Jan 29, 2017

Fausto Mesolella: Live at Alcatraz (XRCD review)

Fausto Mesolella, guitar and loop pedal; Ferdinanda Ghidelli, pedal steel. Master Music/JVC XRCD24-NT017.

It's an expensive proposition; remasterings such as this one always are. I suspect that the current album might appeal to one or more of four kinds of people: (1) lovers of guitar music; (2) fans of guitarist Fausto Mesolella; (3) folks who simply enjoy pop/jazz musical arrangements; or (4) audiophiles bent on obtaining the best possible recordings for their collection.

In the case of Fausto Mesolella: Live at Alcatraz, I would further speculate that it's the fourth option that might attract the most attention, since there is already a plethora of guitar music and pop/jazz music at much more reasonable prices and since Mr. Mesolella isn't exactly a household name. But as a purely sonic treat, this JVC XRCD24 isn't bad.

Italian guitarist, composer, arranger, and producer Fausto Mesolella began playing professionally in 1969, winning awards, performing solo as well as with a number of bands, making recordings, and working in his own studio. Here, he plays guitar and loop pedal while accompanied on some of the tracks by Ferdinanda Ghidelli on pedal steel guitar.

Incidentally, the Alcatraz of the album's title does not refer to Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay or the famous federal prison once located there. This Alcatraz is a school in Italy. Disappointing, I know.

On this live recording, Mesolella plays mostly a fusion of pop and jazz, as I noted above. Mesolella's style is tight yet flexible, providing solid realizations of many old favorite numbers. He never showboats but presents the music with faithfully, with feeling, and on occasion with much intensity. While he may not display quite the virtuosity we find in some celebrated classical guitarists, the music hardly demands it.

Here's a rundown on the program:
1. Mesolella: "Sonatina Improvvisata D'Inizio Estate"
2. Rota: "Ai Giochi Addio" (from Romeo and Juliet)
3. Capurro/di Capua: "O Sole Mio"
4. Piazzolla: "Libertango"
5. Lennon: "Imagine"
6. Bottrell/Jackson: "Black or White"
7. Newton: "Amazing Grace"
8. Mesolella: "La Principessa"
9. Arlen: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

Fausto Mesolella
If there is any downside to all of this, beyond the relatively high price of the remastered album, it's that there isn't a lot of it at only forty-four minutes. And, for me, there's the business of the live recording, which I don't care for but which I understand many other listeners do. Be that as it may, let me reflect on a few of my favorite selections.

The first track, the "Sonatina Improvvisata D'Inizio Estate," is a good example of what's to come. Mesolella's playing is fluid and light, the music wafting over one as airily as a spring breeze. If you're a fan of Franco Zefferilli's Romeo and Juliet, you'll probably enjoy Mesolella's performance of the love theme Nino Rota wrote for the film. It's lovely, breezy, lilting, and enchanting. Although "O Sole Mio" and Piazzolla's tango come off a bit too sentimentally for me, Mesolella's version of John Lennon's "Imagine" appears sweet and appealing without being too cloying. And so it goes. The pedal steel in "Amazing Grace" sounds wonderful in its rich resonance, and Mesolella's version of Harold Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" may leave you in tears. A fine album; I just wish there were more of it.

A final note on the album's presentation: JVC have packaged the disc in a beautiful, glossy, hard Digipak-type case, with the disc fastened to the inside back and booklet notes bound to the inside. It's unfortunate, though, that whoever translated the notes from Italian into English did such a slapdash job of it. Most of it seems as though an automated translation program did the writing, which is sometimes downright hard to decipher.

Fausto Mesolella recorded the album live at the University of Alcatraz, Santa Cristina di Gubbio, Italy, in August 2013. Producers Kazuo Kiuchi and Shizuo Nomiyama and engineer Tohru Kotetsu at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan, remastered the original analogue tape in February 2016, using XRCD processing, JVC's K2-24bit AD converter, and a digital K2 rubidium clock.

OK, so the first thing we have to get out of the way is the whole subject of live recording. Yes, there is no doubt a certain spontaneity involved in performing in front of an audience, a greater feeling of informality, naturalness, and ease. And for some listeners there is the fun of almost being in the crowd listening to the performance. Nevertheless, it comes with its own burdens: There is always audience noise, and there is the inevitable applause, which erupts before and after every number. For me, it becomes tiresome. For other listeners, it probably adds to the charm of the experience.

Beyond the noise, the album sounds terrific. The guitar rings out loud and clear, its vibrations resonating throughout the room in with light, realistic, natural bloom. It is, in short, one of the best guitar recordings I've ever heard. Of course, to obtain such a healthy sound, the engineers have miked the instrument rather closely, so it probably isn't a good idea to play the music too loudly. At the right level, though, this can be some of the best audiophile material available.

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


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

Jan 25, 2017

Rattle Conducts Britten (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. EMI CZS 5 73983 2 (2-disc set).

When many of us think of twentieth-century English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), no doubt what first leaps to mind are his most-popular pieces: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, the Spring Symphony, and the War Requiem or his operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and The Turn of the Screw. To supplement these standard items, this two-disc rerelease from Sir Simon Rattle (when he was conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) and EMI (now Warner Classics) presents a collection of the composer's early work as well as several pieces from his final period. Much of it is lesser-known material, and I cannot admit to liking all of it equally, but it is certainly a worthy adjunct to the composer's more-famous compositions, and EMI recorded it splendidly.

EMI arranged the selections on the discs to accommodate a comfortable concert program rather than offering the music in any chronological order. It begins with An American Overture, which never got performed in Britten's lifetime and only surfaced shortly after his death in 1976. Rattle premiered it with the CBSO in 1983. Next is Ballad of Heroes, a solemn cantata for voice, chorus, and orchestra written in 1939, commemorating the British heroes who fell in the Spanish Civil War. The Diversions for piano and orchestra is a more conventional set of variations, although for Britten typically stark. Praise We Great Men is another late work, incomplete at the composer's death and never played until 1985. Britten based it on a poem by Edith Sitwell. Concluding disc one is probably the most familiar music of this round, the Suite on English Folk Tunes: "A time there was..." from 1974. Although Britten used some melodies from Percy Grainger and dedicated it to the earlier champion of English folk tunes, the tendency of the pieces is more serious than most of the things Granger came up with.

Sir Simon Rattle
Disc Two begins again with an overture, Canadian Carnival from 1939, a series of dances that are among the lightest and easiest listening of the album's fare. The Quatre Chansons Francaises are notable for being among Britten's earliest works, dating from 1928 when the composer was only fourteen. And I liked A Scottish Ballad quite a bit, perhaps because it comes down via more traditional lines than the rest of Britten's output.

The program concludes with probably the best-known composition in the whole set, the melancholy Sinfonia da Requiem from 1940, which has a fascinating history, being originally commissioned by Japan to honor one of their dynasties. When the Japanese found that the Requiem had Christian implications, they rejected it, causing a rift that lasted until 1956 when Britten conducted a broadcast performance of the work in Tokyo. I suspect World War II didn't help them reconcile their differences too soon, either.

Anyway, Sir Simon and his City of Birmingham players perform all of the music earnestly and affectionately, EMI recording it between 1982 and 1991. The Sinfonia da Requiem may be of special interest to audiophiles because it contains the biggest drum strokes, the widest dynamic range, and the strongest impact of any of the pieces represented.

Throughout the recordings one is aware of a realistic stage depth and generally excellent orchestral imaging. There is some congestion, however, at louder climaxes, but it is not excessive enough for most listeners to notice, especially not by those folks concentrating on the music itself. I can easily recommend the set to adventurous music lovers and serious Britten enthusiasts alike, especially now that a few years have gone by, and many retail sites are offering it at a ridiculously low price.


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

Jan 22, 2017

Lara Downes: America Again (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano. Sono Luminus DSL-92207.

To say that Lara Downes plays the piano is the same as saying Claude Monet painted landscapes. The French impressionist artist Monet's use of color and light created pictures not only of rare beauty but of rare insight. In a similar fashion, American pianist Lara Downes creates poetic musical sketches of times, places, and people that transcend mere notes and draw us into a world of nuanced sounds and feelings. She forces us to see and hear old tunes in a new light.

On her current album, "America Again," Ms. Downes takes her inspiration from a poem by the American poet Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again." Written in the depths of the Great Depression, the poem criticizes an American Dream never realized by a good number of its citizens and then conveys hope that the Dream may eventually come true for everybody. As Ms. Downes writes, "...we are living again in troubled times. The rifts and rivalries that divide us as a nation seem to run deeper than ever. But still, we dreamers keep dreaming our dream."

So, "America Again" is an album of hope, an uplifting desire that we will all come together soon enough and shoulder our mutual responsibility to help one another. Like the Hughes poem, the album is a tribute to the men and women of America who have worked so hard over the years to help America achieve its potential, its Dream.

Lara Downes is a Steinway artist whose work exhibits an exceptionally poetic and dramatic presence, easily sustained in this new album. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Ms. Downes began piano lessons at age four. Since making concert debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Salle Gaveau, Ms. Downes continues to perform on the world's leading stages, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center. She impresses one with her imagination, lyricism, and straightforward, unadorned virtuosity.

Most classical-music listeners will recognize many if not all of the names on Ms. Downes's program. The album contains twenty-one tracks and involves over sixty-six minutes of music. Here is a list of the selections:

Morton Gould: "American Caprice"
Lou Harrison: "Waltz in C," "Hesitation Waltz," and "Waltz in A"
Traditional: "Shenandoah"
Amy Beach: "From Blackbird Hills"
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: "Deep River"
Dan Visconti: "Nocturne" from "Lonesome Roads"
Ernest Bloch: "At Sea"
George Gershwin: "I Loves You, Porgy"
Angelica Negron: "Sueno Recurrente"
Leonard Bernstein: "Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim"
David Sanford: "Promise"
Howard Hanson: "Slumber Song"
Scott Joplin: "Gladiolus Rag"
Irving Berlin: "Blue Skies"
Florence Price: "Fantasie Negre"
Aaron Copland: "Sentimental Melody"
Duke Ellington: "Melancholia"
Roy Harris: "Li'l Boy Named David"
Harold Arlen: "Over the Rainbow"

Lara Downes
While I shall not try to cover everything, I will tell you about a few of the tracks I liked best. The opening number, Morton Gould's "American Caprice," for example, sets the tone with its sweet, jazzy playfulness, yet Ms. Downes always keeps it within the bounds of serious music. Lou Harrison's little waltzes are wistful, lilting, romantic, nostalgic, and endlessly charming. We all know the traditional American tune "Shenandoah," and Ms. Downes brings to it an added picturesqueness, a truly impressionistic approach.

Under Lara Downes's sure-handed guidance, each song takes on its own character, no matter how familiar the material. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's take on spirituals, "Deep River," is poignant and touching; Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy" (in an arrangement by Nina Simone) never sounded more heartfelt; Howard Hanson's waltz-lullaby "Slumber Time" sounds appropriately dreamy but never overtly sentimental; Joplin's "Gladiolus Rag" doesn't jump off the tracks with its early jazz-time verve but remains firmly rooted in the American spirit of aspiration, ambition, and accomplishment. And so it goes, every selection begging one to listen to it again and again. It's a quite magical album.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in March 2016. For the technical minded, they made it with Merging Technologies Horus, mastered with Merging Technologies Hapi, and recorded in DXD at 24 bit, 352.8kHZ in Auro-3D 9.1 Immersive Audio using Legacy Audio Speakers. No, I haven't any idea what all that means, either, but the result is extra rich, remarkably clean, and very realistic sound.

Like all of the discs I've reviewed from Sono Luminus, this one sounds excellent. The piano is almost literally in the room with us, ringing out clearly yet opulently, with just the right amount of ambient hall resonance to enrich its nature. Insofar as audiophile piano music goes, it's a treasure.


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

Jan 18, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Sir Charles Mackerras, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI Eminence 0 7777 64508 2 7.

When I first heard this 1992 recording, I couldn't remember listening to a more wholly satisfying Mahler First Symphony in quite a while. Indeed, after comparing it to a handful of distinguished Mahler Firsts in my collection, I was convinced it was among the best of the lot in terms of overall control, symphonic structure, intensity, atmosphere, and sound. That initial opinion still stands.

When CDs became popular in the early 1980's, it was Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) whose symphonies became quickly represented in the catalogue. In spite of a late start (but thank you maestros Walter, Bernstein, Klemperer, Solti, and others), Mahler became the darling of the audiophile music-loving set, and for good reason. His works combine good, old-fashioned nineteenth-century Romantic melodies alongside often bizarre, chaotic, experimental twentieth-century modernism. The results were perfect for musical enjoyment and pure sound.

No better are these characteristics displayed than in Mahler's First Symphony, where the opening movement begins with a mysterious awakening of Day or Spring or whatever, followed by fanfares and then several lush, rhapsodic tunes. The Scherzo is Brucknerian in concept, leading to a Funeral March that only Mahler would have dared: part parody, part wistful musing, and entirely peculiar. The Finale starts with a thunderous series of orchestral crescendos, followed by bits and pieces of the first movement's themes, settling into rich romance, and ending in strong, solid affirmative concluding outbursts.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Mackerras handled all of this with the ease of one who had been conducting Mahler all his life, which he may have been doing but not necessarily recording. He doesn't quite project the opening mists as atmospherically as Solti in his LSO account (Decca), but it's close, and then Mackerras launches into the most tightly controlled Mahler tune-making possible, a control that never oversteps the bounds into melodrama or sentimentality as Bernstein sometimes does in his last, DG, account.

To me Horenstein (Unicorn) always seemed to suggest the broad symphonic scope of the symphony better than anyone else, finding links among the varied movements rather than just playing them as separate and disparate entities. Well, Mackerras does much the same thing, with tempos that are quick but never fast or breathless. He presents a cogent portrait of the work as a whole, heightening our awareness of each movement's significance without the symphony ever losing internal cohesion or global unity. Needless to say, the conductor is also quite exciting when called upon, as in the onset of the final movement, and as rapt and mocking as needed. As I say, it all seems to work pretty well together.

It's a shame that EMI only made the 1991 performance available on their Classics for Pleasure and Eminence labels, which get a fairly limited distribution now that Warner Classics have taken over the label. It is for this reason that I only stumbled upon it about a decade after Mackerras recorded it (and that was more than a decade ago that I even found it). The sound is not so robust in the bass as Tennstedt's LPO recording, but it is otherwise detailed and well balanced.

Bernard Haitink (whose last rendering with the Berlin Philharmonic on Philips) is also quite good, once remarked that he believed one should play Mahler as straight as possible and the dramatics would take care of themselves. Mackerras observes this dictum and proves that Mahler can be just as powerful on his own as he can with any added histrionics from the conductor. Obviously, I recommend the disc highly.


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

Jan 15, 2017

Liszt: Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Also, Malediction. Alexandre Kantorow, piano; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Tapiola Sinfonietta. BIS 2100.

There are any number of young musicians I've never heard of. For instance, from the biography of this young pianist, "Alexandre Kantorow was born in 1997. After some lessons with Pierre-Alain Volondat, Alexandre joined the Schola Cantorum in Paris to study with Igor Lazko. He has also received advice from such eminent teachers as Jacques Rouvier, Théodore Paraschivesco, Georges Pludermacher, Christian Ivaldi and Jean-Philippe Collard. Alexandre continues his studies at the Paris National Conservatoire with Frank Braley and Haruko Ueda. He has won several first prizes in international competitions, and has played with orchestras such as the Bordeaux Chamber Orchestra, Orléans Symphony Orchestra and the Kaunas Symphony Orchestra in Lithuania."

On the current album, his solo debut with orchestra, Mr. Kantorow plays the two famous Liszt piano concertos and the little concerto "Malediction," accompanied by his more well-known violinist and conductor father Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

Insofar as concerns these performances being indispensable additions to every classical music lover's library, I wouldn't go so far as to say so; but they are fine, lyrical accounts of the music, with good nuance and excitement. In fact, out of context, one can hardly fault the performances. The problem comes when one compares Kantorow's readings with some of the classic recordings that have gone before.

Yes, I know it's unfair to make comparisons, but without them it's simply too hard to tell a good performance from a great one. In this case, after hearing Kantorow's rendition of the First Concerto, I listened to Sviatoslav Richter's version with Kiril Kondrashin and the London Symphony (originally on Philips and now remastered by HDTT); then Alfred Brendel with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (Philips); and, finally, Leonard Pennario with Rene Leibowitz and the London Symphony (HDTT). Kondrashin is probably still the top-of-the-order, the benchmark by which one must measure all other interpretations, and just a few seconds is all one has to hear to know everything that one needs to know. The Kondrashin performance is majestic, towering, and compassionate, dwarfing all others. Listening again to Kantorow finds him more than adequate but rather smaller, lighter, and more youthful in every way; it's still fun though a whole lot less imposing.

Anyway, the program begins with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S.124, which Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote over a period of some twenty-six years, starting in 1830 and premiering it in 1855. Even though we usually hear it, as here, in three distinct movements--a traditional opening Allegro, a slow Adagio combined with an animated Scherzo, and then an Allegro finale--the movements play like one continuous piece, with variations on common themes throughout.

Alexandre Kantorow
The First Concerto begins in a big, grand manner, in the style of Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Here, Kantorow and company produce an energetic realization, even if the orchestral accompaniment appears more petite than it might sound from one of the larger, major ensembles. Still, this is not a bad thing because Liszt had a modest-sized orchestra in mind, in any case. So, the opening sounds fine, and Kantorow is particularly good in the airier, more songlike parts. Then come his best moments in the Adagio movement, beautifully judged, beautifully realized, sensitive, and affecting. There's a charming freshness to the scherzo section, too, and the whole thing ends with appropriate strength and brio.

The Kantorow team chose mostly moderate tempos, but there are times when they speed things up considerably and, conversely, times when things seem to move practically at a standstill. These contrasts do no real harm to the music, but they can be a mite distracting to those used to something more traditional. Likewise, the Kantorows seem to linger longer than usual over certain pauses, which can be momentarily disconcerting.

Liszt started writing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S.125 between 1839 and 1840, putting it away for a decade and not debuting it until 1857, then revising it yet again in 1861. This concerto also sounds like one continuous movement, although Liszt divided it into six separate segments: Adagio sostenuto assai; Tempo del andante; Allegro deciso; Marziale, un poco meno allegro; Un poco meno mosso; and Allegro animato. Kantorow handles it with a deftness of touch, complementing the somewhat chamber-music style of the orchestration. This second of Liszt's principal concertos sounds a little less Romantic and less rhapsodic than the earlier concerto, and, fittingly, Kantorow plays it more spontaneously, yet with a firm direction and considerable feeling. Again, it is in the quieter passages that the pianist seems happiest, his virtuosity always at the service of the score and yielding radiant results.

Between the two major concertos, Kantorow plays the little Concerto in E minor "Malediction" (Curse), written by Liszt in 1831, revised in 1840, then put aside and only published in 1915. It's a remarkable work, predating some of Stravinsky's clashing notes, the piano accompanied only by strings. Maybe Liszt thought it was too much ahead of its time when he decided to set it away. Who knows. The main thing is that Kantorow plays it with an entertainingly sinister delight, the piece never reaching any really venomous heights but appearing soulfully malignant just the same.

Producer and sound engineer Jens Braun (Take5 Music Production) made the album in 24-bit/96 kHz at the Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland in November 2014. The recording team used Neumann and Schoeps microphones; RME, Lake People, and DirectOut electronics; MADI optical cabling; B&W, STAX, and Sennheiser monitoring equipment; and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations. They created the album for SACD or regular CD hybrid playback, so one can play it in multichannel SACD or two-channel SACD from an SACD player, or in two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD using a Sony SACD player.

Except for the piano being too close for my taste, this is one of the best-sounding recordings of the concertos I can remember. The folks at BIS have captured the orchestra with extraordinary clarity and naturalness, wide, transparent, yet not at all bright or hard. The piano, too, appears exceptionally well reproduced, with a full, vibrant tone. But, yes, it does seem well out in front of the orchestra, practically in our laps. Still, it's a small price to pay for a recording as otherwise realistic as this one.


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

Jan 11, 2017

Evening Adagios (CD review)

Various composers and artists. Decca 289 470 780-2 (2-disc set).

Compilations and more compilations. The classical music industry has been living off its old catalogue for quite a few years now, which in some cases is a bargain for the music collector who needs to have everything. The two-disc set under review is from Decca in its "Adagio" series from 2001, this one called "Evening Adagios." They released a slew of other such collections around the same time titled things like "Romantic Adagios," "Violin Adagios," "Vivaldi Adagios," "Movie Adagios," "Baroque Adagios," and on and on, all of them two disc sets and mid-priced, culled from Decca's back stock of big-name players.

There's certainly a lot of beautiful music one can listen to here, and one can hardly quibble about the performances, with artists like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Arthur Grumiaux, Pascal Roge, Pepe Romero, Radu Lupu, Frederick Fennell and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra, I Musici, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Chailly, Karl Munchinger, Istvan Kertesz, and many more doing the music-making.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
To name just a few of the thirty items represented on the discs, there are the usual suspects: Debussy's Claire de lune, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Mascagni's Intermezzo, Faure's Pavane, Saint-Saens's The Swan, Chopin's Nocturne No. 2, Bach's Air on a G String, Elgar's Sospiri for Strings, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and so forth through thirty selections and a total of 151 minutes.

Apparently, Decca meant their interpretation of "adagio" in the broadest sense; that is, any slow, leisurely movement, as the composers of many of the items included in the set actually called them Andantes, Nocturnes, Andantinos, Largos, and the like. But a rose by any other name, they're all lovely and make for pleasant, easy listening.

Decca cleaned up and prettified all the sound, homogenized it some would say, despite the fact that some of the numbers date back to the Fifties. In fact, Mercury originally recorded the opening piece, Claire de lune, back in 1959. It doesn't have quite the open airiness of the Mercury and HDTT remasters, but it does blend right in with the digital efforts from as late as 1999. While I wouldn't call it audiophile sound, and one can certainly hear better sound in individual cases, the relatively relaxed nature of it does compliment the music.

The whole collection, in fact, features clear, smooth sound, and I should imagine that's all that matters in this kind of material. The performances are generally beyond reproach.


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

Jan 8, 2017

Dvorak: Overtures (SACD review)

Jakub Hrusa, PKF-Prague Philharmonia. Pentatone PTC 5186 532.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a Czech composer. The PKF-Prague Philharmonia is a Czech orchestra. Jakub Hrusa is a Czech conductor. Pentatone recorded the music on the present disc in SACD multichannel and regular stereo. All well and good, and together they would seem to be a perfect match of music, orchestra, conductor, and sound.


Let's start with the music. The disc under review contains five of Dvorak's overtures, which are really not so much overtures as they are small symphonic poems. These five include In Nature's Realm, the Carnival Overture, and the Othello Overture, all three comprising a trilogy Dvorak called "Nature, Life and Love," which he originally intended be played as a single unit. In addition, we have My Home and the Hussite Overture.

The thing is, however, Dvorak wrote thirteen such overtures or tone poems, and here we get only five of them. The ones I tend to like best are those with a more-sinister tone, the ones dealing with old folk stories and children's tales. Things like The Noon Witch, The Water Goblin, The Wild Dove (also known as The Wood Dove), and The Golden Spinning Wheel. For those, however, you'll have to look elsewhere. The ones we get from Hrusa are for the most part the tamer, calmer pieces. Which is perhaps a part of the problem because Maestro Hrusa doesn't do a whole lot to make them any more interesting with his rather tame, subdued approach. Nor does a rather tame, subdued recording help much.

For more energetic, colorful, and characterful presentations of Dvorak's tone poems, I suggest that listeners might audition the recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Warner Classics, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI or Warner Classics, Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca, or Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on DG. Not that there is anything manifestly wrong with Hrusa's performances, but the aforementioned conductors bring an extra degree of life to Dvorak's music.

Jakub Hrusa
Anyway, In Nature's Realm finds us in a pastoral setting, emphasizing what the composer saw as "a peaceful state of harmony in Nature." Hrusa's vision of it bucolic, indeed, with most of it laid-back and serene, even during the most-intense moments. Then, too, the Prague orchestra plays effortlessly
for him, further heightening the music's rustic charm. For me, while the interpretation lacked the ultimate in musical delineation, it was the best thing on the program.

In the Carnival Overture Dvorak meant to represent the revelry of the carnival season before Lent, with its crowds of merrymakers and its bustle of excitement. Hrusa opens the work in high good spirits and then keeps it going most of the way with a well-judged lyrical energy. Toward the middle, though, he seems to abandon the sprightliness of the earlier sections before returning to the vigor of the opening.

The Othello Overture takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's tragic play, and the music is just that: theatrical, doleful, melancholy, and expressive. Hrusa points up the sorrowful angle pretty well but never appears to connect on the purely demonstrative level of the Bard's words. Again, one finds the dramatic contrasts less sharp, less marked than one might want. It's all a tad too mild, maybe too polished, for the emotional charge needed.

My Home, commissioned as the prelude to a play that has since fallen by the wayside, lives on as a lilting, often patriotic stand-alone piece. Hrusa navigates the quieter passages in lovely fashion and generates a modest amount of tension as the music picks up steam. Nevertheless, it doesn't quite have one standing up and cheering.

Finally, Dvorak based the Hussite Overture on the story of Jan Hus, burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415, an incident that spurred his followers into conflict with the Catholic Church, which eventually conceded to the Czechs the right to adopt some of Hus's teachings in their religious practices. The music uses some traditional Czech liturgical songs, and it sounds largely dark and stern. By this time in the album, I was getting used to Hrusa's conservative approach to matters, so everything seemed about right to me in the dark and stern departments. I just never found anything very interesting, animating, or stimulating about it.

Pentatone enclose the disc case in a light-cardboard slipcover, so you know it's a prestige product. I'm sure there are practical reasons for so many CD's, DVD's, and Blu-rays coming in slipcovers, but I've never figured them out. I guess for protection, or mostly for appearance? I almost always wind up throwing the slipcover away.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Roger de Schot recorded the overtures at the Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic, in January 2015. They created it for SACD two-channel and multichannel formats for playback on SACD players and for regular two-channel stereo playback on any standard CD player. I listened in the two-track SACD format using a Sony SACD player.

There is a pleasant ambient glow from the hall that the engineers captured well. The miking appears moderately distanced compared to a lot of today's recordings, so expect a slightly softer, rounder, smoother sound than you may care for, with a bit narrower stereo spread than usual. Otherwise, like the performances, the sound appears somewhat restrained, with decent but not exceptional dynamics and frequency range. Let's say it's fairly natural, easy listening sound, just the kind that complements the more relaxed items on the agenda.


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

Jan 4, 2017

Some Favorite Recordings of 2016

As you may remember, I don't do "best-of" lists. "Best" suggests that I've sampled everything available, and even though I review a lot of music every year, I have not heard but a fraction of what's out there. So I prefer to do a simple "favorites" list. Here are just a few of the discs (listed alphabetically, to be fair) I heard last year that I enjoyed for their performance and sound. I know I've forgotten some; forgive me. These discs stood out, mostly new releases, one of them an old favorite remastered.

Gal: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Also, Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22. Sarah Beth Briggs, piano; Kenneth Woods, Royal Northern Sinfonia. Avie.
To read the full review, click here:

Gershwin: An American in ParisAlso, Concerto in F; Three Preludes; Overture to Of Thee I Sing. Lincoln Mayorga, piano; Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York. Harmonia Mundi.
To read the full review, click here:

Krenek: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3
Mikhail Korzhev, piano; Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra. Toccata Classics.
To read the full review, click here:

Pierre de La Rue: Missa Nuncqua fue pena mayor
Also, Salve regina VI; Missa Inviolata; Magnificat sexti toni. Stephen Rice, The Brabant Ensemble. Hyperion.
To read the full review, click here:

Manhattan Intermezzo
Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Paul Phillips, Brown University Orchestra. Naxos.
To read the full review, click here:

Moszkowski: From Foreign Lands
Rediscovered orchestral works. Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Reference Recordings.
To read the full review, click here:

Schulhoff: Complete Music for Violin and Piano
Bruno Monteiro, violin; Joao Paulo Santos, piano. Brilliant Classics.
To read the full review, click here;

Sephardic Journey
"Wanderings of the Spanish Jews." Nell Snaidas, soprano; Karim Sulayman, tenor; Jeffrey Strauss, baritone; Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo's Fire and Apollo's Singers. Avie.
To read the full review, click here:

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2
Sir John Barbirolli, The Halle Orchestra. HDTT remastered.
To read the full review, click here:

Van der Sloot: Shadow, Echo, Memory
Hans Jorgen Jensen, Northwestern University Cello Ensemble. Sono Luminus.
To read the full review, click here:


Jan 1, 2017

Schumann/Dvorak Cello Concerti (CD review)

Carmine Miranda, cello; Petr Vronsky, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Navona Records NV6034.

You've probably heard me ask this before but the question bears repeating: How does the average music buyer keep up with all the new and upcoming young artists there are in the classical field? I mean, for over forty years I've been lucky enough to receive promotional discs or at least monthly release sheets from virtually every classical record company in the world, yet every month there are still names that pop up who are apparently famous to everyone but me. A name like Carmine Miranda, for instance.

Of course, my being a certain age, the first person I thought of when I saw the name was Carmen Miranda, the "Brazilian Bombshell" actress and singer of the 1930's and 40's. But nope; this is Carmine Filippo Miranda, the Venezuelan-American cellist, soloist, and recording artist who was born in Valencia, Spain in 1988 to Italian immigrants and who moved to the United States at an early age, winning awards galore before recording several albums. The current disc is the young cello player's first concerto recording, and while competition in Schumann/Dvorak repertoire is intense, he does a decent job keeping up with his rivals.

In fact, in the Schumann concerto he practically dominates the field. It's in the more well-known Dvorak concerto that he runs into a little trouble, with people like Starker (Mercury), Gendron (HDTT), Wallfisch (Chandos), Rostropovich (DG), and Ma (Sony) tending to overshadow him. Still, with a fine-sounding recording, a highly personal approach, and veteran conductor Petr Vronsky and the Moravian Philharmonic accompanying him, Miranda is worth one's consideration.

Miranda begins the program with his interpretation of the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 129 by German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). It's something of an odd work, written in the traditional three movements but played without interruption. Because of its many fits and starts and because Schumann wrote it at the end of his career, most people consider it an erratic product of the composer's agitated mental state at the time (he died shortly afterward in an asylum). Most people. Not so Mr. Miranda, however. He sees the work as a kind of cryptographic love letter from the composer to his wife, a testament, says Miranda, of his "desire to unify himself with his wife through music. His ability to clearly and carefully infuse meaning into every section of the entire piece is impressive."

Carmine Miranda
As such, Miranda plays the piece as lyrically, as rhapsodically, as romantically as possible, which may leave some listeners a bit confused but certainly adds to the charm of the music. Miranda works to its fullest the idea of the score being a love poem to Clara Schumann, the cellist's interpretation producing a sweet, soaringly beautiful realization. This is evident from the very outset when the cello speaks eloquently, plaintively to the orchestra (whom, one supposes, represents Clara), and especially in the second movement, which is heart-meltingly moving. It's basically a romantic conversation between the two, and it comes off quite vividly, almost as if you could hear the words they're speaking to one another.

It helps, too, that Miranda produces a lovely string tone, rich and expressive, and that the orchestra under Vronsky accompany him with their own emphatic and sympathetic gestures. It's a fine group effort all the way around.

Then we come to the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 104 by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). As I said a couple of paragraphs above, there is intense competition in the field, and Miranda doesn't really add much with his performance that we haven't heard before.

The Dvorak contains a plentiful supply of tunes, giving Miranda a lot of room to display his talents.
Yet, beyond the cellist's obvious virtuosity, he seems content merely to play the notes, giving us a realization of poise and dexterity but little real inspiration. While tempos appear about average for this music, the speeds seem slower somehow. Perhaps it's because of the lack of energy behind both the orchestra and the soloist that nothing comes off with as much punch or authority as one might like.

Anyway, the highlight of this album is the Schumann, which often takes one's breath away with its gently passionate interplay. There are already enough recordings of the Dvorak concerto, anyhow.

Producer Vit Muzik and engineers Jan Kosulic and Ales Dvorak recorded the album at Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic in June 2015. The sound is very clean, super clean in fact, with excellent detail and definition. The depth of image appears somewhat limited by the closeness of the recording, but it's hardly an issue when the rest of the sound is so good. The cello also seems somewhat too close compared to the rest of the ensemble, but, again, not really an issue. The cello tone I described earlier shows up to it fullest and sounds most realistic.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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