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:

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.


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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