From the MusicWeb International Listening Studio: April 2024 Report
by John Quinn

Discs auditioned
Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem London SO/Rattle (LSO0830)
Britten –
Violin Concerto. Skride/ORF Vienna Radio SO/Alsop (details here)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7. National Symphony Orchestra / Noseda (NSO0013)
RavelDaphnis et Chloé. Sinfonia of London and Chorus / Wilson (details here)
D. Briggs – Toccata on Surrexit Dominus (details here)
Rachmaninoff –Symphonic Dances / Berlin PO / Petrenko (details here)
Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil. PaTRAM Institute Male Choir (details here)
Mahler – Symphony No 3 LSO/Horenstein (details here)
SibeliusLemminkäinen Legends. Helsinki PO / Mälkki (details here)
SmetanaMá Vlast Czech Philharmonic / Bychkov (details here)

At the beginning of April, David Dyer, Len Mullenger and John Quinn got together in the MusicWeb Listening Studio for their first session of 2024. There were a lot of enticing new and recent releases to audition, so there was no time to lose.

First up was a brand new SACD from LSO Live which JQ had received for review just a few days ago. The generously filled disc contains three major works by Benjamin Britten; the recordings derive from concerts in which Sir Simon Rattle conducted the LSO between 2018 and 2021. Rattle recorded both the Sinfonia da Requiem and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with the CBSO, much earlier in his career; however, we believe Spring Symphony is an addition to his discography. We decided to begin our session by listening to ‘Lacrymosa’, the first movement of Sinfonia da Requiem. The very opening, with its ominous, pounding drums, sounds truly arresting. We admired the dynamic range of the orchestra and the amount of detail that comes through; both of these features are faithfully mirrored in the recording. Rattle screws up the tension until the juddering climax is reached (though LM would have preferred a slightly faster pace in the build-up to the climax). The Barbican Hall’s acoustic can be tricky, we’ve found; sometimes, a recording made there can sound too dry or too close – or both. On this occasion, we felt the acoustic was right for the music and that the engineers had done a fine job. DD felt the sound is “very satisfactory: 8/10”.

We stayed with Britten’s music to hear part of a new recording of his Violin Concerto. The soloist is Baiba Skride, accompanied by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. The recording was made, under studio conditions so far as we are aware, in October 2021 in Vienna’s Radio Kulturhaus. This concerto is a firm favourite with LM and at his suggestion we listened to the second movement (Vivace – Animando – Largamente – Cadenza). We were strongly impressed by what we heard. Skride is balanced quite forwardly, but by no means excessively so; the excellent orchestral contribution is clearly heard. Her playing is clean and athletic in the fast sections and she grabs the listener’s attention. When the challenging cadenza was reached, we thought that Skride seemed especially commanding. Furthermore, the realism of the recording means that every technical effect that she executes during the cadenza makes its mark. When we discussed what we’d heard, LM said that initially he had wondered if the soloist was a bit too forwardly balanced but, as he listened on, he came to feel that the balance is fine. DD felt that this is one of those recordings that vindicates the cost of installing high-end equipment in the Studio: LM seconded that view. DD appreciated the greater degree of space around the various elements in the orchestra as compared with the Rattle recording we’d just heard. Overall, he felt that having awarded 8/10 to the LSO Live disc, this Orfeo release justifies 10/10.     

Next, we turned to a new set of the Beethoven symphonies from the National Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director, Giandrea Noseda. During 2022 and 2023, Noseda and the NSO gave a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies in concert and they issued recordings of all the performances. We believe that initially these were only issued as individual digital downloads but now the NSO has gathered the cycle together in a boxed set of five hybrid SACDs and two Blu-ray Audio discs. The second Blu-ray also includes a filmed concert performance of the Ninth. Time constraints restricted the extent to which we could sample the set and so we decided to limit ourselves to the first movement of the Seventh symphony, which we auditioned on SACD. The live recording was made, as was the rest of the cycle, in the Concert Hall of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, the NSO’s home base. This particular performance was recorded in May 2023. We liked what we heard. LM declared that he liked Noseda’s tempi. JQ agreed: the Introduction was intelligently paced and this led into an athletic account of the Vivace. We all admired the clarity of the playing – and the way the engineers had captured this. Noseda takes the exposition repeat, which we welcome, especially in a buoyant performance such as this. DD said he “thoroughly enjoyed” the performance; he also described the sound as “exceptionally good”. LM liked the way that dynamics are well observed, but not exaggerated throughout the performance.   We are conscious that we’ve only been able to sample a small fraction of the cycle but if the playing and engineering in the remainder of the cycle is of this standard then the cycle will be a most attractive proposition.   

Next up was John Wilson’s recent Chandos SACD of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé ballet. This recording has been widely praised, including by MusicWeb reviewers. Really, there was only one passage we could sample: the famous ‘Lever du jour’ which opens Part III. Both playing and engineering are most impressive – we could hear every instrumental line in the woodwind writing at the start. As the music unfolded, we marvelled at the amount of detail that is audible – with no suggestion of spotlighting. The orchestra sounds gorgeous and Ravel’s melodic lines really sing. LM described what we were hearing as “spellbinding”. We had all heard this recording before so our intention today had been to listen just to the ‘Lever du jour’. However, when that section was finished, no one said “stop”; later, we concurred that none of us had wanted to interrupt the music. The ‘Pantomime’ section maintains the high standard: the woodwind section plays superbly and the principal flute, Adam Walker is outstanding; also, the playing of the string section is seductively silky. The concluding ‘Danse générale’ is wonderfully exciting but also well controlled. The Chandos sound really does justice to the quality of the performance, not least in terms of the left-to-right and front-to-back perspectives. The only mild disagreement between us concerned the choir (which is placed to the conductor’s left). JQ felt that the sound of the choir was well-integrated, as did DD, whereas LM felt that the singers seemed a bit indistinct. In all other re4spects, we are unanimous; this SACD is a winner.     

Our next selection didn’t follow on from the Ravel in the sense that it concerned French music. However, the recording was made in France and the composer/organist involved, David Briggs, is well known for his empathy with French music. Organ music doesn’t often feature in Studio sessions but JQ wanted us to hear part of a recent disc of music by Briggs; he was also anxious to experience the recording on the Studio equipment because he’d been seriously impressed by the sound when he heard it on his own system for his review. The recording was made in 2022 by The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and Stephen Layton and Briggs himself played some organ improvisations, a skill for which he is especially noted. The venue for the sessions was the Church of Saint-Eustache, Paris. The church, which is a very substantial building, was constructed between 1532 and 1632.  Of particular relevance to the present recording, the church boasts a magnificent organ; this was rebuilt in 1989 under the direction of the celebrated French organist Jean Guillou who was Organiste titulaire of Saint-Eustache between 1963 and 2015. JQ suggested we should listen to Briggs’ piece for choir and organ, Surrexit Dominus followed immediately (as on the CD) by Briggs himself playing an improvisation on the plainchant melody sung by the choir in Surrexit Dominus. We were rocked back by the   tremendous organ introduction to the choral piece, superbly played by Harrison Cole. After this the unison male voices intone the plainchant fortissimo. The recording really lets you hear the resonance around the unaccompanied voices. Towards the end there’s a huge solo passage for the organ; Harrison Cole again impresses strongly, as does the exciting recorded sound. Briggs’ improvisation which follows is spectacular, both as an example of virtuoso playing and superb engineering. Briggs conjures up potent sounds from the organ’s pedal division while the toccata-like writing for the manuals makes a great effect. One of the most successful features of this recording is that even though the church acoustic is vast and the organ sound is tumultuous, the sound never becomes mushy. Listening to this on the Studio equipment was every bit as exciting as JQ had hoped. LM was no less impressed. He described what he had heard as a “complete knockout” and declared “this is exactly how I want an organ to sound”. He also commented on the fact that despite the “wall of sound” from the organ, he had no difficulty in focussing on the choir. 

2023 brought a good number of Rachmaninoff releases in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. One such, though it appeared a few weeks into 2024, was a set on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label in which Kirill Petrenko conducted a number of works, including the Second Piano Concerto, the Second Symphony and the Symphonic Dances. We decided to listen to part of the masterly Symphonic Dances and after a short debate – we love all three dances – we settled on the third (Lento assai – Allegro vivace). We admired the razor-sharp articulation of the BPO in the fast sections of this movement; the playing is ideally weighted. In the slower passages the Berlin strings and woodwinds show their prowess in delivering Rachmaninoff’s sweeping lyricism. The sound has terrific realism; the engineers have achieved great clarity and impact. The closing pages are especially exciting, though, as a minor point, LM wished the concluding tam-tam crash had been a bit louder. This is a thrilling performance, marvellously recorded.  

We followed a late Rachmaninoff orchestral score with a much earlier work for unaccompanied choir: his All-Night Vigil. This has just been issued by Chandos in a recording by the PaTRAM Institute Male Choir. There are a good number of recordings of this great work in the catalogue, but we believe this is the first which has been made by an all-male choir. The performance and recording have already attracted very positive reviews from Ralph Moore and from JQ, so we were keen to sample it. We listened to the first two movements (‘Arise! Master, give the blessing’, followed by ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’). At the start of the first piece both LM and DD, who had not previously heard the disc, were somewhat taken aback by the huge, sonorous sound of octavist, Alexis V Lukianov. The second movement was felt to be especially impressive, both in terms of performance and sound. The baritone soloist, Evgeny Kachurovsky is nicely profiled and the individual choral parts are all clear. The richness of the choir’s sound and, of course, of the music itself make a very good impression. LM felt that the acoustic of the church in which the recording took place enhanced the choir’s sound without getting in the way of the music. DD was struck by the firm sound of the basses towards the end of the second movement.

Next, and in a complete change of idiom, we turned to a new release on the HDTT label of a famous recording of Mahler’s Third symphony. This is the recording made by Jascha Horenstein with the LSO back in 1970. Issued on the Unicorn-Kanchana label, it quickly became widely regarded as a top recommendation for this symphony. However, the HDTT release is not a straight reissue of the Unicorn recording, engineered by Bob Auger. Nick Barnard outlined the somewhat unusual circumstances in his very detailed and enthusiastic review of the HDTT set. Two different recordings were made in parallel. “Unusually, John Goldsmith [the general manager of Unicorn], gave American sound engineer and Mahler aficionado Jerry Bruck permission – at his own expense and using his own equipment – to set up a quite separate and independent recording rig to record those same sessions in parallel with the ‘official’ rig.  Quite why Goldsmith did this is not clear”. Until now, Bruck’s recordings have been known about but they were never edited or prepared for commercial release. There’s much more about the techniques which Bruck used, and how these differed from Auger’s approach, in Nick’s review. More than 50 years after those sessions in the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, Jerry Bruck has given HDTT permission to issue his recording commercially.

We decided to sample both the HDTT set and also JQ’s CDs of the original Unicorn release. JQ suggested a ‘blind tasting’ at least as far as LM and DD were concerned: he would put the discs into the player without letting either of them see which disc was which. We played the first five minutes or so of the first movement.  On disc one the horns rang out commandingly at the outset. JQ in particular noted a degree of edge to their sound, though this was not unwelcome. A little later on, we observed that the string tremolandi – played with furious intensity by the LSO – and the upward rushes in the lower strings had a similar degree of tonal edge; again, we did not think this was a problem. The percussion registered powerfully but, equally, we approved of the audibility of the soft contributions from the tam-tam and bass drum. JQ felt that the recording conveyed a good sense of the hall. DD commentated that he could tell where each group of instruments was positioned in the sound stage. We played the same passage on disc two without altering any controls on the system. The recording was louder. Immediately, we could discern a difference: the sound of the LSO horn section had more roundness and body to it; the edge was no longer apparent. A little later, we observed that though the commitment of the strings’ attack was not in doubt, the touch of wiriness that was evident on disc one was not present this time. We were unanimous that the rounder sound on disc 2 did not lessen the impact of the sound. For JQ, the extra degree of richness in the horn tone was the decisive factor. After listening for only about 40 seconds to disc 2, LM guessed that this was the original Bob Auger recording. DD waited until he had heard the full extract and then also declared his belief that disc 2 was the Unicorn disc. Both guesses were right! Our collective view is that, on the evidence of this short experiment, the recordings offer different presentations of Mahler’s music. Our preference is for the Unicorn original but we all felt that both recordings have much to offer. Jerry Bruck’s recording doesn’t supersede the work of Bob Auger but offers a different – and very stimulating – alternative experience.       

We followed the Mahler with part of a recent Sibelius disc. On this new BIS SACD, Susanna Mälkki conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of pieces by Sibelius. The main offering is the set of four piece – tone poems in all but name – which the Finnish master grouped together as Lemminkäinen, Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op 22 (1893-96). JQ has been listening to this disc for a review which will be published shortly. We listened to the last Legend, ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’. We were quickly impressed both by the performance and the sound. LM commented admiringly on the “width of the recording”. We noted also an abundance of inner detail, even when the music was at its loudest. The recording also presents an excellent front-to-back perspective. The performance itself, we agreed, was very exciting; the pace is thrilling, yet controlled, and Mälkki and her orchestra project the music strongly. At the end, LM said “bravo” and we feel this comment applies equally to the musicians and to the BIS engineers. A splendid, realistic SACD.

2024 marks the bi-centenary of the birth of Bedřich Smetana and it’s particularly fitting that this should be the cue for a new recording by the Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkovof the composer’s cycle of six symphonic poems, Má Vlast. JQ has recently reviewed the disc and, having admired it very much, was keen for us to audition it. The recording comes from live performances in the CPO’s home hall, the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolphinum in Prague. We selected the most famous of the symphonic poems, ‘Vltava’. Right from the start, both the performance and Pentatone’s recording made a very favourable impression; LM remarked upon the degree of clarity in the rippling woodwind playing. We also commented that the sound was very natural. The recording presents the left-right division of the violins to excellent advantage. In the polka episode we noted the acoustic resonance of the hall itself made a pleasing contribution. The lovely nocturnal episode (from 5:52) is delectably played and the recording allows you to hear every strand of Smetana’s magical scoring. Bychkov balances this episode scrupulously but, of course, it helps that this orchestra has this music in their very blood: how many recordings of Má Vlast have they made over the years, we wonder? Later, in the exciting passage illustrating the rapids we were pleased to hear that whilst the CPO’s brass play powerfully there is no question of them dominating the proceedings, leaving the rest of the orchestra in their shade. JQ declared that the recording itself is fabulous and even better on the Studio equipment. After we’d finished listening, JQ referred back to the 10/10 marking that DD had awarded to Baiba Skride’s Britten recording. He suggested that, on that basis, this Smetana disc ought to be awarded 11/10 because this was a live recording and sounded so natural. We had a short, genial debate, the outcome of which was that we agreed that both recordings are outstanding in their different ways.

We’d listened to 11 different recordings today (counting the Mahler Third as two recordings). Invariably at these sessions we audition a great number of excellent recordings. However, reflecting back on this session, we found it hard to recall a previous occasion when all the recordings were of such high audio quality. There are periodic comments in the media about the classical recording industry being in “crisis” One thing’s for sure, there’s no crisis on the engineering front. As this Studio session demonstrated, the standard of engineering is extremely high and we, the listening public, are the beneficiaries.

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