--France Gaignard, CN2 Communication
A State of Wonder, The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 and Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning (CD and Book review)
Philip Kennicott, author. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. ISBN 978-0-393-63536-2
By Karl W. Nehring
As Monty Python were wont to declare, “And now for something completely different.” What we have here are recordings and a book so intimately bound together and so individually as well as jointly rewarding that it just seems to make sense to review them both together. Many music lovers, but especially those with a deep appreciation for the music of J.S. Bach, are most likely familiar with one or even both of legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s two Columbia recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Counterpoint is, as stated on the cover, a memoir of Bach and mourning. A memoir of Bach in terms of the author’s efforts to be able to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a memoir of mourning in the sense of his grief over the loss of his mother. Mourning for his mother drives him to master the Bach, partly as a diversion, partly to recapture his youth. Working on the Goldbergs drives him to analyze more deeply, at times painfully, his relationship with his mother. It also drives him to reach inward, sometimes painfully, for memories of his learning to play the piano, of teachers he studied with, of his successes and failures.
Early in the book, author Philip Kennicott writes that “simply being a bystander, a passive listener to music, isn’t an entirely satisfying form of understanding. For years, I had felt this way about the great piano works that were beyond my abilities, among them Bach’s Goldberg Variations... At a moment when it seemed imperative to understand the world and life more deeply, I wondered if the Goldberg Variations might test the possibility of achieving true knowledge of music. I wondered if perhaps I should learn to play them.” A few pages later, he goes on to observe that “the silly ethos of dreaming the impossible dream is a good way to live in perpetual regret, unable even to muster the energy and will to take on the manageable challenges of a reasonable dream… Learning the Goldberg Variations, however, seemed an eminently reasonable thing to do.
As you might anticipate, it is nearly inevitable that someone who writes a book about learning to play the Goldbergs is going bring up Glenn Gould and those famous recordings. After coming back home following his mother’s death, the inevitable indeed occurs. Feeling the need to listen to something as he mourned in his silent dwelling, Kennicott turns to Gould and makes some observations about the first of Gould’s two recordings. “So I put on Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations in 1955, one of the most admired and thorny recordings ever made. With its patina of thin, pre-digital sound, it captures a pianist doing the miraculous, clarifying as with colored light the intertwining lines of Bach’s thirty variations on a recurring bass pattern. Even critics who find it sometimes dry, or even tendentious in its almost aggressive flaying of the music’s sinews, still stand in awe of it. If it were made today with all the tools available for tweaking and distorting sound, one would suspect the pianist, and his engineers, of studio fraud. As I listened to Gould play, I sensed in the Goldberg Variations the same inexhaustibility of emotion and meaning that I had felt in the Chaconne during the days of my mother’s death. And the perfection of Gould’s playing, his mental tenacity, made me shudder.”
Yes, the sound on the 1955 recording is on the thin side. If anything, though, that thin sound seems to emphasize the utter precision and clarity of Gould’s playing. At times, the sound makes his piano sound something like a harpsichord. Something Kennicott fails to observe about the Gould recordings (both of them, in fact) though, is the sound of Gould’s humming, which Gould was famous for. For some (I among them), the extraneous noises you sometimes hear on a Gould recording are not bothersome and are in fact endearing, making his whole enterprise seem more committed and personal. For others, those noises are a distraction and a nuisance – even a deal-killer in some cases. Perhaps Kennicott is too much of a gentleman to call out another pianist, perhaps his playback system was not all that revealing, perhaps he did not really notice them because he was too busy analyzing Bach’s writing or Gould’s playing, or perhaps he occasionally heard them but just didn’t care. In any event, the 1955 Gould recording is an X-ray rendition of the score that is simply astonishing in terms the virtuosity of Gould’s fleet-fingered interpretation. If you are a fan of the Goldberg Variations, Gould’s 1955 recording is something you really ought to hear, even if you already own a version you are quite happy with.
As the book progresses, Kennicott purchases a score of the Goldbergs, noting that they were never actually titled as such: “The music I knew I finally needed to buy that morning in Chicago was the piece that had haunted me for the past year, a work published with the rather daunting title page: “Keyboard Practice consisting of an aria with thirty variations for the harpsichord with 2 manuals prepared for the Enjoyment of Music Lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach.” The author goes on to recount the story of how those variations came to be called the Goldberg Variations, presenting some interesting historical facts and discussing the merits and demerits of some of the accounts that have been presented from time to time as explanatory tales.
Returning to the subject of Gould, Kennicott opines that “no pianist has had a greater impact on public perceptions of the Goldberg Variations than Gould. It was the first piece he recorded, in 1955, after signing with Columbia Records, and a work he returned to at the end of his life for a thoroughgoing reappraisal. Those two recordings, bookends to a meteoric and idiosyncratic career, offer an encyclopedia of choices a pianist can make about the music of Bach.” He goes on to point out that in Gould’s 1981 recording, “he extended rational control over all its dimensions. In this autumnal interpretation, he offered his view of a central debate about Bach’s variation cycle that still divides musicians, theorists, and listeners, and that is: Are the variations a single, coherent work, consistent and unified in all their parts, or a collection of diverse ideas assembled to show the variegated breadth of musical possibility? … Although Gould would say of the Goldbergs, “As a piece, as a concept, I don’t really think it quite works,” his second recording was his attempt to make it work, to unify it and present it not as a string of delightful episodes but as an integrated whole. … In Gould’s last recording, he went even further to in an attempt to bring and extend a logic of consistent pulse to the entire work, reflected in orderly (although not always simple) tempo ratios. ‘In the case of the Goldbergs,’ he said in a 1981 interview with the critic Tim Page, a conversation Gould mostly scripted, there is one pulse that runs all the way throughout.’”
That interview with Tim Page, a prominent advocate for Gould, is contained in the third disc included in this three-disc set, along with some outtakes from the 1955 sessions. It is fascinating document, with Gould explaining many of the choices he made in re-recording this might work for which his earlier recording had made him so famous. One especially interesting point that came out in the interview is the matter of timing. Page points out that although the 1955 recording seems so much faster (when you listen to both recordings, chances are you will agree), if you adjust for the presence/absence of repeats taken in the two recordings, and do not include the aria, which Gould plays much more reflectively and slowly in his later recording, the overall timing for the variations themselves is very similar. That was quite a surprise!
The very first CD I ever purchased – before I even had a CD player in my system – was Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. Perhaps that is an indication that I am not the most objective reviewer of this particular recording. A further disclosure is that in my relatively long life (how did that happen?) there have been two musicians for whom hearing the news of their death brought immediate tears to my eyes, Antonio Carlos Jobim and yes, Glenn Gould. Another thing – I still tend to become a bit misty-eyed when I listen to the aria and hear his ghostly humming. My wife and I still occasionally reminisce about that magical time we were driving up to Buffalo watching those beautiful snowflakes fall while listening to the Goldbergs on the car radio. No, I am definitely not the most objective reviewer of this particular recording, so when I say that Gould’s 1981 recording is an engrossing account of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, you may take that with a grain of salt.
For Kennicott, too, listening to Gould’s recordings proves to be an emotional experience, perhaps even more so than a musical one. “No pianist can play these works without at some point grappling with what seems a rigorous syllogism: Bach is to music as Gould is to Bach. … Learning to admire Gould meant facing up to the consequences of having avoided Bach for so long. When I finally turned to Bach I grasped for the first time the vastness of my musical failings and I understood my neglect of Bach not just as a youthful oversight, but as a willful decision that had cost me years of unnecessary struggle.” But Kennicott presses on, never really mastering the Goldbergs, of course, but at least learning them well enough to be able to play them. Reading his observations about them is interesting, as is reading about his memories of his relationship with his mother, a relationship that was complicated and often fraught with tension and conflict. Reflecting back on his mother, he writes, “By the end of her life, I can think of only one piece that she genuinely enjoyed, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s violin fantasy ‘The Lark Ascending.’ Music, which had been a large part of her life as a girl and a young woman, was eventually thinned out to a single piece, a musical representation of a bird rising into the air, leaving earth and earthbound things behind, before it ‘to silence nearer soars’ -- the words of George Meredith, whose poem inspired the English composer. And although there is a universe of difference between the two pieces, the simple violin fantasy full of melodic afflatus and the Goldberg Variations with their contrapuntal complexity, I cannot hear the final repeat of the aria at the end of Bach’s masterpiece without thinking that something in it ‘to silence nearer soars.’”
But not everything in the book is so serious. Take, for instance, Kennicott’s account of his dog, Nathan, whom he acquired to provide him some companionship after his mother’s death. Nathan, it turns out, did not like Baroque music, especially Bach, and had a special hatred for the Goldbergs, which, of course, Kennicot had committed to mastering. Needless to say, this created some challenges – even driving Kennicot to acquire an electronic keyboard that would allow him to practice using headphones, which still did not completely placate his canine companion.
Near the end of the book, the tone becomes serious once again as Kennicott reflects one final time on what the meaning of music is and what his quest to master the Goldbergs has brought him. “Did learning the Goldberg Variations help me crawl out of the hole I was in after my mother’s death? Not at all, and the idea was absurd. In emotional terms, I might be in the same exact place had I studied ornithology or taken up a sport or played "Angry Birds." The best one can say of music is that it is a powerful substitution, directing mental energy away from thoughts of death and loss, but it also makes us aware or our insignificance, our frailty, our susceptibility to suffering.”
Serious stuff indeed, but then a couple of pages later, Kennicott offers the reader this bone to chew on: “I wish my playing of this music brought as much pleasure to human beings as my not playing it does to my poor suffering dog, Nathan.”
All in all, Counterpoint is an engaging, informative, and entertaining book. You don’t need to be a fan of the Goldbergs or even of Bach to enjoy it. Including as it does both Gould’s seminally important 1955 Goldbergs and his 1981 rethinking of the work in updated sound, plus the eye- and ear-opening bonus interview/outtake disc, A State of Wonder is a remarkable CD release, well worth seeking out. If you read the book, you will want to hear the CDs. If you hear the CDs, the book will help you hear and appreciate them in a whole new light. Unless you are a dog named Nathan, that is.
As with so many popular classical pieces (and what chamber piece is more popular than Schubert’s “Trout” quintet), this one has been recorded by practically every major pianist and every major trio, quartet, and quintet in the world. Christoph Eschenbach, the featured pianist on the present recording, has already done the piece himself on DG and now does it again on Avie. This means the competition is enormous, and any new recording has to be pretty special to gain recognition. Does Eschenbach measure up? Do he and his fellow musicians measure up to your own personal expectations in the material? Do they measure up to my own favorite recording with an augmented Beaux Arts Trio on Philips and Pentatone? Maybe not.
Pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach (b. 1940) is certainly up the task of producing a satisfying “Trout.” He has won numerous first-place piano competitions, including first prize in the Clara Haskil Competition in 1965. He began his recording career in 1964 with Deutsche Grammophon, and he studied conducting with George Szell and Herbert von Karajan. His countless recordings as a pianist and conductor over the years bear testament to his skills as a musician.
Now, on to the Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 “Trout” by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote it in 1819, when he was only twenty-two years old (although it never saw publication until a year after his death, so few people outside of Schubert’s friends and family ever heard it in his lifetime. Remarkable). Schubert composed it for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, not because that was a preferred arrangement of the time but because several musicians were coming together to play a quintet by Hummel, and Schubert figured he’d write something of his own for them to play.
The performers on this Avie disc are members of the Thymos Quartet: Gabriel Richard, violin; Nicolas Carles, viola; Delphine Biron, cello; and guest artist Yann Dubost, double bass; with the addition, of course, of Eschenbach on piano.
Eschenbach, whom one must assume had the greatest voice in the way the ensemble plays the quintet, keeps the tempos and rhythms throughout the piece at a steady, modest gait. While I don’t sense quite the same degree of joy and amiability I do with the Beaux Arts assemblage, I do find it an appropriately relaxed, mature, confident reading.
The recording marks the eightieth birthday of Mr. Eschenbach, and what sweeter piece of music could make a more fitting tribute to his golden age. The interpretation has a sort of mellow quality about it, especially the second-movement Andante, which seems a tad more melancholy than one usually hears. The fourth-movement Variations on the “Trout” theme seemed a touch lax to me, but again that may be in keeping with the ripened character of the rest of Eschenbach’s approach. In all, though, it’s a sensitive rendering of a well-worn classic.
The couplings for the “Trout” are a selection of Schubert’s waltzes for string quintet (arranged by Olivier Dejours), performed by the Thymos Quartet (with Anne-Sophie Le Rol, second violin); and an additional selection of seven landler (German moderately slow folk dances that preceded the waltz), performed by pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger. The waltzes are a total delight and impressed me more than anything else on the disc.
Producer and engineer Francois Eckert recorded the music at Salle de repetition SR1 and Amphitheatre- Cite de la musique, Philharmonie de Paris, France in May 2016 and September 2019.
The overall sound in the “Trout” is a little close for my taste, but it’s otherwise nicely detailed and fairly well imaged. The piano, however, appears a bit softer and more distant than the other instruments. Go figure.
I enjoyed the sound of the companion pieces, recorded about three years later than the “Trout,” more than I did the “Trout.” The instruments appear not as closely miked and seem more realistic to my ears. The group of players in the waltzes is more of a whole, too, and the solo piano in the landler is well defined.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:
A reminder that Wagner’s eerie early masterpiece, Der Fliegende Holländer, premieres on “Great Performances at the Met” Sunday, July 5 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) with Evgeny Nikitin as the cursed Dutchman, Anja Kampe as Senta, Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, and Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik. Valery Gergiev conducts, and Lisette Oropesa hosts.
To view an excerpt from the opera, visit https://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/excerpts-der-fliegende-hollander-k5w0fj/11621/
Also coming up: “Great Performances at the Met: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” premieres Friday, July 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). This primetime opera stars Eric Owens and Angel Blue as the duo Porgy and Bess and is hosted by Audra McDonald.
Later this year: 2018's “Great Performances at the Met: Tosca” airs Sunday, August 2 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) and “Great Performances at the Met: Maria Stuarda” airs Sunday, September 6 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).
--Elizabeth Boone, WNET
EXO “Morning Meditation” by Pauline Kim Harris
Today's “Morning Meditation,” Human Hybrid, is by Pauline Kim Harris, created in collaboration with Jesse Stiles and Angela Washko.
Pauline is an invaluable part of our EXO team – she is our Creative Consultant, our orchestral contractor, and she has been a guiding force for EXO from the very beginning. I am grateful for her creative vision, her strength, and her integrity. She embodies what is so amazing about this musical city--excellence, drive, and caring for each other.
Her “Morning Meditation” is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOBJxzkjt4c&feature=youtu.be
--James Blachly, Experiential Orchestra
Festival de Lanaudière Gets Connected with a Virtual Edition
Festival de Lanaudière will be a completely connected event this summer as it delves into the first virtual edition in its history: fifteen timeless concerts from the Festival's and Société Radio-Canada's video archives will be broadcast and accessible free of charge on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, on lanaudiere.org and via social networks, from July 10 to August 9.
"Circumstances currently prevent us from welcoming members of the public into our concert venues. We have, therefore, decided to reach out to them this summer with the help of technology. In Lanaudière's star-studded history, the concerts in this virtual edition are nothing short of legendary. What a thrill it is to relive such rich hours of music!" exclaimed Artistic Director Renaud Loranger.
