SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews, Part 3 of 3
Published on November 1, 2004
Published on November 1, 2004
42 SACD & DVD-A Reviews This Month
November 2004 - Pt. 3 of 3
(Classical concl.) Click on any cover to go directly to review
Record live in the Berlin Philharmonie Hall in l993, this is a magnificent performance full of electricity, played to a fare thee well by the organization many consider the world’s top symphony orchestra. Though it may be said to have no specific program, the Fifth opens with a Funeral March and the rest of its 69-minute length is devoted to reflecting on, transcending and justifying what that march implies. (And why didn’t DGG put the entire symphony on a single disc then, since they hold up to 80 minutes? If this is a two-discs-for-price-of-one album, then it doesn’t really matter.) The march is one of two “orchestral songs” heard in the work; the other is the famous Adagietto movement – often performed separately. This is just about the most heart-rending version of that movement I have ever heard. The work’s Rondo-Finale is a summation of all the contrasts found cheek-by-jowel in most Mahler symphonies – from desparation to the greatest exhaltation in seconds. The climaxes are searing in their power and impact. The surround audio is listed on the jewelbox as being only 44.1K/24 bit but it doesn’t seem to hamper the transparency of the frontal channels. However, the surrounds don’t carry much information about the hall acoustics. This is where the San Francisco Symphony Mahler series outshines competing surround recordings. That series hasn’t gotten around to the Fifth yet but when they do they will have a challenge to surpass this highly recommended disc duo.
HOLST: The Planets; The Mystic Trumpeter – Claire Rutter, Soprano, with the Ladies of the RSNO Chorus – Royal Scottish National Orchestra / David Lloyd-Jones, Conductor – Naxos 6.110004 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 69 minutes, Rating: * * *:
This disc is a 5.1 release (most of their others have been 5.0), and the use of the subwoofer channel helps significantly in areas where the CD layer seems compressed and congested, such as massed brasses and percussion, which abound throughout. As far as hi-res Planets go, I think it’s hard to top Gardiner on DG, but the inclusion of Holst’s rarely performed “Mystic Trumpeter” adds significant value to an already striking disc. Recommended.
SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 “Organ” – MOUSSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition – Daniel Chorzema, Organ (Saint-Saens) – Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra / Edo de Waart, Conductor – Pentatone PTC 5186 116 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 68 minutes, * *:
Another of Pentatone’s RQR releases (Remastered Quadro Recordings) – their excellent series of original Quad recordings from the mid-seventies – this disc pairs two more venerable chestnuts of which there are countless available choices to pick from. The recording quality is really quite good, but just didn’t seem to pack the requisite orchestral heft that each of these pieces demand. I’ve been listening to the recent RCA Living Stereo SACDs quite a bit lately, and the near-definitive three-channel performances of these works by Munch (Saint-Saens) and Reiner (Moussorgsky) make these versions seem rather lacking by comparison. The value of the RQR series is that after thirty-or-so years, you finally get to hear these recordings in four-channel sound, as they were originally intended – and most of the releases so far have been superb – but the competition for your dollar is pretty stiff. At roughly the same price, I’d go for both RCAs, with generous additional music, to boot.
Baltic Voices 2 – Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Paul Hillier, Director – Harmonia Mundi HMU 807331 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 68 minutes, * * * * *:
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2; Tragic Overture – Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hans Vonk, Conductor – Pentatone PTC 5186 042 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 59 minutes * * * *:
Brahms’ Second symphony has always been one of my guilty pleasures; while many prefer the drama provided by the First or Fourth symphonies, musically, there’s so much to be gotten here. The serenity and impassioned majesty of the opening movement segues into the hauntingly mysterious second movement, followed by the lilting, almost waltz-like quality of the minuet and scherzo of the third movement; all is resolved by the unabashedly joyous finale.
Although the multichannel content of the recording is only listed as 5.0, I didn’t find it to be at all lacking in bass, and orchestral climaxes had tremendous impact, especially in the dramatic Tragic Overture. Highly recommended.
BEETHOVEN / MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concertos – Victoria Mullova, Violin – Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner, Conductor – Philips 470 629-2 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 68 minutes * * * *:
There’s very little here in the way of information on the origins of the recording – which is unusual for Philips, who usually at least give information as to whether the recording is from a DSD original or not. Polyhymnia, who usually does such an incredible job for Philips, did not handle the session, so I suspect that a 24/96 PCM original tape was used; the sound is superb, regardless. I’ve never had any real appreciation for John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting style, but he continues to impress me with every new release. Highly recommended.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique” – Boston Symphony Orchestra / Pierre Monteux, Conductor – RCA Living Stereo CRCA 61397 SA – Stereo SACD – 44 minutes * * *:
Again, it’s not that this is such a bad disc – I just don’t think its in the same league sonically as the other Living Stereo titles, and there are much more compelling Tchaik 6′s out there (Mravinksky on DG, for example). I don’t plan on getting rid of this disc anytime soon, but I don’t foresee it in heavy rotation either.
Verdi and Puccini Arias – Leontyne Price, Soprano – Rome Opera House Orchestra / Oliverio de Fabritiis, Conductor – RCA Living Stereo CRCA 61395 SA – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 46 minutes * * * *:
This collection of Verdi and Puccini Arias is often referred to as the “Blue Album,” and this new multichannel SACD from RCA Living Stereo gives it to us finally in all its glory. The program that Leontyne Price delivers is a near-perfect one, her vocal tone is flawless and the orchestral support is superb. For the first time we get to hear this album in its original three-channel incarnation; only the selections from “Il Trovatore” are in stereo, and are a slight disappointment, because they exhibit the same left-right quality so often heard in the older LSCs. Having Leontyne Price’s voice anchored in the center channel is fabulous – if you’re only listening to these discs in stereo, you don’t know what you’re missing! The program length is a bit on the short side, but what else would RCA have coupled this with? This is such an enjoyable disc, the playing time just passes way too quickly. A perfect introduction to opera for those who might be a little opera-squeamish. Not to be missed, and very highly recommended!
MAX STEINER: The Adventures of Mark Twain – score for the 1944 film, as restored by John Morgan – Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/William Stromberg – Naxos Film Music Classics multichannel SACD 6.110087, 70:49 ****:
Another in the continuing Naxos series of new recordings of classic film scores, which could be seen as encoring the earlier efforts of Charles Gerhardt in making new recordings in state of the art sound with a larger orchestra than usually used on the original optical sound film tracks. Only now the state of the art is multichannel 5.0 SACD and since it is outrageously expensive to record such in the U.S., the Moscow players (as well as players in Prague) have become totally adept at performing these film scores with great gusto and technical skill.
I remember as a child seeing this movie and being very moved by its revealing that Samuel Clemens was born when Halley’s Comet came, and that it returned when he died. There’s cues for that among these 29 tracks, as well as others with titles like Pirates, Frogs, The Squirrel, Darn Coat Tails, Meeting General Grant, and Buggy Ride. Some of the use of bassoon and banjo for humor reminded me of Ferde Grofe’s Mark Twain Suite. Whistling and some other special effects are part of the score. Steiner had come to the U.S. in l914, way before the group of German composers who were escaping WW II later on. He had studied with Mahler, and quickly picked up the American musical idiom. His biggest soundtrack success was Gone With the Wind. This film, which starred Frederic March as Twain, was quickly forgotten. (But I remembered it.) Too bad Naxos couldn’t include a few minutes off the original film optical track at the end of the disc so one could hear what a tremendously different experience it is hearing the music in this richly orchestrated and restored surround sound form. The surround sonics are superb; this disc doesn’t say anything on the jewelbox about 41K or 48K sampling, so perhaps Mosfilm Studio is using higher-res gear at this point. While they didn’t have surround in the theaters in l944 (except for Fantasia), it just seems more like a movie experience to have surround sound coming at you for a film score – especially in the big Finale where the chorus that’s been waiting around the samovar all this time finally does its thing…
Here are two more of the new Nimbus DVD-As with some unusual features…
[Actual title: Surround Yourself With BEETHOVEN:] Leonore Overture No. 2; Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; Symphony No. 6 in F Major “Pastoral” – The Hanover Band/Monica Huggett & Roy Goodman – Nimbus Records multichannel DVD-A, also DTS & PCM stereo NI 9004, 89:30 ****:
All the Beethoven performance are fresh-sounding and interesting to hear. Even the overplayed Fifth Symphony sounds less lugubrious and more musical than I recall hearing before. And you won’t find 90 minutes of music on a single optical disc in either the standard CD or SACD worlds.
POPOV: Symphony No. 1, Opus 7; SHOSTAKOVICH: Theme and Variations Opus 3 — Leon Bothstein, London Symphony Orchestra – Telarc Multichannel SACD-60642 ****:
I reviewed the following disc in this space last issue; here is an alternate and lengthier opinion on it…Ed. =
Mrs. Dudious (La Dudeen) and I were lucky enough to have spent a week this past summer in Paris, at a low-budge hotel on The Place of Saint Sulpice, named for the “cavernous” 1783 Greco-revival church of Saint Sulpice. This church is not on the usual tourist routes because it is in need of repair and doesn’t compare in grandeur to the cathedrals of Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur. But it does compare in size, as we found out participating in the celebration of the mass one misty Sunday morning last August. We were there to see the great and often recorded gallery organ of St. Sulpice in its venue, and to hear just how it sounded. The organist, Sophie V. Cauchefer Choplin, had a field day with a recital she played between the 10:AM mass and the one at 12:noon. She breezed through a formidable program of French composers of centuries past: M. Dupré (1886-1971), E. Gigout (1844-1925), C. Franck (1822-1890), and L. Marchand (1669-1732), each composer a renown organ virtuoso in his time. If you haven’t heard an organ in an enormous setting you have little conception of the orchestral gigantism that Berlioz employs to make his audiences feel really small before the infinite. Again, from the album notes; “Berlioz, more than any other composer, has understood our primeval terror of death combined with our fascination with it.” In the text Berlioz urges his chorus to sing “with an expression of humility and awe.”
Home again, I played some “Mercury Living Presence” LPs of Marcel DuPré at the gallery organ of St. Sulpice (the largest in Europe) on my big stereo rig. I was pleased to hear how closely the recorded sound matched my memory of the original. The spaciousness, the eeriness, the natural reverb and decay, the swelling pedal tones, were all there. Then I played the Berlioz Requiem, because it had recently arrived. Even without an organ in the score, it was more grandiose. All of the elements (orchestra, percussion, brass, choruses, and soloist) alternated between thunderous and overpowering at times, quietly simple and humble at others. This is the secret of Berlioz. As the album notes go on to say, these contrasting musical intensities create “a sonic chiaroscuro in which fire and brilliance are all the brighter against the dark recesses glimpsed between.” I’d add, for the purpose of generating a religious experience in his audience (in the sense of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience). Imagine thousands of people, shoehorned into a very large church by candle-light, to hear a memorial service for a national hero, hearing this music for the first time!! It must have been like a nineteenth century “Woodstock.” Rather than for his abilities as an orchestral colorist, or as an innovator in symphonic form, it is the religious aspect of Berlioz’s music that makes him great to me.
It is this characteristic, the use of gigantic forces performing in a gigantic venue to suggest the infinite, that is captured in the new Telarc recording of Berlioz’ Requiem. The new SACD Surround Sound lends its technical excellence in service of this music. Never do we hear the recording break-up or distort when called on to capture and recreate a BIG MOMENT in the score. Not with loud music from the brass, nor from the massed voices of the chorus, nor from the thunder of the massed and bass drums do we hear recording error. SACD captures all the complexity of the big sounds, and the quiet simplicity of the small ones. And isn’t one of the benefits of multi-channel SACD supposed to be its ability to capture more accurately the spatial relationships of the instruments in their venue? At this reconstruction of the recording venue’s acoustic (Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia) the Telarc Requiem excels. It makes my (small, badly designed) multi-channel room sound like something at least approaching a large hall. It makes my large stereo-only room (connecting with the living/dining room, forming an L-shaped space) 30 feet along its long (and nearly 11 ft high) walls really begin to suggest the acoustic of a cathedral. I was amazed at how close a facsimile I was getting—how the farther away I sat, the more spacious it seemed.
Now we get to the performance. Let me break it out for you. How did the orchestra play? Wowie!! Wait ‘til you hear the brass. How did the chorus perform? Zowie!! Wait ‘til you hear them go for it. How cool was the tenor? A tad subdued on this side of heroic. Way cool!! Not to put too much emphasis on the recording engineering, but the balance between the soloist and the chorus was extraordinarily reminiscent of the mass I heard at Saint Sulpice. The voices seemed to rise into space, particularly the sopranos, llinger a second to be appreciated, then ascend. The music was designed to get the audience in mind of the infinite, the divine, and it succeeds. Wowie Zowie.
If you want to hear the essence of Berlioz, it is now available on a recording of his Requiem, from Telarc, the label that has recently won Gramophone Magazine’s “Label of the Year” award for the usually “astounding fidelity” of its recordings. It has been my experience that a good stereo rig can create a plausible facsimile of the gigantic in a moderately large listening space, and a good multi-channel rig can come surprisingly close in a small room. The Telarc recording does the heavy lifting because no matter how good your system is, it is only as good as the software you play through it. Now, more than ever, GIGO! This SACD-Surround Requiem is extraordinary. Great music, great performance, great engineering. If you are really into Berlioz, and even if you’re not — four stars. Another “good job” to the Telarc gang. Highly recommended.
NIELSEN – Symphony #5 – STRAVINSKY – The Rite Of Spring – Paavo Järvi, Cond./ Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Telarc SACD-60615, 73:08 ****:
The list of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring is getting as long as the list of Beethoven’s 5th’s out there because there are differences in approaches, as you would expect. Järvi’s reading is very well structured and nuanced, with as many details that jump out of the performance as I’ve ever heard, live or on record. This may speak to the craft of the conductor, or to the new SACD Hybrid Surround Sound. It comes as no surprise that Telarc has been named “Label of The Year” by Gramophone, “the UK-based magazine recognized worldwide as the definitive classical music publication,” …“for sound quality of astounding fidelity presented in the latest formats” according to Telarc’s press release. I hate being an “I tole ya so,” but that’s what I’ve been saying without reading in the UK magazine. I recommended Telarc’s SACD Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as Max Dudious’s “Record of the year” last fall. Telarc’s recording of The Rite Of Spring is another CD of similar stature for its majestic performance and glorious balance of sound. It is about as good as I can imagine a recording to be. My system has recently been host to some photo-optical interconnects that are surprisingly free of colorations. The Telarc recording crew has once again come up with a very neutral, very musical recording. Of particular merit is how the orchestra, at full cry, does not compress, mask, or color any of the parts when the music becomes dense. Each of the sections retains its sonic integrity. Each little grace note is heard. Everything sounds as it does in the symphony hall. The dynamic range is startling. The string tone is sharp, but not etched. Brass instruments have correct overtone structure. The trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba always sound separate. Each instrument is as it was played. This recording verges on 5 stars.
I’m not sure what criterion might be employed to give one recording a 5 star rating, and another merely a 4 star rating. On some recordings I hear, sometimes, a thickening of the sound, a sound in the cello region that becomes bloated. Not to mix metaphors here, but it is something like when I have a head cold and I wake up in the morning and speak to my wife, La Dudeen, and everything I say seems chestier that usual. I can hear it immediately. Suddenly I am Bryn Terfel, broken hearted, seeking my soprano to sing the reconciliation duet. This is a subtle but real shift I hear on certain recordings as the volume increases. I do not hear that coloration on Telarc CDs, nor do I hear a list of other subtle distortions and colorations I might catalog for you. In any event, this new Telarc recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is as accurate as any I’ve yet heard, the interpretation is one of nearly life long familiarity with the score, the playing is exuberant yet controlled. It is really something. I’m not as familiar with the Nielsen, but I suspect I wouldn’t be surprised if specialists in Scandinavian music were as enthusiastic about Järvi’s reading of Nielsen’s Symphony #5.
– Max Dudious [This review also appears in the current issue of Positive Feedback.]