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Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36 [15:03]
Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in B minor, Op. 42 [32:10]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 [32:10]
Sofja Gülbadamova (piano)
Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra/Dmitri Jurowski
rec. live, 25/26 June 2017, Historische Stadthalle am Johannisberg, Wuppertal
Reviewed in CD & SACD binaural stereo
Booklet notes in German & English
HD KLASSIK 3D-801702 SACD [84:46]

My attention was drawn to this HD Klassik release by MWI colleague Dominy Clements’ review, largely because of the disc's binaural recording, and the maker’s apparent preference for Stax electrostatic headphones as listening devices. This took me back a long while to when I engineered a binaural broadcast for FM public radio, using a ‘dummy head’ consisting of two miniature omni microphones, at average ear spacing, either side of a 25cm perspex disc. Based on BBC research, this design differed significantly from the conventional mannequin style of dummy head, but initial trials were very promising, and indeed the out-of-head effects were rather more convincing. The broadcast concert included a mass by Machaut, with performers scattered around the hall, and afterwards when I played the recording through headphones to unsuspecting listeners, it was amusing to see their heads involuntarily snap around as they perceived sounds coming from behind them. To complete the picture, I set up and monitored the broadcast using Stax SRX/III electrostatic headphones, then their flagship model.

To the present, and from what I can glean about the review disc, it was recorded with a mannequin style of dummy head, and monitored it appears with Stax Lambda-series headphones, which have oblong diaphragms, angled slightly forward. I therefore chose the model SR-507 from this series for listening, as well as Stax’s top-of-the-line model SR-009, which has circular, parallel diaphragms, and is a natural progression from the SRX/III’s I originally used.

While on the fine detail, readers may have noted from my previous reviews that I’m a bit of a hi-res heretic (on good grounds), but on this occasion I can report a difference between the SACD and CD layers – however, it’s in their composition. HD Klassik say in the liner notes that the Brahms symphony’s first movement exposition repeat has been excluded from the CD layer “as the concert ran for 84 minutes and CDs have a maximum playing time of 81:30”. Well, yes, but that’s a nominal limit. A recent example clocks in at 88:18, with others of similar duration before it, and these are all mainstream labels. While older CD players possibly couldn’t cope with extended playing times, I would expect a label which prides itself on its technical finesse to be a little more savvy in making such statements.

On the musical content, I fully concur with Dominy Clements’ appraisal, Dohnányi’s Symphonic Minutes a delightful discovery, while his second Piano Concerto gets compelling advocacy from Sofja Gülbadamova and the Wuppertal orchestra for a more permanent place in the world’s concert programmes. Dmitri Jurowski’s Brahms Third is vibrant and shapely in the central European tradition – it’s unlikely to replace your favourite version, which for me is Bruno Walter’s 1960 Columbia SO recording, but on the other hand it would be an excellent introduction for newcomers. As hinted before, CD-only listeners may feel slightly robbed of the first movement exposition repeat but, hey, it’s all about the binaural experience, isn’t it?

And really, the music is grist to the technological mill in this kind of production, so how does it sound? Quite delicious, actually. The Wuppertal SO is cosseted in the very agreeable ambience of its concert venue, a warm bath of blended if somewhat plummy orchestral sound where spatial separation is largely defined by the instrumental choirs. The occasional detail leaps out – a triangle, for example – and the piano in the Dohnányi concerto is well placed in the sonic picture, if initially seeming a shade dominant. Overall, you’d have to say, Jurowski has done a fine job of balancing his forces.

So, an orchestra enmeshed in and inseparable from its surrounding acoustic – a lovely combination, but simulating reality? Or, as HD Klassik put it, “as though you were experiencing the recording as a live event”? Well, nothing like I’ve ever heard, to be truthful. I make it a habit at live concerts to occasionally shut my eyes and just take in the sound coming from the stage, and regardless of where I am seated, I’m always acutely aware that the direct sound from the performers and the acoustic contribution of the auditorium are quite separate components, in both the spatial and auditory senses. Can microphones make such distinctions? The simple answer is ‘not really’, as they don’t have a brain attached to them that does the psycho-acoustic processing which locates not only the direction of a sound, but is able to distinguish it from its reflections. Isn’t that the objective of dummy head recording? Well yes, but it can only achieve so much in simulating auditory cues.

Above all, the ‘reality’ of binaural sound involves spatial impressions beyond the normal stereo stage. HD Klassik label it ‘3D’, and on this score I was more than a little underwhelmed. While generally basking in the splendour of the sound, I couldn’t honestly say it stretched my aural boundaries one iota, through either pair of the Stax headphones I was using. On the critical test of applause, the whole audience was on a very straight and narrow ear-to-ear line. While personal experience tells me that binaural sound can work a lot better than this, I’m guessing the folks at HD Klassik will say I need their proprietary Headphone Optimizer to put things right; as best I can tell, this is a graphic or parametric equaliser intended to linearise headphone response. While I have no doubt this could yield a different tonal balance, I remain sceptical of any change to the essential binaural qualities I’ve mentioned so far.

What’s clear, however, is that this recording has been optimised for headphone listening, and best heard as such. On loudspeakers, the sound is still appealing, though with a sense of detachment, rather akin to eavesdropping at the auditorium door. So don your favourite cans, listen up, but if, like me, you don’t quite get the binaural, ‘being there’ experience you were expecting, no matter, it’s all still highly enjoyable.
Des Hutchinson

Previous review: Dominy Clements



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