Sep 28, 2022

Recent Releases, No. 35 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Brahms: Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor; Clarinet Trio in A minor; Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata in G minor. Yuja Wang, piano; Andreas Ottensamer, clarinet; Gautier Capuçon, cello. Deutsche Grammophon 486 2388.

This is one of those recordings that is nearly self-recommending, featuring as it does three excellent pieces of chamber music performed by three of today’s finest young musicians who actually have experience in playing chamber music together rather than just being brought together ad hoc for marketing purposes. (And did I mention that this CD times out at more than 80 minutes? There’s a lot more chips than air in this bag, folks!) The program begins with a pair of cello sonatas, both of which are big and bold, but in different ways. As those familiar with Brahms might expect, his first sonata for cello and piano is a blend of the classical and romantic styles, traditional in form but rich with emotional expression. Wang and Capuçon bring out the deep emotional resonance without exaggerating or overdramatizing.The Rachmaninoff sonata is in four movements rather than the traditional three like the Brahms; moreover, it has less sense of formal structure, although it certainly feels carefully crafted, chock full of energetic phrases and melodic inventions that the two players navigate with seeming ease. Presenting the Rachmaninoff together with the Brahms sonata is an interesting bit of programming that gives this release extra appeal. To make things even more appealing, for the final selection on we are back to Brahms, but now as a bonus adding the sound of the clarinet to that of the cello and piano as Andreas Ottensamer joins Capuçon and Wang to perform Brahms’s Clarinet Trio. Ottensamer has an especially lovely tone, light and clear and pure, never sounding forced or strained. The trio is a delightful composition that is given a fine performance by these three young stars and the recorded sound is top-drawer. If you appreciate chamber music, this is a release well worth your attention.

Face à Face. Beyond; The Under Zone; Two by Two; Across the Aisle; Algobench; Chosen Spindle; Extended Circumstances; Bunch; Sharpen Your Eyes; Ruptured Air; Stand Alone; Forest Shouts. Barre Phillips, double bass; György Kurtág jr., live electronics. ECM 2735.

Although the veteran bass virtuoso Barre Phillips (b. 1934) might be an unknown quantity to most, many classical music fans will no doubt assume that György Kurtág jr. (b. 1954) must be the son of the Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b.1926). As things sometimes happen in life, the way these two musicians from different backgrounds came to play and eventually record together was based on a related but mistaken assumption, as recounted by Kurtág the younger: “Our musical relationship, which is one of the most important of my life, was born of a misunderstanding. In 2013 a director who was preparing a film on Barre suggested incorporating a duet with György Kurtág. In the mind of the director, it was obviously my father under discussion – they are of the same generation – but Barre, who had heard me at the Le Havre festival a few months earlier, thought it was me. So he called me to suggest a meeting at a brasserie near Paris’s Gare d’Austerliz. As I knew and appreciated his work, I immediately accepted.” The two immediately hit it off, wound up playing some live gigs together, and now nine years later the pair have come together in the recording studio under the watchful eye and adventurous ear of legendary ECM producer Manfred Eicher to record their improvised music for all to hear. The music is a combination of the acoustic sound of Phillips’s bass and the electronic sounds produced by the synthesizers and electronic percussion devices played by Kurtág. There are stretches where the music wanders a bit “out there,” but other stretches that feel tender and intimate. To hear these two veteran musicians interact as they react to each other in real time is a fascinating experience. This music is not quite jazz, not quite classical, but it is certainly engaging music no matter how you might choose to label it. The sound quality is up to the usual ECM standard, clear and spacious, a spellbinding blending of electronic and acoustic sounds.


Sep 21, 2022

New Releases, No. 34 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Debussy: Beau Soir (transcr. J. Heifitz); Première Rhapsodie; Tárrega: Recuerdo de la Alhambra (transcr. R. Ricci); Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (transcr. V. Borisovsky); Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera; Fauré: Élégie in C Minor, Op. 24; Papillon, Op. 77; Berceuse, Op. 16 (transcr. T. Butorac); Après un rêve, Op. 7, No. 1 (transcr. P. Cassals); Albéniz: Tango in D Major, Op. 165, No. 2; Akira Nishimura: Fantasia on Song of the Birds; Pablo Casals: El Cant dels Ocells (Song of the Birds); de Falla: Siete canciones populares españolas (transcr. E. Cólon) - I. El Paño Moruno; II. Seguidilla Murciana; III. Asturiana; IV. Jota; V. Nana; VI. Canción; VII. Polo. Wenting Kang, viola; Sergei Kvitko, piano. Blue Griffin BGR 609.

It's always exciting to get a new release and discover a composer you’ve never heard before. This new release, Mosaic, brought that same feeling of delightful discovery, but this time not because of a new composer, but rather because of a performer. Granted, many of the new releases that I audition feature performers whose names are new to me; however, there just seems to be something special about the Chinese-born violist Wenting Kang (b. 1987), who has pulled together a captivatingly colorful and lively program of music that she has chosen to play so expressively on the viola, not the instrument for which they were originally written. As you can see from a glance through the titles above, the bulk of her program comes from French and Spanish composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who, as she points out in her liner note essay, “not only had a strong impact on each other’s work, but they were also very connected in their personal lives. Some of them were professor and student, such as Faure and Ravel. Others were close friends and colleagues, such as Fauré and Albeniz, Ravel and Falla, Tarrega and Casals and Falla, and more. As I enjoyed discovering these connections between the works and composers, I also found the modern composition of Akira Nishimura – ‘Fantasia on Song of the Birds,’ which was inspired by the Catalan folk song ‘El Cant dels Ocells’ – and I felt it ought to be included as a beautifully expressive reflection in the more contemporary musical language, and would be a wonderful counterpart to Casals’ piece with the same title.”

From start to finish, Kang and Kvitko – who, in addition to playing the piano, also served as recording engineer and producer for this release, an impressively talented individual to be sure! – bring heartfelt expression to this lyrical collection, with the rich tone of the viola sounding “just right” for these pieces. Please understand what I mean when I say that Mosaic is not just another violin recital, which it obviously isn’t. What it is is something very special indeed.  

Hildegard von Bingen: Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita; Enescu: Fantaisie concertante; Benjamin: Three Miniatures; Ysaÿe: Sonata No. 5 in G major op. 27; Bach: Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004. Carolin Widmann, violin. ECM New Series 2709 485 6803.

German violinist Carolin Widmann (b. 1976) has primarily been known as a specialist in modern music, but in her new album for the ECM New Series label she begins with music from long ago, music not originally written for the violin. The liner booklet contains an interview in which she answers question about the compositions that appear on that album, and of the opening piece attributed to the twelfth-century nun, Hildegard von Bingen, Widmann responds: “I wanted to show what the violin is capable of with this compilation of works, and in order to do so I went all the way back to the beginnings. Where does our music come from, where does the musical language come from? To me, Hildegard seemed the earliest thing that could be played on the violin, and I find her music to be very touching. I was particularly taken with this antiphon. During the recordings, we discovered that I play it differently each time. That’s why the piece appears twice, like a kind of ritual. It is played at the beginning and then before Bach’s Partita, which rounds everything off.”  Following the Bingen is a work by Enescu from 1932, a much more modern-sounding piece that really allows Widmann to show what her violin is capable of doing – but do not fear, it is not dissonant or shrill, it is rather a marvel of intense musical expression. Following the Enescu are three short miniatures by George Benjamin that he composed in 2002, each lasting less than three minutes, each allowing Widmann to demonstrate a different aspect of her technique. The Ysaÿe sonata is, as might be expected from that virtuoso violinist/composer, more of a virtuoso piece, but as Widmann points out, does not include a “virtuoso fast movement” as do some of his other sonatas. There are two movements here, complex enough to allow Widmann to highlight her technique without ever resorting to sheer breakneck speed. Then after a reprise of Hildegard’s music, Widmann closes with Bach: “It was a great concern of mine to finally record this Partita. I waited and waited with it and worked on it for years. Now I felt: the time is ripe and I have enough experience with the piece. Maybe in five years I’ll play it differently again, but in its present form it’s a mirror of my current life and artistic experiences.”

As I listened to her performance of the Bach, there seemed to be a certain lightness to her touch, a purity to her tone, and an extra measure of joy coming through her interpretation. Yes, this is an entirely subjective judgment on my part; perhaps others might feel differently, although it would be hard for me to imagine that anyone would find her playing heavy-handed or her interpretation dour. For those with a love for the violin, this recording is well worth seeking out both for its sound and its musical merits. It is an unalloyed delight in both respects.

Philip Glass: Symphony No. 12 “Lodger”
(from lyrics by David Bowie and Brian Eno). Angélique Kidjo, voice; Christian Schmitt, organ; Dennis Russell Davies, Filharmonie Brno. Orange Mountain Music OMM 0159.

Long-time fans of Philip Glass might be aware that this is not the first time that he has based a symphony on an album by the late English rock icon David Bowie. As conductor Dennis Russell Davies tells the story, “Philip was in his early fifties when we began discussing the idea of composing a symphony… Most of his instrumental music to date, with elements of improvisation, were created for the Philip Glass Ensemble, but I was eager to win Philip’s growing young audience for classical symphonic concerts. Around this time an idea was developing to have Philip write a piece based on music by David Bowie and Brian Eno, which Philp then transformed in to a three-movement symphony, his first, called “Low.” Of course he later returned to his special collaboration with Bowie and Eno with his fourth symphony “Heroes.”  Low, Heroes, and Lodger were albums that Bowie recorded in Berlin in the late 1970s with the help of Brian Eno and are known to Bowie fans as the “Berlin albums.”

Although Glass’s first two symphonies based on Bowie’s Berlin albums are purely orchestral, his Symphony No. 12 is a vocal symphony consisting of seven movements. The first is a brief (2:42) movement for the orchestra and organ, while the remaining six all feature singing by Benin-born world music singer Angélique Kidjo with orchestral accompaniment. The sound of the organ intertwined with the orchestra – and sometimes playing on its own – makes for some interesting sonic textures; Glass has moved beyond simple minimalism to produce some genuinely colorful and involving music. Kidjo’s voice, on the other hand, is at once shouty and flat-sounding. She sounds neither like a rock singer nor an opera singer. The lyrics, which are printed in the CD booklet, are of course clearly intended to be sung by a man; hearing them sung by a woman is a bit, well, I’ll just leave it at that. (As a side note, there are a couple of photos in the CD booklet apparently taken at a concert performance of this symphony – the liner notes state that the recording was made in the studio between a pair of live performances – in which Ms. Kidjo is singing into a microphone, which seems a bit surprising.)

To be honest, it is just not clear who this release is aimed at. Classical music lovers who were open-minded enough to enjoy Glass’s first two Bowie-derived symphonies are most likely going to be put off by the vocals, and it is hard to imagine very many fans of the late Thin White Duke suddenly deciding they want to hear this symphonic release. But, hey, I’ve been wrong before…


Sep 18, 2022

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 (CD review)

Sabine Devielhe, soprano; Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905 905357.

By John J. Puccio

Les Siecles is a period-instrument ensemble, one we are more accustomed to hearing in works from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and maybe into the nineteenth centuries. But Mahler premiered his Symphony No. 4 in G major in 1901, which would seem well out of the range normally associated with “period” music and “period” performances. Here’s what conductor Francois-Xavier Roth said about his period recording of the Mahler First Symphony and which we can assume applies here: “Mahler already had in mind an ideal sound nourished by his collaborations with German orchestras and his studies in Vienna. We therefore decided to use the instruments with which he would have been familiar in the pit of the Vienna Court Opera and the Musikverein, and selected Viennese oboes, German flutes, clarinets and bassoons, German and Viennese horns and trumpets, and German trombones and tubas. These instruments are built quite differently from their French contemporaries! The fingerings, the bores and even the mouthpieces of the clarinets were completely new to our musicians. In the case of the string section, each instrument is set up with bare gut for the higher strings and spun gut for the lower ones. Gut strings give you a sound material totally different from metal strings, more highly developed harmonics, and incisiveness in the attack and articulation."

Of the current performance, when asked if a historically informed interpretation still means something when playing Mahler, Roth explains further: “Period instruments give us a lot of interpretative solutions. You can’t keep ladling on the fortissimi ad infinitum: the instruments have an organological limit that shows us how they should be played. They provide greater poetry. But more than the instruments themselves, which give us the envelope or the musical colour, the challenge of an informed interpretation is to understand where music comes from. In Mahler’s case, the question is all the more fascinating because he was a truly European musician and performer, a pure product of Mitteleuropa. He travelled a lot, he had absorbed Austrian, Hungarian, German influences. He was steeped in that music, which comes from Haydn and foreshadows Bartok; it runs in his veins. You have to respect that.”

Thus, we have a new reading of an old favorite, the Fourth being possibly the most-popular of all the Mahler symphonies (an irony, perhaps, considering that early audiences and critics pretty much hated it). Anyway, as you no doubt know, Mahler intended at least his first four symphonies as extensions of one another, one following  the other in a kind of symbolic progression. In the First Symphony the composer described, musically, Man’s suffering and triumph. In the Second he examined death and resurrection. In the Third he reflected upon his own existence and that of God. And one of his protégés, the conductor Bruno Walter, described the Fourth Symphony as “a joyous dream of happiness and of eternal life promises him, and us also, that we have been saved."

More specifically, the first movement, which Mahler marks as "gay, deliberate, and leisurely," begins playfully, with the jingling of sleigh bells and develops a complex pattern from seeming simplicity. The second movement introduces Death into the scene, with a vaguely sinister violin motif. The slow, third-movement Adagio, marked "peacefully," is a kind of reprieve from the dread of Mr. Death. Then, in the fourth and final movement, we get Mahler's vision of heaven and salvation as exemplified by the innocence of an old Bavarian folk song, a part of the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn that Mahler much loved. Here, the composer wanted the song to sound so unaffected that he insisted upon the soprano's part being sung with "child-like bright expression, always without parody."

So, how does Maestro Roth and his period-instrument band handles all of this? Well, his interpretation doesn’t differ too much from the mainstream. His rubato, his slowing down and speeding up, appears more flexible than in most readings, but it adds a definite charm to the well-worn proceedings and spices things up nicely. In other words, you won’t confuse Roth with veteran Mahlerians like Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink, Bruno Walter, George Szell, or Otto Klemperer. Nor will you confuse Les Siecles with the Berlin Philharmonic or the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Mahler’s Fourth calls for a slightly smaller ensemble than he had used in his previous three symphonies, and the sixty or so members of Les Siecles fill the job splendidly. What’s more, maybe because of the slightly smaller numbers and the period instruments, we get more transparency than we usually find in the orchestration.

The second movement under Roth is so eerie it can be downright unsettling. Mahler marks it “leisurely, without haste,” which is what Roth does, yet he infuses it with a bizarre, menacing tone that’s hard to ignore. It’s no wonder those early audiences had difficulty understanding what was going on. After that, Roth takes the Adagio in as tranquil, as serene a fashion as I’ve heard, and he does so without becoming tiresome or tedious. It’s really quite an endearing rendition.

Then we come to the finale, with its soprano voicing the innocence of youth and promise of the future. Here, the singer must be careful not to come off too coy, self-conscious, or artificial. The soloist is the noted French coloratura soprano Sabine Devieilhe, who provides the music with just the degree of straightforward, effortless spontaneity it needs. It concludes one of the best Mahler Fourth performances in quite a while. It’s different, never dull, and always engaging.

Producer and engineer Jiri Heger recorded the symphony at La Seine Musicale - RIFFX Studio NO. 1, Boulogne-Billancourt, France in November 2021. As with so many of Harmonia Mundi’s recordings, this one is beautifully full and luxuriant. Imaging is precise; depth is moderate; dynamics are more than adequate; detailing and clarity are good, without being harsh or bright; and imaging is precise. It’s realistic sound, never artificial, never too forward or too soft. It’s comfortable, lifelike sound.


Sep 14, 2022

J. S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (CD review)

Klara Wurtz, piano. Piano Classics PCL10230.

By Bill Heck

The Goldberg Variations? For those who don’t know, it’s an oft-told story but I’ll summarize it quickly: supposedly one Count Keyserling, Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony, was troubled by serious insomnia. The Count employed a musician by the name of Goldberg, who accompanied him on a trip to Leipzig where they met Bach. Somehow Bach ended up writing a set of variations to help the Count sleep, or at least to make his sleeplessness more bearable, and the Count would frequently ask Goldberg to play a few variations at such times, thus the reference to “Goldberg Variations.” There are multiple reasons to doubt this legend, but in any case, the name has stuck, and I suppose it’s as good a name as any: would the “Keyserling Variations” be any better?

Regardless of the pedigree, it’s difficult to know how the Variations could be soporific. Granted, they are not rousing marches or stirring calls to arms, but their inventiveness, constantly changing moods, and sheer depth are hardly calculated to induce snoring, at least for anyone listening with more than half an ear.

So, who is Klara Wurtz? Although not a household name, she is hardly unknown: she has recorded extensively, mostly on Brilliant Classics, and has an active touring career. Her past recorded repertoire has included a complete Mozart sonata cycle, a Schumann cycle, and other works by Schubert and even Bartok; she has garnered positive reviews along the way. So far as I can tell, this album is her first recorded foray into the Baroque.

Now to the recording at hand: this is the point where I admit to feeling somewhat inadequate to my reviewing task. The set of Goldberg Variations is one of the most famous and most often recorded works in the keyboard (piano and harpsichord) literature. Scholarly articles discussing the composition abound; entire books have been written on the topic. Isaac Newton’s remark about feeling like a child on the seashore diverted by a shinier pebble while surrounded by a vast ocean of undiscovered truth seems all too apropos. So rather than trying to dissect details and refer to specific passages, I’ll concentrate on the characteristics of this recording that I find so appealing: moderation, clarity, and sound.

First, Wurtz steers what I hear as a steady but well-chosen course between extremes of performance: tempi are generally moderate but never dragging; there is no exaggerating for atmospheric effects, she doesn’t hot rod to show off; and there are no sudden, puzzling shifts in dynamics. I certainly don’t mean to say that the playing is mechanical; Wurtz is fully capable of flying when that fits the music, as in Variation 9 or the finger-twisting madness of 15. Instead, I mean that she stays focused on presenting the music in an appealing way, yet one that does not call attention to the playing for its own sake. There are some other performances during which you might suddenly think “What was that?” after some surprising sound: in this recording, the surprises are the ones delivered by the genius of Bach himself.

Secondly, Wurtz’s playing has remarkable clarity, by which I mean that every note seems to be delivered audibly while still being placed in the correct context. I heard few, if any, passages in which the moving voices of Bach’s writing were lost, obscured, or otherwise difficult to follow. Again, this does not mean that each note is sounded in the same way at the same volume; that would be unmitigated disaster. What I do mean is that I could hear the notes clearly but each in a place that seems appropriate for its role in the sonic landscape, as part of a unified whole. To use a visual analogy, even the tiny details or a fine painting are visible if you look closely, even though some are larger or more colorful than others.

Finally, the performance is presented in superbly recorded sound: the Piano Classics team has outdone themselves. The piano is of believable size (no eight-foot-wide keyboards here), with a nicely centered sonic image, all in a naturally reverberant field-- but not so reverberant as to subtract from the clarity of the playing. (The liner notes tell us that the recording venue was the Westvest Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands and, for those keeping score, the instrument was a Steinway D.) The sound is coherent through the entire range. I did think that the lowest registers of the piano could have used a bit more weight, but that’s a minor quibble – and besides, we’re listening to Bach here, not Liszt. One other point: the between-variation (between track) gaps are quite short. For this music, that seems a wise choice that keeps the variations flowing, the better to compare and contrast them one to another.

Drawing all this together, perhaps the word I want here is “lively” (“delightful” comes to mind as well) in the sense that Wurtz makes Bach’s music come alive. No, this performance will not make you forget Gould or Perahia or any other personal favorite, but then everyone needs multiple versions of the Goldbergs, right? In any case, to my ears, this one stands on its own as a fine achievement.


Sep 11, 2022

Musa Italiana (CD review)

Music of Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mozart. Riccardo Chailly, Filarmonica della Scala. Decca 485 2944.

By John J. Puccio

Just as a lot of Spanish-inflected music was written by French composers (Bizet, Massenet, Chabrier, etc.), so has much Italian-themed music been written by non-Italians, as in the present album of Italian-influenced music by German and Austrian composers. Perhaps it says as much as anything about the countries of Spain and Italy that they have inspired so many people outside their boundaries to write music in their style.

Whatever, it’s good to see an Italian conductor, Riccardo Chailly, and an Italian orchestra, the Filarmonica della Scala, doing music (from whatever composer) in the Italian manner. It’s also good to see Maestro Chailly doing more recordings. He’s been around a long time and has been the principal conductor of some of the world’s finest orchestras (Gewandhaus Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and others) and is now the Music Director of La Scala. Although I would not fully agree with a 2015 Bachtrack poll in which music critics ranked Chailly as the world's best living conductor, he is certainly among the best currently working.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 “Italian” (revised 1934 version) by German composer, conductor, and pianist Felix Mendelssohn. He premiered it in 1833 after a trip to Italy, but he never published it in his lifetime. Although it is numbered 4 among his five symphonies, he wrote it last. Concerning it, the composer wrote “It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement.”

The first movement Allegro is among the most recognizable of all the music Mendelssohn wrote for his symphonies, a thrilling surge of undulating rhythms that can get the blood racing as well as reflect a sunny Italian mood. Chailly takes it at a zesty pace that certainly gets the adrenaline flowing, while not being too overly hectic.

The second-movement Andante con moto scholars think may have been inspired by the religious processions Mendelssohn saw on his trip to Rome. One may be perhaps slightly perplexed by this tempo indication (moderately slow yet with quick motion) for a religious procession, but Chailly does his best to combine the two contrasting possibilities into a nimble if speedy walk. After that is a delicate Minuetto, Con moto grazioso; which Chailly handles with much refined grace and spirited delight. Then the work concludes with a Saltarello. Allegro di molto (a lively Italian dance in a fast tempo) that is essentially a whirlwind of music reminiscent of the composer's Midsummer Night's Dream. Here, Chailly lets the horses loose, yet even though the revised edition adds a number of bars, it appears more animated than ever. (Though longer, it seems shorter, if you know what I mean.) In all, this is one of the most ebullient and lively interpretations of the Fourth Symphony you’ll find, if that’s what you’re looking for.

The next selections are Austrian composer Franz Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style in D and Overture in the Italian Style in C. They come as a distinct contrast to the Mendelssohn, being more serene and sedate. Yet under Chailly’s direction, they are no less charming and contain much sparkling delight.

The program concludes with three overtures by W.A. Mozart from Mitridate, re di Ponto; Ascanio in Alba; and Lucio Silla. They are typically Mozartian, with a classical beauty and sheen. Maestro Chailly polishes them to a high luster with an energetic hand.

Producers Dominic Fyfe and John Fraser and engineer Philip Siney recorded the music at Teatro alla Scala, Milan in June 2021. The audio has a fairly narrow stereo spread set in a somewhat hollow-sounding venue. We get an abundance of hall resonance, which helps to present a reasonably realistic setting while obscuring some detail and creating a somewhat soft, rounded overall sound.


Sep 7, 2022

MahlerFest XXXIV: Sawyers: Symphony No. 5; Mahler Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Kenneth Woods, The Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra. Colorado MahlerFest.

By Karl W. Nehring

We have previously encountered American conductor Kenneth Woods in his role as conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, where he has championed the works of contemporary composers, among them the English composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951), several of whose previous compositions Maestro Woods has recorded with various U.K. orchestras. But Woods wears another hat as Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and conductor of their orchestra. Colorado MahlerFest is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1988 that presents an annual, weeklong festival celebrating Mahler’s life and music as well as the works of composers who influenced Mahler and by composers whom Mahler in turn influenced. The Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra draws together young professionals, conservatory and university students, and advanced amateurs. In 2005, the International Gustav Mahler Society of Vienna awarded Colorado MahlerFest its rarely bestowed Mahler Gold Medal. MahlerFest was honored alongside the New York Philharmonic, joining such past recipients as the Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein.

In the program notes for the Mahlerfest performance, which occurred in August, 2021, Woods writes of Mahler’s Fifth that “it charts a journey from darkness to light not unlike that of Beethoven’s Fifth, a work with which it often compared. But where Beethoven’s Fifth ends in the unambiguous triumph of hope over despair, Mahler’s Fifth is more equivocal and more ambivalent. As Mahler began the new century, he seemed to be saying that tragedy and adversity are forever part of the human condition, that there can never be such a thing as ‘happily ever after,’ but that when storms pass, we must embrace life, seize the moment, and celebrate. The performance by Woods and his orchestra is lithe and flexible, never sounding melodramatic or exaggerated for effect. Just for fun I thought it would be interesting to compare it to one of my reference versions, that by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein (also a live performance). What hit me right away was just the sheer power of the Vienna Philharmonic; this was not really surprising, as the Vienna forces outnumbered the Colorado forces and were playing in a mighty fine acoustic space. Still, the MahlerFest forces have produced an attractive interpretation of this work, well worth an audition. The recording quality of these discs is more than acceptable – very good, in fact – but the plain truth is that the Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra is simply not going to sound like the Vienna Philharmonic, especially in Mahler. No shame in that.

But the real attraction of this release is the world premier recording of another Fifth Symphony, that of British composer Philip Sawyers (b. 1951), of whom. Woods observes: “Composer Philip Sawyers has become recognized as one of the most important symphonists of the past 50 years. Like so many musicians, Sawyers saw many long-anticipated projects disappear overnight following the emergence of Covid-19. However, like Mahler, he has chanelled his energies back into hi creative work, and since then he has produced a new Viola Concerto, a Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, a string orchestra piece, and most recently, his Fifth Symphony. Whether by coincidence or design, Sawyer’s Fifth is also in five movements, and, like the Mahler, it shows a composer at the height of his powers exploring new musical territory.” From the very opening, this symphony announces itself as the work of a serious, major composer. There is a strong sense of mystery in the opening movement, of something brewing beneath the surface. The second movement ups the energy level, giving the brass opportunity to shine, while the third movement, marked Lento, is more brooding and searching in tone. With some plaintive writing for the woodwinds. The fourth movement begins with swirling strings and continues in an energetic romp. The finale opens with boisterous brass and percussion and continues along with high energy until shifting gears and ending subtly, as if in a dream – simple, but striking.

The Sawyers Symphony No. 5 is a remarkable work that deserves wider recognition. It can be purchased here:


Sep 4, 2022

Liszt: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 (CD review)

Also, Piano Sonata No. 2. Alexander Ullman, piano; Andrew Litton, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Rubicon Classics RCD1057.

By John J. Puccio

For those of you unfamiliar with Alexander Ullman, “he first came to international attention in 2011 after winning the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition in Budapest. Born in London in 1991, he studied at the Purcell School, the Curtis Institute and the Royal College of Music, completing his Artist Diploma as the ‘Benjamin Britten Piano Fellow’ in 2017.” Since then he has appeared on concert stages all over the world and recorded about half a dozen albums. His Web site says “praised for his subtle interpretations and refined technical mastery, British pianist Alexander Ullman has impressed audiences and critics worldwide with his deep understanding of the scores he interprets, his elegant touch and crystalline phrasing.”

On the present CD he is accompanied by Andrew Litton, who needs no introduction, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Together they tackle two of the mainstays of the classical piano repertoire, Liszt’s piano concertos, along with his celebrated piano sonata. Mr. Ullman does, indeed, impress the listener with an “elegant touch,” as one might expect from a fellow who has won several Liszt piano competitions.

So, first on the agenda is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, S.124, which the Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote in 1855. However, Liszt had been working on it for over a quarter of a century, completing a first draft around 1830 and completing it 1849. When Liszt finally premiered it, he played the solo part himself, with Hector Berlioz conducting. It’s probably the more famous of Liszt’s piano concertos because it’s the more virtuosic of the two, its dramatic opening notes likely known even to non-classical lovers.

Ullman is certainly a bravura pianist, so he gets the big, expressive sections of the score, like the opening, across with appropriate energy. Still, he doesn’t always communicate as much color or character with these sections, as, say, Sviatoslav Richter did in his old Philips recording (now remastered by HDTT). Ullman dazzles us, to be sure, with the dexterity of his fingers, but he doesn’t always deliver much more than sonic fireworks. On the other hand, Ullman does a terrific job with the softer, more introspective parts of the music, which can be heart-meltingly beautiful. For instance, the second-movement Quasi Adagio never sounded lovelier. What’s more, the little Allegretto Vivace dances with a sweet, lighthearted playfulness. In all, Ullman projects Liszt’s fancy flourishes with plenty of gusto but without a lot of colorful flair, while delivering the quieter moments in a most touching manner. Maestro Litton and his BBC players do a fine job accompanying Ullman, and even keeping up with him.

The second item on the program is the Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178, which Liszt wrote in 1853. Of all Liszt’s work, the Sonata has probably drawn the most criticism, comment, and praise. Here, Ullman takes his time, though never sluggish, and interprets the piece with a calm and reassuring poise. He makes maximum use of contrasts and pauses to draw out the best in the music. The music elicits the best from Ullman, too, who draws together the sonata’s six brief movements into a coherent whole rather than a series of sometimes diverse and discordant pieces.

The closing selection is Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A, S.125. As with the Concerto No. 1, Liszt wrote a first draft some years before revising and completing a final version, premiering it in 1857. This Second Concerto is more subtle and in many ways more imaginative than his First Concerto, which might explain why it isn’t quite as recognizable as the First. Whatever, Ullman handles the music with delicacy and charm. While the piece may not have the flamboyant elements of the First Concerto, it more than makes up for it in its poetic grace, which Ullman seems to relish. It’s also noteworthy that Litton and the orchestra seemed more prominent here than I’ve noticed before in this score, doing as much to convey the music as the piano does. It’s as lovely an interpretation of the Second Concerto as any I’ve heard.

Producers Matthew Cosgrove and Andrew Keener and engineer Dave Rowell recorded the music at Henry Wood Hall, London in September 2020 and 2021. The sound is very clear but at the expensive of being a little forward. There is good imaging in the concertos, with the pianist nicely focused up front and the orchestra spread out behind him. I just wish the lower treble weren’t quite so sharp and bright. The sound of the sonata was more to my like liking, the piano miked at just the right distance to appear lifelike without being glossy or glaring.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa