Recent Releases, No. 19 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Igor Levit: On DSCH. Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87; Stevenson: Passacaglia on DSCH. Igor Levit, piano. Sony Classical 19439809212.

Sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself. In preparation for this review I did a quick mental inventory of recordings of the Shostakovich 24 preludes and Fugues in my collection. Of course there was the version that had served as my introduction to these pieces nearly 30 years ago (how could that be?!), Keith Jarrett’s ECM recording. Then there was the Konstantin Scherbakov Naxos recording, originally released in 2000 but which I have owned for maybe 10 years or so. Then I remembered that I also owned a version by Vladimir Ashkenazy, which was included in a Decca boxed set of Shostakovich’s chamber music. But what made me laugh is that while looking for that boxed set, I ran across another Decca release that I did not even realize I owned, this one featuring just the 24 Preludes and Fugues. An embarrassment, yes, but an embarrassment of riches. Having previously been impressed by Levit’s pianistic artistry, I had been looking forward eagerly to this new release, not only to hear his interpretation of the Shostakovich, but also to hear for the first time the Passacaglia on DSCH by the late Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015), having read read an  interview with Levit in the September issue of Gramophone magazine in which Levit discussed at some length this new recording and his thoughts about the composers and their music, at one point declaring that, “the Passacaglia on DSCH is a combination of intellectual, pianistic, physical and emotional effort. So far it’s really been second to none for me. It’s kind of a larger-than-life piece that I feel very close to -- a musical piece of genius beyond belief.”

Although I hardly needed yet another recording of DSCH’s 24 to add to my collection, my admiration for Levit’s musicianship combined with my curiosity about the Stevenson piece compelled me to place an advance order for the bizarrely illustrated 3-CD set that I began to audition as soon as it arrived a couple of weeks ago and have listened to numerous times since. Levit brings a warmth and depth of expression to the Shostakovich that draws the listener in. Part of this impression may be attributable to the recorded sound of the piano, which is on the warm and full side, yet very clear and detailed. In comparison, Jarrett’s interpretation seems a bit more Bach-like, whereas Levit’s strikes my ears as more Liszt-like, if that makes any sense at all. To be honest, I like them both, but at different times and for different reasons and different purposes. But my goodness, the Levit is wonderful, and has become my favored version. The Stevenson piece is something I have not quite completely come to grips with; that is not to say I do not like it, for I do, but it is a complex piece, expressing a multitude of styles and emotions, something like a symphony for the piano. I can well appreciate Levit’s thoughts about it and I furthermore appreciate his having recorded it for us to hear and enjoy. This is quite a release. The music is rewarding, particularly with the inclusion of the seldom-encountered but significant composition by Stevenson that so well complements the Shostakovich, the playing is beyond reproach, as is the engineering, and the liner booklet is informative and engaging. The net result is a first-class release that I highly recommend to DSCH fans, even those who already have a favorite recording of his marvelous 24 Preludes and Fugues. Allow me to close with a thought to ponder from Levit: “Music is freer than certain figures of our industry on the writing side, or blogging side, are trying to make us believe. That’s something I find uplifting about music; it’s just there to be experienced, not to be explained. I am not a teacher.”

Klebanov: Chamber Works. Includes String Quartets Nos 4 and 5; Piano Trio No. 2. ARC Ensemble (Erika Raun and Marie Berard, violins; Steven Dann, viola; Thomas Wiebe, Kevin Ahfat, piano). Chandos CHAN 20231.

I slipped this CD into the tray of my CD player, hit the PLAY button, and retreated quickly to my listening chair, not quite sure what to expect, never having heard any music by the Jewish-Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1987). Would it be harsh and discordant, spooky and mysterious. or just kind of faceless and bland? Imagine my surprise, then, when the first music that I heard pouring from my speakers was – are you ready for this? – Christmas music! Yes, the first few bars of Klebanov’s String Quartet No. 4 were familiar to my ears as the opening bars of that familiar Christmas tune, Carol of the Bells. As the liner notes explain, “The accessible and spirited Fourth Quartet is dedicated to the memory of the much-loved Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych, whose secular choral works draw on the country’s folk music… The quartet draws on melodies by Leontovych; the opening movement is based on his song Shchedryk (Little Swallow), a perennial favourite composed in 1904 and better known in the West as the Christmas favourite ‘Carol of the Bells’.” You learn something every day! The Fourth Quartet (1946) is rather brief, its four movements totaling under 17 minutes in this performance, but it is lively, tuneful and engaging. His Piano Trio No. 2 (1958) is the longest work on the program at nearly 31 minutes. It is more serious in mood than the preceding quartet, but that is not to imply that it is somber by any means. It simply feels more musically mature, more expressive – and the three musicians really dig into their parts with gusto, as if to convince their listeners of the musical value of this long-overlooked score. This is an impassioned performance indeed! And likewise with the performance of Klebanov’s String Quartet No. 5 (1965), which likewise feels more musically mature and deeply expressive than his preceding quartet. All in all, this is another truly rewarding release in the “Music in Exile” series of recordings by Canada’s ARC Ensemble. (We previously reviewed their fine recording of chamber works by Walter Kaufmann here.) Like Kaufmann, Klebanov was a composer whose music was suppressed by the Soviet regime and has long been neglected. All three works featured on this beautifully engineered CD are premier recordings; moreover, the liner booklet features not only information about the music but also biographical information to put Klebanov’s life and travails in clear perspective. As my Belgian friend said to me after we listened to this album and poured through the liner notes, “Mon ami, this ARC Ensemble, they not only play the music most beautiful, but they also do the work most noble, n’cest-pas?

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1, 14, & 15; Chamber Symphony in C minor. Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon B0033803-02.

Not long into auditioning this release from Nelsons and his Boston forces, I was struck by two things. First, the bass on this recording was prodigious, with a drum sound to rival the most impressive Telarc recordings from back in the day. Second, the performance of the Shostakovich First Symphony seemed slow. My first impression regarding the engineering held up throughout my listening sessions, and was frankly kind of fun; however, I could not quite get over the slow tempi. The Shostakovich First should sound like a bit of a romp, some high-spirited fun, but that quality is missing here. I thought Bernstein on his old Chicago recording on DG stretched the First about as far as it could go, but Nelsons stretches it beyond the breaking point. Symphony No. 15 likewise just feels, at least to these ears, a bit too slow, and likewise with the Chamber Symphony. All things considered, the recorded sound is powerful and resonant, most impressive indeed, but the performances just never seem to catch fire. If you are new to Shostakovich and are looking for a good coupling of his Symphonies Nos. 1 & 15, two worthy options I can recommend are Wigglesworth on BIS and Inbal on Denon. Also, the Bernstein/Chicago DG recording that couples Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7 features a performance of No. 1 that although slow, is still intriguing and well worth a listen. To be honest, though, it is not a recording I would recommend for someone coming to this symphony for the first time, but rather to those already familiar with the work. But the Symphony No. 7  by these forces is simply incredible, a recording that every fan of Shostakovich would do well to give an audition. Oh. My. Goodness.

Jan Järvlepp: High Voltage Chamber Music. Includes Quintet 2003; Woodwind Quintet; Bassoon Quartet; String Quartet No. 1. Jae Cosmos Lee, violin; Sirius Quartet (Fung Chen Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello); Arcadian Winds (Vanessa Holroyd, flute/alto flute; Jennifer Slowick, oboe and English horn; Rane Moore, clarinet; Clark Matthews, French horn; Janet Underhill, Meryl Summers, Naho Zhu, bassoons; Susie Tulsie, contrabassoon/bassoon). Navona NV6366.

This album of chamber music by contemporary Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp (b. 1953) might also be titled “High-Spirited Chamber Music,” because each of the four musical selections projects energy, optimism, and a real zest for both music and life. Although that overall mood prevails throughout the four pieces, each is for a different ensemble – string quintet (featuring three violins, leading to what Jarvlepp calls some “fancy fiddling”), woodwind quintet, bassoon quartet, and string quartet – making for a refreshing variety of sonorities as the program proceeds. Although I would characterize the music on this album as “easy to listen to,” I do not at all mean to imply that it is not serious music. It is serious, finely crafted music that happens to be of a nature that makes it pleasant but still captivating, evincing a mood in the listener more along the lines of Shubert’s “Trout” than a late Beethoven quartet. Each of the ensembles digs into the music with evident enthusiasm, reminding the listener that the true purpose of chamber music is not so much to be heard as to be played. But as consolation for those of us who can only hear it, not play it, let us remember that chamber music is meant to be played not in a concert hall but in intimate setting, for a few family and friends gathered in a home -- and if not in the same room as the actual quartet or quintet, then in a comfortable room with decent stereo system reproducing fine chamber music recordings such as this one.


Leo Sowerby: The Paul Whiteman Commissions (CD review)

Andy Baker Orchestra; Avalon String Quartet. Cedille CDR 90000 205.

By John J. Puccio

Jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman’s greatest contributions to music were probably his commissions, like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, which he premiered with his band. However, these were not the only works he requested, and on the present disc we get two scores he commissioned from American composer Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), as well as three other Sowerby pieces, which are here rendered as closely as possible to their original versions by the Andy Baker Orchestra and by the Avalon String Quartet.

First up on the program is Synconata, a work Whiteman debuted in 1924. In offering the commission to Sowerby, Whiteman requested something that would incorporate the typical American idioms of jazz, gospel, and folk in an orchestral setting and fit into what the bandleader called his “Revolutionary Concerts.” Because Sowerby never published a definitive edition of this work and several of the others, the disc rightfully calls the present arrangements world-premiere recordings.

There’s a good deal of jazz in Synconata, probably more so than we find in Gershwin, yet it all works in fine, high fashion. There is nothing gaudy, tacky, or showy about the music; it’s just a good combination of classical jazz and jazzy classical, with a profoundly rhythmic forward pulse. The band plays it with zeal and provides it with all the color it deserves.

The other Whiteman commission is Symphony for Jazz Orchestra (“Monotony”), which followed Synconata in 1925. It’s subtitled “A Symphony for Metronome and Jazz Orchestra,” a description that pretty well describes its four movements. As befitting the symmetry of the album, it closes the show. This one is more symphonic in structure than Synconato and appears to borrow a tad more from Gershwin. Moreover, this time out Sowerby is more whimsical than before, as well as more melodious. The ragtime element isn’t quite as prominent but the 1920s’ jazz element is. While the piece may be a little too long for its material, it is certainly fun stuff and infectious. It’s almost impossible not to smile and enjoy it.

In between the Whiteman commissions on the disc there are three Sowerby chamber works. The first is the Serenade in G Major for String Quartet from 1917, one of the composer’s first important pieces. It is here ably performed by the Avalon String Quartet. One can see why Whiteman a little later wanted Sowerby to write something specifically for him. The Serenade is not a serenade in the strictest sense, but it does impart a strong classical sense, along with a snappy vigor.

After that we hear the String Quartet in D minor (1923) with the Avalon Quartet and Tramping Tune for Piano and Strings (1917) with pianist Winston Choi, double-bassist Alexander Hanna, and the Avalon players. The D minor Quartet is a bit more serious than the earlier Serenade and considerably longer, placing it more strongly in the traditional classical genre. However, as it goes along, it opens up to a fluent, springy gait and a generally warm, affable cheerfulness. The little Tramping Tune is obviously a nod to World War I and marches along in hearty fashion.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music at Kennedy-King College, Chicago, Illinois in January 2020 and at Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois in January 2021. Cedille’s crackerjack team produces a sound that is the cat’s meow. It’s a snazzy combination of transparency, dynamics, ambience, air, wide frequency response, and naturalness. In other words, it’s a doozy and could hardly be better. Zowie!


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

Novak: Piano Concerto (CD review)

Also, At Dusk; Toman and the Wood Nymph. Jan Bartos, piano; Jakub Hrusa, Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. Supraphon SU-4284-2.

By Bill Heck

The title of this release,
Piano Concerto, Toman and the Wood Nymph, needs a little clarification. Yes, the first work on the disk is Novak’s one and only piano concerto, but that’s not the real highlight: the concerto is a very early work, enjoyable but not truly representative of the composer’s more mature style. Next, the second piece that you’ll hear is not in the title at all: a four-movement work for solo piano entitled At Dusk. Finally, the last work on the disk, Toman, not only is the featured item, but also the last composed. What doesn’t need clarification is that all three pieces are worth hearing and well-played to boot. (One might accuse Supraphon of burying the lede; as that last sentence shows, I won’t!)

With those clarifications out of the way, let’s turn to the question surely on the minds of many readers: just who was this Vitezslav Novak anyway? Although the list of classical music “headline” composers may not include many Czech names other than Dvorak, the next tier is surprisingly large: Smetana in the Romantic period, followed by more contemporary names like Janacek, Mahler (born in Bohemia), Suk, and Martinu. Novak, it turns out, is part of this latter group. In his day, he often was considered the natural musical heir to Dvorak: the latter’s star pupil, one of a small group of musical revolutionaries bent on casting off Germanic forms in order to develop a more nationalistic, truly Czech musical style. (In this they were perhaps following the better-known example of the earlier Russian “Mighty Five.”) Novak’s own style evolved from one recognizably like Dvorak’s – listen to the Piano Concerto on this disk for evidence – to a more contemporary (think sonorities more like Stravinsky than Dvorak) but still noticeably east European one. Yet somehow there was a missing spark, something that allowed Novak’s music to sink into obscurity while that of some of his contemporaries lived on. The liner notes for this release, along with the music, make the case that this obscurity is not deserved.

Turning to the music, the concerto opens dramatically in a minor key, and we immediately hear external influences that Novak incorporates: phrases vaguely reminiscent of Liszt and, a bit later, some that remind us of Mendelssohn. In the proceedings, a lively first theme is bandied about between the orchestra and piano and reiterated in suitably dramatic fashion by all. The piano settles in for some development, with varying tempos. Shortly, a gentle, pretty second theme emerges: a ray of sunlight through the clouds; the temperature rises again. All this goes on nicely, with a more than competent resolution.

The second movement, andante con sentimento, really is quite lovely. The piano plays quietly alone for the first two minutes of the movement, then the orchestra comes in as a partner in a duet, reminding me a bit of the slow movement of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. To be clear, that's meant as high praise.

As the second movement fades away, it is replaced immediately by a sprightly allegro. This last movement is the one that perhaps owes most to Dvorak, with harmonies that sound "Czech" to my untutored ear and using the rhythm of the furiant, a Czech dance. (That last bit is courtesy of the very informative liner notes that come with this release.)
Next up is At Dusk, a collection of four short pieces for solo piano totaling just over 10 minutes. Again, the word “charming” comes to mind: these are far more than filler for the album, very listenable pieces in their own right. They are mostly quiet and reflective, and clearly demonstrate the Novak had matured as a composer since writing the concerto.

The final work on the disk is a major one: Toman and the Wood Nymph, subtitled A Symphonic Poem After A Bohemian Legend For Large Orchestra. As many readers will know, fairies, sprites, and other magical beings, including nymphs, have been frequent subjects for more abstract musical pieces, particularly in the late romantic period, and this work is in that tradition. The gist of the poem on which the work is based, and which in turn is based on a German folktale, tells the story of a young man (Toman) who is betrayed by his lover, wanders into the forest, and makes the fatal mistake of yielding to the blandishments of a nymph. Along the way there are plenty of dramatic, even passionate moments as depicted in the music, a few passages of sprightly dance-like tunes, all interspersed with thoughts of longing and sorrow and even peace and hope, with some quite lovely passages in the latter vein. (Yes, it really is a tone poem.) As we approach the end, the music fades softly, only to shatter the calm spell with a final short burst of just a couple of notes.

Of course, these capsule descriptions can’t do the works here justice, or may even suggest that the music is trivial. Not so! Novak had earned his reputation back in the day, and we’re fortunate to have a chance to hear his work now.

As to the music-making, all involved seem intent on making the case that this music is worth hearing. The playing is thoughtful, dynamic, and technically secure. The Supraphon engineers are on the job as well, capturing a natural sound for both piano and orchestra. By the way, I noticed that the recording particularly highlights the lovely “woody” sounds of the orchestra’s string sections, a sound that reminds me of some other recordings of Czech orchestras. Quite nice.

To put all this in perspective, Novak is not going to replace Beethoven – nor Dvorak – in the pantheon of classical composers. But it would be a rather small and boring world that had room for only a handful of certified superheroes. Have a listen, I think you’ll like it.


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

Sounds of America (CD review)

Music of Barber, Copland, and Bernstein. Jon Manasse, clarinet; David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Recursive Classics RC3139941.

By John J. Puccio

You probably already know that David Bernard is an award-winning conductor and that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony includes mainly players who do other things for a living (like being hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, and so on). While they are not full-time musicians, their playing belies any skepticism about the quality of their work; everyone involved with the orchestra deserves praise. Nor does the word “Chamber” in the ensemble’s title indicate a particularly small group. It's about the size of a regular, full-sized symphony orchestra; yet their performances are slightly more intimate and the sound slightly more transparent than most orchestras. In the last analysis, they make beautiful music together, which is all that matters.

With the current album, Maestro Bernard and company present four pieces celebrating America by American composers. The first up is the familiar but always welcome Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). It’s an arrangement for orchestra that Barber took from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony premiered it in 1938. The thing about the Adagio is that although that tempo marking means “slow and graceful,” there is a good deal of latitude about how a conductor actually handles it. The accompanying booklet mentions, for instance, that Toscanini got through the piece in a little over seven minutes, and that subsequent conductors have taken as long as nine or ten minutes. Maestro Bernard manages a tidy 8:35, neither too hurried nor too relaxed. It is as lovely a rendition as any I’ve heard.

Next is the familiar suite from Appalachian Spring, written in 1944 by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Its eight movements take us through the ballet. Copland originally scored it for a small theater-pit orchestra, but the subsequent suite opens it up to a bigger, fuller, more luxuriant sound, one well suited to the Park Avenue players. Bernard does a splendid job conveying all the color of the piece, the characters, and their actions.

The third item is also by Copland, the Clarinet Concerto, written between 1947-49 on a commission from bandleader and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. On the present recording the soloist is Jon Manasse. Bernard leads a longingly pensive, wistfully reflective interpretation of the work, with a beautifully measured response from Manasse.

The album concludes with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein premiered the musical West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. The Symphonic Dances is a suite in nine movements of music derived from the show, a suite the composer prepared in 1960. Like the rest of the program, it’s familiar territory, but it’s freshened by Maestro Bernard’s enthusiastic approach. He seems genuinely engaged with the music, its story, and its people, and he brings the whole thing to life with his vigorous, animated direction.

Audio engineers Joel Watts, Brian Losch, and Jennifer Nulsen recorded the music at the DiMenna Center for the Performing Arts, New York City in November 2019. Appropriate to the music, the sound is lush and full, a trifle warm and soft, but quite natural. It displays good, lifelike detail, range, and dynamics without being in any way bright, forward, or edgy. It’s remarkably easy on the ear, rewarding both the casual listener and the discerning audiophile alike.


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

Recent Releases, No. 18 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Sebastian Knauer: The Mozart/Nyman Concert. Includes Mozart: Sonata C Major K 545: I. Allegro. Michael Nyman: 6 Piano Pieces for Sebastian Knauer: K1; Mozart: Sonata C Major K 330: II. Andante cantabile; Nyman: 6 Piano Pieces for Sebastian Knauer: K2; Mozart: Sonata F Major K 332: III. Allegro assai; Nyman: 6 Piano Pieces for Sebastian Knauer: K3; Mozart: Sonata A Minor K 310: I. Allegro maestoso; Nyman: 6 Piano Pieces for Sebastian Knauer: K4; Mozart: Fantasy C Minor K 475; Nyman: 6 Piano Pieces for Sebastian Knauer: K5; Mozart: Sonata D Major K 311: III. Rondeau-Allegro; Nyman: 6 Piano Pieces for Sebastian Knauer: K6; Mozart: 12 Variations C Major on ?Ah, vous dirai-je Maman" K 265. Sebastian Knauer, piano. Modern Recordings 538682452.

The British composer Michael Nyman (b. 1944) is probably most widely known for his soundtrack to the award-winning film The Piano, although he has composed music in many other genres, most notably opera. He composes in a minimalist style, so when I came across this CD at my local public library, despite never having heard of the performer, I could not help but be intrigued. Mozart and Nyman? Hmmmm? As soon as I got in my car, I slid the disc into the CD player. By the time I got home, I was won over to the idea that mixing Mozart and Nyman was not a dubious idea, but an inspired one. Wondering whether the liner notes might offer any insights into how the program was chosen, I was delighted to discover a detailed explanation from the German pianist Sebastian Knauer (b. 1971). "For my project, 'The Mozart Nyman Concert,' I chose two tremendous and highly esteemed composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Michael Nyman. It has long been my dream to connect the two composers in a special project. In 2021, for the occasion of my fiftieth birthday, I seek to fulfill this wish and have asked Michael Nyman, who is just as much an admirer of Mozart as I am, to compose six piano pieces directly related to Mozart's piano sonatas. The classical and traditional form of the piano recital, in which we are accustomed to hearing entire works of one or more composers, continues to develop, and so I have conceived of a new and modern piano recital for myself. I have put together two new, three-movement sonatas from the first, second and third movements of six different Mozart sonatas and the c Minor Fantasy, each connected by one of Michael Nyman's piano pieces. At the end, serving as an encore, are Mozart's Twelve Variations, KV 265. The soundscapes of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries are closely interwoven, the transitions between Mozart and Nyman are fluid, and a listening experience is created which makes the connection between antiquity and modernity a thrilling and innovative concert program for me." With the opening familiar notes of Mozart's C Major Sonata, the program starts with a cheerful exuberance, and even as the mood shifts from time to time as the music varies, the overall positive feeling of musical energy and enthusiasm prevails, whether it be expressed in the lyricism of Mozart or the rhythmic pulse of Nyman, in whose music you really can come to understand his expressed esteem for the music of Mozart. The album moves along with a feeling of flow and purpose that transcends the differences in musical styles between the two composers. The liner notes include a conversation between Knauer and Nyman as well as brief biographies of both musicians. If you enjoy solo piano music, you will most likely really enjoy this album, which offers more than 79 minutes of centuries-spanning musical joy.

Richter: Exiles. Includes Flowers of Herself (from Woolf Works); On the Nature of Daylight (from The Blue Notebooks); The Haunted Ocean (from Waltz with Bashir); Infra 5 (from Infra); Sunlight (from Songs from Before); Exiles. Deutsche Grammophon 486 0445.

We have previously reviewed several recordings by Max Richter (b. 1966) in Classical Candor. This new release offers a blend of the old and the new in terms of compositions, but with a twist, as the older compositions all done in arrangements for full orchestra, whereas most of Richters previous releases featured much smaller ensembles. For example, Richter explains that the second track, On the Nature of Daylight, was originally five strings and now it's over 65 strings so it has a different texture, a different energy, a different kind of sonic fingerprint. The orchestral version is a different emotional register, it's a bigger canvas. In the quintet you really feel that someone is speaking quietly just to you, but with the orchestra it's a broader dialogue. According to the liner notes, Infra 5, also originally scored for five strings, is a mantra-like meditation on the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London, while Sunlight, originally a string quartet movement, is one of Richte's favorite works, from his 2006 album Songs from Before (one of David Bowie's favourite albums), and its yearning quality sings out in the new orchestral version. The composition that opens the album, Flowers of Herself, establishes a mood ripe with anticipation. It is an orchestration of music that Richter composed to evoke the atmosphere at the start of Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, the hustle and bustle of city sidewalks. Even the briefest (2:19) composition on the album, The Haunted Ocean, a hypnotic work from the soundtrack score to Waltz with Bashir (2008), which deals with writer and director Ari Folman's traumatic recollections of his military service during the 1982 Lebanon War, makes a distinct impression despite its brevity. The new composition on this release is the title piece, Exiles, which Richter was inspired to write in response to the refugee crisis ensuing from the brutal government actions in Syria that led to many thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives under desperate circumstances. Throughout its 33 minutes, the music is a round upon a simple, compelling melody that is repeated in various guises. It's a very simple idea, explains Richter, but I wanted to put this notion of exile, of walking, of movement, into the heart of the music in a technical sense as well as metaphorical. The music grows in intensity as it progresses, then ends in an enigmatic fade. As Richter notes, Exiles ends on a question: What if? That question is far from settled. The Baltic Sea Philharmonic was founded in 2008 as the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic with Kristjan Jarvi (b. 1972, son of Neeme and younger brother of Paavo) as their conductor. They play this music with conviction, and their sound has been well captured by the engineers.

Sebastian Fagerlund: Nomade; Water Atlas. Nicolas Altstaedt, cello; Hannu Lintu, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. BIS-2455 SACD.

We previously reviewed an earlier release by the Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund (b.1972), which, as it turns out, contains two works that are linked to one of the works on this new release, as explained in the liner notes: "When Sebastian Fagerlund began composing a new orchestral work in 2014, he was inspired to commence an entire trilogy, comprising Stonework (2014-15), Drifts (2016-17), and Water Atlas (2017-18). Although the works are linked by the same basic musical materials, each of them is independent and self-contained in itself. Nonetheless, Fagerlund considers it possible that they could also be presented as a unified suite. The works use a large symphony orchestra of similar proportions, differing only in the choice of percussion instruments. As well as using the same basic material, the works of the trilogy are united by the various stimuli and associations suggested by their titles. All of them are about basic elements music of stone, wind (or currents) and water in Water Atlas the eternal cycle of water is combined with the human desire and need to analyze the environment." Well, I'm not sure about the veracity of that last sentence, but I can say that Water Atlas is a powerful composition that makes a strong impression both musically and sonically. Like water, it seems to flow effortlessly and with great power, all sections of the orchestra contributing, swirling and cascading, pulling the listener along on a journey of imagination. It is preceded on this disc by Nomade, Fagerlund's atypically structured (six movements rather than the usual four, plus two brief interludes thrown in for good measure) cello concerto. The composer dedicated the piece to cellist Altstaedt, who brings a sense of longing, of searching, and dogged determination to his performance. For those classical music lovers who might be afraid that music written so recently might be harsh, dissonant, or otherwise lacking in aesthetic appeal, allow me to reassure you: no, the  music Fagerlund does not sound like the music of Mozart, but if you can enjoy the concertos of, say, Shostakovich, or the tone poems of, say, Sibelius, then there is a good chance you will find this music to be right in your wheelhouse. As a bonus, if your system can handle it (to borrow an old phrase from the automotive world, there is no replacement for displacement), you will be able to revel in some fine BIS recorded sound of a large orchestra.

Enigma: Spektral Quartet Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Spektral Quartet (Maeve Feinberg, violin; Clara Lyon; violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rolen, cello). Sono Luminus DSL-92250.

 is the first string quartet from Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977). It was given its premier in 2019 by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet, who have now recorded the work. This is an utterly fascinating piece, at once evoking feelings of immensity and intimacy, tension and calm, or, to paraphrase Kant, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. The music is strange, but compelling, and it invites repeated listening, yielding new delights each time. In the words of the composer, "the music of Enigma is inspired by the notion of the in-between, juxtaposing flow and fragmentation. Pulsating stasis - the whole, an expanding and contracting fundament - is contrasted with fragmented materials - shadows of things that live as part of the whole. Harmonies emerge and evaporate or break into pieces in various ways, leaving traces of materials that project through different kinds of textures and nuances and gradually take on their own shape. Some return to the core, some remain apart. Throughout the piece, the perspective continuously moves between the two, the fundament and the fragmented shadows, but the focus is always their relationship - the in-between. As with my music generally, the inspiration behind Enigma is not something I am trying to describe through the piece - to me, the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical. When I am inspired by a particular element or quality, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting, and the qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two, the details and the unity of the whole." There is plucking, there are chords, there are brief melodic lines. There is tension and there is release. The piece comprises three movements and lasts 28:28, which I suppose will be a deal breaker for some, at least in CD format. Among those thanked in in the liner note acknowledgements are Haribo gummy treats, Science, and Dr. Anthony Fauci. I second that emotion.


Massenet: Ballet Music (XRCD24/K2 review)

Le Cid. Also, Scenes Pittoresques; The Last Sleep of the Virgin; Offenbach: La Belle Helene; Berlioz: Dance of the Sylphs; Minuet of the Will-O’-the-Wisps. Louis Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Klavier/JVC VICJ-035-1107.

By John J. Puccio

To be honest, I don’t think audio recording has improved all that much since the introduction of home stereo almost seventy years ago. Sure, there have been some big changes, like Dolby noise reduction and digital engineering, but they haven’t always resulted in actual improvements. The real improvements have come in mastering techniques, transferring original recordings to LP, CD, SACD, or download. Here is where a number of companies over the years came up with unique strategies to perfect the art. In the old vinyl days, Sheffield Labs, for instance, had their direct to disc masters, and Mobile Fidelity had their half-speed remasters. Then came the digital age, and audiophile companies had to come up with other ploys to justify their existence. One tactic that Sheffield, Mo-Fi, and other companies employed was using the gold disc. The companies claimed that gold was better than silver for producing more precise, uniform pits for a CD laser to read, thus generating a more precise audio image. I almost always found that the gold products I reviewed did, indeed, sound better than their silver counterparts, usually appearing smoother and better detailed. Still, I always concluded my reviews of gold discs with the caution that I could never actually tell if the audio upgrade was the result of the disc’s gold plating or the result of better, more-careful remastering. So, now, with this Massenet disc, I had the chance to compare a well-made gold disc with a JVC XRCD24 remastering on silver, both made from the same master tapes.

My conclusions on the audio issue come at the end of the review, but first I’ll add a little something about the disc’s contents. The original EMI LP of Massenet’s Le Cid ballet music found its way to my attention quite by accident a couple of years after EMI made it back in 1971. You see, in the mid Seventies I was compiling a list of favorite audiophile records for a magazine article, and I had asked every music and audio lover I knew for their recommendations. Everybody contributed, from high-end audio dealers, audio engineers, and record and equipment reviewers to various friends professing “golden ears,” about thirty people in all. As you may have already guessed, this recording of Le Cid figured high in the final tally. It not only contained a great performance of the music, it sounded state-of-the-art.

As luck would have it, though, by the time I tried to buy the recording, EMI had already withdrawn their Studio Two vinyl disc that everybody loved so well and replaced it with a lower-priced issue in their Greensleeves line. Fortunately, it was still plenty good, with a tremendous dynamic range and a whopping big bass. The next time it showed up on LP in America was on the Klavier label. Then came the CD age, and it appeared both in EMI’s mid-priced Studio line and on a Klavier silver disc. The EMI release retained the vinyl’s warmth, but the slightly leaner-sounding Klavier disc seemed a bit more transparent. Then Klavier issued the recording on a 24-karat gold-plated disc that I eagerly sought out and still own. Unfortunately, Klavier didn’t keep it around for long, and today it’s rather hard to find and costly if you do find it. Ditto for their later XRCD24 silver disc.

The music on the album comprises bits and pieces of the orchestral score in Massenet’s opera, namely the second-act ballet, and conductor Fremaux and his Birmingham orchestra provide a vigorous, zesty rendition of the Spanish-flavored tunes. The story of the opera, of course, is based on Spain’s legendary hero, Rodrigo de Bivar, or “El Cid” (from the Arabic “Al Sid” or “Lord”) who in the eleventh century reclaimed the city of Valencia from the Moors and became the hero of one of Spain’s most significant medieval epic poems. Massenet’s music, which premiered in 1885, is tuneful, exciting, and highly Romantic by turns, and Maestro Fremaux provides it with exactly the zesty and exciting performance it needs. The disc’s accompanying music by Berlioz and Offenbach is equally well presented.

Producers David Mottley and Brian Culverhouse and engineers Stuart Eltham and Neville Boyling recorded the music for EMI Studio Two (the Le Cid music in 1971, as I said), and EMI originally released the vinyl LP in both two-channel stereo and four-channel Quadraphonic. Not long after, Klavier released the recording on LP and then later on silver disc. In 1994 engineer Bruce Leek remastered the original tapes for a Klavier gold disc, and some years after that JVC (Victor Company of Japan) remastered it once more, again for Klavier, this time using their meticulous XRCD24/K2 mastering and manufacturing processes, using JVC’s original analog mastering console, 24-bit K2 A/D converter, digital K2 interface, K2 rubidium master clock, and K2 laser cutter.

So, getting back to that question we started with: Which sounds better, the gold disc or the XRCD24 silver disc? Now, here’s the thing: I love the gold disc. It retained all the warmth of the LP that I remembered and with greater impact and definition than the ordinary compact disc. Consequently, I was eager to compare the gold disc to JVC’s XRCD24 silver transfer. Putting them into separate CD players and adjusting for a slight volume imbalance (the JVC plays about two decibels louder), I started switching back and forth. My findings were rather what I had expected. JVC’s silver disc was slightly more dynamic and exhibited slightly more transparency. By comparison, the gold disc sounded marginally smoother but softer. This is not, however, to say that the JVC transfer was brighter or edgier than the gold. Indeed, without the direct comparison, one would not even have considered such a thing. What was clear to me more than anything, though, was that the XRCD24/K2 silver disc seemed to have greater impact than the gold disc, something the original LP had in abundance.

Which still leaves me wondering whether it is gold plating that makes a difference in better sound or simply better remastering techniques. After this experience, though, I’m leaning more than ever on the idea of better mastering.

And what would the difference be between this XRCD24 on silver and the same XRCD24 on gold? I suspect no difference at all, but I doubt that we’ll ever find out.


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

Chopin: Nocturnes (CD review)

Jan Lisiecki, piano. MLS-CD-027 (2-CD set).

By Bill Heck

For a young pianist, Lisiecki has a fair number of recordings, and those recordings have met with considerable critical success. The most relevant to the work here is his 2012 album of Chopin
Etudes, which was widely, although not universally, praised.

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the current release is the slow tempi. In an interview published in Gramophone magazine, Lisiecki was asked why the tempos he used in recordings were slower than those of his live performances. His answer, to paraphrase, was that in the concert hall it was necessary to move things along because there were many potential distractions for the audience, but with recordings, presumably heard in the home environment, listeners would have fewer distractions and could engage more fully with the music even at the slower tempi. Of course, the reason for wanting to use slower tempi in the first place was, again paraphrasing, to engage more deeply in a musical dialogue with the listener.

When I queued up this release, the first thing I noticed was a sense of just that sort of engagement. I felt drawn in, metaphorically conversing with Chopin through the artist. And it wasn’t just the slow tempi of the first few nocturnes; there are several positives to note right away. First, Lisiecki’s playing demonstrates remarkable touch and dynamic shading, and the slow tempi allow those qualities to come through very nicely. Moreover, his rhythmic control is firm no matter the tempo: there is no danger of things falling apart as there might be with a lesser musician at the keyboard. These characteristics make for performances that do indeed invite full engagement with the music. And after all, these are nocturnes – they are supposed to be quiet and slow, are they not?

Speaking of rhythmic control, another fine example is Opus 37, number 2 in G major (track 12 on the disk): I don’t recall ever hearing quite the “swaying” quality that Lisiecki manages to convey. Further examples are scattered across the performances. Finally, it’s clear that Lisiecki can play a lot faster when the music calls for it: witness the acceleration in the middle of Opus 48, number 1 in C minor (track13).

Elsewhere in the
Gramophone interview, Lisiecki mentions an emphasis on the left hand. This is easily noticeable in the current release: some performances seem to focus more on the right hand, i.e., the higher notes on the scale, the ones that typically carry the melody or main line of the music. Lisiecki pays more attention to balancing the two hands to bring out the underlying harmony, thus revealing more of the complexity of Chopin's writing; I find this a good thing.

But, but…. For all the positives, some (not all) of the tempi are not just slower than usual, but really, really slow. Depending on the patience and/or tolerance of the individual listener – meaning you, dear reader – it’s possible to imagine opportunities for distraction even in the quietest, most comfortable home environment.  For example, in the Opus 37, number 1 in G minor, (track 11 on the disk), the overall effect caused me to think of a lugubrious rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav. (Yes, I count that as a distraction.) I noted a few points at which things seemed to me to descend into mere mannerism: for example, Opus 62, number 1 in B Major begins with an arpeggiated chord, a short pause, then a single note, followed by another longer pause. Yes, the pauses belong there, but their length seems to me over the top, more effect than called for; a few others in the same piece strike me in the same way. Finally, somewhere along the way I started to feel that enough was enough, we should just get on with things. Obviously, I’m an impatient sort of person; you may not be so afflicted.

On a related note, I find the dynamic range of Lisiecki’s playing a bit constrained. I certainly don’t mean that the sound is monochromatic, and again you may chalk this reaction up to another of my personality flaws, namely an overdeveloped appreciation for musical drama and excitement. You may be more even keeled.

So where do my meanderings leave us? There is no denying Lisiecki’s ability and his deep insight into Chopin’s compositions. Surely we all sympathize with his evident desire to, as he says, fully engage listeners with the music. There should be no doubt that much critical reaction will be very positive, and justifiably so. The question is not one of right or wrong, good or bad; it is simply whether his approach will work for you. As the old saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

The recorded sound is first rate. In the past, one may not have associated the DG label with full, natural recorded sound, piano or otherwise, but this is not the only recent DG recording I've heard that provides truly excellent sonics. (For example, check out the recent recording of the Rachmaninoff First Symphony and Symphonic Dances by the Philadelphia orchestra.) On my system, the piano sounds quite natural, well balanced from top to bottom with no hint of harshness or distortion and with a clear spatial image and natural presence.


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

Saint-Saens: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (SACD review)

Also, Symphony in A major. Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege. BIS BIS-2460 SACD.

By John J. Puccio

The Third Symphony
, the “Organ” Symphony of French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) so overshadowed most of his other work that one would hardly know he even wrote three previous symphonies. Of course, his other music like the Second Piano Concerto, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, the Danse macabre, the Samson and Delilah opera, and The Carnival of the Animals also became famous. But they didn’t quite take on the life his “Organ” Symphony did. So, here we have his first three symphonies, which I admit I could hardly remember, it had been so long since I last heard them. Accordingly, I took down my old recordings by Jean Martinon (EMI and Brilliant Classics) of the works to refresh my memory, and I can honestly say that these new readings by French violinist and conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow and the Royal Liege Philharmonic Orchestra do the music proud.

So, Saint-Saens wrote his Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 2 in 1853 at the ripe old age of eighteen. He had been a child prodigy at the piano and wrote his First Symphony at about the time he graduated from the Paris Conservatoire. It’s filled with youthful ambition and military gestures (particularly in the Finale), all the popular musical idioms of the time. While Maestro Kantorow takes the music a little faster than Martinon did, it’s not excessively quick. It does, however, provide an extra bounce to the score, especially noticeable in the second-movement Scherzo. Even the lovely little Adagio benefits from Kantorow’s hand. Not that it displaces the Martinon recording, but it certainly more than holds its own.

It would be another half dozen years before Saint-Saens would write his Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55 (in 1859, although he would not publish it until 1878). It’s a cyclical work, linking several themes in different movements by using several common elements. The piece is compact and orchestrated lightly, sounding much like a sinfonietta. However, because of the criticism he received for these early symphonies, Saint-Saens would not return to the composition of a symphony for close to thirty years and then created his masterpiece. Anyway, in No. 2 we get an appropriately reserved performance from Kantorow, with the final two movements enlivened by a properly upbeat spirit. Nevertheless, despite the conductor’s best efforts, these are not masterpieces of the Romantic Age but merely Saint-Saens’s youthful imitations of it, so we cannot expect silk purses. They are, however, fun to listen to, if sparingly, and under Kantorow’s direction (or Martinon’s) represent as good interpretations as you’ll likely to find.

Accompanying the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (and opening the program) is an even earlier work, the Symphony in A major, which Saint-Saens wrote in 1850, while fifteen years old and still in school. Musical scholars believe it was probably a classroom exercise. Still, it has a noteworthy Romantic spirit to it, borrowing as it does from Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, even Mozart. Saint-Saens didn’t see much merit to it, though, and, consequently, it probably never got a public performance in the composer’s lifetime, or at least not one we know of. It was only finally published in 1974. Again Kantorow gives us a smooth, polished reading that, if anything, reveals how lightweight the material is. I couldn’t help being reminded that I’ve always found the music “cute.” That is, it’s almost comical in its imitation of other composers. It is, in fact, cotton candy for the ear (a sticky metaphor at best), which, regardless, makes for pleasant, noncritical listening.

Producer Jens Braun and engineer Ingo Petry of Take5 Music Production recorded the symphonies for hybrid SACD at the Salle Philharmonique, Liege, Belgium in April and December 2019. You can play the disc in SACD two-channel stereo and multichannel surround sound from an SACD player or in two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened to the SACD two-channel stereo layer.

As with many other BIS productions, this one is warm and smooth, with a natural feel to the hall and its environs. The miking appears a tad farther away from the players than one usually finds, but it adds to the recording’s sense of realism. One is simply a bit farther back in the concert hall and not in the first row. Accordingly, the orchestral spread is also a touch narrower than we normally hear. More important, it’s realistic and doesn’t take much away from the clarity of the reproduction. It’s a welcome change of pace from most of today’s close-up recordings.


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

Recent Releases, No. 17 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Songs of Solitude: Hiyoli Togawa, viola. Toshio Hosokawa: Sakura/Solitude; Bach: Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 – Sarabande; Johanna Doderer: Shadows; José Serebrier: Nostalgia; Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 – Sarabande; Tigran Mansurian: Ode an die Stille; Michiru Oshima: Silence; Bach: Cello Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 - Sarabande; Kalevi Aho: Am Horizont; John Powell: Perfect Time for a Spring Cleaning; Bach: Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 – Sarabande; Cristina Spinei: Keep Moving; Rhian Samuel: Salve Nos; Bach: Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 – Sarabande; Gabriel Prokofiev: Five Impressions of Self-Isolation (Calling Out/Wine for One/Only Birds in the Sky/How Many Weeks...?/Back to the English Garden); Bach: Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 – Sarabande; Federico Gardella: Consolation. BIS 2533 SACD.

This gorgeous production is generously filled along several dimensions. At nearly 79 minutes in duration, you certainly get your money’s worth in that respect; moreover, the booklet included with the disc contains not only an introductory note from violist Togawa about how the recording came about (yes, this is another of those pandemic-inspired projects) but also notes about the composers, complete with photos, including a pair that capture Ms. Togawa playing the viola on the left and on the right, working on a painting. A glance through the program reveals not just works by contemporary composers, but several Bach Sarabandes originally composed for solo cello but played here on the viola. “In these times of isolation and global security,” Hosokawa writes, “Bach is my daily bread. Spiritual nourishment, comfort, grounding, confidence. His music is never fussy; it is pure and clear… This was precisely what I needed more than ever during the time of corona… Alongside music and painting my daily walks also formed peaceful havens in my life. I walked through Berlin’s empty streets, which in their silence seemed almost surreal to me. I asked myself how people in other cities and countries could manage, if they were no longer allowed at all. And then my mobile rang: it was Kalevi Aho! The Finnish composer told me that he had just completed a double concerto for percussion, viola and chamber orchestra that he had been planning for a while. How wonderful! Especially at this time of inactivity and isolation I have become aware of how special it is that something creative – a piece of music – can come into being. And so I hit on the idea of asking not just Aho but also other composers all over the world to write solo works for me. Pieces that would reflect life and work in the time of the coronavirus and that distil isolation in music.” Now, distilling isolation in music might sound like a process that would result in a real downer of a disc, but that is decidedly not the deal here. Yes, some of the pieces are reflective in nature, but never morose; besides, the listener must not forget that that the sarabande was a type of dance, after all. The end result is an album of energy and grace, appropriate listening during a pandemic that is, alas, still ongoing.

Astor Piazzolla: Cien Años. Piazzolla: Concerto for Bandoneon; Mosalini: Tomá, Tocá (Take It, Play It); Mosalini: Cien Años (One Hundred Years); Piazzolla/arr. Mosalini: The 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires; Piazzolla/arr. Mosalini: Libertango. Juanjo Mosalini, bandoneon; Kristina Nilsson, violin; Anne Black, viola; Steven Laven, cello; Gisèle Ben-Dor, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Centaur Records CRC 3844.

Some regular followers of Classical Candor might recognize the name of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla from JJP’s recent review (here) of a Pentatone recording that included a version of  the composer’s The 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires, a different arrangement of which is included on this new Centaur CD. Others might instead remember Piazzolla as the father of the “Nuevo Tango” movement, either by hearing recordings of Piazzolla himself of other musicians who enthusiastically embraced this fusion of tango and jazz first undertaken by Piazzolla in the 1950s. Piazzolla was a master of the bandoneon, a more expressive cousin of the harmonica, played on this recording by Juanjo Mosalini, Jr. (b. 1972), whose father had played bandoneon and worked with Piazzolla in Argentina before moving to France in 1977. In 1984, Juanjo Jr. left Buenos Aires for Paris to reunite with his father. According to the liner notes, “musically, he remembers his father’s Parisian trio of the mid ‘80s, and Piazzolla’s music, as the most significant inspirations of his formative years. ‘Piazzolla’s album La Camorra blew my mind, the way Queen and Bill Evans blew my mind,” says Junajo. “And when you are a teenager those things leave a mark for the rest of your life. It’s in your flesh.’” Those who may be unfamiliar with the sound of the bandoneon are in for a treat as Mosalini digs right in at the very outset, joined by piano, strings, and the rest of the orchestra in an energetic performance of Piazzolla’s lively concerto. This is music that at one moment will have you wanting to get up and dance, the next moment perhaps reflecting on a lost love, then perhaps wanting to play the air bandoneon. The two shorter pieces by Mosalini,  Tomá, Tocá and Cien Años – the first quick and lively, the second beginning slower and building in energy and rhythmic energy as it proceeds – sound right at home among the Piazzolla pieces. The 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires is a lively and colorful romp, well worth consideration as a serious “classical” music composition. Interestingly enough, the liner notes declare something that I never would have supposed: “Astor Piazzolla has become for many a symbol of Tango and the music of Buenos Aires. It’s an ironic association for a musician who had, at best, a love-hate relationship with music that he had fought to liberate from its conservative confines, and a city where he was always largely a stranger… Piazzolla was born March 11, 1921, in Mar del Plata, a seaside resort 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. He didn’t visit the capital city until he was 17, and by then he was a feisty teenager who had grown up in the Lower East Side of New York City.” Well, then… The album closes with Mosalini’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s Libertango, a piece whose very title brings us back to the idea of the dance, and whose insistent rhythms and lively accents can’t help but boost our energy levels. The recording quality is clean and dynamic and the liner notes are interesting and informative, with plenty of interesting photos. All in all, this is an exciting release.  

Brad Mehldau: Variations on  a Melancholy Theme. Brad Mehldau, piano; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Theme; Variation 1; Variation 2; Variation 1; Variation 3; Variation 4; Variation 5; Variation 6; Variation 7; Variation 8; Variation 9; Variation 10; Variation 11; Cadenza; Postlude; Encore: Variations “X” & “Y”. Nonesuch 075597916508.

Brad Mehldau is best known as a jazz pianist who has made quite a name for himself both as a leader and sideman. Not all that long ago we did a brief review of one of his recent solo piano releases, which can be found here. This new Nonesuch release finds him in front of the venerable Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as they combine to record a serious composition by Mehldau, his Variations on a Melancholy Theme. Mehldau offers a brief overview of the piece in his liner note: “My melancholy theme has a two-part form, and each part is repeated:A1A2B1B2. It’s a common variation form – Bach’s Goldberg or Beethoven’s Diabelli, for example. The piece concludes with a piano cadenza and extended coda which revisits aspects of the opening motif, but roams freely, moving through shifting tonal centers. It ends in a meditative mood, in the waltz meter in which it began… The melancholy theme itself has a wistful character; perhaps a feeling of resignation. There is some sense of finality and ending to it already when heard for the first time. As I composed, a narrative challenge emerged, namely. How to embark on a story that begins with a conclusion.” As a reviewer, I also find myself with a challenge, for this is one of the most unusual recordings I have come across in quite some time. I had been looking forward to auditioning it, but the first time or two I played it, I found it nearly unlistenable. It is mastered at a really high level, like those pop recordings that are meant to be heard on earbuds from mp3 source files. And even when I adjusted the volume control down a couple of clicks, the treble seemed a bit harsh, making it impossible to enjoy the music. It took a few more tries to realize that I had to turn the volume down even more – my goodness, this thing is mastered hot! Only then could I begin to appreciate the music, which is really quite enjoyable. There still seemed to be a bit of harshness in the upper strings, but not unbearably so. The sound quality is in some senses quite good – the piano sounds quite robust, for example, and the woodwinds and brass are quite vivid – but there is no sense of space or depth, with the instruments seeming to be strung out in “clothesline” fashion between the speakers, no feeling for the venue (which the notes do not specify), most likely the result of multimiking with relatively close microphone placement. Now, let’s get back to the music. The more I listened, though, the more I came to be able to follow the theme through the different variations, and the more I came to appreciate and enjoy the music despite my reservations about the engineering. Although the writing for the orchestra at times sounds reminiscent of either a Hollywood score or a jazz band, the variations move right along and Mehldau’s imagination at the keyboard never flags. The final variation, the cadenza, and the postlude are simply beautiful, Mehldau really showing his great depth of musical feeling. The applause after the encore reveals that this was a live concert recording – does that perhaps account for some of the engineering issues? All in all, recommended, but with a warning to turn your volume control down a few notches before you hit the PLAY button.

Camino: Sean Shibe, guitar. Manuel de Falla; Danza del molinero (arr. Tilman Hoppstock); Antonio José: Pavana triste (third movement of Sonata for Guitar); Frederic (Federico) Mompou: Canço i dansa 10 (arr. Mompou) (Canço; Dansa); Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1; Gnossienne No. 1; Gnossienne No. 3; Mompou: Canço i dansa 6 (Canço; Dansa); Ravel: Pavane pour une Infante défunte (arr. Sean Shibe); de Falla: Homenaje, pour Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy; Mompou: Suite compostelana (I. Preludio; II. Coral; III. Cuna; IV. Recitativo; V. Canción; VI. Muñeira); Francis Poulenc: Sarabande, FP179. Pentatone PTC 5186 670.

Although an earlier release by (softLOUD, on the Delphian label) Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe featured him on both acoustic and electric guitars, this new Pentatone recording is all acoustic, focusing on Spanish and French composers. Not surprisingly, having been recorded over the latter part of 2020, this is yet another album affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In his liner note, Shibe asserts, “everything on this album has given me deep comfort and sustenance over a difficult and traumatic period. Colleagues of mine have sometimes asked what it would take for me to get over my apparent aversion to the sentimentality of the Spanish repertoire traditionally associated with the guitar. I could, perhaps, tell those colleagues that a global pandemic would do the trick, but I would argue that all of the ostensibly Spanish composers presented here demonstrate the fecundity of the Franco-Spanish connection, and – to go further than that – Mompou, central to this programme, is perhaps more European than Spanish. He eschews all flamboyant piquancy; his homage to Santiago de Compostela instead softly adores, the ecclesiastical overtones never overbear; and, somehow, these pieces sum up pilgrimage at its most existentially humanist. For Mompou, melancholy, aimlessness and a whole host of other feelings are not things to be avoided or fixed or solved, but experiences to be deeply felt; when his music reflects, it is less with sad nostalgia than genuine wonder and excitement at what this means for the future.” As you might infer from the list of composers and titles, this is a set of music that is atmospheric and beguiling. None of the playing here is overtly virtuosic or ostentatious; instead, Shibe employ his skills on the guitar to lead the listener gently into a sound world of calm and reflection that is not devoid of energy and color. (I wonder whether there might be other listeners out there who like me were first introduced to the enchanting music of Erik Satie by none other than the rock group Blood, Sweat, & Tears…) Most classical music lovers are probably familiar with at least some of these pieces from hearing them played by the orchestra or on the piano; to hear them played on the classical guitar will open a new dimension of enjoyment and appreciation.

Jurgis Karnavičius: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Vilnius String Quartet (Dalia Kuznecovaité and Arturas Silalé, violins; Kristina Anuseviciuté, viola; Augustinas Vasiliauskas, cello). Ondine ODE 1351-2. String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4. Ondine ODE 1387-2. 

Jurgis Karnavičius )1884-1941) was born in Lithuania and went on to study first law and then music (under Lyadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Glazunov, among others) in St. Petersburg. After the outbreak of World War I he was drafted into the Russian Army, was captured by the Germans, and lived in a prison camp near Vienna until 1918. After returning to Russia (St. Petersburg had now been renamed Petrograd) he became involved in Russian contemporary music. In 1927, he returned to Lithuania for good. String Quartet No. 1 was composed in 1913 soon after his graduation from the St. Petersburg Academy, while String Quartet No. 2 was composed in far different circumstances – while he was in captivity in 1917. The former is pleasant, but at least to these ears, not particularly striking or memorable. The latter seems to have a bit more substance. Both these earlier quartets are easy on the ears; indeed, there is nothing dissonant or “Modernist” about them.

String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4
 were composed in 1922 and 1925, respectively. With these two, the music becomes more interesting. The harmonies become richer, the emotional expression becomes more intense, and in general the music seems to be that of a more mature, confident composer with a clearer musical vision. These two well-recorded and well performed discs represent the entirety of Karnavičius’s writing for string quartet, so those interested in exploring the music of a previously overlooked composer while adding some enjoyable string quartet music to their collection now have an excellent opportunity to do just that.


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