Nov 30, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, Five Lieder. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; Christa Ludwig; Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI Classics 7243 5 67035 2 0.

Only a couple of conductors who had actually worked with Gustav Mahler made it into the stereo era. Otto Klemperer was one; Bruno Walter another. When Klemperer performed his first public concert in 1912, it included the Mahler Fourth Symphony. Do these associations make Klemperer's Mahler interpretations definitive? No. Klemperer, as always, was too idiosyncratic for one to call any of his performances the last word on the subject. But this 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra can surely be considered authoritative, and there is no reason for not auditioning it. It has certainly grown on me over the years.

Klemperer was a conductor known for the massive ruggedness of his realizations, yet it is for his gentler, more subtle readings that I have come to appreciate him: His Beethoven Pastorale, his Mendelssohn Fourth, his Haydn "Clock" Symphony. The Mahler Fourth falls into this balmier category.

He takes the first movement at such a winsomely unhurried gait that one can hardly fail to fall under its spell. Klemperer's pace is slower here than most other conductors, to be sure, and totally unforced, establishing an exemplary tone for the opening's childlike description of the peacefulness of Heaven. Taking the Scherzo so leisurely may be another matter, but it does no harm and actually makes the second movement seem less bizarre than usual. It is in the third movement, however, the Adagio, that greater controversy arises. Contrary to expectation, Klemperer takes it at a faster tempo than anticipated, faster than probably anyone on record. It may not convey the eternal repose of those heading toward the gates of Heaven, but it voices fully the opening of those gates and leads perfectly into the expressive innocence of the finale's poem. Well, expressive innocence for the orchestral parts of the finale, perhaps; however, Ms. Schwarzkopf's rendition of the vocal part does seem a bit too mature and sophisticated for the role. It's a minor drawback, like the unusual Adagio, and should not hamper one's enjoyment of the symphony overall.

Otto Klemperer
I have lived with this recording for close to fifty years, coming to it on LP in the late Sixties just after reading a scalding review that I remember called it something like "menacing" rather than sweet, and framed in "cavernous" sound. The first criticism I could never understand. There is nothing even remotely "menacing" about it. As I said, it is a most attractive, engaging, light, and gentle interpretation, if a trifly eccentric, with the Philharmonia at the height of their performance standards.

The second criticism I read about, however, the "cavernous" business, possibly derives from the reviewer having heard the piece only on an old Angel LP. In those days, there were often considerable sonic differences between American Angel and English EMI releases. Today, we have several CD incarnations of the performance, and the sound is quite good.

As a part of EMI's "Klemperer Legacy" series, the edition I own has a warmer, smoother response than before, yet it retains its clarity. Indeed, of the seven or eight Mahler Fourths I had on hand for comparison at the time of this review, it was the Klemperer disc that sounded clearest to me (although at higher volume it could also be a little noisier and the treble more prominent than the others). At least some of the recording's lucidity no doubt stems from EMI's recording techniques, original engineers Douglas Larter and Neville Boyling's audio competence, and producer Walter Legge's finicky production values. But I suspect it is also due to Klemperer's ability to retain clean lines throughout the biggest orchestral passages. What's more, the recording projects a proper stereo spread, depth, and ambiance to communicate the experience of a live event (although EMI recorded it without an audience in Kingsway Hall, London, 1961).

The Mahler Fourth is worthy of multiple interpretations, to be sure, and one should investigate as many of them as possible. Welser-Most (EMI Eminence or Warner Classics) appears even broader than Klemperer; Karajan (DG) sounds grander; Maazel (Sony) more sugary and Romantic; Previn (EMI) more playful; Solti (London) and Abbado (DG) more intense; Gatti (RCA) more rambunctious; Colin Davis (RCA) more refined; Szell (Sony) and Haitink (in the second of his three Philips releases) perhaps most unaffected of all and safest choices of mine in this work.

Yet it remains Klemperer to whom I find myself returning most often for pure listening pleasure. I can't explain it really; I can only enjoy it.

