Dec 30, 2018

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 and 12. Seong-Jin Cho, piano; Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. DG 00289 483 5522.

The month of this post, December 2018, marks the 120th anniversary of the founding of the German record label Deutsche Grammophon, making it the oldest continuously operating record company in the world. In an era of ever-changing musical formats (vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD, SACD, Blu-ray, downloads of every stripe), it's good to see a giant of the industry surviving and, presumably, thriving.

Most of the time with Mozart's piano concertos, record companies couple two such concertos together on the same disc. This time out, either the company or the artist decided to combine one piano concerto with two of the composer's piano sonatas. The artist, Seong-Jin Cho, says he wanted a contrast in the accompanying pieces, which he certainly got.

Seong-Jin Cho is a young (b. 1994) South Korean pianist, who rose to international fame following his first-place finish in the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition. He has since performed with major orchestras all over the world, participated in festivals everywhere, and recorded now five albums for DG. He is an accomplished musician and certainly a crowd favorite.

The program opens with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466, one of the composer's most-popular offerings. A lot of folks may remember it from Milos Forman's 1984 movie Amadeus, where the Romance appeared in the closing credits. Mozart wrote the concerto in 1785, a half dozen years before his death, and as he only wrote twenty-seven of them (only?), it was also among his last. Anyway, Cho tells us he likes playing Mozart so much because the music is so filled with joy, emotion, and operatic drama. Needless to say, these are the characteristics Cho emphasizes.

Seong-Jin Cho
The first movement Allegro begins a bit solemnly and theatrically, rather in the vein of Don Giovanni, brightens up a bit, and then ends quietly. Although the piano takes its time about entering, it is a welcome entrance as it brings a fair measure of joy. Cho displays a handsome bravura here, and one can understand why he so enjoys the music. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the direction of Yannick Nezet-Seguin follows along obediently, if somewhat mechanically.

The second movement Romance is among the most sublime creations in all classical music. It begins in a mood of exalted peacefulness, although we hear a somewhat turbulent and contrasting middle section before the music returns to a tranquil conclusion. The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines "romance" as generally implying "a specially personal or tender quality." Cho doesn't so much convey that "tender quality" as he does carry over the joy conveyed in the first movement. Personally, I could have done with more a heartfelt or even more softhearted interpretation. While Cho's rendering of the music seems too matter-of-fact to me, a lot of listeners will no doubt be more touched by it than I was and find his direct, well-controlled approach most appealing.

The final movement Allegro assai (very fast) is restless yet still cheerful and generally sunny. It appears to fit Cho's manner of skillful, energetic playing quite well and brings the work to a satisfying close.

The two sonatas couldn't be more different from one another, No. 3 youthful and exuberant yet highly virtuosic, No. 12 more diverse and even more demanding. As before, Cho displays an exacting technique that manifestly demonstrates his technical process.

Producer Sid McLauchlan and engineer Rainer Maillard recorded the music at the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany (concerto) and Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg, Germany (sonatas) in June and July 2018. The orchestral sound is clear, dynamic, and ultra clean. It's also a tad close and dry, with not a lot of depth (kind of one-dimensional). The piano is also a touch close, yet, as always with DG, sounds quite realistic, both in the concerto and in the sonatas.


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

Dec 26, 2018

Favourite Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 (CD review)

Piano concertos by Grieg, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Addinsell. Stephen Kovacevich, piano; Sir Colin Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martha Argerich, piano; Kyrill Kondrashin, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Misha Dichter, piano; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Philips Duo 289 462 182-2 (2-CD set)

I have often written on this site about fabulous buys, bargains among bargains, things like the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh Symphonies with Carlos Kleiber on a single DG Originals or the Dvorak Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies with Sir Colin Davis in a Philips Duo set, each of which packages two or three great performances on one or two mid-priced discs. Well, this particular Philips Duo, issued by the company in the late Nineties, may have even them beat.

Of the five concertos on the two discs, there are three works--the Grieg, Schumann, and Addinsell--that are number-one choices in my book. And the other two recordings--the Brahms and Tchaikovsky--are among a handful of my top choices. In fact, I have been recommending most of these items for years. Here, they all come for the cost of a single mid-priced set. Incredible.

The Grieg and Schumann concertos with Stephen Kovacevich are outstanding, and until this release they were available only at full price. The sound is slightly warmer than necessary for good definition, but it is more than acceptable.

Steven Kovacevich
The Brahms, also from Kovacevich, is as powerful and lyrical as one could ask for. I believe it even beats Kovacevich's later EMI recording in performance, if not in sound, which is only slightly less warm and soft than the aforementioned Grieg and Schumann. Second only to Gilels on DG, Kovacevich's Brahms is the one to own, and now you can have it along with four other great performances.

Martha Argerich's Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto is probably a first-choice for many people. I still think her earlier account on DG is more satisfying, as is Cliburn's on RCA, but there is no doubting that this live Philips performance is more energetic than the others. And it's pretty well recorded, too, despite its being live.

Finally, the little, one-movement Warsaw Concerto from Richard Addinsell, composed for the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight, has seldom gotten such good treatment as this one from pianist Misha Dichter and Sir Neville Marriner, and the sound here is the best of any in the set.

All of the recordings derive from the Seventies and Eighties, and all of them have already withstood the test of time. This particular incarnation should have already won them some new fans, and I hope it continues to do so.


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

Dec 23, 2018

Sawyers: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Trumpet Concerto; Valley of Vision; Elegiac Rhapsody. Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin; Simon Desbruslais, trumpet; Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra, English String Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6374.

British composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) has found some of his major fame no doubt from the Nimbus recordings of his works conducted by Kenneth Woods, with four discs now available. In 2015 the English Symphony Orchestra, of which Woods is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, appointed Sawyers their John McCabe Composer in Association, with various commissions including a song cycle, the violin and trumpet concertos found here, and several symphonies, of which I reviewed the Third a year or so ago.

Sawyers's Web site informs us that his "works have been performed and broadcast in many countries worldwide including the USA, Canada, Spain, Austria, Czech Republic, France and UK." Music-web International described his orchestral work as "music of instant appeal and enduring quality."

So, on the present disc we get two longer Sawyers pieces of almost thirty minutes each and two slightly shorter pieces. It seems to be a good representation of the man's output, which runs high to somewhat dark, moody, sorrowful, yet completely accessible, never sad tunes.

The program begins with the Violin Concerto, completed in 2016, with violin solo by Alexander Sitkovetsky and accompanied by Maestro Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. Sawyers is also a violinist, and when Woods suggested he do a violin concerto, he jumped at the opportunity. The piece opens with a theme from Sawyers's Third Symphony, so it may sound familiar. To be honest, though, as I said above, Sawyers's music often appears dark and moody to me, so it all tends to sound familiar.

Anyway, the violin dominates the proceedings, as expected, alternating agitated solo passages with tempestuous dialogues with the orchestra. Woods has a good instinct for where the soloist is going, too, and the two work seamlessly together. The opening movement ends calmly, leading into a melodically reflective Andante touched by melancholy. Again, the violin towers above the orchestra, sounding ever more unsettled as the music moves along, reaching a final movement that is surprisingly playful. Sawyers describes it as all "hustle and bustle" and tells Woods "the violin is my instrument, and if it didn't make me happy, it will have been a bit of a waste to have played it my whole life." It's all quite attractive, with Mr. Sitkovetsky playing brilliantly and Woods and the English Symphony supporting him with conviction.

Alexander Sitkovetsky
Next, we get The Valley of Vision from 2017. It is Sawyers's musical response to some of the paintings of English artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), which themselves represented the countryside around Palmer's home in Shoreham, Kent. Sawyers tells us he did not intend for the five sections of the work to be programmatic but, instead, I guess more impressionistic. Here, Sawyers sounds more than ever like the English pastoral composers of the previous century--Arnold Bax, perhaps, Frank Bridge, Frederick Delius, Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the like. In any case, the music is lovely and evocative.

And so it goes with the Concerto for Trumpet, Strings, and Timpani (2015), with trumpet solo by Simon Desbruslais and accompaniment by Woods and the English String Orchestra (the English Symphony Orchestra began as the English String Orchestra in 1978, and as their repertoire expanded the orchestra grew larger and today performs under both appellations as the occasion demands). As one might expect for a combination of trumpet and timpani, the music is more dramatic, more martial, and more aggressively rhythmic than anything else on the program. Still, there's a charming central movement that is both lyric and ardent. Certainly, it is well performed by everyone involved, yet it failed to affect me the way the violin concerto did, perhaps because of its blunter edges.

The agenda concludes with the Elegiac Rhapsody for trumpet and strings (2016), performed by Desbruslais, Woods, and the English String Orchestra. The work's title aptly describes its content, the work commissioned as a remembrance of the death of British composer and pianist John McCabe (1939-2015). Although on a more somber level, this final piece sounds almost like a continuation of Sawyers's trumpet concerto and could probably have as well served as the slow movement. Whatever, it is a radiant tribute to McCabe, performed with discernable compassion.

Producer, editor, and engineer Simon Fox-Gal recorded the first four tracks at Hereford Shirehall in February 2018; producer, editor, and engineer Adam Binks recorded tracks five through eight at the Church of St. George's, Worcester in October 2017. The folks at Nimbus have always produced good sounding recordings, and this one continues the pattern. It seems a tad closer than most of their work, especially the solos, but it delivers excellent clarity, with a fine sense of depth and space. Detailing is fine as well, accompanied by a realistic but not overpowering dynamic range and impact.


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

Dec 19, 2018

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 "Romantic" (CD review)

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Sony SK 63301.

Bruckner tried to write a literary program to go with his Fourth Symphony. For the First Movement he wrote: "A citadel of the Middle Ages. Daybreak. Reveille is sounded from the tower. The gates open. Knights on proud chargers leap forth. The magic of nature surrounds them." But by the last movement he admitted, "...I've forgotten completely what picture I had in mind."

It doesn't matter. Even without the composer's program, the "Romantic" Symphony conjures up visions of beauty, grandeur, and majesty aplenty for all but the least imaginative listeners. Although Esa-Pekka Salonen's 1998 Sony release with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is perhaps too dependent upon his trying to convey the grandness of the music to lay claim to top honors, one cannot fault him for trying hard in admittedly so grand a work.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Still, Salonen has some tough competition in this piece. Eugene Jochum (DG or EMI) does a better job conjuring up the mysticism of the nature motif; Otto Klemperer (EMI) holds the structure together better; and Karl Bohm (Decca) is probably best at maintaining the work's forward momentum. Salonen takes the slowest route; at almost seventy minutes long, the music tends to lag, and one wants to give the maestro a little nudge in the behind from time to time. Salonen tries heroically to sustain every note, mark every contrast, and coax the last ounce of splendor from the score, but he tries a little too hard. In the end, I was moved more by what the interpretation could have been than by what it was. Still, Salonen's effort is noble, and it's really hard not like Bruckner's lovely score no matter whose hands it's in.

Sony's sound, recorded at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA in May 1997 is big and full, with an enormous dynamic range. If Sony had made the recording in the really old, analogue days, Salonen's softest passages would have probably sunk beneath a surface of tape hiss. Here, in digital, the contrasts are splendidly dramatic, even if they appear more the work of the audio engineers than the conductor. Overall, too, the sound is a little dark and murky compared to, say, Klemperer (EMI) or Blomstedt (Denon), both of whom open up the stage more and allow us to hear further into the orchestra.

For the Bruckner fan and the Bruckner collector, I can recommend Salonen with little hesitation. For the first-time Bruckner buyer, however, maybe Klemperer, Bohm, or even the old Bruno Walter recording (Sony) would be safer places to start.


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

Dec 16, 2018

A QSF Journey (HDCD review)

Quartet San Francisco. Reference Recordings RR-143.

It's always good news when Reference Recordings releases a new album. It's doubly good news when their chief engineer, Keith O. Johnson, does the recording. It's triply good news when they make it a studio production. And it's quadruply good news when the studio they make it in is the prestigious Skywalker Sound. That the content of the album is contemporary material played by the excellent Quartet San Francisco (QSF) is like the icing on the cake.

If I may quote from Wikipedia: "Quartet San Francisco is a non-traditional and eclectic string quartet led by violinist Jeremy Cohen. The group played their first concert in 2001 and has recorded five albums. Playing a wide range of music genres including jazz, blues, tango, swing, funk, and pop, the group challenges the traditional classical music foundation of the string quartet.

"Quartet San Francisco won a tango music competition in New York in 2004, and their albums have been nominated five times for Grammy Awards: three in the Best Classical Crossover Album category and two for Best Engineered Album, Classical."

The group's current members are Jeremy Cohen, violin; Joseph Christianson, violin; Chad Kaltinger, viola; and Andres Vera, cello. They are consummate performers and work harmoniously with one another to form one of the most-accomplished and most-versatile quartets in the business. On the present album they play what they call "the spirit of our time," twelve relatively new tunes running high to tangos, most of them written or arranged by Mr. Cohen.

Here's a rundown on the program:

Tango Eight (Cohen)
Fiesta! (Lipsky)
Tango Carnevale (Cohen)
Francini (Cohen)
Rhapsody in Bluegrass (Gershwin­Rouse, arr. Cohen)
La Heroi´na (Cohen)
How Sweet the Sound (Cohen)
Federico II (Sollima)
Al Colo´n (Cohen)
Jasmine Flower/Beautiful Scenery of Wuxi (traditional Chinese folk songs, arr. Cohen)
Toroi Bandi (Mongolian folk song, arr. Cohen)
Jambo (traditional African folk song, arr. Cohen)

Quartet San Francisco
The Argentine tango takes center stage in the first track, "Tango Eight," with lively rhythms introducing us to the QSF style. The quartet follows it with an even livelier tune called "Fiesta" by Helmut Lipsky that is quite exciting. For a change of pace, the group have chosen a more leisurely piece called "Tango Carnevale," which is a sort of slow tango. Cohen says he wrote it after spending evenings in the neighborhoods of Buenas Aires. It's lovely.

And so it goes. The QSF play wonderfully well together, seeming to sense one another's movements instinctively and moving together as a whole, yet all the while emphasizing the unique contributions of each member. Thus, although each of the four musicians is a distinct individual with his own style, the combined result is one of effortless unanimity. They play together separately and together simultaneously.

Favorites? Yes, twelve of them. However, if forced to choose just one, I'd say "Rhapsody in Bluegrass," a combination of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Ervin T. Rouse's bluegrass fiddle favorite "Orange Blossom Special." Classical, jazz, and bluegrass: What could be more natural, and what could go wrong? That nothing goes wrong and everything goes right is remarkable. "La Heroina" and "How Sweet the Sound" I also found effective in quite different ways, but to quibble about favorites in so entertaining an album would just be...quibbling.

Let's call this one of my favorite albums of the year and be done with it.

Producers Victor Ledin and Marina A. Ledin, executive producer Marcia Gordon Martin, and engineer Keith Johnson recorded the music at Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California in May 2018. As we might expect from a small ensemble in an ideal setting, their HDCD sound reproduction is as lifelike as one could want. The clarity is astonishingly good, the spacing exemplary, the air and ambience realistic, the dynamics strong. Perhaps some listeners might prefer a more distanced approach to the miking, but there is certainly a greater transparency to the QSF sonics with the slightly closer approach Reference Recordings has taken. Whatever, this is audiophile quality sound in almost every way.


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

Dec 12, 2018

Bach's Circle (CD review)

Music of J.S. & J.C.F. Bach, Telemann, and Couperin. Allan Vogel, oboe; Janice Tipton, flute; Patricia Mabee, harpsichord, Mark Chatfield, viola da gamba; Nancy Sartain, continuo harpsichord. Delos DE 3214.

Oboist Allan Vogel reminds us in his booklet essay that, "In his mature years, Johann Sebastian Bach's circle of family, friends, students and colleagues was a large one. Bach was known to be a hospitable man who would often have concerts for this extended family in his home. Such a concert is the inspiration for this recording."

Of course, Bach may not have had Couperin in his own house, but his influence on Bach's work would have been considerable. Telemann, on the other hand, was the godfather to one of Bach's sons, so his impact was both personal and musical.

Anyway, the present disc begins with Telemann's Trio Sonata in E-flat Major and then goes on to Bach's Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1020, and Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1030b, the former much simpler and shorter than the more elaborate later work. The centerpiece of the program is Couperin's Concert Royal No. 4 in E Minor, an elegant set of dances; and the concluding work is son J.C.F. Bach's Sonata in C Major, the blithest and merriest of the sonatas, which makes a fitting conclusion to the agenda.

Allan Vogel
Allan Vogel is among the country's leading oboe players (and former Principal Oboe of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra). Here, he amply demonstrates his skills with delicate and graceful solo passages, particularly charming in the C Major Sonata where he plays a lighter, sweeter-sounding oboe d'amore. The small ensemble--Vogel, oboe; Janice Tipton, flute; Patricia Mabee, harpsichord, Mark Chatfield, viola da gamba; and Nancy Sartain, continuo harpsichord--play with ease and precision, always displaying a charming interaction and an effortless control.

I had not heard a Delos recording of chamber music before this one, released in 1998, and I was impressed by the clarity and definition the engineers brought to the sound, without sacrificing much in the way of natural room acoustics. They recorded the group a bit close for my taste, it's true, and the imaging does not allow for much front-to-back perspective (not that that matters so much with so few players), but other than that it is fairly realistic.

This is the kind of album that makes for either undivided primary listening or relaxing background music. Seems almost a shame, though, to waste it on background alone.


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

Dec 9, 2018

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 & 5 "Emperor" (CD review)

Nicholas Angelich, piano; Laurence Equilbey, Insula Orchestra. Erato 0190295634179.

I don't know how the rest of you keep up. American pianist Nicholas Angelich (b. 1970) has made some two dozen albums already, but the only things I could remember were his Brahms piano concertos, maybe because I reviewed them. In any case, he's been playing piano since the age of five and done concerts throughout the world, so all that practice apparently pays off. He's very good. Here, he presents Beethoven's last two piano concertos, Numbers 4 and 5.

When Beethoven was writing his nine symphonies, they seemed to become monumental in size and scope very fast with his third. But with his five piano concertos, they sort of built up incrementally, with No. 4 being impressively large and No. 5 being monumentally impressive. The album begins with No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, completed in 1806 (around time the composer wrote the Fourth Symphony and parts of the Fifth Symphony). Beethoven made the opening movement melodic, with the piano part often sounding improvisational. He then scored the slow movement for piano and strings, keeping it fairly poetic, with a slightly agitated orchestral accompaniment, leading quietly into the concluding Rondo: Vivace. With that, we get a passionate, tempestuous, rhythmic, stormy, yet graceful final movement; you name it, Beethoven threw it in.

Angelich's dexterity at the keyboard is on full display in the Fourth's opening movement. He nimbly glides through the music, making it all seem effortless. He uses a Pleyel piano from 1892, a good compromise between what Beethoven might have heard in his own lifetime and what we have today, and the orchestra tries to remain true to the spirit of Beethoven. The piano resonates clearly and richly, if perhaps not quite as smoothly as a modern instrument. Anyway, Angelich makes the whole concerto sound full of strength and élan, meaning he makes the work appear both extemporaneous and elegant at the same time. His playing is filled with a vigorous energy and a lyrical polish, with maybe a greater emphasis on the former, especially in the fleet-footed finale.

Nicholas Angelich
Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. The piece begins with a big, bravura Allegro, the piano entering immediately. In the central Adagio we get one of the Beethoven's loveliest melodies, a brief duet between piano and orchestra. Then there is a hushed transition into the final Rondo: Allegro, which takes the concerto to a glowing conclusion. Beethoven intended No. 5 to sound monumental, as I've said, although the smallish size of the Insula Orchestra (about forty-six players) under conductor Laurence Equilbey tends to make it more transparent than plush or weighty. Still, it holds its own.

Angelich's high-octane delivery is well suited to the first movement of the Fifth Concerto, even if it tends to dominate the orchestra more so than usual. Conductor and pianist keep the tempos on the urgent but not strident side, making for some exciting moments in the first and third movements. As for the beautifully meditative middle movement, it's fine, even if it's not as beautiful as Wilhelm Kempf's (DG) or as meditative as Stephen Kovacevich's (Philips). Angelich seems a little too matter of fact by comparison.

Producer Laure Casenave-Pere and engineer Thomas Dappelo recorded the concertos at La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France in March 2018. The sound of the piano and orchestra is generally refined and well balanced, if both appear a touch close. The highs are slightly rough, perhaps due to the closeness of the miking. Nevertheless, I particularly liked the realistic reproduction of the piano, which recreates a lifelike illusion. While the stereo width is more than adequate, the perception of depth is somewhat limited, making things not only a tad close but one-dimensional as well.


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

Dec 5, 2018

Milhaud: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (CD review)

Alun Francis, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel. CPO 999 539-2.

The French composer and conductor Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) wrote his Symphony No. 1, Op. 210 in 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War. He was nearly fifty years old at the time and had never written a complete symphony before. While he did not give the symphony a set program, the listener can infer freely from its varied material a possible scenario. The opening movement is light, pastoral, free, and easygoing. It calls to mind the lull before the storm, the peace before the War. The second movement opens boisterously, perhaps representing the War itself. The third movement is slow and serious but with little sense of danger; maybe wishful thinking. Then the finale brings us back to the martial music of the second movement and returns to a relaxed conclusion, possibly Milhaud anticipating a speedy resolution and end to hostilities. Or not. Certainly, he couldn't have anticipated the horrors to come.

Alun Francis
In the next twenty years, Milhaud would go on to write a dozen more symphonies. The Fourth Symphony, Op. 281 is decidedly programmatic, the composer having been commissioned by the French Minister of Education to write a piece based on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Revolution of 1848. Each movement represents a phase in the Revolution, bringing contrasting styles and tempi to a sound picture of vivid contrasts.

Both symphonies are pleasing to the ear, much different from the composer's earlier, more experimental works. Maestro Alun Francis and the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra bring both joy and despair to the pieces as they require and generally sets up a stately presence throughout. Neither work is particularly striking, yet Francis does a pretty good job bringing out their more imaginative and pictorial qualities. The orchestra likewise sounds good, although the sound it produces appears a tad undernourished compared to, say, the Berlin Philharmonic or Concertgebouw orchestras. Nevertheless, the ensemble displays a fine athleticism and flies through the musical scores with a fair degree of poise.

Miked at a moderate distance, the CPO album, recorded in 1995 and released in 1998, offers the listener a reasonably accurate facsimile of a real symphony orchestra. There is a realistic hall ambiance, a good stage depth, a modest frequency and dynamic range, and as much orchestral detail as we might expect from perhaps a fifteenth row seat or thereabouts. It is a not a recording to wow an audiophile or knock the socks off a neophyte; it just sounds like a large ensemble of players performing in your living room. I say good enough.


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

Dec 2, 2018

Kawarsky: Spoon Hanging from My Nose (CD review)

The Music of J.A. Kawarsky. Various orchestras and conductors. Navona Records NV6194.

If you are like me, you may not be familiar with the name of American composer, conductor, and music professor Jay A. Kawarsky (b. 1959). However, the title and cover art for this first album devoted entirely to his compositions and arrangements, "Spoon Hanging from My Nose," was too hard to resist.

Perhaps Kawarsky's most famous composition, Prayers for Bobby, premiered in 1996 with actress Marlo Thomas narrating and has been performed many times since. Unfortunately, it is not among the pieces on the present album. Nevertheless, it was a fortuitous decision on my part to take a chance and listen to the disc; the music it presents is pleasing, creative, and diverting.

The program consists of four major Kawarsky selections. The first is called Fastidious Notes for solo alto saxophone and chamber orchestra, here performed by Jonathan Helton, alto sax, and the Chicago Arts Orchestra led by Javier Mendoza. As Kawarsky wrote the piece for saxophonist Helton, we have to imagine Helton's interpretation being definitive. It's certainly authoritative and immaculately played. In fact, the whole work is easily accessible, and, as Kawarsky notes, if there are any hints of other composers in the music, well, imitation is the highest form of flattery.

The second item is the longest, a series of eighteen selections: the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, originally written in 1868-69 for vocal quartet and piano four hands and here orchestrated by Kawarsky for multiple voices (the Arizona Choir) and ten instruments. These pieces are really quite beautiful, quite lyrical and lilting renditions, and Brahms is, after all, Brahms. It's charming.

J.A. Kawarsky
The third item on the agenda is called And We All Waited, written for orchestra alone. Kawarsky calls it a reaction to the lack of any new legislation or regulation after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra performs the work under the direction of Maestro Petr Vronsky. Again Kawarsky provides hints of other composers, in this case he says Nielsen, Shostakovich, and Reicha, but I also hear Sibelius in there. In any case. the music is not unexpectedly the most somber and earnest on the program. Still, it is easy to listen to because the composer eschews most of the modern conventions that drive audiences to distraction, even Kawarsky's work does get a tad raucous at times.

The final item Kawarsky titled Episodes for piano and orchestra, and it celebrates the 75th anniversary of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, New Jersey. It is performed by the Saint Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, with Vladimir Lande, conductor, and Peter Laul. piano. It has kind of a jazzy beat, all up-tempo and rhythmic in the opening section and alternating with a more-serene landscape as the piece goes on. The most obvious borrowing the composer incorporates here is from Mussorgsky, and it works nicely. The soloist and orchestra afford the whole work a dignified presentation.

Producers John Page, Brad Michel, Vit Muzik, Alexei Barashkin, and Bob Lord, with engineers John McCartney, Brad Michel, Ales Dvorak, Jan Kosulic, and Alexei Barashkin recorded the music at Nichols Concert Hall, Chicago; Tucson Symphony Center, Tucson, AZ; Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic; and Studio 1, House of Radio, St. Petersburg, Russia in 2016-2018.

The various producers and engineers recorded each of the selections in different venues with differing ensembles, so there are some small, inevitable differences in sound. Overall, though, the sonics are smooth and fairly dynamic, with good depth and width qualities. While the opening solo piano is a bit too close for ultimate realism, it helps the performance by emphasizing the instrument. (The closing piano is better balanced.) The choir in the waltzes sounds particularly appealing, since so often choir recordings can be overly bright or edgy. This one is very lifelike. Detailing is a tad on the soft side yet pleasing on the ear, especially as the high end is so well extended. Perhaps not absolute audiophile, but close enough.

Besides, as I say, the album title is hard to resist.


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