Danse macabre (CD review)

Music of Saint-Saens, Mussorgsky, Dukas, Dvorak, Balakirev, and Ives. Kent Nagano, Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Decca 483 0396.

Witches and devils and demons. Oh, my!

This album showed up just in time for Halloween. Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra present a program of mostly familiar and some maybe unfamiliar symphonic music inspired by traditional supernatural folk tales. It's fun stuff, although listeners will probably find they already have most of the material on their shelves. Still, it's nice having it all in one place, even if Decca chose to record it live in concert.

I have long enjoyed the work of the Montreal Symphony. In fact, the very first CD I ever played in my home featured them, at the time led by Charles Dutoit. That was back in the early 80's, as I recall, a Decca/London recording of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, which I still have. The Montreal Symphony remain a terrific ensemble, so it's always good to hear them again.

I've also long enjoyed the work of Kent Nagano. He was the longtime conductor of the Berkeley Symphony (from the late 70's to the mid 2000's), a local group for me, so I had the pleasure of hearing Maestro Nagano on many occasions. He always added an extra spark to the music that made it enjoyable, no matter what the subject matter. He continues that tradition with the Montreal players.

So, first up on the agenda is The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a tone poem by French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935). As with Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain below, the Apprentice may have achieved a measure of immortality through Leopold Stokowski's performance of it in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Here, Maestro Nagano gives us a smooth, atmospheric rendering of the work. It perhaps lacks some of Stokowski's dramatic flair, but it conveys more than its fair share of requisite thrills. What's more, the Montreal forces are in fine form, sounding luxuriously rich and exuberant.

Next, we get The Noonday Witch, a tone poem by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). This one relies a good deal on mood to tell its gruesome story of a mother who warns her unruly son that if he doesn't behave she'll call on a witch to quiet him. When the demon actually appears, the mother becomes so overwrought with fear, she winds up smothering the child to death. Sweet. Although I thought Nagano could have used a bit more melodrama here, the music is grim enough to pretty much take care of itself.

Kent Nagano
After that is the Halloween favorite A Night on the Bare Mountain by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1837-1881). In Rimsky-Korsakov's reorchestration, it's the centerpiece of the program, and again Nagano has to contend with the specter of Stokowski for our attention. Still, Nagano whips up a good deal of excitement in this unwholesome Sabbath, and its witches and devils frolic gleefully about.

Then we come to what may be a less well-known number, the tone poem Tamara by Russian composer and pianist Mily Balakirev (1837-1910). Less well known, perhaps, but considered by many musical scholars as one of Balakirev's best works. It tells the legend of Tamara, a beautiful but evil queen who lures men to their deaths and tosses their bodies from her castle into the river below it. Under Nagano's guidance the piece runs along elegantly at first, becoming more ominous as it goes along and reaching its theatrical climaxes with appropriate flair.

After that we find the album's title tune, Danse macabre, by the French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). In this one, Death calls forth lost souls with the fiendish music of his violin, and under Nagano it's probably the most effectively frightening track in the album. It can be scary stuff.

Things conclude with what may be for most listeners the least-famous piece on the program, Hallowe'en, one of Three Outdoor Scenes by the American modernist Charles Ives (1874-1954). It's very brief and every bit as eccentric as you would expect it to be from this composer. Nagano makes it more than palatable.

Producers Dominic Fyfe and Carl Talbot and engineers Carl Talbot and Christopher Johns recorded the album during concerts presented at the OSM's new home, the Maison symphonique de Montreal in October 2015. It's a shame, really, about the audience presence because the listener always feels aware of them during quieter passages. It's not terribly intrusive, but for people like myself who prefer hearing the best possible sound without distraction, the coughs and rustling are a little annoying.

For comparison purposes, I first listened to a few excerpts from the 1980 Daphnis et Chloe album I mentioned earlier. Although it was a different venue for the Montreal Symphony back then, I found the older sound big, warm, detailed, and pleasantly ambient. Ironically, although (or because) the newer release has a live audience, I found it less realistic. The newer sound is closer, brighter in the midrange, and slightly harder. It still retains a good degree of concert hall bloom, and it's certainly transparent enough, yet it didn't make me feel as though I were really in the same room with the performers.

In short, the newer Decca recording with Nagano and the Montreal Symphony, despite its cleanness and clarity, did not sound as natural to me as the older one with Dutoit. Then there's the matter of the applause at the end of the Nagano concert, but I suppose we can at least be grateful to Decca for not including applause after every selection.


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

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Adrian Leaper, Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria. Arte Nova 74321-46506-2.

What do you mean you've never heard of the Gran Canaria Philharmonic before? Gran Canaria is the principal island in the Canary Island group, and its orchestra has been in existence since 1845. The remarkable thing about this little-known ensemble is how very good they are. They may not sound as lush or opulent as the Berlin Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, but they play with a polish and precision that puts a lot of other famous ensembles to shame. Their rendition of the Mahler Fourth under conductor Adrian Leaper is quite almost as good as any on the market and comes at a budget price to boot.

Adrian Leaper
Leaper's interpretation is fairly direct, reminding me slightly of Haitink's performances. There is little room in the bucolic Fourth for too much flamboyance, anyway, and Leaper directs his group on a properly straightforward, if not particularly imaginative, course. The first and third movements are appropriately idyllic, but I admit I would have liked a little more sinister excitement in the second movement and perhaps a touch more childlike purity from soprano Hellen Kwon in the finale. Otherwise, the reading nicely conveys Mahler's quasi-religious moral intentions in an honest manner.

Arte Nova recorded the work in 1996, two years before David Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich would put Arte Nova on the map with their outstanding Beethoven cycle. The sound of the Mahler is ultra clean and fairly clear, its only drawback being a certain lack of resonant hall ambiance to give the production some extra degree of realism. Still, it outclasses a lot of its more costly competitors, even though one must consider that the Szell recording on Sony (and remastered splendidly by HDTT) is only a couple of dollars more and far more affecting.

As of this writing I had also heard Leaper's fine recordings of Mahler's Third, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies, and I understand Arte Nova have made most of the rest available, too. It is a series at least to consider.


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

Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra (CD review)

Jennifer Koh, violin; Alexander Vedernikov, Odense Symphony Orchestra. Cedille 90000 166.

To begin, there's the matter of this Tchaikovsky album's title, "Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra." It sounds pretty impressive and should cover a wide range of pieces, possibly a box set. The fact is, though, Tchaikovsky wrote only three works for violin and orchestra and a fourth orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. So a single disc contains seventy-four minutes of music. Fortunately, my second point more than makes up for any possible overstatement in the title: American violinist Jennifer Koh, Alexander Vedernikov, and the Odense Symphony do a fine job executing these works, and the Cedille engineers do their usual splendid job recording them. While it may not be an earthshaking release, the album makes for a rewarding listening experience.

The Cedille team have arranged the pieces in chronological order on the disc, but I'll start with the most-popular among them first, the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, written by Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1878. He wrote it just after the dissolution of a calamitous marriage and while carrying on a relationship with his pupil, violinist Iosif Kotek. The composer even wanted to dedicate the piece to Kotek but felt such a measure would put an undue strain on public gossip. In any case, the premiere took place in 1881, and what we consider one of the mainstays of the classical repertoire these days met with a mixed reaction at the time.

Jennifer Koh
Whatever, as good as she is, Ms. Koh never quite answers the question of whether we needed yet another recording of it. Koh displays her technical prowess throughout, while maintaining a sensitive atmosphere. It's a good juggling act, providing all the pyrotechnics needed and at the same time conveying the work's slightly melancholy mood. Of course, there are times when you may want her to just get on with it, as she does tend to linger over details quite a bit. So, for example, the first movement doesn't have quite the forward momentum or sense of sentimental urgency voiced by, say, Jascha Heifetz (RCA or JVC) or the young Itzhak Perlman (Chesky). Still, Ms. Koh plays the second-movement Canzonetta: Andante movingly (if, again, rather slowly), and she adds a note of rollicking boisterousness to the finale that helps toward relieving some of the mournfulness of the preceding movement. And, perhaps most important, Ms. Koh always sustains a graceful, elegant air. Under Ms. Koh and Maestro Vedernikov, the music conveys a healthy dose of Romanticism, combining polish, athleticism, and passion in equal measure. The fact that it also contains perhaps more stops and starts, more changes of direction, than probably any other interpretation is something the listener lives with. You get used to it.

The other works on the disc appeared to me more immediately pleasing: the little Serenade melancolique, Op. 26, and Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34; and the longer, three-movement Souvenir d'un lieu cher, Op. 42, the one orchestrated by Glazunov. Here, Ms. Koh's melding of overt Romanticism with effortless efficiency seemed well and appropriately executed. The Serenade is tender and affectionate without being too weepy; the Valse-Scherzo is ideal for showing off Ms. Koh's virtuosic brilliance; and the Souvenir is poignant, rhapsodic, wistful, and pointed by turns, with an especially frolicsome central scherzo.

Producer Judith Sherman and session engineer Viggo Mangor, along with post-production engineer Bill Maylone and editing assistant Jeanne Velonis, recorded the music at the Odense Concert House's Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark in September 2015.

The sound is about as near perfect as it can be in these works, with excellent tonal balance, instrumental balance, orchestral depth, clarity, and definition. What's more, the engineers have positioned the violin ideally in relation to the other instruments and captured it in a most-natural manner, never bright, forward, or steely. With good dynamics and frequency range, the recording is probably the best we currently have for this music, so if you're just looking for sound, this might be a good choice.


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

Glazunov: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 8 (CD review)

Alexander Anissimov, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.553660.

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. If the name of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) conjures up little more in your memory banks than the Raymonda and Seasons ballets, you're probably not alone. He is one of those very fine composers that people know today for mainly just a couple of things even though he composed a huge quantity of stuff. Fortunately, in the late 1990's and early 2000's the Naxos label sought to make Glazunov's symphonies better recognized through a series of recordings with Alexander Anissiov and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

Glazunov  premiered the Eighth Symphony in 1906, his last completed large-scale piece. It is a big symphony, to be sure, and typically Russian: weighty, resonant, and momentous, and, yes, in part a little menacing. Its most interesting movements are its second and third. The slow second movement has a particularly lyrical and serene central portion that would charm almost anyone. Then the tumultuous third movement scherzo provides an ideal contrast to the preceding repose. Fun stuff.

Alexander Anissimov
Nevertheless, it's the Fifth Symphony that most impressed me. It may not display the same command of symphonic forces that the later Eighth does, but the Fifth has a wonderful combination of styles that range from Rimsky-Korsakov to Mendelssohn. At times you'd swear you were listening to one of Rimsky's colorful tone poems and at other times you'd think you were in one of Mendelssohn's enchanted fairy forests. It's really quite delightful, and we must congratulate Maestro Anissiov for his splendid work.

The sound Naxos delivers here is among the best from this source. They provide the Moscow Symphony splendid, natural sonics, with an excellent orchestral bloom, reasonable depth of field, and no untoward prominence of any single instrument. The sonics are perhaps not the utmost in transparency nor is there much deep bass, but there is none of the soft, fuzzy, overly resonant acoustic we sometimes get from the Moscow Orchestra, either.

The disc's reasonable cost (especially now that used copies are so readily available) makes it easy for anybody to sample Glazunov's talents, the Moscow orchestra under Anissimov makes it easy to listen to, and the music takes care of itself in offering the differing sides of this fascinating composer.


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

Lang Lang: New York Rhapsody (CD review)

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; various other short pieces. Herbie Hancock; John Axelod, London Symphony Orchestra; various accompanists. Sony Classical 88985332922.

Chinese pianist Lang Lang tells us in a booklet note that he wanted to do an album paying homage to New York City because the city "changed the course of music more than any other in the last 100 years...the city which has inspired and enriched me beyond words, which has become my home away from home...the city that turned Classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles, the genius of Gershwin, of Copland, of Bernstein, jazz, Broadway, the arty punk of Lou Reed, hip hop.... In music, nothing was ever the same again. One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city--and I wanted to tell it."

Lang Lang's hyperbole may be a bit over-the-top, but, like his music making, his passion overflows. Whether his album tells the full story of NYC's contributions to the musical world, listeners will have to judge for themselves. Certainly, he attempts on this disc to cover a lot of bases, mainly in Gershwin's signature work and in a number of shorter selections by other composers.

Naturally, the centerpiece of the program is Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (1898-1937). By now, almost every music lover knows it was bandleader Paul Whiteman who persuaded a brash, young Gershwin to write a jazz-inflected showpiece for him and his jazz orchestra. When Gershwin initially declined, saying he didn't know enough about orchestration to do the work justice, Whiteman assured him that he could get Ferde Grofe to arrange it for piano and orchestra. That was 1924, and Gershwin's classical jazz became a new musical phenomenon.

The trouble is, we've got so many recordings of the Gershwin, any new one doesn't have much chance unless it can provide something unique. Depending only upon Lang Lang's legion of fans to buy the disc might not be enough to make a substantial enough profit on the investment of so much time and talent. The "something unique" here is an arrangement for two pianos (Lang Lang and jazz artist Herbie Hancock), accompanied by John Axelrod and the London Symphony. Since the music is a combination of classical and jazz, the two pianists attempt to capture that classical jazz spirit.

Lang Lang
The thing is, Lang Lang is not exactly a jazz artist himself, and I could never always tell exactly which performer was playing which parts. What I do know is that Lang Lang tends to attack the piece at first as though he were playing the Grieg Concerto. It's big and bold, but it doesn't quite capture the essence of Gershwin for me. It reminded me, in fact, of a 1968 recording I reviewed just a few weeks earlier with classical pianist Julius Katchen and Istvan Kertesz conducting the LSO. For me, that older performance was a bit too staid for the fusion of classical music and jazz I've always admired in Gershwin, and so, too, did I find Lang Lang's newer interpretation. Even with the help of Hancock, it comes off a touch too dreamy in some parts and too stiff in others. Happily, though, Gershwin's music is resilient enough to withstand almost any reading, and I'm sure a lot of folks will enjoy this different, more personal approach.

Plus, the reading is long. At over twenty-one minutes the performance lasts a good twenty-five per cent longer than most competing versions I'm aware of. Maybe fans will enjoy the lingering over details, too, but other listeners may simply find some sections slack or lethargic. The interpretation seems to want to romanticize Gershwin's music and only occasionally catches the edgier side of the city that inspired it. Nevertheless, Lang Lang's playing is up to the technical challenges of the work, and he's at his pyrotechnic best here. What's more, the LSO once again prove they can play anything, often at a moment's notice.

Understand, I'm not against newer or different interpretations. In fact, I enjoyed immensely Jeffrey Biegel's trimmed-down performance with Paul Phillips and the Brown University Orchestra on Naxos. And I continue to enjoy Leonard Bernstein's performance on Sony and Andre Previn's on EMI/Warner Classics because both of those performers worked in the popular idioms of jazz, Broadway, and Hollywood as well as classical, and they knew what Gershwin's work needed. Lang Lang's rendering does not convince me that he knows everything about the work, despite the black-and-white cover photo of him in vest and open tie, looking like the stereotypical world-weary Manhattanite.

Anyway, the rest of the program includes other bits and pieces Lang Lang and his producer felt exemplified the New York City experience:

"Story of 'Our Town'" (from "Our Town") with Lang Lang
"New York Morning" with Lang Lang and Jason Isbell
"Empire State of Mind" with Lang Lang and Andra Day
"New York Minute" with Lang Lang and Kandace Springs
"Somewhere" (Dirty Blvd.) with Lang Lang, Lisa Fischer, and Jeffrey Wright
"Main Theme" (from "Spider-Man") with Lang Lang and Lindsey Stirling
"Tonight" (from "West Side Story") with Lang Lang and Sean Jones
"Moon River" (from "Breakfast at Tiffany's") with Lang Lang and Madeleine Peyroux
"In Evening Air" with Lang Lang

These attendant works were more to my liking, although the whole agenda seems too scattered for much extended, concentrated listening. For me, it's more or less background material. Lang's opening piece from Copland's "Our Town" is quiet and sensitive. "New York Morning" is smoothly evocative. "Empire State of Mind" is fairly easy on the ear in a pop-music vein. As is Danny Elfman's "Spider-Man" theme, which tends to dominate the accompanying selections. The performers give Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight" a fairly jazzy treatment, and they do with Henry Mancini's "Moon River" about what they did with the Gershwin, sentimentalizing it too much.

David Lai and Larry Klein produced the Gershwin recording, with Jonathan Allen the engineer, making it at Abbey Road Studio One. Larry Klein and a number of other folks produced and engineered the rest of the selections, recording them in Los Angeles, New York, Manchester, Nashville, and Budapest. Sony Classical released the album in 2016.

The sound is a tad steely in the strings when it's not equally soft elsewhere, but the piano appears quite natural, if a little close-up. The overall impression is a combination, then, of realistic piano sound and somewhat mixed orchestral response. While I didn't find it particularly lifelike, there is certainly nothing to distract the listener from enjoying the music, and the recording's stereo spread and instrumental depth are more than adequate. Of lesser note, there were occasional odd noises I could never account for, noises I heard both on my big living-room speakers while auditioning the album and on my little computer speakers while recording an excerpt for the review.


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

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Introduction and Concert Allegro. Idil Biret, piano; Antoni Wit, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.554088.

One of the resident pianists of the Naxos label, Idil Biret, was bound to get to the Brahms First Piano Concerto sooner or later, and in 2001 she got there.

After one of the longest introductions to any concerto anywhere, the piano finally makes its entrance at about the four-minute mark, providing the pianist has stayed around long enough to come in on time. Ms. Biret attacks the opening movement with vigor and pounds out the notes in appropriately heroic fashion. If she misses some of the craggy work's subtler moments, especially in the Adagio, she more than makes up for it in pure adrenaline.

Idil Biret
I especially enjoyed the closing Rondo where the massive structure of the concerto's beginning gives way to a more lyrical yet still energetic tone. Ms. Biret seems more at home here and concludes the piece in a most poignant manner.

Frankly, though, I liked Ms. Biret's work in the companion piece, Robert Schumann's Introduction and Concert Allegro, better than her work in the Brahms. Schumann's piece, written in 1853, his late period, is a kind of condensed piano concerto in a single, fifteen-minute movement. It works fine, and Ms. Biret brings out the poetic charm as well as the Romantic bravura in it. Meanwhile, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra play about as well as one could want, although they are not really in the class of the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, or the London Philharmonic.

The sound of the disc is typical Naxos of the day, meaning the orchestra appears a little thick, dark, and soft, while the piano remains firm and clear. The sonics have good range, too, good stereo width, and at least a moderate depth of image.

Still and all, in comparison to rivals in the Brahms like Giles on DG, Curzon on Decca, and Kovacevich on EMI or Decca/Newton Classics/Philips, the listener may find both the sound and the performance on the Naxos issue a bit wanting. The two earlier competitors, Giles and Curzon, are framed in more transparent, if slightly noisier, analogue sound; and Kovacevich on the newer EMI has the advantage of a quieter digital recording. Nevertheless, if price is a consideration, there is always the fact that this release isn't probably going to cost you as much as the others mentioned. You get what you pay for.


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

Pierre de La Rue: Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor (CD review)

Also, Salve regina VI; Missa Inviolata; Magnificat sexti toni. Stephen Rice, The Brabant Ensemble. Hyperion CDA68150.

For those of you who, like me, don't know much about Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518), according to Wikipedia he was "a Franco-Flemish composer and singer of the Renaissance. A member of the same generation as Josquin des Prez, and a long associate of the Habsburg-Burgundian musical chapel, he ranks with Agricola, Brumel, Compère, Isaac, Obrecht, and Weerbeke as one of the most famous and influential composers in the Netherlands polyphonic style in the decades around 1500."

On the present album, we get two of La Rue's masses--Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor and Missa Inviolata; one motet (a highly varied, unaccompanied choral composition, usually on a sacred text), Salve regina VI; and one Magnificat (a hymn praising the Lord, sung at prayer), Magnificat sexti toni. Stephen Rice leads The Brabant Ensemble in each of the works.

Now, for those of you who, like me, don't know much about The Brabant Ensemble, they are an early music choir based in Oxford, England, who have well over a dozen record albums to their credit. (Actually, the La Rue disc is their sixteenth recording.) According to their Web site, the group "takes its name from the Duchy of Brabant, an area now forming parts of northern Belgium and the southern Netherlands, from which the majority of its repertory is drawn. It was founded in 1998 by Stephen Rice in order to perform the so far under-exposed sacred music of the mid-sixteenth century." And International Record Review describes the ensemble as "perhaps England's most accomplished interpreter of Renaissance sacred music." A booklet picture indicates thirteen singers comprise the chorus--seven men and six women--plus their leader, Stephan Rice.

Stephen Rice
First up on the program is the Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor ("Never was there greater pain"), composed around 1500. The striking thing here is that although the singers are communicating a serious subject in the work's various sections (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei), they always sound life-affirming and, dare I say, joyous. The choir is uplifting in that they sound as though they are enjoying what they're doing. Most important, as well, they are as expert, precise, nuanced, and passionate as any ensemble could be.

Next, we get Salve regina VI, the sixth and final motet of a series La Rue wrote for the Marian antiphon. It provides a brief, sensitive, and lovely interlude between the longer masses.

After that, we find the Missa Inviolata ("Mass Inviolate," "Virginal Mass," or "Sacred Mass"), written a few years after the mass discussed above. What's more, it sounds slightly lighter and a touch more fanciful than the preceding mass. As always, the choir sing heavenly, with Rice never rushing them but leading them to produce a sweetly gentle presentation.

Finally, the program closes with Magnificat sexti toni ("Sixth tone setting"), which may be the most-charming of all the sacred music on the disc. It provides a touching conclusion to an album that must rank high on the list of recordings any lover of vocal music might enjoy.

Producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Phil Rowlands recorded the music at the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex, in August 2015. The church offers a fine setting for the choir, and the microphone placement picks up a good deal of the venue's natural ambient bloom. The voices appear as they might in a real-life situation, with a resonant glow around each note and enough distance that the performers aren't in our face. Yet the voices are also clear and true, remarkably well defined, with a accuracy of placement across the sound stage that is ideal. It's about as perfect a massed vocal recording as you'll find.


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

Bach: Cantatas and Arias (CD review)

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Veritas 7243-5-45420-2-2.

In the booklet insert Michel Roubinet emphasizes Bach's theme of death in the cantatas, which is a natural subject for religious and liturgical works, stressing as they do Man's continual struggle with mortal existence and his possible ultimate salvation in the afterlife. But Bach's music is anything but morbid or depressing.

The ten cantatas, excerpts, and arias sung on this disc by tenor Ian Bostridge are filled with hope and reassurance, and Ian Bostridge communicates them to us with a special joy. He is ably accompanied by the Italian group Europa Galante, led by Fabio Biondi. Although some people have criticized Biondi for his occasionally excessive zeal and breakneck tempos, here he provides the kind of Bach we're all familiar with, set to a mostly relaxed pace yet still done with much enthusiasm. Mainly, Biondi keeps his instrumental forces well out of the way of the solo singer, and Mr. Bostridge carries on admirably, with a firm, steady tenor voice of unflagging character and charm.

Ian Bostridge
The program includes the cantata "Ich habe genug" ("It is enough"), BWV 82a; the orchestral Sinfonia for orchestra, "Christ lag in Todesbanden," BWV 4; the Recitativo "Gott fahret auf mit Jauchzen," BWV 43; the cantata "Ich armer Mensch, ich Sundenknecht" ("Wretched that I am, a slave to sin"), BWV 55; the Sinfonia "Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fallt," BWV 18; and several other miscellaneous cantata movements, arias, and sinfonias.

Virgin Classics recorded the disc in a chapel in Parma, Italy in March of 2000. The audio has the distinction of sounding big, open, and reverberant in a wholly natural way, with no swamping of the voice or coloration of the instrumental textures in any way. One cannot say much of the front-to-back imaging, but there is a nice sense of surround ambiance in it, even without back speakers. The vocal parts are prominently forward of the orchestra yet not at the expense of losing the orchestral input altogether.

Drawbacks? Hardly. While I sensed a growing sameness about the music as the album wore on, that was no doubt just me, as I am not big on vocal music of any kind. Certainly, there was nothing routine about the performances, which are ideal in practically every way, or the sonics, which kept me attentive and entertained throughout. It's a fine album, all the way around.


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

Schumann - Bach - Brahms (CD review)

Martha Argerich, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin. Warner Classics 0190295937898.

What do you get when you pair two of the world's greatest classical artists--Martha Argerich and Itzhak Perlman--on the same album?

You get beautiful music.

Interestingly, both artists were born just a few years apart, and both artists came to prominence at about the same time in the late Fifties and Sixties. So their careers sort of parallel one another. And, of course, both artists have won numerous awards and competitions and produced countless albums. It's a pleasure hearing them work together on the present disc.

The first thing up on the program, the Sonata for piano and violin No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105, by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), is a piece they recorded live in Saratoga, NY in 1998. It was also the first time they had ever performed together. Although the title tells us it's a piece for piano and violin (and the accompanying booklet tells us it's "a duo of equals"), it's really the violin that tends to dominate the work. As always, Perlman never showboats or inflates the score; while he is a consummate artist with virtuosic skills, he is also a fairly conservative musician who never allows his own playing to upstage the music. Thus, with fine, if somewhat studied accompaniment from Ms. Argerich, the score comes off in fine style, with Romantic, and slightly dark, overtones but never sentimentalized. The pair end it in on a stormy yet vibrant note.

The next three selections the performers recorded more recently, 2016, in Paris and without an audience. These begin with Schumann's Drei Fantasiestucke for piano and violin, Op. 73 ("Three Fantasy Pieces for piano and violin"). These works have a more lyrical quality than the sonata and are more cheerful in their countenance. Perlman and Argerich play them with an appropriate sweetness.

Martha Argerich & Itzhak Perlman
Next is the Scherzo in C minor from the F-A-E Sonata, Wo02, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Here, we find a more-ardent piece of music that Brahms wrote as a young man (at the suggestion of Schumann). Here, too, Ms. Argerich's piano plays an even more-dominant part in the proceedings. The result is not earthshaking, but it is fun and fiery in its way.

The final and longest item on the agenda is the four-movement Sonata for keyboard and violin No. 4 in C minor, BWV 1017, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Of course, Bach would have used a harpsichord, but times change. After the Romantics Schumann and Brahms, we might have expected a far different classical Bach, yet Perlman and Argerich tend to give us more of a nineteenth-century interpretation than an eighteenth-century one. It all sounds very refined and well polished, with Ms. Argerich taking a more-commanding part in the second-movement Allegro. While both performers are as polished as ever, they also exude a rhythmic charm and vitality that is quite beguiling.

Producers Patti Laursen and Daniel Zalay and balance engineers John Dunkerley and Hughes Deschaux recorded the music live at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, New York State in July 1998 (Schumann Sonata) and sans audience at the Salle Colonne, Paris in March 2016.

My guess is that Warner Classics did their best to make the two recordings, live and studio, sound as much alike as possible. So, in the first selection--the live Schumann sonata--the sonics are warm and smooth, with virtually no background noise. Still, during the silent moments, one feels the presence of the audience. It's of no concern, really, so the music comes through realistically, if a tad close-up.

The more-recent, non-live performances are even warmer and smoother than the live one, these later recordings sounding equally close-up. Nevertheless, the balance is lifelike, with both performers appearing as one might hear them from the first rows. Ultimate transparency, however, is a bit diminished by the relative softness of the sound. Still, it's all very easy to like, which is the main thing.


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

Leading British Conductor Sir Neville Marriner Dies at 92

The British conductor and violinist, Sir Neville Marriner, has died at the age of 92, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields says.

Sir Neville started his musical career with the London Symphony Orchestra. He later established the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, one of the world's leading chamber orchestras. Its chairman, Paul Aylieff, said Sir Neville's artistic and recording legacy with orchestras and audiences worldwide was "immense".

"He will be greatly missed by all who knew and worked with him and the academy will ensure it continues to be an excellent and fitting testament to Sir Neville," Mr Aylieff added.A statement from the academy said its founder had passed away peacefully in the early hours of Sunday.
Born in Lincoln in 1924, Sir Neville studied at the Royal College of Music and the Paris Conservatoire.

He first played in a string quartet, then in the London Symphony Orchestra, during which time he decided to form a chamber ensemble from London's finest players.

A group of friends began rehearsing in Sir Neville's front room, before taking their name from the London church of St Martin in the Fields where they staged their first performance in 1959. The academy, which Sir Neville became life president of, says it now has one of the largest collections of recordings of any chamber orchestra in the world.

Sir Neville has been widely honoured for his work which includes recording the soundtrack for the 1984 film, Amadeus, and becoming the oldest conductor to lead at the Proms, in 2014 at the age of 90. In March, he was made a Companion of Honour by the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace, and has also been honoured in France, Germany and Sweden.

--BBC News

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