May 30, 2018

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, excerpts (CD Review)

Also, Symphony No. 6. Charles Dutoit, NHK Symphony Orchestra. Decca 458 190-2.

First, a few notes of clarification. After Universal's acquisition of PolyGram, the English and American Decca labels were no longer in conflict. Thus, Decca no longer had to market its product in America under the alternative London title to avoid conflict with the unrelated American Decca label. As of the late Nineties, London Records was no more. Hello, Decca.

This no doubt sent shock waves through the audiophile community, which for the previous half century had sworn that original English Deccas sounded superior to the lowly London products sent to America. Just an observation from decades ago.

Next, Charles Dutoit was for a long time the Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, then became the Principal Conductor of Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra and England's Royal Philharmonic, facts that only struck me a few minutes into the Romeo and Juliet excerpts reviewed here. Something was not right, I said to myself. Then I looked at the jewel box. Part of my concern was related to the orchestra itself not sounding right, not as well upholstered, velvety, or smooth as the Montreal group, and part to the different venue, Tokyo in the Romeo and Juliet, Vienna in the Sixth Symphony. From this first issue with the NHK Symphony in 1999, I can't say I liked the new orchestra or the new sound very much.

Charles Dutoit
The ballet highlights sound, frankly, nondescript. They aren't completely bland, but they have relatively little color or character to them. After such noteworthy interpretations as those from Previn, Maazel, and Leinsdorf, as well as from Dutoit himself in a previous Decca recording with Montreal, these NHK readings seem almost lifeless.

The Symphony No. 6, on the other hand, appears more creatively performed, the bizarre workings of this Romeo and Juliet-cum-Shostakovich piece more vividly contrasted than the excerpts are. The symphony's opening Allegro brings mainly gloom, apparently symbolizing the Russian suffering in the Second World War. The middle movement, a broad Largo, begins in the same mood and then unexpectedly changes to one of mellowness, grace, and then perhaps sweet regret. The final section of this three-movement symphony Prokofiev marked Vivace, and it is, indeed, quick and lively. Its neoclassical exuberance may reflect an expression of relief at War's end, but this portion nevertheless concludes ambiguously. Dutoit succeeds in exacting significance from each passage.

The Decca sonics for the two pieces do not impress one as vividly as did the sound of the old Montreal recordings I was used to. The Romeo and Juliet, which Decca recorded in Japan, appears dark in the midrange, bright and edgy in the highs, and one-dimensional overall. The Symphony, recorded in Austria, seems a tad better. It sounds more flowing  and has better depth. Neither, though, can match the flattering ambiance Dutoit had always received in his Canadian location.

As a sonic reality check, I suggest a comparison of the sound of Dutoit's digital release to that of the simultaneously reissued, forty-year-older Arthur Fiedler recording, "Pops Stoppers," on RCA Living Stereo. Different material but different sonics, too. And no contest. The older disc wins hands down.


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

May 27, 2018

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (SACD review)

Also, Il Riposo per Il S.S., Concerto L'Amoroso, Concerto Il Grosso Mogul. Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque. Channel Classics CCS SA 40318.

For the past twenty-odd years, British conductor and violinist Rachel Podger has been a dominant figure in the fields of period-instruments and historically informed performances. She is a past leader of the Gabrieli Consort and Players and later of The English Concert, plus a guest director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Arte dei Suonatori (Poland), Musica Angelica, and Santa Fe Pro Musica (both in the United States) and as soloist with The Academy of Ancient Music, Philharmonia Baroque, and others. If that were not enough to keep one busy, Ms. Podger is also a professor of Baroque violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and teaches regularly at the Hochschule für Künste, Bremen. Moreover, in 2008, she took up the newly founded Micaela Comberti Chair for Baroque violin at London's Royal Academy of Music and then became professor of Baroque violin at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

And she has also made a ton of recordings. Among them are Vivaldi's La Stravaganza concertos, which won Gramophone magazine's Best Baroque Recording of 2003, and Vivaldi's L'estro Armonico, Opus 3, which won Gramophone's recording of the month for April 2015. So she knows her Vivaldi. The wonder is that it took her so long to record Vivaldi's most ubiquitous work, The Four Seasons, but in this case better late than never.

Ms. Podger conducts from the violin and this time she is working with Brecon Baroque, a small period-instrument ensemble that includes Johannes Pramsohler, violin; Sabine Stoffer, violin; Jane Rogers, viola; Allison McGillvray, cello; Jan Spencer, violone; Daniele Caminiti, theorbo; and Marcin Swiatkiewicz, harpsichord and chamber organ.

The first thing one notices about a group so small is the transparency of the sound. Compared to bigger ensembles in these pieces, Mr. Podger and her players sound eminently clear. Which brings up the second thing one notices immediately: the period instruments. Each of them stands out for the distinctiveness of its sound.

I doubt I need to add anything more about the primary works here, the four concertos popularly known as The Four Seasons by the Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Practically everyone recognizes the little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they comprise the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). While most people no doubt hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set, they cannot easily forget these first four.

Rachel Podger
Apparently, Ms. Podger has made something of a name for herself with previous concert performances of The Four Seasons, so, again, experience pays off. As I said, because of the small number of players involved, one hears a remarkably vivid, transparent sound. Then, there is the sound of the period instruments. Again, because of the small size of the ensemble and the clarity of the sound, each instrument stands out as something special, something unique, and definitely ancient (in a good way).

Perhaps most important, though, is that while Ms. Podger and her company follow historically informed practice, that does not mean they make the music a race to the finish line. You'll find no rushed, frenzied, galloping tempos here. Indeed, the whole production sounds about as leisurely as you'll find most of the time. This is not to say the Allegros are slack, however. No, not at all. In the faster sections, Ms. Podger leads and plays with vigor and conveys an appropriate excitement or high spirits or whatever as necessary. It's just that she never speeds things up or slows them down simply for some ultimate dramatic effect. She does so as the music (and composer) demands.

I especially liked the unhurried simplicity of the "Spring" concerto; the sunny charm of the "Summer" concerto (and its thrilling conclusion); the humor and commotion of the "Autumn" concerto; and the contrasts of trembling cold and cozy warmth in the "Winter" concerto. Ms. Podger and her friends convey the musical scenes with vivid color and picturesqueness.

The other items on the program--Il Riposo per Il S.S., Concerto L'Amoroso, and Concerto Il Grosso Mogul--are ones that Ms. Podger has been performing for years, and again practice makes perfect. Even though these pieces don't leave one with the visual and aural impressions of Vivaldi's "Seasons," they are richly eventful, nonetheless, and Ms. Podger presents them with affection, authority, conviction, and utmost virtuosity throughout.

Producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and engineer Jared Sacks recorded the music at St. Jude's Church, London in October 2017. They made the disc for hybrid SACD playback, so you can listen to it in two-channel or multichannel SACD if you have an SACD player and regular two-channel stereo if you have only a regular CD player. As usual, I listened in the two-channel SACD mode using a Sony SACD player.

The sound is full, clean, and mildly resonant. Thus, we hear a good, lucid response from the instruments while they appear to be in a natural setting. The ambient bloom helps with the production's overall realism, yet it never interferes with the music's clarity. It's a sweet, warm, easy listening sound that puts one in the room with the players.


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

May 20, 2018

Schubert: "Trout" Quintet (CD review)

Also, Piano Trio "Notturno"; Standchen; Ave Maria. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Daniil Trifonov, piano; Hwayoon Lee, viola; Maximilian Hornung, cello; Roman Patkolo, double bass. DG 00289 7570.

What's not to like? You've got one of the world's most-popular virtuosic violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter, in the lead, supported by the equally popular piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov and three soloists from the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation: Hwayoon Lee, viola; Maximilian Hornung, cello; and Roman Patkolo, double bass. Then you've got some of the world's most-popular chamber music, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and several other delightful short pieces.

So, what's not to like? Well, some listeners may love the performance, regarding it as sparkling, while others may see it as a tad too fast and commonplace. Still other listeners may find DG's sound detailed and well focused, while others may see it as too big and close up. Like all things, one must give the recording a listen before forming an opinion about it.

The album begins with the Piano Quintet in A major "The Trout" by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote it in the summer of 1819 while visiting the town of Steyr in the north of Austria. A wealthy music patron in the area, Sylvester Paumgartner, suggested the composer include in the music a set of variations based on his earlier song "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). But apparently few people outside Schubert's friends and family ever heard the finished product in Schubert's lifetime since the work did not see publication until 1829, a year after the composer's death. Nevertheless, today practically every chamber group in the world has played and recorded it.

The work begins with an Allegro vivace, full of gentle good cheer. The second-movement Andante is more sedate and serious than the first movement. The third-movement Scherzo displays a pleasantly youthful playfulness. After that come the celebrated Variations, which mark the "Trout" as somewhat different from other chamber pieces. Here, it's the piano that often stands out, with the violin coming in a close second. Finally, the work ends with an Allegro giusto of high spirits.

Anne-Sophie Mutter
In the first movement, Ms. Mutter and the others must set some kind of record for pacing. Even the period-instrument versions I've heard don't zip along quite so fast. Not that this is bad, but for a piece of music with such charm as "The Trout," you'd think that a more leisurely approach might have been more appropriate. The speed with which Ms. Mutter takes it does, however, give ample display to her talents and an ample demonstration of a quick and lively Allegro.

In the Andante, things slow down appreciably, which is to say, the players take it at more conventional speeds, and it sounds all the more engaging for it. This also gives us a better chance to hear the contributions of all the players without Ms. Mutter dominating the proceedings. The Scherzo displays plenty of zest, although the fun seems a little forced and the whole thing a bit foursquare. The Variations are probably the best part of the show, and even though the players take them fairly fast, they exhibit a genuine delight. The expressive dynamics, contrasts, and pauses contribute to this effect. Then, in the Finale Ms. Mutter and the group appear warmer and more affectionate than in most of the preceding movements, and it comes off nicely.

Because there must be hundreds of different recordings of "The Trout," the listener has a multitude of choices. My own preferences include the sweetly lyrical one by the augmented Beaux Arts Trio (Pentatone or Philips), the spry period-instrument version by Jos Van Immerseel et al (Sony), and others by the Hagen Quartet (Decca), Sir Clifford Curzon (HDTT or Decca), the Nash Ensemble (CRD), Alfred Brendel (Philips), and many others. How does this one by Ms. Mutter and company stack up? It's fine and will no doubt please Ms. Mutter's fans, but I wouldn't personally put it at the top of my list of recommendations. The competition is just too strong, and Ms. Mutter and friends sound just a bit too commonplace for my liking, despite the alacrity of their playing.

In addition, the album includes three short works: The Piano Trio n E flat major "Notturno" and two arrangements for violin and piano of Standchen D957/4 ("Leise flehen meine Lieder") and the ever-popular "Ave Maria." Lovely.

Executive producer Ute Fesquet, producer and engineer Bernhard Guttler, and engineer Philip Krause recorded the music for Emil Berliner Studios at Baden-Baden, Festspielhaus, in June 2017. In the quintet and trio the instruments are spread widely and closely across the sound stage, with the piano set somewhat farther back than the strings. It's not an unrealistic image but one slightly bigger than I expected. The instruments sound rich and warm, never bright or edgy. No serious complaints.


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

May 16, 2018

Haydn: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Also, Boccherini: Cello Concerto in B flat. Jacqueline du Pre, cello;  Daniel Barenboim, English Chamber Orchestra; Sir John Barbirolli, London Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646404155.

Perhaps owing something to the popularity of the 1998 movie about the English cellist Jacqueline du Pre, Hilary and Jackie, her old record company, EMI, re-released more of her work in the late 90's, giving her music a deserved new lease on life. After Ms. Du Pre's tragic death in 1987, her legacy could have been lost to all but the most avid music lovers. Thanks to EMI, however, and now Warner Classics, her Haydn and Boccherini are remastered and sound better than ever.

Her style in these pieces is, as always, sweetly expressive, warmly lyrical, broadly passionate, and I daresay by today's standards a little old-fashioned. Certainly, that's the way the music comes off compared to the less-adorned period-instrument renditions so much in vogue these days. She is best in both of the Haydn slow movements, where her natural affection for the music and for her instrument shine through effectively. The finale of the first concerto is a delight, too, full of youthful intensity and exuberance.

Jacqueline du Pre
The Boccherini is another story, through no fault of Ms. du Pre. In its familiar late-Romantic Grutzmacher arrangement, any resemblance between this piece and Boccherini seems purely accidental. It is so lushly orchestrated it could hardly be called Boccherini, and Ms. du Pre plays it in appropriate nineteenth-century fashion--long winded and luxuriant. There is nothing wrong with this approach, of course; it's just, again, a tad old-fashioned, and I'm happy for it.

The remastered sound of the first Haydn concerto and the Boccherini, recorded with Ms. du Pre's husband Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra in 1967, is ultra smooth and adequately revealing. It is not so clear, however, as either of the newer releases I reviewed at about the same time from Ha-Nah Chang and Giuseppe Sinopoli (EMI) or Steven Isserlis and Roger Norrington (RCA), although it is closer to the Chang in performance and closer to the Isserlis in audio quality.

The sound in the second Haydn concerto, recorded a few months later with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra, is very slightly better defined. None of this matters much as the ear adapts quickly to the beauty of the playing rather than obsessing with any sonic imperfections. Besides, unless you were to put on the other discs as I did for direct comparison in two identical-sounding CD players, you would find little fault in the sound of the older Du Pre recordings. As usual, Du Pre gets my wholehearted endorsement.


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

May 13, 2018

Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (CD review)

Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

The late Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (1933-2014) was an enormously prolific musician, recording as music director of the La Scala Opera orchestra, the London Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna State Opera orchestra, the Lucerne Festival orchestra, the European Union Youth Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic. It's a wonder he had time to breathe.

In any case, as you might guess, he recorded some material more than once as he went along, including Mendelssohn's two most-popular symphonies, Nos. 3 and 4. First he did them for Decca in 1968 and then for DG in the mid 80's, both with the London Symphony. For good measure, he did No. 4 yet again for Sony with Berlin in the mid 90's. What we have in the present disc is a recent transfer of the Decca recordings of Nos. 3 and 4 from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), and because I have always preferred these earlier Abbado recordings to his newer ones, I welcome the HDTT transfer wholeheartedly.

German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 in 1842, the last of five symphonies he wrote, despite the numbering. He called it his "Scottish" symphony because he started writing it over a dozen years earlier after a visit to Scotland. It doesn't actually sound all that Scottish, though; it's more like a brief, musical impression the composer got of the country, an impression he expanded over the years.

The music begins with a lyrical opening movement, picks up steam with an infectious Scherzo, then a liltingly graceful Adagio, and a vivacious finale. Maestro Abbado and the London Symphony add a zip and flair to the music, an energy that most other conductors only hint at. Although he doesn't exactly skip over the more-poetic aspects of the music, he tends to emphasize the sparkle and pizzazz more. Abbado's realization of the score is one that keeps the listener involved at all times.

This is not to say, however, that I favor Abbado's reading over all others. My own number-one choice continues to be an even older recording (1960) by Peter Maag, also with the LSO. Maag seems to capture the charm and delight of the music better than any conductor before or since. But not to worry: HDTT have it covered, too, with their own excellent transfer of the Maag recording.

Claudio Abbado
Mendelssohn premiered his Symphony No. 4 "Italian" in 1833 after a trip to Italy, but he never published it in his lifetime. The first movement Allegro is probably the best-recognized of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies, filled with sunny good cheer and zest. For the second-movement Andante, music scholars think the many religious processions Mendelssohn saw in Rome may have inspired him. Then, the composer gives us a delicate minuet, followed by a conclusion of whirlwind proportions and a glitter reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Here, too, Abbado provides a fresh, dynamic, invigorating approach, with the conductor giving the music's more openly exciting moments perhaps a little greater weight than the more sensitive ones. In both symphonies the London Symphony plays with a uniform spontaneity and spotless ensemble.

So, would I recommend Abbado's "Italian" over all others? Again, not quite. His recording is good, but I'm happy with it as a companion, a complement, to Otto Klemperer's 1960 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). Klemperer takes a more leisurely approach to the score but one that to my ear captures more of the bright Italian landscape.

Decca Records producer John Mordler and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the symphonies in February 1968 at Kingsway Hall, London. HDTT transferred the music from a 15ips 2-track tape in 2017.

But here's the thing. It was just back in 2007 that the Decca folks themselves re-released the music in a 96kHz/24-bit remastering. So the question now is which to buy. On the one hand, you may find the Decca remastering very slightly clearer, better focused, but you may also find it a touch harder sounding and a bit more difficult to find as Decca have apparently removed it from the catalogue. On the other hand, you may not think the HDTT transfer sounds much different from Decca's own, and you'd be right. In a level-matched comparison using two separate machines, I could hardly tell the difference. More important, you'll find the HDTT product more readily available in a variety of formats on disc or digital download.

Anyway, the sound (be it from HDTT or Decca) is big and bold in the old Decca tradition. There's a good deal of room ambience from Kingsway Hall, which lends a note of reality to the recording. Depth perception is moderately good, and instrument detailing is fine, if a tad rounded in the spacious environment. You get imaging typical of the era, too, a tad close-up and compartmentalized, with excellent left-to-right stereo spread. It all works out and offers a fairly natural representation of a concert hall sound.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


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

May 9, 2018

Respighi: La Boutique fantasque (CD review)

Also, Impressioni brasiliane. Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Decca 289 455 983-2.

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), celebrated mostly for his collections of tone poems like The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome, and The Festivals of Rome, he also created the music for the delightful ballet composite La Boutique fantasque (or "The Magic Toy Shop"), based on lesser-known tunes by Gioacchino Rossini and premiered in 1919. The music makes a splendid impression under conductor Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony.

La Boutique fantasque has a built-in charm. How can one not like a ballet that brings toys to life after the toy shop closes? My comparison in the work was the equally well played recording by Richard Bonynge, an early digital release (1982) also from Decca (which I listened to on a London CD). Dutoit brings a gentler, more delicate quality to the score than Bonynge, which may or may not please all listeners while certainly making the work easy to listen to.

Charles Dutoit
But it's in its sonic properties that the new disc scores over its older rival. Dutoit's orchestra sounds smoother, buttery smooth, in fact, more dynamic, and, most important, better imaged. There is a depth and breadth to the orchestral arena that makes the Bonynge effort sound positively one-dimensional. Dutoit's acoustic is natural and alive, preserving detail and clarity within a subtly reverberant ambiance.

Of course, Dutoit and Bonynge aren't the only conductors to have recorded the work. There are also fine releases from Arthur Fiedler (RCA), Ernest Ansermet (Decca), Andrew Davis (Sony), Antonio Janigro (Vanguard), Gianandrea Noseda (Chandos), Neville Marriner (Philips), Marzio Conti (CPO), Eugene Ormandy (Sony), and many others. So the field is still wide open.

Dutoit's coupling, Respighi's Impressioni brasiliane, seems surprisingly refined for a composer so often thought of for his vigorous color. The piece is almost sedate in its understatement but, frankly, doesn't capture a whole lot of Brazil's traditional spirit until the final movement.

Overall, though, Dutoit's La Boutique fantasque is undoubtedly among the best recordings available of it, surely one of the best sounding, and its companion piece makes it an even better value.


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

May 6, 2018

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2. Denis Matsuev, piano; Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra. Mariinsky Label SACD MAR0599.

The good news is that Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and the Russian Mariinsky Orchestra (formerly the Kirov Orchestra) put in good, red-blooded Russian performances of good, red-blooded Russian music.

The bad news (for me) is that the Mariinsky Label recorded the music live, which I almost never find as natural sounding as music recorded without an audience where the engineers are free to place their microphones in the most ideal spots for realistic playback in the home. Of course, I understand the need for most orchestras these days to record live, what with the high cost of studio recordings. In essence, the record companies let the audience subsidize the expense. But I also understand that many conductors simply prefer to record live, feeling it best captures the feeling and spirit of the moment. Whatever, I lament the passing of really good studio jobs.

Denis Matsuev came to prominence when at an early age he won the eleventh International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a competition that began in 1958 and has been held every four years since. This competition has produced quite a few prominent winners, beginning with the first winner, American Van Cliburn, and continuing with Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogdon, John Lill, Andrei Gavrilov, Mikhail Pletnev, Barry Douglas, Daniil Trifonov, and many more. Matsuev's win in 1998 lead to a successful career in concert halls around the world.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 in 1901 after he had undergone hypnotherapy. The failure of his First Symphony apparently so disturbed him that he feared he'd never write another note of music, so he decided he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy seemed to do the trick as the Concerto No. 2 became an immediate success.

Matsuev and Gergiev handle the opening movement in appropriately weighty, vociferous style, perhaps emphasizing the big emotional outbursts over the more sweepingly lyrical, rhapsodic ones. In the serene second movement, Matsuev and company tend to rush headlong with seemingly little interest in conveying any dreamlike qualities. Certainly, the pianist displays a great deal of virtuosity, but it's sometimes at the expense of the music's feeling. Then comes that glorious finale, where Rachmaninov reintroduces the familiar themes he played with in the previous two movements. Here, Matsuev's tendency toward skillful technique over delicate sensitivity pays off, and he and his fellow musicians provide an appealingly brawny conclusion to the work.

Dennis Matsuev
For a coupling, Matsuev (or Gergiev or the producer or whomever) chose the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninov's fellow Russian contemporary, composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Although Prokofiev completed the score in 1913, it was lost in the Russian Revolution, and he had to rewrite it in 1923. When he finished it (again), he claimed it was "so completely rewritten that it might almost be considered No. 4." At its premiere in 1924, some audience members loved it, while others found it too raucous, too grating, too modern. "The cats on the roof make better music!" said one concertgoer.

Whatever audiences thought about the piece almost a hundred years ago, today's audiences have pretty much come to accept the music as a piece of the standard classical repertoire. Moreover, the music seems to fit Matsuev's style of playing even more than the Rachmaninov. The pianist gets plenty of chances to show off his immense talents, and he can be dazzling (that little second-movement Scherzo is a blast, and the sardonic Intermezzo comes off splendidly). It's a solid, sensible approach all the way around, with no cats on the roof.

Producer, engineer, and editor Vladimir Ryabenko recorded the concertos live at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia in June 2016. He did so in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for playback in hybrid SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) multichannel and two-channel stereo. As usual, I listened in two-channel SACD.

As we might expect from a live recording, it sounds fairly close up, and the orchestra players seem all on the same plane (with little dimensionality). The piano sounds good, though, rich and warm, if a little too wide across the stage. Unfortunately, the orchestral forces tend to fog over a bit and appear both congested and constricted in louder passages. I'm not sure if listening in multichannel rather than two-channel would help rectify this situation. Nevertheless, the bulk of the audio is fine, with decent dynamics and a reasonably extended frequency response.

Oh, and for those of you worried about audience noise at this live recording, there is none. Backgrounds are dead quiet, and the engineer has thankfully edited out any obtrusive applause.


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

May 2, 2018

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Also, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Incidental Music. Heather Harper, Janet Baker; Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. EMI Classics CDM 7243 5 67038 2 7.

I love reissues. They're so easy. They take the suspense out of buying music; you know when you're buying something you like. Klemperer's Mendelssohn, for instance, recorded in 1960, is something to like.

It may seem ironic that a man with Klemperer's reputation for dealing with massive constructions in massive sound should be equally at home in music so delicate and airy as Mendelssohn's, but it's true. Klemperer could be remarkably sensitive in the music of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, and Mozart as well as the more monumental productions of Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner, and Mahler. The fact is, you will not find a more relaxed Mendelssohn Fourth Symphony on record than Klemperer's. The first movement is sunny and light rather than viscerally exciting. It reflects the sunny, southern Italian shores rather than the high mountains of the north. If you want excitement, stick with Abbado (HDTT, Decca, or the later DG). Klemperer's handling of the second movement flows gently along, smoothly integrating with a graceful third movement minuet. Then his fourth movement bursts forth into as joyous a finale as you will find anywhere.

Otto Klemperer
The coupling is doubly apt because never before have I heard a stronger connection between the Fourth Symphony and the Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Under Klemperer's direction, the tempos, the phrasing, the overall mood, are all conveyed with the same remarkable cordiality. It is as if one were a natural extension of the other, the symphony made to sound more like the fairy music of Shakespeare's creation than under any other conductor. Well, Klemperer had already had a lifetime of playing the Midsummer Night's Dream music, which he considered one of his favorite works when he recorded it here, so I suppose practice makes perfect. Only Previn's rendering, also on EMI (now Warner), is as good, with its more complete score and even smoother sound. 

The Klemperer sound, though, is vintage EMI and vintage Walter Legge, the producer who was such a stickler about everything. Sonically, there is little difference between this remastering of the Fourth Symphony on this "Klemperer Legacy" reissue and EMI's earlier mastering of several years before. It remains a tad thin and bright but exceptionally clean and clear, with excellent stage depth. The percussion, timpani, cymbals, etc., which belong at the rear at the orchestra, really are at the rear of the orchestra.

Previously, in order to get both of these Klemperer recordings, you had to pay for two separate discs. With this particular reissue, you get two great performances coupled together on a single, mid-priced release that must be counted an incomparable bargain. How I love reissues.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa