Jan 31, 2024

Recent Releases No. 70 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Haydn: 48 Piano Sonatas. Daniel-Ben Pienaar, piano. AVIE AV257

In yet another project undertaken in the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, South African pianist Daniel-Ban Pienaar has produced this imposing box set containing eight compact discs on which he has recorded as the cover declares “the 39 authenticated multi-movement solo keyboard works from 1765 onwards and nine earlier works presumed to be Haydn’s, or probably his, by the vast majority of scholars.” These works include: Four early Sonatas (listed in Haydn’s Entwurf-Katalog of 1765); Six Sonatas (1765-1772); Six Sonatas dedicated to Prince Nicolas Esterházy (c. 1773, published in 1774); Six Sonatas (1774-?76); Six Sonata dedicated to Katharina and Marianna Auenbrugger (published in 1880); Three Sonatas (published in London in 1783); Three Sonatas for Princess Maria Esterházy (published in 1784); Two Sonatas (1789-90); Three English Sonatas (1794-95); plus Variations in F minor (1793) and nine early Sonatas widely presumed to be by Haydn. Pienaar’s liner notes go into great detail about the difficulty of making a “definitive cycle” of Haydn’s works for piano owing to questions of authenticity. He also offers some remarks concerning how to approach performing these works today.

 I was surprised to discover in the liner note credits that for this release Pienaar had done his own recording and editing. Above the list of credits here is a photo of his piano with the following caption: “The Angela Burgess Recital Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, London. The recording took place in a series of overnight sessions in late 2020, with no engineer or producer present. A single pair of suspended omni-directional microphones was used.” Pienaar is on the faculty at the Royal Academy of Music, which gave him easy access to this recording venue and the associated equipment; still, it is unusual for an artist to record without the assistance of an engineer or producer.  

There is a helpfully informative article by Pienaar in the November 14, 2023, issue of the International Piano Newsletter in which the pianist discusses this recording in considerable detail; I recommend it highly. As with the liner notes, he discusses the difficulties involved in putting together the set of sonatas to record and his approach to performing them. But as something of a hopeless old boomer audiophile, I could not help but be particularly fascinated by Pienaar’s account of the recording process: 


“I started recording at the end of the summer, at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The Academy’s Angela Burgess Recital Hall is fitted with a single pair of omnidirectional mics that are pretty good – so I just positioned the piano in the best way I could and played and played, without an engineer or producer. I got permission to access the building overnight, and I tended to work on Saturday nights. I would record about one CD’s worth of music on each of these nights, spending altogether eight nights between September and December. It then took me about five weeks to choose takes and edit everything (I always edit my own work). It was especially important for me that everything should remain ‘fresh’ and that I should capture a feeling of making music for myself, allowing myself to be surprised by Haydn’s music, and exploring in the way I do every day at the piano – thus working in an intimate hall, on my own, and using the simplest means of recording… Every album of mine has been a kind of experiment in avoiding the glossiness that seems almost de rigueur nowadays when it comes to recorded sound. The question to ask is: what are we trying to achieve with recorded sound? Are we just evoking a space? As a listener I don’t really want to be transported to an empty concert hall. And it is important to engage the imagination of the listener – does the recorded sound allow that to happen? It feels to me that the mind is better at filling in some ‘gaps’ in audio information than subtracting it in the case of unrealistic, excessive amounts of resolution and detail.”


The sound quality is quite satisfying. The first noticeable quality is that there seems to be just the right amount of distance between the microphones/our ears and the piano. This is not one of those piano recordings where we hear every little click of the keys or creak of the piano bench. On the other hand, it is also not one of those recordings with an abundance of ambient background room or hall sound. At the same time, the sound is full-bodied and dynamic, sounding very much like a piano. 


Later in this same article, Pienaar goes on to comment about the music, using a term that I found surprising: “The combination of elements in Haydn’s music strikes me, perhaps more than anything, as rather mysterious. There is something one can’t quite put one’s finger on which makes it beautiful in a special way – very different from the totally disarming sensuality and emotion of Mozart.” It’s the word “mysterious” that caught me off-guard, for it is not the word that I would think of to describe this music, which sounds to my ears as something of a mixture of Bach and Mozart, but leaning more to the latter than the former. But I am not a pianist, nor a musician. I have no adequate words to describe Haydn’s keyboard music, other than to say I find it spirited and enjoyable. Pienaar is certainly WAY more qualified than I to describe this music; upon reflection, I find his use of the term “mysterious” stimulating and delightful.


Those same terms – “stimulating” and “delightful” – are also apt descriptions of this boxed set as a whole. There is much delight to be discovered in the piano music of Haydn, and this set offers the music lover a way to sit back and dig in. Whether one might want to methodically work their way through the whole set from start to finish or instead randomly listen to a few selections here and there while perusing the CD booklet for background information, this release offers those opportunities in a package of excellent quality. 


The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos. (CD1) Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19; (CD2) No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; (CD3) No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 58Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra; Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Reference Recordings FR-751SACD


I must preface this review by shamefacedly admitting that it is inexcusably late in seeing the light of day. Poor Garrick Ohlsson, Sir Donald Runnicles, and the entire Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra (or, more precisely, this particular copy of their Beethoven concertos recording) somehow managed to disappear in my listening room for a period of many months, cleverly evading my determined search. Happily enough, though, I finally came upon it – pretty much by accident, of course – and am finally able to pass along the recommendation that I should by all rights have passed along many months ago. In the CD booklet, pianist Garrick Ohlsson (b. 1948) remarks that over the course of his long career he has performed each of the Beethoven concertos more than 100 times and that he was excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with Sir Donald Runnicles to record these works over the span of a week of concert performances in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The CD booklet includes an essay by producer Vic Muenzer in which he goes into a fair amount of detail about the recording process in some detail.


The end result is set of Beethoven concertos that is warm and comfortable both in sound and performance. This is not the lean and swift sort of Beethoven playing that we have come to hear more often owing to the many “historically informed performance” and/or “original instruments” Beethoven recordings in the marketplace. Ohlsson’s playing on his Steinway sounds rich and expressive, and the sound quality is on the warm and full side. It just all sounds, well, comfortable – and quite enjoyable for all that. My favorite sets of Beethoven piano concertos have been Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland and Bronfman/Zinman/Tonhalle Zurich. This new release from Reference Recordings supplants neither of those, but it is still worthy of consideration by those looking for an entertaining and rewarding set of the Beethoven piano concertos. It's a first-class set both musically and sonically.

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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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa