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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn

Discs auditioned
Bernard van Dieren – ‘Chinese’ Symphony. BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton. (details here)
SchoenbergGurre-Lieder. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner. (Chandos CHSA 5172)
Schreker – Vorspiel Das Spielwerk. Royal Swedish Orchestra/Lawrence Renes (BIS-2212)
Prokofiev – Symphony No 7. Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton. (BIS-2134)
ProkofievRomeo and Juliet, Op 64 (complete ballet). Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko (LAWO LWC1105)
Shostakovich – Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Ildar Abdrazakov/Chicago Symphony/Riccardo Muti (CSO Resound CSOR 901 1602)
Mason BatesThe Mothership (2010); Rusty Air in Carolina (2012) Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose (BMOP1045)
Lukas FossThe Prairie Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Andrew Clark. (BMOP 1007)
ReznicekNachtstück Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marcus Bosch (CPO777 983-2)
SibeliusThe Oceanides LSO/Sir Colin Davis (LSO0675)

For only the third time in 2016 David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio to sample another batch of recent recordings.

We began with Lyrita’s new studio recording of Bernard van Dieren’s ‘Chinese’ Symphony. This recording was made in April this year in the Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, the home base of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. We listened to the fifth section, the orchestral ‘Interludio’, followed by the baritone solo Cavatina and then the eighth and final section in which all five vocal soloists, the choir and the orchestra come together for the only time. JQ has been listening to the disc recently while compiling a full review but the music was completely new to LM and DD. We all admired the very good, detailed sound which gives an excellent aural picture of the orchestra in the ‘Interludio’. LM detected reminiscences of Delius while DD felt that the music had something of a French air to it. LM’s view was that the music was ”unsettling” and JQ confirmed that throughout the score both the chromatic nature of the writing and the very frequent time changes contribute to this effect. DD observed that he felt the music conjured up an image of an “overgrown forest.” When baritone Morgan Pearse sang in the Cavatina JQ felt that his voice was well balanced in relation to the orchestra; the sound of the singer had presence while the details of the accompaniment were clear. DD agreed but LM would have liked the soloist presented a little more forwardly. The texturally complex finale is well managed by the engineers. Our verdict on the music was summed up by LM who felt that the music was certainly very interesting but the symphony was likely to be “a hard work to love”. We all echoed LM’s praise for the “non-interventionist” recording.

Next we auditioned a very newly-arrived release, the Chandos SACDs of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. This recording, in which Edward Gardner marshals the vast forces required by Schoenberg, was made in the Grieghallen in Bergen last December. The recording, which we think was made under studio conditions, was linked to a series of live performances and a photograph in the booklet, taken at the end of one of those performances, shows the stage crammed to overflowing with a huge number of singers and orchestral players. This gives an idea of the scale of this undertaking. We listened to the end of Part I, starting with the tenor solo ‘Du wunderliche Tove’ and proceeding, via an orchestral interlude, to the ‘Stimme der Waldtaube’. In the tenor solo Stuart Skelton is clearly heard – we had the impression he is a fraction more forwardly recorded than the soloist we heard in the van Dieren. LM preferred the Chandos balance. Skelton sings well. The orchestral interlude is sumptuous at first and then ardent and it sounds absolutely splendid in this recording. The sound is impressively rich with lots of detail readily apparent. Anna Larsson sings the role of the Wild Dove. Her performance is very intense and the accompaniment is beautifully conveyed. JQ liked the space round her voice. The recording has an excellent and realistic dynamic range and at the end of this passage the bold wind/brass chords are full of doom. JQ will be reviewing this set shortly and is keen to hear if the rest of it matches up to this highly impressive extract.

It was Franz Schreker who conducted the first performance of Gurre-Lieder in 1913 so it seemed logical to consider next a new disc of orchestral music from Schreker’s operas. This featured another Scandinavian orchestra, the Royal Swedish Orchestra under Lawrence Renes. BIS had recorded this disc in Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen in June 2015. From it we selected the Prelude to Das Spielwerk. This one-act opera was a 1915 re-working of a full length opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, which Schreker composed between 1908 and 1912. The Prelude to Das Spielwerk is an opulently-textured piece and it benefits here from a terrific BIS recording (review). The engineers have given the music clarity, power and definition. The music was previously unknown to all of us but the present performance seemed to us to be a fine one. LM summed up our feelings, describing the sound as “a lovely recording” We felt it was the best sound we had heard so far in this session and we particularly approved of the way in which the recording seemed to allow the climaxes to expand effortlessly.

We stayed with BIS but moved back to the Grieghallen in Bergen where Andrew Litton, Edward Gardner’s predecessor as Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic, has been making a series of excellent Prokofiev discs with the orchestra. The latest instalment couples two symphonies: the Fourth and Seventh; from it we selected the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. We found that we had to reduce the volume from the setting we’d used for the Schreker. Having done that we felt the results were most impressive. As with the previous SACD there was a fine dynamic range and the climaxes opened up excitingly. There’s a very firm – though not excessive – bass foundation to the sound. The gorgeous lyrical theme in this movement comes across marvellously here; the orchestra delivers it ardently and the recording does full justice to the playing. We felt that the sound balances edge and opulence in just the right measure and the performance itself is very well-judged. JQ will be reviewing this disc shortly.

Next on our menu was more Prokofiev for which we were able to stay in Scandinavia, this time moving to Oslo where the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra has recently recorded the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet with its Chief Conductor, Vasily Petrenko. This recording was made by the LAWO label in November 2015. JQ has been listening to the set in connection with a review which will appear soon. At his suggestion we listened first to the end of Act II, the fight between Romeo and Tybalt followed by Tybalt’s death and funeral cortège. After that we listened to the two numbers at the very end of the ballet: Juliet’s Funeral and her death. The LAWO sound seems much leaner by comparison with what the BIS engineers had achieved, albeit with a different orchestra and in a different hall. The bass in the Oslo recording is quite a bit lighter. On the other hand, there’s plenty of edge, which is not inappropriate for Prokofiev. JQ had liked the sound on his own equipment but was not quite so impressed now; the sound doesn’t have as much depth and bloom as the BIS SACD which we’d just heard. Like JQ, LM is very familiar with the 1973 Decca recording conducted by Lorin Maazel and he felt that neither the Oslo performance nor the recorded sound quite raises the hairs on the back of his neck in the way that Maazel does.

We stayed with Russian music but crossed the Atlantic. CSO Resound has just issued its latest disc on which Riccardo Muti conducts the Chicago Symphony in Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti. JQ had just received the disc for review but had not yet had chance to listen to it. We auditioned the first four songs – there are 11 in total. This was most impressive. After listening for a few minutes LM expressed his pleasure at the “lovely full-fat sound”. That’s not to say that the recording is in any way overdone but the orchestral instruments register splendidly and the bass frequencies are satisfyingly firm. The bass soloist, Ildar Abdrazakov makes a tremendous impression. His singing is commanding and the engineers have balanced him extremely well: the voice is very ‘present’ but not overpoweringly so. In the third song, ‘Love’ he produces the high register of his voice sensitively while Muti and the orchestra give a well-nigh ideal account of Shostakovich’s spare accompaniment. In the following song ‘Separation’ the contributions from the high woodwinds and xylophone are very telling. To judge by what we heard this live performance, which JQ will review in detail shortly, will be an impressive contribution to the Shostakovich discography and the CSO Resound engineers have done it proud

Though our next recording came from Boston there’s a strong Chicago link because Mason Bates (b. 1977) was composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony between 2010 and 2015 and, indeed, a recording by Muti and the orchestra of his substantial Anthology of Fantastic Zoology has been issued on the CSO Resound label (CSOR 901 1601). Our selection today came from a CD issued on their own label by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project We sampled two pieces in which the BMOP were conducted by their Artistic Director, Gil Rose. The Mothership (2010) uses orchestra and electronics and there’s also a solo part for a traditional Chinese instrument, the guzheng, played here by Su Chang. The electronics provide a “techno” beat which at times seemed to us to be so prominent that the orchestra took second place. Later in the piece, when the music moves into a more relaxed vein, the guzheng makes an important contribution. This piece, the composer says, is his first genuine concert opener. We also listened to the opening of the orchestral piece Rusty Air in Carolina which similarly uses electronics, but in a very different way. It was an interesting experience listening to Bates’ music but none of us felt we were likely to return to it. However, it must be mentioned that his music has received significant attention from conductors of the stature of Riccardo Muti and Michael Tilson Thomas (review). The present recording was greeted cordially in its download format by Brian Wilson. The recordings were made in Jordan Hall, Boston in June 2014 and sound very well.

A piece by an American composer of the previous generation appears on another BMOP release. Lukas Foss (1922-2009) wrote his choral-orchestral work, The Prairie in 1941-42. Koussevitzky performed some orchestral extracts from it and then the full premiere was conducted by Robert Shaw so the music enjoyed some distinguished early advocacy. The recent BMOP recording (the work’s first?) was made in the Mechanics Hall, Worcester MA in May 2007. The disc has only just come to us for review but we suspect it has been around for some time because the booklet makes no mention of Foss’s death, which took place in 2009. On this recording we hear the BMOP orchestra, four soloists and the Providence Singers under their conductor Andrew Clark. In this ‘secular oratorio’ Foss sets an epic poem by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). The poem was part of Sandburg’s 1918 collection of poems, Cornhuskers. We listened to the first two sections. The opening movement, ‘I was born on the Prairie’ is, in effect, a prelude for tenor soloist and orchestra. The tenor, Frank Kelley, has quite an individual timbre but his singing and diction is very clear. He’s balanced quite prominently – perhaps a little too forwardly – with the orchestra somewhat in the background. However, in the following section, ‘Dust of Men’, in which the other soloists are also heard, the quartet is better integrated and the choir can be clearly heard. Overall, the recorded sound is good if not outstanding. The music seems to breathe the air of the Great American Outdoors – JQ was put in mind of Copland’s The Tender Land. The notes refer to The Prairie as a “period piece” but we agree with the note writer that it’s well worth hearing and the present performance seems very committed.

Next we listened to Emil von Reznicek’s Nachtstück from a CPO disc devoted to his orchestral music. All three of us know his Donna Diana overture but otherwise his music is something of a closed book. Clearly, however, there’s much more to Reznicek than that overture for the booklet mentions that CPO have already recorded five symphonies by him (review ~ review ~ review) as well as other orchestral works and two operas, Donna Diana and also Ritter Blaubart (1920). On this disc, recorded in February 2014 in the Haus des Rundfunks, Saal 1, Marcus Bosch conducts the Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin. For some of the items, including Nachtstück, the violinist Sophie Jaffé joined them. Nachtstück (1905) is for solo violin (or cello), horns, harp and strings. It’s an attractive, very lyrical and atmospheric piece. It seems to us that the present performance is both sympathetically played and well recorded. The music may not be of the first rank but it’s most enjoyable and the last two or three minutes are rather gorgeous. DD summed it up for us by declaring that this winning piece is “a bit of a lollipop”.

Finally we turned to Sibelius. LSO Live has just reissued the set of his complete symphonies plus Kullervo and some orchestral works. These performances were recorded in concert by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO between 2002 and 2008. The reissue includes the original five CDs and the entire cycle is also presented on a BD-A disc. Using that option we listened to The Oceanides. Along with the Fourth Symphony this is the latest recording in the series; the performances were given in June and July 2008. Davis adopts quite a measured approach – he’s more spacious than LM remembers the famous Beecham recording – but his patience brings its own rewards. For example LM had never heard so clearly the pulsing figures in the strings, suggestive of lapping water. The climax, when it arrives, is memorable. LM described it as “amazingly tremendous” while JQ was put in mind of Tapiola. DD was less impressed by the opening pages but admired the performance more as it unfolded. The recorded sound is quite close, which allows the listener to relish the LSO’s superb playing. However, there isn’t the same space round the sound that we’d experienced on some of our other recordings today and JQ remarked that he felt the sound was somewhat constrained by the walls of the hall. One point that is worth mentioning concerns the visual display when the BD-A is playing. The information appears against a background which is identical to the box cover. That image is attractive in itself but the on-screen information is not at all easy to read against it.

Conscious that the autumn evening was starting to draw, in we packed the discs away, several still unplayed, and brought our session to a close. We never seem to manage to hear every disc that we’d hoped to audition, which is frustrating. On the other hand, as usual, we’d heard some choice examples of the best sound that the recording industry has to offer.

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

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