31 October 2011

Bruckner -- Nagano -- Vatican

Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra (Bayerisches Staatsorchester) performed Bruckner's Ninth Symphony in Vatican on 22 October 2011. Bruckner's Te Deum was also performed by soloists from the Bavarian State Opera Choir and the 92 member strong Audi Youth Choir Academy (Audi Judendchorakademie) for Pope Benedict XVI.

Nagano was interviewed just before the concert and the audio clip can be heard from the Vatican Radio.

While still on Bruckner Ninth, a very interesting and thoughtful "walk-through" by pianist Peter Tiefenbach was broadcast on CBC Radio 2.

Sony 88697909452

I've listened to Nagano's latest B7 disc on Sony and been impressed by his fine use of rubato and the light touches he applied to his phrasing. It was a live recording made on 23 September 2010, during a long European tour, in a cathedral in Gent, Belgium -- Saint Bavo Cathedral or Sint Baafskathedraal. After this concert, an orchestral member spoke of this unique experience of playing a Bruckner symphony in a cathedral and having a feeling of conversing with something higher. The Adagio is particularly affecting.

26 October 2011


My heart beats faster knowing Paavo Järvi's next Bruckner disc will be released in December in Japan: a June 2009 recording of Bruckner 5th in Alte Oper, Frankfurt before their successful European tour. His B7 recording is one of my favourites. The B5 will be a hybrid SACD/CD disc (Sony SICC 10120).
Update (April 2012): This recording is re-scheduled to be released in Japan on 9 May 2012. Listed price 2940 yen. 

Around the same time, Günter Wand's second round of NDR Bruckner recordings will appear in SACD format in Japan: B3 (1992) (Sony SICC 10125), B5 (1989) (SICC 10126), B6 (1995) (SICC 10127) and B8 (1993) (SICC 10123). 

They can become the best Christmas presents, at least for me.

A tale of two concurrent issues of Keilberth's 1960 BPO Bruckner Ninth -- Part 2

Testament's release has revealed the sonic decapitation and overzealous noise reduction of Orfeo's corresponding release.

SBT2 1472

In Part 1, the inferior sound of Orfeo's Keilberth 1960 Salzburg Festival concert live recording has been noted. After comparison with Testament's release which I just got, it is clear what Orfeo's has missed sonically. It is also evident that the original master does not have the state-of-the-art sound of that period; not least it is in mono only. However comparison is always cruel. The Orfeo's release has truncated upper frequencies and applied overenthusiastic noise reduction, resulting in the poor sound it (re)produces. It also robs the vitality of sound as shown in the Testament release. The timbre of the woodwinds is particularly affected, and so the delectable Lother Koch's solo oboe, Karlheinz Zöller's solo flute and Karl Leister's solo clarinet in the middle part of the Scherzo, which can hardly be appreciated in Orfeo's release, have been captured nicely in Testament's transfer.  Even Karlheinz Duse-Utesch's trombone becomes more vividly portrayed. This is the Berlin Philharmonic in the early 1960s we are familiar with, in sound and in character. The frisson of the concert can now be felt in Testament's transfer.

Compared to his 1956 studio recording, Keilberth had more agogic accents in the live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic. The gesangperiode is so beautifully played as can be heard in the Testament disc. The same subject group in Orfeo's transfer is marred by a sound picture turning dim inexplicably and it becomes quite difficult to enjoy the beautiful dialogue between the strings and the woodwinds. However, at the beginning of the third subject group, there was a sag in tempo and Keilberth had to give the orchestra a push, resulting in a rather abrupt accelerando. The distinguished woodwind soloists whom Karajan brought in did not disappoint. 

The magic of Keilberth is that he could make the Scherzo sound so musical instead of the militant feel that permeates so many other performances or recordings. It is so in both his 1956 studio and the present 1960 live recordings, but the latter is more animated and exciting, fully exhibiting the thrill of a live performance.

The Adagio is affecting, more so in the Abschied vom leben (starting 2'50") and it is where the present live recording becomes more loved than the 1956 studio one. Pauses are shorter in the live performance and the reading on the whole is more urgent. The brass plays a major role in this great Adagio and it is exactly where another reason to prefer the Testament transfer comes in: the Orfeo brass sound is just not up to par. After the climax, Keilberth gently eases the music into silence, but then not long after, starts a build up on the dominant of F major as if another climax of dissonance is coming. But it is not to be, because the resigning coda sets in at this moment. Keilberth fully enthralls the listener here. In the dying moments of this movement, Karlheinz Zöller's flute is truly riveting.

A live recording not to be missed. The music in the companion disc is no less attractive. 

21 October 2011

A tale of two concurrent issues of Keilberth's 1960 BPO Bruckner Ninth -- Part 1

Orfeo's issue: A stunningly dedicated performance in glaringly compromised sound

Orfeo C838112B

Keilberth had recorded a memorable Bruckner Ninth in 1956 for Telefunken with the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg before this 17 August 1960 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic at the 1960 Salzburg Festival, in the new Grosses Festspielhaus.

Given the scarcity of Keilberth's Bruckner live recordings, it is tempting to compare this live recording with the studio one he made almost 4 years earlier. I have 2 versions of the studio recording. One is the Japanese Teldec release. The other is from the label Spectrum Sound which apparently is sold in Japan with a limited edition of 1500. The sound source is the German Telefunken LP SLT 43043 Black Silver first edition. In the CD booklet a long list of sophisticated equipment is named to show the care put in in remastering. They are not bluffing; the resulting sound of the CD is very impressive.

Japanese Teldec WPCS-6053
Spectrum Sound CDSM 007 JT

Let's see the timings first.

                            1956 Teldec             1956 Spectrum Sound              1960 Orfeo
1st mov't                 23:16                             23:21                               23:57
Scherzo                   10:53                             11:02                               10:45
Adagio                     22:22                             22:34                               23:57
                                                                                (music ends, applause not counted)

As it is now well known that Testament is also issuing the same 1960 Salzburg performance, it is inevitable that comparison of the sound of the CD transfers will be made. A little bird in Europe told me that Orfeo had someone with the possession of a batch of Salzburg Festival archive recordings "sell"/"license" them this batch in a lump sum of a few thousand euros. Testament, on the other hand, had their license through someone close to the Berlin Philharmonic, presumably Dr Helge Grünewald. There is no contest of copyright infringement issues now as the sound recording of this performance has passed the 50-year rule and is effectively in public domain. What counts for consumers now is the difference in sound, documentation, packaging and price. For Orfeo, the liner notes are written by someone closely connected with the Salzburg Festival, Gottfried Kraus, detailing Keilberth's performance history in this Festival and the press response at that time. For Testament, the writer is Mike Ashman, a musical historian, opera director and critic. He gives us a short biography of Keilberth and his diary entry of this concert. The packaging is just typical of either company's. Which cover photo is better is up to personal taste. Not much difference price-wise.

Then we come to the most important element -- the sound. As I haven't got my Testament CD, direct A-B comparison cannot be made at this time. But even considered on its own, the sound of the Orfeo issue is really disappointing. The sound stage is narrow, the dynamic range limited, the sound dull and distant, and the whole sound picture well below par of recordings of that vintage. When I brought the CD to Savio's home for him to have a listen, he just remarked that it sounded like an aircheck.

The poor sound will definitely hamper our appreciation of Berlin Philharmonic's sound and its distinguished soloists. Heinrich Kralik in his review in Die Presse 3 days after the concert: "In the Bruckner symphony it was possible to hear the outstanding artistic merits of the Berlin Philharmonic: its stylistic rigour, its straightforward playing, the mellow, rich sound of its string section and the special qualities of its winds. Nor was there any lack of the fullness and mellowness of tone that Bruckner's music demands." All these cannot be discerned through the poor sound of this CD. Lother Koch's solo oboe, Karlheinz Zöller's solo flute and Karl Leister's solo clarinet in the middle part of the Scherzo should be delectable but there is no way to enjoy them fully in this transfer. 

Although my copy of the Testament CD has yet to arrive, judging from previous releases from Testament of recordings of that vintage, I have every reason to believe that their CD will have much better sound than this Orfeo release which simply does not do justice to this important sound document of history, not just for the Bruckner but also for the Schubert and Berg. 

As for Keilberth's reading it is best to wait till the Testament transfer has arrived before a full review is made. This will be the job of Part 2. However, even fettered by the poor sound, there is no mistaking that it is a stunningly dedicated performance.

16 October 2011

The new EMI Wilhelm Furtwängler box-set -- equivocal sound improvement in Beethoven and Brahms symphonies

In a previous blog entry, the mistakes in documentation of the newly issued EMI box were mentioned. As the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies within this box-set were remastered based on the remastering for SACDs issued in Japan, it was hinted that there would be an improvement in sound compared with previous remastered versions. This arouses my curiosity, so I went to my friend Savio's home for A-B tests as he has high-end gears, quite unlike my own at best mediocre system. Savio's system is shown below.

CD transport : Marantz PMD331

D/A converter : Weiss DAC 2

Pre-amp : Primaluna Prologue Three

Power-amp : Primaluna Prologue Five(bridged) x 2

Speakers : Dynaudio '30th Anniversary' Sapphire

We gathered different versions for comparison as shown below.

Versions for comparison

Brief notes on the sound difference:
For Beethoven 1&3, the new remastering, compared with the old References version, has better sound in terms of details and richness, but Savio has the impression that the old version sounds more Furtwängler-like in line with his impressions of "Furtwängler-ness".

For Beethoven 5, the new version has warmer sound but the Japanese ART version (TOCE-59006) has a more distinct sound stage particularly where the brass and string pizzicato are concerned. The Japanese 2088 version has much surface hiss with a limited dynamic range, really disappointing compared with the other 2 versions.

It is interesting to compare the old References version of Brahms First Symphony with the new version. The difference in details and sound is apparently not much, but the overall impression tells quite another story. The old version has a tympani-dominant opening while the new version has a string-dominant one.

Where Brahms 4 is concerned, although the old References CD has muddy and turbid sound compared with the new version, oddly enough the brighter and more limpid new version sounds disordered in terms of orchestral balance, which gives the listener an umcomfortable feeling. The best sounding in this group is the Japanese ART version (TOCE-59003) with a firmer bass, more beautiful strings and woodwinds.

The overall impression is that the new version sounds more 'modern' -- cleaner and brighter, with little background tape hiss -- but not necessarily more satisfying musically.

P.S. Thanks are due to Savio's wife Julie for her patient help in putting the CDs into the player without our knowing which is which, thus allowing a blind test.

13 October 2011

Thielemann's Bruckner Fifth -- Apple of discord

One of the readers of this blog, Sky, has made the following comment:
"DG released Thielemann/MPO's Bruckner Symphony No. 5 some years ago, some people raved about it, but I also found some people(i.e. David Hurwitz) critized it. Could you share your opinion on that recording?"
I'm more than happy to share mine with you.

Before any discussion of Thielemann's B5, it has to be understood that extremes of tempo will invariably invite skepticism. Classical examples include Celibidache in his Munich years at the slow end, and Norrington at the fast end of the tempo spectrum.

Thielemann's Bruckner recordings

Another fact one has to consider is Thielemann's explicit identification as the torch-bearer of the old German school of conducting, and in this context he has long attracted controversy, especially when one thinks of the authentic movement marching into the Romantic period these days. I have followed Thielemann's progress ever since his debut recording, as he offered us something that was unusual at that, and even the present, time. If one further considers the history that one of his earliest recordings for DG was Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies with Philharmonia Orchestra, a disc I liked very much, one can realise that he is someone who prides himself on the core traditional Austro-German repertoire. So there is no surprise that he chose Bruckner's 5th for his inaugural concert as General Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic, and also to record it live. His confidence in himself is further supported by this choice, as Celibidache also performed this symphony for the opening of the new concert hall in Munich. Although Thielemann wrote in the CD booklet asking others not to compare him to the old masters, his choice of performing this symphony at that important moment in face of the rich Bruckner tradition in Munich, however, casts an obviously paradoxical shadow on his request.

Apart from his choice of tempo, another special attribute in this recording is the sound colour. Building up from the low bass, his orchestral sound picture portraits a dark solemn mood and at the same time resembles plangent organ music. His crescendos and decrescendos are gradual and smooth, making the ride through a Bruckner's symphony an undulating wave-like experience rather than a rough jumpy one.

In this symphony he uses the first three movements to gather momentum for a fine release in the Finale. His long legato is mesmerizing. This is no ordinary, routine Bruckner performance practice. I'm glad to have this listening experience.

By the way, David Hurwitz had a change of heart in his review of Thielemann's recent B8 live recording which, in terms of dynamics, tempo, orchestral palette and tension, did not differ significantly from his B5's in question.

03 October 2011

Venzago's second instalment is just around the corner

Not too long ago it was announced that Mario Venzago would embark on a new Bruckner symphonies cycle, and B4 and B7 were released. Now just a few months later, his B0 (1869 version) and B1 (1866 "Linz" version) will be released two weeks from now, although with another orchestra: Tapiola Sinfonietta.

Although his first B4 and B7 are unremarkable to my ears, the coming release still arouses much interest in me, as the early symphonies can provide refreshing experiences.

On the other hand, King Record in Japan will issue a local release (KICC967) of Wand's B9 with RSO Stuttgart originally issued by Profil. Whether it will be just a local copy of the original release or a newly remastered recording is not known at this moment.

Hanssler will reissue in their Premium Composers series 2 Bruckner recordings coupled together: Kurt Sanderling's lovely B7 and Giulini's somewhat less successful B9, both with RSO Stuttgart.

The Sanderling B3 is one of my favourites.
For the past 10 days or so, I was fully occupied in various tasks and no spare time could be squeezed out to listen to music. Finalising the schedule of a certificate course and performing the standard setting (complicated and tedious calculations) for a postgrad examination -- alas they are not doing well this year -- are time-consuming yet no mistakes can be entertained. Even today I have to drive some 40 km to the airport as my son is going back to the UK for the new term. Just returned home feeling lost and tired, I really need a good sleep. Thinking of starting to write something tomorrow, on the many discs I've listened to for the past month, e.g. the Dudamel B9, the TMSO's B5s, the Tahra SACD of Furtwangler's wartime Eroica, the rumours I heard about the contemporaneous release of Keilberth's 1960 Salzburg Festival concert (with B9) on Testament and Orfeo, etc. Can I finish all these? Can I resort to the overused and straddling term "cautiously optimistic"? Just senseless babble in a hypnagogic state.