Sep 27, 2017

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

Gunter Wand, Berliner Philharmoniker. RCA 09026 68839-2.

Beethoven, Bruckner, and Brahms. In the years since conductor and composer Gunter Wand (1912-2002) first broke onto the recording scene some twenty years before he made the present album and already then a man advanced in age, he had recorded the three composers I mentioned earlier two or three times apiece. Practice makes perfect, I suppose. In the case of Wand, who was approaching ninety when he made the recording under review, this rendition of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony bears the mark of authority borne of obvious experience. By then, the fellow had been conducting it for over sixty years; he apparently learned something about it along the way. It is, in fact, a totally absorbing and uplifting performance.

Bruckner dubbed the Fourth Symphony "Romantic" because he wanted people to appreciate its connection with nature and its attendant depth of emotion. Later, Bruckner added even more descriptive phrases to help sell the work--"Knights bursting into the open astride proud steeds," that sort of thing--but the appellation "Romantic" is quite enough. The piece is almost entirely suggestive, not literal, anyhow.

Most important, this is the way Wand presents it. His interpretation is very broad, dramatic, and intense, yet it is not without excitement, too, especially in the finale, where it counts. The grand climaxes are filled with an eloquent drive, and the softest passages convey a feeling of deep spirituality. As always, the Berlin Philharmonic play spectacularly.

Gunter Wand
RCA made the recording in the Philharmonie in 1998, the digital sonics typical of RCA's products in the late Nineties: Velvety smooth, with very wide dynamics and excellent mid bass. There is sparse deep bass, however; not much front-to-back imaging; some occasional spotlighting of individual instruments; and at times a highlighting of whole orchestral sections.

RCA captured the performance live, as I've said, which was the way Wand preferred it for all of the last recordings he made, affording him, I assume, greater spontaneity despite intermittent audience noise. For the most part the recording is reasonably quiet, except during softer moments, between movements, and for a single obtrusive cough about a quarter of the way into the slow second movement. It caught me so off guard I thought it was a sound outside my house; I had to play it back several times to confirm its existence on the disc and not in my yard. Otherwise, the recording carries the weight necessary to complement the power of Wand's realization.

Compared to the three older classics I had on hand at the time--Klemperer (EMI), Jochum (DG), and Bohm (Decca)--Wand fits right in. His performance has the same feeling of rightness, although it is perhaps closer to Bohm than the other two. Klemperer is still the more magisterial and architecturally sound, and Jochum the more mysterious. But Bohm and Wand take us to equally lofty heights without being quite so idiosyncratic.

Wand's is certainly among the best recordings one can buy of Bruckner's most popular symphony, and if you like the conductor's style and can tolerate the minor inconveniences of the live sound, it's something to consider.


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

Sep 24, 2017

Entrez, le Diable! The Virtuoso Cello at the Concert Spirituel (CD review)

Entrez, le Diable! The Virtuoso Cello at the Concert Spirituel (CD review)
Music of Lanzetti, Berteau, Martin, and Barriere. Juliana Soltis, baroque cello; and others. Acis APL72276.

Because Entrez, le Diable! appears to be cellist Juliana Soltis's debut album, many listeners may not be familiar with her work. From her Web site we read: "Raised among the rich musical traditions of Appalachia, cellist Juliana Soltis performs across the globe as both soloist and chamber musician. She has appeared as soloist with the Oberlin Baroque Orchestra and the Harvard Baroque Orchestra--with the latter ensemble receiving the Erwin A. Bodky Award for Early Music--and her European debut in Venice, Italy was met with critical acclaim. An active recitalist with performances in Boston, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., in the 2015-2016 season Ms. Soltis was a featured performer on the Gotham Early Music Society's Midtown Concerts series in Manhattan, and toured Japan performing the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach.

"As a chamber musician, Juliana has performed at the historic Brick Church in New York and the Early Music America Young Performers Festival at the Boston Early Music Festival, and has concertized with the members of the Venice Baroque Orchestra. With her ensemble Die Liebhaberin ('The Enthusiasts'), she has appeared on the Millennium Stage Concert Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, receiving praise for her 'thought-provoking' and 'beautifully articulated' interpretation. Ms. Soltis has participated in masterclasses with Jaap ter Linden, Bart Kuijken, Giuseppe Barutti, and Yo-Yo Ma, and holds degrees from the New England Conservatory, Ball State University, the Longy School of Music, and Oberlin Conservatory. A dedicated and passionate performer-scholar, she has pursued studies in modern cello with Yeesun Kim and Richard Aaron, and historical cellos and viola da gamba with Phoebe Carrai and Catharina Meints Caldwell.

"Currently residing in Seattle, WA, Juliana can be heard performing with some of the Pacific Northwest's premiere Early Music ensembles, including Pacific MusicWorks and Early Music Vancouver, as well as on the Gallery Concerts Series and the Seattle Early Music Guild's Northwest Showcase.

"She is privileged to play on an antique instrument, dated Salzburg 1677 by Andreas Ferdinand Mayr and restored by Warren Ellison of Jericho, VT and Curtis Bryant of Watertown, MA."

On the current disc, Ms. Soltis pursues a selection of seventeenth and eighteenth-century music on the aforementioned baroque cello. Accompanying Ms. Soltis are Adaiha MacAdam-Somer, viola da gamba; Lucas Harris, theorbo; and Justin Murphy-Mancini, harpsichord.

The program offers sonatas by Salvatore Lanzetti (1710-1780), Martin Berteau (1691-1771), Francois Martin (1727-1757), Jean-Baptiste Barriere (1707-1747). If these are not exactly household names, understand they were among the first composers to write for the cello, taking the stage for a series of concerts known as the "Concert Spirituel."

Juliana Soltis
The album makes for fascinating listening, as long as you are willing to adjust your expectations somewhat. This is not Romantic cello music by any means, nor does the baroque instrument produce the smoother, richer, or more mellifluent tones of a modern one. Still, there is much here to enjoy. For instance, there is an especially scintillating opening movement and then a lovely Adagio in Lanzetti's opening sonata, which Ms. Soltis handles with loving care (as she does throughout all the pieces on the program). Its closing Allegro, too, is charming in its expectedly livelier, more-spirited style. The Berteau work appears more serious than the others, almost grave in the first two movements before a third movement Allegro of greater animation, receding into a final section that returns us to the leisurely tempos with which the piece began.

Ms. Soltis tells us in a booklet note that Martin intended the first movement of his sonata played with the use of the performer's chin on the fingerboard rather than the fingers to sustain a pedal tone. This resulted for her, Ms. Soltis says, "in an elaborate arrangement of Band-Aids attached to the underside of my jaw." Regardless of the discomfort, the result for the listener is a most-rewarding and highly expressive interpretation.

And so it goes through the disc's final two sonatas by Barriere, highlights for me being the delightfully enchanting Aria amoroso section of his Sonata in D Major and the opening Largo of his Sonata in B Minor. Why in the world don't we hear these things more often?

Ms. Soltis's playing is evocative, technically skilled, joyous when necessary, and often downright beautiful. The album offers a privileged glimpse into a musical world of long ago that many of us may not have heard before: in this case, to the beginnings of the cello, an instrument for many years not thought fit for a proper solo position.

Producer Geoffrey Silver and engineers Kevin Bourassa and Christian Amonson of Arts Laureate recorded the music at the Dorothy Young Centre for the Arts, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey in January 2016. There is excellent clarity about the instruments. The baroque cello, as I've noted, doesn't have as rich a sound as a modern one, but it does produce a fine, resonant sound. The other instruments display clean, vibrant tones. It's a most-realistic presentation.

To learn more about Juliana Soltis, visit


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

Sep 20, 2017

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty (CD review)

Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra. DG 289 457-2 (2-disc set).

Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet has always lurked in the shadow of his other two great ballets, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. I daresay, with the exception of the big first-act waltz, most people would be hard pressed to identify much of it without prompting. But in the past couple of decades, the work has received several good recordings (including a budget-priced one from Naxos) to accompany such old favorites as those from Previn (EMI), Dorati (Philips), and Rozhdestvensky (BBC). Since Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra provided us with such a splendid Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony a few years before this 2000 release, I had high expectations for his Sleeping Beauty. I wasn't terribly disappointed.

The performance sounds as polished as one could hope for: refined, subtle, and especially expansive in the slower movements. It is a serious interpretation, generally taking the slow parts cautiously and slow paced and the faster sections a tad faster than most other conductors. Compared to my reference, Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, Pletnev seems almost grave at times, yet he also takes some tempos at a clip that would challenge the most nimble of dancers. Previn, on the other hand, has the lighter, more lyrical, more dance-like touch.

Mikhail Pletnev
There is no denying that Pletnev's baronial approach is enjoyable, but it may be a little too urbane for music of such obvious sensual and emotional appeal. No reservations about the playing, however. The Russian National Orchestra perform the work with elegance and refinement in abundance.

DG's digital sound, recorded in 1997, is somewhat heavier and smoother than EMI's 1974 analogue sound for Previn, and the DG sonics are not quite as detailed through the midrange. Nor is there as much depth to DG's orchestral field or as much ambiance as from the older EMI. Indeed, the DG sounds a little flat and dry by comparison. However, I did like DG's slightly more resonant string tone than EMI's. The sound of neither recording is exactly state-of-the-art, but neither recording offers any real displeasure.

Of minor note: The Pletnev recording offers a total of sixty-three tracking points, the Previn seventy-seven. Both are plenty. Overall, I'd say the Previn rendering is a more balletic approach; the Pletnev is more of a concert performance. Although they're both satisfying, if I had to pick just one, it would still be the Previn.


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

Sep 17, 2017

R. Strauss: Elektra & Der Rosenkavalier Suites (SACD review)

Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-722SACD.

Over the past few years I've had the pleasure of listening to several recordings by Maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. While the performances have had strong competition in the catalogue, Honeck's interpretations have held their own; and while I have not always enjoyed the live sound from Pittsburgh as much as others have, it has always sounded better to me than most live recordings. With this Richard Strauss album, however, the performances seem stronger and the sound a bit more rounded and lifelike, making it clearly the best thing I've yet to hear from Honeck and company. It's worth a listen.

First up on the program is a symphonic suite from the opera Elektra by German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Strauss collaborated with Austrian librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to adapt the work from a 1902 drama and to premiere it in 1909. Here, we get the world premiere of a suite from the work, the suite conceptualized by Mr. Honeck and realized by Tomas Ille.

The opera came at a time when the classical world was just beginning to embrace the atonality and dissonance so favored by modernist composers. As such, although Elektra may have found its roots in ancient Greek mythology, the music is decidedly modern and expressionist. In fact, the suite makes a striking contrast with the piece that follows it on the disc, a suite from Der Rosenkavalier, which more closely adheres to the Romantic traditions of the previous century.

Manfred Honeck
So, how does Honeck handle the score for Elektra, which he had a hand in writing? I have to admit here that Elektra is not among my favorite operas, and I had never heard just the orchestral music before. The suite under Maestro Honeck gives me a new appreciation for the piece. Although as a whole the piece sounds a tad disjointed, usual for a suite I suppose, there is a wonderful sense of ebb-and-flow to the score; and although Strauss was certainly experimenting with modern musical idioms, at least under Honeck it appears to take root in elements of the previous century as well. So the work swells with tensions without overflowing in discordances. In fact, Honeck is able to hold it all together for a little over half an hour in an amiable fashion. Conflicts and resolutions come and go, yet the score seems fairly cohesive, the conductor able to patch over any potential disconnects with admirable alacrity.

The second item on the program is a suite (arranged by conductor Artur Rodzinski in 1945) from Strauss's romantic opera Der Rosenkavalier, a piece that premiered in 1911. With its wealth of lush melodies and lavish waltzes, the music couldn't be more different from that of Elektra. Here, Honeck is as exuberant with the score as he was eloquent in Elektra. The music is justifiably popular, and Honeck presents it well; i.e., with unashamed enthusiasm for its late-flowering Romanticism. Moreover, the orchestra responds splendidly to both suites: disciplined, refined, keen, and glowing.

Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineer Mark Donahue of Soundmirror, Boston recorded the music live at the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in May 2016. They made it for hybrid SACD playback, so one can listen to multichannel or two-channel stereo on an SACD player or two-channel stereo on a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

There is an enormous dynamic range involved, which we might expect from this source and from the very slightly close-up live recording involved. Overall room ambience seems just a tad diminished, too, but the proximity of the microphones to the instruments definitely helps with clarity. Most important, things are not overly close, the sound is not at all bright or edgy, and there is a cozy warmth that accompanies it. One hardly notices the audience, and the engineers have thankfully removed any applause. The sonics are still not quite as realistic to my ears as most of Reference Recordings' studio projects, but they will undoubtedly satisfy and thrill most listeners.


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

Sep 13, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 1, "Titan" (CD review)

Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc DSD CD-80545.

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?"  --Educating Rita

I love Mahler, but I'm going to be a little sacrilegious here and say I'm not convinced there is as much to him as people generally ascribe. He has been the darling of the stereo age with his up-and-down surges of passion and eccentricity, but I think maybe the initial reviews of his Symphony No. 1 were close to the point when they called it " accumulation of of extravagances." That doesn't make the music any the less enjoyable, however, because what we all need from time to time is a little extravagance.

Anyway, Yoel Levi's 1999 recording of the Mahler First sounds typical of much of the conductor's work: smooth, polished, refined, nonchalant, and a little detached. It's also not a little sluggish, marmoreal, perhaps even lethargic. And by including the Blumine Andante as a second of five movements he doesn't help matters. Mahler dropped the Andante shortly after the symphony's premiere, reinstated it briefly, and then dropped it again in his final revision. It is certainly a sweet piece of music, but it doesn't really fit in with the other slow movement, the next-to-last one with its quirky parody of "Frere Jacques" in the funeral march; nor does it fit in with the turbulent opening of the finale. If, as Bruno Walter said, the First Symphony is a "triumphant victory over life," then why include such repose so early on?

Yoel Levi
Anyway, Levi's interpretation is fine, if a little underwhelming, especially in the Scherzo, which is really too tame for my taste. Certainly the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra play with grace and refinement, though, and they provide a proper oomph when needed.

I can't say that Telarc's year 2000 sound helped much any, either. They used DSD, Direct Stream Digital, which they called at the time of this recording a "new and improved method of converting music into the digital domain, sampling a 1-bit word at 2.8224 MHz per second. This results in a frequency response from 0 Hz to beyond 100K Hz, and a dynamic range greater than 120 db. Much of the added resolution afforded by the DSD process is retained in standard CD production by using Super Bit Mapping Direct, a dedicated DSD conversion processor." OK, most of us know that by now.

DSD does often provide good sound, but I didn't hear a lot of improvement in this recording over what Telarc had been doing earlier. I only noticed that Telarc engineers started miking their projects a little closer by 2000, providing a bit more detail at the expense of overall, realistic imaging. The bass drum is without a doubt a contributing factor to the impact the music makes, and Telarc as usual captured it strongly, forcefully, dynamically, but without excessive exaggeration. The rest of the sound is similar to Levi's interpretation: smooth, polished, refined, nonchalant, and a little detached. I am still of a mind to prefer Horenstein on Unicorn, Solti on Decca, or Bernstein on DG or Sony for overall performance or Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic on EMI for sonics.


To listen to brief excerpts from all five movements, click below:

Sep 10, 2017

Tribute: Dover Quartet Plays Mozart (CD review)

Quartets K.589, K.590; Quintet K. 406. Dover Quartet. Cedille CDR 90000 167.

The Dover Quartet is a group of young people who formed their string quartet several years ago at the Curtis Institute of Music and then rose to prominence by sweeping the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, taking not only the top prize but the three next awards as well. Since Banff, the quartet has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, garnering praise wherever they go. The quartet members are Joel Link, violin; Bryan Lee, violin; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; and Camden Shaw, cello.

"Tribute: Dover Quartet Plays Mozart" is their debut album, and it couldn't have worked out better for them. They made the album in tribute to their mentors and inspiration, the Guarneri Quartet (1964-2009), who fifty years earlier recorded the same two Mozart quartets included on this disc. In addition, the Dovers have added Mozart's K. 406 Quintet, with none other than a member of the (now disbanded) Guarneri Quartet, Michael Tree, on viola. It's a happy conflux of music and players.

The program begins with the String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). He wrote it in 1790, the second of three string quartets commissioned by and dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. They were also the final quartets Mozart wrote before this death, and the music firm Artaria published them posthumously in 1791.

The "Prussian Quartets" are largely sweet and melodious, which is how the Dover Quartet plays them. One hears in their approach the influence of their advisers, the Guarneri Quartet, whose own style critics often characterized as rich, warm, refined, and smooth yet uniquely individual, spirited, impassioned, and always executed with flawless technique. I would use these same words to describe the Dover Quartet's playing, and, if anything, even more so. The playing is remarkably precise yet vibrantly alive. The one recording of No. 22 I had on hand for comparison was with the Alban Berg Quartet on Teldec, another fine record. To take nothing away from the Alban Berg Quartet, the Dovers seem a degree more lively and the sound a tad more lifelike to me.

The Dover Quartet
Next, we get the String Quartet No. 23 in F major, K. 590. While it is every bit as graceful a work as No. 22, it appears a bit more extrovert and virtuosic, too. There are moments of quiet introspection, moments of seemingly wild joy and abandon, and moments of surpassing tranquility. Needless to say, the Dover Quartet capture every minute of it with a passionate clarity.

The last selection is Mozart's String Quintet No. 2 in C minor, K. 406, written in 1787. Mozart transcribed it from his earlier Serenade No. 12 for Wind Octet, K. 388, scoring it for a quartet and an extra viola, here played, as I've said, by the Guarneri's Michael Tree. It would have been just as easy to include the third of the Prussian quartets, but I'm glad they decided to do the quintet with Mr. Tree instead. With every instrument distinctly individual yet blending perfectly as a whole, the playing of the piece makes a touchingly delightful final tribute to the Guarneris and Mozart.

Cedille Records package the disc in a fold-over Digipak case, and they enclose in it a particularly enlightening booklet of notes by Dover member Camden Shaw and others.

Producer and engineer Judith Sherman and editor Bill Maylone made the 24-bit digital recording at the Miriam & Robert Gould Rehearsal Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, PA in December 2015. As we might have expected from a record company that has been producing so many excellent recordings over the years, this one sounds terrific. The sonics are well defined, the instruments well integrated, the distancing a tad close but response never bright or edgy. First-rate transparency, superb balance, the whole is as natural and realistic as one could want. Another superb recording from Cedille.


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

Sep 6, 2017

Caruso 2000 (CD review)

The Digital Recordings. Enrico Caruso; Gottfried Rabi, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. RCA 74321-69766-2.

No matter whether you think Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) was the greatest tenor of all time, you have to admit the idea for this album is a kick: Caruso singing with a modern symphony orchestra in full-blown stereo. What the marvels of modern digital technology can't accomplish.

RCA did these renovations in the year 2000; thus, the title of the album. They have cleaned the century-old Caruso recordings (made between 1906-1920), edited out extraneous clicks, ticks, and pops, and deleted the original, meager instrumental accompaniments altogether. Then conductor Gottfried Rabi and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra played along with the voice. The results can occasionally sound quite convincing and highly rewarding, enabling us for the first time to hear Caruso as he might actually have sounded live all those many years ago. The results can also be highly frustrating sometimes, sounding exactly like what they are, a modern orchestra playing behind old phonograph records. So, maybe the whole thing's merely a novelty; depends on your point of view.

Enrico Caruso
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the disc, even if it might drive purists mad. On most of the tracks, and in spite of anything the RCA engineers could do, Caruso's voice appears to be in an entirely different acoustic space from the orchestra. Nothing can disguise the dead, hollow, megaphone sound of the old recordings. But if one listens with a willing suspension of disbelief, the music comes off better than one might expect.

RCA included seventeen selections on the disc, among the best sounding of which are Meyerbeers's "O paradiso!" and Leoncavallo's "Vesti la giubba." As a final track, RCA provide the original version of the latter recording for comparison purposes. Yes, there is a huge difference, albeit an unfair one. RCA, after all, cleaned up the remastering (and added modern accompaniment), making the new version sound quite a bit better than the hundred-year-old one, with its thin sound and plethora of associated noises. I think we get the point.

If you are a Caruso collector, the disc is probably already in your collection. If you have avoided buying any Caruso recordings because you knew you would not be able to cope with the ancient sonics, this is your chance to hear something perhaps more pleasing to the ear. Of course, if you are happy with the old Caruso recordings just as they are, you might not appreciate these newfangled concoctions. The disparity in aural surroundings between voice and orchestra may be more distracting to you than the old originals.

In any case, there's a lot here to think about and, with an open ear, maybe a little something to enjoy.


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

Sep 3, 2017

J.S. Bach: Religious and Secular Works (SACD review)

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Russian National Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 593.

According to Wikipedia, "Hilarion Alfeyev (born Grigoriy Valerievich Alfeyev 24 July 1966) is a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. At present he is the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk ('metropolitan' is the rank of metropolitan bishop, or simply metropolitan, pertaining to the diocesan bishop of a metropolis), the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, and a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow. He is also a noted theologian, church historian and composer, and has published books on dogmatic theology, patristics, and church history as well as numerous compositions for choir and orchestra." Oh, and on the present recording, he's a conductor.

As a conductor Alfeyev is rather conservative, to say the least. As he describes it, "As a conductor, I feel deeply indebted to such interpreters of Bach's works as Karl Richter and Herbert von Karajan. I am not at all fascinated by the modern fashion to play Bach in the so-called 'authentic' style, whatever it may mean, when the orchestra is tuned one tone lower (which is unbearable for people with perfect pitch), the tempos are too fast, and the entire manner of performance is artificially oriented towards what is believed to be peculiar for Bach's epoch."

Some listeners may find Alfeyev's approach to music making refreshing for its traditionalist leanings while others may find it old-fashioned and staid. Certainly, amid today's historically informed performances and period-instrument bands, Alfeyev's interpretations are definitely different. Whether they appeal to you would be a matter of personal leanings, so perhaps the prospective buyer of Alfeyev's album might want to preview listening to it and doing as much research on it as possible.

Anyway, Alfeyev also believes that Bach is among the greatest of composers, saying he is "fascinated by the grandeur and truly symphonic scale of many of Bach's works." On the present album, he includes four Bach compositions, two of which he arranged himself for symphonic treatment.

The first selection is "Ich ruf' zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ" ("I call to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ"), a three-part chorale that Alfeyev arranged for orchestra. It sets the tone for the rest of the program, being tranquil and relaxed.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Next comes "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough" or "I am content"), one of almost 200 church cantatas Bach wrote. It is in five sections alternating arias and recitatives. Here, baritone singer Stephan Genz provides the vocals. Again, Alfeyev takes his leisurely, measured approach to the score. You'll find little to excite one here, but, rather, you'll find sweet, comforting textures. I'm not sure it's fair, however, to compare Alfeyev's performances with Karajan's because though Karajan would often slow down and glamorize the music he was performing, he always made it a fascinating experience. Alfeyev often sounds simply slow, without any accompanying revelations about the music. It's all very pretty but somewhat superficial and not particularly gripping or illuminating.

After that is the centerpiece of the album, the Orchestra Suite No. 2 in B minor, which is in seven movements and was a part of Bach's first attempt at writing for an orchestra. The second suite is filled with any number of felicitous, flowing melodies, so this choice seems entirely appropriate to Alfeyev's frame of mind concerning the "deeply mystical," spiritual qualities of Bach's compositions. Yet I can't say he presents it in any more an engaging manner than what we already have from dozens of other conductors, including some of my favorites in the work like Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields or Jordi Savall and Les Concerts des Nations. Whatever, under Alfeyev's direction the music is graceful, fluid, and flowing. It may not be entirely distinguished, but it is undoubtedly easy on the ear.

The program concludes with Alfeyev's orchestral arrangement of the Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582, an organ work Bach wrote early in his career. In this piece Alfeyev attempts to make an orchestra sound like an organ, something Stokowski was good at doing but as often found himself criticized for doing. Alfeyev says he was trying "to show the immense inner and spiritual power of Bach's music." Flutist Alya Vodovozova helps carry the number. This was my favorite piece on the program because Alfeyev seems more than successful at doing exactly what he set out to do: making an orchestra sound like an organ, yet with the added breadth and splendor the added instruments bring with them.

As always, Pentatone put the disc in a standard SACD keep case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover.

Producers Job Maarse and Erdo Groot and engineer Jean-Marie Geijsen made the album for hybrid SACD, recording it in Moscow, Russia in December 2015. As usual with these things, one may listen to the disc in two-channel stereo or multichannel from an SACD player or two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer.

Solo instruments tend to sound a tad forward or highlighted, but the orchestral accompaniment is very natural and extremely smooth. While there isn't a lot of stage width, there is a modicum of depth, which is always welcome. There isn't much dynamic range involved, either, but, then, there isn't much need for any. Otherwise, we get a slightly warm, slightly rounded sonic picture.


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