Jan 16, 2024

Mikyung Sung: The Colburn Sessions

by Bill Heck

Bottesini: Tarantella, Capriccio di Bravura, Elegy No. 1 in D Major; Massenet: Meditation from Thaïs; Hindemith: Sonata for Double Bass and Piano; Montag: Sonata in E Minor for Double Bass and Piano; Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major; Rachmaninoff: Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 (third movement); Franck: Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano. Jaemin Shin, Mikyung Sung. Modus Vivendi Media MVM2301

When I first happened upon this album, I was dumbfounded. So far as I can tell, it should be physically impossible to play a double bass in the manner that Ms. Sung does. Flying through endless quick series of notes with on the nose intonation along the extended neck with thick strings of this instrument: how in the world does she do that?

But, of course, there is more to this two-CD set than mere technical brilliance, so let’s explore. 

Giovanni Bottesini
The first disc opens with three works by Giovanni Bottesini (1821 – 1899), considered in his time as the “Paganini of the Double Bass”, and who moved from virtuoso command of that instrument to conducting and composing. The first piece, Tarantella, certainly is a showpiece for the double bass, with shifting tempi and virtuoso runs: If you do think of Paganini on the bass instead of the violin, you’ll have the general idea. The next, Capricio di bravura, begins as a soulful singing piece that moves across the entire range of the instrument. It breaks into a lively dance, and back and forth we go, ending it all with a flourish; the overall feel is reminiscent of a dance scene from an opera. Finally, we have the Elegy, several minutes of quite lovely playing. Showpieces all, the music is interesting and enjoyable, and in any case bravura playing is enough to carry the day.

Massenet’s Meditation from Thais is one of those works that you’ve heard somewhere, even if you didn’t know what it was. Originally composed for violin and orchestra, in the wrong hands it can degenerate into a rather saccharine tearjerker, but the transposition of the work to double bass with piano accompaniment gives it a whole new sound, perhaps more straightforward than the original. In any case, Sung’s playing is moving without turning into treacle.

Next up are two more recent works also originally composed for the double bass, namely Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Double Bass and Piano, followed by Vilmas Montag’s work of the same name.

The Hindemith Sonata is in much the same vein as some of his better know and more popular works, such as the Mathis der Maler or the Metamorphosis (on Themes by Weber). Although there are moments of dissonance, the composition still is tonal, with a mood best described as mysterious, and developed mostly in minor keys. Personally, I found it quite engaging and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.

I’m less certain of the Montag composition but can say with confidence that Sung makes the best possible case for it. Her playing, especially in the lower register of the instrument, is lovely and powerful at the same time.

This is a good time to mention that the contributions from pianist Jaemin Shin are beyond mere accompaniment: there’s no doubt that the album is about Sung, but she and Shin are very much partners in music making.

The second disc contains works originally composed for other instruments and redone for the double bass. There are three: Mendelssohn‘s Cello Sonata No. 2, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano (third movement), and Franck’s Sonata in A for Violin and Piano. You may be familiar with these works in their original versions, so I won’t go into a lot of description here. What I will say is that all of them sound absolutely natural when played on the double bass; indeed, if you didn’t know that they were originally composed for different instruments, you could easily presume that they were composed for the bass. (That’s not too surprising in the first two works, as the move from cello to bass at least seems like a plausible idea. But it really is amazing that the third piece loses nothing in the translation.) In all three, what could have sounded just gimmicky are instead propelled by Sung’s musical sensitivity as well as her virtuosity and come across simply as wonderful music. Yes, the bass gives the pieces more sonic weight, but it never weighs them down.

The sound on both discs is clean and natural, although that on the second is just a touch more distant that on the first. (The recording venues were different.) I listened to the album on my streaming service; sadly, the CD booklet was not available there. (I wish I knew why booklets are or are not available on streaming service that support them; they are for some newer works but not for all.) The CD is generally available, but you also can purchase a digital download of the entire thing at Mikyung Sung’s website.

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa