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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, 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, 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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