Jun 19, 2024

Recent Releases No. 74 (CD Reviews)

by Karl Nehring

Cantabile: Anthems for Viola. Jonathan Harvey: Chant; Vaughan Williams: Romance; Bright Sheng: The Stream Flows; Bax: Sonata for Viola and Piano; Augusta Read Thomas: Song Without Words; Britten: Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland. Jordan Bak, viola; Richard Uttley, piano. Delphian DCD34317

The 29-year-old Jamaican-American violist Jordan Bak brings us music by composers both familiar and less well known on this new Delphian release. The opening selection, Chant, is a short (3:33) piece for solo viola written in 1992 by the British composer Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012). It has an edge to it but is never overly strident or harsh; if anything, it offers Bak an excellent way to grab our attention as he shows how his viola can speak – “chant” – with passion and expressive power. Then he brings us an unfamiliar piece from a familiar composer, the soothingly beautiful Romance by Vaughan Williams, for which he is joined by pianist Richard Uttley. This music is the serene, pastoral music for which Vaughan Williams is so beloved on both sides of the Atlantic, with both Bak and Uttley playing with conviction and warmth. More music for solo viola follows, with The Stream Flows by the Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng (b. 1955) seeming to flow naturally out from the RVW that precedes it, continuing along in a similar pastoral mood.

Pianist Uttley returns to join Bak for the remainder of the album, beginning with the next composition, the centerpiece of the program, Bax’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, which he began working on in 1920 and completed in 1922. The legendary violist Lionel Tertis gave the first performance, accompanied by the composer himself on piano. It is a substantial work in three movements, lasting about 28 minutes as performed here by Bak and Uttley. The first moment is lyrical and lovely, the second is more dramatic, and then the final movement is again lyrical, but with more of a somber feeling. It is a truly entertaining, engaging, and moving piece of music overall, with the rich tone of Bak’s viola being the perfect vehicle for Bax’s melodic gift. 

Next on the program is another work by a composer unfamiliar to me, Song without Words by the American composer Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964). The work exists in several versions, this arrangement for viola and piano having been specifically created for Bak and Uttley. According to the CD booklet, “the work’s gestures and myriad expressive details are directly informed by the poem; ‘I have found what you are like’ by E.E. Cummings, with Read Thomas’s music responding to and projecting its deep layers of meaning without uttering a word.” It’s an enigmatic piece, with ruminative lines from the viola punctuated by stabbing, inquisitive little phrases from the piano. Both instruments seem representative of a mind deep in thought and reflection. The program then closes with Britten’s Lachrymae, a series of 11 short “Reflections on a song of Dowland” by Benjamin Britten. This is a rather severe work, the least tuneful on the program. Some listeners will enjoy some of its moments of musical intensity, while others may find it somewhat on the abstract and disjointed side.

On the plus side, the liner notes are excellent, as is the sound quality. With more than 67 minutes of interesting viola music, this new Delphian release should have great appeal to fans of quality chamber music.

Zartir. Georges I. Gurdjieff, Thomas de Hartmann: PythiaNo. 10Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 41Introduction and Funeral CeremonyOriental DanceKankaravor Enker (Friend of Talents); Ashugh Jivani: Dard Mi Ani (Do Not Fret); Sayat-Nova: Thirty Gestures; Gurdjieff, de Hartmann: Prayer and DespairSayyid Chant and Dance No. 42Ashkharhes Me Panjarae (The World Is a Window); Sayat-Nova: Trembling Dervish; Baghdasar Dpir: Zartir (Wake Up); Gurdjieff, de Hartmann: The Great Prayer. The Gurdjieff Ensemble (Vladimir Papikyan, voice, santur, burvar, tmbuk, singing bowls; Emmanuel Hovhannisyan: duduk, pku; Meri Vardanyan, kanon; Armen Ayvazyan, kamancha, cymbal; Gagik Hakobyan; duduk; Norayr Gapoyan, duduk, bass duduk, pku; Avag Margaryan; blul; Aram Nikoghosyan; Oud; Astghik Snetsunts, kanon; Davit Avagyan, tar; Mesrop Khalatyan, dap, tmbuk, bells, triangle; Orestis Moustidis, tombak; Levon Eskenian, Artistic Director; National Chamber Choir of Armenia, Robert Mlkeyan, director. ECM 2788

Quoting from Wikipedia, “George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (c. 1867 – 29 October 1949) was a philosopher, mystic, spiritual teacher, composer, and ‘dance teacher.’ Gurdjieff taught that people are not conscious of themselves and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic ‘waking sleep,’ but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and serve our purpose as human beings.” As a composer, he sometimes collaborated with the Ukraine-born composer Thomas de Hartmann. On this album from the ECM label, the Lebanese-born Armenian musician Levon Eskenian, (b. 1978) who founded the Gurdjieff Ensemble in 2008, has arranged music by Gurdjieff and de Hartmann along with some tunes by Armenian bards and troubadours, including the title piece Zartir by Baghdasar Dpir (1683-1768). “Zartir” means “Wake up!” and its lyrics seem to echo Gurdjieff’s teaching that humanity is asleep and that people need to be roused from their unenlightened state.

The simplicity of the arrangements and the natural acoustic sounds of the folk instruments employed mean that although the language and instruments may be generally unfamiliar to Western ears, the music should have an immediate appeal. The CD booklet contains texts and background information that provides helpful context; in addition, the engineering is first-rate. For those willing to open their ears to some sounds from outside the mainstream, Zartir is well worth an audition.  

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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

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

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

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

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

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

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

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

Ryan Ross, Contributor

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

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

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

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

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

Mission Statement

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

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

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

Contact Information

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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa