Aug 30, 2017

Rachmaninoff: Vocalise (CD review)

Various vocalists, conductors, and orchestras. RCA 09026-63669-2.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (or Rachmaninov) wrote fourteen songs in 1912, published as his Op. 34. The concluding song has no words; titled simply "Vocalise" it has come down to us as probably the best known piece in the set. While it has no really catchy melody, it possesses a hauntingly beautiful charm that has been interpreted and transcribed many times over for solo voice, solo instruments of every kind, chorus, and full orchestra.

So, some years ago RCA went through their archives pulling as many different versions as they could find and collected them on this disc. The result is not so much an album one might enjoy straight through as it is a disc from which to play favored choices. If your player has a memory chip for favorites, this is a CD to program permanently.

The selections range in recording date from 1929 through 1995, with no particular order except possibly the reissue producer's personal preference.

The disc begins with Anna Moffo's vocal rendition with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski (1964). It is perhaps the highlight of the collection and deserves its number-one billing.

Anna Moffo
Among the purely orchestral versions, Rachmaninoff's own with the Philadelphia Orchestra carries the stamp of authority in spite of its early, 1929 sonics. Morton Gould's rendering with his own orchestra (1960) is the most dreamily romantic of the lot. Then we find Yuri Termirkanov's interpretation with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (1991) the best recorded.

Among solo instrumentalists, James Galway's flute transcription with Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic carries the day (1976). It is seductively airy and lilting. The Norman Luboff Choir do a big-scale production number (1961) of the piece. Next, Wolfram Huschke and Dieter Huschke perform an intimate cello and piano duet arrangement (1995), and Vladimir Spivakov and Sergei Bezrodny do a violin and piano arrangement (1991) that make nice contrasts.

Among the oddities are a lovely account of the score by countertenor Brian Asawa and a bizarre one by Isao Tomita and the Plasma Symphony Orchestra (1964) that sounds exactly as you would imagine. Evgeny Kissin plays a piano arrangement (1993), and Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin do a piano duet (1940).

The collection ends appropriately with a final solo voice, Ruth Ann Swenson, accompanied by Warren Jones on piano (1994).

Among purely orchestral versions I still prefer Previn (EMI) or Stokowski (EMI), but this unique array of realizations from RCA gives us some idea just how good Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" actually is. If you can't find something to like here, you're maybe not a real music lover.


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

Aug 27, 2017

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (SACD review)

Also, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Rafael Kubelik; Seiji Ozawa; Boston Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 247.

The Seventies were interesting times in the classical music world. It was still the age of analogue, and we hadn't yet heard the arguments over whether analogue or digital sounded better. Some of the finest music and best sound were coming from EMI's recordings with the London Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic. And, then, there was Quadraphonic. Of course, for most of us, Quad came and went quickly, mostly with a few LP's from RCA that didn't sound particularly good in straight two-channel stereo. What most of us didn't know back then was that DG and Philips also dabbled in Quad recording but just never released much (or anything) in the format. And that's where Pentatone comes in. They are seeking out and remastering albums originally done in Quad and reproducing them in hybrid SACD (two-channel and multichannel, with another two-channel that one can play on a regular CD player). The present Bartok disc from Pentatone (1973 and 1976 DG recordings) is just such an album, sounding a lot better than it might have from a scratchy LP over forty years ago.

The first thing on the program is the Concerto for Orchestra by Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945), performed in a 1973 DG recording by the Czech conductor and composer Rafael Kubelik and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bartok wrote the piece at the end of his career, and it has since become one of his most-popular and most-accessible compositions. Bartok premiered the work in 1944 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony, so presumably the orchestra was well up on performing it. However, the title is something of a misnomer because the music's form doesn't resemble a traditional concerto at all. Bartok's Concerto is in five movements instead of three, and it involves no solo instruments. Bartok said he gave it the title "concerto" because of the way the score treats each section of instruments in "a soloistic and virtuosic way." Fair enough.

Rafael Kubelik
Maestro Kubelik's manner with Bartok is a tad gentler than some listeners may be accustomed to. He doesn't project as clean and precise an image as, say, Reiner (RCA) or as powerful and driving a force as Solti (Decca, in either of his stereo recordings). As Bartok was ill at the time he wrote the music, perhaps Kubelik's interpretation of it is a nod toward that affliction that would shortly end the composer's life. Nevertheless, under Kubelik the score is vigorous enough, sorrowful enough, introspective enough, and emotionally assertive enough to provide a more-than-moving testament to Bartok's genius, with the Boston players fully behind it.

The coupling on the disc is Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta, which the composer wrote in 1936 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester. Audiences today may know the music best for its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, as well as Spike Jonze's 1999 film Being John Malkovich. The score is in concertante form, that is, with orchestral support for extended solo parts, although we really don't hear the solo instruments until the second of the four movements. The composer had also by 1936 been experimenting with European folk melodies and "arch" forms (mirrorlike sequences of ideas building in one direction to an arch and then reversing in the second half). We hear it all in Music for Strings, this time in a 1976 recording with Seiji Ozawa leading the Boston Symphony.

Maestro Ozawa takes a more literal view of the music than some other conductors. (I'm still rather fond of Ormandy's EMI account, oddly, perhaps, given Ormandy's own penchant for taking music at face value.) I don't hear in Ozawa quite the dramatic stress or underlying sense of suspense, tension and release that I do with Ormandy (or Solti). However, Ozawa does a fairly good job evoking Bartok's ethereal atmosphere (that "unreal sound world" that conductor Ferenc Fricsay once called it). We'll just have to leave the ultimate mystery of the piece for other conductors to convey.

Pentatone include a matching slipcover with the disc as well as a highly informative booklet insert.

Producers Klaus Behrens, Wolf-Dieter Karwatky, and Hans Weber and engineer Heinz Wildhagen recorded the Concerto in Quadraphonic at Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts in 1973. Producer Rainer Brock and engineer Klaus Hiemann recorded the Music for Strings in Quadraphonic at Symphony Hall in 1976. Polyhymnia International B.V. remastered the album for SACD hybrid stereo/multichannel playback in 2017. I listened in the SACD two-channel stereo mode.

The newly remastered sound in the Concerto is both warm and full, with excellent depth of image and wide dynamics. The upper midrange sounds at times a bit screechy, but that's part of the music's charm. The strings are also a tad compartmentalized, so the overall sonic picture one gets is not entirely realistic. Still, it's more than satisfying. The Music for Strings sounds a little better balanced, with no part of the frequency response shouting at us, and it, too, has a good depth of field and plenty of dynamic range.


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

Aug 23, 2017

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 "Romantic" (CD review)

Karl Bohm, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca 289 466 374-2.

Everybody else was doing it in the late 90's; why not Decca? (You remember that in America Decca released their recordings under the "London" label for many years because there was already an American Decca. Then Universal bought both Decca companies so there was no more need for the "London" designation. It saved the world a lot of confusion.) Anyway, other labels were issuing newly remastered old classics in excellent sound--Mercury "Living Presence," RCA "Living Stereo," DG "Originals," EMI "Great Recordings of the Century," etc. So Decca called their line of reissues the "Legends" series, and among their first releases was Karl Bohm's fine, 1973 recording of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. It made a good choice for inclusion in Decca's first batch of goodies.

Bohm's interpretation ranks high on my own list of all-time favorite Bruckner Fourths. I would still consider Otto Klemperer's performance (EMI) foremost for its greater majesty and stronger symphonic weight and structure, and maybe Eugen Jochum's older rendering (DG) next in line for its greater mystery and atmosphere, in spite of its thinner, noisier sound. But there is no denying Bohm's complete mastery of the score. The whole thing moves implacably forward with strength, grace, and style. In fact, the second movement Andante is perhaps more beautiful under Bohm than under any other conductor. Needless to say, the Vienna Philharmonic play exquisitely.

Karl Bohm
I think many people greatly underrated Bohm as a conductor, often thinking of him as merely a conservative "kapplemeister." Maybe he was sometimes, but not always. Here, there are no fussy heroics, true, just a simple distillation of the music. The work unfolds at its own pace and is all the more eloquent for it.

Decca's 24-bit remastering uses a 96k Hz sampling rate and some occasional touching up as the occasion demands. The result really is a superior end result (if not quite in the audiophile class, at least better than Decca's previous CD mastering of the recording). I had a friend over listening to this newer remastering side-by-side with Decca's 1992 ADRM mastering, simultaneously using two identical-sounding CD players. Initially, I did the switching and let him sit in the primary listening position. Then we exchanged places and opinions. He said exactly what I was thinking, so I'll use his words. The new version sounded "bigger," "smoother," "warmer," "fuller," "richer," and "more detailed." The older mastering sounded "harder," "harsher," and "brighter."

However, I continue to find the sonics a little less than perfect. There remains a metallic edge that the new processing has reduced but not removed. Nevertheless, I can confidently recommend the disc, and I know it will provide hours of pleasurable listening.

Incidentally, Decca came up with two clever packaging ideas here: First, they gave the disc itself the appearance of an open-reel tape. Second, they replicated the original cover art on the back of the booklet insert. By simply reversing the booklet one can have either the new cover illustration or the old. It's distinctive. And, incidentally again, a few years after this "Legends" release, Decca rereleased the same 96k/24-bit remastered recording in their "Originals" lineup. It's hard to know the players without a scorecard these days.


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

Aug 20, 2017

Liszt: Symphonic Poems (SACD review)

Ferenc Fricsay, RIAS Symphony Berlin; Stanislav Macura, Prague Radio Symphony; Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic; Rafael Kubelik, Bavarian Radio Symphony. Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 124.

This album makes me wonder how many other fine older recordings studios have on their shelves collecting dust and possibly never getting a transfer to CD. Of the four Liszt symphonic poems on the disc, two of them are currently unavailable on compact disc, and the others only appear coupled to other, longer items. Whatever, Praga Digitals have remastered four older Liszt recordings in hybrid SACD bi-channel, and the performances and sound are first-rate for any year.

As you undoubtedly know, the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-86) practically invented the term "symphonic poem" as well as the form itself. Of course, program music has been around longer than Liszt; that is, music that depicts nonmusical ideas, such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. But Liszt took program music a step further than mere imitation of things in nature, and he used thematic transformations to represent poetic emotions. It's a style that later composers like Richard Strauss would combine with program music to extend the form even more.

Les Preludes was the third of Liszt's symphonic poems. He premiered it in 1854 and published the score in 1856. The title refers to an Ode from Alphonse de Lamartine in Nouvelles méditations poétiques, written in 1823, although Liszt originally conceived it as an overture. In any case, the title has long given rise to discussion about what it actually means. What is the music a "prelude" or introduction to? While opinions differ on the matter (Liszt himself hinted that it suggested a prelude to his own path of composition), most listeners agree on the music's merits. It's exciting, uplifting, inspirational even, which is perhaps why most older folks will recognize it as the main theme music used throughout the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930's.

Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS Symphony Berlin recorded the piece in 1956, and it remains among the best performances one can find. It may not convey quite the power or energy that Solti would later project, but it does sound more nuanced, more subtle, than Solti's performance and at the same time maintains a good level of involvement and forward momentum. Given the score's various mood changes, Fricsay does a good job holding it together in fine, dramatic fashion and ends it at full boil.

Ferenc Fricsay
Next on the program is Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, the composer influenced by music he had heard in Venice and by a poem by Lord Byron. Liszt wrote of it, "Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseparable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up the great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today; then his countenance appeared to us, lofty and melancholy, as he gazes at the festivities at Ferrara, where he created his masterworks; and finally we followed him to Rome, the Eternal City, which crowned him with fame and thus pays him tribute both as martyr and as poet."

Conductor Stanislav Macura conducts the Prague Radio Symphony in an appropriately atmospheric reading of the score. The conductor is serious to a fault, solemn, in fact, when need be, and melodramatic when the music calls for it, too. He easily keeps one engrossed in the presentation, which is mostly all one can ask of a conductor. The Prague ensemble play splendidly.

Liszt wrote Mazeppa in 1851, taking his inspiration from Victor Hugo and Lord Byron, all of them owing to the story of Ivan Mazeppa, who seduced a noble Polish lady and was tied naked to a wild horse that carried him to Ukraine, where he later achieved a rank of leadership. The music should evoke images of plains, silence, wonder, surprise, and triumph.

Here, the estimable Herbert von Karajan conducts the equally laudable Berlin Philharmonic in a lofty performance of real power, force, and size, which is about what we would come to expect from the glamorous conductor and his mighty assemblage of players.

The final symphonic poem on the program is one of Liszt's last and less well known, Die Ideale. Written in 1857-58, Liszt based the music on sections of a poem of the same name by German poet Friedrich Schiller. It may not be one of Liszt's most-popular pieces, but Maestro Rafael Kubelik gives it his all and helps to produce a reasonably notable performance, spoiled only by the recording's distracting, less-than-impressive live sound.

Karel Soukenik of Studio Domovina, Prague, remastered the recordings for hybrid SACD playback in 2017. Les Preludes derives from a studio stereo recording made in Berlin, 1956; Tasso from a studio stereo recording made in Prague, 1975; Mazeppa from a studio stereo recording made in Berlin, 1960; and Die Ideale from a live monaural recording, 1974.

The studio recordings all sound good, particularly in SACD, but, interestingly, it's the Preludes that sounds especially good, and it's the oldest of the lot. There's good clarity, good depth of field, and good dynamics. While there is some distortion at the high end, one can fairly easily live with it. Tasso, made almost twenty years later, is marginally smoother but no more transparent. Mazeppa sounds a tad brighter than the others, a touch glassier and less warm. There is, however, a better sense of space, of hall acoustics, here than in the other pieces. The live mono recording of Die Ideale, though, sounds worst of all because it's accompanied by an insistent background noise that's quite distracting and seems projected to every corner of the room.


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

Aug 16, 2017

Viennafest (CD review)

Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Telarc CD-80547.

It had been a while since I last heard the late Erich Kunzel and his Cincinnati Pops doing a record for Telarc, so it was fun renewing an old friendship. Having remembered Kunzel's work with Telarc's Straussfest discs, I prepared myself for something a bit unusual in the way of waltzes and polkas, and that's exactly what Kunzel delivers. However, I didn't find it always in a good way.

In Viennafest we get a mixture of the traditional and the novel, all of it done up in reasonably good taste. The disc starts with an appropriately rousing curtain raiser, the "Radetzky March" by Strauss, Sr., and done in loud, boisterous, if somewhat mechanical fashion, followed by the overture from The Gypsy Baron. Then we have a polka, "The Huntsman," with a horse whinnying for effect.

Here are a few more selections, including one of the more controversial items on the program, the "Voices of Spring" waltz with a vocal part sung by soprano Tracy Dahl that you'll either love or hate, depending on what you're used to. A couple more novelty polkas come next, "At the Double" and Eduard Strauss's "At Full Steam," both featuring suitable sound effects. After those are Franz Lehar with the "Gold and Silver" waltzes and the "Siren of the Dance" waltzes from The Merry Widow.

Josef Lanner's "Court Ball" waltz is particularly nice, Robert Stolz's "Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time" is delightful, and Strauss, Jr.'s overture to Die Fledermaus is as charming as ever. The proceedings come to a close with a fairly schmaltzy rendition of Rudolf Sieczynski's "Vienna, City of My Dreams," but what are you going to do: It is what it is.

Erich Kunzel
Although Erich Kunzel may have sold probably more albums than almost anyone, he was never among my favorite conductors, generally taking things a little too matter of factly for my taste. This is especially noticeable in the aforementioned "Radetsky March" and also in the Lehar numbers, even if he is certainly felicitous enough in "Voices of Spring." Still, I prefer Willi Boskovsky, Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Andre Reiu, and others in Strauss material to Kunzel's more relatively straight-arrow, largely uninspiring approach.

Telarc recorded the album using Super Bit Mapping Direct Stream Digital at the Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio in February 2000. The resultant sound is very smooth, as we have come to expect from this company, the bass drum always at the fore, with decent stage imaging, and a wide dynamic range. Nevertheless, the sound also appears to me a little thin in the midrange while at the same time a bit shy on the sparkle I had expected, as though Telarc had recorded things a tad more distantly than normal for them.

Anyway, the collection will please most of Kunzel's fans, even though I'm not sure any of the old Strauss family themselves would have usually had so large an orchestra at their command. Whatever, the current Johann Strauss Orchestra under Andre Reiu with its considerably fewer players (about two dozen or so) produces a more lustrous and transparent sound, and for a big, full ensemble it's still hard to beat the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics.


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

Aug 13, 2017

The Deer's Cry (CD review)

Music of Arvo Part, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis. Harry Christophers, The Sixteen. CORO COR16140.

The juxtaposition of works on this album by modern Estonian composer Arvo Part (b. 1935) and Renaissance English composers William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) and Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) may at first blush seem odd. Yet the combination works surprisingly well.

As almost everyone knows by now, The Sixteen and its founder and conductor Harry Christophers are a vocal and period-instrument ensemble founded by Mr. Christophers in 1977. They deal largely in Renaissance, Baroque, and early Classical repertoire but have obviously here expanded their scope to include modern music. With over 130 recordings and numerous awards to their credit, one can understand their critical and popular success.

Here are the track listings for the present album:
1. Byrd: Diliges Dominum
2. Byrd: Christe qui lux es et dies
3. Part: The Deer's Cry
4. Byrd: Emendemus in melius
5. Part: The Woman with the Alabaster Box
6. Byrd: Miserere mihi, Domine
7. Byrd: Ad Dominum cum tribularer
8. Tallis/Byrd: Miserere nostri
9. Tallis: When Jesus went
10. Byrd: O lux beata Trinitas
11. Part: Nunc dimittis
12. Byrd: Laetentur coeli
13. Byrd: Tribue, Domine

The total timing for the album runs very nearly sixty-seven minutes.

Harry Christophers
So, why include the music of Arvo Part among that of Byrd and Tallis? Well, although both Byrd and Tallis wrote some secular music, the bulk of their output was sacred. Byrd, for instance, wrote sacred music for use in Anglican and Catholic services, and Tallis (Byrd's teacher, by the way) worked at a Benedictine priory, Waltham Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, and the Chapel Royal, among other places. And of Part? He, too, writes both classical and religious music. In fact, he is one of the most important and certainly one of the most prominent of today's composers of spiritual music. Yes, as I said, the combination of composers on the album works.

As always, The Sixteen sing in a heavenly manner, and their voices sound rich and full in harmony, their intonation flawless, and their commitment to the music as emotionally vibrant as ever. What we've got as a result is beautiful music, beautifully performed.

Now, what did I like best? That's hard to answer because everything about the music and the singing is so letter-perfect. Of course, the Byrd and Tallis pieces go without saying. Their music has stood the test of time and been enjoyed by and inspirational to people for centuries. However, Part's music in particular impressed me, starting with the album's title tune, The Deer's Cry. Like the other two of the composer's selections, it's partly new, partly old; partly modern, partly ancient. Obviously, Part is a man of many parts. Sorry. The Deer's Cry is an updated setting of an incantation written in the fifth century. It's appropriately solemn yet wonderfully uplifting. The Woman with the Alabaster Box sets a narrative from Matthew 26:6-13. But equally impressive is Nunc dimittis, written in Part's tintinnabular or bell-like style; it's beautiful, and as with the rest of the album the singers do it full justice.

Producer Mark Brown and engineer Mike Hatch recorded the album at the Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London in October 2015. Here is the only minor fly in the ointment: The venue is highly reverberant, and, consequently, voices sometimes appear to have a touch too much bloom and echo to them. Still, the ambient glow makes the choir sound more "heavenly," even it doesn't do as much to clarify the album's transparency as it could. There is also a slight upper midrange brightness to the sound, which doesn't hurt and probably actually helps make the voices appear more distinct. There is much to like here, so I'm not really complaining.


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

Aug 9, 2017

Serenata: A Bouquet of Favorites for Strings (CD review)

Antonio Janigro, I Solisti di Zagreb. Vanguard Classics SVC-142.

If you laid all the albums of string music in the world end to end, some hot new group would try to rerecord all of them. No need to rerecord this collection, though. It contains some splendid music, almost every short favorite for strings you can name. The amazing thing is that Vanguard Classics recorded them so long ago, 1957 and 1962. The recordings were good in their day and they're good now, even if some listeners may not appreciate all of the interpretations.

Every performance is as lively and energetic as you'd expect from this conductor and ensemble, Antonio Janigro and I Solisti di Zagreb, and from the repertoire represented. The program starts with a zesty rendition of Albinoni's Concerto a cinque in B-flat Major, with sonics of startling presence. The Super Bit Map remastering has not only clarified the sound, it has eliminated most of the background noise between the notes. However, it has not removed all of the noise accompanying the notes, so what we get can sound slightly rough or fuzzy at times.

Antonio Janigro
The recordings themselves are a bit forward and bright, anyway, and the result is a little disconcerting at first. But one soon adjusts. The first nine tracks come from 1957 and actually sound the best of the lot; the later 1962 tracks display a fraction more static and low-end rumble.

Following Albinoni, there are Boccherini's familiar Minuet and Haydn's equally famous Serenade, requisite numbers in these kind of collections and pieces I continually mistake for one another. Janigro and his group do up both of them lovingly. The centerpiece of the album is Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, performed with as much verve as one could want. If it doesn't come across quite as smoothly Marriner's or as effortlessly as Boskovsky's, it's close.

Also on hand are Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3; Paradis's Sicilienne; Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on "Greensleeves," especially moving; Pergolesi's Concertino in G; Sibelius's Valse Triste; and, finally, a rather quick-paced version of Barber's Adagio for Strings that I had heard before from Janigro on an all-Barber anthology. This last one may be a matter of taste; Stokowski and Toscanini took it at about seven minutes; Janigro does it in six, although it doesn't sound particularly hurried, just a little too straightforward for my taste. I think, perhaps, the conductor was better in early music.

Overall, though, this is a fine collection of music, very well played. The audio, if not turned up too loudly, can sound superb as well. The collector will have most of these pieces already in his or her music library, but still a warmly recommended disc.


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

Aug 6, 2017

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" (CD review)

Also, Haydn: Symphony No. 104 "London." Josef Krips, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Antal Dorati, Philharmonia Hungarica. HDTT remastered.

Austrian conductor and violinist Josef Krips (1902-1974) had recorded the Schubert Ninth Symphony with the London Symphony to great acclaim in 1959, so it was no surprise that he should also record the Schubert Eighth. However, he didn't get around to it for another ten years, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic, and fans didn't think the performance quite matched the sparkle and joy of his Schubert Ninth. Perhaps we can attribute the leisurely pace of Krips's Eighth to his older age; or perhaps he just felt a need to slow things down. It's certainly a more relaxed interpretation than we usually find, and whether it appeals to all listeners, as always, is a matter of personal taste.

Anyway, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) started writing his Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" in 1822 but left it uncompleted after only two movements. Although no one knows for sure why he left it unfinished, we do know that it wound up in the hands of a friend, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who kept it in a drawer for the next forty-odd years before it finally premiered in 1865. The score for the two movements received publication a couple of years later.

The first movement begins with a brief, somewhat dark introduction before opening up to a more typically Schubertian theme and lyrical second subject. There follow several soaring melodies, rising to a grand climax, then a gentle receding of power to a final reprise and back to a slightly dark conclusion. Krips takes on the gloomier sections less sullenly than usual and offers up lighter, more sensuous moods in the lyrical segments, thus making the movement more of a whole than most conductors do. It's all quite engaging in its low-key way.

The second movement Andante begins slowly, again develops some lovely melodies, and moves on to a quiet, gentle finish. Here, Krips approaches the score as sweetly and gently as possible but without unnecessary sentimentality or schmaltz. Needless to say, the Vienna Philharmonic play this music as though born to it, and some of the players probably were.

Josef Krips
Coupled with the Schubert is one of Hungarian-born conductor Antal Dorati's (1906-1988) celebrated Haydn recordings, this one of the Symphony No. 104 "London" with the Philharmonia Hungarica. As you no doubt know, Dorati was among the first conductors to record all 104 of Haydn's symphonies, so he knew what he was doing.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed his Symphony No. 104 in 1795 while living in London, and it would be his last symphony. It may have gotten its "London" nickname simply because he wrote it in London or because the final movement seems to evoke the sounds of London street vendors. Whatever, Dorati seems pleasantly involved in the music and conveys that spirit to the listener. His Haydn may not be as delightful as Beecham's or as energetic as Jochum's, but it is knowing and consistent. The Philharmonia Hungarica isn't as full or rich as the Vienna Philharmonic, but they acquit themselves nicely in the music.

Producer Christopher Raeburn and engineer Colin Moorfoot recorded the Schubert piece at the Sofiensaal, Vienna in March 1969. Producer James Mallinson and engineer Colin Moorfoot recorded the Haydn at St. Bonifatius Kirche, Marl in December 1972. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered the recordings from 15ips 2-track tapes in 2017.

The Schubert displays a remarkable clarity and a very wide dynamic range. Combined with a modest touch of orchestral depth, it provides a satisfying musical experience. While there is also a small amount of background noise if played too loudly, and while one hears some minor upper midrange brightness, these things should not prove distractions.

The Haydn sounds much the same as the Schubert, not unexpected as Decca recorded them only a few years apart and as the same engineer made both recordings. Still, the Haydn sometimes appears a tad smoother, even though it retains to some small degree the same slightly glassy "Decca" sound. The venue isn't quite as resonant at that in Vienna, nor do the sonics seem quite as dynamically wide; nevertheless, for all intents and purposes the two recordings sound remarkably alike, and both of them will doubtless provide much enjoyment.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at


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

Aug 2, 2017

Suk: Summer Tale (CD review)

Also, Fantastic scherzo. Sir Charles Mackerras, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca 289 466 443-2.

In America, Josef Suk (1874-1935) may be better known as Dvorak's son-in-law than as a musician, but in Czechoslovakia he is more famous. He was first a student of Dvorak and then married his daughter. But both his mentor and his wife died in the years 1904-05, devastating the composer. His subsequent work, especially the Asrael Symphony (1906) and Summer Tale (1909), marked a change from the light Romantic fare he had been producing. Asrael had been a kind of philosophical working out of his grief; then its sequel, Summer Tale, recorded here by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic, demonstrated he had overcome his heartbreak through, as he said, "the healing power of nature."

Although the disc's accompanying booklet insert describes Summer Tale as an antidote to the "bleakness of much of Asrael," it is still fairly gloomy, with only a glimmer of sweetness at the very end. Constructed in five movements, this big orchestral work begins with an enigmatic, shimmering section called "Voices of life and consolation." It has an impressionistic quality to it that is fairly becoming, obviously symbolizing the break of a new and promising day. The second movement, "Noon," has less personality; it appears mainly to be an evocation of midday heat. The third section has the most provocative title, "Blind musicians." It sounds melancholy and repetitious, possibly inspired by Suk's coming across a real group of blind musicians endlessly repeating a mournful tune. The fourth movement is a strange scherzo, "In the power of phantoms," which sounds vaguely sinister. Then the work ends aptly enough with "Night," full of wistful yearning and concluding on an upbeat note of hope.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Coupled to Summer Tale is one of Suk's earlier works, Fantastic scherzo. It is about as different from Summer Tale as one could imagine, written at a time (1903) of great joy in the composer's life. It is delightfully optimistic, Mendelssohnian in its mood and structure, and shows us where Suk's music might have led had not tragedy intervened.

Sir Charles presents Summer Tale with dramatic flair, capturing the rare beauty of the landscapes (and dream scapes) wonderfully. He brings out the sinister qualities of Suk's music quite well, too, all the while remaining attentive to Suk's brilliant, graceful, curving rhythms. With Fantastic scherzo, Mackerras is lighter, appropriate to the mellifluous melodies. Equally important, the Czech Philharmonic plays with the opulent exactitude of the best orchestras in Europe. All in all, conductor and players make beautiful music together.

Decca's 1999 sound for Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic appears somewhat subdued, perhaps as befits the music itself, but turned up a bit it produces some good color, contrast, and depth. The strings are particularly lovely, and the frequency extensions and dynamic range are up to Decca's usual high standards.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa