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From the MusicWeb Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn
Discs auditioned Mahler: Symphony No 3. Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi (C Major 719204) Gliere: Symphony No 3. Buffalo Philharmonic/JoAnn Faletta (details here) Gliere: Symphony No 3 BBC Philharmonic/Edward Downes (details here) Nielsen: Symphonies 5 & 6. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert (details here) Nielsen: Symphony No 5 LSO/Sir Colin Davis (details here) Elgar:The Dream of Gerontius. Soloists, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis (details here) Walton: Symphony No 2. BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner (CHSA 5153) Copland: Symphony No 3. Oregon Symphony/Carlos Kalmar (Pentatone PTC 5186 481)
David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn assembled in the MusicWeb Listening Studio for the first time in 2015 to listen to some recent releases. On this occasion we heard fewer recordings than usual because several of our chosen extracts were quite long.
Our very first selection was the longest of all: the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. This is a live performance given quite a while ago – in June 2007 – by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Paavo Järvi as part of the Rhinegau Festival. The performance was filmed in Erbach Abbey. DD and LM had already watched this performance but it was new to JQ. His previous experiences of Järvi in Mahler had been rather underwhelming (review ~ review) but it was soon apparent that this account of the Third Symphony is a different proposition. Järvi is quite brisk in his pacing – but not excessively so – and we all felt that the performance is very exciting. The conductor conveys the sweep of this huge movement very well. The Frankfurt orchestra plays marvellously – there’s a lot of good solo work to admire, not least from the leader and, crucially, from the principal trombonist. We assume the abbey has a resonant acoustic – it looks like a big church – setting the engineers a challenge. They’ve successfully tamed the resonance by using a large number of microphones placed quite close to the players. As a result, a great deal of detail comes across, yet the sound never feels either ‘spotlit’ or uncomfortably close. Occasionally, when the music stops completely, you can hear the resonance of the building as the sound decays naturally. We feel that the sound is excellent– there’s a very firm bass – and the camerawork is very good. On the evidence of Järvi’s confident handling of this huge movement this set, which also includes the Fourth Symphony, seems a very successful issue.
Staying with music on a grand scale we then moved on to two recordings of Gliere’s Third Symphony. JQ has recently reviewed a Naxos BD-A issue in which JoAnn Falletta conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The recording was made in May 2013 in the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York. It’s a very good performance and he was impressed by the sound. However, during his listening he’d sampled a Chandos recording, made by Sir Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic in the orchestra’s old home, the concert hall of New Broadcasting House, Manchester. Though that recording was made as long ago as 1991 JQ had been struck by how well the Chandos sound compared with the Naxos. How would the respective recordings fare in the Listening Studio?
In both cases we listened to the third movement which, at just over 7 minutes, is by far the shortest movement in the symphony. First up was the Naxos and despite the favourable impression he’d gained when listening at home JQ now began to have second thoughts. The sound is well defined yet on the more analytical equipment in the Listening Studio the recording seems rather bright in the treble frequencies and to have insufficient weight in the bass. DD and LM agreed. They felt the sound was rather disappointing; in particular the Buffalo strings, at least as recorded, seem to lack body. The Downes recording is slightly closer. We all felt that this has more presence and body. This colourful music has greater impact thanks to the Chandos engineers and Downes’ vivid performance comes over very well. DD liked the side-to-side spread and the front-to-back depth of the Chandos sound. The Downes recording may be over twenty years old and in conventional CD format but we were unanimous that in sonic terms this is a clear winner.
When we last auditioned a set of recordings one of our selections was the second instalment of Alan Gilbert’s cycle of the Nielsen symphonies taken from live performances in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall and issued by Dacapo. That release comprised the First and Fourth symphonies. The coupling has been reviewed in download format by Dan Morgan and subsequently JQ reviewed the SACD. In September we thought that the sound on Volume 2 was extremely impressive. In the last few weeks JQ has been listening to the third instalment of the series – Symphonies 5 and 6 – though his review is yet to appear on MusicWeb International. He was keen to see what DD and LM would make of the recording and in particular the second half of the first movement, which includes the famous attempt at disruption by the side drum. Without making any comment he played the Adagio section of the movement. To his relief, DD and LM expressed exactly the view he has reached in his review: the side drum is excessively prominent. In fact, the recording provoked quite strong reactions, DD describing it as “hopeless” and a one-sided battle between the drum and the rest of the orchestra. LM felt the side drum is completely out of scale.
For comparison we turned to a recording of the same symphony that none of us had previously heard: the LSO Live performance by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO. This has been newly reissued as a package of three SACDs and also a BD-A disc that contains all six symphonies. JQ will be reviewing the set in due course: Jack Lawson reviewed the cycle on its original appearance. We listened to the same section of the first movement of the Fifth in the SACD format. The sound is less up-front than Dacapo’s recording of Gilbert, and that’s welcome. However, DD felt that the sound of the orchestra in London’s Barbican Hall is rather congested with insufficient side-to-side spread. LM was happier with the recording. We were unanimous that the balance of the side drum against the rest of the orchestra is infinitely superior on the LSO Live recording. JQ also noted that even though the LSO Live recording isn’t as close as the Dacapo effort some points of detail – for example in the cellos and basses – are brought out by Sir Colin but not by Alan Gilbert.
Next we turned to Elgar and the recent Chandos recording of The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. The recording was made in the Fairfield Hall, Croydon in April 2014. This SACD set was reviewed by JQ late in 2014 but had not been heard previously by DD or LM. The passage we selected was the end of Part I, beginning at the point where the chorus sings ‘Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour.’ JQ appreciated the manner in which the tenor soloist, Stuart Skelton is balanced, allowing the sensitivity of his singing to register without his voice being excessively forward in the aural picture. There’s just the right amount of hall ambience around his voice and that’s the case too with the bass, David Soar, when he sings. JQ applauded the well-defined bass of the recording and felt that the choir is very successfully balanced with the orchestra. DD and LM were less impressed by the sound, feeling it is perfectly satisfactory but not outstanding.
Staying with Chandos we sampled the latest issue in Edward Gardner’s Walton series. In our listening session last June we’d been mightily impressed by Gardner’s recording of the First Symphony, an impression confirmed when JQ reviewed the disc in detail. This brand-new instalment includes the Second Symphony, to which we listened in full. The recorded sound is extremely impressive: towards the end of the first movement LM described it as “lovely and analytical”. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the Watford Colosseum (October 2014), plays with knife-edge precision in the quick music while the lyrical episodes have very pleasing warmth. Aided by a detailed, punchy Chandos recording an abundance of detail registers – the percussion is especially impressive – yet the listener also gets the ‘big picture’. As an interpretation and performance this new version will have to be measured against the classic George Szell account from the early 1960s (review). However, Gardner’s recording gets off to a flying start in terms of the recorded sound: sonically, this is a winner.
For our final selection we made a figurative crossing of the Atlantic to sample another release that’s hot off the press. We’ve previously admired recordings made for Pentatone by the Oregon Symphony and Carlos Kalmar. Their latest SACD comprises American music. Under the title Spirit of the American Range their programme offers pieces by Walter Piston and George Antheil as well as the Third Symphony by Aaron Copland. The performances were recorded live in the orchestra’s home, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon. We listened to the finale of the Copland symphony, which is based on his Fanfare for the Common Man, a piece that is now one of his best-known compositions, though it was much less familiar when Copland composed the symphony in 1944. Right at the start the woodwind choir achieves a very pleasing blend, which is nicely captured by the recording. In the music of the fanfare itself the brass and percussion have tremendous impact. The sound throughout the movement is dynamic and well balanced, giving a very realistic aural picture of the orchestra at work. Though not as up-front as the Dacapo recording of the New York Philharmonic the Pentatone sound nonetheless has satisfying punch and the recording has presence and definition. LM summed up our collective reaction by describing the recording as “spectacular.”
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