Jul 31, 2022

Third Coast Percussion: Perspectives (CD review)

Music by Elfman, Glass, Jlin, and Flutronix. Third Coast Percussion. Cedille Records CDR 90000 210.

By John J. Puccio

To say there isn’t an abundance of purely classical percussion recordings around might be an understatement. Perhaps it seems odd, given that every classical orchestra has a percussion section, that the percussion should not have as much day in the sun as the violin and the piano have enjoyed. Maybe it’s because percussive instruments don’t make as persuasively plush, mellifluous sounds as violins and pianos. I mean, you can’t really wax too very lyrical on a drum. Anyway, such paucity of percussive recordings makes this new album from Third Coast Percussion all the more appealing. The players are quite good, and the four selections they chose for the program are all world-premiere recordings.

First, a word about the group. From their Web site we learn that Third Coast Percussion was founded in 2005 and “has performed hundreds of concerts across the country, presents an annual concert season at home in Chicago, teaches musicians of all ages and experience levels, and has commissioned dozens of new works by composers including Glenn Kotche, Philip Glass, Devonté Hynes, Chris Cerrone, Augusta Read Thomas, Donnacha Dennehy, and David T. Little.

“The mission of Third Coast Percussion is to inspire and educate through the creation of exciting and unexpected musical experiences. Third Coast Percussion's vision is a worldwide audience that embraces creativity, curiosity, and community through music. The ensemble has forged a unique path in the musical landscape with virtuosic, energetic performances that celebrate the extraordinary depth and breadth of musical possibilities in the world of percussion. The ensemble has been praised for “commandingly elegant” (New York Times) performances, the ‘rare power’ (Washington Post) of their recordings, and ‘an inspirational sense of fun and curiosity’ (Minnesota Star-Tribune). The four members of Third Coast are also accomplished teachers, and currently serve as ensemble-in-residence at Denison University.”

The ensemble includes David Skidmore, an Ensemble Member and Executive Director of the group. As a chamber musician, David has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center Festival, Kimmel Center, and many other leading venues. He was a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble from 2007-2011 and Ensemble ACJW from 2008-2010. He has performed and collaborated with many of the world's finest musicians including conductors Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, David Robertson, and Michael Tilson Thomas, composers Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, Matthias Pintscher, and Peter Eötvos, and chamber ensembles Eighth Blackbird and Ensemble Signal. David has performed as a soloist in Europe, Asia, and the United States. He has also performed as a member of the Lucerne Festival Academy, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Pacific Music Festival, and the National Repertory Orchestra.

Robert Dillon is an Ensemble Member and Development Director of the group. He has performed with the Chicago, Boston, and San Diego Symphony Orchestras, and served as principal percussionist in the Madison Symphony Orchestra from 2007-2008. He previously served as chair of percussion studies at Merit School of Music and a percussion instructor at Loyola University Chicago.

Peter Martin is an Ensemble Member and Finance Director of the group. As a chamber musician, he has performed with many leading new music ensembles including the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Eighth Blackbird, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, and many more. In addition to his work with Third Coast Percussion, Peter is a member of the award-winning contemporary music group Ensemble Dal Niente.

The fourth member of the group, Sean Connors, is an Ensemble Member and their Technical Director. He has performed with Amphion Percussion, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Signal, and Metropolis Ensemble, and he was the percussionist for two summers with the prestigious Aspen Music Festival Contemporary Ensemble. As an educator, Sean served for two years as assistant professor of percussion at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.

Yes, they are good. Very, very good.

So, the first selection on the program is the Percussion Quartet by American composer Danny Elfman (b. 1953). Although Elfman is primarily known these days as a film composer (Batman, Darkman, Spider-Man, Men in Black, and the like), he has also written a number of concert and stage pieces. But he’s done only one percussion work so far, and it’s surprisingly traditional, written in four fairly symphonic movements. It’s also among the more accessible works on the disc, which is probably why the producers chose to put it first. The fusion of instruments in the music is such that one quickly forgets there are only four people involved and that they are playing solely in the percussion medium. I quipped earlier that one can hardly wax lyrical on a drum, but in the second, slow movement, that’s exactly what the players do. The whole piece is really quite beautiful and expertly handled.

The next piece is by the well-known American composer and pianist Philip Glass (b. 1937). It’s the briefest selection on the album at about nine minutes, and it is Metamorphosis No. 1. He based it on his original solo piano version, and Third Coast Percusssion perform it on marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and melodica. Frankly, it sounds to me much richer and mellower on the percussion instruments than it does on the piano. I found it far more attractive in its new trappings than ever before, more varied, more mellifluous, more rhythmically dynamic, simply more appealing. And I can’t imagine it being done any better than by Third Coast Percussion.

Next on the agenda is the longest work, Perspective, in seven movements by American electronic musician Jlin (Jerrilyn Patton, b. 1987). It is remarkably varied in its rhythms and nuances and provides endless opportunities for the percussive instruments to express themselves. It’s also perhaps closer to what most of us would expect to hear from a percussion group. It has a certain exotic quality to it, some of it sounding like music of the South Seas or Asian Pacific, while other parts demonstrate a quiet dissonance. All of it, however, is rather Romantic in nature, with nothing discordant enough to jar our senses. Remarkably, too, this is the first recording I can remember that produced musical notes a good three feet or more outside the main speakers. It was as though I had additional speakers on the side walls, given the surround sound I heard. It was a little eerie, actually, but quite pleasant.

The final item is called Rubix, a collaboration by Third Coast Percussion and Flutronix (Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, both of whom are reaching out from their classical roots). The music is elegant and colorful, and the precision of the players contributes to an overall sense of tasteful grace. It makes a fitting conclusion to an album of perfectly harmonious charm. What I thought might be a cacophonous disc of tumultuous noise turned out to be a calming and relaxing respite, I loved it.

Producers Elain Martone, Colin Campbell, and Danny Elfman and engineers Bill Maylone, Dan Nichols, and Jonathan Lackey recorded the music at Chicago Recording Company in October 2020. As we would expect from Cedille, who always produce good-sounding discs, this one, with its small ensemble of percussion instruments, sounds terrific. It’s done fairly close up, so each instrument is clearly delineated, and with the addition of some mild room resonance, the result is both realistic and satisfying.


Jul 27, 2022

Piano Potpourri, No. 7 (CD reviews)

William Bolcom: The Complete Rags. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. Hyperion CDA683991/2.

By Karl W. Nehring

Many older listeners were likely first exposed to ragtime music by Marvin Hamlisch’s performance of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” piano rag from the soundtrack to the 1973 hit film The Sting. Hamlisch’s performance was released as a single and became a radio hit; suddenly ragtime music was “in” and veteran ragtime piano players such as the late, legendary “Eubie” Blake enjoyed a sudden surge in media popularity. It turns out that American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) had developed an interest in piano rags pre-The Sting, studying the rags of Scott Joplin in the late 1960s and trying his hand at writing some rags of his own.

“My growing familiarity around 1967 with Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha inspired my very first rag, Glad Rag, which quotes that opera in a transitional passage,” he recounts in his helpful, in-depth liner notes. “A very personal rag, Lost Lady is a lament for a failed marriage. But a real epiphany for me soon after that break-up was meeting James Hubert ‘Eubie’ Blake in 1966—at eighty-six, he was one of the few still-performing practitioners of the urbanized ragtime (called ‘stride piano’) of James P. Johnson and Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller. Bolcom goes on to recount that “Eubie and I became friends and gave concerts together frequently. (Purely by example Eubie was showing me how artificial was the division between composing and performing, which had become de rigueur in music; I consider him my last great teacher).”

Canadian pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin (b. 1961) is widely known for his technical prowess and willingness to perform and record music outside the classical keyboard mainstream. Those qualities serve him – and us – well as he turns his attention in this release to the complete collection of Bolcom’s piano rags (27 in all, seven of which Bolcom wrote in collaboration with his friend William Albright) on this two-disc set. If this review communicates nothing else, let it get across these two points: First, this is serious music, written by a serious composer and played by a serious, gifted pianist. Not in any way is this some sort of novelty or crossover album. Second, this is an album of entertaining music that is entertaining precisely because it has been composed, performed, and recorded by serious professionals and can easily withstand the rigors of repeated listening. The album includes rags that will appeal to a broad spectrum of attitudes and emotions, from sad to glad and trad to rad and plenty of shades in between. Even for those unfamiliar with ragtime or stride piano, the piano rags of Bolcom as played by Hamelin and recorded by Judith Sherman and crew would be a great place to start.  

Beethoven: 33 Variations Op. 120 on a Waltz by Diabelli. Mitsuko Uchida, piano. Decca 485 2731.

Last week’s New Releases No. 33 included a review of an ECM New Series CD by the Danish String Quartet that featured a performance of one of Beethoven’s late quartets. If you are familiar with those works, you know that they are both beautiful and sublime, at times seeming to originate from some realm almost beyond human comprehension, a world of timeless beauty with which Beethoven was somehow able to communicate. His late piano works, especially his final sonata, Op. 111, also have that sense of other-worldly beauty, a great performance evoking in the listener a sense of the transcendent.

Sometimes overlooked in the catalog of Beethoven’s late works for piano is his Diabelli Variations, a composition that was actually his final large-scale work for solo piano. The story behind the piece is a convoluted one. In brief, the composer and publisher Anton Diabelli had entered into a partnership in 1918 with an art dealer named Pietro Cappi. To call attention to their Vienna business, they hit upon the scheme of asking 50 notable musicians form throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire to provide a brief variation on a simple waltz tune that Diabelli had composed. The project wound up taking several years to pull together (no fax machines, no cell phones, no internet…), so the final version did not appear until 1824, in a printed volume that featured variations by the 50 composers, who were presented in alphabetical order. The variations included were of little lasting musical value, with the exception of a waltz by Schubert. Along with the volume containing the 50 variations, Cappi and Diabelli also published a companion volume: a reissued collection of Beethoven’s 33 variations of Diabelli’s waltz.

Wait, what? Reissued? Well, it seems that Beethoven thought the 50-composer idea was not something he wanted to be involved with, so he dismissed the idea of submitting a single variation out of hand. However, according to the liner notes, “Beethoven had in any case always been attracted by the challenge of building large edifices out of less than first-rate material, and he found Diabelli’s waltz a rich source for elaboration, setting to work on it almost as soon as he received it. Approximately two-thirds of the ‘Diabelli’ variations were written in 1819, before he laid the project aside in order to begin work on his Missa solemnis. By the time he returned to the variations, towards the end of 1822, Beethoven had not only finished the Mass, but had also composed his last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 & 111. The experience of the late sonatas clearly left its mark on those portions of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations that came after them. But more than that, the journey from the mundane to the sublime may be shorter than we imagine, and Diabelli’s innocuous little waltz tune, with its simple tonic-dominant harmony and its bass line giving out the falling interval of a fourth, from C to G, and then a fifth, D to G, is first cousin to the wonderfully serene ‘Arietta’ on which the finale of Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111, is based.” Cappi and Diabelli had received far more than they had requested from Beethoven, so in June of 1823 they published an advertisement for the score in the Weiner Zeitung (founded in 1703, still being published, one of the oldest newspapers in the world) that heralded:

We present here to the world variations of no ordinary sort, but a grand and important masterpiece, worthy of being added to the immortal creations of the old Classics, and in a manner that only Beethoven, the greatest living representative of true art, can supply. The most original structures and ideas, the boldest musical transformations and harmonies are here exhausted, every pianoforte effect based on a solid technique is employed; and this work is all the more interesting through the circumstance that it is elicited from a theme which no one would otherwise have supposed capable of a working-out of in the manner in which our exalted Master stands alone among his contemporaries. The splendid fugues, Nos. 24 and 32, will astonish all friends and connoisseurs of serious style, as will Nos. 2, 6, 16, 17, 23, etc. the brilliant players; and altogether all these variations, through the novelty of their ideas, care in working out, and beauty in the most artful of their transitions, will entitle the work to a place beside Sebastian Bach's famous masterpiece in the same form. [The Goldberg Variations]

Japanese-born British pianist Mitsuko Uchida (b. 1948) has long been one of my favorite musicians. Not only does she play wonderfully, but her modesty and charm are world-class, as you can see for yourself in this video from 2012 on the occasion of her being presented an award from the UK’s Royal Philharmonic Society: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHh7pDApfCA. Perhaps even more indicative of her modesty and charm is this promotional video for her new recording of the Diabelli Variations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z38Y8LfJHXY. Despite a long career throughout which she has been known primarily as a specialist in the Viennese masters who has won wide acclaim for her performances and recordings of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, this new Decca release is Dame Mitsuko’s first recording of the Diabelli Variations. Her performance comes across as thoughtfully balanced, able to express depths of emotion without ever sounding forced; neither too excitable or rushed in the lighter moments nor overly drawn-out and melodramatic in the softer, more reflective passages. Particularly noteworthy is the way the recording closes out, Variations XXIX-XXXIII. These variations have a little bit of everytbing, blessed with some of the most sublime soft and slow passages extant. (unless you are perhaps quite young, XXXI will likely have you reflecting on mortality), culminating with Variation XXXIII, marked Tempo di Minuetto, moderato, and sounding like one final farewell dance. This is a truly first-rate recording of a sometimes-overlooked masterpiece.

Reynaldo Hahn: Poèmes & Valses. Contains selections from Le Rossignol Éperdu (53 Poèmes pour Piano) and Premières Valses. Pavel Kolesnikov, piano. Hyperion CDA68383.

Not having heard of either the composer or the performer before receiving this release for review, I really had no idea what to expect, but once again this is one of those cases of being most pleasantly surprised by what awaited me when I finally got around to giving this CD an audition. It turns out that Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was born in Venezuela but his family moved to Paris when he was a child and he wound up spending most of his life in the City of Light. According to Wikipedia he was a composer, conductor, music critic, and singer who was most well-known during his lifetime for his songs, of which he composed more than 100. His portrait in the CD booklet bears a remarkable resemblance, at least to these eyes, to some I have seen of the famous French composer Claude Debussy.

As for the performer, Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov (b. 1989), a bit of digging around on my part quickly revealed that he has been gaining a reputation as a remarkable young pianist of exceptional sensitivity and touch, with an ability to tease out the poetry woven into the printed score. Although the Tchaikovsky concerto certainly is far different from Hahn’s music for solo piano, this brief video clip offers some insight into who Kolesnikov is both as a musician and as a person: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkyPk6DHOX8.

Kolesnikov says that although at first he struggled to understand Hahn’s works, to get below the surface. It was the piece Éros cache dans les bois (“Eros hides in the woods”) that suddenly sparked his interest. “Gone were my initial reservation about these works; I surrendered myself to the music, which in itself is at once uncertain and precise, and was won over.” As he began to comb through Hahn’s piano pieces, finding that “some of the works left me unmoved, but others {a lot of them} took me back to those first impressions of mystery and apprehension, in which the listener is situated at the boundaries of familiarity” the COVID-19 lockdown suddenly hit, which for the pianist “seemed like the ideal moment to get started… After a few days of procrastination, I found the resolve to start conceiving this recording… for this recording I used a Yamaha CFX, whose sound is less textured than the usual concert Steinway. I specified that the piano be tuned in such a way as to maximize the extreme sensitivity of the keys, with closely positioned microphones. This serves to highlight a flurry of detail; but one has to be extremely attentive, for the downside of this placement is that it accentuates absolutely all the weaknesses, albeit microscopic.”

Hahn’s music is hard to pin down. It definitely sounds French, something like a mix of Satie, Debussy, perhaps Ravel – but not really just like any of those more familiar names. And when I say “Hahn’s music,” I need to point out that as you can see from the header above, the selections on this recording are taken from two different collections, the 53 Poèmes of Le Rossignol Éperdu (“The Bewildered/Distracted/Distraught/Ecstatic Nightingale”) and the Premières Valses (“First Waltzes”). There are 25 tracks in all: 9 Poèmes, 6 Valses, followed by 10 more Poèmes. The Poèmes have a more airy, other-worldly feel to them than do the Valses, which are livelier and more grounded, although still unmistakably French in character. Moreover, the Poèmes that Kolesnikov has chosen for the closing portion of the program are generally longer than those that he chose to open the program. Despite my clumsy attempts at describing it, this really is delightful music. If you like the piano music of Ravel, Satie, or Debussy, then I believe there is a good chance that you will find this music enjoyable. Kolesnikov is an impressive young pianist from whom I expect to we shall hear more from in the future. For now, we have this recording to savor.


Jul 24, 2022

Brahms: Symphonies 3 & 4 (CD review)

Herbert Blomstedt, Gewandhausorchester. Pentatone PTC 5186 852.

By John J. Puccio

When I first got to know the talents of Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt (b. 1927), it was during his tenure as Music Director of my local big band, the San Francisco Symphony, from 1985 to 1995. My wife and I attended a number of his performances, and I always thought of him as a good, sturdy conductor. He never seemed splashy or flamboyant, just musically solid, so I sort of characterized him in the class of a Karl Bohm, Eugene Jochum, Adrian Boult, Eugene Ormandy, or Bernard Haitink. Friends of mine would sometimes say he was too “foursquare,” too “old fashioned,” or too much the “kapellmeister” in a derogatory sense. It’s true, he never displayed the celebrated idiosyncrasies that defined some other famous conductors like Stokowski, Bernstein, Karajan, or Klemperer, but he made up for it in concerts of simple, elegant taste.

Whatever, Blomstedt seems a perfect fit for the music of Brahms, who was himself a kind of old-fashioned, throwback composer. So, on this second-installment of Blomstedt’s survey of the Brahms symphonies for Pentatone, we start with the Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90, written in 1883, about half a dozen years after his Second Symphony. Dvorak considered the Third Symphony the most beautiful Brahms had yet produced, and a lot of people agree with him, with various allusions to the music of Schumann and Wagner helping extend this belief.

Some listeners may prefer a bit more energy behind their Brahms, and, in fact, a quick check of timings between Blomstedt and several other recordings of the Third I had on hand finds Blomstedt the slowest of the lot. This is not necessarily a bad thing, only a difference. For example, Blomstedt is slower than even Otto Klemperer in all four movements, and Klemperer usually took things at a fairly deliberate pace. Not to complain, then, because Blomstedt does mold each phrase with loving care, and the resultant product does, indeed, sound quite lovely. The Andante and Poco allegretto are especially sweet, and one can understand Dvorak’s appreciation of the piece.

Then there’s the symphony that may be Brahms’s most popular, at least in terms of the number of times it appears in concert programs, the Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98. Brahms began writing it in 1884 and premiered it a year later, so it came close on the heels of No. 3. Critics to this day continue to compare the Brahms Fourth Symphony to the best of Beethoven, so it’s no wonder that its popularity continues as well.

The opening movement with its undulating rhythms should be familiar to most everyone. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that it needed a bit more zing than Blomstedt gives it. Certainly, there is good reason for understatement here, but a touch more pizzazz might have encouraged me to become more engaged with it. While the usually melancholic mood of the second-movement Andante moderato seems a tad too dour under Blomstedt’s direction, it, too, has its moments of mellow reflection. Brahms followed the slow movement with a joyously outgoing Allegro giocoso (“quick, lively, and playful,” “full of fun and high spirits”). Blomstedt handles it delightfully if not vigorously. The final movement adds an appropriately formidable touch to the whole, a movement Klemperer treated with his usual monumental construction by which Blomstedt seems a little tame by comparison.

My overall conclusion after listening to Blomstedt’s Brahms, as good as it can be, is that I’ll content myself with the recordings of two very different Brahmsians: Otto Klemperer and Sir Adrian Boult: Klemperer with his precise, granite-like shaping and Boult with his gentler, more loving manner.

It helps, too, that on this album we get an old-school conductor (Blomstedt was in his mid-nineties when he made this recording) performing with an old-school ensemble (the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is among the oldest in the world, dating back to the mid eighteenth century). The orchestra sounds glorious, as always, the Gewandhaus concert hall giving the sound a burnished glow that adds to the richness of the performance.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Bernhard Guttler and engineer Rene Moller recorded the symphonies at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig in April 2021. There’s nothing reticent about the sound. It is big and bold, with good definition and impact. It’s in ordinary PCM two-channel stereo, but it has all the dynamics of Pentatone’s SACD releases. There is also a reasonable amount of depth and hall ambience to give the presentation a realistic effect. Quite nice.


Jul 20, 2022

New Releases, No. 33 (CD reviews)

Prism IV: Danish String Quartet. Bach: Fugue in G minor, BWV 861; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor op. 132;  Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor op. 13. Danish String Quartet (Frederik Øland, violin; Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello). ECM New Series 2564.

By Karl W. Nehring

My first encounter with the late string quartets of Beethoven – which was also my first encounter with string quartets, period (I had heard the were the pinnacle of the string quartet repertoire, and figured I might as well start with the very best, right?) – was a box set of LPs by the Yale Quartet on the Vanguard label that I picked up at a discount sale price during my last term as an undergraduate student. I was, as we often said in those days, “blown away” by the music emanating from my then-new Polk Audio Monitor 10s. I was simply amazed that anyone could write music like that, music that seemed to have come from some realm beyond mere human comprehension. My respect for Beethoven, already considerable, expanded exponentially. A day or two after purchasing the set, in fact, I stayed up all night writing papers for a couple of my philosophy classes, playing the late quartets of Beethoven over and over and over again. What greater philosophical inspiration could a young man hope for, I ask you?

Over the decades since I have listened to many and owned several sets of the late quartets on CD (the Yale, Emerson, Takács, and Tokyo box sets remain on my CD rack). Now in my later years I have suddenly found myself being taught a revelatory lesson by about the late quartets by a relatively young string quartet, and I must confess that it took me until their fourth lesson to finally “get it.”

As the statement on the back cover of this and each of the three preceding volumes of their “Prism” series of ECM New Series releases has stated: “Lines of connection are drawn in the Danish String Quartet’s five Prism volumes from a Bach fugue through one of the late Beethoven quartets to the music of a subsequent composer.” Although I had listened to two of the of previous three releases from this ECM “Prism” series by the Danish String Quartet, one a few times, the other just once (and cursorily, at that, I will admit, having not quite “gotten” the first), the “line of connection” never connected with me. This time, however: POW!

For whatever reason, from the opening notes of the Bach fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier, arranged for string quartet by Emanuel Aloys Förster, I felt the spirit of the late quartets. As the young Danes moved from Bach to Beethoven, the shift of gears was nearly imperceptible. Later, as the foursome turned from Beethoven to Mendelssohn, that shift, although more perceptible, was anything but abrupt. From start to finish, Prism IV is a rewarding musical experience that truly does reveal a line though genres and generations. You don’t have to read the liner notes to appreciate that Beethoven revered and studied the music of Bach and that Mendelssohn of course studied the music of Beethoven, but the notes are informative and helpful nonetheless in filling in some of the details. The engineering is up to the usual ECM standard, rich and resonant.

Corazón: The Music of Latin America. Brouwer: Canción de cuna*; Villa-Lobos: O canto do cisne negro, W 122; Carlos Guastavino: Pampamapa; Manuel Ponce: Par ti mi corazón; Egberto Gismonti: Água e Vinho;* Ponce: Estrellita (arr. by JIJI & Jascha Heifetz); Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango; Villa-Lobos: Pequeña Suite - Melodia; Ondulando; Ponce: Sonata in G minor for violincello and piano; Piazzolla: Oblivion. John-Henry Crawford, cello; Victor Santiago Asuncion, piano; *JIJI, guitar. Orchid Classics ORC100198.

My guess would be (to be honest, I’m often wrong, but bear with me) that for many classical music fans, when they see the phrase “the music of Latin America,” the cello is not the first instrument that comes to mind. Or even the second or third, for that matter. But as fate would have it, in the summer of 2019, the young American cellist John-Henry Crawford (b. 1993) traveled to Mexico to compete in an international cello competition, won first prize, wound uo returning to Mexico many times for performances, and as he recounts, “fell in love with the music of Latin America, the culture, the history, and the Spanish language. This album takes the listener on a musical tour through Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico… spanning over 140 years of Latin American music culture.”

From the opening measures of Leo Brouwer’s Canción de cuna, arranged here for cello and guitar, you immediately get the sense that Crawford is out to communicate, not to bedazzle. This is playing of warmth and expressiveness, not of virtuosic excess. The cello/guitar combination also works well on Egberto Gismonti’s Água e Vinho, a dreamily lyrical piece from a composer whose name I best remember from his ECM guitar album Sol Do Meio Dia back in 1978, as well as on the next piece, Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita, on which Crawford’s cello just sings a tender love song, accompanied by JIJI’s guitar.

On the remaining pieces except for one, Crawford is accompanied by Victor Santiago Asuncion on piano. The “big” piece is the Ponce Sonata in G minor. Although it is of course the most formally structured composition on the album, it does not sound out of place, as it has its passages with the same lilt and flair heard in many of the other works herein. And it would be hard to imagine an album of Latin American music that did not include music by Villa-Lobos, represented here by three melodically gifted selections that tug at the heart, or Astor Piazzolla, represented here by two selections. The first is a composition in the style that made him famous, Le Grand Tango, which sounds suitably grand even when arranged for only cello and piano, with Crawford and Asuncion both playing with passion and power for eleven soulful minutes that are a highlight of the album.

Piazzolla’s Oblivion closes the album, the mood being more moody and reflective, the tango here having more of a last dance feeling in an arrangement for 14 cellos that gives Crawford an opportunity to let his cello sing in several registers simultaneously through the miracle of digital engineering. Because I was curious about just how this track might have been recorded, I inquired of Crawford through his PR agency and received his helpful explanation: “Yes, the last track is a cello choir plus solo line that is made up of only my playing layered over itself. The pizzicato replicates the double bass, and required the cello to be scordatura, and then there are three to a part on a quartet plus the solo cello line imitating the bandoneón." (Note that “scordatura” refers to an alternate tuning.) A quick note about the engineering, then, which is by the redoubtable Adam Abeshouse, a name that seems to pop up fairly often on fine-sounding recordings, of which this is an example. For cello lovers and/or fans of Latin American music, Corazón is an easy recommendation.

Brahms: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor Op. 38; 7 Songs (arr. Norbert Salter [1868-1935] & David Geringas [b. 1946]); Cello Sonata No 2. in F Op. 99. Antonio Meneses, cello; Gérard Wyss, piano. AVIE AV2493.

Are you in the mood for some more music for cello and piano? If so, let’s take a trip across the Atlantic from Latin America to Germany (or, if you are really in the mood for some fun, travel, and adventure, we could always set sail across the Pacific and then hike across Asia on our way to Europe) for an encounter with the music of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Brahms is sometimes referred to as the third “B” of that pop-culture classical music composer trinity: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Interestingly enough, all three of these musical icons composed landmark works for the cello – Bach with his suites for solo cello (I reviewed a recent recording of a couple of these here ???), Beethoven with his sonatas for cello and piano (you can see a review of a recent recording here ???), and Brahms with the two sonatas included in this new recording by the Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses (b. 1967) and Swiss pianist Gérard Wyss (b. 1944).

These two sonatas come from different periods in Brahms’s career. He began working on Sonata No. 1 in the summer of 1862, relatively early in his career, completing what we now have as the first two movements plus an Adagio movement that may or may not have been adapted many years later into the slow movement of his Sonata No. 2. For whatever reason, he then put the piece aside for three years before writing the finale and deeming it complete in 1865 (publishing it in 1866) with only three rather than the usual four movements. The first movement, however, is quite substantial, longer than the following two movements combined. As a result, this is not a brief sonata. Moreover, that first movement is not only long (14:43 in this performance), it is a musical composition that could seemingly stand on its own as a complete piece, so eloquent and moving is it, especially as played here with such warmth of tone and fluidity of line by Meneses and Wyss. I must confess – without shame, to be honest – that while auditioning this CD for review, I often found myself returning to this movement and playing at least parts of it, especially the opening few minutes, just to enjoy the sheer beauty of the music.

Brahms did not start work on another cello sonata for another 20 years, composing it in 1886 and publishing it in 1887. This work is in the more traditional four movements, with the opening movement again being the longest, but at just over nine minutes as performed here, not as extended as in the previous sonata. One of the things that the attentive listener will notice is how skillfully Brahms writes for both the cello and the piano, giving both instruments distinctive voices. Perhaps the highlight of the piece is the second movement, marked Adagio affettuoso, music that should be able to bring consolation to the most forlorn of souls. Note the way that Brahms employs his familiar device of playing competing rhythms against each other at times to create a feeling of tension, here of course with only two instruments. Hear also how the cello plays at times very low notes, at other times very high notes – all within the same short movement.

Between the two sonatas, the disc is filled out generously (total time is 75:12) with seven songs by Brahms arranged for cello and piano. Among these seven is Wiegenlied Op 49 No. 4, better known by it popular title as the “Brahms lullaby.” These songs contain some lovely melodies, but are played here as serious music, not as pop kitsch. Something that stands out about this release is a sense of warmth, both in the playing and in the engineering. For comparative purposes, I pulled down from my CD rack a Sony recording from 1992 of the two sonatas made by Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax. The sound seemed just a bit thinner and colder, and the playing seemed just not quite as expressive – a bit cooler, if you will. For both performance and sonics, my preference is for this new AVIE release, which is definitely a keeper.


Jul 17, 2022

Telemann: Viola Concertos (CD review)

Overtures-Fantasias. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Sabine Fehlandt, viola; Bernhard Forck, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902342.

By John J. Puccio

If you’re like me, you will immediately recognize the name of German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) but probably have trouble remembering anything he wrote. Alas, it is sometimes the fate of famous people who are perhaps more famous for their name alone than anything they actually did. The fact is, however, that Telemann was one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque age, maybe in all history, having written hundreds, if not thousands, of works. What’s more, he was a close friend of both J.S. Bach and Handel, and today he has a whole museum in Hamburg dedicated to him.

On the present disc, violist Antoine Tamestit with the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin under the direction of Bernhard Forck (and alongside violist Sabine Fehlandt in a couple of duets) present a survey of Telemann’s music for viola and orchestra, a survey that doesn’t begin to cover all of the composer’s work but gives us a pretty good idea of the man’s creative breadth and style. This effect is greatly heightened by the period instruments played by the Academy and the 1672 Stradivarius viola Temestit uses.

The secret, of course, is making anyone care. I mean, Telemann’s music can kind of run all together, much of it sounding alike, unless the performer is up to the task of making it come to life. It’s here that Mr. Tamestit comes into his own. The French violist (b. 1979) studied at the Paris Constervatory, won a string of international competitions, performed in a number of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, and is heading toward two dozen recordings. Yes, he breathes new life into Telemann.

It helps, too, that the viola itself has such a distinctive sound. It sometimes gets a bit lost between the deeper, mellower, more sonorous sound of its big brothers--the cellos and basses--and the sweeter, brighter sound of its more plentiful little brothers, the violins. Smaller than a cello but bigger than a violin, the viola has taken a number of different sizes and shapes (as well as a number of different names) over the years. Yet it has always made a joyful noise, and Telemann was among the first composers to popularize it and bring it to the attention of the world.

The first selection on the program is one of two Overtures, orchestral dance suites much like those of Bach and Handel. It’s the Overture burlesque for strings and continuo in B-flat major, TWV 55:B8 in seven brief movements. The numbers dance across the stage in various shapes and rhythms, and they provide a good, lively introduction to the set.

This leads us into the Concerto for viola, strings and continuo in G major, TWV 51:G9, which is where Tamestit really gets to strut his stuff. After a rousing finish to the Overture,  the Concerto’s opening Largo sounds an especially solemn note. Fortunately, Tamestit brings it to life with some vibrant phrasing, leading cheerfully, and artfully, into the succeeding Allegro. It is an altogether delightful little piece and is well worth the price of the whole disc by itself.

You get the idea. The ensemble play with authority and precision, and Tamestet performs with a skillful gusto, the players generating some wholly listenable tunes. My only regret was that there wasn’t more of it. Although the disc contains almost seventy minutes of music, it goes by more quickly than you want.

Anyway, the other items on the agenda are another Overture (where the percussionist comes into his own), the Canonic sonata for 2 violas, two Fantasias for solo viola (wonderfully inventive), ending with the enchanting Concerto for 2 violas, strings and continuo. All of them are little gems, prompting one to see clearly why Bach and Handel and most of the classical world of the Baroque period so admired Telemann’s music.

Producer Martin Sauer and engineers Tobias Lehman and Rene Moller recorded the music at Teldex Studio Berlin in July 2020. Harmonia Mundi has been recording period instruments for quite some time, and their practice pays off. The sound is smooth and natural, while providing plenty of detail. It’s perhaps a tad closer than I’d like, compressing a lot of the instruments into the center of the stage, but it’s a minor quibble that one quickly forgets. Besides, the solo viola parts benefit from the miking, giving full rein to the beauty and richness of the instrument’s sound. It’s quite a pleasant and lifelike presentation.


Jul 13, 2022

Vivaldi: 12 concertos op. 3 l’estro armónico (CD Review)

Also, Bach: Six concertos after l’estro armónico by Antonio Vivaldi. CD1: Vivaldi: Concerto No. 1 for 4 Violins in D Major, Op. 3, RV 549; Concerto No. 2 for 2 Violins in G Minor, Op. 3, RV 578; Concerto No. 3 for Violin in G Major, Op. 3, RV 310; Bach: Concerto for Solo Harpsichord after RV 310 in F Major, BWV 978; Vivaldi: Concerto No. 10 for 4 Violins in B Minor, Op. 3, RV 580; Bach: Concerto for 4 Harpsichords and Strings after RV 580 in A Minor, BWV 1065; Vivaldi: Concerto No. 11 for 2 Violins and Cello in D Minor, Op. 3, RV 565; Bach: Concerto for Solo Organ after RV 565 in D Minor, BWV 596; Vivaldi: Concerto No. 12 for Violin in E Major, Op. 3, RV 265; CD2: Bach: Concerto for Solo Harpsichord after RV 265 in C Major, BWV 976; Vivaldi: Concerto No. 4 for 4 Violins in E Minor, Op. 3, RV 550; Concerto No. 5 for 2 Violins in A Major, Op. 3, RV 519; Concerto No. 6 for Violin in A Minor, Op. 3, RV 356; Concerto No. 7 for 4 Violins in F Major, Op. 3, RV 567; Concerto No. 8 for 2 Violins in A Minor, Op. 3, RV 522; Bach: Concerto for solo organ after RV 522 in A Minor, BWV 593; Vivaldi: Concerto No. 9 for Violin in D Major, Op. 3, RV 230; Bach: Concerto for Solo Harpsichord after RV 230 in D Major, BWV 972. Rinaldo Alessandrini, director and solo harpsichord, Concerto Italiano; Lorenzo Ghielmi, organ; Andrea Buccarella, Salvatore Carchiolo, Ignazio Schifani, harpsichords. Naïve OP 7367.

By Karl W. Nehring

This is one of those releases that grabs your attention right from the very start and never really lets go. It opens with Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major for 4 Violins, RV 549, which features an opening allegro movement that takes no prisoners. But before getting too far into specifics, it might be best to talk a bit about the overarching idea behind this album. As you can glean from the header above, what we have here are related compositions by two composers who lived at about the same time but in different parts of Europe. Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Venice, Italy; he published these concertos in Amsterdam in 1911 at the age of 33. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685.

The liner notes point out that “a famous passage in Forkel’s biography gives the young Bach’s study of Vivaldi’s concertos an essential role in his education and there can be no doubt that he had the opportunity to reflect and work on the relevance of Vivaldi’s invention for his own music, assimilating structural and even melodic ideas from it. In fact, the transcription of Italian keyboard concertos was a widespread fashion at that time. Bach was undoubtedly stimulated to transcribe various originals in Weimar by Prince Johann Ernst, a lover of Italian music. His approach was invasive, as one might expect from Bach. This quintessentially German composer did not want to renounce the fascination of a more thoroughgoing use of counterpoint and even allowed himself some substantial changes to the structure and texture. His first task, however, was to create transcriptions that were idiomatically suited to the instruments. Whether he is transferring the music to the harpsichord or organ, Bach does not merely ‘copy’ Vivaldi’s notes, but elaborates on them, creating a sonic entity appropriate to the characteristics and possibilities of the respective instruments… One might be led to believe that these transcriptions were not intended as a tribute to Vivaldi, but rather as a gesture of defiance on Bach’s part, with the aim of demonstrating how well-crafted concertos could be transformed, in his view, into compositions of greater complexity and depth.”

Interspersing Bach’s keyboard arrangements amongst Vivaldi’s original compositions is an idea that works well in practice, especially when presented in such lively performances as we have here from Maestro Alesandrini and Concerto Italiano, the chamber orchestra that he formed in 1984, plus the organ and harpsichord performers named above. The music moves right along, but never feels rushed.

Concerto Italiano is a small group comprising four violins, two violas, a cello, double bass, and theorbo (a plucked string instrument similar to a lute), plus Alessandrini on harpsichord. Their small size (not to mention their vast experience in playing just this sort of music) makes them nimble and responsive, leading to a clarity of sound that is perfect for this sort of music. The occasional change in sonority in switching from orchestra to solo keyboard offers a refreshing sonic change of pace from time to time. In any case, be it orchestra or organ or harpsichord, the sound quality is natural and lifelike, with excellent transparency and no edge in the upper registers. It’s an album bursting with joy, well worth an audition, especially for those who have a tendency to go for Baroque.   


Jul 6, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 32 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

LYS: Mari Samuelsen
Program includes: (1) Meredi: White Flowers Take Their Bath; (2) Dobinka Tabakova: Nocturne (arr. for violin & piano); (3) Hannah Peel: Signals; (4) Caroline Shaw: The Orangery; The Beech Tree; (5) Laura Masotto: Sol Levante; (6) Margaret Hermant: Lightwell; (7) Hildegard of Bingen: O vis eternitatis (arr. by Tormod Tvete Vik); (8) Beyoncé: Halo; (9) Lera Auerbach: Adagio sognando; (10) Hildur Guðnadóttir: Baer (arr. by Max Knoth); (11) Hannah Peel: Reverie (arr. for solo violin, strings, & electronics); (12) Hania Rani: La Luce; (13) Clarice Jensen: Love Abounds in Everything; (14) Anna Meredith: Midi (Arr. for solo Violin & electronics). Mari Samuelsen, violin; with support on the tracks indicated by Hania Rani, piano (12); Dobrawa Czecher, solo cello (12); Margaret Hermant, harp, violin, electronics (6); Fabien Leisure, electronics (6); Meredi, electronics (1); Clarice Jensen, electronics, cello, and artistic director (13); American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Ben Russell, violin; Laura Lutzke, violin; Isabel Hagen, viola; Paul Wiancko, cello) (13); Anna Meredith, electronics (14); Hannah Peel, electronics (3); 11; Erland Cooper, programming (11); Julien Quentin, piano (2, 9); Scoring Berlin (1, 3-7, 8, 10-12); Jonathan Stackhammer, conductor (1, 3-7, 6-8, 12). Deutsche Grammophon 486 2096.

Mari Samuelsen’s previous album for DG, titled simply “Mari,” was a 2-CD affair featuring a generous helping of work by contemporary composers plus a couple of works by Bach. You can read my review of that album here: https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2019/09/mari-cd-review.html Although it I must confess that it never occurred to me at the time, in the light of familiarizing myself with her new album it is now glaringly obvious that all the composers were male. To help restore some balance to the universe, all of the music on LYS (“light”) is the work of female composers; moreover, with the obvious exception of Hildegard, all are contemporary composers. As you can see, then, Ms. Samuelsen is vitally interested in presenting new music to the classical music listening public.

Do not fear, however, for all of the music on this album is quite listenable. There is nothing here that is dissonant or aurally challenging. On the contrary, this is music that is uplifting, hopeful, and engaging. Several of the composers provide brief notes about their compositions, this excerpt from Laura Masotto effectively capturing the spirit of the entire program: “Sol Levante was composed while holding in mind Mari’s discography and the way she plays the violin… While composing, I felt I wanted her and the string quartet to enjoy playing this piece, to have fun.” That sense of fun comes through not just on Marotto’s piece, but throughout the 52-minute recording. To hear such vibrant music from young musicians – players and composers alike – makes me feel confident about the future of what we still cling to calling “classical” music. Whatever you might choose to call it, it’s in good hands, folks.

Solus et una: Amit Peled
Bach: Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major for Violincello Solo, BWV 1010; Suite No. 5 in C Minor for Violincello Solo, BWV 1013; Brahms: Symphony No. 3 – Andante (arr. by Konstantin Blagojevic for eight cellos and piano)*. Amit Peled, cello; *Mount Vernon Virtuosi Cello Gang (Nick Pascucci, Natalia Vilchis, Lindsey Choung, Amit Peled, Mairéad Flory, Kyle Victor, Jiaoyang Xu, Álvaro Vázquez Osa, cellos); *Allison Freeman, piano. CTM Classics 95269 15090.  

This is yet another of those recordings arising from the pandemic. Israeli-American cellist Peled (b. 1973) says of this recording that it “is a reflection on my musical journey during the COVID-19 pandemic. As my mentor Boris Pergamenschikov wrote: ‘The Bach Cello Suites is music that cleanses the soul, especially if you ply it just for yourself, preferably without any audience.” As with many of us cellists, I found myself spending a lot of time with the Bach Suites in my home studio during the long months of the lockdown. The two suites that attracted me the most were the fourth suite in E-flat Major, which represents triumph, daring, and heroism – all the qualities I found myself searching for while trying to make sense of the artistic dryness that we all experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. And in contrast, the monumental fifth suite in C Minor, which bubbled up in me about a year into the lockdown when questions about supernatural power, God, love, religion and a search for belonging to something bigger than just us here on earth emerged in me – all the elements one finds in that almost religious most philosophical suite.”

With so many recordings of the complete set of Bach cello suites available by so many celebrated cellists – in many cases, multiple sets by celebrated artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, for example, who has no fewer than three fine sets available to choose from – what is the appeal of a single CD from a less well-known artist that contains only two of the six suites? First of all, not everyone needs to have a recording of all six suites, at least not at first (after becoming familiar with this glorious music by means of this splendid release, they may well decide to take the plunge. If they really want to jump in deep, besides picking up a recording of the complete set, they might also want to take a look at British cellist Steven Isserlis’s recent book about the Bach cello suites).

Second of all, Solus et una (“alone and together”) is in itself a splendid introduction to the suites, with Peled delivering heartfelt performances that are captured in excellent sound. I did a quick comparison of Eled’s performance  of No. 5 with Janos Starker’s venerable version on Mercury Living Presence and concluded that Eled’s version held its own. Again, for the listener new to classical music (or at least to the cello suites of Bach), Solus et una would certainly be a fine place to start.

Finally, Esed offers listeners a bonus: “As an encore track, I have included on this release the one piece that I was able to record during the lockdown with my dear cello students. Teaching during the pandemic, both online and in person, has been a source of hope, comfort and inspiration. Moreover, being able to make music with other people and with my own students was a real musical climax. For me, there’s nothing better to conclude this musical journey than the music of Brahms with its beauty of line and intimacy.” After the intensity of the Bach, the Brahms provides a relaxing change of pace. The sound quality is also different, with the instruments being more distant, the cellos blending into each other and the piano seeming to be a bit too far off in the distance to be completely effective musically. With the cellos not providing the treble parts that the violins would have provided in the original orchestral score, I had hoped the piano would have provided more of that sense, but the arrangement and engineering did not allow me to hear what I had hoped to hear. Still, as Esed writes, there does come through a sense of that Brahmsian beauty of line, even if it sounds a bit muffled. Perhaps I should not quibble about a bonus track recorded by students. All in all, this is a noteworthy release that is an excellent introduction to the wondrous world of the Bach cello suites.     

Scott Wollschleger: Outside Only Sound; Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti: with eyes the color of time. Eli Spindel, Brooklyn String Orchestra. New Focus FCR331.

Although there is nothing about the music on this release that is dissonant or “in-your face” (quite the opposite, actually), I will point out at the outset of this review that this is a CD that is not like to appeal to a broad swath of classical music lovers. However, there are some who may well find it fascinating, so for you folks (you know who you are, or at least I hope you will if you read on for a few more minutes), let me do my best to give you a quick thumbnail of these two compostions. The liner notes are quite skimpy, almost nonexistent, but if you are interested, you can find out more about the music at newfocusrecordings.com.  

There you will discover that “Scott Wollschleger’s Outside Only Sound was written upon request from the String Orchestra of Brooklyn to facilitate performance under lockdown restrictions. Wollschleger was asked to write a work that would require only a few minutes of rehearsal and could be performed outside. His answer was to write a work where each player is like an insect in a swarm; making sounds independently that are coordinated in accordance with time stamps in the score to create a mass of sound that moves in waves across the fourteen and half minute score. Bells, triangles, string harmonics, scratch tones, and cymbals merge with the sounds of an outdoor park, replete with laughing voices and the backing up signal of a truck. By the time the work is finished, one can sense the transformation of the public space into something shared and contemplative.” Well, for pretty much the first three minutes, the predominant sounds on the recording are ambient sounds, e.g., traffic noise, people talking, and so forth, with the instrumental sounds being way in the background. The instrumental sounds move to the foreground for the next nine minutes or so, but never really establish much in the way of melody, not that the sounds are in any way offensive. With about two minutes left, the background sounds begin to take back over. The whole effect is dreamlike, perhaps best enjoyed on headphones.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s with eyes the color of time, which was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in music, is said to be inspired by a series of works on display at The Contemporary Museum (Spalding House) in Honolulu. Although the notes on the lable’s website describe it as a nine-movement piece, there are only eight movements/tracks on the CD. Go figure. But while Wollschleger’s composition was recorded live in a park (and sounds like it, as described above), with eyes the color of time was recorded in a studio and although still not abounding with melody in the traditional sense, sounds more like composed music.  The composer is able to evoke a variety of moods and sounds from the assembled strings and percussion, especially in the final two movements, titled “mahina” and “enfolding,” which are both more than seven minutes in duration. The latter movement in particular is quite spellbinding, closing the program on a seemingly metaphysical plane evoked by haunting sounds that lead the mind of the listener inevitably inward. No, this is not an album for everyone, but there are certainly some who will find it fascinating.


Jul 3, 2022

Ravel: Concertos & Melodies (CD review)

Piano Concerto in G major; Don Quiehotte a Dulcinee; Deux Melodies hebraiques; Pavane pour une infante defunte; Trois Poems de Stephane Mallarme; Concerto for the Left Hand in D major; Sainte. Cedric Tiberghien, piano; Stephane Degout, baritone; Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902612.

By John J. Puccio

Although we’ve had quite a few recordings of French composer Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) music over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one quite like this. The difference is in this recording’s use of original instruments. First, the French classical pianist Cedric Tiberghien, who takes the solo parts, uses a Pleyel piano from 1892, an instrument on which Ravel’s music might well have been played in his lifetime. Second, Francois-Xavier Roth leads his period-instrument band Les Siecles (“The Centuries”) in as historically accurate performance as possible. It helps, too, of course, that these are splendid interpretations of the material, making for a good time all the way around.

The album contains two longer works, the Piano Concerto in G major and the Concerto for the Left Hand in D major. In addition, there are five shorter works, chief among them the Pavane pour une infante defunte. So, let’s take a look at them one by one.

The program beings with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, which the composer wrote was 1931. It came about as a clear result of George Gershwin's music having persuaded him to inject some American jazz into his own scores. This connection is evident early on in the concerto, but, as we might have expected, Ravel added his own suggestions of dreamy, Romantic impressionism to the mix. It is certainly one of Ravel's most-imaginative works, full of jazzy bustle one moment and a tender grace the next, and unless the pianist is careful, the piece can appear as merely a series of clamorous rants and fanciful gestures. In my book, nothing has beaten the recording Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli left us (EMI/Warner), but with pianist Tiberghien, the music is still magical.

The old Pleyel piano may not be quite as rich or mellow as today’s Steinways, but it generates a glowing presence, and Tiberghien coaxes some persuasively seductive sounds from it. He’s particularly good in the quiet, languid parts, where his delicate touch enhances almost every note. This extends especially to the quiet Adagio assai (“very slowly”), where the central movement has never sounded so eloquent or graceful, tinged as it is with hints of dissonance. And for a change, the Presto finale doesn’t appear as just noise for noise sake but, instead, is as playful as Ravel I’m sure intended.

Next are two shorter works, the song cycle Don Quichote a Dulcinee (“Don Quixote and Dulcinea”), in three brief dance movements, and the Deus Melodies hebriques (“Two Hebrew Songs”) in two brief movements. These are well sung by baritone Stephane Degout and provide a welcome interlude before we get to the more-famous Pavane pour une defune (“Pavane for a dead princess”), which Tiberghien plays with a flowing poise and power. That’s followed by another vocal interlude of three poems by Stephane Mallarme.

Then comes the Concerto for the Left Hand, which Ravel wrote in 1929-30 for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I and commissioned a number of works for the left hand alone. The Concerto contains an assortment of different sections, but they’re present in a single movement. It is not as frisky or airy as the Concerto in G but, in fact, seems starker, weightier, sometimes sterner. Still, Tiberghien never overemphasizes the more severe or more martial elements of the score, concentrating instead on its insistent rhythms and mysterious, often dramatic ambience.

The disc ends with the song Sainte (1896), again based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, which concludes things in a somewhat solemn but cogent tone.

Producer and engineer Jiri Heger recorded the music at the Grande salle Pierre Boulez and Le Studio, Philharmonie de Paris, France, December 2020 and September 2021. The sound Mr. Heger produces is among the best I’ve heard. It’s extremely well detailed, as transparent as it can be, with a good depth of field and stereo spread. Dynamics and impact are fine as well, creating a realistic realization of the music.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa