Feb 28, 2016

New Year's Concert 2016 (CD review)

Mariss Jansons, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88875174802 (2-disc set).

Another year, another concert.

The Vienna Phil have been celebrating this occasion for seventy-five years, and I'm sure they will still be doing it in another seventy-five.

As usual, a record company (in this case, Sony, although it has varied through the years) recorded the event live, and as always there is a different conductor at the helm each year (in this case, Mariss Jansons). Furthermore, and also as always, the Vienna Philharmonic plays magnificently, as though born to the music. Well, I daresay, most of the Vienna players were, in fact, born to the music.

The Vienna Phil's custom of offering a New Year's Concert started in 1941, and it's been going strong ever since. EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and Sony are among some of the companies that have recorded the concerts over the past few decades, and in keeping with the orchestra's tradition of having no permanent conductor, they invite a different conductor to perform the New Year's duties each year. These conductors in recent times have included some of the biggest names in the business, like Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Franz Welser-Most, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, and this year Mariss Jansons.

The two CD's in the set contain twenty-two items from the concert, but if you want to hear (and see) the concert in its entirety, the folks at Sony make it available on DVD and Blu-ray. Or if you're into vinyl, they're issuing it in that configuration as well. And as if that's not enough, the Sony people have also released a big "75th Anniversary Edition" box set containing all 319 works ever performed at the concert, under 14 conductors. A little something for everybody.

Anyway, the present set contains the expected entries: Johann Strauss's "Treasure Waltz," "Emperor Waltz," "Pleasure Train," "A Night in Venice Overture," "At the Hunt," "At the Double," and, of course, "The Blue Danube"; Josef Strauss's "Harmony of the Spheres," "On Vacation," and "The Dragonfly"; Eduard Strauss's "Express Mail"; and the elder Strauss's "Signs Galop" and in the traditional conclusion the "Radetzky March," with its attendant hand-clapping.

Mariss Jansons
But in addition this year, we find eight numbers never before played at a New Year's concert: Robert Stolz's "March of the United Nations," which leads off the proceedings; Johann Strauss's "Violetta," "Singer's Delight," and "Furstin Ninetta Entr'acte Akt III"; Carl Michael Ziehrer's "Viennese Girls"; Eduard Strauss's "Out of Bounds"; Josef Hellmesberger's "Ball Scene"; and, a real showstopper, Emile Waldteufel's "Espana."

Jansons has a pleasing grasp of the waltz idiom. He never forces the dance rhythms too far but provides them a graceful gait and flowing pattern. The waltzes, therefore, come across less as traditional, danceable music than as sweet, Romantic gestures. It's all quite pleasurable, quite listenable, quite easy on the ear, with not a little tugging of the heartstrings.

The polkas and gallops, to their credit, sound robust and zesty. Jansons changes the pace effectively, investing each of the faster numbers with the kind of tempos and contrasts that provide appropriate variety to the program.

Of course, it helps to have a first-rate, world-class orchestra at the conductor's disposal to accomplish this feat. The Vienna Phil sound wonderful. And the inclusion of the Vienna Boys Choir in two of the numbers comes as a welcome treat.

The booklet notes by Sylvia Kargl and Friedemann Pestel include information about each of the concert selections in concise yet entertaining terms. However, neither the booklet nor the packaging contains any track timings. Seems odd.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and engineers Tobias Lehmann, Rene Moller, and Julian Schwenkner recorded the concert live for Teldex Studio Berlin and Sony Classical at the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins on January 1, 2016.

Part of the fun of these annual concerts is that the orchestra performs them before a live audience, and the audience becomes as much a part of the show as the music. Accordingly, one is always aware of the audience's presence. They are there breathing, coughing, shuffling, and applauding.

Otherwise, we get the anticipated close-up sound, but, thankfully, not too close-up. It seems a nice compromise for a live event, minimizing some of the audience noise while retaining some of the concert hall's natural bloom and ambience. The detailing sounds pretty good, too, without being absolutely top-drawer, as do the dynamics and frequency range (with an especially satisfying mid-bass thump). The sound's smoothness in particular will not disappoint fans of these New Year's concerts.


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

Feb 24, 2016

Pachelbel: Canon and Other Baroque Favorites (CD review)

Andrew Parrott, Taverner Players and Choir; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra. Virgin Classics 7243-5-57876-2 (2-disc set).

The 1980's saw a huge upswing in the popularity of the period-instruments movement, and conductor Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Players and Chorus were right there in the forefront of the action. Today, we tend to take period instruments for granted, even if with the downturn in classical music recording in the 1990's and beyond, we don't hear about them so often anymore. One result of that situation is this 2004, two-disc, budget rerelease of Baroque favorites by Parrott and his players, plus a few by him and the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra.

EMI originally issued all of the pieces on the discs in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the company recording all of them digitally. In 2004 they assembled the current program and issued them under the Virgin label. Frankly, there isn't a weak link among them.

Andrew Parrott
The Pachelbel Canon of the album's title is among the best I've heard (and there must be 800 recordings available). Like the other works in the collection, the interpretation sounds a little brisk, but it never sounds rushed, never breathless as some period-instrument ensembles play early music.

Likewise, Parrott presents the other works in the set with a vigorous refinement: Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2; excerpts from his Orchestral Suites Nos. 2 and 3; Vivaldi's "Spring" and "Summer" concertos from The Four Seasons; Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary; and others by Gabrieli, Allegri, and Monteverde. Perhaps my personal favorite, however, is Parrott and company's rendering of Handel's Harp Concerto in B-flat major, with Andrew Lawrence-King on harp. It's simply gorgeous.

The sound is also remarkably good throughout most of the music, perhaps a tad less vibrant in the two selections with the Boston orchestra than with the Taverner Players. Still, nothing is ever overly bright or edgy, so one need not worry about any period-instrument fatigue setting in, a condition common to such recordings early on, especially those recorded digitally. At a price new of only a few bucks or so for the two-disc set, it's a bargain, indeed.


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

Feb 21, 2016

R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Magnard: Chant funebre. Jean-Claude Casadesus, Orchestre National de Lille/Region Nord-Pas de Calais. Naxos 8.573563.

I've always thought of Richard Strauss's tone poems as a natural progression of the genre dating from Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Liszt through Waxman, Korngold, and Williams. Here, we have Strauss's extended tone poem Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") performed by Jean-Claude Casadesus and the ensemble he founded in 1976, the Orchestra National de Lille.

German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a kind of tongue-in-cheek autobiography, a semi-serious self-portrait. Strauss was only thirty-four years old when he wrote it, showing how supremely self-confident he must have been by composing a musical autobiography at such an early age. However, he mainly seems to have written it to get in a few digs at his critics, whom he convincingly silences through the music. In response, many critics took their shots at Strauss, suggesting he was merely being indulgent and narcissistic. Whatever, the music has survived in the popular classical repertoire and remains popular to this day.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into a number of parts describing stages in the artist's life. The first segment, "The Hero," obviously describes Strauss himself and does so on a large, swashbuckling scale. Here, I expected to find more swagger than I found under Maestro Casadesus's direction. Maybe the conductor wanted us to think the hero of the music a more thoughtful, perhaps more pompous individual than we usually encounter. I don't know.

After that, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion. Under Casadesus, the enemies seem well described and their pettiness nicely rendered.

Then there's "The Hero's Companion," his wife, featuring concertmaster Fernand Iaciu. The wife appears nicely drawn, patient and understanding, with a lovely tone from Iaciu's violin.

Jean-Claude Casadesus
"The Theme of Confidence in Victory," "The Hero's Field of Battle," and "Martial Fanfares" are where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them (musically) of his accomplishments by throwing in bits from past hits like Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Although Casadesus might have drawn up the battle scenes a bit more dramatically, they come over well enough in any case.

Following these warring sections we find "The Hero's Works of Peace," The Hero's Withdrawal from the World and Fulfilment," and, finally, "Resignation." With Casadesus they sound appropriately animated by the love and understanding of the hero's wife. It almost seems as though the conductor became more involved in the spirit in the performance as it went along.

While the orchestra plays with a professional competency, it never seems big enough or opulent enough for the scale of Strauss's vision. Perhaps, though, my living for so long with recordings by the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Staatskapelle Dresden will do that to a listener.

Would I include Casadesus's performance among the best ever committed to record? Well, I haven't heard all of them to make such a commitment, but, no, among the recordings I have heard, I wouldn't say this one is entirely competitive. The listener can find more vivid, more robust, more thrilling, more exciting, and more poetic versions from the likes of Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony (EMI), Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic (EMI), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), and Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca). With such a wealth of great performances already available, I can no more than recommend the Casadesus disc to those inquisitive souls who are simply curious about it or to collectors who must have every version of the work available.

Radio-Classique produced the Strauss work and Aurelie Messonnier engineered it; and Orchestre National de Lille produced the accompanying Magnard piece and Anne Chausson engineered it. They made both recordings at Nouveau Siecle, Lille, France, the Strauss in January 2011 and the Magnard in November 2014.

There is no indication on the packaging or in the notes about this being a live recording, so I assume the occasional noises we hear come from the conductor and orchestra members themselves. Otherwise, the sound is fine, with a good sense of depth and dimensionality, fairly good detailing and dynamics, and only a slight edge to the upper midrange. Still, the number of odd noises throughout the performance is a little distracting.


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

Feb 17, 2016

The Karajan Collection: Philharmonia Promenade Concert (CD review)

Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 4 76900-2.

In 2005 the powers that be at EMI continued to find new and varied ways to repackage their older material, of which they had one of the biggest catalogues in the business (most of it now owned by Warner Classics). In the present album, we get a single disc from a multi-disc collection EMI put together called "The Karajan Collection." The boxed collection featured Karajan's work with both the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, but this single disc, Promenade Concert, features just the Philharmonia.

The booklet note tells us that the Philharmonia Promenade Concert (1958-1960) comprises the last recordings Karajan made for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra before he left for the Berlin Philharmonic. It seems an odd way to go out, this most sober-minded maestro doing a collection of lightweight showpieces, but it's all in good fun, and Karajan genuinely seems to be having a jolly time letting his hair down, so to speak.

Herbert von Karajan
There are twelve works on the disc, all of them popular warhorses, and I'll mention only a few: Chabrier's España, Waldteufel's Skaters' Waltz, Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture, Weinberger's Schwanda the Bagpiper, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld Overture, and Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, plus bits by Berlioz, Leoncavallo, and the Strausses. Karajan gives his full attention to each and every piece, and each of them radiates a charm and a swagger that, quite frankly, I wouldn't have expected. Of course, one also has to expect Karajan's typically glamorous manner, with many a long-breathed note and even more swooping phrases. It's OK: It does the music more good than harm.

The sound appears typical of EMI in the Fifties, leaning rather to the bright, thin side, but with plenty of sparkle and definition. A comparison to another Karajan disc in the EMI series (of Wagner orchestral music) made some twenty years later with Berlin reveals the newer disc sounding fuller and weightier, but not necessarily any better, especially musically.

On a further note, Warner Classics have recently made the album available for download, in whole or in part. So there's another option to consider, given that the EMI disc may now be hard to find.


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

Feb 14, 2016

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 (SACD review)

Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-718 SACD.

Let me begin with a few assumptions, maybe wrong but probably close to accurate. I'm going to assume that if you are reading this review, you have at least a passing interest in classical music. Let me assume additionally that with a passing interest in recorded classical music, you are probably already familiar with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, some of the most recognizable classical music ever written. Then let me take it a step further and assume that if you have an interest in recorded classical music and know a little something about the Fifth Symphony, you likely already have a recording or two or more of the piece on your shelf (or on your hard drive or wherever). So, my question is: Why do you need another? Are you reading this review out of curiosity? Do you feel there may be something out there new and different and possibly better than what you already have? Or are you a collector of everything Beethoven or everything Fifth Symphony?

Whatever the case, this new entry from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony on Reference Recordings Fresh! should pique the interest of practically all of you. It's certainly new and different. Whether it's better is another story. I'm not usually keen on live recordings, and I found the coupling of the Seventh Symphony more to my liking than the Fifth. Thus, for me it sort of narrows the disc's appeal. But other listeners may find much to enjoy. Let's continue.

Honeck opens the album with the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, which Beethoven premiered in 1808, having worked on it over the course of some four years. (The premiere, incidentally, famously also included the premieres of the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy among other things, the concert lasting over four hours and conducted by Beethoven himself.) Music historians are quick to point out that Beethoven once wrote "I want to seize fate by the throat; it will never bend me completely to its will." Further, in reference to the beginning of the first movement he remarked to a friend, "Thus Fate knocks at the door!"

Now, here's the thing. With so famous a work, there have been numerous interpretations and in the past hundred years a multitude of recordings of it. However, none of them is definitive since none came from Beethoven's own time. Which one of today's recordings would have most pleased the composer? Which one is the "best"? Well, clearly, there is no "best." There is only the performance that most satisfies the individual listener. And this is where Honeck comes in. He writes in the extensive booklet notes that he, too, faced perplexing questions of interpretation, which is why he came late to recording any of the Beethoven symphonies.

Fair enough. But there's the "however": Honeck writes "At times, it is necessary to support the rhythmic structure (I have asked for some accents and emphasis) and though Beethoven has not specifically indicated this in the score, one can read it in the musical language." Later, Honeck repeats the notion, saying of the scherzo, "...I have highlighted the humor by emphasizing the unexpected accents..., again not overtly notated in the score, but certainly implied in the music."

Manfred Honeck
Honeck's rather liberal interpretation of Beethoven's music remind me of an old Bob and Ray routine in which the quizmaster of a spelling bee asks a contestant to spell a word and then interrupts him before he has a chance to do so, saying, "No, no, you were going to spell it wrong; I could tell." Somehow, Honeck says he knows what Beethoven intended, even though Beethoven never actually indicated it. OK, I suppose that's what interpretation is all about; but it means that Honeck's Beethoven Fifth may or may not appeal to everyone's taste, especially with the liberties he takes with certain emphases, intensifying some notes and phrases more than some listeners may like.

Honeck's expressive rubato goes a long way in maintaining our attention, although his phrasing can also seem a tad eccentric at times. I thought the second-movement Andante con motto worked best using this emphatic approach, and it never flags. What's more, we hear a good buildup to the finale, although when the finale does come, it doesn't burst forth with as much enthusiasm as I'd hoped.

The result of Honeck's reading of the symphony is at once different yet somewhat heavy and staid, too. The stresses are there for all to hear, yet the overall impression seems to me one of over-calculated fussiness. Now, don't get me wrong. It's a strong, committed performance, full of well-disciplined control, with an especially good response from the orchestra, who also sound committed and well disciplined. It's just that I don't hear all that much that excites me about the reading, and in parts, at least, it seems actually to drag a bit. I don't feel the electricity in it that I feel in a few other, competing recordings.

My final judgment: Honeck's recording of the Fifth does not appeal to me as much as the driving, headlong execution of the score by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (JVC or RCA); the solid, concentrated realization by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony); the handsomely traditional rendition by Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG); or, most persuasive of all, the truly galvanizing version by Carlos Kleiber, also with the Vienna Phil (DG). These are hard acts to follow, no matter how much a competing conductor claims to be adhering to the composer's implied intent.

Beethoven wrote the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 between 1811 and 1812. Compared to the Fifth, the Seventh is a sprightlier, more sparkling piece of music, a work that one of its many admirers, composer Richard Wagner called the "apotheosis of the dance" because of its lively rhythms. Here, I enjoyed Honeck's performance more than I liked his Fifth. He doesn't appear to be trying to shape the music to his own peculiar needs as much, rather letting it flow more effortlessly, letting it dance more freely, if you will.

My judgment of Honeck's Seventh: Go for it. The competition is not as great as in the Fifth (I like Colin Davis's lyrical account on EMI as well as Carlos Kleiber's more stringent view on DG), and Honeck's way with the music appears animated and unforced.

Producer Dirk Sobatka and engineers Mark Donahue and John Newton of Soundmirror, Boston, recorded the music live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in December 2014. They made it for hybrid SACD 5.1 surround, SACD 2.0 stereo, and CD 2.0 stereo. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer.

I don't really care for recordings made before a live audience for two reasons: I usually find audience noise and applause distracting, and I usually find the engineers have recorded everything too closely in order to minimize audience noise. In the former case, the engineers have done a great job in almost eliminating audience noise completely, including applause. In the latter case, the recording still sounds quite close up, losing a little something in orchestral bloom and room ambience. Otherwise, it's quite a good recording, with wide dynamics, strong impact, good clarity, fine definition, and smooth overall response. I doubt that anyone but the pickiest audiophile would find the sound displeasing.


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

Feb 10, 2016

The Waltz: Ecstasy and Mysticism (CD review)

Werner Ehrhardt, Concerto Koln; Vladimir Ivanoff, Sarband. Archiv B0004765-02.

It seems like every classical album these days has to have a gimmick, a theme. With this one it's an exploration of the influence of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Western European waltz on the music of the Ottoman Turks. The disc alternates comparative selections from both musical worlds to make its points, and it's a follow-up to the album Dream of the Orient in which the same performers offered up much the same thing.

The disc is certainly enlightening, but I wouldn't say it's entirely entertaining. None of the record's twenty-nine tracks goes on for very long, most of the pieces lasting only one or two minutes, the longest just over four. With all these bits and pieces thrown at us, and with alternating Western (Concerto Koln) and Eastern (Sarband) ensembles, the effect is somewhat dizzying.

Werner Ehrhardt
Among the Western composers (in this case, German and Austrian) are Mozart, Lanner, Beethoven, and Strauss, Sr. Among the Eastern composers are Dede Efendi, Abdi Effendi, Demetrius Cantemir, and Zeki Mehmed Aga. The producers titled the CD Ecstasy and Mysticism because the Turkish composers assimilated some Western waltz rhythms into their reflective and religious works. As the booklet insert tells us, "even entering into the ritual of the 'whirling dervishes.'" Fair enough. But when we don't get to hear more than a minute or two of anything in particular, I wonder how much impact either the waltz or the mysticism has on a listener.

Fortunately, Maestros Ehrhardt and Ivanoff conduct lively, spirited interpretations of the music, and the ensembles play remarkably well for them. Unfortunately, because the music is so delightful, it just tends to make one long for more.

Not helping matters is that DG Archiv's sonics appear unimpressive at best. The disc, which Archiv released in 2005, sounds excessively warm and soft, yet the engineers recorded it relatively close-up. Go figure. Of course, the Archiv engineers may have calculated the sound by design in order to tailor it to the romanticism of the music; I don't know.

In any case, I liked the album's concept quite a lot; I just didn't care much for its execution.


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

Feb 7, 2016

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, The Rock. Alexander Dmitriev, Academic Symphony Orchestra of the St. Petersburgh Philharmonia. Cugate Classics CDC010-2.

For me (I know the phrase "for me" is redundant in a review, which is mainly opinion, anyway, but sometimes I want to emphasize that not everyone may agree with me), Rachmaninov's Second Symphony is the last great symphony of the Romantic Age in classical music.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, in 1908, having probably no idea that his work would someday compete in the basic classical repertoire with things his predecessor, Peter Tchaikovsky, had written. More likely, he just wanted to write a piece of music that would at least equal the success of his own Second Piano Concerto. I doubt he had any idea that his compatriot, Igor Stravinsky, would be revolutionizing the musical scene just a few years later with The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Of course, a lot of composers, including Rachmaninov, continued writing in the Romantic mode well after the Second Symphony, but they became fewer and farther between. In any case, I mention all this because what we need in any big Romantic work is passion, and that's where the best conductors of the music have flourished. People like Andre Previn (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), Eugene Ormandy (Sony), Ivan Fischer (Channel Classics), Mikhail Pletnev (DG), Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Regis), Mariss Jansons (EMI), and others more or less threw themselves into the music without distorting it, making it strong, powerful, intense, yet warm. With present recording, we have a genuine Russian conductor, Alexander Dmitriev, and a genuine Russian ensemble, the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the St. Petersburgh Philharmonia performing the piece in a 1993 recording that has to some degree weathered the test of time. Whether it competes successfully against some of the rivals I've mentioned, you'll have to judge for yourself. For me, it's a good interpretation but doesn't quite match the overt Romantic fervor of the others.

Rachmaninov's opening Largo is big and lush, with Dmitriev adding little of his own, which in this case might sound unflattering. Naturally, there are critics who believe that Rachmaninov's music is already too florid, too ornate, too overly romantic, and requires no further amping up by a conductor, a claim with which I wholly agree. However, there is still some need of an interpretation involved; otherwise, a machine, a metronome, could conduct the music.

Alexander Dmitriev
Maestro Dmitriev begins in a calm, leisurely fashion, allowing the momentum of the Largo to build without exaggeration or distortion. He develops Rachmaninov's seemingly unending flow of melodies with an even yet flexible consistency, building to each climax with a velvety touch. This does not effect a particularly exciting result, however, so listeners looking for a more red-blooded account might look elsewhere. Dmitriev's reading is more of a lyrical interpretation, which isn't a bad approach if you want to hear the full impact of the work's Romanticism.

The Scherzo needs to have plenty of zip, and Dmitriev seems a little undernourished in terms of pure adrenaline. This fast second movement still sounds fine in Dmitriev's hands, if not so electrifying as I've heard it done. Again, it's more poetic than exciting (even though he becomes more animated as the music progresses), with a well-shaped central theme.

After that we hear the beautiful Adagio, which in terms of its love interest vies with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture for burning passion. This must be one of the high points of Romanticism, although Dmitriev and his solo clarinet player handle it in a somewhat subdued fashion. It doesn't sound quite as richly rhapsodic as it has under other conductors. Yet again the conductor goes for a more poetically beautiful reading rather than a grandly eloquent one.

The finale should be highly Romantic, too, and triumphantly heroic. Here, Maestro Dmitriev may have been saving up most of his energy. Certainly, he gives it his all, with an especially fiery opening section and a properly thrilling conclusion.

All in all, Dmitriev's recording makes a welcome addition to the catalogue of Rachmaninov performances. However, it does not displace my favored recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony (EMI, Warner Classics), which seems to me to combine all the right elements of excitement, expressiveness, aesthetics, and high Romanticism the music requires.

The accompanying work, The Rock, was Rachmaninov's first major orchestral composition. It's a sensitive tone poem, and Dmitriev handles it so. Its contrasting light and dark, airy and weighty, tones come across vividly. Nicely done.

Producers Iris Mazur and H. Memo Rhein and recording producer Felix I. Gurdji made the album at St. Petersburg Philharmonia Hall in 1993, and B-Sharp Music & Media Solutions remastered it using 24-bit technology in 2015. The high quality of the sound pleasantly surprised me. The miking is not too close nor too distant. The stereo spread is wide (sometimes extending well beyond the far edges of the speakers), and dimensionality is good. Moreover, there is no brightness or edginess about the sonics; everything is smooth and natural, if a touch soft. Dynamics seem a tad limited, too; I was hoping for a broader range with a bit more impact. Highs appear well extended; bass not so much. Nevertheless, it's all still adequate, so these are probably just minor quibbles on my part.


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

Feb 3, 2016

Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (CD review)

Also, Clarinet Concerto; Bassoon Concerto. Jack Brymer, clarinet; Gwydion Brooke, bassoon; Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243-5-67601-2.

I know I'm becoming redundant by repeating this so often, but I have to say it again: EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series (now Warner Classics) was one of the best lines of reissues on the market. I mean, other ventures like RCA's "Living Stereo," Decca's "Legends," DG's "Originals," Mercury's "Living Presence," et al, are wonderful and I love them, but their companies usually had only three or four great artists apiece on their rosters. EMI, on the other hand, had Beecham, Karajan, Furtwangler, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Previn, Ashkenazy, Cluytens, Kleiber, Bernstein, Giulini, Walter, Szell, Menuhin, Muti, Lipatti, Perlman, Rostropovich, Pollini, the list goes on and on. And EMI remastered every disc beautifully using their ART (Abbey Road Technology), making them sound better than they had ever sounded before, the discs filled to the edges with music aplenty and offered at a mid price.

I think EMI meant for Mozart's Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter" to be the main draw on this entry, but, in fact, the accompanying concertos actually take the honors. Beecham had championed Mozart for most of the twentieth century, practically playing his music before the composer became the household name he is today, and Beecham recorded the "Jupiter" twice before this 1957 rendering. The previous two performances had been in monaural, and reviewers have said they were better than the final, stereo version we get here.

Sir Thomas Beecham
I don't know; I haven't heard Beecham's earlier recordings. What we have here, though, is a very precise, very elegant, very noble interpretation, as though Beecham were trying hard to emphasize that this last of Mozart's symphonies was, indeed, his greatest. The minor quibble I have, however, is that I hear little of the Beecham zest showing through, and the result seems somewhat staid for this conductor. He takes the Minuet, for example, at an especially slow tempo; yet it does serve to dramatize the fiery finale the maestro serves up. This performance wouldn't necessarily be on my list of top-five "Jupiter" recordings, but it deserves a listen.

In any case, the Clarinet Concerto and the Bassoon Concerto are different matters. Here we find the old Beecham magic on full display. Jack Brymer's clarinet sounds particularly felicitous in the first of the concertos, and Gwydion Brooke's bassoon work in the second concerto is equally top-notch.

Producers Lawrance Collingwood and Victor Olof and engineer Robert Becket recorded the Symphony at Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, in 1957. Producers Victor Olaf and Peter Andry and engineers Paul Vavasseur and Neville Boyling recorded the clarinet piece at Salle Wagram, Paris and Abbey Road Studio No. 1 in 1958. And producer Peter Andry and engineer Neville Boyling recorded the bassoon piece at Abbey Road Studio No. 1 in 1958-59. The sound in all three of these works appears smoother and more refined than the same recordings in earlier CD and LP versions, the sound in the concertos perhaps a trifle smoother and fuller than in the symphony. This disc replaces my old CD of the two concertos alone, so the "Jupiter" is like icing on the cake. And did I mention the disc contains a few seconds less than eighty minutes of material? That's certainly of value.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa