From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
by John Quinn
Discs auditioned
Gigout - Grand Chœur Dialoguť from 6 PiŤces d’Orgue (1881)/Howells – Rhapsody in D-flat major, Op 17. Christopher Jacobson (organ)/Amalgam Brass Ensemble (details here)
Liszt - …tudes d'exťcution transcendante. Daniil Trifonov (piano) DG 00289 479 5529
Brahms - Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor. Paul Lewis/Swedish RSO/Daniel Harding (details here)
Brahms - Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor. Stephen Hough/Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Mark Wigglesworth (details here)
Sibelius – Symphony No 3. Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Všnskš (details here)
Sibelius – Symphony No 3. Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Všnskš (details here)
Cyril Rootham – Symphony No 2/Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. BBC Scottish SO/BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley (details here)
William Wordsworth – Symphony No 1/Symphony No 5. BBC Scottish SO/James Loughran/Stewart Robertson (details here)
Prokofiev – Symphony No 6. Sāo Paolo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (details here)
Prokofiev – Symphony No 6. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 5. Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (details here)

David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened again in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio to sample another batch of recent recordings.

On several past occasions we’ve auditioned recordings recommended to us by Dan Morgan and he has directed us towards a number of highly impressive releases. It was he who had now steered us towards a recent Pentatone SACD on which Christopher Jacobson plays the organ in Duke University Chapel, Durham, North Carolina. The organ is a four-manual instrument built by the Aeolian Organ Co in 1931/32. To judge by this recording it’s a mighty beast. We listened to the last track, for which Mr Jacobson is joined by the Amalgam Brass Ensemble to play an arrangement by Scott McIntosh for organ and brass sextet of Gigout’s Grand Chœur Dialoguť. The Pentatone recording has tremendous impact and presence and JQ loved the deep pedal sounds emanating from the organ. The brass group also registers strongly and the overall effect is majestic. JQ’s verdict on the recording and performance of this French piece was c‘est formidable! LM was not so sure, noting a certain muddiness in the sound of the organ pedals. He also found it hard to get a sense of the three-dimensional layout and where the brass were positioned in relation to the organ – though DD felt the balance between the brass and the organ was good. We listened also to the Howells Rhapsody. This builds – and recedes – majestically in Christopher Jacobson’s performance, which JQ enjoyed, but once again LM was bothered by what he described as diffuse sound muddied by the acoustic. It is true that the Chapel acoustic is pretty reverberant – JQ timed the echo at the end of the Gigout at six seconds. We feel Pentatone have recorded the organ and the acoustic accurately and the reservations voiced are not a comment on the engineering.

We turned next to the solo piano and a brand-new 2-CD set entitled ‘Transcendental‘ which is devoted to music by Liszt, played by Daniil Trifonov. The recordings were made by DG in the Siemensvilla, Berlin in September 2015. We listened to four of the …tudes d'exťcution transcendante. The pianism is breathtaking and we admired the recorded sound very much. The piano is crisp, clean and clear in the loud music. The bass is reported firmly while there is no hint of brittleness at the treble end. Trifonov’s playing is magnificent, both in a virtuosic …tude such as No 2 in A minor or in the calmer No 3 in F major, ‘Paysage’, where he achieves a lovely tranquility. In the quieter music we admired the warmth of the recording which seemed perfectly judged to do justice to Trifonov’s sophisticated playing. We finished with No 11 in D-flat major, ‘Harmonies du Soir’ Here the great refinement in Trifonov’s performance was beautifully and naturally reported by the engineers. This set will be reviewed in detail on MusicWeb International shortly.

We moved from Liszt to Brahms and to recordings of piano accompanied by orchestra. Paul Lewis’s new recording of the Brahms D minor concerto has received several reviews on MusicWeb International and there’s not been unanimity among our reviewers. We sampled the opening of the mighty first movement, recorded in the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding produces a massive sound but to us it seemed diffuse and bass-heavy, though we noted that there was a better perspective on the orchestra in the quieter passages. We also felt that the violins of the SRSO, at least as recorded, sounded rather thin and shrill in loud music. We liked the sound of Paul Lewis’s piano and his artistry is readily apparent; we admired his playing greatly. The piano is placed forward of the orchestra but in this work that’s necessary.

For a comparison we turned to Stephen Hough’s Hyperion recording, which JQ reviewed some time ago. This recording was made in the Salzburger Festspielhaus and Hough was partnered by the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg under Mark Wigglesworth. We noticed an immediate difference. The timpani register strongly in this recording also, but not overwhelmingly so. The loud orchestral passages have no lack of weight but the sound is less monumental than on the Harmonia Mundi disc. Wigglesworth moves the music forward just a little more than Daniel Harding does and the difference in tempo, though slight, is noticeable and brings dividends. LM noted a crisper orchestral attack in the Hyperion performance; JQ agreed and could also hear more inner detail. It helps that the recording is not as forward as the Harmonia Mundi production and the Hyperion sound is slightly drier, which is beneficial. We like the sound of Stephen Hough’s piano even more than that of Paul Lewis’s instrument. We briefly sampled the slow movement in both recordings and greatly appreciated the beautifully balanced and natural orchestral sound on the Hyperion disc. DD’s verdict that the Hough disc is “streets ahead” spoke for us all.

Next up was Osmo Všnskš in Sibelius. BIS has just released the last, much-delayed instalment of his second symphonic cycle, set down with the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis – though it isn’t quite the ‘last’ issue: we understand that Kullervo has also been recorded for future release. This latest SACD contains the Third, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. We decided to audition the first movement of the Third and then to listen to the same music from Všnskš’s earlier cycle. That cycle was recorded with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in the Church of the Cross (Ristinkirkko), Lahti, Finland between 1995 and 1997 and those recordings of the symphonies are available on CD.

We listened first to the Minnesota performance. This is a spirited performance, full of energy. The recording is clean and clear and has the wide dynamic range typical of the label. We felt that the engineers have achieved a very good sense of perspective and the listener gets an excellent sense of the placing of each section of the orchestra. The definition is first rate. LM described the sound as analytical – a comment made in a positive sense – but also warm. When we moved to the Lahti disc we felt there wasn’t much to choose between the performances, both of which are excellent. The older recording is not quite as sharply defined and profiled as BIS’s more recent effort. JQ noted slightly less presence and sense of perspective in the Lahti recording, though it still sounds very fine. The recording makes the Lahti orchestra sound a bit warmer than their American colleagues; of course, this may well reflect the acoustics of the respective halls. LM summed up his feelings by saying that, on balance, were he able to afford to buy only one of these recordings then on sonic grounds he would choose the Minnesota recording, which offers the more satisfying sound of the two.

Lyrita have been making a strong impression with their invaluable series of releases of off-air recordings made by the late Richard Itter. The three of us have heard a good number of these recordings but though we’ve previously expressed the wish to bring some of them into the Listening Studio that’s never happened. It was time to make amends and so we listened to two discs, one devoted to music by Cyril Rootham and another featuring two symphonies by William Wordsworth.

First we auditioned the Rootham disc and the second movement of his Second Symphony. This is a BBC stereo recording broadcast in January 1984. Vernon Handley was at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The recording is nice and airy and plenty of detail is readily audible. We also noted that the various sections of the orchestra were all well-defined. The sound may be a bit compressed, as the BBC is wont to do for broadcasting, but Richard Itter’s off-air capture of the broadcast is really very good indeed. Handley was also in charge for a studio recording, this time in mono, of the Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. This was broadcast in December 1975. The first section of the work is dominated by a tenor solo and all of us enjoyed greatly the fine singing of Philip Langridge; his voice is very well caught in the recording, too. JQ liked not only the sound of Langridge’s voice but also the space around his voice. Indeed, there’s a pleasing sense of space in general. The choir comes through clearly and is not placed too far behind the orchestra. LM and JQ both thought that while they liked the symphony the music in the Ode seemed even more convincing. JQ suggested this might be due to the inspiration provided by the words. All in all, we were very impressed by the sound on these recordings.

William Wordsworth’s Symphony No 1 has been preserved in a December 1968 broadcast by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under James Loughran. We listened to the first movement. Compared to the sound on the Rootham recordings this mono recording seemed more constricted and obviously studio-bound – DD described it as “very dated”. However, we still found the sound to be fully acceptable and the recording appears to give a true view of the score. The Fifth Symphony appears in a stereo recording broadcast in August 1979. Once again the BBC Scottish SO does the honours. Conscious of the clock, we intended only to sample a few minutes of the first movement; in the end we were so drawn in by both the music and the performance that we listened to the entire 12:47. This is a much better recording than its companion; the sound is fuller and has more depth. Indeed, after listening LM declared that had he not known the provenance of the recording he felt it could have passed for one of Lyrita’s own studio recordings of the same vintage. Details such as cor anglais solos register very pleasingly and the recording has a good firm bass. The climaxes are not overloaded. We all agreed that this is impressive, searching music. The conductor, Stewart Robertson, is one whose name we didn’t recognise but we all felt that he conducted the music very convincingly indeed. And hats off to the BBC Scottish who play with great conviction a score which they must have rehearsed specially for this assignment. Lyrita are to be congratulated on making this unfairly obscure music available and in such a very good performance and recording.

Marin Alsop has been working her way through the Prokofiev symphonies for Naxos with her Sāo Paolo Symphony Orchestra and JQ has just received a review copy of the latest instalment, the Sixth Symphony, though he had not had time to listen to it yet. We listened to the first movement. Immediately we noticed the spacious acoustic and the very good left-to-right and front-to-back spread of the recording – the venue is the Sala Sāo Paolo. We liked the sound but felt that the performance is insufficiently incisive. In the first movement Alsop’s interpretation seems rather light-touch, emphasising lyricism. In the second movement there’s more weight in the interpretation and the depth of orchestral sound is impressive. DD felt this was much more involving but LM remained unconvinced, feeling that the conductor appeared not to be driving the music sufficiently.

For a comparison we turned to the recent recording by Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, coincidentally the orchestra which of which Marin Alsop was Music Director some years ago. This is the last instalment of Karabits’ impressive cycle for Onyx and, like the preceding volumes, it was recorded in the Lighthouse, Poole. Immediately, at the start of the first movement, we noticed a difference. Karabits brings much more edge and purpose to the music – LM felt that he “grabs every phrase”. The Onyx recording is a realistic one, offering good impact and presence. We had the impression that the recording has been cut at a higher level than the Naxos. Also the sound is slightly drier, which benefits the music. We sampled also the opening of the second movement. Karabits moves the music forward a bit more than Ms Alsop does but there’s still plenty of weight. He conveys more sense of drama and rhetoric. LM described the Karabits as “gripping”. JQ will evaluate the Alsop version more fully when he reviews the disc but on the basis of our listening today the Karabits is the winner.

Regular readers of these reports will know that the music of Shostakovich and/or Mahler usually features; that reflects our personal tastes. However, there was no Shostakovich today and we were almost sufficiently self-disciplined not to include any Mahler either – but not quite. For our final recording we turned to the DVD on which Andris Nelsons conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. We watched the first movement. We were unanimous in approving the excellent quality of both the sound and the pictures. We were equally unanimous in our praise for the fantastic playing of the LFO. Opinion was more divided on the interpretation. LM rather inclined to JQ’s view that Nelsons pulls the slower episodes back too much. Although there’s much about the performance that’s superb this tendency on Nelsons’ part disrupts the flow of the music. – and JQ commented that this is true of the second and third movements also. DD, on the other hand, felt that Nelsons’ way with the music was “just right” and he relished the weight that the conductor brought to the music. At JQ’s urging we also viewed Der Tambourg’sell, the last in the selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn in which Matthias Goerne joins Nelsons and the orchestra. Once again, Nelsons is daringly expansive in some of his tempo selections but here the tactic works, contributing, along with Goerne’s singing and the superb orchestral response, to a high-intensity performance. We all agreed with JQ’s view that this performance is absolutely riveting.

It was time to pack away the discs again. As usual, we hadn’t sampled everything on our list but even if the clock had not beaten us we would probably have drawn the proceedings to a close at this point for it would be hard to follow the Goerne/Nelsons account of Mahler’s doom-laden song.

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

Previous Listening Room Reports