Feb 26, 2017

Hans Zimmer: The Classics (CD review)

Various artists; Gavin Greenaway, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Sony Classical 88985322812.

     "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."
     "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
     "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

I couldn't help thinking of that exchange in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass when I saw the title of this 2017 Sony release. Was composer and record producer Hans Zimmer (b. 1957) conducting classical music or classic film scores? Did the title refer to the music of Hans Zimmer as "classic," or did it refer to the movies for which Zimmer composed the music as classics? Well, maybe a little of the latter, although to call either the movies or the Zimmer soundtrack music for them "classics" may be a little hyperbolic. I suggest we give the movies and the music another fifty years before calling them "classics."

Anyway, what we have here is almost an hour of bits and pieces of music Zimmer composed for nine popular motion pictures. Which is part of the problem: Nothing lasts for more than a few minutes. So it's not as if we're getting major chunks of each movie's score. It's more like a quick hit parade of some of Zimmer's bestsellers. The fact is, Zimmer has composed music for over 150 films, so nine isn't really a big number,

Whatever, Gavin Greenaway, John Ashton Thomas, Stjepan Hauser, and Luka Sulic arranged each brief selection for the present album, and composer Wibi Soerjadi transcribed yet another of the tracks. Then Sony got some of their top recording artists (Lindsey Stirling, The Piano Guys, Lang Lang, Till Bronner, Tina Guo, Amy Dickson, Leona Lewis, Maxim Vengerov, Khatia Buniatishvili, 2Cellos, and Robert Saver) to help perform them, accompanied by Mr. Greenaway and the Czech Philharmonic.

Here's a rundown of the complete listing:

Main Theme from The Dark Knight Rises
(with Lindsey Stirling)
Themes from Pirates of the Caribbean
(with The Piano Guys)
"Gladiator Rhapsody" from Gladiator
(with Lang Lang)
Main Theme from Crimson Tide
(with Till Brönner)
"Time" from Inception
(with Tina Guo)
"This Land" from The Lion King
(with Amy Dickson)
"Now We Are Free" from Gladiator
(with Leona Lewis)
"Flight" from Man of Steel
(with Lang Lang and Maxim Vengerov)
"Light" from The Thin Red Line
(with Maxim Vengerov)
The Battle Scene from Gladiator
(with Khatia Buniatishvili)
"Mombasa" from Inception
(with 2Cellos)
The Docking Scene from Interstellar
(with Roger Sayer)

Hans Zimmer
How much you like any of this material and whether there is enough of it to satisfy you may, of course, depend largely on your own taste. For me, it was too little of any one thing, and it caught my attention only in short spurts. There's no denying, however, that the performers are up to their tasks, everything sounding just fine.

My own favorites among the tracks include the various themes from Pirates of the Caribbean for their undeniable panache; the main theme from Crimson Tide for its rising dramatic effect; "Time" from Inception for its atmospheric attributes; "Now We Are Free" from Gladiator mainly for Leona Lewis's contribution; "Light" from The Thin Red Line for its lyrical intensity; "Mombasa" from Inception for its rhythmic pitch. And the winner is: Inception. I think I might have preferred Greenaway and the Czech players doing an entire album of music from just this one film.

Producer Chris Craker and engineers Nick Wollage, John Chapman, Shane Edwards, Dave Rowell, Chris Connor, Robert Sattler, Benoit Bel and Philipp Nedel recorded the music, and Sony Music Entertainment released the album in 2017. The sound is OK, if in its own pop-music fashion. It's close and appears compartmentalized, with selected instruments well out in front, spotlighted. Definition is good, frequency balance favors the upper midrange, dynamics are strong, and orchestral depth is moderate. There's also a slightly abrasive quality about some of it, too, a bit of raspiness at the higher end and an overall hard metallic quality. I doubt anyone will care.


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

Feb 22, 2017

Respighi: Feste romane and Pini di Roma (CD review)

Also, Rimsky-Korsakov: Le Coq d'or, suite. Lorin Maazel, the Cleveland Orchestra. Decca Legends 289 466 993-2.

Let's ignore for the time being the Roman Festivals, which are mostly noisy and bombastic, and concentrate on the late Maestro Lorin Maazel's interpretation of the Pines of Rome. It is among the best available.

Recorded in 1976, Maazel's performance is colorful, sometimes splashy, sometimes subtle, always vivid, and picturesque, everything you'd want from these miniature tone paintings. Maazel's rendering of them doesn't, perhaps, convey quite the individual expression of Fritz Reiner's classic set (RCA "Living Stereo" or the JVC XRCD remastering), but they come close. More important, they culminate in one of the best, most exciting versions of "The Pines of the Appian Way" you'll find. We hear the Roman legions first, of course, from a distance, their march coming closer and closer, sounding all the more ominous as they approach. When they reach our vantage point, the effect is staggering, especially if you have a good subwoofer.

Lorin Maazel
Paired with the two Respighi works we find an agreeably colorful reading of Rimsky-Korsakov's suite from Le Coq d'r, (The Golden Cockerel). It may not be the most exciting rendition around, but it does provide an all-around pleasant listening experience. The Cleveland Orchestra play terrifically well for Maazel, with plenty of professional enthusiasm evident.

Decca's 1976 sound for the Cleveland Orchestra didn't always impress me as much as Columbia's (Sony's) did in the old Szell days, but this transitional recording, remastered in Decca's "Legends" series in 2000 radiates much the same energy and presence. There is a decent orchestral perspective, decent front-to-back dimension, some small smothering of the mid frequencies, and tremendous bass.

Yes, tremendous bass, important in numbers like the aforementioned "Appian Way," as well as in the "Catacombs" and the "Epiphany" from Feste romane. Remastered in 96kHz, 24-bit digital sound in Decca's "Legends" series, the audio is perhaps a hair smoother and more transparent than it was in their older Ovation line, to which I compared it. And I much prefer the new coupling to that of the previous coupling, too.


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

Feb 19, 2017

Saint-Saens, Ravel, Gershwin: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Andrew von Oeyen, piano; Emmanuel Villaume, PKF-Prague Philharmonia. Warner Classics 01 90295 90848 5.

The first question you might ask about this album is why it contains such seemingly disparate composers as Saint-Saens, Ravel, and Gershwin on the same program. The answer, of course, is that the agenda is not so unusual as you might think. Not only did all three men write piano concertos, but they all in some way or another influenced each another. In particular, Saint-Saens influenced Ravel, and Ravel and Gershwin influenced the other. Besides, the soloist for the album, Andrew von Oeyen, is an American now living in Paris, who says he has fallen in love with French music. Fair enough.

The second question you might ask is, Who is Andrew von Oeyen? He's an American concert pianist, born in 1979, who here makes his piano-and-orchestra debut recording after releasing several solo discs. He began playing the piano at age five and made his first stage appearance at age ten. By age sixteen he was playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and after further studies at Juilliard and Columbia University and wins in several important piano competitions, his career was well on its way. The present disc marks his first release for Warner Classics, with accompaniment by Emmanuel Villaume and the PKF-Prague Philharmonia.

The opening piece on the program is the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, by the French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). He wrote it in 1868, and it remains among the most-popular of his five piano concertos. Oddly for a modern concerto, Saint-Saens begins his work with a relatively slow movement, followed by a faster second movement that resembles a scherzo, and finishes with a very quick Presto. These mercurial tempo changes prompted the Polish pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski to joke that the piece "begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach."

There is no doubting von Oeyen's intensity from the start as he gives every indication that he wants to get our attention. He varies the contrasts about as much as I've ever heard, making the opening movement more balky than ever. Which is neither here nor there; just more emphatic. The second movement is cheerful and bouncy enough, and if anything the orchestra carries it though as much as Mr. von Oeyen. Then in the finale, von Oeyen goes full bore with an all-out assault on the score, sounding exciting enough if a bit too studied for my taste.

Andrew von Oeyen
Next, we hear the Piano Concerto in G Major by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). He wrote it between 1929 and 1931 after a concert tour of the United States. Its most notable feature is the use of American jazz idioms, which Ravel probably picked up from Gershwin, whose Rhapsody in Blue appeared several years earlier.

I rather enjoyed von Oeyen's Ravel more than his Saint-Saens, which tended toward a want of charm. Maybe it's the combination of American and French expressive styles that suits the pianist. Still, when one has spent years as I have listening to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (EMI/Warner) play the piece, it's hard to find comfort in anyone else's interpretation. By comparison, von Oeyen never quite displays the imagination or creates the atmosphere that Michelangeli does. Nevertheless, my own quibbles should not distract the listener from enjoying von Oeyen's approach, which is more straightforward yet still jazzy enough to satisfy almost anyone. Additionally, von Oeyen offers us a particularly sensitive slow movement that in itself may be enough to sell the disc.

After that we find the Second Rhapsody by American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). Here, some folks might quibble about whether the piece is a real piano concerto at all, but I would remind them that by definition a modern concerto is "a composition for orchestra and a solo instrument" (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music). Gershwin's Second Rhapsody fits the bill. He wrote it for the 1931 Hollywood movie Delicious, on which both he and his brother Ira worked. Initially, Gershwin (and/or the studio) called this particular musical sequence Manhattan Rhapsody, New York Rhapsody, and Rhapsody in Rivets. Shortly afterwards, Gershwin more fully orchestrated it for concert use, titling it the Second Rhapsody. Although other people later reorchestrated the music (most notably Robert McBride some fourteen years after the composer's death), Mr. von Oeyen here plays the original 1931 version.

Following the pattern of getting better as we go along on the disc, Von Oeyen does a splendid job conveying the hustle and bustle of Gershwin's big city. His virtuosity seems always at the service of the music rather than simply drawing attention to itself. What's more, Maestro's Villaume's orchestral accompaniment keeps the rhythms on track and the musical impulses moving forward in suitable agreement. There are no awkward convolutions here, just a polished and stimulating tone picture.

The program concludes with a "bonus track": the Meditation from Jules Massenet's Thais, transcribed for solo piano by Mr. von Oeyen and bringing the total recorded music on the disc to over sixty-six minutes. For me, this was the highlight of the album, a hushed and heartfelt rendition that never lapses into teary-eyed mawkishness.

Producer and editor Christopher Alder and engineer Jakub Hadraba recorded the album at Studio 1, Czech Radio, Prague, Czech Republic in August 2015. The piano sounds solid and well placed from the start, if a mite wide, and the tone rings true. When the orchestra enters in the first movement of the Saint-Saens, it appears dynamic, full, and resonant, if not particularly deep or transparent. While strings sound a touch shrill and fuzzy at times, the overall effect is one of soft warmth rather than forward  brightness (or ultimate clarity).


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

Feb 15, 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (CD review)

Also Borodin: Polovtsian Dances. Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 66998 2.

For over forty years I lived contentedly with Bernard Haitink's 1972 London Philharmonic recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade on Philips. Haitink's unfussy account always seemed to me to present the work with the proper proportions of poetry and grand passion. But both the interpretation and the recording may seem too straightforward for some listeners. Recorded a few years later, 1979, came Kondrashin's Concertgebouw reading, also on Philips, with an altogether more dynamic impact. It, too, became, a prime choice in this material. In the digital age only two recordings impressed me as strongly: Krivine on Denon and Mackerras on Telarc. And before Haitink, I had only three other old favorites: Monteux on Decca; Reiner on RCA; and Beecham on EMI. Except for the Monteux, which I have not heard on CD, the older editions hold their heads high.

Which, finally, brings me to Sir Thomas Beecham, whose recording not only holds his own against any competition, his 1958 EMI recording, remastered in EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series, is head and shoulders above most of the competition. Indeed, for many listeners, myself included, it may now rank at or near the top of the pile.

Sir Thomas Beecham
There is no doubt in my mind Beecham's interpretation is the most poetically inspiring vision of all. Steven Staryk's violin solos, the voice of the lady Scheherazade, are magnificently soaring in their lyricism. Nor does the excitement go wanting, especially in the big closing numbers, "The Festival of Baghdad" and "The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock." Beecham's magic touch, the constant twinkle in his eye, and his effervescent joy in conducting are forever in evidence. Combined with a rousing coupling of the Borodin "Polovtsian Dances," this is music-making of the highest order.

Then, there's the sound, produced by Victor Olof and Lawrence Collingwood and engineered by Christopher Parker at Kingsway Hall, London, March 1957 (Scheherazade) and Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, November 1956 ("Polovtsian Dances"), which EMI remastered as part of their "Great Recordings of the Century" line.

Ah, yes, the sound. It had been many years since I last heard Beecham's Scheherazade (on vinyl, in fact), and I was honestly not prepared to appreciate the remastered sonics as much as I did. Of the half dozen comparisons I've mentioned, Beecham's EMI recording was clearly among the best, the most transparent, the most natural, the most well-imaged. With the possible exception of some small background noise, hardly noticeable in most instances, and a slightly less robust bass than a few competitors, the EMI sonics are top drawer by the standards of any day. The high end in particular is more open than most of its rivals, yet the overall audio balance is warm and smooth. Indeed, it is only the equally old Reiner/RCA account that comes close sonically or interpretatively the Beecham, the Reiner a recording made even better, incidentally, in its JVC XRCD remastering.

Yes, all told, Beecham's account is one of the best you'll find. Can I recommend this disc any more strongly? Not without holding a gun to your head.


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

Feb 12, 2017

The Music of the Royal Swedish Navy (CD review)

Andreas Hanson, the Royal Swedish Navy Band. Mike Purton Recording Services MPR001.

Everybody likes a good march. The trouble is that most march albums contain the same popular tunes, and unless one knows a lot about the subject, it's hard to find something new and worthwhile. That's where discs like this one come in. It contains mostly marches, reveilles, signals, and other ceremonial and practical military music composed by Swedish composers, many of whom were members of the Swedish navy.

To do them justice, the Royal Swedish Navy Band plays with great precision and spontaneity under the direction of former Navy Band conductor and now symphonic conductor Andreas Hanson. What's more, the album's producer, Mike Purton, obtained the services of noted audio engineer Tony Faulkner to record the disc. The result is a program of stirring music and outstanding sonic quality, well worth one's time.

I doubt that it would be advantageous to list every selection on the agenda, so let me just tell you that the program involves thirty-four tracks and over seventy-six minutes of music, which means the producers filled it out quite well. Let me also tell you a few of the selections I liked best.

The first two marches--"Reveille" and the "Regina March"--pretty much set the tone. They are brief, compact, rousing, and extremely well played. Although maestro Hanson certainly emphasizes the martial aspects of the tunes, he never goes overboard, always remembering that this is music, after all. And very enjoyable music it is, too.

Andreas Hanson
The "Svensksund March" has a buoyant military air, and the "Intermezzo" that follows is appropriately somber, making a nice contrast of moods. Then it's back to a march, "With the Naval Men," which has a decidedly Sousa-like quality to it. The "Festspel" is aptly titled, a festive, celebratory piece, enthusiastically presented by Hanson and his team.

And so it goes, high-stepping all the way, with occasional somber interludes like the "Elegy for Gustav II Adolf." Likely my favorite selection on the whole program, though, is "Viva Esperanto!," which may also be one of the best-known marches on the program. In fact, the whole album is terrifically entertaining, with a little something for everyone, even non march fans. And perhaps most important, as I said before, it contains mainly music probably unfamiliar to most listeners.

Producer and editor Mike Purton and recording engineer Tony Faulkner recorded the album in 24-bit sound at The Admiralty Church, Karlskrona, Sweden in October and November 2007 (released 2016). The good news here is that Tony Faulkner is one of the best and most respected recording engineers in the business, and his recording philosophy works, as evidenced on this album. In an interview recently with Hi-Fi World, Mr. Faulkner explained his feelings about audio recording: "My philosophy is to try and keep things simple. Typically for a Mahler or Beethoven symphony, I'd use two mics if possible, which is a horrible shock! If I pull up the faders and two mics on their own do not work, I would do whatever is necessary but I don't see the recording process as demanding over-complication, digesting and excreting, but rather a transparent channel."

On the present disc, the sound is transparent, indeed. I loved the musical ambience, the bloom on the instruments, which enhances the reality of the occasion without masking the sound. The stereo spread is not enormously wide but realistically broad, enough to fill in the entire space between the speakers. Otherwise, dynamics are good, impact sometimes extremely impressive (drums), frequency response well balanced, and highs sparkling. It's the kind of recording you can play quite loudly (as you might actually hear a military band) without distortion, without getting a headache, and without ruining your ears.


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

Feb 8, 2017

Puccini: La Boheme (CD review)

Andrea Bocelli, Barbara Frittoli; Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca 269 464 060-2 (2-disc set).

Passion. It's what I think of first when I think of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. Without passion, the opera is just beautiful music. Not that there's anything wrong with beautiful music, mind you, and with this set you'll get that aplenty. But something magical happens when the performers invest the music with an ardent Italianate fervor. This is evident in the great La Boheme recordings of the past like those from De los Angeles, Bjorling, and Beecham (EMI); Freni, Pavarotti, and Karajan (Decca); or Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Serafin (Decca). By contrast, especially to the first two, which I had on hand for comparison, the team of Barbara Frittoli, Andrea Bocelli, and Zubin Mehta in the 2000 Decca set under review doesn't quite scale the same heights of excitement.

Where the older stars were sweet and lyrical where needed and expressive and thrilling likewise, the newcomers seem more interested merely in reproducing lovely tunes. In the big numbers like "Che gelida manina" and "Si, Mi chiamano Mimi" and "O soave fanciulla," Frittoli and Bocelli fail to set the soul on fire or to make the hair on the back of the neck stand up the way the others do. Frittoli and Bocelli failed to convince me of their love, their ardor--in essence, their passion. Nor do they evoke the kind of sympathy they should for Mimi and Rodolfo in the final death scene, in "Oh Dio! Mimi!" and "Che ha detto il medico?"

Andrea Bocelli
The singers' voices are pure, their enunciation is letter perfect, and undoubtedly their hearts are in the right place. They sing as sweetly as one could hope for and make this La Boheme a warm event; nothing can diminish Puccini's capacity for refined sentimentality and beauty of tone. Nevertheless, do they have that extra dimension that sets them apart and makes us want to weep along with them? Not really, except, I suppose, to Bocelli fans who love everything the man sings, no matter what.

Where the new Decca recording does shine, however, is in its aural clarity. It is in most ways the best recorded of the ones I've mentioned, and it sounds decidedly better than the Tebaldi-Bergonzi set, which is much older than any of them. The newer Decca displays voices that sound practically in the room with the listener. Still, the older Freni-Pavarotti Decca has a sonic quality all its own that's hard to beat, too; namely, the reverberant ambiance of a live performance that may bring the listener closer to the actual event.

It's hard to say just who the audience might be for any Puccini recording. Certainly, opera collectors and Puccini fans will want everything that comes along. Andrea Bocelli is a hot star at any time, and many of his fans will want to hear him singing anything. Those listeners interested primarily in sonic value will no doubt find the Bocelli venture to their liking (although, to be honest, it sounded a little lacking in stage depth to me). For first-time buyers I'd still recommend Freni-Pavarotti as the best all-around bet, grand opera at its most sweeping, feverish best. Moreover, if you haven't heard the sets from Vaduva, Alagna, and Pappano (EMI) or Gheorghiu, Alagna, and Chailly (Decca) or Moffo, Tucker, and Leinsdorf (RCA), you might like them, as well.


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

Feb 5, 2017

Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (CD review)

Also, Horn Concerto No. 1. Alan Civil, horn; Rudolf Kempe, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Testament SBT 1428 (remastered).

For the past forty-five years or so I have been living happily with Rudolf Kempe's 1971 EMI recording of An Alpine Symphony with the Dresden Staatskapelle, even though I knew that Kempe had also recorded it just a few years earlier with the Royal Philharmonic on a disc that RCA made for Reader's Digest. I also knew that the earlier performance was just as good as the later one but that RCA had done it no favors with the sound. Frankly, the LP sounded pretty bad to me, and I never bothered with the recording again, until recently. That's when I got hold of Testament's CD remaster. Now, I think I have two favorites.

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) began writing An Alpine Symphony in 1911 and completed it several years later. It was the last of his big-scale symphonic tone poems, the composer spending his final thirty-odd years writing other kinds of music, songs, and, of course, opera. I have read that Strauss came to write his Alpine Symphony after viewing the Bavarian mountains behind his home, the mountains he used to climb and enjoy in his youth.

Whatever, An Alpine Symphony proved one of the composer's most controversial works, with critics and general listeners either loving it or hating it. Commentators for years have written it off as nothing more than picture-postcard music, lightweight fluff, hammy and melodramatic and unworthy to set alongside the master's greater works. However, I wonder if these critics aren't letting their estimate of the subject matter cloud their judgment. I mean, for some people the mere description of mountains, peaks, and pastures can't seem to measure up against things with such imposing titles as Death and Transfiguration and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Be that as it may, I personally find An Alpine Symphony immensely entertaining, and I believe the glories of Nature are every bit as sublime and profound as anything written by Nietzsche.

Originally, Strauss intended to compose a traditional four-movement symphony whose theme as he put it, "...represents moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature." What he came up with was an attractive tone poem, the musical depiction of a day's ascent of an alpine mountain, a storm at the top, the climber's contemplation of Nature, and the descent. Philosophy aside, that's more than enough.

The work comprises twenty-two movements, with titles telling the tale, things like "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss describes each of these events in music, and although there may be a few too many climaxes along the way, it is all quite vivid and imposing. After all, Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, over 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, grandiose, often majestic, and not a little, in part, bombastic.

Rudolf Kempe
So, what does Kempe bring to the table that surpasses such notable conductors of the work as Karajan, Solti, Haitink, Mehta, Previn, Blomstedt, and others who have scaled these peaks? Kempe's performance is just as nuanced, just as refined, just as atmospheric, and just as glorious with the Royal Philharmonic as it would later be with the Dresden Staatskapelle; but, if anything, it's just a touch more spontaneous. It's as though the hiker on the mountainside is a little younger and a little more impetuous than the later climber. Still, the differences in interpretation are hardly worth mentioning and both performances are unmatched. With the new Testament, it's the remastered sound that impresses one.

The accompanying Horn Concerto with Kempe, the RPO, and the great Alan Civil makes a fine pairing. The playing is just as good as in the symphony, and the sound is just as good as well. One could hardly ask for more, big and Romantic and warmly performed.

Is there anything I truly disliked about the album? Well, yes, but it's almost too trivial to mention. I don't like the sepia-tinged portrait of the conductor on the Testament cover. I wish they had used the original RCA cover picture of a snow-covered mountain. But that's just me. I like gazing at album covers that put me in a mood for the music. Cover pictures of conductors (or composers) don't exactly do it for me. Also, Testament includes an excellent set of booklet notes, mostly about the conductor, but they use such tiny print, they're a genuine chore to read.

The respected conductor, arranger, and producer Charles Gerhardt along with the equally respected ex-Decca engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the music for Reader's Digest/RCA at Kingsway Hall, London in April 1966. It was the first stereo recording of the symphony, and everyone involved was worthy of the project. In 2008 Paul Baily of Re:Sound remastered the recording for Testament, and I finally came upon it in 2016. Better late than never, I suppose.

As I mentioned above, I was never a fan of the original LP sonics, and I never actually heard its first CD release except to read the generally bad reviews about its sound. Which is why I can tell you how excited I am about how good the Testament remaster sounds. Yes, it's a trifle bright and, yes, the bass could be a tad stronger. That said, we have a sound field that is wide and deep, clean and open, and ever so transparent. Highs, if a bit forward, sparkle; midrange is as clear as anyone could desire; and bass is still more than adequate. If you wanted to spend about five extra seconds, you could turn the treble down a notch and the bass up a tick, and you'd have as good an audiophile disc as you could find. (OK, I know that real audiophiles would never consider tweaking the sound of a recording; if one doesn't play the disc exactly as it comes, it's cheating or something. But, trust me, just do it, in the privacy of your own living room, and no one will ever know.)


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

Feb 1, 2017

Liebermann: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. Eugenia Zukerman, flute; Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Delos DE 3256.

It took long enough, but at least somebody is listening. Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961) takes twentieth-century music out of the realm of purely atonal dissonance and attempts to move us with beautiful, often relatively old-fashioned musical sounds. He presently serves on the composition faculty at Mannes College The New School for Music, and he is the director of the Mannes American Composers Ensemble.

In a booklet note Peter G. Davis asks, "Did musical composition take a wrong turn at some point early in the twentieth century?" Clearly, he wants us to answer yes, or how explain, he asks, the general public's disinterest in modern classical music. Of course classical music connoisseurs will always take an interest in new material. They will always embrace the unique and innovative; but your next-door neighbor? Not so much. It hasn't helped, too, that critics throughout the twentieth century have been telling the general public they are just too unsophisticated, too ignorant, to understand modern music, but Davis suggests the ruse hasn't worked. Music for the masses, music with melody and rhythm and harmony, is still preeminent in the public eye, he says, and people like Lowell Liebermann are in the forefront of the movement to highlight it.

Whatever, Liebermann's Symphony No. 2, composed in 1999, here finding its premiere recording.  However, one listen and you might swear he had written it at the end of the nineteenth century as at the end of the twentieth. The music sounds reminiscent in many ways of Mahler, filled with big, sweeping tunes, marches, soaring harmonic lines, and even a choral component. It's based on passages from the American poet Walt Whitman and celebrates, as Whitman did, a love of life and nature. It may not make anyone forget Beethoven, Brahms, or Mahler, but it's a step in the right direction for listeners who would like to hear more accessible music from our classical composers. It also helps that Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform the work with a delightful dash.

Andrew Litton
What's more, I liked the Second Symphony's companion piece even better. Liebermann dedicated the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1992) to James Galway, and it shows an even greater Romantic flair than the newer work. It has a lovely lyricism to its opening two passages and a playful lightness about its Presto finale. Here, Eugenia Zukerman, flute, adds a special, sympathetic touch to the proceedings.

Delos engineer John Eargle provided the orchestra and chorus a big, somewhat thick, and very dynamic sound. As was the case in the 1990's and early 2000's, the record company recorded it for eventual playback in discrete five-channel surround, but they remastered the disc I reviewed for two-channel stereo, playable on any standard CD player. Of course, one may also play it back via Dolby Pro Logic or some other such synthetic decoding, but in ordinary two-channel it appears just fine, if a bit congested at times and somewhat flat dimensionally. Still, there is a realistic bloom around the instruments, and definition is reasonably sharp.

Getting back to Mr. Davis's argument, though, I suppose that just as popular music took a sudden swing into heavy metal and rap in the latter part of the preceding century, classical music did the same from the early twentieth century on. (And, please, I'd rather not get angry letters from rock and rap fans any more than from diehard modern classical aficionados; we'll all enjoy our own music together in our own way.) Anyhow, it now appears the pendulum might be swinging in the other direction. What goes around comes around, I suppose. Liebermann's music comes as a welcome breath of fresh (if somewhat old-fashioned) air, and we should probably encourage anything new, even if it's old.


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