Jul 29, 2020

From Holland with Love (CD review)

Waltzes I've Saved for You. André Rieu, Johann Strauss Orchestra. Philips 314 522 933-2.

By John J. Puccio

Maybe I'm a sucker for sentimentality, but just as I liked Ofra Harnoy's recording of romantically-paced, vibrato-prone Dvorak (RCA) over twenty years ago and which I listened to at about the same time, I enjoyed this disc of old favorites from violinist André Rieu the more I listened to it. This is saying a lot, too, considering that I’m not particularly fond of overrated superstar performers with tens of millions of records to their credit.

Playing with a band Rieu formed in 1987, the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and reminiscent of Willi Boskovsky's old Vienna Johann Strauss Orchestra, the conductor-violinist directs vigorous, lusty, sometimes boisterous, always zesty, and ultimately joyous performances of waltzes and polkas by the Strausses, Lehar, Gruber, and others.

Andre Rieu
However, I wasn't instantly won over. During the first few selections I feared Rieu was only playing to the galleries, trying too hard to foist pop culture on the masses, commercializing and vulgarizing old favorites. His way with Anton Karas’s Third Man theme seemed to me especially romanticized, as did the opening selection, a medley of Strauss and colleagues' tunes. But I soon came to recognize Rieu's sincerity and joined in the spirit of the festivities. Evidently, the Strausses themselves had a high time with their music in concert and expected their listeners to do likewise. So, don't count on subtlety; Rieu plays for fun and merriment and hardly with subtlety or refinement. 

Producer Ruud Jacobs and engineer Ronald Prent recorded the music at Wijngrachttheater, Kerkrade, and Philips Classics released it in 1994. The sound they obtained appropriately fits the style of the music making. It's big and bold, meaning close, and recorded in a fairly resonant venue, making the smallish, twenty-piece Johann Strauss Orchestra (which has subsequently grown much larger) seem bigger than it is. Interestingly, the program concludes with a fairly direct interpretation of "Roses from the South," almost as though Rieu were saying, "See, I can play it straight, too!" If you like traditional Viennese waltzes but can also keep an open mind, you might enjoy this collection.


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

Jul 26, 2020

American Melting Pot (CD review)

Music of Alter, Barilari, Gould, Levinson, and Vazquez. David Yonan, violin; Christopher Ferrer, cello; Susan Merdinger, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

By John J. Puccio

Concert pianist and Steinway Artist Susan Merdinger explains her rationale for the current album, “American Melting Pot,” in this way: “My goal performing, recording and compiling this ‘American Melting Pot’ CD of my live concert performances of music by American composers is to demonstrate not only my deep commitment to supporting the work of living composers of my own time, but also to demonstrate the rich and varied legacies of musical traditions that are embodied in composers who were both born in the USA as well as those who were immigrated to the USA and now call America ‘home.’ It is my hope that the true American spirit of welcoming immigrants and their assimilation into a large society which embraces diversity, inclusivity and the dissemination of ideas, both musical and otherwise, will be celebrated and exemplified in the works I have chosen for this compendium of American music.

“In these works we can hear the influences of musical styles emanating from or originating in China, Eastern and Western Europe, South America, and the USA. Indeed, American music is a fusion and integration of musical styles as our American society is indeed a ‘melting pot’ of which I am very proud to be a part. It has been my great privilege and honor to work with each of these talented and distinguished composers.”

What Ms. Merdinger doesn’t mention is that she also premiered each of the pieces presented here, and that most of the live selections on the album are those very première performances.

First up on the program is a six-movement work called Pieces of China (1985) by Pulitzer prizewinning composer Morton Gould (1913-1996). Ms. Merdinger premiered it in 1990 with the composer present, so we have to regard it as authoritative. My wife thought it sounded “like a Picasso painting,” which seems apt given the slightly askew musical portraits of Asia that Gould paints. Ms. Merdinger approaches them with her usual poise and grace, allowing her natural virtuosic talents to serve the music rather than vice versa.

Susan Merdinger
Next is the Ballade in F-sharp minor (2012) by Argentinean-born composer Fernando Vazquez (b. 1962). Although the Ballade may be a short piece (a little over six minutes), it includes a pleasing variety of textures and tunes, which Ms. Merdinger captures with her equally pleasing, sensitive, and affecting style.

After that, we have the Piano Sonata “My New Beginning” Part 1 (2018) by Aaron Alter (b. 1955), a piece the composer dedicated to Ms. Merdinger. Alter says that his inspiration for the piece was the first movement of Beethoven’s “Walstein” Sonata, Op. 53. You may recognize bits of the Beethoven, and you may also enjoy the jazz and even rock variations that Alter places on them. Ms. Merdinger easily keeps pace with the music, providing it with a poise that other interpretations may miss.

Then, there is the two-part Toccata Gaucha (2008) by Uruguayan-born composer Elbio Barilari (b. 1952). Barilari is both a classical composer and a jazz musician, and one can hear elements of both idioms in the work. It is certainly the jazziest music Ms. Merdinger plays on the program, and if she’d like to pursue a parallel career I’m sure the jazz world would welcome her.

The final piece on the agenda is Shtetl Scenes by Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson (b. 1958). It recounts scenes in a small Jewish village in pre-World War II Eastern Europe. Here, Ms. Merdinger performs the trio version of the work, accompanied by David Yonan, violin, and Christopher Ferrer, cello. The music is melancholic, dramatic, joyful, introspective, energetic, and haunting by turns. The piece itself and the trio’s realization of it afforded some of my favorite moments in the album.

Various sound engineers worked with producer Susan Merdinger at various different venues. For the Morton Gould recording it was Tim Martyn at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City in 1990. For the Fernando Vasquez piece it was Hudson Fair at the Chicago Latin Music Festival, 2013. For the Aaron Alter work it was David Hill and Svetlana Belsky at Harrison Oaks Studio, Fair Oaks, CA in 2018. For the Elbio Barilari music it was Hudson Fair again at the Pianoforte Salon in Chicago, 2013. And for the Ilya Levinson recording, it was Edward Ingold at the Northbrook Public Library, Illinois, in 2016. Various degrees of applause follow each selection.

There is a remarkable similarity of sound on the album, considering that the selections were recorded over a twenty-six year timespan. There is some evidence of possible noise reduction in the sound, resulting in a slight dimming of the highest frequencies. Nevertheless, the engineers miked things closely enough to reveal good detail yet not so close as to overpower one’s listening room. More important, the sound appears rich and mildly resonant, much as a live piano might sound.


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

Jul 19, 2020

Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer” (CD review)

Also, Franck: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano; Kreisler: Schon Rosmarin. Lara St. John, violin; Matt Herskowitz, piano. Ancalagon Records ANC 144.

By John J. Puccio

Lara St. John is not your usual violinist. She’s more daring than most, more apt to take chances. Not that she reinvents the music she plays nor distorts it with pyrotechnics or virtuosity for its own sake.

Ms. St. John says about herself and the two violin sonatas on the disc, “I’m a bit of a strange violinist, and when I was a kid, supposed to be learning all these normal works that folks play, instead I was learning Bartok’s solo sonata and Debussy, and Beethoven’s concerto and 10th sonata, and I just sort of missed some of these more ‘normal’ pieces. I learned both of these sonatas rather late in life--in my late 20s. When I first asked Matt (Herskowitz) to perform the Franck, which we have been playing together now for many years, I had performed it once or twice before, but had never been entirely free of a normal pianist’s ideas of ‘tradition,’ which I found hobbling and somewhat nonsensical. As for Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 ‘Kreutzer,’ I had been waiting for a pianist who would be able to keep up the extremes I envisioned for this piece, tempo and volume-wise. Obviously, old Ludwig wanted the pianist to improvise, which is what Matt does in the piano cadenzas.”

St. John began playing the violin at two years old and gave her first public performance as a soloist with an orchestra at age four. By five she was making frequent trips with her mother and brother to Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked under the instruction of Linda Cerone. By age nine, she won grand prize at the Canadian Music Competition. Then at age ten, she made her European debut with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, Portugal, after which she spent three years touring the continent, including Spain, France, and Hungary. At age thirteen she entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she later received her degree. At age sixteen, she moved on her own to the former Soviet Union, becoming the youngest postgraduate student at the Moscow Conservatory. In that same year, St. John traveled throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where she encountered the Romani people, a cultural experience that would later influence her musical performance projects.

Eventually returning to her studies, St. John attended three different academies: the Guildhall School in London, Mannes College of Music in New York, and the New England Conservatory. Since then she has appeared with major orchestras throughout the world and recorded over a dozen albums. She performs on the 1779 “Salabue” Guadagnini.

Lara St. John
Her colleague on the current disc is pianist, composer, and arranger Matt Herskowitz, who, according to his Web site, “has produced a series of critically-acclaimed recordings, premiered his works in settings from New York’s Central Park to Germany’s Koln Philharmonie, collaborated with top classical, jazz and pop artists, and has performed at music festivals across the globe.”

So, first up on the program is the Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer,” Op. 47, written by Ludwig Van Beethoven in 1803. It’s called the “Kreutzer” sonata because Beethoven dedicated it to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who hated it and refused to play it. Kreutzer called it "outrageously unintelligible." Maybe the composer was a whole lot before his day, and that’s why Ms. St. John chose to record it? In any case, like the Franck piece that accompanies it on the disc, the Beethoven sonata is in the key of A, which explains the album’s subtitle, “Key of A.” The sonata became even more famous after Leo Tolstoy published a novella called The Kreutzer Sonata in 1889, and it’s been popular ever since.

One can hear from the outset why Kreutzer refused to play Beethoven’s sonata. It’s extremely complicated and takes virtuosic skill to pull off. Ms. St. John does it with seemingly effortless skill. Beethoven wrote the piece as he was becoming ever more acutely aware of his impending deafness. Maybe he was angry, and the often tumultuous music reflects it. Beethoven appears to structure the whole first movement as an argument between the violin and piano, with each instrument holding its own. Listening to St. John and Herskowitz play it, one can practically see the ensuing battle going on, and it’s both a stimulating clash and a joy to hear. The central Andante and Variations come as a gentle, needed respite, with the performers at restful ease, even when the spirits get more lively. The work ends on a relatively brief Presto, so expect a sprightly and festive finish.

After the Beethoven is the Sonata for Violin and Piano, written by the composer, pianist, and organist Cesar Franck in 1886. It’s a familiar sonata, one you may recognize, and it’s considered by many music critics as one of the finest sonatas of its kind ever written. It became so popular, in fact, that it has seen any number of transcriptions for other instruments, as well as an orchestral version. But it’s nice to hear the original.

Needless to say, St. John and Herskowitz have the measure of the work. Supposedly, Franck’s four movements represent the four stages of life: birth, youthful passion, tragedy, and joyous acceptance. Unlike the Beethoven, the conversation between the violin and piano is rapt and rapturous. The performers create a mood that is totally captivating, wholly delightful, and, like the music, flawlessly triumphal.

The program concludes with the little Schon Rosmarin (“Lovely Rosemary”), published by the Austrian violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler in 1905. As expected, it’s a charming rendition.

Producers Lara St. John, Stephen H. Judson, and Martha de Francisco and engineer Martha De Francisco recorded the music at the Fraser Performance Studio of WBGH’s Educational Foundation, Boston, Massachusetts in November 2017. The violin sound is crisp and extremely well detailed; and the piano is big and warm, just as though they were in your listening room with you. The two instruments complement one another, and the sound does both of them justice. You can hear every nuance of the music with this kind of definition.


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

Jul 15, 2020

Ears versus Brains…

By Bryan Geyer

Audiophiles often say “trust your ears”, but rigorously controlled trials conclude that what you think you heard is overwhelmingly predetermined by what you saw before or during your listening session. Clearly, vision overrides hearing; refer “Sight Over Sound in the Judgment of Music Performance”, at http://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580.

When components are compared under conditions that are not restricted to double blind control, expectation bias* and confirmation bias** will swamp aural perception. What you’re predisposed to conclude (by previously viewing the evidence) is what your ears will reaffirm. Refer https://www.audioholics.com/room-acoustics/mind-over-music. Also https://www.audioholics.com/editorials/placebo-effect.

The ability to accurately assess the performance of a specific piece of audio equipment is heavily dependent on the skill of the examiner. At a minimum, some recent grounding in basic (repeat: basic) electrical engineering is essential, as well as some practical experience in the application of analog audio circuit design. When these qualifications are satisfied and there’s free access to the relevant product specifications, a competent technician should be able to…
     …accurately assess the component’s probable performance.
     …identify any implicit limitations, and judge their impact.
     …project potential means for improved performance, and rate the relevance.

The common recourse for those who are not qualified to conduct an effective technical analysis is generally a listening trial. Unfortunately, listening is a flawed substitute. In addition to the classic “sight over sound” shortcoming that’s noted above, listening yields insufficient data. Prominent performance issues are often hidden and might not be apparent when listening. E.g.: If a source impedance is too high relative to the ensuing load impedance (a common issue), the signal will then be attenuated. Obviously, one cannot readily detect unknown and unexpected attenuation. It’s tough to hear evidence that’s essentially inaudible, regardless of how glaring it might appear when quietly considered in technical analysis.

Impatient audiophiles who sometimes insist that “I know what I heard!” need to realize that…
     …the eyes always predetermine what the ears hear. The “sight over sound” syndrome (see above) is real.
     …what you do hear might not include everything that you should hear.

So what’s an audiophile to do, when there’s a need to evaluate audio equipment, if technical prowess is lacking and aural trials are unreliable? Well, some decide to search the audiophile forums. You can sometimes find helpful stuff there, perhaps at the Audio Science Review site (https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php). But the audiophile forums are saturated with cult-infused groupthink†. They’re all about magic power line cords and miraculous speaker cables, curing power line impurities (to push AC regenerators), and the eternal blessing of everything that (still???) utilizes vacuum tubes. Aside from polishing one’s patience, there’s little to be learned at those fiefdoms. You can “smarten up” faster with other alternatives…

Check Audioholics, refer https://www.audioholics.com. Their full product reviews are exhaustive and well researched, and their technical advice reflects solid, science-based fact; no groupthink.

There’s a vast assortment of general information and DIY guidance provided on the exceptionally comprehensive Elliott Sound Products site. ESP is truly an essential treasure; it’s packed with reliable info and solid, science-based opinion. Do take just a moment—preferably right now—to scan the vital ESP articles and projects index pages.
     ESP’s main index—https://sound-au.com
     ESP’s general articles index—https://sound-au.com/articles.htm
     ESP’s project index—https://sound-au.com/projects.htm
     ESP’s projects by category index—https://sound-au.com/projects-0.htm
     ESP’s projects by number index—https://sound-au.com/p-list.htm
     ESP’s classic white paper on interconnect and speaker cables—https://sound-au.com/cablewhitepaper.htm
     ESP’s audio myths pages—https://sound-au.com/articles/myths.html

Prominent author Douglas Self’s site (http://www.douglas-self.com) is full of interesting audio-related fare, and serves as the reference shelf for his many books about all manner of solid state circuit design. I currently own three of Self’s design books, and I research their content frequently. (Self, who lives in the UK, has also been responsive in answering my inquiries about specific parts of that content.)

Audio industry icon Dr. Floyd Toole has a very helpful video presentation that’s well worth watching; see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrpUDuUtxPM&feature=emb_title, and his opus, Sound Reproduction, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2018, ISBN 978-1-138-92136-8) belongs in your audio research library. Do also note this paper, by Toole, which appeared on the Audioholics site: https://www.audioholics.com/room-acoustics/room-reflections-human-adaptation. It’s all about optimizing small room acoustics.

The prolific Ethan Winer (http://ethanwiner.com/index.htm) offers audio guidance on his multiple websites; also in the expanded 2nd edition of his 808 page book, The Audio Expert (http://ethanwiner.com/book.htm). It’s a well organized encyclopedic reference source for all things audio.

Bill Whitlock’s 2012 tutorial on audio system grounding and interfacing is well worth perusing, see https://centralindianaaes.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/indy-aes-2012-seminar-w-notes-v1-0.pdf. And Whitlock’s former company (he’s now retired), Jensen Transformers, has a comprehensive series of applications notes, AN001 thru AN009, that address related detail; see: https://www.jensen-transformers.com/application-notes/.

There’s useful general audio information available here: https://geoffthegreygeek.com. And Nuts and Volts, the DIY electronics magazine, offers this on filters: http://nutsvolts.texterity.com/nutsvolts/201807/?folio=16&pg=16#pg16. Sometimes Stereophile, the equipment review magazine, provides surprising guidance, like this info on output impedance…https://www.stereophile.com/reference/48/index.html. All worthy stuff.

In addition to the dozens of helpful papers compiled by the Audioholics team (https://www.audioholics.com), numerous product-specific manufacturer’s sites offer technical papers of merit. For example, Roger Sanders, of Sanders Sound Systems (where the principle product is hi-end electrostatic loudspeakers), offers 13 thoughtful, audio-related technical white papers; see…http://sanderssoundsystems.com/technical-white-papers. I personally recommend these papers without reservation. (Note: I’m not a strong proponent of electro-static type loudspeakers because they’re appropriate only in select situations. Full range ESLs are big, and require large listening rooms. They’re generally quite expensive, prone to narrow beaming, and all are inefficient; they eat lots (and lots!) of amplifier power. ESLs are also sensitive to some environmental variables (e.g., altitude, humidity), and some ESLs just seem to get buggy. All ESLs require periodic maintenance + careful cleaning, and all utilize hazardous high voltages.) Now please understand that my list of ESL caveats don’t have any bearing whatever on Roger Sanders’ excellent white papers, so read his papers. Use his ESLs, too, if they fit your personal profile. Sanders’ ESLs are probably the best ESLs that you can buy. They reflect all sorts of special measures to make them both practical and reliable, and they sound glorious, in addition to being highly accurate, but, hey, my stated comments still apply.

There are also good tech notes here: https://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/application_notes, as compiled by John Siau, VP at Benchmark Media Systems. I don’t concur with his blanket implication that “balanced interfaces will provide better performance” (than unbalanced interface connections) at all times, but my objection applies only because John Siau’s unfettered statement was likely intended as a sweeping generalization. Clearly, there are times (especially in a home setup) when unbalanced RCA-type coax interconnects provide precisely the same level of noise immunity as when using balanced XLR lines. (Refer Roger Sanders’ paper on this same subject.) What’s optimum is often dependent on prevailing conditions.

What I’ve cited here is just a jump start. There are probably lots of other product-related sites with competent and unbiased guidance. But do take care, when considering technical advice, that the thrust is honest and impartial; not biased blather composed to push a product.

Subjectivist oriented audio magazines, e.g., Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, have never appealed to my science-oriented psyche. I subscribed to the latter for a one year trial back in the mid-1980s, then gagged on the content and cancelled. Your own take could well differ, but I don’t think that you will ever learn much of technical merit from their kind of commentary. The magazine audioXpress (https://audioxpress.com) represents the other extreme. It’s basically a tech-type journal covering audio equipment, circuit design, and testing, with a heavy DIY slant. I subscribe, and I find some of the articles of considerable interest. The editing is often sloppy, and some staffers write as if translating (sometimes poorly), and the technical depth varies widely. But it’s the best that we’ve got these days, so I’d say yes, order it here: https://audioxpress.com/page/audioXpress-Subscription-Services.

BG (July 15, 2020)

**Re. confirmation bias, see…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias.
†Re. groupthink, see…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink.

Jul 12, 2020

Stravinsky: Music for Violin and Piano (CD review)

Bruno Monteiro, violin; Joao Paulo Santos, piano. Etcetera KTC 1682.

As time wears on, people tend more and more to forget the details of a celebrity’s life and remember only the highlights. So it may be with Igor Stravinsky, whom most folks might only know for his three early, revolutionary ballets, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). But the man lived a very long time (1882-1971), lived in both Europe and America, and passed through several musical stages in his lifetime, from the avant-garde to the neoclassical to his final, serial years.

The items presented on the current album are from Stravinsky neoclassical period, around 1920-1950 or so. The specific musical numbers are the Suite italienne for Violin and Piano (1925), the Divertimento for Violin and Piano from The Fairy’s Kiss (1932), the Duo Concertant for Violin and Piano (1932), Three Pieces for Violin and Piano from The Firebird, and the Danse Ruse for Violin and Piano from Petrushka (1933). In fact, according to a booklet note, the program included here is the same one that the composer and pianist Samuel Duskin presented as a single concert many times across Europe in the 1930’s.

The violinist is Bruno Monteiro, whose work I have reviewed before. According to Monteiro’s biography, the Portuguese violinist is "heralded by the daily Publico as 'one of Portugal's premier violinists' and by the weekly Expresso as 'one of today's most renowned Portuguese musicians.' Bruno Monteiro is internationally recognized as a distinguished violinist of his generation. Fanfare describes him as having a 'burnished golden tone' and Strad states that his 'generous vibrato produces radiant colors.' Music Web International refers to interpretations as having a 'vitality and an imagination that are looking unequivocally to the future' and that reach an 'almost ideal balance between the expressive and the intellectual.' Gramophone praises his ‘unfailing assurance and eloquence,’ and Strings Magazine summarizes that he is 'a young chamber musician of extraordinary sensitivity.'"

Bruno Monteiro
Monteiro’s longtime collaborator is Spanish pianist Joao Paulo Santos, a graduate of the Lisbon National Conservatory and student in Paris of Aldo Ciccolini. For the past forty-odd years Santos has worked with the Teatro Nacional de S. Carlos, the Lisbon Opera House, first as Chief Chorus Conductor and more recently as Director of Musical and Stage Studies. He has also distinguished himself as an opera conductor, concert pianist, and researcher of less-known and forgotten Portuguese composers.

Together, Monteiro and Santos make a formidable team. Now, as to the music, if you’re not a serious Stravinsky aficionado, you may be surprised. These selections are among his neoclassical period, as I mentioned, starting with the Suite italienne. If it sounds familiar, it ought to. It comprises a part of the composer’s Pulcinello Suite of a few years earlier. As always, Monteiro uses his violin as a second voice, the instrument singing radiantly, and Santos’s unaffected accompaniment flawlessly highlights the violin’s lyrical message.

The rest of the program follows suit. The music and the playing are elegant and refined as befit the period. The Divertimento on The Fairy’s Kiss is generally lighter, airier, and sprightlier than most of the other pieces on the disc. Yet the music’s rhythms continue to thrust it forward, and Monteiro makes the most of its continuously fluctuating contrasts. (At various times I thought I was listening to Honegger’s steam train or Leroy Anderson’s waltzing cat.) The music is fun, and Monteiro and Santos appear to be having a good time with it. Even the Adagio has its lighthearted moments.

The Duo Concertant seems to me the most serious music on the agenda. Also, it is perhaps the most “modern” of these neoclassical pieces in its sometimes strange and haunting variables. The Firebird music hardly needs explanation, but as performed here, it takes on a more melancholy aspect than usual. Monteiro in a booklet note calls it an “ethereal” or “magical” quality. Whatever, it is fascinating. The Danse Ruse, drawn from Petrushka, that concludes the program is energetic without being boisterous and rounds out the proceedings with a fine flair.

Producer Bruno Monteiro and engineer Jose Fortes recorded the music at Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal in November 2019. The solo violin sound is clear and resonant, quite realistic. The piano accompaniment is equally good, if a tad close. Still, it’s some of the best violin and piano sound you’ll find on any recording, so all is well.


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

Jul 8, 2020

A State of Wonder, The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 and Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning (CD and Book review)

Glenn Gould, piano. Sony Classical Legacy S3K 87703 
Philip Kennicott, author. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. ISBN 978-0-393-63536-2

By Karl W. Nehring

As Monty Python were wont to declare, “And now for something completely different.” What we have here are recordings and a book so intimately bound together and so individually as well as jointly rewarding that it just seems to make sense to review them both together. Many music lovers, but especially those with a deep appreciation for the music of J.S. Bach, are most likely familiar with one or even both of legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s two Columbia recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Counterpoint is, as stated on the cover, a memoir of Bach and mourning. A memoir of Bach in terms of the author’s efforts to be able to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a memoir of mourning in the sense of his grief over the loss of his mother. Mourning for his mother drives him to master the Bach, partly as a diversion, partly to recapture his youth. Working on the Goldbergs drives him to analyze more deeply, at times painfully, his  relationship with his mother. It also drives him to reach inward, sometimes painfully, for memories of his learning to play the piano, of teachers he studied with, of his successes and failures.

Early in the book, author Philip Kennicott writes that “simply being a bystander, a passive listener to music, isn’t an entirely satisfying form of understanding. For years, I had felt this way about the great piano works that were beyond my abilities, among them Bach’s Goldberg Variations... At a moment when it seemed imperative to understand the world and life more deeply, I wondered if the Goldberg Variations might test the possibility of achieving true knowledge of music. I wondered if perhaps I should learn to play them.” A few pages later, he goes on to observe that “the silly ethos of dreaming the impossible dream is a good way to live in perpetual regret, unable even to muster the energy and will to take on the manageable challenges of a reasonable dream… Learning the Goldberg Variations, however, seemed an eminently reasonable thing to do.

As you might anticipate, it is nearly inevitable that someone who writes a book about learning to play the Goldbergs is going bring up Glenn Gould and those famous recordings. After coming back home following his mother’s death, the inevitable indeed occurs. Feeling the need to listen to something as he mourned in his silent dwelling, Kennicott turns to Gould and makes some observations about the first of Gould’s two recordings. “So I put on Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations in 1955, one of the most admired and thorny recordings ever made. With its patina of thin, pre-digital sound, it captures a pianist doing the miraculous, clarifying as with colored light the intertwining lines of Bach’s thirty variations on a recurring bass pattern. Even critics who find it sometimes dry, or even tendentious in its almost aggressive flaying of the music’s sinews, still stand in awe of it. If it were made today with all the tools available for tweaking and distorting sound, one would suspect the pianist, and his engineers, of studio fraud. As I listened to Gould play, I sensed in the Goldberg Variations the same inexhaustibility of emotion and meaning that I had felt in the Chaconne during the days of my mother’s death. And the perfection of Gould’s playing, his mental tenacity, made me shudder.”

Yes, the sound on the 1955 recording is on the thin side. If anything, though, that thin sound seems to emphasize the utter precision and clarity of Gould’s playing. At times, the sound makes his piano sound something like a harpsichord. Something Kennicott fails to observe about the Gould recordings (both of them, in fact) though, is the sound of Gould’s humming, which Gould was famous for. For some (I among them), the extraneous noises you sometimes hear on  a Gould recording are not bothersome and are in fact endearing, making his whole enterprise seem more committed and personal. For others, those noises are a distraction and a nuisance – even a deal-killer in some cases. Perhaps Kennicott is too much of a gentleman to call out another pianist, perhaps his playback system was not all that revealing, perhaps he did not really notice them because he was too busy analyzing Bach’s writing or Gould’s playing, or perhaps he occasionally heard them but just didn’t care. In any event, the 1955 Gould recording is an X-ray rendition of the score that is simply astonishing in terms the virtuosity of Gould’s fleet-fingered interpretation. If you are a fan of the Goldberg Variations, Gould’s 1955 recording is something you really ought to hear, even if you already own a version you are quite happy with.   

Glenn Gould
Kennicott writes of the 1955 recording that “Gould’s first recording of the variations is fast, fleet, and spirited, and it came as a tonic to the full-toned and ponderous way that Bach was s usually played in the middle of the last century. Gould’s manic tempos enlivened the dance rhythms that run throughout the cycle, and his unerring mastery of the virtuoso demands in the faster variations had a brilliance that allowed new generations to discover the work not just as a revered monument to polyphony, but as a scintillating showpiece. But it was Gould’s clarifying of the musical lines that made the most lasting impression…”

As the book progresses, Kennicott purchases a score of the Goldbergs, noting that they were never actually titled as such: “The music I knew I finally needed to buy that morning in Chicago was the piece that had haunted me for the past year, a work published with the rather daunting title page: “Keyboard Practice consisting of an aria with thirty variations for the harpsichord with 2 manuals prepared for the Enjoyment of Music Lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach.” The author goes on to recount the story of how those variations came to be called the Goldberg Variations, presenting some interesting historical facts and discussing the merits and demerits of some of the accounts that have been presented from time to time as explanatory tales.

Philip Kennecott
He also delves into analyses of the music itself, discussing issues such as the relationship between the aria and variations, the order of the variations, what Bach may or may not have intended in terms of how they should be played, and the various strategies that Kennicott employed in trying to understand and memorize different passages as he practiced them over and over again. These observations are interwoven with details about Bach’s life, details about Kennicott’s life, especially his complicated relationship with his mother, plus his relationships with his teachers past and present. Along the way he also offers some opinions about noted pianists, such as this one about one of the most revered pianists of the 20th Century: “When I was young, I adored Vladimir Horowitz, who played like a wizard, brilliantly and with terrifying virtuosity, yet he warped the music to his purposes, forcing it to dynamic and expressive extremes, and creating new textural effects with no sanction from the composer… Today, I find his playing exhausting, like suffering an extrovert at a party who has an opinion on every subject.” Ouch!

Returning to the subject of Gould, Kennicott opines that “no pianist has had a greater impact on public perceptions of the Goldberg Variations than Gould. It was the first piece he recorded, in 1955, after signing with Columbia Records, and a work he returned to at the end of his life for a thoroughgoing reappraisal. Those two recordings, bookends to a meteoric and idiosyncratic career, offer an encyclopedia of choices a pianist can make about the music of Bach.” He goes on to point out that in Gould’s 1981 recording, “he extended rational control over all its dimensions. In this autumnal interpretation, he offered his view of a central debate about Bach’s variation cycle that still divides musicians, theorists, and listeners, and that is: Are the variations a single, coherent work, consistent and unified in all their parts, or a collection of diverse ideas assembled to show the variegated breadth of musical possibility? … Although Gould would say of the Goldbergs, “As a piece, as a concept, I don’t really think it quite works,” his second recording was his attempt to make it work, to unify it and present it not as a string of delightful episodes but as an integrated whole. … In Gould’s last recording, he went even further to in an attempt to bring and extend a logic of consistent pulse to the entire work, reflected in orderly (although not always simple) tempo ratios. ‘In the case of the Goldbergs,’ he said in a 1981 interview with the critic Tim Page, a conversation Gould mostly scripted, there is one pulse that runs all the way throughout.’”

That interview with Tim Page, a prominent advocate for Gould, is contained in the third disc included in this three-disc set, along with some outtakes from the 1955 sessions. It is fascinating document, with Gould explaining many of the choices he made in re-recording this might work for which his earlier recording had made him so famous. One especially interesting point that came out in the interview is the matter of timing. Page points out that although the 1955 recording seems so much faster (when you listen to both recordings, chances are you will agree), if you adjust for the presence/absence of repeats taken in the two recordings, and do not include the aria, which Gould plays much more reflectively and slowly in his later recording, the overall timing for the variations themselves is very similar. That was quite a surprise!

The very first CD I ever purchased – before I even had a CD player in my system – was Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. Perhaps that is an indication that I am not the most objective reviewer of this particular recording. A further disclosure is that in my relatively long life (how did that happen?) there have been two musicians for whom hearing the news of their death brought immediate tears to my eyes, Antonio Carlos Jobim and yes, Glenn  Gould. Another thing – I still tend to become a bit misty-eyed when I listen to the aria and hear his ghostly humming. My wife and I still occasionally reminisce about that magical time we were driving up to Buffalo watching those beautiful snowflakes fall while listening to the Goldbergs on the car radio. No, I am definitely not the most objective reviewer of this particular recording, so when I say that Gould’s 1981 recording is an engrossing account of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, you may take that with a grain of salt. 

For Kennicott, too, listening to Gould’s recordings proves to be an emotional experience, perhaps even more so than a musical one. “No pianist can play these works without at some point grappling with what seems a rigorous syllogism: Bach is to music as Gould is to Bach. … Learning to admire Gould meant facing up to the consequences of having avoided Bach for so long. When I finally turned to Bach I grasped for the first time the vastness of my musical failings and I understood my neglect of Bach not just as a youthful oversight, but as a willful decision that had cost me years of unnecessary struggle.” But Kennicott presses on, never really mastering the Goldbergs, of course, but at least learning them well enough to be able to play them. Reading his observations about them is interesting, as is reading about his memories of his relationship with his mother, a relationship that was complicated and often fraught with tension and conflict. Reflecting back on his mother, he writes, “By the end of her life, I can think of only one piece that she genuinely enjoyed, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s violin fantasy ‘The Lark Ascending.’ Music, which had been a large part of her life as a girl and a young woman, was eventually thinned out to a single piece, a musical representation of a bird rising into the air, leaving earth and earthbound things behind, before it ‘to silence nearer soars’ -- the words of George Meredith, whose poem inspired the English composer. And although there is a universe of difference between the two pieces, the simple violin fantasy full of melodic afflatus and the Goldberg Variations with their contrapuntal complexity, I cannot hear the final repeat of the aria at the end of Bach’s masterpiece without thinking that something in it ‘to silence nearer soars.’”

But not everything in the book is so serious. Take, for instance, Kennicott’s account of his dog, Nathan, whom he acquired to provide him some companionship after his mother’s death. Nathan, it turns out, did not like Baroque music, especially Bach, and had a special hatred for the Goldbergs, which, of course, Kennicot had committed to mastering. Needless to say, this created some challenges – even driving Kennicot to acquire an electronic keyboard that would allow him to practice using headphones, which still did not completely placate his canine companion.

Near the end of the book, the tone becomes serious once again as Kennicott reflects one final time on what the meaning of music is and what his quest to master the Goldbergs has brought him. “Did learning the Goldberg Variations help me crawl out of the hole I was in after my mother’s death? Not at all, and the idea was absurd. In emotional terms, I might be in the same exact place had I studied ornithology or taken up a sport or played "Angry Birds." The best one can say of music is that it is a powerful substitution, directing mental energy away from thoughts of death and loss, but it also makes us aware or our insignificance, our frailty, our susceptibility to suffering.”

Serious stuff indeed, but then a couple of pages later, Kennicott offers the reader this bone to chew on: “I wish my playing of this music brought as much pleasure to human beings as my not playing it does to my poor suffering dog, Nathan.”

All in all, Counterpoint is an engaging, informative, and entertaining book. You don’t need to be a fan of the Goldbergs or even of Bach to enjoy it. Including as it does both Gould’s seminally important 1955 Goldbergs and his 1981 rethinking of the work in updated sound, plus the eye- and ear-opening bonus interview/outtake disc, A State of Wonder is a remarkable CD release, well worth seeking out. If you read the book, you will want to hear the CDs. If you hear the CDs, the book will help you hear and appreciate them in a whole new light. Unless you are a dog named Nathan, that is.


Jul 5, 2020

Schubert: Trout Quintet (CD review)

Also, Waltzes, Landler. Christoph Eschenbach, piano; Quatuor Thymos. Avie AV2416.

As with so many popular classical pieces (and what chamber piece is more popular than Schubert’s “Trout” quintet), this one has been recorded by practically every major pianist and every major trio, quartet, and quintet in the world. Christoph Eschenbach, the featured pianist on the present recording, has already done the piece himself on DG and now does it again on Avie. This means the competition is enormous, and any new recording has to be pretty special to gain recognition. Does Eschenbach measure up? Do he and his fellow musicians measure up to your own personal expectations in the material? Do they measure up to my own favorite recording with an augmented Beaux Arts Trio on Philips and Pentatone? Maybe not.

Pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach (b. 1940) is certainly up the task of producing a satisfying “Trout.” He has won numerous first-place piano competitions, including first prize in the Clara Haskil Competition in 1965. He began his recording career in 1964 with Deutsche Grammophon, and he studied conducting with George Szell and Herbert von Karajan. His countless recordings as a pianist and conductor over the years bear testament to his skills as a musician.

Now, on to the Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 “Trout” by Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote it in 1819, when he was only twenty-two years old (although it never saw publication until a year after his death, so few people outside of Schubert’s friends and family ever heard it in his lifetime. Remarkable). Schubert composed it for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, not because that was a preferred arrangement of the time but because several musicians were coming together to play a quintet by Hummel, and Schubert figured he’d write something of his own for them to play.

Christoph Eschenbach
The work is known as the “Trout” because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert's earlier song, “Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). Schubert wrote it at the request of Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy Austrian music patron and amateur cellist, who suggested that Schubert include a set of variations on the “Trout” song.

The performers on this Avie disc are members of the Thymos Quartet: Gabriel Richard, violin; Nicolas Carles, viola; Delphine Biron, cello; and guest artist Yann Dubost, double bass; with the addition, of course, of Eschenbach on piano.

Eschenbach, whom one must assume had the greatest voice in the way the ensemble plays the quintet, keeps the tempos and rhythms throughout the piece at a steady, modest gait. While I don’t sense quite the same degree of joy and amiability I do with the Beaux Arts assemblage, I do find it an appropriately relaxed, mature, confident reading.

The recording marks the eightieth birthday of Mr. Eschenbach, and what sweeter piece of music could make a more fitting tribute to his golden age. The interpretation has a sort of mellow quality about it, especially the second-movement Andante, which seems a tad more melancholy than one usually hears. The fourth-movement Variations on the “Trout” theme seemed a touch lax to me, but again that may be in keeping with the ripened character of the rest of Eschenbach’s approach. In all, though, it’s a sensitive rendering of a well-worn classic.

The couplings for the “Trout” are a selection of Schubert’s waltzes for string quintet (arranged by Olivier Dejours), performed by the Thymos Quartet (with Anne-Sophie Le Rol, second violin); and an additional selection of seven landler (German moderately slow folk dances that preceded the waltz), performed by pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger. The waltzes are a total delight and impressed me more than anything else on the disc.

Producer and engineer Francois Eckert recorded the music at Salle de repetition SR1 and Amphitheatre- Cite de la musique, Philharmonie de Paris, France in May 2016 and September 2019.
The overall sound in the “Trout” is a little close for my taste, but it’s otherwise nicely detailed and fairly well imaged. The piano, however, appears a bit softer and more distant than the other instruments. Go figure.

I enjoyed the sound of the companion pieces, recorded about three years later than the “Trout,” more than I did the “Trout.” The instruments appear not as closely miked and seem more realistic to my ears. The group of players in the waltzes is more of a whole, too, and the solo piano in the landler is well defined.


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

Jul 1, 2020

Legacy Audio Powerbloc2 Power Amplifier (Amplifier review)

Manufacturer: Legacy Audio, Springfield, IL USA  (800) 283-4644

By Karl W. Nehring

Legacy PB2, front
Before commenting on the specifications and performance of the Powerbloc2 power amplifier from Legacy Audio, let me first establish some historical perspective. Back in the late 1970s when I was a graduate student with a growing family, a passion for audio, and a limited budget, Sony released a revolutionary pulse width modulation (“Class D)” power amplifier, the TA-N88B, which was the first such amp to be commercially available. Through a simple twist of fate, I happened to run across a brand-new TA-N88B that an audio store in the area was selling for somewhere around half the standard retail price of $1,200 (which would be more than $4,000 in 2020 dollars). Although at the time I did not have an extra $600 lying around, I just had to have that amp, so I wracked my little brain to come up with a way to get it. (A legal way, that is – breaking into the store in the wee hours of the morning was not a viable option.)

The legally valid plan that I came up with led me to the office of our local bank, where I talked to the manager and explained to him that I had found an incredible deal on this piece of audio equipment. If he would lend me the cash to purchase it, I would be able to pay him back in installments, or else I could sell the thing for more than the purchase price, pay him back with a bit of interest, and we would all be happy. Believe it or not, he bought my story and made out the loan. Small-town (actually, not even a small town – a rural village), old-school (four decades ago, recall) friendliness at its finest. Alas, our local branch shut down long ago, the local bank got swallowed up by a larger one, and I am certain it would be not nearly as easy nor informal today. (Of course, in today’s world, when we want something we can’t afford, we just whip out the old credit card, right?!)

Why was I so desperate to buy this amplifier, besides the fact that it was for sale at such a low price? It might be hard to imagine nowadays, when Class D power amplifiers (and power amp stages in receivers, integrated amps, and powered speakers/subwoofers) are quite common, just how radical the idea seemed when the Sony was introduced. Here was an amp the used then-new V-FET transistors (a term that subsequently disappeared) as switches – the job that transistors are actually best at – amplifying the audio signal. Crossover distortion was no longer a factor, it put out 160 watts per channel, ran cool both at idle and when driven hard, and came in a sleek physical package about the size of a preamplifier. The “B” in the nomenclature indicated a unit with a what Sony called a bronze finish, a kind of light gold or champagne color that was simply gorgeous. Later, most of the units imported to the U.S. were the TA-N88, which featured a more mundane silver color scheme. At about 25 lbs., it was not heavy for a power amp of its output capability, and there were no sharp heat sinks to cut your fingers.

Legacy PB2, rear
The specifications for the Sony amp do not seem very good by today’s standards, but in the late 70s/early 80s, they were nothing to be ashamed of. The amp put out 160 watts per channel into 8 from 5 Hz to 40 kHz with no more than 0.5% THD, damping factor was 20, S/N ratio was 110 dB. Yes, the damping factor was pretty low, and the THD a bit high, but those specs compared well to tubed power amps of the day, and these were the days when tubed power amps were considered the hot setup. But the Sony put out more power, ran much cooler, and weighed much less than any decent tubed power amp. It would fit in your room and not heat it up.

Well, it sounded pretty good in my system back then, driving KEF 105s in the same listening room that I use today, but I did not keep it for long. I soon sold it for $800 or so, paid off my loan, and put some money in my pocket. Why did I keep it for so short a time? Two reasons, really. First, I did not really trust the technology. I always had the sense that the thing was running at the ragged edge of reliability. Second, it was rated for a minimum speaker impedance of 8. At lower impedances, that already narrow treble bandwidth would droop even more as a consequence of the passive output filtering Sony used to keep the high-frequency energy produced by the switching frequency of the amp out of the speakers.

The Sony was on the market for a few years and then disappeared. The failure rate was high and replacement parts became hard to find. But four decades later, there have been significant advances in technology, and the Legacy Audio Powerbloc2  is rated at 325 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 650 into 4, 1.5 Hz to 70 kHz, damping factor of 1,000, S/N of 117 dB, and weight 13 lbs. Compared to the Sony, then, the Legacy amp has twice the power, two orders of magnitude less distortion, nearly twice the bandwidth, a 50X better damping factor, and the ability to drive low-impedance speakers. The amp is a dual mono design, each channel with its own 30-amp power supply. Moreover, the Powerbloc2  at $1,800 costs less than half what the Sony would cost in today’s dollars.

So, after all that, how does the amp perform? Very well indeed. Over the years I have owned and auditioned many power amplifiers by virtue of my decades as a reviewer and editor of an audio magazine. Most of these I have auditioned in my own listening room, but I have also auditioned my amps in the systems of friends and audio dealers (remember those?). At the time I obtained the Powerbloc2 for audition, my reference amplifier was the Audio by Van Alstine (AVA) FET Valve 550HC, a 275 wpc Class A/B design with a hybrid tube/FET input stage driving a MOSFET output stage. Of all the amps I had ever employed in my system, it offered the best sonic performance.

When I compared the AVA with the Legacy, I preferred the sound of the latter, which just seemed to be slightly cleaner in the trebles and slightly tighter in the bass without giving up any of the glorious midrange provided by the AVA  What the Powerbloc2 did for beautiful choral recordings such as The Suspended Harp of Babel by Cyrillus Kreek or Translations by Eriks Esenvalds was simply breathtaking, revealing the nuances of voices in space better than I had ever heard. No, I am not talking about “night and day” differences, I am talking about subtle shadings of difference. I am not one to claim that all amplifiers sound the same; however, I do believe, a belief bolstered by many years of direct experience, that the differences between competently designed amplifiers of similar power ratings are largely indiscernible and subtle at best. If you hear a big difference between two such amplifiers, chances are you are in fact hearing differences in volume level between the two amplifiers, an amplifier with some sort of problem, or your own prejudices or imaginings.

Still, listening to the Powerbloc2 driving my Focus SEs has been a truly rewarding experience, especially on the large orchestral music that I love by composers such as Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Elgar, Arnold, Ravel, etc. An especially revealing and rewarding musical experience for me recently was listening to the SACD version of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Telarc. Not only were the big sounds rendered cleanly and powerfully, but the near-silent moments such as when vocalists and/or chorus would enter after a pause were simply sublime. The Powerbloc2 excelled at both ends of the volume scale of this excellent recording. On completely different sorts of music, such as the acoustic guitar shadings of Ralph Towner, the modal jazz on Miles’s Kind of Blue, and Vikingur Olafsson’s expressive piano stylings on Debussy-Rameau, the Poswerbloc2 made the music come alive without fail.

Incidentally, after spending a good amount of time enjoying music with the Powerbloc2 in my system, I decided I would like to try the Goldpoint SA-4 “passive preamp,” which has been recommended in Classical Candor by both John Puccio and Bryan Geyer. Having been perfectly satisfied with my Legacy Audio StreamLine preamp (no longer available) for quite some time (again based upon auditioning many units over the years, including solid-state, tube, and hybrid units of great repute), I was not expecting any sort of noticeable – much less “revelatory” – sonic improvement. To be honest, I was motivated primarily by the idea that a passive unit would never present any problems caused by capacitors or other parts in an active unit eventually falling off in performance or, worse yet, failing, and secondarily by my knowing a music lover/audiophile friend who had expressed an interest in acquiring my preamp should I ever be inclined to part with it. With these factors in mind, I auditioned the Goldpoint, found that it performed just fine in my system, possibly even offering a slight bit more transparency and clarity overall.  Once convinced of the impeccable performance of the Goldpoint, I sold the StreamLine and am perfectly content with the way my system sounds. For those with turntables, of course, the passive controller route is not a viable option, but for those whose source material is exclusively digital, the Goldpoint is certainly an attractive alternative to a high-quality, big-buck preamplifier.

Back to the Powerbloc2. What a wonderful amplifier and what a solid value! No, $1,800 is not inexpensive, but if you are a classical music lover (especially of large-scale orchestral works, opera, or organ music) with audiophile leanings who is looking for a terrific sounding amplifier with this kind of power and an  ability to drive difficult speaker loads, the choices available to you are not many, and if you want an amp that can do so while running relatively cool, taking up little space, and weighing so little while still being solidly built (e.g., premium input and output connectors, a rugged metal case, and a confidence-inspiring on/off switch), I know of no real competition for this amplifier at anywhere near this price.


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