SONY's latest batch of box sets brings some interesting finds. This one is a useful collection of de Larrocha's Mozart Concerto sessions with Colin Davis. They are enjoyable and musical, as one would expect from these two. But with such enormous competition, in the end, they are not really distinctive. I would probably place the blame at the hands of the conductor rather than the pianist.
Some comments now about the sound. Overall, I found it to be pleasant in a laid back way, a little too dark for Mozart, and the piano sounds a bit boxy - as if the lid is closed. SONY no longer displays the ubiquitous 24-bit logo on these newest box sets. And indeed, comparing Concertos #21 and 23 to a previous reissue on RCA's 2002 "Sound Dimension" series, in which 24/96 remastering was used, the recorded sound in this box is definitely - and obviously - different. These are presumably exact duplicates of the original release, with no remastering techniques applied. In this instance, there are pros and cons to each. The 24-bit Sound Dimension CD is more open, brighter and transferred at a higher volume level. But it's also rather strident on violin tone, and some unnatural highlighting in orchestral detail is more obvious. In contrast, the sound in this new box is mellower, smoother, warmer and not quite as lively. So depending on your stereo system, it could be beneficial - or not. (I actually find many in that Sound Dimension series to be strident and harsh.) Comparing Disc 6 (works for Two Pianos, with Andre Previn, which is the best of the bunch included here), with the original release, they are identical - further confirming no remastering has been applied.
All in all, this is a nice set for de Larrocha fans, and/or if you like your Mozart very traditional, warmly Romantic and mellow, rather than incisive. To my ear, it's very much Colin Davis's Mozart.
I stumbled upon this CD quite by accident. I love Kristof Barati's playing and this release instantly caught my eye.
Setting aside the rather odd cover and distinctly second-rate origins (Saphir productions?), this is a disheartening - and wildly overpriced - release. It is bare-bones in the extreme. The disc is an on-demand CD-R, there is no printed booklet, just an empty paper insert with a track listing of sorts - and even that is wrong. The front cover at least gets the composers right. The track listing does not. It ascribes the Ravel selections to Francoise Choveaux for some very odd reason. But rest assured it is indeed the Ravel Sonata #2 in G. The release date, according to Amazon, is 2011 - but Saphir productions doesn't bother with providing any recording/performance dates or location details.
But, let's back up a step. Shockingly, the CD arrived in a jewel case which had been hermetically sealed, fused shut. Literally. I had to break it apart with a hammer and chisel. Literally. I have collected over 8,000 CDs and never, ever have I encountered such a thing. Once I managed to get the product out (not without tearing the paper insert and cutting up my fingers, by the way), mercifully the CD-R plays just fine.
At this point, I wasn't expecting much from the recording itself (and actually expected it to not play at all). But much to my surprise, the playing and sound are sensational! The Ravel alone is worth all the trouble. It is a fabulous performance, and is actually better than Barati's remake of it, with a different pianist, for Brilliant Classics (on a CD entitled French Violin Sonatas). This reading has all the characteristics I love in Barati's playing. He displays the effortless ease of Heifetz, with the fabulous technique and un-fussy musicianship of Szeryng, along with the richly singing lines of Perlman. He really is an amazing player, and he puts his heart and soul into this Ravel. It is more spontaneous, energetic, musically involving and better recorded than the aforementioned Brilliant remake.
The Bartok Sonata for solo violin also comes off well, perfectly executed, with just the right amount of Bartokian spikiness and musical insight.
The final work, for solo piano, was one I initially thought was rather out of place here. But in the end, I enjoyed it immensely. I am familiar with several orchestral works by English composer York Bowen (all on Chandos), but this Piano Sonata was new to me. And what an immensely imaginative and engaging work it is, brilliantly played here by pianist Severin Von Eckardstein.
Best of all, even in the sometimes unreliable CD-R format, the recorded sound throughout is excellent. The instrumentalists are naturally placed within a warm acoustic, it is clean and clear, and showcases Barati's rich, gorgeous, wooden sound. It also captures a realistic and natural piano sound, something which most major labels inexplicably have consistent trouble accomplishing.
In sum, if Amazon would cut the price of this release in half, and ensure it is enclosed in a normal jewel case that one can actually get into, this disc would be very highly recommended without reservation. As it stands, though, it is astonishingly overpriced, given its mediocre production values. But anyone who is a fan of Kristof Barati, as am I, do not miss it. The Ravel, in particular, is absolutely thrilling.
This is an intriguing set. First, I was not familiar with the Miro Quartet. And, second, I was a bit confused that I wasn't seeing the SACD logo on this box set from Pentatone - the label which specializes in SACD. But I took a chance on this attractive set of complete Beethoven Quartets and have been pleasantly surprised. To say I highly recommend it without reservation is an understatement. But I'd also like to clarify what Pentatone is offering here.
These are not original Pentatone recordings, nor are they SACD multi-channel hybrid. They are, to the best of my knowledge, the first CD-only releases on the Pentatone label. They were recorded over many years, dating from as early as 2004 and as late as 2019, and at various locations. Most were originally released on Miro Quartet's own label (and at times on other small, independent labels here and there). There is no mention that Pentatone has performed any remastering. Thus they appear to be straight reissues.
That being said, however, one would hardly know they are not newly recorded Pentatone SACDs. They sound uniformly excellent - so good in fact, that many times while listening, I checked the indicator light on my SACD player to confirm they were indeed CD rather than SACD. And the playing is simply marvelous. I will not go into great detail about these performances, other than to say the Miro Quartet plays Beethoven exactly as I like it - with generally moving tempos (usually on the quick side, often on the very quick side), crisp articulation, and superb expressiveness without overly emoting.
And there is something else which is exceptional here: the variety of the Miro's playing is endlessly fascinating and musically interesting. Specifically, their ability to vary their levels and intensity of vibrato, from the barest hint, to full-on passion. Likewise, their tonal color varies accordingly, as the music demands. Astonishingly, this always comes as a unified, interpretive execution of the group as a whole.
And finally, there is a sweetness to the sound of this group's playing (especially from the 1st violin) which is a constant joy to listen to. And the cellist's playing is superbly characterful without ever becoming gruff, which is heard far too often in this music. The performances are filled with a boundless sense of joy, spontaneity and discovery.
Given that Pentatone felt these recordings were worthy of reissuing on their own label, they must be special. And special they are. Do not hesitate to acquire this wonderful set. It has provided me hours and hours of pure pleasure, with nary a complaint. I will seek out every recording I can find of this fabulous quartet.
At first, I was thoroughly disappointed with this box set. How could SONY give us just 4 symphonies and the Cello Concerto and nothing else? Where's the ubiquitous, much desired Festive Overture? Where are the Ballet Suites that came as couplings with the individual CD releases in the Essential Classics series? Well, much to my surprise, I discovered that those couplings were all conducted by Kostelanetz, not Ormandy. Apparently Ormandy didn't record more Shostakovich than this for CBS/Columbia. And I can't find that he EVER recorded Festive Overture!
Once these quibbles have been dismissed, what remains is an impressive 3-disc set. Ormandy's First Symphony remains unsurpassed. And the Cello Concerto, with Rostropovich, was its World Premier Recording (1960). Both are legendary, and sound exceptionally good for their vintage. Symphonies 5 & 10 are classic Ormandy, and are thus self-recommending. The 4th was recorded just 2 years after its premier in Moscow and brings with it immense authenticity and authority.
Still, SONY surely could have done better by including Ormandy's RCA recordings of the later symphonies, along with his RCA remake of the 5th - since SONY possess both the CBS and RCA catalogs and often commingles them in other compilations. But alas, SONY doesn't always give us everything we want!
Nor does SONY find the need to provide fresh remasterings any more. The 24-bit logo has vanished from all of these new box sets and they appear to be exact reissues of previous releases. Still, it is invaluable to have them available again, conveniently assembled in these handsome box sets. And at the price, I suppose we shouldn't complain. Too much.
12 CDs of Charles Gerhardt conducting Film Scores! What more could anyone want? Well...there is one real important thing. (Please see below.)
These 1970s Quadraphonic recordings were released on CD by RCA Victor in the late 80s. They were remastered in "Dolby Surround" and downmixed to 2-channel for CD. And they sounded glorious (for the time). Full-bodied and boisterous, in full technicolor - just what this music needed. But they weren't the cleanest - or clearest. And the chorus, when utilized, tended to be a bit muddied in the mix.
Then in 2011, SONY reissued all 12 of them, newly remastered without the "Dolby surround" manipulation. And it was a revelation. But not always in a good way. Sure enough, they are now clearer, more detailed and dynamic. And the chorus is more forward and defined. But everything is also brighter, thinner and less warm than before. It simply lacks some of the richness this music needs. And the inherent distortion on some of the climaxes is now even more obvious and troublesome.
