From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
By John Quinn
Holst – Egdon Heath. London Philharmonic Orchestra /Sir Adrian Boult (Decca British Collection 425 152-2 & Decca Eloquence 484 2204)
Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony. London Philharmonic Orchestra /Sir Adrian Boult (Decca Eloquence 484 2204 & Pristine Audio - details here)
Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony London Philharmonic Orchestra /Sir Adrian Boult (Decca Eloquence 484 2204 & Pristine Audio – details here)
Vaughan Williams – Symphony No 6. BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (details here)
Korngold - Overture from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Sinfonia of London / John Wilson (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 8. London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 5. Czech Philharmonic / Semyon Bychkov (details here)
Sibelius – Symphony No 5 Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Mäkelä (details here)
Ravel – Alborada del gracioso. Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (details here)
Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth (details here)
Unusually full diaries – mainly on JQ’s part - had prevented us from holding a Listening Studio session for some time. Nonetheless, when David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn got together in the Studio at the beginning of November it came as something of a shock when we realised that our last gathering had taken place as long ago as February. Time, then, to make up for lost time with some serious listening.
Decca Eloquence have just issued three substantial boxed sets containing all the recordings which Sir Adrian Boult made for Decca in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly with the LPO. All contain treasure trove but the one which especially appeals to us is that which is devoted to recordings of British music. We opened our listening session by auditioning the opening of Holst’s atmospheric masterpiece, Egdon Heath. Actually, we began with a previous issue of this recording, on the Decca London label as art of Decca’s British Collection series, on which the piece is coupled with Solti’s recording of The Planets. The recording of Egdon Heath was made in London’s Kingsway Hall in March 1961 and, in this transfer, it shows its age. The first bars do not flatter the sound or tuning of the LPO double bass section at all; in fact, DD went so far as to describe the sound as “sour”; we agreed. We listened for a few more minutes but were very disappointed. Boult distils the atmosphere of the music but the recording was described as “unpleasant” by DD, who expressed astonishment that years ago he and LM had been bowled over by the piece in this very recording; they must have been able to listen through the recording more than we were able to do on this occasion. It was a great relief to turn to the Eloquence reissue. To get an A/B comparison we didn’t alter the system controls at all. It’s not clear from the booklet if any of these recordings have been remastered,
though subsequent to our Studio session, Eloquence have advised us that the
contents of all three of their volumes of Boult recordings have indeed been
remastered. It would seem that this particular Holst recording has been transferred at a slightly lower level than the previous incarnation to which we’d just listened. The result is a much more pleasant listening experience and LM described the Eloquence transfer as “smoother and cleaner”. The sound of the violins is a bit edgy, but one would expect that of a recording of this vintage and the edginess is not troubling. Enterprise’s transfer is a success.
The same box contains all the Vaughan Williams symphonies which Sir Adrian set down for Decca in the 1950s. By coincidence, Pristine Audio have been reissuing these same recordings this year, using their Ambient Stereo system. All the Pristine releases have been warmly greeted on MusicWeb, both as performances and transfers. We sampled two. First up was the mighty opening of A Sea Symphony. This work was recorded in Kingsway Hall in the last three days of December, 1953 and on New Year’s Day, 1954 – no bank holiday in those days! In the Eloquence transfer the brass fanfare is very arresting and the London Philharmonic Chorus proclaim ‘Behold! The Sea’ with terrific impact. As we listened, the choir was very prominent in the aural picture. That’s fine in itself, but the orchestral accompaniment was rather buried under the choir’s sound. Boult’s conception of the music is masterly and the performance of these opening pages certainly packs a punch. When we turned to the Pristine transfer, the trumpets were very bright indeed in the fanfare – almost aggressively so. As we listened on, it soon became apparent that the chorus was not so dominant; choir and orchestra seemed better integrated and more orchestral detail was apparent. DD commented that, by comparison with the Eloquence transfer, it was as if the listener had walked a bit away from the performers towards the back of the hall. We felt that the recorded sound was a little over-bright but overall, this was a better listening experience than the Eloquence.
We moved then to A London Symphony, recorded in the same venue in January, 1952. Not only was this the first recording in what was to become Boult’s first VW cycle, it was also a product of Sir Adrian’s very first recording sessions with the LPO. We listened to the opening of the fourth movement, which begins with an impassioned outcry on full orchestra. Again, we began with Eloquence. The power of Boult’s reading of this passage certainly comes through. We felt that the treble is emphasised rather too much and the recording is light in the bass. LM described the sound as “extremely wiry”, commenting that this used to be a characteristic, he recalled, of Decca’s ffrr recordings. When we turned to the Pristine, we all felt that the sound was fuller and the bass end of the orchestra was more satisfactorily reproduced. LM said that you could “almost forget it’s a mono recording”. DD commented that it was fascinating to hear these recordings from some 70 years ago through the Studio’s hypercritical equipment. JQ agreed, remarking that what modern transfers, such as those by Andrew Rose of Pristine, enable us to hear is how successful those Decca engineers were; it was the reproduction equipment of the day that couldn’t do full justice to their skills.
We thought it would be a good idea to sample a much more up to date Vaughan Williams recording. The latest release in the symphony cycle that Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have been making for Hyperion has recently arrived. It contains the Sixth and Eighth symphonies and we opted to hear the first movement of the Sixth. JQ, who has already reviewed the disc, felt that the sound has excellent impact. The amount of inner detail that the players and engineers convey mean that lots of VW’s teeming contrapuntal writing is apparent. There’s an excellent dynamic range and in the compound-time ‘galumphing’ episode the bass is firm but light on its feet. LM felt the recording was a bit recessed, a verdict that surprised the rest of us. He argued that the sound didn’t have quite enough impact; though it was nice and clear, the sonics didn’t knock him off his feet. DD said he’d award the sound four out of five; it was good but lacked the ‘wow’ factor that this music needs. He felt the recording had insufficient character, though the playing itself was excellent. Keen to sample another digital recording, we took at random from the shelves the version set down by Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia for RCA (RD 60556). This was made in Watford Town Hall in 1991. Listening to the same movement, we thought that the sound was warmer than the Hyperion but less analytical. LM and JQ preferred the Hyperion sound but DD declared a preference for the RCA.
André Previn was a noted exponent of the Vaughan Williams symphonies especially during his time with the LSO, when he recorded a complete cycle with them for RCA. Earlier in his career, Previn had been a leading musical light in Hollywood, amusingly retold in his book, No Minor Chords (review). This allowed JQ a fairly tortuous – and shameless - segue to our next disc, Hollywood Soundstage, on which John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London. We’re all fans of the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, so our choice of his Overture from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex was an easy one to make. This was recorded by Chandos in one of their favourite haunts, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn. Right from the start, the sound is up front, bold and vivid. The music alternates between splendid swagger and sumptuous romanticism, both of which Wilson and his orchestra put across very well indeed. The recording lets you hear a lot of detail but the engineers also convey the Big Picture – appropriately, since this is film music. LM made the interesting observation that the piece doesn’t sound entirely characteristic of Korngold but JQ pointed out that, although Korngold was a splendid orchestrator, this music was actually scored by other hands, which might account for it: as he suggested, it might be described as “filtered Korngold”. We noted that it seemed that the left-to right spread is better than the front-to-back perspective, which we felt was a little lacking. Though we admired the sound, we didn’t think it quite represented top-drawer Chandos.
We moved to the music of another Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler, sampling a live recording of his Eighth Symphony. This was a performance given in the Royal Festival Hall in 2017, conducted by the orchestra’s then-Principal Conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. We only listened to the opening and close of Part I, our audition limited because JQ wanted to test one particular feature on the Studio’s equipment. Our colleague, Ralph Moore, reviewed this disc a few months ago and said that he had been “surprised upon hearing the somewhat distant, faintly muddy sound of the grand, choral opening.” This occasioned a comment on out Message Board by Dave Kent, who had taken part in this very performance as a member of the London Philharmonic Choir. He offered a possible explanation which was linked to the rather curious decision to precede the Mahler with a performance of Tallis’s Spem in alium. The Mahler was taken attacca at the end of the Tallis. As Mr Kent recalled it, “In order to achieve a degree of surround sound for the Tallis, a large number of singers were strung out along the side terraces [of the Festival Hall], some as far back as the walkway between front and rear stalls. The improvement [in choral sound] probably coincides with those singers taking their normal seats for the Mahler later in the movement”. The programming – and the attacca segue from one work to another seems to us to be extraordinary (to put it charitably). Neither LM nor DD had heard this recording before and JQ took good care to say nothing about what had happened in the Festival Hall until they’d expressed their views. We noted the big, throaty sound of the RFH organ right at the start. None of us detected any significant lack of impact in the choral sound. JQ suggested this wasn’t the most subtle of recordings of the symphony that he’d ever heard but that can probably be attributed to the substantial forces within the RFH acoustic, which sometimes isn’t the most sympathetic of venues; LM felt that the recording coped very well with Mahler’s requirement and DD noted an “enormous spread” in the sound. We moved immediately from the opening couple of minutes to hear the last six minutes or so of the movement, commencing with the reprise of ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’. We discerned no significant difference in the sound of the performance. JQ then explained the issue he’d been trying to investigate. LM said he detected “nothing out of the way” in terms of the opening choral sound and that, overall, he thought the recording was “absolutely fine”. DD concurred. Much may depend on the equipment used, of course and we are not disputing RM’s reporting of what he heard but, in a “blind hearing”, we did not experience the same issue.
We turned from London to Prague for another Mahler recording: the new account of the Fifth symphony, which is the second instalment of Semyon Bychkov’s cycle with the Czech Philharmonic. This recording was made in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague in December 2021. We listened to the first movement. DD had complained that one or two of the previous recordings we’d listened to lacked sonic character, but we’d only listened for a short while before he declared that this recording was full of character. We approved strongly of both the left-to-right spread and also the front-to-back perspective. The orchestral sound has weight and depth. LM described the recording as “totally believable”. JQ commented that the pacing was very satisfactory – on which we all agreed; this was a proper funeral march with a steady tread but the music still had plenty of life. In the swifter episode, Bychkov and his players invest the music with great urgency. At the end of the movement LM spoke for us all in saying he couldn’t fault the sound, which was ideally balanced for domestic listening. We were unanimous that this is a terrific performance presented in terrific sound.
Our next selection was another Fifth symphony, this time by Jean Sibelius. It comes from a complete cycle released by Decca earlier this year in which the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Klaus Mäkelä. The cycle has garnered significant praise, both on MusicWeb and elsewhere. We listened to the first movement of the Fifth. Right from the start it was evident that the sound is excellent; it was described as “beautifully clear”. All sections of the orchestra were clearly distinguished in the recording but had come together as an homogeneous whole. That last point is important because the recording, made in Oslo’s Konserthus in February 2021 was made under the strictures of Covid social distancing requirement; no listener would ever know We admired the performance very much – the playing is fantastic – and we were equally enthusiastic about the sound which JQ described as “vintage Decca”. The sound is very detailed and also has satisfying body. The engineers have obtained a wide dynamic range which does justice to Mäkelä’s evident attention to detail. LM also commented that of all the recordings we’d sampled so far, this one had the sweetest string sound. JQ has listened to the whole set for his recent review and commented that what we’d heard is fully representative of the entire cycle. This is a winner from Decca.
Another recording from Scandinavia was next on our list and, by coincidence, this too was made under Covid restrictions. Sakari Oramo stepped down from his post as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at the end of the 2020/21 season His last recording in that capacity was an all-Ravel album for BIS, recorded in two sets of sessions in the Konserthuset, Stockholm. We selected Alborada del gracioso which was a product of the first sessions, in February, 2020. We loved this. The BIS engineers have conveyed even more of the sense of the hall’s acoustic that their Decca colleagues managed (very successfully) for the Sibelius disc. There’s a big dynamic range and the sound is in the finest traditions of the BIS house, as is the definition and detail. We greatly admired the incisive rhythms in the fast outer sections and also the way Oramo and his players bring out all the vibrant colours of Ravel’s scoring. JQ also relished the very natural sense of space around the excellent solo bassoon in the central episode. We were all very enthusiastic about both the performance and the sound which we heard
The recent recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande by Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth had also been impacted by Covid restrictions. JQ, who has reviewed the set, understands that the original plan had been to record the opera live during performances at the Opéra de Lille. However, no audience could be allowed so, instead, the orchestra was placed in the theatre’s stalls space while the singers acted out the opera on stage. We listened to Act 1, Scene 1. JQ liked the characterful sound of the period instruments – for example, the grainy lower strings. LM said that the voice of Alexandre Duhamel (Golaud) had real presence and so, in due course, does Vannina Santoni (Mélisande). However, there’s a wide left-right separation between the two characters at this point – which is perfectly appropriate – and LM found it hard to pinpoint exactly where Duhamel’s voice is placed; he described the voice, as recorded, as somewhat amorphous. However, we all agreed that the engineers have achieved a good balance between the voices and the orchestra. Furthermore, as JQ pointed out, the fact that the orchestra was not placed in the pit meant that more detail registered than might otherwise have been the case. In the last analysis, based on this admittedly short extract, LM and DD were unpersuaded either by the opera itself or by the use of period instruments.
That was all we had time for on this occasion – one or two discs had to go back into their jewel cases, unheard. We will try to fit them in next time, unless they are crowded out by yet more new releases. This session had reminded us yet again that the recording industry keeps delighting us with a host of excellent new issues and, in addition, highly skilled audio restoration engineers are breathing new life into recordings from the past.
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.
Previous Listening Room Reports
Published: November 11, 2022