May 29, 2019

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Also, Lelio excerpts. Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. RCA 09026-68930-2.

Rule of thumb: Never trust an album that features the conductor's face on the cover. Not to imply such here, but too often it signals a vanity piece. Michael Tilson Thomas has his picture on the cover, on the back of the booklet, on the back of the jewel box, and again in the booklet itself. Not only that, his name is twice as big as the name of the work he is conducting. Enough said.

The performance has to be good to justify that kind of promotion and to compete in a standard repertoire item like French composer Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique that already has a multitudinous assortment of discs at its service. With old favorites from Sir Colin Davis (in three different recordings), Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI/Warner), Leonard Bernstein (EMI/Warner), Roger Norrington (EMI/Virgin/Erato), John Eliot Gardiner (Philips/Decca), and a host of others well established, MTT's interpretation would have to be awfully good. It is good. But it is not awfully good.

Michael Tilson Thomas
The second movement waltz is particularly noteworthy, having a wonderful lilt that is quite infectious, and the third movement, which I have always found more than a little tedious, actually kept my attention. The real sonic showcases, however, "The March to the Scaffold" and "The Witches' Sabbath," come off as rather routine, despite MTT's sometimes quirky phrasing and ultrawide dynamics. Refer to Beecham and Bernstein for color and character.

On the other hand, the accompanying twenty minutes of excerpts from Lelio (or "The Return to Life"), Berlioz's follow-up to the Symphonie fantastique, are a major plus. Shorn of its bizarre narration, as it is here, Lelio better holds one's attention; it is both entertaining and engaging.

And the orchestra gets good support from the San Francisco Chorus, if not from the sound engineer in charge of enhancing the Chorus's dynamic range. Speaking of which, RCA's sound is clean, deep, and smooth, though somewhat lacking in ultimate definition and imaging. The whole affair gets a B- rating from me, among aforementioned recordings that merit A's. You be the judge. 


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

May 26, 2019

Tchaikovsky Treasures (SACD review)

Violin Concerto. Also, Serenade melancolique; Valse Scherzo; ballet and opera excerpts. Guy Braunstein, violin; Kirill Karabits, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 747.

We probably didn't need yet another recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Practically every concert violinist in the world has already done it, and the catalogue is brimming with excellent choices. However, it's the couplings on this disc that are intriguing: the "Pas de deux" from Swan Lake; Lensky's aria and the "Letter Scene" from Eugene Onegin; Serenade melancolique; and Valse Scherzo. More important, violinist Guy Braunstein gives us his own arrangements of several items. The back cover says, "Inspired by greats such as Sarasate, Heifetz, Kreisler and Joachim, violinist Guy Braunstein reanimates a tradition of violin and orchestra rhapsodies with new arrangements of famous excerpts from Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin." Whatever, it makes what might have been just another album of Tchaikovsky music into something a little more special.

If you remember, Braunstein (b. 1971) was the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic for over a dozen years, leaving that position to pursue a solo career in 2013. Several years ago I reviewed his recording of the Bruch Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy and found them both quite charming, so it was with a good degree of optimistic anticipation that I came to the present Tchaikovsky disc. I cannot say I was disappointed.

First up on the program is the aforementioned Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, which Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote in 1878 during the time he was trying to recover from a bout of depression. Critics of the day found the concerto wanting, one of them even saying that it sounded "long and pretentious" and that it "brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear." Thank goodness for the passage of time and the eventual validation of the work as a classic of the repertoire.

Guy Braunstein
As with most concertos, Tchaikovsky's begins with an Allegro, in this case taken at a moderate tempo, followed by a slow Andante and then, without a break, a spirited Allegro vivacissimo. Braunstein does as well with the piece as anybody, which should come as no surprise. You don't become the concertmaster of one of the world's leading orchestras unless you have a ton of talent, and you don't quit the post to become a soloist unless you have a ton of confidence. Braunstein has both--talent and confidence--and they pay off in the Tchaikovsky.

Braunstein takes the solo part in fine, virtuosic fashion, without overdoing or exaggerating what by now is familiar territory. The temptation was there, I'm sure, for Braunstein to try to make his interpretation notably different from all others, but he resists, relying instead on a fairly conventional reading. Yet it is not without its requisite Russian excitement and pathos; but maybe that's built into the score. It's a good, traditional reading of the music, as I say, even if I didn't hear as much sense of melancholy as I'd liked.