Exceptional concerts, historic moments:
The public is invited to a series of encounters with some of the world's greatest artists, on a unique journey through the history of the Festival, from 1986 to 2019. Renata Scotto, Maxim Vengerov, Kent Nagano, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Gwyneth Jones, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi are among the featured performers. Some of these recordings have never been made publicly available before!
For complete information, visit https://www.lanaudiere.org/en/
--France Gaignard, CN2 Communication
What's Streaming: Classical (Week of July 6-12)
Tuesday, July 7
New podcast series: “Embrace Everything: The World of Gustav Mahler”
Wednesday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Jennifer Koh plays Bach, Berio, and Mazzoli in Kent Blossom Music Festival Virtual Concert
Saturday, July 11 at 7:00 p.m. PT
Miró Quartet completes year-long Beethoven cycle for Chamber Music Northwest
Minnesota Orchestra at Home
--Shuman Associates News
Orli Shaham “MidWeek Mozart” - A sonata with a Bit of "Magic"
This week pianist Orli Shaham brings you Movement III, Allegretto, from Sonata No.17, K. 570, with MidWeek Mozart. Available to stream for free beginning Wednesday, July 1.
"Mozart includes what appears to be a reference to The Magic Flute, which was to be his next hit," says Ms. Shaham. "The way he wove it into the rondo, it's as if he's taking himself seriously and then he's laughing at himself about it--you can hear the laughter in the music."
“Midweek Mozart”: https://orlishahammozart.com/
--Gail Wein, Classical Music Communications
Sun Valley Music Festival Announces Programming for Online 2020 Summer Season
Festival Music Director Alasdair Neale and Executive Director Derek Dean today announced the schedule of online events for the recently announced, virtual reimagining of the 36th annual Sun Valley Music Festival Summer Season. These premiere webcasts, produced by this summer’s Creative Director James Darrah, are being specially created for these digital proceedings and will air online as free, one-time-only events over the three weeks when the live, in-person Festival had been scheduled to take place—Monday, July 27, to Wednesday, August 19.
All concerts will be webcast at 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time via the Sun Valley Music Festival Web site: SVMusicFestival.org.
--Shuman Associates News
“Room | to | Breathe” Continues with Five New HD Streaming Concerts
Broadcast live from the cell theatre and curated by co-artistic directors Blythe Gaissert, Louis Levitt, and Michael Kelly, “Room | to | Breathe” celebrates intersections of musical styles from classical to contemporary, spoken word, visual and performance art. All performances are thematically aligned with a charitable organization, which will receive a portion of ticket sales in addition to donations.
July 11 & 25 | August 8 & 22 | September 12
All shows occur 5:00pm and at 8:00pm
Ticketing for online access to the virtual concert:
Single tickets: $25 per event at: bit.ly/bstcell
Season pass: Buy 5 get 1 free: All six shows for $125
Information and excerpt at https://vimeo.com/430754923
--Paula Mlyn, A440Arts
Pathways: Art & Technology
“America’s foremost new-music group” (Alex Ross), the International Contemporary Ensemble, and bespoken, a mentorship program for self-identifying female, non-binary, and trans women artists in classical, contemporary, and jazz music, co-present Pathways: Art & Technology, a free, four-part series of panels and workshops focusing on the intersection of technology and art.
Each session features speakers discussing their artistry and practice across four disciplines – moving image, audio engineering, live-sound, and video – and how their work intersects within each area. The series intends to serve as platform for empowerment, breaking down the barriers to using technology in an artist’s practice, especially for women and gender non-conforming artists. After hearing from each artist about their artistic journey, the panel will split into two topic-specific breakout rooms--sound and video--where attendees are encouraged to bring questions related to their own projects.
More information: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/pathways-art-technology-part-i-tickets-110430115448
--Katy Salomon, Morahan Arts and Media
Watch Young People’s Chorus Perform This Fourth of July
I am thrilled to share with you a clip of YPC's upcoming performance in the Macy's 4th of July Fireworks celebration, which will be airing this Saturday on NBC at 8:00 p.m. We are so excited to perform a special arrangement of "Lean On Me" with Dr. Elvis as well as a brand-new arrangement of "America the Beautiful" with John Legend.
I remember as a child watching fireworks on the roof of our building in Washington Heights, surrounded by family. In that moment, I always felt a sense of hope, that I was part of something much larger - a world made up of many different voices, faces, thoughts and beliefs. Hope is what drew my parents to this country, this idea of a better life. This year, the Fourth of July is especially poignant. We are at a major inflection point in America, and our young people are leading the way. I have seen it in their passion as they march, and I hear it in their voices when they sing.
This is what YPC was built for--to bring children from every corner of every neighborhood together on a global stage so their voices can be heard. We are especially thrilled to participate in this year’s Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks Celebration, extending this stage for our children’s voices. I hope you and your family can join us as we all look up--together.
Click here for details: https://ypc.org/event/macys-4th-of-july-fireworks-show/
--Francisco J. Núñez, Founder/Artistic Director
Young People's Chorus of New York City
By Karl W. Nehring
|Legacy PB2, front|
The legally valid plan that I came up with led me to the office of our local bank, where I talked to the manager and explained to him that I had found an incredible deal on this piece of audio equipment. If he would lend me the cash to purchase it, I would be able to pay him back in installments, or else I could sell the thing for more than the purchase price, pay him back with a bit of interest, and we would all be happy. Believe it or not, he bought my story and made out the loan. Small-town (actually, not even a small town – a rural village), old-school (four decades ago, recall) friendliness at its finest. Alas, our local branch shut down long ago, the local bank got swallowed up by a larger one, and I am certain it would be not nearly as easy nor informal today. (Of course, in today’s world, when we want something we can’t afford, we just whip out the old credit card, right?!)
Why was I so desperate to buy this amplifier, besides the fact that it was for sale at such a low price? It might be hard to imagine nowadays, when Class D power amplifiers (and power amp stages in receivers, integrated amps, and powered speakers/subwoofers) are quite common, just how radical the idea seemed when the Sony was introduced. Here was an amp the used then-new V-FET transistors (a term that subsequently disappeared) as switches – the job that transistors are actually best at – amplifying the audio signal. Crossover distortion was no longer a factor, it put out 160 watts per channel, ran cool both at idle and when driven hard, and came in a sleek physical package about the size of a preamplifier. The “B” in the nomenclature indicated a unit with a what Sony called a bronze finish, a kind of light gold or champagne color that was simply gorgeous. Later, most of the units imported to the U.S. were the TA-N88, which featured a more mundane silver color scheme. At about 25 lbs., it was not heavy for a power amp of its output capability, and there were no sharp heat sinks to cut your fingers.
|Legacy PB2, rear|
Well, it sounded pretty good in my system back then, driving KEF 105s in the same listening room that I use today, but I did not keep it for long. I soon sold it for $800 or so, paid off my loan, and put some money in my pocket. Why did I keep it for so short a time? Two reasons, really. First, I did not really trust the technology. I always had the sense that the thing was running at the ragged edge of reliability. Second, it was rated for a minimum speaker impedance of 8. At lower impedances, that already narrow treble bandwidth would droop even more as a consequence of the passive output filtering Sony used to keep the high-frequency energy produced by the switching frequency of the amp out of the speakers.
The Sony was on the market for a few years and then disappeared. The failure rate was high and replacement parts became hard to find. But four decades later, there have been significant advances in technology, and the Legacy Audio Powerbloc2 is rated at 325 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 650 into 4, 1.5 Hz to 70 kHz, damping factor of 1,000, S/N of 117 dB, and weight 13 lbs. Compared to the Sony, then, the Legacy amp has twice the power, two orders of magnitude less distortion, nearly twice the bandwidth, a 50X better damping factor, and the ability to drive low-impedance speakers. The amp is a dual mono design, each channel with its own 30-amp power supply. Moreover, the Powerbloc2 at $1,800 costs less than half what the Sony would cost in today’s dollars.
So, after all that, how does the amp perform? Very well indeed. Over the years I have owned and auditioned many power amplifiers by virtue of my decades as a reviewer and editor of an audio magazine. Most of these I have auditioned in my own listening room, but I have also auditioned my amps in the systems of friends and audio dealers (remember those?). At the time I obtained the Powerbloc2 for audition, my reference amplifier was the Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) FET Valve 550HC, a 275 wpc Class A/B design with a hybrid tube/FET input stage driving a MOSFET output stage. Of all the amps I had ever employed in my system, it offered the best sonic performance.
When I compared the AVA with the Legacy, I preferred the sound of the latter, which just seemed to be slightly cleaner in the trebles and slightly tighter in the bass without giving up any of the glorious midrange provided by the AVA What the Powerbloc2 did for beautiful choral recordings such as The Suspended Harp of Babel by Cyrillus Kreek or Translations by Eriks Esenvalds was simply breathtaking, revealing the nuances of voices in space better than I had ever heard. No, I am not talking about “night and day” differences, I am talking about subtle shadings of difference. I am not one to claim that all amplifiers sound the same; however, I do believe, a belief bolstered by many years of direct experience, that the differences between competently designed amplifiers of similar power ratings are largely indiscernible and subtle at best. If you hear a big difference between two such amplifiers, chances are you are in fact hearing differences in volume level between the two amplifiers, an amplifier with some sort of problem, or your own prejudices or imaginings.
Still, listening to the Powerbloc2 driving my Focus SEs has been a truly rewarding experience, especially on the large orchestral music that I love by composers such as Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Elgar, Arnold, Ravel, etc. An especially revealing and rewarding musical experience for me recently was listening to the SACD version of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Telarc. Not only were the big sounds rendered cleanly and powerfully, but the near-silent moments such as when vocalists and/or chorus would enter after a pause were simply sublime. The Powerbloc2 excelled at both ends of the volume scale of this excellent recording. On completely different sorts of music, such as the acoustic guitar shadings of Ralph Towner, the modal jazz on Miles’s Kind of Blue, and Vikingur Olafsson’s expressive piano stylings on Debussy-Rameau, the Poswerbloc2 made the music come alive without fail.
Incidentally, after spending a good amount of time enjoying music with the Powerbloc2 in my system, I decided I would like to try the Goldpoint SA-4 “passive preamp,” which has been recommended in Classical Candor by both John Puccio and Bryan Geyer. Having been perfectly satisfied with my Legacy Audio StreamLine preamp (no longer available) for quite some time (again based upon auditioning many units over the years, including solid-state, tube, and hybrid units of great repute), I was not expecting any sort of noticeable – much less “revelatory” – sonic improvement. To be honest, I was motivated primarily by the idea that a passive unit would never present any problems caused by capacitors or other parts in an active unit eventually falling off in performance or, worse yet, failing, and secondarily by my knowing a music lover/audiophile friend who had expressed an interest in acquiring my preamp should I ever be inclined to part with it. With these factors in mind, I auditioned the Goldpoint, found that it performed just fine in my system, possibly even offering a slight bit more transparency and clarity overall. Once convinced of the impeccable performance of the Goldpoint, I sold the StreamLine and am perfectly content with the way my system sounds. For those with turntables, of course, the passive controller route is not a viable option, but for those whose source material is exclusively digital, the Goldpoint is certainly an attractive alternative to a high-quality, big-buck preamplifier.
Back to the Powerbloc2. What a wonderful amplifier and what a solid value! No, $1,800 is not inexpensive, but if you are a classical music lover (especially of large-scale orchestral works, opera, or organ music) with audiophile leanings who is looking for a terrific sounding amplifier with this kind of power and an ability to drive difficult speaker loads, the choices available to you are not many, and if you want an amp that can do so while running relatively cool, taking up little space, and weighing so little while still being solidly built (e.g., premium input and output connectors, a rugged metal case, and a confidence-inspiring on/off switch), I know of no real competition for this amplifier at anywhere near this price.
University of North Texas Press announces the publication of Conducting Opera: Where Theater Meets Music by renowned conductor Joseph Rescigno. The book discusses operas in the standard repertory from the perspective of a conductor with a lifetime of experience performing them. It focuses on Joseph Rescigno's approach to preparing and performing these masterworks so that the full greatness of each opera can be realized.
Opening with a chapter discussing his performance philosophy, Rescigno then covers Mozart's most frequently-performed operas; standards of the bel canto school including Il barbiere di Siviglia; five of Verdi's works including La traviata; a selection of Wagner's compositions; French Romantic operas such as Carmen; Puccini's major works; and finally four operas by Richard Strauss. An appendix contains a convenient guide to scores available online. Conducting Opera includes practical advice about propelling a story forward and bringing out the drama that the music is meant to express, as well as how to fully support singers. Rescigno identifies especially problematic passages, supplies suggestions on how to navigate them, and provides advice on staying true to the several styles under discussion.
Maestro Rescigno states, "This book is not just for conductors; it's also for avid opera lovers who seek to deepen their understanding of music and make their experiences more rewarding. For conductors, my intention is to give practical advice -- a collegial discussion of challenges and pitfalls, including how to fully support singers. Readers can now understand what a conductor must do before a first performance, and even a first rehearsal, and how a work's structure -- all of its sections -- fit together. A piece of music is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is especially true for an opera, in its fusing of music and theater."
To listen to Mr. Rescigno discuss his book, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-O2MUs6F2s
To learn more about the book, click here: https://www.amazon.com/Conducting-Opera-Where-Theater-Meets/dp/1574417932/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=conducting+opera+where+theater+meets+music&qid=1592933386&s=books&sr=1-1
--Nancy Shear Arts Services
Guitarist Sean Shibe Signs to PENTATONE
PENTATONE is delighted to announce that one of the most exciting guitarists of today, Sean Shibe, has signed an exclusive, multi-album agreement with the label. The collaboration will be earmarked by the range and diversity for which Shibe already is known, with current plans encompassing solo and orchestral, acoustic, and electric guitar repertoire. Shibe's first solo recording on PENTATONE will focus on Spanish impressionism and the French influences to be found in this music, presenting works by composers including Mompou, Poulenc, de Falla, and Ravel. Further details will be announced at a later date.
For details, visit https://www.pentatonemusic.com/news/guitarist-sean-shibe-signs-pentatone
--Talita Sakuntala, PENTATONE Music
Bright Shiny Things Launches 6-part Live HD Streaming Concert Series
The series begins June 27th during PRIDE with "T Stands For…," an exploration of the joy, struggle and liberation of the LGBTQ+ community. Featuring Grammy-winning cellist Andrew Yee of the Attacca Quartet, Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert, Metropolitan Opera pianist Bénédicte Jourdois, performance artist John Kelly, baritone Michael Kelly, and double bassist Louis Levitt. Part of all proceeds will benefit The Black Trans Advocacy Coalition. (www.blacktrans.org)
Full artist bios, updated concert descriptions, and video available at https://www.brightshiny.ninja/cell
--Paula Mlyn, A440arts
U.S., World Premiere Orchestral Performances of Dan Brown's Wild Symphony
Dan Brown, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, has a new credential on his already-singular resume: composer of the orchestral music from Wild Symphony, his new illustrated children's book to be released on September 1, 2020 by Rodale Kids, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.
With concerts slated in more than two dozen countries around the world – including a world premiere in Croatia and events in Germany, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, and Argentina, among others – Brown selected The Music Hall in Portsmouth as the venue where he wanted to host the U.S. premiere of his new symphonic suite, it was announced today.
On November 15, 2020, the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra will perform Brown's classical debut for the young at heart as a special benefit presented by the author himself. Proceeds from ticket sales go to The Music Hall and the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra, both 501(c)3 non-profit arts organizations from Brown's hometown.
"The Music Hall has been the site of similar premiere events for the Angels & Demons and Inferno movies," says the author, "and I thought it would be fun to premiere this new musical project in the U.S. as a benefit for my local community." The U.S. launch will be preceded by a world premiere concert featuring the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra on October 10, 2020 at Lisinski Hall in Zagreb, Croatia, where the recording of Wild Symphony occurred.
For complete information, visit https://wildsymphony.com/
--Bob Lord, PARMA Recordings
Michael Tilson Thomas Named Officer in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
On Monday, June 22, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT)--Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra--was named an Officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters), the second of three grades recognized in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded to distinguished artists who have made significant contributions to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.
Previously a Chevalier (Knight) in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, this promotion to Officer recognizes MTT's continued contributions to global culture and the vast impact he has had during his 25 years as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.
For more information, visit michaeltilsonthomas.com
Orli Shaham MidWeek Mozart
This week pianist Orli Shaham brings you the Adagio from Sonata No.17, K. 570, with MidWeek Mozart. Available to stream for free beginning Wednesday, June 24.
"The second movement is a beautiful, very lyrical adagio," says Ms. Shaham. "After the opening, it goes into a C minor section, which you cannot mistake for anything but a reference to the C minor, K.491 Piano Concerto - which is one of the two that I recorded with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra."
Orli Shaham's MidWeek Mozart gives you exclusive access to a different movement of a Mozart piano sonata, available for a whole week, free! Get your weekly dose of Mozart each Wednesday, and enjoy it until the following Wednesday when it will be replaced by the next installment, at OrliShahamMozart.com.
--Gail Wein, Classical Music Communications
ABS "Fridays with Friends"
Mischa Bouvier came to American Bach Soloists through the inaugural Academy in 2010. He sang the role of Lucifer in Handel's La Resurezione. His beautiful singing was something that we couldn't live without, so he was engaged as a member of ABS the following season as soloist in the West Coast premiere of Antonio Lotti's Mass for Three Choirs in 2011. He has appeared in eight subsequent seasons in performances including the title role of Handel's Apollo and Dafne, Handel's Messiah and Acis and Galatea, and Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. Mischa is widely regarded as a singer of keen musicality and unique beauty of tone. Praised by Opera News for a "soothing, cavernous baritone that can soar to heights of lyric beauty," and by San Francisco Classical Voice for an "immensely sympathetic, soulful voice" and "rare vocal and interpretive gifts," Mischa continues to garner critical acclaim for a diverse performing career that includes concerts, recitals, staged works and recordings. The New York Times summed up a recent performance: "Mischa Bouvier was superb."
Mischa shares with us his recent experiences, interests, and a gift of his performance of music by Charles Ives. Listen and enjoy here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw6h_5BPWBc&feature=youtu.be
Learn more at americanbach.org
--American Bach Soloists
ICE and The New School Present "2020 Ensemble Evolution"
"America's foremost new-music group" (Alex Ross), the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), partners with The New School's College of Performing Arts (CoPA) for the 2020 "Ensemble Evolution" program, taking place virtually from June 25 to July 2.
Created by ICEensemble founder Claire Chase and longtime ICEensemble artist-in-residence Steven Schick, Ensemble Evolution is a tuition-free two-week summer music program for early-career performers and performer-composers, providing the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from a faculty of established professionals including ICEensemble musicians and renowned guest artists through workshops, conversations, and world premiere performances.
Ensemble Evolution events open to the public include panels on topics such as Leadership, Advocacy, and Allyship in the Arts through a Racial Justice Lens; Branding and Digital Marketing for Musicians; and An Intro into Creative Placemaking; a talk with Anthony Braxton's Tri-Centric Foundation; and two Quarantine Concerts featuring ICEensemble, Matana Roberts, Levy Lorenzo, David Byrd-Marrow and Ensemble Evolution participants. The final public performance of the program on Thursday, July 2 at 7:00pm features the world premiere of Nicole Mitchell's Inescapable Spiral, specifically re-designed for the digital world.
More Information: www.coparemote.com/evo
--Katy Salomon, Morahan Arts and Media
By Karl W. Nehring
Program (all compositions by Eriks Esenvalds): 1. O salutaris hostia (2009) (Text: St. Thomas Aquinas, 1224/25-1274); 2. The Heavens' Flock (2014) (Text: Paulann Petersen, b 1942); 3. Translation (2016) (Text: Paulann Petersen); 4. My Thoughts (2019) (Text: Saint Silouan the Athonite, 1866-1938); 5. Vineta; (Text: Wilhelm Muller, 1794-1827); 6. The Legend of the Walled-in Woman (2009) (Text: Albanian folk song and Vendit Tem ["My Land"] by Martin Camaj 1925-1992, English translation by R. Eksie, 1950-2017); 7. In paradisum (2012) (Text: Catholic Liturgy).
A few weeks ago, I enthusiastically recommended a disc of indescribably beautiful choral music (The Suspended Harp of Babel) by the virtually unknown late Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek. Sticking with indescribably beautiful choral music by Baltic composers, this time around I am recommending a newly released recording by the better-known (but still hardly a household name) young Latvian composer, Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977).
As the album opens, we hear a soaring soprano voice hovering above the sound of the choir. The sound quality is pure and natural, making us feel as though we are being ushered into a sacred space of beauty and rest. The soft "amen" at the end is at once resigned and triumphant (Sperry notes that after more than "three minutes of continuous staggered breathing, the choir gets one communal breath before the final, 'Amen'."). The following piece, The Heavens' Flock, finds the male voices in the choir gaining more prominence. There is an echoing effect toward the end that is simply gorgeous. Moving on to the third selection, Translation, the overall arrangement shifts again, with male and female solo voices singing the lyrics above a wordless accompaniment by the choir. As the piece progresses, an uncredited organist provides some soft background playing, the piece ending quietly with a fade from the organ and background voices.
The next track, Vineta, is the most overtly expressive composition on the album in both musical and sonic terms. Sperry explains that "Vineta is a legendary city consumed by the Baltic Sea because of its citizens' hedonistic tendencies, and whose church bells still ring from beneath the surface of the waters calling sailors to their deaths." The piece opens with bells and chimes accompanying the choir. A couple of minutes in, there are some deep organ pedal notes. Later, the bells return, with the choir contributing some wordless vocals. As the piece develops, the choir starts singing lyrics again. There are more bells, more notes from the organ, plenty of marvelous sounds to give your audio system a thorough workout. The organ fades, the bells come back, the choir then takes over, with the percussion instruments joining back in before the fade at the end. That is a sadly inelegant bare-bones account of what is a truly remarkable, complex, stunning composition.
|Portland State Chamber Choir|
Not only is the program outstanding, but so is the production. Former Stereophile editor John Atkinson played a key role in the recording process. In fact, there is an insightful discussion of how the album was engineered by Jason Serinus in that magazine's June 2020 issue. It is well worth perusing to gain more insight into the recording process, which involves both science and art. Although I certainly stand guilty of casting some aspersions at Stereophile over the years, I have always had great respect for Mr. Atkinson. In my admittedly few correspondences with him, he has always been a true gentleman, and his genuine love for and appreciation of music -- especially our beloved British classical music -- has always been exemplary. Bravo, John!
The liner notes by conductor Sperry are helpful, lyrics are included, and the recorded program is nearly 70 minutes long. The musicians, engineers, production staff, and the folks at Naxos have all done themselves proud with this fine release.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:
EMI and now Warner Classics have released this 1967 Mahler Ninth recording from Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia Orchestra a number of times (EMI on LP and CD; Warner on CD), with the copy my having on hand being from EMI-Japan. The sound has always been good, no matter what the format or issue, but its latest remastering from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) sounds better than ever.
Although Mahler's last completed symphony was the crowning jewel in his symphonic cycle, beauteous and sublime, it has always been somewhat ambiguous. Many listeners have interpreted its expressionistic content as an optimistic journey into the light, ending in sweet and everlasting repose, while others have seen the work as a pessimistic view of the world's future where degeneration and decay are our lot. I favor the former view, but I suppose there is something to be said for the second viewpoint as well. At the time of the work's composition in 1909, Mahler was aware that he was gravely ill, and in addition he may have foreseen the coming of the Great War and the end of civilization as his generation had known it. So, there is every possibility of interpreting the symphony either optimistically or pessimistically. Klemperer, who first performed the work in 1925, just thirteen years after its première, knew the piece backwards and wisely took mostly the former course in his interpretation.
Even though I am also greatly fond of Barbirolli's performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI, Warner, and HDTT), Walter's with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony and HDTT), and Haitink's with the Concertgebouw (Philips), I believe Klemperer's reading deserves to be included among the top contenders as well. Incidentally, both Klemperer and Walter were assistants to Mahler, so they both speak with some authority. I can't imagine not owning their stereo recordings (along with Barbirolli's and Haitink's, of course).
Producers Peter Andry and Suvi Raj Grubb and engineer Robert Gooch recorded the symphony at Kingsway Hall, London in February 1967, and HDTT transferred the recording from a 15ips 2-track tape. Because Klemperer's Mahler Ninth is just a few minutes beyond the capacity of a single CD, HDTT have spread it out over two discs, just as EMI did.
Unlike what I found comparing HDTT's remastering of Sir John Barbirolli's Mahler Ninth to an EMI-Japan HQCD, where the sound of the EMI-Japan HQCD was slightly smoother to my ears than HDTT's transfer, the sound of Klemperer's Mahler Ninth was just the opposite. I compared the HDTT product to one of EMI-Japan's regular, non-HQ CD's and found the newer HDTT transfer smoother, richer, warmer, and fuller. EMI's sound (now on Warner Classics) is still quite good, mind you, but the HDTT is just that much better. It is detailed yet natural, with a wide stereo spread, good orchestral depth, and an appealing ambient bloom.
I know that Barbirolli, Haitink, Walter, Abbado, Karajan, Bernstein, and others have produced fine Mahler Ninths, but to my mind and my ears, none of them is any better than Klemperer's recording. It is a joy.
For more information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at https://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.