Mar 31, 2021

Mozert: Magnificent Ambersens, the Opera (Super-8 review)

Restored Director’s Cut, with Orson Bean, Joseph Cottontail, Elvis Costello, Tom Hulce, and Agatha Sorehead. Lft. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III, Toontown Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. 1930; 260 minutes. Standard and enormously overblown extra-widescreen presentations; B&W and color; 2-D, 3-D, and DD-T soundtracks.

By John J. Puccio

As every opera buff knows, Magnificent Ambersens (1930) was the writer, producer, actor, composer, film editor, gaffer, grip, and best boy director Wolfgang Orson Wellseyan Mozert’s enigmatic musical follow-up to his celebrated antiestablishment idyll, The Citizen Kane Mutiny. And, as every musical film buff also knows, Ambersens was corrupted, shredded, mutilated, and maimed by its studio, R.K. Maroon International, when the filmmaker left it in their care whilst he took a cruise to South America with his girlfriend, Jessica Rabbit. Mozert always said that he regretted what later happened. (The studio’s cutting of his film, not his fling with Ms. Rabbit.)

Providentially and unbeknownst to anyone outside his immediate circle of friends, Mozert was able to retrieve most of the excised portions of the movie from a dumpster behind the Maroon studios, footage that only today, over ninety years later, he has reconstructed into a true Director’s Cut. The incomprehensible new version--restored to its original operatic setting--now includes several hours of expunged words never before heard outside the Mozert household. The new version runs some 260 minutes, with about three-and-a-half hours of additional, inexplicable verbiage. “A Magnificent Ruin,” as one critic once called the truncated edition, is once again “A Magnificent Rune.”

For those readers who may not be familiar with the film, Magnificent Ambersens recounts the familiar tale of the demise of an American way of life in Yoknapatawpha county, with the dissolution of the once lofty Grierson dynasty and the depletion of the family fortune at the hands of modernity. The cast includes Anne Boxster as Dolores Costello, the demanding matriarch of the clan; young Timmy Holt as Richard Bennett, the handsome, ne’er-do-well; Joseph Cottonball as Sterling Hayden, the corrupt police captain; Peter Lorry as Heinrich Strasser, the gallant saloon keeper; longtime Mercury Theatre singers Agnes Moorfoot, Ray Collyns, and Edward Rochester as Othello’s household staff; and W.O.W. Mozert himself as the narrator, Paul Masson. Oh, and it’s an opera, so there are also some songs.

But the studio’s version of the film was all they wanted audiences to see. At last, with the additional footage, we are introduced to the plot’s more intriguing music and characters: Gibson Gowland as Frank McTeague, a San Francisco podiatrist; Zazu Pitts as Emily Tarkington, an inconsolable harlequin; Humphrey Bogart as Corliss “Rosebud” Archer, a relentless gumshoe; Erik von Stroheim as Mr. Arkadin, a small knot of indecipherable fiber; G.W. Bush as Manderley, the sinister butler; George Lucas as Sabrina, the butler’s daughter; Marlon Brando as the Chorus (widescreen); Gabriel Heatter with the news; and one hard-boiled egg.

Together, they sing and act an unforgettably thrilling narrative of greed, mystery, and women in flimsy white negligees that no film buff, buffed or otherwise, should ignore. To say this new Director’s Cut is merely a melodramatic journey into fear, the equivalent of a black-magic stranger, a third man on the other side of the wind, a touch of evil, or a war of the worlds would simply be the expression of a deep-seated and quixotic riposte. No, this Director’s Cut restores the very essence of the songs, a trial no viewer should miss.

Incidentally, I understand that later this spring Maroon Studios will be releasing their big biographical epic of Mozert’s life, starring Tom Hanks as W.O.W and Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger as his good friend and buddy J.C.Penney Bach. Initially, the studio wanted Arnold to play Mozert, but Arnold refused, saying he’d rather be Bach. Anyway, something to look forward to.

In truth, it will be a long, hot summer in Shanghai before we see the likes of Mozert’s genius again. His Director’s Cut has already established itself above criticism, and far be it from me to peddle any word of reproach. At Classical Candor, we will sell no whine before its time.

In terms of overall appearance, the old, abridged, theatrical release of Magnificent Ambersens was a departure from the visionary, avant-garde, new-wave technology originally employed by Mozert. Always ahead of his time, Mozert had used widescreen, color, 3-D, and holographic (HG) photography to glorious advantage (despite his alleged claim that “no great film was ever made in color,” a nefarious misquote attributed to him by his enemies). But at the time of the film’s initial release in 1932, the studio would not have it Mozert’s way, bleaching out the color, cropping the frames, and eliminating the HG, three-dimensional sonic effects. Which is another reason the new edition is so welcome. What we have now in the Director’s Cut is the formerly deleted widescreen, color, 3-D, HG footage seamlessly intercut with the theatrical release’s standard-screen black-and-white. In the event a viewer should be uncertain as to which parts have been added to the older edition, the extra material has been clearly labeled with a large pink asterisk on the left-hand side of the screen. A pair of plastic HG glasses are enclosed in the reel’s case, and extra HG 3-D glasses may be ordered from the studio for viewers figuring on the unlikelihood of company.

As might be expected, the picture quality varies only slightly between the original and added elements. Indeed, the theatrical-release’s footage now looks its age, while the added footage looks even older. Using the HG 3-D glasses can be a minor inconvenience, as one has to put them on and take them off every ten seconds, but if you leave them on throughout the viewing, you’ll notice a marked improvement in the black-and-white. A lot of the grain and some of the smear of the old print is ameliorated, and if a character here or there disappears entirely, it will probably not be much of a concern to anyone but a die-hard movie aficionado, anyway.

Which brings up a final concern. With or without the HG 3-D glasses, the average viewer will probably not be able to discern much of what is going on. So, how was I able to see the picture when to you it will be a monumental blur? Because my equipment is better than yours, that’s why. But relax, because once you’ve finished reading my review, you’ll be able to hold an intelligent conversation on the subject with anyone. After all, that’s what reviews are for. You don’t have to go out and actually watch all those boring old classic movies that critics are always raving about. Just check out the reviews and people will think you’re smart.

George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic Show have remixed and remastered Mozert’s original 1.0 monaural sound with mixed results in Dolty Digital-DDT 12.4ESP Amos InteriorScope At-the-Most Surround. No longer is the music confined to a single location or even to a single set of speakers; it now arrives at the ear from within the ear. The sound resonants outward from the inner ear to the outer chamber, creating the sensation of being completely under water. It is quite an accomplishment from a company renowned for its creativity and innovation. When questioned about why they wanted to create so aqueous an illusion, Mozert and Lucas replied, “Because.” Which is good enough for us.

I had expected a musical-film release of this stature to be offered in at least a two-reel special edition, but, alas, it was not to be. The film and its extra materials are presented on one Zoetrope Super-8 strip, accommodating about twelve hours of content at a bit rate that failed to register on my Zoetrope player’s readout. Nevertheless, it is quantity that counts, especially in Hollywood.

The first and most important of the package’s bonus items is a new audio commentary by Mozert himself.  In it, the director takes us on a frame-by-frame tour of the Macbeth mansion and grounds, with lucid explanations on diet and exercise. Although the feature film itself is not rated, the director’s commentary is classified R for sex, nudity, witches, and violence. Next up is a six-hour documentary, “Along for the Ride,” the director’s unexpurgated diary of his South American road trip, also rated R, this time for scenes of graphic weight gain.

The rest of the extras are of the more mundane variety and are best watched once and forgotten. There are, of course, the usual behind-the-scenes scenes of scenic scenes, these with on-air narration by both W.O.W. Mozert and Marlin Brando (ultra-widescreen recommended). Then, there is a short series of still pictures: a Rita Hayworth pinup shot (required viewing); a Zazu Pitts pinup shot (optional viewing); and an Agnes Moorehead pinup shot (children’s advisory warning). The extras conclude with a menu containing one scene selection; a pan-and-scan theatrical release trailer; a widescreen rerelease trailer; and an obscenely wide re-rerelease trailer featuring both Marlin Brando and Orson Welles on screen at the same time (barely). Although Scottish is the only spoken language provided, there are Danish subtitles for the Scottish impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
For film fans who will undoubtedly greet the Magnificent Ambersens Director’s Cut gleefully, there is even more cause for gleeful glee. Mozert recently let it be known that he and screenwriters Stanley Kubrick and Broken Lizard are putting the final touches on the long-rumored musical sequel to The Citizen Kane Mutiny. Slated for release some time in the fall, Raising Kane is the story of the reclusive billionaire’s illegitimate daughter, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. It stars Jessica Rabbit and Betty Boop as Sugar, with Harry Lime, Michael O’Hara, Will Varner, Hank Quinlan, and Peter Bogdanovich in the immortal and possibly immoral saga of love, hate, sorrow, horror, humor, and women in flimsy white negligees, set within a backdrop of tragedy, redemption, and abstruse reconciliation. Although it sounds too good to be true, it is. True, that is. And abstruse, promising to blow the lid off the entire skateboarding community. There will, indeed, be chimes at midnight and trouble in the glen tonight! And one hard-boiled egg.

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

Mar 28, 2021

Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances (CD review)

Also, Concerto all’antica. David Alongna, violin; Salvatore Di Vittorio, Chamber Orchestra of New York. Naxos 8.573901.

By John J. Puccio

Italian composer and violinist Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is probably best known for his trilogy of tone-poem suites The Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome. However, coming close on their heels is his Ancient Airs and Dances, here presented on a Naxos CD by Maestro Salvatore Di Vittorio and the Chamber Orchestra of New York.

Respighi wrote three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances (1917, 1923, and 1931), the music freely adapted from original sixteenth-century pieces for lute. He based the first suite on various Renaissance works by Simone Molinaro, Vincenzo Galilei, and a few other anonymous composers. He based the second suite on works for lute, archlute, and viol by Fabritio Caroso, Jean-Baptiste Besard, Bernardo Gianoncelli, an anonymous composer, and an aria attributed to Marin Mersenne. The third suite Respighi based on lute and guitar works by Besard, Ludovico Roncalli, Santino Garsi da Parma, and a few other anonymous composers. This last suite differs from the previous ones in being slightly sadder than the others.

My own touchstone for these works has long been the 1958 stereo recording by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica, now on a remastered Mercury Living Presence CD (and before that on LP). While I would never suggest that in a field so subjective as music appreciation that there is any absolute “best” of anything, I’ve always found Dorati’s performance masterly, so any newcomer has a lot to look up to. Maestro Di Vittorio does a pretty good job of it, although his interpretations reflect perhaps more of a mock-historical perspective in these pieces than Dorati’s more Romantic approach. I say “mock-historical” because even though Respighi based these Ancient Airs and Dances on Baroque sources, he did intend them for today’s audiences, kind of old works made new. So, it does bring up the question of whether conductors should frame their performances in an ancient, historically informed style or in a manner that more conforms to contemporary standards. As Maestro Di Vittorio notes, “Respighi typically preferred combining pre-Classical melodic styles and musical forms (such as dance suites) with standard late 19th-century Romantic harmonies and textures.”

Whatever, the program begins with the Suite No. 1, which includes four brief dance sections. Di Vittorio then follows Suite No. 1 with Suite No. 3, again four brief dances. It was unclear to me why the conductor chose to present the suites out of chronological order except that Suite No. 2, which comes last on the agenda, is longer than the others, and maybe Di Vittorio wanted to end the Airs with the most substantial material. I dunno.

Probably the most striking things about Di Vittorio’s reading are the tempos. He tends to take the fast movements very quickly and the slower movements very slowly. By that, I mean that he follows one of the period-instrument practices, although not to extremes. The faster music is certainly vigorous and stimulating but without taxing one’s ears, while the slower sections have a sweet, lyrical, flowing quality about them. Nevertheless, the Dorati performances seem more refined to me, more elevated, more stately, more graceful. And with more uniform pacing, Dorati’s handling of the various movements seem to hold together better than in this newer recording.

Accompanying the Ancient Airs and Dances is an early (1908) piece by Respighi, the Concerto all’antica (old-fashioned or antique concert or simply “Concerto in an Ancient Style”). It’s a fairly lyrical work that again draws upon older musical styles for inspiration, even though Respighi admitted that he made up the whole thing himself as a joke for German critics. Maestro Di Vittorio uses the first printed critical edition of the score, published in 2019, making this a world-premiere recording of sorts. I can understand why Di Vittorio begins the program with this selection: It comes across as a proper and welcome complement to the Ancient Airs and Dances, with an especially lovely Adagio and excellent playing from violinist Davide Alogna.

Producers Salvatore Di Vittorio, Bill Siegmund, and Shanan Estreicher and engineer Bill Biegmund recorded the music at the Concert Hall, Adelphi University Performing Arts Center, New York in June 2019. The sound is a tad forward and bright, the upper midrange somewhat edgy at times. Otherwise, it’s good, modern sound, with plenty of clarity and even a little air around the instruments.

Incidentally, since I had the Dorati recording in another player, I couldn’t help notice the difference in sound. The sixty-year older Mercury remaster appeared warmer, smoother, and slightly wider. Just sayin’.


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

Mar 24, 2021

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-6 (CD review)

Also, Manfred Symphony; Slavonic March; Francesca da Rimini; Capriccio italien; 1812 Overture; The Storm; Romeo and Juliet, fantasy-overture. Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Philips 442 061-2 (6 CD set).

By John J. Puccio

There are four of five sets of Tchaikovsky symphonies I can recommend to the buyer who is considering a complete cycle by a single conductor. On balance, however, I prefer this older analogue set with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (still available on Philips and now on Decca), both for its reasoned, yet vigorous, performances and for its warm, wide-ranging sound. The other recommendable sets include Jansons's digital set on Chandos, Muti's analogue set on Warner/EMI, Markevitch's budget-priced set on Philips, and Jarvi’s set on BIS, among several others.

So why the Haitink set? Because in the symphonies themselves Maestro Haitink produces no losers and at least three outright winners. His Nos. 2, 3 and 4 have never been bettered, and his No. 5 is among the best on disc. Nos. 1, 6 and Manfred are good serviceable accounts. And then there are the short fill-ups, of which "The Storm" is a stunner. Most of the other pieces, like the 1812 and Romeo and Juliet overtures, recorded earlier than the symphonies, are not first-rate but adequate and stretch the set's value.

For those people who consider Haitink too cool, too reserved, especially performing works by a composer as red-blooded as Tchaikovsky, I suggest starting with the Fourth Symphony. It should end all such preconceptions. As to audio quality, the symphony recordings were made during the mid-to-late 1970's in some of Philips's best analogue sound. Really, only the Chandos set beats it sonically, and that is mainly because the Chandos sound is better imaged. The Philips engineers tended to over-mike things at times, resulting in some compartmentalization. Otherwise, the Philips sound is smooth, natural, robust, and extremely dynamic.

By comparison, the Jansons set costs more, includes fewer fillers, and has at least one questionable recording of the Second Symphony. Like Haitink, the Muti set comes at mid price, but it, too, includes fewer fillers and is less convincing in most of the works (although his Manfred and Fifth Symphonies are standouts). Markevitch has the advantage of coming on four discs at budget price, but the drawbacks are obvious: the set includes only the six numbered symphonies, two of which are split between two discs, and the 1960's sound is thinner and noisier than the competition. Still, Markevitch's interpretations of the first three symphonies in particular must be counted among the best available.

Probably the most useful advice I could give is for one to buy individual symphonies and short works disc by disc, choosing the best possible recordings by a variety of conductors. Unfortunately, Haitink, Muti, and Markevitch are currently available only in complete sets. So, I suggest buying the Haitink as core material and supplementing it with a few other individual discs by Jansons and Ashkenazy. Or check the used shops for deleted copies of single discs by Muti. But by all means check out Haitink. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


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

Mar 21, 2021

Telemann: Polonoise (SACD review)

Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Holland Baroque. Pentatone PTC 5186 878.

By John J. Puccio

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was the German composer who played practically every instrument in the band yet was largely self-taught. He originally wanted to be a lawyer, a course his family favored, but he turned to music while at university. He went on to become one of the most prolific composers the music world has ever known (his output numbers over 3,000 compositions), and he became friends with the likes of Bach and Handel, both of whom admired his work and considered him among the leading composers of the day.

Obviously, a man with such productive musical talents experimented in a number of genres and fashions of the time. Among these was the Polish style, inspired by a short stay in Poland and the dance music he heard there. What we have in the current album is a survey of some of Telemann’s more notable examples in the Polish style as performed by the period-instrument ensemble Holland Baroque.

Founded in 2006, Holland Baroque describe themselves as “an original and innovative baroque orchestra. The musicians use their instruments to sing, dance, cry, and laugh through tradition, innovation, surprise, and a dash of entertainment.” The players include Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Judith Steenbrink, violin; Chloe Prendergast, violin; Filip Rekiec, viola; Tomasz Pokrzywinski, cello; Christoph Sommer, lute; and Tineke Steenbrink, harpsichord. Judith and Tineke Steenbrink are the Artistic Leaders.

So, what exactly is the “Polish style”? According to the booklet notes it would be the style of a polonaise, which is a slow dance of Polish origin, in triple meter, consisting chiefly of a march or promenade in couples. Holland Baroque studied a number of such dances from Telemann and chose a representative sampling for our enlightenment and enjoyment. And for further illumination, they have arranged them into six suites and a chamber-music setting. There are thirty-three selections in all, each brief but entirely engaging.

The collection of tunes Holland Baroque provide is broad enough to encompass a number of varied tempos, from slow dances to quicker ones. The slower ones, like the Polonie 2 that opens the program, can be downright solemn, while others are stately and fashionable. The faster ones offer everything from a delightful lilt to a full-on romp.

Equally important, Holland Baroque play the music with vigor, enthusiasm, and sure-handed precision. Yet their precision does not rob the music of its joy. The sound of their historical instruments lends a distinct flavor to the scores, not as rich, smooth, or mellifluous as modern instruments but pleasing in its own way. It’s all quite captivating. 

Recording producer Carl Schuurbiers and engineer Jean-Marie Geijsen made the hybrid SACD at Musis Arnhem, the Netherland, in August 2020. It plays in two-channel stereo and multichannel on an SACD player and in regular two-channel stereo on a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD stereo using a Sony SACD player. Although the sound is a tad close, the instruments are realistically placed between the two speakers, neither clumped too closely together nor strung out in a line. The sound is natural, not at all bright or edgy, with a sweet but not too reverberant ambient glow. It’s quite attractive sound.


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

Mar 17, 2021

Piano Potpourri, No. 1 (CD Mini-Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Beethoven: Variations. Angela Hewitt, piano. Hyperion CDA68346.

You’ve got to love the quote from Beethoven that kicks off the liner notes for this new release by the wonderful Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (b. 1958): “That piece of folly mine? Oh Beethoven, what an ass you were in those days!” Old Ludwig was referring to a set of piano variations that he had heard a friend playing, music that he did not recognize that young Ludwig had composed back in 1806, the year he had also composed his more memorable Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto. These 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor comprise the opening set of variations on this entertaining release, the final recording Ms. Hewitt was able to make on her beloved Fazioli piano, which was accidentally destroyed when it was dropped by piano movers early in 2020 (she later that year acquired a replacement Fazioli). There are six other sets of variations on this release, the longest and most notable being the 15 Variations and a fugue on an original theme ‘Eroica,’ more commonly referred to as “The Eroica Variations,” but probably the most recognizable – even hummable, for that matter – music appears in the final two sets of variations on the program, 7 Variations on ‘God Save the King’ and 5 Variations on ‘Rule, Britannia.’

No, this is not a disc containing music with the profound musical and emotional depth of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, but it is a disc containing music by the master that delights and entertains us as we hear him having fun at the keyboard, something that Ms. Hewitt seems to be doing as she romps through these variations and leads us on a tour of some colorful musical byways. Hee haw indeed!

Chick Corea Plays. Concord Jazz CJA00284.

The world lost a beloved musical giant early this year with the passing of keyboard legend Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea (1941-2021). My connection with and affection for Corea go way back, having first encountered his music as a G.I. in Germany back in the ‘70s through his Return to Forever LPs Light as a Feather, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, and Where Have I Known You Before? After my discharge from the Army and return to college, I picked up No Mystery and Romantic Warrior plus my first-ever ECM album, Crystal Silence, a duet album featuring Corea with vibraphonist Gary Burton. Around this same time my wife and I also had the great thrill of seeing Return to Forever in concert. This was shortly after the young Al Di Meola had joined the group on guitar, and he, Lenny White on drums, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Corea on keyboards delivered thrill upon musical thrill that evening. Not long after that, Return to Forever broke up, and Corea went on to many other projects both as a leader and as a sideman, gathering an incredible total of 25 (just this month, two posthumously) Grammy awards during his storied career, of which jazz-rock fusion was just one small part. He was a serious and very accomplished musician, conversant with a wide range of music, which is evident on what would turn out to be his final recording, this two-CD set of solo piano performances.            

“I’m part of a lineage,” Corea once explained. “The thing that I do is similar to what Monk did, to what Bill Evans and Duke Ellington did, and moving back into another era of music, what Bach and Mozart and Beethoven did. These were all pianists who were composers at heart, who gathered their own musicians together to play. I feel so proud to be a part of that tradition.” When you look at the cover of Plays, his final album, for which Corea himself designed the cover art, you see the names Mozart, Scarlatti, Scriabin, Chopin, Evans, Monk, Jobim, Gershwin, Wonder – and Corea. As the program unfolds, he offers spoken introductions to help the audience (the recordings are from concert performances) feel at home with such a wide range of music from such a diverse group of composers. His spoken introductions and his spontaneous, improvisatory style of playing both serve to communicate his wide-ranging love for and mastery of music regardless of genre.

One fascinating feature of his live solo concerts is that he will often invite audience members to come on stage and improvise at the keyboard alongside him. He never knows who might turn up, and he has had children and competent amateurs come forward in past concerts, but on Plays, the pianist who joined him on stage turned out to be the conservatory-trained French classical pianist Charles Heisser and the French-Israeli jazz pianist Yaron Herman, who has released albums on Blue Note and Decca Records. When they were chosen for these brief duets, however, both were simply audience members. “I didn’t know they were pros,” Corea noted. “but it’s always a lot of fun when I invite pianists to come up on stage to improvise with me.” It’s fun for the listener, too, to hear these musicians doing what they love to do, creating music with their hearts, minds, and fingers. You don’t have to be a jazz fan, or a classical fan, or even a fan of piano music to enjoy this album. If you simply love music, I believe you will find that the late Chick Corea’s love for music will reach out and touch your heart as you listen to this well-recorded program of music that spans the centuries.  

Encounter. Igor Levit, piano. Sony Classical 19439786572.

The Russian-born German pianist Igor Levit (b. 1987) is one of the brightest stars in the pianistic firmament. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been active in presenting music online, and in his recent recordings he has taken on programs chosen not to showcase virtuosic pianism but rather to reflect on philosophical/spiritual issues; not in some glib New-Agey sort of way, but as a serious musician who finds himself challenged by and engaged with life and its potential for enhancement. As the liner notes point for Encounter proclaim, “the choice of works that are included on this album is not dictated by any interest in musical history but by one that is intensely existential. The present programme takes its cue from those moments when the heart rate grows calmer, when the information overload is reduced and our gaze is directed solely at what is essential.”

This two-CD set consists primarily of music in the form of arrangements. Disc one is devoted to two sets of arrangements by the Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) of chorale preludes, ten by Bach and six by Brahms. As you might imagine from the type of works these are, they are not virtuoso piano works intended to dazzle; rather, they have a stately, flowing beauty that Levit communicates well. You hear Bach, you hear Brahms, but you begin to feel something beyond the notes.   

Disc two finds Levit taking his listeners ever more inward, beginning with more music by Brahms, but once again not music originally composed by Brahms for the piano, but rather arrangements by Max Reger (1873-1916) of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs). The liner notes observe that “Brahms’s pitiless examination of mortality and death in his Vier ernste Gesänge was a reaction to the deaths of a number of family members and close friends in the years leading up to their composition. Above all, they anticipate the death of Clara Schumann, whom Brahms had loved all his life and who had suffered a serious stroke in late March 1896. The then sixty-three-year-old composer was also aware of his own incurable illness when he completed these songs that same summer.” Next in the program is an arrangement for piano by Julian Becker of the brief, somber Nachtlied (Night Song) by Reger himself, which was composed as a setting of these lines by a 16th century theologian: “The night has come when we should rest; may it please God to permit the devout to lie down in His company and with His blessing and be at Peace.” Following this brief but deeply moving three-minute piece, Levit concludes the program with the only composition that is not an arrangement, but was originally composed for the piano, Palais de Mari by the American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Written in 1986, it was Feldman’s final composition for solo piano. This is spare music, quiet music, music that hints rather than declares, that sighs rather than sings. For more than 28 minutes, Levit uses Feldman’s haunting score to invite us into a quiet world of reflection, a refuge from a world of polemic and pandemic. This is an utterly beautiful release.

Budapest Concert: Keith Jarrett, piano. ECM 2700/01 B0032851-02.

Like Chick Corea, the versatile pianist Keith Jarrett (b. 1945) has had long and successful career, and even for a time shared keyboard duties with Corea in the legendary Miles Davis electric band of the late’60s (although unlike Corea, he hated the electric piano, but played it then because, well, it was for Miles). His recorded legacy is rich and varied: Forest Flower with Charles Lloyd; his American Quartet albums with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian; his European quartet albums with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen; his Standards Trio albums with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette; his solo piano albums, including one of the most famous solo piano albums of all time, his Köln Concert; his classical albums, including works by Bach, Bartok, Mozart, Harrison, Hovhaness, Shostakovich, Pärt, and others – it is an incredible recorded legacy. Strangely enough, however, and very much unlike his contemporary Chick Corea, he has never received a Grammy (although Köln Concert was named a Grammy Hall of Fame recording in 2011). Tragically enough, in 2018 Jarrett suffered the first of several strokes that have left him unable to play the piano. As a longtime Jarrett fan, that leaves me heartbroken; I cannot begin to imagine being in his situation.

Budapest Concert was recorded live on July 3, 2016 at the Bela Bartok Concert Hall in Budapest. The 1.5-hr concert consisted of 12 improvised selections (titled “Parts I-XII,”), the first four of which appear on CD1 (37:26), while CD2 (54:46) contains the final eight plus two encore pieces, covers of “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me, My Love.” Jarrett comes out pumped with energy in Part I, the longest (14:42) and most intense, challenging music of the whole program. It is almost as if Jarrett was aware that he was playing in Bartok Hall and was determined to make music in that tradition and spirit. After that initial assault, he seems to relax somewhat, and the music becomes more accessible, especially on CD2, where Jarrett is able to spin some memorable melodies seemingly out of thin air.

Suite: April 2020: Brad Mehldau, piano. Nonesuch 075597919288.

Pianist Brad Mehldau (b.1970) explains on his website that while sheltering at home with his family in the Netherlands during the COVID-19 pandemic, he wrote a dozen new songs about what he was experiencing and was able to record them safely in an Amsterdam studio. He characterizes the album as “a musical snapshot of life the last month in the world in which we’ve all found ourselves. I’ve tried to portray on the piano some experiences and feelings that are both new and common to many of us. In ‘Keeping Distance,’ for example, I traced the experience of two people social distancing, represented by the left and right hand—how they are unnaturally drawn apart, yet remain linked in some unexplainable, and perhaps illuminating way… There’s also been a welcome opportunity to connect more deeply with my family than we ever have, because of the abundant time and close proximity. The last three pieces hit on that connection—the harmony we find with each other, making meals together or just horsing around. ‘Lullaby’ is for everyone who might find it hard to sleep now. Neil Young’s words in ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ have always been counsel for me, now more than ever, when he instructs: ‘Don’t let it bring you down/It’s only castles burning/Find someone who’s turning/And you will come around.’ Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind,’ a song I’ve loved since I was nine years old, is a love letter to a city that I’ve called my home for years, and that I’m far away from now. I know lots of people there and miss them terribly, and I know how much that great city hurts right now. I also know that it too will come around.” This is an album you can just put on, relax, and enjoy. It is not quite easy listening music, but it is human music, communicative music, music that really does seem to capture the spirit of that crazy year, 2020. And nicely enough, Mehldau builds up toward a positive, optimistic finish, capped off with his final cover, Jerome Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining.” Having just received my second dose of Pfizer vaccine a few days ago, that is a song to which I can definitely relate.

Mehldau is another jazz pianist who is more musically versatile than you might think. If you really want to hear some peak jazz Mehldau, you really can do no better than his The Art of the Trio albums from the 1990s, especially The Art of the Trio III – Songs (Warner Brothers 9362-47051-2), which is absolutely amazing. On the more classical side, his solo release After Bach (Nonesuch 7559-79318-0) is well worth a listen. Enjoy…


Mar 14, 2021

Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (CD review)

Also, music of De La Maza, Tansman, and De Visee. Thibaut Garcia, guitar; Ben Glassberg, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Erato 0190295235710.

By John J. Puccio

It’s a testament, I suppose, to the enduring popularity of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) that two new recordings of it appeared within days of one another. This one under review is by the young French classical guitarist Thibaut Garcia (b. 1994), conductor Ben Glassberg, and the somewhat unwieldy named Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Garcia joins a cavalcade of guitarists who have tackled and recorded the Concierto, and while I enjoyed it, I can’t say it struck me as any better or any worse than a dozen others I’ve come across in the past few years. Nevertheless, Garcia’s fans should find the album a delight.

At the risk of needlessly repeating myself, I’ll begin with some background on the music. As you probably know, Rodrigo got his inspiration for the Concierto (1939) from the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the spring resort palace and gardens built by Philip II in the last half of the 16th century. The music attempts to convey the feeling of another time and place by summoning the sounds of nature.

Rodrigo described the first movement Allegro con spirito as "animated by a rhythmic spirit and vigour without either of the two themes interrupting its relentless pace." Certainly, Garcia captures the rhythms of the movement well, and the orchestra radiates a suitable vigor. However, the entire ensemble is enhanced so much by the hall acoustics, it perhaps lends a bit too much bloom to the proceedings.

The composer said that the second movement "represents a dialogue between guitar and solo instruments” (cor anglais, bassoon, oboe, horn, etc.). What he didn’t say was how utterly beautiful it can be, something audiences have been saying for more than eighty years now. At its heart the music is a soulful, almost mournful dialogue between the guitar and various instrumental soloists, particularly the cor anglais. Taken too slowly, the movement can sound overly sentimental, even drippy, but taken too quickly it can lose some of its emotional appeal. Garcia approaches it with a delicate yet somewhat hasty hand. While he is a wonderful guitarist, no doubt, and handles all of the material easily, I didn’t feel as involved with the music as I have with some other artists.

The Concierto ends with a perky little closing tune, one that Rodrigo said "recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar." It should be trim and lively, maybe a bit effervescent as well, and Garcia manages it well, both he and the orchestra fresh and alive.

As nice as Garcia’s recording of the Concierto may be, I continue to favor the work of Pepe Romero (Philips or Decca), Angel Romero (Mercury), and Narciso Yepes (HDTT) for their greater spark, originality, poignancy, and flavor, although I must admit it’s close.

Accompanying the Concierto are three additional collections of music for guitar by various other composers. The first of these are four short solo works by Regino Sainz de la Maza (1896-1981), the Spanish composer and guitarist who, interestingly, first performed Rodrigo’s Concierto. Following his pieces is a suite for guitar and chamber orchestra by the Polish composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). And the final tracks are a suite of tunes by the Seventeenth-century French composer Robert de Visee (c. 1655-1732/33), transcribed for solo guitar by the artist, Thibaut Garcia. Of these selections, I preferred the Tansman suite most of all and found the de Visee suite a bit tiresome.

Producers Alain Lanceron, Hughes Deschaux, and Laure Casenave made the album at Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France in 2019 and 2020. The sound is reverberant and the miking fairly close, producing a big, robust, yet not particularly detailed sound. The sound is, in fact, soft and soothing but doesns’t exactly glisten with transparency. The guitar is well centered, looms large, and tends to dominate the orchestra behind it. Overall, the sound comes across as something of a big clump rather than a collection of individual instruments meshing together. Still, I’m probably nitpicking. It’s big, warm, resonant sound and should please most listeners.


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

Mar 10, 2021

Recent Releases (CD Mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Christopher Tin: To Shiver the Sky. Danielle de Niese, soprano; Pene Pati, tenor; ModernMedieval; Royal Opera Chorus; Pembroke College Girls’ Choir; The Assembly; Anna Lapwood, Organ; Christopher Tin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Gold B0032422-02.

The foreword to the liner notes proclaims that “This is the story of flight: of humanity’s quest to break the bonds of earth, challenge the heavens, and take our rightful place among the stars… This is the story of flight told through music, and through the words of 11 of history’s pioneers, pilots and engineers, scientists and storytellers, stargazers and mystics, men and women who freed us from the shackles of gravity, and stretched the limits of our imagination. It’s the greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” That is certainly an ambitious aim, and although I will freely admit to some skepticism, I will humbly admit that I was entertained and indeed won over by the music of the young American composer Christopher Tin (b. 1976), of whom I had never heard before checking this CD out of the library. With lyrics from historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Ovid, Copernicus, Yuri Gagarin, and others, sung in a variety of languages, with grand musical arrangements and powerful sonics, this truly is a release that will make a music-loving audiophile shiver in delight.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Gossec: Symphonie à 17 parties. François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902423.

I recently completed a modest survey of recordings of Beethoven’s venerable Symphony No. 5 in which I looked at both period instrument recordings (
7/5 of Beethoven Part 1) and those by modern orchestral forces (7/5 of Beethoven Part 2). Having spent so much time listening to that work, wonderful though it is, I was not really all that eager to audition yet another recording of it, but this new recording by Maestro Roth and his French period-instrument orchestra had two appealing things going for it. First, I had heard previous recordings they had made of music by Debussy and Ravel and had been quite impressed by both the performance and sound; second, I had never heard of the French composer François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) and was curious to hear his music. As it turned out upon auditioning this well-engineered Harmonia Mundi CD, my curiosity was richly rewarded. Although the Beethoven performance does not quite edge out the Savall for pride of place in my personal pantheon, this is a fine version that is well worth hearing, especially for those who have not yet heard the Fifth performed by other than a modern orchestra. But the real ear-opener was the Gossec, an energetic symphony that fully deserves to be heard alongside the mighty Beethoven work. What as pleasant surprise! Listening to the Gossec reminded me of when I finally sat down and listened seriously to the Beethoven Symphony No. 2, a work I had always neglected in favor of his other symphonies. My goodness, what had I been missing all those years?! Hearing the Gossec gave me a similar feeling–why had I never heard this music before?! This is an exciting, stimulating work, fully deserving to be heard alongside Beethoven, and I intend to seek out more music by this composer. I suspect that if you give this CD a listen, you may well want to do the same.

Borodin: Requiem. Ian Boughton, tenor; Stephanie Chase, violin; Margaret Field, soprano; Geoffrey Simon, Philharmonia Orchestra/BBC Symphony Chorus. Cala Signum SIGCD2094.

Longtime classical music fans might remember Australian-born conductor Geoffrey Simon (b. 1946) from those superb Debussy recordings he made with the Philharmonia for the Cala label back in the early ‘90s. Those recordings are what sprang to my mind when I saw this new release at the library; indeed, I was surprised to see that Simon was apparently back at it three decades later. It was not until I had already played (and thoroughly enjoyed) this CD a couple of times that I read the fine print to discover that although the copyright for this release was 2020, the recording was done in 1992. I then took a quick look on Amazon and found out that this program was originally released on Cala in 1993 as a Borodin collection, then reissued by Cala in 2006 with a new cover, this time highlighting the Requiem, and now it is being reissued once again as a Cala Signum release, with another new cover that once again highlights the Requiem.

If you were not aware that the Russian chemist and composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) wrote a requiem, you need not be embarrassed. This is not a requiem mass in the manner of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Verdi, et al. It is one movement that lasts only 5:26 as performed here. And oh, by the way, the original was a little piano piece by Borodin; the orchestration done by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. Why, then, is it the title of the album? Ahh, the mysteries of life and classical music marketing…

That said, it is an interesting enough little piece, and the rest of the program consists of more substantial fare that highlights the colorful, melodic music for which Borodin is famous. There are the Polovstian Dances and Suite from Prince Igor, an arrangement for violin and orchestra by fellow Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov of Borodin’s Nocturne from his String Quartet No. 2, his symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, and finally, his Petite Suite, which Borodin originally wrote for the piano but was later orchestrated by Glazunov. All in all, what we have here is more than 78 minutes of colorful, expressive, well-recorded music that offers a great overview and introduction to Borodin.    

Desplat: Airlines. Emmanuel Pahud, flute; Alexandre Desplat, Orchestre National de France. Warner Classics 0190295306878.

French film composer Alexandre Desplat (b. 1961) has won Academy awards for his scores for The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which are represented in arrangements of excerpts on this imposing new release from Warner Classics is which Desplat makes a case for considering film music as serious music, not just light music for entertainment. The program also includes his Pelléas et Mélisande, which the composer describes as a Symphony concertante inspired by Debussy and written to highlight the sound of the flute, played here by renowned French flautist Emmanuel Pahud (an article about Pahud’s golden flute appears in the March 2021 issue of Gramophone, which coincidentally enough arrived at my abode the same day as I first auditioned this CD). Yes, overall this CD sounds for the most part like movie music, but it is very fine movie music; indeed, it is very good music period, and well-recorded to boot. Some may find the sweetness of the music combined with the sweetness of the flute a bit too caloric, but hey, we all enjoy an occasional overindulgence, right? No, this is not the kind of music I would be likely to play over and over, but for those who enjoy cinematic sound, this is well worth an audition. (And if you have never seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, you definitely need to fill that gap in your cinematic experience…)     

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”). Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra. London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO-0118.

The Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”)
by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) comes across in many ways more like one big tone poem than it does a symphony, which is not surprising, given that its four movements are each given tone-poem-like titles and that the four movements are played without pause. To my mind, at least, as much as I admire Shostakovich, No. 11 is one of those pieces you just have to be in the mood for, and frankly, that mood does not strike me often. When it does, though, I want a performance that really brings the music to life, and this one by Jurowski and the LPO just does not do it for me. It just seems too polite, too matter-of-fact. When I am in the mood to hear this work, I would much rather listen to the rendition by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on DG, a performance and recording of significantly greater impact and power. YMMV. 

Bruckner: Mass in E minor; Motets. Henry Websdale and Donal McCann, organ; Sir Stephen Cleobury, The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields. King’s College Cambridge KG50035.

Bruckner is most well-known for his symphonies, but he also composed in other genres, such as masses and motets. This recording presents the second of his three masses plus several of his motets. Unfortunately, I was immediately put off by the sound of the voices, which to my ears at least just sounded young and shouty, just not right for this music. Thinking I was perhaps in some sort of churlish mood, I pulled out an older DG recording of the same E minor Mass as performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Symphony under the direction of Eugen Jochum and was immediately reassured that no, the problem was neither my mood nor my hearing, it was with the sound of the young English choir. That is a shame, because in every other respect – engineering, liner notes, etc. – this is truly a first-class release, but the sonority of the choir simply seems inadequate to communicate the deep beauty of this music. In the end, this is a disappointing release.    

Bach: Goldberg Variations. Parker Ramsay, harp. King’s College Cambridge KG50049.

From the same label comes a recording that is the very opposite of a disappointment. This performance the young American musician Parker Ramsay of Bach’s immortal Goldberg Variations is utterly delightful, first-class in every respect. But what makes it truly revelatory is that Ramsay has not recorded them on piano, nor on harpsichord, but instead he has recorded a transcription he made for harp, and rather than sounding like some sort of novelty, it sounds perfectly natural, musical, and glorious. In the liner notes, Ramsay asserts that he “wanted to show the world that the harp is not a toy for composers to whip out in precious moments in orchestral music, but a serious instrument whose variety of timbre can hold the attention span of a listener for an hour or more.” For a spellbinding 78 minutes and 45 seconds, this recording proves his point. If you are a fan of the Goldbergs, you really ought to put this recording on your must-hear list. It will give you a whole new perspective on the musical possibilities of the harp as well as a deeper appreciation for the genius of Bach.    

#Goldberg Reflections: Niklas Liepe, violin; Jamie Phillips, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Sony Music 19439778302.

From Sony comes another fascinating perspective on the possibilities inherent in the Goldbergs, not from a single instrument this time, but rather from an ensemble. Or, more precisely, ensembles, not only of performers but also of composers. On this ambitious two-CD album, violinist Niklas Liepe has masterminded a musical collection consisting of arrangements of movements from the Goldbergs interspersed with brief compositions by contemporary composers that are reactions to, reflections upon, takeoffs from, or otherwise inspired by Bach’s iconic composition. The musicians include Niklas Liepe, violin; Nils Liepe, harpsichord and piano; Anna Lewis, solo viola; Nikolai Schneider, cello; Friedrich Heinrich Kern, vibraphone; and conductor Jamie Phillips leading the NDR Radiophilharmonie. The composers include Rolf Rudin (b. 1961, Germany), Sidney Corbett (b. 1960, USA), Andreas Tarkmann (b. 1956, Germany), Dominik Dieterle (b. 1989, Germany), Wolf Kerschek (b. 1969, Germany), Moritz Eggert (b. 1965, Germany), Daniel Sundy (b. 1979, USA), Tobias Rokahr (b. 1972, Germany), Friedrich Heinrich Kern (b. 1980, Germany), Stephan Koncz (b. 1984, Austria), and Konstantia Gourzi (b. 1962, Greece). This might sound like a huge hodgepodge, but it all blends together into an entertaining whole that stays true to Bach while expanding the conception of the variations. Yes, it expands from Bach, but is firmly rooted in Bach, and never strays from style or sonority that sounds estranged from the sound-world of the Goldbergs. The end result is spellbinding, one that should appeal to just about anyone who loves the music of Bach, and even to those who have not yet discovered the music of the great master. I simply cannot recommend this too highly; it is one heck of a hoot!

LCO Live - Vaughan Williams | Suk | Dvorak. Christopher Warren-Green, London Chamber Orchestra. Signum Classics SIGCD638.

Sometimes you just need to be reminded how lovely certain music can be. Auditioning this CD, which I had added with some reluctance to the stack of new releases I had found at the library, did just that for me. What a revealing reminder of what I had been missing from music I had long neglected! Not so much the opening piece, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, for I play a lot of RVW’s music and the Tallis Fantasia is often included on various RVW releases, but even in this case, the beauty of this performance by the London Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Warren-Green quickly brought a smile to my face. It was the Serenades by Suk and his teacher Dvorak that really made my day, for I had truly forgotten just how beautiful, how moving, how rewarding these works are. With more that 70 minutes of lovingly performed, warmly recorded music for strings, this is truly a recording to both stir and soothe the soul, delivering whatever your soul might need during these difficult days.


Mar 7, 2021

Rott: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (CD review)

Symphony No. 1; Symphony for Strings; Symphonic Movement. Christopher Ward, Gurzenich Orchester Koln. Capriccio C5414.

By John J. Puccio

I can’t help thinking when I hear the name of Austrian composer Hans Rott ((1858-1884) of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. In the movie, Cary Grant plays a business executive named Roger Thornhill. When the heroine sees his initials as “ROT,” she asks him what the “O” stands. “Nothing,” he replies.

It reminds me that there have been quite a few composers over the years whose names once meant something but have now faded into obscurity, into nothingness. Such was the fate of Hans Rott. He was a contemporary of and fellow student with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Conservatory (they even roomed together for a short time). As a composer, Rott wrote only a few pieces of music, then went mad and died young. After writing his Symphony No. 1 in 1880 Rott tried pressing it on Brahms and Bruckner, but had no success. Brahms even became annoyed with Rott’s pushiness (and possibly with some of the symphony’s content, which he thought mimicked his own work), telling him he had no talent whatsoever. As a result of these and other obstacles in his life, Rott became depressed, delusional, hostile, and dangerous. The state locked him up in a mental institution while he was in his early twenties, and he died there several years later, both the man and his music now largely forgotten.

None of this would be of any concern to us today if nobody had rediscovered his First Symphony and re-evaluated it. It seems scholars have taken notice of the fact that it bears striking resemblances to the work of Brahms, Bruckner, Schumann, Wagner, and Mahler. The trouble with the Mahler connection, though, is that Rott wrote his symphony in 1880, predating Mahler’s First Symphony by some half a dozen years. If anything, Rott may have influenced Mahler, who knew Rott and openly appreciated his work.

Be that as it may, modern listeners will draw their own conclusions about Rott after listening to his music. The Symphony No. 1 does remind me a bit of Schumann in the opening, Wagner in some of bigger, grander passages, Brahms in the Finale, and maybe a little of Mahler as things go along. When you listen to the third-movement Scherzo, you would, indeed, swear it could have been Mahler, the similarities seeming much too obvious to be mere coincidence. Clearly, one of the two men influenced the other, but it may take a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot to figure out who mostly influenced whom.

Whatever the case, the Symphony No. 1 is filled with intriguing, atmospheric, and pleasurable (if not all that memorable) passages, interesting in spite their similarities to the work of the aforementioned composers. In the end, for me the symphony sounds too much like a pastiche, and not the very best at that. Yet I did like that bizarre Scherzo and the overall Romanticism of the piece.

Maestro Christopher Ward and the Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne give the symphony their best, perhaps even drawing out comparisons with other composers more than most. The symphony begins quietly, much like Mahler’s First, though with both a Wagnerian and Schumann-like flavor. Then, by the time the first movement gets moving, we hear a touch of Brahms. The slow second movement Adagio seems more appealing at its outset than it does in its development. Maestro Ward lends it a lyrical touch throughout, yet it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Fortunately, we are rescued by the Scherzo, a jolly affair that must have impressed Mahler, since Mahler used the idea in several of his own quirky, ironic, sardonic movements. Ward does a good job realizing the humor and idiosyncrasies of the piece. Then the symphony culminates in a lengthy grand finale with which Ward takes his time; maybe too much so because it appears to go on forever with a good deal of pomp and presumption. Anyway, the Symphony No. 1 turned out to be Rott’s first and only symphony, so we can just wonder what he might have produced had he lived.

Accompanying the symphony is a much-earlier work, the incomplete Symphony for String Orchestra (1874-75). This is a more conventional piece and harks back to an earlier Romantic style, early Beethoven or late Mozart perhaps. It exhibits a youthful enthusiasm in its opening movement; a kind of Mendelssohn or Schubert melancholy in its central Largo; and a joyful fervor in its third and final movement Scherzo. Among Rott’s notes, scholars have found sketches for a finale but nothing complete enough to reconstruct.

The last item on the program is the world première of a Symphonic Movement by Rott, a first-draft of the first movement of his Symphony No. 1. While I’m not sure the final version was an improvement, Maestro Ward does his best to provide it a proper gravitas. By this time, you may be getting used to the music and rather enjoying it. It’s worth a listen.

More good news: The folks at Capriccio have provided the disc with some beautiful artwork on the cover of the insert booklet, the back of the booklet, and the inside of the keep case. What’s more, they provide a handsome slipcover for the case, if you have a use for such things.

Producer Johannes Kernmayer and engineer Sebastian Nattkemper recorded the music at Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne, Germany in January 2020. Absolute transparency is not the album’s strong suite, but naturalness is. At first it sounds fairly ordinary, and then you realize it sounds pretty much as a real orchestra would sound in a concert hall from a moderate distance. The stereo spread is also realistic, with a decent amount of orchestral depth. Dynamic range, impact, and frequency extremes are adequate, too. Balance is a tad sharp in the upper midrange, though. Like the music, the sound is not a show-stopper but pleasant in the moment.


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

Mar 3, 2021

Recent English Symphonic Releases (CD/SACD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Perhaps it can all be traced back to the British Invasion back in the 60s, the Beatles and Stones and all that, but in any event, my wife and I have pretty much become dyed-in-the-wool Anglophiles over the years. William Wordsworth, John Mayall, Ian Fleming, Monty Python, Eric Clapton, Fawlty Towers, John Le Carré, All Creatures Great and Small. Agatha Christie, Black Adder, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Keeping Up Appearances, John McLaughlin, The Good Neighbors, J.R.R. Tolkien, Are You Being Served?, Jeff Beck, Endeavour, Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Miss Marple, Malcolm Arnold, Dr. Who, D.C.I. Banks, Sherlock, J.K. Rowling, Boaty McBoatface, Planet Earth, Top Gear, Mum, Hold the Sunset, All Creatures Great and Small (redux), The Great British Baking Show… And then there is As Time Goes By, which our local PBS station aired for years and years every weeknight at 11, over and over and over again. In October, 2020, the inevitable finally happened; they announced that after many, many years, they were no longer going to be showing it. Tears and tribulation in the Nehring household! By Christmas, we had purchased the complete DVD set, and are blessedly back to watching an episode every weeknight at 11, which we plan to keep doing for the rest of our married life. (Our oldest daughter, now 40, recently remarked that she felt as though Dame Judy Dench was her dear British auntie).

As far as classical music, I am also something of an Anglophile, which I can trace back to the time in the mid 70s when I checked out a library copy of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of Symphony No. 3 (“Pastoral”) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, partly because the composer had the same first name as my late father. I was immediately transfixed by the sheer beauty and allusive atmosphere of the music, and soon sought out more recordings by RVW and other composers from across the pond. I discovered a vast universe of richly rewarding music and have acquired many wonderful recordings by English composers as well as their British brother and sister composers over the years. Allow me to present then for your edification three recent releases of English symphonic music that nobly represent the depth and diversity of this music.

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Scenes Adapted from Bunyans’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Emily Portman, folk voice; Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano; Marcus Farnsworth, baritone; BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet; Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Hyperion CDA68325. 

Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed nine symphonies, all of which are excellent. Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 are, to my humble mind at least, masterpieces that belong in every serious classical music collection.  Of those fab four, Symphony No. 5 is foremost. There are many fine recordings available, with my personal favorites being two older versions led by Previn (RCA and Telarc), a more recent version led by Michael Collins on BIS, which is paired with a fine concerto by Finzi, and the CD I am most likely to pop into my player because of its amazing program, featuring James Spano leading the Atlanta forces, also on Telarc.

This new Hyperion release need not hang its head in such company, as it is a fine performance captured in first-rate sound quality. Overall, Brabbins’s interpretation seems a bit on the subdued side, a little slow, a little soft, but that is not really a mark against it. Under his baton, the music flows smoothly and holds together as an organic whole, the movements seeming to fit together perfectly. Spellbinding!

Another appealing feature of this release is the inclusion of scenes adapted from RVW’s music for John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (which was actually the first RVW music I ever heard, having attended a live performance in 1969 about which I now recall virtually nothing, alas). This is music not often heard, of which there is enough here to be enjoyed on its own or to serve as an appetizer for the complete work (I can vouch for the Hickox version on Chandos). Overall, this new release from Hyperion is a fine addition to the catalog of RVW recordings and is well worth an audition, especially for those who are unfamiliar with Pilgrim’s Progress.

English Music for Strings: Britten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Bridge, Lament; Berkeley, Serenade for Strings; Bliss, Music for Strings. John Wilson, Sinfonia of London. Chandos CHSA 5264. 

There are a number of recordings of English string music available on the market, with many English composers having composed music in this genre and many conductors having taken a crack at recording their favorite pieces. Some of those recordings have attained near-legendary status, foremost among them the recordings by the late Sir John Barbirolli on EMI. This new Chandos recording from conductor John Wilson and his hand-picked recording orchestra (string orchestra, in this case) is a 21st-century candidate for entry into the English String Music Hall of Fame, being outstanding in both performance and engineering.

The first few bars of the opening of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge immediately establish the commitment and power that the musicians and engineering team bring to these performances. First you hear the energetic PLUCKS, then you can virtually see the players DIG IN with their bows as Wilson gets things off to a bang-up start. If you have ever seen a string orchestra perform in concert, you are no doubt familiar with how the players really can become animated as they play, wielding their bows with both passion and precision. This recording lets you see that in your mind’s eye as they work their way through music by the four Bs of English music: Britten (1913-1976), Bridge (1879-1941), Berkeley (1903-1989), and Bliss (1891-1975). As a bonus, not only are the musicianship and engineering superb, but the liner notes offer helpful context and commentary on the composers and their compositions. This is a highly recommendable release in every respect, not just for those who enjoy string music, although especially for them. You know who you are.

Matthew Taylor: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5; Romanza for Strings. Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Nimbus Alliance NI 6406.

As I have written before, it is really exciting to discover a composer whose music just sounds so extraordinarily right to you that you immediately want to hear more. Such is the case with Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) and the three remarkable compositions on this supremely satisfying new Nimbus CD. American conductor Kenneth Woods leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the Symphony No. 4 and Romanza for Strings, while in Symphony No. 5 he leads the orchestra of which he is Music Director, the English Symphony Orchestra. All three compositions make a strong impression, each in a different way.

Symphony No. 4 is a one-movement work that features three distinct sections. Taylor writes in the liner notes that “the work was written in memory of my old friend and fellow symphonist John McCabe, and is dedicated to John’s widow Monica. John and I shared many musical enthusiasms, Haydn and Nielsen in particular and both of these composers made an impact on this work: there is an attempt to create a Nielsenesque sweep at the start of the first movement and the finale includes a few pranks which Haydn might have enjoyed. However, there is little that is consciously elegiac in character as I have always felt that the best way to pay tribute is to adopt an approach that is essentially celebratory in spirit. In fact No. 4 is arguably my most friendly symphony so far.” What I find especially attractive about this work is the way Taylor is able to use so many elements of the orchestra to provide color and contrast. In this respect, he reminds me of Mahler, although his music is far different. The orchestra is large, and the music starts with plenty of energy featuring some pounding tympani. Overall, though, the music is not typically loud and overwhelming; rather, it is often intimate and beguiling, especially in its central adagio, with some especially beautiful playing by the strings and winds, augmented at times by brass, before the symphony ends with a finale that is playful and optimistic.

By contrast, Taylor’s Symphony No. 5 is more serious in tone. Taylor writes of this symphony that “exposure to the Beethoven’s Fifth at the age of about five was undoubtedly one of the defining moments in my life. Though unable to play any musical instrument at that age or grasp what an orchestra was, I was instantly knocked sideways by the power and expressive force of this music. Now, almost fifty years later, even if Schumann remains probably my favorite composer, the life force of Beethoven’s music is a massive influence when writing large scale instrumental works.”  It is in the traditional four-movement structure, with the central two movements each dedicated by the composer to departed friends and the final movement to Taylor’s mother (who died as he was working on the final pages of the symphony), which helps to explain the more serious tone. Still, for the most part, this is not a somber symphony, at least not until the very end. The first movement has plenty of rhythmic energy and drive with once again (as in Symphony No 4.) there are moments where Taylor deftly employs small forces to draw us in to his musical world. The second movement has an aura of mystery, while the third employs strings and solo flute to create a wistful but slightly uneasy atmosphere. The finale, marked Adagio, is the longest movement and the most intense. The ending is particularly affecting, forlornly fading into nothingness.

Sandwiched between the two symphonies is the 7-minute Romanza for Strings, an orchestration of a movement from one of Taylor’s string quartets. It is a pleasant piece that provides a peaceful interlude before the serious business of the Symphony No. 5.  

The sound quality throughout is very good, with excellent frequency balance and reasonable imaging. The liner notes are interesting in that they feature remarks by a fellow composer, the conductor, the composer himself, as well as remarks about the conductor, composer, both orchestras, and even the artist whose painting graces the cover. Well done, Nimbus!

Bonus Recommendation:

Leaving the realm of orchestral music but lingering longingly in the music of England, allow me to point out a wonderful Chandos recording (CHAN 20156) featuring violinist Jennifer Pike and pianist Martin Roscoe performing sonatas by Elgar and Vaughan Williams along with the seldom-heard original violin and piano version of that incredibly lovely composition by Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending. Both these composers are more well-known for their large-scale works but both were capable of expressing themselves in a chamber music setting, as this CD amply demonstrates. This is music that goes straight to the heart while soothing the mind and healing the spirit.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa