Mar 31, 2022

Mozert: Avatus, A Musical Opera (Blur-ray review)

Lt. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III and His City Slickers. Lots of singers, too. Remastered 4K/4-D screen presentation. DDT-LSMFT 20.35 surround-sound audio track. Danish-only spoken language. Really Big Pictures; 2022; Really Big Blur-ray Discs 7.77.777.7777.etc.

By John J. Puccio

Anyone who doesn’t think that Avatusian composer-writer-producer-director-spot-remover J. Cameron Mozert’s 2022 movie epic Avatus: A Musical Opera isn’t the best 4K/4-D movie-musical-opera rip-off ever made is obviously unable to comprehend the genius behind this monumental project and deserves whatever ill fortune fate has reserved for him. In other words, if you don’t like this movie, you’re an idiot.

J.C. Mozert has generally reserved his best work for small-scale projects like Terminatoricus, Titanicus, and Aliens in the Atticus, but this time he has outdone himself with a musical opera so natural, so lifelike, so genuine, you’d think he used real people to perform it. Avatus: A Musical Opera (music by J.C. Mozert; lyrics by Mahatma Kane Jeeves; words by W. C. Dukenfield) stars counter-soprano Leonardo Di Capricorn as Jake Dawson; basso-profundo Kate Winstone as Rose Butler; alto-sexist Clarke Gable as Rhett Butler; mezzo-neen Sigorney Weaving as Robert Ripley; renowned hopscotch authority and part-time hockey puck Morgan Freeperson as The Great Mandala; and the incomparable Mac Demon as Francois “Sparkling” Perrier. Lt. Sir Cedric Noel Vivian Barnstable III and his Band That Plays for Fun support the singers with a deferentially recalcitrant opprobrium.

The music explores one man’s vision to bring to the masses of a dying planet, Avatus, the rugged indoor sports event known as Mallet-Style Quidditch (or MS Quidditch), a variation on the hammer throw and tiddly winks, using large wooden mallets. (And not be confused with Mullet-Style Quidditch, which requires participants wear their hair short in the front and long in the back).

Needless to say, the people of Avatus are reluctant to take up a new sport, far more content to continue their time-honored amusement of killing one another for power and wealth. Even Mandala, His Greatness, an instant fan of MS Quidditch, is appalled at his own Avatusians’ willingness to shed blood over trivialities like war and peace rather than over something really important like MS Quidditch. Nevertheless, the Greater Mandala plunges forward, organizing an MS Quidditch team to equal any in the universe. Since it turns out there are no other MS Quidditch teams in the universe, this is far easier done than said.

Unfortunately, no one in the known universe has ever figured out the rules for playing MS Quidditch, which somewhat limits the scope of its promise. But it does not stop either Mandala the Greater-Than-Anybody-Else or Mozert the Not-Really-So- Entirely-Great from forging headlong ahead in heading up their head count of headcheese (a necessary ingredient in any MS Quidditch game worthy of the name, although for what purpose, no one has determined).

By bringing MS Quidditch to Avatus, the Greatest of All Mandalas saves the sports-starved peoples of the planet from near extinction by encouraging them to stay in school, get high grades, go to college, become good citizens, cure cancer, end bigotry, prejudice, and hatred, establish eternal peace, and live long and prosper. More important, the Intergalactic Sports Television Network makes a fortune.

We interrupt this review for an important message from our sponsors:
Have you been in a accident? Do you suffer from Post-Accident Depression (PAD)? Are you looking for legal remuneration for the incident? Look no further than the firm of J. Justice Justin and Clarence Calhoon Case, fair, proven, and cheap. Remember, when you need help, come to us, Justin-Case.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled review:
Anyway, that’s about all the plot there is to the plot, plot wise, but the opera’s undoubted pleasures are its visual splendors rather than its narrative, and these splendors are simply splendiforous. Di Capricorn is divine, Winstone is winsome, Gable is glorious, Weaving is wonderful, Freeperson is frabulous, and, as expected, Demon is darling, especially in 4K/4-D. To feast one’s eyes on these individuals in all their grandeur is a banquet to behold. Which is about all one can do when one is hungry, stuck in a theater with 800 other people, and can find no way to the refreshment stand (or the exit doors). Oh, and there’s some singing in the opera, too. So there’s that.

Not content with conventional 2-D or gimmicky 3-D, this Blur-ray disc brings us Avatus, the Musical Opera in all its 4K/4-D theatrical-release glory. (A 4K four-dimensional motion picture provides an audience not only with the dimensions of height, width, and depth but adds the sensation of touch as well. Things don’t just jump off the screen at viewers, they actually hit them. This has inevitably led to several law suits (see our sponsors) from patrons claiming to have been maimed by flying MS Quidditch chips, but I understand most of the suits have been settled out of Quidditch court. I, myself, have never been struck by any flying objects during a 4-D movie, although a poorly thrown MS Quidditch grenade narrowly missed me on several occasions. I also understand that at least three actresses in 4-D movies have claimed they were casually caressed by overzealous theater patrons, again unsubstantiated, although what 4-D activities one pursues while in the privacy of one’s home is another matter entirely.)

Incidentally, the folks at Really Big Pictures are also making Avatus, the Musical Opera available on a standard-definition Digital Ultimate Disc (DUD), but, really, who would want the movie on an ordinary DUD when you could buy the 4K/4-D Blur-ray edition?

Here, we get a loss-leader soundtrack in DDT-LSMFT 20.35 surround that closely matches what several people claim they heard in a theater. Is it worth upgrading your audio system to 20.35 for a single motion picture? The answer is a resounding, Yes! Especially when you consider that there is no way on Earth (or on Avatus) that you could fully understand or appreciate the game of Mallet-Style Quidditch without 20.35 speakers. Well, to be fair, there is no way on Earth (or on Avatus) you could understand or appreciate the game of MS Quidditch under any circumstances, but that’s beside the point.

Oh, and the sound is pretty sound, too.

Because of the film’s raging length--5 days, 6 hours, 27 minutes, 30 seconds (or 7,227.5 minutes for the minutely minded, or 433,650 seconds for the compulsively compulsive)--Really Big Pictures didn’t have a whole lot of room left over for too many extras, even using a bi-quadral, multiplex-layered, high-capacity Blur-ray disc. So about the only supplemental materials we get are two of J. Cameron Mozert’s younger brother’s briefer briefs, Alienicus from 1986 and Aliensicus from 1997. Of course, they don’t compare with big brother J.C.’s monumental achievement, but they are useful to have around.

In addition, the disc contains approximately 4.7 scene selections; a six-hour theatrical trailer; Danish as the only spoken language; and some fishy-looking captions for the herring impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Words cannot adequately express the joy, elation, bliss, delight, happiness, felicity, rapture, ecstasy, jubilation, enchantment, exultation, exhilaration, joie de vivre, or downright really good feelings one gets from watching Avatus, the Musical Opera, be it on the big 360-degree wraparound 4K/4-D screen at your local movie theater or on the 3” x 6” cell phone you use at home. Mark my words, Mark, Avatus, the Musical Opera will go down in history as one of the greatest film adaptations of an Avatus, the Musical Opera opera ever made.

And anyone who says otherwise is an idiot.

Cautionary Note:
A 4K/4-D Blur-ray disc must only be played on compatible 4K/4-D Blur-ray equipment (4K/4-D television, 4K/4-D Blur-ray player, 4K/4-D Blur-ray receiver, 4K/4-D Blur-ray speakers, 4K/4-D Blur-ray speaker wire, 4K/4-D Blur-ray goggles, 4K/4-D Blur-ray gloves, and 4K/4-D Blur-ray couch). Any attempt to play a 4K/4-D Blur-ray disc on an ordinary Blu-ray, DVD, HD DVD, LD, VHS, Betamax, Victrola, Dictaphone, or Vitaphone player will result in grievous bodily harm. For more information on the availability of compatible 4K/4-D Blur-ray equipment, visit https//:www.wereouttosoakyouforeverythingyouvegot.con.


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

Mar 29, 2022

In the Golden Age

By Bill Heck
Ah, to have lived in the Golden Age of…well, anything. The Golden Age of philosophy? Ancient Athens, hobnobbing with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Less ambitiously, there’s the Golden Age of American literature: maybe the mid-20th century, when we could hang out with Faulkner and Hemingway, or perhaps earlier so we could look over Melville’s shoulder. There’s even a Golden Age of American Industry for a few postwar decades, when American industrial might was unchallenged and a husband (it was always a husband, wasn’t it?) could provide for an entire family with a single factory job.
Then there was the Golden Age of American Classical Music, in the pre-WWII and postwar eras when giants roamed the land: Reiner, Szell, Ormandy, and Stokowski and their city orchestras, when first radio and then television networks competed to be highbrow: NBC even had its own symphony orchestra!
And the Golden Age of High Fidelity? Well, that could have been in the 1950s – 60s when the classic Marantz, McIntosh, KLH and then Advent appeared, or perhaps in the 1970s – 80s when exotic “high end” brands arose, tubes all aglow: Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, Mark Levinson.
You may have noticed that all these Golden Ages have something in common: they happened in some magical past. We hear that philosophy has been all downhill since those smart Greeks; literature has succumbed to the way of Kindle; classical music is a mere footnote to popular culture; American industry is a shadow of its former self. And audio? Alas, High Fidelity has given way to MP3 and earbuds, with a few remaining enclaves accessible only to those with megabucks for gigantic amplifiers and massive speakers – and even multi-thousand dollar cables!

I won’t try to speak for philosophy or literature or even manufacturing, but there’s something odd about the tales of the demise of classical music. If serious music is sunk, how is it that we see a steady stream of classical recordings being released each and every week? And how is it that even newly minted musicians, those so obscure that only their mothers have heard of them, amaze us with their talents on a daily basis? Listen critically to some of those giants of yesteryear: Schnabel and Richter were known to hit some clinkers, and some of those legendary orchestras seemed occasionally lost in thickets of (sometimes wrong) notes. The level of accomplishment of even the rawest rookies these days is amazing, as they confront works formerly thought nearly unplayable and toss them off with ease. Orchestras in cities that you never heard of could play rings around some of the fabled bands of a few decades ago. And wait – how is it that those cities you never heard of even have orchestras? Still more: what about those contemporary composers who are once again writing music that ordinary music lovers actually want to hear? While there’s no denying that the classical music world has issues to confront, in many ways we are in the Golden Age of Classical Music: more music, and more ways to access it, than ever before.
But what about the Golden Age of High Fidelity? It’s true that earbuds and Alexa speakers get the headlines. It’s also true that many of the stereo shops of a decade or two ago have gone the way of the dodo, and too many of those that remain seem to specialize in multi-channel systems optimized to produce the sounds of car chases, laser weapons, and earthquakes. But quietly, behind the scenes, we have entered a true Golden Age of High Fidelity sound reproduction. And you, my friend, are the beneficiary.
So what do I mean by a “Golden Age?” Just this: audio equipment has evolved to a point at which:
· it is easy to obtain music sources – and the equipment to play those sources – that would have provoked awe just a few years ago; and
· doing so requires less specialized knowledge, effort, and commitment than ever before; and
· those sources and equipment are available at extraordinarily low cost, affordable to those with even moderate incomes.
Let’s take these in order, starting with the sources and equipment. Incredibly, the CD standard, developed back in 1980, has turned out to be capable of music reproduction that is rarely surpassed. Perhaps some people do hear small differences between CD and “high resolution” audio, although evidence beyond mere assertion is spotty, but the real point is that the plain old CD standard is remarkably robust and satisfying.
Moreover, a little listening should convince you that recording processes and techniques now routinely deliver superb results – not perfect, and of course some recordings are better than others, but a high percentage of contemporary recordings sound very good. Yes, some (a few) older recordings still hold their own, but the batting average seems much higher these days, and the best of today surely equals or even – oh heresy! – surpasses those fabled recorded masterpieces of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, even the best recordings need to be played back through a good sound system. Here again, the technological progress has been astounding. CD players, digital-to-audio converters (DACs), music streaming devices, preamplifiers and amplifiers now boast specifications and performance so good that it is difficult to find measurable or demonstrable audible differences among them. Yes, I know that the previous sentence invites derision and flaming comments from those convinced otherwise by the incessant advertising that passes for audio reviewing in some quarters. But even bastions of audio perfection like The Absolute Sound seem to admit, albeit sometimes reluctantly and only between the lines, that many humble components are really, really good. Meanwhile, the more objectively oriented world, as represented by sites like, produce both measurements and listening results that indicate staggeringly good performance over and over. The point is not that “everything sounds the same,” but rather that excellence is readily available.
Turning to my second point above, the mere availability of first-rate components isn’t much help if you need to spend months or years learning enough to identify them, more months looking for them, and a lifetime learning to adjust and tweak them to optimize their performance. Who has time for that?
But, in fact, high quality components are easy to find. As the quality of even entry level components has skyrocketed, the problem of finding good stuff has decreased proportionally: if many components are now pretty good, your odds of finding satisfactory ones are high. We have not reached that state of audio nirvana in which components are indistinguishable commodities, but consider the contrast with even the recent past. Back in the earlier supposed golden ages, say the 1970s, the typical audiophile might haunt electronics shops weekend after weekend, searching for that elusive combination of components that would work well together, the strengths of each offsetting the weaknesses of the other. And let’s not even get started on craziness like adjusting tube bias or figuring out which transformer tap worked best with which speakers. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky.) In the more recent past, the search may have been easier, but one at least needed to identify multiple types of components, learn the function of each and how to connect them, and assemble complementary units into a working system. Now consider something like the NAD C 658 unit that I reviewed some months back: it’s one box. That’s it. Oh wait, you need an amplifier; if that’s too complicated, you can purchase a similar unit that combines most or all of this same functionality plus the amp into one box. But wait, don’t you need a CD player? Not even that. Instead, you can use streaming to pull music out of thin air, so to speak, at CD or higher resolution.
And that brings us to the third point: low cost. Let’s build a simple, low cost system; I’ll refer to a few brands as examples, but please understand that there are plenty of choices that would be highly satisfactory.
First, we’ll use a streaming unit. You could get something like the Bluesound PowerNode, which combines streaming with an integrated amplifier for just under $1,000 (less for a perfectly good used unit), or any of a number of similar units, or even separate streamers and amplifiers, for not much more. For that price, you get competent audio streaming at high resolution and sufficient power to drive some decent speakers.
The contrast with previous alleged Golden Ages is stark. Oh sure, those lovely Marantz tube units back in the 1960’s were only hundreds of dollars – but in real dollars, i.e., accounting for inflation, prices for high quality audio equipment that have never been lower. (And remember, in those halcyon days of yore, you needed both a preamp and power amp, along with a turntable with tonearm and cartridge.) Moreover, those old tube units required periodic and often expensive maintenance and adjustment: replacing tubes was a periodic ritual. In addition, those of us of a certain age remember when every small town had at least one electronics repair shop, needed because those old electronics broke with distressing regularity. Modern solid-state stuff, not so much.
You still need speakers, and again it is technology to the rescue. Advances in science and engineering have made formerly exotic materials available and usable at low prices, and advances in computation have made formerly onerous and time-consuming design work much easier and faster. The result is a generation of widely available, reasonably priced, high-performance speakers. Of course, you can spend a lot on speakers, and expensive speakers often (though not always) yield better performance, but you can get into the game with very good speakers at very low prices. Let’s start you out with speakers at $1,000: they won’t shake the room with thunderous bass or wake up the dog with ultra-high frequencies, but they can sound quite credible in a basic system.
Our total allocation so far is around $2,000 brand new, full retail. (Lest you think such a number totally outrageous, just consider that a high-end television can easily be more.) Not pocket change, but as a long-term investment, not eye-watering either. If you find used equipment, subtract some more. Will you be satisfied forever? Maybe; if not, you can improve things incrementally, again at low cost, in one or more of the following ways.
· Upgrade the speakers. This is the obvious place to start: the possibilities – and the price levels – are endless. At our introductory cost level, even small increments in price will buy you significant upgrades in sound.
· Add room correction: This can produce major gains; one easy option is a $400 – 500 standalone unit from the likes of miniDSP. Alternatively, spend a little more up front and some streaming units include room correction for free.
· Add a CD player: as the streaming device likely has a digital input, you can get away with a cheap or used player functioning only as a transport. $100 - 200?
· Add a subwoofer: There are plenty of competent choices starting well under $1,000.
Finally, there’s the music. You can have high-quality audio streaming for a dirt cheap $10-15 per month. Even if that price doubles or triples (to better support the musicians), it’s still cheap, especially considering that the monthly fee buys you access to a library of hundreds of thousands of albums – audio nirvana indeed.
Does all this make our own time the Golden Age of Audio? There are those who say no, who lament the fact that it’s too easy; who long for the days when, by golly, you really had to work to put together your audio system; who whine that it doesn’t count if you don’t have to spend endless hours getting it right (or even getting it working at all). It’s the same syndrome as with the golden age of cars: those Jaguars, MGs, Triumphs, early Corvettes were so beautiful, so fun, symbolizing the freedom of the open road. I understand that nostalgia, and I, too, feel the appeal of those early cars – until I want to go somewhere. By any objective measure, today’s cars are better than those vehicles of yesteryear: more reliable, faster, mostly better handling, more economical, safer, etc. Similarly, we can understand the appeal of glowing tubes, monster amps, giant but inefficient speakers – until we just want to listen to music. Is the audio hobby in a golden age? Maybe not, but audio is.
A final note:
There are supposed audio gurus who will tell you that putting together a decent audio system condemns you to spending hours and hours tweaking this and that, putting little gizmos that rely on effects unknown to physics on top of and under your components, endlessly comparing freaking wires – and that you most certainly need to subscribe to their YouTube channels and haunt their websites so that they can guide you through this foreign landscape. Forget all that, at least for now. Get the basics under control. If you are inclined to mess around with such things, do so later. (Personally, I recommend that you continue in your blissful ignorance and spend your time listening to music.)
Even more annoyingly, there will be those who sneer that you can’t possibly appreciate the nuances of good music because you haven’t spent their threshold amount, whether that’s $10K or $100K, or you haven’t performed the proper rituals or penances of tweaking and fiddling. If that happens, just smile politely, go home, turn on the music, and enjoy your time in the Golden Age of High Fidelity.

Mar 27, 2022

Musica Barocca (CD review)

Music of Albinoni, J.S. Bach, Handel, Marcello, Pachelbel, Purcell, Telemann, and Vivaldi. Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico. Warner Classics 0190296455322.

By John J. Puccio

Il Giardino Armonico (“The Garden of Harmony”) is a period-instrument ensemble co-founded in 1985 by its leader Giovanni Antonini. Like most such bands, its primary purpose is to play music in a historically accurate style and on original instruments appropriate to the era (mainly the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries). In other words, to play music that the composers of such music would easily recognize if they were alive today. The 1980’s saw a number of such HIP (historically informed performance) orchestras pop up, many of which are gone now and many of which have stuck around. Il Giardino Armonico is one that stuck around.

Although Il Giardino Armonico is still performing and still recording, they recorded the present album in 2001 for Teldec Das Alte Werk, and Warner Classics is just re-releasing it 2022. So you might say it’s something of a relic itself. Still, it’s a good and welcome relic, filled with an abundance of good tunes by Baroque composers like Albinoni, J.S. Bach, Handel, Marcello, Pachelbel, Purcell, Telemann, and Vivaldi. It’s not quite a golden oldies collection of Baroque favorites, but it’s close. The main thing is that it’s well played and enjoyable to hear. The composers couldn’t have wanted more.

Here’s the program:

J.S. Bach: Suite No. 3 in D major
Albinoni: Oboe Concerto in D minor
Vivaldi: Flautino Concerto in C major
Albinoni: Adagio for solo violin and strings
Marcello: Oboe Concerto in D minor
Telemann: Concerto for two flutes in B minor
Pachelbel: Canon and Gigue in D major
Traditional: “Greensleeves”
Purcell: Chaconne in G minor
Handel: Solomon, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”
Albinoni: Sinfonia a quattro in F major

So, some things familiar, some things not so familiar, but all things baroque. Il Giardino Armonico play with elegance and precision. This leads to technically well executed but not always the most exciting presentations. For me, they tend to suck a little of the life out of the music in the process of being so well-mannered. Take, for instance, the opening selection, the familiar Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. While it comes to life in the Gavottes, it’s generally polite in the extreme. Now, compare it to Jordi Savall’s account with La Concert des Nations on Alia Vox. Antonini and his crew may provide the greater degree of contrasts in style and tempo, but it’s Savall who delivers the most fun. He and his players simply sound as though they’re having a better time playing the music. Of course, this is hardly a slam against Antonini, who does a splendid job getting the music across with a minimum of fuss. It’s just a matter of taste in the long run, and many listeners will prefer the refinement of Il Giardino Armonico over the comparatively scruffy qualities of Savall’s group.

Il Giardino Armonico appear more in their element with Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto, which they render beautifully, with grace, ease, and polish. That’s followed by a zippy treatment of Vivaldi’s Flautino Concerto, and so on. One thing you can’t say about Antonini, though, is that he’s predictable. He tends to go from one extreme to another not only in his choice of material but in his choice of manners to play them. With the exception of several Albinoni pieces, you never quite know what he’s going to do with the music. Some of it comes off with strength and vigor (the Handel “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” is especially lively); others sound rushed or overworked.

Producer Christoph Classen and engineer Michael Brammen recorded the music at Chiesa di San Giorgio, Morbio Inferiore, Switzerland in 2001. There is the feeling here of a very large space, with good orchestral depth and a fairly reverberant but not objectionable hall resonance. The image comes across coherently, with instruments well spaced. However, the dynamics seem all over the place, sometimes strong, sometimes a bit lifeless; lucidity sometimes transparent, sometimes soft and dusky; and the frequency balance sometimes tending to favor the upper register. All of this is perhaps a result of the various combinations of players and instruments involved, so like the performances, you never quite know what to expect.


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

Mar 23, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 26 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Voyages: Orchestral Music by James Lee III
Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula; A Different Soldier’s Tale; Beyond Rivers of Vision; Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan. Marin Alsop, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. AVIE AV2507.

Just yesterday I was perusing my Google news feed when I came upon an item that caught my eye. Maestro Stéphene Denève, the Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, is an advocate for music of our current century, making an effort to schedule works by living composers as part of every concert program that the orchestra performs, with an upcoming program to feature a performance of one of the compositions on this CD, Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan by the American composer James Lee III (b. 1975). Although there may be some in the audience who may be skeptical of music by composers who are pretty much unknown to them, especially contemporary composers, they are in for a treat, for Chuphshah! is an entertaining, very listenable piece, as are all the compositions on this remarkable AVIE recording. From the opening measures of Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, with their snare, bass drum, brass, and percussion excitement, you know right away that this is going to be a fun recording for both musical and audio reasons. In his liner note essay, Lee describes Sukkot as “a festive work for orchestra,” and it is certainly that. Next up is the longest composition on the program, the four-movement A Different Soldier’s Tale, based on stories that Lee’s grandfather told him about his experiences in World War II. As you might expect from such a description, it contains some passages of drama and turmoil, as well as passages of pathos and reflection. Beyond Rivers of Vision is in three movements, of which Lee observes “for the most part the form in these pieces is fantasia-like or rhapsodic.” The music has an otherworldly characteristic to it at times that stands in contrast to the drama of the Soldier’s Tale. The CD closes with the afore-mentioned Chuphshah! Harriet's Drive to Canaan, which is based on aspects of the life of Harriet Tubman. His liner note essay is insightful and helpful in understanding what he is attempting to do in all four compositions, but especially so for this one.

As I indicated at the outset, this release is a treat both musically and sonically. The music is energetic and assertive, with plenty of orchestral effects that will show off a good audio system. The engineering team has done a good job, Alsop and the orchestra sound as though they are having a good time playing this mostly extroverted music, and the end result is a highly recommendable release from an exciting young composer. Bravo!

Fire & Grace: Alma
Piazzolla: Libertango; Albeniz: Asturias; Vivaldi: L’Estate – Summer (Allegro non molto/Adagio e piano/Presto); Suite Españo comprising Prelude (JS Bach); Mendiokerra (Traditional Basque); Allemande (JS Bach); Ay Linda Amiga (Traditional Spanish 16th Century Madrigal); Courante (JS Bach); Nana (Traditional Spanish / Manuel De Falla); Sarabande (JS Bach); Malagueña (Traditional Spanish); Menuet 1 and 2 (JS Bach); Muñeira de Chantada (Traditional Galician); Gigue (JS Bach); Cancro Crú (Anxo Pintos); Tanya’s Tune (Roger Talroth). Fire & Grace (Edwin Huizinga, violin; William Coulter, guitar). CD available at

This is one of those releases that exemplifies the resilience and power of great music. Take some folk instruments, some compositions from different traditions and cultures, blend them together with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm and let a couple of skilled performers just let ‘er rip and this is what you get. Starting off with Astor Piazzolla’s slinky and sensuous Libertango, followed by the energetic Asturias of Albeniz and an  arrangement of the Summer movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, violinist Huizinga and guitarist Coulter then display both their affection for the music of Bach and their skill at weaving melodies together as they shuffle the first six movements of Bach’s first Cello Suite, arranged for violin with guitar accompaniment, with a variety of Spanish compositions. Sounds crazy, but it works! Perhaps it helps to remember that the roots of inspiration for Bach’s famous suites for solo cello are planted in dance. We sometimes tend to regard them with a reverence that might at times threaten to make us freeze in place, but the exuberance with which Huizinga and Coulter make this music swing ought to help loosen up our joints and bring us some righteous joy. The program closes with a cut that Huizinga and Coulter explain they included because they are “huge fans of the music of Vasen. We finish this recording with the lovely Tanya’s Tune composed by Roger Talroth, former guitarist of Väsen.”  (Väsen is a Swedish folk music band.)

Musically, Alma is an energetic, imaginative and impassioned release that should appeal to fans of classical, folk, and perhaps even bluegrass music. My only reservation is with the engineering. For my taste, the microphones have been placed too close to the instruments, meaning that you hear every little sound, whether musical. There is just no sense of space, no air around the instruments, no sense of a room, no feeling of warmth. The sound that is there is certainly clean and clear, not harsh or distorted, so perhaps some listeners with some systems (Bose 901s, anyone?) in some rooms will not be bothered nearly as much as I am by the engineering approach. In any event, the music is the main consideration, and it is certainly well worth hearing.

Cameron Carpenter: Bach & Hanson
Bach: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (transcr. for organ by Cameron Carpenter); Hanson: Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major, Op. 30, W45 (transcr. for organ by Cameron Carpenter). Cameron Carpenter, organ. Decca Gold B0 034581-02.

When I came upon this release, I was immediately intrigued by a number of things. First, I was a bit surprised to see that Carpenter would undertake to transcribe the Goldbergs for the organ. OK, the organ is a keyboard instrument, and yes, the Goldbergs have been transcribed for other instruments, and, yes, when you think about it, the multiple keyboards of the organ would actually make it easier to play the score as written (hands crossing over). I was further surprised by the pairing of transcriptions of a Baroque keyboard work with a modern Romantic symphony, not only in terms of the contrast in genres, but also in the idea that Carpenter was able to fit performances of both the Goldbergs and a symphony into one compact disc. Granted, the Hanson symphony is not a long one, but my goodness, Lang Lang had to use two CDs just for his interpretation of the Goldbergs alone! What we have here, then, is something like the early, faster Glenn Gould interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, only played on an organ rather than a piano, followed by a transcription for organ of a lushly scored symphony. Both are interesting, but probably more of interest to devoted organ lovers than to the typical classical music lover. My guess would be that the Bach would be of more appeal than the Hanson; for my ears, at least, hearing the Goldbergs on a different sort of keyboard instrument was more rewarding than hearing a piece so lushly scored for orchestra played by an organ, even by an organist as skilled as Carpenter, who is truly a master of that mighty instrument. For organ aficionados this new release by Cameron Carpenter is well worth an audition, but for others, maybe not so much.

Sting: The Bridge
Sting, vocals, guitar, bass guitar; Dominic Miller, guitars; various musicians. A&M Records B0034573-02.

I have previously posted some reviews of jazz recordings, arguing that in many respects, many jazz performances and recordings can be regarded as a form of chamber music. I am probably stretching things a bit here by including a recording by Sting, whom many readers will no doubt remember as a rock musician who initially rose to fame as a founding member and lead singer of rock band the Police from 1977-1984. Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (b.1951) is an English musician – known professionally as Sting – who has had a fruitful solo career since disbanding the Police nearly 30 years ago. In 1991, he formed an association with Argentine-born guitarist Dominic Miller b. 1960), who has toured and recorded with him for the past three decades (interestingly enough, my first review of a jazz recording was of Miller’s Absinthe, which you can find There is a fascinating interview with Sting and Dominic Miller on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel, available here Among other things, Sting and Miller tell Beato that they play and study the music of Bach on a regular basis. These are serious musicians, true professionals who understand music theory and have an ear for and appreciation of serious music. These qualities can be heard in The Bridge, which although it has the overall sound of a rock album, also has the musical and lyrical sophistication that sets it apart from the pack. Sting’s lyrics reflect his love of literature and his ability to express complex feelings in compact verse, and the musical arrangements (including the saxophone of jazz luminary Branford Marsalis) are colorful, energetic but never over the top. The liner notes are engrossing, the sound quality is first-class; indeed, in my more giddy imaginings, I can almost think of this as the rock equivalent of a collection of art songs. But I’ll stop short of that hyperbole and simply suggest that you might try giving this CD an audition should you be so inclined with an open mind as to what you might find….


Mar 20, 2022

Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered (CD review)

Lara Downes, piano, with guests. Rising Sun Music 616908742333.

By John J. Puccio

Remarkably, this is the ninth album I’ve reviewed by American pianist Lara Downes. I suppose that is a reflection of the great admiration I have of Ms. Downes’s talent. I’ve also appreciated her continued championing of little-known composers, minority composers, women composers, and, as here with Scott Joplin, composers whose popularity peaked, waned, peaked, and waned again. Let me explain the latter.

Joplin’s popularity skyrocketed in the late nineteenth century, at which time audiences crowned him the “King of Ragtime.” But like so many composers before and after him, the fashion for his syncopated rhythms diminished steadily after his death in 1917, with jazz, blues, bebop, swing, rhythm-and-blues, rock ’n’ roll, and the like coming into their own. Then something funny happened. In the early 1970’s Joplin’s music came back into vogue with a best-selling record album by pianist Joshua Rifkin, followed by the success of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film The Sting, which featured pianist/composer Marvin Hamlisch doing Joplin tunes on the soundtrack. This was doubly ironic since the movie was set in the midst of the Great Depression, decades after the decline in popularity of Joplin’s ragtime. Yet the music fit the mood of the film, so it worked, and helped to create a new Joplin Renaissance, with a slew of new Joplin records appearing from practically everybody. My own favorites have long been EMI discs from The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble and another from pianist and conductor Andre Previn and violinist supreme Itzhak Perlman. Still, as happened before, the rage for Joplin’s music subsided once again. Maybe Ms. Downes’s new album, “Reflections: Scott Joplin Reconsidered,” will prompt yet another renewal in the man’s music. I hope so.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t know her, Lara Downes is a Steinway artist whose work always exhibits an exceptionally poetic and dramatic presence. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Ms. Downes began piano lessons at age four. Since making concert debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Salle Gaveau, Ms. Downes continues to perform on the world’s leading stages, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center.

In thinking of what to say about Ms. Downes’s talents, I went back and read over my previous reviews of her performances. These lines from some years back probably sum up her work best: “To say that Lara Downes plays the piano is the same as saying Claude Monet painted landscapes. The French impressionist artist Monet’s use of color and light created pictures not only of rare beauty but of rare insight. In a similar fashion, American pianist Lara Downes creates poetic musical sketches of times, places, and people that transcend mere notes and draw us into a world of nuanced sounds and feelings. She forces us to see and hear old tunes in a new light.” Such is the case with this Scott Joplin album.

Here’s a rundown of the program:

  1. Prelude from Treemonisha
  2. Weeping Willow
  3. Peacherine Rag
  4. Maple Leaf Rag
  5. The Chrysanthemum
  6. Bethena
  7. The Entertainer
  8. Reflection Rag
  9. Magnetic Rag
10. A Picture of Her Face
11. Euphonic Sounds
12. Solace
13. Heliotrope Bouquet
14. Eugenia
15. Elite Syncopations
16. Swipesy
17. A Read Slow Drag

Accompanying Ms. Downes on some of these selections are guest artists Will Liverman, baritone; Joe Brent, mandolin and vihuela; Adam Abeshouse, violin; the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; and a small ensemble she calls The Band. Naturally, Ms. Downes makes everything sound new again, yet without in any way distorting the music. Most important, she appears to be thoroughly enjoying these tunes, and it shines through every note. The music almost literally sings. On the tracks where she has accompaniment, the other players are never intrusive. Every selection is a delight.

Ms. Downes sums up Joplin’s tunes best: “There’s a multi-faceted, timeless beauty to this music--a world of emotions and expression waiting to be experienced and embraced. I’m profoundly moved by Joplin’s innovative creative vision, the depth of his blended musical roots, and the breadth of what grew from them.”

Producer and engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded most of the music in 2021, with Jeremy Kinney producing and engineering the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Mr. Abeshouse miked the piano at an ideal distance, not too close so as to make the instrument stretch across the entire soundstage and not so distant that it might sound soft or fuzzy. Articulation is crisp, clean, smooth, and lifelike; you get a real piano in your living room.


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

Mar 16, 2022

Brahms: Late Piano Works (CD review)

Includes Op 116 – 119. Paul Lewis, piano. Harmonia Mundi 902365.

By Bill Heck

Some time back, I reviewed an album by Christophe Sirodeau of Brahms’s Intermezzi, which are representative of the composer’s late piano works. In that review, I ran through some characteristics of these late works. If the next few paragraphs sound familiar, it’s because I have plagiarized myself from that review, albeit in condensed form.

Brahms’s Op. 116 – 119, his last works for solo piano, were published in 1892 – 93. (Brahms’s final works of any sort were published in 1896, and he died in 1897.) No longer was he composing large-scale orchestral works, such as symphonies and concertos: his compositional approach had become leaner, more intensely concentrated. The pieces here are the works of a mature composer, giving the sense of reflecting on life, which seem to me to be distilled Brahms, the essence of Brahms if you will. There is little ornamentation; the melodies can be downright simple – although sometimes deceptively so. Perhaps there is no better example than the Andante Moderato in E-flat, Op. 117, number 1. The opening melody sounds like a child’s song or a lullaby, the left hand plays but a few simple chords. The development becomes more complex, but the melody is never far away; the piece ends by returning to nearly the same basic simplicity with which it started. At the same time, that melody is a lovely one, tugging at the emotions and sticking in the mind.

Meanwhile, the dominant mood through the entire series of works is reflective, introspective, leaving behind the fire and passion of youth. (Try listening to this disk immediately after hearing the First Symphony or the First Piano Concerto; good heavens, what a contrast!) Gone are the complications and dense scoring of the orchestral works. There are frequent passages where the music can almost be played with two fingers, and many others where, even if more fingers are involved, we hear simple melodies and chords. But lest we forget, it still is Brahms, meaning that the musical intelligence shines through.

Lewis approaches these works in what I would call a straightforward way. No oddball tempi, no weird playing with the threads of melody and accompaniment, no clangorous noises or insane pedaling. That’s all to the good, and indeed Lewis’s playing is very good.

But that’s my concern with this set: the playing is very good, but there are so many choices, so many recordings of these works, that any new version needs to be very, very good, needs to bring some new insight, some new perspective, or some truly transcendent playing to stand out. As expected, there are no real technical issues here; Lewis obviously is a superb pianist. Everything seems perfectly fine; so far so good. But try as I might, I can't hear anything really special about these performances.

For example, in that deceptively simple Opus 117, Number 1, everything goes along smoothly, perhaps a little too smoothly, with not a lot of dynamic shading. In contrast, Radu Lupu’s playing in his classic 1987 recording of the late works is mostly very soft, but you always have the impression of controlled power, the feeling that he could let loose at any time, as indeed he does on occasion. Lupu maintains this tension through the entire work, practically forcing the listener to remain focused and attentive, waiting for the explosion that seems sure to come. Jonathan Plowright doesn't exhibit quite that same dynamic power, but there are so many lovely touches, particularly in modulations and transitions where he brings out Brahms cleverness in composition. Christophe Sirodeau's playing does not sound quite as smooth and refined as Lewis's; indeed, there are moments that seem almost a little clunky. But somehow the main impression is one of sighing beauty, the feeling that the whole surely is greater than the sum of the parts. Finally, in Arcadi Volodos’s 2017 recording of these late works, I hear a slowish but wonderfully shaded account that draws me in, hinting at mysteries to be revealed and thoughts not quite expressed.

Or take Opus 118 number 1. Again, Lewis does a good job in all respects. But Lupu starts with an introductory figure that swoops through the air, taking us on an audio roller coaster where every note is an adventure: we must keep listening to see where we'll end up on such a journey, even if the trip is very short. Plowright’s traversal of this work feels more like a sea voyage, as we climb to the crest of a wave only to tip over and slide down the other side, the dynamics of volume and tempo well-coordinated, the left hand providing a deep and resonant foundation. Volodos also gives us that sense of a journey that slows and speeds up, with notes cascading in waterfalls. Lewis is more workmanlike: the notes are all there, and there’s technique to burn; we can follow along, but we are not pulled along. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Naturally there are complications in terms of who is playing what. At the very least, the current set has the virtue of completeness: Op 116 - 119, everything there. Lupu’s album omits Op. 116 but includes the rest; Sirodeau's is an interesting recital that includes most of the intermezzi in this series but not all the pieces and with the order rearranged to boot; and Plowright’s coverage of the opus numbers is scattered across four different albums of Brahms’s solo piano music.

Lewis is not helped by the sound here. Sure, the digital recording is clear, with none of the odd artifacts that sometimes beset older analog recordings: no pitch instability, no weird distortions, no overloaded tape. However, there's also no localized piano; instead, we have piano sound spread between the speakers. For background listening, this would not be bothersome, but if one is concentrating, it is off-putting, and I suspect that it diminishes the sense of dynamism that these performances could use. I’ve been spoiled by a series of excellent piano recordings lately, so Harmonia Mundi’s effort here is disappointing.

Let me be clear here: when I say that Lewis’s performances are good, I really mean good, even though I'm not too happy about the recorded sound. If these were the only performances available, I would grab them in an instant. If Paul Lewis happens to show up in my area for a concert, I would be thrilled to go. I just don’t see this set displacing my favorites.


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

Mar 13, 2022

John Williams: The Berlin Concert (CD review)

John Williams, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0034852-02 (2-CD set).

By John J. Puccio

What we’ve got here is some of the most popular and most successful orchestral music of the late twentieth century and beyond, performed by one of the greatest orchestras in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic, and led by the composer himself, John Williams. What we’ve also got is a live concert performance with eruptions of applause after each selection and alternating tracks of music and the composer commenting on and reminiscing about each piece. So, this is not exactly an album for hi-fi enthusiasts or even music lovers simply to sit down and enjoy; it’s more of a memento album, a souvenir of an event you wish you could have attended. It’s sort of like one of those New Year’s Concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic, only this time it’s Berlin. For me, it could have been much more. For others, it may be just what they’re after.

Anyway, here’s a run-down of selections on the album’s two discs:

Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Suite from Far and Away
Selections from Harry Potter
Theme from Jurassic Park
Superman March
Selections from Indiana Jones
Elegy for Cello and Orchestra
Selections from Star Wars
“Flying Theme” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
“The Imperial March” from Star Wars

And then there are the composer’s introductions, the encores, and the segments of applause, which seem to take up most of the discs’ space. I dunno. Maybe I just like good music and good sound, and I’m asking too much. I had a close friend, gone now, who wouldn’t have liked any of this. He hated the music of John Williams, saying the stuff was entirely hackneyed, commonplace, and derivative. Well, sure. What music isn’t derivative of something? So Williams can sometimes sound like Korngold. So what? Korngold can sound like Richard Strauss. Strauss probably borrowed from Franz Liszt, and so on back. Most people like the music of John Williams, and I’d wager that a hundred years from now Williams’s music may be as popular as ever while most other orchestral music of our day is forgotten. Who knows.

In any case, the program opens with the Olympic Fanfare, and Williams conducts it with great dignity; I might even say solemnity. One certainly cannot deny the composer’s interpretation of his own music, yet it comes off a tad less energetically than I’ve heard it done before. But then comes Close Encounters, the orchestra handling it as if they were doing Anton Bruckner, and the piece comes off with a thoughtfully burnished glow. It’s a remarkable feat that Mr. Williams, almost ninety when he recorded this material, is still as sprightly in his direction as he is here. There is a good deal of reflection in the music that I hadn’t noticed before. In fact, Close Encounters is probably the best thing on the album.

Everything else on the program is pretty much as we’ve come to know them, if very slightly more relaxed and sometimes more pensive. This is especially noticeable in the Harry Potter selections. The first disc ends with the themes from Jurassic Park and Superman, which could hardly be better choices to round out Mr. Williams’s musical output on a high note.

Disc two is more of the same, with a healthy dose of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, probably the composer’s most-famous works and ones that will live on forever. Here, while I would have liked more music and less talk, it was still a pleasure listening to Mr. Williams’s commentary on the scores, providing a few precious insights into his own feelings about the music and the films.

The only piece on the set that may possibly be unfamiliar to many listeners is the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. It is, as the title suggests, a lament, which Williams explains works perfectly for the sound of the cello. Indeed, it is a most soulful yet not entirely melancholy work, well worth hearing. Then it’s on to a little E.T. and a whole lot of Star Wars. Oddly, we don’t get the Jaws theme in this collection at all, odd because it’s not only so well known but because it’s the music that established Mr. Williams as a household name among movie composers. Personally, I would have opened the first disc with Jaws and opened the second disc with the Olympic Fanfare, but, fortunately, no one ever asks me about these things.

Producer Christoph Franke and engineer Renee Moller recorded the concert live at the Philharmonie, Berlin in October 2021. The sound is about as one might expect from a live concert, with bursts of applause before, after, during, and in-between practically everything. The orchestral sound is not so close up as we sometimes hear live, but it’s rather one-dimensional all the same, with a touch of fuzz around the edges. Mr. Williams’s introductions, however, are much too close, giving his voice a somewhat boomy quality. The orchestra is also a bit softer than I would have anticipated although certainly easy on the ears. Turn it up and you’ll get more out of it.


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

Mar 9, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 25 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Poems & Rhapsodies
Saint-Saëns: La muse et le poète, Op. 132; Chausson: Poème symphonique, Op. 25; Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending; Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky: Poem for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor; Kenneth Fuchs: American Rhapsody (Romance for Violin and Orchestra); Myroslav Skoryk: Carpathian Rhapsody. Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin (all tracks); Sophie Shao, cello (Saint-Saëns); Volodomyr Sirenko, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Centaur CRC 3799.

On the morning that I discovered that the long-feared invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces had finally begun, I was so upset by the news that my immediate reaction was to find something to do to take my mind off the conflict. After a few brief moments of indecision, it suddenly hit me that the best thing to do would be to switch into reviewing mode: pop a CD into the player, settle down in the listening chair, do some serious listening, take some notes, and forget about the war in Ukraine, at least for a while. So, of course, the first CD I found waiting for me to audition was this one: Ukrainian musicians recording in Kyiv. Now I was pretty much just an emotional wreck, not fit for much of anything except a shower and then some calming conversation with my wife. Only then could I get back to life, the universe, and everything, including that ominous pile of what seem to be at least 42 CDs awaiting review, starting with this one.

The program is a mix of the familiar (The Lark Ascending, Poème symphonique), the relatively unfamiliar (American Rhapsody, La muse et le poète), and the truly unfamiliar (Poem for Violin and Orchestra,  Carpathian Rhapsody). A common thread among them is that they are all lyrically beautiful; moreover, they are presented with both skill and feeling by the assembled performers. At first I had some reservations about seeing The Lark Ascending in the list of titles (come on, Centaur, did we REALLY need yet another recording of RVW’s lovely piece to add to the umpteendiddlymillion already on the market), but this is a perfectly fine version that fits right in with the rest of the program and in the end I was grateful that it was included. (And, yes, Centaur, I guess we did, so thanks!). From beginning to end, this is just a splendid disc, starting with the interplay among violin, cello, and orchestra in the Saint-Saëns, which is just a lovely composition by that French master who seem to be so sadly underrated these days (and  I must confess that listening to Ivakhiv and Shao wend their way through La muse et le poète have brought me to the brink of repentance of that very sin –I shall be embarking on a Saint-Saëns spree post haste) all the way through the newly unearthed Carpathian Rhapsody by Myroslav Skoryk, a composer whose name is doubtless unfamiliar top all but a very few.

I also had wondered why the University of Connecticut had been involved in the recording; as it turns out, the featured violinist, Ukrainian-born Solomiya Ivakhiv, along with cellist Sophie Chao and composer Kenneth Fuchs, are all UConn faculty members. Along with Volodomyr Sirenko, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, they recorded this program back in July, 2019, in Kyiv, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recording was not released until late in 2021. The engineering is excellent, the liner notes give some background on both the music and the performers, and this is an excellent release all the way around. In addition, it is most generously filled, timing out at more than 78 minutes. I hope and pray for the safety of the members of the Ukrainian musicians and their families during this horrific ordeal,

Francesco Tristano: On Early Music
Tristano: Toccata; On Bull Galliard in D; Peter Philips:  Fantasia in D Minor; Tristano: Serpentina; John Bull: Let ons met herten reijne; Tristano: On Girolamo Frescobaldi's Quattro correnti; Girolamo Frescobaldi: Partita sopra l’Aria la folia; Tristano; Ritornello; On Cristobal de Morales Circumdederunt Me; Orlando Gibbons: Pavan; Air & Alman; Italian Ground; Ground; Tristano: Ciacona seconda; Frescobaldi:  Cento partite sopra passacaglie; Tristano: Aria for RS. Francesco Tristano, piano. Sony Classical 19439917392.

As I do with most recordings that I review, I start by listening. Yes, I look at the CD package front and back to see what I can glean about the musical program and the performer(s), but other than to extract the CD so I can pop it into one of my CD players, I try to avoid reading any of the information contained within. In this case, however, being completely unfamiliar with pianist Francesco Tristano,  and given that the scandalously skimpy liner insert (one sheet: the cover photo with brief notes on the reverse. Th-th-that’s all, folks), I had to turn to Wikipedia for more information to find that Francesco Tristano is the stage name of Luxembourg-born Franscesco Tristano Schlimé (b. 1981), who composes both classical and electronic music and also plays the clarinet. He is a Julilliard graduate who has gone on to study keyboard with Emile Naoumoff, Rosalyn Tureck, and Mikhail Pletnev. Well, that confirmed several things I had suspected from listening to the CD several times. First, that Tristano had some serious chops, along with a serious regard for and interest in early music. Also, that he must have some experience in the electronic manipulation of sound, of what could be done in a studio.

The musical program consists of Tristano originals written in the style of early music masters, Tristano’s “takes” on pieces by some of these masters, along with some more straightforward interpretations of their music. Although there is some variation in style and sonority, largely due to studio manipulation of the sonics and some generally subtle although occasionally surprising electronic effects, Tristano’s musical vision is coherent from beginning to end. Highlights include the persuasive dance rhythms Tristano creates in track 6, On Girolamo Frescobaldi's Quattro correnti, the mysterious but energetic atmosphere created by track 8, Ritornello, the stately elegance of Orlando Gibbons’s Italian Ground, and some of the surprising, presumably deeply personal sounds that Tristano has included in his closing track, Aria for RS, which is at times jolting, but only briefly, set against a backdrop of deep tenderness, a moving end to an musical program that was clearly labor of love.

The sonic perspective is very close to the piano. On the opening cut, for example, you can hear every little (and big!) sound of the Yamaha cfx. As the album continues, with its expanding sonic palette of acoustic sounds and electronic colorations, the engineering is up to the task of presenting every sonic hue and cue. I’ve not yet tried it on headphones but imagine it would be quite the experience… In any event, my only quibble with this truly remarkable release is the liner insert, which put me in a John McEnroe “You cannot be serious!” frame of mind. C’mon, Sony, surely you can do better than this! Or was this what Tristano wanted? In any event, the lack of any useful information about the music is a real disappointment.

I was going to hold off and include this review in my next installment of Piano Potpourri, but despite my reservation about the liner notes, this release is so musically appealing that I want to get the word out as quickly as possible. If you enjoy piano music – especially if you are a fan of Early/Baroque keyboard music – then this is a release you really ought to consider giving an audition. It’s a knockout both musically and sonically.

Saint-Georges: Symphonies concertantes
Symphonies conertantes, Op. 9; Symphonies concertantes, Op. 10*; Symphony in G major, Op. 11, No. 1. Yuri Revich, solo violin I; Libor Jezek, Solo violin II; *Pavla Honsová, solo viola; Michael Halász, Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice. Naxos 8.574306.

This CD is one of those that I picked up at the library on a whim. Although the music was not from an era that I usually gravitate toward, there were several things about the cover that grabbed my attention. First was the name of this composer, printed on the cover as “Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de SAINT-GEORGES.” Quite a moniker, that. Then there was the cover portrait of a distinguished-looking Saint-Georges (1745-1799) holding what I at first glance took to be a conductor’s baton but then quickly realized was not a baton but rather a sword. I also noted that the picture of Saint-Georges revealed a man with large shoulders, arms, and hands, a dignified, confident countenance, and most likely some African ancestry. Flipping over the cover I quickly read that he was “a brilliant swordsman, athlete, violin virtuoso and gifted composer, with a claim to being the most talented figure in an age of remarkable individuals. He was an early exponent of the hybrid symphonie concertante – a genre that draws on both the symphony and concerto traditions ”    

Having discussed the composer (but more on him to come), it is time to consider his music as recorded here by these Czech musicians. It is fresh, lively, and vigorous. The two Symphonies Concertantes both feature prominent roles for the solo instruments, violins in Op. 9 and the violins being joined by a viola in Op. 10. Note that “Concertantes” is plural: both Op. 9 and Op. 10 consist of two parts. Op.9 No. 1 in C major has an Allegro and a Rondeau, as does No. 2, which is A major. Op. 10. No. 1 in F major varies the pattern by having two Allegros, but No. 2 in A major returns to the Allegro then Rondeau form. Both works are reminiscent of Mozart, and both sound as though they must have been fun for the musicians both in 18th century Paris as well as 21st century Pardubice. The program concludes with the brief Symphony in G major, which is three movements, each barely over four minutes long. Although it hardly strikes modern ears as weighty or profound, that is not what it was meant to be; it was meant to be entertaining and pleasant, and that it is in abundance.

Having greatly enjoyed the music on this release as well as the biographical information included in the liner notes, I decided to do a bit of quick research, so I turned to Wikipedia, where I found quite a wealth of information. Should anyone be interested, the entry on Chevalier de Saint-Georges is quite fascinating, but for  the sake of brevity, I will quote just a few sentences form Wikipedia’s account: Saint Georges “was a Guadeloupean Creole classical composer, virtuoso violinist, a conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris, and a renowned champion fencer. Born in the then French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne, dite (called) Nanon, an African slave woman of his wife. When he was young, his father took him to France, where he was educated. During the French Revolution, the younger Saint-Georges served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first known classical composer of African ancestry. He composed numerous string quartets and other instrumental pieces, Violin concertos as well as operas. He knew many composers including Salieri, Gossec, Gretry, Gluck and Mozart.” A remarkable man, about whom I must confess I was completely ignorant until that chance encounter with this Naxos CD in my public library. I now recommend that CD with enthusiasm to those who would like to learn more about the remarkable man and his enjoyable music.


Mar 6, 2022

Strauss, R.: The Happy Workshop (CD review)

Also, Serenade, Op. 7. George Vosburgh, Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. Reference Recordings FR-745.

By John J. Puccio

The German composer Richard Strauss died in 1949. Among his last half dozen or so works was the
Sonatina No 2 in E-flat major, “The Happy Workshop,” written for 16 wind instruments. His publishers later changed the title to Symphony for Winds thinking that since it was fairly long and in several movements, it more closely resembled a symphony than a sonata. Or maybe they figured it would sell better if given the more imposing designation of “symphony.” Whatever, it also bears the listing “posthumous,” even though Strauss wrote it in 1945-46 and was very much alive (and in attendance) for its first public performance. Go figure.

In any case, Strauss is probably most famous today for his having written a whole string of Romantic tone poems (Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, Symphonia Domestica, An Alpine Symphony), and then pretty much abandoning the genre for the last three or more decades of his life. After the tone poems, he shifted to operas, songs, concertos, and various short works in a more modern style. But “The Happy Workshop” was one of the exceptions, returning to his roots, so to speak. On the present disc, we find conductor and trumpeter George Vosburgh leading the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble on a Reference Recordings CD.

So, why the subtitle “The Happy Workshop”? Strauss gives us a clue with his dedication on the work’s title page: “To the spirit of the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of gratitude.” Certainly, Strauss shows an allegiance to Mozart in references throughout the music and perhaps empathized with Mozart’s struggles toward the end of his life. Then, too, Strauss had spent the years before the composition living in Nazi Germany as a “non-person” and was ill for much of the time. The work preceding the “The Happy Workshop,” the Sonatina No. 1,  he had dubbed “From an Invalid’s Workshop.” Maybe feeling better physically and being out from under the yoke of Nazism prompted him to add the optimistic caption to the second work.

Anyway, the music opens with a fairly lengthy (about fifteen minutes)
Allegro con brio (quick, lively, with great energy). That’s followed by two relatively short middle sections (a little over four minutes each), an Andantino, sehr gemachlich (a little faster than an andante, but still slowly, leisurely); and a Minuet, etwas lebhaft (a stately court dance, in a lively fashion). The piece concludes with a movement he called Enlietung, (Andante) und Allegro, which begins somewhat gloomily but soon gives way to more energetic and hopeful themes.

Of course, the Carnegie Mellon players do the piece justice, as we might expect from an ensemble that has been around since 1908. Maestro Vosburgh has been their Director since 2011. They dance through the music with a smooth, graceful, subtle, yet expressive agility. It was fun listening to them move effortlessly from Strauss’s more serious passages to his light, witty ones. They handle the two, brief central movements especially well, too, the Andantino willowy and supple, with some charming little interludes, and the Minuet elegant and refined. The finale movement is a tad problematic, moving as it does from one mood swing to another, yet here they also manage the transition with the utmost poise, ending on the sweetest of notes.

Coupled with “The Happy Workshop” is the Serenade, Op. 7 (for 13 wind instruments), one of Strauss’s early works, written in 1882 when he was still in his teens. Strauss wrote a ton of music in his youth, only a few of which later got opus numbers, this one significantly. The album pairs the Serenade with the Sonatina No 2 as bookends to Strauss’s career, showing how in the composer’s later life he returned to his early, more Classical-Romantic origins. Under Maestro Vosburgh’s direction, the tone of the Serenade is remarkably similar to that of the “The Happy Workshop,” and it makes a fitting finale to the album.

Producers George Vosburgh and Stephen Story and engineers Sean Royce Martin, Keith O. Johnson, and Riccardo Schulz recorded the music a Kresge Theatre, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA. Like most Reference Recordings, this one is quite natural, both in its perspective and its frequency balance. The room is always present in a medium-distanced miking scheme, with a fair amount of ambient bloom. The overall effect is warm and inviting, a touch soft, and always listenable.


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

Mar 2, 2022

Solo: Bach-Abel (CD review)

Lucile Boulanger, viola da gamba. Alpha Classics 783 (2-disc set).

By Bill Heck

Regular readers of Classical Candor may be forgiven for not being familiar with Lucile Boulanger or, for that matter, with the viola da gamba. Indeed, I would venture to say that many readers of this blog have, at most, only a nodding acquaintance with the instrument and not even that with the artist. Although Lucile Boulanger has some half dozen recordings to her credit, and thus is hardly a rookie, I was unable to find any previous reviews in Classical Candor of discs by her – and not many elsewhere for that matter.

To bring us all up to speed, the viola da gamba is a stringed instrument that looks like a cello but may have from five to seven strings. (The cello has four.) Like the cello, the viola da gamba is played with a bow, but the neck of the instrument is fretted, like a guitar. There are various other differences, particularly in the tuning. The instrument was popular with composers particularly through the 16th and 17th centuries. The instrument used for these performances is a seven-string “bass viol” modeled on an instrument from 1699.

Readers and -- I hope -- reviewers also can be forgiven for not knowing the name of Carl Friedrich Abel who, in Bach's time, was well known as a virtuoso player of the viola da gamba, as well as a composer for that instrument, not to mention being J S Bach’s godson. Although the viola da gamba was falling out of favor even in the time of J S Bach, it could not have fallen too fast, as Abel toured as a performer with Johann Christian Bach, one of J S's many sons.

So this double disk set is filled with compositions for the solo viola da gamba by both Bach and Abel, right? Well, not exactly: while Bach did compose works that included parts for the viola da gamba, he wrote nothing for the solo instrument. Meanwhile, Abel's published works for the viola da gamba are generally regarded as uninteresting, simplified versions of the works that he played, apparently improvising, in public. Thus, the works on these albums are transcriptions of works by Bach and transcriptions of annotated improvisations by Abel.

This does not mean that the works don't work, so to speak. At least some of the Bach pieces were earlier transcribed for other instruments by Bach himself, so Boulanger's transcriptions (and indeed she is the transcriber for all the Bach works in the collection) follow in the master's footsteps. Meanwhile, of course, Abel's works really are his, even if not the ones that he published during his lifetime.

In this release, a few of the works composed by Bach will be familiar to most listeners, e.g., the Sarabande from the Sixth Cello Sonata, while others, although less famous, still are mainstream works, such as the Preludio for keyboard, BWV 846. The most important question, though, is whether the transcriptions work; that is, do they maintain the basic sense of the compositions while providing a fresh sound and even new insights into the music? My answer would be that they work well. I have written elsewhere that Bach's music survives transcription for alternate instruments better than that of perhaps any other composer, and there is no evidence here to counter that idea. In some cases, the sonic distance of the transcription is not all that far; for example, it is not a great stretch to get from a cello sonata to a version that works on the viola da gamba. Other transcriptions might be a little more distant, but none feel truly foreign. Meanwhile, the sound of the viola de gamba, while slightly unusual to modern ears, is pleasant, cello-like but with a different range, and expressive and dynamic within its limitations.

All these points would be moot if Boulanger's playing were not up to snuff, but that’s not a worry either. Her technical command of the instrument is obvious; her artistic interpretation strikes me as very appropriate and quite lovely. One could quibble here and there: for instance, the tempo in the latter half of the Sarabande of the aforementioned sixth cello suite (BWV 1012) is a little slow for my taste. But very few of even these minor issues intruded as I listened to these recordings. Of greater concern is a certain one dimensionality that naturally arises with so much music played on a single instrument, particularly an instrument with the restricted tonal range of the viola da gamba. (There were reasons why the viola da gamba fell out of favor a couple of centuries ago.) For example, from what I can tell there is considerable use of open strings on the viola da gamba, which means a restricted range of available keys and in the end a certain sameness of tone. Indeed, the first six Bach transcriptions here all are placed in the key of D major; across all 22 selections we see only four keys, and related ones at that: D major, D minor, G minor, and A minor.

This is an issue for the reviewer though, not for the average music consumer, because said reviewer is listening over multiple sessions to an awful lot of the double CD at one time. For the rational listener, this is a set to be sampled one or two or a few works at a time, not straight through all those tracks totaling 1 1/2 hours of music!

I should mention another positive for this set: the sound is excellent. The microphone placement renders the instrument cleanly and believably in real space, but still nicely captures the reverberation of the recording location, which is the Noirlac Abbey Cultural Exchange Center. You may notice that certain notes sound a little more loudly than others, but those sound like open strings, perhaps further enhanced by the resonances of the recording space.

Is this set for you? A concern for at least some readers is that this is not “necessary” music. For classical music fans, having at least one recording of, say, every Beethoven symphony is mandatory, and multiple recordings showcasing different approaches are easily justified. In contrast, no one absolutely needs a couple of discs full of transcribed music or works by a largely forgotten composer played on an "obsolete" instrument. Still, as I have written in multiple places, it is nice to have variety, and hearing music at once so different and at the same time familiar is not at all bad. Worth a listen for those at all curious about the viola da gamba.

I should add quick answers to a couple of questions that might arise for the attentive reader. First, I have been unable to find any connection between the artist here, Lucile Boulanger, and the famous piano teacher and composer of the early 20th century, Nadia Boulanger, although my failure to locate any connection does not mean that none exists. Secondly, yes, I noticed that the title of this release, “Bach-Abel,” can be read as a punning play on the name of another Baroque composer. Perhaps the wordplay was inadvertent. Or not.


To listen to an 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

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