Feb 26, 2020

On Vacuum Tube Power Amps…

By Bryan Geyer

As commonly credited to Mark Twain*…
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
“The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it's that they know so many things that aren't so.”

Were this not the case, the production, sale, and use of receiving-type vacuum tubes would have permanently perished throughout the world. Instead, some tubes still cling to life in the modest audiophile and amplified guitar markets**.

The continued use of vacuum tubes in guitar amps is easy to comprehend. That’s because guitar buffs treasure the sound of 2nd harmonic distortion, and tube amplifiers present high levels of that noxious stuff. Plus it’s very easy to create more whenever you overdrive (clip) a vacuum tube amplifier’s output stage.

The on-going acceptance of vacuum tube design in high-end audio power amplifiers is more puzzling, especially given the premiums paid for power amplifiers that always…
            …operate at high temperatures, at all output levels,
            …utilize hazardous (potentially deadly) high voltages,
            …perform poorly when compared to solid-state equivalent***,
            …require endless costly maintenance†,
            …and violate every precept of the “go green” environmental initiative††.

Yes, it’s a puzzle. Science seemingly gets smothered by expectation bias and confirmation bias; refer Audioholics: “Do Our Expectations Determine Our Experience of Sound More Than We Realize?” at https://www.audioholics.com/room-acoustics/mind-over-music.

The audiophiles of today that use tube-type power amplifiers tend to be < age 65. This tells me that they’re not likely to have owned a power amplifier during the era when all electronic equipment was vacuum tube dependent. The genial glow of those orange filaments is not always reminiscent of happy hassles for those of us that serviced such stuff. We recall the hours devoted to trouble tracing and repair; maybe charred salvage.

A significant number of audiophiles say that they prefer the “warm” sound of a tube-type power amplifier. What’s generally overlooked is that the source of this warm coloration traces to a design limitation that’s implicit with all traditional tube-type power amplifiers. Because the output stage of a vacuum tube power amplifier operates at high source impedance (several kΩ), it’s not optimum to directly drive a low impedance load (e.g.: a loudspeaker). A load that presents low impedance is best driven by a source that exhibits still lower impedance. Indeed, a value of zero source impedance would be ideal. The classic means of curing this circuit-to-load impedance disparity is to introduce an output transformer between the tube circuit’s final stage and the external load. This (big, heavy, and expensive) magnetic device will then, by virtue of its differing internal winding ratios, transform the high impedance state into a low impedance source, so that the signal can better mate with its intended low impedance load. Audio engineers conclude that it’s probably this processing path through the windings of the output transformer that create the perception of warmer sound, so “tube sound” likely doesn’t trace directly to the presence of vacuum tubes—it’s the consequence of coupling the circuit’s output stage to the load by means of a transformer. What you’re hearing is “transformer sound.”

Tung-Sol Ad, 1955
As always, this beneficial design fix (add transformer) is not without restrictive limitation. An audio output transformer is a non-linear device by nature, with low end frequency response that’s largely dependent on the mass of its magnetic core, and high frequency response that’s subject to the vagaries of leakage inductance and stray capacitance. It’s also prone to waveform saturation at high signal amplitudes, and that tends to create undesired harmonic distortion due to soft clipping. Further, design constraints generally limit the output source impedance to some 3 or 4 Ohms. Lower Zout is impractical, and higher Zout options must sometimes be applied (when increased load impedance permits) in order to linearize a tube amplifier’s voltage gain, as the latter will often vary (by several dB) with changes in the loading impedance (refer “Special Footnote,” at end).

Modern solid-state power amp circuits don’t have to contend with any of these messy generic issues that plague tube-type power amplifiers. A solid-state power amplifier’s natural internal source impedance will be very close to zero; normally somewhat < 0.1 Ohm, and it will be stable. That near zero value is more than an order of magnitude below the source impedance of any transformer aided tube-type power amplifier, so there’s negligible undesired source/load interactive variance. In addition, the solid-state power amplifier can provide direct coupling to the load, so there’s no transformer interface imposed. This assures better transient damping, with wider, flatter frequency coverage; also less distortion, firmly fixed voltage gain, lighter weight, and (potentially) lower cost. As a result, the signal that gets delivered to the load will be a highly accurate representation of the input, and the sound that’s perceived will be determined purely by the input source and by the load, not by the compound interaction of a higher driving impedance in tandem with the load impedance. This is why a well designed solid-state power amplifier has no intrinsic sonic signature, it’s functionally transparent.

Vacuum tube users sometimes recommend a particular power amplifier + speaker with a preferred connecting cable, with choice of cable based on listening tests. Beneficial cable effect is potentially possible when a tandem source/load termination happens to form a euphonious (aurally pleasing) filter. However, do realize that any termination so marginally sensitive that the niggling impedance variance conveyed by a few feet of cable can cause audible change must be highly unstable to start. Merely moving such cable might provoke further change. This shaky state is precisely why audio engineers extoll the load invariant advantage assured by driving the speaker from a near-zero (≤ 0.1Ω) source impedance, something that’s naturally inherent with solid-state power amplifier design.

Despite all of the noted technical and environmental deficiencies, there’s no ethical deceit implicit in the promotion and sale of high-end vacuum tube power amplifiers. Natural acceptance and approval of such product reflects the innocence of human trust, just as with faith in a deity or a belief in astrology. Blind trust defies rational explanation, but many regard trust as noble—no reasoning required. Others are more realistic—they want to see the data. How you side in this issue is your choice, but don’t let the inexorable tide of audiophile groupthink††† swamp straight thinking and good science.

BG (February 25, 2020)

*A popular attribution; probably apocryphal.

**All of the U.S., British, Dutch, and German producers of vacuum tubes are now either defunct or ceased making tubes some four decades ago. The entire world market for new tubes is presently served solely by obscure sources in China, Russia, and Slovakia. New tubes that get labeled with the names of long deceased and respected sources (like Tung-Sol, Mullard, et al) exist simply because a Russian entrepreneur bought the right to reuse dormant copyrights. (Tung-Sol died in the early 1960s.)

***Ruler-flat power response, near-zero (<  0.1%) total harmonic distortion (THD) at full rated power, and ultra-low output impedance (less than 1/10th the Zout of a typical tube amp) is now routine in the case of solid-state power amplifiers. Identical measurements made on the very best vacuum tube models show that they can’t approach those values. For example, typical tube-type power amplifier THD limits are ~ 16X to 50X worse (1% to 3% THD instead of 0.06% max.) than as specified for a popular “mid-market” solid-state power amplifier (Parasound Halo A23+).

†A matched pair of vintage “NOS” Tung-Sol 6550 output pentodes = $220. Refer…http://vintagetubeservices.com/pentodes/. Back in the era (1963-1976) when I used a Marantz model 8B stereo power amplifier (four EL34 output tubes, rated 35 Watts/channel), I had to replace the output stage pairs on the order of every 30 months to maintain optimum “in spec” operation. I also readjusted the bias settings 2-3 times/year to minimize IM distortion (SMPTE) at full output, using a Heathkit AA-1 analyzer and a ’scope.

††A typical 150 Watt/channel stereo tube-type power amplifier consumes more power (about 240 Watts) when in benign standby than a 55 inch Sony LED/LCD TV set does when in actual use. Consider: 240 Watts of standby (just idle, no signal output) power consumption is equivalent to continuously burning four 60 Watt incandescent light bulbs without providing any light; just heat. That’s conspicuous waste.

Special Footnote: Unlike solid-state power amplifiers, vacuum tube power amplifiers do not exhibit stable fixed voltage gains. Their intrinsic gain will typically vary by several dB, dependent on nominal load impedance. To minimize this undesired variance, the output transformer often exhibits multiple output taps, e.g. 4Ω, 8Ω, 16Ω. When the nominal rated load impedance permits (i.e., rises), the use of these higher Zout taps will assist in stabilizing the voltage gain. (Refer AudioXpress, issue dated Feb. 2020, p. 64, fig. 5)

Feb 23, 2020

Truman Harris: A Warm Day in Winter (CD review)

Rosemoor Suite; Aulos Triptych; Concertino for Horn and Chamber Orchestra; Flowers; Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano; and Concertina for Flute and Chamber Orchestra. Alice K. Weinreb, flute; Laurel B. Ohlson, horn; Sylvia Alimena, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.559858.

American composer and bassoonist Truman Harris (b. 1945) should not be confused with American composer Roy Harris (1898-1979). Truman Harris is the contemporary one; Roy Harris was the perhaps more well-known, older one. So, we've got to give Truman a little more time and a few more listens.

According to his bio, "Mr. Harris joined the bassoon section of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC in 1973, as the orchestra's contrabassoonist. After two years, he moved to second bassoon, and later was promoted to Assistant Principal, where he remained until his retirement in 2017. He was also Principal Bassoonist of Eclipse Chamber Orchestra from its founding in 1992 until 2017, and bassoonist of the Capitol Woodwind Quintet from 1977 until the group ceased performing in 2012. Truman Harris' performance career also included stints with the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera, the United States Air Force Band, National Musical Arts in residence at the National Academy of Sciences, and The Twenty First Century Consort."

Mr. Harris, with whose music I was not acquainted before this album, appears to be a sort of American Percy Grainger, the early twentieth-century composer and collector of mostly lighthearted, impressionistic British folk music. Like Grainger's most-famous work, "Country Gardens," much of Mr. Harris's music is also lighthearted and pictorial. Add a little Leroy Anderson and you get the idea. On the present album, which appears to be his first, the folks at Naxos give us six of Harris's compositions, presumably illustrative of his main body of work, performed by his old ensemble, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra led by Sylvia Alimena.

First up is the Rosemoor Suite for flute oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn (2015). It's made up of five short movements, each of which describes a scene from the composer's life: "Fantasia," "On the Trampoline," "By the Stream, Late September," "Charleston," and "Silent Movie." These movements last from about a minute and a half to a little over three minutes each, which is really too brief to enjoy them much. But they are all highly descriptive in content and carefree in tone. "By the Stream" is especially winsome, evoking a kind of English pastoral scene.

Next is the Aulos Triptych for four flutes and piano (2015). It's in three movements, again depicting various musical settings: "Light and Color," "Dreams of Fantastic Places," and "A Warm Day in Winter," all self-explanatory. Again, the music is sweet and charming, and again quite short.

Sylvia Alimena
Following that is the Concertino for Horn and Chamber Orchestra (2001), one of the more conventional pieces on the album in three traditional movements: Allegro, Andante, and Rondo: Allegetto giocoso. At over sixteen minutes, it's the longest work on the program and, for me, one of the most substantial musically. Although the horn was recorded rather close up, which tends to overwhelm the rest of the ensemble slightly, there is a delightful interplay between the instruments throughout the music.

Then, there's Flowers (2006), six very concise movements describing six very different flowers: "Pansy," "Clover," "Tulip," ""Lavender," "Kudzu," and "Black-eyed Susan." Here, we're back to some of the buoyant high spirits of the album's opening pieces. "Tulips" introduces a note of sadness because they bloom and fade so quickly and "Kudzu" a sense of the dramatic.

After Flowers, we get the Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano (2008), not the shortest work on the agenda but written for the smallest number of players. It appears to be a sort of cross between modern classical and a sometimes bluesy modern jazz, the two bassoonists working well as a team with piano support.

The program concludes with the Concertina for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (2003), which contains elements of lyricism, nostalgia, jazz, and march in a mostly playful display. It has the distinctions of incorporating the best of Harris's playful, upbeat style with maybe the best sound on the disc.

Producers James Ross, Laurel Bennert Ohlson, Elizabeth Schulze, and Steven Honigberg and engineers Antonio D'Urzo and Paul Blakemore recorded the music at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia and the Dekelboum Concert hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland in 2007, 2009, and 2016.

As one might expect from the several recording dates and venues, the sound varies a bit from selection to selection. Nevertheless, it is mostly good, the little chamber pieces sounding fresh and alive. Overall, I didn't notice any particular instances of brightness in the treble or boominess in the bass, just some minor veiling in occasional areas. The sound is, in fact, reasonably smooth for the most part and pleasantly warm, just as real music might sound.


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

Feb 19, 2020

Jöhann Jöhannsson: 12 Conversations with Thilo Heinzmann (CD Review)

Echo Collective (Margaret Hermant, violin; Sophie Bayet, violin; Neil Leiter, viola; Thomas Engelen, cello).  Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7218 8.

By Karl W. Nehring

The late Icelandic composer Jöhann Jöhannsson (1969-2018) is perhaps best known for his film scores such as those for the movies Sicario and Arrival. His compoaitions often combined elements of classical, electronic, and ambient music to great effect. Among his other attributes, the composer had a remarkable gift for writing music conveying an atmosphere of sadness that is deep, moving, but somehow neither morose nor depressing. On this posthumous release of music that was unfinished at his death but brought to life by the Brussels-based ensemble Echo Collective (more on that process below), his music for string quartet spurs the listener to reflect, perhaps even to grieve, but not to despair; to contemplate darkness, but not to be engulfed by it; to remember the disappointments life brings, but not to succumb to bitterness; to confront the inevitability of death while simultaneously savoring the transient but immediately embracing wonder of life.

These dimensions of Jöhannsson’s music take on a special poignancy in light of his tragically short life. He died at 48 in Berlin, the German autopsy report indicating that the likely cause of death was a fatal conjunction of cocaine and flu medication. On the surface, that might strike some readers as an indication of a character flaw or another case of some high-flying celebrity being brought down by wretched excess, but it is highly plausible that the story is deeper and more tragic than it might first appear, involving the pressure of composing music for high-profile film studios. But that is speculation to which it is best not to take too far, lest we ourselves succumb to our own dark and very possibly untrue thoughts. Let us instead turn to the music at hand on this release.

Echo Collective
The musicians of Echo Collective had worked with Jöhannsson to realize some performances of his music that combined elements of classical and electronic approaches. According to the Echo Collective on their website and in the liner notes for this CD (which once again are nearly impossible to read because of small print plus very little contrast in color between the background and the lettering – what was the design team thinking?!), in the wake of their collaboration:

“Jöhann approached us to work with him on his project. He intended for Echo Collective to help him finish the composition of the Quartet.  The score Echo received after Jöhann’s death was uncommonly sparse in the sort of markings classical composers typically include to convey their wishes in terms of dynamics, phrasing, and articulation.

As musical interpreters, we have an almost visceral need to perfect a music's intended tone, and to connect its audience to an authentic emotional experience. While a score lacking detailed direction can sometimes frustrate that goal, Echo Collective's musicians found a freedom in Jöhann's music which allowed them to create without feeling constrained by reference standards or critical comparisons. When Jöhann died, it became Echo Collective’s responsibility to determine how the music should sound and what emotions it should convey. Our previous work with him on Orphée, and the many discussions and time spent together, provided us with the tools needed to honour his request to the highest possible standard. Inspired and informed by the memory of the composer’s energy and masterful command of timing, tension and silence, Echo Collective was able to articulate a musical journey such that every listener could individually experience something meaningful and personal. We have followed through on what we fully believe were Jöhann’s intentions for these Quartets.”

The end result comprises twelve tracks of music for string quartet. The music is serious in tone, personal and reflective. It is for the most part somber, but not maudlin. Although not in the format of a typical string quartet, it is clearly music for string quartet, very musical and very moving. The musicians of Echo Collective have done a remarkable job of completing Jöhannsson’s composition and producing this remarkable recording. The only complaint some might have is the length of this CD, which clocks in at less than 42 minutes. Still, it is a truly moving musical experience – one can only wonder what other treasures Jöhannsson might have gone on to compose had his life not been cut short.


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

Feb 16, 2020

A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 6 (CD review)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 11, and 12. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics MS 1470.

The German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826) wrote 32 piano sonatas over a period of 27 years (1795-1822). English concert pianist James Brawn has so far recorded about 175 of them over a period of some 800 years. Or so it seems. Fortunately, they are among the best played and best recorded Beethoven piano sonatas you will find, so you will get no complaints from me.

This is Mr. Brawn's sixth volume of Beethoven piano sonatas, and at three to a disc, yes, it's going to take time to complete the job. He started the project in 2012, and when it's done, one hopes the buyer will be able to choose between separate sonatas on separate discs or together in a complete box set. We'll see. In the meantime, enjoy Nos. 4, 11, and 12.

In case you've forgotten, James Brawn was born in England in 1971, started piano lessons at the age of seven, won the first of many awards at the age of eight, made his debut with a Mozart concerto in Australia at the age of twelve, continued studying with important pianists, and subsequently played in recital and in concert all over the world. From his Web site: "In 2016, Brawn was appointed to the piano faculty of the FaceArt Institute of Music, Shanghai. His recent concerto performances include the Beethoven 1, 3, 4 and 5 with the English Symphony Orchestra, Surrey Mozart Players, Capriol Chamber and Stroud Symphony Orchestras. James Brawn is a Steinway Artist."

The program begins with Piano Sonata No. 4, which Beethoven composed between 1796-97. It's one of Beethoven's longest piano sonatas, and because it stands alone, not a part of any set, the composer called it the "Grand Sonata." Also, because it is among Beethoven's earliest piano sonatas, written when the composer was still in his twenties, it has a lighter, more youthful feeling than most of the later works. That's the way Brawn plays, with a lightness of touch and a youthful feeling of joy, turbulence, calm, grace, eloquence, restlessness, and resolution by turns.

James Brawn
I've mentioned this before, but bear with me. There's a difference between merely playing notes of music and interpreting them. Moreover, there's a difference between interpreting those notes with sensitivity and faithfulness and interpreting them so idiosyncratically they no longer sound like they belong to the composer. Mr. Brawn, I'm pleased to say, falls into the sensitive yet faithful category. He doesn't simply play the music but interprets it sensibly. One can hear this in almost every note he plays. One can hear it in the very tone of his piano; in the subtleties of his tempos and rubato; in the shadings of his dynamic contrasts. Yes, he is a virtuosic pianist, and his fingers can fly with the best of them, but he is not one to be content with showmanship alone. His is playing of refinement, of art.

Anyway, next is the Piano Sonata No. 12, composed by Beethoven between 1800-1801, about the time he finished his Symphony No. 1. Probably the most striking elements of this sonata are that the first movement is a relatively slow andante for variations, the movements do not follow the usual Sonata-Allegro format, and they're all in the key of A-flat. What's more, the third-movement funeral march was later played during the composer's own funeral. Brawn calls this sonata "beautiful," and that's the way he approaches it, with consummate brilliance yet great feeling. And, as always, his piano tone is rich, mellow, full, warm, and resonant as the occasion requires.

The disc ends with Piano Sonata No. 11, composed in 1800. Beethoven himself regarded No. 11 as the best of his early piano sonatas, and it has always remained popular with audiences. Maybe it's why Brawn chose to close the show with it. Listening to Brawn play it so effortlessly, one cannot imagine what sublime complexity there is in the piece. It was probably the culmination of Beethoven's creative genius at the time, and Brawn gives it its due, with playing of profound artistry, flexibility, sympathy, and awareness.

Producer Jeremy Hayes and Engineer Ben Connilian recorded the music at Potton Hall, Suffolk, United Kingdom in December 2018. As always, the piano sound is excellent. It is not quite so pinpoint sharp as most DG piano recordings, but it is more natural. The piano sounds the way a real piano would sound in a real room, with a rich, mildly resonant bloom. As I mentioned earlier, these piano sonatas from Mr. Brawn are not only among the best performances you'll find, they're among the best recorded.


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

Feb 13, 2020

Transfiguration: Music of Mahler, Beethoven, and Schoenberg (CD review)

Kenneth Slowik, The Smithsonian Chamber Players. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77374 2.

By John J. Puccio and Karl W. Nehring

John's View:
This DHM (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) release from 1996 may be as instructional as it is purely entertaining.

The program begins with Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (1901-02), the Adagietto composed as a love song for his wife Alma and the music becoming probably the most popular he ever wrote. Here, it is played on period instruments strung with gut rather than metal strings and performed with special attention to the playing technique and performance style one assumes preferred by the composer. Mahler gave instructions that it be played "very slowly," most conductors taking about ten minutes to get through it, yet Mahler himself played it in about seven minutes, which is about how long it takes Slowik. Interestingly, Slowik's interpretation is remarkably like that of Mahler researcher and amateur conductor Gilbert Kaplan's performance in that the tempo is much brisker than we are used to hearing on most modern recordings (and more like Mahler's). Yet, like Kaplan's reading, Slowik's recording works to good effect, perhaps because it appears to conform so readily to Mahler's intentions. Furthermore, the smaller size of the ensemble, the Smithsonian Chamber Players under the direction of Kenneth Slowik, helps to clarify textures, making it a unique experience worth in itself the price of the disc.

Following the Adagietto is Beethoven's Quartetto seriouso in F minor, arranged by Mahler in 1899 for string orchestra. It seems a bit bulky for its own good, but it retains an admirable inner beauty.

Kenneth Slowik
Next comes Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, using the 1917 arrangement scored for string orchestra. This is the centerpiece of the disc's agenda and almost comes into direct competition with a version by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG). The two interpretations sound very much alike except for the slightly smoother tone of the Orpheus Orchestra's newer, modern instruments. Both versions are well recorded, but this newer disc is a touch more transparent.

The album continues with several excerpts from vintage Mahler recordings of the 1920's and 30's for reference points; and it concludes with Arnold Schonberg's 1950 program notes to "Transfigured Night," read in the original English by Richard Hoffmann, Schonberg's secretary and assistant from 1948-51.

The highlight for me, then, is the Adagietto, for its beauty and authenticity. The Schoenberg is a good companion to the Orpheus rendition, hearing Transfigured Night in somewhat different, perhaps more historically attuned sound. And the other bits and pieces make for enlightening listening and learning. With exceptionally warm, clear sound, this disc is a distinctly recommendable buy.

Karl's view:
Be forewarned: this CD is fascinating from the point of view of someone who loves Mahler and wants to learn all he or she can; however, it is also a CD that even for the Mahler fan will probably not be played more than a few times. I will quickly say that I enjoyed the chamber orchestra arrangement of the Beethoven quartet, but have no real desire to hear it again, and let's face it, Verklarte Nacht is something that many music lovers want to hear only occasionally. When you get right down to it, then, the only real attraction on this disk is the Mahler Adagietto.

While Gilbert Kaplan makes a point of playing the Adagietto faster than most conductors tend to play it (7:57--the excellent Abbado 5th on DG has it at 9:01, while I seem to recall that Leonard Bernstein would linger over it for 10 or 11 minutes), Slowik gets through it in an even faster 7:28. And while Kaplan draws a beautiful sound from the London Symphony Orchestra, the smaller forces under Slowik, playing older instruments and sliding spookily (portamento) between notes, manage to make an entirely familiar and beautiful piece of music sound downright strange, perhaps even a bit weird.

As I said at the outset, this will be of interest to hard-core Mahler fans. Believe me, you'll probably never hear another Adagietto that sounds quite like this one--and you'll probably never want to again once you've heard it--but you've really got to hear it at least once.


Feb 10, 2020

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Liszt: Le Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este; Sonetto 104 del Petrarca; Reminiscences de Don Juan. George Li, piano; Vasily Petrenko, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 0190295379575.

I usually avoid live recordings. I don't think they sound as realistic, as natural, as a good studio recording. But I also understand today's economic situation, and I understand it's hard for even the biggest record companies to produce financially marketable products with the high costs involved for studio time, musicians' contracts, and the like. So, we have what we have, probably half or more of all orchestral recordings done during live performances, this one from pianist George Li, Maestro Vasily Petrenko, and the Royal Philharmonic made during a concert at London's Royal Festival Hall. The solo Liszt pieces were done in a studio, though, so all is not lost, and to be fair, the concerto comes off well enough, too.

So, first, who is George Li? He's a young (b. 1995) American concert pianist who made his solo debut at the age of eight and his orchestral debut at nine. Then he placed second at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition (the same competition Van Cliburn won in 1958) and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2016. Yes, like so many young musicians these days, he's got the credentials, and he has played with numerous international orchestras ever since. This Tchaikovsky/Liszt album is his second release, and the Tchaikovsky is his first with orchestra.

The program begins with Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Yet the composer never seemed satisfied with it. He completed it in 1874-75, revised it in 1879, and then revised it yet again in 1888. It may have been that Tchaikovsky was simply thin-skinned and could not bear the criticism that came before and after the concerto's première, or maybe he didn't care for the way the first performers played it. Whatever, audiences seemed to like the piece more as the years wore on, and today it one of the best-known piano concertos in the world.

George Li
The concerto's opening theme, one of the most famous in all of music, is towering, monumental in nature, and often played in a heroic style befitting its scope. Certainly, Li starts off well, with plenty of bravura. Yet as the movement goes on, one senses a few too many fluctuations of tempo and contrast for the whole to stick together fully. The virtuosity is assuredly there, and Li is unquestionably a major talent. It's just that thus far his musical instincts may not have entirely matured as much as they undoubtedly will. I realize why Li and Warner Classics wanted to record the Tchaikovsky for his first orchestral recording, it being the piece that vaulted him to prominence in competition, but I'm not sure he won't re-record it a few years (or decades) from now in an even more coherent and persuasive performance.

Pianists on record have interpreted the second, slow movement in a variety of ways, with some zipping through it in as little six minutes and others taking a more leisurely approach in as much as eight minutes. Li takes a middle ground (literally) at about seven minutes in an interpretation that may not mark any new ground but comes off well enough. It has a lovely lyrical grace that is splendidly communicated.

The final Allegro con fuoco is both fiery and lyrical by turns, a general romp. Here, as in the first movement, Li starts off well enough, with dazzling finger work, and continues the exercise with consistency through to the end. Maestro Petrenko and his orchestra seem equally up to the task and back up Li with vigor, enthusiasm, and good humor. For the most part, the movement is a solid, red-blooded account of the score that seldom lets go of its grip on the listener.

That said, it's probably still the concerto's first movement that many listeners cherish and remember most, and Li's interpretation of it does not displace those of Cliburn (RCA/JVC), Horowitz (RCA), Argerich (DG, Philips), Giles (RCA), Wild (Chesky), and others in a very competitive field. However, there remains the Liszt works below, which may be worth the price of the disc.

Accompanying the Tchaikovsky, Li has chosen three solo pieces by Franz Liszt: Le Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este; Sonetto 104 del Petrarca; and Reminiscences de Don Juan. Although Liszt originally wrote them as vocal pieces with accompaniment, he later transcribed them for piano alone. As with most of Liszt's work, they are colorful and pictorial, and Li takes advantage of it. In fact, I enjoyed Li's Liszt readings more than I did the Tchaikovsky concerto. His incredible technique is captivating, and, unlike the Tchaikovsky, he seems able here to convey a more consistent impression of the composer's poetry and beauty. Although the subject matter of the Liszt pieces may seem at odds with the more flamboyant work of Tchaikovsky, it's well worth hearing. Indeed, it made me wish Li had done a whole album of Liszt, with maybe Liszt's first piano concerto rather than Tchaikovsky's.

Executive producer Alain Lanceron and the team of Philip Burwell and Chris Muir recorded the piano concerto live at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London in March 2019; and producer Antonio Oliart recorded the solo pieces at Fraser Performance Studio, WGBH, Boston in July 2019.

As expected, the concerto recording is fairly close, with the piano quite dominant. Also as expected it is very dynamic, which goes a long way toward mitigating the closeness. Surprising, perhaps, there is also a small but welcome degree of hall ambience present, and the sound is reasonably warm and smooth. The piano sound is lifelike enough, although seeming to recede and advance occasionally, while the orchestral clarity is a tad muffled in addition to being somewhat one-dimensional. The editors mercifully expunged any closing applause from the conclusion of the concerto.

In the studio-recorded Liszt, the piano is as smooth as we heard it in the concerto, and it's miked at enough a distance to provide it with a natural warmth.


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

Feb 5, 2020

On Speaker Setup Options…

By Bryan Geyer

Revel M106 (grille off)
In 2012, we decided to “downsize” our retirement life. So we sold our house overlooking the bay and moved inland. We found a suitable 2 BR condo, set off-street, that was right in the downtown hub of a nearby coastal town. Of course, this downsizing process implied abandoning our existing audio system. Our big floor-standing full range loudspeakers and related 200 Watts/channel stereo power amplifier were too massive for our new condo—a consequence of great joy to our grandson. An all-new and much more compact system would now be necessary.

Our new condo LR was tight. Small bookshelf-type mini-monitor speakers would likely be necessary. Clap tests indicated favorable acoustics—the 10 foot ceiling and partially open back wall was clearly a benefit—so maybe I could rig something tolerable. Strictly as a test, I tried a pair of 4 inch desktop-type speakers, driven by a tiny 15 WPC class D power amplifier. The sound was promising. The room acoustics were clearly good enough to warrant serious effort.

Addressing what to get as the main speakers came first. There really wasn’t enough open front space to accommodate speaker stands; they’d be an obstruction. So any new speakers would either have to sit atop the brick fireplace mantle (just 8.5 inches deep) or get bolted directly to the brick facing below the mantle. The classic acoustic guideline about pulling the main speakers away from the front wall simply couldn’t be applied; it didn’t fit our layout. So I chose to use the mantle as the speakers’ shelf. I bought a pair of little BBC-type monitors—Spendor S3/5R2 (now superseded). They had a 5 inch Ø woofer and a 0.9 inch soft dome tweeter in fully sealed enclosures; weight 10.1 pounds each. A review is here…https://www.stereophile.com/content/spendor-s35rsup2sup-loudspeaker#1i6C3c8Fzmprgukb.97. The size is 6.4” wide x 11.2” high x 7.4” deep; street price $1,500/pair. These minuscule monitors have proved to sound truly excellent when not pushed beyond a sound pressure level = 83dB (C-weighted)* at the listening position. That’s pretty loud, but it’s certainly not audiophile “demo-level” loud. You need some +6 to +8dB more dynamic boost to reach that sacred listening level, and that’s definitely beyond what these small speakers can comfortably reproduce.

As anticipated, the bass response was marginal, so I had to augment the bottom with a pair of larger and more costly self-powered subwoofers. The subwoofer addition would have proved necessary with any mini-monitor speakers of this size, as 5 inch Ø woofers in a sealed enclosure will fall off rapidly from about 90Hz downward. (OK, 75 to 80Hz if they’re in a ported enclosure, but these were fully sealed.)

Placing the subwoofers didn’t pose a problem. The best location under these circumstances is generally in the two front corners, sitting very near the floor, with some angled toe-in, and that placement worked well in our LR. It’s best to apply fully sealed subs, not ported (and no passive drone cones), when they’re placed in this manner. Small enclosure size was desired, and we selected JL Audio E-Sub type e-110 self-powered subwoofers; refer…https://www.jlaudio.com/products/e110-ash-home-audio-e-sub-powered-subwoofers-96276. There’s a technically astute review here…https://www.audioholics.com/subwoofer-reviews/e-sub-e110-e112. This sub consumes some 1.8 cubic feet, and weighs 53 pounds each. They are the smallest fully-sealed high performance self-powered subwoofers that I have been able to find that also feature a continuously variable phase angle control in addition to a fully variable input level control. These two controls are absolutely vital in order to facilitate accurate phase angle matching of the subwoofers with the main speakers at the precise point of crossover. You cannot accurately match the waveform phase at the crossover frequency if the built-in delay option in the subwoofer provides only a 0˚-180˚ polarity inversion switch.

Given the small mini-monitors in use, I choose 96Hz as my crossover frequency for the main speaker/subwoofer split, and I used an external active crossover controller (Marchand XM66, refer…https://www.marchandelec.com/xm66.html) to apply Linkwitz-Riley full 4th order (-24dB/octave) filter slopes for both the low-pass and high-pass outputs. (The subwoofers’ internal crossovers were placed in bypass mode.) The use of this external active crossover control unit assures a level of accuracy, adjustment range, and setting convenience that’s not possible when using the subwoofers’ internal passband filters.

Gain matching and phase coherency matching of the subwoofers/mini-monitors is best done at the crossover frequency. This can be assured with precise visual accuracy by using the instrumented means described in this paper: https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2019/03/optimizing-subwoofer-integration-part-2.html.

So what’s significant here? Well, I found that the sound of my new compact system was better than I’d ever done before with big full-range main speakers. The articulation and clarity in the mid-to-upper bass octaves was now more apparent, presumably because that driver was no longer burdened with the need to handle any power-hungry low bass. And the liberated low bass now seemed more extended and authentic than I’d ever experienced when using my full-range speakers. Good subwoofers can woof!

Equally instructive was the new revelation that good sound doesn’t automatically mean big main speakers. Dumping those 5 foot tall floor-standers was a welcome reward. I never liked staring at them, and I was tired of the intrusive prominence that they presented in our main living room.

The only aspect where my mini-monitor setup falls short is in the ability to reach that last level of loud. You might not want to stretch all the way to the 90dB SPL (C-weighted) realm often, but it’s certainly nice to get there, cleanly, when you want to go full throttle. To reach 90dB+, use these speakers…https://www.revelspeakers.com/products/types/bookshelf/M106-.html?cgid=bookshelf&dwvar_M106-_color=Black-GLOBAL-Current.
These Revel M106 speakers are fairly hefty, at 18.5 pounds each, but just 8.3 inches wide by 15 inches tall. They’re 11 inches deep, so these speakers can’t sit on a mantle. I’ll mount mine a bit lower, on the brick fireplace facing, using these unobtrusive and capable brackets…https://www.rockvilleaudio.com/RHSB8/, and mate it to the brick via 1/4–20 machine screw anchors. These speakers are still of modest size, but they utilize a 6.5 inch Ø driver (see photo), so a 90dB SPL (C-weighted) target will be well within reach. The M106 is rear-ported, and ships with optional port plugs. In my intended mounting position the ports will be plugged. You can see a Stereophile review of the Revel M106 here…https://www.stereophile.com/content/revel-performa3-m106-loudspeaker. A more comprehensive review (by widely regarded design engineer David Rich) appears here…https://hometheaterhifi.com/reviews/speaker/bookshelf/revel-performa3-m106-2-way-bookshelf-monitor-loudspeaker-review-part-one/.

After all these many years (my hi-fi interest sparked in 1949, and I began to install home audio systems in 1955) I’m now certain that big floor-standing full-range loudspeakers are not the ultimate keystone anymore. Paired (or more) subwoofers, plus modest-sized main speakers, when managed by an external active crossover controller, promises a more compelling means. This latter approach presents a potentially more effective way to resolve some of the bass response limitations implicit with small room acoustics, and it materially improves your home decor freedom by eliminating the need to place two big monkey coffins in your face forever. Do consider this option when planning any audio system upgrade.
Bryan Geyer (January 2020)

*SPL as read on Nady DSM-1 digital SPL meter, slow-mode, averaged mean level, fixed-mounted on stand, at ear level, normal listening position.

Feb 2, 2020

Alison Balsom: Royal Fireworks (CD review)

Music of Handel, Purcell, Bach, and Telemann. Alison Balsom, natural trumpet; Balsom Ensemble. Warner Classics 0190295370060.

For those few people who may not know her by now, British trumpet soloist, producer, arranger, and music educator Alison Balsom has been playing trumpet professionally since 2001. She is now a multiple award winner with over a dozen recordings to her credit; she was the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra; she is a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; she was the artistic director of the 2019 Cheltenham Music Festival; and she is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). What's more important, though, as I've said before, she is a darn fine trumpet player.

On the present album, "Royal Fireworks," she presents a collection of six virtuosic works from the Baroque age, featuring the music of Handel, Purcell, Bach, and Telemann. The pieces are all done up in new arrangements for solo trumpet (Ms. Balsom, as usual, playing a natural, valveless trumpet) and a small baroque ensemble (natural trumpets, sackbut, theorbo, strings, timpani, organ, harpsichord, and vocals). The results are unique and, as always from Ms. Balsom, delightful.

First up is George Frideric Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. Listeners used to hearing the suite played by a modern orchestra or by a big ensemble of period instruments (Handel originally scored it for around sixty players, and some in attendance at the original event reported seeing about a hundred players in the band) may find Ms. Balsom's recording with but a handful of musicians a bit undernourished. However, with a vibrant recording and an enthusiastic performance, one may not notice such quibbles. Ms. Balsom carries the day, to be sure, but her accompaniment is splendid, too. No, I would not recommend her reading as a first choice with so many other fine recordings available, but it makes an interesting alternative interpretation with Ms. Balsom's trumpet in the forefront of the presentation.

Alison Balsom
Next is Henry Purcell's Sonata in D. Here we have another virtuosic vehicle for displaying Ms. Balsom's skills. Still, the accompanying players hold up their end with an accomplished élan, and the piece, brief as it may be, comes off with elegance and refinement.

Following that is Johann Sebastian Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" in an endearing arrangement that again highlights Ms. Balsom's excellent execution. It moves along at a healthy but never rushed gait and marks a pleasant few minutes.

Then, there is George Philip Telemann's Trumpet Concerto in D. It's in four very short movements and represents a good change of pace from Purcell's sonata. It begins, perhaps unusually, with a stately Adagio and then alternates more vigorous sections bookending a solemn one. So, it's slow, fast, slow, fast. Unusual, as I say, but fascinating in its contrasts.

After the Telemann is another of J.S. Bach's pieces, a suite from the Christmas Oratorio. This and the Handel that opens the show are the longest works on the program and the centerpieces of the album. Ms. Balsom's trumpet stands out strongly in these new arrangements, while the other trumpets add a richness to the proceedings.

The music ends with Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary II. Here, we find even more percussion work, plus a vocal quartet, so it adds to the variety of the album. It's appropriately grave, yet evocatively charming and makes a fine conclusion to the program.

Producers Simon Kiln and Alison Balsom and engineer Arne Akselberg recorded the music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London in August 2019. Big sonics here: wide and resonant, with a good depth of image. It isn't the most transparent of recordings, but it is realistic in its sense of place--the natural warmth and bloom of the venue--and it captures the Purcell vocals realistically. So, while ultimate clarity may not be its long suit, its hall ambience and strong dynamics help to compensate.


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

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa