Mar 31, 2024

Duruflé: Requiem; Poulenc: Four Lenten Motets (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge; Harrison Cole, organ; Stephen Layton, conductor. Hyperion CDA68436

I will freely admit to knowing very little about the French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). To be honest, until studying the CD booklet and doing a quick bit of supplementary research, I had no idea he was so relatively modern, living until 1986. And although I am not a huge organ buff, I certainly recognize the names of the famous organists Pierre Cochereau, Jean Guillou, and Marie-Claire Alain – all of whom were students of Duruflé. However, although I knew very little about Duruflé the composer (pictured below), I was familiar with one of his compositions, because his Requiem was sometimes paired on recordings along with the Requiem of his fellow Frenchman, Gabriel Fauré. An outstanding example of that pairing is the Telarc release featuring Robert Shaw leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Whereas the Telarc recording of the Duruflé features the full scoring for chorus, organ, and orchestra, this new Hyperion release is of the version sans orchestra. Given Duruflé’s reputation as a master of the organ, however, one should not be surprised to hear the prominent role given to the king of the instruments in this performance. From the rich bass notes that open the piece through the chords that accompany solo voices, Harrison Cole’s organ plays a prominent role in the proceedings. If anything, this version with organ sounds more like an actual requiem than as the version which also includes the orchestra. The latter, although undeniably beautiful, sounds more of a concert piece. The rich, full-bodied sound of the choir combined with the powerful sound of the organ make this recording of the Requiem one to be treasured.

Also appearing on this release are Four Lenten Motets by another French composer of the twentieth century, Francis Poulenc (1899-1962). These are sung a cappella, with a leaner, cleaner, slightly drier sense of expression than the Duruflé, yet clear and direct. The CD booklet mentions that Poulenc (pictured right) had sought out some compositional advice from the composer Charles Koechlin (1867-1960), who proved to be a “very open-minded teacher, allowing sharp, grating dissonances as long as they could be expressively validated, and a combination of suavity and abrasiveness was to be a hallmark of Poulenc’s vocal writing during the last twenty-five years of his life. In each of these Lenten motes he tends to support the beginning and end of his phrases with a consonant chord, but on the way from one to the other he takes us through some agonizing sounds, as well as some seductive ones.” More the latter than the former, to be sure, is what you will find here. 

All in all, what we have here is another first-class release from the good folks at Hyperion. Excellent performances, superb engineering, informative liner notes with text, attractive cover art – the whole package exudes quality and earns a solid recommendation.


Further Thoughts: On Poulenc and Jazz Cats


I’ve been intending for a while now to post some thoughts about the relationship between classical music and jazz. I’ve mentioned before that jazz can be viewed in some respects as a kind of chamber music; however, today I would like to throw something else out there -- -- the influence of classical music on jazz musicians. As it turns out, at the time I was listening to the Hyperion recording I reviewed above, I was just finishing the book Three Shades of Blue by James Kaplan (review forthcoming) which covers the lives of jazz giants Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans (the key figures responsible for the seminal  jazz album Kind of Blue) and mentions how all three were influenced by classical music. 

Then, just was I gathering my thoughts and going over my notes in preparation for writing my review of the Duruflé/Poulenc release, lo and behold, what did I happen to see on X (formerly Twitter) but this March 25 post from the estimable San Francisco-based critic Richard Scheinin: This great 2000 interview with Jackie McLean is full of surprises... e.g., he describes early days with Miles & Sonny -- but also how he stole harmonies from Poulenc for "A Ballad for Doll."  Scheinin then includes a link to the interview, in which the found the famed alto saxophonist Jackie McLean (1931-2006) in conversation with a musician from a younger generation, the innovative composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman (b. 1978). 


I’ve included below the portion of the interview in which the two musicians discuss the influence of classical composers upon jazz musicians. This is a theme that I will be exploring at greater depth in future postings. 


Steve Lehman: If I asked you who some of your influences were as a composer, would some stuff come to mind at all?

Jackie McLean:  OK. Alright. It would be like, I guess…it’s a funny combination of people whose music I can get a feel for. Thelonious would be one of them. Thelonious, Tadd Dameron, kind of, and then a little later, Gil Evans, his interpretations of some of that harmony and stuff. But all of them come from Duke, I learned that later on, you know, that they all come from Duke. But I had never thought of Duke as my inspiration for writing. I mean, I always loved his stuff. The more I learn about music the more amazed I am at what he was doing so early.

SL:  His concept.

JM:  Yeah, you know. But for the time that I came along, it was Thelonious, and then Bud and Bird together, kind of their compositional style.

SL:  Stuff like “Quadrangle,” the opening where it’s two horns and just a drummer, or maybe just drums and bass, it made me think a little bit of like the beginning to “Ko-Ko.”

JM: “Ko-Ko.” Right. Yeah, those kind of things. And then of course, there’s some harmony that I draw from, like for instance, on that piece that I did…. I think it was (on the chord changes to) “Star Eyes” on “Capuchin Swing,” on the bridge, I stole that right out from Bach: a direct line from him.

SL:  Wow. Another thing that made me think of possible Classical influences…the chord, the voicing for “A Fickle Sonance,” that stacked harmony. Or is that something you just heard?

JM:  No, I think I just heard that. But I did steal from Poulenc on “A Ballad for Doll.”

SL:  On Jackie’s Bag.

JM:  Yeah, the second to last section, that harmony at the end of the melody, those chords coming down I took from Francis Poulenc, a French composer that I liked a lot.

I can’t explain what it is about him that I like. He’s got a little sense of humor or something in his classical concept.

SL:  He’s hard to categorize.

JM:  Yeah [laughs].

SL:  Because, there’s definitely some, like you said, humor. And he also, I feel like if you look at when the piece was written, and then you hear the thing, it makes you feel like it would have been much later.

JM:  Yeah. He’s quite an incredible guy. A lot of people don’t like him.

SL:  That’s true.

JM:  You know. And I can’t help but feel…I can’t understand it. It’s something about his writing that really gets me, you know?

SL:  Yeah. Yeah. I haven’t heard that much of it.

JM:  And then of course there’s all the other beautiful things. The whole idea of the word beauty as it fits in music, of something that’s beautiful to your ear, without having to put them in a category of Jazz or Classical. Take “Romeo & Juliet” by Tchaikovsky.  Miles, I always admired something in Miles’s playing because Miles heard all these things, you know. He quoted a lot of beautiful melodies.

SL:  From Western Classical music?

JM:  Yeah. Oh yeah.

SL:  OK. I didn’t know that.

JM:  Oh yeah, man. All of those influences, you know?

SL:  And what about, I know you mentioned Stravinsky?

JM:  Oh, well of course. Yeah.

SL:  That goes without saying.

JM:  Yeah, and Bartok, you know, those guys. And there’s another guy that I liked a lot, Alec Wilder. This guy really touches me, man.

SL:  The tunes you wrote in the early 50s, they all have such a modern feel to them.

JM:  Uh huh.

SL:  You know, “Dr. Jackle,” “Little Melonae,” even this tune on that album with George Wallington…"Snakes.”

JM: “Snakes,” yeah. Well, that was after I had listened to Stravinsky and them cats.

Mar 27, 2024

Lang Lang: Saint-Saëns

by Bill Heck

Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals, Piano Concerto No. 2; Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte; Debussy: Petite Suite 71; Fauré: In paradisium; Delibes: Delibes: Lakmé: Flower DuetSaint-Saëns: Toccata after the Fifth Concerto (from Six Études pour piano op. 111)Fauré: Pavane op. 50; Farrenc: Étude No. 10; Sohy: Song without Words; Tailleferre: Valse lente; Bonis: The Little One Falls Asleep; Boulanger: Of a Bright GardenSaint-Saëns: The Swan. Lang Lang, Gina Alice (pianos); Gewandhaus Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor.  DG 5058

Based on an admittedly very small sample, it seems that DG is interested in producing events as much as producing recordings. I suppose that’s their business, and but my curmudgeonly side is, shall we say, a little jaded.

There’s no doubt that Lang Lang is a musical superstar, and I suppose that it’s natural for DG to be trading on that fame. Thus, you can find video sections from the Carnival of the Animals on YouTube and, at least on streaming sources, hear a version of the Carnival with the movements interspersed with accompanying verses originally written by Ogden Nash; here they are read by Jimmy Fallon. And the “exciting audio-visual project” (DG’s words) extends to a concert film of the Piano Concerto made live in concert at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus  and a performance film of the Carnival to be shown on TV internationally and on DG’s video streaming service, STAGE+. Meanwhile, for true collectors, this set is available in multiple versions: LP, signed “crystal” (clear plastic) LP, signed CD set, plain old CD set, and downloads in several resolutions, plus streaming on DG’s own service. Whew!

The promotion continues in the booklet that accompanies the CD: the cover is dominated by a photo of Lang Lang, eyes closed as he blissfully sniffs a flower. The next page shows a hand shot, then we see a repetition of the flower photo, then a close-up of Lang Lang’s head resting on a keyboard, then of him and his wife and co-artist, Gina Alice, embracing, and… Well, you get the idea. The text of the booklet does have some information about the works along with sometimes gushing explanations of why Lang Lang chose the particular works included.

But the premise of the album is odd. The notes tell us that this is a voyage of discovery, but the Saint-Saëns Second Concerto, which we are told is something of a neglected masterpiece, is perhaps the composer’s most frequently recorded, while the Carnival surely is Saint-Saëns’s most popular work. The idea of discovery seems more plausible when referring to the miniature solo pieces, of which more anon.So what about the music found here: are these performances to be recommended? Well, it seems to me a mixed bag. To begin with, there is the recording itself. The sonic presentation greatly emphasizes the pianos, which are up front and, even accounting for the fact that there are two of them, appear unnaturally wide. Meanwhile, the orchestra is a good way farther back on the stage. The resulting imbalance makes both the Carnival and the Concerto into works for piano with orchestral accompaniment rather than real partnerships.

Camille Saint-Saëns
And then there’s the playing. There are plenty of passages in which Lang Lang’s complete mastery of his instrument comes through, with precision of touch and lovely tone. But the interpretations mostly left me thinking of Lang Lang rather than of carnivals, animals, Saint-Saëns, or the exchange between soloists and orchestra. For example, the Carnival is supposed to be a bit of musical fun; indeed, Saint-Saëns would not allow it to be published during his lifetime for fear that it’s perceived frivolity would damage his reputation. But, to cite two examples, the lion depicted in the first movement doesn’t seem very ferocious, and the fourth movement’s elephant, which should be humorously harrumphing, just ambles along in a nondescript way. The Swan (number thirteen) is the one movement that Saint-Saëns did allow to be published in his lifetime, and it  is a lovely miniature. If you hear it on this album, you certainly will be impressed – but if you hear it on, say, our own JJP’s recommended performance (Previn/Pittsburgh), you will be swept away by the sheer beauty, with the voice of the cello soaring above the perfectly balanced piano, not the other way around. The performance of the Concerto is in much the same vein: extraordinary in spots but facing stiff competition. (JJP recommends those by Jean Philip Collard on Warner, Stephen Hough on Hyperion, and Chamayou on Erato). In totality, this one leaves me feeling that the current production is just another version – and again, independently of interpretation, there’s the issue of the imbalance between soloist and orchestra.

Earlier, I mentioned the other short solo pieces on the album. Most were not composed by Saint-Saëns, but I won’t quibble about their relation to the title: these are, at least for me, the most interesting pieces here. While the first few are by familiar composers, including Debussy and Fauré, with the remainder we hear little-known works by little-known female composers. These, not the far better known earlier pieces, are the ones more appropriately described as the advertised “discoveries”. While each of these works has been recorded elsewhere, having them on an album that is sure to receive major publicity and high availability is a good thing. Lang Lang’s playing here is expressive; some may find it over the top, but that’s a matter of taste. My only real complaint here goes back to that booklet: each of these works receives a single sentence. Surely an album of discovery should devote a little more space to the works most plausibly thought of as needing to be unearthed.Where does all this leave us? For “us,” readers of this review, who likely have some familiarity with classical music and who are looking primarily for recordings that they will enjoy on musical and sonic terms, my instinct is to say move along, nothing to see here. But if the superstar project approach generates excitement, or even a modicum of interest, among the wider public and brings others into the classical music fold, can that be all bad? We'll see how it goes.

Mar 24, 2024

Dvořák: Cello Concerto et al. (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191; Klid (Silent Woods), Op. 68, B 182; Rondo in G minor, Op. 94, B. 181; Romance in F minor, Op. 11B. 39;  Mazurek in E minor, Op. 49, B. 90. Zara Nelsova, cello; Ruggiero Ricci, violin; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Walter Susskind, conductor VOX-NX-3034CD

Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is a work that is dear to many music lovers. It is filled with beautiful melodies that appeal to both the head and the heart, making it one of those pieces that can serve as a wonderful way to introduce those unfamiliar with classical music into its spellbinding realm. When I received this recording for review, I tried to remember which recording if the work I had first acquired back in the mid-1970s when I began to become seriously interested in classical music, but drew a blank. However, I vividly remember hearing the work in concert. It was March 31, 1976. One of my professors, who was going to be unable to attend the Utah Symphony Orchestra concert at which the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) was scheduled to perform the Dvořák, and knowing of my burgeoning passion for classical music, had kindly given my wife and me his tickets. 

Shortly before the concert, however, Rostropovich fell ill and had to cancel, so another legendary cellist stepped in at the last minute, Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976). Although he sounded a bit rusty and fumble-fingered in some of the early passages, his playing in the tender moments of the second movement was beautiful, and seeing his interactions with the concertmaster was like watching chamber musicians playing a duet. Since that night, the Dvořák concerto has retained a special place in my heart. Sadly, that performance turned out to be the final public performance of Maestro Piatigorsky, who passed away a mere eight months later in November, 1976.


The recording sessions for this release took place in May, 1974, which was while I was still serving in the Army. My classical LP collection at that time consisted of Beethoven’s 5th and 9th, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Mahler’s 1st and 4th, and a Bach organ recital. I may have had the Dvořák 9th, but can’t recall for sure. I certainly didn’t have his Cello Concerto. But back in May of 1974, the cellist Zara Nelsova (1918-2002) made this recording with Maestro Susskind and the SLSO. Nelsova was born in Winnipeg, Canada to Russian-Jewish parents who had named her Sara Katznelson; however, for professional reasons she had decided to change to a more Russian-sounding name – Zara Nelsova. She lived in the UK for a time (championing the Elgar concerto before Du Pré), served on the Juilliard faculty for decades, and built a highly successful career as a cellist. Her performances of the Cello ConcertoSilent Woods, and the Rondo in G minor are worthy to be mentioned in the company of the more familiar “star power” names. These are performances of lyrical expression and effortless mastery, ably augmented by the sound of the orchestra. 


Silent Woods is an especially striking piece of music with which many music lovers may be unfamiliar. If you have not yet heard it, please give it a listen – you will not regret it. But that is not to diminish the Rondo, which is also lovely. The program concludes with two works for violin and orchestra from earlier in the Dvořák catalog featuring as soloist the late American violinist Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012). The Romance, as you might expect, tugs at the heartstrings with some singing melodic lines, while the Mazurek is lively and dancelike. Both are uplifting and charged with energy.

Finally,a few words about the engineering. Many music lovers no doubt remember Vox, who produced many excellent budget recordings that provided a gateway into the world of classical music for those of us with limited means. Recently, Naxos obtained the rights to the original master tapes that Elite Recordings made for the Vox label decades ago. Appearing on the back cover of these new “Vox Audiophile Edition” versions is a highlighted statement affirming that “The Elite recordings for Vox legendary producers Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz are considered by audiophiles to be among the finest sounding orchestral recordings.” For these reissues, Naxos engineers have taken those tapes from the vaults and carefully prepared these CDs for release, the end product of their labors being what they describe as “new192 kHz / 24-bit high definition transfers of the original Elite Recordings analogue master tapes.” Elite Recordings knew what they were doing in St. Louis, and Naxos has taken great care in their mastering process; as a result, this is a truly fine-sounding CD. Great music + excellent performances + fine sound = strong recommendation.

Mar 20, 2024

Lavinia Meijer: Winter (CD Review)

 by Karl Nehring

Richter: The Departure; Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37: V. Nunc dimittis; Reyer Zwart: Amethysta,b; Lambert: As Ballad; Meijer: A Winter Interlude (After Schubert); Meijer: Open Window - Part I | Part II | Part III; Satie: Pièces froides: II. Danses des travers, No. 2 Passer; Nils Frahm: Over There, It's Raining; George Gurdjieff/Thomas de Hartmann: Song of the Fisherwomen; Britten: Corpus Christi Carol; Philip Glass/Foday Musa Suso: The Orchardc; Ölafur Arnalds: Lag fyrir Ömmua; Meijer: Tomorrowday; Glass: dFreezing (lyrics by Suzanne Vega). Lavinia Meijer, harp (all tracks); aAlma Quartet Amsterdam; bReyer Zwart, double bass; cNadia Sirota, viola; dWishful Singing. Sony Classics 19858868622

I had hoped to have this review posted while it was still officially winter on the calendar; however, I will excuse and console myself by noting that as I write the words on the second full day of spring here in rural central Ohio, the wind chill is currently 33° and the overnight low is forecasted to be 20°, so it might as well still be winter here for all intents and purposes. In that light – the light of winter! – I declare this a timely review indeed. That is certainly not to imply that either the music, the playing, or even the sound quality, for that matter, is on the cold, icy end of the spectrum. Far from it. From start to finish, Winter by the South Korean-born Dutch harpist Lavinia Meijer (b. 1983) is an album that is warmly communicative. Although its title is season-specific, its musical content has variety and depth that transcend any particular season, making it an album that could be enjoyed just as easily during the dog days of summer.

The program opens with a brief piece from the British composer Max Richter, appropriately enough titled The Departure. Richter is something of a minimalist in his approach, and this style of music works well when played on the harp. Next up is a selection from Rachmaninoff, who certainly would never be characterized as a minimalist composer. However, this reduction for harp of a selection from his All-night Vigil works well, allowing the listener to hear both the main melody line as well as the accompaniment. There does seem to be some slight electronic manipulation or enhancement going on, but the effect is subtle and positive. Meijer brings us back to the present with Amethyst by Dutch session bassist and composer Reyer Zwart (b.1971), a yearningly wistful piece in which Meijer’s harp is joined by the sound of strings. Another contemporary composition is As Ballad by the young German pianist Lambert (who always wears a Sardinian mask when playing in concert); here again we seem to have some subtle electronic effects enhancing the sound.


Meijer then takes her turn as composer, first on the Schubert-inspired A Winter Interlude, with its pensive melody that does seem to allude to the keyboard works of that ill-fated genius, and then her three-part Open Window, which demonstrates that Meijer has skill and imagination not only as a performer, but as a composer. Each of the three parts has a directness of expression that is appealing and effective. Then it is on to a short (1:29) piece by Satie – not the dreamy Satie of the Gymnopédies, which you might expect on a harp album – but instead, an odd little snippet of a dance. From German composer, performer, and record producer Nils Frahm (b. 1982) comes Over There, It’s Raining. Frahm is known for bridging pop and classical; this piece leans more toward the former over its two minutes. Also clocking in at just over two minutes is the Gurdjieff and de Hartmann collaboration Song of the Fisherwomen, a pleasant tune in more of a folk style. Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol reminds us quite clearly by both title and musical style that we are enjoying an album titled “Winter.” It’s a composition that works perfectly in this arrangement for harp – a highlight of the album. 

Then comes the longest single track (6:55) on the CD, The Orchard by Philip Glass and Gambian musician and composer Foday Musa Suso (b. 1953). It is played here as a quiet, reflective duet between Meijer’s harp and Sirota’s viola, the two instruments plying off against each other in a gentle dialogue. The Alma Quartet returns to join Meijer on the next track, the easygoing Lag fyrir Ömmu by the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist, producer, and compose Ölafur Arnalds (b. 1986), on which Meijer begins, the quartet joins in, and then Meijer drops out, allowing the strings to close out the final measures. Tomorrowday is another composition from Meijer herself, sounding contentedly reflective before closing her album with another piece by Philip Glass, this time with lyrics by Suzanne Vega, sung here by the female vocal quintet Wishful Singing. Oddly enough, those lyrics are not included in the CD booklet; in fact, the booklet contains very little other than basic track information, production credits, and a poem by Ms. Meijer. More information bout the music and artists, or at least a photo or two, would have been welcome. Still, Winter is a splendid release. 

Mar 17, 2024

Ravel Orchestral Works (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring 

Valses nobles et sentimentalesMa mère l’Oye (Complete Ballet)Daphnis et Chloé, Suites Nos. 1 and 2L’Éventail de Jeanne: Fanfare. St. Olaf Choir; Minnesota Orchestra; Stanisław Skrowaczewski, conductor. VOX-NX-3037CD


Many classical music lovers of a certain age are no doubt familiar with Vox, a budget label that produced some real gems that provided the music lover on a budget an excellent way to expand their classical LP collections at a reasonable price. I can offer a quick example from my own experience: I’ll never forget a day back in the mid-1970s when I was strolling through a Sears department store one afternoon and came across an aisle display that featured the newly released 4-LP Vox Box of Ravel’s orchestral music featuring Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting the Minnesota Orchestra. I was back in college on the G.I. Bill after serving 4½ years in the Army, with a wife, two kids, a pair of Bose 901s, a rapidly expanding passion for classical music, and a tight budget. When I saw that this box was on sale for something like seven bucks – well, that settled it, I just had to have it. It sounded pretty darn good through the 901s (purchased in Germany with my reenlistment bonus) when I got home, and I found the music of Monsieur Ravel to be utterly spellbinding. Even though Vox was a budget label, the sound quality on some of their releases could be excellent (the main drawback was the often-substandard quality of their vinyl pressings), and this Ravel set, which was recorded by Elite Recordings (engineer Marc Aubort and producer Joanna Nickrenz), had beguiling sound. Those performances and recordings still hold up as you can see from reviews of digital releases from the Ravel set, such as a review from our own John Puccio that you can read here, or an article at the PS Audio website that provides some insight into the recording process, which you can find here


Appearing on the back cover of these new “Vox Audiophile Edition” releases is a highlighted statement affirming that “The recordings of American orchestras produced for VOX by the legendary Elite Recordings team of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz are considered by audiophiles to be among the very finest sounding orchestral recordings ever made” For this new series of reissues from the Vox catalog, the folks at Naxos have begun to pull some of those  tapes out from the vaults and carefully prepare these CDs for release, the end product of their labors being what they describe as “new192 kHz / 24-bit ultra high definition transcriptions of the original Elite Recordings analogue master tapes.” Yes, those Vox Ravel LPs had sounded more than satisfying back in the day when played through that Army-purchased college playback system and continued to sound just fine as that system got upgraded over next decade. As CDs began to gain in popularity in the 1980s and I began to make the transition from LP to CD, I found CD versions of the Minnesota Ravel recordings, which Vox released in remarkably cheap cardboard packaging. It is heartening to see the care that Naxos is taking with this new series.


The one curious decision by the Naxos production team as far as I can see concerns the order of the program; specifically, the decision to close rather than open with the brief (1:55) fanfare from the children’s ballet L’Éventail de Jeanne (“Jean’s Fan”), which premiered in 1929. Ten French composers contributed the music the, including the fanfare by Ravel. Although it is not the fanfare for any of the other compositions included on this disc, it still seems much more fitting for a fanfare to open rather than close a program, n’cest-pas? Other than that, there is nothing about this jam-packed (80+ minutes) release about which to quibble. In our previous Classical Candor posting (Recent Releases No. 72, here), we mentioned another fine Skrowaczewski-led Minnesota performance. The Polish-born Stanisław Skrowaczewski (1923-2017) became Music Director of the orchestra in 1959, a position he held for 19 years. He was then appointed conductor laureate, returning every year to Minnesota to lead his beloved orchestra. In all, his relationship with the orchestra stretched over 56 years. He was instrumental in their getting the acoustically resplendent new concert hall in 1974, the venue in which Elite Recordings was called in to record their complete set of Ravel’s orchestral works for orchestra, of which this new release offers a substantial sampling on one CD.


The disc opens with Valses nobles et sentimentales, a beautiful, flowing piece that Ravel said he intended to compose as a series of waltzes following the example of Schubert. The music sweeps the listener along, but with charm rather than the feverish intensity of his other famous orchestral waltz fantasy, La Valse. Next up is what was the highlight of the original Vox Box, the complete score for the ballet Ma mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose”). There is something simply magical about this music, the way the sound of the solo violin can seem to float above the orchestra, the way the orchestra can swoon and sigh. Magic… Then the familiar Daphnis et Chloé, Suites Nos. 1 and 2, derived from Ravel’s self-described “choreographic symphony.” 

After such a glorious experience, to end the program with a fanfare? As Joe. E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” Maybe so, but this release is close.

Mar 13, 2024

Recent Releases No. 72 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring 

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Carolyn Sampson/Jacquelyn Wagner, sopranos; Sasha Cooke/Jess Dandy, altos; Barry Banks, tenor; Julian Orishausen, baritone; Christian Immler, bass; Minnesota Chorale; National Lutheran Choir; Minnesota Boychoir; Angelica Cantanti Youth Choir; Minnesota Symphony; Osmo Vänskä, conductor. BIS-2496 SACD


This recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, a work for which to provoke public interest the organizer of the first public performances, an impresario named Emil Gutman dubbed “Symphony of a Thousand,” was made at the occasion of the final concert in the 19-year tenure of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä (b. 1953) as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. He is now music director laureate, with Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård (b. 1969) succeeding him as music director. At Minnesota, Vänskä has recorded for BIS all of Mahler’s numbered symphonies except for No. 3; the following links will direct you to our reviews of Symphony No.1Symphony No. 7, and Symphony No. 10. Those reviews were all positive, and this one will continue the trend. Vänskä and his forces, with the expert support of the BIS engineering and production team, bring out the details of Mahler’s complex score with both clarity and power. 


The only other recording in my experience in the same league as this one is the Wit on Naxos; however, that one is split over two discs while Vänskä’s release is conveniently contained on one SACD, which has the additional advantages of including a not only an SACD stereo layer for those with SACD players who can take advantage of the higher resolution but also a multichannel layer for those with multichannel playback systems. (My listening was to the CD layer, which was certainly impressive enough.) For Mahler fans, this new release is highly recommended.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings Fresh! FR-733SACD


To be honest, this release has been on the market long enough now that it does not really count as a “recent release,’ but Bruckner and Mahler are so often thought of together that it seems appropriate to review them in the same posting. From the CD booklet: “Bruckner’s skills as an organist were enthusiastically received. From Notre Dame in Paris to the Royal Albert Hall in London, his artful improvisations were celebrated. It is said that Bruckner humbly replied to the many admirers of his organ playing, ‘I am not a musician, but a composer. What my fingers play will pass, but what they write will stand.’ Soon, Bruckner was called to Vianna as court organist and also began to teach at the conservatory. (Of note, amongst his most famous pupils was none other than Gustav Mahler.) It is from this point forward that Bruckner turned almost exclusively to the symphonic form.” 


Austrian-born Manfred Honeck (b. 1958) opens his extensive booklet essay with an excerpt from a speech delivered by the late American Maestro Leonard Bernstein: “Perhaps, after all, it is only the artist who can reconcile the mystic with the rational, and who can continue to reveal the presence of God in the minds of men.” He then goes on to reflect: “Long after I was fortunate enough to play Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, this quote by Bernstein himself fell into my hands. I immediately and instinctively connected it with the music as Bernstein’s words serve as a clarion reminder of the role an artist can play in society and our relationship to the divine, the very same thoughts at the heart of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. It is in the Ninth that Bruckner invites us into the presence of God to experience the beauty of his world, while also facing the darker and violent abysses.” 


Although Bruckner wrote three Masses and a majestic Te Deum, an argument can be made that although he employed no text and never completed a final movement for his Symphony No. 9, it was in this work that he reached the peak of his spiritual and artistic achievement. Honeck and his orchestra deliver a powerful performance that indeed offers glimpses both of the divine and of the existential abyss. The recording was pulled together from live performances by the engineering team from Soundmirror, the recording firm that Reference Recordings employs for their Pittsburgh releases. They do fine work. One of my other favorite recordings of this symphony is also on the Reference Recordings (RR-81) and also features the Minnesota Orchestra, this time under the baton of conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1923-2017). It is an engineering marvel, not quite as dramatic in performance, although a bit more flowing and lyrical overall. It certainly is startling to discover two such highly recommendable recordings of the same piece with the same orchestra on the same relatively small label. In any event, the Honeck release is something special, well worth an audition by faithful Brucknerians. 


Giorgi Mikadze Trio: Face to Face: Georgian Songbook, Vol. 1. Mikadze: Satchidao; David Toradze: Not Easy to Repeat; Sulkhan Tsintsadze: Dolls Are Laughing; Shota Milorava: Same Garden; Jansungh Kakhidze: The Moon Over Mtatsminda; Mikadze: NanaAfter the Tale; Giya Kancheli: A Magic Egg; Nodar Gabunia: To Nodar; Rusudan Sebiskveradze: Wind Takes It Anyway. Giorgi Mikadze, piano, arrangements; François Moutin, acoustic bass; Raphaël Pannier, drums. Peewee! PW1012


Georgian pianist and composer Giorgi Mikadze was educated at Berklee and has had experience playing with some notable jazz figures, which has of course given him plenty of experience playing American jazz standards. However, he found himself reaching a turning point om his musical path. “I started to ask myself, ‘Why should I play American standards when there are numerous melodies written by Georgian composers? I love the American Songbook – that’s how I learned to play jazz. But I would like to offer the world a Georgian Songbook and share all these beautiful melodies from my country.” A glance at the composers listed above should serve as a tip-off that no, this are not tunes from the Great American Songbook. Some classical music fans may recognize the late Georgian composer Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), whose music received a series of excellent recordings for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. Some of the works featured huge dynamic contrasts for orchestra. A Magic Egg, however, was originally composed as part of the soundtrack for an animated short film in the 1970s, and here Mikadze has arranged it for his trio.


Mikadze explains that “Georgian classical composers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were heavily influenced by the harmony and freedom of jazz music. Jazz was kind of taboo at the time, but the Georgian people would try to crack old radios to listen to [broadcaster] Willis Conover on the Voice of America.” He goes on to say, “I love the freedom that you have in the trio setting, especially when the musicians are super sensitive about every note. It has the intimacy of chamber music, but you can also achieve a massive sound. Besides, François and Raphael are simply amazing musicians.” The album includes a pleasant mix of tunes, all of them melodic and listenable. For a sample of Mikadze’s style, you can watch this video.

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