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

Discs auditioned
Britten – War Requiem LSO / Britten (Decca (48537652)
Wagner – Das Rheingold Vienna Philharmonic / Solti (Decca 48531592)
Wagner – Die Walküre Vienna Philharmonic / Solti (Decca 48531602)
Praetorius – Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning – Gabrieli /McCreesh (details here)

Normally, there’s quite an interval between sessions in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn had got together as recently as late October for the previous session but an extra gathering was hastily scheduled at the beginning of December. The reason was the recent arrival of some more classic Decca recordings, newly re-mastered onto SACDs.

Our very first Listening Studio session took place almost 10 years ago to the day, in December 2013, when we listened to a 2013 remastering of Benjamin Britten’s own recording of his War Requiem. Now, to mark the 60th anniversary of this famous recording, Decca have remastered it again and issued it on a pair of SACDs. As was the case in 2013, the set has two discs, one devoted to the War Requiem itself while the other has nearly 50 minutes of recordings captured during rehearsals. It’s worth consulting Dan Morgan’s review of the 2013 set in which he compared the CD and BD-A versions, very much to the advantage of the latter. For the latest remastering, Decca engineers have gone back to the original stereo master tapes – on four reels – and have made a high definition 24-bit 192 kHz transfer. As Dominic Fyfe points out in the booklet, the 2013 transfer was made at the lower sampling frequency of 96 kHz.

We sampled the new transfer extensively. First, we listed to the opening movement, ‘Requiem æternam’. Immediately, JQ was struck by the excellent definition of the choir’s muttered initial phrases. When the boys’ choir first sings, they are very positively heard in the left-hand channel and the distancing on their voices is superbly conveyed (they sang from the Kingsway Hall balcony). There’s a fine sense of space around the boys’ voices. At this point, LM commented on how well the shifts in perspective between the various elements of the forces are conveyed in the recording. Peter Pears’ voice is vividly heard as he sings ‘What passing bells?’ At this point, we broke off and listened to the same section of the work on the 2013 BD-A disc, which JQ had brought along. The BD-A sound is good but, comparing it with the new SACD, we felt it wasn’t nearly as impressive. The chorus are well defined in the 2013 transfer but not quite as ‘present’ as is the case in the 2023 transfer. We had a similar reaction to the sound of the boys’ choir. In his solo, Pears comes across well, as does the chamber orchestra, but LM felt that the sound was a little muddy in 2013 as compared to 2023. DD expressed the view that the sound was more open in the 2023 transfer; we unanimously agreed.

We reverted to the SACD and listened to the opening few minutes of the ‘Dies irae’. The horns and, even more so, the trumpets seem to leap out of the speakers – though not in an aggressive way – leading LM to comment that the impression is “as if you were actually there in the hall”. After the tumult of the ‘Tuba mirum’, the doleful intensity of the baritone solo ‘Bugles sang’ registers with great immediacy. One can hear very clearly the sadness in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s voice while every strand of the chamber orchestra’s accompaniment makes its mark. Galina Vishnevskaya is thrillingly imperious at ‘Liber scriptus’. When we moved on to the Sanctus, Vishnevskaya is similarly commanding, yet the clarity of the sound makes one appreciate also her attention to dynamics. At ‘Pleni sunt cæli’ the gradually increasing babble of the choir eventually leads, through a massive crescendo, to a thrilling ‘Hosanna’ with the LSO’s brass and percussion in full cry.

We then listened to the whole of the concluding ‘Libera me’. At the start, JQ admired how the London Symphony Chorus sounded like shrunken souls; one also gets a real sense of how ominous is the writing for the percussion and bass instruments. The music builds inexorably and the recording conveys this superbly. The dreadful climax is absolutely shattering; we are all very familiar with this recording but never have we experienced such overwhelming force at this point. JQ expressed a mild reservation about the infinitely moving setting of ‘Strange meeting’. He wondered if the new transfer makes the soloists just a little too present. However, we reflected that the new transfer is presenting accurately what those in Kingsway Hall must have heard on that day. The final section, ‘Let us sleep now’, brings the whole ensemble together for the first and only time in the score. With this new transfer one can appreciate as never before, we believe, how expertly John Culshaw and his team captured every strand in Britten’s elaborate collage of sound.  At the end, JQ commented on the “stunning realism” of what we’d just heard. DD described the experience as “overwhelming to listen to”. Further listening – and comparison with the pervious transfer – is needed and JQ will do this in a full review shortly. However, our initial reaction is that the 2023 transfer of this celebrated recording is a revelation.           

At our August session, we had greatly admired Decca’s SACD re-mastering of Götterdämmerung and JQ followed that up with a detailed comparison of the new iteration as compared with the CD and BD-A releases of that part of the tetralogy (review). Now we have obtained copies of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.

Das Rheingold was the first of the music dramas that Decca recorded; the sessions took place in Vienna’s Sofiensaal in late-September and early-October 1958. The cast included for the only time in the cycle two great artists, George London as Wotan and Kirsten Flagstad as Fricka. We were keen to hear both of these singers but we began our listening with the orchestral Prelude. The golden timbre of the Vienna Philharmonic’s brass makes an immediate impression. JQ noticed a slightly grainy sound to the lower strings but this is far from unattractive. We moved on to Scene 2 and the first appearances of Wotan and Fricka. London’s voice is majestic in his first solo and the recording captures the authority of his singing. Flagstad might have been nearing the end of her career (she was 63 at the time of these sessions) but her voice was still in fine condition and she characterises Fricka’s music superbly. As we listened, we found ourselves constantly marvelling that we were listening to a recording made 65 years ago; the sound is vivid and, frankly, exciting. The exchanges between Wotan and Fricka are powerfully intense and this transfer really allows the dramatic tension between the two to hit home. The arresting orchestral interlude immediately before the entrance of Fasolt is truly forceful.

We moved on to the searing scene at the start of Scene 4 involving Wotan, Alberich (Gustav Neidlinger) and Loge (Set Svanholm). Every aspect of the vocal and orchestral writing registers with startling clarity. DD remarked that what we were hearing is “a very good advert for analogue sound”. As the Niebelungs bring up the gold, the orchestral sound is absolutely tremendous – LM commented that the sound really opens up at this point. The subsequent exchanges between Wotan and Alberich are riveting; the intensity that the two singers bring to the music is enhanced by the realism of the sound.

We think that the new 2022 transfer has brought this recording of more strikingly to life than ever before. The musical performance is gripping but that has been acknowledged ever since the recording was first issued. What this new transfer demonstrates, though, is the scale of the achievement by John Culshaw and his team.

Die Walküre was the last element in the tetralogy that Decca recorded; the sessions were held in October and November 1965. As with Das Rheingold, we began our sampling with the Prelude. In Die Walküre the music is very different, of course, to that with which Das Rheingold opens. Nonetheless, JQ was struck by the brightness of the sound. LM agreed and went so far as to suggest that, compared to what we’d just heard from 1958, there was almost an element of coarseness to the sound. (JQ responded that he wouldn’t go that far.) The turbulence of the music is readily apparent in the playing of the VPO and in Decca’s recording. As we listened, a divergence of opinion began to open up. LM and DD thought that the sound was not as good as the sound on Das Rheingold and that the 1965 recording had been cut at a higher level. JQ, on the other hand, whilst greatly admiring the recording of Das Rheingold, was also very taken with Die Walküre (once we had reduced the volume level slightly from the level at which we’d listened to the previous recording). He felt that Die Walküre is comfortable for domestic listening.

JQ was very keen to listen to the end of the work, beginning with Wotan’s Farewell. At the start of the Farewell, Hans Hotter conveys the anguish of parting while the VPO brass are simply magnificent. The great orchestral outpouring before ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ sounds sumptuous in the new transfer. As the final scene of the opera unfolded, we all noted the great presence of the sound, both in terms of Hotter and also the orchestra. Once we’d finished listening, we discussed what we’d heard and a lively debate ensued. LM described what we’d heard in Die Walküre as “full-fat, non-pasteurised” sound. DD felt that he would award 10/10 to Das Rheingold and 8/10 to the recording of Die Walküre; the difference in marking was down to the glorious sound of the brass in Das Rheingold. He felt that there was a bit of edge to the sound in the 1965 recording and he wondered if the original tapes of Die Walküre were not in quite such good condition as those on which the 1958 Rheingold recording had been preserved. He reminded us that he had felt the sonic results on the ‘Golden Ring’ sampler SACD had not been uniform. JQ, who had been enormously impressed with the Rheingold recording and transfer, was just as enamoured with the sound of the Walküre recording and its transfer. Both are, he feels, magnificent achievements, both artistically and in terms of the audio. He is looking forward to evaluating Die Walküre in more detail.

These three releases present important Decca releases in magnificent sound. We were left to ponder one or two questions. One is whether the premium pricing for these releases warrants the outlay: War Requiem and Die Walküre currently retail for at least £80, while Das Rheingold will set you back about £70 – although digital downloads cost a lot less. JQ will attempt to answer that question when he reviews each release more fully. The second question concerns Decca’s back catalogue. We wouldn’t for one moment question that the Solti Ring and War Requiem deserve this de-luxe treatment from Decca: these are notable pillars of their back catalogue. However, we hope that Decca won’t stop there. LM has long felt that Britten’s own recording of Peter Grimes is just as deserving of remastering and release on SACD and/or Blu-ray. JQ agrees and would also nominate the composer’s recoding of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Undoubtedly, other collectors will have their own favourites to nominate. The key point, though, is that Decca – and other labels – have great riches in their back catalogues and we hope that many more classic recordings can be remastered and made available in SACD and/or Blu-ray, especially so that a new generation of music lovers can experience these recordings in optimum sound. Also, we hope that labels will not just make these remasterings of key recordings available as limited editions but will retain them in their current catalogues. 

Those three major recordings had constituted our agenda for the day. However, conscious that Christmas is fast approaching, JQ suggested a brief seasonal finale to our session. Back in 1993 Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players travelled to Denmark to record ‘A Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning’ for DG Archiv. The project presented a selection of music by Michael Praetorius and others as it might have been heard at a Lutheran Christmas service at one of the big churches in central Germany in the 1620s. JQ has owned this disc ever since it was released and regards it as a spectacularly successful and imaginative putative musical reconstruction. Especially impressive are the congregational hymns for which local choirs were recruited to fill the cathedral with unison singing. We listened to the performance of Martin Luther’s great hymn ‘Von Himmel hoch’. There are nine verses and McCreesh perceptively varied the forces from verse to verse so that we hear different forces, including some solos, boys’ voices singing from a gallery with delicate accompaniment and, best of all, the congregation, singing lustily and accompanied by large instrumental forces and the mighty cathedral organ. The DG recording captures all this superbly. One relishes the different perspectives and the congregational verses have a special frisson, reminding us just how exciting unison voices can be. As Dan Morgan said of this hymn performance in his 2007 review (recently published as a Déjà Review) “What a palpable sense of celebration there is at this point, the organ underpinning it all with such authority.” Thirty years later, the recorded sound is still magnificent. We believe that the release may now only be available as a digital download; it remains in every way an outstanding Christmas recording.

We’ll be back in the new year to appraise the audio qualities of some more releases. In the meantime, Happy Christmas from the Listening Studio. 

John Quinn

Equipment used
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’
Chord Co. PowerHAUS M6 mains cleaner
Chord Co. Power Block

Previous Listening Studio reports