Aug 30, 2020

Classic HAUSER (CD review)

Music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and others. HAUSER, cello; London Symphony Orchestra. Sony 19075988532.

By John J. Puccio

He’s young; he’s handsome; he’s talented. He is (or was) one half of the crossover phenomenon called the 2CELLOS. Now he’s also a singles act, a gifted cellist that Sony appears to be marketing as another Mario Lanza. He is so big, in fact, that Stjepan Hauser has now outgrown his name and is just HAUSER. Yet so big that his name can only be accommodated by capital letters (like 2CELLOS), making him, I suppose, even bigger than Liberace or Cher. You can see where I’m going with this.

HAUSER’s latest release, “Classic HAUSER,” is more like a pop concert than an actual classical album. Yes, it says “Classic” in the title, but Sony is clearly going after the youth market here, no doubt mainly young women who may swoon over both the Romanticism of the music and the good looks of the artist. The disc comprises sixteen selections, the longest being around eight minutes and the majority being closer to the pop standard of four minutes or less. A booklet note tells us the final item, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, is 0:00 minutes. You can’t get much shorter than that. (Actually, it’s 7:57.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t help thinking of the first “classical” album I ever bought: a boxed LP set of the 101 Strings playing parts of famous classical pieces. But they were complete parts, like entire movements of longer works. Here, HAUSER plays brief portions of popular classical music, most of them written for other instruments and transcribed for cello.

He plays the pieces beautifully, of course, and the London Symphony Orchestra backs him with their usual grace and accomplishment. But the music is still in bits and pieces, meant to satisfy fans of the soloist who are not necessarily fans of classical music. So, I guess what I’m saying is to be aware of what you’re getting. You may be satisfied for a moment or two, but you may also long for more.

Here’s a rundown on the album’s contents:
  1. Tchaikovsky - Swan Lake
  2. Rachmaninoff - Second Piano Concerto
  3. Dalla - Caruso
  4. Bach - Air On a G String
  5. Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker Suite
  6. Mozart - Concerto for Clarinet
  7. Chopin - Nocturne in C Sharp
  8. Mascagni - Intermezzo from Cavalierra Rusticana
  9. Yiruma - River Flows in You
10. Handel - Lascia Ch'io Pianga
11. Last - The Lonely Shepherd
12. Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 21
13. Borodin - Nocturne
14. Puccini - Nessun Dorma
15. Mozart - Lacrimosa
16. Barber - Adagio for Strings

HAUSER’s sound is lush and sonorous, depending on the selection. his tone golden, and his flexibility in handling all kinds of musical moments nigh perfect. I just wish he had more to work with than the golden oldies he presents here. While it’s all quite lovely, it’s all out of context, too, and all rather brief. What can we expect next? The Beatles Songbook, perhaps? And he would doubtless do it justice.

Producer Nick Patrick and engineers Neil Hutchinson and Simon Rhodes recorded the music at Henry Wood Hall, London in June 2019. The sound is befitting the nature of a pop album: It’s fairly close up, vivid in its detail, and somewhat flat in its perspective, with the soloist always well front and center. It’s also very loud, perhaps in anticipation of its being played in an automobile.


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

Aug 26, 2020

Clyne: Dance (CD Review)

Also, Elgar: Cello Concerto. Inbal Segev, cello; Marin Alsop, London Philharmonic Orchestra. AVIE AV2419.

By Karl W. Nehring

A while back I came across the name of composer Anna Clyne. I can’t remember exactly where or when, but my guess it was some reference to her in either a music publication or, more likely, something I saw on Twitter. In any event, not long after that, I mentioned her name to Bill Heck during the course of a phone conversation. To my surprise and delight, Bill responded that he and his wife had attended a concert by the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, where they had both been greatly impressed by a piece titled Within  Her Arms – a piece written by none other than Anna Clyne.

Intrigued, I checked Amazon for a recording, but alas, there was none to be found. I was soon able to audition it, however, thanks to YouTube, where I found a video of a live performance. Like Bill and Mary, I too was greatly impressed. I quickly sent the link to another music-loving friend, who was also impressed. How is this wonderful music not yet available on CD?!

Fast-forward several months and I see an ad in Gramophone for a CD featuring a work titled Dance by Ms. Clyne. My interest is aroused to the point that I immediately submit a request for a review copy. Fast-forward another couple of weeks and Dance shows up in  my mailbox. Fast-forward another hour or so (hey, it was dinnertime) and Dance is spinning in my CD player, where it has since remained on heavy rotation.   

Anna Clyne
London-born composer Anna Clyne (b. 1980), who now resides in upstate New York, composed Dance as the result of a commission from Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev, who premiered the work at the 2019 Cabrillo Festival. Segev has now recorded the piece with the LPO under the direction of conductor Marin Alsop, who had first introduced Segev to Clyne. Dance comprises five moments with rather unusual titles: I. when you’re broken again; II. if you’ve torn the bandage off; III. In the middle of the fighting; IV. in your blood; V. when you’re perfectly free. In the liner notes, Clyne, whose own instrument is also the cello, explains that “I knew that I wanted to write a multi-movement work in which each movement had its own personality, its own character. I’ve known this Rumi poem for a while and always thought it would be a good source of inspiration – it’s short, has repetition, a clear form of five lines and a strong physicality (for example, ‘broken open,’ ‘in your blood’). It also has a sense of urgency that I found compelling for this piece. It was a great way to structure the piece – to break it up into the five lines of the poem.” 

The first movement is slow, lyrical, and utterly beautiful. When I first listened to it, I was surprised that it did not seem at all dance-like. Only later, upon finally reading the liner notes, did I realize that Dance was never intended to be a suite of dances, as I had blithely assumed. This opening movement may not be a dance, but whatever it is, it is certainly gorgeous.

The second movement, which does sound a bit more dance-like, opens energetically and then soon features some fierce eruptions from the cello. There are some skittish melodies scurrying up and down in the strings, a yearning motif on the violin, and a stately, courtly dance figure from the cello. The overall mood is imaginative and playful, with an abrupt ending. It is this movement that exposes, alas, a sonic flaw with this recording. The cello is just pushed too far forward, to the point where it can sound gigantic, dominating the soundstage when Ms. Segev digs in hard.

The third movement adopts a slower pace and more somber tone. The melodies are  simpler, with the overall feeling being rhapsodic in nature. There is some pleasant interplay with the woodwinds before the movement comes to a peaceful conclusion.

Marin Alsop
The fourth movement opens with Segev’s cello sounding serious and reflective. As the music proceeds, her playing grows more frantic. Tympani stokes herald a shift to a slightly martial undertone. To my imagination  at least, the feeling evoked as this movement continues is suggestive of someone fighting against fate, trying to escape from some form of entrapment. For those listeners who might have reservations about music by contemporary composers, please allow me to point out that this composition is tonal, overflowing with recognizable melodies and themes.     

The fifth and final movement begins with low notes from the cello, perhaps expressing a sense of agitation. As the movement unfolds, you can sense a hint of Jewish melody (think Bloch, for example) from time to time as the playing seems to whipsaw between two modes, frantic and measured. My notes read, “Portrait of indecision?” The ending of the movement – and the piece as a whole – is calm and settled. All in all, Clyne, Segev, Alsop, and the LPO have given us 25 truly enjoyable minutes of music.

But wait, there’s more! If you call now, AVIE will throw in a performance of the venerable Cello Concerto by Sir Edward Elgar!

Seriously, though, although the focus of the release is the Clyne, this disc also includes a truly fine performance of the Elgar, which was composed 100 years prior to Dance. I would venture that many music lovers who follow this blog are familiar with the Elgar and may well have a favorite recording. Or two or three.

I must confess that although I have been a lover of classical music for 50 years now, and am now 71, it has only been within the past five years or so that I have finally begun to have much interest in the music of Elgar; indeed, only within the past two years or so have I been able to develop an actual love for some of it, the twin peaks of my Elgarian affection being his Violin Concerto (Hilary Hahn makes my heart flutter!) and Cello Concerto (Jacqueline du Pré makes me gasp at her passion and energy!). Although Segev does not play with quite the passion of du Pré, she does bring passion to her interpretation, clearly communicating a love for this deeply moving music. Segev plays the Elgar with lyrical precision.

Fortunately, the forwardness of her cello in the mix is not as obtrusive as it is in the Clyne. Perhaps the engineers backed off a little for this session, or perhaps Elgar’s score serves to make the orchestra more assertive in its role. The much older du Pré/Barbirolli recording is darker in tone, sounding at once a bit warmer and more natural; however, the modern Segev/Alsop recording sounds more focused and clear. Both recordings present the Elgar as a sublime combination of intellect and emotion, and both recordings include wondrous disc-mates (the AVIE with Clyne’s Dance, the EMI with Elgar’s Sea Pictures sung by the incomparable Janet Baker).

Despite my quibbles about the engineering, my enthusiasm for both the music and the performances leads me to give this new release from AVIE a highly enthusiastic recommendation. It also leads me to wish ever more fervently for more recordings of music by the most remarkable Anna Clyne. Bring it on!


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

Aug 23, 2020

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Grieg: Holberg Suite; Mozart: Divertimento in D major. Martha Argerich, piano; Seiji Ozawa, Mito Chamber Orchestra. Decca 485 0592.

By John J. Puccio

You’ve got a world-class pianist, Martha Argerich. You’ve got a world-class conductor, Seiji Ozawa. You’ve got world-class music, Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. And you probably have a world-class ensemble, the Mito Chamber Orchestra, although I wasn’t familiar with them. Whatever, it adds up to a world-class performance.

Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major between 1787 and 1789, and then revised it before its publication in 1801. Beethoven was the soloist at the concerto’s première in 1895, his debut performance, and he hoped both the concerto and the performance would help him make a name for himself. Beethoven would later say that he didn’t consider the First or Second Piano Concertos among his best work, and they do owe a lot to the earlier classical styles of Haydn and Mozart. Still, they have a buoyant charm that audiences find hard to resist, especially the Second Concerto’s playful finale.

I’m happy to say that throughout this album neither Ms. Argerich nor Maestro Ozawa seems to have lost any of their youthful spark. Even though tempos are unhurried, they are never sluggish. Far from it, at moderate speeds their playing is vibrant and joyful. The central Adagio is appropriately serene, contemplative, and hushed, with both the soloist and the orchestra playing most sensitively. In the lighthearted final movement, Ms. Argerich could be twenty again. She hasn’t lost a beat. None of this slowing down with maturity business for her. It’s a delightfully lively rendition of the music.

Martha Argerich
The second work on the program is the brief Allegro movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D major (1772). Mozart wrote it for string quartet but later transcribed it for string orchestra, which we have here. A booklet note tells us that the recording was a surprise musical gift to Ms. Argerich “when she was bestowed the Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan at a concert in Beppu in May 2017.” Ozawa affords it a lithe, comfortable, and affecting reading.

The program concludes with the Holberg Suite by Danish-Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg; it’s music he wrote in 1884 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the playwright Ludvig Holberg. Grieg’s official title for the piece is actually the rather cumbersome From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Olden Style, which isn’t exactly catchy. It’s a series of movements that Grieg originally wrote for piano but later adapted for string orchestra, which Ozawa and company play. In the work’s five movements, an introduction and four dances, Grieg tried his best to represent the music of Holberg’s era some 150 years earlier. Even if the result is not exactly a Peer Gynt suite, it has its moments, reminding one of a kind of a nineteenth-century Romanticized take on early eighteenth-century music. Ozawa and his players approach it with dignity and refinement, giving the final movement a jolly good turn.

Producer Dominic Fyfe and engineer Jonathan Stokes recorded the music at Art Tower Mito, Mito City Ibaraki, Japan in May 2017 and May 2019. The sound in the Beethoven is classic Decca: clear and well defined, a touch metallic, dynamic, a little close, and somewhat flat. For a comparison, I put on Stephan Kovacivich’s 1974 recording for Philips and found it warmer, better imaged, and more dimensional. Nevertheless, anyone who has listened to and enjoyed Decca recordings over the years will find this one pretty much in the ballpark. The two orchestral pieces--Mozart and Grieg--sounded more natural to me, rounder and sweeter, with only a few instances of hardness or brightness.


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

Aug 19, 2020

Rouse: Symphony No. 5 (CD Review)

Also, Supplica; Concerto for Orchestra. Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony. Naxos 8.559852.

By Karl W. Nehring

A composer who recently left us too soon, Christopher Rouse (1949-2019), had this to say about music. “Without music, my life would have no meaning. It has not only informed my life or enriched my life, it has GIVEN me life and a reason for living. I’ll never be able to explain why these vibrating frequencies have the power to transport us to levels of consciousness that defy words – I simply accept the fact that music has this miraculous power for me and for myriad other people I have known.”

Certainly, those interested enough in music to follow Classical Candor have an appreciation for Rouse’s paean to the power of music, whether that music take the form of classical, jazz, folk, soul, funk, bossa nova, showtunes, power pop, polka, rap, or whatever. We love music, and it loves us back. It can shape our lives in ways both obvious (e.g., choosing to become a professional musician) and subtle (e.g., making us smile in the midst of a stressful day).

As Thomas May points out in his liner notes to this recent Naxos release, Rouse offers an example of an obvious way: “The first piece of ‘classical music’ I remember hearing,” he (Rouse) wrote, “was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I was six years old and had been listening to a great deal of early, new-at-the-time rock ‘n’ roll; my mother said, ‘That’s fine, but you might like this as well.’ It was a recording of the Beethoven symphony, and I remember thinking that a whole new world was opening up to me, I decided that I wanted to be a composer. So when it came time for me to compose my own Fifth Symphony, my thoughts turned fondly to that time, and I resolved to tip my cap to Beethoven’s might symphony. However, I wouldn’t want to overstate the relationship. The opening of my symphony revisits the famous four-note rhythm of Beethoven’s, but the notes are quite different, and things take a different turn after a few bars.”

Giancarlo Guerrero
Rouse’s opening tip of the hat to Beethoven is played energetically by the Nashville forces under the direction of Maestro Guerrero. As the CD opens, that four-note theme jumps out from the speakers with manic intensity. As Rouse indicated, it is the same – but different. As the symphony proceeds, the orchestration is colorful and played with precision and gusto. Although the work is in one movement, there are shifts in mood that function much like the movements of a more traditional symphony. At around 8 minutes in, the bustling energy gives way to a quitter, slower sound. After 17 minutes, the overall mood shifts again, becoming more energetic, perhaps even a bit nervous-sounding. But there is another quiet interlude, at one point sounding almost forlorn. As the symphony builds to an exuberant finish, hints of the Beethoven can be heard again. All in all, this symphony is quite a romp. Yes, it is certainly more “modern” sounding than Beethoven, but it feels generally tonal and should appeal to all but the most conservative listeners.

The next piece on the album, Supplica (Italian for “entreaty” or “supplication”) has the feel of a Mahler/Bruckner slow movement. It is intense and focused, more inwardly focused, although there are moments that feel like someone calling out, as around the 8-minute mark with the pleading sound of a trumpet. It is an intense piece – not in the sense of being difficult to listen to, but rather in the sense of intense reflection and contemplation, with an element of yes, supplication, perhaps prayer. The final measures offer no real hint that any resolution has been reached, though, as the music ends quietly and ambiguously.

The final composition, Rouse’s Concerto for Orchestra, is the most challenging piece of the three on the CD. It is atonal (meaning that it has no definite key – not that it is dissonant or harsh-sounding) and bursting with energy. The sections of the orchestra get quite a workout, starting with bustling trumpets and bringing in unsettled-sounding trombones, strings, winds, and plenty of percussion along the way. The piece is complex, shifting in mood and color as it goes along, but always maintaining a high level of extroverted energy, which Guerrero and his orchestra are happy to supply, ably assisted by the engineers, who have captured the proceedings in splendid fashion.
There is a sense in which you can almost imagine these three compositions as forming one large symphony, with a fairly straightforward opening movement (Symphony No. 5)  an introspective middle movement (Supplica), and a brash, no-holds-barred finale (Concerto for Orchestra). Or maybe my imagination  is getting the better of me…

In closing, I will share another statement from the composer. It seems to summarize what the music on this release can do for those who listen attentively. “My hope has been to do for my listeners what Beethoven and Berlioz and Bruckner and Ibert and all of those others who worked – and still do – for me. I’ve wished to ‘pay it forward’ by inviting listeners to call on me to enter their hearts and their lives and allow me the honor of accompanying them on their road through life. If summoned I will try to be of use, to sing you a song, to paint you a picture, to tell you a story. Perhaps we can take a journey together. A caveat: I may sometimes take you to a place you’ll find it difficult to go, but my goal will always be at journey’s end to provide you with solace and strength.” 


To listen to an excerpt from this album, click below:

Aug 16, 2020

Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (SACD review)

Osmo Vanska, Minnesota Orchestra. BIS BIS-2386 SACD.

By John J. Puccio

The first time I heard the Mahler Seventh (on vinyl) must have been sometime in the early 1960’s. I can’t remember the conductor, and it didn’t impress me much. Then, much later, I heard Bernard Haitink’s first, analogue recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and I fell in love with it. I never found the recording on CD, and I believe it only appeared in a box set. Fortunately, Haitink recorded it several more times in digital with the Concertgebouw and Berlin orchestras, plus I had the pleasure of being in the audience to listen to him and his Concertgebouw Orchestra perform it at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and I loved it even more.

So, why am I rattling on about Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra when this is a review about Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra? Because they remind me a lot of Haitink and his old crew, and for me that is one of the greatest compliments I can give to Vanska. I enjoyed this recording.

The Seventh Symphony has always been one of Gustav Mahler’s more problematic and ambiguous works. It’s a transitional piece connecting the darker Sixth Symphony with the triumphant Eighth. Of course, musical scholars point out how Mahler connected all nine (or ten or eleven) of his symphonies, forming one grand musical statement. If there is a grand scheme in things Mahler, the Seventh has long been the neglected stepchild of the lot. While the other symphonies get most of the love, the Seventh often goes wanting for recordings and performances.

Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler’s works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations, especially with the subtitle “Song of the Night.” I remember one critic once explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of a trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling through rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a nighttime walk into the morning, the whole thing a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne. If Eugene O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night, you might consider Mahler’s Seventh a “Long Night’s Journey into Day.”

Osmo Vanska
Anyhow, the last time I reviewed Vanska doing Mahler, it was the First Symphony, where I thought Vanska was a little undernourished compared to the more pronounced realizations of conductors like Solti (HDTT or Decca), Mackerras (EMI), Horenstein (Unicorn), Kubelik (DG), Bernstein (DG and Sony), and Tennstedt (EMI). But here in the Seventh, it’s different. Vanska’s more gentle view of the subject is a welcome change from some of the overcharged, exaggerated, sometimes brutal accounts we often get. Vanska’s vision is one I can live with.

Mahler declared his Seventh Symphony his “best work” and its character “preponderantly cheerful,” probably because of the “tragic” nature of his preceding Sixth Symphony. Accordingly, Vanska approaches the Seventh with a lighter touch than, say, Solti or Abbado would.

The symphony has five movements: an opening and closing that act as sort of daylight bookends, and two Nachtmusiks on either side of a central scherzo. It’s really these “night music” sections that are at the core of the work. They are sweet, capricious, and eerie at the same time, as Vanska illustrates. Perhaps the first Nachtmusik is an early evening nocturne and the second an early morning nocturne. Mahler left no program for the music, so it’s up to the conductor and the listener to interpret things for themselves. Vanska employs a delicate hand with both Nachtmusiks. Then there’s that scherzo in the middle, which clearly relates to the surrounding Nachtmusik in that Mahler subtitles it “Shadowy.” If we see the music as a journey through the long hours of the night, surely the scherzo is around the witching time of midnight. Vanska takes the swirling waltz-like melodies at a graceful tempo, though, the whole thing floating above the fray.

The symphony ends on a jubilant, triumphant, Wagnerian note, which again perplexed some early critics who couldn’t see its connection to the musical moods that came before it. It does kind of pop up out of nowhere, yet Vanska’s conciliatory touch draws them pleasingly, if not entirely convincingly, together.

OK, so I liked Vanska’s recording. Does that mean I would recommend it ahead of Haitink’s? Well, think about it. Osmo Vanska is an excellent conductor, and the Minnesota Orchestra is one of the best in the country. Bernard Haitink is a great conductor, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the best in the world. However, Haitink’s Concertgebouw recording is hard to find anymore, what with Philips being long gone. And not only is Vanska’s recording easily available, it’s just short enough (without being rushed) to (barely) fit on a single disc. All things considered, Vanska’s Mahler Seventh is another top choice to consider.

Producer Robert Suff and engineer Thore Brinkmann recorded the symphony in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota in November 2018. They made the recording in hybrid SACD for either multichannel surround or two-channel stereo from the SACD layer or two-channel stereo from the regular CD layer. I listened in SACD two-channel stereo. Here, you’ll find smooth, balanced, concert hall sound that complements the music nicely. While it’s a bit dark and detailing may not be as pinpoint accurate as some audiophiles might prefer, it is fairly realistic. And timpani are especially well served.


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

Aug 12, 2020

On Noise, Coax, and Control…

By Bryan Geyer

In an earlier paper, I wrote about all of the various kinds of cordage that gets utilized when interconnecting the components that comprise home stereo systems. (See “On Equipment Interface Options”, at I’m now going to discuss a recent development that involves only the most popular of these various interconnecting cords, the kind of shielded coaxial cable (optimally type RG59U, characteristic impedance 75Ω) that’s commonly mated to RCA-type plugs and used to interconnect unbalanced inputs and outputs.

The EMI (electromagnetic interference) environs in a private home are not like those at a rock concert venue. In most homes, noxious EMI and RFI noise is minimal. There’s no strobed lighting, no motorized generators, no high output DC-to-AC inverters, and no RF transmitters. (But check the premises for wall-warts. Some old switching supplies might impose an illegal [not code compliant] EMI threat when in use.) Further, the cable runs required in a home installation are fairly short, and without the need to accommodate frequent disconnects and reconnects (“hop ons” and “hop offs”). When this benign reality applies, the noise implicit with unbalanced interconnects will be just about the same as that apparent with balanced cables. In such case, the much lower cost, inherent simplicity, easier handling, and space-saving advantage (RCA jacks consume less than half the chassis space as that required for XLRs) of RCA-type terminations make unbalanced cables the logical preferred choice. I personally encourage the use of unbalanced cables, preferably using RG59U coax, for most home stereo installations. Consider balanced XLR cables when some pending change in the site environs threatens to significantly increase the prevailing noise.

A NOISE TIP: Turn all of your audio components on, and select an unused input (or select your CD player without loading a CD). Make certain that your power amplifier is active; turn it on manually if it’s asleep and normally activated only by sound. Turn the main volume control full up, and press your ear against the grill of either main speaker. Can you detect a faint buzz? If so, that background noise can often be eliminated by running an 18 gauge wire from a signal ground (use the outer shell of any RCA input jack that’s on the back panel of your active or passive preamp) directly to the AC line ground port of the alternate AC socket that’s on the same duplex outlet as the one used to connect your main AC line strip outlet. Check this… …for a convenient way to make that simple connection by means of a banana plug adapter.

The best RG59U (75Ω) coaxial cable that you can buy is made by Belden; it’s their type 1505F, and it’s stocked by Blue Jeans Cable. I prefer this coax to Belden’s other premium coax cables that have a soft-foamed dielectric layer because 1505F is compatible with soldered-on RCA plugs. The soft-foamed coax equivalents provide slightly less shunt capacity, but you’re then confined to the exclusive use of crimp-on type RCA plugs, e.g., plugs from Canare and Taversoe. Crimp-type plugs are unusually long; they consume too much rear clearance. With Belden 1505F, you can order Rean’s soldered-on RCA plugs. I find the Rean (they’re a part of Neutrik) soldered-on plugs to be more rugged and less fussy—and they take less clearance than the longer crimp-style RCA plugs (see photo).

Belden 1505F cable exhibits a shunt capacity rating that’s still commendably low, at just 17pf/foot. Other unbalanced audio interconnect cable ranges from 12.2pf/ft. (for the softer air-foam coax) up to some 35+ pf/ft. With respect to shielding, Belden 1505F is almost as good as it gets. It has a densely woven double layer of copper braiding, one layer atop the other, with each layer providing a calculated 94% coverage. The PVC outer jacket Ø is 0.242 inch, slighter slimmer than the soft-foam coax cords at Ø ≈ 0.305 inch.

To order Belden 1505F coax with soldered Rean RCA plugs from Blue Jeans Cable, go to…, and scroll down to the next-to-last option box, where the heading reads “Belden 1505F Stereo Audio Cables”. Fill in the precise length(s) that you want to order (expressed in feet); note that the price is per pair (currently $42.25 for a 3 foot long pair). Order whatever lengths and quantities that you want. Forget the Techflex. Put your order in the shopping cart and proceed with the ordering process. During checkout, on the last page that gives you your shipping options and final pricing, you will see a text box to permit leaving a note. Use that text box to instruct Blue Jeans that you want them to…
Use Rean solder-on RCA plugs with 1505F. Do NOT use Canare crimp-on plugs.
If you fail to enter this instruction in the text box you will receive Canare crimp-on RCA plugs on your cable.

Blue Jeans further advises that you should not use the PayPal “quick checkout” option, as that will sometimes bypass their text block page. There is no additional cost for this special processing. The extra expense incurred in their precision soldering task is offset by the lower parts cost of the Rean (instead of Canare) RCA-type plugs.

Be assured that Belden 1505F coax cables with Rean soldered-on RCA plugs are among the finest quality unbalanced interconnect cables that you can buy, at any price. Assuming a direct aural comparison under controlled double-blind test conditions, you will be absolutely unable to distinguish any difference between these cables and any more costly equivalent. This challenge includes direct comparison with such fatuous substitutes as this ultra high-end product:
A DISCLAIMER: Given the potential tuning tweaks possible with this functionally equivalent cable, it could readily alter the accuracy (distort) the incoming source signal. In such case, an aural difference might then be apparent. The nature and extent of that distortion would be evident on instrumented measurement. (It’s likely to involve frequency response.) You might (???) prefer the distorted sound, but you’d be better served by selecting the cable that delivers the least change, hence best accuracy. A measurement would reveal the inaccuracies.

REGARDING CABLE SHUNT CAPACITY: The importance of minimizing the shunt capacity (hence the length) of unbalanced interconnecting cables will vary, dependent primarily on the value of the signal’s source impedance. The focus of concern is whether the net shunt capacity of the cable is enough to potentially degrade high frequency linearity; i.e., roll off the treble response.

In the event that your system involves a conventional solid-state setup, with various line-level sources feeding into an active solid-state preamp, and that preamp then connected to a stereo power amplifier (or to an external electronic crossover controller) with a high input impedance (i.e., Zin ≥ 30kΩ), you can dismiss concern about excessive cable length. In those cases, the output impedance of your source will always be quite low (it’s feeding the next stage from an emitter follower, and Zout is ≤ 100Ω), so you really won’t have to worry about the cables getting too long. If you’re still mired in the vacuum tube era, your source impedance from a cathode-follower stage will characteristically be some 6X to 10X worse (Zout ~ 450 to 700Ω) than from an emitter-follower, so yes, do be a bit more conscious of cable length concern. Assuming common 120pf-per-meter cabling and a vacuum tube cathode-follower stage with Zout = 600Ω, the cable length to the next high impedance load (i.e., the power amp) should not exceed ~ 15 meters. Of course, half of that length is enough for almost any sensible home installation.

However, the situation can change appreciably when you employ a “passive preamp”. (A passive source-selector box, where the output signal is taken directly from the wiper of the volume control attenuator.) In that case, the attenuator’s worst case (highest) Zout will be considerably > the Zout from an active emitter or cathode follower, and that increased Zout will materially impact permissible cable length. Examples: (a) If the attenuator was a log taper 50kΩ potentiometer (pot), it’s worst case Zout would be ~ 12.5kΩ, so you’re likely to initiate some treble roll-off (assuming 120pf/meter cable) if the length was > 1 meter max. (b) If using a 25kΩ pot, the limit would be 2 meters max. (c) If using a 10kΩ pot, the limit would be 4 meters max. In the event that you use coax that exhibits a shunt capacity > 120pf/meter (yes, it’s out there), your cable lengths should then be even shorter.

Do also bear in mind that these calculations assume that the ensuing stereo power amplifier (or external active crossover controller) presents a relatively high load impedance; something on the order of 30kΩ to 50kΩ or more. While this is generally the case, one prominent producer of hi-end stereo power amplifiers offers a model that exhibits a Zin of only 10kΩ (unbalanced), or 15kΩ (balanced); refer… That unusually low Zin would negatively impact these cable length calculations, and it would make this product a poor match for use with any passive preamp, although tolerable if the attenuator was 10kΩ. I am not aware of any other commercial audio power amplifier on the market that exhibits such extremely low input impedance as (some of) this company’s power amplifiers.

THE BUFFER OPTION: You can completely avoid all concern about the consequence of loading effects (even when it’s as low as 10kΩ) by inserting a unity gain buffer (UGB) stage. The UGB simulates an inviolate brick wall. It isolates the passive preamp’s volume control from all external loading other than that imposed by the UGB itself. A UGB is especially desirable in the event that you intend to use a premium volume control with precisely calibrated incremental (stepped) attenuation. The UGB should then be designed to present a fixed high impedance, something on the order of ~ 15X ≥ the worst case (highest) Zout of the attenuator; e.g., Zin ≥ 75kΩ in the case of a 20kΩ calibrated attenuator. (A 20kΩ pot’s worst case Zout = 5kΩ. The “worst case” always equates to the pot’s -6dB down point.) This would assure an absolute maximum loading error of -0.5dB at the -6dB position of the attenuator, with progressively less loading error at all other positions of that calibrated control. The UGB stage should further provide: Low Zout (~ 50Ω), minimum distortion, optimum linearity, and it should utilize high value input and output coupling capacitors (preferably of non-polar polypropylene) for good low frequency response.

Top quality UGBs are inherently simple in design. They’re often configured as discrete NPN/PNP complementary feedback pairs (CFPs)*, optimally with constant current biasing. CFP design is thoroughly addressed in Douglas Self’s book Small Signal Audio Design. (See new 4/22/2020 3rd edition, at… High performance UGBs of this sort will assure that the calibrated precision of the attenuator remains essentially as designed, free of the effects of any external loading that’s beyond the buffer. THD will be ≤ 0.001% for output swings ≤ 5Vrms, and noise will be inaudible when the UGB is constructed to observe star grounding, and fed from a separate linear regulated supply. I designed my own dual-channel UGBs to run off of a single-ended linear +40Vdc regulated power supply, using Acopian’s 40EB06 miniature module…;+Output+Current+Amps:+0.06;+++Regulation+Load+%2B%2F%2D:+0.02;+Line+%2B%2F%2D:0.02;++Ripple+mV+RMS:+1;+Case+Size:+EB-13,i674. My dual channel CFP UGBs draw ~ 36mA net; the Acopian 40EB06 is rated 60mA max.

Audio hobbyists have traditionally utilized a standard (active) preamplifier box when configuring an audio system. That habit stems from the days when vinyl was the principle hi-fi signal source. Today, anybody that’s still playing vinyl usually locates their low-level gain stage (with +40dB [MM] or +60dB [MC] of RIAA compensated boost) separately, nearer the phono cartridge, so all of the source signals now routed to a traditional preamplifier box are already at full “line level” amplitude; i.e., a level of some 2Vrms or more. In such event, there is then no need for any further amplification. The available line level signal is already sufficient to drive the stereo power amplifier to the full extent that your audio system can output.† Indeed, further line level gain is distinctly undesirable, as it would then force the volume control to be operated at unduly excessive loss.

A traditional active preamplifier box retains two lingering benefits: (1) It enriches the parties that make and market those relics, and (2) it normally provides a basic emitter follower output stage (a simplified UGB equivalent) to isolate the internal volume control potentiometer against the effects of external loading. You’d do well to…
            (a) ditch the preamp.
            (b) substitute a box with a superior (accurately calibrated) stepped volume control attenuator.
            (c) include a basic signal source selector switch inside your new box.
            (d) consider adding a capable UGB/CFP stage. (Much better performance than a simple emitter-follower.)
Steps (b) and (c) of this sequence can be accomplished as either a DIY effort (in which case you’d assemble your own calibrated attenuator, using multiple discrete ±0.1% tolerance metal film resistors), or by purchasing a commercial “passive preamp”, such as those offered by Goldpoint Level Controls (

Stacking a UGB stage onto the output of a volume attenuator is mostly a matter of personal preference. The benefit hinges on (a) the value of the attenuator that you’ve chosen, (b) the physical distance to the next high impedance load (your stereo power amplifier or external active crossover controller), (c) the actual value of the Zin at that input, and (d) the shunt capacity rating of the connecting cable. The UGB simply assures that the elegant precision of the calibrated attenuator won’t be sullied by any of those external influences, regardless of how they might vary, now or in the future. As a result, the true advantage conferred by adding a UGB might not amount to anything more than perfectionist’s pride. Of course, the aural perception of such pride would admittedly be quite subdued, although it’s likely to be audible to anyone who’s ever added a DIY UGB to their system.

PERSONAL REPORT: I have been using a passive preamp ever since 1984, and I’m now building my third generation version. Both of my earlier passive preamps performed well—I just lust to update, and three times in 36 years seems reasonable. My latest DIY effort features a 20kΩ stepped attenuator that’s scaled at -2dB/step over an initial spread of 17 steps (-34db), tapering to a total of -62dB over 6 additional steps prior to reaching the final fully-off (grounded) position. I use discrete 1/4 Watt low noise metal film resistors with ±0.1% (repeat, ±0.1%) tolerance (sourced from Mouser), and mate them to a premium grade Goldpoint model V24C-2 (Elma type 04) double-deck rotary switch with 24 stepped positions.

I’m concurrently building my fourth DIY unity gain buffer. While my previous UGBs were entirely satisfactory (yes, they all sounded the same), my latest CFP (complementary feedback pair) circuit is of a more esoteric design. In addition, this new buffer will utilize polypropylene (rather than PET film) non-polarized coupling capacitors.

DIY audio engineering can be a rewarding endeavor. It’s often enlightening, sometimes humbling, and always instructive. The most gratifying DIY advantage is that your project can always be better than the best that you can buy. The bounds of commercial practicality don’t apply when romping in your own DIY playpen.

BG (August 8, 2020)

*An IC op amp, configured as a simple voltage follower, can be used as a buffer, but the related supply voltage limitation would then restrict the output swing to relatively modest peak amplitudes. A better UGB can be built by using discrete transistors, configured as a CFP, and operated from a higher voltage supply; e.g., ±20Vdc as a split supply, or +40Vdc as a single-ended supply. This will assure that peak signal swings are well within ultra-linear areas of the waveform. The output drive capability of the CFP will also be superior to that of any IC op amp. 

†This is most certainly the case when the power amplifier presents a voltage gain ≥ 26dB (≥ 20X). It’s also highly probable—if not absolutely certain—that power amplifiers with a voltage gain as low as ~ 23dB (14.1X) will also prove fully compatible. The voltage gain of a power amplifier is commonly stated in the product specifications. If not so stated, voltage gain can then be derived from the specification for input sensitivity.

ADDENDA #1: Do appreciate that the voltage gain parameter (cited above) is merely a measure of an amplifier’s sensitivity. It has no direct bearing on defining the power output capability or power output rating of an amplifier.

ADDENDA #2: The actual power output capability of the main power amplifier should be at least +2dB (1.6X) to +3dB (2X) > the rated power that the loudspeaker system can safely tolerate. This will assure that the loudspeakers are never exposed to a clipped input signal when they’re driven to levels that are within their maximum safe rated limits. If your main power amplifier has accurate “clipped output” warning lights that sometimes flicker, that amplifier has insufficient power output capability for its application; it should be replaced. Outside of physical abuse, nothing can be more potentially injurious to a loudspeaker system than consistently clipped drive signals, and nothing sounds worse than peak level clipping.

Aug 9, 2020

Gabriel Prokofiev: Concerto for Turntables No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Cello Concerto. Mr. Switch, DJ; Boris Andrianov, cello; Alexey Bogorad, Ural Philharmonic. Signum Classics SIGCD628.

By John J. Puccio

No, not that Prokofiev. This is his grandson, the Russian-British composer, producer, and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev (b. 1975), who is also the Artistic Director of the record label and nightclub Nonclassical. He studied composition at the Universities of Birmingham and York and became a producer of Dance, Electro, Hip-hop and Grime music. He founded the independent record label and club night Nonclassical in 2003 in order to bring classical music to younger people.

Yes, the title of the first piece on the album, Concerto for Turntables No. 1, is exactly what you think it is. It’s a concerto in which the soloist is a disk jockey playing records on several turntables in various unique and innovative ways to produce various unique and innovative sounds in accompaniment with the orchestra. Naturally, the DJ has to be pretty talented, and in this case it’s Anthony Culverwell (aka, “Mr. Switch”), a world-champion disk jockey. OK, I admit my ignorance (or naïveté) of such things. I had no idea there were DJ contests. In 2014 Culverwell won the DMC World Championship, the longest-standing DJ competition in the world. And it’s just one of many DJ competitions he’s won. So, he’s, like, a star performer, and on this recording uses Technics 1200 turntables (described as “the Steinway of turntables”).

Prokofiev wrote the Turntables Concerto in 2006, and its first orchestral performance was at the BBC Proms in 2011. The composer titled it “No. 1” because he wrote a second such concerto in 2016. Of course, the main questions you may ask are, What’s it like, and is it worth hearing? Obviously, these are subjective questions. It’s an unusual piece of music in five movements that may or may not appeal to you. The sounds made on the turntables are not always what many listeners would call “musical,” yet they’re always fascinating. Put it this way: I was glad to have listened to it, but I’m not sure I’d ever want to listen to it again.

Alexey Bogorad
Anyway, Prokofiev avoids a lot of the discordant noise of many modern composers, relying instead on good, old-fashioned melody and rhythm. In this regard, the music is quite listenable, if not, as I said, particularly memorable or entirely worthy of repeat listening. Still, the music Prokofiev creates is engaging in its singularity, something I found most entertaining when the turntables were minimally involved, as in the second-movement Adagietto. The third, central movement is notable for its use of human vocal noises. The booklet notes go into detail about the techniques a talented DJ uses to create unique sounds, by the way, something the reader may find at least informative.

Prokofiev also tells us that when he first thought about writing his turntables concerto he was hesitant about it. He thought it might be too gimmicky and too much an obvious attempt to fuse elements of classical and rock in order to bring in a younger audience. But he thought better of it and gave it his best shot. I guess he succeeded because it’s had several recordings now and been played by orchestras all over the world. Still, his first thoughts may have been right. I found it more than a little gimmicky, though entertaining in the moment. I wonder what Leroy Anderson and his cats, clocks, and typewriters or Arthur Honegger and his steam train or even Mozart and his sleigh ride would have thought of it? 

The disc’s coupling is more conventional, Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto, featuring cellist Boris Andrianov. Prokofiev wrote it in 2012, the third and most traditional concerto the composer says he’s written, given that the first two were ones for turntables. Being a rather traditional fellow myself, I found it more satisfying than the turntables concerto. Here, we find influences of Prokofiev’s grandfather, which I found a good thing. The Cello Concerto is witty, clever, dynamic, lyrical, and reflective by turns, yet with a decidedly modernist sensibility.

The only thing I found questionable about the album was the decision of Signum Classics to use a fold-over cardboard case with the CD fitting into one of the sleeves. I found the disc quite hard to remove without getting my fingers on the playing surface and without possibly scratching it on the cardboard on its way in and out.

Producer and engineer Jakob Handel recorded both pieces at Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Hall, Yekaterinburg, Russia in August 2018. Check your volume level before playing because the music begins with a very loud bass note, and the bass continues at an unusually high level throughout much of the album. As for the rest of the sound, it’s rather like a pop recording in that it’s fairly close, detailed, and flat. However, it is neither bright or hard. Indeed, it is nicely smooth and round, like real-life sounds, and even the quietest notes are well defined.


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

Aug 5, 2020

Overlooked Mahler (CD and SACD Reviews)

Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (w/Brahms, Symphony No. 4)*; Symphony No. 5.**
*Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; Margaret Price, soprano; London Symphony Chorus; Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62606-2. **Hartmut Haenchen, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Pentatone classics 5186 004.

By Karl W. Nehring

There are multitudes upon multitudes of Mahler recordings out there, sometimes even by the same conductor. Mahler fans often own multiple recordings of the same symphonies, but still look forward to hearing new recordings that continue to be released. However, for those fans who can never get their hands on enough Mahler recordings, but perhaps even more importantly, for those fans just starting to appreciate Mahler’s music, I would like to turn your attention to a couple of wonderful recordings that have both been around for a good while but are generally overlooked. Neither recording is by a conductor that most music lovers would associate with Mahler. However, both recordings are musical as well as sonic gems, well worth seeking out both by dedicated Mahlerians and by those just curious to see what this Mahler fellow is all about, anyway. 

Interestingly enough, Stokowski was in the audience in Vienna in when Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 8. With the political situation in Vienna deteriorating, Stokowski obtained a copy of the score and managed to smuggle it in his luggage and bring it back to Philadelphia with him, where he was the newly appointed conductor of the at that time relatively unknown Philadelphia Orchestra. He insisted that the orchestra present the work and demanded on staging it with a choral force of 950(!) singers – an expense that the orchestra’s board thought way too financially risky. Through sheer force of will and a magnetic personality, Stokowski prevailed and he conducted the U.S. premiere of the work – leading a force of 1,069 musicians – in  March, 1916. The concert proved such a sensation that it was repeated several times in March and April to standing-room-only crowds and thrusting the orchestra into international prominence. (Stokowski’s life is one of the  most colorful imaginable, if you have never read about this now largely-forgotten conductor, do some web browsing and prepare to be entertained!) 

Leopold Stokowski
Although he frequently conducted Mahler in concert, Maestro Stokowski made few Mahler recordings, but this one is a definite keeper. It was made in 1974, when Stokowski was in his 90s. Always eager to embrace new sound technologies, in 1931 he worked with Dr. Harvey Fletcher of Bell Labs on the original stereophonic (three-channel, BTW) orchestral recordings. (If I may be allowed to insert a personal note, in his later life, Harvey Fletcher was married to my wife's grandmother, and in the mid-1970s, we spent many interesting times with “Uncle Harvey,” who even in his 90s was still fascinated by sound and still working on acoustics research. He loved to tell us tales of his work, and he showed us many pictures of him with Leopold Stokowski from those pioneering recording sessions.) For these Mahler sessions, Stokowski worked with the producers of this recording to capture the proceedings in quadraphonic sound, which was an exciting new technology at the time.

However, quadraphonic vinyl LPs never really established themselves in the marketplace. But with the advent of compact discs and digital surround-sound formats, BMG went back to the original quadraphonic master tapes, mixed them for Dolby Surround and released them on CD. I never did set up surround system in my home, but I enjoyed this CD in two-channel stereo and it certainly sounds excellent in that format. However, sometime in the early 2000s I took this CD along on a visit to the Legacy Audio facilities in Springfield, Illinois. In one of his several listening rooms, Bill Dudleston had set up a multi-channel system for the purpose of investigating various approaches to surround sound for both home theater and music listening. For the heck of it, we stuck the Stokowski CD in to the system and were bowled over by the resulting sound. Not only was the soundstage expansive left-to-right and front-to-back, but there was a sensation of height that was truly impressive. Dudleston had a scope in the system that allowed him to see the way the signal was allocated among the four main speakers – he was amazed to see that the Stokowski  CD yielded the cleanest, purest, most impressive signal division that he had ever encountered.

In terms of performance, Stokowski's Mahler is a bit on the slow side, but very expressive – this is a powerful, moving performance. With its excellent sound and majestic performance, this version of the "Resurrection" is one of the finest I have ever heard. If you are a fan of this symphony but have never heard this recording, well, you might want to put it on your want list.

By the way, Stokowski's Brahms 4th is also powerful, but in the opposite way -- it is performed at breakneck speed! A quick comparison: Mackerras's performances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc) are generally regarded as fast and lively. In the first movement, Mackerras clocks in at 12:02, Stokowski at 10:48. In the final movement, a set of dramatic theme and variations, Mackerras clocks in at 10:06, while Stokowski comes in at 9:51. Yes, this is probably much faster than Brahms intended (and remember, Mackerras is leading a chamber orchestra, while Stokowski is at the helm of the full LSO). It is hard to imagine this one being anyone’s first choice in the Brahms, but it is fun to listen to every once in a while. Majestic Mahler, manic Brahms. Most of the time, you can just start with Track 5, the opening movement of the Mahler.

When Mahler fans start discussing notable Mahler conductors, the names that usually pop up right away are familiar ones such as Bernstein, Abbado, Klemperer, and Barbirolli. The discussion might then move on to names such as Haitink, Karajan, Tilson Thomas, Abravanel, Jansons, Chailly, or the Fischer brothers. Ivan and Adam. One name you are very unlikely to hear is Haenchen. Who?!

Which is pretty much exactly what I thought some years back when this disc arrived along with a bunch of other Pentatone releases for possible review in my old “More Jazz Than Not” column in The $ensible Sound. For one reason or another, mostly because so many other recordings at the time seemed more appealing to audition than a Mahler 5 by some guy named Hartmut Haenchen (who?!) leading the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

Hartmut Haenchen
Alas, that pretty much summed up my reaction to the recording when I received it as part of a box of releases from Pentatone back in 2002 or so when it was first released. I wound up never actually listening to it back then, moving on to other things. I vaguely remember reading a review or two over the years that said it was a nice recording, but I never really generated any real desire to hear it. Believe it or not, it wound up sitting on my shelf, still in its original shrink wrap, until just a month or so ago, when I decided that I wanted to listen to some more Mahler on SACD and remembered that I still had the Haenchen disc buried in my collection.

Oh. My. Goodness…

Both musically and sonically, this is one of the finest recordings of the Mahler Symphony No. 5 that I have ever heard. German conductor Hartmut Haenchen just seems to get everything right. Not too fast, not too slow. Plenty of dynamics, but not overblown exaggerations. The orchestra plays with precision and power, and the engineers have done a remarkable job of capturing a live concert performance in superb. The liner notes state that the recording was made by Polyhymnia, a recording firm that “specializes in high-end recordings of acoustic music on location in concert halls, churches, and auditoriums around the world. It is one of the worldwide leaders in producing high-resolution surround sound recordings for SACD and DVD Audio.” Based on this recording, I am willing to believe them. As I indicated above, I do not have a surround setup, so have only listened to the two-channel CD and SACD channels. Both layers yielded stunningly good sound.

Neither of these recordings ever seems to get mentioned in discussions of Mahler recordings, but both are gems. Overlooked gems. I recommend them both very highly!


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

Aug 2, 2020

Kernis: Color Wheel (CD Review)

Also, Symphony No. 4 “Chromolodeon.” Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony. Naxos 8.5598.38

By Karl W. Nehring and John J. Puccio

First, a word from Karl:
A while back I reviewed a disc of compositions by Sessions and Panufnik. Both were in effect concertos for orchestra, and both were composed for the 1981 centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After listening a couple of times to get a general sense of the music on this release of two compositions by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960), I then took a first look at the liner notes (written by Kernis himself) and discovered to my surprise that “Color Wheel was composed especially for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening concerts in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in 2001, and in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial.”

As you might expect of a work composed for such an occasion, Color Wheel is brash and exuberant, a piece that allows the orchestra to really strut its stuff. The performance on this new Naxos CD was recorded 15 years later (2016), not by the Philadelphians, but by the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero. Another interesting tidbit from Kernis’s liner notes is his explanation that “long before starting it I met with architect Roland Vinoly and acoustician Russell Johnson to learn about the development of the new hall… Initially I’d intended that Color Wheel would explore specific spatial characteristics of this new hall… I eventually decided to concentrate on exploring the unique qualities of the orchestra itself, employing a wide array of contrasts in dynamics and sounds in what I hoped would be a vivid new musical experience.” So, in light of all that, how do the more modest Nashville forces measure up to the challenge of performing music written especially for the formidable Philadelphians? In  my estimation, they do themselves proud.

Color Wheel opens dramatically with a big blast of brass and percussion, followed by a bit of a respite, then another blast, then more introspection. Suddenly the sound profile shifts. The lead gets passed among various sections of the orchestra, with an underlying pulse, which you can feel more than hear, keeping everything in line. At about 10 minutes in, the pulse changes. The energy continues unabated, though, reaching a peak not long after minute 13. A sound that really stands out after 14 minutes or so is a bass line that calls to mind something you might expect to hear on a jazz recording featuring, say, Christian McBride. The pulse gains more drive as Color Wheel rolls on, becoming more frantic than ever as the finish line comes into view. Heaving chords build toward a climax. Surprisingly, for a piece that has sounded anything but “conventional” in sonority and structure, the ending sounds much more conventional that you might expect. All in all, an interesting piece, one that shows off the power and versatility of the modern symphony orchestra. For audiophiles, it will also reveal the power and versatility of your audio system.

Kernis’s Symphony No. 4 “Chromelodeon” (Kernis explains how he came up with this odd term in his liner notes) is also a work that was commissioned, in this instance by the New England Conservatory of Music for its 150th anniversary in 2018. In contrast to the loud opening measures of Color Wheel, the symphony seems to emerge gradually from silence, not surprising for a movement aptly titled “Out of Silence.” Gentle percussion, then strings, establish somber mood. As the movement develops, you notice a four-note motif that weaves in and out of the fabric of the music as the movement moves forward. The energy level builds, the tempo speeds up, and the overall mood becomes increasingly agitated. Later, the tempo decreases, but the drama builds, leading to a tympani outburst. As the movement comes to an end, there is a big buildup, then silence, until the movement ends quietly with the sound of a flute.

Giancarlo Guerrero
The second movement, titled “Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel)” opens with brash chords from the brass, joined later by the strings, then settling down to a softer mood with woodwinds in the lead, and then a rather archaic-sounding contribution from a string quartet. In the movement, the longest of the symphony at more than 12 minutes, the lead is taken by different sections of the orchestra, including a piano for a brief stretch. At around 7 minutes there is some quiet, restless playing from the strings, followed a couple of minutes later by the winds. There is a big climax at about 10 minutes in, some snare drum action, followed by brass, flute, and then the movement ends with the return of the archaic quartet. The movement – like the symphony as a whole – comes across as dramatic but a bit of a hodgepodge.

The brief (5:50 in this performance) final movement, titled “Fanfare Chromelodia,” begins with, you guessed it, fanfare gesture from the brass section, with another fanfare gesture near the end of the piece before the big ending with brass bellowing and bass drum pounding. Layered in between are contributions for the percussion section, some fluttering woodwinds, and some frenzied strings running up and down. Again, plenty of energy, but still a bit of a hodgepodge.

In the final analysis, although I found much of the symphony interesting to hear, it never really came across as a symphony to my ears. To be honest, I preferred Kernis’s Symphony No. 2, which I reviewed for The $ensible Sound back in  the late 1990s. That is a remarkable work, well, worth seeking out, and there are two other interesting Kernis compositions included on the CD (originally on Argo but rereleased on the Phoenix label). This new recording from Naxos is not without merit, however, and I can recommend it to those who are not intimidated by the very idea of contemporary music. There are some truly imaginative passages to be found, and the engineers have done a fine job. Bravo to Naxos for letting us hear interesting music we might never get to hear otherwise!


And now a word from John:
I have to admit that I do not stay as abreast as Karl of all current music, and unless I review something, I don’t often hear about new recordings or new composers. Well, American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) is hardly “new,” and I’ve already reviewed one of his pieces a few years ago. But I still wasn’t really familiar with him. So, I looked him up.

According to Wikipedia, Mr. Kernis “is a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning American composer serving as a member of the Yale School of Music faculty. Kernis spent 15 years as the music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and as Director of the Minnesota Orchestra's Composers' Institute, and is currently the Workshop Director of the Nashville Symphony Composer Lab. He has received numerous awards and honors throughout his thirty-five year career.” So, there you have it.

The first of two Kernis works on the present album he wrote in 2001 for the Philadelphia Orchestra and titled Color Wheel. Like a color wheel in art that shows the relationships of all the colors in the visible spectrum, Kernis’s Color Wheel attempts to show at least some of the many tonal colors of the musical world.

The piece is in a single twenty-odd minute movement that moves from one extreme to another with benefit from some hints of melody, although nothing you’re going to start whistling afterwards. It appears to be more the way it’s title implies, a swirling cycle of musical colors. As such, it’s fun to listen to, at least the first time through. Beyond that, I give no guarantees. What’s beyond doubt, though, is the elegance and precision of the Nashville Symphony under Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero. They negotiate the twists and turns of the music with an assured polish. As the music moves from light to dark, from poetic to prosaic, from classical to jazz, from harmonic to melodic to rhythmic, the orchestra catches all the nuance in between. It may just grow on me.

The second piece on the disc is Kernis’s Symphony No. 4, written in 2018 and subtitled “Chromelodeon.” Yeah, I had to look this one up, too. I should have just read Kernis’s booklet note, which said the same thing I googled. Namely, a chromelodeon is a microtonal instrument invented by composer Harry Partch, as well as an eight-piece indie rock band from Philadelphia that was active between 2000 and 2007. Kernis tells us it was also a cult progressive rock band from the late 60’s. Take your choice.

More important, Kernis tells us that for him “chromelodeon” means “chromatic, colorful, melodic music performed by an orchestra. This new symphony is created out of musical elements, not images or stories, though I would not be surprised if the influence of living in the chaos of the world today--at a ‘molecular’ emotive level--didn’t play a part in its creation.” The disc jacket describes the symphony as an exploration of “the coexistence of opposing musical forces to powerful, pensive and touching effect.”

Anyway, I enjoyed the symphony more than I did the previous piece, whether or not it’s an actual “symphony” in the conventional sense. Perhaps it’s because I’m old-fashioned and the symphony had a more traditional structure and content. The first of three movements, “Out of Silence,” is thoughtful, moody, maybe even reflective. Whatever, it’s mostly dreamy, slow-moving, and contemplative until the final third, ending on a mildly dark, if also rousing, note. The second movement, “Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom,” exposes what the composer calls “a melody vaguely influenced by Handel,” followed by variations on the theme. The initial string quartet he incorporates in the background is a strong part of the contrasts he seeks to define. Some parts of the movement work; other parts seem more than a bit odd merely for the sake of eccentricity. The final movement, “Fanfare Chromelodia,” is short and sparingly regal, ending the symphony in a triumph of sorts. Both works on the disc are world première recordings.

Producer Tim Handley and engineers Gary Call and Trevor Wilkinson recorded the music at the Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee in November 2016 and February 2019. As with most of the recordings of the Nashville Symphony, this one sounds quite natural. Although it’s a little shallow in front-to-back depth and slightly narrow in orchestral width, it doesn’t detract much from the overall realism of the sound. It’s well balanced throughout, with no elements of the frequency spectrum sticking out obtrusively, and even though the extreme ends of the scale, the highs and the lows, may be somewhat unimpressive, the whole is pleasingly listenable.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa