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From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn

Discs auditioned
 
Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem. CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (details here)
Florence Price – Symphony No 1. Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (details here)
Havergal BrianFaust. Soloists. English National Opera Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins Dutton Epoch 2CDLX 7385
Berlioz - Grande messe des morts Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano (details here)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No 29, ‘Hammerklavier’. Angela Hewitt (Hyperion CDA68374)
Brahms – Symphony No 4. Pittsburgh SO/ Manfred Honeck (details here)
Elgar/Bridge Works for Cello and Orchestra - Gabriel Schwabe / ORF Vienna RSO / Christopher Ward (details here)
MadetojaKullervo. Lahti SO / Dima Slobodeniouk (details here)
Vaughan Williams – Symphony No 5 (transcribed Briggs). David Briggs (details here)

There were plenty of signs of Spring in the air when, on the last day of February, David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn convened in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio for our first session of 2022.

We had intended anyway to sample the recent disc from Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. However, the current dreadful events resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine made Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a work conceived in the shadow of war, an especially pertinent choice. LM was especially keen to hear the Britten because he had accompanied JQ to a concert in Symphony Hall, Birmingham just a couple of weeks before the performance recorded by DG. Both of us had been seriously impressed by the gripping performance we heard that evening (review). We listened to the opening movement, ‘Lacrymosa’. The brutally imposing opening makes an arresting impression here. Neither LM nor DD had heard this disc and both were struck by the deliberate pacing and the tension in the music-making. DD liked the tempo, which brings weight to the music. LM agreed, feeling that the pace is akin to a “dogged walk”. The sound itself is very fine; there’s a great deal of clarity and every strand of the orchestration is audible. In part this will be due to the engineers’ skill and in part to the evidently excellent acoustics of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. The recording conveys a good sense of the hall’s ambience. In the build-up to the reprise of the opening percussive pounding Ms Gražinytė-Tyla makes the music searingly intense. The DG engineers play their part, reporting the percussion section superbly. Evaluating the performance at the movement’s end, LM praised the sustained “implacable rhythms”. We were all seriously impressed, both by the performance and the recorded sound.

Another recent DG release has gathered quite a lot of attention recently, with very different views offered by two of MusicWeb’s reviewers. This is the disc that pairs the First and Third symphonies of the American composer, Florence Price (1887-1955). Only eight years separates the Price First Symphony and Britten’s score – the Price appeared in 1932, the Britten in 1940 – but the respective pieces are worlds apart. We listened to the first movement of the Symphony No 1 in E minor, a piece that was completely new to LM and DD. Within less than a minute DD had remarked upon the echoes of the first movement of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ symphony. He also commented how much he liked the way the recording conveyed the acoustic of Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall. LM admitted that the music was “much better than I thought it would be” and noted the confidence and apparent experience of the composer. DG’s sound is very pleasing, not least in reporting the opulent sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We all found the music attractive and well-crafted, though JQ suggested that at 18:11 the opening movement was perhaps a bit too long. The performance and recorded sound present Price’s music to the best possible advantage.

We then turned to rather tougher musical fare. The premiere recording of Havergal Brian’s opera Faust (1955-56) has recently been released by Dutton Epoch. It’s a studio recording made by English National Opera forces under the direction of Martyn Brabbins. The recording was made in Abbey Road Studio 1 in August 2019. We listened to the opening ‘Prologue in Heaven’. Dutton’s SACD sound is very impressive. Plenty of orchestral detail comes across cleanly and clearly, while the solo voices are nicely differentiated, both from each other and from the orchestra. We noticed, however, that by comparison with the two DG discs that we’d already sampled, this one was more obviously a studio production; it didn’t quite match the sense of space round the instruments and voices that we’d experienced in the two live DG recordings. Nonetheless, Dutton’s sound, engineered by Dexter Newman, is very impressive in its own right. We found the music rather earnest and LM in particular noted that the orchestral score is very independent of the voices. JQ, who hopes to review this important release soon, admitted that he has found it challenging to come to terms with Faust.

An earlier composer whose imagination was fired by the Faust legend was Berlioz. However, it was not La Damnation de Faust that was on our agenda today. His magnificent Grande messe des morts has recently appeared in a new live recording conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. This has been warmly received on MusicWeb by Dan Morgan and John Quinn. Furthermore, in his very recent survey of recordings of the work Ralph Moore declared it to be his primary recommendation. Really, there was only one choice to illustrate this recording: the ’Dies irae – Tuba mirum' section. JQ had been eager to experience this recording on the Studio equipment ever since he reviewed it using his own equipment: he was not disappointed. Right at the start of the ‘Dies irae’, the cello and bass sections of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are wonderfully firm and unanimous. When the choir begins to sing their sound is terrific; the strong, sonorous Italian basses really catch the ear. Pappano expertly builds the music towards the ‘Tuba mirum’, being careful not to peak too soon. The arrival of the four brass groups is truly imposing; the instruments are majestic. The engineers have contrived to convey the separation of the four groups very well indeed, even when one is listening in “mere” stereo. The choir’s bass section hurls out the words ’Tuba mirum spargens sonum’ over the huge drum rolls; it’s a memorable moment. Even more memorable, though, is the overwhelming ‘Judex ergo’. In between these two episodes, the hushed ‘Mors stupebit’ shows off the dynamic range of both the performance and the recording. This account of the Grande messe des morts is a tremendous achievement, both by the musicians and the Polyhymnia engineers. This RCO Live recording has surely set the bench mark for the work for many years to come. LM summed up our feelings when he declared it a “truly magnificent recording that brought out the splendour of the music”.

In need of a complete contrast to the huge forces stipulated by Berlioz, we turned to a recording which features just one performer. Angela Hewitt has been recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for Hyperion. It’s been quite an extended project and the label has just released Volume 9 which, we believe, is the last in the series. This disc consists of two formidable pianistic challenges: the Op 111 Sonata in C minor and the mighty ‘Hammerklavier’, Op 106. We listened to the first movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’. Neither DD nor JQ had heard this recording, but it was the third time LM had listened to it and he commented that he likes it better every time. JQ admired the strength of Ms Hewitt’s playing but he also noted that, when the music requires it, there’s the delicacy one would expect from this artist. As always, Angela Hewitt plays on a Fazoli piano. The instrument has quite a bright sound, though the bass of the piano registers well. The recording was made in November 2020 in the Kulturstiftung, Marienmünster in Germany and we thought that the engineer, Ludiger Böckenhoff, has achieved a very truthful sound. The playing is marvellous; Hewitt’s dynamic performance conveys the drama of Beethoven’s music and she is also alive to the many nuances in this demanding movement.

We moved from Beethoven to Brahms and the latest live recording from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The main work on their programme is the Brahms Fourth Symphony. The performance, which has already garnered a good deal of praise from MusicWeb reviewers, was given in April 2020 in the orchestra’s home hall, the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts. As usual, the recording was in the hands of Soundmirror Inc, whose work we’ve come to admire very much. We listened to the finale. The opening minutes are strongly projected; the performance is very dynamic and presents the music in sharp focus. That latter comment could equally apply to the recorded sound, which has genuine presence and impact. All the details of Brahms’ orchestration and musical argument emerge clearly. The slower episode (2:58 – 5:28) is led off by the solo flute variant and Honeck’s reading of this central section is particularly probing. When the turbulent music resumes, there’s real thrust and energy in the performance. LM commented that he’d been brought up on Klemperer’s famous recording of the symphony in which, for all its merits, the orchestral sound is heavy and you can’t hear through it. By contrast, you can hear through the textures in this performance, which is a tribute to Honeck and his players, as well as to the engineers. We felt that there wasn’t quite the same sense of the hall’s acoustic as we’d noted earlier on the live recordings from DG and RCO Live – perhaps Soundmirror’s microphones were positioned a little more closely? However, the dynamic, impactful sound suits the music and performance very well. DD observed that Manfred Honeck always has his own, well thought-through approach to music and this disc was another example of that admirable trait.

We turned next to the music of Frank Bridge – the sixth composer on our audition list today whose name begins with the letter B. Naxos has recently issued a disc on which the young German-Spanish cellist, Gabriel Schwabe plays Frank Bridge’s ‘Concerto Elegiaco’, Oration (1930) and Elgar’s celebrated Cello Concerto. Naxos helpfully divide the Bridge work into 8 tracks; we listened to the first two sections, beginning with the Poco lento. LM has listened to this performance of the Bridge several times and admires it very much; indeed, he thinks the USP of the disc is the way in which Schwabe, ably supported by conductor Christopher Ward, revitalises the work. Schwabe’s account of the Poco lento is searching; then he and the orchestra strongly project the drama of the following Allegro. JQ felt that the solo cello was rather too closely placed; whilst this enables the listener to enjoy the soloist’s full, rich tone, his prominence is rather at the expense of the orchestra. LM acknowledged that but felt that the cello’s forward placing enhanced the drama of the Allegro. JQ asked to hear the artists in the (to him) more familiar music of the Elgar concerto, so we listened to the Adagio. The performance isn’t as measured as some we have heard – it plays for 4:11 – but Schwabe plays with feeling. DD felt that the recorded sound in the Elgar sounds a bit flatter than in the Bridge – though both performances were set down in the same sessions. We agreed with LM’s observation that the recording doesn’t convey much sense of the acoustic of the hall.

Next up was some Finnish music. BIS have issued a disc of pieces inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Works by four Finnish composers are played by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Dima Slobodeniouk, their principal conductor between 2016 and 2021. JQ selected Kullervo, a work composed in 1913 by Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947). The piece was completely new to DD and LM. Often the music is big, dramatic and confident – LM commented that the very opening “sounds like the opening of an epic movie”. There’s thrust and energy in the performance, though conductor and orchestra are also responsive to the more restful episodes. As the piece unfolded, we came to have reservations. JQ felt that the composer seems to be trying too hard. LM found that his interest waned and eventually he concluded that he didn’t like the music; surprisingly, as this is a BIS SACD, he was less impressed than he expected to be by the recorded sound. DD didn’t care for the work and had concerns too about the sound. As he heard it, the strings sounded somewhat shill when playing loudly. DD also had the impression that there was adequate space around the instruments at lower volumes but less so in loud tutti passages. Out of interest, we listened to the first few minutes of a piece we know rather better, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela by Sibelius. Here, a much more potent musical atmosphere was apparent and we enjoyed Sibelius’s dramatic but subtle scoring. DD was more comfortable with the recorded sound, though LM was not. Judged by the extremely high BIS standards to which we’re used, we didn’t think this was one of their best recordings. We noted that the recordings were not all made at the same time. The Sibelius was set down in January 2018 and the Madetoja in January 2020. However, all sessions were in the same location and were made by the same engineer so we presume a similar recording set-up was employed.

Having heard some Sibelius, we went on to listen to a work which was dedicated to the Finnish master ‘without permission’: Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. JQ played a little trick on his colleagues by slipping the disc into the player without warning them that what they would be hearing was a transcription for organ. This is a recent transcription by the virtuoso organist, David Briggs. He plays on the ‘Father Willis’ organ of Truro Cathedral, an instrument he knows well since he was Organist and Master of the Choristers of the Cathedral from 1989 to 1994. The recording, made in August 2021, was produced and engineered by another well known organist, Adrian Lucas. As we listened to the first movement our initial impressions were positive: the stop Briggs uses for the quiet horn calls in the opening episode is just right and uncannily mimics the sound of the French horn. However, as the movement unfolded doubts began to creep in. LM felt that the transcription, for all the skill and imagination with which it has been made, takes away the subtlety of the scoring. He felt the organ is rather overbearing. The tonal weight of the organ is too great and as a result the big climaxes don’t leap out at the listener because a good deal of what has gone before has not been much quieter. JQ agreed; the climax at around 3:00 seemed excessive and the hush one normally hears in places when the orchestra is playing softly seems to be missing, as are the layers of colour in VWs original scoring. LM posed a very pertinent rhetorical question: should a transcription sound different from the original? We agreed that the listening experience is bound to be very different; perhaps we are all too familiar with VW’s luminous original. Further listening is required, but we all remain to be convinced. The recorded sound presents the Truro organ in a very good light.

That brought our listening to an end. Once again, we’d enjoyed some top rank performances and first-rate examples of skilled and sympathetic engineering. However, it was sobering for us to reflect that while we’d been enjoying great music in comfortable conditions the people of Ukraine are enduring a terrifying assault on their liberties, great privations and unimaginable peril. We can only hope that these awful events will not be long lasting and that the bravery and determination of the people of Ukraine will mean that right will prevail. What is happening in Ukraine is a salutary reminder to us all not to take for granted, as inevitably we do, the freedom and security we enjoy.

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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