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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: June 2021 Report
By John Quinn
Discs auditioned Stravinsky –Le Sacre du Printemps. New York Philharmonic / Zubin Mehta (details here) Barbirolli – The Complete Warner recordings (details here) Korngold – Die tote Stadt – Munich RO / Erich Leinsdorf (details here) Vaughan Williams – Symphony No 4. BBCSO / Martyn Brabbins (details here) Vaughan Williams – Symphony No 4. LSO / Antonio Pappano (details here) Brahms - Symphony No 2 Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Herbert Blomstedt (details here) Bruckner – Symphony No 8. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig / Andris Nelsons (details here) Mahler – Symphony No 10. Minnesota Orchestra – Osmo Vänskä (details here) Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde. Stockholm Philharmonic / Jascha Horenstein. HDTT 10410 The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia (details here)
Covid restrictions hampered our ability to hold Listening Studio sessions for over a year. When David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened in the Studio in early June it was our first such gathering since February 2020, though DD and LM had managed to get together in September 2020 specifically to audition the Chandos release of Britten’s Peter Grimes (report).
Since our last full session, there has been an enforced equipment change, As LM mentioned in the September report, the Jeff Rowland amplifier, which has served us so well for several years, suffered some kind of seizure, just before the first UK lockdown in March 2020. The amplifier literally went out with a bang, Fortunately, it was in standby mode at the time and, even more fortunately, no other components were damaged. The dealer lent a replacement integrated amplifier, a Marantz MA10, and it was through that amplifier that Peter Grimes was auditioned in September. What was meant to be a short-term amplifier loan extended through some 12 months. Meanwhile, the damage to the Jeff Rowland amplifier proved to be irreparable. As a permanent replacement, a new amplifier, a Bryston-14B3 has recently been installed. This delivers 600 watts/channel into 8 ohms and this was our first session using it. Coinciding with the installation of the Bryston, the opportunity was also taken to make some other significant enhancements. The Meridian 808i CD player’s in-built digital amplifier is now used as a pre-amp. To maximise the Meridian’s pre-amp contribution, it was decided to upgrade the balanced output leads from the 808i to the Bryston, and also feed the digital audio outputs from each Humax recorder into individual inputs on the 808i. Audioquest cables were used for both the balanced and optical leads. The upgraded set-up is summarised at the foot of this Report.
Now, on to the music!
During 2020 the recording industry proved remarkably resilient and the stream of new issues continued unabated. However, many of those releases were drawing on the fruits of pre-pandemic sessions. In the last 15 months or so it has been well-nigh impossible to record, either live or in the studio, the large scale works which we particularly enjoy and the effects of this are currently showing in the new release lists. Instead, there are currently a lot of releases of pieces that require small forces. However, we take off our hats to the recording industry; labels, technicians and artists have made huge efforts to keep music lovers supplied with new releases, which has been especially important when live performances have been so drastically curtailed all over the world. Before we turned our attention to new recordings, the first part of our session could have been regarded as ‘Old Wine in New Bottles’; we investigated some recent re-masterings of recordings originally set down in the 1960s and 1970s
At DD’s suggestion we began with the 1977 recording of Le Sacre du Printemps which Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic made for CBS/Sony. This has recently been remastered as an SACD by Dutton and JQ reviewed it a little while ago. We listened to the opening and we were struck at once by the great clarity. Every one of the intertwining woodwind lines can be heard and a little later, when the strings play the famous ‘stamping chords’ the notes that comprise the chords are well defined. We reminded ourselves that in those days CBS used to employ many microphones, resulting in a rather clinical sound. But even allowing for this the degree of definition which the SACD remastering has achieved is remarkable.
Recently, LM invested in the substantial boxed set that contains all the recordings which Sir John Barbirolli made for HMV and EMI, which have now been reissued by Warner Classics. Tully Potter reviewed the set earlier this year, when he commented: “The remastering, by Studio Art & Son, Annecy, appears to be impeccable.” LM has been enjoying the set and was keen to hear how the remastered discs sounded in the Studio. We made A/B samples of three famous Barbirolli recordings. First up was ‘In Haven’ from Elgar’s Sea Pictures, recorded in Abbey Road Studios with the LSO in the mid-1960s. On the original disc, Janet Baker’s voice comes over clearly, as does the bassoon which doubles the vocal line in verse 1. However, when we heard the same passage in the remastered version, we noted that the sound had greater warmth, though there was no loss of clarity. LM commented that the voice had more definition. DD was equally impressed; he noted the warmth and the fact that, at the same volume setting, the recording was a bit louder.
We moved on to consider the Elgar Cello Concerto in the celebrated performance by Jacqueline du Pré, also involving the LSO. This is another 1960s analogue recording, also set down in Abbey Road. Again, we sampled the original CD first. Listening to the opening of the work, JQ, who has known the recording for years, commented almost immediately that the sound seemed to have a bit of edge; the solo cello sound was somewhat grainy. When we switched to the remastered disc to hear the same passage the difference was readily apparent; there is more definition overall to the sound and the solo instrument’s tone has more roundness. Finally, to complete our Barbirolli Elgar trio we turned to another justly famous recording: the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. This is another product of the 1960s but this time the venue was London’s Kingsway Hall and the orchestra was the Sinfonia of London. On the original disc we noted a good sense of the hall. JQ detected an edge to the sound when the orchestra was playing loudly, though this was not apparent to LM. However, LM felt that the sound as a whole was somewhat opaque compared to the two previous recordings – perhaps this was to do with the change of venue? We noted much more satisfactory results in the remastered version. The edge that JQ believed he had heard was absent. The sense of the hall’s acoustic was enhanced and we felt there was more front-to-back depth.
We agreed that all three of these remasterings are a conspicuous success. The improved sound makes all the more regrettable Warner’s decision not to remaster the majority of the recordings in their recent retrospective box of André Previn recordings (review). They have missed a trick there.
We went back to Dutton for another remastered recording. They have issued on SACD Erich Leinsdorf’s 1975 premiere recording of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt. JQ was highly impressed when he reviewed the set recently, but he wasn’t able to make any comparison with the original RCA Victor CD issue. Now, we had both versions to hand and, really, there was only one excerpt to choose for the purpose of comparison: ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ (the Lute Song). We listened to the CD first. The voices were well presented but JQ observed that the sound of the orchestra was muddy and indistinct. We turned to the Dutton issue and we decided to carry on using the Meridian CD player; this meant we couldn’t hear the disc as an SACD but we felt it was worth that loss in order to get a true A/B comparison. The difference was immediately apparent. Dutton’s sound is brighter and does far greater justice to Korngold’s ravishing orchestration – the harps, for example, are wonderfully present. Carol Neblett and René Kollo can be heard with even more presence. Dutton bring Korngold’s rapturous music vividly to life in a way that the original CDs could not. This is a major enhancement of an important recording.
We turned to two recent recordings of the same symphony Vaughan Williams’ Fourth. Both of these discs had been reviewed by JQ but had not been previously heard by either DD or LM. JQ played them ‘blind’ and they occasioned some lively debate. In each case we listened to the last two movements.
First into the player was the recording by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is the latest instalment in their cycle for Hyperion. This recording was made under studio conditions in Watford Colosseum during late 2018. The Hyperion sound, engineered by Simon Eadon, had presence and impact. We noted excellent definition and there was a good sound-spread, both left-to-right and front-to-back, though LM was less conscious of the front-to-back depth. However, he praised the “very transparent” sound. DD said that all strands of the orchestra were audible – the “branches were intertwined” - and he was very complimentary about the sound. We then turned to the same music played by the LSO and Sir Antonio Pappano. This is a concert performance recorded in the Barbican for LSO Live by Classic Sound in December 2019. DD, who was unaware of the recording’s provenance, thought that the sound was “congested”, especially in comparison with the more clinical Hyperion sound. On the other hand, he felt that the listener gets a greater sense of being there. LM was much more aware of the timpani in the scherzo during the Pappano recording. JQ preferred the Hyperion sound and the Pappano performance – the speeds in both movements are swifter. LM relished the “driving momentum” of Pappano’s treatment of the finale. DD, though, was less enamoured, largely because of the “thick” recorded sound. JQ had liked the Brabbins performance when he reviewed it. There’s something to be said for Brabbins’ patient view of the finale but having now heard Pappano’s superb performance (review) the Brabbins seemed rather tame by comparison. Overall, LM was happy with the LSO Live sound. JQ loved the impact of the recording but would have welcomed a bit more space round the sound, something that seems difficult to achieve in the Barbican’s acoustic.
We were envious of the music lovers of Leipzig. In just a few months, between September and December 2019, they were able to hear the Gewandhausorchester play Brahms under Herbert Blomstedt and Bruckner under Andris Nelsons. We listened first to the orchestra playing part of Brahms’ Second symphony. This is the latest instalment of their symphony cycle with Herbert Blomstedt, recorded in concerts by Pentatone; JQ reviewed this recently. We would have liked to hear the first movement but, with an eye to the clock, we rationed ourselves to the shorter third movement. What a lovely, natural sound! We all admired the way engineer René Möller has conveyed acoustic space around the orchestra, especially the woodwind choir. Indeed, apart from the lustrous playing of the orchestra, the other distinguishing feature of this recording is the sense of the hall’s acoustic. LM praised a “rounded recording” and we all greatly enjoyed Blomstedt’s wise way with the music.
What a difference when we turned to DG’s recording of the orchestra in Bruckner’s Eighth symphony. This was made in the same hall, engineered by the highly respected company, Polyhymnia International who, we think, have recorded all the previous instalments in Andris Nelsons’ Bruckner cycle. We acknowledge straightaway that the DG recording is of a much larger orchestra than was the case in the Brahms, especially in terms of the brass section. However, Polyhymnia seem to have gone for a closer recording and, as a result, there was less sense of space around the sound. The string choir is much to the fore and the brass, when they play, are also prominent – all that. of course, reflects Bruckner’s scoring. Listening to the Adagio third movement, we quickly came to find the sound oppressive, even though the orchestral playing per se is magnificent. Matters are not helped by Nelsons’ conducting. None of us had heard this performance before and it is simply too expansive. JQ noted the very slow core speed and that every time a climax approached Nelsons seemed to step on the accelerator. LM summed up the performance as “interminable” and DD was equally critical, finding the sound “thick and congested” and the performance too broad. In terms of the recorded sound, we felt this was the least satisfactory disc we’d heard all day.
We turned to the latest instalment in Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler cycle for BIS. This is the Tenth symphony in the performing version by Deryck Cooke. JQ has been following the cycle and suggested that it has got better as it has evolved. This performance was recorded live in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis in June 2019 by engineer Matthias Spitzbarth. We listened to the fourth movement, which is the second of the scherzos. Coming immediately after the DG recording, we were struck forcibly by the quality of the BIS recording and by how well a very large orchestra has been recorded. The BIS SACD sound is manifestly superior and LM was quick to praise the “full left-to-right” sound stage. JQ had been impressed by the sound when he reviewed the SACD, but the Studio equipment made the recording even more alluring. The amount of detail is terrific and it’s all clearly and naturally conveyed. The dynamic range is excellent and does full justice to the skills of the Minnesota Orchestra. Everything is crystal clear, without sounding over-analytical, and the clarity is especially impressive in the ghostly last couple of minutes. At the very end of the movement the dull bass drum ‘thwack’ really grabs the listener’s attention – as it should. We couldn’t resist running on into the start of the last movement. The ominous, sepulchral opening is vividly reported in the recording and then the sweet, vulnerable flute melody emerges. When the tune is taken up by the strings Vänskä’s string choir is beautifully caught by the microphones. We agreed that there’s a sense of rightness about the music-making that we’d heard while the recorded sound is of well-nigh demonstration quality.
For our penultimate disc we returned to remastered recordings. There are links with our previous selection: not only is this another Mahler performance but the original engineer was Robert von Bahr, the founder of BIS. This is a pre-BIS recording. The American label High Definition Tape Transfers has just issued a 1968 concert performance of Das Lied von der Erde in which Jascha Horenstein conducts the Stockholm Philharmonic. The recording has been issued in a variety of formats including DVD-audio and high-res download but we listened to its CD incarnation. We listened to the opening of the first song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’. The orchestra is vividly presented, especially the horns and brass, but we felt that tenor James King sounded a bit too distant. JQ, who has been listening to the recording for a forthcoming review, had become accustomed to the balance on his own equipment but the increased scrutiny of the Studio kit confirmed that King is at a disadvantage, even against the woodwind. That said, as JQ pointed out, a tenor will invariably struggle against Mahler’s scoring in the concert hall. We also listened to the start of the final song, ‘Der Abschied’. Once again, the recording of the orchestra was very impressive – the cavernous opening chords really strike home. The soloist is Birgit Finnilä. Like her colleague, her voice is heard somewhat distantly but that is less of an issue because the scoring is kinder to the female soloist.
Finally, we had something of a Studio first We can’t recall that we’ve ever played a recording of Byzantine chant in any of our sessions. JQ brought along a notable recording that he reviewed last year. The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia is a remarkable collaboration between the vocal ensemble Cappella Romana and acoustic scientists from Stanford University. JQ described in his review the process by which the acoustic of the famous Hagia Sofia in Istanbul was captured and then grafted on to vocal recordings by Cappella Romana. The results give a fascinating opportunity to hear medieval Byzantine religious music in the virtual acoustic of Hagia Sopha. Since the recordings were made Hagia Sophia has reverted to a mosque so this music will probably never be heard again in that environment. We listened to the opening track on the disc, ‘Final (Teleutaion) Antiphon before the Entrance’. At once we were struck by the amazing resonance and sense of space around the singers. The choir’s basses make a terrifically imposing sound. The choral sound is very rich and full, even more so when the female voices join in. This is a remarkable recording achievement.
With the timeless sounds of Hagia Sophia ringing in our ears we reluctantly ended our session. We had only scratched the surface of the many enticing recordings that have come our way in the last 15 months. We still have much catching up to do and we are resolved, Covid restrictions permitting, to reconvene as soon as we can.
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.