Dec 30, 2018

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 12. Seong-Jin Cho, piano; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. DG 00289 483 5522.

The month of this post, December 2018, marks the 120th anniversary of the founding of the German record label Deutsche Grammophon, making it the oldest continuously operating record company in the world. In an era of ever-changing musical formats (vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, SACD, Blu-ray, downloads of every stripe), it's good to see a giant of the industry surviving and, presumably, thriving.

Most of the time with Mozart's piano concertos, record companies couple two such concertos together on the same disc. This time out, either the company or the artist decided to combine one piano concerto with two of the composer's piano sonatas. The artist, Seong-Jin Cho, says he wanted a contrast in the accompanying pieces, which he certainly got.

Seong-Jin Cho is a young (b. 1994) South Korean pianist, who rose to international fame following his first-place finish in the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition. He has since performed with major orchestras all over the world, participated in festivals everywhere, and recorded now five albums for DG. He is an accomplished musician and certainly a crowd favorite.

The program opens with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466, one of the composer's most-popular offerings. A lot of folks may remember it from Milos Forman's 1984 movie Amadeus, where the Romance appeared in the closing credits. Mozart wrote the concerto in 1785, a half dozen years before his death, and as he only wrote twenty-seven of them (only?), it was also among his last. Anyway, Cho tells us he likes playing Mozart so much because the music is so filled with joy, emotion, and operatic drama. Needless to say, these are the characteristics Cho emphasizes.

Seong-Jin Cho
The first movement Allegro begins a bit solemnly and theatrically, rather in the vein of Don Giovanni, brightens up a bit, and then ends quietly. Although the piano takes its time about entering, it is a welcome entrance as it brings a fair measure of joy. Cho displays a handsome bravura here, and one can understand why he so enjoys the music. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the direction of Yannick Nezet-Seguin follows along obediently, if somewhat mechanically.

The second movement Romance is among the most sublime creations in all classical music. It begins in a mood of exalted peacefulness, although we hear a somewhat turbulent and contrasting middle section before the music returns to a tranquil conclusion. The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines "romance" as generally implying "a specially personal or tender quality." Cho doesn't so much convey that "tender quality" as he does carry over the joy conveyed in the first movement. Personally, I could have done with more a heartfelt or even more softhearted interpretation. While Cho's rendering of the music seems too matter-of-fact to me, a lot of listeners will no doubt be more touched by it than I was and find his direct, well-controlled approach most appealing.

The final movement Allegro assai (very fast) is restless yet still cheerful and generally sunny. It appears to fit Cho's manner of skillful, energetic playing quite well and brings the work to a satisfying close.

The two sonatas couldn't be more different from one another, No. 3 youthful and exuberant yet highly virtuosic, No. 12 more diverse and even more demanding. As before, Cho displays an exacting technique that manifestly demonstrates his technical process.

Producer Sid McLauchlan and engineer Rainer Maillard recorded the music at the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany (concerto) and Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg, Germany (sonatas) in June and July 2018. The orchestral sound is clear, dynamic, and ultra clean. It's also a tad close and dry, with not a lot of depth (kind of one-dimensional). The piano is also a touch close, yet, as always with DG, sounds quite realistic, both in the concerto and in the sonatas.


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

Dec 26, 2018

Favourite Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 (CD review)

Piano concertos by Grieg, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Addinsell. Stephen Kovacevich, piano; Sir Colin Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martha Argerich, piano; Kyrill Kondrashin, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Misha Dichter, piano; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Philips Duo 289 462 182-2 (2-CD set)

I have often written on this site about fabulous buys, bargains among bargains, things like the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh Symphonies with Carlos Kleiber on a single DG Originals or the Dvorak Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies with Sir Colin Davis in a Philips Duo set, each of which packages two or three great performances on one or two mid-priced discs. Well, this particular Philips Duo, issued by the company in the late Nineties, may have even them beat.

Of the five concertos on the two discs, there are three works--the Grieg, Schumann, and Addinsell--that are number-one choices in my book. And the other two recordings--the Brahms and Tchaikovsky--are among a handful of my top choices. In fact, I have been recommending most of these items for years. Here, they all come for the cost of a single mid-priced set. Incredible.

The Grieg and Schumann concertos with Stephen Kovacevich are outstanding, and until this release they were available only at full price. The sound is slightly warmer than necessary for good definition, but it is more than acceptable.

Steven Kovacevich
The Brahms, also from Kovacevich, is as powerful and lyrical as one could ask for. I believe it even beats Kovacevich's later EMI recording in performance, if not in sound, which is only slightly less warm and soft than the aforementioned Grieg and Schumann. Second only to Gilels on DG, Kovacevich's Brahms is the one to own, and now you can have it along with four other great performances.

Martha Argerich's Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto is probably a first-choice for many people. I still think her earlier account on DG is more satisfying, as is Cliburn's on RCA, but there is no doubting that this live Philips performance is more energetic than the others. And it's pretty well recorded, too, despite its being live.

Finally, the little, one-movement Warsaw Concerto from Richard Addinsell, composed for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight, has seldom gotten such good treatment as this one from pianist Misha Dichter and Sir Neville Marriner, and the sound here is the best of any in the set.

All of the recordings derive from the Seventies and Eighties, and all of them have already withstood the test of time. This particular incarnation should have already won them some new fans, and I hope it continues to do so.


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

Dec 23, 2018

Sawyers: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Trumpet Concerto; Valley of Vision; Elegiac Rhapsody. Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin; Simon Desbruslais, trumpet; Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra, English String Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6374.

British composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) has found some of his major fame no doubt from the Nimbus recordings of his works conducted by Kenneth Woods, with four discs now available. In 2015 the English Symphony Orchestra, of which Woods is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, appointed Sawyers their John McCabe Composer in Association, with various commissions including a song cycle, the violin and trumpet concertos found here, and several symphonies, of which I reviewed the Third a year or so ago.

Sawyers's Web site informs us that his "works have been performed and broadcast in many countries worldwide including the USA, Canada, Spain, Austria, Czech Republic, France and UK." Music-web International described his orchestral work as "music of instant appeal and enduring quality."

So, on the present disc we get two longer Sawyers pieces of almost thirty minutes each and two slightly shorter pieces. It seems to be a good representation of the man's output, which runs high to somewhat dark, moody, sorrowful, yet completely accessible, never sad tunes.

The program begins with the Violin Concerto, completed in 2016, with violin solo by Alexander Sitkovetsky and accompanied by Maestro Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. Sawyers is also a violinist, and when Woods suggested he do a violin concerto, he jumped at the opportunity. The piece opens with a theme from Sawyers's Third Symphony, so it may sound familiar. To be honest, though, as I said above, Sawyers's music often appears dark and moody to me, so it all tends to sound familiar.

Anyway, the violin dominates the proceedings, as expected, alternating agitated solo passages with tempestuous dialogues with the orchestra. Woods has a good instinct for where the soloist is going, too, and the two work seamlessly together. The opening movement ends calmly, leading into a melodically reflective Andante touched by melancholy. Again, the violin towers above the orchestra, sounding ever more unsettled as the music moves along, reaching a final movement that is surprisingly playful. Sawyers describes it as all "hustle and bustle" and tells Woods "the violin is my instrument, and if it didn't make me happy, it will have been a bit of a waste to have played it my whole life." It's all quite attractive, with Mr. Sitkovetsky playing brilliantly and Woods and the English Symphony supporting him with conviction.

Alexander Sitkovetsky
Next, we get The Valley of Vision from 2017. It is Sawyers's musical response to some of the paintings of English artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), which themselves represented the countryside around Palmer's home in Shoreham, Kent. Sawyers tells us he did not intend for the five sections of the work to be programmatic but, instead, I guess more impressionistic. Here, Sawyers sounds more than ever like the English pastoral composers of the previous century--Arnold Bax, perhaps, Frank Bridge, Frederick Delius, Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the like. In any case, the music is lovely and evocative.

And so it goes with the Concerto for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani (2015), with trumpet solo by Simon Desbruslais and accompaniment by Woods and the English String Orchestra (the English Symphony Orchestra began as the English String Orchestra in 1978, and as their repertoire expanded the orchestra grew larger and today performs under both appellations as the occasion demands). As one might expect for a combination of trumpet and timpani, the music is more dramatic, more martial, and more aggressively rhythmic than anything else on the program. Still, there's a charming central movement that is both lyric and ardent. Certainly, it is well performed by everyone involved, yet it failed to affect me the way the violin concerto did, perhaps because of its blunter edges.

The agenda concludes with the Elegiac Rhapsody for trumpet and strings (2016), performed by Desbruslais, Woods, and the English String Orchestra. The work's title aptly describes its content, the work commissioned as a remembrance of the death of British composer and pianist John McCabe (1939-2015). Although on a more somber level, this final piece sounds almost like a continuation of Sawyers's trumpet concerto and could probably have as well served as the slow movement. Whatever, it is a radiant tribute to McCabe, performed with discernable compassion.

Producer, editor, and engineer Simon Fox-Gal recorded the first four tracks at Hereford Shirehall in February 2018; producer, editor, and engineer Adam Binks recorded tracks five through eight at the Church of St. George's, Worcester in October 2017. The folks at Nimbus have always produced good sounding recordings, and this one continues the pattern. It seems a tad closer than most of their work, especially the solos, but it delivers excellent clarity, with a fine sense of depth and space. Detailing is fine as well, accompanied by a realistic but not overpowering dynamic range and impact.


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

Dec 19, 2018

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

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Sony SK 63301.

Bruckner tried to write a literary program to go with his Fourth Symphony. For the First Movement he wrote: "A citadel of the Middle Ages. Daybreak. Reveille is sounded from the tower. The gates open. Knights on proud chargers leap forth. The magic of nature surrounds them." But by the last movement he admitted, "...I've forgotten completely what picture I had in mind."

It doesn't matter. Even without the composer's program, the "Romantic" Symphony conjures up visions of beauty, grandeur, and majesty aplenty for all but the least imaginative listeners. Although Esa-Pekka Salonen's 1998 Sony release with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is perhaps too dependent upon his trying to convey the grandness of the music to lay claim to top honors, one cannot fault him for trying hard in admittedly so grand a work.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Still, Salonen has some tough competition in this piece. Eugene Jochum (DG or EMI) does a better job conjuring up the mysticism of the nature motif; Otto Klemperer (EMI) holds the structure together better; and Karl Bohm (Decca) is probably best at maintaining the work's forward momentum. Salonen takes the slowest route; at almost seventy minutes long, the music tends to lag, and one wants to give the maestro a little nudge in the behind from time to time. Salonen tries heroically to sustain every note, mark every contrast, and coax the last ounce of splendor from the score, but he tries a little too hard. In the end, I was moved more by what the interpretation could have been than by what it was. Still, Salonen's effort is noble, and it's really hard not like Bruckner's lovely score no matter whose hands it's in.

Sony's sound, recorded at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA in May 1997 is big and full, with an enormous dynamic range. If Sony had made the recording in the really old, analogue days, Salonen's softest passages would have probably sunk beneath a surface of tape hiss. Here, in digital, the contrasts are splendidly dramatic, even if they appear more the work of the audio engineers than the conductor. Overall, too, the sound is a little dark and murky compared to, say, Klemperer (EMI) or Blomstedt (Denon), both of whom open up the stage more and allow us to hear further into the orchestra.

For the Bruckner fan and the Bruckner collector, I can recommend Salonen with little hesitation. For the first-time Bruckner buyer, however, maybe Klemperer, Bohm, or even the old Bruno Walter recording (Sony) would be safer places to start.


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

Dec 16, 2018

A QSF Journey (HDCD review)

Quartet San Francisco. Reference Recordings RR-143.

It's always good news when Reference Recordings releases a new album. It's doubly good news when their chief engineer, Keith O. Johnson, does the recording. It's triply good news when they make it a studio production. And it's quadruply good news when the studio they make it in is the prestigious Skywalker Sound. That the content of the album is contemporary material played by the excellent Quartet San Francisco (QSF) is like the icing on the cake.

If I may quote from Wikipedia: "Quartet San Francisco is a non-traditional and eclectic string quartet led by violinist Jeremy Cohen. The group played their first concert in 2001 and has recorded five albums. Playing a wide range of music genres including jazz, blues, tango, swing, funk, and pop, the group challenges the traditional classical music foundation of the string quartet.

"Quartet San Francisco won a tango music competition in New York in 2004, and their albums have been nominated five times for Grammy Awards: three in the Best Classical Crossover Album category and two for Best Engineered Album, Classical."

The group's current members are Jeremy Cohen, violin; Joseph Christianson, violin; Chad Kaltinger, viola; and Andres Vera, cello. They are consummate performers and work harmoniously with one another to form one of the most-accomplished and most-versatile quartets in the business. On the present album they play what they call "the spirit of our time," twelve relatively new tunes running high to tangos, most of them written or arranged by Mr. Cohen.

Here's a rundown on the program:

Tango Eight (Cohen)
Fiesta! (Lipsky)
Tango Carnevale (Cohen)
Francini (Cohen)
Rhapsody in Bluegrass (Gershwin­Rouse, arr. Cohen)
La Heroi´na (Cohen)
How Sweet the Sound (Cohen)
Federico II (Sollima)
Al Colo´n (Cohen)
Jasmine Flower/Beautiful Scenery of Wuxi (traditional Chinese folk songs, arr. Cohen)
Toroi Bandi (Mongolian folk song, arr. Cohen)
Jambo (traditional African folk song, arr. Cohen)

Quartet San Francisco
The Argentine tango takes center stage in the first track, "Tango Eight," with lively rhythms introducing us to the QSF style. The quartet follows it with an even livelier tune called "Fiesta" by Helmut Lipsky that is quite exciting. For a change of pace, the group have chosen a more leisurely piece called "Tango Carnevale," which is a sort of slow tango. Cohen says he wrote it after spending evenings in the neighborhoods of Buenas Aires. It's lovely.

And so it goes. The QSF play wonderfully well together, seeming to sense one another's movements instinctively and moving together as a whole, yet all the while emphasizing the unique contributions of each member. Thus, although each of the four musicians is a distinct individual with his own style, the combined result is one of effortless unanimity. They play together separately and together simultaneously.

Favorites? Yes, twelve of them. However, if forced to choose just one, I'd say "Rhapsody in Bluegrass," a combination of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Ervin T. Rouse's bluegrass fiddle favorite "Orange Blossom Special." Classical, jazz, and bluegrass: What could be more natural, and what could go wrong? That nothing goes wrong and everything goes right is remarkable. "La Heroina" and "How Sweet the Sound" I also found effective in quite different ways, but to quibble about favorites in so entertaining an album would just be...quibbling.

Let's call this one of my favorite albums of the year and be done with it.

Producers Victor Ledin and Marina A. Ledin, executive producer Marcia Gordon Martin, and engineer Keith Johnson recorded the music at Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California in May 2018. As we might expect from a small ensemble in an ideal setting, their HDCD sound reproduction is as lifelike as one could want. The clarity is astonishingly good, the spacing exemplary, the air and ambience realistic, the dynamics strong. Perhaps some listeners might prefer a more distanced approach to the miking, but there is certainly a greater transparency to the QSF sonics with the slightly closer approach Reference Recordings has taken. Whatever, this is audiophile quality sound in almost every way.


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

Dec 12, 2018

Bach's Circle (CD review)

Music of J.S. & J.C.F. Bach, Telemann, and Couperin. Allan Vogel, oboe; Janice Tipton, flute; Patricia Mabee, harpsichord, Mark Chatfield, viola da gamba; Nancy Sartain, continuo harpsichord. Delos DE 3214.

Oboist Allan Vogel reminds us in his booklet essay that, "In his mature years, Johann Sebastian Bach's circle of family, friends, students and colleagues was a large one. Bach was known to be a hospitable man who would often have concerts for this extended family in his home. Such a concert is the inspiration for this recording."

Of course, Bach may not have had Couperin in his own house, but his influence on Bach's work would have been considerable. Telemann, on the other hand, was the godfather to one of Bach's sons, so his impact was both personal and musical.

Anyway, the present disc begins with Telemann's Trio Sonata in E-flat Major and then goes on to Bach's Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1020, and Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1030b, the former much simpler and shorter than the more elaborate later work. The centerpiece of the program is Couperin's Concert Royal No. 4 in E Minor, an elegant set of dances; and the concluding work is son J.C.F. Bach's Sonata in C Major, the blithest and merriest of the sonatas, which makes a fitting conclusion to the agenda.

Allan Vogel
Allan Vogel is among the country's leading oboe players (and former Principal Oboe of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra). Here, he amply demonstrates his skills with delicate and graceful solo passages, particularly charming in the C Major Sonata where he plays a lighter, sweeter-sounding oboe d'amore. The small ensemble--Vogel, oboe; Janice Tipton, flute; Patricia Mabee, harpsichord, Mark Chatfield, viola da gamba; and Nancy Sartain, continuo harpsichord--play with ease and precision, always displaying a charming interaction and an effortless control.

I had not heard a Delos recording of chamber music before this one, released in 1998, and I was impressed by the clarity and definition the engineers brought to the sound, without sacrificing much in the way of natural room acoustics. They recorded the group a bit close for my taste, it's true, and the imaging does not allow for much front-to-back perspective (not that that matters so much with so few players), but other than that it is fairly realistic.

This is the kind of album that makes for either undivided primary listening or relaxing background music. Seems almost a shame, though, to waste it on background alone.


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

Dec 9, 2018

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 & 5 "Emperor" (CD review)

Nicholas Angelich, piano; Laurence Equilbey, Insula Orchestra. Erato 0190295634179.

I don't know how the rest of you keep up. American pianist Nicholas Angelich (b. 1970) has made some two dozen albums already, but the only things I could remember were his Brahms piano concertos, maybe because I reviewed them. In any case, he's been playing piano since the age of five and done concerts throughout the world, so all that practice apparently pays off. He's very good. Here, he presents Beethoven's last two piano concertos, Numbers 4 and 5.

When Beethoven was writing his nine symphonies, they seemed to become monumental in size and scope very fast with his third. But with his five piano concertos, they sort of built up incrementally, with No. 4 being impressively large and No. 5 being monumentally impressive. The album begins with No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, completed in 1806 (around time the composer wrote the Fourth Symphony and parts of the Fifth Symphony). Beethoven made the opening movement melodic, with the piano part often sounding improvisational. He then scored the slow movement for piano and strings, keeping it fairly poetic, with a slightly agitated orchestral accompaniment, leading quietly into the concluding Rondo: Vivace. With that, we get a passionate, tempestuous, rhythmic, stormy, yet graceful final movement; you name it, Beethoven threw it in.

Angelich's dexterity at the keyboard is on full display in the Fourth's opening movement. He nimbly glides through the music, making it all seem effortless. He uses a Pleyel piano from 1892, a good compromise between what Beethoven might have heard in his own lifetime and what we have today, and the orchestra tries to remain true to the spirit of Beethoven. The piano resonates clearly and richly, if perhaps not quite as smoothly as a modern instrument. Anyway, Angelich makes the whole concerto sound full of strength and élan, meaning he makes the work appear both extemporaneous and elegant at the same time. His playing is filled with a vigorous energy and a lyrical polish, with maybe a greater emphasis on the former, especially in the fleet-footed finale.

Nicholas Angelich
Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. The piece begins with a big, bravura Allegro, the piano entering immediately. In the central Adagio we get one of the Beethoven's loveliest melodies, a brief duet between piano and orchestra. Then there is a hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro, which takes the concerto to a glowing conclusion. Beethoven intended No. 5 to sound monumental, as I've said, although the smallish size of the Insula Orchestra (about forty-six players) under conductor Laurence Equilbey tends to make it more transparent than plush or weighty. Still, it holds its own.

Angelich's high-octane delivery is well suited to the first movement of the Fifth Concerto, even if it tends to dominate the orchestra more so than usual. Conductor and pianist keep the tempos on the urgent but not strident side, making for some exciting moments in the first and third movements. As for the beautifully meditative middle movement, it's fine, even if it's not as beautiful as Wilhelm Kempf's (DG) or as meditative as Stephen Kovacevich's (Philips). Angelich seems a little too matter of fact by comparison.

Producer Laure Casenave-Pere and engineer Thomas Dappelo recorded the concertos at La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France in March 2018. The sound of the piano and orchestra is generally refined and well balanced, if both appear a touch close. The highs are slightly rough, perhaps due to the closeness of the miking. Nevertheless, I particularly liked the realistic reproduction of the piano, which recreates a lifelike illusion. While the stereo width is more than adequate, the perception of depth is somewhat limited, making things not only a tad close but one-dimensional as well.


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

Dec 5, 2018

Milhaud: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (CD review)

Alun Francis, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel. CPO 999 539-2.

The French composer and conductor Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) wrote his Symphony No. 1, Op. 210 in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War. He was nearly fifty years old at the time and had never written a complete symphony before. While he did not give the symphony a set program, the listener can infer freely from its varied material a possible scenario. The opening movement is light, pastoral, free, and easygoing. It calls to mind the lull before the storm, the peace before the War. The second movement opens boisterously, perhaps representing the War itself. The third movement is slow and serious but with little sense of danger; maybe wishful thinking. Then the finale brings us back to the martial music of the second movement and returns to a relaxed conclusion, possibly Milhaud anticipating a speedy resolution and end to hostilities. Or not. Certainly, he couldn't have anticipated the horrors to come.

Alun Francis
In the next twenty years, Milhaud would go on to write a dozen more symphonies. The Fourth Symphony, Op. 281 is decidedly programmatic, the composer having been commissioned by the French Minister of Education to write a piece based on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Revolution of 1848. Each movement represents a phase in the Revolution, bringing contrasting styles and tempi to a sound picture of vivid contrasts.

Both symphonies are pleasing to the ear, much different from the composer's earlier, more experimental works. Maestro Alun Francis and the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra bring both joy and despair to the pieces as they require and generally sets up a stately presence throughout. Neither work is particularly striking, yet Francis does a pretty good job bringing out their more imaginative and pictorial qualities. The orchestra likewise sounds good, although the sound it produces appears a tad undernourished compared to, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or Concertgebouw orchestras. Nevertheless, the ensemble displays a fine athleticism and flies through the musical scores with a fair degree of poise.

Miked at a moderate distance, the CPO album, recorded in 1995 and released in 1998, offers the listener a reasonably accurate facsimile of a real symphony orchestra. There is a realistic hall ambiance, a good stage depth, a modest frequency and dynamic range, and as much orchestral detail as we might expect from perhaps a fifteenth row seat or thereabouts. It is a not a recording to wow an audiophile or knock the socks off a neophyte; it just sounds like a large ensemble of players performing in your living room. I say good enough.


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

Dec 2, 2018

Kawarsky: Spoon Hanging from My Nose (CD review)

The Music of J.A. Kawarsky. Various orchestras and conductors. Navona Records NV6194.

If you are like me, you may not be familiar with the name of American composer, conductor, and music professor Jay A. Kawarsky (b. 1959). However, the title and cover art for this first album devoted entirely to his compositions and arrangements, "Spoon Hanging from My Nose," was too hard to resist.

Perhaps Kawarsky's most famous composition, Prayers for Bobby, premiered in 1996 with actress Marlo Thomas narrating and has been performed many times since. Unfortunately, it is not among the pieces on the present album. Nevertheless, it was a fortuitous decision on my part to take a chance and listen to the disc; the music it presents is pleasing, creative, and diverting.

The program consists of four major Kawarsky selections. The first is called Fastidious Notes for solo alto saxophone and chamber orchestra, here performed by Jonathan Helton, alto sax, and the Chicago Arts Orchestra led by Javier Mendoza. As Kawarsky wrote the piece for saxophonist Helton, we have to imagine Helton's interpretation being definitive. It's certainly authoritative and immaculately played. In fact, the whole work is easily accessible, and, as Kawarsky notes, if there are any hints of other composers in the music, well, imitation is the highest form of flattery.

The second item is the longest, a series of eighteen selections: the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, originally written in 1868-69 for vocal quartet and piano four hands and here orchestrated by Kawarsky for multiple voices (the Arizona Choir) and ten instruments. These pieces are really quite beautiful, quite lyrical and lilting renditions, and Brahms is, after all, Brahms. It's charming.

J.A. Kawarsky
The third item on the agenda is called And We All Waited, written for orchestra alone. Kawarsky calls it a reaction to the lack of any new legislation or regulation after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra performs the work under the direction of Maestro Petr Vronsky. Again Kawarsky provides hints of other composers, in this case he says Nielsen, Shostakovich, and Reicha, but I also hear Sibelius in there. In any case. the music is not unexpectedly the most somber and earnest on the program. Still, it is easy to listen to because the composer eschews most of the modern conventions that drive audiences to distraction, even Kawarsky's work does get a tad raucous at times.

The final item Kawarsky titled Episodes for piano and orchestra, and it celebrates the 75th anniversary of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, New Jersey. It is performed by the Saint Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, with Vladimir Lande, conductor, and Peter Laul. piano. It has kind of a jazzy beat, all up-tempo and rhythmic in the opening section and alternating with a more-serene landscape as the piece goes on. The most obvious borrowing the composer incorporates here is from Mussorgsky, and it works nicely. The soloist and orchestra afford the whole work a dignified presentation.

Producers John Page, Brad Michel, Vit Muzik, Alexei Barashkin, and Bob Lord, with engineers John McCartney, Brad Michel, Ales Dvorak, Jan Kosulic, and Alexei Barashkin recorded the music at Nichols Concert Hall, Chicago; Tucson Symphony Center, Tucson, AZ; Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic; and Studio 1, House of Radio, St. Petersburg, Russia in 2016-2018.

The various producers and engineers recorded each of the selections in different venues with differing ensembles, so there are some small, inevitable differences in sound. Overall, though, the sonics are smooth and fairly dynamic, with good depth and width qualities. While the opening solo piano is a bit too close for ultimate realism, it helps the performance by emphasizing the instrument. (The closing piano is better balanced.) The choir in the waltzes sounds particularly appealing, since so often choir recordings can be overly bright or edgy. This one is very lifelike. Detailing is a tad on the soft side yet pleasing on the ear, especially as the high end is so well extended. Perhaps not absolute audiophile, but close enough.

Besides, as I say, the album title is hard to resist.


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

Nov 28, 2018

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" (CD review)

Also, Symphony No. 7. Rudolf Firkusny, piano; William Steinberg, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. EMI CDM 7243-66888-2-7.

Some of the best releases from the major classical record labels have been old reissues. And why not? Classics have endured the test of time. Many of them have become old friends, and it's nice to see them freshened up and repackaged.

For example, the disc on hand: Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto in the hands of Czech-born American pianist Rudolf Firkusny (1912-1994) fairly crackles with energy. Firkusny avoids excesses, indulging in little of the bravura we hear from Vladimir Ashkenazy (London), the nuance of Stephen Kovacevich (Philips), or the lyrical poetry of Wilhelm Kempff (DG), yet offering a performance of great strength and precision. Above all, it is Firkusny's crispness of attack that sets the interpretation apart. He appears to know exactly what he wants, and he gets it done with the least amount of fuss or bother. What's more, conductor William Steinberg obviously understands this approach and matches it perfectly with his Pittsburgh Symphony accompaniment.

Rudolf Fiskusny
The companion piece, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, is likewise full of crisp energy. It dances along in the first movement and then proceeds most naturally to the gravity of the Allegretto. The Presto has requisite zip, and the Finale soars in a more than matter-of-fact way. Steinberg's reading hasn't perhaps the energy of a Fritz Reiner (RCA/JVC), the  lyricism of a Colin Davis (EMI), or the directness of a Carlos Kleiber (DG), but it carries a good tune.

EMI digitally remastered both pieces from original session tapes made in March and October of 1957 in what EMI called at the time FDS, "Full Dimensional Sound." Although the sound is strong on midrange, it's not particularly weighty in bass. Highs are not terribly smooth or extended, either, but, like the rest of the sonic image, they are clear and well defined. The piano sound is especially noteworthy for its clarity and articulation. There is some inevitable tape hiss noticeable in the quietest passages that should not be a concern except to those who place digital silence above everything else.

The disc makes an easy recommendation for its performances, with only minor hesitations about the decades-old remastered sonics. 


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

Nov 25, 2018

Gershwin Reimagined (CD review)

An American in London. Shelly Berg, piano; various featured artists; Jose Serebrier, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Gold B0028889-02.

The idea of combining jazz artists with a symphony orchestra is hardly new; after all, pop composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 originally for solo piano and jazz band, and it wasn't rescored for orchestra (theatrical and symphony) by Ferde Grofe until several years thereafter. As a result, we have in the record catalogue any number of fine discs by various ensembles, large and small, from duets to full orchestra.

On the present album, we find American pianist, arranger, and orchestrator Shelly Berg (b. 1955), his trio, and various other artists doing Berg's own jazz interpolations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Jose Serebrier. The results are every bit as satisfying as I would imagine Gershwin intended--jazzy, swinging, rhythmic, rhapsodic, and lush. Considering the talents involved, it's the kind of album that's almost self-recommending.

The first two items on the program are the longest: Rhapsody in Blue (23:31 min.), featuring the Shelly Berg Trio in original jazz variations and the RPO and An American in Paris/Home Blues (21:24 min.), featuring American R&B and jazz artist Ledisi Anibade Young and the orchestra.

After those tracks are four shorter items: "I Loves You Porgy/My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess, featuring American singer (and daughter of composer Henry Mancini) Monica Mancini and Cuban-American jazz trumpeter, pianist, and composer Arturo Sandoval and orchestra. Next is "Fascinating Rhythm," featuring American violinist Mark O'Connor and orchestra. After that we find "Three Preludes," with Serebrier and the orchestra. Then the album concludes with "I Got Rhythm," featuring the Shelly Berg Trio and orchestra.

Shelly Berg
Since Rhapsody in Blue is the most prominent piece in the collection and since it represents the best of the selections, let's take a look at it in particular. Serebreir's accompaniment of the piano is nicely jazzy and bluesy, with solid rhythms. He is able to generate a good deal of excitement with his interpretation. Likewise, Shelly Berg's piano solos are lively and invigorating on the one hand, lyrical and introspective on the other. The difference, of course, is that a few minutes into the piece, Berg and his trio go into their own variations and kind of leave Gershwin behind for intervals. It's not at all inappropriate, and I'm sure if Gershwin were alive he would approve. In fact, it gives the old warhorse a new look. So, for most folks who already own multiple versions of the music, this one should provide some much-needed variety in their collection.

For what it's worth, I enjoyed An American in Paris best of all, with Ledisi singing Gershwin's lyrics to the familiar "Home Blues" section. The whole thing is delightfully done and a real charmer. The other soloists are equally spirited and heartfelt by turns for a rewarding whole.

So, all the tracks work well. Overall, they're fairly conventional, except for their new additions, yet they're polished, innovative, and extremely well performed. Obviously, these arrangements would not be first-choice recommendations for people looking for a one and only recording of Gershwin standards. They are for people who already have favorites and want to supplement them.

The booklet notes, incidentally, contain a good deal of information on the artists involved in the production but almost no info on the music. I suppose the folks at Decca think we already know enough about Gershwin and his tunes that they didn't need to add anything more. Fair enough.

Producer Gregg Field and engineer Mike Hatch recorded the music at Air Lyndhurst Studios and Henry Wood Hall, London, releasing the album in 2018. The sound is pretty much in the long-established tradition of Decca stereo recordings. It's very clear and clean, and it has a healthy dynamic range. But it also appears multimiked, with the soloists clearly out in front, and the orchestra taking a literal backseat. It's not at all unpleasant or distracting, just a little different from what you might hear in a concert hall. Indeed, once you get used to it, it is quite entertaining, especially the clarity.


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

Nov 21, 2018

The Fantastic Philadelphians (CD review)

Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra. RCA High Performance 09026-63313-2.

By the late Nineties, the folks at RCA had finally figured out what to do with all those old quadraphonic recordings they made in the early Seventies. If this disc was any indication, they probably thought they could remaster the whole lot of them in Dolby Pro Logic and 24-bit technology and market them in their "High Performance" series. But apparently they thought better of the idea. Although the sonic results here are not bad, they are a far cry from audiophile quality.

The disc is filled with showstoppers, things like Saint-Saens's Dance Macabre, Chabrier's Espana, and Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, some of them making a good impression, others not so much. And the sound is equally up and down. The single most outstanding characteristic of the album is the quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which sounds wonderfully lush and lustrous.

Eugene Ormandy
Eugene Ormandy was at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra for an amazing forty-four years, yet his catalogue of recordings restored to CD remains relatively meager, especially his output for RCA, a little better for Sony (CBS/Columbia). One can understand why, though. He simply did not produce enough critically celebrated albums. OK, I know that statement is not going to go over well with Ormandy's multitude of fans, but unlike some of Ormandy's contemporaries in America during hi-fi's golden age of stereo--Reiner, Fiedler, Bernstein, Solti, et al--Ormandy, with his fairly foursquare rhythms and conservative phrasing, was rather conventional in his approach to music making. These performances demonstrate the fact. They are perfectly acceptable and perfectly ordinary to the last. Which isn't, as I say, bad, just not good enough to endure very well the test of time.

RCA's sound, too, has its pluses and minuses. Producer Max Wilcox and engineer Paul Goodman recorded the material in 1971-72, and RCA digitally remastered it in 1998 in 24-bit Dolby Surround. In its favor, it is extremely dynamic, with occasional thunderous lows and clean, clear highs. Counting against these merits are its multi-miked two-dimensionality and its sometimes over-spacious acoustic when played back in regular two-channel stereo.

Some of the tracks sound reasonably free of this property--Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, for instance, and Kabalevsky's Galop, probably the best piece on the disc. Nevertheless, much of the music sounds like it's adjusted to one of those overactive "Stadium" settings that hardly anybody uses on a surround-sound receiver.

In short, I wasn't exactly bowled over by Ormandy or his newfound sound of the day.


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

Nov 18, 2018

Strauss, R.: Don Quixote (CD review)

Also, works for cello. Ophelie Gaillard, cello; Julien Masmondet, Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Aparte Music AP174.

Quixote. You remember him: the guy with the impossible dream.

Long before the stage musical and film Man of La Mancha, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) created Don Quixote, the famous elderly gentleman who fancied himself a knight of high ideals, and his sidekick Sancho Panza. Then came German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) with his tone poem describing some of Quixote's adventures. Strauss composed the piece in 1896, just a couple of years after Also Sprach Zarathustra and while he was making a name for himself with his highly descriptive, impressionistic musical sketches.

Strauss's Don Quixote is a work for cello, viola, and orchestra. He subtitled it "Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters" ("Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character") and based the music on episodes from Cervantes's novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. Strauss wrote the score in the form of a theme and variations, with a solo cello depicting Don Quixote, and a solo viola, among other instruments, portraying his squire Sancho Panza. Of the ten variations within the piece, perhaps the most famous is the first one, the Don's "Adventures at the Windmill." The second variation, too, is quite evocative, a section in which Quixote encounters a herd of sheep and sees them as an approaching army. Here, Strauss uses a flutter-tonguing in the brass to represent the bleating of the sheep. It's all quite colorful and fun.

Of course, the question with any new recording of a well-known and oft-recorded piece of music is how well it compares to older, favored performances. For me, some old favorites would include Herbert von Karajan's lush, ripe presentation with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI); Rudolf Kempe's leaner, tauter interpretation with Paul Tortelier and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI); Fritz Reiner's more energetic reading with Antonio Janigro and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA); and Andre Previn's better recorded but more straightforward account with Franz Bartolomey the Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc). The answer to whether this new Aparte recording with Maestro Julien Masmondet, Ms. Ophelie Gaillard, and the Czech National Symphony is any better than the rest is a definite sort of, or maybe, or maybe not.

Ophelie Gaillard
The reason I can't be more enthusiastic about the soloist or interpretation is that it never struck me as being as colorful as it could be. Certainly, Ms. Gaillard's playing is technically beyond reproach, as is the violin work by Alexandra Conunova and the expertise of the Czech orchestra. But the performance itself seems rather reticent. I don't hear much of the old Don's eccentricities, and his adventures seem more than a little mundane rather than sad, humorous, peculiar, stimulating, pathetic, satiric, biting, or inspiring. In other words, I wasn't sure just how Ms. Gaillard and company wanted to represent their Quixote.

I'm sure Strauss intended his musical depiction of the addled old Don to offer some particular point of view on him without actually specifying that point of view, so the choices of approach are boundless. Nevertheless, under the direction of Masmondet and playing of Gaillard, the music simply appears beautiful and well performed, with a little less in the way of secondary responses than one might expect.

Regardless, there's a lot to be said for the beauty of Ms. Gaillard's playing, and the performance makes a charming listening experience. She is especially effectual in the softer, more introspective, more melancholy moments of the score, and one can hardly complain about the serenity of some sections.

Coupled with the main tone poem we find three additional Strauss pieces for cello: the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6, with Vassilis Varvaresos, piano; the Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 13; and "Morgan," the final section of Four Songs, Op. 27, arranged for cello, piano, and soprano, with Beatrice Uria Monzon, soprano. Because Strauss probably didn't mean for the listener to ascribe too much literal meaning to these pieces, I found them more effective as pure music.

Artistic Director Nicolas Bartholomee and engineers Nicolas Bartholomee, Maximilien Ciup, and Clement Rousset in conjunction with Little Tribeca recorded the music at the studio of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Prague in 2017 and in Paris, January 2018. The sound they obtained is as good as almost anything I've heard for a while. The solo cello is fairly well balanced with the orchestra; the stereo spread is wide; the highs are sparkling; the dynamic range is strong without being overwhelming, and the impact is good. What's more, the clarity and detailing are very fine, indeed.

My only minor caveats with the sound are that it's a tad closer than I usually like; it doesn't provide a lot of depth, front-to-back perspective; and there is some spotlighting of instruments, with the cello and violin in particular seeming to move closer to the audience at times and then recede into the distance. Fortunately, these issues are relatively small and should not distract most listeners from enjoying the sonics.


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

Nov 14, 2018

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 "Pastoral" (CD review)

Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI CDM 7243-5-66792-2.

When Klemperer's producer, Walter Legge, asked if he didn't think Klemperer took his recording of the Beethoven Sixth Symphony's scherzo a little too slowly, Klemperer replied, "Walter, you will get used to it." Well, we've had over sixty years to get used to it, and I suspect it has by now pretty much grown on us.

Klemperer's performance of the Sixth continues to be one of the most relaxed, leisurely, bucolic interpretations ever put to disc. It has not and will not find favor among the Toscanini crowd, but it has delighted most everyone else since EMI recorded it in 1957.

The conductor takes the first movement, "The Arrival in the Country," very deliberately, very purposefully, its repetitions made weightier through its unhurried pace, yet never dragging, never feeling lugubrious. The second movement, "The Scene at the Brook," flows naturally and smoothly, maintaining the easygoing nature of the setting. Then comes Klemperer's famous third movement, usually a quick and boisterous Allegro representing peasant merrymaking, but here taken as though the peasants were more than tipsy when the scherzo started. The storm that follows is weightily structured in big, bold outlines, flowing effortlessly into one of the most joyous "Shepherd's Hymn" in any Sixth interpretation around. This is no namby-pamby performance, but one with a clear and assertive vision of pastoral life.

Otto Klemperer
For what it's worth, by the way, I consider it pretty much a toss-up among four classic recordings of the Sixth as to which is my favorite: Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG); Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (JVC, HDTT, or RCA); Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony, and especially Sony Japan's Blu-Spec CD); and this Klemperer release on EMI. Any time I play any one of them, that one goes to the top of my list, so there's no clear winner for me.

My past reservations about the recording (made by producer Walter Legge and engineer Douglas Larter in Kingsway Hall, London) were in regard to the sound of the original LP and the recording's previous CD embodiment, which tended to be somewhat thin, harsh, and noisy. By comparison, this 1998 20-bit remastering, a part of EMI's "Klemperer Legacy" series, is smoother, fuller, and quieter. Nonetheless, the remastering retains a good deal of clarity, sounding more transparent than a lot of new releases.

The disc's coupling, Klemperer's recording of the Beethoven First Symphony, seems not nearly so characterful as his Sixth, sounding a little too massive to convey all of the work's good cheer. Nevertheless, it also seems more richly recorded than the Sixth. Go figure.

Of final note: EMI later reissued the same mastering of the Sixth as here in their "Great Performances of the Century" series, albeit with several Beethoven overtures as couplings instead of the First Symphony. You'll find that review here:


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

Nov 11, 2018

A Certain Slant of Light (SACD review)

Songs on poems by Emily Dickinson. Lisa Delan, soprano; Lawrence Foster, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille. Pentatone PTC 5186 634.

"I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog - 
To tell one's name - the livelong June - 
To an admiring Bog!"

American poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886) was among the country's most unusual artists in that she was almost unknown as a poet in her lifetime. She was withdrawn and reclusive, never married, and allowed the publication of only a handful of her poems while she was alive. After her death, her relatives found a veritable treasure trove of her poems and published many of them. Then, she became quite famous, yet, remarkably, her complete and largely unedited works would not see publication until 1955.

Although Ms. Dickinson's poems are most often brief and simple, they contain a wealth of insight. Conciseness is probably the single most important element in her poems, her succinctness in expressing big ideas in a small space. She had the unique ability to condense her observations on Nature, spirituality, consciousness, death, solitude, and essential human emotions like fear, longing, and ambition into just a few lines.

It was, perhaps, the breadth of Ms. Dickinson's insights that led a number of composers to set at least some of her poems to music. On the present album we find the work of four such composers, Copland, Heggie, Getty, and Tilson Thomas, effectively sung by soprano Lisa Delan, accompanied by conductor Lawrence Foster and the Marseille Philharmonic Orchestra.

Here's a rundown of the album's contents:

Aaron Copland:
  1. Nature, the gentlest mother
  2. There came a wind like a bugle
  3. The world feels dusty
  4. Heart, we will forget him
  5. Dear March, come in!
  6. Sleep is supposed to be
  7. Going to Heaven!
  8. The Chariot

Jake Heggie:
  9. Silence
10. I'm Nobody! Who are you?
11. Fame
12. That I did always love
13. Goodnight

Gordon Getty:
14. Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers
15. A Bird Came Down the Walk
16. There's a Certain Slant of Light
17. Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Michael Tilson Thomas:
18. Down Time's Quaint Stream
19. The Bible
20. Fame
21. The Earth Has Many Keys
22. Take All Away From Me

The earliest of the musical compositions, Aaron Copland's, date from 1948-50; the others from 2001 (Tilson Thomas) to 2014 (Jake Heggie), with Gordon Getty's pieces deriving from 2004.

Lisa Delan
Soprano Lisa Delan provides a lovely presentation of the poems, her voice radiant and expressive. Maestro Foster's accompaniment with the Marseille Orchestra is sweet and sympathetic. One cannot doubt that the album's selections get a treatment the composers would approve.

That said, I don't know that I appreciated the music as much as I might. Having practically grown up with the poetry of Ms. Dickinson (well, since my teens, at least, in the 1950's), I not sure her poems need the added distinction of music. Would the words of Shakespeare be any better sung? Besides, poetry needs time for reflection, often line by line, maybe word by word, and by turning Ms. Dickinson's poems into songs, we don't get that meditative opportunity (unless you're going to hit the pause button every few seconds).

But I quibble. Of the song-poems presented, I preferred the ones set to music by Aaron Copland. They seemed the most musical and most evocative to me, perhaps because Copland was so used to staging ballet. By contrast, Jake Heggie's arrangements seem more energetic, with more pronounced, more dramatic accompaniments. Gordon Getty's take on some of the poems appears lighter than the others, but certainly appropriate--maybe the most appropriate of all considering the simplicity of the poems. However, he offers up the title poem, "There's a Certain Slant of Light," with a gravity, a seriousness, it deserves. The program ends with five poems by conductor-composer Michael Tilson Thomas, who affords them the most creative, most theatrical frameworks, with a hint of Leonard Bernstein thrown in.

Certainly, there is variety here, with everyone doing his and her part in the proceedings with evident care. I just wish, as I said, I could have enjoyed the music as much as I admired it.

Producers Job Maarse and Lisa Delan and engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Karel Bruggeman recorded the music at Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille, France in June and July 2017. They made the album in hybrid SACD for multichannel and two-channel playback from an SACD player and two-channel playback from any ordinary CD player. As usual, I listened in two-channel SACD.

Ms. Delan's voice sounds clear, if a tad strident in the highs, and well integrated with the orchestra--out in front but not excessively so, just realistically placed. The orchestral accompaniment is not too widely spaced behind her but again realistically, and it provides a good stage depth. The overall sonic picture is smooth and gentle, nicely complementing the music.


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

Nov 8, 2018

Pops Stoppers (CD review)

Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops Orchestra. RCA 09026-63304-2.

Here's another of those jaw-dropping recordings that make one stop and say, "How'd they do that over fifty years ago?" The answer is that the engineers of this "Living Stereo" offering from 1958 didn't know any better than to use relatively simple miking techniques.

By coincidence, I listened to this 1999 release the morning after I attended a concert with Kent Nagano conducting at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. I was immediately struck by how much this disc sounded like the real thing. (About once a month is as often as I get to hear live music, not nearly as much as I'd like. Audiophiles might want to listen even more often, just to learn what they're missing.) Maybe it was the seats we had had the night before and the fact that this recording struck just the right ambiance to duplicate the previous night's listening, I don't know.

Arthur Fiedler
In any event, the sound, recorded in 1958 by Richard Mohr and Lewis Layton, is close to real, but don't expect an audiophile's dream. It isn't. The midrange lacks ultimate clarity, the lower treble lacks a bit of sparkle, and the background noise, some of it from the musicians themselves, is occasionally noticeable. But mark the overall musicality, the breadth and depth of the orchestral picture, the proper resonance, the wide dynamics, and the deep bass. It simply sounds like real music.

Not all of the brief pieces on the disc come off sounding as persuasive as others, however. This is definitely a varied "pops" affair. Among the best tracks are the opening number, Gade's tango "Jealousie," Waldteufel's "The Skaters' Waltz," Liszt's "Liebestraum," Chabrier's "Espana," and especially Sibelius's "Alla Marcia."

Among those that do not fare as well are Ketelbey's "In a Persian Market," the "baksheesh" chorus sounding rough and ill placed; Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," odd considering Fiedler must have known it backwards; and the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Nevertheless, these are minor glitches in an otherwise fine set of sonic accomplishments. It hasn't the glitter or glamour of Fiedler's celebrated recording of Gaite parisienne from a few years earlier, but it's just as musical in its own slightly different way.


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

Nov 4, 2018

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

Also, Richard Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1. William Caballero, horn; Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings FR-728SACD.

Dynamic. That's the best word to describe Manfred Honeck's performance of the Beethoven Third. It's dynamic in terms of Honeck's interpretation and in terms of Soundmirror/Reference Recordings' sonics. Of course, if "dynamic" is not the first thing you want from a Beethoven symphony, you might not appreciate Honeck's way with it. But there is no questioning the excitement the recording generates.

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

The first movement Allegro con brio contains the usual complement of rhythms and harmonies we expect of Beethoven. The opening chords set the tone. Under Honeck, they are decisive, forceful, impactful. However, this is not to suggest that Maestro Honeck takes anything too fast. The speeds may sometimes be brisk, sometimes less so, but they are pretty well judged, the rhythms firm but not erratic. So it's a movement of considerable shifts in emphasis--from heroic to downhearted--just as the composer no doubt intended.

Nevertheless, it is in the second-movement funeral march that conductors must prove their worth. Too slow and it becomes a monumental drag; too fast and it no longer sounds like a funeral march. Here, Honeck adopts a pace about midway between the extremes. He doesn't follow Beethoven's original crazy-fast tempo markings (as most period-instrument and historically informed performances do) nor does he allow it to drag on endlessly. Instead, it sounds appropriately solemn and elegiac, opening up beautifully in the second half with dauntless propulsion before returning to earth.

The third-movement Scherzo is quite lively, even by Beethoven's standards. Honeck attacks it with vigor, in truth outpacing Roger Norrington in his period performance. However, I found it a little too relentless and without much requisite charm.

Manfred Honeck
As a conclusion, Beethoven's Finale is both regal and triumphant, a folklike summing up of the whole piece. Honeck begins with a tremendous flourish of passion before settling into Beethoven's joyous cadences. Again, though, Honeck's relentlessly forward momentum almost does him in, the music seeming in parts almost chaotic rather than flowing.

So, what we get from Maestro Honeck is a performance that stresses what the conductor calls "the novelties" of the symphony. It is certainly not a traditional approach, and it is one that a listener might find taking a little getting used to. Yet it is not so out of the mainstream that one could call it eccentric. Given the quality of the Pittsburgh Symphony's playing as an added bonus, I have a feeling most listeners will enjoy it.

As a coupling, Honeck offers Richard Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 1, Op. 11, with William Caballero, horn. Strauss was only eighteen when he wrote it in 1882-83 while a philosophy student at Munich University. It has since become one of the most-popular horn concertos in the classical repertoire, an interesting feat considering the range (and difficulty) of the piece. I suspect the conductor chose it to accompany the Beethoven because it is more directly related to the earlier composer than to Strauss's own later work. Honeck, Caballero, and the Pittsburgh players give it a good workout.

Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineers Mark Donahue (Beethoven) and John Newton (Strauss) of Soundmirror, Boston recorded the music live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in October 2017 (Beethoven) and September 2012 (Strauss). They present the recordings on disc in hybrid SACD, meaning you can play it in 5.0 multichannel sound or 2.0 stereo from an SACD player or 2.0 stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in 2-channel stereo from the SACD layer.

Despite its being a live recording, the sound in the Beethoven is not as close-up as it is in most such enterprises, thus ensuring a fairly natural perspective. The Strauss, recorded some five years earlier appears slightly closer but is still good. There is a nice ambient glow around the instruments in the Beethoven, too, and a realistic sense of the concert hall. There is a mild background noise, but it is hardly troubling, and, of course, the dynamic range and impact are excellent. The overall sonic effect is warm, smooth, and comfortable. The producers have thankfully removed all traces of applause.


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