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!


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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

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

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

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa