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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser – Overture and Venusberg Music (1874 version) [21:48]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique Op. 14 (1830) [52:28]
Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal/Julia Jones
rec. live, 11-12 March 2018, Historische Stadhalle Wuppertal
Reviewed in standard and SACD stereo.
HD-KLASSIK 3D-801801 [74:56]

Binaural recording is a tricky business, and I was fortunate enough to learn a good deal more about it when Ingo Schmidt-Lucas, founder of Cybele Records and its recent offshoot HD-Klassik, very kindly visited me at work in the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, demonstrating new and familiar recordings through his self-designed headphone optimizer. Cybele has been producing hybrid SACD stereo and binaural recordings for some time now, but the HD-Klassik Gold Edition specialises in 3D binaural recording only, specifically designed for headphone use. The 3D sound is to be heard both on standard CD and SACD layers. I have already reviewed the first of these HD-Klassik releases, with Mussorgsky on organs (review), and Brahms from Wuppertal. This might seem rather a niche market, but these recordings seem to be much appreciated, and can as ever be had as a SACD disc, or on a USB stick or download to an audio quality of your choice.

Not only does the ‘artificial head’ used to record need to be positioned very precisely to achieve the best possible balance and quality from all instrumental sections, but the character of your headphones will also have their influence on how you perceive the music. You’ll have noticed how much difference there is between brands, models, and even between supposedly identical individual units when you try a variety of headphones at your local Hi-Fi shop. The difference between optimised, and therefore flat frequency response headphones and non-optimised counts, in my recent experience, for what would be the equivalent of a fairly huge price hike in your audio equipment: perhaps the difference between the standard earbuds delivered with your iPhone and reasonably decent headphones at around € 200,- or more, it really does make that much of a change. This is of course of vital importance to sound engineers in the field, who have to be able to rely on the sound being accurate; more of a luxury for listeners, but certainly something worth bearing in mind.

Thus educated, I now know what I’m missing when I listen to this disc at home, even with my decent SACD player and expensive cans, but what I can appreciate is the amount of time and care that has gone into its production. As before with these Wuppertal recordings, this is a live performance with one or two 3D coughs included, but otherwise fortunately very few distracting noises. The shoebox shape of the beautiful Historische Stadhalle proves itself very good for orchestral sound in this instance, having a respectable amount of resonance but not so much as to obscure detail.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser sounds good in this recording, though the intonation in the winds isn’t always perfect in the tricky opening bars. The admirable Julia Jones brings out the dignity of the Overture much as Stokowski does in his classic RCA recording from the early 1960s (review), complete with a slightly sour clarinet for the opening and further along as well. The lively Venusberg Music with its animated percussion section is impressive from Wuppertal, managing to be noisy and exciting without becoming overly bombastic.

A solid recommendation for Berlioz’s oft-recorded Symphonie Fantastique has long been that with Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1974 (review). The rich sound of this excellent performance is of course the result of Philips engineering with plenty of microphones to bring out the sparkle of the harp for instance in the waltz of the ballroom scene. A fairer comparison would be Davis’s later LSO live recording. With this Wuppertal recording you hear everything more as it would come across if you were in the audience, the instrumental sound blending where other sections dominate, but still with plenty of clarity and no end of involvement. There are nice spatial effects such as the oboe/cor anglais duo that opens the Scene in the Fields which work as well if not better than many other recordings, and there is no shortage of bass oomph in the drums and brass of the March to the Scaffold. There are differences to be noted when comparing SACD to standard CD binaural listening, the violins to your left having more projection and power in the former mode, in which the spatial effect gives the massed instruments just enough extra reach to make the balance even more convincing. As a clincher, those wind glissandi in the final Dream of a Walpurgis Night are handled superbly, and the bells further along are well-tuned and convincing, as is the entire orchestra, that sounds as if it’s having a great time. The final bars are truly spectacular.

Debate about which Symphonie fantastique is best can be had elsewhere, but I was very happy to discover that this Wuppertal performance is really very fine indeed. Refined and excitingly passionate in almost equal measure, the recording is absolutely absorbing from beginning to end, with warm concluding applause to conclude that we can all join in with. The orchestral sound is more transparent than that of the Brahms Third Symphony from this source, though there could be any number of factors influencing this. If you are a keen headphone user and a fan of this repertoire then you owe it to yourself to try this release.

Dominy Clements

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