Sep 27, 2023

Recent Releases No. 60 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Wonderland. Makiko Kinoshita: Ashita no uta; Ligeti: Nonsense Madrigals: I. Two Dreams and Little Bat; Gjeilo: A Dream within a Dream; Ligeti: Nonsense Madrigals: II. Cuckoo in the Pear-Tree; Francesca Amewudah-Rivers: Alive; Ligeti: Nonsense Madrigals: III. The Alphabet; Joe Hisaishi: I was there; Ligeti: Nonsense Madrigals: IV. Flying Robert; Judith Bingham: Tricksters; Ligeti: Nonsense Madrigals: V. The Lobster Quadrille; Malcolm Williamson: The Musicians of Bremen; Ligeti: Nonsense Madrigals: VI. A Long, Sad Tale; Paul Patterson: Time Piece. The King's Singers. Signum Classics SGCD739

The King’s Singers is one of those British musical groups that just seem to have been around forever, kind of like the Rolling Stones. Unlike Jagger and company, however, they don’t look or sound like a bunch of withered old men: they have obviously changed members over the years. Their website (which you can find here) is full of useful information about the group, including an account of their origin: “People often ask us where our name comes from, and the answer is from King's College, Cambridge. The original six members of The King's Singers were all choral scholars at King's College, part of Cambridge University. They first recorded in 1965, under the not-so-catchy name 'Schola Cantorum Pro Musica Profana in Cantabridgiense'. This recording put the group into the consciousness of the famous conductor Sir Neville Marriner, who in August 1966, invited them to perform in concert. Several more concerts followed, under the name 'Six Choral Scholars of King's College, Cambridge', before, on 1st May 1968, the group made its London debut in another of Neville Marriner's concerts, this time under another new name: The King's Singers.” The current lineup that performs on this release comprises Patrick Dunachie, first countertenor; Edward Button, second countertenor; Julian Gregory, tenor; Christopher Bruerton, first baritone; Nick Ashby, second baritone; Jonathan Howard, bass.

The music on Wonderland features compositions commissioned by the ensemble over its 55-year history, highlighted by the six Nonsense Madrigals by the late Hungarian composer György Ligeti. In addition, to honor Ligeti’s 100th birthday in 2023, The King’s Singers commissioned six sets of cartoons, each of which has since been turned into a music video by illustrator Coralie Muce, to accompany the six Nonsense Madrigals. A QR code included in the CD booklet provides a link to these colorful videos for those who might be interested in seeing them. The  booklet also includes lyrics for all of the works on the album along with background information on the history of the ensemble. The music itself is varied, although there are threads that bind the album together. For example, woven throughout the Nonsense Madrigals is the fairytale The Musicians of Bremen, which has been set to music by the Australian composer and Master of the Queen's Music Malcolm Williamson, a piece that was premiered by The King’s Singers in 1972. Ola Gjeilo's A Dream within a Dream, which questions the very nature of perception and reality, sets the stage for much of the music on the album, which is replete with lyrics that blur the line between the real and the imaginary: Paul Patterson’s Time Piece tells an eccentric alternative creation story (1972); and Judith Bingham’s Tricksters imagines what could happen if pranksters from different world mythologies came together for the first time. 

The recorded sound of the voices is flawless. The only potential negative aspect of this release is that the voices sound so similar from song to song. I can imagine some listeners just finding that sound to be too much of a good thing. Other listeners will love every moment of it. The King’s Singers are a world-class vocal ensemble, and Signum has done a remarkable job in putting this thoughtfully crafted package together. A remarkable release.


Seven Psalms. Paul Simon. The LordLove Is Like a BraidMy Professional OpinionYour ForgivenessTrail of VolcanoesThe Sacred HarpWait. Paul Simon, Vocals, Harmonica, Bells, Chromelodeon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Dobro, Frame Drum, Gamelan, Glockenspiel, Gong, Gopichan, Guitars, Harmonium, Keyboards, Percussion, Talking Drum; Nadia Sirota, Viola;

Alexandra Sopp, Flute; Nina Stern, Chalumeau. Edie Brickell, vocals; Voces8, vocals. Owl Records 19658779112


Seven Psalms is unlike any Paul Simon album that you have ever heard. You won’t hear anything upbeat like “Kodachrome,” and no, Paul is no longer heading to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, where he once felt sure to be received. Older now, and losing his hearing, he has other things on his mind, as evidenced by lyrics that begin: “I've been thinking about the great migration / Noon and night they leave the flock / And I imagine their destination / Meadow grass, jagged rock / The Lord is my engineer / The Lord is the earth I ride on / The Lord is the face in the atmosphere / The path I slip and I slide on.” Shortly thereafter he sings, “The Covid virus is the Lord / The Lord is the ocean rising / The Lord is a terrible swift sword / A simple truth surviving.” As the music continues in an unbroken stream, Simon’s musings turn inward as he contemplates his own mortality. 

The Tom & Jerry of “Hey, Schoolgirl!” and Simon and Garfunkel of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are now distant memories; the hard-of-hearing veteran musician has entered his 80s only to discover that “life is a meteor” and that it may soon be “time to come home.” This album is very likely his final recorded musical statement. The album is brief at just over 33 minutes, but there are many questions raised in  that brief span. Those with an interest in this album will be pleased to learn that the lyrics are included in the CD booklet. There you will find poetry to both delight and disturb even as you enjoy the imaginative and stimulating sounds coming from your speakers, earbuds, or headphones. 

Sep 24, 2023

Recent Releases No. 59 (CD Reviews)

 By Karl Nehring

Veljo Tormis: ReminiscentiaeThe Tower Bell in My Village (for choir, two sopranos, reciter, and bell); Worry Breaks the Spirit (for choir and orchestra); Melancholy Songs (for mezzo-soprano and orchestra); Reminiscentia(for orchestra) - Autumn Landscapes - Winter Patterns - Spring Sketches - Summer Motifs - Three I Had These Words of BeautyHamlet’s Song (for choir and orchestra); Herding Calls – Childhood Memories (for choir, soprano, and orchestra). Veiko Tubin, reciter; Annika Lõhmus, soprano; Triin Sakermaa, soprano; Madis Metsamart bell, percussion; Iris Oja mezzo-soprano; Indrek Vau, trumpet; Linda Vood, flute; Maria Valdmaa, soprano; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor. ECM New Series ECM 2783


Like most listeners, I first became acquainted with the music of the late Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (1930-2017) from his 1992 recording ECM recording Forgotten Peoples. That recording, which also featured the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, was quite an ear-opener when it was released, for it was choral music unlike anything that had ever been encountered before, sounding ancient and sophisticated all at once. It would be seven more years before we would once again hear a recording of the Tõnu Kaljuste conducting Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in the music of Veljo Tormis, this time accompanied by a shamanic drum on an ECM recording appropriately titled Litany to Thunder. Now, 24 years after the release of that second ECM album, we now have a third, one in which conductor Kaljuste has assembled a program in tribute to his departed friend and mentor.


“The present album marks a rich artistic collaboration that shaped and bound Tõnu Kaljuste and Veljo Tormis for decades,” explain the liner notes. “Featuring may first recordings, it focuses on works not just significant for the artists, but for Estonian culture at large. Kaljuste draws attention  to the orchestral potential of music by Tormis, who mainly wrote for choir. Most of the arrangements featured on this album Kaljuste commissioned from Tormis. However, Worry Breaks the SpiritHamlet’s Song, and Harding Call – Childhood Memories are new arrangements by Tõnu Kaljuste himself, continuing and commemorating the work of the great composer. By combining the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Kaljuste highlights the brilliant harmony of Tormis. Awakening new layers in music that is initially rooted in words.” 

Partly because the album covers such a long period of time, partly because Kaljuste has taken some music originally written for choir and arranged it for orchestra, and partly because Tormis wrote music of varying styles and moods, there is an impressive variety of music to be found in this collection. Kaljuste and his players have an intimate connection with Tormis’s sound world; in fact, the oldest composition on the album, the opening The Tower Bell in My Village, resulted from a 1978 commission from Kaljuste. “I went to his door holding in my hands the text by Fernando Pessoa and asked him to create a piece for a concert tour with my choir,” Kaljuste writes. “This album reflects upon our collaboration over the years. It is the first album that I have recorded since Veljo Tormis passed away.” It’s a labor of love, a lovingly performed and beautifully recorded labor of love.

Dream Box. Pat Metheny: The Waves Are Not the OceanFrom the MountainsOle & GardTrust Your Angels; Russ Long: Never Was Love; Styne/Cohn: I Fall in Love Too Easily; Metheny: P.C. of Belgium; Bonfa/Maria: Morning of the Carnival; Metheny: Clouds Can’t Change the Sky. Pat Metheny, electric guitar, baritone guitar. Modern Recordings 538891672


A couple of years ago, we reviewed an album titled Road to the Sun (you can see that review here) by guitarist Pat Metheny (b. 1954) that featured him as a composer rather than a guitarist, although he did do some playing on the album, including a haunting version of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina on his custom-made 42-string Pikasso guitar. Although Metheny is primarily known as a jazz musician, having won 20 Grammy awards in 12 categories, Road to the Sun was a classical album featuring Metheny’s compositions for guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. On his most recent release, Dream Box, most of the music was composed by Metheny; whether or not you want to call it jazz or classical is up to you. Does it really matter? Metheny had recorded these tracks at various times over the past few years and saved the recordings on his hard drive. While on tour in 2022, he found time to listen to some of the tracks that he had saved and found some that seemed to fit together as a coherent whole. In his liner note, he writes that he was “excited to share what was buried in there. These nine tracks are my favorites and added up to something unique for me. I had never played any of these initial tracks included here more than once. These are really important moments in time, and in fact, I have almost no memory of having recorded most of them. They just kind of showed up.”   

The tone of the album is set from the opening piece, The Waves Are Not the Ocean, which is gentle and contemplative. Although seeing “electric guitar” listed above as his instrument might lead you to expect some loud, perhaps even distorted sounds, Metheny explains that: “The focus here is on electric guitar, but maybe more to the point, quietelectric guitar. It is an are of particular interest for me. A goal has always been to have a touch on the electric that get me as close to the kind of phrase-by-phrase dynamics that can occur naturally with an acoustic instrument… Regarding the title, box is musician slang for a hollow-body electric guitar. Using that vernacular, there are some super cool Dream Box instruments represented on this recording…  But dreams in in their broadest sense make up the vibe with this set.” The gentle, contemplative mood continues throughout the album; however, Metheny’s imaginative touch ensures that things never get boring. Just listen to what he does with that old standard I Fall in Love Too Easily, taking a familiar melody and making it blend right into this sonic portrait of waves, mountains, clouds… This is a remarkable album, well worth a listen. (And by the way, Metheny is currently touring -- solo performances framed around the music on this album.)

Sep 20, 2023

Recent Releases No. 58 (CD Reviews)

 by Karl Nehring

What Music Tells Me. Beethoven: Egmont Overture; Wagner (1813-1883); Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral (from Lohengrin); Messiaen: Apparition de L’eglise Éternelle (Apparition of the Eternal Church); Healey Willan (1880-1968): How They So Softly Rest; William C. White (b.1983): Flood of Waters (Noah and the Flood); Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn (“St. Anthony Variations”); Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” – Urlicht, Finale (Andante). Chicago Brass and Organ Ensemble; Stephen Squires, conductor. MSR Classics MS 1750


This is one of those releases that on first glance, I simply did not quite know what to expect. Having grown up in northwest Indiana I was familiar with the gargoyles that look down upon downtown Chicago pedestrians, so the name of the ensemble struck me as perfectly appropriate, but the musical program, although intriguing, left me hesitant as to how it would come across when played by organ and brass. Well, only one way to find out, so I stuck the disc in my CD player and hit PLAY button. Here we go… From the familiar opening measures of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, I was delighted by how enjoyable it was to hear this familiar music presented this in this different sonority. It just sounded right. Somehow the energy of the brass and the organ captured the fervor of Beethoven’s score in a fresh, exciting way that did not sound at all gimmicky or contrived. And so it went through the rest of the program, with highlights including the Messiaen, whose spiritually informed music lends itself especially well to being arranged for brass and organ, and the Brahms, upon which this arrangement throws a new light. The most ambitious arrangement is the Mahler, which is certainly interesting to hear, but try as I might, I could never quite get past the lack of voices. Still, I admire the audacity and skill of these players in presenting this magnificent music in this form. Fans of the composer Mahler will no doubt recognize his influence on the title of this release; indeed, let me close my review of this highly recommendable release with these words from its liner notes: “Leader Rodney Holmes has curated this collection of masterworks following the inspiration of Gustav Mahler who said, If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.


Luminous. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004): Toccata; Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912): 24 Negro Melodies, Op. 24 – No. 1, At the Dawn of the Day; No. 3, Take Nabandji; No. 4, They Would Not Lend Me a Child; No. 8, The Bamboula; No. 12, Don’t Be Weary, Traveler; N0. 13, Going Up; Ulysses Kay (1917-1995): 8 Inventions – I. Allegro; II. Moderato; III. Andantino; IV. Scherzando; V. Grave; VI. Moderato; VII. Larghetto; VIII. Presto: Nnenna Ogwo (b. 1970) Benediction; Brahms: Chaconne (from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004) arranged for the left hand alone. Nnenna Ogwo, piano. MSR Classics MS 1819 

An American pianist of Caribbean and African descent, Nnenna Ogwo (b. 1970) has put together an album that is refreshing and stimulating, featuring a program that is somewhat off the beaten path yet comfortable and eminently listenable, an album that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of music lovers. Much of the reason Luminous is such an accessible release is that it is a deeply personal release. In her program notes, Ogwo explains, “The program has all the elements of music that bring the art to such vibrant life; joy and pain, song and dance, the substantive and the ephemeral. This album is the utterance that I could not make when my mother left this plane of existence. It is music that she loved or that I know she would have loved. It is a curation that reflects my cultural heritage, my personal history at the instrument and the depth of my love and admiration for her. I hope it speaks to you.” The program opens energetically with Perkinson’s Toccata, which sounds something like a cross between Bach and ragtime – it’s a fun piece. The Melodies of Coleridge-Taylor are expressive, colorful, but not excessively showy. Especially fascinating are the 8 Invention of Ulysses Kay, all but one under two minutes in length, each a compelling little jewel. Wonderful! Ogwo’s Benediction is a brief (1:51), heartfelt, calming piece; given its title and mood, I’m surprised it was not placed at the end of the program. Instead, the program ends with the Brahms transcription of the Bach, played with the left hand. There are times when the piano sounds something like a harpsichord. Although this transcription is interesting, it feels a bit out of sync with the rest of the program. Still, all things considered, Ms. Ogwo has delivered an album that is well worth a listen.

Sep 17, 2023

Jóhann Jóhannsson: A Prayer to the Dynamo (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

A Prayer to the DynamoThe Theory of Everything – SuiteSicario – Suite. Paul Corley, electronics production and electronics; Skúli Sverisson, guitar; Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason. Deutsche Grammophon 486 4870

The late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (1969-2018) is perhaps best known for his film scores such as those for the movies Sicario and Arrival. His compositions often combine elements of classical, electronic, and ambient music to great effect. Among his other attributes, Jóhannsson had a remarkable gift for writing music conveying an atmosphere of that is deeply contemplative and inward-focused – serious, but somehow neither morose nor depressing. Those dimensions of his music take on a special poignancy in light of his tragically short life. He died at 48 in Berlin, the German autopsy report indicating that the likely cause of death was a fatal conjunction of cocaine and flu medication. On the surface, that might strike some readers as an indication of a character flaw or another case of some high-flying celebrity being brought down by wretched excess, but it is highly plausible that the story is deeper and more tragic than it might first appear, involving the pressure of composing music for high-profile film studios. But that is speculation to which it is best not to take too far, lest we ourselves succumb to our own dark and very possibly untrue thoughts. Let us instead turn to the music at hand on this new  release, which present different dimensions of his art.


The program begins with A Prayer to the Dynamo, a work for full symphony orchestra. As the liner notes point out, as a composer of film scores, Jóhannsson (pictured left) had access to orchestras, “but this album offers a rare chance to hear his orchestral writing freed from cinematic or orchestral constraints. A Prayer to the Dynamo calls for a full orchestra, as well as a soundtrack comprised of the sounds of the Elliðaár power plant itself.” Jóhannsson had a great fascination with technology, and had made recordings of electrical installations and generators at the Elliðaár Power Station in Iceland (pictured below). Furthermore, he was also captivated by the works of Edison, Tesla, and especially a chapter in the memoirs of American historian Henry Adams (1838-1918) in which Adams described his impressions of the 1900 Paris World Exhibition and the hidden power of the enormous machines he had seen there. The net result is a coherent musical work, not a collection of sound effects; the electronic sounds are blended in quite subtly. The work is in four parts, the first of which is colorful yet mysterious. The second part, which is the longest, slowly builds tension. The third gives an impression of power being built up, along with birds in flight, then the energy slowly dissipates at the end. The fourth part begins in the low strings, as once again we sense a buildup of energy, more bird activity, and then a kind of contemplative dissolution to the end. A fascinating work.


The album also includes two suites from Jóhannsson's soundtracks for the films The Theory of Everything and Sicario, both of which were nominated for Oscars and other awards, with the former winning the Golden Globe for Best Original Score. The suites recorded here were arranged by Jóhannsson and are receiving their premier performances on disc. The presentation of the music varies from how it was presented in the soundtracks. For example, the opening piano music (“A Model of the Universe”) that opens the Theory of Everything Suite appeared later in the score, while the music that closes the suite (“Cambridge, 1963”) was actually used at the beginning of the score. Similarly, the brief three-part Sicario – Suite does not follow the order of the score, opening with “Target,” a brief section mostly in the lower strings that establishes a feeling of tension, which is from later in the score. This is followed by “Desert Music,” in which a plaintive solo cello part sings out against quite orchestral accompaniment. Finally, the suite and the program end with “Melancholia,” which features a prominent role for a solo bass guitar. It is a peaceful but haunting conclusion to this remarkable album. The CD booklet offers some valuable insights into Jóhannsson and his music. Dynamically recommended. 

Sep 13, 2023

Recent Releases No. 57 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Chen Gang and He Zhanhao: Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto (arr. Yan Huichang and Ku Lap-Man); Saint-Saëns: Introduction et Ronde Capriccioso in A minor, op. 28; Massenet: “Méditation” from Thaïs; Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen. Joshua Bell, violin; Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Tsung Yeh


Those looking for something different  but not too far “out there” might well find themselves fascinated by this recording, one that mixes East and West in an unusual way. The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, which was inspired by a romantic Chinese legend, was written in 1959 by the Chinese composers Chen Gang (b. 1935) and He Zhanhao (b. 1933). Their original version, which they richly scored for a full Western symphonic orchestra, has achieved global popularity. For this recording, however, violinist Joshua Bell has chosen to perform an adaptation of the work by Yang Hui Chang and Ku Lap-Man for an orchestra of mostly traditional Chinese instruments. As the liner notes explain, “the sound world of the concerto becomes more vivid , arresting, and visceral in this arrangement. For instance, instead of violin and viola sections echoing the sounds of the gaohu, the erhu, and the zhonghu – the Chinese bowed string instruments in various ranges – the Singapore Chinese Orchestra employs whole sections of skilled players of these as well as other traditional Chinese instruments. To anchor the ensemble sound, the orchestra includes Western cellos and double-basses. Aside from these, the percussion section and a guest harpist, however, all the other instruments are traditionally Chinese. The concerto is in seven short movements, with the solo violin, so expressively played here by Bell, weaving a tale of great passion throughout. The Chinese orchestra does not sound as exotic as the notes might lead the listener to expect; just not as full and soaring as a Western orchestra. It’s an interesting sound, to be sure, which carries over into the more familiar chestnuts that fill out this interesting-sounding album. 


Mozart Recital. Mozart: Gigue in G minor, K 574 “Eine kleine Gigue”12 Contredanses for Count Czernin, K 269b - Nos. 1, 2, 3, 12Sonata No. 9 in D major, K 311Allegro in G minor, K 512Adagio in B minor, K 540Variation on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint”, K 455Sonata No. 12 in F major, K 332Ave verum corpus, K 518 (arr. Franz Liszt). Su Yeon Kim, piano. Steinway & Sons 30211 


This all-Mozart recital is the first recording by the Korean pianist Su Yeon Kim (b. 1994), 2021 Grand Laureate of the Concours musical international de Montréal. The young artist has spent much of her career delving deep into Mozart’s music, having studied at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg and competed successfully at the Mozart International Competition. Although this background gave her a good foundation, to record an album of Mozart’s music still presented a formidable challenge to the young pianist: “Even after 10 years of diligent studies, I still felt like there were a few steps left before I fully understood Mozart’s music and the spirit behind it,” she explains. “His music is full of life and power, encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions and transcending all eras and cultural boundaries. I feel that I also learned, through Mozart's music, how to face myself in unfiltered way, how to accept and express from painful sadness to sheer joy.” On the album, she presents a variety of music of different styles, from the quirky opening Gigue, the rollicking Contredanses, and of course a couple of more substantial pieces, the Sonatas Nos. 9 & 12. Of course, even within the sonatas, Mozart gives us a variety of emotions, and Su Yeon Kim brings a deft touch to the keyboard that brings balance to the proceedings. Between the two sonatas are three standalone pieces – an Allegro, a heartfelt Adagio, and the energetic and playful Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint.” She then closes her recital with the meltingly beautiful Franz Liszt arrangement of Mozart’s  Ave verum corpus. As usual, Steinway & Sons has done an excellent job of capturing the sound of the piano. 


Per Nørgård: Three Nocturnal MovementsSymphony No. 8Lysning. Peter Herresthal, violin; Jakob Kullberg, cello; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor BIS-2502 SACD


Per Nørgård (b. 1932, pronounced “Per Ner-Gore”) is generally regarded to be one of the most the most important Danish composers since Nielsen. Long ago I had heard some orchestral music of his that I had found intriguing; this memory led me last year to acquire a boxed set of his symphonies, eight in number, which had been released on BIS. I found the set challenging but fascinating and even included it in a supplemental post of some more of my favorite releases of 2022, which you can read here. In that set, Symphony No. 8 was by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Finnish conductor Sakari Oramu (b. 1965). There is also a YouTube video of Finnish conductor John Storgårds (b. 1965) conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic in 2012, in what was I believe was the work’s premier (you can find that video here). At the end of the performance, Nørgård comes forward to acknowledge the applause of the concertgoers along with conductor Storgårds, to whom the work was dedicated. (For those who might be interested, there is also a video made at about the same time in which Nørgård and Storgårds discuss the symphony (and Sibelius), which you can watch here


Fast-forward a decade, and Storgårds is now the conductor for this 2023 release (the symphony was actually recorded in 2022, the other works in 2019), this time with the Bergen Philharmonic. The program opens with Three Nocturnal Movements for violin, cello, and orchestra. Violinist Peter Herresthal and cellist Jakob Kullberg are two of Nørgård’s long-term collaborators; Kullberg in particular had significant input into the creation of the work, which is three movements that evoke confusion and calm, mystery in the darkness, random points of light. Nocturnal, yes… The symphony is also in three movements, with the first, marked Tempo giusto, being significantly longer than the other two (11:28 in this performance, compared to the nearly identical 6:50 Andante molto and 6:49 for the final movement, which is marked simply as ♩ = 90. The work is bold, busy (lots of notes), and although probably not to everyone’s taste (what is?), intriguing. It is one of those works that seems to get better as it goes along, until by the last few minutes you realize that you are enthralled – the final movement has won you over – and you want to listen to it again. But before you do, you can spend a little relaxing time (4:43) in the glade, which is the term Nørgård uses to characterize Lysning, a soothing piece for string orchestra. As we have come to expect from BIS, the sonics are first-rate. For the record, I did my listening to the CD layer of this hybrid SACD, which also includes stereo SACD and 5.0 surround layers.

Sep 10, 2023

Higdon: Duo Duel; Concerto for Orchestra (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Matthew Strauss, Svet Stoyanov, percussion; Houston Symphony conducted by Robert Spano. Naxos American Classics 8.559913

The American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her Violin Concerto, the same year she was awarded a Grammy for her Percussion Concerto. She has since gone on to collect two more Grammy awards, in 2018 for her Viola Concerto and in 2020 for her Harp Concerto. (Hmmm, I seem to detect a pattern here. It looks as though a concerto from Ms. Higdon might be a pretty safe bet…) As our own John Puccio noted of her music in his review of one of her earlier compositions, “ Unlike so many late twentieth-century composers, Ms. Higdon believes in writing real tunes, melodies, rather than simply inventing new soundscapes.” This new release from Naxos features two energetic works for orchestra that offer further evidence for John’s praise of the composer’s artistry. Both are in fact concertos – one for percussion instruments and orchestra, the other, like the widely known one by Bartók, for orchestra “solo.” And yes, these concertos by composer Higdon prove to be very safe bets indeed.


Higdon begins her CD booklet essay introducing the first of the two works on this release, Duo Duel, with these startling words: “This concerto contains 41,973 notes…” before continuing more conventionally, “…and is dedicated to the two percussionists who inspired it, Svet Stoyanov and Matthew Strauss. Composition started mid-February 2020 and was completed by 11 June 2020.” (By the way, I did some quick math and estimated that assuming she took weekends off, she would have had to average around 451 notes per day. Phew!) But it is in her next paragraph concerning Duo Duel where Higdon has some really interesting things to say about her composition, things of which the listener to this recording would otherwise be completely unawares: “Both soloists stand at the front of the stage, one on each side. The solo instruments are pitched percussion instruments (as opposed to non-pitched, such as drums). The soloists play vibraphone (which they share), marimba (which they also share), crotales (small metal discs with a high pitch), and a total of six timpani (three for each player). They frequently stand very close together to play the same instrument. Two-thirds of the concerto features the keyboard percussion instruments, and the final one-third features the timpani.” 

This was a case where reading the liner notes not only gave me an insight into a particular composition, (after all, that’s what liner notes are supposed to do), but also made me realize that Higdon was conceiving of her work as something to be played by live musicians in a concert hall where their duel could be seen in all its vivid three-dimensional glory as the two percussionists moved around the stage striking their various instruments, at times even playing side-by-side. As per my usual practice I had listened to this release several times before reading the notes, and I must confess that although I thoroughly enjoyed the music, which is colorful and energetic, with the prominent percussion adding some extra excitement, I never quite understood the “duel” implied by the title. It just didn’t sound like a percussion duel – nothing like the dueling tympani in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, for example, which is the sort of sound the title Duo Duel had led me to expect. But when I read Higdon’s notes, it suddenly hit mt that this was music played by live musicians in real space, and had I seen them in the concert hall rather than merely heard them through my speakers – as wonderful as my Legacy Audio Focus SEs might be – there are elements of a live performance that microphones cannot capture. Still, I do not mean to sound discouraging: Duo Duel is a lively, colorful, exciting new composition that is well worth an audition. You can get a sense of what a live performance would be like from this promotional video from Naxos, which you can watch here.

But wait – there’s more!


The American conductor Robert Spano (b. 1961) actually recorded Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra previously, with the Atlanta Symphony for the late, lamented Telarc label on a CD that was released in January, 2007. Curiously enough, on that release, the work also took second billing, to a tone poem titled City Scape. (I had hoped to do a quick A/B listening session with the two recordings to compare the sonics but could not lay my hands on the Telarc, which must be hiding in a box somewhere, alas.) The Telarc was a fine release for which I wrote a positive review for The $ensible Sound magazine back when it first came out. 


As in Duo Duel, percussion features prominently throughout, bringing a strong sense of continuity to the album as a whole. Like Bartók’s well-known work of the same name, Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra consists of five movements. In her notes, she reflects on the fact that “surprisingly, the first movement was the last to be composed. It took writing the other four movements to create a clear picture of what was needed to start the virtuosic tour-de-force.” Of the work as a whole, she explains, “the Concerto for Orchestra is truly a concerto in that it requires virtuosity from the principal players, the individual sections and the whole orchestra.” The work truly is a virtuosic tour-de-force; moreover, Spano clearly believes in it – enough to record it twice, and his enthusiasm clearly inspires the Houston players. Especially for those who enjoy giving their audio systems a good workout, this new release is highly recommended.

Sep 6, 2023

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (Streaming review)

By Bill Heck

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra. Valdimir Jurowski, Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Pentatone

Back in the day, recordings of Strauss's sprawling tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra (hereinafter ASZ) were a favorite audiophile system test. Did the opening sustained bass note from the organ rattle the windows? Could the huge orchestral outbursts scare the cat? And let's not forget the tremendous boost in interest generated by the use of this music in Stanley Kubrick's classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Often lost among those sorts of breathless queries were more mundane questions such as whether this was music worth hearing in the first place and, if so, what was the quality of the given performance?

Richard Strauss
These days, at least casual observation suggests that the music of Richard Strauss has dropped out of favor. I certainly don't recall seeing loads of new releases featuring his tone poems, especially this one. Perhaps our taste became more "sophisticated" as we concentrated on historically informed performances of the baroque and classical repertoire. (Surely even the most HIP-happy would not dream of applying its lessons to one of Strauss's tone poems!) But perhaps another reason was that classical music lovers just got tired of run-through performances designed for maximum sonic impact or lovely chords without much thought to capturing the expressiveness of the compositions, of treating them as serious music that should be played seriously.

That said, there’s certainly no shortage of recorded performances of ASZ, what with umpteen versions dating from the mid-1950’s onward. The best of these, from famous names such as Reiner and Karajan, reveal the glories of Strauss’s orchestration, often in remarkably good sound; Strauss fans surely had nothing to complain about. But – and I admit this only sheepishly, even though I know that I had a certain amount of company – some of us found even the most well-regarded recordings a little too much of a good thing. I (we) found ourselves losing focus halfway through, wandering off to attend to other chores before the final notes rang out, or perhaps even drifting off, although I (we) always blamed it on recent sleep deprivation rather than the music. At least for me, the result was that I had not listened to this work in many years.

Vladimir Jurowski
So I admit that I cranked up this performance from my streaming feed as a lark, not really expecting all that much, looking, I guess, for that little dose of audiophile oomph. But then something odd happened. I heard musicians playing as if they really meant it, a conductor bringing out moments of sheer beauty, not just for audio effect and not even just for the beauty alone, but as part of a unified narrative, the whole creating a musical experience that was not only impressive but was truly engaging.

I also heard one of the clearer recordings of an orchestra that has come through my system in some time. In my experience, an issue with orchestral recordings is that there is some level of congestion, making it difficult to hear all the details that would be apparent in the concert hall. Orchestral recordings also tend to overemphasize the violins and give them a steely tone. The Pentatone engineers have managed to overcome these problems. The smallest details emerge from the proverbial black (meaning silent) background, while the sound hangs together through the loudest climaxes. Add to that a nice wide stereo image and we have a winner.

It's all good, right? Well, I suppose that this version will not be everyone's cup of tea. What I hear, and appreciate, as keeping things moving and structured will strike some as lacking in emotion and not letting the music breathe. In fact, Jurowski does set some quickish tempo, especially right out of the gate: his opening prelude zips in at 1:22 instead of the more common two minutes or so. And yes, we could ask for more expansive views at certain points, such as in the Tanzlied (8th segment). But I appreciate the "let's get on with it" approach that helps to clarify the structure of the work (yes, there is some structure) and, frankly, keeps me awake. YMMV.

Moreover, I should add another cautionary note. The Rundfunk group plays well, but it just doesn't have quite the power of, say, its larger cousin in Berlin. That's not to say that the band sounds wimpy; this issue is evident only on direct comparison with performances by the truly big dogs. In any case, although I miss the last bit of orchestral might when I'm in comparative mode, if I just sit down to listen the sound is way more than adequate.

Finally, we need to clarify just what we have here in terms of a musical product. You’ll notice that the header says “Streaming review” and that, although the Pentatone label is given, there’s no catalog number. That’s because this release is not available as a physical product, but rather as a download directly from the Pentatone website, or as a stream, either from the Pentatone website or from a streaming service, e.g., Amazon, Apple, Idagio, Qobuz, etc. (Pentatone downloads are, in turn, available in “high Quality” – CD reolution– and two higher resolution versions.) Then again, if you really want a CD, the performance appears to be a re-release of one previously issued on a 2017 CD that also included two works by Mahler. That release included a useful booklet; the booklet is not included with the current streaming/download release. (However, the new release makes each movement a separate track; for some reason, the original CD did not.) The lack of a booklet is not because the streaming version couldn’t have one: my current streaming service (Qobuz) does provide PDF copies of booklets that accompany CDs when these are provided by the record label; in fact, I found booklets for every one of a quick sampling of ten or so recent Pentatone releases, meaning that the lack of a booklet in the current case is a Pentatone decision. I do wish that Pentatone had gone to the trouble of deleting unneeded pages from the booklet that accompanied that 2017 CD in order to give us something, but the lack of notes isn’t a dealbreaker.

Which brings us to a follow up question, not about Strauss, ASZ, Jurowski or the orchestra, but about the future of classical music recordings. When you think about it, the idea of releasing a given work, regardless of length, as one “thing” (download or stream) makes a lot of sense. Why couple, say, Strauss with Mahler other than to fill up a CD? OK, for recitals it might make sense, but couplings just for the sake of timing are, in the streaming/download world, a thoroughly obsolete notion. It’s a little premature to talk about this sort of thing now, as most labels are still issuing physical products and there still are music collectors buying CDs, not to mention LPs. But I wonder if, a few years from now, we’ll look back and laugh about the quaint idea of “filling a disk” with music just because the space was there to be used. I can only hope that when that day arrives, those often-excellent booklets will still accompany the music files.

And to return at long last to the release in question: if you are looking for a slightly different take on Strauss and ASZ, one that tightens up the sprawl, give this one a listen.

Sep 3, 2023

Fauré: Nocturnes & Barcarolles (CD Review)

(CD1) Nocturnes – Nocturne No. 1 in E flat minor Op 33Nocturne No. 2 in B major Op 33; Nocturne No. 3 in A flat major Op 33; Nocturne No. 4 in E flat major Op 36; Nocturne No. 5 in B flat major Op 37; Nocturne No. 6 in D flat major Op 63; Nocturne No. 7 in C sharp minor Op 74; Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major Op 84; Nocturne No. 9 in B minor Op 97; Nocturne No. 10 in E minor Op 99; Nocturne No. 11 in F sharp minor Op 104; Nocturne No. 12 in E minor Op 107; Nocturne No. 13 in B minor Op 119; (CD2) Barcarolles – Barcarolle No. 1 in A minor Op 26; Barcarolle No. 2 in G major Op 41; Barcarolle No. 3 in G flat major Op 42; Barcarolle No. 4 in A flat major Op 44; Barcarolle No. 5 in F sharp minor Op 66; Barcarolle No 6. in E flat major Op 70; Barcarolle No. 7 in D minor Op 90; Barcarolle No. 8 in D flat major Op 96; Barcarolle No. 9 in A minor Op 101; Barcarolle No. 10 in A minor Op 104; Barcarolle No. 11 in G minor Op 105; Barcarolle No. 12 in E flat major Op 106; Barcarolle No. 13 in C major Op 116; Dolly Op 56 (with Cathy Fuller, piano) – Berceuse; 'Messieu Aoul!' (published as 'Mi-a-ou'); Le jardin de Dolly; Ketty-valse (published as 'Kitty-valse'); Tendresse; Le pas espagnole. Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano. Hyperion CDA 68331/2

The French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is a composer who, although relatively well known to most classical music lovers, nevertheless seems to be under-appreciated. Perhaps he needed to write some symphonies; whatever the reason, he certainly was a marvelous composer who created music of great beauty and refinement. He saw a purpose to music: “To my mind, art, and above all music, consists in lifting us as far as possible above what is,” he once wrote. These words take on extra meaning when we consider that Fauré was always something of an establishment outsider, and then in middle age, was beset (like Beethoven) with deafness. As a teenager, he had been taught piano by Saint-Saëns, 10 years his senior, who became his lifetime mentor and champion. Saint-Saëns encouraged him to compose, helped him get a job as a church organist, and remained his staunch supporter throughout his career. But although he played the organ for much of his life, he left no compositions for that instrument; however, he composed for the piano throughout his career, including the compositions on this new Hyperion release from Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin (b. 1961), the Nocturnes and Barcarolles, both of which date from throughout his career. 


The last time we reviewed a release from Hamelin, he was playing rags by William Bolcom (see that review here). In that review, we noted that Hamelin is a pianist known for his technical prowess and willingness to take on repertory outside the classical mainstream. Now, the piano music of Fauré is not as far out of the classical mainstream as is the music of Bolcom, but on the other hand, it is certainly far less frequently recorded than that of Beethoven, Chopin, or some of the other usual suspects, so I think we can applaud Hamelin and Hyperion for bringing us such a fine collection. The Nocturnes date from 1875 to 1921 and capture a variety of moods and feelings. Especially lovely is No. 6, which although is one of the shorter examples, is so laden with expression that it can make you just stop in your tracks. Hamelin brings a warmth of expression to his playing that plumbs the depths without seeming cloying. The Barcarolles (“boat songs”) date from 1881 through 1921. They may not be as deep emotionally as the Nocturnes, but they are certainly entertaining. They have that sense of a boat rolling in the water, and as you listen you are carried along, perhaps to be ferried away from your troubles. The program concludes with a bonus, Hamelin being joined by his wife, Cathy Fuller, for a performance of the Dolly suite for piano four-hands. Dolly comprises six short selections that add up to a little over 15 minutes of pleasant entertainment, but interesting enough to capture the imagination. 

As we have come to expect from Hyperion, everything about this release is first class. The cover features some beautiful art by Monet, the booklet presents useful information about every individual track on the two CDs as well as some biographical information about the artists, and the engineering is excellent. For those who enjoy piano music, this new release is one that you really ought to hear, especially if you have not yet experienced the magical music of that underappreciated master, Gabriel Fauré.   

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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa