OxBox, January 2010: Pro-Ject, Furutech, Ortofon and music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and more

      Date posted: January 4, 2010

The System - Pro-Ject 2Xperience Turntable & Ortofon Rondo Blue Moving Coil Cartridge

In my original review of this turntable cartridge combination I said the results were pleasing but, but I thought that going for the more costly Ortofon Kontrapunkt B cartridge would offer better value for money. In the event, I was dead wrong. I tried to like the 2Xperience-Rondo Blue. It was so nice to spin some vinyl and hear some old favourites again. But, the longer I listened the closer I came to realizing that the sound just wasn’t as good as it should be. In particular, I thought Ortofon couldn’t be marketing a cartridge that didn’t sound better than the Rondo Blue, especially at its price point. There was a way to investigate this further. I went down to the basement and unearthed my old cement-composite-based, direct drive Kenwood 500 turntable with the magnificent, beautifully engineered and crafted, stainless steel, high mass Fidelity Research FR64 arm and set it up. In went the Rondo Blue. That was it!

In the FR arm the Blue sounded just like I thought it should, well balanced and suitably dynamic. It is not the last word in resolution but, it has lots of life and presents solid imaging. (Hearing it made me realize what raggedy shape my aged Kontrapunkt B was in when I last used the Kenwood). What became obvious to me in all this was that the arm of the Pro-Ject 2Xperience is not designed for moving coil cartridges. It simply is not stable enough.  Why then was the 2Xperience TT with the Blue moving coil cartridge offered for sale as a package in the first place, with a discount for buying both? I trusted that the distributor, or whomever, must have believed it was a marriage made in heaven. Wrong again.

As it turns out I’m am very happy with the Rondo Blue now and look forward to many happy hours listening to 12-in.vinyl platters. Were I not, I would definitely get a good quality moving magnet cartridge for the 2Xperience and live happily ever after. I could be wrong (it has happened) but I think that is a proper match. There is a new moving magnet line from Ortofon with a wide price range and Grado moving magnet cartridges have received excellent reviews over the years.

Furutech CF 102 Connectors

I have written about my little experiment with connectors on interconnects using Kimber Kable Select KS 1030  wire and substituting Furutech FP 106 connectors for the the original WBTs. The sound was improved. Not long after that I got wind of the new CF102s. I bought a set and fitted them in place of the106s. I thought the 106s sounded great. The 102s are astounding. The easiest way I can express the difference is to say that the Furutech CF 102s take everything away but leave the music. Don’t ask me how it happens, it just does. They join the outstanding Furutech FI 50 connectors that terminate the Furutech power cords in my system.
Bach Sonatas & Partitas
The Music

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin
Alina Ibragimova, violin,  Hyperion CDA6691/2
Viktoria Mullova, violin,  ONYX 4040

I was so impressed with this new Ibragimova recording, a 2 CD set sent for review, that I felt I had to also hear the recent Victoria Mullova recordings to help me come to some understanding of contemporary Bach practice. Hearing them both, I realize each of these releases is very special, Ibragimova’s coming near the beginning of her career and Mullova’s in mid-career. An excellent biography of Mullova can be found at the ONYX website along with other information about this artist-controlled label. Of particular interest is Mullova’s  move toward period performance that developed over the past decade. For the Sonatas and Partitas  she uses gut strings and a bow fashioned after those of the 17th century. The magnificently rich sound of her instrument informs her complete command over this steadfastly challenging music. These are simply wonderful performances. It is little wonder they are on several critics’ best-of-the year lists.

Alina Ibragimova’s Bach is less conventional than Mullova’s and very, very exciting. The twenty-four-year-old Russian uses a conventional fiddle and bow and yet sounds more authentic, for all that. She doesn’t dig into every note as deeply as Mullova, or for that matter, as do most players with whom I am familiar, but every note gets its due in a way that connects the dots in this music as I have never heard it before.  Her alert phrasing keeps the music moving forward and her sense of time is remarkable. Listening to this repertoire requires a good deal of concentration. I have to confess that before Ibragimova, I admired the works more than enjoyed them. Ibragimova illuminates them in ways that, in turn, enhance my enjoyment of this music in a broad sense and heightens my enjoyment of other versions, especially Mullova’s.

The Onyx sound for  Mullova’s is warmer, with more ambience, and is therefore a more noticeable part of the listening experience. Hyperion’s sound for Ibragimova is dryer and leaner. There is a stillness at the centre of her playing. With Ibragimova, to borrow a line from one of Alice Munroe’s short stories, Bach’s ideas “seem to take on a new shape, seen through sheets of clear intelligence, a transforming glass”.

Nicolo Paganini: 24 Caprices for solo violin,  James Ehnes, violin,  ONYX4044

Paganini was a character. He had a brilliant career and lived a terrible life, plagued by affliction. Contemporaneous with J.S. Bach, he couldn’t have been more different than the German master, either personally or professionally. The solo violin pieces give us an example of that. Bach’s were written for study and private enjoyment, while Paganini`s Caprices were intended to be played in public, performed by the greatest violinist of the age, Paganini himself. Tall, lean and gaunt, his was an eerie, charismatic stage presence. To add to it, Paganini apparently did little to contradict the many stories about him that were gossiped about, including one that a pact with the devil was made in exchange for his ability to play the violin. His performances did indeed seem to have something almost sinister about them: how could anyone play like that?

Listening to James Ehnes play Paganini’s Caprices almost made me think the same thing. However, thoughts of dark spirits are stilled with the realization these are recordings not public performances. At the same time, I have no doubt Ehnes would play the Caprices in concert with all the skill and insight he displays here on his second recording of these works. His first, made for Telarc, was his first recording ever, and I remember the stir it caused in the music world when it came out: another Canadian musician  stuns the rest of the world! I can say only that if he thought he could improve his first go at the Caprices, then I’m with him. For this is a stunning accomplishment in every way except, I must say, for the cover photo/design. It is the anti-cover. The recording is engineered superbly; it is clear with just enough ambient sound. There are many fine discs of the Paganini’s 24 about, including Itzhak Perlman’s Great Recording of the Century for EMI.  Ehnes’ gift is that he has found musical gems in these technical high hurdles.

Malcolm Arnold Dance MusicTchaikovsky: 1812 Overture Op.49; Moscow Cantata; Slavonic March (Marche Slave), Op.31; Festival Coronation March; Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem Marinsky Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus, Valery Gergiev   Marinsky SACDMar0503

Malcolm Arnold: Ballet Music
Suite from Homage to the Queen, Op42; Rinaldo and Armida, Op49;
Concert Suite from Sweeney Todd, Op68a;  Electra
BBC Philharmonic, Rumon Gamba  Chandos CHAN10550

The prospect of the dynamic Mr. Gergiev putting his Marinsky Orchestra through its paces in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 (in my listening room) had me anxiously waiting to see if my woofers would blow. As it turns out, this 1812 is a far cry from the sound spectacular (and woofer destroyer) launched by Mercury Records in the early LP era. That’s not saying it is without merit, far from it. But rather than making an attempt to knock you over, Gergiev draws you in, into Tchaikovsky’s musical world with his full command of his excellent orchestra. Among its charms is the soft grained brass, a quality almost lost as the sound of symphony orchestras became globalized. From a quiet beginning, tension is gradually increased until, in the finale, everything is let loose in a way that is perfectly judged. In fact this is the least bombastic 1812 I’ve ever heard. At the climax there is gunfire but instead of huge cannon, what we hear is, I think, field guns. Their sound is mid-range and very tight and percussive. The orchestra is going full tilt, the guns are firing and then the bells begin pealing. Great bells. They sound like bells in churches or town halls from right across the country. Wonderful! What a celebration!  The remaining works do more than just fill out the disc. Each is played with care and genuine feeling. (Note: I am listening in two channel stereo. In SACD surround, I can imagine the effect is quite something).
Malcolm Arnold Dance Music
The disc of Malcolm Arnold’s Ballet music is no slouch in the sound department. Chandos, since their inception, have consistently produced
recordings of demonstration quality. It is their style to place you in about the 15th row and the orchestra in back of the speaker plane. From there the well defined sound stage is wide and deep and the orchestra’s height seems realistic. It is right there, before you, on stage. Chandos have an equally impressive artistic record. The music on this disc is spacious and airy and very well played. There is some heavy duty percussion at the beginning of Electra that is solid and startling. I enjoy listening to Arnold’s music, lots of good tunes, clear ideas and he was a masterful orchestrator. The ballet music offers much enjoyable listening  and deserves consideration as a complement to his more substantial symphonies.

A Century of Piano Classics
Beethoven, Sonata No.4 in E flat, Op 7; Chopin, Scherzo No.4 in E, Op54;
Brahms, Four Piano Pieces Op.119
Jane Coop, piano

Jane Coop
It takes a courageous soul indeed to centre a piano recital on Beethoven’s Op. 7 sonata; it’s not very familiar, it’s long, it’s early and, worst of all it doesn’t have a name, something like Moonlight or Pastoral. However, it is a very spacial work. It is Beethoven’s first piano sonata to hint at the great musical journey on which he was to take humankind. The deeply moving second movement, largo con gran espressione, is the heart of the piece. There was never anything quite like this before.

The sonata gets a deeply affecting performance from Jane Coop. A great choice of repertoire and fine playing. Chopin has long been one of Coop’s musical companions. Never has she played the Scherzo No.4 like this, that is, on record.  Generally, I feel Coop has not been well served with her recordings, so welcoming this release is a distinct pleasure. It concludes with the three Intermezzi and the Rhapsody from Brhams’ Op. 119. Again, Coop senses the right emotional tone for these works which, in their simplicity, go straight to the heart. The Vancouver production team has achieved vivid, solid sound and the cover photo and design of the CD packaging are perfect. I wish that Coop, whose day job after all is teaching, had written the commentary about the music.

The Tallis Scholars Sing the Flemish Masters
Gimell CDGIM211

The Essential Tallis Scholars  Gimell CDGIM 201

Flemish Masters
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars  are celebrating their first thirty years as performers. Their celebration gift to us are these 2-CD
budget priced sets on their Gimell label, each containing selections from their extensive catalog. Indeed, the Scholars have assiduously
amassed a body of work that has pretty well exhausted the number of major compositions for unaccompanied voice written during the
Renaissance. There are other excellent groups who specialize in choral music of the period but the Tallis Singers are consistently excellent
and always very well recorded. Especially at the price, either is a splendid opportunity to obtain a feast of wonderful music and singing.
The Flemish Masters are Issac, Ockeghem, Lassus, de Rore and Brumel, a mass by each. The Essential Scholars contains works by ten Continental composers on the first disc and five English composers from the same period on disc two. There are extensive notes and lovely art reproductions that put me in the mood to listen.

Beethoven , Diabelli Varations, 33 Variations in C on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120; Bach,  Partita No.  in D, BWV 828
Steven Kovacevich, piano    ONYX 4035

When Steven Bishop’s first recording of the Diabellis came out, forty years ago, it made a huge impression on me. What a discovery, the work, the pianist, everything! I became a Steven Bishop fan, scooping up his subsequent Phillips releases, late Beethoven, the Bartok piano
concertos, late Brahms or Chopin, I was never disappointed. Then, in the early eighties, after Bishop recorded the two Brahms Concertos,
something happened. He was let go by Phillips and seemed to drop from sight. I had a chance to speak with him at that time and I couldn’t get a direct answer as to what happened. Eventually he made a set of the Beethoven piano concertos for one of EMI’s budget labels before
surfacing on the main label.

Along the way he began to use the name Bishop-Kovacevich and then finally Kovacevich, his father’s name. His revived career has been one of distinction. His most notable achievement is the recording of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas and superlative readings of some of the Schubert Sonatas for piano, including his last, D.960. Now, on the ONYX label, we have Beethoven’s late set of variations in Diabelli’s theme, revisited. Kovacevich could easily have made a second recording of this work before now. They waited until he felt the time was right. Diabelli commissioned Beethoven and several other prominent composers of the time to submit a variation on his theme. He planned to gather them together for publication.

Beethoven, late in his career, stone deaf, irascible, heard this simple little tune in his mind’s ear. His was bemused but took on the project, creating not one, but thirty two variations. His first impulse may have been to send the tune up, but it didn’t take long for the great man’s better instincts and to take over and we are left with this very special work. Some reviewers are now calling it Beethoven’s Masterpiece. Great as it is, that claim is just nonsense. Kovacevich now has a much more dramatic view of the work than he did in 1968. His tempos are more differentiated and dynamics more pronounced. A couple of times his technique almost fails with the tempos he has set but, rewardingly, this is a fine artist telling us what he thinks Beethoven wants us to hear. As a bonus we are given a rather old fashioned view of Bach’s Partita No.4. It is easy to believe that one of Kovacevich’s teachers was Dame Myra Hess. It is a marvelously played contribution to this distinguished release.

Brahms’s Symphony No.1 in C Minor,Op.68; Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn,Op. 56a; Hungarian Dance No. 14
Budapest Festival Orchestra,  Ivan Fischer
Channel Classics CSS SA 28309

Ivan Fischer's Brahms
The Budapest Festival Orchestra, which Fischer co-founded, has been recording for Channel Classics for some years, now. Their exclusive
contract with the Netherlands based label is a rare thing and by every measure must be welcomed by collectors. The cost of producing symphonic recordings is lower away from the major centres, Fischer has created an excellent orchestra, and has taken the gamble of recording some of the core repertoire, symphonies by Tchaikovsky and Mahler for example and this 1st by Brahms. There is no shortage of recordings of any of them. Aware of this, Fischer takes a thorough study of the score, charts his interpretation and goes to work with the orchestra. As a result, Brahms sounds fresh as a daisy. Fischer has gone into the corners and hauled out a century of performing tradition and made changes, nothing radical, but that are very logical and consistent, first note to the last. It reminds me of what Nicholas Harnencourt did when he recorded the Beethoven Symphonies in the early 90s.

The thing that strikes you immediately is the very regular tempo. In fact Fischer’s beat is so carefully established from the very beginning that feel you can depend on everything he will do. There is flexibility, to be sure, but none of the little pauses or the accents which are done to highlight a note or phrase here and there and which really sound so phony. There is a will to sacrifice the “big tune” to the benefit of the shape of the whole.  An example, Fischer sets-up the initial appearance of the great tune in the last movement perfectly, I’m ready to sing along note for note. There it is and then it isn’t. The tempo is faster than normal and there are changes in stress that change the sense of the melody, but it’s OK because the music is moving right along. When the same theme comes back again it is  more normal, making for a marvelous effect. The other differences I hear are more a nip here and a tuck there but they all add up to a special interpretation. There are lots of tunes in Brahms’ music and the tendency to over-accentuate them makes his symphonies seem ponderous. Fischer’s orchestra is not in the first rank; it lacks the splendor of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, for example.

But, they have their own special qualities including the softer Eastern European brass and horns and excellent strings and woodwinds, and, most of all, they play their hearts out for Fischer. The orchestra’s transparent sound is well caught in the Palace of Arts, Budapest. Of the
other works on the disc, the Haydn Variations seemed rather cool, but the lone Hungarian Dance left me wanting more.

Folk Art
Joe Levano, saxohones, James Weidman, piano, Esperanza Spaulding, bass
Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, percussion.
Blue Note  iTunes download

This is Joe Levano’s 21st. recording for Blue Note, maybe, there doesn’t seem to be unanimity on the exact number. The exact number doesn’t really matter, but the approximate number does, twenty jazz records for a any label is very unusual these days. In Blue Note’s glory years, the ’60s and early ’70s, the artists on their roster made the hike to Rudy van Gelder’s New Jersey studio and made record after record, and not a few of them turned out to be jazz classics. The thing about Levano that ranks him with the greats, is that with all his professional activity, his playing/music always sounds new. Folk Art  is no exception. As he almost always does, he has varied the make-up of his groups, this one he calls Us Five.

To make Folk Art  sound new doesn’t alter his style, but he moves inward to mine once again, musical ideas that range from bop to modal to third stream, searching to find what he missed the last time. He strikes gold. This is his first recording where all the compositions are his own. They are simply brilliant and a joy to listen to. His writing reminds me of Wayne Shorter’s, simple lines which inspire the players to improvise these musical miracles. Us Five is a good group and the sound picture, with one drummer left and the other opposite, sounds just right. I know the iTunes download is more compressed than the CD but I don’t sense I’m missing much.

 Bob Oxley

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