Nov 29, 2020

Soundtrack of the American Soldier (CD review)

Col. Jim R. Keene, United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. Navona Records NV6297 (includes CD and Blu-ray disc).

By John J. Puccio

The title of the album, Soundtrack of the American Soldier, might be a bit misleading. It might lead one to believe the disc contains the soundtrack of a movie called “The American Soldier.” But it isn’t. Not quite, anyway. The album is actually a collection of pieces by various composers written to celebrate the stories of American soldiers as depicted in several different movies and musical suites. Much of the music is familiar, and all of it is well presented by Col. Jim Keene and the United States Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus.

Here’s a rundown on the disc’s contents. You’ll recognize most of the names and many of the songs:
  1. Karpman: “Brass Ceiling” (from The Journey of General Ann Dunwoody)
  2. Steiner: Overture to Sergeant York
  3. Giacchino: Medal of Honor Suite
  4. Cohan: “Over There”
  5. Moshier: A Portrait of Honor
  6. Debeasi: American Sniper Suite
  7. Williams: March (from 1941)
  8. Beal: The Long Road Home
  9. Goldsmith/Bernstein: The Great WWII Medley
10. Berlin: “Good Bless America”
11. Key: “The Star-Spangled Banner”
12. Isham: “Army Strong”
13. Williams: “The Jedi Steps” and “Finale” (from Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Next, a word about the band. According the album jacket, “The United States Army Field Band of Washington, DC is the U.S. Army’s premier touring musical organization, traveling throughout the country and internationally to connect the American people to their Army and to represent the nation around the world. At the heart of the Band’s mission is telling stories of service that honor veterans and remind people what makes America a country worth protecting.”

After listening to this album, I’d have to say that the Army Field Band is not only the Army's premier touring band, they are one of the best bands in the country. Their precision and execution are remarkable, and they produce a rich, robust sound in the military manner. Everything is as clean and sharply creased as a military officer’s uniform. What’s more, the leader, Col. Jim R. Keene, keeps things moving at a healthy clip. Admittedly, he may not be as flexible or imaginative as some better-known conductors, but this is military music, and Col. Keene ensures that it remains true to its source.

Now, about the music. It seems a little odd to me that the producers of the album would choose to begin things with Laura Karpman’s “Brass Ceiling,” not because it isn’t worthy music but because it’s among the least well-known music on the disc, and it’s not exactly a curtain raiser. Nevertheless, it does set an appropriately serious tone for the album, so all is well. I also had to question the inclusion of John Williams’s march from the Steven Spielberg movie 1941. Again, not because the march isn’t a fun piece but because Williams wrote it for a comedy film, and he wrote it as a sort of parody of the march from The Great Escape (from which we hear a snippet in “The Great WWII Medley”). I suppose the album’s producers in this case wanted a little something to lighten the mood, a bit like ending the program with music from a Star Wars film, not exactly “American” soldiers, but I guess we get the idea.

The rest of the music, though, fits the pattern of good, patriotic, militaristic tunes. The Overture to the movie Sergeant York has a pleasant, poignant, homey, classic-Hollywood feel to it. The Medal of Honor Suite is more theatrical than some of the others and more sedately somber. The George M. Cohan number “Over There” finds soloists Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Erbe and Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Garcia and the Soldiers’ Chorus in good voice. (We hear the chorus again in moving renditions of “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)

And so it goes. The material is appropriate both for celebrating the American soldier and showcasing the talents of the Army Field Band. If any of these things appeal to you, the album makes an attractive proposition.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Leslie Ann Jones recorded the music at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California in October and November 2018. The album contains two discs: one a regular CD containing the songs in two-channel stereo and the other a Blu-ray containing the songs in two-channel stereo, 5.1 surround sound, and 5.1.4 channel Dolby Atmos. I listened and am reporting on the stereo CD.

Excellent clarity. Excellent depth of field. Excellent transient response. Yeah, mostly an excellent sounding album. There’s a lot of brass involved, so you can expect if your system favors the high midrange or treble at all it might seem a bit bright or forward. Mostly, however, the sound is realistic, miked at a moderate enough distance for lifelike reproduction. I’ve been on the main Skywalker soundstage several times, so I have some idea what things sound like in that big room, and this recording is about what I remember.


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

Nov 25, 2020

More New Releases (CD/SACD Mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Alas, my favorite public library has been forced to close its doors again because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, it was only open for a couple more days after I had finally been able to enter it at last and check out the new music releases that I commented on previously for Classical Candor. ( Not to worry, though, because although its doors have been closed to the public except for that one brief interlude (or was that whole episode merely a dream?), the library has been functioning quite efficiently on a drive-through basis. Buoyed by my experience with discovering new releases on that one brief but magical venture through the library door, I decided to do some searching on their website to see what other new classical releases they might have obtained recently. I there found some interesting items, some of which I am still in the process of auditioning and digesting, others for which I am pleased to offer some brief but, let’s hope, helpful commentary on below. Enjoy and stay safe, my friends...

Johann Johannsson and Yair Elasar Glotman: Last and First Men. (Deutsche Grammophon 4837410)
The late Johann Johannsson composed some truly remarkable music during his relatively brief career. Among his notable achievements were several movie soundtracks that are enjoyable to hear even divorced from their films (e.g., his soundtrack to the film Arrival, a stimulating sci-fi film based on an ingenious short story by author Ted Chiang titled “The Story of Your Life”). The copy I obtained from the library includes both the CD of the soundtrack and a Blu-ray disc of the movie, which I have not yet watched but plan to presently. The music is haunting, moody, sometimes spooky, with acoustic instruments, voices, and synthesized sounds blended together to great effect. If you are already a fan of Johannsson, you’ll want to give this new release a listen. 

MacMillan: Symphony No. 5 “Le grand Inconnu”; The Sun Danced. Mary Bevan, soprano; Harry Christophers, The Sixteen and the Genesis Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia. (CORO COR16179)
Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959) has given us here two large-scale works for chorus and orchestra that are based on religious themes. The Sun Danced (2016) was commissioned by the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal to mark the centennial of a religious miracle, while his Symphony No. 5, le grand Inconnu” (2019) is said by the composer to evoke the mystery of the Holy Spirit. MacMillan explains in the liner notes that the French phrase “Le grand Inconnu” refers to the mystery of the Holy Spirit in a way he cannot find in the English spiritual tradition. Musically, both pieces are expressive and colorful, showing the composer’s skill and imagination in powerful measure. A particularly gripping effect is the quiet breathing of the choir that opens the Symphony, a musical effect that brings to mind the idea of “the whisperings of the Spirit.” The soprano Mary Bevan really shines in The Sun Danced, with orchestra and chorus providing many moments of power and light. Both pieces have an exuberance that sweeps the listener away; indeed, one need not be religious to appreciate the power of MacMillan’s musical vision and the glory of the musicians who bring that vision gloriously to life.  

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra. (BIS 2386)
One of the highlights of my musical life was attending a concert performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 7 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Claudio Abbado. Given that JJP has already posted a fine in-depth review of this BIS release (, I will simply second his opinion that this is a very fine recording indeed. It is an excellent performance featuring an especially adept interpretation of the final movement. In addition, the sound of the orchestra has been captured with superb engineering, making this release worthy of an enthusiastic recommendation to all Mahler fans.    

Prokofiev: Suites from The Gambler and The Tale of the Stone Flower. Dima Slobodeniouk, Lahti Symphony Orchestra. (BIS 2301)
This SACD of orchestral music by Prokofiev contains just what you would expect from orchestral suites by the Russian master: music that is colorful, expressive, energetic, and entertaining. Many music lovers are no doubt familiar with the colorful orchestral suites from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The first suite on this disc, Four Portraits and Denouement from “The Gambler” is derived from an opera rather than a ballet, but the other suite is based upon his ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower. Interestingly enough, I noted in my listening sessions that there was some music that seemed quite parallel to some music from Prokofiev’s ballet score for the star-crossed lovers, but it is certainly no scandal to hear a great composer stealing from his or her own catalog, especially when the end product is so rewardingly entertaining, as it is here. Sandwiched between these two suites is an earlier composition by Prokofiev, his brief but soberly expressive Autumnal Sketch. The engineering is first-rate, which is what we have come to expect from BIS, one of the few labels that still lists the equipment used in the production, a fun touch that brings to mind those heady audiophile days of the 70s and 80s.

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 1. Gianandrea Noseda, London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO0802)
I thought it seemed a bit surprising to see the reverse numerical order of the symphonies in the title of this release. Perhaps the producers figured that the 5th is the more popular Shostakovich symphony of the two so they needed to list it first? Not a big deal, just a bit odd, so perhaps that was the point: christen it a bit oddly to draw some extra attention in a crowded marketplace. Whatever. A bigger surprise awaited me when I got home, opened the cover, and realized that there were two shiny toruses in the package, one for Symphony No. 5, the other for -- you guessed it -- Symphony No. 1. I had assumed both works would have fit on one SACD, but that might have been stretching it. There are no fillers included on either disc, but given that the package sells for a relatively modest price, value is not really an issue. Both symphonies are well done, recorded in live performance but engineered superbly. Symphony No. 1 is played with just a bit less playfulness than I would like to hear, but is still a delight. Similarly delightful is Noseda’s version of No. 5, an interpretation that seems to strike a balance between hope and despair. For the price, this 2-SACD set would be a great way for someone new to Shostakovich to be introduced to his symphonies.

Voice of Hope
: Camille Thomas, cello; Stephane Deneve (tracks 4-6), Mathieu Herzog (tracks 1-3, 7-13). Brussels Philharmonic. (Deutsche Grammophon 4838564)
What looks to be at first glance just another collection of arrangements for cello of some traditional favorites turns out to be something more complex, more focused, and more satisfying than that. The centerpiece of this collection is not a traditional favorite; rather, it is a new composition  by Turkish composer Fazil Say (b. 1970) titled Concerto for Cello and Orchestra “Never Give Up,” a quite listenable and rewarding piece of contemporary music that fits right in with the other selections in this release, which include impassioned performances of notable compositions such as Ravel’s Kaddish (if you ever get the opportunity, check out the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s “Tree of Life: A Concert for Peace and Unity,” a moving memorial concert for the victims of the tragic 2918 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which among other heartfelt performances included a version of Kaddish with a clarinet taking the lead), Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, and John Williams’s Theme from Schindler’s List. Voice of Hope is a truly remarkable release, much more than a random collection of arrangements for cello. Brava, Ms. Thomas!

Vasks: Viola Concerto; String Symphony “Voices.” Maxim Rysanov, viola and conductor, Sinfonietta Riga. (BIS 2443)
Music lovers who have not yet discovered the entrancing music of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) will find this new BIS release an excellent gateway into his musical universe. The CD opens with the more recent of the two works on the program, his Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra (2014-2015). Those fearful of contemporary music need not be afraid, this is music to delight rather than assault the ear. The opening movement in particular is breathtakingly beautiful, so listeners are likely to be hooked from the outset (shades of the old strategy of starting off a rock or pop album with a hit song sure to draw listeners in). Rest assured, though, the rest of the music on the disc is up to the same high standard of quality. The second composition is one of the first pieces by Vasks that got me interested in his music back in the early 1990s. His Symphony for Strings, “Voices” (1991) is more inward-focused than the Concerto, more allusive than effusive. Again, it is a good place to start with the music of Vasks, as it employs many of the musical devices that he will use in subsequent works. It truly draws the listener in, giving the mind something to turn over while enjoying the compelling sonorities. It is one of those pieces that upon hearing, you will immediately want to hear again. All in all, this is an excellent release, highly recommended.

Avishai Cohen: Big Vicious. Avishai Cohen, trumpet/effects/synthesizer; Uri Ramirez, guitar; Yonatan Albalak, guitar/bass; Aviv Cohen, drums; Ziv Ravitz, drums/live sampling. (ECM 2680)
It is certainly not an original thought to say that jazz is America’s classical music, but I’ll throw it out there quickly along with another thought that certainly did not originate with me, that jazz musicians in general tend to have a deeper understanding of and ability to implement music theory than do classical musicians. And if you read biographies of and interviews with prominent jazz musicians, you might well be surprised to find out how many are fans of classical music. In any event, Big Vicious is a delight: tuneful, imaginative, and bold in both conception and execution. “Big Vicious” is the name of both Cohen’s band and the album, which contains 11 compositions: nine originals credited to Cohen or the band plus two covers, one an arrangement of the song “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, the other an arrangement of a movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. (“Hey hey, my my, clas-sic-al will never die...”)

Bonus Recommendation: Self-Portrait with Russian Piano. Wolf Wondratscheck, author; Marshall Yarbrough, translator. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, First American Edition, 2020. ISBN 978-0-374-28049-1. It turns out that the library not only carries CDs, but they also carry books that they are more than happy to have their patrons check out to read. How cool is that?! Music lovers with a literary bent might enjoy this somewhat dreamlike novel by the German author, Wolf Wondratscheck. It tells the tale of a writer who encounters an aging Russian pianist, Suvorin, although as the novel moves along, it can become hard to separate the fictional author from the fictional pianist as their stories intertwine. Along the way, we are regaled with anecdotes and observations about actual musicians such as Clara Haskil (“Did she speak Russian? Did she speak at all?  Did her hands get cold before every appearance, too cold for Mozart, who would then warm them for her?”), Sviatislov Richter (“Any interest in success, in seeking admiration for his capabilities as a pianist, was completely alien to Richter. Success was fining the trail of a discovery, the hope of finding it. Richter would probably most preferred it if his name didn’t appear next to the composer’s on the playbill at all.”). Glenn Gould (“Gould was right to quit early. The guy was just thirty-two! But he had had enough and he threw in the towel. Good kid, and he had a sense of humor, too. That he did, you have to hand it to him.”), and Heinrich Schiff (“The worst ones, says Schiff, are the conqueror types, who turn each game into a tournament, each concert into a struggle—the killjoys at the conductor’s stand who wave the queue around like a baton. How little feeling, how little sensitivity they have.”). This novel is not the easiest to read, but it does tend to suck the reader in, weaving quite a psychological spell throughout its relatively brief 204 pages.  

Finally, allow me to be so bold as to recommend another jazz recording, this one also by trumpeter Avishai Cohen. His quintet recording Into the Silence (ECM 2482) is much different in sound and mood from Big Vicious. It is acoustic, moody, Cohen at times muting his trumpet and exploring some deeply introspective spaces both musically and emotionally. It is a simmeringly powerful release that is beautifully recorded and produced.


Nov 22, 2020

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Tragic Overture. Herbert Blomstedt, Gewandhausorchester. Pentatone PTC 5186 850.

By John J. Puccio

First, the good: The music is beyond reproach, the Brahms First being among the most-recognizable symphonies in the classical world. The conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, is beyond reproach at age ninety-one when he made this recording and one of the world’s leading ensemble directors as well as one of the world’s leading authorities on the music of Brahms. The orchestra is beyond reproach, the Gewandhaus Orchestra being one of the oldest orchestras (some would argue THE oldest) in the world and certainly one of the grandest. And the record company is beyond reproach, Pentatone having given us any number of fine albums since their founding in 2001.

The bad? Well, that may be even more a matter of opinion. Pentatone chose to record the music live. Usually, that means a close-up recording with occasional audience noise and inevitable applause. I was prepared for the worst, but Pentatone’s engineers provide a live recording that, thankfully, doesn’t sound too much like live. So even the bad is pretty good.

Johannes Brahms ((1833-1897) wrote his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 over a period of more than a dozen years, premiering it in 1876. The opening Allegro is tempestuous, crowded, energetic, with various themes, including a “fate” motif, a series of modulations, what has been referred to as “a shocking digression,” a restatement of the exposition, and, finally, a peaceful ending.

The second movement Andante is probably most notable for its solo passages from the oboe and violin. The third movement Allegretto is notable for squeezing in so much detail into so little space. Then the fourth movement finally gives us a memorable tune to hang our hats on and goes out in a triumphant flourish.

Allow me here to quote myself from a review I wrote well over a decade ago: “Beethoven pretty much intimidated everybody, and after his death composers were more than a bit reluctant to continue in the symphonic field. Many of them felt that Beethoven had already said it all, and they were content to deal with concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and the like. Brahms himself spent in excess of a dozen years mulling over the ideas for a symphony, finally revealing his Symphony No. 1 in 1876. The public and critics hailed it a success, and it has more or less remained in the basic repertoire ever since.

So, the Brahms First Symphony is something of a historical precedent as one of the first important symphonies since Beethoven, which does not in my book necessarily make it a great piece of music. I have always found the opening movement too messy, the Andante too overtly Romantic, and the third movement too boring, with only the Finale at all interesting, where Brahms saves up his big theme. So shoot me; I’m not a purist.”

Oddly, perhaps, I love Brahms’s Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies, where the composer seems to have learned a lesson from his first attempt at symphonic writing and settled into a more coherent and more tuneful pattern (although he never outdid himself with the First Symphony’s closing theme).

Anyway, of more importance than my personal feelings about the music, how does Maestro Blomstedt and his formidable orchestral forces handle all of this? Well enough, actually, especially for a fellow in his nineties, that you’d think might produce a really slow, ponderous reading of the “mature” type. But, in fact, it isn’t. Now, the performance isn’t in the same league, mind you, as my favorites: Otto Klemperer (EMI/Warner), who takes a firmer, more cohesive stand, and Sir Adrian Boult (EMI), who gives us a kinder, gentler, yet still quite imposing reading. By comparison, Blomstedt’s approach is grand but not too leisurely, mature but not to the point of tedium. It’s a measured interpretation in which the conductor tries his best to keep everything together and move it along at a healthy, if stately pace. Boring, it is not. Head and shoulders above everything else, it is not. Serviceable, it is.

The opening movement is the most like Beethoven of the symphony’s four movements, and Blomstedt plays it that way, with an emphasis on the “fate” motif and the ominous mood of the Fifth Symphony. Although I thought Blomstedt needed to give it a bit more energy for weight and authority, he plays it in a thoughtful fashion. Brahms interrelates the second and third movements, which Blomstedt nicely connects, making the transition from one to another seem almost seamless. Of course, this does nothing to dispel my feeling that both movements are rather prosaic. Which leaves Blomstedt with the finale, and it is the only movement I felt he handled a bit too slowly. It needs more fire after a somewhat labored introduction. Yet when the conductor reaches the main theme, he does open it up affectionately, and the music comes as a welcome relief from the darkness that came before. It wraps up a good performance that, unfortunately, still does not make its way to the heavens.

Coupled with the symphony is Brahms’s Tragic Overture. I enjoyed Blomstedt’s take on this work more than I did his work with the First. Brahms called the piece a “dramatic” overture, in contrast to the cheerful character of his Academic Overture, written the same year. From strong rhythmic development to funeral march, Blomstedt steadies the music and guides it to an agreeably harmonious conclusion.

What’s more, the Gewandhaus Orchestra never sounded more imposing. I’ve never heard them in person, but on disc in their own hall they have always sounded rich, mellow, golden in tone, and luxuriously resplendent. In this Pentatone recording, you can lay that out in spades. They sound glorious and fully up to the task of performing like one of the great orchestras of the world.

Producers Ranaud Loranger and Bernhard Gutler and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music live at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany in September and October 2019. Unlike so many of Pentatone’s recordings, which are presented in hybrid multichannel/stereo SACD, this one is a regular CD in two-channel only. And unlike so many live recordings, this one as I’ve said doesn’t really sound live, nor is there any applause or audience noise involved. The sound is smooth, a trifle close but not in the conductor’s lap, and moderately reverberant. The Gewandhaus imparts a mild ambient bloom to the proceedings, enough to make the orchestra appear full and natural. In terms of naturalness, in fact, the sound is warm and lifelike, one of the best, most listenable live recordings I’ve heard in ages.


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

Nov 18, 2020

Schumann: Einsam (CD Review)

Includes Arabeske, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana. Nino Gvetadze, piano. Challenge Classics CC 72855.

by Bill Heck

I admit that, in the past, I’ve not been much of a Schumann fan. Much of his music has seemed to me just a progression of notes, revealing nothing in particular. I listen to Bach, marveling at the structure, but structure surely isn’t Schumann’s strong suit. I can listen to Tchaikovsky and hear echoes of the composer’s joys and longings, but did not hear those echoes in Schumann’s compositions. Just what was it that others saw – or rather heard – in Schumann’s piano works?

It turns out, at least for the works on the recording reviewed here, that I was listening to the wrong performances. Oh, I suppose that it could be age that has made me more patient, more receptive to Schumann’s approach. Or it could be the phase of the moon or the boredom of the pandemic – but I really think it was hearing these performances that made me a convert.
When I first heard this recording, the word “personal” leapt to mind; I felt that I was listening to a musical conversation between performer and composer, or even between the performer and me, an intimate communication played in the moment. From that time to this, I’ve not gotten that word “personal” out of my head.

One bit of trivia to get out of the way: the title of the album, Einsam, usually translated as “lonely.” But why, as none of the works here deals with loneliness? My German professor sister (thanks, Barb!) pointed out that for the German Romantics, of which Schumann surely was one, loneliness has the connotation of solitude, a romantically noble aloneness, especially in connection with nature. Perhaps “contemplation” would be a better word for us English speakers.

The first work on the album, Arabeske, is fairly brief, clocking in here at 7:39. It was perhaps meant as a love letter of sorts to Robert’s beloved Clara Weick, for at the time of this composition he was banished from the Weick household as an unsuitable match for Clara. Schumann himself described the work as “delicate – for ladies”, and I suppose that one could characterize it as delicate. But that would be to sell it short: although a relatively early work (Schumann was 29 when he composed it), it does exhibit emotional depth. As such, I would think of it as a nice and well-played warmup for what is to come.

The Kinderszenen (Children’s Scenes) does have a program, although the program seems to have been added by Schumann after the completion of the composition. It represents a series of 12 scenes from childhood, not from the perspective of the child, but rather as the adult remembers them. As such, we might expect moments of innocent joy, but joy tinged with wistful nostalgia. The 13th and final movement depicts the adult reflecting on the reflections, so to speak, coming back to the reality of adulthood, but with those childhood memories lingering in the background.

To my mind, Gvetadze really has a way with this music. Sampling from the movements, her opening feels a little slower than some, but and she keeps a wonderful balance between the left and right hands, making the rhythm “roll” in an appropriate fashion. In other examples, the 4th feels like what we would stereotypically think of as a gypsy melody. No. 6 is nice but perhaps slightly rushed, but 7 gives us a delightful children’s march, and the playing in 8 almost forces the listener to visualize her own childhood memory.

After more of those childhood memories, we eventually reach 13, which portrays the adult reflecting back on childhood memories. The music is hesitant, as if the memories are quite old now, growing fainter with the years. Played very slowly, the movement still hangs together: each phrase anticipates the next, so that we have a sense of flow and coherence even as the individual thoughts emerge hesitantly. The end is subdued, but the last quiet notes give a sense of repose.

Throughout the performance, one has the feeling of attention lavished on each phrase, Gvetadze exerting full control of the dynamics of each finger and each note throughout the work, with an extraordinarily smooth touch. In contrast, for instance, Lupu delivers a powerful, even robust reading with some wonderful insights, his children in movement 9 are positively rambunctious and his adult of 13 is indeed contemplative. But the percussiveness of his fingering is less persuasive than Gvetadze’s, especially in the slower, quieter movements (and her tone is plenty robust enough when the music calls for it). Another comparison: I’m generally a fan of Ivan Moracvec, especially of his Chopin, and his version of the Kinderszenen does feature some beautiful playing. However, I just could not get past his tendency to come almost to a halt after defining phrases. Gvetadze never commits that sin: the well-judged phrasing is one of the loveliest things about her playing. Her rubato always seems perfectly timed, the delayed notes arriving just at the instant that they should to keep the music moving forward.

I next turned to Argerich: would not Schumann’s work be right up her alley? Indeed, Argerich’s account is in many ways like Gvetadze’s, but there were points where the former’s playing just seemed to fade away rather than to carry me along; I lost engagement from time to time where Gvetadze’s performance kept drawing me in.

Let’s turn to the second work on the disc, the Kreisleriana. Here, the opening seems a little confused (the sound, not the pianist), with notes running together; fortunately, things quickly snap back into focus and the remainder of the movement is well played. The little transition just after the 7:00 mark sneaks up on us, a wonderful effect. The second movement opens with a beautiful sense of longing, the music sounding as if in a dream, which in context feels perfectly appropriate. My listening notes remark repeatedly on the full control over each note, the dynamics of each finger wonderful, the timing just right.

I listened to several other accounts for comparison, but to keep things brief will mention just one. Murray Perahia’s playing is impeccable: after all, it’s Perahia. The entire first movement demonstrates an incredible separation of the two hands; quick finger work throughout the work is no challenge, the little runs that open the 3rd movement are so fleeting as to bring to mind water running down a mountain stream. Such technique! Yet Gvetadze’s playing, while not quite so dazzling, engages me with the music even more.

Look, I don’t really know what it is, but this recording – all of it – feels incredibly “personal.” (As I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to get that word out of my head.) The music pulls me back in; forget the analysis, I’ll just listen. Surely the recorded sound helps: the Challenge Classics engineers have captured the lower registers of the piano (a Steinway, I believe) to provide structural support; meanwhile, the image of the instrument is there in front of me. In the end, though, it is the playing that is so – oh, no, not that word again – personal. Thank you, Ms. Gvetadze, for properly introducing me to Mr. Schumann.


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

Nov 15, 2020

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Hilde Rössl-Majdan, mezzo soprano; Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. HDTT (2 discs).

By John J. Puccio

The German-born American conductor Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) was one of the few people recording well into the stereo age who actually knew and worked with Gustav Mahler. And of all the Mahler recordings he made, he apparently thought most highly of the Second Symphony, which he recorded several times. Among these recordings, it is probably this 1961-62 release that stands out for the excellence of both its performance and its sound, so it’s good to hear it so well remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 2 between 1888 and 1894 and premiered it in 1895. Because it references his personal view of the virtues of an afterlife and a resurrection, the composer called it the “Resurrection Symphony.” In a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC Music Magazine, it was voted the fifth-greatest symphony of all time, and one can understand why it was so popular in Mahler’s day and in our own.

Incidentally, I’ve mentioned before that Mahler has always been popular, but his popularity appeared to soar to even greater heights at the beginning of the stereo age. Why? One may wonder. I’ve argued that Mahler’s music is filled with so much hustle and bustle, so much diversity and variation, so many instruments, so many highs and lows, and so many notes (thank you, Amadeus) that it made a perfect vehicle for showing off one’s new stereo rig. And with the stereo age came new proponents of Mahler, not only Klemperer but conductors like Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, and Bernard Haitink. By the early Eighties, Mahler was so well known to the general public that a movie like Educating Rita (Julie Walters, Michael Caine) could have a character use the wonderfully pretentious line “Wouldn’t you must die without Mahler?” and get away with it.

The first movement Mahler completed he initially designed as a stand-alone symphonic poem called “Funeral Rites” (“Totenfeier”). It took him the next five years or so to decide if he wanted to open a symphony with it. For the première, Mahler drew up a program for the music (which he later withdrew), saying the first movement represented a funeral and asking the question, Is there life after death? The music is appropriately somber and solemn, which is exactly how Klemperer plays it. While Klemperer’s contemporary, Bruno Walter, who also worked with Mahler, may have emphasized more of the music’s plainness, Klemperer underscores more of its contrasts. This is never more evident than in the first movement, which is like a small symphony (or tone poem, as I mentioned) unto itself.

The second movement is relatively simple and slow, a recollection of happy times in the life of the deceased. It is in the form of a delicate Ländler, and Mahler marked it “Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen” (Very leisurely. Never rush). Klemperer was often criticized for being too slow and ponderous, but this is an overstatement. He did often take his time molding the musical structure of a work, but he was seldom ponderous. Here his conducting is exactly as Mahler instructs: leisurely and never rushed. It’s beautiful.

The third movement, a scherzo, reflects on life as a series of meaningless activities. How meaningless? Mahler called the climax either a "cry of despair" or a "death shriek." Mahler based it on a satirical poem about St. Anthony preaching to fish in a river, the fish comprehending none of it. Klemperer gives it the appropriate nuances to create an atmosphere of pointless desperation while still providing a most entertaining listening experience. I’ve always found this movement the most typically “Mahlerian” in the symphony, filled with pathos, yes, but a degree of playful, ironic joy as well. No one does it better than Klemperer.

Mahler marked the fourth movement "Urlicht" (Primal Light), the tempo “Very solemn, but simple.” It concerns a wish for release from a meaningless life, “relief from worldly woes.” That sounds pretty bleak, I know, yet in Klemperer’s hands it is enchanting and endlessly fascinating. The solo singing that opens the movement is delicate in the extreme, and for a change it isn’t recorded so closely that the singer dominates the rest of the score.

After such inspired gloom, the final movement gives us, after more cries of despair, Mahler’s hope for renewal, resurrection, and everlasting life. Mahler knew from the beginning that he wanted a big, hope-filled choral finale, so he chose the opening lines from the poem “Die Auferstehung” (“The Resurrection”) “Rise Again, yes, rise again” by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock to begin the movement and filled in further lines of his own devising, all accompanied by the full orchestra and chorus. It’s not exactly Beethoven’s Ninth, but it is all Mahler, complete with the Dies irae (the “Day of Wrath”). It’s also all Klemperer, who leaves his stamp of monumental authority all over it.

To sum up, you won’t find a better Mahler Second that this one by Otto Klemperer, both for its performance and sound. Klemperer was a master of subtlety and structure, and he brings out all the gradations and grandeur of the music and does so with consummate ease.

EMI producers Walter Legge, Walter Jellinek, and Suvi Raj Grubb and engineers Douglas Larter, Robert Gooch, and Francis Dillnutt recorded the music in November 1961 and March 1962 at Kingsway Hall, London. HDTT transferred the recording from an Angel 4-track tape. The total length of the performance is a little less than eighty minutes, and both EMI and currently Warner Classics fit it (barely) to a single disc. HDTT, however, chose to spread it over two discs, with the first two movements on the first disc and the final three movements on the second. In fairness, HDTT mark each section of the finale with its own track, so maybe that spacing accounts for the needed extra room. I dunno.

The Klemperer disc I had on hand for comparison was a Japanese import, very good and currently hard to find at a reasonable price (a check of Amazon showed prices from about $25 plus shipping to well over a $100). I put the discs in comparable CD players, adjusted the playback levels, and switched back and forth throughout my listening. The recording has always sounded good but even more so in EMI’s most-recent remastering. The Japanese copy bears a 2006 date but doesn’t say what source Toshiba-EMI used for the disc. When I got it (around the time of its release), I compared it to EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” remaster and found the Japanese product slightly clearer than its English counterpart. So, how did this new remaster from HDTT hold up?

The HDTT transfer holds up pretty well. Overall, both the HDTT and Toshiba-EMI sound excellent. The HDTT is slightly smoother, marginally softer of the two, with a bit more upper bass response making it sound a tad mellower. The Toshiba-EMI product is slightly more transparent but at the expense of a touch more edginess to the strings. Without the direct A-B comparison, I doubt these small differences would be noticeable to anyone but the most golden of ears. Of the two, I found the HDTT discs to a small degree more listenable.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


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

Nov 11, 2020

Some New Releases (CD mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

After being closed for many months because of the pandemic, a few days ago my favorite public library partially reopened. I stopped by to see what might be available and was pleasantly surprised by the amazingly large number of new classical CDs in the rack. I greedily grabbed 10 to check out, but by some strange machinations of moral reasoning I concluded that to take home 10 was just too darn greedy, so I wound up reconsidering my choices carefully and ended up walking out the door with a mere nine CDs and a 10% better opinion of myself. With neither the time, space, nor motivation to offer full reviews, I thought it would be at least useful to publish some brief remarks and recommendations concerning these recently become available releases; I hope this proves to be of at least some minor usefulness to our Classical Candor readers. “And away we go!”

Bach | Brahms | Berg: Antonio Chen Guang, piano. (Steinway & Sons 30069)
Pianist Antonio Chen Guang, winner of the first Olga Kern International Piano Competition has chosen a rather unusual program for this release, comprising Bach’s Italian Concerto, Brahms’s Variation and Fugue on a theme by Handel, and Berg’s Piano Sonata. To my ears, his performance of the Bach, one of my favorites, is a little smoother than ideal, but is still a fine performance in excellent sound. The elephant in the room for this CD is the sheer eclecticism of the program. Personally, I would rather listen to the Berg than the Brahms. Many others no doubt feel quite the opposite, but it is hard to imagine many folks being excited about this particular concatenation  of compositions by these particular three B’s, which might appeal as a one-time live recital performance but not so much as a CD to be played again and again.  

Beethoven Reimagined: Gabriel Prokofiev, electronics; Yaniv Segal, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. (Naxos 8.574020)
2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, replete with tributes of all sorts (although certainly diminished by the pandemic in terms of live events). Naxos gets into the spirit of things with a lively and stimulating release featuring an arrangement for orchestra of his Violin Sonata No. 7 by Garrett Schumann  (b. 1987) and conductor Yaniv Segal (b. 1981) that they have titled Sonata for Orchestra in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2b. No fancy tricks or sounds here, just a solid orchestral performance of a piece that sounds as if could have been composed by Beethoven, which of course it was, actually. Very nice! It is followed by A Fidelio Symphony, an instrumental suite arranged by Segal of music from Beethoven’s lone opera. Again, very straightforward and very nice. The final piece on the program is BEETHOVEN9 Symphonic Remix (2011) by Gabriel Prokofiev (b. 1975), which does give us some fancy tricks and sounds, as Prokofiev reimagines the final movement of Beethoven’s immortal Ninth in an arrangement for electronics and orchestra. Yes, it is strange trip, but it is also a joyous journey. All in all, Beethoven Reimagined succeeds brilliantly as an imaginative and enjoyable tribute to LvB.

British Violin Sonatas, Volume Three: York Bowen, Sonata op. 112; John Ireland, Sonata No. 2; James Francis Brown, The Hart’s Grace; William Alwyn, Sonatina; Eric Coates, First Meeting. Tasmin Little, violin; Piers Lane, piano. (Chandos CHAN 20133)
As you might expect by the time you get to a third volume of just about any recording project of this type, this program consists of works that are not widely known, especially on this side of the pond. But particularly for lovers of the violin, this is an interesting collection of some enjoyable music. Tasmin Little has had a long and distinguished career as one of the preeminent British violinists and she plays these pieces with skill and love. As a big fan of the orchestral music of William Alwyn, I was especially eager to audition his Sonatina, which turned out to be a real treat for my ears and soul. The Coates First Meeting, which was my first meeting indeed for this piece, ends the program wistfully and wondrously, capping a most enjoyable recital by musicians Little and Lane. If you enjoy music for the violin, then you really might want to give this fine recording a listen.

Cello Libris–Works by Geoffrey Gordon. Program includes Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Fathoms; Ode to a Nightingale. Toke Muldrop, cello; Lan Shui, Copenhagen Phil; Mogens Dahl, Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir; Steven Beck, piano. (BIS 2330)
This is a disc likely to appeal foremost to those listeners not afraid of somewhat challenging contemporary music, especially those with a passion for the expressive capabilities of the cello. American-born composer Geoffrey Gordon (b. 1968) highlights the expressive capabilities of the cello in three rather varied and challenging works, each of which takes literature for its inspiration. The Concerto, which is in eight rather than the usual three or four movements, refers to Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. It is hardly tuneful, but those with a tolerance for more modern composition styles should not be driven out of the listening room and in fact may be swept away by the sheer energy of the playing. Next up is Fathoms for cello and piano, which consists of a prelude followed by five impressions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Again, Moldrup’s cello gets quite a workout in this frenetic and imaginative extended sonata.  The final piece, Ode to a Nightingale, which refers to the Keats poem, combines cello and chamber choir in a composition that has some fascinating moments but strikes my ears at least as reaching a bit too far. If you are a fan of the cello and enjoy more “out there” music, this generously filled (81:40) release might be worth an audition. More conservative listeners will probably be well advised to pass. 

Ciurlionis: Kestutis Overture; In the Forest; The Sea. Modestas Pitrénas, Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra (Ondine  ODE 1344-2)
It is always interesting to discover a new composer and delightful when the music turns out to be enjoyable. These three compositions by the Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911) are all quite enjoyable and should appeal to a wide spectrum of classical music fans. They are squarely in the European tradition, tonal and tuneful, with drama and sweep, particularly in The Sea. Should you be looking to hear some enjoyable orchestral music that you most likely have never heard before, this fine new release from Ondine would be a good one to audition.

The Diabelli Project: Rudolf Buchbinder, piano. (Deutsche Grammophon 483 7707)
Those of us old enough to remember discovering rock music in that crazy decade of the mid-60s through the mid-70s well remember the “concept album” and the “double album,” exemplified in one fell swoop by the Who’s Tommy. Today, those of us still alive and kicking in the COVID-19 era, as well as those younger listeners who have developed an interest in classical music, now have a new concept double album to enjoy. This remarkable release from the venerable Rudolf Buchbinder consists of two CDs. The first contains Buchbinder’s performance of Beethoven’s Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C major, the second includes his performance of Diabelli’s original waltz followed first by New Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, comprising 11 variations by contemporary composers, which is in turn followed by eight variations penned by composers such as Hummel, Liszt, and Schubert. For those who delight in piano music, this thoughtfully imaginative release should be quite the delight.


Nov 8, 2020

Bernstein: Songfest (CD review)

Also, Gershwin: An American in Paris; Copland: An Outdoor Overture. James Judd, Wolf Trap Opera; National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic. Naxos 8.559859.

By John J. Puccio

This album is another in Naxos’s “American Classics” series, and they could hardly have chosen three more representative American composers for the program. The Gershwin work, An American in Paris, is a certified classic, and the other two, Copland’s Outdoor Overture and Bernstein’s Songfest, while not quite of the same elevated rank, certainly represent the field. Conductor James Judd leads singers from the Wolf Trap Opera in Bernstein’s vocal piece, and the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, which I admit I had never heard of before, handles the orchestral work.

The disc begins with one of the gems of American music, An American in Paris by George Gershwin (1898-1937), which was first performed in 1928. The work is a musical description of an American’s visit to Paris in the 1920's, strolling about and taking in the sights and sounds of the city. The novelty of the current recording is that it uses a new, 2019 critical edition of the score that offers Gershwin’s original orchestration, as the cover jacket announces, “unheard for 75 years--leaner, more angular and transparent, it also employs the correct use of the iconic taxi horns, for a new sonic experience.”

Maestro Judd takes the Gershwin music at a sprightly pace, not frenetically fast but quickly. It reminded me of the old movie If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, where a group of American sightseers take a whirlwind tour of Europe. Under Judd, Gershwin’s American takes something of a whirlwind tour of Paris. Still, the tourist appears to be having fun, and that’s the main thing. Judd captures the colors and textures of Gershwin’s music in an imaginative and ultimately rewarding reading.

The second item on the program is An Outdoor Overture, written by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) in 1938. Along with the ballet Billy the Kid, An Outdoor Overture helped to establish Copland’s reputation as a composer of “Americana,” an idiom for which he will forever be associated.

Copland called it An Outdoor Overture because after the composer played a piano sketch of the music for a friend who was commissioning it, the friend said it had “an open-air quality” about it. There’s no doubt it has a vigor and airiness about it reminiscent of the wide-open American West. It’s a kind of mini Billy the Kid or Rodeo, and James Judd and his crew perform it with an appropriate vitality and flair.

The final selection of the album is Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra written in 1976-77 by teacher, composer, pianist, and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). He wrote it to celebrate America’s Bicentennial Year, and used it as a musical setting for the verses of thirteen American poets, from Frank O’Hara and Lawrence Ferlinghetti through Julia de Burgos, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, Anne Bradstreet, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Conrad Aiken, Gregory Corso, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Here’s the thing, though: While Judd and his ensemble do a fine job with the score, I’ve never been particularly fond of the music. Bernstein is more art song here than popular song, so don’t expect another West Side Story from the composer. That being the case, Judd, as I say, his ensemble and soloists do a first-rate job presenting the music and poems with a dramatic effect and poignant affection.

A healthy set of booklet notes and song lyrics complement an excellent presentation of the music. Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, it’s a group formed each June by the musicians of the National Orchestral Institute, “chosen through rigorous international auditions” and focused “on creating future musicians and leaders in the world of orchestras.”

Producer, engineer, and editor Phil Rowlands recorded the music at the Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland in June 2018. The orchestral sound is uniformly excellent, among the best I’ve heard from Naxos. It has clarity, width, depth, air, dynamics, frequency range, the works. It may not be as transparent as some audiophile recordings, but it’s close. I enjoyed it immensely. The vocal music, too, is clearly presented, although it betrays minor traces of edginess in the upper registers. Not enough to spoil the show but present, nonetheless.


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

Nov 4, 2020

The NAD C 658 BluOS Streaming DAC, Part Two

By Bill Heck

In my previous article, I introduced a new way of thinking about audio components, a view that moves us into a new digital audio realm. We are leaving an audio world in which, while music may have been recorded and stored digitally, the playback system remained essentially and straightforwardly analog. We are entering a world in which the norm will be, or at least should be, seamless combinations of sources and functions, all driven by digital processing power.

But we also saw that finding and using all the sources and functions that we would like without duplicating functionality – and without amassing a raft of components – is difficult.

Enter the NAD C 658. The 658 certainly is not the only audio component that leans into our new digital world. But a remarkable slice of that world lurks inside the conventional gray metal case of what looks at first glance like a rather ordinary preamp. It’s the do-it-all (almost) workhorse of the two-channel audio world, and perhaps the only unit out there with such a full range of capabilities: streaming, DAC, preamp (with phono inputs), headphone amp, subwoofer crossover, and room correction, with serious digital processing power and advanced software. Find yourself a CD transport, a turntable if you still play LP’s, a hard disk drive if you have stored music files, and a power amp – you’re all set.

There are three major advantages to packing all this functionality into one unit.

- You avoid expensive duplication of functions across multiple components.

- You minimize unneeded complication and connections. Consider what it would take to duplicate the functions of the 658: a streaming device cabled to a DAC cabled to a preamp cabled to a room correction device cabled to a crossover (for the subwoofer). Or consider the 658: one box, with one integrated setup and one integrated control system. Which setup is less expensive to implement? Which is simpler to set up? Which takes up less space on your equipment rack? (For that matter, which equipment racks have enough shelves for all those boxes plus a CD player and a power amp?) Is any of this sonically relevant? Maybe or maybe not, but surely simpler can’t hurt. Meanwhile, it is relevant to your sanity.

- You control everything through one interface. All functionality in the same unit means one control method, especially for streaming and locally stored music files. In the case of the NAD, that’s BluOS (see below). The only other control you’ll need is a remote for the CD transport – and if you have a BluOS-enabled CD player, you won’t need that remote, either.

There are two potential drawbacks, though:

- If you want to upgrade some specific function, say the DAC, you’re stuck. Yes, you could buy a separate DAC. But not only are you back to duplication, but the streaming function in the NAD is now behind your shiny new DAC. If you are worried about the last nuance among high-quality DACs or streaming devices, whether real or supposed, and you know that you will pine after the next year’s claimed breakthrough, the 658 may not be the device for you.

- Perhaps some completely new function will come along, making the unit obsolete. In this case, however, NAD has you covered. The 658 employs “Modular Design Construction” (MDC), which allows for the addition of circuit boards to add or change functions. The only additional board currently offered is for HDMI inputs and outputs; if you need that functionality, just add the circuit board. Naturally, it’s up to NAD as to what MDC boards they offer in the future, so there are no guarantees that everything we might ever want will be available. Still, it’s nice to know that NAD is thinking ahead.

Inputs and Controls
This section will be short indeed: you can read the product description on the NAD website as well as I, so no point in rehashing the basics here. I would like to clarify a few points, though:

- The online “product story” is inconsistent with the downloadable “white paper” on a few small points. (The product story is on the page at ; look under “Downloads” on that same page for the white paper.) NAD support assures me that the white paper is to be considered authoritative and that the product story will be corrected.

- That white paper is, however, wrong on one point: the subwoofer output is indeed high-filtered, meaning only low frequencies are output to the subwoofer. A NAD support rep was kind enough to test and confirm this point and assures me that the white paper will be corrected.

- As befits a modern DAC, the 658 can handle high resolution inputs up to 24/192 PCM; it also handles unfolding of MQA.

- A good set of inconsistencies may arise because the BluOS software is updated frequently, and the updates can modify or add to functionality. See the discussion below for details.

- One concern that people have raised in online forums, as did the salesperson with whom I chatted before ordering, is that one cannot play back music from a computer attached to the USB port. At first this sounded worrisome, but after using the unit for several months, I found that this concern mostly is a vestige of the old paradigm in which you needed a separate component (a computer), to play music files. Not with this unit: no matter where your music files are, there are simple ways to play them directly through the 658. And if you have been relying on the typically mediocre sound card in your computer for digital to analog conversion, you will have better audio quality to boot.

- The included remote control is a particularly nice one – but realistically, it’s mostly irrelevant, as you probably will use the BluOS app on your smartphone instead. Indeed, I suspect that most users would be perfectly happy if the unit did not even ship with a remote.

In general, operation of the unit is as expected and completely straightforward, with no noticeable oddities or “gotchas”.

In my previous article, I stressed the need for software to control our new digital functionality, in particular for playing stored music files and using streaming services.

NAD’s parent company, Lenbrook, produces the BluOS software platform, which naturally is used for the 658. (BluOS is also licensed by a few other brands.) The BluOS ecosystem has all sorts of options, such as multi-zone control (64 zones?!). For our purposes, it’s enough to know that you can use BluOS to select and play music as well as to control the functions of the 658. There’s no way to cover BluOS in detail here, but three points are worthy of note.

- First, if you do have stored music files, you can attach the storage device, e.g., a hard drive, to your router to make it part of your in-home network. BluOS will index the files and allow you to select the files and control playback. Meanwhile, you can use your computer to download music files, which you then can send directly to the storage device to add them to your music library. No specialized music server, with its own software, controls, and special connections, is needed. More duplication and expense avoided!

- Second, if you use a streaming music service, BluOS tells the 658 what to stream, but the streaming is done directly by and through the 658. Unlike some competitors, BluOS does not route the streaming through the app, e.g., through your phone or tablet. To my still-remaining IT sensibilities, the BluOS method is truly righteous.

- Third, BluOS natively interfaces with a lot of music streaming services and internet radio services, 25 at last count. These include the big players, such as Idagio (classical music), Tidal, Qobuz, and Amazon, as well as a host of lesser-known names (Deezer, Radio Paradise, etc.). The biggest miss for classical music fans is Primephonic, but we cannot blame Lenbrook for this: Primephonic’s service does not integrate with software from any manufacturer other than Sonos, which is not exactly an audiophile favorite. (I contracted Primephonic customer service about this issue. They assured me that they are working on integrations but provided no timetable.)

Overall, I found the BluOS app to be well-organized, easy to use, and stable. For example, when I first set up the 658, it wanted to update the software. Wonder of wonders, the update process worked automatically and correctly the very first time. Since then, I have applied four additional updates; the process is trivially easy and has worked flawlessly. Those who have struggled with software update failures, fiascos, and new bugs introduced with every release will share my amazement. I should note that internet discussion forums had plenty of complaints about earlier versions of the software: I can’t say how justified those complaints were at the time, but it appears that Lenbrook has addressed them successfully.

Earlier I mentioned that BluOS updates might add or modify functions of the 658. I already have seen several improvements, most subtle but some more obvious. Here’s one example: the subwoofer crossover frequency originally was fixed at 80 Hz, as described in the white paper. A software update made that user selectable from 40 – 200 Hz. Another, more recent update added several more streaming services to the list of those supported when I purchased the unit. Imagine that: an audio component that gets better with age.

Do not let the brevity of the discussion here cause you to underestimate the importance of well-executed software like BluOS. In terms of the user experience, think of the parallel to your smartphone’s OS. Imagine the frustration that you might feel if you found iOS or Android so opaque and confusing that you could not use your phone’s functionality properly. (Right about now, some of you are thinking of exactly such experiences.) Of course, we buy audio components to improve our experience of listening to music, but part of that experience involves getting those %$#& components working, playing the music we want when and how we want it. In my experience, BluOS does the job well.

Performance, Part One
Finally, the heart of the matter: how does this thing perform? Before answering that, a few qualifiers and confessions.

First, I have neither the skills nor the equipment to measure the performance of a unit like this, but have no reason to doubt the specs provided by NAD. Second, I have not done painstaking comparisons to similar products, mostly because there are not a lot of (any?) similar components combining such a range of audio functions. For comparison, I would need to assemble a combination of DAC / preamp / room correction system / subwoofer crossover, with far too many variables for meaningful comparison.

With those qualifications out of the way, I can tell you that my system sounded good when I originally installed the 658. The sound was clear and well-balanced, with no obvious shortcoming. The audiophile boxes were checked: imaging was good, the sound was detailed without being edgy. Transients were clean. Dynamics seemed fine. One particularly noticeable aspect was that backgrounds were absolutely silent, with music emerging from and fading back to stillness. So far, so good.

A word about subwoofing – because why should surround sound receiver users have all the low frequency fun? The 658 has line level outputs for two subwoofers. (If you have only one, bass from both channels is steered to a single output.) By the way, if you have not considered a subwoofer (or better, two subwoofers) for your two-channel system, the 658 might encourage you to take another look. I’ve had mine for about a year and would not dream of letting it go; the included subwoofer output from the 658 make it easier than ever to use.

But…but… It felt as though I was missing something. I was by no means dissatisfied: the 658 already had improved my system compared to the components that it replaced, and it was great having everything in one easy to use package. Still, it somehow felt that there should be more. I had no desire to spend hours swapping components or fiddling with tweaks to try to gain some small increment; surely there were better ways to make serious improvements. Perhaps I could try, ummm, let’s see – how about room correction?

DIRAC Room Correction
For several years, some form of room correction has been mostly available in AV receivers, with different vendors implementing proprietary algorithms with varying degrees of success. Recently, DIRAC and a few other similar software companies have arrived on the scene. DIRAC – named after the scientist, Paul Dirac, of Dirac equation fame – has developed acoustic correction software that it licenses to equipment manufacturers, such as NAD. DIRAC uses a set of measurements (see below) to create a “correction curve” that is implemented by the 658’s processor when playing music. The version included with the 658 is DIRAC LE (aka “Lite”), which does correction from 50 – 500 Hz, the range where the worst room issues normally arise. An upgraded version that corrects across the full audio spectrum costs $99.

The measurements require the user to position a microphone, included with the 658; a laptop or smartphone is needed to process the results. The procedure is slightly tedious: ideally you move the microphone through a series of 9 to 17 measurements. Then again, this effort certainly is less taxing than endless fiddling with speaker placement! I spent a couple of hours on my first attempt, including reading the directions, unpacking and hooking up the microphone, digging out an old tripod, setting levels, etc. A more careful second try when I knew what I was doing took less than an hour.

After the measurements are complete, the generated correction curve is saved and sent to the 658; up to five curves (up from the original three via a software update) can be stored there. Why more than one? Curves can be for a single seating position, i.e., a narrow area for one person, or for a wider area, perhaps a couch for two people. In any case, corrections include both equalization in the usual sense, i.e., increasing or decreasing the signal at various frequencies, and correction in the time domain. I would love to tell you how it all works, but the algorithms obviously are proprietary, as they are the heart of DIRAC’s business. Meanwhile, you can adjust the frequency equalization curve to fit your taste. For example, on my first attempt, I made a very slight tweak to reduce a mid-bass region that seemed just a bit prominent.

While playing music, you can select among the stored correction curves or turn Dirac off completely at any time. Thankfully, the most recently used choice stays in place until you change it.

The result? My first attempt resulted in sound that was different, but I was not quite sure that it was an improvement. However, I knew that there were two things going on. First, we all adjust to the vagaries of our rooms and accept what we hear, warts and all, as “normal”. Maybe I just needed time to adjust. Second, my measurement technique had been a little sloppy. I tried the entire measurement process again, using a better microphone stand for more careful positioning (a boom attachment for a camera tripod works well). The resulting correction curve removed all doubt. This was it.

Performance, Part Two
After applying room correction, the usual audiophile boxes are checked with very large, dark checkmarks indeed.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement is clearer placement of musicians and their instruments in all dimensions, including depth. Indeed, the solidity and precise placement on a good recording can be startling, especially for solo piano and small ensembles. Moreover, without DIRAC correction, moving my head slightly often resulted in an obvious shift in instrumental placement and change in tonal balance; with DIRAC engaged, the audible effect of movements on my part is as if I am moving in front of a live performance, as the instruments stay where they are while my perspective on them changes. This latter effect may not sound that important, but if you’re like me, occasionally swaying to the music or “air conducting” the orchestra, listening just feels more natural. (For the record, I try not air conduct when attending live concerts.)

The sound is nicely detailed but not etched or edgy, by turns full and powerful or floating and delicate as the music dictates. Transients pop nicely yet naturally. Frequency response seems smoother: in particular, the lines played by cellos and especially double basses are easier to follow, as major peaks and valleys in the nether regions are sufficiently smoothed to let me hear all the notes. (The vagaries of this sort of subjective analysis are on display in online forums, where one camp of users complains that the sound of the 658 is horribly aggressive, bright, and hard, while other reviewers remark on the warm, relaxed, even laid-back sound of the unit. It can’t possibly be both!). With the Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 driving the speakers, dynamics are excellent.

In general, music just seems to be “cleaned up” and quite natural, and this is particularly noticeable in longer-term listening. In summary, the more I use DIRAC, the more important it feels: turning it off results in an immediate desire to turn it right back on.

While the above effects are quite noticeable, DIRAC will not make your $500 bookshelf speakers sound like $10,000 floor standing behemoths. All the same, the improvements wrought by DIRAC would have taken considerable effort and no little expense, if indeed they could be produced in any other way – and they were accomplished with the version of DIRAC included with the 658 at no extra cost.

Given that the worst of room effects are encountered in the range covered by the LE version of DIRAC, many users will be satisfied to stop here. Personally, I intend to spend the extra $99 to upgrade to the full spectrum version of DIRAC. My assumption is that even a relatively small improvement will be more than I could get by spending the same amount on any other accessory. I’ll report back later.

Does all this mean that I think that the 658 is the epitome of digital sound? Frankly, I have no idea. It seems to me that we have reached a level of sophistication in digital equipment that makes it difficult and often outrageously expensive, given the law of diminishing returns, to make real improvements by swapping components. Most front-end components with any high-fidelity pretensions have vanishingly low levels of noise, distortion, and, for digital components. even jitter. What I can tell you is that my system, now with the 658 in place and room correction on, seduces me into listening more than I have in ages.

The NAD C 658 retails for $1649. For most mortals, this is not exactly cheap for a single component – but the 658 is not your typical single component. When even the low end of audiophile preamps would be around $1000, a streaming “node” might be $500 or more, a dedicated phono preamp is a few hundred bucks, a dedicated subwoofer crossover is at least that much, and we still don’t have room correction, the price of the 658 starts to look very reasonable indeed. Add in the fact that the entire collection is run by already mature but still improving software (BluOS) and the 658 looks a downright bargain.

The Bottom Line
By now, it should be obvious that I am impressed with and pleased by the NAD C 658. As I write this, I am enjoying music entirely new to me, the Saint-Saens Piano Quintet No. 1, Op 30. The piano is close but not in my face, its sound blooming through its full range; each of the stringed instruments is in its appointed place; and the effect is that the musicians are grouped starting perhaps 15 feet in front of me. The sound is relaxed and natural, as it would be in real life. How could I be anything but delighted?

The 658 not only sounds fine, but it also makes the music so easy. Consider how I ended up listening to that quintet: I opened the app, noticed this album in the list of new releases on my streaming service, tapped a button, and started listening – in high-resolution, no less. One app (BluOS), no fiddling with disks (although I still do listen to CDs, particularly old favorites), no adjusting multiple components – not too many years ago, I would have regarded all this as magic.

Which brings us back to the bigger picture from my previous article: the 658, and components like it, are redefining how audio systems are put together. The combination of functions and the rich feature set of the 658 seem to presage what more components will be like in the future: digital “centers” that bring together formerly disparate functions in useful, even graceful ways, and that sensibly use the power of digital processing to enhance our systems. In a few years, we may look askance at any preamp that lacks a high-quality DAC, and even be annoyed by other components that include redundant DACs. We may feel cheated by any preamp that does not offer room correction and subwoofer outputs. We may be frustrated by any preamp that fails to index and sort our collection of downloaded music – if we even bother to download music given the ubiquity of high-quality streaming options. We may expect that every preamp not only has streaming built in, but also natively interfaces with every streaming service out there. A few years from now, we may not even recall that we once had to buy more than one component to build the front end of an audio system.

Nov 1, 2020

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5 (CD review)

Baiba Skride, violin; Eivind Aadland, Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Orfeo C997201 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

Latvian classical violinist Baiba Skride has won a ton of awards and recorded over a dozen albums. She is an excellent musician and a very attractive person. However, you might not notice any of that from the cover art on her Mozart Violin Concertos album, which features a picture that obscures her face and shows her seemingly about to drop one of her cherished Stradivarius violins. Ignore the cover picture. Listen to the music.

As we know, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was more of a piano guy than a violinist, which may explain why he wrote about twenty-three original, numbered piano concertos (OK, twenty-seven altogether, but the first four were mostly arrangements of other people’s work) and only five violin concertos. What’s more, Mozart wrote all of his violin concertos around 1775 while still rather young, nineteen or twenty, and then sort of gave up on the genre. His violin concertos are certainly tuneful and expressive, but he would leave it to others, like Beethoven and Brahms, to develop the violin concerto to its fullest potential.

Audiences for the past two hundred-odd years, though, have appreciated Mozart’s violin concertos for their appealing melodies and expressive style. Interestingly, although Mozart was also a violin prodigy, he obviously preferred the piano. Whatever, one usually has to buy two or three separate albums to own all five of the concertos by a single performer, so already it's a good deal to find Ms. Skride’s collection complete on two discs.

So, how does Ms. Skride handle the concertos, considering that almost every major violinist of the stereo age has recorded all or most of them? Competition is, indeed, deep, with Rachel Barton Pine, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Arthur Grumiaux, David Oistrakh, Lara St. John, and others leading the way. I suppose, as with anything in music, it obviously comes down to a matter personal taste. Each violinist has his or her own style, and certainly Ms. Skride adds her own distinctive and pleasing touch.

It helps that so accomplished an ensemble as the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, led by Elvind Aadland, ably accompany Ms. Skride. They are small enough to let her breathe, while large enough to provide a solid foundation for her performances. Together, they produce a well-executed, well-balanced set of concertos. Perhaps some of the aforementioned violinists provide more elegance or more vitality, but Ms. Skride holds her own in both departments. Maybe it helps, too, that for these recordings she plays the Yfrah Neaman Stradivarius, “kindly loaned to her by the Neaman family through the Beare’s International Violin Society.” It certainly has a lovely tone, clear and mellifluous.

Ms. Skride adopts tempos that are moderate, if slightly favoring the fast side. Still, they are not as quick as many historically informed performances can be, and they never seem hurried, rushed, or in any way frenetic. The Allegros are high spirited, the slow movements flowing and serene, She especially judges the popular Second Concerto well, imbuing it with the sparkle it needs, while also catching all the gentleness of the Andante, which contrasts well with her sensitive. lyrical treatment of the faster outer movements.

And so it goes. These are performances both lively and expressive on the one hand and delicate and perceptive on the other. I cannot see how they would fail to impress any lover of Mozart specifically or any lover of classical music more generally.

Ms. Skride fills out the second disc with three short violin pieces by Mozart: The Adagio in E major, K. 261; the Rondo in B-flat major, K. 269; and the Rondo in C major, K. 373. The performers apply the same skill here they did with the concertos.

Producer Johannes Kernmayer, supervisor Roland Kistner, and engineer Martin Klebahn recorded the concertos at Orebro, Musikhogskolan in October 2019. Although the sound displays a touch more bloom than I would have liked, it manages a good depth of field, and the orchestra allows the soloist a healthy degree of transparency. Ms. Skride is well integrated with the ensemble, neither too far out front nor too far back, and her contributions are well reproduced. Although the mid-to-upper bass appears a mite heavy, it does not obscure the soloist, whose contributions, as I say, remain realistically clean.


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