Sep 30, 2018

Ella with the London Symphony Orchestra (CD review)

"Someone to Watch Over Me." Ella Fitzgerald, vocals; James Morgan, Jorge Calandrelli, London Symphony Orchestra. Verve B002729702.

For those youngsters not familiar with Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), I quote from Wikipedia: She "was an American jazz singer sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella. She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, intonation, and a 'horn-like' improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing." She began her career in the 1930's and hit her peak of popularity in the 1940's through 1970's.

Now, here's what makes this Verve Records collection a little different from the many albums, singles, and box sets that have come before it. It's a hybrid. It's one of those digital concoctions that combines older recordings with new ones. In this case, the album takes some of Ms. Fitzgerald's most-famous recordings, cleans them up, and provides them with lush, new accompaniments courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. While it's unfortunate the producers do not provide any recording dates, one may infer that the vocals come the 1950's and the LSO from around the time of the album's release, 2017.

The program's only drawback is that as with so many other pop albums it includes only a dozen tracks. That's less than forty-some minutes on a compact disc capable of carrying twice that amount of material. But I'm quibbling to complain when the results are so good.

Here's a list of the contents:
  1. People Will Say We're in Love (with Gregory Porter)
  2. Someone to Watch Over Me
  3. They Can't Take That Away From Me (with Louis Armstrong)
  4. Bewitched
  5. I Get a Kick Out of You
  6. Misty
  7. Makin' Whoopee!
  8. These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)
  9. Let's Call the Whole Thing Off (with Louis Armstrong)
10. What Is There To Say
11. Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)
12. With a Song in My Heart

Ella Fitzgerald
So, how well does all this hold up? Pretty well, actually. Some listeners may carp about some of the song choices, a purely subjective reaction; others like me may complain about the meager number of selections. Nevertheless, there can hardly be any dispute about the content. Ms. Fitzgerald's voice was at its best: smooth, rich, nuanced, and heartfelt. More important for this particular blend of old and new, the old vocals are seamlessly integrated with the new orchestral accompaniment. Yes, the voice does sound a bit too big and forward, so the imaging is more pop than audiophile. I doubt anyone will notice or care.

Favorites? Of course. The opening number, "People Will Say We're in Love," a Rodgers and Hammerstein song, featuring Ella with Gregory Porter, is wonderfully upbeat. Yet that's followed by an even better number, Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," in probably the best rendition ever given it. Another Gershwin track, "They Can't Take That Away from Me," is made all the more welcome as a duet with the great Louis Armstrong, and for me it's probably the highlight of the program.

And so it goes. Along the way, there are great versions of "Misty"; "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," again with Louis Armstrong that's a delight; and Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." Once more, I just wish there were additional tunes. And I wish the booklet insert had said something more about them. Oh, well....

Verve Records, which Ms. Fitgerald's old manager founded in 1956 and which boasts one of the biggest jazz catalogues in the business, if not THE biggest, fails, as I said, to provide any information anywhere about the original recording dates of Ms. Fitzgerald's vocals. However, they do indicate that the LSO accompaniments were probably done in or around the disc's release date, 2017. Anyway, producers James Morgan and Juliette Pochin made the album for Morgan Pochin Productions and Verve Records. Steve Price recorded the LSO at Abbey Road Studios, London, with some additional solo upright bass and drums recorded by Ben Robbins at Umbrella Sound, London.

The sonics are big and clear in a pop recording sort of way. The voices are well integrated with the orchestra, as I've said, and one might be forgiven for not realizing the vocals and orchestra were recorded some fifty or sixty years apart. The LSO, especially, appears dynamic, well focused, and reasonably transparent. It's a pleasurable accomplishment.


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

Sep 26, 2018

Russian Soul (CD review)

Music of Tchaikovsky, Gliere, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Gedike. Corey Cerovsek, violin; Constantine Orbelian, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Delos DE 3244.

No, we're not talking about rhythm and blues or gospel music here. We're talking about, well, the animating principal of traditional music, particularly of Russian traditional music.

The accompanying booklet to this 1999 Delos release asks the question, What are the most obvious traits of Russian music, with the answer "emotionally intense, melodically rich, often dark in sound and melancholic in mood." That aptly sums up the short Russian works on this disc, with an emphasis on the melancholy.

Constantine Orbelian
American-born Constantine Orbelian (of Russian and Armenian parentage) leads the Moscow Chamber Orchestra (Orbelian being the first American ever to lead a Russian ensemble) in a series of pieces, some familiar, some not, by a variety of Russian composers. Tchaikovsky's "Meditation," Serenade Melancholique," "Elegie," and "Andante Cantabile" will certainly be familiar to most listeners; as will the several bits by Gliere, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, and Shostakovich. But there are also folk tunes like "The Rush Light" and a "Miniature" by Gedike that will perhaps come as new delights. Corey Cerovsek's dramatically plaintive violin is no less a contributing factor to the authority of the program than the Russian players behind him.

Delos's sound, engineered by John Eargle, closely matches the climate of the music. It is warm, smooth, flattering in its soft ambiance, and entirely realistic. Eargle apparently recorded it for optimum playback in surround sound, as the disc is marked a "Virtual Reality Recording." But it is a tribute to the developing technique of multi-channel processing that no evidence of this system is noticeable during regular two-channel stereo listening. There is no shroud of enveloping fog veiling the music as one sometimes hears from this VR recording process. Indeed, the sonics, while not the ultimate in transparency, always appear quite natural.

Altogether, this is a pleasant if somewhat somber recording of mostly soulful, though not doleful, Russian favorites. The good sound is icing on the cake.


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

Sep 23, 2018

Fuchs: Piano Concerto "Spiritualist" (CD review)

Also, Poems of Life; Glacier; Rush. Jeffrey Biegel, piano; JoAnn Falletta, London Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559824.

The contemporary American composer, conductor, and professor of composition Kenneth Fuchs (b. 1956) has been writing music for several decades now and has made over a dozen recordings, five of the last six with JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony. His works include music for orchestra, band, chorus, and various chamber ensembles and differ in genre from classical to popular. More important, for those worried that any modern composer is inevitably going to annoy them with dissonant, discordant, unharmonic, atonal notes they don't understand and don't enjoy, be assured that Mr. Fuchs's music is charmingly melodious and approachable.

The four works represented on the present album are all world-première recordings, the first one, the Piano Concerto "Spiritualist" from 2016 featuring American pianist Jeffrey Biegel and inspired by three paintings by Helen Frankenthaler. The music is fresh and vigorously pursued by Biegel and Falletta. Although it may not have enough in it to make it truly memorable, it has enough flair to pass an agreeable twenty minutes or so. The second, slow movement is particularly graceful and serene in its outer sections, growing more agitated and turbulent in the middle before settling back into a quiet rest. Taken on its own, it might be worth the price of the whole album.

JoAnn Falletta
The second work on the disc, Poems of Life (2017), is an orchestral song cycle for countertenor (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor) and orchestra (including solos by Tim Hugh, cello, and Christine Pendrill, English horn) based on twelve poems by Judith G. Wolf from her book Otherwise. The composer tells us that love, loss, and "emotional transformation" are the themes of these poems. Fans of vocal music will, I'm sure, find them well performed, although I found them mostly too melancholy and depressing for my pedestrian taste.

The next work is called Glacier (2015), a concerto for electric guitar (D.J. Sparr, electric guitar) and orchestra. Fuchs says he based each of its five movements on the natural elements of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. These are powerful reflections, ranging in mood from tranquil to mysterious to majestic, all of them colorful and picturesque. You don't get many (any?) classical concertos for electric guitar, but this one seems to do it justice. It may be a good crossover piece for fans of pop-rock guitar to hear just how versatile the instrument can be. Again, wonderfully entertaining and well executed, with elements of Rodrigo along the way, and probably my favorite complete work on the disc.

The program concludes with Rush (2012), another concerto, this one for alto saxophone (Timothy McAllister, alto sax) and orchestra. It alternates a jazzy, up-tempo, band-like mood with a more bluesy tone. While it's fun if somewhat inconsequential, it does prove the considerable and multiple talents of Ms. Falletta, Mr. McAllister, and the LSO.

Producer Tim Handley and engineer Jonathan Allen recorded the music at Abbey Road Studio 1, London in August 2017. With a shelf full of Grammy awards for producer Handley, and with Abbey Road Studio 1 being like a second home to the LSO, it's no wonder the sonic results are so good. The hall resonance is mild but still pronounced enough to lend the music a lifelike, sometimes enveloping air. The entire experience, soloists and orchestra, appears just a tad close, but with it comes a nice clarity, with percussion especially well rendered. The stereo spread is wide and the depth of image moderate. It's a fine, modern recording.


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

Sep 19, 2018

Bridge: The Sea (CD review)

Also, Enter Spring; Summer; Cherry Ripe; Lament. Sir Charles Groves, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI CDM 7243-5-66855-2.

The English composer, violist, and conductor Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was one of England's principal pastoral composers in the years just preceding and just following World War I. Although Bridge was to become more modernist as time went on, his music nevertheless remained largely harmonic and impressionistic.

Bridge's early tone poems, represented here, are excellent examples of early twentieth-century English pastoral writing. Yes, his work would become increasingly more complex and troubled over the years, yet Bridge wrote these pieces, as we see by their descriptive titles alone, to reflect a serene, natural beauty.

Sir Charles Groves
The Sea, from 1910, is probably his most famous and most-popular work, a composition clearly influenced by Debussy's La Mer of a few years earlier. Likewise, in Summer, Cherry Ripe, and Lament, from 1914-1916, one can hear echoes of contemporary English composers Arnold Bax and Frederick Delius. Enter Spring, from 1927, the latest composition date on the disc, is the most mature work included, not just in its year of completion but in its level of development. It is still pastoral in style and relatively tranquil, but it shows a marked increase in orchestral color, contrast, and elaboration. 

Although I have not heard every recording of these works ever committed to disc, I cannot imagine there being any finer renditions, interpretively or sonically, than these from Sir Charles Groves and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Sir Charles delivers performances of the utmost care and affection, and the Liverpool players perform them with supreme confidence.

Producer John Willan and balance engineer John Kurlander recorded the music at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool in July 1975. They provide sound that is full, refined, well balanced, and wholly convincing. It sets off a most-pleasing collection.


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

Sep 16, 2018

Ecosse Maestro MA2 Interconnect Cables (Cable review)

Ecosse Reference Cables. The Stables@The Countryhouse, Kilmarnock, Scotland KA3 6EX (

By John J. Puccio

What? I hear you say: Why is Puccio reviewing a piece of hardware? And a controversial part of the hardware chain at that, a pair of interconnect cables. I thought he was a music-only man. Reasonable enough. But it is the hardware that allows us to hear the recording, so the equipment seems fair game. Besides, I decided it was time for a change, and what better a change than a pair of audio interconnect cables.

Again, I hear you asking: Why audio cables? I mean, everybody already knows that cables either (1) make all the difference in the world in the sound of a hi-fi system or (2) make no difference whatsoever. No, there aren't many people in the hi-fi or audiophile world who hold a neutral position on the topic. You're either in the cable camp or you're not; you either believe or you don't.

Let me tell you a brief story that may explain where I stand on the subject. A long time ago, maybe thirty years or more, an audiophile friend of mine decided to do a cable shoot-out at his house. He invited about a dozen of his audiophile buddies and me (I was never an audiophile; I couldn't afford it) to bring their favorite audio cables to a comparison test using his Sound Lab electrostatic speakers. He asked me to bring the cheapest pair of cables I could find so we'd have a solid contrast. I went to the nearest Radio Shack and bought a pair of their least expensive models, while the other guests brought some quite fancy (and quite expensive) stuff, including several people who owned their own cable companies, making and selling their own exotic products.

We spent the evening doing blind tests, writing notes, and not discussing anything until we had heard all the cables. Then we each rank ordered our picks, and my friend added up the scores. Remarkably, all of us at the event picked the same three cables as best; not in the same order, mind you, but the top three cables appeared on all of our lists as numbers one, two, or three. Just as remarkably, three more, different cables appeared at the bottom of everyone's list, one of the bottom three being the Radio Shack pair I had brought. It was also interesting that among the top three cables was a pair that a man had built himself by picking out a Belden cable on specs alone from a catalogue of about a million Belden cables. He fastened on two pair of gold ends that must have cost him ten times the price of the cable, and the result sounded so good that afterwards I made up a pair for myself and used them for years. (Later, moving my equipment to another cabinet necessitated longer cables, and by then I couldn't remember the Belden cable number or the name of the guy who built them, so I went with a good, popular cable brand of the day.)

Whatever, here's the thing: Some years after that, I wrote up the story of the shoot-out for a magazine I worked for at the time, telling the story pretty much as I explained it above. In the next issue, a colleague took me to task. The fellow writer said, basically, that all of us at the shoot-out were wrong, that we must have all been hallucinating, that there were absolutely no differences in the sound of one cable and another, that a cable was a cable, and that we were all hearing things. Yes, people get awfully worked up about interconnect cables, taking sides as though hi-fi were politics or religion. Or something really important like Star Wars movies.

Still, I heard what I heard that night, and so did twelve or so other people. As a result, I have tried to keep an open mind about the subject ever since. And, thus, we come to the present comparison, started more out of curiosity than anything else.

I decided after all these years to try out new connecting cables between my main CD player and my preamp. I wasn't about to attempt a full-blown cable shoot-out (which I would never have been able to do anyway, the logistics being darned near impossible). I just wanted to see if a modern interconnect of good repute would sound better than the good (and best-selling brand) I had used for years. I also realized there were hundreds of companies making "audiophile" cables, with each company making a host of different models. No shoot-out could possibly be comprehensive. So, I started by researching what other people knowledgeable on the subject had said, and found the Ecosse company of Scotland showing up strongly in various on-line comparison tests, as well as winning some major hi-fi awards. Since I had never heard of Ecosse before, I figured I would have no preconceptions about them. I contacted Elliot Davis, founder of Ecosse Cables, and he graciously agreed to send out a pair of his Maestro MA2's for listening.

Next, how to test them. The longer and best way to test any piece of new hardware is to install in your system and live with it for a week or two. Then take it back out and listen to your old component again. The quicker way, however, is to arrange an A-B test against your old equipment for instant comparison. I decided to do both.

Fortuitously, my main CD player, a Sony XA20ES, has two identical outputs. By connecting them to two different inputs on my preamp, I was able to use the preamp as a switch box for easy comparisons. Of course, I first had to make certain that both CD outputs were, indeed, identical. So, before connecting the Ecosse cables, I connected the second CD output to the preamp with a cable (that I had stored in the garage) exactly the same as the old one. Then I put on several recordings (including one of pink noise) and alternated between the two identical older cables, using a sound meter to be sure they were outputting the same volume and listening to be sure they sounded alike. Having satisfied myself that the two CD outputs were the same, I connected the new Ecosse cables next to my old ones and started the comparison. After an evening of A-B comparing using a variety of discs (and utilizing the talents of a very patient and understanding wife clicking back and forth at the preamp), I prepared for the long haul of listening to the Ecosse product by itself for a week or more.

Elliot Davis
Some of the discs I used during the testing included the classical: Debussy: Orchestral Music (Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra. Philips); Handel: Messiah (Ohrwall, Members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. FIM/Proprius); Haydn: Baryton Divertimenti (The Esterhazy Machine. Smithsonian. FoM); Holst: The Planets (Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records/EMI); Mozart: Three Divertimenti for Strings (Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. FIM/Philips); Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 4 (Mutter, LPO. JVC XRCD/DG); Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances (Oue, Minnesota Orchestra. Reference Recordings); and Stravinsky: L'Histoire du Soldat (Ars Nova. HDTT/Westminster). Plus, an assortment of pop discs: Basie Jam (Analogue Productions gold/Pablo); Creedence Clearwater Chronicle (Fantasy gold); Jazz (Ry Cooder. Warner Bros.); Jazz at the Pawnshop (Arne Domnerus. FIM/Proprius); River Road (Eric Bibb and Bert Deivert, Opus 3); Slowhand (Eric Clapton. Mobile Fidelity gold/Polydor); Tango Tango (Viveza. Master Music XRCD); and Touch (John Klemmer. Mobile Fidelity gold/ABC/MCA).

Finally, to the point, how did the Ecosse cables sound compared to my old (and very popular) cables? In a word, better.

But I know what you want me to say, what you probably expect me to say: that it was an open-and-shut case, a matter of night and day. It wasn't. It was more like a matter of twilight and day. The differences were there for one to hear, but they were often subtle. Remember, I was comparing the Ecosse cables to a pair of very good cables; I wouldn't have lived with the old ones for as long as I did if they weren't pretty good.

With the Ecosse cables the width of the sound stage seemed about the same, yet there was a slightly greater sense of air around the instruments that made the recording hall or studio ambience all the more pronounced. Highs appeared a bit more extended with the Ecosse product, too, clearer and cleaner, with better sheen. Bass seemed almost the same, if a degree tauter, better defined, with the Ecosse product.

Midrange transparency was where I found differences most noticeable. Voices, for instance, sounded a degree better focused with the Ecosse cables, and all-around transparency was a tad more pleasing. The effect in listening to the old cables was something akin to putting one's hands lightly over one's ears. The differences were not dramatic, but they were discernible under almost all conditions and with almost every disc I put on. The battle for overall detail and clarity kept favoring the Ecosse product, my old cables sounding somewhat duller and more veiled by comparison. Differences in transient response and impact were harder to detect, though. Here, the slender variations I heard could have been the result of the Ecosse's better clarity. Who knows.

In all, the Ecosse Maestro MA2's seemed to do a better job than my old cables, producing a touch fuller, smoother, more lucid sound. Yet, as I say, it wasn't night-and-day for me, and without the benefit of the initial period of A-B testing, I'm not entirely sure I would have noticed the differences at all. Nor am I sure everyone would benefit from upgrading to Ecosse or any other new cables, depending on one's equipment, one's hearing, and one's interest in the whole subject.

Nevertheless, if you are still using the cheap cables that came with your system when you bought it, or if you're just of a mind to experiment, I doubt you could do any better than to try out one of Ecosse's full line of cables. Their prices start at the more-affordable level (under $100 a pair) and go up to over $2,000 a pair; you have a full slate to choose from. (The Maestros I sampled were a little over $200 a pair at the dealers I checked.)

Anyway, maybe Ecosse's Web site would provide better answers than I can give, and the site can also show you the differences among their various products:

Happy listening.


Sep 12, 2018

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Maurizio Pollini, piano; Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 447 041-2.

Admittedly, I still warmly welcome any new recording by pianist Maurizio Pollini. In fact, I suppose it is a testament to my age that I continue to think of him of a "young" pianist, having first heard him only some fifty years ago. His interpretations may not always have the sparkle of those from some of today's new talents, but they always seem right. This 1998 release of the Brahms First Piano Concerto is no exception. 

Pollini makes the dark, massive, craggy opening movement seem all the more ominous by his aggressive forward momentum and sometimes fierce attack. By comparison, Emil Gilels, my comparison because it's also on DG, is more relaxed and warmhearted. I suspect that although Gilels is the easier to listen to, it may be Pollini who is closer to the spirit of Brahms. In the second movement Adagio, however, I must favor Gilels's more congenial approach. Pollini seems just a tad distant in this section, even if the aristocratic central melody demands such treatment. The finale, the Rondo: Allegro non troppo, finds Pollini at his best, amply displaying the varied changes of temperament Brahms indicates and sounding more relentless than Gilels ever does.

Maurizio Pollini
DG's sound is not much different than that which they produced for Gilels/Jochum over a quarter of a century earlier: It's big and warm, and it's without the definition EMI or even Philips provided for Stephen Kovacevich or Decca provided for Clifford Curzon. Now, here's the clincher for me: DG recorded Pollini live. While there is hardly a trace of audience noise anywhere, we do find the piano rather forward, spoiling the illusion of being there.

So, all of this avoids the question: Is Pollini a first choice in this repertoire? Bottom line: No, not for me. If one already owns any of the above-named recordings, should Pollini displace them? No, I don't think so. Each interpretation bears its own mark, and Pollini's version certainly bears the stamp of nobility and authority. But for my own taste, the more idiosyncratic approach of Clifford Curzon continues to be the disc I play the most often for personal enjoyment. And don't forget that DG offer both of the Brahms concertos with Gilels in a mid-price "Originals" double package, which is pretty hard to pass up.

Also, be aware that the folks at DG make this concerto available from the same performers in a double-disc set with the Second Concerto. And that Pollini has recorded the Brahms concertos with several other conductors over the years, like Karl Bohm and, more recently, Christian Thielemann, all for DG. Choices, choices.


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

Sep 9, 2018

Mathieu: Concerto No. 3 in C minor (CD review)

Also, Gershwin: An American in Paris. Alain Lefevre, piano; Joann Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Analekta AN2 9299.

Let's start with a little info about Andre Mathieu, a classical composer and pianist who isn't exactly a household name. First, he was born in Quebec, Canada in 1929 and died unexpectedly young of alcoholism and emotional problems in 1968. Fortunately for us, he left behind a large legacy of music, although most of it remains unrecorded. A check of Amazon reveals only a handful of Mathieu recordings, many of them by the artist represented on this disc, pianist Alain Lefevre. He and conductor Joann Falletta and her Buffalo Philharmonic do a splendid job with the music.

According to Wikipedia, "Mathieu's style leaned towards the late Romantic school of Rachmaninov, and his music was influenced by Debussy as well. Mathieu wrote many works for piano." Here, we find his Concerto No. 3 in C minor for piano and orchestra, which he wrote in 1943 under the titles "Concerto Romantique" or "Concerto de Québec."

The concerto, revised and reorchestrated, is highly reminiscent of Rachmaninov from the very beginning. Dark, almost ominous chords open the music, building to a big, rhapsodic flourish, again evocative of Rachmaninov. So, why didn't Mathieu become anywhere near as popular as his Russian counterpart? I've always thought the popularity of any piece of music with the general public is directly equivalent to how melodious it is and how much exposure it gets. With Mathieu, there is the business of its being somewhat derivative, not as soaringly tuneful, and not as well promoted. Which takes nothing away from Mathieu.

Alain Lefevre
The opening movement is rather scattershot to my ear. It's all over the place with one melody bumping into the next, something perhaps attributable to Mathieu being only in his mid teens when he wrote it. It's a passionate, tempestuous affair, and pianist Lefevre seems to take delight in its impetuous nature. As expected, Ms. Falletta and her Buffalo players support him superbly.

The highlight of the concerto is the second-movement Andante, serene and flowing, if not quite reaching the emotional heights of a Rachmaninov. Still, it's a lovely contribution to the piece, seamlessly interwoven with the faster movements and unaffected in its beauty. In the closing movement, Lefevre and Falletta deliver a jaunty presentation, filled with youthful zeal and playfulness.

Accompanying the Mathieu is a far more-familiar work, George Gershwin's An American in Paris, the jazz-inspired piece the composer wrote in 1928 after spending some time in Paris. In the work's original program notes, Gershwin says "My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere." When the music moves into blues, Gershwin tells us "our American friend...has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness." However, "nostalgia is not a fatal disease" and the American visitor "once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life" and by the end "the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant."

Here, Ms. Falletta and her orchestra take it alone, and they make the most of Gershwin's colorful tone painting. She lends the music a properly joyful, frolicsome atmosphere, combined with an equally appropriate dose of blues when necessary. It's lyrical, jazzy, bluesy, turbulent, and glittering by turns.

Dr. Bernd Gottinger made the recordings live at the Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, NY in February 2017. The sound he obtained is reasonably natural: warm, modestly reverberant, slightly soft, dark, and distant. The piano appears nicely integrated with the orchestra, too; in fact, it remains an almost neutral presence--clear, rich, and resonant, but never completely dominant as it might be if recorded closer. Again, the sound is fairly lifelike, if not as tonally transparent as the best audiophile recordings, accounting perhaps for its being recorded live. I wish they had deleted the applause at the end of the pieces, though.


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

Sep 5, 2018

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

John Eliot Gardiner, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 289 459 156 2.

There is certainly no dearth of good Mendelssohn Fourth Symphonies around, what with Abbado (DG and Decca), Blomstedt (Decca), Klemperer (EMI), Munch (RCA and JVC), Sinopoli (DG), Previn (EMI), Bernstein (Sony), and many others. But John Eliot Gardiner's disc comes with a new twist: He gives us not only the familiar original version but the revised version as well.

Apparently, German composer, pianist, conductor, and organist Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a compulsive tinkerer and reviser, saying to a friend, "In everything I have written down there is at least as much deleted as there is allowed to stand." A year or two after the premiere of his Fourth Symphony, he reworked the last three movements. He never got around to the first movement--he said he would have to redo everything about it--nor did he ever publish his revisions. In any event, in the Gardiner disc we now have both versions, and upon close inspection there is a myriad of detail changes in those last three movements, the most obvious on this recording being a clarifying of the orchestration to provide greater transparency of sound. 

John Eliot Gardiner
Gardiner directs the Vienna Philharmonic with verve and bounce, reminding us of his period-instrument, historically informed background, yet he imparts a characteristic grace and smoothness, too. And, needless to say, the Vienna players respond splendidly, proving once again why the VPO is among the world's greatest orchestras. The results are infectious, and the performance deserves to stand alongside the best in the catalogue.

The sound of this 1999 release, however, is another story, somewhat overwrought, too warmly reverberant to convey fully the lighter spirits of the work. In this regard, I prefer Claudio Abbado's early Decca recording best of all, especially as remastered by HDTT. In any case, those who would buy the Gardiner recording probably would do so because they like the man's work or because they want to compare Mendelssohn's two versions of the symphony.

Accompanying the Fourth Symphony is Mendelssohn's Fifth, actually the second in order of composition. It is a common companion to the Fourth on disc, and one can find both of them on Abbado's DG disc at a slightly lower cost. If the sound of the Gardiner were more transparent, I would not hesitate to recommend it as a personal first choice. As it stands, it is a fine curiosity and a worthy adjunct to other favored recordings.


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

Sep 2, 2018

Motherland: David Aaron Carpenter (CD review)

Music of Dvorak, Bartok, Shor, and Walton. David Aaron Carpenter, viola; Vladimir Jurowski, Kazushi Ono, David Parry, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 0190295697693 (2-disc set).

David Aaron Carpenter is a relatively young (b. 1986) American violist who has been making a name for himself as a concert soloist these last few years. He began studying the violin when he was six and the viola when he was eleven, attending the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, Italy's Accademia Chigiana, Switzerland's International Music Academy, and the Verbier Festival Academy, studying with Pinchas Zukerman, Roberto Diaz, Seiji Ozawa, Robert Mann, Nobuko Imai, Boris Belkin, and Yuri Bashmet. By 2003 he was performing with leading orchestras and conductors throughout the world, and in 2006 he was the first Prize Winner of the Walter W. Naumburg Viola Competition.

"Motherland" is Carpenter's sixth major album and his second for Warner Classics. It's a combination of the old and the new, the familiar and the more unfamiliar. The first disc of this two-disc set begins with the old, Dvorak's Cello Concerto, although even that is somewhat new in that Carpenter plays it in an arrangement for viola. Next is Bartok's Concerto for Viola, followed by something a bit newer, Alexey Shor's Seascapes. Disc two gives us Walton's Concerto for Viola, followed by two more works by Shor. The pieces provide a healthy, varied, and attractive program.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 late in life, between 1894-95, his last concerto work. Yet even that is slightly different since Carpenter performs it as arranged for viola by J. Vieland and Carpenter, with accompaniment by Maestro Kazushi Ono and the London Philharmonic. Aside from the novelty of hearing the cello part played by a viola (which takes a moment or two to get used to because you don't get as sonorous or mellow a sound), the performance appears good but not extraordinary. It's well prepared and well executed, but I found it a trifle routine. And in the slow movement the viola doesn't quite convey the kind of melancholy a cello can impart. Still, the combination of Carpenter's enthusiasm, the viola's vibrant, youthful tone, and the excellence of the orchestra make it worth one's time.

David Aaron Carpenter
Next, we get the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Sz.120 by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945). Like the Dvorak, the Bartok piece was among the last things the composer wrote. But even this piece is slightly different because Bartok never actually finished it himself, the completion done by Bartok's student, Tibor Serly, in 1949, several years after the composer's death. Maestro Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic accompany Carpenter in the music, which comes off nicely. Carpenter seems in his element here, especially in the instrumental virtuosity he's able to pull off so effortlessly. (That finale with its energetic Hungarian themes is a gymnastic tour de force, with Jurowski and his players keeping up well.)

Disc one ends with a short piece in four parts called Seascapes by Ukrainian-born composer Alexey Shor (b. 1970), who now resides in the U.S. Here, Maestro David Parry and the London Philharmonic accompany Carpenter. Although it may be a modern work, it doesn't sound like one. It's filled with dancing melodies and lively, mostly cheerful tunes. Carpenter's treatment of it makes for a delightful listen.

Disc two contains only three works, one by English composer Sir William Walton (1902-1983) and two more by Alexey Shor. The Walton piece is his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, written in 1929. The Shor pieces are the brief Two Songs for My Children and the lengthy Well Tempered Chanson. Jurowski leads the London Phil accompanying the Walton piece, and Parry again conducts the orchestra in the Shor works. As on disc one, Carpenter displays a command of the music as well as of the viola. The musical lines are always clear and clean, as well as the performer's conviction.

Overall, I'm not sure Carpenter shows us anything new, but it's good to know there are accomplished musicians ready to assume the mantle of an older generation.

Producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton recorded the music at Saint Augustine's, Kilburn and Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London, England in 2017. As with many of the recordings made in Lyndhurst Hall, especially, the sense of orchestral depth is quite good, adding to the overall realism of the sound. There are also good dynamics and a moderately wide frequency response. Transparency is more than adequate, and the extremes of bass and treble seem reasonably well extended. In other words, we have fairly lifelike sound, making the set a pleasure to listen to.


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