Mar 31, 2017

Mozert: Concerto for Three Hands and a Foot, "Hawaiian" (DDT review)

Also, Flat-Foot Floogie (with a Floy-Floy). D.G. Frump, lyre; Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III (Bart., Smpsn., O.B.E., W.A.N.); Buford (Wyoming) Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Sunny Classical BFD-911.

Most classical listeners today will  recognize the name Severus Octavian Siriasis Mozert better than that of his son and subject of this review, Ludvocio Ochozath Ludicrus Mozert. Be that as it may, we press onward.

L.O.L. Mozert (1753-1762) was born in the small Bavarian town of Mary-Kay-Upon-Avon in 1743 to the tune of an itinerant flue-pipe salesman. LOL's first notable achievement occurred during the Battle of Handly Fern, where young Ludvocio tried his hand at managing a self-serve restaurant, the War 'N Buffet, but failed handily. Later, he played hunchback at Notre Dame U. under the legendary coach, Urban Legend. When that didn't work out, however, it led to his greatest (and only) musical achievement, the chorale-prelude Concerto for Three Hands and a Foot in A-class lower-berth, "Hawaiian," co-written with his longtime attendant and accomplice, Warren Peece. Although Mozert wrote the work originally for penny whistle, we have heard it adapted over the years for any number of solo instruments, including but not limited to the tin whistle, the English flageolet, the tin flageolet, the Scottish penny whistle, the Irish whistle, the Belfast Hornpipe, the fleadóg stáin, and the Clarke London Flageolet. On the present recording, we hear it played on the lyre.

Lft. Sir Cedric Etc. Etc.
German-American-Scottish-Jamaican entrepreneur, bankruptcy lawyer, quiz-show host, reform-school graduate, and lyre exponent extraordinaire Domhnall Giovanni Frump performs the concerto with a haughty accord (or a Honda Accord if you're in the mood for some light traveling music). Ably accompanying Mr. Frump are Maestro Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III and the Buford (Wyoming) Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (Don Sammons, strings; Don Sammons, winds; Don Sammons, brass; Don Sammons, percussion; Don Sammons, woodwinds and harp; Don Sammons, piano, celesta, and keyboards; Don Sammons, electronics; Don Sammons, wind machines; and Don Sammons, motor grinder). The orchestra also play with one accord, which may be the only car in town.

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We now return you to your regular programming.

Sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes.

Executive producer Robert Langdon, digital editor Henry Higgins, and chief engineer Harold Hill, known professionally as "The Three Professors," recorded the music in the main gallery of the Buford Town Post Office on April 1, 2017 (well, actually, it's on Interstate 80, but close enough). The sound they obtained one might charitably call bearable. The highs spring forth with the stagnancy of a spring bouquet in fall, permeating the air with a quercetic vapor redolent of soggy underwear on a summer day. The midrange carries the sonic image further into the realms of the preternatural with a transparency borne of dedicated attention to enumeration and redundancy, the whole experience capped off with a basso-relievo that thunders through the floorboards, into the basement, and through some of the deepest fissures of the planet.

It sounds OK.

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

Mar 29, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (CD review)

Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80565. 

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) has been popular among audiophiles since the early days of stereo, and it was Mahler who first filled up the bins in the early days of compact discs. It's no wonder, then, that even his unfinished Tenth Symphony remains competitive today, with two releases of different reconstructions coming out at around the same time from Simon Rattle (EMI) and Jesus Lopez-Cobos in the early 2000's.

At his death Mahler left the Tenth Symphony in various stages of completion. A couple of the work's five movements were finished, and several others the composer left in detailed sketches only. For years, conductors only performed the two completed movements, and some purist conductors today apparently still insist on doing so, but the music as reconstructed by various people in various forms seems to be gaining a new audience. Maestro Jesus Lopez-Cobos uses one of the most-recent revisions, that of Remo Mazetti, Jr. (1997). Lopez-Cobos presents the piece in a fairly gusty and Romantic manner, mostly emphasizing the work's soaring lyricism, as in the first movement, and its bizarre eccentricities, as in the two Scherzos and the introduction to the Finale. Telarc's sound upholds its end, too, with its warm, natural presence.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos
All fine and good had I left well enough alone. But I couldn't resist listening the symphony again, this time comparing it side-by-side with Simon Rattle's account with the Berlin Philharmonic. Comparisons can be devastating. Perhaps it wasn't an entirely fair comparison, either, because Rattle uses the older Deryck Cooke edition and, as I said, Lopez-Cobos uses the newer Mazetti one; still, it was close enough. My conclusion? Next to Rattle, Lopez-Cobos seemed rather earthbound. His interpretation, so lovely on its own, appears straightforward and mundane by comparison to Rattle's. It's like plain vanilla vs. Swiss chocolate swirl. Rattle wrings every ounce of emotion from the score, making one pine and long for the participants, presumably Mahler and his lost love, Alma, whom Mahler had discovered having an affair in his last year.

The sound, too, favors Rattle. While Telarc's sonics are certainly worthwhile, they tend to sound muted, soft, and flat compared to EMI's live recording (which in itself is remarkable, considering that I don't usually care for live recordings). Rattle's orchestra does appear a bit harder and thinner than Lopez-Cobos's, to be sure, but the great Berlin strings more than make up for it. In the end, EMI's sound comes off as more transparent, more dynamic, and, ultimately, more realistic than Telarc's.  Both are good investments, but if one must make a choice, I would recommend one opts for the Rattle.


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

Mar 26, 2017

Intermezzi del Verismo (CD review)

Music of Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea, Wolf-Ferrari. Lodovico Zocche, Philharmonisches Orchester Graz. CPO 777 953-2.

Classical music lovers, especially opera fans, already know what intermezzi (or intermezzos) are, but for those who might be a little unclear on the concept, my Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines an intermezzo as "a short dramatic, musical, or other entertainment of light character, introduced between the acts of a drama or opera. Or a short musical composition between main divisions of an extended musical work. Or simply a short, independent musical composition." In the case of this album, we're talking about the first definition.

Further, opera fans will surely already know the meaning of verismo, but, again, the dictionary defines it as "the use of everyday life and actions in artistic works: introduced into opera in the early 1900s in reaction to contemporary conventions, which were seen as artificial and untruthful." Purists may balk at some of the titles included on the program as not being entirely "intermezzi" or pure "verismo," but for most of us the dictionary definitions are broad enough to cover most of the ground here.

The present album provides a dozen intermezzi--some of them quite famous, others not so much--from as many operas, all performed by Lodovico Seiche and the Graz Philharmonic Orchestra. The following is a list of the disc's contents:

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924):
Symphonic Prelude in A
La Tregenda: Act II from Le Villi
Intermezzo: Act III from Manon Lescaut
Intermezzo from Suor Angelica

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945):
Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana
Intermezzo from L'amico Fritz
Sinfonia from Le maschere

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858-1919):
Intermezzo from Pagliacci

Umberto Giordano (1867-1948):
Intermezzo: Act II from Fedora

Francisco Cilea (1866-1950):
Intermezzo: Act II from Adriana Lecouvreur

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948):
Intermezzo from I gioielli della Madonna

Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952):
Prelude: Act III L'amore dei Tre Re

Ludovico Zocche
All of the music appears beautifully and sensitively played by Maestro Zocche. What's more, the Graz Philharmonic responds splendidly to his direction; just don't expect them to sound as rich and luxurious as their more illustrious neighbors in Vienna. However, my own reaction was that perhaps Maestro Zocche interpreted the tunes a little too beautifully and sensitively, leaving out some of the passion and fire of the pieces. It is all quite pleasant and relaxing, but it seems to me to omit the spark it needs, particularly if one is calling it "verismo," which ought to indicate a more practical and less Romantic approach.

Nevertheless, more than a few selections stood out as worthy of attention. The opening Preludio, for example, projects a sweet, graceful, lyrical charm. The following La Tregenda is appropriately robust. In neither case, however, did I feel the fire I sometimes find in other performances. But I quibble; Maestro Zocche does a splendid job for the most part.

The intermezzo from Suor Angelica displays a proper tenderness; the familiar music from Cavalleria rusticana is gorgeous if a bit sentimental; the Pagliacci intermezzo seems a tad overdramatic; and so it goes, with my nit-picking all along the way. Let it suffice that you probably won't find the music performed any better than here, not if you're looking for all of it in one place, at any rate.

Finally, I'm not sure for whom the producers of the album intended it. Surely, the dedicated opera fan will already have most if not all of this music already in his or her collection. Lovers classical orchestral music may even have similar discs. I suspect the producers aimed their program more toward casual music listeners looking for tranquil, soothing background music, and the generally placid performances would seem to back up this possibility. Whatever, it's fine music, well enough presented.

Producers Peter Ghiradini and Giovanni Prosdocimi and engineer Peter Ghiradini recorded the music at Oper Graz, Austria in February 2014. As with many other CPO recordings over the years, this one sounds quite nice. There is good clarity and definition, good orchestral depth, and fairly wide frequency and dynamic ranges. Imaging is neither too close nor too distant. In short, it's a first-class recording.


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

Mar 22, 2017

Maazel Conducts Wagner, Volumes 1 & 2 (CD review)

Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano; Lorin Maazel, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. RCA 09026-63143-2 and RCA 74321-68717-2.

Yes, there was life after Karajan. Even without its former maestro fussing about, the Berlin Philharmonic still had a gorgeous, deep-throated sonority about it. Although at the time of these recordings, 1998-2000, Claudio Abbado was leading the Berlin orchestra, their playing under the late Lorin Maazel (1930-2014) nevertheless sounded effortless, creating a monumentally big, full, rich sound. In fact, the BPO sound appears so together, it is like listening to a single great instrument playing rather than a hundred instruments in unison. RCA have captured the orchestral sonics in warm, smooth, slightly soft dimensions, very easy on the ear and, if anything, adding to the grand scale of the proceedings. The acoustics are nothing like the bright glare presented on so many early digital releases in the same venue under Karajan.

Lorin Maazel
The performances, too, are on an appropriately lofty plane, coming close to but not quite realizing the grandeur or fervor of my favorite Wagner interpretations under Otto Klemperer (EMI), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Erich Leinsdorf (Sheffield), or Leopold Stokowski (HDTT or RCA), but they're close.

Maazel opens with a huge rendition of the Tannhauser Overture, leading into a revised edition of the "Venusberg-Bacchanale." There follows a quite exciting version of Der Fliegende Hollander Overture; then a sweet and noble Act I Prelude to Lohengrin; and a dynamic Gotterdammerung "Funeral March." The first disc concludes with the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde and finally "Isoldes Liebestod" sung by mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier.

OK, Maazel is quite a good Wagner conductor, but note that Klemperer and his Philharmonia players convey both size and greater urgency in these works, and they were recorded by EMI with better definition and available at mid price, albeit on several discs. For a single collection, though, this new Maazel album is a fine effort and an easy recommendation.

As I said about Maazel's first volume of Wagner music with the Berlin Philharmonic, there was definitely life after Karajan. In the second volume, sold separately, the BPO continued to sound more mellifluous, more imposing, more majestic than almost any orchestra in the world, made to appear all the more so given RCA's ultrasmooth, ultra-velvety sonics. With Maazel's unusually broad view of tempos and knack for grandly emphasizing a point, the result is Wagner on an even loftier level than usual.

Oddly, given their prominence, the two opening pieces I thought were the weakest interpretively. The Rienzi Overture is slow to the point of plodding, and the Lohengrin Act III Prelude never really catches fire. But then Maazel comes into his own with the Faust Overture, which combines cool deliberation with fiery execution. Next, his Die Meistersinger Prelude comes off with appropriate ebullience and aplomb, followed by the centerpiece of the album, the Siegfried Idyll, delicate and pensive, the famous birthday gift from Wagner to his wife, Cosima. The program concludes with Maazel's best performance of the lot, "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Gotterdammerung. It allows the conductor to exhibit freely his baronial, dramatic flair while maintaining a fair degree of control.

Maazel is a fine conductor who grew into the role of elder statesman gracefully, though losing some of the spark that once marked his conducting. I find Haitink, on a similarly comprised, mid-priced Philips recording with the Concertgebouw, more to my liking for his greater spontaneity. Otto Klemperer on a pair of mid-priced EMI issues is equally noble yet displays more individualism; and his EMI engineers provided a shade more sonic transparency. Still, these discs will not disappoint Maazel's fans, and it's hard to fault the Berlin players in anything they do.


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

Mar 19, 2017

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2. Augustin Hadelich, violin; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Norwegian Radio Orchestra. Avie Records AV2323.

First, you might not know the disc's soloist. The talented young German-Italian violinist Augustin Hadelich very nearly had his career ended in a 1999 fire that damaged much of his hands and face. After recovering, he continued his musical education, going on to win numerous competitions and awards, including a Grammy, perform with many of the world's leading orchestras, and record over half a dozen albums.

Second, you might be wondering about the disc's coupling. Mr. Hadelich writes, "The combination of Mendelssohn and Bartok may seem strange at first, and it is certainly unusual. However, as often happens with contrasting pairings, there are more similarities between Mendelssohn and Bartok than one might expect, and the character and style of each work are made clearer and have more impact when one hears them side by side. According to the popular clichés, Mendelssohn was the happy romantic and Bartok the tortured soul. There is some truth to that: I would say that Mendelssohn was overall an optimist...and Bartok more of a pessimist. Indeed, when one examines the music more closely, things are much more complex!" Hadelich then goes on to explain each work's complexities, but, unfortunately, he never persuaded me to see the connections among them too well. Oh, well, it's in hearing Hadelich playing the two concertos that one will either agree or disagree with his choice of pairing.

Third, you might ask, Why do I need another recording of two such well-traveled classics? Here, things become a little trickier. If every performer interpreted a piece of music exactly the same way as every other performer, we would have no need for multiple recordings in our collections. It would be as though robots had played the music, note for note the same as everybody else. But, no, that's not the way it works. All performers put a little something of themselves in a piece of music. Too much and the performance may sound distorted and perhaps more than a bit egotistical. Too little and the performance may sound bland, undistinguished, even lifeless. With Hadelich, the Bartok sounds the more convincing, the Mendelssohn a bit too hurried in the important opening movement, thereby losing some of its charm.

Augustin Hadelich
Anyway, the German composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered his Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 in 1845; it would be his last big orchestral work. From the very outset we can hear Hadelich's virtuosic command of the violin; he sounds as though he could play anything, anywhere, anytime with consummate ease. However, he also appears to rush through parts, negating some of Mendelssohn's enchanting appeal. In the first movement, at any rate, Hadelich seems intent on display over emotion. This is not to say the music suffers badly, only that it doesn't appear as characteristically charismatic as it does under performers like Perlman, Szeryng, Chee-Yun, or Heifetz, the latter taking the tempos even faster than Hadelich but somehow making them seem more emotionally affecting.

Fortunately, Hadelich is in form in the slow central movement, which sounds quite lyrically balanced, and the finale, which catches more of Mendelssohn's sprightly heart than Hadelich's handling of the first movement did. In addition, the soloist provides an effectively smooth and graceful transition into the last movement with the composer's little intermezzo-like passage. So, all's well that ends well.

Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945) wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1937-38, and during his lifetime people simply knew it as the "Violin Concerto" because his earlier violin concerto (now known as No. 1), written decades earlier and put aside, would not get published until 1956. As Hadelich reminds us in a booklet note, it was the Hungarian violinist Zoltan Szekely who asked Bartok to write a violin concerto, and Bartok replied, no, he'd rather write a theme and variations for violin and orchestra. As it turns out, the composer wound up doing both: the concerto is really a piece that while embracing the usual three-movement structure actually contains a set of variations in the second movement and then in the final movement a variation of the first.

Hadelich handles all of this with a refined grace, which is perhaps the interpretation's only point of contention, given that Bartok wrote it at a time of increasing fascist rule in Europe, generally reflected in some of the music's pessimism. So Hadelich's rendition of the score isn't quite as pointed as some others you may have on your shelf. Nevertheless, under the guidance of Hadelich and Maestro Harth-Bedoya, the music finds its rightful place, in part dark and melancholy, in part spontaneous and singing.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Thomas Wolden (LAWO Classics) recorded the concertos at the Concert Hall, NRK Radio, Oslo, Norway in June 2014. As with almost every Avie recording I've had the pleasure to listen to this one sounds terrific: Very lifelike, with a warm ambience enhancing the natural bloom of the instruments. The soloist remains in front of the orchestra but at a realistic distance, meaning he is not in our face. What's more, the solo violin sounds truthful in size, not spread across the speakers. The orchestral accompaniment is vivid enough without being forward or bright. It's a triumphant sonic achievement all the way around.


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

Mar 15, 2017

Celibidache (CD review)

Debussy: Nocturnes, La Mer, Iberia; Ravel: Alborada del gracioso, Rapsodie espagnole, Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, Le Tombeau de Couperin, La Valse. Sergiu Celibidache, SWR Stuttgard Radio Symphony Orchestra. DG 543 194-2 (4-disc set).

Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) was the famous Romanian conductor, composer, and teacher who died without ever having released any of his recordings (or none that I know of) in his lifetime. In the words of his son, "My father always attempted through music to stimulate the individual's creativity (in the making of it but also in listening to it, both being ways of participating in the creative process), and he therefore, justifiably, feared the CD's inability to do more than repeat itself in a diminished, and thus false, reality, reducing the individual's reactions to a mechanical and paralyzed stillness instead of promoting creative spontaneity." To which I can only respectfully disagree.

The son goes on to say, "According to my father, the correct tempo cannot be determined by a metronome marking but, rather, depends on other criteria in the score and, of course, on the acoustics of a particular hall. This tempo fluctuates according to the complexity of the notes played (and heard) and their epiphenomena (the secondary sounds resulting from the division of the main note after being played on any instrument). In short, the more notes (and consequently more epiphenomena), the more time needed for them to develop and to be 'digested' acoustically. Thus, the richer the music, the slower the tempo." This is to say that Celibidache often played things very slowly. The son further states, somewhat defensively, that his father's slow tempos may not sound like much on a recording, other than just being slow, but in a live performance they were just right for the occasion. Fair enough.

Sergiu Celibidache
Anyway, while all that may be so, on these three discs of music by Debussy and Ravel, released posthumously, the music merely sounds slow. In fact, it sometimes sounds laboriously slow, lugubriously slow, eccentrically slow. The opening moments of Iberia, for instance, seem almost bizarre in their deliberate and sluggish pace. I don't mean to suggest, however, that I didn't enjoy at least a little of Celibidache's music; indeed, there is a tranquillity about some of it that I found quite satisfying. However, for the most part, I felt little life in much of the Debussy and only the occasional flicker of vitality in the Ravel.

In fairness, too, many of Celibidache's fans no doubt would pronounce these interpretations filled with tremendous heart and soul, even though I found them largely soulless. Yet such is the case for all art that one must interpret subjectively. One person's treasure may be another person's trash and vice versa.

What's more, the technical aspects of these 1973-1980 live recordings did little to help my appreciation for Celibidache's music making. The recordings sound more noisy in terms of audience reactions, coughs, wheezes, and rustling, than I can remember in most major releases, and they have a degree of background hiss that that people might have found unacceptable even before today's digital standards. Moreover, the sound appears constricted and one-dimensional much of the time.

Admittedly, Celibidache never meant to release these recordings at all, but here they are, and what can one do except comment on them? DG also include a bonus disc of excerpts from the conductor's rehearsals, spoken in German, which also did little to impress me as I do not understand German. Maybe the conductor was right after all: Listeners should probably have heard him in person to make an impartial evaluation of his talents.


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

Mar 12, 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (CD review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

No, you're not experiencing deja vu. It's just that it wasn't too long ago that I reviewed EMI's own remastering of this classic 1957 recording in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. I said of it at the time that it ranked high among all available versions of the score, and that with EMI's remastering it also ranked high for sonic quality. My only quibbles about EMI's sound were that I noticed some small background noise and a slightly less-robust bass than on a few of its competitors. Now, the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered the recording from a 2-track 15ips tape, and, if anything, it sounds better than I have ever heard it before.

Anyway, for over forty years I lived contentedly with Bernard Haitink's 1972 London Philharmonic rendering 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, I admit, both the interpretation and the recording may seem too straightforward for some listeners. Recorded a few years later in 1979 came Kiril 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: Emmanuel Krivine's on Denon and Charles Mackerras's on Telarc. And before Haitink, I had only three other old favorite recordings: Pierre Monteux's on Decca; Fritz Reiner's on RCA; and Sir Thomas Beecham's on EMI. Except for the Monteux, which I have not heard on CD, the older editions held their heads high.

Sir Thomas Beecham
Which brings me to the subject here today, the Beecham recording, which not only holds its own against any competition but is head and shoulders above most of the rest. Indeed, for many listeners, myself included, its new HDTT remastering may now rank the recording at or near the top of the pile.

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. This is music-making of the highest order.

Then there's the sound, engineered by Christopher Parker in March 1957 at Kingsway Hall, London. It is splendid, indeed, especially in its new HDTT remastering.

Of the half dozen comparisons I've mentioned, Beecham's recording is clearly among the best, the most transparent, the most natural, the most dynamic, and the most well-imaged you'll find. The sonics are, in fact, top drawer by the standards of any day. The high end in particular is realistically open, yet the overall audio balance is warmer and smoother than ever. Indeed, the comparison I made to the EMI disc reveals that the HDTT version sounds less bright and just as natural but maybe even more so. The bass is probably no deeper than on EMI's version, yet it seems to have more body and greater warmth. In essence, it sounds more real.

In my experience, it is only the equally old Reiner/RCA account that comes close sonically or interpretatively to the Beecham, the Reiner a recording also made better, incidentally, in its own remastering (JVC XRCD). So, yes, a couple of remasterings take high sonic honors in this work: HDTT (Beecham) and JVC (Reiner).

All told, Beecham's account on HDTT (or EMI, but I prefer the sound of the newer HDTT) is one of the best recordings of this music on the market. Could I recommend the recording any more strongly? Hardly.

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


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

Mar 8, 2017

Antheil: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (CD review)

Also, Decatur at Algiers. Hugh Wolff, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt. CPO 999 706-2.

In 1947 a survey indicated that the four American composers whose works orchestras most often performed were George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and George Antheil. Remarkable, considering that the first three composers remain immensely popular, and people don't always give much attention to Antheil anymore. Remarkable, too, that Antheil ever became as popular as he did (at least for a short time) given the limited number of works he produced and the general ordinariness of most of his classical output.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil (1900-1959) became a celebrity at an early age as a piano prodigy and later as a self-proclaimed "bad boy" of music with his wildly elaborate stage productions. By the late Thirties, however, he had apparently repelled enough of his classical musical followers that necessity forced him to work in Hollywood, successfully composing music for movies and later television, working as a writer of pulp fiction, and co-inventing a radar guidance system for the Navy.

By 1944, however, he was back in form as a classical composer with his Fourth Symphony, which no less a musical light than Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra premiered and championed. Critics hailed the symphony as something worthy of comparison to Shostakovich. If so, they may have been thinking of Shostakovich light. Certainly, there is a lot of "war music" in Antheil's work, a lot of hustle and bustle, as we might expect given the era in which he composed it and its subtitle "1942," but it lacks Shostakovich's keener, sharper insight. Still, it's mostly attractive in its own kind of rowdy, boisterous way, and it does keep one's attention.

Hugh Wolff
Anyway, as I was saying, critics still pretty much regard the Fourth as Antheil's best work, although it sounds to me like a mishmash of too many varying styles--a pastiche of sentimentality, grandiloquence, and blatant nationalism. What it doesn't contain for me is much memorable music, despite a lovely Allegro and despite Maestro Hugh Wolff and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra doing their utmost to show off the work to best advantage in a reasonably well unified interpretation.

Its companion piece, the Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1948, again with a luminary in control, Eugene Ormandy and his immaculate Philadelphia Orchestra. Subtitled "Joyous," the Fifth seems to me more original in form, more "American" in its idioms and subject matter than the Fourth; yet it has a degree of sameness about it that wears its welcome thin about halfway through, with Maestro Wolff and his players again giving it their topmost attention. Nevertheless, before it wears thin, it provides an entertaining show.

Finally, for what it's worth, the little companion piece, Decatur at Algiers, came off best for me, maybe because of its very briefness. It works as a sort of quiet place between the more tumultuous symphonies.

CPO released the album in 2000, with sound that is very wide across the stereo stage and very dynamic, especially so in the Fifth Symphony, which can go from the softest solo triangle tap to the loudest crescendos in a matter of seconds, practically startling one out of one's seat. While there is not the best depth of field perceptible nor the greatest midrange transparency, it is fairly natural in overall balance, with no undue prominence given to any one instrument or any one orchestral section.

For those listeners exploring twentieth-century music, particularly American music, Antheil makes a fascinating subject. He's an anomaly of sorts, a hero of yesteryear who today listeners seem to regard largely as a curiosity. One listen to his Fourth Symphony and one can readily understand why Gershwin, Copland, and Barber continue to command public attention--they wrote melodies that have never gone out of style, tunes that easily communicate to the heart and mind. By comparison, Antheil appears mainly to have written a series of sometimes odd, tense, but admittedly thrilling notes.


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

Mar 5, 2017

2017 New Year's Concert (CD review)

Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88985376182 (2-disc set).

Usually, I dislike albums recorded live. Too much noise, too much applause and shuffling of feet and rustling of programs, too much coughing and wheezing, too much breathing. But with these yearly New Year's Concerts from the Vienna Philharmonic, the whole business of its being live is, in fact, the point. This year, at least we have Gustavo Dudamel to liven things up.

As you are aware, the Vienna Philharmonic began its custom of offering a New Year's Concert in 1941, and it hasn't changed much since. EMI, RCA, DG, Decca, and now Sony are among some of the companies that have recorded the VPO's concerts over the stereo years, and in keeping with the orchestra's tradition of having no permanent conductor, they invite a different conductor to perform the New Year's duties each year. These conductors in recent times have included some of the biggest names in the business, including Carlos Kleiber, Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Georges Pretre, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Franz Welser-Most, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, and Mariss Jansons. So Maestro Dudamel is in good company.

Of course, Dudamel is not quite in the same category as a Boskovsky or Karajan when it comes to Strauss waltzes. Nevertheless, he appears to be a quick learner, and he fills this 2017 concert for the most part with his usual infectious enthusiasm, if not always with the same sense of joyous occasion evidenced by the aforementioned two conductors.

Then, too, the program appears nicely varied, with not only the Strauss family represented but a few newcomers as well. The lineup of tunes includes the following:

Disc one:
Lehar: Nechledil March
Waldteufel: Les Patineurs, Walzer, Op. 183
Strauss II: 's gibt nur a Kaiserstadt, 's gibt nur a Wien, Polka, Op. 291
Strauss, Josef: Winterlust, Polka schnell, Op. 121
Strauss II: Mephistos Höllenrufe, Walzer, Op. 101
Strauss II; So ängstlich sind wir nicht! Polka schnell, Op. 413
Suppe: Pique Dame: Overture
Ziehrer: Hereinspaziert! Walzer, Op. 518
Nicolai: Mondaufgang
Strauss II: Pepita-Polka, Op. 138

Disc two:
Strauss II: Rotunde-Quadrille, Op. 360
Strauss II: Die Extravaganten, Walzer, Op. 205
Strauss I: Indianer Galopp, Op. 111
Strauss, Josef: Die Nasswalderin, Polka Mazur, Op. 267
Strauss II: Auf zum Tanze! Polka schnell, Op. 436
Strauss II: Tausend und eine Nacht, Walzer, Op. 346
Strauss II: Tik-Tak Polka, Polka schnell, Op. 365
Strauss, Eduard: Mit Vergnügen, Polka schnell, Op. 228
Strauss II: An der schönen blauen Donau, Walzer, Op. 314
Strauss I: Radetzky-Marsch, Op. 228

Gustavo Dudamel
Here are a few of the highlights for me: Things get off to a rousing if somewhat boisterous start with Franz Lehar's "Nechledil March," followed by a reasonably lilting if somewhat stiff Skaters Waltz by Emile Waldteufel. It's interesting that it isn't until the third selection that we find anything by the waltz king himself, Johann Strauss Jr.'s polka "There's Only One Imperial City, There's Only One Vienna." But rest assured that by the end of the concert, Dudamel will have covered the famous Strauss family: Johann Sr., Johann Jr., Josef, and Eduard.

Anyway, Maestro Dudamel adds a joyous bounce to most of the polkas, and he does an especially good job with the "Mephisto's Calls" waltz, providing it with a romantic yet somewhat sinister tone. Franz von Suppe's "Pique Dame" overture, though, was probably the most-enjoyable for me on disc one, as Dudamel maintains a healthy dose of operatic melodrama in it. Then, the Vienna Boys Choir add a touching element to Otto Nicolai's "Moon Chorus."

The two Strauss Jr. pieces that open disc two are delightful and the waltz "Die Extravaganten" in particular sounds quite appealing. But the real charmer on the second disc is the landler "The Girl from Nasswald," which is as lovely as one could ask. The two concluding works are the ones we all expect: "The Blue Danube" waltz and the "Radetzky March," both sounding adequate though a trifle perfunctory.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and engineers Tobias Lehmann and Rene Moller recorded the music live for Teldex Studio Berlin at the Goldener Saal des Wiener Musikvereins on January 1, 2017. Although the engineers captured the music live, it isn't too close up nor too bright or forward. In fact, it has a nice, warm, ambient glow to it. It also displays a strong dynamic range and impact. If anything, it's a touch soft, so don't expect any ultimate transparency, just a smooth, comfortable response. Do expect, however, a good deal of applause after each number


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

Mar 1, 2017

Placido Domingo: Sacred Songs (CD review)

Placido Domingo, tenor; Sissel, soprano; Marcello Viotti, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. DG 289 471 575-2.

With the release of Sacred Songs in 2002, the Spanish singer and conductor Placido Domingo proved once again he was among the greatest singers in the world. Given the absence from the scene of his primary competition, Luciano Pavarotti, this was still the story at the time. Today, many years later, Domingo's voice may not be what it was, but his place in the pantheon of great tenors nevertheless seems secure.

In 2002 Domingo continued to have a good range and a smooth, expressive style, perhaps more so in his prime than Pavarotti. Not that I have anything against the latter singer, mind you; he was and always will be a towering figure in the world of opera, and I'm privileged to have been alive to hear him sing. But favorites remain favorites.

Anyway, in Sacred Songs, Domingo performs sixteen songs of a sacred or religious nature, some of them familiar and some of them not, with vocal contributions by Norwegian singer and actress Sissel Kyrkjebo and the accompaniment of Marcello Viotti and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.

Placido Domingo
The first item, "Ave Maria," for instance, is the familiar Biblical "Hail Mary" set to the popular instrumental intermezzo by Pietro Mascagni from Cavalleria Rusticana. It's kind of odd at first hearing words to the tune we all know so well without the words, but it works well enough; as does his vocal partner in the song, Sissel Kyrkjebo. Her voice is not nearly so full and operatic as Domingo's, but the ethereal quality she projects nicely complements his more robust outpourings.

The listener will also no doubt recognize Cesar Franck's "Panis angelicus" and Charles Gounod's "Sanctus" and Handel's "Ombra mai fu." The listener might not recognize Fermin Alvarez's "Plegaria" ("Los Tres Amores"), however, or Placido Domingo, Jr.'s "Ave Maria," but that's neither here nor there. And so it goes.

Two minor quibbles: I probably could have done without Richard Rodgers's "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from The Sound of Music, which seems more than a little out of place among the more exalted "sacred" melodies that surround it, and I missed Schubert's famous "Ave Maria," which I guess Domingo figured everybody already has in multiple copies. Still, it would have been helpful to have it along with these others, all in one place.

DG's sound caps the climax, so to speak, by being rich and smooth, with perhaps not the epitome of solid front-to-back imaging but well balanced and warmly ambient in any case. Domingo is clearly out in front of the orchestra but never too very close up, and his voice is never hard, harsh, or bright.

In short, Sacred Songs is an all-around lovely album and makes for an easy crossover selection.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa