Nov 27, 2019

Haydn: Favourite Symphonies Nos. 88, 92, 95, 98, 100, 101, 102, 104 (CD review)

Separately, Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Klemperer, Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras. EMI/Warner Classics 5099921530 (Haydn); EMI CMS7- 63613-2 (Schumann).

Originality, singularity, and individuality are elements key to prominence in any field. No one aspiring to greatness can do so through imitation alone. Otto Klemperer was a great conductor because he dared to be different. Unlike many of today's homogeneous conductors, Klemperer was unafraid to impose his personality on his interpretations. Not that all of his performances attained greatness, of course, as the following examples testify, but those that were on target will remain with us for as long as people enjoy music.

Yes, Klemperer's tempos were slow. The man's constant insistence on structural integrity and strong symphonic design often left his music sounding merely slower than that of his rivals. But listen again. Listen to the Schumann First "Spring" Symphony, for instance--the highlight of his Schumann set. The music sings. There is not a trace of the ponderous heaviness of which Klemperer is sometimes accused. There is, instead, a light-footed sureness that creates a totally delightful Spring. It is the best, most thoroughly convincing rendering of this score available. His version of the Fourth is almost equally fetching, but in a different way. It combines a deftness of touch with a powerful, yet well-balanced, rhythmical proposition that produces a performance of towering proportions. Where the First possesses an appropriate spirit of benign vitality, the Fourth has an apt sense of grandiloquence.

Unfortunately, Klemperer's Second and Third Schumann symphonies don't fare as well. No. 3 begins sluggishly and never attains the grandeur for which the conductor was evidently striving. It's a good, if flawed, effort, which is more than can be said about No. 2, which I find simply boring. Nevertheless, with two symphonies that are treasures (Nos. 1 and 4) and one so-so (No. 3), the set is a bargain at mid price. And one can have a little fun with the sound as well. The two earliest symphonies Schumann wrote, Nos. 1 and 4, were also the earliest of this set recorded, in 1966 and 1961 respectively, and the sound is typical of the time: close-up, with a good deal of highlighting of individual instruments and compartmentalizing of orchestral sections. The sonics are stunningly vivid and dynamic in a hi-fi sense, if not too genuine from a concert hall perspective. Nos. 2 and 3, on the other hand, are more realistically recorded. They were made in 1970 and incorporate EMI's later views on natural sound. Miked at a moderate distance, they are not as lucid as the earlier efforts, but the orchestral image is more of a whole, the sounds of the hall and individual instruments blending to produce greater unity and cohesion. Both recording techniques are valid, to be sure, and both methods have their adherents. It's a bonus to hear them in the same set where the differences are so clearly revealed.

Otto Klemperer
This brings us to the Haydn symphonies, recorded in the early to mid Sixties. Here I suspect one's appreciation for Klemperer's performances must depend on one's regard for his recordings of Mozart; they are of the same mold. This is big-scale Haydn, generally slow and steady, emphasizing as always the music's architecture rather than displaying the overt jauntiness of, say, a Beecham or the energetic ardor of a period- instruments group. In most cases, Klemperer's Haydn is like listening to the composer with new ears.

Outstanding among the eight symphonies presented in the set are Nos. 88, 101, 102, and 104, with No. 101 "Clock" a good example of the best of the Klemperer style. It is an enchantingly beautiful performance, the argument strong and the rhythms feather light. This Clock is no modern digital affair, moving without heart or soul, nor is it an old grandfather snoozing laboriously in a corner (although for some listeners, it may come close). This Clock is graceful and ornate, all filigree and glass, inviting us to relax and take our time. (Compare the tempo of the second movement, for instance, to a clock your own with a second hand; the beats tick off almost exactly with the movement of the seconds. Still, too slow for you? Well, as Klemperer might say, "You will get used to it.")

Likewise do the three other Haydn symphonies I enjoyed combine refinement and reason in perfect eighteenth-century order. Regarding the symphonies I enjoyed less well, they are perhaps too much of a good thing, the conductor trying too hard to make every piece sound like a precursor to Beethoven. But when Klemperer is off, it isn't for lack of trying.

These performances are for people seeking something out of the ordinary. The interpretations are uniquely personal and, as such, variable; but when the music is good, it's worth a hundred of anything else.


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

Nov 24, 2019

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances (arr. for two pianos). Dong Hyek Lim, piano; Martha Argerich, piano; Alexander Vedernikov, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 0190295455514.

Was there ever a more grand and glorious Romantic composition than Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto? Well, that's a pretty subjective question, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the composer premiered it in 1901, at the very end of the Romantic era and on the cusp of the Modern age in music. On the present recording pianist Dong Hyek Lim, conductor Alexander Vedernikov, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra undertake the work in a performance both grand and Romantic. How well it stacks up against so many other great recordings is another matter.

South Korean pianist Dong Hyek Lim (b. 1984) studied at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover, received the Samsung Culture Scholarship and Ezoe Scholarships, and currently studies with Emanuel Ax at the Juilliard School. Like so many young, up-and-coming pianists, Lim has received many awards, won numerous competitions, performed with major orchestras all over the world, and recorded about a dozen record albums. So he has the credentials to take on Rachmaninov.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 after having undergone hypnotherapy for severe depression. Apparently, the perceived failure of his First Symphony so disturbed him that he feared he would never write another piece of music, so he decided he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy seemed to work as the Concerto No. 2 became an immediate success.

Dong Hyek Lim
Lim and his associates handle the opening movement in a suitably big, powerful style, emphasizing not only the grander emotional rhapsodies but the gentler, more lyrical ones as well. In the peaceful second movement, Lim and company establish an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere, the pianist nicely capturing the music's feeling of calm and repose and doing justice to the beauty of the movement's central theme, if perhaps a little too gentle at times. Then comes that memorable finale, where Rachmaninov revives the familiar themes he introduced in the previous two movements. Here, Lim's balance of expressive showmanship and delicate sensitivity works pretty well, and he and his fellow musicians provide an entertainingly expressive conclusion to the work.

So, in the end how does Lim's performance stack up against great recordings of the past, ones from Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Janis, Horowitz, Richter, Wild, even Rachmaninov himself? Here, things become a bit stickier here. I certainly enjoyed Lim's relaxed, easygoing, fairly engaging treatment of the score; yet I didn't think he displayed quite the Romantic sweep or intimate transparency of the leading recorded contenders in the work. Still, if you're a Lim fan or just want the luxury of a plush new digital recording, the disc should satisfy your wants.

As a coupling, the album features Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, the composer's final major work before his death, in Rachmaninov's own arrangement for two pianos. Here, Lim partners with one of the giants of the piano world, the Argentine virtuoso Martha Argerich. If you're familiar only with the orchestral version, this adaptation for piano may seem a bit underwhelming. However, in the hands of two such capable artists as Lim and Argerich, the power is still there, along with an added degree of sweetness and light. If you don't already have a favorite recording of the piano transcription, you might consider this album for that reason alone.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Phil Hobbs recorded the concerto at Maida Vale Studios, London in November 2018, and producer Fraser and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the dances at Teldex Studio Berlin in December 2018. There's a wonderfully mellow ambient bloom to the piano in the concerto, as well as a huge dynamic range. The overall sound of the concerto is quite smooth, too, and only a tad soft. In any case. the big, warm, cushy sonics nicely complement the Romantic nature of the music. The two pianos in the Symphonic Dances share a similar recorded sound: big, fairly close, yet smooth and warm.


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

Nov 20, 2019

On Power Amplifier Listening Trials…

A common opinion among qualified audio experts (restated here by me) is that…
All modern audio power amplifiers that present high input impedance (≥ 20 kΩ), very low output impedance (≤ 0.2 Ω), flat power response (20 Hz–20 kHz ± 0.5 dB at rated output), ultra-low distortion (≤ 0.1% THD at rated output), and a virtually inaudible noise floor will sound exactly the same when operated at matched (± 0.25 dB) levels, not clipped, and properly connected to the same load.

Do appreciate that amplifiers meeting the above specifications all sound the same because they share a single common attribute: They are highly accurate. A power amplifier that is accurate is one that faithfully replicates the original input source signal without making any change, loss, or addition. Given this measured assurance of accuracy, why do so many hi-end audiophiles conduct listening trials to detect the audible difference between power amplifiers? Well, here’s my opinion on…

Why listening trials persist, and grief to avoid when conducting a listening trial…

1—Irrelevance: To an overwhelming extent, today’s audiophiles are non-technical subjectivists*. They have no interest (and little understanding) of the measurements that define audio performance, and they don’t expressly seek accuracy. The audiophiles’ primary goal is to identify equipment that renders euphonic sound; i.e., sound that’s subjectively pleasing, and vacuum tube power amps provide more range of choice. This accrues because…
(a) THD at rated output runs > an order of magnitude higher for a tube-type power amp than on a solid-state equivalent, and that difference might be audible.
(b) And because transformer-coupled tube amps can’t approach the optimal low impedance drive of solid-state power amps, where Zout is typically ≤ 0.1Ω. The tube amp’s higher Zout will directly interact with the shifting Zin presented by the loudspeaker/crossover load because both values will then be of similar order. This will color the sound; the speaker’s sonic signature will differ slightly from its natural voice. The result could be deemed either pleasing or displeasing—a subjective option. Of course, the change will reflect degraded source accuracy, but accurate sound was never the audiophile objective.

2—Expectation: Do appreciate that it’s instinctive to assume that different amplifiers will sound different. Indeed, for a great many decades (from the 1949 origin of “hi-fi” until the early 1980s) most power amplifiers did sound different, and their sound was materially affected by load impedance. Of course, few of those power amplifiers met the stringent specifications cited in the opening paragraph, so they were not highly accurate amplifiers, although some might approach that goal when paired with a favorable load. When sampling amplifiers today, some listeners still expect to hear such differences, and some are certain to fulfill their expectation, regardless of the sound. Aural perception is a fickle and fleeting sensation, prone to uncertainty and subject to human frailty; be wary.

3—DC Offset Orphans: Since power amplifier comparisons imply the probability of high output operation, it’s helpful to know (for sure!) that your samples exhibit only nominal DC offset. So measure the amps’ initial DC offsets before running a listening trial. Don’t evaluate some random lemon with anomalous excessive offset. Be certain that your intended samples truly represent the breed. (Note: This need for offset screening applies only to direct-coupled power amps; not to transformer-coupled amps.)

4—Marginal Mavericks: If a comparison trial involves a power amplifier that is just marginally accurate, that margin might prove audible. This generally involves an amplifier with slightly out-of-spec power response, and the character of the aberration might be perceived by a sensitive listener. Lots of audiophiles express personal preference for a particular sort of biased sound (warm/detailed/liquid/analytic, et al.) that marginally differs from source reality. (In many cases they might do well to reassess their speakers’ crossover settings, rather than change their power amp.) Of course, a “maverick” is an outcast, it’s generally not representative of the breed, so another sample of the same model might not sound the same. Instrumented measurement is a useful way to isolate marginal mavericks, and testing power response (frequency response at high power output) is easily done, with basic test equipment.

5—Output Level Accuracy: All listening comparisons must be accomplished at precisely identical output levels. This is best assured by actually measuring the respective outputs at some appropriate (400-800 Hz) fixed test frequency, using a microphone or sound level meter, mounted on a stand, and fixed precisely at the intended listening position. Simply keeping the main volume dial at the same position will not assure identical output because different amplifiers exhibit different voltage gains. Most modern power amps have internal voltage gains that fall between +23 dB and +29 dB, and some amps have rear panel trim pots to independently adjust the left/right input balance. So, (a) review the technical aspects and check the gain spec; (b) inspect and adjust sample amplifiers as needed; then (c) listen as desired, but be aware that you’ll learn very little if the amplifiers are accurate (see opening).

6—Termination Variables: In the course of disconnecting and reconnecting the speaker load to the various amplifiers in a listening trial (and repeating that cycle numerous times—often as quickly as possible), it’s quite likely that there might be some variation in the uniformity of the termination. Indeed, sometimes even different connector types are used (see photo**), with different results. It’s really quite easy, in the course of this repetitive attach/detach process, to introduce some contact inequality, and that variable could cause aural disparity when conducting high power comparisons. To assure optimum signal transfer it’s vital to carefully inspect, clean, reseat, and tighten all terminations, and assure that all parts are in optimum visual alignment every time that they’re mated.

7—Room Acoustics & Comb Filtering: Aural comparison trials require that all acoustic environs be uniform. This includes a precisely fixed position within the listening space. It also means that the occupancy and every furnishing detail must be exactly the same. Even a minor change can materially affect the acoustic reflections and standing wave patterns, and these disruptions, however slight, can alter the sound. Despite every effort to comply, the small listening areas typical in most private homes can still yield appreciable (6 dB) variation over distances as small as four inches and frequencies as low as 200 Hz. This is the unfortunate consequence of comb filtering. (Refer p.101-104 of “The Audio Expert”, by Ethan Winer [Routledge, 2nd edition, 2018], ISBN 978-0-415-78884-7.)

8—Sight Before Sound: In a previous paper (refer “On Evaluating Audio Equipment…”), I cited a significant study (, conducted in 2013, describing the finding that visual cues convey far more impact than any audible evidence. In sum, your eyes will implant a more vivid and persistent impression than anything that you hear, and what you see will determine what you think you hear. As a consequence, any serious listening trial should be administered under blind test conditions. If you know which amplifier is playing, you will be unable to render valid aural judgement. The statistics in support of this finding are persuasive, and the evidence is undeniable. Listening trial choices that were formed prior to observing this guidance should be ignored.

9—Confirmation Bias: When you’re comparing your old power amplifier against some new and costly wonder that you’ve got on temporary loan, it’s very difficult to admit that there might be no audible difference. And in the event that you’ve already purchased that prized new model, I’d say that it’s not possible to declare that both amps sound the same. We’re not robots.

BG (November 16, 2019)

*Among audiophile organizations, the sole exception appears to be the Boston Audio Society, where most members comprehend and respect the value of technical analysis in defining product performance.

**The discrete banana plugs that are shown in the photo are a bit unusual. They have an internal free-floating slug that achieves uniform compression against the (side entry) wire without transferring any twisting strain; see…
A  TIP:  If your amplifier’s rear clearance (to wall) is especially tight, you can shorten these banana plugs (by 5mm) by discarding the knurled end posts and substituting flat point metric set screws (use M8–1.0 x 8mm) to retain the wires.

Nov 17, 2019

Mozart: Piano Concertos 17 & 24 (CD review)

Benjamin Hochman, piano and conductor; English Chamber Orchestra. Avie AV2404. 

If you are as unfamiliar with pianist Benjamin Hochman as I was, here is a passage from his Web site to help you get acquainted: "Winner of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2011, Benjamin Hochman's eloquent and virtuosic performances blend colorful artistry with poetic interpretation to the delight of audiences and critics alike. He performs in major cities around the world as an orchestral soloist, recitalist and chamber musician, working with an array of renowned musicians. Possessed of an intellectual and heartfelt musical inquisitiveness, his playing was described by the Vancouver Sun as "stylish and lucid, with patrician authority and touches of elegant wit." Hochman frequently juxtaposes familiar and unfamiliar works in his concert programs, a talent that also extends to his thoughtful recorded repertoire, from Bach and Mozart to Kurtág and Peter Lieberson. The New York Times wrote of pianist Benjamin Hochman "classical music doesn't get better than this."

After that, it's a lot to live up to. Fortunately, he does. He's obviously a fine young pianist and deserves attention. The thing I liked most about this playing on this Mozart album is that he never seems to show off his virtuosity as a few more celebrated pianists of his generation do. He appears to be content to play the music without embellishment and to play it rather traditionally as opposed to what we hear from today's popular "historically informed performances" do. To some ears, that may mean he's a bit old-fashioned. So be it; he's also comfortably entertaining.

Explaining why he chose this particular pairing of Mozart concertos, Mr. Hochman explains, "I chose to record these two concertos because to me they are mirror images of each other. The G major is full of sunshine and joy, but it also has these moments of darkness that show complexity, whereas the C minor is essentially tragic, full of fury and storm, yet it also has moments of calm and resignation, including much of the slow movement. Also, the last movements of the two concertos are both in variation form--the only two final movements of Mozart piano concertos that are variations. For these reasons, the two concertos really complement each other very well."

Benjamin Hochman
The set begins with the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453, which Mozart wrote in 1781 along with five others. The concerto is lyrical and playful, and Hochman's performance is as frolicsome as the piece demands while remaining polished and civilized. Mozart intended a degree of melancholy to pervade the second-movement Andante, which Hochman handles with delicacy. Then, there's that memorable finale; Mozart himself was so fond of it that he taught his pet starling to sing it. Hochman seems to be enjoying himself here, too, yet he never goes overboard in forcing the merriment of the variations.

The Piano Concerto No. 24 in c minor, K491 is a contrast to No. 17, more mature, darker and more dramatic. Mozart finished it in 1786, writing it for a larger array of instruments than for No. 17, more so than for any of his other concertos, in fact, and its opening movement is the longest he had written to that point. Some music critics admire it so much, they consider it the best piano concerto Mozart ever wrote. I wouldn't go that far, but, then, music is so much a matter of taste and opinion, who can say?

You can tell from its long introduction that No. 24 has a bigger feel than his previous concertos and a more somber tone. When the piano finally enters, it's quietly subdued, Hochman gradually increasing its emotional scope and building its dramatic intensity. Still, Hochman always maintains an admirable poise, one clearly appropriate to the classical style. The slow, middle movement is sweet and simple, Hochman keeping it that way with playing both light and transparent. Hochman concludes by playing the finale with the grace and dignity it deserves as the culmination of an essentially tragic concerto, yet he never lets it sag and lag.

Hochman's interpretations of both concertos on the album are sensible, often reflective, and somewhat sedate. Whether that is what the listener is looking for is, of course, again a matter of personal taste. While there is certainly nothing earthshaking or revelatory about Hochman's readings, they are comfortably well performed, with thought and care. For most listeners that should be more than enough.

Producers Eric Wen and Melanne Mueller and engineer Dennis Patterson recorded the music at St. John's Smith Square, London in April 2019. As we have come to expect from Avie recordings, the sound on this one is as natural as one could want. It's not overly precise or clinically transparent; it's just clear, clean, and realistic, with as much detail as one would hear in a concert hall. There's a pleasant ambience communicated from the venue that adds to one's enjoyment, too, as well as a perceptible and lifelike depth to the orchestra. Moreover, the sound is smooth enough to enhance and enrich Hochman's fluent delivery. It all works quite well together. Although the piano stretches a bit far across the sound stage for my taste, it's not a serious concern when everything else lines up so well.


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

Nov 13, 2019

Quasi Morendo (CD Review)

Music of Brahms, Sciarrino, and Pesson. Reto Bieri, clarinet; Meta4 (Antti Tikkanen, violin; Minna Pensola, violin; Atte Kilpeläinen, viola; Tomas Djupsjöbacka, cello). ECM New Series 2557 481 8082.

By Karl W. Nehring

I was going to open this review by saying something along the lines of, "people who are fans of Brahms probably are averse to auditioning music by composers who are new and strange to them." Upon a bit of further reflection, though, I realized that I myself am a fan of Brahms but in fact do indeed enjoy auditioning music by composers who are new and strange to me. That being said, though, I must confess that when I saw that ECM had sandwiched my beloved Brahms Clarinet Quintet between two slices of music by composers that were new and strange to me, I was a bit apprehensive. Still, I persisted.

Upon first hearing the first few measures of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino's Let Me Die Before I Wake (the liner notes state that the title is taken from a book by Derek Humphry, an American advocate of euthanasia), the opening piece on this CD, I must confess that my apprehension level increased significantly. The sounds were ghostly – strange and otherworldly. I am quite familiar with the sound of a clarinet, as I used to play the clarinet and have enjoyed the sound of the clarinet on many, many recordings. But I had never heard one sound like this before.  It reminded me of Tuvan throat singing, with two notes – a high and a low – being played simultaneously by clarinetist Reto Bieri, who explain in the line notes that "with special grips, even with slight changes in the approach to the sound, it is possible to create particular multiphonics, through breathing and blowing (a big difference!) I can influence these sounds in the finest degree. How to explain this physically is really a mystery to me. And I am very happy that most of it is a mystery to me. That's the way it has to be, it's mysterious music and has to be mysterious." After my initial shock, I played the piece a few more times and began to appreciate its haunting and fascinating sounds, finding myself in awe at the ability of both composer Sciarrino and performer Bieri to create and navigate such a strange but wonderful musical landscape. This is music from the bardo.

Reto Bieri
Moving from the mysterious to the familiar, the next piece on this release is the Brahms Quintet in b minor, op. 115, which I would assume is music with which many who read this blog are familiar.  I myself have owned several recordings, back in the day on LP and now on CD. A quick check of my collection revealed the Shifrin/Chamber Music Northwest recording on Delos neatly filed where it belongs in a classical rack, but I failed to find the Stoltzman/Tokyo String Quartet version on RCA that is apparently piled in a box where is awaits refilling one of these days when I assemble the new CD rack that I bought months ago so I could accommodate my ever-growing collection. The Brahms is a piece near and dear to my heart and it is given a fine performance by Bieri and Meta4. Having demonstrated his amazing ability to create strange tones from his instrument in the Sciarrino, Bieri then demonstrates his ability to produce an amazingly pure-toned and virtuosic performance of the Brahms, matched in kind by the clean, precise, and well-balanced support of the string quartet. Indeed, my one very slight reservation about their version is that at times it seemed almost too pure, too clean – just a touch more warmth would have been welcome at times. Still, this is a breathtaking performance, well captured by the engineers, and it is a version to which I will often return in the future when I want to enter the autumnal world of the Brahms Quintet.

The final piece on the program is Nebenstück for clarinet and string quartet by French composer Gérard Pesson. The title roughly translates as "next-to piece," and has been referred to as a "filtering of Brahms." The liner notes describe the piece as "an estranged instrumentation, or rather arrangement, for clarinet and string quartet, of the Ballade for Piano, Op. 10 No. 4, that Brahms composed in 1854."  To my ears, the music unfolds as a kind of dialogue between the clarinet and the strings, with the clarinet having a smooth, calming effect, while the strings sound more nervous and edgy, often being plucked. The overall result is a very affecting musical experience, haunting in the positive sense of the word. The piece ends in a kind of fading sigh, a dying breath, or perhaps just a memory of some mostly forgotten dream.

Overall, then, Quasi Morendo ("Almost Dying") is an artistic reflection on death, life, and states that lie between. The liner notes are helpfully informative, with an especially interesting essay on the Brahms. I can recommend this release highly to music lovers – especially Brahms fans – whether they be familiar or not with his Clarinet Quintet. There is much to enjoy and much to contemplate here, both in the music and in the notes. A splendid CD!


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

Nov 10, 2019

Virtuoso Music for Cello (CD review)

Music of Boccherini, Franchomme, Rossini & Servais. Constantin Macherel, cello; Sebastian Comberti, London Mozart Players. Claves 50-1903.

Here are a few things I didn't know: The cello was "derived from the viole da braccio family rather than that of the viols." Moreover, the young Swiss cellist Constantin Macherel featured on this disc is a laureate of numerous competitions and has performed recitals all over the world. He plays an old English cello by Joseph Hill, ca. 1765. Here, he is accompanied by the London Mozart Players, which, again news to me, is the UK's longest established chamber orchestra. They play under the direction of cellist Sebastian Comberti, who has appeared many times as a soloist with the London Mozart Players, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Hanover Band.

The disc's program consists of five selections from the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic periods. The opening number is the Variations sur deux themes (russe and ecossais) (1835) by the French cellist and composer Auguste-Joseph Franchomme (1808-1884). It's a charming piece played with elegance and refinement by Macherel. One certainly notices the melodies of Russia and Scotland throughout, but there are also hints of America's Stephen Foster as well. Whatever, it's nostalgic and reflective and poetically presented.

Constantin Macherel
Next comes Souvenir de Spa, Fantaisie (1844) by Franchomme's good friend Adrien Francois Servais (1807-1866), who was one of the most influential cellists of the nineteenth century. As in the Franchomme piece, we get music of extended refinement, this time the composer's impressions of Spa, the Belgian resort town famous for its mineral springs. It can be a bit more energetic than the Franchomme and not quite as sentimental, but it is equally as enchanting, with Macherel showing off his virtuosity.

After that is the longest and earliest piece on the agenda, the three-movement Cello Concerto No. 6 in D Major (1770) by the Italian composer and cellist Ridolfo Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805). It's a typically delightful piece from Boccherini, and the string accompaniment from the London Mozart Players well complements Macherel's graceful playing.

In the penultimate spot we find Une Larme, Theme et variations (1858) by Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868). These variations on "A Tear" can range rather pointedly from lively to playful to pensive. They are fun, and Macherel makes the most of the change-ups.

The album concludes with Chant d'adieux, Fantaise (1836), by the same man who opened the program, Auguste-Joseph Franchomme. He based the music on a funereal melody, so don't expect a lighthearted close to the agenda. But do expect the same degree of stylishly dignified attention by everyone involved.

Producer Rachel Smith and engineer Ben Connellan recorded the music at St. John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London in June 2018. The sound, while a tad close-up in the cello work, is otherwise excellent. The clarity is admirable, the detail, the definition. When the stage opens to the full chamber orchestra, it is well spread out, with lifelike distances between the instruments and a reasonably wide stereo spread. It's among the nicest, cleanest, most realistic things I've heard this year.


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

Nov 6, 2019

RCA Living Stereo (CD reviews)

Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 "From the New World," and other orchestral masterworks. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  RCA Living Stereo 09026-62587-2.
Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain; Prokofiev: Lt. Kije; Stravinsky: The Fairy's Kiss. Reiner, CSO. RCA Living Stereo 09026-61957-2.
Respighi: Pines and Fountains of Rome; Debussy: La Mer.  Reiner, CSO. RCA Living Stereo 09026-68079-2. 

By now, the names Fritz Reiner and "Living Stereo" should be synonymous with highest recommendation. It's a no-brainer, a win-win situation. Between the years 1954 and 1962 Reiner made a remarkable number of stereo recordings for RCA. They were remarkable for two reasons:  first, because almost all of them were immediately recognized as superb performances and have remained on practically everyone's list of recommended recordings for the last forty years; second, because they were recorded in the pioneering days of stereo before sound engineers had learned much about screwing things up.

Back then, a lot of recording engineers appeared to be interested in minimal miking, a wide stereo spread, good front-to-back dimensional information, as well as wide dynamic and frequency ranges and reasonably unaffected tonal balance. Things like stereo multi-miking, spotlighting, highlighting, partitioning, reverb, compression, dynamic and frequency limiting, and artificial brightness were just starting to come into their own. For the most part, the conductor was still in charge of the sound of his orchestra. Lovingly remastered by RCA, the "Living Stereo" CD series, which RCA introduced in the mid 1990's, especially the ones with Reiner, show us just how good those simple, early techniques were, techniques later adopted by many prominent audiophile labels in their own recordings.

Anyway, of the three early discs in RCA's "Living Stereo" CD line, Reiner's Dvorak is the only recording I had not heard in many years. This Dvorak Ninth Symphony from 1957 still does not displace my favored Kertesz (Decca) or Horenstein (Unicorn) recordings, but it packs much mature drama and conviction into a powerful and enjoyable performance.

Fritz Reiner
The Reiner recording of Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain, also from 1957, has been a classic for four decades and helped put Hovhaness on the musical map. It may not hold up as well sonically as, say, Gerard Schwarz's Seattle Symphony disc on Delos, but it is clearly among the most profoundly spiritual readings imaginable. Its coupling with Stravinsky's Fairy's Kiss and a delightful rendition of Prokofiev's Lt. Kije makes this an attractive package. Each of these recordings had appeared previously on CD from RCA. Perhaps in the "Living Stereo" series they lose a little something in overall brilliance, but they have never sounded quieter, smoother, or more natural.

The third disc I'll mention is an absolute must-buy. I think I have owned Reiner's Respighi tone poems, the Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, in one form or another for as long they have been around (RCA recorded them in 1959, and I bought the LP in the early 60's). Yes, the newer Muti and Dutoit recordings sound a little better in some ways, but no one has yet captured the color and splash of these works as well as Reiner. Coupled with yet another classic among classics, Debussy's La Mer, itself a perennial top-of-the-pile choice, this disc gets my highest  recommendation.

The reader newly acquainted with classical music could do worse than to purchase anything in the Reiner series; the reader newly acquainted with audiophile sound could do worse with many, if not most, modern recordings.

Incidentally, since issuing their "Living Stereo" series on CD, RCA has also issued many of the recordings on SACD, and JVC has remastered many of them in XRCD24. Choices, choices....


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

Nov 3, 2019

Holst: The Planets (SACD review)

Also, The Perfect Fool. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-146SACD.

It is always a pleasure to welcome a new Reference Recordings album, especially one engineered by RR's cofounder Keith O. "Professor" Johnson. Since the founding, Professor Johnson has made over 130 recordings for the company, with one characteristic standing out: They all sound like real music in a real musical environment. You can be sure with Keith Johnson's Reference Recordings, for example, that an orchestra sounds the way a real orchestra would sound in a real concert hall. That's certainly the case with this recording of the Kansas City Symphony, under the direction of its longtime Music Director Michael Stern, and made in Helzberg Hall. You're pretty much there with the orchestra.

Now, about the content: Between 1914 and 1916, the early years of "The Great War," English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) began writing his most-famous piece of music, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, premiering it in 1918. That might help to explain why the first two segments are about "War" and "Peace." He named the movements after the astrological signs of the known planets at the time, not counting Earth, although the music doesn't really describe either the zodiac signs or the planets so much as they express feelings about the various moods of the human spirit.

The music begins with "Mars, the Bringer of War" with its menacing delight. Holst gets us right into the theme of war by presenting us with the god of war. Maestro Stern starts things out quietly and builds the dynamic contrasts gradually from there, culminating in a strong finish.

The second movement, "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," is a lovely slow section, and for me it is one of the high points of the work. It is sweet and serene, a welcome relief from the rigors of war that precede it. We also hear echoes here of "The Lark Ascending," written by Holst's good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams a few years before. Maestro Stern takes the music more literally than I have heard it before, losing a bit of something in overall lyricism yet fitting in nicely with the surrounding movements.

Michael Stern
"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" is a "nimble scherzo," which provides a little excitement after the relative calm of "Venus." Under Stern's direction, it's an attractive and charming diversion.

"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" is essentially a big, boisterous Bacchanal, made all the bigger with Maestro Stern controlling the action. It's a rollicking piece, which Stern understands, yet he keeps it tightly wound, never letting it get out of hand. So, under Stern it's big but moderately paced, jolly but never exaggerated.

"Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" was Holst's personal favorite section of the suite. I'm not sure why Holst liked it so much, though; maybe he felt a little sorry for it because of its relative ordinariness in the context of the rest of the music. In any case, it does have some lovely poetic revelations, which Maestro Stern is happy to point up.

After that comes "Uranus, the Magician," the segment that has everything in it an audiophile loves, from deep bass to highest treble, from softest notes to loudest fortes. It exhibits a full demonstration of an orchestra's capabilities, so it's a good test of one's stereo system capabilities. Although Stern takes it at a sprightly tempo, which robs it a mite of its mystery, he plays up its big dynamic contrasts, which enhances its excitement.

The suite ends with "Neptune, the Mystic," a wordless female chorus that fades off into silence at the end. As the music can sometimes run on too long and overstay its welcome, Stern paces it well enough that it doesn't happen. It all seems of a piece and ends naturally, not gimmicky.

Accompanying The Planets Maestro Stern gives us Holst's introductory ballet music from the composer's 1923 one-act opera The Perfect Fool. Holst intended for the opera to be a humorous fairy tale, and Maestro Stern plays it that way, light and airy, witty and delightful.

Producer David Frost and engineers Keith O. Johnson and Sean Royce Martin recorded the music at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in January 2015. They recorded it using 24-bit HDCD technology in hybrid Super Audio CD, so it will play back in 2-channel stereo and 5.1 multichannel from the SACD layer and 2-channel stereo from the regular CD layer. As usual, I listened in 2-channel SACD.

Reference Recordings have gotten us into audiophile territory again so expect an enormous dynamic range. There will be a temptation to turn up the volume as you begin. Don't. Things get very loud very quickly enough. There's good imaging involved, left to right and front to back, with sections of the orchestra clearly defined. Note, however, that unlike most live recordings that provide a clinical, close-up perspective, this studio production provides a vantage point that appears about eight or ten rows back from the orchestra. Transparency, therefore, is of the realistic kind, never soft but never glaring or glossy, either. In The Planets I would have preferred a little more upper bass warmth, stronger deep bass, and a tad less lower treble, but that's just me. It's quite good. In The Perfect Fool, everything seems perfect, up and down the spectrum.


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