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

Discs auditioned
R StraussAlso sprach Zarathustra and Holst – The Planets. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Edward Gardner (Chandos CHSA 5179)
Vaughan WilliamsJob: A Masque for Dancing. Bergen Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis. (Chandos CHSA 5180)
NielsenFestival Prelude for the New Century. Bine Bryndorf (organ) (details here)
Shostakovich
– Violin Concerto No 1. Frank Peter Zimmermann; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/Alan Gilbert. (details here)
Sibelius – Kullervo. Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vnsk (BIS - 9048 SACD)
Jn LeifsHekla. Helsinki Philharmonic/Leif Segerstam (Ondine ODE 1210-2)
Robin Walker - Great Rock is Dead: Funeral March. Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker (details here)
Henry Cotter Nixon - Concert Overture No. 3, Jacta est Alea Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Mann (details here)
Smetana - Ma Vlast Bamberger Symphoniker/Jakub Hrůša (details here) --
Daniel Jones - Symphony No 1. BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (details here)
Ravel - Daphnis et Chlo. Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin (Naxos 8.573545)
 

In mid-February David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio for the first session of 2017. On the agenda was a mixture of late 2016 releases and some of the earliest 2017 offerings from the record companies. We played all the SACDs on the Oppo machine while the Meridian was used for CDs.

We began with a pair of brand new Chandos SACDs. First up was a disc on which Edward Gardner conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in two massive orchestral scores. One of the pieces is the Strauss tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra and the obvious part to sample was the famous opening. The sound is really impressive: the quiet bass pedal note is properly hushed yet so firmly defined that it’s easy to hear the point at which the contrabassoon stops playing. The huge climaxes open up spectacularly and the organ makes a thrilling contribution. Out of interest we also played this portion of the disc as a conventional CD on the Meridian machine. Again the sound was excellent but the SACD has a palpably greater impact. We moved to The Planets and as ‘Saturn’ is the favourite movement of both DD and JQ that was our choice, reverting to the SACD layer. We admired, amongst other things, the fine amount of detail that comes through in the recording. There’s excellent definition in the recording – JQ noticed the double basses’ quiet pizzicati at the start of the processional music (around 1:40) and also the way the same instruments’ spectral melody comes through in the aftermath of the main climax. All in all we thought this SACD offers spectacular sound. JQ’s full review of this disc will be published shortly.

We stayed with Chandos but crossed the North Sea to sample the new Vaughan Williams disc that Sir Andrew Davis has recently recorded in Bergen. JQ has been listening to this release recently for a forthcoming review. We listened to part of Job: A Masque for Dancing and deliberately selected two consecutive, highly contrasting sections to bring out different facets of the recording. First we heard the ‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’. There’s excellent ambience round the solo saxophone and as with the previous SACD this one also offers exceptionally well-defined sound. A little later the recording makes the most of the contrast between, firstly, the exchanges between solo sax and cello and, immediately afterwards, the sudden eruption of the full orchestra. At the climactic moment when VW illustrates Satan’s triumph the dubbed-on sound of the organ of Bergen Cathedral is simply stupendous: the organ is wonderfully reedy and the pedal sound is really menacing. Then, in complete contrast, comes the gentle, pastoral radiance of ‘Eliahu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’. Here the beautiful sound of the solo violin is magically presented with ideal ambience around the sound of the instrument. This section of the work sounds absolutely gorgeous with the refined playing of the Bergen Philharmonic reported in lovely, natural sound. DD strongly admired the sound on this disc. Both this disc and the previous one have been engineered by Ralph Couzens. DD spoke for all of us in declaring the discs to be “two stars from Chandos.”

We stayed in Scandinavia for a brief sample of a disc of the complete organ music of Carl Nielsen recorded in Copenhagen by Dacapo. This recording has been much admired – both sonically and artistically – as a download by Dan Morgan and as an SACD by JQ. We listened to the first track on the SACD, Festival Prelude for the New Century. The strong, imperious opening comes across splendidly in this fine recording. The sound of the pedals is particularly arresting. We thought that the Dacapo sound is very realistic; the various strands of the music – manuals and pedals – all come across clearly. There’s also an excellent sense of the way the organ sounds in the hall: at the end of the piece the sound decays very naturally. Bine Bryndorf’s playing commands attention. JQ commented that both the sound and the superb playing were wholly consistent with the rest of the disc. This is an impressive release.

Next we turned our attention to a new recording of the Shostakovich violin concertos by Frank Peter Zimmermann. JQ has been listening to this for a review which will be published shortly but it was new to LM and DD. JQ played them the first movement of the First Concerto without explaining that Zimmermann has gone back to the composer’s original manuscript. As a result, metronome and bowing details differ from the 1955 published score which is usually heard. We were unanimous in not caring for the portamenti which
Zimmermann deploys near the start. The flowing speed was a surprise to both LM and DD. Before learning about Zimmermann’s return to the manuscript source DD made the prescient comment that the performance sounded as if the soloist was determined to present a new slant on the music. LM felt the results, while intriguing, gave the impression that this was a Romantic concerto. They were both agreed that the performance evidenced a strong sense of collaboration between soloist and conductor (Alan Gilbert). LM’s verdict on the performance was that it was not one which he would rush to hear again. DD was a bit more sympathetic, finding the approach refreshing. As to the recording itself, which stems from live performances, the sound was enjoyed. The solo violin appears natural and present – it is accorded prominence but not excessively so. The orchestral accompaniment registers very well.

The great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh was the dedicatee of the concerto and he provided input to Shostakovich’s revisions to the score prior to publication and before giving the delayed first performance in 1955. Accordingly, his recordings have always had uniquely authoritative status. His 1956 recording of the work with Yevgeny Mravinsky has just been reissued by Alto (ALC 1337) and by chance a copy of this recording was to hand. We sampled the start of the first movement, which plays in total for neatly 3 minutes longer than Zimmermann’s version. Oistrakh eschews the slides near the start. His playing is much more overtly intense and expansive than Zimmermann’s. Listening to this performance is a very different experience.

Next up was Sibelius and a new BIS recording of his early Kullervo conducted by Osmo Vnsk. LM and DD had not yet heard this recording though JQ has been immersed in it recently for a forthcoming review. We listened to the final movement, ‘Kullervo’s Death’. For this the Minnesota Orchestra is joined by the YL Male Voice Choir from Finland. The choir is presented in very clear sound, expertly balanced with the orchestra. The recording has a fine dynamic range and we strongly approved of the way the impact of the recording increases as the volume of the music expands. We also noted how well the extremely quiet sound of the orchestra registers at the very start. The singing of the choir is superb and the orchestral playing is no less distinguished. Vnsk builds the movement through the choir’s tragic narration to a really vivid conclusion. This is a very exciting listening experience and we doubt that Kullervo has ever sounded so well on disc.

At LM’s suggestion we listened next to a recording of Hekla by the Icelandic composer, Jn Leifs. This comes from a newly-released Ondine CD entitled The Earquake Experience. Performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic and Leif Segerstam, this is a compilation of tracks by a number of composers and promises “the loudest classical music of all time.” Leifs’ piece, which depicts the eruption of Iceland’s largest active volcano, requires colossal forces: an orchestra of 140 players is on duty here, including a percussion section of no less than 22 musicians. An organ and chorus is also thrown into the mix. A note in the booklet relates that the members of the Helsinki Philharmonic insisted on wearing earplugs during the recording sessions – and no wonder. To describe the sound as thunderous risks understatement. Consistent with the event that is being depicted in music the volume is unremittingly loud and just when you think maximum volume has been attained Leifs increases the decibel level still further. Yet, despite all this, the wonder of the Ondine recording is that an amazing amount of clarity has been achieved. In fact, the recording, made in the Finlandia Hall, Helsinki in January 1997, is spectacular. This is definitely a recording to listen to when you have the house to yourself and the neighbours are out. LM has heard another recording of this work but feels that the Ondine recording is superior. DD felt that the piece, though impressive, is not as fine a composition as Leifs’ more atmospheric Drift Ice. JQ was out on a limb: while admiring the sonic results he felt that the piece itself was “just noise”.

Next we sampled two releases from Toccata Classics. First we heard Great Rock is Dead (2007) by the British composer, Robin Walker (b 1953). This is a substantial orchestral piece written in response to the death of the composer’s father. It’s an imposing work and it’s very convincingly played by the Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker. The writing for orchestra is very assured and the recorded sound is powerful. While admiring the music we had some misgivings about the sound. The recording was made in Studio 3 of the Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura in Moscow and to be honest the sound seems studio-bound. The players seem very close and we didn’t hear much space around the orchestra. The strings seemed to have a pretty low profile: the aural picture is dominated by woodwind and, especially, the brass and percussion. We acknowledge, however, that this may be the composer’s intention. DD felt that overall the sound was a bit ordinary but we all agreed that this was a brave release by Toccata and it’s good that Robin Walker’s interesting and rewarding pieces have been accorded a recording. The disc has already been welcomed warmly by Rob Barnett and Robert R Reilly.

Toccata’s other offering is the first in a projected three-disc series of orchestral music by the nineteenth-century English composer, Henry Cotter Nixon, which JQ reviewed recently. From it we selected the Concert Overture No. 3, Jacta est Alea. We had to reduce the volume level somewhat after the Walker disc but on the whole we liked the recorded sound much more on this Nixon collection. The sound is fairly close but we noted much more space around the orchestra than had been the case on the Walker disc. Perhaps this was because the location for the sessions was not a studio but the Psti Synagogue, Debrecen, Hungary. This is a very different, more mellifluous style of music compared to the more assertive piece by Robin Walker. Neither LM nor DD had previously heard the disc and both of them without much hesitation described the music – and orchestration – as Brahmsian. Though LM felt that the scoring is a bit thick he felt that the recording gave the impression of a real orchestra in a real space.

We next moved to Smetana and a recent Tudor release of his cycle of symphonic poems, Ma Vlast. We all wanted to hear the best-loved of the six pieces, Vltava. This SACD preserves live performances and the recording is issued in collaboration with BR Klassik. Within a few bars LM commented how much he liked the sound. As we listened it became clear that there’s a lovely bloom on the sound and the engineers have achieved an excellent internal balance. The brass come over strongly when required but never in an overpowering way. The recording also has an excellent dynamic range. For JQ one of the most impressive passages starts at 5:58. In this section there’s an exceptionally well calibrated balance between the soft violin melody, the harp and the gently burbling sound of the woodwind. When the brass enter, playing quietly their sound is also perfectly balanced. Of course, all this is a tribute not just to the engineers but, just as much, to the very sensitive musicianship of the Bamberger Symphoniker and Jakub Hrůša. We felt this was an unqualified success, both as a performance and a recording.

Lyrita are promising to issue a series of recordings of the symphonies of the Welsh composer, Daniel Jones. For this project they are licencing studio recordings made by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra and Bryden Thomson. The first release, just issued, couples the First and Tenth symphonies in recordings made in 1990. We listened to the first movement of the First Symphony. LM’s verdict was that the sound was pretty typical of BBC sound from the time: “all in the middle” with insufficient treble and bass. The sound is somewhat one-dimensional and though JQ had obtained decent results on his own system he now felt the recording seemed a bit compressed. DD liked the music more than the sound. That said, we acknowledged that we were listening to a BBC recording that is 27 years old and never intended for commercial release. The sound is perfectly serviceable and the performance is assured and committed.

The music of Daniel Jones is fairly unfamiliar – though Lyrita aim to put that right. However, Maurice Ravel’s music is significantly better known. For Naxos Leonard Slatkin is making a series of recordings of his orchestral music with the Orchestre National de Lyon and he’s now reached the complete ballet, Daphnis et Chlo. For this recording, set down in the Auditorium de Lyon, the orchestra was joined by the choir Spirito. We listened to the Third Part of the ballet, best-known to many as the Second Suite. DD admitted after we’d heard the three sections that he hadn’t thought that the famous Lever du jour sounded too wonderful but that he had warmed to the recording as the music progressed. LM and JQ were more enthusiastic about the opening which combines good detail with the voluptuousness that this music needs. LM was particularly appreciative of the balance between choir and orchestra – or, rather, the way in which the choir was integrated into the overall sound. The Pantomime section is captured in very appealing sound and here we enjoyed the excellent woodwind playing, especially that of the agile principal flute. In the concluding Danse gnrale there’s a nice sense of the hall while the engineers have successfully conveyed the vitality of the performance. We liked this disc a lot. JQ’s full review will appear shortly.

We began the New Year with a Listening Studio first: we got through all the discs we wanted to hear in the time available. We felt that this collection of discs - and especially the releases from Chandos, BIS and Tudor – have got our 2017 listening off to a very strong start.

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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