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, until the 3rd movement (marked Allegro non troppo, by the way) which is once again ludicrous. The free-for-all melee is one of the most unmusical, ostentatious displays I can recall. And the odd recorded sound persists 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.
I'm relatively new to British clarinetist, Julian Bliss. And the more I hear, the more I love his playing. (Incidentally, he studied in the U.S. at Indiana University and subsequently with Sabine Meyer in Germany.)
He possesses an absolutely beautiful tone. If not quite the overtly gorgeous woodiness of Martin Frost, it is clearer, perfectly focused and supported - a simply beautiful, rounded tone. And it is lovely to listen to. No matter the material, there is never a strident high note; never a fruity, unsupported spread. It's not overly dark or thick. Suffice it to say, Julian Bliss has just about the most beautiful, natural clarinet sound you're ever likely to encounter.
And he's so utterly musical too. His Mozart simply sings - as if he's a soprano at the Met expressing her profound love for the tenor. Not melting; not sentimental; simply a natural outpouring of expression via lovely legato lines, punctuated by crisply executed articulation. Again, though, it's not quite so intentionally ravishing, ala Martin Frost. But somehow even more natural in its simplicity. Mr. Bliss does play a basset-clarinet here, with the 4 additional low notes, making this one of the most rewarding accounts of this concerto on record.
And he turns in an exceptional Nielsen too, where his display of virtuosity is never ostentatiously flashy, ala Andreas Ottensamer, but so very musical - serving only the composer's score. This somewhat wayward concerto has not always convinced me of its musical merits, but Mr. Bliss brings a real sense of purpose and direction to it which finally allows this piece to fully make sense. I found it very enjoyable. Conductor Mario Venzago deserves high praise as well, providing insightful and responsive support in both concertos.
The fillers are two Mozart soprano arias, arranged for clarinet by Mr. Bliss himself. They work exceptionally well for clarinet, and sound for all the world as if Mozart wrote them just this way! I enjoyed both ever bit as much as the concertos.
Signum Classics provides excellent recorded sound, with the soloist perfectly placed before the orchestra in a lovely acoustic. The clarinet is not at all spotlit, as it is in their more recent recording of the Mozart for Mark van de Wiel, where his close proximity to the mic in the low notes nearly ruins Mozart's musical line.
It would be difficult to imagine a better recording of these clarinet concertos than this. Indeed, I cannot think of another recording of the Mozart that I enjoy more. I've already listened to this one many times. Julian Bliss is one I will explore further.
I'm puzzled by this release, especially as it is listed as a "Vol 1" in a series.
First, Chandos already has a wonderful, 80-minute disc of the music of Eric Coates, conducted by Rumon Gamba with this same orchestra (the BBC Philharmonic, 2002). That CD is an absolute knock-out, containing all the real "greatest hits", with sparkling, energetic music-making and superb sound - rather unlike this latest one from John Wilson, I'm afraid.
Second, Mr. Wilson has already recorded a lot of Coates. There are two late-1990s discs of orchestral works and miniatures for ASV with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Then he made another collection with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2005, for Avie Records. And in 2008, back to the BBC Concert Orchestra he went to record yet another collection for Dutton Epoch. Now he takes up this repertoire again, this time with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos.
The good news is that there is very little duplication - so far - in all these discs. This new Chandos series, however, starts off with three. From the ASV recordings, Wilson here duplicates The Dancing Nights and the first of the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies. And he duplicates the London Everyday Suite with Gamba's Chandos disc. One has to expect many more duplicates will be inevitable with future installments.
What bothers me the most, however, is that the inspiration from the podium is several notches below what we'd expect. Mr. Wilson now sounds just a little tired of it all and the music lacks the charm, sparkle and sheer joy found in his earlier recordings. Then there is the sound. I was surprised Chandos chose not to release this on SACD, as would have been expected based on prior successes with that format and this conductor (namely the Copland and Bennett series). And listening to it, I can hear why. This is not one of Chandos's best-sounding recordings. It's a little claustrophobic/congested, a bit hard in climaxes, and overall lacks air and spaciousness. This soundscape may very well be part of the reason the music doesn't seem to smile as much as it should.
And finally, an unfortunate programming blunder: just as the final, gentle sounds of the lovely By The Sleepy Lagoon fade into nothingness, all of a sudden...BAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The hugely loud, hard, bombastic opening note of the London Suite blast into the listening room without warning (with some audible distortion in the recording, I might add), quite ruining the mood and annoying the hell out of me. And what follows continues to be loud, bombastic and too fast - completely devoid of charm. I just can't imagine what anyone involved with this had in mind here.
After being rather bored with this first volume in the new Chandos series, I dusted off Wilson's ASV discs from my shelves and sat down for a quick listen. And I couldn't for a moment turn it off! I thoroughly enjoyed them and was pleased to hear ASV's brighter, more immediate house-sound suited these scores perfectly.
While I welcome new recordings of this composer's delightfully lighthearted music, I'm afraid this series from John Wilson is superfluous. I can only guess he would like to memorialize his recordings of this composer in an integral set for a single label. But, frankly, the music of Eric Coates doesn't really justify such extravagance, especially when he's already recorded so much of it and there are so many neglected composers he could (should) turn to. For those interested in this repertoire, I'd highly recommend starting with Gamba's fabulous Chandos CD, or any of Wilson's earlier recordings.
I'm not often enticed by cover art, but I have to admit this one did it to me. Seeing that big basset-clarinet up close to a normal clarinet was so fascinating (having never seen one in person) that I had to give this disc a try. And Mark van de Wiel, being the principal clarinet of the Philharmonia, sealed the deal.
And it's a bit of a mixed bag, I'm afraid.
Beginning with the Phibbs Concerto, I read in the wonderful booklet that it was written for (along with a "creative friendship" with) our soloist. It was premiered with the Philharmonia in November 2017 and this recording was made shortly after. And what a wonderful, fresh, energetic creation it is! It is structured in an ambitious 4-movement layout and is expertly and colorfully orchestrated. The first two movements are very reminiscent of Copland's more famous clarinet concerto. Yet it possesses such a unique voice (and colorful orchestration) the Copland flavor simply brought smile after smile while listening. Then with the Adagio, and especially the finale, Phibbs establishes a more original and secure individuality. While the preceding is decidedly American-esque, the remainder sounds firmly French. The Adagio often reminds me of Henri Tomasi (specifically his glorious saxophone concerto), while the finale takes it another daring step further into the realm of Connesson, with its dazzling virtuosity for both soloist and orchestra.
The playing here is simply fabulous. This is a studio recording but sounds for all the world like a live performance, with its effortless spontaneity and unbuttoned exuberance. There is a sense of occasion and an ever-present feeling of new discovery. It is also spectacularly recorded, with the orchestra given thrilling presence.
The Mozart, unfortunately, is not as satisfactory. It was recorded "live", with a different orchestra in a different hall. It is well played and the London Chamber Orchestra is incisive and alert. But there is a touch of the routine in Mr. van de Wiel's playing. But what spoiled it for me was his propensity for showing off those low notes of his basset-clarinet. He honks them out with unnecessary force, disrupting the melodic line and sounding quite out of character for Mozart. I guess I should have expected such ostentation, given the cover art; but Mozart's glorious score must still be given top priority. I suppose signum classics might be partly to blame, as the soloist is very closely mic'd. However, the sound of his clarinet overall does not strike me as outrageously spot-lit throughout the rest of its range. And on another live recording from signum of this same concerto, from the wonderful Julian Bliss, there is none of this honking in the low notes. That entire performance is eminently more musical and natural. Perhaps van de Wiel leans in toward the mic as he plummets down to those lowest notes. Or maybe he's trying too hard to fill the hall with sound. Who knows. Regardless, it left me annoyed. And the rapturous applause which instantly erupts at the end is something I certainly could have done without. (Signum had the good sense to edit it out on their live recording for Bliss.)
This disc is worth it for the glorious Phibbs concerto. But if your main interest is with the Mozart, I'd turn to any number of other recordings of that - none better than the aforementioned Julian Bliss. The one from Martin Frost on BIS is also satisfying.
I haven't reviewed many discs this summer - for a variety of reasons (stereo issues, mainly). Now that things are getting back to normal, it's time to get back to what I love. Starting off with this ridiculous bunch of nonsense on DG's latest "star-marketed" album doesn't get me motivated, I'm afraid. But here it is - short and very sweet.
I'm scratching my head trying to comprehend why John Williams participated in this. He doesn't need the money; he doesn't need the fame; he doesn't need the exposure. He certainly doesn't need a job! So then why would he stoop to a project requiring him to make syrupy sweet, elevator Musak arrangements of all these wonderful tunes?
I guess DG should be admired for making it happen. Because there is not a whit of musical value to it. I personally could not listen to much of it. It's like eating chocolate mouse, followed by chocolate cake and finishing the meal with chocolate cream pie. It's so sickeningly sweet, it's simply nauseating. And Mutter's slow, wide, sea-sick vibrato only increases the urge to hurl.
John Williams is my hero. He's one of my very favorite composers - ever. I probably listen to more John Williams music on the stereo than any other composer - certainly more than any other living composer. And yet this CD just makes me sick to my stomach. But people will buy it and go "Ga-Ga" over it because it's John Williams and it's Anne-Sophie Mutter, who they think they're supposed to just love. But I just can't.
DG, good job; you'll make your "classical" quota this quarter. Mr. Williams, I'm shocked you had any part of this. I'd discourage anyone from supporting this kind of production.