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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: November 2015 Audio Report By John Quinn
Discs auditioned Shostakovich - Symphony No 10 in E minor. Boston Symphony/Andris Nelsons (details here) Sibelius – Symphony No 1 in E minor, Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle (details here) Sibelius – Symphony No 1 in E minor, Wiener Philharmoniker/Lorin Maazel (Details on the MusicWeb homepage) Sibelius – Symphony No 1 in E minor, Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (RCA Red Seal 88875108582) Copland - El Salón México etc. Colorado Symphony/Andrew Litton (details here)
Rachmaninov – Symphony No 2 in E minor. Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton (details here)
Bliss – Morning Heroes. Samuel West, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis (details here)
Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony. Soloists, Choirs, Hallé/Sir Mark Elder (details here)
Bach – Cantata 63 & Magnificat. Dunedin Consort/John Butt (details here)
On a chilly, foggy November day David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn sought refuge from the dreary English weather in the MusicWeb International Listening Room.
We listened to BD-A discs and SACDs through the Marantz player, using the Meridian player for CDs.
We’re all devotees of the music of Shostakovich so a recently issued recording of his Tenth Symphony was a good place to start. JQ brought along the DG recording by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony. He had recently reviewed this disc but neither DD nor LM had heard it. The recording was made at live performances in Symphony Hall, Boston as recently as April 2015 and it’s the first fruit of the new contract between DG, the Boston orchestra and its conductor. We all appreciated the firm, full bass (“solid”, as LM put it). We also noted a good left-to-right spread and that there was a pleasing amount of space around solo instruments, such as the solo flute at around 7:00. The main, extended climax of the movement made a great impact; the performance too has great musical intensity. The sound is very present, offering the impression that the listener has a seat in the front stalls of the hall, yet we did not feel that the recording is oppressively close. The instruments sound most realistic and DD noted that separate strands of the orchestra can be clearly distinguished. As for the performance itself, LM’s verdict was that Nelsons takes the music to its limits while DD admired the tremendous weight imparted to the music. This is a performance, we feel, that grips and that conveys admirably the great stature of the movement, which is one of the composer’s finest creations. Conscious of time constraints we had intended to listen only to the first movement but out of sheer indulgence we listened to the short second movement also. This is tremendous. Nelsons conducts with great drive, bringing out the savagery of the music. We admired especially the superb recording of the percussion. This is a most auspicious start to this Boston Shostakovich series.
Inexplicably, the music of Sibelius has not featured in any of our sessions in this his 150th anniversary year. We were able to make amends today. First we sampled the lavish new set of the seven symphonies recently recorded live by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. This set offers the symphonies on CDs, on a BD-A disc and on a video Blu-Ray disc. We listened to the first movement of the First Symphony in BD-A format. There’s a good deal of urgency to Rattle’s interpretation once the opening clarinet solo has finished and we noted his flexibility of tempo. LM felt that the sound was not as open as on the Shostakovich CD. JQ was worried by the emphatic – over-emphatic? – timpani at times, though this is an interpretative issue rather than anything to do with the recorded sound. We all appreciated the dramatic nature of Rattle’s view of the music and the movement is superbly played by his pedigree orchestra. Nonetheless, we were not wholly convinced by the sound per se, DD commenting that the strings sounded rather veiled. JQ will be compiling a second review of this set for MusicWeb International shortly, following on from the first appraisal by Michael Cookson.
Decca has just reissued the famous set of the symphonies and some orchestral works which Lorin Maazel recorded for them in Vienna in the 1960s. We have some fond memories of these recordings – JQ bought the LPs in the 1970s while LM acquired them as cassettes. However, it’s a long time since any of us have heard the performances. Decca has issued the recordings in a box containing four CDs and also one BD-A. We decided to sample the same movement: the first movement of Symphony No 1. This is a recording made in the Sofiensaal in September 1963. It was engineered – as were all these recordings – by Gordon Parry and the Producer for this symphony was John Culshaw. Listening to the BD-A was a thrilling experience. Maazel’s interpretation is dramatic and powerful. He conducts with drive and real strength and there’s often fire in the music making. The Vienna Phil plays marvellously for him and the timpani, though suitably forceful when required, are better integrated than Rattle’s. (The slightly acid tone of the first oboe may not be to all tastes, however.) The recording belies its age; indeed, the sound is terrific. A faint degree of tape hiss is discernible during the opening clarinet solo, though not to any troubling degree. There’s some evidence of treble edge but LM described the sound as “up front and alive”. The recording is clearly studio-made rather than a concert hall experience. Nonetheless the recording and the performance gripped us and, we felt, compels the listener’s attention. We were wary of nominating this set as one of our best recordings of the month on the strength of the limited sampling we were able to do. However, if the rest of the set is up to these sonic and musical standards the reissue of Maazel’s recordings will be a very welcome contribution to the Sibelius 150 celebrations. JQ will be reviewing it shortly. We sampled just the first part of the movement in CD format. We felt that the sound is not quite so vivid as the BD-A – LM described it as slightly more compressed – but it’s still pretty impressive.
Sony has just reissued as a set of eight CDs a collection of Sibelius recordings that Eugene Ormandy made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, mainly in the 1960s. The set includes all seven symphonies, two performances of the Violin Concerto and a good number of tone poems and other orchestral pieces. Once again we listened to the first movement of Symphony No 1. The set contains two recordings of this work: one dates from April 1978 but we selected the earlier one, set down in March 1962, as this was much closer in time to the Maazel recording. Frankly, the results are disappointing. The recording is cut at a much higher level and we had to reduce the volume level quite a bit after hearing the Maazel CD. Once we’d settled on a suitable volume we felt that the sound lacked the depth and range of Maazel’s Decca sound; DD noted a limited dynamic range while LM described the sound as “narrower” than the Decca. JQ felt that, heard immediately after the Maazel, Ormandy’s interpretation seemed staid by comparison and lacking in fire. However, LM felt that the musical ideas flowed well and we all agreed that perhaps the recording didn’t do either Ormandy or his orchestra proper justice. The sound is simply not exciting. JQ will be reviewing the set in due course and it will be interesting to see whether the 1978 recording is better. However, it’s striking to hear how significantly better were the results that the Decca engineers were able to achieve just a few months later when compared to this 1962 Ormandy recording.
At one of our sessions earlier in the year time ran out before we could consider Andrew Litton’s very fine recording for BIS of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony in which he conducted the Bergen Philharmonic (review). We were able to make amends this time because two Litton recordings were available for us to sample.
The first was a recording of orchestral music by Copland which Litton has made with the Colorado Symphony, whose Music Director he has been since 2013. This wasn’t on our original list of discs to review. However, by chance, Dan Morgan’s highly enthusiastic review of the download version was published on the very day of our listening session so we hastened to add the SACD to our agenda. We listened to El Salón México. We soon understood why Dan has welcomed the recordings so warmly: this is a disc with the ‘wow’ factor. There’s lots of detail, especially in the quiet passages, and the recording packs a real punch when Copland increases the dynamic levels - the bass drum ‘thwacks’ have splendid depth and resonance. BIS have produced an up-front, bright sound – yet without sacrificing any depth – and we feel that the results are just right for this music. Furthermore, Litton and his players give a tremendous and spirited performance, conveying the electricity, atmosphere and sheer fun of Copland’s music. DD felt that this SACD offered the sort of sound we would hope to hear – but don’t always encounter – from a BD-A disc while LM commented that this is “one of those very rare recordings where you get an impression of height.” If the rest of the programme matches this – and Dan’s review indicates that this is the case – then BIS have a real winner here.
The Copland recordings were made in the Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver in November 2014. Just a few months earlier, in June 2014, Andrew Litton had been in the Grieg Hall, Bergen in Norway for sessions with the Bergen Philharmonic of which he was Principal Conductor and then Music Director from 2003 to 2015. Together they recorded Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and we listened to the first movement. Yet again we were enormously impressed. In the long Largo introduction the sound has great depth and body. We also noted a lovely sense of the hall’s acoustic around the sound of the solo cor anglais in the passage that leads into the Allegro moderato. In the main body of the movement the massed violins sound wonderful; there’s no hint of edge to their collective tone. Litton leads a very fine performance which combines passion and refinement. The listener’s attention is gripped and the marvellous recorded sound undoubtedly plays a part in that. In fact JQ felt that though the recording was made under studio conditions there’s still the level of excitement that you can get from a live performance. LM appreciated the “lovely, bold, muscular sound” while DD felt once again that BIS have produced remarkable SACD sound that can rival a BD-A.
JQ was keen to hear on the Listening Studio equipment the new Chandos recording of Morning Heroes by Bliss, which he has recently reviewed very positively. At his suggestion we listened to the fifth and final movement, ‘Now, Trumpeter, for thy Close’ as this offers the opportunity to hear both the orator and then the full chorus and orchestra. The recording was made in the Fairfield Hall, Croydon and JQ liked the way in which the acoustic of the hall could be heard around the sound of Samuel West as he read Wilfred Owen’s poem, Spring Offensive. His voice registers very well indeed in the left hand channel while over to the right the distant timpani provide an ominous tattoo. However, LM felt that perhaps there was rather too much echo around West’s voice. When the choir and full orchestra deliver the setting of Robert Nichols’ poem, Dawn on the Somme DD felt that there wasn’t as much separation as he would have expected between the orchestra and the sound of the choir. JQ felt there was a very slight edge at times to the sound of the sopranos, something which he hadn’t registered when listening on his own equipment.
We stayed with English choral music to hear extracts from Sir Mark Elder’s new live recording of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams. This had impressed JQ both as a performance and recording when he reviewed it recently. With the clock moving remorselessly on we were obliged to restrict our listening to the first section (to 10:20) of the first movement and to the opening (to 4:28) of the finale. The magnificent opening of the symphony has great impact here and we noted a wide dynamic range has been achieved by the engineers – and by the performers. In fact the engineers have done a splendid job in presenting both the orchestra and the large choir and we particularly admired the balance between the two that has been achieved. A great deal of detail is revealed by the recording but this is a “big picture” recording too and the scale and ambition of VW’s writing comes across splendidly. When the first of the two soloists, Roderick Williams, sings we noticed a good, natural acoustic around his voice. LM felt that the microphones capture – perhaps a little unfairly – a degree of edge and effort in the singing of Katherine Broderick at her first entry. The opening of the finale is equally impressive and we relished the depth of the recording at soft dynamic levels and, once again, the wide dynamic range. Within a few pages VW is at his most expansive and the recording opens up really well. We think this is a fine overall achievement.
Finally, with Christmas getting closer, we let the last word rest with Bach in the form of his cantata for Christmas Day, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63. John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have just released this on the Linn label as part of a putative reconstruction of Christmas Day Vespers in Leipzig in 1723. JQ has recently reviewed this disc and admired it hugely. In particular he thought that the opening movement of the cantata, sporting no less than four trumpets, would sound spectacular in the Listening Studio and so it proved. The recording is superb and conveys exceptionally well the exciting nature of the performance itself. The precision and exhilaration that John Butt and his team bring to the music comes across very well and the sound has tremendous definition. We noted, however, that the last SACD that we had played through the Marantz machine was the Rachmaninov disc and for this Bach SACD, involving much smaller forces, we had to lower the volume setting.
With the late afternoon fog starting to settle in we brought our session to an end. Sadly, some discs we had hoped to hear had to be packed away. In all probability these won’t be heard in the Listening Studio because by the next time we convene there will be another stack of excellent new releases for us to appraise and enjoy.
As this will be our last session in the Listening Studio before Christmas we thought it might be a good idea to select the recordings that have most impressed us during the year, especially in terms of the recorded sound. Our highly selective shortlist is as follows:
Copland – El Salón México etc. conducted by Andrew Litton (November report) Mahler - Symphony No 3 conducted by Paavo Järvi (February) Mahler - Symphony No 8 conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (May) Nielsen - Maskarade conducted by Michael Schønwandt (August) John Pickard - Gaia Symphony and Eden conducted by Andreas Hanson (May) Rachmaninov – Symphony No 2 conducted by Andrew Litton (November) Saint-Saëns – Symphony No 3 conducted by Michael Stern (May) Scriabin – The Poem of Ecstasy conducted by Mikhail Pletnev (August) Walton – Symphony No 2 conducted by Edward Gardner (February)
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