Feb 28, 2024

Susanna Mälkki conducts Sibelius (CD Review)

by Ryan Ross

Sibelius: Karelia Suite, Op. 11Rakastava, Op. 14Lemminkäinen, Op. 22. Susanna Mälkki, conductor; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. BIS-2638

Anyone who has heard Susanna Mälkki’s performances knows that she approaches conducting with admirable precision and sensitivity. In settings where the music is especially enhanced by these attributes, she’s absolutely first-rate. In situations that call for unbridled passion, however, I’m sometimes left wanting more. This dichotomy plays out across BIS’s new disc of nationally-inflected orchestral fare by Jean Sibelius. By now all of these works have plenty of recordings in the classical catalogue, especially the Karelia Suite and Lemminkäinen Legends (or “Suite,” as it’s often called). The field isn’t nearly Beethoven Fifth-level crowded, but the bar is not exactly low either. In the music here that plays to her strengths, Mälkki and the HPO give wonderful performances. But there are parts that do not always align with her predisposition, and these (for my taste) lead to middling ventures. 

The opening Karelia Suite is a good case in point. All of the ingredients would appear to be here for a splendid interpretation. And yet, I’m missing a little extra something that might be called “gusto” or “absolute conviction.” In the first movement (and beyond) we witness Mälkki’s skillfully balanced voices and colors. But perhaps the busy timpani are a bit too soft, the strings too crystalline. The tempo in the Ballade is a touch on the deliberate side, which is fine. But here again the punctuating element is dimmed, this time in the pizzicato second violin chords accompanying the dream-like secondary theme’s undulating cello line. To my ears, the finale simply sounds too graceful for an “Alla marcia,” particularly with the knowledge that this music was originally conceived to accompany a tableaux depicting military conquest. Overall, the gestures are too delicate and rounded and the mood overly restrained. I would suggest the wonderful performance by Okko Kamu and the Helsinki Radio Symphony Orchestra (found on Deutsche Grammophon 427 204-2) as an illustrative point of comparison. While lacking Mälkki and the HPO’s finesse, its spirit is unimpeachable.

The Lemminkӓinen Legends present a somewhat mixed bag. We’ll start with the good: these performances of The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkӓinen in Tuonela are among the very best. This is because these movements call more for nuance and contemplation than they do for the kind of virile passion depicted with the eponymous character elsewhere. I don’t know whether I have ever heard a Swan more radiant and mysterious than Mälkki’s, or one that more completely exploits instrumental timbre to such breathtaking effect. Likewise, she pulls off the knotty Lemminkӓinen in Tuonela more convincingly than I have ever heard it done before, owing (again) to her keen grasp of color in addition to her ability make the wispy melodic content cohere sufficiently throughout. (This is NOT easy to do.) But with Lemminkӓinen and the Maidens of the Island we’re back in a world too lusty for Mälkki’s emotional restraint. This is rousing stuff requiring a certain sympathetic investment to bring off the points of ecstasy that can make the music so irresistible. One such juncture is the exhilarating return of the main theme after many measures of running-strings buildup. To be fair, Mälkki is far from alone in not doing this crucial passage justice. But next to, for example, Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s and the Toronto Symphony’s stupendous romp through the juncture in question (see Finlandia 3984-27890-2), any tepid arrival just won’t do. 

With Lemminkӓinen’s Return the results are better, if not top-tier. The tempo is suitably brisk and the playing very well controlled. But once again I’m missing just a touch of legendary magic that characterizes the best options. (I simply do not understand why so many performances of this piece insist upon ppp, instead of p, statements in important upper woodwind figures, such as those at Rehearsal F. These need to be heard!) On balance, then, this performance of the Lemminkӓinen Legends is a decent option, weighing two distinguished entries against lackluster and average ones. My top choices for this set of pieces are still Leif Segerstam and the HPO (Ondine ODE852-2), and Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (BIS CD-294). These may cede some ground to Mälkki and the HPO in the inner movements, but they are more aesthetically consistent. 


I am happy to recommend the Rakastava performance without reservation. Mälkki finds a congenial match for her talents in this tender, plaintive work. It will probably never be among Sibelius’s most loved compositions, but it deserves exposure. We can only hope that this interpretation sparks further interest. Any subsequent recordings will have to be good indeed to merit preference over this one. 


While I cannot give every effort here full-throated recommendation, I do heartily suggest buying this recording. Susanna Mälkki may not always be my ideal match for what she conducts, but she comes across as a highly intelligent musician who brings an impressive toolkit to her various tasks. She seems more at home in the “modernist” repertoire, but the occasions here when her conducting astounds make me interested in what she has to offer elsewhere. This is a release that enriches the catalogue, whatever else might be said.

Feb 25, 2024

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (Book Review)

by Karl Nehring

Murakami, Haruki. Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2016.


The world of classical music lost a legendary figure earlier this month when the revered and beloved Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa (1935-2024) passed away at the age of 88. February 6 has long been a memorable day in my life, for it was my ETS day – the day I was discharged from active duty in the U.S. Army, way back in 1975. But from now on, February 6, the day of Seiji Ozawa’s passing, will have an additional memory attached to it, making it a bittersweet day of remembrance for the rest of my time here on this watery orb. My guess would be that most lovers of classical music have at least a few recordings in their collection that feature Maestro Ozawa. He was at the helm of the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly 30 years and with that orchestra made a number of noteworthy recordings, especially of French music. In particular, his recordings of Ravel with the BSO are among the finest available. Later in his career he returned to Japan and made some outstanding recordings with the Saito Kinen Orchestra, which he founded.


There is most likely a subset of classical musical fans that includes fans of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I first became acquainted with his writing when I pretty much randomly picked up a paperback copy some years ago of his novel Kafka on the Shore to read while recuperating from some impending surgery. I found myself spellbound, and since then have read just about every book he has ever published, fiction and non-fiction as well. When Absolutely on Music was first published in 2016, I eagerly borrowed a copy from my favorite library and dug right in. What a delightful, educational, absorbing book it turned out to be!


Note the subtitle: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. Note also that the book is based on some deep, thoughtful conversations rather than some scattered, perfunctory interviews. Murakami had become friends with Ozawa during the conductor’s tenure in Boston, but the two seldom discussed music. Only much later, in Japan in 2009 after Ozawa became ill with cancer, did the two really begin to discuss music. Ozawa was recuperating from treatment; being away from active involvement with music, he now felt he could take the time to reflect and talk about it. Murakami was an interested layman. His principal musical passion is jazz, but as he writes, “I have also been listening to classical music with no less enjoyment, collecting classical records since I was in high school, and going to concerts as often as time would permit.” During one of Ozawa’s visits to Murakami’s home, the conductor began telling an interesting story about the famous concert in New York where Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein had a severe disagreement over tempi for the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1. Murakami thought it would be a good idea to get this story recorded. Ozawa agreed, and thus began the series of conversations that eventually led to the book.

The book’s contents include: Introduction: “My Afternoon with Seiji Ozawa” First Conversation: “Mostly on the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto” Interlude 1: “On Manic Record Collectors” Second Conversation: “Brahms at Carnegie Hall” Interlude 2: “The Relationship of Writing to Music” Third Conversation: “What Happened in the 1960s” Interlude 3: “Eugene Ormandy’s Baton” Fourth Conversation: “On the Music of Gustav Mahler” Interlude 4: “From Chicago Blues to Shin’ichi Mori” Fifth Conversation: “The Joys of Opera” / “In a Little Swiss Town” Sixth Conversation: “There’s No Single Way to Teach. You Make It Up as You Go Along.” 

The conversations run deep; for example, in ostensibly talking about the Beethoven concerto, Ozawa reveals some surprising details about Leonard Bernstein’s relationship to the orchestra, while Murakami displays a surprisingly keen ear for musical detail as the two listen to various recordings from Murakami’s collection. Throughout the book, we observe two agile minds engaging each other in lively conversation about a subject about which they are both deeply passionate. Between Ozawa’s musical knowledge and Murakami’s mastery of prose, the end result is a volume that eight years after its initial printing deserves a fresh look. This is not a book just for fans of the late conductor; no, it is a book from which just about anyone with an interest in classical music will be able to draw both musical knowledge and reading pleasure.


Feb 21, 2024

Pastoral 21: Gabriel Prokofiev, Ludwig van Beethoven (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” (1st Movement, arr. for string sextet by M. G. Fischer); Gabriel Prokofiev: Breaking Screens – Green Into Red | Fivatak | 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 | ChangeUp | Sad Colours 1 | Memory Fields | Reflessivo; Beethoven: Symphony No.6 (5th Movement arr. for string sextet by M. G. Fischer); G. Prokofiev: Pastoral Reflections - I. Allegro ma non troppo (escape into nature) II. Andante con moto (nature reserve with canalised stream) III. Allegro Mechanico (Mega-farm, cyber village) IV. Vivace (Sturm) V. Allegretto (Stadtpark, faint hopes)Breaking Screens – MobocracyGabriel Prokofiev, synthesizers, electronics; UNLTD Collective (Songha Choi, violin; Çiğdem Tunçelli Sinangil, violin; Martin Moriarty, viola; Kinga Wojdolska, viola; Alfredo Ferre, cello; Antonin Musset, cello). Signum Classics SIGCD761


The British composer, producer, and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev (b. 1975) was born in London to an English mother and Russian father. (And yes, in case you were wondering, he is related to the famous Sergei: Gabriel is in fact Sergei’s grandson.) After completing his musical studies at Birmingham and York Universities, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with what seemed to him to be the insular world of contemporary classical music. In response, he developed his own parallel musical career as a dance, grime, electro, and hip-hop producer. This background in dance music combined with his classical roots gives his music a unique and strikingly contemporary sound. He has built up a growing body of orchestral and chamber works and has composed seven concertos (three featuring turntables), as well as many electronic works, often combining synthesizers and samples with classical instrumentation. We’ve reviewed some of his compositions previously here at Classical Candor, including one of his turntable concertos (you can read that review here), a “symphonic remix” of the finale of Beethoven’s 9th(review can be found here), and most recently, a composition of his was included on an album by viola player Hiyoli Togawa (review here). Looking back over those releases, we see a composer adept at writing for both electronic and traditional instruments, capable of blending them together or deploying them separately in service of his musical vision.


In this newest release, we hear both the traditional classical sound and contemporary electronic elaborations centering around Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Prokofiev remarks in the CD booklet that “today, the concept of ‘pastoral’ is bittersweet. We can still experience the beauty of nature, but the traces of humanity and industry are always present, and the spectre of the ever-increasing climate crisis is looming.” The most straightforward, traditional presentation of the symphony – “the beauty of nature” – is provided in its arrangement for string sextet, with its opening and closing movements represented in fine, flowing performances by the UNLTD Collective. Between these two straightforward interpretations of Beethoven’s familiar music are inserted five relatively short movements of Prokofiev’s Breaking Screens, music that is intended to transport the listener away from Beethoven’s countryside into the 21st century, where, as Prokofiev maintains, “we spend more time looking at screens than the real world.” Although that description might sound a bit abstract – even daunting – the music is an imaginative blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. (There is plenty of bass energy in screen world, apparently, which makes it a fun place to visit for those listeners with whoopee woofers…)

Prokofiev considers his composition Pastoral Reflections to be "a direct response to the Pastoral Symphony, which explores what the concept of ‘Pastoral’ means to us today in this time of climate crisis… Imagine if Beethoven came back to the same locations outside Vienna in the 21st century… Though he would still find some beautiful scenes of nature, he would certainly be shocked by the omnipresence of modern industrial life: The inescapable background noise of motorways, aeroplanes overhead, insistent signs of human presence in plastic waste, metal fences, concrete-bordered streams, tarmac roads… For Pastoral Reflections I decided to follow most of the tempi of Beethoven’s original, and focus on the same themes for each movement, but with a contemporary view. In addition to the string sextet I have used field recordings that illustrate humankind’s omnipresence.” 

Little doubt, his description will sound daunting to some potential listeners, but the music is not as cacophonous as Prokofiev’s provocative prose might make it out to be. For the most part, it is the sound of the string sextet that leads out; the electronic element is there – at times quite noticeably, as intended – but never overbearingly so. No, this is not a work that the most conservative of Beethoven fans will take pleasure, but most listeners should at least find interesting, and some might even find fascinating. 

For whatever reason, the album then concludes with Mobocracy, a brash and bouncy two-and-one-half minutes of primarily synthesized music – the final movement of Breaking Screens. Although Prokofiev discusses all the other music on the program in the CD booklet, he makes no mention of this one. Strange, maybe even a bit ominous… Overall, though, Pastoral 21 is a refreshingly different release that cast a musical gaze upon on past, present, and future.

Feb 18, 2024

Florence Price: Symphony 4 - William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony (Streaming Review)

by Bill Heck

Florence Price: Symphony 4; William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia Orchestra.  DG CC 72970

A few weeks ago, I was first exposed to the music of William Dawson (1899 - 1990) in the form of a concert featuring the Negro Folk Symphony. What an introduction that was! This is the kind of work that, as the saying goes, brings down the house, and it certainly did that evening. Naturally I went looking for a recording of the piece only to find that it was part of a recent DG release, and thus an obvious choice for a review here. Nice coincidence, eh?

This release is the final one of a series of recordings produced by DG featuring orchestral music of Florence Price played by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Indeed, one of the CDs in this series (Symphonies 1 & 3) was already reviewed by our own KWN here. So, you may be wondering why this article is marked as a “streaming review”? What happened to the CD? Well, for whatever reason, DG saw fit to make this one a streaming-only version. Maybe they ran out of silver discs. So far, I've been unable to find a downloadable version either, and I’ve been unable to find a booklet or, as we used to say, liner notes. All this means that you will need to locate this recording through your favorite streaming service. But there's good news: it’s well worth the effort. Read on to find out why.

Let’s start with the Price Symphony 4, which is the first of the two works in this release. A few years ago, readers might have been mystified as to who Florence Price was, but now her music has been revived with multiple recordings. Please do check out KWN’s review for background information on Price; I won't repeat all that here.

Florence Price
Readers who heard some of Price's earlier orchestral works will not be surprised at the style of music presented here: incorporating themes from historically Black music, such as spirituals, as well as some jazz elements, while at the same time looking backwards in the sense of using traditional Western classical music forms. In this symphony, the first movement is built upon the motive of the familiar spiritual tune Wade in the Water. (Those of us of a certain age may be more familiar with that tune from the Ramsey Lewis Trio 1966 instrumental recording than from any more traditional presentations.) While the movement contains stretches of appealing music, I find that the “Wade“ motive is being asked to carry more than it can bear, so to speak, with the music beginning to be a little repetitious without clear progression. Things improve significantly in the beautiful second movement, in which multiple themes, mostly fragments of spirituals, intertwine and are punctuated by dramatic crescendos. The movement is spellbinding; when I first heard it, it seemed to drift by in a few moments, but it really is a leisurely seven minutes. The third movement, an even shorter five minute "juba", is where the jazz influence shows up most prominently, as Price plays with off beats and drifting themes. Quite a fun bit; my only complaint was that it ended too soon. Finally, the fourth movement is a jaunty scherzo, again short at just five minutes, which brought to mind on first hearing an Irish jig. Yes, that's just my idiosyncratic (or possibly idiotic) reaction, but the music really does dance along in a most captivating way. All in all, the symphony is more than worth a listen, although we might wish that Price had had the time to perhaps refine the first movement. Meanwhile, the recorded sound is excellent: full and natural, approaching demo quality, and of course the Philadelphia Orchestra is in fine form, as expected.

William Dawson
For me, though, the second work on the program is the real star of the show. Dawson also uses traditional tunes, but he tends to choose lesser known ones and weaves them subtly into the overall piece. His transformations, variations, and linkages are imaginative and yet seem perfectly logical as they emerge.

The first movement alternates between energy and struggle, between light and dark. Dawson intended this to reflect the struggles and travails of Blacks in America, but the music can stand alone without reference to that (or any) program. Energy is abundant: the musical twists and turns leave us gasping for breath but excited to be along for the ride. The second movement begins almost as a dirge but is harmonically inventive; had someone told me that it was written by, say, Rachmaninoff (perhaps a Rachmaninoff who had quaffed a couple of energy drinks), I might have believed it. The music accelerates with a theme that is reminiscent of something by Dvorak, then slows abruptly as if worried that misfortune will overtake us if we are too happy. The dirge theme reappears with a flute floating high above, the sun then breaks through again; life is complicated, with both highs and lows, yearning, striving; the themes come together and fade out dramatically to end the section. The third movement starts with turmoil, searching for stability until a quiet theme rises up in the woodwinds; the music still seeks restlessly, until all comes together in a burst of confidence for a joyous conclusion.

As to the sound here, I believe that this work was recorded in a different venue than the Price symphony. Although the sonics are good, the sound is not quite so natural and is a little on the diffuse and recessed side. For a work that should have major sonic impact, it's a pity that we don't have quite the level of sound reproduction as some other recent DG efforts.

Returning for a moment to my own reaction upon first hearing this work, the obvious question was this: where had this music been all my life, i.e., why had I not heard this work before, or indeed heard of Dawson at all? Surprisingly, the Negro Folk Symphony had been premiered by this very same orchestra, the Philadelphia, under Leopold Stokowski in 1934. By accounts of the time, not only was the critical reception positive but the audience was enthralled. There were a few more performances, also well received – and then the work effectively disappeared. There may have been multiple reasons, but at least one was that no publisher would take it on, and without a publisher – specifically one that could provide orchestral parts – performance could not happen. It's hard to know exactly what was going on, but presumably racism, and racist presumptions, were at work. (Surely the public would not want to hear that odd Black music; never mind that the public had heard and loved it earlier). Dawson went on to other things, never composing another such work, although he made some revisions to the original score in 1952.

If you want to hear some other approaches to Dawson's masterpiece, you now have choices. An early one was Stokowski's own with the "American Symphony Orchestra" in 1963, in stereo no less. (The ASO was formed by Stokowski and is not to be confused with the other, real American Symphony Orchestra – and no, I'm not going down that rabbit hole.) This performance appeared on multiple labels over the years and is still available as part of a DG two CD set (477 6502). The sonics aren't bad for the time: a little harsh in a few spots and with a lot of spotlighting, which actually brings out some of the nuances of orchestration. The Neeme Jarvi / Detroit Symphony on Chandos seems to me just too fast, not allowing the music to bloom. But the Arthur Fagen / ORF Vienna Radio SO release on Naxos gives us excellent sound and is sort of between Stokowski and Nezet-Seguin interpretively.

So am I recommending the performances actually under review? Yes, but with a qualifier: if you find the Dawson work a little laid back, check out one of the other performances mentioned above; it may be the recorded sound that’s letting you down. Meanwhile, if you spot the Negro Folk Symphony coming up on a live concert program, go for it!

Feb 14, 2024

Copland Conducts Copland: The Complete Columbia Album Collection (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring 


This 20-CD box set from Sony Classics (20 CD 19439977462) includes Aaron Copland’s complete own recordings for Columbia Masterworks from 1935 to 1976 plus his first recording of The Tender Land Suite and the first recording by the composer of Appalachian Spring for RCA Red Seal on 19 CDs. The set also includes recordings an additional CD featuring two of his works conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Although Sony Classical had issued many of Copland’s CBS/Columbia recordings on CD before, including a major 5-disc set in 2013, this new collection marks the first all-inclusive compilation of his authoritative interpretations along with the composer’s six early recordings for the first time on Sony Classical CD. The 20 discs are enclosed in sleeves that are replicas of the original LP covers – a nice touch (although the tiny font on the rear of those sleeves is one of the very few negatives of the transition from LP to CD) – and the discs themselves replicate the look of the original vinyl LPs. The box also includes a substantial booklet of 67 pages with some notes on the music and a number of photographs from representative moments in Copland’s recording career. 

Here are the contents of the 20 discs:


DISC 1: Concerto for Clarinet, Strings & Harp with Benny Goodman (1950); Piano QuartetPiano Variations (1930); Nocturne (1928); Vitebsk, Study on a Jewish Theme for Piano TrioUkulele SerenadeDISC 2: Old American Songswith William Warfield (1951/53); Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson with Martha Lipton; DISC 3: Appalachian Spring (Ballet for Martha); The Tender Land: Suite; Concerto for Clarinet, Strings & Harp with Benny Goodman (1963); Old American Songs with William Warfield (1962); DISC 5: Piano ConcertoMusic for the Theatre (Suite in 5 Parts for Small Orchestra)DISC 6: The Tender Land (Opera in Three Acts); DISC 7: Music for a Great City; Statements for Orchestra; DISC 8:Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson with Adele Addison; Las Agachadas; In the Beginning; Lark; DISC 9: Piano QuartetSextet for Clarinet, Piano and String QuartetVitebsk, Study on a Jewish Theme for Piano TrioDISC 10: Short Symphony "Symphony No. 2"Dance Symphony; DISC 11: An Outdoor Overture; Our Town Suite2 Pieces for String Quartet (Instrumental)Quiet City; DISC 12: Billy the Kid Suite; 4 Dance Episodes from RodeoDISC 13: Fanfare for the Common ManLincoln PortraitAppalachian Spring; DISC 14: Symphonic Ode; Preamble for a Solemn OccasionOrchestral VariationsDISC 15: Appalachian Spring; Copland Rehearses Appalachian SpringDISC 16: Sonata for Violin and Piano (1942/3) with Isaac Stern; Duo for Flute and Piano with Elaine Shaffer; Nonet for String OrchestraDISC 17: Danzón Cubano3 Latin American SketchesEl Salón México; Dance PanelsDISC 18: The Red Pony Suite; John Henry; Music for MoviesLetter from HomeDown a Country LaneDISC 19: Symphony No. 3DISC 20: Inscape; Connotations conducted by Leonard Bernstein 

Fans of Aaron Copland may already own a few of the performances included in this boxed set. Many Copland fans may own recordings of some Copland works conducted or performed by others that they prefer over Copland’s own versions. Regardless, the importance, appeal, and value of this new release is next to impossible to overstate. Aaron Copland is arguably the most important American composer of the 20th century; what this set presents is his best effort to present his musical vision to the world, and Sony Classics has presented his efforts to us in an attractive, comprehensive package that is being made available at a reasonable price. For fans of American music in general – and fans of Aaron Copland in particular – this new box set should prove to be an irresistible temptation – and for good reason. It’s a spectacular release.

Feb 11, 2024

Marc-André Hamelin: New Works for Piano (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Hamelin: Variations on a Theme of PaganiniMy Feelings about Chocolate;  Suite a l'ancienne (Suite in Old Form)BarcarolleVariation diabellique sur des themes de BeethovenPavane varieeChaconneMeditation on LauraToccata on “L'homme armé”. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. Hyperion CDA68308


Canadian pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin (b. 1961) is widely known both for his technical prowess and his willingness to perform and record music outside the classical keyboard mainstream. We have previously reviewed a couple of excellent releases that featured him as a performer. The first was of works from quite a ways out of the classical mainstream, the piano rags of the American composer William Bolcom (b.1938), a review that can be found here. The second CD featured Hamelin playing some piano music of a composer who, although his name is more familiar to most classical music fans, his piano music is still pretty much out of the classical piano music mainstream: the French composer Gabriel Fauré (1825-1924). Our review of Hamelin’s gorgeous Fauré disc can be found here.


On this new release Hamelin steps way outside the classical keyboard mainstream: the “new works for piano” of the album’s title are new works by none other than pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin. In his CD booklet essay, British composer, pianist, and academic Francis Potts (b. 1957) writes, “Marc-André Hamelin sees himself as a pianist who composes, yet he carries forward a noble tradition of excelling in both domains. Questioned regularly by interviewers on his legendary pianistic powers, he has emphasized not hours of practice but the importance of having what he calls ‘a good mind for music,’ attributing a significant part of his superhuman agility to a highly developed intellectual and instinctive grasp of harmonic structures and their attendant shapes… In enjoying the allusive maze of historical echoes into which Hamelin’s own piano music leads us, we should remember that it rests upon dispassionate analytical insight; such adventures coalesce with the most exactingly serious exercise of musical intellect. They also feed off encyclopedic knowledge of the piano’s vast literature.”

Those familiar with Hamelin’s playing from his previous recordings will already be aware of his impeccable technique. However, his playing on this album should be sufficient to expand the admiration of even his most ardent fans, for it is amazing indeed. Just listen to his opening composition, his Variations on a Theme of Paganini, a dazzling romp through Paganini’s theme by way of Hamelin’s musical insight and imagination, including a jolly jolt of Beethoven along the way. And so the program continues, varying in musical style, from the reflective rumination on chocolate, the poetic four-movement Barcarolle, the technically dazzling and dynamically contrasting Variation diabellique sur des themes de Beethoven, the pensive Meditation on Laura, and as they say on TV, much, much more


Potts’s notes on the music are brief but informative and the engineering is up to Hyperion’s usual high standard. Listening to Hamelin play his own compositions offers a glimpse of what it must have been like to hear composers such as Brahms, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff to play their own works for piano. This is a truly compelling release, one which those who enjoy virtuoso piano performance should eagerly seek to audition.


Feb 7, 2024

Helvi Leiviskӓ: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (CD Review)

by Ryan Ross

Sinfonia brevis, Op. 30Orchestral Suite No. 2, Op. 11Symphony No. 2, Op. 27. Dalia Stasevska, conductor; Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonia Lahti). BIS-2701


I wish performers and critics would spend more time promoting music like Helvi Leiviskä’s. True, it comes off as fairly conservative and will not titillate too many elite tastes. If her style occupies a middle ground between Romanticism and Modernism (traditionally defined), it nonetheless favors the former. Somewhat unfairly, Finnish classical music after Sibelius often gets measured by his example – a ridiculously steep benchmark against which Leiviskä acquits herself very respectably. But to anyone for whom these things aren’t the kiss of death, much joyful discovery awaits. What we have here are gorgeous, sumptuously scored orchestral works that deserve exposure. Dalia Stasevska and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra make a good case for them with a recording that goes firmly into the “recommended” category. 


The most immediately appealing music on this disc is the Orchestral Suite No. 2 (1937-1938). It consists of four brief to medium-length pieces (“The Coming of Spring,” “Humoresque,” “Lullaby,” and Epilogue”), which originated in a score composed for Nyrki Tapiovaara’s film Juha. Eila Tarasti’s fantastic liner notes relay that this was one of the first Finnish films to have specifically composed music featured throughout its run time. I would be curious to hear it in such a setting. As merely a standalone orchestral suite, it shows Leiviskä at her most melodious, much more extroverted than in both accompanying symphonies here. 

As a symphonist Leiviskä was nothing if not assured. Both the Sinfonia brevis and the Second Symphony testify to her keen grasps of thematic integration, dramatic contrast, and timbral color. These works predictably require more focused listening than the suite, but they are quite followable and compelling given that. The Sinfonia brevis is a good introduction to Leiviskä’s symphonism both because of its shorter length and its concentration on just a couple of juxtaposed musical ideas. The first of these is an elegant theme that recurs in different settings, and acts as the chief thread throughout the whole structure. The Second Symphony actually predates the Sinfonia brevis (in its pre-revised version) by nearly a decade. It is a back-weighted work, the three movements of which get successively longer. The first two of these proceed through a wider range of expression than the Sinfonia brevis, increasing in overall intensity until just before the finale. But this last movement for me is the most poignant part of the whole work. Here the tempo slows to Andante cantabile. As the liner notes suggest, this calm stretch reminds one of Shostakovich. But there is something else present, too. The closing moments exude a special magic as the solo violin with sparse accompaniment states and elaborates upon portions of the plaintive main theme. It would not take much imagination to connect this passage to Leiviskä’s personal brand of mysticism. 

In recent years Helvi Leiviskä’s music has enjoyed rediscovery. Some quick internet searching makes it difficult to offer more than a fair estimate, but it seems that we can expect another several discs in BIS’s new series devoted to her orchestral works. Remaining to be recorded in it, ostensibly, are two more numbered symphonies, a piano concerto, and various other works. Perhaps more will come to light than is immediately apparent. In the meantime, we have an extremely good start with this first installment. This is music of craft, beauty, and integrity. It won’t beat anyone over the head, but maybe that’s just what listeners might find they want if they try it.

Feb 4, 2024

(Semi) Recent Releases No. 71 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Debussy: Preludes, Books I & II. Hiroko Sasaki, piano (Pleyel 1879). Piano Classics PCL0064

Ethan Iverson: Technically Acceptable. Iverson: ConundrumVictory Is AssuredTechnically AcceptableWho Are You, Really?The Chicago StyleIt’s Fine to DeclineThe Way Things Are; Charles Fox / Norman Gimbel: Killing Me Softly With His Song; Thelonious Monk / Charles Cootie Williams: ‘round Midnight; Iverson: The Feeling Is MutualPiano Sonata – I. Allegro Moderato; II. Andante; III. Rondo. Ethan Iverson, piano (all selections); Thomas Morgan, double bass; Kush Abadey, drums; Vinnie Sperrazza, drums; Simón Willson, double bass; Rob Schwimmer, theremin.


I am reviewing these two albums together because although they are on the surface quite different, one being a solo piano album of music by the French composer Debussy, the other being a jazz album, there are some significant overlaps between the two releases. First of all, the Wisconsin-born Iverson and Japan-born Sasaki are friends, both currently residing in New York. In a recent posting on Iverson’s Transitional Technology (“TT”) he not only offers some background on their friendship but also some hint of his familiarity with the classical repertoire: “Hiroko Sasaki and I met in the early 1990s when we were both college students. I’ve always admired her playing, but only just recently have we started getting together and collaborating at the piano. The first fruits of our teamwork was the discovery of an unheralded Chopin variant, written up here at TT last month: “The Mystery of Chopin’s Thirds.” Now that Hiroko and I are practicing a bit of four-hand Schubert and Dvořák repertoire, I’ve started making sketches for my own four-hand arrangements and compositions.”


We shall get to some of Iverson’s compositions before long, but first, let’s read a bit of what Iverson has to say about his friend’s Debussy recording:  “Hiroko’s recording of both books of Debussy’s Preludes is a significant disc, both for the stellar playing and the unique instrument. Debussy composed the preludes between 1909 and 1913. We will never know what his pianos sounded like, but they undoubtedly were closer to the 1873 Pleyel on Hiroko’s record than a perfectly regulated modern Steinway that exhibits no blemishes whatsoever. Under Hiroko’s hands, the bass notes on the Pleyel grunt, the middle register is exceptionally mellow, and the high octaves have a bit of screech. To be clear, it’s still very tasteful! Often ‘historical piano’ recordings are simply too extreme and weird, but this record offers exceptional atmosphere as well as exceptional playing.”

Well, yes, they are friends, so yes, we expect him to say nice things about her album. On the other hand, as a top-flight pianist himself, he knows what he is talking about. His discussion of the music itself is quite fascinating. His full posting from January 20, 2024, can be found here. I’d like to quote one brief passage just to give a quick sense of the relation between Debussy and jazz: “Several Debussy pieces foreshadow late ‘50s jazz harmony. I’d bet my bottom dollar that Bill Evans played through the phrases of Feuilles mortes. One can almost hear ‘Kind of Blue’ at certain moments. Even the title relates to a famous jazz standard that Bill Evans played on countless gigs: ‘Autumn Leaves’ is based on Les Feuilles mortes by the French composer Joseph Kosma. (Apart from the title, the two pieces are not related musically, although Evans would play plenty of stuff on ‘Autumn Leaves’ that he seemed to have learned from Debussy.)” The rest of his posting about her album contains many more insights about Debussy’s music and Sasaki’s playing that are well worth reading. And beyond this particular essay (“TT 353: Hiroko Sasaki Plays Debussy”), there are many other insightful, delightful, penetrating entries. For music lovers, especially those who might have an interest in music history and theory, jazz, and the contemporary music scene, Transitional Technology could be a valuable resource well worth the relatively modest investment required for a monthly or annual subscription. 


Having offered Iverson’s thoughts on Sasaki’s album above, of course I need to offer a few observations of my own. When I received the album, I was curious about how the Pleyel piano would sound in this music; indeed, I was concerned that it might come across as a bit too tinny or “plinky” (not a real word, but I believe most readers will know what I am trying to express) sounding, but a few minutes of listening allayed those fears. At that point, I was able to simply sit back and enjoy a fine set of Debussy Preludes. Clean, articulate playing, natural sound quality, emotion without exaggeration. Highly recommendable.


On to Iverson’s release, then. Two years ago, we reviewed his previous release on the venerable Blue Note label, Every Note Is True, on which he was accompanied by jazz veterans Larry Grenadier on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. On Technically Acceptable, things are a bit more varied in terms of both personnel and compositions. On the first seven tunes, all composed by Iverson, he is accompanied by Thomas Morgan on bass and Kush Abadey on drums. All are standard jazz piano trio pieces, but the opening piece, Conundrum, is through-composed, with no improvisation – unusual for a jazz trio.

On the eighth (Killing Me Softly With His Song, made famous in the 1970s in a vocal arrangement by Roberta Flack) and tenth (Iverson’s The Feeling Is Mutual) tracks, Iverson is joined by Simón Willson on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums, musicians with whom he had developed a rapport playing together in support of the Mark Morris Dance Company. Iverson says that they were going for a ‘60s sound for these tracks, which they recorded in the same room together, without wearing headphones.


Now we come to the two most fascinating tracks on the album. ‘round Midnight is a standard that by now even most people otherwise unfamiliar with jazz are probably familiar, for it has been played by so many different musicians in so many different arrangements. However, Iverson has come up with something unexpected. First, he says he was inspired by the late Ornette Coleman to write an intro to the piece that would be unrelated to the main melody. Then, rather than playing the familiar melody on his piano, as you would naturally expect, he assigns that part to – of all instruments – the theremin, which under Rob Schwimmer's expert hands (Schwimmer had also played previously with Iverson in a Mark Morris production) sounds much like an operatic soprano singing vocalise. In the long, distinguished history of the Blue Note label, this is the first time a theremin has ever made an appearance. You can hear it for yourself here.

The final composition on the album is Iverson’s first published piano sonata. Although of course informed by his experience as a jazz musician, it is a serious “classical” composition. As he says, “I’ve always played sonatas, now I’ve written one.” Blue Note has made available on YouTube a video where you can follow the score of the opening movement (you can see that video here). The sonata joins the theremin in being a first on Blue Note. Although the program might look to be a jazz album with a piano sonata unexpectedly tacked on at the end, the sonata has just enough of a jazz sensibility to it to keep it from feeling completely out of place. Taken as a whole, Technically Acceptable is much more than that; it is musically stimulating, sonically superb, and well worth an audition by jazz and classical fans alike.

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa