Some New Releases (CD/SACD Mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

With COVID-19 still ravaging central Ohio, the library is still restricted to drive-through service, but that has not prevented me from auditioning some new discs, so allow me to offer some more abbreviated reviews of what I have been able to sample lately in hopes that you might see something that sounds as though it would be worth an audition in your listening room. Enjoy!

Balada: Works for Clarinet.  Ivan Ivanov, clarinet. Naxos 8.579056.

This program of chamber music by Spanish-born American composer Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) is fairly “modern-sounding” music, probably not for all tastes, but there are some wonderful passages that should bring a smile to those who, like yours truly, are a fool for a clarinet. The program opens with Caprichos No. 7 “Fantasies of La Tarara” from 2009, a chamber concerto for clarinet and instrumental ensemble, which on this recording comprises two violins, a cello, piano, and percussion. Ivanov explains in the liner notes that “caprichos” does not have the same connotation as the typically light-hearted “capriccio,” but rather is “closely associated with the series of etchings of that name by Goya… (that) harshly critique life in late 18th and early 19th century Spain, and do no shy away from depicting poverty, corruption, superstition, violence, and, most famously, the horrors of the 1810 Napoleonic invasion…” Yes, the music does get pretty intense. The shorter Caprichos No.7, also from 2009, is for clarinet and piano, a brief piece in four short movements with titles that in English are “Anger,” “Tears,” “Anguish,” and “Shivers.” Nope, not exactly light-hearted, but fascinating musically. The disc closes with Balada’s Double Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet and Orchestra, a 2010 composition that is performed here in a 2012 version for flute, clarinet, and piano. It is a 19-minute piece in one movement that offers passages of challenging intensity along with more lighthearted moments verging on playfulness. Again, this is not a not a release I would recommend to everyone, but if you have an adventurous ear – and especially if you are a fan of the clarinet – you might want to give it a listen.

Shostakovich: Cello Concertos. Alban Gerhardt, cello; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, WDR Sinfonieorchester. Hyperion CDA68340.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) gifted the musical world with many wondrous works, among them these two remarkable cello concertos.
Cello Concerto No. 1 from 1956 consists of four movements, marked Allegretto, Moderato, Cadenza, and Finale: Allegro con moto. I can’t resist quoting the liner notes about the way the concerto begins “with a fast, pithy four-note theme (marked piano) from the soloist, answered by a brief military tattoo from the orchestra. No previous cello concerto had ever opened like this, and the music’s fast, nervous pulse never slackens in this buoyant and colourful movement…” The piece really does grab the listener right from the git-go, especially when performed and recorded as remarkably as it is on this Hyperion release. In contrast, Cello Concerto No. 2, completed in 1996 when the composer was in ill health, is more somber and reflective, but despairingly so. It is scored for a larger than normal orchestra, but those forces are not unleashed all at once; rather, it sounds almost more like a piece for cello and chamber orchestra. The closing measures are haunting. The music just seems to drift away and disappear in the space of a few measure, a truly remarkable effect. Cellist Alban Gerhardt has some interesting things to say in his liner note essay (especially noteworthy are his remarks about Rostropovich), and he has certainly given us a masterly interpretation. My long-time favorite recording has been a 1990 RCA recording featuring cellist Natalia Gutman with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Yuri Temirkanov, but I have found this new Hyperion release to sound appreciably better, lacking the slight glare of the older recording, not to mention that Gerhardt’s playing is completely convincing. Once I can no longer renew my copy from the library, I may well look for a copy to purchase for my personal home audio library. I guess that must mean I recommend it highly…

Roger Eno and Brian Eno: Mixing Colours. Roger Eno, keyboards; Brian Eno, programming and sound design. Deutsche Grammophon 483 777 1.

Most classical music fans probably have no idea that Brian Eno was a co-founder of the glam-rock group Roxy music, or that he served as a producer of albums by U2, Talking Heads, James, and Devo; however, some may remember that he was a pioneer of ambient music who actually coined the term in his liner notes for his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports
In 1983, he and his brother Roger Eno, along with Daniel Lanois, recorded the album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, music from which has been featured in several films. Now at long last the brothers Eno have made an album together, Mixing Colours (more information here), which straddles the line between ambient music and electronica, but which does not seem all that far removed from what might be considered “classical” keyboard music along the lines of some of the piano pieces of Pärt or Silvestrov. Its 18 selections encompass 75 minutes of reflective music, interesting enough to capture the imagination but relaxing enough to serve as background music for reading, cooking, working out, or whatever. Be forewarned, however, that it is cut at a pretty high level, so be sure to turn the volume down before pushing the PLAY button. (By the way, there is also now available an expanded version that includes 25 tracks, but I have not auditioned it.)

GoGo Penguin. Blue Note B003198202.

GoGo Penguin is an English jazz trio consisting of pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner. Their music is reminiscent of the late lamented Esbjörn Svensson Trio, jazz with an adventurous energy informed by a rock-reminiscent vibe and overlaid occasionally with electronica, a kind of 21
st-century Keith Jarrett Trio had Keith at some point started listening to a lot of Radiohead. I hope that does not make them sound too crazy to appeal to either classical or jazz fans, for this really is an enjoyable recording, their best yet, with energy and imagination in abundance but never taken over the top.

Michael Hoppé: Peace and Reconciliation. Sedona Academy of Chamber Singers, Ryan Holder, conductor; Tetra String Quartet. Spring Hill Music SHM6076.

I had no idea what to expect from this one, having never heard of either Michael Hoppé or the Spring Hill label, but when I gave the CD a listen it proved to be a delightful surprise.
The Requiem for Peace and Reconciliation for choir and string quartet is a beautiful composition, and this arrangement works really well in establishing an intimate, reverential tone. It turns out that Hoppé is a composer more on the New Age side of things who has released 30 recordings during his career, but this particular release is decidedly “classical” in its form. The liner notes tell quite a story about how the piece came to be and what it signifies, which you can read more about here. If you are a fan of choral music, this release is well worth seeking out.

Bonus Recommendation:

The book Leading Tones by American conductor Leonard Slatkin (published in 2017 by Amadeus Press, ISBN 978-1-4950-9189-6) contains a bit of this and a bit of that, including sketches of some of his favorite musical figures, remarks about some of his favorite compositions, some stories from throughout his career, some insights into labor negotiations, some thoughts about music critics, and even some jokes. Nothing in here is especially in-depth or profound, but if you are a fan of classical music, you will find much to inform and entertain you. Slatkin turns out to be an interesting writer as well as a gifted conductor.


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