more detailed and more brilliantly alive, as well. The Philips sound for Fischer is a bit underwhelming at the high end and a bit lower-midrange heavy at the other extreme. A little more treble openness would have probably given the music a better spit-and-polish.

Doubtlessly, the two most important factors this disc has going for it are that it seems more than competently performed, and it pairs two of Dvorak's most famous compositions. Nevertheless, I would remind the reader that Philips had also issued a two-disc, mid-priced set of all three late Dvorak symphonies under Sir Colin Davis, excellent renditions in excellent sound and probably still available somewhere. Now, for value, that's a hard act to beat.


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

Jan 3, 2016

Some Favorite Recordings of 2015

As you may know, I don't do "best-of" lists. "Best" suggests that I've sampled most everything available, and even though I review a lot of music every year, I have not heard but a fraction of what's out there. So I prefer to do a simple "favorites" list. Here are just a few of the discs (listed alphabetically, to be fair) I heard last year that I enjoyed for their performance and sound. I know I've forgotten a few; forgive me. This baker's dozen stood out, some of them new releases, some of them remasters of old favorites, and one a ringer.

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 4
Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 15, 24, 25, and 27. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics.
To read the full review, click here:

A Billie Holiday Songbook
Lara Downes, solo piano. Steinway & Sons
To read the full review, click here:

Bizet: Carmen, complete
Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Tom Krause, Adriana Maliponte; Manhattan Chorus; Leonard Bernstein, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children's Chorus. Pentatone.
To read the full review, click here:

Debussy: La Mer
Also, Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2; Berlioz: Ballet des Sylphes. Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.
To read the full review, click here:

Decca: Supreme Stereophonic Legacy
Various composers and artists. FIM.
To read the full review, click here:

Haydn: Seven Last Words
Attacca Quartet. Azica Records.
To read the full review, click here:

James Brawn in Recital, Volume 2
"The Time Traveller and His Muse." James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics.
To read the full review, click here:

Lerner & Loewe: My Fair Lady
Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Alfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel. CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures (restored).
To read the full review, click here:

Mozart: Horn Concertos
Also, Horn Quintet. Pip Eastop, natural horn; Anthony Halstead, The Hanover Band. Hyperion.
To read the full review, click here:

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 23
Daniel Barenboim, soloist and conductor; English Chamber Orchestra. Hi-Q Records
To read the full review, click here:

Mozart: Complete Violin Concertos
Also, Sinfonia Concertante. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Lipman, viola; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Avie.
To read the full review, click here:

Rossini: Overtures
Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT.
To read the full review, click here:

Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d'Amore Concertos
Rachel Barton Pine, viola d'amore; Ars Antigua. Cedille.
To read the full review, click here:


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa