Aug 28, 2019

Wagner: Preludes and Orchestral Music (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, the Philadelphia Orchestra. DG 289 453 485-2.

Good heavens, yet more bleeding chunks of Wagner? Well, not exactly. With one exception, it is the usual collection of Preludes and such that Wagner intended as purely instrumental music in the first place; the exception being the "Good Friday Music," shorn of its vocal accompaniment. The conductor is Christian Thielemann, Karajan's young assistant in the 1980s. He appears to have learned well from the master and presents an agreeable selection of Wagner items.

The program starts off with the First Act Prelude to Die Meistersinger, which I admit I found somewhat lugubrious. But by the time the third item rolls around, the Act Three Prelude to Lohengrin, the conductor has picked up a head of steam and is showing more dash and élan.

Christian Thielemann
The disc gets even better as it goes along. The Act One Prelude to Parsifal has breadth and dignity, and the "Good Friday Music" is genuinely moving. Of course, the real test of any Wagner's conductor's mettle is in his handling of Tristan and Isolde, perhaps the most romantic-erotic music of all time. Here Thielemann adds some nice touches in dynamic gradation that add a sense of nobility to the works; yet alongside his mentor's recordings (DG) or those of one of my favorites, Otto Klemperer's (EMI), his interpretations seem a bit pedestrian and lacking in ultimate passion.

This was the first time (1998) I had heard the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded by DG, and I had to ask, where was the famous "Philadelphia Sound"? Apparently, it was homogenized out of existence by the DG engineers. The sonics are big, warm, and heavy, with a slightly gritty texture and a much too-close and tubby bass drum. By comparison, the recording by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) in much the same repertoire has better definition and better depth; and, what's more, the drums are in the right place.

In all, despite my reservations, this album is really pretty good. But there are always alternatives, and Thielemann would not be my first choice in this material.


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

Aug 25, 2019

Marsalis: Violin Concerto in D (CD review)

Also, Fiddle Dance Suite for Solo Violin. Nicola Benedetti, violin; Cristian Macelaru, The Philadelphia Orchestra. Decca B0030521-02.

Oh joy. Yet another live recording.

Begin rant:
It's a sad state of affairs in the classical record business when good studio recordings of orchestral music have all but disappeared. The prohibitive costs of paying an orchestra, paying technicians, and paying for the venue have become too expensive most of the time for even the biggest recording companies and most prestigious orchestras to record without an audience to help subsidize the costs. Add to that issue the fact that pirating has become so rampant in the music industry, it's hard for anyone to make a profit anymore.

Well, we have what we have, and about all some of us who still prize good sound can do about it is complain, hope for the best, and thank our lucky stars there are still a few record companies making a few good studio recordings, usually with middle-European or lesser-known orchestras.
End rant.

Anyway, most people probably recognize Wynton Marsalis as a virtuoso jazz and classical trumpeter, but he is also a teacher, musical director, cofounder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and composer, one of his compositions being the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music (the oratorio Blood in the Fields). On the present album you can hear his Violin Concerto in D, which he wrote for Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, who plays it on the recording, accompanied by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Cristian Macelaru.

According to a booklet note, while the Violin Concerto is "scored for symphony orchestra, with tremendous respect for the demands of the instrument, it is nonetheless written from the perspective of a jazz musician and New Orleans bluesman." That much is evident in the first few minutes, in which Marsalis pays more than a little tribute to George Gershwin.

Marsalis describes the first movement Rhapsody as "a complex dream that becomes a nightmare, progresses into peacefulness and dissolves into ancestral memory." It does seem to be all over the place, never quite congealing into a satisfying whole, but Ms. Benedetti does her best to keep up and has the whole thing moving at a respectable gait. I'm not sure the music required the services of the Philadelphia Orchestra to accompany it, though. They sound fine, of course, but the piece is really a showcase for the solo violin.

Nicola Benedetti
The second-movement Rondo Burlesque is, according to Marsalis, "a syncopated New Orleans jazz, calliope, circus clown, African gumbo, Mardi Gras party in odd meters." This scherzo is quick-tempoed and not a little goofy, with everything but the kitchen sink pounding away. However, it does provide Ms. Benedetti a chance to show off her virtuoso skills on the violin. It reminded me of the devil wildly playing the fiddle at a barn dance in "The Devil and Daniel Webster," which is actually a compliment to the music.

The third, slow movement, titled Blues, is by far the best part of the score, a "progression of flirtation, courtship, intimacy, sermonizing, final loss and abject loneliness that is out there to claim us all." Maybe it's because it's the first time the music slows down and invites to enjoy its beauty that I enjoyed it so much.

The final movement, Hootenanny, Marsalis describes as "a raucous, stomping and whimsical barnyard throw-down." Marsalis's description says it all. The music is quite cinematic and, and one can easily picture the scene in one's mind. Ms. Benedetti and the orchestra play it with gusto, and their enthusiasm carries the day.

I can't say that Mr. Marsalis's Violin Concerto will ever become a classic. It's quite accessible, to be sure, and much of it is no doubt fun. But it seems more than a little superficial as well, with its descriptive elements all too obvious and sometimes commonplace. While it goes down easily, thanks in large measure to Ms. Benedetti's playing, I doubt I'll be returning to it very often.

Accompanying the Concerto is Marsalis's Fiddle Dance Suite for Solo Violin, another rollicking yet reflective affair he wrote for Ms. Benedetti. Marsalis gives the five movements the titles "Sidestep Reel," "As the Wind Goes," "Jones's Jig," "Nicola's Strathspey," and "Bye Bye Breakdown." No, I didn't know what a "strathspey" was either, so I looked it up. It's a slow Scottish dance, a nod to Ms. Benedetti's Scottish heritage. As in the Concerto, the violin playing in Fiddle Dance will no doubt please Ms. Benedetti's fans. It encompasses quite a range of emotions and requires quite an accomplished player to pull off.

Producer Steven Epstein and engineer Richard King recorded the Concerto in D live at the Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA in November 2017. Producer Andrew Walton and engineer Philip Siney recorded the Fiddle Dance Suite at the Menuhin Hall, Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey, England in March 2019.

The sound in the Concerto has a kind of in-your-face closeness to it, common to many live recordings, with little depth to the orchestra behind the soloist. So it's all a bit flat and one-dimensional. The upper bass displays a pleasant warmth, but none of the sound appears to reflect much hall ambience. Clarity is good, as is the treble extension--not too bright but shimmering nonetheless. Dynamics, too, are reasonably good though not too impactful. Audience applause intrudes after the Concerto's final notes.

The sound of the solo violin in the Fiddle Dance I found more realistically recorded, a little more distanced and natural in tone. It did not appear that Decca recorded it live.


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

Aug 21, 2019

On Sure Things…

By Bryan Geyer

When it comes to creating or upgrading a modern audio system, these are my ten general “good sense guidelines.” I apply them with confident certainty, and I recommend them without reservation.

(1) That solid-state class A (and pseudo class A) high-bias power amplifier design is extremely inefficient, and that such amplifiers run w-a-y too hot to be tolerable. In addition, those amplifiers commonly weigh ~ 100 pounds, a mass that’s grossly inconsistent with home decor and display. Instead, stick with solid-state class A/B bias, or the best of the new class D power amp. designs. For admirable excellence at a practical price ($1,495 list), consider Parasound’s recently upgraded model Halo A23+, It’s a well designed type A/B powerhouse (160 watts per channel into 8Ω, both channels driven) in a package that’s 17 1/4” wide by 15 1/4” deep, and weighs 27 pounds. This product will fit nicely on a 16” deep wall-mounted shelf if you use a replacement power cord (AWG 14, type SJT, fully molded) with a 90˚ angled C13 socket (refer Also use right-angled RCA adapters, available at

(2) That a vacuum tube power amplifier bears consideration only if you intend to recreate a 1950s-’60s vintage replica, and knowingly accept all of the penalties that ensue when compared to a solid-state equivalent. Expect elevated hum+noise, 15X-to-40X more THD, a 8X-to-10X increase in output impedance, grossly inefficient operation, lots of heat, incessant bias drift, infrequent but inevitable failures, and periodic high expense to replace matched sets of archaic output tubes that are produced solely by obscure sources in China, Russia, and Slovakia.

(3) That an active analog crossover network is technically superior to a conventional passive crossover network in every vital respect: Initial accuracy, slope accuracy, long term stability, response flexibility, and operating convenience. Further, an external active analog 4th order crossover is essential if you expect to use subwoofers in your setup (refer “Tech Talk”, sidebar). Consider the Marchand XM66 active crossover that I currently use;

(4) That fully-sealed self-powered subwoofers (minimum = 2, but more are welcome if your space and decor permit) will improve the acoustic performance of any system, in any listening room that’s smaller than a public auditorium, regardless of the quality of the main speakers in use. Of course, all subs need to be optimally adjusted with respect to input gain and phase delay, but that’s easy to accomplish—with full visual assurance (see “Tech Talk”)—if you utilize some basic instrumentation.

(5) That a fine audio system should be located in the primary living room. It’s likely the largest enclosed space available—probably has the least number of fully-paired parallel surfaces—and it might have a higher ceiling. Do recognize that displaying your power amplifiers as a “techno-heap” in the middle of one end of that room is messy, obsessive, and selfish. (Also entirely unnecessary unless you own monstrous 50-100 lb. power amps.) Instead, use sturdy wall-mounted shelves, such as those sold by, or buy some attractive contemporary audio furniture to house your electronic baggage. A giant mound of hi-end tech may seem gorgeous to audiophiles, but it looks like pawned overstock to others.

(6) That acoustic excellence can be achieved without resorting to massive loudspeakers, and that enjoyable listening rooms should never look like the photo that’s on this page.

(7) That classical music will become a vital source of great personal pleasure if you start by acquiring these redbook CDs:, plus a quality CD player. (I definitely recommend real CD discs rather than digital downloads. The latter process can vary; it’s not always as promised.) The Mozart piano concertos are forever fresh, and always good company. Given the benefit of regular exposure, even the junior members of the household will eventually concur, although realization might take 30 years.

(8) That Belden’s type 5000 loudspeaker wire, in AWG 10 or AWG 12, as sourced from Blue Jeans Cable (, will perform (and measure) every bit as good—or better—than anything else that you can buy, at any price, including the most exotic audiophile hi-end speaker cable from any source, anywhere. Science knows best.

(9) That you can be assured of top quality performance and long term zero-maintenance listening if you select compatible (has proper input/output impedance, correct stage gain) solid state components, and install your equipment in a stable and secure manner, in a logical layout, with adequate ventilation (no “stacking”). Assuming normal residential EMI environs and interconnect lengths that don’t exceed 1 meter (self-powered subwoofers excepted, and not an issue), good RCA style cordage will assure noise free performance that’s fully equivalent to what you’d get with an XLR hookup.

(10) That a good FM tuner (+ proper antenna) can still be a desirable input source if you have access to a reliable signal from a non-commercial public broadcast station that transmits classical music via the HD-FM process. (See I live on the central coast of California, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where we have a local low power repeater that relays the HD-FM signal from KUSC/Los Angeles, the last non-commercial public radio station in the U.S. that’s dedicated exclusively to classical music, 24/7. (No NPR, no PRI, no news, no jazz or folk music—it’s purely classical*.) KUSC does much of this with live in-studio program hosts, so the music is properly identified, and there’s a concurrent playlist on their website. KUSC’s transmission consumes the full 96 kbps bandwidth of their federally licensed HD-FM allocation (no HD subcarriers), so listeners can access the best possible HD-FM broadcast fidelity. If you tune in with a top quality FM-HD receiver that’s optimally aligned, the sound is totally free of noise, with wide frequency response and fine dynamic range. It’s a whole lot better sound from radio than you ever heard before!

*Well, their programmers seem to feel that movie themes (think Star Wars) are classical too. There’s a bit too much of such John Williams’ music for me, but that might be more welcome in other galaxies.

BG (August 2019)

Aug 18, 2019

20th Century Harpsichord Concertos (CD review)

Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Scott Speck, Chicago Philharmonic. Cedille CDR 90000 188.

You'd have thought that so relatively antique an instrument as the harpsichord, deriving as it does from various designs dating back as far as the Middle Ages, would have relatively few new compositions written for it. But, in fact, as its popularity died out in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in favor of the newfangled piano, it made a comeback of sorts in the twentieth century. In part this was due to a renewed interest in historically informed performances, but it was also due to a resurgence in new music written for the harpsichord. That's what this album is all about: Four modern concertos designed specifically for the harpsichord and played by harpsichord specialist Jory Vinikour.

Thus, the program presents four harpsichord pieces by twentieth-century composers. The first is the Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings by English composer Walter Leigh (1905-1942). He wrote the little work in 1934, and it is concise, melodic, and poetic. Vinikour plays a mean harpsichord, so there is nothing pretentious or hoity-toity here; the guy could probably play a rock concert on his harpsichord. Moreover, Maestro Scott Speck and the dozen or so Chicago Philharmonic Chamber Players who accompany Vinikour do so in exemplary fashion, never overwhelming the soloist, never leaving him behind or forgotten, either. The music is well presented in vigorous style.

Jory Vinikour
Next is the Concertino de Camera by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923). He wrote it in 1946, although it didn't see a première until 1993. Vinikour's present recording is its debut on record. The work is cheerful, melancholy, and vivacious by turns and always tuneful. I suspect this is because of Vinikour's enthusiasm as much as it is the music. Vinikour attacks it with energy and élan. Yes, it does appear a little more "modern" than the Leigh piece that precedes it, yet it is always accessible and charming. I especially liked the delicate ornamental work of the middle, slow movement and the sensitive ensemble work of the half dozen or so accompanists.

After that is the Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, Op. 42 by Czech composer Victor Kalabis (1923-2006). He wrote it in 1974-75, and Vinikour says " is difficult to imagine a work, distinctly a product of the 20th-century though it is, fitting the harpsichord so perfectly." I can't imagine the piece being played any better than Vinikour handles it, particularly the soulfully pensive Andante.

The final selection on the disc is the Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings by the English composer, pianist, and musicologist Michael Nyman (b. 1944). He wrote his concerto in 1994-95, and like much of Nyman's work, it is a minimalist creation. Yet, as Vinikour says, it "is thrilling both for performer and audience!" I have to admit that being a rather old-fashioned kind of fellow, I probably can't enjoy Nyman as much as many other listeners might. It gets a little raucous for my taste, but there's no denying the appeal of its driving rhythms and often exciting tango-like interludes.

Additionally, there is an excellent, twenty-page booklet insert that one should not ignore. It contains extensive notes by the soloist on each of the selections as well as information on the performers and production crew.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the concertos at Wentz Hall, Naperville, Illinois in November 2016; at the Feinberg Theater, Spertus Institute, Chicago, Illinois in March 2018; and at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago (Rorem) in May 2018.

As always from this team, the sound is quite natural, like sitting in the seventh or eighth row at a concert hall. There is plenty of bass warmth and a minimum but realistic ambient hall bloom. It is perhaps a tad closer than usual from them, but it captures the sound of the harpsichord most vividly. What's more, the dynamic range and frequency response are up to the task of reproducing the concertos in lifelike fashion.


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

Aug 14, 2019

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: Operetta Arias (CD review)

Otto Ackermann, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 66989 2 5.

If you are like me, one of the joys of owning a large record collection is rediscovering something you haven't played in years. A friend of mine reminded me of this disc when he played a few excerpts from his own copy on the eve of his departure for Sri Lanka. He was heading off for two years in the Peace Corp, his idea of retirement, and since he could only bring a few CDs along with him, he was trying to decide which couple of dozen to take. Ms. Schwarzkopf headed his list.

The recording, from 1957 (released in 1959), remains one of the finest things the German-born Austro-British soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006) ever did, and she recorded a mountain of marvelous discs. She and her record-producer husband, Walter Legge, were meticulous about every detail of a song and a recording. Here, it shows.

It is a testament to their work that this is one of the oldest EMI recordings still selling briskly almost everywhere and in various different formats. Ms. Schwarzkopf excelled at opera, light opera, operetta, and lieder, and she and Legge would practice for hours on a single passage or the phrasing of a single note. Again, it shows.

Excerpts from Benatzky-Strauss's Casanova, Suppe's Boccaccio, Lehar's Der Graf von Luxemburg and Giuditta, and others have never come across more perfectly. The complete listing is as follows:

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
  1. Heuberger: Der Opernball - "Im Chambre Séparée"
  2. Zeller: Der Vogelhändler - "Ich Bin Die Christel Von Der Post"
  3. Zeller: Der Vogelhandler - "Schenkt Man Sich Rosen in Tirol"
  4. Lehar: Der Zarewitsch - "Einer Wird Kommen"
  5. Lehar: Der Graf Von Luxemburg - "Hoch, Evoë, Angèle Didier"
  6. Benatsky: Casanova - "Nun's Chorus" and "Laura's Song"
  7. Millocker: Die Dubarry - "Ich Schenk Mein Herz"
  8. Millocker: Die Dubarry - "Was Ich Im Leben Beginne"
  9. Suppe: Boccaccio - "Hab Ich Nur Deine Liebe"
10. Lehar: Der Graf von Luxemburg - "Heut Noch Werd Ich Ehefrau"
11. Zeller: Der Obersteiger - "Sei Nicht Bös"
12. Lehar: Guiditta - "Meine Lippen, Sie Küssen So Heiss"
13. Sieczynsky: "Wien Du Stadt Meiner Träume"

What's more, EMI's sound is above reproach even after all these years, especially as remastered here in 1999 as part of EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series. It is perhaps a little rough around the edges by today's standards, but it is better than most of today's digital recordings in its sense of naturalness and its emphasis on the beauty of the human voice. Indeed, one hardly notices the orchestral accompaniment, the voice is so aesthetically dominant, which is as it should be.

This is a disc of sweetness and refinement and great joy.


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

Aug 11, 2019

Copland: Billy the Kid, complete ballet (CD review)

Also, Grohg. Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559862.

Was there ever another composer who so captured the American spirit as Aaron Copland (1900-1990)? His fellow composers referred to him as "the Dean of American composers," his having written such classics as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, The Red Pony, Fanfare for the Common Man, Of Mice and Men, Our Town, and Billy the Kid. And what conductor has done more to advance the cause of musical Americana than Leonard Slatkin? Leonard Bernstein perhaps? Michael Tilson Thomas, Eugene Ormandy, Erich Kunzel? I dunno. In any case, before this recording with his Detroit Symphony, Slatkin had already recorded Billy the Kid at least twice, the previous releases being with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC Music) and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (EMI, Musical Heritage Society, and Warner Classics). This time, however, he does the work complete.

Copland wrote Billy the Kid in 1938 on commission from Lincoln Kirstein, a noted New York impresario and cofounder of the New York City Ballet. The music became an instant success, incorporating as it does several well-known folk and Western tunes and telling an episodic story more about the Wild West in general than specifically about the notorious outlaw William H. Bonney (born Henry McCartney).

Leonard Slatkin
This work was the first in Copland's newfound "Americanized" style, and Slatkin takes advantage of it. There's a jaunty Western rhythm to the music, yet it's never a simple forward beat. The conductor is able to wring empathy, tenderness, and excitement from the piece, all the while making it seem almost cinematic, like a John Ford picture. Although I have to admit a slight preference for the composer's own late-Sixties recording with the London Symphony (Sony), the composer stuck with the suite rather than the full ballet. So this rendering with Slatkin may be among the best complete scores you'll find. And it's good to find it at so reasonable a price, too.

In addition to the complete Billy the Kid ballet is what may be for many listeners, perhaps, an oddity, the one-act Copland ballet from 1925 called Grohg. No, I hadn't heard of it before, either. The composer was inspired to write it after seeing German director F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent expressionist film Nosferatu, a retelling of the Dracula story. Although the tale is morbid, even gruesome, Copland said he meant his music to be "fantastic rather than ghastly."

The work may be short, less than thirty minutes, but it's colorful, a little jazzy, and certainly bizarre. Slatkin takes advantage of all of these characteristics, making it a rather fun piece of music and unaccountably overlooked by most other conductors. While it's no underrated masterpiece by any means, it does come off under Slatkin as something like a good film score. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of trying to incorporate it with the silent Murnau flick? Probably. In any event, Slatkin does make it come alive (pun intended) for the listener, and one can easily imagine the action of the story as it unfolds and feel the atmosphere of the scenes.

Producer Blanton Alspaugh and engineers Matthew Pons and Mark Donahue recorded the music at Orchestra Hall, Detroit, in October and November 2014. It's a pleasure listening to a recording not made live with an audience present. The perspective here is natural, not close-up, the frequency and dynamic responses are wide (the shot that kills Billy may jolt you from your seat), and the sense of hall presence in a fairly ambient bloom is pleasing to the ear. There could have been, I suppose, a bit more warmth in the upper bass to enhance the realism even further, but the overall clarity is, nevertheless, quite welcome.


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

Aug 7, 2019

Berlioz: Romeo & Juliet (CD review)

Catherine Robbin, soprano; Jean Paul Fouchecourt, tenor; Giles Cachemaille, bass. John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Decca 478 3934 (2-disc set).

It was just year earlier, in 1997, that Philips released Sir Colin Davis's remake of Hector Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet with the Vienna Philharmonic; then, in 1998 Philips almost competed with itself with this set by John Eliot Gardiner. Fortunately, it really wasn't a competition since Gardiner conducts a period-instrument band and Davis does not. Plus, the newer Gardiner recording has the added feature of the listener being able to program it three different ways: In the standard performing version, presumably Berlioz's last word on the subject; in Berlioz's original version of it from 1839; and in Gardiner's own preferred version.

John Eliot Gardiner
No, I didn't try all three arrangements. For comparison purposes I stuck to the standard version that Colin Davis followed because it was the best known to me. Nevertheless, the original version includes some attractive material the composer decided to omit, while, of course, leaving out a few items that he later added. I listened to the optional material independently of the rest of the work; not fair, I know, but the best I could do. I thought at the time it would be fascinating to hear the other arrangements in their entirety when I had more time. Well, as of this writing some twenty years on, I still haven't found the time.

As to the performances themselves, Gardiner's and Davis's, Gardiner's is the more dynamic. In general, it is a little swifter in its tempos and seemingly, smaller, overall, in scope. What's more, by a slight margin Gardiner's 1995 Philips recording, made in the Colosseum, Watford, England and now released on Decca, seems more clearly recorded than Davis's. As expected, though, under Davis the VPO, being a larger ensemble and playing modern instruments, present a bigger, weightier picture; and Davis's direction, a bit broader and more lyrical than Gardiner's, complements the image nicely.

I am not sure which set I prefer over the other. I certainly enjoyed them both. If I had to live with just one, however, I would go with the more familiar Davis. The music seems to flow more naturally in his hands, and the nuances are not quite so forced. Tough choices, though.


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

Aug 4, 2019

Elgar: Enigma Variations (CD review)

Also, In the South; Serenade for Strings. Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Onyx 4205.

Like him or not, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is among the most popular English composers in history. His biggest hit is probably the "Land of Hope and Glory" section of his March No. 1 in D, heard in graduation ceremonies throughout the world. Then there are his violin and cello concertos, his two symphonies, and, of course, among many other things the piece that put him on the map, the Enigma Variations. On the present album Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic present three of Elgar's most famous tunes, the concert overture In the South, the Serenade for Strings, and the aforementioned Enigma Variations. Despite strong recorded competition from British stalwarts like Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Adrian Boult, Petrenko's new album is a pleasant reminder of just how good Elgar's music is.

First up is the concert overture In the South, Op. 50, written in 1903-04, is really a sort of tone poem. It's rather lengthy for a "concert overture," explained in part by the fact that Elgar wrote it after setting aside an attempt at a symphony. Elgar claimed the music represented a holiday he spent in Italy, which may be so, but with its big, bold statements along the lines of Richard Strauss's Don Juan from a decade or so earlier, it sounds more heroic than it does balmy, sunny, or Italianate.

Maestro Petrenko does his best with it, perhaps overemphasizing the more bombastic episodes but making it sound colorful and exciting. Although it remains a somewhat shallow piece, it makes a good, if drawn-out curtain raiser.

Next is the Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 20, written in 1892 but not premiered publicly until 1896. It is one of Elgar's earliest works, and although it may not match Dvorak's or Tchaikovsky's string serenades, it has a charming, youthful vitality about it. Here, Petrenko is at his best. He keeps the music light and lilting, with a touch of reflective contemplation thrown in. It's really quite lovely.

Vasily Petrenko
Then, it's on to the album's main item, the one that made him famous, the Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma," written in 1898,. The fourteen variations on an initial theme began life as improvisations that Elgar continued to toy with, bringing in all sorts of clever, hidden, and not-so-hidden meanings. Elgar dedicated the music "to my friends pictured within," with each variation being a musical sketch of one of his close acquaintances, including his wife, his publisher, and the composer himself. In a programme note for a performance in 1911, Elgar wrote: "This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer's friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not 'portraits' but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a 'piece of music' apart from any extraneous consideration."

Petrenko takes it all very seriously, starting with the main theme itself. In fact, he appears at first to be taking everything at an almost solemn gait, maybe trying to hold all the variations together under a common structure. Nevertheless, as the music continues, Petrenko begins to loosen up and offer some ripsnorting action. By the middle of these brief variations, the conductor seems to be having fun with the more satiric elements in the score. The famous "Nimrod" variation comes off with a special delight in its gently soaring, almost ceremonial manner, yet without exaggeration. To cap things off, fans of Elgar's music will relish the Liverpool Orchestra's precise, lovingly affectionate playing.

Producers Matthew Cosgrove and Andrew Cornall and engineer Philip Siney recorded the music at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool in January and July 2018. The sound is remarkably clean and clear, with excellent detail and delineation. Unfortunately, it can also be a bit on the bright and forward side, too, which kind of diminishes its overall naturalness. That aside, there is a good sense of ambience, hall bloom, in the reproduction, as well a fairly wide dynamic range.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa