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J. S. Bower "Jon Bower" (England)
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An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue/Concerto pour la main gauche
An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue/Concerto pour la main gauche
Price: £15.05

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Stinker. Avoid, 2 Sep 2010
Stinker. Avoid. Just in case you didn't get it first time round.

Oh, you want more than a two-word review? OK, just this once...

A number of folk have expressed the opinion to me - apparently sincerely - that they think markings of SACDs tended to be so high because manufacturers tend to select their best performances and recordings for this fine medium.

Phooeee, says I- and for the proof, listen to this one.

Several other folk have also opined - and with a lot more foundation in reality, I feel - that folk tend to review only stuff they really like. Well, if I had purchase a recording which subsequently turns out to be dreck, I would want to warn others not to waste their hard-earned cash, like I'd just done. So, please consider this review as a charitable enterprise.

Back to this recording. In my BBC days, if someone had asked me to record sound like this, I would have done the following:

1) Hire a large aircraft hanger
2) Fill it with chunky vegetable soup - Heinz or Campbell's, it matters not
3) Take lots and lots of mikes; distribute at random throughout the hanger. Stir.
4) Hire an orang-utan to slide the mike faders up and down at random
5) Record to high quality medium such as 8-track cartridge or wax cylinder.

What do you mean, the musicians would drown in the soup? Have you not heard of aqualungs?

OK, you get the idea by now. A bad recording is bad on vinyl or CD, but it's super-bad on such a transparent and revealing medium as SACD. This one sounds soupy (of course), thick, muzzy, distant, soft and fluffy. It also has the imaging, staging, focus and dimensionality of... a bowl of soup. What else? As a bonus, the giant, spongy piano lurks and lurches all over the room.

It hardly seems kind to comment on the performances. You guessed it, they're not too good either.

I was fairly gentle on the previous Ravel/Gershwin recording in this series, but that was actually a lot better than this one. Roge seems ill at ease throughout, particularly in the Gershwin. He has committed fine Ravel concertos to disc before. This is not one of them, though.

If these Oehms recordings are going to be the only Ravel Piano Concertos on SACD, I suggest you dig out your vinyl and CDs now...
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 20, 2011 7:40 PM BST


Nielsen - Symphony No 5; Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring
Nielsen - Symphony No 5; Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring
Price: £17.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Limp, awful rite, competent Nielsen, 25 Aug 2010
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I do not find it within me to be kind to these quite dismal performances. Jarvi is a very understated conductor, to put it mildly. This Rite is actually boring - quite possibly the worst I have ever heard on vinyl, CD or SACD over the past 50 years. With about 20 or so recordings of this piece in my collection, that's quite an achivement. Although the playing is safe and competent throughout, this reading is utterly without menace, violence, thrill or excitement. It makes Karajan's limp and justifiably harangued performance of the vinyl age (his first one) sound like a riot of excitement by comparison...

Stravinsky's comments on that particular effort... "tempi di hoochie-coochie" and "duller than Disney's dying dinosaurs" seem tailor-made for Jarvi's dull-as-ditchwater version 40 years on. Ouch, now THAT's what I call 'telling it like it is. Nice one, Igor.

This one wouldn't cause a riot in a dustbin, which is where this disc was filed after one audition.

Rites on SACD are tricky. Janson's with the Concertgebouw shares the overall limpness and safe quality of the Jarvi, although it's better played by the RCO. Stravinsky's own version on CBS/Sony in wonderful, but poorly recorded. Great performance but poor sound also amply describes the fine Cleveland/Boulez version on CBS/Sony.

Actually, I find the RPO/Simonov version on Membran the only extant version on SACD graced by both a good performance as well as good (although blatantly multi-miked) sound. I have high hopes for the forthcoming Litton/Bergen version on BIS. I can guarantee that Litton will not underplay this piece.

The Nielsen 5 on this disc is a better reading, by far, than the Stravinsky. It's actually competent. But compare with Horenstein, Schmidt or Blomstedt shows what's missing here. It sounds too generic, and utterly lacks the required icy Nordic passion. So, zero stars for the Rite performance and 3 for the Nielsen- giving 1.5 stars overall.

The sound? I am not a great fan of Telarc sound, it's well known (excepting some of their fine earlier Soundstream recordings). However, they give the Rite generally accurate sound with truly staggering dynamic range and fine-sounding low percussion. In common with many of their later recordings, however, it's very distant and softened in the process i.e it's not transparent enough for fully illuminated back-stage.

The Nielsen has noticeably better sound quality - somewhat closer in perspective and tonally far more even and transparent. So the sound gets 5 stars for the Nielsen and 4.5 for the Rite. But this can't compensate for the wholly deficient performances. of course.

I would, perhaps, be kinder to Jarvi if he hadn't done this before. I regard him as a serial killer of fine 20th century music. I present as evidence his Bartok Concerto for Orchestra (albeit shared with a far better Lutoslawski) on Telarc, plus his Britten Young Persons' Guide. All of these all-time lows in performance. I rest my case, m'lud.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 11, 2010 12:06 PM BST


Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler
Price: £21.07

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good performance, stunning sound, 24 Aug 2010
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This review is from: Gustav Mahler (Audio CD)
This recording is a great testament to what SACD can do.

I have always been convinced that minimalist miking is the way to go. This recording shows:

1) that a single matched pair of microphones in a classic Blumlein configuration can produce a stunningly realistic soundstage, (albeit long and thin, because of the St Petersburg Great Hall dimensions), instrument focus and dimensionalty. Bla-bla... The long and short of it, though, is that this is a stunningly realistic recording.

2) how a stereo recording, at its best, can record a holographic three-dimensional soundstage.

3) how DSD can produce a highly realistic string sound; this is particularly evidenced throughout the ravishing adagietto. I am fortunate enough to have heard the Leningrad Philharmonic (as it was) several times, and this is exactly the sort of lustrous string sound that is a signature characteristic of this great orchestra.

I could be hyper-critical, but it's not worth it. Bottom-line, this is state-of-the-art sound. It also makes me wish that other recording engineers and producers had the courage to demonstrate that 'less is more' when it comes to recording classical music properly.

So much for the sound. What's the performance like? It's good, but not great. Although I have a lot of respect for Termirkanov, he's no Barbirolli, Karajan or Abbado in this repertoire. There are some changes of gear that don't quite work, primarily in the opening two movements. But the playing throughout is infinitely more secure and controlled than the second division radio orchestra used in Kavi Alexander's other recordings in Russia. As a live performance, I am happy to give it some leeway and award 4 stars.

And the coughing? Well, it's there, but not nearly as disruptive as in the Shostakovich 7 in this series, thank goodness. Although I would like to take out and shoot the culprit during the adagietto...

Water Lily's other projects in Russia were marred, variously, by slipshod playing, second-rate orchestras and music, and saturation coughing. This is the best of the bunch, by a long way, and thoroughly recommendable.


Sinfonie 7
Sinfonie 7
Price: £12.73

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Starts rocky, but gets there in the end, 19 Aug 2010
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This review is from: Sinfonie 7 (Audio CD)
Shostakovich's epic 7th symphony is a difficult piece to carry off successfully, in the concert hall or recording studio. It's long, structurally rambling and critics have always hated the Bolero-style repetitive section of the first movement - Bartok even blew it a musical raspberry in the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra. Tough, says I. I have heard this piece three times live, and find myself with no less than 12 recordings on vinyl, RBCD and SACD. Yes, I know, that's anal..

Nevertheless, I wouldn't consider any of my 12 recordings as definitive. It's just not that sort of piece. The closest to perfection I have heard this played was by the LPO under Haitink live at the Royal Festival Hall in the 80's. I have a vivid memory of seeing dust rain from the ceiling at the ear-shattering climax of the opening movement, presumably dislodged by 120 dBA of sound energy. But I digress...

It's strange that Haitink's recordings rarely capture the fire and passion of his finest live performances. That's my second digression.

So, to the matter in hand. Is this Ceatani/Milan performance any good? And what does it sound like? The news is mostly good, although it starts off rocky. Caetani's relatively ponderous pacing of the opening 'Leningrad' theme lacks energy and passion. Conversely, the initial `skippy' pacing of the subsequent 'Nazi' theme saps the menace and implacability that this obsessive, repetitive sequence demands. I think Caetani's recognises this, too. By the time that Shostakovich is throwing the kitchen sink at your ears (and attempting to destroy the RFH's ceiling in the process) he has surreptitiously changed down a gear and adopted a more mainstream, menacing pace.

After some unwise initial tempi in the first movement, the performance gains cumulative stature and coherence. Although the playing couldn't really be called polished, it's gutsy, committed and has its heart in the right place. That suits the music very well.

As for the sound, it's good, but not quite in the same class as the astonishing sound-scape crafted by the Arts engineers for Caetani's 11th. However, it does cope with this piece's fearsome dynamic range without flinching, fudging or fluffing. That's probably unique in my repertoire of recorded 7ths.

So, it's a generally good performance, in fine sound. How does it stack up against the other 7th's on SACD? Let's see.

1) Dmitriev/Petersburg (Radio, not Philharmonic!) on Waterlily. A stone disaster. Sloppily conducted and slipshod playing, with some horrendous fluffs in prominent places. And then the strategic coughing and hacking from the emphysemic audience carpet-bombs what's left of the music. Even in minimalist/analogue sound, this has to be a non-starter, I'm afraid. Moving on swiftly...

2) Royal Concertgebouw/Jansons on RCO Live. I find this reading over-rated. The Concertgebouw play like angels, of course. That's what they do - this is one of the world's very top orchestras, after all. However, Janson's reading and grasp of overall structure is unexceptional (surprising, as he was a protégé of the great Mravinsky, of course), whilst the Polyhymnia sound is thick, muddy and not very transparent. For shame, in THAT great acoustic...?

3) Gergiev with the Kirov AND Rotterdam orchestras (yes, both) on Philips. I don't always go eye to eye with Gergiev's performances, but he has the Leningrad banged to rights. Overall, I find this the most coherent reading overall, both in terms of short and long-term structure. Tempi in I are spot on, giving the right majesty and menace. II is played slower than usual, although it works, giving extra drama and concentration. Even the over-long III sounds more integrated than usual, whilst the steady pacing and cumulative power generated in the final movement brings the house down- as it should!

4) Kitayenko/Cologne on Capriccio. I haven't heard this yet, as I intend to survey his entire cycle of Shostakovich symphonies later in the year. However, his serious approach, together with the excellent sound encountered on other Shostakovich repertoire on this label, suggests this might just be a contender.

In the hear-and-now of Shostakovich 7ths on SACD, though, I award the Caetani top marks for sound and the Gergiev for the performance.

See, we got there in the end!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 5, 2012 5:21 PM BST


Piano Concertos, The (Litton, Dallas So)
Piano Concertos, The (Litton, Dallas So)

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great performances, variable sound, 18 Aug 2010
One thing is for sure on this set. Musically, the performances are stunning. The pieces are shaped sensitively by Andrew Litton and accompanied most sympathetically by the Dallas Orchestra. Hough's playing is astonishingly fine throughout.

Bearing is mind that these are live rather than re-cut and assembled studio performances, some of his playing is simply phenomenal. This is not merely virtuosic, the fireworks are always there for sound musical reasons. The 3rd concerto is quite jaw-dropping, in fact. All these performances undoubtedly brought the house down. I award them a solid 5 stars.

And the sound? (SACD/stereo reviewed) The first thing to say here is that balances are generally laid back but strong architecturally, portraying quite solid and coherent staging. Unfortunately, overall levels of transparency are not always sufficient to reproduce instruments stage-rear without some clouding - see some of the better 50+ year-old Living Stereos to see how this can be done properly! Throughout this set, the piano sounds clear, vivid and dynamic, whilst things progressively fog up as stage depth increases.

Moreover, the balance and overall sound quality vary notably from performance to performance:

1 and 4 - these are characterised by a very recessed orchestra. Because low-level resolution is insufficient, this sounds a tad muffled. Strings are too thin for Rachmaninov, and a bit gritty because the recording is PCM. Four stars sonically.

Paganini Variations. Noticeably better, with a much more natural balance between orchestra and soloist. Some of the interchange between soloist and inner orchestral lines reveals very strong and coherent depth layering. Strings are still not quite right, though (PCM). 5 stars for sound.

2 - Good balance again between soloist and orchestra. However, this is also the least transparent recording. Although everything is there structurally, instruments beyond mid-stage become progressively more clouded; the overall effect is actually quite soft and rolled-off tonally. 4 stars for sound

3 - Similar to 2 in overall balance, but -unnacountably - much more transparent. The greater resolution means that the rear-stage 'fog' in 2 is replaced by clear air. Also the most natural sounding strings. 5 stars for sound.

My ears, intuition (and BBC experience) tells me that a cleaner signal path and higher resolution recording medium - analogue or DSD - would have resulted in sound quality befitting these superb performances.

Don't get me wrong, the sound varies from good to excellent. But it could have been great.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 22, 2014 9:28 AM BST


Symphony No. 9 In C (Munch)
Symphony No. 9 In C (Munch)
Offered by skyvo-direct
Price: £9.82

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Schubert, fine high-end sound, 17 Aug 2010
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My review of this recording started when I auditioned the modern, Schubert-lite performances of Dausgaard on BIS. Unlike some other reviewers, I was totally unmoved by these readings of Schubert 8 and 9 - unstirred, unshaken, in fact. What was wrong? So I bought this 1955/1958 Living Stereo recording, and found out fairly rapidly.

It looks iffy on paper. Munch doing Austrian classics? And this is not regarded as a top-table Living Stereo.

Fear ye not, it still comfortably annihilates the 50-year newer recording in all aspects, without breaking sweat. (SACD layer)

Musically, the 80+ Boston Symphony sounds clearer, lither and more agile than the 40-piece Swedish Chamber Orchestra. This is not a fair comparison, of course. However, just listen to the opening of the final movement of the C-major played by Boston/Munch and then SCO/Dausgaard; in the former, the fiendishly difficult strings and ensemble just leap off the page. By comparison, the modern recording is staid and - frankly - boring.

OK, The Living Stereo recording observes no repeats. Not fashionable then. And some of the legato brass playing in the C major sounds unwise. However, neither of these facts is going to keep me up at nights...

Sonically, there is no comparison either. Although the BSO/Munch can sound a bit congested and flustered at peaks, this recording just kicks down the stage in all directions. By comparison, the modern recordings - not one of BIS's best efforts, I feel - is almost comically flat, congealed and unfocussed. The inner lines and voices which are so clearly delineated musically and separated spatially in the minimalist 1950's analog recording just smear together in the 2009 DSD effort.

Yes, I know, this sounds crazy. But I only report what I hear.

The only conceivable rationale for the Dausgaard recording existing is if the reduced forces increase inner transparency of musical line and disentangle some of Schubert's thick orchestration. Well, it just doesn't. Listen to any excerpt of either symphony, and you will hear far more of what's going on musically in the Munch. It's not even close.

At this price, they're giving it away.


Vienna
Vienna
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £8.75

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strauss waltzes in classic sound, 17 Aug 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Vienna (Audio CD)
Reiner doing Strauss Waltzes? Always controversial. However, if the foot taps, you get a sudden urge to conduct the music or leap onto the dance floor, then it's probably working. And so it proves here.

And then we come to the sound. Tracks 1-6 date from 1957 and the remainder from 1960. Sonically, the earlier session is just plain astonishing, in the top tier of Living Stereo, with all that implies in terms of transparency, musical lucidity, instrumental timbre and hall presence. For some of the tracks, the technology just vanishes and you are just there. You just can't ask for more than that.

The remaining tracks don't quite live up to this exalted standard. The mikes are palpably closer in 1960 and - even pulling back the volume correspondingly, the hall and musical coherence dissipates rather. So, a down-grade from 'magical' to merely 'excellent' - although the bass drum thwacks for the 'Thunder and Lighting Polka' - which closes the SACD, will certainly stir you from slumber.

A no-brainer purchase if the repertoire appeals or you are interested in high-end sound. And at this crazy price?


Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending; Tallis Fantasia
Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending; Tallis Fantasia
Price: £31.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine Vaughan Williams programme, but iffy string sound., 16 Aug 2010
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Here is a quite lovely collection of music from Vaughan Williams, most sensitively conducted and extremely well played throughout. With a big-band and high profile conductor, we would all be justifiably raving. So far, so good.

How you react to the sonics depends on your sensitivity to the effect of Pulse Code Modulation recording and processing on string sound- and specifically massed strings playing above forte in their upper registers. Frankly, string sound puts a stake through the heart of PCM- it just doesn't do it right, rendering them as hard, dry, papery, non-liquid and gritchy*. Thus is the case here, I'm afraid, for the two inner string-laden masterpieces, the Tallis Fantasia and Greensleeves.

Here is a challenge. If anyone out there can find a classical CD of any persuasion, or an SACD recorded in PCM, with strings that actually sound like the real thing, I will publicly recant. After all, I'm a scientist, so one exception, any exception, suffices to blow any hypothesis out of the water.

By contrast, the fully orchestral Folk Song Suite and Wasps excerpts on this recording fare rather better, revealing a well-assembled recording, albeit clearly multi-miked, with good dynamics and decent transparency.

Putting my reaction to PCM on one side for the moment, this remains a most enjoyable SACD, and a bargain at this price. Just don't play it all at once. And be prepared for Membran's trademark insensitively short gaps between tracks and whole pieces. Why did they do this?

(* OK, gritchy = gritty and scratchy, obviously; but you guessed that, didn't you?)


English String Music
English String Music
Price: £10.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A fine program, just watch out for the PCM, 16 Aug 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: English String Music (Audio CD)
Here is a quite lovely collection of English string music- minus any Britten or VW, though. It is most sensitively conducted and extremely well played throughout. So far, so good.

How you react to the sonics depends on your sensitivity to the effect of PCM on string sound- and specifically massed strings playing above forte in their upper registers. Frankly, string sound puts a stake through the heart of PCM- it just doesn't do it right, rendering them as hard, dry, papery, non-liquid and gritchy*. Thus is the case here, I'm afraid.

Analogue and DSD seem to be able to voice strings properly in their upper registers- assuming everything else is in order, of course!

So here is a challenge. If anyone out there can find a classical CD of any pursuasion, or an SACD recorded in PCM, with strings that actually sound like the real thing, I will publicly recant. After all, I'm a scientist, so one exception, any exception, suffices to blow any hypothesis out of the water.

Putting my reaction to PCM on one side for the moment, this remains a most enjoyable SACD. Just don't play it all at once. And be prepared for Membran's trademark insensitively short gaps between tracks and whole pieces. Why did they do this?

(* OK, gritchy = gritty and scratchy, obviously; but you guessed that, didn't you?)


Bach J.S: Complete Cello Suites
Bach J.S: Complete Cello Suites
Price: £82.76

5.0 out of 5 stars A little gem, 14 Aug 2010
I already have several versions of the cello suites on RBCD and vinyl (Rostropovich and Fournier stick out in the mind..) but there are, of course, many different and equally valid ways into Bach's universe.

I would characterise Suzuki-san's approach to these summits of instrumental music as consistently refined, restrained and nuanced. There are none of the instrumental fireworks or heart-on-sleeve playing that - for example - Rostropovich excels in. Nor does there need to be. These performances are very much period-attuned, and a vehicle for projecting JSB rather than the soloist's personality.

And then we have the sound. This is a quiet masterclass in how to record a single instrument. Merely:

1) Locate a beautiful 16th century Amati (?) violoncello and play with utmost sensitivity...
2) In an appropriately sized and lovely sounding acoustic space, with good decay times and damping
3) Locate 2 (?) linear microphones at just the right distance and height from the soloist to achieve a perfect balance between direct and indirect sound- neither to close or too distant
4) Record on a high quality, transparent medium- preferably analogue or (as in this case) DSD
5) Playback on equally transparent electronics and transducers

... easy, isn't it? The result is that all the artifice disappears (Zen-like) whilst Suzuki-san gets an invite to play in your living room.

Incidentally, this is GREAT music to meditate to.


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