Mar 31, 2020

Mozert: Sing Song, the Musical (Eight-Tract Bl-R review)

Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III, Westchester Girls Rubber Band and Chorus. Jackson Whole Pictures; 2025; 18 and 2880 minutes. Eight-Tract Blur-ray 09.30.44 (24 discs)

What co-composers George Peter Mozert and Lucas Jackson Mozert have done in their classic operetta is not just reinvent the venerable concept of a giant ape attacking a forbidden island in the sky, but they have set it all gloriously to music! The melodies, the harmonies, the lyrics, even the words to the songs are a revelation. The film and its attendant audio are themselves a marvel, of course; that goes without saying. But now, thanks to the Mozert Twins and Jackson Whole Productions, we are able to see it both in its original theatrical-release form and in the filmmakers' own Unrated Special Edition Audio Commentary Director's Cut (UR/SE/AC/DC). The deluxe, twenty-four-disc package surely offers a surplus of riches. And will just as surely make the Mozerts rich.

The story, based on the classic Anglican novel Great Expectorations by Mark Spitz, is almost too familiar to describe, but I'll recap the highlights for the uninitiated. A poor, down-on-his-luck choirboy, Hansel Solow (alternately performed by Harry Ray Hausen and Harry's son, Ford), finds refuge on a tramp steamer steaming to the steamy, uncharted island of Loonitoonie. Or a tramp steamer is tramping to.... I forget, but the steamer doesn't get halfway there before Hansel is accosted by a Wicki named Wacko. Or a Wacko named Wicki, I forget. In any case, Hansel is rescued by the heroine, Princess Pardonme Madear (Jack Hack), Queen of Medullah, and they instantly fall in love, not realizing that they are actually man and wife.

Then they spot the forbidden planet, Mobius, where everyone has to strip and the situation becomes intense. This is OK, though, because most of the crew are in tents, anyway, what with cabin space being at a premium. They land the ship on a nearby mooring and immediately set out to take pictures of the planet's inhabitants, the Mobiusan Moors. But the Moors are none too happy to greet outlanders, especially ones so keen on taking their pictures. These are, after all, pictures that have been in their families for generations.

Next, we hear the sound of distant rumblings (rumble, rumble), and we see the natives getting restless. It's well past their dinnertime, and their stomachs are growling something terrible. But, wait, it's something else as well; it's the ancient chant of voodoo drums along an enormous granite cliff. Cautiously, our intrepid band climb the rock, a sort of rising rock band, lead by Hansel and the Princess, and make their way to the base of the precipice, any moment fearing an overhead attack by the dreaded Sith. Fortunately, they have nothing to worry about from the Sith, having remembered to wear their sith helmets. But what they find there is something far more terrifying than even they could have imagined--a gigantic ape bigger than the Palpatine Hills and the Lower Antilles combined.

The natives call him...Sing Song.

Lt. Sir Cedric Etc., Etc.
From that point on, you all know the story. Captain Quirk (Louis Armstrong) and the crew of the Starship Babble-On attempt to buy the big ape (Zbig Cirkus) for a song, but can't, so they kidnap him and bring him back to Nabooey. Then the Princess learns that Song is her father, Hansel learns that the Princess is his wife, and Luc Peters learns that he's the half-cousin thrice removed of the wrestler Gorgeous George. It all seems so obvious, but it plays out much better than it sounds, thanks to the songs and music.

Who can forget those unforgettably unforgettable Mozert tunes, orchestrated and sung by composer James Newton Max Howard Steiner Zimmer-Williams: "Gorilla My Dreams," "I Only Have Ice Planets for You," "Simian in the Rain," "Climb Every Building," "Ape and Circumstance," "Yes, We've Got No Stinkin' Bananas" ("Bananas?  We haven't got any bananas. We don't need any bananas. I don't have to show you any stinkin' bananas"), "In the Cage Where You Live," "Get Me to the Perch on Time," "Seventy-Six Skull and Bones," and that perennial favorite, "How To Succeed in Monkey Business Without Really Trying."

"Sing Song" is a monstrous achievement.

The video quality of the theatrical release is excellent, the picture size measuring a screen ratio of approximately 3.437651.34:1, a size closely matching its original 3.437651.43:1 dimensions. Jackson Whole Pictures transferred both the theatrical release and Director's Cut to disc in VHS Super-String Anorexic Blur-Ray UltraVisionSD, at a processing rate of 800K pixels per square centimeter. However, using my own fully calibrated micronometer, I measured an average of between 5-10 psc, a little less than the claimed spec but still ensuring that most of the film's RGB color-matched hues are vividly reflected in the overall picture, so, close enough. A degree of grain washes out several scenes, but there's nothing in them worth seeing, so in all it's a wash.

There is a slight degradation of picture quality in the Directors' Cut. While the theatrical release was filmed in SuperUltra Cinepanormique Kodachrome Technorama VistaScope Todd-AO 70, the Directors' Cut was filmed in Super 8. The difference is, how should I put it...different. Nevertheless, once one gets used to the smaller screen size, .27:1, the black-and-white photography with pea-green overtones, the beclouded image, the montage of moiré effects, and the peripheral snow, everything looks pretty good. There are even several occasions during the forty-eight-hour Directors' Cut that one can almost, if not quite, make out what's happening.

The theatrical release version of the film retains its mono soundtrack, while the Directors' Cut gets a brand-new, newly remastered DDT/Atmost 9.2 remix. Understand, however, that the film was originally recorded in monaural, so the remix puts the same track in all nine-point-two channels. Nevertheless, it places the listener in the dead center of the aural action.

Disc one of this twenty-four disc set contains the complete theatrical version of the film, its entire eighteen minutes; plus English, French, Spanish, and Stallonese spoken languages; Modestian, Orang, Pongadae, and Danish subtitles; seventeen theatrical, TV, and teaser trailers; and one scene selection, with a full-color, black-and-white chapter insert.

In addition, the first disc contains a co-directors' audio commentary, wherein the two Mozerts boys laugh and talk and converse about their childhoods growing up in the far reaches of the galaxy: New Zealand and Modesto. They provide a good deal of verbal description of their lives before and after becoming famous composers, their upbringing, their religious background, their grades in school, their baptisms and bar mitzvahs, their first dates, their college education, their second dates, their courtships and assorted marriages, their mutual acquaintances, their industry buddies, their multitudinous awards, their hardships making the film, and their fishing trips together. Eighteen minutes never went by so fast.

Discs two through twenty-three contain the Unrated Directors' Cut of Sing Song at 2880 minutes (or 48 hours, depending on your math). This version includes several outtakes and deleted scenes. However, it does not contain a Directors' commentary, the two men having completely exhausted their supply of personal anecdotes, jokes, and reminiscences during their comments on the theatrical version.

Disc twenty-four contains the bulk of the extras. First up, there's a guest lecture by school librarian Merriam C. Cooper that lasts about six hours, in which he demonstrates why school librarians should never be allowed to give lectures. Second, there are spy shots of the Great Ape bathing nude with co-star Naomi Watsername, as well as spy shots of SEE-3PO'D bathing nude with co-star Kristian Haywire. They are both worth looking into. Third up, there is a pair of featurettes: "The Making of Harry Pottery and the Giblet of Ire As Told By His Ceramics Teacher" (PG) and "The Making of George Peters and Luc Jackson As Told By Their Parents" (XXX). Fourth, we have the complete text of "The Last of the Mohicans" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, read in its entirety by noted film buff J.D. Salinger (in the buff). Finally, the bonus items are rounded out by a small, circular blotch of unidentifiable material.

Parting Shots:
Alex & Emma is sweet without being romantic, cute without being funny. Even when Reiner has two different stories to work with, one inside the other, he can't do anything with them. Well, nobody stays down forever, and Reiner has a lot of good years ahead of him. From here on, he certainly has nowhere to go but up.

And then Song finds himself trapped in the botanical gardens atop the Empire State Building, surrounded by jet fighters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Air Force. ("How do they get those big horses inside such tiny cockpits?" asks film critic Marilyn Monroe.) To quote from the source, "He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. The thing is...if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything." Reaching for the ring, Song toppled from the tower.

"Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was booty killed the beast."


To hear an excerpt from the movie soundtrack, click here:

Mar 29, 2020

Max Richter: From Sleep (CD Review)

Max Richter, piano, organ, synthesizers, electronics; American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Ben Russell, Yuki Numata Resnick, violin; Caleb Burhans, viola; Clarice Jensen, Brian Snow, cello; Grace Davidson, soprano). Deutsche Grammophon 479 5258.

By Karl. W. Nehring

Max Richter (b. 1966) is a leading figure among composers working to bring together elements of what we generally consider "classical" music and more contemporary instrumentation and styles of music. For those who follow current classical trends, Richter's most well known composition is probably his reworking of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, released by DG in 2012 and picked up by various classical outlets around the world. It may have not been a "big hit," but it sold well and brought increased attention to the German-born British composer who is now based in London.

But his most notorious composition is undoubtedly Sleep, an 8-hour magnum opus from 2015 that was released as a boxed set comprising eight CDs plus a Blu-ray disc that contained the whole piece for those who might desire to play the music uninterruptedly while they yes, slept. According to the composer, "It's a piece that is meant to be listened to at night. I hope that people will fall asleep while listening to it, because the project is also a personal exploration into how music interacts with consciousness – another fascination for me."

Believe it or not, Sleep has been performed live in numerous venues, with the audience being invited to come not only to hear the piece, but of course to sleep through it, with bedding being provided. A bit of a Bizarro World Woodstock, if you will…

Not to worry though, friends, I am not about to set off on a detailed, track-by-track exposition of all 31 tracks (with many lasting more than 20 minutes) of an eight-hour recording. Even if I had auditioned it (which I haven't), and even were I then somehow buzzed up enough to sit down and write such a review without falling asleep at my keyboard before completing it, I am afraid the end product would likely put you to sleep before you would be able to finish it.  Instead, I am commenting upon a single CD, From Sleep, which contains seven tracks that were recorded during the same sessions that produced the Sleep recording but were not included in that release. From Sleep was released not only to give listeners a taste of what the full version would be like, but also to provide a coherent, satisfying musical experience in its own right. Having not yet experienced either a live or recorded rendition of Sleep in its entirety, I am unqualified to comment on From Sleep's success as representative of the full release, but I hope I am at least marginally qualified in some respects at least to declare that From Sleep does provide an enjoyable musical experience.

Max Richter
The track listing for From Sleep is as follows: 1. Dream 3 (in the midst of my life), 2. Path 5 (delta), 3. Space 11 (invisible pages over), 4. Dream 13 (minus even), 5. Space 21 (petrichor), 6. Path 19 (yet frailest), 7. Dream 8 (late and soon). These titles are reflective of those of the full release, which includes Dreams 1, 2, 11, 19, 17, and 0; Path and Path 17; and Spaces 26, 2, and 17; as well as many other titles not represented in From Sleep.

The net result is a pleasant, soothing, relaxing hour of listening. Several themes weave in and out of the tracks. On the surface, the music sounds much the same throughout the tracks with the same names, but with subtle variations that mean the music is never static. The "Dream" tracks – 1, 4, and 7 -- form the backbone of the program, comprising the opening, middle, and closing selections, with the four "Path" and "Space" tracks symmetrically filling up the rest of the hour-long program.

The opening track, "Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)." is in itself somewhat symmetrical, opening and closing with stately chords on the keyboard, but with strings slowly weaving their lines over keyboard accompaniment throughout its central measures. "Path 5 (delta)" features soothing soprano voice lines combined with keyboards and electronics, including a warm underlay of organ. "Space 11 (invisible pages over)" opens with synth chords and continues with rich-sounding washes of sound, including a deep bass foundation – yes, it sounds spacey. "Dream 13 (minus even)" opens with cello and keyboard, with the cello carrying the main melody in subtle variation. As the track continues, the keyboard sometimes sounds almost harp-like, with some synth and strings hovering above the keyboard accompaniment, all gently pushing forward. "Space 21 (petrichor)" opens with some bass synth notes and continues as a multilayer synth piece. "Path 19 (yet frailest)" sounds much like Path 5, but with instruments rather than voice carrying the melody.  The final track "Dream 8 (late and soon)" reverses that strategy by reintroducing the vocal line.

The sound quality throughout is rich and full-range, with plenty of warmth despite the inclusion of electronic sounds. Indeed, there is no sense of edginess to the electronic sounds and the acoustic instruments are well served tonally. However, the usual considerations of sound stage and imaging and such are of course pretty much obviated by the overdubbing and mix. 

Hopefully assuming that you have yet been lulled into slumber by my somnolent prose, I will conclude by noting that the liner notes include interesting brief essays by Richter, Tim Cooper, and neuroscientist David Eagleman, with whom Richter had consulted in preparation for undertaking such a project. There is even an intriguing and appropriate quotation from the nineteenth-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Enticed by this CD, I may someday go crazy and acquire the full-blown Sleep package, but if I do, I hereby promise not to write a review featuring a full-blown (overblown!) track-by-track exegesis!


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

Mar 25, 2020

Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp Review

Why doesn't anybody tell me these things?

By John J. Puccio

Well, they did. When I bought my current speakers, VMPS RM40s, the designer of the speakers and owner of the VMPS loudspeaker company, the late Brian Cheney, came over to deliver them and set them up. The first thing he said to me when he saw my equipment was, "Ditch the preamp." I told him I needed it as a switch box to handle three separate CD players. He said, "OK," and never mentioned it again. That was over a dozen years ago.

More recently Classical Candor's Tech Analyst Bryan Geyer wrote an article called "On Controlling Volume" ( in which he argued for replacing one's preamp with a passive volume control and input selector. He recommended the Goldpoint products and specifically the SA4. His reasoning made sense and reinforced what I had heard previously, so I tried it out. Why didn't I do this fifty years ago?

All right, then, why have most of us seen the necessity for a traditional preamp in the first place, and why is a passive preamp a better choice? Mostly, it turns out, the preamp has always been there for convenience. It provides not only a volume control but tone controls and switching capabilities for those who need them. More important, it provides additional amplification for components that may need an extra boost to their signal. This was especially important in the old days when everybody used a phonograph.

Now, what is the advantage of a passive preamp? First, let's clear up that name: "passive preamp" is really a misnomer since there is no amplification involved, "pre" or otherwise. The SA4 is more like a straight-wire bypass, taking a signal from your CD player directly to your amplifier. Perhaps "passive volume control" or "passive switch box" is more appropriate, even though the folks at Goldpoint prefer the term "passive preamp."

Anyway, the Goldpoint SA4 two-channel stereo "passive preamp" contains no actual electronic circuitry. It does not plug in. It is simply a volume control and switch box. With the SA4 you can hook up as many as four different components, switch among them, and control their volume. That's really all it does. Thus, you eliminate the need for a pre-amplifying stage and tone controls, thereby removing the added distortion that comes along with them.

Of course, if you don't care about the purity of the sound you're listening to, you're reading the wrong article. If you can't tell the difference between the sound of a well-mastered CD and an MP-3 file, the Goldpoint is probably not for you. The Goldpoint is for people who are trying to wring the last ounce of sonic quality from their system, getting the signal from the CD player to the amplifier with as few sonic impurities as possible. Ridding your system of preamp and tone-control distortions can do this. And at a much lower price than a good preamp would cost.

Next, how does the SA4 sound? Naturally, one would expect it to have no sound of its own. After all, it's not doing anything to the signal. Even if you have a ten-thousand dollar preamp, it's still got electronics in it that are producing distortion. At a twentieth that price, the SA4 has no distortion at all. Yes, I noticed the sonic differences almost immediately. Listening to discs I had heard repeatedly over the years, the clarity with the SA4 was most definitely improved. The dynamic impact and transient response were stronger. Even the breadth of the sound stage seemed widened. Bass resolution also appeared better focused and highs discernibly extended, with the volume control seeming to track left-right balance perfectly at any volume setting.

The SA4 in its natural environment
Mind you, these were not entirely night-and-day differences. We're not going from the sound of a windup Victrola to a contemporary surround-sound system here. My old preamp was about the best-sounding preamp I had owned over a fifty-plus year life in hi-fi, a period that included Pioneer, Soundcraftsmen, Audio Research, and Integra. But the differences were there and obvious to my ear. In other words, I couldn't be happier with the SA4.

Drawbacks? None sonically. It does exactly what it's supposed to do, no more, no less. All the same, it does not provide the convenience factors I mentioned earlier. If you positively have to have tone controls, distortion be hanged, you're out of luck with the SA4. And if you have a component with a very low signal, it may not be the best choice. (Here, Bryan assures me that most modern CD players have a high enough signal to feed the amplifier and most amps have enough gain to drive the speakers.* I have three CD players hooked up, and I've yet to take any of them past the one o'clock position on the SA4's volume control knob.) If in doubt, you might want to call Goldpoint (408-721-7102 or 408-737-3920). Another possible inconvenience is that unlike a lot of new preamps, there is no wireless remote involved. Get used to it.

The only other drawback I can think of is so small I hesitate even to mention it. When you eliminate all the electronic circuitry, you don't need a very big box to house what's left. The SA4 is relatively tiny (2.3" tall  x  4.7" wide  x  7.0" long) compared to a full-sized preamp. That means it's going to look awfully small and lonely on the shelf where your old preamp used to be. Seriously, though, it also means there is less room on the back of the unit for your various inputs and output. And less room means closer spacing of the gold-plated jacks. If you have big fingers, you may find it difficult to plug or unplug things.

Oh, and before I forget, Goldpoint offers their products in a variety of configurations. You can get volume controls in one-db or two-db stepped increments. You can get units that handle just one input and output or units that switch among two-to-four inputs. You can get units with one volume control for both channels or separate volume controls for left and right channels. You can get different input and output jacks and even different knobs. There is truly something at Goldpoint for everyone's passive preamp needs.

Finally, the cost of so small a unit may seem high ($532 for the SA4 as of this writing). However, the cost of the best materials are worth the price, and Goldpoint uses only the finest materials. Besides, when you consider how much better your system will sound and how much audiophile preamps cost, the price of the SA4 may seem like a bargain.

To see the full line of Goldpoint products, visit

JJP (March 26, 2020)

*From "On Controlling Volume...," cited above: "Do confirm that you can drive your system to full output directly, without the need for supplementary preamp gain. In most cases this will be true, but exceptions happen; it’s dependent on your power amplifier’s internal voltage gain and on loudspeaker efficiency. Power amplifiers exhibit different internal voltage gains. Most designs range between +23dB and +29dB; refer spec. sheet, see “input sensitivity” (or equivalent term). Power amplifiers with gain = +29dB (e.g.: 1 Vrms input produces 100 Watts output [28.28 Vrms] across an 8Ω load) are inherently capable of reaching their full rated output capability when driven by virtually any modern line level program source. Power amplifiers with internal gain ≤ +24dB fall into an area that I consider marginal for use with a passive preamp when driving low efficiency mini-monitor speakers. Try to stick with amplifiers that provide ≥ +26dB gain."

Afterthought: I don't mean to imply by this review that everyone who buys an SA4 will like the sound of their system better than before. There is always the euphonious veiling effect of distortion to consider. That is, some people may have gotten used to the masking introduced by the distortion of their old equipment, a masking that, taken away, could reveal weaknesses in their speakers, amplifier, or CD player they hadn't noticed before.

I am reminded here of a subjective reviewer years ago who praised a particular phono cartridge as one of the best he had ever heard. Other reviewers noted that said cartridge had a pronounced peak in the top end, which they found objectionable. Later, the first reviewer revealed that the speakers he was using at the time of his listening tests had a roll-off at the high end that almost exactly matched the phono cartridge's peak. Thus, the deficiencies of the two components complemented one another and produced a euphonious sound.

Such is life; nothing is perfect, not even perfection. :)

Mar 22, 2020

Escales: French Orchestral Works (SACD review)

Music of Chabrier, Durufle, Saint-Saens, Debussy, Ibert, Massenet, and Ravel. John Wilson, Sinfonia of London. Chandos CHSA 5252.

The last few times I reviewed albums from conductor John Wilson, he was conducting the BBC Philharmonic in music of Aaron Copland; and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the music of John Ireland; and his own John Wilson Orchestra in the music of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Now he's back, this time at the helm of the reconstituted Sinfonia of London, an on-and-off-and-on-again session ensemble originally formed in 1955. Whatever, Escales is an ebullient romp from Maestro Wilson and his players through several well-known (and some less well-known) French light pieces.

The program begins with the ever-popular Espana by Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), the composer's French take on all things Spanish. Wilson gives us a sparkling presentation of Chabrier's colorful music, yet with few surprises. It's a well-crafted performance without offering much we haven't heard before.

The next two items are not quite as famous: Trois Danses by Maurice Durufle (1902-1986) and Le Rouet d'Omphale by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). The Durufle piece comes through quite well, perhaps helped by the fact that there aren't too many previous recordings with which to compare it. Wilson handles the dynamic contrasts and tonal shadings smoothly, the second, slow dance standing out. "The Spinning Wheel of Omphale" is a piece Saint-Saens based on a Greek legend, and Wilson does a good job helping it come alive for us in highly descriptive fashion.

Following them is the perennial hit Prelude a L'apres-midi d'un faune by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). "The Prelude to an Afternoon of the Fawn" is probably as renowned as the composer's La Mer. It is the most atmospheric work on the disc, and the listener probably already has multiple versions of it. Still, its sinuous moods can be captivating, even if Wilson's interpretation brings little that's new to the table.

John Wilson
Then there's the album's title music, Escales ("Ports of Call"), by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962). Each of its three sections evokes the sounds and flavor of a different location: Sicily, Tunisia, and Valencia. These were my favorite pieces, with Wilson recreating the sensations of the three locales vividly

The program wraps up with two prominent numbers, the "Meditation" from Thais by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) and Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The beauty of the "Meditation" never grows old, and while Wilson's rendering may not be as delicately wrought as some others, it effectively communicates the composer's expression of serenity and sensuality. The Ravel piece seems appropriate as it bookends the agenda with another French composer's idea of Spain. Wilson gives it fair due.

In sum, although John Wilson's take on this celebrated music breaks no new ground, everything is enthusiastically presented and meticulously performed. There is also enough variety in the selections to please most listeners and perhaps even to uncover a hidden gem or two the listener had not heard before. Fair enough.

Producer Brian Pidgeon and engineer Ralph Couzens recorded the music at the Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London in January and September, 2019. They recorded it for playback via hybrid SACD 2-channel and multichannel or regular CD 2-channel. As usual, I listened in SACD 2-channel via a Sony SACD player.

A mild hall resonance tells us where we are, and it's not unpleasant. Dynamics are good, with adequate impact for the big numbers like the Chabrier. Orchestral depth, too, is sufficient, though not entirely audiophile. While ultimate transparency is merely OK, the sound does project a reasonably lifelike presence. In other words, it's good, modern digital sound with a fairly well balanced frequency response, the kind of sound we're used to getting from Chandos.


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

Mar 18, 2020

Bach: Works and Reworks (CD Review)

Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 4837769.

By Karl W. Nehring

CD 1:
Works: performed by Vikingur Olafsson, piano: Prelude and Fughetta in G Major BWV 902 – Prelude; Chorale Prelude BWV 734 "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein" transcribed by Wilhelm Kempff; Prelude And Fugue in E minor BWV 855; Organ Sonata in E minor BWV 528 (transcr. August Stradal); Prelude and Fugue in D Major BWV 850; Chorale Prelude BWV 659 "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (transcr. Busoni); Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847; "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" BWV 54 (transcr. Olafsson); Aria variata in A minor BWV 989; Invention No. 12 in A Major BWV 783; Sinfonia No. 12 in A Major BWV 798; Partita No. 3 for Violin Solo in E Major BWV 1006 – 3. Gavotte (transcr. Rachmaninov); Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV 855a – Prelude (transcr. to B minor by Alexander Siloti); Sinfonia No. 15 in B minor BWV 801; Invention No. 15 in B minor BWV 786; Harpsichord Concerto in D minor BWV 974; Chorale Prelude BWV 639 "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (transcr. Busoni); Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV 904.

CD 2:
Reworks: Vikingur Olafsson piano on all tracks, other performers in parentheses, composers other than Bach in brackets: [Bach/Christian Badzura] For Johann; (Valgeir Sigurðsson, electronics) Prelude, BWV 855a - Valgeir Sigurðsson Rework; [Bach/Badzura] Prelude in G Major; (Peter Gregson, cello/electronics) [Bach/Gregson] Above And Below, B minor; (Ben Frost, synthesizer programming) [Bach/Frost] Prelude, BWV 855a - Ben Frost Ladder Mix; Aria from Widerstehe Doch Der Sünde, BWV 54, transcribed by Olafsson; (Ryuichi Sakamoto, electronics) [Bach/Sakamoto] BWV 974 - II Adagio – Rework; (Hildur Guðnadóttir, cello) [Bach/ Guðnadóttir] Minor C Variation; [Bach/Badzura] ...And At the Hour of Death; (Hans-Joachim Roedelius, electronics; Thomas Rabitsch, sound design) [Bach/Roedelius/Rabitsch] Bach Mit Zumutungen; (Skúli Sverrisson, electronics; Anthony Burr, bass clarinet/synthesizer; Olöf Arnalds, voice; Albert Finnbogason, Moog; Borgar Magnason, acoutic bass) [Bach/Sverrisson ] Kyriena; (Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir, piano) Sonatina from Gottes Zeit Ist Die Allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (transcribed for piano four-hands by György Kurtag).

Perhaps presenting such a detailed track listing is a case of overkill on my part; however, I wanted readers to see and appreciate just how wide and deep this new two-CD Bach bonanza from Icelandic pianist (and friends) Vikingur Olafsson really is. Based on my appreciation for the keyboard music of Bach and my enthusiasm for what I have heard previously from this pianist, I looked forward to auditioning this set and was predisposed to like it – but when I first heard it, I was amazed at just how exciting it sounded, and if anything, my enthusiasm has only increased with each subsequent listening (and yes, there have been many). There are simply too many tracks for me to describe them all in this review, but I will share some of my reactions to many of them below.

The first disc, titled "Works," is an extensive Bach piano recital. In his fascinating and informative liner notes, Olafsson discusses his appreciation for Bach, his regard for other pianists whose approaches to playing Bach have captured his interest over the years, and the development of his appreciation for these keyboard gems.  As he recounts, "I have always had a tendency to think of Bach mostly in the colossal sense, as the architect behind glorious cathedrals of sound…   It is easy to forget that the man behind the St. Matthew Passion and the Goldberg Variations also excelled at telling great stories in just a minute or two of music. In the smaller keyboard works, various facets of Bach's complex character are on display. These works reveal his sense of humour, his rhetorical flair and penchant for provocation, in addition to his philosophical depth and spiritual exaltation. Through them, we encounter not only Bach the composer, but also Bach the keyboard virtuoso, Bach the master of improvisation, and Bach the meticulous teacher."

From the first phrases of the first track on Works, Vikingur brings both clarity and energy with his crisp, clear fingering and sprightly – but never manic – interpretation.  In the following Chorale Prelude, he brings out the contrast between the slower left-hand foundation and the quicker right-hand melodies. In the slower selections, such as Track 5, from Bach's Organ Sonata No. 4, he fashions Bach's music into a contemplative evening meditation. It is fascinating to hear how notes originally written to be played on an organ can be so well served by the piano. Another such contemplative interpretation comes to the fore in Track 8, a transcription of a Chorale Prelude, which Vikingur plays singingly and expressively, belying the piano's taxonomy as a percussion instrument. But when precision and clarity are called for, such as in the following Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Vikingur brings the energy.     

Bach's Aria variata comprises a dozen brief tracks that are yes, varied in their styles. You hear dancing, singing, playfulness, but also softness and warmth. Track 28, the Sinfonia No. 15 in B minor, almost seems to tell a story in less than a minute and a half. Delightful! The following composition, the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, consists of three brief movements, with the central Adagio sounding like slow Mozart. Lovely! The penultimate composition on Works is a Chorale Prelude in A minor, played here with a devotional touch, the net result being a sound that can feel more Romantic than Baroque in nature. The final two tracks, 34 and 35 (whew!), are the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, with Vikingur playing the former very expressively, not at all mechanically, and the latter with sprightly energy that weaves together the melodic lines of this prototypical Bach fugue.

Vikingur Olafsson
The liner notes explain that because Vikingur had been "particularly taken with Alexander Siloti's transcription of the Prelude, BWV 855a from the Well-Tempered Clavier, the pianist invited some of today's most innovative composers to reimagine that same prelude for Bach Reworks. Peter Gregson, Ben Frost, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Sküli Sverrisson, and Valgeir Sigurðsson have all created new versions based on Olafsson's original. Ryuichi Sakamoto has taken a different path, opting instead to rework a movement from Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. The album also includes two transcriptions taken from Bach cantatas, one by György Kurtäg, the other by Olafsson, as well as pieces freely inspired by Bach's music, one of which substitutes the piano line with cello writing."

That might sound like something of a crazy salad, but the disc provides a garden of delight. The composition of opening piece, "For Johann," has been credited in some reviews to Olafsson himself, but I have it straight from the pianist that it is actually written by Badzura (but based on Bach), and was in fact recorded in Badzura's home. There are some mild electronic sounds, and the piano sound at times sounds slightly amplified, but the overall mood is wistful, a bit melancholy, with an overall sense of reverence. It truly is a fitting farewell to the late composer Johann Johannsson as well as a respectful tip of the cap to Johann Sebastian Bach. The second track, Sigurðsson's  rework of BWV 855a, amps up the electronics – my notes remark, "very Bach but very electronic!" The third track, Prelude in G Major once again attributed to Bach/Badzura, returns to the overall mood of the opening track, with some subtle electronic ambient noises in the background and the piano being given a deeply resonant tone. The tempo slows toward the end, creating a mood of quiet reflection. The fourth cut, Above and Below, B minor, credited to Bach/Gregson, brings out more synth tones, an echoey piano, and eventually a melodic cello, morphing into a kind of cello sonata as the piece goes on.

As you might guess from the listing of the tracks and the excerpt from the program notes, Reworks continues along its eclectic way while remaining faithful to its roots in Bach. Track 7, Ryuichi Sakamoto's rework of BWV 974, perhaps the most removed from the sonic landscape Bach, with its big washes of synthesized sounds – moody, but pleasant, wistful and dreamlike. Track 10, "Bach und Zumutungen," credited to Bach/Roedelius/Rabitsch, introduces bell-like tones, a muffled, distant piano, with the mix becoming more cavernous as the piece goes on. That might sound like a strange description, but the overall sound and music are highly enjoyable. Track 11, "Kyriena," credited to Bach/Sverisson, features electronic and echoey piano sounds plus a background voice and some bowed acoustic bass.

The final cut, Kurtag's transcription for piano four-hands of the Sonatina from BWV 106, returns us to the sound of the acoustic piano, richly resonant in tone, sounding very much like straight Bach. Pianists Olafsson and Halla Oddný Magnúsdóttir gently and lovingly slow the tempo down at the end, bringing the disc and the project to a peaceful and soul-satisfying conclusion.

That I have skipped commenting on some of tracks does not at all indicate I did not enjoy them. Both CDs are a delight from start to finish. With Works clocking in at more than 77 minutes and Reworks at more than 44, richly informative liner notes, and splendid recording quality throughout, this release is a must-have for Bach lovers and a splendid introduction to those who may be just getting into "classical" music.


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

Mar 15, 2020

The Classical Style II (CD review)

Sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Susan Merdinger, piano, with Steven Greene, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

Continuing a succession of outstanding albums, concert pianist Susan Merdinger has released this recording of piano sonatas from the late Classical Period, including works chronologically from Haydn, Mozert, and Beethoven.

In the event you don't know much about Ms. Merdinger, the following information from her Web site might be helpful: "The daughter of a talented pianist/painter, Susan first heard strains of classical piano music before she was even born. Inheriting her Mother's artistic sensibilities and her Father's mathematical mind and enormous hands, playing the piano came very naturally, but it was her passion, hard work, and dedication to music that contributed to her prodigious ability.

"Performing her sold-out solo recital debut at Carnegie Recital Hall at age twenty-four, as a Winner of Artists International, Merdinger has continued to grace the stages of some of the world's best concert halls including Merkin Concert Hall, Diligentia Hall in the Hague, Henry Wood Concert Hall in Scotland's National Orchestra Center, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Sala Felipe Villanueva in Mexico, Ravinia's Bennett Gordon Hall, the Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago, Logan Center for the Arts, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and The Chicago Symphony Center.

"Merdinger completed her formal education at Yale University, the Yale School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, the Westchester Conservatory of Music, the Ecole Normale de Musique in Fontainebleau, France, and the Chautauqua and Norfolk Music Festivals where she held the coveted Patricia Benkman Marsh Scholarship and the Ellen Battel Stoeckel Fellowship. Susan Merdinger is an Artist Faculty of the Summit Music Festival in New York, and Artistic Director and Founder of Sheridan Music Studio--a private music studio, a record label and professional recording studio, and a collaborative arts agency located in Highland Park and Chicago. Merdinger is a Steinway Artist."

And, of course, she's won a slew of medals for her skills. Now, taking on sonatas by the masters, she again demonstrates her prodigous talents in "The Classical Style II," a term that refers both to the era of music to which Haydn, Mozert, and the early Beethoven belonged and to a book by pianist and historian Charles Rosen. Ms. Merdinger defines the "classical style" as that of "refinement, elegance, restraint, formality and tight organization structure." Yes, they're all here on display in Ms. Merdinger's playing.

Susan Merdinger
First up on the program is the Piano Sonata in G major, Hob. XVI:40, written in 1784 by Franz Joseph Haydn. The reader may be excused for the sonata not coming immediately to mind since Haydn wrote about eight hundred chamber pieces. This one is in two short movements, the first a set of variations and the second a spirited Presto. Now, you might think that playing Haydn in the "classical style" might lead to something cold and sterile. Not so with Ms. Merdinger, whose playing brings out the expressive playfulness of the piece.

Next is the Piano Sonata in C major for One Piano, Four Hands, K. 521, written in 1787 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozert. Ms. Merdinger here is accompanied by longtime collaborator Steven Greene. The three-movement sonata's most notable feature, beyond its writing for four hands, is the operatic nature of its closing Allegretto. Here we have a tour de force from the two artists, each perfectly complementing the other. Apparently, Mozart did not favor either of the piano parts over the other, so both pianists are on equal ground and carry out their assignments with exceptional agility and poise. The result is music rich and full in tone and quality.

The final selection is the Piano Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 22, No. 11, written in 1800 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Coincidentally, several weeks before listening to Ms. Merdinger's account of the sonata, I had listened to James Brawn's version, and I couldn't help notice the differences. Ms. Merdinger's interpretation is a tad quicker than Brawn's and a bit more direct. Brawn is just a touch more leisurely. Perhaps Merdinger keeps us more grounded in the Classical Period whereas Brawn points us more toward the emerging Romantic Age. Whatever, the differences do not make one performance better or worse than the other; they're simply a little different from each another.

Beethoven regarded No. 11 as the best of his early piano sonatas, and it has always remained popular with audiences. Listening to great pianists play it with such apparent ease, one cannot always understand what sublime complexity there is in the piece, probably the culmination of Beethoven's creative genius at the time. As always, it was a delight listening to Ms. Merdinger's rendering of the work. She imbues it with a golden glow, a mellow maturity that brings out the music's inherent brilliance and power. I especially enjoyed the poignant lyricism of the slow second movement. Ms. Merdinger never allows the music to sink into mere sentimentality but keeps it on the level of intelligent reflection. Then there's that closing movement where she sums up everything in virtuosic style. Nicely done all the way around.

Engineer Ryan Streber recorded the sonatas at Oktaven Studios, Mount Vernon, New York in December, 2015. Although the piano seems a bit close, it is most realistic in its clarity and impact. It appears pretty much as a piano might appear live, in front of you, in your listening room. There is no harshness, glare, or brightness to the sound, nor is it soft and mushy. It's well detailed, yet smooth and slightly warm, a pleasure to listen to.


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

Mar 11, 2020

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, The Year 1941 (Symphonic Suite). Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.553056.

Here is another of those Naxos releases that is worth more than every penny of its modest price. In fact, this disc might serve as an example to other record companies for its recommendable performance, good sound, and generous playing time. Of course, I should remind readers that Naxos released the disc some twenty-five years ago, when costs were lowers. But it remains a good example of the quality work the record company produces for still reasonable prices.

Next to Prokofiev's First Symphony, the Fifth probably ranks as the composer's second most-popular symphony, so there is already some healthy competition in the marketplace. Yet this medium-priced entry holds its own; it never flags and seldom settles into the routine. Conductor Theodore Kuchar keeps Prokofiev's imposing vision moving along with a finely tuned strength and insight, but never overwhelmingly so, and the National Symphony of Ukraine play with a polished professionalism.

Theodore Kuchar
Maestro Kuchar's direction might most favorably be compared to Previn's (Philips) in its combination of smoothness, stateliness, cheerfulness, and tranquility. Not quite so glamorous as Karajan's (DG), perhaps, but atmospheric and responsive. What's more, Naxos have coupled it with Prokofiev's symphonic suite The Year 1941, which Kuchar also brings off well.

Producers Alexander Hornastai and George Orobynsky and engineer Leonid Blychynsky recorded the music at the Concert Hall of Ukrainian Radio, Kiev in February 1995. As an added element of value, the sound is more than acceptable. There is not the surpassing transparency one finds in some audiophile discs, but the whole affair does transport us a step closer to the concert hall than most other recordings do. The engineers miked the orchestra at a moderate distance, providing cohesion, ambient bloom, and a fairly good degree of depth, while seldom highlighting or sectioning off portions of the ensemble. The frequency balance is natural and the range extended.

As with so many Naxos recordings, the sound is tailored for its reproduction of a real concert hall. It's like what the late J. Gordon Holt said in his Stereophile magazine over fifty years ago: If you never listen to music live and unamplified, how can you make a judgment about its hi-fi reproduction? So, what is one's basis for comparison, anyway, if not live, unamplified music? You'll say I'm digressing. Nevertheless, I want to point out that this Naxos recording makes a fine basis for comparison, for judging the quality of a hi-fi system. Sit in a concert hall, ten to twenty rows back, listen, and then come home and compare. Kuchar's Prokofiev comes close, at least on my system.


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

Mar 8, 2020

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 814.

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and over half of them have become among the world's most-popular classical pieces: Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9. So it's always a welcome treat when we get two of these well-loved classics on the same disc, Nos. 5 and 7 from the NDR Radiophilharmonie and its Chief Conductor Andrew Manze. It's also a treat to have the recording done up in Super Audio CD processing from Pentatone. Of course, in so crowded a field, there is a lot of worthy competition, so Manze isn't alone, nor is his performance so different from the rest as to automatically warrant a purchase. But the buyer could do worse.

Andrew Manze, incidentally, specialized for many years in repertoire from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries as the Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music from 1996 to 2003 and as the Artistic Director of the English Concert, both period-instrument groups. Since 2006 he has been the Principal Conductor of Sweden's Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and now Germany's NDR Radiophilharmonie, who play on modern instruments. As I've said before, it makes no difference; Manze brings with him the adventurous sensibility of a period-instrument conductor, and, again, we could do worse.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, which Beethoven premiered in 1808, having worked on it over the course of some four years. He premiered it in the famous concert that also included the premieres of the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy, among other things, a concert lasting over four hours and conducted by Beethoven himself. Music historians point out that Beethoven once wrote "I want to seize fate by the throat; it will never bend me completely to its will." Further, in reference to the beginning of the Fifth's first movement he remarked to a friend, "Thus Fate knocks at the door!"

Andrew Manze
Despite Maestro Manze's background in historically informed performances, his interpretation of the Fifth is not particularly speedy, meaning he did not scrupulously follow Beethoven's metronome markings. Indeed, Manze's timings for each movement are within a few seconds of Carlos Kleiber's celebrated Vienna Philharmonic recording on DG. Speaking of which, DG combined the same two symphonies on their disc that we get here, so comparisons are inevitable. Frankly, while Manze's reading is more than adequate in every way, I found greater spark in Kleiber's account. That said, Manze does impart a good sense of urgency throughout the performance, building the big climaxes with gusto and relieving the tensions with care. He never loses the rhythmic pulse of the music. Still, there may not be enough of a difference in Manze's approach to the score from what dozens of other fine conductors have done before him, so it probably isn't for the Fifth alone that one might want this album.

Which brings us to the Seventh. Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 between 1811 and 1812. Compared to the Fifth, the Seventh is a lighter, livelier, more sparkling piece of music, a work that one of its many admirers, composer Richard Wagner, called the "apotheosis of the dance" because of its sprightly rhythms.

It's in the Seventh that Manze shines. Under his direction, the music does, indeed, dance, even sings. It's a scintillating performance that abounds with good cheer. It is perhaps not as warm an account as that under Sir Colin Davis (EMI) or as meticulous as under the aforementioned Kleiber, but it actually sounds as though Manze is having fun directing the music. The score comes alive with dash, élan, and bounce, the way we might expect to hear it from Sir Thomas Beecham or Nicholas McGegan, and I mean that as high praise. Even the usually dour second-movement set of variations that under many conductors comes off sounding like a funeral march here radiates a notably sunny eloquence. Then it's on to the playful scherzo and lofty, riveting finale. In all, it's an impressive Seventh and one worthy of recommendation.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Matthias Llkenhans and engineer Daniel Kemper recorded the symphonies at the Groser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus Hanover, Germany in January and March 2019. They made it for playback via a Super Audio CD player in hybrid SACD multichannel and two-channel stereo and via a regular CD player in two-channel stereo. I listened in SACD two-channel stereo.

We get good, clean sound here, with a moderate amount of orchestral width and depth and a fine sense of ambient hall bloom. Dynamics, too, are good, if modest. I would have liked a bit more range and impact, but these qualities are here not unlike most recordings of Beethoven symphonies. Clarity is good, as well as frequency balance, although bass and treble extension seemed fairly ordinary. To be fair, however, I found the recording quality of the Seventh a tad better than the Fifth all the way around. Whatever, I probably expect too much from an SACD recording, I don't know. Suffice it to say that there's hardly anything one can criticize about the sound of either symphony.


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

Mar 4, 2020

Critical Insights: Casablanca (Book review)

Edited by James Plath. Salem Press. April 2016. ISBN: 978-1-61925-876-1.

I stumbled upon the movie Casablanca one rainy winter afternoon in 1957. I was in seventh grade, my parents were away, so I decided to watch an old, 1942 movie on TV, a movie I had never heard of before, Casablanca. I didn’t know it had won an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. I didn’t know who Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, or any of the stars were. I didn’t know it was fast becoming the most-watched movie of all time on early TV. I only knew that when I finished it, I loved it. Then I came across it again a few years later in a college film class where I learned I wasn’t alone in my admiration for it. When I married in 1972, I took my wife to see it because she had never heard of it, and she, too, fell in love with the film. Since then I’ve owned it on Betamax tape, VHS, DVD, and now Blu-ray. My wife and I have probably watched it fifty times or more since.

I mention this because no matter how many times I watch the film or read about it, I learn something new. So it was a decided pleasure to see that Professor of English James Plath of Illinois Wesleyan University had edited a critical edition of essays on the subject of what had become my favorite movie of all time. Critical Insights: Casablanca is more than a reference book; it’s an insightful, erudite, thoughtful, and entirely delightful volume, coming at the movie from over a dozen different angles from over a dozen different scholars, film buffs, film teachers, and film historians. Lots of “Professors” in here. Each of the essays uses a slew of reliable source materials, each essay fully annotated at the end. For anyone who loves the film as I do, who wants to learn more about its origins, its production, its stars, its themes, its producer, its director, its writers, its music, and its place in film history, Critical Insights: Casablanca is the ideal companion for a few long, studious winter nights or a few short, pleasant summer evenings.

Here’s a rundown on the essays and authors included in the book:

“On Casablanca” by James Plath
“Michael Curtiz: One of Hollywood’s Most Versatile Directors” by James Plath
“Tips of the Hat: The Critical Response to Casablanca” by Brennan M. Thomas
“Such Much? Casablanca, Hitler’s Refugees, and the Hollywood Screen” by Noah Isenberg
“Casablanca and Pop Culture’s Embrace” by Kathy Merlock Jackson
“Bogie Noir: Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon” by Li Zeng
“I Stick My Neck Out for Nobody: Rick Blaine’s Anti-heroism” by Erik Esckilsen
“Ilsa’s Sacrifice: Gender, History, and Casablanca’s Conversion Narrative” by Linda Mokdad
“Classical Hollywood, Race, and Casablanca” by Delia Malia Konzett
“Defining Classical Hollywood Narration in Casablanca” by Eric S. Faden
“Adlibbing Greatness: Casablanca’s Screenplay” by Kirk Honeycutt
“Here’s Looking at You . . . and You: The Actors’ Contributions” by Christopher S. Long
“This Crazy World: Cinematic Space and the Casualties of Casablanca” by Larrie Dudenhoeffer
“Beyond Hollywood: Casablanca as World Cinema” by Björn Nordfjörd
“The Undercut Auteur: Michael Curtiz and Casablanca’s Iconic Imagery, Motifs, and Symbols” by Michael O’Conner
“The Music of Casablanca” by James Plath
“Casablanca and the Search for an Auteur” by Paul Morrison

James Plath
Of course, with so many different perspectives on the film, you’re bound to run into a variety of writing styles and viewpoints, some of which you may agree with, some not; some of which you may find exhilarating, some of it perhaps boring. It isn’t as though you’re reading a single outlook on things from a single writer that you know. Thus, there will be times when you just have to say, no, I don’t agree with that; hell, no, that’s not right; or such-and-such author was too scholarly in his or her approach; or, yes, I’ve always thought that myself. It’s fun to read the diverse, often disparate angles people take on things, whether you concur or not. Then, too, you will find some overlap among the essays. They are all writing about just one film, after all, so there is bound to be some degree of repetition in the subjects covered. No matter; if you read the essays attentively and judge each on its own merits, you’ll enjoy yourself and pick up a wealth of information.

It’s hard to pick favorite essays among so many enlightening ones, but I think my own favorites were “Bogie Noir” by Li Zeng; “Here’s Looking at You . . . and You: The Actors’ Contributions” by Christopher S. Long; and, because of my interest in music, “The Music of Casablanca” by Professor Plath.

Why were these chapters favorites among so many fascinating ones? First, growing up as I did in the 1950’s, I had never heard of film noir until college. Then one of my film studies professors introduced the subject but never mentioned Bogart. In the present book, the author argues that not only was Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon the first noir film but that Casablanca exhibits classic elements of noir as well, especially in its use of atmosphere and setting. I can buy that. In terms of the characters in Casablanca, I’ve always thought they were the heart of the film, and I enjoyed Mr. Long’s illuminating takes on their motivations; besides which, Long’s writing is among the most eloquent yet easy to understand in the book. Finally, who could forget the music in the film. Plath calls attention to Max Steiner’s score and the film’s many songs, making Casablanca not quite a musical in the generally accepted sense but a musical movie, nonetheless. Reminds me of when I told a friend I thought the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a good musical, and he said “What?” He’d never even noticed the continuous music and songs in the film until I brought it to his attention, and then said “Oh, yeah. I guess you’re right.” Plath is right about Casablanca.  

No, you don’t have to be a Casablanca fanatic as I am to appreciate the book, nor do you have to be a scholar to find new insights into a great film. Sure, you could find much material like this on-line for free, but, then, you wouldn’t have it all in one place, nor would you find it so well organized into a coherent whole. You just have to have an open and inquisitive mind to appreciate the breadth of knowledge on display here. That you may find yourself being entertained along the way is like icing on the cake.


Mar 1, 2020

The King's Singers: Finding Harmony (CD review)

The King's Singers. Signum Classics SIGCD607.

Since their formation in 1968, the British a cappella vocal group The King's Singers have made dozens of albums, essayed many different musical styles, and gone through numerous personnel changes. The results have been uniformly the same: excellent.

They are named after King's College, Cambridge, where the group was formed by six choral scholars. The vocal lineup, which came about quite by chance, consists of two countertenors, a tenor, a baritone and two basses, today those voices belonging to Patrick Dunachie, Edward Button, Julian Gregory, Christopher Bruerton, Nick Ashby, and Jonathan Howard. Although there have been about thirty individual singers moving in and out to make up the group over the years, they have always displayed the same degree of enthusiasm and technical prowess. Thus, while the 2020 makeup of The King's Singers may sound slightly different and be recorded slightly differently than their 1968 counterparts, they are, for all practical purposes, the same group.

Of course, each of their many albums highlights a fresh theme, the current one, Finding Harmony, emphasizing "particular songs from throughout history, which have either brought communities together behind a common cause or helped to give identity to people whose culture or language have been threatened in some way. The album looks at different episodes from around the world where singing together has played a key part in the course of history or continues to shape it today." As the group says, it's "a mission we have, to use our art form--singing--as a tool to find unity in a world which is more divided than it has been for a long time."

Here's a rundown on the selections:

  1. "One Day" (Michel Legrand; arr. Richard Rodney Bennett)
  2. "If I Can Help Somebody" (Alma Androzzo; arr. Stacey V. Gibbs)
  3. "S'Dremlen feygl" (Leyb Yampolsky & Lea Rudnick; arr. Toby Young)
  4. "Tsintskaro" (traditional)
  5. "Bread and Roses" (James Oppenheim & Mimi Farina; arr. Rebecca Dale)
  6. "Heliseb väljadel" (Urmas Sisask)
  7. "Mu isamaa on minu arm" (Gustav Ernesaks)
  8. "Cielito lindo" (Quirino Mendoza y Cortés; arr. Jorge Cózatl)
  9. "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott," (Martin Luther; arr. Johann Sebastian Bach)
10. "Ne irascaris, Domine – Civitas sancti tui" (William Byrd)
11. "Praying" (Kesha; arr. Rebecca Dale)
12. "Puirt a' bheul (Mouth Music) (traditional; arr. Daryl Runswick)
13. "O, chì, chì mi na mòrbheanna" (John Cameron; arr. James MacMillan)
14. "Shen khar venakhi" (traditional, King Demetrius I of Georgia)
15. "Ayihlome/Qula kwedini (traditional; arr. Neo Muyanga)
16. "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (Enoch Sontonga; arr. Neo Muyanga)
17. "One Last Time" (Ariana Grande; arr. Richard Wilberforce)
18. "Strange Fruit" (Abel Meeropol; arr. Stacey V. Gibbs)
19. "This Little Light of Mine" (Harry Dixon Loes; arr. Stacey V. Gibbs)

The King's Singers
I've been listening to albums by The King's Singers for about as long as they have been in existence, and they never fail to satisfy with their professionalism, vocal skills, and harmonic unity. They are really quite remarkable. On the present album they sing songs from all over the world in a number of different languages and seem comfortable with all of it. The songs are mostly sweet and peaceful, promoting the idea of international harmony through music. The group's voices intertwine so flawlessly, so comfortably, it's hard to imagine anyone not admiring them and the songs. It's also hard to imagine these folks singing without any instrumentation behind them; they are practically a one-man band. Listen to "Cielito lindo" as an example. As I say: flawless.

There are good booklet notes on each of the songs, too, adding to one's pleasure. The packaging, though, is not so great. I suppose as a cost-saving device Signum Classics chose to eschew a traditional plastic jewel box for a fold-over cardboard case. The cardboard affair affords a sleeve on each side of the fold, one for the disc and one for the booklet. Unfortunately, the only way to remove the disc is either to shake it out into your hand, in which case it means it's rather loosely enclosed and could just as easily fall out, or to grab it by your fingertips, thereby ensuring the possibility of getting fingerprints on it. In any case, I quibble.

Producers Nick Parker and Nigel Short and engineer Mike Hatch recorded the songs at St. Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London in June 2019. The church setting gives the group a pleasantly resonant, ambient bloom. The stereo spread is quite wide, so that each of the six singers spread evenly across the speakers and slightly beyond. The voices are clear and warm, never bright or edgy. The group is perhaps a tad too closely miked to be entirely realistic compared to a live performance, unless you were standing on stage in front of them. Still, the close-up perspective is effective enough to make the listening experience satisfying.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa