Mar 31, 2018

Mozert: Sinfonia Estrema per Una Nota (Betamax review)

Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III (KCB, KCBS, KGB, CGI, DoD, WSJ), the Katzenjammer Baroquen Orchestra; North Corvina Girls' Drum and Bungee Corps; Norman Labernacle Choir; Bill Gates Singers; with the Emerson, Lake & Palmer Quartet. Odyssey Records HAL2001.

Australian composer, trapdoor salesman, and origamist Myles P. Galleon Mozert (1739-1862) was another in the long line of musical prodigies produced by the Mozert family this past quarter century. Although the public probably recognizes him best as the owner of a trapdoor company and an origami shop, he turned to music when the trapdoor business fell through and the origami business folded. All the better for the musical community, then, when he wrote his Sinfonia Estrema per Una Nota in B-flat C-minor Major, here performed by Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III and his accomplished East Corvina Boys' Drum and Bungee Corps.

Mozert wrote the Sinfonia in November 1732, just three days short of his death in December 1659, and the work has remained among his most-popular compositions ever since. Critics who argue that it was his only composition are clearly missing the point.

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As most readers know, Mozert wrote the Sinfonia in thirty-seven contiguous movements rather than the customary two, the work consisting of a single, sustained tone lasting approximately two and a half hours, with no breaks between notes. What's more, the composer left explicit written instructions for the ensemble to omit any suggestion of contrast, inflection, rubato, legato, brio, sostenuto, spirito, bicarbonato, carborundum, initiative, or referendum of any kind. The results can be intensely exhilarating or unbearably emulsifying by turns, and a performance requires the utmost care in its execution, stand, and delivery.

With consummate facility, the band's concertmaster, Major Domo, opens the piece with the work's signature introduction on the Campanelli Metallophone Glockenspiel, Model 17, 9mm, followed by a diverssimentino of gradually diminishing extrapolation. The effect in toto (we're not in Kansas anymore) is exfoliating, to say the least.

Associate Executive Unit Producer Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Jr. and Second Assistant Co-Coordinating Sound Engineering Director Joseph Clifford Montana, Jr. recorded the symphony at the Hoover-Electrolux Junior Studios, South Corvina, California in January 2014. They used advanced Toshiba Betamax technology for maximum fidelity, transferring the recording to Crypton 42 carbon-fiber tape for standard home playback.

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The sound obtained by the Odyssey Records junior engineering team can charitably called fluxinary. That is, it appears in continual transition from chocolatey vanilla to obtuse molasses, with hints of cherry blossoms and wild mint in the outermost ridges. Within this framework of estranged epiphanies, one can perceive the delicate fragrances of olive oil, paprika, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, especially when the timpani corps join in. Altogether, it makes for an extraordinary listening experience as well as a bewildering culinary encounter.


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

Mar 28, 2018

Bax: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, November Woods. David Lloyd-Jones, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.554093.

It's always surprised me that the music of English composer Sir Arnold Bax (1883–1953) has never been more recorded. The material is certainly right for the high-fidelity medium. Take his Symphony No. 2 in E minor and C major (1926), for instance. Bax worked on it for two years, scoring it for a very large orchestra, featuring a wide variety of instrumental colors, with big, dramatic contrasts throughout its length. The first of three movements opens on an almost sinister note, builds through a huge, jagged crescendo, settles into a soft, somewhat melancholy mood, and then returns in the finale to the craggy heights of its beginnings, ending where it began in a gentle yet sinister mood. Such rugged individualism was something new for an English composer of the early twentieth century, yet Bax set all of it clearly within a late-Romantic framework.

Audiences apparently loved Bax's Second Symphony for a time, until his style went out of vogue in the mid century. But it isn't so much the symphony here that counts, anyway, as it is his tone poem "November Woods," one of the best things he ever wrote (along with another of his tone poems, "Tintagel"). "November Woods" is even more evocative than the Second Symphony, a kind of miniature adventure in the woods on the proverbial dark and stormy night. 

David Lloyd-Jones
Maestro David Lloyd-Jones brings off both works successfully, especially the symphony, but unfortunately for him he has to compete in the tone poem with Sir Adrian Boult. Boult's "November Woods" on Lyrita is without peer; indeed, it is one of my ten favorite recordings of all time, capturing the spirit of the forest at night with inimitable persuasion. Lloyd-Jones makes the woods dark and menacing. Boult makes them magical, as well.

Besides which Boult's late-Sixties Lyrita sound is superior to the Naxos digital effort. This is not to downgrade the Naxos sound, mind you, which is fine in its own right; but the Lyrita recording has greater transparency, more dynamic range, a wider stereo spread, and, most important, a better presentation of front-to-back imaging, or depth. One has to pay through the nose for the Lyrita reissue, however, about five times the price of the Naxos disc. And therein may lie difference.

You actually can't go wrong with this Naxos release; the performances are first-rate, the sound is OK, and the price is right. It's just my bias showing for the older Lyrita favorite in the tone poem. 


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

Mar 25, 2018

Mozart: Piano Concertos 25 & 27 (CD review)

Piotr Anderszewski, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Warner Classics 0190295724221.

This Mozart album marks the third or fourth time I've reviewed something from Polish pianist and composer Piotr Anderszewski (b. 1969). As with the previous performances I've heard from him, the pianist appears technically brilliant, stylistically accomplished, and interpretively subdued. In other words, while he's pleasant enough to listen to, there may not be a lot that's particularly compelling enough about his interpretations to make listeners who already have favorites in the material turn to Anderszewski for anything new or different.

Anyway, Anderszewski begins the program with the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503, which Mozart wrote in 1786. Interestingly, in Mozart's lifetime it was not among his most-admired works and only gained prominence after his death. Today, music critics and audiences alike consider it one of his finest, most-mature works. Because of its symphonic overtones, the concerto is sometimes compared to the composer's "Jupiter" symphony, and one can see the resemblance in the concerto's long orchestral introduction alone.

When the piano enters, we hear immediately Anderszewski's bravura playing--articulate, smooth, flowing, and seemingly effortless. What we don't hear, however, is much explicative variation from the ordinary. The soloist is sensitive when necessary and exclamatory when needed, but not much more.  In other words, the performance is hard to fault on any technical grounds. Anderszewski provides everything Mozart intended except, perhaps, for heart. While it is not exactly a cold approach to the score, it is not one that a listener can easily fall in love with, either.

Piotr Anderszewski
I enjoyed the Andante a little more than the opening, and the pianist does inject a healthy dose of poetic sentiment into it. Again, though, there isn't much variety in the movement's conflicting moods, leaving the whole a little flat. Finally, we get to that festive frolic of an ending, which the pianist handles with characteristic frankness, if not exactly flair. It's all very proper and aboveboard.

Anderszewski follows No. 25 with Mozart's final piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, which premiered in the year of Mozart's death, 1791, but which Mozart may have written as early as 1788. The work is more strongly linked by internal themes than most of Mozart's other concertos, and it is more thinly scored, helping it to stand out among his many piano works. As with No. 25, No. 27 begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction.

No. 27 is a somewhat more tranquil work than No. 25, and Anderszewski handles it in an even more-moderate fashion than before. As always, his playing is precise, fluent, and fluid, and it's a bit more involving. Maybe it doesn't convey all the longing and despondency of some other renditions, but it does at least give us a glimpse into Mozart's troubled mind at the time of its composition. This is especially true of the mournful Larghetto. With Anderszewski, the movement is sweet without being cloying, a case in which the pianist's straightforwardness is an asset. In the final movement, Mozart alternates and blends a subdued joy and a hushed sadness, a combination that slightly eludes Anderszewski. Nevertheless, with such refined, if low-key, expression, his goals never appear in doubt.

So, as I said earlier, Anderszewski's performances are technically flawless but not exactly inspiring. If one already has a favored Mozart interpreter--say, Stephen Kovacevich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Clifford Curzon, Evgeny Kissin, or a host of others--there is probably little reason to acquire additional albums by Anderszewski. If, however, one is a fan of Anderszewski's moderately reserved approach to music making, the present performances will doubtless please one.

Producers Andrzej Sasin, Aleksandra Nagorka, and Alain Lanceron and engineers Rainer Maillard and Douglas Ward recorded the album in the Festpeilhaus, Baden Baden, Germany in July 2017. The sound they obtained is clear and clean, if a tad bright and forward. The piano is nicely integrated with the orchestra, well defined, yet not too close. Because of the relatively small, chamber-sized orchestra, we get a fairly dynamic and transparent overall sound, which should satisfy most discerning listeners.


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

Mar 21, 2018

Graupner: Two Overtures, G14 and D5 (CD review)

Also, Cantata for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity. Barbara Schlick, soprano; Hein Meens, tenor; Hermann Max, Das Kleine Konzert. CPO 999 592-2.

This is the kind of disc that would probably go by unnoticed by most classical record shoppers unless they had heard about it somewhere. Now you've heard about it. Johann Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) was a German Baroque composer with over 1,500 published works to his credit, yet hardly anyone recognizes his name anymore. He worked as Kapellmeister at the Hesse court in Darmstadt for almost fifty years, composing both secular and religious music, and he might have gotten the music director's post in Leipzig that went to J.S Bach instead had Graupner's patron allowed him leave.

Graupner was, in fact, one of the leading composers of his day, but his name and works fell into obscurity. According to what I've read, this obscurity is unfair: his heirs fought legal battles over his manuscripts, and he had very few pupils to carry on his work. So it's good that a label like CPO and artists like soprano Barbara Schlick,  tenor Hein Meens, conductor Hermann Max, and Das Kleine Konzert to honor him on occasion and keep his name alive.

Hermann Max
Appropriately, the disc offers two overtures (suites) with a cantata between them as representative of his output. There is nothing remarkable about any of the pieces that might describe him as a genius, but each work is highly likable and approachable. More important, Maestro Max and the small Das Kleine Konzert ensemble play each work with spirit and dignity, never overreaching their limits in headlong displays of period-instrument frenzy.

Executive producer Barbara Schwendowius and engineer Dietrich Wohlfromm recorded the overtures in 1996 and Ms. Schwendowius and engineer Hans Vieren recorded the cantata in 1983. They captured the results in wonderfully revealing and realistic sound, even though the overtures and the cantata were recorded some thirteen years apart. For a few listeners there may be too much sense of "space," too much ambient reflection in the setting, but it is a flattering acoustic that puts the group firmly in the stage picture and the listener firmly in the audience.

Graupner was an important composer, though now largely unknown; the performances are animated yet wholly earnest; the sound is natural and lifelike. It is a lovely album.


To listen to several brief excerpts from this album, click below:

Mar 18, 2018

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonata No. 1. Norman Krieger, piano; Philip Ryan Mann, London Symphony Orchestra. Decca DD41142 / 481 4871.

German composer Johannes Brahms (1833–97) wrote two piano concertos, the first one (1858) all rugged and craggy, and the second one over twenty years later (1881) more lyrical and poetic. As American pianist (and professor of music) Norman Krieger had already recorded an excellent version of the First Concerto, it came as no surprise that he would record the Second. And with the help of Maestro Philip Ryan Mann (Music Director of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) leading the London Symphony, Krieger does a splendid job with it.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83 became an immediate success from the very beginning, with the composer himself as the soloist, and he went on to perform the work all over Europe. Brahms wrote the piece in four movements rather than the traditional three, so it's a little longer than most concertos (I've read that Brahms included the extra movement, a scherzo, because he thought the opening movement sounded too plain and simple.) Still, he filled the work with so many memorable melodies and Krieger plays the whole thing so lovingly, the time flies by.

Krieger's playing is characterized not only by its technical virtuosity but by its clarity of expression. He exposes every note to the listener with extreme care, the pianism precisely executed. Yet he manages to maintain the poetry and lyricism of Brahms in the process. Certainly, Brahms didn't make it easy on the performer, though, and the concerto contains numerous difficult passages, which Krieger flies through with ease. His tone is big and robust, filled with energy and emotion, yet compassionate and yielding at the same time, qualities demanded of the Brahms.

Norman Krieger
After the relative calm of the first movement, Krieger plays the second-movement with the drama and passion it needs, yet without bombast, pretentiousness, or padding. Again, for Krieger, clarity dominates, although it is of the fervent kind. In the third movement, Krieger is careful not to upstage the lovely cello duet, and it comes off with a charming grace. Then, while the finale may not exhibit as much sheer joy and abandon as some other interpretations, it is exuberant and filled with an effortless good cheer.

Would I recommend Krieger's recording over some of my personal favorites from Stephen Kovacevich (Newton Classics), Emil Giles (DG), Maurizio Pollini (DG), or Sviatoslav Richter SO (RCA)? Probably not. As good as Krieger's version is, listeners may find it a tad too matter-of-fact compared to the others. Nonetheless, Krieger demonstrates much of the same combination of gusto and lyricism as the pianists mentioned and can walk in their company.

Accompanying the concerto, Krieger includes the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 1 in C, Op. 1 (1853), his first published work. Actually, he wrote his Second Sonata before it but wanted this one to be his first published because he liked it more. The opening Allegro is a kind of homage to Beethoven; the second movement is a theme and variations inspired by a song, which he would later rewrite for female chorus; the third movement is a scherzo; and the finale is a rondo, the theme recurring with noticeable changes. Krieger's reading is as skilled and heartfelt as any I've heard, so no complaints here.

Producer Richard Fine and engineer Wolf-Dieter Karwatky recorded the concerto at Abbey Road, Studio 1, London in September 2014 and the sonata at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin in August 2015. The London Symphony recording at Abbey Road: Who'da thunk? It must be like a second home for them.

Anyway, it's a fine-sounding recording. The sonics are round, warm, and natural, detailed but not at the expense of being hard or bright. The piano is a bit too close for my taste, but it's not right on top of the listener. The hall acoustics are moderately reflective, making the sound more realistic than analytical. Dynamics are acceptably wide and strong, but not grossly so; and the frequency response seems at least adequately extended. It makes for a pleasurable, easy-listening experience.


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

Mar 14, 2018

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (CD review)

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Arte Nova Classics 74321-65410-2 (box set).

Because the nine symphonies of Beethoven form the core of any classical library, all interpretations of them are welcome. When they are as good as these and at such low cost, the prospect is nigh-well irresistible.

Conductor David Zinman leads the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in performances that adhere as closely as possible to Beethoven's designs. The orchestra is much the size of Beethoven's, Maestro Zinman tries to adhere to Beethoven's metronome marks, and the scores are among the most authentic and up-to-date, the Barenreiter editions. The only difference is that the orchestra plays on modern instruments. So the idea is obtain the best of the old and new worlds: Historically informed performances and modern sound. Nikolaus Harnoncourt attempted a similar approach with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but Zinman, I think, is even more successful, and the results come at a price almost anyone can afford. Arte Nova present the discs in a boxed set, or singly if one chooses to experiment. What's more, the works are sensibly paired two symphonies to a disc consecutively, with Nos. 1 & 2 occupying the first disc, Nos. 3 & 4 the second disc, etc., and No. 9 on a disc to itself. Thus, only five discs are needed to accommodate the complete cycle.

Zinman starts things rolling with a lively rendering of the Symphony No. 1. The tempos are much quicker than even Norrington in his period instruments' version. There is good attack, particularly in the first movement, which is taken at almost breakneck speed. Then things settle down, the second movement Andante having a wonderful lilt. Paired on the same disc is the Symphony No. 2, which again has quick tempos, although they don't seem as noticeable. The reading is invigorating and enlivening, yet the articulation is always precise. I question if the joy of this interpretation has as much to do with the conductor's following the new performing edition as it does simply with Zinman's own personal vision. Whatever, it works wonderfully. The sound in both pieces has good bloom; the timpani, apparently struck with hard mallets, are solidly pronounced and most realistic; and the relatively small ensemble, under fifty players, is clearly delineated. My only quibble is that the overall sonic picture is somewhat dark, with not a lot of high-end sparkle. But one hardly notices such trifles when caught up in music making of this caliber.

Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica," is one of the highlights of the set. It is the first of the "major" symphonies, a departure from Beethoven's earlier environment of Haydn and Mozart and a step into big-time orchestral surroundings. In its day the size and shape of the "Eroica" were unlike anything audiences had heard before. One is again aware of the brisk tempos, but this time they are not nearly so breathtaking, though still exhilarating. Accordingly, the piece does not have the expansive grandeur of Sir John Barbirolli's approach or the nobility of Otto Klemperer's or Karl Bohm's, but it does demonstrate a passionate forward momentum that rightly conjures up heroic images of the Napoleonic era. The second movement funeral march is quicker than we are accustomed to, certainly not a slow dirge as is usually the case, but undoubtedly what Beethoven had in mind. And I especially liked the finale, which gallops along in fine style. The sound here is very much together, of a whole, and somewhat cleaner than in Nos. 1 or 2. On the same disc is the Fourth Symphony. Generally speaking, it sounds a little too rushed for my taste, particularly the first movement, which misses some of the composer's lighter touches. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly poetic and cheerful in Zinman's hands. Utilizing an orchestral force about a third smaller than the works on either side of it, it makes a delightful contrast to its more serious neighbors.

David Zinman
Traditionally, the middle symphonies, Nos. 5-7, have been among the most popular. Yet it is with Zinman's performances of these works that I have the most trouble. The third disc includes the coupling of Nos. 5 and 6, possibly the two most famous symphonies ever written. Beethoven composed the pieces almost simultaneously and premiered them during the same concert in 1808.  What would you have given to be at that historic event? Anyway, unlike his Fourth, Zinman's Fifth is not particularly rushed and is characteristically vibrant. All the same, it doesn't crackle with pent-up energy as Carlos Kleiber's reading does nor hurl forth headlong with relentless momentum as does Fritz Reiner's. And there is not the same triumphal burst at the end that we find with either of the other conductors I mentioned. Furthermore, Zinman's avoidance of anything but the most subtle rubato--he directs only very small contrasts in tempo--is here much in evidence, and before long an air of sameness sets in. For all that, it is a reasonably exciting performance, and those timpani are fun, banging away all along. The sound is curiously less dynamic and a bit more spotlighted than in the big Third Symphony. A year's difference in their recording dates may be responsible.

The first movement of Zinman's "Pastoral" Symphony moves along in bouncy style, giving way to a much gentler "Scene at the Brook" than I expected. The counterpoint in the second movement's closing moments is exceptionally affecting. But the merrymaking that follows is more perfunctory than merry, the storm less menacing than it should be, and the final thanksgiving less than revelatory.  Scored for the same orchestral forces as the Fifth Symphony and recorded on back-to-back days, the Sixth also sounds a little darker than the others in the set. However, there is a greater sense of space and depth to the presentation, especially during the storm. For all this, neither Zinman's Fifth nor Sixth would be close to any of my first choice recommendations in these works--Kleiber, Bohm, Reiner,  Klemperer, or Bruno Walter.

Disc four brings us Nos. 7 and 8. After hearing Zinman sometimes follow Beethoven's tempo marks overzealously in the first six symphonies, I was quite prepared for a hasty rush through the Seventh.  Not so. In fact, Zinman's pace, while appropriately quick, is relaxed and buoyant, the joyous dance melodies compromised only slightly by the heaviness of the sound and the hardness of the drums. Then, with an orchestra slightly pared down from the sixty-odd players in the previous three symphonies to a little over fifty in the Eighth, the sound takes on a greater clarity and lightness of spirit, enlivening this work even more. It is one of Zinman's most delightful interpretations, with special attention given to the second movement's little tiptoes tune. Only in the final Allegro does the music seem at all hasty, yet not enough to dampen the work's overall high spirits.

As befits the crown jewel in Beethoven's cycle, the Ninth Symphony is Zinman's own crowning glory. It appears smaller in scale than those from other conductors, to be sure, but one of the most exceptional Ninths on record. As always following Beethoven's metronome, Zinman transforms the Ninth into a new piece of music. Yet the whole structure is rock solid; and as it feels all of a whole, one is never aware that it shouldn't have always been this way. A comparable recording is one by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on EMI, which also tries to follow Beethoven's tempo markings and is played on modern instruments. But Zinman's reading is even more lithe and fleet footed, with the advantage, too, of cleaner sound. The second movement Scherzo is specifically fiery. Then, when the finale's "Ode to Joy" bursts onto the scene it is exultant, indeed, even if the staccato pacing of the final minutes takes one slightly aback. Surely, this performance is the way Beethoven would have wanted his legacy to be remembered. Even the sonics are more taut and clear in this last recording.

In summary, one should not miss Nos. 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9 in particular. Nevertheless, at the price we find these discs, the whole box set is a must. This is not to say, however, that there aren't other, good low-cost alternatives available. Overall, I still favor Karl Bohm's more old-fashioned, conventional approach with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in the Seventies and issued by DG in three double packages. Bohm's set contains the most treasurable of all "Pastorales," plus highly recommendable versions of Nos. 3, 5, 7, and 9. What's more, they are among the best-recorded Beethoven symphonies at any price. And we can't forget the Philips discs with Eugen Jochum and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded in the late Sixties, very imaginative, reasonably well recorded, and offered at budget price. But neither Bohm nor Jochum boasts the authenticity of Zinman's readings, for which similar sets--Harnoncourt on modern instruments, Norrington and Gardiner on period instruments--will set you back more money.

Needless to say, I am speaking to those of you who already have individual favorites in your collection and are now looking for supplemental material in any case. As for Zinman, the argument seems clear.


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

Mar 11, 2018

Dvorak: Cello Concerto (XRCD review)

Also, Silent Woods. Jacqueline du Pre, cello; Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. ARC ARCXRCD806.

When Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987) made this recording in 1970 with her husband Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she was already one of the most-famous and most-accomplished cellists in the world. However, although Ms. du Pre's Dvorak performance is good, it probably isn't one of her signature recordings. Still, if you like the sound, which admittedly takes a little getting used to, the new remastering does more with it than ever before.

British cellist Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987) began studying the cello at age five, winning the first of many awards at age eleven, followed by television and concert appearances. (Her formal debut was at Wigmore Hall, London in March 1961, when she was sixteen.) Then came the recording career, and the rest, as they say, is history. She met and married pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim in the mid Sixties, and they appeared destined for mutual stardom, an ideal musical couple. The present recording is one of the fruits of that partnership. Unfortunately, her last public appearance would be in 1973 due to multiple sclerosis, her promising career ending shortly thereafter.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 rather late in life (1895), the work since becoming one of the most-popular cello concertos of all time. It's popularity has been so enduring that practically every major cellist in the world has recorded it, with the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich (DG), Yo-Yo Ma (Sony), Pierre Fournier (DG), Leonard Rose (Sony), Gregor Piatigorsky (RCA), Lynn Harrell (RCA), Pablo Casals (EMI and Dutton Labs), Paul Tortelier (EMI/Warner), Rafael Wallfisch (Chandos), Truls Mork (EMI/Warner), Maurice Gendron (Philips or HDTT), and Janos Starker (Mercury) heading up a lengthy list. Ms. du Pre's version, then, finds itself in heady company.

Because the concerto contains an abundance of attractive melodies, it gives the soloist and orchestra ample opportunity for displaying bravura, nuance, sensitivity, and a little sentimentality, all of which Ms. du Pre handles well, with her characteristic flair. Barenboim and the orchestra contribute to their parts with an equal zeal and enthusiasm.

The concerto begins with a long, imposing orchestral introduction before the cello enters, an intro that alludes to both of the work's two upcoming themes. Ms. du Pre plays it with the kind of spontaneous-appearing gusto we expect, yet it is not so brawny an interpretation as those of Gendron or Starker. It's a gentler kind of spirit that nonetheless captures the grand, robust vigor of Dvorak.

Jacqueline du Pre
After the strong start comes a slow, second-movement Adagio, which Dvorak wrote while his much-beloved sister-in-law lay dying, and he used one of her favorite pieces of music as a central theme. In it, he creates a lovely, explosively gentle, faintly melancholic mood, which should glide sweetly along like a slow-moving stream, wistfully, with a touch of sadness. Here, Ms. du Pre stands out from the crowd with a most-sensitive, sincere, evocative rendering.

In the Finale, we find more heroics and more pensiveness from both the soloist and the orchestra than we heard previously from them. Dvorak apparently wanted the soloist and orchestra to work on equal terms, and certainly du Pre, Barenboim, and the orchestra each contribute their fair share to the whole, producing a fittingly zesty yet reflective conclusion to the proceedings.

Accompanying the concerto is Dvorak's Silent Woods (1883), originally written for piano and later transcribed for cello and piano and then cello and orchestra. It's a beautifully sweet, lyrical piece, which I enjoyed immensely. Perhaps this is because the music so aptly suits the instrument, or perhaps it's because Ms. du Pre so appropriately expresses the meditative mood of the piece.

Producer Peter Andry and engineer Carson Taylor made the recording for EMI at the Medinah Temple, Chicago, Illinois in November 1970. Tohru Kotetsu remastered the recording for ARC at the JVC mastering Center, Japan, using the latest XRCD24/K2 processing for maximum fidelity CD playback.

A hallmark of the recording is its clarity. The orchestral sound is well detailed, but at the expense of some upper midrange hardness and brightness and some small lack of upper-bass warmth. (To be fair, this is a sound from the Chicago Symphony I've heard in other recordings, so it may be a condition of the orchestra and hall and not the recording.) Nevertheless, the new remastering sounds good and better than I have heard it. Then after that long introduction I mentioned earlier, the cello enters, and it's practically on top of us. The instrument sounds good, mind you--warm, mellow, and rich--just unnecessarily close and nothing like what one might hear in any real concert. What's more, the cello's entrance points up the wide dynamic range of the recording because it's quite a bit louder than the preceding orchestral preface.

Frankly, because I have never thought of the sound of this recording as audiophile material, I have to wonder why ARC/JVC chose to remaster it so meticulously. That said, for listeners who already enjoy the performance and want to hear it reproduced from the best possible source, the disc may be worth its asking price.

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:

Mar 7, 2018

Stravinsky: L'Histoire du Soldat, complete (CD review)

Madeleine Milhaud, narrator; Jean Pierre Aumont, the soldier; Martial Singher, the Devil;  Leopold Stokowski, Instrumental Ensemble. Vanguard Classics OVC 8004.

I'm sure it's only my imagination that the Vanguard label issued this recording about thirty times since its initial release in 1967: In English, in French, in a suite, in various remastered editions, etc. However, this 1999 edition is probably the definitive one. It is complete in two parts, about fifty-five minutes long; conducted by Leopold Stokowski and a select few instrumentalists; narrated by Madeleine Milhaud, wife of the composer, Darius Milhaud, and a distinguished actress in her own right; and performed by French opera star Martial Singher and stage and film actor Jean Pierre Aumont.

Although Igor Stravinsky's 1918 L'Histoire du Soldat ("The Soldier's Tale") is no doubt more popular today in its purely instrumental suite, the complete work ("to be read, played, and danced") with its substantial narration is worth a listen. It is more than a drama with music. This story of the soldier and the devil has a charming simplicity of tone and manner, combining lyrical and occasional raucous elements in pointed contrast. Overall, the mood is acerbic, to be sure, but there is much grace underlying the expressionistic exterior, too, which Stokowski and his players capture nicely.

Leopold Stokowski
The 1967 Vanguard recording has the distinction of having been the first American recording made with the Dolby Noise Reduction System. As such, there was no great need to impose further noise reduction or other modifications on the present remastering. Instead, it is a 24-bit, SBM, high-definition transfer made from the original 30 I.P.S. tapes and utilizing the same type of Ampex 300 series vacuum tube recorder used when Vanguard first produced it.

The results are impressively transparent yet warm and sweet in a purely realistic way. Detail is excellent. Voices are natural and well placed within the context of the music. Bass has a splendid bloom. Dynamics are wide, transients are quick, and impact is strong. Imaging and depth of field are not particularly pronounced but perceptively accurate. And backgrounds are dead quiet.

In terms of both performance and sound, it is an excellent recording by the standards of any day.


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

Mar 4, 2018

Lara Downes & Friends: For Lenny (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano; Kevin "I.O." Olusola; Javier Morales-Martinez; Rhiannon Giddens; Thomas Hampson. Naxos Sony 84284011251.

The last time I reviewed an album from American pianist Lara Downes, it was America Again, her tribute to some of the American music and musicians that inspired her. Now, with For Lenny she pays tribute to another person who inspired her, Leonard Bernstein. She's accompanied along the way in several of the selections by fellow musicians Kevin "I.O." Olusola; Javier Morales-Martinez; Rhiannon Giddens; and Thomas Hampson. The musical tracks, either composed by or written about and for Mr. Bernstein, make for a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening look at one of America's foremost musical talents.

Most folks today probably know American conductor, composer, author, lecturer, and pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) from his many recordings as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and from his music for West Side Story. But after his tenure with the NY Phil ended, he went on to conduct and make many more records with the Vienna Philharmonic, among other ensembles; and many people recognize him for his work on Candide, Peter Pan, Wonderful Town, On the Town, and On the Waterfront, plus symphonies, a mass, and other works. Or TV viewers might still recognize him for his long television series of musical lectures. Whatever, his legacy is broad enough to live on for a very long time.

Ms. Downes gives us a pleasant overview of Bernstein's contributions to our cultural heritage, and she and her colleagues do so using various unique styles and approaches, so the album isn't just another collection of greatest hits. There are twenty-eight tracks in all, covering a wide range of the composer's music. Here's a run-down on the contents:

  1. Something's Coming
  2. Anniversary for Lenny (John Corgliano)
  3. Anniversaire for Lenny (Stephen Schwartz)
  4. Romance for Lenny (Eleonor Sanderesky)
  5. Iconoclasm/for Lenny (Michael Abels)
  6. Fancy Free: Big Stuff
  7. Anniversary for Johnny Mehegan
  8. Anniversary for Aaron Copland
  9. Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim
10. I Remember (Stephen Sondheim)
11. Cool
12. The Story of My Life
13. Greeting
14. Innocent Psalm for the Bernstein Baby (Marc Blitzstein)
15. Anniversary for My Daughter, Nina
16. Anniversary for Felicia, on Our 28th
17. So Pretty
18. Anniversary in Memoriam (Daron Hagen)
19. Anniversary for Lukas Foss
20. For Lenny: Variation on New York, New York (Lucas Foss)
21. What Shall We Remember? (Ricky Ian Gordon)
22. A Simple Song
23. Exuberance for Lenny (Shulamit Ran)
24. Anniversary for Craig Urquhart
25. Remembering Lenny (Craig Urquhart)
26. Goodbye Chorale for Lenny (Theo Bleckmann)
27. Youth, Day, Old Age & Night (Ned Rorem)
28. Some Other Time

Lara Downes
I have to admit after listening straight through all twenty-eight selections that I preferred the ones written by Bernstein himself more than I liked the ones written about or for him. Nevertheless, all the songs are classy, thanks not only to their being timeless classics but because Ms. Downes makes them sound new again. Her sensitive, nuanced playing brings out the best in everything, and even the familiar material from West Side Story seems fresh and innovative. Of course, it may help if you enjoy modern jazz and blues because these are prevalent styles among many of the performances.

As Ms. Downes proved on previous albums of American music, she has a manner all her own while at the same time conveying a sincere interpretation of a composer's intent. Same here, with Bernstein sounding like Bernstein, all the while sounding like Downes. It's a unique sleight of hand and an appealing one. She makes the music the composer's and her own at the same time. Good examples are "The Story of My Life" and "Some Other Time" (perhaps not coincidentally both arranged by Jed Distler), delicate, haunting pieces made all the more compelling by Ms. Downes's sweet, gentle, elegant, passionate pianism. Her poignant artistry is first-rate, and she makes an exemplary communicator of all things Bernstein and all things American.

Producer Adam Abeshouse recorded "Something's Coming" and "Cool" at the Colburn School, Los Angeles, CA; "A Simple Song" at Question de Son Studio, Paris; and most other tracks at Pelham, NY; and Ian Schreier recorded "So Pretty" at Manifold Recording, Pittsboro, NC. They made all the recordings between May and October 2017.

Depending on the venue, the sound is big and open and sometimes overly reverberant. The dynamics are wide, and impact is strong. Ultimate transparency seems a bit sacrificed on some tracks, though, for the sake of ambient bloom, while on other selections, mainly the ones recorded in NY, things appear clearer, better focused, and better detailed.


To listen to an 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