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From the MusicWeb Listening Studio: An Audio Report
by John Quinn

At the beginning of December David Dyer, Len Mullenger and I assembled to listen to some recordings on high quality equipment in the MusicWeb Listening Studio. This was my first exposure to Blu-Ray Audio discs (BD-A) so much of the focus of our listening was on this relatively new medium. Our priority was to focus on the quality of the recorded sound per se rather than to judge the performances.
 
We began with the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the classic 1975 DG analogue recording by Carlos Kleiber and the VPO. This is newly released on BD-A and we listened in that format. The intensity of the performance was thrillingly conveyed and the sound of the VPO was reproduced with great clarity. We felt that the sound was somewhat edgy but even so the gain in definition over what any of us has previously experienced in hearing this recording on CD was remarkable.
 
Next we moved on to a recording that all three of us were particularly keen to hear in BD-A format: Britten’s War Requiem in the composer’s own Decca recording. Dan Morgan’s recent review of the BD-A issue had whetted our appetites. We sampled the disc extensively, listening to the first movement, the opening of the Dies Irae and the whole of the Libera me. At the start some tape hiss was evident but we soon found our ears adjusted and hiss was not a problem for any of us. We were struck immediately by the presence given to the solo voices, the wealth of detail in the accompaniment and, above all, the sense of space and perspective around the sound. The two male soloists and their accompanying chamber orchestra are well to the right and the realism with which the voices of Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau can be heard is remarkable. Len felt that Galina Vishnevskaya - on the left of the sound stage - is heard to particularly good advantage in the new medium; the BD-A reproduction has removed some of the edge from her tone that one hears on CD. The distancing of the boys’ choir is most effective. The huge climax in the Libera me is quite stunning in this format but just as gripping are the quiet passages, such as the opening of ‘Strange meeting’.
 
To make an A/B comparison we turned to a CD of the same recording. However, noting that Dan Morgan had been dissatisfied with the latest CD re-mastering (packaged along with the BD-A disc) I had brought along a copy of the previous CD re-mastering, which I’d reviewed some time ago. After the astonishing experience of listening on BD-A the CD sound appeared spatially compressed and even somewhat puny. Though now fifty years old it’s a remarkable recording in any medium but the CD now seems a pale shadow of the BD-A which, perhaps for the first time, fully reflects the contribution of John Culshaw and his team to this landmark recording.
 
Culshaw was also behind the engineering of the next recording we sampled: the Decca Ring. This legendary recording is not yet available as a separate BD-A but it was included in that format as a not inconsiderable bonus in Decca’s last reissue of Solti’s cycle, to mark the bicentenary of Wagner’s death. That set was the subject of a magisterial review by Paul Corfield Godfrey a little while ago. We had time only for some highly selective sampling in which we could only scratch the surface of Wagner’s epic work. However, the little we heard was sufficient to convince us that this, like War Requiem, is a BD-A release that truly reveals the amazing achievement of Culshaw and his Decca team. The voices were thrillingly reported - Hotter glorious in Wotan’s Farewell, for example, and Nilsson imperious as Brünnhilde. However, in our admittedly very limited audition what particularly struck us was the stunning playing of the VPO, here revealed in all its glory. The opening of Die Walküre was electrifying, the strings, galvanised by Solti, digging in as if their very lives depended on it yet never coarsening the tone. The Immolation Scene was overwhelming, Nilsson’s voice soaring over the orchestra and then the VPO having the last word with magnificent sonority. The sound effects added by Decca towards the end have great impact. We felt drawn into the drama in the extracts we heard. The sound is somewhat bright but there’s a huge amount of detail and when one considers that the earliest of these recordings is some 55 years old the quality is amazing. As with War Requiem one can hear some tape hiss but, once more, we found this was not a drawback. In the set that Paul Corfield Godfrey appraised all four operas were contained on one BD-A disc. We hope that Universal will issue the cycle in BD-A format soon, either on a single disc or as four separate releases. If they do it will be good if they can take the opportunity to correct the editing error in Act 1 of Siegfried on which Paul commented in his review. The Decca Ring made a huge impact when it was first released and we can see that happening all over again if a BD-A release happens.
 
We could scarcely have had a greater contrast than to turn from the opulence of Wagner to the pure textures of Renaissance polyphony. We all wanted to hear the first BD-A issue by Gimell, which has just been named as MusicWeb International’s Recording of the Year for 2013. Dan Morgan’s detailed review of The Tallis Scholars’ disc of music by Allegri and Palestrina indicated that this provided a pretty special listening experience in BD-A format and when listening to the Allegri Miserere we could only concur. Once again we were able to make an A/B comparison with the CD. On this occasion the difference between the two media was nowhere near as marked as was the case with War Requiem. However, that’s a tribute to the excellence of the original recording as conveyed on CD by Gimell. The Allegri is a piece that needs spatial effects to make its full impact and that’s thrillingly conveyed here on BD-A. There’s a marvellously heightened spatial sense when one listens to the BD-A and the voices have real presence - the voice of the cantor was beautifully reported. I have visited the recording venue, Merton College Chapel, a couple of times and have heard singing in that building. I felt that the BD-A version was particularly successful in conveying the acoustic of the building
 
We turned to one of the great voices of the present day for our next audition. Jonas Kaufmann’s magnificent Wagner recital for Decca (review) has just been issued in BD-A format. From it we heard his wonderful account of the Grail Narration from Lohengrin. This is a recording with which I was already familiar in its CD incarnation but I felt that that the BD-A added a new dimension. It’s a superb bit of singing from one of the finest singers currently before the public but the performance is given even more stunning realism on BD-A. We were all struck by the presence afforded to Kaufmann’s voice and also relished the playing of the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin under Donald Runnicles, which has added lustre in the new format.
 
We ended with something of a trip down memory lane - at least for Len and David, for this was a recording new to me. With the clock ticking down towards the end of our session we listened to the first half of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. This was the 1989 Decca recording, made in the Walthamstow Assembly Hall by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the RPO. After so much listening to BD-A recordings it was interesting to have a reminder of how good a well-engineered digital recording can sound on CD. Shostakovich’s immense score, with its teeming orchestration and massive sonorities was extremely well reported by the Decca engineers while Ashkenazy secured impressive playing from the RPO in a powerful performance. Whether this recording will ever make it to BD-A must be very doubtful and we don’t believe it’s currently available as a single disc but it’s well worth seeking out as a CD, we feel.

Equipment used
Meridian 808 Series 5 CD player with integral digital pre-amplifier.
Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 integrated amplifier. (Power output: 400 watts/channel into 8 ohms)
B&W Nautilus 802 Diamond loudspeakers
Blu-ray player: Marantz UD 7007
 
  

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