Reflections Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra Op.10 (1937) [25:15] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1919) [14:45] Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Apollon Musagčte (1947) [30:03]
rec. Selbu Church, Norway, June and August 2015 1 × Blu-ray Audio
Stereo/Surround , DTS HDMA 24/192 Surround 5.1 (used for review), LPCM
24/192 Stereo, Dolby Atmos, 9.1 Auro-3D + mShuttle MP3 and MQA. 1 ×
SACD/CD Hybrid 5.1 surround/2.0 stereo. Extra video documentary "Behind
the scenes" on Blu-ray disc 2L 2L125SABD [70:03]
A disc of these three great masterworks for strings is always attractive. There is no shortage of excellent alternatives, but this has one advantage over all others: the quality of the recording is absolutely magnificent. I have to note that the disc was nominated for three Grammys, best surround, best engineering and best chamber music group, but surprisingly did not win in any of those categories. The competing discs must have been amazingly good to exceed this one.
The Britten is performed with great distinction. Each variation is carefully characterised. The work that has gone into achieving that is displayed in the short rehearsal video. Director Řyvind Gimse displays the vital ability to communicate his exact requirements to his players, variously by demonstration—he is principal cellist in the group—and by the force of a cheerful and confident personality. Their website remarks on him as "a musician with the enthusiasm of a teenager and the brain of a virtuoso". It is fascinating to watch and hear how the phrasing changes under his instruction. Whilst the end result of course does not displace such performances as Britten's own, this is up there with the best. It is by turns exciting and beautiful. The Stravinsky too combines accuracy with passion, if not quite at the level of Karajan's famous Berlin recording. It is still good enough to sit next to it on one's CD shelves.
The Vaughan Williams left me a tiny touch less satisfied. I found myself wishing for something less virtuoso and more inward. Looking at my own collection I was unsurprised to note that all the recordings are by English performers, even when, in the case of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on EMI, the conductor was Silvestri. The Trondheim Soloists, for all their passion, slightly lack introspection. The object lesson in this respect is Barbirolli's unmatchable recording with the Sinfonia of London and surely all serious collectors have this by default. All this is nit-picking because on the plus side. The Trondheim group's remarkable recording is able to place the two orchestras not only apart, as the composer wished, but apart with a difference. The main orchestra of eighteen players is placed in a circle around the listener. The second string orchestra, consisting of nine players, is entirely behind the listening seat and at a greater distance, thus adding an unusual dimension to one's experience. As in both the Trondheim recordings I have heard, 2L's producer/engineer has arranged his musicians with the microphone tree placed centrally. For techno-geeks like me, two pages in the booklet are devoted to diagrams of the exact placing of every instrument in each work. The stereo tracks obviously cannot reflect this but the surround tracks place one's seat in the centre.
As can be seen from the header above, by taking advantage of the capacity of Blu-ray discs, 2L is offering no less than nine different sound formats for the listener. Effectively one or both of this pair of discs will suit any disc player you might own, and with the help of mShuttle you can also access two different files for streaming from your phone or computer. As noted, the programme you will hear is excellent in content, performances and recording quality. I might exclude MP3 from that because surely even 2L cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear! And while I am admiring the contents and the huge quantity of notes and technical information provided, nul points for failing to give total timings for the Britten and the Stravinsky, which I had to add up from track timings: and no timing for the interesting documentary.