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Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger
From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn
Discs auditioned Mahler: Symphony No 8. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel (details here) Janáček: Taras Bulba. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner (CHSA 5156) Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi (VAI 8201) Prokofiev: Symphony No 4, Op. 47. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitri Kitajenko (Capriccio C7190) Shostakovich:Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60, Leningrad. Russian National Orchestra/Paavo Järvi (details here) John Pickard: Eden for brass band (2005) Eikanger-Bjřrsvik Musikklag/Andreas Hanson. (details here) Mahler: Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’. Philharmonia/Klemperer (EMI CDM 7 69662 2) Mahler: Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’. LSO/Solti (Decca Originals 475 8501) Saint-Saëns: Symphony No 3 in C minor. Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern (Reference Recordings RR-136)
David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio for their second session of 2015 to listen to some recent releases – and also one or two less-than recent issues.
We began with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Dan Morgan had sent JQ his copy of DG’s Blu-Ray performance which he had greeted so enthusiastically in 2012. This is drawn from a pair of concerts in Caracas, Venezuela in February 2012 when Dudamel conducted the combined might of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, soloists and an immense choir of young Venezuelan singers drawn from choirs that are part of the country’s renowned El Sistema. For once the nickname ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ was probably justified. We listened to – no, we experienced – the first movement. The performance is tumultuous. Particularly impressive is the choral contribution. The back rows of the serried ranks of the combined choir were so far away from the podium that Dudamel must have seemed like a distant figure. Yet despite this and despite the fact that the chorus comprised several hundred singers the choirs are, as LM observed, “precise and tight.” DG has recorded them expertly so that the choral sound has tremendous impact. LM described this as “one of the finest choral recordings I’ve heard”. The sound is excellent, whether the choirs are singing quietly or full-out. There’s abundant definition so that the various choral strands come across clearly – for instance the altos at ‘Infirma’.
The orchestra registers splendidly, though the choir is never swamped. Our only criticism is that both DD and JQ felt that the soloists, who are placed next to the conductor’s rostrum, are recorded too closely. As a result the soloists are rather dominant in the aural picture. Dudamel controls his vast forces most impressively: he energises the performers and clearly has a tremendous grip on the score. Big moments such as ‘Accende’ are thrilling and the very end – ‘Gloria Patri’ – is simply overwhelming, especially when Dudamel unleashes a separate large cohort of brass players, positioned in a balcony to the left of the stage. This is a simply stunning realisation of Mahler’s epic movement and the Blu-Ray sound and pictures do it full justice, Bravo, DG!
That Blu-Ray was played through the Marantz player, as was the recording of Das Lied von der Erde. However, for everything else we used the Meridian CD player during this session.
We moved on to Janáček and the second volume of the survey of his orchestral music that Edward Gardner is recording for Chandos in Bergen. JQ has recently reviewed this for MusicWeb though the review is yet to be published. We listened to the final movement of Taras Bulba, ‘The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’. Here opinions were divided. LM admired the “natural sound”, as we all did. However, he felt that the recording was not bright enough for Janáček; he wanted more sparkle on the violins and missed the brighter sound that Decca had achieved when recording this same piece with Mackerras and the VPO. DD, on the other hand, liked the sound; in his experience Janáček recordings can sometimes sound a bit acid and that was avoided here. He also liked the sonic presence of the organ. JQ also admired the sound, which had impressed him when listening on his own equipment. There is lots of definition in the sound and a good sense of perspective. Plenty of detail registers and the recording has an excitingly wide dynamic range. Two details that particularly caught JQ’s ears were the tremendously realistic timpani ‘thwacks’ around 3:35 and the sonorous organ pedal notes at the very end of the piece.
We reverted to Mahler for a new Blu-Ray of a filmed performance of Das Lied von der Erde in which Neeme Järvi conducts the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. This performance was given at a concert in Geneva in September 2012. Järvi opts for the alternative of a baritone soloist rather than a mezzo: his soloist is Thomas Hampson. The tenor is Hampson’s fellow American, Paul Groves. We listened to the first two songs in order to sample the work of both soloists. In ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ our initial impression is that Paul Groves took a little time to settle; he didn’t seem sufficiently assertive. Perhaps this impression will change on further viewing. As the song unfolded it was evident that his delivery was very committed. At the time of this performance Thomas Hampson was fifty-seven years old yet, to judge by his singing of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ his voice remains in very good condition. This song is more delicately accompanied than the previous one so Hampson was not battling against a full orchestral sound as Groves was. We all admired the firm, suave tones of his upper register and JQ noted approvingly how well controlled the voice is throughout its compass. LM described Hampson as a “voice of authority” and we agreed with his assessment that the singer appeared to have plenty in reserve. The sound is very good on this Blu-Ray disc, allowing Mahler’s orchestration to come through in all its detail. The picture quality is also good. JQ will be doing a full review of this release soon.
Between 2005 and 2007 Dmitri Kitajenko made a complete cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies for the Capriccio label with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. All the recordings were made in the Philharmonie, Köln. Numbers 3 and 6 were recorded live so presumably the remainder were set down under studio conditions. Though the set has been around for a while a review copy has only just come to hand – possibly the collection has been reissued. The set includes both versions of Symphony No 4: the Op. 47 original from 1930 and the 1947 revision, which is Op 112. We listened to the first movement of Op. 47. We were struck immediately by the firmness of the bass end of the orchestra but the recording also had brilliance in the upper registers - precisely, said LM, the quality he had missed in the Janáček recording. The recording presents the orchestra in good perspective and offers, too, a sense of the hall’s ambience. The sound has presence and no little power. JQ felt this was a very good recording with plenty of impact and depth and offered a very good representation of Prokofiev’s scoring. We feel that the musicians and engineers have combined to excellent effect to produce a sound that is highly suitable for Prokofiev. If this extract is typical of the cycle, both sonically and artistically, we feel it will be a notable cycle. Rob Barnett will be reviewing the complete cycle soon and we await his verdict with interest.
Staying with Soviet music we turned to Shostakovich and his Seventh Symphony, which was highly praised as a download by Dan Morgan. All of us had heard this recording before. JQ has just reviewed the SACD version though his review is yet to appear on MusicWeb. We listened to the finale. LM described the recording as “clear and precise”. Previously he had felt that the sound was somewhat lacking in bass response but now, on a further hearing, he was less troubled by that. DD approved of the “chill feeling” that Paavo Järvi obtains in the opening pages of the movement. We noted that detail is clear, even in the loudest passages, and JQ admired the weight of sound in the slow march that begins around 6:00. The quiet dynamics are very well observed by the performers and well captured by the engineers. JQ was impressed by the power and definition in the sound as heard on the Listening Studio equipment. By the end of the movement our verdict was mixed. LM felt less impressed by the performance than he had been previously. JQ believes the performance of the symphony as a whole is very fine and admires the sound. DD also assessed the sound as pretty good. As to the performance, acknowledging that we had heard the last movement out of the context of the complete symphony, he had the impression that the finale concludes what may be a somewhat sombre reading of the work as a whole. JQ felt this was a perceptive judgement since the booklet note, which DD had not seen, considers at some length the proposition that the Seventh Symphony is a “Requiem without words.”
A review by Dan Morgan had a bearing on our next choice, too. It was his highly enthusiastic review of a BIS SACD that prompted JQ to acquire a copy recently, even though brass band music is not an area of the repertoire to which he normally listens. The disc in question coupled two works by the British composer, John Pickard: his very substantial – in every sense – Symphony No 4, ‘Gaia Symphony’ and a shorter work, Eden. The latter was written as the test piece for the 2005 National Brass Band Championship in London. The fifteen-minute span of the work offers a prodigious test for all sections of a brass band. We listened to all of Eden. The music was completely new to DD and LM – like JQ they are not regular listeners to brass bands. We were unanimous in our admiration for the music which LM described as being “like an epic tale.” Pickard explores and exploits the brass band medium with great imagination and amazing invention. We were hugely impressed by the virtuosity of the Norwegian band, all the more so since most of the musicians are amateurs. Their precision, dynamic range and sheer stamina are quite remarkable. As for the BIS sound we were bowled over by the quality. The sound is very truthful. The instruments are marvellously reported and the engineers have achieved just the right amount of natural hall resonance around the band. The sound of the percussion is particularly thrilling. The climaxes, of which there are quite a few, register with great power but the many passages of more subdued music are reported just as successfully. The sound is very exciting and gives full expression to the tremendous playing of the band and to the excitement of Pickard’s music. This is a stunning recording and the SACD, to which we had listened in CD format, is a very fine achievement in every respect.
We returned to Mahler and had a short trip down memory lane. In the late 1960s the LPs of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony by Sir Georg Solti and the LSO became the first recording of the work that JQ bought. Well over 40 years later, and with an embarrassingly large number of CD versions of the work in his collection, he had never got round to acquiring the Solti version on CD until very recently. The CD is in its 2007 incarnation as one of Decca’s ‘The Originals’ series. JQ had been strongly impressed by how well the 1966 recording still sounded on his own equipment and was keen to hear it in the Listening Studio. LM suggested that we should also audition Otto Klemperer’s 1961/2 EMI recording, as re-mastered by EMI in 1989. Both recordings were made in London’s famous Kingsway Hall. With the clock ticking on remorselessly we were limited in the amount of listening time so we rationed ourselves to the first five minutes or so of both versions.
Klemperer’s disc was first into the player. The movement erupts into life with palpable drive and energy and the sound has remarkable presence, not least in the powerful cellos and basses. Solti’s opening also registers with tremendous attack and a very firm bass though, perhaps surprisingly, we felt that Klemperer displayed fractionally more urgency. We were not united in our views of the two recordings per se, though in many respects we were impressed by both. JQ felt there was a degree of treble edge to the sound of the violins and oboes on the Klemperer disc – perhaps a sign of the recording’s age – while the Decca, in comparison, didn’t have a similar edge. (We found we had to turn the volume down a little for the Solti to tame the power of the recording after the EMI sound.) LM and DD disagreed, feeling that it was the Decca sound that was the edgier of the two. What we were unanimous in thinking, however, was how amazing both recordings still sound after five decades. They are a splendid advert for analogue sound – and for the results achieved in the much-lamented Kingsway Hall. The work of the engineers – Douglas Larter (EMI) and Gordon Parry (Decca) – is a great achievement in both cases.
Finally we turned to a brand-new recording, which arrived for review only a few days ago. It’s the latest offering from the partnership between Reference Recordings and the Kansas City Symphony under their Music Director, Michael Stern. The Third Symphony of Saint-Saëns represents a great opportunity for recording engineers and the challenge has been taken up by Reference’s producer, David Frost and engineer, Keith O. Johnson. The recording was made in the orchestra’s home, the Helzberg Hall, in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City. This is a very new hall, opened in September, 2011 and to judge by the booklet photograph of Stern and the orchestra in action there it’s a magnificent-looking auditorium. This new recording allows us to hear not only the orchestra but also the hall’s imposing organ, built by the Quebec firm, Casavant Frčres. This is a formidable instrument, boasting four manuals, 79 stops and 5,548 pipes.
We hadn’t time for the whole symphony and restricted ourselves to the last few minutes of the third movement, leading into the spectacular finale. The organ contributes majestically to the start of the finale and this thunderous entry, preceded by the soft transition from the third movement, impressively showcases the wide dynamic range of Keith Johnson’s recording. In the finale it’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing the organ to dominate at times. However Johnson, Michael Stern and organist Jan Kraybill ensure this doesn’t happen. The organ is well balanced with the orchestra though it makes its presence felt in the passages where the composer intended this to happen. The last few pages of the symphony sound especially opulent. LM admired the fact that the recording allowed the full width of the organ to register across the stereo spread. He also commented that not only does the Helzberg Hall look visually stunning in the photograph but also it sounds acoustically stunning in what we heard of this recording. We concurred. JQ will be reviewing this disc in more detail shortly.
Yet again the clock defeated us and our session came to an end with several discs that we’d hoped to sample remaining unheard. What we heard today, however, demonstrates that the record companies continue to issue some sonically spectacular discs.
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