Jul 31, 2019

On the Certainty of Science…

By Bryan Geyer

“What I see happening around me is depressing. The knowledge of how to create stunning reproduced sound exists, but because people in general don’t read, and many don’t believe in science, the average consumer ends up living with inferior sound when the same money could have purchased more. Countless hours in audio forum discussions are no substitute for a few days reading peer-reviewed science.” Also “…far too many audiophiles follow faith-based notions that the answers to perfect sound lie in distractions like power cords, speaker wires, and exotic electronics. This is money not well spent.”

These are the words of Floyd E. Toole, as taken from an article that appeared in the December 2017 issue of AudioExpress, in an interview by author Shannon Becker. Floyd Toole is the noted author of Sound Reproduction (Routledge, 3rd edition, 2018), a valued audio reference that’s now in its third printing. Prior to his recent retirement Toole was VP in charge of acoustical engineering at Harman International, one of the largest audio equipment conglomerates in the U.S. He is widely recognized and respected for a lifetime of research and achievement within the audio engineering industry.

One of the things that Toole finds vexing is the illogical means favored by audiophiles to assess the potential benefit of component upgrades. That process generally initiates with obvious and overt disinterest in any of the related technical issues. Critical detail like impedance compatibility, input sensitivity, and stage gain get dismissed without review, overrun by the compulsion to conduct listening trials of how stuff sounds. In truth, listening tests bear no consequence. A comprehensive 2012 paper (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580) that was devoted to the study of aural memory plainly shows that listening perception is a fleeting sensory response that’s readily swamped by overriding visual influences. Subjective aural impression is just too elusive to serve as a reference for later comparison. Barring cases of badly mismatched circuit compatibility, attempts to evaluate component quality by subjective listening will yield randomized results. The ear cannot serve as a viable accuracy indicator unless the response is monitored in a collective group setting, administered under “double blind” test conditions, and summarized with appropriate statistical oversight.

Another flaw innate in evaluating audio quality by ear is that the implied goal has become so very conflicted. The original aim was “high fidelity”, meaning faithful to the original; i.e. accuracy. In more recent decades this zest for accuracy has softened. The present target is more often “sound that I like”; i.e. a euphonious sound. This state of euphony gets variously described as lying somewhere between select extremes that are popularly labeled “too warm” and “too detailed”, a.k.a. “too analytical”. Of course, that’s a slippery scale, and alternate choices are likely to bob ahead dependent on the source material, mood, hour, choice of libation, and the velocity of warp speed when expressed in furlongs-per-fortnight.

Given this evidence, it’s apparent that mere listening alone is not a reliable basis for assessing the excellence of audio equipment. So, what’s a better alternative? What’s a good way to rate equipment and system upgrades without resorting to the groupthink blather that pervades most of the audiophile forums? Well, here are some suggestions….

Per Toole, try reading. Reacquaint your expectations with the glorious certainty of science. Do some basic study of the established physics, e.g. Ohms law, impedance requirements, voltage gain, load compatibility—the standard analog essentials that describe operative fit and function. Determine precisely what your equipment specifications mean; learn about their significance and the limitations that they imply. Understand why low resistance is the only parameter that will matter when you connect eight feet of cable between the output terminations on your power amplifier and the input terminations on your loudspeakers.

Seek objective resources. Most of the audio advisory publications are hopelessly subjective, but there are exceptions, notably the Audioholics site: https://www.audioholics.com. In addition to competently researched product reviews they also offer intelligent tutorial and opinion guidance; note the numerous technical articles that are cited toward the bottom of this section that introduces the Audioholics owner at https://www.audioholics.com/authors/gene-dellasala.

Last—buy this reference compendium*: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30158293718&searchurl=isbn%3D9780415788847%26n%3D100121501%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title7. It’s The Audio Expert, by Ethan Winer (Routledge, 2nd Edition, Dec. 2017). Be absolutely certain that you buy only the new 2nd edition (Dec. 2017); ISBN-13 9780415788847. This book is a 783 page (fully indexed) source for “Everything You Need To Know About Audio”. The author is a solid science-based audio engineer who subscribes to all of the vital basics (nicely capsuled in Chapter 23). In addition, he’s a patient psycho-acoustician who can explain to you why you felt that the sound improved after installing those new $1,200 speaker cables. (There’s more to it than mere confirmation bias; refer p. 100.)

*The referenced site is that of bookseller C. Clayton Thompson (https://www.abebooks.com/c-clayton-thompson-bookseller-boone-nc/44399/sf). This shop’s collection of books relating to military history is unique; well worth perusing. As is Thompson’s vacation rental hideaway at https://www.petitemaisondulac.com/cabin.html. This is a nice place to buy books, regardless of theme.

BG (July 2019)

Jul 28, 2019

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 (SACD review)

Also, Nocturnes Nos. 4, 5, 7, and 8; Ballade No 1; Polonaise No. 6.  Maurizio Pollini, piano; Paul Kletzki, Philharmonia Orchestra. Warner Classics WPCS-13543 (Japan).

From LP's to CD's, I've owned this recording in one format or another almost since the day it came out in 1960. The last time I reviewed it was about ten years ago when EMI remastered it. Now, Warner Music Japan have remastered it yet again, this time in SACD. A good thing keeps getting better and better.

The mid Fifties and early Sixties saw the introduction of a remarkable number of great pianists, among them Alfred Brendel, Van Cliburn, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogdon, Stephen Kovacevich, and others, including Maurizio Pollini. With the exception of Mr. Ogdon, who died relatively young, all of them have more than lived up to their potential. As I say, remarkable.

Anyway, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines "classic" as "a work of the first rank, esp. one of demonstrably enduring quality; an artistic production considered a standard; a work that is honored as definitive in its field; something noteworthy of its kind and worth remembering; one that is considered to be highly prestigious or the most important of its kind." One might easily apply all of those meanings to Maurizio Pollini's recording of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11. The music is classic, the performance is classic, and the sound is classic.

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was only around twenty years old when he wrote his two Piano Concertos, writing the Concerto we know today as No. 2 before he wrote No. 1 but publishing it later, thus giving it the misleading number 2. So, if No. 1 seems more mature and has become more popular, it's because it wasn't Chopin's first attempt in the genre. And the reason I mention the composer's age when he composed the piece is because Pollini was only eighteen when he recorded it, shortly after he won the International Ettore Pozzoli Piano Competition in Seregno, Italy (1959), and the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland (1960). Youth serves youth.

Maurizio Pollini
In the first movement, Pollini is in equal measure poetic and heroic without an ounce of sappiness, a movement that comes through all the more powerfully for its straightforwardness. When Pollini executes the famous main theme, it, too, flows effortlessly with a gentle, expressive, unforced charm. I suppose you could call it a restrained passion, which makes it all the more passionate.

Chopin himself described the second movement Romanze as "...calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot which calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening." Such is Pollini's interpretation, which lingers dreamily in the moonlight as much as any other account, the pianist striking every note with uncluttered assurance and conveying a mood of unlimited tranquility. Pollini floats the melody along in the most lyrical possible manner, yet never drawing attention to anything but the music.

Finally, in the closing Rondo Vivace, Pollini produces an interpretation both playful and vigorous, his unaffected technique dazzling and persuasive.

Pollini recorded the program's accompanying solo works in 1968, and they lend an added value to the disc. The solo pieces include the Nocturne No. 4 in F, Op. 15, No. 1; Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp, Op. 15, No. 2; Nocturne No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1; Nocturne No. 8 in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2; the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23; and the Polonaise No. 6 in A flat, Op. 53, "Heroic." They demonstrate the pianist's range in Chopin interpretation, from the quietest and most serene pieces to the most bravura.

Producer Victor Olof and engineer Douglas Larter of EMI Records recorded the Concerto in April 1960 at Abbey Road Studio No. 1, and Warner Music Japan remastered it in hybrid Super Audio CD (SACD) in 2016. Although the sound remains two-channel stereo, it gains a degree of impact and range from the new processing, and I for one welcome any improvements to an already good thing.

On either a regular or SACD player, the sound of the Concerto is remarkably strong, clear, robust, and dynamic for its age (or for any age). The piano sparkles, well focused and crisply defined. The orchestral support spreads out behind the piano like an extension of the solo instrument itself, with respectable transparency, air, and depth. In SACD the sound is slightly more dynamic, with more impact and slightly better definition. One can also hear the difference from a regular CD player, but it isn't quite as evident. In any case, I doubt than anyone could tell the difference who didn't play the CD and SACD versions of the recording side by side and level matched as I did, and even then, as I say, the distinctions are still relatively minor. I could not in all conscience recommend that anyone who already owns the recording on CD buy the newer remastering unless one has very deep pockets or is really obsessive about sound, as I admit I am.

EMI recorded the accompanying short pieces in Paris eight years later, again reproducing the sonics quite well, cleanly and even more warmly.

Should I also mention that this recording of the Concerto is about my absolute favorite recording of anything, anywhere, any time? It is perfect.


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

Jul 24, 2019

Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 "Kaddish" (CD Review)

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Gidon Kremer, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Kremerata Baltica. DG 483 6566 GH2 (2-disc set).

By Karl W. Nehring

Occasionally a recording comes along that completely changes your opinion of a composer and his or her music. This new two-CD set has recently and rather startlingly done that for me in the case of Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996). Mind you, it was not that I did not care for his music, but rather that I had always found previous recordings of his music to be OK, but never any better than that. I always felt a sense of disappointment. I had wanted his symphonies and other orchestral works to sweep me off my feet the way that the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich had when I first heard them, but it just never came to pass.

To be honest, I was not immediately impressed when I played the first disc of this two-CD set, his Symphony No. 2, a string symphony here performed by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica. It struck me as, well, OK, but that was about it. Given my underwhelmed reaction to the first disc in the set, it took me another day to muster enough enthusiasm to audition the second disc.

What a difference a day makes! Twenty-four little hours later, I found myself fascinated by Symphony No. 21 "Kaddish" (the term refers to a Jewish prayer), which is played by the combined forces of Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica plus the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, all under the direction of conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla. Here was a piece that reminded both of Mahler and Shostakovitch in its intensity of expression and sometimes chamber-music-like employment of orchestral forces. Having been so impressed by No. 21, I made a determination to listen to both symphonies over and over again, and so I did -- in my car, my living room, and in my listening room. The more I listened, the more my appreciation grew – not just for No. 21, but also for No.2, another truly remarkable work.

Gidon Kremer
The first movement of Symphony No. 2, marked Allegro Moderato, opens lyrically, but soon you begin to feel a bit of an edge underlying the pleasantness. Kremer's violin weaves in and out of the sonic tapestry, and as the movement continues, the mood becomes reminiscent of some of Shostakovitch's music with its skittishness and underlying tension. The movement, which in some ways resembles a miniature symphony on itself, becomes agitated and ends abruptly, followed by the second movement, marked Adagio, which opens with a plaintive melody. The movement becomes more serious and reflective as it goes along, finally ending in a whisper. The third movement, marked Allegretto, returns to a mood more like the first movement, building up tension with repeated motifs as the music becomes more and more intense but then again ends in a whisper.

As for Symphony No. 21, violinist Kremer, who has played and recorded much of Weinberg's music over many years, remarks in the liner notes that "it was actually as if one had discovered Mahler's Eleventh Symphony. A musical monument that sets to music one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century." Conductor Gražinyte-Tyla notes of the work that it poses a special challenge to both the orchestra and the conductor. "It is hard to string this enormous bow. The reason is that long passages are dominated entirely by a solo voice and various chamber ensembles while the gigantic orchestral apparatus of almost 100 musicians sits on the stage… the deeper we dive into the music, and the more closely we study this work, the more beautifully it begins to radiate."

The symphony is constructed as one giant movement, with six sections marked but flowing into each other without pause. As Gražinyte-Tyla remarked, there are many instances featuring small groupings and soloists playing prominent roles, including violin, clarinet, piano, double-bass, and in the closing minutes, a soprano voice – surprisingly, that of Gražinyte-Tyla herself. But there are also passages featuring boisterous contributions from brass, percussion, woodwinds, and strings. Under Gražinyte-Tyla's direction, it all hangs together beautifully, and has been captured in splendid sound by the engineering team.

As I stated at the outset, there are recordings that make you change your opinion of a composer. Having been so entranced by this remarkable recording of these two splendid symphonies, I plan to seek out more recordings of Weinberg's music to see what further treasures I might be able to unearth. Ah, the joys of music!


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

Jul 21, 2019

Brubeck: Time Out (UltraHD review)

Dave Brubeck Quartet. Sony Music 88843026022 (remastered).

Alto saxophonist and composer Paul Desmond once said of "Take Five," "It was never supposed to be a hit. It was supposed to be a Joe Morello drum solo." Desmond's composition became the biggest-selling jazz single in history.

Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) formed his quartet in 1951, and they continued playing until his death. Their biggest album, of course, was "Time Out," recorded in 1959 and included "Take Five." The album and the single have become jazz classics, so it was good that the late record producer Winston Ma (FIM, First Impression Music) helped in the album's audiophile remastering in 2014. It is currently available in its remastered form from Sony Music.

Although members of the quartet changed over the years, the personnel for "Time Out" consisted of Dave Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, alto sax; Eugene Wright, bass; and Joe Morello, drums.

The album featured several innovative moves for a jazz presentation, chief among them (and here I'm quoting) "exotic time signatures," "compound time," "layering rhythms of counterpoint," and a "blending of three cultures: the formation of classical Western music, the freedom of jazz improvisation, and the often complex pulse of African folk music."

Which brings us to the first track on the program, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," essentially a blues number in classical rondo form, with a nod to Mozert's rondo "Alla turca." Its strong pulsating rhythms provide a good show opener. After that is "Strange Meadow Lark," which seems rather common by comparison to the opening piece but is still quite lovely. Third up is "Take Five," the only work on the album that wasn't written by Brubeck but by Paul Desmond, and the only track that hardly needs any explanation, since it's been a staple of jazz ever since.

Dave Brubeck
Next is "Three to Get Ready," which starts as a kind of waltz and soon segues into a set of variations. Then, there's "Kathy's Waltz," a tune Brubeck wrote for his daughter, Cathy, which merges several waltz times; "Everybody's Jumpin'" is quite pliant in its rhythms; and the closing track, "Pick Up Sticks," superbly highlights Brubeck's piano work.

Originally recorded by producer Teo Macero and engineer Fred Plaut for Columbia Records in June 1959 at 30th Street Columbia Studio, the album was here remastered by producer Winston Ma in 2014 for Sony Music using FIM and JVC's UltraHD (Ultra High Definition), "PureFlection" (Pure Reflection), 32-bit mastering process. The results are about as good as current compact disc technology gets, considering one can play it on a regular CD player.

Now, here's the thing. I've owned this album in one format or another for most of most of my life yet never considered a particularly great audiophile recording. Most of the sound is miked in the left and right channels, and if the sweet spot in your listening configuration is on one point of the proverbial triangle, you're apt to get a hole in the middle, a slightly empty space between the speakers. Toeing the speakers in more toward the listening position and moving them a little closer together helps mitigate this issue quite bit, so experimentation is in order. Indeed, the disc might prove a blessing in disguise if it helps to improve one's seating arrangement.

Anyway, that said, the new remastering is superb, its main claim to fame being its absolute smoothness. Sony's previous releases of this recording have always seemed to me a bit hard; not really edgy but not as flowing as real music should be. The new remastering takes care of that, providing sound that is as natural as possible. It also improves, though only slightly, the recording's dynamic impact and bass response, as well as its overall clarity. Most important, the new remastering sounds lifelike, as if four musicians are there in the listening room with you.

Again, these are incrementally small distinctions and should not be construed as night-and-day differences. For most folks, the regular CD may suffice nicely. It's for the audiophile with deep pockets that record companies make these kinds of meticulous remasterings, and for them it should be a pleasure.

You can find ARC products at some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/


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

Jul 17, 2019

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" (CD review)

Also, An Elizabethan Suite. Sir John Barbirolli, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Dutton Laboratories CDSJB 1008.

I did not get to hear this recording when EMI first released it in 1967, and by the time I heard good news about it in the mid seventies, the company was no longer issuing it. Then, Dutton Labs remastered it in 1997, and I finally got to hear it. I have to admit it is seldom I am so completely taken by a performance that I am willing to recommend it as a top choice, but after several listening sessions with Sir John Barbirolli's Beethoven Third, I am inclined to do so.

Seldom do I remember just when, where, or how I first learned about a particular recording. Most of the time, it's something a record company has sent me for review. But when something like Barbirolli's BBC recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony found its way into my collection, it was a different story, and I recall exactly the way it came about. I read about it in a 1973 book I still own titled 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers by the announcer, commentator, and author Martin Bookspan (b. 1926). In the book, Bookspan comments on various pieces of classical music and makes recommendations for specific recordings. For the Beethoven Third, he wrote, "...my own favorites among the many 'Eroica' recordings are the performances conducted by Barbirolli, Bernstein, and Schmidt-Isserstedt. Barbirolli's, in fact, is the finest 'Eroica' performance I have ever heard, on or off records; it is noble, visionary and truly heroic, with playing and recorded sound to match. The performance has lost none of its power and impact with the passage of time. If anything, its stature has grown as far as I'm concerned."

High praise, indeed, from a man who knew music well. But for a long time it was a recording hard to get a hold of. Thus, it was with open arms and welcome ears that I found it remastered by Dutton.

Barbirolli's performance is a marvel of sustained coherence, a noble, heroic vision from first to last. The opening movement is as exciting and energetic as any I have heard, in spite of its being a mite slower than some competing interpretations. The slow movement, the Funeral March, is more poignant than I have ever encountered. Thereafter, the Scherzo is as joyous and the Finale as high-spirited as anyone could want.

Sir John Barbirolli
Anyway, as you know, Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" in 1804 in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the composer greatly admired. However, just before Beethoven premiered the piece in 1805, he learned that Bonaparte had declared himself "Emperor" of France, corrupting the ideals of the French Revolution, so the composer removed the man's name from the manuscript, inscribing it, instead, "to celebrate the memory of a great man." More important, the Third marked a turning point in Beethoven's artistic output with its daring length, range, and emotional commitment, marking something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all meant.

What it meant to Sir John, apparently, was something a bit kinder and gentler than it has meant to some other conductors. Barbirolli approached the work with a greater affection than many other conductors, offering up music of urgency and emotion, to be sure, but of resplendent love, stately nuances, and sublime caresses as well. It's not the kind of performance that sets the blood to boil, but it is a performance that is hard not to find appealing.

Take, for instance, those opening strokes that introduce us to Beethoven's vision of the emperor. With many conductors, the notes sound sharp and concise; with Barbirolli, they sound mellower, more resigned. It's as though the conductor wants us to know at the outset that this is going to be a more benign, more humane interpretation than you've probably heard before. The second-movement funeral march is more leisurely than most, too. Rather than bring out the stateliness of the music, Barbirolli chooses to bring out the beauty. By the time of the Scherzo, though, the conductor has picked up more steam and seems to want us to pay closer attention to details. Then we get a reasonably driving Finale, still not taken at a hectic pace but with a reassuringly triumphant conclusion.

So, Barbirolli's account of the symphony is more lyrical, more musical, more sensitive than we usually hear. Add to this a wonderfully alert response from the BBC Symphony, and you get possibly the most poetic account of the music you're likely to find. This was among the final recordings Barbirolli made, by the way, and it has an appropriately autumnal glow about it, with Sir John lingering over individual phrases as was his wont in later life. If the whole thing hasn't the tautness one cares for, well, that was his way. The performance is still well worth hearing.

The little "Elizabethan Suite," Barbirolli's own pastiche of various early seventeenth-century English tunes that accompanies the "Eroica," is icing on the cake.

Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Neville Boyling originally recorded the music for EMI at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London in May 1967. In the years since EMI released it, the recording has appeared in several different forms and formats from LP and tape to CD. As of this writing, one can not only obtain it from Dutton Laboratories, who remastered it in 1997, but also from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), who remastered it in 2017, and from Warner Classics, who reissued it in 2018.

The Dutton disc sounds quite good, and, in fact, for overall clarity it surpasses the newer HDTT product mentioned above. The sound has depth, breadth, and clarity in spades. It doesn't sound its age at all and outstrips many new digital efforts. That said, there is still an argument for the smoother, warmer sound from HDTT, which flatters Barbirolli's overall design. Both versions provide plenty of dynamic range and a fairly quiet background. I have yet to hear the newest incarnation on Warner, but I have not doubt it sounds good, too. In the end, it may be one's choice of price, availability, or playback format that determines which of the editions to buy. The main thing is that the performance is a gem.


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

Jul 14, 2019

Vangelis: Nocturne (CD review)

The Piano Album. Vangelis. Decca B0029594-02.

After the introduction of the Moog synthesizer in the mid 1960's, several musicians were responsible for its rise in popularity. Chief among these people were Wendy Carlos, Tomita, and Vangelis. Each of them scored notable successes, but it may have been Vangelis who garnered the most attention thanks to his soundtrack music for the movies "Chariots of Fire" (1981) and "Blade Runner" (1982). Since the 60's he has been quite active with film and TV music, public appearances, and record albums. This latest of his recordings is called "Nocturne: The Piano Album."

Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (b. 1943), better known by his professional name, Vangelis, is a Greek composer of, according to Wikipedia, "electronic, progressive, ambient, jazz, and orchestral music." I suppose the present album falls into the "ambient" category for lack of any other description.

But here's the thing: It's called, as I say, "The Piano Album." Inside the accompanying booklet there's even a picture of Vangelis sitting behind what appears to be a grand piano. So far, so good. Then we take a quick listen, and the piano doesn't quite sound like a piano. It appears to sound artificial somehow. A moment later, we hear what appear to be strings coming from left field. Strings? There is no mention anywhere in the album about a string section. Finally, it dawns on the listener that Vangelis is probably not playing a conventional grand piano but a synthetic piano, bringing in synthetic strings to augment the synthetic piano notes. So why didn't the booklet tell us this? Well, to be fair, the booklet notes don't tell us much of anything except to provide a track listing and a few acknowledgments of people who helped create the album. So, you take what you get.

The program contains original Vangelis compositions, some of them new, some of them old. Here's a track listing:

  1. "Nocturnal Promenade"
  2. "To the Unknown Man" (from "Spiral")
  3. "Movement 9, Mythodea" (from "Mythodea")
  4. "Moonlight Reflections"
  5. "Through the Night Mist"
  6. "Early Years"
  7. "Love Theme, Blade Runner" (from "Blade Runner")
  8. "Sweet Nostalgia"
  9. "Intermezzo"
10. "To a Friend"
11. "La Petite Fille de la Mer" (from "L'Apocalypse des animaux")
12. "Longing"
13. "Chariots of Fire" (from "Chariots of Fire")
14. "Unfulfilled Desire"
15. "Lonesome"
16. "1492: Conquest of Paradise" (from "1492: Conquest of Paradise")
17. "Pour Melia"

As you no doubt know, a nocturne is a piece of music appropriate to the night or evening, usually a romantic character piece for piano, with an expressive, dreamy, or pensive melody. That's probably why Vangelis opens with a work called "Nocturnal Promenade," which, I assume, means a nighttime stroll, in this case evoking a starry night and a leisurely walk. It tends to rather meander along with no definite goal in mind, sort of a like work by Frederick Delius, maybe "Summer Night on the River," but without the Delius charm. The sudden appearance of strings in Vangelis's music calls up, perhaps, images of clouds or breezes, I dunno. It's tranquil enough, for sure.

I have never been a big fan of electronic music, so I found Vangelis's pared-down, simplified piano versions of his music more refreshing than his big, elaborate, overblown extravaganzas. Whether this is still an electronic piano or not is beside the point. The tunes are clean and clear, with minimum accompaniment beyond that which he produces himself.

For reasons unexplained, track three, "Movement 9, Mythodea," is performed by guest pianist Irina Valentinova. It sounds at first like an entirely different instrument from the one Vangelis plays and more like a conventional piano. But then the string accompaniment kicks in, and it begins sounding more like the rest of the program.

"Intermezzo" sounds for all the world like something by Elgar, all big strings, quiet pomp, and regal ceremony. There's no piano at all, which is a welcome break, to be sure. "Chariots of Fire" and "1492" remain the best numbers on the disc, despite their more romantic, dreamy moods here. The program ending in a lullaby seems appropriate.

Anyway, taken as a whole, the "Nocturne" album seems a little hit-and-miss, a little disjointed; beyond the vague "nocturne" theme and the general tranquillity of the music, it hasn't a central focus to hold it together. It's more like a New Age greatest hits collection, a "best of Vangelis" sort of thing, with less showy versions of some of his most popular melodies, plus a few newer ones. It's certainly not unpleasant, but it's hardly groundbreaking, either.

Producer Vangelis and engineer Philippe Colonna recorded the album in 2018 under licence to Decca Records. For maximum definition, the engineer miked the piano fairly close, yet it doesn't spread out too far across the speakers so it still sounds natural (if synthetic) enough. The synthetic strings, however, tend to air out all over the place. Whatever, we hear clean delineation, wide dynamics, and strong impact, which is about all you could want from the disc. It sounds like a good studio album in a pop style.


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

Jul 10, 2019

On Considering the Vinyl Revival…

By Bryan Geyer

Vinyl media invites disparate opinion. For some, vinyl conveys handling and listening pleasure that transcends the many shortcomings of its aged vintage. Others regard vinyl as obsolete, and view its performance and convenience limitations as intolerable.

LP discs are the product of a 1948 compromise that traded fidelity for the means to fit some 25 minutes/side onto a 12 inch record. Bass response was sacrificed to reduce groove excursion, and treble was boosted to mask surface noise. Complementary equalization is introduced during playback, but analog LPs still measure poorly when compared to standard “Red Book” CD media. CDs convey a dynamic range some 30 dB better than most vinyl, with much flatter frequency response, far less total harmonic distortion, and near-noiseless playback. These critical advantages compel the professional insiders, e.g. musicians, performing artists, conductors, and audio engineers, to express uniform preference for the superior realistic accuracy of CDs—see http://www.laweekly.com/music/why-cds-may-actually-sound-better-than-vinyl-5352162.

Further, LP records undergo frictional abrasion with every play, causing groove wear (fussy cleaning often needed), while CDs are read without contact. And LPs deliver 25-28 mins./side, whereas CDs can store up to 80 minutes. Given this score, why would any audiophile prefer vinyl? Well, some say that “vinyl sounds better."  But objective listening isn’t likely if you’ve just bought your hi-end vinyl playback gear. Massive turntables, exotic tonearms, and costly cartridges exude strong visual karma, and will implant a potent vinyl bias that overrides even the most astute aural perception. (Refer http://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580 for a closely related study.)

The “vinyl revival” depicts what can happen when specious improvement meets marketing greed, with 50 lb. turntables (at > $5K ea.) to spin 1/4 lb. records. Vinyl is a potential option, but it’s best ignored unless you already own lots (and lots!) of LPs, or you feel compelled to support the groupthink cult at your local hi-end audio club. Conversely, CD media makes it easy to hear great sound without the brief play time, compressed dynamics, low signal-to-noise ratio, high harmonic distortion, endless groove wear, and dedicated equipment expense that’s forever innate with vinyl.

(1) NOTE:  Be aware that the analog era of LP vinyl has largely expired, at least for popular music discs of the recent decade. In SPARS code lingo, most vinyl releases are now DDA or ADA—not AAA. Most of the recording, and virtually all of the mixing, is now accomplished digitally. Only the final master is analog, so you’re listening to a digitally-sourced signal that’s delivered via LP microgroove. If you’re of the school that “can’t bear digital sound,” your shopping should be confined to musty tubs that stock old, used LP records.

(2) WARNING:  If you intend to “A/B” (compare) vinyl-to-CD sound, be aware that many pop market CDs are intentionally “hyper-comped” (mastered with gross dynamic range compression) to assure that they’ll peak the level meters (sound loud) when given any airplay; ditto when played in cars. This odious digital distortion will cause this freak CD to sound inferior when compared to its vinyl equivalent. Analog discs can’t be artificially despoiled to this same extent, so it's the CD release that gets intentionally compromised.

BG (June 2019)

Jul 7, 2019

Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Choral Fantasy. Laurence Equilbey, Accentus, Insula Orchestra. Erato 0190295505738.

The good news: The conductor, the orchestra, the chorus, and, of course, the music are all excellent.

The bad news: Erato chose to record the music live.

The conductor is Laurence Equilbey, a French music director of some renown in both the choral and orchestral fields. She founded the chamber choir Accentus in 1991 and here leads the Insula Orchestra, with which she is also the artistic and musical director.

Although the Triple Concerto gets top billing on the album cover, the program begins with the Choral Fantasy (more formally, the Fantasia for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra), Op. 80, which Beethoven wrote 1808. The composer premiered it with himself as soloist in a concert with his Piano Concerto No. 4, his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, and excerpts from his Mass in C major. That was surely a concert for the ages, and Beethoven wanted the Choral Fantasy to conclude the event, utilizing all the performers assembled. The soloists on the current album are Bertrand Chamayou, piano; Sandrine Piau, soprano; Anaik Morel, alto; Stanislas de Barbeyrac, tenor; and Florian Sempey, baritone; along with the Accentus choir and Insula Orchestra. Ms. Equilbey's performance may not live up to Beethoven's extraordinary occasion, but it's quite nice in any case.

The Insula Orchestra play on period instruments, which is a major plus in terms of my taste, and both pieces of music use a period Pleyel piano from 1892, which Ms. Equilbey says is a good compromise between the fortepiano of Beethoven's time and today's modern instruments. In any case, the music they make is pleasant, not harsh, brash, or soggy. More important, Ms. Equilbey keeps the generally genial mood of the piece moving smoothly and energetically, with both grace and charm. While it's true it zips along in the tradition of historical performances, it maintains a proper decorum. In other words, there is nothing stodgy about the reading, and its relationship with the composer's later and more-celebrated Ninth Symphony is more evident than ever.

Laurence Equilbey
Following the Choral Fantasy we get Beethoven's Triple Concerto (more formally, the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major), Op. 56, written in 1803, several years earlier than the Choral Fantasy. It's the only concerto Beethoven composed for more than one solo instrument. The soloists are Alexandra Conunova, violin; Natalie Clein, cello; and David Kadduch, piano, with Ms. Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra. Ms. Equilbey's rendition would have to be splendid, indeed, to compete with something like the star-studded cast of EMI's recording with David Oistrakh, violin; Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (on EMI, Warner Classics, and remastered by JVC for Hi-Q). In any case, Ms. Equilbey's account is also quite nice.

Again, Ms. Equilbey keeps a strong forward momentum going, and the soloists intertwine effortlessly within the orchestral context. They maintain a reasonably balanced dialogue with the orchestra, although the piano tends to get a little drowned out at times by the other two instruments. Equilbey takes the slow central movement at an appropriately reflective gait, and Ms. Clein's cello sounds delightfully lyrical and not a little melancholy. The finale bursts forth with radiant beauty, perhaps more courtly and gracious than completely joyous but fitting in with the mood of the preceding movement.

Producer Laure Casenave-Pere and engineer Thomas Dappelo recorded the music live at the auditorium of La Seine Musicale, Boulogne, France in May 2017 and February 2018. As we might expect, the miking is fairly close, giving instrumental soloists an in-your-lap appearance. What's more, there's not a lot of depth to the orchestra nor much sense of ambience in the hall. When the chorus joins in, they sound a bit too strident for my ears. Fortunately, the sound is fairly clean, with clear definition and strong dynamics. The engineers have thankfully reduced audience noise and edited out any applause.


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

Jul 3, 2019

Rossini: Il Turco in Italia (CD review)

Cecilia Bartoli, Michele Pertusi, Alessandro Corbelli, Laura Polverelli; Riccardo Chailly, Orchestra and choir of the Teatro alla Scala di Milano. Decca 289 458 924-2 (2-disc set).

Il Turco in Italia (1814) is one of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini's (1792-1868) early comic operas, the kind that non-opera connoisseurs like myself find difficult to differentiate from others of its kind. Even though there are no big, really memorable tunes to program on my CD player for later listening, it all goes down agreeably in the moment.

Yes, this mid-Nineties production is pleasantly entertaining at the time, beautifully sung by the soloists and choir, well accompanied by Maestro Chailly and his La Scala Orchestra, and reasonably well recorded. It's just that I am not sure I would ever return to it again willingly for a complete run-through. At least I haven't in the twenty-odd years since I first got the set. 

Riccardo Chailly
The opera's plot involves a unique idea for its time, and one that has been used since. A poet in search of material for a comedy he is writing decides to use the real life around him as his reference. Observing a group of gypsies, he notes an unhappy marriage, a wandering wife, a hapless husband, and a Turkish prince. Needless to say, when the real-life situations don't develop dramatically enough for his liking, the poet is not above "arranging" the people's lives, finally arriving at a suitably happy ending for everyone involved. 

Decca's 1996 sound is typical of their modern opera recordings. It is big and clear, with voices a trifle bright for extra clarity, a point I noted most especially in the chorus and ensemble numbers. Also, while there is certainly a great deal of stage width, there isn't much sense of motion around the stage; indeed, there is little sense of stage presence, movement, or depth at all; not like the old Culshaw days. It is more or less a fixed reading. And, as usual, the orchestra appears on the same plane as the singers rather than in a more realistic, forward position as we might hear live.

In all, opera lovers will probably want the set. Others may want to audition it first.


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

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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