Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

Karita Mattila, Rachel Harnisch, Sara Mingardo, Michael Schade, Bryn Terfel; Schwedischer Rundfunkchor; Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 289 463 181-2.

When I first put this 1999 disc on, some twenty years ago, it had already been a long while since I had last heard the Mozart Requiem played by anything but a period-instruments band or a chamber group. I guess I was expecting to hear something a little old-fashioned in a full orchestral setting, and I wasn't disappointed. What I wasn't expecting, however, was to be as satisfied with the performance as I was. True, it's nothing like Mozart might have heard in his own day, had he lived to hear it. Yet under Abbado it is quite compassionate, effortlessly dignified, and, in some moments, even sublime.

Abbado uses the familiar Sussmayr edition, with, as the booklet notes, "modifications by Franz Beyer and Robert Levin." But the booklet doesn't tell us what those modifications are. In any case, Mozart only wrote the first couple of sections before he died, leaving the rest in sketchy form at best.

Claudio Abbado
In Abbado's hands, I can't remember an interpretation pointing up the differences so vividly between the parts Mozart wrote and the later, added parts. The final few portions are positively mundane, almost lifeless, by comparison to the work's opening movements, and through no fault of Abbado. Indeed, it is because of Abbado's respectful conducting of this work that the deficiencies of the closing pages show up at all.

That said, this is a performance in which most things fall readily into place, perhaps sounding "old-fashioned" in the process: a little too polite and maybe a bit too sedate, yes, yet in a good sense if you are in the mood for that sort of presentation. And do I even have to mention that the Berlin Philharmonic play gloriously and that the soloists and choir respond equally well?

DG's sound is about what I expected, too, but more so. It is big overall, like the performance, warm in the midrange, slightly veiled, a little overly bright in the high strings, wide in stereo spread, and, surprise, reasonably deep in the bass. I don't usually like live recordings, as this one is from the Salzburg Festival, but at least the DG engineers kept the audience noise to a minimum. A reality check comparing this new release to a disc using smaller instrumental forces, however, revealed a startling difference in clarity and focus, favoring the smaller group, of course. Nevertheless, the grave forward momentum and well-timed rhythms of this new Abbado effort place it among the better choices for a full, modern-orchestra version of the music.

Two shorter pieces, "Betracht dies Herz" KV 42 and "Laudate Dominum" KV 339, the latter most sweetly rendered, round out the program.


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

The Topping Tooters of the Town (CD review)

Music of the London Waits, 1580-1650. William Lyons, The City Musick. Avie Records AV2364.

I hear what you're asking: What's with the oddball title? A booklet note explains that a fellow named Ned Ward wrote in The London Spy of 1709, "Why these are the city waits, who play every winter's night through the streets to rouse each lazy drone to family duty. These are the topping tooters of the town, and have gowns, silver, chains, and salaries, for playing 'Lilliburlero' to Lord Mayor's horse through the city." Furthermore, "The City Waits were highly skilled and much valued musicians in Elizabethan and Jacobean society. They were the aural emblem of their city, and were employed in civic ceremony, the theatre, dances, in church services and gave public concerts. This recording celebrates the diversity and glorious sound of a Waits band at its best."

The Waits band in this case is The City Musick, led by William Lyons, who also plays shawm, bass dulcian, recorders, and bagpipes. He's joined by ten other musicians on instruments as varied as hoboy, recorders, lysard, cornett, and sackbut, with occasional solo voices thrown in for good measure. The music is enjoyable, and the fact that it's authentic adds to the fun.

Here's the playlist to give you an idea of what the album's all about:

Anthony Holborne (c.1545-1602)
  1. The Night Watch

John Adson (c.1585-1640)
  2. The Bull Maske (Courtly Masquing Ayre 18)
  3. Courtly Masquing Ayre 20
  4. Courtly Masquing Ayre 21

Peter Philips (c.1560-1628)
  5. Pavane Dolorosa
  6. Galliard Doloroso

Anon., arr. William Lyons
  7. The Quadran Pavan
  8. Turkeyloney
  9. The Earl of Essex Measures
10. Tinternell
11. The Old Almain
12. The Queen's Alman

Anthony Holborne
13. The Cecilia Almain

Anon., arr. Lyons
14. The Black Almain

Thomas Morley (c.1557-1602)
15. See, see, myne owne sweet jewell
16. Hould out my hart
17. Crewell you pull away too soone

John Dowland (1563-1626)
18. Psalm 100: All people that on earth do dwell

Richard Allison (c.1560-c.1610)
19. Psalm 68: Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered

Simon Stubbs (fl. 1616-21)
20. Psalm 149: Sing ye unto the Lord our God

Thomas Ravenscroft (1590-1633)
21. Psalm 117: O praise the Lord, all ye nations

Anthony Holborne
22. Paradizo
23. The Lullabie
24. The Cradle

John Playford (1623-1686/7)
25. Pauls Wharf

Valentin Haussmann (c.1560-c.1614)
26. All ye who love

John Playford, arr. Lyons
27. Lilliburlero
28. Maiden Lane
29. Halfe Hannikin
30. Sellengers Rownde

Willian Lyons
So, the Waits were sort of the pop bands of their day, the Rolling Stones of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. (Come to think of it, the Stones may actually have been playing back then.) Anyway, the tunes run the gamut from ballads to dances, from airs to pavanes, some of them stately, some lively, some serious, and some lighthearted. Lyons and The City Musick play them all with equal zeal and seem to be having as good a time performing them as we do listening to them.

Of course, it takes a few minutes for the ear to adjust to the unusual qualities of the instruments, most of which are winds of one kind or another, but once attuned to the sound, it's easy to like. The melodies are simple and the repetitions plentiful. About the only qualm I had was that although there are thirty selections on the program, each track is very brief, not more than a minute or two. So, at only about forty-nine minutes total, the program is a little short on content.

Producer and engineer Adrian Hunter recorded the album at St. Georges Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK in September 2015. The first thing you may notice is that the acoustic is moderately lively, and the room reflections enhance the realism of the sonics. Still, the spatial relationships remain somewhat flat. You'd think that maybe individual instruments would stand out better in contrast to one another. Be that as it may, there are no glaring deficiencies in the sound: no brightness, edginess, woolliness, or dullness and not much veiling. Not quite audiophile but pleasant and serviceable, nonetheless.


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

Haydn: "Paris" Symphonies, Nos. 82-87 (CD review)

Frans Bruggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century. Philips 462 111-2 (2-disc set).

I doubt that too many readers have collected all one hundred and four of Haydn's symphonies, or are even vaguely interested in doing so, but certainly the last eighteen, the "Paris" and "London" symphonies, plus assorted earlier pieces might be a part of a well-rounded classical music library. Prior to this 1999 set of "Paris" Symphonies from Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, I had been living happily with Sigiswald Kuijken's period-instrument performances of them with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on Virgin Classics and with Antal Dorati's modern-instrument versions on Decca. Then, along came this newer set to give me pause.

Franz Bruggen's realizations for Philips are every bit as lively and grand as Kuijken's but offer two minor advantages. First, the sound is more immediate, closer to what Kuijken would do later in the "London" Symphonies for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. The Philips recordings, made live in Paris and the Netherlands, are slightly less vague than the Kuijken's renditions, with added definition and focus. It isn't enough of a difference to recommend a change if one already owns the Kuijken accounts, but for the first-time buyer it may matter. Second, the packaging of the two Bruggen discs uses a single slim-line case, thus occupying less shelf space the older, bulkier Kuijken edition. OK, not much of a consideration these days, to be sure, unless you find yourself with an expanding CD collection and fighting for every inch of space you can find.

Frans Bruggen
Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) wrote his six "Paris" Symphonies in 1786 and 1787, as far as scholars can determine. Paris's prestigious La Loge Olympique, a prominent musical organization of its time, commissioned the works, and Haydn premiered them during their 1787 season. The most immediate hit, which remains my preferred symphony as well, is No. 85, nicknamed "The Queen" because it was a favorite of Marie Antoinette. Each of the symphonies is varied and sometimes elaborate, but they are marked most distinctively by their slow movements.  No. 85 takes its Allegretto from a charming French folk song of the time.

More important, Bruggen's interpretations are first class, perhaps even first choices for those listeners interested in the period-instrument approach. The performances are energetic, stimulating, and engaging. And, of course, Bruggen takes them at a lively pace, as so many historically informed interpretations do. Expect a little less refinement than excitement.

Philips recorded the symphonies live at the Cite de la Musique, Paris, and the Muziekcentrum Enschede and Vredenburg, Ultrecht, The Netherlands in November 1996. The sound is clean, if a tad close, full and well-bodied except in the mid bass where there appears a hint of thinness and only a touch of harshness at times. Generally, it sounds the way you would expect to hear a period-instruments band live, with the same degree of transparency you would find at a live event.


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

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto (XRCD review)

Also, Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1. Itzhak Perlman, violin; Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. ARC ARCXRCD805, remastered.

Because the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is one of the most-popular violin concertos ever written, maybe the most popular, practically every major violinist in the world has recorded it. So, there is a huge selection of recordings of it in the catalogue, most of them pretty good. Still, I have always found Itzhak Perlman's 1972 recording with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra as good as any and better than most. Now, we find it in a modern audiophile remastering, making it better than ever. At least, for those with deep pockets.

German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) premiered his Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 in 1845, and it would be his final large orchestral work. Audiences pretty much loved it at the time, and it has continued to be one of the staples of the violin repertoire ever since.

Because the Mendelssohn concerto is "nobly poised between romantic and classic" as W.A. Chislett writes in a booklet note, that's the way Perlman plays it, with an expressive romantic flair and a classic restraint and refinement. And unlike many competing versions on record, the soloist and the orchestra are on equal terms, neither actually dominating the other. Previn is a fine interpreter of Mendelssohn, anyway, and the LSO provide a warm, illuminating, and thoroughly captivating accompaniment for Perlman. Yes, you will find more vigorous accounts of the music, more vivacious ones, and more sweetly flowing ones, but you will be hard pressed to find one that sounds more totally attuned to the charms of Mendelssohn. It simply sounds "right," as fresh and scintillating as the day Perlman and his fellow players recorded it.

Itzhak Perlman
As a coupling, Perlman chose to do the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 by German composer and conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920). Bruch premiered a revised version in 1867, and it, too, like the Mendelssohn, has become a staple of the violin repertoire. Perlman and Previn play it in a traditional manner, with no exaggerated tempos, pauses, or contrasts. Perlman's playing is engaging, too, nuanced yet lively, giving the music all the enchantment and vivacity it needs. Moreover, the LSO were in peak form, providing Perlman a strong accompaniment.

The Bruch has a curious first movement, a Vorspiel (or Prelude) leading directly to the second movement. This Vorspiel is like a slow march, with some ornamental flourishes along the way. The second-movement is an Adagio, the heart of the work with its beautiful melodies, broadly sweeping themes, and graceful orchestral accompaniment. The piece ends with a Finale that begins quietly until the violin opens up with a vivacious theme in the form of a dance, which along with its lyricism reminds us of its Romantic origins, culminating in a grand climax. Anyway, as I say, Perlman, Previn, and the LSO do it up as well as anyone.

EMI producer Suvi Raj Grubb and engineer Robert Grooch recorded the concertos at Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, in November 1972. Tohru Kotetsu remastered the original tapes at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan, for the Associated Recordings Company (ARC). The JVC team used meticulous XRCD24/K2 technology to assure the finest quality reproduction currently available for CD playback.

I had on hand for comparison another remastering of the same recording, this one also from Japan (Toshiba-EMI), though not in the XRCD format. The older Toshiba remaster seemed to me at the time marginally better, clearer and cleaner, than the regular EMI (currently Warner) product. Now, the JVC/ARC XRCD24 production is even clearer and cleaner than the older Japanese remastering, albeit at substantially higher cost. Is it for everyone? Of course not. It's for audiophiles who already love this particular recording and want the very best-sounding version of it. To that end, the JVC/ARC XRCD24 fills the bill.

Compared to the Toshiba-EMI product, the JVC/ARC disc sounds tighter, better defined, slightly more detailed, stronger, smoother, and fuller. Are the differences major? No, they're small but noticeable, at least in side-by-side comparison. Are they worth the extra money? That's up to the individual, not for me to decide. In any case, the sound in both versions revealed excellent balance, a superb reproduction of the soloist, well centered and not too far in front of the orchestra, with good response at both ends of the frequency spectrum. It's a fine recording made better by excellent processing.

You can find ARC products at some of the best prices at Elusive Disc:


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

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, Four Early Songs. Ruth Ziesak, soprano; Daniele Gatti, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RCA 75605 51345 2.

Although by the time he wrote the Fourth Symphony Mahler had begun giving up trying to link descriptive titles to his music, he did leave us two designations for the Fourth, "The world as eternal present" for the first movement and "Friend Death--strike up" for the second. As the first movement begins with sleigh bells, it isn't hard to imagine programmatic content wherein we are journeying toward immortality. The second movement's Death may be seen as a welcoming character leading us to Heaven, the third movement as the final ascent, and the conclusion as our eternal resting place of sweetness and bliss.

Conductor Daniele Gatti continues his Mahler cycle, leading the Royal Philharmonic through the Fourth Symphony's trek with more fervor than one usually associates with this piece. Whether one responds to Maestro Gatti's more idiosyncratic-than-usual treatment of the score may depend on one's view of the symphony as a whole or, simply, what one has gotten used to in the past.

Daniele Gatti
Mahler is a composer of contrasts, to be sure, but in the Fourth the differences are less extreme than in the man's other symphonies. The Fourth is the most idyllic, the most pastoral, the most restful of his nine numbered symphonies. However, that isn't quite how Gatti sees it. Instead of a smooth and freely moving tempo and rubato as adopted by most conductors, Gatti chooses to indulge in a series of starts and stops, never quite adopting a steady pace. There are numerous hesitations, shortenings and elongations, and new tempo changes, devices that may work in the more spectacular of Mahler's symphonies but here tend to impede some of the sweetness of the work's forward progress. Still, Gatti's reading is his own, and for many listeners it may inject new life into an old favorite.

For purposes of comparison I had five other Mahler Fourths on hand at the time of this review: Bernard Haitink, Franz Welser-Most, Otto Klemperer, George Szell, and Sir Colin Davis. I chose Davis for my comparison listening because his was the most recent recording of the bunch and because RCA had recorded him, as they did Gatti. In this comparison, the older conductor came off the more musically mature. Davis is more direct, more velvety smooth in his transitions, and less given to dramatic pauses. The biggest differences I heard were in the third movement where Davis comes into his own, the refined assuredness of his approach adding to the section's general repose. I must admit that in the finale, however, Haitink's soloist in his 1983 recording, Roberta Alexander, sounds the most innocent of all the contenders on hand, more so than Ruth Ziesak in Gatti's ending.

In terms of sound, the Gatti disc is very clear but a bit edgy and needing in warmth. In essence, it lacks much conviction in the upper-bass department. Again by comparison, the Davis recording is darker, less airy or open, but, overall, more realistic. I'd say Gatti's is more the young person's interpretation, more impetuous and impulsive than the others in my collection. The differences are not extreme, in any case, and those who appreciated Gatti's youthful realizations of other Mahler symphonies will find much satisfaction here as well.


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

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Also, Barber: Adagio for Strings. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-724SACD.

Many years ago the announcer, author, and music critic Martin Bookspan wrote of the Shostakovich Fifth that it is "... a symphony more than ordinarily pretentious, brooding, mystical, sardonic and sometimes vulgar. In short, it has many of the same virtues and faults one finds in the symphonies of Mahler." I've always agreed with most of that assessment. Even though Shostakovich and Mahler lived in different eras, their approach to symphonic writing was at least similar, the many changing moods of their music probably contributing to both composers' enduring popularity.

After his music fell out of favor with the Soviet government, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote his Symphony in D minor in 1937 to ingratiate himself with the State. On the surface the piece appears to be traditional, inspirational, and patriotic; but later the composer would deny its patriotic bent, claiming it to be, in effect, satiric. Consequently, there are any number of ways to approach the score, some, like Leonard Bernstein doing it hell-bent-for-leather and others, like Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh Symphony, doing it in a more-restrained, orderly manner. Whether you take to Honeck's reading or not, there is no questioning he has an orchestra that responds beautifully to his every demand.

The opening movement, a Moderato-Allegro non troppo, is, as the tempo marking indicates, both gentle and reasonably vigorous. It starts slowly, lyrically, and gradually becomes faster and more agitated, but not too fast, building in momentum, and then ending in relative calm. Well, at least that's the way conductors usually approach it. Honeck, however, takes it at a more leisurely clip throughout, more quietly, building the contrasts more studiously, building the tensions and releases in broader incremental steps. There is more sadness here than anger in Honeck's view.

The second-movement Allegretto is a variation of the first theme of the preceding movement, taken at a speed just a little slower than Allegro. It serves as a scherzo, its tone satiric, mock-heroic. One can hear the influences of Mahler in this music more strongly than in most any other part of the symphony. Again, Honeck takes his time with the score's development, and I found that in his doing so he misses some of the music's more ironic elements.

The slow movement, the Largo, is the actual soul of the symphony, with long, engaging melodies predominating. It's a most-personal expression of the composer's feelings, and it's here that Honeck particularly excels, imparting to the music a heartfelt dignity, a longing, and a mournfulness that are quite affecting.

Manfred Honeck
The finale generally takes up where the first movement ended, with a clear martial or marchlike character. Whether the music is joyous and life-affirming or hectic and cynical is pretty much up to the conductor. Shostakovich seemed to want it both ways: to please the government and to please himself. Anyway, again we hear the Mahler influence (the final movement of Mahler's First Symphony comes to mind), and even though Honeck doesn't attack it with anything like the animation of a Bernstein, he stays in keeping with the rest of the presentation, and it comes off with a cautious expressiveness.

Accompanying the Shostakovich we find the little Adagio for Strings (1936), which the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) prepared for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. It may seem at first glance an odd choice for a coupling, given that the Shostakovich symphony can be so feverish and the Barber so peaceful. However, I suppose that's the point: to juxtapose the two works, both of them written at around the same time yet in contrasting places and circumstances. And no doubt Maestro Honeck wanted especially to play up the similarities between the Barber piece and the sadness of the Shostakovich symphony's Largo. The real question, though, is whether Maestro Honeck does the Adagio justice, and the answer is yes, despite Honeck's penchant for drawing out phrases longer than always necessary and over emphasizing the point.

There are any number of good recordings of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony one can choose from, among them Maris Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Royal Philharmonic (Decca), Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony), Maxim Shostakovich and the USSR Symphony (RCA), Leopold Stokowski and the Stadium Symphony Orchestra (Everest), Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony/RCA), Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca), Andre Previn and the London Symphony (RCA), Neeme Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos), and the list goes on. Where does Honeck and his orchestra fit in? Almost anywhere in a crowded field, depending on how you like your Shostakovich played. For me personally, I prefer the energy of Bernstein and Stokowski; the sweep and grandeur of Ormandy; the authority of the composer's son, Maxim Shostakovich; and the simple directness and overall rightness of Haitink, Jansons, Ashkenazy, and Previn. Still, Honeck for his few idiosyncrasies, makes a viable alternative.

Producer Dirk Sobotka and engineer Mark Donahue (of Soundmirror, Boston) recorded the music live at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, PA in June (Shostakovich) and October (Barber) 2013. They made it for multichannel SACD playback, two-channel stereo SACD playback, and two-channel regular CD playback. I listened in the two-channel SACD mode.

Despite the music being recorded live, which too often results in a close-up, one-dimensional sound, this one is excellent. It's moderately distanced, with a fine sense of space and place. Dynamics are wide but not overpowering; frequency response is extended, notably at the high end; the depth of image is lifelike; and detailing is realistically defined without being bright or edgy. Thankfully, too, Reference Recordings edited out any hint of applause. It's one of the best-sounding live orchestral discs of the year.


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

Opera Gala (CD review)

Alessandra Marc, soprano; Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Delos DE 3240.

The program on this 2000 Delos release consists of well over an hour of live music-making from soprano Alessandra Marc and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. The orchestra by itself performs several Verdi overtures, La forza del destino and Luisa Miller, and Puccini's Preludio sinfonico. Ms. Marc sings arias from Bellini's Norma, "Casta Diva" and "Guerra, guerra"; Donizetti's Anna Bolena, "Al dolce guidami"; Richard Strauss's The Egyptian Helen, "Zweite Brauchtnacht"; Barber's Anthony & Cleopatra, "Give Me My Robe"; and Puccini's Tosca, "Vissi d'arte," and Turandot, "In questa reggia." Ms. Marc has a lovely dark-toned voice that especially complements the several less well-known selections, and the Dallas Symphony Chorus do an outstandingly beautiful job in their brief appearances.

I had only a couple of misgivings about the disc. First, I would have preferred hearing from both a soprano and a tenor and maybe others at a "gala," putting a little more variety into the show. "Gala" suggests a festive event featuring, I would have hoped, more than a single star. Ms. Marc performs a recital. Maybe it's a gala recital.

Alessandra Marc
Second, I have never been fond of live recordings, this one made on the nights of September 17-19, 1998, in the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas. Trying to keep an audience quiet for more than an hour is the first problem, although the coughs and sneezes that customarily accompany these things seem pretty well under control. The applause between each number is another matter. Yes, it helps put the living-room listener into the concert hall to participate in the sense of occasion. Yes, it is also a distraction to anyone who just wants to enjoy the music.

Nor did I care to play the session as loudly as I found necessary to experience Delos's "Virtual Reality." Alas, nothing is perfect. Some recordings sound wonderful at low gain and get raucous, bright, or shrill as they are played louder; this one, though, sounds boring at low levels but comes to life at higher volume. In fairness, it sounded fine played back on my 5.1-channel home-theater system in another room, where the rear speakers handled some of the ambient informaton, and the sound is brighter and leaner to begin with. In any case, close all the doors and windows before listening, unless your neighbors are opera lovers.

So, as I say, played loudly, this album of live opera extracts can sound excitingly alive. Played back at a normal-to-soft level, and it will sound dull and indistinct, fading well back from the speakers, veiled and soft. I'm mentioning this because the first impression some listeners may get is that the disc is too distant and clouded. In fact, it was recording engineer John Eargle's usual way of miking, using Delos's "Virtual Reality" process, a technique that picks up a good deal of side and rear-wall ambiance for the sake of multi-channel, surround-sound playback. Ordinary two-channel reproduction may suffer, however, in that the reflective sounds can overpower the direct sound unless the volume is tweaked up a notch.


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

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" (CD review)

Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna. Sony 88985404352.

You'll forgive me if I keep thinking of the Greek-born conductor, musician, and actor Teodor Currentzis as a new and upcoming young conductor. He was, in fact, in his mid forties (b. 1972) at the time of this writing, he's won numerous awards, conducted even more concerts, and made a dozen recordings. In 2004 he formed the MusicAeterna Orchestra (and later the MusicAeterna Chorus). Although audiences probably best know him for his opera productions, he's no slouch at purely orchestral music, either, where critics have found his direction everywhere from electrifying to terrifying. At the very least, you can say he's enthusiastic, as this recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony demonstrates.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique" in the last year of his life, and it was his final work before he died. The ensuing century brought it growing fame, and today person can hardly doubt its value as one of the late-Romantic period's most-popular works. The title "Pathetique" in Russian means "passionate" or "emotional," which is how most conductors, like Currentzis, play it--big, bold, and red-blooded. It's just that Maestro Currentzis perhaps takes the "passionate" direction a step further than most.

The work begins with a fairly lengthy introduction, building in agitated fashion before culminating in the music's famous central theme. Currentzis takes this opening with more than adequate agitation; indeed, with more agitation than one normally hears. Then, he goes into the main theme with a delicacy one doesn't often hear, as well. Although the result is a timing for the first movement that differs little from the half dozen comparison recordings I had on hand, it's made up of more variable rubato, more stops and starts, more lengthened and shortened notes and phrases, and definitely more volatile dynamics than I have ever heard before in a performance of this music. There were several moments in the proceedings when the orchestra positively jolted me upright. One can question whether this is purely showmanship on Currentzis's part or whether it suits the mercurial nature of Tchaikovsky's music. There is no doubt it will keep you awake.

Teodor Currentzis
The second-movement is another of the composer's famous waltzes, followed by a zippy third-movement scherzo, and ending in a mournful Finale. Currentzis takes the waltz in headlong fashion, perhaps faster than the usual waltz tempo; yet, like the rest of the performance, it seems perfectly attuned to the idiosyncratic nature of the rest of the reading. The scherzo is as peppy and lively as any you'll hear, but by this point we expect that of Currentzis. The Finale is probably the least controversial part of the recording, with Currentzis calming down and offering a fine, passionately soulful conclusion to the music.

In all, I dunno. If you like your Tchaikovsky expressive and emotional to the nth degree, you'll get that from Currentzis. It's not subtle, not terribly nuanced, not delicate or polished. It's Tchaikovsky unrefined, undiluted. Like the sound I'll mention next, listeners are apt to find the performance immensely satisfying or overwhelmingly unwelcome.

The disc's jewel box comes enclosed in a glossy paper slipcase and a booklet essay by Maestro Currentzis himself. I'm afraid I couldn't get through much of the conductor's prose, which tends to be as flashy as his music making.

Damien Quintard produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album at Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, Berlin in February 2015. To put this kindly, think of your seating position as being in the front one or two rows of an auditorium. The orchestra is spread out very wide in front of you, and the instruments are practically in your lap. The effect is not without its commensurate thrills, but it may take a moment to get used to. This is the kind of close miking one usually associates with live recordings; however, nowhere on the packaging does it indicate this is a live recording. So, it's apparently just a close-up studio performance. It certainly gives clarity, life, and dynamism to the sound, although there isn't a lot of orchestral depth to give us a feeling of reality; nor is there much hall resonance; and there are some odd, audible effects in the final movement. The dynamic range and sonic impact may for some listeners compensate for the recording's eccentricities, though, and provide more excitement than they've ever heard before in this symphony. Like Currentzis's interpretation of the music itself, the sound may either delight or infuriate you.


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

Debussy: Snowflakes Are Dancing (CD review)

Tomita. RCA 09026-63588-2 (remastered).

The late Japanese composer and performer Isao Tomita (1932-2016), one of the pioneers of the musical synthesizer, made quite a splash in 1974 with his album of electronic music, "Snowflakes Are Dancing." RCA's rear-cover blurb states, "The blockbuster album that started it all...." But I rather suspect RCA forgot about Wendy Carlos, whose "Switched-on Bach" from 1968 predates "Snowflakes" by some years. Nevertheless, "Snowflakes" did strong business and continues to sound good in this remastered "High Performance" CD edition from RCA.

A series of short selections from the pen of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) make up the program. The selections translate well into the world of the Moog synthesizer probably because they were mostly written for solo piano. Besides "Snowflakes," there are such familiar tunes as "Reverie," "Clair de lune," "The Engulfed Cathedral," "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair," "Golliwog's Cakewalk," and others, plus a bonus track of "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" from Tomita's 1975 LP, "Firebird." Although I realize that all of the original piano selections were long ago adapted for full orchestra, Mr. Tomita and his synthesizer may have scored a success here by not trying to reproduce all the colors of the symphonic rainbow.

Isao Tomita
Drawbacks? Purists will say this isn't really Debussy, that Tomita takes too many liberties with the scores, that the original composer would not recognize his own music. Nevertheless, if it sounds good to you, take your chances and forget about the critics. My only quibble is that even with the bonus track, the album provides only a little over fifty minutes of material. So expect a short program.

Anyway, this disc is now a part of RCA's "High Performance" series, which the company remastered in Dolby Surround Sound using Weiss 24/96 technology back in the late 1990's. I'm not sure what criteria RCA used to decide which of their recordings to remaster in this line, though, because some of them have dubious sonic credentials. This recording, for example, sounds fine either with or without the new technology, yet I would hardly call it an album of audiophile material in any case.

A comparison of the new disc with its older incarnation reveals that the newer version is noticeably smoother, as expected, richer, warmer, and quieter, overall. There is also maybe a touch more high-end openness, albeit with a softer high-end, too, and very slightly wider dynamics. However, the new disc sounds less precisely localized, a tiny bit out of phase so to speak. It is not unpleasant, given the artificial nature of the music making to begin with, but I wonder if it has anything to do with the Dolby Surround encoding system that RCA used in the remastering. RCA tell us that the disc is compatible with regular two-channel stereo and monaural, but maybe not perfectly. I dunno.

In any case, "Snowflakes Are Dancing" is one of the few synthesizer albums I have had in my collection since its issue, and this newer edition does it no real harm.


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

Favorite Recordings of 2017

As you may remember, I don't do "best-of" lists. "Best" suggests that I've sampled everything available, and even though I review a lot of music every year, I have not heard but a fraction of what's out there. So I prefer to do a simple "favorites" list. Here are just a few of the discs (listed alphabetically, to be fair) I heard last year that I enjoyed for their performance and sound. I know I've forgotten some; forgive me.

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 5
Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 10. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics
To read the review, click here:

America Again
Lara Downes, piano. Sono Luminus
To read the review, click here:

Black Manhattan, Volume 3
Rick Benjamin, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. New World Records
To read the review, click here:

Cimarosa: Overtures, Vol. 4
Michael Halasz, Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. Naxos
To read the review, click here:

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9
Istvan Kertesz, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered
To read the review, click here:

Krenek: Complete Piano Concertos
Mikhail Korzhev, piano; Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra. Toccata Classics
To read the review, click here:

Music of the Royal Swedish Navy
Andreas Hanson, the Royal Swedish Navy Band. Mike Purton Recording Services
To read the review, click here:

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT remastered
To read the review, click here:

Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie
Also, Horn Concerto No. 1. Alan Civil, horn; Rudolf Kempe, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Testament remastered.
To read the review, click here:

The Italian Job
Music of the Italian baroque. Adrian Chandler, La Serenissima. Avie
To read the review, click here:

Toscanini 150th Anniversary
Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York. Bridge
To read the review, click here:

Tribute: Dover Quartet Plays Mozart
Quartets K.589, K.590; Quintet K. 406. Dover Quartet. Cedille
To read the review, click here:


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