The full English breakfast: Dave Denyer listens to Chasing the Dragon’s Live Beethoven Series on master tape

UK-based audiophile label Chasing The Dragon’s latest addition to their reassuringly-expanding catalogue is the classical equivalent of the full English breakfast: music that’s been performed and recorded countless times, that extends far beyond the usual reach of classical music and that’s sure to be immensely popular. (Okay so the breakfast analogy may be stretching it a bit, but I’m writing this at 7am with cup of tea in hand, and food will soon be on my mind!).

To put it another way, in The Live Beethoven Series we have some of the most widely known and instantly recognizable classical music ever composed, not least those first four bars of ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’ aka Symphony no. 5 in C minor, op. 67. ‘Dum-dum-dum-duuuuum.’ Composed, of course, when the man was completely deaf and so we love him all the more for that, for the sense of possibility beyond apparent limits.

To date, Chasing the Dragon has released two titles in this series, both big ‘hits’ if classical music can be said to have hits. Both of them should appeal to hardcore classical buffs looking for interesting performances, to tape-heads with an appetite for true master copies and to the whole gamut of audiophiles dabbling or fully immersed in classical music. It’s worth noting that these recordings are available on ¼-inch 15ips tape, ¼-inch 7.5ips tape, vinyl LP, compact disc and high resolution PCM and DSD downloads – oh and even cassette. So if you don’t have a tape budget, don’t worry – all music lovers can enjoy this one!

The two tapes in question are –

  • Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, op. 73 (“Emperor”).
  • Beethoven: Egmont Overture, op. 84 & Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67.

Both tapes were recorded on the same night, so are in fact two halves of one Beethoven concert recorded at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields. The orchestra is The Locrian Ensemble of London, here conducted by Rimma Sushanskaya. And the pianist on the Piano Concerto No. 5 is John Lenehan.

Introducing ‘the band’

The Locrian Ensemble is one of the UK’s leading string ensembles. Founded in 1995, it brings together some of the most prominent string soloists in London and enjoys and enviable international reputation for recordings, broadcasts and live performance. The Ensemble plays very regularly at St Martin-in-the-Fields, mostly performing baroque and classical music, so the musicians are clearly at home here on a number of levels. They also already feature in Chasing The Dragon’s catalogue, on their Mozart by Candlelight recording, also recorded at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

They are joined by celebrated British pianist John Lenehan on the ‘Emperor’ piano concerto No. 5. Lenehan has quite some CV… he’s appeared at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s also recorded many CDs, mostly on the NAXOS label, but is probably best known as the pianist in many successful ‘duo’ recordings with the likes of Nigel Kennedy and Julian Lloyd Webber.

Conductor Rimma Sushanskaya is clearly another serious talent, including something of a peerless pedigree as a virtuosos violinist: she was the last pupil of arguably the world’s greatest ever violinist, David Oistrakh. She studied with Oistrakh at the Moscow Conservatoire, and it was only after defecting from the Soviet Union that Sushanskaya later added conducting to her skillset. I read somewhere that she’s particularly noted for her interpretation of Beethoven’s fabulous Symphony No. 9 (which I’m told is in Chasing The Dragon’s schedule for future recordings – excellent news!) and for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (which I may have to pester Mike Valentine to add to the schedule too!).

On with the listening

So, I hit ‘play’ and, as I’ve come to expect with a great quality master tape, I’m immediately transported to another environment, another acoustic space.

However, in stark contrast to the beautifully recorded Vivaldi in Venice tapes, this recording transports me not to Italy but the rather imposing St Martin-in-the Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square. This impressive building couldn’t really be more English. The imposing structure, a church, was built in the neoclassical style in the early 18th century. Its vast space is authentically captured in this recording, but unlike the Venice recordings the resulting ambiance is darker and heavier. It’s definitely not lush or bright (or basking in Mediterranean sun).

But lest you think I’m suggesting it’s all doom and gloom (I’m not), what’s equally apparent is the way that Chasing the Dragon’s Mike Valentine has used a careful selection of microphones to capture a balance of both the acoustic signature of this large, imposing building, and also the full depth and space of the orchestra. (For more on Mike’s process see last months article Capturing ambience: Neville Roberts explores the art of making a masterful live recording).

What’s particularly convincing is the balance of the orchestra and the soloist. Here, the piano sits weighted at the front of the stage. The crossed pair of microphones, also at the front of the stage, capture the cool, dark ambiance of the venue, with the orchestra filling the void as it swells in ‘forte’ and then ebbs away into ‘piano’. This balance of the orchestra filling the space and the soloist remaining separate, yet with the two also tight and together, can be deceptively hard to convey, especially in a concerto, including in situ in a live performance. How often have you been to a concert and struggled to hear every point of detail from the soloist as the orchestra swamps some of it out? Chapeau to Valentine!

I particularly enjoyed the wind section: centrally placed but clearly behind and slightly above the piano. The interplay between the piano in the foreground and the percussive conversation of plucked strings really gives dynamism to the space, the conversation passing back and forth within the soundstage. In contrasting with this back-and-forth dialogue, when the orchestra reaches a crescendo (particularly with the string section) the sound swells and blooms as it reaches up to the full height of the church, giving incredible stature and depth to the sonic picture, caressing every nook and cranny of the venue, but still always remaining behind the solo piano. And the sound of the piano itself is quite exceptional – full-bodied with a wonderfully natural timbre.

It’s not you, it’s me

To sum up, I’d say that this is an excellently-made recording of an iconic body of music and as such, it’s an instant classic. However, for me personally, I’m not in love with St Martin-in-the-Fields as a venue so in a way, the sheer quality of this recording works against it a little insofar as it fully captures the acoustics and the ambiance of that venue.

Dare I say the venue almost sounds ‘too English’ for me and puts me in mind of a rather murky, overcast morning. Give me the light and warmth of one of Italy’s countless stunning venues any day! While these Beethoven compositions are ‘big’ pieces of music (in every sense of the term – emotion, fame), for me there’s also an intimacy and a delicacy in them that I’m not sure St Martin-in-the-Fields as a venue lends itself to. Still, I’m very aware that this is a matter of personal taste and so I fully appreciate that others may find the captured ambience of that venue to be absolutely the right one for these compositions. Therein lies the beauty of master tape: the fact that the visceral presence of the recording venue is, as in a live performance, a key part of the total experience. And, while this particular venue may not be my favourite, that doesn’t stop me from fully enjoying the mastery and quality of the recording here.

As is so often the case, I relished hearing the occasional sniff from an audience member, a deep gasp, a sharp intake of breath and a soft shuffle of feet. And also, being in central London, there’s the occasional background thrum of traffic outside. Does this distract? Not at all, for me it absolutely increases the sense of this being a live recording, a real performance in a real space, captured with absolute skill and fidelity.