Oct 28, 2020

The New Audiophile Confusion, Part One

By Bill Heck

For many years, assembling a good two-channel audio system was straightforward. Put together one or a few sources, a preamplifier, an amplifier, and speakers – done. You might agonize over brands and choices – this preamp, that amp – but you knew which components did what.

The sources might have included, depending on your tastes and habits, an LP record player, a CD player, and perhaps an FM tuner. If you were really into audio, you might complicate the record playing device by selecting your own combination of turntable, arm, and cartridge. On the other end, if you were on the less finicky side, you might simplify by combining preamp and amp into an integrated amplifier, or perhaps adding a tuner to the integrated amp in the form of a receiver. But that was it, the lines were clear: sources to preamp to amp to speakers. Done.

The lines are clear no longer. The phono part hasn’t changed much. But the rise of digital sources and processing have made all sorts of combinations possible – and if it’s possible, some manufacturer probably is making it.

It started innocently enough with separating the parts of CD players: a CD transport to spin the disk and extract the digital signal, and a separate digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to – well, that’s obvious. This division of labor appealed to the more tweaking-oriented audiophiles, the same folks who would choose their own turntable/arm/cartridge combinations for LPs. But then things got out of hand.

I blame it on the availability of high-quality music file downloads and the rise of streaming. Of course, we have had MP3s streaming on smartphones for ages, but this was hardly of interest to those with audiophile chops. But then along came high-resolution music files that you could download and store on a hard drive in your home – no CDs needed. More recently, Tidal and Qobuz and Idagio and Primephonic and a bunch of others, now including the 800-pound gorilla, Amazon, came along to stream tons of music at CD or higher quality in real time. No downloaded files needed either.

So, let’s see what happens with your audio system. You already have a DAC in your CD player. You buy a device to store and play downloaded music files, and it not only has a DAC to connect to an analog input on your preamp, but it also might have what amounts to an entire desktop computer inside to index all those files and let you control the action. Then you buy a streaming device and, yes, it also has a DAC. Obviously, having three different DACs doing the same thing is a waste, so perhaps manufacturers should produce streamers and file storage/players without the DAC, assuming you would connect everything to that one central outboard DAC.

Ah! We have it figured out: the new paradigm is sources (CD transport, file storage device, streaming device), all feeding a DAC that in turn connects to a preamp.

But wait! Given that everyone is now using at least one digital source, what if we combine the DAC and the preamp? But wait! If we’re going to do that, we could make the entire preamp (except for the connection to the power amp) digital. This would allow us to do source selection and signal processing in the digital domain, converting to analog only at the end of the chain. But wait! While we’re at it, let’s adapt some features often found in multi-channel receivers, such as subwoofer outputs, to the two-channel world. But wait! We have all that other digital stuff going on, so we could easily add the streaming function to our preamp – all we need is a WiFi or ethernet connection and we’re in business.

But wait! With all this digital processing power lying around, let’s think outside the box, or in this case the boxes, and add room correction to the mix. After all, those who have been around audio for a while know a dirty little secret: one of the most important “components”, some even say the most important, is the room. (Others say that the most important component is between your ears, but we’re not going there today.) Most of us manage to ignore the effect of the room, perhaps because it is simply a part of the background, or maybe because there usually is so little that we can do about it. And really, isn’t it much more fun to think that the next shiny box, the next upgraded component, will work some sonic miracle in that less-than-perfect room?

Swapping components or using gadgets and tweaks may indeed improve some things. (Or, in the gadgets and tweaks case, may make you feel better even if they do nothing to change the sound.) But even if they do, you’re still stuck with the room and its potential – or likely – acoustic problems. Better speakers obviously will upgrade the sound, but even great speakers may continue to struggle in less-than-ideal rooms, which is most rooms. Changing room characteristics in significant ways, in turn, is out of reach for all but the most dedicated, the wealthiest, and those who are willing to put up with truly awful aesthetics – and who live alone or with partners who are similarly oblivious to room appearance.

The solution: room correction. Today’s digital processing power makes it possible to improve the response at the listening position by adjusting the output of the speakers. Oh sure, audiophiles have played with equalizers for years, but equalizers were, by today’s standards, primitive, and using them was excruciatingly difficult. Room correction promises to change all that. As to where it goes in the chain, it works by altering the outgoing music signal, so the room correction processor should come just before the signal is amplified and fed to the speakers. 

Hooray! Finally! We’ve figured out which parts go in which components.

Or not. Different manufacturers have different ideas about just what should be combined with what. Indeed, it’s worse than that: different series and models from the very same manufacturers provide different combinations of functions in seemingly similar components.

Examples abound. Multiple digital sources are becoming common, which logically suggests removing the DACs from source components and instead relying on a single, high-quality “central” one. Despite this, most CD players still include DACs, and some include very high-end, expensive DACs at that. Meanwhile, the few transport-only CD spinners still available are super high-end, multi-thousand-dollar items; where are the reasonably priced DAC-less ones? Some DAC-containing CD players, though, now accept digital inputs from other sources (e.g., steaming devices), while others even include streaming capabilities. Are these really preamps in disguise? Meanwhile, some separate DACs now handle streaming, but still require a preamp, while some preamps include DACs but not streaming. And then there are combinations that are more like integrated amps, combining digital inputs and even streaming with preamp/power amp combinations. It turns out to be remarkably difficult to find a single combination of components to handle the whole sequence – all the desired inputs (CD, file playback, streaming, phono), digital to audio conversion, all preamp functions, and power amplification – without duplicating some functionality, be it multiple DACs, multiple streaming capabilities, or something else. Throw in advanced signal processing (subwoofer control, room correction) and the situation is even worse: your poor tired music might go through multiple digital to audio conversions and back again, passing through several sets of cables, before making it to the power amp, much less to the speakers. Oh, did I mention a headphone amp in there somewhere?

So far as I know, no manufacturer has integrated everything from sources to power amp in one box. Some have come close, but with slightly different combinations of functions. True, there may be good reasons for separating some components. For example, CD transports are mechanical devices (and some people want SACD or Blu-ray capabilities), so perhaps they should be kept apart for easy repair or replacement. The requirements for a power amp are more related to the speakers in use than to anything on the front end – and active speakers make a power amp superfluous – so it makes sense to keep that separate. But we still have a rather confusing mess on our hands.

I hesitate to make it all sound even worse, but, well, it is even worse. We also need to consider remote controls, which are morphing into apps.

Before the explosion of digital sources, controlling the components was simple. If you played LPs, you pulled out the record, put in on the table, started it turning, and dropped the needle in the groove: all manual processes, no remote control needed. With CDs, you still loaded the player manually, so the remote control was limited to functions such as starting, pausing, and skipping tracks. Most preamps did not even have remote controls; if yours did, you could select a source, adjust the volume, and maybe manipulate the tone controls. You may have had separate remotes for the CD player and preamp, but you really needed only a few buttons on each. Two remotes might be mildly annoying on occasion, but it all worked out.

But in our new digital world, you need control far beyond what can be accomplished with a small set of buttons. If you download digital files onto a storage device, that device might have hundreds or thousands of tracks; meanwhile, your streaming service has millions. Thus, we need software that communicates with you (to allow you to select and play the music that you want), with the file storage device or streaming service (to show you what music is available and to tell the device or service to send the music to the audio component) and the audio component (to tell the component to receive the music and play it through the system, as well as to control the basic functionality such as source selection and volume control). To make it more complicated, we really would like the software to organize all those downloaded files rather than just displaying you a gigantic random list. And even more complication: each streaming service has a different software interface; the software needs to know how to talk to each of them. Finally, this software will run on your smartphone or tablet, which means that it must work on your platform of choice: Windows, Mac OS, Android, or iPhone iOS.

Now imagine that you have one device to play downloaded files, another for streaming services, and then a regular preamp. You might have three completely different apps with completely different interfaces – and don’t forget the remote control for the CD player. Mind-boggling.

What is the poor, confused, music-loving-but-frugal audiophile to do? Next time, we’ll look at one solution.

BH

Oct 25, 2020

Brown: Wild Symphony (Digital review)

Miran Vaupotic, Zagreb Festival Orchestra. PARMA Recordings.

By John J. Puccio
 
Yes, THAT Dan Brown.
 
Who’d have thought Dan Brown, who wrote the best-selling series of Robert Langdon thrillers (Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Inferno, etc.), would follow them up with a children’s book and a “symphony” to go with it? Seems Mr. Brown considered a career in music working as a composer and lyricist before he became a full-time writer. I guess now that he has conquered the world of adult fiction, he decided to turn to children’s books and children’s music.
 
The music is, in fact, children’s music. Not that adults can’t enjoy it, but it is highly derivative, rather brief and direct, and meant primarily to accompany his book Wild Symphony with sound. The book describes animals, and the music describes the animals. Here’s the way Brown explains it: “My intent with Wild Symphony is to provide a fun, fresh opportunity for families, parents, children, and people of all ages to reconnect with the magical experience of classical music. Wild Symphony is a very wild symphony indeed, and offers a refreshingly real experience for children of all ages.” He goes on to say, “Music is a kind of storytelling, and the orchestral movements in Wild Symphony--combined with their accompanying poems and illustrations--all work together (like a code, of sorts!) to tell a story and reveal a funny or interesting side of an animal’s personality. If you listen carefully, you might be able to find each animal hiding in the music.”
 
I doubt that the music of Wild Symphony not actually being a symphony at all but a medley of very short tone poems will put anybody off. It is what it is, and The Carnival of Animals it ain’t. Brown says his inspirations for the music were Saint-Saens’s Carnival, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Only unlike those composer’s aforementioned music, Brown aimed Wild Symphony squarely at very young children, say three to ten years old.
 
Still, imitative though it may be, there is much an adult can enjoy in the music. It is sprightly and attentive, and Maestro Miran Vaupotic and the Zagreb Festival Orchestra play it with professional aplomb and high good humor. If a few parents don’t already have the Saint-Saens, Prokofiev, and Britten works, Brown’s book and music might persuade them to seek out the longer, more-serious stuff, which is not a bad idea at all.
 
Here’s a rundown of the disc’s twenty-one tracks:
01. Maestro Mouse
02. Woodbird Welcome
03. Bouncing Kangaroo
04. Clumsy Kittens
05. The Ray
06. happy Hippo
07. Frogs in a Bog
08. Anxious Ostrich
09. The Armadillo Shell
10. Dancing Bear
11. Impatient Ponies
12. Wondrous Whale
13. Cheetah Chase
14. Eager Elephant
15. Rat Attack
16. Busy Beetles
17. Spiders on a Web
18. Brilliant Bat
19. Swan in the Mist
20. Cricket Lullaby
21. Maestro Mouse Reprise
 
As you can see from the work’s program, it bears a strong similarity to Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals in a kind of condensed version, which Brown freely admits, right down to the “Swan” toward the end. The main difference is that Brown’s little tone poems are briefer (one to four minutes each) and more obviously suited to the ears of small children than Saint-Saens’s music. Yet, as I say, that’s not a bad thing. My own first love of classical music came when I was about six years old, listening to the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show where host Jon Arthur would play classical clips, and I would whistle or hum along with them. I would hope that Brown’s music and book could do the same for children today.
 
I was reminded throughout Brown’s Wild Symphony of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, those early cartoons with accompanying orchestral music. It’s movie music of a kind. Naturally, things get off to a rousing start with “Maestro Mouse,” a real curtain-raising overture. The rest are appropriately impressionistic or literal as the job requires. I liked the representation of “The Ray” in particular, with its mellifluous, sinuous, gliding tone, as well as “Swan in the Mist” for its sweet agility and “Rat Attack” for its quaint orientalism. Things like “Happy Hippo” and “Frogs in a Bog” are sillier renderings and should delight children of all ages.
 
And so it goes. For parents of younger kids, the book and its accompanying music might be a winning combination.
 
Producers Bob Lord, Kresimir Selerkovic, and Jeff LeRoy and engineer Jan Kosulic recorded the music at Blagoje Bersa Concert Hall at the Music Academy of the University of Zagreb, Croatia in December 2018 and March and June 2019. The music is available via download, streaming, or the PARMA app. As producer Lord puts it, “The app is extraordinary. The effect of simply holding the phone over the book to hear the music, magically jumping from one animal and musical movement to another, is really something.” I listened to a CD that PARMA was kind enough to burn for me so I could hear on my big speakers.
 
The sound is recorded somewhat closely, but it still has a pleasantly realistic ambient air about it, and it never hits you in the face. The instruments are nicely rounded without being soft or dull, just natural. The whole might have benefited from a little more orchestral depth, but that’s of little concern. Strong, wide dynamics further enhance a good thing.

To view the world premiere of Wild Symphony live, visit Dan Brown's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=259028005447708&ref=watch_permalink.

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

Oct 21, 2020

Whitacre: The Sacred Veil (CD Review)

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Artistic Director; Eric Whitacre, conductor; Lisa Edwards, piano; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello. Signum SIGCD630.

Composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) is a gifted composer and choral conductor whose work always seems to be bursting with energy, imagination, and beauty. His style is a mixture of the simple and the complex, with melodies that are beguiling and straightforward on the surface but often expressed in harmonies that can stretch, soar, and bedazzle. His energy does not confine itself to his composing, as he also is active as a conductor. With the rise of the internet and technologies for interacting electronically, he has recently been active in assembling “virtual choirs” that feature singers from throughout the world joyfully blending their voices under his direction and stewardship.

Whitacre composed The Sacred Veil in with his friend and frequent collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri, who wrote the lyrics, which revolve around the death from cancer of his late wife, Julia Lawrence Silvestri. As you might surmise from those circumstances, The Sacred Veil is an intensely personal, deeply moving work of art; moreover, this Signum CD is rewarding in many different ways.

One of the interesting qualities of The Sacred Veil is the way it balances intimacy with expression. The lyrics focus on the really private story of Julia’s passing, told from the perspective of her husband, Charles. At the same time, the lyrics are used to evoke Silvestri’s concept of a thin veil that separates the past from the future, the living from the dead, the temporal from the eternal. A simple concept intellectually, but packed with mystery and complexity as a lived experience. Whitacre’s musical setting of the lyrics uses simple melodies played by the piano and the cello to provide a ground for the sometimes straightforward, sometimes soaringly complex choral parts.

Just listen to the opening measures, with a simple melody on the piano soon joined by a tone from the cello, the choir then joining in with some exquisite harmonizing that draws the listener right into the lyrics and thus into the story. By the time the final movements arrive, the vocal harmonies have become more layered, more complex, but the piano and cello still are there to provide a solid foundation for the harmonic structure of the voices. A particularly moving choral device that Whitacre uses to great effect are sliding harmonies in the voices as the lyrics reflect Silvestri’s thoughts and emotions in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s passing in the penultimate movement, “You Rise, I Fall,” an incredibly moving portrait of grief built upon love and hope.

Following the music there is a recorded interview with Silvestri and Whitacre. Such appendices to a musical performance can be annoying, but Silvestri and Whitacre offer an explanation of the meaning of the work and the creative process that the two of them used to bring the piece to fruition. The interview provides insights into The Sacred Veil that makes the listener want to listen to the music again, and again, and again.

Insight into the recording is also provided by the liner notes, which include a brief foreword by Grant Gershon, an introduction to the background story underlying the lyrics by Silvestri, and a movement-by-movement essay on the music by Whitacre. The liner notes also include background information and photographs for not only Whitacre and Silvestri, but also for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, pianist Lisa Edwards, and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. Seeing information provided for all involved just seems to add to the cooperative, supportive, intimate, indeed loving feeling engendered by both the music and the interview contained in this generously filled (nearly 80 minutes) compact disc. Even the austere but expressive black-and-white cover art feels perfectly appropriate for this release.

Last but not least, the recorded sound is of such excellent quality (Fred Vogler was the recording engineer) that the listener is not likely to really even think about it. The music is just there, sounding utterly natural and unstrained. This is a magnificent CD that I cannot recommend too highly. I hope you find it as moving and inspiring as I do.

Bonus Recommendations: Whitacre has several commercial CD recordings available, notably Light and Gold (2010) and Water Night (2012) on the Decca label. The former is all-choral, while the latter also feature some orchestral compositions. Another fine all-choral collection is Cloudburst and Other Choral Works (2007) on Hyperion. A release easy to overlook but wonderful to hear is The Complete A Cappella Works 1991-2001 (2007) performed by the Brigham Young University Singers on the Arsis label. They may be an amateur group, but both the performances and the engineering are first-class. Finally, a work by Whitacre that is a must-hear is Deep Field, orchestral music that Whitacre composed based on images of deep space from the Hubble space telescope. It is not available on CD as of this writing, but you can find links at Whitacre’s website, ericwhitacre.com.

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

Oct 18, 2020

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (CD review)

Also Coriolan and The Creatures of Prometheus Overtures. Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano; Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902413.

By John J. Puccio

Another Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto? So, what sets this one apart from the other 800 recordings of the concerto in the catalogue? Well, for starters, this one is played by a period-instrument ensemble, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and they’re pretty darn good. Second, the soloist is Kristian Bezuidenhout, and he, too, is pretty darned good. And to cap off a good thing, Bezuidenhout plays the piece on a copy of an 1824 Graff fortepiano, one that might have been used in Beethoven’s own time. If it’s authenticity you’re after, this issue might be the ticket.

Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 between 1805 and 1806 (around the same time he wrote the Fourth Symphony and parts of the Fifth Symphony) premiering it in 1807 with the composer himself as soloist. The opening movement is melodic, with the piano part often sounding improvisatory. Beethoven scored the slow movement for piano and strings, keeping it fairly poetic with a slightly agitated orchestral accompaniment, leading quietly into the finale. Then, we get a passionate, tempestuous, yet gracefully rhythmic third movement. Here, you name it; Beethoven goes for broke.

The fortepiano had its heyday in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so it’s the instrument that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven would have written for until the fortepiano evolved into the modern grand piano. The sound of the fortepiano isn’t quite as well-rounded as a modern piano, not as rich, mellow, or resonant. The highs of a fortepiano still sound a little tinkly or ringing, and the lows don’t sound as plush. Nevertheless, Bezuidenhout coaxes some luxurious sounds from it, and the Freiburg ensemble accompany him with an easy precision, Maestro Heras-Casado ensuring that the playing never sounds hectic or rushed.

Bezuidenhout performs the piece with a combination of poetic refinement and virtuosic zest. In the first movement he handles the lyricism of the opening beautifully and moves gracefully into moments of inspired spontaneity. In the Andante con Moto, Bezuidenhout takes advantage of the music’s contrasts to create a highly volatile slow movement, the perfect vehicle to transition into the music’s vivacious finale. So, while the performance as a whole may not quite displace my favorite recording on modern instruments by Stephen Kovacevich, it is among the very best period-instrument versions now available.

For companion pieces, Harmonia Mundi fill out the disc with two more Beethoven works, the Coriolan and The Creatures of Prometheus Overtures (1807 and 1801). Again, it’s nice hearing them played by a period-instrument band and sounding probably close to what Beethoven might have heard in his day if he weren’t going deaf. Incidentally, the program opens with the more dramatic Coriolan Overture, which makes a good curtain raiser.

Producer and editor Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann, both of Teldex Studio Berlin, recorded the music at the Ensemblehaus Freiburg in December 2017. The piano is well placed, not too far out in front of the orchestra, and the orchestra is well spread out around the soloist. Dynamics are quite good, and detailing is more than adequate. The lower treble/upper midrange can at times seem a trifle forward, especially during moments of loudest expression, but it is not a worrisome issue. In all, the recording is quite realistic and enjoyable.

JJP

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

Oct 14, 2020

Weinberg: Clarinet Music (CD Review)

Clarinet Concerto, Op. 104 (1970); Clarinet Sonata, Op. 28 (1945); Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153 for clarinet, triangle, and string orchestra (1992). Robert Oberaigner, clarinet; Michael Schöch, piano; Michail Jurowski, Dresden Chamber Soloists. Naxos 8.574192.

By Karl W. Nehring

Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1939-1996) was also known as Moisey or Moishe Vainberg, Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg, and you will occasionally run across older recordings with one of the alternative names, although for more recent recordings, “Mieczysław Weinberg” is now the standard spelling. Weinberg fled Europe for the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II. There he met Shostakovich, with whom he became a cl
ose friend, and who urged him to move to Moscow in 1943. He eventually lived close to Shostakovich, and the two shared musical ideas. Thanks to recordings and concerts by musicians such as Gidon Kremer, his music is becoming more widely known internationally. If you have not yet auditioned any of Weinberg’s music, this new Naxos release would be a fine place to start.

The opening movement of the Clarinet Concerto, marked Allegro, opens whimsically as the clarinet plays in its lower register, soon to be joined by the strumming sounds of the lower strings, and then the upper strings join in. The playful mood dissipates at about the 3:30 point, when the music becomes brooding, quickly followed by a shift toward the dramatic. After a minute or so of that, the pace becomes more driven, bursting into a gallop before turning quieter and moodier, the tension building as the movement ends. The Andante that follows begins in the strings, the clarinet not entering for 90 seconds or so. When it does join in, the melody it plays is wistful. The mood established is not quite tragic, but certainly serious. At the nine-minute mark, the mood becomes very serious indeed, the music lower in volume, ending in a chord that is followed immediately by a perky melody from the clarinet. The Allegretto closing movement begins without pause, with a five-note theme that gets repeated in various guises as the movement continues. But then once again Weinberg shifts moods, the perkiness going away at around the 4:30 mark. A couple of minutes later clarinetist Robert Oberaigner performs a remarkable cadenza that is followed by an exuberant dash to the finish line by the orchestra, with the five-note theme reappearing as the movement and the piece come to an end. 

Next on the program is Weinberg’s Clarinet Sonata, for which Oberaigner is joined by pianist Michael Schöch. The opening Allegro begins with solo clarinet, but the piano quickly joins in as their melodies commence to intertwine playfully. After a couple of minutes, the duo decelerates, the music becoming more serious-sounding. From there, things get more boisterous, almost martial in tone, shifting once again to take on an even more serious, probing tone, slowing and easing down to the end of the movement. Naturally enough, the following Allegretto movement starts off with a jaunty melody from the clarinet, with the piano quickly joining in, both instruments generating a feeling of forward motion. The mood soon becomes even more demonstrative, with both instruments taking solo turns, but then the tempo slows down significantly, the music becoming quiet and introspective, ultimately fading into silence. Although it seemed perfectly natural for Weinberg to have followed the sober ending of the first movement with the playful opening of the second movement, he has a surprise up his sleeve for us now, choosing to conclude the piece with an Adagio final movement. For the first couple of minutes we hear nothing from the clarinet, the piano soloing until the clarinet eventually enters. The music feels restless and unsettled, seemingly wanting to go into a dance but just not being able to muster sufficient energy. After some funereal chords from the piano, the clarinet enters with a yearning melody. The piece ends with a slow melody on the clarinet followed by more chords from the piano.

The cover illustration for this CD is from a painting by Gustav Klimt titled Birch Forest I. The opening Lento movement of the Chamber Symphony No. 4  can evoke the feeling of walking in such woods, alone, contemplating some or another matter, or perhaps trying to ascertain just where you are and where you are going. Are you lost? Beginning softly on the strings, the simple melody is haunting and ruminative. The clarinet comes in after three minutes have gone by, taking up the restless, unsettled mood for a while until dropping out and letting the strings take back over. Before the ending, the mood and tone change once again, almost as if the wanderer in the woods has shifted concerns to another issue before the movement fades out at its end. The second movement, marked Allegro molto – Moderato, adopts a more outgoing feeling, evoking a sense of motion, of being in a hurry. Not necessarily frantic, but certainly determined. A four-note theme emerges in the strings, until a clarinet solo, followed by a violin solo, wand then finally a cello taking the lead until the end of the movement. The third and longest movement, marked Adagio — Mosso, darts quietly, led by clarinet and cello, the music featuring a brooding melody as the strings take over. Toward the end, of the movement, the music becomes softer, almost ethereal, leading without pause into the final Andantino — Adagissimo movement as the clarinet changes the mood once again, playing above the strings, At about the five-minute mark, tension builds, than the clarinet takes a solo in its lower register, shifting the tone to become very brooding and inward-looking, the piece ending in the bass strings. Although the clarinet plays a significant role in proceedings, this truly is a chamber symphony, not a concerto by any means, but a  truly moving and remarkable work.

Despite their sometimes serious, even brooding moods, all three pieces are tonal, melodic, and entertaining. The recorded sound is excellent, with the clarinet not given undue prominence in the mix in the orchestral works (recorded in Dresden) and the piano and clarinet blending well in the sonata (recorded in Innsbruck), neither instrument being captured too closely by the microphones. The liner notes are informative, although printed in teeny-tiny font. However, thank goodness that Naxos had the decency and common sense to use black font on a white background. Especially if you are a fan of the clarinet, and even more so should you happen to enjoy the music of Shostakovich (or, of course, if you are already familiar with and a fan of Weinberg), you should find this relatively unknown music by a somewhat overlooked composer to be a pleasurable discovery indeed.

Bonus Recommendation: So many recordings, so little time… As I state in my brief Classical Candor bio, I am a music lover who enjoys getting and giving recommendations of recordings. Because our focus is generally on newer releases, I thought it might be fun (at least for me) and interesting (perhaps, at least occasionally, for you) to pass along brief recommendations of CDs that are older, occasionally even out of print, but well worth a listen. These will not be full reviews, just recommendations with a snip of description and a snatch of commentary. I hope you find them to be useful, or entertaining, or at least not an utter waste of time. Here goes…

My first bonus recommendation is for a compilation of music by the remarkable Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937) titled Moments of Memory II (Naxos 8.573598). By the way, the album title is actually the title of one of the compositions, so don’t bother trying to find a CD titled Moments of Memory I.  The performers include pianist Iryna Starodub and the Kiev Virtuosi under the direction of Dmitry Yablosnky. The half-dozen compositions are essentially gentle, soothing, almost dreamlike in character. At the same time, there is enough going on to intrigue the intellect and stimulate the imagination. In these troubled, turbulent times, this is music that can be a significant source of sonic succor.

KWN

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

Oct 11, 2020

Music for a Viennese Salon (CD review)

Music of Haydn, Kraus, and Dittersdorf. Night Music. Avie AV2423.

By John J. Puccio

Let’s start at the beginning. First, just what is “salon music”? Meriam-Webster defines it as “instrumental music of a light, pleasing, and often sentimental character suitable for the drawing room rather than the concert hall.” Such events became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a soloist, usually a pianist, or a small chamber ensemble entertaining friends and family in the home “salon.”

The present album attempts to replicate just such an event from real life. According to a booklet note, “It is the first year of the 19th century, and Palais Arnstein, a focus of Vienna’s intellectual and cultural life, hosts a performance of three remarkable works: a demanding ‘symphonic’ quintet and a ‘soloistic’ symphony are performed with the same musical forces.” The third piece is a duet, thereby raising the question of where we can draw the line between chamber and orchestral music.

Next, who are Night Music? They are a Philadelphia-based chamber ensemble of six musicians who perform on period instruments and are dedicated to the music of the revolutionary era (roughly 1760-1850). Its players are Steven Zohn, eight-keyed flute; Rebecca Harris, violin; Marika Holmqvist, violin; Daniel Elyar, violin; Rebecca Humphrey Diedrich, cello; and Heather Miller Lardin, violone.

Night Music here play the exact salon concert presented in Vienna in 1801. The program begins with the Quintet in D for flute and strings by Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792), a work that at the time had only recently been published (1799) by a composer who died young. More than one commentator at the time remarked that the Quintet was closer to a flute concerto than anything else, and it’s hard to argue the point. Steven Zohn’s flute does, indeed, dominate the music, the strings lending sympathetic support and even a little interplay. The Largo, based on a theme and variations, is particularly delightful and allows the other instruments a bit more room. The ensemble play it with a healthy zest, although the tempos and contrasts are never so extreme as to be tiring. It’s simply pleasant listening.

Next comes the Duetto in E flat for viola and violone (double bass) by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799). While it obviously employs an unusual combination of instruments, it is a charming piece of music, even if it is rather brief. Remarkably, neither instrument overpowers the other, the two moving effortlessly together almost as one singing mechanism. The music may be somewhat light, but Dittersdorf fills it out with an abundance of melodic tunes, and his choice of instrumentation lends an added weight.

The third and final work on the program is a chamber-ensemble arrangement of the “Surprise Symphony,” No.91 in G, by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). The violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who had been key to bringing Haydn to London several years earlier, transcribed the symphony for flute and strings. One might be forgiven for not noting the absence of a full orchestra in this small chamber edition. Night Music play it with such lyrical grace and refined gusto that one would think Haydn had intended it this way all along. Whatever, it makes for an engaging change of pace.

Producer Erin Banholzer and engineer Loren Stata recorded the music at Immanuel Highlands Episcopal church, Wilmington, Delaware in August 2018. The engineer miked the ensemble at a moderate distance, providing plenty of air in front of, behind, and to the sides of the group. It enhances the realism of the occasion, and it’s a blessed relief from the closely miked affairs we usually get with chamber orchestras. Plus, the small size of the ensemble provides excellent detail and clarity.

JJP

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

Oct 7, 2020

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Leon Fleisher, piano; George Szell, The Cleveland Orchestra. HDTT 4311.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Leon Fleisher, who passed away on August 1, 2020.

By Bill Heck

Brahms’s music, especially his comparatively earlier works, are the products of a passionate nature. Oh yes, I know, I know the image: Papa Brahms, the bearded, cigar smoking figure creating dense orchestrations, with “passionate” being the last word that might come to mind. But one listen to the opening of this concerto, or of, say, the First Symphony, should dispel that image. Surely the first movement of the First Piano Concerto, and even more so the Andante of the Second Piano Concerto, suggest conversations between two lovers, the first a fiery one of youth, the latter more mature but even more deeply felt. (I leave to others the speculation that the love interest was Clara Schumann.)

Similarly, George Szell seems to have had a reputation as a coldly analytical interpreter of classics. But how could anyone possibly hear this recording and think that? Szell and his Clevelanders understood the smoldering passion of Brahms’s music and delivered the performance that it deserves – and they had the chops to do it. One of the most precisely honed orchestras of the 20th century, the Cleveland players dig in from the start, clarifying Brahms’ complex passages with impeccable playing, the relatively quick but never rushed tempos befitting an irresistible force. Fleisher provides a counterpoint: plenty of power when needed, but grace and delicacy in quieter moments.

I distinctly remember finding a copy of this performance on the Odyssey label, at that time Columbia’s bargain imprint. In hindsight, I suppose that the sound was wretched, even by the standards of the day, but it didn’t matter. As the opening notes crashed from the speakers, the hair on the nape of my neck rose: the musical gods had descended from Olympus to play for us. That initial shock wore off, but I remain convinced that the Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland recording is one of the classics.

But if the good news is that the performance is wonderful, the bad news is that Columbia in 1957 (HDTT has it as 1958) was not in the forefront of great recorded sound. Their recordings of the Cleveland Orchestra were particularly concerning, with a sad tendency toward wiry highs and missing lows. (Legend has it that Szell himself was part of the problem. Supposedly his mono audio system had one speaker sitting directly on the floor, which led him to complain about muddy sound, with predictable adjustments by the recording engineers.) Fortunately, when Sony acquired the Columbia catalog some years ago, they remixed and reissued many of the recordings of the earlier era. I have the resulting set of the Concertos 1 and 2 in a double cardboard sleeve with copious liner notes – nice job, Sony! – and that version remains available, minus the cardboard packaging. The same performance, in what I believe to be the same remastering, has shown up in various compilations and combinations ever since. So how does the HDTT high-resolution transfer stack up in comparison?

Such a simple question, but surprisingly complicated to answer. Remember that the Sony version(s) seem to have gone through a complete remastering, while the HDTT transfer is taken directly from an early generation tape, described as “Transferred from a 4 track tape.” Even a cursory comparison shows that the Sony engineers, for reasons that are understandable but with effects both good and bad, made some significant adjustments. The most obvious is a redoing of tonal balance. The HDTT version, which I assume is closer to the original, exhibits a significant resonance in the upper bass/lower midrange, giving the sounds a “tubby” character. This effect, in turn, more obviously betrays the tape’s age. It just sounds like an old recording; by comparison, the Sony version sounds more modern. The question of tonal balance is not a complete showstopper, but it certainly is noticeable. Moreover, the HDTT is pitched slightly lower than the Sony version. That’s not a big deal for those not blessed with perfect pitch, but it is immediately apparent on comparison. Next, on the HDTT version, the upper strings (violins) are slightly more likely to shriek, sounding more aggressive than in real life. And finally, the piano is a little farther forward – not in a good sense, as it obviously was close-miked.

So far, the Sony version is ahead on points. Indeed, if you never heard the HDTT version, you certainly could appreciate, even love, the performance as rendered by Sony. (If I could be awed by that Odyssey LP, the Sony CD certainly should impress!)

But. Further listening to the HDTT version slowly revealed its virtues. I found that I was hearing many details just a little more clearly, that the image had just a little more depth. The lower strings, cellos and double basses were a little easier to follow. The dynamic range, at least subjectively, seemed greater. When I returned to the Sony version, it sounded comparatively flat, somewhat two-dimensional, in comparison to the slightly more lifelike HDTT sound. As a bonus, the quieter passages for solo piano in HDTT sound were simply wonderful. For example, at about 5:45 in the first movement, the piano plays alone, gradually joined by the softest of accompaniments from the orchestra. Fleisher’s work in this section is heart-stoppingly beautiful, a wonder of pianistic touch. That beauty comes through in the Sony version, but it comes through even more clearly in the HDTT transfer.

So which version is “better”? Clearly the overall tonal balance of the remastered Sony version simply is superior. It took me awhile to get past the unfortunate balance of the HDTT transfer, and I can imagine that some listeners might never make the adjustment. The Sony version generally sounds more tidied up, more modern. But. But. But…those details, that depth, seeing – or rather hearing – just a little further into the music….

In the description above, you will have noticed repeated use of terms such as “slight” and “a little”; that was intentional, as the differences that work in favor of the HDTT version were not blindingly obvious at first listen. In the end, while I could understand another’s decision to stay with the commercial CD, I would go for the HDTT transfer.

BH


Oct 4, 2020

The French Album (CD review)

Music of Faure, Debussy, Rameau, Chabrier, and Ravel. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 197.

By John J. Puccio

Jorge Federico Osorio may not be the most-familiar name among concert pianists, but he is assuredly among the best. The Mexican-born Osorio (b. 1951) has always avoided the flash and flamboyance of so many of his colleagues in exchange for graceful, refined playing, and it seems to have paid off. He has produced dozens of first-rate record albums of solo, sonata, and concerto music for EMI, Naxos, ASV, Artek, IMP, Linn, CBS, and others, his most-recent recordings on the Cedille label.

This addition of “The French Album” to his discography is a perfect example of his technique. It includes music by Faure, Debussy, Rameau, Chabrier, and Ravel, all of it done up in as gentle yet as passionate a style as one could want. Here’s a rundown of the disc’s contents:

Gabriel Faure (1845–1924)
  1. Pavane
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
  2. Les collines d’Anacapri
  3. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
  4. Clair de lune
  5. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest
  6. Voiles
  7. La Cathedrale engloutie
  8. Feux d’artifice
  9. Feuilles mortes
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764)
10. Les Tricotets
11. Menuets I & 2
12. L’Egyptienne
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841–1894)
13. Habanera
Claude Debussy
14. La Puerta del Vino
15. La soirée dans Grenade
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
16. Alborada del gracioso
17. Pavane pour une infante défunte

Among the things I’ve written about Osorio in the past apply here. So, to quote myself, he plays with beauty and charm, a delicate touch, and a genuine grace, with expressive, nuanced singing in his piano playing. He is a richly expressive piano virtuoso of international fame, and in my experience has never demonstrated anything but sensitive, immaculate, committed, passionate playing, a most-refined pianist whose best work comes in expressively lyrical passages. In “The French Album” he finds amply opportunity to demonstrate all of those talents, particularly in the “expressively lyrical” material, which comes in abundance from the French masters.

Osorio bookends his program with a pair of pavanes by Faure and Ravel respectively. They are perfect pieces for exemplifying his gentle yet commanding style. A pavane is “a stately dance dating from the 16th century,” and Osorio plays both of them with a stately grace, just as he plays everything on the agenda with a courtly polish.

The Debussy items dominate the album. Osorio gives them a free expression. I read the other day someone expressing the opinion that Debussy ushered in the modern age of classical music, and you’ll get no argument from me. With Debussy’s brilliant tone colors, expressionistic and impressionistic in style, lush and subtle at the same time, he certainly created a new musical world. Osorio exploits this new world superbly, his tone colors nuanced and unmistakable, his touch as delicate as the occasion demands. This is playing one can feel, and it feels good.

As I said at the beginning, there are flashier pianists than Osorio, but there are none finer. In this album of French music, he is in his element. If I were forced to pick a favorite selection, it might be Chabrier’s Habanera, not just because it’s beautiful music, but because it is Spanish-influenced music in the French manner, wonderfully executed by Osorio, who combines the best of both worlds.

Producer James Ginsburg and Cedille’s ace engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago in January 2020. The sound is gorgeous: not too sharp or bright; not too dull or soft. It simply sounds like a real piano in a real hall setting, with just the right amount of ambient bloom, room acoustics, and lifelike detail to bring it to life.

JJP

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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.


Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa