Jun 29, 2016

Harty: An Irish Symphony (CD review)

Also, With the Wild Geese; In Ireland. Proinnsias O'Duinn, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Naxos 8.554732.

How could this 2001 album of Irish orchestral music miss when it features three of the most-popular works of one of Ireland's most-celebrated composers, Sir Hamilton Harty (1879-1941), done up by one of Ireland's most-accomplished orchestras, the National Symphony of Ireland, and lead by an Irish conductor with the name of Proinnsias O'Duinn? Add in good Naxos sound and a reasonable price and you have the well-known definition of a bargain on your hands.

All the works on the disc are pretty much tone poems, evocations of Irish life in both war and play. The leadoff selection is the eighteen-minute piece "With the Wild Geese" (1910), a varied and moody work depicting an Irish regiment of soldiers fighting with the French in 1745. The second, shorter, piece, "In Ireland" (1918, orchestrated in 1935), describes city life in Dublin. Finally, An Irish Symphony (1904) arrives in four movements, with the suggestive names "On the Shores of Lough Neagh," "The Fair-Day," "In the Antrim Hills," and "The Twelfth Night." It's the quick, second-movement scherzo that is probably most familiar, quoting as it does several popular Irish melodies.

Proinnsias O'Duinn
In fact, all the music is reminiscent of a hundred Irish folk tunes you've probably heard over the years, none of them particularly memorable but all of them contributing to the music's overall entertainment value. This is not classical music of the highest or most-noble bent, just pleasant, sometimes nostalgic, often relaxing, occasionally cheering, and ultimately rewarding music.

O'Duinn directs the music at a comfortable pace, never forcing its nostalgic or sentimental characteristics on the listener and nicely clarifying the big tunes. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland plays with an equally easy grace, although they don't sound quite as lush or luxuriant as the best London orchestras. Still, everyone is more than up to the job.

The Naxos sound is up to the task, too, with good dynamics, a reasonably wide frequency response except perhaps in the very lowest registers, and a fine degree of sparkle. This means it is sound that fits the music, and it's hard not to like it.


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

Jun 26, 2016

Doug Wendt: Classical Guitar (CD review)

Doug Wendt, guitar. Wendt Recordings.

Classical guitarist, jazz guitarist, pop guitarist, bluegrass guitarist, folk guitarist, blues guitarist, teacher, and experienced chef to boot, Doug Wendt is pretty much an all-around performer. According to his bio, he earned a B.A. in Guitar Performance from California State University of the East Bay (CSUEB). Also an experienced chef, including over ten years as sous-chef at a top-class Italian Restaurant, Doug decided to make his part-time music activities into a full-time career about fifteen years ago.

As a classical guitarist, Doug has worked and performed extensively with Gordon Rowland of www.guitarwork.com. What's more, Doug has maintained a longtime collaboration with vocalist Tré Taylor including their current jazz quintet "Dangerous Martini." Earlier bands with Tré included "Soul Attraction," a 10-piece R&B soul band, and "Earl Slide Ride," featuring Motown and Blues.

Doug's wife, Deborah Kuhl, (singer, songwriter, and pianist), who regularly performs a repertoire of French music, borrows Doug on occasion and featured both Doug and Gordon Rowland on her CD "Carte Postale."

On the present disc, Wendt plays classical guitar, the program running high to his favorite composer, J.S. Bach. The selections include Bach's "Prelude" from the Cello Suite No. 1, "Gavotte," "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Little Prelude," "Double," and "Bouree." In addition, we get Alessandro Scarlatti's "Gavotte"; Domenico Scarlatti's "Sonata in A" and "Sonata in Em"; Antonio Lauro's "Preludio Venesolano," "Andreina," and "Natalia"; and two anonymous tunes, "Romance" and "Greensleeves."

Doug Wendt
Doug brings to all of this material the same warmth and affection I've heard from him live: low-key presentations that never call attention to the performer but always showcase the music. In other words, you'll find more flamboyant guitarists around, ones who revel in the dexterity of their finger work and virtuosity of their playing; but one can hardly find anyone more committed to bringing to life the spirit of the composers and their music than Doug Wendt.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting Wendt is another Angel or Pepe Romero, John Williams, Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, David Russell, Narciso Yepes, or the like. But he is good, and he projects an agreeable sweetness in his music. So, onward....

Among my favorites on the disc is Wendt's playing of Domenico Scarlatti's "Sonata in A," an item I've heard any number of times performed on solo harpsichord, piano, and guitar. Some musicians seem intent on attacking it full throttle, while others appear content with providing cozy, almost sentimental interpretations. Doug does neither; he comes at the score gently but firmly, caressing each note without unduly emphasizing each one. The result is a performance that sounds neither sensational nor lackluster but just right.

Wendt chooses fairly modest tempos throughout the program, so, again, he's not trying to impress the listener with wild flights of fancy or gushy, maudlin outbursts. The familiar "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and "Greensleeves," for example, come across charmingly and effortlessly, with the guitar producing a warm, rich sound that well complements the compositions. As my wife remarked, the chords are so simple, but they're soft and beautiful. Indeed, they are. It's a lovely album.

Thomas Martin and Jamie Bridges recorded the music in 2010. The sound appears fairly close but very well detailed and realistic. There's a modest amount of resonance involved, too, which helps to gives the guitar a lifelike sense of presence. Fortunately, the close miking is not so severe as to spread the instrument across the entire soundstage but keeps the guitar nicely focused between the speakers.

To learn more about Doug Wendt and his work, visit http://www.dougwendtguitar.com/.


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

Jun 22, 2016

Through the Years (CD review)

Dmitry Paperno, piano. Cedille Records CDR 90000 074.

Soviet-born (Ukraine), American émigré concert pianist Dmitry Paperno (b. 1929) turned seventy-five in the year of this recording's release, 2004, and he showed he still knew his stuff. Through the Years remains one of the most-satisfying piano recitals you can find.

Although Dmitry Paperno is probably still not a household name in America, his talent is evident in every note of this confident, relaxing, inspired album. The material he chose for inclusion on the disc is thankfully not quite of the tried-and-true warhorse variety but a mixture of popular with lesser-known, slightly melancholy pieces that fit the mood set by the small, lonely figure in the golden autumn pictured on the CD booklet cover.

Dmitry Paperno
Among the eighteen works in the collection include Bach's Sinfonia No 2, Scarlatti's Sonata in C minor, Schumann's Intermezzo in D minor, Liszt's Sonetto del Petrarca, Debussy's "Hommage a Rameau," Borodin's "In a Monastery," and so on. But my two favorites are Beethoven's lovely "Andante favori" and Albeniz's heartbreaking "Tango." Each of the works on the disc is a tiny gem, played and polished by an artist with a feeling for the music. Paperno provides all the nuance and sensitivity the pieces demand.

Cedille's recording characteristics always sound first rate, and this effort is no different. The piano tone is quite natural, Mr. Paperno's Steinway appearing well defined without being bright, forward, hard, or edgy. There is a nice bloom to the musical ambience as well, lending a most realistic if not always transparent quality to the sonics. In other words, the sound matches the mood of the music: easy, casual, cultivated, and perfectly charming.


To hear an excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

Jun 19, 2016

Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (CD review)

Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic. HDTT.

While there is an abundance of good recordings available of Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony (my own favorites remaining the ones with Kempe on EMI and Previn on Telarc), there is no question this 1975 version from Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic is at least among the elite, interpretatively and sonically. More important, now that the good folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered it, it sounds as good as ever.

German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) started writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and finished it several years later in 1915. It was the last of his big-scale, symphonic tone poems, and he spent the next thirty-odd years of his life composing other kinds of music: songs, mainly, and, of course, opera. Supposedly, the composer came to write his Alpine Symphony after viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his home, the mountains he used to climb and enjoy as a boy.

However, An Alpine Symphony is among the composer's more-controversial works; you either love it or you hate it. Critics for years have written it off as nothing more than picture-postcard music, lightweight fluff, hammy and melodramatic and unworthy to set alongside Strauss's greater work. Still, I wonder if these critics aren't letting their estimate of the subject matter cloud their judgment. I mean, for some people the mere description of mountains, peaks, and pastures can't measure up against things with such imposing titles as Death and Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Be that as it may, I find An Alpine Symphony immensely entertaining, and I believe the glories of Nature are every bit as sublime and profound as anything Nietzsche wrote (although one should not entirely overlook the role the German philosopher played in the development of Strauss's symphony).

Here's the thing: If you like the music, the question is which recording you want to hear in your living room, and, as I said above, there's a surplus of great ones already out there. With Mehta, we get a majestic view of the mountaintops from the very beginning of the work. The sun rises rather abruptly from the night, and the ascent, forest, stroll, waterfall, meadows, and pastures all tend to get a more-or-less straightforward, though fairly opulent treatment. In fact, Mehta seems as impetuous as a youth on the mountainside, impatient to get to the top. Which is as valid a reading of the music as any.

Zubin Mehta
When Part II arrives and the climber has reached the summit, Mehta lets out all the stops, offering up as grand a vision of Nature in all her glory as any on record. It's every bit the mystical experience I'm sure Strauss intended. He whips up a good frenzy in the storm, too, and delivers a sweet respite in the sunset and return to night. It's both a thoughtful and exciting interpretation.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has never been one of my favorite orchestras, appears as they often do on record: a little thin. Maybe it's just the way Decca recorded them; I don't know. Whatever, they still sound splendid, so it's little to worry about.

Two minor quibbles: The symphony isn't really very long, and since it is generally HDTT's practice to remaster just what was on a tape or LP, it is only the symphony we get. Moreover, they provide only two tracks on the disc, corresponding to Parts I and II of the work. Personally, I enjoy reading along with the script, the twenty-odd descriptive passages, while listening to the musical representation of them. But that's just me, and, again, having only two tracks was probably a result of the tape. Oh, well, not important.

Producer Ray Minshull and engineer James Lock recorded the symphony in 1975 at Royce Hall, Los Angeles, and HDTT remastered it from a London 4-track Dolby-encoded tape. The sound displays excellent clarity, something for which listeners have long noted Decca recordings. Accompanying the clarity, however, is a very slight edge, also a quality of most Decca recordings of the era. In any case, a small amount of warmth in the lower midrange and upper bass help mitigate this condition. Dynamics, frequency range, especially mid treble and mid bass, sound particularly good, if just a tad fuzzy in the extreme highs. And some moderate degree of hall bloom and ambience give the listener the impression of live, natural music.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.


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

Jun 15, 2016

Liszt: A Faust Symphony (CD review)

Also, Dante Symphony; Les Preludes; Prometheus. Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic; Jesus Lopez-Cobos, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.  Decca Double 289 466 751-1 (2-disc set).

This mid-priced Decca Double rereleased in 2001 could well be a bonanza for Liszt lovers who have been unaware of it before now. The set combines two of the composer's largest and most ambitious orchestral works with a pair of his most-popular tone poems and offers them in thrilling performances, especially the ones from Sir Georg Solti.

Some music historians credit Liszt with inventing the tone poem (which I doubt because Vivaldi and even Beethoven were doing them long before him), but no matter what Liszt himself called his music, it almost always came out a tone poem. The two "symphonies" represented here, Faust and Dante, are, in fact, each a series of tone poems. The Faust, conducted by Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Siegfried Jerulsalem, tenor, is big and bold. It is not so subtly impressionistic as Beecham's account (EMI), but it catches the multilayered drama of the protagonist, Dr. Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil; the passion and purity of his love interest, Gretchen; and the turbulence of the devil, Mephistopheles. The digital sound from 1986 is among the best on the disc for the work, full and robust, not entirely well imaged in terms of depth but convincingly dynamic.

Sir Georg Solti
The Dante Symphony is more problematic. In it, Liszt tries to create a musical picture of Dante's Divine Comedy, representing the "Inferno" and "Purgatory" sections but without "Paradise." Liszt was talked out of trying to do "Paradise" by no less an authority than Richard Wagner. Too bad. It might have been fun to hear what the master tone painter could have done with it. Instead, Liszt ends "Purgatorio" with just a hint of things to come, a brief vision of heaven. Then, the Decca engineers provide us a loud, boisterous alternative ending that folks persuaded Liszt to add later on. If it had been left to me, I would not have included it. In any case, Jesus Lopez-Cobos leads a fairly routine performance of the work, which is not helped by the sometimes fierce 1981 early digital sound.

Then, Decca filled out the two-disc set with two more tone poems, the popular Les Preludes and the Prometheus. I suspect Les Preludes is Liszt's best-known orchestral work, thanks largely to the old "Flash Gordon" serials of the Thirties and Forties, which borrowed extensively from the score. Solti's interpretation of it is among the finest on the market in terms of sheer excitement, so it's good to have that alone. The sound of these two final tone poems comes in analogue from 1977 and holds up well, although here the imaging tends to be compartmentalized to a greater degree than the others. Whatever, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the set.


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

Jun 12, 2016

Brahms: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 1. Janine Jansen, violin; Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and London Symphony Orchestra. Decca 478 8412. 

The good news: the Brahms and Bartok violin concertos always make good listening, Janine Jansen is a top-notch violinist, Sir Antonio Pappano is a distinguished conductor, and both the Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia and the London Symphony Orchestra are world-class ensembles.

The bad news: Decca recorded the Brahms live.

Ms. Jansen explains in the disc's accompanying booklet why she chose to pair the Brahms concerto with the Bartok, but I'm afraid I didn't find her reasoning entirely convincing. She says the two works "share a Hungarian connection, but also a profound combination of symphonic power and chamber-scale intimacy." Certainly, that's true. However, the Brahms seems to me still rooted firmly in the Romantic era, while the Bartok has a foot in the Modern age. Thus, while they may both show Hungarian traits (Bartok, especially, who was himself Hungarian), the musical language of each piece seems entirely different. Nevertheless, they are both enjoyable and justly popular works, so who really cares if there is any direct connection between them.

The program opens with the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 by German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). He wrote it about the time he wrote his Second Symphony (1877), and the two works display a kind of pastoral, bucolic atmosphere. However, the slightly later Violin Concerto sounds a little more rugged and robust, yet more lofty and aristocratic, almost as rustic as it is rhapsodic, making it something of an opposition in charms. What's more, because Brahms grew up in a period where classicism was giving way to full-blown Romanticism, the composer sometimes found himself caught between the two competing styles, as we hear in the piece.

Janine Jansen
Maestro Pappano and soloist Jansen produce a good, if slightly ambivalent, performance of the Brahms. Pappano appears to favor a big, strong, expressive approach, whereas Ms. Jansen seems to want a more sensitive, lyrical interpretation. The results are never distracting, but they are sometimes a bit different from what we might normally hear.

Ms. Jansen plays beautifully, as we would expect. There is always a lovely lilt to the music, the melodies floating effortlessly throughout. She is particularly careful not to overdo the main theme in the first movement but keeps it in accordance with the light, flowing mood of the rest of her playing. The Adagio, with its beautiful oboe introduction, is the highlight of the show, with Jansen's entrance most magical. Then, Pappano and company end the work in a properly enthusiastic style, the Hungarian influence obviously in evidence in Jansen's lively playing.

The second item on the agenda is the Violin Concerto No. 1, BB 48A by composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945). The Bartok concerto is much briefer than the Brahms, about half its length and in only two movements, with variations on Hungarian folk tunes the major concern. Here, the LSO sounds fuller and lusher than their Italian counterparts, yet they still provide Ms. Jansen a relatively intimate accompaniment. Perhaps to better establish the relationship between the Bartok and Brahms pieces, Ms. Jansen injects them both with an affectionate, evocative flavor, the melodies dancing with a passionate, songlike character.

Executive producer Alexander Van Ingen, recording producers Andrew Walton (Brahms) and Andrew Keener (Bartok), and engineers Jonathan Allen (Brahms) and Simon Eadon (Bartok) recorded the music at Santa Cecilia Hall, Rome (Brahms, live) in February 2015 and Walthamstow Assembly Hall (Bartok) in August 2014.

The live sound of the Brahms is a little bright and edgy in the upper midrange, emphasizing a small degree of background noise. The rest of the midrange and upper bass are on the soft, warm side, and the deeper notes are somewhat woolly, so don't expect ultimate transparency. Because of the closeness of the miking, we don't get as muchorchestral depth as one might like. The violin sounds nicely integrated with the rest of the ensemble, though, and the violin tone adequately rendered. The sound of the Bartok was more to my liking, a little clearer, better defined, and better balanced.


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

Jun 8, 2016

Tango Sensations (CD review)

Alban Berg Quartett. Warner Classics 5577782.

First, one has to understand, as the booklet points out, that there is the "old tango" and there is the "tango nuevo," the "new tango." This is important because it is the old tango music popularized in early twentieth-century Argentina that most people are probably most familiar with. The newer form is less like the dance music heard so commonly in old movies and more like modern concert music, made for performance in refined symphony halls rather than smoky bars and bordellos. Naturally, the Alban Berg Quartett, as refined and modern as they come, opt for the new tango for most of the present recording.

Leading the move in new tango was Argentine tango composer, arranger, and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), whom some in his country vilified for daring to modify their traditional music. Under Piazzolla, the tango became more stylized, more rhythmically variable, and certainly less danceable. Frankly, one can understand people's feelings; much of Piazzolla's work is hardly recognizable as tango in the traditional sense.

Alban Berg Quartett
Anyway, he's represented on the album by two longer works, the four-movement Tango Sensations, representing "Asleep," "Anxiety," "Awake," and "Fear," about twenty minutes long, and the sweetly melancholic Tristezas para un AA, about thirteen minutes long. Also in the modern mode is Kurt Schwertsik's Adieu Satie, a five-movement, new-tango reworking of melodies evoked by the spirit of French composer and pianist Erik Satie. Representing the old tango we find Eduardo Arolas, Juan Carlos Cobian, and Julio de Caro, each of whom gets a short work played on solo bandoneon.

The Alban Berg Quartet is augmented by Per Arne Glorvigen on bandoneon (an eighteenth-century German variation of the accordion that has become inextricably identified with the Argentine tango) and Alois Posch on double bass. Of course, the Quartet play these things with authority, elegance, and polish, but personally I still prefer the earthier qualities of the old tangos to the ultra sophistication of the more newfangled Piazzolla-type concoctions. Understanding what you're listening for, this is nevertheless a great disc of its kind.

EMI recorded the music in the early 2000's, and Warner Classics more recently rereleased it. The sonics communicate nicely through their clarity and tone, and the disc sounds especially realistic in the layout of the instruments.


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

Jun 5, 2016

Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble: Sing Me Home (CD review)

Yo-Yo Ma, cello; The Silk Road Ensemble. Sony 88875 18101 2.

Silkroad, as you probably know by now, is the nonprofit organization cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded back in 1998 to encourage a multicultural artistic exchange of study and ideas. World Music Central and The Irish Independent described Silkroad as an "arts and educational organization that connects musicians, composers, artists and audiences around the world" and "an initiative to promote multicultural artistic collaboration." Yo-Yo Ma took his inspiration "from the historical Silk Road trading routes and using the Silk Road as a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines."

Sing Me Home is the seventh album The Silk Road Ensemble have released since 2001, and if you like the kind of ethnic music they perform, you'll no doubt like this latest issue. Its producers describe it as "the companion album to the Morgan Neville documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, and they call it "the artists' most-personal album to date." Ma says the album is "a tribute to how culture helps us all to meet, connect, and create something new."

The program presents a varied assortment of world music, some of it new, most of it traditional, representing a wide variety of cultures. Here's the playlist:

  1. "Green" ("Vincent's Tune"), featuring Roomful of Teeth
  2. "O'Neill's Cavalry March," featuring Martin Hayes
  3. "Little Birdie," featuring Sarah Jarosz
  4. "Ichichila," featuring Toumani Diabaté and Balla Kouyaté
  5. "Sadila Jana," featuring Black Sea Hotel
  6. "Shingashi Song," featuring Kaoru Watanabe
  7. "Madhoushi," featuring Shujaat Khan
  8. "Wedding," featuring Dima Orsho
  9. "Going Home," featuring Abigail Washburn
10. "Cabaliño," featuring Roberto Comesaña, Anxo Pintos, and Davide Salvado
11. "St. James Infirmary Blues," featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, and Reylon Yount
12. "If You Shall Return...," featuring Bill Frisell
13. "Heart and Soul," featuring Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter

Yo-Yo Ma
The Silkroad Ensemble varies in size and personnel depending on the nature of the material and the availability of the artists involved. In addition to the featured performers above, the players this time around include Silk Road Ensemble members Kinan Azmeh, Jeffrey Beecher, Mike Block, Shawn Conley, Nicholas Cords, Sandeep Das, Haruka Fujii, Johnny Gandelsman, Joseph Gramley, Colin Jacobsen, Eric Jacobsen, Kayhan Kalhor, Yo-Yo Ma, Jessie Montgomery, Cristina Pato, Shane Shanahan, Mark Suter, Kojiro Umezaki, Wu Man, and Wu Tong, with help from Lisa Fischer, Bill Frisell, Black Sea Hotel, Rhiannon Giddens, Sarah Jarosz, Shujaat Khan, Martin Hayes, Gregory Porter, Roomful of Teeth, Rustica, and Abigail Washington. It's a formidable group.

Because the performers are tops in their field, the music sounds immaculate. More important, they play with an infectious enthusiasm, which combined with the precision of their talents creates an atmosphere of joy throughout the proceedings.

The opening track, "Green: Vincent's Tune," arranged by Wu Man, becomes a little raucous but it's undeniably infectious, too. The following item, "O'Neill's Cavalry March," couldn't be more different, an Irish number, and just as infectious.

And so it goes.

As I say, we get a varied selection of tunes, mostly characterized by string and percussion instruments, with occasional solo and choral vocals. The ensemble's Colin Jacobsen came across "Little Birdie" while listening to a collection by Pete Seeger and loved it. "Ichichila" is another highlight of the program, a song of the Tuareg people; it's delightful.

The flawless precision of the Silk Road Ensemble ensures that every item on hand sounds better than the last. You think, my, wasn't that fun, when along comes another just as good or better. Interestingly, the songs slow down considerably as the program goes on, reaching a dirgelike state by "St. James Infirmary," and end with a sweetly flowing rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul" with Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter. The album offers one newly discovered charm after another.

Producers Johnny Gandelsman, Kevin Killen, and Cristin Canterbury Bagnall and engineers Jody Elff, Kevin Killen, and Xabier Olite recorded the album at MSR Studios and Avatar Studios in New York City, with additional recording at Zone Dolce, NYC, Africa Studio, Bamako, Mali, and Son Natural, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Sony Music released the disc in 2016.

As with most popular albums, the engineers give us a fairly close perspective, yet it's one that displays a good deal of separation among the instruments and a reasonable amount of depth to the ensemble. Wide dynamics, strong bass, and a warm, smooth frequency balance help to produce a good, natural sound. There is nothing hard, bright, or edgy here, so expect a relaxed listening experience.


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

Jun 1, 2016

Yehudi Menuhin Conducts Mozart (CD review)

Yehudi Menuhin, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Sinfonia Varsovia, English Chamber Orchestra. Virgin 7243 5 61678 2 7 (5-disc set).

I've never been big on recommending sets of anything. More often, one can find individual performances by different conductors that bring more consistent pleasure. Yet occasionally one finds a boxed set of something that has so many outstanding virtues it's hard not to commend. Such is the case with Yehudi Menuhin's 1989-90 recordings of late Mozart symphonies, plus various odds and ends, boxed up on five discs from Virgin Classics. Menuhin (1916-1999) had turned to conducting in his later years, the stress of playing the violin finally becoming too demanding for him. He seemed to have been about as successful at the new endeavor as he was at the old.

The five CD's in this low-priced package include Symphonies Nos. 35, 36, 38, 39, 40, and 41, coupled with the two Flute Concertos, the Flute and Harp Concerto, the Divertimento in D major, KV136, the Serenade in D major, KV239 "Serenata notturna", the Serenade in D major, KV320 "Posthorn," and two marches. Menuhin's own orchestra at the time, the Sinfonia Varsovia, plays the symphonies, the English Chamber Orchestra plays the concertos, and the Orchestra de Chambre de Lausanne plays the serenades.

Yehudi Menuhin
All of the performances are characterized by Menuhin's obvious love and affection for the music. Speeds are zesty but never breathless or out of control. Phrasing is imaginative but never idiosyncratic to the point of distraction. Dynamic contrasts are wide but flexible and never overpowering. These are enthusiastic, quick-footed interpretations that, nevertheless, almost always sound right. What's more, the three small orchestras involved come across light enough to produce as fleet and intimate a sound as the readings demand.

The most obvious comparison I had on hand for a large set of Mozart symphonies by a smallish ensemble was Daniel Barenboim's late Sixties-early Seventies collection of recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra. These recordings have long been among my favorite Mozart, and Menuhin's newer editions, digital or no, do not displace them in my affections. There is the possible exception of No. 41, the "Jupiter," however, which does have a greater forward momentum under Menuhin than under Barenboim. Nevertheless, interestingly enough, I preferred the EMI analogue sonics to those of the newer Virgin renditions. Barenboim's orchestral sound appears more detailed to me and the stage presence has greater depth. Menuhin's orchestra may project more warmth but loses something in overall sparkle, leaning a bit to the top and bottom ends of the spectrum.

Mozart comes in all varieties these days, from small period-instrument presentations to mammoth, full-orchestra treatments, and all of them have their place. One of the best compromises, though, is probably the chamber-orchestra approach, and since Barenboim's EMI set might prove hard to find anymore, Menuhin's set (or the single-disc editions available on Erato) may be a good alternative. Certainly, one can hardly go wrong.


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