JJP 

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


Nov 26, 2017

Saint-Saens: Organ Symphony (CD review)

Also, Carnival of the Animals. Daniele Rossi, organ; Martha Argerich, Antonio Pappano, pianos; Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell-Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Warner Classics 0190295755553.

There's always room, I suppose, for another recording of an old warhorse, in this case the Saint-Saens Third Symphony, know popularly as the "Organ Symphony." Whether the newcomers measure up to old favorites, it's always good to hear what different conductors can do with a work, and, to be sure, Maestro Antonio Pappano, organist Daniele Rossi, and the Orchestra dell-Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia give it a good shot.

As you may know, French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 "Organ" in 1886. Because it is a colorful, sometimes bombastic, and thoroughly pleasing piece of music, it has enjoyed enormous popularity over the years. Although audiences recognize the piece by its nickname, the "Organ Symphony," the organ really only has a part in the second-movement Adagio and the later half of the Finale. Saint-Saëns called the work "a symphony with organ," and said of it, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Apparently, he knew whereof he spoke (or he was too contrary to go back on his words) because even though he lived another thirty-five years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

The first movement of the symphony has always seemed to me the least distinguished, the least characterful, and I can't say that Pappano makes it any the more distinctive. Still, he injects as much life as possible into the affair, so there is no want of thrills.

The second movement Adagio always reminds of great, soft warm waves flowing over and around one's body on a sunny, tropical beach. The organ comes in with these huge, gentle washes of sound. Here, Pappano makes it warm and gentle enough but the organ doesn't carry the weight it should to make much of an impression.

The two movements that comprise the finale should be fiery and exhilarating, and it's here that Pappano carries the day. The Presto abounds with energy, and when the organ enters at the last, it may not be as deep or rich as it could be, but it is loud and it does generate a good deal of excitement.

Coupled with the symphony is Saint-Saens's humorous Carnival of the Animals suite, which he wrote the same year, 1886, as the Third Symphony. He scored it for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute and piccolo, clarinet, glass harmonica, and xylophone, and here's where this recording shines. Both Pappano himself and Martha Argerich take the piano parts. While Pappano is a fine pianist, no doubt, Argerich is universally acclaimed as a great pianist, one of the finest pianists in the world. So it's a treat having her in on the festivities.

Antonio Pappano
Saint-Saens considered the work too light for him to publish, that if he did it would distract from his more serious compositions. He did, however, leave instructions that it might be published after his death, so the first public performance didn't occur until 1922. Today, of course, audiences have come to love the piece, and there are numerous recordings of it by just about everyone. Still, this one's got Argerich, and that counts for something.

Saint-Saens subtitled the work "A Zoological fantasy for 2 pianos & ensemble," and the soloists are splendid. Each of the fourteen little segments comes off beautifully, with plenty of life and sparkle. While they all shine, the "Aquarium" is particularly atmospheric, the "Fossils" are fun, and, of course, the famous "Swan" (cello solo by Gabriele Geminiani) is as lovely as ever.

The thing about this album is, though, no matter how many new recordings we keep getting of the Organ Symphony, so far none of them have challenged my own personal favorites: Louis Fremaux with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics or Klavier), Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony (RCA or JVC), and Jean Martinon with the Orchestre National de l'ORTF (Brilliant Classics). And, I might add, the folks at Warner Classics already offer the same coupling as here--Third Symphony and Carnival of the Animals--with Fremaux at a bargain price. With the Fremaux disc having wonderful performances and excellent sound, it makes it hard for any newcomer to compete; indeed, if this new entry didn't involve Martha Argerich, it probably wouldn't be a contender at all.

Producers Giacomo De Caterini and Michael Seberich recorded the music live in April and November 2016 in the Sala Santa Cecilia (Organ Symphony) and Sala Petrassi, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome. Warner Classics mark the issue as "Santa Cecilia Live," so one must assume they recorded both works live; however, for reasons unknown, a loud outburst of applause accompanies the close of the Organ Symphony, while the Carnival of the Animals ends in dead silence. Maybe they didn't do the Carnival live? I don't know. But I preferred the silence.

Anyway, the sound in the Organ Symphony is a little close, as we might expect from a live recording, providing a reasonably quiet response, with a huge dynamic range and good impact. It also produces a touch of brightness, edge, and glare, however, and a small degree of fuzz. There seems little depth to the orchestra as well, which is unfortunate, so things are rather one-dimensional. Timpani are prominent in the symphony, which is good, but as I mentioned earlier the organ is not especially deep, just loud. In the Carnival, which the composer scored for around a dozen instruments, the sound is better--cleaner, warmer, smoother, more transparent, and, while still fairly close-up, not so obviously flat.

JJP

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


Nov 22, 2017

Mozart et al: The Philosopher's Stone (CD review)

Kurt Streit, Alan Ewing, Chris Pedro Trakas, Paul Austin Kelly, Judith Lovat, Jane Giering-De Haan, Sharon Baker; Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque Orchestra. Telarc CD-80508 (3-disc set).

The longer we live, the less we know. You'd think that after two hundred years, about everything that we could possibly learn about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have surfaced. But not so. The "et al" in the heading means that only recently did Professor David Buch discover conclusive evidence that near the end of his life Mozart collaborated with four other composers to produce The Philosopher's Stone, a singspiel or comic opera with dialogue. In 1996, Dr. Buch found a previously unknown copy of the work with the names of its contributors clearly marked on the top of each page. For a long time music scholars had thought that Mozart might have had something to do with the opera, but when Mozart's name appeared above three of the numbers, the professor had his proof.

The four other composers are Johann Baptist Henneberg, Benedikt Schack, Franz Xavier Gerl, and Emanuel Schikaneder. The year was 1790, a year before Mozart would publish his Magic Flute. The question is, why would Mozart have contributed his talents to a production with other composers and take so little or no credit for himself? There are several possible answers. The foremost is that he needed the money. More important, though, he probably just enjoyed working with the others. The same team that produced The Philosopher's Stone would shortly thereafter produce Mozart's own Magic Flute, so these men were clearly friends and business associates. In any event, it is important to find Mozart's name attached to anything not previously attributed to him, and Telarc do a splendid job giving us a world premiere recording of the work.

Martin Pearlman
The Philosopher's Stone, subtitled The Enchanted Isle, was apparently a popular piece of entertainment for its time, remaining in the repertory of the Theater auf der Wieden for about twenty-four years and receiving many more performances throughout Germany and Europe during that time. The work sounds unceasingly cheerful, based on much the same fairy-tale material as The Magic Flute. It's all about sylvan landscapes, shepherds and shepherdesses, love and lovers, demons and evil spirits, jealousy, dwarfs, and a trial by bird song. It's a plot that one must revisit frequently for any comprehension, but the arias, duets, ensembles, and musical interludes are fun, if frivolous, while they last.

Telarc's producer James Mallinson does things up right by employing Martin Pearlman and his period instruments band Boston Baroque and a worthy cast of singers to head up the entertainment. The playing and singing are splendid.

Then to top things off, engineer Jack Renner ensures that the sound is ultra smooth. However, I also found the sound a bit dry and sterile. There is not a lot of sheen at the top end; and, disconcertingly, as people walk about the stage their voices change in dimensionality but we never hear their footsteps. In the old Culshaw days at Decca, the listener was aware of almost all stage movements, lending the proceedings a greater air of realism. Oh, well. Mercifully, the Telarc recording remains free of its patented big bass drum, and for the most part the sound is clean and clear.

The Telarc engineers accommodate the opera itself on two CDs, with a third, bonus disc devoted to a short discussion by the conductor on the importance of Mozart's contributions to the work.

Overall, it's a release worthy of investigation by anyone interested in classical music, Mozart, light opera, or musicology.

JJP

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


Nov 19, 2017

Toscanini 150th Anniversary (CD review)

Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York. Bridge 9493.

The last time I wrote about Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York, it was an album of Gershwin music that became one of my favorite recordings of 2016. This time out, Maestro Richman chose to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a fellow conductor, the legendary Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).

I say "legendary" because in my mind Toscanini really was a legend. Growing up in the 1940's and 50's as I did, to me Toscanini was one of those gods of the classical world with strange and exotic names like Stokowski, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. But Toscanini was, again for me, the master of them all, and later when I got into collecting classical recordings, I always regretted that Toscanini had not lived much into the stereo era. So, here we have Steven Richman taking up some of the slack by providing us with a little of the old Maestro's favorite lighter fare, many in Toscanini's own arrangements and with Richman using one of Toscanini's own batons to direct the proceedings.

Audiences loved what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call "lollipops," fun pieces with which he often closed shows, and Leopold Stokowski might be best known today for his work in the Disney film Fantasia. But we don't often think of the great Toscanini as having a lighter side at all. He did. And here is some of that.

The disc includes Verdi's Aida Overture, Bizet's Carmen Suite (arranged by Toscanini), Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Waldteufel's Skaters Waltz (again arranged by Toscanini), and Rossini's William Tell Overture.

Richman begins things, then, with the Aida Overture, which one doesn't often hear by itself, understandably because the composer never actually published it. Verdi wrote it for the opera's premiere but set it aside in favor of the more-familiar prelude. Toscanini performed it only once, in 1940, and essentially from memory. So, the opening number is a rarity, and Richman appears to do it full justice, with zest and enthusiasm.

Steven Richman
The Carmen Suite that follows is one Toscanini put together himself when in his seventies. The differences between Toscanini's suite and others are so slight I couldn't detect them, but I could easily see how Richman tries to emulate Toscanini's celebrated no-nonsense approach to the score. Tempos and modulations are on the quick, succinct side, with no hint of dallying or sentimentality. Likewise, Richman handles the Nutcracker Suite in a completely unfussy manner.

For some listeners, Toscanini's style was too cold and calculating; to others, it perfectly reflected a composer's intentions. Richman attempts to convey that same spirit of contention. You either love the conductor's methods or you don't. I found it all quite persuasive.

Emile Waldteufel meant his Skaters Waltz for a smallish chamber orchestra, and that's how we usually hear it. But Toscanini wanted to do it up for a bigger group, so he reorchestrated the piece in the 1940's for his NBC Symphony Orchestra. As expected, it's a full, lush, vigorous rendition, although in Richman's case I don't know that the size of the ensemble seems to matter.

The program ends with Rossini's William Tell Overture, which Toscanini conducted for the first time when he was nineteen and for the last time when he was eighty-five. Richman captures the work's excitement as Toscanini doubtless did but imposing on it few idiosyncrasies of his own. He uses the composer's manuscript but also follows Toscanini's practice of doubling the five solo cellos at the beginning for a fuller, mellower sound.

Most classical fans will probably already have in their collections multiple versions of these chestnuts (with the exception, perhaps, of the Aida Overture), so why would they want yet more? In this case, the performances are so direct and so straightforward that the music actually appears fresh and new. And the sound is so good and so natural, it puts most other recordings to shame.

Producer Steven Richman and producer and engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the album at the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York in March 2015. There's a fine sense of place and space about the recording, imaging depth and spread providing a realistic ambience without sounding exaggerated. Detailing is good, too, without being bright or edgy. The dynamics help as well, with huge increases and decreases in volume as the occasions arise. A commendable disc all the way around.

JJP

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


Nov 15, 2017

Hartmann: Overtures (CD review)

Thomas Dausgaard, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Dacapo 8.224097.
And, Hartmann-Bournonville: The Valkyrie. Michail Jorowski, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt. CPO 999 620-2 (2-disc set).

Danish composer Johan Peder Emilius Hartmann (1805-1900) lived nearly the whole of the nineteenth century. Think of that: Haydn was still alive when Hartmann was born, and Mahler was just finishing his Fourth Symphony when Hartmann died. Although not so popular anymore, during most of this time Hartmann was at the center of Danish musical life as an organist, composer, and co-director the Copenhagen Conservatory. His works include operas; ballets; vocal, orchestral, organ, and piano pieces; popular songs; and chamber music. 

The five overtures featured on this 1999 release from Maestro Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra reveal a distinctly Romantic leaning, as we might expect, yet a modern, adventurous spirit as well. There is nothing particularly remarkable about any of the overtures, but they are clearly a step toward tone painting and even impressionism, and the conductor and orchestra give them full measure.

The five overtures are Yrsa, Axel og Valborg, Hakon Jarl, Correggio, and Guldhornene. He based most of them on Danish folk lore, poetry, and legend. Of the five, two stand out for me: First, there is Guldhormene, or The Golden Horns, because it is background music for the recitation of a poem by Adam Oehlenschlager, one of Denmark's "Golden Age" dramatists. It is not the longest work on the disc, but it covers the most sweeping ground. To be honest, though, I could have done without the recitation by Bodil Udsen and just enjoyed the music by itself. The second standout is Hakon Jarl, a descriptive work that tackles no less than "the struggle of Heathendom in Norway against Christianity, and the victory of the latter under Olaf Trygvason." Like the other overtures, it begins with a slow, moody introduction soon developing into a series of contrasting sections that become quite exciting and contain some of Hartmann's most imaginative tunes.

Thomas Dausgaard
For those listeners seeking a more sustained and substantial output from Hartmann, the CPO label simultaneously issued a two-disc set of his ballet The Valkyrie, with Michail Jorowski and the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt. In four acts and based on a story by August Bournonville, the work is somewhat bombastic but highly descriptive. As the title suggests, it is all about gods and warriors and Valkyrie of ancient Norse mythology. Music scholars consider it one of the great ballets of Danish theater. Although it did not particularly impress me on my one and only listening, ballet fans should find much to enjoy in its 103 minutes. Whether Maestro Jorowski helped or hindered my appreciation of the music, I could not say. 

Both Dacapo's and CPO's sound is remarkable in its unremarkableness. This is not meant as a criticism, just an observation. The sonics appear moderately distanced and slightly veiled, with passably good depth of field, little deep bass, and rather mundane dynamic impact. Like Hartmann's music, nothing really stands out, but that is the way it probably should be. Unless the listener is an audiophile more interested in how the discs sound than in the music itself, the albums should satisfy because nothing calls attention to itself. These are unassuming releases of unassuming music.

JJP     

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


Nov 12, 2017

Handel Goes Wild (CD review)

Valer Sabadus, countertenor; Nuria Rial, soprano; Christina Pluhar, L'Arpeggiata. Erato 0190295811693.

This is another novelty from conductor (and therobist) Christina Pluhar and her Baroque ensemble L'Arpeggiata: A recording that blends a period band with a contemporary jazz quintet to do improvisations inspired by the works of German composer George Frederic Handel (1685-1759). Ms. Pluhar and her group have done this kind of thing several times before, notably with albums of music by Purcell, Monteverdi, and Cavalli. The results may remind you, as they did me, of the discs from the Jacques Loussier Trio, a jazz group that has successfully navigated the classical world for decades. But Ms. Pluhar and her players go them one better in combining historical instruments with modern jazz ones and coming up with lusher, richer tones that still maintain much of the spirit of the original composer.

The program, mainly arias, highlights soloists in some selections, the jazz players on some tracks, and the period instruments ensemble in yet other numbers. What's more, some of the pieces are well known while others are less famous; some are slow, while others are fast; some are recognizable as Handel, while others are not quite so identifiable; and some are done relatively straight, while others are more jazz inflected. Thus, we get a good variety of music, from the energetic pomp of "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" (with interjections by the jazz ensemble) to the familiar larghetto "Ombra mai fu." Whether any of this will appeal to the committed classical lover or the enthusiastic jazz fan, however, is another story and entirely a matter of taste.

To give you an idea of the material involved, here's a list of the disc's contents:

  1. Sinfonia (from Alcina)
  2. "Venti, turbini" (from Rinaldo)
  3. "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" (from Semele)
  4. Vivaldi Allegro (from Concerto in G minor)
  5. "Cara sposa" (from Rinaldo)
  6. "Where'er you walk" (from Semele)
  7. "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" (from Solomon)
  8. "Pena tiranna" (from Amadigi di Gaula)
  9. "Piangerò la sorte mia" (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto)
10. Canario (improvisations based on Girolamo Kapsberger)
11. "Verdi prati" (from Alcina)
12. "Tu del Ciel ministro eletto" (from Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno)
13. "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" (from Alcina)
14. "Lascia ch'io pianga" (from Rinaldo)
15 "Ombra mai fu" (from Serse)

Christina Pluhar
So, OK, admittedly, it's a little hard to judge either the music or the performances until you get past the oddity of the album's concept. Nevertheless, even though one may question the album's purpose and appeal, there should be no question about its sincerity. Ms. Pluhar and her fellow musicians appear wholly committed to the approach, whatever classification you might apply to it. She and her players are excellent, professional musicians who produce crisp, well-polished performances, whether you call it classical, jazz, or fusion.

The opening tune is a good example of the program's diversity as well as its controversy. Even the seasoned Handel admirer might have trouble recognizing the Sinfonia from Alcina, beginning as it does with light jazz riffs that take a while to open up into something resembling traditional Handel. The next piece, the aria "Venti, turbini" from Rinaldo, is more clearly Handel, especially when the countertenor Valer Sabadus enters, and no amount of jazz accents can hide the composer's rhythms.

And so it goes. The aria "O Sleep, why dost thou leave me" from Semele has the lovely quality of a music-box lullaby about it; the Vivaldi Allegro from Concerto in G minor finds a more jazz-oriented tone with double bass, piano, and clarinet dominating the piece until the rest of the players join in; and so on.

Earlier I asked whether the album would appeal more to jazz or classical lovers, and I'm hard pressed to provide an answer. There may not be enough of one or the other idiom to satisfy either camp. So maybe its appeal is to neither; that is, its major attraction may be to folks who don't have strong convictions one way or the other. Then again, those same listeners may think it's too much of one or the other, jazz or classical, so who knows.

The album is an odd duck, to be sure. My recommendation is to try and listen to as many selections from it as possible before laying out any cash. I found a lot of it delightful and fascinating, but at seventy-five minutes, it also seemed a bit too much of a good thing.

Sound, mixing, and mastering engineer Hugues Deschaux recorded the album in Switzerland in November 2016. The sonics have a smooth, well-rounded texture that is pleasing to the ear if not entirely transparent. The room acoustics open up the sound to a warm bloom, with a good sense of space and depth. Much of it, though, appears a bit too close up in relation to the softness of the music, which would seem to indicate a more distant perspective. Still, minor quibbles. The sound is appealing.

JJP

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


Nov 8, 2017

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (UltraHD review)

Harry Belafonte. Sony Music 88843025992, remastered.

Many years ago, in the 1960's and 70's, I used to listen to a popular weekly FM radio show in the San Francisco Bay Area called "Excursions in Stereo." Similar to John Sunier's even later "Audiophile Edition," "Excursions" gave people a chance to hear some of the best stereo then available. Every week the show's host, Jim Gabbert, would play cuts from his favorite albums, and every week he would invariably include a track or two from the 1959 RCA recording of Harry Belafonte's concert at Carnegie Hall. Naturally, I had to buy the two-LP set for myself, and when I did, I was not disappointed, except that I had taken a while to discover it. It remains one of the best, most realistic reproductions of a live pop concert I've ever heard.

When the CD era arrived, RCA cut out a few tracks and fit the program onto a single compact disc. But it wasn't the excising of four or five songs that disappointed me so much as their almost complete destruction of the sound of the live event. Fortunately, that became a forgotten issue, at least for a little while, because in the mid 90's Classic Compact Discs remastered the entire program on two gold discs, restoring much of the original sound (as well as the omitted songs). Gone was the silver disc's harshness and one-dimensionality, replaced by the master tape's richer, cleaner tones and three-dimensionality. Although the sound seemed a little drier than I remembered it from the old LP days, it still conveyed a sense of presence unmatched by most recent digital efforts. This was a treasured LP set that I regretted coming to late in its history, but I was more than happy to have acquired the gold edition. Too bad Classic Compact Discs went out of business years ago, and the gold discs are no longer available (except used, I suppose).

Well, that was my history with the recording until the present. Now, I'm happy to say, there's another choice, and it's better than anything that's come before. The current incarnation of the Belafonte concert comes to us via UltraHD PureFlection, one of the last projects that FIM (First Impression Music) producer Winston Ma was involved with prior to his death. To manage such a great-sounding disc, Winston had Michael Bishop of Five/Four Productions do the 32-bit remastering and used UltraHD, an extra-precise manufacturing process, to complete the job.

The UltraHD disc contains the following songs on the program:
  1. Introduction/Darlin' Cora
  2. Sylvie
  3. Cotton Fields
  4. John Henry
  5. The Marching Saints
  6. Day O
  7. Jamaica Farewell
  8. Mama Look A Boo Boo
  9. Come Back Liza
  10. Man Smart
  11. Hava Nageela
  12. Danny Boy
  13. Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma
  14. Shenandoah
  15. Matilda

Harry Belafonte
One thing noticeable about Belafonte's performances in this concert is that he generally slows things down compared to his equivalent studio releases. You'll observe it in things like "Day-O" and "Jamaica Farewell," which seem more heartfelt taken at the slightly slower pace. Other than that, Belafonte is Belafonte, the man who practically invented calypso; or, at least, popularized it in America. Wonderful music in 1959; wonderful music today.

To evaluate the disc's sound quality, needless to say I put it up against the best version I already had in my collection, the aforementioned gold edition from Classic Compact Discs. Here, the comparison was fascinating. The gold remastering had sounded so much better than RCA's silver disc, I couldn't imagine anything surpassing it. But after adjusting for playback levels, the UltraHD disc did, indeed, eclipse it. Especially in clarity. I had never noticed the gold discs sounding so soft or warm before, but compared to the crystalline clarity of the UltraHD disc, the gold discs appear decidedly veiled, if only slightly. Of course, you may prefer a softer, warmer sound because you think it's easier on the ear. Fair enough; individual preference always takes precedence. But, really, the UltraHD is not only more transparent, it's just as easy on the ear as the gold, with no brightness, harshness, edginess, or glare. What's more, it appears to preserve even more of the original master tape's legendary presence, depth, dimensionality, and general feeling of aliveness than the gold discs. So, overall, the UltraHD is a superb product; no reservations whatsoever.

You can find this product at a number of on-line vendors, but you'll find some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/

JJP

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

Nov 5, 2017

Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites 1 & 2 (SACD review)

Also, Four Norwegian Dances. Raymond Leppard, English Chamber Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 231.

For many years now, some of my favorite recordings of Grieg's music for Peer Gynt have been those of Oivin Fjeldstad with the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca, Classic CD, and other labels), Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI/Warner or Hi-Q), and the one under consideration here, Raymond Leppard's 1975 album of suites recently remastered on SACD by Pentatone.

People today probably know Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) best for his incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt as well as for the Piano Concerto, although my guess is that listeners familiar with Peer Gynt know it from one or the other of the concert suites rather than the complete incidental music. Here, we get both suites, but if you want the complete score, you'll have to go elsewhere, to Per Dreier and the LSO (Unicorn), perhaps, or Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony (DG).

Anyway, the suites are enough for most folks, and, as I say, Leppard's handling of them is as good any. Grieg himself extracted the two suites from the complete score, but nobody published the original score until 1908, a year after the composer's death. So maybe that's why we know the suites better than the complete music. In any case, the suites contain all of the most-popular music from the score, four entries in each suite: "Morning Mood," "Aase's Death," "Anitra's Dance," and "In the Hall of the Mountain King"; then "The Abduction," "Arabian Dance," "Peer Gynt's Return," and "Solveig's Song."

Leppard's way with this material is always of the most refined quality. He never over dramatizes the music or over glamorizes it. Instead, he lets each movement unfold at a natural pace, using nuanced pauses and contrasts to underline the pictorial characteristics of the score. Leppard always has an eye toward atmosphere rather than pure theatricality; so, yes, there are other more exciting versions of this music you can find, but none as thoughtful.

Raymond Leppard
As a coupling, Pentatone offer Grieg's Four Norwegian Dances, also nicely done up by Leppard and his players. Note, though, that the latter Philips disc also includes these items, plus an additional twenty-four minute selection from Grieg's Old Norwegian Romance, Op. 51, recorded by Leppard half dozen years later with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Apparently, Pentatone decided that the material on the original disc was enough, or perhaps the later recording wasn't in surround sound.

Philips originally recorded the album in multichannel at the Walthamstow Town Hall, London, in November 1975, but released it only in two-channel stereo. Polyhymnia International B.V. remastered the recording for Pentatone Remastered Classics in December 2015 for hybrid stereo/multichannel playback. As always, if you have an SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) player, you can play either the two-channel or multichannel formats in SACD and if you have only a regular CD player, you can play the regular two-channel CD layer. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The recording provides probably still the best sound you can obtain in this music. The microphone placement gives us just the right amount of space between the instruments to create the illusion of a small orchestra in front of us in a large hall, with just the right amount of width and depth. What's more, the warmth of the acoustic heightens the illusion, without losing too much detail and definition; the bass is taut and deep; and the dynamics are strong.

Since I also had on hand the Philips disc of this same recording, I put it into the regular CD player and compared it side-by-side with the SACD 2-channel layer of the newer remaster. After some fiddling with level balances, it was pretty hard to tell the difference. While the SACD was perhaps a tad smoother and fuller overall, it could have been my imagination. However, since the Philips disc may prove hard to come by now that Philips have folded shop, the point may be moot. The Pentatone is a good listen.

JJP

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


Nov 1, 2017

Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel (CD review)

Anna Moffo, Helen Donath, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lucia Popp; Kurt Eichhorn, Munich Radio Orchestra. RCA 74321-25281-2 (2-disc set).

German composer Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera Hansel und Gretel is surely one of the sweetest, gentlest, most tuneful, yet exciting pieces of music ever written for children or adults. It has all the qualities of a great fairy tale.

What's more, it has been fortunate over the years to have received a number of good recordings, in particular the 1953 mono version from Karajan, Schwarzkopf, and company (EMI). But for listeners who won't put up with monaural sound, this reissue from RCA, with only the slightest hint of tape hiss, provides a pleasing, mid-priced alternative. Indeed, of all the stereo versions available, this one, originally recorded for Eurodisc in 1971 is probably the best bargain. It does not quite outweigh the merits of Sir Colin Davis's stereo set for Philips, but it sounds as good or better.

Kurt Eichhorn
Humperdinck based the plot on the popular tale by the Brothers Grimm about a brother and sister who live on the edge of a forest. The forest is haunted by a witch who bakes little children into gingerbread. Their family is very poor, and one day while picking berries, Hansel and Gretel get lost and captured by the witch. But the resourceful children turn the tables on the witch, shoving her into the oven, instead. The story is simple enough for kids to follow, as well as non opera buffs. With its abundance of cheerful, enchanting, atmospheric, and sometimes spooky melodies, it's a sure crowd pleaser.

Maestro Kurt Eichhorn's direction is the real star of the show. He conducts the piece with a winning simplicity that is hard to resist. The stars, too, do their part; and a more star-studded cast one could hardly ask for. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the father is especially appealing, and Christa Ludwig as the Witch is appropriately sinister, if not too menacing. Anna Moffo is an adequate Hansel and Helen Donath makes a delicate Gretel, although both of their voices seem a little old for children.

RCA's sound is wide, deep, and ambient, very slightly veiled but set within a reasonably natural acoustic. The rival Karajan mono set is more Wagnerian in scope, yet it is still as intimate as any of them; if it were in stereo, it would be my unconditional first choice. As it stands, we have alternatives from the aforementioned Colin Davis, whose interpretation is most magical but whose sound is a bit more inflated than the rest; from Jeffrey Tate (EMI), who is most energetic and except for some edginess the best recorded; and from Donald Runnicles (Teldec), one I have not actually heard but about which I have read good notices.

Anyway, this RCA reissue is close to the best, and for its asking price makes a safe first-time investment.

JJP

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