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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
by John Quinn
Discs auditioned Janáček - Glagolitic Mass. Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner (details here) Organ Polychrome – Jan Kraybill (details here)
Rachmaninov - All Night Vigil Netherlands Radio Choir/Kaspars Putniņš (details here)
Rachmaninov - All Night Vigil Phoenix Chorale; Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy (details here) Mahler – Symphony No 8. Symphonica of London/Wyn Morris (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 3 in D minor. LSO/Jascha Horenstein. Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2006
Braunfels – Orchestral Works, Vol 3. BBC Concert Orchestra/Johannes Wildner Dutton Epoch CDLX 7327
Armstrong Gibbs - Orchestral Works. BBC Concert Orchestra/Ronald Corp Dutton Epoch CDLX 7324
Vaughan Williams - Orchestral Works. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates Dutton Epoch CDLX 7328
Butterworth/Bax/Scott - Orchestral Works. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates Dutton Epoch CDLX 7326
After a longer than expected winter break David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened for their first session of 2016 in the MusicWeb International Listening Room.
We listened to BD-A discs and some SACDs through the Marantz player, using the Meridian player for some SACDs and for CDs.
We began with a recording which we’d all heard before: the latest instalment of Edward Gardner’s Janáček series for Chandos, which includes the Glagolitic Mass. We listened to the whole of the Credo. We were struck by the dynamic orchestral playing. Also, as LM put it, there was lots of air around the voices. This is particularly true of tenor Stuart Skelton, whose voice sounds very realistic and present. LM admired the naturalness of the Chandos sound, suggesting that the microphones had not been too closely set. As JQ had already noted in his review of the disc, the orchestral interlude becomes increasingly exciting and when the organ comes in at the end of this passage its splendid sound betrays no difference of acoustic. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the efforts of the Chandos engineers that LM and DD had forgotten that the organ is located in a separate building, Bergen Cathedral. We all felt that Gardner’s performance has terrific impact and that the engineers give the listener a fine sense of being in the hall. We couldn’t resist playing also the penultimate movement, which is an organ solo. Here Thomas Trotter displays breath-taking virtuosity and the music is stunningly conveyed by the engineers. LM was greatly taken with the sound of the organ which he felt is totally suited to Janáček’s work. This SACD is a winner on all counts.
It seemed logical to move from the Janáček organ solo to a recital for organ, albeit a very different instrument playing very different music. Last May we were very impressed by a recording of the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony. That was made by Reference Recordings in the Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City. The performance included a splendid contribution from the hall’s magnificent organ, built in 2011 by the Quebec firm, Casavant Frčres. This is a formidable instrument, boasting four manuals, 79 stops and 5,548 pipes. The instrument was played by Jan Kraybill in the symphony recording and we were delighted to have the chance now to hear a recital disc which she’d set down in June 2013. This was the first recital recording on the Kauffman Center’s organ and Reference Recordings issued it under the title Organ Polychrome. As with the symphony, this recording was engineered by Keith O. Johnson. We were alerted to the disc by Dan Morgan’s enthusiastic review of the release in its download format. Jan Kraybill’s programme is devoted to French music – plus one piece by the Belgian, César Franck. From it we selected the Allegro from Widor’s Symphony No 6. The majestic opening is arresting: the full-bodied organ and the recorded sound per se both grabbed our attention. The different ranks of the organ are impressively conveyed in the recording, as is the dynamic range that Ms Kraybill conjures from the instrument. The sound is very truthful and the deep pedal sounds resonate excitingly. We felt that Keith Johnson has given a very realistic impression of the physical spread of the sections of the organ. LM was surprised to discover how recent the organ is; he felt the makers had successfully managed to give the instrument an “old” sound. We realised when the piece had finished that JQ had played the disc on the Marantz player, forgetting that it’s not an SACD. This was a good excuse to listen to the piece again, this time through the Meridian player, and both LM and DD felt that the recording sounded even better through this player. The Meridian gave the recording an even sharper focus, LM thought, with the instrument better defined. DD’s verdict was that the recording reproduced with “a more solid and present sound” through the Meridian. We all agreed that whichever player was used this recording is a knockout.
We were indebted to Dan Morgan also for our next disc. Dan recently did a combined review of two recordings of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil. JQ was already familiar with one of these versions: the Chandos recording conducted by Charles Bruffy, which he had reviewed in 2015. However, the BIS recording was new to him until the SACD arrived from Dan and neither LM nor DD had heard either. Time constraints meant we could only listen to one extract from each recording, which is probably unfair. However, having listened to both discs complete, JQ felt that Dan Morgan’s review was an excellent guide to both versions, not least in highlighting the significant differences between them, though, as he says, the recordings also complement each other. We therefore restricted ourselves to listening to the third movement, ‘Blessed is the man’, in both recordings. (As an experiment JQ revealed no details at all of either recording before playing them, so LM and DD were, in effect, listening ‘blind’.) These are very different approaches to Rachmaninov’s score. The Bruffy performance is spacious and sonorous while Kaspars Putniņš often favours quicker speeds. JQ, who has listened to the whole BIS performance, stressed that the Putniņš performance never feels rushed; on the other hand, at times he injects more urgency and/or a greater sense of celebration into the music than one hears from his American rival. The choirs are not dissimilar in size: Bruffy’s choir numbers 56 while the Netherlands Radio Choir comprises 68 singers.
We felt, on the basis of what we heard, that the respective recordings tend to mirror the interpretative approaches. The BIS sound is clean, clear and present while Chandos opt for a deeper, richer sound. BIS have the right amount of space round the voices and the weight of the choral sound comes across well, though the tone is certainly not overweight. In the movement to which we listened – and JQ confirms this is not untypical of the whole performance – Putniņš moves the music forward well, though still achieving spaciousness. He gives the music an excellent sense of flow and the performance is quite dramatic at times. The recording has a very good dynamic range and the bass line is well defined. On the Bruffy recording, however, the basses are even more sonorous. Bruffy’s interpretation seems to have rather more emotion behind it. We felt his performance is more akin to what one might expect from a liturgical performance whereas the BIS performance leans more towards a modern concert hall approach. It’s probably not without significance that the Chandos recording was made in a resonant church acoustic (The Cathedral Church of St Peter the Apostle, Kansas City) whereas the BIS recording was set down in a secular studio (Studio MCO5, Hilversum, The Netherlands). Once JQ had revealed details of both recordings LM expressed the view that the basses, so important in this work, are much more clearly heard in the Chandos recording. DD described the Chandos sound as “creamy”; it seemed sweet and thick, a description intended as a compliment given the nature of the music. We admired both performances and, in their different ways, both recordings. However, judging only the sound on the respective SACDs our collective preference is for the Grammy-winning Chandos release where the sound is, we feel, even closer to the spirit of the work than on the BIS release. Both are distinguished recordings and it’s fascinating to compare and contrast the two.
Both of those recordings are SACDs so we had used the Marantz machine to play them. As our next selection was a BD-A disc we stayed with the Marantz. The BD-A in question was a recent release on the HDTT label which brings together recordings of Mahler’s 8thSymphony and his 10th in the performing version by Deryck Cooke. Both performances are conducted by Wyn Morris and the disc has been reviewed in detail by JQ. We listened to the end of Part II of the Eighth, beginning at the entry of Mater Gloriosa. We felt that the soprano, Norma Burrowes, sounds too ‘present’ – not her fault – and that the recording lacked much of a sense of magic at this point. As JQ commented in his recent review, the recording, engineered by Michael Gray, comes across as big and bold in the HDTT transfer. The trouble is that the sound is rather “in your face” and some details are unduly highlighted – the harp, for example, is far too prominent in the hushed orchestral passage that leads to the Chorus Mysticus. There is rather too much edge to the treble at times so that, for example, the sound of the soprano soloists and the violins is rather too bright. When we’d finished listening LM confessed that he’d not much cared for the sound of the recording itself but he had soon forgotten this because his attention was completely grabbed by the quality of the performance itself. DD liked the space of the sound and also felt the recording was reasonably three-dimensional. Overall we feel that though the recording itself may have its drawbacks Morris’s very individual account of the symphony is well worth hearing.
That performance was set down in 1971. The previous year Jascha Horenstein made a celebrated recording of Mahler’s Third for Unicorn-Kanchana. The recording has just been restored to circulation – JQ’s full review will appear shortly – which was a good enough excuse for us to sample the recording, albeit briefly. The sessions took place in Fairfield Halls, Croydon and the recording is the work of the renowned engineer, Bob Auger. We listened to the first 8 ˝ minutes of the first movement. The recording may be nearly 46 years old but it still delivers. Auger achieved a terrific dynamic range so that, for example, the opening horn theme has great confidence and presence but, immediately afterwards the way the soft bass drum is reported strikes us as just right. The sound is vivid and detailed and there’s an impressively wide stereo spread. The important trombone solo, which comes just before we paused our listening, is tellingly presented in this recording. Time constraints meant we had to leave the performance and we did so with great regret for this is a gripping account of the huge first movement. DD sounded one note of caution in our otherwise very positive view of the recorded sound. He felt that the strings seemed somewhat self-effacing though he took LM’s point that in the extract to which we’d listened it is the other sections of the orchestra that are more prominent. To test this point we listened to the first few minutes of the concluding Adagio – no hardship – and here we felt that the strings came over very well. We suspect that perhaps the wind, brass and percussion were a bit more closely miked than the strings – not an uncommon feature of recordings in those days. Overall, however, we all feel this Horenstein reading is a tremendous achievement, the recording still sounds very handsome and the return to the catalogue of this distinguished performance is a cause for celebration.
We turned to a batch of new Dutton Epoch releases, the first two of which we played on the Meridian machine, though all four are hybrid SACDs. We began with the third volume of their series devoted to the orchestral music of Walter Braunfels (1882-1954). As with the previous releases the performances are by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Johannes Wildner. We listened to the prelude to Braunfels’ opera Don Gil de las calzas verdes (‘Don Gil of the Green Breeches’) which dates from 1921-23. This music was completely new to us all. It’s attractive stuff and it gets a crisp performance under Wildner. LM felt the sound of the recording, made in Abbey Road Studios No 1 in 2014, was very nice. There’s lots of detail and the sound also has impact – the horns come across splendidly near the end. DD felt the piece was reminiscent of Richard Strauss. JQ’s verdict, which was endorsed by all, was that this is a lively recording of lively music. A full review of this and the other Dutton discs in this batch will appear on MusicWeb international shortly.
The BBC Concert Orchestra play on the disc to which we next turned: a collection of orchestral pieces by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960). Again, though JQ knows some of Gibbs’ songs, this is music with which we are all unfamiliar – indeed, all but one of the pieces on this disc receive their first recordings here. We listened to the short Symphonic Poem – A Vision of Night, Op. 38 which Gibbs composed in 1921.This is atmospheric music which builds to a powerful climax before receding back to a quiet ending. It is imaginatively scored though, on a first hearing, all of us failed to spot the contributions of the contrabass sarrusophone in C! LM’s verdict is that this is a nice piece but it doesn’t seem very nocturnal, a view that DD and JQ shared, though this may change with the benefit of further listening. Performance and recording are both very convincing.
We switched to the Marantz player to hear unfamiliar music by a familiar composer. Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have set down a disc of music by Vaughan Williams that includes Fat Knight, an orchestral suite, realised by Yates from a two-piano score by the composer of music from his opera Sir John in Love. Anxious, however, to hear a complete piece rather than dip into the suite, we listened to the Henry V Overture, which was probably written in 1933-34. Originally a brass band piece, Martin Yates orchestrated it in 2015. These recordings were made in the Caird Hall, Dundee and, by comparison with the two previous Dutton discs, we felt there was a much greater – and a pleasing – sense of the ambience of a concert hall. The engineers have achieved a good and realistic stereo spread here and that’s especially noticeable during a passage where trumpet fanfares are heard in the right-hand channel against a side drum in the left-hand channel. The music is stirring at times, as befits its subject, and we agreed with LM’s verdict that this is a “good quality recording”.
In the same hall and during the same sessions in August 2015 Yates and the RSNO recorded a disc of music by Bax, Cyril Scott and George Butterworth. All three of the pieces are unfamiliar but that’s especially true of Butterworth’s Fantasia for Orchestra. In fact this is a realisation by Martin Yates of a piece left incomplete by Butterworth. He wrote just 93 bars in full score but, unlike several other unfinished scores, he didn’t destroy it before being deployed on active service to France. The manuscript is kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and in 2015 Yates made a completion of the score, based on informed conjecture and knowledge of the handful of other orchestral compositions left by Butterworth. The result is most attractive at a first hearing and the performance is presented in excellent sound. The music is very English in tone and the nostalgic concluding pages are very beautiful. How much of this piece is Butterworth and how much is Yates is impossible to say on the basis of hearing the piece once but it certainly merits further exploration.
Sadly, the clock proved to be our enemy yet again and we were unable to listen to several other recordings which we had hoped to cover. These included the new Pentatone disc of Le Sacre du Printemps and L’Oiseau de feu from Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the choral disc, Urgency of Now! (review), Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, recorded in Versailles by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s new recording of Mahler’s First with the Bavarian RSO (review). All these recordings are sonically excellent and it’s a shame there was insufficient time to sample them on the Listening Studio equipment. It may be possible to cover them during our next session. However, we fear that by the time we next convene these will have been overtaken by yet more new releases in the continuing stream of high-quality recordings that come to MusicWeb International for review every month from a recording industry that some commentators still contend is in decline.
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