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.

KWN

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Meet the Staff

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

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

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

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to 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, Goldpoint SA4 “passive preamp,” Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa