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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
by John Quinn
Discs auditioned Shostakovich – Symphony No 13. Dimiter Petkov (bass)/London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/André Previn (details here) Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No 1. Nicola Benedetti (violin)/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits (Decca 478 8758) Shostakovich – Symphony No 8. Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Andris Nelsons (details here) Abrahamsen – let me tell you. Barbara Hannigan (soprano)/ Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Andris Nelsons (details here) Mahler – Symphony No 9. Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (Unitel C Major 750504) Urgency of Now! - Vocal Art Ensemble of Sweden/Jan Yngwe (details here) Vaughan Williams – ‘London’ Symphony. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze (details here) Silence & Music – Brevitas (details here) Dvořák – Symphony No 8. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons (details here) Mozart – Serenade in B flat major, K361 ‘Gran Partita’. Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock. (Linn CKD 516)
David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn decided to mark the day of the Summer Solstice with another session in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. We had a new piece of equipment at our disposal: the Marantz Blu-Ray player has been replaced by an Oppo machine. As luck would have it, however, most of the discs selected on this occasion were conventional CDs which we played on the trusty Meridian machine.
Regular readers of these reports will have spotted that all three of us share an enthusiasm for the music of Shostakovich and we indulged that taste to the full today. We began with the Thirteenth Symphony and a disc kindly lent to us by Dan Morgan. This is the 1979 EMI recording made in the Kingsway Hall, London by André Previn and the LSO. It has been available for some time in an EMI Classics ‘twofer’ coupled with Previn’s recording of the mighty Tenth Symphony. However, Dan recently acquired the Thirteenth as a single Japanese Warner CD and was so taken with the disc that he wrote a review of it. We played the massive first movement. We were struck by the commanding presence of Dimiter Petkov in the foreground. The choir were positioned, JQ suspects, in the balcony of Kingsway Hall, above and behind the orchestra. Their sound registers splendidly and JQ liked the sense of space around the massed male voices. The orchestra is powerfully recorded and the bass instruments are especially well reported. The huge orchestral climax (9:47 – 11:27) has great menace and power. Previn’s performance has genuine stature. It may not be quite as implacable as Bernard Haitink’s magnificent Decca recording but it’s still highly impressive. LM was not too impressed with the recording: he felt it seemed “tired” and he had the impression that as a listener he was placed quite far back in the hall. He was disappointed that the bass drum lacked impact at climaxes. DD was more positive, feeling that the recording “stood up extremely well”; it is, after all, thirty-seven years old but wears its age lightly. JQ was very taken with both the performance and the recording, both of which have great impact.
From a Shostakovich recording made 37 years ago we moved to one that is brand-new. Decca has just released a recording of his First Violin Concerto by Nicola Benedetti, coupled with the Glazunov Concerto. The Shostakovich was set down at The Lighthouse, Poole in April last year and it was engineered by Mike Clements. We sampled the first movement, Nocturne-Moderato. The initial impression is that the soloist is rather forwardly recorded. JQ admired the intensity of Benedetti’s playing but felt that, at least as recorded, her tone had something of an edge to it, though this quality was not entirely inappropriate to the work. The sound of the orchestra was not as warm as we had heard on the Previn disc. DD felt that the sound was good but not outstanding. However, he commented that he’d felt that the sound does not draw attention to itself so as to distract from the performance, which is surely right. He liked the intense and introspective approach of Miss Benedetti though LM was not quite so convinced. JQ’s impression is that the listener is made to feel too close to the performers though this view may be modified by repeated listening when he reviews the disc.
Our third Shostakovich recording was the second instalment of the series ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’ by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We listened to the third movement and the start of the fourth movement from the Eighth Symphony, recorded live in Symphony Hall, Boston as recently as March this year. The Allegro non troppo is superb, both as performance and recording. We all noted – and admired – the excellent definition of the various sections of the string choir and, indeed, of the whole orchestra. Equally noticeable is the sense of space round the orchestra. Both the treble and bass frequencies reproduce well and we admired the firmness of the lower strings as well as the presence in the sound of the lower brass. In the central section the shining solo trumpet really commands the stage. The climax at the start of the Largo is immense and the engineers have captured it superbly – no worries here about a lack of bass drum impact! The glacial passacaglia shows great control on the part of the players. We admired the interpretation also. Nelsons adopts a steady-ish tempo for the third movement which means that the music makes the proper impression and then his pacing of the passacaglia is impressive. If this is typical of the set as a whole – and Dan Morgan’s review suggests that it is – then this will be a formidable set. The recording offers some of the finest sound we heard in this session.
Nelsons was the conductor in our next selection as well though Hans Abrahamsen’slet me tell you for soprano and orchestra is a very different proposition from the Shostakovich. This remarkable work was strongly praised by Leslie Wright and, hearing it, we can understand his enthusiasm. We listened to the last of the work’s three parts. The recording was made at a concert in the Philharmonie, Berlin and engineer Christiane Voitz has achieved excellent results, giving a realistic concert hall ambience. Abrahamsen’s orchestral writing is detailed and delicate and the recording allows us to hear a considerable amount of detail in a wholly natural way. Thus the composer’s highly imaginative sonorities are done full justice. Barbara Hannigan is in the foreground of the recording but not excessively so. The score, which is dedicated to her, makes tremendous demands on the singer, not least in the vocal compass required – the part is often stratospherically high – but also in terms of the control that is needed to spin out Abrahamsen’s very long vocal lines. Hannigan offers singing that is truly extraordinary while Nelsons and the orchestra support her with sensitive and highly nuanced playing. This is an important contemporary score and it’s good that it appears on disc not only in a wonderful performance but also with the benefit of very fine sound.
We turned next to a Blu-Ray video which preserves another performance given in the Philharmonie, Berlin. This time the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin with their conductor, Daniel Barenboim. The work is Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a performance from 2009. Sadly, we had time only to audition the first few minutes of the first movement. Even that was enough to suggest that Barenboim’s reading will be an interesting and intelligent one, as we’d expect. The start is very relaxed though Barenboim soon matches Mahler’s increase in intensity. The video pictures are very crisp and clear. The sound is very good though we had the impression that the harps were rather prominent in some of the quieter passages. JQ will be reviewing this release in due course.
After several releases involving large orchestral forces we “slimmed down” our listening to take in a disc of choral music under the title Urgency of Now! Both the performances and the recording had impressed JQ when he reviewed this disc and he was keen to sample it on the Listening Studio equipment. We listened to Stars by the Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds. Here the singers are required not just to sing but also to play tuned wine glasses and this gives an ethereal patina of delicate sound around the singing. JQ was seriously impressed – again – by the recording. The choral sound registers marvellously from top to bottom – the basses of the Vocal Art Ensemble of Sweden provide a solid foundation while the soprano tone is clear and pure. The engineer, Per Sjösten, has achieved a gorgeous, realistic sound, including a fine sense of the ambience of the church where the recording was made. So realistic is the sound that JQ felt the listener can easily imagine being physically present at the performance. DD didn’t find the music terribly exciting but agreed with JQ that the recording quality is very good.
We moved on to Vaughan Williams and the first instalment of Andrew Manze’s projected symphony cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. We treated ourselves to the Lento second movement of the ‘London’ Symphony which is a favourite VW movement for all three of us. We were struck immediately by the fine quality of the RLPO’s playing – the beautifully-weighted quiet playing was especially impressive. There’s good space round the orchestral sound though this isn’t overdone. In the evocative episode where VW conjures up some London street sounds the jingling of the cab harness and the lavender sellers’ cries register most atmospherically. Elsewhere Manze obtains playing of great warmth and the recording enables the climaxes to open up very well indeed. It’s a very fine performance, relayed in a lovely recording. LM noted that the violin sound is very clear; that hasn’t always been his experience of the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, both on recordings and as a member of the audience at concerts. DD admired the Onyx recording but though he enjoyed Manze’s performance his affection for the recording of the original 1913 version of the score by Richard Hickox remains undimmed: he feels Hickox gets so much more out of the music.
From large-scale VW we moved to a much more modestly proportioned piece which the composer wrote towards the end of his life. Silence and Music was his contribution to the collection of short choral pieces, A Garland for the Queen, which contains works by ten British composers specially composed to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. VW’s offering is the title track for the debut album by the American choir, Brevitas, which JQ has recently reviewed. The piece was new to both LM and DD. We liked the performance very much; the choir’s singing is expert and very well focussed. LM was pleased by the fact that the soprano line, though it registered well, was not over-prominent as it can sometimes be on recordings. Brevitas realise VW’s choral textures with great skill and produce a “tight” sound – a comment we mean as a compliment; there’s fine unanimity in the singing. We all agreed that the recording, engineered by Jon Barton and Jordan Roper, was quite lovely and very realistic. So much did we enjoy this that we went on to listen to a second item from the programme: Samuel Barber’s To be sung on the water. Our reaction to this was just as favourable though we felt that the acoustic of the venue, the modern St Ambrose Catholic Church, Salt Lake City, did not assist in terms of clarity of diction.
A standard repertoire piece was next up: Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony in a live recording from January 2016 by Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. JQ had been listening to this for a review which will appear shortly. We listened to the third movement. JQ felt that the sound wasn’t as warm as he’d experienced on his own equipment; in fact, there seemed to be a slight edge to the violins’ sound. We liked the clarity with which the woodwind came across and we admired the conducting very much. DD commented on the “lightness and grace” of Jansons’ conducting and felt that the performance has character, the interpretation being “very loving”. As an experiment we played the movement again through the Oppo player. This time there appeared to be greater warmth in the sound and JQ felt this was closer to what he’d heard at home.
Finally we listened to a new Linn SACD, which we also played on the Oppo. This is Mozart’s ‘Gran Partita’ Serenade, K361 for 13 wind instruments in a performance by the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble conducted by Trevor Pinnock. The movement we selected was the third movement, the celebrated Adagio. This is a beautifully calibrated performance and the very natural recording allows Mozart’s mellow scoring to make its effect in a very pleasing fashion. The balance of the ensemble, from top to bottom, is very pleasing. JQ has been listening to this disc in greater depth for a review that will appear shortly and he was able to offer assurance that the extract we’d heard was typical.
review, Des Hutchinson made some comments about the inconsistencies of
surround-sound recordings from one disc to the next.
Today was a ‘first’: it was our tenth session in the Listening Studio but it was the first occasion that we’d got through all the discs we intended to hear during our limited amount of time together. Once again we’ve heard some very fine performances and some equally fine examples of the recording engineers’ art. The palm today for best sound goes to two very different recordings: DG’s sound for Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony and the lovely recording of the Brevitas choir. But all the recordings we sampled are excellent and we’re confident that next time we meet we’ll have yet another fine batch of recordings to audition. John Quinn Equipment used
- 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: Oppo BDP-105D