So, depending on your home stereo system, many folks preferred the earlier CDs over the latter. Even SONY admitted their remastering was not entirely satisfactory.
Now at long last, SONY has gathered them all together in this budget box set. But here's the rub - and what's missing from this reissue - SONY no longer displays the ubiquitous '24-bit' remastering logo on any of these new releases. Nor is there any mention of ANY remastering whatsoever - simply a "compilation" date. What a great disappointment! And what a missed opportunity to do this right. Therefore I can't see any reason to buy these a THIRD time, except to save room on the shelf by replacing the 12 individual 2011 CDs.
I have always hoped these recordings would one day receive a new lease on life with improved sound. Similarly, I've also wished for a newly remastered collection of classic Arthur Fiedler/Boston Pops material. But, alas, I may never see it. If SONY is no longer going to make any attempt to remaster these recordings, there really is no point, other than the luxury of having them all in a convenient box.
However, for those with surround playback capabilities, we are can turn to the wonderful Dutton/Vocalion label, which has focused its efforts on releasing this series of Classic Film Scores, newly remastered, on SACD. As these were originally recorded in Quadraphonic 4-channel, this would seem the most logical solution in allowing these recordings to be heard in their original, intended format, and will most likely provide the most natural sound. I have acquired only the first one to be released: Lost Horizon (2018). I listen in 2-channel SACD, as I do not have surround sound capabilities. Unfortunately, I found that even on SACD, the stereo layer was not a significant improvement over the 2011 SONY CD remaster. I suspect whatever process is used to downmix 4 channels to 2 may be proving difficult, as I hear similar results from both SONY and Dutton. But for those wanting to explore further, Dutton has released 5 titles in the series to date. They can be imported directly from Dutton (via Amazon), or for better prices, from Presto Classical online.
I always welcome each new batch of these SONY budget box sets with anticipation. There are often many exciting reissues of long out-of-print recordings being rediscovered, along with a head-scratcher or two. This newest batch is no exception. But I think SONY is learning. This latest release of 10 appears to offer logical, all-inclusive and comprehensive collections with every one.
And fortunately, SONY pulled out all the stops with this Beethoven set from Michael Tilson Thomas. I'd like to focus on what is included here. We get all 9 symphonies Tilson Thomas recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra for CBS in the early 80s, right at the dawn of the digital era. These were reissued once that I know of, in CBS's "DDD Extended Play" series, not long before SONY acquired the entire catalog. Most have been out of print for decades. So they make a welcome reappearance here. There were no overtures included on those early reissues, only the 12 Contradances. However, SONY has found Egmont Overture, from these same forces, to include in this new box set.
I'll not go into details about the performances, which should be self-recommending, other than to emphasize the obvious - these are played by a chamber orchestra. They are therefore small-scaled and more intimate than MTT's later, big-band recordings with the San Francisco Symphony. It's fascinating to compare the two sets.
And I'm happy to report that someone at SONY had the brilliant foresight to also include in this box MTT's album of Beethoven "Late Choral Works", recorded in 1975 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Singers. Each of these 13 selections has been spread out and added as fillers to each disc of symphonies.
SONY no longer labels these sets as having been remastered in their ubiquitous "24-bit" process, which may or may not be a good thing. I've experienced mixed results with this remastering technique as implemented by SONY. I therefore have to assume these current sets have not been remastered at all. However, after sampling the analog recording of King Stephen selections, I can say they are a bit smoother than before, which is a good thing - they were not the best recordings to begin with. For those interested in surround sound, Dutton has just released this original Quadraphonic "Late Choral Works" album on a 2-SACD set of MTT miscellany (which also includes his Cleveland Carmina Burana and some Gershwin), which improves the sound even further.
Colin Davis isn't bad in Mozart. He's just not notable or in any way memorable. This is surprising, given how wonderful his recordings of the later Haydn symphonies are with the Concertgebouw (once offered on two Philips Duos). In these early 1960s Mozart recordings (Symphonies #25, 29, 32, 39 & 40), we hear run-of-the-mill, uneventful and imminently routine readings, with the LSO on autopilot. The original Philips recording quality, which is surprisingly sub-par, doesn't help. I don't know if this remastering is to fault, or inherent in the original tapes, but the sound is especially poor in the later (1965) readings - gray, airless, 2-dimensional and rather thick and grainy in the lower strings. The sound is slightly better in the earlier (1962) sessions, but more diffuse and lacking presence and color.
Curiously, I heard similar results in Davis's companion Eloquence release (2006) of Symphonies #28, 33, 36 & 38, made with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1962, for L'Oiseau-Lyre. Those readings exhibit the same lack of individuality, combined with almost a ponderousness, and equally poor recorded sound - which is odd, given a different orchestra and a different label. The recording venue is not listed, but presumably a different hall as well.
Back to the current release, some redeeming merit might have been attained with the two flute concertos on disc one. But, unfortunately, the choice of flutist couldn't have been worse. Hubert Barwahser (whom I've never heard of before, but discover he was at one time the principal flute of the Concertgebouw Orchestra) produces - without doubt - the worst flute tone I've ever encountered in a major label release. It is shockingly unfocused and breathy, lacking breath support, and completely devoid of sparkle. I say without any sarcasm at all, this sounds like a junior-high-school flautist struggling to produce a tone on an old beginner Bundy. His low Ds in the G major, for example, are nearly inaudible, they are so poorly produced - effused with unfocused breathiness. And throughout, there is not a whit of expression, joy or any life whatsoever in his playing. Why Colin Davis decided this was the soloist of choice is beyond all comprehension. (Surely the principal flutist of the LSO was readily at hand?) Tempos are fine, in an old-fashioned way, and the entire affair, including the recorded sound, is mediocre.
I have encountered several poor releases in recent months from Eloquence. I have come to the conclusion that their well of resources has run dry. And this one is simply abysmal.
Listening to this CD, I was transported back to the days when record players had two speeds. You used the fast speed for your little 45s, and the slow speed for your big LPs. And sometimes you'd forget to change the speed back, and you'd accidentally play a 33-1/3 record at the 45rpm speed. You'd laugh at your forgetfulness and cringe at how it was twice-too-fast and sounded all thin and bright! Well, that's exactly what I thought of when I listened to this new Chandos CD. (No SACD by the way; just good old fashioned CD).
Listening to the 5th Concerto first, the first thing I noticed was the funny sound. This really reminded me of the 1980s Chandos characteristic house sound - you remember it, right? - shallow, echoey, tubby, lacking warmth and fullness, and with tinkley piano tone. (I always thought of it as "bath-tubby".) And by the time I got to the 3rd movement, the tempo is so absurdly, ridiculously fast, I simply laughed out loud at how comedic it sounded. It really sounds like playing an LP at the wrong (fast) speed.
And what an engineering blunder that the central movement of this concerto is recorded at a higher volume level than all the rest. I had to turn the volume down a couple notches here and then back up again for the finale.
The 3rd Concerto fares slightly better regarding tempos, although the 3rd movement (marked Allegro non troppo, by the way) is still too fast. But the odd recorded sound persisted all through.
Not for a moment am I "impressed" with Lortie's ability to play this music this fast (although that alone is remarkable). I was actually amazed that Gardner could keep up with him. And at first I wanted to blame Gardner for the absurd speeds, as he is often guilty of this very thing. But no, Lortie establishes and sustains these tempos and just pedals his way through it. Musical values are tossed aside in the scramble and it's a race to the finish line. And it sounds absolutely looney tunes.
Surely I'm being too hard on this CD, right? So I pulled from my shelves the glorious new recording of these same concertos by Alexandre Kantorow for BIS. I was instantly rewarded with a much more natural, spacious, lovely-sounding recording of a piano concerto. I also was reminded what sensible, MUSICAL tempo decisions can bring. Saint-Saens's musical genius was restored and it all makes sense. Going back to the Chandos and all I can say is: Just because you can play it that fast, doesn't necessarily mean you should.
This is the second Chandos CD in a row I've been disappointed with (the other being Eric Coates Orchestral Works Vol 1, John Wilson conducting). A quick check revealed both discs utilize the same orchestra - the BBC Philharmonic. Chandos seems to be having some difficulty recording this orchestra in its preferred venue. I hope they will reassess their recording techniques here. We had our fill of the 1980s Chandos sound and do not want it back. Ever.
After recently being so impressed and musically enriched listening to Julian Bliss play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (signum records, 2014), I decided it might be informative to hear his teacher, Sabine Meyer, play it. I found on my shelves her 1998 live recording with Abbado in an EMI box set. My notation of a previous hearing years ago stated merely "Excellent". I was intrigued to obtain and listen to her earlier recording of it with Hans Vonk, also on EMI - this one being a studio recording from 1990. (She plays the basset-clarinet in both.)
Well, I hear the same unmistakable singing quality I admire so much in Bliss's recording. I also hear the same purity and evenness of tone throughout every register. I also hear the same crispness of articulation. And I hear the same sheer musicianship playing in the lowest register, without a hint of the honking I keep hearing in too many other recordings of this piece. So it is with delight I discover what an astute student Julian Bliss is and what a master his teacher is. In both I hear clarinet playing of the very highest caliber.
But there is more here. Ms. Meyer brings something incredibly special to this music that Mr. Bliss doesn't quite match in his 2014 live recording. And that is an irrepressible, irresistible, effervescent sense of JOY. Joy is the essential ingredient which, to me, positively defines the very best performances of any Haydn or Mozart performance - from solo piano, to chamber music, to full symphonies. The sense of joy must burst forth from the very foundation of the music-making. And Sabine Meyer plays just this way. Joy originates from the very essence of her being - as if she can hardly contain it while playing this music. It is made all the more evident with every minute ornamentation and small filigree she applies here and there. Fortunately, this quality is matched superbly by Hans Vonk (an underrated conductor if ever there was one) and his Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra.
Incredibly, even the Adagio displays this sense of joy, via the most sublime, simple, natural outpouring of musical expression - very much like what I hear in Julian Bliss's recording. And what makes it work so superbly is the free-flowing, moving tempo. Not for a moment does it drag or bog down with too much emoting, as is so often the case.
It is rare that I hear a recording of an over-played piece which moves me as much as this one did. It is rarer still that I can only describe the experience as life-affirming, and so musically-enriching that I can listen to nothing else for quite some time. And EMI's recording, in this 1998 remastering, is excellent, as is the companion Sinfonia concertante in E flat which follows the concerto on this disc.
I recommend this recording with the utmost enthusiasm. I regret having not heard it before now. One day soon, it will be most interesting to listen again to her later recording with Abbado to see how it compares. I don't remember it moving me as this earlier one did, but she just might surprise me!
Galway protege, Raffaele Trevisani, plays beautiful Mozart in the biggest gymnasium Delos could find.
Ok...it's not really recorded in a gymnasium. It just sounds that way (more on this below). More importantly, this is lovely Mozart from beginning to end. It's rather old-fashioned, in a warm, Romantic way, with moderate tempos. But smiling and lively too. And here's the deal...if you think Raffaele Trevisani sounds JUST like James Galway, you're right. He does. Trevisani was a student of Galway's. And I've heard it said (and have witnessed it firsthand a few times myself back in the day) that any flutist who spends time with Galway (even for just a one-off master class), comes away with his distinctive tone. I sure wish they'd share the secret!
There is a problem here, though. And it's not that Trevisani sounds just like Galway. In my book, that's actually a positive. And it's what drew me to this particular flutist in a world where one flutist tends to sound pretty much like every other. No, the problem here is the outrageously over-reverberant acoustic. Delos for some reason has chosen the biggest, swampiest, churchiest church to record this intimate music, and then did nothing to mitigate the reverberation. Even on a very highly detailed stereo system such as mine, the acoustic reverberation swamps the music-making in a very distracting way. And it's a real pity, because the playing has all the ingredients to be charming and smiling. This would be a glorious venue for recording an a cappella choral group in some ethereal, 20th Century repertoire. But for lively Mozart chamber music - not so much. On the plus side, the flute is spotlit in front of the strings, so that radiant Galway-esque tone shines through. But it leaves the string trio wallowing in the reverb. This so easily could/should have corrected by the recording engineer with a simple adjustment of the microphones.
Returning to my favorite recording of these glorious quartets - from Oxalys on the Fuga Libera label - I'm rewarded instantly with a breath of fresh air. It's fresher, lighter, airier, much clearer, and positively bubbles with charm, energy and life-affirming joy.
I really like this flutist and have ordered his discs of Mozart and Mercadante concertos. I'm currently listening to his Delos disc, "New Century Flute Concertos", which contains some interesting music (and one masterpiece). It's also well recorded. He is a very musical, insightful player and I absolutely love his sound. Compared to Galway, Trevisani's sound isn't quite as thick, his vibrato is not quite as wide and heavy, and mercifully he does not honk the low notes like his teacher loves to do. So I actually prefer his sound to Galway - at least in Mozart. But I sure hope he has better recording engineers in other discs. Delos is a label we don't see much of any more. But sadly they really made a mess of this one from 2014.