Al Andalus (CD review)

Musique Arabo-Andalouse. Gregorio Paniagua, Atrium Musicae Madrid. Harmonia Mundi HMM 93389.

By John J. Puccio

First, a bit of history: Al-Andalus is the name of the area of the former Islamic states in Iberia, a domain that at one time occupied most of the Spanish and Portuguese peninsula and a part of southern France and beyond. Arab or Berber rulers controlled these areas at various times between 711 and 1492, although national boundaries changed constantly as conflicts with neighboring Christian countries continued.

During the Middle Ages, Al-Andalus became, as the CD booklet notes explain, “a centre of culture and of influence on the rest of mediaeval Europe. At that period Europe had not yet attained a level of civilization comparable with the splendour and extreme sophistication enjoyed by the inhabitants of Southern Spain. Music flourished with particular vigour in Al Andalus, protected by the patronage of the emirs, princes and caliphs, studied by the most illustrious theoreticians and played by the most remarkable performers. Arabic-Andalusian or Hispanic-Moslem music as been transmitted solely by oral tradition.” It is those oral traditions that the period-instrument group Atrium Musicae de Madrid and their leader Gregorio Paniagua follow in presenting the music of the album.

Members of Atrium Musicae de Madrid include Gregorio Paniagua, Eduardo Paniagua, Cristina Ubeda, Pablo Cano, Beatriz Amo (who also wrote the booklet notes), Luis Paniagua, and Carlos Paniagua. Yes, it was mostly a family affair, at least at the time of this recording in the mid 1970’s. They play on instruments hard to pronounce and even harder to spell. Suffice it to say that they all get into the spirit of the thing and produce some interesting and, for most of us today, unique sounds.

Gregorio Paniagua founded Atrium Musicae de Madrid in 1964, and they performed together for almost twenty years, finally disbanding in the early 1980’s. Several of their albums became quite well known, including two that I’ve had in my collection for over forty years: Musique de la Grece Antigue (Harmonia Mundi HM 90.1015) and La Spagna (BIS CD-163). Together with Al Andalus, the albums provide a valuable insight into the music of a long-ago time.

If there is any drawback to the Al Andalus album, it is its length. It’s only forty-two minutes long, which is pretty short measure by current standards; especially by CD standards, with discs capable of playing nearly twice that content. But we have on the CD what the old vinyl LP gave us, and we shouldn’t complain. It’s the substance that counts.

The music is about what one would expect of tunes from medieval Arabic days. It influenced composers like Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, who tried to emulate at least the feeling of such music in more modern times. The booklet notes tell us that the musical form most commonly followed by Arabic-Andalusian composers was the Nouba, a series or suite of songs grouped together in different movements. There are some variables, but things are pretty well established, and the Atrium Musicae folks say the pieces constituting the album are “like a mosaic of the most beautiful fragments of some of the Noubas which have survived.” Whatever, it’s all quite lovely and pleasantly listenable.

As for the playing, because I am unfamiliar with the music, with the instruments involved, and with the performers (except on the aforementioned two other albums), I cannot say definitively that they are the best at what they do. But what I can say is that they appear to know what they’re doing, and they make beautiful music together, mostly tranquil, meditative, and contemplative. One can hardly ask for more.

Engineer and sound editor Alberto Paulin recorded the music at Mediapole Saint-Cesaire, Impasse de Mourgues, Arles, France in October 1976. The recording has been in the catalogue continuously since then, the current issue released in 2021.

Allow to voice an opinion: The commercial home-stereo age began in about 1954 and matured over the next fifteen or twenty years, reaching a peak of sophistication in the 1970’s. Then came the digital age in the 80’s, and recording engineers had to recalibrate and develop new techniques to best exploit the emerging medium. For me, that meant that the 1970’s were a kind of golden age of analogue stereo recording, and this recording comes right in the middle of that era.

There’s a genuine sense of air and transparency around each of the instruments and an actual sense of depth to the sonic image. A moderate hall reverberation lends a note of realism to the affair, along with a deep bass response; clean, extended highs; and general feeling of naturalness. To top it off, there’s a wide dynamic range and fairly strong impact. The whole recording is quite lifelike and likable.

JJP

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

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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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa