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.
While taking a break from the usual Classical fare for the holidays, I thought it might be fun to briefly review a few of my favorite holiday CDs, concentrating on professionally produced orchestral and choral releases.
Each year I like to ease into it, rather than jumping right in with Jingle Bells and the familiar santa tunes. Two of my favorite orchestral collections on the great Naxos label are just the ticket - "The Night Before Christmas" (2006) and "Another Night Before Christmas" (2011). Both contain at least one selection featuring a narrator, which I dutifully program my player to skip (they are simply intolerable). But the remaining tracks are wonderful, light-hearted orchestral originals and arrangements. Highlights include Liszt's Christmas Tree Suite (each CD containing different sections of it, with different orchestrators), and original creations by Philip Lane, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Adam Saunders and Angela Morley - all rarely found elsewhere. The recorded sound is consistently good, as are the performances, by the RTE and BBC Concert Orchestras, and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
My favorite purely orchestral set, though, comes on an earlier 2002 Naxos CD, with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. These suites are symphonic in structure and sound wonderful in excellent recorded sound. I can listen to this disc all year long. It is worth noting the 5 substantial selections included here:
- Improvisations on Christmas Carols - Bryan Kelly
- A Carol Symphony - Victor Hely-Hutchinson
- Bethlehem Down - Pater Warlock
- Wassail Dances - Philip Lane
- A Christmas Carol Symphony - Patric Standford
This disc is worth it for the Hely-Hutchinson symphony alone. This wonderful piece was recorded decades earlier for EMI (1966) - played by the rough-and-ready Pro-Arte Orchestra. But this new recording is far more refined and vastly better played.
Next up are two newer Boston Pops collections, with Keith Lockhart conducting, featuring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The first disc, "Holiday Pops" (1998, BMG), includes Bass's Gloria, Angela Morley's Christmas Waltzes, wonderful arrangements of Carol of the Bells, Tomorrow is My Dancing Day, and a terrific choral version of Sleigh Ride. It concludes with John Williams's exuberant Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas! from the movie, Home Alone. The second disc, "Sleigh Ride" (2004, on the Pops' own label this time), provides a couple of selections with vocal soloists, which I'm not real fond of - particularly an ill-chosen Alfred Boe for O Holy Night, whose fast, insistent, intense vibrato does not suit this music. (Does it suit any music, for that matter?) But the rest is quite wonderful, including Leroy Anderson's original Sleigh Ride and an absolutely ravishing reading of Respighi's Adoration of the Magi (the second movement of his Three Botticelli Pictures). Another highlight is a wonderful new recording of Harry Simeone's setting of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (bringing back memories of the pioneering American choral groups, The Harry Simeone Chorale and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, from over 50 years ago). Both discs have fantastic recorded sound.
Next up is my favorite of Erich Kunzel's holiday recordings - his first one (1985) with the Rochester Pops Orchestra on ProArte. This one revives many selections that Arthur Fiedler made famous with his 1950s/60s RCA recordings (subsequently reissued on a 1994 Living Stereo CD, "Christmas Party"). As good as that RCA is - (they did an admirable job remastering it) - there is no denying the superior sound of ProArte's modern digital recording for Kunzel. It is, however, typical of that label - a bit too warm and rich, lacking sparkle, and requiring a BIG boost in the volume control knob. But once the ear adjusts, it's enormously fun.
Another orchestral treasure is found on a 1991 Sony Music Special Products CD, "The Nutcracker and Other Orchestral Favorites", with Charles Gerhardt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. (Yes, THAT Charles Gerhardt!) It is fascinating to hear Gerhardt so mannered in the Nutcracker Suite. He reminds me of Stokowski with his free handling of some of the tempos and the outrageous application of rubato for maximum effect. And check out the over-the-top, flamboyant cadenza in Waltz of the Flowers, played by not one, but two harps! It is beyond rhapsodic; it's positively glamorous. I'm sure Tchaikovsky would not have approved, but Gerhardt has the ability to somehow make it all sound convincing. (Well, almost!) The rest of the program contains the ubiquitous Sleigh Ride and Skater's Waltz (played straight) and finishing with a cinematic suite of carols arranged by Peter Knight. Given this is a budget release, I was surprised to see it is a digital recording with great sound. It is a must for every collector, and a fond remembrance of the great Charles Gerhardt.
The best disc of full-scale symphonic arrangements for orchestra and chorus is surely the magnificent "A Festival of Carols", with Colin Davis conducting the LSO and the John Alldis Choir. Recorded in 1979 by Philips, it comes up sounding superb on CD - warm, clear, dynamic and bursting with orchestral color. These are almost operatic in scope and dramatic impact, sung with power and majesty by this choir, which is right at home in opera. The individual tracks play without pause, making for a stupendous, uninterrupted, 45-minute concert.
For fans of a cappella choir music, there is a glorious 2012 Eloquence disc titled, simply, "Christmas Carols", sung by Musica Sacra, conducted by its founder, Richard Westenburg. Pieces/parts of this set have appeared here and there on various Polygram/Universal miscellaneous collections over the years, but this Eloquence reissue contains the complete set of 27 tracks from the original 1990 DG digital recording. Based upon my sometimes faulty "audio memory", the Eloquence sounds more refined and warmer than I remember some of these sounding on earlier DG collections. Suffice it to say, this is among the most accomplished, professional and moving choral performances I've encountered. The recording is clear, focused and "present". It is a bit more up-front than many choral recordings which set the choir back within an over-reverberant, empty hall in an effort to achieve maximum blend and glow. Musica Sacra is an impressive example of American a cappella choral singing at its finest - full-bodied, with full, rich vibrato.
Another a cappella disc which one shouldn't be without is the "Complete Collection of The Alfred S. Burt Carols", featuring The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I am baffled why this music is so rarely recorded, as a modern digital recording of them - in their original guise - is sorely needed. Thankfully we have this set from 1963, remastered in 1995 for TRO Hollis Music. The recorded sound is not ideal, though. It's clean, but tends to sound its age with an up-front perspective, being too closely mic'd. Once the ear adjusts, this works well enough most of the time; however on those carols which feature a soloist, Jimmy Joyce's forceful, raspy tenor is grating and unappealing. Fortunately, this occurs on just 3 tracks. These are modest (and familiar) arrangements, with the 3rd verse of each carol sung in Burt's original settings.
Sticking with choral music, one CD stands above all others. And it is one which provides that reverberant, distant, blended sound described above. None other provides more pleasure than this one from the incomparable Dale Warland Singers, on their 2002 Gothic Records album, "Christmas With..." Year after year, this is the disc I turn to for the ultimate Christmas experience. It is life-affirming in its sublime refinement and heartfelt expression of the season. There is no finer choral group on the planet for those qualities which we hold dear - blend, legato, phrasing, musical expression, breath control, perfect pitch, and a sense of ensemble. Now THIS is Christmas!
I wasn't sure what to expect with this release. Neeme Jarvi can sometimes be too extrovert, too brash even, and almost certainly in too much of a hurry in ballet music. I was so put off with his 2014 complete Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (Bergen Phil/Chandos), I've avoided many of his subsequent releases. However, I'm really glad I gave him a chance with this Delibes. Because it's quite splendid.
The suites from the two famous ballets, Sylvia and Coppelia (lasting 23' and 30' respectively), are compiled by Mr. Jarvi himself. And they work beautifully. The music appears in chronological order and contains a perfect combination of the most famous bits along with some less-often heard segments as well. Variety is a key attribute, allowing one to listen with new ears (well, almost).
But the highlight of the disc is surely the half-hour suite from the less-well-known, earlier ballet, Spring (La Source). This music is taken entirely from Act II, and it is some of the freshest inspiration from this composer.
Jarvi and his Royal Scottish National Orchestra play with the utmost refinement and bravura. Yet, Jarvi sounds distinctly mellow in this music. "Mellow" is perhaps too strong a word (although it is the word which first comes to mind). Musical is surely a better choice. He takes his time, allowing his players to create musical phrases throughout, without rushing through. Dynamic contrasts are also musical - without any unnatural forte/subito-piano/crescendo jolts, which marred much of his Tchaikovsky. Nor is there any hint of brashness to be heard. It all sounds utterly natural.
However, don't surmise this equates to drowsy, lazy music-making. Neeme Jarvi still has a rare gift of bringing music to life, which he does so here, aided by perfectly chosen tempos. And the playing is alert and energetic all through. Not for a moment does this orchestra sound like it's on autopilot. Jarvi keeps them on their toes at all times. Everywhere, there a sense of spontaneity and the spirit of the dance. It's just not overdone. It's not too fast; it's not frenetic. And mercifully, Jarvi doesn't sound like he's in a big hurry to get it over with - which is EXACTLY how I describe his aforementioned Nutcracker.
I am happy to see this release receive the multi-channel SACD treatment from the folks at Chandos. However, I am less than happy with the overly plush, rich sound, which lacks some sparkle. I hear this exact same soundworld from another recent Chandos SACD - the Respighi trilogy from John Wilson. I just think Chandos gets too much richness in the midrange, robbing the music of some excitement and sparkle.
And that is not always the sound Chandos achieves, though. Immediately after this one, I listened to another recent Chandos SACD, Volume 4 in Wilson's ongoing Richard Rodney Bennett series with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Here the sound is instantly fresher - more open, less dark, and with an airier acoustic. And it simply brings the music to life in a way it doesn't quite on the other two discs. Going back to the Delibes, it sounds slightly muffled and compressed in comparison. However, not disastrously so. Far from it. Jarvi ensures it has plenty of life to it, with convincing dynamic contrasts. Once the ear adjusts, it is very pleasant - but falling just short of thrilling.
Despite my quibbles with the sound, this is an absolutely splendid collection of ballet music, gloriously brought to life by Neeme Jarvi, and played with the utmost accomplishment. It is not to be missed.
Poor Riccardo Chailly. He made some spectacular recordings in the early decade of the digital age, including one of the best Rite of Springs ever committed to disc (the 1985 one in Cleveland, NOT the later remake in Lucerne). But Decca just can't seem to get the recordings right for him lately. I was extremely disappointed with his 2017 Stravinsky CD with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, not only for its lack of fresh inspiration, but also because of Decca's thick, murky recording. I was hoping things would improve in MiIan. They haven't.
Maybe it's not all Decca's fault. Maybe it's Chailly. Maybe he's actually going for this heavy, thick, dark, enormous orchestral sound these days. Because I hear it in this Respighi as well as in his earlier Stravinsky, which was with a different orchestra. Even so, Decca certainly does him no favors with their equally heavy, thick, dark walls of sound, lacking air and spaciousness. This is evident right from the opening measures of Pines, with its scoring for flutes, piccolos, triangles, bells, celesta, high violins and piano - there is no tingling sparkle.
As to the readings of the two main works, they are no more involving or exciting than John Wilson's are on Chandos. They are actually very similar in their heavy-handed control and lack of spontaneity and adrenaline. But Wilson scores in atmosphere (thanks to Chandos's superior SACD recording quality) where Chailly sounds too matter of fact. For example, the lovely trumpet solo in Pines near a Catacomb is a moment of sheer magic with Wilson, where his soloist is ethereally distanced in the mists above and behind the orchestra (as indicated in the score). But Chailly's trumpeter is firmly seated in the usual position within the brass section and is therefore much too close. There simply is no excuse for this laziness. However, hats off to the fabulous clarinetist (Fabrizio Meloni) in the next section, who correctly observes the score's dynamic indication that the opening phrase is piano and the phrase immediately following it is marked pianissimo. Breathtaking! But alas, the finale then fails to accomplish much more than a boost in volume. There is no tension or powerful climactic release - failing, just as Wilson does, to raise the roof.
Fountains, which is the highlight of Wilson's disc, is even more ho-hum in Chailly's hands. The recording quality renders orchestral color all dark charcoal. There is an absence of light and shade contrast, and the acoustic lacks air and dimensionality.
The enticement of this disc lies with the lesser known works. Aria for Strings is rather brooding in this dark soundworld, but Leggenda is lovingly played by violinist Francesco De Angelis. Di Sera (for 2 oboes and strings) is lighter, and is surely the most delightful work in this collection. Rounding out the extras is the Ancient Airs and Dances #3, also just for strings. It is well done, but again, the heavy, thick recording robs it of much of its inherent charm.
I really question Chailly's decision to continue recording with Decca if this is the consistently disappointing resultant sound they achieve. This could have been a nice set.