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Antal Dorati Ė Recording Legend

by Tony Flynn

Background

 

Like many other classical music fans, and particularly those who spent much of their spare cash on LPs in the fifties and sixties, I became familiar with the name of Antal Dorati initially through his Mercury recording of the 1812 Overture, famous because it was the first to include real church bells and cannon fire. I subsequently went on to buy many more LPs of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dorati on the bargain price Wing label, devoted mostly to mono 1950s reissues from the Mercury back catalogue. Cheapness was not their only advantage; the orchestral playing on these LPs was always alert, crisp and incisive. My main priority at that time was to explore new music, so the sound quality was less important.

After the end of his Mercury period in the mid-1960s, Dorati continued to make recordings with different orchestras for other labels, including Decca, Philips, EMI, CBS, and BIS. Over the years I continued to add recordings made by Antal Dorati to my music collection, partly out of loyalty to an old favourite, but also because the recordings he made were usually good ones. As I approach my fifty-eighth year, spending much spare time in reminiscence, as one does, this seemed to me to be a suitable time to reflect on the career of this famous figure; as there is no shortage of biographical information, on CD covers, in books and on the websites listed at the end of this article, I have concentrated mainly on exploring Doratiís considerable recorded legacy.

Career

1924-1933 Various posts in Budapest, Munster and Dresden Opera Houses

1933-1941 Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo

1941-1945 American Ballet Theatre

1945-1949 Dallas Symphony Orchestra

1949-1960 Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra

1963-1966 BBC Symphony Orchestra

1966-1974 Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

1970-1977 National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC

1975-1979 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

1977-1984 Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The above list may seem an impressive enough CV for a jet-setting 20th century maestro but it tells only a part of the story. Thumbing through Doratiís complete concert register in the book, Antal Dorati and the Joy of Making Music, painstakingly compiled by Dorati fanatic, Richard Chlupaty, my jaw dropped at the amazing number of live concerts he gave, in addition to those with those with orchestras under his control at the time. Mercury fans will be aware of his close association with the LSO during the decade 1955-65. In addition to his music directorships, he worked with many other orchestras: the Philharmonia, LPO, Israel Philharmonic, Basle Chamber Orchestra, Bamberg Symphony, Concertgebouw and of course, had a long association with the Philharmonia Hungarica.

Once Dorati moved to the USA in 1941 all the above posts were of principal or chief conductor. In the majority of cases his task was to revitalise or even rebuild the orchestra - in the case of Dallas, from scratch. Dorati took his work seriously and only moved on after he felt he had accomplished the task set him at the start of his tenure. His arrival in a new post signalled a period of significant change, although this did not necessarily involve an increased turnover of personnel. Typical features of a Dorati regime were: a rapid improvement in orchestral playing standards, more contemporary repertoire, international tours and new recording contracts.

Perhaps his most successful achievements were in Dallas, Minneapolis, Stockholm and Washington. On his arrival in Dallas he found that there was no orchestra! During his time in Minneapolis he achieved international fame. The quality and profile of the Stockholm orchestra were raised to new heights, with international tours and new repertoire. In Washington the orchestra underwent a significant expansion and the standard was raised from a third rate band to an ensemble of a quality more in keeping with a capital city.

The recordings

Doratiís prolific recording career stretched from 1934-1988. His legacy of over 600 recordings shows a very wide range, but with a high proportion of 20th century music. Most listeners readily associate him with Haydn, Bartók and Stravinsky, less so with mainstream works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner or Mahler. Apart from being a renowned champion of contemporary music Dorati had a flair for making unusual, often original, recordings of certain works by better known composers: the famous 1812 with cannons, the 3 great Tchaikowsky ballets (complete), Tchaikowskyís Suites, the complete Haydn Symphonies and eight of Haydnís operas. Selecting the best from such a huge list has been a daunting task. I am all too aware of the subjective aspect of this task. It is very doubtful whether there is another person who would make the same choice of recordings as I have done. Finally I do not claim to have heard every one of the 600 plus recordings, although I have done my best to listen to many of them, often several times.

Early Recordings

Although Dorati could not be described as prolific during his pre-Mercury period, he made a number of recordings, some of which have made it onto CD. Perhaps the most significant from this period are: his 1937 Sheherezade with the LPO, restored by Dutton, which I would like to hear; a 1946 Bartók Violin Concerto 2 with Dallas SO/Menuhin; a renowned 1949 Prokofiev Piano Concerto 3 with Dallas SO/William Kapell.

Mercury Period

During my youthful acquaintance with the Wing label I became familiar with many of Doratiís mono recordings from the early fifties, of which only one has surfaced in CD format, the complete Swan Lake ballet. Of these mono Minneapolis recordings, apart from the complete Tchaikowsky ballets, I recall a fine Tchaikowsky 5 and an involving Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. While it is unlikely that any of these early mono recordings will appear on commercially produced CDs, I note that some independent companies have recently made available many items from the early Mercury catalogue in LP to CD transfers. Examples include the Tchaikowsky Symphony 5 and the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty Ballets with the Minneapolis SO.

I know that for many fans, including Richard Chlupaty, the author of a recent book on this conductor, these Mercury recordings remain supreme, where Doratiís vigorous and direct performances are matched by bright clear Living Presence recorded sound. Having recently devoted much time to revisiting many of these Mercury recordings, I have to confess to experiencing more than a little disappointment to discover that many old favourites, and in particular, those involving the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, had not worn well. The acoustic of the hall used for the sessions in Minneapolis often produced a dry, boxed-in sound, with thin strings and reedy woodwind, starving the music making of richness and making for uncomfortable listening. During the latter part of Doratiís Mercury period (1955-1965) most of his recordings were made with the LSO, in Watford and Wembley Town Halls, with far better recorded sound. One disc which illustrates the different sound qualities is the Rachmaninoff Second and Third Piano Concertos with Byron Janis. The Second, recorded in Minneapolis in 1960, really sounds its age, while the Third, recorded in London only a year later, sounds much richer.

Let me emphasise that, in compiling my list, I have not judged solely on recording quality, far from it. Dorati was a conductor who seems, more than other conductors, to polarize opinion on his merits. It is evident from the considerable praise heaped on his recordings that some regard him as a god while others see him as a time-beating automaton who ruled orchestras by fear and ill-tempered outbursts. Revisiting these later Dorati LSO Mercury recordings made me aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Clearly the LSO under Dorati was galvanised to play to a very high standard, giving performances with huge rhythmic drive and energy. This made a huge impact in colourful scores such as Coplandís ballets, Prokofievís Scythian Suite as well as works by: Enesco, Stravinsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Respighi and Bartók. There is not enough space to mention every disc, but two personal favourites are: firstly the complete Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and the 2 Enesco Rumanian Rhapsodies, in readings which succeed marvellously in capturing the spirit of a gypsy band. The other sparkling disc is of pieces by Rimsky Korsakov, including the Golden Cockerel suite and Capriccio Espagnol.

However there can be a fine line between exciting, sometimes electric, playing and times when even the best orchestras can sound seriously hard-pressed. My recent listening sessions made me realise that this particular line was crossed on many occasions. Pressing an orchestra too far produces a feeling of surface brilliance, resulting in music making which sounds aggressive, cold and mechanical. Examples of recordings which suffer badly from this fault in my view include: Mendelssohn Symphony 3, Tchaikowsky Symphony 1, Brahms Symphony 1, and a surprisingly charmless and unyielding reading of Brahmsí Hungarian Dances. In fact I am unconvinced by any of Doratiís Mercury Brahms recordings; these include the Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and a rather cool St Anthony Variations. Further, I do not share the enthusiasm others have expressed for the 1959 LSO coupling of DvořŠk Symphonies 7 & 8, the performance of the latter which I find especially driven and heartless, the first and last movements being terminated in a brusque manner, sounding to me like a door being slammed firmly shut! When hearing these recordings, all too often one is reminded of former LSO member Neville Marrinerís description of Doratiís conducting "somebody fighting to get out of a sack". Music frequently needs to be gently caressed rather than beaten into shape.

I detect a steely edge to recordings of overtures by Weber (Concertgebouw), Verdi and Wagner (LSO). A critic in the Penguin Guide referred to an "absence of incandescence" in the Mercury LSO Wagner disc; the same tag could also apply to Doratiís later 1974 NSO disc of orchestral highlights from Wagnerís Ring, despite being warmly recorded by Decca. This lack of inner glow explains why his readings of tone poems by Richard Strauss are underwhelming, in spite of excellent orchestral playing from the Minneapolis SO on Mercury and later, with the Detroit SO, superbly recorded on Decca. This absence of warmth proves especially damaging in the complete set of Tchaikowsky Symphonies with the LSO, which, for me, is the most disappointing set of recordings he made in his career.

Another reservation about these performances stems from when the beat is over emphatic, often heavy, to the point of rhythmic rigidity, a criticism which was levelled at Dorati throughout his entire career. A respected critic in a BBC Record Review described his conducting of Ma Vlast in his later Amsterdam recording of the work as "metronomic". In his frank and entertaining autobiography, "Notes of Seven Decades", Dorati showed his awareness of this issue, acknowledging that early in his career he had been inspired by Toscanini, and his meticulous attention to the score:

"This kind of music-making I had never heard before. I became completely devoted to it and learned only later that it did not suit my own temperament and led me towards rigidity."

There are many other conductors who adopted Toscaniniís creed: literal adherence to the score, minimal rubato and tight, disciplined orchestral playing, some even copying the Maestroís irascible behaviour! In Doratiís much admired recording of DvořŠkís Seventh Symphony (with the LSO and coupled with Symphony 8) some of the more lyrical moments are spoiled by rhythmic monotony: listen to the second subject of the opening movement or the trio section of the third movement, both sounding strangely lifeless and inert. After recently listening to this performance I turned to a recording of the DvořŠk 7 made by Monteux, also with the LSO, at about the same time. It is an equally dramatic reading, but never sounds forced, so that the pacing seems more natural. Another almost grotesque example of rhythmic stiffness is the opening of Tchaikowskyís Serenade for Strings (with the Philharmonia Hungarica), which ruins the performance for me. Some readers may at this point feel that I have set out to rubbish the acclaimed Mercury label and the reputation of their star conductor. This is far from the case. Dorati made many fine recordings for this label, but in my view, his best was still to come.

Post Mercury Period

If you listen to recordings made from roughly 1966 onwards, around the time Dorati arrived in Stockholm, you hear a far more mellow, relaxed man. The typical Dorati hallmarks - discipline, clarity and finely tuned orchestral balance, matched by vigour Ė are still there. What has gone is the edgy, driven, almost manic, quality of many of his earlier recordings.

Dorati explored the issue of maturity in some depth in his autobiography:

"If I now show any signs of so-called maturity, it certainly did not emerge any sooner than my sixties".

Reflecting on his early conducting experiences in his later years Dorati must have regretted that while he took great professional pride in his conducting career, he had behaved so unprofessionally on occasions, throwing tantrums during some rehearsals. Such behaviour cannot have endeared him to musicians nor fostered a congenial atmosphere for music-making.

I think Dorati was absolutely correct in his self-assessment of delayed maturity and his recorded output provides clear evidence to support this view. I can offer several examples to demonstrate the point. At the start of this period his finely judged 1966 set of Tchaikowsky Suites offers a much more satisfying musical experience than the strangely unappealing cycle of Tchaikowsky Symphonies made only a few years earlier with the LSO. In all four Suites the speeds are well judged, but the pace is never forced. The set crackles with energy but glows with an abundance of warmth and charm, qualities notably absent in the Symphonies set, where the opening movement of the First Symphony sets the tone, sounding brusque, fierce and devoid of warmth and charm. Similarly the splendid 1975 recording of the Nutcracker ballet with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is much more satisfying than the 1962 version with the LSO, where high levels of tension in the playing deprive the undeniably brilliant performance of warmth.

Mention must be made of the finely judged set of Tchaikowsky tone poems, made in Washington, which reveal a keen sense of climax and orchestral balance and demonstrate the improvements in orchestral standards which Dorati had brought to the capital city in a relatively short time.

Dorati was a fine DvořŠk conductor but his Mercury recordings of this composer do not show him at his best. The wonderful and original Decca Phase 4 NPO DvořŠk New World (1966), certainly not lacking in drama, is far superior to the harder edged Concertgebouw version of 1959. Also his later recordings of the American Suite, Czech Suite and other short pieces by DvořŠk perfectly combine sensitivity, freshness and energy.

A personal favourite recording of mine from this new mature Dorati period is his Sibelius Symphony 2 with the Stockholm Philharmonic, his only recording of a Sibelius symphony. It has a sweep and a keen sense of drama, with finely judged climaxes. The finale is brisk but never sounds hard pressed. Listening to this disc and Doratiís fine 1969 LSO EMI disc of Sibelius tone poems, one can only wish that he had made more recordings of this cool and clear sighted composer, with whose temperament he was evidently much in sympathy. While in Sweden Dorati made a number of impressive recordings of Scandinavian works by Rosenberg, Blomdahl, Berwald and Pettersson. His well judged advocacy of Petterssonís highly original Seventh Symphony resulted in a classic recording, with the Stockholm orchestra sounding superb in a harrowing and challenging score. With the same orchestra Dorati also made his only commercial Mahler recording, of the Fifth Symphony. It too is very well played and recorded, but the interpretation is much too literal. In this and in his radio broadcasts of other Mahler Symphonies, Dorati appears to be completely out of sympathy with Mahlerís temperament and the results, for me at least, are bloodless, however committed the playing.

For the remaining twenty years of his post-Mercury career Dorati continued to record successfully a mix of established repertoire and frequently unusual, often new pieces, such as works by Pettersson, Messiaen, Dallapiccola and Gerhard. The Kodaly set of complete orchestral music has a special magic, with a Hungarian orchestra playing with great commitment and passion, despite rather undernourished strings. Dorati conducted Bartók during all periods of his career and all his Bartók discs are worth hearing, including his many collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin in the Concertos, a fine meeting of minds. Eyebrows may be raised at my inclusion of the 1983 Concertgebouw Concerto for Orchestra, which some feel lacks the elemental thrust of the famous LSO version of 20 years earlier. It is very different, more elegiac, but offers an alternative perspective which is just as valid. I make no apology for including both versions in my final list. Pride of place on my chosen list goes to his pioneering set of the complete Haydn Symphonies, not forgetting that he also made excellent discs of many Haydn operas and the complete oratorios.

If there is one serious disappointment from this period, it has to be the 1975 RPO set of complete Beethoven Symphonies. It was generally dismissed at the time, criticised for lack of vigour (exceptional for this conductor!) and it is doubtful whether or not it will ever reappear, even on a budget label. Performances are surprisingly routine, perhaps due to lack of adequate rehearsal time. Pick of the set is probably the Fifth, which seemed to suit Doratiís temperament, while the Pastoral receives a dull reading every bit as unsympathetic as his earlier 1962 LSO recording. I know that there are some who regard Dorati as a fine Beethoven interpreter, pointing to his LSO recordings of the Fifth (1962) and Seventh (1963). On the evidence of his recorded legacy I remain unconvinced, citing the lacklustre RPO set and the somewhat unyielding Minneapolis mono versions of Symphonies 3, 4, 5 and 8. The Penguin Guide at the time used "brisk and efficient" to sum up the Fifth; I would concur.

The best Dorati recordings

1956/9

Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol, Golden Cockerel suite etc

LSO

1957

Prokofiev Scythian Suite

LSO

1958

Tchaikowsky Overture 1812

MinSO

1959

Stravinsky Firebird Ballet

LSO

1960-3

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies 1-6/Enesco Rumanian Rhapsodies 1-2

LSO

1962

Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

LSO

1962

Vienna (1908-1914) Music by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern

LSO

1964

Bartók The Wooden Prince Ballet

LSO

1964

Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin Ballet & Divertimento

BBCSO

1964

Gerhard Symphony 1 & Don Quixote Ballet Suite

BBCSO

1966

Tchaikowsky Suites for Orchestra (complete)

NPO

1965-6

Bartók Violin Concerti & Viola Concerto

NPO

1966

DvořŠk Symphony 9

NPO

1967

Sibelius Symphony 2 & Berwald Symphony 2

SPO

1969

Pettersson Symphony 7

SPO

1970-2

Haydn Symphonies (complete)

PHIL HUNG

1972

Messiaen La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ

NSO

1973

Kodaly Orchestral Music (complete)

PHIL HUNG

1974

Gerhard The Plague

NSO

1974

Dallapiccola Il Prigionero

NSO

1973-4

Tchaikowsky Tone Poems

NSO

1975

Tchaikowsky The Nutcracker (complete)

ACO

1976-9

Haydn Oratorios: The Creation, The Seasons, The Return of Tobias

RPO

1975-80

Haydn 8 Operas

LAUS CO

1980

Szymanowski Symphonies 2 and 3

DSO

1980

DvořŠk Czech Suite & other pieces

DSO

1981-4

Copland Rodeo, El Salon Mexico & other pieces

DSO

1981

Stravinsky Rite of Spring

DSO

1983

DvořŠk American Suite, Slavonic Dances (complete)

RPO

1983

Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

ACO

ACO Concertgebouw Orchestra
BBCSO BBC Symphony Orchestra
DSO Detroit Symphony Orchestra
LAUS CO Lausanne Chamber Orchestra
LSO London Symphony Orchestra
MinSO Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra
NPO New Philharmonia Orchestra
NSO National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC
PHIL HUNG Philharmonia Hungarica
RPO Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
SPO Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Dorati as composer

In this short article I have not attempted a full appraisal of Doratiís achievement as a composer for two reasons. One reason is lack of space, the other more importantly a lack of in-depth knowledge of his compositions, many of which are not available as recordings and which I have yet to hear. What is apparent to me however is that the more I listen to his music, I become more impressed by it. Dorati wrote music which is much more than just technically capable. Often betraying his Hungarian roots, he owes a clear debt to Bartók and Kodaly but his music bears the stamp of originality. The music reveals as you might expect, a full command of scoring, including competent use of a large orchestra. Dorati demonstrated mastery also of a wide range of musical media, including symphonies, concerti, chamber and chorus. He seems particularly adept when writing for wind instruments: Trittico, written for three different wind instruments and orchestra (or twelve solo strings or piano); Duo Concertante for oboe and piano; Notturno and Capriccio for oboe and string quartet; Night Music for two flutes and Divertimento, another Oboe Concerto from 1976. All of these fine pieces show equal amounts of depth of feeling, virtuosity, colour and a vivid sense of humour. For fuller information on this aspect of Doratiís career see the two Dorati websites and the article by Calum MacDonald listed at the end of this article, part of which is included in Richard Chlupatyís book.

Summary

One point which struck me while researching this piece was the extraordinary energy of this man. He crammed so much into his life: two marriages, fatherhood, a huge recorded legacy and thousands of concert and theatre performances of orchestral music, including ballet and opera, across all the continents. Dorati the composer produced a sizeable volume of music, both original compositions and arrangements of music by other composers. On top of all this, he still found time to sketch, paint and to write a very full and entertaining autobiography; this book was completed during the 1970s, an astonishingly productive period for Dorati in the concert hall and recording studio during which time he led three orchestras in Stockholm, London and Washington DC. Maybe he wrote it to stave off boredom during flights! He was almost certainly the only international conductor who could have completed the Decca Haydn Symphonies project in such an amazingly short schedule, with no compromise in standards.

Twenty years have passed since Doratiís death and his name continues to feature prominently in musical circles. His recordings have been reissued countless times, some of his own music remains available in score and on CD and, in recent years, we have seen the appearance of two new websites and two books which include a discography and a comprehensive concert register. Few other conductors of comparable stature have attracted this degree of interest. I cannot say how future posterity will treat other big name conductors Ė Reiner, Ormandy, Stokowski, Szell, Karajan, Solti, Leinsdorf - who led the top orchestras during the recording boom in the post-war period. It may be that the vast majority of reissued recordings of these titans have been bought repeatedly by the same music lovers who, like myself, first heard LP versions of their heroes in their youth way back in the í50s and í60s and continue to feast on a diet of nostalgia. What will happen when we all die off? Will future music purchasers find the same magic in those aging recordings? I personally doubt it but, all the same, I would be pleasantly surprised I was proved wrong and that in the year 2050 sales of Mercury Living Presence or RCA Living Stereo recordings in some future mind-boggling technological format remained buoyant.

Antal Dorati was undoubtedly one of the great names on the international classical music scene during the 20th century. He was a hugely gifted and cultured man with a broad range of talents. As a conductor he achieved international stature, despite significant flaws in both temperament and technique. While there can be little doubt that in his maturity he succeeded in overcoming his temperamental flaws, his detractors will maintain that his beat was always too rigid. I would also question whether Dorati was ever fully at ease with larger symphonic form. Although supremely confident in Haydnís Symphonies, he seemed much less assured in his symphonic recordings of Brahms, Tchaikowsky or Beethoven. In spite of Doratiís own professed love of the symphonies of both Brahms and Beethoven, I have to agree with those who regard his symphonic recordings of both of these composers as more efficient than inspired.

In his very best recordings, Dorati could inspire orchestras to the highest standards, with playing which was disciplined and exciting; he usually produced an adrenalin surge in his music making but he also had a masterful control of balance and colour, always avoiding sentimentality. He may have had reservations about being tagged an "orchestra builder", but he clearly excelled in the role and there have been few other conductors who raised playing standards so rapidly and in so many different locations. Dorati left a huge legacy of recordings of high quality, many of which today maintain their appeal. It will be interesting to observe in the years ahead whether or not his other, more personal, legacy, his own compositions, remains in the repertoire. That, I feel sure, would have been his preference.

Tony Flynn

Further sources of information:

www dorati-society.org.uk Antal Dorati Centenary Society.

http://www.dorati.com Website set up by Doratiís widow, the pianist Ilse von Alpenheim


Antal Dorati and the joy of making music (Richard Chlupaty)
The Antal Dorati Centenary Society (30 April 2006) ISBN-10: 0955246903 ISBN-13: 978-0955246906 AmazonUK   AmazonUS

 

Notes of Seven Decades (Antal Dorati) Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (1 Nov 1979) ISBN-10: 0340159227 ISBN-13: 978-0340159224

Notes of Seven Decades (Antal Dorati) Revised edition - Wayne State University Press (Jun 1981)

ISBN-10: 0814316859 ISBN-13: 978-0814316856 AmazonUK   AmazonUS

 

Hungarians in exile (John Hunt) Short Run Press (1997). Dorati discographyISBN- 0952582791

Antal Dorati:A Catalogue of his works (Calum MacDonald) (1995?) Tempo Magazine

http://www.bearacreissues.com/ LP to CD transfers of early Mercury recordings

http://www.haydnhouse.com/HH9.htm LP to CD transfers of early Mercury recordings and the RPO Beethoven cycle

http://www.classicalmusiccd.com/classicalconducting/dorati.html Recordings of the NSO Washington on tour -( includes 4 different recordings of Mahler's Sixth!)




 


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