Jan 30, 2022

Light in a Time of Darkness (CD review)

Music of Vaughan Williams, Kay, Bach, Barlow, Walker, and Haydn. JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Beau Fleuve Records 605996-998579.

By John J. Puccio

JoAnn Falletta, the longtime (1999-present) Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic hardly needs an introduction, given the vast praise that audiences and critics around the world have heaped upon her. She has chosen to title the current album Light in a Time of Darkness, which she explains in a liner note:

“As we look back on the challenges of 2020 and 2021, we realize that our music kept us emotionally alive. The BPO musicians and I played throughout the pandemic, masked, socially distanced and in small groups, filming our concerts to share with our audiences. Those experiences for us were intense--learning music we had never played and communicating with each other in different ways. But it also was an astounding and beautiful time for us. The music seemed to take on a deeper dimension, to reach us on a profound spiritual level. Without question, music kept us together, healthy and grateful to be able to perform for the community we love.

In this CD, we have chosen six pieces that were high points of the season for us in terms of their emotional depth and spirituality. We hope that you will enjoy the extraordinary musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic in this expression of our heartfelt thanks to you, our beloved family.”

There are half a dozen short pieces on the program, the first of which is the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He wrote and premiered it in 1910 on a commission from the Three Choirs Festival, basing his theme on a tune by the sixteenth-century English composer Thomas Tallis. Ms. Falletta approaches it in a graceful, warmhearted manner, the orchestra sounding lush and velvety smooth.

Next up is Pieta by the neoclassicist American composer Ulysses Kay (1919-1995). The title derives from Latin, meaning “piety or compassion” and refers more specifically to depictions of the Virgin Mary grieving over the dead body of Christ. These first two selections seem appropriate to the dark days of the pandemic, but Ms. Falletta never lets them sink into pathos. In their own spiritual ways, they are quite moving and uplifting.

After that is a familiar work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach. I had to admit it had been a long time since I last heard a Brandenburg played by anything but a period-instrument band, Although Ms. Falletta and her players may not sound exactly the way Bach would have heard the piece, her well-disciplined direction would surely delight him. This is a comfortable Bach, cozy, relaxed, and refined.

Following the Brandenburg is are two short pieces, The Winter’s Passed by American composer Wayne Barlow (1912-1996) and Lyric for Strings--Lament by American composer and pianist George Walker. They add further notes of inspiration to the agenda, notwithstanding a touch of melancholy; and they are beautifully played by the orchestra and its director.

The program closes with the Symphony No. 44 in E minor, “Trauer,” by Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809). While Haydn may be known as the “father of the string quartet,” he is also known as the “father of the symphony,” having written over a hundred of them at a time when the genre was just getting off the ground. The nickname for Symphony No. 44, “Trauer,” means “grief or mourning,” and that may explain why an apocryphal story arose that Haydn wanted the slow movement played at his funeral (it wasn’t). Haydn wrote the work during his “Sturm und Drang” period (“storm, stress”), and even though there are a fair share of intensely severe moments in it, the slow Adagio movement is certainly not one of them. Because of the work’s emotional contrasts, some music scholars consider it an important forerunner of Romanticism.

Whatever, Ms. Falletta’s way with Haydn is much in the manner of the rest of the program. She handles it with great confidence in an easygoing, cultivated performance that is bigger on tenderness and compassion than it is on excitement or thrills. It makes a fine and fitting conclusion to an album that glows with affection.

Producer and engineer Bernd Gottinger recorded the music at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in 2020 and 2021. The sound is plush, warm, and comfortable, about what you would hear from the audience’s perspective at a medium distance in a concert hall. There is a pleasant, ambient glow around the music that is most flattering.


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

Jan 26, 2022

Hindemith: Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ (CD review)

Also, Nusch-Nuschi Tanze; Sancta Susanna, Op 21. Ausrine Stundyte, soprano; Renöe Morloc, contralto; Annette Schönmüller, mezzo-soprano; Caroline Baas, female voice; Enzo Brumm; male voice; Women of the Wiener Singakadamie (Chorus Master, Heinz Ferlesch); Marin Alsop, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.574283.

By Karl W. Nehring

When asked to name some of our favorite symphonies, most of us will immediately begin to think of symphonies by the “usual suspects” such as Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Sibelius, Bruckner, or perhaps Vaughan Williams. Well, those gentlemen would certainly figure on my list as well, but my list would also include a symphony by a composer who is seldom thought of as a symphonic composer, the German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). His three-movement
Symphony Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) has long been one of my favorites, now available here in a newly released Naxos recording led by the gifted American conductor Marin Alsop.

For those unfamiliar with this symphony, Hindemith started composing it in 1933 and completed in 1934. He had in mind composing an opera based on the life of the painter Mathias Grunewald (1470-1528), but decided to begin with a symphony, figuring he would later incorporate some of the music into the opera, which he completed in 1935. The cover of the CD booklet features a reproduction of some of the paintings by Grunewald that inspired Hindemith. They are part of an elaborate construction of panels behind the altar at a church in Isenheim, Germany. Various scenes are revealed as the panels are unfolded and from these scenes, Hindemith chose three to represent musically. The three movements are titled Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert), Grablegung (Entombment); Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). You might expect a concert of angels to sound gentle and ethereal, but Hindemith endows these angels with energy and luminosity befitting the celestial realm, and Alsop does a fine job of making the orchestra sing. As you might well imagine from the title, the second movement is much more somber in tone. It is not maudlin, however, as there are reflective passages and dramatic passages, leading without pause into the more dramatic third movement, with Alsop getting the orchestra to play with both precision and power. This is truly an excellent performance.

Music lovers who are already Hindemith fans probably already have a favorite recording of
Mathis. For example, my favorite has long been the Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony Orchestra recording, which, when in comparison to this new Naxos, presents a more powerful, vivid sound (the SFSO brass in particular way outshine their European counterparts) and a more energetic performance overall. Nevertheless, there are a couple of  points to ponder regarding this new Naxos release. First, Alsop’s performance of Mathis really is pretty darned good, and certainly worthy of audition. Second, and perhaps more compelling, Naxos has included a couple of relatively unusual disc-mates that are more likely than not compositions you have not heard before. First up on the program is a brief (10:03) trio of dances that Hindemith extracted from his one-act opera Das Nusch-Nuschi (1921). Admittedly, there is nothing really profound in these brief pieces, but they are lively and entertaining, well worth a listen. Next up is the one-act opera Sancta Susanna, the libretto of which is included in the liner notes. It is a dramatic piece, with plenty of high-powered singing. The music is interesting, but the sheer intensity of the piece may not lend itself well to repeated listening. Music lovers with more fondness for opera might disagree. In any event, it is certainly well played, well sung, and decenly recorded. Kudos to Naxos for releasing such an interesting program and putting forth the effort to include informative liner notes, props to the engineering team for capturing the large-scale forces in full-range, believable stereo sound, and bravo to Marin Alsop and the orchestra, chorus, and soloists for their fine performances of Hindemith’s music.


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

Jan 23, 2022

Hope (CD review)

Works by Ramirez, Dowland, Schubert, Giazotto, El-Hkoury, Part, Elgar, Foster, Andre, and traditional selections. Daniel Hope, violin; Zurcher Kammerorchester; Ensemble Amarcord, Katta; Patrick Messina; Jacques Ammon; Thomas Hampson; Julia Okruashvili; Marie-Pierre Langlamet; Colin Rich; and the Palau de la Musica Vocal Quartet. DG 486 0541.

By John J. Puccio

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” --Desmond Tutu

“Music has a tremendous power. This album is my attempt to send out a ray of hope and to provide people, myself included, with a sense of support and perhaps even consolation.” --Daniel Hope

For those few who may not, perhaps, be completely familiar with Daniel Hope, he is a South African-born classical violinist (b. 1973) of world renown who is also the Music Director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. He plays the 1742 "ex-Lipinski" violin by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu.

Hope conceived and recorded the present album during lockdown, 2020, and in it he attempts to produce “a highly personal, yet distinctive collection of timeless classics by Schubert, Elgar, Part,” (and others). A booklet note continues, saying “Music was one of the first things to which people turned impulsively during the first coronavirus lockdowns in the spring of 2020.... Making music and in particular singing brought the world closer together after social distancing had created greater barriers than ever before.”

So, it’s music of hope. Music of trust. Music of promise. Music of expectation for all of us to come together. To that end, it includes works by Ariel Ramirez, John Dowland, Franz Schubert, Remo Giazotto, Bechara El-Hkoury, Arvo Part, Edward Elgar, Stephen Foster, and Fabian Andre, as well as traditional selections like “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace.”

Although it may seem like a kind of eclectic approach for a theme album, incorporating as it does a number of short, sometimes seemingly disparate works, it amply displays Mr. Hope’s expressive violin playing and his sincere intent. Accompanying Mr. Hope in the various pieces are the Zurich Chamber Orchestra; Ensemble Amarcord; organist Katta; clarinetist Patrick Messina; pianist Jacques Ammon; baritone Thomas Hampson; pianist Julia Okruashvili; harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet; vocalist Colin Rich; and the Palau de la Musica Vocal Quartet.

The album begins with Misa Criolla (“Creole Mass” or “Native Mass”) by Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez (1921-2010), here arranged for solo violin, vocal quartet, charango (a ten-stringed mandolin), guitar, percussion, and string orchestra. The Paulau de la Musica Vocal Quartet, various instrumentalists, and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra accompany Mr. Hope. Appropriate to the album’s theme, Ramirez said he wrote the Mass as a “spiritual” piece designed to express humanity’s hopes of a better world. At a little over twenty minutes in length, it is also the longest selection on the program. Hope’s violin tone is plaintive yet uplifting from the outset. The quicker-paced succeeding movements are more spirited affairs with more-obvious Hispanic influences. It’s a splendid piece, well played, and well recorded.

The next selections are short songs arranged for violin and vocal ensemble. The first of these is Time Stands Still by English composer John Dowland (1563-1626), and the second is Die Nacht by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). In both, the Ensemble Amacord accompanies Mr. Hope. Although these works can be a bit mournful, they convey a lovely sentiment, with Mr. Hope’s violin adding a heartwarming quality to the proceedings. The Schubert is downright tear-jerking.

Then we get a longer, instrumental work, the famous Adagio in G minor by Remo Giazotto (1910-1998), with Mr. Hope, organist Katta, and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Giazotto always contended he transcribed the Adagio from a long-lost manuscript by the Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), but that claim remains in doubt. Whatever, we get a terrific account of it here, neither too sentimental nor too matter-of-fact. It glides smoothly along on the back of Katta’s organ passages, with a rather forward part for the soloist.

Mr. Hope rounds out the album with over half a dozen shorter works: Byblos, the Old City by Bechara El-Khoury; Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part; Nimrod from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar; “Dream a Little Dream” by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt; “Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway” by Stephen Foster; and two traditional songs, “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace.”

In short, it’s an endearing album, if perhaps more than a tad on the solemn side. Still, the music is so beautiful and so beautifully performed, one cannot help going away impressed and, yes, hopeful.

Producers Christoph Classen and Tobias Lehmann and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music at XKO-Haus, Zurich and Teldex Studio, Berlin in July, September, and December 2020. The sound exhibits excellent transient response and dynamics, with clear percussion and strong bass. The engineers ensure the violin is well integrated with the rest of the instruments and voices, not too  recessed nor too far out front. The overall tone is a trifle soft, which is better than its being too bright or edgy, yet it maintains good, lifelike definition. It’s a pleasantly listenable disc, as are most of the DG recordings I’ve heard lately.


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

Jan 19, 2022

Piano Potpourri, No. 5 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Illumination: Piano Works of Victoria Bond. Illuminations on Byzantine Chant; Ancient Keys*; Black Light**; Byzantine Chant. Paul Barnes, pianist and chanter; Kirk Trevor, *Slovak Radio Orchestra; Philharmony “Bohuslav Martinu”. Albany Records TROY1880.

Once again we encounter a composer – and performer – whom we have not encountered before, and we are once again rewarded with some music that is interesting, entertaining, and uplifting. The American composer and conductor Victoria Bond (b. 1945) was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in conducting from the Juilliard School and has composed eight operas, six ballets, two piano concertos, as well as other works. In her liner notes, Bond explains that the works included on this release stem from more than two decades of collaboration with the American pianist Paul Barnes (b. 1961). This temporal span is exemplified not only by the recording dates of the compositions (Ancient Keys, 1997; Black Light, 2003; Illuminations on Byzantine Chant, 2021) but also by dates of the composition that opens the program, Illuminations on Byzantine Chant, a work for solo piano in three parts: Potirion Sotiriu, 1999; Simeron Kremate, 2019; and Enite ton Kyrion, 2021.

The first two movements of Illuminations, Potirion Sotiriu and Simeron Kremate, are energetic and intense, with an Eastern flavor that is consistent with their roots in the Greek Orthodox tradition. The third movement, Enite ton Kyrion, is more meditative in mood, more peaceful and lyrical. Ancient Keys, a piano concerto in one movement, begins with a chant from pianist Barnes before the orchestra enters, followed by his piano. According to Bond, Ancient Keys is based on Potirion Sotiriu. “In expanding the solo piano work for piano and orchestra, I pictured an enormous space, like a great cathedral, gradually filling up with rich and sonorous bass [sic] tones that swirled around, echoing and disappearing like delicate smoke into the high dome.” (Given the way the piece opens, I’m pretty sure she meant “brass tones.”) Over its 17 minutes, this is a piece that provides drama and a sense of mystery. Impressive! Black Light is in three movements. Interestingly enough, Bond writes that “the title Black Light implies the light that shines from African American music, which has had a profound effect on my compositions.” The first movement is almost jarringly energetic – it is marked “Aggressively driving” and is certainly that. Not unpleasant, mind you, but something that will definitely wake you up. The second movement, marked “Forcefully,” is much less aggressive, and is said by the composer to be inspired by Jewish liturgical music. The final movement, marked “Presto,” said to be inspired by the scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald, is quite a fun romp. The program then ends in a completely different vein as Barnes performs four brief Byzantine chants, including the three that undergird the beginning of the program: Potirion Sotiriu, Simeron Kremate, and Enite ton Kyrion. All in all, then, what we have here is something of an unusual musical program, but nonetheless a recording that is coherent, stimulating, and satisfying, with more than satisfactory engineering and informative liner notes. Well worth an audition by the musically curious.

Schubert: Piano Sonatas D. 840, ‘Reliquie’ & D. 960. Jean-Marc Luisada, piano, La Dolce Volta LDV 93. 

The Tunisian-born French pianist Jean Marc Luisada (b. 1958) offers performances of two piano sonatas by Schubert on this beautifully engineered recording that comes in a hardbound book-type bound format featuring liner notes in four languages: French, English, Japanese, and German. This is surely one one of the most imposing and impressive presentations that I have encountered in quite some time. The question that remains, then, is whether the musical performance is worthy of the engineering and packaging quality lavished upon it. To these ears, at least, the answer is affirmative.

Luisada plays only the first two movements of the Sonata in C major, D. 840, known as the “Relique” a name it was given because when it was first published it was mistakenly thought to be Schubert’s final work in piano sonata form. These first two movements, marked Moderato and Andante, being the only two that Schubert completed himself. By the way, although there are only two movements, they are substantial, taking up more than 28 minutes. There exists a longer version that includes later movements that were completed by Ernst Krenek. In Luisada’s view, “In Schubert’s case, incompletion is not a sign of impotence. It’s a deliberate gesture, because he has already said the essential, revealed the suffering of the moment.” As we listen to Luisada’s tenderly expressive performance and ponder his perspective on this work, we find ourselves confronting one of music’s – of art’s – paradoxes, how the expression of sorrow and suffering can at the same time be so beautiful and life-affirming.

Then it is on to the Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, which truly was Schubert’s final piano sonata, of which Luisada comments “is a culmination, the completion of a life… Certain passages in the first movement of the sonata are among the highpoints of the whole nineteenth-century musical literature. Then there are the moments bathed in an immaterial atmosphere, when the Wanderer calmly accepts death in the C major modulation at the end of the second movement, the Andante sostenuto. This imposes a feeling of stillness, a sensation of eternity… In this recording, I play [the Scherzo] slower than usual and in the spirit of an angel dance with a certain reserve… In truth, nothing is improvised in Schubert. Sometimes he gives the illusion of improvisation, pulls the wool over our eyes. Everything is ‘orchestrated’ without ever reaching a climax, for he must constantly postpone the inevitable, gain time. Only the Faustian finale with its galloping theme and its syncopations in the left hand ends the Wanderer’s race to the abyss.”  

For those who might be unfamiliar with this composition, it is an imposing work, but one that is ever so beautiful. The first movement is the longest; at 20 minutes or so, it could pretty much stand on its own as an independently satisfying work of art. (I must confess that there have been times when I have come to the end of the movement and then rather than going on to the next, have immediately returned to the beginning of the movement again, lingering with this music for another 20 minutes, because it is just so beautiful that I cannot bear to part from it.) But then comes the second movement, that Andante sostenuto, slow and tender for nearly 10 minutes, music to melt your heart, with Luisada playing it as expressively as can be imagined without ever taking it over the top. The relatively brief Scherzo follows, dancing along for less than five minutes before we come to the closing nine-minute Allegro, which bounces along until it seems to hesitate questioningly near the end before seeming to take a deep breath and conclude with a flourish. Overall, Luisada plays with great imagination and emotion, bringing out the drama in the music. D. 960 truly is one of the truly great piano sonatas, a work that every classical music listener should encounter at some point. A great place to start for those who have not yet heard the piece would be the recording by Mitsuko Uchida on Philips, a more straightforward but still quite beautiful performance; however, for those who are already acquainted with the piece, this new recording by Luisada offers a fascinating interpretation that is well worth an audition, and the pairing of both sonatas on one disc and the superb recorded sound make this an especially appealing choice.  

Hovhaness: Invocations to Vahakn; Yenovk; Lalezar; Suite on Greek Tunes; Mystic Flute; Journey Into Dawn; Laona; Lake of Van Sonata; Vijag; Sonata “Hakhpat”. Sahan Arzruni, piano; Adam Rosenblatt, percussion. KALAN 773. 

Many classical music fans are no doubt familiar with the orchestral works of the late American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), who wrote 67 symphonies as well as other symphonic works such as the symphonic poem And God Created Great Whales. With something like 464 works in his published catalog plus additional unpublished manuscripts, Hovhaness wrote not only for orchestra, but for other ensembles and solo instruments as well, including the piano. The Armenian pianist Sahan Arzruni (b. 1943) has studied the piano music of Hovhaness in preparation for recording this album of selected piano works by the composer. Clearly this was a work of love, for Arzruni points out that the majority of the compositions he chose to include are unpublished, existing in manuscript form only. Arzruni comments that Hovhaness “was a musician-mystic who rejected the materialistic values of the Machine Age. He explored, instead, the transcendental realm – using music as a link between the physical and metaphysical worlds. Hovhaness took non-Western cultures as his point of departure, while employing Western music as his frame of reference.” Arzruni goes on to quote the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson who wrote of Hovhaness in 1947 that “the music is at times strophic in phraseology and emotionally continuous, never climactic. Each piece is like a hand-made wallpaper. Its motionless quality is a little hypnotic. Its expressive function is predominantly religious, ceremonial, incantatory, its spiritual content of the purest.”

Even before reading the extensive liner notes in which Arzruni provides detailed background information on each track, you begin to get a sense of what Thomson was writing about even before you read it. The music does have a sense of the mystical about it, a feeling of striving for something beyond the notes. The occasional addition of percussion adds to the sense that the music is part of some sort of ritual. That is not to say, however, that it cannot be enjoyed purely as music, for it is music that is lively, energetic, and quite capable of capturing the imagination. On the back cover of the booklet is a quotation from Hovhaness himself that makes his intentions clear: “I propose to create a heroic, monumental style of composition simple enough to inspire all people, completely free from fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications, direct, sincere, always original but never unnatural.” That is a bold, ambitious statement, but for the music on this album at least, I would say that he pretty much succeeded, with the able assistance of Arzruni, Rosenblatt, and the engineering team. The booklet and disc are packaged in a sturdy box; all in all, this is a first-class production of some fascinating music that deserves to be heard. Highly recommended!


Jan 16, 2022

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Volume 2 (CD review)

The Middle Quartets: Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Dover Quartet. Cedille CDA 90000 206 (3-disc set).

By John J. Puccio

As you know, the German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote sixteen numbered string quartets and one, single-movement, unnumbered quartet in the final thirty years or so of his life. Since the Dover Quartet are determined to issue all seventeen of them on disc, this is the second volume, the Middle Quartets as they’re known, Nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Or, if you’re fussy about numbering, Op. 59, Nos. 1-3; Op. 74, “Harp”; and Op. 95, “Serioso.”

For those of you still unsure about who The Dover Quartet are, Wikipedia explains that they are “an American string quartet...formed at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2008 by graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Rice University Shepherd School of Music. Its name is taken from the piece ‘Dover Beach’ by Samuel Barber,” which in turn is a setting for the poem by the English poet Matthew Arnold. The Dover ensemble “consists of violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. In 2020, the quartet was appointed to the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music as ensemble-in-residence. Additionally, they hold residencies with the Kennedy Center, Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, Artosphere, the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival, and Peoples’ Symphony Concerts in New York.” The Beethoven album under review is by my count the fifth one they have released on which they are the primary performers.

The Dovers play on instruments spanning three centuries. Mr. Link plays a violin by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, Paris, 1845. Mr. Lee plays a violin by Riccardo Antoniazzi, Milan, 1904. Ms. de Stadt plays a viola by an unknown maker from Brescian School, early 18th century. And Mr. Shaw plays a cello by Frank Ravatin, Vannes, 2010. Whatever the make and model of the instruments they play, the Dover Quartet make beautiful music together.

The first item on the agenda is the String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1, written and published in 1808 on a commission from Prince Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna at the time. Many music scholars consider it the first of Beethoven’s truly mature quartets, and even its length attests to this, being quite a bit longer than his previous efforts. In fact, it’s so long (almost forty minutes) it takes up the entire first disc of this three-disc set. The thing is, though, while it’s a long quartet, it seems shorter. Maybe it’s how one gets so completely swept up in the music making. Certainly, the Dovers appear to be enjoying themselves, which in music is paramount. Their instruments sing, and there was a great temptation for this listener to sing along with them if the music had any words. Well, OK, the third-movement Adagio is a bit too solemn for singing, but the Allegro finale with its “Theme russe” is so fully melodic, the Dovers practically croon it. Wonderful musicianship.

The String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 and the String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 occupy disc two. Beethoven wrote and published them in 1808, also as part of the commission from Prince Razumovsky. (The three Razumovsky quartets are so strongly intertwined that people often think of them as a trio or as simply the “Russian Quartets”). Supposedly, Beethoven was inspired to write the second movement (Molto Adagio) of No. 8 as he pondered the stars and imagined the music of the spheres. The Dover Quartet play it gently, sensitively, graciously and do, indeed, conjure up the magic of the night sky. They conclude it with a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Presto. Then comes No. 9, two of whose most prominent features are the similarity in its introduction to Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet and in its second movement’s Hungarian (and possibly Russian) influences. For me, this has always been the most unusual (and my favorite) of the trio, largely due to its surprises and inventions. The Dover players have fun with it, even in the more serious parts. By the time they reach the tumultuous finale, they’re in full swing and attack it with a heady gusto.

Disc three begins with the String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74, “Harp,” written in 1809. Interestingly, Beethoven’s publisher gave it the nickname “Harp” not because it includes a harp but because of the quartet’s pizzicato sections in the first movement, where the player’s alternate notes in an arpeggio remind us of the plucking of a harp. It’s a delightful piece of music, and the Dover Quartet do it complete justice in a performance of playful elegance and flair.

The final selection in the set is the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, “Serioso,” from 1810. It gets its nickname from the third movement, Allegro assai vivace ma serioso. Because it was so different from his other quartets (brief length, sudden outbursts, tonal liberties, unusual silences, and rhythmic oddities, among other things), Beethoven never wanted it played in public. He considered it more of an experiment than a finished product and didn’t want it on display. Thankfully, he was wrong, and we have it today for everyone to enjoy.

Producer Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre recorded the quartets at Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana in December 2019 and July and August 2020. Although there is not a lot of hall resonance involved, it all sounds wonderfully clean and natural, with a warm, ambient glow. The sound is fairly close up but extremely smooth (perhaps a touch too smooth for some audiophiles) and eminently listenable.


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

Jan 12, 2022

Piano Potpourri, No. 4 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, op. 5; 7 Fantasien, op. 116. Adam Laloum, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902666. 

French pianist Adam Laloum (b.1987) brings us works from the early and late periods of Brahms’s writings for the keyboard. The composer produced his Piano Sonata No. 3 when he was only 20 years old. The liner notes marvel of the young Brahms that “even if his constricted, lower-middle-class family environment was not as miserable as frequently related, it remains incomprehensible how an eighteen-year-old buried entirely in his romantic dream world who had no contact at all to this ‘musical world,’ could invent at the kitchen table in his home, piano music that would astound Europe. And how it became known to the public is no less miraculous. As a nobody, he embarked in the spring of 1853 upon a journey that was supposed to be hardly more than a little concert tour, and ended it as an acclaimed ‘genius’ with the first printed works in his luggage. On this trip, which rather unexpectedly carried him to its turning point, the encounter with the Schumann family, the twenty-year-old Brahms wrote his Third Piano Sonata, which was to be his premature parting from this genre. This aspect, too, is mysterious.”

The sonata is a grand composition in five movements, spanning a total of nearly 40 minutes, with all the musical depth and complexity of a symphony. Speaking of symphonies, the attentive listener will hear occasional echoes of Beethoven’s Fifth as the sonata unfolds, that da-da-da-dum showing up every once in a while, almost spectrally in the opening movement, more forcefully in the fourth. This is truly a grand and glorious work, and Laloum plays it with both power and subtlety. Strangely and sadly enough, given the power and deep beauty of this grand sonata, it proved to be Brahms’s final composition in this genre.

However, Brahms did not abandon composing for the piano altogether; rather, he went on to compose other works for the keyboard, just no more sonatas. He completed his 7 Fantasien in 1892, nearly 40 years after composing his final sonata. They are much smaller in scale, the longest coming in at 4:34, the shortest at a mere 2:23. Four of the seven selections are intermezzi, which are especially lyrical, reflective, and calmingly beautiful (Bill Heck offers some insights about intermezzi in his review of a Brahms piano recording devoted to the genre: https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/04/brahms-intermezzi-cd-review.html); the other three are cappriccios, which are more, well, capricious. In both genres, Laloum;’ expressive playing is well-framed by the recorded sound, which is clear and full-bodied. All in all, this is a truly rewarding release that would serve as a fine introduction to the piano music of the amazing Johannes Brahms both the younger and the elder.

Vers Le Silence. Chopin: Polonaise in C minor, Op 40 No. 2; Bolcom: Twelve New Etudes for Piano, Book I - No. 1. Fast, furious | No. 2. Récitatif | No. 3. Mirrors; Chopin: Mazurka in C Major, Op. 68 No. 1; Mazurka in G minor, Op. 67 No. 2; Mazurka in A minor, “Emile Gaillard”; Bolcom: Twelve New Etudes for Piano Book II - No. 4. Scène d’opéra | No. 5. Butterflies, hummingbirds | Nocturne; Chopin: Waltz in B minor, Op. 69 No. 2; Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42; Bolcom: Twelve New Etudes for Piano, Book III - No. 7. Premonitions | No. 8. Rag infernal (Syncopes apocalyptiques) | No. 9. Invention; Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53; Bolcom: Twelve New Etudes for Piano, Book IV - No. 10. Vers le silence | No. 11. Hi-jinks | No. 12. Hymne à l’amour; Chopin: Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68 No. 4. Ran Dank, piano. AVIE Records AV2475. 

With this release we have releases by composers that most classical music fans would not be inclined to think of together, if for no other reason that they are far separated in time, but also because one is quite famous, especially for his piano music, while the other is, although certainly not obscure, far from widely known. As the Israeli-born (now residing in the United States) pianist Ran Dank (b. 1982) puts it, “At first glance, the musical worlds of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849 and William Bolcom (b. 1938) seem disparate. The former, the national composer of Poland, who spent the lion’s share of his adult life in exile in the country of France, is one of classical music's most well-known and often-played composers, His writing style has become synonymous with pianistic elan and panache, with lush melodic lines in the bel canto style and brilliant bravura passage-work – all ensconced in sumptuous, romantic harmonies. The latter, a Seattle-born American composer, has become one of contemporary music’s most defining voices through boldness of invention and a nonpareil synthesis of musical languages and idioms that encompass the range of 20th-century music. As pianist-composers, they both share a perfect understanding of the human hand and the ability to use the piano to its full extent. They also possess an extraordinary ear for sounds and a keen sense of structure. All of these commonalities begin to unveil themselves when listening to these works side by side.”

As you can see from the track listing, Dank has chosen to intersperse selections of various types from Chopin’s catalog, including two Polonaises, four Mazurkas, and two Waltzes, amongst Bolcom’s 12 New Etudes for Piano. Bolcom began working on the Etudes in 1977, but put them aside when pianist Paul Jacobs, to whom they had been dedicated, passed away in 1983. However, Bolcom was persuaded to complete the work by pianists John Musto (b. 1954) and Marc-Andre Hamelin (b. 1961), so Bolcom set back to work and completed the set in 1986, expanding the dedication to include all three pianists. Although Dank opens and closes his program with Chopin, and devotes considerably more space in his liner note essay discussing the Chopin pieces he has chosen to include, he also writes, “At the core of this recording lie the Twelve New Etudes… The etudes as a whole exhibit all the traits of Bolcom’s writing: wonderfully eclectic, effortlessly moving between one musical idiom and another with seemingly endless ingenuity. The complete set won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and is one of the great etude sets in the pianistic repertoire… I would like to close with a few personal notes. With this debut recording, I have chosen to concentrate on two composers who have shaped my trajectory as a pianist and musician. The music of Chopin was, quite literally, the reason I began playing the piano. The waltzes of Chopin were the first musical pieces I remember hearing, and it was a recording of them that had me mesmerized by the age of 3. As a child of two Polish parents, the music of Chopin played a huge part in my upbringing, and every note of it resonates with me on an extremely personal level. Bolcom’s music was a much later discovery, but one that was equally valuable. Indeed, after having learned this set of etudes, I was so fascinated by it that I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on it. I have spent countless hours both playing, studying, and analyzing this text, and I hope to be able to impart some of my musical insights to the listener.”

It seems clear, then, that the primary purpose of the album is to present the Bolcom set, with the Chopin pieces being added for two main reasons: as a musical complement to the Bolcom based on Dank’s deep regard for both composers and to make the album easier to market and sell. Some might find the latter reason less than noble – either on my part for suggesting it or on the part of the producers for implementing it, if that is indeed the case. In any event, whatever the motivation, the end result is an entertaining album that succeeds in exposing music lovers to some music that they might otherwise might not ever have auditioned. The Bolcom Etudes are not going to be to everyone’s taste, but what music truly is? However, they are colorful, brief, spirited, imaginative, and varied. I will admit that they put me off a bit at first, but the more I listened, the more I came to enjoy them, and the more I came to appreciate Bolcom’s fascination with them. From the first of the dozen, titled “Fast, Furious,” which is just that, a shot of caffeinated keyboard adrenaline, we then go to “Recitatif,” a welcome island of calm. Another highlight is “Scene d’opera,” like some fantastic opera scene recalled in a dream. And so the Etudes continue, imaginative pianistic sketches, capturing moods and mental images, ending with the peaceful, reflective, perhaps resigned “”Hymne a l’amour” that completes the set. Dank then follows with a gentle performance of Chopin’s Mazurka in F Minor, op. 64, ending the album in a similar tone but offering a glimpse of hope, some light shining through the cracks. The engineering is by veteran engineer Judith Sherman, so the sound is first-rate, as you might expect. An unusual but rewarding release – try it, you might like it.

Nik Bärtsch: Entendre. Modul 58_12; Modul 55; Modul 26; Modul 13; Modul 5; Dejã-vu,Vienna. Nik Bartsch, piano. ECM 2703. 

Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch (b. 1971) has created an album of solo piano music that defies easy categorization. Although Bartach has led jazz groups that play music of a similar overall feel, the music on Entendre is not jazz; although it tends toward having a rhythmic pulse and a sense of repetitive buildup, it is not merely minimalism; and although it is in a sense composed and has titles (some of which have been played performed previously by his jazz groups), it is music that is not fully composed nor is it fully improvised. The music just seems to unfold as Bartsch plays patterns and then plays with those patterns, keeping a steady pulse but shifting accents, chords, riffs, finding “freedom in the groove” as he taps into the potential energy of the keyboard (and occasionally behind the keyboard) and channels it into kinetic energy that seems to chant and dance as it ebbs and flows. This is energetic music with an underlying sense of calm, music that can either stimulate or soothe, depending on the mood the listener brings to it. Something like a mash up of Philip Glass with Keith Jarretts Koln Concert, if that makes any sense to anyone besides me. Great driving music!


Jan 9, 2022

Concerti All’Arrabbiata (CD review)

Music of Telemann, Platti, Vivaldi, and Geminiani. Gottfried von der Goltz, Freiburger Barockorchester. Aparte Music AP262.

By John J. Puccio

Although period-instrument bands have been around for a very long time (for example, Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded the Concentus Musicus Wien some seventy-odd years ago). But it wasn’t until the 1980’s or so that they really took off and proliferated. Today, a lot of them are gone, yet those that remain are still going strong. My own favorites for a long time have been the Philharmonia Baroque, La Petite Bande, and the subject of today’s review, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Why those three? Because they seem to be having the most fun playing the music, enjoying what they are doing. They may not always be the richest-sounding or most-precise ensembles I’ve heard, but they are among the most enjoyable to listen to. Certainly, the Freiburg group appears to be enthusiastically embracing the music on the present album.

The current disc amply demonstrates the ensemble’s aforesaid ebullience, the appropriately titled Concerti All’Arrabbiata (“spicy hot concerts”). Gottfried von der Goltz and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra have chosen music by four seventeenth and eighteenth-century composers--Telemann, Platti, Vivaldi, and Geminiani--that show their hotter, saucier side, and the orchestra play the pieces just that way--hot and saucy.

First up is the Concerto in D major for 2 horns, strings and continuo by the German composer and instrumentalist Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). So, you might expect from the foregoing description of “all’arrabbiata” that the Freiburgers would be attacking the score all out at raucous speeds, but no. The tempos are sensible and gratifying, and the playing is delicately elegant. They take the hunting motif at the end sensibly as well, making for an enjoyable experience all the way around.

Next is the Concerto in G minor for oboe, strings and continuo by the Italian composer and oboist Giovanni Platti (1690?-1763). The Platti selection is less restrained than the Telemann, and Maestro van der Goltz and his players add a touch more zest to the proceedings. Yet they retain the work’s refinement, especially in the sensitive Largo.

After that we have the Concerto in E flat major for bassoon, strings and continuo by the ubiquitous (could we have a Baroque album without him?) Italian composer, violinist, impresario, and Catholic priest Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). The Freiburg ensemble maintain a good feeling of equilibrium as they balance tonal and rhythmic differences within the score.

For the penultimate selection, it’s the Concerto Grosso in D minor “la Folia” by the Italian composer, violinist, and music theorist Francesco Geminiani (1687-1772). This concerto grosso is a spirited set of follia dances (the Germans referred to them as “rowdy amusement,” and some countries enacted laws against them). Today we wonder what the fuss was about. Whatever, under Maestro von der Goltz’s direction, the dances come off as tasteful entertainment, with some splendidly handsome embellishments. It was the highlight of the program for me.

The program concludes with a bookend: the Sinfonia in G major “Grillen-Symphonie” by Telemann. Its dignified yet vibrant sophistication make a fine summing up of the all’arrabbiata flavor, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra keeping everything on a prudently even keel.

I have only two minor qualms: First, the album is too brief. Not only is the timing rather short (a little over 49 minutes), but the music is so engaging it goes by too quickly. Second, the packaging is one of those fold-out cardboard affairs that expands to three sections, with the CD buried in a center compartment. The disc doesn’t just slide out; you have to help it along and hope you don’t get too many fingerprints on the playing surface in the process.

Producer Nicolas Bartholomee and engineers Nicolas Bartholomee and Ignace Hauville recorded the music for Little Tribeca at the Freiburg Ensemblehaus, Germany in October 2020. The first thing that struck me about the sound was the excellent depth to the orchestra. Now, understand, the ensemble is not all that big, around two dozen players and about three deep, but there is space around the instruments and a lifelike feeling of front-to-back dimensionality to the music. At the same time, the overall effect is smooth, round, and natural. It’s quite pleasing, with just a touch of hall resonance to enhance the realism.


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

Jan 5, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 23 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503; Rondo in A Minor, K. 511;  Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 456. Jeremy Denk, piano and conductor; The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Nonesuch 075597916874.

The American pianist Jeremy Denk (b. 1950), recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship, is not a pianist who releases a lot of recordings; however, when he does release a recording, it is well worth checking out, as is this new Mozart album on Nonesuch. I have only one other recording by Denk in my collection, his rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Not only is it a fine performance, but the album includes a fascinating DVD with Denk discussing the music and playing examples at the keyboard. You can see an excerpt from that lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEuaKv4sGrQ. This new Mozart release does not include a DVD, but it does include extensive liner notes by Denk himself that offer insight into the compositions as well as his thoughts and feelings about them. For example, of the concerto that opens the program, Denk reflects, “As I write these words … the world as it used to be has vanished, a pandemic world has settled in, and—as we keep telling ourselves—we have to live with uncertainty. Which has always seemed to me one of the key messages of this great concerto, so different from the rest, and so full of the love of its creator… 503 has very few tunes… this may explain why it is not one of the most popular of his concertos … you feel that Mozart is instructing you to listen more deeply, away from ornament, behind the frills, to realize that music is more than an assembly of charming and diverting tunes, to think about ideas beneath the surface, forces and principles.” His comment about “very few tunes” is an interesting one. One the one hand, it is true that there are no instantly memorable melodies, but on the other hand, this is Mozart, after all, so the music just seems to flow along like water in a mountain stream. I will confess to being unfamiliar with K. 503, but this recording has won me over. It is a piece and a performance that simmers with power. I want to hear it again and again.  

Sandwiched between the two concertos on the program is a work for solo piano. Denk writes of Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, “Mozart wrote so many sad songs in his short life: laments of ardent young tenors, of innocent maids, of jilted Countesses, sorrows across the human spectrum, across class and age and mindset, giving voice to regrets vast and small. But in this case I’d argue he does something different—a piece about the nature of melancholy, a sadness (if you like) about sadness.” It is a pensive piece, reflective for sure; whether you find it actually a reflection on or of sadness depends, to my mind at least, upon what your mind and mood bring to your listening session. And even if you do find it sad, you will almost certainly find both the music and the performance undeniably moving and beautiful.

After giving us two less-familiar works, Denk closes his recording with a Mozart concerto that will be much more familiar to most classical music lovers, his No. 20 in D Minor, K. 456, of which Denk notes, “is a far more famous and popular piece than 503, partly because it is what it promises to be. If 503 proposes grand, certain chords and then undermines them, 466 takes the opposite approach: it starts from a distilled unease which accumulates into chords and statements, outbursts of anger. A purer tragedy—and a clearer narrative.” Indeed, I have heard this piece so many times that as soon as it began, I found myself humming along and then trying to restrain myself from playing an imaginary keyboard once Denk started playing. His is a performance I would describe as crisp and powerful in the opening movement, crisp but lyrical in the second movement, and crisp and dramatic in the finale. You can hear an excerpt of his performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKzaJo31TP4

The recording quality is excellent overall. Yes, the piano seems a bit supersized, but that is typical of concerto recordings. Overall, the frequency balance is excellent, the imaging is believable (other than the huge piano, of course), and my only quibble is that the CD seems to be mastered a bit on the hot side, several decibels louder than one might expect. Perhaps this is becoming the New Normal as streaming and earbud listening take over from the traditional home stereo listening setup favored by fogies such as your truly. In any event, this is a richly rewarding recording that I recommend with utmost enthusiasm.

Tanguy: Clarinet Concerto; Matka; Violin Concerto No. 2. Pierre Génisson, clarinet; Júlia Pusker, violin; Ville Matvejeff, Jyväskylä Sinfonia. Ondine ODE 1390-2.

Let us once again sail into uncharted musical waters and listen to the music of a composer we have not heretofore discovered as we explore these three compositions by Éric Tanguy (b. 1968), one of the leading composers in contemporary French music. Once again we encounter truly international music-making, with music by a French composer being played by a Finnish orchestra and conductor, with soloists from France and Hungary, recorded on a Finnish label and manufactured in Germany. But the story gets even more international than that. French clarinetist Pierre Génisson (b. 1986) and the composer were in fact both living in Los Angeles in 2014 when, as Tanguy recounts, “Pierre communicated to me his wish that I write a score for him that he would be able to play >>in mirror<< in a concert including Mozart’s concerto. I of course accepted his project with a great deal of enthusiasm.” The concerto sounds nothing like Mozart’s, as you might expect, but it is quite listenable and enjoyable. Tanguy notes that “in this work there is a clearly consonant , melodic, and lyrical aspect that in no way excludes drama and melancholy.” As an old clarinetist (very old, very mediocre) myself, perhaps I am overly partial to the sweet sound of the “licorice stick,” but to my ears, Tanguy’s Clarinet Concerto (completed in 2017) is a true delight, capturing the imagination with its blend of dramatic gesture, tender reflection, and lyrical exuberance.

Next on the program is the relatively brief (11:28) tone poem Matka, which Tanguy composed in 2015 at the request of conductor Ville Matvejeff for the 150th anniversary of Sibelius, to be commissioned and premiered by the Jyväskylä Sinfonia. Of the title, Tanguy explains that “the Finnish title, ‘Matka,’ refers both to the idea of traveling in Finland, but at the same time to an inner journey and introspection.” Of the music itself, he continues, “Although there is no specific stylistic reference to Sibelius, I wanted to pay a spiritual tribute to the composer whose works fascinated me at a time when I was looking for my own way, thirty years ago.” It is a fascinating piece, one that pleases the ear and engages the imagination. As usual, I listened to it a few times before reading the liner notes, enjoyed it, and thought I heard a hint of Sibelius. After reading the notes, I heard even more hints, as you might expect.

Adding an additional dimension to the international aspect of the production is Hungarian violinist Júlia Pusker (b. 1991), who takes the spotlight in Tanguy’s Violin Concerto No 2. This piece was originally written in 1997 at the request of Phillipe Aïche, concertmaster of the Orchestre de Paris, and is dedicated to him. Later, however, Tanguy felt as though the piece would benefit from having the orchestral part rescored for smaller forces, so he modified it in 2003, and that is the version that has been performed in concert ever since and is the version recorded here. The concerto is in the traditional three movement form, which Tanguy succinctly (and to my ears, quite accurately) characterizes as a first movement with a contrasted lyrical and dramatic color, a second movement with a very mysterious and suspended atmosphere, and a finale that is very virtuosic, challenging both for the orchestra and the soloist. The opening measures might be a bit off-putting to conservative ears, but once you get past that, your ears will be rewarded, especially by the thrilling cadenza that Júlia Pusker plays in the final movement, which is virtuosic indeed! Excellent engineering and solid liner notes make this an easily recommendable release for those listeners looking to take a chance on contemporary composers whose names may be far less than familiar.

Remembering. Norgard: Between – Cello Concerto No. 1*; Remembering Child – Viola Concerto No. 1 (adapted for cello by Jakob Kullberg)**; Saariaho: Notes on Light for cello and orchestra***. Joakob Kullberg, cello; *Michael Francis, BBC Philharmonic; ** Szymon Bywalec, Sinfonia Varsovia; ***John Storgards, BBC Philharmonic. BIS-2602.

This release features some amazing playing by the Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg (b. 1976) in three cello concertos, two by Danish composer Per Norgard (b. 1932), with whom Kullberg has had a close musical relationship for may years, the other by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). Continuing the theme of musical internationalism, Varsovia Sinfonia and its conductor Szymon Bywalec both hail from Poland, the recordings were done for a Swedish label, only one of them (Remembering Child) in Poland and the other two in England. I suspect that for many listeners, the “make-or-break” point for their acceptance or rejection of this disc will be the first track, In Between, the opening movement of Norgard’s Cello Concerto No. 1. In my own listening sessions, I found it frustrating, because the rest of the program was enjoyable, but I could never quite relax and enjoy that first movement no matter how much I tried. I took some solace, though, when I finally turned to the liner notes, which said of this concerto, “The title mainly refers to the first movement, in which the cello is unable to unite with the orchestral sound, and instead belongs in the interstices.” The other two movements seem much more musically integrated, and through them all, even that problematic first movement, Kullberg’s playing is a marvel.  

Thankfully enough, the remainder of the program on the disc, although still contemporary in character, falls easier upon the ear, including Norgard’s Remembering Child, which closes the program on a more agreeable note than it had begun. However, the highlight of this release is Notes on Light by Kaija Saariaho (b.1952), the longest work on the program, coming in at more than 33 minutes. Ms. Saariaho has cast her composition in five movements: I. Translucent, secret II. On fire III. Awakening IV. Eclipse V. Heart of Light. Perhaps I was influenced by the title, but I did find the music to possess a luminous quality, a sense of shimmering and reflecting that was quite fascinating. The liner booklet, by the way, includes a photo of Kullberg, Norgard, and Saariaho gathered together looking as though they are going over a score together, which is a nice touch. The transparent sound quality typical of the BIS label adds to the overall appeal of this release. Recommended, but with the reservation that the first track might be tough going for some listeners.


Jan 2, 2022

Favorite Classical Recordings of 2021

By John J. Puccio

As you may remember, I don’t do “best-of” lists. “Best” suggests that I’ve sampled everything available, and even though I review a lot of music every year, I have not heard but a fraction of what’s out there. So I prefer to do a simple “favorites” list. Here are just a few of the discs (listed alphabetically, to be fair) I heard last year that I enjoyed for their performance and sound. I know I’ve forgotten some; forgive me.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Volume 1
The Opus 18 quartets, Nos. 1-6. Dover Quartet. Cedille.
To read the review, click here:

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7
Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic. K2HD Mastering.
To read the review, click here:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Also, Creatures of Prometheus, complete ballet. Gottfried von der Goltz, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi.
To read the review, click here:

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major
Also, Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major. Gil Shaham, violin; Eric Jacobsen, The Knights. Canary Classics.
To read the review, click here:

Brahms: Piano Concertos
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. Andras Schiff, piano; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. ECM New Series.
To read the review, click here:

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Bruce Anthony Kiesling, Adrian Symphony Orchestra. Naturally Sharp Records.
To read the review, click here:

Juilliard String Quartet: Beethoven, Bartok, Dvorak
Juilliard String Quartet. Sony.
To read the review, click here:

Massenet: Ballet Music
Louis Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Klavier/JVC.
To read the review, click here:

Sowerby: The Paul Whiteman Commissions
Andy Baker Orchestra; Avalon String Quartet. Cedille.
To read the review, click here:

Telemann: Polonoise
Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Holland Baroque. Pentatone.
To read the review, click here:

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Also, La Folia. Francisco Fullana and Alan Choo, violins; Jeannette Sorrell, Apollo’s Fire. Avie.
To read the review, click here:


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