Aug 30, 2023

Recent Releases No. 56 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Zygmunt Noskowski: Symphony No. 1 in A majorSymphony No. 2 in C minor, “Elegiac.” Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Antoni Wit, conductor. Capriccio C5509.

Once again we have the exquisite pleasure of discovering worthwhile music by a composer whose name had been completely unknown to us (and probably many other music lovers) until now. It turns out that the relatively unknown Polish composer Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909) was a teacher of Szymanowski and student of Moniuszko, and for much of the 19th century was the primary exponent of contemporary symphonic music in Poland. In fact, Noskowski is considered to be one of the most significant Polish composers of the nineteenth century, one who produced successful output in nearly all musical genres: ballet, opera, sacred works, symphonies, symphonic poems, and smaller works (including works for children), especially for piano. As if that was not enough to occupy his time, he also pursued a parallel career as a music critic and journalist. 


As a conductor and concert organizer, Noskowski (left) championed the causes of forgotten Polish composers. Today, in a fitting turn of events, conductor Antoni Wit (with a distinguished recorded legacy of his own), who in fact  succeeded Noskowski at the helm of the Warsaw Philharmonic 94 years after Noskowski’s retirement, raises the profile of his late-Romantic colleague with this recording of his first two symphonies. So what do they sound like? Actually, they are quite enjoyable; in my own clumsy, inadequate way, I would describe them as sounding something like Schumann, but better orchestrated, richer in texture, and more satisfying both musically and emotionally.  Listening to them, I found myself surprised that I had never heard them before – and I am hardly a young man. This is music that deserves to be heard by a composer who certainly deserves to be heard. To that end, I give this new release my most enthusiastic recommendation.


The Blue Album. Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1; Couperin: Les baricades mistérieuses (from Pièces de clavecin II: Ordre 6ème in B flat); Glass: Orphée's Bedroom; Brouwer: Canción de Cuna; Debussy: Suite bergamasque - Clair de lune (arr. for guitar by Eduardo Sáinz de la Maza); Weiss: Passacaille; Satie: Gnossienne No. 1 (arr. for Guitar by Pedro Henriques da Silva); Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata K32 in D minor (transcr. for guitar); Sor: Etude for guitar, Op. 6, No. 11 in E minor; Max Richter: A Catalogue of Afternoons; Debussy: La fille aux cheveux de lin (from Préludes - Book 1: No. 8); Yradier: La Paloma (arr. for guitar by Francisco Tárrega); Myers: Cavatina (from The Deerhunter, arr. for guitar by John Williams); Sakamoto: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Pablo Sainz-Villegas, guitar. Sony Classical 19658779092


The Spanish classical guitarist Pablo Sainz-Villegas (b. 1977) writes in the liner notes for The Blue Album that it “brings together some of the most beautiful and most heartfelt melodies that have ever been written. All these pieces create a magical atmosphere, their colours create a mood, a mystery. The guitar whispers an invitation to the listener to explore and go to the most intimate part of your soul. It creates a moment to look inside and have a conversation with the essence of yourself.” Now, that might strike some music lovers as a bit over the top, at least in terms of the feel-good pop psychology flavor of the prose, but all I can say is that Sainz-Villegas has pulled together a remarkable program of music by composers from different eras and countries, music that is soothing but not saccharine. From music by composers you might expect to find given the guitarist’s description, such as the pieces by French composers Debussy and Satie (you can watch a video of him playing Satie here), there is also music ranging from long-ago composers such as Couperin and Scarlatti to contemporary composers such as Philp Glass and Max Richter. As Sainz-Villegas puts it, “The Blue Album is a collection of musical works from different periods, composers and aesthetics that coexist and talk to each other in a space of calm and peace.” Listening to the album does indeed bring to the listener a sense of calm and peace. But there is real musical substance here, not New Age strumming. This is serious music: seriously performed and seriously recommended.  

Aug 27, 2023

Dependent Arising (CD Review)

 by Karl Nehring

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77; Earl Maneein: Dependent Arising – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz. Cedille CDR 90000 223


Well, you can always learn something new, even about things – or music – or performers – with whom you thought you were already fairly knowledgeable. I was excited to receive this new release from Cedille, for the Shostakovich is one of my favorite violin concertos, Rachel Barton Pine is a fabulous violinist, and Cedille always does a great job in the engineering department. In addition, I was intrigued to hear the piece that Pine had chosen to include with the Shostakovich, Dependent Arising by Earl Maneein (b. 1976), a composer whose name was new to me. When the CD arrived, I immediately started listening to it; saturation mode, actually, playing the CD on my big system but also listening to it via streaming in my car, on my headphones while working at my computer, and even in the shower through my Bluetooth speaker. Unusually enough, throughout this time, even though I knew nothing about Earl Maneein, I did not so much as glance at either the CD booklet nor any of the promotional material that I had been sent. You can imagine my surprise, them, when I finally opened the CD booklet and discovered Pine’s dedication: “To my brothers in Earthen Grave and our loyal Gravedwellers family, this one’s for you.🤘”  Then I began to read her personal note about the recording, which begins: “I discovered heavy metal music at the age of ten…” 


Turning to the promotional material, I read that “while Rachel Barton Pine is widely known for her virtuosic and expressive performances of works from the Western classical music canon, she is also a heavy metal enthusiast and performer of the genre. Pine discovered her love for heavy metal as a teenager, and later performed at rock radio stations where she would intersperse her own arrangements of her favorite metal songs by Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Metallica with works by Paganini and Ysaÿe in order to introduce new listeners to classical music. From 2009–2014 she was a member of the acclaimed doom/thrash metal band Earthen Grave, playing 6-string electric violin. With Dependent Arising, Pine explores connections between modern classical music and heavy metal and showcases her own unique journey within these two seemingly disparate genres.”

Later in her CD booklet material, Pine writes that “there is perhaps no classical composer who is more beloved to metalheads than Shostakovich… As a metalhead, the build-ups to the most aggressive moments of the cadenza are particularly satisfying, and the final ‘mosh section’ of the concerto never fails to conjure up memories of my mosh pit days.” Although I doubt most listeners will associate Shostakovich with heavy metal or mosh pits, I am confident they will respond to the intensity and virtuosity that Pine brings to her performance, which is just what this concerto needs. This is truly one of the great recordings of this masterpiece.


From Pine’s notes, we learn that she had once reached out to Maneein, who was the songwriter and lead violinist of the guitar-less metalcore band Resolution15, to write her a “metal-inspired piece for solo violin.” (Those who are interested might enjoy this fascinating YouTube video in which Maneein demonstrates  how he can produce heavy-metal sounds from his violin by means of his sophisticated electronics setup.) Maneein accepted the challenge and produced a work titled Metal Organic Framework. When Pine debuted the work in New York in 2014, Tito Muñoz was in the audience. I should point out here that Maneein is a classically trained violinist; moreover, he contributes liner notes for this release that discuss the Shostakovich as well as his own concerto. We learn that Muñoz originally asked Maneein to compose a short symphonic work, but according to Maneein, “ that was beyond my capabilities as a violinist who should have paid better attention to symphonic theory instruction at the conservatory. I preferred to use my comfort zone of violin composition as a point of departure… How do you express pain and violence musically? How do you create catharsis for these negative states? The possible ways to express these feelings in music, as in any language, are limited and therefore are bound to have independently evolved similarities… These commonalities make it clear to me why Rachel chose to pair her excellent performance of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto with my piece. I use the language of extreme music to fuel my work. I draw on my Buddhist practice of dealing with pain, violence, suffering, and death as inspiration. Both of these violin concertos share expressions of terror, hatred, fear, horror, and sorrow as their primary mover.”  

The end result is a concerto that is relentless in its energetic expressiveness. That is at once its strength and its weakness. The energy is exciting; however, there are times when the listener – at least the listener not from a heavy metal background – might wish for some lyrical contrast, some quieter interludes. Still, it is an interesting composition, certainly worth a listen, and it will be interesting to see what Maneein might be able to do as he gains more experience and confidence in the classical idiom.


To sum up, then, what we have here is an album containing two stimulating violin concertos performed by one of the world’s premier violinists, ably accompanied by a thoroughly professional orchestra and conductor, captured in state-of the-art sound. The CD booklet contains fascinating insights into the music by both violinist Pine and composer Maneein – both of whom turn out to have deep roots in heavy metal rock music. Pine’s performance of the Shostakovich is one of the finest ever recorded, while her performance of the Maneein is relentlessly energetic, just the way the music is written. It’s a fascinating album, the Shostakovich alone sufficient to earn it an enthusiastic recommendation, the Maneein a bonus for the adventurous – and for the metalheads (you know who you are). 

Aug 23, 2023

MahlerFest XXXV (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

(CD1) Mahler: Symphony No. 3, Mvmts. I-II; (CD2) Mahler: Symphony No. 3, Mvmts III-VI; Christopher Gunning: Symphony No. 10. Colorado MahlerFest Orchestra; Women of the Boulder Concert Chorale; Boulder Children’s Chorale Festival Choir; Stacey Rishoi, mezzo-soprano; Kenneth Woods, conductor. 

We have previously encountered American conductor Kenneth Woods in his role as conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, where he has often championed the works of contemporary composers. 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. Last year, we reviewed their recording  MahlerFest XXXIV, which featured Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 along with Symphony No. 5 by the British composer Philip Sawyers (see that review here). In November, 2022, MahlerFest XXXV featured a truly ambitious program: the grand Symphony No. 3 by Mahler along with the world premiere concert performance of Symphony No. 10 by the late English composer Christopher Gunning (1944-2023).

The Mahler and Gunning symphonies are quite different in scale, the former a six-movement work featuring not only a large orchestra but soloists and choirs, while the latter is a relatively brief one-movement work for orchestra alone. To present a credible performance of the mighty Mahler Third is a formidable challenge, but Maestro Woods and his MahlerFest forces prove themselves up to the task. Stacey Rishoi deserves special mention for her spot-on handling of her vocal part. In addition, the engineering team has done an excellent job of capturing a live performance in excellent, full-bodied sound. There are of course many fine commercial recordings of this symphony available, and many Mahler fans will already have their favorites, but this recording would not be embarrassed in that company. Moreover, you can see this performance, which you can view here. It is quite an unforgettable, uplifting experience.


But in addition to a fine performance of the Mahler, the program also includes the Gunning Symphony No. 10. Gunning, sadly enough, was too ill to attend the performance, and later succumbed to renal cancer in March, 2023. I was fascinated to discover that among Gunning’s many accomplishments was writing the theme music and many of the soundtracks for the TV series I watch every Saturday night, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (the world’s greatest detective deserves the world’s greatest theme music, n’cest-pas?).


On his website, Woods has posted a tribute to the late composer:


“It was heartbreaking to learn of the death of Christopher Gunning, although I’d been aware he had been unwell for some time. Chris was the sort of person one felt lucky to know. He could be incredibly funny, even wicked. His vault of amazing and amusing anecdotes was second to none. As a composer for film, television and commercials, he was an incredible craftsman who took the work incredibly seriously. Likewise, his hugely wide-ranging work as an arranger for all kinds of pop stars and showbiz legends. So much so, that his doctors told him that he had to leave that world or face serious cardiac repercussions. Leaving behind the mad deadlines of commercial music, Chris turned his enormous talent to concert music. I should say ‘returned’ his talent, because he had a deep training and grounding in classical composition, knew the repertoire inside out and had always kindled a flame to write more for the concert hall.  I became a convert when Chris sent me a recording of his monumental Fifth Symphony with him conducting the RPO. It’s a powerful and serious work – a real symphony. And it turns out, one of thirteen real symphonies.


It was a huge honour when Christopher asked me to conduct the recording of his 2nd, 10th and 12th symphonies. We had an amazing few days recording these three powerful and varied works with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, culminating in a wonderful and unforgettable celebration meal afterwards.


Shockingly but unsurprisingly, none of the orchestras who had recorded his music seemed inclined to programme it. In fact, not a single one of those thirteen symphonies has been professionally played live (to my knowledge) until last year.


I was so excited last year when I was able to programme his 10th Symphony, one of his favourites (and his favourite of the 3 on our CD) at Colorado MahlerFest last year. By the time the dates were in the diary, Chris was too unwell to travel to Boulder, and by the time the video of the concert was ready, he was not up to watching the performance. I so wish he could have seen the enthusiasm of the musicians and heard the reaction of the audience. In the face of the music world’s ambivalence, Chris had always had to fight his own corner and build his own projects. I’d like to think the reaction in Boulder would have helped reassure him that his wonderful music will continue to be played even though he’s no longer around to drive things. I shall miss him terribly.”


If you would like to gain for yourself more of a sense of just what kind of person Christopher Gunning was, and learn some more about his music, you can take a look at this promotional video in which the composer discusses the recording of his Symphonies Nos. 2, 10, and 12 that Maestro Woods mentioned above. In addition, you can read the review that our own John Puccio did of this recording back in January, 2020 (John's review can be seen here). The performance of Gunning’s Symphony No. 10 on this release clocks in at just under 21 minutes. It is an introspective piece overall, but never static – it clearly has flow and direction, keeping the listener engaged. You can see a video of the performance here


The music is engaging, the sound quality is excellent; the only quibble I have with this release is the lack of liner notes. Still, this is a unique and uplifting recording that is not just another same old same old. Should that sound appealing to you, please visit the Colorado MahlerFest website for more information.


Aug 20, 2023

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6; Hamlet (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique”Hamlet: Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare. Maurice Abravanel, Utah Symphony Orchestra. VOX-NX-3024CD 

Here we have another of the recordings from the Vox vaults that have been given new life thanks to the good folks at Naxos, who have been digging out some of the old analog master tapes  recorded by Elite Recordings back in the 1970s and preparing new digital masters using state-of-the-art 192 kHz/24-bit technology. As the note on the back cover proclaims, “The Elite Recordings for Vox by legendary producers Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz are considered by audiophiles to be amongst the finest sounding examples of orchestra recordings.” They have also been choosing some fine performances to resurrect, including these Tchaikovsky recordings by the late American conductor Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993). Although his name may be unfamiliar to many music lovers, his story is an interesting one and his musical achievements are noteworthy. He was born in Greece and raised in Switzerland, where his family lived in the same house as the conductor Ernest Ansermet, with whom young Maurice played four-hand piano music and was able to meet composers such as Stravinsky and Milhaud. He later studied under Kurt Weill in Berlin, then moved to Paris, where he was music director for Balanchine’s Paris Ballet for three years. Abravanel then moved to the United States and became the youngest ever conductor ever hired at that time by the Metropolitan Opera. In 1943, he became an American citizen, then in 1947 left New York to become the conductor of what was at the time a rather provincial orchestra in Salt Lake City, Utah. He built that orchestra into what became the Utah Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra over which he presided until his retirement for health reasons in 1979. Abravanel and his orchestra made numerous recording for several labels, including the first complete Mahler symphony cycle by an American orchestra, for the Vanguard label, and the complete orchestral works of Tchaikovsky for Vox, from which this new remastering was taken. 


Although the Salt Lake Tabernacle was far from an ideal recording venue, its oval domed shape being highly reflective, the Elite Recordings team did their best to deaden the space, draping blankets over the seats and taking special care with microphone placement.  The end result is excellent, the orchestra sounding as though it is playing in a large hall, but nothing is blurred. As for the performances, they are also excellent, Abravanel careful not to overplay the dramatic elements to the point where they start to sound hysterical. The “Pathetique” possesses its own drama as written; it does not need to be stretched and pulled out of shape to make its points. I have special memories of this symphony, for in my high school concert band days our band director chose an arrangement of the third movement march, marked Allegro molto vivace, as the centerpiece of our performance for the Indiana State Concert Band Contest (I played bass clarinet). Needless to say, we practiced and practiced and practiced until I felt as though I knew not only my part but every note of the piece. Curious as what the original orchestral version sounded like, I purchased a recording to play on our home stereo (Reiner/Chicago, as I recall) and listened to that over and over again with avid fascination. Although my playing had very little to do with it, our band got the highest score in the state, and to this day, the “Pathetique” is one of my favorite symphonies, even though I am not that much of a Tchaikovsky fan, to be honest. But back to the performances at hand. Along with a convincing performance of the symphony, Abravanel delivers a Hamlet  that is lively and entertaining, with plenty of drama and flair. This is simply very good, straightforward, well-played, and excellently recorded Tchaikovsky, well worth a recommendation. 

Aug 16, 2023

Hovhaness: Mountain Fantasies for Piano (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Blue Job Mountain SonataProspect Hill SonataMt. Katahdain SonataPastoral No. 1Hymn for Mt. Chocorua12 Armenian Folk SongsFarewell to the Mountains. Haskell Small, piano. MSR Classics MS 1796

Although Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) may not be widely regarded by music fans as one of the great American composers, his music stands as some of the breathtakingly beautiful music to have been composed by an American in the twentieth century, and deserves to be more widely performed and appreciated. Gerard Schwarz led the Seattle Symphony in a number of fine recordings of his orchestral music for the Delos label that were later rereleased by Naxos. The majority of these were recorded by legendary engineer John Eargle in demonstration-quality sound. Schwarz later recorded some Hovhaness for the Telarc label, on a disc that our John Puccio reviewed here, and there is a famous recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of that same Mysterious Mountain Symphonythat John reviewed here. This latest release from MSR Classics also centers around mountains, but this time the music is for solo piano, here performed by the American composer and pianist Haskell Small (b. 1948).


In his fascinating liner note essay, Robert Aubry Davis (SiriusXM listeners should find that name familiar) notes how important mountains are to the culture of Armenia (Hovhaness’s father was Armenian, and after college, Hovhaness served for a time as the organist at an Armenian church). As a boy, then young Hovhaness spent many hours hiking the hills near his uncle’s farm in western Massachusetts. Davis points out that “musical references to mountains run from his earliest to his very last compositions.” This is an important thread in the composer’s work, but Davis then goes on to reveal something quite extraordinary about Hovhaness, an aspect of his life that was previously unknown to me; something that ties Hovhaness to a composer I would never have supposed. “The other thread, which brings us to this recording, is the importance of the piano in his life and work… according to Hovhaness himself, after a punishing life disappointment, he credited another pianist who also is almost exclusively known for his non-piano compositions) with nearly saving his life. Composer Roger Sessions had taken an interest in Hovhaness from those high school days. However, Sessions apparently gave a brutal assessment of Hovhaness’s compositions at the New England Conservatory. The reports vary, but apparently over some weeks, in reaction to this, Hovhaness burned between 500 and 1000 of his own compositions. He sought both a musical ally and hero after this. As he later shared with me, Hovhaness had felt a profound musical kinship with the foreboding Finn, Jean Sibelius, noting that in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony he found a kind of spiritual evocation of his own sense of despair. So he decided to make a pilgrimage.”


Davis goes on to relate that Hovhaness and his young wife then went to visit Sibelius at his home if Finland, where Sibelius sat the young American down in front of his grand piano and asked him to play some of his compositions for piano. “Sibelius was defensive of his piano works: ‘I know that they have a secure future; I know it despite the fact that they have completely fallen into oblivion,’ he said. In our time, only Glenn Gould (outside of some Finnish pianists) has been a secure champion of the pieces. But apparently, Sibelius was not only impressed with how wonderfully Hovhaness played them sight unseen for the first time, but how the American went on to express what an inspiration the elder Finn’s compositions were to his own. They became friends to Sibelius’s death; Sibelius in fact became godfather to Hovhaness’s  only daughter, who was named Jean Christina after Jean Christian Sibelius himself.” 

Those who may have been exposed to the piano music of Sibelius by recordings such as the  delightfully rewarding – and highly recommendable – collection by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes would probably be hard-pressed to find much similarity between the piano music of the two composers other than that neither was given to writing flashy keyboard pyrotechnic displays. In contrast, the music featured on this collection is clearly not about virtuosic technique; instead, especially in the first three sonatas, the music has an almost hymnlike quality to it, an incantatory feeling, almost as if Hovhaness were writing music of ritual praise to mountain spirits. Underlying that ritualistic sense there is a clear folk influence, a human aspect, a desire to dance. Although the title of Pastoral No. 1 might seem to imply something light and breezy, but instead the piece opens with some darker shades of sound produced from inside the piano. The music is not harsh, or threatening, but brooding, pensive – Hovhaness reflecting intensely upon a scene in nature and finding a quiet, glowing beauty to share with the listener. A remarkable piece.


The Hymn for Mt. Chocurua opens in stately hymn style, but soon switches to an energetic folk/dance rhythm bursting with energy, then closes with a hymn that seems to have picked up some of the energy from the preceding dance interlude. The 12 Armenian Folk Songs are lively, brief (most under a minute, the longest clocking in. at 2:47), and basically a dozen minutes of light fun. The concluding Farewell to the Mountains continues in. much then same musical vein – it could well be the thirteenth folk song. Davis recollects that Hovhaness considered mountains to be “the symbolic meeting place between the mundane and spiritual worlds.” In this recording, which includes elements of folk dance, hymn tunes, echoes of nature, and mystical incantations, the listener is certainly lifted above the mundane. Most classical music fans have plenty of piano music by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, etc. in their collections – how about a fascinating CD of Hovhaness? Try it – you might like it. 

Aug 13, 2023

Rautavaara and Martinů: Piano Concertos (CD Review)

by Ryan Ross

Rautavaara: Piano Concerto No. 3 ‘Gift of Dreams’; Martinů: Piano Concerto No. 3. Olli Mustonen, piano; Lahti Symphony Orchestra; Dalia Stasevska, conductor. BIS-2532

The unexpected coupling of these two compositions is already creating some buzz for this recording. What do they and their composers at all have in common anyway? According to the liner notes by Jean-Pascal Vachon, both men “adopted an attitude free from any musical puritanism, constantly finding new sources of inspiration which they explored without taboos.” Right. But these are also both very accessible compositions in a 20th-century musical landscape where accessibility still isn’t a particularly prestigious value, even in hindsight. It was one thing for Martinů to be composing neo-Romantic music (Vachon notes his Third Concerto’s links with Brahms) as late as 1948, but what of Rautavaara cranking out works that are at once so individual and yet so unabashedly easy on the ears, decades after having forsaken a much harder-edged idiom? This wasn’t the academically prescribed course for music history, and he wasn’t alone in demonstrating so. Maybe Olli Mustonen, Dalia Stasevska, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and BIS weren’t all going for this effect, but that’s just what their splendid offering here reinforced for me. 


Completed in 1998, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Third Concerto, subtitled “Gift of Dreams” (which is exactly what the work sounds like), arrives in the early half of his “late style,” which includes many spiritual/metaphysical themed compositions situated somewhere between postmodernism and neo-Romanticism. I love every one that I have heard, and this is no exception. This is music of quiet strength (even somewhat in the quicker finale). Dissonances and enriched sonorities coax and engage the listener, rather than repel. The label of “contemporary music for those who think they don’t like contemporary music” might sound patronizing, or even ghettoizing. But in this case (as with other late Rautavaara works such as Angel of Dusk or the Eighth Symphony [subtitled The Journey]), it’s very much not so. This Third Piano Concerto is more than respectable as a rejoinder to claims that the classical tradition wrote itself out by the late 20th century.  


By my count this is the third commercially available recording of the Rautavaara. None of them are losers, but I would place this BIS disc and the initial release – Ashkenazy (the work’s dedicatee) with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Ondine ODE 905-2) – in the recommended category. Between those two, it depends on whether you like the slightly deeper, more booming sound of Ashkenazy and company, or you think the music sounds better with what (to me) is the lighter touch of Mustonen, Stasevska, and the Lahti forces. I think I prefer the latter, but you’d be fine either way. Whether you want the Martinů concerto or more content by Rautavaara (Autumn Gardens plus a ‘conversation’ between Ashkenazy and the composer) as couplings might subsequently be a prime consideration in which disc you choose if you must obtain only one. 

I’ve always found Bohuslav Martinů’s music to be hit-or-miss. His bounteous talent is undeniable, as is the strong, attractive artistic personality present at his best. But sometimes he seems to get lost in extended stretches of noodling. He can also be mercurial to a fault. Nonetheless, he has a way of pulling you back in with the next work (and sometimes even the next passage within a work), just when you’re considering listening to something else. If you’re like me except that you haven’t heard the Third Piano Concerto yet, it has a good chance of becoming one of your favorite Martinů compositions. Its energy, melodic interest, and inter-movement connectedness hold the attention very well. And if you’re new to Martinů, this is certainly not a bad place to start exploring his music.


The present recording joins a number of other Martinů Third Piano Concerto options. To my ear, the best of the older ones is the performance given by the concerto’s dedicatee, Rudolf Firkušný, joined by the Czech Philharmonic under Libor Pešek (RCA 886447630020). Firkušný’s tone is warm, and his reading is a touch more expansive than Mustonen’s. But what makes the latter an equal in my mind is his comparative crispness and liveliness, and also this BIS disc’s terrific sound quality. Ideally, both offerings would be in the Martinů enthusiast’s collection. But for those of us who are not necessarily Martinů fanatics, this BIS release is very attractive on its own. Along with the other reasons given here, the Rautavaara pairing makes it hard to resist.   

Aug 9, 2023

Schubert by Candlelight: Live in Madrid (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Schubert: 6 Moments musicaux, Op. 94 (D. 780)4 Impromptus, Op. 90 (D. 899); 2 Scherzi (D. 593)Minuet in C-sharp minor (D. 600). Sergei Kvitko, piano. Reference Recordings FR-753

Russian-born pianist Sergei Kvitko writes in the notes to this release of playing this music in several cities throughout the world, with those concerts being recorded as he was preparing to make a studio recording of this music. “And somehow, on April 7, 2022, for this concert in Madrid the stars aligned, and this live performance became the album. The most spectacular piano, Steinway D…the lovely room, my friends in the audience, my mood and feel for this music that evening – everything was just right, and I felt I could never replicate all of it together in the studio. With this program, like with no other, I realize that I play completely different when I play it for an audience.”  And by the way, it might be a good time to mention that not only is Kvitko a world-class pianist, he is also a world-class recording engineer, and it was he who had set up the microphones and recording equipment for this release along with  assistant audio engineer Jorge Nuñez Colell. 

Bill Heck and I had a conversation recently about the Beethoven piano sonatas in which we both admitted that although we enjoyed many of his earlier sonatas, it was to the later ones – especially the final three – that we usually turned when we wanted to listen to Beethoven piano music, and that it was much the same for Schubert. Those final three Schubert sonatas are what we nearly always turn to when we want to hear some Shubert piano music. But Schubert wrote plenty of other delightful works for the piano, as Kvitko reminds us with the program he has assembled for this release, leading off with the 6 Moments Musicaux, Op. 94, which vary in substance and mood from fairly serious-sounding, foreshadowing themes to be developed at greater length in those final sonatas, to music of less emotional intensity. The 4 Impromptus that follow are of similar variety, although perhaps more serious-sounding overall. Kvitko closes the program with lighter fare, 2 Scherzi, before closing the concert by performing an early (1813) Minuet as a brief encore, to the obvious delight of the assembled audience.

One of the treasures of my collection is a recording of Schubert’s Impromptus by Murray Perahia, a recording that was first released back in 1984, although I did not pick it up until many years after. That disc contains both the Op. 90 and Op. 135 sets; it is a marvel. But so is this new release from Kvitko, with its more varied program, warmer sound (not that there is anything wrong with the Perahia recording, which is surprisingly good for a relatively early digital effort). This new Reference Recordings release has definitely earned itself a spot on my shelf; indeed, I would recommend fans of Schubert’s keyboard music to seek it out expeditiously. 


Aug 6, 2023

Yasÿe Sonatas for Violin (CD review)

by Bill Heck

Eugène Yasÿe: Six Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op 27. Hilary Hahn, violin. DG 486 4176

One of the fun aspects of writing these reviews for Classical Candor is being able to tell you, our readers, about new music. In this case, I don't necessarily mean music that is new, as in newly created, but rather music that is new to us individually, usually off the beaten path, but still worthy of attention and a joy to hear. 

You can guess where this is going: until a few weeks ago, I was unfamiliar with the compositions of Eugène Yasÿe. But Hilary Hahn has introduced us, so to speak, through her newest release, and a fine acquaintance he turns out to be.

Yasÿe was born in Hungary in 1858, proved to be a violin prodigy (taught originally by his father, apparently quite an accomplished violinist in his own right), and soon was performing and teaching not just in his native land but in a widening range across Europe. His technique was hugely influential, and he is widely considered, according to Hilary Hahn’s own liner notes for this album, the “first modern violinist.” In contrast, his composing career started relatively late: I was unable to find any information at all on his Op. 1 – 9, but Op. 10 (2 Mazurkas) was written in 1884 and he did not get to Op. 16 until 1910 or so. These dates are relevant, I think, because they help us to understand that Yasÿe’s works are in more modern styles than his age might suggest. This certainly applies in the case of Op. 27, which comprises the six sonatas that are the works on this CD.

Eugène Yasÿe
Yasÿe’s inspiration for the sonatas seems to have been a performance of Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin by Joseph Szigeti. Although probably not written in a week as legend would have it, all of the sonatas were sketched out by July of 1923; Hahn’s recording is thus a centenary tribute. (You really do want to read her liner notes for details on the genesis of this recording.) Each of the sonatas is dedicated to a contemporary violinist, such as Szigeti, George Enescu and Fritz Kreisler, several of whom were themselves composers as well. There are multiple parallels to Bach’s work, such as rotation of keys and structural elements. However, the overall styles remind one more of the likes of Stravinsky and Bartok than of old J. S.

Even a non-violinist like I can tell immediately that these are virtuoso works, often leaping through the registers and demanding both quickness and flexibility, showing off the possibilities of the instrument. Meanwhile, the sonatas vary widely – one might even say wildly – in style, in length, and in structure, and at the same time (or perhaps in part because of all the changes), consistently maintaining musical interest. Just as one indicator of that variation, the number of movements with each sonata ranges from one to four. For example, number 2 is in four movements entitled “Obsession”, “Malinconia”, “Danse des ombres” (with six variations, no less), and “Les Furies”, while number 5 is in two movements, “L’Aurore” and “Danse rustique”. You quickly get the idea that we’re doing some exploring here!

Frankly, I’ve never been that wild about a lot of solo violin works, often finding such things one-dimensional and ultimately rather boring. (Naturally I’m excepting Bach here.) But these works really caught my fancy; they are anything but mere showpieces; modern in conception but eminently listenable.I would love to provide more description here, but short of describing the individual movements, which would make this review intolerably long, I'm at a loss to tell you "what to expect" or "how they sound". Fortunately, I can recommend in good conscience that you find out for yourself.

Hilary Hahn
As to the performances themselves, it’s no surprise that Hilary Hahn plays the sonatas with intensity and energy, and, of course, with technique to burn; the evident enthusiasm, indeed, the love with which she discusses these works in the liner notes is simply a reflection of her playing.

DG’s recorded sound here is first rate: close enough for the clarity that allows the listener to follow the intricacies of the playing, but just far enough away to allow a bit of natural reverberation, with a solid stereo image that brings the performer into the room. I’ve already mentioned Hahn’s liner notes that discuss her connections and experience with these works; additional notes by Robert Kirzinger provide more historical and musical details. An excellent production all the way around.

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