Apr 19, 2023

131 (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Missy Mazzoli: Enthusiasm Strategies; Sean Neukom; 19|20; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14, op. 131.  Beo String Quartet (Jason Neukom, violin; Andrew Giordano, violin; Sean Neukom, viola; Ryan Ash, cello). NeuKraft Records


Beethoven fans will recognize 131 as the opus number of one of the composer’s most beloved creations, his String Quartet in No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 131, which for most listeners will most likely be the program content that first captures their attention. That certainly seems as though it would be the sole point of giving the album the title 131n’cest-pas? But as Lee Corso is often heard to exclaim, "not so fast, my friend!" In their liner notes, the Beo Quartet starts off by informing us that 131 is a “Classical Concept Album,” going on to explain that “Our hope is for you to listen to the album in its entirety as if you were in a theatre watching an opera, musical, or motion picture. No matter what style of chamber music we play – the classics, music of living composers, or music inspired by popular genres – we feel that all styles should inform and be informed be one another to help create a story that is unique to Beo.” (A quick aside: kudos to Beo for employing the Oxford comma!) Although listening to a program of music is certain a different kind experience from watching a movie or stage production, further kudos to Beo for making the effort to assemble a program that attempts to present some new music by bringing together new music from the past with new music from the present into one coherent and entertaining whole.  


Not long ago we reviewed an album featuring several orchestral works by American composer Missy Mazzoli (see review here), whose brief Enthusiasm Strategies for string quartet opens the program on an energetic if somewhat ambiguous note, for the music seems to convey both optimism and apprehension. Musically, though, it is agreeable and entertaining, an excellent curtain-raiser (to borrow the theatrical analogy). Next up is a work by Beo’s violist, Sean  Neukom, titled 19|20.  The liner notes by Beo violinist Andrew Giordano explain that the work ”derives its title from COVID-19 and 2020 – the event and the year that may have changed the direction of humanity and certainly altered the trajectory of the arts and artists.” His notes further reveal that “it is a four-movement work with additional pre-recorded material, and when performed live, includes video projection and staging.” As you might expect from that description, 19|20 (its four movements are titled I. Screens, II. Masks, III. Deception, IV. Ashes) is a fairly complex, serious-sounding quartet, hardly the sort of thing you would throw on to hum along with while dusting your shelves or watering your plants. But that is not to say it is forbiddingly harsh or unrelentingly dark, which it is not. Would it be more enjoyable to be able to see the video projection and staging? Most likely. But the music can stand on its own. Remember, after all, recordings are not live performances. Even if 19|20 did not have a visual element associated with it, we’d still most likely prefer seeing the Beo Quartet performing the music rather than just hearing them. 

The program then concludes with the ostensible title piece of the album, Beethoven’s beloved String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 131, which he composed in the years 1825-26. Can it really have been almost 200 years ago? Of this piece, Giordano writes, “the culmination of this classical concept album is Beethoven’s powerful and forward-looking Opus 131 quartet, cast in  seven movements and played without pause. The somber and depressive opening fugue of Op. 131 can be heard as grief from all the tragedy depicted in 19|20.” Recordings of this quartet are as numerous as the dandelions in my spring lawn, and devoted fans of Beethoven’s chamber music no doubt have their favorite versions. In my own collection, for example, I have collections of the late quartets by the Emerson, Takács, Tokyo, and Yale quartets. But the point of this release is not for the Beo’s version of Op. 131 to displace any of those other recordings, but rather to put Op. 131 in a fresh context and program it with two modern works in an effort to give the listener not only an opportunity to hear two new compositions but also to hear Op. 131 in a different setting – perhaps then to gain if not a new understanding but at least a refreshed appreciation for Beethoven’s music. 

I auditioned the CD version, but the album is also available for streaming at sources such as Spotify, Amazon, Qobuz, and Apple Music. In terms of sound quality, I did a comparison to the Emerson recording on DG and found the Beo recording on NeuKraft to be warmer and fuller, better balanced tonally, and just more natural-sounding. Overall, then, 131 is a nice-sounding recording of an interesting program of highly original and imaginative music, some of which, believe it or not, dates from nearly 200 years ago – but don’t let that age factor put you off.

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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