SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews, Part 4 of 4
Published on September 1, 2004
September 2004 - Pt. 4 of 4 [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]
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A pair of spectacular pipe organ SACDs next…
SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 In E Minor “Organ;” – Michael Murray, organ/Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy; Encores a la française = COUPERIN: Chaconne; DUPRE: Carillon; GIGOUT: Scherzo; FRANCK: Piece Heroique; WIDOR: Toccata from Sym. No. 5; BACH: Sinfonia from CAntata 29; VIERNE: Final from Sym. No. 1; DUPRE: Musette; LEMMENS: Fanfare – Michael Murray – Telarc SACD from 50K Soundstream masters – SACD-60634 76 minutes ****:
Another combined album from two earlier Soundstream issues. The pipe organ of St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia couldn’t be brought to the orchestra’s own hall, so the Philadelphia Orchestra went to the church for this 1980 recording session. The organ certainly sounds more impressive than that on some competing Organ Symphony versions, and Ormandy’s forces are some of the best.
I didn’t have the original CD of the St.-Saens but I did of the organ solo album. I again found the CD layer on the new disc for all purposes identical. Comparing the SACD layer on the Couperin Chaconne showed more “air” and a strong feeling of Boston’s Symphony Hall where it was recorded. On Dupre’s Carillon the high-pitched pipes at the beginning has more of an extreme high end extension than the CD. In one of my favorite organ selections, the Franck Piece Heroique, there is a major statement of the theme at about 1:30 from the top, with big fat chords. This was underwhelming on the CD layer but had just the right weight and impact on the SACD version. However, there was a big of an edginess to the very highest organ pipes throughout the SACD.
- John Sunier
Organum Dominicum – Leo van Doeselaar, Sauer organ of Berlin Cathedral – BRANDTS-BUYS: Patria; REGER: Sonata No. 2 in D Minor; BUNK: Legende; BRAHMS: Fugue in A Flat Minor; SAMUEL DE LANGE JR.: Sonata No. 5 in E Minor – NorthWest Classics Stereo SACD NWC 204089 71 minutes ****:
This is a well-chosen but much less familiar program of organ music. Organist Doeselaar – a Dutch musician who teaches in Berlin – wanted to use as a theme the musical connections between his country and Germany. The idea was to give an overview of the traditional and modern influences that both Holland and Germany underwent during the High Romantic period, around the turn of the century. The three-movement Lange sonata which closes the program is from a composer who, along with Brandtz-Buys, admired and exchanged letters with Brahms. The sonic capture of the organ is nothing short of spectacular, with the original recording being to DSD and involving dCS converters. While it seems that any pipe organ recording would be a natural for recording in multichannel, processing the clean stereo signal thru Pro Logic II produced a fine approximation of a cathedral acoustic ambience.
- John Sunier
MOZART: Clarinet Concerto K622 – Anthony Michaelson, clarinet/Michaelangelo Chamber Orchestra/Robert Bailey – Stereo Hybrid SACD [2 versions on each layer] – Musical Fidelity MFSACD017:
An interesting project described in detail in a recent issue of Stereophile Magazine. Anthony Michaelson is the CEO of Musical Fidelity high end audio manufacturers and also a skilled clarinetist. In a project with Stereophile’s editor and noted classical recording engineer Tony Faulkner, the session in London’s Henry Wood Hall was recorded both direct to DSD and to Faulkner’s highly-tweaked analog tape decks. There’s plenty of competing versions for this lovely Mozart concerto on both standard and SACD. I’m partial to the recent one I reviewed on the Opus 3 label. Michaelson does a fine job, but one doesn’t get a great deal of music for one’s investment here.
The reason for the just the single short selection is that both the standard CD and the SACD layers have two separate complete versions of the work. On the CD layer the first is mastered from the DSD master downsampled to 44.1, followed by the analog tape converted to 44.1 digital. On the SACD layer the first version is direct from the original DSD master and the second is from the analog tape converted to DSD. I found the two versions on the SACD layer to be extremely close in quality, but with repeated listening to just one section I finally determined I was hearing just slightly more clarity and air on the version sourced from the DSD master. Oddly, when going to the standard CD layer it was much easier to discern a difference. The version sourced from the analog tapes sounded rolled off, muted and somewhat muddled in sound, whereas the one converted from the DSD original had greater transparency all around. The disc is available from Musical Fidelity on their website or from Stereophile.
- John Sunier
GROFÉ: Grand Canyon Suite; Mississippi Suite; Niagara Falls Suite – Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/William T. Stromberg – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110002 68 minutes ****:
I reviewed Naxos’ DVD-Audio release of this program in June of last year. It brings us a trio of works ranging from chestnut to not-before-recorded. Grofe is a good choice since all three of these works are a sort of Hollywood version of Respighi’s Roman trilogy – colorful widescreen sonic spectaculars. The complaints I had about the boring screen images on the DVD-A won’t concern us here since no one has ever made use of the visual option available with SACDs.
But then the music is the focus here. The DVD-A was recorded using 24 bit but only 48K instead of 96K sampling. Sonics were clean and very wide range, with a natural, ungimmicked feeling of the hall in Dorset, UK where it was recorded. But as with other Naxos hi-res releases in both formats, I find the SACD version higher fidelity, if only slightly (and now I use a new DVD-A player on the same quality level as my SACD player). Grofe’s Mississippi Suite has always been a favorite of mine, and I love to play the jazz staple Daybreak – the lovely melody taken from the last movement – Mardi Gras. In the final movement of the Niagara Falls Suite – The Power of Niagara – Grofe seems to be attempting an American version of Mosolov’s noisy Iron Foundry. Mechanistic music at best.
- John Sunier
TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasia; Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor; Symphony No. 5 in E Minor – John Ogdon, piano (in concerto)/London Symphony/Pierre Monteux – Vanguard/Silverline Multichannel DVD-A 288228-9 108 minutes ****:
You get a bargain basket of great Tchaikovsky here, with almost a half hour more music than any SACD could hold. I wasn’t aware that Vanguard had done these live recordings with Monteux back in l963. The occasion was the Vienna Festival and going by the well-reproduced audience applause (always a good test of fidelity) plenty of excitement was added to the performances as result of the venue and special situation. John Ogdon was one of the great pianists – fantastically adept with huge handfuls of notes, and thus perfect for the Tchaikovsky concerto. These are typically fine Monteux interpretations and the Silverline engineers have done another fine job of mixing the original four-channel quad tape material to an enveloping 5.1 surround field. There are no videos including this time, but there are detailed text technical notes, a biography of Tchaikovsky, a Setup section for 5.1 and some test signals.
- John Sunier
PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf; Lt. Kije Suite – Boris Karloff, narrator/Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Mario Rossi – Vanguard/Silverline Multichannel DVD-A 288230-9 40 minutes ****:
Another four-channel original from Vanguard in the quad era, taped in l957 in Vienna, and now having a new life in 5.1 digital surround. I remember the Karloff Peter and the Wolf from the original release. What a kick for a kid – having Frankenstein’s monster telling you the story of Peter and the Wolf! I think this still stands as one of the best-narrated Peters ever. It holds an honored place in my mind with Ogden Nash’s narration of Carnival of the Animals. But that one is only in dated mono and now we have Peter’s story in up-to-the-minute 5.1 surround! Not bad in the orchestral department either. The animals and characters may not be running around your listening room – as they did with the recent DVD-A of this we reviewed on the Tacet label – but the performance is richer and more enjoyable. I don’t believe I had heard the chorus used in the Lt. Kije music before – it’s a nice addition to this delightful five-movement suite.
- John Sunier
xxxxxxxxxxxxxrcd Reviews xxxxxxxxxxxx
We have quite a stack of xrcd24 new releases to review this time. We’ve had some questions about the inclusion of xrcds in our Hi-Res Reviews section because after all, while they employ 24-bit processing in their carefully planned chain from original master recordings to final CD, the end result is still a Red Book 16-bit 44.1 standard CD format. However, we feel they actually do generally offer higher resolution than most standard ordinary CDs – even gold and other audiophile approaches. And the better your standard CD playback equipment is, the more benefit you will hear from xrcds – and without any additional decoding required.
For those who share our enthusiasm for SSfM [surround sound for music] it will be found that although just a two-channel form, the higher resolution of most xrcds preserves more of the ambient information than most ordinary CDs and therefore provides an excellent source to process with Pro Logic II or Circle Surround for a more enveloping musical experience. And that ambience will be free of any exaggerated surface noise which vinyl sources can often suffer from in processing for surround.
Two new releases from one of the only labels offering xrcd releases besides JVC begin our coverage, and both are oversized and beautifully packaged albums…
Super Double-bass – The Artistry of Gary Karr – A Celebration of the classics of the masters – with Harmon Lewis, piano & organ – First Impression Music xrcd LIM XR 007****:
Concert bassist Karr seems to be more popular in the Orient than in North America. He is described as the first concert artist to make his entire living as a player of this large and powerful string instrument. He has made a series of recordings for King Records in Japan, and this is one of them licensed by FIM for release on xrcd. He performs on a famous 17th century Amati double-bass which used to belong to famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Since there is not a great deal of solo or solo & piano double-bass music, Karr often transcribes familiar melodies of the masters for his instrument. He likes to employ humor in his concerts; it would be difficult to be totally serious with such a large and rather ungainly instrument. While all of these selections are extremely familiar and often heard, Karr’s performing artistry raises them to new levels – yes, even the three Stephen Foster tunes. The closing version of Albinoni’s famous Adagio in G Minor is both the longest work in the 13-track recital and also one of the most emotionally affecting versions of this work I have heard. On the best equipment you may feel you have never properly heard the rich tone of the string bass before.
Selections: Amazing Grace, Menuet from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook, Deep River, Fum Fum Fum, Old Folks at Home, Gavotte, E lucevan le stelle, Beautiful Dreamer, Ave Maria, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jerico, Old Black Joe, The Entertainer, Adagio in G Minor.
- John Sunier
Autumn Yearning Fantasia – Wei Li, guzheng; Fei Song, huqin; Members of the B.C. Chinese Orchestra of Canada – First Impression Music xrcd FIM XR24 053****:
This lavish production was a major project for FIM, being one of their studio recordings made especially for the label instead of licensing already-existing material for audiophile release. The two soloists on Chinese instruments and the entire Chinese orchestra are based in Vancouver, British Columbia, so the recording session was held there at an outstanding facility, Armoury Studio. The session was recorded to both 8-channel DSD using the Sonoma system and to 8-channel analog using an Ampex 1/2-inch master recorder. This xrcd24 was mastered from the analog mix and the SACD to be released later will originate from the DSD master. Prof. Jim Anderson and Paul Stubblebine were the recording engineers involved.
Wei Li is a virtuoso performer on the guzheng or zheng for short. This stringed instrument might be described as somewhat similar to the Japanese koto. Li has made many recordings, including soundtracks for Hong Kong films, and is also a composer. Fei Song is listed on the cover as performing on the huqin but in the notes as an erhu virtuoso. It turns out the erhu is just one instrument in the huqin family of instruments. It is a type of Chinese fiddle with only two strings and a small resonator at the bottom. The horse bow is strung between the strings and cannot be removed completely. The erhu is adept at imitating the human voice as well as various sound effects. The opening title track is the longest work on the album and is for solo guzheng. The ensemble consists of both Western instruments such as piano and double-bass and Chinese folk instruments. The sounds are varied, tonal and often achingly lovely. Don’t confuse this music with Chinese opera music; it’s completely different. And the crystalline recording quality enables one to hear the subtitles of timbre and performance.
Program: Autumn Yearning Fantasia, Warbling on a Desolate Mountain, Moonlight Over the Spring, The Grapes Are Ripe, Variation on Yang Pass, Flower Or Not, Miss Qinliang Li’u, Colorful Clouds Sailing Towards the Moon, Autumn Moon Over Han Palace, Variation on River of Sorrow, Flight of the Bumblebee.
- John Sunier
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 – Boston Symphony/Pierre Monteux – RCA Victor/JVC xrcd JM-XR24015***:
JVC’s reissue project from Golden Age Victor tapes continues with this 1959 session recorded in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Mastering for xrcd24 release was done last December, and the content is the same as any LP version would have been – just 39 minutes total. I suppose this is the most approachable of the six Tchaikovsky symphonies and the Boston players certainly give it all they’re got. I didn’t have any vinyl versions for comparison, but I was viewing the San Francisco Symphony DVD of the Fourth conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Although Dolby Digital-processed, I actually found the performance more fresh and exciting and the sonics generally superior, which took me aback. Both versions have a tremendous dynamic range and excellent soundstaging of the various instruments, but the DVD had greater clarity and “air.” The xrcd, probably due to its improved clarity and frequency range over vinyl, brought to the fore some annoying nonmusical sounds in the orchestra – page-turning, squeaks and so on, which were absent from the SF DVD.
- John Sunier
TCHAIKOVSKY: 1812 Overture; LISZT: Mephisto Waltz; WEINBERGER: Polka & Fugue from Schwanda; SMETANA: Overture to The Bartered Bride; DVORAK: Carnival Overture – Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner – RCA Victor/JVC xrcd JM-XR24016 49 minutes ***1/2:
In this case it doesn’t much matter the notes are all in Japanese because we’re all familiar with the music and probably even these recorded versions from other formats.It should be pointed out while Reiner of course imbues the 1812 with plenty of fire, there are no cannon or bells or chorus. It’s still a worthwhile traversal of the venerable war horse if you must have yet another one. The four pop-concert-type selections held more interest for my ears. The Mephisto Waltz is probably second only to Ravel’s La Valse as my favorite item in that tempo. (But it’s not listed which of the several different Mephisto Waltzes this one is.) The Carnival Overture is another favorite – perhaps due to my having played the very prominent cymbals in it once in college. Reiner gives it a brilliant turn, and so does the combo of RCA’s original Lewis Layton and the JVC xrcd mastering staff in LA.
- John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1; Sonata No. 22 in F Op. 54 – Sviatoslav Richter, piano/Boston Symphony/Charles Munch – RCA/JVC xrcd JM-XR24018 48 min. ****:
The top Russian pianist was an ideal interpreter for the first Beethoven piano concerto. (An example of his very selective choice of repertory is that he never played the Emperor Concerto.) He excelled at both the big statements and the lyrical and expressive passages, and his finger work was amazing throughout. The recordings, dating from 1960, capture a rich and colorful orchestral sound, good balance with the somewhat oversized-sounding piano, and a hint of the familiar Symphony Hall acoustics which is better communicated via the higher-resolution xrcd process. What shocked me upon first inserting the disc was a loud hum on the right channel at the very beginning of the first movement. After several minutes it went away however. The dynamic range is gangbusters on this disc! Never has a Beethoven piano concerto seemed so dramatic sonically. Richter’s choice of a much less familiar piano sonata to fill out the program is a welcome move.
- John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas No. 23 in F Minor “Appassionata;” No. 12 in A Flat “Funeral March” – Sviatoslav Richter, piano – RCA/JVC xrcd JM-XR24017 42 minutes ****:
Back to a pair of more familiar Beethoven sonatas for this Richter outing of 1960, recorded in NYC’s Webster Hall. Beethoven was one of the composers for whom the pianist seemed to function as a conduit directly from the written page to the listener. Both sonatas become major statements, aided of course by the detail and transparency of the xrcd processing. Even though most original high-quality vinyl, when heard from a top-level analog front end, can still stomp any digital disc reissue, piano music is so easily compromised by the various analog artifacts (especially speed constancy) that the digital version is nearly always superior. Most of the RCA Golden Age piano recordings were mastered on 30 ips tape instead of the standard 15 ips, so chances are that the original material has absolutely no audible flutter or wow and the digitizing certainly doesn’t create any.; You might like to really concentrate on this masterfully played and recorded recital using a sort of audiophile tweak to which the unpredictable Richter himself was partial during the years before his death in l997: He had all the lights in the hall turned off except for a small lamp on his piano.
- John Sunier
and now for something complete different…
Portrait of Bill Evans – featuring pianists Eliane Elias, Dave Grusin, Herbie Hancock, Bob James & Brad Mehlau; bassists Richard Bona, Marc Johnson, Tom Kennedy; Drummers Billy Kilson, Jack DeJohnette & Dave Weckl & others – JVC xrcd24 VICJ-61171 59 minutes ****:
OK, JVC, we are informed now on the xrcd process. Instead of devoting three pages to that in the mostly Japanese notes with this disc, how about giving us just a page of background on the creation of this wonderful compilation? Different studios are credited for each of the pianists, so I gather each one recorded on their own and sent in their tapes or whatever. Were they assigned what each was to record or did they choose? It’s obvious that they’re all tunes popularized by the great Bill Evans or connected with him in some way. For example, the closing Ghost Story is Herbie Hancock’s improvisation on a Chopin Prelude – the sort of thing Evans liked to do with classical themes. Sticklers may grouse at the inclusion of James and Grusin, but both turn in very listenable tracks – especially the former’s treatment of Miles Davis’ Nardis, as well as a lengthy original titled Under the Influence – meaning of Evans. The only actual tune by Evans is his classic Waltz for Debby, which went to Grusin. Sonics are remarkably consistent and transparent considering all the differing sources. This is a compilation sure to please audiophiles and jazz piano fans in general in addition to Bill Evans aficionados.
- John Henry
Hampton Hawes Trio (Hawes, piano; Red Mitchell, bass; Chuck Thompson, drums) – Contemporary/JVC xrcd mono – VOCJ-60215 41:51 ****:
More rousing jazz piano here. Dating from 1955 this just missed the Contemporary’s pioneering efforts in recording in stereo, but the mono sonics are just as all-encompassing as Rudy Van Gelder’s for Prestige. In fact you could play this for any visitor to your listening room and probably no one would identify it as being mono instead of stereo. Hawes had a nice relaxed style – not too ornate or funky and not too spare either – just tuneful and swinging. His opening version of the Gershwin classic jazz standard is true artistry in improvisation without any showing off or gimmicks. We are treated to three Hamp originals. Selections: I Got Rhythm, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Blues the Most, So In Love, Feein’ Fine, Hamp’s Blues, Easy Living, All the Things You Are, These Foolish Things, Carioca
- John Henry
Masato Honda, alto sax – Illusion (with Masahiro Sayama, piano; Shuichi Ponta Murakami, drums; Vagabond Suzuki, bass) – JVC xrcd VICJ–61173 64 minutes ***:
Again, some information please, JVC! The recording session was in Tokyo in l999, Honda’s quartet is very hip and together and all ten tunes are his originals. Sound is very clean, impactful and each of the instruments well-deliniated. It’s about on the level of most of the recent SACD stereo reissues from Fantasy . Lots more music than most xrcds too. The one page in English lists who the photographer, hair, makeup, stylist and visual coordinators were. But not a word about Honda or his band. The opening track takes us into an almost Charlie Parker romp in which Honda shows he can really speed around the track, and with great precision. He likes to play rather high in the alto’s range, often sounding nearly like soprano sax. There’s plenty of room for everyone to do their solos since some of the tracks and eight and nine minutes length. I had to see what Pork Dance was all about: It’s a funky riff over a shuffle rhythm. But Honda can also deliver ballads such as the tender closing Turning of the Dream. I catch a sort of franticness in much Japanese modern jazz, but that’s not to say these guys don’t have great chops or can really swing.
Selections are: Little Finger, Trilha Alegre Do Tio, Stratos, In My Heart, Illusion, Last Clear Stream, Jiao!!!, Pork Dance, Swing, Turning of the Dream
- John Henry