From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: Another Audio Report
by John Quinn
Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps Orchestre de Paris / Mäkelä (details here)
Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps LSO / Rattle (details here)
Nielsen – ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ Danish National SO / Luisi (details here)
Shostakovich – Symphony No 13. Boston SO / Nelsons (DG 486 4965)
Bacewicz – Symphony No 3 BBCSO / Oramo. (Chandos CHSA 5316)
Gipps – Chanticleer BBC Philharmonic / Gamba (details here)
Vaughan Williams – Job: A Masque for Dancing. Royal Liverpool PO / Manze (details here)
Wagner – Der Ring des Niebelungen – excerpts. Soloists / Vienna Philharmonic / Solti (details here)
Bach – Goldberg Variations – Víkingur Ólafsson (piano) (DG 486 4553)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4. Ohlsson /Grand Teton MFO / Runnicles (details here)
Szymanowski – Mythen op. 30 (1915) Linda Guo (violin), Yuhao Guo (piano) (ARS Produktion ARS38646)
Schubert – Nacht und Träume; Die junge Nonne. Sampson / Middleton (details here)
The day after the clocks were put back by one hour in the UK, as the precursor to the arrival of Winter, David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn assembled in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio to audition another batch of recent releases.
We began with some unfinished business from our previous session. Then, we had hoped to listen to two recent versions of The Rite of Spring but we ran out of time. Kalus Mäkelä is one of the musical world’s hottest properties. He’s already recorded a Sibelius symphony cycle in Oslo, which we sampled at a previous Studio session. Now Decca have released his first recording with the Orchestre de Paris, of which he is principal conductor. This is a Stravinsky disc, pairing The Firebird, in its complete version, and The Rite of Spring. We decided to listen to the conclusion of Part I of The Rite, beginning at ‘Jeu du rapt’. We found a good deal to admire. The recording, made in the Philharmonie de Paris in October 2022, reveals a lot of detail, although LM was rather disappointed that the huge tam-tam crashes in ‘Rondes printanières’ didn’t register more potently. On the other hand, he felt that the performance itself really showed the score as a ballet. The concluding ‘Danse de la terre’ is most impressive; DD described it as “ferocious”, though he did wonder if dancers could match the savagery of the music as delivered here. LM has heard the performance before and recalled thinking that the performance was somewhat soft; he had now revised that view.
We thought it would be interesting to make a comparison with another recording, made in a very different acoustic. In September 2017, the LSO mounted a short festival under the title ‘This is Rattle’ to inaugurate Sir Simon Rattle’s tenure as their Music Director. One of the concerts consisted of the three great Diaghilev ballets, all played on the same evening! These three performances have recently been issued as a two-disc set by LSO Live. We listened to the self-same passage from The Rite. The acoustics of the Barbican Hall can be problematic but they seem to suit this sort of music. The recording is more closely balanced than the Decca, but we liked that; the LSO Live sound has impact and edge. LM was pleased to note that the tam-tam crashes really made their mark this time – and we didn’t think that was solely due to the recorded sound. Rattle has performed this score countless times over some 40 years, and it shows. DD said that the Decca sound made him listen more intently, which he liked, but he still admired the LSO Live sound. LM preferred the sound to the Decca. For JQ, Rattle’s performance is superb: the ‘Cortège du sage’ is brazen in its power while the ‘Danse de la terre’ is thrilling, not least due to the incisive power of the LSO brass. Summarising, all three of us came down in favour of the LSO Live release, both as a performance and in terms of the recorded sound – though DD admitted that he had only swung from preferring the Mäkelä at the last moment; “in extra time”, as he put it.
Next, we sampled one of the Nielsen symphonies which have been recorded for DG as a complete set by the Danish National SO and Fabio Luisi. We listened to the finale of ‘Sinfonia espansiva’. The broad, big tune at the start is played with great warmth and we admired the recorded sound. JQ, who has listened to the full cycle for a review, liked the realistic way in which the engineers have reported both the orchestra as a whole and also the various sections of it. Whilst not disagreeing, LM felt that occasionally there was a hint of spotlighting; there are times when, for example, the bassoons seem to register more prominently than elsewhere. He felt that the best analogy he could draw was with viewing a tapestry; there were times in this DG recording when he felt that by getting too close to the tapestry – or, in this case, the sound of the orchestra – the individual stitching was visible. DD is not a great fan of Nielsen’s music but on this occasion, he enjoyed both music and performance.
After quite a hiatus, Andris Nelsons has completed his cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies for DG. The final release, which only arrived a few days ago, includes the Second, Third, Twelfth and Thirteenth symphonies, all in live performances from Symphony Hall, Boston. We were unanimous that the obvious listening choice would be the towering first movement of ‘Babi Yar’, recorded as recently as May 2023. JQ will be reviewing the set shortly when there will be the opportunity for some comparative listening. However, based entirely on memory, he wondered if Nelsons’ American choir had quite the weight of dark tone that the music needs. Bass-baritone Matthias Goerne may not have the cavernous voice of some of the Russian basses who have recorded this work but he still sings marvellously and with a Lieder singer’s care for line and words. We were all very impressed with the recording itself. LM declared it the best we’d heard so far in our session. In particular, we liked the realism and clarity with which both soloists and choir have been balanced relative to the orchestra.
Next, we turned to a very recent Chandos release in which Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). The disc includes her Third and Fourth symphonies, both of which date from the 1950s. To the best of our recollection, this music is new to all three of us. We decided to listen to the first movement of the Third Symphony (1952). The recording, made in the Fairfields Hall, Croydon in February 2023, impresses immediately as an example of Chandos’ trademark big, immediate sound. LM voiced a reservation: to him the loud, full-orchestra opening sounds somewhat “congested”; as the movement unfolded, though, he felt the sound was much more natural when the music became somewhat quieter. As an experiment, we listened again to the opening after we’d heard the whole movement and our ears had become more accustomed both to the recording and to the composer’s orchestration. LM maintained his view but JQ wondered if this is more a question of Bacewicz’s scoring rather than the engineering; it sounds to him as if there is quite a lot of orchestral doubling in the opening pages. LM agreed that there might be something in this. We thought the music was very interesting; clearly, Bacewicz was a composer with an individual voice. LM said that, on the evidence of what he’s heard, hers is music of which we should hear more. Overall, we were impressed by the recording, though we noted that the timpani were not as clearly heard as on the previous Shostakovich disc (JQ suggested this could simply be a question of the Boston player using harder sticks).
We stayed with Chandos for music by another female composer: Ruth Gipps (1921-1990). This is the second volume of her orchestral music, played by the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba. We listened to the opening item: the overture Chanticleer (1944). We liked this music very much: it’s most attractive, melodic and descriptive. Furthermore, it seems to be very well imagined for the orchestra; as JQ pointed out, Gipps, a professional oboist and cor anglais player with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, had significant direct knowledge of how an orchestra works. We thought that the recording, made in MediaCityUK in January 2022 and engineered by Tom Parnell, is very successful. The sound is open and Parnell has achieved excellent perspectives, both left-to-right and front-to-back. DD liked the sound, which he thought offered good space between the instruments. LM agreed, though he thought the “wake-up” call right at the start was perhaps a bit overdone – though probably Chandos have recorded accurately what Gipps wrote. Overall, we felt that the sound was somewhat clearer than in the Bacewicz recording. Chanticleer was written as the overture to an opera which Gipps never completed but we felt that it works well as a standalone short tone poem.
Ruth Gipps studied at the Royal College of Music, where her teachers included Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was, therefore, a logical step for us to move from her music to that of VW. As a substantial postscript to his Onyx cycle of VW symphonies with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Manze has recorded Job: A Masque for Dancing. There were some supply issues which meant that JQ received his review copy of the CD only a couple of days prior to our Studio session; there was insufficient time, therefore, to listen to it in advance. Since our main remit is to consider the audio aspect of releases, we decided that the best test would be the highly contrasting consecutive sections, ‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’ followed by ‘Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’. The recording was made at live performances in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall in June 2022. In the ‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’, the insinuating, oily saxophone is heard realistically within the orchestral palette, as is the solo cello in their subsequent duet. The great outburst at ‘Job’s Curse’ registers strongly but the most potent sound comes at the terrifying moment when VW depicts a Vision of Satan. Here, the organ in the Philharmonic Hall makes its presence felt. The calm, pastoral music of ‘Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’ provides much-needed contrast and solace. This radiant music is both beautifully played and atmospherically recorded. The solo violin of Thelma Handy applies balm to the soul. We all liked the sound very much; LM described it as a “wide-ranging recording”. Engineer Chris Tann has done a fine job and it’s surely no accident that this excellent recording has been produced by someone with at least two other VW symphony cycles to his credit, Andrew Keener. If memory serves us correctly, one of those cycles was recorded in this very hall with the late Tod Handley on the rostrum.
In our last session we greatly admired Decca’s sumptuous remastering of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from the famous cycle recorded in Vienna by Sir Georg Solti. Decca has also released a sampler SACD, entitled ‘The Golden Ring: Great Scenes from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen’. This includes extracts from all four music dramas. DD has invested in a copy and brought it along for us to hear more. We listened to a couple of extracts. We were seriously impressed by the way the 1958 recording of Das Rheingold has come up in the remastering. However, our greatest admiration was reserved for ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ from the 1963 recording of Die Walküre. In this latest incarnation, the sixty-year-old sound is simply astonishing. Hans Hotter is magisterial and his voice has a thrilling immediacy, allowing the listener to appreciate the nobility and sorrow of his singing. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic can only be described as magnificent; amid the torrents of orchestral sound, the horn section is truly commanding. Based on all that we’ve heard to date, this remastering of The Ring offers a thrilling experience.
After so much high-octane music we felt the need to lower the temperature somewhat. Bach is an infrequent visitor to the Listening Studio but we were intrigued by the new recording, made for DG, of the Goldberg Variations by Víkingur Ólafsson. He set down the Goldbergs in April 2023 in the Harpa Concert House in Reykjavik. We listened to the opening Aria and the first two Variations. The Aria is played with poise and poetry. Thereafter, the first Variation is very fleet and nimble; we admired the precision of Ólafsson’s pianism. His rendition of the second Variation makes the music trip lightly. We would have liked to listen on but the clock was starting to work against us. Our firm impression is that the recording has been beautifully engineered; the sound of the piano is reported in a very natural way and we were pleased to note that, at least in the all-too brief extract we heard, there is no extraneous noise such as evidence of piano action.
We stayed with the piano but on a somewhat larger scale. Garrick Ohlsson has recorded all five Beethoven piano concertos in live performances with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra and Sir Donald Runnicles. The recordings were made at concerts in the Walk Festival Hall, Teton Village, Wyoming in June 2022. We selected the short slow movement of the Fourth concerto. In the opening pages we liked the weight and depth of the string tone – LM approved of the firm bass sound – and the piano is nicely recorded. As the strings gradually dimmish in volume we thought this was very well captured by the recording in the nicely resonant acoustic. The balance between soloist and orchestra is well done. DD described the sound as “lovely”. We allowed the music to run on into the start of the finale. Here, once the full orchestra was playing loudly, LM felt that the bass seemed muddy. We listened a couple of times and JQ felt the same. We then lowered the volume a little and achieved much more satisfactory results. It would seem that, depending on the equipment being used, the playback level could be important. Overall, though, we felt this Reference Recordings SACD was very satisfactory.
We reverted to small-scale music-making to sample a new disc from ARS Production which features the duo of Linda Guo (violin) and Yuhao Guo (piano). Their programme includes Clara Schumann’s Drei Romanzen and the Violin Sonata, Op 18 by Richard Strauss. However, we opted to listen to part of the third item on the disc, Szymanowski’s Mythen, Op. 30 (1915). We chose the first of these pieces, ‘La fontaine d’Arethuse’. The recording was made in March 2022 in Schloss Barbeck. The performance is passionate; LM declared that is one that he would happily put in his own collection. JQ felt that the sound was somewhat piano-heavy, although the violin can be clearly heard. Of course, this may accurately represent Szymanowski’s writing.
We began our listening with unfinished business from our August session and we finished it in the same way. In these Studio sessions our focus tends to be on recordings of large-scale works which really show off the skills of the recording engineers. As such, solo song performances don’t often feature, though recording small scale performances in intimate surroundings is an important facet of sound engineering. JQ suggested a small digestif in the form of a Schubert song. He’s recently reviewed an outstanding recital by Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton entitled ‘Elysium’. From it he selected Nacht und Träume. We are very familiar with the marvellous results that BIS obtain when recording large forces. This Schubert song showed that their prowess extends equally to small-scale projects. We all agreed that this was a lovely recording of both the voice and the piano. DD admired the pure voice of Carolyn Sampson, which registers very clearly with the listener. Yet the pianism of Joseph Middleton and his exquisite touch in this subdued music elicited just as much praise. That had been intended as the conclusion to our listening but LM wondered if the balance between the two performers would be as satisfactory in a song where the piano has a more assertive role. So, we listened to Die junge Nonne which is more dramatic, at least initially. Here again, the engineers had managed the balance most skilfully. We all agreed there was no question of the piano drowning the voice; everything as in ideal balance.
The afternoon light was beginning to fade, so we drew our session to a close, admiring once again the skill of recording engineers and producers who have successfully captured so much fine music making for domestic listening.
Meridian 808i Digital preamp + Series 5 CD player
Bowers and Wilkins Nautilus 802D speakers
Tellurium Black Diamond speaker cables
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.
Chord Co. ‘PowerAray Professional’