TITLE: Acis and Galatea (HWV 49a) by George Friderich Handel
ARTIST: Dunedin Consort and Players, John Butt, director, Susan Hamilton Galatea, Nicolas Mulroy, Acis, Matthew Brook Polyphemus, Thomas Hobbs Damon, Nicholas Hurndall Smith Coridon
LABEL: Linn CKD 319 (2 HYBRID SACD's SURROUND/STEREO/CD IN HDCD)
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
Linn’s recent recording of Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea is taken from “the original Cannons” version dated 1718. The long since destroyed Cannons was a “stately home” near Edgware, just north of London. (According to Wikipedia, Cannons would have cost 27 million pounds or nearly 50 million dollars to build in today’s currency.) Handel was the resident composer there from 1718-19 and Acis and Galatea broke new ground by being given not as opera or oratorio, but instead, as a pastoral entertainment. According to the excellent notes of the Handel scholar and performer, John Butt, featured here, this is also the composer’s “first setting of a substantially dramatic English text”. A real staging of the piece did not take place until the early 1730s in London, and was later revised by Handel. To give the reader a bit of timely perspective, note that Water Music was written in 1717.
From the start the sound is first rate. No matter the occasional change in balance between singer and ensemble, the listener is very much in the presence of this group from a close perspective. The opening track on CD 2 is an example of perfectly placed voices and instruments. What a sound field! It is still hard to find such a clearly articulated recording as we have here. The mastering process doesn’t seem to have been invasive in any audible way, no edits or shifts in “presence” are audible. I would imagine the special articulation of each participant has to do with the lack of too many microphones. As usual, Linn is silent on the subject. (Were it mine I wouldn’t want to give the secret away either.) There must be more than three to accommodate everyone, but not many more. The DSD logo is present and both CDs sound like Sony’s best recording system is in use. Of all the three Linn recordings I’ve heard so far Acis and Galatea is my favorite as far as sonic purity is concerned. The frequency balance is spot on, the reverb perfectly controlled. Nothing sticks out at the listener. On almost all CDs, I have to forgive something in the recorded sound to get to the music, (and that includes many that I’ve made) but not here. Even the continuo that accompanies the recitatives is wonderfully captured. The upper strings have a wonderful “zing” to them in forte passages. The compliment of wind instruments is very special in tone, though not for its homogeneity, as in a modern orchestra, but for each player’s individualism. I doubt that a better recording could be created in this venue.
The story is simple. In a nut shell, after the opening two ensembles, the shepherd Acis and nymph Galatea sing happily about their seemingly endless love. That is act one and the first CD. in act two the giant Polyphemus arrives with his own heart set on Galatea. He jealously rids Galatea of Acis by crushing him with a rock. (The stories in “musical drama” of whatever sort have almost always been silly.) We have the usual laments about the loss of poor Acis until Galatea remembers that she is able to return the hero to “life” not as a man, but as a bubbling fountain of water. End of story and we all go home satisfied. I don’t want any readers to expect more than is actually here. I think it fair to point out that each of the two acts is on a separate CD, making them, in sequence, 41 and 53 minutes in length. Linn CDs are not cheap; I feel a few added pieces written at Cannons by Handel might have been included.
The opening “Sinfonia” is beautifully performed by the instrumentalists of the Dunedin Consort and Players, John Butt directing. It is given a warm treatment by all who participate and Linn’s producer/engineer Philip Hobbs provides an ideally located recording of the ensemble in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland. (One should remember that Linn has always been proud of its Scottish origins.)
Susan Hamilton portrays the nymph Galatea. By the arrival of “As when the dove”, track 11, CD 1, the soprano is in her best form. She never forces her voice, which is surely refreshing in this age of classical singers who go onto CD long before their time and sing with great pressure on their “instruments”. She also is able to express the words clearly in a vocal register that gives many sopranos difficulty. Her performance fits the role perfectly.
The tenor Nicolas Murray is the shepherd Acis. His is a truly pleasing voice and strikes me as perfect for Handel by dint of his first aria, “Where shall I seek the charming fair”, track 5, CD 1. His lovely, lyric sound is steady of tone and ample in size. He is also able to act with the voice alone. Hamilton and Murray sing a scintillating duet about unending love to close the first act and CD 1.
The giant, Polyphemus, is sung by the bass-baritone, of course. Matthew Brook uses his modern-day operatic sound with cleverness. The voice is the largest in the cast, which befits his physical stature. He creates a jolly, slightly offish persona in his recitatives as well as in the well known air “Ruddier than the Cherry”, track 3, CD 2. Rather than a pure oratorio singer I would categorize Mr. Brook as a fine singing actor with a very good voice. Even as an ogre he’s quite loveable. For Handel he is almost too dramatic (I say with a smile.)
The soloists just mentioned as well as several other smaller characters make up the “chorus”. All the singers are true virtuosos when it comes to the rapid fire airs that are a delight in any vocal work of Handel. The long lines in slower moments are almost always equally impressive. The whole group is to be congratulated on its excellent musical and dramatic expression.
If you are new to this early style, don’t hesitate to get this recording. You’ll enjoy yourself, learn something and not sit for too long. If your collection is overflowing with early music recordings this version Acis and Galatea is certainly one to hear.
TITLE: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Colloredo Serenade K203 & Divertimento K253
ARTIST: Alexander Janiczek director/violin solos, Scottish Chamber Orchestra
LABEL: Linn CKD 320 - HYBRID SACD SURROUND/STEREO/CD IN HDCD
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
This is my first acquaintance with the Linn CD label. These early pieces by Mozart form a well thought out concept by the label’s A&R people.
Producer/engineer Philip Hobbs deserves nothing less than a loud “well done!” The sound obtained from Greyfriars Kirk (church) in Edinburgh, Scotland is most impressive. The performances match the sound for quality. The notes are excellent and extensive. The CD is what one would expect from Linn and if you like Mozart, I strongly suggest you find a copy for yourself.
Concerning the actual recording away from musical considerations, the most accurate information I can impart is that the CD is derived from Sony’s DSD recording system. One can hear on good equipment a true superiority to what few competitors remain in terms of digital conversion and storage. How we get from the instruments to the DSD system remains a mystery. Linn does not publish its technical specs. in its booklet as does, say, Telarc. So I’m postulating the following: Mic placement is very simple. My guess is two or possibly three main mics. One has no sense of spot micing with the exception of the solo violin passages and probably the wind solos. The depth of the soundstage is natural and unforced. I can best sum it up by saying it is the right size for the music. The sense is of standing just back from the transept of the church looking at a tightly grouped, small number of players. The placement of the instruments, as in all good DSD recordings, is so obvious that one can chart them on paper. The reverberation time is sometimes a bit long for ideal clarity in Mozart’s ever present ornamentation. The divided first and second violins on the left and right of the stage are a nice touch. Quickly enough I was won over by what I was hearing from Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. For example, when the strings play with mutes the sound of the bow on the string is almost too accurate. This is true when listening on good headphones at a moderately high level. I find this CD to be of demonstration caliber in every category. At last the old saw about “good sound/bad performance” is not with us on this occasion.
Musically speaking, we have the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with a guest leader, violinist Alexander Janiczek. The CD opens with a march, K. 237; its joie de vivre is a preview of the energetic collection that follows. Curiously K. 237, a short march, is an accompanying piece to the Serenade K. 203 according to the well researched and written notes of Duncan Druce. There is no real space between it and the Serenade which begins officially with track two. The sting players do not vibrate in the way they might for music from a later period. The first and second violins have a nice “zing” to them in fast passages. Appropriately for a good chamber ensemble there are only 21 or 22 string players at most. I could hear right away that the four violas speak clearly in the ensemble; this is an element of the orchestra that many conductors and producers seem to ignore. The violas are not there for looks! With only two celli and two basses, the lowest frequencies might be considered slightly deficient by some. I think a heavier bass line would give the music a marked clumsiness in this acoustic. My guess is that the reverberation is somewhere around 3 seconds depending on the level of the music whenever it comes to an ending. The leader and the producer came up with just the right tonal balance for these diverting little gems. The winds and horns are never overbearing. Along with the string ensemble there are two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets. There is a timpanist listed, but I don’t believe he plays.
The “Colloredo” Serenade K. 203 is the first of the large pieces and as I said before is coupled to the preceding march. There are eight contrasting movements. These are mostly minuet/trios and Andantes although the first movement becomes an Allegro while the finale is a prestissimo. According to Mr. Druce the first three movements plus the final prestissimo were cobbled together by early publishers and sold as a separate Mozart Symphony. You might want to listen that way and see if you find symphonic satisfaction. The longest mvt. is the third at 6’23” and the shortest is the fourth at 2’48”. I’ll dispense with enumerating each one of them. Let me say that they’re all beautiful in their early Mozartian way. The second movement Andante has Mr. Janiczek playing a richly colored violin solo. He also plays in some of the trio sections of the Minuets. His sound is plush for this music and he is an excellent Mozartian. He plays with far more vibrato than I thought he might, as the strings overall tend towards a leaner kind of sound as pointed out earlier. Mr. Janiczek on the other hand has several lovely moments of portando playing. I find them beautiful and appropriate to his overall vision. The sixth movement andante has an absolutely glowing oboe solo. This oboe sound is very rich. It sounds completely different from those I’ve come to know in other UK orchestras over the years. There is something special about this unnamed player and the instrument he/she plays.
The second and final piece, the Divertimento, K. 251 has a curious bit of history behind it. It is dated, July 1776.
That is considered completely coincidental to events in this yet to be country, but gives an interesting idea of what was happening in Vienna during the time of our great Declaration. This collection has six movements and, once again, an added march that occurs as a seventh movement at the end but now without a separate Köchel number. The opening movement is a lot of fun and I suggest that you pay close attention to the minuet that lacks is marked “tema con variazioni”. That is band 13 and has some marvelous dueling moments between solo first and second violins that battle between the left and right speaker. Ultimately the first violin will carry theme and the second will play a descant along with it. This is a highly inventive bit of composing. I’m often reminded of middle period Haydn as well as an occasional look back to the old “style classique” of C.P.E. Bach.
There are two moments in the Serenade and one in the Divertimento that Linn might have done better with. They certainly gave me pause. Those are edit points that are audibly annoying, at least to me. I’m not trying to start a guessing game among listeners, but I’m not letting on where those areas are. Just listen. The music and the beautiful sound are what count on this CD. However, I’m hoping Linn might notice that at least one person can hear the edits and wishes them gone.
Linn also makes this and most of their recordings available for download in several formatsfrom MP3 to Hi-Rez 24bit 88.2kHz.
TITLE: Bruckner Symphony 7 in E, Gutmann Edition
ARTIST: Arturo Toscanini conductor; Philharmonic Society of New York, live January 27, 1935; Note: historic mono recording. 57’14”
LABEL: Pristine Audio PASC082
REVIEWER: André Gauthier
There are more recordings than I can list that never saw the light of day when the so called “Complete Toscanini” CD set was issued by RCA Gold Seal in 1992. Those curios are stored at the New York Public Library and are available for anyone to listen to AT the library. That makes little sense when one considers that lovers of Toscanini and Bruckner are all around the globe. This is the only Toscanini recording of Bruckner with any orchestra at any time. The performance of the composer’s famous 7th Symphony hails from Carnegie Hall January 27, 1935 with the Philharmonic Society of New York, better known as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra just a few years later. Toscanini was the musical director of that group from 1930 – 1936 when the NBC Orchestra was created for him (and Stokowski!)
While Toscanini was a huge proponent of Wagner, he was an even greater one of Brahms. So when Brahms’ polar opposite, Bruckner came to his mind it was a rare moment indeed. This fact is backed up by an another interesting fact - he played only two of the nine symphonies, the 4th in E flat and the 7th in E and those combined only 4 times in his entire career. This excludes a very early reading from the mid 1890s of the Adagio alone from the 7th given in Italy soon after Bruckner’s death.
Some nice soul smuggled a taped version out of the New York Public Library a few years ago and it found its way to Japan. It was instantly released on several labels I’ve never seen. Then it landed in its latest nest on the Internet from www.pristineclassical.com. That is the only place it can be purchased. When this latest rendition first came out in 2007 a number of people questioned its authenticity. That strikes me as odd if one knows Toscanini’s playing. He is absolutely at the helm of this ship. One can listen to the Scherzo on Pristine Audio’s site mentioned above. It is unmistakably Toscanini. The NYPO is first class with not a cracked note in the entire piece. I finally bought it after hearing the sample, albeit with a bit of trepidation as I knew it had been cleaned up technically within an inch of its life. It also has a few bars missing from several movements. Pristine allows one to download the entire symphony in several formats, but I’m old fashioned and purchased the CD version. Be warned, the CD does not come with any notes, there is no information about anything. What little information there is can be found on the website itself. Inside the “booklet” is blank paper. The timings of the 4 movements are on the back cover.
Is this performance, warts and all, worth owning? For the Toscanini enthusiast, absolutely; it’s fortuitous that any Bruckner conducted by this inherently Italianate musician exists in recorded form. For Bruckner fans who don’t mind average 1930’s sound, in the aggregate this is a very interesting listening experience.
Before you read further, though, realize that this is not a show piece for hi end audio. It will sound just as good on a $100 system as it does on a $100,000 system. It has had ALL hiss removed, although the high frequencies are surprisingly aided by some clever EQ methods. I doubt there’s any information above 8khz. The Pristine label is trying to have its cake and eat it too by putting some other famous performances from the ‘30s out in “enhanced stereo”, which translates thusly: the phase has been changed and mixed back in at various frequencies giving the impression of spatial improvement. At least they didn’t do that here.
So that leaves the performance as the only reason to own this CD. The first movement has some well shaped phrases and the tempi are far more elastic than I had anticipated. Toscanini seems to understand the composer’s grand sequential language to a far greater degree than I would have expected. The orchestra is allowed flexibility in this movement in ways that are not generally thought of with Toscanini. How rare!
The second movement in C# minor is possibly Bruckner’s most famous music. It strikes me that Toscanini has more familiarity with this than the rest of the piece. I read along with the Gutmann edition of the score (the one used by the conductor) and the various markings are followed very closely in the opening theme. The second part of the “melody” has four decending 8th notes played almost too literally by the first violins. The markings above each note indicate that Bruckner doesn’t want any sort of portamento or slurring between the notes. Toscanini seems to require down bows on each note. That’s a bit too grammatical for my taste. No other conductor from the 1930s conducts this most important statement in such an angular way. I normally wouldn’t mention this kind of fine detail, but if you know the Seventh at all well, you’ll be struck by this phrase right away. As time goes on, though, things start to loosen up. As Toscanini builds to the grand climax the balance between the various orchestral choirs is excellent. Considering how limited the recording technology was, this is the achievement of the conductor and orchestra alone. There’s no engineer moving faders behind the scenes. The sequence that leads to the grand climax with its continuously rising violin lines builds in intensity without any sense of rushing or calculation right to the big chord in C major with cymbal and triangle clearly audible. (Legend has it this is supposed to mark the moment that Wagner died.) Toscanini doesn’t linger over this movement bringing it in at a very quick 20’03”. The only sad moment comes from a few missing measures at an otherwise quiet ending. The performance far outshines this small problem.
The A minor scherzo is lean, mean and fast; every note is absolutely in its place. This could be Rossini or Weber, but the approach is valid in Bruckner if you don’t mind the ultra scherzo speed. The ensemble is more etched than any other performance I can recall at the moment. If you’ve ever heard a Toscanini rehearsal you’ll recall his constant reminder in fast music that the strings play “Shortuh notes!!”, “Corte, Corte” (short, short), yelled out in his aging, vibrato ridden voice. That’s the secret behind Toscanini’s whiplash rhythmic quality. Keep things perfectly together and cut longer notes slightly short and you have the basis of Toscanini’s high speed technique. Now I come to the greatest myth about Toscanini. He was ALWAYS faithful to the score. Sorry ladies and gents, he most certainly was not. There may be other sections in the symphony that the conductor rewrites; the scherzo is almost embarrassingly redone in the timpani part. It is yet another example of Toscanini chicanery in terms of “come scritto”, or more dully, play what’s written and don’t add anything. The theme of the scherzo is four bars with the third being a dotted quarter, eighth and quarter in 3/4 time. The score in every edition always has the timpani roll when the whole orchestra begins to state this little this galloping theme. But Toscanini seems, as he does in Brahms, Beethoven, Elgar, and Debussy to need to add to the orchestration by having the timpani play the dotted rhythm with everyone else. Bruckner’s idea is that the timpani is a kind of pedal point against which everyone else is playing the rhythm while it simply plays a roll. Then we also know Toscanini hated the organ, so that sort of thinking probably did not enter his mind. I find it hard to listen to after a while as it seems amateur in relation to Bruckner’s own writing. The last movement doesn’t really inspire all that much enthusiasm. The string phrases are all played with perfect adherence to the scores markings, except that at transitions he will cut a phrase short by an 8th in order to give it “crispness.” That is all just a trick. There are several recordings of pieces that Toscanini didn’t really know that well and I think that shows here. (One of those moments comes in the Rubinstein/NBC Beethoven 3rd piano concerto where Rubinstein says in his memoirs that Toscanini didn’t seem to know the concerto at all during rehearsals. Rubinstein did go on to say that Toscanini conducted well in performance but that he, Rubinstein, had worried about the outcome before hand.)
I find this a nice adjunct to the many recordings of the Bruckner symphonies that I already own. There are new ways of looking at things in this reading; whether one agrees with them is something else, but it is never boring. In most modern recordings young conductors puff the poor old 7th up like a balloon. I’m always glad to find the pin that shrinks things down again.
TITLE: Boom of the Tingling Strings (Piano Concerto); Disguises -
ARTIST: Jon Lord, Composer, Nelson Goerner, piano (Concerto)/Odense Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
LABEL: EMI Classics 0094639052820
When I first saw this sitting on the shelf, I had to investigate it. You have to admit, not only is the title "Boom of the Tingling Strings" intriguing, but right above the tile on the cover is the name "Jon Lord".
Is that thee Jon Lord of the rock group Deep Purple? I knew he had composed Concerto for Group and Orchestra back in the day and I knew he left the group somewhere around 2002, but is this the same guy?
The answer is yes, but that leads to another question: Is this another amateurish, gimmicky, vanity project by a burned out ex-rocker who has too much time on his hands? I had to buy it so you and I would both know.
Amazingly, the title piece is not some orchestral rock fantasy, it is a legit, four movement Piano Concerto performed with no pauses - and a darn good one at that! What does it sound like? Perhaps if I tell you who it sounds like, it might help more. Naturally, Malcolm Arnold comes to mind because of his earlier association and thus influence, as does Aaron Copeland with the big brass flourishes, and maybe a little Prokofiev with the complex, interweaving harmonic phrases and themes, but there is also quite a bit of "blue" notes and jazz riffs that resemble Gershwin and Khachaturian's Piano Concerto, particularly in the L'istesso Tempo second movement . Quite a mixture, isn't it?
On the EMI website, Lord says, "Since I started to write music for the orchestra, somewhere in my thoughts had been the urge to write a piano concerto. Not so much in the traditional sense of a concerto but more as a vehicle to express my love for the piano, which I began playing aged six. I also wanted to celebrate my lifelong love affair with the orchestra, which seems to me perhaps the greatest of 'instruments' É and to marry these two loves of mine in music that would sing from my heart to the heart of this wonderful union that is a concerto. After a few aborted attempts to begin writing while touring the world with a rock band, in 1998 I came across a poem by D.H. Lawrence called simply Piano, and its effect on me was immediate and profound. The 'I' of the poem seemed to be me. I recognized the childhood that Lawrence described, for it seemed to mirror my own, and the idea of using his images to paint pictures from my own experiences was a persuasive one. I immediately began to jot down ideas. The experience was made more resonant for me by that marvelous phrase "the boom of the tingling strings" and I decided then and there, that would be the title."
Former EMI Debut artist Nelson Goerner is the pianist. He rises admirably to the technical challenges of the work, particularly the fiendishly difficult last movement and, at the recording sessions, he moved the composer to tears with his deftness of touch and musical sensitivity.
The second composition "Disguises" is a piano concerto/suite in three movements, each a portrait of someone who has inspired the composer. Lord originally conceived the work for string quartet but later expanded it for string orchestra. The first movement, "M.A.s.q.u.e.", is a portrait of Sir Malcolm Arnold, a seminal influence on Jon Lord's musical life. The second, MUSIC for MIRIAM, is a portrait of the composer's late mother. The final movement, IL BUFFONE (G.C.) is for an old friend, a big bustling man who brings Lord "occasional benign madness and hilarity when I most need it, but whose joviality can disguise a certain wistfulness." When Disguises was completed in 2006, Jon Lord decided to dedicate it to Sir Malcolm Arnold, and received word that the great English composer, delighted to be the dedicatee, looked forward to hearing the work. Sadly, Sir Malcolm never heard it as he died four days later.
Does Lord's compositional skills rise to level of the other composers mentioned above? Will classical pianists be playing these as part of the standard repertoire fifty or a hundred years from now? While it does have more substance than Keith Emerson's 1977 concerto, it certainly is not in the same league as other acknowledged classical titans and it is doubtful that future pianists will choose it to showcase their talents, any more than Lang Lang or Murray Perahia will be performing Rick Wakeman's 1973 "Six Wives of Henry VIII".
Still, this is a solid piece of cutting edge classical composition, replete with pianistic fire and orchestral colors. It is interesting, engaging and entertaining.
Sonically, EMI had the wisdom to approach this as a classical recording and it has their hallmark excellent sound. The soundstage is detailed and nicely layered and the piano sounds like a real, organic grand piano rather than the hard edged representations we get with rock recordings. The perspective puts the listener in about the fourth row - close but not too close. Like the musical content, it is above average but not groundbreaking.
ARTIST: Sarah Brightman
LABEL: Blue Note / USA
Reviewers: Rebecca B. Preciado and James Darby
Rebecca: This latest offering from Sarah Brightman is a symphonic treat – very aptly entitled “Symphony.” Stylistically, it could be easily be placed in our Pop/Rock section as well as Classical. Released in 2007, you can’t go wrong with this album produced by Blue Note Records, a very reputable company known for its quality and reliable recordings. This is one of the most impressive albums from her body of work. The material is very noteworthy and not to mention the CD packaging and booklet filled with glossy and arty pages with photos of Ms. Brightman digitally enhanced by Photoshop, as well as some poetic verses of “Fleurs Du Mal” incorporated on Liner Notes. It is co-written by Brightman with the album’s producer Peterson, Schwartz, Messner, Himmelsbach and Kirschburger. One meaningful verse that caught my eyes goes...
“All my life I’ve been waiting for
In this perfume of pain
To forget when I needed more
Of love’s endless refrain.”
“Symphony” is an album with a contemporary flair and classical crossover consisting of thirteen songs ingeniously interpreted in a variety of settings. All the tracks were recorded between 2004 and 2007 in London and Los Angeles, and four of which are in duet settings: “Canto Della Terra” with Andrea Bocelli, “I Will Be With You” with Paul Stanley, “Sarai Qui” with Alessandro Safina and “Pasión” with Fernando Lima.
My top choices from this set include an all-time favorite song of mine, Pietro Mascagni’s “Attesa” with lyrics penned by Chiarra Ferrau. It is an adaptation from the Italian composer’s opera “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Every time I hear this tune, I am always deeply moved and carried away by its beauty regardless of who is interpreting it. I also love the wonderful duets with Andrea Bocelli (Canto Della Terra) and Fernando Lima (Pasión), and of course the title track, “Symphony.”
Sarah Brightman is one of the most talented singers we have now in the music world. I am so impressed with her performance on “Phantom of the Opera” and my favorite album of hers apart from this one is “Time To Say Goodbye.” She is a Leo-born (August 14) and undoubtedly has the qualities of a typical Leo when it comes to being artistically creative and possesses an innate talent in performing arts.
Are you a huge fan of Sarah Brightman, James? Do you think this is her best offering so far? What do you think is so special about this album?
JD: She was born on August 14th? So was my wife who is also very talented and creative. Interesting…
I can’t say I am a fan of Sarah, but I would like to be. I have tried hard to be. I do like her. Or at least I try to. I have purchased almost all of her offerings available in the US, but the only one I really like is “Time to Say Goodbye”. Married to Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote “Phantom” specifically for her, she has always been a bit of a Diva, but it seems as if each new release gets more ostentatious, overblown and melodramatic that it becomes more of a spectacle than a true musical event. The musical theatrics employed here make “Phantom” look and sound like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Like a movie soundtrack, the music should never draw attention to itself but merely enhance what is happening on screen.
The arrangements are all so grandiose that they detract from her voice, particularly when she uses her soft, breathy, little girl-like style as in the title track. She has a lovely, strong, well trained coloratura soprano that she seldom uses, singing from the roof of her mouth rather than her diaphragm. Almost every song starts big and splashy and stays that way.
Listen to the gorgeous melody of “Schwere Träume”. The overly massive string section plays the melody note for note as she sings. They never breathe or change instrumentation. They are never silent for a moment. So “Storia D'Amore” (Love Story), the next cut, continues with the same too-thick strings at the same tempo, though she switches to her Broadway or almost “classical” voice.
We have to wait until we get to “Attessa” before we get to hear her real voice and it is beautiful. Rebecca, perhaps that’s why you liked this cut. For me, this was the best as well, but we still have those overwrought, thick strings that would be more at home in a Batman score by Danny Elfman, playing mostly in unison with her melody, even when she hits that flawless high “B” at the end.
The last cut is “Running” and it does – for over nine minutes, much of which is instrumental. Perhaps Sarah was making one of her famous costume changes during most of it.
Gothic is the theme and like that clothing style, it is over the top and more than a little too much. After enduring this, I dream of another album of just her and a piano. She does have a very unique and colourful voice that will traverse almost any style. I’d just like to hear more of it with a lot more substance and a lot less style.
Sonically this is more of a disappointment that the music. It is very bright, very digital and laden with more effects than Cirque de Soliel. There is no air, no definition, what soundstage there is a smear of glare. Fatiguing and difficult to listen to. She deserves better.
TITLE: Grooving Classics
ARTIST: Farberman, Colorado String Quartet & Ethos Percussion Group
LABLE: FIM #XR24 044
Reviewers: Rebecca B. Preciado and James Darby
JD: To quote Monty Python, “And now for something completely different!” The first thing you should know about this recording is that it’s on Winston Ma’s FIM label, which means a guaranteed top notch, audiophile recording. But for this particular project he borrowed none other than Reference Recording’s Professor Johnson; arguably the best recording engineer anywhere. The recording was completely analog on a ½ custom tape machine, and In addition to that, the analog was mastered by the great Paul Stubblebine and then mastered as a JVC XRCD24. We’re talking a real dream team here.
Of course, all of that is irrelevant if the music is not interesting, engaging and entertaining. The title “Grooving Classics” to me is a bit misleading, in that when I hear “grooving”, I think hot bass, drum and guitar tracks. There are no guitars, no bass players, but there are loads of drums! What we have here is a very unique blend of the Colorado String Quartet and the Ethos Percussion Group under the direction and arrangement of Harold Farberman, a former student of Aaron Copeland among other accolades. Eight very accomplished musicians in all.
The “Classics” part of the title is accurate because all of the ten cuts are titles such as “Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik”, “Adagio” from the New World Symphony, and variations of Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony”. Each is arranged specially for the combined quartets with many liberties taken as far as instrumentation and orchestration, but each remains fairly consistent with the original tempo, feel and temperament. In other words, the three dances from “The Nutcracker” are not re-arranged as Bee-Gees style disco and “Red River Valley” does not sound like Tammy Wynette, though at times the marimba, castanets and other plucks and crashes were a bit Zappaesque.
While nothing is entirely frivolous or otherwise blasphemous, Farberman does add a bit of judicious humor and spice occasionally, but this is a serious recording that has been re-arranged not only for an unusual combination of instruments, but also for the audiophile nature of the recording itself. The string quartet, which actually does play things rather straight, is placed in front of the percussionists who in turn were placed for particularly interesting left to right imaging and spatial cues.
How do I know where they were placed? The CD is encased in a clothbound, hardback, book-type cover which binds 20 high-quality, glossy pages of photos and information about the recording including “The Techinical Aspects of and My Strategy for the Recording” by Keith Johnson – an audiophile’s dream documentation.
There is a bonus track of Farberman conducting the Northwest Sinfonietta in a rousing rendition of the “Habenera Fantasia” from “Carmen”. This cut especially is now on my list of tunes to take to audio shows, though any of these could easily serve as audio reference or demo tracks.
Rebecca: For fans of classical music who welcome non-traditional arrangements and interpretations of classical tunes, “Grooving Classics” is the perfect album. My choicest cuts include Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” “Habanera Fantasia” from George Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” “Can Can” from Contes d’Hoffman (Tales from Hoffman) by Jacques Offenbach, Antonin Dvorak’s “Adagio from the “New World Symphony” and of course Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Dances from the Nutcracker.” The only non-classical piece is a traditional song “Red River Valley,” but it is a welcome addition to this collection.
This is one of the most unusual classical CDs I’ve ever come across, but I did enjoy listening to it.
TITLE: Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 4; Horace Silver: Creepin' In
ARTIST: Nigel Kennedy/Michal Baranski ,Polish Radio Chamber Orchestra
LABEL: Angel Records B0010RDSLA
Nigel Kennedy is a man after my own heart. He is quoted as saying, “People can say I’m a classical violinist if they want to but I’ve always viewed myself as a musician who plays music and not just a certain part of it”. Indeed.
He is a highly trained classical violinist (Julliard among others) whose “Four Seasons” on EMI sold millions of copies in the early 90’s, so many that it placed it in the Guinness Worlds Records as the largest selling classical recording. He has also recorded the torturous Elgar Violin Concerto (twice) as well as many others.
While all that may not seem unusual, he has also performed and recorded (on the Blue Note label) with jazz icons such as Ron Carter Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano. His first appearance at Carnegie Hall was with Stéphane Grappelli. Nigel was 16 years of age. In 2006 he made “Blue Note Sessions” with Kenny Burrell, Duke Pearson, Lonnie Liston Smith, Ron Carter, Jack Dejohnette and Horace Silver.
The Polish wunderkind is not content living in the highest echelons of classical and jazz, he has also recorded The Doors Concerto, a violin based orchestral version of songs by the group as well as another album where he explored Jimi Hendrix tunes.
It should come as no surprise then that the often mohawk coiffed rebel would combine his skills in a new recording of revered concertos by Beethoven and Mozart (no. 4) as well as Horace Silver’s hard bop Creepin’ In. Quite a juxtaposition, no?
All seems pretty standard in the Mozart with a bright, intellectual touch until we reach the cadenza (a dramatic virtuosic solo passage usually near the end of a ensemble piece such as a concerto, either written by the composer or improvised by the performer) in the Allegro where, instead of a Mozart syle violin solo, we get a new age jazz section with cascading woodwinds and a ostinato like bass line behind Nigel’s soft, otherworldly violin. Striking, startling and snarky. Many would deem it blasphemous, but it is definitely interesting. The style, leaping centuries, is a bit odd and incongruous. Bold and innovative is one thing, but something so far out of context is rather abrasive, particularly since about two minutes later he shifts right back to Wolfgang.
Nigel takes some artistic and stylistic liberties with the Beethoven, mostly in the realm of tempo and timing, but all within the bounds of Beethoven’s score. No shocking jazz, rock or blues riffs are thrown in arbitrarily, but he does again change the cadenza, but not to the degree of the Mozart.
More than anything, the musical maverick forces the listener to pay attention just waiting for something radical to happen. When it doesn’t, you find yourself immersed in some sublime music and musicianship, deeper than a casual listen to anyone else playing these warhorses.
"Creepin’ In" is almost an afterthought here. I tried to picture him performing this live as an encore to the concerti. It is musical and listenable, but nothing extraordinary.
The same could be said of the sonics of this Angel effort. It does not have the spaciousness and impact of the Hyperion or Reference Recording labels, but it does not offend or suffer from excessive hardness as many Duetch Grammophones.
TITLES: 30th Anniversary Sampler & Tutti!
LABEL: RR-908 & RR-906
Are you tired of classical recordings that regurgitate the same old warhorses over and over? Tired of audiophile recordings of music that put you to sleep or are difficult to listen to? Do you like variety? Do you like classical recordings that are exciting, full of smashing dynamics, and are very listenable? Do you want your recordings to be the best audiophile quality available? If so, here are two CDs that you must own – and we don’t say that very often.
“Tutti” and “30th Anniversary Sampler” from Reference Recordings are probably the most played demo selections at audio shows like CES and Rocky Moutain Audio Fest where audio companies want to show off their precious high-end systems at their very best. I use several selections on our Stereomojo Demo Disk. They are ideal because they are relatively short, averaging about 4 minutes, have incredibly deep and wide soundstages, take advantage of the full frequency spectrum from ultra low to ultra high, include a wide range of dynamics and instrumental timbres and are so musical that you don’t tire of them easily. You have everything from piano and pipe organ solo, to small ensemble to the biggest symphonies..
Yes, some of the big name composers like Rachmaninoff (Symphonic Dance 33), Respighi (Pines of Rome – Finale), and Mussorgsky (Baba Yaga), but you also have names like Chadwick, Nelson, Ibert, Janacek, Susato, Argento, Danielpour and Tavener represented. Listening to some of these selections will most likely result in you wanting to hear other selections by these same composers, and isn’t that one of the most wonderful benefits of being a music loving audiophile- discovering new music?
You even have different orchestras like the Minnesota under Eiji Oue, the Utah under Keith Lockhart, Pacific Symphony Orchestra, the Czech State Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. You will also hear the Dallas and University of Texas wind ensembles.
Both of these disks are recorded by Keith Johnson and mastered by Paul Stubblebine. Music production doesn’t get any better than those two. Both discs are in 24 bit HDCD. Both disks are good reasons to own a player with HDCD decoding. With such a player, the sonics here are superior or at least the equal of most SACD’s.
Speaking of SACD, “Tutti” has just been chosen as Reference Recordings’ first SACD release. Put me at the top of the list!
If you or a friend is thinking about exploring classical music, these by far are the best places to start. If you are already a classical maven, these two reference collections should be a part of your collection.
FLASH! I just checked their website and RR is offering these at only $9.98 each.
TITLE: The Bach Gamut - Virgil Fox Live in San Francisco
ARTIST: Virgil Fox
LABLE: Reference Recordings RR-107
Virgil Fox was, and shall always remain, an icon and controversial figure in the world of classical pipe organ. He was bigger than life, a consummate showman which went against the grain of the very staid, reverant cognizanti during his lifetime. In some ways, he was the Liberace of the pipe organ. In fact, I recall seeing Liberace and Fox playing together on The Mike Douglas Show in the mid 70’s. Sacrilege!
His interpretations of Bach and pretty much everything else were always liberally infused with his own excesses. He played fast passages too fast, loud passages too loud and wasn’t afrid of bombast. Yet he would also take a simple, quiet melody like Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” and turn it into something that could draw tears. He knew, above all, that music was about melody and he had an ear for organ registration (what pipes to use and when) that always let you hear the melody. Just listen to the opening number, Bach’s “Fantasy and Fugue in G minor”. This is a ridiculously fast piece that throws the melody line back and forth like a tennis ball, but even when the melody goes way down to the pdealboard which is played by the feet, the melody is there as smooth, articulated and controlled as well as if played by hands. Of course, there is a huge, triumphant ending. After releasing that last chord which he plays as G Major, he waits for a few seconds for the adoring applause, then plays the last eight bars again as if to say, “Yeah…that was pretty great, here – listen again!”
Needless to say, the word “virtuoso” is as custom tailored for Fox as his sequined and beaded suits he wore on occasion, including this one. He also sometimes sported a dramatic cape attire of which Dracula would be proud.
Virgil brought classical pipe to the masses, including masses of young people who were drawn to his “Heavy Organ” concerts at the Fillmore that featured psycadelic light shows and as much weed as any Stones concert. He also put the Rodgers organ company on the map which had been dominated by Allen by designing The Royal V electronic touring organ used on this recording that also features the “real pipes” house Ruffatti ensconced in the St. Mary’s Cathedral venue.
“The Bach Gamut” was recorded by Keith Johnson on September 10th, 1976, so it is very much a live recording. It is said that 5,500 people crammed into the 2,500 seat church, mostly teens and college students (and dropouts). It says volumes that Virgil was able to keep this audience quieter than a designer bedecked crowd at Carnegie. There are a few coughs during cut 6, the Adagio portion of the Toccata, Adagio & Fugue, but Virgil’s playing renders them innocuous.
The recording, even though it is HDCD, comes with this disclaimer: “Although the age of the tapes and the circumstances of the live performances make the sonics unlike RR’s current work, the importance of these historic Fox performances weighed heavily in our decision to release them”. Normally a sentence like that would signal a recording that is very noisy with limited frequency response and dynamics. Certainly not the case here. This one will tax your system, not your ears.
TITLE: A Child's Garden of Dreams Symphony
ARTIST: Dallas Wind Symphony under Jerry Junkin
LABLE: Reference Recordings HDCD RR-108
Who says there is no good classical music being composed today – particularly in America? If you are one of those who think classical music died with Beethoven, listen up. There is almost 78 minutes of it here. In addition, if you are one who does not like “classical” music, give this a listen. Not dry. Not boring. Not by a long shot.
David Maslanka is a resident of Montana, USA and has been composing music for symphony (seven so far), wind ensembles and other genres for years. His music is very listenable, evocative, exciting and particularly melodic. It is that last element that has been missing in much of today’s classical compositions which often are studies in dissonance and harsh orchestral colors, void of any flowing lines but redolent of jerky rhythms and unfamiliar time signatures, demanding much from the listener to derive any musical fulfillment.
Maslanka uses dissonance and harshness sparingly and only where appropriate to contrast beauty, glory and passion. His music is immersive and uplifting, often telling stories of about the triumph of the human spirit over earthly struggles. If you enjoy Howard Hanson and his work with the Eastman Rochester or the Symphonic work of Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov, you will enjoy this.
“A Childs Garden of Dreams” is from a writing by psychiatrist and philosopher Carl Jung entitled “Man and His Symbols” where he describes a fellow shrink who brought him a handwritten booklet he had received as a Christmas present from his 10-year-old daughter. It contained a series of 12 dreams that were strange and troubling images that were incomprehensible to her father. Each dream began with ‘Once upon a time’ and dealt with issues of life, death, fear, hope, heaven and hell that were more akin to Edgar Allen Poe or Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthy Delights” painting than a little girl. Tragically, the little girl died of an infectious disease about a year after that Christmas.
About his composition, Maslanka says, “I selected five of the twelve dreams as motifs for the movements of this composition:
I. There is a desert on the moon where the dreamer sinks so deeply into the ground that she reaches hell.
II. A Drunken woman falls into the water and comes out renewed and sober.
III. A horde of small animals frightens the dreamer. The animals increase to a tremendous size, and one of them devours the little girl.
IV. A drop of water is seen as it appears when looked at through a microscope. The girl sees that the drop is full of tree branches. This portrays the origin of the world.
V. An ascent into heaven, where pagan dances are being celebrated; and a descent into hell, where angels are doing good deeds.
The music and orchestration is riveting and, like the dreams themselves, you never know where it is going or what is coming next. At times it can be terrifying, mysterious or utterly beautiful with huge dynamic swings and emotional contrasts – a real rollercoaster of a ride. At first listening, I was mesmerized to the point I forgot I was supposed to be reviewing. As I went back, I wanted to comment on the expressive string sound I thought had been there. No strings attached; this is a composition for wind ensemble with a large percussion section, harp, piano, and organ., but the orchestration is so evocative that you don’t miss the string sections at all.
In Memoriam was commissioned in memory of the wife of the Director of Bands at the University of Texas, Arlington. It is not a dirge, rather it is an uplifting, stately, dignified triumphal celebration based on a Bach chorale prelude, "If you but trust in God to guide you". Through strong brass fanfares as well as soft woodwind passages, you are imparted a feeling of strength, encouragement and peace.
I was surprised in listening to the “Fourth Symphony” to hear a tune that is very familiar. For decades, it had been the opening hymn in most every Protestant church on earth – The Doxology or “The Old One Hundreth”. It was played at Abe Lincoln’s funeral as he lie in state as thousands passed by his coffin, the image from which the composer takes his inspiration. It starts out with a plaintive French horn solo which leads into an quiet stately anthem reminiscent of the “Saving Private Ryan” soundtrack. It builds and builds some more before it goes into an echo game of between reeds and flutes. Then things get serious before exploding into a kaleidoscope of color and power. From there things continue to surprise and thrill (wait till you hear the coyotes wailing) until we hear the power and glory of the Doxology at measure #570, sounding a bit like “The Great Gate at Kiev” for a moment. The music never stops for the entire 30 minutes of the symphony.
The Dallas Wind Symphony under Jerry Junkin acquits itself well in these intricate and at times very complex scores.
Sonically, this is one of Reference Recording’s best, and that is saying a lot. Brass and percussion does not get any brassier or percussive and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought this was an SACD. It is recordings like this that make me glad I have disk player with HDCD decoding. With it, this Professor Johnson 24-bit extravaganza sounds better than many SACD’s I have owned. The soundstage is massive, spacious and detailed. Turn out the lights and slip this into your player. At the end you may find yourself a bit breathless, musically satisfied and proud that America has a composer of this quality in the 21st century.
TITLE: Crown Imperial
ARTIST: Mary Preston with Dallas Wind Symphony
LABEL: Reference Recording RR-112 HDCD
For years as a reviewer and consumer of great music and recordings, one of my favorites has been Reference Recording’s “Pomp and Pipes”. Consisting of brilliant and bombastic selections for pipe organ, wind ensemble and percussion, it was and is a true demo and reference recording. It has taken a while, but Professor Keith Johnson and his wife Marcia Martin have done it again, this time featuring Mary Preston playing the four manual, 84-rank Fisk organ ensconced in Dallas’ wonderful Meyerson Symphony Center where she is house organist. I have had the pleasure of attending a few concerts there and the hall is remarkable. The acoustics are nearly perfect, but in addition they are adjustable. Through a series of large cement chambers way up top and out of sight, the amount of reverb can be controlled much like in a recording studio. There is also a large acoustic “cloud” over the floor seats that can also be moved to control reflections. Since there is about 5 seconds of reverb on this recording, I think it’s safe to say the chambers were fully open.
This collection may be a bit less bombastic and perhaps a bit more musical and much jmore adventurous than “P&P”. The first selection is listed as “Festival Intrada” by Richard Strauss, but for the first minute you might think there was a misprint because it sounds much like his “Zarathustra” we all know from “2001 A Space Odyssey”. After all the blustery fanfares are finished, the piece softens to a stately anthem with several long crescendos punctuated by cymbal crashes, the theme repeated by trumpet solo and restated by the organ’s Trompette rank. Lots of delicious big brass choruses conclude.
I used to play trumpet before I had to give it up in college to concentrate on piano studies. Same with pipe organ, so I am predisposed to love anything that combines brass and pipes and Gabrieli is one of my favorite early composers because of his use as antiphony and brilliant brass pieces. Since one my professors gave it to me in 1972, one of my most cherished recordings is Gabrieli’s antiphonal music played by the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Symphony brass sections (Columbia MS7209). The second cut on Crown Imperial is Gabrieli’s Canzon Primi Toni which is not a pasta dish, but a wonderful interplay between the organ’s brass sections and the Dallas brass. Pure majesty.
Things get a bit more adventurous in the three Hindemith "Kammermusik" selections. Very staccato 12 tone music that has no melodies you’ll find yourself singing in the shower and can be rather dissonant. At 15 minutes, this is the longest section on the disk. I would have been happy to shorten that a bit.
The disk ends with “Niagara Falls” by Michael Daugherty which sounds a bit like Stravinsky meets Gershwin and The Phantom of the Opera. A lot of dissonance like the Hindemith but at least there is a suggestion of a tonal center and some melody. There’s even some jazz licks and syncopation here and there amidst the explosive timpani work. A sonic soundscape.
In between is Grainger's “Country Derry Air”. While it may sound like an Ode to Jessica Simpson’s butt in “Dukes of Hazard” (Country Derrière – get it?), it really is a rather schmaltzy arrangement of Londonderry Air or “Danny Boy” as it is better known. As it features very little organ or percussion, I’m baffled at its inclusion here. Perhaps Ms. Preston needed a break.
The tile track by Walton is interesting and sounds like it might have been a number from Lenny Bernstein’s “Candide”. Grandiose and stately, but not a demo piece. Not very challenging material for these great artists, either. You might hear this at a junior college band concert. And again, where’s the mighty Fisk?
Wagner’s “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” starts with a whisper and ends with a big bang with lots of interesting diversions in the long 9:30 crescendo.
As with all Reference Recordings, this one is as goods as it gets and another reason to own a player with HDCD.
TITLE: Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. II
LABEL: Hyperion Records CDA67605
If you are not familiar with this Canadian pianist, you should be. She is considered one of the foremost interpreters and performers of Bach ever.
However, her genius does not stop with Johann which is made very evident in this 2007 release of Beethoven's best sonatas. Angela was Gramophone's Artist of the Year in 2006 and Queen Elizabeth recently made her an Officer of the British Empire. She simply does not sound like anyone else and her technique, especially her tone and control of inner voicings is unmatched.
She brings a freshness to the old masters while maintaining a deep respect for traditional interpretations.
If you are a fan of classical piano, you MUST hear her. If you think Beethoven piano music is dry, academic and sleep inducing, give this a listen.
Hyperion's sonics are are exemplary and it helps that Angela plays the incredible Fazioli piano.
Donald Runnicles/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
An album of works by Britten, Davies, Elgar, MacMillan, and Turnage
The album opens and closes with Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March Nos. 1 and 4, among the most beloved and famous of all British compositions and reflective of Britain’s love for formal ceremonies and colorful ritual. With the other four works on this disc – Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes; Sir Peter Maxwell Davis’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise featuring bagpiper Scott Long; James MacMillan’s Britannia; and Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 – this recording presents a microcosm of the vigor of contemporary music emanating from Britain. Telarc's sound keeps getting better and better. Available in CD or SACD.
TITLE: WAGNER - THE RING/TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, SCENES AND ARIAS
ARTISTS: Antonio Pappano (Conductor), Covent G Orch. of the Royal Opera House (Orchestra), Placido Domingo , Natalie Dessay , Deborah Voigt , Violeta Urmana
LABEL: EMI B000VL9XII (2 CD)
Not being naturally drawn to either home listening of opera or Wagner over almost four decades collecting recordings, I finally arrived at an age where I wanted to dabble a bit more in Wagner's sound world, especially his operatic selections. I've owned a coupld two-CD sets of highlights from the Ring and similar highlights from Meistersinger, with mixed results. All the sets were good (Bohm's Philips Ring and Jochum's DG Meistersinger) but I couldn't stay involved. I could never sit through a complete Wagner opera even though I've played a handful at home and watched a complete PBS production of the Ring on television. I wanted to acquire some of Wagner's more famous selections, several of which are in this coupling from previously released material.
This EMI twofer from last year features Placido Domingo, Natalie Dessay, Deborah Voigt, Violeta Urmana, the Covent Garden Orchestra and conductor Antonio Pappano in love duets from Siegfried and Tristan as well as several scenes from Siegfried and Gotterdamerung. The love duets between Domingo and Voight were released previously on a CD of that name and received magnificently good reviews from Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine and Fanfare, all of which highlighted different parts of the production. When one loved the latter day heldentenor Domingo's work, another fell for the love duets (the Tristan selection from act 2 features Wagner's orchestral ending), and still another feted the orchestral playing and imaginative leadership from Pappano.
All parts of this production are worthwhile, the singing is generally excellent, Domingo sounds great even though past his prime, and the English players do their best imitation of Germans in the pit. It's remarkable what a collection this group of non-Germans has delivered. While the first CD covers love duets, the second highlights several of the more famous scenes from the Ring sans Die Walkure. I wasn't expecting such committed playing and singing from this international cast but there it is, right in my living room in front of me any time I want it.
If you, like me, eschew Wagner opera because of its length and inconsistency, try this set and see what you think. The Tristan scene is among the most romantic music ever penned and the Siegfriend scene isn't far behind. The second disk music is far more dramatic, encompassing Siegfried's travails and the dramatic finale of the Ring cycle. Thiis is a way to vest in Wagner's creations with spending all night with them, at a price that is modest by any standard. The sound is excellent on these 1999 & 2000 productions and, while there is no score included, the brief notes include an overview of the action. While you may not be able to read what's going on, the music is so demonstrative and resolutely performed you'll have no trouble getting it. A powerful set of Wagner scenes and arias, then, especially for those that may not be totally in love with same.
TITLE: HAYDN - THE CREATION
ARTISTS: Paul McCreesh (Conductor), Gabrieli Consort & Players, Sandrine Piau , Mark Padmore , Neal Davies
LABEL: ARCHIV #001086502
When Arkhiv delivered Paul McCreesh's dramatic new version of Haydn's oratorio "The Creation", some critics went overboard, declaring it the greatest reading ever of this evergreen music about the creation of the world, the skies, water, animals, mankind and the heavens. There are those that believe this new recording reinvigorates Haydn's score to such an extent as to make all the good versions from the past obselete.
I like this version but can't go that far, even though I have always enjoyed McCreesh's dramatic approach to choral music. He delivers scores more in keeping with stage or operatic drama than historic or Biblical drama, in my opinion. Using his Gabrielli (period) Players with overwhelming emphasis on brass and timpani in exciting moments, McCreesh may even have one-upped himself in the drama and excitement he generates in this recording.
I have no quibble with excitement but, in matters of taste and style, I wonder if McCreesh hasn't transcended the Classical nature of Franz Josef Haydn and positioned The Creation more as the first masterpiece of choral music in the Romantic era? It certainly sounds that way to me in Part 1, especially in the significant name choruses "Awake the harp" and "Achieved is the glorious work." Indeed, the way the brass and timpani blare in "harp" gave me pause the first time I listened to this. It's clear McCreesh sees this more as Romantic drama than as Haydn's peon to God and creation that closed the Classical 18th century.
Having previously declared Robert Shaw's recording of this music my preferred English version, I expected this newcomer to exceed the more conservative ways of the late, kapellmesiterish Shaw. I can't fully subscribe to that theory since McCreesh seems to mix metaphors stylistically about the respective eras. McCreesh eschews modern convenience by changing the vocal score, too. He says in his notes he tried to re-do the English version from the original German (the original English version is lost) to undo some of the translation curiosities that has been picked at over the years incluidng that flexible tiger, with verdue clad, and the rosy mantle. He left all those intact but went on to fix others, he said.
"In addition...(we)...have rewritten the recitatives as Haydn might have done had he been more familiar with the English language," McCreesh says in his notes. "Although all these changes are inevitably subjective, I believe this new version better serves both the communication of the libretto's ldeas and Haydn's extraordinary score."
So there you have it -- McCreesh and his associates have decided to improve upon Haydn. That is the essential nature of this version. I can't say I am completely sold on these improvements or all musical affectations included here, some of which seem to transcend the score and retranslate the music. Operatic solo singing, sometimes with very wide and uncontrollable vibrato, dominates Part 1. In addition, the soloists engage in what I think questionable trilling and octaves on appogiaturas in Part 1 that I found consistently distressing. These ornaments are inappropriate, in my opinion, and do not improve the music in any way.
There are also issues with at least one performer. In the critical role of Gabriel, McCreesh and Arkhiv selected Sandrine Piau, a Frenchwoman that has recorded a lot of period Bach with Ton Koopman. While she has a magnificent professional instument and a pleasing overall tone, Piau's elocution of the English text is, in a word, abysmal. Without reading the notes -- and, remember, your Schirmer score isn't always going to help you in this production -- Piau could just as easily have been singing about the man in the moon rather than that darkness that was going away in her opening aria, for I couldn't understand a word she was saying. Sad to say, this is a problem throughout the production, even when using headphones.
The two men in critical leading roles -- English-speaking Mark Padmore as Uriel and Neal Davies as Raphael -- have no such problems. Davies, in fact, is grand throughout with a stirring, powerful bass voice and generous understanding of what Haydn was trying to say. When I performed in the chorus of "The Creation" in 1993, our bass soloist left the stage and walked over to some children in the front row of the church where we were performing when he sang about the flexible tiger, cattle in herds, and scattered flocks in recitative No. 21. While Davies apparently sang to nothing more than a microphone, I was reminded of this moment when I heard that recitaitive and its following aria.
Padmore is equally impressive and a quick listen to aria 24, "In native worth and honor clad," will easily demonstrate his wondrous tenor. The Adam & Eve soloists -- baritone Peter Harvey and soprano Miah Persson -- are quite good, although their timing is not exact in their opening duet. On balance, however, like the two men, they consistently distinguish themselves during their time in the sun. If only the weak link work of Gabirel could have been improved, this could indeed have been a recording for the ages in terms of singing.
As it is, this is quite a good performance, full of high spirits, in quite wonderful and clear sound, with fruity period timpani, brass and woodwinds more than counterbalancing the slightly off-putting string sound, all up to the demands of Paul McCreesh's dramatic vision. When called on, the Chetham's Chamber Choir and Gabrielli Consort are magnificent, delivering the goods with punch and style.
Adequate notes, a complete vocal score in three languages, and McCreesh's own notes fill a 48-page booklet. I'm probably going to like this more the more I listen to it, but, for today, my cited reservations keep this from being a five star recording. It's certainly a good one, however, and anyone wanting to know the authenitc direction this music is probalby going to take in the new century should investigate this issue at once.
TITLE: Ravel: Bolero; Concerto pour la main gauche; Rapsodie espagnole; Pavane; La Valse
ARTISTS: Jos van Immerseel (Conductor), Claire Chevallier (Performer)
LABEL: ZIG ZAG/HARMONIA MUNDI B000GLKRR4
After making the rounds in Europe for two years, this album -- which was selected as CD of the year by one English magazine in 2006 -- arrives in the U.S.A.
Jos von Immerseel and his band, Anima Eterna, have joined the league of heavyweights in period performance practice, having performed and recorded all the Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos, Schubert & Haydn symphonies and having dabbled in romantic repertoire such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, the Schubert symphonies, Lizst and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. They don't have the discography of Gardiner or Norrington but have closed the gap on these and other period practitioners when they released their inclusive set of Beethoven symphonies earlier this year.
This recording, dedicated to Ravel's popular orchestral music and his oddball piano concerto for a one-handed player, is the first known recording of Ravel using period instruments. Some people went ga-ga over this release and BBC Music Magazine cited it as its "Record of the year" for 2006.
It's not hard to understand why someone would be swept away with these goings on. Right from the opening notes of "Bolero", Immerseel lets us know we are in for something different. He holds down the relative volume most of the way through and allows every period player his or her moment in the sun. This is probably the first time I could clearly understand the nature of every instrument in the ascending line, including the saxophone.
Elsewhere, the musical experience is similar although I found Immerseel's approach more clinically objective than in his work with Mozart and Tchaikovsky. He often displays a distance from the score's emotional core I found unattractice, particularly in "Bolero" and "Rhapsodie Espanol". He seems more directly involved in "La Valse" which I believe is the best thing on the CD. He and Clare Chevallier collaborate winningly on the left-handed piano concerto with Chevallier playing a period instrument. They bring out its Shostakovian central movement well.
This is probably a more important release historically than musically, I'd say. Its release is important since it states the music, perhaps for the first time, in a langauge Ravel may have known in his day. The sound is outstanding and does much to further clarify Immerseel's already lucid and penetrating direction.
Emotionally, however, I have heard far better Ravel from many sources including arch-traditionalists. This CD does nothing to diminish the enjoyment I continue to receive from Ormandy's concert of most of these pieces, which can still be located on a Sony CD in America and elsewhere via Amazon search. It probably won't replace any of your favorites, either, but it will re-state them in a way you may not have heard.