A Roundup of Recent Releases (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Aspects of America: Pulitzer Edition. Walter Piston: Symphony No. 7; Morton Gould: Stringmusic; Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 4 “Requiem.” Carlos Kalmar: Oregon Symphony. Pentatone PTC 5186 763.

When classical music fans think of top orchestras and conductors, neither the Oregon Symphony nor Carlos Kalmar are likely to spring immediately to mind, but they have made some outstanding recordings for the Pentatone label, including two absolutely marvelous SACDs that have established permanent residence on my shelves, This England and Music for a Time of War. Although I was mildly disappointed to see that this latest release was not released in the usual Pentatone SACD format, but rather as a CD only, I understand that budgetary pressures are bearing down hard on the recording industry, and I am grateful that we have this recording at all. Times are tough out there.

The title of this release stems from the fact that this is an album of Pulitzer Prize-winning compositions by American composers. The program opens with Symphony No. 7 by Walter Piston (1894-1976), a three-movement work that was completed in 1960 and awarded the Pulitzer in 1961. The first movement is bold and dramatic, well-captured by the Pentatone engineering team in dynamic sound. The second movement is more lyrical, very moving, and the finale brings on renewed energy. I was not familiar with this work before, but am certainly pleased to have made its acquaintance through this excellent recording. The second piece is by Morton Gould (1913-1996). His five-movement Stringmusic was completed in 1993 and was awarded the Pulitzer in 1995. Gould composed the work for the legendary Russian cellist and conductor Mstsislav Rostropovich. It is lyrical and lively, but because it is for strings only, it can seem a bit of a sonic letdown after the boldness of the Piston. Still, it is an involving work in its own right, even if it seems a bit out of place when sandwiched between two colorful symphonies. The final work on the program is the one that most listeners are more likely to be familiar with, as the symphonies of Howard Hanson (1896-1981) have been recorded several times. His Symphony No. 4 was completed in 1943 and awarded the Pulitzer in 1944. It has an intensity about it that is quite involving, its four movements being titled Kyrie, Requiescat, Dies Irae, and Lux Aeterna, after the Catholic Mass for the Dead. However, this is not music that sounds religious in any formal sense. Like most of Hanson’s work, much of it sounds something like film music. Good film music. Colorful, listenable, dramatic, and entertaining.

All three of the works presented on this fine Pentatone release are a bit out of the mainstream but all are well worth an audition, especially when presented in such excellent sound quality as they are here. Times are indeed tough out there right now, but thank goodness for music to help sustain our minds and spirits.

Sigfúsdóttir: Kom vinur. Horous Askelsson, Schola Cantorum. Sono Luminus SLE-70019.
I feel impelled at the outset to point out that this is an EP containing less than 10 minutes of music, but what beautiful music it is! Icelandic composer Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (b. 1980) writes of the two compositions on this recording that they are “composed to poems by the Icelandic poet Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir. The poems are the absolute core of the pieces; when composing them, I felt like excavating music from the text, unravelling hidden sounds from the words. Kom vinur has a somber undertone, a sense of loneliness and longing for sharing light and thoughts with a friend in the dark winter night. In Maríuljóô the tender view is through the eyes of a child observing subtle changes in nature and the seasons as well as asking the mother questions about the image of the Holy Mother.”

I don’t have access at the moment to the poems, but the choral music on this EP is so beautiful and moving that I feel inspired to see whether I can find the poems somewhere on the interweb. Meanwhile, I know that Sigfúsdóttir has composed other music; the 10 transcendent minutes contained on this brief gem have been more than enough to make me seek out more. This is a wonderful release, brief (but inexpensive) as it might be.

No Time for Chamber Music: Collectif9.

I can’t quite remember exactly where I first heard of this release, although I believe it was a mention on Twitter. Chamber arrangements of music by Gustav Mahler sounded interesting, so I streamed (at mp3 quality, alas; I live in a rural area and do not have wideband internet access) a few cuts and was quite taken with what I heard. I subsequently ordered a physical copy from the group’s website (collectif9.ca). The musicians of Collectif9 include John Corban, Yubin Kim, Robert Margaryan, and Elizabeth Skinner, violins; Xavier Lepage-Brault, Jennifer Thiessen, violas; Jeremie Cloutier, Andrea Stewart, cellos; and Thibault Bertin-Maghit, double bass, who also did the arranging on seven of the eight selections. I should note that there are recordings out there of various Mahler symphonies arranged for small forces, chamber orchestras and in some cases even smaller ensembles, but this recording is not just scaled-down versions of movements from Mahler symphonies. The music herein is clearly based on Mahler’s scores, but it really does sound like chamber music, not scaled-down symphonic movements.    
The liner notes explain the unusual album title and concept thusly: “‘No time for chamber music… you are nothing but an academic exercise’; these are two lines taken from the 3rd movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, built on the scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s 2nd symphony… The composers on this recording use quotations to create depth in storytelling… Gustav Mahler quoted his own works with intent and delicacy, with layers and layers of intricate detail and deeper meaning… Creating these arrangements allowed us to see the breadth of colors he was imagining and generated the space to find this diversity ourselves. While we might have the impression that Gustav Mahler, with his symphonies and Lieder, had no time for chamber music, this was not at all the case. Reflecting our daily life, our interactions, and our intimacies, chamber music is human communication itself.”

The eight selections on this CD include two taken from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, two from Symphony No.2, and one each from Songs of a Wayfarer and The Song of the Earth. The final selection, by composer Philippe Hersant, is a fantasy based on musical themes by Mahler. This is a truly stimulating collection that really digs into the heart of Mahler’s inspirations. If you are a fan of Mahler, you really ought to hear it; however, you need not be a Mahler fan to enjoy some truly fascinating chamber music. Assuming you have the time, of course…

La traversée: Matthieu Bordenave, tenor saxophone; Patrice Moret, double bass; Florian Weber, piano. ECM 2683 088 2928.

The ECM label has long featured music that has often been referred to as “chamber jazz,” a term that depending on the source has served over the years both as criticism or compliment. On Latraversée (“The Crossing”) the trio led by saxophonist Matthieu Bordenave plays music that truly does sound like a blend of chamber music and jazz, with the absence of drums contributing to the chamber-music ambience. The music is partly composed, partly improvised. Bordenave explains that as they planned for the recording, he and pianist Florian Weber “I talked a lot about how to incorporate some of the colours of modern composition. I love for instance Messiaen and Dutilleux. I wanted some of that sense of complexity in the chords. Too much complexity, however, can create a prison for improvisers. In some of the pieces, like ‘Archipel’, we take just a small fragment of written material and develop it further and further...” Bordenave also notes that the nine tracks on the album are based on poetry by the French writer René Char, explaining that “the melodies were responses to some of the poems, or impressions drawn from them.”

The sound produced by the trio is spare and haunting, recorded in typical ECM style with both clarity and ambience. This is music born out of reflection that invites further reflection on the part of the listener. Even if you are not really all that much of a jazz fan, unless you are someone who is pathologically opposed to the sound of a saxophone you might well find this to be a fascinating take on the idea of chamber music.

Lontano: Anja Lechner, cello; François Couturier, piano. ECM 2682 085 7705.

Although a good portion of the music on Lontano is improvised, this is clearly not jazz; no, not even ECM-style “chamber jazz.” Rather, Lechner and Couturier have produced an enchanting program of honest-to-goodness chamber music that features their own compositions and improvisations along with music by Ariel Ramirez, Giya Kancheli, Anouar Brahem, and Henri Dutilleux. This is music that sings, that soars, that exults in the sheer joy of music-making. In his liner notes, music author Stephane Ollivier writes that “since the start of their duo collaboration in the early 2000s as members of the Tarkovsky Quartet, German cellist Anja Lechner and French pianist François Couturier have been inventing a music that is genuinely impossible to pin down. Though in some senses continuing the European chamber music tradition in its forms and instrumental colours, it is nevertheless distinct from it in its variety of repertoire and in its approach, which knowingly, virtuosically blurs the demarcation line between notated and improvised music.” To hear these players make music is to hear imagination at work and dedication at play. I love this description by Lechner: “With François I have often set off on journeys to foreign melodies. This requires mutual trust, courage and imagination. Together we search as if through various countries, exploring, shaping, struggling, rejecting, and finding new forms to finally sing the song. Then we grow wings and feel the stories that want to be told – only on this moment, in this room, for this person who will listen.” Having had the good fortune to be that person who listened, I invite others to join me in enjoying this remarkable recording.

Järvlepp: Concerto 2000 and Other Works. Pascale Margely, flute; Ivan Josip Skender, Zagreb Festival Orchestra; Petr Vronsky, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Navona Records NV6291.

Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp (b. 1953) has assembled an album of entertaining orchestral music containing plenty of rhythmic energy and variety. For example, the opening work in this collection, Concerto 2000 for flute and orchestra, consists of three movements: a lively opening movement that features flamenco rhythms complete with handclapping, a more serene second movement with an Arabic-sounding interlude, and a third movement punctuated with percussion shots and vocal shouts, a movement that Järvlepp explains was influenced by Finnish folk music.  The next piece, titled Pierrot Solaire, is a lively romp that jumps and whirls and whooshes in a mad rush of frantic energy. It is music you can imagine dancing to, but only if you had superhuman energy. Better to listen, tap your feet, and maybe wave your arms about. Brass Dance features not just brass, but plenty of percussion, strings, and some occasionally off-kilter rhythms that contribute to the madcap delight of the music, which is even kicked up a notch in the next cut, Street Music, with brass and percussion blasting out the rhythm. The mood changes significantly with the next composition, In Memoriam, which Järvlepp composed for string orchestra in memory of his deceased brother. It is a tender, moving piece of simple but heartfelt beauty. The album ends with Camerata Music, a lively romp that brings back the prominent percussion – complete with some handclapping.

Other than the solo flute being a bit overpowering in Concerto 2000, the sound quality is just fine. All in all, this is an entertaining album that should appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes.

Some Food for Thought: “Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo did not know where their amazement began… Something similar happened with the cylinder phonographs that the merry matrons from France brought with them as a substitute for the antiquated hand organs and that for a time had serious effects on the livelihood of the band of musicians. At first curiosity increased the clientele on the forbidden street and there was even word of respectable ladies who disguised themselves as workers to observe the novelty of the phonograph from first hand, but from so much and such close observation they soon reached the conclusion that it was not an enchanted mill as everyone had thought and as the matrons had said, but a mechanical trick that could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians. It was such a serious disappointment that when phonographs became so popular that there was one in every house they were not considered objects for amusement for adults but as something good for children to take apart.” (from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez).


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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

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