Oct 30, 2019

On Power Amplifier DC Offset…

By Bryan Geyer

Heads up, please!  It’s time to consider an important power amplifier parameter that a great many audiophiles overlook. It’s known as DC offset, and it has direct bearing on the dynamic range capability of your low frequency loudspeakers.

Fluke 87V Multimeter
When a high quality audio power amplifier is in a quiescent state (operational, but no input signal), its output terminals will normally measure nearly zero AC and zero DC volts. A tiny residual AC voltage (some ~ 40-80 microvolts) will reflect the sum of the internal noise generated within the power amplifier. And a small residual DC voltage (generally on the order of ~ 2 to 15 millivolts DC) will represent the amplifier’s implicit output imbalance; a.k.a. its DC offset. (In the case of vacuum tube power amplifiers there’s no DC voltage present because the output is normally isolated by a transformer. Similar DC isolation applies if the power amp is coupled to the load through a capacitor, an archaic compromise that’s taboo in modern hi-end power amps.)

The loudspeaker system connects directly to the power amplifier, so any offset that’s present at the amplifier output will also appear at the inputs of the speaker system’s passive crossover network, and then feed directly to the DC-coupled low frequency woofer. Higher bandpass speakers will be DC-isolated by the network’s coupling capacitors; it’s only the woofers that will see the DC offset.

When quiescent, the woofer rests in the neutral middle of its magnetic field. Optimally, the cone is not displaced—forward or backward—from that mid-point rest position until it sees an input signal. Of course, the presence of any DC bias will slightly offset that ideal mid-point rest position, and this shift could potentially impact the cone’s full range of linear excursion. If the offset is very slight, that impact will be entirely negligible. As offset increases, its influence can become significant. Any major offset (e.g. ~ 100-200mVdc) could measurably (audibly?) degrade the woofer’s dynamic range.

It’s commonly promulgated that some small (~ 10 or 20mVdc) offset is both harmless and inevitable. Since DC offset will increase as operating temperature rises, it becomes more difficult to hold offset within desirable limits in the case of class A (or partial class A) power amplifiers. They operate at higher chassis temperatures than class A/B amplifiers, so owners of class A (or pseudo-class A) power amplifiers should be especially vigilant. DC offset is a very easy measurement to monitor, and accurate DC millivolt reading multimeters are readily available. (Select a meter with input impedance ≥ 10MΩ that can read 600mVdc full scale, with 0.1mVdc resolution. Fluke’s products are highly recommended. Here is an excellent hi-end model: https://www.myflukestore.com/product/fluke-87-5-industrial-multimeter)

Modern solid-state hi-end power amplifiers typically apply symmetrical input stage circuitry using complimentary bipolar, Jfet, or MOSfet discreet devices that are carefully matched to minimize potential DC offset. It’s especially critical to minimize this imbalance at the input stage because, in a DC-coupled amplifier, that offset will then be magnified by the voltage gain (generally +23dB to +29dB) of the product. As a result, it’s only reasonable to tolerate some modest (e.g. ~20mVdc) output offset, and one supplier (Pass) of partial class A power amplifiers specifies a 50mVdc maximum offset limit for their respected “Point 8” series (e.g. X250.8) of pseudo-class A power amplifiers.

Many makers don’t disclose any DC offset specification, although they might maintain an internal screening limit that’s never published (hence not guaranteed), so some snooping could prove helpful. The company’s Service Department can sometimes be a good place to start when it’s a domestic operation. In some cases (e.g. Parasound Products Inc., of San Francisco), the company president, Richard Schram, is both technically savvy and personally accessible. I like that kind of company!

My recommendation is that you personally measure your power amplifier’s DC offset. Know what the offset is at moderate operating temperatures, in normal use, and know what happens to DC offset after you’ve pushed your power amplifier through a heavy listening session. If you are in the course of considering the purchase of a new power amplifier, research the DC offset specification. If it’s not published, contact the maker; seek reliable information. High quality audio power amplifiers with negligible DC offset are readily available, as are identical models with excessive DC offset. It’s up to you to discern (and reject) the lemons*. Leave the latter for the lazy buyers—the audiophiles that always evaluate everything exclusively by listening.

BG (October 23, 2019)

*Moderate DC offset, e.g. ~ 50-150mVdc, is extremely difficult to diagnose by ear. Imbalance of that nature becomes apparent only when the amplifier is approaching full output, a condition that invites other sundry (and more likely) imperfections. Those issues will normally mask the subtle evidence of moderate offset error, so aural screening—even for those who profess exceptional sensitivity—will probably prove ineffective. To be more precise, measure the DC offset.

Oct 27, 2019

Haydn: String Quartets, Opp. 71 & 74 (CD review)

The London Haydn Quartet. Hyperion CDA68230 (2-disc set)

Let me begin with a story, and I apologize that I've told it before. If you recognize it, you may safely skip to the third paragraph.

OK, I've always loved album covers. Especially classical covers that put me in a mind of the recorded music. A good illustration of this is a Philips album I bought many years ago on LP. It was the augmented Beaux Arts Trio doing Schubert's "Trout" Quintet. The bucolic cover painting showed an old mill and waterwheel on a stream in the country. It was lovely, and I enjoyed gazing at it while listening to Schubert's music. But when Philips issued the recording on CD some years later, they changed covers, giving it a mundane, almost nondescript booklet picture. Likewise happened when Pentatone released it on SACD. So what I did was go on-line and find a picture of the original LP cover, which I saved, resized, sharpened, and color corrected. Printed out on glossy photo paper, it looks beautiful, and slipped in front of the SACD booklet, I can again enjoy the pleasures of a day in the country while listening to the music.

Of course, it takes more than a pretty cover to sell me on a record album. Certainly, the music counts for a lot, the musicians, their performance, and the sound of the recording. All of which this Haydn album has going for it. The performers, the London Haydn Quartet, are superb. Their playing of the string quartets is above reproach. The Hyperion sound is about as good as it gets. And the cover painting, "The Naval Dockyard at Depford" by Samuel Scott (c1702-1772), puts one in mind of Haydn's environs at the time he wrote the music and, yes, contributes to my enjoyment of it.

The players, as I say, are the London Haydn Quartet, comprised of Catherine Manson, violin; Michael Gurevich, violin; John Crockatt, viola; and Jonathan Manson, cello. Founded in 2000, the players perform on period instruments, and their release of the present two-disc album is a part of their complete Haydn quartet recordings for the Hyperion label.

The material embraces the Opuses 71 and 74 string quartets, the so-called Apponyi quartets because Haydn publicly dedicated them to Count Anton Georg Apponyi (for a price). They are sometimes called the "London" quartets, too, owing to Haydn's having composed them for London premieres. Each opus contains three quartets of about twenty-five minutes each. Haydn wrote them in 1793, and in addition to being referred to as Op. 71, Nos. 1-3 and Op. 74, Nos. 1-3, they are also simply numbered Nos. 54-59.

London Haydn Quartet
Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) didn't invent the symphony or the string quartet, but he refined and popularized the genres. Not only did he write 106 symphonies, earning him the nickname "Father of the Symphony," he wrote some 70 string quartets, making it fair to call him the "Father of the Quartet" as well.

Anyway, the quartets themselves are a delight, as we would expect from a genius like Haydn in his late middle period. So, what about the playing? It's obviously a historically informed performance, coming at us on period instruments. However, it is not one of those hell-bent-for-leather affairs that leave our sensibilities in the dust. The interpretations are completely charming, carefully judged, well paced, and judiciously measured. Nothing is too fast or too slow; there are no exaggerated contrasts or prolonged pauses. The fast movements are temperate and mostly joyous rather than helter-skelter. The slow movements are lovely, reflective, contemplative, without ever dragging. This is music-making to be appreciated and savored rather than admired solely for its virtuosity.

And the playing is immaculate and, yes, virtuosic.

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this album. Some two-and-a-half hours of music went by before I knew it, and I enjoyed every minute. Each succeeding quartet seems better than the last, culminating in perhaps my favorite, Op. 74, No. 3.

As an aside, I also enjoyed a booklet note informing us that Haydn included a loud introductory gesture at the beginning of each quartet, intended to let the audience know the music was starting and to quiet down. It appears people never change.

Producer and engineer Philip Hobbs and editor Julia Thomas made the recording at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England in October 2018. How good is the recording? It's the proverbially reach-out-and-touch-it good. Clean. Clear. Close but not objectionably so. Smooth. Radiantly atmospheric, with lifelike imaging and a realistic separation of instruments. It's about as good as a chamber ensemble can sound without their being live in your living room.


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

Oct 23, 2019

Giuliani: Complete Guitar Concertos (CD review)

Pepe Romero, guitar; Celdonio Romero, guitar; Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Philips Duo 454 262-2 (2-disc set).

Quite a few years ago the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine, our own Karl W. Nehring, asked each of the magazine's reviewers to come up with a list of ten favorite recordings, "Desert Island Recordings" if you will. I was a little reluctant at the time to find ten among hundreds of favorites. Today, however, I am not so hesitant, and I included the First Guitar Concerto by Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) in my current listing. You'll find it here: https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2009/12/desert-island-classics.html.

It was a recording previously available only on a full-price Philips disc, coupled with the Third Concerto, but in 1996 or so, for the same price as the single disc, Philips gave us all three of Giuliani's guitar concertos, plus over half a dozen others of his guitar works on a pair of CD's in Philips's impressive, and long lamented, Duo series. I can't begin to tell you how enjoyable this set is. And as far as I can tell, it's still available.

Pepe Romero
The First Concerto, which premiered in 1808, was a popular favorite in its day and deserves its popularity to our own time. It was to the nineteenth century what Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez became to the twentieth century and beyond in terms of public acceptance. One could not ask for a lighter, happier, sunnier, sweeter, more charming piece of music, seductively performed by a master of the guitar, Pepe Romero, and accompanied by the ever-reliable Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Giuliani's Second Concerto is darker in tone, and not nearly so much fun, but it's worth one's time because it's still better than almost anything else composed for the guitar. By the Third Concerto in 1820, Giuliani had become, for better or worse, far more sophisticated in his composition and arrangement; the Third Concerto's main attractions are its enchantingly beautiful slow movement and its brilliant finale.

Closer to the stylistic simplicity of the First Concerto, however, is Giuliani's three-movement Introduction, Theme with Variations, and Polonaise, a thoroughly enchanting piece that comes close to challenging the First Concerto for all-out charisma. Philips also include on the set the Gran Sonata Eroica, Grande Ouverture, La Melanconia, Handel Variations, and Variazioni concertanti. It is a pleasurable mix, to say the least.

Originally issued on three full-priced LP's, Philips recorded the pieces between 1974 and 1978. The sound is typical of Philips's late analogue work, not analytically clear but well focused, warm, and smooth. The guitar is prominently displayed but not too far forward.

On the whole, I can't think of a better way to while away a little over two and a half hours with pleasant listening than with these "Duo" discs. Highly recommended, obviously.   


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

Oct 20, 2019

Williams: Across the Stars (CD review)

Music of John Williams. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; John Williams, Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles. DG B0030629-02.

If I had to guess which orchestral music of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries would survive into the twenty-second century and beyond, I'd put my money on the film scores of John Williams being among them.

Here, Mr. Williams conducts some of his better-known works to accompany violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, largely in special adaptations for violin and orchestra made by Williams just for Ms. Mutter. How successful the music is in their new arrangements may depend on how familiar you already are with the original film scores and how attached you are to them. Arranged for Ms. Mutter, they can come across as somewhat dewy-eyed to some listeners while being downright inspirational to others. For me, they were pleasantly charming, if fairly lightweight and sometimes schmaltzy.

The Recording Arts Orchestra under the direction of Mr. Williams appears to understand Ms. Mutter's relatively gentle, lyrical, romantic approach to these tunes, and their accompaniment remains buoyant and breezy throughout. Mr. Williams seemed to tailor-make these new arrangements to Ms. Mutter's style, or at least to her style as represented here.

"In discussing this idea, we both (Williams and Mutter) realized that I had adapted only one or two of these pieces for solo violin and orchestra, and that the remainder of the chosen material would have to be newly developed and orchestrated to complete her album. Because the opportunity to write for a great virtuoso always presents an energizing and exciting opportunity, I set about this project with great enthusiasm. Truly, this endeavor has been a particular joy to me." --John Williams

Here's a list of the album's contents:
  1. "Rey's Theme" from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  2. "Yoda's Theme" from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  3. "Hedwig's Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone in the US)
  4. "Across the Stars" from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
  5. "Donnybrook Fair" from Far and Away
  6. "Sayuri's Theme" from Memoirs of a Geisha
  7. "Night Journeys" from Dracula
  8. "Theme" from Sabrina
  9. "The Duel" from The Adventures of Tintin
10. "Luke and Leia" from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
11. "Nice to be Around" from Cinderella Liberty
12. "Theme" from Schindler's List

Anne-Sophie Mutter
Ms. Mutter's tone is silky and smooth, of course, perfectly matching Mr. Williams's silky smooth arrangements. It's all a little dreamy, to be sure, but it's mostly enjoyable. "Yoda's Theme," for instance, seems more ethereal than we might have expected, especially in the opening passage. This approach works especially well in "Hedwig's Theme," as well as the various love themes. Not so much in the more adventurous music, which has some of the life sucked out of it.

If I had to pick a favorite track, I'd say "Night Journeys" from Dracula (the  1979 version with Frank Langella, for which I had forgotten Williams did the music). Here, Ms. Mutter's violin commands a melodramatic score that perfectly fits the melodrama of the story.

Having heard most of this material in its original form, I can't say Mr. Williams's new adaptations or Ms. Mutter's virtuoso playing improve on things. Yes, some of it is downright syrupy, but it is different and certainly none of it does any harm to the genuine article. Fans of Ms. Mutter will no doubt adore it. Fans of Mr. Williams may wonder what the fuss is about.

I should add, too, that not only is the music rather pop-oriented, the album follows another well-worn tradition of the pop-music industry: It's relatively short. That is, the playing time is rather brief: twelve selections at about fifty-five minutes.

Producer Bernhard Guttler and engineer Shawn Murphy recorded the music in April 2019 at the Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CA. According to a booklet note, this was the very location "where, decades earlier, such iconic scores as The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain and Doctor Zhivago were recorded." So, there's a long film history here. Like Ms. Mutter's playing, the sound is silky and smooth, the violin never too forward, and the orchestra spread out behind and around her (well, OK, maybe too spread out in a cinematic sort of way). Instruments in the orchestra are not particularly well placed, a lot of them appearing to come at us rather haphazardly from here and there around the sound stage. Nevertheless, the violin is well detailed and well positioned, as I say, and always sounds natural, never shrill.


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

Oct 16, 2019

Steiner: King Kong (CD review)

The Complete 1933 Film Score. William Stromberg, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.557799.

When some of us think of the original 1933 movie King Kong, we think of the gigantic gates that lead into the big ape's domain or the titanic struggle between the two giant dinosaurs or, heck, even Kong himself standing in chains on a Broadway stage. But I wonder how many of us remember the music, without which the whole affair would have been a mere shadow of itself.

Austrian-born composer Max Steiner (1888-1971) is generally credited with having invented film music. He always shrugged it off, saying it was an idea originated with Richard Wagner. Well, Wagner may have championed the idea of musical motifs, but in the early 1930's, film music was in its infancy. Sound had only just been added to movies a few years earlier, and filmmakers were anxious to find as much original music as they could. Steiner's score for Kong was among the first (often cited as THE first) full-length scores with musical cues to underline specific segments of the action.

Steiner would go on to write many more classic film scores for things like Gone With the Wind, Now Voyager, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Fountainhead, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Searchers.  But it all started with Kong.

Marco Polo gave us Steiner's complete film score for the movie in their 1996 recording, with the music reconstructed and restored by John Morgan, at which time I duly noted it in my review. Now, movie buffs, monster-movie fans, and fanciers of film scores in general should be pleased that Naxos is offering the same recording at an even more affordable price on the parent label. If the higher price of the Marco Polo disc put you off before, this 2005 Naxos reissue gives you a second chance to buy it.

William Stromberg
In the accompanying booklet notes, John Morgan tells us that this recording "is not a recreation of the 1933 music tracks, but a musical performance of the complete score as Steiner's original sketches dictated. When we noted differences in the soundtrack as compared to the original sketches (whether added or subtracted bars, repeated phrases, or instrumentation additions or deletions), we first tried to determine why these changes were made." The results are more than welcome.

The reconstructed musical score is a little over 72 minutes long. Considering that the entire film is only about 103 minutes, this means we are getting practically every note Steiner composed for the picture. Not that all of the music is exceptional, but it is thoroughly entertaining, whether or not one remembers the specific cues in the film. And it's one of those film scores that gets better as it goes along, with "Hey, Look Out! It's Kong. Kong's Coming" and the "King Kong March" among the better items near the end. Steiner does a terrific job evoking atmosphere and even imitating real-life sounds with his orchestra. "The Sea at Night," for instance, and "Cryptic Shadows" create wonderfully flavorful moods, and "Aeroplanes" sounds for all the world like real airplanes. OK, some of it also gets a bit repetitious and maybe even redundant, but that's film music for you.

As far as I could tell, the sonics are the same on the Naxos reissue as they were on the older disc, not entirely transparent but natural. The whole affair sounds like a genuine orchestra playing, not a multi-megabuck hi-fi system. I was especially impressed by the miking distance, which was just close enough for moderate detail yet not distant enough to sound muffled. Depth perception is also good, along with left-to-right orchestral balance. The sonics also have a nice, ambient bloom to them, a quality that will delight those who attend live music regularly and will annoy those who expect absolute audio purity. However, I have to admit I enjoy the sound of this same orchestra, the Moscow Symphony, recorded a tad closer, as they are on the Marco Polo disc of music from Steiner's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the best film recordings ever. And the overall sound level on King Kong is slightly lower than it is on later recordings from this same source, so crank it up and enjoy.

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

Oct 13, 2019

Lara Downes: For Love of You (CD review)

Music of Robert Schumann and Clara: Piano Concerto in A minor; Fantasiestucke; Three Romances. Lara Downes, piano; Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Flipside Music FL0013.

"My Clara, what would I not do for love of you?" --Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, 1838.

"For Love of You is a tribute to Clara Wieck Schumann, painter and composer, celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth (9/13/1819)."

Pianist Lara Downes is famous for her theme-oriented albums, and this one is no different, honoring the music and marriage of two beloved composers, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann. The program begins with Robert's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 from 1845; continues with Clara's Three Romances, Op. 11 from 1840; and ends with Robert's Fantasiestucke, Op. 12 from 1837.

So, things begin with Robert's Piano Concerto, his one and only piano concerto, with Ms. Downes accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Martin West, their Music Director since 2005. When Robert premiered the completed concerto, his wife Clara, an accomplished pianist, was the soloist. Here, of course, it's Ms. Downes, also an accomplished pianist, although she doesn't always get to show off her classical credentials in full-scale works.

After so many years of hearing the Piano Concerto played by gung-ho Romantic pianists banging away with it, Ms. Downes's performance may come as a surprise. For the good, I hope. She takes a slightly gentler approach to the score than do most other performers, a more nuanced approach that eschews a lot of the theatrics we often associate with it. Perhaps Ms. Downes is remembering that Clara Schumann premiered the work, and this is part of her tribute to the composer's wife. The interpretation certainly emphasizes the longings and dreamlike aspects of the music.

In any case, with Ms. Downes the opening Allegro affettuoso lives up to its name, "fast but tender and affecting." And Maestro West ensures a poignant presentation with his lyrical direction of the orchestral support. It's really quite refreshing. The slow central movement, an Andantino, follows suit, lighthearted and charming but never sentimental. Then Ms. Downes and company bring the work to a rousing but still softhearted close.

Lara Downes
I've read over the years that Schumann meant his concerto to express the feelings of longing and happiness between two people in love, presumably inspired by the love between Clara and him. If this be the case, Ms. Downes conveys those ideas as well as anyone on record. It's a lovely performance all the way around.

Following the concerto we get Clara Schumann's Three Romances, a brief, three-movement work written during Clara and Robert's rather turbulent courtship. Ms. Downs suggests in the liner notes that the pieces "illustrate the passion and creative synergy that brought two great artists together, despite obstacles and struggles, into a union that produced some of the greatest works of the Romantic era." Ms. Downes's playing illustrates the point with a performance of controlled passion and creativity.

The program concludes with Robert Schumann's Fantasiestucke, also written during Clara and Robert's courtship. The Fantasiestucke is a set of eight solo pieces for piano inspired by an 1814-15 collection of works by one of Robert's favorite authors, E.T.A. Hoffmann (think here of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Delibes's Coppelia, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker). The music is colorful, to be sure, and as in the concerto depicts the two sides of the composer's own personality, one dreamy, the other passionate. Ms. Downes's handling of the material is appropriately vivid, exciting, picturesque, and reflective.

The only minor drawback to the product is the fact that like so many CD's these days, the disc is enclosed in a slip-out compartment in a cardboard container. This necessitates using one's fingers on the top and bottom of the disc to pull it out, not only incurring inevitable fingerprints but possibly scratching the disc on the cardboard in the process.

Producer Adam Abeshouse made the recording at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA in February 2016. As we might expect from a record made at Skywalker, it sounds excellent. In the concerto the piano is exceptionally well defined without being too close-up, and the orchestra, perhaps a trifle soft, is well set out behind the soloist. Never once do we hear a note that is too bright, too edgy, too forward, nor too veiled or subdued. The solo pieces are likewise well detailed and smoothly recorded.


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

Oct 9, 2019

Górecki: Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (CD review)

Beth Gibbons, soprano; Krzystof Penderecki, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Domino WGC0395.

By Karl W. Nehring

Classical music lovers who have been around for a while may well recall the unexpected popularity of Górecki's Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" when a Nonesuch recording of this at that time relatively obscure Polish composer by American soprano Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta under the baton of American conductor David Zinman became a worldwide bestseller after its release in 1992, eventually selling a million copies, which was (and remains) an incredible achievement for a classical release of any kind – but especially so for music by a contemporary composer. The mournful, plaintive work seemed to strike a resonant chord in the hearts and minds of both classical fans and what appeared to be a significant cross-section of many other types of music lovers. Speaking from my own experience, I remember a business associate who rarely discussed music gushing enthusiastically about the Górecki, which really surprised me, and my wife -- who enjoys classical music but does not usually have much to say about the recordings I play on our home -- falling immediately head-over-heels for the piece and it remains to this day one of the few pieces she will from time to time request that I put on the stereo.

I also love the symphony and listened to several other recordings over the years (a quick scan of my CD rack reveals that I currently own three recordings – Gritton/Simonov/Royal Philharmonic on Intersound, Kilanowicz/Wit/Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Naxos, and the aforementioned Nonesuch). When I am in the mood to listen to the Górecki, it is the Nonesuch to which I nearly always return. It is a wonderful recording.

My interest was perked a couple of months or so ago when I read somewhere of the forthcoming release of a recording of the piece sung by not by some or another opera star but rather by Beth Gibbons, lead singer for the British electronic band Portishead, whose 1994 release Dummy made big waves in the rock world and eventually sold more than three million copies worldwide. So how does a rock singer who neither speaks Polish nor reads music – and does not really have a soprano voice – prepare to sing Polish lyrics as a soprano?

Krzystof Penderecki
According to her website, "she worked from an especially prepared vocal score bearing the original text, a phonetic interpretation, and – crucially - a translation… Beth's voice is, in classical terms, a contralto; Górecki wrote for a soprano, one register higher. While she had ventured into the soprano range before – the chorus of 'All Mine,' from Portishead's second album, for instance – she hadn't spent a sustained stretch of time there in performance. So she had vocal coaching – from Caroline Jaya-Ratnam in England, then Anna Marchwinska from Poland, with whom she also refined the pronunciation."

My goodness, it is difficult to imagine the determination and dedication – and bravery—that that it must have taken not just to learn the piece, but to plan to sing and record it not in some studio somewhere so that the engineer and producer could carefully assemble a finished product, not in a live performance with some second- or third-tier British orchestra, but rather in Warsaw with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by a prominent Polish composer and conductor.

The concert was held in November, 2014 (not sure why it took nearly five years for the recording to be released), and as you can see from the cover of the CD, included an element borrowed from a rock concert in terms of a light show that accompanied the performance. What a spectacle! 

So how did it all turn out? Although Ms. Gibbons seems a bit shaky at the beginning, she soon hits her stride and delivers a solid performance. Judging from the recorded sound, her voice may have been amplified a bit; in any event, it is prominent in the recorded mix, which also seems to favor a close-up perspective on the orchestra. The tempi chosen by Maestro Penderecki seem slightly on the slow side (a comparison of the movement timings with the Nonesuch release confirmed that). This may have been to make it easier to sing, but it also has the effect of increasing the opportunity to reflect emotions. This is, after all, a symphony of sorrowful songs.

All told, this would not be my first recommendation for the classical music lover who has for one reason or another never heard the Górecki Third. I would instead direct that listener to the Nonesuch release, which remains my favorite version.

However, although readers by now might think I don't really care that much for this release, I actually love it! I find it moving. I find it exciting. I find that it really does sound like a symphony of truly sorrowful songs. For listeners coming from a non-classical music perspective (although I doubt many of them follow Classical Candor, alas), this recording might well be a splendid way to whet their appetites for more classical recordings. And for those already familiar with the Górecki Third, I would recommend this new recording to offer them a refreshing and stimulating perspective on a piece they may have heard many times before.


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

Oct 6, 2019

Pianissimo! (CD review)

The Chicago Debut Concert. Pianists Svetlana Belsky, Elena Doubovitskaya, Irina Feoktistova, and Susan Merdinger. Sheridan Music Studio.

Yes, Pianissimo in music refers to a passage or movement played softly or very softly. But Pianissimo! also refers to an ensemble of four very talented pianists. As described in the disc's accompanying booklet, "Pianissimo! was first formed in December 2014, and recently appeared in several venues for "Make Music Chicago." As soloists and duo pianists, the four women have appeared in major concert halls and on TV and radio around the world, recorded a number of CD's, "and won numerous awards and honors, as well as accolades and rave reviews from major publications for their outstanding performances and programming."

The four members of Pianissimo! consist of Dr. Svetlana Beisky, critically acclaimed as "a passionate pianist and scholar," performing extensively in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Next is Dr. Elena Doubovitskaya, "a native of Russia who established herself as a solo and collaborative musician after moving to the US in 1998." In addition, there is Irina Feoktistova, "a graduate of the Petersburg Conservatoire, Russia," who has performed in the major halls of Russia, Europe, and the United States. And Susan Merdinger, a Steinway Artist who has been hailed as "tender and impassioned" (Glasgow Herald) and "breathtaking" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung).

On the current album they present their Chicago debut concert, which includes selections for piano two hands, piano four hands, two pianos four hands, two pianos eight hands, and four pianos, three of the pieces being world-premiere performances. The track list follows:

  1. Beethoven: Egmont Overture (arr. T. Herbert)
  2. Rimsky-Korsakov: Fantasy on Scheherazade (arr. M. Zelenaia; world premiere)
  3. Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre
  4. Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italienne (arr. A. Ton/S. Belsky)
  5. Gershwin: Fantasy on "The Man I Love" (arr. A. Tsafsman)
  6. Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini
  7. James Stone: Rip Current
  8. Ilya Levinson: Fireball (world premiere)
  9. Ilya Levinson: Broadway Medley for Classical Pianists (world premiere)

The opening overture from Beethoven shows off what can happen with eight hands at two pianos, and it's a rich and rewarding experience. The performers are brilliant in their own right, each a virtuoso, but together they are unmatched, and the playing produces an enriching few minutes.

The next item, the Rimsky-Korsakov fantasy, displays the talents of all four players on four pianos, making the number that much plusher and more opulent in sound and content, and making for a touching and exciting interpretation. And so it goes through the familiar repertoire of names like Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, and Rachmaninov in fantasies, variations, and single numbers. (The Danse Macabre for two pianos, eight hands, is particularly thrilling.)

Then there are the two newer selections from the Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson, selections that receive world-premiere performances. They have a more modern sensibility, of course, yet they take us back to an earlier period of twentieth-century American music, too, especially the Broadway medley arranged for four pianos. It pairs up favorite Broadway show tunes with seamless transitions to produce a rollicking good time. The four skilled pianists will make one forget all about Broadway pit orchestras in their lush and luxurious readings.

I should add, as well, that the disc offers a healthy seventy-six minutes of playing time, making the concert not only entertaining but also good value for the dollar.

Engineer Edward Ingold recorded the concert live at the Merit School of Music, Anne and Howard Gottlieb Hall in September 2015. Would I rather have heard Pianissimo recorded in a studio than live? Of course, it would no doubt have sounded even better without the constraints of a live audience present. Nevertheless, we have what we have, and I'm sure Pianissimo fans will enjoy the experience of the live moment. Besides, the wide dynamics of the presentations help to make up for any minor live deficiencies. For example, while there could be more presence, more high-end sheen, more brilliance, and more hall ambience on offer, the intensity of the music making always shines through and lights up the room.

Still, I really could have done without the applause at the end of each selection.


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

Oct 2, 2019

On Equipment Interface Options…

By Bryan Geyer

A summary of the means used to interconnect audio equipment chassis

In the beginning (and for ~ 35 years thereafter) the adopted “hi-fi” interface standard was the ubiquitous "phono plug," a.k.a. the RCA plug (and jack). This 1940 relic utilized a relatively small (undefined) diameter coaxial cable wherein the insulated center conductor is used for the hot side of the signal and the common (sometimes called ground) side of that signal is carried by a shield surrounding the center wire. The shield is intended to provide EMI noise isolation, and is generally braided, sometimes spiral-wrapped. It’s composed of copper, or tinned-copper, or, infrequently, aluminum foil. The hot center conductor is routed to the RCA plug’s pin contact, and the shield is routed directly to the shell. An outer jacket provides physical protection. Such cords are readily available in assorted styles and lengths, with various exterior Ø dimensions, dependent on shunt capacity rating. The latter ranges from ~ 15pf/ft. (special “low capacity”) to ~ 35-45pf/ft. (normal).

At some time in the early 1980s, an upgraded version of this RCA-type coax was introduced (as best I can recall) by Hitachi. In this new version the insulated hot conductor remains connected as before, to the pin of both RCA plugs, while a separate common/ground conductor (insulated) is routed along with it, inside the coax core, that connects with the outside shell of both RCA plugs. This wiring completes the intended signal transfer, and eliminates the risk that the impedance might vary if the common was routed only through a braid. A shield overlay is then added to repel EMI. To avoid creating unintended chassis-to-chassis ground loops, this shield is mated to only one RCA shell. That mated end then serves as the designated signal input side, so such cable is arbitrarily defined as being unidirectional*. RCA cords of this type are now prolific; there are many suppliers, e.g. Audioquest.

Any benefit conveyed with this upgraded style of unbalanced coaxial cable is directly related to length (cumulative net impedance). If the required run is fairly short (≤ 1 meter), the likelihood of benefit is minimal. For runs > 1 meter, this unidirectional style coax might possibly be superior to regular braided coax, but not nearly so nice as the balanced AES/EBU option that’s described next.

AES/EBU: In the early 1980s another form of analog interface evolved, as jointly developed by the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This cable was initially conceived for use in professional and commercial service, where there are often many more cables, frequent disconnects and reconnects, longer runs, and where extreme EMI exposure (strobed lighting, motorized generators) might prevail. This new standard utilized “Cannon barrel plugs”, a connector that was created (in 1950) by James Cannon. We now know these as “balanced” XLR plugs**. Although handicapped by an oversized Ø (~3/4”) that reflects its ~ 70 year old origin, these XLR connectors can provide useful advantages over ordinary “unbalanced” RCA coax cable; e.g…
…the hot and common/ground polarity terminal connections now engage simultaneously.
…the latched nature of the plug-to-jack mating is more secure; less likely to inadvertently detach.
…dependent on the related circuit design (see footnote**), an impedance-balanced XLR connection will facilitate full common mode EMI noise rejection. This latter feature can be a vital asset when heavy EMI is prevalent, and/or when the interconnect runs get lengthy (> 1 meter).

More recently, XLR plugs have been embraced by high-end audiophiles as general purpose interface connectors. This has come about despite ample evidence that basic RCA coax can provide fully sufficient noise immunity in any normal residential setting when the cable runs are ≤ 1 meter***.

Concurrent with creating AES/EBU, a new digital data transfer standard was developed to address the new digital media. This protocol is known as AES3, and it encompasses three distinct means of digital (only) data interface:

(a) Balanced, using a single XLR terminal (at each cable end) for full 2-channel stereo digital data transfer. One cable carries both of the encoded stereo channels.

(b) Unbalanced, using a single 75Ω coaxial cable, normally with RCA-type connectors, and generally labeled “coaxial S/PDIF” (Sony/Philips Digital Interface). Such cable is also offered with BNC terminals, provided the BNC connectors conform with 75Ω (not 50Ω) coax. One cable carries both stereo channels. The standard coax most commonly used is type RG59A/U, which has a 22 AWG compacted-copper center wire. Type RG59B/U, with a 22 AWG solid copper-clad-steel center wire, can also be used. The latter has slightly lower loss, but less flexibility. Both have Ø ≈ 0.24 inch. These are professional quality cables, as used by commercial recording studios. They are available on-line, in various lengths, directly from U.S.-based supplier L-Com, at prices that are far less (often some 80% less) than the selling price from retail high-end audio sellers’ sites.

(c) Optical digital data transfer, via an optical fiber (usually plastic, preferably glass) cable, using Toshiba’s F05 style “Toslink” terminals. Also known as “optical S/PDIF”.

While all three of these digital data transfer means are practical and effective, most people use option (b), the unbalanced 75Ω coax, using either RCA plugs or (less frequently) BNC (75Ω) connectors.

TRS plugs: Three conductor TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) plugs were derived from the old (circa 1930s) 1/4” diameter two conductor telephone switchboard plug. The third wire contact was added via an isolated ring, with the intent that a single plug could then serve for (unbalanced) analog stereo (left-hot, right-hot, plus a common/ground) connector applications. Smaller variants (3.5mm & 2.5mm Ø) soon followed. This basic 3 wire plug can also serve for balanced analog connections, where its smaller (than XLR) size often proves advantageous. As with the XLR plug, dual TRS connectors are needed for balanced analog stereo service. The TRS configuration is not quite so fully shielded as XLR, but it’s generally fine for home stereo; also for most commercial service. Full-sized (1/4 inch) TRS plugs are the normal commercial standard for guitar amplifier inputs/outputs; also for some dynamic mics.

A note about the photos: These plugs (a plug = male, a jack = female, a socket denotes either gender, but is chassis-mounted) are shown side-by-side to give you a sense of the relative size (big!) of an XLR plug. That size becomes X2 when utilized for balanced analog stereo (it requires separate L/R feeds). You can appreciate why a smaller size connector might be of interest when EMI is benign.

BG (September  22, 2019)

*There’s persistent chatter on audio forums (and in Audioquest’s sales pitch) supporting the assertion that wire exhibits directional properties. No proof of this belief exists (just aural hearsay), and prominent engineers don’t concur. This folly stems from irrational groupthink. Wire is not directional; its conductivity is fully bilateral.

**An XLR connector is inherently “balanced” by virtue of its three wire symmetry. However, this “balanced” state does not always extend to the associated active circuitry. Sometimes these XLR connectors are simply wired in direct parallel with unbalanced RCA inputs, so no phase cancellation (noise) benefit is then derived. It’s far better to connect the hot signal (XLR pin 2) to the RCA hot input, and then wire the cold input side (XLR pin 3) in series with a selected (adjustable) resistance that’s precisely equal to the measured input impedance appearing at pin 2. This creates an impedance balanced input that’s fully consistent with effective common mode EMI noise rejection. Do appreciate that this impedance balance can be achieved with virtually any equipment, provided it has an internal means (generally a simple potentiometer) to set the desired pin 3-to-pin 2 impedance match. In very rare and costly instances, entirely symmetrical balance can be automatically assured (no internal adjustment required) by implementing a fully complementary circuit design, with precisely matched differential stages throughout, from input-to-output. Such equipment might, or might not, truly exist; the aspirations of audiophiles know few limits. In any case, fully balanced common mode EMI noise rejection can be accomplished by either means, and both would be equally effective.

***There’s really no need to use analog stereo connectors that were expressly developed to cope with the EMI demands of a rock concert (XLR) when the site is a private home. Good coaxial cable with RCA plugs will yield comparable noise performance when the line-level runs to other components are ≤ 1 meter. (This length restriction does not apply to low bass passband signals routed to the line-level inputs of any self-powered subwoofers. Those RCA coax runs can safely extend some 5 or 6 meters without hum or noise impact.)

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa