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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 John 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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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