Jul 31, 2016

Dvorak: Cello Concerto (SACD review)

Also, Lalo: Cello Concerto. Johannes Moser, cello; Jukub Hrusa, PKF - Prague Philharmonia. Pentatone PTC 5186 488.

The relatively young German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser (b. 1979) had by the time of this album already recorded the cello concertos of Saint-Saens, Britten, Shostakovich, Martinu, Honegger, and Hindemith. Now, let's face it: for a cellist, the concerto repertoire is not all that large (in fact, for many years, composers sort of shunned the cello as a solo concerto instrument, with J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and the like pretty much ignoring it except in chamber works). So it's no wonder Moser turned next to what is probably the most-famous cello of them all, the Dvorak. With fine accompaniment from Maestro Jukub Hrusa and the PKF-Prague Philharmonia, an apt coupling of the Lalo cello concerto, and fine Pentatone SACD sonics, this package makes a welcome appearance.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 rather late in his career (1895), the work since becoming one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time. So popular that you'll find some excellent recordings of it by any number of artists, like those of Mstislav Rostropovich (DG), Yo-Yo Ma (Sony), Pierre Fournier (DG), Jacqueline du Pre (EMI), Leonard Rose (Sony), Gregor Piatigorsky (RCA), Lynn Harrell (RCA), Pablo Casals (EMI and Dutton Labs), Paul Tortelier (EMI), Rafael Wallfisch (Chandos), Truls Mork (EMI), Maurice Gendron (Philips or HDTT), and my own favorite, Janos Starker (Mercury), among others.

Here, we add Moser. As the Cello Concerto contains an abundance of attractive melodies, it gives Moser and company ample opportunity for displaying nuance, sensitivity, and a little sentimentality. For instance, Dvorak wrote the slow, second-movement Adagio while his much-beloved sister-in-law lay dying, and he used one of her favorite pieces of music as a central theme. In it, he creates a lovely, explosively gentle, faintly melancholic mood, which Moser exploits with appropriate passion and tenderness.

Whatever, Moser's tempos seem well within the ballpark for most other interpretations I've heard, yet his playing seems more relaxed than many others. For some listeners, this will be a good sign. For other listeners, he may appear somewhat lax, maybe too slack. Certainly, it would play up the differences in emphases and contrasts in the work if Moser had put more energy into the more vigorous sections. This isn't much of a criticism, though, as the overall impression of the work under Moser is one of big, warm, sweet, solitary contemplation, even in the more-explosive bits.

Johannes Moser
In the Finale, we get more fire and heroics from both the soloist and the orchestra than we heard previously from them. Nevertheless, even here Moser and his team seem a little reticent to let completely loose. In other words, the performance seems maybe a touch too sedate for its own good.

So, the final question is whether this recording from Moser and company is any better than the several recordings I mentioned above. The answer is, probably not. There is an ardent, honeyed glow about Moser's rendition, to be sure, that will no doubt appeal to many listeners. However, for me there wasn't quite enough there to justify the price of yet another competitor in an already crowded field of contenders.

The accompanying Cello Concerto in D minor by French composer Edouard Lalo (1823-1892) may not be as well-known as the Dvorak, but it is close, and the French work is almost as ambitious and communicative. With the Lalo, Moser's easygoing style works better than it did in the Dvorak. It's a charming and engaging interpretation, even if the orchestra's contributions appeared to me a mite too staid to do justice to Moser's amiable, stress-free manner.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Roger de Schot recorded the music for Polyhymnia International V.V. at the Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic in January 2015. They made it for playback via hybrid SACD: multichannel or two-channel from the SACD layer and two-channel only from the regular CD layer. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The sound provides a glowing, natural, very slightly soft ambience that makes everything appear fairly lifelike. You won't perhaps get an ultimate transparency here, just realistic reproduction. There is a reasonably good stereo spread, with a fine sense of depth to the orchestra. There is also a very slight bit of background noise, barely audible but present. The dynamic range seems more than adequate, although I didn't hear as much impact as I expected. The cello is slightly bigger than life, maybe recorded a little too close. Still, it, too, sounds most truthful on its own. It's a handsome production, sounding much like the Philips recordings of old, which I count a good thing.


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Jul 26, 2016

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Suite from the Ballet (XRCD review)

Yehudi Menuhin, solo violin; Efrem Kurtz, Philharmonia Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD49.

Although Russian-born, naturalized-American conductor Efrem Kurtz (1900-1995) lived well into the stereo age, he never became as famous as some of his contemporaries like Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, or Otto Klemperer. Still, he made some excellent stereo recordings, such as this 1958 album of highlights from Swan Lake with the Philharmonia Orchestra, with no less a star than Yehudi Menuhin doing the violin solos. The new XRCD remastering does justice to its still-impressive sound.

The director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) to write the score for the ballet we now know as Swan Lake. Premiered in 1877, it was the first of the composer's big-three ballets, with The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty to follow. Today, we take Swan Lake for granted as one of the greatest ballets of all time, but initially it failed. The dancers complained they couldn't dance to the music, the conductor couldn't properly handle the tunes, and critics generally panned it. It would not be until 1895, several years after the composer's death, that the ballet's popularity began to soar in revival.

The story is that Swan Lake started life as a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans, which Tchaikovsky wrote for his family in 1871. Then, when he received the commission, the composer added Russian and German folk tales as his sources, the general plot based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus. One of the salient points about Tchaikovsky's writing it is that critics now consider it the first ballet composed by a writer who had previously worked almost exclusively in the symphonic field. Thus, if Swan Lake sounds more "symphonic" in structure, composition, and themes than earlier ballets, there is a reason.

In four acts Swan Lake tell the story of a young man, Prince Siegfried, whose mother insists it's about time he found a bride and marry. No sooner said than he chances upon a beautiful young woman, Odette, with whom he falls in love. However, as fate would have it, an evil magician has put her and her attendants under a spell whereby they may be human at night but turn into swans by day. Naturally, it is only a true and unfailing love that can save her.

Efrem Kurtz
Kurtz easily negotiates the ups and downs of a suite of popular items from the ballet, and the Philharmonia, then in its prime, perform flawlessly. Indeed, the performance is sparkling in every way. Yet Kurtz never simply goes for show, glitz, or glitter. The music flows naturally, in a fine onward course. What's more, there is an elegance about the reading that one can hardly ignore. It's not just thrills Kurtz is striving for but a genuine sense of place and time, a handsome story told in frank, handsome terms, with little additional embellishment from the conductor. Still, even though Kurtz keeps things on an even keel, he still manages to inject plenty of excitement into the score.

Then there's the matter of Menuhin's solos. I guess I hadn't realized how many solo violin parts there were in the ballet until noticing them here. Certainly, Menuhin handles them deftly, his playing dexterous, gentle, lush, scintillating, as the case may be. The music's idyll sounds particularly touching, with the strings of the Philharmonia adding a poignant glow.

If I have any minor concerns about the disc, there are two: First, nowhere could I find a list of the disc's tracks or timings. The back of the package itemizes the musical content, but it doesn't do so with corresponding track numbers or track times. (For the record, so to speak, the disc contains nineteen tracks for a total of just over fifty-three minutes.) Second, I had a really hard time getting the disc out of its plastic center ring. I mean, you want it to be tight enough to hold the disc firmly in place, but this was ridiculous. I thought I was going to snap the disc in two trying to loosen it.

Otherwise, the packaging is commendable: a glossy, hard-bound Digipak design, with booklet notes bound inside and the disc itself attached to a plastic center ring in the back.

Producers R. Kinloch Anderson and Peter Andry and engineers Neville Boyling and Robert Gooch recorded the suite at Kingsway Hall, London in March and April of 1958. JVC (Victor Company of Japan) remastered and manufactured the present disc using XRCD24, 24-bit Super Analog K2 technology. Hi-Q Records distributes the product.

I did not have an LP or CD of the performance with which to make comparisons, but I believe I can safely say based on what I heard from this remaster and the comparisons I have made of Hi-Q products in the past that this recording is no doubt an improvement over the original mastering. The clarity is outstanding, with a huge dynamic range, strong impact, and good frequency extremes. The high end sounds especially impressive, with a shimmering treble response. However, I must warn that if one's system already favors the high end, the disc might sound a little bright, and even with noise reduction there is a faint sizzle at the very top. Anyway, the stereo spread is also commendable, as is the orchestral depth. So, what we get are excellent sonics to match an exuberant performance. Never mind the age; it's better than almost anything made today.

You can find Hi-Q products at any number of on-line marketplaces, but you'll find some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/


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Jul 20, 2016

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Plus, a second disc with the conductor discussing the work. Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc 2CD-80569 (2-disc set).

No guts, no glory. Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Orchestra attack this most passionate of Mahler's big orchestral works with all the extremes of emotion it deserves. Indeed, Zander's performance may come as close to Mahler's intentions as any recording on the market.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1901-02, and it is among his most varied works, beginning in sorrow and solemnity and culminating in joy and happiness. The turning points are the third movement Scherzo, sounding much like Mahler's usual parodies of a traditional Viennese waltz, and the famous Adagietto, really a love letter to the composer's wife, Alma. These lead into the joyous Finale.

Zander takes each movement very slightly quicker than many of his rivals, but never does he lose the lilt or flavor of the more lustrous passages. Interestingly, too, Zander tells us in a booklet note that after he had recorded the piece, he compared his timings for each movement to those of Mahler himself as reported by a listener at a rehearsal of the work, and Zander's timings were no more than a minute different from Mahler's for the entire symphony. Of course, that doesn't prove anything, really, because we don't know for certain what Mahler's tempos were in an actual performance, nor do we know what Mahler's phrasing was like. Nor can we be sure that any composer is the ultimate authority on conducting his own works. Whatever, it makes a fascinating point.

Benjamin Zander
None of this is to suggest that Zander's reading is any better than rival versions, but it surely equals some of the best I've heard. However, I still have a preference for Sir John Barbirolli's rendition (EMI, now Warner Classics) in which Sir John wears his heart more openly on his sleeve, luxuriating ever the more slowly in each movement, especially the Adagietto, which, nonetheless, manages to sound a note of love and beauty rather than being entirely funereal. Getting back to Zander, let's give him an A for effort here and assume his performance is as close to Mahler's designs as any around, a small degree of sentimentality notwithstanding.

In addition to the symphony, the folks at Telarc also include for the cost of the one CD an extra disc, seventy-eight minutes long, of Zander discussing the symphony. He takes us movement by movement through the work, commenting and illustrating points by using not only his own recording but historical recordings as well. It's a welcome bonus disc, even if Zander emerges from it a bit too much the pontifical lecturer in his narration.

The disc's sound is big and bold in the Telarc tradition, a recording exuberant enough to match the interpretation. The dynamic range is wide, and the frequency response reaches the limits of both ends of the sonic spectrum. Yet here's the snag: It doesn't appear to have a lot of presence, and, in fact, when comparing it to Barbirolli's 1969 account, it has less depth and less inner detail. What's more, the Barbirolli disc comes in at mid price, remaining a glorious bargain.

Still and all, this Zander/Telarc disc is one to consider, and for people looking for the least degree of idiosyncrasy in their music, it may top the charts.


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

Jul 17, 2016

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Sir John Barbirolli, The Halle Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

Two of my favorite recordings of Sibelius's Second Symphony come from Sir John Barbirolli: His 1962 version with the Royal Philharmonic at Walthhamstow Town Hall, London (reissued on a Chesky Gold edition that is especially good), and this 1966 rendering with the Halle Orchestra at Kingsway Hall, London. Of the two, I really have a hard time deciding which I prefer; I know I enjoy the stately gravitas of the 1966 interpretation, and it's particularly nice to hear it remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and over the past hundred-plus years it has become one of his most-popular works. The listening public dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence," even though musical scholars are unsure whether Sibelius meant to attribute any symbolic significance to the piece. Whatever the case, the work ends in a splendidly victorious finale that certainly draws out a feeling of nationalistic pride and self-reliance.

The music begins in a generally sunny mood, building to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure. One of the first things to notice is Barbirolli's generally relaxed tempo at the beginning. It's a promise of good things to come. This is no rush job, no excuse to show the listener how much excitement the conductor can drum up. Nor is it a lax or lackadaisical performance. In fact, the more you hear it, the more "right" it sounds. Even those heroic fanfares sound flawlessly integrated into the first movement's structure rather than flamboyant add-ons.

Sibelius marked the second movement Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow a conductor some measure of personal expression. It begins with a distant drum roll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses. Barbirolli handles it wonderfully, never allowing it to descend into gloom or sentimentality at the extremes. Again, Barbirolli permits the music to unfold at its own pace, without ever forcing the issue. It's quite beautiful, actually, with a sweetly Mediterranean flavor throughout and the Halle Orchestra providing warmly polished playing.

Sir John Barbirolli
The third-movement scherzo displays a fair amount of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme before seamlessly making a transition into the Finale. Sibelius labeled it Vivacissimo, obviously a tempo taken in a lively and vivacious manner, which Barbirolli observes without undue attention to himself.

Then, the Finale bursts forth radiantly, in an explosive, thrilling, patriotic manner. In all, Barbirolli conducts a luminous interpretation of the symphony, full of vigor and sparkle and life, yet above all communicating an infectious air of joy.

Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Neville Boyling recorded the music for EMI at Kingsway Hall, London, in July 1966; and HDTT transferred it to CD in 2016 from a 15-ips 2-track tape in pure DSD with no PCM used.

The remastered sound appears perfectly balanced, with a fine sense of air, depth, transparency, and ambient bloom around the instruments. Strings sound particularly realistic, with a good shimmer and shine. Note, however, that I have always had a slight misgiving about the EMI sonics (now Warners) on their Halle discs; the orchestra seems a little too thin and the upper registers a bit too forward and almost edgy. But in this HDTT remaster, almost everything sounds right. (In a direct comparison of the EMI-Japan and HDTT products, the EMI disc sounded brighter, clearer, and rougher at the high end, the HDTT disc smoother, fuller, and as a result more lifelike.) A small degree of softness in the upper treble of the HDTT product is about the only other perceptible difference. Whatever, the HDTT remastering is one of the more natural recordings I've heard in a while, and it fully complements Barbirolli's affectionate reading.

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/.


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Jul 13, 2016

Richard Strauss: Don Quixote (CD review)

Also, Romance for cello and orchestra. Alexander Rudin, cello; Gerhard Markson, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Naxos 8.554175.

I'm sure I don't have to remind any fan of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) that the tone poem Don Quixote is about Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's famous old-timer who fancies himself a knight of high ideals, with a cello performing the knight's part and a viola his sidekick, Sancho Panza. Nor that the work contains ten variations, mostly representing Quixote's adventures, plus an introduction and an epilogue finale. Strauss composed Don Quixote in 1896, just a couple of years after Also Sprach Zarathustra, and both tone poems have enjoyed enormous popularity ever since.

Under the guidance of Maestro Gerhard Markson, with Alexander Rudin the cellist, the piece comes up pretty well, if perhaps with a bit of its color glazed over in a kind of homogenized way compared to other famous recordings. The two discs I had on hand for comparison were Mstislav Rostropovich, cello, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) and Paul Tortelier, cello, with Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden (EMI). Both competing performances appear a little more animated to me, more heartfelt, and, ultimately, more entertaining.

Alexander Rudin
This is not to suggest, however, that we should not welcome another interpretation like Rudin and Markson's, especially when the end result is nonetheless valid. The Rudin/Markson combo provides us with a suitably comfortable old Don, one who is at his feeble leisure, one who appears weaker and slower, maybe more apt to fall asleep under one of his windmills, than some of the rival versions offer.

I found the Naxos sound, issued in 2000, also commendable for its smooth reliability. It is fairly natural, and I thought it even well imaged until the bass drum reached out and bit me on the toe. Still, most of it makes for comfortable listening.

The disc's fill-up is the short Romance for cello and orchestra, which Strauss wrote about fourteen years earlier than Quixote. Although it, too, sounds adequately performed, one must remember that for about the same mid price, one can buy the aforementioned Rostropovich rendering on a remastered EMI disc, which not only has more sonic detail but the advantage of a master cellist, the sonority and range of one of the world's great orchestras, and Schumann's Cello Concerto as a companion. Now that I think about it further, that is definitely quite a bargain, as is the Tortelier/Kempe album with Don Juan and The Dance of the Seven Veils thrown in for good measure. But you probably already knew that.


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Jul 10, 2016

Gal: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22. Sarah Beth Briggs, piano; Kenneth Woods, Royal Northern Sinfonia. Avie AV2358.

The Austrian-British composer, teacher, and author Hans Gal (1890-1987) might have fallen into obscurity by now if it hadn't been for companies like Avie Records and conductors like Kenneth Woods and Thomas Zehetmair, who have relatively recently begun to champion the neglected composer with a series of new recordings. In the present album, Maestro Woods, pianist Sarah Beth Briggs, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia perform the world premiere recording of Gal's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 57, coupled with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K.482. The results are not only splendid, they fill a much-needed gap in the Gal discography.

Gal wrote his piano concerto in 1948, well into the modern era of classical music. Yet with its lush melodies the score has its feet set firmly in the Romantic period, leading many critics of the time to view Gal as rather old-fashioned. Today's audience may be ready for a return to the more tuneful music of yesteryear, and, thus, we may be hearing more from composers who value entertaining but creative harmonies over experimental dissonance. Who knows? I generalize. What we have in Gal's work is highly accessible and easy to like. That's my main point, no matter what one's opinion of Romantic vs. modern classical music.

Sarah Beth Briggs
Of less question are the talent, discipline, energy, and enthusiasm of the music makers. Ms. Briggs's pianism is both dexterous and impish, capturing the airy, evocative atmosphere of Gal's music as well as its often humorous interludes. The central Adagio is especially wistful and sweet. Moreover, Maestro Woods appears every bit the old hand at Gal's scores, offering a solid, sympathetic accompaniment that complements but never overshadows Ms. Briggs's playing. Together, they make a good case for modern listeners appreciating Gal's ideas more than ever.

Attending the Gal piece we get Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, which may seem an odd coupling until you realize that several previous Gal albums also combined his music with that of past masters. Here, the booklet note tries to explain the relationship between Gal's music and Mozart's, but I didn't find the argument entirely convincing. I would have liked hearing Gal's piano concertina, instead.

In any case, Ms. Briggs directs the Mozart from the keyboard, and the performance sounds happy, sprightly, and dignified at the same time. When after a lengthy introduction the piano enters, it comes as no surprise that it matches the orchestra's ardor, although to a somewhat more-subdued degree. Nevertheless, it's one of the better readings of this work you'll find, filled with subtlety, grace, wit, elegance, and grandeur. Even if I would have preferred a bit more spirited abandon in the delicious closing Allegro, performed a bit low-key, it still sounds radiant.

Simon Fox-Gal, the grandson of Hans Gal, recorded, produced, engineered, and edited the present album, making it in Hall One, Sage Gateshead, England in January 2016. The piano is a little close for my liking, stretching too far from left to right across the stage. Otherwise, the sonics sound balanced, clear, well focused, and mildly resonant. There is also a fine sense of front-to-back depth to the orchestra, which together with a wide dynamic range and strong impact provides a realistic presentation.


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Jul 6, 2016

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos 5 and 6, op. 8.  Massimo Quarta, violin; Constantine Orbelian, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Delos DE 3280.

Now, you really didn't think you were going to get through another month without at least one more review of a Vivaldi Four Seasons, did you? I believe it must be the most-recorded piece of music in the classical arena. Fortunately, this particular entry from violinist Massimo Quarta, with Maestro Constantine Orbelian and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in close attendance, makes a pretty good impression, and one should consider it at least a contender in an overcrowded field.

Still, it doesn't make much of an impression until you get a bit into it. Indeed, at first I thought it was going to be another also-ran, it seemed so ordinary. Part of this issue was the volume, I must admit. Delos recorded it at a slightly lower level than most other discs, so a little tweaking of the gain control was in order. Then things started to come into focus. By that time, too, I was well into the second movement of "Spring" and beginning to get a feel for Orbelian and Quarta's timing. They never take anything at breakneck speed, but they do approach the score at a rather quick gait, to say the least. What seemed routine soon became impressively thought out as I began to realize just how subtle and well-formed the performance was shaping up.

What I liked best was Massimo Quarta's violin playing, perhaps the most refined and most virtuosic I have heard in these works in ages. His violin technique seems effortless, yet he manages maneuvers that might make even the best practitioners of the art shudder. And he accomplishes this with such smoothness and grace, you might not notice it at first listen. As far as the interpretation itself is concerned, it is basically an up-tempo but still middle-of-the-road approach.

Constantine Orbelian
The only thing I didn't much like about Quarta's reading, though, is what he does with the Largo of "Winter," sucking much of the charm out of it with his brisk playing. I know the poem describes somebody running in out of the cold, but this a bit too fast. Nevertheless, it was only a minor discomfort in an otherwise brilliant display of showmanship and color.

For more imaginative renditions, however, I suggest Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO, period instruments), Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Decca, modern instruments), or Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS, period instruments). For more traditional realizations there are Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (DG Archiv, period instruments), Jeanne Lamon and Tafelmusik (Sony, period instruments), I Solisti Italiani (Denon, modern instruments), Itzhak Perlman and the London Philharmonic (Hi-Q or EMI, modern instruments), Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (FIM or Telarc, modern instruments), or the budget-priced I Musici (Decca Eloquence, modern instruments).

The two fill-ups are the next two concertos in the same Il Cimento dell' Armonia e dell' Inventione series, Nos. 5 and 6, "The Storm at Sea" and "The Pleasure" (or "The Rapture," depending on who's doing the translation). The players do an equally good job bringing out all their charms.

The sound, as I said, is somewhat low in output, but turned up a mite it reveals excellent inner detail and a remarkable natural fluidity. Maybe the strings come off too brightly at times, and maybe there could be a touch more bass resonance or warmth. Otherwise, it's a terrific showpiece, done up in lightly reflective Dolby Surround, which in my main listening room (for music, as opposed to my surround-sound room for movie watching) sounded fine even without the extra speakers. It's a good all-around effort.


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Jul 3, 2016

Victor Herbert: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, Irish Rhapsody. Mark Kosower, cello; JoAnn Falletta, Ulster Orchestra. Naxos 8.573517.

If you're like me (heaven forbid), you probably think of Victor Herbert as a composer of light music and operettas (Naughty Marietta, Babes in Toyland, The Red Mill, and many more). But in addition to forty-three operettas, he also produced two operas, a cantata, incidental music to ten plays, thirty-one compositions for orchestra, nine band compositions, nine cello compositions, five violin compositions with piano or orchestra, twenty-two piano compositions, and numerous songs, choral compositions, and orchestrations of works by other composers. What we have on the present album are his two cello concertos and a shorter orchestral work, the Irish Rhapsody, authoritatively performed by cellist Mark Kosower, conductor JoAnn Falletta, and the Ulster Orchestra.

Not that the Irish-born, German-raised American composer, conductor, and cellist Victor Herbert (1859-1924) abandoned elements of light music in his Cello Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 8 (1884), which leads off the program. Indeed, the piece is still pretty light, with an abundance of delightful melodies. The First Concerto seems much in the Romantic tradition, with an assortment of lush melodies and a sweetly gentle flow to the score. The dreamy slow movement seems right off the light-opera stage. Although there isn't a lot of substance to the concerto, its lyrical feeling is hard not to like. Mr. Kosower plays the solo part with grace and sensitivity, and Ms. Falletta and the orchestra support him admirably.

JoAnn Falletta
The Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30, written a decade later, is a different matter. It is more substantial in terms of serious material than his earlier cello concerto and displays more maturity in its writing. Here, the composer appears more interested in providing a tightly knit, coordinated piece of thoughtful music rather than just a bit of light entertainment. The work apparently inspired Herbert's boss, Antonin Dvorak, to write his own cello concerto, and we all know where that went. So, praise be to Herbert. Again, Kosower performs the piece with appropriate eloquence and enthusiasm. The central slow movement provides a tranquil if somewhat solemn interlude, with Kosower and Falletta doing justice to the work's varying moods and tone.

The program concludes with the Irish Rhapsody for Grand Orchestra (1892), which may be the most famous of Herbert's non-operetta compositions. It comprises a string of popular Irish melodies into a piece that is, frankly, rather sentimental but altogether charming. Ms. Falletta and the Ulster players seem to relish the many familiar tunes in the piece, performing with an obvious joy and enjoyment. The music may be little more than a medley of familiar tunes, but they are well-loved tunes and very well played.

Producer Tim Handley and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the album at Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland in April 2015. The sound displays plenty of hall resonance, enough to give it a feeling of reality. This, along with a moderately distanced miking, a wide frequency range, and a good sense of orchestral depth, provide a lifelike setting for the music. The cello sounds particularly well integrated with the rest of the ensemble, so nothing stands out too much as spotlighted or compartmentalized. Ultimate transparency takes a second place behind the warmth of the sound, so don't expect too crisp a response, just a fairly natural one.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa