Jan 15, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt, Incidental Music (XRCD24 review)

Sir Thomas Beecham, Beecham Choral Society, with Ilse Hollweg, soprano, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD2.

It wasn’t too long ago that I listened to and recommended the low-priced EMI reissue of this incidental music for Grieg’s Peer Gynt performed by Sir Thomas Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The recording first appeared on LP in the late Fifties, and EMI subsequently reissued it on LP, cassette tape, and CD over the years. Now we find it in yet another incarnation in the Hi-Q Records XRCD/K2 series of audiophile discs. The interpretation oozes the usual Beecham charm, long one of my favorites in this music, and the sound is obviously better than ever.

No, Beecham does not give us all of the music Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. Beecham provides about forty-two minutes’ worth. If you want the complete incidental music, you’ll have to turn to people like Per Drier on Unicorn or Neeme Jarvi on DG. Beecham’s extended selections are more like the suites, which you can find on any number of fine recordings. What Beecham brings to the table is his characteristic twinkle, lighting up the music with enchantment and charisma aplenty. And, naturally, the extended selections include Grieg’s most-famous movements: “Wedding March,” “Ingrid’s Lament,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” “Morning,” “Ase’s Death,” “1st Arabian Dance,” “Solveig’s Song,” “Anitra’s Dance,” “Return of Peer Gynt” (Storm Scene), and “Wiegenlied” (“Solveig’s Lullaby”).

What the Hi-Q disc does not include are Beecham’s recordings of the Symphonic Dance, the overture In Autumn, and the Old Norwegian Folksong with Variations, which EMI later added to fill out their reissued CD. These selections did not appear on the original LP, which is all that Hi-Q offer. Given the high price of the Hi-Q product, some potential buyers may understandably be annoyed at the short, forty-one minute playing time; just think of the disc as offering quality over quantity. If you’re looking for something less expensive, I’d suggest the EMI Beecham disc, Raymond Leppard’s Philips recording of the two suites, or Oiven Fjeldstad’s Decca issue of highlights.

The sound of the Beecham recording belies its 1957 production date, when EMI made it in Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London. Hi-Q have remastered it using JVC’s XRCD24/K2 processing, a technology I’ve described in the past that is meticulous, time consuming, and costly. It results in the best possible transfer of information from a master tape to a compact disc, but, as I say, it ain’t cheap.

As always when I have the opportunity, I put the new audiophile Hi-Q edition in one CD player and the regular-issue EMI CD in another for instant comparisons, trading out the discs from time to time to be sure I was listening to the sound of the discs and not to the sound of the players (although, to be fair, the players sound practically identical). The first thing I noticed in the comparison was that the Hi-Q disc sounded slightly smoother, with slightly better definition and separation of instruments. Next, I noticed that the Hi-Q product was slightly firmer and clearer overall; it was slightly less veiled, as though removing a fine layer of gauze from the sonics. I also noticed that the Hi-Q sound was slightly stronger in dynamic range and transient impact, with slightly more-extended highs and slightly tauter bass. By contrast, the EMI disc, already quite good, sounded slightly softer, less forceful, and less transparent. Be aware of the word “slightly” here; the differences are not night-and-day.

I noticed a touch of background noise in both masterings that is the merest shade more pronounced in the Hi-Q edition. Also, the vocals on the Hi-Q are sometimes a bit brighter, edgier, and harder-sounding. We might expect the better mastering to display more greatly any small deficiencies in the original tape, and that’s what happens. Nevertheless, these are such minor concerns, they are hardly worth mentioning in so fine an edition.

The Hi-Q packaging, too, is first-rate. The disc comes housed in a Digipak-type container, with a cardboard cover and back, bound text and pictures in the center, the CD fastened to the inside back cover. With its glossy coating and original cover art, the package couldn’t look better.

Note, however, that remastered audiophile discs are not for everyone; the differences between the sound of better masterings and pressings and the equivalent regular releases are usually so small that most people probably wouldn’t notice them. Remastered audiophile discs are for well-heeled connoisseurs attempting to squeeze the last ounce of fidelity from their stereo systems. It’s here that audiophile remastering companies such as Hi-Q, FIM, JVC, HDTT, and the like fill a need, providing the best-possible product regardless of price.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa