Radio 3 Outside Broadcast trucks at the Proms, 2018
No opportunity this year to queue outside the Albert Hall, to stand in the hall promenader to promenader, sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder, within spitting distance of the brass and avoiding eye contact with the string players. Ah, those summers of not so long ago. But we have instead a tasty season of BBC recordings from this iconic but acoustically challenging venue.
In presenting these my comments, we have to be aware of the various difficult circumstances of live concert sound balancing. Limitations of crewing, rig and rehearsal time, compatibility with television and so on. That our friends at Radio 3 manage so much is to be celebrated not nit-picked. Nonetheless, in scheduling a season from the archive (for reasons we well understand), it’s also an invitation to compare the styles of stereo sound we have enjoyed, especially as they are rebroadcast this year in glorious HD sound, in quick succession and within the same presentation format. Good to hear at least some of the original presentation, voices no longer on our radios.
But just to comment on the stereo sound. I’m listening on full-range speakers in my basement room which has extensive acoustic treatment and very low ambient noise, comparable to a sound studio control room.
1994: Giulini, European Union Youth Orchestra
Orchestral Brahms. What I would call the classic stereo Radio 3 balance. Slightly distant by today’s standards but well-integrated and balanced, the highlighting of woodwind subtle and unobvious.
Stereo image relatively conservative and very stable with listening position or mono. Representative of a seat midway back if there were seats there, that would be where promenders are standing. No attempt to immerse the listener in the soundfield, the sound is out in front. The version transmitted had very subtle dynamics compression by means of close/far perspective control and no obvious electronic compression or limiting. Rather nice sound that doesn’t get in the way of the music.
2007: Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Big wide stereo from the start but the dynamics compression starts early. Big forces for Mahler Symphony No. 3 but although the stereo and the reverb are big and wide, there’s a lot of intervention to make a presentation that fits a living room. To my ears this recording has too much intervention, which robs us of the dynamics of the long haul, the difference in impact between sforzando and fortissimo.
But there is great detail in this recording; the benefit of a lot of intervention is that the instruments’ sounds are all presented with great close-up clarity. But there are contradictions in stereo perspective, one moment there is close up sound of the solo violin or side drum, the next the brass are placed in full Albert Hall reverb.
As the fortissimo builds we get crashes occasionally hitting a limiter and the stereo perspective widens and draws back. But Mahler’s orchestra is a big ask for the sound balance engineer.
1998: Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Beethoven Missa Solemnis. This is the classic choral presentation, orchestra plus soloists plus chorus, so the orchestra is presented behind the soloists who are relatively close-miked. They’re close but not in your face like a rock band; they’re in a stereo world a bit narrower and slightly forward of the orchestra and chorus. The chorus goes full stereo width and maybe a bit more. It’s not what you’d hear anywhere in the Albert Hall but it could be: we know the convention for living room listening and it’s fine. The orchestra’s bangs and crashes are handled well and the perspective, once established, is consistent. A very satisfying stereo presentation.
1989: Norrington, London Classical Players
Great sense of space at the start of this performance by Norrington and the London Classical Players in the Big Hall. The stereo is strong and stable with minimal intervention on the dynamics. There’s a lot of meaningful out-of-phase information, this is after the time when the BBC was experimenting with Ambisonics and Matrix HJ but the influence of that experimentation had persisted. We might even be listening to simply the one microphone array with just a hint of manual gain riding to control the dynamics. The orchestra does seem to recede and the stereo widen towards the end of the first movement of the Beethoven symphony - the great disadvantage of purist microphone technique is that there’s nowhere for the balance engineer to hide his/her adjustments in flight.
2016: Argerich and Baremboim, West–Eastern Divan Orchestra
Now we are in the world of make-a-record at the Proms, by which I mean the stereo sound is aiming for the same sound as a studio CD. The piano is fully forward, has width and some subtly of sound - though Martha Argerich gives a barnstorming rendition on the mighty Steinway, I know from experience in the Proms arena not to stand anywhere near the firing line of the Albert Hall Steinway otherwise you come away with ears ringing.
But although this sound would have been made for the Radio 3 high definition sound stream that can transport to my speakers a sound pretty much identical to that in the control room in range and subtlety, there’s what sounds like heaps and heaps of dynamics intervention. Playing with the dynamics of the piano in the first movement: is that really necessary or justified? Just maybe the performance was different (much louder?) to the rehearsal, if there was one, as things settle down later on in the show.
We get good close sound throughout with just a hint of audience noise to give the spice of a live event. But not much hall reverb, this sound is so close. This is nothing like I hear as a promenader in the front of the arena but it’s involving and the sound “travels” well to different environments. I heard this concert this time round (ie 2020) in my apartement in Marseille via France Musique in their HD sound and the performance was attention-grabbing there. But hearing back in the UK in my relatively ideal listening conditions it disappoints. And there’s the rub, there are far fewer of us listening intently in ideal conditions than the casual listeners on a portable DAB radio in the kitchen and those listening on headphones to the BBC Sounds app. The BBC can’t afford a balance for each so the one balance has to try to satisfy us all, and preferably grab us as the performances do in the hall - Argerich received a standing ovation from the Proms audience for this performance.
Finally 2001: Brendel and Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra
This is the version of the Albert Hall with lots of reverb and rear channel information. Small forces so some hope of a set-it-up-and-let-it-play approach to the sound. Let Mr Brendel “never play louder than lovely”, to reappropriate the style attributed to the Scottish soprano Isobel Baillie. And yes, on the night they did just let the magic happen. Sit back, relax and enjoy two major musicians make magic Mozart. Somehow you can even hear the silence of the attentive, spellbound audience. The only comment I would make is that there’s a thinness, a frailty to the sound, it could be the low level of the 2020 rebroadcast and having to turn it up at my end, but I suspect it’s that generation of microphones or maybe it’s in comparison to the heavyweight sound that we’ve become accustomed to more recently. But Brendel and Mackerras weave such magic and the sound is so transparent, the performance goes transcendental and stays there. Of this year’s BBC selection of repeats, this is my clear favourite, hi-fi and musically.
For the avoidance of confusion, I should make it clear that I’ve never been directly involved in any broadcasting from the BBC Proms, although I’ve been the person with the hands on the faders (so responsible for the final mix) of various productions during my career in broadcasting. And also, I’ve been promenading since the 1970s.
A selection of my blogs from promenading at the Albert Hall: