May 31, 2017

Showpieces & Encores (CD review)

Constantine Orbelian, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Delos DE 3284.

Sir Thomas Beecham might have called these selections "lollipops." This 2001 release calls them "Showpieces & Encores," but I think they're closer to simple songs and encores--short, two-to-seven minute works designed to satisfy an audience's demand for a little something and maybe leaving them wanting just a little more. "Showpieces" implies to me virtuosic spectacle, and these selections seem more subdued, more low-key, than that. There are nineteen tracks in all, some familiar, some not, many featuring solo players on violin, viola, cello, or flute, and five "Armenian Folk Songs" getting the bulk of the love.

Constantine Orbelian
The Moscow Chamber Orchestra, about twenty players and their leader, American-born Constantine Orbelian, as always perform with elegance and refinement, qualities that show up admirably in things like Tchaikovsky's Waltz from the Serenade for Strings, Gershwin's "Summertime," Rachmaninov's Vocalise, and, especially, Frank Bridge's Valse-Intermezzo.

Still, I wish Orbelian and his group had let loose a little more, put a little additional fire into some of the music. We see glimmers of lively animation in Shostakovich's Spanish Dance, but most often Orbelian is content to demonstrate to us the beauty and grace of the compositions. Fair enough. I also enjoyed his scattering among the more popular choices a few lesser-known Russian favorites like Sinisalo's "Three Russian Folk Songs" and other tunes like "The Moon Is Shining" and "The Rush Light." The performances appear more than just polished, however; they display a sense of loving care and genuine affection that is hard to resist.

The cover picture shows the orchestra in Moscow, but, in fact, Delos made the recording at Skywalker Ranch, in the sound building at what was then George Lucas's place (now Disney's) in Marin County, California. It's good sound, my only quibbles being that there is a touch of brightness from time to time and the occasional soloist seems a mite too close compared to the rest of the players. Otherwise, there is good detail; a soft, warm, natural ambiance; and a moderate depth to the sonics.

It's a lovely, if perhaps redundant, collection from an impressive group of musicians.


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May 28, 2017

Novak: In the Tatra Mountains (CD review)

Also, Lady Godiva Overture; Eternal Longing. JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.573683.

Possibly not a lot of classical-music fans in America recognize the name of Vitezslav Novak, but in his native Czechoslovakia it might be different. Novak (1870-1949) was a Czech composer whose career pretty much paralleled that of German composer and conductor Richard Strauss. And to an extent, Novak's music even seems partly influenced by the tone poems of his more-famous contemporary. As both men were born in the latter part of the Romantic era of classical music making and lived well into the modern age, one can find elements of both styles in the composers' works.

On the present disc, JoAnn Falletta leads her Buffalo Philharmonic in three brief descriptive pieces by Novak: In the Tatra Mountains, the Lady Godiva Overture, and Eternal Longing. If there's any drawback to the program, it's that despite including three pieces, it's rather short on quantity, the disc containing only about fifty-two minutes of music. But it's quality that counts, and Ms. Falletta does a fine job illuminating the color, excitement, solemnity, and nationalism of the works involved.

First up is In the Tatra Mountains, a symphonic poem from 1902. As you might expect from the title, it is a musical representation of a mountain range Novak knew well. It's largely a sweet, bucolic piece, caressed lovingly by Ms. Falletta and her Buffalo ensemble. When it builds energy in the middle section (the inevitable thunder storm), Falletta is up to the task yet doesn't overplay her hand. The increase in tension and conflict comes smoothly and organically, like the mountains themselves. She handles the music deftly, poetically.

JoAnn Falletta
Next is the Lady Godiva Overture from 1907. Written in only two days, it became nevertheless one of Novak's most-popular pieces, dramatic and theatrical in its presentation. In this latter regard, it stands in stark contrast to the lyrical flow of the preceding work, the overture far more active and, frankly, more mundane. Nevertheless, Ms. Falletta invests it with a histrionic urgency appropriate to its Romantic leanings.

The final piece is Eternal Longing, written in 1905 and based on a poem by Danish author of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen and a setting by Jaroslav Vrchlicky. This is the most evocative of Novak's music on the disc, conjuring up dark, haunting landscapes and seascapes of mystery and suspense. Again, Falletta and her players adjust well to the composer's demands and offer up a lustrous account of this sometimes overlooked score.

Producer, engineer, and editor Tim Handley made the recording at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in June 2016. The sound seems typical of most good Naxos products. It's slightly soft and warmly ambient without being too mushy or reverberant. It's fairly transparent and well detailed without being too bright, too forward, or too very edgy. The sound spreads out widely across the soundstage without leaving holes in the middle. It's also dynamic without knocking a listener out of his seat. It's realistic and pleasant without calling attention to itself. While there is some harshness to the upper frequencies in louder passages, it's not enough to distract one from the music making.

One caution: The opening piece, In the Tatra Mountains, begins so softly it may tempt one to turn up the volume. I advise not doing so. It will get louder soon enough, and one may find oneself having to readjust the level before long.


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May 24, 2017

Classical Dreams: Music to Inspire (CD review)

Various composers and artists. Virgin 7243 5 67734 2 4 (2-disc set).

Think of the most dreamy, most tranquil, most serene musical works you can imagine, put them all together in a two-and-half-hour package, and you'll get some idea of what this album is about. Back in 2001, compilation producer Robert Laporta (currently of MSR Records) collected twenty-seven individual items here from the Virgin Records catalogue, ranging from two to ten minutes each for a two-disc Virgin set. The result is, well, dreamy.

There are too many things on the set to name individually, but let me give you some idea of the contents by naming just a few. The contents include Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5; Satie's Gymnopedies Nos. 1 and 3; Faure's Pavane; Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Elgar's Serenade for Strings; Barber's Adagio for Strings; Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela; Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on "Greensleeves"; Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte; Massenet's Meditation; Rachmaninov's Vocalise, and a ton more.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Some of the conductors involved are Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Paul Tortelier, Sir Charles Mackerras, Christoph Eschenbach, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Andrew Litton; Richard Hickox, Paavo Jarvi. Ensembles include the English Chamber Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and a host of others.

Laporta drew the recordings from the years 1988-1995, and all of them have a homogeneity of sound that complements one another. Mostly, it's smooth and natural, wide spread, and not very dynamic (because it doesn't need to be). I have no idea if the Virgin engineers altered the audio of these pieces in any way for them to sound so similar, but the results, especially with the works themselves played almost without breaks between them, appear to flow like one continuous stream.

This may be the ultimate in music for relaxation. What's more, it's great music well played, too, not New Age stuff  unworthy of actually paying attention to. So, I can easily recommend the set, even though you've probably got every piece somewhere else in your collection.


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May 22, 2017

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also, Smetana: The Bartered Bride Overture. Istvan Kertesz, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

Jewish-Hungarian conductor Istvan Kertesz (1929-1973) died tragically young, drowned while swimming off the coast of Israel. But before his death, he recorded Dvorak's Ninth Symphony twice in stereo. The first time was the Decca recording we have here, made with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961. The second time was just a few years later, in 1966, again with Decca but with the London Symphony. Why did he re-record it? Possibly because he was recording all nine of Dvorak's symphonies with the LSO and wanted continuity within the set. Possibly because he felt he had more to say on the subject. And possibly because he wanted to restore the first-movement repeat that he had omitted in the earlier recording.

Who knows? Whatever the case, Kertesz fans have been arguing ever since about which version they like best, the first, more youthful, more impetuous one under review or the second, more mature, more complete one. Moreover, there remains some disagreement among audiophiles about which recording sounds best from a purely sonic viewpoint: the earlier, more dynamic one or the later, more refined one.

The first time I heard Kertesz's Vienna rendering was in the late Sixties or early Seventies when an acquaintance bought a pair of Infinity Servo-Static I's, electrostatic/cone hybrids considered at the time to be one of the finest speaker systems in the world. The first thing the acquaintance put on the turntable was an LP of this recording by Kertesz and the VPO. I was stunned by the sound--the sonics of both the high-end playback system and the record.

Of course, I had to buy the album. (I would loved to have bought the Infinity speakers, too, but the price was astronomical). In any case, the album did not disappoint me, and even though I could only afford a pair of AR-3a's back then, the speakers brought out most everything good about the Kertesz/VPO sound. Then came the digital age in the early Eighties, and I moved on to the compact disc of the recording, which sorely disappointed me. It seemed edgier and to have lost much of its impact.

Which brings me to this High Definition Tape Transfers remastered version of the recording, made by HDTT in 2017. I'm happy to say that because HDTT transferred it from a Decca tape and did so with care, it sounds much as I remembered the old LP. Meaning it doesn't get any better, and it just might return to a lot of audiophile systems as a demonstration piece.

Anyway, let's start with a word about Kertesz's interpretation of the symphony. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote the work in 1893 while serving as director of the New York Conservatory. Many listeners over the years have heard instances of American idioms in the music, especially African-American spirituals and Native-American influences, but Dvorak said most of the music was original, probably inspired more by his native Bohemia than anything "American." The symphony's title, "From the New World," only came about because Dvorak happened to be living in New York at the time he wrote it. While to some degree local tunes may have influenced the composer, the music seems mostly Czech in flavor. At the very least, as Leonard Bernstein once remarked, one might consider it multinational.

In the first movement, Kertesz is both fervent and affectionate. While some listeners may miss the repeat, the abbreviated time here seems more suited to the conductor's urgent manner. Moreover, Kertesz is never reluctant to convey the work's Gypsy fire, and he closes the first movement in a thrilling blaze of passion.

The slow, quiet, second-movement Largo, with its famous cor anglais melody, sounds as sweetly fluid as any you'll find. Then Kertesz gives us an energetic reading of the Scherzo and ends the piece with a roaring good finale, full of excitement and good cheer. Maybe his LSO performance shows us a more unified, better constructed piece of music, but this earlier realization is undoubtedly the more enrapturing one.

For a coupling, the folks at HDTT provide another Czech work, The Bartered Bride Overture by Bedrich Smetana (1824–1884). This time, however, the conductor is Fritz Reiner, the orchestra is the Chicago Symphony, and the remaster is from an RCA "Living Stereo" recording. Reiner was also a fine interpreter of Czech and Hungarian music, and he provides a properly rustic and rousing rendition of the score.

Producer Ray Minshull and engineer James Brown recorded the Dvorak at the Sofiensaal, Vienna in 1961, and producer Richard Mohr and engineer Robert Layton recorded the Smetana in Chicago, 1955. HDTT transferred both works from 15-ips tapes to DSD (Direct Stream Digital) 256.

The remastering restores the sound of the Dvorak, as I said, to much as I remembered it from the old LP days. It's very dynamic, with a solid impact, helped all the more by its excellent definition. Some listeners might object to the timpani being rather closely miked, but it helps to bring out all the fire and warmth of the work. The stereo spread is broad, and the resonance is just enough to impart a realistic feeling for the hall. In the Smetana overture, the sound is even broader across the speakers and perhaps a trifle thinner and brighter as well.

Even after all these years, the Dvorak recording remains a standout audiophile choice, and both the sound and the performance must command a place among the top recommendations for this work.

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


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May 17, 2017

Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony (CD review)

Also Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and Strings. Constantine Orbelian, pianist and conductor; Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Delos DE 3259.

This disc prepares you for the unyielding material it contains by declaring on the cover, "Dedicated to Victims of War and Terror." Conductor Constantine Orbelian's grandparents were victims of such injustices in Stalinist Russia before the Second World War, so the program material he selected has special meaning for him.

Soviet Russian conductor and violinist Rudolf Barshai transcribed the Chamber Symphony from the String Quartet No. 8 by Soviet composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Shostakovich wrote the Quartet in 1960 and dedicated it "To the Memory of Victims of War and Fascism." Today, of course, we may read into it, "victims of war, fascism, and Stalinist Communism." At the time, however, Shostakovich felt very depressed at being forced to join the Communist Party. Some musical historians say that the composer's personal despair is what gives the piece its edge, its pain, and its emotional depth.

The outer movements reflect a pensive solemnity and gloom, while the inner movements project an intense fierceness and anxiety. Certainly, Orbelian emphasizes the work's subjective aspects throughout, painting a vivid, harsh, even brutal picture of dark times, unrelieved by any happy or triumphant ending.

Constantine Orbelian
Following up the Chamber Symphony with Alfred Schnittke's Piano Concerto, performed by Orbelian himself on piano, works as the mitigation we seek after the stormy despondency of Shostakovich. Built as a series of variations that come and go, some of them religious in nature, the Piano Concerto produces the effect of mild spiritual elation and inner questions and answers by its end.

The Moscow Chamber Orchestra recorded both pieces on the vast sound stage of Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, CA, March, 2000. Delos recording engineer John Eargle miked the works for later mastering to discrete surround sound, but he optimized the present recording for Dolby Pro-Logic playback or ordinary two-channel stereo.

The sound is quite large, possibly because of the size of the venue, moderately distanced as always from this source, and again only moderately well detailed. At first, the sound appears somewhat dark and muted, but in the Piano Concerto especially, one can hear the notes die away smoothly in the extreme high frequencies. Perhaps it's that there is a degree of density about the sonics that makes everything seem a touch less transparent than it could be. It is not an unrealistic sound, however; in fact, it's the sound one can hear in most auditoriums around the world. It just isn't what we hear too often on disc, and it comes as a pleasant surprise. As far as concerns the surround element, it does not emerge as a serious consideration one way or the other in the two-channel format to which I listened. There is a agreeable ambient bloom that does fair justice to the music. And it is the music that counts.

Of its kind, the program is powerful, and Orbelian and his forces play it with urgency.


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

May 14, 2017

Roberto Moronn Perez: Viva Segovia! (CD review)

Roberto Moronn Perez, guitar. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-723.

This is, I believe, the third album in a series of Reference Recordings Fresh! recordings of music dedicated to or commissioned by the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia, the program again performed by guitarist Roberto Moronn Perez. The disc contains selections from seven composers, all of them originally published in the Segovia Archive Series.

"If today we can talk about the guitar as a concert instrument, it is undoubtedly thanks to Andres Segovia (1893-1987). His charisma, both as a person and as an artist, was a magnet for composers eager to write music for him, and to give to the guitar a repertoire of the quality available to other classical musicians. Until then, it had been mainly restricted to music written by guitarists themselves." So writes Mr. Perez in a booklet note for the present album. He goes on to say, "My goal in this recording, as it was in my two previous ones, is to put together a high-quality programme of little-known, or in some cases, almost totally neglected gems excluded from the guitar repertoire, and to bring new life to these works, playing with the conviction that this music requires."

As I said about Mr. Perez in an earlier review, he does justice to each composer. Perez plays with flair but also with nuance and subtlety. His guitar opens up each work and expands it seemingly beyond the limits of a single instrument. Although you won't find any (or if you are a dedicated classical guitar fan, many) familiar pieces here, if you are like me you will find each work entertaining, touching, or enlivening.

The program begins and ends with the Swiss composer Hans Haug (1900-1967), starting with the lighter, showier Etude (Rondo fantastico) and ending with the heavier Passacaglia. The former allows Perez to get things off to a zesty start (and display his dazzling finger work); the latter, a more solemn affair, reminds us just how well the guitarist can shade a piece.

Roberto Moronn Perez
Next, we get Sonatina by the English composer Cyril Scott (1879-1970). It's in three movements labeled Adagio quasi introdustione, molto moderato; Allegretto pensoso; and Finale. It's quite lovely, and it offers Perez the opportunity for some wide contrasts in style and tempo.

After those, we find Quatre Pieces pour la guitare from a familiar name, English composer Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). Berkeley titled the pieces Moderato ma con brio, Andante on moto, Lento (Mouvement de Sarabande), and Allegro, energico. They are delightful, introspective, tender, and lively by turns.

Following the Berkeley numbers we have Sonata in mi by the Italian composer Ettore Desderi (1892-1974). The four movements are Preludio, Arioso, Scherzo, and Toccata. Perez plays the work just as I would imagine Desderi intended: in a simple, straightforward, disciplined manner, the music all the more appealing for the approach. The Scherzo is especially charming, the Toccata imposing.

Then there is a single piece each from the Swiss composer Aloys Fornerod (1890-1965): Prelude; and the only female represented on the disc, the Swiss composer Fernande Peyrot (1888-1978): Theme et variations. Perez performs them with style and refinement.

Producer, engineer, and editor John Taylor recorded the album at Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Hertfordshire, UK in October 2015. As with the previous albums in the series, Keith O. Johnson of Reference Recordings did the final mastering. Taylor recorded Perez and his guitar at just the right distance to capture a realistic presence, with a slight reverberation and a mildly warm flavor. Detailing is not as crystal clear as it might be with a more close-up miking arrangement, but everything sounds rich and lifelike.


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

May 10, 2017

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

Michael Schonwandt, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Dacapo Records 8.224156.

The late nineteenth, early twentieth-century Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was unusually prolific. He not only wrote six symphonies, he did operas, concertos, chamber music, piano and organ music, and songs. American audiences probably know him best, though, for the two pieces represented on this disc, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Given, then, that the disc presents his most accessible material, that it's performed by a Danish conductor and orchestra, and that it's framed in excellent sound, it amounts to a good buy for listeners who don't already have favorite copies of these items.

The Fourth Symphony, known as "The Inextinguishable," is the more Romantic of the pair, the closer to Nature, and, because of its structure, somewhat the more unified. Nielsen wrote the symphony's four movements to flow into one another without interruption, something nicely observed in this recording. And, thanks to the clarity of the soundstage, the various bird calls and animal murmurings come across quite distinctly. Life, according to this music, is "inextinguishable," forever running onward in one great movement in its will to live. Nielsen premiered the Fourth Symphony on February 1, 1916.

Michael Schonwandt
It is the Fifth Symphony, however, that is the more provocative of the two works, thanks largely to its first movement snare drums. They tend to march onward to their own beat, perhaps like Nature moving inexorably forward as it had in the composer's Fourth Symphony. But the Fifth, after its quiet opening and increasingly insistent drums, opens up further after its first couple of movements into extremely active and vivacious third, fourth, and fifth movements, leading to a finale that is almost harsh by comparison to the composer's earlier work.

Maybe it is here that Dacapo's sometimes bright, forward sound is most helpful, not only in illuminating orchestral detail but in making a case for the composer's intentions in showing how Nature can unfold into pure energy. Whatever the case, Maestro Schonwandt and his Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra maintain a firm grip on the goings on and deliver some fine music making. While one could perhaps fault the conductor a bit for not entirely capturing the sheer rigorousness of Nielsen's scores, he produces a more than adequate if somewhat measured glimpse into Nielsen's visions of Nature.

Does Schonwandt's recording eclipse Herbert Blomstedt's more refined San Francisco account of this same coupling on Decca or Sakari Oramo's more vigorous Stockholm interpretation on BIS? I think not, but it's close.

Incidentally, I see what appears to be the same recording now issued by Naxos, so that, too, may be an alternative choice if the spirit moves you.


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

May 7, 2017

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (CD review)

Jonas Kaufmann; Jonathan Nott, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88985389832.

When Mahler completed Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") in 1909, he intended it for two voices--tenor and alto--and orchestra, the singers alternating the solo parts in the work's six sections. He also suggested that if an alto were unavailable, one could substitute a baritone. He did not, however, intend for one singer alone to take both parts, as Jonas Kaufmann does here.

So, why is Kaufmann singing both parts? Probably because if you're the most-popular operatic singer in the world, you can.

No harm done. If you enjoy Mr. Kaufmann's voice, as his legion of fans do, you get a double helping of it. And he has enough vocal range to accommodate both parts. Maybe in his next recording he'll do all the voices, including the chorus, of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand."

Anyway, I would venture that every classical music buff knows why Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) titled what would have been his ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Yes, he was superstitious. He knew that no major composer since Beethoven had written past a ninth symphony, so he figured he would get away with it by simply not calling it a Ninth Symphony. He would shortly go on to write an actual numbered Symphony No. 9, anyway, and it would, indeed, be his last completed work. Kind of eerie, when you think of it.

A little history: By the early twentieth century Mahler found himself beset by tragedy. He lost his post at the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter died, and his doctor diagnosed him with an incurable heart problem. It was about this time that he read Hans Bethge's Die chinesische Flöte, a book of Chinese poetry translated into German. The composer fell in love with the idea of the transient quality of earthly beauty presented in the verses and decided to set some of the poems to music as Das Lied von der Erde. The English translations of the six sections are "The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow," The Solitary One in Autumn," "Youth," "Beauty," "The Drunkard in Spring," and "The Farewell."

Certainly, one cannot grumble about the caliber of forces involved in the present recording. Jonathan Nott is a world-class conductor, the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the world's finest orchestras, and among the general public Jonas Kaufmann is possibly the most recognizable name in the operatic field.

Jonas Kaufmann
What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, really. The production is first-class, with a good recording, fabulous orchestral playing, and decent work from Kaufmann and Nott. The question, nevertheless, is just why anybody other than a devoted Kaufmann fan or a Mahler completist should buy the recording. Here, things get a little dicey, considering the number of excellent recordings already available, many of them more imaginative, more beautiful, more interpretatively individual than this rather straightforward one from Kaufmann and Nott. Consider, for example, the stereo recordings from Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips, Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic on Sony (Walter had conducted the work's premiere way back in 1911), and Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA, among many other distinctive renditions.

By comparison with these others, Kaufmann and Nott seem more than a tad undistinguished. Again, nothing seriously bad; just not overwhelmingly great. Kaufmann says in a booklet note that the mid-Sixties recording by Klemperer, Fritz Wunderlich, and Christa Ludwig inspired him to want to sing the tenor part in the first place. His reasons for wanting to sing both parts are a little less clear. Since I had the Klemperer recording on the shelf, I took it down for comparison purposes.

Two things in the comparison became clear almost at once. First, there's the contrast between the singing of the two parts. Wunderlich and Ludwig make a wonderful complementary duo in their separate parts, whereas the distinctions between Kaufmann's voice in the same sections don't seem as pronounced. Second, Wunderlich's voice is smoother and more mellifluous than Kaufmann's, whose voice is very slightly huskier. These differences don't make one performance better than the other, however, just different. Individual preference will decide which performance a person would rather listen to. For me, it was Wunderlich and Ludwig.

Moving on. It seems to my ear that Kaufmann does best in his natural tenor range. The baritone vocals appear more mundane, the voice a bit less flexible and less expressive. In any case, he brings an appropriate joy and vigor to the "Drinking," "Youth," and "Drunkard" segments and does at least passably well in the lower registers of the "Solitary," "Beauty," and "Farewell" movements.

In all, this is an agreeable entry in the field. I still wonder, though, how much we actually need it.

Producer Christopher Alder and engineer Philip Krause made the recording at the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein in June 2016. The sound they obtained appears nicely balanced, the soloists well placed, the stereo spread wide but not excessively so. Detailing is more than adequate, with a modicum of warmth and a highly attractive ambient bloom. Highs are a tad shrill at times, but it is not serious and many playback systems might not even reveal it. It's fairly natural, enjoyable sound.


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May 3, 2017

Liszt for Two (CD review)

Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano Four-Hands; Mephisto Waltz for Two Pianos. Georgia and Louise Mangos, piano. Cedille Records CDR 90000 052.

We are all more or less familiar with the orchestral arrangements of a half dozen of Franz Liszt's nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano, but what is less well known is that he adapted them for piano duos (one piano, four hands), too.

Just when or why Liszt made the later duet arrangements nobody's quite sure, but as the accompanying booklet explains, Liszt did play them with students in his later years. A handy chart in the booklet provides the new numbering of the duos, as well as of the orchestral versions. The original piano solos that get the duo and orchestral treatments are Nos. 2, 5, 6, 9, 12, and 14.

Georgia and Louise Mangos
The Mangos sisters, Georgia and Louise, play the works with appropriate gypsy flair, although it turns out that none of the tunes Liszt employed were genuine folk songs at all but "popular light music that the gypsies had transformed into their own unique performing style." In any case, the Mangos ladies perform all of it with an effortless spirit, yet with a degree of lyricism not commonly associated with the pieces. Their manner seems a touch lighter, less flamboyant, and more poetic than the best solo interpretations I've heard. Of course, for two sets of hands, the Rhapsodies sound richer and fuller than usual, and they take a moment's getting used to. Then, the sisters do the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 coupling as arranged for two separate pianos, and that appears richer still.

The recording is another of Cedille's demo-quality productions, made by the team of producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone. The piano sound is as natural, as well balanced, and as well detailed as anything I've heard, miked at a moderate distance with enough room ambiance to ensure a realistic presentation. In fact, the dynamics of the production make the whole thing sound as though you're sitting in front of the performers live as they play.

Finally, I hope you will forgive me for a totally uncalled-for aside: Upon reaching No. 4 in D minor, based upon the popular No. 2 in C# Minor, I couldn't help thinking as I listened to four hands playing the piece of the old Looney Tunes cartoon with Bugs and Daffy Duck trying to outdo one another. No, it bears no relationship to that silliness, but, still, old stereotypes die hard.

This is another outstanding Cedille recording, both musically and sonically.


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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