Aug 29, 2021

Mozart: Gran Partita (CD review)

Serenades Nos. 10 “Gran Partita” and 11. Soloists from the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902627.

By John J. Puccio

By definition a serenade was originally a vocal or instrumental piece performed outdoors in the evening (and usually outside the house of a woman). Today, it usually applies to light, multi-movement works for winds or scorings intended for orchestral performance. Mozart was so taken by the serenade that he wrote thirteen of them, the last one, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” being the most popular of the bunch. On the present recording we get two of his other popular serenades, Nos. 10 and 11, performed on period instruments by soloists from the Akademie fur Alte Musik and employing the number of musicians the composer indicated in the scores. The two works probably sound about as close to what Mozart intended as one can get.

Opening the program is the Serenade No. 11 in E-flat major, K. 375, written in 1781. It has five movements, and the Akademie play the revised version, which uses two oboes in addition to two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns. The Akademie players are very precise in their coordination and articulation, so it’s a pleasure listening to their immaculate group effort. However, they do not seem to produce an abundance of joy, gusto, or cheer. Although they are not a somber ensemble--far from it with their brisk tempos--they are not a particularly exciting or jubilant one, either. They appear more businesslike, placing their emphasis on efficiency rather than exultation or merriment. Still, they produce such a soothing, pleasing sound, it’s hard not to like and admire their presentation.

The star of the show is the Serenade No. 10 in E-flat major, K. 361, subtitled “Gran Partita.” Mozart wrote it around 1781 or ‘82, although he probably didn’t subtitle it himself. Whatever, it’s a “grand suite” in seven movements, scored for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two basset horns, four horns, and a double bass. You might recognize the third movement Adagio from the 1984 movie Amadeus. It’s near the beginning of the film when Salieri tells us he can’t understand why God chose so coarse a fellow as Mozart to write such heavenly music.

Again, the Akademie play the serenade in a noble and assured manner with little room for playfulness. They are a purposeful group intent on performing the music as accurately as possible. As such, No. 10 comes off with a regal splendor, in which you may or may not hear a divine voice. It’s more earthbound than that, while nevertheless remaining a delight.

Artistic Director Martin Sauer and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music at Teldex Studio Berlin, Germany in January 2020. Miked a bit closely, the sound is extremely well detailed, transparent, and dynamic. Having as few players as there are involved ensures textural clarity but not a lot of air around the instruments or depth to the stage. No matter; the recording’s cleanness and lucidity win the day.


To listen to a brief excerpt from Serenade No. 10, click below:

Aug 25, 2021

Snétberger: Hallgató (CD review)

Ferenc Snétberger: Hallgató: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra “In Memory of My People” (version for guitar and string quintet); Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8; John Dowland: I saw my lady weep (for guitar and string quartet); Flow, my tears (for guitar and cello); Barber: Adagio for Strings; Snétberger: Your Smile (for solo guitar); Rhapsody No. 1 for Guitar and Orchestra (version for guitar and string quintet). Ferenc Snétberger, guitar; Keller Quartet (András Keller and Zsófia Környei, violin; Gábor Homoki, viola; Lászlo Fenyö, cello); Gyula Lázár, double bass. ECM New Series 2653 351 9395.

By Karl W. Nehring

Ferenc Snétberger (b. 1957) is a Hungarian guitarist who is primarily known as a jazz guitarist, but among other things, he has studied both classical and gypsy music. He does not sound like what most music fans would probably think a jazz guitarist would sound like, even on his jazz releases. However, this is a classical recording, and he is featured here not only as a performer but also as a composer.

To better understand this release, it might be best to begin with some considerations of context and presentation before moving on to the music itself. First, as it is noted in bold font on the back cover, this is a concert recording (from a performance or possibly performances at the Liszt Academy in Budapest in December, 2018). Now, JJP has often pointed out that many recordings these days are made during concert performances rather than under more “studio-like” conditions that might also be made in a concert hall but without the presence of an audience, meaning that the engineers would in the latter case would have more freedom in terms of microphone placement and even more importantly, the inevitable background noises resulting from a live audience would not be an issue. Through warning audiences that a recording is going to be made, careful microphone placement, and judicious editing, there have been some live recordings that exhibit very good sound, without any extraneous audience noises; however, be forewarned that this is not one of them. This truly does sound like a concert recording. There is applause, there is coughing, there is murmuring – the more revealing your audio system, the more you will experience the feeling of being present at a concert venue. Some listeners will find that engaging, while others may find it enraging. Personally, I found it surprising at first, but although I would have preferred the producer to at least have edited out the applause, I did not find the audience noises all that distracting once I heard them and directed my attention back to the sound of the instruments.

The idea of attention also informs another key consideration to understanding the context of the musical program included on this release, which is titled “Hallgató.” The liner notes point out that Hallgató is also the title of the opening movement of the composition that begins the program, Snétberger’s own Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, further noting that the meaning óof Hallgató is ambiguous. In Hungarian, it means a listener, but also a student, “and thus a listener in a university seminar. In Roma culture, a ‘hallgató’ is also a relatively recent type of song, preceded by the ‘magyar nota’ of the 19th century – a slow, sustained song capable of expressing all the themes from the history and everyday life of this ancient people. Yet the Hungarian meaning can be readily combined with its Roma counterpart: the listener must be attentive when these typical folk songs are sung. They also preserve their character in instrumental garb.” Seen in this context, the title of the album is inviting us to be not just listeners, but attentive listeners, to the music performed in this concert, which apparently is meant to be heard not merely for diversion or entertainment, but for some more meaningful purpose.

The program opens with that concerto, which Snétberger composed and first played for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and to which he ascribed the dedication, “In Memory of My People.” As you might expect, the piece is serious and somber. The opening movement, Hallgató, features a melancholy melody strummed on the guitar that is briefly interrupted by a frantic attempt at dance by the strings, but the guitar prevails. The second movement, Emlékek (“Memories”) finds the guitar and quintet working not so much at cross-purposes as in the previous movement, here producing music that sounds wistful and resigned. The final movement, Tánc (“Dance”) ups the energy and tempo, the strings at times playing with a gypsy feel, but the piece ends with a brief burst of energy that sounds like a desperate last gasp, as if the dance has been suddenly interrupted. The effect is disconcerting.

Next on the program is a piece that will be familiar to many classical music lovers, the String Quartet No. 8 by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, a work that has been recorded many times by many ensembles, which Shostakovich wrote “to commemorate the victims of fascism and war.” As played here by the Keller Quartet, the piece seems a bit softer-edged than usual. They seem not to dig into their instruments quite as vigorously as the Fitzwilliam or Emerson Quartets, to name two versions I play often (the Shostakovich quarters are a favorite of mine – I currently own three complete sets plus several individual discs). However, that softer approach fits in well with the overall thrust of the program on this recording, which is more reflective than angry, more melancholy than vengeful. Still, the emotional message is plainly evident. I would not want this for my only version of this powerful quartet, but it works well in this context. The Keller Quarter have clearly given plenty of thought to this music and come up with an approach that gets to the heart of the music. It is a performance well worth seeking out by those who treasure this jewel of the string quartet repertoire.

Following the emotional intensity of the Shostakovich, the two relatively brief and more straightforward Dowland laments from the 16th century come as something of a relief. They maintain a subdued sound, melancholy but not morose, serving in the program as a bridge to the another widely recorded 20th-century piece so familiar to classical music fans -- indeed, even to the general public -- Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed here in its original scoring for string quartet (it was a movement from his String Quartet op.11, but we have become so accustomed to hearing the work scored for string orchestra that many have forgotten the origin of the work). Given the Adagio’s association with grief and mourning, it certainly fits right into the emotional arc of the musical program.

A glance at the title of the penultimate piece on the program, Snétberger’s solo guitar piece Your Smile, might lead the listener to think that the clouds are suddenly going to part and a ray of sunshine is going to burst through so that all will suddenly be sweetness and light, but that is not the case. The smile in question appears to be a smile remembered, a sweet but fading memory of a love long lost. The music is beautiful, but it is a sad, wistful beauty that feels like an attempt to escape from the pain of loss. The program then closes with the quintet arrangement of Snétberger’s Rhapsody No. 1 for Guitar and Orchestra, which continues in the same emotional vein: wistful, somehow hopeful and resigned at the same time, finally trailing off into an ambiguous ending that just, well, ends, resolving nothing.

Thus ends an engaging program of music that is both soothing and unsettling. Ultimately, it is a testament  to the power of music’s ability to allow us to reflect upon the tragedies of life both large and small, from the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust to the personal tragedy of a lost loved one or perhaps merely the temporary pain of a would-be lover’s rejection. Music somehow affords us an abstract, distanced way to work through these all-too-present issues in our lives, whether it be by composing, performing, or, for most of us, listening. Not just hearing music, but really listening; and not just to it, but into it.

Bonus Recommendation:

Titok: Ferenc Snétberger, guitar; Anders Jormin, double bass; Joey Baron, drums. ECM 2017.

I have maintained in these pages before that I consider jazz, at least in some of its configurations, to be a form of chamber music, and thus I occasionally recommend jazz recordings in a space that of course focuses on classical music. In the case of Titok, this is music that can be heard as blending elements of jazz and folk. The instruments are all acoustic, which is unusual for a jazz guitar album. The sound is easy on the ears, but the music itself is far from simple-minded. This is not easy-listening music, but it is easy to listen to, delightfully imaginative, with Snétberger’s guitar being ably supported by Jormin’s nimble bass lines and Baron’s deft work behind the drumkit. The recording quality has that usual ECM rich sound. Titok is an album that folks who have been hesitant to listen to jazz might want to give an audition.


Aug 22, 2021

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (CD review)

Also, Eotvos: Alhambra (Violin Concerto no. 31). Isabelle Faust, violin; Pablo Heras-Casado, Orchestre de Paris. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902655.

By John J. Puccio

When Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company premiered Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre de Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, it caused a huge sensation. It was later called a “near riot” as the audience jeered and laughed, some of them walking out. Today, music historians see “The Rite” as a kind of turning point in classical music, a revolutionary work that formally introduced the world to the modern classical era.

By now, people have pretty much begun to take the avant-garde nature of Stravinsky’s early music for granted, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Of course, a lot of the stir at the time came about because of choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, but still.... The work’s subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts,” pretty much says it all. The story involves various primitive rituals celebrating the approach of spring (“Adoration of the Earth”), after which a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death (“The Sacrifice”). Grim and heady stuff, and certainly not the kind of music for the weak of heart, either on the part of the audience or the conductor. My own favorite recording of the piece remains Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 rendering with the New York Philharmonic, now on Sony. So Maestro Pablo Heras-Casado has a challenge to come up with as electrifying a presentation. Yet, with a French orchestra in the country of the premiere, he comes close.

Heras-Casado carries out the duties of the score with a minimum of fuss. His interpretation is a good, vigorous, highly colorful one, filled with all the energy you would expect from the music. He builds the excitement of the opening movements with a quietly careful attention. What’s more important, this attentiveness extends from the gentlest passages to the most boisterous ones. Then, when things heat up, he isn’t afraid to let loose and give us a truly exhilarating experience. Of course, the sonics, help as well, and they are quite good. By the time we reach the middle of Part II, “The Glorification of the Chosen One,” things are in full thrust. Yet Maestro Heras-Casados keeps a tight rein on the histrionics, never letting the music out of his control. For this reason alone, I prefer Bernstein because with his account you’re never quite sure how out of hand things are going to get (they never do get out of control, but it’s that sense of uncertainty that makes it so fascinating). Still, Heras-Casado’s vision is as thrilling as almost anyone’s and makes for a rewarding listen.

Accompanying The Rite is the world premiere recording of Alhambra (Violin Concerto no. 31) by Peter Eotvos (b. 1944), with Isabelle Faust, violin. Eotvos dedicated the piece to Ms. Faust and Maestro Heras-Casado. A booklet note tells us that Eotvos wrote the work as “a free form, with repeated sections. The violin, followed by a double in the guise of a mandolin with scordatura tuning (an alternate way of tuning a stringed instrument that varies from standard tuning), leads this dreamlike itinerary through the various parts of a palace (the Alhambra) full of mystery and ghosts.” Like much modern music, Eotvos’s Alhambra is kind of all over the place rhythmically and melodically, but when it ventures into purely atmospheric territory, it has an appropriately haunting quality that is hard to deny.

Artistic Director Martin Sauer and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music at the Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris, France in September 2019. It’s nicely done, with the addition of a little hall ambience to heighten the realism. A moderate sense of depth helps, too, as does a wide frequency range and some pretty decent dynamics (with hefty bass wallops). It makes for a very smooth, detailed, and welcome recording.


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

Aug 18, 2021

Recent Releases, No. 16 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Labyrinth: Khatia Buniatushvili, piano. Morricone: “Deborah's Theme” from Once Upon a Time in America; Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1; Chopin: Prélude in E minor Op. 28/4; Ligeti: Arc-En-Ciel, No. 5 from Études pour piano - Book I; Bach: Badinerie – from Orchestral Suite (Overture) No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067 arr. for piano four hands (with Gvantsa Buniatushvili); Bach: Air on the G String - from Orchestral Suite (Overture) No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068; Rachmaninov: Vocalise, Op. 34/14; Serge Gainsbourg: La Javanaise; Villa-Lobos: Valsa da dor; Couperin: Les Barricades Mystérieuses, from Pièces de clavecin - Book II; Bach (after Vivaldi): Sicilienne from Organ Concerto in D minor, BWV 596; Brahms: Intermezzo in A major Op. 118/2; Pärt: Pari Intervallo for piano four hands (w/Gvanstsa Buniatushvili); Glass: I'm Going to Make a Cake from The Hours; Scarlatti: Sonata in D minor, K. 32; Liszt: Consolation (Pensée poétique) in D-flat major S 172/3; Cage: 4'33"; Bach: Adagio from Keyboard Concerto in D minor BWV 974.. Sony Classics 19339743772.

Classical music lovers who are conversant with rock music will be familiar with the term “concept album,” examples of which include Tommy, The Wall, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. These were albums whose various cuts were tied together by some overarching theme or story (the concept) in an attempt to make the album something more than just a collection of songs. With her new release Labyrinth, Georgian-born pianist Khatia Buniatushvili has taken that same approach to this album of  compositions for piano by various composers. “The labyrinth is our mind, memories of our childhood from an adult’s perspective, the past, the present, not the future, for life is an instant whose following one is unknowable, and the labyrinth is life… The labyrinth is our fate and creation, our impasse and deliverance, the polyphony of life, senses, reawakened dreams, the neglected present, the evasive future… the labyrinth of our mind.” For each of the selections included in the album, she writes a brief narrative, starting with this sentence for the character of Deborah (from “Deborah’s Theme”): “At the ruins of her dreams she could see her childhood, which reminded her of everything she thought she should have had from life, whereas in reality it was in her and she had lost it” and ending with (for the Bach Adagio), “If she hadn’t been absent, she would have been walking bare-foot on the warm earth, she would have thought, ‘Someone else’s spring is also pleasant to watch’.” Wait, what? To be honest, had I read through her complete liner notes while still at the library where I obtained this CD, I most likely never would have would have checked it out. Suffice it to say that writing is not her strong suit. Instead, I took a look at the program printed on the back cover, thought it looked varied and interesting, and auditioned the disc without having given the booklet a glance – thank goodness! The musical program is quite satisfying. Many of the pieces are relatively tranquil in nature, and on top of that, Buniatushvili tends plays some them, such as the opening Morricone and the Pärt, at what seem to be exaggeratedly slow tempi. The end result is an album that really does lend itself to relaxation and reflection, although there are lively enough moments to be found, especially in some of the Bach. And yes, the penultimate selection in her program really is John Cage’s infamous 4’33”; indeed, it is hard to top that as a piece conducive to relaxation and reflection. In the end, I find it hard not be of two minds about this release. Part of me (the part that read the liner notes and contemplates the inclusion of the Cage) finds it an over-the-top, overly woo-woo exercise in immaturity, while the other part (the part that just sits down and enjoys the interesting program and beautiful sounds emanating from the speakers) finds it an enjoyable and entertaining recording. Just caught in the labyrinth, I guess…

Francisco Coll: Violin Concerto; Hidd’n Blue; Mural; Four Iberian Miniatures; Aqua Cinerea. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Gustavo Gimeno, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Pentatone PTC 5186 951.

The young Spanish composer Francisco Coll (b. 1985) has had the good fortune to encounter excellent advocates for his music early in his career in violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (born in Moldova in 1977, now a resident of Switzerland), a passionate advocate of new music, and Spanish-born conductor Gustavo Gimeno (b. 1976), who besides his gig in Luxembourg is also Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In his liner note remarks, Coll relates that “in recent years, my development as a composer – not to mention my development as a human being – could not be understood without the presence of Gustavo Gimeno, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Together with them, I had some of the most exhilarating experiences of my creative life. They have been a huge inspiration for me, and my worldview has grown side-by-side with theirs. When my works are on their music stands, I know that something wonderful is going to happen.”  The program on this generously filled disc (80:57) kicks off with Coll’s Violin Concerto, which Coll wrote for and dedicated to Ms. K. In fact, the author of the liner notes, Jesús Castañer, remarks that the work is “intimately linked to the the figure of Kopatchinskaja, not only because in its second movement he quotes his own Hyperlude IV – the work which brought them together –  but also because the whole piece is in a sense a portrait of the violinist; from the explosive fury of the first movement, through the sensuality of the second, to the youthful and unpredictable character of the third.”  OK, then, moving back to the music… Regarding the opening movement of the concerto, when I played it for an old Belgian friend, he observed with a twinkle in his eye, “Ah, mon ami, surely that is the fiddling most energetic, n'cest pas?” Far be it from me to argue with the world’s greatest detective: the opening movement truly is a whirlwind of virtuosic energy. The second movement starts off more slowly and mysteriously, but builds in intensity, ending with a cadenza for the violin. The third and final movement opens dramatically and features some significant contributions from the percussion section. Hidd’n Blue is a brief (4:44) piece for orchestra that features some colorful ideas (no pun intended) expressed in some fluttering sounds that come to an abrupt ending. Mural was written for a large orchestra and is a longer composition (24:25) of five movements. From the rhythmic, at times even manic opening moment, the more ordered second movement, through the more brooding, almost dreamlike third movement that gives way to the more energetic fourth movement –  which still has is its dreamy moments, to the finale, which starts moodily, proceeds in waves, builds in energy and then finally fades away, this truly is a restless piece overall, never feeling settled or static. The Four Iberian Miniatures for violin and chamber orchestra are something of a tongue-in-cheek romp, alluding to Spanish dance rhythms but never quite in  a straightforward way. The mood is capricious and energetic – I can imagine the players smiling as they play their way through these 13 minutes of breathless whimsy. The program closes with Aqua Cinerea, Coll’s Opus 1. It is marked in the program as being composed from 2005-2019, which I presume means it was originally composed in 2005 and then touched up a bit in 2019. To my ears at least, it is the weakest piece here, never really coming into focus. It starts in the strings, then along comes  percussion, then lower brass –  there is plenty of orchestral color, lots of interesting sounds, but things just never quite seem to cohere. To be fair, maybe they are actually not supposed to, and I am simply missing the point of the piece. In any event, even if you do not find this final cut to be enjoyable, that still leaves more than 70 minutes of rewarding music on this well-engineered disc, which is certainly a darned good deal. Besides, many listeners might enjoy Aqua Cinerea more than I did. And hey, I did not actively dislike it, I just found it to be one of those pieces that simply did nothing for me. Your mileage may vary. This is a release that highlights a young contemporary composer with a bright future ahead of him; it is well worth an audition.

Bayou: Thomas Strønen, drums/percussion; Ayumi Tanaka, piano; Marthe Lea, clarinet/voice/percussion. ECM 2633 072 4298.

This is another of those adventurous ECM albums that resides in that zone where jazz, chamber music, folk music, and musical imagination combine, create, and captivate. Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen has appeared on numerous previous recordings for ECM and other labels both as sideman and leader. Ayumi Tanaka is a Japanese pianist and composer who resides in Norway and often works with Norwegian musicians, while Marthe Lea is a Norwegian clarinetist and singer who leads a jazz quintet, sings Norwegian folk music, and has studied Indian classical music. They have come together on this album to record music born from spontaneous improvisation and interaction rather than from composition. Other than the opening title cut, Bayou, derived from a Norwegian folk song and sung by Lea, briefly reprised later on the album as Bayou II, the rest of the selections were mixed down from music the trio recorded spontaneously in one studio session. The music is spare, haunting, probing, and utterly fascinating. The liner pictures show the musicians during the session, and especially startling to see is the huge drum that forms part of Strønen’s setup. Its impressive bass note provides a firm sonic underpinning to the music from time to time, but is never used for mere effect. As huge as it is, it never draws more attention to itself than the brushes Strønen draws gently over his snare. Piano, clarinet, and percussion gently interact with each other, weaving a spell that seduces and enchants. This is a beguiling release that merits repeat listening to reveal more of its hidden charms.


Aug 15, 2021

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Piazzolla: The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Beau Fleuve Records 605996-998562.

By John J. Puccio

Don’t get me wrong. I have always enjoyed the work of conductor JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalo Philharmonic, and her performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is as elegantly affectionate as any I’ve heard. It’s just that it probably isn’t different enough from the multitude of other good recordings of the piece most of us already have on our shelves to warrant a purchase for the Seasons alone. No, it’s the inclusion of Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires that makes the album worthwhile.

Italian composer, violinist, impresario, teacher, and priest Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote Le quattro stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) between 1718 and 1720. Almost everybody recognizes the four tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Vivaldi intended the music to accompany four descriptive sonnets, and they constitute the first four parts of a longer work he titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). While most of us hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set, we cannot easily forget the first four, if only because they’ve been recorded so many times on practically every instrument known to man.

So, how does Ms. Falletta handle all this? As I said earlier, she approaches it with an elegant, refined affection, and the violin solos by Nikki Chooi are beautiful. The entire affair is well paced, not too fast, not too slow, with contrasts, pauses, extensions, and such providing color to each little tone picture. Here’s the thing, though: If you are used to a period-instrument, historically informed performance (Philharmonia Baroque, La Petite Bande, English Concert, Tafelmusik, Boston Baroque, etc.), Ms. Falletta’s account may be about the furthest thing from it. Still, for a modern-instruments rendering, this one is on a par with some of the best.

Nevertheless, Ms. Falletta’s version of Vivaldi is not the main attraction here. It’s the coupling of The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, also called Estaciones Porteñas (or “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” in English) by the Argentine composer of tangos Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) that makes the album worthwhile. He wrote the four short pieces between 1965 and 1970 and scored them for a quintet of violin (or viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneón. They are, of course, tangos, and Piazzolla intended them to represent the four seasons in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. But he didn’t necessarily write them to be played as a suite; it’s simply that after completing all four of them, it seemed the natural thing to do, which he often did. However, he didn’t play them in the order Vivaldi did; he organized them as “Otoño” (Autumn), “Invierno” (Winter), “Primavera” (Spring), and “Verano” (Summer). More often, though, contemporary musicians order as they are here: Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Ms. Falletta uses an orchestral arrangement by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, with violin solos by Tessa Lark. It’s quite the best I’ve heard these works done, particularly the haunting “Winter” selection.

Producer Bernd Gottinger made the recording live at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in September and October, 2020. Yes, the box says “recorded live” in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. One must assume the audience observed social distancing, so there couldn’t have many in attendance. This is supported by the fact that we hear nary a peep from them, and any applause that may have been there was edited out. Everything is dead quiet. Nor is it as closely miked as so many live recordings are, making it additionally hard to tell it from a studio production. Which I count as a blessing.

Anyway, the sound is quite good. It’s perhaps a tad forward and bright, but otherwise displays excellent detail, with strong dynamics and superb clarity and transparency. While it’s also a bit one-dimensional, without a lot of hall ambience, an extended frequency range tends to make up for it in its own way. So, as I said, it sounds like a good studio production rather than a live recording.


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

Aug 11, 2021

Recent Releases, No. 15 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 9 & 10. Gianandrea Noseda, London Symphony Orchestra. LSO Live LSO0828.

Another installment in Noseda’s ongoing Shostakovich cycle, this pairing of these consecutively numbered symphonies offers more than 79 minutes of gripping music in an unusual but welcome pairing of these two works by the late Russian master. Symphony No. 9 is the lighter and shorter of the two, consisting of five relatively brief movements. As you might expect from Shostakovich, though, although there are moments of lightness and humor, there are also moments of great energy. Listeners who have not heard this music before may be especially delighted to follow the trombone part in the opening movement. I won’t give it away; enjoy hearing it for yourself. What Symphony No. 9 lacks in those long brooding passages that the composer is known for, Shostakovich more than makes up for this in Symphony No. 10, which many fans of the composer consider to be his symphonic masterpiece (as do I, sometimes, but then at other times I favor No. 8, but then again, on other days, No. 4). The opening movement is nearly as long as the whole of No. 9, with Noseda doing a commendable job of maintaining our interest while ratcheting up the tension without resorting to cheap theatrics. He and the LSO players deliver a convincing performance of this work, with both the performance and the sound comparing favorably to two of my favorite recordings, Levi/Atlanta (Telarc) and Dohnányi/Cleveland (Decca/London). As the performance progresses, Noseda and the LSO maintain the tension but yet also bring out the softer, more introspective passages Shostakovich also includes into the score as well as the brooding and the anguish that never seem to completely go away. With excellent engineering, excellent performances, and two symphonies on one SACD (I auditioned the CD layer), this 79-minute disc is certainly a recommendable release for Shostakovich fans and doubtless many others could easily be converted to DSCH by giving this disc a good listen.    

John McLaughlin: Liberation Time. John McLaughlin, guitar/guitar synthesizer/piano; Roger Rossignol. piano; Rangit Barot, drums/konokol; Jean-Michel “Kiki” Aublette, drums/bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Nicolas Viccaro, drums; Julian Siegel, tenor saxophone; Etienne M’Bappé, bass; Gary Husband, drums/piano; Sam Burgess, bass; Jerome Regard, bass; Oz Esseldin, piano. Abstract Logic ABL 65.

For many folks of a certain age, a pivotal musical experience was hearing the 1973 album The Inner Mounting Flame by guitarist John Mclaughlin’s  Mahavishnu Orchestra, which featured McLaughlin on guitar, Jerry Goodman on violin, Jan Hammer on keyboards, Rick Laird on bass, and Billy Cobham on drums. This was intense music, dazzling in its speed and virtuosity and manic in its sheer energy. McLaughlin’s guitar playing knocked me out then and it knocks me out now. At age 79, he still has it. Those fingers can still fly! And as you might guess, this is another of those pandemic albums -- produced during conditions that have precluded the musicians involved from getting together in the studio as they normally would. As McLaughlin writes in his brief liner note, “This recording is the direct result of the restrictions imposed on all of us due to the Covid 19 pandemic. By the end of September 2020, I, like so many millions of people, had become deeply frustrated by these necessary ‘antisocial rules’ imposed, even so, with good intent by all governments. The result of this frustration was an explosion of music in my mind, which led to this recording.” By and large the musicians did not get together in the studio; rather, McLaughlin would send them his ideas for the various compositions and they would lay down supporting tracks that he would then listen to and respond to until eventually the various parts were mixed into final versions that became the seven cuts on the album. This was a worldwide effort, involving 11 musicians besides McLaughlin with recording taking place not only in Monaco (where McLaughlin resides and has a studio) but also in Paris, London, Cairo, and Los Angeles. I like to think of jazz as a kind of chamber music, which I am sure for some readers is stretching things too far, and in this case, the “chamber” is a virtual, digital simulacrum. Oh well, just put this CD into your player and let the opening guitar riff by Maestro McLaughlin bring your wandering mind right back into the here and now. Yes, his fingers can still fly. This is what got termed “fusion music” back in the 1970s, an energetic blend of rock and jazz, played on mostly electric/electronic instruments. But McLaughlin has never been one to rest on simple rock or funk cliches, he is a serious, probing musician who has always stressed the spiritual dimension of music. He is seeking liberation not just from the restrictions of the pandemic, but liberation of the spirit, and his music dances and sings in its energetic interplay of musicians. Besides the thrill of hearing those 79-year-old fingers dancing along the frets, other thrills include the kokonol singing of drummer Ranjit Barot on the cut “Lockdown Blues” (kokonol being a rhythmic vocalization style from South Indian Carnatic music) and the gentler thrill of hearing McLaughlin play the piano rather than the guitar on two brief tracks, “Mila Repa” and “Shade of Blue.” The album concludes with the rousing title cut, “Liberation Time,” for which digital magic enables the trio of McLaughlin (guitar), Burgess (bass), and Husband (piano and drums) to liberate themselves into one heck of a quartet. Given the way the album was recorded, it makes no sense to talk of imaging and such, but I can report that there is no brightness or glare to the sound, so it will not fry your tweeters or cause you any sort of listener fatigue.  

Mark John McEncroe: Fanfare Suite. Stephen Williams, Sydney Scoring Orchestra. Navona NV6329.

Australian composer Mark John McEncroe (b. 1947) did not take up music seriously until later in life, starting serious piano studies at the age of 37 while continuing his professional life as a chef until age 50. He subsequently studied composition and orchestration privately, eventually transforming himself into a serious composer as evidenced by the three compositions on this new release from Navona. In the liner notes, McEncroe writes that all the music on this album was originally scored for full orchestra, and after recording it that way in 2015, “conductor Anthony Armoré suggested to me that this repertoire would be very suitable for concert band, particularly Fanfare Suite. I then recorded it with the Sydney Scoring Orchestra, a composite studio orchestra which for this session were mostly all members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”  Of the work that opens this CD, McEncroe writes that “when I think of the Fanfare Suite, I think of Aaron Copland and wide open spaces, big horizons, the Grand Canyon, John Ford/John Wayne movies etc. However, I’m not American so I’d like to think of it as more universal in its ‘grandness’.” In four movement totaling more than 40 minutes, it is indeed a grand piece, and as played and recorded here has a big, full, open sound that you would expect from a professional concert band. The first of the four movements lives up to the fanfare designation, but there are moments that sound very jazzlike. The second movement ramps up the drama, often playing off the contrast between the sound of the brass and the sound of the winds. The third movement, although it features a prominent bass drum part, comes across as more reflective overall, even pastoral, with a layered presentation. The final movement, which is the hottest of the four, begins with brass and percussion leading the way, giving a real sense of occasion, and there are some engaging rhythms to be heard as the music continues. The two compositions that complete the album are both characterized as symphonic poems. Celebration of the Natural World is tuneful, colorful, and engaging, while The Passing is more somber in mood. It is reflective, but although it opens softly and is often reflective in mood, is not always peaceful and quiet in expression, making especially expressive use of woodwinds and percussion. All in all, this is an enjoyable recording, well played and well recorded. The music may not be memorable or profound, but it is pleasant and listenable, and there are times when that is sufficient. My only quibble is that it would have been nice to have more extensive liner notes, but I have no significant reservations about the music or the engineering. The former chef has served up some musical comfort food.

Dwb (driving while black): Roberta Gumbel, libretto; Susan Kander, music; performed by Roberta Gumbel, soprano, and New Morse Code (Hannah Collins, cello; Michael Compitello, percussion). Albany Records TROY1858.

What we have here is far from musical comfort food; it is music to make us feel uncomfortable – but for good reason. Soprano Roberta Gumbel not only does the singing, she wrote the libretto for this opera, while the music was composed by Susan Kander (b. 1957). In his brief note included in the liner booklet, director Chip Miller offers a succinct overview of the piece: “When I was studying for my driver’s license test, my parents sat me down for an important discussion about car safety: what to do when you are pulled over by a police officer. As they went through the list of instructions, I’m sure I rolled my eyes. To me, the car represented freedom, and that was all I could see. I could not yet see the numerous times I would be pulled over for being in the wrong neighborhood. I could not yet see the danger that exists when you are black and in motion in America. But my parents did. Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s dwb (driving while black) provided a window through which to revisit that crucial conversation, this time through the vantage point of my parents. In its swift 45 minutes, we spend 16 years with a black mother, feeling her growing fear as her black son moves toward driving age. The anxieties of being black and behind the wheel are given voice: in the gorgeous words sung by the mother, in the atmosphere created by the percussionist and cellist, and in the retellings of real stories of discrimination.” Lest the reader think dwb is of political interest only, I hasten to add that it is musically fascinating. Not only does Gumbel draw the listener in with her dramatic singing and storytelling, but the instrumental duo New Morse Code are simply amazing in the way they are able to move the story along with such a colorful variety of rhythms, textures, accents, and colors from just two musicians. Credit of course must also be given to composer Kander and the engineering crew for capturing these sounds so vividly. To be honest, I was not sure what to expect from this recording, but I was quickly won over not only by the dramatic storyline but also by the sheer energy and imagination of the music itself. The libretto is included in the booklet; this is a first-class production in every way, even if not your typical opera.   

Bonus Recommendation
Sebastian Fagerlund: Drifts; Stonework; Transit. Ismo Eskelinen, guitar; Hannu Lintu, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. BIS-2295 SACD.

I have observed before that much contemporary orchestral music tends to favor the creation of interesting sounds over the spinning of memorable melodies, or as others have characterized it, an emphasis on the vertical rather than the horizontal. This recording of music by the Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund (b. 1972) falls into the former category. No, this is not dissonant music that will make you cringe, but on the other hand, if you are looking for something pretty, there is very little here that will satisfy your cravings. Drifts is a composition for orchestra of just under 12 minutes in length. It is a powerful work that proceeds in waves of energy, at times from the brass, at times from the strings, constantly churning and changing. The overall tone color is dark, with an emphasis on the lower end of the sonic spectrum. Stonework is brighter in overall tone, with more contributions from the higher brass, woodwinds, and strings. Throughout its more than 15 minutes it just keeps changing, never settling into one type of sound or rhythm.  Both these pieces I would characterize as bold, fascinating, certainly fun to hear on a big system, but not really musically memorable. Transit, which is a concerto for guitar and orchestra, is an unusual concerto in six movements that are played without pause. The guitar never really makes any virtuoso display; indeed, it often plays rather quietly. However, the overall effect of the quiet guitar and the variety of moods displayed by the orchestra tend to draw the listener in. At first listen, I found the piece underwhelming, but as I listened to it a few more times, I began to find myself intrigued by its soft-spoken quirkiness. Overall, this is not a recording for everyone, but fans of soft-spoken quirkiness (you know who you are) might want to give it a listen.  


Aug 8, 2021

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 “The Great” (CD review)

Gerard Schwarz, New York Chamber Symphony. Master Performers MP 21 03.

By John J. Puccio

Conductor (and trumpeter) Gerard Schwarz (b. 1947) was the longtime Music Director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (1985-2011) as well as the Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival. He currently serves as the Music Director of the Palm Beach Symphony and the Frost Symphony Orchestra. I mention all this because he apparently kept a stash of his old unreleased recordings that he is just now issuing on the Master Performers label. The disc under consideration is Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, which he recorded with the New York Chamber Symphony over thirty years ago. Needless to say, age makes little difference in the world of classical music, so it may as well have been produced yesterday.

Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote his Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 “The Great” somewhere between 1825 and his death in 1828. The history of this last of Schubert’s numbered symphonies is somewhat peculiar, however, because although the composer dated it 1828, the year of his death, he probably didn’t actually write it in 1828. In fact, it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than 1828, maybe 1826, which makes little difference since, as with the rest of Schubert’s orchestral music, he never published any of it, anyway. The public didn’t hear the Ninth until 1839, eleven years after the composer died; and when it finally got published in 1849, it was listed as Schubert’s Eighth Symphony. These days, audiences consider it one of the staples of the classical music world, whether they number it No. 7, 8, or 9.

The structure of the symphony is in a conventional four-movement format: I. Andante – Allegro ma non troppo – Più moto; II. Andante con moto; III. Scherzo. Allegro vivace; Trio; and IV. Finale: Allegro vivace. However, its length was quite long by the standards of the time (Robert Schumann called it a “heavenly length”), and early musicians found it difficult to play because of its extended string and woodwind parts. Whatever, listeners have always loved it.

Maestro Schwarz takes a genial, easygoing approach to the symphony while managing to maintain much of it size and grandeur. (He plays it complete, as Schubert intended, with no cuts and all the repeats intact.) Both of my favorite recordings in this work do much the same thing but with some cuts: Otto Klemperer (EMI) deftly holds together the magnitude of the structure while still maintaining an amiable attitude; and Josef Krips (Decca or HDTT) manages to produce a largely cheerful production while also preserving most the music’s expansive scale. Schwarz is a touch more solemn and straightforward than either of these preferred conductors, yet he still gives us a solid, well-considered interpretation.

Under Maestro Schwarz the second-movement Andante seems to go on a tad long, yet it never drags. It just hasn’t as much energy as it might nor sustain as baronial a manner as it could. Still, it follows neatly the elegant tone set by the prior movement, introducing a further note of melancholy into the proceedings. Although Schwarz’s view of the Scherzo is not as joyous as some I have heard, it fits the pattern he established in the first two movements and provides a smooth continuity for the music. When the grand finale enters, Schwarz meets it head-on, producing a movement of vigor and splendor. Although Schwarz’s realization of the symphony does not quite reach the heights of a few other conductors, his recording is thoughtful, sturdy, and steady and cannot be discounted.

Producers Marc Anbort and Joanna Niekrenz and engineer Marc Anbort recorded the symphony at The Manhattan Center, New York in December 1987. The sound has a pleasantly soft, warmly comfortable feeling to it. In fact, the sound is silky smooth, which tends to blur slightly the detail. On the other hand, it makes the sound fairly inoffensive and easy to listen to. Dynamics, too, seem a bit on the constricted side, which is maybe in keeping with the sound’s casual air of effortlessness. Audiophile sound? Not exactly. Pleasing to the ear? Surely.


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

Aug 4, 2021

Recent Releases, No. 14 (CD Mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Randall Goosby: Roots. Xavier Dubois Foley: Shelter Island; Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Blue/s Forms for solo violin; George Gershwin (arr. Joshua Heifitz): Porgy and Bess selections; William Grant Still: Suite for Violin and Piano; Florence Price: Adoration; Fantasie No. 1; Fantasy No. 2; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (arr. Maud Powell): Deep River; Antonîn Dvorák: Sonatina. Randall Goosby, violin; Zhu Wang, piano; Xavier Dubois Foley, double bass. Decca B0033878-02.

From the opening notes of the first cut, Shelter Island, with violinist Goosby (b. 1996), a protégé of Itzhak Perlman, swinging along in blues-tinged fashion with the young composer Xavier Foley (b. 1994) on bass, you know this is not going to be yet another virtuosic display by a violinist out to stake a claim in the classical landscape. A glance at the program, with its emphasis on music by African-American composers (the liner notes point out that Goosby also “included works by two non-Black composers, Antonîn Dvorák and George Gershwin, because of the admiration and respect they showed for African-American and Native American people during their time, and in their music”). Throughout the recording, Goosby makes a case for this music with his sensitive but always enthusiastic playing. He can make it swing, he can make it sing, he can make it cry, he can make it fly... We seem to have here a major new musical talent, and we should salute him (and the folks at Decca) for presenting us with such a fresh and fascinating – not to mention timely and important – musical program for his debut. Kudos to all concerned!

SIGNUM Saxophone Quartet: Echoes. John Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae (Arr. Knoth); Max Richter: On the Nature of Daylight; Philip Glass: 1957: Award Montage (from String Quartet No. 3 “Mishima”); Gabriel Fauré: Pie Jesu (from Requiem) (Arr. Knoth); Peter Gregson: Allemande (after J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4); Joep Beving: Ab Ovo (Arr. Knoth); Remo Giazotto: Adagio in G Minor (Attrib. T. Albinoni); Paul Hindemith: Chorale (from Trauermusik); Peteris Vasks: Then Time Stopped (from Songs of Love); Guillermo Lago: Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (from Ciudades). SIGNUM Saxophone Quartet (Blaz Kemperle, soprano saxophone; Hayrapet Arakelyan, alto/soprano saxophones; Alan Luzar, tenor saxophone; Guerino Bellarosa, baritone saxophone); Hila Karni, cello; Grace Davidson, soprano. Deutsche Grammophon 486 0582.

Most people today associate the saxophone with jazz, but in its early days (it was invented around 1840) it was employed primarily in classical ensembles and wind bands. It was not until the 1920s that the saxophone began to take off as an instrument featured in jazz bands. Still, we don’t really tend to think of the saxophone as a classical instrument, and although the typical classical music fan could rattle off the names of any number of string quartets (Juilliard, Guarneri, Budapest, Emerson, Hagen, Takacs, etc.), I doubt that only a very few could name any saxophone quartets. Enter the SIGNUM Saxophone Quartet with their new DG recording titled Echoes, playing music spanning nearly 500 years and making it sound like the most natural thing in the word for it to be played by four saxophones (augmented on a couple of selections, the Richter and the Hindemith, by a cello, and on the Fauré by the voice of soprano Grace Davidson). Never does this sound like some sort of novelty album; every cut sounds natural and musical, as though it were written for these instruments, which is only literally true for the final cut on the album, Sarajevo. From the 16th-century music of Dowland through the contemporary compositions of Richter and Gregson, this collection is sheer delight both musically and sonically. My only reservation about this release is its length, which is just over 39 minutes. Rest assured, all 39 minutes are really wonderful, but yeah, there really could have been a lot more. Sigh…

Mozart Momentum 1785. CD1: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K 466; Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major K 467. CD2: Fantasia in C minor K 475; Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello No. 1 in G minor K 478; Masonic Funeral Music in C minor K477; Piano Concerto No 22 in E-Flat Major K 482. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and direction (concertos); Matthew Truscott, violin and direction (Masonic Funeral Music); Joel Hunter, viola; Frank Michael Guthmann, Cello; Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Sony Classical 194397462.

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes brings us a two-CD set of music composed by Mozart in the year 1785. The liner notes explain that in1784, Mozart had written six piano concertos to play at subscription concerts in Vienna, but then in 1785, “he changed gear… Over the next two years, Mozart significantly reduced his quantitative output of piano  concertos but massively increased their depth, expression and architectural imagination in inverse proportion.” Certainly the two concertos found on CD1 are probably the best-known of all the Mozart concertos, having been paired together on LP and CD countless times by countless musicians, and for good reason – they are both splendid works. Most music lovers are already going to have their favorite recordings; all I can say is that these performances by Andsnes and the MCO are very good both musically and sonically and would be a good introduction to these works for someone new to classical music as they avoid any interpretive excess. CD2 brings more variety, with some solo piano music, a short and somber bit of funeral music, a piano quartet that sounds like a reduced piano concerto – I do not mean that at all negatively; it is a wonderful piece of music bursting with melody, and finally, a piano concerto (No. 22) that is not encountered as often as those found on CD1. All in all, this is a splendid collection of some of Mozart’s most inspired music, and a follow-up release (Mozart Momentum 1786) is said to be scheduled for later in 2021.

Ramon Humet: Llum (Light). Tanca els ulls (Close Your Eyes); Camina endins (Walk Inside); Baixa al cim de l’Anima (Descent to the Summit of the Soul); Pedra nua (Naked Stone); Pau al Cor (The Peaceful Heart); Engrunes de Llum (Luminous Crumbs); Alleluia (Alleluia). Sigvards Klava, Latvian Radio Choir. Ondine ODE 1389-2.

In his brief liner notes, Spanish composer Ramon Humet (b. 1968) invites his listeners to “take a journey inward, to travel to the immense space which is, precisely, what makes us human, to that silent place which exists within us, to the deep wellspring that is the birthplace of everything, to the bright sapling of Peace; to the infinite, which announces the Mystery; to the gift of Life, Peace and Love.” For many potential listeners, that might sound like pretentious twaddle; however, I hope it does not dissuade you from giving this release an audition, for I have found it to be one of the most beautiful recordings I have heard in quite some time. The Latvian Radio Choir sings Humet’s challenging score quite beautifully. As the composer elaborates, “the texts which accompany each of the seven stages of this inner pilgrimage were written by my friend Vicenç Santamaria, a monk from the monastery of Montserrat. The words have been set to music for a variety of choral formations – mixed choir, female voice choir, double choir – and for different soloists. All the pieces are composed to be sung a cappella, and in Luminous Crumbs, crotales and bar chimes have been added.” The variety of sounds and vocal textures projected by the choir over the course of the program truly do enhance the sense of movement and change as the work progresses. (The liner booklet, by the way, contains the text, both in Spanish and English translation.) Regardless of what you might think of the text, the music is superb. Just close your eyes, look inside, and let the sound take you away…


Aug 1, 2021

Beethoven: 13 Times the Same and 13 Times Different (CD review)

Symphony No. 5. Robert Trevino, Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Various other conductors and orchestras. Naxos 8.551451 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

Many years ago, in the early Eighties as I recall, I invited a group of classical music-loving friends over to listen and compare as many versions of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony as we could assemble. It was just for fun, and over the course of several nights about a dozen of us listened to more than a dozen different Fifth Symphony Allegro con brios (the opening movement). Not that it matters, but we favored three recordings above the rest: Arturo Toscanini (RCA), Fritz Reiner (RCA), and Carlos Kleiber (DG) because they appeared to have the most energy and impact, with a fourth recording by Karl Bohm (DG) a runner-up because it sounded the most like what we all considered a traditional Fifth Symphony to sound like.

I mention all this because it’s pretty much what the folks at Naxos have done with this disc, subtitled “Ta ta tata.” So, yes, it’s a kind of gimmick album. But there’s method behind the madness. As the producers explain in a cover note: “The notes G-G-G-E flat, better known as simply ‘ta-ta-ta-taaa,’ are perhaps the four most famous in all of classical music. They form the opening motif of Symphony No. 5 in C minor by Ludwig van Beethoven. Featured here are twelve interpretations of the famous first movement by legendary artists including Otto Klemperer, Michael Gielen, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Jascha Horenstein, exploring the range and diversity of Beethoven’s Fifth on record during the last 70 years. A complete performance of the symphony in a new recording conducted by Robert Trevino is also included. Hear, discover and compare.”

Unfortunately, you will not find the four conductors I mentioned in the introduction; however, you will find enough varied interpretations to get the idea that all music is subjective and can be perceived differently by both a conductor and an audience.

As we all know, most composers leave the nuances of musical interpretation to conductors, so matters of rubato, legato, contrast, dynamics, tempi, and many other elements are up to conductors to convey in their own personal visions of such matters. Nevertheless, a simple glance at the timings on this disc for each conductor’s rendering of the first movement tell us something right away. For instance, it should come as no surprise that conductors like Roger Norrington and Roy Goodman, known for their work in historically informed performances, should turn in some of the quickest times: 6:23 and 7:36 minutes respectively, or that Otto Klemperer and Hans Rosbaud, known for their more traditional approaches, should be the slowest: 8:09 and 8:53. What may be surprising, though, is that the newest of the recordings--the complete rendering that closes the second disc--by Maestro Trevino, would be as fleet-footed as it is: 6:50.

Anyway, to add to the madness, we also have the fact that Beethoven himself was experimenting with the newfangled metronome machine at the time and left precise metronome markings for each movement, something that most conductors for the past 200 years have ignored. Why? Some conductors have simply disagreed with the tempi, choosing to present the music their own way. Other conductors have just followed tradition, correct or not. While a few others believe Beethoven’s metronome must have been faulty and that he couldn’t have really meant the tempi to be so fast. Whatever, we get a wide range of readings on the present disc, and it’s fun to make up our own minds as to which ones we enjoy the most.

Here’s a complete rundown of the tracks involved:

1. Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (1951)
2. Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (2005)
3. Pro Musica Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein (1956)
4. Southwest German Radio Symphony, Hans Rosbaud (1961)
5. The Hanover Band, Roy Goodman (1983)
6. Konstantin Scherbakov, piano (1998)
7. Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Helmut Muller-Bruhl (2006)
8. Danish Chamber Orchestra, Adam Fischer (2016)

1. Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michael Gielen (1970)
2. Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Roger Norrington (2002)
3. Dresden Philharmonic, Herbert Kegel (1982/83)
4. Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, Bela Drahos (1995)
5-8. Malmo Symphony Orchestra, Robert Trevino (2019)

Otto Klemperer opens the program with a reading that may be on the slow side but is powerful and energetic. He would later record it in stereo with the New Philharmonia, of course, but this earlier one seems to me more animated. Skrowaczewski’s reading, in contrast, is much quicker paced but seems lacking in character compared to Klemperer’s more monumental production. Horenstein seems positively glacial compared to the first two. Rosbaud adopts a heavy, conventional approach, which takes a moment or two to get used to. Goodman and his Hanover Band on period instruments seems fairly lightweight next the preceding conductors. Scherbakov’s piano transcription (arr. Franz Liszt) provides an absorbing and welcome counterbalance to the surrounding orchestral versions. Then Muller-Bruhl’s and Adam Fischer’s chamber ensemble renditions get us back into the conventional swing of things, although they were a bit too much the welterweights for my taste.

Michael Gielen starts disc two out on a zippy note, followed by Roger Norrington’s decidedly unconventional delivery, which starts out rather slowly and then speeds into a frenzy of varied tempos, pauses, dynamics, and contrasts. It’s anything but boring, but I don’t know that I’d want to visit it often. Herbert Kegel and Bela Drahos lead traditional performances before Robert Trevino and his Malmo Symphony close the program in lively fashion with the complete symphony. Still, nothing I heard on the two discs dissuaded me from liking Kleiber, Reiner, Szell, and Bohm best of all.

Naxos made this album in Germany and released it in 2021. Obviously, most of the selections have different recording dates, different production teams, and different recording venues, which the booklet does not identify. (They suggest you visit their Web site for complete information.) Whatever the circumstance, however, the sound engineers transferred all of it pretty well, whether it’s mono or stereo, seventy years old or just a few years old. The Klemperer mono track that opens disc one, for instance, is very dynamic and wide ranging. If it had been in stereo, I would have said it was the best sounding track of all. Nevertheless, the listener will not be too disappointed in the sound of any of the tracks.


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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa