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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn

Discs auditioned
Bernstein: West Side Story. San Francisco Symphony/Tilson Thomas (SFS Media 821936-0059-2)
Schumann: Symphony No 3, ‘Rhenish’. Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle (details here)
Shostakovich: Symphony No 7, ‘Leningrad’. Hallé/Elder (C Hallé D HLL 7537)
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 15. Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Wigglesworth (details here)
Miraculous Metamorphoses Kansas City Symphony/Stern (Reference Recordings RR-132)
Walton: Symphony No 1. BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gardner (details here)
Vaughan Williams: ‘London Symphony. State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture/Rozhdestvensky (details here)
Heimliche Aufforderung. Songs by Richard Strauss. Christiane Karg/Malcolm Martineau (Berlin Classics 0300565BC)
The Merton Organ (details here

It’s been a little while since David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn got together to listen to some recordings on high quality equipment in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. We last met as long ago as late February so we were keen to make up for lost time. On this occasion some of the discs that we auditioned have yet to receive a full review on MusicWeb International.
 
Our first disc was one such: a brand new SACD recording on the San Francisco Symphony’s own label. This is a live recording in which Michael Tilson Thomas conducts a concert performance of Bernstein’s West Side Story. We listened to several extracts from Act 1: the Prologue; the Balcony Scene and ‘Only You’; and ‘America’. One immediate and, in our view, distinct advantage over the composer’s own recording is that Tilson Thomas has a cast of singers with Music Theatre rather than operatic backgrounds. The voices sound right for the music though LM felt that Alexandra Silber, as Maria, has a rather operatic voice. The recording is close and present, though that’s not inappropriate for this score. The sound has tremendous impact – especially the percussion – and enhances the feel of a punchy performance. JQ felt that the performance – and sound – was bright and sassy. We had the impression that in the stretches of dialogue in the Balcony Scene the voices sounded closer than when singing, which is odd since, unlike Bernstein, Tilson Thomas has his singers speaking their lines also. A full review by JQ will follow shortly on MusicWeb International – and a review by Harvey Steiman has just appeared - but our first impression is that this is a clear winner on all counts.
 
In complete contrast we then listened to most of the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony from Sir Simon Rattle’s new Schumann cycle. This release inaugurates the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label. All of us had heard the recordings before and been greatly impressed with both the performance and the sound. Michael Cookson has already reviewed this lavishly-produced set most enthusiastically and though JQ’s own review has yet to be published he will also be giving it a very warm welcome. We listened to the BD-A version of the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony and admired it very much though DD felt that, excellent though it is, the sound is not as spectacular as on some BD-A releases he has heard. The recording has fine definition and LM especially praised the clarity and precision of the playing: there is no ‘smudging’. The bass sound has a pleasing firmness to it and the superb horns ring out in an ear-catching way. We were impressed by the drive and vitality of Rattle’s account of the first movement. The fourth movement comes over very powerfully with great presence and richness in the sound of the woodwind and brass. There’s a very full dynamic range in the playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker and the engineers have conveyed this very well. The precision and deftness of the orchestra’s playing in the fifth movement comes across very well, thanks in no small measure to the very present sound of the recording. We all agree this is the best sound we’ve yet encountered in a Rattle/Berlin release.
 
We had listened to our first two discs using the Marantz Blu-Ray player; however, we switched to the Meridian CD player to sample another disc, a CD, which is hot off the press. This is a live performance, given in October 2013, of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé and this is the latest release on the orchestra’s own label. It took us a little while to find the optimum volume level to play this recording and we eventually settled on a level that was a little higher than we used for the other recordings. We listened to the fourth movement and once we had the volume level sorted we felt the performance was gripping. LM, who had initially been disappointed – when the volume was lower – felt that Elder’s pacing of the music is excellent. We noted that there’s suitably pungent playing from the Hallé’s woodwinds and the substantial brass section is very powerful. The long build-up to the end is very well controlled by Elder and the conclusion sounds very grand. A full review of this disc will appear shortly on MusicWeb International.
 
More Shostakovich followed: the final release in Mark Wigglesworth’s complete symphony cycle for BIS. We’d all heard this coupling of the First and Fifteenth symphonies before and had admired both the recordings and the performances, both of which were set down in October 2006. In his recent review JQ had rated the performance of the Fifteenth as the best he could recall hearing. We sampled this hybrid disc in two ways, playing the CD layer on Meridian machine for the First Symphony and reverting to the Marantz player for the SACD layer when listening to the Fifteenth. We found the disc could be played back at a lower level than the Hallé CD. We first listened to the opening movement of the First Symphony and found that the orchestral sound has tremendous definition. JQ commented that, in addition, there was definition around the orchestra: the rests are made to count. LM agreed that the engineers have conveyed a real sense of space. The playing of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is alert and responsive and the orchestral playing is as expert as Wigglesworth’s conducting. We agreed that the sound is extremely realistic and a great deal of detail is reported. The last movement of the Fifteenth is just as impressive. At the very outset the growling sound of the brass intoning the Wagner quotation is superbly defined as are the clearly articulated timpani strokes that follow. In the long stretches of fairly subdued music we could hear an abundance of detail and then the massive, implacable climax grabs the listener by the throat. We were particularly excited by the realism of the percussion section in this recording and the tinkling percussion at the end is splendidly captured by the engineers: for JQ in these last pages the sound conjures up a macabre image of marionettes dancing in a ghostly toyshop. These performances are mightily impressive and though we listened to some fine recordings during this session we felt that this pair of BIS recordings offered the best sound that we encountered.
 
We moved on to sample a disc from the Reference Recordings label under the title Miraculous Metamorphoses (RR-132). This is an HDCD release to which we listened on the Marantz player. It offers a programme of orchestral showpieces by Hindemith, Prokofiev and Bartók to which JQ has been listening recently, preparing a review that will appear shortly on MusicWeb International. The artists are the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern. We listened to the first three movements from Prokofiev’s Suite from The Love for Three Oranges. This offered a different listening experience compared to the BIS recording for the Kansas orchestra have been recorded in the larger acoustic of the presumably empty Helzberg Hall of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City. The sound is bright, clean and punchy. In its own terms it’s very impressive though it didn’t challenge our admiration for the BIS Shostakovich disc. We noted a bright treble sound and good, solid bass definition. The percussion and brass are recorded with particular presence.
 
Then, again using the Marantz player – as we did for the remainder of our session – we listened to the new Chandos recording of Walton’s First Symphony by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We’d all heard this recording before and JQ has just reviewed it. This SACD offers sound that we all agreed is super and, listening to the first movement, we admired very much the dynamism both of the recording and of the performance. The Chandos recording packs a real punch and we noted such details as how strongly the brass sforzandi register. This is white-hot music and, as LM observed, Chandos have provided just the sort of sound that this music needs. There is nothing quite like this movement anywhere else in English music and we found Gardner’s performance electrifying. We allowed the disc to run on because JQ was keen to check one point. In his review of the disc he’d thought that in the second movement the excellent timpanist does not feature quite as prominently as he would have expected. Hearing it again through the Listening Room equipment he was happy to withdraw that comment: the timpani are as prominent at times as they should be. We were all struck by the wonderfully vital performance that Edward Gardner obtains; there’s real panache and vitality here and, as LM observed, real urgency. This Chandos disc is a winner.
 
Recently JQ has been listening to a Melodiya set which contains a complete cycle of the symphonies of Vaughan Williams These are live performances, given in 1988 and 1989 by The State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. LM and DD were keen to sample the recordings but with the clock starting to run against us there was only time to hear the slow movement of the ‘London’ Symphony. The sound may not be modern digital standard – these are radio recordings – but it is perfectly satisfactory. LM and DD were struck by the sensitivity of the playing and LM’s verdict was that, on this evidence, Rozhdestvensky obviously loved and understood Vaughan Williams’ music. JQ felt this extract – selected by LM and DD – was pretty typical of the calibre of the set, as is suggested in his full review of the set.
 
To give us a change from orchestral music – and conscious that the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth fell on the day after our session – we sampled a new disc of Richard Strauss lieder. This is a Berlin Classics disc made in 2013 by the soprano Christiane Karg with Malcolm Martineau at the piano. In Morgen we felt that the piano was balanced rather too forwardly against the voice. None of us could recall hearing Miss Karg previously but we admired her silvery tone and clear diction – DD described her voice as ‘beautiful’ and it’s well caught on this recording. In Heimliche Aufforderung we decided that the balance between piano and singer was much more satisfactory, perhaps because Miss Karg was singing out more. She conveys the ecstasy in the music very well: this is a true Strauss voice. Finally we heard Allerseelen which we thought was gorgeously sung. Again the voice is beautifully recorded and though the piano sound is quite present we felt, once more, that the balance was better than in Morgen. MusicWeb International will carry a full review of this disc shortly but initial impressions are favourable.
 
Finally – and for the first time in one of our sessions to date – we turned to organ music. In our February listening session we’d expressed some reservations about the sound on a Delphian choral disc so we were keen to hear a different sort of recording from the same label. This is the first recording on the new Dobson Organ at Merton College Oxford. JQ has heard the instrument in situ and has also just reviewed the disc. We selected the opening track, Marcel Dupré’s arrangement of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata No 29. This recording is a conspicuous success, we feel. There’s splendid definition and the sound has genuine presence. The organ comes across excitingly and clearly from top to bottom – at the bottom of the instrument the pedal notes are often thrilling in Benjamin Nicholas’ performance. The sound is very truthful and realistic and reports very well the variety of colours that Nicholas draws from the instrument. LM commented that often in his experience the sound of an organ can become diffuse in the acoustic of the building but this is not the case here. With the sonorous Merton organ ringing in our ears we brought our latest listening session to a close.

John Quinn

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
 
Previous Listening Room Reports
December 2013
February 2014


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