May 29, 2022

Vivaldi: Le Quattro Stagioni (CD review)

Also, Verdi: The Four Seasons.” Marco Fiorini, violin; I Musici. Decca 485 2630.

By John J. Puccio

The first thing I thought of when I saw this latest issue of Vivaldi’s perennial Four Seasons was why we would possibly need another recording of it. But then I remembered that another recording was inevitable. They’re like the passing of the seasons themselves; you can’t stop them. The second thing I thought of was, Can this be the same I Musici that I remember from my youth? (I hadn’t heard anything from them in quite some time and figured they had disbanded. But, yes, it’s the same group that formed in 1951 and, with new members, of course, are still going strong. The final thing I thought of was the question of whether this was a new recording or a rerelease. It turns out that I back in the 1950’s Musici made the very first stereo recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and they have been making new recordings of it about every ten years since. So this new recording with violinist Marco Fiorini is just the most-recent in a long line of Seasons recordings for them. In fact, it may be I Musici who have done the most to popularize Vivaldi’s classic than anyone on Earth.

Whatever, we all know what The Four Seasons is about: It’s a series of Baroque violin concertos that attempt to describe in musical terms the seasons of the year. Thus, we have early program music that aims in little tone poems to remind us of chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking hounds, and dripping icicles. Vivaldi meant the concertos to accompany four descriptive sonnets comprising the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest between Harmony and Invention"). People hardly remember the other eight concertos in the set but instantly recognize the Seasons.

Yet with all the emphasis on the works' graphic representations of the changes of the year, we tend sometimes to overlook the fact that each of The Four Seasons concertos is a three-movement piece for solo violin with orchestral accompaniment. In this regard, the various movements not only set a pioneering standard for program music but for instrumental concertos as well. And each concerto provides the soloist an opportunity to display appropriately virtuosic techniques.

So how does this new rendering of the piece by I Musici stack up against the multitude of other recordings currently in the catalogue, including their own? Well, nobody is going to confuse them with any of the period-instrument, historically informed interpretations we have available. No, I Musici’s way with the music is more gentle, serene, elegant, sophisticated, and refined. Indeed, a lot of folks will probably find it old-fashioned, and yet it’s so cultured, so polished, one cannot help admire it. You’ll find none of the hurly-burly of many modern readings here, none of the exaggerated pauses, stops, contrasts, and blistering tempos so favored by other groups vying for our attention.

This is not to say, however, that I Musici aren’t sufficiently exciting or expressive. Many of their Allegros are quite animated, and the Largos and Adagios are as lyrical and evocative as any you’ll find. (OK, I thought they took the Winter Largo too quickly, but that’s just me.) They simply do up the music in a more subtle and tasteful way than a lot of other ensembles. Put another way: If you’re looking for the most descriptive performance of Vivaldi’s programmatic music, you might want to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for the most-beautiful, most-stylish, most-graceful, most-polished performance, you might find I Musici more to your taste.

The fact is that despite the many personnel changes to I Musici over the seventy-odd years of their existence, they haven’t changed their approach to The Four Seasons much in all that time. Maybe they see a good thing when they hear it. Maybe we should count that a good thing, too.

Of greater interest to some listeners may be the disc’s companion piece, The Four Seasons ballet music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) from his opera Les Vepres siciliennes, here arranged for string orchestra and piano by Luigi Pecchia. The music is sprightly and enchanting by turns, and I Musici play it delightfully.

Producers Domin Fyfe and Michael Havenstein and engineer Fabio Ferri recorded the music at Collegio San Lorenzo, Rome in April 2021. The sound is quite good, quite ravishing, actually. It’s clear, warmly resonant, well balanced, strongly dynamic, and nicely captured across the sound stage. Although there isn’t much depth to the sonics or much space around the instruments, we may count that an advantage as it emphasizes the idea that the entire twelve-member band play as a single unit.


May 25, 2022

New Releases, No. 31 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Yolanda Kondonassis: Five Minutes for Earth. Takuma Itoh: Koholā Sings (Humpback Whales); Michael Daugherty: Hear the Dust Blow; Aaron Jay Kernis: On Hearing Nightbird at Dusk; Chen Yi: Dark Mountains; Máximo Pujol: Milonga para mi Tierra; Reena Esmail: Inconvenient Wounds; Gary Schocker: Memory of Trees; Keith Fitch: As Earth Dreams; Jocelyn Chambers: Melting Point; Philip Maneval: The Demise of the Shepard Glacier; Patrick Harlin: Time Lapse; Zhou Long: Green; Nathaniel Heyder: Earthview; Daniel Dorff: Meditation at Perkiomen Creek; Stephen Hartke: Fault Line. Yolanda Kondonassis, harp. Aziza Records AXD-71349.

Classical music lovers who have been around for a while may well remember the harpist Yolanda Kondonassis from her many wonderful albums for the Telarc label. If you are one of those folks, then you should be please to learn be pleased to learn that abundantly talented Cleveland-based musician recently released a new album titled Five Minutes for Earth, a splendidly informative and entertaining trailer for which can be seen at her website: As it turns out, Ms. Kondonassis is also committed to a cause and is using music as a means of communicating her concern. Briefly put, the CD documents the music that itself is a reflection of a larger project of the same title, a multimedia presentation that features the music as part of a multimedia presentation, as she explains in her liner notes. “FIVE MINUTES for Earth is a project that both celebrates our planet and illuminates our challenge to preserve it. In 2020, I asked each of the composers featured in this collection if they would consider contributing a work for solo harp of approximately five minutes in length that expresses a powerful experience inspired by Earth in one its many conditions or atmospheres. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of their immediate responses and set about assembling this labor-of-love project. The endeavor quickly expanded to include a live, multi-media concert, a unique video for each track, a separate published collection of Earth-inspired solos for younger harpists, and most importantly, the opportunity for harpists all over the world to perform these innovative works for solo harp by some of today’s most lauded composers. Every verified performance of any of the works from the FIVE MINUTES for Earth collection, anywhere in the world, will result in a monetary contribution to a recognized earth conservation organization sponsored by my non-profit foundation, Earth at Heart. FIVE MINUTES for Earth is also a metaphor for the urgent and compressed timeframe for our global community to embrace and implement solutions to our fast-growing environmental crisis.” With so many composers being represented, all of them contemporary, the natural expectation would be to hear a quite varied batch of compositions, ranging from the engagingly melodic to the not quite sure what to call that but whatever. For these ears, it was a pleasant surprise never to encounter a single instance of the latter. From the opening pleasant strains of Takuma Itoh’s Koholā Sings with its bent notes, an effect I had not expected to hear from a harp, followed by Michael Daugherty’s gently atmospheric Hear the Dust Blow, through the shortest cut, Jocelyn Chambers’s Melting Point, which manages to convey a sense of gentle urgency in less that two minutes, and the longest cut, Zhou Long’s Green, a gorgeous 8-minute tone poem for harp – throughout these tracks and the rest, 15 in all, the overall feeling evoked by the music is one of beauty and peace. (It is ironic in a way that an album so committed to engagement can be so useful for escape. Concerned about global warming? Just put on this CD and chill out…) The album cover folds out to reveal thumbnail photos along with brief paragraphs about each of the 15 composers, a nice touch. As you might expect, the harp seems bigger than life, but is very well captured by the engineers. All involved in this release are to be commended for bringing such fresh and vital new music into our world. Brava and bravo!

Daniel Hope: America. Gershwin (arr. Paul Bateman for violin, jazz trio, and string orchestra): Gershwin Song Suite; Sam Cooke (arr. Bateman for voice, violin, and piano): A Change Is Gonna Come; Bernstein (arr. Bateman for voice and string orchestra): West Side Story Suite; Florence Price: Adoration (arr. Bateman for violin and string orchestra); Copland (arr. Bateman for violin and string orchestra): At the River; Hoe-Down; Ellington (arr. Bateman for violin and string orchestra): Come Sunday; Weill (arr. Bateman): American Song Suite; Ward (arr. Bateman for violin and chamber orchestra): America the Beautiful. Daniel Hope, violin; Zurich Kammerorcherster; Marcus Roberts Trio (Marcus Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Rodney Jordan, bass); Joy Denalane, vocals; Sylvia Thereza, piano; Joscho Stephan, guitar; Alexander Ponet, percussion. Deutsche Grammophon 4861940.

The South-African born British violinist Daniel Hope (b. 1973) evidences a special connection to the USA in the dedication for this release, declaring: I dedicate this album to my great aunt, “Tante” Leni, who escaped Germany at the eleventh hour and who became the greatest American I ever met. He further evidences that connection to the USA by devoting the lion’s share of the program to jazz, as a quick perusal of the titles – and performers – listed above will quickly reveal. And not only does the Marcus Roberts Trio play a prominent musical role, but the liner notes feature a conversation between hope and Roberts that revolves around the question, “What makes music sound American?”  I have argued many times in Classical Candor that jazz can be thought of as a form of chamber music; Roberts and Hope converse along similar lines. Moreover, the music on this release effectively brilliantly bridges the gap between “jazz” and “classical,” expertly melding the two into music that swings and sings makes you appreciate the creativity of the composers and the virtuosity of the performers, regardless of their nationality, citizenship, or musical background. The selections and the arrangements do not come across like a routine run-through of familiar tunes. Instead, they are energetic, probing, sophisticated arrangements that allow Hope, the Marcus Roberts Trio, Ms. Denalane, and the other musicians to display their considerable talents. Hope’s violin soars in many of the cuts, but never do you get the sense that Hope is trying to draw attention to himself; rather, his playing always seems to be in service of the music, clearly expressing his love for these tunes. At a time when there is so much division and hatred being sown by dark forces in our country, music such as this is reminder of what is worth preserving and fighting for in our blessed land. What a wonderful album for these troubled times!  

Joyce DiDonato: Eden. Ives: The Unanswered Question; Rachel Portman: The First Morning of the World; Mahler: Rückert-Lieder-II. "Ich Atmet' Einen Linden Duft!";  Biagio Marini: Scherzi E Canzone Op.5, III. "Con Le Stelle in Ciel Che Mai"; Josef Myslivecek: Oratorio Adamo Ed Eva (Part II) Aria: "Toglierò Le Sponde Al Mare" (Angelo Di Giustizia); Copland: Poems of Emily Dickinson for Voice and Chamber Orchestra, I. Nature, the Gentlest Mother; Giovanni Valentini: Sonata Enharmonica; Francesco Cavalli: Opera la Calisto (Act I, Scene 14), Aria: "Piante Ombrose" (Calisto); Opera Orfeo Ed Euridice WQ. 30, Danza Degli Spettri E Delle Furie. Allegro Non Troppo; Scena Misera, Dove Son! from Ezio WQ. 15 (Fulvia); Aria: "Ah! Non Son Io Che Parlo..."; Handel: Dramatic Oratorio Theodora HWV 68 (Part I), Aria: "As with Rosy Steps the Morn" (Irene); Mahler: Rückert-Lieder, IV. "Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen"; Wagner: 5 Gedichte für Eine Frauenstimme WWV 91 (Wesendonck Lieder), IV. "Schmerzen"; Handel: Opera Serse HWV 40 (Act I, Scene 1), Recitativo: "Frondi Tenere E Belle"; Aria: "Ombra Mai FÙ" (Serse). Joyce DiDonato, Mezzo-Soprano; Maxim Emelyanychev, direction/harpsichord. Il Pomo D’oro. Erato 0190296465154.

American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is known in the opera world primarily for her powerful voice but also for her engagement and activism in behalf of social causes. A quick glance at the list of titles will reveal no protest songs, but Eden does feature DiDonato’s powerful voice attempting to convey through song what she considers to be an important cause. As she asserts on the back cover of the CD package: “EDEN is an invitation to return to our roots. It is an overture to engage with the sheer perfection of the world around us, to consider if we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being. It is a clarion call to contemplate if our collective suffering isn't perhaps linked to the aching separation from something primal within and around us. This is a vivid musical exploration through the centuries to remember and to create a new EDEN from within.” To be honest, I’m not sure how much the listener will be inspired to create “a new EDEN from within,” but on the other hand, I’m quite confident that most listeners will find this release to be just how Ms. DiDonato has described it: “is a vivid musical exploration through the centuries to remember.” Vivid it certainly is, and wide-ranging, in repertoire, performance, and sound. She has a powerful, expressive voice, which for this release she (and/or the producers) has chosen to pair with a relatively small chamber orchestra for accompaniment, which makes her voice sound all the more powerful. Actually, though, she starts off less assertively, using her voice in place of the trumpet in Ives’s The Unanswered Question. As a devoted fan of Mahler, I particularly enjoyed her renditions of his lieder, but there are assuredly performances here to please a wide range of music lovers as she and Il Pomo D’oro work their way through a wide range of musical selections. The sheer power and color of her voice, the sheer depth of feeling she brings to her singing are wonders to behold. Lyrics are included in the liner notes, enabling the listener to become more involved in the musical proceedings. All in all, this is truly a first-class release.


May 22, 2022

Beethoven: Piano Concertos No.s 1 & 3 (CD review)

Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano; Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Harmonia Mundi HMM902412.

By John J. Puccio

With Concertos 1 and 3, pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra complete their cycle of all five Beethoven Piano Concertos for Harmonia Mundi. For now, their recordings are the best period-instrument accounts of the complete cycle put to disc.

The first selection on the album is the more-popular and more-mature of the pieces, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, which Beethoven wrote around 1800 and published in 1804. It still retains some evidence of its Mozartean predecessors, but begins to show a creativity of its own that would bloom in the Fourth and Fifth Concertos.

The main thing you have to remember about the recording, though, is that the solo instrument used for this period-instrument production is a copy of an 1824 Conrad Graf fortepiano. The fortepiano hit its prime in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It’s the instrument Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven would have written for until it evolved into the modern grand piano. While the sound of the fortepiano is not as tinkly or ringing as a harpsichord, it isn’t quite as powerful or well-rounded as that of a modern grand, not as rich or mellow, the lows in particular not as plush or resonant. Nonetheless, Bezuidenhout teases some beguiling sounds from it, and the Freiburg ensemble accompany him with an easy precision, Maestro Heras-Casado ensuring that the playing never sounds feverish or rushed.

After an extended introduction from the orchestra, the piano enters with a flourish, then a gentle lyricism that clearly belongs to the early Romantic tradition. The tempos vary but both the soloist and the conductor steadily adhere to Beethoven’s marking of Allegro con brio, with liveliness and vigor. Yet the presentation remains relaxed and confident throughout. Bezuidenhout manages an elegant yet exciting performance using the ancient fortepiano replica, and within moments one forgets it’s not a grand. The Largo that follows is hushed and serene, a gentle interlude before the more playfully tempestuous Rondo finale. Given the varied and plentiful contrasts involved in the concerto, you won’t find a better clarification of it than here.

The second selection on the disc is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15, written in 1795 and more clearly a descendent of the Classical Haydn and Mozart era. Beethoven actually wrote his Second Piano Concerto before the First, but he didn’t publish it until later, so if you like it better than the numbered 2, it might be because it’s a slightly later work. Whatever, it’s always been among my favorites, and Bezuidenhout and Heras-Casado give it the same detailed attention they provided the other concertos in the set, meaning the playing is radiant, scintillating, and effervescent throughout. I would count these performances of all five Beethoven piano concertos among the very best available, regardless of period or modern instruments.

Producer and editor Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann recorded the music for Teldex Studio Berlin at the Ensemblehaus Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany in December 2017. The recording projects just the right amount of hall ambience and a reverberance that flatters the sound yet still provides good definition and a realistic setting at the same time. The piano is well positioned in the center of the sound field, not too far in front of the orchestra, with a modest degree of depth to the rest of the cast.


May 18, 2022

Opalescent (CD review)

Andrew York: Hidden Realm of Light; Kevin Callahan: Alki Point; Michael Hedges: Aerial Boundaries; Phillip Houghton: Opals; Frederic Hand: Chorale; Robert Beaser: Chaconne; Tilman Hoppstock: Suite Transcendent; Houghton: Wave Radiance. Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (John Dearman, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant, and Matthew Greif, guitars) LAGQ Records LAGQ 0322.

By Karl W. Nehring

The last time we encountered the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, they were playing a composition by the iconic jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, a review of which can be found here:

(By the way, in the “it’s a small world” department, the producer of Opalescent, Steve Rodby, was for many years the bassist for the Pat Metheny Group.) This new release, which marks the LAGQ’s 40th anniversary as a touring ensemble and is dedicated to the late Australian composer Phillip Houghton (1954-2018), two of whose compositions are included in this album. In fact, his composition Opals, which consists of three movements – Black Opal, Water Opal, and White Opal – inspired the both the title of the album and its cover photo, a 3D digital image of an opal (reproduced in 2D for the cover photo, alas – a 3D image would have been dazzling g in the extreme, but I’m sure we can safely assume the LAGQ was not working with the same sort of budget that the Rolling Stones had for the memorable Their Satanic Majesties Request album cover back in the day). Striking image, striking music – three short sketches that are indeed colorful. His other composition, Wave Radiance, was originally written for two guitars; however, Houghton later expanded it into trio and quartet versions. It is a remarkable piece, hypnotic and suggestive, fading into eternity, thus ending the album on an enigmatic note.

The rest of the album is equally excellent, from the opening Hidden Realm of Light by former LAGQ member Andrew York (b. 1958), a light and lively romp, followed by Alki Point from Seattle-based Kevin Callahan (b.1958), a piece that was originally part of his Seattle Suite for guitar trio, but here arranged as a standalone for the LAGQ. Next up is a piece that fans of the old Windham Hill label – assuming there might be a few of you reading this – might well fondly remember, Aerial Boundaries by the late Michael Hedges (1953-1997), the title track from his 1984 album that really did gather a lot of attention for its innovative approach to the acoustic guitar. It is not just nostalgia that generates excitement as you listen to this arrangement for four guitars. What an amazing piece! Frederic Hand (b. 1947) says of his Chorale that it “is inspired by the Renaissance and Baroque choral music that I listened to in my youth, although I’ve integrated some of my favorite jazz harmonies and rhythms as well.” LAGQ member William Kanengiser notes that “Chorale turns the guitar quartet into a plucked version of a vocal a capella group; the seeming simplicity of the piece belies the difficulty of four guitars moving with the freedom and spaciousness of a chorus.” From Robert Beaser (b. 1954) comes the 12-minute Chaconne, which starts off stately and slowly transforms over time, but never sheds its dignity nor its delightful, dancelike demeanor. The final composer represented on Opalescent is Tilman Hoppstock (b. 1961), whose Suite Transcendent comprises five brief movements: Open Landscape, La Grande Cathedrale, A breath of Wind (Fuga), La Porte Du Ciel, and Danza Diabolica, said to be inspired by “an imaginary exhibition of Impressionist paintings.” With none of the five movements lasting more than three minutes, this is hardly a work to challenge Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in scale or impact, but on its own modest scale, it is a charming work in its own right.

The engineering is clean and clear, not so close as to hear every little scrape on the frets, thank goodness, and the liner notes, although fairly brief, do offer some insights into the composers and their compositions. All told, this is an excellent release that should appeal not just to guitar fans but to a much wider audience of music lovers.

Bonus Recommendation:

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, Told in Music Lessons.
Jeremy Denk. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-9598-5 (hardback) 978-0-8129-9599-2 (ebook)

The American pianist Jeremy Denk (b. 1970) is not only a gifted musician, he is also a gifted writer. He has not been one of those pianists who floods the market with recordings, but the recordings he has released have been of consistently high quality. Not all that long I sang the praises of his superb Mozart release on Nonesuch in a review that you can read here:

In addition, although I have not formally reviewed it, I have on at least a couple of occasions given a favorable shoutout to his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which is well worth acquiring not only for his performance, which is excellent and well-recorded to boot, but also for the included DVD in which he offers a fascinating account from the keyboard of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece. No matter how many recordings you might already own, if you are a dedicated fan of the Goldbergs, then Denk’s Nonsesuch release is one that would be well worth adding to your collection.  

But on to his memoir, which offers us a deep dive into the musical education and experiences that helped shape Denk into the musician that he is today, a boy who did fine. However, it was clearly not always easy, even though he was a person born with unusual intelligence and talent. As the subtitle says, the book is a love story told by way of music lessons. As Denk recounts his many music lessons over the years, he reveals his love for his teachers – but most especially, the late György Sebõk, to whom the book is dedicated – and subtly but surely, for music itself (and along the way, individual compositions, such as his teenage crush on the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2). As you read of his encounters with his teachers and his struggles to master new pieces of music along with his occasional observations about recorded performances, you may well find yourself learning something new about music you like, or perhaps dislike. At other times, you may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with an opinion he makes about a recording or artist with which you are familiar. Whether you agree or disagree with his assessments, you are bound to be drawn in and find yourself eager to continue reading to see what else he might have to say about music and artists familiar to you.

But the book is not just about music, or just about Denk, or just about music teachers; rather, the book is a vehicle for Denk to reflect on family life, love, friendship, education, travel, emotions, and many other topics. He does not cover all the topics in great depth, of course, but most of them with a nice bit of wit and wisdom. As I made my way through the book, I often came across passages that made me pause; sometimes to laugh, sometimes simply to sit back and ponder. Allow me to share a few of those passages with you below, with my explanatory notes enclosed in brackets [like this].

“I explained to my parents, again, how stupid they were, a task that was as tiresome as it was necessary.” [Denk was about 14 at the time.]

“This is efficient: if we don’t lose the line, we don’t need to return to it. But the melody becomes pointless, all of it hearing gone. Melody, among its many virtues, affirms the necessity of the unnecessary.” {From a discussion of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1.]

“But over the years I’d heard certain recordings [of Bach] – a super-fast Ivo Pogorelich version of the English Suite in A Minor, which claimed to be all about motoric movement, and of course – who could avoid or resist the juggernaut? – Glenn Gould’s two ‘Goldbergs.’ I thought the second Gould recording was silly, because of how serious it tried to be. But the first  – such lightness, crispness, a vision of clarity.  Finger-work made sublime. The way you were captured in the wistful theme – then out of it erupted raw energy. At times, I had this clarity and energy – I couldn’t count on either, yet, but they were there somewhere. I had this idea to ‘do’ Glenn Gould, but with no perversity; which is like saying you want a roast beef sandwich without the roast beef.”

“Then he [Sebõk] said, ‘To show love for someone, but not to feel that love’ – long pause – ‘that is the work of Mephistopheles.’”

“Most of my attention was consumed with a new piece by the eighty-something composer Leon Kirchner, a sort-of-sonata for violin and piano. It was clear that this piece was a struggle, representing so much love, so much of  Leon’s life’s work… Leon worked with us for hours and hours in humid Marlboro rooms. He described his wife, who had just died of cancer, as a ‘rare butterfly,’ and there were moments in the middle of the piece certain fermatas, moments where the harmonies did in fact hover, and alight, as if discovering themselves. I felt those, and felt all the intensity of Leon trying to create a work that would make his life land. One day, I played a few bars of Janáček after rehearsal. He looked more crestfallen than usual. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I never wrote anything as beautiful as that one phrase.’”

“If you want a nerdy thrill, compare Mahler’s opening [of his Symphony No. 1] to the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. An honorable theft: reshaping, modernizing.”

“Richard Goode once said that a performance he heard [of the opening of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata] was so fast that it sounded like a ‘vacuum cleaner,’ which made me laugh and think of another great Beethoven story. Ferdinand Ries played a bit of the ‘Tempest’ Sonata and Beethoven was listening and scolded him for messing up. So Beethoven sat down to demonstrate, and it sounded, in the words of Ries, ‘like someone was cleaning the piano.’ Heh. All teachers know the dangers of demonstrating, and the feared look of disappointment on your student’s face when you f*ck up worse than any student would.”

[On recordings of the Fugue in B Minor from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier] “Do not bother with Glenn Gould on this one – it’s a travesty, the work of a spoiled man-child, like peeing on a monument just because you can.”

“I could never get my left hand to go fast enough in the last movement [of the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 3]. Come to think of it, much of my life has been trying to get my left hand to go faster and my right hand to go slower.”

[On his recording of the Mozart Concerto in C Major, K. 503] “Read my liner notes for the record, please? I worked hard on them.”

It is readily apparent that Denk also worked hard on writing this book, just as he has worked hard over the years at perfecting his musical craft. This is a truly delightful book, one that should appeal to a broad cross-section of music lovers, not just to fans of piano music. Those with children or grandchildren (or nieces or nephews or friends or neighbors) who might be contemplating the serious study of music beyond casual music lessons might also benefit from reading about Denk’s experiences. Regardless of your motivation for reading it, Denk’s engaging story and lively writing style should be more than sufficient to hold your interest from cover to cover.


May 15, 2022

When There Are No Words... (CD review)

Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano by Hindemith, Haas, Bolcom, Britten, Siqueira, and Slavicky. Alex Klein, oboe; Phillip Bush, piano. Cedille CDR 90000 208.

By John J. Puccio

Are we experiencing an oboe renaissance? Seems that way, given the number of new, classical oboe recordings I’m seeing: concertos, sonatas, solos, you name it. I’m not complaining, mind you. The oboe will never compete with the violin or piano in terms of featured musical instruments, but the oboe deserves its place in the sun. Power to the oboe!

More important, the works on the present album express the musical views of five composers who faced the realities of war, hate, and exile. The music represents their frustrations and grievances towards a world gone mad. They attempted to express in music what words alone could not.

On this Cedille disc, oboist Alex Klein and pianist Phillip Bush provide us with six oboe and piano compositions, and they do them up in accomplished style. First, though, a word about the players. Klein (b. 1964) began playing the oboe at the age of nine in his native Brazil and made his solo orchestral debut a year later. By the time he was eleven he joined one of Brazil’s foremost chamber ensembles, the Camerata Antigua. In his teens he performed as a soloist with several orchestras in Brazil and then studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He went on to win numerous awards before becoming an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Washington and joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1995 as principal oboe. Since then, he has performed as soloist with the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and the Chicago Sinfonietta. His partner on the current album, Phillip Bush (b. 1961), is an American concert pianist whose career has largely focused on chamber and contemporary works.

First up on the program is the Sonata for Oboe and Piano, written in 1938 by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). The sonata expresses the composer’s anxiety over a Germany obsessed with hatred. The first of two movements is actively rhythmic in the manner of slightly askew military march; the second is mournful, drawing on long, intense, soulful passages. The players do it up in a forthright manner, amply conveying the melancholy of loss and impending doom.

Next is the three-movement Suite for Oboe and Piano, written in 1939 by the Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944). He, too, faced a world haunted by fear, anger, and hostility. The music is both discomforting and uplifting by turns, and Klein and Bush make the most of its pulsating beat, its dramatic pauses, its woeful, sometimes fearful tone, and its inspiring emotion. The oboe seems a most-appropriate instrument for this type of music, and Klein proves an expert practitioner at drawing from it the most expressive elements.

The central work on the disc is titled Aubade--for the Continuation of Life, written in 1980 by the American composer and pianist William Bolcom (b. 1938). An “aubade” is a poem written to greet the dawn, a morning song, only here Bolcom is more concerned with that dawn possibly never happening at all. The world looked on as the U.S. and Europe engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the chance of a nuclear war was ever present. It’s a frankly gloomy piece, grounded in loneliness and a sense of hopelessness, moods well captured by the tone of the oboe.

After that is Temporal Variations, written in 1936 by the English composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). He intended it as an antiwar statement when the threat of war with Germany loomed ever closer. It’s in nine brief movements, each a variation of a two-note, two-syllable theme that seems to repeat “enough.” It’s probably the most interesting item on the agenda, the most urgent in its thoughts, the most musically variable and insightful. Klein and Bush are at their best here, too, shaping each short proclamation as an independent thought yet keeping everything together as a cohesive whole.

The penultimate item is Three Etudes for Oboe with Piano Accompaniment, published in 1969 by the Brazilian composer, conductor, and musicologist Jose Siqueira (1907-1985). He was forcibly expelled from his native country and wrote music to convey his feelings. These are somewhat nostalgic, evocative melodies, more lyrical than those of the other composers on the program, the Etudes featuring a central, dance-like scherzo. Above all, the performers bring out the colorful language of the piece, capturing the spirit, grace, and beauty of Siqueira’s homeland.

Concluding the album we find the Suite for Oboe and Piano, written in 1960 by Czech composer Klement Slavicky (1910-1999). Like Siqueira, Slavicky was expressing in music his regret at what was happening in his country, in this case under the Soviet regime. It alternates bright, positive accents with doleful, ominous ones, the oboe capturing the wistful, introspective nature of the music, with the piano in complete sympathy.

Producer James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone recorded the music at Gannon Hall, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois in July, 2021. As we expect from Cedille and its chief engineer, the sound is as realistic as being in the room with the players. Both the oboe and piano are clear and natural, with no edginess, no dullness, no oddities whatsoever. It’s just good, pure sound.


May 11, 2022

Stokowski Spectacular! (CD mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

One of the most fascinating conductors of modern times was the late Leopold Stokowski (1882-1987), whose life story is one of the most colorful imaginable. If you have never read about this now largely-forgotten conductor, do some web browsing and prepare to be entertained. For example, Stokowski was in the audience in Vienna in when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 8. With the political situation in Vienna deteriorating, Stokowski obtained a copy of the score and managed to smuggle it in his luggage and bring it back to Philadelphia with him, where he was at that time the newly appointed conductor of the then relatively unknown Philadelphia Orchestra. He insisted that the orchestra present the work and demanded on staging it with a choral force of 950(!) singers – an expense that the orchestra’s board thought way too financially risky. Through sheer force of will and his magnetic personality, Stokowski prevailed and he conducted the U.S. premiere of the work – leading a force of 1,069 musicians – in  March, 1916. The concert proved such a sensation that it was repeated several times in March and April to standing-room-only crowds and thrusting the orchestra into international prominence. Some may remember that it was Stokowski who famously shook hands with Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s movie Fantasia. As I started to get seriously interested in both classical music and audiophile sound and equipment in the 1970s, I found myself enjoying many recordings by the Maestro, who continued to make records into his 90s.

Stokowski was always fascinated by the sound of the orchestra and how to capture it in recording. He had always been one to embrace new sound technologies, and in 1931 he worked with Dr. Harvey Fletcher of Bell Labs on the original stereophonic orchestral recordings. If I may be allowed to insert a personal note, in his later life, Harvey Fletcher was married to my wife's grandmother, and in the mid-1970s, we spent many interesting times with “Uncle Harvey,” who even in his 90s was still fascinated by sound and still actively working on acoustics research. He loved to tell us tales of his work, and he showed us many pictures of him with Leopold Stokowski from those pioneering recording sessions.    

For a time, it seemed as though Stokowski recordings were getting harder and harder to find, and some of the recordings listed below have drifted in and out of availability at various times. Still, there have been numerous releases over the years of recordings conducted both by the Maestro himself and by some of his disciples that have kept his legacy alive. As you will see when you browse through the selections outlined below, the man was engaged in an amazing variety of musical styles. Summing up his outlook toward music in his autobiography, he wrote “I believe that music is spontaneous, impulsive expression – that its range is without limit – that music is forever growing.” In light of that statement, I should warn listeners now – if you are the type of person who is concerned about strict adherence to the printed score, and I am sure there are few of you out there, the Stokowski is not your man. As he said above, he believed in spontaneous expression, and his conducting reflected that attitude. For an entertaining look at the career and conducting style of the Maestro, there is a documentary video about his life and career that can be seen here:

Leopold Stokowski: Complete Decca Recordings.

CD1 Great Music for Chorus and Orchestra (Devotional/Spiritual/Hymns) Norman Luboff Choir/New Symphony Orchestra of London; CD2 Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade/London Symphony Orchestra (LSO); CD3 Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition/New Philharmonia Orchestra (NPO); CD4 Tchaikovsky:  Swan Lake & Sleeping Beauty Selections/NPO; CD5 Vivaldi: The Four Seasons/NPO; CD6 Wagner: Orchestral Music from “The Ring”/LSO; CD7 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5/NPO CD8 Handel: Messiah Excerpts/LSO & Chorus; CD9 Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite/LSO; CD10: Beethoven: Symphony No. 9/LSO & Chorus; CD11 Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique/NPO; CD12 Tchaikovsky: Romeo & Juliet; Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis/L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; CD13 Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture; Borodin: Polovstian Dances; Stravinsky: Pastorale/RPO; CD14 Beethoven: Symphony No. 5; Schubert: Symphony No. 8/London Philharmonic Orchestra; CD15 Debussy: La Mer; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe; Ives: Orchestral Set No. 2; Messiaen: L’Ascension/LSO; CD16 Franck: Symphony in D Minor; CDs 17-18 Sixtieth Anniversary Concert (Wagner, Brahms, Debussy Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Chopin, Byrd, Clarke, Duparc, Rachmaninov/LSO); CD19 Elgar: Enigma Variations/ Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO); CD 20 Bach: Orchestral Transcriptions/CPO; CD21 Scriabin: La Poeme de L’Extase; Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol/CPO/NPO; CD22 Beethoven: Symphony No. 7/RPO;  CD23 Bonus Disc: Leopold Stokowski – A Memoir (Interviews with musicians who knew Stokowski plus musical examples and rehearsal excerpts taken from recording sessions). Decca 483 2504.  

For those who really want to dive deeply into the Stokowski sound, the most comprehensive collection can be found in this 23-CD boxed set from Decca that gathers together the “Phase 4 Stereo” recordings he made for that label in the 1960s-70s. For those unfamiliar with Phase 4 recordings (they were sold as “London Phase 4” here in the USA), they were recorded using a multiplicity of microphones, then mixed down into stereo to produce a vivid, spotlighted sound. It was not real, but it was spectacular. Purists would of course blanch, but in its defense, it did bring out many exciting details of orchestration, and was not always as garish as the concept might lead one to believe. Highlights from this big collection include his La Mer, Daphnis et Chloe, the Ring highlights, Scheherazade (although to be honest, I prefer his RCA version with the Royal Philharmonic), the Bach orchestral transcriptions, the Messiaen L’Ascension, and although in general his Beethoven is not all that outstanding, his recording of the Symphony No. 9 is well worth a listen.

Original Masters: Leopold Stokowski, Decca Recordings 1965-1972. CD 1 Orchestral Transcriptions of works by Bach, Byrd, Clarke, Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Duparc, Rachmaninov, and Debussy/Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO)/London Symphony Orchestra (LSO)/New Philharmonia Orchestra (NPO); CD 2 Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5/NPO; Scriabin: Le Poeme de Extase/CPO; (CD 3) Franck: Symphony in D minor (Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra [HRPO]); Elgar: “Enigma” Variations/CPO; CD 4/ Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique/NPO; Ballet des Sylphes/LSO; Ravel: Fanfare L’Eventail de Jeanne/HRPO); Daphnis et Chloé - Suite No. 2/LSO & Chorus; CD 5 Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version); Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; La Mer; Messiaen: L’Ascension/LSO. Decca 475 145-2.

As you can see, this smaller box is something of a subset of the larger Decca box discussed above; however, some of the selections are not quite the same. And again, the highlights include Stokowski’s interpretations of French music, especially Debussy and Ravel. John Puccio reviewed this release some time back, his take can be found here:

Mahler: Symphony No. 2; Brahms: Symphony No. 4. Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; Margaret Price, soprano; London Symphony Chorus; Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-62606-2.

Although he frequently conducted Mahler in concert, Maestro Stokowski made few Mahler recordings, but this one is a definite keeper. It was made in 1974, when Stokowski was in his 90s. In terms of performance, Stokowski's Mahler is a bit on the slow side, but very expressive – this is a powerful, moving performance. With its excellent sound and majestic performance, this version of the "Resurrection" is one of the finer ones that I have ever heard. No, it would not be my first choice (but to be honest, my first choice varies from time to time – those on the list include Mehta, Slatkin, Fischer, Walter, and Klemperer). If you are a fan of this symphony but have never heard this recording, well, you might want to put it on your want list.  By the way, Stokowski's Brahms 4th is also powerful, but in the opposite way -- it is performed at breakneck speed! A quick comparison: Mackerras's performances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc) are generally regarded as fast and lively. In the first movement, Mackerras clocks in at 12:02, Stokowski at 10:48. In the final movement, a set of dramatic theme and variations, Mackerras clocks in at 10:06, while Stokowski comes in at 9:51. Again, this may not be my favorite performance of this symphony, but it is certainly one of my favorites (others include Walter, Solti, Honeck, and Mackerras). This is one of those “sleeper” recordings that is well worth seeking out.

Wagner Weekend: The Ride of the Valkyries. Wagner: The Ride of the Valkyries; Dawn and Siegfreid’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music; Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla; Forest Murmurs; Prelude to Der Meistersinger. Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. London Weekend Classics 421 020-2.

If you are lucky enough to find this one in a bin at a used record store, Goodwill, yard sale, or wherever, snatch it up, for it is big fun in a small package. Stokowski loved the music of Wagner, which perfectly suited his imaginative, expressive, technicolor music-making. The London Symphony is responsive to his direction, making this disc something you can put on and just lose yourself in for nearly an hour, if not quite a weekend. Hard to find, easy to love…

Wagner: Symphonic Syntheses by Stokowski. Das Rheingold: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla (ed. Stokowski); Tristan und Isolde: Symphonic Synthesis (arr. Stokowski) -- Prelude to Act 1, Liebesnacht, Liebestod; Parsifal: Symphonic Synthesis from Act III (arr. Stokowski); Die Walkure: Magic Fire Music (arr, Stokowski): Die Walkure: Ride of the Valkyries (arr. Stokowski). Jose Serebrier, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.570293.

Uruguayan conductor Jose Serebrier was a devoted disciple of Stokowski who has done much to carry forward the late Maestro’s banner. On this well-recorded Naxos release, he presents a case for these “symphonic syntheses” of some of Wagner music, arrangements that Stokowski made to present in the concert hall of music that was originally meant to serve as operatic accompaniment. In his liner notes, Serebrier discusses Stokowski’s life-long fascination with Wagner’s music as well as the conductor’s motivations and methods for arranging the music into these symphonic forms. Furthermore, Maestro Serebrier offers a discussion of how Stokowski worked to obtain a specific kind of sound no matter which orchestra he might be conducting. In any event, if you are a fan of the music of Wagner, you really owe it to yourself to give this release an audition, for it is quite a luscious treat.

The Stokowski Sound. Bach: Toccata & Fugue in d minor; Boccherini: Menuet; Bach: Little Fugue in g minor; Debussy: Clair de lune; Beethoven: Adagio Sostenuto from Moonlight Sonata; Albeniz: Fete-Dieu a Seville; Debussy: La cathedrale engloutie; Rachmaninoff; Prelude in c# minor; Moussorgsky: A Night on Bald Mountain. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Telarc CD-80129.

Although the Telarc label has gone away, this disc is still out there, not all that hard to track down. Hooray! Of all the CDs discussed here, this is the most exciting, rewarding, entertaining release in terms of engineering, and hey, the performances are pretty darn good, too.  The late Erich Kunzel was an excellent conductor (and tremendous human being), the Cincinnati Pops (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in pops guise) was/is an excellent ensemble (and, by the way, the first orchestra that Stokowski led in the USA), and the Telarc engineering team had the drill nailed down: they knew how to capture the power and impact of the orchestra, especially on the bottom end. The sound is the opposite of the Phase 4 sound. Rather than close-up, multi-miked sound, the Telarc engineers used a minimal microphone approach (typically a 3-mic array), producing a warm spacious sound with plenty of dynamic range. As you can see from the header, the program is varied, from Bach to Beethoven and beyond, popular pieces in orchestral transcriptions by Stokowski, delivered in knockout Telarc sound that will impress you and possibly your neighbors as well.

Stokowski: Philadelphia Rarities. Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies - “Veni Creator Spiritus,” “Veni Emmanuel''; De Falla: Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve; Turina: Sacred Mountain from Five Gypsy Dances; Arcady Dubensky: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” (Benjamin de Loache, narrator); Etenraku, Ceremonial Japanese Prelude (arr. Hidemaro Konoye); Harl McDonald: The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler (Alexander Hilsberg, violin); Dance of the Workers from Festival of the Workers Suite; Rhumba from Symphony No. 2; Henry Eichheim: Japanese Nocturne from Oriental Impressions; Bali, Symphonic Variations; McDonald: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (Alexander Hilsberg & Jeanne Behrend, pianos); John Philip Sousa: Manhattan Beach; El Capitan. Leopold Stokowski, Philadelphia Orchestra. Cala Signum SIGCD2033.

From the best sound and perhaps most familiar music of this brief survey we jump immediately to a release featuring the worst sound and without a doubt some of the least familiar music. As the liner notes point out, “with the advent of of the microphone during the 1920s, Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra made an enormous number of 78rpm records, which became landmarks in recording history. For much of the time, Stokowski concentrated on basic repertoire, such as the orchestral music of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Debussy, Mussorgsky and many others, as well as excerpts from Wagner’s operas and, above all, his own orchestrations of Bach’s keyboard works. Side-by-side with familiar pieces, however, went a number of works which no-one else had recorded before or, indeed, has recorded since! And, although Stokowski was to record certain compositions several times over during his long career, there were a number which he recorded only once – on 78s made with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This unique collection (which previously appeared on a “Limited Edition” CD in 1993, issued exclusively for members of the Leopold Stokowski Society) brings together just those items which fall into this “rarities” category, and it demonstrates Stokowski’s incredibly wide-ranging musical sympathies. It covers many periods and styles, from melodies centuries old to colourful Iberian and Oriental works, together with music of 20th century America.” The recordings were done in the 1920s-30s; of course they have their sonic limitations. Still, it is fascinating to listen to musicians who were making music nearly a century ago, playing music that in most cases we have never heard before and most likely will never hear again. The piece that sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb is the Poe: my goodness, the dramatic recitation of “The Raven” is something you will have to hear to believe. Trust me, they just don’t recite poetry like this anymore. Certainly this is not a record for everyone; however, as a historical document, it has some value, especially to devoted Stokowski fans.


May 8, 2022

Mozart/Strauss: Oboe Concertos (CD review)

Cristina Gomez Godoy, oboe; Daniel Barenboim, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Warner Classics 0190295077600.

By John J. Puccio

It’s true the oboe takes something of a backseat when it comes to being the featured instrument in a concerto, but there have been a surprising number of such concertos since the introduction of the oboe in the mid seventeenth century. Composers like Albinoni, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Telemann, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, R. Strauss, plus a perhaps surprising plethora of more-modern composers have all contributed to the genre. On the current disc, oboist Cristina Gomez Godoy, conductor Daniel Barenboim, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra offer two popular examples of their kind, one from Mozart and a later one from Richard Strauss.

First, though, a word about the performers. Ms. Godoy is a Spanish oboist who made her recital debut at Carnegie Hall, New York and Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin in 2019. According to her Web site, “for the season 2020/21 she has been selected as ECHO Rising Star 2020/21 nominated by L’Auditori Barcelona, which will bring her to perform as a recitalist and chamber musician at the main European venues.” The present disc represents Ms. Godoy’s debut album for Warner Classics. Maestro Barenboim (b. 1943) hardly needs introduction. He is a concert pianist and conductor with citizenships in Argentina, Israel, Palestine, and Spain, with countless personal appearances and as many recordings. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is one that Barenboim and Edward Said founded in 1999 “to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and pave the way for a peaceful and fair solution of the Arab–Israeli conflict.”

The first selection on the album is the earliest, the Oboe Concerto in C, K.314, written by a relatively young Mozart in 1777. Typical of the composer, it has an alert, bouncy style in the opening Allegro, a lovely Adagio, and a delightfully bouyant Rondo finale. This is met with some equally perky playing from Ms. Godoy and her partners. Mozart never seemed to run out of beguiling tunes, but if these particular melodies sound familiar, it’s because he used them again a year or so later in his Flute Concerto. Whatever, Ms. Godoy’s playing is sweet and light, charming throughout.

The second selection is the Concerto in D for Oboe and Small Orchestra, TrV 292, one of Richard Strauss’s last works, written in 1945. Now, you might think it odd to pair two such diverse composers as Mozart and Strauss on the same program, yet when you hear the two compositions for oboe side-by-side you can’t help hear the influence of the former on the latter. Of course, it’s  propitious that Ms. Godoy plays both of them with the same gentle, mellifluous touch. The honeyed charm of her instrument and the alluring fascination of her performances cannot help but persuade us like what she does.

Strauss may not have been in the modern fashion of the times with his throwback oboe concerto, but one cannot deny the appeal of Strauss’s Classical decisiveness and succinctness, along with the score’s Romantic flowering and emotionalism. The music spirals forward in each of tis traditional three movements from several tiny fragments in the beginning, culminating in a jazzy, snazzy final movement that Ms. Godoy seems to enjoy as much as the listener. Maestro Barenboim also appears to be as saucy in his direction of both the Mozart and Strauss as he was fifty-odd years earlier with the English Chamber Orchestra in some of the finest recordings of Mozart symphonies and piano concertos around. So, it’s a double pleasure to have a new, young friend with us in Ms. Godoy and an older friend back in such fine form.

Producer Friedemann Engelbrecht and engineer Julian Schwenkner recorded the concertos at Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, Germany in July and August 2019. The miking is slightly farther back than I’ve heard in a while, but it opens up the orchestra to some realistic depth and imaging. The tonal balance does tend to favor the top half of the spectrum over the bottom half, so it’s a bit bright on occasion.


May 4, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 30 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Tilman Sillescu: Symphony No. 1 “Nachtlichter.” Christian K. Frank, Staatskapelle Weimar. GENUIN Classics GEN 22788.

What follows is yet another example of those chance events that leads to the discovery of a composer and composition heretofore unknown that turns out to be a rewarding musical discovery. A month or so ago I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across a tweet by someone who posted a photo of the cover of this CD along with a brief word of enthusiasm. Intrigued, I immediately did an online search and saw that it was a brand-new release. Acting on impulse (the cover art was irresistible!), I immediately ordered a copy. Only after placing my order did I actually audition it by streaming dribs and drabs through my phone to my Bluetooth speaker – just enough to reassure me that Nachtlichter (“nocturnal lights”) was not some awful unlistenable release that would make me immediately want to cancel my purchase. It wasn’t, so I didn’t.

While I waited for the CD to arrive, I did a little research and discovered that Tilman Sillescu (b. 1969) is a German composer of music for video games who has also composed for movies and television. Much of his music for those genres has been orchestral, so as he explains in his liner note essay. “I have wanted to compose a large orchestral work for ages, but with my time-consuming work as a soundtrack composer, I never had the time, and to be honest, leisure until now. You can certainly imagine how clear an ambitious composer’s head is in the evening when he has already spent eight hours coming up with listener-friendly game music. However, I was highly motivated to finally use my classical training and love of symphonies for something greater; and fortunately I succeeded, albeit with a lot of effort and energy. My goal for Nachtlichter was to find a simple and accessible musical language, which allows the listener to feel emotions and see images without having these images imposed on him. Music that comprises beauty, mysticism, irony and drama, and at the same time is able to stimulate the mind with its formal structure and harmonies. It has become a symphonic narration of the night with all of its fathomless beauty and wondrous, exhilarating lights and its, in part, terrifying secrets.”  

The image on the cover, with its dark forest and mysterious lights, had led my imagination to expect ethereal, hushed, mysterious music that would come shrouded in mists of mystery, but that was not to be the case; rather, what emanated from my speakers was bold and assertive – as Sillescu put it, “exhilarating lights.” Not that I am complaining, as I found the music imaginative and yes, exhilarating. And in the final moments of the first movement, and in a few places thereafter, there are some of those quieter, more mysterious passages. My only quibble is that to my mind, I would like to have heard more contrast among the movements; Sillescu has been successful in finding his musical language, but he needs to work on being able to adapt it more convincingly to various symphonic forms. There were times when it seemed, at least to these ears, that he just has a tendency to “overscore” – that the orchestration would have benefitted from being peeled backed a little. As the late Colin Chapman, the brilliant automotive designer famous for his innovative racing car designs at Lotus used to urge his engineers, “add lightness.” Still, Nachtlichter is an impressive debut from a composer that I hope will bring us some more symphonies in the future. (I’m so heartless, greedy, and relentless – I would work these poor composers to death! More, more, MORE!!) As to the rest of the production, everything is just fine. Thinking about it, not only was the composer unknown to me, but so was the orchestra, conductor, and label – but they all came together just fine. The sound can have just a slight tendency toward brightness, but nothing excessive; otherwise it is quite satisfactory. As my old friend and colleague Bill Heck and I have often discussed, it is gratifying to hear how modern recording technology has raised the overall standard; moreover, the overall standard of musicianship has improved throughout the world, with many more fine young musicians being available for orchestras to recruit into their ranks. This new release is a case in point and is well worth an audition.

Beethoven the Conquering Hero: Complete Works for Cello and Piano. CD1 12 Variations WoO on “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes”; Sonata No. 1 in F Op.5/1; Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op.5/2; CD2 12 Variations Op.66 on “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen”; Sonata in F Op.17; 7 Variations WoO 46 on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen”; CD3 Sonata No. 3 in A Op.69; Sonata No. 4 in C Op.102/1; Sonata No. 5 Op.102/2. Jennifer Kloetzel. Cello; Robert Koenig, piano. Avie AV2450.

Certainly one of the reasons that so many music lovers regard Beethoven as such a great – if not the greatest – of composers is his mastery of so many forms. His symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas are all generally acknowledged as some of the very finest of those respective genres. Only as a composer of opera is he seen to have fallen short, and there is often discussion of that; however, what seems often to be overlooked is how much other wonderful music he composed, and this recording presents and excellent reminder of just that. His works for cello and piano are simply delightful, spanning his career from early to fairly late, presenting a variety of moods and sonorities with just two instruments. Long ago, when I was first getting interested in classical music, I remember purchasing an LP set of this music performed by Casals and Serkin on the old Columbia Odyssey budget label, a set that I really enjoyed at the time – must have been 45 years or so ago when I was and undergrad going to school on the G.I Bill, living in a small basement apartment with my wife and out two young boys, listening to music through a pair of original Bose 901s I had bought with part of the reenlistment bonus I had received from the Army while serving in Pershing missile unit in what was then known as West Germany. Flash-forward to 2022 and here I am listening to this sparkling new three-disc set from AVIE, splendidly recorded at Skywalker Sound, which showcases committed performances by cellist Kloetzel and pianist Koenig that have reminded me once again just how musically satisfying these pieces can be. If you are not familiar with Beethoven’s music for cello and piano, you owe it to yourself to sit down and give it a good listen, and I can think of no better place to start than with this superb new release, which is excellent in every way.  

Martin Fröst: Night Passages. Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Minor K 32; Chick Corea: Children's Song No. 15; J.S. Bach: Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude; Henry Purcell: Music for a While (from Oedipus, Z. 583); Richard Rodgers: It Never Entered My Mind (from the musical Higher and Higher); Jean-Philippe Rameau: Air pour les Sauvages; Antonio Cesti: Intorno All' Idol Mio (from L'Orontea); Bach: 3-Part Sinfonia No. 5 in E-Flat Major BWV 791; Corea: Armando's Rhumba; Purcell: Hornpipe in E Minor; Handel: Menuet in G Minor; Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Minor K 1; Rameau: Musette Tendre en Rondeau; Alfvén: Vallflickans Dans; Bach: 3-Part Sinfonia No. 15 in B Minor BWV 801; Fröst: Prelude to Dorotea; Trad.: Polska From Dorotea; Rameau: Tambourin en Rondeau; Gordon Jenkins: Goodbye. Martin Fröst, clarinet; Sébastian Dubé, bass; Roland Pöntinen, piano. Sony Classics 19439917402.

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: oh, I’m a fool for a clarinet. I’ve played the clarinet, never worth a damn, but there’s much more than that to my deep and abiding love for the sweet sound of the “licorice stick” (a term that no doubt dates me, alas). One of my long-time musical heroes is clarinetist Richard Stoltzman (b. 1942), not only for his virtuosity on the clarinet, his being a fellow Buckeye (he earned a bachelor's degree from the Ohio State University with a double major in music and mathematics), but also for his willingness to play all kinds of music – not just classical, but jazz, “New Age,” old, new, Asian, European, American – whatever. He played it, and he played it well. I am now delighted to say that I have apparently chanced upon a new clarinet hero, the Swedish clarinetist (and conductor) Martin Fröst (b. 1951), whose new Sony release Night Passages includes music that covers a number of styles and periods all on one eclectic CD, as you can gather from the track listing above.

Before I offer an excerpt from the liner notes in which Fröst explains how the album came to be, let me explain why his explanation had a special meaning for me. My youngest daughter (now an adult with two children of her own, to date me further) has been suffering from dizziness/vertigo issues, which have become worse in the wake of her second (light) bout of COVID-19 (although fully vaccinated and cautious, she owns and manages a restaurant, with a bunch of young employees who have not always been particularly careful). For a time, it was thought she might have Mënière’s disease, which causes vertigo and is incurable. Although for now she does not seem to have Mënière’s, she still struggles with vertigo and is undergoing therapy which is itself quite physically and emotionally challenging. Based on seeing what my daughter has been going through, I have some sense of what Fröst has been struggling with as he writes: “I recorded Night Passages after my wort episode ever of Mënière’s disease. It made me rethink a lot of things. The episode ended with a severe Mënière’s attack while I was driving my car. After the car finally stopped, totally off balance, I felt, in my dizziness, it was night again. Slowly light, shapes, language emerged from this formless chaos. Memories and dreams from my childhood where I saw God in a pile of leaves. My first meeting with Miles Davis. When I played music for Paul Sacher and Hortense Anda as they danced their last dance together in Zurich. When my father cracked someone’s ribs while dancing to Swedish polskas with the ladies at our summerhouse. Or when, as a teenager, I listened to the music of Bach night after night. A while after my car accident I met up with my friends Sébastian Dubé and Roland Pöntinen who looked at the repertoire through fresh eyes and rearranged the music. Enjoy the fusion.”

I don’t think you would have to be a fool for the sound of the clarinet to enjoy what these three musicians have put together, as this album is a delight from start to finish. Jumping from Scarlatti to From Scarlatti to Chick Corea to Bach to Purcell to Purcell to Richard Rodgers – and oh, my goodness, the playing of trio on his It Never Entered My Mind truly is a perfect fusion of jazz and classical sounds. It swings, it sings, it lifts and inspires. Fröst coaxes some limpidly delicate notes from his clarinet that are simply breathtaking. Later, in Corea’s Armando’s Rhumba, he shows a more playful, boisterous side to his playing that fits this piece perfectly. The program closes with a moving performance of Goodbye by Gordon Jenkins. In the liner notes, Fröst relates how the first time he played at Carnegie Hall, there was an exhibition about Bennie Goodman, and he wound up being able to play Goodman’s actual clarinet during his performance. “I played that night on Benny’s clarinet and after the Copland Clarinet Concerto I performed Goodbye by Gordon Jenkins – that tune had been Benny’s last song at the end of his shows. Having listened to him playing it since the days of my childhood I have performed it as an encore ever since.”

The liner notes are brief reflections by Fröst about memories, dreams, and incidents in his life as well as the influence that music and musicians had on him. Although it might have been interesting to hear more about how the music was chosen, or about the other musicians, the notes are interesting in their own right. Still, it would have been nice to have some more factual information. The engineering is crisp and clear – the instruments, especially the clarinet, captured a bit close, so you can hear some breathing and key clicks, but never to the point of distraction. Highly recommended.

 Violin Sonatas. Violin Sonata in in F major, MWV Q26; Violin Sonata in F minor Op 4; Violin Sonata in in F Major MWV Q7; Violin Sonata in D MWV Q18 (fragment). Alina Ibragimova, violin; Cedric Tiberghien, piano. Hyperion CDA68322.

At first glance you might well assume from the title – as did I – that this new release from Hyperion includes some, or perhaps even all, of Felix Mendelssohn’s sonatas for violin and piano. After all, most of us are probably not really all that well versed on just how many sonatas in that format he actually wrote. However, I suspect that many of you will be surprised to learn – as was I – that Mendelssohn actually only published one such sonata in his lifetime, the  Violin Sonata in F minor Op 4, which dates from 1823. And oh, by the way, he was born in 1809, which means he was all of 14 when he wrote it. (When I was 14, I composed about ten measures of music for solo clarinet. It was atonal, amusical, and abysmal. It comprised the early, middle, and late periods of my career. Sorry, music scholars, but the manuscript has been lost.) When you listen to the piece, you would never guess it was composed by someone so young; truly, it sounds like the work of a mature musical talent, which the teenaged Mendelssohn surely already was. The program opens with an unpublished sonata that he composed 15 years later. The famed violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin had finally published a first edition in 1953, but according to the liner notes, this version conflated the two autograph versions of the first movement and took considerable editorial liberties as well. The version performed here is from a version published in 2009 that is faithful to Mendelssohn’s original unrevised score. It is a remarkably expressive work, with an especially touching slow movement marked poco adagio. The final two works on the program date from 1820, when Mendelssohn was 11 years old; not surpisingly, they are less impressive than the two preceding works. The Violin Sonata in in F Major is in three brief movements that although quite listenable, sound a bit routine in comparison to what Mendelssohn was to conjure just a few short years later. The  final track, coming in at 7:37, actually seems more interesting, but he abandoned the Violin Sonata in D, Violin Sonata in D, so we will never know where it might have gone had he come back to it later in his career. As is the norm from Hyperion, the engineering is a bit on the warm and distant side (just a bit, mind you), just right for chamber music, and the liner notes and even the cover art are intelligent and thoughtfully chosen. If this repertoire interests you, this is a release well worth seeking out.  

Schubert: The Last Quartets. CD1 String Quartet No. 15 in G Major D.887; CD2 String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death and the Maiden” D.810. Aviv Quartet (Sergey Ostrovsky, violin; Philippe Villafranca, violin; Noémie Bialobroda, viola; Daniel Mitnitsky, cello). Aparte AP266.

The final two string quartets of Franz Schubert are two of the great masterpieces of chamber music. If you are relatively new to classical music, please be forewarned that these are not compositions that are going to immediately soothe your ear with pretty melodies. That is not to say that they are screechy, dissonant, atonal monstrosities; rather, that they are serious, sober, rather intense pieces that were intended for more serious listening as opposed to light entertainment. To my mind, they are like two mighty symphonies – it’s just that Schubert condensed them down to be played by two violins, viola, and cello rather than an orchestra. No. 14, “Death and the Maiden,” was written after a prolonged stay in the hospital for treatment for what was most likely syphilis (which was incurable at the time) had made Schubert aware that he most likely was not likely to have very many years left to live. As the liner notes observe, the overall mood of the piece is “dark and tragic, reflecting the composer’s despondency at that time and his struggle to come to terms with the idea of death. Unusually, all four movements are in minor keys; only two episodes are in major: the fourth variation of the second movement, and the trio of the third.” But although yes, the music is dark, its very darkness gives it a focus and intensity that the playing of the Israeli-based Aviv Quartet and the audiophile-quality sonics combine to deliver an intense musical experience that reveals the beauty of Schubert’s writing for these four instruments. Likewise in No. 15, which Schubert envisioned as something of a dress rehearsal for his final symphony. In the hands of the Aviv foursome, this mighty string quartet, whose four movements total nearly over 55 minutes in this performance, longer than many actual symphonies, truly does sound symphonic in scope and vision. It is an incredible composition that is impeccably performed and flawlessly recorded. What’s not to like?


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa