April 2021 Classical Record Reviews

Jodie Devos: And Love Said...
Jodie Devos, soprano; Nicolas Krüger, piano.
Alpha 668 (24/96 WAV), 2020. Guido Tichelman, prod.; Tichelman and Bastiaan Kuijt, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Once you hear Belgian soprano Jodie Devos's exceptionally sincere, impeccably phrased, decidedly down-to-earth rendition of Freddie Mercury's "You Take My Breath Away," you'll know why I'm reviewing And Love Said... Mercury's ballad may be the outlier on this personal, 25-track collection of English-language songs by composers from Belgium, England, and France, but it exemplifies Devos's disarmingly direct and heartfelt approach to song.

Devos's lovely, light soprano, beautiful throughout its range, grows especially enrapturing when she tempers her voice to a silver thread; it's marvelously touching in Frank Bridge's "Come to Me in My Dreams." Devos's renditions of Bridge's "Love Went a-Riding over the Earth" and Roger Quilter's "Love's Philosophy" rival versions by the great Arleen Auger in their ability to convey the thrill of ecstatic love through beauty of sound.

Elsewhere, in songs by Vaughan Williams, Irene Poldowski, Ivor Gurney, Benjamin Britten, Darius Milhaud, William Walton, and Germaine Tailleferre, it's impossible to separate superb musical crafting from the poetic brilliance of Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Auden, Sitwell, Rabindranath Tagore, and others. Milhaud's Two Love Songs, Op.30 may be melodically conventional, but they set Tagore's poetry so beautifully that they call for repeated listening. Some equally compelling songs are intentionally less scrutable, including those from Britten's On This Island, Op.11, which slyly address same-sex love in 1930s England. Even if Nicolas Krüger's piano is set too far back, with too much low-range emphasis, the beauty of it all will sweep you away.—Jason Victor Serinus


Hans Rott: Orchestral Works Vol.2
Gürzenich Orchestra, Christopher Ward, cond.
Capriccio C5414 (CD). 2020. Thomas Bîssl, prod.; Sebastian Nattkemper, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Rott's E major symphony caused an internet kerfuffle when his partisans claimed that Mahler plundered Rott's ideas after the latter's untimely death. Most likely, Mahler was simply using, consciously or not, bits of music that stuck in his brain, as he recycled themes from other composers.

Rott's effective but bombastic climaxes, reinforced by full, tight brass chords, are a far cry from Mahler's clean, expressive, adeptly wrought sonorities. Rott's structures are fresh—the first movement, like some of Mahler's, isn't a true sonata form—and he surprises listeners with overlapping phrases and sections.

Christopher Ward pulls this somewhat lopsided structure together. The first movement, in Wagner's aspirational mode, unfolds with broad dignity, although the development's "toy march" could be more piquant. The Sehr langsam is thoughtful, but the soft brass chorale lacks magic. The Mahlerian Scherzo alternates a lilting Ländler with rambunctious tuttis, and Ward propels it to an exciting finish. He builds the finale's slow introduction with a firm through-line; in the striding march, precise accents and unmarked dynamic contrasts avoid aural fatigue. The Gürzenich Orchestra's reeds are liquid and flexible; occasionally, as when a brass solo "speaks" late, coordination is briefly uncertain.

This score must be a nightmare to record. Capriccio's engineers don't completely avoid congestion, but a pillowy depth around brass solos and a lovely sense of texture in the reed chorales mitigate problems. The crisp, classical contours of the Symphony for String Orchestra have a warm, gentle ambience.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Alfred Schnittke: Works for Violin and Piano
Daniel Hope, violin; Alexey Botvinov, piano.
Deutsche Grammophon 00028948392346 (24/96 WAV), 2021. Christoph Classen, prod.; Tobias Lehmann, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Daniel Hope was all of 17 when, after performing the Sonata No.1 and other works by Alfred Schnittke, he met the composer for the first time. In the ensuing two years, before Schnittke was felled by his third stroke, Hope met with him to discuss, study, and perform all the works on this intentionally unsettling program.

At recording's start, the far milder Suite in the Old Style (1972) proceeds in uneventfully lovely, polite fashion until the final movement, when the old order goes awry. Arrangements of a tame polka and tango leave us unprepared for the recording's eyebrow-raising centerpiece, the astounding Sonata No.1 for violin and piano (1963), an earlier, modernist work that combines sardonic, Shostakovich-like commentary with elements of discord, sadness, anger, dread, alarm, and disarming lyrical beauty. Hope, so closely miked that you can hear the sound of his bow as his Guarneri's strings resonate, controls dynamics and timbre while playing with deep knowing.

On the equally striking Madrigal in memoriam Oleg Kagan (1990) for solo violin or cello, Hope pulls out all stops with high squeals, wonky sounds, and a remarkable ability to express emptiness and solitude in the seemingly vast spaces between notes. Gratulationsrondo for violin and piano (1973) laughs at convention as it exposes a hole in the order—images of Der Leiermann (the organ grinder) at the end of Schubert's Winterreise come to mind—while Stille Nacht (1978) skewers Christmas with a witty, cynical take that sounds like a broken music box presaging the morning after the Christmas truce during WWI. Wow stuff.—Jason Victor Serinus

jimtavegia's picture

I downloaded the 2496 version from the site and there is no mistaking that she has a wonderful operatic voice. I'm sure to see her in person would be a real treat.

My issue is that there needs to be changes in style of vocal expression going from opera to more standards fare. I am thinking of Diana Krall trying to sing in an operatic style as opposed to her wonderful CDs of Great American Songbook material.

Here is seems Ms. Devos stayed in her opera style to sing these songs and it may take me a while to get use to her interpretation of them. It is probably me that is the one that needs to adjust. She has a wonderful voice.

The recordings in 2496 are excellent off of the Presto Music website with a catalog number of Alpha668.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I don't get your comment. The only "standard fare" is DeVos's cover of the Freddie Mercury song. There, her vibrato is minimal, and her approach different than Mercury's performance with piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GymG5y0Yt8. The rest of the songs are classical, and the use of voice totally in accord with expectation.

jimtavegia's picture

It just had a more Broadway Show Tune affect on me, and it is probably just me as I mentioned. I considered it a bargain at $16.50 as a 2496 download.

I thought the recording had a slight "distant" microphone quality as many classical recordings do, and as the vocalists who sing this music have very powerful voices. I can understand that part of it. I consider this performance and download a bargain, and I am sure it will grow on me over this next week as I play it often. I hope many others give it a try as well. It is a well engineered recording.

The "bargain" recording part is not lost on me as I had a friend recommend a jazz pianist to me I did not know and so I watched some YouTube performances and went to buy his latest work, but at $30 for a CD I decided against it. I have no problem with $30 SACDs, but not redbook CDs.

Your recommendations have always been excellent and I am glad I bought and downloaded this performance. It was just my take as a less traveled music lover. It will open some horizons for me I'm sure.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I appreciate your response.


Jim Austin's picture

Jim, something rang familiar about your response, which led me to comment. (But first let me say that I very much appreciate your courtesy.)

Accurately resolving hall sound is a difficult challenge for a system. Certain recordings that I've come to treasure I could not make sense of in my earlier days. (One example that comes immediately to mind: Mark-André Hamlin Live at Wigmore Hall. I tend to be a rather serious (not to say grim) classical-music listener, and this isn't an entirely serious recital. But I love it.

I've owned the CD for many years, probably since its release in 1994. For the first 10 years or so, I was intrigued by the recording (not sure why), but sonically it was rather confused: My system simply could not resolve it. Then, at a certain point--I don't know how long ago, but pretty long--my system reached a threshold and I got it. The recording made sense, and it has been a favorite recording ever since.

As I know nothing about your system or your room (the room also matters), I trust that it's clear that I'm not disparaging either. I'm merely sharing my experience. What you describe as a "'distant' microphone quality as many classical recordings do" maps well onto the more distant perspective I'm describing--and which I hear (somewhat--not as much as on the Hamelin disc) on the Jodi Devos album.

JVS has a well-tuned system in a dedicated, optimized listening room. I think it's fair to assume that his system does an excellent job sorting out recordings like this. (I'd be interested to know what Jason thinks of the Hamelin recording; Jason, give it a listen and let me know. Amazing pianism at a minimum.) Different systems are tuned for different things (although the very best systems can do most things well). Again, I don't know anything about your system, but it's worth considering that what you describe as "distant" is a feature, not a bug.

Best Wishes,

Jim Austin, Editor

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Morning Jim and Jim,

First, to JA2. With the review equipment being picked up today, I have a few days back with my reference set-up before we install some different Stillpoints room treatment and I begin the next review. I'll try to take a listen. The roof may be torn off David's sound room today, so it may be tonight.

Oops. I can't find the Hamelin on either Tidal or Qobuz. And those are the two streaming services that feed into my reference system. I so wish that Primephonic and Idagio had agreements with Roon and dCS so I could stream them as well. But I don't see the album on Idagio. And my subscription to Primephonic isn't active.

Second, to JT. If it is within your budget and you can live without MQA (which I love), check out the HoloAudio May (Level 3) D/A processor. Save for MQA, it will bring you into the present. I had it here for a few weeks, and it's quite the DAC for the price. It's not dCS, but it certainly costs less than the Bartók and may very well smash anything else on the market near its price.

jimtavegia's picture

Ever since I started doing some amateur recording over 20 years ago I have been most interested in the "recording perspective" and how and why engineers set up their mics for recording ensembles and soloists. By all of the music we all own know that those "perspectives" are all over the place. Where mics are placed does matter as we all know.

My personal favorite recordings are solo instruments with the piano in first place. I was listening to two classical discs of performances my Alice Sara Ott, one had the piano close mic'd and the other more distant. I liked them both, but preferred the presentation that would be more like what the performer might hear sitting at the piano bench. This may be as I play the piano (badly), but I am more familiar with that position presentation rather than as an listener in the audience might hear it. It is just a preference.

I also don't have a $100K system, finely tuned, but now at nearly 74 I find myself listening on headphones more and more. I also have 3 pair of speakers in my room, a floor standing pair and two pair of bookshelf speakers. Everyone of them is a different presentation due to size, performance, and manufacturer. I do this for my own recording work as my efforts must sound good on all the speaker systems. This comes from a comment in a magazine article I read years ago with the great Al Schmitt, whose wife is an audiophile. She asked him why he listened to music on the Yamaha NS-10M speakers, (I owned them over a decade ago and now I have a pair of P305 powered JBLs in another computer system)? He said if he could get his recordings to sound good on the 10M's they would sound good on anything. lol.

I am always interested when Mr. Fremer reviews a bookshelf speaker after living with his Wilson's and his superb system. The Marten's Oscar Duo review I found very informative.

As I write this I am listening to "You Take My Breath Away", which is beautiful. When I compare this to the any of the Pete Malinverni 8 discs I now own, thanks to Thomas Conrad, in which HIS piano is more close mic'd, the differences from these two recording perspective for the piano is apparent to me, whether on headphones or speakers through my Project S2 DAC from my computer. I now own 2 of the Project DACs, one driven by a disc spinner for redook and high rez PCM. Sadly, a DCS stack or even a Weiss is beyond my means. Each presentation is valid and an engineering choice. I can hear more of the room in the "And Love Said" download at 2496, it is most clear to me. The playing and singing is powerful to say the least. The natural reverb tails are seconds long. I think that my rather pedestrian systems are resolving of this 2496 performance. I almost made the mistake of downloading the redbook version from another site. I'm glad I Google searched until I found Presto. It is a bargain at $16.50, as I mentioned.

I am also very glad that I have watched, numerous times, the "Now Hear This" series presented by PBS and the great Scott Yoo. I have enjoyed the Shubert program greatly and have learned a great deal about his choral music from this program and his piano creations. The performances are superb and teach and illustrate the musical transition Shubert was apart of. The vocal and piano performances on this DVD are very educational and most enjoyable. I own both years and recommend them highly. I have found the operatic performances very moving once one knows the story behind them.

To close, I now own 2 of the DSD/SACD recordings from Octave Records (PS Audio), the 3rd is on the way. The Don Grusin, solo piano disc, Out Of Thin Air is wonderful. It was recorded on a Yamaha C7 grand Piano, a fav of many jazz pianists and can sound somewhat bright depending upon the piano technician's work and the player's preference. This piano was superbly prepared and sounds excellent. The pure DSD presentation through my Project S2 DAC is what music listening SHOULD BE. The SACD disc is also superb through my 13 year old SACD player by its own chip. I doubt you can stream this quality. When I listen to this disc it is hard to listen to lesser material.

It does amaze me what Jim Anderson captures on the Pete Malinverni discs in redbook. THAT is amazing work. Many of these discs were recorded at Avatar Studios, so that is part of it.

jimtavegia's picture

I found the disc used and will give it a try, as well.

I also don't consider a slightly distance sounding piano recording a "bug", just a choice of mic placement. The fact that I can hear that difference leads me to believe my proletariat system can be somewhat resolving.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Went to Amazon, and the cost of the CD, new or used, is outrageous. Got the 16/44.1 FLAC files (the only option) from Hyperion instead. This recording is from 1995 - the early digital era. Should be interesting. More to come.

Charles E Flynn's picture