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:

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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 John 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa