Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (CD review)

Isabelle Faust, violin; Antoine Tamestit, viola; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902686.87.

By Bill Heck and John J. Puccio

The Album According to Bill:
The six concertos known today as the Brandenburg Concertos (hereinafter the Brandenburgs) have a long and rather complicated history, both in their genesis and with their loss after Bach’s death and their rediscovery some 100 years later. Some of that history is described in the interesting liner notes for this new release; far more detail can be found with a bit of searching on the Internet.

For our purposes, though, it will be sufficient to note a couple of points. First, the Brandenburgs do not share a truly common heritage. Those unfamiliar with the works (are there any such classical music listeners?) or those who have heard them and have been wondering how they fit together, can take heart: they don’t fit together. The instrumentation differs from work to work, the compositional techniques vary, they do not have unifying themes such as a cycle of keys, some seem to have developed from earlier sketches while others have no obvious history, and so on. The unifying factor seems to have been that they all were sent, or perhaps presented by Bach, to the Margrave of Brandenburg (hence the name of the collection) as something in the nature of a job application in late March of 1721.

I should emphasize the difference in instrumental forces among the concertos: by my count, the First employs 20 musicians, while the Sixth requires only 7! Moreover, different instruments enter the mix in different concertos. For example, the Second and Fourth include parts for recorder, while the Fifth uses a flute; the remaining pieces use neither. Similarly, the oboe makes an appearance in the First (in fact, three oboes) and Second (only one oboe this time) and in none of the others. Even the harpsichord, so common in music of the era, shows up in only five of the six works. If you have wondered why the Concertos sound so different from each other, wonder no more.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, the Brandenburgs are among the best known and best loved of Bach’s works. While a huge variety of pieces for solo instruments are revered among musicians (think Violin Sonatas, the Cello Suites, works for organ, Goldberg Variations, etc.), and loads of pieces for larger ensembles are wonderful and reasonably popular (the English Suites, the French Suites, etc.), none of these have anywhere near the instant recognizability with the wider public as do the Brandenburgs. Why is that? Who knows? In some parallel universe, perhaps the Brandenburgs are of interest primarily to scholars while a collection of orchestral suites is heard everywhere.

Be that as it may, both the popularity of the Brandenburgs and their inherent musical value have brought forth an incredible number of recordings. These recordings variously use modern instruments and period instruments, with some transcriptions for completely different instruments. For example, an Internet search of a few seconds revealed arrangements of one or the other of these works for solo piano, for guitar, and for brass quintet. It would not be surprising to learn that one or more has been arranged for marching band or, for that matter, kazoo band.

Which brings us to another point of interest: Bach’s music (usually) survives such rearrangements and reinterpretations; indeed, they sometimes (often?) offer insights and perspectives that differ from, but seem as valid as, the originals. And that, in turn, brings us to the question of period versus modern instruments. The issue is not so much whether the work is somehow “better” on period instruments, with playing informed by period practices, supposed or real. Instead, and to my mind particularly with Bach, historically informed performances (HIPs, and yes, that is a real acronym) will offer new perspectives in somewhat the same way that transcriptions do. Naturally, HIP advocates will object that I have said this completely backwards: the HIPs are the base, and at best we can hope that modern performances are the ones that offer different perspectives, to which I respond with that truly intellectual slogan “Whatever.” The point is that, even if you have one or several favorite recordings done to modern standards on modern instruments, and even if you have doubts about the wonders of HIP in general, you really should hear one or more HIPs of the Brandenburgs.

Which brings us to the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, hereinafter the Akademie. This is a well-known ensemble that has been around since 1982 and consists of about 30 musicians. As the name implies, the group is oriented toward HIPs, and the members do play period instruments or, in many cases, copies thereof. That latter can be a good thing: while instruments like Stradivarius violins get the headlines and still sound fabulous, a lot of “real” period instruments that are still around either were not all that well made in the first place or are the worse for wear. Many of the instruments used in these recordings were modern copies, not originals and, as the liner notes point out, these instruments often do sound better than the originals.

The Akademie recorded these same works for the same label 25 years ago on a critically well-received two-disk set, one that was for many years my own go-to version. While the years have brought changes, perhaps one third of the personnel credited on the earlier release are still around for the newer one. Considering the passage of about 25 years, the better part of a musical career at this level, between the two sets of recordings, that strikes me as impressive continuity. For this recording, the permanent ensemble forces are joined by star violinist Isabelle Faust and violist Antoine Tamestit. So, do the results justify another shot?

I think so, for two reasons. First, the main criticism that I”ve seen of the first effort is that the playing is impeccable, but perhaps a little too impeccable. Some listeners heard a certain lack of spontaneity or passion: all the notes in the right places, but in the end not as exciting as one would hope. While the music here should not be exciting in the manner of a full-blown romantic concerto, some thought that Bach’s music should generate a little more sense of energy than present on that first go-round. Whatever the merits of that criticism, any doubts should be removed by this newer set. The differences in playing are not huge, but most of the tempi are a little faster and there’s just a little more sprightliness, for want of a better word, in the playing. Again, this is a subtle effect, perhaps not noticeable on first hearing, but I found myself listening a little more eagerly, a little more attentively to the new set.

Speaking of energy, I should note that the tempi are quicker than many other versions, including the earlier Akademie set. Somewhat surprisingly, though, they never sounding rushed. This is particularly noticeable in the Third: the opening movement is quick, but the allegro third movement bursts out of the gate at an amazing clip. It seems even faster than it is because it follows a very sedate, very short (16 second!) adagio. Nevertheless, the tempi feel right, and the players are very much up to the task of keeping it together.

The second reason that justifies this new release in the presence of the older one is the upgrade in sound, particularly in clarity. It’s a little easier to hear individual parts, even though the newer version may have been recorded in a slightly more reverberant environment. How much of this is due to the musicians (instruments, intentional balances, even positioning of the players) and how much is due to improved recording technique is hard to tell. But I find the presentation on the new disks a little clearer, a little more spacious, than that on the old.

And how does this recording measure up against the best other versions out there? With so many versions and variations available, I certainly am not going to start a discussion about the “best.” But to my ears, these are top-rank performances in very good sound, surely somewhere in the top tier of HIPs. I don’t see how you could go wrong with this set.


The Album According to John:
The first set of Brandenburg Concertos I remember hearing on period instruments was a 1976 Seon production with what must be considered an all-star cast: Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Bruggen, Anner Bylsma, Lucy van Dael, Sigswald and Wieland Kuijken, and others. Their performances seem almost quaint by today’s standards, but they are still charming and the recording is exceptionally good. I mention this because that old set makes an interesting comparison to this new period-instrument production from the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, with violinist Isabelle Faust and violist Antoine Tamestit.

Much has changed in the world of historically informed performance practice since 1976, especially in terms of tempi. That is no more in evidence than in this second of the Akademie’s recordings of the set (their first was in the late nineties). I have always liked the Akademie and their HIP performances, but here they may have taken things a tad too far. While the Akademie’s faster tempos in some of the concertos may seem initially quite exhilarating, they tend eventually to tire one out. They aren’t so fast as to be objectionable, mind you, but they do sort of suck the life out of some of the music in the long haul. And yet...and here’s the odd thing...while the Akademie play much of the concertos at a healthy clip, they also manage to sound quite elegant. It’s something listeners may find either pleasantly refreshing or a tad disconcerting.

Moving along, you probably know by now that Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos sound different from one another because the composer never meant them to be a single, unified group. In 1719 Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg commissioned Bach to write several musical works for him, and what he got (several years later) was a collection of concertos for various-sized ensembles and solo instruments that Bach had probably written earlier for other occasions. (It was not uncommon in those days for composers to borrow from one another and even from themselves.)

The Concerto No. 1 is among the longest of the concertos, and Bach arranged it for the biggest number of players. In the Akademie’s performance, the second-movement Adagio comes off sweetly. The third movement nicely integrates the soloists and accompaniment, and the work ends with a refined minuet. Still, things seemed a touch rushed to me overall.

Concerto No. 2 is among the most popular of the concertos and highlights the oboe, recorder, violin, and trumpet, the latter getting the lion’s share of attention. On some recordings the trumpet can be too bright, edgy, or forward, but here it sounds just right. The interaction of the soloists is delightful, and if the rest of the accompaniment seems merely perfunctory, well, that’s Bach’s doing, not the Akademie’s. Regardless, the piece comes off with a quick-paced, stylish, yet graceful charm.

Insofar as I can tell, Concerto No. 3 is as popular as No. 2, maybe even more so; therefore, it’s equally probable that listeners may have certain expectations for it. Certainly, the Akademie attacks the piece with vigor, but I’m not sure their enthusiasm is entirely well guided. I suspect it’s just that I am used to a more moderate approach even from a HIP performance, say that of Trevor Pinnock in the second of his recordings of the Brandenburgs (Avie), an interpretation that is warmly affectionate rather than quite so gung-ho. Whatever, let’s just say the Akademie’s reading is invigorating.

For me, No. 4 is the most playful of the Concertos, with the soloists darting in and out of the work’s structure. For some reason, it always reminds me of children’s music, like Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony or something. Whatever, the recorders are the stars of the show. The Akademie do it up in fine style, this time not rushing through anything and adding an impish charm to the proceedings. The audio is also among the best on the set, possibly given the smaller ensemble size. Whatever, it was my favorite performance of any in the set.
Concerto No. 5 as another one of my preferred concertos, highlighting as it does solos from the violin, flute, and harpsichord. Also, because it involves a relatively small ensemble, it ensures a greater clarity of sound than the other concertos. What’s more, it’s here, maybe for the first time ever, that a composer lets the harpsichord gets its day in the sun, not merely accompanying the other instruments but playing an equal part in the proceedings. Here, too the intimacy of the smaller group makes for a lovely rendition, and the playing of the Akademie is quite secure, the harpsichord certainly. I loved what the group did with both Nos. 4 and 5.

Finally, there’s Concerto No. 6, which uses the smallest ensemble, yet never seems to feel small. Its only real drawback is its melodic similarity to Concerto No. 3 and its consequent lack of much real distinctiveness. Nevertheless, it’s hard for one seriously to dislike it, particularly in the lively yet tasteful manner the Akademie approach it.

Producer Florian B. Schmidt and sound engineer Aki Matusch recorded the music at Médiapôle Saint-Césaire, Arles, France in March and May 2021. There is enough hall resonance (sometimes too much) to make even the smaller ensembles sound big, which can produce a pleasing, even soothing effect but does tend to obscure some inner detailing in the larger ensemble pieces like Nos. 1, 2, and 3. The sound is also slightly warm and soft, so ultimate transparency in the larger pieces is sometimes sacrificed for a more natural listening experience. Nevertheless, these are quibbles, and it was good to hear the sound getting better and better as the set proceeded.


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

Recent Releases, No. 20 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Americascapes: Loeffler: La Mort de Tintagiles, Op. 6; Ruggles: Evocations (Orchestral version, 1943); Hanson: Before the Dawn, Op. 17; Cowell: Variations for Orchestra. Delphine Dupuy, viola d’amore; Robert Trevino, Basque National Orchestra. Ondine ODE 1396-2.

It is always exciting to come across a new release that features a program of unfamiliar music by composers you have heard of although you have heard very little of their music. It is even more exciting when it turns out to be as delightful a disc as this new Ondine release of American music played by a Spanish orchestra led by American conductor Robert Trevino (b. 1984). The program opens with the longest composition (25:48) on the CD, La Mort de Tintagiles by Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935). The piece is subtitled Poeme dramatique, d’apres le drame de M. Maeterlinck (“dramatic poem after the drama by M. Maeterlinck”). Loeffler, by the way, was actually born in Berlin, but settled in the United States in 1982, joining the recently formed Boston Symphony Orchestra as a violinist and becoming an American citizen in 1887. According to the liner notes by noted music critic Tim Page, “Loeffler seems to have had a fondness for near-concertos… In The Death of Tintagiles (1897), presented here, the viola d’amore takes center stage. Tintagiles is a discursive tone poem, inspired by a very strange play for marionettes by Maurice Maeterlinck about a wicked queen who murders an entire family, one by one. It is orchestrated in a manner that is both brilliant and subdued -- imagine Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade as it might have been rewritten by Gabriel Faure and you’ll have the general idea.” I must admit that it is hard to imagine that this charming music has anything to do with a family being murdered. Although there are some dramatic moments punctuated by some whacks on the bass drum, for the most part the music is lovely and flowing. And for me, although the lovely sound of the viola d’amore (a stringed instrument about the size of a viola, but with six bowed strings plus additional sympathetic strings arrayed below them) does take the lead from time to time, to describe this piece as a “near-concerto” seems to be quite a stretch. In any event, it is an attractive piece that gets the program off to an engaging start.

Next up is the orchestral version (a solo piano version also exists, which Ruggles continued to revise from 1934 to 1953) of Evocations by Carl Ruggles (1876-1971), whom Page characterizes as “notoriously salty.” Classical music fans of a certain age probably best remember Ruggles – at least by name – from an old DG recording featuring a young Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program that included Ruggles’s intriguingly titled composition Sun Treader along with Three Places in New England by Charles Ives. I can’t imagine that LP was ever a big seller, but for a time I could swear I seemed to see it everywhere I went. Perhaps the striking cover prompted record stores (remember them?) to display it prominently. At any rate, Evocations is a short piece (10:13) in four brief movements, sounding more modern than the Loeffler – chunky, assertive, enigmatic perhaps (particularly the ambiguous, atonal ending) but no, not salty. Mildly challenging though it might be, Evocations remains quite listenable and ultimately enjoyable, fully worthy of its place in the program.

Then comes the world premiere recording of a brief (6:44) symphonic poem by a young Howard Hanson (1896-1981) titled Before the Dawn, which he composed in 1921. Following the atonal, ambiguous-sounding ending of the Ruggles piece, the opening measures of Before the Dawn offer a striking a change of mood, immediately giving off that lush, sweeping, romantic, what strikes these ears anyway as “movie soundtrack vibe” that characterizes much of Hanson’s orchestral output. I do not mean that as snarky criticism; in fact, I find much of his music –including Before the Dawn – highly enjoyable, but Hanson has a signature sound that reminds me of film music – quality film music, that is. I find Page’s summation quite apt: “It seems that Hanson may have considered Before the Dawn juvenilia, for he could certainly have performed and recorded the work had he wanted to. Yet it is engaging from the start, filled with rich melodies, and sumptuously orchestrated in the style that Hanson would make his own over a career that would span six decades.” Amen to that! It is an engaging, sumptuously orchestrated little composition.

As good as the disc has been so far, with three unfamiliar but rewarding pieces expertly performed and recorded, the folks who put this program together have saved the best for last. Variations for Orchestra by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) is a delight from start to finish. The orchestra gets put through its paces, with passages of tender beauty from the strings followed at times by outbursts from the percussion. The music is sometimes exuberant and playful, at other times giving off a hint of mystery. Seemingly everyone in the orchestra gets a chance to shine over the 19:23 duration of the piece, and the Basque forces do themselves proud. It seems hard to believe that in all my years of listening, I have never before encountered a recording of this composition, which can hold its own right up there alongside, for example, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. (It has in fact been recorded before, but never by a major ensemble on a major label, and certainly nowhere remotely near the frequency accorded recordings of the Bartok.) This, folks, is a composition to which you really ought to give an audition. Where has it been hiding?

Besides the booklet notes from Tim Page, there are also notes by conductor Robert Trevino. The engineering is first-class, the orchestra plays with finesse, the program is imaginative and rewarding – what’s not to like? Hats off to a Finnish label for recording a Mexican-American conductor leading a Spanish orchestra in a revealing program of rarely-heard American music deserving much wider recognition. Bravo!

Last Song. Louis Couperin (1626-1661): Unmeasured Prelude (arr. Una Sveinbjarnardóttir & Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir);Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1938-2019): Three Marian Prayers (arr. Fritz Kreisler); Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787): Melodie (arr. Fritz Kreisler); Jórunn Viðar (1918-2017): Icelandic Suite; Ole Bull (1810-1880) Ensomme Stunde (arr. Una Sveinbjarnardóttir);  Jules Massenet (1842-1912): Meditation; Karólína Eiríksdóttir (b. 1951): Winter; Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson (1925-2005): In a Dream; Lullaby; Couperin: Aubade Provencale (arr. Fritz Kreisler);  Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): Ave Maria; Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Anima Processional; Una Sveinbjarnardóttir (b. 1975): Last Song before the News. Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, violin; Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir, piano, prepared piano, toy piano. Sono Luminus DSL-92248.

Well, I see no need to beat around the bush on this one. I could easily make this review shorter than the listing of compositions above by simply stating that Last Song is the finest, most entertaining, thoughtfully assembled, artfully performed, and skillfully engineered recording of music for violin and piano that I have heard in many years. But because I get paid by the word, I will continue.

I received this CD a few months ago but somehow absentmindedly placed it atop a stack of older CDs that have been just sitting there unplayed for quite some time off to the side of my listening room. It was pretty much dumb luck that caused me to notice it sitting there, but as soon as I realized what it was, I felt so guilty and guilty that I immediately stuck it in my CD player without so much as a glance at the program. All I knew is that it was by a couple of Icelandic women, which I could infer from the names on the cover. But as I started listening, I knew this was, despite its rather drab cover, a truly special recording, and I soon dove into the liner notes to see what light they might be able to shed on the players and the program. There are some one-page biographical sketches of both musicians, plus some brief commentary on the composers and music by violinist and composer Una Sveinbjarnardóttir. As you can easily see from the header above, the music spans the centuries and includes compositions both familiar and unfamiliar. Yet from these two skilled musicians, the program feels like an organic, inevitable whole. The occasional use of the prepared and toy piano in place of the normal piano adds variety to the sound, but never sounds as though it is being used as some sort of special effect.

Violinist Sveinbjarnardóttir explains the program in her brief introductory essay: “ Last Song before the News. The project is inspired by the moment before the realization of something that drastically changes your life, the moment of just being, existing in the moment. That moment in time is free and full, mindfulness-ish and unaffected by misery, sorrow, regret, shame, anxiety and depression. In my mind it is bright and has a sense of nostalgia. The title also refers to a daily tradition on Icelandic radio Rás 1, where a song, “last song before the news” would be played just before the news hour at noon. The song would typically be an Icelandic one, sometimes a lullaby, a love song or an ode to scary and gorgeous nature. Or an Icelandic traditional, sometimes an Italian canzone or a Scandinavian sorrow. Jórunn Viðar’s piece Icelandic Suite sums up all these elements, a piece written for the 2000 years anniversary of inhabitation in Iceland in 1974. The lightness and the longing are with us throughout the program except in the title piece of mine, Last Song before the News, where apocalyptic visions are awfully obvious and take over early on.”

Just to be clear, no, I don’t actually get paid by the word. I was just being silly. In fact, I don’t get paid at all. But when I say this is a remarkable recording, well, you can take that to the bank.

The News: Andrew Cyrille Quartet (Andrew Cyrille, drums; Bill Frisell, guitar; David Virelles, piano, synthesizer; Ben Street, double bass). ECM 2681.

Veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille plays with a delicate touch that sets the tone for this talented quartet, who make a strong case on this recording for the idea of jazz as a form of chamber music. Guitarist Frisell brings a similarly light touch to his guitar stylings, playing with his usual loopy lines but with a lighter, softer tone than usual. All four musicians seem to be listening closely to each other, striving to play harmoniously together. Those looking for solo fireworks will not find them here; rather, they will find creative interplay. One piece that stands out as different from the rest is the title cut, “The News,” which sounds restless, unsettled, and aggressive – and then a few brief spoken words by Cyrille put everything in context. I won’t spoil the surprise; you’ll have to listen for yourself to see what I mean. The title of another cut seems to describe perfectly the vibe of the album as a whole: “Dance of the Nuances.”


Mozart: Violin Concertos, Volume 1 (CD review)

Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 4; Sonata, Op. 1, No. 4. Francesca Dego, violin; Sir Roger Norrington, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Chandos CHAN 20234.

By John J. Puccio

You will, of course, recognize the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), who among his other multitude of great works composed five violin concertos, two of which, Nos. 3 and 4, are represented on this disc. You will also recognize the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, if not from live performances then from their numerous record albums. And you will recognize the name of Sir Roger Norrington, at least from his many period-instrument recordings. You may not, however, be as familiar with the Italian violinist Francesca Dego (b. 1989). She has been playing the violin since the age of four, made her debut at the age of seven, and played at the Sala Verdi of the Milan Conservatory at the age of fifteen. With a boatload of awards, she has been going strong ever since, playing with major orchestras all over the world. Notably, she plays a violin built by Francesco Ruggieri (Cremona 1697) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù ex-Ricci (Cremona 1734) courtesy of the “Florian Leonhard Fine Violins” of London. By my reckoning, this Mozart disc marks Ms. Dego’s seventh recording with the DG and Chandos labels.

Anyway, Mozart wrote his Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216 in 1775 when he was nineteen. He scored it for solo violin, two flutes, two oboes, two horns, and a passel of strings. The familiar, catchy first movement comes off well, with plenty of charm from Ms. Dego. Now, you might expect a rather speedy performance from Maestro Norrington, given his considerable work in the field of historically informed performances, but, in fact, his tempos are well within the norm for most modern-instrument productions. Yet he still keeps up an energetic pace, with life and vigor in abundance. Between Ms. Dego’s elegant, vibrant playing and Norrington’s splendidly spirited accompaniment, they deliver a sparkling performance.

Mozart wrote the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218 also in 1775. He was apparently on a roll at the time but quit after five. He probably figured he was a better pianist than a violinist and went on to write twenty-seven of the latter. Whatever, the Fourth has become one of Mozart’s most recognizable violin concertos, with the first movement having a decidedly military bent, the second quite tuneful, and the third generally cheerful and amusing. Appropriate to the work being the product of a youthful Mozart, Dego and Norrington play it with an ebullient, carefree enthusiasm. Ms. Dego’s tone is always sweet and pure, Maestro Norrington’s direction sure-handed, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra rich and resonant. Everything here is on target.

The final work on the disc is the Piano Sonata, Op. 1, No. 4 for piano and violin, the piano part taken by Francesca Leonardi. Mozart wrote it in 1778, so it’s still a vivaciously youthful work. Dego’s and Leonardi’s vibrancy and sensitivity afford a delightful few minutes, the second (and final) movement particularly affecting.

Producer Ralph Couzens and engineers Ben Connellan (concertos) and Michael Seberch (sonata) recorded the music at the New Auditorium, Royal Concert Hall, RSNO Centre, Glasgow (concertos) and Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile, Italy (sonata) in August 2021 (concertos) and March 2021 (sonata). The sound they obtained is clear and clean. It doesn’t project much in the way of depth or dimensionality nor much hall ambience, but it it’s certainly as transparent as you could want. It’s about what most listeners probably expect from a good contemporary recording.


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

Radiohead Reimagined, Classically and Beyond (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

One of the most exciting and creative rock bands to come along over the past few decades is Radiohead, an English quintet comprising Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, keyboards), brothers Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, keyboards, other instruments) and Colin Greenwood (bass), Ed O'Brien (guitar, backing vocals) and Philip Selway (drums, percussion). Although their first couple of albums, although reasonably successful, were relatively straightforward affairs, musically speaking, their next four releases – OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001),  and Hail to the Thief (2003) – were creative breakthroughs that brought the band widespread recognition and respect. Radiohead had suddenly arrived, and was one of the most talked-about if not necessarily listened-to bands on the planet. In November, 2021, the band will release Kid A Mnesia,  a multiple-format triple-album release of the two albums plus some unreleased tracks to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the group’s influential Kid A and Amnesiac albums, the music for which were recorded at the same time but released separately as the band did not want to release a double album so spread the music out over two separate albums released a year apart. With the new release, Radiohead fanatics will be able to get all the music together, plus some additional cuts from the sessions that did not make their way onto the original releases.

I’m quite confident that there are other classical music lovers besides me who enjoyed (and perhaps even still enjoy) the compelling music of Radiohead. For them, and even for those who have perhaps never even heard of Radiohead but are game to hear some interesting music, I’d like to highlight some releases that directly or in some cases indirectly relate to Radiohead and have a direct or in  some cases indirect connection to what we can all relate to as “classical” music. (Roll over, Beethoven…) 

I’ll begin with a couple of albums that bring the music of Radiohead to the keyboard. When classical pianist Christopher O’Riley (b. 1966) first hosted the popular NPR music show From the Top, he began to play some of his transcriptions of music by Radiohead during breaks. It has been said that some listeners, upon hearing O’Riley announce that this was music by Radiohead, even wrote the show to inquire as to where they could find more music by “Mr. Head.” O’Riley was quite a fan of the band and had made many transcriptions of their music for the piano. Having already made several recordings of classical music, O’Riley then shifted gears and released some truly fascinating recordings of a completely different pedigree.

True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead. Everything in Its Right Place; Knives Out; Black Star; Karma Police; Let Down; Airbag; Subterranean Homesick Alien; Thinking About You; Exit Music (For a Film); You; Bulletproof; Fake Plastic Trees; I Can't; True Love Waits; Motion Picture Soundtrack. Christopher O’Riley, piano. Sony Odyssey SK 87321. (2003).

O’Riley’s transcriptions blend the vocal lines with the instrumental lines into a seamless whole that he fortifies with rich chords. For songs with which you are familiar with the Radiohead album originals, you will immediately recognize the music. At the same time, however, you will find yourself amazed at how “classical” it sounds after being processed through O’Riley’s mind and fingers. If on the other hand you come to this album never having heard any Radiohead music in your life, you might still find this to be engaging, enjoyable music that sounds more like serious classical piano music than anything resembling what you might take to be rock music.

Hold Me to This: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead. There There; (Nice Dream) No Surprises; Polyethylene Part 2; How I Made My Millions; Like Spinning Plates; Sail to the Moon; The Tourist; Cuttooth; 2 + 2 = 5; Talk Show Host; Gagging Order; Paranoid Android; Street Spirit (Fade Out). Christopher O’Riley, piano. World Village WV 704. (2005).

Although released on a different label two years later, Hold Me to This is the musical fraternal twin of True Love Waits. The songs are different, but the transcriptions continue in the same vein, making this effectively “Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead, Volume II.” Once again, O’Riley weaves this music into a tapestry of sound and emotion. No, it is not the piano music of Beethoven, Brahms, or Chopin, but hey, I can scrunch up my imagination and imagine Liszt nodding his head approvingly at what O’Riley has accomplished here. If you enjoy piano music and are not entirely straitlaced, give one or both of these O’Riley albums an audition and discover the fascinating music of that mysterious composer, Mr. Head.
Next for your consideration are three albums that present reimagined renditions of two of those classic Radiohead albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. Each release is by an ensemble coming at Radiohead’s music from a different perspective: classical, folk, and jazz.

Echo Collective: Echo Collective Plays “Amnesiac”. Margaret Hermant, violin/harp; Neil Leiter, violin; Charlotte Danhier, cello; Yann LeCollaire, clarinet/bass clarinet/baritone saxophone; Helene Elst, bassoon/contrabassoon; Gary De Cart, piano; Antoine Danday, percussion. 7K! 7K008CD (2018).

We have previously reviewed releases featuring Echo Collective in Classical Candor. While those releases were more classical in nature, this album from 2018 found Echo Collective bringing in a percussionist to add a drum kit to their assemblage of classical instruments to produce an instrumental version of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. Although there are moments that sound much like chamber music, the overall mood is more like a jazzy/spacey cover version of pure Radiohead, lacking only the voice of Thom Yorke. The song “Dollars & Cents,” for example, has a driving acoustic bass line, drum accents, yearning string sounds, clarinet notes -- but still sounds like Radiohead. For many Radiohead fans, Amnesiac represents the peak of the group’s output; for them to hear Echo Collective’s take on it would be quite a stimulating experience, no doubt about it. Christopher O’Riley transformed the music through his piano, while Echo Collective does so through an array of instruments, but again from a trained classical perspective, this time filtered through an eclectic collective imagination.

Wooden Elephant: Landscapes, Knives, and Glue: Radiohead’s Kid A Recycled. Aoife Ni Bhriain, violin/jaw harp/flexitone/part blower/wine glass/milk frother with tissue/elbows on ukulele strung with guitar strings/kalimba/bowed toy handbells/plectrum/milk frother with elastic bands/toy archery bow/harmonicas; Huld Jonsdottir, violin/bowed toy hand bells/part blower/vibrator/ankle bells/plectrum/pacay shaker/wah-wah tube/harmonicas/music box; Ian Anderson, viola/arrangements/whirly tube/bathroom sink plug chain/plectrum/part blower/handheld fan with feathers/wine glasses/toy archery bow/bowed toy handbells/squeaky pig dog toy/power drill with cable ties/handheld fan with tights; Stefan Hadjiev, cello/bathroom sink plug chain/part blower/toy archery bow/bowed toy handbells; Nikolai Matthews, double bass/blu tack/kalimba/paper/bathroom sink plug chain/party blower/whirly tube/wine glasses/bowed toy handbell/timpani beater/harmonicas. Backlash Music BM006 (2020).

Be not frightened by the list of unusual “instruments'' credited to the players of Wooden Elephant. The group is a string quintet, and the arrangements of the Radiohead songs from Kid A (once again, the album is covered song for song) are for the quintet, with the other items listed being used for sonic seasoning. Although there are times when some of the sounds seem as though they could be produced by an electronic synthesizer, the liner states that “Every sound on this album has been produced completely acoustically by the five Wooden Elephant players. The album was recorded >as live< with only a few select overdubs for the noisier instrument changes.” The end result is an intriguing blend of Radiohead melodies with string quintet sounds augmented by sound effects that draw in rather than distract the listener. The song “How to Disappear Completely,” for example, which is haunting in its Radiohead version, is just as eerily haunting here, if not more so. The members of Wooden Elephant obviously have not only an ear for the music, but a feeling for the emotions that the music is meant to convey. The end result is a richly imaginative album that is well worth an audition by both Radiohead and chamber music fans alike.

Rick Simpson: Everything All of the Time: Kid A Revisited. Rick Simpson, piano; Tori Freestone, tenor saxophone and violin; James Allssopp, baritone saxophone; Dave Whitford, double bass; Will Glaser, drums. Whirlwind Recordings WR4765 (2020).

Here we have another take on Kid A, this time from the perspective of a jazz quintet. The liner notes by leader and pianist Rick Simpson explain the genesis of the album: “My musical interests began with electronic music, then jazz, and then Radiohead. All three were intense love affairs. The sonic landscape of Radiohead, in particular their electronic explorations, seemed to meld perfectly with my love of jazz and the avant garde. The Vortex Jazz Club generously offered a concert series where I could rewrite popular albums as vehicles for instrumental improvisation. Naturally ‘Kid A’ was the first record I thought of. 2020 sees ‘Kid A’ turn twenty years old and its impact and inspiration on musicians and audiences alike is being felt to this day. I wanted to honour Radiohead’s original whilst re-writing the music to fit my vision as a composer, giving the musicians I chose for this project plenty of space to improvise and bring their unique musical voices to the forefront. For some tunes I wanted to stay close to the source material, for others they are merely referenced and serve as springboards for new composition or improvisation. I think we captured some of the fractured anxiety and beauty of the original.” Having some live performances of this music under their belt, the group then went into the studio in London and recorded the album in a single afternoon. The end result is a fitting tribute to Radiohead. Being an album of jazz, it diverges more from the original music than any of the arrangements above, but never so far that the music becomes unrecognizable. One of the interesting points to note is how jazz drumming differs from rock drumming, which can be discerned even in a comparison of the drumming in this album with that in the Echo Collective album, where although the basic thrust of the album is classical in nature, the drums are used to link the arrangements to rock music, and the sound is pretty much that of a standard drum kit playing fairly straightforward rock rhythms. There is nothing wrong with that, the net effect sounding quite engaging. However, the drum sounds and rhythms employed by drummer Will Glaser are more colorful and varied, doing more for the music than just supplying a beat. The more I listened to that album, the more I seized upon favorite highlights of the arrangements, such as use of the violin in “How to Disappear Completely,” the jazz trio sound at the heart of “Optimistic,” or pretty much everything about their amazing rendition of “Morning Bell,” but especially the exuberant drumming and interplay between drummer Glaser and pianist Simpson. If you like Radiohead and have at least a nodding acquaintance with jazz, or if you like jazz and have at least a nodding acquaintance with the music of Radiohead, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what I am going to advise...

Bonus Recommendations:

Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead. Baby Rock Records  CD 9603.

As Monty Python were often heard to say, “and now for something completely different.” As the note on the back cover explains, “Rockabye Baby! transforms timeless rock songs into beautiful instrumental lullabies. The delicate sounds of the glockenspiel, vibraphone, and other instruments will lull your little one into a sweet slumber… These versions of Radiohead are sophisticated enough for people of all ages, but sweet enough to introduce your child to rock’s smartest band.” I suppose it would be easy enough to snicker, but to be honest, I used to play this CD often on my computer at work. The familiar Radiohead melodies played on bells, glockenspiel, keyboard, and other instruments all apparently played and overdubbed in the studio by a fellow named Michael Armstrong did not lull me to sleep; rather, they allowed me to get into a groove where I was able to work efficiently while feeling just fine -- on a gentle musical high, if you will. Laugh if you want to, but this is a seriously enjoyable take on Radiohead featuring 11 of their songs in sparkling arrangements.
There Will Be Blood: Original Music by Jonny Greenwood. Nonesuch 369020-2.

Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971) grew up with an abiding interest in classical music as well as rock music. One of his early musical heroes was the French composer Olivier Messiaen, and he later developed a great admiration for the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. He also had a fondness for jazz and an interest in electronic music. In 2007, he composed the score for the film There Will Be Blood. This is music that does not sound like a typical movie score. Instead, it sounds for the most part like serious contemporary classical music. There are tracks for orchestra, for piano trio, and for string quartet. You do not need to have seen the film to enjoy this release, which can stand on its own as an engrossing program of finely crafted classical music.

Chrystal Für: Elusion. Requiem; I’m Losing You; Spark Over the Horizon; Nova; There Is No Second Chance; Memory of a Fading Home; *I’ll Rise at Dawn Once More; Pass the Torch; Other Side of the Mirror. Christopher J. Vibberts, piano, cello, guitars, bass, organ, keyboards, marxophone, melody harp, Tibetan singing bowl, wine glasses, ebow, breathing, samples, sound manipulation; *Margaret Hermant, violin, harp, wind sounds; *Neil Leiter, viola, bass viola, wind sounds. What Are We Records WAW202101.

Chrystal Für is a recording outlet for the creative energies of musician/producer/engineer Chris Vibberts, who recorded the album in his studio in California, with one track being recorded in Belgium by his friends from Echo Collective. Elusion has a contemporary feel yet still manages to have something of a timeless quality to it, reflecting a wide spectrum of musical influences. When Vibberts was asked to put together a mixtape of music that influenced the album, he said that he “created a loose musical timeline that dips into important early musical moments including being freaked out in the basement as a toddler listening to "Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John and Black Sabbath albums, to contemporary artists that constantly inspire me like Jóhann Jóhannsson, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and Max Richter.” Given that Echo Collective has collaborated in the past with both Jóhannsson and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, it should come as no surprise that they show up on Elusion. Most of the cuts on this release evoke a mood of reflection, of pondering the joy and beauty to be found in everyday life. It is music at once soothing and inspiring, but with more substance than what you would find in the New Age category. A fascinating release, well worth an audition.


Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Bruce Anthony Kiesling, Adrian Symphony Orchestra. Naturally Sharp Records.

By John J. Puccio

Ever since bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned American composer George Gershwin to write a jazz-inflected concerto for piano and orchestra, practically every popular pianist since then has elected to record it. Gershwin himself premiered the work with the Whiteman band in 1924, but, surprisingly, there was never a definitive version of it. This was in part because Gershwin improvised a part of the piano score during the first performance, and in part because the man who orchestrated the music, Whiteman’s own arranger Ferde Grofe, didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the music for its premiere. Even the opening clarinet glissando was an improvisation of sorts. Then, within a few years, we would see the score re-arranged for pit orchestra and for full symphony orchestra.

The current recording, with concert pianist Jeffrey Biegel as soloist and the Adrian Symphony Orchestra, uses a recent reconstruction of the work by musicologist and Gershwin scholar Dr. Ryan Banagale. As Dr. Banagale writes, “This edition attempts to be as true to the original intentions of the creators as possible.”

Dr. Banagale wrote a book on the subject, Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2014), which focuses on the ongoing-and surprising-life of Gershwin's iconic Rhapsody in Blue over the course of the ninety-odd years since its inception. His 2011 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University is titled “Rhapsodies In Blue: New Narratives for an Iconic American Composition." Dr. Banagale's critical edition of Rhapsody in Blue here receives its first recording release.

According to Mr. Biegel: "I have performed the many guises of Rhapsody in Blue since the age of nine. In 1997, when performing the ‘Annotated Rhapsody in Blue,’ arranged by Dr. Alicia Zizzo, which owns many sections of missing piano material from original sources, I had questioned the Gershwin family about having a new edition with the original orchestral material and the piano material together. Here we are, and it is now available, thanks to many involved. It is truly an honor to have the permissions necessary to make this recording happen, as well as generous donor support to bring this recording to life for today's listeners and for historic purpose."

Most important in the performance is the fact that Mr. Biegel has performed the work countless times and seems to know every nuance of the music. He keeps the score driving forward, with an infectious bounce yet a subtle refinement as well. The orchestra, with its own brief solos, accompanies Biegel with a spirited yet tasteful polish. But his is the soloist’s party, and Mr. Biegel makes the most of it, his one-on-one sojourns into Gershwin’s jazz experiment completely mesmerizing. Yes, he simply steals the show, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. No matter how many other recordings you already own of the Rhapsody in Blue, this one is a must-have companion.

Engineer Christopher Momany and recording mixer Bruce Kiesling recorded the music at Dawson Auditorium on the campus of Adrian College in June 2021. The orchestral parts are exceptionally well recorded, with plenty of space, width, dimensionality, frequency balance, and particularly dynamics. The piano is well integrated, too, if a tad close. It projects a solid tone, with crisp articulation in abundance. So the sound rounds out a wholly successful new outing for Gershwin’s perennial favorite. Count it among my favorites of the year.

Mr. Biegel has made his recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue available for digital download (Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora) and in limited quantities of CDs. For details, visit


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

Post Bach: Preludes, Fugues, and Bach-Inspired New Music (CD review)

Sam Post: Tango Toccata; Bach: Prelude in C Major; Fugue in C Major; Prelude in C Minor; Fugue in C Minor (from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1); Post: Efficiency Remix; Lighthouse; Bach: Prelude in C Sharp Minor; Fugue in C Sharp Minor; Prelude in D Major; Fugue in D Major (from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1); Post: Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Irena Orlov in Memoriam; Fugue in C Sharp Minor, Irena Orlov in Memoriam. Sam Post, piano. Sunnyside SC1622.

By Karl W. Nehring

A talented young pianist sits at the keyboard, diligently practicing the music of J.S. Bach. From his back lawn, there is a strange noise, and then an unexpected sight. A blue British phone booth mysteriously appears, from which soon emerges a dandily dressed gentleman whose ears perk up as he hears the sound of piano music coming through the open window. The unexpected visitor walks over to the pianist’s back door and starts knocking on it, banging it hard. Startled by the unexpected racket, the pianist stops playing mid-measure and rushes to the door, suddenly frightened to think his neighbor must be having some sort of emergency. Upon opening the door only to find such a strange figure standing before him, the pianist quickly asks, “who are you and what do you want?!” “I’m The Doctor,” replies his visitor in a good-natured voice. “I heard you playing some music by my old friend Johann Bach, which was excellent, by the way, and I’ll be sure to let him know his music is in good hands the next time I see him. In fact, come join me for a quick spell and let’s expand your musical horizons, shall we?” The pianist, with no idea what on earth is going on, but ready for a break from all those hours of practice, follows The Doctor into the phone box, which he soon learns to his surprise is bigger on the inside. The Doctor fiddles with some controls and soon they emerge outside a church. As they enter, they hear organ music, which the pianist quickly realizes is being played by none other than the great J.S. Bach himself. The pianist is overwhelmed, but after a few minutes, the Doctor ushers him back to the phone box and tells him there are a few more musicians he would like the pianist to observe before he takes him back home. They then make brief excursions though space and time to observe the playing of keyboard masters Scott Joplin and James P. Johnson, which the pianist really appreciates, but then The Doctor tells him, “there is one more musician you need to see, but he is the master of a different sort of keyboard. But hey, I’m sure you’ll dig him, as musicians seem to say.” The next thing he knows, the pianist is with the Doctor in a New York nightclub, where on a small stage Astor Piazzolla is wielding his bandoneon as part of a quartet playing tango rhythms. Then back to the phone box, which whisks them back to his backyard, where it suddenly seems to the pianist as though he had never left with his new friend The Doctor on that brief but unforgettable journey through space and time. He thanks The Doctor for the remarkable experience, then waves goodbye as The Doctor steps back into the phone booth. In a few short moments, the strange noises starts again and the phone box fades from view. The pianist takes a few calming deep breaths before heading back into the house and sitting back down at the piano. After staring into space for a minute or two and then wiggling his fingers to loosen them up, he starts playing some Bach, but tries interpreting it in a few different styles based on what he had heard on his strange trip. As he plays in this different way, he smiles, realizing that he is starting to come up with some fresh ideas for a new album...

Meanwhile, at an entirely different set of space-time coordinates, this is another one of those CDs that caught my eye at the library. I stuck it in the CD player of my car so I could get a sense of it on the drive home (the ELS system in my Acura is surprisingly neutral and revealing for an automotive setup). My initial impressions as I drove along were quite positive, for what I heard was a joyous mix of Bach, tango, ragtime… but everything played with an appropriate blend of discipline and swagger. I was eager to get home so I could hear the music on my big system and dig into the liner notes to find out more about this fellow Sam Post and what he was up to with this unusual but highly entertaining program.

For reasons that I have never quite figured out, however, my beloved library, and I say that without the slightest hint of irony, seems to have a somewhat random policy in regard including liner notes when they repackage CDs into the protective plastic cases the library employs to protect the discs for display and circulation. Unfortunately, Post Bach was one of those CDs for which the notes were not included, so I had to do some internet sleuthing to discover what Post had to say about his intentions:

”Post Bach is about using the past as inspiration, about drawing on years of playing and listening to create something new. Growing up, the music of J.S. Bach was my bread and butter. I listened obsessively to the recordings of Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck. Encouraged by my teacher Irena Orlov, I tackled the intimidating five-voice C sharp minor fugue as a young boy, and the entire Well-Tempered Clavier soon after. My own Prelude and Fugue in the same key, written and dedicated to her, completes the album, and all of the original music here comes from the few months that followed her passing in 2018. My love of Bach’s music is with me whenever I compose, but it shines through especially in Post Bach’s original pieces. A few years ago, I found more diverse rhythmic styles—tango, ragtime, swing, pop—working their way into my music with increasing frequency, and their influence in turn changed my approach to the old master. Post Bach might strike you as jazzy, classical, or something in between, but I hope you’ll hear in it not only the similarities between my own pieces and those of my favorite past composer, but also a new style in its own right.”

The program opens with an original by Post titled Tango Toccata, which deftly combines tango rhythms with Bach-like construction and feeling. It is a remarkable piece, sounding not at all like a novelty toss-off, but rather a fully-formed, serious, noteworthy composition. Serious, yes, but at the same time energetic and joyful. Part Piazzolla, part Bach, all Post, a remarkable composition indeed. It is also remarkable that as the program shifts to straight Bach in the ensuing preludes and fugues, there is no grinding of gears; instead, it is more like a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Following the first set of straight Bach, expertly performed and eminently enjoyable, the program shifts back to two compositions by Post, Efficiency (Remix) and Lighthouse. These are again delightfully entertaining compositions, bringing to mind visions of Bach being played in the styles of perhaps Scott Joplin, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and yes, Sam Post, but no, never sounding like some sort of throwaway or novelty music, but rather as serious music written with the goal to delight, inspire, and entertain while at the same time paying tribute to Bach and his influence on Western music.

Following these two pieces by Post are more examples of straight Bach from Book 1 of his Well Tempered Clavier. Then once again there is a nearly imperceptible shift from music by Bach to music by Post as the album closes with his Prelude and Fugue in C Sharp Minor, Irena Orlov in Memoriam, which Post wrote to honor the memory of his beloved keyboard mentor. This music sounds remarkably like Bach, but in the final minute of the closing Fugue, you can hear Post slowing down the tempo, lingering, expressing great emotion through a kind of music that is often thought of in these times as essentially mechanical and expressionless. “Not so fast, my friend…”

Not having seen the liner notes, I cannot comment on them, but the sound quality is just fine. For those with an appreciation for the keyboard music of Bach, this album is highly recommendable. For those who have not yet discovered the keyboard music of Bach, or who have not quite been sure where to start, this album would also be highly recommendable. Try it, you might like it!


Stylus Phantasticus (CD review)

Tekla Cunningham, baroque violin; Pacific MusicWorks. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-742.

By John J. Puccio

Stylus phantasticus
 (or Stylus fantasticus) means “fantastical style,” and it refers to a genre of early Baroque music, derived particularly from the toccatas and fantasies of sixteenth-century Italian composers like Claudio Merulo and Girolamo Frescobaldi. In a book on the subject, the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher wrote, "The fantastic style is especially suited to instruments. It is the most free and unrestrained method of composing, it is bound to nothing, neither to any words nor to a melodic subject, it was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues."

On the present disc, Reference Recordings provides eleven examples of the fantasical style from mainly seventeenth-century Italian and German practitioners of the form. The group performing the pieces is the period-instrument ensemble Pacific MusicWorks: Tekla Cunningham, baroque violin; William Skeen, bass violin; Stephen Stubbs, baroque guitar and chitarrone; Maxine Eilander, baroque harp; and Henry Lebedinsky, organ and harpsichord. Each of these players is a celebrated musician in his or her own right, with numerous recordings and solo appearances to their credit.

So, stylus phantasticus is not a particular form or technique but a more general manner of composition coming at a time when music before it (and, indeed, after it) tended to demand that composers conform to more-specific structures. It was not limited to choral music, for instance, or preexisting dances or melodies; instead, it allowed for more-creative imagination. While it wasn’t exactly a free-for-all, it did provide for a richer expression of musical interests before the concerto and the symphony would tie things down again.

Anyway, the program is as follows:
  1. Carlo Farina (1600–1639):
“Sonata Seconda detta la Desperata”
  2. Giovanni de Macque (1550–1614):
  3. Marco Uccellini (1603–1680):
“La Luciminia contenta,” Op. 4 No. 2
  4. Francesco Corbetta (1615–1681):
“Partite sopra La Folia”
  5. Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (1630–1669/70):
“La Castella,” Op. 3 No. 4
  6. Giovanni Battista Fontana (?-1630):
“Sonata Seconda”
  7. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704):
“Sonata Prima”
  8. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1620–1680):
“Ciaconna in A” from Serenada in Mascara
  9. Ignazio Albertini (1633–1685):
“Sonata Prima for violin and continuo”
10. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1620–1680):
“Sonata Seconda” from Sonatæ unarum fidium
11. Schmelzer:
“Sonata Quarta” from Sonatæ unarum fidium

As you might notice, the compositions follow a pattern of earliest to later music, with the earlier ones a bit less ornate. The Carlo Farina sonata, for instance, is almost sedate in its execution. Its subtitle, “detta la Desperata,” translates as “called the despairing,” an emotional piece if rather despondent in tone. MusicWorks provide it with an appropriately passionate melancholy. The harp and harpsichord are especially appealing.

Following the Farina sonata is the oldest example of stylus phantasticus on the disc, Giovanni de Macque’s little “Toccata” for baroque harp. It’s deceptively simple and beautifully played. The next selection, Uccellini’s “La Luciminia contenta,” takes the style further, being livelier and even more expressive than the preceding pieces.

And so it goes. The tunes show wit, compassion, virtuosity, lyricism, reflection, and an ever-changing spectrum of colors, phrasing, and articulation. Moreover, the performances are immaculate and committed. It makes for engaging and highly addictive listening.

Producer David Sabee and engineers Dmitry Lipay, Aleksandr Lipay, and Kory Kruckenberg recorded the music at St. Thomas Chapel, Kenmore, Washington in February 2018. The sound has a pleasantly warm, reverberant quality to it. It maybe doesn’t permit the ultimate in transparency or definition, but it is quite natural and lifelike. It’s a comfortable sound, with plenty of range in frequency and dynamics.


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

Images (CD review)

Anna Lapwood, Organ of Ely Cathedral. Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin (arr. Erwin Wiersinga); Patrick Gowers: An Occasional Trumpet Voluntary; Debussy: Andante from String Quartet in G Minor (arr. Alexandre Guilmant); Kerensa Briggs: Light in Darkness; Nadia Boulanger: III. Improvisation from Trois Improvisations; Owain Park: Images; Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (arr.Lapwood); Messiaen: Vocalise-Étude (arr. Lapwood); Cheryl Frances-Hoad: Taking Your Leave. Signum Classics SIGCD688.
By Karl W. Nehring
Having followed Anna Lapwood on Twitter for quite some time, and having seen and heard some videos she had posted there of her working on her arrangements of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, I have been looking forward to auditioning this new release for some time now. Her posts on Twitter show her to be a charming and unpretentious artist, devoted not only to her craft, but also to helping other musicians, especially young musicians, express themselves through music. She is skilled not only as an organist, but as a conductor and broadcaster. Earlier this year, for example, she appeared at the BBC Proms both as a presenter for BBC Television and as soloist in the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony. In 2016, when she was just 21, she was appointed Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, where in 2018 she established the Pembroke College Girls’ Choir for girls aged 11 to 18. According to the liner notes, Ms. Lapwood conducted the Chapel Choir and Girls’ Choir in a recording titled All Things Are Quite Silent that was “released in 2020 to widespread critical acclaim, praised for their clarity, blend and beauty of sound.”
When that fateful day came when her long-awaited album arrived at my door, I was delighted to discover that the opening piece on the program was a transcription for organ of one of my favorite pieces by one of my favorite composers, Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel. Ravel originally composed it in six movements for piano (Prelude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet, Toccata) and then later orchestrated four of the movements (Prelude, Forlaane, Menuet, Rigadoun). The orchestral version is probably the one that is more familiar to the typical classical listener. I have auditioned many and still own several versions of both the piano and orchestral versions of Le Tombeau, a composition that I have requested be played at my wake. No, until received this recording, I had never imagined hearing this music being played on an organ, but what do you know, it works surprisingly well. My only quibble – and it is a minor one, I must say – is that the opening measures of the Forlane seemed to feel a bit heavier, a bit less dance-like, than they should to my ears, but other than that, hearing this music presented in this way was a delightful surprise. Immediately following the Ravel on the program is a brief piece by Patrick Gowers (1936-2014) featuring a repetitive theme that becomes quite grand at the end, when the organ volume is cranked up into a fanfare-like climax. It is quite a sonic and musical contrast, then, when we next hear an arrangement for organ of music from Debussy’s String Quartet. Once again, to hear this music played on the organ this is something quite unexpected, but also once again, it is something quite entrancing. Whereas the music from a string quartet emanates from a small space on stage or better yet, in a room (it is chamber music, remember), the sound of the organ (even from a recording) can seem to originate from the dark recesses of a vast space, thus transforming our perception and understanding of the music.
Light in Darkness
 by Kerensa Briggs (b. 1991) continues in a musical direction similar to that of the Debussy, sustaining much the same mood and sonority (an audio system with extended bass response will enhance your enjoyment, by the way). This is music for reflection and contemplation. The following brief piece by Nadia Boulanger (1887-1976) continues in a similar tranquil mood, but after a quiet but somewhat restless-sounding first couple of minutes, Images by Owain Park (b. 1993) cranks up the volume for a spell and begins to ratchet up the tension. As the plural title implies, it is not a piece that sustains a single mood.
We then come to the centerpiece of the album, Ms. Lapwood’s arrangement and performance of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes. This is music that in its orchestral guise is doubtless familiar to many readers of Classical Candor, two of the finest recordings being those of Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI and Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony on Reference Recordings. Once again, it is remarkable to hear how effective these transcriptions for organ turn out to be. You quickly find yourself forgetting that this is not an orchestra -– you just let yourself be drawn into and swept away by the music. How I would love to hear this in a live organ recital someday… My only regret is that Ms. Lapwood did not press on further and include a transcription of the Passacaglia, but surely I should not be so greedy. Brava, Ms. Lapwood!
After the power and fury of Britten’s Storm, we are given a chance to catch our breath and slow down our heart rate to the gentle sounds of Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) Vocalise-Étude, written when the composer was a young man of 27. This is intimate music of serene repose. The album then closes with the appropriately titled Taking Your Leave by Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980), a boisterous, energetic piece that showcases that other, more outgoing and demonstrative dimension of organ and organist, a fun way to end the album.
Images was recorded by the veteran engineer Mike Hatch, who has done his usual fine job of capturing a convincing sonic portrait. There is a page in the liner notes devoted to the history of the organ at Ely Cathedral as well as a complete listing of its specifications for those interested in the details of the instrument. In addition, Ms. Lapwood offers informative and charming notes on all of the selections included on the album. In every way, this is truly a first-class production for which I offer a highly enthusiastic recommendation.

R. Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (SACD review)

Vladimir Jurowski, Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Pentatone PTC 5186 802.

By John J. Puccio

When German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) premiered Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”) in 1915, anticipation ran high among classical-music enthusiasts. After all, it was Richard Strauss who had almost single-handedly resurrected and then developed the genre of the tone poem with such profound works as Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Ein Heldenleben, Symfonia Domestica, Don Juan, and Don Quixote. All the same, what audiences wanted and what they got turned out to be two different things, with some critics describing An Alpine Symphony as picture-postcard fluff and others as “cinema music.”

This has not stopped the greatest conductors of the modern era from recording Eine Alpensinfonie, though, with people like Karl Bohm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hans Knapperbusch, Evgeny Svetlanov, Yvgeny Mravinsky, Rudolf Kempe, Zubin Mehta, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink, Herbert Blomstedt, Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel, and a host of others giving it a shot. Still, the picture-postcard business remains stuck in people’s minds, so in the present recording Russian-British conductor Vladimir Jurowski aims to help people take it more seriously.

Why doesn’t everyone appreciate Strauss’s Alpine Symphony? Maybe because of the program notes the composer provided, which describe the score’s musical ascent of an alpine peak and down again, each segment a tiny musical picture of the journey. Here are Strauss’s program notes, from the opening pages to the closing: Night, Sunrise, The Ascent, Entry into the Forest, Wandering by the Brook, At the Waterfall, Apparition, On Flowering Meadows, On the Alpine Pasture, Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path, On the Glacier, Dangerous Moments, On the Summit, Vision, Mists Rise, The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured, Elegy, Calm Before the Storm, Thunder and Tempest, Descent, Sunset, Quiet Settles, and Night.

Moreover, even though Strauss called it a “symphony,” it’s clearly not a symphony in the traditional sense. It’s more akin to the composer’s other big tone poems in being episodic and descriptive. I suppose Strauss’s aim was to follow the example of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Certainly, there was an effort to capture the beauty and importance of Nature in the music. Yet it wasn’t enough to satisfy every listener’s hunger for deep philosophical insights into the nature of Man.

For this new disc (the conductor’s second recording of The Alpine Symphony within a few years), Maestro Jurowski suggests that people got it all wrong. He tells us that, yes, the symphony does on the surface recall the climbing of a mountain but that it’s more than that. In a booklet note he explains that “...underneath that ‘structured but un-structural picture-postcard’ lie the deeper layers of a philosophical musical experiment.” He reminds us that “Strauss originally called the work ‘The Antichrist’ (after Nietzsche’s book of the same title), stating that it ‘represents moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, (and) worship of eternal, magnificent nature.’”

Fair enough: Jurowski here attempts to return to Strauss’s original intentions, although I’m not entirely sure how he thought he was doing it. His is a big, bold, grand interpretation in the big, bold, grand tradition of Romantic music (Strauss’s score calls for something like 125 players), yet the result is not particularly revealing of any new or suppressed meaning. It’s impressive and highly suggestive of the segment titles without imparting much that we haven’t heard before. Which is not a bad thing, mind you; it’s a solid and satisfying rendition of the music. It’s just maybe that Jurowski’s reading doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations he sets up for himself.

Anyway, Jurowski starts us off on the right foot with a nicely hushed introduction leading to a well-judged ascent of the mountain. The “Entry into the Forest,” too, is well taken, providing a kind of fairy-tale quality to the music. Under Jurowski’s direction, the “Brook” and the “Waterfall” are appropriately picturesque and expressive, sections that probably gave rise to the “picture postcard” reproaches. Still, the conductor handles them with a serious composure, lending them added strength and credibility. By the time the protagonist crosses the glacier and reaches the mountain’s summit (and the score’s apex) in “Vision,” Jurowski is in complete command. The majesty of the music does, indeed, match the majesty of Nature.

It’s from this point on (down the mountain) that I found Jurowski losing intensity. It’s as though he had put everything into the climb up and wanted to slide back down as effortlessly as possible. Not even the storm comes off with as much tumult or turmoil as I’ve heard from other conductors. Frankly, it seemed a little hurried and the orchestra a little underpowered.

As Mark Twain wrote in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras Country”: “I don't see no p’ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog.” Jurowski’s rendering of Strauss’s music is good, at least in the first half, but doesn’t displace my favored recordings, especially not the two made by Rudolf Kempe (RCA/Testament and EMI/JVC). I suppose a lot of folks will be tempted to buy the Pentatone album because it is presented in the SACD format, and that’s fine, too. They won’t be disappointed. However, I advise considering the alternatives as well.

Producers Florian B. Schmidt, Stefan Lang, and Renaud Loranger and engineers Jorg Peter Urbach and Calvin B. Cooper recorded the music live at the Konzerthaus Berlin in February 2019. They made it for hybrid SACD playback, a two-channel stereo and multichannel SACD layer playable only on an SACD player and a regular two-channel stereo layer playable on any regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

Despite its being recorded live, with an audience present, the sound is pretty good. It’s miked at a moderate distance rather than being too close up, and the perspective is realistic. The sound is not entirely transparent at this range, particularly with an audience to consider, but it is fairly lifelike, with just enough hall ambience to help it come alive in a warmly natural manner. Dynamics are also good, although because of the difference in volume between the softest and loudest levels, it does need a little gain boost at first. Nevertheless, the sonics still seemed a bit tame compared to several other ordinary stereo versions I own. Maybe I expected a bit too much of SACD, or maybe it only comes to full fruition in multichannel playback.


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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa