Manhattan Intermezzo (CD review)

Music of Sedaka, Emerson, Ellington, and Gershwin. Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Paul Phillips, Brown University Orchestra. Naxos 8.573490.

I'll bet when a lot of folks hear the words "new music" in the classical field, they think about something avant-garde, experimental, maybe atonal, devoid of melody, harmony, or any other signs of popular entertainment. Not so with the new music on the present disc, Manhattan Intermezzo. The program runs the gamut from relatively new, somewhat sentimental, and probably unfamiliar tunes to an old and well-loved warhorse. More important, it's all highly enjoyable.

The album brings together the works of four twentieth and twenty-first century musician/composers who describe various aspects of downtown New York City. It seems the program concept was the brainchild of American pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who had wanted for some time to bring the music together. Certainly, it could not have fallen into more capable hands. Biegel is a smart, sophisticated musician, and conductor Paul Phillips and the Brown University Orchestra ably accompany his vision.

The opening work on the disc, the title tune Manhattan Intermezzo, comes to us via the first of two perhaps surprising sources: Neil Sedaka. Yes, that Neil Sedaka, the one whose pop music we all grew up with. He wrote the Intermezzo in 2008 (with orchestration by Lee Holdridge) as "a journey through the musical diversity of Manhattan." I mentioned above the "sentimental" part of the program. This is it: very melodic, lush, and rhapsodic. It reminded me of a score for a possible Nicholas Sparks movie. Biegel plays the music with a careful abandon, a measured but enthusiastic approach that keeps Sedaka's tunes from becoming too romanticized. While it's undoubtedly lightweight, perhaps sounding fluffy to some ears, it is undeniably relaxing and enjoyable, too.

The next piece is from another surprising source: the late Keith Emerson. Yes, that Keith Emerson, cofounder of the British rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer. His contribution is the Piano Concerto No. 1, a three-movement work he wrote in 1976 (co-orchestrated by John Mayer). Emerson recorded it with the London Philharmonic a year later, and Jeffrey Biegel took it under his wing in 2001, playing it as often as possible since then. Even though I'm not entirely sure what the music has to do specifically with Manhattan, it's fascinating and entertaining, nonetheless.

Jeffrey Biegel
Emerson's music sounds distinctly more "modern" than Sedaka's, yet it always maintains an eye toward the everyday audience. Its tone can be a touch harsh at times, its varying contrasts a tad disconcerting to the casual listener. Still, if one is a fan of Emerson's pop roots, one will appreciate what he does in this more-serious genre. Biegel plays the music with a straightforward eagerness, emphasizing its expressive vigor, cheery middle, and concluding fury. Moreover, the Brown University players accompany the pianist with their own eager pleasure.

After that is New World a-Coming' by Duke Ellington, written in 1943 and based on journalist Roi Ottley's book of the same name about his vision of "improved conditions for blacks in postwar America." Ellington said he "visualized this new world as a place in the distant future, where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God." Here, Biegel and company show their skills as interpreters of something jazzier than the previous selections, and the work becomes a perfect lead-in for the Gershwin piece that follows.

The final item on the agenda is George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which needs no introduction. The special thing here, besides the virtuosic piano playing and the orchestra's youthful zeal, is that Biegel plays the piano part as closely as possible to the way Gershwin intended it, without all the cuts made to it later. The result is a tad longer than most recordings of the piece but sparkling and fresh.

Producers Paul Phillips, Jeffrey Biegel, and Joseph Patrych and engineer and editor James LeGrand made the recording at Sayles Hall, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island in October and November 2014. The piano appears particularly well integrated with the orchestra, out in front, certainly, but not too far in front, with the rest of the instruments realistically distributed behind it. The piano sound is also realistic, clear and clean yet with a hint of room resonance. The orchestra itself sounds nicely balanced, with perhaps a slight emphasis on the upper midrange and with a wide stereo expanse and reasonable stage depth.

JJP

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


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa