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.

JJP

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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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