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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Close, but no cigar..., 9 Mar. 2011
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This review is from: Walton: Belshazzar's Feast, Symphony No.1 (LSO/Davis) (Audio CD)
I must confess I have awaited this recording with both anticipation and trepidation. Why? Anticipation, because I love this music; and trepidation because of the track record of poor sound quality in LSO Live recordings at the Barbican.

Let's see how it turned out. Let me first say I will focus here on the Belshazzar; the symphony has already been released on this label. In a nutshell, I found that performance good but not great- it lacked the raw electricity of the best Previn or Mackerras recordings. And the sound was dismal- dry, up -front and unappealing, in best `LSO Live' tradition.

So, what of Belshazzar? I have loved this piece ever since hearing it performed live in a historic 1976 (July 4th!) performance the LSO and Previn at the Festival Hall. I have written about this elsewhere, so won't bang on about this again here...

Belshazzar's Feast is an extravagantly extrovert romp of a piece. Its gestation was fascinating. The story is told of the young Walton, who had been commissioned to write a choral piece for the Leeds Festival in 1931, seeking advice from Tommy Beecham. He advised Walton that the massive Berlioz Requiem was also to be performed at this event. With such gargantuan musical forces available, asked Walton, why not use them for his new piece? `Why not' grumbled Tommy, `you'll never hear the work again'.

Needless to say, he was wrong. So here we have a block-buster of a piece with large orchestra and double choir, off-stage brass bands, baritone soloist, more percussion you can shake a stick at, and an organ. Plus the kitchen sink. Needless to say, this is an ideal piece for SACD, although large acoustic spaces are essential for the piece to breathe and make its fullest impact. So, perhaps, the Barbican with its cramped, dry acoustic might be just about the worst place on the planet to perform it...

But let's not pre-judge. How does it actually turn out? Well, there is good news and bad news. The performance is good, but not great. Hang on, didn't we hear that earlier in the review, about the coupled symphony? Well, it's just as valid a comment here. Belshazzar has a magnificent recording history, with notable performances from Walton himself, Previn, Litton and Hickox; this is quintessentially a young man's piece, and needs fast tempi, swing, precision, exuberance and sensitivity to its more jagged, jazzy episodes.

By that measure, I'm afraid, this performance sounds just a bit light on raw electricity and crackle. And overall tempi are often just a bit too deliberate for the whole thing to catch fire. What's more, it pains me to say, the playing and ensemble is not always impeccable. It's a difficult piece, being played live, so some consideration is due. Nevertheless, compared with the swaggering energy and staggering playing of -say - the 1972. Previn recording (in EMI Golden Age Bishop/Parker analogue sound, no less), it comes up short.

So, what about the sound? I listened to the SACD stereo layer. And here, believe it or not, we have some slightly better news. Compared with most LSO Lives I have heard, this recording has noticeably more space, air and transparency - just as well, to accommodate the huge forces deployed! Listening to the Belshazzar, first on the disc, and then moving on to the earlier symphony (recorded in 2005), it's just like dropping a large woollen blanket over the sound...

That's where the good news ends, though. The sound is still noticeably over-miked, with instruments dropping in and out of the mix at will. A few examples - where did the organ go, guys? Not to mention the feeblest ever anvil in ` Praise ye the god of Iron'. And god only knows where the antiphonal brass bands in `Praise ye the god of Brass' are coming from...

Tonally, it's all a bit coarse sounding, and it thickens more during some of the stupendous climaxes.

So, there are better performances of both pieces on both CD and vinyl. This is, however, the only Belshazzar on SACD. Well, that really matters not, because in real world sound quality, even on a high-end player and system, this recording actually sounds like a bog-standard CD.

To wrap things up in the words of the choir itself, in fact, one could say about this recording `Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting'.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 Mar 2011, 17:29:04 GMT
Last edited by the author on 21 Mar 2011, 17:24:24 GMT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi again Mr. Bower.

What a beautifully worded review; I haven't bought the disc yet - and probably won't now, based on your very well presented opinions - but I'm glad you like the sound a bit better than on the Nielsen recording ;-)

Did you know, by the way, that the words "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" (actually three values of coin in Israel and Babylon) is supposed to be translated as "Measured, weighed, divided" - as in "The time of your rule has been measured (and is coming to an end), you have been weighed, and found wanting, and your empire shall be divided in two (between the Medes and the Persians)". Such a lot to extract from four words!

Keep up the good work!

Steen Mencke

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Mar 2011, 09:33:26 GMT
J. S. Bower says:
Steen Hi

Many thanks for your kind comments.

So many layers of meaning in four words, as you say...

Actually, it's not so much that this recording is bad, but there are so many better versions of both the Belshazzar and the First Symphony around...

More about the historiic performance. Not only was it on July 4th, !976, but on the very same day that the Entebbe Israeli hostages were rescued from Uganda.

Talk about historical congruence! Let me people go, indeed...

The electricity and performance was such that the entire house collapsed at the end. The standing ovation went on for ages.

Sir William Walton was there in person, crying like a baby as he was acknowledged in an uproar by conductor, orchestra and audience.

They just don't make concerts like that any more!

Best regards

Jon Bower

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Mar 2011, 14:56:45 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Mar 2011, 14:58:18 GMT
Steen Mencke says:
Hi Jon.

It sounds like you certainly had an extraordinarily spectacular evening back in '76. On July 4th fireworks seem in order, and it seems you had yours indoors! I have the BBC Legends issue conducted by Walton himself in my collection; it is a wonderful performance - and remarkably well recorded too, especially since it wasn't ment for public release. I see that Previn made a recording with John Shirley-Quirk singing the solo part; it probably won't rival your live experience, but I'll give it a shot some day, I think.

I own the symphony conducted by Previn, Sir Colin Davis (his earlier LSO issue) and Rattle - as well as the composer (on the BBC Legends disc mentioned above), so I think I'm covered in that erea. Or do you have further suggestions?

The enthusiasm of your reviews (and comments) is thoroughly enjoyable!


In reply to an earlier post on 16 Mar 2011, 15:26:45 GMT
J. S. Bower says:
Steen Hi

Thanks again!

Yep, that sure was an occasion. But some of the magic is also there on his recording - the EMI with JSQ that you refer to; this is a real treat on vinyl (preferably) or CD, although I have also heard Litton do this piece superbly - so these two recordings will be worth pursuing. The Hickox is also reputed to be excellent, although I haven't heard it.

For the symphonies individually, I would recommend Prefvin (the early RCA) for his first, and George Szell (as historic but superlative performance) for number two.

Sonically and interpretationally, the Charles Mackerras coupling of both symphonies is difficult to beat, at an exceptional price.

That's all my opinion, of course, but I think you will find pretty strong concensus across the board on this. WW has been really well served on recordings - pity this latest one didn't cut it. Also avoid like the plague the recent BIS coupling of the two symphonies - a total dud.

Hope this helps!





Posted on 20 Aug 2011, 11:59:41 BST
Steve says:
It's reassuring to find that I'm not the only one who finds the sound quality of the LSO Live discs, on average, poor. So dry, so multi-miked, so close. I go back to the great recordings of the 1970's to find recordings where the balance is more natural, there is space around the orchestra/choir/soloists, and the engineers caught the acoustic of the recording venue.

I think it's little short of a tragedy that a great orchestra like the LSO has to put up with the already dry sound of the Barbican, and then have what little life in the sound there is, sucked out in these close-miked artificial mixes. God, just put up a coincident pair of classic AKG mikes!

Over at the Festival Hall, meanwhile, the acoustic has improved and engineers on the LPO's label are getting stunning results. A complete contrast.

Such a shame. I never buy LSO Live discs now, there are usually better performances and always better recordings out there.

A great pity.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Aug 2011, 15:04:00 BST
Last edited by the author on 20 Aug 2011, 15:05:44 BST
J. S. Bower says:
Steve Hi

Spot-on. Out of interest, are you listening on SACD or CD? In my experience, the better your system, the worse these damn things sound. And listening to LSO Live recordings on SACD is a surefire recipe for headache - the problems are made even more obvious in hi-res playback.

As you say, it's a disgrace to hear these dry-as-a-bone, in-yer-face and multi-miked monstrosities in this day and age.

The recording engineers seem to have learnt nothing from classical recordings of the last 50 years.

Yes, the hall is problematical, but that's not good enough an excuse.



In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2011, 11:07:41 BST
Steve says:
Hi Jon,

Thanks for your comments.

Mostly I listen to the CD layer, sometimes the SACD. But I agree with you that the SACD can actually sound worse!

Incidentally I do worry about some 'professional' reviewers who don't comment on these poor recordings. Gramophone is forever giving LSO Live good reviews, are their reviewers deaf?. Mind you things have gone downhill there (at Gramophone) over the years. And I wonder if there is a group of people growing up who think that these close dry recordings are actually 'realistic'' or desirable?

At least we still have all those great recordings - I believe the highest point in recording technology was reached with analogue recordings in the '70s; and many of these are available very cheaply now.

Nice to hear from you,

All the best,


In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2011, 13:35:04 BST
J. S. Bower says:
Steve Hi

Windup Gramophone reviews have been effectively irrelevant in relation to SQ since living memory.

Not sure if they 1) are just profoundly deaf 2) don't give a damn 3) wouldn't know good SQ if it poked them in the ear or 4) just use grot-box kit - maybe all four? Sad...

I would opine that most classic recordings come from a bit earlier, before transistorisation and the abuse of multi-miking, but let's not quibble about a few years...!


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