Aug 29, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" (CD review)

Heidi Grant Murphy and Petra Lang, soloists; Andrew Litton, Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Delos DE 3237 (2 CDs).

Mahler's Second Symphony "Resurrection" was his first really massive work, not only long but incorporating the talents of a large orchestra, soloists, and chorus. Such size became his eventual trademark, the quintessential "big, Mahler symphony." In order for any new recording to do it justice, the performance must stand up to at least two towering predecessors, those of Otto Klemperer and Sir Simon Rattle, both on EMI. Klemperer imparted a feeling of monumental grandeur to Man's triumph over death, while Rattle provided an even greater sense of spirituality in the process. Andrew Litton does not ascend these lofty peaks without the difficulty of comparison; he comes off second best.

For me, Litton is in trouble from the beginning. He takes the opening Allegro, a signature funeral march for Mahler, much too slowly. Certainly, a funeral dirge should be solemn, but it should never drag. This one dawdles along at what seems an interminable pace without much recourse to any punctuation of lines; there is little sense of drama or scope in the reading of this initial movement. Then things improve. Litton gives the three middle sections a more affecting treatment, never mind that the second segment, a Landler or slow waltz, as Mahler wrote it seems worlds apart from the rest of the work's symphonic content. The soloist performs well in the fourth movement, the famous "Urlicht" song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The major letdown, however, is in the finale, which has nothing like the elation and exaltation it demands. Rather, Litton just seems to let the music fall as notes from a page; it's not lifeless but not exhilarating, either, in spite of a full chorus, soloists, and organ thundering behind the orchestra. 

Andrew Litton
Delos present the symphony with their Virtual Reality processing, whereby the music was originally recorded in multiple channels and mixed down into two for playback either on regular two-channel stereo equipment or in various multichannel formats like Dolby Pro Logic. I did not try it in surround mode as my multichannel home theater system is not really up to the musical standards of my separate stereo music system. I rather suspect, though, that some of the sound's thicker qualities in regular playback are due to its abundance of multiple resonances.

Anyway, Delos recorded the symphony live at the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton H. Myerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas in September 1998. The sound they obtained is quite natural in frequency response and smooth in all extremes, but it lacks the overall clarity of the much older Klemperer disc I've mentioned. The chorus in the finale of the Delos, for example, sounds like a soft blur. Like many recordings of the Second, this one is spread out over two discs, with the first movement on disc one. (Klemperer is complete on one disc, another point in his favor.) But the turnover is not as inconvenient as one may think, considering that Mahler himself recommended a five-minute break at this point. Delos offer an unusually high number of tracking points within each movement, especially helpful in a work so long.

Surely, the peoplel at Delos were aiming for spectacle with their Virtual Reality recordings, and just as surely they achieved it. They have also offered some of their things on DVD, although I have not heard their fully discrete discs in the multichannel medium.


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

Aug 26, 2018

Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major (CD review)

Orchestrated and conducted by Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6364.

Wait a minute. The title says Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 2. What's with the English Symphony Orchestra? The answer, of course, is that this recording documents Maestro Kenneth Woods's arrangement of the quartet for orchestra. It's a practice that often pleases music fans while annoying purists. Yet it's a practice that many composers followed themselves, rewriting previously published material into new forms. Brahms himself might have orchestrated his own quartet if he had thought of it or had time for it. Who knows.

So, why orchestrate the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 in particular? Maestro Woods tells us in a booklet note that it "contains a generosity of material and spirit that one doesn't often find in his later music." There's also the fact that the quartet is the longest of Brahms's chamber compositions and that it is among his most symphonic. But I rather suspect that Woods probably just thought it would be fun. Fair enough. ("I think it would be fun to run a newspaper." --Citizen Kane)

Anyway, German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26 in 1861, scoring it for piano, violin, viola, and cello. Like most symphonies, it comprises an opening Allegro (non troppo), a slow Poco Adagio, a quick Scherzo: Poco Allegro, and a closing Finale-Allegro. So, yes, you can see the symphonic development.

The question is how the music, originally intended for so few instruments, holds up when transcribed for some tenfold or more players. The answer (again, for anyone but the purist) is, pretty well. As we might figure, the result of hearing a newly orchestrated piece is at once familiar yet different. Admittedly, it had been many, many years since I last heard the quartet played as a quartet. (Although I no longer have it, I think my last listening might have been an LP with William Primrose in the ensemble.) Still, there was enough Brahms in Woods's reworking to remind me that this was, indeed, Brahms, while at the same time providing a completely fresh feel.

Kenneth Woods
Naturally, it helps that Maestro Woods has the full measure of the music. Well, he ought to since he orchestrated it. It's not quite like hearing music played by the composer himself, but it's close. Mostly, though, it helps that Woods doesn't try to enhance the music further with any flashy conducting gymnastics. Pretty much we get Woods at the podium and not a HIP, period-instruments whiz trying to flash through the score in record time. And it helps that the English Symphony Orchestra is a well-disciplined group that seems perfectly comfortable with Woods's direction. Together, conductor and orchestra ensure a rewarding experience.

The opening Allegro at about seventeen minutes is the longest movement in the work. Woods takes it at an easy, graceful pace, the melodies flowing freely and effortlessly. The slow movement follows seamlessly, building on the bucolic atmosphere created in the previous section. Yet, under Woods there is a melancholic tone as well, compounded by a touch of pain. The fast movement is hardly that, at least not with Woods. It's just as gentle as the preceding parts, if at an obviously quicker tempo. Nevertheless, it builds steadily to a strong, vigorous head. Brahms ends the work in high fashion, with a Gypsy-like flourish, and Woods does it justice, both as orchestrator and conductor. It has all the grand yet youthful style you would expect from a Brahms not yet in his thirties.

By the time the work concludes, one has forgotten that the composer intended the music for a quartet. In essence, Woods has created a new Brahms Fifth Symphony.

Philip Rowlands produced and engineered the album, which he recorded at 192kHz at Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Ganarew, England in November 2017. The sound, as I've found from most Nimbus recordings over the years, is admirably lifelike, with just a touch of natural hall ambience. Although you won't find the absolute pinnacle of transparency here, you will get a smooth, detailed presentation in a realistic setting. The sound is warm, reasonably dimensional and dynamic, and pleasantly agreeable. It's just the sort of thing that fits Brahms to a T.


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

Aug 22, 2018

Schubert: Trout Quintet (CD review)

Also Wolf: Italian Serenade; Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Andreas Haefliger, piano; Joseph Carver, double bass; Takacs Quartet. London 289 460 034-2.

I once wrote that there were as many "Trout" recordings in the music world as there were fish in the sea. If I didn't, I should have. Sometimes we wonder why record companies keep releasing the same tired, old stuff over and over again, but in the case of Schubert's "Trout," there is ample justification. This 1999 recording will appear to some listeners as sparkling with freshness and to others as infuriating in its garden-variety plainness. Whatever, it's another interpretation to consider.

With Andreas Haefliger, piano, and Joseph Carver, double bass, the Takacs Quartet take on three popular chamber pieces from Schubert, Wolf, and Mozart. Overall, they do acceptable work, but whether any of the performances are better than old favorites in this repertoire I find doubtful.

The Takacs's take on Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major "Trout" begins more intensely than most, with rhythms well sprung and accents keenly punctuated. It is a far cry from the leisurely but for me more charming "Trout" I reviewed a year earlier by Alfred Brendel and company (Philips). The next two movements appear far more conventional but still fairly expressive. The central set of variations is given some persuasive turns, although in this regard they are not as infectious as those in my favored recording from an augmented Beaux Arts Trio (like the Brendel, also on Philips but also on Pentatone).

Andreas Haefliger
It is in the finale, however, that the greatest controversy may arise. The Takacs ensemble take it much faster than usual, but never breathlessly so. In fact, it seems just right for the moment, and comparisons to the other recordings I've mentioned find those performances almost hopelessly dragging. Of course, they're not. It's the danger of comparisons; taking bits and pieces out of context makes them appear unfairly different. There is obvious charm in taking things slowly, yet the exhilarating pace of the Takacs group creates its own delights. And as for what is actually "right," Schubert's only indication for the last movement is Allegro giusto (cheerful, joyful, usually fast, and fitting or just right), which is a pretty broad tempo marking, allowing for a lot of interpretative leeway. At least we know Schubert wanted something a little fast and lively, and he gets it here, for better or for worse.

As for couplings, Hugo Wolf's diminutive Italian Serenade is a serviceable transition into Mozart's familiar Serenade in G major, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik." The Mozart, too, is given a much more sprightly reading than we commonly hear and combined with the added clarity of a small group makes listening to this piece a fresh, if not entirely rewarding, experience. Again, the approach Takacs takes will annoy those people whose expectations are more traditional, while others will find all three pieces original and more than satisfactory.

When Decca discontinued their London label in America, they repackaged much of their catalogue under the original Decca name, but they never seemed to have gotten around to this issue. Nevertheless, I see a number of London copies still around under the old designation. Anyway, Decca's sound is not always as well defined as I would have liked, but it is well balanced, particularly front to back, and it adds to the disc's enjoyment.


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

Aug 19, 2018

Bye-Bye Berlin (CD review)

Marion Rampal, vocals; Quatuor Manfred; Raphael Imbert, saxophone and bass clarinet. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902295.

In order to give you an idea of the theme behind this album, I quote from the booklet note, which does a better job than I could do: "English writer Christopher Iserwood's fictionalised Berlin memoirs, Goodbye to Berlin, provided the title for the 1951 Broadway play I am a camera, adapted from Isherwood's novel. His stories also later inspired the 1966 musical comedy Cabaret (notably starring Lotte Lenya) and the scenario for Bob Fosse's 1972 film version. Writing after his departure from Berlin in 1933, Isherwood's optical metaphor evokes one of the most striking and characteristic aesthetic principles that influenced all cultural life in 1920s Berlin, that of 'Neue Sachlichkeit,' or 'New Objectivity.' The movement was considered the essence of modernity, as practised and theorized by many artists."

The album Bye-Bye Berlin includes seventeen songs, airs, and lieder from the 1920s Berlin era, composed by such notable persons as Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Hanns Eisler, Friedrich Hollaender, Bertolt Brecht, and others. The French singer-songwriter Marion Rampal (no relation to the Jean-Pierre Rampal) does the vocals, accompanied by the Quatuor Manfred, a quartet made up of Marie Bereau, violin; Luigi Vecchioni, violin; Emmanuel Haratyk, viola; and Christian Wolff, cello; and featuring Raphael Imbert on saxophones and bass clarinet.

Ms. Rampal is principally a jazz singer, with a wonderful range, and does up the songs in both German and French. Her accompaniment is principally a classical quartet, but they adapt nicely to the more-popular rhythms of the jazz-inflected music; and Mr. Imbert is principally a jazz and improvisation artist who provides a strong backbone for most of the scores.

Here's a rundown on the selections:
  1. Kurt Weill: Youkali (from Marie Galante)
  2. Erwin Schulhoff: Chanson (from Cinq Études de jazz)
  3. Kurt Weill: Die Morität von Mackie Messer (from The Threepenny Opera)
  4. Kurt Weill: Barbara-Song (from The Threepenny Opera)
  5. Erwin Schulhoff: Andante molto sostenuto (from First String Quartet)
  6. Paul Hindemith: Ouvertüre from The Flying Dutchman
  7. Arno Billing (Mischa Spoliansky): The Lavender Song
  8. Jan Meyerowitz: Help me Lord (from The Barrier)
  9. Hanns Eisler: Nein (from Kammerkantate Nr. 6)
10. Kurt Weill: Langsam und innig (from String Quartet in B Minor)
11. Kurt Weill: Ballad of a Drowned Girl (from Das Berliner Requiem)
12. Hanns Eisler: Solidaritätslied (from Kühle Wampe, oder: Wem gehört die Welt?)
13. Hanns Eisler: I saw many friends (from Die Hollywood Elegien)
14. Friedrich Hollaender: The Ruins of Berlin (from A Foreign Affair)
15. Friedrich Hollaender: Black Market (from A Foreign Affair)
16. Friedrich Hollaender: Falling in love again (from The Blue Angel)
17. Alban Berg: Die Nachtigall (from Sieben frühe Lieder)

Marion Rampal
The program presents a fascinating and enlightening look at the cabaret scene in Berlin in the 1920's and early 30's. More important, it's well sung and well performed by the jazz and classical artists involved. Ms. Rampal's dark-toned vocals have a kind of longing, melancholy tinge to them, as though trying to make us aware of the hope of an age and, from a future perspective, the horrors to follow. The accompaniment supports her with a mutual compassion, appearing to share the contradictions of the music.

Favorites? As usual, some things struck me as a tad bland, while many others were hard to resist. The opening Kurt Weill song sets the tone for the album. The sorrowful instrumental by Erwin Schulhoff that follows makes a skillful transition into the familiar "Mack the Knife" tune. And so it goes. Listeners who appreciate the musical Cabaret or just listeners who appreciate classical or jazz music will doubtless find the selections of interest.

Finally, an informative, forty-odd-page set of booklet notes in several languages complete the package. Musically and sonically, it's is a worthy treat.

Producer Alban Moraud and the Alban Morand Studio made the recordings at Cite de la Voix, Vezelay, France in November 2016. The voice is nicely placed in the center front, with the ensemble realistically laid out behind her. The frequency balance seems nearly perfect, although the instruments tend very occasionally to overpower the vocals. So, one can hardly fault the sonics, which come through in lifelike fashion.


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

Aug 15, 2018

Alfven: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Festival Overture; The Mountain King; Uppsala Rhapsody. Niklas Willen, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.553962.

Composer, conductor, and violinist Hugo Alfven (1872-1960) was among Sweden's most-popular classical composers of his day, and this Naxos collection presents a well-rounded picture of the man's work. Most of it sounds like late-Romantic fare, with an emphasis on the programmatic.

The selections begin with the Festival Overture, a somewhat blustery, bombastic piece that, nevertheless, makes a good, rousing curtain raiser. So, it works in the capacity for which the composer doubtless intended it. Maestro Niklas Willen and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give it their all, and if one doesn't expect something more substantial, it does its job.

The suite that follows, from the ballet The Mountain King, is more temperate, a series of picturesque tone poems based on old Swedish legends. All four sections of the suite are colorful, the two middle parts the most charming. Overall, though, it sounds for the all the world like second-string Grieg. The Uppsala or Swedish Rhapsody that comes next is a cavalcade of familiar Swedish college songs, including a few drinking songs that the college that commissioned the work disapproved of. It bears a superficial resemblance to Brahms's Academic Festival Overture and comes to a stirring conclusion.

Niklas Willen
The real substance of the disc, however, is Alfven's Symphony No. 1, written in 1897 when the composer was only in his mid twenties. It is a serious work, though not somber. The first movement alternates between light and shadow, between playfulness and dead earnestness. It's hard to find a focus in this opening music, yet it seems to sum up the whole piece. The slow, second movement is overtly Romantic, with lush melodies in abundance. The Scherzo is somewhat too exuberant and becomes tiresome and repetitious. But the concluding Allegro is most engaging, weaving a balletic grace in with its weighty intentions, conductor Willen managing the high-wire act with an appropriate balance.

The sound Naxos provides for the Royal Scottish Orchestra is startlingly real, if a bit dark and heavy. In fact, it's rather huge in size, with a thunderously deep bass impact. The stereo spread is wide; the clarity, in spite of some mid-bass heaviness, is impressive; and the depth of field is more than adequate. This is what some people might have called a stereo spectacular in the old days. Today it's more commonplace to find good, dynamic sonics on a disc; but at a medium a price it comes as a pleasant bonus to some unusual music. Overall, the disc makes a release worth considering.


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

Aug 12, 2018

Ragtime in Washington (CD review)

Michael Adcock, piano. Centaur Records CRC 3639.

First, it might prove helpful to hear an authoritative definition of the musical genre known as ragtime, so here is what the Encyclopedia Britannica says about the subject: Ragtime is a "propulsively syncopated musical style, one forerunner of jazz and the predominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917. Ragtime evolved in the playing of honky-tonk pianists along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the last decades of the 19th century. It was influenced by minstrel-show songs, blacks' banjo styles, and syncopated (off-beat) dance rhythms of the cakewalk, and also elements of European music. Ragtime found its characteristic expression in formally structured piano compositions. The regularly accented left-hand beat, in 4/4 or 2/4 time, was opposed in the right hand by a fast, bouncingly syncopated melody that gave the music its powerful forward impetus.

"Scott Joplin, called 'King of Ragtime,' published the most successful of the early rags, 'The Maple Leaf Rag,' in 1899. Joplin, who considered ragtime a permanent and serious branch of classical music, composed hundreds of short pieces, a set of études, and operas in the style. Other important performers were, in St. Louis, Louis Chauvin and Thomas M. Turpin (father of St. Louis ragtime) and, in New Orleans, Tony Jackson."

On the present recording, pianist Michael Adcock plays a wide-ranging assortment of ragtime tunes, from Scott Joplin to William Bolcom and John Musto. Mr. Adcock's Web site describes him as follows: "Hailed for his prodigious technique and praised by the Washington Post for an 'unusually fresh and arresting approach to the piano,' pianist Michael Adcock has cultivated a versatile career as soloist, chamber musician and pre-concert lecturer. Recipient of the 1998 Lili Boulanger Memorial Award, Mr. Adcock was also a prizewinner in the 1996 Washington International Competition and the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competitions in Chicago and New York. Mr. Adcock gave his Carnegie Weill Recital Hall debut in December of 1998. Mr. Adcock earned Master's, Artist Diploma and Doctoral degrees from Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with Leon Fleisher and Ellen Mack, and was adjunct faculty in theory and chamber music. Mr. Adcock took his Bachelor's degree from Oberlin College-Conservatory and attended secondary school at North Carolina School of the Arts."

Because Scott Joplin considered ragtime a form of classical music and because Mr. Adcock is primarily a classical pianist, it is no wonder that Adcock takes a kind of classical approach to the music. His playing is more subtle, more reserved, more intimate than most other performers I've heard in this genre. It's quite beautiful, but it is also a bit different and, at the same time, refreshing.

The selections on the album:
  1. Scott Joplin (1868-1917): Bethena (A Concert Waltz)
  2. Henry Lodge (1885-1933): Red Pepper Rag
  3. Scott Joplin: The Easy Winners
  4. George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Will Donaldson (1891-1954): Rialto Ripples
  5. Scott Joplin: Palm Leaf Rag
  6. Thomas Benjamin (b. 1940): That Old Second-Viennese-School Rag
  7. William Albright (1944-1998): Sleepwalker's Shuffle
  8. William Albright: Scott Joplin's Victory
  9. William Bolcom (b. 1938): Incinerator Rag
10. William Bolcom: The Brooklyn Dodge
11. William Bolcom: Last Rag
12. William Bolcom: Fields of Flowers
13. John Musto (b. 1954): Recollections
14. John Musto: In Stride
15. Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941): Grandpa's Spells
16. Bob Zurke (1912-1944): Old Tom-Cat on the Keys
17. Scott Joplin: Solace

Michael Adcock
Interestingly, the popularity of ragtime has ebbed and flowed. As the encyclopedia mentioned, its height of favor was from about 1899 to about 1917, the end of the First World War. Then it got pretty much shoved aside by various other kinds of jazz. However, a revival occurred in 1973, thanks to the film The Sting, with Marvin Hamlisch arranging and playing Joplin's music. Hamlisch's single from the soundtrack, "The Entertainer," even became a top-ten hit. The irony is that the movie's time setting was 1936, well after the heyday of ragtime; but it didn't matter. For a while, ragtime was back in the public eye. And then, well, the music sort of faded into obscurity again, so it's good to have Mr. Adcock's new album.

Favorites on the disc? Of course. Since "Bethena" has been well liked for over a century, Adcock leads with it. He presents it in an attractively gentle manner, bringing out the more-plaintive, lyrical waltz characteristics of the music. Likewise is Adcock's handling of the crowd-pleasing "The Easy Winners" takes on a sweeter quality than usual. Then he follows with the more upbeat "Red Pepper Rag," which like Gershwin's "Rialto Ripples" gives the pianist room to rock.

Still, as I say, Adcock's classical leanings may be more than a bit disconcerting to people more attuned to traditionally hell-bent interpretations. For the rest of us, the playing is superb and the renditions charming and affectionate. That's doubly the case for Adcock's reading of Thomas Benjamin's delightful lampoon of Arnold Schonberg via Scott Joplin in "That Old Second-Viennese-School Rag." So, even the modern things from Benjamin, Bolcom, Albright, and Musto come off well. Joplin's "Solace" brings the program to an appropriately tranquil and comforting end.

It's all highly entertaining (and not a little enlightening), which is the whole point of music.

Producer Michael Adcock and engineer David Shoemaker recorded the music at Calvary United Methodist Church, Frederick, Maryland in May 2017. The results are quite good.

First, however, a digression. Many years ago (1982 to be exact), the late Dave Wilson of Wilson Audio had just recorded a pair of albums he called "Ragtime Razzmatazz" with pianist Mark P. Wetch. Dave invited me to listen to the actual piano in the actual location he recorded the albums and then to hear the music in his living room through his big WAMM (Wilson Audio Modular Monitor) super speakers. With my eyes closed, the sound of the real thing and the sound of the recording were pretty much alike, especially as Dave had recorded the piano very close, and when we were listening to the real thing, we were sitting very close.

Now, I mention this because there are similarities between Dave's recording and this newer one from Centaur. Both are fairly close up, and both capture the sound of the instrument in a similar fashion. Dave's recording, though, used a huge, Kroeger "hard-tuned" honky-tonk-sounding upright piano. Mr. Adcock plays a fully restored New York Steinway D from PianoCraft. Big difference. So, yes, Adcock's piano has less obvious ring and reverberation, a softer, mellower, and more precise sound, nicely captured by the sound engineer in a modestly reverberant setting, with a mild fuzz or buzz around the strings. Dave went for an authentic saloon sound; Centaur projects a more classical concert-hall presentation. Both are worthy of the music, which works so well in both mediums.


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

Aug 8, 2018

Organ Spectacular (CD review)

David Briggs, organist. Delos DE 3241.

The sell here is that Delos Records bills the disc as the "Inaugural recording on the world's largest church organ." English organist and composer David Briggs plays the organs (there are two--one in the back of the church and one in front) of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles in six compositions demonstrating the power of the mighty beasts.

Producer and recording engineer John Eargle writes that the Dolby Surround technique he used "enhances the listening experience by reproducing an ambient sound field more closely approaching that of a musical performance in a reverberant space." I have the utmost respect for Mr. Eargle's work, but that "reverberant space" he speaks of needs to be toned down on this recording--way down. The sound is appropriately big all right: big, big, and more big, but it's also soft and distant and somewhat unfocused. I have to admit here that I am not a fan of solo organ music to begin with, so, yes, I'm showing my bias. Maybe this is exactly what the world's largest church organs do sound like in this church. However, it isn't like any other organ recording in my collection, which all sound much more clearly defined in spite of hall ambience; nor is it like any live church organ music I've ever experienced, like, say, the organ of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, with which I'm fairly familiar. Of course, it's only one organ, not two.

David Briggs
Anyway, of the six works performed on the disc, it's hard to tell why Mr. Briggs chose his own improvisations on an old Lutheran chorale, "Ein Feste Burg," to open the program. It is a twenty-three minute work that seems primarily designed to test one's patience. Of course, Mr. Briggs is a noted improviser, at the time of the recording in 1999 a Visiting Tutor in Improvisation at the Royal Northern College of Music, so that may explain it.

The rest of the pieces have more substance, although Briggs's playing is a little conservative, so don't expect the music to come to life as it might have under more-flamboyant (and more-controversial) players like Virgil Fox or E. Power Biggs. So, depending on your preference in organ playing (modest or splashy), you take your chances. For me, Briggs seemed a consummate artist in most of the pieces, although Walton's "Orb and Sceptre" march seemed so forward it was almost deafening yet so distant we have to squint over the crowds to see the music performed; odd.

Be that as it may, Faure's "Shylock: V. Nocturne," Nevin's "Will o' the Wisp," and Vierne's "Pieces de Fantasie: Carillon de Westminster" come off better, especially the latter with its playful takes on the chimes of Big Ben. Then, the program ends with another long piece, Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm, which in four movements has its ups and downs (fortunately, mostly ups). Especially if you're a dedicated organ lover, you'll probably enjoy it. 

I'd have to say this disc is designed mainly for dedicated organ lovers, or for those curious to hear what these particular, really big organs sound like in surround audio; if, in fact, this IS what they really sound like, regardless of the number of channels. Non organ lovers, though, may safely pass.


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

Aug 5, 2018

John Williams: A Life in Music (CD review)

Gavin Greenaway, London Symphony Orchestra. Decca 6738332.

You may remember that I've mused upon this subject before: namely, asking the question, What orchestral music from the mid-twentieth century onward will people still be listening to a hundred or more years from now? As most of the classical repertoire even today is comprised mainly of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music, it doesn't leave a lot of room for most modern material. Then I think of American composer, conductor, and pianist John Williams (b. 1932). Granted, the majority of Mr. Williams's work is in the field of film scores, for which he has won numerous awards, and most listeners probably aren't even aware of his concertos, symphonies, and chamber pieces. But the film scores may be enough; indeed, many of them may already be classics, if not strictly of the classical kind. And when audiences go to an orchestral concert centuries from now, they may yet find the name "John Williams" on the program.

The current album takes its place among a host of such discs that pay tribute to John Williams's most-famous film scores. This one gives us ten of his most-beloved works, conducted by Gavin Greenaway and played by the orchestra that performed most of it for the movie soundtracks, the London Symphony. By now, they must know this material by heart.

The tracks include, as I say, some of the most-popular Williams stuff you can name, selections from Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler's List, Hook, Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, and Superman. It helps that Maestro Greenaway is no stranger to film himself, having conducted the soundtrack music for such things as Pearl Harbor, Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Here, he does up the music of Mr. Williams in find style.

Of course, any John Williams fan is going to have his or her favorites, and mine include the opening number, the familiar Star Wars main title theme. Greenaway plays it with plenty of pizzazz and bravura, so I'm sure Williams would applaud it, too. And one can easily see in it the inspiration Williams got from people like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was no doubt inspired in turn by Richard Strauss, who was probably inspired in part by Franz Liszt, and so on.

The far more-gentle theme from Jurassic Park gets a sweet, unaffected treatment that I appreciated. "Hedwig's Theme" from the first Harry Potter movie is likewise amiable and winning. Then the "Raiders March" takes us back to the daring brilliance of the opening track, a kind of spiritual uplift from an old friend, played by Greenaway with an abundance flourish and panache as well as sensitivity during the quieter moments.

John Williams
And so it goes. The "Flying Theme" from  E.T. has a sprightly cadence; the theme from Schindler's List exhibits an appropriate melancholy, with its longing violin solo; "The Flight to Neverland" from Hook rollicks along at a splendid pace; and the "Hymn to the Fallen" from Saving Private Ryan establishes an elegiac tone. Then, everybody's favorite "Shark Theme" and the heroic "Superman March" close out the show with an imposing flair.

It's all quite a lot of fun, well performed and well recorded. I can't imagine anyone who hasn't seen most of these movies, but even if one hasn't, the music is inspiring and well worth the time. Time and again. The album does have one drawback, though: It's only a little over fifty minutes long, and I'm sure the producers could have found a lot more of John Williams's work worth recording. Still, what we have is good enough.

Finally, as this is a tribute album, for each of the selections a member or members of the LSO say a few words in the booklet notes about Mr. Williams. They are touching remembrances of the work and legacy of a great composer.

Producers James Morgan and Juliette Pochin and engineers Geoff Foster and Tony Cousins recorded the music at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London, UK. Decca Records and Classic FM released the album in 2018. The results of their work sound like a big studio production, and it's exactly what this music needed. Yes, it is big, big, big. Dynamic, wide-ranging, fairly well imaged, with a moderate orchestral depth and a good, balanced stereo spread that leaves no hole in the middle. In short, it sounds like a realistic concert-hall performance, which is what I'd imagine a lot audiophiles look for in a recording, even if it isn't the topmost in ultimate transparency.


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

Aug 1, 2018

Bizet/Shchedrin: Carmen Ballet (CD review)

Also, Shostakovich: Hamlet; Glazunov: Carnaval Overture. Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops Orchestra. RCA HP 09026-63308-2.

This was the first recording I heard in RCA's "High Performance" audiophile series, which they launched in the late Nineties and subsequently abandoned. Their remastering process involved 24/96 bit technology, using a customized Studer transport with Cello electronics and UV22TM Super CD encoding. It all appeared quite impressive, and I'm sure the results sounded better than much of what the company usually produced. But at the time I questioned their choice of material and never fully appreciated their sonics.

Arthur Fiedler conducted the Bizet and Shostakovich pieces vivaciously, to be sure; Fiedler was a highly underrated conductor by the music critics of his day (and maybe ours today). All they could see was that he led a "pops" orchestra, and many of them doubted he could lead a suitable interpretation of anything more serious than pop material. They were generally wrong.

Arthur Fiedler
All three works on the disc get crackerjack performances from Fiedler, especially the Carmen Ballet, in Rodion Shchedrin's quirky arrangement of Bizet's music utilizing nothing but strings and forty-seven percussion instruments. Fiedler's realization is filled with all the color, creativity, irreverence, and sly wit Shchedrin no doubt intended. Likewise with the other selections.

But it was the sound I was interested in when I listened to my first disc in this series. RCA advertised it as spectacularly wide ranging in dynamics and frequency response. When I listened, I found it in a favorable light, yet not much more so than I did any normally good recording. The sound derived from 1968 and 1969 masters, not an era for which RCA was known for its greatest sonics. The music is quiet in background, smooth, and fairly natural in overall response. However, it is also very much multi-miked and flat in its depth perspective.

Frankly, I preferred then and prefer now the sound of RCA's earlier Living Stereo discs, in spite of their occasionally rougher projection and sometimes higher noise level. Nonetheless, for readers interested in the Carmen selection, in particular, one can hardly find a better release.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa