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

Discs auditioned
Nielsen: Symphonies 1 & 4. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert (details here)
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique. LSO/Valery Gergiev. (LSO Live LSO 0757)
Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 & 2. Sâo Paolo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (Naxos NBD0044)
Holst: The Planets (four-hands piano version). ZOFO (Sono Luminus DSL-92178)
Shostakovich: Symphony No 13. Gromadsky/Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin (details here)
Shostakovich: Symphony No 13. Vinogradov/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (Naxos 8.573218)
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben. LSO/Leopold Ludwig (details here)
Strauss: Four Last Songs. Erin Wall/Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (ABC Classics 481 1122)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade. LSO/Sir Eugene Goossens (details here)
Copland: Symphony No 3. LSO/Aaron Copland (details here)
Dvořák: Symphony No 8. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck (details here)
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor. Ruggiero Ricci/Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet (Decca Phase Four 478 6769)

With the summer giving way to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness it was high time for David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn to assemble again in the MusicWeb Listening Studio to catch up with some recent releases. As usual our prime focus was on the sound quality of the recordings in question but, inevitably, we also took due note of the performances themselves.

We began with Nielsen and the second instalment of Alan Gilbert’s symphony cycle taken from live performances in New York and issued by Dacapo. This comprises the First and Fourth symphonies and has already been reviewed in download format by Dan Morgan. JQ had bought the previous volume in the series, prompted by Dan’s enthusiastic review, so he was especially keen to hear this second instalment. We listened to the last movement of the Fourth Symphony. The sound is extremely impressive. The “duel of the timpani” is very realistic and present while the NYPO brass section is very potent. We admired the excellent definition given to quiet wind solos and we felt that the recording offered very good front-to-back perspective so that excellent clarity between the various sections of the orchestra was achieved. JQ wondered if the violins sounded a bit metallic though DD didn’t feel this was the case. DD had the impression that the acoustic seemed a bit cloudy, especially when the timpani were playing, but LM didn’t hear the recording that way. We all agreed that sonically this was most impressive and we found the performance exciting.

We then turned to Valery Gergiev’s new recording of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique on LSO Live. This was recorded at performances in the Barbican on 31 October and 14 November 2013. This issue is particularly noteworthy because it is the label’s first venture into Blu-ray Audio and the set offers both a BD-A disc and an SACD. We set out with the intention of hearing the second movement, ‘Un bal’ in both formats, starting with the BD-A disc. Unfortunately, once we’d heard the movement through once none of us had the appetite to repeat the experience in the SACD format. Gergiev’s tempo is far too ponderous and imparts no lift to the music. JQ felt this was a turgid and heavy-footed interpretation and no match for Gergiev’s distinguished predecessor, Sir Colin Davis in Berlioz. Belatedly a little life is injected into the music in the last couple of minutes but it’s too little too late. Despite all this we felt the sound was good, with plenty of definition, especially in the bass line, and the playing of the LSO is first rate. We ventured to try the ‘Marche au supplice’. Here the LSO brass could be heard impressively in full cry, the percussion is vividly reported and the sound as a whole has fine definition. Unfortunately, none of us could get on with Gergiev’s way with the score which, once again, was too heavy and lacking in any passion (LM). DD noted that in the BD-A option the recording seems to be cut at a low level and required a boost in the volume level for best results.

Next we sampled the latest instalment in Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle on Naxos and listened to the first movement of the Second Symphony in BD-A format. This is demanding music to hear: it’s almost unremittingly loud, there’s little obvious thematic development and, as JQ remarked, the music is mechanistic. In this score Prokofiev takes no prisoners and the same could be said – in a complimentary way - of the Naxos recording. Starting with the (deliberately) strident brass in the opening moments the recording is biting, brilliant and wide-ranging. The performance itself seems very fine and this vivid recording, engineered by Ulrich Schneider, does it full justice. JQ noted that despite the tumult of the performance he preferred the violin sound in this recording to what we’d heard of the NYPO’s violins in the Nielsen symphony. We all agreed that this is the most impressive-sounding Naxos BD-A that we’ve heard to date.

To give our ears something of a respite after Prokofiev’s onslaught we sampled Holst’s suite The Planets but in the composer’s version for one piano, four hands. This has been recorded by the California-based piano duo Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi who play together under the name ZOFO. This is another package that offers a BD-A and an SACD: we listened to the BD-A. We sampled ‘Venus’ and part of ‘Saturn’ and didn’t find it a terribly exciting experience, despite the artistry of the pianists. In ‘Venus’ the percussive nature of the piano takes away much of the music’s mystery. We felt that the recording, made in a studio, was decent and presented the piano clearly but the sound was not particularly remarkable. We all felt deprived of the colour to which we’re accustomed with the orchestral score. DD felt that this was comparable to a pencil sketch which an artist might make prior to a painting and JQ, who will be reviewing the disc shortly, agreed. LM had the impression of watching a TV programme such as Gardener’s World in black-and-white.

Knowing the interest that both DD and LM have in the music of Shostakovich, JQ had brought along an SACD which Praga Digitals have issued. This is apparently the second-ever performance of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow on 20 December 1962, two days after the work’s première. JQ reviewed this disc recently. We listened to the first movement and were unanimous in saying that the performance has tremendous impact: for DD the mood is established right from the start. We were seriously impressed by the vivid singing of bass Vitaly Gromadsky as well as that of the RSFSR Academic Choir and Yurlov State Choir. The power and intensity of the performance is astonishing – this is music-making that grabs the listener by the throat – and the main climax is shattering. LM described the performance and sound as “staggering”. The recorded sound is splendid and amazingly good for the early 1960s. For reasons that he stated in his original review JQ has “a nagging doubt or two about the provenance” and hearing the recording again on the Listening Room equipment only makes him more thoughtful - we all have memories of the old Melodiya LPs of the 1960s and 1970s and the sound offered here is significantly ahead of those examples, even allowing for present-day re-mastering techniques. Even so, this is a superb recording of the symphony.

We followed that by playing the same movement from the brand new Naxos release of the Thirteenth Symphony. This is the last instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle, recorded in Liverpool under studio conditions. It sounds as if Petrenko has a larger choir than Kondrashin – the gentlemen of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society – and they are placed a bit further back than are Kondrashin’s singers. However, the choral sound is not as focussed as in the Russian recording and though the British singers do well they lack the East European/Slavic timbre of their rivals. The bass soloist, Alexander Vinogradov, offers more rounded, less visceral singing than Gromadsky. Petrenko’s handling and pacing of the movement is impressive, except for one episode which we all felt is taken too swiftly. The Naxos recorded sound is good though it’s evident that the performance was set down in an empty hall and we wished the choir had been a bit more closely recorded. JQ will be reviewing the disc shortly.

We then put the clock back and sampled some Everest recordings from the late 1950s. First up was Richard Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben, as recorded by the LSO and Leopold Ludwig in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London in June 1959. LM has very fond memories of this recording, which he bought in its original LP incarnation but it was completely new to JQ. These Everest recordings were made using 35mm magnetic film and one happy consequence is an absence of background hiss. We listened to the last two sections of the work – ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ and ‘The Hero’s Retreat from the World’. The CD results are enormously impressive. The orchestra is quite closely recorded – JQ felt the harp sounds too close in ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ – but a tremendous amount of detail is reported. At the same time the impressive sweep of Ludwig’s interpretation, marvellously realised by the LSO, really comes across as does the richness of Strauss’s orchestration. Hugh Maguire’s solo violin playing is excellent, as is the contribution of the principal horn, who, sadly, is uncredited. We were all agreed that the re-mastering of an already excellent recording has been highly successful and our sampling left JQ impatient to hear the full performance.

Before auditioning more Everest discs we remained with Strauss for a brief extract from a new disc of his music recorded live by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and their chef conductor, Sir Andrew Davis. This disc is issued by ABC Classics. JQ and LM were keen to hear part of the Four Last Songs because the soloist is the Canadian soprano, Erin Wall who they had recently heard sing the songs very impressively in concert with the CBSO and Andris Nelsons (review). We listened to ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. Miss Wall’s voice is placed quite forwardly in the recorded perspective. As in the Birmingham performance, her tonal quality and clarity of diction are excellent and she sings most expressively. The MSO’s accompaniment is excellent with the violin solo being particularly well played. If the rest of the disc is up to this standard it will be a very good one indeed.

Reverting to Everest we heard the last movement from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This was recorded in the same venue as Ein Heldenleben. The sessions took place in November 1958 and the LSO was once more on duty, this time with Sir Eugene Goossens on the podium. Rimsky’s unashamedly red-blooded and colourful music really comes to life in this strong performance, which was vividly recorded. Once again Hugh Maguire did the honours as solo violin and though he has fewer opportunities to shine in this movement than elsewhere in the work he still makes a fine contribution. His LSO colleagues play superbly: the rhythms are crisp and the ensemble razor-sharp. As for the sound, we all thought it was tremendous, reporting the orchestra in a most exciting way. It’s appropriate that Everest used 35mm film because this recording of Scheherazade could be fairly described as having Technicolour brilliance; no one hearing it ‘blind’ would guess that the recording dates from 1958.

Just as impressive is the disc on which Aaron Copland conducts the LSO in his Third Symphony. JQ is familiar with the 1976 recording that Copland made for CBS/Sony with the New Philharmonia Orchestra but he’d not heard this November 1958 version, for which the venue once more was Walthamstow Assembly Hall. We listened to the finale, which is based on Copland’s perennially popular Fanfare for the Common Man. The fanfare itself, heard at the start, sounds splendidly sonorous here. The recording is very immediate and has plenty of depth – we noted that the sound of the bass drum reproduces in a very satisfying way. Copland gets the orchestra to deliver a taut, rhythmically strong performance of the movement and his colourful scoring comes across very well indeed. The recording is quite close, but not oppressively so. We were very impressed with the results that Everest achieved, not least in the symphony’s big, rhetorical conclusion.

Moving back to a modern recording, JQ was keen to get the comments of LM and DD on a disc he’d recently reviewed: live performances of music by Dvořák and Janáček. This is an SACD issued by Reference Recordings and the performers are the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck. With time against us we only had time to hear the finale of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. We had reservations about aspects of the interpretation. DD felt that Honeck pulls the music about too much – and too slowly – when the strings play the theme for the first time: to him it sounded like Tchaikovsky. In general we felt Honeck plays the slow music rather too expansively and as a result the fast music appears too swift. However, we liked the recording itself very much. DD felt the engineers had conveyed a fine sense of the hall’s acoustic, not least in the opening trumpet call. There was warmth of sound in the more expressive pages, we felt, and the orchestra, which plays very well, comes across very positively in the recording – LM admired the sound of the string basses. Though the interpretation may be controversial the recording itself is very successful and has plenty of presence.

Universal has just issued a box of forty CDs devoted to Decca Phase Four recordings. Dan Morgan will be reviewing the whole collection on a progressive basis over the coming weeks but we made a modest pre-emptive strike, sampling Disc 17 in the set. This is a pairing of the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos by Ruggiero Ricci, partnered by Jean Fournet and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The sessions took place in the Avro Studios, Hilversum in 1974. We auditioned the first movement of the Mendelssohn. As LM remarked, the soloist was recorded far more closely and up-front than would be the case nowadays though we were relieved to note that, apart from the spotlighting of the violinist, the multi-microphone Phase Four recording technique had not resulted in any artificial spotlighting. However, we felt that the performance was big and heavy. The orchestra sounds too large and Ricci’s playing, though technically excellent, is made to sound in the listener’s face. For JQ the scale of the performance was too big, missing the essential lightness and playfulness of Mendelssohn’s score: this sounds like Mendelssohn-as-Brahms and is something of a disappointment.

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
June 2014