Oct 31, 2018

Ravel: Sheherazade (CD review)

Also, Debussy: La damoiselle ellue; Britten:  Les illuminations. Sylvia McNair; Susan Graham; Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Philips 289 446 682-2.

The three song cycles assembled on this 1999 Philips release are voluptuous and sensitive, even if the musical setting for Britten's collection of short poems is in a somewhat less ethereal world than the other two.

The highlight, as one might expect from its greater popularity, is the opening composition, Maurice Ravel's Sheherazade. Inspired by the impressionism of Debussy, Ravel's Sheherazade inhabits a far different landscape than Rimsky-Korsakov's earlier, more literal series of tone poems. The Ravel is all shapes and shadows and sinuous lines.

Debussy's early piece La damoiselle ellue is likewise more figuratively evocative than literal. It is based on the verses of British poet and illustrator Dante Gabriel Rossetti describing his painting of "The Blessed Damozel," and adds to the mix a chorus with soprano narration. In some ways it is more lyrical than the Ravel and equally atmospheric.

Sylvia McNair
English composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten's Les illuminations is the newer of the three works, the composer having completed it in 1939, based on poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It is the most eclectic of the written compositions represented here, and, appropriately, the musical accompaniment is the most varied, from serene and seductive to almost raucous by turns. To suggest that all of this music is quite sensuous and sexual in nature would be an understatement.

American opera and Broadway soprano Sylvia McNair sings the title roles expressively yet without fuss. They are reasonably straightforward renderings that allow the songs to breath in their own right. Some listeners may prefer more dramatic, perhaps even more sensitive, readings, but no other interpretation, I'm sure, captures the simple beauty of the poetry any better than these. Maestro Seiji Ozawa's accompaniment, likewise, is unobtrusive, serving only to reinforce the mood and never drawing attention to itself, while the Boston Symphony play with a velvety smoothness.

The Philips sound is slightly dark, with Ms. McNair clearly at stage front. There is good orchestral depth, a sometimes soft high end, and little need for extended dynamic impact or a sweeping frequency range. The recording does not sparkle, but it doesn't need to. The singing and phrasing sparkle enough.


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

Oct 28, 2018

Walton: Viola Concerto (SACD review)

Also, Partita for Orchestra; Sonata for String Orchestra. James Ehnes, viola; Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Chandos CHSA 5210.

Welcome today a guest reviewer, Karl W. Nehring. For over 20 years Karl was the editor of "The $ensible Sound" magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I hope he'll become a regular contributor to "Classical Candor" as well, and I have asked him to give us a little background on his approach to music reviewing. This is what he had to say:

"Thanks, John, for the invitation to contribute to 'Classical Candor,' a truly enjoyable and highly reliable guide to classical music recordings. I will try my best not to diminish your achievement! 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 I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer." 

Sir William Walton (1902-1983) was a prolific British composer of symphonies (but only two), concerti, and film scores who seems to have been largely overshadowed by other Brits such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Britten, and Holst. Indeed, although I have a fair number of recordings of Walton's music in my CD collection, I must confess that I seldom play any of them – yes, when I am in the mood for some British music (which happens often), I am much more likely to play the music of Vaughan Williams, Arnold, Elgar, Britten, Holst, Finzi, Delius, et al.

Because I am such a big fan of British music, when I came across this new Chandos release at my favorite library, I dutifully plucked it from the rack, mostly curious about Walton's Viola Concerto, which I could not recall ever having heard before. Looking at the back cover, I was surprised to see that the piece was first composed in 1928-29 and then revised in 1936-37 and then yet again in 1961. Digging into the liner notes while still standing around at the library, I discovered that Walton composed the piece at the suggestion of the conductor Thomas Beecham. It was targeted for viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, who declined to play it because it sounded too modern for his sensibilities. Interestingly enough, it was none other than the composer Paul Hindemith (also a violist) who then took up the score and gave the premier performance in 1929.

James Ehnes
Having read a little about the piece I was frankly not expecting to be all that impressed, but still, I was curious enough to check the disc out, bring it home, and fire it up. (My remarks below are based on listening to the two-channel CD layer of this Chandos SACD.)

From the opening notes, I was immediately entranced. Ehnes's viola just seems to sing above the sensitive accompaniment of the orchestra. The overall mood of the opening movement is thoughtful, but there are moments of energy counterbalanced by moments of quiet introspection, with the sound of the viola at times being augmented by the woodwinds. The second movement is more lively and energetic, with more input from the brass section of the orchestra. The third movement returns to a more thoughtful, sometimes introspective mood, ending with a satisfyingly tranquil conclusion.

The other two pieces in this program also proved to be quite satisfying. The Sonata for String Orchestra is a transcription made by Walton and Malcolm Arnold of Walton's String Quartet in A minor. It is a lyrical piece, quite enjoyable. Hearing it has made me want to track down the original quartet version.

The program closes with the Partita for Orchestra, composed in 1957 and dedicated to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. As you might expect, it is a more flamboyant piece, leaping out of the gate with a burst of energy and at times producing bass sounds that will give your woofers a workout.

The sound quality of the recording is warm and clean in the Chandos tradition. Overall, then, this release is a winner both musically and sonically that should bring enjoyment to many a listener.


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

Oct 24, 2018

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Decca Originals B0006627-02.

There was a time year ago that I had almost given up hope the major classical record labels were going to remaster and reissue any more of their back catalogue in audiophile or near-audiophile editions. Production of EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century," DG's "Originals," and Decca's "Classic Sound" had begun to slow down precipitously by 2006. But then Decca came back with a series of reissues in 96kHz/24-bit remasterings they called "The Originals," presumably taking the nod from their former rival, DG, and now stablemate at Universal Music.

Among the first releases in Decca's "Originals" series was the late Neville Marriner's 1969 Argo recording (issued in 1970) of Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with violinist Alan Loveday and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. And I'm so glad that Decca not only remastered the recording in their most modern technology but included a front picture of the original Argo cover as well. Not only is it appropriate, it reminds me that I wasn't imagining things in remembering that in their beginning the Academy used hyphens in their name. I often still do, regardless of how they punctuate it now. Anyway, another retro thing the new Decca reissues do is embellish the top of each "Originals" disc with a replica of the old LP. In other words, the CD looks like a miniature vinyl record.

Sir Neville Marriner
It seems as though I have so many Four Seasons in my collection and so many that pass through the house for review that the only time I get a chance to listen to Marriner's performance is when a new edition of it comes along. Then it reminds me just how good it is. The last time was in the late Nineties when it appeared as a "Penguin Classic."

Years ago I included the Marriner recording in a survey of The Four Seasons, and I used the word "surrealistic" to describe it, a term suggesting the interpretation's imaginative touches. I'm not sure it's actually a compliment, but it seems appropriate. Marriner's views of the individual tone poems are highly evocative, as they should be, and are characterized by considerable polish, subtle embellishments, and sometimes dramatic shifts in tempo and dynamics. The fast movements are lively, often sparkling, and the central, slow movements are graceful and refined. However, it is those dynamic contrasts that stand out. The disc has had me jumping for the volume control on more than one occasion over the years. I couldn't say whether Marriner had a really precise control over his Academy musicians (likely), or whether the balance engineer did some tweaking of the dynamics after the fact (also possible), but the results are both startling and pleasant.

Yes, the sound is agreeable, although perhaps not the epitome of transparency. Still, it is warm and smooth. The new mastering seems to add a touch more clarity in the midrange, a bit more body in the upper bass, and, more important, eliminates the slightly sour overtones I remember hearing in its first CD rendering in the early Eighties.

Now, to make a good thing even better, Decca coupled The Four Seasons with three wind concertos that Marriner and the Academy recorded in the mid Seventies. If anything, they sound even better recorded than the Four Seasons, and they almost double the playing time of the disc over all previous editions of Marriner's Four Seasons alone. These added items are the Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor, with Neil Black and Celia Nicklin, oboes; the Bassoon Concerto in A minor, with Martin Gatt, bassoon; and the Piccolo Concerto in C major, with William Bennett, piccolo. Needless to day, they, too, are performed in impeccable style and grace by all parties.

While my tastes have changed somewhat over time, and I now tend to favor the period-instrument recordings by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), the English Concert (Archiv), La Petite Bande (Sony), and Tafelmusik (Sony), Marriner's modern-instrument version easily takes its place beside them.


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

Oct 22, 2018

Haydn: Concerti per Esterhazy (CD review)

Violin Concertos No. 1 in C major and No. 4 in G major; Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major. Amandine Beyer, violin; Marco Ceccato, cello; Gli Incogniti. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902314.

There was a time when it seemed that a period-instrument band was performing on every other disc crossing my desk. Maybe it was a passing fad because in past few years I've seen relatively few such recorded performances. So it's refreshing to note they haven't gone away entirely, as evidenced by this Harmonia Mundi release by violinist Amandine Beyer, cellist Marco Ceccato, and the historically informed, period-instrument ensemble Gli Incogniti performing some early works from Joseph Haydn.

Gli Incogniti is a small musical group formed in 2007 to play historically informed performances of mostly Baroque material on period instruments. Their number usually includes about seven performers, although here they are augmented by other performers to double their numbers. (The size of orchestras would increase dramatically over Haydn's lifetime, but the size for which he wrote the concertos on this disc was more in the range of fifteen-to-twenty players.) Ms. Beyer and Mr. Ceccato are members of the original ensemble. The album under review marks their by my count their eighth album.

Amandine Beyer
All three of the concertos on the program date probably from somewhere between 1765-1771, the early classical period. The exact dates are unknown and the approximate dates are educated guesses. Anyway, Haydn (1732-1809) was employed at the time as Kapellmeister by Princes Paul Anton and then Nickolaus, heads of the wealthy Esterházy family. As such, Haydn was in charge of the Esterhazy's orchestra, and he was anxious to impress the princes with his compositional and playing skills. Except for a few miscellaneous concertos for lyre and such that he wrote some twenty years later, it was mainly during the 1760s and early 1770s that Haydn composed concertos for various virtuoso instrumentalists. As his career proceeded, Haydn would increasingly spend his time on the symphony, understandable as he would eventually write 104 of them.

As for the quality of the three concertos, well, there is probably a reason why they have never entered the basic repertoire. This is not to suggest they are boring or trite. Indeed, all three are imaginative and filled with Haydn's usual felicitous touches. It's just that there is little in them that stands out or sets them apart. They are simply good natured, charming, and entertaining. Of course, we also have to remember that they contributed to the early blossoming of the concerto genre, a category that in another quarter century or so would take its place alongside the symphony as a dominant genre of the classical world.

As for the quality of the playing, there is no doubt. Both soloists--Ms. Beyer on violin and Mr. Ceccato on cello--perform splendidly. It is clear that their affinity to this music and their love of it are driving forces in the success of the performances. What's more, it is clear that Gli Incogniti enjoy what they're doing and have done it often enough that it comes through with a precision that does not preclude a joyous spontaneity.

Producer, engineer, and editor Alban Moraud recorded the concertos at the Theatre Auditorium, Poitiers, France in January 2018. Even though the miking distance seems moderate, there is a healthy bloom from the auditorium, helping the sound to appear more lifelike. Yet it does nothing to detract from the detail of the sonics. The solo instruments shine, and the accompaniment is well defined. The stage width is relatively narrow, and the depth is quite good. This is a small group, after all, and their very size ensures a welcome transparency. The balance is about as neutral as one could want, and the whole affair is smooth and comfortable. It's a fine production.


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

Oct 17, 2018

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41 (CD review)

Also, Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Jane Glover, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RPO 204404-201.

About twenty years ago, seeing the need for good, reasonably priced classical recordings--an area the Naxos label had already cultivated--the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra embarked on a project to provide the public with just such low-cost material. With an initial catalogue of over fifty basic repertoire items on the Intersound/Tring label, the RPO enterprise did very well for itself. Today, one can still find most of the material on other labels, like Planet Media and the RPO's own Masterworks.

Certainly, there was no question about the RPO organization's credentials, the orchestra founded in 1932 by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. At the time of the project's inception, 1998, it's patron was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth; the President was Lord Menuhin; the Music Director was Vladimir Ashkenazy; the Principal Conductor was Yuri Temirkanov; the Associate Conductors were Sir Charles Mackerras, Vernon Handley, and Gennadi Rozdestvensky; and the Composer in Residence was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Whew! That's quite an assemblage. The RPO's various recordings selected for initial release were conducted by the aforementioned people, plus by Paavo Jarvi, Mark Ermler, Barry Wordsworth, James Lockhart, Raymond Leppard, Yuri Simonov, Jean-Claude Casadesus, Jane Glover, and others. So you knew going in that this whole venture was of the highest order.

Jane Glover
I sampled half a dozen of the RPO organization's first releases in the then-new series, recorded between 1993-1996, with five different conductors. Of the six recordings, the one I was most fond of and can recommend without hesitation is Jane Glover's disc of Mozart's last two symphonies, Nos. 40 and 41, and the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Leading an RPO trimmed down from its normal complement of ninety-odd players to an ensemble of about half that size, Ms. Glover provides fleet, unmannered interpretations of all three Mozart works. Her tempos are brisk but never breathless; she indulges in very little rubato; and she keeps her dynamic contrasts at a minimum. She sticks closely to the printed page, offering performances more in accord with the practices of period instruments groups than of large, twentieth-century orchestras.

You will find here none of the grand Romanticism or personal idiosyncrasies of a Karajan, Klemperer, Jochum, Bernstein, or Bohm. The readings are more on the order of Daniel Barenboim's old recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra for EMI in the late Sixties. The emotion is derived from the clean, unforced energy Ms. Glover delivers throughout.

The sound, recorded at All Saints Church, Petersham, Surrey in 1993, is likewise clear and straightforward, with good definition and respectable stereo imaging. There is not a lot of weight in the bass, but that may be a boon for audiophiles who often don't want much bass overhang to interfere with the transparency of the midrange, anyway. Besides, this music does not cry out for mass so much as it does for lithe power, which is what the sonics deliver.

The other discs I auditioned in the series included Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, with Barry  Wordsworth, which I thought a notably tidy recording. Bizet's Carmen Suites, with Mark Ermler, was energetic and flavorful, and comes coupled with Grieg's Peer Gynt Suites. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, with Sir Charles Mackerras, seemed rather pedestrian by Mackerras's standards; its sound is lifelike if a little thin. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and 1812 Overtures, with Yuri Simonov, built up a good head of steam in several of the pieces but offered little that I hadn't heard before. And Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, with Mark Ermler, I found a little too slack for my taste, especially when combined with its somewhat thick, muffled sonics.

Overall, though, this was fine line of CDs, one that can provide the occasional gems it would be a shame for one to miss.


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

Oct 14, 2018

Songs for Strings (CD review)

Arranged and conducted by Donald Fraser, English Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra. Avie AV2391.

These days in particular, it's important for any new classical release to offer something unique, something that hasn't been done (much) before. Hardly any record company wants to do another Beethoven symphony; the catalogue is too filled already with great recordings of the basic repertoire. Thus, a new release has to feature a hot, new star; or it has to feature some unusual instrument or instruments; or it has to feature new arrangements of other things, as we have here.

Donald Fraser is an English composer, arranger, conductor, and record producer whose album Songs for Strings features fifteen selections, some old, some new, some well known, others not so well known, rearranged for string orchestra, either the English Symphony or the English Chamber Orchestra. Fraser conducts both ensembles and produces some decidedly winning and entertaining results.

Here's a run-down on the program:
  1. Edward Elgar (1857-1934): The Queen's Hall
  2. John Dowland (1563-1626): And Time Stands Still
  3. Henry Purcell (1659-1695): Ground in C
  4. Antonio Lotti (1667-1740): Crucifixus
  5. Nicola Antonio Porpora (1686-1768): Fugue in G
  6. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Largo from Concerto for Two Cellos
  7. David Fraser: Lord Lovat's Lament
  8. Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Nuage Gris (Grey Clouds)
  9. Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): 9. Canon
10. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Valse (in the manner of Borodin)
11. Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Pleading
12. Edward Elgar: A Child Asleep
13. Edward Elgar: Queen Mary's Lute Song
14. Donald Fraser: Epilogue for Strings
15. Marin Marais (1656-1728): Sonnerie

All of the tracks are attractive: lush yet transparent and beautifully presented. If there's any drawback, it's that the pieces are rather brief, three or four minutes each at best. The program doesn't attempt to present a unified whole, so it's more like a pop album with a lot of varied material. Not that that's bad; just different for a classical album. Call it a crossover album if you will. Whatever, it makes for sweet, easy listening.

Favorites? Of course. "The Queen's Hall" sets the tone for the program: rich, plush, flowing, and thoroughly delightful. Everything else follows suit. Purcell's "Ground in C minor" has a Pachelbel quality to it, which Fraser alludes to in a booklet note. Lotti's choral hymn "Cruxifixus" translates well to strings.

Donald Fraser
Vivaldi's Largo from the Concerto for 2 Cellos sounds lovely, but we have come to hear so much of Vivaldi's music expanded for larger string forces that it doesn't carry quite the distinctiveness of many of the album's other pieces.

"Lord Lovat's Lament" is an arrangement of a Scottish tune originally written by an ancestor of the present David Fraser. It has an attractive folk-song lilt to it and sounds quite charming in its present incarnation. I kind of missed a bagpipe, though. That arrangement sounds positively ancient compared to the work that follows it, a very modern-sounding, impressionistic "Grey Clouds" by Franz Liszt. While it's probably the second most-unusual track on the program, it's also among the most interesting.

Alexander Scriabin wrote his "Canon" when he was twelve years old. Remarkable, and Fraser's transcription for strings holds up well, perhaps giving it new life. Again, as a contrast, we get Ravel's little "Valse" (in the style of Borodin), an engaging moment that flies by only too fast. Then there are four vocal works--three by Elgar and one by Fraser himself--that sound pastoral and entrancing in their new string attire.

Fraser ends the program with the only non-orchestral track, Marin Marais's "Sonnerie" ("The Bells of St. Genevieve"), a remix for violin and electronics and inspired by the imitation of bells. It was a hit for Fraser back in the late 90's, and it's without question the most singular work he offers, sounding a bit more like Wendy Carlos or Tomita than the other works on the program. Still, it's an attractive piece and holds its own fascinating if disparate pleasures.

Producer Donald Fraser and engineer Simon Kiln recorded the music at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London in  July 2013 (ECO) and Studio No. 2, Abbey Road in April 2018 (ESO). They recorded the final track on the album at The Barn Studio, Shirland, Illinois in May 2018. Like so many recordings before it made at the Abbey Road studios, this one sounds lifelike and detailed, never dull or veiled. The solid bass line stands out without overpowering the midrange; the highs glisten; and the mids are about as transparent as one could want. It's a bit close, yet a mild studio bloom enhances the overall effect of realism. Although from Avie, it actually sounds like a vintage EMI-London Symphony analogue recording from the 1970's, for me, anyway, a golden age of fine recording. So, yeah, I liked it a lot.


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

Oct 10, 2018

Cannabich: Symphonies Nos. 59, 63, 64, 67, and 68 (CD review)

Viktor Lukas, Lukas Consort. Naxos 8.553960.

The folks at Naxos seem determined to provide us with every symphony ever composed in the 1700s in their "18th Century Symphony" series, and at a modest price who could not resist wanting them all.
Like other releases I've heard in the line, this one released in 1998 is technically and artistically first-rate. German violinist, composer, and Kapellmeister Christian Cannabich (1731-1798) was yet another contemporary of Mozart who was popular in his day but whose light quickly faded into history. Mozart was apparently fond of Cannabich's composing, and especially of his conducting; he was among the few musicians Mozart praised. Perhaps it's no wonder; Cannabich's music sounds more like Mozart's than some of Mozart's own early works. 

Viktor Lukas
Whatever, the present disc contains five short symphonies, each in three movements and about a quarter hour long. Why Naxos present them in the order they are in is anybody's guess, but they appear on the disc as Nos. 63, 67, 64, 59, and 68. Why not chronological? Who would really care one way or the other?

One is tempted to mix and match the movements to program a new symphony of one's own--a favorite opening Allegro here, a slow Andante there, maybe a zesty Presto from somewhere else. Key changes in the pieces are pretty abrupt, anyway, and there is little or no apparent thematic continuity between movements as they are. (At least not apparent to me.) Nevertheless, the symphonies are all rather enjoyable, played with a lightness of heart by Viktor Lukas and his small Lukas Consort, a group of about fifteen strings and an assortment of solo wind players.

The accompanying booklet note tells us that Cannabich himself led a rather large ensemble as the Director of the Mannheim Orchestra of his day (1774-1798), an orchestra sometimes reaching as many as ninety-five musicians and finally, because of budget restraints, reduced to about fifty-five players. Certainly, the more diminutive size of the Lukas Consort gives them the advantage of clarity, which is enhanced by the general excellence of the Naxos recording.


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

Oct 7, 2018

Strauss, R.: Ein Heldenleben (SACD review)

Also, Burleske. Denis Kozhukhin, piano; Marc Albrecht, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 617.

I've said this before many times but it bears repeating: I don't think it's such big leap from the heroic swagger of Franz Liszt's Les Preludes to the heroic swagger of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. Or from Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Sea Hawk. Or from The Sea Hawk to John Williams's Star Wars. All composers owe something to those who went before them, and Strauss's Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") was a natural step in the progression of the tone poem.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), German composer and conductor, wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a mock autobiography, a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait. The composer was only thirty-four years old when he wrote it, proving his self-confidence in writing a musical autobiography at so early an age. Mostly, however, he seems to have composed it to defend himself against his critics, whom he silences through the music. In response, many of Strauss's critics continued their attacks on Strauss, saying his music was indulgent and narcissistic.

Whatever, Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into several parts describing the various stages in the artist's life. The first segment, "The Hero," describes Strauss himself and does so on a big, swashbuckling scale. Maestro Marc Albrecht handles it in fine if slightly perfunctory style. In other words, I would have liked more swash in that buckle. If we see the opening movement as setting the tone for the composer lampooning himself and his critics, it could have benefited from more juice doing it.

Next, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," obviously his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion. Following that is "The Hero's Companion," his wife, defined by the violin. Under Albrecht the adversaries seem somewhat complacent, but the wife seems appropriately temperamental. Throughout these sections, the Netherlands Philharmonic and, I assume, first violinist Vadim Tsibulvsky as the wife, perform admirably, with a polished decorum.

Marc Albrecht
"The Hero's Battlefield" is where Strauss engages in all-out combat with his critics, reminding them of his (musical) accomplishments by throwing in bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Albrecht seems to be having a good time here, never rushing things and never overemphasizing the obvious. Yet the conducting also appears rather cautious, as though Albrecht didn't want to stick his neck out too far. I wish he had done so because we already have a plethora of conventional Heldenlebens; something a touch more vibrant might have been more interesting.

Albrecht wraps up the piece with the greater certainty that peace and love will prevail in the hero's life. It is here that the conductor's slightly conservative approach pays off best because the music needs such a light and tender touch as he provides.

Coupled with Ein Heldenleben (and preceding it on the program as a kind of warm-up act) is the Burleske in D minor, which Strauss wrote for piano and orchestra in 1885-86 when he was still young, about twenty-one. The work had a rocky beginning. He wrote it for the pianist and conductor Hans van Bulow, who proclaimed it a "complicated piece of nonsense" and refused to play it. The piece, slightly revised, wouldn't see a première until 1890 or a publication until 1894. Even revised, it still seems like a complicated work, full of satire, whimsy, playfulness, and youthful mischief and still a handful for the soloist, especially, to negotiate. Nevertheless, pianist Denis Kozhurkhin does a first-rate job with it, and the whole affair comes off with a splendid flair.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Wolfram Nehis and engineers Erdo Groot and Jean-Marie Geijsen recorded the music in hybrid SACD at the NedPhO-Koepel, Amsterdam in February (Burleske) and December 2017. You can play the disc in multichannel or two-channel SACD from an SACD player or in two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in the two-channel SACD mode.

It's a good, modern recording, smooth, warm, and wide ranging. Although it probably doesn't have enough completely outstanding qualities to qualify as a stereophile recording, it makes for good, relaxed listening and satisfactorily approaches the sound of a real orchestra in a real acoustic setting. A modest reverberation defines the hall, while stereo depth and spread remain more than acceptable. I would have expected a tad more dynamic range and impact from an SACD recording, yet such minor shortcomings fail to detract much from the disc's overall sense of realism.


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

Oct 3, 2018

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8 (CD review)

Arturo Toscanini, NBC Symphony Orchestra. RCA 74321-55836-2 (2-disc set/mono).

It seemed like only a few years before this late-Nineties release that RCA had issued many of Toscanini's old NBC Symphony Orchestra recordings on CD in what they said were the definitive editions. I thought the sound was an improvement on the noisy, hard, high-pitched, sometimes pseudo-stereo qualities of the vinyl, but for me it was still not pleasant enough for easy listening. Then with these releases, RCA again remastered Toscanini's Beethoven symphonies, among others, on three two-disc sets, and using 20-bit technology the sound appeared further improved. In fact, except for its being in monaural, the sound is darned near close to modern standards. I suspect the new sound is either more faithful to the original source than the first CDs were, or the folks at RCA doctored it to sound better. In either case, the results are welcome. Still, it does make one wonder, doesn't it, I mean without recourse to hearing the master tapes, just how accurate the sonics are that we're getting on a CD.

Anyway, for listeners unfamiliar with Toscanini's later style (these recordings derive from the early Fifties), the great maestro seemed to become toward the end a little less expansive in his overall approach and a bit more rigid in his tempos. He was no less eloquent, but there emerged a marked consistency of beat throughout his conducting. Here it works best, I think, in the Fifth Symphony, which makes "Fate" sound more ominous than ever and the Finale more imposing.

Arturo Toscanini
In the lighter Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, it is the conductor's precision of attack and his clarification of textures that come to the fore, with the brisk, steady rhythms perhaps a minor liability. Toscanini fans will hate my having said that, but I had on hand for comparison his Sixth Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra recorded well over a dozen years before, and I must say I have a marginal preference for that earlier, more relaxed interpretation.

Nevertheless, these are all performances to be reckoned with, and each symphony shows a mastery of technique that makes it stand out as authoritative. Except in the aforementioned comparison, the newer Sixth sounds just right, even as the other three symphonies sound correct in almost every way. The conductor's minutely accurate control of every aspect of his music-making tends to mitigate any arguments against his methods. Interestingly, I began liking the Seventh the more I listened to it, in spite of a note of coldness in Toscanini's manner; yet I liked the Eighth the less as it went along, probably hoping it would eventually lighten up.   

There is no question in my mind about the sonics. This is the best recorded sound we've probably ever heard from Toscanini, for which RCA used UV22 Super CD encoding. No longer do I discern much of the pinched nasality, the closed-in acoustics, or the bright, hard, steely mids and treble of the past. Nor is there any hiss to speak of. Naturally, RCA undoubtedly used some noise reduction, so highs do not exactly sparkle. That is one of its only drawbacks, along with a small degree of bass and dynamic limitation. It is remarkably smooth, room-filling sound.

I have not heard RCA's other two Toscanini Beethoven sets with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, but if are as good as this one, I would have no hesitation in recommending the whole cycle.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa