From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn
Nielsen: Maskarade. Soloists/Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt (Dacapo 6.220641-42)
Henry Kimball Hadley: The Enchanted Castle Overture, Op. 117. BBC Concert Orchestra/Rebecca Miller (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7319)
Shostakovich arr. Barshai: Chamber Symphony ‘Symphonie für Streicher’, Op. 118a. The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi (HMU907634)
Shostakovich: String Quartet No 10 in A Flat major, Op. 118 Pacifica String Quartet (details here)
Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy. Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev (details here)
Bach: Mass in B minor. Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Freiburger Barockorchester/Hans-Christoph Rademann (details here)
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (1920 version). Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7322)
Robin Milford: The Darkling Thrush for violin and orchestra, Op. 17 Philippe Graffin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones. Britten: Violin Concerto, Op. 15. Philippe Graffin; Philharmonia/Nicholas Collon (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7320)
Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder. Soloists, Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne/Markus Stenz (details here)
Tchaikovsky: Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (details here)
David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio for the third time in 2015 to listen to some recent releases with a view to assessing principally the audio quality of the discs in question. With one exception all SACDs were auditioned using the Marantz player (details at the foot of this report) and all CDs were played on the Meridian machine.
We began with a release issued as part of the celebrations of Carl Nielsen’s 150th anniversary. There have been several welcome issues of his symphonies already but now Dacapo has released a new recording of his opera, Maskarade. We heard the overture and the first part of Act 1, scene 1, which introduces two leading characters, Leander and Henrik. JQ, who has already listened to the whole set in detail for his forthcoming review, was greatly impressed by the vivacious overture. LM and DD both commented that when the voices were introduced both singers came across very clearly. LM felt that he was more conscious of the spread of the orchestra once singers were involved. Leander is clearly positioned on the left of the audio picture and Henrik, his valet, on the right. JQ felt that the engineers have conveyed a nice ambience around the players and singers; there’s just enough sense of the hall. Though not completely convinced by the music, DD pronounced the SACD sound quality to be “exceptional”. JQ, whose review will appear shortly, assured him that the limited extract we’d heard was typical of the set as a whole.
Next we listened to a piece that was wholly new to us from a new Dutton Epoch disc of orchestral pieces by the American, Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937). All of the works on the disc, with one exception, here receive their first recordings. The Enchanted Castle Overture, Op. 117 dates from 1933 and was written with school orchestras in mind. LM, who had not seen the booklet at that stage, described the piece as “happy Elgar”. We then discovered that the notes, by Bret Johnson, suggest that the work “exudes an Elgarian elegance and nobility.” While not disagreeing, JQ felt the similarity is with such early Elgar works as Froissart rather than with Elgar’s fully mature output. It’s an attractive if not earth-shattering piece, we felt. The performance is a nice one and the recording is good, revealing detail naturally and expanding well for climaxes. (We played this SACD on the Meridian player so we can only judge it as a CD.)
Knowing that DD and LM are enthusiasts for the string quartets of Shostakovich, JQ had brought along a new Harmonia Mundi CD on which Graham Ross and his Dmitri Ensemble play Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements of three quartets as Chamber Symphonies. We played the Allegretto finale of the Chamber Symphony Op 118a. Opinions were somewhat divided. JQ’s view was that the sound, engineered by John Rutter, had great presence. He felt that all the parts register well and are properly balanced against each other. There’s a well-defined bass. DD, however, was unhappy with the dynamic range: the music was either too quiet in soft passages or too loud elsewhere and the climaxes seemed shrill. He felt that the dynamic range had not been well judged. LM preferred not to express an opinion. For him, in these arrangements it’s “all loss and no gain”. He feels that arrangements blunt the power of the original, though DD disagrees; he believes the original quartets and the arrangements need to be treated as different works. JQ’s full review will appear shortly.
As a comparison we sampled the same movement in its original version as the String Quartet No 10, Op. 110, choosing the CD version by the Pacifica String Quartet. JQ felt that the sound is immediate, taut and spare; just right for the music. We were unanimous about this recording: it is truthful and good.
We stayed with Russian music but turned to something that’s poles apart from Shostakovich. Dan Morgan has recently reviewed with great enthusiasm a new recording on which Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra in music by Scriabin. Dan’s review was of the download and on his recommendation we listened to the SACD format, choosing The Poem of Ecstasy. We were deeply impressed. The PENTATONE recording is opulent and well-detailed. A few minutes into the performance both LM and JQ noted with approval the sound of the bass drum. The important first trumpet part is superbly played here, the trumpeter employing just the right amount of traditional Russian vibrato. The orchestra playing is magnificent and thanks to the recording you can enjoy it to the full. The multi-layered textures and vivid colours of Scriabin’s orchestration are exceptionally well served. We were just as struck by the interpretation. LM described Pletnev’s conducting as “beguiling: he doesn’t push the music, rather he lets it unfold”. In this performance and recording the climaxes are mighty but the many soft passages sound suitably sensuous. The last climax is overwhelming in its intensity. LM’s verdict was that the recording is “staggering”. He described it as an “acoustic hologram”: the recording is three-dimensional so the listener can see/hear where everything is in the sound picture. In terms of sound quality this fine performance was Disc of the Day.
From the opulence of Scriabin we moved to the highly contrasting, leaner textures of a performance by period forces of Bach’s B minor Mass. JQ has recently reviewed a new SACD release conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann. From it we heard the last two sections of the Gloria: the bass solo ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ followed by the choir in full cry in the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. JQ felt that the recording differentiated nicely between the various important participants in the ‘Quoniam’, with the obbligato horn and the bassoons making their respective presences felt as well as the solo singer. However, both LM and DD remarked that it was only when we increased the volume level from where we had set it for the Scriabin that the bass soloist achieved sufficient prominence. In ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ the music sparkles with the trumpets ringing out and the choir registering strongly. This, however, is music that appeals more to JQ than to the others - LM suspects it was Bach’s debut in the Listening Studio!
All three of us are enthusiasts for twentieth-century English music so we were glad to welcome two new Dutton Epoch SACDs. The first is of music by Vaughan Williams, including the ‘London’ Symphony. VW made several revisions to this score and conductor Martin Yates has been most enterprising in choosing to record the 1920 revision. This differs in a number of respects from the 1913 original version memorably recorded by the late Richard Hickox (review). However, by 1920 VW had still not arrived at the definitive version in which the symphony is usually heard. This is not the first recording of the 1920 version – Sir Eugene Goossens recorded it in 1941 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Biddulph WHL 016) - but this is the first digital recording of the 1920 iteration and we were keen to hear it in modern sound. We listened to the wonderful Lento second movement. This is highly atmospheric music and Yates and the RSNO play it very sensitively. The recording itself is admirable with a wide dynamic range. The climaxes open up excellently – the last one is sumptuous. We felt this was very successful, both as a performance and as a recording. JQ will be undertaking a detailed review of the disc shortly.
The RSNO also features in the second Dutton Epoch disc that we sampled. This consists of three British works for violin and orchestra with soloist Philippe Graffin. The novelty is The Darkling Thrush by Robin Milford. None of us have heard this piece before – though JQ has heard Milford’s more substantial Violin Concerto (review) – so it was the obvious place to start sampling this new SACD. This Hardy-inspired piece begins with a highly evocative orchestral introduction, winningly played by the RSNO under David Lloyd-Jones. As soon as the solo violin begins to play the singing, soaring line is evident. However, as LM commented a few minutes later, the piece “can’t quite break free from VW”. The orchestral parts are interesting and overall it’s an attractive and engaging piece which has been recorded pleasingly though DD felt that the sound perhaps hardened just a fraction in the upper registers.
One of the other works on the disc is the Britten Violin Concerto and as this is a particular favourite of DD we couldn’t resist listening to the Passacaglia finale. For this Philippe Graffin is partnered by the Philharmonia and the young British conductor, Nicholas Collon. We remarked on the space and depth of the recorded sound – a product of Abbey Road No 1 Studio. Graffin’s playing is superb and LM admired the appropriately edgy sound of his violin. JQ felt the sound had greater impact than the Milford though this may be more a question of the respective pieces. All in all this is a conspicuous success. JQ will be doing a full review of the disc shortly.
Next we sampled Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder in the new Hyperion CD recording conducted by Markus Stenz about which Geoffrey Molyneux and Dan Morgan reached very different conclusions in their respective reviews. We’d all heard parts of this recording already so for this audition we sampled some of the music near the end of Part I: Waldemar’s solo “Du wunderliche Tove!” and the orchestra interlude that follows. The voice of the soloist, Brandon Jovanovich, is forwardly placed, though not excessively so, we felt, and, in any case, the soloists need to have a degree of prominence given the size of the orchestral forces. JQ wondered if the speed set by Stenz was not quite expansive enough. The recording, which JQ believes has been engineered by the team responsible for Stenz’s Mahler cycle on Oehms, struck us as being pretty good even if it is not as sumptuous as the PENTATONE recording of Scriabin. The orchestra sounds realistic and we all like this recording.
Finally we listened to a recent live recording – on SACD – by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Once again we were not entirely unanimous in our views. JQ, who has reviewed the disc already, suggested that the sound has good impact and conveyed a sense of being seated in the stalls. By contrast, LM felt, with support from DD, that the bass sound was less than ideal; for example, the timpani rolls at the end sound a bit muddy.
We had hoped to listen to more discs but time ran out. So great is the flow of new issues from the record labels that it’s certain that our next gathering in the Listening Studio will feature plenty more high quality discs for us to scrutinise and enjoy.
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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