The couplings, cited above, are delightful, although I'm not sure prospective buyers will on their own be prompted to buy the disc just for the items accompanying the concerto. So it's a good thing the main attraction is as popular as it is and that  Braunstein handles it as well as he does. In any case, as I say, the couplings are appealing, and Braunstein's transcriptions of the ballet and opera excerpts are particularly worth the price of the disc. They're inventive enough to make old tunes new again.

Maestro Kirill Karabits and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support for Mr. Braunstein, the orchestra sounding rich and resonant (thanks, in part, to the excellence of the recording); and the conductor keeping a fine balance between the orchestral and solo parts. Neither partner seems ever to upstage the other but complement one another admirably.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Justus Beyer and engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Andreas Wolf recorded the music at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London in June 2018. They made it to play back in hybrid SACD multichannel or two-channel stereo or regular two-channel stereo if you haven't got an SACD player. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer using a Sony SACD machine.

Most noticeably good about the sound is its wide dynamic range. I know, some people don't like this because it means sometimes fiddling with the volume control while listening because of the contrasts between loud and soft passages. However, that's the way of live music; it can go from barely a whisper to very, very loud. So, if you're after the most natural sound possible, you welcome the wide dynamics. Next, you'll notice the impact is pretty good, too; solid, swift, and well delineated. After that, you'll probably salute the warm, detailed sonics and the pleasant bloom of the concert hall. The solo violin sounds lovely, too, and while it is well out in front of the orchestra, it is not so close as to be uncomfortably unrealistic. This is good, lifelike sound, making the music even better.


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

May 22, 2019

Fabulous Marches for Orchestra (CD review)

Frederick Fennell, Eastman-Rochester "Pops" Orchestra and the Eastman Wind Ensemble.  Mercury Living Presence 289 434 394-2. 

Ever wonder why record companies keep some things locked away for so long? Saving up fabulous fare for a rainy day, maybe? Well, in California it rained all spring, and these marches are, simply, fabulous.

Frederick Fennell
Originally produced in 1959-60, the recording makes most modern digital issues hang their head in shame. The sound has enormous dynamic range and, more important, dynamic impact. Bass is prodigious, midrange is clean, highs are clear and airy. It is done rather close up, and while depth is somewhat lacking, there is a very wide stereo spread. The only concession to age is some small background noise, most noticeable on the final two items, recorded a year earlier than the others.

The marches include mainly classical ones: Walton's "Orb and Sceptre," Beethoven's "Turkish March," Sibelius's "Alla Marcia," Borodin's March from Prince Igor, Schubert's "Marche Militaire," Grieg's "Homage March," and Wagner's "Tannhauser March," Rienzi Overture, and "Good Friday Music."  The latter two marches are done by Maestro Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble and really need the weight of a full symphony orchestra behind them, but the added clarity of the smaller wind group is a pleasant change.

In the old days, we would have called an album like this "demonstration material." But, of course, we are older and more sophisticated now and don't trot out stuff just to impress friends. Oh, we do? Then this is just the stuff to demo.


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

May 19, 2019

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Symphony No. 1 and The Fair Melusine overture. Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano; Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902369.

Most of us are familiar with Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto, but I wonder how many of us can say the same of his First Symphony, the companion piece on this disc? While the composer's Third and Fourth Symphonies rightly get the lion's share of performances and recordings and his Fifth sits in the shadows, the poor First hardly gets mentioned at all. Indeed, when I thought about it, I couldn't recall ever having owned a recording of it and, worse, having only heard it maybe once in my lifetime.

Is it fair the First Symphony gets so little respect? Not really. Even though it is a relatively immature work, Mendelssohn having written it when he was only fifteen, that doesn't make it any less interesting than his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, written just two years later. In fact, there are already hints of the overture in the earlier symphony. But all that is beside the point, which is that South African-born pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado have chosen to pair the concerto and symphony together on this Harmonia Mundi disc. Moreover, they've chosen to present the music as closely as possible to what the composer might have heard some two hundred years ago: using a fortepiano and a period-instruments band.

First up is the early piece, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11, which Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed in 1824 and premiered publicly in 1827 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (an orchestra still going strong, by the way). Mendelssohn arranged it in standard symphonic form: Allegro (fast), Andante (moderately slow), Menuetto-Allegro molto (in the tempo of a minuet and then becoming increasingly faster and more lively), and ending with an Allegro con fuoco (with energy and emotion).

As is appropriate to the nature of a relatively immature work, Maestro Heras-Casado takes it at a fairly brisk, almost rambunctious pace. This is especially true of the allegro parts, which are never breakneck but certainly brisk. Tempos appear well chosen and spring to life with graceful gusto, not overwrought exertion. Throughout the score, there are hints, as I say, of A Midsummer Night's Dream and even the Scottish Symphony, something the conductor does nothing to hide or highlight. If you haven't heard it, which I hadn't in years, it's a delightful, if lightweight, piece of old-fashioned music making.

Kristian Bezuidenhout
Moreover, for those listeners worried that this is another period-instruments recording where the string players appear to be fiddling on solid steel wires and performing at such a reckless speed they're in danger of setting their instruments on fire, not to fret. The orchestra sounds smooth and sonorous, and the performance is invigorating but never breathless.

Next up is the better-known of the two works, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40, composed in 1837, a follow-up to several other piano concertos Mendelssohn had written. Although it would never compare in popularity to his Third or Fourth Symphonies or his Midsummer music, the Concerto has its fair share of admirers, too. A long-held criticism of the concerto is that Mendelssohn didn't seem interested in making it a virtuoso affair for the pianist, so it finds itself generally eclipsed these days by the more flamboyant Romantic showpieces of Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and the rest. Still, it's a fun piece of music, and it's especially intriguing to hear Kristian Bezuidenhout play it on a vintage 1837 fortepiano (the same age as the composition) with Heras-Casado leading the Freiburger Barockorchester, also playing on historical instruments.

Despite the criticisms through the years about Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto not being much of a tour de force for pianists, Bezuidenhout certainly makes it seem more formidable than it probably is. His playing is elegant yet forceful, vigorous yet careful, energetic yet polished. And, needless to say, it's virtuosic, whether the composer intended it so or not. It's still a Romantic work, and Bezuidenhout plays it with a felicitously passionate vigor and reflective longing as the moods demand.

The disc ends, oddly, with the tone poem Die Schone Melusine ("The Fair Melusine"). I say oddly because as a short concert overture, one might have expected it to open the program. Nevertheless, it's a fine interpretation of the piece by Maestro Heras-Casado and company and makes a grand statement to end the show.

Artistic Director and editor Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann, both of Teldex Studio Berlin, recorded the music at Ensemblehaus Freiburg, Germany in September 2018. The sound spreads widely across the speakers, with a lovely bloom. While it is not so closely miked that detail is all important, it is nicely realistic in a more natural sense. There is a pleasantly rich glow to the acoustic, the instruments coming together in a realistic whole. Depth perception is good; dynamics are lifelike; and the frequency responses is more than adequate.


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

May 15, 2019

On “Hi-End” AC Line Cords…

By Bryan Geyer

I always wonder if anybody using esoteric “high end” AC power line cords has paused to consider the household wiring on the other side of their own listening room wall. That wire is ordinary AWG 12 Romex if it's for a 20 ampere circuit breaker, or (more likely) AWG 14 Romex if it’s for a 15 ampere circuit breaker. And what about that other ~ 10 miles of power line cable that extends back to the local distribution yard? Hey, can your AC power line purity really be improved by adding that last few feet of costly “audiophile grade” power cord?

The short answer is: Who cares? All of those alternating current pulses, however fine or fuzzy, are going to be converted into a smooth, flat stream of direct current. It's only this strained and purified DC, not any spurious AC, that will operate the ensuing electronic circuits. A modern solid state linear power supply utilizes full wave AC-to-DC rectification with very heavy filtering. Active components are added to enhance DC stability. Zener diodes clamp voltage levels and chop ripple. Precise series regulator stages are implemented where there’s justifiable merit, and high capacity electrolytic filter capacitors are used throughout, to assure good inter-stage isolation and smooth DC reserve. The consequent supply is scrubbed free of extraneous AC artifacts--it’s just plain/pure/smooth/steady direct current, and you can view and verify that flat DC waveform on an oscilloscope.

While every audio component has its own unique DC power supply, every supply draws its AC fuel from the same source, so it’s vital to provide enough AC current to run all the DC engines--refer paper “On Assuring Adequate AC Power.”  The latter addresses cumulative AC line current drain.

AC power line cords serve as pipelines that route the required AC fuel to each DC engine. There’s no benefit served by making the pipe fatter than needed. Every DC engine has a basic design task, and it can’t store or utilize any excess AC fuel. Power line cord delivery capacity is defined by its conductor diameter. The original circuit designer selects a wire diameter gauge (AWG) that’s appropriate for the AC current required. If you have need for a shorter or longer cord, or perhaps one with an angled C13 connector (to reduce rear clearance—see photos), simply let the designer’s original AWG be your guide. Increase the diameter if you have to extend the cord (by some appreciable amount) beyond its original reach. Technically, there’s no harm incurred by moving to the next fatter gauge--I personally favor utilizing AWG 14 for a stereo power amplifier that was shipped with AWG 16 wire—but nothing whatever is gained by moving to grossly oversized cordage like AWG 10 or 12. Such cords serve no benefit, and become awkward handling and routing annoyances that invite problems.

With respect to AC line cord construction and insulation, the heavy-duty commercial standard for prime quality is type SJT, with molded construction. It’s quite excellent, and all that you’ll ever need.

Be aware that you can buy top quality SJT molded AC line cords, in AWG 14, 16, or 18, that’s made to any desired length--refer The price for such custom cord will be quite low when compared to a high-end “audiophile grade” line cord, but it will be functionally equivalent and of optimum length, with no need to hide coiled excess. Do utilize AC surge protection at the feed socket; it might help if there’s some aberration on the power line.

BG (March 2019)

May 12, 2019

Lara Downes: Holes in the Sky (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano, and friends. Sony/Tritone Music Portrait 19075920792.

"I want real things--live people to take hold of--to see--and talk to--music that makes holes in the sky--I want to love as hard as I can." --Georga O'Keefe

It's always a pleasure to welcome another album from American pianist Lara Downes. Like her previous discs, her new album, "Holes in the Sky," involves a central theme, this time music by contemporary women artists. And she's assisted in her efforts by an assortment of popular and talented female musicians, including singer/songwriter Judy Collins, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, singer/instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, jazz singer/songwriter Magos Herrera, classical and folk musician Leyla McCalla, singer/songwriter/actress Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, and the urban youth vocal ensemble Girls of Musicality.

Here's a rundown on the selections:
  1. "Memory Mist" (1949 by Florence Price)
  2. "Albatross," with Judy Collins (1967 by Judy Collins)
  3. "A Tide of Living Water" (2010 by Clarice Assad)
  4. "Dream Variation," with Rhiannon Giddens (1959 by Margaret Bonds/Langston Hughes)
  5. "Ellis Island," with Simone Dinnerstein (1981 by Meredith Monk)
  6. "Don't Explain," with Leyla McCalla (1944 by Billie holiday)
  7. "Willow Weep for Me" (1932 by Ann Ronell)
  8. "Venus Projection" (1990 by Paula Kimper)
  9. "Morning on the Limpopo; Matlou Women" (2005 by Paola Prestini)
10. "Farther from the Heart," with Hila Plitmann (2016 by Eve Beglarian/Jane Bowles)
11. "Favorite Colour" (1965 by Joni Mitchell)
12. "Notes of Gratitude" (2017 by Jennifer Higdon)
13. "Arrorro Mi Nina," with Magos Herrera (traditional, arr. by Lara Downes)
14. "Music Pink and Blue" (2018 by Elena Ruehr)
15. "Idyll" (1946 by Hazel Scott)
16. "Blue Piece," with Rachel Barton Pine (2010 by Libby Larsen)
17. "Bloom" (2018 by Marika Takeuchi)
18. "Just for a Thrill," with Alicia Hall Moran (1936 by Lil Hardin Armstrong)
19. "Aghavni (Doves)" (2009 by Mary Kouyoumdjian)
20. "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" (2014 by Georgia Scitt)
21. "Rainbow" (by Abbey Lincoln/Melba Liston)
22. "All the Pretty Little Horses," with Ifetayo Ali-Landing & The Girls of Musicality (traditional, arr. by Lara Downes)

Lara Downes
Ms. Downes, as always, shows extreme care in nuance and suggestion, with playing that is at once tender yet strong and moving. The music itself is touching, pensive, contemplative, and inspiring by turns and easily bears repeat listening. It's nice to hear Ms. Collins sounding the same as ever, too, her voice perhaps a touch huskier but no less distinctive and expressive. The other soloists are equally impressive and the whole affair is lovely, with perhaps Jennifer Higdon's work standing out the most for its serious intent and accessible feel. What's more, the album totals sixty-seven minutes of material, far more than a typical popular album might. But, then, this isn't typical popular material, either. Nor is it a "woman's" album, even though the composers are women. It is an album for all seasons, all tastes, all people, all ages, and certainly all genders.

Producers Adam Abeshouse and Alan Silverman and engineers Adam Abeshouse,  Alan Silverman, Ian Schreier, and Bill Maylone recorded the music at various locations, including Yamaha Artist Services, NYC; Power Station Studios, NYC; Music Shed Studios, New Orleans, LA; Manifold Recording, Pittsboro, NC; and WFMT Levin Performance Studio, Chicago, IL, from May to September 2018.

As we should expect, there is some variation in sound reproduction depending on the particular studio used. Most of the sound, though, is typical of pop studio productions: close, detailed, well spread. Other selections, like the songs with Judy Collins and Leyla McCalla and the piece with Rachel Barton Pine sound a bit more natural, with a tad more air around the soloists. Suffice to say, all of it sounds fine and none of it will disappoint.

Addendum: Shortly after I finished this review, my wife heard the album and immediately took proprietary possession of it. It now resides among the music collection in her car. Well, at least I know where to find it the next time I want to listen.


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

May 8, 2019

Salonen: Cello Concerto (CD Review)

Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic. Sony Classical 19075928482.

By Karl W. Nehring

Esa-Pekka Salonen is perhaps best known to American music fans as a conductor. He led the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1989 through 2009  (their recordings of Debussy and Mahler are highly recommendable productions) and will take over the musical directorship of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 2020. But Salonen is also a composer. In this new Sony Classical release he is featured in both roles, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for whom the piece was written, in a performance of his Cello Concerto. This is the world première recording of the work, captured by the Sony engineers from a live concert performance on February 8, 2018.

The cover illustration depicts some sort of space rock surrounded by a cloud of smaller pieces of space debris. This mysterious space object (shades of Weather Report's Mysterious Traveler) is illustrated again from different perspectives on the cover and centerfold of the booklet included with the CD, in which Salonen discusses the origins and conceptual/compositional framework of the piece. The significance of the space rock and its attendant cloud is explained by Salonen as he writes of the first movement: "I imagined the solo cello line as a trajectory of a moving object in space being followed and emulated by other lines/instruments/moving objects. A bit like a comet's tail… Sometimes the imitating cloud flies above the cello, sometimes in the very same register."

One of the fascinating aspects of the concerto is the way Salonen varies the ways by which the three movements begin. The first movement (the three movements are denoted simply as I, II, and III, with no descriptors) opens right in the middle of things, as though the orchestra had already started playing and only then were the microphones switched on. After a couple of minutes of whirling and swirling notes from the orchestra, the cello begins to play, and then after a couple of more minutes, Maestro Ma truly brings the cello part into the musical forefront with some beautifully lyrical passages – mysterious, plaintive, shifting lines that are at times echoed the flute, other times by the oboe, evoking true senses of wonder and affording credibility to Salonen's description of an object in space accompanied by its fellow travelers.

Yo-Yo Ma
In contrast to the twittering opening of the first movement, the second movement begins with an emphatic orchestral chord. The cello part in this movement also contrasts with those of the previous movement, as Ma leans harder into the strings, beginning slowly in the lower registers at first but then shifting upward toward the middle and higher registers and faster speed as the movement progresses and the overall energy of the music increases, at times joined by an alto flute that swirls around the cello melody and contributes to the imagery of celestial travelers.

The third movement begins without a clear break from the second as Ma plays a solo part, again in the lower register to begin. He is then joined by various percussion instruments, bringing a much different texture from what has gone before. In the liner notes, Salonen writes of a section where he "imagined the orchestra as some kind of gigantic lung, expanding and contracting first slowly, but then accelerating to a point of mild hyperventilation which leads back to the dance-like material." (Hmmmm – at any rate, I can see why the folks at Sony decided to go with the comet rather than the giant lung for the cover illustration…) After some final frenzied interaction between hand drums and cello, the movement and of course the concerto as a whole ends with Ma climbing as high as he can reach into the treble notes of the cello, ending with what Salonen describes as "a stratospherically high B-flat, two centimeters to the left of the highest note of the piano."

The effect of this ending is haunting, reinforcing the mental imagery of the comet traveling somewhere in deep space. It is as if we suddenly saw it coming, delighted in watching it and its accompanying cloud of debris as it made its way across our field of vision, only to see it travel out of sight as it continued its seemingly endless cosmic journey.

I do hope I have not made this recording sound in any way forbidding. It is not. If anything, it is highly engaging. Rest assured it is not atonal. No, Salonen is not Tchaikovsky, but he has worked some beautifully lyrical passages into this intriguing composition. In addition, the quality of the recording (captured live in concert) is first-class. The only negative I can see about this CD is its length, which is barely over 35 minutes. I hope that does not dissuade anyone from giving this disc a listen – this is a truly rewarding recording of a truly wonderful piece.


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

May 5, 2019

Haydn: Cello Concertos (CD review)

Also, Vivaldi: Concerto for Violin and Cello. Christoph Croise, cello; Sherniyaz Mussakhan, violin; Eurasian Soloists Chamber Orchestra. Avie AV2402.

At first blush it may seem incongruous that noted French-German-Swiss cellist Christoph Croise would record pieces by two such seemingly disparate composers as Joseph Haydn and Antonio Vivaldi to pair up on this album. After all, Haydn (1732-1809) is, along with Mozart, probably the most well-known musician of the Classical Period (around 1730-1820), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) is, along with Bach, probably the leading exponent of the Baroque Age (roughly 1600-1760). Yet, upon closer examination we see that Haydn completed his First Cello Concerto relatively early in life, mid 1760's, and Vivaldi wrote his Concerto for Violin and Cello relatively late in life, somewhere in the 1720's. So only about forty years separate the two works. While they may sound different, it's possibly more the result of the compositional styles of their authors than a true reflection of their eras. And, in fact, without Vivaldi and his gazillion concertos, we might not have had a Haydn or Mozart as we know them today in the first place.

Whatever, the program opens with the two Haydn Cello Concertos, No. 1 in C and No. 2 in D. Mr. Croise is accompanied by the Eurasian Soloists Chamber Orchestra, which, according to the Avie Records Web site, was "created in May 2015 by violinists Sherniyaz Mussakhan (Kazakhstan) and Jana Ozolina (Latvia). It consists of young artists, competition winners and soloists already well established on the international classical scene. These musicians, hailing from some ten different Eurasian countries, came together in Switzerland to share their various cultures and schools of performance, believing strongly in the principle that for the most beautiful language in the world--music--there are no borders." The orchestra is small, about seventeen players, and provide Mr. Croise a clean and elegant accompaniment. This greatly complements Croise's obvious joy in the music making.

Christoph Croise
Even though there are five cello concertos bearing Haydn's name, there are only two, the ones we find here, that the composer probably actually wrote. And there were even doubts about these. Anyway, Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote the Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major somewhere between 1761 and 1765. It's an early work and roughly contemporaneous with his Symphonies Nos. 6, 7, and 8. He wrote the Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major about twenty years later in 1783. Although No. 2 sounds obviously more mature and complex, it's still Haydn, so it's as delightfully charming as all of his material.

I mentioned that Croise displays a noticeable joy with this music. There's a spark, an effervescent fizz in his playing, which isn't about mere tempo speed or loudness contrasts. I'm reminded here of action-movie directors who increase the volume of the background score to encourage viewers to believe that things on screen are more exciting than they really are. There is none of that phoniness with Christoph Croise; he's the real deal. He substitutes nuance and élan for theatrics. Yet his playing is clearly virtuosic when necessary and elegant always.

The interpretations hold up as well. They are well integrated, the phrasing well strung together into a coherent whole, the movements all of a piece to produce a wonderfully structured set of notes that flow naturally and effortlessly from beginning to end. It helps, too, that the small Eurasian Soloists ensemble is so accomplished. They hold up their end of the bargain admirably, providing fresh, lively support throughout.

Although the little Vivaldi concerto comes as something of an afterthought following the more intricate-sounding Haydn creations, cellist Croise and violinist Mussakhan offer up an invigorating reading. They play almost as one, each gracing the other's contributions in vigorous conversation. It's a spirited affair and one that will delight any Vivaldi fan.

Engineer Joel Cormier recorded the concertos at Kirche Oberstrass, Zurich, Switzerland in November 2017. As with all of Avie's recordings, this one sounds splendid. Of course, having a small ensemble to work with is going to help in obtaining a transparent sound, but the placement of instruments, the imaging, is also excellent. And the environment is both alive with ambient bloom and given to fine detailing at the same time. The soloist appears admirably well situated within the orchestral context, being neither too close to the listener nor too far away; it's truly an ideal arrangement. Good job, Avie.


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

Our Tenth... And Thank You

This month marks the tenth anniversary of Classical Candor. So a big thanks to all loyal readers, occasional readers, newbie readers, and to the staff--Karl, Bryan, and Mrs. Classical Candor--for their patience and hard work. "The fundamental things apply, As time goes by."


May 1, 2019

On Power Amplifiers and How Much Power

By Bryan Geyer

The power amplifier needs to accurately amplify (apply voltage gain to) the incoming signal, and deliver that amplified signal, fully in tact, to a designated low impedance load. The power amplifier is not supposed to alter or reshape the input signal in any other manner, so optimum accuracy can be enhanced when the potential for error (a.k.a. distortion) is effectively suppressed.

There are, today, many solid-state power amplifiers that are highly accurate. They replicate the input signal with extremely low error, so it’s virtually impossible to separate such amplifiers by merely listening; they’ll simply sound identical. Distinguishing differences generally involve power output capability, load impedance compatibility, basic circuit design (and choice of active components), intended reliability, and target market. One needs to push deeper into the technical detail to make sensible decisions about benefit-versus-cost aspects; listening isn’t enough.

Given this state of modern amplifier excellence, it’s unrealistic to expect equivalent accuracy from vacuum tube dependent design. The archaic limitations of the triode tube (Lee DeForest, 1906) are not consistent with contemporary medians. Ruler-flat power response, near-zero (<  0.1%) total harmonic distortion (THD) at full rated power, and ultra-low output impedance (~ 1/10th the Zout of a typical tube amp) is now routine in the case of most solid-state power amplifiers. Identical measurements made on the very best vacuum tube models show that they can’t approach the same readouts. For example, consider THD: Typical “high-end” tube-type audio power amplifier THD limits are ~ 16X to 50X worse than as specified for a popular “mid-market” solid-state power amplifier.* (They’re 1% to 3% THD instead of 0.06% max.) That’s undeniable regression. Of course, tube boosters assert that this shortcoming is actually beneficial. They claim that vacuum tube amps will thereby render a warmer, more euphonic (?) sound. Given this Zen-infused perception, tube power amplifiers can seemingly transcend their intended role and become creative (but arbitrary) signal processors. This uncontrolled mutation is not consistent with the initial (accuracy) objective.

I recommend a power amplifier that can accurately replicate the input signal, and do so with sufficient power to deliver some +2 dB to +3 dB more unclipped drive than your speakers can tolerate. A speaker system’s safe operating range is defined by its “maximum unclipped power input” limit. The application of some +2 to +3 dB margin for power amplifier output will then assure that your speakers never see a clipped (potentially destructive) input signal that’s within the speakers’ safe operating range. E.g.: If your loudspeakers are able to accept unclipped power input ≤ 80 Watts, then your power amplifier should be able to provide unclipped power output ≥ 127 Watts (+2 dB) or ≥ 160 Watts (+3 dB). In this example, do take note that the cited power levels may be appreciably more than many tube-type power amplifiers can produce. Vacuum tube power amps are wimpy, as well as grossly inefficient.

Apply that “euphonic polishing” later, at the loudspeaker stage. The speakers’ performance will be inseparably linked to the acoustic characteristics of your listening room, so it’s sensible to address both of those issues together—without the need to compensate for anomalous amplifier sound.                                                                       

*Parasound’s Halo A23+ power amplifier ($1,495 list) versus the best from PrimaLuna, VTL, and VAC.

BG (February 2019)

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa