SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Hi-Res Disc Reviews, Part 2 of 3 Classical
Published on March 1, 2004
– Hespèrion XX./Jordi Savall – AliaVox stereo SACD AVSA 9831:
In AliaVox’s release of the album Entremeses Del Siglo De Oro: Lope de Vega y su tiempo (1550-1650), which translates to “Intermission [music] of the Golden Century: Lope de Vega and his era,” we find soprano Montserrat Figueras and the group Hespèrion XX, Jordi Savall conducting, bringing us some of the finest examples of period music that I know of. The voice of Montserrat Figueras has the limpid and pure quality of a fine recorder, that is, each note is nearly as possible free from embellishment that became part and parcel of vocal training in the following centuries. The ensemble playing of Hespèrion, a group I’ve known for ten years, has never sounded better. Hats off to Jordi Savall. The music itself is akin to entre-act music written for the Elizabethan theater, most notably Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll note the similarity of the Spanish word entremeses and the English word intermission.
I confess I’m not a trained musicologist, nor is this a period I’ve especially studied autodidactically. I am a dedicated listener whose semi-retired state allows me to continue my never-ending personal music appreciation course. I am probably a lot like you. With that in mind, bear with me a bit. This music is varied in key and tempo, and all the songs are not the same. The singing and playing are exemplary, as is the recording engineering. I find the album most pleasant while working at my computer. I imagine it would make good dinner party fare. The music most reminds me of recordings by the Deller Consort, Shakespeare Songs & Consort Music (Harmonia Mundi HMA 195202); and The Art Of The Bawdy Song, The Baltimore Consort & The Merry Companions (Dorian DOR-90155). If you know and like these, you’ll likely enjoy this collection of goodies from Spanish musicians of the same period. Did I say, “Highly Recommended?” Well, in glorious SACD, it is.
BRAHMS: Requiem – La Chapelle Royale/Collegium Vocale/ Orchestre des Champs Elysees/Philippe Herreweghe – Harmonia mundi: SACD stereo HMC 801608:
This Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem op.45 recording was originally released in 1996, and here it is again, in SACD. The improved sound, with the outstanding performance of this recording justify its rerelease. The forces are: Orchestre des Champs Elysées; La Chapelle Royale – Collegium Vocale; Christiane Oelze, sop; Gerald Finley, bar; all conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. It is recordings like this that have quite rightly brought Maestro Herreweghe to the foremost rank of this generation’s conductors. There is no radical rereading of Brahms here. Herreweghe is conservative, in the best sense of that abused word, conserving the essence of Brahms.
It is usually said the loss of his teacher, Robert Schumann, in 1856 prompted Brahms to begin work on the non-denominational Requiem; and the loss of his mother, in 1866, prompted him to finish it. Clara Schumann wrote of it in her diary: “Johannes has been playing me some magnificent movements out of a Requiem of his own … It is full of tender and again daring thoughts.” And it is these tender moments, like the soprano solo in the fifth movement, meant to comfort adults as his Lullaby was to comfort children, that make the work Brahmsian. While the nobly spiritual and uplifting seventh movement, his meditation on human life and death, dares to transcend sectarian conventions. And transcendental music, in the larger sense, it is.
The work as we know it was “finished” in 1869, and his first symphony is usually dated at 1876, when Brahms had achieved the age of 43. So his Requiem, his first great public success was not exactly juvenilia – though preceding his symphonic writing. He was 36 when he finished it, and it was performed twenty times in Germany during 1869. When we listen to such a recording, we sense how Brahms came to be beloved of an entire nation.
WOLFGANG HUFSCHMIDT: Meissner Te Deum. – Wiederaufführung –
Antje Bitterlich (Sopran), Martin Lucass (Bariton), Chor und Orchester sowie Vokalund Instrumentalsolisten der Folkwang-Hochschule Essen, Hartmut Haenchen (Leitung). Uraufführung – Barbara Hoene (Sopran), Hartmut Haenche (Bariton), Meissner Kantorei/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Erich Schmidt – Cybele Multichannel SACD 860.201:
I’m of two minds about the type of composition Hufschmidt’s two Meissner Tedeums (1968, 1997) are: I love Edgar Varèse’s Poèm Électronique for the Brussels World’s Fair (1958); György Ligeti’s piece Atmospheres (1961) used in the Kubrik film, 2001; Luciano Berio’s Visage (1961); and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s breakthrough piece Kontakte (originally 1953, recorded in stereo in 1960). Yet I feel this type of music injudiciously used can appear a musical cartoon, or parody of itself, a view captured in the album of The Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival (1958). Hufschmidt’s piece generates both responses in me at the same time. Written and first performed in the late ‘60s, Hufschmidt’s Tedeum Uraufführung (1968), may best demonstrate how this type of music fell to the wayside in favor of Minimalism during the ‘60s (Terry Riley, In C), through the ‘80s (Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, Philip Glass’s dance pieces and film scores, and John Adams’ opera Nixon in China). On the musical philo-genetic tree, Hufschmidt’s acorns proved sterile.
Hufschmidt’s 1968 score is written for “Sopran [Soprano], Chor [Choir] und Orchester mid Orgel [Organ], Bariton [Baritone], Vokalensemble [Vocal Ensemble], Bläserquintett [Wind Quintet], Klavier [Piano], Schlagweug [Percussion] und Tonband [Tape Recorder].” Not inconsiderable forces! And, I must admit, the performance has its moments. There are times when the score reaches upward for the transcendent, achieves it momentarily, but then is brought crushingly back to Earth by what I’d call a musical malapropism, some ill-chosen effect not unlike the “bassoon joke” in Haydn’s Symphony 93, the one I’d dub “The Flatulent.” But neither of the scores have Haydn’s redeeming wit or charm, nor Berio’s sly humor, nor Stockhausen’s brilliance.
Hufschmidt’s Tedeum Weideraufführung (1997) is another interesting experiment that ultimately fails. It cobbles together many surround-sound effects used by his contemporaries thirty and forty years ago – including a scary/comical rear-channel narration track – to ill effect. For electronic music diehards only. It should be noted that the two performances here are not recorded in the same technology owing to their respective ages. The 1997 recording is in 5.1 Surround SACD, but the 1968 recording is just 44.1K standard stereo. Again, this is for the electronic music fan, in the sense of “fanatic.” But if you are one such, it may prove fascinating listening for you, as it has for me.
VON KESSELS: Requiem – Von Kessels multichannel SACD VK3583:
Speaking of electronic music, this 17-movement work sounds to be in that genre, but is ostensibly created with large Chinese gongs, though no doubt processed with some sort of electronics. The low frequency information here is extremely strong and there is a warning about damaging speakers at too high a playback level. This is not the scratchy sort of sound from John Cage or Stockhausen rubbing a contact mic around a large gong, but rather smooth and slowly flowing sounds that are sort of like a low-frequency music of the spheres. It bears some resemblance to trancelike works such as Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Wire. Some of the movements have titles such as Bardo, relating to The Tibetan Book of the Dead; another is just called Prayer. The spatial element is extremely vital to this very minimalist and meditative sound sculpture; it would be a bore in two channels. Searching for more information on the somewhat puzzling disc, I went to the vonkessels.com web site promoted on the album. All it says is Under Construction.
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain; Three Instrumental Excerpts from Khovanshchina; BORODIN: In the Steppes of Central Asia – St. Louis Symphony/ Leonard Slatkin – Vox/Mobile Fidelity multichannel SACD UDSACD 4004:
Another classic mid-70s quadraphonic recording made for Vox or Turnabout Records by the team of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz, and issued at that time on LP in the rather iffy quad format known as QS. As with the four-channel master recordings made by Philips at about the same time and now issued by PentaTone, we are for the first time able to properly hear what was captured on those tapes, courtesy of multichannel SACD. The wide sonic spectrum of this music is beautifully reproduced via Mo-Fi’s efforts to extract the maximum amount of musical information out of the original quad tapes. It is like we were only peering thru a door into the exhibition gallery before, whereas now we are standing in the middle of the exhibition with every one of the eleven paintings portrayed musically available to our perusal. The xrcd version of another classic performance of this work holds only this 32-minute piece, but MFSL has included three other selections here to round out the program. Night on Bald Mountain has been an audiophile favorite ever since Stokowski’s colorful recording of it. From Mossorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina we hear the Introduction, Entracte and Dance of the Persian Slaves. Lastly, Borodin’s well-known atmospheric In the Steppes of Central Asia closes out the SACD. Some of this series has been issued before on two-channel 96K DVD as well as on audiophile LP. Both of those employed only the two front channels without even mixing in the two surrounds. With this disc we are able to experience all four channels just as originally envisioned by Aubort and Nickrenz.
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7 in C Major “Leningrad” – Kirov Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg & Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev – Philips multichannel SACD 470 623-2:
I’ve been searching for details on the listing of two orchestras for this work ever since receiving the CD-only version some months ago. I can only surmise that since the recording was made at hall in Amsterdam, Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra were there on tour at the time and the two orchestras were somehow combined for this massive work. In some ways Gergiev produces a less noisy and bombastic war symphony than others with smaller forces have done in the past. For example, Bernstein ploughs right in with the first movement emphasizing the percussion – especially a repeated snare drum figuration. In Gergiev’s version the snare drum is so far back and muted that it is almost unheard until later in the symphony. The first three movements of the work were composed in St. Petersburg during the German bombardment and siege, so this is a war symphony actually composed in the middle of terrible warfare. The multichannel mix brings out details in the often dense score and together with Gergiev’s more lyrical interpretation makes the work take on a higher stature among the Shostakovich symphonies.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor; Symphony No. 6 in B minor – Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan/Oleg Caetani – Arts DVD-A 45001-6 DVD:
Caetani is the son of Igor Markevitch and the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony has become one of Italy’s most important orchestras, with Riccardo Chailly as their current music director. Both of these works were recently recorded live in the Milan Auditorium. Caetani has a fluid yet dramatic style with both works – not nearly as hell-bent as Bernstein in the Fifth, but with the exceptionally enveloping and impactful multichannel sonics the effect is in some ways even stronger. The conductor studied all 15 Shostakovich symphonies in Moscow with Kiril Kondrashin. He points out the similarities to Mahler in most of the Russian master’s symphonies, but especially these two. He researched at length the effect of different bowing on the strings and feels his approach better communicates the endless lyrical themes typical of the composer. Arts lists all the equipment used for the recordings and has the highest technical standards in their releases – using the maximum 96K sampling for the multichannel option. The DVD-V options include both Dolby 5.1 as well as two-channel uncompressed PCM. The only on-screen images for the DVD-A are similar illustrations to the album cover displayed for the entire work, but it plays with just two taps of the play button without requiring any video display.
Seventeenth Century Music and Dances from the Viennese Court by HEINRICH BIBER: Sonata Pro tabula in C, Balletti a 4 in G, Sonata a 5 in C, Partita ex Vienna, Ballettae a 4 in D & JOHANN SCHMELZER: Sonata ad tabulam in G, Balletto 1 di zingari in D Minor, Sonata per chiesa e per camera in G, Balletti Francesi in A Minor, Sonata a doi chori in G, Aria con la mattacina – Ars Antiqua Austria/Gunar Letzbor – Chesky multichannel SACD 262:
This early music ensemble specializes in the Austrian Baroque period and his performed with any other European early music groups as well as made eight CD so far. Music was very important in every aspect of life in the royal courts of 17th century Europe, and the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria had some of the best musicians in all of Europe. Two of the top composers of this period were Biber and Schmelzer; both advanced the potential of music for both solo violin and strings beyond the Italian model of their predecessors.
These melodies and dances were the party music of the period. they accompanies all sorts of court activities. In addition to special original compositions the ensembles play arrangements of folk tunes of the region and even some showing showing gypsy music influences. There’s a festive mood to the music played here; it’s far from the staid and often boring performances of early instrumental music with which many of us are familiar. There’s even a final shot of “Hey!” at the very end of the last selection. This is a 13-piece ensemble and are well-spaced out in a sort of horseshoe in front by Chesky’s surround mix. A most enjoyable disc.
MESSIAEN: Turangalila-Symphonie – Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano/Takashi Harada, Ondes Martenot/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly – Decca multichannel SACD 470 627-2:
Released originally as a standard CD in l993, this performance was recorded multichannel, and when the producer went back to the original materials they were pleased to find that the huge forces had been set up as if planned originally for surround sound. Pianist Thibaudet was dead center, the combination of celeste, vibes and marimba were behind to the left and the speakers of the Ondes Martenot electronic instrument (a sort of Theremin with a keyboard) arraying to the right behind. The huge percussion section was on the left two rows behind the rest of the orchestra, the brass was center back and to the right, with the rest of the orchestra placed normally.
Turangalila is one of the most spectacular orchestral works of the last century and it is clear that it is perfect for surround sound. The improved resolution and spatial qualities are as vital to the proper communication of Messiaen’s music as they are to that of Mahler’s. The work has ten movements and is constructed from four main themes: the statue theme, flower theme, love theme and chord theme. This is not the first hi-res multichannel Turangalila. I compared the new arrival to the EMI Classics DVD-A which was reissued from the l977 four-channel analog masters recorded by Andre Previn and the London Symphony. No contest. The Chailly SACD version has one more channel in its favor, using a 4.1 configuration, and the LFE channel is very important in this work. Moreover it has a closer recording perspective, making it more impactful and richer sounding. There is a greater dynamic and frequency range, and the solo instruments such as piano and Martenot are more in the sonic spotlight. The electronic swooshes and other interjections of the latter are certainly attention-getters that one doesn’t hear in other symphonic works. The ecstatic outbursts throughout the work remain exciting and energizing, partly due to the great clarity of the musical details even in the loudest climaxes of the full orchestra. This is a symphonic demo disc if there ever was one!
Percussion XXth Century – HENZE: Prison Song, TAIRA: Monodrame I, BRINDLE: Orion M42, ELLIOTT CARTER: Three Pieces for Timpani, CAGE: Cartridge Music, STOCKHAUSEN: Zyklus, SCIARRINO: Appendice alla perfezione, TANGUY: Towards – Jonathan Faralli, percussionist – Arts Music 96K 2-channel DVD-V (DAD) 47558-6 DVD:
I had thought the 96K two-channel DVD was a format of the past, but Arts has released several and now Classic Records has announced a series of 192K two-channel reissues playable on standard DVD players (though in their case with a DVD-A option on the other side of the disc). Percussion has had a much larger role in classical music in the last century than it previously had. There is now a large repertory of works for solo percussion alone that sees it as a great deal more than just rhythmic support in the orchestra. This rather avant program of works was chosen to illustrate some of the variety of approaches to solo percussion which have come into effect in the past century. In the Henze work the performer attempts to create the sounds a prisoner might hear in his cell from both the street and from banging on objects available to him. Orion M42 is the best-known star cloud in the galaxy and the piece inspired by it creates sound clouds meant to evoke cosmic sounds. The three selections from Carter’s Eight Pieces for Timpani are fairly straightforward and clear considering that composer; they comprise a Spanish-flavored Saeta, a Canto and finally a March. The Stockhausen piece uses a large number of percussion instruments, with much left up to the performer. The closing Tanguy piece begins with rhythmic polyphony and ends with an expressive, almost lyrical quality. Sonics are impeccable on this disc – the clarity and presence of the instruments is astounding. The impact on some of the selections, such as Cage’s Cartridge Music, is so dynamic as to be almost scary – watch out you don’t blow out your speakers!
Please Welcome…Matt Haimovitz, cello (with Itamar Golan, piano; Eileen Clark, soprano) – Oxingale Records multichannel SACD ATM1229:
Haimovitz has become one of the most-discussed classical cellists today with his unusual approaches to reaching audiences. He has performed with some of the major symphonies, but he also performs regularly in jazz clubs, pubs and taverns – places the normal concert cellist wouldn’t be caught dead in, at least with his instrument. He launched Oxingale as his own label and has recorded everything from the complete Bach solo cello suites to his amazing transcription of Jimi Hendrix’ Star Spangled Banner which is heard on this sampler lifted from his previous 44.1 discs but remixed for 5.1 hi-res SACD. Diverse is definitely the word for Matt. The disc gives us his unique interpretation of the complete Second Bach Suite, an excerpt from a work by Tod Machover using the Hypercello – which connects to a bank of computers, a set of Paganini variations playing on one string, a blues from avant vocal composer Toby Twining, and a melody by Hildegard von Bingen for soprano and cello, plus the Hendrix opus which you simply must hear to believe. And who says surround sound for music is beside the point for a single solo instrument? Just compare the sound of the stereo and multichannel options with the cello solo tracks on this disc and you’ll eat your words.
A Battle of the Hi-Res Trouts up next…
SCHUBERT: Piano Quintet in A “The Trout;” MOZART: Clarinet Quintet in A – Beaux Arts Trio w/ Menahem Pressler, piano & Georg Hortnagel, doublebass (Trout); Grumiaux Quartet w/ George Pieterson, clarinet (Clarinet Q.) – Pentatone RQR Series multichannel SACD PTC 5186 121:
SCHUBERT: Piano Quintet in A “The Trout;” Four Impromptus Op. 90 D899 – Alvarez Piano Quartet – Tacet multichannel DVD-A DVD 106:
The Pentatone SACD dates from 1974-75 and is another of the four-channel masters taped by Philips back then which was never released due to their realizing the insufficiencies of all the quadraphonic LP formats. Four channels are just fine for this chamber music, even the clarinet soloist is smack in the middle of the frontal stage in the phantom center channel. One would never know the recordings are dated in any way. There have been several hi-res versions of the Mozart Quintet lately; this one is certainly the equal of any of them.
The All-Schubert DVD-A on Tacet presents the famous quintet which does variations on Schubert’s own song The Trout in its fourth movement in a rather different manner. This label places the individual musicians around the listener, almost one to a speaker. Diagrams in the notes show the locations but they should be noticed immediately on playback if your equipment is properly set up. In this case the piano is at the front rear, the violin is at the left front speaker, the viola at the right front, the bass at the left surround and the cello at the right surround. It takes some getting used to the experimental spatial layout but I feel it involves the listener more in the music. It appears we are one player short of the quorum required to play this quintet, but I saw no credit for the additional musician. Never mind, the playing on both discs is top-flight. The Pentatone ensemble is richer and more flowing in their phrasing while the group on Tact is more sec and detached – which seems to add to the sense of each instrument being more detached spatially in the room. So the choice is between really cozy players up there on the frontal soundstage vs. rather aloof players all over your listening room – it’s up to you – they’re both good.
Baroque Music for Brass and Organ – Works of BACH, HANDEL, PURCELL, TELEMANN, CAMPRA, PACHELBEL, ALBINONI, CLARKE & CHARPENTIER – Empire Brass Quintet with William Kuhlman, organ – Telarc multichannel SACD-60614:
The height of the Baroque era was known for big musical displays of pomp and circumstance, and one of the most frequently-heard combinations of instruments used for this purpose was that of brass instruments and pip organ. While favorites such as Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary are included here, most of the music in this 20-track collection is transcribed from Baroque works for strings and other instruments and transferred to the brass quintet plus organ. The concerto by Telemann and the Chamber Sonata by Handel have three and four movements respectively. The Pachelbel selection is not the Canon (thank you) but the less-familiar Fantasia in D minor. Also, the Albinoni work is not the Adagio but a lovely Fantasie Allegro. The multichannel recording was made during a live concert at a college in Iowa and the clarity and impact of both the brass instruments and the pipe organ are considerably advanced in the 5.1 option vs. the stereo mixdown. In fact there is a hint of vertical displacement with the pipe organ as heard on Telarc’s famous standard CD recording of the Jongen organ symphony.
MANUEL DE FALLA: The Three-Cornered Hat; Nights in the Gardens of Spain – Josep Colom, piano (Nights)/City of Granada Orchestra/ Joseph Pons – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMC 801606:
These two works from the great Spanish composer are greatly contrasted but both are inspired by Andalusian culture, as was much of his music. The Three-Cornered Hat ballet music is in the form of two suites taken from the complete ballet. Spanish folk song and dances such as the jota and fandango were the sources for the ballet music. The story is an amusing comedy of intrigue in an Andalusian village. The three-cornered hat is the mark of rank of the magistrate (The Corregidor) who is smitten with the beautiful wife of the miller. The dances are highly rhythmic and tuneful and the orchestration is brilliant. This is one of the liveliest works of Falla.
Impressionism is the main quality of Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which Falla was also asked to mount as a ballet but he refused. This Debussian piano concerto conveys impressions of three different Spanish gardens, the last that of Cordoba, using some of the most atmospheric orchestral writing to come from Falla’s pen. While this orchestra and pianist may not be big names, the quality of both performances cannot be faulted, and the transparency of the multichannel hi-res sound brings the works to us with a fresh sonic reality.
Concertos for Double Bass and Orchestra by LARS ERIK LARSSON, ERLAND VON KOCH, GIOVANNI BOTTESINI – Thorvald Fredin, double bass/The Oskarshamn Ensemble/Jan-Olav Wedin – Opus 3 multichannel SACD CD 8522:
I recall this album as being an interesting and very listenable release on vinyl from Opus 3 back in l985. It marks a return of the Swedish label to their library of tape masters which were all recorded with the purist Blumlein single-point Middle/Side mic pickup to two channels. This approach preserved much of the ambient information missed by other mic setups, and therefore Opus 3 can go back to these masters and dial up the ambient “difference” information on the M-S decoder while filtering out the frontal information. This then becomes the surround channels of a 4.0 multichannel mix. Even though this recording spotlights the double bass, there is no need for a subwoofer – the lowest tones come thru just fine.
Neither of the two 20th century concertos are atonal or difficult to listen to. Von Koch was a leading Swedish composer of the time and his work is titled a Serenade for bass and string orchestra. Folk themes are prominent in it. Bottesini was one of the Romantic Period’s greatest proponents of solo music for the double bass, and his tuneful work makes a fine conclusion to the SACD, plus a short encore Elegia from the same composer.
BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24 – Auryn Quartet/Peter Orth, piano – Tacet multichannel DVD-A DVD D120:
I hadn’t heard this quintet for some time and realized it’s become one of my favorite chamber works. There’s plenty of other versions out of it but this one is a winner – sparkling playing by all concerned. Moreover the disc has something none of the others have: Not only is it hi-res DVD-A and multichannel if you wish, the label’s “Real Surround Sound” really does surround you by placing basically one instrument per speaker. Tacet says this makes the structures of works much clearer to the ear than with stereo. In this case the piano is across the frontal soundstage toward the back, the viola is at left front, the second violin at right front, the first violin at left surround and the cello at right surround. If you don’t have all your speakers equidistant and levels perfectly balanced things will sound seriously out of balance. One of the previous Tacets had the piano between the surrounds in back, and not having as extended low bass on those channels I wasn’t able to image the piano back there – it always sounded up in front with the other instruments, no matter how I set levels (well, within reason). The nearly half-hour work on the theme by Handel is quite a knuckle-breaker and well-presented by pianist Orth. The micing of this track is more traditional in nature.
RACHMANINOFF: Trio elegiaque for piano, violin and cello in G minor; TCHAIKOVSKY: Trio for piano, violin and cello in A Minor – Abegg Trio – Tacet multichannel DVD-A with Moving Real Surround Sound DVD D 127:
Now on this one recording engineer/CEO Andreas Spreer goes one further from placing single instruments at each speaker. There are two versions here of both pieces (an advantage of the longer playing time on DVD-As vs. SACDs) – a “normal” version with the three instruments stable, and a Moving Real Surround Sound version with all sorts of instrumental movement around the listener. Both works are presented normally first, then another series of track IDs is listed in red on the jewel box and inside notes. The normal setup is with the piano on across the surround channels, the violin at the left front speaker and the cello at the right front speaker.
The real peregrinations of the instruments starts in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Trio. Their choreography is described section by section in the note booklet. For example, in the first variation the cello moves back and forth between the right and left front speakers, in the fourth variation the two string instruments “walk” around one another once. In the sixth variation – a waltz – they rotate around the listener. And so on. Spreer says this piece lent itself to moving surround, but not every piece does, so this won’t be a feature of all future DVD-As. By the way, the performances of both these moving and melodic works are first rate and the general fidelity excellent in view of the use of the maximum 96K-24bit option.
La Folia de la Spagna – Atrium Musicae de Madrid/Gregorio Paniagua – Harmonic mundi Stereo SACD HMC 801050:
The original 1982 release of this performance on LP became a favorite with many audiophiles at the time, both for its crystalline fidelity presenting a variety of instruments and sound effects as well as its boisterous performance and improvisations on a “hit tune” of early music. There were a number of hit tunes used in the Baroque and Renaissance periods as the subject of variations, improvisations, even put to use as musical themes integrated into masses and requiems. The ancient Spanish dance melody known as La Spagna (The Spaniard) was one of these. It caught the ear of many composers – including Corelli, Vivaldi, Liszt and Nielsen.
Paniagua has assembled what is really an original composition using La Spagna as a starting point for the small group of period instrument players to launch a wild and astounding series of variations spread over a dozen tracks and ranging from the archaic to very modern variations involving electronics, jazz, voices speaking, even the sound effects of birds, pistol shots and roaring automobiles. Things start out in a rather staid manner which seems to fit with all the section titles being in Latin. Then suddenly we’re hearing a xylophone, or an Indian percussionist calling out his rhythms, or perhaps a Jew’s harp. One could characterize the work as sounding like the Academy of Ancient Music was being infiltrated by members of the Spike Jones Band. Among the non-period instruments heard are table, sitar, castanets, derouka, metallophone and xylophone. The section with the car driving up would have been even better in multichannel, but it’s great anyway to have available this classic and fun early music romp in the highest two-channel fidelity it has ever had.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique;” SCRIABIN: Prometheus – The Poem of Fire – Kirov Orchestras, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg/Valery Gergiev (Kirov Chorus & Alexander Toradze, piano in Scriabin) – Philips DVD-A B0001511-19:
You can count on Gergiev to bring the maximum amount of drama and excitement to most any music of his country. Perhaps it was the spell of the surround sound, but I actually enjoyed his interpretation of this symphony which is normally one of my least-listened-to of the standard repertory. The crying-in-your-vodka mood of it was ameliorated by genuine pathos and drama. But it was the Scriabin work which most interested me here. Prometheus is one of the major symphonic works of the Russian mystical/genius/nut. It shares aspects of a piano concerto, symphonic poem, and cantata for vocalise choir and orchestra. While it is often performed without the chorus, Gergiev gives it the full treatment here and it’s quite thrilling. This was the work in which the composer introduced a color organ designed to project different colors in concert with the music. The surround is serviceable, but I was surprised to see it was at only the standard CD 44.1K sampling rate rather than 96K. That’s the same sampling rate as many of the Naxos DVD-As, and it’s hard to understand why it is used when even the 96K maximum isn’t quite as hi-res as the DSD approach of multichannel SACD. The DVD-A two-channel option is at 48K/20bit, a slight improvement, but it could be 96K uncompressed PCM stereo just as well.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 – Philharmonia Orchestra. Benjamin Zander conductor. Telarc . 3 discs, SACD-60599:
Some orchestral works are natural candidates for SACD recordings. Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is certainly one of them. I need only to provide one example: the posthorn solo in III. This pianissimo moment makes such exquisite use of the rear speakers and yet sounds so wimpy through a standard speaker system, that it almost justifies the purchase of a new SACD system. It is a haunting and serene moment in a symphony filled with a mixture of joyous, bizarre, eerie, beautiful and raucous ones. I’ve always felt this symphony (the world’s longest according to Guiness) is best absorbed in two listenings.
Benjamin Zander’s approach to the symphony can also be summed up in how well he handles III (“What the animals in the forest tell me”) and IV (“What humanity tells me”). The sprightly four-note cuckoo melody on the clarinet, borrowed from one of Mahler’s songs, has a wispy dissonance, but is expertly transformed into a rude orchestral fortissimo. This is followed by the intensely disquieting IV consisting of Nietzsche’s poem from Thus Spake Zarathustra. Sander correctly interprets the oboe’s spooky two note figure as a glissando, certainly one of the more crepuscular moments in 19th-century music. It sounds like a night bird calling to its fallen mate. Like the other Mahler symphonies in this series, Telarc includes Zander’s commentary, which is both enlightening and entertaining. He is a creative and engaging pedagogue, perhaps not quite on Leonard Bernstein’s level, but worth listening to after you hear the piece for the first time. [I would add that Zander’s talk is also lengthy – the maximum time for a disc side – that it is unforunately in 44.1 form rather than SACD, but the added disc is essentially free since this is priced as a two-disc set rather than three…Ed.]
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major “Symphony of a Thousand” – Soloists/Netherlands Radio and Prague Philharmonic Choirs/Boys and girls of the Cathedral Choir/Young people of the Sacrament Choir/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly – Decca DVD-A B0001498-19:
Another 44.1/48K semi-hi-res effort from Universal, but with good surround involvement anyway. The CD version of this performance was issued in 2001. Among the eight soloists is soprano Jane Eaglen. The work is quite different from Mahler’s other symphonies in having two seemingly disparate parts. The first is in six movements and is constructed on the ancient Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus. The second half is a musical setting of the final scene of the second part of Goethe’s Faust. The connection was intended to have an inner logic – the first part summoning the creative spirit, and the second demonstrating the link between creativity and the allure of the eternal feminine. The second part is strong on various souls ascending to heaven musically and all that sort of thing. There is a libretto provided – thank you Decca. The various choirs are arrayed in sort of a horseshoe and are very dramatic as backdrop to the solo singers in front. This is certainly an appropriate work for hi-res multichannel playback! Again, the visual display is just an illustration for each section which stays on the screen; you’re better off to only display it to select the playback option and then turn off the video display.
– John Sunier
[Continue on to Part 3 of Hi-Res Reviews.]