SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Hi-Res Reviews, Part 3 of 3 Classical II
Published on October 1, 2004
October 2004 – Pt. 3 of 3
(Classical cont.) [Part 1] [Part 2]
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The Art of the Fugue X 2 on SACD…
BACH: The Art of the Fugue – Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner – Pentatone RQR multichannel 4.0 SACD PTC 5186 140, 80:27 ****:
BACH: The Art of the Fugue – New Century Saxophone Quartet – Channel Classics multichannel 5.0 SACD CCS SA 20204 ****:
The fugue, along with basso continuo, was the musical symbol of the Baroque era. And Bach’s great work on that subject is the culmination of all his talent and thinking; he worked on it throughout his life and was still working on it when he died. Unfortunately or fortunately he never got around to indicating for what instruments the work was intended. Therefore it has been performed and recorded in many different instrumentations ranging from solo keyboards to full orchestra. The first of these two SACDs dates from l973 and employs two violins, two oboes, two harpsichords and one each of a viola, cello, violone, English horn, bassoon and organ. The four-channel spatial treatment puts the listener in the middle with the instruments in a sort of horseshoe array around one. The larger ensemble is to my ears more interesting than just solo keyboard versions.
Then we have the ensemble playing Bach’s masterwork on instruments which were not even invented until nearly a century after Bach’s death. The liner notes seem to indentify this as an entirely new idea, but I have a tape of an earlier version of The Art of Fugue played by a sax quartet. The notes also point out that the saxophone quartet is the only modern chamber ensemble designed as a true consort in the style of say, the string family or recorders. The instrument’s inventor Adolphe Sax conceived of a uniform acoustic throughout the entire family of saxes, from contrabass to sopranino. It is said to have a more consistent tone color across all the voices than a woodwind ensemble or even a string quartet.
There are many saxophone quartets active throughout the world today, and the New Century is considered one of the best of them. Since Bach gave no cues for ornamentation or phrasing in the work, the ensemble retained a Baroque flute specialist to work with them on appropriate ornamentation. Their precise playing and the similar but different timbres of their four instruments, plus the spatial quality of the 5.0 surround all assist in tracking the various voices in the music and better appreciating their interplay. A fascinating musical experience, and one that loses quite a bit of its impact in the stereo SACD option. Hearing both of these new version of Bach’s work in succession is also a fascinating listening experience.
MAURICE DURUFLÉ: Complete Organ Works = Suite Op. 5; Chant Donné; Méditation; Prelude on the Introit to l’Epiphanie Op. 13; Scherzo Op. 2; Fugue on the theme of Carillon des Heures; Prelude, Adagio and Choral Varié on the theme Veni Creator; Prélude and fugue on the name Alain – Fredhelm Flamme, Mühleisen Organ (2000) of Stifts Church, Bad Gandersheim – CPO multichannel SACD 777 042-2, 66:48 ****:
Wasn’t it thoughtful of Monsieur Duruflé to write just enough organ works to fill an optical disc? Even though he passed away just three years after the introduction of the compact disc. His works could not escape the influence of the French Symphonic Organ School, and a strong element was the tradition of melodies and harmonies derived from Gregorian Chant. But another strong element with Duruflé was the impressionism of Debussy, Ravel and Faure. He had a precise style of composition, in common with Ravel, with one that allowed for a feeling of improvisation in most of the works. The opening 21-minute Suite is the lengthiest of the works here. It begins with a funeral march-like Prélude, a lighter Sicilienne in rondo form, and concludes with a virtuoso and ecstatic-sounding Toccata. The Gregorian Pentecost hymn Veni Creator is mined for two themes used in the next longest work here – the Prelude, Adagio and Choral Varié. The new Mühleisen organ includes a great organ, positive, and swell organ and is designed for performance of the great symphonic organ works. The 5.0-channl SACD does a fine job of communicating the expanse of the church without compromising the spatial locations of the various groups of pipes.
RAVEL: Bolero; Mother Goose Suite; Rapsodie espagnole; Une barque sur l’ocean; Alborada del gracioso – Berlin Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez – DGG multichannel SACD 00289 477 0742, (2 discs) 36:02 & 39:07 ***1/2:
Boulez is identified with Ravel interpretations, and one of the earliest stereo-only non-hybrid SACDs from Sony Classical was his versions of three of these same works with the New York Philharmonic, recorded in 1975. The soundstage on Bolero, Alborada and the Rapsodie on those performances is closer and there is actually somewhat better spatial definition of the various orchestral sections and soloists. But there is much more deepest bass on the new version; the bass drum hits reminded me of Telarc’s famous in-the-face bass drums. But it wasn’t due to additional bass support from the surrounds, which are little used here. The bass drum may be front and center, but the percussionist playing the castenets sounded completely offstage. However, both the old and the new versions fail to come up to the highest level of hi-res possible today. Interesting that the 1975 disc opened with Bolero and the new disc closes with it.
I have two questions of DGG: Why are there two separate discs at a required extra cost when the total of the two is 75 minutes and several 80 minutes SACDs have been issued recently? And why is this recent series of Universal classical SACDs being issued at only 44.1K/24bit sampling? I appreciate that the major labels have not been recording direct to DSD as have some of the audiophile labels have done for the best possible fidelity, but why can’t the PCM originals be done at least at 96K for both DVD-A and SACD release? The 44.1 designation is displayed on the back of all the jewel boxes as though DGG is proud of it. Go figure.
Oh yes, the music. The Mother Goose ballet music proved a half hour of sheer delight in surround. I hadn’t heard the work in some time and it really is magical. Even with the compromised technical matters the exquisite and delicate tone-painting of Ravel came across cleanly in Boulez’ hands. The same goes for the highly evocative and atmospheric Rapsodie espagnole. Having just auditioned RCA’s All-Bolero compilation CD, I couldn’t bring myself to even listen to Boulez’ Bolero on this SACD.
– John Sunier
MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 – Juliane Banse, soprano/The Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez – DGG multichannel SACD 474 991-2, 53:32 ***:
I’m probably prejudiced against Boulez for Mahler at the start, feeling he is too cool, too French for it. His is a compelling version with plenty of Mahleresque emotional ups and downs, but not as fresh and committed-sounding as Michael Tilson Thomas’ impressive version recently issued by the San Francisco Symphony. It also doesn’t match it sonically. I don’t know if the problem can be pinned primarily on the 44.1K PCM original recordings, and the transparency of the SF Symphony versions is so much greater than the DGG that there is no contest. It is as though the MTT version SACD is giving us a 3D widescreen musical image while the Boulez version is merely standard 2D. The DGG effort makes minimal use of the surround channels, which may be part of the problem.
BRAHMS: Sonatas for Piano and Violin Nos. 1, 2 & 3 – Peter Csaba, violin/ Jean-Francois Heisser, piano – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 187, 69:07 ****:
The two instruments hold equality in these three works; the piano is not merely the accompaniment to the violin. The first is influenced by Beethoven’s final violin-piano sonata, the second sonata is a warm tribute to a young soprano Brahms was infatuated with, and the third is a strong work modelled on Beethoven’s famed Kreutzer Sonata, but which surpasses it. The violin tone is just gorgeous here; those critics who claim that standard CD playback has been improved so far in high end players that it matches SACD should A/B any 44.1 recording of these works with this disc and see if they still want to embrace their exaggeration. I didn’t intend to audition all three at one sitting, but before I knew it the disc was over. Never mind you haven’t heard of these performers – they are first rate.
– John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas = No. 8 (Pathétique); No. 14 (Moonlight); No. 17 (Tempest); No. 23 (Appassionata) – Artur Pizarro, piano – Linn multichannel SACD SKD 244, ****:
Pizarro has given us a sort of Beethoven’s Greatest Hits of Piano Sonatas here. He has a sure touch and expressive phrasing, with just the right amount of stormy energy without over the top violence. He doesn’t sound the least bit pedantic and doesn’t try to turn Beethoven into Mozart. These are fresh and exciting interpretations that are enhanced by some of the best sound I have ever heard in piano recordings. Again, I find the multichannel reproduction doesn’t image a 40-foot-wide piano but does bring the listener much closer to the piano – as though you were sitting on stage. Or perhaps brings the piano and pianist into your listening room. There’s no comparison to the stereo layer, which while equalling the realistic timbre of the instrument goes flat and opaque vs. the multichannel.
– John Sunier
GEORGE ENESCU: Suite No. 1 in G Minor (Dans le style ancien); Suite No. 2 in D Major; Suite No. 3 (Piéces impromptues) – Luiza Borac, piano – AVIE multichannel SACD AV0012, 79:06 ****:
Enescu was an amazingly wide-ranging musical figure. He was primarily a concert violinist on the level of Kreisler and Heifetz, but also a conductor good enough to be considered as replacement for Toscanini, an outstanding pianist, and also skilled on the cello and organ. Pablo Casals thought him the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart. But though he didn’t write a great many works, Enescu was one of the great composers of the 20th century. Among his many piano works are these three suites – each completely different from one another. The first is a neo-Baroque effort, opening with an off-center Bachian Prelude. Suite No. 2 also harkens to Baroque models but shows also an influence of Chopin and Faure. It won a contest for best piano piece, getting Enesco a new Playel grand piano. The Third Suite is made up of seven short piano pieces of which the last two are the most interesting: a Choral with lovely harmonies and a Carillon nocturne, which evokes the sound of the bells of a monastery. Roumanian pianist Borac began studies at the Enescu Music School for Gifted Children, and in this recording expresses her deep understanding of this unassuming and saintly composer. Rich and close-up piano sound in the multichannel option.
TELEMANN: Paris Quartets Vol. 2 = Quartet No. 1 in D Major; Quartet No. 2 in A Minor; Quartet No. 3 in G Major; Concerto Primo in G Major – Florilegium – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 20604, 71:21 ****:
Florilegium is an early music quintet incorporating Baroque flute, three members of viol family and a two-manual French harpsichord copied on a 1749 model. It is one of the UK’s outstanding period instrument ensembles. These quartets in the French style were composed in 1738 upon the success of Telemann’s earlier set. He had visited Paris in the meantime and influenced by what he had heard made these works more virtuosic and gave more independence to the three solo instruments. By this time the composer had clearly mastered the French style. One of the last quartets from the earlier 1730 collection is included here, and there will be a Vol. 3 with another, concluding the series of Paris Quartets. The Cello is heard in some of the quartets and in others that part is handled by the viola da gamba. Hearing these delightful works in multichannel surround can only bring the listener closer to the music, rather than regarding it as Baroque musical wallpaper.
– John Sunier
MOZART; Youth Symphonies Vol. 1 = Sym. No. 7a in G “Alte Lambacher;” Sym. in G “Neue Lambacher;: Sym. No. 12 in G; Sym. No. 18 in F – Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner – Pentatone RQR multichannel 4.0 SACD PTC 5186, 59:07 ****:
These 1973 recordings originally intended for quadraphonic LP release, hold up very well. The playing of these rarely-heard symphonies is fresh and involving, and while they don’t exhibit the genius of the mature Mozart they are after all still Mozart and well worth hearing. Mozart had the assistance of his father Leopold on some of these early symphonies. Haydn was a strong model for the Symphony in G. The last work, the Symphony in F shows an advance in the young Mozart;s symphonic growth. It takes on a deeper feeling and development than the earlier dance-like symphonies. Again, no one would cavel against the 4.0 reproduction vs. 5.0; in other words you would never know these original tapes date from l973.
– John Sunier
Russian Ballet Suites = PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 1; SHOSTAKOVICH: Suite from “The Bolt;” KHACHATURIAN: Suite from “Spartacus” – Russian National Orch./Alexander Vedernikov – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 032, 66:36 ****:
A brand new direct-to-DSD recording using the acclaimed Meitner gear, this turns out to be a thoroughly Russian production in every way: Ballet music by three great Russian composers of roughly the same era, playing by a Russian Orchestra conducted by a Russian conductor, and recorded in Moscow just last year. The playing is superbly balletic and spirited and the programming of the three suites achieves plenty of variety and interest. Prokofiev’s best ballet score shines in the seven excerpts, and the Adagio from the Spartacus score of Khachaturian is one of the most moving melodies imaginable – his own updating of the love/death theme explored by Wagner in Tristan und Isolde. The only caveat here is the briefness of the three suites – I was ready to hear more of Romeo and Juliet as well as Spartacus and Phrygia in these rich, sparkling and enveloping discings. Even if you already own the complete Romeo and Juliet you should at least sample this wonderul SSfM trio of works for its energy and terrific sonics.
J. S. BACH: Solo & Double Violin Concertos = Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins BWV 1043; Concerto in A Minor for Violin; Concerto in E Major for Violin; Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins BVW 1060 – Andrew Manze & Rachel Podger, violins/The Academy of Ancient Music/Manze – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807155, 56:41 ****:
Originally released as a standard CD in l997, this eloquent recital of Bach’s greatest works for one and two violins and orchestra now sees multichannel release. BBC Music Magazine had it as one of their Best of l997 discs, and it is just one of many excellent recordings Manze and the Academy have made for HM. The Italian violin concertos of Albinoni and Vivaldi were well known to Bach, and were probably the stimulus for these works. But the seemingly endless, compelling counterpoint can be no one else but Bach. The second two-violin concerto also in D Minor has long been thought to be an arrangement of a lost original work and for just a single violin soloist. It has been thoroughly researched by Manze and is heard here for the first time as a double violin concerto. The soundstage placement has the two soloists a realistic distance apart – none of the effect of battling for the same space as suggested on countless stereo recordings of such concertos. And though the timbre of these Baroque violins is normally more sharp and steely than modern violins, there is absolutely none of the chalk-on-blackboard effect here so frequently heard with 44.1 CD iterations of Baroque violins.
– John Sunier
JACQUES CHRISTIAN MICHEL WIDERKEHR: The Duosonatas = No. 1 in E Minor; No. 2 in C Major; No. 3 in F Major – Bart Schneemann, classical oboe/Paolo Giacometti, fortepiano – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 19204, 59:32 ****:
Yes, a long name but when it’s the first time a B-list composer like this gets a whole SACD to himself, he deserves to be fully credited! According to contemporary sources Widerkehr was an Alsacian composer who moved to Paris and was considered one of the best-loved composers of the late 18th and early 19th century there. These lovely, often daring and humorous virtuoso duo works were written for a development of the oboe which lay between the Baroque oboe and the modern symphonic oboe. It had a narrower bore and other changes in order to achieve a more brilliant and louder sound more suitable for the larger concert halls that were becoming popular in the early 19th century. The natural accompanying keyboard instrument for the classical oboe would be the predecssor of the modern grand piano – the fortepiano. The one used here is a copy of a 1810 Viennese model, which is about the time these duos were composed. They’re just delightful, and CC’s 5.0 surround puts them squarely in your listening room.
ALBÉNIZ: Iberia, Books 1, 2, 3 & 4; Navarra; Suite espagnole – Hervé Billaut, piano – Lyrinx multichannel SACD LYR 2217 (2 discs) 49:58, 48:06 ****:
The towering piano collection known as Iberia consists of 12 pieces evocative of different aspects of the composer’s beloved Spain, created while he was in exile in France. They assure Albeniz’ position as one of the premiere composers of the 20th century. The gypsy soul is apparent in many of these pieces which mix tears and laughter. The orchestral transcriptions of some of these pieces have achieved a life of their own, but it is in the piano originals that one hears the purest expression of the composer for his native country. Encouraged by French composer friends such as Debussy, Faure and Dukas, Albeniz forged advanced writing in many of these works. Many of the eight movements of the Spanish Suite will be very familiar to many listeners from arrangements for piano, guitar and orchestra. Pianist Billaut has concertized worldwide and has also been involved with accompanying dance ensembles. Perhaps his feeling for the dance imbues his energetic interpretations of Albeniz’ music with such fire and grace. Lyrinx’ clean and spacious multichannel reproduction adds to the Iberian experience of Albeniz’ music.
I again compared the three different formats on the menu: The CD layer sounded dull, flat and two-dimensional. The Stereo SACD option opened up the sound quality and added some life to it, but the piano sounded oversized. The 5.0 SACD version added the ambience of the hall where the recording was made, and the piano no longer seemed too long. However, one seemed much closer to it!
– John Sunier