Jul 30, 2017

In Schubert's Company (CD review)

Maxim Rysanov, viola and conductor; Yakov Katsnelson, piano; Riga Sinfonietta. Onyx Classics 4183 (2-disc set).

You may not hear as much about Ukrainian violist (and here also conductor) Maxim Rysanov (b. 1978) as you should because he works for a relatively small record company that probably doesn't promote him as much as a big company would. Or maybe it's because he plays the viola, and the viola is not exactly the superstar of the classical world that violins and cellos are. In any case, Rysanov is a fine player, and this current album should go a long way to gain him some of the attention he deserves.

Most new albums need an angle, of course, something to draw one's interest to them and set them apart from the rest. The idea of the present program is that, called "In Schubert's Company," includes music both old and new. It contains mostly the works of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), but it intersperses Schubert with pieces by several of Rysanov's contemporaries, composers who say Schubert inspired their compositions. So, we see that even after almost two hundred years, a great composer can continue to inspire modern artists. The albums's two discs and 115 minutes of material make for entertaining, enlightening, and consistently fascinating listening.

The program begins with Schubert's delightful Polonaise for violin and orchestra in B flat major, arranged by Mr. Rysanov for viola (he uses an il Soldato Guadagnini). It's a splendid way to introduce the album because Rysanov approaches the piece with a sweet, leisurely warmth. The music flows smoothly, effortlessly from his viola.

Next is a short piece called "In Schubert's Company" by Sergey Akhunov (b. 1967), which won a YouTube competition Rysanov created a few years ago. One can easily hear Schubert in it, yet it is also clearly Akhunov's work as well, and it flows along with a melancholy grace.

Then there's another new piece, "Wie der alte Lieermann" for violin and orchestra, by Leonid Desyatnikov (b. 1955), again arranged for viola by Mr. Rysanov. The music is a take on Schubert's slow movement from the C major Fantasy for violin and piano, the "take" being most modern and a little jarring after the abundant ease of the first two tracks.

The first disc concludes with the longest work on the album, Schubert's Sonata in A minor for arpeggione & piano, with Rysanov on arpeggione (a six-stringed musical instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar but bowed like a cello) and Yakov Katsnelson on piano. The piece is quite lovely and the performers do justice to it.

Maxim Rysanov
Disc two starts with Schubert's Symphony No. 5, conducted by Mr. Rysanov. Here, the conductor has rather formidable competition from Sir Thomas Beecham in an unequaled performance. All the same, Rysanov negotiates the piece with a commendable elegance, not quite matching Beecham's charming lilt but giving us plenty of sweetness and light in a slightly more rigid manner. The Riga Sinfonietta respond eagerly, with a flawless precision.

After that, it's on to a contemporary piece, Fantasy Homage to Schubert for viola and string orchestra, by Dobrinka Tabakova (b. 1980), It's kind of spacey, his description of it "a vision of floating through the cosmos," with Schubert slowly emerging as one sails along. It's the most different music on the agenda and certainly fun. Following that is another brief work by Sergey Akhunov, "Der Erlkonig" for viola and orchestra, again different in style and scope but still fascinating.

The album ends with two pieces by Schubert, the Violin Sonata No. 3, in Rysanov's arrangement for viola and piano, and Winterreise "Der Leiermann." I think along with the opening Polonaise, the sonata was my favorite music on the program. It has an enchantingly fairy-tale quality to it, and the performers handle it with a refined and affectionate comeliness.

Executive producer Matthew Cosgrove, producer and sound engineer Maria Soboleva, and engineer in Riga Normuns Sne recorded the music at the Choral Academy Music Hall, Moscow, and the Reformation Church, Riga, in March and September 2016. The viola sound is rich and warm; the orchestral sound likewise pleasing, a little dark with a touch of hall resonance to bring out its natural ambience. The sonata sounds a bit closer yet softer, nevertheless still lifelike. One also hears some extraneous noises, but they are never too bothersome or distracting. In other words, the sound is as welcome as the performances.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 26, 2017

Bach: Violin Concertos (DVD review)

Also, Double Concerto; Air on the G-String. Takako Nishizaki and Alexander Jablokov, violins; Oliver Dohnanyi, Capella Istropolitana. Naxos DVD 0991.

Labeled "A Naxos Musical Journey," this DVD music video from 2000 was among the first in a series of such productions from the company that had hitherto given us audio-only CDs.

But before I tell you what I think of the disc, let me make an introductory remark: A while ago I said to a friend that if it had not been for the advent of home-theater and surround sound, two-channel home stereo would be practically dead by now. What I was getting at was that in the old days a lot of people interested in music would sit in front of and between their two speakers and concentrate on the musical sounds coming at them. But I guess such people as we were, and still are, in a minority. From everyone I know come comments like, "How do you just sit and listen to music? Isn't that a little like meditation?" Most folks, it seems, attend to music while doing other things, sometimes not even in the same room with the music. So, for years even audiophiles would spend thousands of dollars on elaborate stereo setups and then hardly ever listen to them except, of course, to show them off to friends. Now that home theater has been with us for a good long time, people have a reason to listen attentively again. Namely, the movies they watch force them to sit in front of and often between their front speakers because that's where the TV is. And they no longer have to address the music alone; they have images to go with the sound. The world is happy.

Frankly, I still don't subscribe to this all-inclusive audiovisual theory, and I maintain two separate systems in my home: A two-channel stereo rig in the living room for music-only listening and a 7.1-channel surround-sound setup in a separate room for home theater viewing and listening. It is in this latter room that I auditioned the present crossover disc from DVD International and Naxos Records. Naturally, it combines music with pictures and does so in a relaxing audiovisual environment.

Takako Nishizaki
Although the music seems almost secondary to the imagery, for those interested Takako Nishizaki, Oliver Dohnanyi, and Capella Istropolitana present the Bach violin concertos in reasonably attentive if somewhat staid interpretations characteristic of the performances often recorded by Naxos. However, they are not the most lively, distinctive, or creative performances you'll find, meaning they are solid, middle-of-the-road readings, well matching the easygoing serenity of the visuals. The DVD's total running time is fifty-six minutes.

The disc offers an image in a 1.33:1 ratio, presenting a lovely pictorial survey of architecture and nature. The scenery is mostly from Italy--ancient Roman ruins, parks, palaces, interspersed with mountains, hills, valleys, vineyards, seas, bays, and such. The picture quality looks warm and inviting, sometimes quite beautiful. It sometimes looks very slightly blurred, too, but nothing to worry about, and there were a couple of instances of fluttering horizontal lines.

The audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0, and DTS. In DD 5.1, the sound, recorded in 1989, is pleasant, a bit bright on my system but easily tamed, with a couple of occasional, extraneous bass rumblings. The rear channels hardly come alive, adding only a subtle ambiance appropriate to music reproduction. In any case, with music the listener should not actually notice the back speakers at all unless they're turned off. This is not an action movie we're listening to. Also, there is no narration on the disc, thankfully, just music and pictures, and an easy-to-use menu system allowing one to navigate quickly through the musical selections or the written travel notes. There is also an option to repeat certain chapters or play them randomly.

Now, I have to be perfectly frank with you here in saying that I found all the imagery superfluous.  Personally, I would still rather listen to a more imaginative interpretation of Bach by, say, Kuijken and La Petite Bande, Menuhin and the Bath Festival Orchestra, Grumiaux and the New Philharmonia, or Lamon and Tafelmusik than these. Then, closing my eyes and listening only, I can use my imagination to envision whatever I choose without the distracting pictures. OK, as I said before, I know I'm in a minority here.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 23, 2017

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" (CD review)

Sir John Barbirolli, BBC Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

It is seldom that I remember just where or how I first learned about a particular recording. Most of the time, it's something a studio has sent me for review. But when something like Sir John Barbirolli's 1967 EMI recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony found its way into my collection some forty-odd years ago, it's a different story: I recall exactly the way I learned about this one. It was a 1973 book I still own called 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers by announcer, commentator, and author Martin Bookspan (b. 1926). In the publication, Bookspan comments on various pieces of classical music and makes recommendations for specific recordings. For the Beethoven Third, he wrote, "...my own favorites among the many 'Eroica' recordings are the performances conducted by Barbirolli, Bernstein, and Schmidt-Isserstedt. Barbirolli's, in fact, is the finest 'Eroica' performance I have ever heard, on or off records; it is noble, visionary and truly heroic, with playing and recorded sound to match. The performance has lost none of its power and impact with the passage of time. If anything, its stature has grown as far as I'm concerned."

High praise, indeed, from a man who knew music well, and the recording has remained high in my own regard all these many years. So it is with open arms and welcome ears that I find it remastered yet again, this time by the estimable team of engineers at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

Anyway, Beethoven originally wrote his Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" in 1804 in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the composer greatly admired. However, just before Beethoven premiered the piece in 1805, he learned that Bonaparte had declared himself "Emperor," corrupting the ideals of the French Revolution, so he removed the man's name from the manuscript, inscribing it, instead, "to celebrate the memory of a great man." More important, the Third marked a turning point in Beethoven's artistic output, with its daring length, range, and emotional commitment, marking something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all meant.

Sir John Barbirolli
What it meant to Sir John, apparently, was something a bit kinder and gentler than it has meant to some other conductors. Barbirolli approached the work with a greater affection than many other conductors, offering up music of urgency and emotion, to be sure, but of resplendent love, stately nuances, and sublime caresses as well. It's not the kind of performance that sets the blood to boil, but it is a performance that is hard for one not to find appealing.

Take, for instance, those opening strokes that introduce us to Beethoven's vision of the emperor. With many conductors, the notes sound sharp and concise; with Barbirolli, they sound mellower, more resigned. It's as though the conductor wants us to know at the outset that this is going to be a more benign, more humane interpretation than you've probably heard before. The second-movement funeral march is more leisurely than most, too. Rather than bring out the stateliness of the music, Barbirolli chooses to bring out the beauty. By the time of the Scherzo, though, the conductor has picked up more steam and seems to want us to pay closer attention to details. Then we get a reasonably driving Finale, still not taken at a hectic pace but with a reassuringly triumphant conclusion.

So, Barbirolli's account of the symphony is more lyrical, more musical, more sensitive than we usually hear. Add to this a wonderfully alert response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and you get possibly the most poetic account of the music you're likely to find. This was among the final recordings Barbirolli made, and it has an appropriately autumnal glow about it, with Sir John lingering over individual phrases as was his wont in later life. If the whole thing hasn't the tautness one cares for, well, that was his way. The performance is still well worth hearing.

Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Neville Boyling recorded the music for EMI in No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London in May 1967. In the years since EMI released it, the recording has appeared in several different forms and formats from LP and tape to CD. As of this writing, one can obtain it from Dutton Laboratories, who remastered it in 1997, and from HDTT, who transferred it from a four-track tape in 2017.

First, let me say that the Dutton remastering is quite good, and, in fact, for overall clarity it actually surpasses the newer HDTT product. That said, there is an argument for the smoother, warmer sound from HDTT. Namely, it rather flatters Barbirolli's overall design. Both versions provide plenty of dynamic range and a fairly quiet background. In the end, it may be one's choice of price or playback format that determines which edition to buy. They're both quite good, as I say.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 19, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (CD review)

Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 7243 5 56972 2 6.

Controversy continues to swirl around Mahler's final, uncompleted Tenth Symphony, largely because of musical scholars trying to guess what the composer might have done with it had he lived long enough to finish it. Mahler did most of the score for his Tenth during the summer of 1910, leaving a complete skeleton of the piece before he died in 1911. He himself spoke of it as "a work fully prepared in the sketch." But a sketch is not a fully realized composition, and he would have probably done a good deal of revision before its premiere.

Whatever, Deryck Cooke prepared the performing edition of Mahler's draft used by Sir Simon Rattle on this disc, an edition Cooke did in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews, and David Matthews. EMI recorded the production live in 1999, and Warner Classics are now distributing it.

Under Maestro Rattle, the Tenth appears more a direct kin or continuation of the Ninth than ever. It begins in the same slow, eloquent, mystic way of the Ninth, then bursts into quintessential Mahler strife, its energy spent dying off into a long, pensive close. The second and fourth movements are typically bizarre Mahler Scherzos, sounding vaguely familiar yet distant. The brief, middle movement is reminiscent of the Fourth Symphony, and the Finale, starting with some mysterious drum strokes moves into a languorous melody, concluding with a great murmur of relief. The whole thing can seem at first glance like a distillation of all of Mahler's past symphonic heartaches, and there is no denying it is largely a solemn affair.

Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle recorded the work once before for EMI in the early Eighties with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. This newer interpretation has the advantage of Rattle's added maturity, and in a side-by-side comparison, the Berlin effort appears the slightly better bet. The conductor takes the slow movements a shade more leisurely, giving Mahler's sublime dramatic moments more time to breathe, and the scherzos are more intense than ever. Interestingly, while the overall timing of the new rendition is over a minute and a half longer, it fits snugly on a single disc. With the older version, released at the very beginning of the CD era, EMI spread it out over two discs and added the Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet No. 1 as a coupling.

Producer Stephen Johns and engineer Mike Clements recorded the music live at the Philarmonie, Berlin in September 1999, a composite of several evenings' recordings. It is brighter and sharper at the high end than the older Bournemouth recording, and even though the audience is fairly quiet, there are noticeable instances of wheezing and breathing, perhaps from Rattle himself. EMI thankfully edited out any applause. One cannot doubt the orchestra is always a delight to hear, but the sound will not strike everyone as an improvement over the older disc.

For new-time buyers of the Tenth, this newer Rattle realization is a good choice. For those who already have a Tenth, especially Rattle's own earlier one, all things considered, the differences between those and this new one may not seem worth the expense. Still, there is no questioning that Rattle knows his Mahler, and the glamour and allure of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic prove hard to resist.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 16, 2017

Cimarosa: Overtures, Vol. 4 (CD review)

Michael Halasz, Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. Naxos 8.573459.

The Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) was among the most prolific and in his day most popular composers of the late eighteenth century, probably as popular as Haydn and known to more people than Mozart. Still, life is sometimes unfair, and time has a way of making up for things. Mozart may have died penniless, but today it's obviously his music, not Cimarosa's, that most people recognize and prefer. Meanwhile, with the possible exception of his opera Il matrimonio segeteo, the listening public have largely relegated Cimarosa to the ranks of near obscurity.

Fortunately, the folks at Naxos have been trying their best to keep Cimarosa's name alive with among other things a series of overture recordings, this being the fourth volume and this time with Michael Halasz and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice.

The disc contains nine Cimarosa overtures for a total playing time of just over sixty-six minutes. Here's a rundown of the program:

I sdegni per amore
La finta frascatana
I tre amanti
Le donne rivali
I finti nobili
Il pittore parigino
L'amante combattuto dalle donne di punto, "La Biondolina"
Giunio Bruto
L'amor costante

Michael Halasz
Maestro Halasz's approach to the music sounds suitably refined and appropriately lively. While he doesn't seem quite as persuasively elegant as some conductors of scores from the Baroque or Classical eras (Marriner was among the heads of the class here), he does project a healthy respect for the music and presents the overtures stylishly enough. Also, while Halasz may not seem as exciting as some conductors, he generates a considerable amount of electricity when needed. These are neither hell-bent-for-leather races to the finish line nor staid, overly sedate interpretations. Halasz negotiates a steady, reasonable course that does full justice to the music, and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Pardubice, which numbers about thirty-five or so players, responds splendidly.

All of the overtures are colorful and spirited, but I couldn't help taking special pleasure from La finta frascatana ("The Fake Lady of Frascata"), which not only projects a vigorous mood but has segments of intense beauty, too. The booklet notes tell us that it was I tre amanti ("The Three Lovers") that established Cimarosa's name outside Naples, and one can certainly see why it became so well liked with its rhythmic charm and pleasant lilt. Still, it was the tragedy Giunio Bruto that Haydn most admired, and who conducted it at the Esterhazy court.

Producer Jiri Stilec and engineers Vaclav Roubal and Karel Soukenik recorded the disc at The House of Music, Pardubice, Czech Republic in October 2014. If you have a few of Naxos's better recordings already on your shelf, the sound of this one won't surprise you too much. It's smooth and rounded, almost of audiophile quality, well balanced, natural, nicely defined, and, most important, easy on the ear.

More specifically, the sound is a slight bit closer than usual for a Naxos production, yielding better than average detail and clarity. It also appears more dynamic than a lot of Naxos products, again probably because it's a little more close-up than normal for the company. In any case, as I said above, it sounds just about right for the type of music it's presenting and for a small chamber orchestra.

Overall, with its lustrous performances and high-quality sound, I'd have to say this is one of the best Naxos releases I've heard in while and should make my list of 2017 favorites.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 12, 2017

Vivaldi: Concerti con Titoli (CD review)

Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Veritas 7243-5-45424-2-8.

The diversity of these concertos for assorted instruments (Concerti con Titoli or "Concerts with Titles") contradicts the popular notion that Vivaldi wrote only countless variations of The Four Seasons. Each of the seven concertos presented here is brief, from just under six minutes to just over sixteen, but together they provide a well-rounded idea of the composer's creativity. None of the works is quite as descriptive as The Four Seasons, but each is highly dramatic and fairly evocative, nonetheless.

The opening piece, "L'inquietudine" (Anxiety), is in direct contrast to the penultimate piece on the agenda, "Il Riposo," both for violin and orchestra. The first is agitated and intense, the other sweet and spiritual. The second number, "Concerto funebre" for violin, oboe, chalumeau, viole, and orchestra, illustrates a procession to the gallows and is obviously quite somber in tone.

Fabio Biondi
The most familiar concerto is probably "La tempesta di mare" for recorder, oboe, bassoon, violin, and orchestra, a follow-up to The Four Seasons and describing a boat in a storm. The centerpiece of the program is the six-movement concerto for recorder and orchestra, "La  notte," a wonderfully evocative representation of night and a journey to the netherworld. "Per eco in lontano" for two violins is the longest work included, about sixteen minutes or so, with groups of instruments located in different places. The disc concludes with Concerto RV 531 for two cellos and orchestra, an encounter between the two solo instruments that is quite theatrical.

As always, Fabio Biondi and his period-instrument ensemble Europa Galante play every fast part at a hell-bent-for-leather speed. This style has made Biondi quite popular among some folks in the historically informed segment of the musical world, and it does, indeed, create some invigorating and highly exciting moments. It also gets old really fast. Fortunately, Biondi and his players perform most of the slow sections gracefully and poetically, emphasizing strongly all the contrasts available.

Erato/Virgin Veritas provided Biondi and company with reasonably good, naturally balanced sound for this year 2000 release, sound that does fair justice to the music. However, a quick comparison check against several of my favored Vivaldi recordings--one done on modern instruments by I Solisti Italiani on Denon and the other by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on their own label--shows the latter two capturing a more detailed and better-imaged sound stage.

In any case, if you are in the mood for some varied and dramatic Baroque, the Biondi disc fills the request nicely.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 9, 2017

R. Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra (CD review)

Also, Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. Herman Krebbers, violin; Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. Philips UCCP-7034 (Japan).

When Philips released this recording in the early 1970's with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra doing Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, it was about the same time DG released their recording of Zarathustra by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. I suppose one can forgive listeners in the day for going for the Karajan disc and rather forgetting about the Haitink. Karajan was, after all, probably the most-popular conductor in the world back then, producing glamorous music with a glamorous orchestra. Besides, it was Karajan who had brought new life to the score with his earlier, Vienna recording of the score for Decca when Stanley Kubrick featured it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still and all, it was the Haitink recording I found more involving, equally well performed, and better recorded; and it remains a favorite of mine to this day.

German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896, his inspiration for the symphonic poem a philosophical novel by the German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss divided his score into nine segments, naming the sections after various chapters of Nietzsche's book.

However, the listener should not put too much stock in the literal meanings of the music but instead enjoy each section for its figurative spirit. In fact, Strauss himself, whom some people criticized at the time for trying to put Nietzsche's philosophy into music, said, "I did not intend to write philosophical music, or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its evolution, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra." In other words, one should enjoy the music for itself and not as some sort of musical distillation of Nietzsche's ideas.

Anyway, the nine sections are "Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang" (Introduction, or Sunrise); "Von den Hinterweltlern" (Of Those in Backwaters); "Von der großen Sehnsucht" (Of the Great Longing); "Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften" (Of Joys and Passions); "Das Grablied" (The Song of the Grave); "Von der Wissenschaft" (Of Science and Learning); "Der Genesende" (The Convalescent); "Das Tanzlied" (The Dance Song); and "Nachtwandlerlied" (Song of the Night Wanderer).

And what does Haitink do with the music? He brings to it the same straightforward, unfussy approach he always does, an approach that has served him well for a remarkably long time. It is an approach that serves the music above all, with none of the grand gestures of a Karajan yet with an endearing and engaging simplicity that puts the score foremost. And as well as the Berlin Philharmonic played for Karajan, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra matched them in refinement, richness, sonority, and precision.

Haitink takes us gracefully from one extreme to the next, from the gentlest, most tender moments to the most massive of climaxes. It all sounds beautifully nuanced under this conductor--nothing forced and nothing left to chance. Even the "Science and Learning" section, which I find the least interesting, comes off with a greater degree of lyric passion with Haitink than with most anyone else, and there's a wonderful lilt in the dance number that follows. And so it goes.

Bernard Haitink
Maestro Haitink handles the couplings well, too, with plenty of flair but little of the sloppy melodrama we hear from some other conductors. Don Juan carries all the swagger you could want and reminds us again where Erich Wolfgang Korngold and John Williams probably got their inspiration, while Till Eulenspiegel maintains a playfully heady demeanor throughout.

Philips recorded Zarathustra and Don Juan in April 1973, and Till Eulenspiegel in December 1982, all three at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Although the recordings are still available on the now-defunct Philips label in a two-disc collection (442-281-2), the recording I reviewed was a single disc from Philips Japan, reissued in 2005. What's more, from what I understand, Decca Records have also rereleased the recordings on a single disc under their own label.

For me, the Seventies were a kind of Golden Age in recording, a bit like the Fifties with RCA "Living Stereo" and Mercury "Living Presence" but in the later decade with EMI and Philips. In the Seventies, while the folks at EMI were recording Andre Previn and the London Symphony and Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony with excellent transparency, balance, and range, the Philips engineers were recording Haitink and the Concertgebouw with a wonderful sense of ambience, depth, and spaciousness. The present recording displays these latter qualities to fine advantage, the Concertgebouw ensemble never sounding richer or more resplendent.

The sound has an all-enveloping sense of place, as though home listeners were actually in the concert hall with the orchestra. Yet there is never any distracting resonance or reverberation, just a natural, realistic response, with enough detail to satisfy the most-demanding audiophile. There is never any brightness, forwardness, or edginess; nor is there any undue softness to the sound. All of it, in fact, is nigh-well perfect, the excellence of the sonics complementing the excellence of the performance.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 5, 2017

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Debussy: Symphonic Fragments. Gunter Wand, NDR-Sinfonieorchester. RCA 74321 72788 2.

Maybe it was RCA's supersmooth 1999 sonics on this disc that prevented me from liking the Mussorgsky tone paintings very much, just as the similar 1982 sonics helped me to like the Debussy fragments. Say what you will, the purely aural qualities of a disc can as much affect a listener's appreciation of a work as the interpretation itself.

Whatever, the big draw here is the late German conductor Gunter Wand's live recording of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Perhaps surprisingly for Wand, whom most listeners might know best for his recordings of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner, he had a soft spot in his heart for many years for the Mussorgsky piece, and only late in his career did he get around to recording it (digitally). Unfortunately, I found myself wanting a more vigorous approach to these miniature portraits, especially in the big numbers like "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" and "The Great Gate at Kiev."

To me, between RCA's plush, velvety sound and Wand's slow, precise articulation, much of the color appears squeezed out of the drama. The conductor comes off best in the moody "Old Castle" and the lovely, spring-day walk in "The Tuileries Garden." Compared to, say, Reiner's celebrated recording on the same label from over four decades earlier, Wand seems too deliberate (or just plain old). Likewise, a comparison to Riccardo Muti's performance on EMI reveals much more characterization and a whole lot more zest in Muti's rendering.

Gunter Wand
However, the Debussy fragments are another matter and benefit from Wand's measured, contemplative approach as he creates a dark, haunting, highly evocative atmosphere typical of the composer. The fragments, pieces of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, include four movements: "The Court of Lilies," "Dance and Finale" from the first Act, "The Passion," and "The Good Shepherd." Debussy based them on sketches he had made, later completed by one of his pupils, Andre Caple. As a side note, when his orchestral-ballet was first performed, apparently it caused quite a scandal, what with a seminude female dancer as Saint Sebastian.

Anyway, as I said, RCA's sound is ultrasmooth and recorded live, the Mussorgsky in 1999 and the Debussy in 1982. I've never been much in favor of live recordings, so the disc had that strike against it going in. Coughs and wheezes are clearly evident throughout both works. There is an exceptionally good orchestral spread in both recordings, though, with a reasonable sense of depth and limited highlighting of instruments and, especially in the newer effort, good dynamics and a terrific bass drum in the Mussorgsky. The whole affair is certainly easy on the ear, but I wish I had taken more of a fancy to Wand's rendering of the Pictures.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

Jul 2, 2017

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Josef Krips, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT, remastered in DSD.

Among the first recordings I ever owned of Franz Schubert's Ninth Symphony "The Great" was this 1958 version by maestro Josef Krips and the LSO. I came to it a little late, sometime around 1970, and found it on a London Stereo Treasury LP. Unfortunately, the vinyl was rather scratchy and noisy, and while I enjoyed the performance enormously, I couldn't enjoy the sound. Then, years later, Decca issued it several times on CD, and with these releases the problem was that the sound was more than little bright and edgy. Again, wonderful performance, but questionable sonics.

Enter HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), who have transferred the recording to CD and download twice now. It's with enthusiasm that I can tell you how much of a relief it is to hear the recording in the best versions I've yet to find them from the little company that gives us the best possible sound from older tapes. More about the HDTT sound in a moment.

First, a few notes about the music and the performance. Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 9 in C major in 1828, the year he died, and it premiered after his death. Consequently, he never heard it performed in his lifetime. He would have liked Krips's rendering, though, I'm sure. Under Krips, the opening movement may not be as weighty as, say, Klemperer's or as zippy as any of Mackerras's recordings, but it strikes a happy balance. More so than either of those conductors, good as they are, Krips is more playful and more lilting, his rhythms always bringing delight to the spirit, if not a downright smile to the face.

Although the second-movement Andante, with its faintly gypsy overtones, can in some other interpretations tend to drag, it's not so with Krips, who keeps the beat moving forward at a commendable pace. Yet he also maintains the movement's staccato-like cadences in good humor.

Josef Krips
Still, it's in the Scherzo that we really see Krips shine, his realization exhibiting so cheerful a glow, it makes most other conductors seem positively funereal by comparison. Then, in the Finale, Krips comes through with a combination of light airiness and energetic bounce that cannot fail to charm. While this was a fairly long symphony for its day, Krips leaves one wanting to hear even more, which is pretty much what any listener might want to do--hear it again. And again.

Decca recorded the music in May 1958, and HDTT remastered the present transfer in 2017 for, as I said, the second time. With this one they used DSD256 (Direct Stream Digital) and transferred the music from a 15ips 2-track tape (their previous transfer having used the LP).

One hears very little background noise, but even then it's only noticeable in select, quietest passages. There is also a very wide dynamic range involved and a reasonably strong impact. Needless to say, it is not quite as bright or edgy as the several Decca CD's I've owned, even if it is still a bit forward and tizzy in the upper midrange. Nevertheless, the HDTT sound is exceptionally clear.

The question, though, may be how the newer HDTT transfer stacks up against the company's earlier mastering. For one thing, the slight added clarity of the present recording brings out some of the minor distortions of the original source material. This is especially evident at the very beginning with a small degree of resonant shimmer noticeable, and then again during a few louder passages. In addition, I heard a more balanced left-to-right stereo spread from the newer mastering, the older one appearing to place a bit more gain in the left channel.

Overall, there is no doubt in my mind that Maestro Krips provides one the best renditions on record of Schubert's Ninth Symphony, if not the best. And whether or not its sound is up to every audiophile's standards, there is also no doubt in my mind that this HDTT transfer is the best you'll find of it.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at https://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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