Dec 29, 2019

Dvorak: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Khachaturian: Violin Concerto. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Teddy Abrams, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Avie AV2411.

It's always a pleasure to welcome a new recording by American virtuoso violinist Rachel Barton Pine (b. 1974). She began her concert career at the age of ten with Erich Leinsdorf and the Chicago Symphony in the mid 1980's and her recording career with the Dorian and Cedille labels in the mid 1990's. It was here with Cedille that I first encountered her and, I'm proud to say, first began reviewing her recordings. She continued making records mostly with Cedille up until just a few years ago when she began working with Avie Records. While today she appears to be recording with both Cedille and Avie, whatever the record company she has continued to produce well poised and sweetly polished performances, with some of the best sound afforded a violinist. The present Avie disc is a case in point.

Here, Ms. Barton Pine tackles two giant works of the violin concerto genre, those by Dvorak and Khachaturian, starting the album with the Dvorak. Even though Dvorak's Violin Concerto took its place in the basic classical repertoire long ago, it has never seemed to quite catch on with the public the way those from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and others have caught on. The Dvorak maybe hasn't quite the soaring lines, memorable melodies, and grand Romantic gestures we find in other popular concertos. Still, it offers its fair share of pleasures, which Ms. Barton Pine is eager to share with us.

So, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 53 in 1879, premiering it in 1883. The famous Hungarian violinist, conductor, composer, and teacher Joseph Joachim inspired Dvorak to write the piece, and the composer intended for Joachim to play it. However, as it turned out, Joachim didn't much care for the finished work and never did perform it. Despite the violinist's skepticism, though, Dvorak released the piece, and the rest is history, as they say. Still, I have some lingering doubts myself. Maybe Joachim had something, the music never impressing me as much as it has impressed some others, even in the capable hands of Ms. Barton Pine.

Rachel Barton Pine
Whatever, Dvorak begins the concerto with an Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too much), the "ma non troppo" marking used in all three movements. The violin enters almost immediately. Joachim may have felt that the orchestra dominated the score, but Dvorak made some revisions before premiering it. Here, with Ms. Barton Pine, there is no question the violin dominates. She asserts her authority on the music from the outset, clearly establishing who is in charge. She handles the primary melody with both power and grace, making it strong yet lyrical and flowing. It's quite rhapsodic and quite lovely.

The slow central section, the Adagio ma non troppo, is the emotional heart of the work. Again, Dvorak's marking indicates he didn't want the soloist or orchestra to take things too slowly, possibly not to make the music too sentimental. The movement became so popular that concert violinists often perform it as a stand-alone item. Be that as it may, in the hands of Ms. Barton Pine it sounds all of a piece with the rest of the concerto, an integral part rather than an artificial add-on. She maintains a good, forward pace (again, not too slow was Dvorak's advice), and invests the music with much inner feeling and joy. And I should add that Maestro Abrams's accompaniment is flawless, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds appropriately rich, lush, and accomplished.

In the Finale Dvorak returns to the radiant, dance-like tunes and Czech folk melodies of the opening movement. Ms. Barton Pine's interpretation is a delight, and along with Perlman (EMI) and Mutter (DG) must now count as one of the best recorded performances of the work available.

Coupled with the Dvorak we find the Violin Concerto of Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). He wrote it in 1940, and Soviet violinist David Oistrakh premiered it the same year. Apparently, Khachaturian found much influence for the work from the folk music of his native Armenia. It is a surprisingly old-fashioned piece of music for the mid twentieth century, with much rhythm, vitality, and melody, which may explain why it won the Stalin Prize in 1941 from a notoriously conservative body of Soviet judges who at the time were pretty much down on anything sounding even vaguely modern.

Ms. Barton Pine plays the Khachaturian with abandon. It appears she has had plenty of practice in doing so as she says she had an immediate connection with the work, and for a while it was her "go-to concerto for competitions." She brings out all the folk-inspired qualities of the music and invests it with a profusion of color.

Producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the concertos at RSNO Centre, Glasgow, Scotland in August 2018. The sound is quite good, with the soloist well centered and not too far out in front of the orchestra. Meanwhile, the orchestral detailing is also good, perhaps a tad bright and forward but nothing too objectionable. The dynamic range is wide, and transient impact is more than adequate. What's more, any minor edge in the upper frequencies is more than mitigated by the warmth of the lower midrange and upper bass. I don't think most people will be disappointed in Avie's sound.


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

Dec 23, 2019

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 (SACD review)

Marek Janowski, WDR Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 809.

Can a classical music fan really have too many recordings of the Beethoven Fifth and Sixth Symphonies? They are possibly the most popular pieces of music ever written and have probably been heard by more people over the past two hundred years than anything by Elvis or the Beatles. But, still, more recordings? If you're like me, you no doubt already have a armload of favorites on your shelves: for me it's Kleiber, Reiner, and Bohm in the Fifth; Reiner, Bohm, Walter, Klemperer, and Jochum in the Sixth.

So what's the big draw with this new recording from Marek Janowski and the WDR Symphony Orchestra (the German Radio Orchestra, Cologne) on Pentatone? Well, it's an SACD in stereo and multichannel, for what that's worth to you. Perhaps more important, it's one of the few pairings of these two famous symphonies on a single disc. Fact is, most record companies don't like putting them on one disc because they're popular enough on their own to sell twice as many copies. Moreover, the two symphonies together usually don't fit on a single CD. But Janowski takes them at such a brisk pace, they take up only seventy-three minutes together.

Of course, these quick tempos brings up another question: Should they be played this fast? We all know that Beethoven's own tempo markings using the newfangled metronome of the day are at odds with the traditional way conductors often play Beethoven. Unless the music director is conducting a historically informed performance and/or a period-instruments performance, the tempo choices are customarily personal decisions rather than rigid metronome markings, and these decisions have varied considerably over the years, providing the listener with a wide variety of choices and an even wider variety of favorites. This would discount, too, the fact that some musical scholars mistrust the accuracy of Beethoven's metronome. What I'm saying here is, Janowski's readings are speedy, and you may or may not take to them, especially the pedestrian nature of his "Pastorale."

The pairing of the Fifth and Sixth does make a lot of sense, though. Beethoven himself coupled them, along with other premieres, for a monumental concert in 1808. (What would any music lover of today give to have attended that concert, with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, and others?) They're among the best music ever written. And they make excellent contrasts: the daringly dramatic Fifth and the lyrically pictorial Sixth. So, whatever, it's nice to have them back-to-back.

Marek Janowski
Janowski's rapid pace works best in the Fifth Symphony, which opens the program. He's not as fast as, say, Roger Norrington (EMI, Virgin, Erato) who tried with the London Classical Players to follow Beethoven's metronome markings as scrupulously as possible. Janowski is closer to Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), although while Reiner seems thrilling, Janowski seems Now, that's not to say Janowski isn't exciting. His performance just seems more prosaic than Reiner's, despite the similarity of tempos. Those opening knocks of fate, for instance, lose a little something under Janowski when he bangs them out so quickly.

The second-movement Andante works best, although it, too, appears a touch commonplace next to Reiner. Nevertheless, it builds momentum as it moves along, leading nicely into the concluding Scherzo and subsequent finale, which blaze forth appropriately, though not quite memorably. The whole performance struck me as too rigid to be entirely memorable or uplifting.

It's Janowski's handling of the Symphony No. 6, the "Pastorale," though, that bothered me a little. Here, the conductor's penchant for hewing a mite too closely to Beethoven's metronome seems to drain the music of much of its charm. This is most apparent when Janowski continues in the first movement to rigidly conform to unchanging tempos, content to push forward without much contrasting feeling.

Then Janowski throws in an almost shockingly traditional "Scene by the Brook." He takes it smoothly, flowingly, and invests it with something like its old delights. Likewise with the "Merry Gathering of Country Folk," although here I thought the conductor missed something of the movement's humor by doing it up too inflexibly. It's like the old storytelling maxim: Show, don't tell. Janowski spends more time telling and not enough time showing. The notes are all there in the right places, but they convey precious few of Beethoven's picturesque subtleties.

And so it goes. I'd say if you already have favorite recordings of these two popular symphonies, you might just want to hang on to them and perhaps listen to Janowski's readings to confirm your long-held opinions.

Producers Seigwald Butow, Renaud Loranger, and Sebastian Stein and engineer Arnd Coppers recorded the music at Kolner Philharmonie, Germany in September 2018. They recorded the music in hybrid SACD, so the listener can play it in two-channel stereo or multichannel from the SACD layer (using an SACD player) or in two-channel stereo from the CD layer using a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

As always with an SACD, there is an enormous dynamic range, so watch your volume knob. The frequency response is a tad aggressive in the lower treble, making things somewhat harsh at times. Deep bass is not particularly prodigious, and the upper bass fails to mitigate the slightly forward quality of the upper regions. Orchestral depth is fine, too, if a bit on the one-dimensional side. Actually, it's a sound that rather complements Janowski's assertive performances. It just doesn't come across quite the way it might live in a concert hall.


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

Dec 18, 2019

The Chieftains: The Long Black Veil (Ultradisc review)

The Chieftains and various guests. Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc II UDCD 762.

It was good to have audiophile companies like Mobile Fidelity around, especially when they were doing their gold-disc thing, along with SACDs and now super-vinyl LPs. Mo-Fi's Ultradisc II gold remastering of the Chieftain's 1995 folk album "The Long Black Veil" was a welcome pleasure when they issued it back in 2004.

First, though, let me repeat a few remarks I made about RCA's original release of the album: Namely, I asked what Sting, Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Ry Cooder, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, Mick Jagger, and the Rolling Stones had in common. Well, they were all featured vocalists on this Chieftains disc.

The Chieftains are, of course, the award-winning Irish folk group that play on traditional instruments like the bodhran, uilleann pipes, and tiompan, and come as close to the roots of Irish music as any group alive. Here, they back up some respectable talent in tunes from both sides of the Atlantic.

The most moving are the ballads "Coast of Malabar" with Ry Cooder and "The Foggy Dew" with Sinead O'Connor. The most startling is the title song with Mick Jagger; and, yes, he does still have a singing voice. The most beautifully sung are, again, the two pieces by Sinead O'Connor. The most successful is "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" with Van Morrison, a tune that reached number 71 on the UK singles chart. The best sounding items (there were half a dozen recording locations used) are the ones by Ry Cooder, who has a golden touch with everything he records. The most interesting vocalist is Marianne Faithfull, whose voice had gained a pleasantly distinctive character over the years. The most bizarre but unforgettable track is the one by Tom Jones, a belter, singing the "Tennessee Waltz." (Jones at the time was looking more and more like ex-heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer, a belter himself, so maybe the comparison is apt.) Whatever, any album that has Sting singing in Gaelic and the Chieftains jamming with the Rolling Stones can't be all bad. I've played it again and again over the years, a sure sign of something good.

Here's a track listing for those of you who don't already have the album:
  1. Mo Ghile Mear ("Our Hero") - The Chieftains with Sting
  2. The Long Black Veil - The Chieftains with Mick Jagger
  3. The Foggy Dew - The Chieftains with Sinead O'Connor
  4. Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? - The Chieftains with Van Morrision
  5. Changing Your Demeanour - The Chieftains
  6. The Lily of the West - The Chieftains with Mark Knopfler
  7. Coast of Malabar - The Chieftains with Ry Cooder
  8. Dunmore Lassies - The Chieftains with Ry Cooder
  9. Love Is Teasin' - The Chieftains with Marianne Faithfull
10. He Moved Through the Fair - The Chieftains with Sinead O'Connor
11. Ferny Hill - The Chieftains
12. Tennessee Waltz/Tennessee Mazurka - The Chieftains with Tom Jones
13. The Rocky Road to Dublin - The Chieftains with The Rolling Stones

The Chieftains
Now, is it worth paying out the extra money for Mobile Fidelity's gold treatment? Well, is anything worth the money if it's only a little bit better? Things audiophile, be they software or hardware, are a matter of very personal taste, and the fact is, most people can't tell the difference, anyway. So, probably 99% of all the people in the world with stereo systems wouldn't notice anything better or worse about this Mo-Fi remastering any more than they would notice a difference in a JVC XRCD or FIM UHD remastering. Mo-Fi gold discs, like anything audiophile, are for a very discerning (and, one hopes, well-heeled) listener with a reasonably high-quality audio system to appreciate,

Yes, as with every Mo-Fi disc I have listened to in the past forty-odd years (half-speed remastered LP to gold-plated CD's), I did hear a difference for the better (particularly with this gold remaster). Is it the gold that makes the improvement, as all the gold remastering companies have always claimed? I've never been convinced, wondering if a carefully well-engineered remastering itself has probably more to do with the improvements. After all, the folks at JVC XRCD don't use gold plating, and their results are equally impressive.

Be that as it may, this gold remastering does sound better in a side-by-side comparison than the original RCA issue. Using two CD players and switching the discs every song from one player to the other, I kept going back and forth between recordings making instant comparisons. Results: The gold disc was tighter, better focused in every song; the gold disc had a firmer bass line; the gold disc was cleaner; and the gold disc was smoother overall. The differences were most noticeable in the opening track, where in the RCA disc Sting and his accompaniment sounded almost out-of-phase by comparison. Also, in O'Connor's singing where high notes are prevalent, I could hear the difference in clarity and smoothness.

Is the extra money worth the incrementally small improvements? Not my job to say; only to report. But I liked what I heard.


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

Dec 15, 2019

Carollo: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also includes a Blu-ray documentary on the making of the symphony, plus a recording of the symphony in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo LPCM. Emma Tring, soprano; Miran Vaupotic, London Symphony Orchestra. Navona Records NV6250.

Although there are over half a dozen recordings of composer John A. Carollo's music in the catalogue, he may not be entirely familiar to you. According to the Society of Composers, "John was born in Torino, Italy and brought to the U.S. by his adoptive parents. When he was in grade school, studying classical piano and singing in the church choir, his musical friends were listening to English folk-rock music, mostly Fairport Convention and The Pentangle. Moving from Oil City, Pennsylvania to San Diego, California, he attended college, taking courses in music and psychology. During this time, John took piano lessons and began composing his first piano works. He graduated from San Diego State University with a Masters Degree in Psychology. Shortly after, he moved to Honolulu, began a full-time mental health career for the State of Hawaii and began taking private composition lessons with Dr. Robert Wehrman. John's first composition under Bob's tutelage was a piano suite in six parts. Following this effort, Robert encouraged John to compose an atonal work entitled Frenetic Unfoldings for Solo Violin. After completing this large work, John focused his energies on compositions which incorporated various instrumentation."

Anyone whose friends enjoyed Pentangle can't be all bad.

For a little background on Carollo's Symphony No. 3, here's what the composer says about his writing it: "It had its beginnings as a song cycle entitled "Awake Humanity to Nature's Beauty!" I took the poetry of William Blake and set it to music. Blake infuses nature into much of his poetry and he has the distinction of being the father of the Romantic Period in art.

"Beginning with an ode to morning, the music transverses the romantic side of human nature until we reach the evening stillness, which often arouses human appetites. Within our daily dialogue, gestures express ideas or meaning in ways that words cannot convey, where body movements speak louder than utterances. Our gestures can be intensely energetic, billed with vibrato and fire, or calm and deliberate with much playfulness and merriment as we live our daily drama of life. It's within this garden of earthly delights that our cravings, quests, and seductions, where a person whose affection or favor has been son, take on significance and form. The third movement conveys a romantic adventure, while the four satisfies the yearning for human bonding as we indulge in our romantic affairs."

OK. So, the symphony begins quietly, perhaps with the predawn, and then introduces a big splash of color at the break of dawn. These opening moments are reminiscent of much English pastoral music in setting a bucolic tone, but the music soon develops its own spirit as it becomes more animated.

Miran Vaupotic
The second movement is called "Gestural Rituals," where the composer mentions "intensely energetic" gestures, drama and merriment. Again, we get a series of tonal impressions, from lightweight to severe, sometimes seeming to lean to the fragmented side. If this is, indeed, a musical picture of our daily life, then I suppose, yeah, we all go through a succession of stages throughout the day. I liked the bright, lyrical passages, interspersed as they are with heavier, ponderous sections. Sounds about the way we all get along with one another.

For the slow, third movement, Carollo captions it "In the Garden of Earthly Delight," in homage to both William Blake and, especially, painter Hieronymus Bosch. As we would anticipate from such antecedents, the music, supplemented by a wordless soprano, is episodic, lyrical and frenetic by turns. Carollo calls it "a romantic adventure," which is putting it mildly.

The final movement, "Let the Evening Stillness Arouse," brings us to the end of our day, and just as Carollo began the work, he concludes it with a note of quiet reserve. While I believe the composer expects us to sense a degree of sexual tension in this last chapter--arousal as the title suggests--it ends rather, uh, anticlimactically.

Nevertheless, it's still fun following the various moods, motions, signals, and expressions of modern humankind as we toil through our everyday lives, trying to find some meaning in all of it. As with so much modern music, it's all about expressing different thoughts to different listeners, and surely that's a good thing. And it's all particularly well performed by Maestro Miran Vaupotic and the London Symphony Orchestra, who have always been a good, quick read.

Quibbles? Although it's nice to find new music that's interesting, accessible, and reasonably enjoyable, Carollo's symphony doesn't offer one much time to enjoy it. Yes, the Navona package offers a second disc, but it's mainly more of the same. The CD of the symphony itself is less than thirty minutes long, which seems rather short measure. I know it must be expensive recording with the LSO, but even some short solo works by Carollo might have helped fill out the disc, while at the same time providing an even wider look at the man's output. But, as I say, I quibble.

Executive producer Bob Lord and engineers Brad Michel and Chris Barrett recorded the symphony at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London in April 2019. The package includes two discs: one a regular two-channel CD and the other a Blu-ray disc containing a mini-documentary on the making of the music and a recording of the symphony in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo LPCM. I listened to the regular two-channel CD, as my surround-sound home theater is in another room, with speakers inferior to those in my main music listening area.

There is good separation of instruments involved, with a warm, effulgent bloom radiating through the more massed passages. Orchestral depth is a tad lacking, and inner transparency can become a bit muddied at times, but it is not unlike what one might expect to hear from an actual concert performance.

Finally, and speaking of two discs, Navona have packaged them in a single, fold-over cardboard container with pockets in each side. This proved difficult to get the discs out without my getting my fingers all over them, always a problem with these kinds of packages but made doubly so by having to deal with two discs. I understand the cost efficiency of the arrangement, but not, unfortunately, the inconvenience to the listener.


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

Dec 11, 2019

On Controlling Volume…

By Bryan Geyer

The preamplifier has served as a standard link in the audio chain since the dawn of hi-fi. The title doubtless derives from its essential function: To amplify (and equalize, when a phono cartridge input is involved) the incoming low level source signals, and boost them to full line level amplitude prior to driving the power amplifier. The preamp also serves to manage source selection, volume control, and, traditionally, lossy tone controls*. Further, all functions must be achieved consistent with proper source loading, and should provide good output isolation, i.e.: present low Zout relative to the load impedance.

Times change. Your present source signals are likely to already be at full “line level”, and most of them can already drive the power amplifier to full output directly, without further amplification.** Injecting more boost from the preamp’s line level gain stage (generally +8dB to +12dB, sometimes as much as +20dB) will simply force the user to push the volume control down near the 9 o’clock arc, a position where the attenuation taper is cramped, calibration is compromised, and stereo tracking is inherently poor. In this event, you’d do well to entirely bypass the preamplifier’s traditional line level gain.

Although there might be no need to amplify any incoming line level signals, it’s still necessary to provide for source selection and volume management, and to do both in a manner that assures proper source loading and good output isolation. With due care, and by imposing just one reasonable restriction (explained below), that challenge can be entirely satisfied by purely passive means, without resorting to any active circuitry. The consequent solution is normally named a “passive preamp”. It might be more accurate to call such box the main controller.

The main controller is a good place to get fussy. The input selector and the master volume attenuator represent the sole tactile link between your fingers and your auditory perception, so those parts merit top quality. Ditto the requisite input/output connector jacks. The main controller is also the part of your system that you’ll manipulate the most, so it should be prominently placed and readily accessible. Compact size will prove helpful, so consider the advantage implicit with the use of RCA-type in/out jacks. By using RCA jacks you can mount four full stereo channels (L/R inputs x 4 + main L/R outputs = 10 jacks total) on a tidy 2 inch by 6 inch panel (see photo), whereas XLR connectors are too massive for more than two channels. Given normal home environs, the use of XLR connectors here would not confer the slightest noise advantage. That fact is further assured by limiting the permissible output connection cable length to 1 meter maximum, a minor concession that reflects the above noted passive design constraint. This length limit is actually imposed to assure that there’s no significant (-0.3dB) 20kHz rolloff arising from shunt cable capacitance when a passive 10kΩ or 20kΩ log-taper volume attenuator is positioned at its worst case (highest) Zout setting.

A value of 10kΩ to 20kΩ for the master volume attenuator is sufficiently high to provide a Zin that’s fully compatible with any known solid-state source component. The latter typically exhibit a low Zout, on the order of ~ 50-150 Ohms. Conversely, a 10kΩ or 20kΩ load would not be suitable for a vacuum tube source component. The typical cathode-follower output stage of a tube-type source will exhibit a much higher Zout, hence need materially higher load impedance, i.e. ~ 50kΩ. And a passive 50kΩ attenuator would then require active circuitry to provide a tolerable (low) Zout—so forget about using a tube circuit as a source component.

In order to maintain good calibration accuracy, the loading on a 10kΩ or 20kΩ volume attenuator should be on the order of some 5X to 10X the attenuator’s worst case (highest) Zout setting. That Zout is, respectively, 2.5kΩ and 5kΩ. Both values are then fully compatible with the typical input impedance of most solid-state power amplifiers, where Zin is generally ≥ 30kΩ. The potential error is even less when an active external crossover controller is the load, as Zin is then on the order of some 75kΩ to 100kΩ. Check the specified Zin of your own equipment to be sure that it presents a similar value.

There are a great many different commercially available passive preamp designs on the market, at prices ranging from $49.50 to insanity (~ $8k), with a very wide variety of means (some quite bizarre) applied to set the volume level. My personal choice is Goldpoint’s model SA4, as made by Goldpoint Level Controls, of Sunnyvale, CA. Refer

The price (order direct, on-line) for a Goldpoint SA4 is $532 + tax and shipping. That expense may seem steep, given the functional simplicity involved, but the general level of excellence, choice of components, and the craftsmanship applied justifies the maker’s tag. It’s an elegant product. The standard Goldpoint SA4 provides four stereo input channels, utilizing RCA jacks. (There’s also a two channel stereo XLR version if you insist on adhering to those bigger input jacks.) The volume attenuator consists of a premium quality Elma 24 position double-deck switch, with 23 laser-trimmed ±0.5% thin film nichrome low noise resistors per channel.*** See the SA4 product page at Also, take the time to read the informative section about stepped attenuators versus conventional volume control potentiometers… (It’s way down at the bottom of that page.)

It’s a distinct pleasure to utilize a fully calibrated stepped attenuator to control the output volume. The design accurately exhibits exact incremental gain steps, with closely matched stereo channel tracking and the visual ability to precisely reset a given reference level. Even the very best of the continuously variable rotary controls is crude and sloppy in comparison with this stepped switch.

I recommend Goldpoint’s basic 24 position stepped attenuator, rather than their newer 47 position option. The former is basically a 2dB/step attenuator, with the last 28dB of cut compressed into a tapered 5 step descent as you approach the fully-off position. The net result is 62dB of total attenuation, most of it accessed in gentle -2dB steps progressing from the fully-on position. This design is ideal. In the past 7 years of using my own Goldpoint SA4 (with 24 position attenuator) I have never wished for a control with finer resolution. I find 2dB/step to be quite perfect. The mechanics are equally excellent. The switch mechanism is quiet and reliable, and the rotation is very smooth, optimally damped.

BG (December 3, 2019)

*Tonal adjustments are best accomplished by utilizing a separate external active crossover control unit that directly loads the preamp and feeds the ensuing power amplifiers. Active crossover controls facilitate variable selection of the desired low pass-to-high pass crossover frequency, with adjustable damping and adjustable boost/cut of the independent low/high passbands. This provides a cleaner, more precise, and more logically managed means of altering the tonal nuance of the system than previously possible with traditional tone control filtration.

**Do confirm that you can drive your system to full output directly, without the need for supplementary preamp gain. In most cases this will be true, but exceptions happen; it’s dependent on your power amplifier’s internal voltage gain and on loudspeaker efficiency. Power amplifiers exhibit different internal voltage gains. Most designs range between +23dB and +29dB; refer spec. sheet, see “input sensitivity” (or equivalent term). Power amplifiers with gain = +29dB (e.g.: 1 Vrms input produces 100 Watts output [28.28 Vrms] across an 8Ω load) are inherently capable of reaching their full rated output capability when driven by virtually any modern line level program source. Power amplifiers with internal gain ≤ +24dB fall into an area that I consider marginal for use with a passive preamp when driving low efficiency mini-monitor speakers. Try to stick with amplifiers that provide ≥ +26dB gain.

***If you’re a compulsive DIY perfectionist (me), you might consider buying a naked attenuator (no resistors) switch from Goldpoint that’s made for axial lead resistors, and rig your own attenuator.† That entails some careful work, and some fussy ordering. Why would anyone do this? Well, you might want a different attenuator value. (I wanted a 20kΩ attenuator. Goldpoint’s nearest standard is 25kΩ.) Also, you might want resistors with a ±0.1% tolerance, whereas Goldpoint trims their surface-mounted nichrome resistors to ±0.5%. If you chose to run this DIY route…
(a) Contact Goldpoint for guidance on the discrete resistor values needed for your custom attenuator; they have a programmed “app” for their 24 position model.
(b) Order your resistors on-line from Mouser Electronics. Specify TE Connectivity (brand), 1/4 Watt, axial lead, metal film (low noise), ±0.1% tolerance, with thermal coefficient 15ppm.

†Use Kester “type 44” solder (Sn63/Pb37), 0.025 inch Ø (22 AWG) size, and a small conical soldering tip with good lighting + some magnification. Keep a nearby fan going to disperse the leaded solder fumes. (Do not consider a lead-free solder.) Mouser might need several months to deliver all of the special ±0.1% values that you want, but they’ll keep you informed, and will eventually deliver every value, so don’t compromise. Your reward lies in the knowledge that your DIY calibrated attenuator exhibits exceptional accuracy.

Dec 8, 2019

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (SACD review)

Osmo Vanska, Minnesota Orchestra. BIS BIS-2346 SACD.

"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?" --Educating Rita

I've used that quote a number of times because of both its appropriateness (Mahler is a great composer) and its inappropriateness (the world does not hang of one's appreciation of Mahler's music). In fact, Mahler's unique traits are so obvious throughout his music that his nine (or ten or eleven) symphonies might just as well be considered a single, monumental work, something Mahler probably intended, anyway. Some years ago I hadn't played but about two seconds of a Mahler symphony before my wife yelled from another room, "Mahler!" Indeed. "How did you know from only a couple of notes?" I asked. "I'd know his style anywhere," she answered.

So, as you know, Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) premiered his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1889, called it a five-movement symphonic poem, and temporarily gave it the subtitle "Titan." It was not long after, however, that he revised it to the familiar four-movement piece we know today, dropping the "Titan" business altogether. That's what we have here in this new SACD recording from Maestro Osmo Vanska and his Minnesota Orchestra.

I don't think it was coincidental that Mahler's symphonies became especially popular in the mid-to-late 1950's, the beginning of the stereo age. I'm guessing it was because with their scoring for large orchestras, their soaring melodies, their enormous impact, and their multitude of dramatic contrasts, the symphonies make a spectacular listening experience, and the experience became a perfect way for audiophiles to show off their newfangled stereo systems. In addition, his First and Fourth are among Mahler's shortest symphonies, making them a good length for home listening.

Anyway, in his Symphony No. 1 Mahler explained he was trying to describe his protagonist (maybe himself) facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring.

Osmo Vanska
Under Vanska's direction, the coming of spring begins very quietly, in part because it's a quiet spring day and in part because the conductor wants shortly to open up the movement to a wide dynamic range. He succeeds on both counts. Some listeners may find Vanska's direction a little too leisurely, too relaxed, and lacking in spark. But the sparks do fly when needed; otherwise, the conductor is more concerned with atmosphere than setting the world on fire. Remember, in this symphony Mahler intended a specific agenda, making the work kind of set of interconnected tone poems, much like Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony. Vanska does as good a job as anyone in helping us to see and understand Mahler's intentions.

In the second-movement scherzo, "With Full Sail," we find Mahler in one of his mock-sentimental moods, displaying an exuberance that he probably meant as ironic. Whatever, Maestro Vanska plays up the more lyrical qualities of an unhurried stroll in the woods rather than the full exhilaration of the moment.

In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one (his brother died a decade earlier). With Mahler, who knows. The movement has long been one of the composer's most controversial, and audiences still debate just what he was up to. Whatever, Vanska's treatment of it seems more straightforward, more seriously solemn, than most interpretations I've heard. Maybe that's as it should be.

Then, in the finale, Mahler breaks the reverie and conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the movement's final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing. Maestro Vanska also pulls out the stops as he whips his orchestra into a red-blooded fury. And the Minnesota Orchestra acquit themselves wonderfully, producing a big, rich, radiant, and highly disciplined sound

So, how does Vanska's realization of the symphony compare to some of my favorites from Solti, Horenstein, Kubelik, Mackerras, Haitink, Bernstein, Tennstedt, and others? To me, Solti's first stereo recording with the London Symphony (HDTT or Decca) still holds up best interpretively, and Tennstedt's first EMI recording still makes the best sonic impact. Nevertheless, I've always admired Vanska's work, especially in Sibelius and Mahler, and here it is no different. Although he may convey a more gentle handling of the symphony than the others I've mentioned, there is much beauty in his performance, a beauty often overlooked by other conductors in favor of Mahler's more histrionic qualities.

BIS packaged the disc in a cardboard fold-over sleeve, which they say "is made of FXC/PEFC-certified material with soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water-based varnish. It is easy to recyle, and no plastic is used." So it doesn't have a Digipak-style plastic holder for the disc but instead uses a paper inner sleeve that fits into a side pocket. Very nice.

Producer Robert Suff and engineer Mattheas Spitzbarth recorded the symphony at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota in March 2018. They made it for hybrid SACD and CD playback, so you can play it in multichannel or two-channel stereo from the SACD layer (using an SACD player) and two-channel stereo from the CD layer (using a regular CD player). I listened in two-channel SACD.

As always with a BIS recording, the sound is very natural. The microphone distancing provides a natural, concert hall-like perspective. The frequency response is warm and natural. The detailing is smooth and natural. The dynamics are wide and natural. You won't find an audiophile lovers' close-up definition here nor the clinical accuracy of an old Decca Phase-4 release. As I say, this is simply natural sound, the kind one might actually hear in person.


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

Dec 4, 2019

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos. 7 "Sinfonia Antartica" & 9 (CD Review)

Andrew Manze, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Onyx 4190.

By Karl W. Nehring

I was happily surprised recently to find this new CD release containing the generous pairing (more than 83 minutes!) of these two symphonies by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Having auditioned a couple of previous releases in British conductor Andrew Manze's ongoing Vaughan Williams cycle, I was eager to give this new release an audition. 

In 1947, Vaughan Williams composed music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, which portrayed the ill-fated South Pole expedition of Royal Navy officer Captain Robert Scott, whose quest to lead the first party to reach the South Pole was beaten buy a month by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's expedition. On their way back from the Pole in 1912, Scott and all four other members of his party met their frozen deaths. Intrigued by the story and satisfied with the music he had composed for the film, Vaughan Williams set the score aside with the idea of composing a symphony based upon some of the themes. It took him a while to get to it, not starting work on the symphony until 1949, and it took him a while to finish it, finally completing his seventh full symphony in the latter part of 1952. Although the music can stand on its own independent from the story of the ill-fated polar expedition, the title that the composer gave to this work certainly invites the listener to contemplate that frozen continent; moreover, the literary quotations attached to the movements clearly evoke thoughts the tragic story.   

My wife and I have long had a musical custom that involves the "Sinfonia Antartica" (yes, that is the correct spelling – the composer titled this symphony in Italian). On that first fall day on Ohio when a big cold front moves in and a blast of frigid air lets us know that winter is on its inevitable way, we play it. On especially cold winter days when the snow is piling up, we often play it. And on especially hot summer days, we often play it.

Of course, we play it at other non-weather-related times, too, simply because it is a grand and stirring composition full of spectacular sounds. The large orchestra is augmented by an organ, a wordless three-woman mini-choir, a wordless soprano (Rowan Pierce), gong, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, piano, celesta, and last but not least, a wind machine. In addition, literary quotations meant to be spoken aloud (on this recording by Timothy West) have been attached to each of the five movements. Many recordings omit them, some recordings (with the advent of programmable digital media such as the CD) include them bunched together so that you can do with them what you will, but this Onyx recording has put them at the beginning of each movement. I did not think I would like this when I first obtained this disc, but can report that I have enjoyed it, and have preceded my comments below about each movement with its appropriate quotation.

Andrew Manze
Prelude:Andante maestoso – "To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,/ To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,/ To defy power which seems omnipotent,/ ... / Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:/ This ... is to be/ Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,/ This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory." (from Shelley, Prometheus Unbound). This movement establishes the feeling of challenging the cold and desolation of the frozen expanse. Opening with a stately theme, the orchestral forces project a sense of grandeur, while the voices and wind machine that come in later in the movement offer a sense of desolation and fear. The listener cannot help but contemplate the cold and vastness of the Antarctic. The powerful sounds so well captured by the engineering team recording, from the tinkling of the percussion to the Telarc-like bass drum will provide a test for your system and a feast for your ears and imagination. The movement ends with a kind of fanfare and drum roll.

Scherzo:Moderato – "There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein. " (Psalm 104, Verse 26). This lively movement produces a feeling of restless motion as themes are presented by various sections of the orchestra. Brass, percussion, strings, and woodwinds all get an opportunity to add to the energy.

Landscape:Lento — Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain—/ Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!" (from Coleridge, Hymn before Sunrise, in the vale of Chamouni). This central movement of the symphony projects a sense of vastness and danger even at it provides a severe test of the ability of your audio system to play cleanly with power and authority. The movement starts slowly but soon begins to bloom with powerful organ notes providing a bass foundation for the orchestra above. There is a feeling of brooding, of fear, of the sheer immensity of the Arctic landscape.

Intermezzo:Andante sostenuto — "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time." (from Donne, The Sun Rising). This quote is spoken over some lingering notes from the orchestra as the third movement slides directly into the fourth as specified by the composer. Like the second movement, this fourth movement evokes a feeling of restlessness, but at a slower pace. What had been a restlessness born of eagerness in the second movement has been humbled by the immensity of the hostile landscape of the third movement, and we now sense the restlessness of our explorers contemplating defeat and impending doom. Rather than the huge chords of the earlier movements, the orchestration in this movement focuses somewhat more on solo instruments and smaller forces. 

Epilogue:Alla marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro) — "I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint." (from Captain Scott's Last Journal). The final movement begins with a drum roll and brass fanfare. Does this signify a final sense of nobility, or rather a false bravado in the face of defeat and death? As the movement unfolds, we hear the wind machine and chorus, echoes of the symphony's opening theme (dreamlike remembrance of what seemed at the outset to be a noble quest?), and then the soprano, chorus, and wind machine as the symphony and quest fade to the end.

The composer's final symphony, the Ninth (hmmm…) is a wonderful work that seems to be largely overlooked, at least here in the United States. Some years back, for example, I got a phone call out of the blue from some fellow who had obtained my unlisted home phone number (yes, I am old). At some point in the conversation he asked me about Vaughan Williams. Which of RVW's symphonies were my favorites? "Well, let's see," I replied, "I like the Ninth…," but before I could get in another word, he came back with an exasperated-sounding, "the NINTH? Really? What about the Fifth? The NINTH??" Well… Truth be told, the RVW Fifth is my favorite of his nine symphonies. In fact, it is one of my favorite symphonies, period. But his Ninth is pretty darn good, too, and Manze and the RLPO deliver a fine performance.

The first time I ever heard the Ninth was by way of an Everest LP (remember Everest? 35mm tape technology, a real step forward sonically, but then subverted by mediocre pressings, not to mention their often laughable cover art) with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra that I purchased back in 1976 or so. This was the very first recording of this work, and Vaughan Williams was to be on hand for this auspicious occasion. Sadly, he passed away just hours before the session. The LP opened with Sir Adrian informing the orchestra of the composer's death.

An interesting feature of the Ninth is the saxophone trio that RVW added to the orchestra, resulting in a sonority that you do not often hear in symphonic music. And no, the effect is not at all jazz-like. Very interesting!

The opening movement reminds me somewhat of the Seventh, with some themes sounding similar in feeling. The second movement, which opens with a flugelhorn solo (this apparently caused some eyebrows to raise when the work was new), brings in an element of mystery, perhaps even a sense of danger, especially near the end. The third movement is more jaunty and bouncy, with the saxophones and percussion section getting a chance to have some fun, the movement ending with a drum roll on the snares. The final movement starts with the strings and then gives all the various parts of the orchestra time in the spotlight, with some especially poignant sounds from the saxophones near the end. The music is complex but flowing, showing Vaughan Williams to be still at the height of his compositional powers even late in his long life.

Overall, this is a truly fine release. Manze's way with these symphonies is right up there with the very best. For the Seventh, my favorite has long been Handley on EMI, and I have enjoyed Bakels on Naxos (spectacular sound, but the conducting seemed to be a bit overly dramatic at times) and Boult on EMI/Angel. In the Ninth, I have enjoyed the Haitink on Warner Classics and the Slatkin on RCA. Both performances – and the attendant sound quality – on this new Manze release on Onyx stand right up there with the very best. I highly recommend it.


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

Dec 1, 2019

Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 17 & 24 (CD review)

Orli Shaham, piano; David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Canary Classics CC18.

No, you're not experiencing a bout of deja vu. The coupling of Mozart's cheerful Piano Concerto 17 with his more somber Piano Concerto 24 is fairly common on records. So common, in fact, that I reviewed two different recordings of the same pair of concertos within days of one another. This one features pianist Orli Shaham, Maestro David Robertson, and the St. Louis Symphony.

According to Wikipedia, Orli Shaham (b. 1975) is an American pianist, born in Jerusalem, Israel and the sister of violinist Gil Shaham. She graduated from the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, New York, attended Columbia University, and also studied at the Juilliard School.

Orli Shaham has performed with major orchestras throughout the world and won numerous awards, including the Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1995 and the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1997.  She has appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Detroit and Atlanta Symphonies, Orchestre National de Lyon, National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, Cleveland Orchestra, Houston Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Florida Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, Orchestra of La Scala (Milan), Orchestra della Toscana (Florence), and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.

In November 2008, she became artistic advisor to the Pacific Symphony and curator of their "Cafe Ludwig" chamber music series. She also has a radio feature carried by the Classical Public Radio Network called "Dial-a-Musician," in which she calls expert colleagues to answer listener questions. In 2003, Shaham married David Robertson, then Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and they accompany her on the present recording.

The program starts with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453, written along with five others in 1781. The concerto is lyrical and playful, and Shaham's performance is as sunny as the piece requires, yet it remains classically refined. Mozart intended a degree of melancholy in the second-movement Andante, and Shaham does a good job bringing it out without undue gushiness. Then, there's the finale, which so pleased Mozart that he taught his pet starling to sing it. Shaham enjoys it and helps us to enjoy it as well in a sprightly reading. Here, Ms. Shaham impresses us most of all with her fluid virtuosity. It's a big, flowing a performance. And when I say big, I mean the orchestra appears a little too big here for Mozart's music.

Orli Shaham
The Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K491 is, as I said earlier, a contrast to No. 17, more serious, darker in tone, and more dramatic, almost operatic. Mozart finished it in 1786, writing it for a larger array of instruments than for No. 17, more so, in fact, than for any of his other concertos, and its opening movement is the longest he had written to that point. Here, the size of the St. Louis Symphony seems more appropriate than it did No. 17. Some music critics admire the concerto so much, they consider it the best piano concerto Mozart ever wrote. Who knows? Music is so much a matter of taste and opinion, it's hard to say.

You can tell from its lengthy introduction that No. 24 has a bigger feel to it than his previous concertos and a more somber mood. When the piano finally enters, it's quietly subdued, the pianist gradually increasing its emotional scope and building its dramatic intensity. Still, Shaham's playing is always graceful and elegant, as well as dazzling. Mozart intended the slow, middle movement to be sweet and simple, so Shaham tries to keep it that way, perhaps making it a tad too matter of fact at times. The concerto culminates in a set of variations comprising an essentially tragic finale, which Shaham plays with a fine precision, although, again, perhaps missing something of the drama.

As with so many pianists before her, Shaham's performances of both concertos are thoughtful and polished, the pianist adding a degree of warmth to her interpretations that sets them apart. Whether they sound a touch too "old-fashioned" in this day of historically informed performances remains a matter of personal taste.

Producer Erica Brenner and engineer Paul Hennerich recorded the concertos at Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri, in November 2017 and January 2018. Ultrasmooth sound and a good dynamic range help make this an enjoyable experience. Imaging is a bit on the large, sometimes overcrowded side, with bunches of instruments seeming to be on top of one another, especially in the left violin section. The piano is nicely placed, however, at center front, neither too far in front of nor buried by the orchestra. It makes for comfortable listening.


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

Nov 27, 2019

Haydn: Favourite Symphonies Nos. 88, 92, 95, 98, 100, 101, 102, 104 (CD review)

Separately, Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Klemperer, Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras. EMI/Warner Classics 5099921530 (Haydn); EMI CMS7- 63613-2 (Schumann).

Originality, singularity, and individuality are elements key to prominence in any field. No one aspiring to greatness can do so through imitation alone. Otto Klemperer was a great conductor because he dared to be different. Unlike many of today's homogeneous conductors, Klemperer was unafraid to impose his personality on his interpretations. Not that all of his performances attained greatness, of course, as the following examples testify, but those that were on target will remain with us for as long as people enjoy music.

Yes, Klemperer's tempos were slow. The man's constant insistence on structural integrity and strong symphonic design often left his music sounding merely slower than that of his rivals. But listen again. Listen to the Schumann First "Spring" Symphony, for instance--the highlight of his Schumann set. The music sings. There is not a trace of the ponderous heaviness of which Klemperer is sometimes accused. There is, instead, a light-footed sureness that creates a totally delightful Spring. It is the best, most thoroughly convincing rendering of this score available. His version of the Fourth is almost equally fetching, but in a different way. It combines a deftness of touch with a powerful, yet well-balanced, rhythmical proposition that produces a performance of towering proportions. Where the First possesses an appropriate spirit of benign vitality, the Fourth has an apt sense of grandiloquence.

Unfortunately, Klemperer's Second and Third Schumann symphonies don't fare as well. No. 3 begins sluggishly and never attains the grandeur for which the conductor was evidently striving. It's a good, if flawed, effort, which is more than can be said about No. 2, which I find simply boring. Nevertheless, with two symphonies that are treasures (Nos. 1 and 4) and one so-so (No. 3), the set is a bargain at mid price. And one can have a little fun with the sound as well. The two earliest symphonies Schumann wrote, Nos. 1 and 4, were also the earliest of this set recorded, in 1966 and 1961 respectively, and the sound is typical of the time: close-up, with a good deal of highlighting of individual instruments and compartmentalizing of orchestral sections. The sonics are stunningly vivid and dynamic in a hi-fi sense, if not too genuine from a concert hall perspective. Nos. 2 and 3, on the other hand, are more realistically recorded. They were made in 1970 and incorporate EMI's later views on natural sound. Miked at a moderate distance, they are not as lucid as the earlier efforts, but the orchestral image is more of a whole, the sounds of the hall and individual instruments blending to produce greater unity and cohesion. Both recording techniques are valid, to be sure, and both methods have their adherents. It's a bonus to hear them in the same set where the differences are so clearly revealed.

Otto Klemperer
This brings us to the Haydn symphonies, recorded in the early to mid Sixties. Here I suspect one's appreciation for Klemperer's performances must depend on one's regard for his recordings of Mozart; they are of the same mold. This is big-scale Haydn, generally slow and steady, emphasizing as always the music's architecture rather than displaying the overt jauntiness of, say, a Beecham or the energetic ardor of a period- instruments group. In most cases, Klemperer's Haydn is like listening to the composer with new ears.

Outstanding among the eight symphonies presented in the set are Nos. 88, 101, 102, and 104, with No. 101 "Clock" a good example of the best of the Klemperer style. It is an enchantingly beautiful performance, the argument strong and the rhythms feather light. This Clock is no modern digital affair, moving without heart or soul, nor is it an old grandfather snoozing laboriously in a corner (although for some listeners, it may come close). This Clock is graceful and ornate, all filigree and glass, inviting us to relax and take our time. (Compare the tempo of the second movement, for instance, to a clock your own with a second hand; the beats tick off almost exactly with the movement of the seconds. Still, too slow for you? Well, as Klemperer might say, "You will get used to it.")

Likewise do the three other Haydn symphonies I enjoyed combine refinement and reason in perfect eighteenth-century order. Regarding the symphonies I enjoyed less well, they are perhaps too much of a good thing, the conductor trying too hard to make every piece sound like a precursor to Beethoven. But when Klemperer is off, it isn't for lack of trying.

These performances are for people seeking something out of the ordinary. The interpretations are uniquely personal and, as such, variable; but when the music is good, it's worth a hundred of anything else.


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

Nov 24, 2019

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances (arr. for two pianos). Dong Hyek Lim, piano; Martha Argerich, piano; Alexander Vedernikov, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 0190295455514.

Was there ever a more grand and glorious Romantic composition than Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto? Well, that's a pretty subjective question, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the composer premiered it in 1901, at the very end of the Romantic era and on the cusp of the Modern age in music. On the present recording pianist Dong Hyek Lim, conductor Alexander Vedernikov, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra undertake the work in a performance both grand and Romantic. How well it stacks up against so many other great recordings is another matter.

South Korean pianist Dong Hyek Lim (b. 1984) studied at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover, received the Samsung Culture Scholarship and Ezoe Scholarships, and currently studies with Emanuel Ax at the Juilliard School. Like so many young, up-and-coming pianists, Lim has received many awards, won numerous competitions, performed with major orchestras all over the world, and recorded about a dozen record albums. So he has the credentials to take on Rachmaninov.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 after having undergone hypnotherapy for severe depression. Apparently, the perceived failure of his First Symphony so disturbed him that he feared he would never write another piece of music, so he decided he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy seemed to work as the Concerto No. 2 became an immediate success.

Dong Hyek Lim
Lim and his associates handle the opening movement in a suitably big, powerful style, emphasizing not only the grander emotional rhapsodies but the gentler, more lyrical ones as well. In the peaceful second movement, Lim and company establish an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere, the pianist nicely capturing the music's feeling of calm and repose and doing justice to the beauty of the movement's central theme, if perhaps a little too gentle at times. Then comes that memorable finale, where Rachmaninov revives the familiar themes he introduced in the previous two movements. Here, Lim's balance of expressive showmanship and delicate sensitivity works pretty well, and he and his fellow musicians provide an entertainingly expressive conclusion to the work.

So, in the end how does Lim's performance stack up against great recordings of the past, ones from Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Janis, Horowitz, Richter, Wild, even Rachmaninov himself? Here, things become a bit stickier here. I certainly enjoyed Lim's relaxed, easygoing, fairly engaging treatment of the score; yet I didn't think he displayed quite the Romantic sweep or intimate transparency of the leading recorded contenders in the work. Still, if you're a Lim fan or just want the luxury of a plush new digital recording, the disc should satisfy your wants.

As a coupling, the album features Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, the composer's final major work before his death, in Rachmaninov's own arrangement for two pianos. Here, Lim partners with one of the giants of the piano world, the Argentine virtuoso Martha Argerich. If you're familiar only with the orchestral version, this adaptation for piano may seem a bit underwhelming. However, in the hands of two such capable artists as Lim and Argerich, the power is still there, along with an added degree of sweetness and light. If you don't already have a favorite recording of the piano transcription, you might consider this album for that reason alone.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Phil Hobbs recorded the concerto at Maida Vale Studios, London in November 2018, and producer Fraser and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the dances at Teldex Studio Berlin in December 2018. There's a wonderfully mellow ambient bloom to the piano in the concerto, as well as a huge dynamic range. The overall sound of the concerto is quite smooth, too, and only a tad soft. In any case. the big, warm, cushy sonics nicely complement the Romantic nature of the music. The two pianos in the Symphonic Dances share a similar recorded sound: big, fairly close, yet smooth and warm.


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

Nov 20, 2019

On Power Amplifier Listening Trials…

A common opinion among qualified audio experts (restated here by me) is that…
All modern audio power amplifiers that present high input impedance (≥ 20 kΩ), very low output impedance (≤ 0.2 Ω), flat power response (20 Hz–20 kHz ± 0.5 dB at rated output), ultra-low distortion (≤ 0.1% THD at rated output), and a virtually inaudible noise floor will sound exactly the same when operated at matched (± 0.25 dB) levels, not clipped, and properly connected to the same load.

Do appreciate that amplifiers meeting the above specifications all sound the same because they share a single common attribute: They are highly accurate. A power amplifier that is accurate is one that faithfully replicates the original input source signal without making any change, loss, or addition. Given this measured assurance of accuracy, why do so many hi-end audiophiles conduct listening trials to detect the audible difference between power amplifiers? Well, here’s my opinion on…

Why listening trials persist, and grief to avoid when conducting a listening trial…

1—Irrelevance: To an overwhelming extent, today’s audiophiles are non-technical subjectivists*. They have no interest (and little understanding) of the measurements that define audio performance, and they don’t expressly seek accuracy. The audiophiles’ primary goal is to identify equipment that renders euphonic sound; i.e., sound that’s subjectively pleasing, and vacuum tube power amps provide more range of choice. This accrues because…
(a) THD at rated output runs > an order of magnitude higher for a tube-type power amp than on a solid-state equivalent, and that difference might be audible.
(b) And because transformer-coupled tube amps can’t approach the optimal low impedance drive of solid-state power amps, where Zout is typically ≤ 0.1Ω. The tube amp’s higher Zout will directly interact with the shifting Zin presented by the loudspeaker/crossover load because both values will then be of similar order. This will color the sound; the speaker’s sonic signature will differ slightly from its natural voice. The result could be deemed either pleasing or displeasing—a subjective option. Of course, the change will reflect degraded source accuracy, but accurate sound was never the audiophile objective.

2—Expectation: Do appreciate that it’s instinctive to assume that different amplifiers will sound different. Indeed, for a great many decades (from the 1949 origin of “hi-fi” until the early 1980s) most power amplifiers did sound different, and their sound was materially affected by load impedance. Of course, few of those power amplifiers met the stringent specifications cited in the opening paragraph, so they were not highly accurate amplifiers, although some might approach that goal when paired with a favorable load. When sampling amplifiers today, some listeners still expect to hear such differences, and some are certain to fulfill their expectation, regardless of the sound. Aural perception is a fickle and fleeting sensation, prone to uncertainty and subject to human frailty; be wary.

3—DC Offset Orphans: Since power amplifier comparisons imply the probability of high output operation, it’s helpful to know (for sure!) that your samples exhibit only nominal DC offset. So measure the amps’ initial DC offsets before running a listening trial. Don’t evaluate some random lemon with anomalous excessive offset. Be certain that your intended samples truly represent the breed. (Note: This need for offset screening applies only to direct-coupled power amps; not to transformer-coupled amps.)

4—Marginal Mavericks: If a comparison trial involves a power amplifier that is just marginally accurate, that margin might prove audible. This generally involves an amplifier with slightly out-of-spec power response, and the character of the aberration might be perceived by a sensitive listener. Lots of audiophiles express personal preference for a particular sort of biased sound (warm/detailed/liquid/analytic, et al.) that marginally differs from source reality. (In many cases they might do well to reassess their speakers’ crossover settings, rather than change their power amp.) Of course, a “maverick” is an outcast, it’s generally not representative of the breed, so another sample of the same model might not sound the same. Instrumented measurement is a useful way to isolate marginal mavericks, and testing power response (frequency response at high power output) is easily done, with basic test equipment.

5—Output Level Accuracy: All listening comparisons must be accomplished at precisely identical output levels. This is best assured by actually measuring the respective outputs at some appropriate (400-800 Hz) fixed test frequency, using a microphone or sound level meter, mounted on a stand, and fixed precisely at the intended listening position. Simply keeping the main volume dial at the same position will not assure identical output because different amplifiers exhibit different voltage gains. Most modern power amps have internal voltage gains that fall between +23 dB and +29 dB, and some amps have rear panel trim pots to independently adjust the left/right input balance. So, (a) review the technical aspects and check the gain spec; (b) inspect and adjust sample amplifiers as needed; then (c) listen as desired, but be aware that you’ll learn very little if the amplifiers are accurate (see opening).

6—Termination Variables: In the course of disconnecting and reconnecting the speaker load to the various amplifiers in a listening trial (and repeating that cycle numerous times—often as quickly as possible), it’s quite likely that there might be some variation in the uniformity of the termination. Indeed, sometimes even different connector types are used (see photo**), with different results. It’s really quite easy, in the course of this repetitive attach/detach process, to introduce some contact inequality, and that variable could cause aural disparity when conducting high power comparisons. To assure optimum signal transfer it’s vital to carefully inspect, clean, reseat, and tighten all terminations, and assure that all parts are in optimum visual alignment every time that they’re mated.

7—Room Acoustics & Comb Filtering: Aural comparison trials require that all acoustic environs be uniform. This includes a precisely fixed position within the listening space. It also means that the occupancy and every furnishing detail must be exactly the same. Even a minor change can materially affect the acoustic reflections and standing wave patterns, and these disruptions, however slight, can alter the sound. Despite every effort to comply, the small listening areas typical in most private homes can still yield appreciable (6 dB) variation over distances as small as four inches and frequencies as low as 200 Hz. This is the unfortunate consequence of comb filtering. (Refer p.101-104 of “The Audio Expert”, by Ethan Winer [Routledge, 2nd edition, 2018], ISBN 978-0-415-78884-7.)

8—Sight Before Sound: In a previous paper (refer “On Evaluating Audio Equipment…”), I cited a significant study (, conducted in 2013, describing the finding that visual cues convey far more impact than any audible evidence. In sum, your eyes will implant a more vivid and persistent impression than anything that you hear, and what you see will determine what you think you hear. As a consequence, any serious listening trial should be administered under blind test conditions. If you know which amplifier is playing, you will be unable to render valid aural judgement. The statistics in support of this finding are persuasive, and the evidence is undeniable. Listening trial choices that were formed prior to observing this guidance should be ignored.

9—Confirmation Bias: When you’re comparing your old power amplifier against some new and costly wonder that you’ve got on temporary loan, it’s very difficult to admit that there might be no audible difference. And in the event that you’ve already purchased that prized new model, I’d say that it’s not possible to declare that both amps sound the same. We’re not robots.

BG (November 16, 2019)

*Among audiophile organizations, the sole exception appears to be the Boston Audio Society, where most members comprehend and respect the value of technical analysis in defining product performance.

**The discrete banana plugs that are shown in the photo are a bit unusual. They have an internal free-floating slug that achieves uniform compression against the (side entry) wire without transferring any twisting strain; see…
A  TIP:  If your amplifier’s rear clearance (to wall) is especially tight, you can shorten these banana plugs (by 5mm) by discarding the knurled end posts and substituting flat point metric set screws (use M8–1.0 x 8mm) to retain the wires.

Nov 17, 2019

Mozart: Piano Concertos 17 & 24 (CD review)

Benjamin Hochman, piano and conductor; English Chamber Orchestra. Avie AV2404. 

If you are as unfamiliar with pianist Benjamin Hochman as I was, here is a passage from his Web site to help you get acquainted: "Winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2011, Benjamin Hochman's eloquent and virtuosic performances blend colorful artistry with poetic interpretation to the delight of audiences and critics alike. He performs in major cities around the world as an orchestral soloist, recitalist and chamber musician, working with an array of renowned musicians. Possessed of an intellectual and heartfelt musical inquisitiveness, his playing was described by the Vancouver Sun as "stylish and lucid, with patrician authority and touches of elegant wit." Hochman frequently juxtaposes familiar and unfamiliar works in his concert programs, a talent that also extends to his thoughtful recorded repertoire, from Bach and Mozart to Kurtág and Peter Lieberson. The New York Times wrote of pianist Benjamin Hochman "classical music doesn't get better than this."

After that, it's a lot to live up to. Fortunately, he does. He's obviously a fine young pianist and deserves attention. The thing I liked most about this playing on this Mozart album is that he never seems to show off his virtuosity as a few more celebrated pianists of his generation do. He appears to be content to play the music without embellishment and to play it rather traditionally as opposed to what we hear from today's popular "historically informed performances" do. To some ears, that may mean he's a bit old-fashioned. So be it; he's also comfortably entertaining.

Explaining why he chose this particular pairing of Mozart concertos, Mr. Hochman explains, "I chose to record these two concertos because to me they are mirror images of each other. The G major is full of sunshine and joy, but it also has these moments of darkness that show complexity, whereas the C minor is essentially tragic, full of fury and storm, yet it also has moments of calm and resignation, including much of the slow movement. Also, the last movements of the two concertos are both in variation form--the only two final movements of Mozart piano concertos that are variations. For these reasons, the two concertos really complement each other very well."

Benjamin Hochman
The set begins with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453, which Mozart wrote in 1781 along with five others. The concerto is lyrical and playful, and Hochman's performance is as frolicsome as the piece demands while remaining polished and civilized. Mozart intended a degree of melancholy to pervade the second-movement Andante, which Hochman handles with delicacy. Then, there's that memorable finale; Mozart himself was so fond of it that he taught his pet starling to sing it. Hochman seems to be enjoying himself here, too, yet he never goes overboard in forcing the merriment of the variations.

The Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K491 is a contrast to No. 17, more mature, darker and more dramatic. Mozart finished it in 1786, writing it for a larger array of instruments than for No. 17, more so than for any of his other concertos, in fact, and its opening movement is the longest he had written to that point. Some music critics admire it so much, they consider it the best piano concerto Mozart ever wrote. I wouldn't go that far, but, then, music is so much a matter of taste and opinion, who can say?

You can tell from its long introduction that No. 24 has a bigger feel than his previous concertos and a more somber tone. When the piano finally enters, it's quietly subdued, Hochman gradually increasing its emotional scope and building its dramatic intensity. Still, Hochman always maintains an admirable poise, one clearly appropriate to the classical style. The slow, middle movement is sweet and simple, Hochman keeping it that way with playing both light and transparent. Hochman concludes by playing the finale with the grace and dignity it deserves as the culmination of an essentially tragic concerto, yet he never lets it sag and lag.

Hochman's interpretations of both concertos on the album are sensible, often reflective, and somewhat sedate. Whether that is what the listener is looking for is, of course, again a matter of personal taste. While there is certainly nothing earthshaking or revelatory about Hochman's readings, they are comfortably well performed, with thought and care. For most listeners that should be more than enough.

Producers Eric Wen and Melanne Mueller and engineer Dennis Patterson recorded the music at St. John's Smith Square, London in April 2019. As we have come to expect from Avie recordings, the sound on this one is as natural as one could want. It's not overly precise or clinically transparent; it's just clear, clean, and realistic, with as much detail as one would hear in a concert hall. There's a pleasant ambience communicated from the venue that adds to one's enjoyment, too, as well as a perceptible and lifelike depth to the orchestra. Moreover, the sound is smooth enough to enhance and enrich Hochman's fluent delivery. It all works quite well together. Although the piano stretches a bit far across the sound stage for my taste, it's not a serious concern when everything else lines up so well.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa