Feb 26, 2022

Simone Dinnerstein: Undersong (CD review)

Piano music by Couperin, Schumann, Glass, and Satie. Simone Dinnerstein, piano. Orange Mountain Music 0156.

By John J. Puccio and Karl W. Nehring

The music according to John:
As you probably know, American classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein loves to do theme albums. The titles alone give you the idea: An American Mosaic, A Character of Quiet, Bach: Strange Beauty, Mozart in Havana, Something Almost Being Said, Night, Bach Re-Invented, Broadway - Lafayette, and now Undersong. Of course, she has done more traditional albums as well, like Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Inventions and Sinfonias, and Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Cello (with cellist Zuill Bailey). But lately, as her name and fame have grown, she has increasingly pursued theme albums.

Undersong is a term I was unfamiliar with, so I looked it up. The Free Dictionary calls it “an accompanying secondary melody”; or “a nuanced meaning.” Merriam-Webster says it’s “a subordinate melody or part; especially, a droning accompaniment or undertone. A refrain.” Ms. Dinnerstein apparently goes with “refrain.” As she says, “Couperin, Schumann, Glass, and Satie constantly revisit the same material, worrying at, shifting it to different harmonies and into different rhythmic shapes. Working with this music in the fall of 2020 was a constant reminder that in my afternoon walk in the Green-wood Cemetery, I was quite literally treading a familiar path every day, a path that nonetheless had changed almost imperceptibly every time I left the house.” Thus, we have the shifting, sometimes hidden texts of these musical pieces with refrains. The whole idea may seem a bit morose (starting with Ms. Dinnerstein’s black-and-white cover photo surrounded by tombstones and looking for all the world like Morticia Addams), but, then, the whole pandemic has been a pretty morose experience.

Nevertheless, whether or not you buy into the slightly murky spirit of the “undersong” business, you can’t deny that Ms. Dinnerstein’s handling of the material is thoughtful, emotional yet restrained, and unfailingly sensitive. Thus informed, we begin with Les Barricades Mysterieuses (“The Mysterious Barricades”) that the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin wrote in 1717. Like its title, the music is evocative, and Ms. Dinnerstein makes the most of it.

Next is an equally famous piece, Arabesque, Op. 18, written by Robert Schumann in 1839. The composer wrote it during a particularly stormy period of his life during which his future wife Clara’s father wanted no part of him as a son-in-law. The music reflects these turbulent yet tender times, and Ms. Dinnerstein adds her own affectionate touch and occasional barb.

Philip Glass comes after that with his solo piano work, Mad Rush (1979). Ms. Dinnerstein describes the music of the disc as the kind to get lost in, and that’s no better expressed than in the Glass piece. It’s kind of looking-glass music (pun intended) with ripples and reflections of all sorts. Ms. Dinnerstein’s gentle yet firm approach has us drifting through a kaleidoscope of musical colors.

Then we get more from Couperin, Tic Toc Choc, a whimsical representation of the rhythms of a clock. Given its eighteenth-century origins, the piece sounds surprisingly modern in Ms. Dinnerstein’s hands.

Then, there’s Gnossienne No. 3 by French composer Erik Satie (1888). “Gnossienne” was a word Satie invented, probably to remind listeners of “gnostic” or spiritual knowledge or maybe of “gnossus” from ancient Crete. Whatever, it is intensely mystical and contemplative.

The program’s penultimate work is the longest, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a selection of eight movements for solo piano (1838). Schumann regarded it as his favorite work. Here, Ms. Dinnerstein lets her hair down, so to speak, pursuing the sometimes tempestuous, sometimes tranquil segments with equally warmhearted vigor.

Ms. Dinnerstein concludes the disc, appropriately, with a refrain: Couperin’s Les Barricades Redux.

Adam Abeshouse produced and engineered the album, which he recorded in Ms. Dinnerstein’s home in Brooklyn, NY in November 2020. The piano, recorded somewhat closely, sounds honeyed and mellow, with a warm, rich quality that greatly complements the music. Then, too, a mildly resonant acoustic also contributes to the disc’s pleasures.

JJP

The music according to Karl:
American pianist Simone Dinnerstein (b. 1972) first came to my attention and to the attention of many, many others, as it would soon turn out back in 2007 when her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was released on the Telarc label. It was a splendid recording for which I wrote an enthusiastic review in The $ensible Sound. The album shot to the top of Billboard’s classical CD best-sellers list. I’d love to say that its success was in part attributable to my review, but I have every confidence that the good readers of Classical Candor are nowhere near so gullible as to believe such blatant blather. Fast-forward 15 years and I find myself once again reviewing a recording by Ms. Dinnerstein, who has been busy during the pandemic, as Undersong is her third made during this trying time. Isolation can have some compensations for those prepared to make the best of their particular talents and opportunities, and Ms. Dinnerstein has certainly used her talents and opportunities to produce another splendid recording. In her brief liner note, she writes that “all of the music on this album consists of musical forms that have a refrain. Glass, Schumann, Couperin, and Satie constantly revisit the same material in these pieces, shifting it to different harmonies and into different rhythmic shapes. Undersong is an archaic term for a song with a refrain, and to me it also suggests a hidden text. Glass, Schumann, Couperin and Satie all seem to be attempting to find what they want to say through repetition, as though their constant change and recycling will focus the ear and the mind. This is music to get lost in.” She goes on to compare that repetition to her daily afternoon walk through Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where she treads the same path day after day (the B&W cover photo features her posing there on the cemetery path).

Despite that talk of solitary cemetery strolls, the music she has chosen is not morose. The piece by Francois Couperin that opens and closes the album is ruminative, though. Indeed, it would seem that framing the album this way is evidence of a deft artistic touch, the pianist’s way of communicating that she intending her program to be understood as a framed musical composition that she has put together purposefully, beginning and ending a musical journey with something on her mind. Besides, Les Barricades Mysterieuses is an entrancing composition, well worth hearing played twice, ever so slightly slowly to finish the program. Between those opening and closing tunes, there is a varied program that spans the centuries. Following the opening Couperin, Schumann’s Arabesque seems somehow to sustain a  similar feeling despite being dissimilar in style. The pace then picks up as Dinnerstein leans into the pulsing rhythms of Philip Glass’s Mad Rush. I know there are some who are wary of anything by Glass, but to my ears at least, his piano music represents some of the best of his output, and Mad Rush is an excellent piece that sounds perfectly placed in this program. After a brief bon-bon from Couperin, we then come to the longest composition, taking up more than half the time on the CD, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which consists of eight sections. The music and the mood here are certainly different from the Glass, the Satie, or even the other Schumann, but I quibble. Others may find it more perfectly blended in than did I. My only other quibble is with the liner notes, which are quite brief. It would have been rewarding to have some more insight from Ms. Dinnerstein as to how she came to choose the particular composers and compositions and why she presented them in the order she chose for her program. Still, when you come down to it, this is a really nice release, with a well-played, well-recorded, and thoughtfully chosen program -- music to get lost in.

KWN

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

Feb 23, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 24 (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Gustav Mahler | Xiaogang Ye: The Song of the Earth. CD1 Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (symphony for teneor, alto, and orchestra, text after Hans Bethge’s Die chinesischesche Flote); CD2 Xiaogang Ye: The Song of the Earth op. 47 (for soprano, baritone, and orchestra; text, Chinese poems of the Tang Dynasty). Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Brian Jagde, tenor (Mahler); Liping Zhang, soprano; Shenyang, baritone (Xiaogang Ye); Long Yu, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon 483 7452. 

This release consists of two CDs. The first contains a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), a work that should be familiar to most classical music lovers. The second contains a 21st century homage to and reimagining of Mahler’s opus by the Chinese composer  Xiaogong Ye (b. 1955), who had been commissioned by conductor Long Yu to compose a new symphonic work based on the same poems that Mahler had used in creating Das Lied. But whereas Mahler created his German text based on Hans Bethge’s German translation of a French translation of Chinese poetry, Ye created his Chinese text based on those same Chinese poems. The liner notes include some observations by Yu about the similarities and differences between the two compositions. “Close comparisons are possible, with people able to see the double picture – how Europeans feel about love, pleasure, and death, and how the Chinese feel about the same things. In this project, you can hear that the last piece of the Mahler, Der Abscheid – ‘The Farewell’ – and the last piece in the Chinese work both purvey exactly the same emotion. [Though not through the same textures.] Mahler creates oil paintings, while Xiaogang Ye paints in watercolour.  But the juxtaposition of these two pieces allows fruitful comparisons.”

As far as the performance on the Mahler disc goes, in all honesty I would have to say that it is satisfactory, but not one for which I could work up much enthusiasm. There are simply too many truly excellent versions available such as Klemperer on EMI, Oue on Reference Recordings, and Haitink on Philips, to name just a few from my personal pantheon (the Klemperer recording, with singers Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig, is one of the transcendent glories of recorded music – but I digress…) to keep me from making a strong recommendation for this one. In short, it is okay, but there are better versions to be had.

The main focus of interest for this release is the Chinese composition. Here we enter a different sound world from that of Mahler, based on different scales, a different language, and even several different instruments. Still, the overall feeling is not radically different, given that we are still listening to an essentially standard symphony orchestra, even though the language and some of the instrumentation might sound unfamiliar. The bottom line is that although this is not an essential recording, it is certainly an interesting recording. Mahler fans with a special fondness for Das Lied von der Erde might well gain additional appreciation for and insight into Mahler’s achievement by hearing this unique Chinese perspective on Mahler’s original source of inspiration. Moreover, one need not be a Mahler fan to enjoy this fascinating, colorful, at times exotic-sounding new composition  by this relatively unknown (at least in the West) Chinese composer. A word of caution, however: for those new to the world of classical music, this well-engineered two-CD set could well be a gateway drug to mainline Mahler addiction.

Gerber: Sinfonietta No. 1 (Piano Quintet, 1991) arr. Daron Hagen; String Sinfonia No. 1 (String Quartet No. 4, 1995) arr. Adrian Williams; Two Lyric Pieces for Violin and Strings (2005); String Sinfonia No. 2 (String Quartet No. 6, 2011) arr. Adrian Williams; Sinfonietta No. 2 (String Quartet No. 5, 2000) arr. Adrian Williams. Emily Davis, violin. Kenneth Woods, English String Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6423.

As the liner notes point out, “most of the music on this recording consists of arrangements of chamber music pieces by Steven Gerber (1948-2015), commissioned by the Gerber Trust to help make performances of his music more accessible for chamber orchestras, smaller symphony orchestras and string orchestras. Taken together with Gerber’s beautiful Two Lyric Pieces for Violin and Strings, they provide a fascinating overview of Gerber’s development as a composer over most of the last two years of his working life.” That pretty well provides a succinct overview of this release, to which I would of course like to add a few thoughts and observations from my little listening enclave on this side of the pond.

For many music lovers, this is quite likely the first time they have ever heard of the late American composer Steven Gerber, nor are they likely familiar with any of his music. However, conductor Kenneth Woods, a Wisconsin native now living in the UK (who, by the way, wields a mean Fender Telecaster as well his conductor’s baton) has made it one of his personal and professional priorities to record works by lesser-known composers whose music he believes deserves wider exposure. This generously filled (73:07) disc is one of the fruits of his endeavors.

The program begins and ends with chamber pieces arranged for chamber orchestra, opening with Sinfonietta No. 1, an arrangement of Gerber’s Piano Quintet from 1991 and closing with Sinfonietta No. 2, an arrangement of his String Quartet No. 5 from 2000. The former is like a miniature symphony in four brief moments that total not much more than 15 minutes, the first three movements sounding somewhat spiky and playful, the fourth more dramatic. The latter, although in only two movements, is longer at just over 18 minutes. The first movement, marked Fantasy, is bold and dramatic, while the second movement consists of a remarkable set of theme and variations that highlight both Gerber’s ability to write interesting melodies and arranger Adrian Williams’s ability to bring them to colorful life.

Between the two Sinfoniettas we have as the centerpiece the only Gerber work on this CD that is performed in its original form, his Two Lyric Pieces for Violin and Strings, which as you might guess from the title are the pieces which tug most strongly at the heartstrings. Indeed, this is a composition so compelling that I was amazed never to have encountered it before. Violinist Emily Davis plays with heartfelt expression, but never cloyingly, with sensitive support from the strings of the English String Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Woods. What a wonderful musical discovery!

Preceding and following the Lyric Pieces are String Sinfonias Nos. 1 and 2, which are arrangements by Adrian Williams of Gerber’s String Quartets Nos. 4 and 6, respectively. These are more serious in tone than the other works on the program, more inwardly focused and intense. Evidently these were string quartets more along the lines of, say, Shostakovich rather than Haydn or Mozart. That is not to say the Sinfonias are difficult works, or especially prickly, it is simply that they are not as immediately engaging to to the ear as the other works on the program.

The overall sound quality is fine. Tonal balance leans a bit toward the warm side, but to my taste at least is a sound I prefer to overly bright and clinical. I can recall the days when the Nimbus label on a CD meant that it was recorded in “Ambisonic” sound, intended for multichannel playback, and often sounding distant and overly reverberant in two-channel systems. Those days are far behind us, thank goodness. For those looking for music off the beaten path but not too far out, Gerber is well worth an audition, especially the Two Lyric Pieces for Violin and Strings, a heretofore undiscovered gem.

Every Note Is True. The More It Changes; The Eternal Verities; She Won’t Forget Me; For Ellen Raskin; Blue; Goodness Knows; Had I But Known; Merely Improbable; Praise Will Travel; At The Bells and Motley. Ethan Iverson, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Blue Note B003473002.

Pianist Ethan Iverson first came to my attention as the pianist in the iconoclastic jazz trio The Bad Plus back around 2003 when I heaped praise on their major label debut album These Are the Vistas in my “More Jazz Than Not” column in The $ensible Sound. Could that really have been nearly 20 years ago? (I can imagine Iverson asking himself the same question from time to time…) I was less enamored of the group’s subsequent albums and did not think that much of it when I read about Iverson leaving the group in 2017. In 2018, I enjoyed an ECM album he recorded as part of a quartet with trumpeter Tom Harrell (Common Practice, ECM 2643), and somewhere over the past year or two I started following him on Twitter, where I discovered that in addition to his talents as a musician, Iverson has also blossomed into a writer, critic, interviewer, and blogger of note; I would strongly suggest those with an interest in jazz to check out his website at ethaniverson.com.

The moment I saw on Twitter that he was coming out with a new trio album on the venerable Blue note label with Larry Grenadier on bass and none other than drum grandmaster Jack DeJohnette, I immediately pre-ordered it and began counting the days before it would show up in my mailbox. The Blue Note “First Look” promotional video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aj8JCkxUQdU) ratcheted up my anticipation even higher. When it arrived, though, would it live up to my expectations?

In a word, indeed. I have always been a big fan of jazz piano trio albums, and this one is something special. The opening little vocal ditty, “The More It Changes,” with lyrics written by Iverson’s wife, the writer Sarah Deming, and performed by Iverson on the piano with vocals by Iverson, Deming, and a host of their friends (phoned in), is something I thought would wear on me after a few listens, but the more I listen, the more it touches me. Perfect for the pandemic, I guess. And then we get to the trio music. A few notes from Iverson, a flourish from DeJohnette, and then we are off, and right away there is a sense of a classical music vibe. There are echoes of Bach, but yet it is clearly jazz. As the program proceeds, the interplay among the three musicians is fascinating. None of them is showing off, but each of them is exhibiting mastery. The music just flows out of them. Gradually, the influence of baroque and classical gradually shifts until by the time we get to the final track, “At the Bells and Motley,” we are in blues territory.

Adding to the appeal of the album is the top-notch engineering. It was recorded by Andreas K. Meyer with the assistance of Shubham Mondal at the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, NY, and is simply one of the finest-sounding trio recordings I have ever auditioned. I have argued before that jazz can be thought of as a form of chamber music; this album is a prime example and I recommend it with utmost enthusiasm.

The more it changes, the more it stays the same
We pass the ball to other ages, it’s how we play the game
You never sing alone when the rhythm catches you
The song goes on when the band goes home
And every note is true…

KWN

Feb 20, 2022

Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ” (CD review)

Also, Piano Concerto No. 4. Daniel Roth, organ; Jean-Francois Heisser, piano. Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi 905348.

By John J. Puccio

Les Siecles (“The Centuries”) is a period-instrument orchestra founded by Francois-Xavier Roth in 2003. On the current disc, organist Daniel Roth plays an instrument built 1862. Pianist Jean-Francois Heisser plays a piano built in 1874. They perform the “Organ Symphony” of Camille Saint-Saens from 1886 and the Fourth Piano Concerto from 1875. The results are probably as close as we can get to something Saint-Saens’s audiences of the day might have heard.

A question arises, however, about why Harmonia Mundi held off for a decade or more in releasing these live recordings. They answer that question in the liner notes, saying “As partner of Les Siecles since 2017, Harmonia Mundi felt it was a must to reissue these fiery readings of two masterpieces in the great French Romantic tradition, for which Francois-Xavier Roth invited two eminent soloists.” So, basically, during the pandemic HM went into the Les Siecles archives and found two older live recordings they felt they should rerelease on their own label. The performances are certainly worthwhile, although I’m not convinced the live sound is up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual studio standards.

The first selection on the album is the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, “Organ,” Op. 78. Saint-Saëns called the work “a symphony with organ” and said "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Apparently he knew what he was talking about because even though he lived for another thirty-five years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

Saint-Saens divided the work into two major parts, with two divisions in each part. It’s an odd arrangement, but it essentially works out to a conventional four-movement symphony. What’s more, although most people today know the work as the “Organ Symphony,” Saint-Saens himself labeled it Symphonie No. 3 "avec orgue" (with organ). In fact, the organ only plays a part in two of the four movements, the second and the last. But it makes enough of an impression for folks to remember it.

After an introductory first movement, the second-movement Adagio always reminds me of soft, warm waves flowing over and around one’s body on a tropical beach somewhere. Here’s where the organ makes its first entry, coming in with what should be huge, gentle, undulating washes of sound. Maestro Roth and his forces handle both movements pretty well, generating some interest in the otherwise rather bland Allegro and providing a gentle, poignant, comforting Adagio.

The two sections that comprise the finale can be fiery and exhilarating, if not a little bombastic, with the organ blazing the trail. Here, again, Maestro Roth, with his father, organist Daniel Roth, and Les Siecles do a fine job capturing the excitement of the score with a good forward thrust, a driving beat, and a wonderfully pulsating rhythm. When the organ enters in the final movement, it is as grand and imposing as we would expect it to be; it is also passionate and vibrant, pretty much dominating the orchestra, as it should. Overall, a good performance.

The second item on the agenda is the Concerto for Piano No. 4 in C minor, Op. 44. Although it is not the most popular of Saint-Saens’s five piano concertos (that honor probably goes to No. 2), it is surely one of his most-original, most-imaginative works. Featuring pianist Jean-Francois Heisser, one must first become accustomed to the deeper yet less-mellifluent sound of the period piano. Together with the stormy, close-up recording, the music makes a grand sweep across the stage. One clearly hears the elements of traditional Classicism as well as (for Saint-Saens, anyway) contemporary Romanticism in Heisser’s playing. It’s a lovely performance.

Artistic Director Jiri Heger and sound engineer Anne-Sophie Versneyen recorded the music live at the eglise Saint-Sulpice, Paris (symphony) in May 2010 and at the Opera-Comique, Paris in June 2009. The sound is typically “live”; that is, it’s precise, close-up, enormously dynamic, and a trifle edgy. Imaging seems kind of all over the place, with little dimensionality and a limited stereo spread. (For being so close, it’s not very wide.) The organ, though loud enough, doesn’t seem deep enough; and the piano appears much too close (the recording a little louder, too). On the plus side, we hear no extraneous noises from the audience, and the engineers mercifully edited out any applause. As these older recordings do not quite meet Harmonia Mundi’s usual studio standards, perhaps the company will consider re-recording the pieces themselves (with much the same performers but without the live audience).

JJP

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

Feb 16, 2022

Transatlantic (CD review)

Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”; Craig Urquahart: Lamentation for Flute and String Orchestra; Dorman: Nofim (Sights); Takemitsu: Toward the Sea II; Stravinsky: “No Word from Tom” from The Rake’s Progress; Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite (Original version for 13 instruments). Stathis Karapanos, flute; Chen Reiss, soprano; Noah Bendix-Blgley, violin; Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp; Garrett Keast, Berlin Academy of American Music. ONYX 4223.

By Karl W. Nehring

This generously filled (82:07) release offers a fascinating and musical program presented by a fascinating musical ensemble. The Berlin Orchestra of American Music came into being as American conductor Garrett Keast, now living in Berlin, got together with bassist and friend Rosie Salucci, a fellow American Berliner, to see about organizing some chamber orchestra  performances of works by American composers. Even though this occurred during the summer and fall of 2020 during the ongoing pandemic, the musicians enjoyed the experience and the idea of forming the orchestra and making this recording came together. Although the musicians represent many countries spanning five continents, more than half the orchestra either came from the United States or had studied there. One thing led to another, and this recording was finally made during January and February of 2021.

The eclectic program is a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. From Stravinsky, (who the liner notes remind us became an American citizen in 1945), we get a perky and delightful performance of the “Dumbarton Oaks Concerto,” a rhythmically complex, at times harmonically tart, but overall whimsically delightful Stravinksian take on Bach’s Brandenburgs. We also get a selection from his opera The Rake’s Progress (the libretto is included in the liner notes), music with which most listeners are most likely far less familiar, but which should appeal to those who enjoy the sound of a lively soprano voice. From American composer Craig Urquhart (b.1953) comes another unfamiliar piece, his soulfully expressive Lamentation for Flute and String Orchestra, a truly moving composition of great beauty. Much different in mood are the Nofim (Sights) of Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman (b.1975), which are more lively, with three of the four Nofim also featuring the soprano voice of Chen Reiss. From the only non-American composer on the program, Japan’s Tóru Takemitsu (1930-1996), we get Toward the Sea II, a peaceful work that features the alto flute and harp in music that is meant to capture the rhythm of the sea. As with so much of the late Japanese master’s output, this music has a natural grace about it that is uniquely appealing.

The program concludes with Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, which music lovers have grown accustomed to hearing as performed by full symphony orchestras. Here, however, we have the music in its original arrangement for 13 instruments, which is something that those who enjoy the piece really ought to hear. The intimacy of the smaller forces produces a feeling of poignancy in the quieter passages and joy in the exuberant passages that is simply more direct and personal than is communicated by a large orchestra. I am not saying that this is the only way to listen to the piece, or even necessarily the best way; however, I think it is a vitally important way to experience Appalachian Spring for those who enjoy the music, and this recording from Onyx is a fine way to do so – with the added bonus of hearing some other excellent music as well. The liner notes, although brief, are informative, and the engineering is first-class (the engineers no doubt enjoying the advantages of being able to record relatively small forces in a space familiar to them, the Teldex Studio in Berlin). With 82 minutes of interesting music so well recorded and well played, Transatlantic proves that you don’t need to have household names recording for a giant label to make a truly fine recording. Highly recommended.

KWN

To listen to an excerpt from this album, click below;

Feb 13, 2022

Wranitzky: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (CD review)

Marek Stilec, Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. Naxos 8.574227.

By John J. Puccio

You wouldn’t be alone if you said you had never heard of Wranitzky. But that probably just means you haven’t been keeping up with Wikipedia. “Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808) was a Moravian-Austrian classical composer. He was highly respected by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven; the latter two preferred him as conductor of their new works. Wranitzky was a prolific composer. His output comprises ten operas, 44 symphonies, at least 56 string quartets (some sources give a number as high as 73), and a large amount of other orchestral and chamber music.” So what happened to him? Like so many other composers, his music fell out of public favor, and eventually most everyone forgot about him.

Fortunately, we have Maestro Marek Stilec and the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Pardubice to remind us why people liked his music in the first place. In Volume 1 of what presumably will be a series of albums (Marek did the same thing in four volumes of music by Leopold Kozeluch), Marek and his team play two symphonies, two overtures, and one serenade by Wranitzky, providing a good overview of his work.

The program begins with Die Poststation Overture from the two-act opera of 1794. It gives the disc a rousing send-off, played with plenty of enthusiasm by the Czech Chamber Orchestra, which is composed, by the way, of about thirty or thirty-five players.

Next, we get the Symphony in C major. Op 19, written to celebrate the ascension of Francis II to the Austrian throne in 1792. It begins with a lively Allegro, which Stilec and his players perform with gusto. One can easily see why Wranitzky was so popular in his day. But maybe it’s because he could never manage to write anything substantially different from his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn that the public forgot about him in favor of the now more-prominent names. Who knows; history is filled with oddities. Let us simply rejoice that we have a recording like the present one, so well played and well recorded that Wranitzky’s name may not be forgotten forever.

Anyway, the spirited opening movement gives way to an elegant Andante that flows gracefully into an ebullient Minuetto and then ends the way it began: with a heady Presto Finale. There’s nothing new here, but it’s all quite effervescent and charming.

After that, we get the Symphony in B flat major, Op. 33, No. 1, published in 1798. It is bigger and more mature than Wranitzky’s previous works, with a slow introduction and a pastoral second movement. Here we can probably see why Beethoven admired Wranitzky’s music. The Symphony in B flat sounds a little like one of Beethoven’s early symphonies. By “slow introduction,” incidentally, I mean comparatively slow. The way Stilec conducts it, it moves along at a healthy clip from start to finish and makes me wonder if he wasn’t trying too hard to make it appear more exciting than it really is to new audiences.

Whatever, following the opening Allegro we get a sweet, gentle Adagio that may have inspired Beethoven’s more-pastoral music. Then, as with the previous symphony, it’s on to another frothy Minuetto, and finally a fervent Finale vivace. Anyone even vaguely interested in music from the Classical Period should find Wranitzky’s symphonies fairly enlightening and thoroughly entertaining.
The disc concludes with the Overture and Serenate from the two-act opera Das Fest der Lazzaroni, premiered in 1794. The plot concerns a pair of families in Naples--one poor, the other rich--the son and daughter of whom fall in love, much to the distress of the rich family. It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story, and the music pretty much summarizes the action. Although I found the Overture rather overdramatic for my taste, the Serenades were certainly handsome and appealing enough.

Producer Jiri Stilec and engineer Vaclav Roubal recorded the music at Dukla Culture House Pardubice, Czech Republic in November 2019. The result of their efforts is some of the cleanest, most-detailed sound I’ve ever heard from a Naxos recording. There is no dullness, no elevated midrange or treble, no overly resonant acoustic. We hear just some pure, slightly close-up, highly dynamic sonics from a moderately sized chamber orchestra.

JJP

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

Feb 9, 2022

Schubert: String Quartets (CD review)

Nos. 13, D. 804 “Rosamunde” and 14, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden.” Quatuor Hermes (Omer Bouchez and Elsie Liu, violins; Lou Yung-Hsin Chang, viola; Yan Levionnois, cello). La dolce Volta 85.

By Karl W. Nehring

My guess is that for most music lovers there are certain compositions that really stand out from the crowd, that really seem especially enjoyable, uplifting, or deeply moving. Over time, however, the set of compositions we have come to hold in such high regard might change as we encounter new composers and undergo life changes that alter our responses to various musical forms and colors. Moreover, when it comes to music that we hold in high regard, that often means, especially early in our classical music hobby, we typically tend to seek out multiple recordings by various artists and ensembles. However, there may come a time later in life that even though we really love certain pieces of music, we somehow relegate them to the background, seldom listening to them, no longer seeking out new recordings, or worse yet, pretty much forgetting about them completely. Sigh…

Such was the case for me with Schubert’s late string quartets when I was blessedly stimulated back into interest and subsequent blissful appreciation for this glorious music by chancing upon this CD at – you guessed it – my wonderful, glorious, resplendent local public library. As with the previous release of piano sonatas I reviewed from the Le dolce Volta label, which also contained exquisite music from late in Schubert’s tragically short career, the physical format of the packaging is that of a small hardbound book, binding together the liner notes in several languages and a slipcase for the disc itself – imposing, classy in its own way, but not without drawbacks. Although the notes offer some interesting insights from the Hermés Quartet in a brief interview, the fact that they are provided in five languages means that they are relatively brief. Interesting, yes, but especially for the novice listener, it would have been nice to have more background information of the composer, the music, and the musicians. Sigh…

But any regrets about the liner notes are soon forgotten upon listening to what these musicians deliver, which is more than 72 minutes of musical splendor. These are two amazing string quartets that plunge the depths of musical and emotional expressiveness. As the liner notes put it, “by turns symphonic in dimension and intimately lyrical, grippingly dark and gently enveloping, these two monuments of chamber music reveal the two faces of Schubert.” You can already sense that conflict between darkness and light, faith and fear, hope and despair, love and loss, or however you might best relate to it, as you listen to even the first few minutes of the Hermés Quartet’s performance, you will experience both dimensions and be drawn into Schubert’s intimate musical world. Although the Rosamunde is generally considered the lighter of the two quartets presented here, it still projects both hope and despair; but as always with Schubert, it does so with melodies that seem to flow from a source of pure beauty. The Death and the Maiden Quartet is so called because the melody of its second movement is based upon a famous song by Schubert (“Der Tod und das Mädchen” in the original German). This quartet has one of those dramatic opening measures that once you hear, as with the opening measure of Beethoven’s 5th, you can never forget. It is a dramatic work, a magnificent symphony for two violins, viola, and cello. If you are unfamiliar with these two superb string quartets by Schubert, this sensitively played and expertly engineered release is highly recommended. Be forewarned, however, that this is music that can break your heart. Sigh…

KWN

Feb 6, 2022

Jesus Rodolfo: Remembering Russia (CD review)

Music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, and Stravinsky. Jesus Rodolfo, viola; Min Young Kang, piano. Pentatone PTC-5186 287.

By John J. Puccio

Critics have praised Spanish violist Jesús Rodolfo for his “passionate performances, innate musicality, and technical prowess.” The New York Times Digest describes him as "a star whose light transcends the stage." Although he has recorded several previous albums, Remembering Russia is his first for the Pentatone label.

Remembering Russia is a theme album for the pandemic age. A liner note explains that it showcases “three iconic 20th-century Russian composers: Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. The pieces performed revolve around love, decency, hope and optimism prevailing against mortality, mistrust, injustice and uncertainty. Within the context of a world slowly respiring from a severe pandemic, this has become a recording about the importance of the perseverance of hope, determination, and love in the face of death and uncertainty.”

The program begins with six selections from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), arranged by Vadim Borisovsky. The romantic sections are handled in a sensitive manner by Mr. Rodolfo and his accompanist, pianist Min Young Kang. As important, the more-exciting parts of the score for Shakespeare’s play are presented with an appropriately youthful enthusiasm. And equally important as that, Rodolfo is able to coax from his violin the sounds of any number of other instruments, which in combination with the piano make for a much fuller musical experience than one might imagine. Thus, the scenes, characters, and feelings from the musical play come alive in quite magical ways.

Next we find the Sonata for cello and piano in G Minor, Op. 19 by Sergei Rachmaninov (1875-1943) in an arrangement for viola by Vadim Borisovsky. The music expresses all the expansive emotion we would expect from Rachmaninov, and Mr. Rodolfo possesses all the talent to voice these emotions. It’s a fervent yet heartfelt performance that resonates with love and compassion. Incidentally, Rachmaninov wrote the Sonata just after the success of his Second Piano Concerto, and it reflects some of the more seductively sensuous qualities as well as some of the grandeur of the larger-scale work.

The program concludes with the Suite Italienne from the one-act ballet Pulcinella (1925 version) by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) in a transcription for viola and piano by Jesus Rodolfo. Stravinsky based his score on bits and pieces of music by the eighteenth-century composer Giambattista Pergolesi, which Rodolfo sees as “a view to the Baroque Period through the looking glass of the 20th century.” It is by turns elegant, aristocratic, playful, and, in the hands Mr. Rodolfo and Ms. Kang, wholly delightful.

Producers Jesus Rodolfo and Renaud Laranger and engineer Sean Yoo recorded the music at NV Recording Studio, New Jersey, USA in August 2020. Pentatone usually records in three, five, or six channels, but this album is in PCM two-channel stereo only and is maybe the better for it. It’s certainly clean, clear, and well defined. It’s perhaps a tad close, with the piano rather widely spaced behind the viola soloist. Still, the sound is so transparent, it hardly matters. There are no discernible distortions present: no brightness, no softness, no haze, no blur, no elevated bass or treble, no edginess, abrasiveness, or steeliness. Just a fine recording.

JJP

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

Feb 2, 2022

Schumann: Pictures from the East

Also, Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann; Dvořák: From the Bohemian Forest (Versions for Piano Four-Hands). Geister Duo. Mirare MIR610.

By Bill Heck

I’ve written in earlier reviews that it’s always a pleasure to find good recordings of lesser-known works, the ones – to use the cliché – off the beaten path. It’s not that any of us tire of listening to masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms, but some variety adds spice to life, right? If piano music for four hands can be called “spicy”, this recording fits right in.

Back in July of 2021, I reviewed a disk of piano works for four hands by Christophe Sirodeau and Anna Zassimova playing Dvorak’s Legends and From the Bohemian Forest. That review gave some background on the four-hand genre; I can wait while you check it out at https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2021/07/dvorak-legends-from-bohemian-forest-cd.html.

Ah, you’re back. The disk now in review overlaps the Sirodeau/Zassimova one with Dvorak’s Forest collection, omitting the Legends but adding works by Schumann and Brahms.
You needn’t worry, though; we’re unlikely to be overrun by piano four-hand performances anytime soon, and that’s kind of a shame because the four-hand repertoire is a rich one. It’s true that some of the literature consists of works originally written for orchestra or chamber ensembles and then redone by their composers in four-hand arrangements mainly – yes, we must admit it – to make a buck (or a thaler, lira, or franc). But that certainly is not true of the entire genre; often enough, it went in the other direction, especially with Dvorak. Regardless of what came first, sometimes the four-hand arrangements give different and interesting perspectives, or occasionally just downright sound better than the originals. In some cases, the four-hand versions are the only versions, as is the case with the works presented here.

On the current disk, the first work is Op. 66, Oriental Pictures or Pictures from the East (Bilder aus Osten) by Robert Schumann, which he described as six impromptus for four hands. Legend has it that the work was inspired by an Arabic poem, even though nothing here sounds very “oriental” at all. Be that as it may, the series was completed in 1848, the same year in which the far better-known Album for the Young was published as Op.68. This was a productive period for Schumann, and the work contains some very listenable music indeed. As usual, formal structure is not Schumann’s strongest suit, but there are imaginative episodes that are quite worth hearing, with moods shifting kaleidoscopically across and within the episodes.

The second work is Brahms’s Op. 23, Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann (not to be confused with Op. 9, his work of the same title for solo piano). I won’t attempt to describe the deep and complicated relationships between Robert Schumann, Robert’s wife Clara, and Brahms; suffice it to say that Brahms was fond of and deeply indebted to both of the Schumanns, and this work was written around 1861 as a tribute to Robert after the latter’s death in 1856. Thus, the Variations allude to both the love and the sadness that Brahms felt; moreover, several themes and motives within the work either are quotations from Robert’s work or musical “codes” that refer to Robert or Clara. Fortunately, we all can appreciate the music without knowing the inner details. (If you are not familiar with the Schumann/Brahms story, it’s a fascinating topic. You can find summaries on the web or, for a deep dive on Brahms, check out Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms.)

The third work on the disk, Dvorak’s Op. 68, From the Bohemian Forest, is perhaps the most distinctive in this collection. A series of Czech-inspired “scenes”, it begins with a rousing work that immediately calls to mind some of the composer’s better known Slavonic Dances: the same sorts of uniquely Czech rhythms incorporated in that country’s folk music of the time. This is not to say that the works are derivative; they stand wonderfully on their own and can be heard as a mix of “peasant scenes” or descriptions of nature (thus the “forest” in the title). Although varied in tempo and mood, the pieces are generally happy and full of life, making for enjoyable listening – and as I write this on a very cold day in January, these works strike me as just the thing not only to warm the spirit but also to stir the blood and warm the body!

Finally, this disk has one other thing going for it: really excellent sound. The recording is fairly close and on the dry side, meaning it does not capture a lot of room reverberation, which is perfect for allowing us to hear all those notes – there are four hands at work, after all. But by close, I don’t mean that it sounds as though the microphones were stuck inside the piano; the sound is rich and never fatiguing, with a real sense of presence in the room.

I see that I’ve not said much so far about the playing, so I’ll summarize: it’s very good. David Salmon and Manuel Vieillard, the two pianists who make up the Geister Duo, have worked together as a duo for about 10 years and it shows, with excellent and nuanced balance throughout between the two players. Searching for comparisons across other recordings was a challenge simply because I found no disks with exactly the same content. But in several comparisons of individual works, the quality of this disk was clear. For instance, in the Brahms Variations, the Geister Duo presents a more dynamic and nuanced view of the work (although, alas, all in one track on the CD rather than with the variations on separate tracks) than do Karsenti and Benzakoun, who sometimes seemed rushed and are further handicapped by rather clangorous sound. I’ve already mentioned Sirodeau and Zassimova in the Dvorak Bohemian Forest: here the call is tougher, with both versions offering excellent performances, but certainly the Duo holds its own. In the Schumann Oriental work, Martha Fischer and Bill Lutes offer solid performances as part of a 2-disk set of all of Schumann’s four-hand compositions, but I find the Geister Duo’s quicker tempi a bit more exciting.

If you would like to explore the world of four-hand piano works, this disk provides an excellent introduction. If you already are familiar with this literature, this set would be a worthy addition to your collection. By the way, the sample below is from the Dvorak Bohemian Forest set.

BH

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