Songs of Angels– Christmas Hymns and Carols, Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, Telarc CD (1994)
As 2020 closes out, it is once again Christmas time. Nothing evokes the season more than Carols from around the world, and no one does choral music like the late Robert Shaw (with the arrangement help of Alice Parker) and the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers. If I had only one Christmas CD, it would likely be this one. Impeccably recorded in Spivey Hall, Clayton State College, GA, this recording has all the familiar favorites, both secular and sacred.
The singers have remarkable control of both dynamics and diction with beautiful phrasing. The few soloists are outstanding as well. It’s funny that much of the music on the radio that passes as Christmas music becomes quickly tiresome, but well recorded and performed music lasts from year to year. If you need a break from “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”, this CD is your ticket to peace and tranquility.
Sing We Noel – Christmas Music from England and Early America, The Boston Camerata, Joel Cohen Director, Nonesuch Records (1978)
The music on this recording reflects different manners of celebrating the Yuletide season from Europe and Colonial America, spanning from the 16th to 20th century. There are a few poems and songs in Latin, but a complete translation and lyrics are provided. The recording starts with the singers (and ancient instruments) slowly entering the hall from the front until they are all standing around and in front of you.
The first half of the concert is old English tunes, and the second half are the songs from America, often sung in “shape-note” fashion with simple melodic patterns and dance-like rhythms. I originally bought this LP when I was a college student and was thrilled to have found it somewhere on CD (Amazon?) several years ago. What strikes me most about the recording is its immediacy of sound. The soundstage is both wide and deep. The singers have excellent intonation and the hall ambiance is simply perfect. This a great intro for someone who wants to explore the very ancient traditions of Christmas music and understand it as a folk idiom as well as sacred texts put to music. The disc ends with the group slowly exiting the hall while singing the rowdy drinking song Gloucestershire Wassail. Let the Christmas merriment begin!
Holiday stocking stuffers
We are clearly approaching a time when the number of classical CDs, which have been in the catalog for decades, are being permanently discontinued. This includes the big bargain boxes that worked out so well as holiday gifts in the past. I found one box at $15.00 that is an ideal gift for a classical music lover that is still physical. So much of the catalog has migrated from CD to High Res downloads. It is hard to gift downloads. You cannot give files you purchased on a USB stick to someone else even if you delete the original. The person who purchased them owns them exclusively. The best you can do is a gift voucher. I like to use Presto Classical in the UK. They mostly have CD quality and high-resolution downloads not available from any US vendor and they sell in dollars (Qobuz also sells most of these classical downloads and has some exclusives of its own, but the search engine is dreadful at best).
Only a small subset of these recordings can be found on classical internet stores in the US (HBDirect.com and ArkivMusic) that sell only physical CDs and in almost all cases, the physical discs cost more. One caution with downloads is that downloads may not come with the critical program booklet that is tucked inside the CD. ArkivMusic and HBDirect.com go back decades with the latter preceding the internet. They had a huge mailed catalog. I want to use HBDirect.com gift cards to help keep them in business for decades to come, but they and Arkiv appear to want to go out of business, never offering lossless downloads, while at the same time offering less physical CD as the labels discontinue them.
Carl Nielsen Complete Symphonies 1-6, Conductor – Ole Schmidt, London Symphony Orchestra, Alto – Musical Concepts, Catalog No: MSLC 2505, Engineer: Bob Auger, Producers: Robert Simpson and Ingolf Gabold. About $15.00 with fast delivery.
Carl Nielsen is the only composer of the first rank that is almost totally unknown. Most critics agree his orchestral music ranks with his contemporaries like Sibelius, Mahler, Strauss, and Vaughan Williams. The six symphonies are at the center of Nielsen’s art although he wrote in all forms. I cannot do the works justice in this little space and will examine each in later articles. I wrote about the second symphony, which I consider the entry point, earlier.
Nielsen was unlucky to have the same birthday as Sibelius in 1865. The 100th anniversary produced Nielsen LPs from major orchestras and conductors across all the big labels. Perhaps as much activity centered on Nielsen as Sibelius. The labels felt his time had come. Sibelius and Mahler were discovered by an order of magnitude more listeners in the early to mid-1960s. Nielson got the same treatment but it did not stick. At the 150th anniversary of his birth, Nielsen was almost totally missing on the radio which was overflowing with “Happy Birthdays” to Sibelius.
Nielsen speaks in an easy to understand, but absolutely unique tonal language. The music hits you with its originality and energy on the first listen to symphonies 2- 4. Once heard one wants to explore this unique and powerful musical voice. Your gift is the place for your friends to find Nielsen and wonder how they could ever have lived without him. The early Symphony #1 has a little Brahms in it when I hear it. In Symphony #5, the greatest of them, his musical voice has expanded and become more complex in tonality, orchestration, and structure. It is hard to get into unless you have spent time with the earlier works especially the 4th symphony with dueling tympani’s spaced at each side of the stage. Audiophile fun! I will be going into detail on each symphony later. I have no space in this column.
This is the first integral set of his symphonies recorded in 1973-1974. It was co-produced by the preeminent Nielsen musicologist Robert Simpson who wrote “Carl Nielsen Symphonist” in 1952 when his name was unknown outside Denmark, with a second edition in 1979. With some versions of the Unicorn LP box, a lecture by Simpson was included on an extra LP. That has never made it to the CD reissues. The missing Robert Simpson lecture on Nielsen in the original LP box. “An introduction to the symphonies of Carl Nielsen, by Robert Simpson” is on YouTube.
The engineer Robert Auger was well respected for the work he did for Unicorn. This is the 2nd reissue, at bargain prices. The earlier cheap release, which I have was on Regis. That was remastered from Unicorn tapes. I do not have the Alto release shown above but Alto is apparently just another subsidiary of Musical Concepts, the parent company. The Regis sounds OK on headphones but when heard on speakers, it is cloudy, removing some of the energy that is so important with Nielson. It is not the typical Unicorn/Auger sound of the LPs. Auger liked to record close to the red line on the meters resulting in some distortion. That distortion is not on the reissue but some of the dynamic sound of an Auger recording appears to have been lost.
If I was not after the physical cheap gift aspect of this box, I would recommend better performances, in better sound, which are available as lossless downloads only. The total price of the downloads is more than double the Alto box. Go for the Previn for Symphony #1, Gould for Symphony #2, and Martinon for #4. Both with the Chicago Symphony on a single download. Bernstein (high-resolution re-master available) for #3 and 5# with the New York Philharmonic again a single download, Symphony #6 is a quirky work for which a single best performance is hard to pick. Most of the best are discontinued CDs. The second performance with Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony is a good download for the 6th.
Jascha Horenstein is the greatest Nielson conductor. Some consider Horenstein the best conductor of Mahler but he never got a major orchestra directorship and is known only from recordings. Horenstein was the conductor who most actively promoted Nielsen outside Denmark early on. You can find on YouTube audio recordings of Symphony #3, #5 and #6 uploaded by the estate from the hard to find, and unless you are lucky, high priced discontinued CDs. The sound is obviously compromised on YouTube. Only Horenstein’s recording of a Nielsen opera, in English, Saul & David can be purchased on a lossless download.
Also on YouTube is the BBC TV documentary on Nielson with Horenstein – “Espansiva: a Portrait of Carl Nielsen” Robert Simpson appears in the documentary. Horenstein record a 5th in 1969 for Unicorn and did the Saul and David for them shortly before he passed in 1973. I guess the funding for the project, to do the full cycle, came a little late so Ole Schmidt was given the podium.
Hanson: Complete Symphonies, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Naxos Special Projects, Download only Catalogue No: 950156
I had a long discussion of the Hanson Symphony #1 a few months back and Jim Milton highlighted the Symphony #2 last month. Jim did not mention the Bold Island Suite, exclusive to that Telarc CD, which is a really fun work. I want to go into all the Hanson works in detail at a later date but I have to mention this almost 5-hour lossless download of the complete set of symphonies and other works at a ridiculously small single figure price on Presto Classics.
No booklet is supplied at this price. It would be a perfect gift if it was a physical box. It was issued by Delos in the early 90s with John Eargle as the engineer. Those Delos CDs were considered demo quality. Naxos sells the Hanson as individual CDs at more than four times the sales price of the price of this download and if I was spending that much money, I would be selecting different conductors for some of the symphonies, not an integral set.
My only idea is a Presto Gift card. Every audiophile should get to know Presto Classics. Perhaps you can mention suggested downloads, such as this, to go with the card. If you have been reading my columns you know how often I have had to fall back to Presto when the recording I want to recommend has been discontinued as a physical CD.
Vaughan Williams, Pastoral Symphony & Tuba Concerto – André Previn London Symphony -from High Definition Tape Transfers
Lately, I’ve been scouring the online downloadable offerings from High Definition Tape Transfers. The company was started by some analog reel to reel tape enthusiasts, and they wanted to preserve some of the great analog recordings from the past. They’ve negotiated rights to many of the great classical and jazz recordings and by doing careful transfers they’ve accomplished some small miracles.
A case in point is this HDDT release of Andre Previn and the London Symphony playing the Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony and his Tuba Concerto. Originally appearing on RCA, and engineered by the venerated Kenneth Wilkinson in a musical and audio triumph. The recording was done originally in 1972, and it was a classic then. It still is in this pristine, noiseless recording. HDDT makes it available to buy in any format you like, including DSD256, 128, and 64, a 24/192 FLAC format, or even a 24/192 DVD audio physical disc. You can also order a standard CD of the music. My version is the 24/192 FLAC. It was a quick download from their store, and most of their catalog offers liner notes and cover art.
It sounds just great on my main listening system and even holds up well with headphone listening. The image of the orchestra and soloists is solid, and it’s a great rendering of one of the fine Kenneth Wilkinson recordings. To my ear, this recording competes 100% with modern orchestral recordings, and it beats many of the newer recordings which just aren’t done quite as well. It gets the acoustics of the recording venue just right, and it’s a very realistic snapshot of this famed performance.
Since I’m still a Reel to Reel enthusiast, I transferred it back to tape just for the fun of having this original analog audio return to ‘home’ on my tape deck. If high-quality music from the past golden age of great recordings is your thing, I highly recommend you check out the extensive HDDT catalog. I’ll bet you’ll find more titles that are hard to resist.
Henry Mancini: The Return of The Pink Panther/Symphonic Soul, Vocalion Records, Multi-Channel SACD
UK label Vocalion has an interesting and slightly eccentric library of music that they have been steadily releasing over the years. Many releases have used quadrophonic mixes from the 1970s to create modern surround mixes. This hybrid disc has both stereo and surround mixes on it. The surround tracks are mastered from original RCA Quadrophonic mixes. The overall sound quality is clean with excellent separation of the instruments.
Very good bass and a great sense of depth and immersion for material of this age. “The Pink Panther Opening Theme” sounded nicely immersive with the main saxophone firmly planted in the center channel. Electric guitars on “Here’s Looking at You Kid” sound especially detailed with the rhythm in the left channel and the lead in the right. “The Return of the Pink Panther Parts 1 and 2” exercises every channel in equal measure. Very active instrumentation all around but it doesn’t sound gimmicky. “Peter Gunn – New Version” has a fantastic sounding, tight and detailed electric bass solo going through the whole piece. The production here is anchored in the front 3 channels but with plenty of reverb all around, then the full orchestra comes in with the familiar Peter Gunn theme but with a bit more funk-ified take to it. The “Greatest Gift Instrumental” creates a beautiful sense of being surrounded by the strings and percussion section but the main focus is still in the front channels. This disk is just a great combination of 70’s Jazz, Funk, and Orchestral stylings.
Maurice Ravel, La Valse – Ma mere l’Oye – Tzigane – Bolero – Pavane, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlo Rizzi – Conductor, Tacet Records, Multi-channel Blu-Ray
Thanks to Mel Martin for the tip on the Tacet label. This is just beautifully recorded classical music in surround. The “La Valse” section is very dynamic with wild swings from low-level delicate playing to high energy flourishes, and the bass drum and tympani hits are deep and powerful! Very immersive sound with a ton of depth and detail. Such clarity in the woodwind, strings, and horns.
The solo violin at the opening of “Tzgane” sounds crisp detailed and played with verve, positioned in the front left of the soundstage, the other speakers carried the appropriate level of reverb until the surrounding harps come in. The violin solo continues with other strings gently picking and plucking and subtle woodwinds playing in the back and surrounds. It all makes for wonderful dimensional sounding stuff! Even that old chestnut “Bolero” benefits from the surround treatment, starting from its delicate subtle initial meandering and then swelling into a giant sumptuous, all-encompassing, mass!
Shostakovich/Barber, Symphony No. 5/Adagio For Strings, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck – Conductor, Reference Recordings, Multi-Channel SACD
Another well-recorded surround disc with a large orchestra. Unlike the Tacet Ravel which had you completely surrounded by the orchestra, this one makes you feel like you are in the 5th row of the concert hall. Front channel focused but with generous surrounding cues and reverb from the hall and instruments. The 3 Shostakovich pieces are dynamic and intense while the Barber Adagio for strings is just so sweet and sublime sounding. If you have a decent surround system, it’s like going to the performance hall without the hassle of getting dressed up!
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, Sony Music Japan, Multi-Channel SACD
Much has been written on the recent remixing and mastering of this classic (along with Sketches of Spain) in Dolby ATMOS by PMC as a demonstration of what is possible. Whether that version will ever see public release remains to be seen. I recently got the Japanese 5.1 SACD pressing of Kind of Blue, having owned various versions of the stereo release until now. And truth be told, I think the surround mastering on this version already sounds exceptional especially when using the Dolby Surround upmixer to fill in the height channels.
It soundly puts all previous stereo versions out to pasture. It sounds like I am pretty much in the recording studio with Miles and the crew playing this stuff, it’s so immediate sounding and natural. I could see the new ATMOS version possibly sounding better in a perfected ATMOS installation but I truly wonder how much better it would be played back in someone’s real-world home theater over this one. Davis’s trumpet is so tangibly “there”, the drums and cymbal work is so tight and crisp. Basslines have that great depth and weight that you want to hear and the combination of Cannonball Adderly’s alto sax and John Coltrane’s tenor are equally alive and vibrant sounding. Details like reed sounds, delicate brushwork, and string scrapes abound. It’s glorious stuff in surround.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cosmos Factory, Fantasy Records/Craft Recordings/VMP, LP
In my teens I pretty much listened to CCR’s Chronicle Vol. 1 and 2 Greatest Hits on CD so much that I got sick of it. I couldn’t listen to the band’s music for any length of time without cringing, at least that is until recently. Vinyl Me Please has been doing some fantastic re-releases that our vinyl guru, Jason Crawford, has seen fit to crow about over the past twelve months.
A few months ago they announced their exclusive pressing of CCR’s Cosmos Factory, Half-Speed Mastered by Craft Recordings. The VMP pressing was limited to 750 copies on 180 g translucent blue vinyl. Beyond the LP itself being lovely looking, and satisfying to hold, the sound quality is exceptional. The reproduction is clear and free of noise and pops allowing all the earthiness of the music to come through. Guitars were nicely delineated and John Fogerty’s vocals are gritty and dimensional with plenty of detail. I really enjoyed just sitting down and listening to this whole album, savoring these songs again that I thought I was pretty much done with. I forgot how much I really loved “Long As I Can See The Light”, not just as a piece of music but as a simple and moving emotional benchmark. I tend to be a digital guy at heart but some music just lends itself to be played back and enjoyed on vinyl, and this is one of those examples. While the VMP limited edition of this album is no longer available, go pick up a copy of Craft’s standard version. Same Abbey Road Studios Half-Speed Mastering, just on black vinyl. Put a candle in the window and enjoy.