Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 (K2HD review)

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic. K2HD Mastering 480 862-4.

By John J. Puccio

Most of us recognized long ago that the least-expensive way to listen to good sound was not just to buy the best-available (yet most-affordable) playback equipment but to seek out the best-available source material. For quite a while now that has meant remasters of older recordings by companies like JVC, FIM/LIM, Hi-Q, Classic CD, HDTT, Sheffield Labs, Mobile Fidelity, and the like. Alas, many of these companies are gone, yet hope springs eternal. JVC is still making the occasional XRCD, HDTT keeps plugging along, and Sheffield and Mo-Fi are at least still in business.

Which brings us to a secondary concern: namely, the choice of material to remaster. Often in my experience, companies have chosen products that sounded good but were of dubious quality in terms of performance. And sometimes vice versa. On the present recording, however, the mastering company K2HD (see below) has released two unqualified great performances using the K2 mastering process, and there’s hardly anything to complain about: We get two terrific performances in good, remastered sound. Well, “hardly” anything to complain about (see below for more on that).

Since its release in the mid 1970s, these Beethoven recordings by the late Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) have been considered by many classical-music critics as the gold standard for recordings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Ever since its days on vinyl, the Fifth in particular has long been my own go-to recording for this work.

In a brief booklet essay, music critic Peter Cosse writes “...in the world of recording there are three kinds of artist. One kind regards the medium as a permanent opportunity to place themselves and their musical comrades before the public. They treat discs as pages in an audio diary. A second, minute group turns its back. They refuse to document big musical occasions, insist on the impossibility of repeating the experience, and thus place all their faith in their listeners’ memories. A third group, also a rather small one, does not dismiss the medium altogether but is very, very choosy. Carlos Kleiber is one of these last… His all too infrequent Philharmonic Subscriptions Concerts in Vienna have each and every one set the musical world ablaze, and, like these performances of Beethoven here, left it in a state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.”

For those music lovers who may be unfamiliar with Maestro Kleiber, I should point out that he is widely regarded as a legendary conductor, one of the all-time greats. However, one of the reasons not everyone may have heard about him is that he made only nine studio recordings. Yes, nine. And two of them are included on this CD!

Anyway, Kleiber brings a unique personal touch to the scores, more flexible in tempo and dynamics than most other conductors while remaining faithful to the score. All the same, this is epic-sounding Beethoven. Maybe not so noble or monumental as Klemperer in his old Philharmonia recordings, but close. Nor is Kleiber quite as exhilarating as Reiner with the Chicago Symphony. Yet Kleiber projects a spark unmatched by anyone. It is easy to see why so many critics and classical music fans have considered these recordings to be reference standards. The Fifth, especially, seems more than capable of leaving listeners in a “state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.” Kleiber’s way with the Fifth has certainly done that for me on every occasion I’ve visited it. Kleiber’s Seventh, maybe not as much. I’ve always found his Seventh a tad cool and distant, although I still hear that aforementioned spark. Whatever, they are performances every classical music listener should hear.

Producer Werner Mayer and engineer Hans-Peter Schweigmann recorded the Symphony No. 5 in March and April 1974 and No. 7 in November 1975 and January 1976 at the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. Then, in 1995 the folks at DG remastered both recordings and re-released them together on a single CD, followed a little later by another CD issue in their “Originals” line.

Finally, we have the K2HD remastering using K2 processing, which has been a part of JVC’s meticulous XRCD mastering program since 1987. K2HD in its current form is a development of Victor Studios, who describe it like this: “The development of K2 was started in response to calls from recording engineers in Victor Studio. They objected to the common idea that there was absolutely no change in sound quality no matter how many times the original data was copied when the music media is transferred from analog records across to digital CDs. Because digitalizing sound is encoded in combinations of zeros and ones. Although no changes occur in theory, the studio engineers claimed that there was a clear difference between the sound quality of the original master and the copied sub-master. So the engineers at JVCKENWOOD set about to clarify the reason for this. Subsequently, it was discovered that although the digital data was exactly the same, electrical distortion (jitter, rippling), etc. occurred when the data was being recorded and saved, which had an adverse effect when converting music played back in digital into analog, thereby proving that changes did occur in sound quality. An attempt by the two engineers to improve the changes in sound quality that occurred at this time led to the original version of K2, which was named the ‘K2 Interface.’

Efforts in creating high-quality sound of digital sources with K2, which started from a signal transmission system at a music content production studio, will continue to evolve and expand from being featured in playback equipment to the remastering of songs, cutting records, and more.”

Whatever that “more” means. Insofar as the K2HD remastering of Kleiber’s Beethoven is concerned, the sound is pretty good. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to note how well the original engineering held up. It might not be quite as transparent or as spacious as some other audiophile recordings, and there may be just a touch of hardness from time to time in the massed strings; but overall, it sounds pretty good in its remastered form.

For my listening, I placed the K2HD disc in one CD player and the regular CD in another, using my own, proprietary switching system (my wife) to move back and forth between the two. Results: the K2HD disc sounded better in almost every comparison, even when adjusted for differing playback levels (the K2HD plays a couple of decibels louder). The differences were small, to be sure, but discernable. The K2HD disc sounded clearer, with detail marginally more pointed, a light veil having been removed from in front of the speakers. In addition to slightly better transparency came a perceptible increase (although again a barely perceptible increase) in dynamic levels and impact. Nevertheless, without having the two discs side by side, I’m sure I would not have noticed any differences at all. And, incidentally, the improvement showed up even when I changed out the discs between the two CD players to be sure I wasn’t hearing the sound of the machines instead of the CD’s.

So, big differences? No. Differences worth paying up to three or four times more for the K2HD over the regular DG disc? Ah, there’s the rub, a question that only the buyer can answer. If you love the Kleiber performances (and you have the money to spend), you might want them in the very best possible sound, no matter how small the improvement.

And then there’s the problem of finding the disc, which may be an insurmountable difficulty in itself. K2HD released the product a few years back, it sold out quickly, and as of this writing it is hard to find. Even Elusive Disc has had it on back-order for the better part of a year. But what is success without a little effort? If I found it, so can you.

JJP

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

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 (SACD review)

Also, MacMillan: Larghetto for Orchestra. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings FR-744SACD.

By Karl W. Nehring and Bill Heck

The album according to Karl:
This will be a review of this new release from two perspectives. My good friend and colleague Bill Heck and I were excited to see this new recording of the Brahms Fourth, a work we both hold in high regard, by the esteemed Pittsburgh Symphony under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings, a label we also hold in high regard. After a brief telephone conversation about the recording based on our first quick listens (mine only in my car), we decided that we would speak no more of it to each other and instead write independent reviews that we would not reveal to each other until they were posted. So here we go…

This recording made two immediate impressions on me. I loved its energy and drive, but I thought it sounded different from any other version with which I was familiar. My mental image of this work is of a sound that is led by the strings, especially the violins; however, on this version, the winds and brass seemed to carry pretty much equal weight. My immediate impression was that Honeck was fussing with things, perhaps trying to make his version stand out from the rest of the pack by bringing background parts to the forefront. However, my first impressions were admittedly based on listening in the car, and then my mono Bluetooth speaker (circumstances kept me away at first from my big system but I really wanted to hear the performance so I started listening right away on whatever gear was close at hand). On my car system, though, I was able to do a quick comparison to the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra version, and from that DG recording I heard much more of the string-driven sound I had remembered.

When I finally got the chance to listen to the CD layer of the Honeck disc on my home system, I found myself becoming conflicted about just what to think, at least in terms of its sound quality. On the one hand, the sound is dynamic, rich, and full. On the other hand, the stereo imaging is a bit strange, a curious blend of a distant, reverberant hall sound (this is a live recording taken from concert performances) combined with what seems to be spotlighting of different sections of the orchestra, resulting in a sound something like a combination of the Telarc and London Phase 4 approaches. The liner notes from Soundmirror (the engineering firm Reference Recordings employs in Pittsburgh) offer a hint as to what might be going on: “While an important goal is to truthfully represent the acoustical event in the hall, another is to capture the composer's intention reflected in the score and its realization by the performer. To achieve these goals, extensive collaboration and communication between the artists and the recording team are of utmost importance. Based on our long experience of recording the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Heinz Hall, we chose five omnidirectional DPA 4006 microphones as our main microphones as our main  microphone array. Supplementing those with ‘spot mics’ to clarify the detail of the orchestration, we worked towards realizing the above goals. Extensive listening sessions with Maestro Honeck and orchestra musicians were crucial in refining the final balance.”

I must say, though, that the more I listened to this recording, the less I fussed over nuances of the stereo imaging, and the more I enjoyed the performance, which I found compelling, and yes, the sound, which as I indicated above, is dynamic, rich, and full. Still, although I enjoyed the dynamism of the performance, I found myself wondering how it would compare to some other versions I had on hand, so I spent a good amount of time listening to several other recordings for the sake of comparing both sound and performance. I will now offer some capsule commentaries on those before concluding with my final thoughts on this new Reference Recordings release.

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon D 103114 (1981). This has long been a favorite version of many classical music lovers (crazily enough, while combing through boxes of CDs this past spring, I discovered that I had somehow acquired three copies of it). Kleiber’s version favors the strings, which have a rich, luxuriant sound. The engineering is not bad, but is nothing special. There is some sense of depth, but not to the extent of the other recordings. Overall, Kleiber brings some excitement and energy to the score, but at least to these ears, his recording no longer leads the field.

Leopold Stokowski, New Philharmonia Orchestra. RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62606-2 (1974). First, a quick caveat. The disc I auditioned is CD1 of a 2-CD set that also includes an excellent version of the Mahler Symphony No. 2. It purports to be digitally remastered to be optimized for Dolby Surround, although compatible for stereo. I’m not sure whether some of the sonic anomalies I noticed might be attributable to that remix. Those anomalies include some edginess to the treble and a tendency for the sound of the strings to bunch toward the middle of the image. The bass is not as full as would be ideal, but overall, the sound quality is not bad; it is just not as good as it seems it should have been, and I can’t help but wonder what a good remastering for stereo might sound like. That said, this is a dynamite performance, lively, colorful, and energetic. The ending of the first movement is rousing, the third movement has a marvelous transparency, and the finale builds to a passionate climax.

Fritz Reiner, The Royal Philharmonic. Chesky CD6 (1962). This performance was originally released on a Reader’s Digest LP in the 1960s, then later by RCA in several LP incarnations (I once owned and loved their Quintessence LP version back in my vinyl days)., In 1987, Chesky Records  released both LP and CD remasterings; sadly, though, they are now out of print (Bill and I auditioned a library copy). However, JJP reviewed an HDTT remastering of this recording, you can read that review here. Both the sound and the performance are top-drawer, Although the sound is not quite as dynamic or full-range as the Reference Recordings disc, the imaging and overall balance are more natural. Reiner, like Stokowski, takes things at a lively clip, and the end result is quite exhilarating.

John Axelrod, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. Telarc TEL-34658-02 9 (2013). Who? Conducting whom? On Telarc? John Axelrod (b. 1966) is an American conductor who recorded a unique cycle of Brahms symphonies for in Italy for Telarc. The cycle comprised two 2-CD sets, each CD featuring a Brahms symphony recorded live in concert plus several Lieder by Clara Schumann featuring a soprano accompanied by Axelrod on piano. In general, Axelrod’s interpretation of Symphony No. 4 is more lyrical and less driven than those above, with more of a flowing, relaxed, singing quality. The sonics were a bit strange, however. Although the tonal balance was just fine, rich and full, the sound strings emanated from the middle of the stage and the rest of the orchestra often seemed to come from the left or right. I’m just not sure what the engineers were thinking on this one. It’s far from unlistenable, just a bit quirky sounding, with a smooth performance of the Brahms and an interesting, engagingly entertaining coupling.

Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Telarc CD-80450 (1997). Partially to clear my ears of the big, brash sounds of the above recordings, and partially just to gain another perspective on the music itself, I decided to pull out the venerable chamber orchestra recording led by the esteemed Sir Charles Mackerras. This is a Telarc recording that sounds like a Telarc recording (unlike the Axelrod), with excellent imaging. Although the smaller forces result in an overall sound that lacks weight in comparison to the larger orchestras, they play with energy and drive. The sound of the horns stands out, giving off a more blatty than burnished sound; it made me smile, although I suppose others might react differently. And oh, that second movement… My goodness, Mackerras really nails it!

If the Stokowski were engineered a bit better (a little less brightness, a better stereo mix), it would be my first choice, and it is coupled with some truly outstanding Mahler. The Reiner is also terrific, and sounds amazingly good, but is hard to come by. The Kleiber has a more mainstream kind of sound, and the recording is not bad, just not in the same class as Honeck, Reiner, or Mackerras. Still, it is a safe choice, especially for those coming to the symphony for the first time. The Mackerras is a wonderful performance and recording, but (a) is a chamber orchestra performance that offers an interesting perspective but might prove unsatisfying to those looking for a “big” sound and (b) is part of a boxed set of the complete symphonies that is sadly out of print although not as hard to find as the Reiner. But for those who love the work and perhaps own several recordings of the Brahms symphonies, the Mackerras set on Telarc would be well worth seeking out. For those looking for a more lyrical take on Brahms, Axelrod is an interesting alternative, although the availability of his recordings is a bit dodgy. For those interested in such things, I have included a comparative table of movement timings for these recordings below.

 

Honeck

Kleiber

Stokowski

Reiner

Axelrod

Mackerras

I

12:38

12:45

10:48

11:11

13:16

12:02

II

11:06

11:19

11:54

12:40

12:33

10:38

III

5:54

6:04

6:00

6:28

6:26

6:05

IV

9:26

9:12

8:56

9:44

10:05

10:06


Although my focus has been on the Brahms, this release also includes the Larghetto for Orchestra by the Scottish composer James MacMillan (b. 1959). At just under 15 minutes, it is an arrangement of a composition that the composer explains was originally a choral piece, “imbued with the singing quality of the original piece, but is also shaped by its sad and lamenting character.” It is somber in mood, quite a contrast to the rousing finale of the Brahms. Pleasant enough to listen to, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure why it was included on this release. No harm, no foul….

Okay, then, back to the Brahms, the primary focus of this review. Having considered several alternative recordings, where does this Honeck version fit in? What kind of recommendation does it earn? The short answers are: near the top; and yes, it is recommended. The long answers are a bit more complicated, so allow me to offer a bit more explanation. The Honeck is a powerful performance that really brings the score to life, and the engineering, although a mite puzzling, as described above, is still very impressive and certainly revealing of the score. As I listened to this recording, I found myself getting more and more excited about the Brahms Fourth. What a rousing symphony! The way it was conducted, performed, and recorded made me feel as though I was hearing it in a way I had never heard it before, the aural equivalent of wearing X-ray specs. However, I never could quite shake the feeling that this was not quite the way it was really supposed to sound. The brass and woodwinds really were not meant to have quite that much prominence. I would also point out the liner notes, in which Maestro Honeck goes into a great amount of detail about the work and his approach to conducting it. In the end, then, I would recommend this recording as one that a person who likes the Brahms Fourth really ought to hear, but I would not recommend it as the first recording for someone just discovering classical music.

KWN

The album according to Bill:
I must admit that it has been difficult to figure out what to say about this recording. I’ve seen a lot of buzz about it; even though I’ve avoided reading other reviews before writing mine, the headlines have been obvious. Indeed, there is much to love: the interpretation is better than solid; the liner notes written by Maestro Honeck are insightful, an education unto themselves; the playing is exemplary; and Reference Recordings is a label that has produced scores of excellent recordings. And yet, and yet….

Honeck’s notes refer to his desire to bring out the inner details, details which often are difficult to hear. He’s certainly right about the potential difficulty, and it is a tough balancing act to play this work in a way that allows the listener, without benefit of a score, to hear everything that’s going on without losing the thread of the work as a whole. But to make a long story somewhat shorter, and to severely strain a metaphor, I fear that this recording goes too far in the direction of pulling out the individual threads and loses wholeness of the cloth.

This issue – and it may be idiosyncratic – is most noticeable in the first movement. It's one thing to bring out the inner voices of, say, the woodwinds or the lower strings. It's another when the violins sink into inaudibility, which happens around the 6-minute mark. (There are multiple measures of rests in there; I’m referring to the parts in which the violins are indeed playing.) Another instance is around the 7-minute mark: yes, the string parts are marked pp, but the horns and brass also are pp and the latter simply dominate. Again, as we approach the final sustained notes at the end of the movement, the brasses are prominent enough to mask the upper strings almost completely.

In a similar vein, the low end where the double basses reside is a little too “audiophile.” Some so-called audiophile recordings display what seems like an elevated low end, the better to show off the bass capabilities of the audiophile’s system; think humungous bass drums on a few Telarc discs. (Of course, the more enthusiastic audiophiles rarely admit that maybe there can be too much of a good thing.) To my ears, some of the notes in the lower registers of the double basses bloom out too forcefully, exhibiting what sounds remarkably like a resonance at certain frequencies, something that I've never heard in a concert hall and do not hear in other recordings of this work. Not only does all this make the basses sound just too up-front, but they also feel detached from the rest of the orchestra.

More generally, there are times when the parts don't seem to quite coalesce. The brass, the strings, the woodwinds: all well-defined and yet somehow they all seem to be in separate places, not quite blending into one orchestra. Are those woodwinds and brasses staying back where they belong, or are they occasionally sneaking up to the front of the stage, the better to be heard? Of course, that’s an exaggeration to convey the impression, but you get the idea.

Should we attribute these issues to the conducting and playing or instead to the recording? Frankly, I can’t tell, although surely the latter is not helping matters.

Having taken on the role of skunk at the picnic (we’ll leave still more graphic images for another time), I’ll turn to more positive thoughts. And as I’ve been writing about sound, I’ll start with the positives there. The overall sound in the usual hi-fi terms is exemplary: smooth highs, the lows anything but missing, wonderful detail.

Moving on to other positives, the interpretation sounds well thought out and the results are mostly both lovely and powerful. The first movement truly is well-played, managing to sound fresh without crossing over to completely uncharted territory. Sometimes efforts to illuminate well-known works with fresh insights end up sounding just wacky; not so here. The little details that Honeck describes are within the mainstream of interpretation, but still add up to a version offering new perspectives.

Honeck’s notes speak of the vocal nature of the second movement, and that seems absolutely correct. Oh, I could quibble about the opening four measures featuring the horns, which to me seem a bit brusque. But that is one of the very few missteps that I noticed, and things improve quickly, with the orchestra truly singing. To take just one small example, the “exchanges” between the instrumental groups around 4:30 and onward are particularly well executed, allowing the music to flow so smoothly. Yet once in a while, the sonic issues that I worried about pop up again, mostly in more benign form, but present nonetheless. Just how did those woodwinds get into the front row – I thought they were behind the strings? And about those basses….

Speaking of the second movement, revisiting the Szell / Cleveland recording, preferably the sonically improved remastering from 2018, provides an interesting contrast. Not that it’s “better” than the Honeck / Pittsburgh one, but it is heartrendingly wistful, another take on some wonderful music.

The third movement takes off quickly and dramatically, but with never a hint of strain: it truly is rousing, by turns joyful, determined, and yes, even humorous. The occasional clouds of a minor key never really disturb the bright day filled with vitality. Interestingly, the sound that I found problematic earlier serves the music better here: the thrumming drums a little over four minutes in are particularly effective and don’t seem at all out of place.

In the fourth movement, the variations that make up the movement are particularly well-defined: again, the sound that seemed problematic earlier may help to clarify what’s going on – although, still, in a few spots, I felt that lack of coherence mentioned earlier. At any rate, the playing certainly is beyond reproach. For example, there is some particularly lovely flute and woodwind work starting around the four-minute mark, and the horns that follow immediately after do a very nice job indeed; these are just a few instances in which the technical ability of the Pittsburgh forces is fully on display. Moreover, there’s no shortage of drama, with sudden outbursts and huge dynamic contrasts. The quick tempi may bother some: for me, the movement seems on the border of sounding rushed, while some might find that it crosses that border. Still, Honeck is hardly off the beaten path in this regard: although he takes a brisk 9:34 for the entire movement; the widely acclaimed Kleiber / Vienna version beats that at 9:14. (However, I should note that Kleiber starts off at what seems a slightly slower pace, making up the time as things move along; subjectively, this seems not quite so brisk as the version under review.) In contrast, Klemperer takes a full minute more at 10:24, while my beloved Szell is even more leisurely at 10:34. The faster versions convey more straight-ahead drama; the slower ones perhaps deliver a more Hitchcockian sense of slowly approaching fate or disaster, even spookiness. If you haven’t heard both approaches, you should.

So where does all this leave us? The recording has grown on me since my first hearing: as I mentioned earlier, there is much to like. But for myself, I fear that the concerns about the sound and balances are deal breakers for a long-lasting relationship.

BH

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

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, La Folia. Francisco Fullana and Alan Choo, violins; Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo’s Fire. Avie AV2485.

By John J. Puccio

Oh, no! Not another Four Seasons! Does one really need another Four Seasons? Probably as much as you need another Beethoven Fifth Symphony, right? But this one is a little different being a historically informed performance by a period-instruments band. Which narrows down the field at least a little bit in that there aren’t that many period-instrument ensembles around anymore. Still, conductor and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell founded Apollo’s Fire, also known as the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, in 1992, and it has proved its worth ever since.

I’ve reviewed a number of recordings from Ms. Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire over the years, and the thing that has always struck me is how sensibly they all unfold. There is nothing ostentatious, gung-ho, overboard, or gratuitous about the performances. Soloist Francisco Fullana’s violin tone is sweet and beguiling; the orchestra plays with enthusiasm and finesse; and Ms. Sorrell leads the players in a well-judged production. Very nice, even if you’ve heard these pieces a hundred times before.

I hardly need to say anything more about the primary works here, the four concertos known today as The Four Seasons by the Italian Baroque composer, violinist, teacher, and Catholic priest Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Practically everyone recognizes the little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Vivaldi meant the music to accompany four descriptive sonnets, and they comprise the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). Although I doubt that most people remember much about the other concertos in the set, they cannot easily forget these first four.

But, again, why another recording? Ms. Sorrell tells us that Vivaldi “set out to prove that music--instrumental music--is so powerful that it can tell a story without words. In this case, the story is about life in the Italian countryside, the lives of the contadini--the Italian peasants of the 18th century who lived and breathed and celebrated with the changing of the seasons. My role in performing The Four Seasons is to conjure a story.” All very well, of course, but isn’t that what every musician who’s ever performed The Four Seasons tries to do? The question, I suppose, is how well they succeed, and Ms. Sorrell and company succeed very well, indeed.

Good booklet notes, by the way. They not only give us a solid introduction to the Seasons, they provide valuable information on each of the concertos as well. We get each of the poems on which Vivaldi based the music, a little of the music itself in manuscript form, and explanations of each of the stories. If we’re going to use the music to visualize the narratives in our head, we have to know as much as possible about them. The booklet provides that information.

So, how do things come off? About as well as any I’ve heard, and that’s most of them. It’s especially well considering the period instruments they use, which can sometimes be a bit harsh or even strident on competing discs, and the HIP tempos and contrasts used, which can sometimes be a bit extreme in the competition. In fact, the instruments sound smoothly reverberant, and the tempos Ms. Sorrell adopts are refreshingly moderate. Perhaps the overall impression one gets of the music is not so imaginative as, say, that of the Philharmonia Baroque or the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble’s nor as exhilarating as those from La Petite Bande, Tafelmusik, or the English Concert, but Apollo’s Fire is, nevertheless, more than adequate in all departments. Most important, they convey the spirit and picturesque qualities of Vivaldi’s little tone paintings, creating vivid and lasting images in our mind’s of the stories they tell. It’s an altogether pleasant experience.

Accompanying The Four Seasons Ms. Sorrell has paired Vivaldi’s trio sonata La Folia (“Madness”), done up by Ms. Sorrell, Francisco Fullana, and Alan Choo. The title derives from the “folly” of a mad dance and probably originated in Portugal. A booklet note indicates it should be played with a “haughty sarabande-like rhythm, full of the tension of courtship and seduction.” That’s the way the players approach it here, with an elegant abandon.

Producer Erica Brenner and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Avon Lake United Church of Christ, Avon Lake, Ohio in April 2021. As usual with an Avie recording, the sound is excellent. It’s widely spread across the sound stage, with excellent positioning of the instruments spatially and fine dimensionality. Things are a tad close, but it provides a precise definition, with little to no brightness or heaviness. The acoustic setting is just resonant enough to give the ensemble a little additional body. So, it is a good, well-balanced production, among the best you’ll find in this music.

JJP

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

Piano Potpourri, No. 2 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

William Byrd – John Bull: The Visionaries of Piano Music. (CD 1) Byrd: Prelude (Parthenia 1); Pavan "Sir William Petre"; Galliard (Parthenia 3); The Battell: The Flute and the Droome; The wood so wild; The Maiden Song; John come kiss me now; Bull: Fantasia (Fitzwilliam 108); Fantastic Pavan (Fitzwilliam 34); Fantastic Galliard (Fitzwilliam 35); Canons 51 - 48 - 39 - 7 - 15 – 114; Prelude "Laet ons met herten reijne"; Carol "Laet ons met herten reijne"; Les Buffons; Walsingham; Byrd: Pavana "The Earle of Salisbury"; Galliard (Parthenia 7); Galliard in C major 'Mistress Mary Brownlow'; The Bells; (CD 2) Bull: Chromatic (Queen Elisabeth's) Pavan; My Grief; Byrd: O mistress mine, I must; The Second Ground - 16 Variations; Bull: Prelude (Fitzwilliam 43); Melancholy Pavan; Byrd: Earl of Oxford's March; Ut re mi fa sol la; Ut, mi, re; Bull: Canons 68 - 78 - 79 - 65 - 3 – 53; Byrd: Walsingham; Sellinger's Round; Bull: Fantasia on a Fugue of Sweelinck; Telluris ingens conditor: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7. Kit Armstrong, piano. DG 486 0583.

When I first encountered this new album from the young American pianist Kit Armstrong (b. 1992), I had a vague recollection of hearing a recording of some music of Byrd played on a modern piano by the late Glenn Gould (you can read a discussion of Gould’s approach to this music by jazz pianist Ethan Iverson here). Needless to say, that was many years ago, so it was with fresh ears that I eagerly auditioned this 2-CD set in which Armstrong presents music by William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) and John Bull (ca, 1562-1628) that he has transcribed for the modern piano. To keep things in perspective, Bach was not born until 1685, so this truly is some early keyboard music, written originally not for the piano, or even the harpsichord, but for the virginal or organ. About his motivation for bringing us this music, Armstrong writes: “The motivation for doing this recording comes from not wanting to keep these pieces as historical artefacts…. We should be thankful to two composers who, probably for the first time in our history, had a vision of instrumental music as being just as profound as anything we find in the cultural experience of humanity. A lot of what has defined our musical culture – self-expression and self-immortalization – is found in the keyboard music of Byrd and Bull, which contains so much from the hearts and minds of both men… With these recordings I wish to tell my story of of the creation of a musical universe, at whose dawn stood two contrasting figures from England’s Golden Age: William Byrd and John Bull. As their personalities infused the vessel of keyboard music, a universe was born, of which they became the fabric, that would define the art of music for evermore.”

So what of the music itself? How does the music on this recording sound to modern ears? As you might expect, the overall impression is similar to that made by the keyboard music of Bach. If you are familiar with the sound of a virginal or harpsichord, you will recognize that sound as transcribed for piano here. There are trills and ornamentations, plenty of counterpoint, a relatively straightforward harmonic structure, and a strong sense of energy and purpose. Especially in Byrd, Armstrong plays with a delicate touch, painting with watercolors as it were. You can discern some stylistic differences between Byrd and Bull; to these ears, at least, Bull seems a bit more direct and assertive than Byrd, more inclined to contrast and drama. Byrd is more subtle, more restrained. Both, however, are capable of sustaining musical interest throughout this generously filled program. The recorded sound is clear and focused, and Armstrong has provided extensive liner notes that delve into the music of both musicians and their place in music history. For those who enjoy piano music and are looking for something both different and fascinating – not to mention musically satisfying – Kit Armstrong delivers the goods.

Chopin: Complete Nocturnes. (CD 1) 3 Nocturnes op. 9; 3 Nocturnes op 15; 2 Nocturnes op 27; 2 Nocturnes op. 32; 2 Nocturnes op. 37; (CD 2) 2 Nocturnes op. 48; 2 Nocturnes op. 55; 2 Nocturnes op 62; Nocturne in E minor op. post. 72/1; Nocturne in C minor op. post. KK IVb/8; Nocturne in C sharp minor op. post. KK Iva/16. Jan Lisiecki, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 486 0761.

Chopin: Complete Nocturnes. (CD 1) Nocturne No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 9 No. 1; Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2; Nocturne No. 3 in B Major, Op. 9 No. 3; Nocturne No. 4 in F Major, Op. 15 No. 1; Nocturne No. 5 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2; Nocturne No. 6 in G Minor, Op. 15 No. 3; Nocturne No. 15 in F Minor, Op. 55 No. 1; Nocturne No. 16 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 No. 2; Nocturne No. 7 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 1; Nocturne No. 8 in D-Flat Major, Op. 27 No. 2; Nocturne No. 9 in B Major, Op. 32 No. 1; Nocturne No. 10 in A-Flat Major, Op. 32 No. 2; (CD 2) Nocturne No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 37 No. 1; Nocturne No. 12 in G Major, Op. 37 No. 2; Nocturne No. 17 in B Major, Op. 62 No. 1; Nocturne No. 18 in E Major, Op. 62 No. 2; Nocturne No. 13 in C Minor, Op. 48 No. 1; Nocturne No. 14 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 48 No. 2; Nocturne No. 21 in C Minor, Op. posth.; Nocturne No. 19 in E Minor, Op. posth. 72 No. 1; Nocturne No. 20 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. Posth. Alain Planès, 1836 Pleyel piano. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905332.33.

Chopin: Nocturnes. (CD 1) Nocturne in B Flat minor Op. 9 No.1; Nocturne in E Flat Major Op. 9 No. 2; Nocturne in B Major Op. 9 No. 3; Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 No. 1; Nocturne in F Sharp Major Op. 15 No. 2; Nocturne in G minor Op. 15 No. 3; Nocturne in C Sharp minor Op. 27 No. 1; Nocturne in D Flat Major Op. 27 No. 2; Nocturne in B Major Op. 32 No. 1; Nocturne in a Flat Major Op. 32 No. 2; Nocturne in G minor Op. 37 No.1; Nocturne in G Major Op. 37 No. 2; (CD 2) Nocturne in C minor Op. 48 No. 1; Nocturne in F Sharp minor Op. 48 No. 2; Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 No. 1; Nocturne in E Flat Major Op. 55 No. 2; Nocturne in B Major Op. 62 No. 1; Nocturne in E Major Op. 62 No. 2; Lento Con Gran Espressione in C Sharp minor 'Nocturne', Kkiva/16; Nocturne in E minor Op. 72 No. 1: Nocturne in C minor Kkivb/8; Anonymous: Larghetto in C Sharp minor 'Nocturne Oublié', Kkanh. Ia/6; Nocturne in E Flat Major Op. 9 No. 2B. Stephen Hough, piano. Hyperion CDA86351/2.

For fans of Chopin’s
Nocturnes, these three recent releases truly do represent that old phrase, not heard so much these days but certainly appropriate in this case, “an embarrassment of riches.” Although I have made my choice as to which is the collection that will remain on my shelf as a replacement for the venerable Rubinstein set that I had owned for many years but finally traded in at some point when I had decided that because I was not much of a Chopin fan and in truth of all his music could bring myself to listen only to the Nocturnes (and only very occasionally to them), perhaps it was time to simply let them go. And truth be told, I had not really missed hearing the Nocturnes until Fate, the Public Library, and Public Relations all played a hand in my so-called life, the end result being my renewed love for Chopin’s marvelous music and grateful appreciation for the artistry and dedication of these three remarkable musicians.

As you can see from the track listing above, each of the three musicians takes a slightly different approach to the order on which they present the Nocturnes. There are other differences in their presentations, too. Lisiecki and Planès present the standard set of 21, while Hough throws in a couple of extra variants. Lisiecki and Hough play modern pianos, while Planès uses an 1836 Pleyel concert grand, the type of piano favored by Chopin himself. (The liner note gives detailed information on this piano; however, neither the Lisiecki nor Hough releases specify the particular piano employed.)

I will note at the outset that although I found some differences among these three recordings, which was certainly to be expected, I found all three to be of high quality. But yes, when push came to shove, I was able to pick a favorite. So, let’s take a brief look at all three.

First up is the version by the young Canadian-born pianist of Polish ancestry, Jan Lisiecki (b. 1995). This recording recently received a generally favorable review from my colleague and friend Bill Heck, who goes into much more detail than I am going to delve into in his review, which I would encourage you to read here. In his liner note remarks, Lisiecki observes of the Nocturnes that “They embody what I cherish most in his music: the yearning, captivating melody, the framework he provides for flexibility, the endless fresh ideas. Chopin was a master of the piano, using its full range of tonal possibilities while spinning long, melodic, cantabile phrases over a rich harmonization. The Nocturnes hail from the night – a magical time of endless possibilities – and present a personal story from the interpreter to the listener. They are a canvas, a sphere to dive deep into one’s own emotions and thoughts. Yet, most importantly, they remain elegant and simple. After all, as Chopin himself said, ‘Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art’.” You can tell from listening to this performance that Lisiecki clearly loves this music, for he plays it with heartfelt expression. As Bill noted in his review, Lisiecki sometimes tends to play slowly; some listeners will like this approach, others might find it a bit, well, too slow at times. But not all of his playing is on the slow side, and overall this is a fine release. The recorded sound is excellent, full and clear and vibrant.

Next up is the recording by the French pianist Alain Planès (b. 1948), which sounds significantly different from the Lisiecki recording. Planès notes of the Pleyel piano used in his recording that “it has three distinct registers: a treble that is light and harp-like, a velvety middle register, and a bottom register with round and clear bass note – sonorities which combine together better than on the more evenly voiced pianos of today. By way of illustration, I would suggest listening to the second nocturne from Opus 55, which amply highlights the fine qualities of the instrument: this piece is not unlike an operatic aria for soprano and tenor, each of the voices embodied by a different register, thus reinforcing the impression of a dialogue.” The booklet includes a photo of the piano, which is an imposing work of art. Note that this is a concert grand piano, not a small fortepiano of limited volume. Its keyboard has only 80 keys rather than today’s 88, but is capable of projecting some volume. I will say that as I listened to this recording, I was at first struck at how modern the piano sounded (I will confess I was expecting a sound closer to that of a harpsichord); however, as I listened longer and more intently, as much I enjoyed the music, I could never get completely past the recorded sound. I am not sure how much of what bothered me was the piano or the way it was recorded. The bothersome aspect was that there were times when the piano sound seemed to be fragmented, with various registers coming from different areas – but not only from left to right, but also from front to back. For more casual listening, everything was just fine, and I really enjoyed Planès’s interpretations, but when I sat down and listened closely, there were times when I found myself distracted by the sound. The sound is clean, clear, and dynamic; it is the image of the instrument that never seemed correct, at least in my setup. Perhaps it would sound just fine in other systems; in any event, it is a recording worthy of an audition for lovers of the Nocturnes.

British pianist Stephen Hough (b.1961) introduces his recording by noting that, “Chopin wrote no operas, even though that art form was his favorite and singers, not pianists, were his musical heroes, And despite his love for the human voice, he barely wrote any songs either -- fewer than twenty, with only two published in his lifetime. These unambitious ditties, with their stiff, plain vocal lines, accompanied by frequent um-cha-cha vamping, seem puzzling from this pianist-composer who idolized the human voice. Enter the nocturnes – a corpus of some of the finest operatic arias ever written. Here bel canto melodies abound, dramatic, tender and tragic, with virtuoso decoration reminiscent of a coloratura diva.” Interestingly enough, Hough, like Planès, calls out Op. 55 No. 2, opining that its “miraculous interweaving (interchanging) of melody, harmony, and counterpoint creates a seamless robe of ecstasy.” Curious, I spent some time comparing the Planès and Hough recordings of this particular Nocturne. In both recordings, it was easy to hear what both pianists had found special about this piece, with its singing quality and feeling of dialogue. The sound of the Pleyel brought out the drama, while Hough and his modern piano emphasized a beautiful singing quality. Indeed, that beautiful singing quality is what made the Hough recording my favorite of the three. He has a touch at the keyboard that seems to bring out the beauty of these pieces by truly making them sing. The engineering helps, too, as Hough’s piano seems to be recorded just a bit more distantly, giving it a slightly warmer, enveloping sound. As I said at the outset, these are three fine recordings, each worthy of audition, but the Hough recording has that extra measure of beauty that makes it my first choice.

Bonus Recommendation:

Hough, Stephen.  Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2019).

It turns out that Stephen Hough (rhymes with “rough,” as he helpfully points out in the introduction) is as adept at the computer keyboard, or tablet, phone (crazy 21st century!), or even pen and tablet, as he is at his piano keyboard, for Rough Ideas is a delight throughout its 400+ pages. Don’t be intimidated by its size, because the book consists of brief essays – “reflections” – most of which are only a page or two long. These essays are divided into several sections, titled Forum (covering a variety of general music-related topics, with titles such as “Can you be a musician and not write music?,” “Gay pianists: can you tell?,” and “Can atonal music make you cry?); Stage (covering both live performance and recording, with titles such as “Routine on a concert day,” “Humiliation and vomiting at the keyboard,” “Can wrong notes be right?”, and “Stanly Kubrick and recording”); Studio (covering issues related to practicing, playing, and teaching, with titles such as “Random practice tips,” “Depressed: the amazing world of the pedal,” and “Trying to practice away from the piano and trying to try to pray”); People and Pieces (covering composers, compositions, and musicians, with titles such as “How much do we need to know about composers?,” “Mompou and the music of evaporation: a note for a CD,” “Chopin and the development of piano technique,” “Debussy and Ravel: chalk and cheese,” “Glenn Gould and modern recording,” and “RIP Lou Reed”); ... and More (covering a variety of topics, with titles such as “Paul Klee at Tate Modern,” “Maths and music: joined at the hip or walking down different paths?,” “The essence of underpants and the lap of luxury,” “Willa Cather, Thanksgiving, and the soul of America,” and “Encouragement, falsehood, and Auschwitz”). One of the great things about a book laid out in this manner is that it is convenient to pick it up, read a few entries, then put it down to read it later at your convenience. But it also flows well should you decide to read it pretty much straight through, as I did. Hough truly does as write as nearly as well as he plays (or perhaps has editors as skilled as his engineers, although I favor the former explanation, as I suspect he would also).

As Hough explains in his introduction, “Mostly I’ve written about music and the life of a musician… Other subjects appear too, people I’ve known, places I’ve travelled to, books I’ve read, paintings I’ve seen. Even religion is there: the possibility of the existence of God, problems with some biblical texts and the challenge involved in being a gay Catholic, and abortion. I’ve placed these reflections in a separate section so that readers allergic to such matters can avoid them and we can remain friends.” Allow me to point out just a few highlights that offer a hint of just how wide-ranging and stimulating these reflections are. In “Two women, two songs: in and out of harmony,” Hough quickly analyzes two wildly successful popular songs about women, reflecting on how although both the women and the music of Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” were totally different, both were remarkable compositions. “Stanley Kubrick and recording” explains how seeing a documentary on how Kubrick went about filming The Shining set an example for Hough as to how to go about making a recording. In “Glenn Gould and modern recording,” Hough reflects on Gould’s decision to abandon live performance in favor of recordings in light of how the recording industry has changed since Gould’s time, speculating about how Gould would have embraced the Internet. “Beef Stroganoff and a bag of bones” recounts an experience Hough had when he was living in New York and an elderly but formidable Russian woman cooked some Beef Stroganoff for him. It was so delicious that Hough asked her for the recipe. “Well dear,” she replied, “I don’t like to give it to people. You see, it all goes back to when I was in Paris. General Stroganoff wrote it out for me himself.” Well. okay then… That is just a tiny sampling of some of the delights – there are more than 100 more – to be found in this stimulating and entertaining volume that should appeal to a broad spectrum of classical music fans.

KWN

Vangelis: Juno to Jupiter (CD review)

Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Vangelis. Decca B0032900-02.

By John J. Puccio

You may remember Vangelis as one of those pioneering synthesizer artists who rose to prominence in the company of people like Wendy Carlos and Tomita. While audiences probably know Vangelis best for his popular scores for the movies Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, he has done much of his recorded work recently in the field of space exploration. Juno to Jupiter is another such undertaking, inspired by the launch of NASA’s Juno probe to the planet Jupiter in 2011. The album features the voice of soprano Angela Gheorghiu and interweaves various sounds from the real space mission with music newly composed by Vangelis. The album may not mark a high point in the composer’s career, but it is as interesting as usual, and taken in small doses it provides some fascinating listening.

The Greek composer and musician Vangelis (born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou in 1943) says of the current album: “On the occasion of the NASA mission Juno to Jupiter and my involvement in it, it would be my omission not to thank and state how grateful I am, as everyone on this Planet should be, to all those who have dealt and still deal with the observation and exploration of the stars, the planets and the Universe. ...After all, we shouldn’t forget that Space, Universe, Cosmos, in whichever name we call it, is our hope and future and we need to be careful not to make the same mistakes in space that we made on our planet, as it is the only chance we have--our future.”

The album’s eighteen tracks generally follow the Juno mission from its beginnings on the launch pad to its orbit around Jupiter, and many of the sounds from the actual flight help make the journey more realistic. That said, I wish Vangelis had done more with his music than simply fill in background tunes. The recording comes off seeming a lot more like the soundtrack of a second-rate sci-fi movie than a serious consideration of space travel. Be that as it may, some of the segments manage to call up an appropriately atmospheric mood, and a few even manage a sweet tone. So, as I say, bits and pieces.

Here’s a rundown on the selections:
01. Atlas’ Push
02. Inside Our Perspectives
03. Out in Space
04. Juno’s Quiet Determination
05. Jupiter’s Intuition
06. Juno’s Power
07. Spaces Mystery Road
08. In the Magic of Cosmos
09. Juno’s Tender Call
10. Juno’s Echoes
11. Juno’s Ethereal Breeze
12. Jupiter’s Veil of Clouds
13. Hera/Juno Queen of the Gods
14. Zeus Almighty
15. Jupiter Rex
16. Juno’s Accomplishments
17. APO 22
18. In Serenitatem

The album begins with Juno’s take-off, which is pretty much what we would expect, with the sound of the rocket dominating the first half of the track along with a static rhythm and a little percussion from Vangelis’s keyboard. The second half introduces a musical theme that Vangelis develops in the second movement. It, too, is a rather raucous affair, but at least it has a melody one can identify. Once “Out in Space” we get some fairly stereotypical outer-space spacey sounds from Vangelis that held my attention for about half a minute and then began to annoy.

By the time we get to track four, Vangelis has created something more interesting, a creative landscape for his space voyage with novel sound effects and a pleasantly alluring melody. As with the rest of the album, however, it tends to overstay its welcome and becomes somewhat ponderous after a while.

Most of Vangelis’s music here seems more like background music to me than anything substantial. I kept visualizing a movie with George Clooney or Matt Damon piloting a rocket on its first manned expedition to Jupiter, which I suppose is a good thing because it does show that Vangelis was able to communicate something to me in the way of atmospheric sensory clues. Still, I heard little in the recording I had not heard before in one way or another. Bacially, it lacked the one or two big tunes that made his most-popular work so famous, his Chariots and Blade Runner themes.

The closest we come to a big tune is Ms. Gheorghiu’s wordless lullabye, “Juno’s Tender Call.” It is lovely and seques smoothly into a noteworthy piece called “Juno’s Echoes.” Thereafter, we get primarily more of the same until we reach “Zeus Almighty” and “Jupiter Rex” and their attendant grandeur. Maybe its the sudden nobility and spendour of this heroic music that catches the ear off guard and makes it more impressive than it probably is; whatever, it’s a highlight of the score.

I suspect Vangelis was trying his best to create another Holst “Planets” with his music, which is certainly a worthy ambition, and the inclusion of Ms. Gheorghiu in the proceedings was a brilliant gesture. I just didn’t find enough substance in the music to warrant some seventy-two minutes of my time, and I had the feeling I’d heard it all before.

Vangelis composed, arranged, produced, performed, and recorded the music with the help of scientific advisor Dr. Scott Bolton and the artistic and creative consultancy of Artistics Sciences, Inc. According to a booklet note, Vangelis recorded the album on Planet Earth - Europe, and got its release in July 2021. The audio is what one might expect from an electronic keyboard augmented by actual NASA-recorded accompaniment; that is, it’s fine in a non-critical evaluation, doing what it needs to do. Frequency and dynamic ranges are more than adequate, with overall balance a little on the soft, warm side.

JJP

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

British Solo Cello Music (CD review)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Tema ‘Sacher’; Cello Suite No. 3; (Themes used in the Cello Suite - Mournful Song; Autumn; Street Song; Kontakion); Sir William Walton (1902-1983): Theme for a Prince; Passacaglia; John Gardiner (1917-2011): Coranto Pizzicato; Frank Merrick (1886-1981): Suite in the Eighteenth-Century Style; Thomas Adés (b. 1971): Sola. Steven Isserlis, cello; Mishka Rushdie Momen, piano. Hyperion CDA68373.

By Karl W. Nehring

Cellist Steven Isserlis (b. 1958) is a major figure on the British music scene, something like Yo-Yo Ma in the United States. His gregarious personality and sparkling with make him an interesting person to follow on Twitter. It is of course it is his virtuosity on the cello that primarily interests us here, although his talent as a writer also enhances this release, for he has written the liner notes, which are both informative and entertaining. Even his hair contributes to the production, adding an intriguing visual image to the front cover of the CD.

The program opens with two compositions by that giant of 20th-century British music, Benjamin Britten. The brief (1:37) Tema ‘Sacher’, a bold, energetic musical statement based on the letters of his teacher Sacher’s name in musical notation, written as a musical gift in honor of Sacher’s 70th birthday in 1976. Other composers who contributed works in this vein included Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Holliger, Henze, Berio, and Boulez. Then comes his Cello Suite No. 3, a substantial work ranging over 13 movements and lasting 23 minutes in Isserlis’s rendition. The music is passionate, at times troubled, very expressive and moving. Isserlis’s liner notes tell of a connection with Britten’s concern for the plight of his friend Shostakovich having an influence on the music. In any event, this is serious music that rewards serious listening. Following on the heels of the solo cello suite, Isserlis lightens the mood by adding the sound of Ms. Momen’s piano to that of his cello as they play three brief themes that served as a basis for the suite. Isserlis then returns to his solo cello to play Britten’s adaptation of Kontakion, a Russian Orthodox chant that was the fourth underlying theme of the suite (the liner notes go into more detail on these themes and how Britten used them).   

Walton’s brief (1:28) Theme for a Prince was written as part of a collection of 14 pieces composed in 1969 to honor Prince Charles’s 19th birthday. The more substantial Passacaglia was written for the great Russian cellist Mtsislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). Interestingly enough, Isserlis reveals in his liner notes that when he heard Rostropovich play it in 1982, the piece did not make much of an impression on him, nor did he think much of it when he received a copy of the score some time later. Only recently did he come to appreciate the piece, and thus came to record it. It is something of a rugged-sounding piece, rough and ready if you will, but earnest and direct.

After the earnestness of the Walton piece, the playfulness of the Gardiner Coranto pizzicato, which Isserlis opines “is evidently inspired by Elizabethan lute music,” is a nice change of pace. Isserlis does some lively plucking; both his playing and his liner note anecdotes regarding Gardiner reveal that Isserlis is in especially high spirits when it comes to this particular piece. I will confess that I had never heard of the next composer on the program, Fran Merrick, before encountering this CD, but Isserlis spins quite a tale of tale of meeting the composer when the cellist was still just a boy. Merrick’s Suite in the Eighteenth-Century Style is the longest composition on this CD, stretching out to nearly 34 minutes. It is something of a tribute to the music of Bach; as a matter of fact, I recently spent some time enjoying the Bach Cello Suites as performed by the late Janos Starker on a Mercury Living Presence 2-CD set, and listening to the Merrick Suite feels like a natural follow-up, which is high praise indeed. The program ends with a brief (2:11) piece by contemporary composer Thomas Adés. Isserlis notes that the composer wrote it on one Saturday night and faxed it to a cellist friend. To these ears, the back story is more interesting that the music, which is listenable but not much more.

Overall, this is a rewarding release. The liner notes really are fascinating, with personal anecdotes and insights about the composers and the music that really add to the album. The sound quality is balanced and natural, highlighting the expressive range of Isserlis’s “Marquis de Corberon” Stradivarius of 1726, which he has on loan from the Royal Academy of Music. It is a beautiful instrument, beautifully played. Bravo!

KWN

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 “Romantic” (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony 19439914112.

By John J. Puccio

Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote his Fourth and possibly most popular symphony in 1874 but continued to revise it over the next dozen or so years. Conductor Hans Richter premiered it in Vienna in 1881, but that wouldn’t be the end to the revisions by Bruckner himself and by various musical scholars over the next hundred years. In the present recording, Maestro Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, using the 1878/1880 Haas edition.

Bruckner was a deeply spiritual man, as illustrated by his music. As he was writing the symphony during the height of the Romantic era, he subtitled the work “Romantic.” Then he helped listeners understand his spiritual and Romantic notions by using each of the symphony’s movements to represent scenes from Nature, from knights riding out of a medieval castle through the mists of dawn to the sounds of the forest and birds, to a funeral, then a hunt, complete with horn calls, and finally a brilliant culminating summation.

In the first movement Bruckner offers us a vision of Nature, and the composer’s several scenic landscapes remind us of how much Bruckner admired Beethoven and Wagner. Here, according to the composer, “...after a full night's sleep the day is announced by the horn.” Other authorities have argued that the composer wanted us to see a morning breaking, the mists giving way to dawn around a medieval castle, and an army of knights bursting out from the castle gates in a blaze of glory. Thielemann does a good job with that “blaze of glory” business and works up a good head of steam in the dramatic segments of the score, although he seems a little ponderous and ungainly in the more lyrical sections.

The second-movement is an Andante, in this case a serenade, musicologists sometimes describing it as representing a young lad's amorous but ultimately hopeless longings and expressions. Whatever, Thielemann does his best to provide the music with heart, perhaps more heart, more tender emotion, than we usually hear. It also appears slower than we may be accustomed to, perhaps accounting for Thielemann’s added sentiment.

Bruckner teasingly called the lively third-movement Scherzo “a rabbit hunt,” and clearly it should build up a suitable momentum as it goes forward. This, it seems to me, is Thielemann’s most-accomplished movement. It’s not so hectic and we sometimes hear and provides an agreeable contrast to the preceding serenade.

Bruckner opens the Finale with a heroic theme, then works his way into a more idyllic second subject, eventually reworking both themes into a closing statement. Everything begins rather ominously, with dark clouds overhead, leading to a thunderstorm. However, the storm soon breaks and gives way to variations on the symphony's heroic opening music and then a summation of all the parts. Now, if you’ve ever wondered what it means, not even Bruckner was quite sure. He said of it, “...even I myself can’t say what I was thinking about at the time.” Trying to draw a coherent structure from Bruckner’s disparate elements is a daunting task for any conductor, and Thielemann doesn’t come much closer than most anyone else. It still sounds like a series of climaxes, anticlimaxes, and still more climaxes. Under Thielemann the more gentle strands tend to stand out, which only serves to make the grandeur of the alternating passages the more problematic.

The real question with any popular piece of classical music, of course, is whether a new recording of it is worth investigating, given the number of great performances already available. For instance, we already have fine performances by Otto Klemperer (EMI), Karl Bohm (Decca), Eugen Jochum (DG and EMI), Gunther Wand (RCA), Herbert von Karajan (DG), and Georg Tintner (Naxos), among many others. So, does Thielemann compete? Well, of course, he competes. It’s just that if one does not own any or all of the aforementioned recordings, they should be given preferential consideration. Otherwise, fans of Thielemann will not be unhappy with his recording.

On an aside, the booklet notes I received were rather jumbled, with pages either missing or printed in the wrong order. No biggie, but a minor annoyance.

Producer Arend Prohmann and engineer Peter Hecker made the recording at the Salzburg Festival, Grosses Festpielhaus, in August 2020. The music opens very softly and at a normal output setting one hears an odd background buzz or hum. It disappears as soon as the music’s volume increases, but still.... From this point things proceed to sound like a typical modern recording, albeit with an extraordinarily wide dynamic range. Otherwise, it is pleasantly ambient, the orchestra magnificent as always, appearing rich and natural, if a tad distant, and with a little fizz to the edges of high notes.

JJP

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

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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


Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa