May 29, 2024

Brad Mehldau: Après Fauré (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Fauré: Nocturne No. 13 in B Minor, Op. 119Nocturne No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 56Nocturne No. 12 in E Minor, Op. 107; Mehldau: PreludeCapriceNocturneVision; Fauré: Nocturne No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 74Extract from Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 45: III. Adagio non troppo. Brad Mehldau, piano. Nonesuch 075597900859

The American pianist Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) is best known for his work in the jazz arena, perhaps most widely as the leader of his own trio, but also for his work with other prominent jazz musicians such as guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Josh Redman. If you really want to hear some peak jazz Mehldau, you really can do no better than his “The Art of the Trio” albums from the 1990s, especially The Art of the Trio III – Songs (Warner Brothers 9362-47051-2), which is absolutely amazing. However, his musical interests are not restricted to jazz alone. For example, he has composed songs and performed recitals with classical singers such as Renee Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Ian Bostridge. Other examples of his wide musical interests and talents include an album titled Taming the Dragon, on which he plays a variety of electronic synthesizers while paired with drummer/percussionist Mark Giuliana, and an album win which he performs what is essentially a classical piano concerto of his own composition, accompanied by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Our review of that album, titled Variations on a Melancholy Themecan be found here.

 

We have also reviewed some other releases by Mehldau in the past, these featuring his output for solo piano. In 2020, Mehldau released an album he recorded while holed up at home with his family in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It contains some reflective original music along with tunes by Billy Joel and Neil Young (you can find our review here). Then in 2023, Mehldau created quite a stir when he released Your Mother Should Know, his imaginative keyboard takes on Beatles classics, which you can read about here. But of more interest to followers of Classical Candor might well be an album that he released early in 2018, some months before my old friend and colleague John Puccio invited me to join him here at Classical Candor. his solo piano album After Bach (Nonesuch 7559-79318-0), which contains five selections from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier plus some Mehldau originals inspired by them. Fast-forward six years and we now were recently blessed with After Bach II, which also contains selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier plus some Mehldau originals inspired by them. In addition, we also get to hear Mehldau improvising on the theme from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a nice bonus (you can find our review here).

 

Simultaneous with the release of After Bach II, Nonesuch also released another solo piano release by Mehldau that features another of his forays into the classical repertoire. As you can see from the track listing above, Après Fauré follows the general pattern of the two Bach recordings by including primarily originals by Fauré plus some original music by Mehldau inspired by the French master. Mehldau observes Faure’s late piano music that it is “music that breathes austerity and weirdness all at once. The most familiar model for that uneasy phenomenon is Beethoven, in music like his last String Quartets. Faure’s late music shares this quality.” You can certainly feel that uneasiness as you listen to the opening Nocturne No. 13, which in Mehldau’s interpretation seems to be searching for something that it can never quite find. Still, there is a tranquility, a tenderness, a glimmer of hope. The Nocturne No. 4 that follows is not as enigmatic, but is still possessed of that Fauré-like quality of sounding simple and complex at the same time – a reflecting pool of water stirred by a gentle breeze.

Mehldau writes that “I have composed four pieces Après Fauré to accompany Fauré’s music here, to share the way I have engaged with Fauré’s question, with you, the listener. This format is similar to my After Bach project. The connections are less overt, but Fauré’s harmonic imprint is on all four. There is also a textural influence, in terms of how he presented his musical material pianistically – he exploited the instrument’s sonority masterfully, as an expressive means.” These four short pieces are lyrically expressive, more direct and intense than the Fauré – you can hear that they were inspired by but are not imitations of Faure. Interesting! Mehldau then ends his program with his reduction of an extract of the Adagio movement of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2, a dreamlike, wistful bit of music that floats by like a cloud on a warm, bright summer day. As was the After Bach II album, Après Fauré has been expertly engineered by Tom Lazarus, and Mehldau has once again provided fascinating liner notes. If you have not yet encountered the piano music of Fauré, this release would be an excellent place to start, but even if you are already familiar with his piano music, Mehldau’s perspective is well worth consideration. Highly recommended! 

Hyperion Reaches 100 Million Streams

by Bill Heck

We reported in late 2023 that Hyperion Records, one of the last streaming holdouts, had started to release their entire catalog for streaming. Recently, the label reported that they had passed 100 million streams globally.

We don't know whether that's for entire albums or individual tracks, but either way it's interesting to have a real number rather than guesstimates that one can find floating around on the internet. Extrapolating a bit, and considering that these releases were in stages and began only in September, and that this is only one label with nowhere near the largest catalog, it's encouraging to see that there really is a substantial amount of classical music streaming happening. 

Of course, that 100 million is dwarfed by segments of pop music: a recent estimate of streams of just Taylor Swift songs in a single year was in the high tens of billions (yes, with that's billions with "b"). Still, it seems that, for up-to-date listeners in this streaming age, classical music is not quite dead yet!

May 26, 2024

Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5, 6

by Bill Heck

Pytor Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 4, 5, and 6. David Bernard, conductor; Park Avenue Chamber Symphony.  Recursive Classics

Here’s a fascinating set: Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, played by a lesser-known but quite capable orchestra led by an imaginative conductor with an innovative approach, all recorded with a sound that differs considerably from what we might call the norm. Let’s see how it all works.

Long-time readers of Classical Candor will recognize the conductor and ensemble here, as my colleague JJP has reviewed several of their releases in the past; for others, here’s a quick refresher. First, the orchestra: the “Chamber Symphony” part of the name might lead one to think that this is a small ensemble. But no, this is a typically sized American orchestra, with about 80 players for standard repertoire. The conductor, David Bernard, may not be as instantly recognizable as some of his contemporaries in the “majors,” but he has imagination and, as my colleague JJP said in recommending the current set to me, he “doesn't seem content with merely being routine or ordinary.”

In a generous email conversation, Maestro Bernard told me the following about his approach: he "focuses on bringing out the transparency of the counterpoint in the voices....much of the work is revealed through this horizontal dimension, unlocking aspects of the work that are often not heard otherwise. Achieving this requires some adjustment to balances...but also in the concept of sound in the strings.  The typical big and heavy sound, laden with wide vibrato serves as a fog to the listener — preventing hearing the contrapuntal texture... Ironically, it is [in] Tchaikovsky...that musicians often gravitate to the sound that robs the listener of this fundamental aspect of this music." Let’s see how this translates for Tchaikovsky’s most famous, and likely most often recorded, orchestral works.

The set starts with the Fourth Symphony, but I’m starting this review with the second work in the set, the Fifth Symphony, for reasons that we’ll cover below.

What one immediately notices is that neither the conductor, the ensemble, nor the recording engineers seem to be striving for a "big" sound, particularly with the strings; presumably that's in keeping with the notion of balance and transparency discussed above. (I do not mean to imply that the sound is malnourished; it's not.) Instead, it didn’t take long to hear that the more balanced approach creates a personal, "you are there" feel; moreover, the recording seems close, though not unnaturally so, without excessive reverberation, resulting in an even more immersive experience than might be typical. The result is an intimate atmosphere for an interpretation that feels like a musical conversation between composer and listener. All this was apparent in the very first measures, where the music seems to ruminate for a moment on the recurring notion (and motive) of fate before finally accelerating, not too early, into the body of the work.

In the same vein, throughout the performance there are dynamic contrasts aplenty – not because louder segments blow us away, but because quieter measures speak softly and even intimately. The second movement, marked andante cantabile, really does sing without shouting. In the third movement, the waltz flows and sways as waltzes should, but here there was something else, something subtle. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I heard the slightest undertone of that recurring sense of fate: the waltzer going through the motions and trying to enjoy the dance, but knowing deep inside that, as Tchaikovsky wrote, in the end fate cannot be escaped; we are destined for unhappiness amid the joy. The finale goes relatively quickly: in keeping with Bernard’s thoughts in the booklet that accompanies the CDs, Tchaikovsky is not just whistling past the graveyard but is determined, as an existentialist might have it, that we create our lives by striving against fate. I may be waxing too philosophical here, but I’m on firmer ground in saying that the playing of the Park Avenue forces is energetic, exhibiting passion and drive. Indeed, one of my criteria for determining if I really enjoyed a performance is whether I find myself physically reacting, often air conducting – and I did. (By the way, I do try to avoid such reactions at live concerts!)

David Bernard conducting
Tchaikosky's Fourth Symphony
One other point of interest: intuitively, one might suppose that the Fifth Symphony is the one that most needs those heavy strings. After all, just think of that grand Finale, a march of triumph, the music striding forward! Well, the Park Avenue forces can generate some power of their own, but we see here that the contrasts, showing off Tchaikovsky’s kaleidoscope of instrumental color, truly give the work its interest and bring us on board, while the triumph still is there to celebrate.

The performance here of the Sixth Symphony was originally released in 2018 and reviewed at that time by JJP, but the recording has been remastered for the current set. (I held off reading John’s review until after I had completed my listening.) It begins with a quiet introduction that sounds almost eerie, emerging from dead silence with the initial tune floating above the quietest of rumbles from the basses. The effect is to draw in the listener, again with that sense of a conversation with the composer. The timing of the first movement is nothing unusual at almost exactly 18 minutes, but the tempi are free, shifting to fit the music. The second movement, marked Allegro Con Grazia, is indeed graceful; the famous 5/4 "limping waltz" is nicely done, with particularly expressive playing from the horns and woodwinds. The third movement, Allegro Molto Vivace, is lively, taken at an almost frantic pace, but never sounding out of control. Again, throughout these inner movements, the well-balanced approach and the close-up recording allow the listener to hear all the details of Tchaikovsky's incredible orchestration, details that can be swamped in a more homogenized environment.

Park Avenue Chamber Symphony
The final movement also opens with a tempo that seems a little faster than often heard, shading the emotion just a bit away from the pure anguish that some interpretations evoke. But at this point, I am forced to admit to failure in my critical process. Normally, as I listen for review I take notes as I go along. I had managed to do so at a few points earlier in this performance, but past the first few measures of the Finale, I failed utterly – multiple times. Thank goodness I can blame it all on Maestro Bernard and the Park Avenue forces: I was so involved in listening, so wrapped up in the music, that I completely forgot to think critically; indeed, I may have been incapable of critical thought as the last notes slowly died into silence. To put it more succinctly, I have rarely heard any recording that was so thoroughly engaging and that produced such deep emotional connection.

Now back to the Fourth Symphony. Here I need to admit that, while I can appreciate the place of this work in Tchaikovsky's development as a composer and certainly see much musical value in the piece, this just isn't a work that really does it for me. (This is in sharp contrast to the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.) With this in mind, I trust that you, dear reader, along with the conductor and players will forgive me for rather abbreviated comments. Suffice it to say that the overall approach is consistent with the other symphonies, with well-judged tempi and clarity throughout. My impression is that there is perhaps slightly less energy, less drive here than in the other two works – but here I fear that my cool reaction to the composition influences my perception of the playing. In general, though, the approach is consistent with what we hear in the other two works: balance and coherence within the context of a first-rate performance. And with that, I’ll let this one go: surely those more fond of the Fourth Symphony than I will find much to enjoy here.

By the way, astute readers will have noticed that, in the preceding paragraphs, I have mentioned few performance details, such as tempi and their variations or highlighting of this phrase or that. That’s because for me, and for purposes of this review, the big news is the balance and recorded perspective that are so different from what one often encounters and are so revealing of  inner voices. Don’t get me wrong: the performance details are well-judged and well-executed, and I don’t mean to dismiss them, but my focus here is on the overall presentation, the freshness of the approach.

So it's perfect, right? Of course not: there are a few infelicities and quibbles here and there, as one always expects. I did occasionally note a minor issue with the recorded sound, mostly in the Fourth, with a slight overemphasis on the horns and lower brass that could lean toward a “honky” or nasal sound. Indeed, the recorded sound does seem to vary slightly across the three works, with my own preference being 6-5-4 in that order. (To assess the aforementioned remastering of the Sixth, I did a quick comparison: I think that I heard a slight improvement in clarity and a little better balance across the tonal spectrum, but the changes were subtle. If you already have the 2018 version, there's no need to rush out and get the new one.) In any case, when we put it all together, we have a Fourth that at the very least should interest fans of that work, which likely is everyone but me; a Fifth that you really should hear for a different, revealing, and enjoyable take; and a Sixth that might just bowl you over. All in all, easily recommendable. 

Note: this set is available on major streaming services and as a download from music sales sites such as Presto Music. A preview and streaming links for this set can be found on the conductor's website.

Addendum: Maestro Bernard has kindly provided a link to a digital version of the booklet for this release.

May 22, 2024

Brad Mehldau: After Bach II (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring

Mehldau: Prelude to Prelude; J.S. Bach: Prelude No. 9 in E Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 854Prelude No. 6 in D Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 851; Mehldau: After Bach: Toccata; Bach: Partita for Keyboard No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828: II. Allemande; Mehldau: After Bach: Cavatina; Bach: Prelude No. 20 in A Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 865; Mehldau: Between Bach; Bach: Fugue No. 20 in A Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 865;Mehldau: Variations on Bach’s Goldberg Theme – Aria-like; Variation I, Minor 5/8 a; Variation II, Minor5/8 b; Variation III, Major 7/4; Variation IV, Breakbeat; Variation V, Jazz; Variation VI, Finale; Bach: Prelude No. 7 in E-Flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 852; Mehldau; Postlude. Brad Mehldau, piano. Nonesuch 7559790077 

The American pianist Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) is best known for his work in the jazz arena, perhaps most widely as the leader of his own trio, but also for his work with other prominent jazz musicians such as guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Josh Redman. If you really want to hear some peak jazz Mehldau, you really can do no better than his “The Art of the Trio” albums from the 1990s, especially The Art of the Trio III – Songs (Warner Brothers 9362-47051-2), which is absolutely amazing. However, his musical interests are not restricted to jazz alone. For example, he has composed songs and performed recitals with classical singers such as Renee Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Ian Bostridge. Other examples of his wide musical interests and talents include an album titled Taming the Dragon, on which he plays a variety of electronic synthesizers while paired with drummer/percussionist Mark Giuliana, and an album win which he performs what is essentially a classical piano concerto of his own composition, accompanied by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Our review of that album, titled Variations on a Melancholy Themecan be found here.

We have also reviewed some other releases by Mehldau in the past, these featuring his output for solo piano. In 2020, Mehldau released an album he recorded while holed up at home with his family in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It contains some reflective original music along with tunes by Billy Joel and Neil Young (you can find our review here). Then in 2023, Mehldau created quite a stir when he released Your Mother Should Know, his imaginative keyboard takes on Beatles classics, which you can read about hereBut of more interest to followers of Classical Candor might well be an album that he released early in 2018, some months before my old friend and colleague John Puccio invited me to join him here at Classical Candor. his solo piano album After Bach (Nonesuch 7559-79318-0), which contains five selections from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier plus some Mehldau originals inspired by them. Fast-forward six years and we now are now blessed with After Bach II, which as you can see from the track listing above follows the same formula of selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier plus some Mehldau originals inspired by them. In addition, we also get to hear Mehldau improvising on the theme from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a nice bonus. 

 

Mehldau recounts in his liner notes that the idea for including his take on the Goldbergs in this recording stemmed from having been invited to participate in a gala evening at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland during which the Goldberg Variations would be presented, each by a different pianist. Among the pianists invited to participate were such luminaries as Daniel Trifonov, Yevgeny Kissin, Yuja Wang, Richard Goode, Michel Pletnev, and Yefim Bronfman. Writes Mehldau of the occasion, “Mr. Engstroem asked me to play one of the variations. I considered it for a moment, and declined. Frankly, I did not have the balls to do that in front of so many piano giants. The Verbier [Festival] is hist to the premiere classical pianists of our time, and this evening was no exception. I presented another idea: I would improvise a variation instead. Mr. Engstroem accepted, his only guideline being to keep my contribution to three minutes. Sergei Babayan opened, giving a sanctified reading of the Goldberg’s famous aria theme… I played a variation in 5/8 time, and it seemed to go over well with the audience – no eggs were thrown. When I went into the studio to record the music presented here, I built on that approach, presenting an aria-like opening theme, continuing with 5/8 and 7/8 metered variations, toggling between major and minor modes, and culminating in a high-energy finale.” The end result is fascinating – allowing us to hear the Goldbergs from a new perspective as Mehldau imbues them with improvisatory energy and imagination.

The album has a flow to it that is pleasing to the ear and emotions. After the brief opening Prelude to Prelude, which has just enough harmonic edge to it to wake up our senses, Mehldau then plays two Bach Preludes with energy and grace. The comes a real highlight, Mehldau’s Toccata, with its pounding rhythm and propulsive energy, inspired by Bach but infused with the energy of jazz. Not just toccata as touch-piece, but at times as a “pound-piece.” Then comes the respite of a relatively peaceful Cavatina, Mehldau’s touch now sounding more suited for a harpsichord. His own Cavatina has a more ringing, melodic style, with a pulsing left-hand figure and a singing right-hand melody, truly beautiful and uplifting.

 

Then we are back in Bach’s orbit. Another Prelude is followed by Mehldau’s Between Bach, an interesting composition in that it sounds at once both very improvised and very much inspired by Bach. You can hear Mehldau starting with Bach-like ideas and just going with them. This is followed by some Bach with some extra energy – a Fugue, once again showing off the deftness with which Mehldau can attack the keyboard. Next up are his take on the Goldbergs, then Mehldau chooses to close the album with a final Bach selection, the E-Flat Major Prelude, of which he says, “for me, the piece can be so sensuous, even luxurious, inviting me to linger here and there along the way in its unfolding, continuous stream. If I linger too long, though, the slower, stately chorale-like theme that hovers around or intersects with that stream will lose its thrust, and the large glacial cadences will diminish in effect. It’s a metaphor of being/becoming – finding the balance between enjoying the ride and keeping one’s eyes on the road, between pleasure and purpose.” The album then closes with Mehldau’s brief (2:16) Postlude, a heartfelt melodic farewell to the listener. Veteran engineer Tom Lazarus is responsible for the superb sound quality, and Mehldau’s liner notes are packed with insight. To any lover of Bach’s keyboard music, this album – and its predecessor – is recommended without reservation, for it opens a whole new perspective on the great master’s music.

May 19, 2024

Elgar: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 (CD Review)

 by Ryan Ross 

(CD1) Symphony No. 1 in A-Flat; (CD2) Symphony No. 2 in E-Flat. Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Hallé. Hallé CD HLD 7564

 

Every time I listen to these magnificent works I think, “how in the world are they not more popular outside of the United Kingdom?” They have everything: great tunes, high drama, and breathtaking emotional range (to name a few). They are two crowning achievements of a patriotic composer who nonetheless had trouble fitting in with an elite establishment. And despite owing much to Continental European models, they somehow sound thoroughly English – which makes it ironic that my favorite recordings are by non-British conductors. I regret to report that this pattern holds for the present offering by Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra (apparently, it’s just called “Hallé?”). Because what these multifaceted works require to come off best is a strong motion that Elder doesn’t exercise, and a conviction that he doesn’t quite demonstrate. 

 

The First Symphony receives the better of the two performances. Elder’s leisurely tempo works for the opening motto theme, marked Andante nobilmente e semplice. The ensuing Allegro is not bad, exactly, but it feels a bit creaky. This is a large movement with many different parts. The main trouble is that Elder “stops to smell the roses” too pointedly and too often. The score’s many nooks, crannies, subtleties, and emotions draw him in at the expense of other considerations. The conductor should keep things moving, but he seems hesitant to do so. The second and fourth movements fare better in this respect, but even there I’m missing some “snap” and polish in the direction and playing respectively. There’s a sweep that this work (and its brother) should have, but I don’t feel it in this rendition. 

 

These problems are more pronounced with the Second Symphony. From the get-go, it’s just too sluggish. We don’t really get the score-directed Allegro vivace for the first movement, at least not initially and consistently. Too often the musical narrative just sort of shambles along. More seriously, I’m missing the nobilmente both here and elsewhere. Even when the tempo temporarily catches up in places, the various figures and articulations seem oddly muted. The grand climax at the end of the second movement is almost convincing, but somehow it just sounds tired instead of glorious. The third movement is marked Rondo (Presto), but at 8:48 it clocks in at around a minute slower than I think it should. There ought to be a lusty élan here, but it’s absent; instead, the motives/ideas sound limp. The finale fares a bit better, but again that maestoso could be more maestoso-ish, at the climaxes especially. 

 

These symphonies’ markings betray Elgar’s earnestness: nobilmente, maestoso, molto. This was a man of passion who substantially bought into the nationalist stuff that makes many contemporary critics and academics cringe. (The Second Symphony’s inscription reads as follows: “Dedicated to the memory of His late Majesty King Edward VII. This Symphony, designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute, bears its present dedication with the gracious approval of His Majesty the King.”) The music is not only about Elgar’s physiognomy and experience, with their various highs and lows; it’s also about his love for a great nation in which he glumly perceived the first signs of a long decline. Performers may not need to subscribe to all of this in order to create fine interpretations, but I believe they simply must capture a certain spirit and sincerity. To my ears, the all-British performances that do so, and still capture the other elements well, are Boult/LPO on Warner (Catalogue No. 3821512) and Mackerras/LSO (Argo 4308352). But my favorite recordings of all are the colorful, energetic ones by Georg Solti/LPO (Decca 4438562) and Leonard Slatkin/LPO (RCA 82876603892). These both feature foreign conductors leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra. As a case study, compare Elder and the Hallé here to Solti in the second movement of the First Symphony. The tempi are similar, but behold the latter interpretation as it crackles and thrills in a way that the former just does not. (I often find this to be true of Elder’s other work as well, for example his Vaughan Williams and Sibelius symphonies). Elgar’s symphonic music deserves much wider and more robust respect. I hope that whoever records it next is a more ideal advocate.

May 15, 2024

A Progress Report (Audio Tech Talk)

 by Bryan Geyer

Today, at a time when so many of us have experienced the audible benefit of properly implemented subwoofers, it seems archaic to assign a single driver as the sole bass source in a serious full-range loudspeaker. The spread from the bottom of the low bass passband (20Hz to 80Hz) to the top of the mid-bass passband (80Hz to 400Hz) is simply too wide for one transducer to handle, and the logical way to address that limitation is to split the 20Hz to 400Hz span, and apply separate power amplifiers to drive separate loudspeakers. Each of the assigned drivers can then be optimized as needed, with stiff, long-throw, piston-like air pumps for the ultra-low bass, and flatter, faster woofers for the middle bass. Implicit differences in efficiency would be of no concern because, with each leg driven by a captive amplifier, the respective levels can easily be balanced—or not—as desired. Overall bass levels could readily be adjusted to compensate for prevailing acoustics, as well as for the whim of the listener.

Giant single-driver bass design was initially popularized at the 1939-’40 New York World’s Fair, but we can do better today, and make everything look less cluttered. Compact class D power amplifiers, utilizing multi-layer boards and surface-mount components, can now be buried inside the loudspeaker enclosure. More efficient (also more precise, also less expensive) high impedance analog crossover* and equalization networks can be tailored to extract peak performance from a designated driver, and then blend smoothly with the ensuing upper bass and treble stage. Of course, these same desirable assets can also be implemented by digital means, and that cost-effective alternative is very popular today, despite the need to introduce yet another cycle of analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion. This further complexity is avoided with the all-analog approach, so I personally favor pure analog simplicity, where less is more. But my personal bias is warped by the fact that I can’t test and verify what’s happening when the digital processing is implemented. Indeed, some of the digital simulation jargon seems artificially contrived**, but I’m an “old school” technician in every sense. I don’t own the kind of instruments (or the smarts) needed to appraise digital manipulation of an analog signal.

So who’s at the forefront of this improvement trend? Who is leading the charge to provide electronically augmented loudspeakers? Well, one niche that quickly embraced the integration concept is the mini-monitor makers. They commonly integrate customized power amplifiers with their speakers, but forego the lowest bass. That’s implicit with desktop expectations. The companies that produce hi-end full range loudspeaker systems can best mirror these improvements. Some already offer floorstanders with integrated subwoofers and multiple internal amplifiers. Some utilize digital signal processing (DSP); others might stick with classic analog design. Staffer Bill Heck has previously reported on his upscale speaker system from Legacy Audio; he uses it with his Wavelet 2 digital processor and says the sound is sensational. (So is the the price.) Editor Karl Nehring also favors hi-end Legacy Audio products. It’s obvious that this trend is active and evolving. More entrants should follow, maybe with models for modest budgets and smaller rooms. 

Stay tuned—check reliable reviewers, e.g., sites like Audio Science Review (https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php) and Audioholics (https://www.audioholics.com/) — and stash away some savings; Nirvana may be near!

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*A Linkwitz–Riley filter ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linkwitz–Riley_filter) that provides -24dB/octave attenuation is not particularly complex or costly, but tight precision is essential to ensure that the critical - 6dB down locus coincides precisely for both (low-pass and high-pass) of the filter sections, and that it is positioned at the desired crossover frequency. In practice, this is best achieved by “cherry-picking” the critical R/C components, so production gets messy when accuracy is vital. Digital control apps will tend to artificially obscure such production inaccuracies, but the output will reflect the full extent of any error.

**A DSP control application that I once monitored responded to my inputs by simulating graphic bar charts to mimic the impact of each command, just as if reporting a test result. Pure pseudo-science.


Addendum (by KN):


Bryan raises some important issues here that are well worth consideration. Indeed, it is a really tall order to ask a single driver to handle the frequency spectrum ranging all the way from deep bass up through the midrange – something’s gotta give. As he points out, one viable alternative approach is a good pair of two-way speakers augmented by one or better yet a pair of carefully matched subwoofers. There are many subwoofer manufacturers who offer models with not only built-in amplification and control settings, but also apps that allow tailoring of the system setting through your mobile phone or tablet.

 

Bill Heck and I have taken another route, opting for large multi-way loudspeaker systems that assign the lowest frequencies to what are in effect built-in subwoofer systems (a pair of 10” drivers crossed over at 180Hz in each channel of Bill’s system, a pair of 12” woofers crossed over at 120Hz in mine). To clarify, neither Bill’s Legacy Signature SEs nor my Focus SEs employ any internal digital amplification or crossover circuitry; they are both standard passive speakers with normal analog crossovers. Bill does employ the Wavelet 2 DAC /Preamp / Processor; however, that is a device entirely separate from the speaker. Moreover, it can be used with virtually any speaker, not just those from Legacy Audio. You can learn more about the Wavelet 2 in Bill’s review, which was in two parts: Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

 

Finally, I’d like to mention that there are several loudspeaker manufacturers that are employing advances in both digital amplification and signal processing to offer loudspeaker systems with amazing capabilities. One such example is the British manufacturer KEF, who offers several speaker models that are not only powered, but also incorporate Bluetooth, wi-fi, streaming services, etc. For example, the KEF LS60 Wireless (pictured) is triamped (100 watts Class AB for the tweeter, 100 watts Class D for the midrange, 500 watts for the woofers). It incorporates a 0.75” tweeter coincidentally mounted inside a 4” midrange driver, plus four 5.25” woofers (two on each side of the cabinet). The speakers can be connected together wirelessly or wired for higher-resolution connectivity. Each speaker has an RCA socket for connect an external powered subwoofer. There is an available KEF app that can be used for all manner of control and tailoring for frequency response, room settings, listener profiles. etc. You can also control the LS60s with Roon or Apple AirPlay – it’s a whole new world, folks. 

I’m still amazed that I can walk into my listening room, sit down in my listening chair, open my iPad, pull up Amazon Music or Qobuz, and control my NAD C658 streamer/preamp right from where I sit and listen to hi-res music through my stereo system with so little fuss. Or that I can prop my feet up in the recliner in my living room, turn on the TV, grab the Roku remote, and watch a performance by the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra or Belle and Sebastian whenever I feel the urge. Yep, it’s a whole new world…

May 12, 2024

Grieg: Orchestral Works (CD Review)

by Karl Nehring


Symphonic Dances, Op. 64; Bridal Procession from Pictures from Folk Life, Op. 19, No. 2 (arr. J. Halvorsen for orchestra); Three Orchestral Pieces from Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op. 56; Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34; (1880); Lyric Suite, Op. 54. Utah Symphony Orchestra; Maurice Abravanel, conductor. VOX-NX-3038CD

 

Here we have another of the recordings from the Vox vaults that have been given new life thanks to the good folks at Naxos, who have been digging out some of the old analog master tapes recorded by Elite Recordings back in the 1970s and preparing new digital masters using state-of-the-art 192 kHz/24-bit technology. As the note on the back cover proclaims, “The Elite Recordings for Vox by legendary producers Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz are considered by audiophiles to be amongst the finest sounding examples of orchestra recordings.” They have also been choosing some fine performances to resurrect, including these Tchaikovsky recordings by the late American conductor Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993). Although his name may be unfamiliar to many music lovers, his story is an interesting one and his musical achievements are noteworthy. He was born in Greece and raised in Switzerland, where his family lived in the same house as the conductor Ernest Ansermet, with whom young Maurice played four-hand piano music and was able to meet composers such as Stravinsky and Milhaud. He later studied under Kurt Weill in Berlin, then moved to Paris, where he was music director for Balanchine’s Paris Ballet for three years. 

Abravanel then moved to the United States and became the youngest ever conductor ever hired at that time by the Metropolitan Opera. In 1943, he became an American citizen, then in 1947 left New York to become the conductor of what was at the time a rather provincial orchestra in Salt Lake City, Utah. He built that orchestra into what became the Utah Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra over which he presided until his retirement for health reasons in 1979. Abravanel and his orchestra made numerous recordings for several labels, including the first complete Mahler symphony cycle by an American orchestra, for the Vanguard label, and the complete orchestral works of Tchaikovsky for Vox.

Although the Salt Lake Tabernacle was far from an ideal recording venue, its oval domed shape being highly reflective, the Elite Recordings team did their best to deaden the space, draping blankets over the seats and taking special care with microphone placement.  The end result is sonically excellent, the orchestra sounding as though it is playing in a large hall, but nothing is blurred. As for the performances, they come across as relaxed and friendly, although there are times when it feels as though the musicians are a touch undercaffeinated, especially in the Symphonic Dances, which could benefit from a more energetic approach than Abravanel takes here. Overall, however, most music listeners should find plenty to enjoy from the more than 70 minutes of Grieg’s music so warmly played and recorded on this restoration from the Vox vault. 

May 8, 2024

Russian Variations

by Bill Heck

John Field: Variations on a Russian Folk Song; Alexander Glazunov: Theme and Variations, Op. 72; Pytor Tchaikovsky: 6 Pieces, Op. 21; Serge Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22. Piers Lane, piano. Hyperion CDA68428

Now this is the kind of album that I really enjoy reviewing: music that is off – but just barely off – the beaten path but still very much worth hearing, played flawlessly, and nicely recorded. What's not too like?

As quickly becomes apparent upon listening, the title of the album accurately describes the works here, even though the pieces are not all named "variations". Let's start with the short (6:00 minute) piece by John Field, which dates from 1818. The excellent liner notes for this release say that many listeners might think of something between Mozart and Chopin and that's not a bad description at all. Heard here, not only the composition but also Lane's playing straddles that line, with a delicacy of touch that really does sound Mozartian but arrangement of shading and emotion that is indeed Chopinesque.

Our second composer, Alexander Glazunov, unfortunately makes it into the consciousness of many classical music lovers today as the possibly drunken conductor of the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony. While conducting wasn't his strong suit, and alcohol was a significant factor in his life, his contemporaries thought highly of him; as these variation show, he was a highly skilled composer.  The theme that Glazunov works with could hardly be simpler, but the variations he produces are quite wide ranging and imaginative within a late romantic context. You won't hear the rhythmic excursions and harmonic dissonances produced by his somewhat younger near-contemporaries such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, but you will hear much beauty without mere sentimentality. Lane's playing provides perfect atmosphere, providing an almost dream-like quality punctuated as appropriate by outbursts of energy.

The six pieces by Tchaikovsky each can stand alone, but they really are built around the same theme, even though the theme is sometimes difficult to find. No matter, though: this is Tchaikovsky at his most imaginative and his most willing to try out various forms. For instance, in the first variation, "Prelude", the jarring use of minor sevenths suggests to my twenty-first century-influenced ears that he was warming up for a blues session. Naturally there's much more here than that, but the brief moment illustrated to me the adventurous road that Tchaikovsky was traveling here. In the next movement, a fugue for four voices, our composer is showing that he too, can write counterpoint, suggesting shades of J S Bach. And so it goes, with wonderful creativity through all six of these surprising works.

Piers Lane
And then there are Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme of Chopin". And yes, as enjoyable as the previous works have been, this is a case of saving the best for last. One of Rachmaninoff's earlier compositions, written as he was finally emerging from the depression that followed the disaster of the First Symphony (see above), this is one of the composer's first really large efforts for solo piano, with the original statement of the theme followed by no fewer than 22 variations, clocking in at nearly 29 minutes. The booklet gives a nice high-level summary; I won't attempt to repeat that, but certainly can say that these variations are truly variable, ranging from slow, almost dirge like meditation to joyous exultation. By the way, Rachmaninoff's trademark Dies Irae shows up, blending remarkably with the main theme. While perhaps not as well-known as Rachmaninoff's later masterworks, this clearly is the effort of a major composer, one that will reward repeated hearings.

I blush to admit that I was not familiar with the recordings of Piers Lane, who has a prodigious output on the Hyperion label both as a soloist and a chamber musician. Many of his recordings are like this one in that “off the beaten path” sense that I mentioned earlier, which I say counts as a service to classical music lovers everywhere. A quick look around the Web reveals a high level of critical acceptance of his work, and there certainly will be no dissent here: his playing is wonderfully adjusted to the shifting moods and requirements of these works, and is, of course, technically sure.

As usual with Hyperion, the recorded sound is excellent. The album is available on CD, in a variety of downloadable formats, and also on major streaming services. Easily recommended.

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