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Shostakovich: Complete Concertos
Shostakovich: Complete Concertos
Price: $15.48
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's All Just Noise!, April 9, 2013
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Music is just manipulated noise. Any "emotions" you think you hear in it are yours alone, purely subjective. Believe me, there are people who would earnestly claim to hear other emotions and there are many who wouldn't acknowledge hearing anything but pretentious noise in your favorite symphony. Vladimir Nabokov, for an example, disliked all music; it was nothing but annoying noise to him. I know about research that suggests a Chomsky-esque hard-wiring of musical perceptions in the human brain, and I'm inclined to believe it so, but fundamentally music is a social collaboration involving lots of willing acceptances.

I'm not sure that Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) would be happy with that analysis. Shostakovoch was a late Romantic at heart, a "conservative" in the spectrum of 20th C composers who put a lot of faith in the power of music to convey both emotions and almost-explicit depictions of life. And I for one could not listen to a quartet or symphony by Shostakovich without experiencing an emotional involvement. Careful, please! I'm not asserting that only "emotive" music has merit, or that one must hear all music emotionally. There's a lot of music -- Jacobean gamba consorts, for instance, or pieces by Takemitsu -- that I for one hear almost purely on an abstract intellectual level. "For one!" That's the key. Subjective responses to music are ineluctable; as Derrida and others have declared about books, the reader/listener is in charge.

The music of Shostakovich, aside from his quartets, is a recent enthusiasm for me. Of the six concertos included in this "complete" set, I had heard only two in other performances. I can't evaluate performances therefore. I can only acclaim the power of the compositions, both as abstract music and as generators of subjective emotions.

Two each! Two violin concertos, two cello concertos, and two piano concertos, one of which has a obbligato trumpet part. All six were composed for specific performers; the two violin works for David Oistrakh, the cello concertos for Mstislav Rostropovich, the piano/trumpet work for Dmitri's own fingers and the later piano concerto for the fingers of his son Maxim. At least three of the works met with disapproval from the Soviet state, as being "formalism" rather than proper paeans to the People. Their composition spanned the whole of Shostakovich's career; the gleeful and sarcastic Piano Concerto in A minor dates from 1932, while the second Cello Concerto and second Violin Concerto were composed in 1966 and 1967 respectively. That said, there's a remarkable continuity of style and affect in Shostakovich's music. It could seldom be mistaken for the work of anyone else, and yet each of these concertos is rich in ingenuity and musical invention.

The two piano concertos, to my emotional ears, sound the brightest and zestiest, replete with scurrying and flurrying passages: public music with mere traces of sardonic humor. The two violin concertos have, for me, a radically different emotional charge. They are brooding expressions of anguish and anger; the first works up to an outburst of defiance, while the second modulates toward a mood of ironic cheerfulness that sounds a lot like melancholy. The two cello concertos are my favorites, perhaps because I can hear them both as taut, concentrated intellectual masterpieces and as darkly meditative evocations of an inner emotional consolation. But it's all subjective, right? On a certain level, it's just beautiful noise, and it's only beautiful if your ears are attuned to its beauty. "Caecus non iudicat de coloribus," as the great 16th C composer Alexandri Agricola declared; "the blind can't judge colors," by which he was referring not to pigments but to "colorations," the abstract rhythmic intricacies that abounded in his music.

Bottom line? I'm finding my explorations of Shostakovich's enormous oeuvre very satisfying. This is a modestly priced package of three CDs, a great starting point if you choose to explore.
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 28, 2014 11:45 PM PDT

La Voce Di Orfeo
La Voce Di Orfeo
Price: $17.83
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Claudio Monteverdi "Invented" the Tenor Voice!, April 8, 2013
This review is from: La Voce Di Orfeo (Audio CD)
Okay, that might be hyperbole, but I'm not the first to say it. There were surely mid-range male voices singing the "tenor" lines of Renaissance polyphony, though the best of them were nearly all Flemish. Besides, "tenor" in the 16th C referred to the structural role of the part so designated rather than to a vocal range. No doubt Monteverdi drew upon a corps of singers with a distinctive vocal technique already popular in Italy in his era for the exquisite tenor solos and duets of his Vespers of 1610 and for the role of Orfeo in his Favola in Musica of 1607, and no doubt also that other Italian composers of the same era -- Peri, Caccini, Landi -- made similar use of the fruity timbres and sprezzatura of madrigal-trained male voices. It's really the greatness of Monteverdi's music which makes it seem in retrospect as if no one had ever sung so magniloquently before L'Orfeo, whose voice could charm the implacable Pluto.

The first tenor to sing the role of Orfeo, in Mantua in 1607, may have been Francesco Rasi (1574-1621), a gifted but mercurial composer in his own right who was often acclaimed as the greatest singer of his day. Rasi was cursed with a stain of aristocratic blood but with neither aristocratic wealth nor connections; pride never allowed him to make his career as an ordinary professional musician, a status that he considered servile. His adventures and misadventures kept him skuttling across Italy and Europe as far as Poland in the company of the supreme madrigalist Luca Marenzio. His musical fame was such that both princes, including Don Carlo Gesualdo, and composers such as Monteverdi demanded his attentions, but his emotional instability was such that he murdered his step mother and her steward in order to steal a few coins and rings. He was condemned to be hanged and "quartered" in Arezzo, a just sentence that he thwarted by taking to his heels and continuing to sing at courts all around Italy for another ten years.

Singing the role of Orfeo was not then (or now) simply a matter or memorizing the notes. Rasi would have been expected - required! - to embellish and improvize in the proper style of the era. Likewise the orchestra/continuo would have extrapolated imaginatively from the bare score provided by Monteverdi. It wouldn't have been a minimal ensemble; sources indicate three main sections: strings, brass and continuo, The strings included ten members of the violin family, two double basses , and two violini piccoli alla francese. The brass included five trombones, three trumpets and two prominent cornetti The continuo included two harpsichords, a double harp, two or three chitarroni, two pipe organs (organi di legno), three bass violas da gamba, and a small reed organ. Two recorders and perhaps two citterns were mentioned in the rubrics for the conclusion of the second act. Considerable improvization was de rigeur; no two performances of L'Orfeo in the 1600s ever sounded much alike, nor should they now. But this wasn't "free jazz"! Improvization was chiefly recombinant, the semi-spontaneous incorporation into Monteverdi's musical outlines of apt familiar "details."

Aside from the Big Names, these interlocked intermezzi include accompanied monodies by the little known Benedetto Ferrari, Marc'Antonio Gondi, and Antonio Brunelli. "Accompanied monody" is a more precise label for this genre than `aria' or `madrigal.' It's the poetry, stupid, as Rasi might have said. The seconda prattica monody was above all a recitation of poetry and an opportunity for virtuosity from the singer. The composer's genius took third place. This poetry is included with the CD in its original Italian and in English translation. It's all about passionate artifice, or artificial passion if you prefer. The composers would be flummoxed to encounter listeners like "us" who can scarcely be bothered with the words and who swoon only over the music.

This repertoire was certainly the foundation of "bel canto" technique as it evolved for the next two centuries, but the efflorescence of tenor bel canto was brief. By the middle of the 17th C, the baroque obsession with the soprano tessitura and the emergence of the super-divo castrati had pushed the tenor to back stage. Even the "basso" got more regard, usually as a comic or melodramatic contrast to the soprano.

Lutenist Eduardo Egüez has followed Monteverdian mandates in the creation of "La Voce di Orfeo", a pastiche of arias and solo madrigals by composers including Caccini, d'India, Monteverdi, and Rasi himself. The program is divided into three intermezzi of seven to ten items, each intermezzo devoted to an aspect of Rasi's visions of Love as the chief force of Life. Each intermezzo includes a short spoken poem in Italian, precisely of the same poetic manner as the libretti and madrigal texts. Each intermezzo includes a sinfonia and an instrumental interlude, all arranged by Egüez in a completely authentic Monteverdian manner. Egüez is a magnificent lutenist, one of the best, and his ensemble La Chimera includes Sabina Colonna-Preti on gamba and lirone, Marina Bonetti on triple harp, and François Fernandez on violin.

Furio Zanasi is not "officially" a tenor. He's professionally identified as a baritone, but I doubt that his voice range is drastically different from that of Rasi. The term "baritondo" was in use in Monteverdi's world, but it referred to the lowest voice of any given ensemble. In any case, Zanasi sings these intermezzi in flamboyant "bel canto" manner, as sunshiny as a gondolier. One might question his lush technique; after all, we're used to hearing 17th C music as Apollonian -- brilliantly polished but icy -- rather than Dionysian, even though the taste of 1600 was indubitably for high drama. Zanasi's embellishments, however -- his trills and goat-trills and his passagi -- are as historically informed and authentic as any fanatical musicologist might demand. And the bonus? They're gorgeous. His voice is as lovely as the vinyards of Lombardy on a clear summer.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 16, 2013 12:35 AM PDT

Bowers & Wilkins P5 On-Ear Headphone Ivory
Bowers & Wilkins P5 On-Ear Headphone Ivory

9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars These Are the Ones!, April 6, 2013
I paid a visit to my local high-end "stereo" shop to select a pair of Bowers and Wilkins speakers for a friend. Want evidence of my "credibility" as a judge of sound equipment? That's the evidence; friends buy Bowers and Wilkins for friends. But there, in the same gizmo-crammed shop, was a display of Grado headphones, priced from $200 (there are cheaper but this shop wouldn't deign to stock them) to $1100! And alongside the Grados, the current assortment of Bowers and Wilkens headphones, both on-the-ear and over-the-ear. Want further evidence of my credibility? Whenever the situation allows, I always listen to Grados. For once I wasn't in the market for headphones at any price, but I test-listened the B&W series and found them as superior to most headphones as that company's speakers are to Bose or Sony. Very rich bass, fine clarity and fidelity throughout the gamut of pitches that mu too-human ears can hear. I also asked the shop-wallah for his comparative evaluation of the B&Ws and the Grados, the only brands he carries. He said the same thing in intimidatingly technical terms: rich bass, remarkable lack of stuffiness for "closed" headphones, next best to the "open" headphones made by Grado.

The B&W headphones come in price steps, with the chief difference being the peripherals, built-in mics, connectivity to cell-phones, etc. These are as high as you need to go, and if you don't plan to piggyback your phone with them, you can comfortably go lower.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 24, 2013 1:55 PM PDT

Concertos for Viola Da Gamba
Concertos for Viola Da Gamba
Offered by MEGA Media
Price: $14.87
25 used & new from $5.47

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark Chocolate and Vieux Cognac..., April 6, 2013
... refined and mellow yet deliciously complex: my description of Telemann's Concerto for Alto Recorder, Bass Gamba, and Orchestra. Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) exceeded every composer of his era in his facility and versatility of composition for nearly every wind or string instrument extant. How well he himself played gamba or recorder isn't important; what matters is how well he understood the musical assets of each and how skillfully he exploited them to the fullest. It's astounding how well he blends the timbres of the 'sweet flute' and the gamba in this concerto, creating a "mutual admiration society" of the two radically disparate instruments. It would be easy to relish this 'pairing' merely as a musical dessert at the best bistro in town, but there's more to it than mellow sweetness. The contrapuntal and harmonic substance of the piece as abstract music, notes on a page, makes it one of Telemann's outright masterpieces.

Gambist Hille Perl and recorderist Han Tol must well be avatars of the musicians for whom Telemann composed. Perl's gamba is the voice of noble maturity while Tol's alto recorder is that of gallant elegance. Petra Müllejans, the violinist-conductor of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, performs often with both Perl and Tol. These musicians know and hear each other's most intimate musical thoughts. This is what a concerto ensemble should sound like!

The two other concerti recorded here -- by Johann Pfeiffer for gamba and two violins, and by Johann Gottliebe Graun for gamba -- are works Of "cheeky gallantry" as Hille Perl describes them in her notes. They emerge from the context of the unexpected popularity of the gamba in the cities and courts of Northern Germany in the 18th Century, when the fretted and soft-voiced gamba briefly held its own against the brash and booming cello. Possibly the key figures in this efflorescence of music for gamba were the gamba virtuoso Christian Ferdinand Abel, who played in the Köthen chamber orchestra was JS Bach was its conductor, and his son Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), who became intimate friends with Johann Christian Bach in their London years. The three compositions on this CD for solo gamba, by the younger Abel, exploit the fretted instrument's capacity for chordal and contrapuntal expressiveness. It would be no disservice to their brilliance to hear them alongside the grand solo gamba meditations of the earlier French masters like Saint-Colombe and Marais, or even with the sublime cello suites of Bach. They're sparkling stars in the aura of Bach's sun.

This is a CD you'll find yourself choosing from your pile or shelf to suit many listening moods. The music is as deep as your attention merits, and the performance is superb.
Comment Comments (14) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 23, 2013 9:00 AM PDT

Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Civil War America)
Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Civil War America)
by Hans Louis Trefousse
Edition: Paperback
Price: $28.86
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Genuine Hero Among Politicians and Other Scoundrels, April 5, 2013
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Thaddeus Stevens has been hated, vilified, and maligned by Confederate sympathizers ever since his years of leadership in Congress as a Radical Republican. He deserves better, both from professional historians and from the portion of the American reading public that attends to history. The bottom line is, on most issues of Reconstruction, Stevens was RIGHT. His abrasive personality and the imputations of self-interest - he was a steel and railroad mogul - do not overbalance the truth that he was the most courageous "white" advocate of "black" civil/human rights of his era.

I read this book years ago and I don't have the sort of memory that would allow me to write a very specific review. I'm pleased to note that the portrayal of Stevens in the film "Lincoln" has stimulated readers to learn more about this significant figure of American History. Take a look at the recent review by Steven Peterson for an appraisal of this book. And meanwhile, I'm ordering another bio, by the always-edgy Fawn Brodie: Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 7, 2014 11:19 AM PDT

The Mother's Recompense
The Mother's Recompense
by Edith Wharton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.71
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If You Enjoy Late Victorian Novels of Manners ..., April 4, 2013
... and especially if you've already read most of them -- of Trollope, Dickens, Gaskell, Gissing, James, and perhaps some of their French counterparts -- there's no reason why you won't enjoy "A Mother's Recompense" by Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Published in 1925, "Recompense" has been regarded as Wharton's "breakaway-from-James" declaration of moral and literary independence. If so, it was a minute crack of a breakaway; "Redemption" is almost indistinguishable from early Henry James novels except for being graciously less involuted in language and strangely lacking in the sardonic humor that makes reading James worth the struggle.

I'm not going to tell you anything about the "plot" of A Mother's Recompense except that it hinges upon an implausible coincidence (as do so many Victorian novels) which in turn makes the narrative progress of the novel totally predictable from the third chapter on ... until the well-prepared and unforeseen outcome. How much closer to the Henry James of "The Bostonians" could she have come?

Well-paced. Crafty character development. Choice depictions of upper-class society in Late Victorian New York. Not a whiff of the 20th C. A fun read.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 4, 2013 5:14 PM PDT

Shostakovich: Jazz Suites Nos. 1 & 2 / The Bolt (Ballet Suite) / Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two)
Shostakovich: Jazz Suites Nos. 1 & 2 / The Bolt (Ballet Suite) / Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two)
Price: $8.79
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Composer of the 20th Century?, April 3, 2013
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After suitable hemming and hawing, and appropriate hand-wringing, my vote would go to Dmitri Shostakovich 1906-1975). I would have to concede that he was an isolated musical conservative, a late Romanticist whose use of atonalilty and chromaticism was purely decorative, whose work had little influence on younger composers outside Russia. I would need to acknowledge Shostakovich's own deference to Stravinsky. But then I'd turn my ears to his fifteen symphonies and six concerti, and especially to his fifteen string quartets, a vast body of work of both intellectual and emotional power unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Then there are his works for piano, and his two finished operas, one of which, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, resulted in his "denunciation" in 1936, at the onslaught of the Stalinist Terror.

The two "Jazz Suites" and the ballet The Bolt are not compositions of finest inspiration. They're caustically schmaltzy vaudeville/BigTop music, intended to amuse and excite an unsophisticated audience and to pass therefore as "music of the Soviet People" rather than elitist/ bourgeoise formalism. That was the standard charge brought against any composer whose music didn't delight Comrade Stalin, and Shostakovich's career was a roller-coaster of denunciations and appreciations from the Man of Steel. There's no reason to suppose that Shostakovich was naive about Stalin or the Soviet bureaucracy. He was humiliated, harassed, and sidetracked time and again. It's worth noting, however, that none of the despicable treatment Shostakovich suffered in Russia was a whit more disgraceful than the unjust harassment of the scientist Robert Oppenheimer by J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Truman, Lewis Strauss, Joseph McCarthy, the HUAC and the FBI. Their stories are remarkably parallel, except that Shostakovich survived with his music intact while Oppenheimer was destroyed. If you doubt my judgment, read: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Shostakovich stayed the course as an idealistic communist and a Russian. Following Stalin's death, his stature was somewhat vindicated. He joined the Communist Party in 1960, though some biographers suggest that he was bullied to do so. And he composed brilliantly "on demand" for patriotic and communistic occasions. Was his musical communism sincere? That doesn't matter so much now, does it? Shostakovich also composed film scores and "propagandistic" ballets that were seemingly relished by his audiences, works like those on this CD. My guess is that an American audience would "hear" these works as brashly, blatantly modernist ... shocking perhaps ... and exactly what they were not meant to be. There's nothing of "jazz" in the Jazz Suites except some racy tempi and razzmatazz orchestrations. In fact, the "Jazz Suite No. 2" has been misidentified; it was titled originally "Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra" an that's precisely what it sounds like. What other composer, after Beethoven, has ever brought the same musical genius to bear on the sublimity of string quartets and the bumptiousness of "Tahiti Trot"?

Let's take a little risk here and imagine a time a few hundred years in the future, when the calamities of Climate Change and the inexorable turmoil of religious warfare have thinned out "our" preconceptions of the oddly-named Cold War era. Music has survived, as it damned well better! And thus we have the few iconic composers of the USSR and the USA: Shostakovich and Prokofiev for the former, George Gershwin and Elliot Carter for the latter. Is my point already obvious? Which side, the Communists or the Capitalists, came closest to an integrated, popularly appreciated musical culture?
Comment Comments (24) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 21, 2013 6:39 AM PDT

Fugue Around the Clock
Fugue Around the Clock
Price: $26.26
7 used & new from $12.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bach on Piano? Not on Your Life!, March 22, 2013
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This review is from: Fugue Around the Clock (Audio CD)
Schubert quartets on saxophones? Mozart on marimbas? Well, maybe not... But Schumann, Brahms, and Shostakovitch played by a quartet of recorders? Yes yes yes! Wunderbar!
"Do I contradict myself," as Walt Whitman said, "Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

When the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet burst upon the Early Music scene, with tours all over the universities of America and the concert venues of Europe, they essentially vindicated the recorder as an instrument, capable of virtuosity and expressiveness. For a while, they were unique. The only show in town. Now there are other recorder ensembles of equal proficiency, and soloists who out do any of the original Stardusters, but no ensemble has ever made a CD of greater elegance and polish that "Fugue around the Clock" ... and it's now available in SACD format.

If you're am amateur recorderist, this CD will be an epiphany and perhaps a stimulus to practice an extra hour a day instead of treating your instrument indifferently. If you're a proud fool who has always scorned the recorder as a mere whistle, this CD will refute your intransigent bias forevermore. Superb tuning, superb phrasing, pyrotechnical fingerwork, gorgeous tone! The quartet sounds like Bach's own chamber organ, but on which every hand and foot has its own expressive independence.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 22, 2013 12:44 PM PDT

Colonna - Salmi da Vespro per il giorno di San Petronio - Sergio Vartolo (2 CD Set)
Colonna - Salmi da Vespro per il giorno di San Petronio - Sergio Vartolo (2 CD Set)
3 used & new from $21.20

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars What Went Wrong?, March 22, 2013
Look at the cast of this ensemble: Soloists: Jill Feldman, Marinella Pennicchi, Patrizia Vaccari, Claudio Cavina, Graham Pushee, Mario Cecchetti, Gerd Turk, Jean-Louis Bindi, Nicholas Isherwood! Primo vioiino: Fabio Biondi! Director Sergio Vartolo! I've heard every single one of them do stupendous performances. Some of them are close friends and some are colleagues. Several of them are effectively "superstars" of Early Music, with dozens of superb recordings on the market. So I have to wonder: why is this recording so wretched? Almost unlistenable, and certainly unlistenable a second time. The chorus is a murky bellow, but that's hardly unique. Why, against all probabilities, is the tuning so awful, especially of the very gifted sopranos?

Giovanni Pietro Colonna isn't at fault. He's no Scarlatti, but the music seems to be passably well-composed and affective/effective. Too bad "we" get such a faulty first impression.

V-MODA Crossfade LP Over-Ear Noise-Isolating Metal Headphone (Phantom Chrome)
V-MODA Crossfade LP Over-Ear Noise-Isolating Metal Headphone (Phantom Chrome)
Price: $141.32
21 used & new from $90.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just What They Promise!, March 21, 2013
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"... deep vibrant bass, organic mid-range, and high-end clarity..." Extraordinary clarity, in fact, as good as my "open" studio headphones at three times the price. I'm always in the market for headphones, partly because I destroy them with my outdoorsy lifestyle and partly because I'm never quite satisfied with the sound quality. These new phones seem to be sturdily designed and assembled, but of course "time will tell." They also claim to be "passively" noise canceling, which I think simply means that they are well fitting over the ears and thus well insulating. They are that. I have walked on a busy street with them on, turned up to concert-hall level of course, and I heard surprisingly little car noise.
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 11, 2014 11:49 AM PDT

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