Apr 29, 2018

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, The Firebird Suite. David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Recursive Classics RC2058479.

This is the third album I've reviewed from Maestro David Bernard and his Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. You'll remember, either from listening to them yourself or from reviews, that the Park Avenue ensemble is composed of players who are not full-time professional musicians but rather are from other walks of life: hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, doctors, lawyers, candlestick makers). They're not amateurs, but they're not full-time, paid musicians, either. Fortunately, once you hear them, their playing dispels any skepticism you might have about their musicianship. They are a fine group.

You might also note that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is not a particularly small group, despite their name. It's not the limited size of an ordinary chamber orchestra; in fact, judging by photos, it can be over 100 players strong. However, as Maestro Bernard explains, they can sometimes sound smaller because he favors a lean, transparent sound. In any case, in the present album of works by Stravinsky, the group's size works to their advantage. Their numbers are big enough to convey the scope of Stravinsky's pieces but transparent enough to provide added intimacy.

Russian-born U.S. composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) premiered his ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913, and it has rightfully taken its place among the most influential works of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, its first public performance was anything but smooth. I recall an interview with the composer reminiscing about it: He said people booed him out of the concert hall, and he had to leave by a side door, the music so outraged the audience. Today, of course, we accept the ballet as one of the staples of the classical repertoire. Theatergoers at the premiere, apparently used to elegant, refined dance music in their ballets, had no idea what Stravinsky was up to with his savage, often ferocious beats describing some kind of ancient fertility rite. Nor did they understand the choreography of the first performance. The composer subtitled his work "Pictures from Pagan Russia," and one can understand why.

David Bernard
The score's driving rhythms helped shape the path of subsequent twentieth-century music, making Stravinsky not only controversial but genuinely revolutionary. The question these days is how to approach it in the twenty-first century when practically every conductor on Earth, including Stravinsky himself, has already had his or her way with it. Certainly, the music's combination of lyrical charm, fire, and passion needs to come into the equation, and this is where Maestro Bernard does his thing. He and his crew put in a fine, passionate performance reminiscent of one my favorites with Leonard Bernstein (who described the music as "a kind of prehistoric jazz") and the New York Philharmonic. Maybe Bernard doesn't displace Bernstein in my affections, but he gives him a good run.

Anyway, in Part One: The Adoration of the Earth, we get an atmospheric Introduction and Augurs of Spring, with well-developed rhythms that never seem merely like a series of starts and stops. Still, under Bernard the opening seems a trifle hurried and not quite so magically ominous as with Bernstein. Then the pulsating sections of the pagan rituals begin and Bernard's insistent forward momentum pays off. We know from the outset this is going to be a more exciting performance than an airy one.

In Part Two: The Sacrifice, Stravinsky presses forward, quietly building the atmospheric suspense until the pulse of the music reaches a hectic crescendo. Again, Bernard dispenses with some of the more aerial qualities of the music to get on to the passion and fervor of the piece. Here, he does a fine job creating and maintaining the music's savage beats, and the audio engineers uphold their part with highly dynamic sound.

The inclusion of Stravinsky's 1919 suite from his dynamic fairy-tale ballet The Firebird makes an attractive coupling. Bernard and company bring the same sense of urgency to the performance they did with The Rite, but they complement it with greater feeling and a smoother flow. And as always the orchestra is highly responsive to Bernard's direction. I actually enjoyed the conductor's handling of the suite better than I did The Rite.

A minor annoyance: While the folks at Recursive Classics provide timings for each of the various sections of The Rite, they could have numbered the tracks. If you're looking for a particular selection, it's difficult to find the one you want without a numbering system for the disc.

Audio engineers Joseph Patrych and Antonio Oliart recorded The Rite of Spring in February 2015 and The Firebird Suite in January 2017 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City. It becomes immediately apparent in The Rite that the sound is realistically deep and dimensional, with excellent clarity and strong definition among the instruments. The high midrange can be a tad strident at times, but most of the frequency range is fairly natural sounding. Combined with a good degree of dynamic impact and a fairly wide response, the resultant sonics are impressively thrilling. The sound in The Firebird, recorded almost two years later, seems to my ears more realistic than in The Rite--warmer, rounder, softer, smoother, yet just as dynamic.


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

Apr 25, 2018

Sibelius: Karelia Suite (CD review)

Also, The Oceanides; Finlandia; Valse triste; Tapiola; Nightride & Sunrise. Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra. RCA 09026-68770-2. 

To cap his complete Sibelius symphony cycle, the late Sir Colin Davis gave us big, sweeping interpretations of some of the composer's most-famous tone poems. And RCA provided audio to match. The warmhearted readings are born of years of experience and maturity, and while they may not provide the utmost in excitement, they do conjure up fairly appropriate images and feelings. 

Frankly, however, none of the interpretations individually would be among my absolute first-choice recommendations, though collectively they make a decent-enough package. The Karelia Suite is more regal and more stately than one usually hears it, but I prefer Sir John Barbirolli's more incisive rendering (EMI). The Oceanides is flavorsome, but it's hard when listening to it not to think of Sir Thomas Beecham's celebrated recording (EMI), and Davis again ends up second best.

Sir Colin Davis
Finlandia comes off grandly, filled with imposing gestures, yet it, too, lags one step behind Vladimir Ashkenazy's more overtly dramatic realization (Decca). And so it goes. Probably the best performance on the disc is the concluding one, Nightride & Sunrise, which Davis fills with all the moody contrasts this dark, woodsy, naturalistic piece demands.

Producer Michael Bremner and engineer Tony Faulkner recorded the music between 1992 and 1998. The resultant sonics are of the warm, weighty variety, sometimes billowy yet overall subdued. The sound nicely complements Davis's broadly relaxed style in the poems, but comparisons to the aforementioned Barbirolli or Ashkenazy make the new disc sound distinctly soft and bland. Turning up the volume doesn't hurt. I also found myself wishing for greater orchestral depth, although the sound is not unlike the ambiance of many large concert halls.

Interestingly, RCA recorded the six pieces on the program in three different locations, yet they sound remarkably alike. Let me just say that if your stereo system tends even slightly toward the hard or strident, the compensating factors of this new collection will suit your needs pretty well.


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

Apr 22, 2018

Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18, Nos. 1-3 (CD review)

Eybler Quartet. CORO Connections COR16164.

For those of you who don't know them, the Eybler Quartet are a unique group of musicians who play historically informed performances on period instruments. Their Web site describes them as coming "together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler. The group plays on instruments appropriate to the period of the music it performs. Violinist Julia Wedman and violist Patrick G. Jordan are members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; violinist Aisslinn Nosky is concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society and Principal Guest Conductor of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Julia and Aisslinn are also members of I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. Cellist Margaret Gay is much in demand as both a modern and period instrument player. The group brings a unique combination of talents and skills: years of collective experience as chamber musicians, technical prowess, experience in period instrument performance and an unquenchable passion for the repertoire."

As of this album, the Eybler Quartet has five albums to their credit, mostly of music by Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal, Backofen, and their namesake, the aforementioned Austrian composer and conductor Joseph Eybler (1765-1846). Here, the Eybler ensemble tackle Beethoven, and, appropriately, they do the first three (Op. 18) of his sixteen string quartets. If you like chamber music and you like Beethoven, there's plenty of both around, but to hear theses early Beethoven quartets played in something approaching what Beethoven himself might have heard (which, given his deteriorating hearing isn't saying a lot), the Eybler group is hard to beat.

The program begins with the String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, the composer's second attempt at string quartet writing (actually composing No. 3 first). Next is the even more scintillating String Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No. 2, followed by the energetic String Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3. Beethoven wrote all three of them between 1798 and 1800 and published them in 1801.

Eybler Quartet
Of course, one has to adjust slightly to the sound of period instruments. They sound not quite so smooth or mellifluous as modern ones. Yet that only increases their uniqueness, and because the Eybler Quartet play in a delightfully energetic and thoroughly engaging style, the instrumental sound enhances the charm of the playing.

Nor should one be hesitant about the Eybler's historical performances. Although the Eyblers adhere to Beethoven's tempo marks, which most traditional readings do not, these are no hell-bent-for-leather dashes to the finish line; they are well-judged, carefully considered, emotionally coherent interpretations that adhere to the composer's intentions while giving rein to the group's individual character.

So what we have in the Eybler renditions are authentic (or as close as they can get), lively, vigorous, sparkling realizations of Beethoven's scores. They move along at a zippy pace yet don't feel rushed or hurried in any way. The group's articulation is always clean, their ensemble always closely unified, the whole always beyond the particular player. The results are most enjoyable, whether in the sublime slow movements or the sprightly fast ones.

Not that it matters, but I enjoyed No. 2 best of all. Despite its hints of Haydn and Mozart, it appears to me the most inventive of Beethoven's first three quartets. Even though you may find other performances more dramatic or more Romantic, the Eyblers do it justice in every way, never sentimentalizing it or overemphasizing contrasts.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Ron Searles recorded the music at the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Ontario in June and July 2015. The sound is among the better I've heard in a chamber or small-group performance. The instruments are a little close, but they are realistically placed across the sound stage, with excellent definition and delineation. What's more important, although they are a bit close up, the instruments are never hard or bright. They sound quite natural, with a shimmer and shine and a warm glow as well, the studio ambience nicely captured.


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

Apr 18, 2018

Bruckner: Mass in F minor (CD review)

Margaret Price, soprano; Doris Soffel, alto; Peter Straka, tenor; Matthias Holle, bass; Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. EMI Classics CDC 7243-5-56702-2.

The late Romanian conductor and composer Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996) must be the least-known famous conductor of the twentieth century. He brought it upon himself: He refused absolutely to record any of his music, believing that sound could only be "lived and experienced in real space." I respect his principles, but as a result he deprived about ninety-nine per cent of the classical music loving world of potentially great performances. So be it. After he passed on, however, his son helped to select a handful of his father's live taped sessions for release. Among the first issues were Celibidache's Bruckner interpretations, for which he was well known. 

Any Bruckner work is characterized by its nobility, its grandeur, and its intense spirituality. No Bruckner offering could be more endowed with these qualities than his Mass in F minor. And these attributes are exactly what Celibidache delivers, using the 1881 Robert Haas edition. In some ways the conductor's approach is similar to his contemporary, Herbert von Karajan. There is always the grand gesture.

Sergiu Celibidache
But I felt a more profound sense of the sublime with this Celibidache recording than I usually get from the more bravura performances of Karajan. Celibidache's timing is that much more sweeping, the hushes more extended, the tempos more expansive. His broad view of things can nowhere be better found than in the big, central "Credo," where we find everything from the quietest whisper of a note to a full, fortissimo chorus, each punctuated with the greatest warmth of expression. 

By the time it's over, one must be in awe of both composer and conductor. But one thing that didn't impress me overmuch was the sound. It is rather antiseptic. There is clarity, to be sure, in this 1990 recording but at the expense of richness and sonority. The upper midrange is bright and often brittle, especially in massed vocal passages. I wouldn't let this deter one from buying the disc, though, if only for the experience of discovering a man so well known and so little heard.


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

Apr 15, 2018

Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 611.

The last time I heard English conductor and violinist Andrew Manze doing Mendelssohn, it was in the First and Third Symphonies, where his propensity for zippy, early music practice produced a pair of exciting but, for me, not entirely persuasive performances. Continuing his Mendelssohn series, here he and the German radio orchestra NDR Radiophilharmonie tackle the popular Fourth Symphony and the more solemn Fifth. Although the disc would not displace my own old favorites, for Mendelssohn fans it might still provide a worthwhile listen.

First up on the program is the Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 "Italian," which Mendelssohn wrote after a trip to Italy and premiered 1833. The first movement Allegro is among the most recognizable of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies. Then, music scholars think that the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired the second-movement Andante. There follows a delicate minuet, and the work concludes with a whirlwind of music reminiscent of the composer's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Despite my initial reservations that Manze's historical-performance inclinations might lead him to tempos at a more robust gait than I like, he actually takes things at a reasonably pleasant, if sometimes exhilarating pace. With well-judged dynamic inflections and an orchestra that seems to follow his every direction, the result in the first movement is as sunny as any, if a tad dark and billowy due to the recording's pronounced ambient bloom.

Manze emphasizes the staccato motif of the second movement at perhaps a headier stride than other conductors often take, yet it seems to fit the strapping dimensions for the piece the conductor envisions. The rhapsodic elements of the third movement come to the fore under Manze, too, and he makes it a welcome contrast to the preceding parade-like passages. Then, the conductor provides a fittingly high-spirited finale that seems only mildly rushed.

Andrew Manze
Compared to the ebullient "Italian" symphony, the Fifth can appear positively grave. Interestingly, the Fifth, finished in 1830, was actually only the second symphony Mendelssohn wrote. However, the composer couldn't complete it in time for a commission and never liked it much, anyway, refusing in his lifetime to allow its publication, which didn't occur until some twenty-nine years after his death. (For those interested, the order of composition for Mendelssohn's symphonies is 1, 5, 4, 2, and 3.)

Mendelssohn's sister Fanny dubbed No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 107 the "Reformation Symphony" because its subject matter celebrated the Protestant Reformation. The composer wrote it, as I said, on commission--for some festivities in Berlin, but ill health prevented him from completing it and he finally premiered it in 1832. After a somber opening movement, the symphony moves to a much-lighter Allegro vivace and a lyrical Andante, all culminating in a finale based on Martin Luther's chorale "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A mighty fortress is our God").

Here, Manze's big-scale yet intimate-feeling approach works quite well. His "Reformation" doesn't have the ponderous dimensions that some conductors seem to impose on it. Instead, it comes out more cohesive, more of a whole, tying the opening movements more closely to the last, giving the little Allegro its sprightly due and the Andante a gentle lilt. It all builds, of course, to that final chorale, which Manze handles splendidly, building and magnifying with a dignified grandeur.

So, could I say that Manze's performance of the "Italian" symphony strikes my fancy more than several of my old favorites? Not exactly. My two favorites (among others) in the "Italian" could not be more different from one another nor more different from Manze's interpretation. They are the recordings by Claudio Abbado in his earlier Decca rendering and Otto Klemperer in his EMI reading. Both continue to strike me as having more sheer joy, zest, and charm than anybody else's. In the "Reformation," though, Manze is no doubt as good as anybody, and his realization should greatly please fans of the work.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Matthias Llkenhans and engineer Martin Lohmann recorded the symphonies in the Grober Sendesaal desNDR Landesfunkhaus in January 2016 and February 2017. They made the hybrid recording for SACD multichannel and two-channel stereo playback via an SACD player as well as two-channel stereo via a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The sound is much the same as Pentatone delivered for Manze's previous Mendelssohn disc, so I'll repeat what I said of it: There is a good deal of ambient reflection around the orchestra, almost too much. The reflections may sound realistic in multichannel, but in two-channel stereo they can be overmuch and somewhat obscure inner detailing. Still, it's not too distracting, and the overall sonic image is impressively dynamic. To be fair, there's enough of a lifelike quality about the sound to satisfy most listeners.

As always with these things, the Pentatone folks do up the disc with a standard SACD case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover. My bewilderment continues, though, over what purpose a slipcover actually serves, but it is a handsome packaging feature, redundant or not. I wish I could say the same for the minimalist design of the album/booklet cover.


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

Apr 11, 2018

Jussi Bjorling: The Ultimate Collection (CD review)

Jussi Bjorling, tenor; with various artists. RCA 74321 43468 2 (2-disc set).

When RCA released one of their sets of Caruso recordings, they labeled it "The Greatest Tenor in the World." Certainly, the fans of Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling (1911-1960) might have a say about that.

This two-disc set of Bjorling recordings is in RCA's "Artists of the Century" line, which also includes the aforementioned Caruso, Leontyne Price, Mario Lanza, and others. The Bjorling set contains twenty selections on the first disc and twelve more on the second for a generous total of 156 minutes, plus an informative set of booklet notes.

Bjorling was in his forties and at the height of his career when RCA made these recordings between 1950-1959, just before his untimely passing in 1960. They demonstrate a voice that is at once strong and robust yet lyrical and soaring. He was able to float a high note sweeter than most anyone on stage and to maintain an amazingly clear enunciation in the process.

Jussi Bjorling
The first disc contains short, popular pieces:  Verdi's "Celeste Aida," "La donna e mobile," Puccini's "Che gelida manina," "Nessun dorma," "E lucevan le stelle," Leoncavallo's "Vesti la giubba," Flotow's "M'appari tutt'amour," that kind of thing. The second disc contains fewer but longer pieces, Puccini's "Mario, Mario, Mario!," Verdi's "Dio, che nell'alma infondere," etc., and both discs give us a few recital pieces by Schubert and Strauss. The highlight of the set may be his live concert performance of "Nessun dorma," done with piano accompaniment and preceded by an enthusiastic request shouted out by an audience member. This live rendering nicely complements his version with full orchestra that the folks at RCA also include. 

Naturally, the digitally remastered audio quality varies from one piece to the next, some done in monaural, some in stereo; but none of it sounds overly compromised by noise reduction. A few of the songs are brighter, rougher, and edgier than others, it's true, but that we should expect. Compared to an earlier collection of Bjorling recordings from the thirties and forties on EMI, the RCA sound is cleaner, clearer, and more open. And, amazingly, the later voice had lost hardly an iota of its youthful vigor.

This must be counted among the best compilations of the great tenor's work on disc.     


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

Apr 8, 2018

Beethoven: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Romances; Schubert: Rondo. James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Manze, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Onyx Classics 4167.

The invention of the violin predates the piano by several hundred years and violins comprise the biggest part of an orchestra; yet from the Classical Period onward, the piano has dominated the concerto field. Maybe that's as it should be, given that so many composers of classical music were also pianists. Nevertheless, the violin hung in there, with the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 being one of the most prominent. It's good to welcome any new recording of it.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes tackles the project this time out. As he is a musician who has always impressed me as levelheaded, elegant, and graceful, he seems just the right fellow for the job. Beethoven wrote his violin concerto in 1806 and premiered it to a surprisingly indifferent response. It wasn't until well after the composer's death that it finally took off and became a staple of the violin repertoire.

Beethoven structured the concerto traditionally, with an expansive opening movement, a serene slow movement, and a sprightly conclusion (with no break between the two final movements). A number of prominent violinists have written their own cadenzas for the work, and Mr. Ehnes uses the popular ones by Fritz Kreisler.

After the fairly lengthy orchestral introduction, which Maestro Andrew Manze handles with a casual command, Ehnes enters exhibiting a sweet, unforced tone that he will maintain throughout the piece. Although Ehnes hasn't quite the stylistic dominance of a Heifetz or a Perlman, he is quite good, especially in his emphasis on contrasts. They are not pronounced to any extreme, but both he and Manze place just enough stress on softer and louder notes, quieter and more tumultuous passages, and shorter and longer pauses to make this interpretation stand out. In other words, even though the tempos are just a tad on the quick side, you'll find enough variation in the performance to keep it fresh without distorting the composer's intentions.

James Ehnes
Needless to say, Ehnes's playing is exceptionally deft. His nimbleness in even the most difficult sections is a joy, clean and clear and virtuosic. This is an imaginative, highly rhythmical, yet charmingly lyrical reading that sweeps one along effortlessly. The second-movement Larghetto is sublime, and Ehnes handles it smoothly and unfussily. His playing is delicate and lilting, his phrasing light and airy; it's as lovely a rendering as any you'll find. Then Ehnes and the orchestra make the transition to the delightfully energetic finale with an easy grace and sustain the high spirits to the end.

For couplings, Ehnes provides Beethoven's Romances for Violin and Orchestra, Nos. 1 and 2 and Franz Schubert's little Rondo in A major. Interestingly, Beethoven wrote the second of the Romances (1798) a few years before he wrote the first one (1802), but because of their order of publication, the latter one gets the earlier number. And it's not even clear why Beethoven wrote them; that is, for what occasion. Whatever, they are highly popular and strongly Romantic. The Romance No. 1 is the slightly more serious of the two, which may have something to do with Beethoven's own development as a composer. In any case, all of the good traits we heard from Ehnes in the concerto we hear again: grace, elegance, refinement, and imagination.

Producer Simon Kiln and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the music at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in September and October 2016. The sound is very natural, the orchestral sonics wide and deep, with no undue spotlighting and a modest room resonance. The solo violin is well integrated with the orchestra, in front but not in our face. The violin, too, sounds lifelike: clear and vibrant but neither hard nor bright. Frequency response is reasonably wide as are the dynamics throughout, so it's realistic recorded sound.

Overall, taking into account performance and sound, this recording must take a place among the better choices one can make in the work. Even though Ehnes and company are in a crowded field, they have made a place for themselves.


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

Apr 3, 2018

Smetana: Ma Vlast (CD review)

Jiri Belohlavek, Czech Philharmonic. Decca 483 3187.

The Czech nationalist composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) wrote his collection of symphonic poems Ma Vlast ("My Country") between 1874 and 1879. The six movements describe his country's beauty and some of its history, the composer dedicating the cycle to the city of Prague, with the first two sections describing some of the sights and sounds of the city.

In the present recording the late Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek (1946-2017) leads the Czech Philharmonic in one of his last recordings, and, given that over the years Ma Vlast has become a sort of national anthem for the Czech Republic, it's a fitting final tribute to the country and its music. Belohlavek had been the Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic for two separate tenures (1990-92 and 2012-17), and he had already recorded the Smetana cycle with the same orchestra (for the Supraphon label) some twenty years earlier. So it is certainly a pleasure to have a Czech conductor leading a Czech orchestra in Czech music. The stuff must have been in their blood.

Anyway, the music begins with Vysehrad (1874), which Smetana named after a castle of Bohemian kings in Prague and the rock that stands there. Belohlavek judges the movement pretty well, and it comes off among the best in the cycle. The rhythms are relaxed, the melodies are lilting, and the climaxes come unforced.

After that is probably the most popular piece, Vltava (1874), which describes a river called the Moldau in German and uses an old Czech folk tune as its principal theme. In Smetana's original program notes, he tells us that the music traces the countryside the river runs through: meadows, forests, even conjuring up water nymphs along the way. Because this music is so famous, though, there are quite a few separate recordings of it, my own favorite being a very leisurely, very lyrical one recorded long ago by Leopold Stokowski and available in a collection of rhapsodies (RCA or JVC). Whatever, Belohlavek's interpretation couldn't be more different from Stokowski's. Belohlavek moves his river along at a brisk, accelerated pace, quicker than most any version I've heard. Nevertheless, the tempos never sound rushed, just curious.

Jiri Belohlavek
Coming next is Sarka (1875), referring to a female warrior in Czech legend who exacts a bloody revenge on the male sex after her lover is untrue. This portion of Ma Vlast ties in with the final two sections in describing Bohemia's fierce struggle for independence, and Belohlavek handles it with appropriate fire and fury. Throughout, the Czech orchestra plays splendidly, richly and passionately.

The next title is rather self-explanatory: From Bohemia's Woods and Fields (1875). Here, we're back to the pastoral pleasures of the countryside where we started. This is another well-judged movement from Belohlavek, although I didn't quite picture in my mind the trees and grasslands as clearly as I have with some other conductors, who seem slightly better attuned to the pictorial aspects of the music. Belohlavek appears more perfunctory about things, bringing off the big central theme pretty well, if a bit somberly.

The two last symphonic poems, Tabor (1878) and Blanik (1879), are interconnected and introduce us to a Hussite war tune (the Hussites were followers of John Huss, who initiated a nationalistic movement in Bohemia in the late fourteenth century), and the mountain where the Hussites retreated before their ultimate fight for liberation. I always think of these final portions of the cycle as the battle sequences, but I have never found them as satisfying as Smetana's preceding music. For me, the concluding movements are a little long, a little noisy, and a little repetitious. Whatever, Belohlavek couples these two final movements seamlessly, making them appear all of one piece, and he ends the work as heroically as anyone.

In the end, I cannot say I prefer Belohlavek's recording to some of my old favorites. If I had to choose, I'd still go with Vaclav Neumann (Berlin Classics), Rafael Kubelik (Supraphon), Antal Dorati (Philips or Newton Classics), Paavo Berglund (Warner Classics), Libor Pesek (Virgin Classics), or Antoni Wit (Naxos). Not that I have to choose, and this new entry is surely at least a contender.

Producers Jeri Gemrot and Dr. Alexander Buhr and engineers Vaclav Roubai and Karel Soukenik recorded the music during opening concerts at the Prague Spring Festival, Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague in May 2014. The result they obtained is mostly good, old-fashioned Decca sound: very clear, very clean, very wide, very big, very compartmentalized, very highlighted, and very one-dimensional. Fortunately, it is also quiet and fairly natural in its tonal response, although a touch hard and glaring in the upper midrange and a little soft and woolly in the mid-bass. Dynamic impact seems a tad muted at times, too, yet quite striking at others. It's all a bit unusual and occasionally distracting.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa