Piano Potpourri, No. 8 (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Dvorák: Poetic Tone Pictures Op. 85. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. Sony Classics 19439912092.

For the majority of music lovers, piano music is probably not the first type of music that springs to mind when we think of Dvorák. In fact, it might not be the second – or even the third. My guess is that most of us would first think of the symphonies (especially the final three), then his cello or perhaps violin concerto, and then his chamber music (the “American” string quartet, the “Dumky” trio). And even if we did think of his piano music, chances are it was the familiar Humoresque, not the music that the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (b. 1970) brings to us here on this new disc from Sony Classics. On this release we once again encounter the tale of a musician using the break imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic to produce something positive – in tbis case, Andsnes dove into these solo piano works of Dvorák and studied them in depth, discovering that the composer had hoped that pianists would play them not just individually, but together. The end result is this recording, which is a sheer delight from start to finish. There are 13 pieces that make up the set, each given a brief descriptive title (e. g., “Twilight Way,” “Spring Song,” “On the Holy Mountain”). The liner notes offer a condensed overview of the set along with a few comments by Andsnes. The mood varies from piece to piece, but the overall feeling is tuneful and entertaining. This is one of the albums that it is simply difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying.   

Mozart: The Piano Sonatas. Robert Levin, fortepiano. ECM New Series 2710-16 (7 CDs).

Although Mozart’s piano sonatas are not – at least for me – not quite at the same exalted artistic level as those by Beethoven or Schubert, they are still wonderful works, full of marvelous melodies and a wide range of emotional expression. To have a complete set presented to us by an artist such as the American musicologist and pianist Robert Levin (b. 1947) is an occasion worth noting. Levin is well known in musicology circles for his studies of Mozart and his painstaking completions of some of Mozart’s fragmentary manuscripts. In this set, for example, he includes his completions of three sonata movement fragments in addition to a fantasia and tbe 18 complete sonatas, which he performs in order. There are extensive liner notes that discuss the music, including Levin’s reconstruction work, and the instrument.

Ah, the instrument… The album cover proclaims that the sonatas are performed “on Mozart’s fortepiano.” There is an essay discussing the construction, sound, and history of the instrument included in the liner notes, in which it is noted that Moaart himself did some of his composing on this instrument, which was later gifted to one of his sons, and that Mendelssohn once tickled its keys. Eventually it was given to a museum, and now through the efforts of ECM and no doubt in recognition of Levin’s world-class reputation as a Mozart scholar the instrument was made available for this recording. Of Levin’s profound knowledge of Mozart’s music and his ability to play it in an appropriate style there can be no doubt. Indeed, the music flows from his fingers with remarkable facility. For lovers of Mozart’s piano music, this set is going to be a must-have. The only reservation that keeps me from making an enthusiastic general recommendation. Is the sound of the instrument itself, a sound that is closer to that of a harpsichord than to a modern piano. For some, that will not be an issue, but for others, it might well be an insurmountable obstacle to their listening enjoyment. Still, everything about this release is first-class. The packaging, the liner notes, the performances, the engineering – this is truly an outstanding release.

Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas Volume 1. No. 3 in B-flat Major K.281; No. 13 in B-flat Major K.333; No. 17 in B-flat Major K.570. Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics CC19.

Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas Volumes 2 & 3. Vol. 1: No. 9 in A Minor K.310; No. 12 in F Major K.332; No. 18 in D Major K.576.  Vol. 2: No. 9 in A Minor K.310; No. 12 in F Major K.332; No. 18 in D Major K.576.  Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics CC21.

There are several contrasts between this set and the Levin set reviewed above. Most obviously, the Levin set is complete, while this new set by American pianist Orli Shaham (b. 1975) is ongoing (Vol. 1 was released in 2020, Vols. 2 & 3 in 2022, with Vols. 4 and 5 slated for release in the spring and summer of 2023, respectively). Another striking contrast is in the sound. While Levin recorded his set on “Mozart’s piano,” Shaham has chosen to record on a modern Steinway. As a further note about sound, the recording producer and editor for the series is the veteran Erica Brenner and the recording engineer for Vol. 1 and most of Vol. 2 was the late Michael Bishop (1951-2021), whom audiophiles may recognize as the engineer responsible for many of those spectacular Telarc recordings of days gone by. Following the loss of Bishop, engineering duties were taken over by Robert Friedrich, himself a top-rate engineer. Rest assured that Ms. Shaham – and your ears – have been afforded some state-of-the-art sonics.

Regarding the question of why do we need yet another recorded cycle of the Mozart piano sonatas, Shaham recognizes “that is the key question of the whole project… Part of the answer lies in then personal journey of discovery; part of it is in wanting to share with as many people as possible the results of what could so easily be a selfish process. I’ve found some very cool things along the way… I believe that most of us have understood during the Covid pandemic what performers have known for a long time: that there is no substitute for live music. Although these are recordings, I am trying here to capture then spontaneous feeling of live performance.”  In the liner notes for Vol. 1, she makes the interesting observation that “You don’t need to know anything about sonata form or the circumstances of Mozart’s life to love the opening melody of K. 333. The beauty of Mozart is that it communicates directly on that level. It’s clear to anyone who listens to his operas that K. 333 starts with a single melodic idea, not four separate motifs, which is perhaps how many pianists would think of it. I believe that contemplating things from the perspective of the voice is crucial for Mozart – very few of his lines in the piano sonatas and other instrumental works are not vocally inspired. Everything is singable; it’s rare to find intervals in Mozart’s music that are not. In so many ways, Mozart taught the keyboard to sing.” There is indeed a fluid, singing quality to Shaham’s playing that is engaging and pleasurable. Add to that the beautifully captured sound of her piano and you wind up with Mozart recordings that are well-nigh irresistible.

Dawn. Ola Gjeilo, piano. Decca Classics 4852954.

Norwegian-born composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) lives in the United States. He has written for both choir and piano. My first exposure to his music was several years ago when I first heard his 2012 Chandos release Northern Lights, an album of choral music performed by the Phenix Chorale that I found I utterly spellbinding. Looking to find more music by this fascinating composer, I discovered a 2016 release simply titled Ola Gjeilo, which featured Voces8, Tenebrae, and the Chamber Orchestra of London. It was a nice album, but some of the music was the same as on the earlier recording. I later purchased a couple of solo piano recordings he had made for a small label. Although there was nothing spectacular about them, they were interesting in their own way. This new one, however, is a disappointment, comprising as it does music that never seems to rise above the merely pleasant. For a composer with Gjeilo’s talents, merely pleasant is not nearly enough. As they way in the sports world, “c’mon man!” Perhaps it is time to for Gjeilo to get back to choral writing.


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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