Webber: Symphonic Suites (CD review)

Music from Evita, Sunset Boulevard, and The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Andrew Lloyd Webber Orchestra. Decca B0033918-02.

By John J. Puccio

One hardly needs reminding that English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of the most popular and most prolific musical writers of the past fifty-odd years, from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the mid Sixties through Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, to his latest project, Cinderella; and a lot of other stuff in between. On the present album, he has assembled an eighty-piece orchestra to do justice to the music of three of his works, Evita, Sunset Boulevard, and The Phantom of the Opera, and he recorded them in London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Although I am not particularly a Lloyd Webber fan, I have to admit it’s a grand undertaking, with some grand results.

Mr. Webber comments that “These orchestral suites have been in the works for some time. They are performed by a fantastic orchestra, on a stage with unrivaled sound quality, that means more to me than anywhere in the world. But, after the trials and tribulations of 2020-21, this album represents so much more. For me, this is the triumphant and hopeful return of the live music theatre and entertainment across the world.”

First up on the album is the suite from Evita, the musical first produced in 1978 that focuses on the life of Eva Perón, wife of Argentine president Juan Perón. For me, it outlasted its welcome and reminded me of why I don’t care much for modern musicals. OK, admittedly, I’m an old fuddy-duddy without much taste for contemporary pop music. As a guy who grew up with musicals like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Camelot, Cabaret, and the like, filled with an abundance of great songs, it seems to me that most of today’s musicals are built around a strong central tune and then about 800 variations of the same. A good example involves the 1964 movie musical Mary Poppins. You couldn’t help coming out of the theater whistling half a dozen infectious melodies. Now, compare that to 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns. How many memorable tunes can you name from it? For me, none. And Disney had over fifty years to come up with some. Anyway, back to Evita: “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is unquestionably a good and memorable tune. But there isn’t a whole lot more, really, to remember. So, we’ve got a suite almost twenty-five minutes long of pretty lightweight music that’s mostly forgettable two minutes after hearing it. Pleasant music, yes. Memorable, for the most part, no.

Next is Sunset Boulevard from 1993, a musical adaptation of director Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 movie about an aging silent movie star and her young kept man. I have to admit, I had never heard any of the music from Sunset Boulevard before, and I appreciated the way it evoked the spirit of old Hollywood. Whether it is worth another listen remains to be seen. I’m sure it would go over better with the visuals on stage. However, like the preceding suite, this one is very well presented, the huge orchestra imposing its will with a polished enthusiasm.

The program closes with The Phantom of the Opera from 1986, the musical version of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 horror-romance of the same name. This one, with its compelling dramatic effects, was my favorite of the three Webber suites. Even if you’re not familiar with the Leroux story (or the even more-famous Lon Chaney silent movie), with Webber’s music you’re bound to visualize it in all its creepy gothic glory. It was the only suite of the three that kept me occupied, without my attention wandering afield. It doesn’t need a plethora of pop tunes to keep it afloat. The music is all of a whole, each section well integrated into the overall structure. It may just hold up over time better than the others.

Producer Nick Lloyd Webber and engineer Dave Rowell recorded the suites at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, in April 2021. The resultant tracks were mixed at Such Sweet Thunder and mastered at Abbey Road, London. The sound is vintage Decca: big, wide, multimiked, clear but not bright, edgy, or steely, with good dynamics and impact. It’s everything you could want for big, brazen, outsized musical numbers.

JJP

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

Classical Music News of the Week, December 4, 2021

Stephen Hough’s First String Quartet To Be Premiered by Takács Quartet


World-renowned as a pianist, and now increasingly recognized as a composer as well, Stephen Hough was recently commissioned to compose his First String Quartet, subtitled “Les Six Rencontres,” which is premiered by the Grammy Award-winning Takács Quartet this winter.

The work, which is also scheduled to be recorded by the Takács for Hyperion Records, is featured on a variety of the ensemble’s upcoming programs, including three in which Mr. Hough also performs with the ensemble in Dvorák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81. “Les Six Rencontres,” in six movements, was commissioned by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting, Chamber Music patrons of Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where the world premiere takes place on Wednesday, December 8 at 8:00 p.m. The European premiere takes place at London’s Wigmore Hall on Thursday, January 20 at 7:30 p.m.

--Jennifer Scott, Shuman Associates

Some Upcoming Events
Now - December 12, LA Opera: La Cenerentola/Cinderella
https://www.laopera.org/performances/2122-season-page/cinderella-3/

Saturday, December 4 at 2 p.m. & Saturday December 11 at 2 p.m., Los Angeles Master Chorale: Festival of Carols
https://www.lamasterchorale.org/festival-of-carols

Tuesday, December 7, at 6 p.m., Salastina Virtual Happy Hour, Jonathan Hepfer, Curator, Conductor, and Percussionist
https://www.salastina.org/concerts

--Lisa Bellamore, Crescent Communications

Genre-Defying Time For Three Returns
The Music Institute of Chicago presents the boundary-shattering musical trio Time For Three, with its uncommon blend of instruments and vocals, Saturday, February 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, Illinois. The performance also will be available via livestream.

Time For Three--Charles Yang (violin/vocals), Nick Kendall (violin/vocals), and Ranaan Meyer (double bass/vocals)--stands at the busy intersection of Americana, modern pop, and classical music. A Time For Three performance combines various eras, styles, and traditions of Western music that fold in on themselves and emerge anew. Time for Three is renowned for its charismatic and energetic performances in venues including Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and The Royal Albert Hall. They have collaborated with artists as diverse as Ben Folds, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Bell and have premiered original works by composers Chris Brubeck and Pulitzer Prize winners Jennifer Higdon and William Bolcom. In 2020, the band partnered with cellist and composer Ben Sollee on the soundtrack to the new Focus Features film Land, directed by and starring Robin Wright, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 31, 2021.

For more information, visit https://www.tf3.com/

--Jill Chukerman, Music Institute of Chicago

A Sweet Note from “Exploring Music”
Hey folks, just wanted to let you know that “Exploring Music” is joining in a big celebration of Jaime Laredo’s eightieth birthday. This week we are broadcasting a five-part series we recorded with Jaime last month.

Jaime, a beloved violinist, conductor and teacher, invited the “Exploring Music” team up to his home in Vermont where we spent a couple of delightful days with Jaime and his wife, the redoubtable cellist Sharon Robinson, listening to the tremendous recordings Jaime and his colleagues have made over seventy years in the music business.

Altogether this is a loving portrait of a lovely man and great artist. The programs will air nightly Monday to Friday at seven pm Central Time on WFMT.com. For a complete listing of stations carrying “Exploring Music,” click this link: https://www.wfmt.com/prog.../exploring-music/where-to-listen

--Frank Salomon Associates

Live Musical Events Incorporated into Young People’s Chorus of NYC’s “AloneTogether”
With the holiday season in full swing, the Young People’s Chorus of NYC has been busy performing at events like the Saks holiday light show (which featured special guest, Michelle Obama!) and alongside legendary rock band, Foreigner, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! In the midst of this, its new, mixed-media art installation, AloneTogether, has debuted and will run through December 19. A full schedule of live musical events will take place throughout the exhibit’s run, all of which feature performances by the chorus. The lineup for this week includes:

Sunday, December 5 at 2 p.m.
Composers Tom Cabaniss and Elizabeth Núñez, featuring soprano Shanelle Woods.
This event features the world premieres of composer Tom Cabaniss's inspirational piece "Heaven Is" and composer Elizabeth Núñez's uplifting piece, “My Rainbow in the Window,” both commissioned for THE CANONS PROJECT. Soprano Shanelle Woods, known for her rich, emotive tones, will perform the pieces alongside Young People’s Chorus of New York City.

Sunday, December 5 at 5 p.m.
Composer Michael Harrison.
This event features selected piano music performed by Michael Harrison and tabla player Nitin Mitta for the world premiere of Michael’s hopeful piece, “A New Well.” The piece will be sung by the Young People's Chorus of New York City and was commissioned for THE CANONS PROJECT. YPC’s Associate Artistic Director, Elizabeth Núñez, will host this event.

“AloneTogether” is a musical journey that explores the impact on today’s young people of this time of global turmoil and transformation. A trailer about the exhibition can be found  here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbYozLF08So&t=6s

--Laura Gigounas, Glodow Nead Communications

International Contemporary Ensemble and Wet Ink Ensemble
On Wednesday, December 8, 2021 at 7:00pm, the International Contemporary Ensemble combines with the Wet Ink Ensemble at Target Margin Theater to present new works on themes of text, language, and syntax by Rebecka Ahvenniemi, Linda Catlin Smith, Anthony Braxton, and Eric Wubbels. Performers include Lesley Mok, Cory Smythe, Eric Wubbels, Dan Lippel, Mariel Roberts, Josh Modney, and Alice Teyssier. A livestream is available on the day of the performance at https://www.iceorg.org/

The event begins with a lecture by Rebecka Ahvenniemi about Pippi Longstocking, titled “Who Would Pippi Be as a Composer?” followed by a performance of her Sonata in Pippi Form (2020) for violin and piano. The program also features Linda Catlin Smith’s Dreamer Murmuring (2016), Ahvenniemi’s Dada-Aria (2019), Eric Wubbels’ If and Only If Mvt III (2018), and Anthony Braxton’s Quartet and Syntactic Ghost Trance Music Works.

On Sunday, December 19, 2021 at 8:00pm the Wet Ink Large Ensemble will appear at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music for a program that includes the world premiere of Kate Soper’s Missing Scenes and the NYC-premieres of point, point, point, point by Alex Mincek; Simple Fuel by Tonia Ko; and Actuate/Resonate by Sam Pluta.

More information at https://www.iceorg.org/ and https://www.wetink.org/

--Katy Salomon, Morahan Arts and Media

West Edge Opera Summer Festival
West Edge Opera is thrilled to announce that our 2022 summer festival will take place at The Scottish Rite Center in Oakland CA.  Located on the shore of Lake Merritt, easily accessible by BART, The Scottish Rite Center is a beautiful indoor venue that brings West Edge Opera back to its roots of performing in unique and untraditional spaces that are rich with history.

Says West Edge Opera Music Director Jonathan Khuner, "The unique ceremonial Scottish Rite architectural style, together with warm ambience, open acoustics, and clear sight-lines, perfectly suit each of our three shows for Summer of 2022. It will feel great for singers, orchestra, and audience to be sharing a warm indoor performance space that’s both spacious and intimate."

The Scottish Rite Center was designed in 1927 for un-amplified speaking. It is powerfully resonant, making it a fitting place for opera.

More information here: https://www.westedgeopera.org/

--West Edge Opera

Tom Borrow Named Musical America's “New Artist of the Month”
After his tremendously successful US debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, under conductor Thierry Fischer, last month, Musical America has named the Israel pianist Tom Borrow as the “New Artist of the Month.” In his companion essay, writer Zachary Lewis describes Borrow in Cleveland as having left "a profound impression as a serious, gifted musician" and hails his playing as "incandescent." Borrow, who has previously been named “One To Watch” both by Gramophone and International Piano and who was recently named a BBC New Generation Artist, follows in the footsteps of other New Artists of the Month, a list that has included musicians of the calibre of Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, and Robert Trevino.

For more information, visit https://www.musicalamerica.com/news/newsstory.cfm?archived=0&storyid=49134&categoryid=2

--James Inverne Music Consultancy

SF Girls Chorus Announces “Tomorrow's Memories Community Book Club”
Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe and the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) announced today the launch of “Tomorrow’s Memories Community Book Club.” Centered around SFGC’s commissioned choral-opera Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary by Matthew Welch ahead of its world premiere in June 2022, the book club will bring awareness, education, and conversation about the important 1924-1928 diary writings of Filipina immigrant Angeles Monrayo upon which this new work is based. The book club opens with a virtual event on Saturday, December 11 at 11 a.m. and continues monthly through May 2022. Each session will explore a different theme from the book and its relationship with the choral-opera with appearances by partner organizations, speakers and members of the “Tomorrow’s Memories” artistic team. All events are offered free of charge with registration required.

A collaborative project two years in the making, Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary is based on Tomorrow's Memories: A Diary, 1924-1928 by Filipina immigrant Angeles Monrayo and highlights the importance of the Filipino diaspora’s cultural impact throughout the United States, particularly in the Bay Area. SFGC will conclude its 2021-2022 season June 22-25, 2022 with the world premiere of this work at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, featuring Filipino guest artists stage director Sean San José, guitarist Florante Aguilar, violinist Patti Kilroy and percussionist Levy Lorenzo.

For more information, visit https://www.sfgirlschorus.org/tomorrows-memories-community-book-club

--Brenden Guy PR

Looking Forward to Seeing You
American Bach Soloists share their excitement about upcoming holiday concerts

Allison Lloyd, soprano:
"Attending live performances is such a gift and provides so many opportunities to allow ourselves to be fully present and share that experience … Grace Cathedral is my favorite place to perform Messiah."

Jennifer Brody, soprano:
"We get to experience the concert with the audience as opposed to separately from the audience. I so look forward to seeing familiar faces experiencing the warmth and community and holiday spirit"

Dominic Favia, trumpet:
"I look forward to playing 'The Trumpet Shall Sound' every year … Handel's masterful writing sends chills down my spine!"

Daniel Turkos, contrabass:
"It's a chance to come together with friends and colleagues to play this wonderful music that really connects us all."

Watch: https://vimeopro.com/americanbach/looking-forward-to-seeing-you
 
Details: https://americanbach.org/

--American Bach Soloists

Davóne Tines To Be Honored as Vocalist of the Year at Annual Musical America Awards
Bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who in October was announced as Musical America’s 2022 Vocalist of the Year, will be honored for this achievement at the 61st annual Musical America Awards, to be held virtually via Facebook Live on Sunday, December 5 at 4:00 p.m. ET. The livestream will be hosted on Musical America’s Facebook page and will subsequently remain available for streaming on demand: https://www.facebook.com/MusicalAmerica/

--Lisa Jaehnig, Shuman Associates

Piano Potpourri, No. 3 (CD reviews)

Echoes of Life. IN THE BEGINNING WAS | Francesco Tristano: In the Beginning Was; Chopin: Preludes op. 28: Nos. 1-4: INFANT REBELLION | Ligeti: Musica ricercata I; Chopin: Preludes op. 28. Nos. 5-9; WHEN THE GRASS WAS GREENER | Nino Rota: Valzer; Chopin: Preludes op. 28: Nos. 10-15; NO ROADMAP TO ADULTHOOD | Chilly Gonzales: Prelude in C sharp major; Chopin: Preludes op. 28: Nos. 16-18; IDENTITY | Takemitsu; Litany I; Chopin: Preludes op. 28: Nos. 19-20; A PATH TO WHERE | Arvo Pärt: Für Alina; Chopin: Preludes op. 28: Nos. 21-24; LULLABY TO ETERNITY | Alice Sara Ott: Lullaby to Eternity. Alice Sara Ott. Piano. Deutsche Grammophon 486 0474.

By Karl W. Nehring

With so much of recorded music trending toward the “song” as the fundamental commodity, and with even classical music labels such as, yes, Deutsche Grammophon releasing individual digital tracks as singles, it is encouraging to see that the concept of the album is still alive and well; moreover, what we have here is not just an album, but by golly, a concept album. Not just a collection of pieces, but a collection assembled in an attempt to tell some sort of story, augmented by the liner notes and art. You have probably already noticed the all-caps interjections in the list of compositions above, which are taken directly from the back cover of the CD digipack. As the German pianist Alice Sara Ott (b. 1988) explains it, “Echoes of Life is a personal reflection on the thoughts and moments that influence and change our lives. It also portrays the journey and transformation I took to become the person and artist I see myself as today. In interpreting music from composers who, in their own time, challenged the system and redefined music, I see it as my role as a classical musician to carry this spirit forward by not insisting on reproducing bygone traditions and limitations… With his Preludes op. 28, Frédéric Chopin composed a collection of individual character pieces – very different from each other and yet all connected in some way. They remind me of life. I have chosen seven contemporary works to intersperse the Preludes and, while they echo some of my most personal and vulnerable experiences, they also conform how modern, provocative, and timeless Chopin’s music is.”  

The end result is a musical delight, as Ott mingles stimulating newer music together with the music of Chopin to create a program that flows smoothly and draws the listener in. You really don’t get the sense that you are jumping back and forth in time or making abrupt shifts in style. Yes, the Ligeti piece has a fierceness about it, but not overwhelmingly so, and yes, when you think about it, Chopin’s music has energy in abundance also. And so it goes with Takemitsu and Chopin, and Pärt and Chopin; in the hands of Alice Sara Ott, this music all makes sense together. The engineering is also first-rate, with a coherent piano sound. This truly is a splendid release.

When Do We Dance? George Gershwin: When Do We Dance?; Art Tatum: Tea for Two; William Bolcom; Graceful Ghost Rag; Fats Waller: Vipers Drag; Astor Piazzolla: Libertango; Alberto Ginastera: Argentine Dances No. 2; Manuel de Falla: Ritual Fire Dance; Maurice Ravel: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; Camille Saint-Saëns: Étude en Forme de Valse; Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances; Igor Stravinsky: Tango; Alexander Scriabin: Waltz in A flat Major; Rachmaninoff: Polka Italienne. Lise de la Salle, piano. Naïve V 5468.

As you can readily infer from the selections on this release from French pianist Lise de la Salle (b. 1988), the emphasis here is on dance music. As the pianist explains, “With so many dances and so much music to play, I could take ten albums to tell this whole story. So, I decided to focus on one century (1850-1950) but travel the world. I believe this is the most fascinating period in the history of all the arts, alive with new rules and techniques, and an explosion of potential – not just in music but also in literature, painting and dance. It all explodes, and the twentieth century opens up to a new modern world. This gives rise to new emotions of incredible depth. When Do We Dance? is a journey through this century to explore the different ways in which dance takes possession of the body: with an amazing swing in North America, developing a  strong sensuality in South America and Spain, with reserve, elegance and sophistication in France, or through the expression of a late, sentimental romanticism in eastern Europe and Russia.”

What is particularly rewarding about the program she has chosen is to see the names of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Astor Piazzolla in there along with more recognizable names from the classical music world. De la Salle obviously loves music, loves dance (which she has studied), and knows how to play dance music in a way that does it justice – that lets it swing and sway; however, she never lets herself get carried away, she never takes it over the top. From Tatum to Ravel to Stravinsky, she lets the music dance. My only reservation about this release is the engineering. Although the sound of the piano is clean and clear, the stereo imaging is a bit odd, with the piano seeming too wide and not quite coherent. If your system has a mono setting, that might be the best. Really, the sound is not at all a deal-breaker, and many listeners will find it just fine, so don’t let my sonic quibbles dissuade you from listening to this energetic collection, which Ms. de la Salle characterizes as “a journey to explore the different ways in which dance takes possession of the body.”

Northscapes. Lasse Thoresen: Invocation of Pristine Light Op. 52, No. 1; Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Scape; Bent Sorensen: (from 12 Nocturnes) I: Mignon - Und die Sonne geht Unter; III: Nachtlicher Fluss; VII: Mitternacht mit Mignon; Kaija Saariaho: Prelude; Raminta Serksnyte: Fantasia; Peteris Vasks: Music for a Summer Evening; Lasse Thoresen: Invocation of Rising Air, Op. 52, No. 2. Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano. Sono Luminus DSL-92251.

Although I was not quite sure what to expect from this release, I certainly looked forward to auditioning it. As for as the composers, I was quite familiar with the orchestral music of Vasks, but had never heard any of his piano music; had heard some orchestral music by Saariaho but none of her piano music; some chamber music by Thorvaldsdottir but no piano music; and nothing at all by any of the other composers or the pianist. So why did I look forward to auditioning it? Because I knew that Sono Luminus had great sound and because the program looked intriguing indeed. I knew I had to give it a listen.

I’m glad I did so, for I was richly rewarded. Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute is able to draw astonishing sounds from the piano, both form the keyboard and from “under the hood” if so requested by the composer; and Sono Luminus has captured in all in gloriously realistic sound quality. Particularly impressive are the two contributions by Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen, which open and close the program. Invocation of Pristine Light really does evoke a feeling of illumination, a sense of wonder, discovery, and joy. Although of course I have never heard anyone else interpret this piece before, it is hard to imagine anyone bringing any more sensitivity to it than Ms. Jokubaviciute. The closing Invocation of Rising Air has a contrasting energy to it, more subdued, but still imbued with wonder. Thorvaldsdottir’s Scape finds the pianist drawing some unusual sounds from her instrument. As the liner notes explain, Scape “calls for the piano to be prepared with screws placed between certain strings, for the use of a thimble, and for the application of an e-bow. Already, we have here the composer asking the performer to coax a host of sounds and gestures from inside the piano beyond hammers striking strings. The preparation of the piano and the use of extended techniques unleash sounds inherent to the instrument yet repressed by the mechanisms of the tradition.”  One of the liner note photos depicts Ms. Jokubaviciute manipulating the strings inside the piano. Although to read of these techniques might lead one to believe that the music must sound hostile and unlistenable, the end result is far from that. Strange, perhaps, but compelling – musically compelling at that. And so the rest of the album goes, fresh, bracing new sounds, expertly played and magnificently recorded. If you are a fan of piano music and have at least a modicum of musical adventurousness in your soul, Northscapes belongs on your audition list.

Bonus Recommendations:

Puerta. Jorge Rossy, vibraphone, marimba; Robert Landfermann, double bass; Jeff Ballard, drums, percussion. ECM 2661 382 2596.

There is an interesting backstory here. Jorge Rossy was for a time the drummer in the Brad Mehldau Trio, but left that group to return to his native Spain and concentrate on his piano playing. He was replaced in Mehldau’s piano trio by the American drummer Jeff Ballard. And now we have here Rossy on neither drums nor piano, but rather on vibes and marimba, recording an album of mostly his own compositions supported by Ballard on drums and German bassist Landfermann. Most of the tunes have a relatively easygoing feel to them, medium tempos, minimum flash, with the musicians more interested in communicating with the listener than showing off their chops. It is fascinating to hear the sonic interplay between the drums and the vibes. Both involve instruments that are struck with sticks/mallets; both are being played by musicians who are experienced drummers. The crystal clear ECM sound allows you to really focus on their interaction, which is fascinating, and of course you also have the underlying plucking support of the double bass, which at times steps out into the foreground, occasionally bowed rather than plucked, marimba sometimes ringing…  Amazing now instruments that are struck and plucked can sound so soothing, yet while sounding so soothing still hold our attention.  

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music. Tindall, Blair. Grove Press (2005).

Although this book covers the classical music world of several decades ago, many of the issues that Blair Tindall brings up regarding the financial and management practices within the industry are still relevant today. In addition, many of the personalities she discusses involve names that would be recognizable to most fans of classical music. Yes, there are some salacious details involving sex and drugs that could well have been left out, some of those salacious details do serve to give readers a perspective on the world of classical music they might otherwise never have been afforded. As a quick example, I recall attending a performance by the famed violinist Ihtzak Perlman, who was accompanied on piano by Samuel Sanders, back in the early 1980s. According to Tindall, who came to know Sanders very well, Perlman was making around $33,000 for such appearances at that time, and paying Sanders all of $1,000. Interesting… Tindall also writes of how as orchestras came to get money from corporations and other donors, they tended to increase their spending; in fact, the more donations the received, the larger their debt became. There are also some interesting character sketches in this memoir; unfortunately, some of them turn out to have sad endings as some individuals fall prey to drugs, alcohol, disease, or despair. Tindall was one of the fortunate few, able to escape the classical music world she felt trapped in by discovering she had a talent for writing and actually earning a scholarship to Stanford and starting a second career in journalism, and eventually writing her book. It is not a volume I would recommend to everyone, but it is worth at least a skim through if you are interested in gaining another perspective on classical music – sex, drugs, money, and all the rest that goes with it.

KWN

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 (K2HD review)

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic. K2HD Mastering 480 862-4.

By John J. Puccio

Most of us recognized long ago that the least-expensive way to listen to good sound was not just to buy the best-available (yet most-affordable) playback equipment but to seek out the best-available source material. For quite a while now that has meant remasters of older recordings by companies like JVC, FIM/LIM, Hi-Q, Classic CD, HDTT, Sheffield Labs, Mobile Fidelity, and the like. Alas, many of these companies are gone, yet hope springs eternal. JVC is still making the occasional XRCD, HDTT keeps plugging along, and Sheffield and Mo-Fi are at least still in business.

Which brings us to a secondary concern: namely, the choice of material to remaster. Often in my experience, companies have chosen products that sounded good but were of dubious quality in terms of performance. And sometimes vice versa. On the present recording, however, the mastering company K2HD (see below) has released two unqualified great performances using the K2 mastering process, and there’s hardly anything to complain about: We get two terrific performances in good, remastered sound. Well, “hardly” anything to complain about (see below for more on that).

Since its release in the mid 1970s, these Beethoven recordings by the late Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) have been considered by many classical-music critics as the gold standard for recordings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Ever since its days on vinyl, the Fifth in particular has long been my own go-to recording for this work.

In a brief booklet essay, music critic Peter Cosse writes “...in the world of recording there are three kinds of artist. One kind regards the medium as a permanent opportunity to place themselves and their musical comrades before the public. They treat discs as pages in an audio diary. A second, minute group turns its back. They refuse to document big musical occasions, insist on the impossibility of repeating the experience, and thus place all their faith in their listeners’ memories. A third group, also a rather small one, does not dismiss the medium altogether but is very, very choosy. Carlos Kleiber is one of these last… His all too infrequent Philharmonic Subscriptions Concerts in Vienna have each and every one set the musical world ablaze, and, like these performances of Beethoven here, left it in a state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.”

For those music lovers who may be unfamiliar with Maestro Kleiber, I should point out that he is widely regarded as a legendary conductor, one of the all-time greats. However, one of the reasons not everyone may have heard about him is that he made only nine studio recordings. Yes, nine. And two of them are included on this CD!

Anyway, Kleiber brings a unique personal touch to the scores, more flexible in tempo and dynamics than most other conductors while remaining faithful to the score. All the same, this is epic-sounding Beethoven. Maybe not so noble or monumental as Klemperer in his old Philharmonia recordings, but close. Nor is Kleiber quite as exhilarating as Reiner with the Chicago Symphony. Yet Kleiber projects a spark unmatched by anyone. It is easy to see why so many critics and classical music fans have considered these recordings to be reference standards. The Fifth, especially, seems more than capable of leaving listeners in a “state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.” Kleiber’s way with the Fifth has certainly done that for me on every occasion I’ve visited it. Kleiber’s Seventh, maybe not as much. I’ve always found his Seventh a tad cool and distant, although I still hear that aforementioned spark. Whatever, they are performances every classical music listener should hear.

Producer Werner Mayer and engineer Hans-Peter Schweigmann recorded the Symphony No. 5 in March and April 1974 and No. 7 in November 1975 and January 1976 at the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. Then, in 1995 the folks at DG remastered both recordings and re-released them together on a single CD, followed a little later by another CD issue in their “Originals” line.

Finally, we have the K2HD remastering using K2 processing, which has been a part of JVC’s meticulous XRCD mastering program since 1987. K2HD in its current form is a development of Victor Studios, who describe it like this: “The development of K2 was started in response to calls from recording engineers in Victor Studio. They objected to the common idea that there was absolutely no change in sound quality no matter how many times the original data was copied when the music media is transferred from analog records across to digital CDs. Because digitalizing sound is encoded in combinations of zeros and ones. Although no changes occur in theory, the studio engineers claimed that there was a clear difference between the sound quality of the original master and the copied sub-master. So the engineers at JVCKENWOOD set about to clarify the reason for this. Subsequently, it was discovered that although the digital data was exactly the same, electrical distortion (jitter, rippling), etc. occurred when the data was being recorded and saved, which had an adverse effect when converting music played back in digital into analog, thereby proving that changes did occur in sound quality. An attempt by the two engineers to improve the changes in sound quality that occurred at this time led to the original version of K2, which was named the ‘K2 Interface.’

Efforts in creating high-quality sound of digital sources with K2, which started from a signal transmission system at a music content production studio, will continue to evolve and expand from being featured in playback equipment to the remastering of songs, cutting records, and more.”

Whatever that “more” means. Insofar as the K2HD remastering of Kleiber’s Beethoven is concerned, the sound is pretty good. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to note how well the original engineering held up. It might not be quite as transparent or as spacious as some other audiophile recordings, and there may be just a touch of hardness from time to time in the massed strings; but overall, it sounds pretty good in its remastered form.

For my listening, I placed the K2HD disc in one CD player and the regular CD in another, using my own, proprietary switching system (my wife) to move back and forth between the two. Results: the K2HD disc sounded better in almost every comparison, even when adjusted for differing playback levels (the K2HD plays a couple of decibels louder). The differences were small, to be sure, but discernable. The K2HD disc sounded clearer, with detail marginally more pointed, a light veil having been removed from in front of the speakers. In addition to slightly better transparency came a perceptible increase (although again a barely perceptible increase) in dynamic levels and impact. Nevertheless, without having the two discs side by side, I’m sure I would not have noticed any differences at all. And, incidentally, the improvement showed up even when I changed out the discs between the two CD players to be sure I wasn’t hearing the sound of the machines instead of the CD’s.

So, big differences? No. Differences worth paying up to three or four times more for the K2HD over the regular DG disc? Ah, there’s the rub, a question that only the buyer can answer. If you love the Kleiber performances (and you have the money to spend), you might want them in the very best possible sound, no matter how small the improvement.

And then there’s the problem of finding the disc, which may be an insurmountable difficulty in itself. K2HD released the product a few years back, it sold out quickly, and as of this writing it is hard to find. Even Elusive Disc has had it on back-order for the better part of a year. But what is success without a little effort? If I found it, so can you.

JJP

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

Classical Music News of the Week, November 27, 2021

 AloneTogether Exhibit Is Open

“AloneTogether” is a gallery show like no other--an immersive mixed-media experience exhibit by the Young People's Chorus of New York City.

Don’t miss this incredible exhibit, which spotlights the voices, creativity and stories of our young artists as they navigated a year like no other--conceptualized and curated by YPC Founder and Artistic Director Francisco J. Núñez.

Join us for what has already become one of the most talked-about events of the season, which will forever transform your perception of young people.

Thru December 19
Wednesday - Sunday | 12pm - 6pm
High Line Nine Gallery
507 West 27th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenue)
New York City

To learn more, visit https://ypc.org/alonetogether/

--Juliona Miller, Glodow Nead Communications

Meet American Bach Soloists’ Alex Rosen, Bass
Getting to know Alex...
Q: You grew up in La Cañada, north of Glendale and Pasadena, and not far from the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains. Have you had a chance to explore our Northern California destinations like Muir Woods or the Marin Headlands?

A: I have wonderful memories of visiting Sequoia and King's Canyon as a kid, but sadly, further north than that, I haven't yet spent much time outside of the city. It's a real California problem to have … so many incredible national parks, so little time!

Q: You’ve performed in San Francisco a few times before (recently as Polyphemus in Handel’s Acis & Galatea). What do you look forward to doing in San Francisco on a free day or two?

A: One of my favorite ways to get to know a city is through its restaurants. I know, not a revolutionary idea, but I really do love exploring all of the different flavors that a country or culture has to offer. In the Bay Area in the winter, I'll be eating my body weight in ramen, without a doubt.

Q: Handel’s Messiah is the bread and butter for many musicians each December holiday season. We think we know the answer, but do you ever tire of it? What are your favorite moments in the score (other than your own spectacular arias)?

A: My absolute favorite moment to watch, as well as hear, is the coda at the end of “Glory to God in the highest,” the chorus from Part One. Not only is the instrumentation cheekily sparse for such a laudatory moment, but the disjointed nature of the final progression often lends itself to a unique little dance from whoever is on the podium.

Watch Alex’s video greeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Li9knRp-s

--American Bach Soloists

Czech Philharmonic Announce Spring 2022 European Tour
Announcing its first international tour since the final concerts of “The Tchaikovsky Project,” the Czech Philharmonic will give ten concerts with Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov in Austria, Germany, and the UK in spring 2022.

The tour kicks off on 3 March with a 3-concert residency at the Vienna Musikverein where the Czech Philharmonic have been invited to present a Festival of Czech Music. Opening with Smetana’s iconic symphonic cycle Má vlast (“My Homeland”), Viennese audiences will be treated to music from well-known and lesser-known Czech composers, Dvorák, Martinu, Janácek and Kabelác, performed alongside works by Ullmann who was born in Tešín, now part of the Czech Republic, and Stravinsky. For the Stravinsky, which will also form part of the programme at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie (10 March) and London’s Barbican Centre (15 & 16 March), Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic will be joined by Yuja Wang, the Orchestra’s 2021-22 Artist-in-Residence.  

For details, visit https://www.ceskafilharmonie.cz/en/

--Mo Faulkner, Macbeth Media Relations

Shai Wosner Performs Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto
Pianist Shai Wosner joins forces with Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now (TON) for a special performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (“Emperor”) as part of the orchestra’s “Sight & Sound” series at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. On this program, titled “Beethoven, Cristofori & the Piano’s First Century,” Mr. Wosner’s performance is preceded by a Botstein-led discussion about the inventor of the piano--Bartolomeo Cristofori--and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, which reveals the composer’s fascination with the musical possibilities emerging from the rapidly evolving technology of piano construction.

For complete information, visit https://www.theorchestranow.org/event/piano/

--Jennifer Scott, Shuman Associates

Colburn School: Recovered Voices
Tuesday, November 30, at 12 p.m.: Recovered Voices 2021: Schulhoff and More, An Original Multimedia Series.

Presented by the Colburn School’s Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices, this four-part online series, hosted by James Conlon, delves into the life and music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), a fascinating, prolific, and multi-faceted composer who embraced a full panoply of styles and influences from his era. This third episode, “Erwin Schulhoff: A Classical Music Jazz Prophet,” explores Schulhoff’s love for jazz, and how he embraced this new energy, and incorporated it into his own compositions. The first two episodes are available here. Inspired by LA Opera’s groundbreaking Recovered Voices project, and with the support of Los Angeles philanthropist Marilyn Ziering, the Colburn School and James Conlon established the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices in 2013, with the purpose of championing composers such as Schulhoff whose lives were disrupted--or even ended--during the years of the Nazi regime in Europe. In collaboration with Robert Elias and with the critical support of individual philanthropists, the Initiative continues to bring this important repertory back to life for generations to come through performances, classes, competitions, symposia, recordings, and more.

For more information, visit https://www.colburnschool.edu/community-initiatives/recovered-voices/recovered-voices-2021/

--Lisa Bellamore, Crescent Communications

Young People’s Chorus of New York City Returns to Holiday Stage
Nearly 600 YPC choristers will return to the holiday stage for the first time in two years when the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (YPC) presents its upcoming holiday spectacular, A Very Merry New York at New York’s extraordinary landmark theater, the United Palace, on Saturday, December 11.

The festive, immersive event will showcase live performances by choristers and include a film written by Tony Award-winning lyrist Lynn Ahrens and directed by YPC’s Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Núñez.  The film stars choristers and distinguished baritone Lester Lynch. Live performances by choristers performing fully choreographed holiday favorites will be creatively interwoven with the film entitled "A Horrible Hush" in which the choristers of YPC inspire New York City to sing again and just in time for the holidays! Audience participation will be strongly encouraged for a fully immersive experience.

For more information, visit https://ypc.org/

--Juliona Miller, Glodow Nead Communications

December on PBS - Bryn Terfel, Pretty Yende, Angel Blue and More

“Great Performances at the Met: Bryn Terfel & Friends in Concert”
Premieres December on PBS. Check local listings.

The New York metro area premiere is Sunday, December 12 at 12 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
Recorded December 2020, the legendary bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel performs a holiday program with the Welsh traditional folk group Calan from Brecon Cathedral in the singer’s native Wales. In addition to festive favorites such as “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the program includes Lerner and Loewe’s “Little Prince,” and “O du, mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”

“Great Performances at the Met: New Year's Eve Gala”
Premieres December on PBS. Check local listings.

The New York metro area premiere is Sunday, January 2 at 12 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
The Met rings in the new year with a gala performance featuring Met stars Angel Blue, Pretty Yende, Javier Camarena and Matthew Polenzani. Recorded last December from the Parktheater in Kurhaus Göggingen, in Augsburg, Germany, the program features arias, duets and ensembles from Donizetti to Puccini, as well as arrangements of operetta and Neapolitan songs.

--Elizabeth Boone, WNET

Phil Kline's Shimmering Soundscape UNSILENT NIGHT
Phil Kline’s outdoor holiday classic UNSILENT NIGHT--the mother of all winter soundwalks--
takes place in dozens of cities this December, from New York to Northern Ireland.

New York City celebrates its 30th Unsilent Night on Dec. 19 at 6pm, with its walk from West Village to East Village, an essential tradition for so many.

Kline's luminous 4-track surround soundscape is performed by the public on boomboxes and smart phone sound rigs carried through streets, parks, woods, underpasses, or wherever the event is planned.

Each person carries just one of the four tracks. The magic begins when the crowd hits PLAY at the same time, collectively launching individual streams of shimmering electronic bell-tones into the dark night, as the players set off joyously on foot (or bicycles, as in San Marcos this year).

Anyone can participate: Download in advance one of the 4 sound files or app, then amplify a phone with a bluetooth speaker--or go analog with a boombox cassette player (if lucky enough to find one). Unsilent nightnsilent Night has been presented in 145+ cities across five continents
since its debut on the streets of Greenwich Village in 1992.

FREE as always. In NYC, Omi, and Williamstown, Phil Kline will lend out vintage boomboxes
from his collection--and cassettes for those who bring their own.

For details, visit http://unsilentnight.com/participate.html

--Aleba Gartner, Aleba & Co.

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Also, MacMillan: Larghetto for Orchestra. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings FR-744SACD.

By Karl W. Nehring and Bill Heck

The album according to Karl:
This will be a review of this new release from two perspectives. My good friend and colleague Bill Heck and I were excited to see this new recording of the Brahms Fourth, a work we both hold in high regard, by the esteemed Pittsburgh Symphony under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings, a label we also hold in high regard. After a brief telephone conversation about the recording based on our first quick listens (mine only in my car), we decided that we would speak no more of it to each other and instead write independent reviews that we would not reveal to each other until they were posted. So here we go…

This recording made two immediate impressions on me. I loved its energy and drive, but I thought it sounded different from any other version with which I was familiar. My mental image of this work is of a sound that is led by the strings, especially the violins; however, on this version, the winds and brass seemed to carry pretty much equal weight. My immediate impression was that Honeck was fussing with things, perhaps trying to make his version stand out from the rest of the pack by bringing background parts to the forefront. However, my first impressions were admittedly based on listening in the car, and then my mono Bluetooth speaker (circumstances kept me away at first from my big system but I really wanted to hear the performance so I started listening right away on whatever gear was close at hand). On my car system, though, I was able to do a quick comparison to the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra version, and from that DG recording I heard much more of the string-driven sound I had remembered.

When I finally got the chance to listen to the CD layer of the Honeck disc on my home system, I found myself becoming conflicted about just what to think, at least in terms of its sound quality. On the one hand, the sound is dynamic, rich, and full. On the other hand, the stereo imaging is a bit strange, a curious blend of a distant, reverberant hall sound (this is a live recording taken from concert performances) combined with what seems to be spotlighting of different sections of the orchestra, resulting in a sound something like a combination of the Telarc and London Phase 4 approaches. The liner notes from Soundmirror (the engineering firm Reference Recordings employs in Pittsburgh) offer a hint as to what might be going on: “While an important goal is to truthfully represent the acoustical event in the hall, another is to capture the composer's intention reflected in the score and its realization by the performer. To achieve these goals, extensive collaboration and communication between the artists and the recording team are of utmost importance. Based on our long experience of recording the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Heinz Hall, we chose five omnidirectional DPA 4006 microphones as our main microphones as our main  microphone array. Supplementing those with ‘spot mics’ to clarify the detail of the orchestration, we worked towards realizing the above goals. Extensive listening sessions with Maestro Honeck and orchestra musicians were crucial in refining the final balance.”

I must say, though, that the more I listened to this recording, the less I fussed over nuances of the stereo imaging, and the more I enjoyed the performance, which I found compelling, and yes, the sound, which as I indicated above, is dynamic, rich, and full. Still, although I enjoyed the dynamism of the performance, I found myself wondering how it would compare to some other versions I had on hand, so I spent a good amount of time listening to several other recordings for the sake of comparing both sound and performance. I will now offer some capsule commentaries on those before concluding with my final thoughts on this new Reference Recordings release.

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon D 103114 (1981). This has long been a favorite version of many classical music lovers (crazily enough, while combing through boxes of CDs this past spring, I discovered that I had somehow acquired three copies of it). Kleiber’s version favors the strings, which have a rich, luxuriant sound. The engineering is not bad, but is nothing special. There is some sense of depth, but not to the extent of the other recordings. Overall, Kleiber brings some excitement and energy to the score, but at least to these ears, his recording no longer leads the field.

Leopold Stokowski, New Philharmonia Orchestra. RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62606-2 (1974). First, a quick caveat. The disc I auditioned is CD1 of a 2-CD set that also includes an excellent version of the Mahler Symphony No. 2. It purports to be digitally remastered to be optimized for Dolby Surround, although compatible for stereo. I’m not sure whether some of the sonic anomalies I noticed might be attributable to that remix. Those anomalies include some edginess to the treble and a tendency for the sound of the strings to bunch toward the middle of the image. The bass is not as full as would be ideal, but overall, the sound quality is not bad; it is just not as good as it seems it should have been, and I can’t help but wonder what a good remastering for stereo might sound like. That said, this is a dynamite performance, lively, colorful, and energetic. The ending of the first movement is rousing, the third movement has a marvelous transparency, and the finale builds to a passionate climax.

Fritz Reiner, The Royal Philharmonic. Chesky CD6 (1962). This performance was originally released on a Reader’s Digest LP in the 1960s, then later by RCA in several LP incarnations (I once owned and loved their Quintessence LP version back in my vinyl days)., In 1987, Chesky Records  released both LP and CD remasterings; sadly, though, they are now out of print (Bill and I auditioned a library copy). However, JJP reviewed an HDTT remastering of this recording, you can read that review here. Both the sound and the performance are top-drawer, Although the sound is not quite as dynamic or full-range as the Reference Recordings disc, the imaging and overall balance are more natural. Reiner, like Stokowski, takes things at a lively clip, and the end result is quite exhilarating.

John Axelrod, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. Telarc TEL-34658-02 9 (2013). Who? Conducting whom? On Telarc? John Axelrod (b. 1966) is an American conductor who recorded a unique cycle of Brahms symphonies for in Italy for Telarc. The cycle comprised two 2-CD sets, each CD featuring a Brahms symphony recorded live in concert plus several Lieder by Clara Schumann featuring a soprano accompanied by Axelrod on piano. In general, Axelrod’s interpretation of Symphony No. 4 is more lyrical and less driven than those above, with more of a flowing, relaxed, singing quality. The sonics were a bit strange, however. Although the tonal balance was just fine, rich and full, the sound strings emanated from the middle of the stage and the rest of the orchestra often seemed to come from the left or right. I’m just not sure what the engineers were thinking on this one. It’s far from unlistenable, just a bit quirky sounding, with a smooth performance of the Brahms and an interesting, engagingly entertaining coupling.

Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Telarc CD-80450 (1997). Partially to clear my ears of the big, brash sounds of the above recordings, and partially just to gain another perspective on the music itself, I decided to pull out the venerable chamber orchestra recording led by the esteemed Sir Charles Mackerras. This is a Telarc recording that sounds like a Telarc recording (unlike the Axelrod), with excellent imaging. Although the smaller forces result in an overall sound that lacks weight in comparison to the larger orchestras, they play with energy and drive. The sound of the horns stands out, giving off a more blatty than burnished sound; it made me smile, although I suppose others might react differently. And oh, that second movement… My goodness, Mackerras really nails it!

If the Stokowski were engineered a bit better (a little less brightness, a better stereo mix), it would be my first choice, and it is coupled with some truly outstanding Mahler. The Reiner is also terrific, and sounds amazingly good, but is hard to come by. The Kleiber has a more mainstream kind of sound, and the recording is not bad, just not in the same class as Honeck, Reiner, or Mackerras. Still, it is a safe choice, especially for those coming to the symphony for the first time. The Mackerras is a wonderful performance and recording, but (a) is a chamber orchestra performance that offers an interesting perspective but might prove unsatisfying to those looking for a “big” sound and (b) is part of a boxed set of the complete symphonies that is sadly out of print although not as hard to find as the Reiner. But for those who love the work and perhaps own several recordings of the Brahms symphonies, the Mackerras set on Telarc would be well worth seeking out. For those looking for a more lyrical take on Brahms, Axelrod is an interesting alternative, although the availability of his recordings is a bit dodgy. For those interested in such things, I have included a comparative table of movement timings for these recordings below.

 

Honeck

Kleiber

Stokowski

Reiner

Axelrod

Mackerras

I

12:38

12:45

10:48

11:11

13:16

12:02

II

11:06

11:19

11:54

12:40

12:33

10:38

III

5:54

6:04

6:00

6:28

6:26

6:05

IV

9:26

9:12

8:56

9:44

10:05

10:06


Although my focus has been on the Brahms, this release also includes the Larghetto for Orchestra by the Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959). At just under 15 minutes, it is an arrangement of a composition that the composer explains was originally a choral piece, “imbued with the singing quality of the original piece, but is also shaped by its sad and lamenting character.” It is somber in mood, quite a contrast to the rousing finale of the Brahms. Pleasant enough to listen to, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure why it was included on this release. No harm, no foul….

Okay, then, back to the Brahms, the primary focus of this review. Having considered several alternative recordings, where does this Honeck version fit in? What kind of recommendation does it earn? The short answers are: near the top; and yes, it is recommended. The long answers are a bit more complicated, so allow me to offer a bit more explanation. The Honeck is a powerful performance that really brings the score to life, and the engineering, although a mite puzzling, as described above, is still very impressive and certainly revealing of the score. As I listened to this recording, I found myself getting more and more excited about the Brahms Fourth. What a rousing symphony! The way it was conducted, performed, and recorded made me feel as though I was hearing it in a way I had never heard it before, the aural equivalent of wearing X-ray specs. However, I never could quite shake the feeling that this was not quite the way it was really supposed to sound. The brass and woodwinds really were not meant to have quite that much prominence. I would also point out the liner notes, in which Maestro Honeck goes into a great amount of detail about the work and his approach to conducting it. In the end, then, I would recommend this recording as one that a person who likes the Brahms Fourth really ought to hear, but I would not recommend it as the first recording for someone just discovering classical music.

KWN

The album according to Bill:
I must admit that it has been difficult to figure out what to say about this recording. I’ve seen a lot of buzz about it; even though I’ve avoided reading other reviews before writing mine, the headlines have been obvious. Indeed, there is much to love: the interpretation is better than solid; the liner notes written by Maestro Honeck are insightful, an education unto themselves; the playing is exemplary; and Reference Recordings is a label that has produced scores of excellent recordings. And yet, and yet….

Honeck’s notes refer to his desire to bring out the inner details, details which often are difficult to hear. He’s certainly right about the potential difficulty, and it is a tough balancing act to play this work in a way that allows the listener, without benefit of a score, to hear everything that’s going on without losing the thread of the work as a whole. But to make a long story somewhat shorter, and to severely strain a metaphor, I fear that this recording goes too far in the direction of pulling out the individual threads and loses wholeness of the cloth.

This issue – and it may be idiosyncratic – is most noticeable in the first movement. It's one thing to bring out the inner voices of, say, the woodwinds or the lower strings. It's another when the violins sink into inaudibility, which happens around the 6-minute mark. (There are multiple measures of rests in there; I’m referring to the parts in which the violins are indeed playing.) Another instance is around the 7-minute mark: yes, the string parts are marked pp, but the horns and brass also are pp and the latter simply dominate. Again, as we approach the final sustained notes at the end of the movement, the brasses are prominent enough to mask the upper strings almost completely.

In a similar vein, the low end where the double basses reside is a little too “audiophile.” Some so-called audiophile recordings display what seems like an elevated low end, the better to show off the base capabilities of the audiophile’s system; think humungous bass drums on a few Telarc discs. (Of course, the more enthusiastic audiophiles rarely admit that maybe there can be too much of a good thing.) To my ears, some of the notes in the lower registers of the double basses bloom out too forcefully, exhibiting what sounds remarkably like a resonance at certain frequencies, something that I've never heard in a concert hall and do not hear in other recordings of this work. Not only does all this make the basses sound just too up-front, but they also feel detached from the rest of the orchestra.

More generally, there are times when the parts don't seem to quite coalesce. The brass, the strings, the woodwinds: all well-defined and yet somehow they all seem to be in separate places, not quite blending into one orchestra. Are those woodwinds and brasses staying back where they belong, or are they occasionally sneaking up to the front of the stage, the better to be heard? Of course, that’s an exaggeration to convey the impression, but you get the idea.

Should we attribute these issues to the conducting and playing or instead to the recording? Frankly, I can’t tell, although surely the latter is not helping matters.

Having taken on the role of skunk at the picnic (we’ll leave still more graphic images for another time), I’ll turn to more positive thoughts. And as I’ve been writing about sound, I’ll start with the positives there. The overall sound in the usual hi-fi terms is exemplary: smooth highs, the lows anything but missing, wonderful detail.

Moving on to other positives, the interpretation sounds well thought out and the results are mostly both lovely and powerful. The first movement truly is well-played, managing to sound fresh without crossing over to completely uncharted territory. Sometimes efforts to illuminate well-known works with fresh insights end up sounding just wacky; not so here. The little details that Honeck describes are within the mainstream of interpretation, but still add up to a version offering new perspectives.

Honeck’s notes speak of the vocal nature of the second movement, and that seems absolutely correct. Oh, I could quibble about the opening four measures featuring the horns, which to me seem a bit brusque. But that is one of the very few missteps that I noticed, and things improve quickly, with the orchestra truly singing. To take just one small example, the “exchanges” between the instrumental groups around 4:30 and onward are particularly well executed, allowing the music to flow so smoothly. Yet once in a while, the sonic issues that I worried about pop up again, mostly in more benign form, but present nonetheless. Just how did those woodwinds get into the front row – I thought they were behind the strings? And about those basses….

Speaking of the second movement, revisiting the Szell / Cleveland recording, preferably the sonically improved remastering from 2018, provides an interesting contrast. Not that it’s “better” than the Honeck / Pittsburgh one, but it is heartrendingly wistful, another take on some wonderful music.

The third movement takes off quickly and dramatically, but with never a hint of strain: it truly is rousing, by turns joyful, determined, and yes, even humorous. The occasional clouds of a minor key never really disturb the bright day filled with vitality. Interestingly, the sound that I found problematic earlier serves the music better here: the thrumming drums a little over four minutes in are particularly effective and don’t seem at all out of place.

In the fourth movement, the variations that make up the movement are particularly well-defined: again, the sound that seemed problematic earlier may help to clarify what’s going on – although, still, in a few spots, I felt that lack of coherence mentioned earlier. At any rate, the playing certainly is beyond reproach. For example, there is some particularly lovely flute and woodwind work starting around the four-minute mark, and the horns that follow immediately after do a very nice job indeed; these are just a few instances in which the technical ability of the Pittsburgh forces is fully on display. Moreover, there’s no shortage of drama, with sudden outbursts and huge dynamic contrasts. The quick tempi may bother some: for me, the movement seems on the border of sounding rushed, while some might find that it crosses that border. Still, Honeck is hardly off the beaten path in this regard: although he takes a brisk 9:34 for the entire movement; the widely acclaimed Kleiber / Vienna version beats that at 9:14. (However, I should note that Kleiber starts off at what seems a slightly slower pace, making up the time as things move along; subjectively, this seems not quite so brisk as the version under review.) In contrast, Klemperer takes a full minute more at 10:24, while my beloved Szell is even more leisurely at 10:34. The faster versions convey more straight-ahead drama; the slower ones perhaps deliver a more Hitchcockian sense of slowly approaching fate or disaster, even spookiness. If you haven’t heard both approaches, you should.

So where does all this leave us? The recording has grown on me since my first hearing: as I mentioned earlier, there is much to like. But for myself, I fear that the concerns about the sound and balances are deal breakers for a long-lasting relationship.

BH

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

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 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, 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

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa