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. (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/11/some-new-releases-cd-mini-reviews.html) 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 (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/08/mahler-symphony-no-7-sacd-review.html), 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.

KWN

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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