SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Hi-Res Disc Reviews, Part 2 of 4


Published on February 1, 2004

58 SACD & DVD-A Reviews

Jan/Feb 2004 - Part 2 of 4 – Classical

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*** HI-RES DISC OF THE MONTH ***

BEETHOVEN: The Nine Symphonies – Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert Von Karajan – Gulda Janowitz, soprano; Hilde Rossel-Majdan, contralto; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Walter Berry, bass – Weiner Singverein – Deutsche Grammophon 474 600-2 – Stereo Hybrid SACD: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

This recent release from DGG collects what many (myself included) consider one of the finest Beethoven cycles ever recorded – Karajan’s 1963 release with the BPO – and gives it to us in sterling SACD sound. Karajan had his detractors, and there are those who would consider my remarks almost heresy. But at this point in his career, when he concentrated mostly on the music, rather than compulsively fiddling with the knobs in the control room – he gives us near-definitive performances of each of the nine symphonies, captured on tape by DGG in near-reference quality early stereo. These tapes have never sounded as good as what we have been given here, and are miles beyond any previous Redbook CD incarnation.

The performances here are almost beyond reproach – Karajan’s vision is particularly spot on in the odd-numbered symphonies, with the only quibble some might point out is that his tempi may seem a bit quick here and there, but never inappropriately so. His First is youthful and invigorating, while his Third may very well be the version by which all others are judged. The Fifth and Seventh are equally compelling. The only problem area comes in the Ninth, where Karajan’s choice of soloists perhaps leaves a little something to be desired – the tenor, Waldemar Kmentt, is not in particularly good voice here, although I consider this a relatively minor problem.

Another problem area may come for some in the even-numbered symphonies with Karajan’s Sixth, where the tempi are almost too fast for this most pastoral of symphonies. I don’t question the validity of his view here, but it might not be to everyone’s liking.

The sound quality is uniformly excellent, even though the Emil Berliner Studios did not go back to the original analog tapes for this project (they used the more recent 24/96 Originals series transfers). Upon first hearing of the impending release of this set, and also hearing rumors that it wasn’t going to be transferred from the original analog tapes to DSD – I immediately fired off an email to DGG, voicing my complaints and concerns about the sad possibility that this important set might not get done right. After hearing the finished product, though, my fears have been put to rest.

The PCM vs. DSD battle rages on, but I’ve yet to be convinced that well-recorded or transferred PCM doesn’t sound every bit as good as DSD. Keep in mind that, we’re getting full 24 bit resolution here, not truncated to 16 bit. The sound is head and shoulders above any previous Redbook version, with virtually no hiss, and a broad and deep orchestral soundstage. Only in a few places do the tapes really show their age, and some mechanical noise crops up occasionally (ever so slightly). Granted, the sound is not in the same league as early RCA or top Mercury recordings of the same vintage – but the playing Karajan elicits from the BPO yields breathtaking, uncongested orchestral climaxes throughout.

The bonus disc comprises rehearsal material for the Ninth Symphony, and is interesting, if not essential listening. The main reason to buy this set is for the splendid performances in equally impressive sound. Very highly recommended.

– Tom Gibbs

BACH: Leipzig Christmas Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 63, 91, 121 & 133. Magnificat BWV 243a – Soloists, Collegium Vocale Gent conducted by Philippe Herreweghe – Harmonia Mundi SACD HMC 801781.82 (2 CDs, 118 mins.): [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

This exceptional new set from Philippe Herreweghe and his Ghent chorus collect together the Magnificat (which, in its early version in E-Flat Major, include four movements dropped from the later, more familiar D Major incarnation) and Cantata BWV 63, which Bach wrote for Christmas Day in 1723 (having moved there that year from Cöthen in order to take up his duties as Kantor), and the three cantatas that he composed for the three feast days of Christmas in 1724. They range in spirit from intimate to grandly florid gestures.

The performances are wonderfully relaxed and confident, without any particular performance practice edge. The four soloists on the second disc—Carolyn Sampson, Ingeborg Danz, Mark Padmore and Sebastian Noack—are outstanding, and the Collegium Vocale Gent is in beautiful voice, sweet and outstandingly in tune.

What makes this set interesting for audiophiles, aside from the SACD format (which I was able to sample briefly), is that the two discs were recorded in two different settings: the Conservatory in Liège and the Arsenal concert hall in the French city of Metz (the administrative capital of the Lorraine). Also of interest is that Markus Heiland’s recordings were made under the supervision of Tritonus’s Andreas Neubronner, sonic architect of the San Francisco Symphony’s acclaimed SACD Mahler cycle.

While Liège has the edge in pure openness, the sound from Metz is more exciting (perhaps due to the fact that the 1723 music is inherently more overtly thrilling with their trumpets and drums). Both recordings center the soloists naturally within the orchestra and the sense of space overall is superb, as is the timbre of the different instruments; in particular the oboes and trumpets in Metz have a biting sharpness. Throughout, the strings sound lovely, as if upholstered lightly in soft velvet. As good as the sound is in conventional stereo, a short listening session on a multichannel system showed its full potential. Like the performances, Thomas Seedorf’s liner notes are a pleasure to read and reflect upon.

- Laurence Vittes

STRAVINSKY: The Firebird, Petrouchka. – Cincinnati Sym. Orch./Paavo Jarvi – Telarc multichannel SACD-60587: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

Again, it’s Paavo Järvi (my Cincinnati Kid) offering yet another ear-opening performance of some of the standard repertory’s signal works. I know it’s been said a lot, but I must repeat it: Paavo Järvi is one of the brightest conductors of the current generation. I can’t help myself but agree. That’s the way I see it. And the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a band on its way up. With this disc, they show us why many people think so. Let me try to explain.

About ten years ago my wife, the esteemed Mrs. Dudious (La Dudeen) and I happened to be in Gothenburg, Sweden for a conference at their university. I got a copy of the local newspaper, and managed to find the “Entertainment” section where it said the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was in town and was going to play Stravinsky’s Firebird in the next few days (I’m translating from the Swedish here, so forgive me. Please note that my last name, Dudious ends in “us,” like many Swedish names, such as Delius, and Sibelius.), {;-), among other things, under the baton of Neeme Järvi, Paavo’s dad. We went. As last minute ticket purchasers, we were able to get tickets in the second row, just a little closer than I generally like. We sat through the undercard patiently. The pianist played a concerto by the Swedish composer, Stenhammar (a contemporary and competitor of Grieg’s), and beat up on the piano with great ferocity. The Czechoslovakian judge called it a draw.

And suddenly, after an intermission where we wondered at the amount of light still available though it was now past nine in the evening, the time for The Firebird was at hand. The firebird leapt and swirled, swept and pounced under the interpretive hand of Järvi, the elder. I found it a most electrifying performance. The dour Swedes in the audience were moved to gushing applause. Even my reserved La Dudeen was swept away. It was the first time I’d heard Neeme Järvi conduct, and I would pay attention to his recorded performances after that. He didn’t let me down. But that’s another story.

So it was with some interest that I auditioned the Berlioz and Sibelius recordings of Paavo Järvi that Telarc released earlier this year. And readers of Positive Feedback will recall how I was thrilled to review them. Now, with this Stravinsky disc, the pendulum has swung full cycle and I see how the younger Järvi will be following the lead of his esteemed father, and I hear there is a brother who is quite an excellent conductor in his own right. Such is the inevitability of the generations. My daughter, La Dudette, whom I taught to play gin rummy as a kid, now regularly “schneiders” me. It’s a bittersweet transition.

But, back to the music. Fans of Stravinsky’s might say of his music that it is characterized by many of the things that characterize Prokofiev’s music. That might be necessary, but not sufficient. For but one example, Prokofiev’s music is said to have a regular, march-like rhythm, while much of Stravinsky’s music moves the rhythmic time signature around, and develops cross-rhythms where parts of the orchestra wind up playing rhythms of different, often opposing, time signatures as other parts of the orchestra. It is as if he wants to keep the right and left hemispheres of the audience’s collective brain in tension. Like the first section of Petrouchka, “The Shrove Tide Fair,”which builds in cross-rhythmic intensity until it drops everything and goes of into a kind of woodland fantasy, “The Magic Trick.” It stays there a while until it gets going into another spirited dance of cross-rhythms, and then it moves on.

Another thing that separates Stravinsky from Prokofiev is their differing use of irregular or innovative harmonies. While Prokofiev used dissonance in a novel way in his l’enfant terrible period, such as in his Scythian Suite (1916), and in a grisly way in Romeo & Juliet, Stravinsky uses unconventional harmonies in Petrouchka (and afterward in his career), though not necessarily all that dissonant. Jonathan D. Kramer writes in the album notes: “It may seem amazing today that such a tuneful work as Petrouchka was once thought fearfully dissonant. The most famous dissonance is the ‘Petrouchka chord,’ a combination of C major and F-sharp major triads first heard in the clarinets just after the opening of the second scene.” He goes on to point out that some of the singable melodies in Petrouchka are Austrian waltzes, a French music hall song, and at least five Russian folk melodies. Tuneful indeed. Which makes it one of the most popular works of the 20th century. But, again, Stravinsky is putting our collective brain hemispheres in tension with that F-sharp minor over C major “Petrouchka chord.” With tension usually comes the release of tension, a trick old Franz Schubert used with expert touch, and one that Stravinsky turns to his own purposes.

Paavo Järvi’s reading of Petrouchka is a highly spirited one that seems to grasp all of the complexity of the work. As the son of a conductor, it seems he has grown up on works like Petrouchka, much as kids in advanced music schools grow up on Charlie Parker these days. And with this familiarity comes a relaxed yet terrifically nuanced reading. This is a keeper. Highly spirited when called on, and subtle too. Another of those works in the canon that the younger Järvi seems to own.

Much as he owns Petrouchka (1910), so does he own The Firebird Suite (1909). It is clear from the outset that Paavo loves this music, much as his father does. It was written early in Stravinsky’s career when he was still under the influence of his orchestration teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. You can hear some of the playfulness of Scheherazade early in the work. But of course Stravinsky will take the enterprise off in his own direction. Again, following Jonathan D. Kramer’s album notes, “How could [Stravinsky] musically differentiate the natural (Ivan, the Princess, the finale’s hymn of rejoicing) from the magical (the Firebird, Katschei)? His idea, derived from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel, was to represent the natural characters and scenes in a diatonic style, while the supernatural was interpreted with chromatic music.” Again, he pits our hemispheres against each other, this time using diatonic vs. chromatic modes. The result is a score with spectacular orchestration, the likes of which had yet to be seen in the history of ballet by 1909. This recording is of the revision known as the 1919 version.

This Firebird is a super-duper reading. It is wonderfully true to my idea of the work, which is tempered by many versions of the score on CD (4 recordings) and LP (6 more) too lengthy and embarrassing to name, but I must include the Firebird that Stravinsky himself conducts. The concert bass drum plays an influential part in the orchestration, and the SACD multichannel technology seems to get everything quite right. The sound is excellent, the details are plenty, the dynamic range is extraordinary, the sound-staging is, as I experience it, a seductive facsimile of the concert hall. If you’d like to know what’s what with Stravinsky, why he is considered a great composer (It is often said that Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg form the three pillars of 20th century classical music.) this CD is a great place to start. If you already have something of a handle on Stravinsky, this CD will broaden your vision. If you don’t give the lint in your navel’s worth of care to classical music, or Stravinsky, this is another Telarc demo disc of clarity and dynamic range that will show off your system. This is the real deal. Now that the Russians are our friends again, go and learn about Russian music! Go out and get this recording of Stravinsky’s two most famous early ballets. Run, do not walk, to your music shop. You won’t be sorry.

– Max Dudious

BEETHOVEN – Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) – Placido Domingo, tenor; Luba Orgonasova, soprano; Andreas Schmidt, bass – Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano, conductor – Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey, director – Harmonia Mundi HMC 801802 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) is a fairly early work from Beethoven, and in sharp contrast to the classic Passions of Bach (et al), focuses only a portion of the Passion story. The dark, brooding atmosphere created by the work really doesn’t fit the oratorio form (as perfected by Haydn) – the singing is much more dramatic and operatic in style. Scholars have argued that it may have been more or less conceived (or essentially functioned) as a study piece for Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.

The soloists, especially the great Placido Domingo, acquit themselves admirably, as do conductor Kent Nagano and his forces from Berlin. The recording and multichannel surround presentation are excellent, with plenty of ambience in the surrounds, and with the soloists spread nicely across the front speakers. Christus am Olberge is not well represented in the recorded catalog, and is rarely played or programmed in orchestral concerts, so this new SACD from Harmonia Mundi makes a welcome addition.

– Tom Gibbs

ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9, with documentation of the Final Fragment – Vienna Philharmonic/Nikolaus Harnoncourt – RCA Red Seal multichannel SACD + standard CD – 2CD 82876 54332-2: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

What a pleasant surprise! BMG’s first DVD-A was an Elvis compilation but here we have one of the most exciting classical symphonic releases of the year as their very first SACD. Many aspects are special about this release: It’s Harnoncourt’s first recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was recorded live (as were most Gunter Wand’s Bruckner series) during the 2002 Salzburg Festival, and the second disc is of a “workshop concert” during which Harnoncourt discussed the state of the existing material for the unfinished Finale of this four-movement symphony and conducted most of the music that can be performed. His commentary was probably delivered in both German and English during this concert but for the purposes of the CD it has been edited to provide the German version on the first nine tracks and the English on the remaining nine tracks. (There’s nothing about this on the outside of the jewel box so it is a bit disconcerting for English-speakers to put the disc on and hear only the German at the beginning.)

My one beef/question here would be why the workshop disc is only a 44.1 CD while the rest of the symphony is multichannel SACD. It is fascinating to hear the various fragments of the Finale and it would be nice to hear them with the same fidelity and envelopment as the rest of the symphony. Harnoncourt talks about the decades of controversy over the Bruckner sketches for his final symphony. He envisioned a strong, almost fierce mein for this movement. The live audience is extremely quiet for both concerts, as European audiences are wont to be. The Ninth has been called Bruckner’s confessional work, one that sums up all his other ten symphonies (included the two that came before No. 1). We must not forget that he was an extremely pious, religious man who dedicated this symphony to “The Dear Lord;” scholars find many elements intended to inspire thoughts about sin, repentance, redemption, The Last Judgement, etc.

But at the same Bruckner’s later symphonies, and especially the Ninth, can be experienced as amazingly modern music in the minimalist vein which extends repetition to lengths even Philip Glass might question. The impact of his constantly building blocks of dense sound can be thrilling, and is a challenge to recording systems. My previous choice for this work was Gunter Wand’s with the NW German Radio Symphony, also on RCA Red Seal. I find both Wand and Harnoncourt more dramatic and exciting than the frequent recommendation in this repertory – Haitink’s complete set on Philips. Also the sonics are superior. Comparison of the Wand and Harnoncourt was surprising because at first I couldn’t tell if I was actually switching between two versions – the match was so similar. Both were recorded in large cathedrals with great ambience and quiet, respectful audiences. The differences soon made themselves evident, however, even when running the Wand recording thru ProLogic II for a surround effect. The standard CD had actually more ambience of the space and a bit better low end. But the SACD suffered much less distortion on the big climaxes, cleaner upper strings and high brass notes, and more transparency in general. The Wand CD was generally a rather opaque sonically compared to the SACD. The envelopment of those huge blocks of orchestral sounds in the Harnoncourt recording is spine-tingling. A great beginning for BMG’s classical SACD release program!

- John Sunier

Classical Brubeck = BRUBECK: Beloved Son; Pange Lingua Variations; Voice of the Holy Spirit; Regret – Dave Brubeck, p./Dave Brubeck Quartet/Alan Opie/London Voices/London Symphony Orch./Russell Gloyd cond. – Telarc multichannel SACD 60621 (2 discs) [Release date - Jan. 27]: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

Dave Brubeck has produce some great music in the classical genre, writing ballet suites, orchestral works, chamber music and works for one and two pianos. But his most notable works in this area have been for chorus and orchestra, and often of a liturgical nature. This set, recording last year in London, is devoted to three such works plus a short atmospheric piece for string orchestra and Dave’s piano (Regret). Beloved Son is an Easter oratorio in three movements to text from verses of a Lutheran poet. There are opportunities in it for the quartet improvising on some of the themes. Pange Lingua Variations was commissioned by a Catholic cathedral in Sacramento. He used a Gregorian hymn with verses in Latin by St. Thomas Aquinas as well as English translations of them. The third variation sounds similar to Bach’s Lutheran chorales. The story of Pentecost is the theme for Brubeck’s Voice of the Holy Spirit, in which Christ’s disciples suddenly find themselves able to speak and be understood in many different language, which allows them to preach the gospel to people of different nationalities. Cynics suggest the speakers are simply drunk, and that section incorporates an especially raucous improvisation by the Quartet. Remember those Jazz Masses that were popular in the 70s? Brubeck’s works are much better. Telarc’s surround mix truly involves the listener in the performance, and the studio recording situation ensures that pickup of all the voices and instruments is optimized.

– John Sunier

Hilary Hahn plays BACH – Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Kahane – DGG Multichannel SACD 289 474 639-2:
[Purchase at Elusive Disc]

[We reviewed this in its earlier standard CD form in our November 2003 issue. - Ed.] The young Hilary Hahn has been judged one of the great violinists of her generation since she was a teenager, and I’ve been lucky to hear her perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during her formative years. Hilary grew up in and around Baltimore, and studied at the with Peabody Conservatory faculty beginning at age five, before moving on to The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at age ten. Now in her early twenties, Ms. Hahn is living up to her advance billing. Her playing is typified by a full, sweet tone and fleetness of fingers. Her technique early on showed few limits as she played some of the repertoire’s most difficult concerti in performance (as opposed to studio recordings). But what surprised everyone who commented about her playing was her musical maturity so in advance of her years. She was, as those who believe in reincarnation might say, an “old soul.” It was as if she had lived before as a violinist and had all the expressiveness of the violin in her blood when she began playing as a child, just shy of her fourth birthday. Perhaps she had lived in another country, or in another culture. Now it was only up to her to learn the current repertoire of this culture and she would express her old soul in her new venue, Western classical music.

Where better to begin than with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concertos. Deutsche Grammophon label has taken upon itself to sign some of the classical world’s premier young artists to contracts, such as Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, and Ms. Hahn. This, I believe, confers upon them the status of “World Class.” As befits an organization with the clout of DG, they have arranged to have Hilary record the Bach violin concertos with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane.

The four works on this album are Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo in E major, BWV 1042; Concerto for 2 violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor, BWV 1043; Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo in A minor, BWV 1041; and Concerto for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Continuo in C minor, BWV 1060. These are some of the best works in the literature with which to demonstrate the style and performance technique of violin playing in Bach’s time, and these Hilary Hahn performs with great aplomb–as she has similarly recorded the concerti of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, demonstrating her ease with various periods of violin playing. In her liner notes, Ms. Hahn repeatedly makes reference to the culture transmissions of one generation to the next in musical style and performance. Perhaps it is her “old soul” letting itself be known.

This music is a great introduction to the playing of Hilary Hahn and the music of J.S. Bach, himself a violinist as well as an organist and harpsichordist. With second violinist Margaret Batjer (in BWV1043) and oboist Allan Vogel (in BWV 1060), Hilary demonstrates her sensitivity as an ensemble artist, playing off each of them with great restraint and taste. In the other two concertos, where she can strut her stuff, she does so in service to the music. It is hard to say which I like better, when she is playing as soloist, or with others in duet. She herself comments, “All of Bach’s music is chamber music, whether it’s written for a solo instrument or a large ensemble. In solo works the performer creates chamber music on one instrument, by balancing and phrasing many different lines at once. On the other hand, when more musicians are involved, the chamber-music structure is more standardized, and interpretations are formed through interaction with the other instrumentalists.” Hilary Hahn is equally adept at either. Be not misled by her little girl looks. This is a mature performer at the top of her game. The recordings feature very good sound, too. In SACD in particular, you can follow all the lines of Bach’s wonderful writing.

If you’re interested in Bach; or in the current generation’s best violinist’s take on Bach; or if you’re interested in what the future of Bach interpretation is likely to sound like, you ought to get an earful of this one. Highly recommended.

– Max Dudious

Opera Arias by Anna Netrebko, soprano – Vienna Philharmonic/Vienna State Opera Choir/Gianandrea Noseda – Multichannel SACD DGG 289 474 640-2: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

When asked to describe Anna Netrebko one wag said, “Imagine Audrey Hepburn singing with her own beautiful voice.” When I first held the CD jewelbox in my hand, and looked upon the face of this latest of DGG “world class” divas, I thought to myself, “How lovely. They must be recruiting by looks nowadays.” Not to be taken in by Anna’s photogenic qualities, I listened to the album with a very critical ear. Every label would like to have the next Renée Fleming in their queue. Though I approached her DGG debut album skeptically she surprisingly knocked me out. Here was a beauty who could really sing. And to demonstrate it to the world, DGG coupled her with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Staatsoper Choir, under the conductor Gianandrea Noseda; and recorded the album in the Vienna Grosser Musikverein, with its sublime acoustic (DGG). This acoustic is wonderfully captured in this recording by the DGG engineers use of SACD recording technology. This is an improvement upon their first few SACD releases, which I thought lacked focus. This is a beautifully engineered album. I hope DGG will keep it up.

Anna Netrebko can run scales, trill, jump octaves, reach up and hit the high notes (and hold them), with the best of them. What I find particularly appealing is an honest and vulnerable tone to her voice. It is as if she is singing with a world-weariness, singing sadly for someone to love her. And this emotional quality underlies all of her range and power, all of her technical excellence. Some jazz critic once wrote of Stan Getz that his appeal to the ladies was in his tone. His wheedling, pleading tone conveyed to them that he wanted someone to love, to love him, that night. And he spoke as a surrogate for all the men. I feel the same reaction in my jaded self when listening to Anna. I can understand how she speaks for all the women (and directly to the men) in her audience. I understand how she already has armies of dedicated fans in Europe. Her art is a kind of façade, or a scrim that covers the raw emotional power of her marvelous instrument, her voice.

In my hubris I imagine it was that pleading quality that the Kirov Opera’s Valery Gergiev felt when he discovered Anna as a 20-year-old student charwoman scrubbing floors in the Mariinsky Theater singing to herself. It is that quality that reaches behind the defenses we all try to sustain, I imagine, that the DGG A&R people heard when they decided to load up her debut album with songs of love, of lost love, of how to make one’s self more desirable, the briefness of youth, the wild throbbing of first love, etc., all sung in a flawless coloratura haloed by dark timbres that reach into us and touch us deeply.

Apparently Anna knocked everyone out with her role as Violetta in La Traviata at the Vienna State Opera in April of 2003. La Dudeen and I were lucky enough to see a performance of La Traviata a few years back in Vienna, and the Viennese take their La Traviata seriously. When Violetta is visited by her would-be father in law, who admonishes her to break with his son for the good of their entire family, and she responds that she is ill, she knows she will die soon, and that his request, which she will honor, means she will die alone, with no one to care for her (everyone’s silent fear), there isn’t a dry eye in the house. I don’t mean polite sniffles into hankies: I mean wracking sobs and moans. Since this aria is not included on this anthology, I can only imagine what Anna’s voice would bring to this role, this aria. With this in mind, I could only agree with the critic from Die Presse who wrote: “The word ‘miracle’ doesn’t seem too extravagant… a great singing actress … completely present at every moment in her intelligently conceived, deeply moving characterization … flawless technique, perfect coloratura, a substantial soprano voice in every register, with a timbre of dark-hued luminosity.”(Quoted from the album’s liner notes.)

If you’re interested in exactly what the latest soprano, the next great diva, has going for her. If you’re curious as to what the fuss is all about. If you can walk with kings yet retain the common touch. Then you ought to get a copy of Anna Netrebko’s Opera Arias. You won’t be sorry. I think her version of “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s La Boheme might be worth the price of the album if you’re a sucker for women singing of lost love. I hate to admit it, but I’m one too.

– Max Dudious

BEETHOVEN: The Cello Sonatas (5) – Esther Nyffenegger, cello/Gerard Wyss, piano – Stereo PCM Only (no MLP) DVD-A Divox CDX 80101-5:

There was a misunderstanding about this disc. The Swiss label Divox had been announced as another follower of the 2+2+2 technique and I thought this disc they sent for review was in that form. It is not; the label has made some recordings in 2+2+2 but they have not yet been released as multichannel discs. However, this one certainly makes use of the increased storage ability of DVD-As – it has 105 minutes on its single disc, enabling all of the sonatas to fit that would normally take a pair of CDs. Rostropovich, Fournier and Du Pres are at the top of recorded interpreters of these important Beethoven chamber works, but the DVD-A provides tasteful and strong interpretations in a very realistic acoustic setting where all the subtle details of phrasing, attack and pacing in both cello and piano can be heard with unexcelled clarity. The two young Swiss performers are superb, and the note booklet has just enough analysis of each sonata, with a few bars of examples reprinted for each. The disc does not use MLP compression, being 96K/24bit stereo PCM. It’s interesting that this length of a program can be fit onto a DVD-A without having to employ MLP.

– John Sunier

MARC-ANTOINE CHARPENTIER: Te Deum; Missa “Assumpta est Maria;” Litanies de la Vierge – Les Arts Florissants/William Christie – multichannel SACD Harmonia mundi HMC 801298: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

This Harmonia mundi reissue for SACD dates from l989 and brings to the multichannel hi-res catalog one of the many recordings Christie and his Paris-based ensemble have done for the label. These are three of the greatest liturgical works by the sacred music master of 17th century France. The Te Deum is a fairly short work which opens with an instrumental prelude, but before that on the disc a dramatic March for Tympani by Philidor becomes a prelude to the prelude. The nine short sections of the Te Deum alternate different solo vocalists, solo instruments, choir and orchestra. Trumpets are heard in some sections. Charpentier is a very resourceful composer and all of these works exhibit varied vocal and instrumental tone colors. HM provides a complete libretto, unlike some labels. Christie tends to take more enthusiastic tempi than some of the competition but loses none of the finesse and refinement for which he is known. The multichannel mix adds a subtle realism to the sonics, placing the listener in the middle of some Baroque cathedral for this spectacular music.

- John Sunier

EUGÈNE YSAYE: Caprice, Sonata in F minor after the Sonata by Locatelli, Paganini Variations, Saltarelle Carnavalesque, Poeme Elegiaque, Reve D’Enfant, Dan Le Lointain, Mazurka – Sandrine Cantoreggi, violin; Bruno Canino, piano – Turtle Records stereo SACD TRSA 0015: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

Ysaye lived until l931 and is best known for his six violin-piano sonatas, composed late in his live. These are mostly earlier works, including the Saltarelle composed when he was only 18. Many of his violin works are energetic and lively, though he explore somber themes. He himself said he poured his heart, his pain, his hopes on the ruled paper, and the emotional message of some of these brief works is unmistakable. Cantoreggi is a superb violinist and the recording quality is brilliantly transparent. The package is also lovely in a cardboard jewel-box equivalent. (I protest the practice of those labels who are beginning to package SACDs in standard CD jewelboxes.) However, the actual disc slides into a rough cardboard/paper slot at the back cover, similar to the way JVC’s xrcds were originally packaged before users such as myself pointed out that their expensive discs were getting scratched from that arrangement.

- John Sunier

HAYDN (Arr. By Salomon): London Symphonies Vol. 1 – Nos. 93 in D Major, 94 in G Major “Surprise,” 101 in D Major “The Clock” – Florilegium (Ashley Solomon, flute; Kati Debretzeni & Rodolfo Richter, violins; Jane Rogers, viola; Jennifer Morsches, cello, James Johnstone, fortepiano) – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 19603: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

Pentatone has been releasing a series of Haydn symphonies on SACD by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra but Channel Classics’ Haydn contribution is in this case a bit more performer-reduced than a chamber orchestra. You might even see it as a late 18th century version of digital data reduction (less players, less fingers, right?) These arrangement came about following Haydn’s very successful two visits to London. His impresario Salomon had purchased all the rights to the dozen London symphonies, and after the composer returned to Vienna Salomon created chamber versions for the lucrative amateur market. Most symphonic publications were followed by piano trio reductions for home use, but Salomon felt the grand scale of Haydn’s symphonies required more, so he came up with the sextet version. Transcriptions such as these always give the listener a chance to look at a familiar work from an entirely new angle. Salomon cleverly (and sometimes a bit crudely) gives a brass part or even a drum roll to one of the string instruments. But there was collaboration on the arrangements between the publisher and Haydn. The six performers are terrific – and some of these parts don’t sound like they are at an amateur level at all. The multichannel version brings out the spatial placement of the instruments in front of you with more of a 3D quality than you would get with a full symphony orchestra.

- John Sunier

PROKOFIEV: Romeo And Juliet – The Three Complete Suites from the Ballet – Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Jãrvi – Telarc multichannel SACD-60597: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

After Peter and the Wolf this is probably the best-known work of the Russian composer. It seems to have a special attraction to the ears of those who don’t really follow classical music at all – something like a 20th century equivalent of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. Even music lovers who don’t want to hear anything composed past l912 have been known to express enjoymeant of this gorgeously melodic, dramatic and touching ballet score. Audiophiles have been familiar with it from several different recordings over the years. Stokowski’s brief selections from the suites on RCA is a standout (I still have it on open reel tape) and many vinyl fans still feel the Sheffield direct disc of the Los Angles Philharmonic doing similar excerpts from the suites is the best symphonic recording ever made. (I would agree if the acoustics didn’t sound like it was recorded in a giant box of Kleenex.) There are also several fine versions of the complete ballet rather than the suites, which gives a progression to the scenario that can be followed while listening.

Now we have at least the complete suites for the first time in hi-res multichannel sonics, and it’s a winner. This has to be one of the most successful of the many different pieces of music inspired by Shakespeare. Prokofiev wasn’t a bit detered by the many other composers who had dealt with the Romeo and Juliet story before, including Berlioz and Tchaikovsky.The composer had a difficult time working with the Kirov Ballet, for whom the work was created. It was finally premiered in l940 and quickly became the first real successor to Tchaikovsky’s ballets. His inspired interpretation of the young lovers’ tragedy uses both his hard edged rhythmic figurations and his patented heartfelt melody-spinning to spectacular effect. Another aspect that is spectacular is the dynamic range of the music, successfully captured here for the first time. The feeling of the hall environment is palpable in the multichannel version, especially following some of the searing orchestral climaxes. Paavo Jarvi is the son of Neame Jarvi and has been hailed as a successor to his former mentor Leonard Bernstein – especially in an “ability to galvanize an orchestra into playing with furious intensity and bravura panache.”

- John Sunier

Here’s a pair of piano solo SACDs of major (and minor) interest…
ROSSINI: Quelques Riens Pour Album (An Album of Trifles) – Paolo Giacometti, piano – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 18003: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

The Italian composer gave this enigmatic title to another set of small and personal character pieces for piano in which he specialized during his old age while living in Paris. He calls all the pieces as a whole his “Sins of Old Age.” There are 24 pieces in this album, which echoes both Bach’s and Chopin’s piano works, but this disc contains only 18 of them. Only two have real titles, the rest just tempo designations – primarily Andantino. There is a sparkle and wit about nearly all of them – Rossini obviously had a good sense of humor and even sometimes sounds like the spirit of Erik Satie is visiting him in his Paris abode. An interesting A/B comparison was made with my copy of a previous Giacometti Rossini piano music 44.1 CD from Channel Classics. The piano used in the CD is a 1849 Erard which sounds something about halfway between a fortepiano and a modern Steinway – perfect for this sort of music. The standard CD proved excellent except that the piano sounded too wide, as with most piano recordings. The Erard had a sort of twangy quality to it. The SACD places the piano a bit further back but adds a very natural sense of “air” around it and behind the listener. The piano – this time a 1837 Erard – still sounds too wide but there is less of the twangy quality with this instrument

- John Sunier

CHOPIN: Polonaises (7) – Maurizio Pollini, piano – DGG multichannel SACD 471 648-2: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

The major work on this collection is the closing Polonaise-Fantasie in A Flat Major Op. 61, a brilliant 13 1/2-minute work. A recent Decca SACD from Ashkanazy also provided this piece, but Pollini has the edge in a more vibrant and exciting performance as well as improved transparency in the multichannel sound. The Polonaise as a dance was known throughout Europe, but it was especially connected with Poland, and Chopin composed them all during his short life. Some of these pieces are quite grandiose, some of a heroic mein and others very sad in mood. Pollini makes the strongest case possible for their stature in Chopin’s opera, and the clarity and clean dynamics of DGGs hi-res sound contribute greatly to the cause. (But the piano is still too wide…)

- John Sunier

JOHANN STAMITZ: Sinfonia a Quattro in A; Sinfonia a Quattro in D; Andante non Adagio from Symphony in D Major; FRANZ XAVER RICHTER: Sinfonia a Quattro in B flat; Sinfonia a Quattro in C minor – New Dutch Academy/Simon Murphy – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 028: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

This disc is Volume 1 of a new series titled “The Creation of Style – The New Dutch Academy Mannheim Project” and is devoted to the early string symphonies of both Stamitz and Richter. The NDA plays on authentic instruments and their project involves extensive research, musicology, consultation, and rehearsal in order to bring to life the music of the Mannheim court orchestra of the 18th century. It was the most influential musical court of the period; it influenced untold composers and led directly to the development of the modern symphony orchestra. The period 1740 to 1750 is highlighted in this first volume exploring the developing classical language at the Mannheim court. The early works heard in this program took their inspiration from the Italian forms of the concerto grosso, orchestrated forms of the trio sonata or sonata a quattro, and the opera overture or sinfonia. Each of these sinfonias has three movements, usually in a fast-slow-fast pattern. The 18-person chamber orchestra recorded in an old Catholic church in The Hague and the ambience of the space conveyed by the multichannel playback is just right, without detriment to the great clarity of the music.

- John Sunier

Official Disc of the Festival of Sound and Image 2003 (Le Festival Son & Image) – Compilation of classical and jazz selections and excerpts – Fidelio Stereo SACD FACD904: [Purchase at Elusive Disc]

I must admit I got excited to see the cover and back photos on this SACD because the Stax headphones featured led me to believe the recording was binaural. It is not, just stereo, but excellent hi-res stereo at that. This French Canadian audiophile label uses purist micing with mics it has designed itself and a portable Nagra recorder running on batteries to escape any possible effects of AC power on fidelity. They eschew mixers, EQ, all that sort of thing.

The SACD has a dozen tracks, opening with one from guitarist Marc Vallee’s disc with we also review in this section this month. Tracks 2 and 11 are movements from Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, played by the Orchestra of the Jeunesses Musicales conducted by Pierre Hetu. Other classical selections here are excerpts from Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Chinese Dance from The Nutcracker, and the closing track – a smashing version of Gigout’s Toccata for pipe organ on a massive instrument at the Oratory of St. Joseph du Mont-Royal. Some small group jazz selections and reference drum and percussion solos round out the sampler. All are in extremely clean hi-res sonics.

- John Sunier

[Continue on to Part 3 of Hi-Res Disc Reviews in 4 Parts]




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