Moszkowski: From Foreign Lands (CD review)

Rediscovered orchestral works. Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Reference Recordings RR-138.

One of the advantages of having listened to and collected classical recordings for well over sixty years is getting to know more about the people who wrote the music. But I have to admit that in all that time I barely remembered the name Moszkowski. Yes, after much thought I recalled one piece, "Spanish Dances," in my collection on a Decca album with Ataulfo Argenta and the LSO. But remembering it required a stretch. So it's good to know that Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra have done up some of Moszkowski's work in a disc called "From Foreign Lands, Rediscovered Orchestral Works." And it's especially gratifying to hear the material so well produced by Reference Recordings.

For the uninformed (and that would be me), a word from Wikipedia: "Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) was a German-Jewish composer, pianist, and teacher of Polish descent on his paternal side. The prominent Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski said of him, 'After Chopin, Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique.' Although less known today, Moszkowski was well respected and popular during the late nineteenth century. He was quite prolific, composing over two hundred small-scale piano pieces, which brought him much popularity--notably his set of 'Spanish Dances' for piano duet" (on the present disc arranged for orchestra by Phillip Scharwenka and Valentin Frank).

Maestro West has chosen seven orchestral items (comprising twenty-one tracks and almost seventy-three minutes) for the album under review, music representing not only some of Moszkowski's best work but some of his most diverse. Here's a run-down of the items on the program, some of it recorded for the first time:

Fackeltanz (Torch Dance)*
Aus Aller Herren Lander (From Foreign Lands)
Habanera, Op. 65, No. 3*
Pres du Berceau (By the Cradle)
Six Airs de Ballet, Op. 56 from the incidental music to Grabbe's "Don Juan and Faust"*
Spanische Tanze (Spanish Dances)

*World premiere recordings

Martin West
Most of this material is lightweight, to be sure, yet it's also most delightful in the capable hands of West and his players. The opening "Torch Dance" has a rousing spirit. The six movements of "From Foreign Lands" are colorful and characterful, each exemplifying a different country. They reminded me of things by maybe Glazunov, Gounod, or Rimsky-Korsakov. In their time (the late nineteenth century), the "Foreign Lands" suite was apparently quite famous, although today audiences might find the music hopelessly Romantic. Personally, I love Romantic music, hopeless as it (and I) may be. This is a charming and easily pleasing set of tunes.

The "Habanera" was among my favorites on the program. Yes, it may remind some listeners of Bizet's more-famous take on the subject, yet it has a distinct appeal of its own. It's light and airy and memorable. I found "By the Cradle" the most overtly "balletic" of the selections on the agenda, although I didn't find it as noteworthy as the "Habanera." Nor did I think the six episodes of "Don Juan and Faust" as easily pleasurable, while they still held their own personality, particularly the cheerful closing number. "Gondoliera," on the other hand, well captured the ebb and flow of Venice canals, and West and company provide it with a sweet and engaging performance.

Then we come to the only Moszkowski work I sort of recognized, the five aforementioned "Spanish Dances." They, too, are lightweight but totally enchanting and deserve their widespread popularity. West handles each movement carefully, giving all of them a manifestly fresh yet still clearly Spanish flavor of their own.

Producers Marina A. Ledin and Victor Ledin of Encore Consultants and co-founding Reference Recordings engineer "Professor" Keith O. Johnson made the album in 24-bit HDCD at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA in March 2014.

The two most noticeable characteristics about the sound are its dimensionality and its dynamics. The miking appears to be more moderately distanced than most modern close-up affairs. As a result, we get a realistic sense of the studio ambience, the resonant bloom around the instruments, and the impression of orchestral depth as well as width. Then there's the matter of dynamic range, which is very wide, and dynamic impact, which can be quite striking. Of course, there may be drawbacks to these qualities for some listeners, in particular those listeners not used to a natural sound; I'm afraid some people might find the sonics too soft, too repressed, or too reverberant for their taste. So be it.

In any case, I personally found the sound lifelike, even if it hasn't all of the clarity, the transparency, so prized by some audiophiles. The frequency range is extended in both directions, the balance is as perfect as one could imagine, and the overall aural picture is one of a live orchestra in one's living room.


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

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Meet the Staff

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

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

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

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

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

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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