The one orchestral recording I’ve been taking to every audio show and have used for (almost) every equipment review for the last 5 years is a 2010 recording on the RCO Live label, an SACD. It’s Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 (his last) with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. I use the first movement—it’s just 8 minutes long and, once you get to really know it, it seems to have most everything needed to judge gear.
• There’s a wide variety of instrumental solos: are they correctly scaled and is the timbre/tonality correct?
• High treble: the glockenspiel notes that open the piece and recur throughout. Are they focused, with a precise attack, and can you tell that lower pitches are produced by larger pieces of metal?
• Deep bass. There are some exposed bass drum hits a few minutes in. Can you tell how large the drum is and are you getting a sense of the volume of the instrument? Is the decay natural and free of overhang?
• Dynamics: There’s one major orchestral climax halfway through - does it crest gracefully?
• Imaging: Do you get a realistic degree of localization to soloists and orchestral sections?
• Soundstage: This recording has excellent front-to-back layering of the players - are you hearing it?
• The Concertgebouw (the hall) in Amsterdam is a great place to hear and to record music in. Do you get both a sense of immediacy and of music in the air around you? The acoustic is both clarifying and atmospheric - the equipment should let that come through.
One other point worth making: The performance is quite good (Haitink was the first conductor to record all the Shostakovich symphonies) and I never get tired of it.
There are plenty of other recordings of large-scale orchestral music that I find helpful, and I’m sure you’ll discover your own. But do give this one a listen.
The Absolute Sound