Reference Recordings, 2006

       Reference Recordings is back, and back with a bang! After an unfortunate experience merging with the now defunct Dorian, the original principals of Reference Recordings have reclaimed their company, and are going full steam ahead with a bevy of new releases, as well as restored availability of all previous RR releases.
       During Reference Recordings' hiatus, Professor Keith Johnson seems to have improved the sonic quality of their recording and mastering chain even further, beyond its already superlative quality evident from previous RR releases. This improvement is most obvious in RR's new orchestral recordings, RR-105 and RR-108. These orchestral recordings sound even more transparent, with improved precision, speed, delicacy, and pristine purity. It's thrilling to be able to hear subtle, felicitous musical details reproduced so clearly and so naturally, at a yet higher sonic plateau than even RR's own enviable previous orchestral recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra. This superior transparency also offers richer musical enjoyment, since you can hear aspects of the composer's orchestration that escaped your notice with other inferior recordings. And this superior transparency allows Keith Johnson to mike the orchestra from a farther, more natural perspective, which also includes more of the natural concert hall ambience (commercial recordings usually mike orchestras with unnaturally close perspective, to boost the detail picked up by their mikes, in order to compensate for the musical detail lost in their inferior recording chain).
       The star of the new RR releases is RR-108, Garden of Dreams, featuring the symphonic music of David Maslanka. The sonics of this orchestral recording top virtually everything Keith Johnson (or anyone else) has ever achieved before. There's an exquisite balance of musical detail with rich hall ambience that frames the music. Track 3 features the most amazingly realistic portrayal of music and the space around the music that I have yet heard, from any two channel recording, with the musical transients therein creating a superlative sense of concert hall space around the music, from the hall reflections that are clearly audible in the momentary silence after each musical transient. And this CD is especially amazing when enhanced into 7 channel surround by a capable Dolby Pro Logic IIx processor (such as the Arcam AVR350) - you'd swear that you were listening to a full 7 channel surround recording, as you are aurally transported to the concert hall venue of this recording. This recording is also very impressive for the sonority of the many tutti passages, especially the finale of Maslanka's Symphony #4, which includes an organ going full tilt as it accompanies the orchestra in full tutti mode.
       Maslanka's music is also a triumph. It is by turns majestic, lively, and gentle. Although Maslanka's music does employ some of the vocabulary of modern music, he fully honors the harmonic progressions of 19th century classical music, as well as its structures, so his music is very accessible and enjoyable, even for those of us who have difficulty relating to most modern music.
       The first piece on this album, A Child's Garden of Dreams, is richly substantive, complex, and very adult, not just the innocent, simplistic, childlike music you might expect from the title. Maslanka's massively (and magnificently) structured 5 movement Symphony #4 has a program reminiscent of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, both symphonies featuring an interpolation of a well-known hymn (here the Old 100th, Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow), which is introduced early in the symphony as bits and snatches woven into the variations (here with allusions to Dies Irae as counterpoint), and is finally triumphantly revealed in its full glory later in the symphony. There's also a brief Maslanka piece entitled In Memoriam.
       Conductor Jerry Junkin leads the Dallas Wind Symphony with sensitive, lively alertness. Junkin also maintains a steadiness that helps us to better hear the structure of each piece as it evolves. He does not add much rhythmic inflection, but Maslanka's pieces do not need this, since they proceed with a pace rooted in the earth, much as Hovhaness' music does.
       Another sonically outstanding RR release is RR-105, Symphonic Dances, which features symphonic dances by Rachmaninov, Bernstein (from West Side Story), and Gabriella Frank (Three Latin American Dances). This orchestral recording captures the Utah Symphony from a more distant perspective than previous RR orchestral recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra, which sound more up front (possibly partly due to the acoustics of the concert hall in Minnesota, since Mercury recordings of this same orchestra were notoriously up front). This more distant perspective on RR-105 not only puts the orchestra at a greater distance, but also frames the orchestra in rich concert hall ambience, and portrays a more blended orchestral sound from the many individual instruments. If this were a lesser quality commercial recording, such rich hall ambience and such strong sonic blending might obscure musical details, but, thanks to the superior transparency of Keith Johnson's recording chain, you still hear abundant musical detail, even amidst this rich ambience and blending.
       The musical interpretations on this album, by conductor Keith Lockhart and the Utah Symphony, are passable but not optimal. The Bernstein pieces could use a more saucy swagger, such as Bernstein himself brings to this music as conductor. The Frank pieces don't contain enough musical substance for my taste, though you might enjoy them more. Lockhart conducts the Rachmaninov with an admirably propulsive rhythmic beat, but hiccups in this beat make the music seem choppy at times (rather than flowing), and the orchestra members seem unsure of the proper tempo at some of their entrances. Still, this CD is definitely worth getting for its magnificent sonics, allowing you to appreciate some inner voices of Rachmaninov's scoring that you have probably never heard before from any other recording.
       Another winner from Reference Recordings' rebirth is RR-107, The Bach Gamut, featuring Virgil Fox playing Bach at the Ruffatti organ in St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco. The master tapes were recorded by Keith Johnson way back in 1976, but they sound magnificent even today. The sonority of the organ is beautifully captured. And the miking perspective is amazing, perfectly framing the organ with a rich halo of ambience. This recording is far superior to most other organ recordings, even some of the other (more recent) recordings on the RR label itself. Virgil Fox' playing is, as always, colorful and dramatic. Regardless of how you might think Bach should be played to sound "authentic", Fox' drama is the perfect complement here, to Keith Johnson's dramatic recording of this organ. A definite must-buy!
       Reference Recordings has also released a new sampler CD that's worth getting, RR-908, entitled 30th Anniversary Sampler. It features excerpts from some of RR's best recent recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra, including a track that has not yet been released by RR on any CD (an excellent recording of Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody #1). As with other previous RR samplers, this album makes a splendid reference CD for testing, evaluating, and showing off your system.
       The fifth CD in the reborn RR's bevy of new releases is RR-106, World Keys, featuring pianist Joel Fan playing a potpourri of music from various composers around the world. This album has been a best seller for Reference Recordings, and has been praised by others, so you might want to take my critique with a grain of salt. Fan is adept at playing all the notes, and that's certainly better than a musician who is not adept at playing the notes. But I look for something more from musicians. I want a musician not merely to play the notes, but also to play the music. The music, after all, is what the composer composed and heard in his head, and the notes are merely a shorthand way of conveying to the performing musician the true music that the composer intended, so that the performing musician can bring to you his audience, as best he can divine it from the shorthand notes, the true music as the composer heard it in his head and intended for you the audience to hear it. Fan plays all the notes, but he does not play the music.
       In the short fluff pieces on this album, that distinction is of little import. But two pieces on this album are major pieces of music, not just showoff collections of notes, and they deserve to be heard as music. In the Prokofiev Sonata No. 3, Matti Raekallio (on Ondine) realizes a whole world of musical meaning, inflection, and angular accents, far beyond other pianists (including Prokofiev himself as a performer), and far beyond Fan's mere assemblage of piano notes here.
       Then, Schumann's Sonata No. 2, a rich-blooded, intensely romantic work, musically requires (in the opening of first movement) that the cascading figures from the left hand be like a background waterfall, against which the articulated notes from the right hand stand out boldly in the foreground. Hamelin (on Hyperion) achieves this musical portrait superbly, as does Argerich on DGG (with less pedal). But Fan plays all the notes, and plays them all (including the left hand background notes) with equal strength and value and importance, so that there is no background and no foreground. Thus, Fan's portrait becomes a flat, two dimensional assemblage of notes, not the three dimensional, living, breathing, flesh-and-blood romantic music it should be. Indeed, in his eagerness to play all the left hand notes distinctly, rather than as a background cascading waterfall, Fan has to slow down his playing, so that all the individual notes of the left hand cascade can be articulated individually, and he thereby disobeys Schumann's tempo instruction to play this movement as fast as possible. In effect, Fan slows down the cascading waterfall so that we can see every individual drop of water, and he thereby ruins Schumann's musically intended effect of a blurred cascading background. Fan plays all the notes, but fails to play the music.
       The recording is very good, but the piano tone is much leaner and brighter than the rich, warm tone that Keith Johnson captured from a Hamburg Steinway on RR's own earlier piano albums with Nojima. This tonal difference is probably due to the different piano used here, plus different acoustics of the recording venue.
       It's ironic that we give the lowest marks to what is probably the best selling of these 5 albums. So you might want to ignore our critique here, and go with the positive opinions of many others.
       We enthusiastically welcome Reference Recordings back, and we strongly recommend 4 out their 5 new releases (which is great batting average for any record company). Reference Recordings' improved sonics are a wonder that you must experience, and their championing of good music, including lesser known music, is much appreciated. Thank you, Reference Recordings, and may you live long and prosper!

CD: Skrowaczewski, Concerto for Orchestra, Concerto Nicolo
Reference Recordings RR-103CD

      Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's Concerto for Orchestra is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Imagine Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (a classic masterpiece), but written some 40 years later, with more modern and adventurous harmonies, and with even more vivid use of orchestral colors than Bartok's work. Skrowaczewski's splashes of orchestral color, from many different kinds of instruments, give this concerto an engagingly vivacious sparkle, and, teamed with Keith Johnson's superb recording, are also a wonderful test and showcase for your sound system.
      More importantly, from a musical perspective, Skrowaczewski's splashes of color are not mere exclamatory shouts, as in so many other modern works which are so disappointingly empty of musical content that could engage our human emotions. Instead, Skrowaczewski's vertical harmonies and harmonic progressions make structured sense and are richly evocative of the human emotions that we all have learned to enjoy from nineteenth century music (cf. this work's emotionally surging harmonic developments, in which Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra also abounds). Skrowaczewski's harmonies make this work very accessible as modern music goes, and richly enjoyable for repeated hearings.
      Skrowaczewski's Concerto for Orchestra is conducted here by Skrowaczewski himself, so one could of course assume that this interpretation is definitive. But it is more than that. Skrowaczewski the conductor shows here an energetic pulse that recalls the recordings for Mercury many years ago of a much younger Skrowaczewski, when he first took over the Minneapolis Symphony from Dorati. This youthful conducting energy is a refreshing surprise, and very appropriate to this work. It is a surprise because the conducting of the elder Skrowaczewski, like that of the elder Klemperer and Giulini, has generally become granitely stolid - though it must be granted that these slow tempi allowed the sage intellect of these three elder conductors to patiently explore and powerfully illuminate the inner workings of scores (in Skrowaczewski's case a prime example is his probing Bruckner, especially the Eighth Symphony on a bargain Arte Nova CD).
      Thus, from every standpoint, Skrowaczewski's Concerto for Orchestra on this disc makes this Reference Recordings CD a must buy, especially if you enjoy works such as the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.
      The other work on this CD is Skrowaczewski's piano concerto for the left hand and orchestra, entitled Concerto Nicolo. This work is much less accessible upon first hearings. Instead of having a cohesive structure, it seems loosely rambling and wandering. And its dark, somber tonalities make it seem forbidding, rather than engaging and welcoming. But it is well worth your expending the time and effort (as we did) to simply listen to this work over and over, until by simple repetition your psyche becomes familiar with it, adjusts to it, and can come to terms with its unique personality. For then you can come to appreciate the power and depth of this work.
      In its dark wanderings, Skrowaczewski's Concerto Nicolo achieves a powerful and emotional impact, with its introspective probing, brooding, and ruminative insights, punctuated by outbursts of pessimistic growling anger. The dark tonality of this work is of course appropriate for a piano concerto limited to the left hand, and is reminiscent of Ravel's piano concerto for the left hand. Sprinkled throughout Concerto Nicolo are also colorful allusions to other familiar piano concertos, including Gershwin's Concerto in F, Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody, and piano concertos by Bartok, MacDowell, and Saint-Saens. These musical allusions do not contribute much to the structure or flow of Concerto Nicolo, but they do provide dashes of color to what is otherwise a powerfully pessimistic landscape.
      In the end, Skrowaczewski's Concerto Nicolo is also richly rewarding in its own unique way. Once you have become acclimated to its musical language and mood, it leaves a powerful impression that compels you to revisit it. That is what great music should do, and Skrowaczewski's Concerto Nicolo certainly fills the bill, even if it may take repeated hearings to first appreciate this work. Pianist Gary Graffman is noted for his interpretations of modern works (cf. his Prokofiev Third), and his incisive playing here underlines the pessimistic power that Skrowaczewski has poured into this work.

CD: Casa Guidi, Reference Recordings RR-100CD

      Casa Guidi, the featured and title work on this album, with Frederica von Stade as soloist, recently won a Grammy, so for many of you it will be wrth getting this album for this work alone. But personally I am even more drawn to the two other works on this album, also composed by Dominick Argento, Composer Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra (the house orchestra for Reference Recordings), which plays all three pieces under the baton of conductor Eiji Oue. Each of the three works on this album utilizes a different harmonic language, so this album is also a good introduction to the various faces and facets of Argento as a composer.
      I particularly like the third work, entitled In Praise of Music, whose seven movements are intended as Seven Songs for Orchestra (the work's subtitle), but which to me emerge as far more than a mere collection of songs (scored for orchestra), and instead become a tightly integrated orchestral suite. The seven movements are united by a similar harmonic language and by a similar musical and emotional vision that is profoundly moving. In Praise of Music is at once powerfully compelling, and searchingly and deeply introspective. It is by turns invigoratingly celebratory, meditatively relaxing, and poignantly sorrowful.
      The first two movements are invigorating, then the work turns meditative, and finally it closes with quiet, plaintive sorrow. Argento's harmonic vocabulary in this work is richly varied, and is easily accessible (hence enjoyable) to most music lovers. There are homages to the harmonic language and orchestrations of many familiar American composers, including Thomson, Hovhaness, Copland, and Hanson, plus hints of Menotti and Richard Strauss. Argento's derivations from these masters are similar enough to make this work easily accessible, yet they deviate enough to make this work interesting in its own right. Argento in this work is also a master of weaving a spell over the listener, employing this derivative and familiar harmonic vocabulary to tell a whole new musical story. Conductor Oue does an excellent job of casting Argento's spell over you. For example, in the slow latter movements Oue masterfully suspends time, much as Charles Munch did so well with the slow movements of Debussy.
      The second work on this album, Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra, is, as its name implies, lighter in concept, in harmonic challenge, and in orchestration. But it still features some extended periods of poignant introspection, perhaps an Argento trademark, after the colorful cheeriness subsides, so it is still captivating and enjoyable, if not as powerfully engrossing as the third work.
      The Grammy winning first work on this album, Casa Guidi, is a set of five letters by Elizabeth Barrett Browning set as songs for mezzo soprano and orchestra. Here again Argento's harmonic vocabulary is different from that in his other two works on this album. But in this case, for my personal taste, I find that Argento's harmonic progressions are too imitative of the early twentieth century twelve tone serialists (cf. Berg's songs), and hence do not have anything musically new or unexpected to say. Argento is again effective at conveying poignancy and sorrow here, but that is not enough when the musical language is so predictable and similar to other modern works that have been with us for nearly a century. Also, for my personal taste, I find von Stade's tone to be too heavy and her interpretation too thick, and I think that a lighter, more varied, lieder-like approach would work better. However, Argento reportedly wrote this work for von Stade, and it did win a Grammy

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