The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)

darTZeel NHB-108 model one stereo power amplifier

Regrets, I have a few… even about reviewer-loan audio equipment I now wish I had bought, way back when.

The first audio magazine I wrote for was Wayne Green’s Digital Audio magazine. The première issue came out in September, 1984. The articles listed on the cover included “How to Buy Your First CD Player.” (Snort.) I was the founding classical-music columnist (“Classical ReMarks”).

I got that columnist job by pure happenstance. Someone I knew (Chuck Dougherty) worked for the regional hi-fi chain Tweeter, Etc. Chuck also was a computer whiz who moonlighted writing for one of Wayne Green’s computer magazines. Word got around to Chuck that Wayne Green Enterprises needed someone who knew about classical music, and who also could write. Seeing as I was already writing reviews of classical music concerts and recitals for the Providence Journal, I seemed to be a good fit. Wayne Green’s little publishing empire was based in New Hampshire. As it happened, I was visiting New Hampshire frequently, in that I was organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series at Thomas More College in Merrimac.

While writing for Digital Audio, I not only reviewed CDs and wrote a column; I also interviewed musicians, including André Watts, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Joseph Silverstein. Although my duties did not include equipment reviews, I did have occasion to drool over (or lust over) some pieces of gear. I moved on to the Planet HiFi website (which was where I first reviewed audio equipment, and not just recordings), and then back to print journalism, first with The Absolute Sound, and then Stereophile.

Please note, this mini-series is limited to products that I had the opportunity to hear in my home, as part of a formal review process. There are many excellent products I would consider buying, but which I just have not had the opportunity to hear at home; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the excellent radial loudspeakers from MBL.

After the jump, I recall some of the “big-fish” (as well as some “little fish”) audio-review-loan components that got away. Continue Reading →

George Benson: “The Other Side of Abbey Road”

The Beatles’ final studio album Abbey Road was released on LP in the United States on September 26, 1969. As will be discussed after the jump, audio-industry maven Philip O’Hanlon pulled together (under the “Magnum Opus Rediscovered” banner) a coast-to-coast Abbey Roadlistening party” for Saturday, September 28, 2019, in which 40 audio dealers will play the remastered album on “fine audio” (or “high end”) equipment, from 3:00 to 6:00 PM (local times).

Which is all fine and good. But I for one wish that the participating audio shops would have extended the duration of their events by not all that much time (32 minutes), and spin what is to my mind, far and away, the best Abbey Road cover album ever, George Benson‘s woefully under-appreciated The Other Side of Abbey Road. Will they, won’t they? Matters not. It’s easy to add this gem to your collection!

Starting only three weeks after Abbey Road‘s US début (October 22-23 & November 4-5, 1969), producer Creed Taylor (who produced this record for Herb Alpert’s label A&M) convened a rather astonishing gathering of participating musicians at engineer Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio. Don Sebesky was in charge of their comings and goings, in that he was the arranger. (Benson sang, as well as playing guitar.)

How’s this for an (incomplete) lineup? Ray Barretto, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws, Idris Muhammad, George Ricci (brother of Ruggiero Ricci), and Emanuel Vardi? More information (and sound samples) after the jump. Continue Reading →

When Sofie Sings

von otter good

I chose to kick off the Music-Video Fridays series on my site, The Tannhauser Gate, with Anne Sofie von Otter, from her live-in-Paris 2004 DVD Voices of Our Time—a Tribute to Korngold.

The daughter of the Swedish diplomat Baron Göran Fredrik von Otter, Anne Sofie von Otter studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and made her début as Alcina in Haydn’s Orlando paladino in Basel in 1983.

In addition to her notable successes in the oratorio and opera music of Bach, Bartok, Elgar, Handel, Monteverdi, and Mozart, von Otter’s art-song repertory encompasses Brahms, Grieg, Korngold, Mahler, and Sibelius. In 1993, her Grieg song-recital CD (with Bengt Forsberg) became the first song recording ever to win Gramophone magazine’s “Record of the Year” award. Were that not enough, she has also collaborated with Elvis Costello, and with Brad Mehldau.

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An Evening of Roses

In 1957, Israeli composer Yoseph Hadar put music to the words of poet Moshe Dor and created one of the great modern love songs, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Evening of Roses. It was first recorded by Yafa Yarkoni the same year. A year later it was a local hit in Israel for the Dudaim folk duo and as they toured around the world it was popularized internationally in the folk music craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It’s been recorded by a truly diverse group of artists including Harry Belefonte, Miriam Makeba, and Nana Mouskouri, all in Hebrew, with Mouskouri doing an original Greek version. Yarkoni even rerecorded it in Spanish, with a Mexican orchestra. In 1974, Yugoslav prog-rockers Dah recorded Šošana, featuring a melody based on Hadar’s tune. A year later, the band moved to Belgium, changed their name to Land, and they recorded an English version titled Shoshana, which became enough of an international hit that, according to Wikipedia, became a popular soccer chant in Europe. Continue Reading →

Auner Quartet: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, String Quartet No. 2 in a, Op. 13

The musical form I had the most commercial success in (as a classical-music record producer and label owner), was the string quartet. Granted, my remarkably successful string-quartet recordings consisted of quartet arrangements of sacred and traditional Christmas music. But those recordings are a lot more “classical” in character than “crossover” in character. In other words, no Frosty and no Rudolph. My three original JMR Arturo Delmoni & Friends Rejoice! A String Quartet Christmas CDs have been reissued by Steinway & Sons Recordings as a 3-CD set.

Whatever happens to me from here on out, evidence of my devotion to the string-quartet form will live on. That’s because I am the dedicatee of Morten Lauridsen’s (to-date) sole work in that genre, a transcription for string quartet of his chamber-choir chanson “Contre Qui, Rose.” “Contre Qui, Rose” is one of Lauridsen’s settings of Rainer Maria Rilke’s French-language poems. Lauridsen chose among the Rilke poems that mentioned roses for his 1993 cycle Les Chansons des Roses. The story continues after the jump link.

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Christmas Music (Part 4): ORA Singers: “The Mystery of Christmas”

ORA Singers: The Mystery of Christmas
Music of Allain, Anonymous, Byrd, Hall, Hyde, Lauridsen, Macmillan,
McDowall, Peacock, Rowarth, Rutter, Samitz, Sixten, Tallis, Williams, and Weir.
CD Harmonia Mundi HMM 905303
Downloads (24-bit/96kHz stereo AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and WAV) available from HDTracks.
Streaming available from Tidal.

Recorded at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, January 23-28 and August 7-12, 2017. Nicholas Parker (all tracks except track 5) and Tim Handley (track 5 only), producers; Mike Hatch, engineer. Support for the arts from the Pureland Foundation. Total time 76’37.

My previous Christmas-music recommendations can be found here: Part 1; Part 2; and Part 3.

Here’s a fantastic new recording from a group new to me, Suzi Digby’s ORA Singers. They are as good as any handpicked professional choral ensemble out there. (I have heard most of the top ones live.) This collection showcases ORA’s “Unique Selling Proposition,” which is to prove that today, we are in a Golden Age not only of choral singing, but also of composing works for vocal ensembles. (Funny; I have long said the exact same thing about the art of the string quartet. We live in a golden age of the string quartet—both for playing and for new works.)

Therefore, ORA’s (for lack of a better phrase) business plan is to commission 100 new works for chorus over the course of ten years. (They are well on their way to achieving that goal, having commissioned 40 works in three years.) To make it even more interesting, Ms. Digby’s approach is to ask today’s composers to create works that are personal reflections upon the choral glories of the past, especially the masterworks of the Renaissance. Ambitious, yes. But several of the new works on this disc should find their ways into the standard repertory fairly quickly.

As a producer of classical recordings, one of my favorite Shibboleths (or, rubrics or axioms) long has been that, once your CD has started playing in the CD player of the reviewer, radio programmer, or record-store buyer, you have only ten seconds to make the sale. Furthermore, I believe that you make the sale only by giving the listener that “You are in good hands with Allstate” feeling. If the listener gets the feeling that your performance is for you a nerve-racking tightrope walk, no sale. (Obviously, there are exceptions to my little rule. Not much at all happens in the first ten seconds of Mahler’s Symphony 1; at least, not much by which you can distinguish a great performance from one that is merely unobjectionable.) In the case of the ORA Singers’ The Mystery of Christmas, convincing me took only the first four to eight seconds of the first track.

More information, a performance video, and sound bytes from The Mystery of Christmas after the jump. Continue Reading →

Guest Post: Light Eternal—The Choral Music of Morten Lauridsen (Trailer)

Last Friday, Deutsche Grammophon released the CD Light Eternal—The Choral Music of Morten Lauridsen. Amazon’s pre-order price for the CD is $12.59, which is a truly excellent price. But this CD would be a bargain at full list. There is also a 24/88 hi-res PCM download from HDTracks, reasonably priced at nearly 90 minutes of music for $20.98 (There are two bonus tracks with the download). The album will also be streaming from Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal. And if you don’t mind reduced sound quality and the occasional advertisement, the album appears as an authorized playlist on YouTube. That’s right! You can hear the whole thing before you buy it!

My experience in producing and selling classical-music recordings is that most people don’t have formal training in music history or music theory, but they do want beauty in their lives, and they recognize it when they hear it. This is one of those recordings. If you care about choral music, especially contemporary American choral music, or if you simply want to add some beauty to your life, please vote with your wallet and buy this CD (or download), and also please consider buying half a dozen, a dozen, or more, as stocking stuffers (or, as “holiday,” or even non-holiday gifts). Lauridsen’s music is contemporary music that honors the entire tradition of choral singing, from O magnum mysterium‘s soundworld, which to me calls to mind the soundworld of Allegri, to Madrigali—Six FireSongs on Italian Renaissance Poems, which is perhaps best described as modernism—but with a heart and a soul.

Trailer embed and track listing after the jump. Continue Reading →

Indianapolis International Violin Competition Semi-Final Video and Results

One of the most important international competitions for young (ages 16 to 29) violinists takes place in the United States every four years. (The other top-tier classical-music competitions that include violinists, Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky and Belgium’s Queen Elizabeth, also run on four-year cycles.) While one might expect the US entry on that list to be hosted in California or New York, the venue is: Indianapolis, of 500-mile auto-race fame—and for excellent reasons.

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Guest Post: The Saddest Song

This article originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate — JB

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump. Continue Reading →