Apr 30, 2017

Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 595.

Mendelssohn's Third "Scottish" and Fourth "Italian" Symphonies get most of the love, with No. 4 probably just edging out No. 3 in the number of recordings made over the years. More recently, No. 5 "Reformation" has gotten some attention, but Nos. 1 and 2 "Hymn of Praise" get hardly a nod from the record companies, with No. 1 getting the least notice of all. So, while it's always nice to hear another recording of the "Scottish" Symphony, it's even nicer that conductor Andrew Manze chose to couple it with the little First Symphony.

So, the program begins with the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11, by German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Now, what's the story with this largely forgotten little piece? Well, for starters, Mendelssohn wrote it in 1824 when he was only fifteen years old. He premiered it at a private concert the same year to honor his sister Fanny's nineteenth birthday, but he didn't publish the work until 1831. Although it is brief at just over half an hour, it contains the usual zest we often associate with the composer, with an added dose of Mozart along with it.

Under Maestro Manze, the opening Allegro Molto is just that, very quick, and filled with a heady degree of energy. If anything, Manze sounds a tad too serious, yet it does set the tone for a vigorous performance. The slow movement is sweet respite, and Manze takes it at an appropriately leisurely pace, although it still seems rather staid to me. The third movement Minuetto proceeds like the rest of the performance at a steady if too solemn gait. Manze takes the finale as speedily as he does the whole work, but the approach works best here and ends the music on a driving note.

Then it's on to more-familiar territory with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. Mendelssohn completed it in 1842, the last of five symphonies he wrote, despite the numbering. He called it his "Scottish" symphony because he started writing it over a dozen years earlier after a visit to Scotland. It doesn't actually sound all that Scottish, though; it's more like a brief, musical impression the composer got of the country, an impression he expanded over the years.

Here, Manze is not as genial as a few other conductors have been with this music, and I wouldn't say he handles it better than some of my favorite conductors in this piece. In particular, I've always enjoyed Peter Maag and the LSO (Decca), Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (Philips), Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony (on either his earlier Decca or later DG recording), Joseph Swensen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn), Herbert Blomstedt and San Francisco Symphony (Decca), and Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony), among others.

Andrew Manze
Manze provides a nice lilt to the opening Andante, even if it appears again a bit too solemn to my ears, opening it up into a full head of steam as it progresses. The second movement zips along with a cheerful good grace. The lovely Adagio flows lyrically along, making a smooth transition into its dirgelike second subject and back again. Although it's a mite brisker than usual, it is in keeping with the rest of Manze's interpretation, which tends to the spry side. Manze ends the symphony with another fairly vigorous reading that we ought to be used to by this point. In all, the conductor injects the music with a hearty spirit while maybe losing a little something of the work's warmth and charm along the way.

Producer Matthias Ilkenhans, supervisor and digital editor Rita Hermeyer, and engineer Martin Lohmann recorded the album at Grosser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkaus Hannover, Germany in January 2016. They made the hybrid recording for SACD multichannel and two-channel stereo playback via an SACD player as well as two-channel stereo via a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

There is a considerable amount of ambiant reflections around the sound of the orchestra, almost too much. It may sound realistic in multichannel, but in two-channel stereo it somewhat obscures the audio. Still, it's not distracting, and the overall sonic image is impressively dynamic. Upper mids tend to be a trifle hard and edgy at times, with a slightly elevated upper bass. It's also a bit closer than I prefer. Otherwise, there's fair amount of naturalness in the recording and a decent amount of orchestral depth.

Pentatone do up the disc with a standard SACD case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. I'm still not sure what purpose a slipcover actually serves, but it does provide a handsome packaging feature.


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

Apr 26, 2017

Brahms: The Four Symphonies (CD review)

Also, Academic Festival Overture; Haydn Variations. Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Telarc CD-80450 (4-disc set).

When I read on the label of this 1997 Telarc release that these were chamber-orchestra performances in their original performing styles, it concerned me a little. Was the late Sir Charles Mackerras trying to do something different for the sake of being different? Certainly, we have an abundance of good traditional recordings of these symphonies around, and were these new ones merely to sound eccentric?

