Jul 28, 2021

Recent Releases, No. 13 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Muhly & Glass: First Light. Muhly: Shrink (Concerto for Violin and Strings); Glass: The Orchard (from The Screens); String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima” (arr, for string orchestra by Pekka Kuusisto). Nico Muhly, piano; Pekka Kuusisto, violin and director, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 745.

This is a recording that features a considerable degree of both musical and performative intertwining. The relatively young American composer Nico Muhly (b. 1981), the veteran American composer Philip Glass (b.1937) composer, and Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto (b.1976) are all linked closely together. As Kuusisto explains, “my consort with Nico Muhly began around 2010… I had previously become aware of his reputation as a creator and with an extraordinary touch, and was really excited to work with him. Thew experience was inspiring, moving and joyous, and we’ve enjoyed a steady flow of adventures since. The arrival of Shrink in late 2019 was the culmination of this decade of music and mischief… Philip Glass had been present in our interactions since the beginning. He and Nico go way back as colleagues… Against this background, coupling Shrink with a new arrangement of Philip Glass’ Mishima quartet seems appropriate… The pandemic-era, long-distance recording of Philip Glass’ The Orchard is an expression of gratitude to Philip on behalf of myself and Nico, and to the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra for their stellar work with us.” Although Muhly and Glass were colleagues, their music is markedly different in character, which leads to a recording with something of a split personality. Muhly’s Shrink is an energetic, driven concerto, played with intensity by Kuusisto on violin. Although not dissonant in character, it is not a piece that lingers over lilting melodies. Then comes Glass’s The Orchard, performed here as a duet for piano and violin, and the mood completely changes, becoming soothing and almost therapeutic. Following the frenetic forward motion of Shrink, to arrive in such a pleasant, peaceful, musical grove is a refreshing respite. The arrangement for string orchestra of Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima” that closes the program adds some weight and texture to Glass’s minimalist creation. With excellent engineering and informative liner notes, this is a solid release of contemporary music from Pentatone.
Robert Ames: Change Ringing. Peal; Change Ringing; Tympanum; Dispersion; Cinque; Rounds. Modern Recordings LC95306.

Robert Ames (b. 1985) is the co-founder and co-conductor of the London Contemporary Orchestra, where he has worked to bridge the perceived gap between the classical tradition and contemporary music, working with musicians such as Frank Ocean, Jonny Greenwood, Jonsi (of Sigur Ros), Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. He produced and recorded Change Ringing in his studio using both modern electronic techniques and western traditional annotation, forming layers of audio and written music that he manipulated and transformed into  a sound symphonic in scope, sounding like an amalgam of electronic and symphonic music. According to Ames, “most of the album was written and recorded between April and May 2019 in my small studio in the Peak District. I relied on sounds from my childhood. The echo of choirs and organs in large rooms, distant church bells, grand symphonic gestures crackling through an old car radio and competing with the soft hum and rumble of the wheels on the street and the cacophony of the orchestras slowly setting in. I resisted the temptation to use recognizable tempos and time signatures to convey a sense of timelessness. I like the idea that each track sounds like it's going on a never-ending journey and what's recorded is just a snapshot of something much longer.” Although there are six tracks on the album, they are similar enough in overall sound and mood that the listener can just hit PLAY and listen to the program as though it were one extended symphonic/electronic tone poem. No, this is nothing like electronic dance music (EDM) – there is no pulse or heavy beat moving things along. The music is much more nuanced than that, much more interesting and refined. At just over 34 minutes in length, the quantity of music on this release may leave something to be desired, but for those with adventurous ears, the originality and musical quality to be found in those 34 minutes will prove satisfying indeed.  

Milos: The Moon and the Forest. Jody Talbot: Ink Dark Moon; Ludovico Einaudi: Full Moon (arr. solo guitar by Michael Lewin); Howard Shore: The Forest; Robert Schumann: Traumerei (arr. solo guitar by Michael Lewin). Miloṥ Karadaglić. Guitar; Ben Gernon, BBC Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Shelley, Canada’s National Art’s Center Orchestra. Decca 485 1525.

Classical music lovers who have been longing to find a recording of concertos for guitar and orchestra they can enjoy as wholeheartedly as they have enjoyed recordings of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez over the years now have reason to rejoice, for this new release by the Montenegro-born guitarist Miloš Karadaglić (b. 1983) should make them very happy indeed. Interestingly enough, in his liner note essay, Miloš writes, “Classical guitar is often wrongly defined by a handful of beautiful pieces. One of the most iconic is Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Performing this incredible concerto has taken me to some of the world’s  greatest stages  playing alongside some of the world’s leading orchestras. For many in the audience, this stunning work has been the first and only point of contact with the classical guitar. It is exactly this that inspired me to seek new ideas… I first experienced Jody Talbot’s music at Covent Garden, where his beautiful ballet scores caused a sensation. .. after just a few minutes of listening, I knew I had to meet him. We quickly became friends and, just as quickly, began work on this new concerto. Ink Dark Moon is like a perfect symphony—there is no element of delicacy or virtuosity left untouched… For many years I have been fascinated by Howard Shore’s extraordinarily imaginative soundtracks and classical compositions. The concerto for guitar and orchestra he wrote for me, titled The Forest, is magical – just like the enchanted forest he painted with his unique musical brushstrokes.” By the way, the CD booklet includes not only observations about the music by Miloš, but also some brief remarks from both Shore (b. 1946) and Talbot (b. 1971).  Talbot’s Ink Dark Moon opens quietly on the guitar, the mood of a dark moon being established at the outset. After this quiet intro, the energy level increases, but then the second movement once again lowers the energy level and conveys a sense of brooding introspection. As with most concertos, the finale picks up the energy level, bringing in some percussion to make things more boisterous and lively. The solo piece by Einaudi (b. 1955) is, as you might expect from that composer, beguilingly melodic in nature, serving as a pleasant interlude before we are swept into the magical sounds and rich textures of Shore’s The Forest. The opening movement displays a rich variety of sonic effects without ever sounding forced or artificial, while the second movement is slower, more contemplative, bringing to mind a quiet walk in the forest at twilight. The final movement returns to the more magical sounds of the opening movement, but is a bit darker in tone and texture, evoking a feeling of drama. Then the familiar melody of Schumann’s Traumerei closes out the program – has the enchanting musical program been a dream all along? As for the engineering, yes, the guitar seems a bit large, but I doubt that fans of the instrument are going to mind. All in all, this is a truly rewarding release that should bring a big smile to the faces of fans of the classical guitar  – and a whole bunch of other folks as well.

Bonus Recommendation:
Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Christoph König, Solistes Européens, Luxembourg. NAXOS 8.573706.

Once again I have had the pleasure of discovering delightful music by a composer entirely new to me; indeed, I suspect the name of French composer Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) will be new to the vast majority of those reading this review. Her output was not large: three symphonies, some overtures, some chamber works, and some piano music (she was an accomplished pianist but decided to concentrate on composition and teaching rather than performing). Judging from this recording, she was certainly a talented composer. Symphony No. 2 sounds like a hybrid of Mozart and Beethoven, with a slow introduction but then a lively first movement that does not lack for energy or inventiveness. But the real highlight for me is the third movement, a scherzo that is simply a dazzling delight. Remarkable! Symphony No. 3 likewise starts off with a slow introduction leading to an energetic opening movement, but as the symphony unfolds, it proves to be a more lyrical, more expressive, and ultimately even more impressive work than its discmate. There is an interesting – but disheartening – tale told about this work in the liner notes: “The work was relatively well-received at its premiere , and was performed in Brussels in 1847 – indeed, Farrenc’s symphony concerts usually attracted large audiences, partly because of the simple novelty of attending performances of orchestral music by a woman! However, she struggled to persuade Francois-Antoine Habeneck, conductor of the most prominent orchestral series in Paris, to perform her music. It was not until April 1849 that she succeeded in having her new Third Symphony (composed in 1847) performed by the Société dés  Concerts du Conservatoire under Habeneck’s successor, Narcisse Girard. Unfortunately, the decision was taken to programme it alongside Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which, as even the critics noted, was unfair on the new work; this Beethoven symphony was his most popular and highly regarded work in France at the time.” Geez, Louise… But thanks to this splendid recording, modern listeners can now give these works by Ms. Farrenc an unprejudiced audition and judge for themselves regarding their musical merit. Trust me, this is a CD well worth the time and effort.


Jul 25, 2021

Brahms: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. Andras Schiff, piano; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. ECM New Series 2690/91 - 485 5770 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

Classical pianist and conductor Sir Andras Schiff (b. 1953) has been around long enough to have played just about everything, but this time it’s a little different. He plays a piano built in 1859, just a year after Brahms wrote his First Piano Concerto, and accompanying him is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, an ensemble of period instruments that Brahms might have encountered in his own lifetime. In other words, following historically informed performance practices and using instruments original to Brahms’s day, these readings of the Brahms First and Second Piano Concertos are probably as close as possible to something Brahms would have easily recognized.

As you no doubt know, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) composed the Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1858 while he was still a fairly young fellow in his twenties. It’s a work all craggy and monumental in scope, abounding in energy and vitality, perhaps the energy of youth, Apparently, it started out as a symphony, so maybe that explains where it went.

While the First Piano Concerto may be a youthful work, there is no excessive playfulness about it, with a healthy interplay between soloist and orchestra. I’ve heard that Brahms intended the second-movement Adagio as an elegiac tribute to his late mentor, Robert Schumann, followed by a fairly jubilant finale, a kind of spirited peasant dance with variations that sparkle.

Now, admittedly, I have a fondness for historical performances, even when they don’t reach back as many years as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is probably used to playing. Still, the string players use gut strings and play with an abundance of vibrato and smooth glides, and the timpani are leaner than we often hear today. What’s more, the 1859 Bluthner grand piano has a lighter, nimbler sound than a modern grand. It’s all unique and attractive, and it makes these recordings more than simply unique; it makes them worthwhile additions to anyone’s already stacked library of Brahms piano concertos.

Anyway, after a lengthy and properly regal orchestral introduction, the soloist finally arrives. Yet Schiff does so with a nimble subtlety. There is nothing grand or self-centered about his performance; he appears to be at one with the orchestra. Mr. Schiff says that the older pianos (of the nineteenth century) were “more transparent, with a more singing tone” than today’s Steinways, and he makes good use of those qualities in a transparent, singing performance. I suppose playing from the autograph manuscripts helps, too.

Brahms was in no hurry to follow up his First Piano Concerto, however. There was a gap of twenty-two years before he wrote his only other Piano Concerto, his No. 2 in B major, and it took him some four years to complete in 1881. It became an immediate success, with the composer himself as the soloist at the premiere, and he went on to perform it all over Europe. Brahms wrote the piece in four movements rather than the traditional three, so it’s a little longer than most concertos. (I’ve read that Brahms included the extra movement, a scherzo, because he thought the opening movement sounded too plain and simple.) He filled the work with so many memorable melodies that the whole thing sounds lovely, less rugged than the First Concerto, more melodious, more pastoral.

Schiff’s realization of the Second Concerto retains all of its lyrical virtues and adds a layer of unmannered authority to it. The music remains in part charmingly rustic yet patrician. Here, the vintage piano plays a key part in that it sounds both regally expansive and poetically dulcet. It makes for an attractive combination in a performance that glistens sweetly throughout.

Executive producer Manfred Eicher, production coordinators Guido Gorna and Thomas Herr, tonmeister Stephan Scheilmann, and engineer John Barrett recorded the concertos at Abbey Road Studios, London in December 2019. The sound reflects a large space, a big auditorium or concert hall, even though it’s Abbey Road Studios. Whatever, it’s a flattering acoustic, the orchestra a bit close but imposing. Most important, it sounds real. Transparency is ample but not at the expense of brightness or edginess. The frequency range and dynamics are wide without overwhelming the music (or the listener). Ambience, depth, and spatiality are all more than adequate for a lifelike presentation. It’s everything a modern recording should be.


To listen to a brief excerpt from Concerto No. 2, click below:

Jul 21, 2021

Dvorak: Legends & From the Bohemian Forest (CD review)

Versions for Piano Four-Hands. Christophe Sirodeau and Anna Zassimova. Melism MLS-CD-027.

By Bill Heck

Reviewing yet another recording of, say, Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, the New World, is fun in its own way; sometimes one of us might uncover a real gem. But how much more enjoyable to bring lesser-known but still rewarding music to the attention of our readers! This review is solidly of the latter type.

Antonin Dvorak’s Legends are nowhere near as well-known or as oft-recorded as his late symphonies, although many classical music lovers will be familiar with the former in their orchestral forms. What many of us may not realize is that these works were originally written for piano, specifically as “four-hands” versions, meant to be played by two players on one piano – four hands in use.

But why would a composer write for two people playing one piano? The Legends were composed in 1881; From the Bohemian Forest in 1883-4. The popularity of four-hand compositions at the time was due to a confluence of factors. First, and this is something that should cause us to truly reflect on how different musical life is today, there were no recordings. While at least larger cities hosted concerts, any listening done at home was to people in the house actually playing music. Second, in the growing middle class, not to mention the upper class, some level of competence among family members playing musical instruments was a sign of culture, and a well-appointed home would have a piano. Third, large families were the order of the day. Add up these factors: several musical family members, one instrument (the piano), and a desire to hear music – and perhaps show off to the neighbors – and there you have it. (One is tempted to suppose that an excuse for musically inclined young men and women to sit close proximity without inciting waves of opprobrium might have had some influence as well.)

Of course, four-hand compositions did not start with Dvorak; they date from at least the late 18th century. For example, Mozart composed a few such works, and Schubert composed more, as did Brahms. Meanwhile, Dvorak’s earlier Slavonic Dances were originally four-hand piano compositions, although the orchestral versions are far more often heard today.

Despite the attractions of these compositions, there are limitations. First, it must be possible for the two people involved to play them successfully, which requires some limits on the range of each part. It is hard enough for a single pianist to cross one hand over the other as some compositions require; having two people with hands all over the same keyboard could be a recipe for disaster. Secondly, as the works were meant to be popular among amateur musicians, composers might take it easy and “dumb down” the works, lest those home musicians find the required techniques beyond their abilities. By no means is that always the case, but don’t expect Bach or Beethoven-like depth in this format.

So what about these works? Fortunately for us, Dvorak was really good at balancing the requirements of the form and still producing interesting and enjoyable music. I don’t suppose that many listeners would call these works profound, but they are charming and surprisingly robust (if I can use that term) in a musical sense. They certainly are not musical bon-bons, all sweetness and devoid of substance; they contain passages of drama and swagger, and Dvorak sneaks in some interesting – in a few cases almost radical – harmonies on occasion. Indeed, the Legends were substantive enough that Dvorak orchestrated them within a year or so of their original publication.

As with Sirodeau’s disk of the Brahms Intermezzi that I reviewed on this site a short time ago, Sirodeau and Zassimova do not play the compositions in chronological order. Instead, they are arranged in an order that the musicians find appealing. (The excellent liner notes for this album explain some of the reasoning behind the ordering.) There is no reason to suppose that Dvorak had a sequence in mind for these little gems, and surely he did not envision pianists playing through the entire sets at one sitting, so the ordering here should work nicely for all but the most obsessive sticklers. Similarly, modern-day listeners will not necessarily play the disk straight through as they would a symphony or sonata; this is the sort of music that one might sample from time to time. The ordering here makes this particularly easy: the repeating pattern is a piece from the Bohemian Forest followed by three Legends. Each of these sequences provides a coherent listening treat.

By this time, the attentive reader surely is asking how the artists play the music. In a word, excellently: these are seasoned musicians who obviously care about bringing forward some music that should be heard more often. And at this point in the review, I normally would toss in a few comparisons – but not this time. For one thing, there are only a small handful of disks (I found three) featuring both the Legends and Bohemian Forest in four-hand versions, and the thoughtful combination and (re)arrangement of the works found here makes this disk unique. Furthermore, if the playing were questionable in any noticeable way, I would spend more time worrying about the competition – but it’s not. That’s not to say that I ignored other recordings completely: I did a little sampling, but nowhere did I hear obviously superior playing, and the current disk has the advantage of up-to-date recording technology.

Speaking of the recording, the sound of the Melism recording is fine; clear, natural, and full range. To my ears, it falls just short of the best in terms of the “piano in the room” dynamism and naturalness; perhaps the sound is just a smidge flattened rather than fully three dimensional. But that’s a quibble, thought of only when concentrating strictly on the recorded sound.

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

Jul 18, 2021

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Varujan Kojian, Utah Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings RR-11CD.

By John J. Puccio

Better late than never.

Maestro Varujan Kojian and the Utah Symphony recorded this album for Reference Recordings in 1982, and somehow it escaped my attention for some forty years. This despite my having reviewed most other Reference Recordings releases over the years and despite the high praise the disc received for its sound in particular. So now, four decades late, here is my review.

First, though, a word about the production team. The following is from the Reference Recordings Web site: “Since 1976, The Best Seat in the House. Always at the forefront of technical advances. Reference Recordings records and manufactures award winning, ultimate quality CDs, Hybrid SACDs, Reference Mastercuts LPs, and revolutionary HRx discs: 176.4 kHz/24 bit music on DVD audio discs. Our recordings are also offered as digital downloads through our own website and through multiple sites worldwide, including high resolution PCM downloads and both stereo and surround-sound DSD downloads. We offer recordings from many of the finest classical, jazz, blues and world music artists.” At the time, Maestro Kojian (1935-1993) was the director of the Utah Symphony, and Reference Recordings was doing a number of albums with the Utah ensemble.

In the present case, they gave us the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), a revolutionary piece of music the composer wrote in 1830 and subtitled “Fantastical Symphony: Episode in the Life of an Artist…in Five Sections.” Using programmatic elements and a huge orchestra of well over a hundred players (I’ve read that Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result must have been extraordinary. Nevertheless, it’s not really a traditional symphony; it’s more like a big tone poem, a psychodrama in five movements, wherein the young Berlioz writes autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, with the young man falling into a drug-induced dream, which the composer describes in his music. The woman reappears throughout the music in the form of an idée fixe, a “fixed idea” that the young man cannot shake, a musical innovation Berlioz used to advantage and that later composers like Richard Wagner used extensively.

Berlioz titled the opening movement “Reveries--Passions,” describing the dejected romantic lover of the score conjuring up opium dreams and nightmares of his lost love. Of course, as small tone poems each of the movements should be presented with enough color for us easily to “see” in our mind’s eye the action and emotions the composer intended. In the first segment, the Maestro Kojian is marginally successful, although perhaps a tad too casual for my taste.

The second movement, “Un bal,” describes a ball in which the young man catches a flash of his beloved, music that courses with exquisite dance-like rhythms and textures. Maestro Kojian seems more expressive here than he did in the first movement, and the ball progresses with a comfortable flow.

In the third movement we have a “Scene aux champs,” a scene in the country, which is a long, slow adagio. In it, the young man sees a pair of shepherds playing a pipe melody to call their flock, and all is well until, as always, the young man notices his love in the picture, and the music takes a sudden turn. Until the turning point, the mood is languid, dreamy, which Kojian handles well. It’s the dramatic midsection that perhaps the conductor could have been a bit more colorful and compelling.

By the fourth and fifth movements we get into audiophile territory, with the entire orchestra going full tilt. If you need something to show off your new stereo rig, these movements are among the demonstration pieces for knocking socks off.

The fourth movement, the “March to the Scaffold,” brings the young man to a vision of his death for the murder of his beloved. The movement, incidentally, brings up an interesting question. Should the conductor take it seriously or as a cartoonish joke? A lot of conductors seem to consider it a bit of whimsy, having the character in the score stride jauntily up to his death. Others, like Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI/Warner), see the movement as a more somber affair. Kojian takes a sort of middle course, the music never really sounding too silly or too grim. Yet it never really seems to catch fire, either.

In the finale, the “Witches’ Sabbath,” we find the poor hero imagining his fate at Judgment Day in hell. In some hands, like those of Sir Colin Davis and Leonard Bernstein, the movement can sound undeniably demonic. Maestro Kojian does his best to raise the devil, and Reference Recordings’ wide-ranging sound fills in any missing momentum.

On a final note of interest, the record producers provide two versions of the final movement, one with orchestral bells and one with church bells. I preferred the orchestral bells, which sound splendid.

Producers Jeffrey Kaufmann, J. Tamblyn Henderson, and Marcia Martin and engineer Keith O. Johnson recorded the music at Symphony Hall, Salt Lake City, Utah in March 1982. Because the music has an exceptionally wide dynamic range, it begins very softly. I would advise against turning up the volume, however, as the loud passages can be very loud, indeed. Anyway, the sound is typical of Reference Recordings’ discs. It aims to capture the acoustics of the concert hall, so there’s a touch of resonance, a modest distance to the orchestra, as well as depth to it, plenty of impact and frequency range, and a maximum of realism. Of the dozen or so recordings of this music I had on hand, this one was at the top of the list for sound quality.


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

Jul 14, 2021

New Releases, No. 12 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time; Kurt Rohde: one wing*. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (Jerome Simas, clarinet; *Anna Presler, violin; Tanya Tomkins, cello; *Eric Zivian, piano). AVIE AV2452.

It was a real blessing to receive this CD for review, for I had almost forgotten what an amazing piece of music this is. I can’t quite remember what my first encounter with Messiaen’s music was. It may have been his organ music, or it may have been his massive, sprawling Turangalila Symphony. But the Messiaen composition that has made the deepest impression on me is his Quartet for the End of Time, which I first purchased on LP back in the late 1970s on LP in the form of the famous release by Tashi (Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Fred Sherry, cello, Ida Kafavian, violin, Peter Serkin, piano), the recording that has long stood as the touchstone version (now of course available on CD). It is not a mellifluous piece that falls easily on the ear, especially on first hearing; however, it is a piece of great beauty that rewards serious, repeated listening, and there are many lyrical passages of deep, affecting beauty. Messiaen wrote the piece while a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp and it was first performed by his fellow prisoners. I won’t go into the full story here but it is a fascinating tale well worth investigating for those so inclined.

Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic and something of a mystic, his work often based on religious imagery and containing sounds and inspirations from nature, especially birds. He wrote in the preface of the score to the Quartet it had been inspired by text from the Book of Revelation. You can get a feel for both the religious and nature-derived inspirations in Messiaen’s work by perusing a quick summary of the eight movements of this work and the titles that Messiaen gave them. I. “Liturgie de cristal” (“Crystal Liturgy”). Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.” This movement features the full quartet. II. "Vocalise, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps" (“Vocalise, for the Angel Announcing the End of Time”). Messiaen writes: “The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello.” III. "Abîme des oiseaux" (“The Abyss of the Birds”). Messiaen writes: “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.” This movement is for solo clarinet. IV. "Intermède" (“Interlude”). Messiaen writes: “Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.” This movement is a trio for violin, cello, and clarinet. V. "Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus" (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”). Messiaen writes: “Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, ‘infinitely slow’, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, ‘whose time never runs out’. This movement is for cello and piano. VI. "Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes" (“Dance of Wrath, for the Seven Trumpets”). Messiaen writes: “Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Listen especially to all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.” VII. "Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps" (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Announcing the End of Time”). Messiaen writes: “Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout co-penetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!” This movement also features all four instruments. VIII. "Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus" (“Praise for the Immortality of Jesus”). Messiaen writes: “Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.” This final movement is for violin and piano.

This new recording by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble comes along at a time when this music seems especially relevant as we look around us and consider the toll of the pandemic and the rising threats of racism, anti-semitism, voter suppression, distrust of science, scapegoating, and so on so forth. Sigh… This is an ominous time; perhaps some visionary music might be what we need. In any event, I had hoped to do a direct comparison of the new Avie release to the venerable Tashi recording, but Serkin and friends seem to have disappeared (temporarily, I hope) somewhere in a hidden pile of CDs somewhere in the chaos of my collection (and to make things worse, the Tashi CD appears to be out of print, although it can be streamed, thank goodness) so instead I pulled out another live recording for comparison, one of those BBC Music Magazine discs featuring an all-star cast of Michael Collins (clarinet), Isabelle van Keulen (cello), Paul Watkins (cello), and Lars Vogt (piano). Without going into a lot of detail, let me simply say that both musically and sonically, although I might have had a slight preference for the BBC production (Michael Collins is hard to beat when it comes to clarinet tone), the new Avie release is certainly of excellent quality, communicating the both the other-worldliness and raw immediacy that are both prominent features of Messiaen’s remarkable music. As a bonus, the Left Coast disc concludes with a performance of Kurt Rohde’s One Wing, a brief composition for violin and piano that seems to fit in perfectly after the final movement of the Messiaen, which was also for violin and piano. Especially effective is the way Rohde concludes the piece, which is to say, most inconclusively, leaving the listener to question and contemplate. You can enjoy a video performance of One Wing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Uc_eONtA8A

Lonely Shadows: Dominik Wania, piano. ECM 2686 086 9583.

Polish pianist Dominik Wania (b. 1981) has added a solid contribution to the list of outstanding solo piano albums on the ECM label (e.g., Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Paul Bley’s Open, To Love). Wania says in his liner notes that “I felt from the beginning that this would include fully improvised music. I didn’t want to prepare anything in advance, no forms or melodic sketches or harmonic layers. I was fully dependent on the creative process of playing here and now.” However, the album consists of 11 distinct tracks: Lonely Shadows; New Life Experience; Melting Spirit; Towards the Light; Relativity; Liquid Fluid; Think Twice; AG76; Subjective Objectivity; Indifferent Attitude; and All What Remains. The cuts do not sound loose and disorganized, they are for the most part pleasant, melodious, and ingratiating, sounding as if they were composed beforehand. In an interview with London Jazz News, Wania explained that “what’s on this album, although fully improvised, seems to have a specific form and everything works together as if this were almost finished compositions. Taking advantage of the perfect conditions that I had there, I tried to introduce as much substance as possible into what I was playing, and the music developed in some direction, it pursued its goal.” Wania has a deft touch at the keyboard, capable of painting sound portraits in subtle pastel shades. Nowhere is this more evident than on my personal favorite cut on the album, the oddly named AG76, which Wania notes “is kind of a homage for the outstanding Polish painter Zdzislaw Beksinski. It was played with a specific way of using the escapement lever of the piano, which makes the timbre of the sound very delicate and hazy.” By contrast, the very next track, Subjective Objectivity, is the one track on the album that sounds somewhat skittish and, well, improvised. All things considered, this is a beautifully recorded album that should delight jazz and classical fans alike. One final note about to help put things in clearer perspective: Wania did his doctoral dissertation on the influence of the French composer Maurice Ravel on jazz pianists such as Bill Evans, and he says that he considers himself a pianist, not a jazz pianist. As you listen to this album you can certainly hear the influence of Maurice Ravel on Dominik Wania, and that’s a good thing.

John Robertson: Virtuosity. Concerto for Clarinet and Strings; Hinemoa & Tutanekai; Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra; Symphony No. 3. Mihail Zhivkov, clarinet; Kremera Acheva, flute; Fernando Serrano Montoya, trumpet; Anthony Armoré, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. (Navona NV6223).
John Robertson: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5; Meditation: In Flanders Fields. Anthony Armoré, Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. (Navona NV6325).

Composer John Robertson (b.1943) is a New Zealand-born Canadian composer who writes listenable, enjoyable, but serious and worthwhile orchestral music worthy of wider recognition, and these two discs on the Navona label are well worth seeking out by classical music lovers looking for music that is composed and performed by musicians who might not be household names but are to judge from the compositions, performances, and engineering on these two releases, top-tier in every respect and deserving of wider recognition in households hither and yon. Virtuosity leads off with a lyrical concerto for clarinet and strings that sounds rather pastoral in nature; indeed, you could imagine it had been composed by a well-known English composer. Although not a concerto, Hinemoa & Tutanekai features a prominent solo flute part, as the music is meant to evoke a Maori legend in which two lovers from warring tribes are forbidden from seeing each other. As recounted in the liner notes, “Sitting disconsolate on the beach at night , where all the canoes have been pulled up to stop her from using one to get to Tutanekai who lives on an island in the lake, Hinemoa hears his flute sound across the water. At last, unable to resist the sound, she rushes into the water and swims to the island to be with him.” The sound of the flute over strings is again lyrical and lovely, expressing longing without lapsing into melodrama. Robertson originally composed his Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra for a Cuban trumpeter; not surprisingly, then, it is a more lively piece than the preceding two, and features a sprinkling of Latin rhythms, most notably in its lively finale. Interestingly, Symphony No. 3 opens with a prominent role for trumpet, so there seems to be a feeling of connection with the concerto that preceded it. The feeling of the music, however, seems more abstract, more introverted, but that is not to say harmonically dissonant or rhythmically disjointed. Although the title of this release is Virtuosity, the music and the performances are not about flashy displays of technique. It is about good music played well, which is a more rewarding form of virtuosity.  

Opening the other disc by Robertson under consideration here, Symphony No. 4 features some wonderfully lyrical writing for the woodwinds, but not at the neglect of the other sections of the orchestra, as the strings, brass, and percussion all get their chance to shine. The overall mood of this symphony is somewhat lighthearted, but the next piece, a meditation on the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written from the perspective of World War I war dead, here recited by conductor Anthony Armoré over somber music played by strings and trumpet. (Confession time: When I first heard this track, I thought sounded hokey. On repeated listening, I was moved, and now find it noble and dignified. I must have been in some sort of stuck-up mood that first time, shame on me. As a veteran son of a veteran with a son on active duty, I have no right to be stuck up over a recitation of “Flanders Fields,” none whatsoever). Symphony No. 5 sounds denser, more intense than No. 4. It is a remarkable work, a symphony that blends the lighthearted and the serious in a way that brings to mind the music of Malcolm Arnold, an underrated giant of the 20th century. Truly, this is a work that deserves wider exposure, not only as a recording, but in the concert hall.


Jul 11, 2021

Dvorak: The Late Symphonies (CD review)

Symphonies Nos. 6-9. David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Recursive Classics RC3137552 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

Of the nine symphonies that Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote, it is his final three that have become his most popular and remain among the classical genre’s greatest hits. In the present album by David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony we get not only the last three symphonies, but the last four.

Yet that’s not all. Recursive Classics have fit the four symphonies onto two discs, and they are offering the 2-CD set for the price of a single disc. That seems to me a bargain upon a bargain. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a deal if the performances and sound weren’t up the job. Fortunately, they are, making the set a bargain upon a bargain upon a bargain.

Now, about the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. It includes mainly players who do other things for a living (like being hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, and so on). They're not exactly amateurs, but they're not full-time, paid musicians, either. Happily, their playing dispels any skepticism about the quality of their work; everyone involved with the orchestra deserves praise. Nor is the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony a particularly small group. It's about the size of a full symphony orchestra, yet their performances are slightly more intimate and the sound slightly more transparent than most orchestras. It makes for a refreshing combination.

So, on to the program: Things begin with the Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60, which Dvorak wrote in 1880. It was the first of the composer’s large-scale works to get the world’s attention. While  adhering to a conventional classical-romantic form, it manages to pack in a lot of Czech folk music in its four movements. Dvorak composed the work for the Vienna Philharmonic and dedicated it to conductor Hans Richter. Maestro Bernard sets the tone for the rest of the program by engaging the music robustly and reveling in the folklike atmosphere of the tunes. He also keeps tempos on the speedy side, with contrasts and pauses emphasized for dramatic effect. The orchestra responds to Bernard’s direction with precision and gusto. In the end, the presentation may force some listeners to come away with a better appreciation for the work.

Next is the Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70, which Dvorak completed in 1885 and in which the composer begins to hit his stride. The symphony’s style is generally more emotional, theatrical, assertive, and to some extent dispiriting than the mood of Dvorak’s earlier folk-inspired music. In the piece, Dvorak pursued his most ambitious score to date, striving to accommodate his own personal grief and a desire to endorse a budding Czech nationalism. As before, Maestro Bernard handles it with an easy yet energetic commitment, the music dancing in lithe, flowing rhythms throughout while projecting a strong case for the symphony’s poignancy and pathos.

By the time of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88 in 1889, the world was beginning to consider the composer in a league with Schumann and Brahms. Even though the symphony begins in a somewhat downbeat spirit, it soon finds its bearings and emerges among the most-cheerful and poetic of Dvorak's works, the style and structure very much in the Czech Romantic tradition and the inspiration coming largely from the Bohemian folk tunes of the composer's native country. Again, Maestro Bernard and his forces attack the piece with an ebullient verve. The music perhaps loses some weight compared to other renditions but makes up for it in fervent commitment, the whole retaining an evocative elegance. Then, too, the performance may lack the ultimate finesse of some of my favorite conductors in this piece like Barbirolli, Pesek, Davis, Kertesz, or Kubelik, but it’s close. And what the interpretation lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in boldness, vitality, and incisiveness.

Finally, we have Dvorak’s crowning achievement, the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, subtitled “From the New World,” which he wrote in 1893. Many listeners over the years have heard instances of American accents in the music, when in fact Dvorak said most of it was entirely original. The "New World" business only came about because Dvorak happened to be living in New York at the time he wrote it. While to some small degree local American tunes may have inspired the composer, the music is clearly Czech in flavor.

Maestro Bernard takes his time with the symphony’s first movement, calculating each note, each phrase, each pause, and each dynamic contrast for maximum effect. The first movement in particular comes through with dramatic clarity and impact, a shining example of what can be done with a little creativity and determination. The second movement Largo suffers only minor cost from this approach, losing a little something in overall wistfulness. Then, too, the movement might have benefited from a richer string section. I dunno. The Scherzo zips along splendidly, the rhythms pulsating with energy. Dvorak marked the final movement Allegro con fuoco (“Quick, lively, and fiery”), a direction the conductor carries out with diligence. It caps another invigorating reading from Bernard.

Recording engineers Joel Watts, Asaf Blasberg, and Gunnar Gillberg recorded the symphonies at the DiMenna Center for the Performing Arts, New York City in May 2019. As with previous Recursive Classics recordings I’ve heard, this one is exceptionally smooth. It’s perhaps a tad too softly focused for some audiophile tastes, but it’s certainly easy on the ears while still providing detail, space, air, ambience, and dynamics. On a final note, I should add that the volume output appears slightly lower than one finds with most other recordings; therefore; you may have to turn it up a bit for best results.


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

Jul 7, 2021

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas 4, 5, and 7 (CD review)

Performed on period instruments by Viktoria Mullova, violin, and Alasdair Beatson, fortepiano. ONYX 4221.

By Bill Heck

Given the popularity of period instrument performances in some corners of the classical repertoire, I would have thought that there would be quite a collection of such recordings of the Beethoven
Violin Sonatas. Not so, or at least not so easily found: several are readily available, but this set by Mullova and Beatson enters a field less crowded than one might expect. It does, however, follow rather closely on the heels of a complete cycle on period instruments featuring Jerilyn Jorgensen and Cullan Bryant, which was reviewed a few months back by our own John Puccio: https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/01/beethoven-complete-sonatas-for-piano.html.

Viktoria Mullova is a well-known figure in the world of violin recordings, with an extensive discography. Her partner in this venture (I deliberately avoid the term “accompanist”, which seems to imply a mere subservient strumming along role for the keyboard; Beethoven’s writing for the piano is far more than just an “accompaniment") is perhaps less well known but with just as extensive a discography, albeit much of it on smaller labels. Indeed, the liner notes for this release are written by Beatson.

A few words about the instruments are in order, but first I should confess to some prejudice regarding the period instrument movement. I understand and appreciate that sometimes the more focused (thin?) sound of many period instruments can reveal textual details that can be lost in (poorly balanced?) performances on modern instruments with their heavier (richer?) timbres. But, as my parenthetical words may have revealed, I suspect that modern instrument performances need not be cloudy and congested: the players have a lot to do with the sound, after all. As to the argument that we should hear the music the way that an 18th or 19th century composers heard their work, it’s an interesting concept, but I wonder if said composers would not have been overjoyed to have had access to the power and tone of modern instruments.

Which brings us to the instruments in use here. Mullova plays a 1750 Giovanni Battista Guadagnini with gut strings; she also uses a classical bow. Beatson’s instrument is particularly interesting: a replica of an 1805 Viennese Walter fortepiano that strikes me as sounding midway between most of the fortepianos that I’ve heard and the modern piano. If you have been put off by the – I’m searching for a word here – clangy sound of some fortepianos, a sound that seems to owe much to that instrument’s harpsichord ancestors, this recording may be the one for you. Yes, the tonal qualities of both instruments differ from their modern counterparts, but more subtly than is often the case.

We also should note that the duo uses a new Bärenreiter edition of the scores prepared by Clive Brown. I confess that I am not so familiar with these works as to hear the differences immediately, but the results speak for themselves.

As to the music itself, John gave a nice summary in his earlier review; I recommend that you read it. Suffice it to say here that the 4th (published 1801) is the first of the series in which Beethoven is truly finding his own voice; the 5th, nicknamed “Spring” (1801), truly is springlike in a Beethoven sort of way (think 6th Symphony); and the 7th (1802) is the mature Beethoven, mixing charm with profundity.

So how do Mullova and Beatson do? In a word, superbly. I was immediately struck by the energy of these performances. This seems to fit with what I know of Mullova’s reputation: a dynamic, passionate approach. Indeed, there are moments of wonderful dynamic contrast not always offered with period instruments, such as the middle of the second movement, where Beatson is right with Mullova step by step, or the final measures of the fourth movement of 7th, which are about as dramatic as you can get with just two (period) instruments. Tempi are generally quick but never sound rushed, and the balance between the instruments is nicely judged at every turn. Perhaps I can best characterize these performances by saying that they kept me engaged from beginning to end – and this coming from someone who all too often finds his mind wandering during chamber music performances.

For comparison, I listened to several other performances of these sonatas. First, Jos van Immersed’s cycle is well regarded, but to me number 5 feels a little rushed and consequently ragged. In any event, I can't get past the sonics: the fortepiano is bathed in so much reverberation, which sounds artificial at that, as to suggest that it is in a cave. (In a large cathedral is a more likely, if less colorful, idea.) That cloudiness obscures the attack of the piano; meanwhile, the violin is off to the left in what sounds like a separate space and seems to have less reverberation. Others obviously could get past the sound; I could not.

On a more positive note, Watson and Ogata provide lively, well-reviewed performances. The recorded sound is slightly more reverberant than that of the Mullova/Beatson disk, but still natural and quite listenable, although perhaps the violin is a little too far forward of the piano. One noticeable difference, though is in the sound of the fortepiano: Ogata’s instrument sounds more harpsichord-like. I suppose that could be more authentic in the sense of being true to what Beethoven’s audiences would have heard, but it does make for some less than powerful sound when the piano is called upon for a dramatic chord. The dynamic range of the piano is slightly restricted on the softer end as well. As to performance, Mullova plays somewhat more "aggressively" than Watson, although again the difference is not large; I also wish that Watson and Ogata had skipped a repeat or two, particularly in the first movement of number 5.

Our last comparison is to the Jorgenson/Bryant cycle mentioned above. Obviously this one is complete, in the sense of including all of the sonatas, so it’s the one for you if you are simply looking for a full cycle. (Mullova recorded Sonatas 3 and 9 earlier with Kristian Bezuidenhout.) If you aren’t worried about that point, the differences that struck me most immediately were two: a more dynamic, energetic, or even passionate feel and a more upfront, less reverberant sound from Mullova/Beatson as compared to Jorgenson/Bryant. Please understand that I am not saying that the latter performances are sedate or dull; both sets are well within the range of acceptability, and which performances sound more congenial will be a matter of personal taste.

Finally, as already implied, the sonics of this new Onyx disk are quite clean and natural, sounding as if in a rather small hall. The two instruments are nicely separated but clearly inhabit the same space, which is as it should be. Overall, a most rewarding issue and well worth a listen, even if you already have a recording or two of the included works.


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

Jul 4, 2021

One Movement Symphonies (CD review)

Barber: First Symphony; Sibelius: Symphony No. 7; Scriabin: Le poem de l’extase. Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings RR-149.

By John J. Puccio

Sometimes you think you know something, and you don’t. In this case, I thought I knew pretty much what a symphony was all about. Apparently, I didn’t.

“Symphony: an extended piece in three or more movements for symphony orchestra.” --American Heritage Dictionary

“Symphony: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections, often four.” --Wikipedia

“Symphony: a lengthy form of musical composition for orchestra, normally consisting of several large sections, or movements, at least one of which usually employs sonata form.” --Encyclopedia Britannica

“Symphony: a usually long and complex sonata for symphony orchestra.” --Merriam-Webster Dictionary

But as the producers of this disc, One Movement Symphonies, point out, those definitions are not necessarily true. Each of the works on the album is a one-movement orchestral piece that their composers identified as “symphonies.” Yet these are not obscure works by obscure composers. They are major symphonic pieces by composers we all know: Samuel Barber’s First Symphony; Jean Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony; and Alexander Scriabin’s Le poeme de l’extase (“The Poem of Ecstasy”). OK. We all know the music. But have we really considered them “symphonies” in any strict sense of the term? Maybe. Maybe not.

Be that as it may, it’s the “one-movement” business that holds the program together, starting with the First Symphony (1936) by American composer, conductor, pianist, and singer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Barber subtitled it “In One Movement” just to make clear what he was up to, and sometimes people refer to it simply as the “Symphony in One Movement.” Despite the title, however, the work really is divided into four brief sections: Allegro ma non troppo, Allegro molto, Andante tranquillo, and Con moto. Barber modeled it on Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, which is also divided into traditional movements but played without breaks.

Maestro Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony play the piece in a fairly straightforward manner, without undue flourish yet with delicate nuance. They handle the mood swings in the music with subtlety and grace, producing if not the most striking account of the piece ever recorded certainly one of the most enjoyable.

Next, speaking of Sibelius, comes the famous Symphony No. 7 in C major, written 1924 by Finnish composer and violinist Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). When Sibelius premiered it, however, he called it Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, a "symphonic fantasy." It wasn’t until the next year and its publication that he decided to label it a true “symphony.” By whatever name he wanted to call it, the work is still divided into distinct sections, in this case more than ever, with no less than ten discrete divisions from an opening Adagio to a closing Affettuoso (with “feeling” or “warmth”) and Tempo 1 (a return to the work’s initial tempo). However, the uniting thread holding it all together is not a series of contrasting keys and themes as in most traditional symphonies but a single, unifying key, C, and a series of constantly changing tempos. Again we get an honest, forthright presentation from Maestro Stern, with the orchestra sounding rich and resonant. The music remains colorful, lyrical, almost magical throughout, and the performance provides much pleasure.

The final work is Le poeme de l’extase (1905-08) by the Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915). This work I’ve always thought of a symphonic poem rather than a true symphony mainly because it avoids the usual symphonic movements and contents itself to communicate a set of more spiritual emotions. Scriabin described it as “the joy of liberated action,” and approved the following program notes: “The stronger the pulse beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that it is consubstantial with creativity itself. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall arrive.”

It’s a rather fanciful way of saying the music is sensual and provocative and should be played and enjoyed with passion. Stern’s way with it isn’t exactly in the heady realms of a Stokowski, Svetlanov, Gergiev, Muti, Abbado, or Mitropoulos, but it comes close enough. Stern appears to go for a beauty in the work beyond its mysticism, making it all the more enchanting, even beguiling for the listener.

Producer David Frost and engineer Keith O. Johnson recorded the symphonies at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri in June 2016. This is a classic Reference Recordings production, meaning it sounds the way Reference Recordings discs have sounded since their founding back in 1976 and the way we’ve always loved them. The sound is dynamic, dimensional, wide ranging, and real. That last is particularly important. Reference Recordings have never tried to sound “audiophile,” just lifelike, and in the process the company has, perhaps ironically, established itself as a leader in the audiophile recording industry.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that the current disc displays wide frequency and dynamic ranges, a solid impact, and a realistic orchestral depth and width. It comes about as close as one can get to sitting in a concert hall at a moderate distance from the ensemble. It’s quite impressive.


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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa