Sep 29, 2019

Tangos... & Something More (CD review)

Alicia Terzian, Grupo Encuentros. Navona Records NV6246.

According to Wikipedia, the "tango is a popular partner dance and social dance that originated in the 1880s along the Río de la Plata, the natural border between Argentina and Uruguay. It was born in the impoverished port areas of these countries, where natives mixed with slave and European immigrant populations. The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga."

That's good to know, as this album, "Tangos... & Something More," offers us tangos new and old, over a dozen of them presented in a variety of styles. Most of the styles, however, are of the "nuevo"  or "new tango" kind, the style popularized in the 1980's by Argentinean composer and player Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), represented on the program by three selections. The track listings are as follows:

  1. Roggero: "Mimi Pinzon"
  2. Mores: "Cristal"
  3. Piazzolla: "Picasso"
  4. Piazzolla: "Invierno Porteno"
  5. Terzian: "Argentino Hasta La Muerte"
  6. Castro: "Lloron"
  7. Tienssuu: "Tango Lunar"
  8. Demare: "Malena"
  9. Pedro: "En El Bar..Como Un Tango"
10. Terzian: "Un Argentino de Vuelta"
11. Cobian: "Los Mareados"
12. Piazzolla: "Verano Porteno"
13. Binelli: "Llamado de Tambores"

All of these numbers are expertly performed by Alicia Terzian and Grupo Encuentros. Ms. Terzian is an Argentine composer, conductor, and musicologist who formed Grupo Encuentros (Group Encounters) in 1979 to promote new music by Argentine and Latin American composers. Group members on the present album include Mara Blanco, mezzo; Claudio Espector, piano; Sergio Polizzi, violin; Carlos Nozzi, cello; Fabio Mazzitelli, flute; Matias Tchicourel, clarinet; Daniel Bilelli, bandoneon; and Ms. Terzian, conductor.

Alicia Terzian
The first selection, Aquiles Ruggero's "Mimi Pinzon," one of the oldest compositions on the program, sounds quite traditional, romantic and lyrical. The next one, Mariano Mores's "Cristol," shows us the contrasts in tango music, with vocals and background sounds and a less obvious tango rhythm. Then it's back to a more customary tango with Astor Piazzolla's highly melodic "Picasso." But possibly the most bizarre "tango" on the album is Jukka Tienssuu's "Tango Lunar," which is hardly recognizable as a tango so much as a collection of random sound effects and vocals linked loosely together in a semi-harmonic manner. Following that is one of the loveliest of tangos, Lucio Demare's "Malena," so there's a little "something more" here for everyone.

And so it goes. The questions being, are these dance numbers really "authentic," and is the playing "authentic," whatever that may mean? Certainly, the music, new or old, is squarely in the tango tradition, so, yes, it is authentic, no matter how odd it may seem. And, certainly, one cannot question the validity of an Argentinean ensemble playing Argentinean music, and they've been doing it for so long I don't see how anyone could question their legitimacy in the subject matter. That they play so effectively and effortlessly is like icing on the cake.

To quibble about so excellent a product seems unfair. Still, there was one thing I didn't care for; namely, Navona's packaging. The disc comes tucked into the sleeve of a cardboard fold-over case, and it is impossible to remove the disc without getting your fingers on the playing surface. I can understand that maybe the cardboard is cheaper than a plastic jewel box and that many companies follow this cardboard practice, but that doesn't make it a better choice for the consumer. End quibble.

Executive producer Bob Lord, engineer Andres Polizzi, and mastering engineer Jorge Da Silva recorded the music at a private studio in Buenos Aires, Argentina in August 2015. It's a small ensemble they're working with, and they handle it expertly. Each instrument, including the voice on several tracks, is realistically captured in a warm, lightly resonant environment. Although they are captured a tad close up, they have a fairly natural feel as well. Nicely done.


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

Sep 25, 2019

Mari: (CD Review)

Mari Samuelsen, violin; Christian Badzura, piano and synthesizer; Konzerthausorchester Berlin conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer. Works by Martynov, Richter, Glass, Vasks, Eno/Hopkins/Abrahams, Johansson, Bach, Badzura, Gregson, Eno/Roedelius/Moebius, and Clark. DG 483 58694 GH2.

By Karl W. Nehring

Violinist Mari Samuelsen has brought together a collection of interesting new music mixed with some pieces by Bach. Fortunately for us listeners, she proves adept in music from both eras, delivering us a two-CD set of delightful variety.

The set opens with the delightful second movement from Vladimir Martynov's "Come In!," a piece that will probably be unfamiliar to many of our readers. If you are delighted by this movement, which I believe many readers will be once they have heard Mari's version, you will do well to seek out a performance of the whole six-movement composition (there is an interesting CD titled Silencio by Gidon Kremer that contains the complete piece along with some music by Pärt and Glass). 

Next up is a composition by Max Richter titled Dona Nobis Pacem 2, a work that like much of Richter's music has both a minimalist and Romantic feel to it. That may sound contradictory, I know, but if you listen to this cut, you may well find those modes to be embodied in a complementary rather than contradictory fashion.

Knock knock
Knock knock
Knock knuck
Knock knock
Knock knick
Knack knock
Knock knock
Who's there?!
Philip Glass

The above joke, something I saw recently on Twitter, sets the stage for the next cut, Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach: Knee Play 2. I hope I have not offended any Philip Glass fans (to be honest, I am not much of a fan, although I do really enjoy some of his music, as you will discover below if you have not already stopped reading this review in disgust). In the liner notes, Ms. Samuelsen describes this piece as "fireworks of neurons in the brain… it's a ridiculous piece to play, never ending and very difficult. But it serves as a contrast, which I think is important." She certainly throws energy into her rendition, and yes, it does serve as quite a contrast to much of the other music in this collection.

Indeed, the next composition, Lonely Angel by Peteris Vasks, plumbs emotional depths of yearning and despair while yet offering a glimmer of hope and compassion. The solo violin sings eloquently above the orchestra. This is truly a moving performance of some beautiful music, which is followed by the brief but lovely Emerald and Stone by Eno et al., which is in turn followed by Vocal, in which Max Richter evokes the spirit of Bach in a gentle meditation for solo violin.

Mari Samuelsen
Another significant mood swing brings us an arrangement of Heptapod B by the late Johann Johannson from his soundtrack to the movie Arrival (a fascinating film, based on the short story "Story of your Life" by Ted Chiang, which you really should read before seeing the movie – or if you have already seen the movie, which you will probably want to watch again if you read the story for the first time. "Story of Your Life" can be found in Chiang's collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, a hardbound volume that has been republished in paperback with the new title – you guessed it! – Arrival. Fascinating story, fascinating film, fascinating soundtrack, and fascinating inclusion in this collection.

From science fiction the music then shifts to a brief arrangement for solo violin and strings of Bach's Invention No. 13 in A minor, BWV 784, then back to the future (for Bach, anyway – back to the recent past for us) and an absolutely lovely bit of music by Glass, the second movement of his Violin Concerto. I can still recall being totally entranced by his concerto when I first heard it many years ago in my driveway though some relatively (okay, absolutely) lo-fi speakers in one of my long-ago cars. The mood of the Glass Concerto carries into the final piece on CD1, Christian Badzura's 847, which sounds much like the Glass but with a touch less of wistfulness and a dash more of energy.

CD2 opens with the longest selection in the program, the Chaconne from Partita for Violin Solo in D minor, BWV 1004 by Bach, sounding both lively and lovely in Mari's performance. Immediately following is an arrangement for solo violin and strings of Bach's Prelude in D major, BWV 850.

Just as the Glass Violin Concerto had been followed by a Richter composition that echoed its overall sound and mood on CD1, on CD2 we find compositions first by Richter, Fragment, for solo violin, and then Peter Gregson, Sequence (Four), a piece for solo violin and strings, both of which are clearly in the spirit of Bach's music. The Gregson piece begins somewhat austerely, then grows in emotional content as it moves along, blossoming into an expressive, touching musical composition.

Also expressive in the next selection, another piece by Martynov, this one titled The Beatitudes. The melodic lines are fairly simple, but they carry great power, reminding us that beatitudes are blessings.

Simple melodies with expressive power are also manifest in By This River, a gentle composition by Brian Eno, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Moebius. In such simple melodies, tender feelings are given wings. 

Next on Mari's agenda is more Bach, the Presto from Sonata for Violin Solo in G minor, BWV 1001, which is followed by Christopher Clark's Mammal Step Sequence, a composition whose title might sound a bit out there, but which proves to be a relatively straightforward and pleasant composition for violin and piano, with Mari accompanied on the latter by Christian Badzura.

The delightfully titled Good Night, Day by Johann Johannson is next on the program, a gentle piece for violin and orchestra that casts a spell somewhere between a lament and a lullaby. Hearing this music, as enjoyable as it is, cannot help but make me sad to realize that its wonderfully creative composer left us all too early.

An echo of what has gone before returns in the penultimate piece in the program, Max Richter's November for violin and orchestra. There is plenty of propulsive energy here, a feeling of driving toward the finish, the end in sight, the race nearly won.

The program closes with Peter Gregson's Lullaby for solo violin, a peaceful composition that is not without an undercurrent of energy and agitation, the lullaby expressing what many of us need before retiring for the night, a working out of tension and anxiety before settling into slumber.

Ms. Samuelsen points out in the liner notes that she has "a personal connection to every single piece, and I think it's a very natural journey… the need of going into a room and just listening to sound – almost like sound therapy – is bigger than ever. People are hungry for it, and I wanted to use my creativity to collaborate and experiment with some of the great people living today. Slowing down, and people leaving their busy lives behind, is only going to become more important, so I think there will be more room for this type of collaboration, and this type of music."

Mari truly does deliver a remarkable musical experience, one that soothes the soul while still stimulating the mind. This is not dreamy New Age meandering, it is focused and purposeful serious "classical" music both old and new. The production values are top-notch. In closing, I will mention that Ms. Samuelsen has also made an earlier recording somewhat similar in tone titled Nordic Noir, which is also well worth seeking out. I look forward eagerly to future releases from this remarkable musician.


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

Sep 22, 2019

Mahler: Titan (CD review)

A Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony. Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905299.

When most of us think of period-instrument performances, I'm betting we're thinking mainly of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and maybe before. By the time we get to the late nineteenth century, though, orchestras had pretty much settled into their place in modern instrumentation. But apparently that doesn't stop period-instrument aficionados from wanting more, which is what this Harmonia Mundi recording is all about.

Austrian-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) originally wrote what was to become his Symphony No. 1 in D major in 1887-88. For its first two performances he called it a symphonic poem or tone poem and titled it "Titan." That didn't last long. Its public reception was anything but successful. So he revised it for its 1893 and 1894 performances and then further revised it before its first publication in 1898.

French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth and the period-instrument ensemble Les Siecles decided to do the present recording of what they say is close to the symphony's 1893 and 1894 performances. Is it? Well, almost but not quite. Working with original manuscripts in collaboration with Universal Edition, musicologist Anna Stoll Knecht, and author and conductor Benjaman Garzia, the team have put together a kind of blended early version of the score. Although you can't really call it authentic in that it doesn't attempt to duplicate any actual performance Mahler gave in 1893 or '94, it does surely come close to what the composer might have intended.

Period instruments? The conductor, Maestro Roth, writes in the booklet notes that "Mahler already had in mind an ideal sound nourished by his collaborations with German orchestras and his studies in Vienna. We therefore decided to use the instruments with which he would have been familiar in the pit of the Vienna Court Opera and the Musikverein, and selected Viennese oboes, German flutes, clarinets and bassoons, German and Viennese horns and trumpets, and German trombones and tubas. These instruments are built quite differently from their French contemporaries! The fingerings, the bores and even the mouthpieces of the clarinets were completely new to our musicians. In the case of the string section, each instrument is set up with bare gut for the higher strings and spun gut for the lower ones. Gut strings give you a sound material totally different from metal strings, more highly developed harmonics, and incisiveness in the attack and articulation."

Francois-Xavier Roth
Then, too, the recording uses Mahler's famous "Blumine" ("Flowers") Andante, a decision the composer reversed after the symphony's first three performances. So here is the movement, restored in full bloom, along with a myriad of tiny altered details in the rest of the score.

Will any of this make any difference to the casual listener? I'm sure not. Most of us will simply be enjoying the music. But it may divide the historically informed performance (HIP) crowd. Half of them will probably embrace the new version fully, while the other half will no doubt complain that the recording still doesn't provide anything Mahler himself might have conducted since it's a fusion of two separate performances from 1893 and 1894.

Anyway, in the work Mahler explained he was trying to describe his protagonist facing life, beginning with the lighter moments of youth and proceeding to the darker years of maturity. In the first movement, then, "Spring without End," we see Mahler's young hero as a part of the symbolic stirring of Nature before a long spring. In the restored second-movement Andante, we find peace and repose, Mahler calling the music "a youthful folly." In the third movement we get an intentionally awkward funeral march depicting a hunter's fairy-tale burial, which comes off as a typical Mahler parody. It might represent the hero's first glimpse of death or maybe Mahler's own recollection of a youthful encounter with the death of a loved one. With Mahler, who knows. He titled it "Gestrander!" ("Failed!"). Then, in the finale, Mahler conveys the panic "of a deeply wounded heart," as his central figure faces the suffering of life and fate and eventual death. Still, because Mahler was a spiritual optimist, he wanted Man to triumph in the end. Therefore, in the final twenty minutes or so Mahler pulls out all the stops and puts the orchestra into full swing before coming to a relatively self-assured conclusion. He called the final movement "Dall'Inferno" ("From Hell").

So, historical performance aside, how does Maestro Roth do with the piece? He certainly is in no hurry to get through it. He takes his time with the opening "Spring" movement, making it appear more tranquil, more the impressionable youth, than usual. Perhaps spring could have danced more merrily, more joyfully once underway, but close enough. It ends triumphantly in a swirl of color.

The restored second-movement "Flowers" is a serenade, a love song, and as such Maestro Roth imbues it with a buoyant, youthful passion. Still, he maintains an appropriately lyrical mood throughout. By the time of the central Scherzo, Roth has established his tone and cheerfully maintains it. Mahler's young hero is confidently moving forward.

For the start of the Part Two "Funeral March," Roth begins in a gravely earnest temper and then slowly opens it out to something more elaborately sinister and reassuring at the same time. I liked the way he handled it, making it a fitting lead-in to the finale that climaxes the hero's life in a tumultuous conclusion. Roth holds nothing back and then ends the work in typical Mahler ambiguity.

Producer Jiri Heger and engineers Jiri Heger and Alix Ewald recorded the symphony at the Philharmonie de Paris, the Theatre de Nimes, and the Cite de la Musique et de la Danse de Soissons, France in February, March, and October 2018. The engineers do a pretty good job with it. The dynamics are quite wide, so you don't want to be tempted to turn it up too high to begin with, even though it starts very softly. Definition is good, frequency extremes are more than adequate, impact is strong, and left-to-right and back-to-front spatial characteristics sound realistic. Nothing is too bright or forward, nor is anything dull or fuzzy. It's all very natural sounding and lifelike, even if there is little that stands out as overtly audiophile. Maybe that's the way it ought to be.


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

Sep 18, 2019

Elizabethan Serenade: The Best of British Light Music (CD review)

Various conductors and orchestras. Naxos 8.553515.

Let me admit my unabashed sentimentality here and now by recommending this disc as one of the most attractive I've come across. This year or any year. (Naxos put this compilation together for release in 1996).

The music on the program is the best of what the British call "light music," trifles for orchestra. These little jewels include Eric Coates's "By the Sleepy Lagoon," "Knightsbridge March," and "Dam Busters March"; Albert Ketelbey's "Bells across the Meadows," "In a Monastery Garden," and "In a Persian Market"; Haydn Wood's "Sketch of a Dandy"; Ernest Tomlinson's "Little Serenade"; Ronald Binge's "Sailing By"; Arthur Benjamin's "Jamaican Rumba"; Edward White's "Puffin' Billy"; Billy Mayerl's "Marigold"; and a host of others, twenty tracks in all, over seventy-eight minutes' worth, wonderfully played, and generally well recorded.

Ernest Tomlinson
The conductors are Ernest Tomlinson, Andrew Penny, Adrian Leaper, and Gary Carpenter. The ensembles include the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony, the RTE Concert Orchestra, the Slovak Radio Symphony, and the Slovak Philharmonic Male Chorus. Now, where else can you get all of this for a reasonable price?

Needless to say, it's all very easygoing and old fashioned by today's standards. Almost all of these pieces were composed early in the twentieth century, pre-Elizabeth II, when things were moving a lot slower than they do today. But that doesn't make the music any the less entertaining. For instance, those of you who have resisted my prodding over the years to invest in the wonderfully syrupy works of Albert Ketelbey can get your feet wet with little risk. The Coates and Ketelbey numbers are not so well characterized as they are on several of EMI's Classics for Pleasure discs, but they are close.

What's more, all the selections have good to excellent sound as well, taken as they are from a variety of albums on Naxos's former full-priced companion label, Marco Polo: "good" sound meaning smooth and warm; "excellent" meaning added clarity and depth of field.

Look, we can't spend all our time listening to serious classical, loud rock, and things blowing up on movie soundtracks. We can use our audio systems for some shamelessly mushy musical enjoyment, too, and here it is.


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

Sep 15, 2019

J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord (CD review)

Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille CDR 90000 177 (2-disc set).

As with so many of Bach's works, musical scholars have not found the origins clear for the six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV1014-1019. Although Bach probably wrote them during his final years in Cothen (1720-23), just before moving to Leipzig, the only existing scores derive from his Leipzig years and show continuing revisions.

In any case, what is known for sure is that musical scholars, critics, and listeners alike have all loved the sonatas, Bach himself saying of his style that all the voices should "work wondrously with each other." Apparently, he and his followers agreed they do. Bach's son, C.P.E. Bach, described them as among the finest things his father composed.

The two performers here are experts in their field. American concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine began playing the violin at age three, made her debut with the Chicago String Ensemble at the age of seven, and played with the Chicago Symphony at the age of ten. On the current disc she plays an original, unaltered instrument by Nicola Gagliano, 1770. American harpsichordist Jory Vinikour has twice been nominated for Grammy Awards and here plays a replica instrument built in 2012 by Tony Chinnery after a 1769 model by Pascal Taskin. Bach stipulated that the harpsichord pairing for the violin was mandatory (obbligato), although the bass line could be taken by an optional viola da gamba. Vinikour opts to do it himself.

One of the remarkable aspects of Bach's sonatas is that they are among the earliest examples of pairing the two instruments as coequals. The harpsichord doesn't so much accompany the violin as the two are treated as equivalent partners. One instrument doesn't just play along in the background, but both instruments share the center stage as a duet.

Rachel Barton Pine
The six sonatas are laid out here three to a disc in this Cedille two-CD set, with the addition of the Cantabile in G major, BWV1019a as a bonus track. The show gets off to a rather leisurely start with BWV1014, which seems, even apart from the Adagio, a little more dew-eyed than I would have expected from a historically informed performance. Still, it's charming, and the two performers provide a wonderful inaction with their presentation.

With BWV1015, things seem a bit more normal for period instruments. even though it, too, begins with a slow movement. The piece is graceful yet spirited, with the performers clearly taking delight in the music making. That takes us to the Sonata in E major, BWV1016, which is probably the highlight of the set. It's rich and lush, ornate and opulent, vibrant and vivacious. More important, it affords the two players a further chance to show off their skills, separately and together. The instruments intertwine so seamlessly they almost sing as one voice, like a great symphony orchestra where you never notice the contributions of any one or two sections but rejoice in the overall effect.

Disc two continues in much the same manner, with BWV1017-1019. But there is a difference. Bach appears to have done more revision on the final Sonata than the others, and here we find it presented in five movements rather than four. Apparently, it exists in a number of different versions, with yet another movement discarded, the Cantabile in G major, BWV1019a. It is about twice as long as any of the other movements, which is possibly why Bach didn't think it belonged, upsetting the balance of the movements as it would. So Ms. Barton Pine and Mr. Vinikour offer it as a stand-alone piece. It's certainly lyrically beautiful, and they do it supreme justice.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the sonatas at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago in September 2017. The somewhat close miking seems to stretch the violin and harpsichord a little too far across the sound stage for my taste, but reducing the volume a decibel or two ameliorates the situation considerably. Maybe it's Cedille's way of telling you to turn it down.  Whatever, there is no question both instruments benefit from the miking's added clarity and presence, with excellent detailing and transparency. The instruments appear lifelike all the way around, with a hall resonance that flatters but never intrudes upon their sound.


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

Sep 11, 2019

On Elephants and Listening Trials...

By Bryan Geyer

On Elephants in the Room...
Two of the most notable absurdities in home audio share a common fault: They’re grossly oversized and/or overweight for any normally dimensioned residential living room. You’d really have to live in Hearst Castle in order to claim that the use of these components is sensible or appropriate. I’m talking about (a) those monster (100 pounds apiece) power amplifiers that cost $5k-$10k ea., and (b) those towering pairs of planar electrostatic loudspeakers that cost a bundle—despite their poor efficiency, inconsistent performance (always subject to numerous ambient variables), and comparatively (to dynamic/magnetic drivers) crummy reliability.

It’s very likely that the era of the 100 pound power amplifiers is now ending, and that all such boat anchors will eventually become obscure relics. Future hi-end speaker systems just won’t be built that way. The old concept wherein one big power amplifier is used to feed a passive crossover network that’s in series with all drivers is truly archaic. The modern trend is to use active line-level crossovers that feed multiple power amplifiers. Those bandpass amplifiers can then directly drive the separate segments of a multi-driver speaker system, and do so with precise accuracy, better damping, and fully independent gain control. This method presents vital convenience and flexibility advantages, since each amplifier’s response can then be optimized as needed to assist in attaining a desired room response (EQ) profile. The use of one big power amplifier/channel was a natural and practical solution that fit the past, but new size and integration breakthroughs have now made it preferable to consider this multi-amplifier alternative. Top quality hi-end systems will embrace this concept. In many cases, it’s likely that some of these bandpass power amplifiers will be fully integrated with their designated driver, and buried inside the speaker enclosure. In those instances, compact class D power amplifiers will become the preferred tool, just as with the self-powered subwoofers that are so popular today.

Big planar panel electrostatic loudspeakers (see photo) will soon become extinct unless there’s substantial design improvement. In general, the existing electrostatic means for implementing planar propagation is just too “buggy” to sustain consistent, reliable performance. Such speakers are sensitive to variations in ambient temperature, humidity, and altitude (moon phase too?). They’re  easily damaged, inefficient, and vulnerable when pushed to sustain high sound pressure levels. They’re also costly to make, ship, and sell. Robust redesign seems essential. It’s possible that new materials (such as graphene) might spur this progression. Regardless, dynamic/magnetic loudspeaker design has steadily evolved, and the focused propagation advantage that’s attributed to planar speakers seems less distinctive now than in prior decades. Barring a dramatic upgrade, I see a dim future for those big electrostatic panels that resemble room divider screens; they’re looking obsolescent. That said, the large planar model 10e ESL from Sanders Sound Systems looks exceptional. It’s an elegant “no compromise” product (price with designated Magtech Stereo amp ~ $22.5k) that’s aimed to satisfy the pride of its creator and the respect of the ultra-niche market that it serves. This looks to be a fine example at what’s possible when good engineering meets a targeted (lots of listening space + gobs of money) consumer. That’s a convergence that I’ve never experienced, but maybe it fits your profile.

And On Listening Trials…
If you want to conduct a listening trial face-off between your regular power amplifier and another amp that’s on loan from a friend or dealer, do make certain that you compare the two amplifiers fairly, under identical test conditions. Of course, that means using the same cable connections, same loudspeakers, same room setup, and the same listening seat, but don’t automatically use the same position on your master volume attenuator. Be aware that the internal voltage gain of various power amplifiers will routinely vary by design; they commonly range between ~ +23dB and +29dB. You can research differences in gain by checking the respective amplifiers’ specifications; they’re generally printed on the last page of the related instruction booklet, as well as appearing on makers’ websites. One can easily compensate for a gain difference by adjusting the main volume attenuator to assure that the sound pressure level (SPL) at the listening position is precisely equal for all amplifiers under test.* The incoming source signal’s amplitude range is normally sufficient to accommodate any adjustment of the attenuator that might be needed to set an accurate SPL match at any desired listening level.

To accurately monitor the SPL matching, use a basic SPL meter (, and position it (mounted on a tripod, or on a lighting or microphone stand) at the listening site. Use a fixed frequency sine wave source as the test signal; something between ~ 400 Hz and ~ 800 Hz is generally best. Match carefully! A difference of as little as ± 0.5 dB in SPL could unfairly bias your judgment, and the loudest output will always win, regardless of any other aural distinction that might seem evident.

Given modern solid-state power amplifier design, and assuming that such amplifiers are not driven into clipping, and that their sound pressure levels are accurately matched, you will probably conclude that there’s zero audible difference between the contending products. This expectation does not apply if the on-loan amplifier is an appealing new component that you’ve recently considered buying. In that instance, the on-loan amplifier will always sound spectacularly superior; it will “blow away” the old amp.

BG (September 2019)

*If your master stereo volume attenuator has calibrated stepped detents you might find it difficult to achieve a setting that yields a precise SPL match. In that event, check the rear panel of both power amplifiers. Many amps include a pair of rotary potentiometers, installed at the input stage, to facilitate balance adjustment of the incoming left/right stereo source signals. You can use these pots as supplementary volume controls to trim the SPL output in small increments that are finer than a stepped attenuator might resolve. Just remember to return these pots to their previous positions (generally full up) when your testing trial is finished.

Sep 8, 2019

Opera Phantasies from 150 Years (SACD review)

From Bel Canto to Jazz. Volker Reinhold, violin; Ralph Zedler, piano. MDG 903 2134-6.

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music defines a musical fantasia (or fantasy or phantasy) in several ways, the definition best applying here being "Free and somewhat improvisatory treatments of existing themes, often from operas." OK, to an uninitiated novice like me in the classical realm, that sounds an awful lot like a medley of greatest hits. But what do I know. "Fantasy" (or especially "phantasy") sounds a lot better than "medley." Whatever the case, the music here is remarkably vibrant, pleasant, and soothing as performed by two experts in the field.

On the present disc, German violinist Volker Reinhold and German pianist Ralph Zedler offer five examples of such fantasias (or, again, fantasies, fantaisies, or phantasies, depending on the language) spanning some 150 years of classical music history. What's more, three of them are world-première recordings.

You may remember Reinhold and Zedler from their earlier albums or from my own review of their Sarasate recording. Violinist Reinhold became the concertmaster of the Mecklenburg State Orchestra in 1989. According to the accompanying booklet, Mr. Reinhold "has gone on to perform a wide range of solo assignments and to dedicate himself intensively to chamber music. Additionally, for some years he has often assisted as a concertmaster with several Northern German orchestras. He has a special predilection for the virtuosic violin literature, above all Fritz Kreisler and also Pablo de Sarasate. He has incorporated practically all of the former's music into his repertoire. For many years he has performed successfully with his regular piano partner Ralph Zedler. Mr. Reinhold performs on a 'Mougeot,' a French violin from the 19th century."

As for pianist Zedler, I quoted last time from his Web site: "...he graduated from Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. He worked regularly in the singing classes of Liselotte Hammes, Klesie Kelly, Kurt Moll, and Edda Moser. From the autumn of 1999 to January 2011 Mr. Zedler was engaged at the Mecklenburg State Theatre in Schwerin as soloist and Ballettrepetitor, participating in over seventy productions of opera, operetta, musical, oratorio, and ballet. Since 2011 he has worked at capital Opera, the smallest Opera Berlin, devoting himself to the repertoire of forgotten one-act plays. Mr. Zedler's concert career has taken him along with prominent figures such as singers Agnes Giebel, Ulrich Hielscher, Jean van Ree, and Edda Moser." And since the summer of 2016, again according to the accompanying booklet, "...he has been a solo repetiteur at the Volkstheater Rostock."

Volker Reinhold
Anyway, as I've said, here they offer five selections: the first is the Fantasia su motivi della Traviata di Giuseppe Verdi (1871) by Italian violinist, composer, and teacher Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897). Being Verdi opera, the music is understandably sentimental, poignant, and moving. Reinhold's violin is impassioned, as it should be, well echoing the voices on stage, and Zedler's piano accompaniment is unobtrusively sympathetic. Both players benefit from a long experience performing together, and they pretty much play as one. Listening from another room, my wife cheered at the closing passage.

After that is the Fantaisie sur Faust (1869) by Belgium violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). Here, the fantasy on the music of Gounod is even more virtuosic, more dramatic than that of Verdi. It's also a bit more melodramatic and bombastic, so be aware. Vieuxtemps wrote his own introductions and interludes for the Gounod excerpts, so most of it hangs together, but until the famous music of the final third, little of it exhibits the lyricism of Verdi, despite Reinhold's superb technique and execution.

Next is the Fantaisie sur des motifs de l'opera 'La vie pour le Czar Ivan Susanin' de Glinka (1900) by Czech violinist and composer Frantisek Ondricek (1857-1922). With this fantasy, Ondricek covers more ground than the previous two composers in their fantasies, which may or may not be a good thing. Whatever, Reinhold and Zedler produce a big, robust piece of high intent and vivid contrasts.

Following that is Norma de Bellini, Fantaisie sur la quatrieme corde (1844), again by Henri Vieuxtemps but an earlier composition of his. The gimmick here is that Vieuxtemps instructs that the entire fantasy be played on a single string. Remarkable. And remarkable, too, is Reinhold's playing, which carries out Vieuxtemps's instructions flawlessly.

The final item is the Concert Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin's Opera Porgy and Bess (1991) by Russian violinist and composer Igor Frolov (1937-2013). This is the one fantasy on the program that seems to include every familiar tune from the opera from which it derives. If you like Gershwin, you'll like Frolov's treatment of the themes, and you'll love Reinhold and Zedler's evocatively dreamy, jazzy realizations of the score.

Producers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm and engineer Holger Schlegel recorded the music at the Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmunster, Germany in April 2019. They made the disc in hybrid SACD, which contains a regular two-channel stereo layer for playback on a regular CD player and an SACD layer, which contains a two-channel stereo format, a multichannel format, and a 2+2+2 format for playback on an SACD player. Apparently, the 2+2+2 format utilizes the middle and bass channels to provide a left and right height dimension to the sound, perhaps somewhat similar to what Dolby ATMOS also does. I say "perhaps" because my system is two-channel stereo only, so I listened
in SACD two-channel. Presumably, the 2+2+2 format requires that listeners reconfigure their speakers, something I doubt a lot of people are willing to do, given the scarcity of SACD recordings in general and 2+2+2 recordings in particular. I guess the folks at MDG (Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm) know what they're doing, and I applaud them for it, but I'd be surprised if more than a half dozen people worldwide have set up their sound systems specifically for 2+2+2 playback.

Still, that's neither here nor there. In the SACD two-channel stereo format to which I listened, the sound was quite natural, with good positioning of the two performers relative to one another, if miked slightly more to the left of center than I might have liked. The hall provides a pleasant bloom, enhancing the realism of the recording. The violin appears resplendent and the piano dynamic, both instruments rendered as lifelike as one could imagine.


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

Sep 4, 2019

Bach: Six Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Astree E 8737.
Bach: Four Suites for Orchestra
Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Astree E 8727.

I was already about four years late on these recordings even when I first reviewed them for review about two decades ago. Jordi Savall recorded the Orchestral Suites in 1990 and the Brandenburgs in 1991. I wish I had heard them earlier because I would have had that much more time to enjoy them and, of course, I would have already put them on my recommended recordings list. They are joyous, personal, committed performances that deserve a place on every collector's shelf.

First, let me explain what they aren't. Neither set is among the most elegantly-played readings available. If you are looking for precise, refined playing, look to Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy (Philips and London) in their modern-instruments recordings or Trevor Pinnock and either the Brandenburg Ensemble or the English Concert (Avie or DG Archiv) on period instruments. By comparison, Savall's period group seems sometimes positively ragged. But what Le Concert des Nations lacks in finesse, it makes up for in spirit. I have never heard a group of people playing these works who have sounded so happy in what they were doing. As a result, the pieces themselves come over as joyful affairs and leave the listener in that same delighted mood.

I was even won over by the First Brandenburg Concerto, to which I normally do not respond well. Maybe because of the First Concerto's pastoral nature and larger orchestral forces, I find it oddly out of place with its companions; yet Savall and his group play it with such affection, such obvious love, that I couldn't help for the first time admiring its beauty.

Jordi Savall
I found Savall's interpretation of the Second Concerto more controversial with its exaggerated dynamics, but even here Savall's emphasis is on originality, an attempt to say something that hasn't already been said a hundred times over. The rest of the Brandenburgs are as lovely or robust, accordingly, as I have heard them, and the four Orchestral Suites (sold as a separate package) are simply above reproach. To find fault with any of these recordings on the basis of interpretation is to be without heart.

However, to be critical of Astree's sound seems entirely fair. While both the Brandenburgs and the Suites share a similar philosophy of sound, given to moderately-distanced miking in a large, naturally-reverberant acoustic, it is the Suites that are decidedly the better sounding. As I said before, the sets were recorded a year apart, and the venue was different in each case. The Orchestral Suites, done earlier in the Grand Hall of the Arsenal at Metz, exhibit smoothness, warmth, and detail in equal measure. The Brandenburgs, done in the Palazzo Giusti del Giardino, are slightly more veiled by hall ambience. It's too bad Astree didn't stick with the first location because neither the detail nor the imaging seem quite as good as in the earlier effort. That said, I still prefer both of these recordings over the leaner, brighter, edgier sound of Pinnock's earlier recording (DG) and Parrott (EMI) or the softer, less clear sound of Goodman (Hyperion) or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin). In the Brandenburgs no one has quite matched the sound of the Leonhardt Ensemble (Sony/SEON), Tafelmusik (Tafelmusik's own label or Sony), or Pinnock's later recording (Avie) for clarity and naturalness, but, then, they're not quite as much fun interpretively, either.

Finally, a word about pricing. The distributor of this edition, Harmonia Mundi USA, told me at the time that the Astree label costs them a high price to import. Therefore, the cost to the end buyer was several dollars per disc more than average full-priced discs. The upshot is that you could buy both of Pinnock's recordings in a mid-priced, four-disc set for the cost of these editions of the Savall sets. So don't be shocked if you see Astree's sticker price on the original discs. Nevertheless, there are now several less-expensive editions of Savall's recordings available, so look around. They are bargains.


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

Sep 1, 2019

Mozart: Symphonies 40 & 41 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 757.

Need I mention at the outset that Pentatone recorded this disc live? I don't suppose I have to, considering that given the state of finances in the record business, probably three-quarters of the all the orchestral recordings made these days are done live. Fortunately, Pentatone do live recordings as well or better than anybody, so it's not a total loss; and if you enjoy live recordings, you'll love this one.

On the present disc we have the familiar pairing of Mozart's final two symphonies, Nos. 40 and 41 "Jupiter," here done by the NDR Radio Philharmonic under its estimable chief conductor Andrew Manze. And in hybrid multichannel SACD no less.

You may remember that Maestro Manze has made my list of favorite recordings twice, in 2012 and 2018. He has specialized for many years in repertoire from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries as the Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music from 1996 to 2003, then the Artistic Director of the English Concert, both period-instrument groups. Since 2006 he has been the Principal Conductor of Sweden's Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and now Germany's NDR Radio Philharmonic, who play on modern instruments. It makes no difference; Manze brings with him the adventurous sensibility of a period-instrument conductor, and we are all the better for it.

Anyway, considering that Mozart's last few symphonies are among the most popular pieces of classical music in the world and that practically all classical-music fans have multiple recordings of them in their collections, I figured since I had reviewed these before, anyway, they needed little introduction. But to my surprise, when I sat down to write about them, I found I had only reviewed the final symphony twice and No. 40 not at all. So, with that in mind, let me provide a touch of background on each.

Austrian composer, violinist, and pianist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, KV550 in 1788. People sometimes refer to the work as the "Great G Minor Symphony" to differentiate it from the earlier "Little G Minor Symphony," No. 25. Music scholars conjecture that Mozart composed all three of his final symphonies at around the same time and may not have actually heard any of them performed, dying relatively young as he did.

Andrew Manze
Manze takes a fervent swing at No. 40. His direction is brisk to the point of being almost frenetic. He's a dynamic conductor, to say the least, but here he seems to go a little overboard. My personal preference is for Mozart's music to have a bit more refinement to it. He was writing during the "Age of Reason," after all, the Enlightenment, the Classical Period in music. One might expect a degree more subtlety than the hell-bent-for-leather approach Manze takes. That said, there is no doubt the conductor's reading is passionate and exciting, which go a long way toward selling the concept.

As with No. 40, Mozart wrote the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, KV551 "Jupiter" in 1788. It got the nickname "Jupiter" not from Mozart but most likely from the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who figured to capitalize on the symphony's comparatively grand structure.

In the "Jupiter" Maestro Manze continues with much the same red-blooded attack he exhibited in No. 40. With extreme dynamic contrasts, vigorous tempos, and pointed emphases, he offers up another rousing interpretation at the expense of some of the music's more cultivated, polished, genteel, even humorous qualities. Again, however, Manze's music-making is also quite stirring, so it's bound to appeal to folks tired of overly sophisticated or overly polite presentations. And there's no denying that Manze's fiery finale leaves one exhilarated, to say the least.

In the final analysis, for robustly energetic performances of these symphonies, I would continue to recommend those of Daniel Barenboim for EMI with the English Chamber Orchestra from the late 1960's. His smaller ensemble is more transparent and better adapted to this sort of approach, and the recordings sound better, too.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Matthias Ilkenhans and engineer Daniel Kemper recorded the symphonies live at the Groser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkaus Hanover, Germany in February 2017 and March 2018. They recorded the disc in hybrid SACD, meaning you can listen to it in multichannel SACD or two-channel SACD from an SACD player or in regular two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The first thing noticeable about the live sound is its enormous dynamic range. It goes from barely a whisper to extraordinarily loud, sometimes from one moment to the next. It's realistic but maybe a little disconcerting. There is also a good dynamic impact to the notes and a wide frequency range. All to the good, as is the fact that the engineers of this live recording have removed most of the audience noise and applause. Unfortunately, even though the engineers miked the orchestra a little farther away than is the case with so many live recordings, you can still tell they did it live from the rather bright, sometimes strident quality of the sound. It's not as smooth as what they might have obtained in a studio.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa