Apr 29, 2020

Debussy-Rameau (CD Review)

Vikingur Olafsson, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 479 7701.

Program by track: 1) Debussy: La damoiselle élue – Prélude; 2) Rameau: Piéces de Clavecin (1724), Le Rappel des oiseaux; 3) Rigaudons 1, 2 & Double; 4) Musette en rondeau; 5) Tambourin; 6) La Villageoise; 7) Gigues en rondeau 1 & 2; 8) Debussy: Estampes, 3. Jardins sous la pluie; 9) Children's Corner, 3. Serenade for the Doll; 10) 4. The Snow Is Dancing; 11) Rameau: Piéces de Clavecin (1724), Les Tendres Plaintes; 12) Les Tourbillons, 13) L'entretien des Muses; 14) Debussy: Préludes, Book 1, Des pas sur la neige 15) Rameau: Piéces de Clavecin (1724), La joyeuse; 16) Les Cyclopes; 17) Rameau/Vikingur Ólafsson: The Arts and the Hours; 18) Debussy: Préludes Book 1, 8. La fille aux cheveux de lin; 19) Préludes Book 2, 8. Ondine; 20) Rameau: Cinquième concert, 2. La Cupis 21) Quatrième concert, 2. L'indiscrète; 22) 3. La Rameau; 23) Nouvelle Suites de Piéces de Clavecin, La Poule; 24) L'Enharmonique; 25) Menuets 1 & 2; 26) Les Sauvages; 27) L'Égyptienne; 28) Debussy: Images Book 1, Hommage à Rameau

By Karl W. Nehring

Having previously enjoyed and reviewed recordings by Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson featuring the music of Bach and Philip Glass, I have been most eager to audition his latest release, which features music from two French composers who were separated temporally by a century and a half, the well-known and hugely influential Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the much less well-known (at least in our modern era) Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Vikingur ("Olafsson" is a patronymic, so it is appropriate to refer to the pianist in what might appear to be an overly familiar manner) is a remarkable pianist who carefully considers the program for his recordings. As he explains in his liner notes, he was familiar with Debussy's keyboard music for as long as he can remember, but did not encounter the music of Rameau until his student days in New York, where he heard a 1951 recording by the late Russian pianist Emil Gilels of a Rameau composition and was impressed by how well it seemed to lend itself to being played on a modern piano.

However, as he goes on to say, "it wasn't until the spring of 2019 as I waited (and waited and waited and waited) for the birth of my first child that I finally had the chance, having cleared some weeks in my concert schedule, to sit down with all of Rameau's published keyboard works and read through every one of them. A world of wonder revealed itself. Ingenious works of remarkable diversity, rarely programmed or recorded on the modern instrument. Incidentally, what I experienced in the music of Rameau had been aptly put into words in 1903 by a certain Claude Debussy, who had been swept away by a performance of the first two acts of Rameau's opera Castor et Pollux…  In his superlative review, he described the nusic as 'so personal in tone, so new in construction, that space and tine are defeated and Rameau seems to be [our] contemporary.'"

Vikingur goes on to recount that "curiously, the more time I spent with Rameau's keyboard music, the more my mind wandered to Debussy and the seemingly unlikely affinity of that revolutionary, who openly disregarded tradition and denounced all musical rules except the law of pleasure, to the founding father of French music theory and pedagogy… Side by side, their keyboard works allow us to revel in the delightful paradoxes of great music: the wild progressiveness of Rameau is illuminated by Debussy's historically informed sense of detail and proportion – and vice versa… Another shared element of these two giants of French music is what could be called a synaesthetic streak. In my view, a certain blending of sensory experience seems natural to how the two approached music."

Vikingur Olafsson
As is my usual practice, I did not read the liner notes until after I had done some listening, but my first impression of this recording was along the lines that Vikingur has described. More precisely, my impression was to my mind the result of the sensitive, expressive touch that Vikingur brings to the keyboard. From the opening measures of the opening Debussy Etude, I found myself enthralled by the sound; so colorful, so rich in texture, so nuanced in volume and tempo. The music is dreamy, languid, the notes lingering in the air as the music lingers in the ear while yet moving forward.

Then on to Rameau, some selections from his 1724 set of keyboard pieces. The music is brisk and bright, featuring dance rhythms, with Vikingur's fingers dancing on the keyboard in delight, then shifting to a slower, more dreamlike mood that shifts to a more energetic approach as Vikingur returns to Debussy for three cuts.

The first of these, "Jardins sous la pluie," returns to a more rapid tempo. In light of the Rameau that he has just played, Vikingur leads us to feel that this music by Debussy is similar to what we have just heard from Rameau, but with a different harmonic structure, painting a similar picture but with different colors and textures of musical paint. Moving on to the two familiar sections from Children's Corner, Vikingur brings fresh light and life to music that many of us have heard many times before (Debussy fans of a certain age might have vivid memories – favorable or unfavorable – of Tomita's Snowflakes are Dancing, for example). And yes, Vikingur's interpretation reminds is that yes, the snow is dancing, perhaps having fallen while listening to some Rameau…

The program then shifts back to three more short pieces by Rameau from the 1724 set. Although Vikingur is playing a modern piano, his lively touch on these pieces ranges from tender to brisk, at times evoking the feeling of the harpsichord, particularly in his lively rendition of "Les Tourbillons."

The transition between the next two pieces, "L'entretien des Muses" by Rameau and "Des pas sur la neige" by Debussy, highlights Vikingur's way of seeing these two temporally disparate composers as musically intertwined in some significant ways. The wistful spell cast by the reflective Rameau is maintained in the Debussy. Truly, the Debussy sounds as if it is a continuation of the Rameau, not a copy or imitation, but a musical soul mate. Interestingly, both pieces have similar peaceful endings. Vikingur plays both these pieces with a loving, reflective touch. The concluding measures of the Debussy evoke feelings of blissful episodes from your life that your heart longs to keep securely stored in your mind so that they can be recalled in moments of pleasant introspection.

