Aug 31, 2022

Secret Love Letters (CD review)

Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major FWV 8; Szymanowski: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.1 op. 35; Chausson: Poème op 25; Debussy: Beau soir. Lisa Batiashvili, violin; Giorgi Gigashvili, piano; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, The Philadelphia Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon 486 0462.

By Karl W. Nehring

The Georgian-born German violinist Lisa Batiashvili (b.1979) has put together a program of musical works of various types that she finds tied together by the common theme of love, particularly in the two works for violin and orchestra by Szymanowski and Chausson.  As she comments in the liner notes, “we often define ourselves by the things we keep to ourselves in our minds and hearts. Music, just like art and literature, has always been the most amazing vehicle for artists to share secret messages and speak about their hidden loves and untold stories. This is such an intriguing and interesting part of human nature. The Szymanowski Concerto is a piece full of love and pain deriving from the restricted love of a man who was in love with another man at a time when this was outlawed both legally and morally. It is a dance between eroticism and compassion, between a dream world and tough reality. Chausson’s Poème is a powerful declaration of love with all of its nuances of loss and beauty hidden within each theme. I decided to pair these two works with music by Franck and Debussy, who himself was a messenger of the most magical atmosphere, fantasy and purity one can imagine.”

The program opens with the Sonata for Violin and Piano by the French composer Cesar Franck (1822-1890), which he wrote in 1886 at the age of 63 as a wedding present for the 28-year-old violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe. It certainly seems appropriate for such an occasion, at least in temperament, for it is a piece imbued with passion and yearning, even desire. On the other hand, it is not the kind of piece you would expect actually to be played at a wedding, because it lasts well over 25 minutes and requires virtuosity not only from violinist but also from the pianist -- on this recording, the young Georgian pianist Giorgi Gigashvili (b. 2000). I was particularly struck on hearing this recording by the purity and sweetness of tone that Ms. Batiashvili brought to the sonata. I have heard renditions in the past that sounded heavy-handed or melodramatic, but her performance sounded just right. Brava! And, of course, kudos to Mr. Gigashvili.

Then on to the Violin Concerto No. 1 by the Polish composer Karl Szymanowski (1882-1937), which although billed as the centerpiece of the album, is actually shorter (its single movement comes in at 25:31) than the Franck Violin Sonata (its four movements total 27:25). The passion that was expressed in the Franck by just two instruments, violin and piano, is now channeled through a violin and an entire orchestra. There is a sense in which the listener can feel both the tension and anxiety of hidden love while at the same time sensing the sheer joy of being able to express that anxiety in music. There are moments when the sound of Ms. Batiashvili’s violin virtually takes wing, magically rising above the orchestra, leaving it to the listener to interpret whether representing joy or despair. My educated guess is that there are many music lovers reading this who are unfamiliar with this piece; my well-intended advice to these folks is that they give it a listen. It’s a stimulating 25 minutes.

Poor Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). This French composer lived a tragically short life and completed only 39 officially numbered works during his brief career, his Poème for violin and orchestra being one of the more often performed to this day. Although I would conjecture that although it is probably more familiar to readers of this review than is the Szymanowski, there are still most likely a good number of folks who are not well acquainted with the work. Once more, then, this recording would certainly be a good way for them to discover a work of great beauty. Chausson’s original French title for the piece translates into English as “The Song of Love Triumphant.” According to the liner notes essay by German music writer Wolgang Stähr, Chausson completed the piece in 1896 at the urging of Eugène Ysaÿe (there he is again…), but the name was first shortened to Poème symphonique and then finally to the name we know it by today, simply Poème. Ysaÿe was clearly a musician of great influence.

To quote Stähr: “Chausson’s exchange of ideas with Ysaÿe has left its unmistakable mark on the work, the solo writing in particular revealing the imprint of the Belgian violinist with its melodically intricate multi-stopping. In his masterclasses Ysaÿe even gave the impression that he had contributed the whole of tbe cadenza. The transcendental ending of the piece, conversely, where the violin melts away in a seemingly endless series of iridescent trills, is clearly modelled on the Poème élégiaque that Ysaÿe himself was completing at more or less the same time. Chausson certainly did not deny his debt of gratitude – far from it. Rather, he referred to the work as ‘mon-ton poème’ (‘my-your poem’) and, as such, as a product of their friendship.” 

Listening to Batiashvili play the violin part, you can well believe that a legendary violin virtuoso had a hand in its composition; however, the way the orchestra and violin work together make it clear that Poème was not intended primarily as a showpiece for hotshot violinists to showcase their virtuosity. Batiashvili and Nézet-Séguin clearly seem to be working together to present the piece as a concerto for violin AND orchestra, not just a showpiece for the solo violinist. As for as those “iridescent trills” at the end, I’ll quote Stähr quoting Debussy: “Nothing is more touching,” enthused Debussy in 1913, “than the gentle dreaminess at the end of this Poème, where, casting aside any ideas any ideas of description or narrative, the music itself is the sentiment that commands or feelings.” Okay, perhaps Debussy is a bit over the top here, but not by much.

Speaking of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), he surely needs no introduction to followers of Classical Candor, n’cest-pas? The final piece on Secret Love Letters is brief (2:18) but oh so moving. Again to quote Stähr, “Debussy’s song Beau soir is a setting of a poem by Paul Bourget that tells of sunset, youth and a presentiment of death, and suggests nothing so much as an in memoriam written in honour of Chausson.” The song’s title translates as “beautiful evening,” and its brief text is a poetic reflection upon human mortality. (A translation can be found here: It was transcribed for violin by none other than the great Jascha Heifitz. Brief but beautiful, it is a fitting way to end the album, played tenderly but expressively by Ms. Batiashvili, accompanied once more by Maestro Nézet-Séguin, this time on the piano.

Overall, this is an excellent release. My only quibble might be to wish then liner notes were a bit more detailed, but that is a pretty minor gripe. DG has plenty of experience in recording the Philadelphia forces, so the engineering is on point for the two concertos, and the two chamber works sound just fine as well. It’s refreshing to see a new release from major artists on a major label that is not just the same old stuff; instead, Secret Love Letters offers some great music that is just slightly off the beaten path but well worth serious listening.


Aug 28, 2022

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 (CD review)

Herbert Blomstedt, Gewandhausorchester. DG 486 3045 (2-disc set).

By John J. Puccio and Karl W. Nehring

The album according to John:
It seems appropriate that one of the oldest ensembles in the world, the Gewandhaus Orchestra (its pedigree can be traced to 1743), should be directed in these performances by one of the world’s oldest currently performing conductors, Herbert Blomstedt (b. 1927). It is also appropriate that we hear Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, who under its Music Director at the time, Felix Mendelssohn, premiered the complete work in 1839 (over a decade after the composer’s death). And Deutsche Grammophon is among the oldest and most-respected record labels in the world, so there’s that.

Disc one of this two-disc album contains Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor “Unfinished” D 759. Now, while it may seem extravagant to devote an entire compact disc to one work lasting little more twenty-five minutes, look at the logistics. These performances of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies together exceed the time limitations of a conventional CD. So two CD’s are necessary; but understand that the folks at DG are offering the two discs for the price of one. So, no, you’re not paying extra for anything. Most record companies devote an entire disc to a recording of the Ninth Symphony alone. Here, you are essentially getting the Eighth Symphony for free.

Now, about Maestro Blomstedt's rendering of the Eighth. As you know, Schubert (1797-1828) began it in 1822 but left it unfinished after two movements. There are sketches for a third movement in piano form, but Schubert never filled it out or fully orchestrated it. Which probably didn’t matter to him because like most of his work, it would never see a public performance of it in his lifetime, and it didn’t get a premiere until 1865, long after his death. Nevertheless, the “Unfinished” has become one of the mainstays of the classical catalogue and one of the most-beloved pieces of music ever written.

Blomstedt’s way with it is, like most of his performances, loving and poignant, which fits with the requirements of the “Unfinished” ideally. I’ve always thought the Eighth Symphony was among the most melodic, tuneful symphonies in the classical repertoire, and Blomstedt takes full advantage of the music with a performance that is sweet and rich and, yes, powerful at all the right moments. What’s more, unlike his latest recordings of the Brahms symphonies with this same orchestra on Pentatone, these Schubert pieces are not at all hesitant or undernourished. They are vibrant, forceful interpretations, with a wonderfully flowing gait and beautifully song-filled tone. Blomstedt’s reading of the “Unfinished” must rank among the better versions available today.

The second disc contains Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in D major “Great” D 944. He wrote it somewhere between 1825 and his death in 1828. However, the history of this last of Schubert’s numbered symphonies is somewhat curious because even though the composer dated it 1828, the year of his death, he probably didn’t actually write it in 1828. In fact, it may not have even been his last symphony. The odds are he wrote it earlier than 1828, maybe 1826, which makes little difference since, like the rest of Schubert’s orchestral music, he never published any of it. When it finally did see publication in 1849, the listing showed it as Schubert’s Eighth Symphony. These days, we generally agree on it being called his Ninth.

The structure of the symphony is fairly conventional: I. Andante – Allegro ma non troppo; II. Andante con moto; III. Scherzo Allegro vivace; and IV. Finale: Allegro vivace. However, its length was quite long by the standards of the day, especially when a conductor takes all of the repeats as Blomstedt does. Robert Schumann called it a “heavenly length,” yet early musicians found it difficult to play because of its extended string and woodwind parts. Whatever, listeners have always loved it, just as it appears does Maestro Blomstedt.

Blomstedt uses a newer edition of the score than the familiar one Brahms edited. Among the changes is restoring a quicker tempo to the first movement, and Blomstedt does just that. It moves along swiftly yet effortlessly, even with the repeats. Blomstedt manages to make the symphony sound new again, regardless of length. The second movement Andante con moto indicates the conductor should play it moderately slow but with motion or animation, which Blomstedt does with a graceful ease. There’s no repetitive boredom about it, and it moves along with an elegant yet assertive lyricism.

The Scherzo radiates a fluid agility that both complements and contrasts with the preceding Andante. It is quite a beautiful part of the whole and not just an added crowd pleaser meant only to liven up the proceedings. Then we come to the monumental finale, which Schubert clearly intended to be grand and from which in part the symphony gets its “Great” title (and not just to distinguish it from Schubert’s earlier “Little C major” Symphony No. 6). Maestro Blomstedt propels it along at an energetic pace and with a lilting sprightliness, the orchestra sounding luxuriously opulent, fairly singing its rhapsodic lines.

No matter what one’s favorite Schubert Ninth may be (Klemperer, Krips, Szell, Mackerras, Solti, whomever), it would serve one’s interests to listen to this new one from Herbert Blomstedt.

Producer Bernhard Guettler and engineers Rene Moller, Toni Schlesinger, and Eike Bohm recorded the symphonies at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany in November 2021. As usual with recordings made in the Gewandhaus, we hear a warm, golden glow over the orchestra. The sound is a tad soft but luxuriously smooth and mildly resonant. This is especially welcome in the Eighth Symphony, where the sound tends to heighten the warmth of the performance. Still, the sound offers moderate definition as well as fullness. Although it may not satisfy the most finicky of audiophiles, it provides plenty of realistic naturalness.


The album according to Karl:
When I discovered to my surprise that this release comprised two discs, my first thought was, uh oh. To my way of thinking, needing two discs for these two symphonies is not a good sign. A little background: When I was just a young lad, there was a television series called "The United States Steel Hour" that presented hour-long live dramas featuring top actors and directors. I don’t recall any of the productions themselves, but the opening of the show is still burned into my brain -- a shot of an open hearth pouring out molten steel as the dramatic theme music played. I didn’t know what the music was at first, but at somewhere along the line my mother informed me that it was the opening of Schubert's Ninth Symphony. Many decades later, I still sometimes find myself thinking of that open hearth when I hear those opening measures.

Over the many years that have passed by since, the Schubert Ninth has been a work that I listened to many times on LP and then CD, but have never found it to be one of my favorite symphonies. I love that opening, and as the work continues, there are many memorable melodies and phrases, but at least for me, the work just seems never to quite know where it wants to go, and can seem to just go on and on. What to make, then, of a recording where the performance of the Ninth is sufficiently long that the Eighth must be allotted its own disc? (Note: I will confine my remarks to the recording of the Ninth.)

In Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, we certainly have a great combination of musicians. But right from the start, in those dramatic opening measures, I was surprised at how matter-of-fact the orchestra seemed to sound. In comparison with my longtime go-to CD for this work, the George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra recording (Sony Essential Classics SBK 48 268), Szell, who was never regarded as a heart-on-sleeve sort of conductor, draws significantly more expression from his players. There are some major overall differences in both the interpretations and the sonics  between the two versions. In the liner notes, Blomstedt makes a point about observing all the repeats in the score. Many (probably most, actually) conductors leave some or even all of them out in an attempt to mitigate that feeling of the work not quite knowing where it wants to go, and that given more time, perhaps Schubert might have done some editing himself. There are arguments to be made for both approaches, and certainly Blomstedt is taking a principled stand. The net objective effect of taking all the repeats can be seen by taking a look at the comparative timings versus Szell's performance for each movement, shown here as Szell/Blomstedt: 1. 13:29/15:25 | 2. 13:36/14:41. | 3. 7:18/15:11 | 4. 10:32/16:22. Subjectively, some listeners may prefer hearing Schubert's phrases and melodies being repeated, while others (and I am firmly in the latter camp) may well find themselves appreciating Szell’s (and many other conductors) more streamlined approach.

Sonically, the DG team certainly benefits from advances in recording technology over the past five decades. Although I enjoyed the greater hall ambience of the older recording, there is no denying that the newer digital recording is superior in terms of overall sound quality (although the older recording is by no means a bad one). The transparency of the recording reveals that the Gewandhaus plays marvelously, with both precision and power. If only Maestro Blomstedt had not elected to take all the repeats, and had just imparted some more passion into his interpretation.


Aug 24, 2022

Beving: Hermetism (CD review)

La fee verte; For Mark; Nocturnal; Paris s'enflamme; Last Dance; Accent Grave; Dervish; Mushin; Little Waltz; TFV; transfiguration; Roses. Joep Beving, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 4862030.

By Karl W. Nehring

Dutch composer and pianist Joep Beving (b. 1976) has released a solo piano album inspired by an ancient philosophical movement known as Hermetism. Stemming from ancient writings attributed to the legendary Greek author Hermes Trismegistus, at its core are seven universal laws of nature (e.g., the principle of cause and effect and the principle of rhythm) that are said to be concerned with all finding a continuous balance in life and existence. “The teachings around these principles feel so truthful to me and I hope they will inspire others,” says Beving, who adds of his album that he hopes “it will have a comforting and communal effect on listeners.” The music on Hermetism is soothing and comforting, inhabiting a musical space somewhere between classical and New Age. Although the harmonies are relatively simple, the music sounds serious and thoughtfully composed. It is not mindless, nor is it repetitive minimalism.

Interestingly enough, after playing the CD many times both on my main system at home and by streaming it in my car, finding it quite absorbing -- indeed, the more so the more I listened to it – I found myself wondering how much of the music was truly composed as opposed to improvised. Then one day I sat at my computer getting ready to check email, scroll through Twitter, and generally kill some time, so I decided to put some music on and opened up Amazon Music, did a quick search for Hermetism, and was surprised to find that there were two versions of the album available to stream: the version with which I was familiar, with just the music, and a version that included an introduction to the album by the composer along with his commentaries about most of the compositions – and yes, compositions they are, not improvisations.

To hear a composer’s first-hand accounts of the inspirations underlying the compositions on an album is quite a fascinating experience. A couple of quick examples: The “Mark” of For Mark turns out to be Beving’s manager, who was stricken by cancer and required a dangerous operation. During the operation, Beving focused his concentration on composing the piece, For Mark, a stately, contemplative calming five minutes of music that in light of the background story sounds almost like a prayer. The title TFV stands for “thoughts for Vikingur,” a reference to the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, whose playing Beving greatly admires. The compostion has something of a Bach-like feel to it; Olafsson is a master of Bach’s music. Beving says that the executive producer of the album, Christian Badzura, who also has a close relationship with Olafsson, had suggested to Beving that he consider writing some music for the Icelandic pianist. However, Beving did not feel that what he was able to pull together was appropriate, so instead he played around a bit more with some of his ideas and recorded the end result for his own album. The only piece that does not get any commentary is also the longest piece (10:29), titled Roses, with a simple melody, a feeling of farewell, of quiet, simple, serene beauty.

The engineering (by Beving himself, perhaps not the best idea…) at times captures some extra-musical sounds, and the piano sound itself is not always as luxurious as we have come to expect these days. But for fans of piano music with musical tastes that run toward simple, direct expression as opposed to cascades of notes from the keyboard, this is a release well worth an audition, and the commentary version is most definitely worth seeking out.

Bonus Book Recommendation:

Listen to This. Alex Ross, author. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2010. ISBN  978-0-374-18774-3

Alex Ross is the long-time classical music reviewer for the New Yorker.  Listen to This is a collection of essays about music not all of it classical, but all of it well worth reading, both for education and for enjoyment. Listen to This begins with two essays that should prove to be of particular interest to classical music fans. The first, “Listen to This: Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop,” offers a critical overview of the place and perception of classical music in American society. Ross does not beat around the bush, as these excerpts for his first paragraph should make clear: “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit oif Beethoven could still be created today…I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of ‘the music.’ Some jazz aficionados also call their art ‘America’s classical music,’ and I propose a trade: they can have ‘classical,’ I’ll take ‘the music.” The second essay, “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues,” offers a fascinating overview of musical history that culminates in the following startling speculation: “If a time machine were to bring together some late sixteenth-century Spanish musicians, a continuo section led by Bach, and players from Ellington’s 1940 band, and if John Paul Jones stepped in with the bass line of ‘Dazed and Confused,’ they might after a minute or two of confusion, find common ground. The dance of the chacona is wider than the sea.”

Of interest not just to readers but also to contributors here at Classical Candor is his third essay, “Infernal Machines: How Recordings Changed Music.” We tend to forget that we are listening to recordings, and that recordings are engineered products that have typically been assembled together from different takes, have been equalized, mixed, balanced, etc. Not only that, Ross quotes scholars who have pointed out that the advent of recording actually changed the way that musicians played and that orchestras sounded. It’s a fascinating essay, well worth reading, and it ends with an uplifting story involving the critic Hans Fantel and a CD issue of Bruno Walter’s 1938 performance of Mahler’s Ninth. Perhaps “uplifting” is the wrong word, for there are certainly horrifying elements to it. Briefly, Fantel had attended that performance with his father. Soon after the performance, Hitler’s forces invaded Austria and many of the musicians were lost, as was Fantel’s father. But for Fantel, that CD was a precious treasure, for he said “I could now recognize and appreciate the singular aura of that performance. I could sense its uncanny intensity – a strange inner turmoil quite different from many other recordings and performances of Mahler’s Ninth I have heard since. This disc held fast an event I had shared with my father: seventy-one minutes out of the sixteen years we had together. Soon after, as an ‘enemy of Reich and Führer,’ my father also disappeared into Hitler’s abyss. That’s what made me realize something about the nature of phonographs: they admit no ending. They imply perpetuity… Something of life itself steps over the normal limits of time.” As I type this, I am listening to that very recording through my computer. It is hard not to be overcome. Maher’s Ninth. Hitler. The abyss. My goodness…

There are other treasures to be found in this book, with insightful essays on Mozart, Schubert, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Luther Adams, the St. Lawrence Quartet, Marlboro (the retreat, not the cigarette) among other things – plus a sprinkling of rock, jazz, and some thoughts on music education. The final essay is a gem, “Blessed Are the Sad: The Late Brahms,” which concludes with an analysis of his Fourth Symphony (reading it makes me want to listen to the recordings by Honeck, Stokowski, Solti, and Reiner). As Ross concludes about the finale, “the whole of it seems a convincing demonstration that without music life would be a mistake.” Appended to the main body of the text are some of Ross’s ideas for suggested listening. If you have a serious interest in music and an itch to learn more, this book will help you scratch it.


Aug 21, 2022

Schumann: Symphonies No. 3 “Rhenish” & No. 4 (SACD review)

Lawrence Foster, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Pentatone PTC-5186 327.

By John J. Puccio

A few months before listening to this disc, I reviewed Maestro Lawrence Foster’s recording of the Schumann First and Second Symphonies, which he made for Pentatone around the same time he recorded these Third and Fourth Symphonies. I thought of the performances on that first set as sturdy but not particularly noteworthy. Meaning that given today’s competitive recording market, Foster’s album wouldn’t probably be at the top of most people’s list of first choices. I think it’s fair to say the same of the present disc.

Whatever, German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 97, known as the “Rhenish” Symphony, in 1850, and it would be his final symphony. (He actually wrote his numbered Fourth Symphony almost ten years earlier, but because audiences didn’t care for it at its premiere, he withdrew it, revised it, and published it after he had written No. 3. So forget about the numbering; Schumann actually wrote No. 3 after he had written most of No. 4.

An enjoyable trip to the Rhineland (an area of western Germany along the Rhine River) with his wife Clara inspired him to write the five-movement Third Symphony, with much of the music describing the scenery they saw and the experiences they encountered. Here, Foster takes the heroic opening theme so leisurely that it lacks much of the boldness it should exhibit. There is little that is grand or eloquent about it. Foster approach to the second-movement Scherzo can seem positively sluggish at first, but it does convey a properly cozy tone. The third movement (marked Nicht schnell, not fast) is more up Foster’s alley and comes off as charmingly rustic and pastoral. The final movements create contrasting solemn, then uplifting moods, which Foster manages fairly well, although I would liked to have heard more joy in the closing.

As I mentioned, Schumann originally wrote his Symphony No. 4 n D minor, Op. 120 earlier than this Third, in 1841, withdrew it, and then extensively revised it for its 1851 publication. Apparently, Brahms so loved the first version of the score, however, that he republished it in 1891. What’s more, a lot of critics agreed, noting that the earlier version was lighter and more transparent than the revised version; nevertheless, Clara Schumann insisted she liked the later, published version best, and it’s that 1851 music that we usually hear and which Maestro Foster provides. However, I doubt it would make much difference in this recording with Foster. Not only does the sound come across as rather dull and distant, so does the performance. It’s not a matter of slow tempos, either, because Otto Klemperer (EMI/Warner) takes the music as slowly but makes it come more alive. Wolfgang Sawallisch (also EMI/Warner) creates the best of all worlds here, with George Szell (Sony) a close choice.

Now, if it sounds like I’m being overly hard on Foster, understand that it not because I think he is an inferior conductor. In fact, he accompanied Itzhak Perlman on one of my favorite recordings of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto, and he has been the conductor of numerous fine ensembles, including the San Francisco Ballet, the Houston Symphony, the Ojai Music Festival, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and the Orquesta simfónica de Barcelona y nacional de Cataluña, and he is currently the Chief Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. So, yes, the man is talented, but, no, we can’t win ‘em all.

In sum, there is nothing about Foster’s Schumann performances that strikes me as being any better than other recordings I like a lot more. Among the top considerations one might enjoy are those by Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Staatskapelle Dresden (EMI/Warner), Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI/Warner), George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony (Sony), and John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (DG). But, to each his own. You’ve probably already got your favorites, and if it’s an SACD digital recording you’re looking for in multichannel, the Foster performances might just fit the bill.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Carl Schuurbier recorded the music live at the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague in April 2008. They made it in hybrid SACD for two-channel stereo or multichannel, and I listened in SACD two-channel.

The sound at almost any level appears not just soft and warm but frankly drab. I said in my review of Foster’s First and Second Symphony Schumann recordings that they seemed too reverberant to admit much detail. Here, the resonance doesn’t seem the only issue as much as does the distancing, which puts the orchestra too far back, with a consequent loss of definition. It’s better than too forward, close, and bright, I suppose, but it’s not particularly good for transparency. Perhaps five-channel surround would help; I don’t know.


Aug 17, 2022

Gilbertson: Born (CD review)

Michael Gilbertson: Born; Edie Hill: Spectral Spirits; Gilbertson: Returning. Donald Nally, The Crossing. Navona NV6449.

By Karl W. Nehring

The Crossing is a chamber choir from Philadelphia that specializes in new music. Not only does the group perform new music, but it also plays an active role in seeking out and commissioning new works to perform. For example, the piece that opens this program, Born, by American composer Michael Gilbertson (b. 1987), was commissioned by The Crossing’s conductor Donald Nally and his spouse Steven Hyder in memory of Nally’s mother. The text, which is thoughtfully included in the liner booklet, is based on a poem by the late Polish woman poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996. It contemplates birth, familial relationships, and the human condition. The poetry is vivid and moving; having it set to music and sung with such conviction as this small choir brings to it adds up to a striking emotional experience for the listener, who will have to decide whether to enjoy the sheer beauty of the sound without referring to the printed text to completely capture every word the first time around or save that for a later listening session. There’s no right or wrong sequence – just be grateful the text is available if needed for complete comprehension.  

The next composition on this release, Spectral Spirits, by another American composer, Edie Hill (b. 1962), was also commissioned by The Crossing and premiered in Philadelphia and New York in 2019. The Crossing describes the piece as a “memorial to lost birds,” structured in four “pillars” or sections representing four extinct bird species: the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, and Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. “Composing Spectral Spirits was as much a study of humans as it was of birds,” writes Hill. “I found myself asking how human beings managed to obliterate these species. In some cases, populations were brought back from the brink of extinction only to be brought down again… Why, if we see something alive, vibrant, with striking color, do we want to possess it to the point of oblivion? Why is it permissible to destroy nature in the name of ‘progress’ or financial gain? In the end: we all lose. I grieve every day for the state of our planet and her creatures. Composing Spectral Spirits was a gift that gave me a chance to funnel this grief.”

The section for each bird has a formal structure that consists of a brief introduction, a naming, and then the main sung text, based on a poem by Holly J. Hughes from her book Passings, which contains 15 poems about birds that are highly endangered or extinct. Again, the texts for all sections are given in the booklet, along with a more detailed explanation of how Ms. Hill chose to compose the piece in this particular manner. In any event, the overall effect is haunting. The way the birds are briefly introduced, formally named, and then tenderly portrayed in verse that is sung so exquisitely by the choir is bound to capture the ears and imagination of the listener, regardless of whether he or she has any particular interest in birds, living or extinct. For my money, Spectral Spirits is one of the most interesting and engaging new compositions that I have heard in quite some time. Brava, Ms. Hill!

Closing the program is another work by composer Michael Gilbertson, titled Returning. The text is by Kai Hoffman-Krull who based his lyrics on the story of David and Jonathan from the Hebrew Bible, exploring themes of friendship, fraternal and passionate love, absence, and longing in the form of an unspoken conversation between the two. Having the written text is especially helpful in this instance to clearly differentiate between the two characters.

The engineering team has done a good job of capturing the sound of the choir. There is no harshness or glare, a decent stereo spread, and just enough ambience to give a sense of space without producing suffucient echo to smear the sound. The liner notes provide useful information on the composers and their compositions as well as complete texts – the only thing I could have wanted more would have been pictures of the birds featured in Spectral Spirits, but yes, I know I am being way too greedy. If you enjoy choral music, this is one you don’t want to overlook.


Aug 14, 2022

Chausson: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello (CD review)

Also, Ysaye: Poeme Elegiaque and Meditation-Poeme. Bruno Monteiro, violin; Miguel Rocha, cello; Joao Paulo Santos, piano. Etcetera Records KTC 1729.

By John J. Puccio

Some of you may know the work of violinist Bruno Moneiro from his record albums, others from his many personal appearances, and yet a few more from my several reviews of his previous CD’s. For those who aren’t quite familiar with him yet, let me remind you. The weekly Expresso describes him as “one of today's most renowned Portuguese musicians.” He is internationally recognized as an eminent violinist.” Fanfare says he has a “burnished golden tone” and Strad comments on his having “a generous vibrato” producing radiant colors. Music Web International refers to his interpretations as producing a “vitality and an imagination that are looking unequivocally to the future” and that reach an “almost ideal balance between the expressive and the intellectual.” Gramophone praises his “unfailing assurance and eloquence,” and Strings Magazine notes that he is “a young chamber musician of extraordinary sensitivity." So, yes, he is very, very good.

Joining Mr. Monteiro on the present album is pianist Joao Paulo Santos and cellist Miguel Rocha. Together, they make some very, very good music.

The program begins with the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor, Op. 3 by French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). He wrote the piece early in his short career, while still in his mid twenties and just after studying music with Jules Massenet and Cesar Franck. Chausson did not produce an abundance of music during his brief lifetime--thirty-nine published works in all--but they were all imaginative, original, and enchanting. While he is probably best known for the Symphony in B-flat, the symphonic poem Viviane, and the Poème for violin and orchestra, his Trio is certainly another piece to be reckoned with. Indeed, it is considered by many listeners as one of Chausson’s best small-scale chamber works.

The Trio opens with a lyrical, gently rhythmic introduction before turning to a more-animated theme. The three players here maintain a strong chemistry, the violin taking the lead, with the accompanying piano and cello alternating and intertwining in cyclic variations or patterns of spirals. The performers are uniformly vibrant in their interpretation, with Monteiro’s violin an impressively solid mainstay throughout. The second movement also starts gently, then picks up a head of lighthearted steam as the instruments pursue one another around the score. It’s all quite delightful, actually, and leads into the third, slow movement. Here, it’s the piano that takes the forestage, with the violin and cello then joining in a plaintive call. It’s a lovely, poetic interlude that recalls the music of some of Chausson’s acquaintances--Massenet, Franck, and Faure in its graceful, flowing tones. It also displays the talents of Monteiro, Santos, and Rocha and their ability to smoothly meld into one. Then the Trio ends with a sprightly animated and playfully spontaneous finale that wraps up the whole work in fine fashion, the players ready to take their well-deserved bows.

Accompanying the Trio are two short pieces by one of Chausson’s contemporaries, Belgian violinist, conductor, and composer Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931). Fans called Ysaye “the king of the violin,” and, in fact, Chausson considered him to be the best interpreter of his work he’d ever heard. On the present album we have the Poeme Elegiaque for Violin and Piano, Op. 12 (later orchestrated but here done in its original form with Monteiro and Santos) and the Meditation-Poeme for Cello and Piano, Op. 16, with Rocha and Santos. They’re both sweet, enjoyable pieces, the Meditation a little more melancholy than the Elegy, and both played with a fine, delicate poise.

Producers Bruno Monteiro and Dirk De Greef and engineer Jose Fortes recorded the music at Igreja da Cartuxa, Caxias, Portugal in September 2021. As with most small-ensemble recordings, this one is relatively close, providing good, clear detail. Yet there is a mild hall resonance to add warmth to the sessions. As we might expect in the Violin Trio, the violin is the dominant but not overpowering sound.


Aug 10, 2022

Piano Potpourri, No. 9 (CD mini-reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28; Prelude in D minor Op. posth.; Oskolki ‘Fragments’; Oriental sketch; Nunc dimittis from All-Night Vigil ‘Vespers’; Moments musicaux Op 16. Steven Osborne, piano. Hyperion CDA68365.

These days the tendency is to think of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) primarily as the composer of piano concertos (especially his second and third) and symphonies (again, especially his second and third) and forget that he was one of the greatest piano virtuosos the world has ever known (blessed with amazingly large hands) and the composer of many and varied compositions for solo piano. It takes a true master of the keyboard to do these works justice, and the good gentleman from Scotland, Steven Osborne (b. 1971), is a modern-day pianist well-suited to the task. The major work on the program is the one that leads it off, the Piano Sonata No. 1, its imposing three movements taking up more than 35 minutes as performed here. From the opening measures you can gather that it was indeed composed by a keyboard virtuoso, with fingers being asked to fly and flutter across the keyboard with breathtaking abandon. The middle movement. marked Lento, is less feverishly paced but still densely packed with expression – and notes – and then the Allegro molto finale brings fourteen minutes of pianistic grandeur. Osborne then changes the mood with some shorter pieces before presenting the other major composition on the program, the six Moments musicaux, which present a variety of moods, from intense to reflective, from somber to playful. Hyperion provides Osborne with a warm sound, somewhat more ambient than then norm, but at least in my stero setup, the piano image seemed a bit too large at times, with the sections of the keyboard somewhat disconnected from each other. Still, I prefer this kind of sound to the too-close approach too often encountered. Overall, this is a splendid disc.

Chopin: Nocturne in C minor Op. 48/1; Nocturne in E Major Op. 62/2; Fantasy in F minor Op. 49; Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58. Ivo Pogorelich, piano. Sony Classics  9439912052.

The Yugoslav-born Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich (b. 1958) first received widespread attention in 1980 at the International Chopin Piano Competition when the famed and revered pianist Martha Argerich resigned from the jury in protest after Pogorelich was eliminated in the third round, calling the young pianist a “genius.” Some critics loved him, others looked down on him. His live recitals were wildly popular, but his early recordings received mixed reviews. He then went two decades without releasing a recording, finally returning to the studio in 2019. Which brings us to his most recent effort, which focuses on some of the later works of Chopin, and finds him now releasing this recording through the Sony Classics label after a long association with Deutsche Grammophon. Pogorelich brings out the dramatic elements in this music, emphasizing dynamic contrasts and displaying he ability to play with both power and sensitivity. This is clearly music that is close to his heart, but he does not let that constrain him to play it softly and sweetly – he plays it with power and authority. He is aided in this effort by the engineering, which presents his Steinway in very agreeable sound: powerful, yet smooth and focused.

Chopin: Scherzos Nos. 1-4; Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61; Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22; Fantaisie-impromptu, Op. 66. Naive V 7700. 

1908. Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit; Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28. Valentin Lisitsa, piano. Naïve V 7583.

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa (b. 1973) followed an unusual path to musical fame. In 2007 she posted a video of her playing Rachmaninoff to YouTube. She started getting some hits, picking up some followers, and things took off from there. In 2012, she parlayed her YouTube popularity into a contract with Decca, which led to a series of her recordings being released on that label. Today, she has well more than 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and a new three-year contract with the French recording label, Naïve. Should you be curious about what her videos might be like, you can find a sampling here:

The liner notes of the Chopin album include an interview with Lisitsa that include some interesting observations about Chopin’s music and her approach to playing it, such as, “One of the best pieces of advice I received as a young student was: ‘Don’t ever play Chopin as if he were about to die from tuberculosis.’ I was startled by this phrase, and I only began to understand its many levels of meaning later on… Only when I heard the finished recording as a whole did I realise how dramatic it had turned out to be.” Those taking a look at the cover photo of Ms. Lisitsa who might somehow be expecting a dreamy, “feminine” (whatever that might quite be) performance will be in for something of a surprise, as these readings are, as the pianist has herself characterized them, on the dramatic side. These are compositions that are colorful and extroverted, not subdued and introspective, and that is how Ms. Lisitsa plays them. They are also varied in structure, Chopin letting his creative imagination wander freely; here they sound playful more so than dreamy. The piano (a Steinway) sounds full and warm; it was recorded by a Russian team that really seemed to have things dialed in just fine.

The liner notes for 1908 observe that “the year 1908 was one filled with activity: the Ford Model T car, the Paris premiere of Boris Godunov in Diaghilev’s Saison Russe, the mysterious Tunguska meteorite event, still not fully explained even today, the Messina earthquake… it was also then year in which two of the greatest living composers, from France and Russia respectively, composed their most substantial piano works. Maurice Ravel wrote Gaspard de la nuit and famously claimed it to be the hardest piano work ever composed, while Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Piano Sonata No. 1 – a monstrously difficult piece, and by far the longest solo piano work he would ever write. The two three-movement works may not sound the same — Ravel’s exquisite and dazzling suite versus Rachmaninoff’s powerful, dark, intense, and thrilling sonata.” Lisitsa presents the Ravel piece first on the program. In her hands, it does not seem to sound as though it is the most difficult piece to play ever composed (of course, more than a century has passed since its composition – yikes!), but it is certainly a dazzling work, an imaginative, lively, exuberant composition that the listener can hardly believe came from the same fellow who wrote the much more stately Le Tombeau de Couperin for piano, a performance of which was recently reviewed here:

Then it is on to the Rachmaninoff, that imposing thunderstorm of a sonata. Once again, as in the Ravel, Lisitsa has the technique to master this difficult piece and play it with confidence and power. As in the Ravel, she does not sound in the least bit reticent about attacking the keyboard with assertive confidence, allowing the sheer energy of Rachmaninoff’s writing to burst forth. Her love for this music is apparent in the way she makes it ring out.

Given that I had the Osborne recording available for comparison, I spent some time going back and forth between these two excellent releases to listen for differences in both sonics and interpretation.  My goal is not to pick a “winner,” but rather to offer a quick overview of the differences that I heard between the two. In general, Osborne’s performance was on the smoother, more delicate side, while Lisitsa seemed to play with a bit more dramatic flair.

It is interesting to note that there is a very real sense in which it is simply not possible to completely impressions about sonics from judgments about musical interpretation. Things get complicated. For example, consider that Osborne on Hyperion was playing on a Steinway piano, while Lisitsa on Naïve was playing on a Bösendorfer, not to mention that of course the engineering teams and venues, recording equipment, etc., were completely different for each performer. And, of course, the output levels of the two CDs are not matched. With all those caveats in mind, I would venture to say that the sound of the Hyperion CD had a slightly warmer piano sound, with a touch more ambience, and Osborne’s performance came across as more deft, with a finer touch. The piano sound on the Naïve CD seemed a bit more closely miked, with the piano having a slightly “ringier” sound. However, the image seemed more coherent and the piano seemed livelier (which may have simply been a function of being mixed at a higher level). The performance by Lisitsa came across as more lively and dynamic, which may be in part be due to the lively and dynamic sound. In any event, the Lisitsa recording is an exciting and entertaining release.

The Turning Year. Roger Eno, piano, synthesizers; Scoring Berlin; Christian Badzura, electronics; Tibor Reman, clarinet. Deutsche Grammophon 486 2024.

Some time ago we reviewed an album titled Mixing Colours by the English brother duo Brian and Roger Eno, which you can read about here: What we have here is an album by keyboardist and composer Roger (b. 1959), whose background has been primarily in ambient music. The music that Eno has composed for The Turning Year, however, has more of a serious, classical feel to it, even though his piano has a more processed sound than would be expected in a more straightforward classical album. There is some added ambience, some electronic processing; still, the overall sound has a nostalgic, almost sentimental sound at times. Eno says of the album, “On listening back to the finished album, I felt it could be seen as series of short stories or photographs of individual scenes, each containing their own character. It was only after I’d finally finalized the running order that I realized just how much of a close relationship one piece has to another and it was this realization perhaps that led to the album’s title.” As summer gets ready to turn into fall, this album might be a fitting soundtrack.


Aug 7, 2022

Still: Summerland (CD review)

Also, Violin Suite, Pastorela, American Suite. Zina Schiff, violin; Avlana Eisenberg, Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos 8.559867.

By John J. Puccio

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was a prolific American composer who came from a mixed background--African American, Native American, Anglo, and Hispanic--but who never rejected his birth certificate identification as “Negro.” In fact, because of his close association with many prominent African-American cultural figures, he is considered a part of the Harlem Renaissance and is often referred to as “the Dean of Afro-American Composers." Although he is probably best known for his
Symphony No. 1, also called the Afro-American Symphony (1930), he wrote hundreds of other things as well, including nine operas and five symphonies. It’s good to hear a few of his works again on this newest album of his music, Summerland, with conductor Avlana Eisenberg and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

In all, there are nine items from Still on the program:
  1. “Can’t You Line ‘Em” (1940)
  2. 3 Visions - No 2 “Summerland” (1936)
  3. “Quit Dat Foll’nish” (1935)
  4. Pastorela (1946)
  5. American Suite (c.1918)
  6. “Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron” (1945)
  7. Serenade (1957)
  8. Violin Suite (1943)
  9. Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibilius (1965)

You can see by the titles that Still was not only a productive and long-lived composer, he also wrote a diverse number of pieces, from pop and jazz numbers to Hollywood film scores to classical orchestral music. And even though he studied with avant-garde composer Edgard Varese, Still’s work is not what we would classify as dissonant or aloof and most of it is charmingly approachable. The present disc offers only a small sampling of his output, yet it provides a conveniently condensed overview of the man’s work.

The opening number, “Can’t You Line ‘Em,” is based on a folk song about railroad workers laying tracks, and it provides a good, vigorous introduction to the collection. The second item, “Summerland,” is a serene vision of Heaven. It’s a perfect slow movement for the program, calm, tranquil, a respite after the momentum of the first track. The third song, “Quit Dat Fool’nish,” returns us to a snappy, jazzy scene. Now, you might be wondering, why a Scottish orchestra for so quintessentially American music? Well, the fact is, a good orchestra should be able to play any type of music meant for such an ensemble. And the Scottish National Orchestra is a good orchestra. As for the conductor,
 Avlana Eisenberg’s mother, the violinist on the disc, Zina Schiff, met the composer years ago and fell in love with his music, which in turn led to this album. Ms. Eisenberg, currently the Music Director of the Boston Chamber Symphony, has a good feel for Still’s music, and I can’t imagine it sounding any smarter, any more polished, any more entertaining than under her direction.

The Pastorela is just that: pastoral, bucolic, idyllic, peaceful, and describes in music a California landscape. As a native Californian I can appreciate that, so I looked out my living room at a nearby hillside while I listened. Yeah, it works. The American Suite in three movements is an early piece, composed while Still was in college. It appears a tad simpler than the rest of the works on the album and maybe a little more obvious in its derivations, but one can sense the potential in it.

And so it goes. The film music is loud and blustery, just right for the war movies it accompanied. The Serenade is appropriately lovely. The Violin Suite is the longest item on the agenda, and Ms. Schiff’s violin is vibrant and songful throughout. The album ends with a tribute to Finland’s Jean Sibelius, written by Still on the 100th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth. It may be the best possible summation of Still’s work as well, with both the conductor and the orchestra presenting it in charming, fashionable style.

Producer Michael Ponder and engineer Phil Hardman recorded the music at the RSNO Centre, Glasgow, UK in August 2018. Either my equipment or my ears are getting better with age or Naxos is improving their recording quality. This one sounds excellent. Many past Naxos recordings have been soft, even sometimes downright dull, but this Still production is first-rate all the way around, with plenty of detail, a realistic ambience, and good if not overpowering dynamics.


Aug 3, 2022

Piano Potpourri No. 8 (CD reviews)

Ravel: Sonatine; Menuet sur le nom de Haydn; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Menuet antique; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Le Tombeau de Couperin. Clément Lefebvre, piano. Evidence EVCD083.

By Karl W. Nehring

French pianist Clément Lefebvre (b. 1989) has put together an absolutely marvelous Ravel disc. The opening piece on the program, Sonatine, is a composition with a name that may not be recognizable to a lot of classical music lovers. However, if you give it a listen, especially in such a fine performance and recording as this one, you may well have a new favorite to add to your list. Throughout its three brief movements, it will capture your imagination and hold you spellbound. His performance of Valses nobles et sentimentales is also worthy of special mention, as it seems to strike just the right balance of power and precision that keeps things exciting without taking them over the top.

My reference for Ravel piano recordings has long been that by the late American pianist Abbey Simon (1920-2019) on Vox, which is available at a bargain price and is truly that: a bargain. I also have owned at least two CD incarnations of an intriguing set recorded for the Nimbus label by the late Lithuanian-born French pianist Vlado Perlemuter (1904-2002). Wonderfully played, but distantly recorded, the piano almost seeming to be placed across the room from the listener. This new Evidence recording is better engineered than either of these two classic sets; let’s hope that Lefebvre records the rest of the Ravel piano works so that we can have a complete set from this remarkable musician. Highly recommended.

Beethoven: The Last Sonatas, Opp. 109, 110, & 111. Gerardo Teissonniére, piano. Steinway & Sons 30188. 

Two installments ago I reviewed a CD that featured a performance of one of Beethoven’s late string quartets (, then in my previous installment I did a review of a recording of his Diabelli Variations for solo piano (, a review in which there was some discussion of his late piano sonatas, which have been recorded by just about every notable pianist. Here we have a new recording of his final three sonatas by an artist that many classical music fans may not be familiar with, the Puerto Rican-born pianist Gerardo Teissonniére (b.1961), a long-time faculty member at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who writes of these sonatas that “the drama, complex emotional charge, depth and range of expression in these works evoke the most poignant moments of the human experience in contemporary times, and have inspired a shared personal desire to convey messages of hope, gratitude, love and strength inherent in the music… These three extraordinarily diverse works present us with some of the composer’s most beautiful, innermost, surprising, and transcendental musical expression.”

That might sound to some like over-the-top prose, but for those who have really taken the time to experience the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Teissonniére’s description may well sound much more straightforward. In any event, his performance is an excellent one. It is suitably bold when the music calls for it, as in those dramatic moments in Op. 109, but he could also make the instrument sing in the Op. 111 “Arietta.” The sound of his Steinway has been captured in vividly detailed and robust sound at the Sono Luminus Studios in Virginia by engineer Daniel Shores. Gerardo Teissonniére may not have an instantly recognizable name, but this a quality recording of important music and thus certainly recommendable.

Opening. Tord Gustavsen Trio (Tord Gustavsen, piano; Steinar Raknes, double bass; Jarle Vespestad, drums). ECM 2742.

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen (b. 1970) returns to his standard trio format for his new album Opening – no added saxophone or trumpet this time around as on a few of his previous albums, just the classic piano trio format: piano, drums, and bass. Those familiar with his previous albums will pretty much know what to expect, music that is relaxing on the surface but never as simple as it first seems. Melodies twist and turn, chords shift and keys modulate, and the three musicians work together, with no extended solos, no displays of whizbang speedy playing for the sake of wowing the listener with overwhelming displays of blistering technique.

BBC Music Magazine has a feature in each issue titled “Music to my ears: What the classical world has been listening to this month” in which they ask several classical musicians what music they have been listening to recently. It is generally quite fascinating – and encouraging – to see the depth and breadth of the interests expressed by many of the musical luminaries who are featured. I was surprised this month by pianist Clare Hammond, who after mentioning listening to string quartets by Elizabeth Maconchy and a violin concerto by George Walker, had this to say: “After a day of practice, I don’t really want to classical music as I have reached saturation point, so I have been listening to jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen’s Opening, which is his latest album. I love the atmosphere he creates and the way his music takes me out of myself. I also use it when the children are screaming – I put Gustavsen on and they calm down. I don’t know if you should use music in such a utilitarian way!”  

Yes, I can see how those Maconchy string quartets would get Ms. Hammond’s kids more than a touch stirred up, especially if they have not yet had their dinner. It’s nice to know that Opening is effective in calming them down, but I’d like to close by assuring my readers that the album has an abundance of musical as well as utilitarian value. It is beautifully recorded in the usual ECM house sound – full and clear with a dollop of reverb added to give a sense of air and ambience.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

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

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa