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:


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Meet the Staff

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

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa