May 30, 2021

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Also, Creatures of Prometheus, complete ballet. Gottfried von der Goltz, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902446.47.

By John J. Puccio

Every once in a while I see a resurgence of interest in particular classical selections. Last month it was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez; this month it’s Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Good things never die, I suppose. So, following on the heels of Teodor Currentzis’s Beethoven Seventh with the period-instrument band MusicAeterna comes another period-instrument affair, this one with violinist-conductor Gottfried von der Goltz conducting the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

But wait. There’s more good news. Not only does Von der Goltz play the Seventh Symphony, he includes a second disc with The Creatures of Prometheus. No, not just the familiar overture but the entire ballet. And here I have to admit that beyond the overture, I don’t think I had ever heard the complete ballet before. The set becomes a double pleasure, or a triple pleasure if you also take into account the excellent interpretation of the symphony and a quadruple pleasure if you appreciate the excellent Harmonia Mundi sound. Yeah, it’s a treat.

Still, I hear you say, I’ve already got a period-instruments recording of the Seventh. Sure, and so do I. About four or five of them. Still, consider some of the alternatives I’ve heard: Roger Norrington’s reading is rather rigid; Nicholas McGegan’s is delightful but is done no favors by a live recording; Christopher Hogwood’s turn is excellent but like McGegan is let down by somewhat indifferent sound; John Eliot Gardiner’s account is also good but not quite a first-choice consideration; the aforementioned Currentzis is simply too ordinary as well as too inconsistent; and I recall an old recording by the Collegium Aureum that I didn’t much like and haven’t heard in years. By comparison, then, Von der Goltz wins on all counts.

Anyway, Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 in 1811-12, with the composer himself conducting the première. He later remarked that it was one of his best works, and it’s easy to see why it has remained among Beethoven’s most popular symphonies to this day. One of its many fans, composer Richard Wagner, noted the work’s lively rhythms and called it the "apotheosis of the dance." In other words, a perfect example of dance music.

The symphony opens with a Poco Sostenuto (somewhat sustained), which leads to a full-fleged Vivace (lively and fast). Van der Goltz moderates the intensity of this movement pretty well, keeping the pulse moving forward at a healthy pace while seeing to take care with the slower segments that they don’t get lost in all the high-spirited ruckus. As far as following Beethoven’s own zippy tempo marks, if a comparison to Roger Norrington’s account with the London Classical Players, where Norrington adheres almost slavishly to Beethoven’s markings, Van der Goltz is a little slower, more relaxed, and eminently more listenable.

The second movement is an Allegretto (a moderately fast, intermediate tempo between an Andante and an Allegro). It sounds and functions like a funeral march similar to the one in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, but this time it’s more freely flowing, more rhythmic. Here, Van der Goltz measures things at a headier clip than expected, and it strides forth with grace and authority. There is nothing ponderous or heavy about the movement.

Beethoven marks the third movement scherzo Presto-Presto meno assai (fast, then less). The central trio is an Austrian “pilgrims hymn” repeated twice. The interpretation takes on even added life with Van der Goltz in full command, the music bouncing along full throttle delightfully. Perhaps he misses some of McGegan’s high spirits in the recording by the Philharmonia Baroque, but it’s close, and in better sound I tend to favor Von der Goltz.

The symphony concludes with an impassioned flourish, an Allegro con brio (a fast, spirited, animated tempo). Musical analysts over the years have described it as a fiery bacchanal, the dance rhythms more and more a revel, an unrestrained merrymaking. Now Maestro Van der Goltz really cuts loose and produces a veritable storm of dance-like pulsations, with the momentum unyielding. It concludes a  performance second to none and better than most.

Disc two contains Beethoven’s one and only ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, written and premiered by Beethoven in 1801. It contains two acts, an introduction, fifteen numbers, and a finale. Beethoven based his story on the mythical parable of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus in order to create Mankind from clay. Since the characteristics of dance music is so obviously on display in the Seventh Symphony, it makes sense to pair it with actual dance music, and the two works complement one another nicely. What’s more, Van der Goltz seems even freer here than in the symphony, and the ballet appears as lithe and nimble yet as dramatic and powerful as I suspect Beethoven intended.

Producer Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann recorded the music at the Konzerthaus Freiburg, Germany in February 2020. The sound is clear, clean, and dynamic. With definition this good, it’s a pleasure to listen to the original instruments. There is also a moderate degree of orchestral depth, space, and resonance to add to the realism of the presentation, so if you enjoy period instruments you really can’t go wrong.


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

May 26, 2021

Recent Releases, No. 8 (CD Mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehriing

Concertos for Mallet Instruments. Alexis Alrich: Marimba Concerto; Karl Jenkins: La Folia; Ned Rorem: Mallet Concerto. Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Jean Thorel, City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. NAXOS 8.574218.

Although this recording was only recently released, it was recorded back in 2013. I have no idea why it took so long to get released, but I am certainly glad that it did, for it is a delight. I would think that by now, most classical music lovers are familiar with the featured soloist. As the liner notes boldly assert, “Dame Evelyn Glennie is the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a career as a full-time solo percussionist. As an eclectic and innovative musician and composer, she is constantly redefining the goals and expectations of percussion.” Her influence can be seen here, as she gave the world premiere of the Alexis Aldrich (b. 1955) Marimba Concerto (as explained in a brief overview of the work by the composer herself), an energetic, extroverted work in three movements that is quite entertaining. She was the dedicatee of La Folia by Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), a more stately dance-rooted composition for  marimba and strings that builds in energy as it moves along. The final piece on the program, the Mallet Concerto by Ned Rorem (b. 1923), features Ms. Glennie on vibraphone and xylophone in addition to marimba. It is quite a colorful work with an ending movement titled “An Ending” that is aptly named for reasons beyond the obvious.

David Gompper: Cello Concerto; Double Bass Concerto; Moonburst. Timothy Gill, cello; Volkan Orhon, double bass; Emmanuel Siffert, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. NAXOS 8.559855.

Reading the booklet notes included in this release made me pause for a few moments to reflect on the truly international nature of today’s classical music landscape. American composer David Gompper (b. 1954) studied music in London, taught music in Nigeria, received his doctorate at the University of Michigan, taught for a year at the Moscow Conservatory as a Fulbright Scholar, and now serves as a professor at the University of Iowa, while Emmanuel Siffert is a Swiss conductor leading a British orchestra. The program includes three recent Gompper compositions, leading off with his two-movement Cello Concerto (2019), the first moment of which is intense - and nervous sounding, with some vigorous playing by Gill. The second movement is much different in mood, unsettled and skittish, seemingly directed more inward than the more extroverted first movement. Not a lyrical piece, but not without some appeal, at least for those with an interest in contemporary music. The concluding Double Bass Concerto (2018) is less successful, at least to these ears. Orhon is clearly a master of his instrument, but he seems to be fighting against chaos. Perhaps that was what Gompper intended, but it does not make for an appealing musical experience. The final piece on this CD, Moonburst (2018), is more successful, evoking as it does a sense of darkness and apprehension. At times, the sound seemed to more than a hint of an edge in the upper midrange; as it turned out, a quick check of the back cover credits revealed an engineering team whose names I did not recognize. I shall be wary should I encounter them again.  

Occurrence: Daniel Bjarnason: Violin Concerto; Veronique Vaka: Lendh; Haukur Tómasson: in Seventh Heaven; Puriòur Jónsdóttir: Flutter; Magnús Blöndal Jóhansson: Adagio. Sono Luminus DSL-92243. Pekka Kuusisto, violin; Mario Caroli, flute; Daniel Bjarnason, Iceland Symphony Orchestra. SONO Luminus DSL-92243.

This is not just a mini-review, it is a mixed review, for I believe that I would not stand alone in finding the five compositions on this release to be quite a mixed bag in terms of their appeal, even as I respectfully acknowledge that your musical tastes may – and most likely are – different from mine. As Sly & The Family Stone sang, “different strokes for different folks.” In any event, Occurrence is the third in a series of recordings on the SONO Luminus label by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra that have been dedicated to highlighting the work of contemporary Icelandic composers, the first two being Recurrence and Concurrence (no, I have no idea why Occurrence was not the first title in the series, and I hope I am not turning into too much of an old pedant).

Of the five compositions on the disc (actually, discs – the library version I am reviewing incudes not only a standard CD but also a Blu-ray surround sound audio disc), I find two quite appealing, one amazingly appealing, one difficult and thorny but not without some appeal, and one that I have tried several times to “get” but find utterly unappealing. Unfortunately, the three appealing compositions are the short ones on the disc, combining for less than half the total 70:42 playing time. Leading off the program is composer/conductor Daniel Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto (23:41), an intense, tightly wound piece that is not immediately appealing but after several listens I came to at least respect for its concentrated energy. Next is Veronique Vaka’s  Lendh (11:36), a tone poem of great energy, its bass notes evoking the elemental geological forces underlying the fantastic Icelandic landscape and giving your woofers some cardio. Haukur Tómasson’s in Seventh Heaven (7:13) evokes a different realm, the sounds seeming to play and shimmer, continually changing while holding our attention. Next comes Puriòur Jónsdóttir’s Flutter (20:49), a concerto for flute that try as I might, I never could come to embrace. I will say this much for it, it contains some truly interesting sounds. Perhaps others will like it better than I; it is surely an interesting composition.

The program concludes with Magnús Blöndal Jóhansson’s Adagio (7:19), which brings about a complete change of mood. It is reflective, elegiac, and emotionally resonant. As this is such an amazingly appealing piece, please allow me a few more sentences (thus stretching the concept of “mini-review” until it snaps, thus sayeth the pedant). According to the liner notes, Jóhansson (1925-2005) was one of the first modernists of Icelandic music, composing in 1950 the first Icelandic 12-tone work. “By the 1970s, Jóhansson’s career was in decline. After the death of his wife , he fought a long and demeaning battle with alcoholism and composed nothing between 1972 and 1980. He returned with the stunningly simple Adagio for strings, celeste, and percussion in 1980.” Stunningly simple, but also stunningly beautiful. The engineering (I will admit to getting a kick out of seeing that it was mixed and mastered using Legacy Audio speakers – see my brief bio below) is excellent, as are the liner notes. Recommended to those with a curiosity about or appreciation for contemporary music.

Reich: Music for Two or More Pianos; Eight Lines (for ensemble); Vermont Counterpoint (for flutes and tape); New York Counterpoint (for clarinets and tape); City Life (for ensemble). Jörg Schweinbenz, piano; Anne Parisot, Delphine Roche, flutes; Andrea Nagy, clarinets; Klaus Simon, piano, conductor, Holst-Sinfonietta. NAXOS 8.559682.

American composer Steve Reich (b. 1936) is classified as a “minimalist” composer. His best-known composition, Music for 18 Musicians, is probably the best-known of the minimalist genre, and if you have never heard it, I would strongly advise seeking it out. There are several recordings to choose from; from among them, I would suggest you start with the one on ECM, which was originally released as an LP (now available on CD and streaming formats) in 1978 and caused quite a ripple of excitement. This generously filled (73:24) new release from Naxos includes compositions from a wide swath of Reich’s career, from Music for Two or More Pianos from 1964 to City Life from 1995. All of the selections are clearly minimalist in that they employ simple chord structures, rhythmic patterns that revolve around a discernible driving pulse, and an abundance of energy. The earliest piece, for pianos, is the most abstract-sounding, but after something of a slow start, it picks up energy as it as it moves along. Reich’s compositions and these spirited performers project an undeniable feeling of life-affirming joy, a sense of sheer exuberance, and an expression of gratitude for the ability to create, perform, and enjoy the sounds of music and integrate them with the with the rhythms of life. This is a disc well worth an audition even if you have listened to a Philip Glass recording or two in the past and concluded that minimalism was not for you…

Respighi: Concerto all’antica; Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute. Davide Alogna, violin; Salvatore di Vittorio, Chamber Orchestra of New York. NAXOS 8.573901.

This recording incudes both the unfamiliar and the familiar. In fact, the Concerto all’antica, originally composed way back in 1908, receives here its world premiere recording; by way of contrast, except for the Roman trilogy (Pines, Fountains, and Festivals), the Ancient Airs and Dances are probably Respighi’s most oft-recorded compositions. According to the liner notes, “the concerto was first referred to as a “Concerto in an Ancient Style by an anonymous composer, revised and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, [and] was probably performed in its reduction for violin and piano. Of course, the anonymous composer was Respighi himself and he admitted later that he composed the concerto as a joke for German critics.” As it turns out, the score languished for many decades, finally being published as Concerto all’antica in 1990, and being performed here in its first printed critical edition published in 2019 by conductor Salvatore Di Vittorio. At just over a half-hour in duration, it is a substantial composition, one that falls easily upon the ears and is quite enjoyable. Also quite enjoyable – but fans of Respighi already know this – are the Ancient Airs and Dances, which are presented here in quite enjoyable performances, bringing the total timing on this disc to more than 80 minutes. No skimping here! Although when I want to hear the Dances I would more likely pull out either the venerable Dorati recording on Mercury Living Presence or the López Cobos on Telarc, the inclusion of the charming Concerto all’antica on this new NAXOS release makes it well worth recommending to dedicated Respighi fans. (See also John’s review:

Schnittke: Works for Violin and Piano. Includes Suite in the Old Style; Polka; Tango; Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1; Madrigal in memoriam Oleg Kagan; Congratulatory Rondo; Silent Night. Daniel Hope, violin; Alexey Botvinov, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 483 9234.

In his liner note essay, violinist Daniel Hope tells how he first encountered and fell in love with the music of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) back in 1989 when as a teenager he heard a fellow student play Schnittke’s Violin Sonata No. 1. As he recalls, “from the moment I heard it, I wanted more than anything to play this music. The violinist was playing from a hand-copied score, barely legible, and I remember approaching him after the concert and pleading with him to let me copy the parts. That evening began my ‘love affair’ with Alfred Schnittke’s music.” The now-mature Hope’s performance of the Sonata is the centerpiece of this collection, and it shows that his love has not dimmed over the years. From the lighter feeling of the various dance pieces to the searing intensity of the solo violin performance of the Madrigal in memoriam Oleg Kagan, Hope brings an expressive, communicative touch to this music that may well cause you to fall in love with it, too. Schnittke’s arrangement of Silent Night, which closes the program, is haunting, beautiful, and thought-provoking. Throughout the album, Hope is well supported by pianist Alexey Botvinov, who sadly enough becomes a forgotten figure in the otherwise splendid liner notes – no photo, no mention. If you enjoy violin music, this is a recording you really ought to audition, for it is a treasure. 

Weinberg: String Quartets, Vol. 1 Nos. 2, 5, and 6. Arcadia Quartet. Chandos CHAN 20158.

This will be more of a true mini-review, not at all as a reflection on the quality of the music; in fact, this Chandos release is so excellent that I want to cut right to the chase and point out just how excellent it is. Having favorably reviewed (here and here) some previous music by Weinberg (1919-1996) and having enjoyed other recordings of his music in the past, I looked forward to auditioning this new Chandos recording of some of his string quartets. For one thing, I knew that the Polish Weinberg and the Russian Shostakovich became close friends and shared musical ideas with one another, so as an ardent admirer of the l Shostakovich’s quartets I was especially eager to hear Weinberg’s. From the first few notes of Weinberg’s Quartet No. 2, I was sold. (I should point out that he wrote this before meeting Shostakovich; in fact, the liner notes speculate that he showed the music to the Shostakovich, who then used some of the ideas in his own Quartet No. 2). All three string quartets included in this release are impressive examples of the genre. They are on the serious side, at times brooding, but never mawkish or sentimental. When they sing, it is a serious song; when they reflect, it is deep reflection. Still, this is not forbidding music, nor standoffish music; rather, it is music that draws the listener in, both emotionally and intellectually. It is music that both encourages and rewards repeat listening. The sound quality is also warm and inviting, without edge up high or boom down low. Informative liner notes that include some engaging historical photos complete this highly recommendable package. I look forward to future volumes with eager anticipation.   

Bonus Recommendations:

The Musical Human: Michael Spitzer. Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-1-63557-624-5.

This is a big (400 pp.), ambitious book that might be a bit much for many classical music fans, but it offers a fascinating take on music and life that is well worth taking a look at. Spitzer divides the book into three parts; if nothing else, I would suggest that classical music lovers would do well to take a dive into Part One (Life), a manageable and focused 132 pages offering some keen insights into our current musical universe. On page 41, for example, we learn that “a preference for consonances gets locked in at age nine, while non-Western children develop a taste for (to our ears) irregular tunings and greater dissonance. A centrepiece of Western harmony is octave equivalence, as when children and adult men sing the same melody an octave apart (that is, singing eight notes up the scale brings you back to the same note, but an octave higher). Playing an octave slightly out of tune creates acoustic interference beats that sound hideous to Western ears, but quite palatable to people in Bali. In Bulgaria, it is common for choruses to sing in parallel minor seconds (a semitone apart): one culture’s noise is another culture’s spice.” In Part One, Spitzer goes on to discuss topics as the roles that music plays in our lives, the myth of the “musical genius,” the state of music education, the role of the conductor, and how music is akin to religion. And what of the rest of the book – Parts Two (History), with sections titled “Ice, Sand, Savannah and Forest,” “The Tuning of the West,” Superpowers,” and “Endgames,” and Three (Evolution), with sections titled “Animal,” Human,” “Machine,” and “Eleven Lessons on Music’s Nature?” I will leave you with this little teaser from near the end of Part One: “Music’s oceanic quality allies it with religion. Indeed a key strand of Parts 2 and 3 of this book is that music and religion sprang to life at the same time.” 

Finally, for another take on the universality of music, you might want to take a look at this recent article on the subject from Nautilus magazine.


May 23, 2021

Serebrier: Last Tango Before Sunrise (CD review)

Jose Serebrier, Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra; Nestor Torres, flute; Sara Cutler, harp; Nadia Shpachenko, piano; Ilia Melikhov, Gnessin Percussion Ensemble, Moscow; Gabriel Goni-Dondi, flute; Solene Le Van, soprano. Reference Recordings FR-743.

By John J. Puccio

Most classical music fans know Jose Serebrier as a world-class conductor, but not everyone may know that he is also a composer. The present disc hopes to rectify that situation by showcasing nine of his compositions, several of them world-premiere recordings.

For those readers who need a little more information, a booklet note helps out. Maestro Serebrier, “who is one of the most frequently recorded conductors, established himself as a significant composer since his teens, when Leopold Stokowski premiered the 17 year old’s First Symphony to replace the premiere of the Ives 4th Symphony. Serebrier was born in 1938 in Montevideo, Uruguay of Russian and Polish parents. At the age of nine he began to study violin, and at age eleven made his conducting debut. While in high school he organized and conducted the first youth orchestra in Uruguay, which toured and gave more than one hundred concerts over four years.” Serebrier would go on to write numerous other works, and critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in High Fidelity magazine that Serebrier was “the logical successor to the crown of Villa-Lobos, and the South American to watch.” For the 1968-70 seasons, George Szell named Serebrier the Cleveland Orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence. And so it has gone, with Serebrier winning awards and the adulation of fans worldwide for his music and music-making.

The first two items on the program are among the longest, starting with the Symphony for Percussion, written in 1961 and played by the Gnessin Percussion Ensemble, Moscow, directed by Ilia Melikhov. This one is fun, with drums and cymbals and such coming at us from all angles. Oddly, this is the first CD recording of the piece, its first recording having been done for LP. Whatever, it’s quite entertaining, and I doubt any future recordings will match it for performance or sound.

Next is Serebrier’s Piano Sonata, written in 1957 and premiered by Rudolf Serkin a year later. Here, it is played by pianist Nadia Shpachenko. Although it’s been performed numerous times around the world, this is its first recording. Its “Latin-sounding rhythms” are well served by Ms. Shpachenko, who plays it with a trenchant, clearheaded mind-set and a deft set of fingers.

The final seven selections are briefer than the first two. These include Danza (from the Flute Concerto with Tango); Tango in Blue; Candombe (a world premiere recording); Almost a Tango; Last Tango Before Sunrise; Samson and Buddah (another world premiere recording); and Colores Magicos (also a world-premiere recording). Of these, all of which I enjoyed, I liked Danza best of all. I’m no expert in tango music, but this one is playful, rhythmic, dynamic, and wholly captivating. Serebrier describes the title piece, Last Tango Before Sunrise, as intending “to stimulate the spirit of the tango, more for reflection than the dance floor.” The Colores Magicos (“Magic Colors”) is undoubtedly the most intriguing (and evocative) work on the program, as well as one of the longest at about thirteen minutes, so it’s appropriate that it closes the show.

The disc’s producers were Julio Bague and Mary Megan Peer of Peer-Southern Productions, Inc. and Marcia Gordon Martin of Reference Recordings. The various selections were recorded in 2019 and 2020 at various locations including Spain, Russia, New York, and California.

Given the diverse nature of the recording locations, the sound the engineers obtained is remarkably consistent. Of course, starting with the percussion piece helps, since the sound is sharply etched, spaciously dimensional, and markedly dynamic. The solo piano in the sonata is also cleanly rendered and should delight piano fans. All the items on the disc sound realistic, well balanced, lucid, and wide ranging, including the Malaga Philharmonic. Maybe Reference Recordings did not record this album directly, but be assured it lives up to some of the best things they’ve done.


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

May 19, 2021

Recent New Releases (CD mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Hilary Hahn: Paris
Chausson: Poème; Prokofiev: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1; Rautavaara: Deux Sérénades. Hilary Hahn, violin; Mikko Franck, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Deutsche Grammophon  483 9847.

This new release from the talented American violinist Hilary Hahn is a delight from start to finish. Although the album title and orchestra might lead you to assume a program featuring all French composers, that is not the case here, for in addition to the French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) we have also music by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016). Hahn reveals her deep affection for and kinship with the City of Light in an essay in which she explains that in addition to her many other connections with Paris, her violin was made in Paris way back in 1865 by a famed luthier whose shop has in the 21st century been replaced by a convenience store. On a brighter note, she also reveals that she had long desired to record the Prokofiev, one of her favorite and most-performed pieces, but was waiting for the right combination of time, place, orchestra, and conductor, which she realized in Paris with Franck and the OPRF in June of 2019. The end result is truly lovely, well worth the wait both for her and for us. Those who might associate Prokofiev with spiky, boisterous music would do well to listen to this performance of his Violin Concerto No. 1, which is lyrical, lively, and lovely. Hahn describes the Chausson Poème with which she opens the program as “raw, lush, heartbreakingly beautiful… it takes my breath away.” Although I have in the past owned recordings of this piece, and enjoyed them, I had not heard the piece in many years until I auditioned this new recording, and yes, I found it to be much as she described. It truly is a marvelous work, well worth seeking out if you have not yet encountered it. The background story behind the Deux Sérénades by Rautavaara that complete this release is told in the liner notes, a tale that I will not relate here but will rather leave for those who might be interested to seek out for themselves. The music is quite enjoyable, but in truth, does not quite sound complete, which a reading of the liner notes will explain. All in all, Paris is a heartfelt and satisfying release from some consummate musicians.

Parallels: Shellac Reworks by Christian Löffler
Wagner: Parsifal: Closing Scene (Arr. for Orchestra). Max von Schillings, Staatskapelle Berlin (1926-27); Smetana: The Moldau (excerpt). Erich Kleiber, Staatskapelle Berlin (1928); J.S. Bach: Dir, dir Jehova, will ich singen BWV 452. Karl Straube, Thomanerchor Leipzig; Helmut Walcha, organ (1927); J.S. Bach: Gavotte from English Suite No. 6, BWV 811. Alfred Grunfeld, piano (1911); Chopin: Nocturne No. 2 in E flat Major Op. 9 No. 2 (arr. De Sarasate). Charles Cerne, piano; Vasa Prihoda, violin (1929); Bizet: Nadir’s Aria from Les pecheurs des perles. Koloman von Pataky, tenor; unknown orchestra (1928); excerpts from four works by Beethoven: Symphony No. 6. Hans Pfitzner, Staatskapelle Berlin (1930); Symphony No. 5, 2. Satz. Richard Strauss, Staatskapelle Berlin (1928); Egmont Overture. Otto Klemperer, Staatskapelle Berlin (1927); Symphony No. 3, 2. Marcia funebre. Hans Pfitzner, Berliner Philharmoniker (1929). Christian Löffler, electronics. Deutsche Grammophon 4839660.

This is a recording that truly blends the old and the new. Deutsche Grammophon has one of the oldest sound archives in the world, having taken great care to store their recorded material ever since the label’s foundation in 1898. Shellac discs (78s) that held about four minutes of music per side were the dominant recording format until the 1940s. A number of these historic recordings have now been digitized and restored, and DG recently teamed with German DJ and producer Christian Löffler, who hand-picked from this collection of digitized shellac recordings a set for modern reworking. Löffler is a self-taught musician whose productions combine elements of dancefloor techno and ambient electronica. He says that his music “is often described as nostalgic, it’s just part of my musical world. Sad music – if you want to call it that – has always been more appealing to me than happy music… I’m quite nerdy when it comes to trendy music production techniques. I’m very forward thinking and always interested in new technologies. But many of my trademark sounds come from vintage synthesizers and old effects devices. I’m just trying to catch the best of any time period to get the best possible result. My aspiration with this project was to handle the music with all due respect. That is something I always do when I work with other people’s music, be it a remix or collaboration. My aim for Parallels was to bring the soul of my own music into these original pieces. I also wanted to keep some parts of the original music almost untouched, to give the listener a better understanding of the original material in the context of its new ‘home’.” Yes, his description sounds a bit bizarre, but the end result is fascinating, hypnotic, and haunting. Electronic sounds, acoustic sounds, voices from nearly a century ago rising from the mix -- this is a recording that can be enjoyed both in casual and concentrated listening modes.

Alexander Woods, violin; Rex Woods, piano; Aubrey Smith Woods, violin. MSR Classics MS 1689.

As you might guess from the names of the performers, this album of music for violin is a family affair, presented by violinist Alexander Woods along with his pianist father, Rex Woods, and his violinist wife, Aubrey Smith Woods. (Perhaps I am being overly sensitive, but I did find it rather odd that on both the front and back covers the three names are printed in three distinctly rank-ordered font styles: ALEXANDER WOODS, REX WOODS, Aubrey Smith Woods. Hmmmm…)  The four composers are a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar: Dvorak, Asplund, Mozart, and Thorndock. As the liner notes explain, “although the violin itself has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, music composed for the instrument has undergone numerous and vivid transformations, shaped and developed by varied circumstances, styles and innovations. Like a light beam passing through a prism. Works written for the violin have, over time, refracted into a broad stylistic array of vibrant compositional perspectives. This album mingles canonic violin works from the past with recent compositions that explore this variegated play, engaging with the rich history of violin music and performance through myriad lenses.” The album opens with Four Romantic Pieces from Dvorak for violin and piano, which are played here most romantically and enjoyably, a fine way to start the program. Unfortunately, the next composition, One Eternal Round for two violins by Canadian-American composer Christian Asplund (b. 1964), does not fall nearly as naturally on the ear as the others included in this set. Although it is not aggressively harsh or dissonant as some contemporary music can be, to these ears at least, it simply lacked any real appeal. YMMV. But then the players move back to familiar ground with Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 26, a refreshing drink of cool, clear water after the dryness of the Asplund. The final composition, A Crust of Azure by American composer Neil Thorndock (b. 1977), is said in the liner notes to be “influenced by the impression of music coming down from the sky, ringing like reverberations from a bell tower. The evocative movement titles [I. Tremulous Whirl, II. Refraction of Sky, III. Lavender Shroud] allude to the atmospheric colors, light effects and sensations that descend from the sky’s ‘crust of azure.’”  It truly is a colorful piece, lively and imaginative, well worth an audition for fans of the violin who are seeking interesting new repertoire. With excellent engineering and helpful liner notes, MSR Classics has done a first-class job with this release.    

Max Richter: Voices 2
Max Richter, piano, keyboards, organ, synthesizer; Mari Samuelsson, solo violin; Ian Burdge, solo cello; Camilla Pay, harp; Robert Ziegler, conductor; Tenebrae Choir; various sopranos and altos plus a number of violin, viola, cello, and double bass players. Decca B00332480-02.

Richter’s previous release, Voices (reviewed ) spotlighted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including spoken recitations of the text, Voices 2 is exclusively musical, with no textual recitations. According to Richter, Voices 2 “opens up a meditative instrumental musical space to consider the ideas raised by the first record. The music is less about the world we know already and more about the hope for the future we have yet to write.” Those familiar with Richter’s music will know what to expect: music that is on the one hand relatively simple and straightforward in terms of its melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic construction, yet on the other hand, rich and evocative in terms of its instrumentation, sonority, and emotional resonance. There are some striking sounds to be heard from Richter’s various keyboard instruments both acoustic and electronic, plus some particularly notable musical contributions by Mari Samuelsson on violin and Ian Burdge on cello. And no, you need not have listened to Voices to enjoy its successor, which is quite enjoyable on its own terms. 

Lento Religioso
Berg: Piano Sonata op. 1 (arr. Wijnand van Klaveren); Korngold: Lento Religioso from Symphonic Serenade; Bruckner; Adagio from String Quintet; Bridge: Lament for string orchestra (for Catherine, aged 9, “Lusitania” 1915); Lekeu: Adagio pour quatuor d’orchestre; Wagner: Prelude from Tristan und Isolde; Strauss; Prelude from Capriccio. Candida Thompson, Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Channel Classics CCS 36620.

As a glance at the titles of the works included in this generously filled (77:41) disc should suggest, this release features music from the more serious, somber pages of the classical music catalog. That is not to say, however, that listening to it is an emotional downer, as this is music of great depth and exquisite beauty, played with sensitivity by this relatively small string orchestra. Some of the selections are scaled down (e.g., the Wagner), some are scaled up (e.g., the Berg and the Bruckner), and some were originally intended for an ensemble of about this size. The engineering is first-rate, with clean string tone and a believable soundfield. All in all, an interesting program of some works a bit off the beaten path that should be especially appealing to those who appreciate music of a serious, reflective, but nonetheless aesthetically engaging nature.

Lindberg: The Waves of Wollongong
Also, Liverpool Lullabies; 2017. The New Trombone Collective; Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Christian Lindberg, trombone and conductor, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. BIS-2148 SACD.

If I had to come up with a one-word description of this release by the Swedish composer, trombonist, and conductor Christian Lindberg (b. 1958) it would be “robust.” Or maybe “outgoing.” Or possibly even “swaggering.” It most certainly would not be “reticent” or “tentative.” The opening piece, The Waves of Wollongong (the title refers to waves the composer had experienced in Wollongong, Australia) features the nine trombones (three each alto, tenor, and bass) of The New Trombone Collective making mighty waves of sound along with the orchestra, while the second piece, Liverpool Lullabies, seems hardly the sort of music to little ones to sleep as Lindberg on trombone and the amazing Ms. Glennie on percussion give off plenty of sparks with their energetic playing. The final piece, 2017, was composed by Lindberg during that turbulent, discouraging, frightening year as a reaction to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its disturbing aftermath, and is dedicated to the journalist Rachel Maddow. Needless to say, it is not a cheerful piece, but it is musically engaging. As per their usual standard, the BIS engineering team has captured this robust music in robust, dynamic, swaggering sound that will tickle your tweeters and waggle your woofers.

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6
Sir Antonio Pappano, London Symphony Orchestra. LSO Live SACD LSO0867.

Vaughan Williams may well be the most underrated symphonic composer. For my money, his nine rank right up there with the best, and when it comes to the heart of his symphonic output, Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6, I can’t think of any composer whose 4-6 I would rate above RVW’s – not Mahler, not Bruckner, not Sibelius, and no, not even the immortal Beethoven. Of those four RVW symphonies, the odd-numbered are primarily lyrical and peaceful, while the two even-numbered symphonies, especially No.4, are much more brash and assertive. Pappano and the LSO hold nothing back, with the opening notes of No. 4 bursting forth with startling ferocity. This bold beginning sets the tone for the entire disc, which presents both symphonies forcefully and energetically. My only quibble is with some harshness in the upper strings; to be honest, I am not sure how much is the engineering or how much can be attributed to the vigor of the performance. My first choice in both symphonies has been the Slatkin recordings from his RCA boxed set (now distributed by Sony Music at a bargain price), but for those looking for a single disc of these two remarkable 20th century masterpieces, this new release from Pappano and the LSO is a top choice. Highly recommended.


May 16, 2021

The Suite (CD review)

Music of Telemann, Bach, Elizondo, and Green. Orlando Cela, The Lowell Chamber Orchestra. Navona NV6324.

By John J. Puccio

“Suite: Music
a. An instrumental composition, especially of the 1600s or 1700s, consisting of a succession of dances in the same or related keys.
b. An instrumental composition consisting of a series of varying movements or pieces.” --American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Apparently, the folks at Navona Records want to let you know that the dance suite of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is still alive and well today, and on the current disc they include four composers of dance suites from the past and present. Maestro Orlando Cela conducts The Lowell Chamber Orchestra in suites by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Jose Elizondo (b. 1972), and Anthony R. Green (b. 1984).

In the event you are unfamiliar with Mr. Cela, he is both a flutist and conductor, premiering over 200 new works. He currently serves as the Music Director of the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra of the North Carolina Governor’s School. He has also guest conducted the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, the London Classical Soloists, the Marquette Symphony Orchestra, and others. He created the Ningbo Symphony Orchestra during his year as visiting professor at Ningbo University in China.

As for The Lowell Chamber Orchestra, they are the first and only professional orchestra in the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. Their Web site explains that they “provide the area with an ensemble that presents music at a very high level, of all styles and time periods, entirely free to the general population.”

Anyway, the selections on the disc are ordered chronologically, so things begin with the six-movement Overture Suite in E minor by Telemann. A booklet note tells us that Telemann composed some 138 known overture suites, and they are probably only a fraction of the number he actually wrote. So now you know why the album begins with Telemann. The Lowell Chamber Orchestra play all the pieces with a graceful affection, and Maestro Cela leads them with a deft and lively touch.

Next is probably the most-famous item on the program, the seven-movement Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor by Bach. As the Second Suite has the least orchestration of the four that Bach wrote, it suits the Lowell players well. They present a lean, trim account of the music, stylish without being stuffy. I was particularly struck by the Polonaise and Minuett, which sound splendidly regal, yet not overly sedate. They offer excellent poise and symmetry.

Then we come to the modern pieces, starting with Recuerdos Estivos (“Summer Memories”), a three-movement work by Elizondo. The nice thing here is that the pieces don’t sound entirely out of place with the rest of the program of early music. In fact, Elizondo’s suite is light, relaxed, and tuneful, a kind of throwback to more Romantic times. Well, I suppose the title should have told us that; we get suggestions of Frederick Delius here, maybe “Summer Night on the River,” although not quite so meandering. Then the work ends with a movement that sounds as if we were back with Telemann. While the whole thing may appear insubstantial, it’s altogether delightful, and the orchestra appears to be enjoying the playfulness of the music as much as the listener.

The disc ends with a three-movement work called The Green Double: a historical dance suite by Anthony R. Green. Here, the composer draws on black history and classical music to create his dances. Like Elizondo, Green makes no attempt to be “modern” in the sense of being experimental, atonal, or eccentric. There are no sounds involved for the sake of sound alone. Every note is calculated to create a mood, a feeling, a longing, a fear, or a consoling, Probably the best way to describe the piece is hopeful and comforting. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we came to the disc’s contemporary music, and I was happy with the creative, listenable diversity I found.

Executive Producer Bob Lord and Session Engineer John Weston recorded the album at Futura Productions in Roslindale, MA in 2019-2020. The sound is quite good, neither too bright nor too dull. The frequency spectrum is clear and well balanced, with good transparency, extended highs, and convincing lows. Moreover, dynamics are more than adequate for the type of music it is, and because of the relatively small size of the ensemble and the success of the engineering, we get a fine sense of depth and space among the players. All is well.


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

May 12, 2021

Stretching the Symphony (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

At least for me, the symphony is the pinnacle of orchestral music. Yes, there are wonderful tone poems, overtures, ballets, concertos, incidental music, and such, but by golly, the symphony is where it’s at. Although symphonies come in many shapes and sizes, most classical music fans tend to think of the typical symphony as having four movements: an opening movement set in sonata form; a brief, often lighthearted scherzo; a slow movement, more serious, reflective, perhaps even somber; and then a finale that ramps up the energy level and often builds to some sort of rousing finish. Throughout the piece, the listener feels as if she is being led along some more or less clearly defined tonal path, with perhaps some twist and turns but never a sense of being lost. The musical journey is comfortable, largely because it is so familiar. Four movements, clearly defined format, familiar sounds…

What we have here are two striking symphonies that stretch the usual form of the symphony, one by a very well-known composer and the other by a composer of whom many classical music fans have never heard. One is unusual in having five movements, the other is all in one movement. Both are large-scale, intense, emotionally demanding works that are the antithesis of hummable background music. Rest assured, however, that neither work employs extreme dissonance or other such sonic shenanigans to assault the senses. Yes, they are demanding works, but they both can be rewarding to the listener with the patience and ambition to give them a fair hearing.

Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (Performing version by Deryck Cooke). Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra. BIS-2396 SACD.

It must be said at the outset that even to call this a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 is in itself a bit of a stretch. Only the opening Adagio movement was actually completed by Mahler before his death in 1911, and several noted Mahler conductors such as Bernstein, Solti, Abravanel, and Haitink would perform only that movement, which, by the way, is a powerful musical statement fully capable making a powerful musical statement all by itself over its 20+ minutes. Since then, several composers have taken it upon themselves to “complete” the symphony, expanding upon the sketches that Mahler left behind. I have over the years listened to several of these versions and have come to two conclusions. First, more often than not, I am content to listen to the first movement Adagio on its own, the movement that was completed by Mahler himself and is left by and large largely untouched throughout the various performing editions of the work by various composers and conductors. Second, of the various versions out there, my preferred version is the one employed on this recording, that by the late Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke (1919-1976). As the liner notes point put, “Cooke repeatedly insisted that his meticulously produced edition (used for the present recording) was not a ‘completion’ of the symphony (something which only Mahler would ever have been able to accomplish), but rather a functional presentation of the materials as Mahler left them, rendered performable in the full knowledge that Mahler would likely have made many revisions to the score on the way to its ultimate completion.”

In the past, I have enjoyed some fine recordings of Cooke’s completion, including an older and now largely forgotten but nonetheless excellent version by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and more recently, Thomas Dausgaard with the Seattle Symphony. And now we have this fine new version by the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, whose previous BIS recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 was highly regarded in Classical Candor by both JJP and me. Like that previous recording, this new release is both splendidly played and splendidly recorded (I listened to the CD and two-channel SACD layers; there is also a 5.0 surround layer). Vänskä tends towards slower tempos and less exuberant peaks of volume in some of the big climaxes; the net result is an impression of great transparency, but at times, especially in the opening Adagio, I found myself missing the sense of urgency that conductors such as Chailly, Bernstein, and Dausgaard have elicited from the score. Nevertheless, for the work as a whole, this new BIS release is as fine a version as you will find on the market. It is probably the best recommendation possible for those listeners who are coming to this work for the first time, for it presents what is arguably the most responsible representation of Mahler’s unfinished score in an interpretation and performance that brings out every phrase without exaggeration or editorializing, all presented in state-of-the-art-sound by the BIS recording team.

Christopher Tyler Nickel: Symphony No. 2. Clyde Mitchell, Northwest Sinfonia. AVIE AV2456.

My guess would be that most readers of this blog are unfamiliar with the music of Canadian compost Christopher Tyler Nickel (b. 1978). I will readily confess that I had never heard of neither composer Nickel, conductor Mitchell, nor the Northwest Sinfonia before reading the press release for this recording. From the booklet included with the CD we learn that Nickel has composed not just for the concert hall, but also for film and television (who knows, we may well have previously heard some of his music without even realizing it…). Mitchell has conducted orchestras throughout the world and is a frequent guest conductor at orchestras throughout Canada as well as being an active promoter of music education. The Northwest Sinfonia is a recording orchestra, a kind of “all-star” ensemble (along the lines of the English Sinfonia, which has made some fine recordings of recently reviewed in Classical Candor here and here) that draws together musicians from the Seattle, Vancouver, Oregon, San Francisco, and other orchestras as circumstances permit to record in the St. Thomas Chapel at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. The engineers have done an excellent job of recording the orchestra in this venue, the resulting sound quality being full-range, recorded a bit closer than we have begun being accustomed to in this age of so many live concert recordings, which this is not.

Having now listened to the Nickel Symphony No. 2 numerous times and having come to enjoy and appreciate it more and more with each listening, I hope I can persuade at least some of our good readers to likewise make their acquaintance with these talented folks though this compelling recording of an intensely focused and powerful 53-minute work. A line on the back cover of the CD case sums up the symphony as “a “vast, deep, emotionally demanding work.” and I would have to say that I pretty much agree with that assessment. In many ways I find it reminiscent of some of the brooding movements of Shostakovich, such as the opening movements of his Symphonies Nos. 8 and 10. That is not so much to say that Nickel sounds musically like some kind of clone of the Russian master, but rather that this work brings the listener into that same kind of, yes, vast and deeply involving emotional soundworld. With a total time a mere one second shy of 53 minutes, that single movement is marked “Grave - Andante - Grave - Mysterioso - Fatalistically - Grave.  That might make it sound as though this is depressing music; however, that is not the case. Serious music, yes, but not depressing. There are motifs that recur throughout the work in various instrumental guises with varying levels of emphasis and emotional intensity. All sections of the orchestra get their chance to contribute, but the work sounds like an organic whole, all of one piece, rather than a parade of virtuoso exhibitions. Although it in a sense serves as a fine showcase for the orchestra, it in no sense sounds like a concerto for orchestra. In the end, listening to it is a rewarding experience, and although it is an intense experience, it can be an uplifting, energizing experience. A stretching experience, if you will.


May 9, 2021

Schumann: Symphonies No. 1 “Spring” & No. 2 (SACD review)

Lawrence Foster, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 326.

By John J. Puccio

During his relatively short lifetime, German composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856) managed to write four symphonies, one opera, and any number of piano works; and the symphonies didn’t come into being until late in the composer’s career. They became phenomenally successful and are now firmly entrenched in the basic classical repertoire. Maestro Lawrence Foster recorded all four of the symphonies during live performances in 2007-08 with the Czech Philharmonic, and we have them on two separate Pentatone SACD releases, the first one reviewed here.

Schumann wrote his Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 “Spring” in 1841, shortly after he married Clara Wieck, herself a noted pianist and composer; and Felix Mendelssohn conducted the première. How’s that for help? As to its content, Schumann wrote to conductor Wilhelm Taubert saying, “Could you breathe a little of the longing for spring into your orchestra as they play? That was what was most in my mind when I wrote the symphony.... I would like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air, and then, in the Allegro, to show how everything to do with spring is coming alive...”

It's hard to knock anything by Schumann, especially where the "Spring" Symphony is concerned, but I'll do it anyway. Schumann's First Symphony should be a jubilant, ebullient, zestfully intoxicating work that inspires in listeners the very best feelings of spring's new life and new hope. Indeed, under conductor Lawrence Foster and the Czech Philharmonic, it does at least some of this. The interpretation is relatively quick paced and reasonably quick witted, yet it loses some of its joy in Foster’s fairly unyielding direction. While everything is neatly in place, the ebb and flow of the music is somewhat stiff, lacking the graceful, fluid continuity we hear from conductors like Wolfgang Sawallisch and Rafael Kubelik. So, even though I found Foster's reading spirited and lively enough, I didn’t always find it too characterful.

Almost half a dozen years went by before Schumann would write his Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 in 1846. (In between time, he also completed the original version of what he would later publish as his Symphony No. 4.) Although Schumann was in poor health when he composed No. 2, the tone of the work is spiritually uplifting. Critics have praised the piece as sounding like a Beethovenian “triumph over fate/pessimism,” which is how Beethoven earlier had described himself.

The Symphony No. 2 begins with a measured introduction, giving way to a moderately paced Allegro that becomes more tumultuous as it proceeds. A Scherzo follows, brisk and playful, hinting something of the Baroque and possibly of Bach. Next is a slow and expressive Adagio, taking on the nature of an elegy. Then Schumann wraps things up with a very lively (“molto vivace”) Allegro that borrows something from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy.”

Maestro Foster seems to loosen up more in the Second Symphony, and the music flows more easily, more freely. Maybe Foster just took time to warm up. It’s also possible that because the music of No. 2 appears more mature, more serious than the tenor of No. 1, Foster found it more approachable, more consistent with his generally straightforward manner. Whatever, I enjoyed Foster’s handling of No. 2 more than I did his reading of No. 1.

Recording producer Job Maarse and recording engineer Matthijs Ruijter recorded the album live at the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague in October 2007. The disc is in hybrid SACD, meaning you can listen in two-channel or multichannel from an SACD player or in ordinary two-channel from any ordinary CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD from a Sony SACD player.

Pentatone first released the disc in 2008, and I suppose it has done well enough for them that they continue to offer it. For live sound, it’s pretty good, but it does have a bit too much hall reverberation for ultimate clarity. At least, it is mercifully free of audience noise and applause, which is remarkable given that the engineer did not mike it too closely. The perspective is from a modest distance, and the sound comes through refreshingly natural, if a tad soft for my liking. Dynamics are good, as we might expect from an SACD, but not exceedingly so, and frequency extremes are more than adequate.

For comparison purposes, I put on the aforementioned performance by Sawallisch and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI) as well as one by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (also on EMI), recordings made thirty and forty years earlier. Both of them sounded better to my ears than the Foster disc (with the older Klemperer recording sounding the best by far), and both of the older performances seemed more colorful than Foster’s in their delineation of the music’s varying moods. I know a lot of folks also rave about Karajan’s recordings on DG, and while I admit they are beautifully played, I have never been able to adjust to the sound of their over-pronounced high-end, which spoils my enjoyment of the music.

In the end, I'd say if you have to have these symphonies in modern, multichannel, digital surround sound, the Pentatone is going to be one of your better choices. However, if you're after the best performances, the two EMI sets I mentioned (Sawallisch and Klemperer) and others by Zinman (Arte Nova), Goodman (RCA, on period instruments), Kubelik (Sony), Muti (EMI), Gardiner (DG), and Dausgaard (BIS) are probably surer bets.


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

May 6, 2021

Visions of Childhood (CD review)

April Fredrick, soprano; Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6408.

By Karl W. Nehring

This is an unusual album in several ways, and a wonderful album in many ways. What is unusual about it? First, consider the program, which consists of two main items: A suite titled Visions of Childhood comprising music by Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, and Schubert; and the Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) of Richard Strauss. Another unusual twist is that the music is performed not by a full symphony orchestra, but in chamber arrangements for a reduced orchestra of no more than 16 players. Maestro Woods explains in his detailed and helpful liner notes that the idea for arrangements on this album stems from the Society for Private Musical Performances founded by composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1919, which for a period of three years made arrangements of new musical compositions so they could be heard by interested members of the musical public, “played in arrangements for small ensembles like the one you will hear on this recording.”

Woods goes on to observe that “for much of the 20th Century, the arrangements of the Society were largely forgotten. In an affluent age, there seemed to be little need for arrangements of Mahler symphonies and songs for 10-15 players. However, in the last twenty years or so, these arrangements have seen a resurgence, and have become recognised as being artistically interesting in their own right. From a listener’s point of view, they offer a more intimate view of the music, one that perhaps allows the creativity and artistry of the individual performances to shine through. In the age of Covid-19, these arrangements have taken on a new importance in our musical life.”

Visions of Childhood is prefaced with a brief 15 seconds of the opening measures of the Mahler Symphony No. 4 with its sleigh bells and violins, in an arrangement by Erwin Stein. We then immediately are ushered into a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which is, as Woods points out, Wagner’s only mature quality piece of purely instrumental music, originally scored for 13 solo players that first performed it on Christmas morning in 1870 as a surprise for Wagner’s wife, Cosima. As performed here, this is more than 18 minutes of utterly beautiful music, even in Woods’s somewhat stripped-down arrangement, for which he explains that “in order to bring this work into the same soundworld as the rest of the programme, I’ve had to sacrifice (the) trumpet part and the two beautiful horn parts, as well the second clarinet and bassoon, but have been able to add piano and harmonium. Where possible, I’ve kept the parts from Wagner’s original unchanged in the instruments which carried over, but no single part in my arrangement is exactly the same as in Wagner’s.”

Next up in the program are three shorter pieces, all in arrangements by Woods and highlighting the charmingly expressive voice of soprano April Fredrick. The first of the three, a couple of excerpts from Humperdinck’s children’s opera Hansel und Gretel, also serves to highlight how the music on this album is bound together, as Woods notes that Humperdinck’s opera is a “quasi-Wagnerian” setting of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale that was given its first production under the baton of Richard Strauss and its second production under Mahler’s direction. From the Humperdinck piece we are then taken to Schubert’s familiar melody Die Forelle (“The Trout”), of which Woods explains, “given the sonic possibilities of expanding the accompaniment from piano to miniature orchestra, I decided to be more interventionist in arranging and expanding Schubert’s song. I have combined the three verses of the song with several, but not all, of the variations of the Trout Quintet, choosing to alternate strophes of the song with variations from the quintet that I thought suited the mood of the lyrics.” The end result of Woods’s tinkering, Fredricks’s singing, and the musicians’ playing of these familiar melodies in this unexpected setting is bound to bring a joyful smile to the faces of many music lovers. Sheer delight! The third of the brief selections is Die irdische Leben (“The Earthly Life”) from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn, which as Woods explains, speaks of a world of terror and hunger, thus presenting quite a contrast to Mahler’s Das Himmlishche Leben (“The Heavenly Life’), the song that concludes Woods’s Visions suite.

But between these two arrangements of contrasting songs by Mahler, Woods again presents us with a combination of a song and variations of music by Schubert, Der Tod and Das Madchen (“Death and the Maiden”). Aficionados of chamber music are likely familiar with Schubert’s string quartet that bears that moniker. Woods gives us his arrangement of the slow movement of the quartet with his orchestration of the song added at the end, a song in which the young maiden pleads with Death to pass her by but Death responds by saying, “Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,/Softly shall you sleep in my arms!” And then we are privy to the ultimate vision of childhood, a child’s view of heaven in this excerpt from the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Fredricks’ voice seems perfectly suited for this music; indeed, I would love to hear Woods and Fredricks record the full symphony with full orchestra. But do not let that let comment cast any doubt on my admiration for what Woods, Frederick, and the assembled musicians have accomplished here, which is truly remarkable.

If the program ended there, this CD would be highly recommendable, but as they say on those TV commercials, “Wait, there’s more!

The program closes with a chamber arrangement by James Ledger of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The work is a specialty of soprano Fredrick, with the liner notes explaining that “the work’s exploration of the fragility of life took on new urgency and poignancy when Fredric contracted Covid-19 in late March, and so it was only right that this should be the work with which she returned to the performing arena with the ESO on the 26th of July for this filmed concert and recording.” As Fredrick herself explains, “the fatigue, which is one of the virus’s symptoms, was like nothing I’d experienced, giving a new dimension to the multiple uses in the cycle of the wonderful German adjective ‘müde’’ (‘tired, weary, worn out’). But I will also never forget the incredible, almost euphoric joy I felt the first time I walked out or my front door after my quarantine -- what an unthinkable privilege to be well and free to move about again. A stark encounter with mortality, weariness, euphoria, and ‘weiter, stille Friede (wide, still peace); the virus provided me with the most curious sort of gift of experience which has forever stamped and deepened my understanding of this work.” Hearing the cycle in this arrangement is a remarkable experience, especially when my previous exposure to the work has been through the huge sound of the late Jessye Norman accompanied by Kurt Masur with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. That is a recording I treasure for its sheer sumptuousness, but this version with Fredrick, Woods, and the small band of ESO players is equally striking for presenting the music with beauty of a more intimate sort.

All in all, this is a truly satisfying release. The music is familiar but presented in novel arrangements that work remarkably well both musically and intellectually, providing much to reflect on regarding life, love, and death. The sound quality is excellent, and the liner notes are extensive and illuminating; as a welcome bonus, they include full lyrics in both German and English. And with a length of more than 79 minutes, you are certainly getting more than your money’s worth with this disc. Highly recommended!


May 2, 2021

Juilliard String Quartet: Beethoven, Bartok, Dvorak (CD review)

Juilliard String Quartet. Sony 19439858752.

By John J. Puccio

The Juilliard String Quartet needs no introduction. They are an American institution. But for the few unenlightened, here is a brief description. The already knowledgeable may safely move on to the next paragraph. The Juilliard School’s president at the time of the quartet’s founding, William Schuman, suggested the creation of the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946, where it has been the quartet-in-residence ever since. From then until now, it has received numerous awards, including four Grammys; it has recorded countless albums; and it has known seventeen different members. Its present configuration consists of Areta Zhulla, violin; Ronald Copes, violin; Roger Tapping, viola; and Astrid Schween, cello. Yet despite the years and despite the changes in personnel, the quartet has remained remarkably the same in tone, temper, precision, and style.

On the present album, the quartet celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary with three cornerstone works of the quartet repertory: Beethoven’s String Quartet in e minor, Op. 59, No 2; Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3, SZ.85; and Dvorak’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, “American.”

The program opens with Beethoven (1770-1827), who published the String Quartet in e minor, Op. 59, No 2 in 1808, one of his middle-period quartets. It’s also the eighth quartet he wrote, so sometimes people just refer to it as No. 8. To further complicate its naming, the quartet’s benefactor was a Count Rasumovsky, who provided one of the tunes. So the quartet is also known as “Rasumovsky.” By whatever name, it’s lovely.

So is the playing of the Juilliard team. Their care and accuracy are things of beauty. Their inflection, their tone, their graduated stresses are letter perfect. Their nuance is above reproach. One can easily hear from the opening movement of the Beethoven that we are in the company of greatness, both from the composer and from the Juilliard Quartet. They understand the nature of the music, the succinctness of Beethoven’s writing, the appropriate points of emphasis, and the length of sustained silences. Yes, lovely, and ending in befittingly high spirits.

Next is Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok (1881-1945), who wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1927, one of six he composed in the genre. Bartok intended the piece to be performed in one uninterrupted span, but in the score he indicated four distinct sections. The piece begins rather somberly but livens up by the second part (Seconda parte: Allegro). As always, the Juilliard foursome handle it with authority, capturing the forward and rhythmic pulses of the work with clarity and assurance.

The program concludes with Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), who wrote his String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, “American” while he was living in the United States, and thus the familiar name for the work. He wrote it just after he wrote his “New World” Symphony, and it, too, proved a success. Dvorak said of it, “When I wrote this quartet in the Czech community of Spillville in 1893, I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did." As with the Ninth Symphony, Dvorak credited Negro spirituals and Native American folk music as influences on his quartet, although he quoted nothing directly from them in the score.

If you like Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony and somehow have never heard the Quartet in F minor, you’ll find in it a surprising similarity in structure and melody to the bigger work, a resemblance the Juilliard players are keen to exploit. The music dances smoothly between restfully introspective passages and carefree, pulsating segments, the Juilliard players appearing to enjoy the contrasts and cadences as much as the listener.

Producer and engineer Steven Epstein recorded the music at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College State University of New York in May 2019. I’m not sure I have heard a string quartet captured any better. Although they are slightly close, they are exceptionally well balanced, with excellent transparency, dynamics, and realism. There is no hint of hardness, brightness, or forwardness in the sound, just a totally natural presentation.


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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa