Nov 30, 2016

African Heritage Symphonic Series, Volume 1 (CD review)

Music of  William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Fela Sowande. Paul Freeman, Chicago Sinfonietta. Cedille Records CDR 90000 055.

Look. I'm only going to say this one more time (or until I hear another disc from this source), so listen up. The folks at Cedille produce some of the best-sounding records in the industry. And as usual I'd like to commend engineer Bill Maylone for his contributions to the audiophile cause.

This 2003 release with the Chicago Sinfonietta under the directorship of its founder, Paul Freeman, is outstanding in every way. The sound is spectacularly wide, robust, dynamic, detailed, and wholly natural. Highs are sparkling, bass is deep and strong (with a drum rivaling the old Telarcs), depth perception is excellent, and imaging is superb. If the sonics have any weakness at all it's in the slightly soft midrange, yet even here it matches what I normally hear live in a concert hall.

But don't just buy the disc for its sound. The music is more than worthwhile, too. Volume One in Cedille's "African Heritage Symphonic Series," the album includes works by three prominent African American composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The program begins with two pieces by British-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), "Danse Negre" from his African Suite and Petite Suite de Concert. They are lightweight and highly accessible orchestral works from the man most famous for his big choral extravaganza, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. Following them, we find an even more sprightly set of selections from Nigerian-born Fela Sowande (1905-1987), three movements from his African Suite.

Paul Freeman
Nevertheless, the Coleridge-Taylor and Sowande works are mere introduction to the disc's big number, William Grant Still's wonderful Symphony No. 1. Composer Still (1895-1978) came from a mixed background--African American, Native American, Anglo, and Hispanic--but never rejected his birth certificate identification as "Negro." His First Symphony from 1930, for those who've never heard it, will be a godsend for music lovers who enjoy Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, written half dozen years earlier. Still's symphony displays elements of blues, minstrel, ragtime, and Southern folk tunes, all fundamentally American idioms. The composer structured it in a traditional four-movement layout, with a big opening reminiscent of Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess, followed by a lovely Adagio, a brief but rousing Scherzo, and a surprisingly subdued but noble finale, all of which Maestro Freeman and ensemble play to perfection.

There is also a fine booklet essay on the three composers by music professor Dominque-Rene de Lerma included that does much to clarify the position of each man in the scheme of American musical life. All around, this disc was a sure crowd-pleaser to open Cedille's "African Heritage" series of recordings, and if you can find any of the series, I continue to highly recommend them.


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

Nov 27, 2016

Tharaud Plays Rachmaninov (CD review)

Piano Concerto No. 2; Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie for solo piano; Vocalise for piano and voice; Pieces for six hands. Alexandre Tharaud, piano; Alexander Vedernikov, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Erato 019029595469.

French concert pianist Alexandre Tharaud (b. 1968) is one of a growing number of fine, younger pianists who have developed almost fanatical followings in the past decade or two. The several dozen albums Tharaud has produced bear testament to his popularity, and the present one in which he plays the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto should do nothing to dispel his acclaim.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, premiered by Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) in 1901, is one of the last of the great Romantic concertos. Well, OK, not really the last; that would probably be the composer's Third Piano Concerto. But the Second, with its grand, rhapsodic gestures epitomizes the Romantic tradition, so, close enough.

The history of the concerto is well known. Rachmaninov wrote it after recovering from a fit of depression brought on by the relative failure of his First Symphony and some severe complications in his personal life. As the story goes, it was only through hypnotherapy that he reestablished and revived his career. The Concerto would appear the perfect vehicle for the creative and energetic Tharaud.

Can one play the Second Concerto too Romantically? Tharaud seems to try, although I don't mean this as a bad thing. He plays with an assured calm and a sweet lyrical flourish. There is little overstatement in the performance, except perhaps to keep the music as smoothly polished as possible. Furthermore, Tharaud plays with a confident dexterity, and the Liverpool players give him a solid backup, without overwhelming him in the bigger sections of the score.

Tharaud's interpretation of the central Adagio glides along as tranquilly as we might expect from hearing a similar treatment of the first movement, with no inordinate surprises. It's quite lovely, in fact, even if it seems a little too leisurely and measured at times. Then, in the final movement we get a healthy but again not overheated influx of adrenaline. Indeed, the listener may find this either refreshing or too tame, take your choice.

Alexandre Tharaud
The question remains, though, how Tharaud's performance stacks up against great recordings of the past, ones from Ashkenazy, Janis, Horowitz, Richter, Wild, even Rachmaninov himself. Here, the case for Tharaud is not quite so compelling. In fact, a quick comparison to the composer's own version finds Tharaud lacking a good deal of potency, passion, and drama. Still, those things may not be what every listener wants, and Tharaud's gentler approach may be a good antidote to the more-melodramatic renderings we often hear.

The remainder of the program consists of a series of shorter Rachmaninov pieces: Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie for solo piano; Vocalise for piano and voice (with soprano Sabine Devieilhe); and Pieces for six hands (with pianists Alexander Melnikov and Aleksandar Madzar). Given that all three of the album's pianists plus the conductor are Alexanders (of various spellings), one wonders if Tharaud or his producer chose them to perform as some kind of in-joke. Or was it really coincidence? In any case, I enjoyed these smaller pieces, Tharaud displaying all the sensitivity he showed in the concerto but on a more-intimate and, perhaps, more-appropriate scale. (Well, OK, maybe he needs to be more theatrically menacing in the Prelude in C sharp minor if he's going to hope to compete with the best.)

Producer, editor, and mixer Cecile Lenoir and engineer Philip Siney recorded the concerto at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, UK in 2016 and the chamber music at Salle Colonne, Paris, in the same year.

In the concerto, the piano is well out in front of orchestra. Fortunately, it sounds smoothly recorded, if a trifle soft, and the orchestra likewise, making the entire enterprise quite easy on the ears. So, while the piano appears most natural, the orchestral transparency could have been a bit more pronounced. In the smaller pieces at the end, the piano seems even more lifelike, with a tad more definition. And without a full orchestra behind it, the piano seems more realistically alive.


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

Nov 23, 2016

Paul Kletzki: Great Conductors of the 20th Century (CD review)

Paul Kletzki, various orchestras. EMI 7243 5 75468 2 9 (2-CD set).

The bigger studios continue to mine their vaults for old material in new packaging, sometimes becoming redundant, sometimes finding gold. In the case of EMI's latest issue of remasterings, titled "Great Conductors of the 20th Century," they have provided a service in offering us much material never before available on CD.

Each release is a mid-priced two-disc set, and there are thirteen releases in EMI's first batch. They cover Sir Adrian Boult, Albert Coates, Carlo Maria Giulini, Erich Kleiber, Paul Kletzki, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Leopold Stokowski, Vaclav Talich, Eugene Ormandy, Carl Schuricht, and Bruno Walter. I chose to review Paul Kletzki because I think he's one of the great overlooked conductors of the last century, comparatively few of his recordings presently available on CD.

Each of these sets includes recordings the conductors made throughout their lives, irrespective of whether they are in mono or stereo. Thus, each set usually contains a mixture of both. In the case of the Kletzki discs, three of the items are in mono and five are in stereo. Actually, none of the items are marked mono or stereo, but the recording dates are given and one's ears can do the rest. One live recording from 1965 turned out to be in monaural.

Paul Kletzki
Of the Kletzki selections, I enjoyed the Tchaikovsky most of all, the Fifth Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1967 and the Capriccio italien with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1958. EMI released both of them in stereo and both are decently recorded, although perhaps a bit thin and scrawny by today's standards. In some parts, the Capriccio can be downright spectacular in vividness and impact, while slightly scratchy in others; the interpretations are heartfelt in the case of the Symphony and robust and thrusting in the case of the Capriccio.

The thing with Kletzki, as with all of the great conductors listed above, is that he wasn't afraid to be himself and impose at least some of his own will on the music, as opposed to so many of today's conductors who all tend to sound alike. Kletzki had a great ear for the rhythms of a piece, a musician's ear, and you can feel the lyrical and dance-like qualities he brings out in many of the works, as well as the driving vigor of others.

Among the further delights in the set are Berlioz's Bevenuto Cellini overture; Schubert's Rosamunde Entr'acte No. 5; Dvorak's Slavonic Dances in D major, C minor, and C major; Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture; Brahms's Symphony No. 4; and Wagner's Traume No. 5. In addition to the orchestras mentioned, the groups employed include the Royal Philharmonic, the French Radio National Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Czech Philharmonic.

So, there's quite a variety of music here, and all of it worthwhile.


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

Nov 20, 2016

For the Love of Brahms (CD review)

Double Concerto; Piano Trio; Schumann: Violin Concerto. Joshua Bell, Music Director and violin; Steven Isserlis, cello; Jeremy Denk, piano; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical 88985 32179 2. 

So, if Music Director Joshua Bell and producer Adam Abeshouse decided to title the album "For the Love of Brahms," why did they include Schumann's Violin Concerto as the second item on the program? The answer, of course, lies in the friendship and inspiration resulting from an early meeting of the young Brahms with the older Schumann (and his wife Clara). Let it suffice that Brahms found much encouragement from the older composer and his spouse.

Anyway, the first item on the program is the Double Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Brahms wrote it in 1887 as a kind of peace offering for his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he had just had a dispute. The work would be Brahms's final composition for orchestra.

The Double Concerto is an odd work, with critics of the day variously describing it as "inapproachable and joyless" on the one hand and as having "vast and sweeping humour" on the other. Certainly, Brahms intended it in good faith and said of it, "I had the jolly idea of writing a concerto for violin and cello. If it succeeds at all, we may well have some fun with it." One thing all critics agreed upon, though, was that it required a pair of distinguished performers on violin and cello, which is what we get in Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis.

One can see from the outset what may have initially divided critics and listeners. The opening movement starts out in a fairly dark mood, the cello contributing heavily. The soloists both contribute to the music equally, the cello sounding appropriately sonorous and the violin aptly sweet. Then, as the work opens up, it gets lighter and brighter, with the Andante appearing warmer and more harmonious than ever and the finale as lively as expected. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, always a welcome treat for me, accompanies the soloists with their usual polish and élan, Bell leading the ensemble with grace and passion. Moreover, because the flexible but essentially chamber-sized ASMF isn't as massive as some larger orchestras, they never overwhelm the soloists but complement them as equivalent partners.

Next we get the second, slow movement of the Violin Concerto in D minor by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), a work with an even more erratic history than the Brahms. Schumann wrote the piece in 1853, but because of a series of bizarre events (including spirit voices and Adolph Hitler), it didn't see a premiere until 1937. Here, we find the Langsam (slow, in the sense of slow physical movement and limited forward momentum), one of the loveliest of Schumann's creations. The performance is beautiful, heavenly even.

Joshua Bell
The program ends with Jeremy Denk, piano, Joshua Bell, violin, and Steven Isserlis, cello, playing Brahms's Piano Trio in B major (1854 version), the composer's very first published piece of chamber music. Again, it was Robert and Clara Schumann who inspired the young Brahms to write it. Under the careful guidance of the three soloists, the piece is glowing with good cheer, youthful buoyancy, captivating lyricism, and moody reflection.

Producer, recording engineer, mixer, and editor Adam Abeshouse made the album at Cadogan Hall, London, and DiMenna Center, New York City, in January and May 2016. The sound Abeshouse obtains is quite good, but don't expect it to be too much like that of Philips, Argo, and EMI in their earlier recordings of the Academy. Those recordings were slightly rounder (especially the Philips) and more reverberant than this Sony recording. This time out, the Academy is a slight bit closer yet a slight bit warmer. That doesn't make the newer recording better or worse, only a bit different, and listeners will decide for themselves whether it meets their taste.

For myself, I don't care for live recordings, but I do like recordings that strive to emulate the sound of a real orchestra in a real concert hall, which this one doesn't entirely achieve but comes close enough. The sound has a healthy, natural appeal to it, with a wide stereo stage, a wide frequency response, and a wide dynamic range. While there isn't an overabundance of resonant bloom, there is enough to recreate a pleasantly ambient environment, one that again seems to represent a lifelike venue pretty well. Detailing hasn't the reach-out-and-touch-it clarity of some hi-fi recordings, yet it scores with a remarkably truthful definition, about what one would find of a real-life event. Yes, the recording might have used a tad more sparkle, but maybe that's just me. The piano in the final number seems a touch too big for the other instruments, too, but, again, it's of minor matter. In all, it sounds quite nice, which is the main thing.


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

Nov 16, 2016

Rossini: Six Sonatas for Strings (CD review)

Antonio Janigro, I Solisti di Zagreb. Vanguard Classics SVC-144.

Here is one of my favorite old groups, I Solisti di Zagreb, led by their founder, conductor and cellist Antonio Janigro (1918-1989) performing the ever-delightful Sonatas for Strings by Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868). I could hardly recommend a set of performances more highly.

Rossini claimed much later in life that he wrote the six little sonatas for string orchestra when he was twelve years old and knew next to nothing about musical composition. Some people take him at his word; others think the old man was embroidering his youth or just plain kidding around. In any case, in the mid-twentieth century the original scores, dating from 1804, showed up in the Library of Congress, so I guess the composer wasn't kidding. Rossini rearranged the works for string quartet some time after their composition, but the chamber orchestra versions we get here are the ones we often hear these days.

Antonio Janigro
The sonatas are charming in every way, displaying the vigor and zest of youth with lovely, tranquil interludes. Of the various recordings of the chamber-ensemble scores available, only Marriner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Decca and I Solisti Veneti on Erato equal Janigro and his group for bringing out the most felicitous moods of the music.

Vanguard's sound derives from 1956 and 1957 recording sessions, and it is really quite excellent, very clear, very nicely delineated, thanks to the Super Bit Map remastering the company did for the 2001 rerelease. What's more, there is very little background noise, just clean, transparent sound throughout.

But here's the kicker: The first four sonatas are in monaural. I swear, I didn't even realize it until I was about twenty minutes into the disc and began wondering why the sound field seemed a tad too narrow for stereo. You see, at first I was so bowled over by the clarity of the sonics, I didn't even notice the lack of stereo spread. Then, I thought, this is so clear and so narrow, I wonder if it isn't the quartet edition after all. Finally, I read a small notation on the back of the jewel box that notified me of the truth. The mono should not deter anyone. The fact is, the monaural tracks are just as transparent than the stereo ones and one hardly notices their narrow spread. The whole package really is a lovely listening experience.


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

Nov 13, 2016

Vangelis: Rosetta (CD review)

Vangelis. Electronic music commemorating the Rosetta space mission. Decca 5700631.

Vangelis. Yes, that Vangelis is back. Not that he's ever left. The fellow who gave us the soundtracks for Cosmos, Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire, The Bounty, Alexander, El Greco, and many more has returned with another album of electronic music, this time honoring the European Space Agency's Rosetta space mission. If you think Vangelis's music is beginning to sound a lot the same to you, though, don't feel bad; there are at least two of us who feel that way.

Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (b. 1943), better known by his professional name, Vangelis, is a Greek composer of, according to Wikipedia, "electronic, progressive, ambient, jazz, and orchestral music." Mostly, I suppose, we know him for his electronic, synthesizer work, much of which is fascinating, especially when accompanying motion pictures. Taken alone, however, it may sound a bit too spacey and New Age for some listeners, although Vangelis himself denies such a categorization, saying New Age material "gave the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music." Whatever the case, for me a single listening session with Rosetta was enough, and I'm not sure I'll be going back to it again too often. But, obviously, all music is a very personal preference, and, as Vangelis points out, music can be "one of the greatest forces in the universe." Very true. And whether Rosetta turns out to be such force, you'll have to decide for yourself.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched their Rosetta Mission in 2004, naming it after the Rosetta Stone, inscriptions on an ancient stone that led to the modern translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The goal of the mission was to do a detailed study of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and the spacecraft ended its calling by actually landing on the comet.

Here are the track titles to give you some idea of the album's content:
  1. "Origins (Arrival)"
  2. "Starstuff"
  3. "Infinitude"
  4. "Exo Genesis"
  5. "Celestial Whispers"
  6. "Albedo 0.06"
  7. "Sunlight"
  8. "Rosetta"
  9. "Philae's Descent"
10. "Mission Accomplie (Rosetta's Waltz)"
11. "Perihelion"
12. "Elegy"
13. "Return to the Void"

Vangelis understands that music about an unmanned space probe needs to convey a number of things, including the human emotions of the people who sent it up there in the first place. So, his music conveys plenty of atmosphere, majesty, suspense, and thrills. Most of all, though, it conveys a feeling for the vastness of space, the isolation, the desolation, and the loneliness, even though no one is aboard the spacecraft. The only problem with this is, as I suggested earlier, that a little can go a long way, and after the first few of the album's tracks I had the feeling I had heard it all before.

Anyway, my own favorite tracks included the first one, "Origins," for its depiction of the grandeur of space and the splendor of the mission; the fourth track, "Exo Genesis," for its quiet restraint; the fifth, "Celestial Whispers," for its placid calm; the eighth track, "Rosetta," for its lovely melody, which sounds familiar but is hard to place; then "Perihelion" for its insistent rhythms; and the final track, "Return to the Void," for its otherworldly moods.

One minor qualm: Decca chose to package the disc in a rather cheap folded cardboard layout, with a small booklet in the front sleeve and the CD in the rear. Either you have to shake the disc out of the sleeve, or you have to use your fingers to pry it loose. Either way, you risk scratching the disc surface or getting your fingerprints on it. Neither is a good idea.

Vangelis composed, arranged, produced, and performed the music; Philippe Colonna engineered the album; and Decca released it in 2016 to coincide with the completion of the Rosetta Mission. In order for music like Vangelis's to work properly, it needs a full-scale, big-time sonic production, and that's what it gets here. The sound is wide ranging, with plenty of deep bass and shimmering highs; it's clear and vibrant; and it's quite dynamic, providing all the ambiance and impact it needs. The sound itself is fun to listen to.


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

Nov 9, 2016

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (CD review)

Also, Khachaturian: Violin Concerto. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Leonid Kogan, violin; Pierre Monteux, Boston Symphony Orchestra. RCA 09026-63708-2.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his cantata Alexander Nevsky for the soundtrack of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 motion picture of the same name. The film epic and the music commemorate the Russian repelling of a German invasion in the thirteenth century. In the tale, Prince Alexander Nevsky gathered an enormous army and met the enemy on the frozen ice of Lake Chud, where he dealt the Knights of the Teutonic Order a huge defeat. Today, people admire the film quite a lot, but I daresay even more folks know film's score better.

Eisenstein said of Prokofiev that he "...makes it possible for the screen to reveal not only the appearance and subjects of objects, but also, and particularly, their special inner structure...and forces the whole inflexible structure to blossom into the emotional fullness of orchestration." The movement titles say it all the better: "Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke," "Song About Alexander Nevsky," "The Crusaders in Pskov," "Arise, Ye Russian People," "The Battle on the Ice," "Field of the Dead," and "Alexander's Entry Into Pskov."

Fritz Reiner
The 1959 recording of the score by Fritz Reiner and his Chicago Symphony does full justice to the music, bringing out the anxiety of anticipation, the brutality of fighting, the heartache of loss, and the exhilaration of victory. Equally important, RCA's "Living Stereo" sound is entirely up to the task of conveying the nuances and explosiveness of the music. The hitch is that Andre Previn recorded an equally good account for EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972, and Warner still have the EMI disc in their catalogue, offering it at a very low price.

Here are some of the differences between the Reiner and Previn recordings: Reiner's interpretation is a tad more heartfelt, and RCA's sound is wider and clearer. Previn's performance is a shade quicker and more energetic, and EMI's sound is a bit warmer. On the loudest choral climaxes, the EMI tends to break up slightly more than the RCA. Additionally, Previn's chorus sings in the original Russian, while Reiner's forces sing in English.

Choice between the two may rest with their couplings. The EMI/Previn disc gives us a superb realization of Rachmaninov's The Bells, based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem; the RCA disc offers Khachaturian's Violin Concerto with Leonid Kogan on violin and the Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux, recorded in 1958. Sonically, the Khachaturian is not as smooth or comfortable as the Prokofiev, and while Monteux, Kogan, and company play exceedingly well, personally I have never cared overmuch for the Violin Concerto. So it's an easy choice for me to pick the EMI disc. , For you, however, it may be quite different, and Reiner's performance is very persuasive.


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

Nov 6, 2016

Messiaen: L'Ascension (CD review)

Also, Ives: Orchestral Set Number 2. Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

This 1970 Decca release, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), combines a very popular but somewhat controversial conductor with an equally popular but almost equally controversial recording format. I suspect that despite the high quality of the performance and sound, the listening public may still find the disc at least slightly suspect. Let me explain.

First, the conductor. English-born U.S. orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) established an enormous following with his often highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the basic classical repertoire. His long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his starring role in Disney's Fantasia didn't hurt his reputation, either. People then and now found his music making enormous entertaining. But it was sometimes this same eccentricity so many folks thought charming that at the same time annoyed other people. His unusual tempo changes, his stops and starts and pauses and elongations, could at times twist familiar music into something unbearable to dedicated classical music lovers. Add to that his own orchestral arrangements and transcriptions of well-known music, and it could be too much for some listeners.

Second, there was Decca's Phase 4 sound. Stokowski lived into his mid nineties, long enough to have made a number of stereo recordings for companies like RCA, EMI, and Decca. By the time of this Messiaen disc, Decca was well into their Phase 4 era. According to Decca, "Phase 4 was a special series of recordings from the '60s and '70s which presented music in spectacularly vivid sound." And according to Wikipedia, this sound "was characterised by an aggressive use of the highest and lowest frequencies and a daring use of tape saturation and out-of-phase sound to convey a lively and impactful hall ambiance, plus considerable bar-to-bar rebalancing by the recording staff of orchestral voices, known as 'spotlighting.' In the 1960s and 1970s, the company developed its 'Phase 4' process, which produced even greater sonic impact through even more interventionist engineering techniques." The fact is, Phase 4 sound used multi-miking to the extreme, often producing a close-up, compartmentalized sound field that dazzled some listeners with its clarity and detail yet exasperated others, especially audiophiles with its frequently unnatural perspective.

Leopold Stokowski
Fortunately, neither the performances on the program nor the sound on this HDTT remastering should concern Stokowski or Phase 4 critics. Both hold up pretty well.

First up on the agenda is L'Ascension ("The Ascension" of Christ into Heaven after the Resurrection) by the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). He wrote the orchestral suite between 1932-33, the composer describing its four brief movements as "meditations for orchestra." He labeled the sections "Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père" ("The majesty of Christ demanding its glory of the Father"), "Alleluias sereins d'une âme qui désire le ciel" ("Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven"), "Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale" ("Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal"), and "Prière du Christ montant vers son Père" ("Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father").

Stokowski handles the score with a characteristic élan, most often elevating it to graceful heights. It's fairly quiet music, yet it has a distinctive rhythmic drive, which the conductor invariably observes. The orchestra, always on its toes at a moment's notice, plays compellingly for the old man and, if anything, sounds almost too lush and luxuriant for the relative modesty of the music. Or perhaps it's just the richness of the Phase 4 sound that sometimes overwhelms the score. In any case, it's a lovely interpretation, with just the right mixture of wonder and inspiration to keep a listener transfixed.

The other item on the program is also a modern piece but quite different from the Messiaen. It's the Orchestral Set No. 2 by American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). He wrote it between 1915 and 1919, a three-movement suite based on musical reminiscences: "An Elegy to Our Forefathers," a kind of memory of Stephen Foster music; "The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People's Outdoor Meeting," memories of camp-revival meetings; and "From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day, The Voice of the People Again Arose," a recollection of the day news broke of the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyst for the U.S. entering World War I.

Here, Stokowski seems to relish in indulging the composer's eccentricities. The reading is crammed full of grand sweeps and dramatic gestures, the conductor capturing the atmospheric theatrics of Ives's vision of Americana. If the Messiaen work is spiritually uplifting, the Ives is just plain fun.

The only catch to the album: its length. The two pieces combined total just a little over thirty-five minutes. If that doesn't bother you, and it's quality of performance and sound over quantity of material, the length shouldn't be a problem.

Producer Tony d'Amato and engineer Arthur Lilley recorded the music for Decca Records at Kingsway Hall, London, in June 1970. HDTT remastered it in 2016 from a London 4-track tape, and they make it available in a wide number of formats, from CD and DVD to various HD digital downloads.

The remastered sound conveys all of the characteristics of Phase 4 described earlier, yet it exhibits a good deal of orchestral depth and warmth as well. The result is that the sonics may be a tad too close for comfort and too spotlighted, yet they also sound fairly natural, with the ambience of Kingsway Hall in ample evidence. While the strings tend to appear too hard and steely at times, it's only in isolated instances that it happens, the rest of time sounding just fine.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


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

Nov 2, 2016

MacDowell: Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, Hamlet and Ophelia. Takuo Yuasa, Ulster Orchestra. Naxos 8.559075.

There was a time just before the turn of the twentieth century when composer and pianist Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was maybe the most-popular American composer in the world. But times change, and MacDowell's brand of high Romanticism has long been on the decline. This 2001 Naxos disc presents three of the man's orchestral works, none of which match the grace or beauty of his piano concertos but which make for pleasant, easy listening.

The program begins with the Suite No. 1, premiered in 1895. It is a series of tone poems, the names of which will give some idea of their content: "In a Haunted Forest," "Summer Idyll," "In October," "The Shepherdess Song," and "Forest Spirits." Obviously, these are pastoral pursuits, mostly calm and serene set pieces. They are remarkably unremarkable, and there is no particular order discernible in their arrangement. Nevertheless, Maestro Takuo Yuasa and the Ulster Orchestra take them at a sweet, lyrical gait, the orchestra playing with grace and sensitivity, the whole thing coming off pleasantly enough.

Takuo Yuasa
Less disjointed is the Suite No. 2, written several years before the Suite No. 1 but not performed until a year later. MacDowell subtitled it "Indian," and it hangs together better symphonically, using material attributed to various Native American peoples. The headings here are "Legend," "Love Song," "In Wartime," "Dirge," and "Village Festival." Of the five movements, "Love Song" and "Dirge" stand out for me as the most original and most affecting.

The disc concludes with another tone poem, the thirteen-minute Hamlet and Ophelia, which doesn't try to tell their Shakespearean story so much as simply describe the two characters. For what it's worth, I preferred MacDowell's description of Ophelia to that of the indecisive Dane. Maybe MacDowell didn't understand the young prince any better than the young prince understood himself.

I would commend the Naxos sound for its depth of field, its excellent dynamics, and its natural, concert-hall ambiance. Yet for all that, it surprisingly never seems to come to life. I suspect it's a bit more backwardly miked than a lot of other recordings, and while it provides a pleasing resonance, it sounds a trifle dull and veiled. Perhaps it suits the music, though, which also sounds a little laid back.


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

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