June 2024 Classical/International Record Reviews

Será Una Noche: Otra Noche
M•A Recordings (reviewed as 24/176.4 PCM). 2024. Todd Garfinkle, Marcelo Moguilevsky, prods.; Garfinkle, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Otra Noche, the most recent release on Todd Garfinkle's M•A Recordings, is a continuation of Será Una Noche, a project begun in 1998, then continued with La Segunda in 2003. Twenty years later, Otra Noche is here, and it strikes me as one of the most perfect examples of digital recording I've ever encountered.

Otra Noche is a simple, spaced-omni stereo recording of real people performing together in real time in a small stone church about 100 miles from Buenos Aires. The greatest pleasure of a recording like this is that when it is played back on even the most modest audiophile system, it will sound tangibly real. Otra Noche's flawlessly mapped, perfectly clear soundspace is the most voluminous I've experienced in my small listening room. In my opinion, Todd Garfinkle is the unchallenged master of both music production and microphone placement. With Otra Noche, he has raised his game and the bar. The soundstage on this 5.6MHz DSD recording occupied the whole room in front of me, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. It rolled right up and touched my toes.

The tone-perfect beauty of this recording is set by the timbre of tango diva Lidia Borda's voice, which reaches out and touches listeners like a mother or a lover, presenting each song in a manner that's hauntingly intimate and introspective.

Repeat-playing Otra Noche has raised my opinion of what digital is capable of as a music storage format—and of what master recordist-producer Garfinkle can accomplish in a small stone church with simple equipment and no compression, processing, or overdubs.

Otra Noche is available as 24/176.4 PCM and 2×DSD download and soon as a CD from Sony Japan. A two-LP set will be released later this year. Playing this album in DSD is as close to experiencing a real master tape as most of us will ever get.—Herb Reichert

Bela Fleck: Rhapsody in Blue
Thirty Tigers Records (auditioned as CD). 2024. Bela Fleck, prod.; Richard Battaglia, Paul Blakemore, Richard King, Chris Magruder, Jennifer Nulsen, Lawson White, engs.
Performance ***
Sonics *****

Fresh off winning two Grammy Awards, banjo master Bela Fleck has released Rhapsody in Blue, his homage to legendary composer George Gershwin. The record explores Gershwin's classic work in three variations: "Rhapsody in Blue(grass)" with his core band, "Rhapsody in Blue(s)" with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Victor Wooten, and the original classical piece performed in a straightforward way but with solo banjo substituting for piano. The orchestral part is performed by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Jacobsen. The set also features Gershwin's "Rialto Ripples" and "Unidentified Piece for Banjo," a previously unrecorded, unreleased song discovered at the Library of Congress.

The result is a record of profound joy. Substituting the piano with a banjo causes the music to take on a playfulness and sense of fun that it may never have had before, without losing any of its majesty. Fleck's adaptation makes the Rhapsody something to revel in, with a sense of surprise even with music that we all have heard countless times.

On the bluegrass opener, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, guitar, and bass replace the orchestra, pulling the music away from symphony hall and letting it live on the porch, where it breathes and brightens. Even those new to bluegrass will marvel at how naturally it all unfolds.

Fleck was born and raised in New York City, and in the end this is a nod to home as much as it's a nod to Gershwin. It's another new mode of musical expression from an artist who has taken the banjo places no one could have imagined it ever going. Grammy wins in Country, Pop, Jazz, Instrumental, Classical, and World Music suggest that with Fleck, anything is possible, as long as it includes a banjo.—Ray Chelstowski

Mahler: Symphony No.3
R. Strauss: Death and Transfiguration
Norma Procter (a); Ambrosian Singers, Wandsworth School Boys' Choir; London Symphony/Jascha Horenstein
High Definition Tape Transfers (1970, CD; 24/192 download). Harold Lawrence, prod.; Jerry Bruck, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

At the 1970 session that resulted in Unicorn's well-known Mahler Third, engineer and Mahlerian Jerry Bruck was also invited to record it, using his own mikes and setup. HDTT's release is the same performance as the old Unicorn release, but a completely different recording.

Right from the start, the startling presence of the unison horns tell us this will be a fresh experience. Numerous quiet interior parts, like the little buried marching motive, enliven the textures. The graceful minuet comes to vibrant, lustrous life. Images of woodwind and horn soloists are almost tangible. The original Unicorn and Nonesuch issues projected the kaleidoscopic orchestral palette but without this vivid immediacy. It's like lifting a scrim.

On the other hand, the first movement's fuller passages don't "open out" proportionately to the lighter ones. Norma Procter's first few notes sound oddly "furry," though the focus is better here.

Numerous Mahlerians consider Horenstein the supreme Mahlerian: his judiciously paced, cohesive reading, eschewing standard agogics, leaves even the poker-faced Haitink sounding rhetorical. Execution is mostly alert, though smudged landings in the Finale suggest time constraints or fatigue. Dotted marziale rhythms are well sprung. Lean, marked accents in the scherzando bring out its klezmer flavor. The offstage flugelhorn/onstage horn duet are balanced precisely. Horenstein infuses his flowing finale with weight and gravitas, leaning on dissonances to heighten tension.

The turbulent episodes of the Strauss tone poem are vital, even impulsive. The brisk final transfiguration glows.

HDTT and Bruck have finally provided a classic with a long-needed refurbishing.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Maya Beiser × Terry Riley: In C
Maya Beiser, cello, vocals; Shane Shanahan, Matt Kilmer, percussion
Islandia Music Records (limited edition CD, 24/48 download). 2024. Maya Beiser, prod.; Dave Cook, eng.; Scott Hull, mastering.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

During a period when contemporary classical music was stuck in an academic, serialist desert—when many composers insisted on writing music audiences detested—Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece In C was a welcome relief. It came easily to its composer. As Riley told me more than 22yearsago," InCwas kind of a gift to me. I wasn't trying to write a piece; it just came to me one night while I was stoned and riding a bus to play ragtime at the Gold Street Saloon"; that's a bar in San Francisco. It was 1964. "Suddenly, In C began ringing in my head in an overwhelming way. It sounded like trumpets from heaven opening up. When I got home, I immediately wrote it down."

In C consists of 53 patterns that can be written down on one page. "There's a whole set of instructions that developed [later] that didn't come with the original inspiration; we had to figure out how to play it to make it work," Riley explained in that long-ago conversation. "Over the years, we've codified a certain way to perform it. Generally, everybody performs the sequences in order from 1 to 53, but how [the sequences] relate to each other is left to the performers' discretion."

Beiser, an avant-garde cellist, has created a unique version in which a series of cello loops float above continuous C-string cello drones. Augmented by drums and rattles, the mesmerizing tribal ecstasy of Beiser's opening movements seems equally rooted in Africa, India, and psychedelic rock.

One of the movements sounds as if it was created during prayer in a medieval cathedral; another comes across like an otherworldly variation on an Indian raga.

Welcome to In C as you've never heard it before—but will surely want to hear again.—Jason Victor Serinus

Franz Schubert: String Quartet No.15 in G major D887String Quartet No.8 in B flat major D112
Takács Quartet
Hyperion CDA 68423 (CD, reviewed as 24/96). 2024. Andrew Keener, prod.; David Hinitt, James Waterhouse, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Having heard the Takács Quartet live on multiple occasions—the most moving of those performances was of Schubert's String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D810, "Death and the Maiden," which I experienced from second row center in Berkeley's 440-seat Hertz Hall—I've come to expect beauty and emotional eloquence from this ensemble. This recording delivers. Thanks to the Takács's technical excellence, including first violin Edward Dusinberre's rare ability to maintain the softest of silvery lines with no loss of tonal beauty, Takács excels in tailoring their interpretations to a work's emotional and spiritual demands. The result in this case is a recording of one of Schubert's great quartets, No.15 in G major, immediately distinguished by soft, impeccably controlled playing and dynamic changes that reflect Schubert's swings between joy and sadness.

In D877's lengthy first movement, soft passages are often sandwiched between more upbeat sections, as if Schubert was attempting to sweeten his pain with fast-moving melody. As in the unforgettable Adagio of his Cello Quintet, pain often intrudes on joy. At one point in the opening, you'll even hear a brief phrase that Schubert expanded upon in that Adagio. The second movement proceeds as a burdened walk forward, with a rare moment of grace punctuating its ominous tremolos and tragic undercurrents. The shorter third movement includes a most beautiful, touching song that precedes the finale's energetic tarantella.

Schubert was still a teenager when he wrote his lovely Quartet No.8 in B flat major in nine days. It doesn't approach the eloquence of his many late masterworks, but it never hurts to lighten up your listening with Schubert's inexhaustible gift for melody.—Jason Victor Serinus

Stravinsky: Pétrouchka
Debussy: Jeux, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Orchestre de Paris/Klaus Mäkelä
Decca 487 0146 (CD). Jorn Pedersen, prod.; Arne Akselberg, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Pétrouchka isn't the easiest piece for a young conductor; several seasoned veterans have foundered as early as the opening tableau. But Mäkelä, just named music director in Chicago, projects its whirling colors while keeping the details orderly. The fadelike transitions are smooth and confident. Even without an overt "tune," the conductor gives the music a nice sense of direction, effectively layering the elements. He plays up the score's character, unfolding the carnival scene pleasingly. Bass motifs are ominously weighty.

The conductor's individual touches can be distracting. I didn't mind the reed principals' flexible, plaintive expression or the free phrasing allowed the unaccompanied flute. But at the "Waltz of the Ballerina and the Moor," the imposed windup, with "belching" bassoon downbeats, is odd and unstylish. And while Mäkelä takes pains to illuminate the busywork, he might be more attentive to basic balance: In the fuguelet ending—the dancing-bear scene—the violins are all but inaudible when answering the full, deep brass. (The tuttis come over a bit too bright, which doesn't help.)

The wriggly, less familiar Jeux is perhaps a better test. Mäkelä has its measure, establishing its mystery, with unstable wind progressions suggesting Scriabin. Transitions are impeccably gauged and controlled. Ensemble is excellent. The balletic undulations are good; the swells feel unusually Romantic, the mild ambience around solo woodwinds produces rich textures. The Faune is lovely if schizophrenic, starting languidly, given to sudden surges. The passage beneath the first oboe solo seems loud, and I wouldn't swear the triplet episode absolutely holds together. Mäkelä has room to grow, but now I know what the fuss is about.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Kal Rubinson's picture

FWIW, Jerry Bruck's recording of Horenstein's M3/D&T was recorded in 4 channels with the microphones in a tetrahedral array and is also offered in multichannel by HDTT. Default routing will offer a nicely expanded soundspace with a multichannel playback system but that is not exactly how it was intended.

In the delivered multichannel files, left and right front are as expected. What is conveyed by the right rear channel is from a third microphone that was above the first two and aimed straight up; ideally, those who have the facility to do so should route this to an overhead speaker. The left rear channel is from the fourth microphone in the same horizontal plane as the L/R but aimed in the opposite direction; this signal should be routed to a center rear speaker or, as in my case, to both left and right surround speakers.

With this setup, one gets an even greater appreciation of the soundspace but also of the details within it and the concomitant expansion of the dynamics. It may not equal what can be done today but it is certainly amazing for a performance from more than 50 years ago.

funambulistic's picture

I got to meet Todd at the Southwest Audio Fest last March in the Sound Lab room. He had most of his label's releases on display and I asked him to pick two for purchase (vinyl and CD/SACD) and this was one of the selections. Fantastic recording and beautiful music!

Chris Noto's picture

I've loved and relied upon the music of Terry Riley, since early in 1969, when, as a college freshman, I first heard "Rainbow In Curved Air" on late night Chicago FM radio. I believe I bought my copy, which is, as I write, just out of arm's reach, at the record store across the street from my dorm, the very next morning. Your review, Jason, was my first notice of this new version of "In C," and I am in your debt, sir, and grateful for it!