The first thing I did was consult the accompanying booklet notes to find out what to listen for and why. Here Sir Charles tells us that a major difference between orchestras in Brahms's day and our own is that their size increased dramatically during Brahms's lifetime, from an average of forty or so members at the time of his birth in 1833 to over one hundred by the time of his death in 1897. In fact, the term "chamber orchestra" largely did not exist in the nineteenth century; an orchestra was an orchestra. That Mackerras uses the Scottish Chamber Orchestra of about fifty players is in keeping with the numbers utilized for the premieres of both the First and Fourth Symphonies. (By the Fourth Symphony, orchestras had, indeed, become much larger, but Brahms declined an offer to augment the strings.)

Another difference comes in the apparent irregularities among the various performing editions of the scores of these works, with Mackerras going back to the most-authentic possible original sources, enlarged upon by comments from contemporary pupils of Brahms. Apparently, scholars and the conductor corrected any major discrepancies. Next, we have the Brahmsian trait of dividing the first and second violins to the left and right of the conductor, a practice that much later conductors like Otto Klemperer and Leopold Stokowski employed in their stereo recordings. Other differences you might notice in Mackerras's performances include less vibrato, more lingering on the upbeat preceding big motive themes, and considerably more flexibility in tempo than conductors usually use today. A thirty-six minute interview with Sir Charles illustrates many of these issues, and the Telarc folks include it on a bonus CD.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Finally, after reading the booklet and listening to the interview, it was time to settle down to the symphonies themselves, and I must admit I had by now expected all the dissimilarities I had just read and heard about to overwhelm me. Not so. I noticed some differences, to be sure, especially as I had prepared myself for them, but overall I found these performances more greatly marked by their conventionality than by any manifest quaintness.

The smaller orchestral forces naturally provide a more vivid exposition of the scores, with the separation of the violins increasing the tonal and stereophonic effects. Yet with Telarc's big, warm, rich sound and the use of modern instruments, the overall impression is not so evident as that of, say, a period-instrument group versus a modern orchestra. I noticed some rubato and general tempo variations, too, but I did not find them intrusive. While Mackerras speeds up a little here and slows down a little there, he does it with discretion. His intent is to liven up the proceedings rather than to be quirky. And, needless to say, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play flawlessly for the conductor.

Taken on their own, these are very personal, strongly felt symphonic interpretations that at the same time do not overwhelm the listener with idiosyncrasy. They are much like Sir Charles's earlier readings of the Mozart symphonies for Telarc, and the record company do them up in similar sonics--big and warm in the bass and midrange, as I say, and a little pinched and nasal in the treble. I'd venture that if you liked the sound of Mackerras's Mozart releases, you would probably like these as well.

Although I would not recommend the Mackerras set as a person's only recording of the Brahms symphonies (I still prefer the big orchestral treatments from Klemperer, Boult, Kertesz, Walter, and others), they make excellent, alternative additions to one's primary sets. Oh, and if the idea of buying all four symphonies in a box set seems too daunting for you, Telarc also make the symphonies available separately on single discs.


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

Apr 23, 2017

The Italian Job (CD review)

Music of the Italian baroque. Gail Hennessy and Rachel Chaplin, solo oboes; Peter Whelan, solo bassoon; Adrian Chandler, La Serenissima. Avie AV2371.

If the idea of listening to well-recorded Italian music of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Baroque period played on period instruments in historically informed performances appeals to you, you might enjoy this album, The Italian Job. Conductor Adrian Chandler and his British early-music ensemble La Serenissima (the "serene city" of Venice) play a variety of tunes from some of Italy's top composers of the day: the somewhat forgotten Caldara and more-famous Corelli, Tartini, Vivaldi, Albinoni, and Torelli.

What's more, if you're worried that all Baroque music sounds pretty much alike, you're in for a treat. Chandler has chosen a program that varies the selections considerably, and the music represents four Italian cities known for their distinctive musical styles: Venice, Bologna, Padua, and Rome. The disc provides over seventy-six minutes of well-played music. You can hardly go wrong.

First up is the Sinfonia in C by Antonio Caldara (c. 1671-1736). It is rather extravagant in its use of trumpets, bassoons, oboes, solo violin, and strings, with La Serenissima and company giving it a rousingly good turn. The ensemble plays comfortably, and Chandler never leads them on any helter-skelter barnstorming. That is, the tempos are lively but never rushed. There is also a prominent role for timpani that is most entertaining.

Next is the Sinfonia to S. Beatrice d'Este in D minor by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). This is largely a string work placed at the end of a much-longer oratorio (1689) by Giovanni Lulier. Supposedly, performances of the Corelli piece alone came later. Written in five movements, it begins very seriously and hardly lets up. There is a central Adagio, too, that while also solemn sounds quite lovely. I like the way Chandler keeps everything in an appropriately somber vein yet with enough energy and enthusiasm as to never let the music sound depressing.

Adrian Chandler
After that comes the Concerto in E by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770). Apparently, Tartini much admired Corelli and wrote several works that use variations of the older man's music. Tartini's violin compositions, however, seem more complex than Corelli's, this one featuring some charming solo violin work, Chandler and company playing it with a consummate grace.

Then, there's the tiny Concerto Alla rustica in G and the longer Concerto in C by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), proving he was good for a lot more than The Four Seasons. However, fans of Vivaldi will probably agree there is no mistaking Vivaldi's work for anybody else's. La Serenissima perform both works with an animated vigor, and the music highlights some delightful bassoon playing.

Following the Vivaldi concerto comes the Concerto in F by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751). Despite his writing some fifty operas, listeners today probably think of Albinoni mainly for his instrumental music. He wrote this one for two oboes, strings, and continuo, and it includes a particularly affecting Adagio.

The program ends with the Sinfonia in C by Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709). Like the opening Caldara piece, Torelli's work contains a multitude of instruments, scored elaborately for four trumpets, trombone, timpani, two oboes, two bassoons, two violins, two cellos, strings, and continuo. The timpani again make a statement. La Serenissima perform the piece in a grand and stately manner, bringing the album to a splendid conclusion.

Simon Fox-Gal produced, engineered, and edited the album, recorded at St. John's Smith Square, London, England in August 2016. The sound has a nice, ambient bloom to it, making the relatively small number of players appear bigger and the whole sonic range realistic. There is also a lifelike depth of field to the music, and good clarity and detail without any accompanying brightness or forwardness. It makes for a pleasant listening experience.


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

Apr 19, 2017

Gould: American Ballads (CD review)

Also, Foster Gallery; American Salute. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.559005.

The surprise here, and a delightful one, is not that American composer, arranger, conductor, and pianist Morton Gould (1913-1996) successfully orchestrated so many fine, old American folk tunes; most people who are familiar with twentieth-century American music already know and appreciate the man and his work. No, the surprise is that a Ukrainian orchestra and a Ukrainian-American conductor could bring them off so idiomatically and with such enthusiasm and charm.

The program begins with a series of short tunes (1976) called American Ballads: the "Star-Spangled Overture" an appropriate starting point, through "Amber Waves," "Jubilio," "Memorials," "Saratoga Quickstep," and "Hymnals."

The core of the disc, however, is a collection called Foster Gallery (1939), in which Gould connects some of Stephen Foster's most memorable songs with a few of his lesser-known things in a kind of Pictures From an Exhibition layout, with variations on "Camptown Races" being the thread holding the pieces together. Some of it is achingly beautiful, like "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair"; much of it familiar, like "Swanee River," "Old Black Joe," "My Old Kentucky Home"; and some of it not so familiar, like "Canebreak Jig," "Comrades, Fill No Glass for Me," "Kitty Bell"; with a rousing finale of "Oh, Susanna." The disc concludes with the composer's arrangement of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," which Gould titled American Salute.

Theodore Kuchar
The idea of taking old tunes and renewing them symphonically is not new. People like Dvorak, Ives, Grainger, Vaughan Williams, and dozens of others did it, too. Gould uses banjos along with piccolos, harps, oboes, clarinets, trombones, tubas, percussion, and strings--lots and lots of strings--to accomplish the deed.

What's more, Theodore Kuchar and his Ukrainian players (he was still the orchestra's Principal Conductor at the time of the recording) perform all of this as though it were their own native music. Now, you might say the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine seems an unlikely ensemble to be playing American nationalistic music; but in this case they play with as much passion and spirit as any native orchestra might. Let's say, they adjust well, and there is probably a good reason why the Ukraine ensemble has recorded more music than any other orchestra of the former Soviet Union.

Then, there's the sound from this 2000 Naxos release. It projects a big, bold image to match Gould's big, bold music and Kuchar's big, jazzy music-making. Although one could hardly describe any of it as subtle, it sounds wholly appropriate.

And all for less money than you'd pay for a hamburger at McDonald's. There are few other labels that let one experiment as much as Naxos.


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

Apr 16, 2017

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (SACD review)

Also, Dvorak: Rusalka Fantasy. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-720SACD.

It seems that the Pittsburgh Symphony's Music Director, Manfred Honeck, wants us to be as fascinated by the mysteries of Tchaikovsky's final symphony as he is. Honeck spends eleven-and-a-half pages of the booklet notes explaining all the various rumors, insinuations, descriptions, and elucidations surrounding the work. You know, did Tchaikovsky write it to foretell his own death, and so on. I'm not sure he needed to go into such detail on the subject, since no one really knows for sure why the composer wrote his last big-scale piece the way he did, but it makes for an interesting and enlightening read.

Anyway, the real question is why we might need yet another recording of a work that conductors have already recorded to death. To answer that, we have to look at several factors, including whether the music is worth performing so often; whether the new interpretation is good enough to warrant buying it; whether the orchestra responds well to it; whether there is value in the coupling; and whether the recorded sound holds up to the listener's standards. Let's take them one at a time.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" in the last year of his life, and it would be his final work before he died. The ensuing century brought it mounting fame, and today one can hardly doubt its value as one of the late-Romantic period's most-popular works. The title "Pathetique" in Russian means "passionate" or "emotional," which is how most conductors play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. Maestro Honeck, though, generally brings to it a more restrained approach.

The work begins with a fairly lengthy introduction, which Honeck takes in leisurely fashion before moving into the main subject. Then, things build in an agitated fashion, culminating in the music's famous central theme. The first time it appears, Honeck appears to do little with it, and one wonders if the music is ever going to catch fire. But not to worry; about halfway through, Honeck lets the big guns loose, and we know this is Tchaikovsky after all. A very dynamic live recording helps here as well. Honeck ends the movement with an appropriately sedate repose.

Manfred Honeck
The second-movement Allegro con grazia is a waltz, and the third-movement is a zippy scherzo before ending a mournful Finale. Here, Honeck does keep things quite as usual, either. The waltz seems a bit too fast, as though Honeck wanted to get it over with. The scherzo is also quick, which we would expect, although I'm not sure Honeck catches all the fire and passion by taking it quite as speedily as he does. Nevertheless, it's fun. Lastly, Honeck ends the affair with a finale in the same unhurried vein as his first movement.

The Pittsburgh Symphony proves once again that it is among America's top orchestras, ranking right up there near the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Chicago, New York, and San Francisco Symphonies, among others. Its presence may not be as dominant as some of the illustrious European ensembles from Berlin, Amsterdam, Dresden, Leipzig, and London, but the Pittsburgh ensemble play with precision, and they sound as rich and lush as any you'll find.

In terms of the symphony's coupling, be aware that many discs don't even include additional selections. In Honeck's case, he has chosen to provide a suite, the Rusalka Fantasy, from Antonin Dvorak's opera Rusalka (arranged by Tomas Ille and Honeck himself). Maybe because I've heard the Tchaikovsky done so often by so many conductors, I couldn't appreciate Honeck's performance of it as much as I enjoyed his Dvorak; and I didn't have as much with which to compare the Dvorak. Whatever, Dvorak's music comes off with a delightful charm and joyful grace.

Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineers Mark Donahue and John Newton (all of Soundmirror, Boston) recorded the music live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in April 2015. They made it in hybrid SACD to play back in multichannel or two-channel from an SACD player and two-channel from a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The sound they obtained is about what we might expect from a live recording. It's close-up, of course, although not to the extent of some live recordings, and the engineers probably did it to minimize audience noise, making everything sound just a little bigger than life. Dynamics are huge, clarity is excellent, the response appears smooth and well balanced, and the frequencies seem well extended. It's just sort of an irony of live recordings that to me they most often don't sound as "live" as a studio recording (or one without an audience). Compared to the studio productions Reference Recordings have made over the years, this "Fresh!" live one doesn't quite project the dimensions of the concert hall, the ambience, the warmth, or the presence of RR's best non-live discs.

However, that's just me. Other listeners will, I'm sure, disagree and find the sound of this recording a delight--vigorous and detailed. It is certainly more than adequate, and RR have gratefully spared us any applause.


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

Apr 12, 2017

Haydn & Hummel: Trumpet Concertos (CD review)

Also, Albinoni: Concerto "Saint Marc"; Torelli: Sonata a Cinque. Martin Berinbaum, trumpet; Johannes Somary, English Chamber Orchestra. Vanguard SVC-136.

I've never met a recording of Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E flat major I didn't like. Since first hearing the work as a teenager over fifty years ago, I've probably heard dozens of recordings of Joseph Haydn's Concerto, and I admit I've liked them all. Oh, there have been extreme variations in matters of sound and tempo and such, to be sure, as with the comparisons I'll make in a minute, but the performances have always seemed to come up right. Can't say why. Maybe I find the piece so charming I just can't not like it, no matter what. In any case, this 2000 reissue from Vanguard featuring a young Martin Berinbaum on trumpet appears as beautifully played as any and has the advantage of good, lucid sound and sensible accompaniment.

OK, so Mr. Berinbaum isn't quite so young anymore, but he was when he recorded this program in 1972. The booklet note tells us that the recording "was selected to be one of 500 albums in the 'President's Collection' at the White House." It certainly rates such a distinction; Berinbaum plays with grace and refinement, plus an infectiously joyous spirit.

Martin Berinbaum
Like many other discs, this one couples the Haydn with Johann Hummel's Trumpet Concerto, a piece equally appealing in its own way and equally well played by Berinbaum and company. In addition, the issue includes two short baroque works for trumpet, the Concerto "Saint Marc" by Tommaso Albinoni and the Sonata a Cinque, No. 7 by Giuseppe Torelli, the latter a solo number for trumpet, four strings, and continuo. The timings for all four works on the disc still don't add up to much, a little less than fifty minutes, but the interpretations are well worth one's while.

The 1972 analogue recording dates from a period when the English Chamber Orchestra were in extraordinarily good form. It's the era when Daniel Barenboim recorded so much good Mozart with the group. Here, the late Johannes Somary leads them in exemplary, highly satisfying performances. Moreover, the orchestra's playing is alert to Somary's elegant yet lively direction.

Vanguard's 24-bit remastered sound makes the orchestra seem very slightly top heavy but overall quite clear, with the sound of the trumpet near perfect. There is only the faintest trace of roughness in the highest frequencies to betray the disc's age. I'd say if you have a stereo system inclined toward brightness, you might find the recording a bit edgy, but if your system projects a fairly smooth, well-balanced sonic image, you should find the recording sounding quite natural and transparent throughout its range.

Two other CDs I had on hand at the time of this review, Schwarz on Delos and Marsalis on Sony, sounded a bit soft and veiled by comparison. All of which is to suggest that this Vanguard reissue is a treasure.


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

Apr 9, 2017

Ginastera: One Hundred (CD review)

Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Gil Shaham, violin; Ori Shaham, piano; Jason Vieaus, guitar; Raphael Jimenez, Oberlin Orchestra. Oberlin Music OC 16-04.

"Beauty is the emergence of a spiritual climate in which each artist is transfigured through the impulse of creation. In this climate, the work that springs forth from the depths of his soul, combining personal and shared elements of humanity, is purified and becomes translucent and clear. It becomes universal." --Alberto Ginastera

A few years ago I reviewed a Naxos recording of Ginastera's cello concertos, and I remember the back of the jewel box saying, "Alberto Ginastera was one of the most admired and respected musical voices of the twentieth century, who successfully fused the strong traditional influences of his national heritage with experimental, contemporary, and classical techniques." That made me feel rather uninformed at the time because I could only remember hearing a single piece of music by the man before that, an old recording of the Harp Concerto with Zabaleta. Maybe the composer is finally getting his due.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) was an Argentinean composer who studied with Aaron Copland and among whose students was tango composer Astor Piazzolla. What surprised me in reading about Ginastera is that an old rock track familiar to me, Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Toccata," the group adapted from Ginastera's First Piano Concerto. It's remarkable how things in this world are so intertwined, yet we may not even know about them.

Anyway, what we have in the present disc is a 2016 celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of Ginastera's birth. There are four pieces represented on the disc, starting with the biggest (orchestra and soloist), longest (about twenty-five minutes), and arguably most popular of his works, the aforementioned Harp Concerto, Op. 25, this time performed by Yolanda Kondonassis, harp, accompanied by Raphael Jimenez and the Oberlin Orchestra. Ginastera wrote it in 1956 and revised it in 1968.

Yolanda Kondonassis
Ms. Kondonassis plays it with sensitivity and feeling, bringing out its more Romantic qualities of lyricism and melody. Yet she never shies from adding sparks to the livelier interludes. The orchestra play with enthusiasm, Jimenez providing a good rhythmic punch throughout the work's more-energetic segments.

The next three selections are brief duets or solos, starting with Pampeana No. 1, Op. 16 (1946), played by Gil Shaham, violin, and Orli Shaham, piano. They play it as a sort of slow, intricate lament, the two performers engaging in a conversation neither old-fashioned nor completely modern yet always compelling. This is modern music that doesn't sound at all modern nor dated and gets especially heated about halfway through. Beautifully executed.

Then there's the Sonata for Guitar, Op. 47 (1976), with Jason Vieaux, guitar, and Danzas Argentinas, Op. 2 (1937), with Orli Shaham, piano. They, too, appear well rendered, the soloists providing virtuosity, color, passion, and sentiment to the music in equal measure.

Incidentally, the booklet notes contains several insightful, well-written essays on Ginastera and his style. They are worth a read.

Producers Yolanda Kondonassis and Erica Brenner and engineers Paul Eachus and Lawrence Rock recorded the music at the Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio in November 2015 and February 2016 and at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY in February 2016. The sound obtained in the concerto is nicely focused and wide spread, with a moderate orchestral depth, good dynamics, and a fairly decent balance among the instruments. Nice bass and percussion, too. Fun stuff. There is a light ambient glow that slightly softens the sonic definition, but it's only a minor veiling and actually enhances most of the music. The duet and solos also sound realistic enough, the violin and piano combination never seeming too close or too distant. The solos, though, I found a bit too near, even if their closeness increases the clarity of the instruments.


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

Apr 4, 2017

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (CD review)

Also, Till Eulenspiegel; Salome's Dance; Don Juan. Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Legends 289 466 388-2.

It would be perverse of me to criticize what has become an audio classic over the years, especially Herbert von Karajan's 1959 recording of German composer Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. A snippet of the music, the Introduction, probably reached more listeners via Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else by Strauss in history, and this is the very recording Kubrick used.

The tone poem became so famous thanks to Kubrick's use of Karajan's recording that a joke arose about how you can always tell an audiophile because he only plays the Zarathustra Introduction. Anyway, I'll confine most of my few remarks to Decca's remastered sound of the performance.

Herbert von Karajan
I should mention, however, that all of the performances on the disc are pure Karajan: grand, imposing, sensual, romantic, and luxuriant, with the playing of Vienna Philharmonic always full and rich. Of the four works on the disc, I happen to prefer his Don Juan best for its exciting forward drive and reflective vision. Of the man's three stereo versions of Zarathustra, the second (DG) seems to me more luminous than this earlier one, as well as better detailed (if not, as I say, better known).

Famed Decca producer John Culshaw framed the sound for Decca's Zarathustra as carefully as always, making the Karajan disc just after he had done the same for Georg Solti's Wagner Ring cycle. Culshaw brought the same meticulous expertise to the production as always, creating an expansive sonic picture that for quite a while remained an audiophile demo piece. While I had always found it a bit hard in its vinyl and early CD forms, with this 2000 release Decca remastered it as a part of their mid-priced "Legends" series, and it comes off more comfortably than before. What we get is a smoother, slightly warmer, slightly softer image, yet one that contrasts more than ever with its discernibly rough, noisy background. It's still not entirely satisfactory to me in another way, too, because it seems to lack the life and dynamism I remember from the earlier vinyl and CD editions. I suppose one cannot have everything.

Decca recorded the couplings--Till Eulenspiegel, Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils, and Don Juan--a year later, 1960, and here they appear a bit brighter and better defined than ever. Decca's packaging includes the record's original cover art, which is nice, and they have made the CD itself look like a reel of recording tape. These are clever touches for Karajan's very fine performances, notwithstanding the somewhat indifferent sound.


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