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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log July/August 2008

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller 

The move towards downloading seems to be gathering pace. After some discussions about how to present download reviews on MusicWeb, a useful conspectus of downloadable Bach has recently been published. I have continued to dip an occasional toe in the water, mainly in search of material otherwise not available or which is particularly good value if downloaded. One example which fulfils both these criteria is Sir Adrian Boult’s 1950s LPO Brahms symphony cycle on Classicsonline the whole of which, including the usual fillers, costs under £8. In my view this compares well with his 1970s EMI cycle although Janet Baker in the later version of the Alto Rhapsody is peerless. I also downloaded Giulini’s VPO version of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony for a mere £1.99 from Classic and Jazz and was interested to note the disappearance of Digital Rights Management restrictions since I had last visited this site. A major issue for anyone interested in downloading is price and I continue to be baffled by much of what I have seen in this respect. The Giulini mentioned above was one of four versions of Bruckner’s 9th on offer at the same low price – and much the most desirable I suspect – but it wasn’t obviously a special offer or part of a general pricing structure, as I could find virtually nothing else that cheap. Perhaps it was a mistake, so if the deal appeals to you, I’d get there quick!

The general problem with downloaded classical music seems to be that the platform was not designed for it. As a small part of the market, it would perhaps be unrealistic to expect that but I do feel that much more thought could have gone into presenting classical music for download sensibly. Among the nonsenses I have seen are whole discs costing more than the parts added together, a track’s worth of applause downloadable for 79p and full price releases put alongside cheaper re-issues, representing unnecessary confusion and duplication. Quite a few sites provide next to no documentation and sometimes it is quite hard to establish the likely sound quality i.e. the bit rate for the individual disc is not quoted but is variable across the site. I would therefore suggest that, having got up and running by slamming stuff on quickly, download sites step back for a moment and improve the presentation of what’s there as well as adding to it.

Probably the best download site this at the moment is the Chandos Classical Shop and from there I downloaded the remarkable 1935 recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre Act I conducted by Bruno Walter for £4.80 in amazingly good (320 kbits/sec) sound as remastered by Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical. At least Chandos are trying to address one of the problems with downloading – continuity across tracks – by offering a single continuous file option. However, I am not convinced it is completely successful in this case – there are still slight audible blips. It is the singing of Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior and Emanuel List that makes this recording unmissable – what a pity the whole work wasn’t recorded. I have been listening to quite a lot of Wagner recently via a large bargain box of Bayreuth recordings issued on Decca 4780279 – some 33 CDs at a little more than £1 a pop. Since most of my Wagner collection emanates from the studio, this seemed an ideal way of hearing the fabled Bayreuth sound in recordings made in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The centrepiece is Böhm’s Ring from 1966-7 which I enjoyed very much. If the very opening sounds a little unpromising, there were few disappointments thereafter in dramatic and well-sung readings. Windgassen only just made the end of Siegfried before his voice gave out but I suppose that is forgivable and his Tristan was impressive – also alongside Birgit Nilsson at her finest and conducted by Böhm in 1966. The early operas are from the 60s and conducted with a fairly light touch by Sawallisch. Meistersinger is the 1974 performance under Varviso and Parsifal the most recent – 1985 – under Levine. The latter is well-known for his leisurely approach to this work but I enjoyed it more than I expected to. These discs are nicely presented with plots synopses but there a couple of irritating errors - Rheingold and Siegfried are said to date from 1971 but a little discussion on the Bulletin Board soon established 1966 as the correct date.

The other large box – some 16 CDs – that I have been working through is Evgeny Svetlanov’s Miaskovsky recordings issued as part of Warner’s Svetlanov edition (volume 35 – 2564696898). Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few composers who wrote more symphonies than Miaskovsky’s twenty-seven (Haydn, Sammartini, Hovhaness, Mozart and Brian) and it’s a powerful series that few people can have heard in its entirety until now. Particularly favourites are numbers 21 and 22, both in single span, but within an idiom which progressed little over 40 odd years, the composer found endless variations of form and mood. Svetlanov is totally inside the music, the orchestral playing and recordings are consistently good. A few were made quite a long time ago but most are digital. Again, there has been relevant discussion on the Bulletin Board, pointing up in particular the inadequacies of the documentation. For anyone who had collected the incomplete Olympia set, the Alto completions will be a must because they are well-documented. For anyone new or fairly new to the composer – I knew about four of the symphonies before hearing this set – this box is the only realistic way forward and it is reasonably priced at less than £3 per disc. In lieu of what should be in the box, one can find out about the composer and his music through a survey and various reviews of these performances on MusicWeb and a website dedicated to the composer.

Back in March I attended the premiere of Maurice Blower’s Symphony in C, a work which lay for years in a loft before being found by the composer son and recreated using Sibelius software. The performance by the Havant Symphony Orchestra was creditable indeed and can now be heard on a CD available from the orchestra’s website.

I was also pleased to discover some chamber music by Hovhaness in a second hand shop – the string quartets played by the Shanghai Quartet. This Delos disc was reviewed on MusicWeb in 2000 and appears to be still available.

Otherwise most of my listening has been through the Naxos Music Library although for about a week or so the sound quality deteriorated quite markedly. Eventually I realised that the player was streaming at 20k when it should have been 64k. For me this is the difference between tolerable listening and purgatory. I contacted their technical support and also established that my colleague David Barker in Australia was having the same problem. Eventually, I think it was David who helped Naxos sort it out by noticing that there was a extra “0” in the URL and that it could be abolished and 64k sound restored by switching to 20k sound and then back to 64k. Once that had been conveyed to Naxos normal service was resumed very quickly and I was able to hear properly the two symphonies of Italian composer Sergio Rendine (8.572039) – attractive works written in the last few years which I had been using in the testing process and not enjoying hearing in execrable 20k sound. Off copyright material of interest continues to appear in the “Naxos Classical Archives” – these are not available on CD but, in addition to being streamable, some are being made available for download on Classicsonline. Amongst the recent additions are the Danish Radio recordings of Nielsen’s symphonies from the 1950s under Jensen, Tuxen and Grøndahl. I have some of these in their previous Dutton incarnations and they are wonderful indeed. Hopefully they will be downloadable soon so I can complete the set. Also on my future listening agenda is the music of Siegfried Wagner – the library contains several CPO discs of his (see review) - my interest being fanned by an excellent article recently published in International Record Review.

Finally, the Proms are now with us and, although I haven’t heard as much as I would wish on the radio, the listen again facility via the BBCi player is proving useful. One concert I did catch most of and enjoy had Yevgeny Sudbin playing Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto under Yan Pascal Tortelier followed by Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony. I turned on just as the opening work – the first public performance of Bax’s In Memoriam – was concluding and kept meaning to go back and hear it all. When I eventually did so it was at about 8 o’clock one evening and the iPlayer indicated that it would be removed at 8.22 that evening! I’m glad I didn’t leave it any later and will be seeking out Vernon Handley’s Chandos recording (CHAN9715) so as to hear it again.

Patrick C Waller


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