SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Hi-Res Reviews, Part 2 of 3 Classical
Published on June 1, 2004
57 SACD & DVD-A Reviews This Month
June 2004 – Part 2 of 3 – Classical (beg.)
click on any cover to go directly to its review
GLUCK: Italian Arias – Cecilia Bartoli, Mezzo-Soprano – Academie Fur Alte Musik Berlin / Bernhard Forck, Leader – Decca 470 611-2 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:
There’s no denying Cecilia Bartoli’s appeal; I’m especially enamored with her excellent renderings of Mozart and Rossini arias from her previous releases. This new disc has much to offer in the way of appeal, with much of the subject matter coming from previously unrecorded or neglected works from Gluck. The packaging is spectacular, with a hardboard case and 50-plus page bound-in booklet with many nicely done touches. But unfortunately, and despite the glossy exterior, I still see this release as rather a mixed bag artistically.
My first complaint came from trying to get the damn disc out of its bound-in cardboard sleeve without destroying either the disc or the sleeve! This took some effort, and releasing the disc the first time has in no way decreased the amount of effort in subsequent attempts. I’d think twice (if I were Universal) about using this storage format for any future releases.
My major complaint artistically comes from the vocal affectations/mannerisms (I’ve heard them referred to as “Bartoli-isms”) that abound throughout – perhaps it’s mostly just due to the period that this music dates from, because I’ve never really noticed anything to the extent found here on her previous discs. There are moments where her coloratura pours forth beautifully and poignantly, but I often found myself cringing throughout the performance. The Academie Fur Alte Musik Berlin, who have (to these ears) sounded a bit thin on some of their previous releases, provides full-bodied support – but I’d give this one a listen, if possible, and then decide whether or not to add it to your collection.
[The original CD version of this disc was reviewed by Alex Morin in November of 2001 – have a look for another view….Ed.]
Farben der Stille (Colors of Silence) – Music by Takemitsu, Roller, Feldman, Saariaho and Imbescheid – Ensemble Gelber Klang – Cybele SACD 361.201 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD
There’s an interesting section in the accompanying booklet with this disc that discusses artist Wassily Kandinsky’s views on the color white as being representative of silence, and it’s practical uses not only in visual presentations, but also in music. Farben der Stille translates into Colors of Silence, and with this excellent multichannel hybrid SACD from the German label Cybele, we get a stark landscape of sparsely instrumented pieces juxtaposed with healthy doses of silence. The moods of the various pieces here flow from deeply contemplative to downright bone-chilling, all played expertly by the Ensemble Gelber Klang, which takes its’ name from Kandinsky’s 1912 multidisciplinary expressionist theatre project Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound).
In order to get the full impact of the music, I’d strongly suggest listening to this disc in its multichannel format. From the opening notes of Takemitsu’s excellent Rain Spell, you’re immersed in an incredible sonic landscape filled with subtle percussive textures that for me, at least, was just irresistible! I hit the replay button several times throughout the session – I just couldn’t get enough of this magical music. I’ve always had an appreciation for Takemitsu’s works, but this disc takes it to another level entirely. This selection alone is worth the price of the disc.
From the relative serenity of Takemitsu, we move to a brief modernist string-based piece from Scott Roller, and then we’re taken down more harrowing paths. Don’t let the relative calm of the beginning of this disc lull you into turning the volume too far up – at about 9:30 into Morton Feldman’s For Frank O’Hara there’s a percussive outbreak that could easily send many amps into clipping. The heavily tympanic scoring of this piece will give your subwoofers a really good workout. Even starker landscapes are portrayed in the pieces by Saariaho and Imbescheid.
Sonically, this DSD recorded disc is a knockout, especially in it’s multichannel format. Very highly recommended, and definitely on my top ten list this year!
SHOSTAKOVICH: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor Op. 40 – PROKOFIEV: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major Op. 119 – BRITTEN: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major Op. 65 – Peter Wispelwey, Cello / Dejan Lazic, Piano – Channel Classics CCS SA 20003 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD
Channel Classics’ group of SACDs has been nothing short of superb, both in performance and recorded sound, and the tradition continues with this disc of sonatas for cello and piano by three modern masters. The real star here is the cello playing of Peter Wispelway; he effortlessly glides through each of these three showcase pieces and evinces a deeply-felt understanding of the music. Both the Prokofiev and and Britten sonatas were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, and Wispelway’s traversal of these masterpieces is eerily reminiscent of the master himself. Sympathetic accompaniment is given throughout by pianist Dejan Lazic.
The pure DSD sound is excellent, with a close-up perspective of the players, with plenty of ambience coming from the rears, which makes for a really you-are-there experience. Compared to the already excellent Redbook CD version, the SACD takes the performance to the next level, making the CD version seem rather flat by comparison. Highly recommended.
WAGNER: Overtures and Preludes – Dresden State Orchestra / Silvio Varviso, Conductor – WAGNER: Siegfried Idyll – London Chamber Orchestra / Richard Schumacher, Conductor – PentaTone Classics 5186 123 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:
BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 – Academy of St. Martin in the Fields / Sir Neville Marriner, Conductor – PentaTone Classics 5186 118 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:
Here we have two more releases in PentaTone’s RQR series of multichannel SACDs that were originally recorded in Quad during the seventies. As with the previous RQR releases, the choice was made to use the original four-channel mixes, so there’s no sub or center channel information, but that choice works really well with these well recorded tapes. And if you have your multichannel system hooked up to an Outlaw ICBM or have figured out some other workaround to get the sub back into the loop, you’ll discover that many of these tapes actually have a great deal of deep bass.
When I first received the disc of Wagner overtures, my first question was “Who is Silvio Varviso?” If I can fault Pentatone for at least one thing, it’s that they don’t really supply a lot of additional information in the booklets supplied with their discs (especially the RQR series). However, a quick trip to Google gave me quite a bit of information – Maestro Varviso has been on the European opera scene for quite some time and has extensive work conducting Wagner – so I guess he wasn’t such an odd choice after all. And the proof is in the listening – he does an excellent job with the Dresden State Orchestra, especially in the quieter moments, such as the middle section of “The Meistersinger,” or the poignant openings of both Tristan and Tannhauser. My only qualm is – and this may have something to do with the vintage of the tapes – is that the orchestral climaxes just don’t have the kind of full-tilt bravado one normally associates with Wagner’s music.
Having just spent the last six weeks with the excellent new Karajan SACD box of Beethoven’s Symphonies, I have to admit that I had a really hard time giving the Marriner disc much playback time at all. When I did listen, I found myself constantly A-B’ing between the two performances. I still love Karajan’s Beethoven, but Marriner is no slouch, and offers excellent performances of both symphonies 1 and 2, with many admirable qualities to be found in the playing.
These four-channel SACDs offer generally excellent sound, especially considering that the tapes are thirty-plus years old. On a lot of the recordings made in the London area from this era you can hear the subway tubes rumbling underneath the halls, and this is also clearly audible on the Beethoven disc, but it’s not too distracting. Surrounds were used judiciously throughout, and switching to stereo playback only served to collapse the perception of depth. Choices in this repertory are numerous, but these hybrid discs from PentaTone are well worth giving a listen.
Toccata – 200 Years of German Organ Music – Music by Bach, Homilius, Krebs, Kellner, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Reinberger and Reger – Bram Beekman, Organ – PentaTone Classics 5186 003 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:
The organ used in this recital is in the East Church in Middleburg, Netherlands, and dates from 1782; it has undergone several restorations over the 200-plus years it’s been in use. The organist, Bram Beekman, also happens to be the principal organist at the East Church, so he knows the instrument well, and gives us a breathtakingly beautiful performance. The disc comprises works by Bach, several of his pupils and a contemporary, then moves us from the past and into the present with works by Mendelssohn-Barholdy and Max Reger.
The disc begins with the requisite Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, played with finesse, rather than breakneck speed. This suits the piece entirely, however, as much of the music on the disc is more contemplative in nature, rather than just another bombastic organ recital. The second piece, the Bach Concerto in D Minor, is played with such fluid touch of the keyboards that it’s just absolutely ear candy – I hit the repeat button several times, it’s such a joy to listen to. Everything on this disc – the works by Bach’s pupils, Homilius and Krebs are particularly outstanding – is beautifully played as well.
If I had one minor quibble, it’s that the disc (and most likely, the organ itself) doesn’t possess those room-shaking really low notes that one usually associates with organ recitals. Considering the nature of the program, I didn’t have any problem getting beyond this, as the truly excellent playing of Mr. Beekman more than absolves any lack of deep bass. Highly recommended!
Missa Mexicana – The Harp Consort / Andrew Lawrence-King, Director – Harmonia Mundi HMU 807293 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:
The Missa Mexicana is a most unusual melange of musical styles and elements that began in the mid-1500s in central Mexico with the arrival of the Spaniards. Wealthy patrons established the Puebla de los Angeles Cathedral and began a tradition of music and singing that was unrivaled throughout the world of Spanish foreign dominion. The ensuing decades brought other influences, including those of African slaves and their musical traditions, as well as the folk music influences of aboriginal peoples from throughout Latin America. The resulting mixture came to include not only a foundation in the Latin mass, but vocal and musical textures from the collaborations of the diverse human elements and their musical traditions brought together at the cathedral.
The music presented here is an unusual blending of the sacred and the profane, combining elements of the traditional mass, Italian-influenced operatic singing and Spanish street melodies, along with various ethnic and folk music stylings to create quite an enjoyable musical hodge-podge.I hear all sorts of familiar themes that I’m certain I’ve heard in works from other Spanish music greats, such as Rodrigo or Albeniz – no surprise that they were probably intimately familiar with much of the source material for these works.
Multichannel sound quality was superb, placing the listener in a stage perspective among the singers and musicians. An appealing disc, with many delights to offer the adventurous listener. Highly recommended.
BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1; Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” – Jonathan Gilad, piano – Lyrinx multichannel SACD LYR 2222, 66:34:
Jonathan Gilad (b. 1981) is a Marseilles-born artist, a pupil of Pierre Pradier and Dmitri Bashkirov. He early came to the attention of Daniel Barenboim, who recommended Gilad to replace Pollini in Chicago. Too new for me to make further comparisons, Gilad strikes me as an able Beethoven interpreter, opting for a hard but plastic patina that nicely balances Bashkirov’s rather percussive sound and the French taste which can tend to over-pedal dynamic indications. The C Minor Op. 10 is a direct, aggressive account that captures the composer’s sturm und drang without sacrificing the pointed upward scales and rocket effects owed to Mannheim, Haydn, and Mozart. The Steinway piano sound projected on Lyrinx is quite bountiful in the middle registers and does not become hard and ping-ridden at the top [as it does on many 44.1 CDs…Ed.].
I like Gilad’s way with the D Minor Sonata, with its more experimental approach to harmony and structure. Gilad does not force the more urgent passages on the reflective, broken-chord figure that opens the Largo section of the first movement. For a young artist, Gilad’s sense of pace in the Adagio is quite expressive without becoming cloying. The last movement, always a test of perpetuum mobile, is lyrical and graceful without any sacrifice of inner tension. Much of the same aesthetic dominates the ubiquitous Appassionata, although here I might wish Gilad were more explosive. The theme-and-variations second movement is simple and lovely. So, if intimacy and intelligence still mean something to your piano collection, look to Gilad to add to the list of musical lights on the new horizon.
Battle of the Hi-Res Mahler Eighths!…
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major “Symphony of a Thousand” – Soloists and Combined University of Utah Choruses/Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel – Vanguard/Classic Records stereo HDAD (192K DVD-A & 96K DVD-V):
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major “Symphony of a Thousand” – Eaglen/Schwanewilms/Ziesak/Fulgoni/Larsson/Heppner/Mattei/Rootering/Netherlands Radio, Prague Philharmonic, Boys and girls of the Kathedrale Koor, Youth of the Sacrament Church Choirs/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly – Decca DVD-A B0001498-19: [Also reviewed in our March 2004 Issue]
It is only natural that Mahler symphonies would be a strong focus of the new multichannel formats, and the 8th is surely the most all-stops-out of the composer’s ten. But I hadn’t expected to see two of the them arrive in the mails the same week. The 8th seems to beg the question Why didn’t Mahler ever just write an opera? He was certainly inspired by Verdi, Bellini and other Italian opera composers in much of his vocal and choral music. In fact, in Part 1 of this seemingly bipolar symphony there are exchanges between a bass voice singing as Pater Profundus and choruses of children as Younger Angels, More Perfect Angels, Blessed Boys and so forth. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my (few) favorite operatic scenes: The Prologue to Boito’s Mephistopheles (Toscanini’s version with Boris Christoff does it to a T). Part 1 grabs you by the ears right off with the full forces of chorus and orchestra in the Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus. Part 2 at first seems entirely unrelated. It is in a different language – German – and is a sort of apotheosis of Goethe’s Faust story. Mahler calls it the Closing Scene of Faust. I’ve read several essays on the unusual pairing and am still not certain I grasp it, but it has something to do with both parts sharing a common philosophy about Eros being the Creator of the World. One writer opined that if Freud had been more musical he would have understood what Mahler was trying to say.
The Classic disc is part of the new series of 96K/24bit stereo video DVDs which used to be called DAD. Now they have been dubbed HDAD to signify that although one side of the disc remains 96K DVD-V audio, the other side of the disc is a standard stereo DVD-Audio at 192K/24bit. The only video is the still title screen for the work. Since all the Mahler symphonies recorded by the Utah forces and Vanguard back in the late 60s and early 70s were recorded on four channels for quadraphonic release, it seems a shame that Classic cannot offer the multichannel version rather than just the two channel. Their tech notes explain the details of deriving the final digital disc from the original analog masters, and they say they are providing for the first time Master Tape Sound™. Well, the master tape was four-channel, not two. I had some of the Mahler Symphonies on four-channel quarter-inch tape and they were – aside from a bit of hiss – the best thing going for music in surround at the time. Silverline has already issued one of the Mahlers in multichannel DVD-A, and mixed to 5.1 at that, so eventually the 8th may also be available in that form. I thought it was interesting that the last page of the note booklet – About the Recording – was unchanged from the original Vanguard LPs, and talks about mono vs. stereo cartridges. Also, all the notes are printed in italics for some reason and very small type at that.
In direct comparison – both using the stereo mix on the Chailly and also feeding the Utah disc thru Pro Logic II to match up better with the multichannel Chailly – the Utah recording gives up nothing against the competition from the Concertgebouw. Considering the age of the master tapes and the fact that the Utah was just a community symphony before Abravanel came aboard, this is quite an achievement. The Utah is recorded much closer; perhaps when balanced by the original rear channels it wouldn’t sound so close. Therefore the enunciation of the soloists and chorus is better, and there is more presence with the soloists. Abravanel’s orchestra sounds just about as together as the Concertgebouw and the various vocal soloists are a good match to the better-known ones on the Chailly recording.
The Chailly DVD-A is a much more distant recording of all the forces involved, but at the same time there is a genuine sense of the Concertgeouw’s acclaimed acoustics. (The acclaimed acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle are not much evident in the stereo HDAD.) While the Decca recording, made just two years ago, is excellent, so is the 35-year-old Vanguard recording. In a way the comparison of the stereo HDAD to the stereo layer of the DVD-A was unfair because the HDAD was 192K and the DVD-A was only 48K. But then again the Decca DVD-A 5.1 mix is only 44.1/16bit. If you’re a surround-for-music fan you may prefer running the 192K Classic HDAD version thru Pro Logic II or just wait for the multichannel release from Silverline Classics. But if you’re a two-channel diehard the choice is easy – the Utah HDAD is the one for you. (It’s also been released on vinyl and we’ll cover that one later.)
Let’s continue with more Abravanel/Utah Symphony hi-res offerings…
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Flos Campi, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, Fantasia on Greensleeves – Utah Symphony/Maurice Abravanel/Univ. of Utah Chamber Choir/Sally Peck Lentz, solo viola – Vanguard Classics stereo SACD ATM CD 1507:
Since the passing of its founder Seymour Solomon, Vanguard Records has been taken over by Artemis Classics and their first SACD releases are correcting some problems of the first batch back in 2002. I reviewed this one in our May 2002 Hi-Res section, so won’t repeat all that again except to say that some noise reduction has obviously been used in the reissue. The earlier version had an annoying rumble of hall sound that has been tamed, although a bit of the ambience of the venue has been lost in the process. Selecting Pro Logic II corrected that. This VW collection has stood the test of time in spite of all the recordings of similar repertory in the ensuing three-plus decades.
STRAVINSKY: Petrouchka (1911 version) – London Symphony/Sir Charles Mackerras; Firebird Suite – (Arr. for piano by Guido Agosti) – Robin McCabe, piano – Vanguard Classics multichannel SACD ATM CD 1505:
I covered this one in July 2002. Vanguard made a major effort back in 1973, trying a surround layout of the orchestra and recording to eight tracks. The major difference from the original release in this newer version was a slight increase in transparency – like another one of those proverbial veils was dropped. The very tinkly bells in the Shrovetide Fair section are placed towards the rear, as is the percussion which really involves the listener. Next month I’ll review the Berlioz Requiem reissue – that one did have a major goof that has been corrected in the latest version.
MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; Prelude to Khovanshchina – New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras – Vanguard Classics multichannel SACD ATM CD 1504:
This 1973 session in All Hallows Church, London, was also recorded on eight tracks by Vanguard. There’s certainly no shortage of hi-res Pictures to compete. We just reviewed the classic Slatkin version in its Mobile Fidelity reissue back in March. Mackerras brings us a less dramatic reading than did Slatkin. The pickup is similarly close up but the Vanguard has a more precise soundstage. But there is less of a feeling of the surround field than with the Petrouchka above. So it is surprising when towards the end of Bydlo (track 7) the snare drum comes in loudly from the surround channels. Was this intended musically or due to itchy engineer fingers on the pot? The filler from Khovanshchina is a good choice though the high strings sound a bit strident.
Two more Abravanel reissues on DVD-A…
TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake (complete ballet) – Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel – Vanguard/Silverline Classics DVD-A 288235-9:
Silverline is doing it right in their Utah Symphony reissue program. Both the multichannel and stereo options here are 96K/24bit – unlike many classical DVD-As, and the original four-channel Vanguard tapes have been remixed up to 5.1 channels. Nowhere on the disc is there an indication of the date of the original sessions, but with such great fidelity that doesn’t sound three-decades-plus old, who cares? Seymour Solomon and his engineers were pioneers in using a balanced and logical multichannel micing system that lacked only the fifth channel compared to the best being done 35 years later.
These are rich, suitably balletic-sounding interpretations. There is a composer’s bio and detailed technical notes which list all the equipment used in remastering the original Vanguard sources. The three major extras on the disc are similar to those on the Mahler First and others in the series, except that No. 3 – Remembering Abravanel’s Utah Symphony Orchestra – is different from and shorter than the one on the Mahler. The first extra is the Memorial Tribute to Abravanel, and very informative it is. His collaboration with the Utah Symphony was one of the longest-running and most successful of any in the annals of American orchestras. The second is Restoring and Transferring a Legacy, about the remastering process.
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor; Variations on a Theme by Haydn – Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel – Vanguard/Silverline Classics DVD-A 288237-9:
The first thing that might be noted about this disc is that the two major works presented here total over 99 minutes – that wouldn’t be possible on CD or SACD. This is the towering gem of the Brahms Four. It’s opening string of tympani strikes has been used as a good test of absolute polarity by the expert on that subject, Clark Johnsen. What does having five channels instead of two do to the polarity? I’m afraid I didn’t investigate that but did note that this version had some of the most wussy timpani strikes I have heard in the work. However, they get louder as the first movement progresses. The entire disc seemed to be mastered at a considerably lower level than the Swan Lake above. Otherwise this is a fine realization of the work, which is more involving in its multichannel version. Again, one would never realize the age of the original tapes. I’ve never found the Variations on the Haydn Theme very interesting, but it’s a good filler for the album. And again the extras are similar to those listed for the album disc.
A pair of pop concerts in hi-res are next…
ORCHESTRAL SPECTACULAR with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz/Bernard Klee & Ingo Ingensand – Works of BARBER, BERLIOZ, DUKAS, GLINKA, KHACHATURIAN, OFFENBACH, PUCCINI, ST.-SAENS, R. STRAUSS, TCHAIKOVSKY – Chesky multichannel SACD 245:
The Bruckner Orchestra is one of Central Europe’s best as is currently led by Dennis Russell Davies. This is a typical pops concert program of 11 selections, of which The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the lovely Adagio from Spartacus are the major works. All the pieces are played with great gusto – it’s almost an Austrian version of the Boston Pops. The orchestral arrangement of Barber’s Adagio for Strings makes a fine closer. The 5.0 surround is precise, clean and involving.
CLASSICS AT THE POPS – Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra – Works of COPLAND, ST.-SAENS, RESPIGHI, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, VERDI, DEBUSSY, ELGAR, BERLIOZ, WEINBERGER, SHOSTAKOVICH – Telarc multichannel SACD-60595:
The presence of the Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah on both of these discs enabled an A/B shootout between Kunzel and the Bruckner Orchestra (above). Kunzel’s forces extracted just a bit more excitement out of this chestnut. The big items here are the Roman Carnival Overture and the Polka and Fugue from Schwanda, although the Grand March from Aida is plenty grand I must say. Kunzel and his Cincinnati players have become the leading classical pops on recordings today. This is his 75th recording for the label! On four of the ten tracks Kunzel adds the exciting brass sounds of the University of Cincinnati Brass Choir, and with Telarc’s exciting mixing for surround you can bet you will notice them around you.
Music for the films via our next pair of Hi-Res discs…
EPICS – Erich Kunzel & the Cincinnati Pops in Themes from 2001, Ben Hur, Gone with the Wind, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Ep. II, The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and The Sorcerers Stone, Dr. Zhivago, Minority Report, The Magnificent Seven – Telarc multichannel SACD-60600:
Since Kunzel had done movie themes a number of times now it behooves Telarc to come up with a special theme for each disc of themes. One of his past big hits was Time Warp, which focused on music from sci-fi features. This time around the emphasis is on epic movies, usually celebrating a legendary or traditional hero or heros. The Lord of the Rings track, as befits its subject, gets the most time at over six minutes. It’s interesting how familiar some of these themes can sound but you can’t quite identify the movie and have to run to look at the jewel box. That was the case with me with the suite from Gladiator. Rousing treatments all, and brought to you in rousing multichannel via Telarc’s best efforts. Aside from the few serious works composed especially for spatial presentation (Berlioz Requiem, Gabrieli Canzonas etc.), movie music would have to be the most appropriate material for multichannel listening since that’s the way we hear it in most theatrical showings now.
MOZART: Music from Amadeus – Original Soundtrack Recording – Various soloists/Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner cond. – Fantasy Stereo SACD 2WAMSA-1791-6 (2 SACDs):
Eight Academy Awards honored this film in l984 and it was the most lavish and expensive film about a classical composer ever made. Nearly all the music was especially recorded for the soundtrack by Marriner and his orchestra, and it reached (and continues to reach) millions more ears than ever would hear it via live performances in concert halls. Marriner asked that Mozart’s music not be cut to fit the film, and as a result the film was shot around the music – not the other way around as is normally done in moviemaking. Of course in some of the scenes rehearsing or performing his music, the music was the main focus, and that helped. Mostly there are movements selected from the symphonies and concertos, but five sections of Mozart’s Requiem are heard, as well as the entire Commendatore scene from Act II of Don Giovanni. There is also a track of 18th century gypsy music, showing how classical composers often drew from the folk music around them. The probably apocryphal story about competing composer Salieri sabotaging Mozart is what the film is built around and Tom Hulce’s over-the-top Mozart gets a bit wearing, but the main thing here is the music, and on this count the film is worth its weight in gold. If you haven’t seen it, rent it right away, and then if you have SACD facilities (or even if you don’t – these are hybrid discs of course) pick up this soundtrack for a Mozart Greatest Hits collection that beats the powdered wigs off all the competition.
BACH: Mass in B Minor (complete) – Cantus Cologne/Konrad Junghänel – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMC 801813.14 (2 discs):
The B Minor Mass is one of Bach’s most perfect works, showing great complexity and splendor of invention throughout. Its various sections are beautifully integrated into a unified and elevated whole. Some of the composer’s most complex contrapuntal creations are heard in the greatest clarity. The sections are Kyrie, Gloria (9 parts), Nicean Creed (9 parts), Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei and the entire work runs an hour and 41 minutes.
The Cantus Cologne performs the Mass with solo voices instead of choral sections, thus achieving a more chamber-like overall sound. The entire choir is only ten strong. This, combined with closer micing and the enhanced clarity of the DSD/SACD multichannel reproduction, imparts an entirely different sound to the work than on the larger forces versions such as Neville Marriner’s acclaimed version on Philips standard CD. That one has a rich and expansive sound with many more performers but sounds distant and muddy after auditioning the HM SACD version. However, switching to Pro Logic II makes it more listenable and I believe I’ll keep both for contrast.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” – Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110020:
A most welcome release from Naxos – one of the first of their series of SACD releases which was introduced in Europe some time ago but is now being issued in North America. The symphony was inspired by the Russian struggle against Nazi invasion in l941 and is one of the composer’s “war symphonies.” While I didn’t have the DVD-Audio release of this same performance I could tell that this SACD was clearly more transparent than other Naxos DVD-A discs that used only 44.1 or 48K sampling rates. Compared to the Gergiev Seventh on Philips SACD which we reviewed in March, the giant double orchestra of Gergiev’s version has it over the Russian Philharmonic. The players under Yablonsky take a more polite stance with the music, even during violent sections suggesting conflict and struggles. Yablonsky is snappy but not as kinetic.
– John Sunier
[More Hi-Res Classical Reviews in part 3!]