Articles and Features

Feature LP Review – Oistrakh|Brahms|Klemperer; Brahms|Szell; Strauss|Szell

Written by: Rob Pennock

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D, Op.77

David Oistrakh (violin), Orchestre Nationale de la Radiodiffusion Français, Otto Klemperer

Recorded at the Salle Wagram, Paris, 17-19th June 1960,
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: SAX 2411

Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell

Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, 1 & 2 March 1957
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: BC1010

Richard Strauss – Sinfonia Domestica, Op.53

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell

Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, 10 January 1964
Speakers Corner 180gm LP: MS6627

The Brahms was David Oistrakh’s first western recording of the work, a first label copy of which will set you back a few hundred pounds. The performance is big, the rubato and tempo changes entirely natural, the intonation immaculate. But, while both he and Klemperer weave some beautiful melodic lines, the orchestral playing isn’t brilliant and it all sounds rather laboured.

A blue and silver first label was used for comparison; on Speakers Corner the overall balance is only slightly more forward, there is more transparency and definition. The pay-off is a slight loss of fullness, which particularly affects the string tone, but this is infinitely superior to the various rather sad CD remasterings that have appeared (although the High Definition Tape Transfer DSD128 is in a different class).

The Szell is in a different league. Here the introduction is fast, the chords incisive, the timpani crash out, and in the Allegro he drives forward with every sforzando in place, but isn’t afraid to relax for the second subject. In the eloquently sung Andante the woodwind surpass themselves; Szell doesn’t hang around in the Allegretto, and the Trio is a tempo. Unsurprisingly the finale is a tour-de-force of seething energy and orchestral virtuosity; indeed you will probably never hear it played better.

This 1957 performance is not to be confused with the 1966 recording that also appeared on British Columbia. For comparison a first label Epic LP was used. Being solid-state the Speakers Corner is slightly more forwardly balanced, and there is greater clarity, so the timpani are even more audible. Both capture the svelte Cleveland string sound and highly distinctive woodwind, although the original is more tube-like. Nevertheless, they are rare so this is the obvious first choice for all lovers of great Brahms conducting.

Only a megalomaniac such as Richard Strauss could have written a sprawling quasi-symphony that documented his relationship with his family. A successful performance needs to hold the works disparate elements together, and Szell and his magnificent orchestra do just that, seguing effortlessly between the family’s themes, Scherzo, Adagio, and the bombastic Finale, with vividly characterised woodwind, powerful brass and beautifully refined string playing.

A first label 2-eye U.S. pressing was used for comparison; the overall balance has moved forward on the Speakers Corner LP, but orchestra has greater weight, impact and presence, if slightly less sparkle. Both clarity and definition are good as opposed to spectacular, and neither has an extended dynamic range, but that is down to the master-tapes, and as you don’t have to worry about condition or availability, the Speakers Corner disc becomes the obvious first choice.

Feature LP Review – Oistrakh|Brahms|Klemperer; Brahms|Szell; Strauss|Szell Read More »

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: François Girard’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

Written by: Alexander Campbell

The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.

#8: Der fliegende Holländer

A scene from The Met's production of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Who wrote it?
Der fliegende Holländer is the fourth of Wagner’s completed operas, and is considered by many to be the first of his works that really consistently shows his emerging highly individual style. He first started work on the opera in the summer of 1841, a good year or so before his third opera, Rienzi, received its premiere. The work was inspired by Heinrich Heine’s telling of an old tale as well as the composer’s rather trying experience of a very stormy journey by sea from Riga to London. The original intention was to write a short(!) one-act work for the Paris Opera. However, the director of the Paris House, Léon Pillet, bought the idea for the plot (Wagner was paid) but then commissioned a work, premiered in 1842, on the subject by the French composer Pierre-Louis Dietsch entitled Le Vaisseau Fantôme. Not to be outdone Wagner then set to work on a longer version in three acts, written as one continuous stretch of music and to his own libretto. Interestingly, Wagner did not fall out with Dietsch who conducted the Paris premiere of his next opera Tannhäuser. The completed Der fliegende Holländer had originally been accepted for staging in Berlin, but in the end the Dresden Hoftheater acquired the rights and staged the first performance on 2nd January 1843, although in three separate acts. Only in Bayreuth 1901, long after the composer’s death in 1883, was the continuous three-act version performed as originally intended by the composer. Nowadays opera houses have a choice which version to present; this Met performance plays the whole opera right through. If the opera isn’t Wagner’s most original work, it does have a raw theatricality to it and some great opportunities for singers, chorus, designers and directors alike.

A scene from The Met's production of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer
Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik and Anja Kampe as Senta
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

What’s it about?

The story of the opera is a relatively straightforward one. Cursed for blasphemy the eponymous Dutchman is condemned to sail his ship with its spectral crew for eternity. His only chances of salvation occur every seven years when he can land and try and find a woman who will marry him and be faithful. As the opera starts, we are in a Norwegian harbour where a shipping vessel, captained by Daland, is taking refuge from a storm. A steersman is left to watch whilst the exhausted crew rest, but he drifts off to sleep in the darkness. Another ship pulls up, not waking Daland, the lookout or the crew. The Dutchman emerges and laments his fate. When Daland emerges, the two converse and the Dutchman asks if he has a daughter. On learning he does, the Dutchman offers Daland significant riches and the two vessels set sail for Daland’s home port.
As the scene changes, we meet the daughter, Senta, working with the ladies of the port who are spinning together. The overseer, Mary, berates Senta for her lack of commitment and her obsession with the tale of the Flying Dutchman. Senta’s friends ask her to sing her song about it, much to Mary’s chagrin. At the end of her famous ballad she asserts her love for this shadowy figure whom she hopes to redeem. As she does, she is overheard by the local huntsman, Erik, who has been courting her. He pleads his cause without much success. Daland enters with his sombre, silent guest. The Dutchman and Senta are immediately and intensely connected. Left alone they sing of his curse, her dreams and their mutual aspirations. She declares her love for him. All would seem to be going well.
The sailors with their families celebrate their return They become obsessed with the Dutchman’s ship and the apparent lack of crew. Drunkenly, they invite the mysterious sailors to join them, but when the ghostly crew do appear a mad panic occurs. Senta enters pursued by Erik who again declares his love. The Dutchman overhears the end of their conversation, assumes faithlessness and flees. Senta tries to follow but is restrained by Erik. The Dutchman publicly reveals his identity and orders his crew to set sail. Senta extricates herself from Erik’s grip, runs to the top of the cliff and throws herself into the sea declaring her fidelity. The Dutchman’s curse is finally broken.

Listen out for…
From the opening bars of the overture the stormy sea is omnipresent; you can almost feel the surge and swell of waves, the wind and the rain. It is in this score that Wagner’s leitmotifs (themes) start to emerge as one of the most original aspects of his operatic writing. They represent people, emotions, objects and so forth. Both the Dutchman and Senta have recognisable tunes associated with them, as does her obsession and his final redemption. There are some great set-pieces including the Dutchman’s monologue, ‘Die Frist ist um’, a flexible expansive recitative-like aria. Senta’s ballad is a demanding sing; it’s treacherously high and intense but offers a great dramatic singing-actress the chance to really set the stage on fire. The love duet is more quietly intense to start, as the two almost murmur their own thoughts, only coming together in true duet at the end. There’s tremendous brio, excitement and thrillingly direct choral writing when the two nautical crews meet, and the final trio between Senta and her two lovers is propulsive to the final bars of the work. It should pick you up at the start and drop you in your seat at the end.

A scene from The Met's production of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Who is in it?
Despite several cast-changes owing to accidents before rehearsals even started, The Met has assembled a cast of notable Wagnerians for this staging. In the title role is Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin whose magnetic stage presence, virile and incisive voice should be heard to great advantage. As the driven Senta the German soprano Anja Kampe, notable for her theatrical, grand-scale interpretations of roles such as Senta and Isolde, should thrill vocally. She is making her Met debut in these performances. Luxury casting in other roles too. Daland is sung by the sonorous German bass Franz-Josef Selig, Mary by mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura and Erik by heroic tenor Sergey Skorokhodov. At the helm of the ship that is the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is Valery Gergiev. The new staging is by François Girard, whose recent Parsifal in here was highly acclaimed.

When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at The Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on March 14th.

  • Update: Lincoln Centre, home of The Met and the New York Philharmonic, has canceled all performances through March 31st, so too Carnegie Hall, due to Covgid-19 regulations
  • Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: François Girard’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman Read More »

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: David McVicar’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina [showing on February 29]

Written by: Alexander Campbell

The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.

#7: Agrippina

The Metropolitan Opera – David McVicar’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Who wrote it?
Agrippina is a relatively early opera in the Handel canon of theatrical dramatic works – it was premiered in Venice in December 1709; the composer was 24. The plot is loosely based on historical events that occurred around A.D. 50-54 when, as reported by Suetonius and Tacitus, Rome was in political turmoil. The librettist, Vincenzo Grimani, produced one of the more remarkable texts that the composer set, allowing the great virtuoso singers of the day (and of now) considerable license to paint their characters vividly though their music as well as dramatically. The sense of the intrigue and plotting of the protagonists emerges powerfully, especially the curiously compelling eponymous anti-heroine and Poppea. The opera had a reasonably long initial run for the time and the work was revived around Italy over the next decade or so. It then largely vanished until the mid-20th Century when Handel’s works started to see the light of day again. It has now become one of his more popular staged works.

The Metropolitan Opera – David McVicar’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina
Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina and Nicholas Tamagna as Narciso
Photograph: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

What’s it about?
Before the stage action a few facts need to be explained. Agrippina’s second husband, the Emperor Claudio, whom she married to solely to gain position, is away fighting in Britain. She is determined to ensure his successor is Nerone (Nero), her son by her previous husband, so she can remain a power behind the throne. As the opera starts, she has just heard that Claudio has drowned on his way back to Italy. She recruits Pallante and Narciso to help her promote Nerone as future Emperor by promising support, love and patronage. As her plot gains momentum news that Claudio has survived reaches Rome. He has rewarded his military commander Ottone the succession in gratitude for saving him. Her plans thwarted, Agrippina goes into action. Knowing her husband desires Poppea and that Ottone loves her too, she insinuates to Poppea that Ottone is courting her only for Claudio. Poppea denounces Ottone and Claudio accuses him of treachery. Agrippina again suggests her son as successor. However, Ottone manages to persuade Poppea of his love and fidelity to her and she begins to suspect Agrippina’s words and plots revenge. She lures both Claudio and Nerone (who is also infatuated by her) to her house at the same time and, by allowing conversations to be overheard, persuades Claudio that he has a rival in Nerone.
Meanwhile Agrippina encourages both Pallante and Narciso independently to kill each other as well as Ottone. However, they have become suspicious of her and have joined forces. They secretly inform Claudio of what they have been asked to do. Agrippina manages to take control of the situation by persuading Claudio that she, Pallante and Narciso were trying to protect the throne from other potential usurpers. Confusion reigns as Poppea arrives with both Nero and Ottone. Claudio proposes that Ottone become Emperor and decrees a marriage between Nero and Poppea. Unsurprisingly, none of the parties affected wish this outcome and protest, Ottone refusing the throne. Claudio reveals these announcements were a test; he has decided that Nerone will indeed succeed him after all, and that Ottone should marry Poppea. Even Agrippina is happy as she has got her favoured outcome and future position guaranteed.
What happened next? Other operas continue the story…

The Metropolitan Opera – David McVicar’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina
Kate Lindsey as Nerone and Brenda Rae as Poppea
Photograph: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Listen out for…
Handel’s music has great energy, invention and dramatically appropriate changes of pace and mood. His music for each of the main characters cleverly indicates their genuine emotions and intents even when they are being entirely duplicitous in their utterances, thereby enabling the audience to follow the plot with relative ease despite the complexity. He achieves this by allowing the inherent cynical humour of the libretto and situations to emerge. In this way the protagonists show many facets to their personalities. Ottone is the one who perhaps emerges as the most serious – his Act Two lament ’Voi che udite il mio lamento’ is a show stopping moment for the countertenor singing the role. The volatile Nerone, sometimes also sung by a countertenor, is given to a soprano for these performances. Poppea has some wonderfully virtuosic showcase arias as well, but it is Agrippina who really dominates throughout – notably in her great scene in Act Two when she plans the triple murders… it is no wonder mezzo-sopranos love the part.

Who is in it?
The Met has assembled a starry cast including some of the best exponents of Handel today, led by the magnetic Joyce DiDonato – a Met favourite. British countertenor Iestyn Davies sings the role of Ottone – one he has made very much his own in stagings worldwide. American soprano Brenda Rae makes her house debut as Poppea in this run, whilst compatriot Kate Lindsay sings Nerone. British singers Matthew Rose and Duncan Rock sing Claudio and Pallante, respectively. The production by Sir David McVicar in the striking settings by John Macfarlane is conducted by Baroque music specialist Harry Bicket.

When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at The Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on February 29th.

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: David McVicar’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina [showing on February 29] Read More »

An appreciation of Mirella Freni (27 February 1935 – 9 February 2020)

Written by: Alexander Campbell

Mirella Freni (1935–2020)

Mirella Freni was an open-faced, wide-eyed soprano who exuded enormous charm, dignity and integrity throughout her long career, and who imbued most, if not all, of the characters she essayed on the operatic stage with those strong personality traits. Her extraordinarily long career, artfully managed to ensure her gleaming and well-schooled voice remained flexible and lustrous to the end, rarely saw her undertake roles that were perhaps one step too far. When this did happen, she usually dropped these parts quickly and without much ado. She knew her art and her instrument well. She surely passed the importance of such self-awareness to some of her students. This is not to say she did not challenge herself throughout her career, but each new assumption was carefully introduced and at the right time. She apparently gave great study to any role she considered and by her own admission decided many were not for her; she was sometimes known in the profession as ‘La Prudentissima’. Never flamboyant as a stage performer she had natural poise and sincerity, acting as much with the voice as physically, colouring and phrasing in a way that accorded perfectly with the text and predicament of the character. Nor did her portrayals become routine in any way – she sang some roles throughout her career (Puccini’s Mimì particularly) and as the voice matured so the interpretations and their veracity adjusted accordingly. Professionality personified, she was adored by colleagues and audiences.

She was born in Modena; her parents were a barber and, suitably operatically, a cigarette factory worker. Pavarotti’s mother worked in the same factory and the pair shared the same wet-nurse, as well as their Mantua-based first singing teacher Ettore Campogalliani. Singing was apparently in the genes, for her great-aunt was the soprano Valentina Bartolomasi, who made one of the early recordings of Verdi’s Aida in 1919. A musical prodigy, Freni started to perform as a child, but after hearing her perform Butterfly’s aria from Madama Butterfly for a radio competition she was advised to restrain from vocal lessons until her late teens by none other than Beniamino Gigli. Her remarkably successful official stage debut was at the age of 20 in Modena as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, a role retained in her repertoire for many years. That same year she married her then singing teacher Leone Magiera and they started a family.

Her next notable engagements were in the Netherlands as Liù and Mimì, and in 1960 she appeared as a lively Zerlina in a Glyndebourne staging of Don Giovanni, returning two years later as Donizetti’s Adina. In between she made her Covent Garden debut as much-praised and ethereal Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff, alongside Geraint Evans in the title role, Regina Resnik, Luigi Alva, Mariella Angioletti and Josephine Veasey, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Other roles in those early years included Mozart’s Susanna, Massenet’s Manon, Gounod’s Marguerite (Faust), and Mimì which she sang in a famous La Scala staging by Franco Zeffirelli under Herbert von Karajan in 1963, later filmed for posterity.

An early attempt at Violetta at La Scala was fraught owing to audience factions, though she returned to the role successfully in 1967 under Giulini at Covent Garden in Luchino Visconti’s famous staging. Karajan liked working with her, and persuaded her to take on slightly heavier Verdian roles such as Desdemona, Elizabetta de Valois and finally Aida. Although the voice had darkened, she defied convention and sang these roles as essentially lyric ones making them work for her, although Aida was quickly discarded. When she declined to sing Turandot for him their professional relationship ended. Other Verdi roles at La Scala included her touching Amelia under Claudio Abbado in Giorgio Strehler’s landmark staging of Simon Boccanegra for La Scala which visited London, and Elvira in Ernani for Riccardo Muti – a role she later admitted was wrong for her voice. Puccini and later verismo operas started to enter the frame. She performed Butterfly for a film and several recordings but declined to undertake the role on the stage. Tosca featured rarely. However, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, a role she described as one of Puccini’s hardest, was a successful later addition to her repertoire, as was Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, where her performance was subtly devoid of actressy histrionics.

In 1978 she had divorced Magiera and married the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov with whom she had often performed. He apparently encouraged her to essay roles in Tchaikovsky opera so that she added Tatyana from Eugene Onegin which, bravely, she sang at the Bolshoi, the first non-Russian to do so. Tchaikovsky’s Lisa was soon assimilated, and her final new role was the heroine of his opera The Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, which Freni sang at the age of 70.

We are fortunate she leaves a significant recorded and film legacy. These chart the subtle development of her voice over the years remarkably well; the best of them were usually allied to significant productions of their period. Her vivacious side is perhaps best captured by her Susanna under Colin Davis where she is the lynchpin of a good cast of the time – one that includes the late Jessye Norman as the Countess. Yes, styles of Mozart singing have changed since, but this is a great, imaginative and finely sung interpretation by the most exacting standards. She made a film of the role too. Some of her Puccini roles she recorded twice and often the earlier versions are the more touching for their seeming artlessness. It’s hard not to be brought to tears hearing her Mimì’s wistful ‘Sono andati’ under Thomas Schippers. Similarly, her searing Butterfly for Karajan is generally preferable to her account under Giuseppe Sinopoli, although both have fine and different interpretative elements.

Her impassioned Amelia (Simon Boccanegra) was caught on film and record, as was her feisty if flawed Elvira. Both her Luisa Miller and Elizabetta de Valois were filmed at The Metropolitan Opera, New York, and show her ability to bring out the inner emotions of these ladies despite the oppressive social or royal conventions that surround them. Her Desdemona was recorded commercially but can also be heard in an off-the-air recording from La Scala under Carlos Kleiber, with Plácido Domingo and Piero Cappuccilli. Manon, Tosca, Liù were all committed to disc, as were her Zerlina, Nanetta, Micaela, Marguerite, Adriana, Tatyana and Lisa. Other roles recorded only were Verdi’s Leonore (La forza del destino) and Rossini’s Matilde (Guillaume Tell) under Muti and Riccardo Chailly, respectively. Some Donizetti opera, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, and even some Handel, features in her discography. What remains the constant is the firmness of the tone, the delicate and nuanced phrasing and that unmistakeable burnished tone with its fascinating range of colour. An exceptional artist.

On retirement from the stage she became a respected vocal teacher. She won many important awards and honours including the Italian Cavaliere di Gran Croce and the French Légion d’honneur.

An appreciation of Mirella Freni (27 February 1935 – 9 February 2020) Read More »

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: James Robinson’s staging of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess [Showing on February 1]

Written by: Alexander Campbell

The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.

The Metropolitan Opera – Porgy and Bess
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

#6: Porgy and Bess

Who wrote it?
George Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess, premiered in 1935, specifically for operatic treatment, although it has been frequently staged by smaller theatres and music-theatre companies more as a ‘classic’ musical type of presentation throughout its history. That said, it easily stands in the listings of some of the most original and stageworthy 20th-century operas, one almost without precedent in that it requires a cast largely comprised of black singers (Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha is another such example that had its original staging in 1915). Given that the first black singer to appear at The Met (the old house), the contralto Marian Anderson, only did so in January 1955, the work has seen relatively few stagings by the company; the first was in 1985. The libretto, written by Edwin DuBose Heyward and the composer’s brother Ira Gershwin, was based on Heyward’s 1925 novel ‘Porgy’ and his own subsequent theatrical version of it.
George Gershwin first encountered the novel shortly after it was published and approached Heyward about rights shortly afterwards – but they only started collaboration on the work in the 18 months before the premiere. Porgy and Bess has not been without controversy with some early commentators and artists, expressing opinions that the impoverished African-American slum community depicted, with its heady mix of religion, violence, drug-dealing, and disabled characters was negatively stereotypical, not least as it was composed by a white American composer who did not incorporate original folk music material but developed his own jazz-influenced folk-music inspired style for the work. During the Civil Rights and Black Power movements from the 1950-1970s it fared particularly badly owing to this. Recently, there has been a trend to return the work to its creators’ original ‘Grand Opera’ concept, finding it new admirers and devotees. The ear-catching score contains many ‘numbers’ that have a semi- independent life of their own.

The Metropolitan Opera – Porgy and Bess
Alfred Walker as Crown and Angel Blue as Bess
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

What’s it about?

The action centres around Catfish Row, a poor tenement community set near the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina in the early 20th century. As the curtain rises it is early Saturday evening, and Clara is singing a lullaby ‘ Summertime’ to her baby. Slowly, men return from work and prepare to spend the evening playing dice. Serena tries to prevent her husband, Robbins, from participating. Others gradually join the game, including Clara’s husband Jake, and the disabled beggar man Porgy. The hulky Crown and his girlfriend Bess arrive; they are both largely shunned though they are sold some drugs ‘Happy Dust’ by Sporting-life – a local dealer. The men play and drink until only Robbins and Crown are left in the game. When Robbins wins, Crown’s anger flares, and they start to fight. In the brawl Crown kills Robbins with a cotton hook and flees, telling Bess he will return for her. She rejects advances from Sporting Life and as the police arrive is taken in by Porgy.
The community gather to mourn Robbins and to donate money to Serena for his burial. Bess tries to contribute, and is refused until Porgy announces they are now together. The police arrive and arrest Peter who stated he witnessed Crown murdering Robbins. In the Act Two, several weeks later, Porgy sings of his new-found happiness whilst the community gather to go on a church-organised picnic to Kittiwah island. Maria catches Sporting Life dealing drugs and threatens him with a knife. A pseudo lawyer tricks Porgy into buying a divorce for Bess from Crown. News of Peter’s imminent release is heard, but then a black buzzard flies over – a bad omen. Sporting Life again tries to sell his wares to Bess, but, Porgy intervenes, and the couple declare their growing love. Bess leaves for the picnic, watched by Porgy who remains behind.
On Kittiwah Island the picnic revels are ending. On her way back to the boat Bess encounters Crown, who has been hiding on the island. He reacts angrily when Bess tells him of her new partnership, physically prevents her from leaving, and drags her into the jungle. A few weeks later she has escaped and is back at Catfish Row in Porgy’s hut but suffering from a severe fever. The community, which has finally accepted her, is praying for her. Porgy reassures her that, although he knows she had seen Crown, he will protect her. The hurricane warning bell tolls – some of the men are still out on the water. As the residents pray for salvation from the storm Crown suddenly enters and taunts them. Jake’s upturned boat is seen through the window. Clara rushes out into the storm and Bess asks that a man go and help her. Ridiculing Porgy’s inability to help, Crown does so.
In the final Act, prayers and further burials are taking place, including that of Jake. As night falls Crown slips in to try and abduct Bess, but Porgy is waiting for him and dispatches him. The community deny knowledge of Crown’s killer when the police appear. The detective needs a witness who can identify the body, and drags Porgy away for that purpose. Bess is helpless, takes some ‘happy dust’, and leaves for New York with the opportunistic Sporting Life. A week later Porgy returns following release. He has won money from his fellow prisoners. He learns of Bess’s departure, and determines to follow and find her. He hitches himself to his goat-cart and starts his journey.

The Metropolitan Opera – Porgy and Bess
Angel Blue as Bess and Eric Owens as Porgy
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Listen out for…
Known for his great songs and his New-York jazz-inspired orchestral music (Rhapsody in Blue etc), this is another Gershwin score brimming with vitality, with original-and-catchy tunes allied to some great word-setting. There are elements of spirituals, street, and work songs that are interspersed with more conventional operatic fare, but with an underlying cohesive quality. Gershwin also uses motifs to musically identify some of the protagonists, places and even ‘happy dust’. Songs like ‘Summertime’ (heard sung by both Clara and Bess) and ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’’ have become justly famous, as has the great Porgy and Bess duet in the Act Two: ‘Bess, you is my woman now’. Some of the spirituals, such as ‘Gone, gone, gone’, have a raw power, and some of the scenes, particularly the later Crown-and-Bess encounter, have full operatic force.

Who is in it?
The Met has assembled a great cast for the relay performance, with soprano Angel Blue singing the role of Bess, and baritone Eric Owens singing Porgy. Both have beautiful powerful voices, and dramatic capability to bring these roles to vivid life. Crown is sung by Alfred Walker, and there’s a fine ensemble of ladies including Golda Schultz as Clara, Latonia Moore as Serena, and the ever-characterful Denyce Graves as Maria. Frederick Ballentine plays the disreputable Sporting Life. Conducting the performance is David Robertson, and the staging is by James Robinson in the beautiful sets designed by Michael Yeargan.

When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at The Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on February 1st.

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: James Robinson’s staging of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess [Showing on February 1] Read More »

Feature CD review: Sir John Barbirolli conducts: Hallé in Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich at Manchester; Philharmonia in Antonín Dvořák, more Strauss, Igor Stravinsky & Jean Sibelius at Buenos Aires

Written by: Rob Pennock

Richard Strauss
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Symphony No.5 in D-minor, Op.47

Sir John Barbirolli

BBC broadcast, Manchester [January 21, 1963]
Click for Amazon page: Barbirolli Society: SJB 109

Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88
Richard Strauss
Don Juan, Op.20
Firebird Suite
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir John Barbirolli

Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires [August, 1963]
Click for Amazon page: Barbirolli Society 2CD: SJB 1092-93
Dvořák & Sibelius ★★★★★ | Strauss: ★★★★☆ | Stravinsky: ★★☆☆☆

During the last decade of his life John Barbirolli’s music making was decidedly individualistic, and like Furtwängler he never seemed to give the same performance of a work two nights in a row. This individuality can be heard at its finest on disc in say Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and as the Testament CDs of live performances with a great orchestra that worshipped him, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Memories stereo release of Haydn 92, the Elgar and Sibelius Second Symphonies from 1964 with the equally great Boston Symphony and the BBC Legends, LSO Heldenleben demonstrate, he was one of the twentieth century’s greatest conductors.

The Shostakovich has appeared before coupled with Beethoven’s Fifth on BBC Legends, and I see no reason to add to what I had to say about the performance on Classical Source (please see link below) other than it remains one of the great Fifth’s fit to rank with Previn’s RCA version and Mravinsky. Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung is a very difficult work to bring off, because in most hands the culminating transfiguration is decidedly underwhelming (whatever Strauss was striving for he didn’t achieve it). But like Toscanini at La Scala in 1946, Barbirolli doesn’t dawdle in the opening, the ensuing Allegro has real attack, from then on every change of tempo is never allowed to impede forward movement and the final massive forte statement of the main theme has searing intensity. As an added bonus the sound is pretty good, with the Shostakovich having less distortion, greater body and definition than before.

What is apparent in both works is that Barbirolli adopts brisk tempos, which might come as a surprise if you put the Buenos Aires performances on straight after [see link below], because there some of the speeds are far more leisurely, the tempo changes more extreme. And yet the Symphonies receive inspired performances, the Strauss blazes and only the Stravinsky disappoints, so how does he do it?

To take the Dvořák, the opening theme is beautifully moulded, the ensuing accelerando sounds natural, as does the massive slowing for the second subject, instrumental lines are carefully delineated, the rhythms sprung, every sforzando is in place, and, crucially, there is a sense of command and absolute belief behind every note. In Sir John’s hands, at a measured tempo, the opening of the Adagio acquires Brucknerian overtones, the string fanfares are dark and serious, yes the second section is more elfin, but the mood remains serious, the rubato and tempo variation are masterly – in effect you are being asked to rethink what this music is about. The string phrasing in the Allegretto grazioso scherzo is beautifully moulded, the Trio taken a tempo, and again there is a sense of quiet, abiding melancholy, which is carried over into the introduction to the finale, where the strings chords are delivered with trenchant power. In the main part of the movement the basic tempo is fast, but not hectic, so the rhythms really bite, the slow section that precedes the coda is sung, the final bars a riot of presto virtuosity, and the audience quite rightly goes mad. This is a masterclass in Dvořák conducting.

Given how fast Tod und Verklärung would be a year later, the way Barbirolli slows right down for, and luxuriates in, the love music of Don Juan may come as a surprise, in the best possible way. There is a touch of Mantovani here: some superb woodwind playing and again real intensity, but there are also passages where the tension drops. And, unfortunately, the audience bellows its approval the moment the final pianissimo chord has died away.

In late 1962 Sir John and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded Sibelius’s Second Symphony for Readers Digest, and the result was a triumph of seemingly improvisatory music-making. As mentioned, in 1964 he conducted it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and brought the audience to its feet, with the orchestra joining in the applause. This Philharmonia performance is marginally the slowest of the three in all bar the last movement, where the Bostonians are a substantial minute faster. What all three have in common is the ability to effortlessly change tempo and mood without sacrificing momentum. Indeed, you will probably never again hear such volatility, violence and darkness writ large in this work.

This doesn’t mean everything is slow. The Scherzo is very fast, as are sections of the first two movements, but this is immensely serious music making. In the last movement the big tune is phrased differently on its second appearance, the second subject is slower, but rhythmically defined and shaped, and the quiet woodwind-led exploration of the main themes that will lead to the plunge into the minor moves slowly, inexorably forward, and there is no change of tempo for the coda. In lesser hands and with weaker orchestral playing – despite Walter Legge’s mutterings about falling standards – the Philharmonia was still a fine band in 1963, although the ensemble wasn’t quite as crisp as in the 1950s. The performance might have fallen apart, but Barbirolli holds the listener in a vice-like grip, the sense of concentration is absolute; once heard, never forgotten (although you still need the Royal Philharmonic and Boston performances – the orchestral playing in the latter is to die for), which brings us to the Firebird and the sound.

You might have thought that being one of the great conductors of Austrian dance music, be it Gustav Mahler or Johann Strauss, and given the brilliance of the other performances, Barbirolli would have brought Stravinsky’s score to pulsating life. But what you actually get is a tired, very slow rendition, which almost completely grinds to a halt in the coda. Nevertheless, the audience still went mad at the end, so maybe in the flesh it made a better impression.

The mono sound is disappointing. The overall balance is OK, but the woodwind seem to be stuck-out in front of the rest of the orchestra, and while Barbirolli liked prominent timpani, they are also unnaturally dominant (a similar thing happens in the celebrated 1941 Toscanini, Teatro Colón, Beethoven Ninth, so maybe having an orchestra on stage with only a single microphone caused this imbalance). All of the instruments lack body, so you only get an impression of what the strings sounded like in say the big tune of the Sibelius. The brass don’t rasp, and there is some overloading and crumbling. And yet, despite this, enough remains to allow anyone to appreciate Barbirolli’s interpretive genius and as such this carries the highest recommendation.

Feature CD review: Sir John Barbirolli conducts: Hallé in Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich at Manchester; Philharmonia in Antonín Dvořák, more Strauss, Igor Stravinsky & Jean Sibelius at Buenos Aires Read More »

An Introduction to High-Resolution Sound

Written by: Rob Pennock


The purpose of this article is to offer a brief guide to the constantly evolving world of high-resolution (hereafter high-def) sound. Lengthy descriptions of technical processes have been avoided, so if you want to know what a one bit-depth does to the dynamic range you will need to look elsewhere, but it has been necessary to give a brief outline of what numbers like 24/192 mean, file sizes. FLAC and the like.

If you have a degree in electronic engineering you may feel that X or Y should have been mentioned, but this is written by and for the sound enthusiast who wants some idea of what high-res can offer, not specialists. Nor have I addressed the vexed question of digital ‘remasterings’ (for want of a better term) of analogue tapes, which will be dealt with in a very much shorter piece in the near future

Herbert von Karajan and Sony president Akio Morita at the first joint presentation of the Compact Disc as the record of the future by Philips, Sony and PolyGram, in conjunction with the Herbert von Karajan Foundation, during the 1981 Salzburg Easter Festival
Photograph: © Arthur F. Umboh


Back in 1982 in a flurry of publicity some quaint little shiny, plastic things called compact discs appeared on the market. These carried digital data in the form of 0s and 1s, which could be played through an analogue hi-fi system by purchasing a CD player which contained (as they still do) a digital-to-analogue convertor (DAC). Needless to say because the ‘majors’ had been making digital recordings for several years and they cost far less to produce than vinyl, they went all-out to promote them as an astonishing new medium which would transform the way we listen to music. So we could pump iron at the gym, or do the gardening, while listening to The Ride of the Valkyries or the Pastoral Symphony in sound of astonishing clarity and naturalness. If you fancied Jacqueline du Pré and John Barbirolli in the Elgar, or George Szell in Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, well, digital technology would bring these classic performances to breath-taking life by taking you closer to the master-tapes, uncovering unheard layers of detail, and you wouldn’t have to put-up with those horrible clicks and scratches it seems all LPs were bedevilled with. Certainly in the classical world this marketing worked remarkably well, and, within a decade or so, vinyl was dead. But there was a problem in that a lot of people and audiophile publications questioned just how good digital sound actually was.

What is arguably the world’s premier audiophile magazine, The Absolute Sound, would take a remastered Decca recording from, say 1963, and compare it with an early label LP, and in the vast majority of cases the original was far superior, while others would point out that new recordings were often full of digital glare, ‘ringing’ and edginess and sounded totally unnatural.

Then in 1993 a nuclear bomb exploded when the web became public domain and its rapid growth and availability meant that sceptics could talk to one another and make their views known to a far wider audience. At the same time there were those within the recording industry who recognised that the 16 bit depth/44.1kHz sampling rate (see below) CDs use was sonically compromised and sought something better, which in the first instance was SACD (the fate of the alternative DVD-Audio falls outside the remit of this article), which also suited the creators of CD technology, Sony/Philips, as it meant traditional Red Book1 CDs, or more properly Compact Disc Digital Audio, which they held the licence for, could continue, even if in a hybrid form.

PCM & DSD – Facts & Figures

Most Super Audio CDs have two layers, one of which holds what is called PCM data plus a very much larger DSD layer. What are PCM and DSD, which are formats used for high-res downloads?

PCM stands for pulse-code-modulation, which is a way of converting the analogue wave-forms instruments and singers – or in the case of remasterings, reel-to-reel tapes – produce into digital audio signals (the 0s and 1s mentioned above). This can be in a number of formats such as 16 bit/44.1kHz, 24/44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 or 192 up to the highest generally available today, 24 or 32/352.8, which is DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition). What do these numbers mean?

Taking the latter first, at points on the analogue wave you have to take samples to draw a map of the curve, which in the case of 44.1kHz means 44,100 times per second. So this figure is the sampling rate. Each of these points has a bit-depth, which is usually 16 or 24. String these points together and you have a digital approximation to the original.

As those who burn CDRoms will know, in order for them to be read by a CD player they have to have a bit-rate of 1,411kbps, all this means is that you multiply the bit-depth (16) by the sampling rate (44.1) and because there are two channels, double it, which equals 1411.2. Commercial CDs are no different; they have to be 16/44.1.

Fairly obviously the larger the numbers the more information is collected. So all other things being equal – which as we will see, they are not – if a 79’59’’ CD holds (using Colin Crawley’s calculator2) 846.4 Mb of data, then a 24bit/192kHz file will hold 5.53 Gb, which is way beyond the carrying capacity of anything other than a DVD, and most CD players aren’t programmed to read these and/or 24/192.

Turning to DSD (Direct-Stream Digital), this auspicious sounding acronym derives from a process created in the 1970s by Philips, which it and Sony trademarked and used as a way of capturing the afore-mentioned analogue waves, which was then used as the format for SACD. The big difference between this and PCM is that DSD has a bit depth of 1, but a massively increased sampling rate, which in terms of an SACD is 2.8224 MHz or 64 times that of a CD; hence this is called DSD64, which is the lowest DSD rate (if you see DSF on a download, this means Direct-Stream File, which is how it is stored, with what is called metadata – for example, artist/track names or numbers, booklet etc.). Go to DSD128 and the sampling rate doubles, you then have 256 and very recently 512, which give some massive figures.

Finally, there is the simple question, what is Direct about DSD? Well here it becomes very technical, but in essence the pathway between the source and the loudspeakers in your home is far simpler than with PCM, so there is less processing going on, which lessens distortion.

What happened to SACD?

When these first appeared in around 1999 they were more expensive than standard CDs and some of the first discs were single-layer DSD, but either way you needed a special player to listen to the DSD layer, which would usually again be more expensive than a normal one. There was also a lot of discussion about just how good SACD sound was, with exaggerated claims made on both sides, which didn’t inspire confidence in consumers, and in the West they never really took-off, where it was left to smaller audiophile labels such as Bis to carry the flag.

Interestingly, South Korea and Japan never lost faith in them, so the ‘majors’ licensed smaller companies such as Esoteric to produce high quality remasterings from their back-catalogues and in some cases produced in-house discs which were not marketed in the West. Then as interest in high-def sound grew they started and continue to make a worldwide comeback as both major and independent labels promoted them again and it is worth bearing in mind that unlike PCM the DSD layer can hold multi-channel tracks.

High-Definition Downloads & FLAC

As the web grew and connection speeds increased, several enterprising companies started to promote that they recorded in high-def and you could download the same quality files from their, or a third-party, websites. In most cases these were PCM, but some also offered DSD. To begin with 24/96 and DSD64 were the most popular formats, but as time went by 24/192 appeared as did DSD128, then there was DXD and DSD256 and in the last few months DSD512.

Having discussed PCM file sizes just how big are DSD downloads?

Well, the Richard Strauss Tone Poems with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra on a Reference Recordings DSD64, which has a running time of 59.24 isn’t huge at 2.34GB. Turn to Strauss Tone Poems Volume 2 with Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo PO from a LAWO DSD512 download and the 76.25 programme is a whopping 24.1GB. Schubert’s Winterreise with Thomas Oliemans and Paulo Giacometti from a Channel Classics DSD512 download lasting 71.24 has a file size in direct proportion to the length of the Petrenko at 22.5GB, despite the Oslo PO producing far more volume and complex sounds. If the Honeck was DSD512, the file size would be 8 times larger and it’s as simple as that. (For DSD512 and in many cases DXD you have to go to NativeDSD.com3 to download the files).

If we then look at the Petrenko in 24/192, you have a download size of 2.49GB, however if you put the figures into the Crawley calculator the actual size is 4.9 or 5.3GB depending on whether (and here your eyes may begin to glaze over) you measure the size of the kilobytes per second bit-rate using the binary figure of 1kB = 1,024 bytes, or the decimal, which assumes 1kB = 1000 bytes.

The reason for the difference is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) which retains the bit and sampling rates of the original but lessens the file size by various degrees depending on which level you choose, without – unlike lossy formats such as MP3 – hacking chunks out of it to save space; virtually every recording and remastering company uses FLAC for its PCM downloads. The alternative is uncompressed WAV (Waveform Audio File Format), which is what you use if you want to burn a playable copy of a CD. Having listened to numerous FLAC files and their WAV equivalent – including the Rattle, BPO, Sibelius Symphony cycle – the latter does provide slightly better sound, but it seems unlikely that anyone is going to be supplying large quantities of high-res WAV files anytime soon.

Software and Hardware

Unfortunately, you do need specialist software to play high-res files, as neither Windows Media Player or iPlayer can decipher them, so you have to download alternative applications, of which there are only two, JRiver Media Center and HQPlayer Center (see below), that read everything up to DXD and DSD512 without compressing or converting the original, including multi-channel DSD, and, while we aren’t looking at it here, the app must be able to handle streaming, which can offer high-res PCM formats. With DSD in order to get the best possible sound you need to play the files in what is called native mode, which means there is no filtering between the application and your amplifier.

Looking at the two mentioned above, the JRiver Media Center does an excellent job and isn’t too expensive. In terms of sound – and these apps do sound different – the Rolls Royce is HQPlayer, which is a techie paradise, boasting multiple filters, spatial settings for surround sound, excellent on-the-fly conversion from PCM to DSD and vice-versa, etc., but this handles very few formats and is expensive. Nevertheless, I use this along with a freebie called Foobar, which, via add-on components, reads just about every audio format known to humankind, but not rather strangely DSD512. Both HQPlayer and JRiver offer a free-trial, so you can decide what suits you best.

Turning to the hardware, you get stand-alone DACs and those which come as part of an SACD or CD player with a USB input, which connect to your amplifier. It would be nice to say that these all play everything, but this is far from the case, and as with the app it must play DSD512 and DXD as downloaded without alteration and DSD in native mode. You can also use the DAC to listen to Radio 3, YouTube and the like. All require downloadable drivers. The same provisos apply to interfaces where the software is installed onto a separate unit which you load with the files you want to play, it imports the computer operating system it is connected to and then feeds the DAC, thereby eliminating the computer’s less than optimal sound circuitry.

As ever with hi-fi equipment you need to try different ones out and not be afraid to challenge dealers who might say “oh yes, this plays DSD256”, which doesn’t mean what goes to the amp is 256. If you buy online, study the spec which should say which formats are supported and contact the manufacturer if you are unsure about anything. As a guide, you are going to have to spend a minimum of around £550 to get a great-sounding DAC that does everything listed above.

Why High-Res?

As mentioned, from day one not everyone was satisfied with CD sound, and despite improvements in technology with the growth in LP sales yet more listeners realised that silver-discs were not the universal panacea they had been promised. Others began to listen far more critically and felt able to voice their concerns online, while one of the world’s most highly respected recording engineers told me (so long as I didn’t mention his name!) that CDs were the digital equivalent of a music-cassette, and that the high-def-download pioneers knew that these sounded better. And when companies such as Hyperion and Channel Classics started offering the downloads in 2009/10, CDs were, by digital standards, old-hat and downloading – and now streaming – was a possible future.

Sound Quality

There are innumerable online articles, blogs and the like where contributors use techno-speak to try and justify their views on CD and high-res sound, whereas all that actually matters is what you hear, so below are a few comparisons.

Back in 2012 Hyperion recorded Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles in a magnificent recital of Schubert songs called Der Wanderer, which it released in 24/88.2 and of course on CD. I originally reviewed the download, but having now listened to the CD, the former has a better dynamic range (although it is not state-of-the-art), the performers have more body and presence and you get a better idea of the All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London acoustic, where the reverberation time is well-controlled.

Turn to Gabrieli for Brass, Venetian Extravaganza from Linn in 24/192 and the dynamic range is superior to the CD, which should be the case given that high-res spans 144dB, CD 96dB. More importantly Linn also chose a church, St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Gardens, London. Here the reverberation time is only about 3.5 seconds, which Linn told me was achieved by situating the players under the tower and the careful placement of just two microphones. However with high-def you are aware there is still a large space around the performers, the instruments sound more life-like and the image has greater projection than the CD or 24/88.2.

Then we have Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque in Vivaldi’s Four Season in DXD from Channel Classics where the bass-line in the opening movement has tremendous bite, you can hear the bows hit the strings in a way that no CD can hope to equal and there is even greater weight and power than on the 24/192 version. But this is also available in DSD256 and 512, the first of which (played in native mode) is cut at a slightly lower level, the overall balance is more recessed, the acoustic even more tangible and the instruments have a softer edge; in effect this is more analogue-like. If like me you love vinyl, then I suspect the DSD will appeal more, but it is entirely down to personal taste.

This brings us to DSD, and I am not going to compare the three recordings below with CD because it is pointless, they are better for all the reasons above and sound less digital, but if we look at the aforementioned Honeck in the Strauss tone poems in DSD64 and compare it with their recent magisterial account of Bruckner Nine in DSD512 from the same label several things become apparent. First, while DSD64 captures the acoustic of the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts and there is a fine sense of depth, with 512 you can almost walk into the hall and orchestra. Second, while all of the sections of the orchestra have fine presence and body and instrumental timbres are vibrant in 64, at the higher rate the brass rasp even more, the timpani crash out, in an area where digital has never been able to equal the finest analogue, the woodwind are far more life-like (the oboes are clearly reed instruments), the strings have an analogue like lustre and the whole image has a real wow factor. Finally we turn back to Oliemans and Giacometti in Winterreise, which we can compare with the Boesch, Vignoles recital, except there isn’t any comparison, the DSD512 again having a walk-in sense of space, the distance between the artists is tangible, Oliemans is more human, indeed his timbre almost matches what you find on golden-age vinyl and the piano actually sounds like a piano not a hologram. On its own terms the Hyperion is excellent, but the DSD is as good as digital sound gets.


Hopefully the above provides an insight to high-res downloading. Certainly as someone who has always found CD sound at best problematic, it comes as balm to the ears and DSD512 stands at the pinnacle of modern digital sound, which everyone should hear. If you have any questions please leave a comment and I will endeavor to respond.


  1. First published in 1990 by Sony/Philips the Red Book contains the technical specifications for CDs, the other colours are Scarlet (SACD) Yellow (CD-ROM), Orange (Recordable CD), Green (CD-interactive), White (Video-CD), Blue Book (Enhanced CD), the Rainbow Book covers defunct MiniDiscs. Unsurprisingly it and the information it contains are not free
  2. Colin Crawley’s audio file size calculator
  3. NativeDSD offers a very large range of high-res classical titles in a number of formats, most of which are not available from the original labels. You get a similar – if very much smaller – thing with Hyperion, where if you want a Signum Classics high-def download you go to their website.

An Introduction to High-Resolution Sound Read More »

Feature LP Review: J.S. Bach|Ruth Palmer; Gershwin|Katie Mahan; Josho Stephan Trio; Daniel Elms; Carlos Cipa; Tchaikovsky|Pathétique Symphony|Berlin

Written by: Rob Pennock

J. S. Bach
Sonata for Solo Violin No.3 in C, BWV1005
Partita for Solo Violin No.3 in E, BWV1006

Ruth Palmer (violin)

Recorded 22 April 2018 at Meistersaal, Berlin

Berliner Meister Schallplatten 180gm LP: BMS 1816 V

Rhapsody in Blue [arranged Mahan]
Embraceable You [arranged Earl Wild]
I Got Rhythm & Our Love is Here to Stay [arranged Mahan]
Preludes 1, 2 & 3 [improvisations by the Labèque sisters]

Katie Mahan (piano)

Recorded 18 December 2016 at Meistersaal, Berlin

Berliner Meister Schallplatten 180gm LP: BMS 1076 B

Josho Stephan Trio, Paris – Berlin

Music originally by Joscho Stephan, Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli, Archibald Joyce, Robert Bosmans, Bert Reisfeld & Albert Markuse, Fred Oldörp, Theo Mackeben and Max Raabe

Joscho Stephan (lead guitar), Volker Kamp (double-bass) & Sven Jungbeck (rhythm guitar)

Berliner Meister Schallplatten 180gm LP: BMS 1817 V

Daniel Elms

Various instrumentalists and singers led by the composer

New Amsterdam Records 180gm LP: NWAM114

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios & live at Hull Minster during June 2017

Carlos Cipa

Various instrumentalists and singers led by the composer

Recorded between January and June 21017 at Carlos Cipa’s Beatschuppen Studio, Munich

Warner Classics LP: 190295479213

Symphony No.6 in B-minor, Op.76 (Pathétique)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko

Recorded live in March 2017 at the Philharmonie, Berlin

Berlin Philharmonic limited edition 180g LP with 20-page booklet

Given that the majors are putting out new releases on LP it seemed the ideal time to look at some recent albums that aren’t reissues of golden-age material, which are mastered in very different ways using direct-to-disc, low and high resolution digital files, from a variety of sources.

Berliner Meister Schallplatten produce a small number of LPs each year which are pure, straight-line analogue, which means the performance isn’t taped, or captured in any other way than the lacquer – which forms the basis of all LP production – being cut as the performers play.

I interviewed the label’s producer and mastering engineer Rainer Maillard about this process and what was planned as a discussion about recording equipment and the like turned into something completely different when it became obvious that Rainer wanted to talk about the ethos surrounding direct-to-disc. But for the record the three LPs below were recorded in venues it was felt best suited the music, the same applied to the microphones, where more than one type would be tested and the equipment used to carry the signal to the cutting head, be it microphone pre-amps or a full valve/tube mixing desk.

Rainer immediately stated – backed up with quotes from artists – that using direct-to-disc makes the performers acutely aware that this is very much like a live performance and there is no second chance, so they have to be psychologically and emotionally prepared before the lathe starts turning. He also mentioned that with a chamber group or orchestra they wouldn’t record until everybody felt ready. I didn’t mention that a conductor as mild-mannered as Barbirolli would have fallen off his perch at the thought of waiting for say the Sinfonia of London’s second cello to feel suitably prepared to record the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia (ASD521), but he was deadly serious about this and re-emphasised the very positive impact this form of recording has on players. Bearing this in mind what do actually get on the three albums submitted for review?

In the Bach Ruth Palmers intonation is awry in the Adagio of BWV 1005, the bowing circumspect, unfortunately she doesn’t use vibrato and nowhere does she come close to matching the greatness of say Grumiaux or Perlman. The sound however is in a different class. Using two Josephson mics and a couple of DG pre-amps the acoustic of the Meistersaal Berlin is beautifully captured, the overall balance is forward, but not aggressively so, the tonal mix totally natural – the violin and player are there in front of you.

The Gershwin is totally different consisting of arrangements and improvisations (wrongly spelt on the sleeve, which is careless) by Katie Mahan, Earl Wild and the Labèque sisters. Side one consists of the Rhapsody in Blue, which, as with the rest of the programme is dispatched with considerable virtuosity. The problem is that if you play Earl Wild in Embraceable You, you immediately know you are listening to a great pianist, which Mahan is not and like most performers of her generation she seems terrified of doing anything that might frighten the horses. Again though, using the same venue, the sound is superb, here the full in-situ Emil Berliner Studio valve/tube mixing desk was used; as with the Bach the balance is quite forward, but this is a Steinway D concert grand, not a digital approximation.

The Joscho Stephan Trio are clearly hugely talented virtuosi who give power-house performances that lead you on from track to track, although in the slower sections they could have relaxed more and here the sound is more problematic. The picture on the back of the album shows what looks like a large lounge was used, but for me the image lacks depth and the double-bass, which is very difficult to record, is a little tubby, although the guitars are far more life-like.

Comprising five pieces inspired by David Elms’s native county, Yorkshire, the North Sea, the city of Hull, Pacific Island rhythms, folk-song and two novels, Islandia is basically sophisticated mood music using conventional and synthesised instruments to construct soundscapes often filled with doubting introspection, using a variety of compositional techniques. The title-piece features ostinato pulses, motor rhythms, a trumpet solo that might have come from the BBC TV series Smiley’s People and deep, percussive bass. The Old Declarn is a piano led nocturne, which subtly varies an Appalachian song, in Soft Machines you have multi-layered, richly orchestrated, dissonant rhythmic and melodic counter-point, while the insistent pulses and tonal shading of North Sea Quartet very effectively evoke a railway journey and the dark waters of the eponymous sea. The final choral piece, Bethia (recorded live at Hull Minster) features bells that bring to mind Peter Grimes and seagulls, which form part of a perhaps over-long narrative describing the history and future of Hull. Nevertheless the first four contain memorable music that I will return to.

Carlos Cipa’s Retronyms is totally different being what might be described as reflective minimalism. Using unusual combinations of instruments Cipa produces exotic, liquid sound worlds, which enable him to bring variety to what might otherwise seem repetitive material – the opening of senna’s joy has a rhythmic ideé fixe which influences many of the other tracks – and inserts short forte passages which varies the emotional temperature. Unlike some composers who struggle to integrate synthetic/electronic sound with more traditional instruments, Cipa has an instinctive understanding of the expressive ability of all the forces he deploys so nowhere do you feel you are listening to a pastiche.

These sound worlds are beautifully crafted and juxtaposed, where after the curiously distorted opening trombone fanfare, smaller and larger groups of players alternate in five pieces and the concluding paon – which features grand piano and trumpet and commences with what sounds like an undistorted version of the opening – brings the work to a conclusion full of quiet melancholy; indeed the entire album is imbued with a sense of sombre introspection and while the instrumentation means that live performances are going to be rare, there is nothing to stop anyone from listening to this haunting music at home.
In terms of the sound both albums have a problem in that while the LPs are superior to the low resolution downloads I was sent, unfortunately the lacquers were cut respectively from 24bit/48kHz and 24bit/44.1kHz digital masters, which is far too low a resolution to properly capture instrumental, vocal timbre and the electronic or synthesised sounds heard on both albums. Yes the vinyl is a civilising influence, but when discussing digital LP mastering with a major European producer they stated that a minimum of 24/192 was necessary to give anything even vaguely near true analogue. Nevertheless these albums deserve to be heard on LP.

Finally we have another of the Berlin Philharmonics limited edition LPs, which is worth every penny of the asking price (€35.99 plus p&p and free high-res download) containing, as it does, a magnificent performance of the Pathétique Symphony with the orchestra’s new Principal Conductor.

Listening to the introduction to the first movement one cannot help but think of Evgeny Mravinsky, whose live 1982 performance in all, bar the Waltz, features almost identical timings to Petrenko. Mravinsky was surely the last century’s greatest Tchaikovsky conductor who understood perfectly that maudlin sentimentality, huge unwritten tempo changes and schmaltzy phrasing should never disfigure the composer’s music, something that Petrenko also clearly realises as he uses rubato, small changes of speed within a flowing basic tempo, creates beautifully balanced textures, never allows the tension to drop and gets his players to phrase in a way that is echt Russian.

As the 5/4 waltz dances elegantly by, tinged with melancholy, one notes the subtle rhythmic inflexion and control of micro-dynamics. The march has a quiet sense of purpose and in the final pages coruscating power. In the sublime Adagio lamentoso finale, Petrenko creates a decidedly bleak soundscape, although on first hearing the slight accelerando into the climax of the second subject jarred, but on second listening one realises that this fits in with Petrenko’s frenzied conception of its final appearance, while the austere string tone and pizzicato double-basses in the coda are superb.
When listening to a 24/192 WAV download it was obvious that the overall and internal balance were good. In tutti passages each section remains clearly audible and the brass cut through, although the timpani lack the last degree of realism. With the LP – derived from a 24/192 master – the sound has more weight, instrumental timbres are richer, the acoustic more tangible and this is by some distance the finest in-house BPO sound I have heard.

Previous LP reviews by Rob:

Feature LP Review: J.S. Bach|Ruth Palmer; Gershwin|Katie Mahan; Josho Stephan Trio; Daniel Elms; Carlos Cipa; Tchaikovsky|Pathétique Symphony|Berlin Read More »

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck [Showing on January 11]

Written by: Alexander Campbell

The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.

The Metropolitan Opera – William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

#5: Wozzeck

Who wrote it?
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, first premiered in Berlin in 1925, is based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner. This startlingly original atonal score and operatic distillation of a pretty searing play initially received decidedly mixed critical reception as well as some hostility from the bewildered audience. Yet, owing to this notoriety, it soon started to receive other stagings in Germany and Austria until the Nazi party labelled it as degenerate art (Entartete Kunst), thereby minimising performances. Post-war it has almost become part of the standard repertory of houses where some of the modernist 20th Century works are valued. No wonder for even today it remains an unsettling, compelling experience with its many grotesque characters and its flawed, yet sympathetic, heroine and anti-hero, despite the original play hailing from the early 19th Century. It really was a work ahead of its time.

The Metropolitan Opera – William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck
Peter Mattei in the title role and Christian Van Horn as the Doctor
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

What’s it about?
Wozzeck, an ordinary soldier, is first met whilst shaving the beard of the Captain who pontificates about existence and berates Wozzeck for always rushing everywhere and for his immoral lifestyle. Later Wozzeck is seen cutting sticks in a field with a fellow soldier, Andres. As the sun sets Wozzeck expresses a sense of unease and being driven by strange external forces.
Wozzeck’s common-law wife Marie is enthralled by the appearance of the Drum-major whilst watching a military procession. Her child by Wozzeck is restless and she sings a lullaby to send him to sleep. When the coast is clear the Drum-major is invited by Marie into her shabby home. Meanwhile we learn that Wozzeck is under the care of the Doctor who appears to be experimenting on his through control of diet and activity.
The Doctor and the Captain casually insinuate to Wozzeck that Marie may be unfaithful – something he already suspects having found her with a set of earrings which she says she has ‘found’. Wozzeck confronts Marie, initially in a roundabout way but then more forcefully and with the threat of physical violence. He later sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major at a party and is enraged. The Drum-major enters the soldiers’ dormitory whilst drunk and challenges Wozzeck to a fight.
Marie feels remorse for her actions and seeks solace in her Bible. She and Wozzeck go for a walk by the lake and again they fight. Wozzeck stabs her and disposes of her body in the water. He returns to the camp where his comrades and others notice blood on his clothes. Shaken, he returns to the lake to try and dispose of the incriminating dagger but fails to throw it far enough and drowns whilst trying to rectify this. As the children play outside, Wozzeck and Marie’s son included, rumours of a gruesome discovery start to circulate.

The Metropolitan Opera – William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck
Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and director William Kentridge confer at a rehearsal
Photograph: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Listen out for…
Given the atonal nature of the music Wozzeck isn’t an opera full of catchy hummable tunes. Berg’s score is full of taut, spare-sounding musical effects and has an inner propulsion of its own as the music steers the drama to its grisly conclusion. Berg also drawns from Wagner in his use of repeated music themes or leitmotifs to delineate both characters, actions and ideas. The orchestra deployed is rather large, but the tension builds by sheer dint of the rather understated quality of the scoring. Berg also uses compositional forms such as the passacaglia and themes and variations into the mix (as Britten later did in some of his operas). Despite this unconventional approach it is interesting that there are some scenes that have the feel of the solo operatic ‘scena’ to them – notably Marie’s lullaby and Bible reading episodes which allow this poor woman to express her inner feelings and frustrations directly to the audience. The score also has some remarkable off-stage passages such as the military march and the background party music. The murder and drowning scenes are eerie indeed.

Who is in it?
William Kentridge is the director of this new staging at The Metropolitan Opera. His production of Berg’s later (incomplete) opera Lulu was a sensation a few years back. Sabine Theunissen has designed the evocative and imposing sets. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts a cast with Swedish baritone Peter Mattei in the demanding title role; one where his strong brooding stage presence and marvellous voice should be near ideal. Elza van den Heever sings the hapless unhappy Marie. There are some notable Wagnerian tenor voices in some of the other roles as Christopher Ventris is singing the Drum-major and the Captain is being sung by Gerhard Siegel. It should be a murderously good performance.

When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at The Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on January 11.

Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck [Showing on January 11] Read More »

British ‘Baby Spinto’, Freddie De Tommaso, makes his debut as Cassio in Keith Warner and Antonio Pappano’s Otello for The Royal Opera

Written by: Amanda-Jane Doran

Freddie De Tommaso has burst onto the international opera scene since winning first prize at the Viñas Competition in Barcelona two years ago. He is that rare bird: an Italian-British tenor of the lyrico spinto variety, possessor of a voice of powerful sweetness and flexibility.

Freddie De Tommaso
Photograph: Julian Baumann

At only twenty-six he is making his artist debut in Keith Warner’s production of Otello for The Royal Opera in the role of Cassio. I spoke to him briefly after the impressive dress rehearsal of the piece to discover how he had arrived at this exciting place in his career. De Tommaso is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music Opera School. Before that, at school, he had sung as a chorister and developed a passion for acting. He never intended to become a singer, and initially studied languages at Bristol University. Fate intervened and he reconnected with his singing teacher Toby Stafford-Allen. A bass-baritone at this point, his exploratory vocal workouts would eventually take him to a high B, and the emotionally expansive tenor lyric roles of Verdi and Puccini.

Following his success, winning the first prize, the Plácido Domingo and Verdi prizes at the 2017 Francisco Viñas International Singing Contest, De Tommaso was faced with several appealing offers, including a position in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper Studio. Its production of Puccini’s La fanciula del West was streamed worldwide this summer, with De Tommaso taking the role of Joe. His dark good looks combined with dramatic stage presence make him a natural young lead. Daily vocal work, combined with physical fitness and plenty of hydration have proved a winning formula as De Tommaso looks forward to an exciting, developing range of roles. The fight scenes in Otello were an exhilarating challenge, and he also confided that the rehearsal time with the lead singers, Gregory Kunde and Carlos Álvarez, with Sir Antonio Pappano and Keith Warner were enthralling and inspirational. He had to pinch himself to believe he was really there.

De Tommaso’s favourite listening gives a clue about his future trajectory as an artist. Top of the list is Franco Corelli, followed by Mario Del Monaco, ‘tenori di forza’ possessed of ringing, trumpet like voices. The major dramatic roles could take shape for De Tommaso, as more dreams to come true for this dashing young singer.

British ‘Baby Spinto’, Freddie De Tommaso, makes his debut as Cassio in Keith Warner and Antonio Pappano’s Otello for The Royal Opera Read More »

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