From the MusicWeb Listening Studio: A Further Audio Report
By John Quinn
Towards the end of February, David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn reconvened to audition some more recordings on high quality equipment in the MusicWeb Listening Studio.
We began by revisiting briefly a Blu-Ray Audio disc (BD-A) that we’d sampled during our December session. This was Carlos Kleiber’s celebrated DG coupling of the Beethoven 5th and 7th symphonies. These are analogue recordings from the mid-1970s and since we last convened JQ has reviewed the BD-A. Our reason for returning to this recording was that JQ had brought along the CD version, enabling us to do an A/B comparison this time round. We sampled the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. LM has never liked these recordings, finding the sound too close and multi-miked. For him it’s not a relaxing listen. We took LM’s point and we wondered how much of the sound is due to the DG engineers and how much is due to the way Kleiber got the VPO to play. We noted much more sense of space on the BD-A sound by comparison with the CD and that the bass of the orchestra is firmer and better defined in the new format. We also felt that the strings sounded less metallic on the BD-A.
We moved on to something very different: La voie triomphale, a disc of music for wind band, played by The Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces under Ole Kristian Ruud and issued on the 2L label. The disc had greatly impressed Dan Morgan (review). We could soon hear why when we listened to the Marche funèbre from the Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale by Berlioz. The muffled drums at the start - and, indeed, throughout - have tremendous impact and the band as a whole is recorded with marvellous realism and presence. We listened using the 2.0 PCM layer. The recording has a huge dynamic range and we admired the way the band plays the knife-edge chords that occur several times in the score, noting that the recorded sound makes these chords even more thrilling. The sound of the low brass instruments is superbly defined. This is Berlioz at his most monumental and the results here are “truly spectacular” (JQ) and “very convincing” (LM). We also listened to the smaller-scale Fanfare pour précéder La Péri by Dukas and admired this just as much, both as a performance and recording. The horns sound terrific and once again the low brass definition is very striking. This is a spectacular disc.
We then listened to a recent Pristine Audio disc, reissuing two early DG stereo recordings of Beethoven concertos conducted by Ferenc Fricsay and recently reviewed by Lucy Jeffery. These are fine performances. As was often the way in those days the soloists were balanced rather forwardly. We admired the wonderful tone of Pierre Fournier’s playing at the start of the slow movement of the Triple Concerto: indeed, all three soloists are very fine. Annie Fischer is an excellent soloist in the Third Piano Concerto. LM thought this disc offers an excellent example of the body that Andrew Rose’s transfers for Pristine so often have. We all agreed this Fricsay disc is really well transferred.
Next up was an arrangement for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Op. 110. This performance is by the Dogma Chamber Orchestra directed by Mikhail Gurewitsch and the arrangement is by the performers themselves. (MDG Audiomax 912 1830-6). This is a hybrid SACD to which we listened in CD format. We found the recording itself to be good and truthful. We are unsure how big a body of strings was used - a double bass part has been added to Shostakovich’s original scoring - but the sound was not too heavy, suggesting a fairly small group. This is extraordinarily intense music, especially the fourth movement, and the performance is very good. However, LM feels that the expansion of the forces means that the music now “lacks the apprehension and tension” of a quartet. JQ, while liking the sound of the orchestra, agreed that the expanded forces missed the sense of a team of four pitted against the music, as one gets in, say, the Borodin Quartet’s 1978 recording of the original score.
In complete contrast we then listened to the new PentaTone Classics recording of the recent Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra, Op. 607 by Howard Blake. This comes from a disc wittily entitled The Barber of Neville (PTCS 186 506). This is of particular interest to LM because he originally proposed the work as a commission by MusicWeb International for the young bassoonist Karen Geoghegan. For various reasons that project could never come to fruition but Blake wrote the concerto anyway and here it’s played by Gustavo Núñez with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner. This recording was made in St. John’s, Smith Square, London in late 2012 and sonically the results are excellent. The soloist is expertly balanced against the accompaniment and there’s fine definition in the bass particularly. The concerto, which plays for some 12 minutes, is cast in three short movements and it exploits the various facets of the bassoon very effectively. The music is thoroughly attractive.
In total contrast we then listened to the recent Naxos release of John Corigliano’s 2007 percussion concerto, Conjurer. This had seriously impressed both Dan Morgan and JQ (review) but neither DD nor LM had heard it before. Conscious of the ever-advancing clock, we intended to sample this recording but ended up listening to the complete work. Both the music and the recording made a very strong impression. DD described the work as “astonishing”, finding the slow movement very beautiful. In his original review JQ had wondered if that movement was a bit too long but, hearing the work again, no longer thought this to be the case. LM felt that the music was “almost visual”. We were all knocked sideways by the virtuosity of Dame Evelyn Glennie; the range of sounds that she “conjures” from her extensive battery of percussion instruments is truly remarkable. As for the sound, we thought that the percussion instruments were recorded with stunning clarity and realism. The left-to-right sound spectrum is vividly conveyed and from the loudest crash to the spooky sounds of the soft bass drum in the third movement the engineers have captured the sounds tremendously. We had no hesitation in agreeing that this, together with the 2L BD-A disc, offered by far the best sound we’d heard all day. This is the finest recorded sound any of us can recall hearing on a Naxos disc and, quite honestly, we doubt if it would be possible to improve on this CD were the recording to be released in BD-A format.
Making another great contrast we moved on to consider a Delphian disc of choral music by the sixteenth-century English composer, John Sheppard, sung by the Choir of Edinburgh Cathedral. Reviewing the disc recently, JQ had been impressed by the superb performances and also by the recorded sound. He had felt that “the first impression you have is that you’re quite close to the choir but, in fact, the sound image…seems to me to replicate what one would hear seated in the quire. Yet the recording is not too close; the acoustic ambience registers pleasingly.” Listening on more analytical equipment, however, occasioned second thoughts. We listened toGaude virgo Christiphera, a piece some ten minutes long and written in a very sumptuous, complex polyphonic style. JQ now had the sense not so much of the listener being in the middle of the quire but that the choir was standing in front of the listener, ranged across the altar steps. DD had the impression that when the trebles were singing their voices almost acted as a barrier in front of the rest of the choir. LM found the recording “not easy to listen to”. He felt that the choral sound appeared to be bouncing back off the cathedral walls. It is a very intense sound but, then, so is the music. A very different piece, Hodie nobis caelorum rex, offered a different experience. Here JQ felt there was more sense of the resonance of the building and also more space round the sound of the chanting by the male voices while the singing of the distant quartet was nicely conveyed. None of this detracts from the superb singing of the Edinburgh choir but we feel that they have been recorded a bit too closely. JQ’s changed perception of the sound when heard on different systems and in different rooms suggests that much depends on the equipment on which the recording is being played back. This recording may not be ideal for headphone listening.
We finished with some Delius: Eventyr from the Delius in Norway disc from Chandos, which had recently struck a chord with Ian Lace (review). This is a hybrid SACD but we heard it as a CD. This disc offers typically full and detailed Chandos sound and the Bergen Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis is heard to excellent advantage. We particularly noted a rich string sound and the excellent brass come over very well indeed. The engineers have also given a very good sense of the acoustic of the hall, the Grieghallen in Bergen
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