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MusicWeb International
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Rob Barnett
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John Quinn
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Jonathan Woolf
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   Len Mullenger

From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio
December 2021 Audio Report

by John Quinn

Discs auditioned
The Mercury Masters Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (details here)
Prokofiev- Symphony No 2. Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (details here)
Shostakovich – Symphonies 8 & 10. BBCNOW/ Netherlands Radio PO/Mark Wigglesworth (details here)
Sibelius –Tapiola. Berlin PO / Herbert von Karajan (details here)
KorngoldDie tote Stadt. Bavarian State Opera / Kirill Petrenko (details here)
Rachmaninov – Symphony No 2. Deutsches SO Berlin / Robin Ticciati (details here)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3. Krystian Zimerman / LSO / Simon Rattle (details here)
More Honourable than the Cherubim PaTRAM Institute Male Choir/Vladimir Gorbik
(details here)
Canteloube – Chants d'Auvergne. Carolyn Sampson / Tapiola Sinfonietta / Pascal Rophé
(details here)

Since our last session in the Listening Studio, back in June, a variety of circumstances had conspired against us, preventing another get-together. So, with just four weeks of 2021 remaining, David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn were relieved to find a mutually convenient date on which to assemble to hear a few recent discs.

In fact, in one sense our first selection can’t be classified as “recent discs” because we were listening to recordings made in the early 1950s. However, it is only recently that Eloquence have issued a 10-disc set entitled The Mercury Masters. This gathers together all the recordings that the Mercury label made between 1951 and 1953 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during Rafael Kubelik’s all-too brief time leading the orchestra. As the extremely detailed information in the booklet makes clear, not the least remarkable feature of these recordings is that they were made using just one microphone. This was suspended about 15 feet above Kubelik’s head and slightly behind him. Consequently, the listener has an unusually clear impression of what Kubelik actually heard. The results are startlingly good, especially in these new transfers. We listened first to the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, set down in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in November 1951. The horns and brass make a truly arresting sound in the introductory fanfare, the trumpets, presumably led by the legendary Adolph ‘Bud’ Herseth, have a very bright tone. The recorded sound is assertive and you can hear all the different sections of the orchestra very clearly. We noted something of an edge to the tone of all the string sections, though the edge is not unpleasant and probably would not have been as obvious on loudspeakers back in the early 1950s. LM described the sound as “punchy”. We marvelled that so much information was picked up by a solitary microphone. Even more, we marvelled that we were listening to a recording made almost exactly 70 years ago to the day.

Next, we turned to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. This comes from the very first Mercury sessions, in April 1951. We listened to the second movement, Allegro. From the start, the explosive energy of the performance made us sit up. We noted lots of weight in the string tone – and also an edge to the violins. In the loud passages JQ commented that the sound is very bright and somewhat aggressive, though, arguably, this is in keeping with the music itself. We felt that the acoustic seemed tighter than in the Tchaikovsky. DD commented that the detail is very well defined. It’s a very powerful, driving account of Bartók’s music and LM commented that “you don’t miss a thing”. It was listening to this work on his home equipment that had kindled LM’s enthusiasm for the set. Initially, he hadn’t been so keen on the Tchaikovsky but hearing it on the Studio equipment showed it in a better light. These limited samples suggest that this is an important set: the music-making is very fine and the recordings are sensational, wearing their years very lightly. The set is superbly documented too and the booklet is graced by a very fine essay about Kubelik and his time in Chicago by our MusicWeb colleague Jonathan Woolf. JQ was so impressed that on returning home he bought a set for himself: it is currently on special offer at a very attractive price through Presto Classical, and MusicWeb’s review includes a purchase button.

Next, we listened to a brand-new recording by another great orchestra from the American mid-West. The Cleveland Orchestra recently launched its own label. Their latest release – the third – is the first time we’ve had opportunity to hear one of their SACDs in the Studio. The disc couples live performances of Schnittke’s Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Second Symphony. We listened to the first movement of the latter. Unusually for a Cleveland own-label recording, this performance was given not in Severance Hall, Cleveland but in the Knight Concert Hall in Miami, Florida. The performance was given in January 2020, not long before Covid restrictions curtailed the orchestra’s activities for many months. This recording, unsurprisingly, presents a fuller, more rounded sound than recording equipment could convey in 1950s Chicago, though once again we noticed the brightness of brass tone, which one often encounters with American orchestras. This new recording allows a great amount of detail to register – essential if justice is to be done to Prokofiev’s busy scoring. This is dramatic, aggressive music and it comes across very well here, thanks to the virtuosity of the orchestra and the skill of the engineers. DD was impressed by the width of the soundstage. He also commented that Prokofiev frequently takes the violins up to the top of their compass but there’s no edge to the tone when the Cleveland violinists play this music. We noted the very present woodwinds and that there’s a sense of space round individual instruments. It’s an extremely impressive recording.

Staying with Russian music, we sampled two symphonies from Mark Wigglesworth’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle which he set down for BIS between 1996 and 2010. These have been re-released by BIS in a boxed set and the earliest recordings, which were originally issued as CDs, have now appeared as SACDs. Reviewing the set in its download form Dan Morgan asserted: “For the most part, these are powerful and illuminating performances, very well played and recorded; indeed, they confirm Mark Wigglesworth as one of the finest Shostakovich interpreters of our time.” We were keen to sample both an earlier and a more recent recording First, we listened to the second movement of the Tenth which Wigglesworth recorded in November 1997 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall. There’s plenty of punch, both in the performance and the recorded sound. The vivid sound adds to the excitement of the music-making. Wigglesworth and his players convey the stridency and malevolence of the music. JQ felt that the performance hits you between the eyes, as should always happen in this movement. LM admired the overall effect, though he pointed out that it was only towards the end of the movement, where the woodwind play a scampering passage at a slightly reduced dynamic level, that he got a proper sense of the hall’s acoustic. It seemed to him that everything was up-front; perhaps just a bit too much so. Wigglesworth made his first five recordings in Wales and then the project moved to Holland, where the rest of the cycle was set down with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. We listened to the third movement of the Eighth Symphony, which was set down in December 2004 in the Music Centre for Dutch Radio and Television, which we presume is a purpose-built studio. Though the earlier recording was very good we felt that this later recording stepped up a gear in sonic terms. In the relentless string ostinato passage at the start JQ loved the wiry sound of the violas and the tremendous tonal weight of the cellos and basses. A little later, the recording differentiates brilliantly between the violas and the violins. We noted a much-improved left-to-right spread and also better front-to-back perspective compared to the recording of the Tenth. The recording is highly realistic and does full justice to the bite in the playing. Further on in the movement the ‘galloping’ trumpet solo rings out with clarion urgency. At the movement’s cathartic climax, the percussion is overwhelming before the collapse into the fourth movement. We found this to be a significantly better recording that the (very good) sound achieved for the Tenth. LM judged that the sound is truly three-dimensional; he felt it has terrific impact and he really liked the good, solid bass.

We moved from the Soviet Union to Finland to sample DG’s reissue of Herbert von Karajan’s Sibelius recordings. These are offered in a box of five remastered CDs, in addition to which most of the recordings are also accommodated on a Blu-ray Audio disc. The set has already been reviewed by Chris Salocks who offered this summary: “with what I’m tempted to call this state-of-the-art remastering (so well done that it actually sounds like a completely modern recording!), this is the set to go for if you want to hear what Karajan and the BPO could accomplish with Sibelius.” Our appetites duly whetted, we were keen to hear Karajan in Sibelius’s towering masterpiece, Tapiola. There are two recordings of this piece in the box, one dating from 1965 and one from 1984. Only the former is included on the BD-A disc and so we opted for that. The recording was made in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche and occasionally we were conscious of the resonant acoustic. This performance produced a difference of view among us that was as sharp as it was surprising. JQ and DD were both impressed. They admired the patience with which Karajan builds the music, taking the long view. He gives the music space. Both the engineers and the players offer a wonderfully wide dynamic range. As well as the brooding strangeness of the aural landscape that Sibelius depicted, we admired the gossamer lightness of the strings and woodwind in the faster episode midway through. We also admired the fidelity of the 56-year-old sound. The storm had all the necessary intensity and overall, this was a gripping performance from start to finish given a fine new lease of life in BD-A sound. However, LM completely disagreed, describing the performance as “a total washout”. He said that Karajan kept lingering – he was constantly hoping the conductor would move the music forward – and there was no sense of fear in the music. Furthermore, he was unattracted to the orchestral sound, finding the strings too homogenised. This performance didn’t stir him like Beecham’s classic EMI recording. In particular, LM commented that “in the climax with Karajan I did not feel the fear that dark woods can instil, whereas I do feel that with Beecham.”

While we had the Blu-ray player switched on, we thought we’d sample a recording about which we were confident there’d be no disagreement: the recently issued video of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt, as staged by the Bavarian State Opera in 2019. This production starred Marlis Petersen and Jonas Kaufmann, with Kirill Petrenko conducting. JQ has reviewed this set; indeed, he made it one of his Recordings of the Year for 2021. In his review, he summarised thus: “This, then, is a compelling and all-round excellent account of Korngold’s operatic masterpiece. The opera house experience has translated very well to film; Myriam Hoyer’s video direction is assured. The Blu-ray disc gives excellent, crisp picture quality and very good sound.” There really was only one choice for our excerpt: ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ from Act I. We just sat back and revelled in the sumptuous singing of Petersen and Kaufmann as well as the glowing orchestral contribution. We all agreed that the sound and picture quality were extremely fine, though we shared DD’s irritation that from time to time during the opera – and for no apparent good reason – the camera shot pans back to give a distant view of stage and orchestra pit, as though from the back of the theatre. However, that’s a tiny blemish in a very fine video production. As well as the singing, we admired the principals’ acting and such small but telling production details as when their fingers tentatively intertwined as the duet ends. This is a marvellous recreation of Korngold’s operatic masterpiece.

Our next selection was the recent recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Robin Ticciati. JQ had greatly enjoyed this when he reviewed it, but the recording was new to both LM and DD. We would have loved to hear the luxurious first movement but our schedule didn’t permit 24 minutes of indulgence. Instead, we opted for the second movement. The very fine performance is captured in lovely, full-bodied sound. Ticciati invests much of the music with the necessary dynamism and thrust, but when the passages of yearning lyricism arrive, he plays them for all their worth. We noted with approval that the left-right split of the violins makes its mark at the start of the fugal passage. Indeed, all sections of the orchestra register really well in this recording. LM thought the performance “superb” and approved of the suspense that Ticciati achieves on several occasions. He also loved the way the conductor shapes the phrases, getting marvellous playing from the orchestra. DD was just as impressed.

Early in his career Robin Ticciati was mentored by Sir Simon Rattle, so it seemed fitting to move to a recording conducted by Rattle, albeit the music is very different. DG has recently issued a set of all five Beethoven piano concertos in which Rattle and the LSO partner Kristian Zimerman. The recordings were set down under studio conditions in LSO St Luke’s in December 2020. At that time Covid restrictions were impacting the way musicians could perform together in the UK and it was necessary to observe social distancing during the sessions. As a booklet photo shows, the orchestral musicians were spread all over the floor space in the hall. As JQ commented, one mustn’t underestimate the issues this causes, even for professional musicians, in terms of balance and hearing each other. We selected the second movement, Largo, of the Third concerto. At once, Zimerman’s patrician, poetic voicing of the opening solo makes a very favourable impression, and all the more so since DG have recorded the instrument so well. Listening to the orchestral contribution with its lovely warm lyrical sound, you really wouldn’t know that social distancing was involved. It’s possible that there’s an element of “contrivance” involved, in the sense of more microphones used than would normally be the case but, if so, the results fully justify what the engineers have done. We both enjoyed and greatly respected this performance in which the soloist and orchestra combine to excellent effect. LM praised the “beautiful recording of the piano”, while DD used the word “magical” to describe the performance as a whole. This is most distinguished and poetic Beethoven playing, we all agreed. Subsequent to the session JQ found this comment from Stephen Greenbank’s original review: “Considering the extra distances involved between players due to social distances, the DG engineers have done a sterling job in capturing a beautiful sound and achieving an ideal balance between soloist and orchestral musicians. It couldn’t have been easy. Rattle himself says ‘… you have to send the music over long distances … Sometimes it feels like blowing smoke signals over a mountain’.”
Up to now we hadn’t listened to any vocal music, so we hastened to put that right. Firstly, we listened to two items from a Chandos SACD of Russian Orthodox church music, entitled More Honourable than the Cherubim. On this disc the performers are the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir. This has already been reviewed by both JQ and by Dan Morgan. Both were mightily impressed, so much so, in fact, that both of them nominated the disc as a 2021 Recording of the Year. Dan’s overall verdict was: “A magnificent release, beautifully conducted, flawlessly sung and incredibly well recorded”. We listened to two pieces. Firstly, we heard ‘O Theotokos, We Shall Never Cease Proclaiming’ by Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov, followed byLet us Hasten with Fervour’ by Alexander Tikhonovich Gretchaninoff. The choral singing is hugely impressive: there’s wonderful sonority right from the topmost voices in the choir to the lowest. In particular, the ear is caught time and again by the fervent top tenors and by the sepulchral sound of the Octavists – no fewer than nine of them, who give the firmest of foundations to the ensemble. Tuning and all other aspects of choral discipline are, as Dan Morgan said, flawless; the whole album is a wonderful demonstration of choral singing. The variety of colours achieved is marvellous and the choir’s range of dynamics is terrific. The engineers from Soundmirror Inc have captured the choir’s sound thrillingly in a recording of richness and stunning impact. This is a glorious choral disc.
From the 55 singers of the PaTRAM choir we turned finally to a single voice. The voice in question was that of soprano Carolyn Sampson who has recorded for BIS nearly all of Joseph Canteloube’s arrangements of Chants d'Auvergne. On this new SACD she’s accompanied by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Pascal Rophé. JQ has been captivated by this disc ever since he received a review copy. In his review he praised the sparkling performances and the quality of the recorded sound, commenting “the sound strikes me as well-nigh ideal. I listened to the stereo layer of the disc and found the recording present and realistic. Carolyn Sampson is balanced very successfully against the orchestra; her voice is very clearly heard but she’s not too forwardly placed.” We listened to the first two songs from Set 1, ‘La pastoura als camps’ and the celebrated ‘Baïlèro’. The BIS recording, made in the Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland in March 2020, is most realistic, allowing Canteloube’s imaginative and colourful orchestrations to make their mark. As for Ms Sampson’s singing, it’s completely captivating. We especially enjoyed ‘Baïlèro’ where the pastoral woodwinds are wonderfully evocative and atmospheric; Carolyn Sampson sings the song with great feeling. This performance is suitably languorous but at the same time it’s full of life. LM commented that he would have preferred the solo voice to be set back a little, as is the case on the famous recording by Victoria de los Angeles; nonetheless, he greatly enjoyed this newcomer. Everyone has their own favourite version of these songs: DD, for instance, sets great store by the recordings made in the 1980s by Frederica von Stade, but he was also taken with Carolyn Sampson, remarking “her voice goes with it”. JQ had made this disc one of his 2021 Recordings of the Year and we felt that both artistically and sonically this new BIS SACD is a winner.

Canteloube’s colourful if idealised visions of Auvergnois songs were, we felt, an ideal way to end our final session of 2021. But, provided there are no more Covid lockdowns in the UK, we are resolved to reconvene early in 2022 to sample more of the seemingly endless supply of excellent recordings that come to the market. The last couple of years have been extremely difficult for musicians and record companies. However, we are hugely encouraged by the number of top-class recordings that MusicWeb International receives for review every month. We can only admire the resilience of the record industry and we look forward to hearing many more distinguished recordings during the coming year.

John Quinn

Equipment used
Meridian 808i Digital preamp + Series 5 CD player
Bowers and Wilkins Nautilus 802D speakers
Bryston 14B3 power amp (Power output: 600 watts/channel into 8 ohms)
Oppo BDP-105D DVD / Blu-ray player
Audioquest Interconnects.  Pre to Power Audioquest Water XLR.

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