Following a couple more Rameau pieces from the 1724 set that return to a lighter, more lively style, we come to the track that fully embodies Vikingur's study of and appreciation for the music of the French master, The Arts and the Hours. Vikingur based this composition on an music from Rameau's final opera, Les Boreades, which he wrote in 1763 at the age of 80. The pianist explains in his liner notes that he "transcribed it for the modern piano because its colorful resonance allows for new and interesting textural possibilities in a piece that seems so ahead of its time; its rich harmonies of suspended 9ths and 11ths one could almost imagine Mahler writing in the late 19th century. In the original opera, based on a Greek legend, the interlude bears a somewhat lengthy title: "The Arrival of the Muses, Zephyrs, Seasons, Hours and the Arts." As all of these mythical beings summoned to the stage have something to do with the arts and with time's passing, I allowed myself to call my transcription simply The Arts and the Hours, with a nod to the Greek aphorism best known in its Latin version as 'Ars Longa, vita brevis.'"

After a simple but emotionally and sonically resonant opening, the music adopts a songlike quality: an aria from the keyboard. My scribbled listening notes read, "lovely tunes expressively performed, Vikingur pouring heart & soul into it." (By the way, there is a lovely video of Vikingur performing The Arts and the Hours available on YouTube.) 

Then comes another remarkable transition, as the next cut takes us back to Debussy, this time the magical "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," featuring a haunting melody that will no doubt be both familiar to and beloved by many music lovers. In this setting, the piece seems to fit in so naturally following the previous track, with Vikingur once again subtly varying tempo and touch. So too with the next Debussy piece, "Ondine," which is again wistful and imaginative, with a lingering passage about two minutes in that is just so beautiful, so beautiful... 
That same reflective tone and sensitive touch at the keyboard carries the listener through the transition back to the music of Rameau, beginning with three selections from his Pieces de clavecin en concerts from 1741. Vikingur performs the first piece, "La Cupis," with much the same subtle expressiveness he had exhibited in the preceding Debussy. To my ears at least, "La Cupis," feels like a "farewell" piece, music that could be used in a movie soundtrack for a scene depicting the parting of a pair of lovers. The next few tracks featuring music of Rameau ore more energetic, playfully culminating in a musical depiction of a barnyard in "La Poule," but then the chickens seem to have become philosophers as depicted by Vikingur's more thoughtful tone for "L'Enharmonic." The final three Rameau compositions on the program find Vikingur's playing returning to the dance-like, playful style of some of the earlier cuts, with his fleet fingers sometimes seeming to dance merrily up and down the keyboard with joyful exuberance. . 

For the final composition included in this release, Vikingur returns to Debussy for the fittingly titled "Hommage a Rameau." With smoothly managed tempo and volume changes, Vikingur shows his deep affection for the music and the legacies of both composers. Especially touching is the quiet ending, with the final soft note being held for several seconds as it fades into final silence. Vikingur's comments about this piece also serve as evidence for his interest in and regard for these two French masters: "[Debussy] was always forward-thinking, even when looking back in time – just as he was meticulous in his craft even when actively reflecting tradition. Much has been written about Debussy's firm roots in the French Baroque and the complicated way in which Rameau influenced not just his music, but also his identity as a French composer. To me, however, this piece epitomizes in simpler terms his relationship with Rameau. As a gesture, it is a nod, not a bow – from one great artist to another, signalling the recognition of spiritual relatedness, rather than a disciple's gratitude to a teacher."

The engineering on this CD is very good. The piano sound is full-bodied. There are no extraneous noises – grunting, clicking fingernails, and other such distractions do not make any unwelcome appearances. I was rather shocked, ion fact, to see on an Amazon Germany site I somehow stumbled across that someone had posted a review slamming this release for its "poor sound quality." I cannot begin to fathom any rational justification for such a judgment. This is a well-engineered production. (As another aside, I recently spoke with an audiophile friend who commented that he did not understand how anyone with a strong regard for audio quality could bear to listen to piano music from a vinyl LP in this day and age.) Moreover, Vikingur once again provides an extensive liner note essay on the music and his approach to it that is fascinating and enlightening. The artwork and layout of the included booklet are attractive and readable, even to "mature" eyes such as mine, and the CD is packed with nearly 80 minutes of music. Vikingur Olafsson and DG have hit another home run (oh, how I miss baseball in this year of COVID-19!) with this release and I look forward eagerly to the next one. Perhaps some piano music by Valentin Silvestrov, John Cage, Maurice Ravel, Jean Sibelius, Isaac Albéniz, or dare I even hope, Bill Evans?   


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

Apr 26, 2020

B2C: Bach to Choir (CD review)

Suites for Solo Cello Nos. 1 & 3, with choir. Sophie Webber, cello; Members of the Choir of the Ascension, Chicago. Sheringham Records.

Sophie Webber is a British cellist now residing in San Diego, California. She recorded her debut album of the Bach Cello Suites in 2018 and titled it "Escape." Now, for something slightly different, Ms. Webber presents an unusual view of the suites, this time for cello and accompanying choir. On the present disc, she plays Suites 1 and 3 with choral arrangements of her own design. Given that every cellist who has ever lived during the age of recordings has already made an album of the Bach suites, including Ms. Webber herself, the novelty (and beauty) of offering them with vocal augmentation seems inspired. The results are lovely.

The exact dates Bach wrote the suites is unclear, but it was probably somewhere between 1717-23. One thing that is certain, though, is that the suites are extraordinary, and they might well be familiar even to listeners not acquainted with much of the composer's music. After all, most of us have heard this material, especially the first suite, used in films and television commercials; I mean, even Bach reused some of the tunes for other instrumental works.

Anyhow, the suites each contain six dance movements, and one of the remarkable things about them is the composer's ability to make the single cello sound like several instruments, with melody and accompaniment. Only this time out, Ms. Webber's cello really IS accompanied by other instruments, namely human voices in the persons of eight members of the Choir of the Ascension, Chicago. Together, they "make a joyful noise" (Psalm 100).

As Ms. Webber puts it, "The vision of this album is to offer an interpretation of the Suites which highlights the implied harmonies and rhythmic characters of Bach's solo string works and potentially invites new listeners into the world of Bach and classical music."

Sophie Webber
First up is the familiar Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007. At first the wordless choral accompaniment seems obvious to the ear, pleasant and pronounced. After a few moments, however, one becomes used to it, perhaps even finding it normal. Ms. Webber was keen enough not to make the voices too obtrusive, and they aren't. They complement the cello well and project a tranquil, spirited, soothing, or exuberant enhancement to Bach's music as the case may be.

Ms. Webber's playing is gentle, fluid, and expressive, nicely integrating with the choir. Her performances are happy and invigorating and bring out all the joy in the music. She has no doubt been playing these suites for some time and knows them backwards. The fact that she has devoted her first two albums to the suites attests to this fact. The chorus adds to Bach's many moods, and Ms. Webber's performance brings out the nuances in the various movements.

Then we have the slightly less familiar but still popular Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009. While purists may look down upon messing with Bach's creations, it seems to me entirely felicitous that Ms. Webber should provide us with yet another fine set of accompaniments to Bach's solo suites. It's not like it hasn't been done any number of times before, with piano, viola, etc., and with transcriptions for violin, guitar, trumpet, organ, and practically every other instrument in the band. Bach himself frequently borrowed his own material and reworked it for other instruments in later compositions. Besides which, Bach often alternated writing secular and sacred music, and since the suites are quite worldly in nature, the choral background invests them with an almost religious tone despite their lively presentation. It's kind of the best of two worlds.

My one quibble may seem petty and is maybe a backhanded compliment: The disc contains only about forty-two minutes of music, with plenty of space left over for another of the suites. The fact is, though, this album is so entertaining, you may find it over before you know it.

Producers Paul French and James Kallembach and engineer Christopher Willis recorded the music at Guarneri Hall & Bon Chapel, Chicago, Illinois in September and November 2019. The sound places the cello squarely in the middle of the ensemble. Although the singers don't always seem entirely of a piece with the soloist, they do evoke an appropriately resonant, ethereal presence. Clarity, articulation, and detailing are well presented, too, so the whole makes pleasant listening.


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

Apr 22, 2020

British Music for Viola and Orchestra (CD review)

Vaughan Williams: Suite for Viola and Orchestra (Group 1); Howells: Elegy; Walton: Viola Concerto; Bowen: Viola Concerto. Helen Callus, viola; string quartet comprising Mesa-Matti Leppanen and David Gilling, violin; Vyvyan Yendoll, viola; David Chickering, cello (principal players of NZSO); Marc Taddei, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573876.

By Karl W. Nehring

Not only do viola players sometimes lament not having available to them nearly the noteworthy repertoire that composers have heaped upon their colleagues who play the violin and cello, they have to endure hearing knee-slappers such as: "Q: What do you call a violin player who does not practice enough? A: A prospective violist." No wonder that Nobel Prize Laureate Bob Dylan once nearly sang, "I pity the poor viola player, whose strength is spent in vain" and Mr. T once nearly observed, "I pity the fool who takes up the viola."

British-born violist Helen Callus, now a Professor of Viola at Northwestern University, is a virtuosa of that instrument whose playing on this CD should go far to enhance the reputation of the viola and demonstrate that there is some excellent if underappreciated viola repertoire that deserves wider hearing. This is a gorgeous disc from start to finish more than 78 minutes later.

The program opens with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who wrote some truly memorable music spotlighting the viola, such as Flos Campi (well worth seeking out if you have not yet heard it). The music on this disc consists of the first three movements of his eight-movement Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1934). The opening Prelude features a fairly simple tune with the viola leading out, accompanied mainly by strings, with some nice writing for flute as the music wends it way though just over three minutes. The second movement, Carol, is slower and more pensive in temperament. The winds make an appearance to accompany the viola early on, with the flute stepping up toward the end to intertwine melodically with Callus's viola before the brief two minutes wind down to a quiet ending. The final Christmas Dance is even shorter, but features a boisterous dance tune that makes for a jolly, upbeat ending to the brief but entertaining set. 

Next up is a piece by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) that probably few music lovers have ever encountered, his Elegy (1917) for viola, string quartet, and string orchestra. Callus opens the music with a solo, mournful in mood – as you would expect for an elegy – and is then joined by the orchestral strings. She takes another wistful solo later, and then there is some more mournful music from the quartet before being rejoined by the fuller complement of strings. Some restless churning passages underpinned by the lower strings are then joined by the viola, with the quartet then following. The orchestra comes in very softly, Callus's viola sounds floating over them, as Elegy winds down to a thoughtful, quiet ending. Such a wonderful discovery it is to encounter music of such serene sublimity!

Helen Callas
Following Howells in order of birth is William Walton (1902-1983), a prolific British composer whose Viola Concerto was first composed in 1928-1929, revised in 1936-37, then revised yet again in 1961. Walton targeted the piece for viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, who declined to play it because it sounded "too modern" for his sensibilities. None other than the composer Paul Hindemith (also a violist) then took up the score and gave the premier performance in 1929. Incidentally, Hindemith's own composition Der Schwanendreher (1935) for viola and orchestra stands today as one of the staples of the repertoire for violists. As played so persuasively by Callus and the NZSO under the direction of Maestro Taddei, it is hard to imagine this music being too modern for the sensibilities of all but the most hidebound listener today. As the slow opening unfolds, the sound of Callus's viola floats above the accompaniment of the orchestra. Continuing on, moments of energy are counterbalanced by moments of quiet introspection, with the sound of the viola at times being augmented by the woodwinds. Toward the end, the viola is joined by a violin, then a flute, until the movement ends with the sound of the viola. The second movement is more spirited and energetic, with more input from the brass section of the orchestra. Callus plays in the higher registers at first, later shifting downward and projecting a restless feeling, the music being punctuated by brass and drums. The third movement begins with something of a marchlike sound and cadence, morphing into more a dance-like feeling. As the movement continues, the musical energy ebbs and flows. Enthusiasm and reflection have their turns, ultimately winding down though some passages of deep tenderness, the piece ending in peaceful repose.

Some time ago I received a Tweet from noted Chicago-area violist Michael Hall suggesting that I might want to give a listen to the Viola Concerto of York Bowen (1884-1961), a composer who was entirely unknown to me. I did a quick search on my phone and found a version that I did a cursory listen to (it was one of those evenings when I had three or four things going on at once so I was not able to focus on the music). Because I had never heard of York Bowen, I assumed that he must be some contemporary composer, and for whatever reason got the idea he was from Australia. I decided I would like to listen to his concerto more seriously sometime but never quite got around to it. When I recently discovered a bag containing a few CDs I had purchased a long while back, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I found that included, of all things, the Bowen piece. A further surprise was my discovery that rather than being a contemporary Australian composer, he was a British composer who was born in the 19th century (missed it by THAAT much)! 

At any rate, his Viola Concerto, which he completed in 1907, was also written for Lionel Tertis, who apparently found it more to his liking than the Walton, for he gave the piece its premier performance in 1908. A century later, Ms. Callus has given us a stirring performance that has been expertly recorded so that we can enjoy this beautiful, melodic music at our leisure. The first movement opens briskly, with the viola spinning rhapsodic strings of sound that are supplemented by other section of the orchestra as the movement unfolds. The opening theme is echoed later in the movement, which comes to an end with a lively flourish. The middle movement opens with the strings, then the winds, and then the viola makes its presence known. The mood is more serious and resolute, but melody still prevails, the movement ending with Callus playing most tenderly and tranquilly. The third and final movement is more swift and rhythmic. After an exuberant orchestral section that comes to a big climax, Callus spins out an extended solo that feels like a cadenza. The orchestra then returns, the viola picks up the energy, and the concerto comes to an end with a big, exuberant chord. Bravo and Brava!

The sound quality is excellent throughout, with a good sense of depth, no sense of harshness or glare, and a neutral tonal balance. There is not much low bass, but that is a function of the music, not the engineering. At more than 78 minutes in length, this CD offers wonderful value and I recommend it highly to those who love that beautiful British sound. Helen Callus is certainly not a violist who did not practice hard enough – she is a top-tier virtuosa of a wondrous instrument. All hail the mighty viola!


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

Apr 19, 2020

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (CD review

Also, Knecht: Le Portrait musical de la nature ou Grande Simphonie. Bernhard Forck, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902425.

The premise of the album is that nothing is created in a vacuum.

It uses the example of one of classical music's most-beloved works, Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral." Did Beethoven's program music, a series of tone poems really, spring entirely from the composer's brain, or did someone else's previous work inspire him? What we know for sure is that Beethoven appreciated a piece of music called Le Portrait musical de la nature ou Grande Simphonie ("The Musical Portrait of Nature or Great Symphony"), written by the German composer and organist Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817) nearly a quarter of a century before Beethoven wrote his Sixth.

A comparison of each composer's movement titles give an idea of how closely they match, at least in spirit:
Beethoven "Pastoral":
1. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the countryside.
2. Scene by the brook.
3. Merry gathering of countryfolk.
4. Thunder, storm.
5. Shepherds' song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.

Knecht: "Le Portrait musical de la Nature":
1. A beautiful landscape where the sun shines, the gentle zephyrs flutter, the streams flow across the valley, birds chirp, a mountain brook trickles babbling from above, the shepherd blows his pipe, the sheep gambol and the shepherdess sings in her sweet voice.
2. The sky suddenly begins to grow dark, all the country around struggles to breathe and takes fright, the black clouds mass, the winds begin to howl, the thunder rumbles from afar and the storm slowly approaches.
3. The storm, accompanied by rushing winds and driving rain, roars with its full force, the treetops rustle, and the waters of the torrent heave with a terrible noise.
4. The storm gradually subsides, the clouds scatter and the sky brightens.
5. Nature, transported by joy, raises its voice to heaven and renders fervent thanks to the Creator in sweet and pleasant songs.

Bernhard Forck
Surely, if Beethoven knew and admired Knecht's piece, the piece must have influenced him. The narratives, or story lines, of both symphonies contain enough similarities that it would be foolish to call it coincidence.

Whatever, maestro Bernhard Forck leads the period-instrument ensemble Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin (Academy for Early Music Berlin) in historically informed performances of the two works, the Knecht, being the earlier of the two, coming first on the disc. Whether or not you enjoy period bands or HIP practices, the pairing offers us new and valuable insights into the history of Beethoven's music.

So, first up is Knecht's Le Portrait musical de la nature ou Grande Simphonie, completed in 1785. It's a little hard for me to assess how well Forck and the Akademie interpret it because, frankly, I had never heard the work before. What I can say is that they play it in a most vivid and colorful manner, probably close to the composer's intentions and with a sweet disposition.

Forck adopts what seem to me fairly restrained tempos, the music moving along in stately, elegant, sometimes sedate but always amiable fashion. One can hear echoes almost immediately of Beethoven's later work, as well as elements of Haydn and Mozart. It is, after all, still a product of the Classical Period, so Forck keeps it within the later stages of the Age of Reason while still maintaining its delightful tone. And certainly the piece is enlightening for illuminating its influence on Beethoven. Of course, as charming as Knecht's music is, it hasn't the wealth of memorable tunes Beethoven devised, so I doubt that Disney will be including it in any future Fantasia III.

Then, there's Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, op. 68 "Pastoral," completed in 1808. Maestro Forck follows Beethoven's metronome markings, so expect it to be faster than a traditional reading. For myself, I no longer care whether a performance may or may not be exactly as the composer intended because I've heard too many recordings where the composer himself has led the orchestra in one of his own works yet I've enjoyed another conductor's interpretation more. The "Pastoral" symphony to me is one of bucolic beauty and frolic, and in my mind to follow Beethoven's markings strictly can sometimes upset the serenity of much of the piece. My preferences are no doubt based on the older, more traditional performances I've known for so long, like the recordings of Karl Bohm (DG), Bruno Walter (Sony), Fritz Reiner (RCA, JVC, HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI, Warner), and Eugene Jochum (Philips and EMI, Warner), to name a few.

But I digress. What about Forck's period-instrument performance? As I say, Forck adheres closely to Beethoven's tempo markings, coming within a second or two of Roger Norrington's historically informed performance with the London Classical Players (EMI/Warner). So, if you admire Norrington's reading, you'll find Forck about the same, and if you already have Norrington's recording, you may find the album of value mainly for the Knecht curiosity. But for the Beethoven alone, I'd have to say Forck's reading too rigidly adheres to the composer's metronome, sucking a lot of the life out of the piece and making it sound rather mechanical. There is little of the light, airy geniality the conductor put into the Knecht.

Rene Moller of Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the music in June 2019. The sonics have a nice cohesive sound, not entirely transparent but of a whole. Played too softly, it tends to appear muffled, but at a moderate level, one approximating a concert volume at mid hall, it can sound realistic enough. The timpani show up well, even though the dynamic impact is not always as strong as one might like. It's unobjectionable sound but not in the audiophile class of absolute clarity.


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

Apr 15, 2020

Moeran: Violin Concerto (CD Review)

Also, Lonely Waters; Whythorne's Shadow; Cello Concerto. Lydia Mordkovitch, violin; Raphael Wallfisch, cello; Vernon Handley, Ulster Orchestra; Norman Del Mar, Bournemouth Sinfonietta (Cello Concerto). Chandos Classics CHAN 10168 X.

By Karl W. Nehring

As I write this review, I am, like many music lovers worldwide, hunkered down at home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With plenty of time on my hands, I have listened to a great deal of music. Actually, that is something I did before the lockdown, but now I find myself listening with more focus and attention – and gratitude – than before. In this stressful time, music has been a source not just of entertainment, but also of comfort and consolation. This recording of four pastoral works by Moeran, which has been on heavy rotation in my home listening systems lately, has been an especially significant source of both musical satisfaction and emotional sustainment.

Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) was an English composer with Irish roots who had great affection for nature and folk melodies. If you like me are a fan of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, especially his more pastoral-sounding works, then you really ought to look into the music of Moeran. His catalog is not extensive, but includes some wonderful music that deserves to be more widely performed and recorded (there is a review of his Symphony in G minor and Sinfonietta in the Classical Candor archive). This Chandos recording presents four works that display his gift for crafting melodies that stimulate the ear while soothing the soul.

The program opens with his Violin Concerto, featuring violinist Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014) and the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley (1930-2008). According to the liner notes, Moeran started the piece in 1937, but did not complete it until 1942, when it was given its first performance at the Proms by its dedicatee, Arthur Catterall (1883-1943), one of the best-known English violinists of his time.

The concerto is in the usual three movements, marked respectively Allegro moderato, Rondo Vivace – Alla valse burlesca, and Lento. The first movement opens quietly and tenderly, immediately establishing a pastoral, ruminative mood. The orchestral accompaniment is generally spare throughout, with the main focus being on the soloist.

Vernon Handley
To my ears, the violin seemed to be given a bit too much prominence in the mix, and the massed strings seemed to have just a wee bit of edge (something that seems to occur on many Chandos orchestral recordings from the 1980s when these performances were originally recorded) but given the generally quiet nature of this movement, that is not a significant problem. Another minor sonic quibble is that there does not seem to be as much sense of depth to the soundstage as would be ideal, although the stereo spread is excellent. Returning to musical considerations, Mordkovitch has some lovely solos, with the emphasis of her playing being more on tender expression rather than virtuosic display. The second movement exhibits more energy, with brass and percussion playing a more prominent role. There is a dancelike feeling at times to the music, which is lively and enjoyable. The closing Lento starts off slowly and dreamily, sliding into some tuneful passages -- and even a solo -- for clarinet before Mordkovitch’s violin reclaims the spotlight. Later, as the movement begins to wind down, the clarinet reappears, then fades as the violin once again takes over the lead. This is a beautiful concerto that deserves wider performance and recognition.

Lonely Waters is dedicated to Vaughan Williams, and lovers of RVW’s pastoral works (e.g., Symphony No. 3, In the Fen County, The Lark Ascending) will swoon over this delightful tone poem. Listeners can close their eyes and summon images of gently rippling water, birds enjoying a summer morning, and wispy trees lining the banks. There are some striking passages for horns, made all the more impressive by the sound quality, which just feels warmer and more natural than in the Violin Concerto, with excellent depth this time around.

Whythorne’s Shadow starts off a with dancelike lilt at a lively pace. As the music continues, a more pastoral sound emerges, followed a return to the dance rhythms and some enjoyable melodies from the concertmaster’s violin. The sound quality is at the same level as the previous track, which is very good overall.

The final composition on this release, Moeran’s Cello Concerto, is performed by English cellist Raphael Wallfisch (b.1953) and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under the direction of Norman del Mar (1919-1994). As in the Violin Concerto, Moeran lays out the work in the traditional three movements. The opening movement, marked Moderato, is for the most part quiet and reflective, with Wallfisch playing more in the lower registers. The way the cello is recorded sounds more naturally integrated with the orchestra than was the case for the violin in the Violin Concerto. The middle movement, marked Adagio, is sweetly expressive, with smaller forces backing the cello. Wallfisch spins out a thoughtful solo toward the end of this movement, and then without pause the final movement begins, marked Allegretto deciso, all marcia. It enters with a theme that sounds like a folk tune, the cello interacting with various sections of the orchestra but never in an overtly virtuosic display. The piece ends with a flourish, bringing the program to an end.

Presenting four satisfying compositions that combine for more than 78 minutes of music and including usefully informative liner notes, this Chandos release makes a persuasive case for more widespread appreciation of the music of a composer who has been largely overlooked on this side of the Atlantic. Oh, and by the way, to make this CD even more attractive, it is available at a budget price. What’s not to like?


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

Apr 12, 2020

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos (CD review)

Francesco Corti, harpsichord; Il Pomo d'Oro. Pentatone PTC 5186 837.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750) wrote eight concertos for harpsichord, the final one unfinished. On this present album, harpsichordist and conductor Francesco Corti and the period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro offer four of those concertos: Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 7. They make a commendable team performing commendable material.

First, who is Francesco Corti? From his Web page, "Mr. Corti was born in Arezzo, Italy, in a musical family in 1984. He studied organ in Perugia, then harpsichord in Geneva and in Amsterdam. He was awarded at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig (2006) and at the Bruges Harpsichord Competition (2007). As a soloist, he has appeared in recitals and concerts all over Europe, in the USA, in Latin America and in New Zealand. Since 2015 he conducts regularly Les Musiciens du Louvre, and since September 2016, he is professor of harpsichord and thorough bass at the Schola Cantorum Basilensis."

Second, who are Il Pomo d'Oro? From their Web page, "The ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro was founded in 2012. It is characterized by an authentic, dynamic interpretation of operas and instrumental works from the Baroque and Classical period. The musicians are all well-known specialists and are among the best in the field of historical performance practice. The ensemble so far worked with the conductors Riccardo Minasi, Maxim Emelyanychev, Stefano Montanari, George Petrou, Enrico Onofri, and Francesco Corti."

Third, what are Bach's harpsichord concertos all about? From Wikipedia we learn that the exact dates of composition for the eight concertos remain uncertain, the first of them perhaps transcribed from an earlier organ concerto. Bach originally intended them "as a set of six, shown in the manuscript in Bach's traditional manner beginning with 'J.J.' (Jesu juva, 'Jesus, help') and ending with 'Finis. S. D. Gl.' (Soli Deo Gloria). Aside from the Brandenburg Concertos, it is the only such collection of concertos in Bach's oeuvre, and it is the only set of concertos from his Leipzig years (1723-44)." What's more, musical historians generally agree that Bach's harpsichord concertos are the first concertos written specifically for the harpsichord. So, whether you like them or not, they have some musical significance.

Francesco Corti
Finally, how well do Corti and Il Pomo d'Oro handle the concertos? I'm not an expert, but I'd say from my listening that they do as well with them as anybody. One of the big secrets to the success of any performance of these concertos is making each one stand out on its own terms. After all, there are not so many obvious differences among the harpsichord concertos as there are, say among the six Brandenburg Concertos, so the performers must be on their guard against complacency. In this regard, they succeed. There is nothing complacent about Corti's playing or Il Pomo d'Oro.

In fact, Corti has studied these scores for quite some time and thoroughly researched their history. As a stickler for historic accuracy, he probably plays them as Bach might have wanted. Again, whether that delights you or bores you is a purely subjective matter. I found their music making exhilarating.

Why "exhilarating"? Well, you have to remember that Corti and his accompanying ensemble are all versed in historical instrument practice, meaning that, depending on your interpretation, quick or slow. They tend to take the opening and closing Allegros lickety-split. These are offset with some fairly light, leisurely central movements, giving the concertos plenty of character but perhaps not always to the satisfaction of the listener used to more traditional performances. Regardless, it's hard not to respond positively to the zesty tempos and graceful contours of Corti's performances and the uniformly virtuosic playing of everyone involved.

Incidentally, if No. 7 in G Minor sounds familiar, it should. Bach based it on his own Violin Concerto in A Minor. What's more, he probably intended it to be the first concerto in a set of six but apparently changed his mind about the whole thing.

Executive producers Renaud Loranger, Gesine Lubben, and Giulio d'Alessio and recording producer Jean-Daniel Noir made the album at the Gustav Mahler Hall, Kulturzentrum, Toblach in March 2019. Unlike many of Pentatone's releases, which have been in multichannel SACD, this one is in standard two-channel stereo PCM only, with no mention of SACD anywhere.

The sound is exceptionally clean, with good definition, body, and detail. My only "however" is that it seems fairly one-dimensional. That is, while there is ample space around the instruments, they all appear to be in a straight line across the speakers. Nevertheless, the harpsichord is well integrated into the ensemble, neither too far out front nor buried within the other instruments, although it does sound a bit wider than it should. Still, as I say, not bad.


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

Apr 8, 2020

Glass: Piano Works (CD Review)

Vikingur Olafsson, piano; Siggi String Quartet (Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, violin; Helga Þóra Björgvinsdóttir, violin; Þórunn Ósk Marínósdóttir, viola; Sigurður Bjarki Gunnarsson, cello) [tracks 7 & 13]. Deutsche Grammophon 479 6918.

By Karl W. Nehring

"To listen is an effort. Just to hear is no merit; a duck hears also." --Igor Stravinsky

I have long been somewhat ambivalent about the music of Philip Glass. My first exposure to his music was when a series of concerts I had purchased tickets for when I was a grad student included a special presentation of the film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance with the soundtrack being performed live in the theater by Glass and his band. The movie and the music were both interesting, although certainly repetitious. Somewhere during that same time frame I became acquainted with his album The Photographer (1984), which an audiophile friend lent me along with the recommendation that I audition it for both the sound and the music. I found it fascinating, purchased a copy for myself, but when I followed up on the Glass kick by acquiring a copy of Glassworks (1982), I was not all that impressed – the synthesizer sound in some of the cuts was grating, and Glass seemed to be a one-trick pony. I later tried some of his symphonies but could barely get though them, never wanting to hear them again. Although I did get a kick out of his first Violin Concerto. I was not much of a Glass fan.

It was when I heard on the radio some of his piano music that I got curious again about Philip Glass. I wound up purchasing a CD of Glass playing some of his own compositions and enjoyed it, although not with any special enthusiasm. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, NPR often played piano music by Glass – "Opening," from Glassworks (music that I had previously dismissed as "one-trick") – which provided me with a startlingly soothing sonic salve during such a horrific time. I found myself gaining a new respect for Glass, at least for his keyboard compositions. Still, they seemed to me maybe not so much "one-trick," but they nevertheless seemed to lack the depth and range of emotion that I wished they could provide. They sounded somewhat "mechanical," for lack of a better word.

Which brings me (finally) to the CD that is the subject of this review. Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson brings a background of having played Glass's music in company with the composer himself before sitting down at the piano and recording his own version. As he explains in the liner notes, "As a classical pianist, I often find myself working more with dead composers (Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and the like) than with living ones. This has its downsides. Novel ideas in interpretation tend to be met with nothing but a stern silence from beyond the grave. Living composers seem infinitely more flexible and open to exploring new paths in their music. Few composers are as alive as Philip Glass, and being able to meet and work with one of the art form's pioneering forces is a rare and precious opportunity for which I am grateful. Playing Philip Glass's music for and with the composer himself reminds me that music, too, is alive – never a dead monument but a living, ever-changing environment, a forest of rich sensations, colours and smells and sounds… Listening to him play the Etudes feels a bit like getting a sneak peek into the composer's private workshop: while the music already exists on the printed page, one gets the sense that it is almost being improvised, that a rebirth is taking place as he plays… That sense of rebirth is, in my opinion, central to understanding the Etudes. On the surface, they seem to be filled with repetitions, but the more one plays and thinks about them, the more their narratives seem to travel along in a spiral. We never hear the same music twice as long as time continues to move forward, even if the chord progressions look the same on the page."

Philip Glass
When I first auditioned this release, I found myself enjoying the music, but in a rather casual manner. It was soothing to hear, rolling along in its pleasantly unstressful way, a great CD to just pop into the player and listen to while doing something else.

Quack, quack, quack…

However, when I really sat down to listen carefully, I was surprised to hear how Olafsson was able to make the music come alive. What had seemed somewhat mechanical and repetitious at first listen suddenly began to reveal itself as fluid and ever changing as Olafsson the pianist brought his personal touch at the keyboard to the scores that Glass the composer had penned to paper.

The program laid out by Olafsson and producer Christan Badzura is nearly as symmetrical as a shot from a Wes Anderson film. There are 13 tracks, with the opening and closing tracks being to versions of "openings" from Glassworks, Track 1 for solo piano and Track 13 being a rework by Badzura for piano plus string quartet. The central track, Track 7, is also a reworking by Badzura for piano and quartet, this time of Etude No. 2.  Sandwiched between the opening and central tracks are five Etudes, Nos. 9, 2, 6, 5, and 14. In similar fashion, appearing  between the central and closing tracks are five more Etudes, Nos. 13, 15, 3, 18, and 20.

Olafsson's interpretation of "Openings" is wistful, tender, not at all "mechanical" in feeling. Indeed, the music sounds songlike, presented with genuine emotion. You hear subtle changes in volume throughout and a slowing of tempo at the end. Lovely!

As he plays the following five Etudes, it becomes apparent that there are aesthetic reasons that they are not presented in numerical order. After the tender mood established by "Openings," Etude No. 9 brings more energy, faster and louder, with some bell-like chords that make an affirmative statement. No. 2 brings us back to a more reflective and subtle mood, opening on the bass end of the keyboard before moving up to the treble. At times there is an "echo" effect within the melody, which Olafsson handles subtly yet persuasively. The cut ends with volume and tempo increasing as Olafsson returns to the lower end of the keyboard. No. 6 brings back the energy, with staccato accents and some back-and-forth between a bigger and smaller sound, cycling up and down until the sound just dies at the end. No. 5 begins softly and slowly, Olafsson playing with a reflective, spare touch. For the last of the Etudes in this first bunch, No 14, the sound again becomes richer as Olafsson playfully varies the pulse, varies his accents, and produces a playful sound subtly suggestive of the old-time piano playing that would accompany a silent film end. Whew! What a romp!

At the midpoint of the program, the instrumentation varies as Etude No. 2 is played by Olafsson and the Siggi String Quartet. The end result is simply beautiful – music lyrical and hopeful.

The second batch of Etudes opens with No. 13, which brings us back to a more energetic, almost nervous sound, with Olafsson's fingers prancing up and down the keyboard restlessly, whimsically, until the piece just slows at the end, seemingly out of gas. As you might expect by now, the next Etude, No. 15, returns to a more reflective mood, but Olafsson brings out through his subtle shifts in accents some nervous energy lying below the surface, gradually increasing until the mood shifts again as the piece resolves its inner conflicts and ends with some more peaceful lower notes. No. 3 predictably ramps up the energy as Olafsson's playing imbues the work with a sense of power and motion reminiscent of a fast drive during rush hour on a busy freeway. No. 18 highlights Olafsson's sensitive touch at the keyboard as he uses subtle manipulations of tempo and volume that draw us deeply into the music. He sounds completely engaged, making it easy for the listener to be engaged in music that could otherwise come across as cold and mechanical had it been presented more prosaically. Olafsson clearly loves this music, has studied it carefully, and practiced it diligently.  The next track is the pinnacle of the program, Etude No. 20.

Oh. My. Goodness…

Even early on, when I was listening to this CD more casually, there were times when as soon as this track started playing, it immediately drew my attention. As background music, the first eleven tracks could seem to just go on their merry way as "typical Philip Glass music," pleasant but repetitious, or maybe repetitious but pleasant. Suddenly this was not "typical Philip Glass music." This was something different – something breathtakingly beautiful, arriving from some higher sphere, trailing clouds of glory.

In the liner notes, Olafsson shares a similar sentiment. "Like many others, I was taken by surprise when I first heard the last Etude, No. 20, that autumnal intermezzo which seems to come from another world entirely than its nineteen siblings, whose DNAs have more obvious traits in common. I asked Mr. Glass about it, and he seemed as surprised by the work as I was. His answer has stayed with me: 'I really don't know, I just found myself out in space in that one.' And the music does indeed seem to defy gravity, floating from one tonality onto another, gorgeous melodies appearing out of nowhere only to quickly disappear into the void."

As this track unfolds, it is as though Olafsson and the listener gradually come to the realization that from the beginning of this CD, they have been on a journey that they now feel was more than a simple journey, but actually a quest – a quest for beauty not describable in words, but so eloquently presented by means of invisible vibrations in the air transposed into chemical and electrical signals in the brain that stimulate wonder while providing peace as well. A rewarding quest has been fulfilled.

The program then concludes with Badzura's arrangement of "Opening" for piano and quartet. The addition of the strings brings an enhanced sense of motion and drama, ending with a calm and peaceful fade that brings the program to its close.

The sound quality is well balanced and clear, the liner notes are a pleasure (and easy to read, hooray!), and the music is top-notch. If you are a fan of piano music, this is a CD that you should hear.


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

Apr 5, 2020

Incantation (CD review)

Music of Bruch, Vitali, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Bloch, Chausson, and Umebayashi. Virgil Boutellis-Taft, violin; Jac Van Steen, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Aparte Music AP234.

Nobody tells me anything.

I learn about thousands of classical CD titles and listen to hundreds of classical recordings every year, but I still don't know who all the rising young classical artists are in the world. Take, for example, French violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft. His biography reads, "Hailed by critics as an 'outstanding violinist,' 'of fiery temperament,' with 'intense, brilliant, sumptuous sound' and 'impressive virtuosity,' Virgil Boutellis-Taft performs as soloist and chamber musician in major international concert halls." From Wikipedia we learn that he "began studying violin and piano at the age of 6...and gave his first concerts at the age of 9."

Incantation is Boutellis-Taft's second record album, taking its title from the word meaning "the chanting or uttering of words purporting to have magical power; the formula employed; a spell or charm," according to Dictionary.com. The accompanying booklet notes that "'Incantation,' from the Latin word incantare, ranges in meaning from ordinary singing that is 'enchanting' to music in a religious context with a ritual function, as in Gregorian plainchant, then to the unsettling use of magic or demonic spells or charms." Apparently, Mr. Boutellis-Taft in this album is going for the "spiritual, magical, mesmerizing aspects of incantation."

I would have preferred he had just said, "Here are a few of my favorite short violin pieces that let me display my fiery temperament, brilliant sound, and impressive virtuosity." Whatever, the following is a list of what's on the album:

1. "Kol Nidrei" by Max Bruch
2. "Chaccone in G minor" by Tomaso Antonio Vitali
3. "Danse macabre" by Camile Saint-Saens
4. "Serenade melancolique" by Peter Tchaikovsky
5. "Nigun" by Ernest Bloch
6. "Poeme for violin and orchestra" by Ernest Chausson
7. "Yumeji's Theme" by Shigeru Umebayashi

Virgil Boutellis-Taft
The opening number, Kol Nidrei ("All Vows"), which German composer Max Bruch (1838-1920) wrote in 1880 is a good example of "incantation." It's a series of variations on mostly Jewish liturgical themes. It has a beautifully lyrical character, and Boutellis-Taft invests it with much personality. The piece is a plaintive expression of religious themes, originally intended for cello but here transcribed for violin. In addition, Boutellis-Taft has elected to omit the middle section, which gets a bit flowery Romantic, and instead repeats the central theme in keeping with the Jewish service it represents. The soloist creates a refreshing new look at an old favorite.

And so it goes, with Boutellis-Taft endowing each work with much expressive distinction and beauty. The Chaconne in G minor, ascribed to Italian composer and violist Tomaso Vitali (1663-1745), continues in that vein, making an almost seamless segue from the Bruch piece. Boutellis-Taft's playing is fluid, effortless, and eloquent, and the Royal Philharmonic's accompaniment sounds as rich as ever.

The Danse macabre (1874) by French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) may seem like a giant leap from the preceding two more contemplative pieces, but, in fact, Boutellis-Taft makes the leap with consummate ease, taking the work a little less demonically than some interpreters do and filling it with much poetic beauty. I would note here, too, that Boutellis-Taft uses a new violin-and-orchestra rendering of the piece, not Saint-Saens's original orchestral version.

My own favorite among the seven selections was the Poeme pour violin et orchestre by French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). Boutellis-Taft brings out all the exotic color of the work without resorting to any hint of over sentimentalizing or romanticizing. It's quite lovely.

Incantation lives up to its name, manifesting much magic, mystery, beauty, enchantment, and angelic intensity thanks to Boutellis-Taft's heartfelt execution. He is a performer to be reckoned with, and I expect we will be hearing more good things from him from here on out.

Producers Hugo Scremin and Nicolas Bartholomee and engineer Francois Eckert recorded the music at Henry Wood Hall, London in July 2019. The sound is very clean, if a bit one-dimensional. Definition is precise, and the violin appears well integrated with the orchestra, not too far in front yet not overpowered by the orchestral forces. The frequency response is nicely balanced as well, although the highest treble and deepest bass seem a tad lacking. Nevertheless, most listeners should find it more than satisfactory. Ditto for the dynamic range and impact. Very cleanly executed.


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