Mozart in Havana (CD review)

Piano Concertos Nos. 21 & 23. Simone Dinnerstein, piano; Jose Antonio Mendez Padron, Havana Lyceum Orchestra. Sony Classical 88985382442.

There are probably any number of reasons American classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein chose to record this album, Mozart in Havana. Certainly, she has a deep and abiding love of Mozart and probably welcomed any opportunity to record the man's music. In addition, with the thawing of political relations between the U.S. and Cuba, she no doubt saw the album as a chance to help the political situation regardless of whether Cuba remained a Communist state. Third, she had performed at a music festival in Havana a few years earlier and surely welcomed the occasion of playing there again. But maybe the main reason is that her first piano teacher, Solomon Mikowsky, was a Cuban Jew of Polish descent who had grown up in Havana and told her stories of Cuba's many musical influences there. I'm sure there are other reasons she made the record, but let it suffice that the album is here and we have it for our enjoyment.

Ms. Dinnerstein (b. 1972) you likely already know. She burst onto the musical scene in 2007 with a well-received account of Bach's Goldberg Variations and has been going strong touring and recording ever since. Accompanying Ms. Dinnerstein on the present disc is conductor Jose Antonio Mendez Padron, the musical director of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra. Padron founded the ensemble in 2009, as the booklet note explains, "in collaboration with the Mozart Lyceum of Havana, "an institution co-sponsored by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in Austria. It brings together students, recent graduates and professors from the University of the Arts, the National School of Music and the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory." Moreover, "the orchestra has quickly established itself as a central element of Cuba's musical life."

Simone Dinnerstein
The two Mozart concertos Ms. Dinnerstein chose to perform on the program are among the composer's most famous. He wrote the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 in 1785, and the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan probably did as much as anything to popularize it, making the second-movement Andante familiar to almost everyone. Ms. Dinnerstein plays the piece with a refined grace, yet with a considerable amount of verve and vitality, making everything sound just right, especially in the opening movement. If the second movement sounds a little quicker yet a little dreamier than usual, too, well, that's part of the pianist's style as well. She makes the music her own without distorting it in any way, and Maestro Padron and his Havana Lyceum Orchestra accompany her with a smooth, flowing elegance.

Mozart completed the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 in 1786. It is slightly more operatic in tone than No. 21, possibly because Mozart wrote it around the same time as The Marriage of Figaro. In any case, it has more surprises in it than does No. 21 yet remains as melodic as anything the man conceived. Although Ms. Dinnerstein adds her own dramatic touches, she remains above all sensitive and responsive in the music. The result is an energetic realization of the score, with a haunting and intriguing Adagio, followed by a joyful finale.

These are lovely interpretations that should displease no one. More important, perhaps, they should absolutely delight those fans who already appreciate Ms. Dinnerstein's music making.

Adam Abeshouse produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered the album, recording it at Oratorio San Filipe Neri, Havana, Cuba in June 2016. The first thing one notices about the sound is the hall ambience, with plenty of bloom around the instruments and a fair amount of resonance. However, it is not obtrusive but rather flattering to the music. The orchestra is modestly distant, the soloist perhaps a shade too close, the piano spreading out a little too much in from the other players. Detail and definition are on the soft side, while sounding natural and comfortable. Dynamics are also quite wide, providing an overall realistic listening experience.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 John 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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

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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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa