Category Archives: SACD

Strong Nutcracker Duo

When I was in college, the most of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker that you heard was the famliar suite. Then there was a London recording conducted by Anatole Fistoulari that had the familiar suite plus a second suite. George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet revived the entire ballet as a Christmas holiday treat and the complete recordings by Ernest Ansermet and Artur Rodzinski came out, in stereo no less. What a revelation it was to find so much superlative music that had been passed over in constructing the suites.  Now there are dozens of recordings of the complete ballet and new recordings of the suite are few and far between. This year there’s a new one of the complete ballet from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky   Orchestra and in covering that I discovered a fine one on one disc that I’d previously missed.


The Gergiev is one of the works of a curious pairing coupling the ballet with the composer’s Symphony No. 4. Gergiev gives his usual intense reading of each, which is particularly successful in the symphony. This is one of the greatest 4ths in the catalog now, not only surpassing the conductor’s own cavernous effort with the Vienna Philharmonic, but 95 percent of the other recordings as well. The Nutcracker fares nearly as well. Recordings by Ansermet, Rodzinski, and Roshdestvensky still come out on top, but this one is not far behind. The sound is lush and sonorous. I especially love the reedy clarinets and sumptuous cello section.  Tempos are a little slower than usual at times, more akin to what is usually danced than what is usually recorded. But these are never too slow or ponderous, since Gergiev has such a handle on the music’s inner rhythms.


The two years older recording (2014) I discovered is by Neeme Jarvi and the Bergen Philharmonic. Incredibly enough, it is contained on one CD with a running time of a bit over 84 minutes. Tempos are brisk but one never has the feeling they were juiced up just to make single disc possible. Jarvi is a touch more lyrical with melodies than Gergiev and the orchestral timbres are just a tad leaner…and sweeter. In a nutshell, Gergiev seeks the drama in the score, Jarvi the lyricism. If you check out the sale and used items on you can no doubt afford both, which isn’t such a bad idea given the popularity of the composition. Both recordings are available as downloads from Naxos or as exceptionally good sounding SACD discs.



Delightful Dvorak

Most of us know the wonderful Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvorak, and they exist in dozens of recordings (my favorites are Szell and Kubelik), but few have heard the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, which truly fit the bill of “neglected masterpieces.” They’ve been recorded here and there, usually one or the other of them as a filler for a recording of a more established Dvorak work, but the inventive audiophile label Pentatone has released all three of them at a time on a new disc conducted by Jakub Hrusa. The excellent orchestra is the PKF – Prague Phihlarmonia, a young ensemble bursting with energy and virtuoso players. The rhapsodies have good tunes galore. The first begins quietly with a more martial middle section, whereas the the second is more episodic. The third had more of a


carnival atmosphere which relates to the the more familiar dances.  The filler piece here is far more than that, a rousing rendition of the composer’s Symphonic Variations, a composition that makes one marvel at Dvorak’s brilliant orchestrations. The recorded sound is a on a par with the compelling performances, in other words first rate, fairly close up yet reverberate and warm. Though I downloaded these performances, they have been released on a Hybrid SACD and if Pentatone is true to form, the rear channels will add just the right hall echo to give the front channels a super three-dimensional sense. While you’re at it, check out the earlier Hrusa Pentatone recording of Dvorak Overtures. Ignore the Amazon 3 star rating; five stars here.  I hope Pentatone continue its relationship with this conductor and orchestra. More recordings would be welcome!


More Magnificent Mendelssohn

Over half a year ago, I raved about Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Mendelssohn performances on the LSO Live label. Now along comes a disc containing the first and fourth symphonies and I am happy to report that it is just as fine as the previously released recordings. Once again the orchestra is the London Symphony and once again it pays magnificently, with refined, virtuoso abandon, and there’s an especially wonderful oddity in the performance of the first symphony. When the piece was first performed in England, Mendelssohn switched out the third movement, using the scherzo from his popular Octet, re-orchestrating it to include


wind parts. Gardiner includes this (as well as the regular third movement from the published score) and it is a total, Mercurial delight! This is the world of a A Midsummer Night’s Dream with strings and winds skittering around like elusive Will O’ the Wisps. The performance of the 4th “Italian” symphony is as good as I’ve heard, there’s beauty and elegance everywhere in the first three movements and the last one really strikes fire. The recorded sound is as good as it gets, whether you play the Blu-ray or SACD disc (both are included). A must buy and with the holidays not far away, perhaps a must gift. And now, speaking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s time for a Gardiner/LSO recording of that wonderful score.

Tchaikovsky Times Three

Due to medical procedures, financial ills, and just plain winter lethargy, I’ve neglected reviewing classical music recordings. That ends now. Thanks to Naxos Records’ new Critic’s Download Portal, I have almost endless access to new and old recordings from well known and not so well known labels. I can explore and pass along my findings to you.

Tchaikovsky 6th NOezck

It happened that I was hit with three recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the ‘Pathetique,” in a row. The one from maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony on Reference Recordings has received the most publicity. The pubic seems to have roared their approval for the German conductor’s testosterone laden readings of the basic repertory in a most fanatical manner. I’m not that big a fan, but have to admit that he has the Pittsburgh players performing exceptionally well and that his Tchaikovsky 6th, though slightly eccentric, has its moments. Honeck writes his own program notes, exceptionally well, it must be said, and outlines and defends his reasons for doing certain passages a particular way.  The sound for the Pittsburgh recordings, however, has been relegated to an outfit called Soundmirror and not to Reference Recordings usual excellent team. And I have yet to be convinced that Soundmirror can make a recording that is half as good as those Reference turned in consistently with the Minnesota Orchestra. The main fault is that there’s just too much sound, which dulls the precise execution of the orchestral choirs and muddies their interface.

Tchaikovsky 6th Jurowski

On the other hand, LPO Live has gotten live recording down to an art and produces recordings that are well balanced and exciting. One is more aware of the performances than the sound, which is probably as it should be. The Russian maestro and Music Director of the London Philharmonic is young Vladimir Jurowski and on the LPO Live double release he turns in a reading Of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” that is absolutely superb. He creates passion and tension and gets precise playing from his Brit musicians, but never crosses the line from sentiment to sentimentality, an easy thing to do in this music, finding not only drama, but lyricism and ballet references in this interpretation. Moreover, his “filler piece” is perhaps the best recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony (“Winter Daydreams,” or “Winter Reveries”) that I’ve every heard. In treating this early work just like one of the later ones, he causes us to discover that it is, indeed, a great piece of music, not the trifle it is usually thought to be. Honeck’s “filler,” by the way is opera for orchestra, a suite from Dvorak’s Russalka.

Tchaikiovsky Dausgaard

Finally, on the BIS audiophile label, we find a curious yet successful against all odds performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th from Thomas Dausgaard and his Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Dausgarrd has been playing big pieces with his smaller forces to expose their inner voices and make us aware of their construction. Since his orchestra is first-rate, this often works – as it does here. I wouldn’t want to have his as my only recording of this piece, but it is surely worth a listen or two to hear those marvelous woodwind parts so immaculately played. The sturdy filler is a crackerjack performance of Tchaiokvsky’s Romeo & Juliet.

All of these recordings are available as downloads, or on disc, from Naxos America’s Classics on Line. On disc the Honeck and Dausgaard performances are Hybrid SACD’s, with multichannel  surround.

Something to be Thankful For – Two Five-Star Organ Recordings

As impossible as it might seem, I’ve been the recipient of not one, but two outstanding organ recordings this month, from opposite sides of the Atlantic. From the United States and Reference Recordings comes Organ Polychrome – The French School, recorded in Kansas City and played by Jan Kraybill, and MDG Records in Germany presents Max Reger – Organ Works, recorded in Hamburg and played by Christoph Schoener.

The United States disc is presented in HDCD and gives an arresting aural picture of The Julia Irene Kauffman Organ – Casavant Freres, Op. 3875, 2011 housed in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. The German disc is a Hybrid Multichannel SACD presenting the three organs of St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg.

Organ Polychrome 2

Kraybill plays a colorful program of compositions by French organ masters on the mighty yet transparent KC organ, opening with Widor’s Allegro from his Symphony No. 6 in g minor and closing with Gigout’s thunderous  Grand-Choeur dialogue. In between are soft & dulcet pieces and louder, more heroic ones from Schmitt, Alain, Durufle, Dupre, Franck, and Guilmant. Kraybill doesn’t shy away from the bombast when called for, but she discovers and emphasizes lyrical elements wherever they exist. She talks of an “extensive array of tonal colors” in her clearly written program notes and as impossible as it might seem reading this, that turns out to be almost an understatement on hearing the music itself.

Schoener is dealing with just one composer, but a composer with many different facets. Reger’s powerful and elaborate Fantasy on the Choral “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott and Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue are offset by the lovely simplicity of a dozen chorales from Reger’s Opus 135a. Schoener’s playing is precise, urgent, and colorful. Lyricism does not  suffer but structure and registration are of utmost importance.

Reger MDG

The two recordings clearly define the contrasting locations. The Kraybill disc shows off  the concert hall that houses the Casavant organ. Reverberation is that of a concert hall. Awesome fff chords die away relatively soon. The opposite is true of the MDG disc, recorded in a church with a long delay time, but that does not keep MDG from achieving clarity it its recording. Both the Keith O. Johnson engineered Reference Recordings disc and the MDG SACD, produced by company founders Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm are five-star efforts. There’s no case of either-or here, both are must hear titles.