I loved the Quartetto di Cremona's previous Italian-themed CD, "Italian Journey", which appeared in 2012 on a most unusual label, Klanglogo - a "shared brand" of Trust Your Ears (as it's described on the back cover). That disc treated us to Respighi's rare Quartet, along with music of Puccini and Boccherini, plus the absolutely best ever reading of Verdi's Quartet. The sound is fabulous, although a bit on the robust side of reality, but giving the group enormous presence and dramatic impact, perfect for the music.
Their follow-up disc, "Italian Postcards", comes this time from a more established label, Avie. And it's a bit of a disappointment, I'm afraid. The Wolf Serenade starts us off in familiar territory, and is nicely played and recorded, if ultimately not not terribly special. Next is an odd choice: Mozart's very first quartet, the "Lodi". Some parts of this quartet were apparently composed while the young Mozart was visiting his father in Milan. OK, so that's the connection with our Italian theme. The players adopt a quasi-period playing style here, with minimal vibrato and a thinner tonality. That's all fine and good for Mozart in theory, but it sounds a bit dour coming immediately after the sweetly singing, richly colorful, Romantic Wolf. Therefore I found this work terribly out of place. Perhaps if it had come first, it might have been more acceptable.
The highlight of the program is most certainly Borenstein's Cieli d'Italia, which was commissioned by this quartet and this is its world-premier recording. Mr. Borenstein exhibits a unique music voice, tonal, yet undeniably contemporary. I like how he begins to establish a theme, with a defined time signature, but then abruptly takes us elsewhere. "Stay with me, here", the composer seems to say, and this thought came to mind a number of times. I stayed with him, and found it to be always interesting, intriguing and enjoyable. It certainly receives a compelling performance here, with absolutely glorious playing and great sound.
So all in all, fairly good thus far. But then comes the Tchaikovsky Sextet, Souvenir de Florence. Only 2 players are added to the quartet, but for some reason the recording engineers decided to make the group of 6 sound massive, like the entire Philadelphia Orchestra's full string section. Suddenly without warning, the group is literally thrust out into the room, well in front of the speakers, with thick, sawing long-bows employed (sounding quite aggressive), and an increase in acoustic size and reverberation. After the more sparsely scored Borenstein, this instantly sounds vulgar. I can't fathom what anyone involved with this project was thinking, or could possibly be going for. I actually could listen to only a few brief sections of it before I could take no more and turned it off.
Taken as a whole, this new disc is a great disappointment. While it's worth keeping for the Borenstein alone, the rest is rather routine and/or downright off-putting. Fortunately, we can continue to enjoy their first Journey in the series; that disc is a knockout.
I've not been a fan of Trevor Pinnock's. I'm not fond of, or sold on, "period performances", particularly those which produce thin, wiry, gratingly unpleasant violin screeching, and lifeless wind tone. Not that Trevor Pinnock is the biggest offender in this regard, but his leanings toward this playing style have never appealed to me.
I took a chance on this new one from Linn, though, for several reasons. This is an SACD. And it's from Linn, from which I have enjoyed excellent recorded sound in the past. And finally, the Royal Academy of Music isn't a period specialist group, and would almost certainly deliver a freshness and spontaneity not always heard.
This Linn delivers on all counts!
Concentrating on the main offering here, Mozart's Gran Partita, I'm thrilled to report the SACD sound is superlative. Clear, clean, warm, articulate and with beautiful tonality.
Second, the Academy does indeed play with a joy of new discovery. What's more, the playing is absolutely as accomplished and professional as you'll ever hear in this work. Two notables among these musicians: 1) the lovely, rounded tone of the basset horns. With some players, bassets can sound rather gray and bleak. And honky. Not so here; they sound like lower-pitched clarinets, with beautiful, rich, melodious tone. And 2) this contrabassoon is never thick or woolly. It is splendidly focused like a bassoon, only lower, and is blended perfectly with the rest of the group. This is not often the case, actually. And many times a bass viol is utilized instead. But I always prefer the contra bassoon, if it's played and recorded as expertly as it is here.
Third, Trevor Pinnock's leadership is most impressive. The sense of joy he draws from these players is awe-inspiring. And his chosen tempos are spectacular! One is reminded in the first movement, after the slow introduction, the tempo indication is Allegro molto. The molto is usually missing. But molto it is here! Yet it's never breathless, or fast just to be fast. It makes musical sense. And these players accommodate the tempo with thrilling effortlessness. The Adagio, too, is more moving than usual, and again, makes so much musical sense one can't imagine why it's so often played slower than this. The Allegretto 4th movement, and the Theme and Variations 6th movement are, again, more forward-moving than usual, yet with such musical phrasing and natural, flowing expression, they make perfect sense. Mr. Pinnock really understands this piece and the relationship of tempos of each movement. And it goes without saying, the finale is most certainly molto Allegro here, and as exhilarating as ever.
Only one other recent recording comes to mind as being in the same league as this one: the 2017 recording from the LSO Wind Ensemble on the LSO Live label. This is also an SACD, with warm, beautiful sound. And it features playing of the utmost refinement, unified ensemble, and joyful, alert tempos. They use a bass viol rather than a contrabassoon, which is the only regret I have with it.
This new one from Linn, though, has another potential advantage over the LSO Live: a coupling. Here we get Haydn's Notturno #8 in G Major. Many of the characteristics regarding tempo and freshness noted above apply here. However, one is immediately confronted with the dreaded thin, lifeless string tone, sans vibrato. This was not an issue in the Mozart, of course, as that piece is for winds only. But the Haydn calls for 6 string players along with a handful of winds. However, once the ear adjusts, and the winds take a more prominent roll, the music reigns supreme. And Linn's beautiful recorded sound helps to minimize the thin string tone. I was not familiar with this piece, and I enjoyed it very much, despite the unpleasant violin sound.
All in all, this release is recommended most enthusiastically. It's absolutely one of the most uplifting and exciting performances of the Gran Partita you're likely to hear. And the recorded sound doesn't get any better than this.
This disc was sent to me (along with a few other titles from Prospero) by the record label producer, Martin Korn, and it instantly rose to the top of the queue. I love Poulenc chamber music. And if Jean Francaix's music is slightly less well-known, I am warming to it with every encounter. His Trio for flute, cello and piano, which opens this program, is a lovely piece, brought magnificently to life in this performance of it. The wonderful Divertimento for flute and piano, which comes later, is even finer. In between these, comes two short pieces for cello and piano, and Poulenc's Flute Sonata. The programs concludes with Poulenc's Cello Sonata.
Most of this music should be fairly well known to most, and I can be brief regarding the performances here. They are gloriously done, both in performance and recorded sound. But two factors are worth noting in more detail.
First is the absolutely wonderful playing of flutist Sarah Rumer. She is the principal flutist of the Suisse Romande Orchestra. This is my first encounter with her and she instantly won me over. As a flutist (well, former flutist), I am often critical of recorded flute music. But not so here. I have nothing but the highest praise. It's not just her stylistically musical interpretations, it's also her sound, and, especially, her articulation. (And that's not just a flippant remark. I always found articulation to be somewhat of a challenge, depending on the music.) Ms. Rumer possess a radiant, glowing, perfectly focused, round, positively golden sound. No, not like Galway's (as I typed the word golden, his 1970's album, "Man With the Golden Flute" suddenly came to mind; Bleh!). This sound is uniquely hers - instantly recognizable in the very best way. But it's her articulation which stays with me. It's difficult to describe in words - it's focused and articulate, yet cushioned on air. So it's precise, but never hard. And it's the opposite of mushy, or breathy. At the same time, it's the body of tone behind the articulation which makes it special. There is some seriously good breath support going on here. And I simply cannot stop listening to her playing.
As a matter of fact, I had to force myself to continue on with the Cello Sonata! If I can't come up with as many superlatives for it, I can say without hesitation I enjoyed it as much here as ever before. The playing of cellist Joel Marosi and pianist Ulrich Koella is first-rate in every way - always musical and technically beyond reproach.
The second most notable characteristic of this CD is the recorded sound. It is immediate, without being forward. It is colorful, full-bodied and rich, without being muddy or thick. The acoustic is marvelously captured, clear and focused with the perfect amount of hall ambience, without ever clouding or crowding the musicians. As a matter of fact, it's so realistic, it sounds like the players are literally in the room with me. It's almost spooky in its realism.
I will summarize by saying this. You will rarely hear this level of musicianship or recorded sound from the major labels. It's just that simple. The days of dominance from the likes of Decca, EMI (sadly Warner now, what a joke), DG, and the rest, are long over. In fact, I rarely purchase any new titles on those labels. For quality Classical music, I turn to the small independent labels which still care about it all. It is refreshing to be rid of star-power marketing and instead, see and hear a dedication to what really matters - the music. And excellent recorded sound. This title from Prospero/Martin Korn Music Productions (a coproduction with Radio Television Suisse Espace 2) is a perfect example. The entire production is outstanding in every way: the music, the sound, and the professional, extremely attractive and informative booklet.
After Wilson's slightly disappointing, surprisingly routine, Respighi Roman Trilogy late last year, I was worried this one would be a bit too sleepy, given the repertoire. Happily, I was wrong. This 4th offering from the team of Wilson/Sinfonia of London/Chandos SACD is fully up to the high standards it set with their first outing, the Korngold Symphony (which is simply magnificent - and their second disc, "Escales", is not far behind it).
Wilson has chosen four splendid works for this collection of music for string orchestra, from the very familiar Berkeley Serenade, to the less familiar Bliss Music for Strings. And Wilson's characteristically straight-forward approach, simply allowing the music to speak for itself, pays huge dividends in this music (especially the Britten). And this orchestra plays their hearts out for him. I get the feeling over and over that Wilson doesn't have to do much, other than keeping them all together; this music pretty much plays itself with such a fabulous orchestra at play. They sound as if they love every minute of these recording sessions, every note of these scores, and thus every phrase is infused with inspired musical involvement and passion often missing on record. And I'm sure it helps that this isn't the run-of-the-mill, standard repertoire.
And bravo to Chandos. The slightly over-ripe mid-range heard in their Respighi disc has been cleaned up here. This is fresher, airier, open and alive. The lush string sound is imbued with color, air and spaciousness. It's not unnaturally rich; it's utterly natural and realistic. It transports the listener to the hall in which it was recorded (Church of S. Augustine, Kilburn, London), the lovely acoustic captured superbly. I listened to the stereo SACD layer. I can imagine it being even better in surround sound, for those who have that capability.
This type of repertoire is often recorded by a chamber orchestra, with reduced numbers of strings. It's especially rewarding to hear a full-sized string section in full song. And it's SACD, which cannot be taken for granted anymore - not from this label, or others, such as Pentatone. This disc is a triumph for all involved and a real treasure for music lovers. I eagerly anticipate more from this team.
Two recent sets have caught my attention - one is complete; one has just begun. One has some production issues which are of concern; the other is off to a fabulous start. And certainly, there is no better way to spend a cold, wintery February than staying inside listening to Beethoven!
Beginning with the Belcea Quartet's complete set, reissued on Alpha-Classics, I read with interest some reviews on Amazon criticizing the packaging. I normally don't pay much attention to such matters; it's the music that counts. So I ordered the set, which has received high marks musically, and offered at an attractive box-set price. And much to my surprise, I find there is some validity to the complaints, which does indeed detract from its overall enjoyment. (For several reasons, actually.)
It's worth noting these 2011-2012 recordings originate from Outhere Music France, which is the parent company of several small independent labels, including Alpha Classics and Zig-Zag Territories. These quartets first appeared in two 4-disc sets on Zig-Zag in 2013. Then Alpha-Classics reissued them complete in one box in 2016; and oddly, again in 2019, with different cover art. Both sets are identical in layout and number of discs. The latter is the subject of my review.
I purchased this 2019 box set, brand new, in February 2021. And despite some reviewers stating the packaging has been improved since its initial release, mine proved to be exactly as most have described it - with envelope style sleeves, coated with a sticky substance, holding each disc inside. You literally have "crack" open the sleeve wide enough to get your whole hand in there to firmly grasp the disc and yank on it until it becomes unstuck. It doesn't just slide out, it has to be manhandled out of there.
Not only that, in my set, one of the 2-disc sleeve enclosures is misprinted, duplicating another sleeve with the contents (i.e. Discs 5 & 6 and their track listings are printed on both the enclosures for 5 & 6 and 7 & 8). Fortunately, the CDs themselves are correct (i.e. discs 5 & 6 in one, and discs 7 & 8 in the other), but the second set is mislabeled. Fortunately, I can find the correct track listings in the enclosed booklet. But what a colossal production blunder. Does Alpha-Classics have no quality control?
And that's not all (while I'm at it). The layout is annoying as hell. These are not presented in chronological order, or in any discernable order whatsoever. They are randomly spread over the discs with no apparent logic. (Take a moment and examine the picture above displaying the layout and help me understand it.) Perhaps they are merely maximizing playing times and minimizing the number of discs to save on production costs? I have no idea. But I just shake my head at it.
But, what's most important are the performances. And while they are mostly wonderful, I find this group turns a bit too aggressive and grainy in forte passages, and unpleasantly gruff in fortissimos. In these passages, they are attempting to produce a sound larger than life for a string quartet, resulting in bowing which sounds like they're ruthlessly sawing away at it. It is most frustrating, coming in stark contrast to the sweetly singing playing elsewhere, where their beauty of blend can be gorgeous. Certainly, Beethoven's writing can - and should - be vigorous at times, and I welcome clearly defined dynamic contrasts. But it doesn't have to be so aggressive. The close-up recording exaggerates the extremes in dynamics and had me adjusting the volume level all through. While this recorded perspective affords startling presence and body to their sound, it unfortunately tires the ear in the long haul, and exacerbates the moments of ugliness in their playing.
If anyone from Alpha-Classics happens to read this, please know I will seriously hesitate before purchasing another CD on your label. This production is a mess. Tsk Tsk.
(It looks like this box-set is no longer available, just within the few weeks since I purchased it. Perhaps Alpha-Classics has withdrawn it and is rethinking it?)
Moving on to a much more satisfying experience, the first volume from the Dover Quartet on Cedille Records is fabulous in every way. They begin with a 2-disc set containing the six Opus 18 Quartets - in order. The playing is absolutely marvelous - fresh, musical, inspiring and powerful (but never aggressive), and beautifully recorded at a perfect distance within a warm acoustic. Bravo Cedille Records! I simply cannot wait until the next installment.
As a matter of fact, their Beethoven is so good, I wanted to hear their disc of the Schumann Quartets while I wait. But it seems to be out of print. Bummer. Fortunately, I already have their two discs of clarinet quintets with David Schifrin (both on Delos) and their single disc of selected Mozart quartets/quintet is still available on Cedille.
First a disclaimer - this disc was sent to me gratis in consideration for a review. This composer is new to me, as are all the soloists, and this CD appears on the Vanguard Music Boulevard, Malmo Sweden label.
I often have difficulty writing about new music. (I am a musician, not a writer; so I really have to work at it.) I usually find myself either liking it, or not. But, if it's something I initially find appealing, or at least interesting, I find I like it even more after several hearings. Such was the case with this program.
I began my listening with what I anticipated being an "easy listen", Autumn Fields - a 7-minute piece for solo cello and orchestra. No, it isn't easy, and it was instantly engaging. It is a passionate, expressive, fervent work. And I knew right away Ms. Laurin was the "real deal", with a marvelous talent for singing lines and colorful orchestration. What makes this piece especially appealing, is the glorious, rhapsodic playing of it by cellist, Amalie Stalheim. I immediately listened to this work again, and enjoyed it even more.
The main work which begins this program, Concerto in Memoriam, is a massive trumpet concerto, which, the booklet tells us, is dedicated to Ms. Laurin's mother, who passed away in 2012 after a long illness. And what a tribute it is. The fine booklet notes also tell us this piece was commissioned by Camerata Nordica, with whom Ms. Laurin was Composer in Residence. It was originally written for trumpet and strings, and more recently arranged for full orchestra.
I needed to listen to this work several times before fully appreciating its lengthy 27 minutes. It is structured in 3 named movements, described by the composer thusly:
"Concerto's three movements "illustrate" life in three phases.
I. Become. The creation of life itself like a vibration from space entering our atmosphere and in the end crawling like a clumsy dinosaur up on land. Life has started.
II. Be. A celebration, in many shapes, of life itself. With joy and sorrows, and the time signature putting the pulse faster and faster, and then back again.
III. Became. The end of life. The mourning and the reentering of the soul to the space in the very end, when the same "vibration" comes back in the music, after the the trumpet has descended - accepted."
And what I hear is really very close to these descriptions.
Become predictably displays outbursts of anger and despair in the opening bars. But they are soon transformed into a plaintive, soaring trumpet aria, with a pervading sense of expectancy and longing.
Be follows without pause, with a change in mood, with its rhythmic celebration of life. (I'd love to see the score; I can't quite make out the complex-sounding time-signature.) But this performance of it positively dances, with the trumpet, again, singing a distinctly Anna-Lena Laurin song.
Became is a bit more difficult, the song now depicting the mourning described by the composer. But it finishes with a masterstroke of orchestration which depicts the "reentering of the soul to space" with string harmonic glissandi and what sounds like the trumpet soloist blowing non-musical air through his instrument. It is indeed as if transporting the listener through the winds of endless space. I found this final movement a tad overlong and less inspired than the rest, but loved how it ends, bringing the work to a satisfying close.
This is a work of substance and great musical interest, and I would anticipate many trumpet players being drawn to it. It reveals subtle elements of Ms. Laurin's jazz influence, adding to its unique and attractive flavoring. I'm especially glad Ms. Laurin re-orchestrated it for full orchestra; her utilization of mallet percussion is skillfully accomplished and deliciously titillating all through. (There is a YouTube video of excerpts from a performance of the original version, for trumpet and strings, which is definitely worth exploring.)
As in the cello work, this piece benefits greatly from the marvelous playing of the soloist on this recording - in this case, trumpeter Gustav Melander. It is a difficult and demanding work (its nearly 30-minute length alone requires great stamina), and Mr. Melander takes it in stride with accomplished virtuosity and musically expressive playing. There is nowhere for the soloist to hide anything short of immaculate control and beauty of tone. And this fine player delivers both with a lovely, singing legato and impressive breath support.
If I hear hints of John Adams in some of Ms. Laurin's writing (which is very much a compliment), she certainly exhibits a distinct voice. And, in the final two works on the program, her jazz influence makes a stronger presence, to great effect. I was surprised and pleased to discover both sound positively cinematic! Her gift for orchestration is elevated as well, with the subtle use of percussion (mallets, again) and the colorful use of a large wind compliment. Further, in Fountain of Youth, a very film noir-ish muted trumpet is featured, along with a sultry, smoky mezzo (scat-style, sans lyrics), and a distant wordless choir adding to the atmosphere. (I read in the booklet this piece was actually composed by the featured trumpeter, Anders Bergcrantz, and magnificently arranged for orchestra by Ms. Laurin.) And in Song of the Juniper, delightful solo violin passages provide refreshing light and shade contrasts. There is less seriousness here, and these works are reminiscent of some of the best classic film scores from the masters, pre-Williams, each in differing ways. Marvelous!
All in all, this is a significant release of new orchestral music, which is a major achievement for this talented composer. Three different Symphony Orchestras and conductors are utilized - Malmo/Paul Magi (tracks 1-4), Norrlandsoperan/Ingar Bergby (tr. 5) and Gothenburg/Joana Carneiro (tr. 6). Remarkably, the quality of playing and recorded sound is consistently excellent all through. The entire production is outstanding, with well-written and informative liner notes, pictures of the soloists, and detailed recording information. Highly recommended for the musically adventurous.
I can be brief. I'll admit I'm no expert when it comes to John Adams, but I have most of his commercially produced CDs and can tell you how I hear it.
This Common Tones in Simple Time (track 1) is a bit too matter of fact. It's not as atmospheric or intoxicating as is DeWaart/San Francisco on Electra Nonesuch. The recording quality here is a touch stark, and Nagano is too straightforward. Listening to it immediately after the DeWaart is very revealing of these qualities. DeWaart is definitely the one to have.
This Fast Machine (track 5) is too fast and much too frenetic. It sounds as if Nagano is about to lose all control and this Ride is about to fling itself off the tracks. Here, as in Common Tones, the close-up, rather stark recording does this orchestra (or composer) no favors. If only Nagano had simply let John Adams' score speak for itself without "helping" in the tempo department...sigh. It actually loses much of its rhythmic thrust and energy at this flippant speed, and instead is just a hectic scramble to the end. It's a full minute faster than Michael Tilson Thomas's live San Francisco SACD, which is spot on regarding tempo. Just listen to how much his reading gains in impact at a sensible tempo, which allows the orchestra to actually play all those notes.
However, the highlight of this CD - by far - is the Harmonielehre symphony. It is a glorious reading and the recording is just a touch warmer and more relaxed, paying huge dividends in atmosphere. Nagano, too, relaxes and allows the music to breathe. He really has a thorough understanding of this piece, and commands an awesome sense of direction and purpose. And what a climax he builds to in the second movement. O my! And what a first trumpet player this orchestra possesses! Nagano reveals this piece to be Adams' masterpiece, just as many proclaim it to be. And it is simply magnificent here.
The recording, even in the symphony, however, is still a little close and can be too bright if your stereo system isn't optimal. However, there is enough spaciousness and warmth to offset it. On the plus side, the detail it reveals is fascinating. And it certainly provides maximum impact in that massive climax in track 3. However, be warned, it may very well overwhelm smaller speakers or an under-powered amplifier if the volume is set too high.
I love Mozart's Flute Quartets. Two reviews of them already appear elsewhere on this blog (Schaaff/Pentatone and Trevisani/Delos), both of which are just fine, but neither is a primary recommendation. And now I must point out a couple to avoid altogether. I really want (need) to review some of my favorites (two of which are mentioned in the final paragraph below), so I will commit to working on an overview in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, I have recently come across two recordings which I have somehow missed over the years. First, the Emerson Quartet's 1991 DG left me skeptical from the get go, seeing who their flutist was. And, as it turns out, rightfully so. And the Nash Ensemble, on Virgin, usually provide solid performances. But, not so much here, I'm afraid.
Starting with the DG: I like Carol Wincenc, in that her distinctive tone is instantly recognizable, just as Galway's is. But it is different from his, and not necessarily in a good way. Her wide, almost queasy vibrato is always present no matter the repertoire. And it gets old fast. In fact, it is so intrusive to the music she plays, it's nearly impossible to listen past it.
To hear her at her best, though, listen to Charles Griffes's gorgeous Poem, on Falletta's wonderful Naxos CD of that composer's music. Wincenc's "whoo-ey", vibrato-rich sound suits that piece perfectly. It is hauntingly beautiful. But to use that same tone, intensity and mega-vibrato in Mozart is ill-advised and musically inappropriate. It is tasteless, to the point of being garish and gaudy. Mozart is soon forgotten, and instead, one can't hear past that distinctive Carol Wincenc sound in repertoire which does not lend itself to it.
As a former flute player, I know the technique necessary to make that "whoo-ey" sound she produces. And I know you can stop doing it and make a more "normal" flute sound - if you want to. I also know you can alter the speed and intensity of your vibrato - if you want to. Apparently, Ms. Wincenc doesn't want to. Ever. She is unwilling to change her sound even when music requires it, such as here in Mozart. And it's a pity, because she plays with a joyousness not always heard in these quartets.
The playing of the Emerson Quartet, on the other hand, is at all times stylish, alert, crisp, and, most of all, tasteful. Their choice of flutist for these quartets is most unfortunate. Why they teamed up with her, of all the gazillion flutists in the world, is puzzling - particularly for Mozart.
I can be brief with the Nash Ensemble. On this Virgin 2-fer, the 1988 sound is great. It's rather more up-front and well-focused than typical for Virgin. Thus it has tremendous presence and command. Unfortunately, it's just about as plain-jane a performance as one could imagine. Flutist, Philippa Davies, plays it completely straight, just the notes on the page, with none of the usual ornamentation we normally hear, and, oddly, with trills beginning firmly on the printed note rather than the one above it, which is customary. There is precious little inspiration, but is rather a ho-hum, "let's just get it over with", sight-reading of it. What's odd (and so disappointing) about this is that the companion recordings of the Oboe and Horn Quartets on disc one, are beautifully played and much more involving.
I would recommend just about any other recording of these glorious quartets over these on DG and Virgin. My two primary recommendations are: William Bennett (1969, Philips), whose clear, bright, sparkling flute tone is a constant joy to listen to; and, my favorite of all, that from Oxalys (2004, Fuga Libera), who provide a stylistically correct interpretation which is refreshing, inspiring and uplifting. Both helpfully come with fabulous recorded sound.
I don't typically review stereo components on this blog, preferring to concentrate on the music. But as I've had problems with this particular piece of equipment since day one, and seeing that it continues to be a current product offering from Yamaha, I thought I'd share my experiences with it. After all, the CD/SACD player is the primary source on which my music reviews originate. (I also use a wonderful universal disc player from Cambridge Audio for DVD-A, Blu-Ray Audio and multi-channel SACD.)
This Yamaha SACD player has been around for many years and it has been widely criticized for being plagued with problems since it was first offered. The problem: the DAC (Digital Analog Decoder) in it "skips". It cuts in and out during playback, often times with a sizzle - until it gets good and hot. Then it seems to settle down and stops skipping (for the most part). But you have to coddle this player to get it to play. And for 3 grand, this is absolutely absurd.
My routine has become well-established. I turn it on first thing, let it warm up awhile, then load a disc and let it play for about half an hour with the amp muted. Then, and only then, will it reliably play a disc without skipping, cutting in and out, or making tweeter-frying sizzles, and I can finally begin listening.
Operationally it is very slow to load, read the disc, and make itself ready for action. And it's very finicky about the disc you want it to play. I have encountered several that it refuses to read - discs that have worked with zero problems in every other player I've ever had, all of them significantly less expensive than this Yamaha. Also, it has an unusual tray table which requires a very careful placement of the disc before closing the drawer. There are 4 little rubber bumpers around the circumference of the disc area, in which one must carefully, deliberately and very accurately place the CD. Carelessness in this process results in the drawer failing to close.
So after all this - warming it up for a good hour, carefully placing the CD in the tray just right, waiting for the player to read the disc and finally availing itself for the play command, I can at last listen to music. And I'm usually rather annoyed with it all at this point. But once the music begins, I settle in.
Taken as a whole, it's a totally decent-sounding disc player. It sounds better than the run-of-the-mill players in the $1,000 range. Does it sound like a $3,000 disc player? Nope. But it's better than average.
Getting into specifics, this Yamaha doesn't have much of a character. It's not bright or dark, rich or thin. In a word, it sounds "Polite". "Boring" is probably a more accurate word, but that seems a bit brutal. "Neutral", "honest" and "lovely" are much kinder descriptors. But it is very laid back. My biggest complaint (other than the skipping), is that it's simply too relaxed, and thus tends to lack dynamic power and impact. It never fully opens up to provide the majesty and scope necessary for the realistic portrayal of large-scale orchestral music or opera. Nor does it fully convey the enormity of a full concert grand piano in a large hall, rendering it rather more like a baby grand. It doesn't actually miniaturize things; it simply doesn't reproduce the expanse of large sounds in large halls as it should. It is just the opposite of thrilling or exciting. Instead, everything tends to be confined and rather intimate in scale. Again - polite. (Or boring.) That being said, it is very sweet on top, with silky smooth violins, refined brass, and bass which is potent but never boomy. There is also a beauty in tonality as well, with warm, sumptuous orchestral colors. Thus, it excels on small-scale Classical chamber music, acoustic jazz and choral groups.
Unfortunately, it's not the most detailed player, either. It never startles with the sound of the performer being in the room with you. For example, it doesn't fully reveal the little clicks of the keys, or the finger on the string during pizzicato, the intake of breath from the players, or the "wet lips" of a vocalist. Those sounds are there, but you really have to listen hard to hear them. It provides a wonderful recreation of what's on a recording, but it doesn't make you believe it's the real thing. It just does what it does, and no more.
All of these characteristics are actually emphasized during SACD playback. Unlike any other SACD player I've encountered, this one actually sounds better on good old fashioned CDs. The touch of extra brightness and raw energy of most CDs boost this player's sound up a notch. However, the extra refinement of SACD simply takes it too far in the wrong direction, overly laid-back and smooth. (It's worth noting this is a stereo-only SACD player and therefore can not play the multi-channel layer.)
For the record, I have experimented with numerous high-end power cords, interconnects (both RCA and XLR), and power conditioners - to no avail. It's simply impossible to coax more performance from this player. I actually have achieved better sound using its digital-out jack, via the awesome Straight Wire InfoLink digital cable (coax/RCA), into my Krell Vanguard integrated amp. The DAC in the Krell produces sound which is much more "present" (but not "forward" - it's just more there). It is more dynamic, detailed and better focused. And thus, more realistic and involving. Now, a full symphony orchestra positively fills the hall in which it plays. And a concert grand Steinway sounds like the massive instrument it is, with a more powerful presence and a more realistic, full-bodied left-hand range. However, I, of course, lose the ability to play SACDs in this configuration, as DSD digital data cannot be passed via the digital output. I must set the player's default to read the CD layer only. And, in all honesty, I do occasionally miss the loveliness of the Yamaha player - on some music - which the Krell can't quite match. The Krell is good, but no one would ever likely describe its sound as lovely.
If this Yamaha player were offered at half its current asking price, and if Yamaha would actually fix the problem with the DAC, I could highly recommend this player. But at full price, and given its aging shelf life (this unit has been around many years) and with a known, recurring and uncorrected malfunctioning DAC, I'd stay away from this Yamaha player and buy just about anything else.
Unfortunately, SACD players are becoming a rarity. There are a few in the $1,000 range (offering average sound, I'm afraid), and Marantz likes to dominate the range just above this (with only incrementally improved sound over those lesser players). And then there are the astronomically priced units from the likes of Mark Levinson, Luxman and Esoteric. So, this Yamaha occupies a sweet spot, price-wise, at $3,000. And thus, it is not easy to replace with something better unless you have the resources to fork over the big bucks. So I stick with it and hope something else comes along before SACD disappears altogether.
Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (complete ballet)
Dorati (1976, Concertgebouw/Philips) and Ozawa (1990, Boston/DG) lead the pack of modern recordings. Oh I know, given that these originated 30 and 40+ years ago, respectively (can they really be that old by now?!), they no longer technically qualify as "modern"! But no other recording since has bettered either of them - not even close. Not for performances, precision of playing, or for recorded sound. So they shall remain my "modern" recommendations.
As for "classics", there are also just two: Dorati again (1962, LSO/Mercury) and Rodzinski (1958, Royal Philharmonic/Westminster). The former is self-recommending, even if its sound on CD is just slightly rough (although slightly better on the rare SACD). The latter was remastered and released by DG in 2001. And it is stunning. It is so full of color and imaginative touches, one hears this glorious score with new ears - as if for the very first time. And to cite one example of the sublime, just listen to the muted strings in the Arabian Dance (tr. 14). Oh my goodness, I don't believe I have ever heard such ravishing, creamy string sound - dark, rich, wooden - on any recording, ever.
All four recordings provide amazing good sound (especially for their age) and performances which are full of life, wonder, imagination, inspiration and individuality. Not for an instant, in any of these, is there even a hint of the routine or a lack of spontaneity. Each orchestra responds with an involvement, precision and musicality rarely heard today. And, notably, each remains faithful to the letter of the score, which has definitely not been the case in recent decades, where we witness too many conductors taking all kinds of liberties with it. Among my favorites here, only DG for Ozawa raises a concern with its omission of the gunshot in the Mouse Battle scene. The orchestra pauses for several seconds, but the engineers failed to splice in the sound of a gunshot. And it's not corrected even on subsequent reissues! Oh well. One smiles (or shakes his head at the blunder) and moves on to the glories that follow.
Britten Ceremony of Carols
I have three favorites of this uniquely, wonderful piece - two sung by adults and just one by a youth choir. As with Messiah (below), I turn to the Robert Shaw Chorale. His classic, 1963 RCA is the standard by which all others are judged. It's a pity the recording show its age with some overload distortion on climaxes. But one can listen through it and still enjoy the fervent singing, rich acoustic and fabulous harpist. It is available rather hidden away within a 1994, RCA, 3-CD compilation, "Christmas With the Robert Shaw Chorale".
For superlative recorded sound and equally fabulous singing, The Philadelphia Singers, conducted by Michael Korn, (1988, RCA), cannot be bettered. Along with the clear sound in a superbly atmospheric acoustic, what makes this set irresistible is the ravishing soprano of Benita Valente in the solo sections. Angelic indeed.
My favorite recording from a youth choir comes from The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Richard Marlow, on a splendid all-Britten program on Conifer Classics (1996). As with the Philadelphia Singers, this one also features beautiful recorded sound, atmospheric and clear. This performance is fresh, with boundless energy. The professional, highly accomplished singing from this group of youngsters is astonishing. Not to be missed.
I generally prefer "modern" performance standards of this work, as opposed to those specializing in period performance. Not only that, I am partial to full-throated, full-vibrato American choirs! Two are exemplary - the classic 1966 Robert Shaw Chorale and the 1981 Musica Sacra, both on RCA. Both have appeared in "highlights" and complete versions over the years. Robert Shaw's highlights sound fabulous on RCA's 1988 budget Victrola series - full-bodied and boisterous. The complete set was newly remastered for a 2004 "Classic Library" 2-fer. As to Musica Sacra, their highlights disc sounds splendid on the 1990 Silver Seal budget release. However, their complete recording was disastrously ruined in RCA's 1999 "Dolby Surround" release in the "High Performance" series. It is riddled with distortion all through. It sounds almost as if a shorted-out (or loose?) cable was emitting static into the digital converter during the mastering process. I really have no idea what went wrong, but it's devastating - especially since it is completely absent in the Silver Seal highlights, proving it was not inherent in the original master tapes, but an engineering/production disaster. Why this was never corrected is a travesty.
A fascinating alternative is Solti in Chicago (1984 Decca), sounding not at all like his usual fiery self. Solti's is cherished for its lightness of touch, clarity of textures, precision of choral execution, sweet outpouring of musical expression, sensible tempi and superlative recorded sound.
However, a newcomer this year, from Penatone, has captured my interest. While it's not SACD (tsk, tsk), I found the sound on this CD to be perfectly fine (although, do I hear some distortion here and there?). All involved are "newcomers" to my collection: Justin Doyle leading the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin and Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. (I can't translate all that and the booklet is no help.) It is the fresh and original interpretation which commands one's attention, with a fascinating combination of period-practice(-ish) playing in the orchestra, with a bit more full-bodied, modern singing techniques from the choir (yet still light and airy), and with full, vibrato-rich soloists. Of note, the alto solo part is sung here by a countertenor, and the soprano takes some liberties with ornamentation, and even some added flourishes which take her up to high Bbs in Rejoice! (I loved it, actually.) Pentatone's production itself is odd, though; the booklet is comprised of a very lengthy, boring, fictitious, imaginary 21st-Century "interview" between Handel and his lyricist. This gibberish goes on for 9 pages. And while it eventually does get around to providing the lyrics, there is not a word about the performers, ensembles or conductor. Pentatone seems to have taken a new, rather wayward direction during the past couple of years - not only with booklet productions like this (which leave one scratching one's head), but with arbitrary decisions regarding SACD vs CD-only releases. It's all very odd coming from a label once regarded as being of the highest quality. However, I greatly enjoyed this performance of Messiah. So all is forgiven - this time.