Mar 31, 2019

Mozert: Star Wards - A New Hype (Blur-ray review)

A space opera based on John Milton's epic sc-fi adventure, "Paradise Mislaid." Twenty-First Century Vixen Home Entertainment HAL2001.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that a member of the highly prodigious and exceptionally prolific Mozert family of musical geniuses would eventually make his way to Tinseltown. Then, several years later, he would arrive in Hollywood, and the rest would be history. This was, of course, Stanley Alfred Akira Orson Ingmar Federico Francis Mozert, Jr. (1823-1947), the celebrated operatic filmmaker who invented sci-fi, love beads, and singing.

Mozert started it all with his space opera "Star Wards - A New Hype" in 1922, and everybody has been waiting in line for its long-overdue release on Blur-ray longer than Christmas. Now, it's finally here in high deaf, episode twenty-three in the celebrated romantic horror-comedy fantasy, docudrama-opera saga that has shaken, if not to say stirred, the Western World. And a few pocketbooks, too. It couldn't have arrived on Ultra-Lofty Definition (ULD) Blur-ray at a better time.

Mozert's opera was directed on film by Georges Méliès ("A Trip to the Orchestra Pit"), produced by Stephan Spiegelburg ("E.T. The Extra Tenor"), and adapted for the screen by Roger Corperson ("The Beast with a Million Songs"), Petar Jacksson ("Sing Song"), Dino Martin Scoresese ("Boxcar Ballads"), and Francesco A. Capella ("A Pox on Your Lips Now"). It's a prodigious effort by a prodigious team of prodigious (and prolific) filmmakers.

"Star Wards - A New Hype," as you all remember from your Opera Film Study classes, is the story of a waif, Lucas Moneymaker (Narc Hemphill, countertenor), who saves a home for retired movie stars that is far, far away and a heck of a long time ago, like before you were even born, even. Well, maybe not that long.

With the help of his faithful companions--the haughty Hand SoLow (Harrison Fairlaine, baritone), the dauntless Princess Pixar (Carrie Mebacktu Olevirginny, mezzanine-soprano), the wise guru Olden-One Nairobi (Guinness Stout, "It's in the book!"), his comic sidekick ChewTobacco (Bert Skoal), and his mascots See-3-PO'D (Tom Hunks) and How-D-Do-D (Denny DaVeto)--Moneymaker rescues untold numbers of old folks from the diabolical clutches of their evil Overlord, Mala Vista (Robert Igor), his adopted son, Asta La Vista (the Honorable Arnold), and Vista's former henchmen, the brothers Mirra and Max (Darth Harvey and Darth Wienstine, bassi profundi), Dark Overseers of the Cinematheque. A cameo appearance by young soprano Sterling Christensen as the cuddly Judo Master, Yogi Teddybeara, completes the cast.

George Burns dubs the singing parts. Marcel Marceau handles the voices.

Bert Skoal
Fans of the complete saga will welcome this first-ever segment in its first-ever ULD Blur-ray edition (after six laser-disc versions, eight DVD incarnations, ten VHS and Beta tape renderings, and 800 semiannual theatrical rereleases since its première in 1913). Fans will also be pleased to note that this episode contains only a single example of the director's prized CGI creations that were so liberally appended to the saga's later remasterings. Indeed, the viewer may find the quaintness of this early movie's live actors a refreshing change of pace from the computer-generated animations so familiar to us today. Unfortunately, the live performers are unable to replicate the myriad visual nuances and facial expressions of their computer counterparts, but it's all part of the fun of this ancient, campy, live-action technology. Mr. Christensen remains the lone CGI-animated character in the film.

Based in part on the myth "The Hero of a Thousand Voices" by the late, great, celebrated PBS talk-show host J.R.R. "Soupy" Campbell and in part on the classic Samurai farce "The Hidden Fat in Chow Yun" by Acura Kurosodoff, "Star Wards - A New Hype" is THE seminal operatic work in early Hollywood's burgeoning retirement-home opera genre. Grounded in strong metaphysical convictions, deep existential philosophy, uncompromising ethical values, and women in flimsy white negligees, the movie is destined to stand the test of time, at least until the next installment comes out in two weeks.

For this Super-Deluxe, Extra-Elite, 97th Anniversary, Special Edition Blur-ray boxed set, the folks at Twenty-First Century Vixen Home Entertainment have transferred the film, all fourteen minutes of it, to three quad-layer Blur-ray discs, front and back, for optimum AV playback quality. And, of course, the THD-certified ULD-BR audiovisual format preserves the movie's original theatrical-exhibition size, a 360:1 anorexic-ratio, TechnoRabid SwaddleScreen-80 presentation. The filmmakers realize that this format could present some small problem to those viewers whose home theaters are not equipped to do it justice, but by utilizing as simple an array as sixteen 90" curved-screen ULHD televisions in a circular pattern around the viewing area, the film can still provide a fascinating, if somewhat limited, visual experience. Textures are lifelike; flesh tones, particularly light greys and whites, are extraordinarily natural; and the panoramic scenery is, well, panoramic.

The sound reproduction is sound, offered up in the director's preferred configuration, lossless Dolby Digits TrueTH Atmospheric LucasEar 60.8 AX AuralSurround-500. Listeners with fewer than the optimal ten speakers per bank--ten front, twelve back, twenty sides, thirty ceiling, and forty-seven floor, with eight 36" subwoofers--will still get a kick out of the all-enveloping nature of the audio playback. Even as few as 43.6 speakers are adequate for the job, so almost anyone can enjoy the beauty of LucasEar's phenomenal monaural soundtrack. Highly recommended, especially if you don't like your neighbors.

Discs one, two, and three in this ten-disc Blur-ray set are devoted, as mentioned above, to the movie itself, with six separate audio commentaries to enjoy. The first commentary, as expected, is with the director, cast, crew, and stars. The second commentary is with the stars, cast, director, and crew. The third is with everybody already cited plus the guy who cleans up after the lights go out. The fourth is with the best boy. The fifth is with the best boy's best girl. And the sixth is with the gaffer, a compilation of his very best gaffes.

Spoken languages come in Danish, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Lappish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, Texan, Stallonean, Nabuccon, Freishhok, Bombastic, and Toolouyie; with subtitles in Pitouy, Zha*#/-^sh, Orwellian Doublespeak, and Portlandian Redneck. For an additional charge, you can order English. Scene selections are on the light side, however, at two, including one for the closing credits. It's a small price to pay for perfection.

Discs four through ten contain the major bonus items, including documentaries, featurettes, poster galleries, interactive recipes, interviews, e-mails, private telephone conversations, Easter eggs, duck eggs, Fabergé eggs, scrambled eggs, National Be-Kind-To-Your-Ferret-Day eggs, and plenty of commas. Then there are behind-the-scenes photos of really old retired people (some as old as their fifties and sixties); and other stuff you'll never look at again.

Here, too, you'll find various theatrical trailers and tractors for "Star Wards" prequels, sequels, continuations, and spin-offs, including teasers for the new Ultra-Deluxe, Extra-Elite, Further Anniversary, Special Edition Blur-rays of the movie, plus all the other films in the series that are coming out next month with even more extras than this one.  "Buy now, buy later" is the industry motto. The present discs conclude with promos for various "Star Wards" paraphernalia, including video games, board games, card games, dice games, dart games, graphic novels, comic books, cartoon strips, action figures, thumb screws, razor blades, maps, hats, masks, gloves, ears, noses, eyebrows, laser guns, power drills, jackhammers, ball-peen hammers, and other merchandise the studio hopes to con you into buying before they're through.

Also included: "The Mozert Family Tree," suitable for framing, mounting, or planting. You, too, can grow little Mozerts in your garden. Who knows? Maybe someday one of them will write a sequel.

Finally, tucked away neatly in a back pocket of the beautifully illustrated metal-foil slipcase is a full-scale, foldout cardboard replica of Hand SoLow's lighter-than-air jet aircraft, the Millennium Buzzard. Fully expanded, the airplane measures some 300 feet, nose to tail, with functional cockpit and cargo bays. A word of caution about this item, however. It is designed as a simulation only and will not actually fly. Early reports have indicated that some beta testers apparently attempted to launch their vehicles from garage roofs with less than satisfactory results. The studio warns that such misuse of the product may be hazardous to the model and its occupants and could do irreparable damage to both. This is a full-size likeness only, kids, and should be treated as such. For safety's sake, if you have a 300-foot dresser in your bedroom, that's where you should properly display your Buzzard.

Parting Shots:
In addition to this latest complete edition of the initial chapter in the "Star Wards" saga, the marketing directors at Twenty-First Century Vixen are making available for the first time a special five-shelf Blur-ray disc bookcase to house the over 1800 re-releases so far in the series. As this bookcase will only accommodate Blur-ray discs, however, the studio advises buyers to hang on to their old bookcases to store any BDs, DVDs, videotapes, and laser discs already obtained. Do not, however, attempt to mix or match Blur-ray discs, BDs, DVDs, tapes, and LDs as the formats are not compatible and serious damage could result.

"Star Wards - A New Hype: Part XXXV1, A Space Opera" on Blur-ray may be purchased individually for $59.95 or in a complete box set of all seventy-two episodes (so far) for a MSRP of $6,876.40. Nevertheless, a perusal of the Dark Matter Web reveals several outlets discounting the price considerably, with several on-line stores offering the entire box for $9.95. A shipping and handling fee of $6,866.45 should not deter the dedicated buyer in search of a bargain.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this movie's soundtrack, click below:

Mar 27, 2019

Korngold: The Sea Hawk (CD review)

Also, Symphony in F-Sharp. James DePreist, Oregon Symphony Orchestra. Delos DE 3234.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for the 1940 film The Sea Hawk has long been a yardstick for swashbuckling music, and the late Maestro James DePreist's version of it with the Oregon Symphony is as swashbuckling as any.

Of course, there are a number of good performances of this work already available, and you probably have one of them, so the real find is Korngold's Symphony in F-Sharp, of which there are few recordings. Korngold premiered it in 1954, this large-scale symphony a throwback to old-fashioned Romanticism at a time when it was no longer in  vogue. Music critics largely dismissed the work as being out of touch with modern music. Their loss; our gain. Like other Romanticists who continued on despite criticism, Korngold wrote music that was big, bold, inventive, and varied, much like the music of his mentor, Gustav Mahler. The Symphony in F-Sharp sounds a little bit cinematic, to be sure, but that's the source. It conjures up a vast, exotic, Sinbad-type adventure palette, especially in its second and fourth movements. The long, funereal Adagio, however, is more Mahler than anything else. The whole piece merits attention.

James DePreist
Engineer John Eargle made the 1998 recording in Delos's Virtual Reality format, a surround sound process that Delos claimed worked best when played back through Dolby Pro Logic circuitry. In ordinary two-channel stereo, like my main system, it sounds overly reverberant but extremely dynamic, with good imaging and depth of field. Played on my smaller, home-theater system in another room, the back speakers do come to life with pleasant reflections, reinforcing the illusion of a large, resonant concert hall.

The only hesitation I have comes when comparing it to a good recording in ordinary stereo, like Charles Gerhardt's RCA issue of The Sea Hawk, and noticing that without the room reflections the RCA sonics are much more lucid. Nonetheless, the Delos VR process is not so distracting as others I have heard and lends an air of realism to the proceedings often completely lacking in other recordings. Then, too, the surround effects seem less obvious for some reason in the Symphony, perhaps more subtly employed.

In the end, this is a good, innovative issue and deserves a wide audience with its unique music and sound.


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

Mar 24, 2019

Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Also, sinfonias, overture, sonatas. Isabelle Faust, violin; Bernhard Forck, violin; Xenia Loeffler, oboe, recorder; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902335.36 (2-disc set).

The album's title, "Violin Concertos," is something of a misnomer. It's much more than that.

In addition to the two familiar Violin Concertos--BWV 1041 and 1042, plus the Concerto for Two Violins--Harmonia Mundi have filled out two discs with everything else that might be considered a Bach violin concerto, including pieces written for other instruments and transcribed (often by Bach himself) for violin. Bach (like many composers of his time) was big on appropriating at least parts of his own earlier work for later compositions, so it's sometimes hard to categorize properly some of his material.

Anyway, the current two-disc set includes not only "violin concertos" but sinfonias, trio sonatas, overtures, and the like. They are all expertly played by German violinist Isabelle Faust, accompanied on selected tracks by violinist Bernhard Forck and oboist Xenia Loeffler, with the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. All the performers play on period instruments, Ms. Faust's a Jacobus Stainer (1658).

Now, here's the thing: How well you take to these interpretations may depend largely on what you expect from a period-instrument ensemble. In the past few decades we have come to figure on some excessively quick tempos and highly expressive styles, the historically informed crowd insisting this is how the music was played back in the day. But Ms. Faust and company may not have heard the news, because while most of it can be exhilarating, they can also play much of this music in a fairly sensitive, even conservative manner. The slower parts aren't dull or routine by any means, but they are often reserved and refined. If you like your Bach played both sprightly and elegantly, these are for you.

The opening concerto is a good example of what I meant previously by everything not being exactly what it seems. The Concerto for Violin BWV 1052R is usually considered a harpsichord concerto, but educated conjecture suggests it may actually be a lost violin concerto. So that's the way Ms. Faust and company play it, with a violin soloist. Then comes the Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 174, familiar as the opening movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto. Ms. Faust handles it with more élan, more dash, and more ardor than she does the opening number, so it comes off as extra refreshing. I'm not sure if that was her intent, but it works well in any case.

Isabelle Faust
And so it goes. The playing is precise but never aggressive, the manner often varying between strikingly invigorating and finely reserved. Contrasts and stresses are kept to an appropriate minimum, though not passively so. Indeed, when occasion arises, the tempos and variations are well up to the task. There's nothing stuffy about these performances, even if they're not among the most imaginative you may have heard. All of which may please a lot of dedicated Bach fans who have become tired of hearing Bach's music being twisted this way and that.

If there was something I didn't care for, however, it was the packaging information. The outside of the three-panel Digipak lists no track info whatsoever. Inside the fold-out, we get a table of contents but without any track numbers, movement breakdowns, or timings. To find out anything specific about the program, you have to go into the booklet itself. And if you want to find more about each selection, you have to go to the part of the booklet in your language--German, French, or English--and then, well, hope to run into whatever you're looking for because instead of the notes referring to each selection as it appears chronologically in the program, the notes seem to discuss items randomly. No big deal, but a trifle annoying.

On the brighter side, the two-disc set contains almost two-and-a-half hours of music for the price of a single disc. So it does represent a good value for the money. And it's very well played and recorded.

Artistic Director Martin Sauer and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music at Teldex Studio, Berlin in December 2017 and September 2018. The first most noticeable thing about the sound is its lifelike characteristics. It has air and space, a realistic ambience, a good sense of depth, and mostly an impressively natural resonant bloom. (I say "mostly" because a couple of selections are perhaps a bit too reverberant). The miking distance is pleasantly moderate, not so close up as many of today's recordings seem to be. Dynamics, too, appear well judged, though with slightly muted impact in some instances, and definition is good without being sharp or bright. It's some of the most pleasing sound I've come across in Baroque music and should satisfy the even the most fastidious listener.


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

Mar 20, 2019

Basics About Bass

By Bryan Geyer

I began my own DIY hi-fi hobby time in early 1954, after returning from draft duty in Korea. In that era, virtually all serious speaker systems were big, featuring 12” and 15” Ø woofers that were more efficient than most woofers in common use today. As a result, bass reproduction was always pretty solid; we moved a lot of air. And when more was needed we’d just sink 2 or 3 more Bozaks into a handy side wall. This was in the mono-era, so location and directionality aspects were of little concern. The trend to produce bookshelf-sized speakers came about soon enough, and generally curtailed bass output, but then Edgar Villchur (AR) announced his new “acoustic suspension” design, and those speakers could rival a floor-stander’s bass if you’d just sacrifice some efficiency. The new “AR size” speakers (and the competition that they inspired) materially eased the transition to stereo, and bass output never suffered because bigger power amps soon became pervasive. So sufficient and abundant bass was common until the mid-’80s, when the home theater craze came to market.

Cramming all of that “surround stuff” into a home theater room often caused decor problems, so some speaker systems got downsized, and subwoofers got popular. The “subs” were all highly optimized for bass below 100Hz, with cone suspensions having restricted range but long throw axial excursion (Xmax) capability. This tool was vital to deliver the separate low-frequency effects (LFE) channel of the movie media, otherwise known as the “boom track”. Bass accuracy was never the goal. The express intent was to simulate loud explosions, gunshots, and monster grunts. A single shared (blended) subwoofer was fully adequate.

The application of subwoofers for 2-channel stereo service has evolved more recently, partially in response to concerted efforts to render more realistic and authentic bass, but principally because collective advances in technology have now made that goal attainable. These developments include…

…the creation of Linkwitz-Riley 4th order (phase-coherent, non-inverting) active crossovers.
…the increased availability of multi-sourced low noise monolithic op-amp chips at low cost.
…the significantly improved response of “long throw” low bass subwoofers.
…consistent improvement in the performance of super-efficient Class D power amplifiers.

These assets now make it practical to produce more effective and reliable self-powered subwoofers, as well as the frequency-selectable active crossover controllers needed to define and isolate the deep bass passband that they serve. The possibility of providing accurate deep bass has never been more favorable, but the old mechanical constraints still apply. When the listening room is smaller than a public auditorium, it exhibits a Schroeder frequency* that’s too high to avoid the inevitable peaks and dips that arise due to resonant mode rebounds off the room’s planar surfaces. A traditional means of managing this problem is room treatment. Surface-mounted traps (padding) are added to absorb some of the excessive waveform bounce. The customary 2 inch thick broadband absorbers are ineffective at low bass frequencies, so it’s then necessary to use fatter 4 inch absorbers and/or large canister-style tuned bass traps to tame the low bass (< 100Hz) resonance. That decor is acceptable when the listening room is a dedicated “man cave”, but less tolerable in a shared condo living room.

When that’s the case, multiple subwoofers can be utilized to effectively achieve cancellation of the reflected modal bass over large portions of the listening area**. Two subwoofers will work well; more subs will work better. The subwoofers’ output will naturally be ~ 180˚ out-of-phase with the reflected modal bass, so effective partial cancellation will result when the opposing wavefronts converge.

The potential benefit conveyed by using a pair of widely spaced (along front wall) self-powered subwoofers can be appreciable. Their impact will always be advantageous, regardless of the bass capabilities of the main speakers. The variance implicit in room response will preclude full cancellation of low frequency resonance, but the audible improvement will be obvious. The use of wide-spaced subwoofers can dramatically upgrade the bass in any room—including rooms with big full range main speakers. In the latter instance, let the floor-standers handle all of the mid-to-upper bass, and assign the bottom 20Hz-80Hz passband to the more widely spaced subwoofers. (No matter how costly your top quality main woofers might be, good subs can handle the bottom better; it’s their specialty.) Set the external active crossover controller (e.g. Marchand’s XM66†) to split the passbands at 80Hz. (A lower frequency crossover is seldom beneficial; usually detrimental.) Then optimize the subwoofers’ phase angle and input gain control settings in the manner that’s described in our related white paper††. The critical bass octaves above 80Hz can then be reproduced without compromise, and the bottom bass can be programmed (in fixed ±1dB stepped increments, with ±5dB range on both channels) to provide an output level that best fits the genre of the selected source.

**Refer pp. 234-262 of Floyd Toole’s “Sound Reproduction”, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2018, ISBN 978-1-138-92136-8).

††Refer “On Optimizing Subwoofer Gain & Phase Angle…”

BG (January 2019)

Mar 17, 2019

Joyce DiDonato: Songplay (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Craig Terry, piano; Charlie Porter, trumpet; Lautaro Greco, bandoneon; Chuck Israels, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums; Stever Barnett, shaker. Erato 0190295534387.

"You got to love to be able to play."  --Louis Armstrong

In the past twenty years or so, the American operatic singer Joyce DiDonato has become one of the world's preeminent sopranos. You would think that by now she'd take the easy route of so many other singers and give us yet another album of popular classical numbers. But, no. In "Songplay" she does something different.

This time out she has chosen to give us an integrated program of classical and modern pop-jazz love tunes, yet with an additional twist. She stylizes the pop-jazz items in somewhat classical fashion and the classical selections in a semi-modern pop-jazz style. The result, with accompaniment by Craig Terry, piano, and an accomplished ensemble of musicians, is a seamless run of musical treats spanning hundreds of years that the performers make appear to sound fresh and new and all of a similar and familiar mode. It's a clever idea, well crafted and immaculately executed.

Here's a run-down on the tracks:
  1. Parisotti: "Se tu m'ami" / "Star vicino"
  2. Torelli: "Tu lo sai"
  3. Wrubel/Magidson: "(I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over"
  4. Shearing/Weiss: "Lullaby of Birdland"
  5. Bock/Harnick: from "She Loves Me, Acte 1: "Will He Like Me?"
  6. Caccini: "Amarilli, mia bella"
  7. Scheer: "Lean Away"
  8. Vivaldi: "Col piacer della mia fede"
  9. Vivaldi: "Vedrò con mio diletto"
10. Ellington/DeLange: "(In My) Solitude"
11. Conti: "Quella Fiamma"
12. Giordani: "Caro mio ben"
13. Paisiello: "Nel cor più non mi sento"
14. Rodgers/Hart: With a Song in My Heart"

Joyce DiDonato
The songs are so well sung and so well integrated that they're sure to impress both pop-jazz fans as well as more than a few classical admirers. In fact, except for the differences in language, Ms. DiDonato makes the older material sound much like the newer stuff and vice versa. It's a remarkable combination, actually.

Then, too, there is always the phrasing and stylistic touches to consider. Ms. DiDonato, Craig Terry, and the ensemble considered "love and heartfelt music-making" as the platform they had in mind. Certainly, there is "heartfelt" to consider. Delicious.

I have to admit I'm usually immune to pop collections, where the artist just throws together seemingly random song selections and lets the listener pick and choose the ones to hear in the future. I don't have time for that and prefer to hear something more unified, more thematic, longer and more of a whole. I suppose, too, it's why I prefer listening to classical music to most pop material. Yet Ms. DiDonato's album held my attention, maybe because it did appear thematically of one piece.

Favorites? Not really. It's not that kind of album. It isn't a hit here and a miss there. It's more a kind of continuum, a symphony in its way. For instance, the Vivaldi and Conti interludes act sort of as scherzos in the midst of less lively, more-subdued material. It's a unique and remarkable disc.

Oh, and hang around after the last selection. As Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till it's over."

Producers Alain Lanceron and Steve Barnett and engineer Preston Smith recorded the music at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California in March 2018. The sound produced is very much in the good studio-pop category. There is plenty of distance and air between instruments, some fine dynamics and transient impact, and excellent overall definition. What suffers is mostly imaging, where the artists as a group don't quite gel as a single ensemble but rather sound like a company of individuals not exactly performing in one place. So, spacing is a bit of an issue. Whatever, as this is primarily a pop album, it works as well as any pop enthusiast would expect.


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

Mar 13, 2019

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11 "The Year 1905" (CD Review)

Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony Orchestra. DG B0028595-02.

By Karl W. Nehring

If you paid much attention to the recent Grammy Awards you would already know that this two-CD set from DG was honored not only as the best classical recording of 2018 but also as the best-engineered classical recording of 2018. Of course, there was the time that the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Album was bestowed upon Jethro Tull, so perhaps we might want to consider this Shostakovich recording a little more closely before automatically running out -- or more likely these days, sitting down at our keyboards -- to pick up a copy.

Shostakovich composed his Fourth Symphony in 1936 during the same time period when his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtesnsk District gained popularity with the public but disfavor from the Communist party. The composer, fearing for the safety of his family, tucked the manuscript away. It finally received its premier in Moscow in 1961.

It is a large symphony, in many ways a brash symphony, not the kind of work that most of us can just casually audition and immediately be drawn in. Indeed, although I have owned several recordings over the years, I never heard one that I can really say that I liked. The music always just sounded too hard, too brittle, both in performance but also in sound. I had a Haitink version on CD for quite some time, and a Jarvi, but they got taken to the used-CD store to be traded in during one of my infrequent shelf purges (poor Shostakovich!) when I would rid myself of CDs that I had little or no interest in ever playing again. I had subsequently added to my collection a version led by Ormandy, but seldom played it -- it was part of a set that also included the Tenth, which I was much more inclined to listen to on the rare occasions that I pulled that particular boxed set off the shelf.

Andris Nelsons
However, as an avid Shostakovich fan I could never quite get the Fourth out of my mind, so when this new recording appeared, I decided to give the piece a fresh hearing. What a revelation! No longer did it strike my ears as hard and brittle. Brash, yes, but in a bold and exciting way. From the opening notes, the music just pulled me in, with a warm sound that was both powerful and deep. At less than half a minute into the work, the sheer power of the music and recording are already made mightily manifest -- my goodness, what a bold introduction!

The mood of the Fourth is martial. This is music of conflict, turmoil, heat, passion, and power. As intense as his Fifth, Eighth, and Tenth Symphonies might be, it is the Fourth that captures Shostakovich at his most powerful and passionate. Like Mahler on steroids washed down with Red Bull. The liner notes refer to the work as "immense, confident, and extroverted." The conductor, orchestra, and recording engineers have done their best to underline that assertion. If you are a fan of Shostakovich and/or of Mahler, this recording is something you must hear.

The Eleventh Symphony, subtitled "The Year 1905," was composed in 1957, when the USSR was observing the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. There had been an uprising in 1905 that came to be regarded as a kind of "dress rehearsal" for 1917, so Shostakovich composed a symphony that reworked the melodies of some revolutionary workers' songs plus a couple of songs that he had previously written as part of his 1951 composition, Ten Poems. Although there is still an undercurrent of tension in this music, the overall mood is more subdued that in the Fourth.

Indeed, the Eleventh could almost be taken for a movie soundtrack. It is moody, reflective, occasionally flaring up into a kind of smoldering tension. Overall, it is easier to listen to than the Fourth, but not as rewarding. Still, it is an interesting symphony, well recorded, and certainly a worthy disc-mate to the Fourth. Both symphonies were recorded in concert performance, but there is thankfully no audience distraction to be heard.

Whether this release truly is the best classical performance and recording of the year is an open question, but there is no doubt that it is certainly in solid contention for both honors. To listen to it on a good system is an ear- and mind-opening experience not to be missed by Shostakovich fans (and those whose could be).


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

Mar 10, 2019

Respighi: Roman Trilogy (CD review)

Roman Festivals; Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome. JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic. Naxos 8.574013.

Here's an interesting observation to begin: In this day and age when due to financial concerns most of the world's great orchestras find it difficult to produce many recordings (and when they do, they're most often live performances), the Buffalo Philharmonic under the guidance of conductor JoAnn Falletta continues to turn out a stream of excellent performances with the Naxos label. What have they discovered up there in Buffalo that most everybody else is missing? I dunno. But we should not look a gift horse (or buffalo) in the mouth; we're lucky that Ms. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are as good as they are.

Anyway, the Italian composer, violinist, and musicologist Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is probably best known today for his trio of lavishly orchestrated tone poems describing various famous places in Italy, the three works on this disc now known as the "Roman Trilogy." Of course, he wrote quite a lot more, but these three pieces so overshadow the others, the lesser works tend to get forgotten.

Even though Respighi wrote the Fountains of Rome first (1917), Ms. Falletta has chosen to open the agenda with the Feste roman ("Roman Festivals") the last of the trilogy, which Respighi wrote in 1928. For me these are the least-successful parts of the trilogy. Respighi appears to have been trying to outdo himself in the work, and the music becomes more than a little hectic and bombastic as a result. I can only assume Ms. Falletta begins the show with it because it's so brash, and it acts as a sort of overture or curtain-raiser. The music is about as loud and forward as it can be, yet even so Ms. Falletta finds her way to make it all seem more meaningful than it really is, being especially careful to cultivate a refined attitude throughout.

Next, we get the Fountains of Rome (1916), the work that started it all and containing some of the more festive, colorful, and descriptive of the tone poems. Each of the four movements describes a celebrated fountain in Rome, the music, as in the other works, playing without a break. We hear noises of the country, noises of the city, noises of mystical creatures, and noises of crowds, among many other things, the music finally fading away into silence as night falls.

JoAnn Falletta
Ms. Falletta carefully draws out the morning beauty of the opening "Fountain of Valle Guilia at Dawn." It's never too rushed and the contrasts in light and shadow are nicely accentuated. The "Triton Fountain" fairly bursts forth, although, again, not overly dramatically so. Ms. Falletta contains herself, never vulgarizing the music and, thus, making it all the more effective. She takes "The Trivi Fountain at Midday" at a triumphant gait, and she manages the closing "Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset" in a solemn yet stately manner.

The disc's program ends with possibly Respighi's most-popular work, the Pines of Rome ((1924). It opens with a big splash of color in "The Pines of the Villa Borghese," which Ms. Falletta treats in suitably bright, flamboyant fashion, while never trivializing or debasing it. The second movement, "Pines Near a Catacomb," is initially bleak until Respighi opens it up to a more sincere melancholy and finally a kind of regal dirge. Ms. Falletta maintains each of the varying moods without the piece sounding routine or overstaying its welcome. After that, she makes the third movement, the "Juniculum" pines, with its song of the nightingale, as sweetly appealing as any I've heard, the atmosphere easygoing and composed. It is a prelude, really, to the big finale, the "Pines of the Appian Way," maybe the single most-famous thing Respighi ever wrote. The march of ancient Roman soldiers as they return home in triumph along the Appian Way interrupts the tranquility of Nature and the chirping of birds (yes, Respighi left instructions for real bird sounds here). Ms. Falletta maintains a strong control of the march tempo as the steps of the soldiers get increasingly more pronounced and more insistent. It's a splendid production all the way around.

Producer and engineer Tim Handley recorded the music at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in May and June 2018. Starting with the "Roman Festivals" was not only a good curtain raiser, it was a good way to show off the disc's sound. This is one of the most well-rounded sounding recordings I think I've ever heard from Naxos. The sound is well spread out across the speakers; and it's very dynamic and wide ranging. There is a solid bass response present that most engineers are content to dampen for fear, I suppose, of offending some listeners (or blowing up their speakers or earbuds). Although the sound gets a little muddled in the loudest passages, the impact, depth, and clarity are impressive. This is sound worthy of Respighi's music.


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

Mar 6, 2019

Optimizing Subwoofer Integration, Part 2

On Optimizing Subwoofer Gain & Phase Angle Using an External Active Crossover Control, e.g., Marchand XM66

By Bryan Geyer

Objective: To optimize each subwoofer’s input gain and phase angle adjustment, at a stated crossover frequency, in a manner that optimally complements mini-monitor main speakers. (I use Spendor’s Classic S3/5R2 speakers, as derived from the BBC guideline).

Conditions: Set subwoofers for internal crossover off (bypass mode), polarity = 0, and phase angle = 0˚. Set the external crossover controller for your chosen frequency, with the polarity switch (XM66 labels this control “phase”) at +, Low Cut and Sum off, Hi-Pass = 0, Lo-Pass = 0. The “Damping” control setting is optional; see below.

Position a microphone + step-up transformer, on a stand, at listening position. Monitor mic output via a AC millivoltmeter. I use a common low impedance dynamic microphone (Shure’s SM57-LC, plus their related A85F step-up transformer), and a Instek GVT-417B millivoltmeter with (old-style) analog moving cursor display; it makes the null obvious.

Input a sine wave signal (I use a Instek GAG-810 generator) of 1 Vrms at the crossover frequency. Use the system’s main volume attenuator to set the final output SPL, and…

(1) Set the external crossover’s “Damping” control as desired. I prefer damping = +2. This introduces a mild, localized +2 dB response bump at the selected crossover notch.

(2) Set both subwoofers for power off. Drive both main speakers to a high SPL (approx. 82-86 dB, C-wtd.) at the chosen crossover frequency, using the system’s main volume attenuator. Take note of the exact position of that control knob; set same in next step.

(3) Set left channel subwoofer for inverted polarity. Then turn on that subwoofer to output the crossover signal from the left channel low-pass output, using same volume setting as above. Alternately adjust left subwoofer input gain and phase angle controls to attain minimal SPL. The consequent null will display on the millivoltmeter as a very distinct notch. When done, restore normal polarity setting to left subwoofer.

(4) Repeat same process for the right channel subwoofer; left subwoofer power off.

(5) When finished, assure that both subwoofers are properly reset for normal “auto-on” operation; also for normal (not inverted) output polarity.

Summary: This procedure assures that output from each subwoofer will be optimally phase-coincident with the combined output from both main speakers at the assigned crossover frequency and specified listening position. Also that the individual subwoofer-to-main speaker output ratio will be ~ 2:1 (subwoofer up by +3 dB). Extended listening experience indicates that this 2:1 weighting is aurally optimum with most programming. To accommodate special exceptions (or satisfy alternate bias), use the XM66 lo-pass and hi-pass stereo level controls. They’re all stepped (±1 dB/step, with ±5 dB range), so it’s easy to alter or restore (and visually verify) this baseline 2:1 output ratio when desired.


This method for setting subwoofer gain and phase angle is based on the approach promoted by ace subwoofer veteran Barry Ober, a.k.a. The Soundoctor.”  We differ on some details and means (Barry doesn’t utilize any instruments), but this classic inverted polarity/nulling concept works well, and it’s more accurate than other alternatives. The key advantage stems from the fact that this procedure simultaneously combines the sonic output from both sources (mains + sub) at the same time that both adjustments are applied. This simulates actual use, and encompasses the impact of room resonance. An abrupt and distinct SPL cancellation will occur when the converging bass waveforms are of equal amplitude and opposing polarity (phase shifted 180˚) at the monitored location and frequency. Adjust subwoofer input gain and phase angle to attain minimal output (maximum metered null). Later, after normal polarity of the subwoofer has been restored, this same adjustment will then assure that the crossover wavefronts exhibit coincident phase and maximum SPL.

The normal guideline for accomplishing this process suggests setting each channel independently, by matching one subwoofer against one main speaker at a time. This is instinctive, and it will assure the desired phase matching. But it will also yield a precise 1:1 subwoofer-to-main speaker output ratio, and that’s not aurally appropriate with most programming. The low bass will clearly need ~ +3 dB more emphasis to sound optimally balanced. While it’s always possible to increase the subwoofer weighting later, simply by advancing each subwoofer’s input gain, it’s more elegant (and likely more accurate) to optimize this gain adjustment at the same time that the phase angle matching is done. And it’s quite easy to do this—just phase-null each subwoofer’s output against the sound emerging from both main speakers, rather than from just one main speaker. That will yield a 2:1 individual subwoofer-to-individual main speaker output ratio, and a 2X aural power boost is = +3 dB.

This procedure will accomplish close phase matching of the subwoofer-to-main speaker outputs at the crossover frequency, at the listener position*. However, an inherent time-of-arrival disparity will remain because the related low-pass filtering entails group delay on the order of some 12 - 16 msec. in the crossover region, so subwoofer output will lag the main speaker by about one wavelength (equiv. 13.5 - 18 ft.). Regardless, after the two signals are accurately phase-matched at the listener site little evidence of the offset will be apparent. Its effect is obscured because the delay is still well short of the known fusion interval (30 msec.) that acousticians identify as the minimum interlude needed to discern separate sounds as separate events**. The impact will be perceived primarily as a small boost in the low bass response. In sum, this time-of-arrival disparity is too brief to be of practical concern.

The best way to re-synchronize time-of-arrival within the context of a two channel stereo system would be to digitally delay the main speaker outputs. The circuitry required to implement that delay isn’t commonly provided in a subwoofer crossover control unit. While there’s little apparent need to institute this “sync fix”, it could prove useful in special situations, e.g. when the subwoofers must be spaced at longer distances from closer main speakers, thereby increasing the subwoofer offset delay.

*Boundary limitations implicit in most home listening rooms make it unrealistic to expect wide area phase matching over an extended low frequency range without adding extensive acoustic treatment. Regardless, this reality should not be construed as a significant shortcoming—refer 4.8.1 and 4.8.2 of Floyd Toole’s opus Sound Reproduction, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2018, ISBN 978-1-138-92136-8).

**Per Toole, refer fusion zone,” section 7.6.4 of “Sound Reproduction,”  3rd edition.

BG (December 2018)

Mar 3, 2019

Tales from the East (CD review)

Music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. EStrella Piano Duo. Sheridan Music Studio.

Svetlana Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya are superb pianists on their own; together as the EStrella
Piano Duo, they are doubly superb.

On this, their debut album, they play music by Russian composers who were inspired by the styles of the Middle East. Here's a rundown on the program:

Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka:
1. Dance Russe
2. Chez Petrouchka
3. La Semaine Grasse
4. Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade: "Festival in Bagdad"
Borodin: Prince Igor, "Polovetsian Dances":
5. Andantino
6. Allegro Vivo
7. Allegro
8. Presto
9. Prokofiev: Suite-Fantasy on Cinderella

As these are all familiar orchestral pieces, it would be easy to claim the major attraction of these newly recorded works is the EStrella Duo performing them in arrangements for two pianos. But such is not entirely the case. They are more than a novelty. The pianists are consummate artists who together bring new pleasures and new insights to much traveled roads. These are, for all intents and purposes, new pieces of music, not merely new arrangements.

The first set of selections is from Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, arranged for two pianos by V. Babin. The "Russian Dance" is a good curtain raiser, a good overture to begin the program that follows. It is zesty and robust, and the two pianists play it with an easy yet virtuosic élan.

At first, I thought I'd try to distinguish the styles of the two performers, but it was a hopeless cause. They both play with such acumen, their agility on the piano so keen, I'm sure they could have at any time reversed pianos and parts, and I would never have known.

EStrella Piano Duo
Next we get the "Festival in Bagdad" from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic suite Scheherazade, arranged for two pianos by M. Zelenaia and EStrella. Now, this was most interesting. It's such a well-known piece, I was afraid I was going to want to head straightaway to the orchestral version. Instead, I wanted to hear more of the full suite from EStrella. Maybe they'll consider it for their next album. As much as I enjoyed the selection of tunes they offer here, a single, complete work would have perhaps been just as good or better.

After that we find the "Polovetsian Dances" from Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor, arranged for two pianos by V. Babin and E. Doubouvitskaya. From the fiery excitement of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Festival in Bagdad" to the lovely opening melody of the "Polovetsian Dances" makes a starling and satisfying transition in the proceedings, at least until Borodin himself transitions into the livelier sections. Again, the two pianists play with electric precision, all the while capturing the mystery and exoticism of the score. The magical gymnastics of their playing make the EStrella Duo a captivating set of performers.

The program concludes with Sergei Prokofiev's Fantasy-Suite from the ballet Cinderella, arranged for two pianos by A. Gottlieb and E. Doubovitskaya. It's the longest item on the menu, and it's the most modern. It doesn't daunt the two performers in the least, and the duo's sensitive performances should keep most listeners wanting to come back for more.

Producer Susan Merdinger and engineer Victor LeJeune recorded the music at PianoForte Chicago Studios in August 2018. The sound is very clean and very dynamic. The miking is not unreasonably close up, so it resonates with some natural studio bloom. The two instruments are clearly delineated, the separation not too obvious but certainly realistic.


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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa