2009 was a good year of musical crops culminating in October, the month of harvest and celebration. October 22 marked an unforgettable evening with Michael Kevin Jones & Agustin Maruri, my favorite cello-guitar duo who stopped over for a visit while on their North American tour. There never was one dull moment with two great musicians of British and Spanish backgrounds poking fun at each other. (Agustin’s fingers are like Robert DeNiro’s in Angel Heart. Michael speaks Spanish like a parrot.) They’re almost on constant debate in everyday life. Born in the same London suburb of Watford where David Bowie and Elton John were brought up, Michael the cellist grew up on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs despite his forbidding Mahlerian father. Michael is the rebellious type who still loves hard-core rock music like Goldfrapp, Tina Turner and Oasis and listens to an iPod just to disconnect from Bach and heavy classical. Agustin the guitarist and musicologist is the scholastic type who devotes himself to classical music and nothing else but does adore the music of Morricone.

We listened through some of their recordings on my Restek Radiant CDP + NuForce P9 + Reference 9 V2 setup bi-amping the Apogee Stage. My visitors commented in particular on their bestseller and debut duo CD, Original Music for Cello & Guitar [EMEC E-001] and how the sonic quality of that recording never grow old. Phew. I guess they both approved over what they heard from my system. Agustin then told us that the whole idea of recording an album of world-premiere cello-guitar music began with the Nocturnes by Friedrich Burgmüller whose music score had been accidentally discovered in a South Kensington bookstore in London. Michael had kept moaning about going back to the hotel to sleep but Agustin had dragged him along anyway. At the end of the night, Michael’s little sacrifice proved worthwhile.

For us audiophiles, losing sleep over music is a normal thing but of course we had no time to lose that night. The climax was a live performance of Don Quijote y Dulcinea, a charming tone poem especially dedicated to this cello-guitar duo by French composer Erik Marcheli (b. 1957). I had the magic of Ravel-esque impressionism of this masterpiece on video but until 6moons accommodates streaming video, you can check out the world-premiere album EMEC E-063 bearing the same title compiled with other brilliant works dedicated to the duo.   

In terms of recorded music, my adventurous 2009 discovery trekked south not into the US or Mexico but all the way down into Argentina. Have you ever come across the Argentinean Cosentino label? I did not until I met Raul Morla [right]. Raul is no classical music fan but better - because he’s 100% Latino Argentinean and travels back to his home town each year. By profession he’s a real estate agent. I first met him when he represented the other party. That happened to my own agent who proved too lazy to do his job. He unceremoniously dumped the final round of boring paperwork on Raul. What impressed me most was how Raul maintained a great attitude, took everything to heart even though I was not the one to pay his commission yet represented both party’s interests squarely and fairly to our satisfaction.

After that, I dumped my own agent and let Raul represent my interest from here on out. Soon word spread. My sister, my brother and our friends were all impressed by his quality service. At the same time, a wonderful musical journey unfolded quietly.

The previous summer Raul brought me back two Argentinean CDs from his home visit to Buenos Aires. His pianist mother had recommended them. They were two of the earliest recordings by Martha Argerich never released outside Argentina.

[Cosentino and Argerich]

The first [Cosentino IRCO 285] includes the Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 recorded in 1949 with Argerich at seven and the Schumann Piano Concerto in 1952 when she was ten performing in the Teatro Colón. Both were monaural recordings taped during live radio broadcasts made in Buenos Aires. The CD was then remastered from tape copies kept by the Argerich family for more than half a century. Although sonic quality has been compromised (some 40 bars in Schumann’s third movement were unrecoverable and the orchestral sound is in shambles), the piano part is remarkably well preserved to convey the young artist’s superb talent. Her confident artistry, vivacious tempi and clean delicate touch all bear witness to what would become the signature style of the matured Argerich. Even more ravishing is her Schumann with the amorous rubato and passionate surges so incredibly well versed for her young age.

The second CD [Cosentino IRCO 275] contained 1959 cuts of two of Argerich’s early warhorses and life-long beloved concerti, the Ravel G major and Chopin E minor. What’s more, her Ravel collaborator was Charles Dutoit conducting the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in his very first professional performance! Having just received his conductor diploma, he was 23, she 17 having just won the Geneva competition and the Busoni competition three weeks earlier. They married soon after. Although divorced 5 years later, they remained close musical partners. Their daughter Annie Dutoit published the article Portrait of Musicians in 2001 with interesting stories about her parents and the liner notes here excerpt an amusing vignette that occurred just before their Ravel collaboration.

The secret was that Argerich had no opportunity to practice her score on a real piano and memorized it just the night prior after having dinner with Dutoit and his parents. This mono recording is of excellent sonic quality and faithfully captures the youthful passions and spur-of-the-moment spontaneity of both artists. What’s shockingly incredible is Argerich’s consistency in her interpretive prowess which would remain unyieldingly tenacious into the very present. 

When I shared my joys of discoveries with Raul, he urged me to pick more albums from the Cosentino website catalogue as his friend could bring them back for me. It was the kind of offer I couldn’t refuse while bearing in mind that the website was all in Spanish and I could barely make out the repertoire. The next batch of CDs introduced me to the immortal Julián Aguirre. Of all Latin and South American countries, Argentina is deeply influenced by traditional European music culture but not immune to sudden turns of rebellious inventiveness. Take the milonga and tango for instance. Aguirre is definitely more traditional than rebellious and the double album of Complete Piano Works of Julián Aguirre & Carlos López Buchardo [Cosentino IRCO 267/268] exemplifies the aesthetic values he upheld faithfully inherited from Granados, Albéniz and Chopin. Yet the folk-inspired turn of phrases and vernacular harmonies are so very Argentinean. The sensitive touch and soulful interpretation of Lía Cimaglia Espinosa round up this gem of gems.  

Grandes Sonatas Argentinas para piano
[Cosentino IRCO 293] features the Sonata in C-sharp minor and Homenaje a Julián Aguirre by Aguirre student Celestino Piaggio (1886-1931). Piaggio furthered his studies in Paris under Saint-Regnier, Vincent D’Indy and Ricardo Viñes. He enjoyed a successful performing career in Europe for more than ten years before returning to Argentina to become a well-respected teacher. His piano sonata is Beethovenian in scope and Lisztian in technique, with a slow movement that chants like an Argentinean love song and a balletic Scherzo. The composer José Torre Bertucci (1888-1970) was a student of Alberto Williams. His Sonata in C-sharp minor has the poetry of Chopin in the first movement and the warmth and depth of Brahms in the Passacaglia. Pianist Alfredo Corral’s approach is romantically inclined and passionate.

La Sonata Argentina
[Cosentino IRCO 260] also features the Piaggio sonata plus four contemporary compositions. Sonata by Carlos Suffern (1901-1991) is capricious in mood but virtuoso in execution. Cuarta Sonata by Roberto Garcia Morillo (1911-2003) is percussive and dynamic. Sonatina porteña Op.28 by Gunter Parpart (b. 1928) is spiced up with modern dance flavor while Sonata by Irma Urteaga (b. 1929) is atonal in a disciplined form. Buenos Aires-born pianist Valentin Surif trained under Tino Rossetti, Alicia de Larrocha and Earl Wild and has a number of critically acclaimed recordings including the complete Alberto Williams album released by Naxos. His Piaggio sonata has more contrasting moods and more daring rubatos.

If I hadn’t read the album title Música de Cámara Argentina [IRCO 278], I would have thought the violin and piano sonata was a newly discovered work from the pen of either Franck or Fauré or some French composer of the same era I didn’t know. Alas it’s the work of Argentine composer Athos Palma (1891-1951). A thorough Google search led nowhere except that the work was composed in 1924 and Palma educated at the  Buenos Aires University in philosophy and medicine before traveling to Europe to continue his studies. Just as endearingly romantic but with a French accent is the Sonata for Cello and Piano by Costantino Gaito (1878-1945). The only ‘popular’ work is the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), a composer whom I’ve known and loved through his piano works. Four unfamiliar Argentine musicians played beautifully. I will find out more about this exceptional album and write a full review.

We all keep saying that music is a universal language but sometimes we do want to read the liner notes. All Cosentino liner notes except for the two Argerich CDs are in just one language however. I don’t have Spanish nor does my wife despite her maternal lineage from her Spanish-Cuban grandmother. I wish I were more knowledgeable about Virgilio Está De Gira [Cosentino AN 638], a collection of tango-jazz piano improvisations played by Emilio de la Peña. I’m absolutely naïve about jazz (I’m not even sure it’s correct to call this album jazz) but the music literally had me hooked.

Again, there’s little I know about Emilio de la Peña but his playing simply draws me into his inner world. It’s not the usual kind of ballroom tango or piano tango one expects. The rhythm is subdued and the seductiveness understated yet even more mesmerizing for it. Even an extrovert piece like La Cumparsita can be intimately privileged. Emilio’s own compositions Virgilio Está De Gira and Requiem Para Los Que Viven (Homanaje a Astor Piazzolla) further demonstrate that his talent is not confined to performing. Lifelike piano sonic makes this disc a magical moment when you dim the light.

Let’s take a short break now to talk about equipment before we continue the second part of my Argentinean music journey. Four pieces of gear deserve special mention at the end of the year simply because they took me by surprise by what they could do for what they’re priced at. I enjoyed their company throughout the auditions so much that we had to let them all stay.
KingRex PREference - the $1,550 preamplifier with integral MM/MC phonostage is the first ‘high-priced’ item from this budget-minded company. It managed to justify the price jump by raising the bar with a quality built and ingenious chassis design that embodies functional versatility and sonic excellence. It literally rekindled my passion for vinyl and my friends know all too well how close to impossible that was. The user-adjustable gain settings and rollable chips empower users to achieve the lowest noise levels to match cartridges and power amps and tailor tone color to personal taste. The magnetic top sliding door is practical and fun to operate.
Any $500 amp that can bring Apogee and Mark & Daniel speakers to their knees deserves my standing ovation. Any amps that can do so with musicality to boot deserves my two thumbs up. And the Virtue TWO with upgraded PSU got me to jump up while holding out my two thumbs. Freeze. That’s only part one of the story. I’m patiently awaiting the delayed new version TWO.2 from the factory. The promised upgrades include a ground-up electrical rebuild, 4-layer heavy copper PCB, optimized power decoupling including custom 4-pole power caps, lower ESR capacitance, soft start and anti-pop circuit, high-pass filter jumper, +8dB subwoofer circuit for high sensitivity speakers, stepped potentiometer, a heat sink on top, new 36V (or 42V) capable PSU to boost output to over 100wpc and probably an optional USB DAC.

The Dared DV-6C is the Chinese tube amp specialist’s first-ever hybrid combining a 12AX7 preamp with class D transistor chips. Not only that, it’s their first 5.1 multi-channel amp and probably the world’s smallest with a footprint of just 7.5” wide and 12.5” long. Output power is a humble 65w x 6 into  4 ohms but thorough auditions and torture tests have proven that this is another giant killer in disguise. With euphonic characteristics comparable to my all-tube multi-channel system and incredible drive that makes my Mark & Daniel Sapphire and Topaz sing, the DV-6C tops all my current multi-channel systems at 3 or 4 times its humble cost. Two-channel audiophiles should also note that the DV-6C can be readily configured for bi-amp or tri-amp operation through connections, not modification. A full report including laptop PC 5.1 connections is coming up. Did I mention affordable? How does $650 sound? Not right, I agree. According to Joe Zhou, Dared’s American distributor, the amp should have been priced at $900 but it looks like the mistake won't be corrected so we might as well take advantage while this production batch lasts.

I’ve been good this year and Santa let me keep the JohnBlue TL66. Then something miraculous happened on Christmas night. I plugged in the Gold Lion Genalex tubes that I'd ordered while catching a last-minute year-end promotion from The PartsConnexion. I was literally floored by what I heard, first the KT77, then the KT88, which proved even more captivating. In my conclusion to the TL66 review, I said the amp struck the right balance between valve bloom and resolution. With the Gold Lion Genalex tubes, it took both to the next level – the valve boom was even more euphonic yet more details were revealed. I listened to CDs from solo piano to huge orchestral works that I thought I knew so well yet kept hearing details I didn’t noticed before. At the same time, I never had so much warmth and tubey ambience. I had to upgrade "highly recommended" to a Blue Moon Award for the TL66.

Now back to music. Before I continue with my Argentinean journey, here’s my short list of commendable releases for which I penned reviews this year.
Kleiberg: Violin Concerto/Double Bass Concerto
Contemporary compositions that touch your heart, with transparent orchestration well demonstrated by 2L’s true surround multi-channel recording nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound.
Haydn/Grieg: String Quartets
The young Engegård Quartet clearly defines the Classical elegance and Romantic sentiments of the two well loved quartets, with three-dimensional soundstaging vividly captured by 2L through DXD technology.
Grieg: Piano Concerto/Violin Sonata No.3/Lyric Pieces   
World’s first piano rolls re-performing on a modern Steinway with live musicians in high-resolution 360° surround sound. The eccentric yet compelling pianism of the Grainger Concerto and Grieg lyrical pieces make this 2L album a true ear-opener.
Mendelssohn/Debussy: String Quartets  
Four young Curtis Institute graduates convinced me with their accomplished artistry and interpretational maturity. Unipheye’s uncompressed, unfiltered, unedited and unconventionally pristine recording on Studio Master Reference Disc is the closest to a live performance I have ever witnessed.
Stravinsky: The Firebird/Petrushka/The Rite of Spring
Three legendary ballets collaborated between two legendary personalities (Diaghilev and Stravinsky), three legendary performances inspired by one legendary conductor (Dorati), three legendary recordings realized by one legendary recording team (led by C. Robert Fine) all come together in this Speakers Corner 180g vinyl reissue.
Yuja Wang Debut: Sonata & Etudes
The latest keyboard phenomenon has arrived. Yuja definitely has a long way ahead of her but when we look back in ten years’ time, this will still be a phenomenal performance. The debut CD by the Gramophone Young Artist of the Year has just been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance. We aren’t surprised.

Now welcome back to Part II of my Argentinean music journey. Since my encounter with Julián Aguirre, his music has cast a binding spell over me. I started searching for his sheet music but in vain. I then contacted Cosentino thinking they must have laid their eyes on some kind of piano scores during the recording. Company secretary Clara Schirl was so kind and helpful that she took it on my search as her personal task. She found me both the Argentinean music dealer and publisher but before I got too excited, I learned that the former had just sold out all their stock and the latter didn’t have an English website.

When I was ready to give up, Clara returned with the good news that her boss Mr. Cosentino had kept his private collection of Aguirre piano scores right in his office. His collection was even more comprehensible than what the publisher had in their catalog and included my favorite Mazurca Española. Mr. Cosentino, founder of the label and recording studio, is professor Iván René Cosentino born in 1935 in Rosario, Argentina.

He began his recording career in 1959 with Philips, Discos, Stentor, Qualiton and Fonema while applying his skills over a broad scope of repertoire. In 1979, he founded IRCO Video S.R.L. The company’s motto is unconditional support to local artists and composers and championing Argentine and South American music. Professor Cosentino’s commitment is epitomized by the award-winning Panorama of the Argentine Music, a set of 24 CDs with the works of more than 300 Argentine composers. This monster project deservedly won the ACE prize for "Outstanding Production of the Year 1996”. Other accolades went to the complete piano works of Julián Aguirre, Carlos López Buchardo, Juan José Castro and Carlos Guastavino, all being world-first complete editions.

Today the IRCO Cosentino catalogue contains over two hundred releases with a large range of classical, children’s, popular and tango music. The company maintains its own recording studio furnished with a Steinway D concert grand which can accommodate a medium-size orchestra or choir for the most varied compositions. Professor Cosentino is also a composer, teacher in conservatories and musical institutions, writer, journalist and music reviewer decorated with many awards and distinctions. He was a musical administrator and took office of Director of the National Music Department (1983-86) and Director of the National Artistic Education Department (1986-1989). His son Javier assisted many of his recording projects as sound engineer but left some years ago to start his own school for music productions.

Last week my friend Raul returned from another Buenos Aires visit. He brought back my long-awaited Julián Aguirre piano scores plus some 25 Cosentino CDs. He kindly insisted I should let him carry them back instead of having Clara ship them.

I couldn’t wait to play through some of the CDs including the Complete Piano Works of Guastavino. But my mind was on Aguirre. That night as I played through some of the pieces including a few manuscript copies, chills went down my spine. Aguirre’s music is never complicated yet he said so much with so little.

I shall also keep my New Year Resolution and Gratitude list short: Discover more good music. Write more music reviews. Take it easy with audio upgrades. Work hard on upgrading my piano skills. Special thanks to Raul’s parents for driving all the way out to Cosentino. I will practice Aguirre hard and not let you down. Last but not least, from the bottom of my heart, I thank my wife Teresa for being such a wonderful musical partner over 30 years and two months. You’ve made every moment of the music we shared more heart-warming and each discussion over musical interpretations more mind-opening. You’ve made all my friends jealous that I can put loudspeakers in every corner of every room (not the bedroom I promise) and you would always sit down with a smile to consent to my insanity.