Recent Releases, No. 40 (CD reviews)
By Karl W. Nehring
Debussy: Early and Late Piano Pieces
Debussy: Danse Bohémienne, L4; Mazurka, L75; Deux Arabesques, L74 I. Andantino, II. Allegretto Scherzando; Rêverie, L76; Valse Romantique, L79; Ballade Slave 'Ballade', L78; Suite Bergamasque, L82 I. Prélude, II. Menuet, Iii. Clair de Lune, IV. Passepied; Tarantelle Styrienne 'Danse', L77; Nocturne, L89; Images 'Images Oubliées', L94 I. Lent: Mélancolique Et Doux, II. Sarabande, III. Quelques Aspects de 'Nous N'irons Plus Au Bois' Parce Qu'il Fait Un Temps Insupportable; Pièce Pour Piano 'Morceau de Concours', L117; Hommage À Haydn, L123; Debussy: The Little Nigar 'Cake-Walk', L122; Pièce Pour L'uvre Du Vêtement Du Blessé 'Page D'album', L141; Élégie, L146; Les Soirs Illuminés Par L'ardeur Du Charbon, L150. Steven Osborne, piano. Hyperion CDA68390.
The previous recording by Scottish pianist Steven Osborne (b. 1971) reviewed in Classical Candor featured his interpretations of piano music by the Russian-American composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), a review that can be found here:
In this more recent Hyperion release, however, we find him tackling music of much different character and color, that of the French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Whereas Rachmaninoff, even though he was the younger of the two, is generally regarded as more of a throwback – a Romantic composer, heart-on-sleeve, a grand melodist in the style of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other Russian masters, whose keyboard music tended toward the splashy, flashy, lots-of-notes style (I exaggerate, of course, for purposes of contrast – he was also capable of great tenderness and delicacy, as an audition of Osborne’s recording will readily confirm), Debussy is generally regarded as a musical revolutionary who helped introduce new ways of thinking about harmony that have influenced musicians such as Bartok, Messiaen, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and countless more from the realms of classical, jazz, film, and even pop and rock music. He is often called an “Impressionist,” although he hated the label. (Interestingly enough, as you listen to his music for either keyboard or orchestra – or even his chamber music – the last thing you might think of would be the music of Bach, Bach was the composer whom Debussy held in then highest regard, calling him “the God of music.”)
For this recording, Osborne has chosen to take a different approach from what we often find in recordings of Debussy’s works for piano. Rather than highlighting a major set of his works, such as the Etudes or Preludes, Osborne has instead – as the album title indicates – pulled together a program comprising compositions from throughout the French master’s career. The first selection, Danse Bohémienne (1880) is the first known piece for piano that Debussy ever wrote; the final selection, Les Soirs Illuminés Par L'ardeur Du Charbon (“On evenings lit with the glow of coals”) (1917) was composed near the end of his life as Debussy found himself depressed by both the war and his health – he was dying of cancer. Highlights of Osborne’s performance include his delicate shadings in Rêverie, which truly do suggest a sense of dreamlike wakefulness (or is it wakeful dreaminess?), his deft and colorful Suite Bergamasque, and his masterly playing of the selection from the Images. As usual with Hyperion, the recorded sound of the piano is excellent: rich and full-bodied, not too close but not too distant. What’s more, the informative liner notes and attractive cover art are nice bonus features of this highly recommendable release.
Hellbound Train: An Anthology
Steve Tibbetts, guitars/percussion/dobro/piano; Marc Anderson, congas/percussion/gongs/steel drum/handpan; with Jim Anton/Eric Anderson/Bob Hughes, bass; Michelle Kinney, cello/drones; Marcus Wise, table; Tim Weinhold, vase/bongos; Mike Olson, synthesizer; Claudia Schmidt/Rhea Valentine, voice. ECM 2656/57 455 7480.
American guitarist Steve Tibbetts (b. 1954) has been making imaginative music with his guitar for more than four decades, many of them accompanied by percussionist Marc Anderson (b. 1955), who has recorded some excellent albums of his own (especially Time Fish and Ruby – the latter can be found digitally on Amazon, the former is harder to locate, alas). After releasing two self-produced albums on his own Frammis label, Tibbetts came to the attention of Manfred Eicher, the now-legendary head of ECM records. The next thing they knew, Steve and Marc found themselves in a recording studio in Oslo, wondering what in the heck they were actually going to record. What emerged from those sessions was Northern Song, an acoustic album of quiet beauty that was a marked contrast to the more brash, assertive approach of the earlier albums. It remains to this day one of the most treasured recordings in my collection, a spiritual touchstone in the manner of music such as Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt or the Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8.
Tibbetts went on to record seven more albums for ECM, including this two-disc compilation that includes tracks from his previous seven ECM releases: Northern Song (1982), Safe Journey (1984), Exploded View (1986), Big Map Idea (1989), The Fall of Us All (1994), A Man About a Horse (2002), Natural Causes (2010), and Life Of (2018). All seven of these albums are excellent, each with a different personality. I enjoy them all but if I were forced to pick my favorites (besides Northern Song, which I have already mentioned), they would be Exploded View, for its imaginative drumming and percussion by Marc Anderson; The Fall of Us All, for its sheer intensity and drive; and Life Of, an introspective acoustic oasis, something of a Northern Song for the new century.
Hellbound Train features 28 tracks spread over two CDs. CD I, which leans toward the more electric, high-energy side of things, contains 11 tracks: four from The Fall of Us All, five from A Man About a Horse, and one each from Exploded View and Safe Journey. CD II leans more to the acoustic side, containing 17 tracks: three from Natural Causes, three from Safe Journey, five from Big Map Idea, four from Life Of, and two from Northern Song. As an overview of Tibbetts’s body of work for ECM, it certainly serves its purpose. My hope, ECM’s hope, and probably Steve’s hope – although he has always struck as someone more concerned about his recordings’ sounds and souls than their sales – is that if you hear things that strike your fancy on Hellbound Train, then you will be want to pick up some of his other ECM recordings. They’re all excellent, each in a different way, all in superb ECM sound.
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.
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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