From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
by John Quinn
Wagner Götterdämmerung Vienna Philharmonic / Solti (Decca 485 316-2)
Puccini – Turandot. Radvanovsky / Kaufmann / Pappano (details here)
Puccini – Turandot. Sutherland / Pavarotti / Mehta. (Decca 414 274-2)
Elgar – Great is the Lord Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge / Layton (details here)
Vaughan Williams – 49th Parallel (complete) BBC Concert Orch / Yates (details here)
Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini BBC Scottish SO / Chauhan (details here)
Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Wang / LAPO / Dudamel (DG 486 4759)
Rachmaninoff – Symphony No 2. Philadelphia Orchestra / Nézet-Séguin (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 9. Minnesota Orchestra / Vänskä (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 9. Bavarian RSO / Rattle (details here)
It came as something of a shock to realise that the last time that David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn had managed to align their diaries for a Studio session was November 2022. High time, then, to catch up with some of the pick of the releases since then.
We don’t often listen to opera in the Studio but LM had brought along something which he felt might be rather special. At our very first studio session, way back in December 2013, we sampled some extracts from Decca’s famous recording of ‘The Ring’ which had recently been reissued in BD-A format. At that time the BD-A was only available as part of a luxurious set which also included the complete cycle on CDs. Greatly impressed by the BD-A sound, we expressed the hope that in due course Decca would either release the BD-A individually or else issue each of the four music dramas separately in both CD and BD-A form. Well, Decca haven’t quite done that but what they have done is to issue each music drama individually as Hybrid SACDs (there’s also a vinyl LP issue, we understand). Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewed the sampler SACD a little while ago and he specifically referenced Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung, which he described as “simply overwhelming”. LM has recently acquired Götterdämmerung in its remastered SACD format (on four discs) and brought it along, to give us the opportunity to compare the original CDs and the SACD. Given PCG’s reaction, Siegfried’s Funeral Music seemed to be the ideal extract for us to hear.
It’s worth summarising briefly the background to this new release. We are told in the booklet that Decca “have utilised a completely new set of high-definition 24 bit/192 kHz transfers of the original two-track stereo master tapes”. There’s further enlightenment as to the nature of the task: “Working with 38 reels of original master tapes – some up to 65 years old and spanning seven years of recording – there were inevitably instances where some individual tapes needed edit repairs or suffered oxide shedding. Tapes in poor condition were baked for ten hours at 55˚C to restore their integrity”.
We listened first to the Funeral Music on CD; this is from the transfer of the cycle made by Decca in 1984.The sound is very immediate – JQ thought it seemed a little harsh, with the bass end a bit light. The sound of the brass, the trumpets in particular, is bright. There’s no denying the impact, but we were keen to hear if the SACD represented an enhancement, justifying Decca’s claims. To say that the SACD sound is revelatory risks understatement. The sound of the mighty VPO seemed to leap out of the speakers. It was immediately apparent that the orchestra seems much richer in tone; the bass instruments now have satisfying depth. LM commented that the sound is much rounder – a view we endorsed unanimously. The brass instruments are still bright-toned but they now seem much more integrated. Galvanised by Solti, the VPO’s sound is simply huge, though not in any way forced. LM described the sound as “transformed; there is much more body to all the instruments”. DD found the sound quality “astonishing” and commented that the recording now “sucked you in”. JQ felt that it’s not an exaggeration to say that the sound gives the illusion that the listener is in the Sofiensaal with Solti and the VPO. Decca have clearly made a major sonic advance here; the recording, always highly praised, is now spectacular. Unfortunately, it was not possible on this occasion for us to compare the SACD with the Blu-ray, issued in 2012 and utilising a transfer made in 1997. However, JQ hopes to do a three-way comparison review in the near future.
We stayed with opera for our next selection. We were keen to sample Warner Classics’ recent release of Turandot. This was recorded in March 2022 in the Parco della Musica in Rome. The performance, which is conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, features Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Jonas Kaufmann as her suitor, Calaf. We decided to listen to the famous Riddle Scene which concludes Act II, scene 2 (starting at ‘Straniero ascolta!’). Radvanovsky is a strong presence, as is Kaufmann, though there’s no denying the baritonal aspect of his voice at times. He seems a bit effortful in his production of some of the loud, high notes. Pappano conducts marvellously and the fact that so much orchestral detail emerges is surely his doing as much as that of the engineers; judging by the extract we heard, he also conducts with a great sense of drama. The orchestra comes across very well at all dynamic levels, though LM thought the chorus seemed a bit backwardly balanced. (He made this comment before JQ let him see the booklet photo which shows that the chorus members were socially distanced from each other and positioned in the balcony above and behind the orchestra.) The choral/orchestral outburst (‘Turandot! Gloria, o vincitore!’) is truly thrilling, and the conclusion of the scene (‘Ai tuoi piedi ci prostriam’) is nothing less than magnificent. DD liked the acoustic in which the recording was made, though he felt the listener was perhaps a little too distanced from the ‘action’. For LM, the backward sound of the choir meant that their contributions lacked a degree of clarity.
JQ was keen for us to make a comparison with the celebrated Decca set conducted by Zubin Mehta. This recording was made as long ago as August 1972 in London’s Kingsway Hall; the stellar cast was led by Dame Joan Sutherland as the princess and Luciano Pavarotti as Calaf. We listened to the same section of the opera. From her first entry, Sutherland sounds icily imperious; her voice – and words – seem clearer than was the case with Radvanovsky. But it’s Pavarotti who makes the deepest impression. His voice has laser clarity and a terrific ring. He was not quite 37 at the time of this recording (Kaufmann was 52 when he recorded the role) and the Italian tenor sounds absolutely in his prime. His singing is ardent and the microphones capture his voice marvellously. (They also ensure that Sutherland rides the biggest ensembles thrillingly.) We found the conclusion of the scene absolutely immense. The thirty-six year-old Mehta conducts like a man possessed – this Turandot must surely be one of his greatest achievements on disc – and the John Alldis Choir and London Philharmonic Orchestra respond with palpable commitment. The sound is a little bright – though by no means excessively so – but in all respects the recording is superb. It is astonishing to think that this magnificent account of the opera was set down exactly 51 years ago: it’s a great testament to the work of producers Ray Minshull and Michael Woolcock, working with engineers Kenneth Wilkinson and James Lock. We note with some concern that this classic recording is now only available as a digital download (JQ was fortunate to acquire a second-hand copy of the CDs). It ought to be available to collectors in more than the digital medium. DD felt there was “no comparison” between the two sets we’d heard; the Mehta recording is a clear winner. This is a recording which cries out for Decca to remaster and issue on either SACD or Blu-ray.
Next, JQ suggested we sample a disc of choral music. This is one of the last albums recorded by the Choir of Trinity College under the direction of Stephen Layton, who left his post as Director of Music at the College in June 2023 after 17 very successful years. This particular album, entitled ‘Anthems, Volume 1’, was recorded in Ely Cathedral in January 2022. We listened to the first track, Elgar’s Great is the Lord. Written between 1910 and 1912, this large-scale anthem comes from the period when the composer was at the height of his powers. The music is full of contrasts, all of which are observed in this performance, but the pre-eminent impression is one of grandeur. The organ, superbly played by Harrison Cole, makes an immediate impact as the piece opens. Despite the often-big organ sound, though, the choir is always clearly heard. The engineering conveys a very believable sense of the acoustic, as LM remarked at the passage ‘For lo! the kings’. Near the end, at ‘For this God is our God’ the opulence of Elgar’s writing is thrillingly realised by the fervent choir and the majestically ‘present’ organ. As JQ remarked when the piece ended, ‘they don’t write ‘em like that anymore’. LM wondered if the bass soloist should have been a bit more forwardly recorded but JQ pointed out that in this piece the soloist sings from his place in the choir. This was the only question mark; we were all agreed that engineer David Hinitt has captured this exciting performance in superb, realistic sound.
We stayed with English music to hear one of the scores which Vaughan Wiliams composed for the cinema. In fact, the 1941 movie, 49th Parallel was the composer’s first venture into film music. Excerpts from the score have appeared on disc before but a recent Dutton Epoch SACD is the first to feature the complete score which, in a new performing edition by conductor Martin Yates, runs to 81 minutes. The recording, on which Yates conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra, was made in September 2022 in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn. We listened to the ‘Main titles’ section and to the first few minutes of the lengthy ‘Prologue panorama’. The first of those two extracts features a big, noble tune, which LM thought Yates conducts really well, building the music expertly. We were slightly less convinced by the ‘panorama’. In the film this accompanies an extended sequence of shots of majestic Canadian landscapes. While the music per se is very good – VW’s stylistic fingerprints are all over it – we felt it loses something when shorn of the visual dimension. However, the SACD recording, engineered by Dexter Newman, is very successful (we listened to the stereo layer, as we did with all SACDs today). The recording conveys a very good impression of the full orchestral sound and also allows a great deal of inner detail to come through very naturally.
St Augustine’s, Kilburn is also a favoured recording location for the Chandos label but, in fact, the Chandos recording to which we next turned was made in another venue they’ve used often in the past: City Halls, Glasgow. To begin a sequence of Russian music, we auditioned a recent SACD from another of the BBC orchestras. The conductor Alpesh Chauhan and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have made their first disc together. Set down in July 2022, it’s devoted to music by Tchaikovsky. From it we selected Francesca da Rimini. Right from the start the recording is arresting, as is the playing. The sound has presence, impact and definition. We noted, for example, the way the tam-tam is reported at different dynamic levels (including an almighty crash at tr 10, 2:19). We all felt that the left-to-right and front-to back perspectives were excellent – the best we’d heard so far today. When the central Andante cantabile non troppo begins we noted the lovely, natural sound of the solo clarinet as well as the satisfying way that instrument is balanced against its accompaniment. A little later in the same section, the engineering emphasises the persuasive way in which the BBCSSO violins sing the melody. In the concluding minutes of the piece we savoured the way the bass drum – and, indeed, all the percussion – is reported. The ending, as the lovers are swept to their doom, is thrilling, both as a performance and as a recording. LM commented that Alpesh Chauhan really ‘gets’ the piece, both the exciting outer sections and the romanticism of the central episode. We enjoyed this performance very much and we were unanimous that engineer Ralph Couzens has done a terrific job.
As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninoff we couldn’t resist including some of his orchestral music. The set to which we first turned featured a set of live performances of all four of his piano concertos together with the Paganini Rhapsody. These were recorded in concert by Yuja Wang as recently as February 2023 in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. She was partnered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel. JQ has been listening to the complete set for a review which will be published shortly. He was keen to test something which had been intriguing him. We began, therefore, with the opening of the Second concerto. At the very start of the work, Yuja Wang’s piano is presented very forwardly, the sound of the instrument big, bold and deep. When the orchestra enters, the piano remains very much in the foreground and whilst the strings’ big melody can be heard satisfactorily, during this concerto the orchestra feels somewhat subordinate. JQ had not noticed this balance issue in the other works in the set, so we sampled the start of the Third concerto and also an extended excerpt from the Paganini Rhapsody. In both cases we felt the balance between solo instrument and orchestra was much more satisfactory, especially in the Rhapsody where the orchestral contributions are crucial. It was the Rhapsody which we played immediately after the Second concerto and DD immediately noted, with approval, a better balance: Wang is still forwardly placed, but not excessively so. LM concurred. We are genuinely puzzled by the apparent difference in the balance for the Second concerto since all the recordings were made over a short space of time in the same venue and, presumably, with similar microphone placings. That one reservation apart, we enjoyed what we heard.
JQ has recently reviewed a set, also recorded by DG (using a different engineering team) in the USA. On this, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Second and Third symphonies, as well as The Isle of the Dead. We listened to the opening of the first movement of the Second, which was set down in March 2018 in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia. Neither LM nor DD had heard this performance before and they both noticed immediately the way the very first note is ‘clipped’. Apparently, it’s an interpretative decision. It’s a small point but a distraction. Once past that, however, the performance is a very fine one, though LM wondered if the pace was a little two slow: DD was inclined to agree, though JQ, who has the advantage of greater familiarity with the performance, was much more content with the speeds and felt that Nézet-Séguin lingers to just the right degree. JQ noted that in the opening Largo the spaciousness of the performance is matched by the spacious sound; the left-right perspective is excellent. There’s a very pleasing bloom on the orchestral sound and the bass end of the orchestra is rock-solid, though not too heavy. At the start of the Allegro moderato section the Philadelphia strings play wonderfully and JQ also noted approvingly the nice presence afforded to the bassoon in the background. We noted a satisfying amount of detail and also the degree of warmth in the sound. DD, however, heard the recording differently and was less convinced. He thought the recording was “colourless” compared to those we’d heard earlier in our session. LM, who did not agree, wondered if DD’s perception stems from the difference between the studio recordings on which all three of us had cut our teeth back in the 1970s and 1980s, compared to today’s greater tendency to record live performances in a ‘whole hall’ acoustic. LM felt that, overall, the Philadelphia recording was more pleasing than the sound that DG had achieved in Los Angeles; DD, however, preferred the sound on the Yuja Wang set. (On the evening after our Studio session, and by sheer coincidence, this Nézet-Séguin set was announced as one of MusicWeb’s Recordings of the Month for August.)
We left the musical Russian Steppes to listen to some Mahler but, initially, we stayed on the American side of ‘The Pond’. Osmo Vänskä’s BIS cycle of the symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra is nearing the finishing line: only numbers Three and Eight remain to be issued. The most recent release is the Ninth, which Vänskä set down in concerts given in March 2022 at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. From it, with our time running out, we listened to the opening minutes of the concluding Adagio. DD immediately liked the sound much more than the previous disc we’d heard. JQ noted very full-bodied strings; the bass end of the spectrum sounds rich. The playing of the Minnesota Orchestra is very fine and one aspect of the performance (and recording) that struck us forcibly was the great clarity afforded to every line in the orchestral textures. As is their wont, BIS offer a very wide and realistic dynamic range. One example of that excellence is the way the violins steal in, almost imperceptibly but audibly, underneath the contrabassoon and double basses at around 4:30. We ended up with a variety of views on the recorded sound. LM felt the analytical nature of the recording made the strings sound a bit thin. DD said that while he preferred the recording to DG’s sound from Philadelphia, he “didn’t like the BIS recording that much”. JQ was more admiring, appreciating the clarity and presence of the BIS sound.
Osmo Vänskä’s long tenure as Music Director in Minneapolis (2003-22) has just concluded. Sir Simon Rattle’s term as Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is about to start and, in anticipation, BR Klassik have released a recording by Rattle and the BRSO of Mahler’s Ninth. This comes from concerts given in November 2021 at Isarphilharmonie im Gasteig, Munich. We listened to the same passage from the symphony. Comparisons between the two performances and recordings were interesting. Rattle’s performance is more intense than Vänskä’s. As usual with Rattle, he brings out dynamic contrasts and varies the pace to a greater extent than his Finnish colleague does; some will prefer that aspect of Vänskä’s approach (LM felt that some dynamics were exaggerated by Rattle). But it seems to us that Rattle digs deeper into the music. JQ has heard all of the Vänskä cycle to date and has noted a more objective approach to the music as compared with some other conductors, such as Rattle. However, we wonder also if Rattle has lived with the score for rather longer; all three of us have memories of attending various Rattle performances of the symphony during his long period (1980-1998) with the CBSO. DD felt that, of the two, Rattle offered the more involved performance. He felt that, by comparison, Vänskä seemed more cerebral whereas Rattle seemed the more engaged; as he listened, he wanted to carry on hearing more of what Rattle had to say about the music. LM and JQ felt similarly. As to the recording, it seemed that the orchestral textures were denser on the BR Klassik disc; this is not an implicit criticism of Rattle and the BRSO but rather, we feel, indicates a different recording philosophy. The BR Klassik sound is not as detailed by comparison with the BIS engineering. On the other hand, the BIS recording has the listener a bit closer to ‘the action’ than is the case with BR Klassik; some may prefer the German engineering for that reason. Individual lines are clear in the Bavarian performance but are clearer still on BIS. In the end, JQ expressed the view that his ideal would be to hear Rattle and the BRSO but recorded by BIS.
After the emotional intensity of Mahler’s Ninth one does not really want to hear more music; so, it was probably a good thing that our allotted time had expired. We had heard extracts from most of the discs we had wanted to experience but one or two could not be squeezed in; those will have to wait for our next gathering which, we are resolved, will take place before too long.
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.