SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Classical Hi-Res Reviews Pt. 1

Published on May 1, 2005

46  DVD-A logoSACD logo Reviews This Month!

May 2005, Pt. 1 of 3 – Hi-Res Classical, beg.

[Part 2]     [Part 3]

click on any cover to go directly to its review

Bach Partitas Bach: Brandenburg Concertos What about this Mr. Paganini? Fischer cond. Tchaikovsky 4th
Gergiev cond. Tchaikovsky 4th Cremona Violins in Kreisler
Telemann in Minor SACD
Concerto for Flute & Harp - Mozart
LSO in Sibelius Syms. Nos. 3 & 7 Brahms: Hungarian Dances for piano 4 hands Paco Pena, flamenco guitar
James Boyk piano recital
Yundi Li in Chopin piano works Pletnev plays Schumann R. Strauss: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Two Bach SACDs start off our hi-res reviews this issue…

Bach violin partitasJOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Partitas – Florin Paul, violin – Tacet S 10 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD, 75 min. *****:

When it comes to Bach’s Partitas for solo violin, many listeners would probably feel no need to reach any further in their collection other than for classic recordings by Grumiaux, Heifetz or Milstein. And while this recent offering from Tacet probably won’t unshelve any of the masters based on absolute artistic values, it does, nonetheless, offer very compelling performances of the Partitas, all captured in superb SACD transfers. Violinist Florin Paul acquits himself admirably throughout, but the really stunning sound quality here is the real reason to add this disc to you library.

A number of excellent recordings have appeared on the Tacet label, but most of the recent buzz revolving around them has dealt with either their often unusual approach to recording music for surround sound, where individual instruments are assigned to specific channels – or, as in this particular recording, where classic tube microphones are employed in the session. This disc, whose recording session dates from 1989, uses two Neumann U47 tube microphones to spectacular effect – and offers a truly sumptuous string tone, along with an incredibly palpable recreation of the 1689 Stradivari violin employed here. While the Red Book CD layer is quite good, the real revelation is in hearing either the stereo or multichannel SACD layers. Tacet has chosen in the multichannel mix to simply augment the sound with the rear channels to create more of a sense of ambience; while the effect is quite subtle, it does indeed achieve the desired goal of more of a sense of envelopment and preservation of the recorded acoustic. Stereo listeners won’t be disappointed, though – Tacet is one of the handful of companies that seem quite competent at delivering superb ambience and acoustical cues from just a couple of well-placed microphones. Very highly recommended – this disc is such a delight to listen to, that it’s more than generous 75-minute playing time passes all too quickly!

— Tom Gibbs

BACH Brandenburg concertosBACH: Six Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051 – Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra – 2 Multichannel SACD Hybrid CDs Tacet S101 **** :

I have been a Brandenburg junkie for ~50years . From my first Westminster LP set with Karl Haas conducting The London Baroque Ensemble, to my favorite Decca recording with the English Chamber Orchestra led by Benjamin Britten, my Brandeburg recordings have been played en chambre, al fresco, and en passant, in auto or on foot. They are an integral part of my essential whistling repetoire- as in the third concerto where I dare to go where no whistler ought – with that trumpet solo.

This Tacet set achieves yet another level of excellence! Utilizing SACD five channel technology, the listener is presented differing instrumental placements for the various concertos. The first Brandenburg with horns, winds, abd strings finds the orchestra in “standard” position with the rear channels adding ambiance. The second concerto places the listener inside the orchestra. The trumpet is R. rear, the oboe L. rear, the flute R. front, the violin L. front, while the remaining orchestra is arrayed around the listener. The effect is quite thrilling. The voices and counterpoint are so clear. It is as if you are inside of Bach’s brain. And what a brain this is! The insight this technique provides into the interlocking melodies and harmonies is one of the most exciting musical experiences that I have encountered.The third concerto finds the violas front, the cellos and violins R and L respectively. Again, the most remarkable clarity is provided; indeed,clarity is the essence of these recordings .In particular the second third and fourth concertos are most effective. I know my Brandenburgs and am astonished by the information available only from these discs.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra recorded a fine set of Brandenburgs for Decca/London in the 1960s under the direction of Karl Munchinger. It was highly esteemed and remains available at record boutiques.This 2000 Stuttgart recording, without designated conductor, is more idiomatic, more gracefully performed, more spirited and more virtuosic with respect to the soloists’ contributions. Combine these gorgeous performances with the opportunity of literally being inside the 6 Brandenburgs in surround sound and you have a most remarkable listening experience.

Excitingly recommended! [We reviewed the DVD-Audio version of this not long ago in these same pages. Sonics are similar; the main difference is that in that case all the concertos fit on a single DVD…Ed.]

— Ronald Legum

What about this Mr. Pagaini?What about this, Mr. Paganini? – Saschko Gawriloff, violin, with Kira Ratner, piano – Tacet S 36 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD, 53 min. ****:

This recording is another one of those “gimmick” discs that Tacet is constantly throwing our way, with the end result being some seriously good listening for everyone. The concept here has the violinist, Saschko Gawriloff, playing seven different violins, of different vintages, in a kind of “show-down.” All seven violins are used to play the Sarabande movement from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D, and then several of the individual violins are used for a variety of pieces including works from Veracini, Kreisler, Dvorak, Paganini and Webern. It’s much more than just an exercise, hearing the seven instruments back-to-back playing Bach, and really interesting how very different they all do sound, indeed!

The remaining tracks are all accompanied by Kira Ratner on piano, and all tracks are recorded using vintage tube microphones. The sound quality is uniformly superb, regardless of which layer you choose to listen to, though the SACD tracks get my nod for best overall sound. As with the Bach disc above, the multichannel layer uses the surround channels for additional ambience, which does help provide an improved perception of image depth.

The supplied booklet has numerous photos, along with a brief history of each violin’s maker. So which of the seven violins is the big winner? That’s hard to say – they all have their own uniquely impressive musical qualities – but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that soloist Saschko Gawriloff chose three of the Cremona violins for use in three of the five additional works found on the disc. Whether the Guarneri, Stradivari or Amati was in use, each sang with a beauty and purity of tone that was just unmatched by the rest of the competition. Maybe there was something in the water, or the soil that the trees grew in that provided the wood for these incredible instruments – whatever, nothing in modern times comes even close. Highly recommended.

— Tom Gibbs

Battleing Tchaikovsky Fourths hold forth for our next two reviews!

Tchaikovsky 4th - FischerTCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36; Romeo and Juliet–Overture Fantasy in B Minor – Ivan Fischer conducts Budapest Festival Orchestra – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 21704 61:13*****:

I have awarded this fine disc five stars because it is simply an exemplary SACD offering, delighting in the music it contains and consistently gratifying in its splendid sonics. Ivan Fischer (b. 1951) and his Budapest Festival Orchestra have collaborated in some magnificent Tchaikovsky, played for all its virtues and defects, with real passion. The Fourth Symphony, with its fate motifs, coems across stylistically somewhere between the emotional and virtuosic outpourings of Koussievitzky and the leaner approach of say, Cantelli. The surround-sound audiohpile component allows the Tchaikovsky-ite to relish the horn calls, the tympani and cymbal outbursts, and the oboe solo from different points of entry into his listening space. In the Romeo and Juliet, which is executed with every kind of sensitivity to balance and spaciousness (without inflating to Celibidache’s overwrought proportions), the harp and muted tympani effects combine with smoothly evocative transports of the melodic line to achieve a monumental luster. This is the kind of CD that invites one to listen with score in hand, if only to savor the realization of the parts.

The Fischers–conductors Adam and Ivan–are among the most conscientious interpreters, and talking to Adam, I had the impression of a man both on a moral as well as musical mission. Ivan brings to the podium a sense of color as pointed as that of Stokowski, but with his own restraint and polish; perhaps there is something of the Fricsay legacy in his temperament. This Tchaikovsky CD qualifies for anyone’s demo shelf for his audio system, and the music-making keeps on giving.

–Gary Lemco

Tchaikovsky 4th - GergievTCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor – Vienna Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev (live recording) Philips multichannel SACD 475 6196, 40:31 ****:

Stubble-faced Gergiev continues his series of gutsy standard-fare recordings with the Vienna orchestra, featuring his in-your-face face on the cover photo.It’s not difficult to pull out all the stops on this extroverted Tchaikovsky symphony. Gergiev does, and Philips’ engineer capture it well, with it seems more natural hall information on the surrounds than previously – perhaps due to the live recording situation? Gutsy bass drum whacks on this one too – emulating Telarc’s approach perhaps? A Tchaikovsky filler would have been nice to expand on this short 40-minute program. Having done the SF SymphonyTilson Thomas Tchaikovsky Fourth DVD last issue, I’m Fourthed out at the moment. [and see the competing SACD just above]

– John Sunier

We nearly have a crisis of Kreislers this month! Witness this:

Tribute to Fritz KreislerKREISLER: Praeludium and Allegro; Menuett; Tambourin; Rondino; Melodie after Gluck; Allegreto; Hindu-Lied; Mazurka from Chopin&Mac226;s Op. 67, No. 4; La Gitana; Impromptu after Schubert; Liebesfreud; Liebeslied; Tambourin Chinois, Op. 3; Cavatina; Schoen Rosmarin; Songs My Mother Taught Me; Hungarian Dance from Brahms; Hymn to the Sun; Malaguena from Albeniz, Op. 165, No. 3 – Salvatore Accardo, violins Laura Manzini, piano – Foné Stereo-only SACD 003 69:17 ****:

Subtitled The Violins of Cremona, this 1993 extended tribute to the art of Fritz Kreisler has virtuoso Salvatore Accardo in the Cremona Town Hall Violin Room, plying his craft on five classic instruments, the Charles IX Amati; the Hammerle Amati; the Quarestani by Guarneri; the Cremonese of Stradivari; and the Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu. Each violin comes complete with details of its provenance in the liner notes, so I felt like I was listening to a scene from the movie The Deep, except with Viennese music. For my money, the Charles IX and the Guarenri del Gesu steal the show with their rich tone and luster, which Accardo communicates with aplomb.

The selections themselves need little by way of restatement: most are stylistic reconstructions by Kreisler of ersatz composers whose contributions are more nominal than real. The Chopin A Minor Mazurka and the G-flat Impromptu of Schubert sail forth in seamless legato transcription. The Menuett after Porpora and the Cavatina are relatively infrequent works. I found the Hammerle Amati a bit nasal in tone color, but the Stradivari Cremonese on Schoen Rosmarin is no slouch. Ruggiero Ricci, as I recall, made much of the same display in a couple of old American Decca LPs, including an intriguing entry called Violin Plus One, where each selection paired the violin against a new solo instrument. Keep this one and get MCA to reissue the Riccis. The Accardo, though, is a striking addition to the historic catalogue in every respect.

–Gary Lemco

Hommage to KreislerHOMAGE TO KREISLER: Works by Fritz Kreisler – Daniel Gaede, violin, with Phillip, piano – Tacet S 52 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD, 64 min. ***:

Of the three Tacet discs I had the pleasure to evaluate this month, this collection of works by Fritz Kreisler is, unfortunately, the most mixed bag of the three. Not that the performances aren’t all superb – they are, and Daniel Gaede, who is the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, plays these pieces with finesse and gusto. Tacet doesn’t provide an excess of information on the recordings, either in the supplied booklet or via the web, so one can only make certain suppositions with regard to why some of the recordings here sound so much better than others. This disc is the only one of the three that doesn’t utilize an all-tube microphone complement in the recordings, and it’s my guess that the tracks that didn’t exactly blow me away were the ones recorded with the Neumann KM140’s. Excellent microphones, no doubt, but just not in the same class as Neumann’s tube offerings. This disc also employs the most distant recorded perspective of the three – which might also have colored my perception of the presentations.

As with the other Tacet SACDs, the multichannel presentation offered the best all-around recreation of the recording sessions. There’s some superb music-making here – it’s just not in the same “ear-candy” class as some of Tacet’s other offerings. Recommended.

— Tom Gibbs

Telemann in MinorGEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN = “Telemann in Minor” – Orchestral Suite in A Minor for 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo (world premiere); Sonata in F Minor for 2 violins, 2 violas, cello and basso continuo; Concerto in E Minor for flute, violin, strings and basso continuo; Sonata in B-flat Major for 2 violins, 2 violas, cello and basso continuou; Concerto in E Minor for 2 flutes, violin, strings and basso continuo – Pratum Integrum Orchestra (historical instruments); Pavel Serbin, artistic director – Caro Mitis multichannel SACD CM 0042004, 57:20 ****:

Pratum Integrum is the only original-instrument orchestra in Russia and one of the few ensembles specializing in early music. The members are nearly all very young but also very skilled. The entire package is beautifully designed and carried out, with an informative note booklet decorated with lovely medieval-looking artwork along the sides. The actual disc is imprinted with what looks like a Classical period dish design – one of the most striking optical disc printing jobs I have seen. The 5-channel recordings for this Russian label are made by Netherlands-based Polyhymnia International and are of great clarity and focus, with the surrounds giving a fine impression of the concert space – which was a studio of the Russian TV and Radio Company in Moscow large enough to hold both a symphony orchestra and an audience. Such studios are no longer overly-deadened with excessive absorbtive materials as was once the fashion in the Soviet period. (Then Melodiya would add metallic-sounding artificial reverb in mastering.)

Telemann was the leading composer of his time, getting much more attention than J.S. Bach. Yet much of his music has yet to be recorded and appreciated. The title of this disc may be a bit corny (reminding me of program themes of the late radio host Karl Haas) but it is a challenge to present several similar works by composers as prolific as Telemann; Vivaldi concertos present a similar problem. The newly-presented Orchestral Suite sports ten short movements (one only 58 seconds) in mostly dance forms. It is fresh sounding and more than that rather French-sounding – almost reminding one of Rameau’s suites. The other four works use standard tempo markings for the movements, which are four except for one concerto with five movements. The soloists on flute and oboe are exceptional. Tempi are occasionally break-neck, but without the slightest missed notes. (Made me think of the recent news item alleging that some classical soloists were taking performance-enhancing drugs to play faster; somehow seems unlikely in Russia.) Both Italian and French musical influences are heard, and most such Telemann works end with very happy-sounding and tuneful finales.

– John Sunier

Mozart Flute concertos 1 & 2MOZART: Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major; Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra K299; Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major – Patrick Gallois, flute; Fabrice Pierre, harp; Roderick Shaw, harpsichord/Swedish Chamber Orch./Patrick Gallois – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110055, 70:15 ****:

These three fairly familiar Mozart works were written for amateur performers but are nevertheless full of typically wonderful Mozartian melodies and harmonies. They have been recorded many times before but this disc brings all three together in superb interpretations and in excellent 5-channel sound, recorded in a concert hall in Sweden. Flutist Gallois has received raves for previous recordings, and brings his players together here for a thoroughly satisfying Mozartian chamber concert.

– John Sunier
SIBELIUS: Sym. Nos. 3 & 7 - DavisSIBELIUS: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 7 – London Symphony OrchestraSir Colin Davis (rec. live at Barbican Center, London) – LSO multichannel SACD LS00552, 53:44 ****:

Following on the success of other major orchestras launching their own record labels, the London Symphony followed suit in 2000 and their 25 CDs so far have resulted in their becoming one of the major classical labels in the world. Most of the recordings are made live in the concert hall during public performance for the utmost energy and excitement. Now the LSO is beginning to release multichannel SACD versions of their catalog, which has all been recorded multichannel. One of the first was the Brahms Third Symphony, and here we have two of the Sibelius seven symphonies. In his Second Symphony the Finnish composer began to experiment with musical form – trying to depart from the standard symphonic strictures. In the Third Symphony and the rest of his symphonies the composer realized new ways of structuring the long works. He began in the Third by reacting against what he felt were the vast, overstuffed symphonic excesses of Mahler, Strauss and Scriabin – by creating a study in economy. His orchestra is smaller, the symphony is shorter, and the treatment of the main themes in the 11 1/2-minute first movement is concise and not drawn out unreasonably. The middle movement is a slowish dance with any instrumental color best described as shades of grey. The final movement is a type of scherzo in which speed is the essence. A strong theme is treated in a manner evocative of the composer’s Night Ride and Sunrise.

The last symphony of Sibelius dates from 1924 and is in a single continuous 23-minute movement. The composer compared its symphonic form to the formation of a river bed, where there are many tributaries, brooks and streams, and eventually it majestically broadens into the sea. Flowing musical ideas determine the structure of the symphony, rather than adherance to symphonic tradition. Teachers of music theory regard the work as one of the major achievements of 20th-century symphonic composition. The listener is carried like a log floating on the river thru a series of contrasting tempi, timbres and temperaments, ending in a hard-won C Major key. I feel that Bernstein derived more drama and excitement out of these “condensed symphonies” in his set of the seven, but that’s personal taste, and this SACD certainly has the edge in glorious hi-res surround sound.

– John Sunier

Brahms: Hungarian Dances for 4 handsBRAHMS: Hungarian Dances (complete) – Steven & Stijn Kolacny, piano four hands – Etcetera multichannel SACD KTC 5250, 52:27 ****:

The Kolacnys are a pair of Belgian brothers who began playing four-hand piano music together at an early age. In their 7th disc they take on the tunefuland lively Hungarian Dances – on the score of which Brahms identified himself as the arranger and not the composer. Nevertheless he had to field many accusations of plagiarism from various obscure composers. At the start of the 20th century Bartok and Kodaly discovered in their folk music research (recording on wax cylinder records) that the tunes which Brahms described as true Hungarian folk songs were not that at all but commercialized gypsy music from the cafes of Vienna. Actually this work should be titled “Gypsy Dances.”

The Kolacny brothers play a Steinway Model D and the brilliant high notes balance well with the bassy and rhythmic bottom part of the keyboard. One wouldn’t think the surround information would add much to the portrayal of the four hands at the single keyboard, but it does aid the spatial presence of the two performers, as well as place them in a palpable concert hall setting. In this case i didn’t mind that much the wide-than-real piano reproduction found on most recordings today, because it made it easier to hear the interplay between Part I and Part II on the 88 notes.

– John Sunier

Surround Yrself with Paco PenaSurround Yourself With Paco Peña – Misa Flamenca and Flamenco Guitar Music of RAMON MONTOYA & NINO RICARDO – Paca Peña, guitar (in Misa Flamenca:) Text & music adapted by Peña, Choir arrangments by Stephen Dodgson, other guitarists: Tito Losada, Jose Losada, Diego Losada; percussion: Jose Losada, Cesar Victoriano; singers: La Susi, El Chaparro, Dieguito, Guadiana; with Academy of St.Martin in the Fields Chorus/Laszlo Heltay – Nimbus DVD-A & DTS NI 9007, 96:00 ****:

Not exactly classical, but the flamenco mass brings this superb collection of ethnic music closer to the category. Note first of all the 96-minute length on the single DVD! This disc provides the UHJ Ambisonic option of most of the Nimbus library, but it is only identified by the small letters UHJ after the stereo PCM ID. Probably because most purchasers are unlikely to have Ambisonic decoders at hand. There is also a 4-channel DTS option, but no Dolby Digital. For DVD-A playback there is an 88.2K-20bit option, also in four channels.

Spanish guitarist Paco Peña has been judged the Flamenco Guitarist of the Year for five consecutive years in Guitar magazine. he is on the cutting edge of expanding the traditional flamenco guitar style into some new areas. He has also played with a diverse cross-section of other guitarists and performers – including jazz, classical, blues, country and Latin. The Misa Flamenca is a unique take on the effort to bring the mass to the masses with music closer to them, of which the jazz masses would also be examples. The notes say that the northern European might question the strong cries of anguish in flamenco cantos being appropriate for a service dedicated to God. But the Spanish mind finds it perfectly fitting to set the sacred texts soaring in their own gutteral voices. And with the special arrangements, choir, and multiple guitars the effect can be spell-binding even for a listener not conversant with either musical masses or flamenco music.

The solo guitar portion which opens the disc is devoted to six short pieces by Montoya and seven by Ricardo. Both composers were masters of the flamenco form, and developed the solo pieces from their accompaniments to the Andalusian singers. The later Ricardo restored some of the elements of the root music, but also gave the music renewed vitality and the split-second rhythms which make it so exciting today. Again, one wouldn’t expect the additional two channels to aid reproduction of the solo guitar very much, but they do.

– John Sunier

A few pianists on SACD are up next…

James Boyk piano recital on SACDJames Boyk, piano – Tonalities of Emotion = BACH: Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue; CHOPIN: Fantasy-Impromptu Op. 66; DEBUSSY: Reflections on the Water; MOZART: Sonata in A Minor K310 – Stereo SACD PR10, 44:59 ****:

James Boyk makes the phrase Renaissance man short of an accurate description. He is a concert pianist, professor of electrical engineering at Caltech – where he also leads a series of musical encounters, an active recording engineer, and an author and consultant. He was involved in the engineering of the famed Sheffield Lab direct discs of the Kodo Drummers and the LA Philharmonic. He studied piano with Leonid Hambro among others. For Boyk, all his activities add up to the one career of musician, and it is that is in the spotlight in this program of keyboard classics.

The program is fairly conservative but varied. The liner notes include a lovely essay by Boyk titled “In Love With Sound.” The opening Bach selection is cleanly articulated in a very detached style (but not as extreme as Glenn Gould), and the Chopin transitions to the Romantic style flawlessly. I would have liked a bit more pedal in the Debussy. The Mozart Sonata is the same as on the Richard Goode Nonesuch CD reviewed this issue, which exhibits a bit more flow and polish, but there is no denying the fidelity of Boyk’s recording leaves the Nonesuch version in the dust, and I don’t believe entirely because it is SACD. In addition to his careful micing and other aspects of recording, Boyk was the first performer to record on the magnificent Bösendorfer piano, with a much more musical and less harsh treble, as well as added bass notes. He uses ribbon mics and special tube preamps, and even advises users to try switching the polarity of their speaker cables to see if the sound improves. This is one of the few piano recordings in which the piano sound normal size in stereo – not stretched. Switching in Pro Logic II creates a richer and more realistic sonic picture of the instrument with stronger bass extension, but now it streches to 40 feet wide! This problem arising is about the only time I turn Pro Logic off and return to direct stereo.

– John Sunier

Chopin Scherzos & Impromptus - LiYundi Li, piano – CHOPIN: Scherzos Nos. 1 – 4; Impromptus Nos. 1-3 – DGG multichannel SACD 00289 474 8782 ****:

The latest phenomenal pianist from China is a national hero there and currently living and studying in Germany. His second DGG album was recorded at Siemens Villa in Berlin. At age 4 Yundi was so taken with hearing the sounds of an accordion that he insisted his unmusical parents get him one. Later he switched to piano and his favorite composer was Chopin. He seems totally relaxed and not pushed in this survey of Chopin’s Scherzo and Impromptus, described as “an element of weightlessness” to his playing. His tone and phrasing belies a performer of much more advanced age and experience. Sonics are rich and powerful except, as usual, the piano sounds way too large. (James Boyk’s recording notes say the listener’s perspective is of “standing in the crook of the grand piano.” But we don’t stand in the crook to listen to a piano recital!)

– John Sunier

Pletnev plays Schumann piano worksPletnev Plays SCHUMANN: Etudes symphoniques Op. 13; Fantasie in C Major Op. 17; Bunte Blätter: Albumblätter I-V; Arabesque – Mikhail Pletnev, piano – DGG multichannel SACDs 477 057-2 (2 discs), 28:08, 48:13 ****:

This is a Schumannesque week for me. Just finished reviewing the John Lill two-LP set of Schumann piano works recorded by Tony Faulkner entirely in analog, and here is a two-SACD set of more Schumann – included another interpretation of the C Major Fantasy. OK, interesting comparison, right? It is very nice to have the more enveloping sound of the performance space accessible on the multichannel SACD, and Pletnev may run a little more dramatic in his interpretation, but the sound of John Lill’s piano on the LP is again superior in most other aspects to the SACD – especially so if we switch from the multichannel option to the stereo SACD for a fairer comparison.

Back to the music: The Symphonic Etudes is a winner with performers and listeners for the exciting way it expands the capabilities of both the piano and the performer. Its 28-minute length and passages that try to transform the piano into an entire orchestra qualify the work for the “symphonic” appelation. (Although the Fantasy in C is longer yet.) The structure of the work is simple – it’s a theme and variations with a big finish. But it is full of musical and extra-musical references. In spite of its very extrovert nature, the two alter-egos of Schumann (which eventually developed into serious mental illness) are felt in the emotional contrasts of the Etudes. The Album Leaves are short pieces – one as short as 45 seconds! – which Schumann composed at various times. Five of them are gathered together in Op. 99. The closing Arabesque, with its affecting melody, is an example of Schumann’s “house music” for performance in the home.

– John Sunier

Paavo Jarvi cond. Richard Strauss chamber worksRICHARD STRAUSS: Suite for Orchestra: The Bourgeois Gentleman; Duet-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon; Sextet from “Capriccio” – Daniel Sepec, violin; Nicole Kern, clarinet; Higinio Arrue, bassoon; The German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen/Paavo Järvi – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 060, 65:36 ****:

Richard Strauss is best known for his large-scale symphonic works – especially (post-”2001”) for his Thus Spake Zarathustra. But conductor Paavo Jarvi wanted to expose more of Strauss’ intimate chamber music, and this delightful SACD is the result. He feels it is difficult to find music more masterly, beautiful and charming than the suite from Les Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and it’s long been one of my personal favorites. The original idea was for Strauss to write incidental music for the Moliere comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which would then be the framework for the performance of Strauss opera Ariadne aud Naxos. The premiere was not a success and Strauss later arranged some of the music into this witty suite, which retains some of the 17th century setting in its bow to Baroque music.

The nine sections roughly parallel the story of the nouveau riche merchant who lets his sudden affluence go to his head. There is a humorous fencing lesson, a fitting with his tailors, and so forth. The concluding and longest movement is The Dinner, which steps up the parody, qouting Wagner and doing some French Baroque tone-painting.

The two woodwind soloists of the Duet have entirely different timbres, making for an interesting interplay between them and the chamber orchestra. Composed near the end of WWII, with Strauss entangled with the Nazi regime, the lovely work seems to look for a musical escapism from the real world. Pentatone’s five-channel surround concentrates on the front soundstage and cleanly places the small orchestra in the frontal arc.

– John Sunier

[NOTE: Most of our SACD reviews no long mention if the disc is hybrid because all SACDs now have a standard CD layer. But we do mention if a disc is stereo-only.]

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