WAGNER: Tannhäuser: Overture & Venusberg Music (1874 version). BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal; Julia Jones, cond / HD Klassik 801801 (live: Wuppertal, March 11-12, 2018)
One of the major reasons why modern-day fans of “vinyl” (the new buzzword for plain old LPs) feel so strongly that the sound thereon is superior to 24-bit CDs is that they feel the sound is warmer. For the most part, this is due to the actual sound of the vinyl itself coming through one’s speakers along with the music, but you can’t convince them otherwise.
This 3D Binaural CD should dispel them of that fiction. Designed for headphone listening, it has an almost Cinemascope effect when heard that way. The full orchestra is laid out in front of you with plenty of warmth as well as a spaciousness that resembles the old Quadraphonic LPs of the 1970s except with no pops, ticks or crackle to infringe on your listening experience. In that respect, the CD is truly amazing.
Julia Jones’ performances are also quite good, particularly in her exciting rendition of the Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music and the last two movements of the Symphonie Fantastique. The one thing I missed, however, was the bite of the winds and the “sheen” on the violins, which are mitigated by the wide-screen engineering. It’s not quite as bad as many modern-day CDs where too much ambience or reverb is used—some things do come through quite clearly, like the cymbals in the Wagner—but I do miss that certain edge in the treble range that less ambient CDs provide.
A good example of what I mean is to compare Jones’ reading of the Berlioz symphony with the recent recording by Gianandrea Noseda on Helicon Classics, which I reviewed in August of this year. In terms of tempi, Jones is very close to Noseda, and she does maintain a good forward momentum in the performance, but too many times one listens in vain for the characteristic Berlioz sound of biting winds.
If the reader thinks I am damning Jones with faint praise, please understand that I really think that the engineering, in its effort to provide surround sound through conventional headphones, is the problem and not the conductor. These really are good performances that, were it not for some very strong competition elsewhere, would surely please even veteran classical listeners. It’s just that I feel that the sound was dulled somewhat by the engineering. Certain effects surely make their mark, such as the timpani “thunderclap” near the end of the third movement of the Berlioz symphony, that no other recording can duplicate. In the back of my mind, however, I feel badly that the Symphonie Fantastique was the work chosen for this CD and not the Berlioz Requiem. That might have been fantastic in this kind of surround sound.
As noted earlier, however, the last two movements of the Berlioz symphony, and particularly the “March to the Scaffold,” are just terrific. Never before has the feeling of fright been better captured by the microphones as it is here, excepting the bite of the winds and especially the trombones in the right channel during the trumpet section outburst. These are muddied by the microphone placement.
In short, this is a very good recording that just misses greatness, though not by much. Given a brighter sound profile, these performances could well be among the best ever recorded. Even as they are, as mentioned earlier, they are very good. Julia Jones is clearly a first-rate conductor and one whose name I will be looking out for in the future.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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