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  OxBox, May 2009 - 2Xperience Followup & More Music

      Date posted: May 14, 2009

In my most recent column I reviewed the ProJect 2Xperience  belt drive turntable with the supplied carbon fibre arm and an Ortofon Rondo Blue cartridge. I can report that the sound from it continues to delight. Although the financial outlay involved is far from chump change, it would be hard to think of a more worthwhile investment if you are at all inclined towards vinyl.

There is one feature of the 2Xperience I forgot to cover, and that is the connection of the turntable to your preamp. You simply use a regular pair of RCA terminated interconnects. There is a set supplied which acquits itself very well indeed. However, I took my pair of one-and-a-half-meter Kimber Selects that I had running between the Integris CDP (disc player, preamp and phono stage in a box) and the 300B amplifer and halved it and re-terminated them so I have two shorter sets, one of  which I am using between the turntable and the CDP.  I prefer it to the supplied set, it is a bit sweeter and more natural sounding, however it doesn’t seem to be quite as dynamic. It is a matter of personal taste and, of course, it is fun to experiment (play with our toys).
Bartok cover
The Music

Schubert, The Four Last Quartets
No.13 in A Minor, D.804, No.14 in D Minor, D.810 “Death and the Maiden”, No.15 in G, D. 887,  No.12 in C Minor, D. 703 “Quartettsatz
RCA 94197  2 CDs

Bartok, The Six String Quartets
No.1 Op.7 (1909), No.2 Op.17 (1915-1917), No.3 (1927), No.4 (1928), No.5 (1934), No.6 (1939)

RCA 94194  2 CDs

“The Italian Album'’
Verdi, Quartet in E Minor, Tchaikovsky, Sextet Op.70 “Souvenir de Florence”, Hugo Wolf,  '’Italian Serenade'’

RCA 92882

All by the Guarneri Quartet: Arnold Steinhardt, violin, John Dalley, violin, Michael Tree, viola, David Soyer, cello

During their first twenty, or so, years before the public the Guarneri were among the greats. They continued to perform extensively and now find themselves in their last year as a group, their forty-fifth, a considerable achievement by any measure. It is said that in these later years that while their playing did not have quite the technical flash it gained a patina and greater depth of feeling. The recordings I have for review come from the mid sixties to the early eighties with the greatest number, the Schubert and the Bartok  works, having been recorded in the mid seventies, all in New York.

Hearing these performances now I am struck by how “unflashy” the Guarneri were. Even in the Bartok Quartets, their technical security was, for them, the means only to get to the heart of the music. The six Bartok quartets are a half dozen of the most important works written in the last century. I never find them easy, but the Gaurneri players engaged me completely. There is ‘’going for broke'’ quality about the complete listening experience that is quite thrilling, and that includes a sound recording that is close, almost to a fault. Steinhardt’s breathing is very audible at times. As is typical with all these recordings the acoustic sounds rather dry, there is a definite lack of bloom. With the Bartok Quartets that’s not a big problem, in fact, the recording permits everything to be heard with complete clarity. There is little doubt the Guarneri players are strong musical personalities.

Their voices are frequently pronounced, more than is usual in the string quartet grouping. This lack of homogeneity may bother some but I think not in the Bartok. Not really in the Schubert either. What did bother me in their version of the quartet, ‘Death and the Maiden’ was their tendency to overplay the music rather than let it speak for itself. As I listen, this is a serious fault in any performance and it makes me realize how subtle and subjective is the line between a distinguished interpretation and one that is simply a display of personal projection. And so it is when we turn to the truly outstanding Quartet No.15, one of those noble, serious and irreplaceable late works by Schubert. But here, the Guarneri’s interventionist approach reveals a shape for this work which I find very appealing. They must have thought about it long and hard before finding in it what they have. The sound of the Schubert  recordings is not really competitive and there are many more satisfying readings of Death and the Maiden,”but for me, the performance of No.15  alone, makes the set worth having.
Shubert String Quartets
Nothing could more graphically illustrate the sound issue than the disc of three shorter works. The sensitively played Verdi Quartet was recorded in 1982, again in New York, and the sound is glorious. On the other hand, the Souvenir de Florence  is just adequate. It does have two additional players, Boris Kroyt, viola and Mischa Schneider, cello, so some difference is to be expected, but the 1965 recording is dry and congested. The Italian Serenade from 1976 falls somewhere in between. In any case I would hardly call this an essential disc.

These, and a number of other Guarneri Quartet recordings, are being reissued on the occasion of the group’s retirement and in celebration of their lengthy career. However, they are not being re-issued by the aggregation that absorbed RCA, their former record company. Instead, they are available through ArkivMusic.com and as downloads at a couple of other sites, including iTunes. The recordings have been licensed to Arkiv by Sony-BMG-Masterworks who have supervised the transfer process from the master tapes. ArkivMusic has a huge email order catalog of recordings available from their excellent web site.

What distinguishes them, besides their regular catalog, is their out-of-print service. They have the ability to ship any one of over 4000 out-of-print CDs within twenty four hours of ordering. These come with the replication of the original covers and with notes based on the originals. They are all produced under license, affording the collector a veritable treasure trove. The Guarneri reissues, then, are examples of this service. Nevertheless, I must say, Sony would have done the Guarneri Quarter much greater honour had they produced the reissues themselves.
Bruce Cockbrun - Slice O Life
In the Mix

Slice of Life, Live Solo, Bruce Cockburn, vocals and guitars, True North Records TND520

This is a 2-CD set, Bruce Cockburn recorded live in May, 2008, in the northeastern US and in Rouen, Quebec. It’s great! Cockburn is as good an acoustic guitar player as you are likely to come across. His singing voice has become more husky and, I think, more interesting. The recording is clear and very detailed. Bruce Cockburn fans will be very happy with this and I bet there will be not a few new ones joining the club.

Freedom, Neil Young, Reprise CD25899

After all the excitement over Young’s two sold out concerts here in Canada’s most easterly provincial capital, I was inspired to dig out a couple of his CDs for a listen. Freedom, from 1989, was one of them. It is one of his greats.

Sky Blue, Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra

I have this marvelous music making as a download from the Artist’s Share web site (www.artistshare.com). It is also available from them as a regular CD, which, although the download sounds very good, to me, should sound even better.  All the compositions are by Maria Schneider and the album is almost an extended jazz suite. I’m addicted to it. I thought I would like it but not this much. It’s melodic, the arrangements move from dense and sound-filled to spare, often behind the soloists, to the almost ecstatic when all hands are involved and Maria’s wordless vocalizing joins the the orchestra’s sound world.

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Albert King

In Session
, Albert King/Stevie Ray Vaughan, STAX SXSA-7501-6 (The numbers apply to the hybred SACD version)

This disc falls into the ‘’hits I missed'’ category. It is a stunner with, believe it or not, a Canadian connection. The two were engaged to play together for a television show called ‘’In Session'’ that was produced in the 1980s at the studios of CHCH-TV in Hamilton. These selections have been culled from the session of Dec. 6 1983. The sound is everything you could hope for and the music making is unique with King playing the father figure to the [then] 29-year-old Texan. It worked. Albert King was SRV’s idol, and he was quite content to play along. Get this CD!

Symphonies No.1 and No.2 by Michael Hersch
Symphonies by William Schuman

There is no doubt that the American Classics series on the Naxos label is one of the most important developments in the classical
music field. I’ve written about it before and the budget lable continues to release interesting music in well above budget level performances. I do not like all of their discs that I take a chance on but, at the price, a few misses are manageable. The Hersch Symphonies are contemporary and accessible and sufficiently challenging to be interesting. He certainly is a composer to keep an eye on. The 2005 performances by the Bournemouth Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop are excellent and the sound recording from The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Pool, England is really something.

William Schuman was a composer and administrator. In 1945 he became the president of the Juilliard School of music, in 1961 he was appointed the first president of Lincoln Center. So, you see, he had day jobs. Among the music he wrote are ten symphonies. I came across his Third Symphony some years ago on a DG recording by Leonard Bernstien and the New York Philharmonic that also contained Roy Harris’ Third. It was the very accessible Harris work that attracted me. I tried the Schuman a couple of times without any success, all angles. Then, one day not long ago, I thought Bernstein would not have wasted his time on something that wasn’t, at least, worth listening to. So, listen to it I did, many times over. Gradually it began to make sense. (Now, when I hear it, I wonder what the trouble was).  I liked it enough to wish to hear some of Schuman’s other Symphonies.
William Schuman
My quest led me, you guessed it, to  Naxos and the American Classics series. Schuman’s Symphonies  on Naxos are played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. I might suggest you start with his Symphony No.10, American Muse, which was written for the U.S. bicentennial. The disc also contains his 7th, written for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. While angular at times, their celebratory purpose makes them approachable, colorful, and they burst with energy. How wonderful to be able to hear all this music!

Bob Oxley

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