Apr 27, 2016

Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Fritz Reiner (CD review)

Emil Gilels, Carol Brice, soloists; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 672866 2 7 (2-disc set).

This two-disc set that EMI released in 2004 represents the quality one can find throughout EMI's "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" series, a series I'd like to see Warner Classics continue.
The set covers Hungarian-born conductor Fritz Reiner (1888-1963), who came to America in 1922 and established himself as one of the leading conductors of his day, culminating his career as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1953 until his death ten years later. Those were ten glorious years, especially as they represented his work in the forefront of the stereophonic recording era.

The Reiner recordings in the present two-disc set include over two-and-a-half hours of music by the conductor, covering most of the man's later career, about half in stereo and half in mono, and containing complete tracks from some of his best EMI, RCA, and Sony (Columbia) recordings from 1946 to 1959. Given that Amazon.com and other retailers are selling the set new and used for anything from $4 to $35, I'd say it's still a bargain.

Fritz Reiner
The set contains a boatload of music, but the centerpiece is the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony supporting pianist Emil Gilels in a performance from 1958. Gilels would, of course, go on to make an even more-celebrated recording of the work for DG some years later, but this one is more detailed in sound, one of RCA's "Living Stereo" productions of the time, and just as surefooted in execution. Think of it this way: For the price of the set, you get a terrific Brahms Second Piano Concerto, plus almost two more hours of equally good material. Do I have to say again that it's a bargain?

Among the other pieces in the set are an adrenaline-rushing Beethoven Coriolan Overture in stereo with the CSO from 1959; a terrific Mozart "Linz" Symphony with the CSO in some of the best monaural you'll find; a sparkling Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, actually the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 1951; Brahms's Tragic Overture, with the CSO in stereo from 1957; some of Wagner's Gotterdammerung and Siegfried's Rhine Journey, also with the CSO in stereo from 1959; Bartok's Hungarian Sketches, CSO, 1958; and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Falla's El amor brujo, complete, the latter three items in mono.

Reiner continues to be one of my favorite conductors because like others of his era--Klemperer, Walter, Szell, Stokowski, and many more--he wasn't afraid to be himself, to let his own vision of a composer's work permeate the music, all the while maintaining a strict adherence to the printed score. It's a fine balancing act, to make old standards sound fresh and alive but not to violate their intent. Reiner could do it. Many of today's top conductor's seldom manage the feat, and compared to the vintage maestros they can appear almost commonplace, dull, or boring. And when the older conductors come to us in such good sound and at such reasonable prices, the proposition seems to me irresistible. But, then, maybe it's just me.


To hear a brief excerpt from this set, click on the forward arrow:

Apr 24, 2016

Sephardic Journey (CD review)

Wanderings of the Spanish Jews. Nell Snaidas, soprano; Karim Sulayman, tenor; Jeffrey Strauss, baritone; Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire and Apollo's Singers. Avie AV2361.

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, "Sephardic" refers to the "Jews of Spain and Portugal or their descendants, distinguished from the Ashkenazim and other Jewish communities chiefly by their liturgy, religious customs, and pronunciation of Hebrew: after expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492, established communities in North Africa, the Balkans, Western Europe, and elsewhere."

According to the liner notes for Sephardic Journey, "Cast out of Jerusalem, cast out of Spain. The Spanish Jews in their travels absorbed the accents of Italy, Turkey, and the Middle East. The daily rhythms of life--love, rejection, feasting and celebration--culminate in the mystical prayers of Shabbat."

Then, according to Jewish Music: Its Historical Development by Abraham Idelsohn, "Jewish music is the song of Judaism. It is the tonal expression of Jewish life over a period of over two thousand years, during which the Jewish people have been rent from the physical homeland that cradled their youth. They have been scattered over the entire earth; influenced by almost every culture and nation, consisting of a small minority in each country. And yet, wherever a Jew is settled, whether in the desert of Arabia or the plains of Siberia, he carried his spiritual home in his heart. This spiritual nationality brought forth a folk song as distinctive as the people itself."

Thus, the program of the present disc includes twenty selections from the traditional songs of the Sephardic people. (The Sephardic expulsion from Spain began in 1492, and the songs on the album derive mainly from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.) Vocalists Nell Snaidas, Karim Sulayman, and Jeffrey Strauss, accompanied by the Apollo's Fire Singers and the period-instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire, led by Jeannette Sorrell, immaculately execute the music.

Apollo's Fire is a relatively small group of performers, about nine-to-twelve instrumentalists in all, depending on the tune, and about twice that number of backup singers, so expect a very personal, very intimate sound. It's just the sort of sound that fits the nature of the music. What's more, since Apollo's Fire strives for historical authenticity, I would guess they come as close as possible to the size and sound of the bands the ancient Jews had at their disposal.

Jeannette Sorrell
We hear in the music the influences of Spain, Italy, Turkey, and North Africa in particular. Furthermore, Apollo's Fire divide the songs into five categories, in order: "O Jerusalem," "The Temple," "Love and Romance," "The Sabbath," and concluding with "Feasting and Celebration." The booklet provides translations of each selection, the notes and music creating a kind of living history of the Sephardic people.

The vocalists handle their parts with a smooth, polished authority, and the choir provide them a wonderfully clean, clear continuity and support. Of course, the Apollo's Fire instrumentalists play flawlessly, making the whole production seem effortless. The music they create is joyful, lively, wistful, and melancholic by turns; but, above all, it is expressively soulful. There are melodies and rhythms here that are hard to resist and even harder to forget, and it's difficult to imagine anyone doing them any better than Apollo's Fire and company.

In fact, if it's historical accuracy one is after, one has to wonder if the wandering Jews of four or five hundred years ago could actually have sounded this good. But that's a moot question because what we have is today's recreation of their music, and in the hands of Ms. Sorrell and Apollo's Fire, that's very good, indeed. Beautiful, moving music.

If I have any negative criticism of the program at all, it's something I've mentioned often enough about album's such as this. Namely, with so many short items on the agenda, so many bits and pieces, it's hard to focus on the overall effect. One thing starts, you get caught up in it, and just about the time you want more, it ends. (The longest selection is six minutes, but most are two or three minutes.) Still, the songs and music are so enchanting, it's hard not to appreciate them, and one cannot deny the pleasing cumulative effect they have on the listener.

Producer and editor Erica Brenner and engineer Thomas Knab made the album for Apollo's Fire and Avie Records at St. Paul's Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio in February 2015. Although the sound is a trifle close, it produces a remarkably detailed and lifelike effect. The natural ambient bloom of the acoustic adds to the realism of the sound, and there is a fine sense of depth as well as breadth to the music making. Percussion sounds vibrant, quick, and dynamic. Voices (solo and group), too, appear warm and natural and always in perfect integration with the instrumental setting. In short, this is among the best-sounding discs I've had the pleasure of hearing in some time.


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

Apr 19, 2016

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy. Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra. Philips 289 468 035-2.

Could any two works be more similar and yet so very disparate as Alexander Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring? Russian composers wrote both of them at the beginning of the twentieth century (the Poem in 1907, the Rite in 1913), and the composers were within a decade of one another in age when they wrote them. Yet the Poem of Ecstasy is clearly the concluding chapter of a bygone era, while the Rite of Spring is a preface to a whole new age of modernism. Hearing them side by side as here, the differences can sometimes sound startling.

Oddly, except to sell the disc, the program opens with the newer, longer work, the Rite. Stravinsky intended it to represent, of course, the coming of spring and the renewal of the Earth through the pagan ritual of sacrifice, in this instance a young woman who literally dances herself to death. Under Gergiev's direction, it is appropriately savage and intense, although not as much so as under some of my favorite conductors of the work: Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Sir Georg Solti (Decca or JVC), Riccardo Muti (EMI), Pierre Boulez (Sony), or the composer himself (Sony). Gergiev insists upon providing more sensuality in the piece than outright kinetic ferocity, while making a strong case for the composition's severity through his flexible use of dramatic contrasts.

Valery Gergiev
Following that, the Poem of Ecstasy appears positively Romantic, which it no doubt is. Unlike the lean, hard, compact fabric of the Rite, the Poem sounds thicker, the textures more richly upholstered, with long, languorous phrases evoking the kind of literary eroticism its composer had in mind. Frankly, I preferred Geriev's voluptuous approach to the Poem more than I liked his rendering of the Rite.

The Philips sound, originally released on disc in 2001, is not quite as we have come to expect from this source. Things are slightly thick and dark, but fairly natural, too, and highly dynamic. The stereo spread is not so wide as to suggest any compartmentalization of instruments but conveys a realistic homogeneity of sound, with even some depth to the orchestra. Don't expect a wealth of inner detail, however, or as much transparency as on some competing releases; expect, instead, a reasonably true-to-life flow of sound as might be heard from a midway seat in a concert hall. It's a comfortable yet highly robust sound, well matching the technique of the music making.


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

Apr 17, 2016

Haydn: Symphonies 7 & 83 (CD review)

Also, Violin Concerto in C. Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn Society. CORO COR16139.

The good: Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society provide excellent performances of some lesser-known Haydn material. The bad: CORO chose to record the performances live, with the attendant concerns this entails. The ugly: Nothing; overall, this is a fine album.

You may know Maestro Christophers better as the leader of the British vocal and period-instrument ensemble The Sixteen, which he founded in 1977. With that group he worked mainly in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In 2008 he became the Artistic Director of the Boston-based Handel and Haydn Society, which, founded in 1815, is America's second-oldest musical organization (the U.S. Marine Band has it beat by a few years). Think of it: The Handel and Haydn Society began playing Haydn's music just half a dozen years after the composer died, and they have been doing so ever since.

Anyway, the biggest delights in this album are really about all you could ask for from any album: satisfying tunes and beautiful playing. The tunes include an early Haydn symphony we don't hear often: No. 7 n C major, "Le midi" (midday), written in 1761 when the composer had just joined the service of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy as Vice-Kapellmeister. Then there's a more familiar item, the Symphony No. 83 in G minor, one of the "Paris" symphonies that folks have been recording for ages. But the jewel in the crown is the Violin Concerto in C major, with the Handel and Haydn Society's concertmaster, Aisslinn Nosky. Together, they offer up a real treat for the Haydn fan.

Harry Christophers
Symphony No. 7 leads off the program, and it sets the tone for the rest of the music making. Maestro Christophers takes an easy, relaxed approached to his conducting, never rushing or over-dramatizing the music but rather coaxing the finest nuances from it. This is especially evident in the slower moments, which are quite lovely. His overall handling of the symphony is elegant, stately, refined, perhaps in deference to the Prince he was working for.

Next is the Violin Concerto in C, which, as I've said, is the highlight of the disc. Ms. Nosky plays with a light but commanding touch, helping the music to dance or shine or float as the need arises. The Adagio is both heavenly and endearing. Meanwhile, the period-instrument orchestra play with a stylish grace; while they aren't as energetic or bouncy as some historical groups, they have a clearheaded idea of how they should play this music, and they do so with a smooth authority.

The album concludes with the familiar Symphony No. 83. Christophers and the orchestra play it with the appropriate gravity afforded a mature work. Yet they maintain a healthy respect for Haydn's noted humor and cheerfulness, which make themselves manifest in the odd "clucking" sounds that gave rise to the symphony's nickname, "The Hen."

Producer Raphael Mouterde and engineer James Donahue recorded the music live over two nights at Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts in January 2015. The live sound is typical of close-up miking. In order to minimize audience noise, the engineer puts the microphones as near to the orchestra as possible. This usually results, as here, in a dynamic and well-detailed sound. However, it also comes with a decrease in hall ambience and realism. Then, too, one is always aware of the audience's presence, particularly during pauses or breaks, and that can be a distraction, no matter how minor. Thankfully, CORO chose to delete any closing applause.


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

Apr 13, 2016

Ballets Russes: Russian Dances and Ballets (CD review)

Paavo Jarvi; Marinsky Choir, St. Petersburg; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  Virgin Classics 7243-5-45609-2.

You're probably better at remembering things than I am because when I hear the name Paavo Jarvi I still find it hard not to think of Neeme Jarvi or Paavo Berglund. Fortunately, the younger Jarvi shares the same no-nonsense approach to music making as the older men. In this collection of famous short dances by Russian masters, Paavo Jarvi plays the music in a straightforward fashion--straightforward to a fault, I might add--and generally the music sounds the better for it.

The disc contains the usual suspects: Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Glazunov, Liadov, Glinka, and Borodin. The tunes are about as familiar as the names, too: the Polonaise and Waltz from Eugene Onegin; the "Sabre Dance" from Gayaneh; the "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker; the "Dance of the Knights" from Romeo and Juliet; the "Polovtsian Dances" from Prince Igor; etc.

Paavo Jarvi
As well, there are a few less-familiar pieces: Shostakovich's cheeky little "Polka" from The Golden Age and "Waltz No. 2" from the Jazz Suite No. 2; Liadov's "Dance of the Amazon"; Glinka's "Valse-Fantasia," among others. Nothing lasts more than a few minutes, so it's the kind of album you can pop into your player for a moment or two or linger over for a while between chores.

More important, Jarvi serves it all up comfortably. He is perhaps not as idiomatic as some conductors in this type of repertoire nor so colorful as others, but, as I've said, his direct, forthright approach lets the music speak for itself, and that can be a pleasant surprise, indeed. It's all fairly light music, after all, and in short bits it's hardly the kind of thing one can get too far into; therefore, Jarvi's honest yet lively renditions of these pieces hit a welcome sweet spot.

Originally released by Virgin in 2004 (and rereleased in 2011 by Erato on the disc pictured above), the recording is robust, to say the least, not always conforming to the audiophile's conception of good audio, perhaps, but reasonably faithful to a real-life source. The bass comes up strong, perhaps a tad overly heavy, the bass drum especially prominent when necessary. The midrange appears somewhat obscured by the bass overhang and in full bloom seems somewhat thick. The highs are maybe not always as clear or vibrant as they could be, either, and on occasion sound slightly hard and sharp. The overall sonic effect is not unpleasant, however, and will surely please listeners seeking a "big" musical experience.


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

Apr 10, 2016

Copland: Billy the Kid (SACD review)

Also, Rodeo; El Salon Mexico; An Outdoor Overture. Andrew Litton, Colorado Symphony. BIS 2164.

American composer, conductor, writer, teacher, and critic Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was hardly a Westerner. Born in Brooklyn, New York and traveling the world, he nonetheless wrote some of the most-popular "Western" music in the serious, symphonic canon, much of which we find on this album by Maestro Andrew Litton and the Colorado Symphony.

It seems appropriate that an American conductor and an American symphony orchestra from the western United States should play this music, too. Not that it matters, I suppose, but why not play Copland's scores in the very heart of the Old West. More important, Litton provides a good show, giving Copland's quintessential American tunes a rousing welcome.

Things begin, though, with a lesser-known Copland piece, An Outdoor Overture, which Copland wrote in 1938 for the High School of Music and the Art in New York City. The music begins with a familiar Western motif, which we see more fully exploited in the works that follow. And like the other pieces on the program, the overture is highly descriptive and effectively expressive. Maestro Litton and his players provide a full, resonant interpretation.

Then we get to the heart of the program, Billy the Kid (1938), a ballet Copland wrote for the American Ballet Caravan (the predecessor of the New York City Ballet). Ironically, the composer had little interest in what one might call "cowboy music," but arming himself with a book of cowboy tunes, off he went. Moreover, the songs gave Copland the impetus to write the simple, straightforward music he had been seeking. Litton presents the piece in its complete ballet form. From its quiet introduction through its programmatic and more-boisterous sections, Litton leads the music in exemplary fashion. There's nothing too fancy or eccentric about the conducting, nor is it in any way commonplace. He simply fulfills the function of the score, making it come alive, refreshing and enlightening and, above all, entertaining. Incidentally, the "Gun Battle" is always fun, and the quality of the BIS recording enhances the excitement.

Andrew Litton
Next on the agenda is El Salon Mexico, which Copland wrote between 1933 and 1936 after a trip to Mexico in 1932 and visiting a rather spirited nightclub called "El Salon Mexico." The composer filled the relatively short work with an abundance of themes derived from Mexican folk music. Here, we see not only Copland but Litton at their most spirited and colorful. Although Litton doesn't quite match Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic for sheer gusto, Litton does add a sweet, nuanced outlook of his own to the agenda.

The program concludes with the complete, although also fairly brief, Rodeo from 1942. The success of Billy the Kid four years earlier prompted the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to commission Copland to do a follow-up ballet for them, and if anything it became even more successful than the earlier piece. Like Billy the Kid, Rodeo is a rather short ballet, in this case less than half an hour. However, Litton provides the middle section, "Ranch House Party," that Copland himself left out of his own recording (Sony) with the LSO. Although Copland handled the whole affair with a tad more energy, Litton and his orchestra play it with enthusiasm and whip up plenty of exhilarating thrills in the process. Still, it's in the more-relaxed passages that Litton excels, as in the "Corral Nocturne" and "Saturday Night Waltz."

Litton's album makes a most-welcome addition to the catalogue of Copland recordings, combining the elements of Western Americana and symphonic elegance in fine balance.

Producer Robert Suff and engineer Matthias Spitzbarth recorded the music at Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado in November 2014. They made the recording in hybrid SACD, so one can play a two-channel stereo or multichannel surround SACD layer using an SACD player or a two-channel stereo layer using any regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

Rather than be spread across the speakers in a straight line, the sound appears realistically centered between the speakers, with a lifelike depth of image. Dynamics are strong and wide, the frequency response fairly neutral, and the frequency extremes more than adequate for the job. BIS engineers clearly went after a naturalness of sound for this release, and by and large they achieved their goal.


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

Apr 6, 2016

Stravinsky: L'Oiseau de feu - The Firebird (CD review)

Complete ballet. Also, Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Kent Nagano, London Symphony Orchestra. Virgin Classics 7243 5 61848-2.

When Igor Stravinsky premiered his Firebird ballet in 1910, it marked not only the beginning of a new phase in the composer's output, but a new direction in twentieth-century music. In fact, Stravinsky's more venerable mentors like Rimsky-Korsakov highly influenced the Firebird, and one can still hear the older composer's exotic orientalism throughout. Still, The Firebird was a doorway through which Petruchka (1910-11) and The Rite of Spring (1913) would later step. Even though Stravinsky's Rite would mark the true revolution, The Firebird contains the seminal directions in its second half with the introduction of Kashchei and especially in his "Infernal Dance" that would lead the way to more original thinking.

The composer derived several concert and ballet suites from the score, but for the best renditions of the complete work one must look to Antal Dorati's old LSO issue on Mercury, which no one has ever topped, or even Colin Davis's Concertgebouw effort on Philips. Until this one, that is. Kent Nagano's 1991 recording, which Virgin Classics re-released in the early 2000's, provides a top-of-the-line alternative in superb digital sound. Why it didn't do better upon its initial release, I don't know. Let's just be glad it is currently available at so low a price (used).

Kent Nagano
The performance is not as electrifying as with some other conductors, yet Nagano helps us negotiate the story line and all its color to the fullest. He takes the quieter passages, meaning most of the first half of the work, with care and precision to represent a world of hushed dreaminess, clearly underscoring the effects of the French impressionists of Stravinsky's day. Then, Nagano points up the great cacophonous outbursts of the second half all the more dramatically for their contrast. He infuses every note of the score with the utmost in atmosphere (and Nagano is big on atmosphere, mood, and tone) and excitement, making it among the most vivid interpretations available.

Then, too, Virgin engineers present the music in highly dynamic yet most natural-sounding audio. What's more, they give the orchestra a comfortably distanced miking position for a maximum imaging of depth as well as left-to-right stereo spread. Now, understand, some listeners will find the dynamic range (the spread between softest and loudest passages) a bit too wide for their taste; however, if you start at a comfortable volume setting (not too loud, though, or the crescendos may blow you out of your seat), you'll feel the impact and authority of the louder sections later on.

Add to the low cost (especially used) of this well-performed and well-recorded Firebird the coupling of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments and you have the makings of a bargain. Now, if only Virgin hadn't decided to package "The Classics" line with such drab, minimalist cover art, the whole affair might have been perfect. Oh, well, it's a small loss for a big gain.


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

Apr 3, 2016

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 78-81 (CD review)

Ottavio Dantone, Accademia Bizantina. Decca 478 8837 (2-disc set).

Prolific Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote 104 numbered symphonies and a few more that never got a number. Music historians and fans alike didn't call him "the father of the symphony" for nothing. Nevertheless, only the final two dozen or so of his symphonies see much recording time these days, so it's no wonder most of his symphonic output goes unknown to the general public. What's more, I'd wager that even if you own and listen frequently to the complete Haydn symphony set by Antal Dorati, you're still not likely to recognize too many of the earlier works.

I mention this because the disc under review presents four symphonies that musicians don't record very often, Nos. 78-81, the ones Haydn wrote just before the "Paris" symphonies. What's more, Maestro Ottavio Dantone and the period-instrument ensemble Accademia Bizantina offer them in historically informed performances, Nos. 79 and 81 recorded for the first time on period instruments. Which should be all well and good, with one minor glitch: Maestro Dantone and his players don't really enlighten us with anything particularly new or original or sometimes even very stimulating.

Now, here's the thing: the back cover of the CD case proclaims "Under Ottavio Dantone the Ravenna-based Accademia Bizantina have become acclaimed as one of today's most rigorous and colourful period-instrument ensembles." Hyperbole, perhaps? Maybe classical listeners in Europe know them better than we in America, because although the ensemble has been around since 1983, I had never heard of these folks before I got this set.

In any case, that's neither here nor there. The concern I had is that they don't appear nearly as vibrant, alive, flexible, or entertaining as some other period-instrument groups I've heard play Haydn on period instruments; namely, Nic McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Bruno Weil and Tafelmusik, even Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the old Vienna Concentus Musicus. And then there's Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society, an ensemble that has been doing Haydn practically since Haydn's own day.

Ottavio Dantone
So, back to Dantone and his group. They open the program with a "Sturm and Drang" ("storm and drive" or "storm and stress") symphony, No. 78, the opening movement marked Vivace ("lively," "vivid"). But the thing is, Dantone doesn't really seem to invest the music with much liveliness or vividness. It's mostly rather glum, which is perhaps how the conductor views "Sturm and Drang"; fair enough, but it doesn't do a lot to excite one about the performance.

Then we get an Adagio ("slowly") that Maestro Dantone takes very literally. It practically pokes along, it's so slow. Worse, the slowness produces little or no compensating beauty. Fortunately, the Minuet and Trio hit a brighter note and sound a bit more as we have come to expect from Haydn, with sweet dance-like rhythms. Then the Finale: Presto brings the symphony to an adequate if not entirely rousing conclusion.

And so it goes throughout the rest of the symphonies. There appears a general lack of spirit and vivacity about the music making. Of the four symphonies in the set, I preferred Dantone's handling of No. 81 best, probably because he seemed more enthusiastic about it than he did the rest, although the rendering still seems to lack a little something in pure adrenaline and style.

But maybe I'm being unfair, having practically grown up with people like Beecham and later Dorati, Eugen Jochum, even Otto Klemperer conducting Haydn in clear, colorful, often cheerful, bright-faced interpretations, not leaving out the aforementioned period-instrument recordings. Dantone and his ensemble don't seem to bring many of those cherished qualities to the table, preferring to remain rather too careful, bland, and aloof.

In other words, I prefer more character and passion in my Haydn.

Producers Dominic Fyfe and Fabio Framba and engineer Roberto Chinellato recorded the symphonies at Teatro Golden, Bagnacavallo, Italy in June, July, and September 2015. For reasons unknown, as this is apparently not a live recording, the miking is very close; so close that the instruments are practically in our face, and as a result the group sounds smaller than it probably is. (The booklet lists sixteen players, but they sound eight or ten because they're all right there in the first row.) Anyway, beyond the closeness of the recording and a consequential lack of much room ambience, the sonics are fine: robust, slightly warm, dynamic, and a tad upper-bass heavy.

One final, minor note: What has happened to attractive album covers these days? Remember when covers often featured eighteenth or nineteenth-century paintings--landscapes or pastoral scenes that complemented the music? This Haydn set has a black-and-white photo of Maestro Dantone appearing to throw his copy of the score in the air, perhaps disgusted with something in the performance. I don't know. I didn't find the photo appealing. Then, on the back of the booklet insert, we get a picture of a little girl holding a teddy bear in her hand, taken from the back of the girl with her looking at the orchestra. For some reason, the photograph made me feel sad, melancholy. I don't know why, and I never figured out the picture's meaning or intent. It's an odd set all the way around.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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