SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews, Part 2 of 3 – Classical (beg.)


Published on February 1, 2005

41 SACD & DVD-A Reviews This Month

Jan./Feb. 2005Part 2 of 3 – Classical (beg.)

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Part 1]    [Part 3]

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Now the Green Blade Riseth Vaughan Williams: The Poisoned Kiss Barber: Vanessa (comp. opera) SACD Monteverdi Sacred Music Vol. 2
Debussy & Ravel St. Quartets Rachmaninoff: Vespers SACD Mozart: Flute Concertos & Sym. No. 41 Mozart: Marriage of Figaro highlights on SACD
Bruckner Mass in d Rossini piano music Vol. 5 SACD Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall Telemann Table Music
Fiedler cond. March in Hi-Fi Stkowski cond. Rhapsodies on an xrcd24 Ready to Go xrcd

Now the Green Blade RisethNow the Green Blade Riseth – Stockholm Cathedral Choir / Gustaf Sjokvist, Conductor – Adolf Fredrik Children’s Choir / Gunnel Kyhle, Leader – Johannes Youth Choir / Anders Eby, Conductor – Bengt Berg, Organ – Proprius PRSACD 9093 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 65 minutes *****:

Proprius Records have gathered much renown over the years for their exceptionally lifelike, natural-sounding and acoustically superb recordings, and a handful have reached almost legendary status among audiophiles. This is especially true of their choral recordings – who could ever forget Cantate Domino, and this disc, Now the Green Blade Riseth, rates very highly with many an audiophile. This superb new SACD transfer should give many out there reason to rejoice!

Unlike most choral recordings that are liturgically based (and often resemble a traditional mass), the music on this disc takes more of a folk-mass approach, with organ, guitar and flute accompaniment. The songs here are quite simply, just that – religious songs, and hymns – some that span generations, and many that are quite contemporary. The instrumentation heard here reflects efforts by the church in Sweden in the seventies to offer a more contemporary feel to religious music, and to lessen the perceptions brought by the more formal, organ-based accompaniments most common to congregations at the time. The presentations here are very charming, and have a great sense of familiarity, as well.

The multichannel hybrid SACD disc offers a bit of an unexpected twist – yes, there’s a 4.0 surround mix in addition to the stereo SACD layer. A/B switching between layers revealed very little difference in sound quality – each layer offers Proprius’ trademark soundstage presentation, both broad and deep – and an expertly rendered palette of vocal and instrumental textures. If anything, I’d give the multichannel version a slight edge, with an ever-so-slight increase in front-to-back depth of soundfield. The stereo SACD layer offers an excellent presentation of the recorded acoustic, and will thrill the two-channel purists out there. The Redbook CD layer, while also quite good, seemed a bit pale, and perhaps thin, in comparison to both SACD layers.

While I must confess that my real love lies with acapella choral music, I always found this disc an enjoyable and uplifting listen. And a real bargain, to boot, as the disc contains additional material from later sessions that wasn’t on the original release. Very highly recommended!

— Tom Gibbs

VW: The Poisoned Kiss - ChandosVAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Poisoned Kiss – Janice Watson, Soprano; Gail Pearson, Soprano; James Gilchrist, Tenor – Adrian Partington Singers – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / James Clark, Leader; Richard Hickox, Conductor – Chandos CHSA 5020(2) – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 116 minutes ****:

The Poisoned Kiss is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ almost forgotten opera; this new recording from Chandos represents its premiere recording. Apparently, he was somewhat unhappy with the original libretto when the piece premiered in the late twenties. After the original librettist’s death, he purchased all rights to the piece, and had it extensively reworked in the fifties; what we hear with this first recording are the fruits of that effort. Originally, there was a great deal of spoken dialogue present in the work, and it contained numerous twenties references which VW felt dated the piece too much. The new revision removed most of the dated references, and this recording omits most of the remaining dialogue to allow for better flow of the work.

The story involves an empress and a sorcerer who wish to marry; her parents refuse, but due a miscommunication, the sorcerer comes to believe that he has been spurned by the empress. They each eventually marry others, and the sorcerer’s union gives birth to a daughter, while the empress’ marriage produces a son (the prince). The sorcerer is aware that the empress has born a son, so he plots to raise his daughter on poisons, so that when she and the prince finally meet (as he knows they will), he will be killed by love’s first kiss. The empress, meanwhile, is wise to the sorcerer’s plans, and raises the prince on antidotes, so that he will be impervious to the poisons. The plot unfolds with numerous twists and turns, and much great singing and long stretches of previously unheard music.

The music VW composed for the work either occasionally borrows bits from other works, or contained the seeds for works he would later compose. At the opera’s debut, he even requested that the house lights stay up, and that the audience continue talking through the overture, so that they wouldn’t get too familiar with the various tunes he’d use throughout. I’m a really big Vaughan Williams’ fan, and yet, I still heard so much delightfully new music here, that I still can’t believe that this is a premiere recording!

The DSD transfer is sourced from a 24/96 recording, but as with Chandos’ other VW SACDs (which are also sourced from 24/96 originals), the presentation is superb, and suffers not one bit. Very highly recommended.

– Tom Gibbs

 

 

Barber: Vanessa - complete operaBARBER: Vanessa – Christine Brewer, Soprano; Susan Graham, Mezzo-Soprano; William Burden, Tenor – BBC Singers / Stephen Betteridge, Chorus Master – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Michael Davis, Leader; Leonard Slatkin, Conductor – Chandos CHSA 5032(2) – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 122 minutes ****:

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa originated as a specific commission from the Metropolitan Opera, and his attempted collaborations with numerous librettists ended unfulfilled. Over a period of several years, he finally convinced partner Gian Carlo Menotti to write the libretto, and Barber composed the music with Maria Callas in mind for the lead role. Despite numerous staging problems and his inability to obtain Callas, the production finally was staged and was a resounding success, even winning a Pulitzer prize for Barber. However, subsequent revival attempts were unsuccessful, and the opera has languished in relative obscurity.

The story concerns Vanessa, who has languished in a secluded villa for twenty years following a failed romance with her lover Anatol. She lives with her young niece Erika, and receives news that Anatol is coming for a much-delayed and unexpected visit. Upon his arrival and prior to coming in full view of him, she expresses her love for him; when he reveals himself, it becomes obvious that he is not Anatol her old lover (who has since died), but his son, now in his early twenties. Erika is smitten with Anatol, and they have a brief dalliance, while Vanessa realizes that she is also in love with young Anatol. Mayhem soon ensues.

While there is some superbly melodic singing throughout, Barber made no mystery of his love for Berg’s Wozzeck, and while the music is unmistakably Barber’s own, it also reflects much of Berg’s influences (read: intensely dark and dramatic!). Both Christine Brewer (as Vanessa) and Susan Graham (as Erika) are superb in their respective roles. This disc is also sourced from a 24/96 digital original, but as with the Vaughan Williams disc above, offers a superb presentation of the material. Highly recommended.

– Tom Gibbs

Monteverdi Sacred Music Vol. 2MONTEVERDI: The Sacred Music 2 – Choir of the King’s Consort – The King’s Consort / Robert King, Conductor – Hyperion SACDA67438 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD – 67 minutes ****:

The secular works of Monteverdi are justly given a place of high importance in the musical pantheon; his sacred works, however, have been almost universally neglected. This disc is the second in a series from The King’s Consort that explores those sacred works, and offers them in splendid 5.1 SACD surround sound. Several small-scale madrigals, with varying degrees of vocal and instrumental support, bookend the disc’s centerpiece, the acapella Mass for Four Voices. While the presentation is acapella, they choose not to limit the performance to four voices – the entire choir joins in, to marvelous effect. The SACD is a model of how choral recordings should be mixed for surround sound, and shouldn’t disappoint anyone. Very highly recommended.

– Tom Gibbs

Ravel & Debussy Quartets SACDRAVEL: String Quartet in F; DEBUSSY: String Quartet in G Minor – Parkanyi Quartet – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 208, 56:40 ****:

A familiar pairing of two of the most appealingly dreamy string quartets in the repertory. The Debussy more solidly in an impressionistic style and the Ravel of a decade later, as with his other music, more precise and elegant. The Parkanyi Quartet is named after its leader viiolinist Istvan Parkanyi, but three of its members were in the Orlando Quartet which achieved fame in the late 70s and early 80s. A couple years back we reviewed a Surrounded By DVD-A of the same music, which also provided the Faure String Quartet which is in a similar vein. That one featuring the Guarneri String Quartet. I find this earlier version to display more variety of timbre and attack and somewhat more precision in performance. The multichannel sonics are also a bit cleaner and more precise. However, the Parkanyi Quartet’s more rounded and lyrical approach to the music might be more appealing to some listeners. Your choice might also be controlled by which format player you own if you don’t have a universal disc player.

- John Sunier

Rachmaninoff: VespersRACHMANINOFF: Vespers (All Night Vigil) – Soloists/Finnish National Opera Chorus/Eric-Olof Söderström – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110067, 54:00 ***:

This masterpiece of Russian liturgical music was penned by Rachmaninoff about the same time he was composing his Second and Third Piano Concertos. His model was a special vigil celebrated on Saturday night in the Russian Orthodox Church, but he made some adjustments in the strict church forms. Like the best Russian music, the work is full of Slavic intensity, and the choral writing is distinguished by inventive melody-leding, requiring considerable viruosity from the chorus. Unlike much Orthodox choral music, this work employs a mixed choir. The 15 sections of the work are listed in English, which is helpful with some: (Come let us worship); with others not: (Troparion of the Resurrection II).

The recording was made in a church in Helsinki, Finland. A recent Pentatone SACD version of the Vespers had more of a surround field, less of an edgy quality to the choral timbre, and less IM distortion in the big climaxes. However, the frontal imaging in the Naxos recording is exceptional.

- John Sunier

Mozart: Sym. No. 41MOZART: Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter;” Concerto for Flute in D major; Concerto for Flute in G major – Jacques Zoon, flute/Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman – Telarc multichannel SACD-60624, 77:07 ****:

The Boston Baroque was the first permanent Baroque orchestra founded in North America. Their recordings of both Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem have received recommendations from many quarters. The use of period instruments by the orchestra is continued in the selection of the flute used in this recording by soloist Zoon. It is a copy of one made in Dresden at the end of the 18th century and is tuned a quarter step lower than modern pitch. Zoon is principal flutist for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and one of the world’s leading flutists today. The flute was tremendously popular among amateurs at Mozart’s time and he kept telling his father he could not bear hearing the flute, but that didn’t stop him from turning out two wonderful little concertos full of melody and perfectly flute-like structure.

The brilliant Jupiter Symphony was Mozart’s last symphony and is normally heard played by an only slightly-reduced modern symphony orchestra. It takes on a freshness and appeal when it is heard with not just a chamber orchestra but a chamber orchestra playing all period instruments, as this one does. The surround mix is very natural and involving without drawing attention to itself, and the flute soloist is dead center whether or not you are using a center channel.

- John Sunier

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro highlights on SACDMOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro, highlights – Hungarian National Chorus, Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia, cond. Michael Halász; Count of Almaviva: Bo Skovhus; Countess of Almaviva: Marina Mescheriakova; Susanna: Judith Halász; Figaro: Renato Girolami – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110014 ****:

These highlights from Mozart’s ubiquitous Marriage of Figaro (recorded in Budapest’s Phoenix Studio in the fall of 2002) sound too canned, lacking the spontaneity of a live recording. Although this drawback is all too common in studio recordings, it can be mitigated to a large extent; unfortunately, this is not the case here. One example of this predicament is the miking of the Countess’s famous “Porgi amor” in Act 2, which gives the impression of a grand hall rather than an intimate boudoir. Another frustrating limitation of this recording is the singing of Judith Halász, who as Susanna sounds too ponderous, devoid of the lighthearted frothiness essential to this role. Further, in the Rondo “Al desio di chi t’adora” (Act 4), she can barely keep up. The question then becomes, Do we need yet another CD of the high points of this opera, particularly since Karl Böhm’s superlative recording is so readily available on Deutsche Grammophon? [Of course - since it’s the first in semi-hi-res surround sound!...Ed.] The answer is a guarded yes, if only to revel in Bo Skovhus’s charming Count and Mescheriakova’s tender Countess. Skovhus, whose tone is warmer and more voluminous than Fischer-Dieskau’s, sounds buttery and smooth. His partner, Mescheriakova, sings with delicacy and variety, throwing the high notes with great abandon. Monarcha as Bartolo has a deep, rich, and satisfying bass, but Breedt as Cherubino sounds a bit shrill on top. The ensemble work is excellent and the conducting is smooth.

-Dalia Geffen

Telemann TafelmusikTELEMANN: Tafelmusik = Overture and Suite in D major for oboe, trumpet, strings and basso continuo; Quartet in D minor for 2 flutes, recorder & basso continuo; Concerto in F major for 3 violins, violino grosso & basso continuo; Conclusion in E minor for 2 flutes, strings & basso continuo – Musica Amphion/Pieter-Jan Belder – Brilliant Classics multichannel SACD 92213 (Distr. by Qualiton), 61:13 ****:

This is a new budget-priced SACD label which – judging from the two releases so far auditioned – has established a very high standard for itself. Pieter-Jan Belder is a young harpsichordist, clavichordist, organist and recorder player in Amersterdam. He is currently working on a project to record all the keyboard works of Sweelinck and also a ten-disc set of Bach works. He plays both recorder and harpsichord on some of these works, and his other players are equally skilled. The opening D major suite with natural trumpet makes an attention-getting start for this concert of “table music.” The French and Italian influences in the music are easy to discern, in spite of Telemann’s efforts to give them a Teutonic gloss. The surround pickup is fairly subtle but still adds a realism to the frontal soundstage that falls away when you switch to the two-channel layer.

- John Sunier

Bruckner Mass in dBRUCKNER: Mass in D minor for soloists, choir & orchestra – quartet of soloists/Chamber Choir of Europe/Würtemberg Philharmonic, Reutlingen/Nicol Matt – Brilliant Classics multichannel SACD 92212 (Distr. by Qualiton), 50:38 ****:

This mass was Bruckner’s first real success, coming shortly after his symphony now known as “No. 0.” It had many performances in Austria and praised his friends and critics. The Mass shows many elements of the composer’s special tonal language, beginning with a sustained pedal on the tonic note at the opening Kyrie. A mysterious-sound horn choir is heard in one section, and another sounds like a Bach chorale. There are elements of canon and counterpoint throughout. One can even hear elements of the repetition which were to be pushed to their extremities in his symphonies to come. The pickup of the chorus is excellent – you can follow the Latin text in the note booklet if you wish. A lovely liturgical work worth your acquaintance at this bargain price.

- John Sunier

Two SACDs for fans of solo piano…

Rossini: Works for Piano Vol. 5ROSSINI: Complete Works for Piano Vol. 5 = Quelques riens pour album; Album de Chaumiere – Paolo Giacometti, Piano Erard 1837 – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 20504, 68:27 ****:

Pianist Giacometti presents here the fifth album performing Rossini’s late works for piano which all come under the tongue-in-cheek name “Sins of My Old Age.” They were created in a long spell dealing with depression and illness during which he did no composing whatever. He moved back to Paris and suddenly was turning out one after another of these understate little piano portraits. The first set of six here could be translated The Album of Little Nothings, and the second one The Album of the Farmer’s Cottage. Giacometti refers to these character sketches as making Rossini a sort of Oscar Wilde among composers. One might also think of Erik Satie, especially when you run across titles such as Petite Valse L’Huile de Ricin (The Little Castor Oil Waltz). Giacometti feels these pieces feel more at home on a piano similar to what the composer might have been playing on in Paris, so these recordings employ a 1837 Erard piano. It doesn’t sound like a fortepiano, but it does have a lighter and more nasal tone than a modern Steinway; the original DSD recording preserves its unique character perfectly.

- John Sunier

Lang Lang Live at Carnegie HallLang Lang Live at Carnegie Hall = SCHUMANN: Abegg-Variations; Träumerei; HAYDN: Piano Sonata in C major; SCHUBERT: Wanderer-Fantasie; TAN DUN: Eight Memories in Watercolor; CHOPIN: Nocturne in D flat major; LISZT: Reminiscences of Don Juan de Mozart; Liebestraum; ANON: Horses (erhu & piano) – Lang Lang, piano – DGG multichannel SACD (2 discs) 474 875-2, 61:42, 35:51 ****:

The 21-year-old Chinese prodigy performed this solo debut recital just a little over a year ago in Carnegie Hall and DGG’s engineers were there to record it in multichannel SACD. The result is just about the most realistic record of a live piano recital that has ever been committed to disc. One critic referred to Lang Lang as a supreme keyboard athlete and some of the works on the program display his athletic abilities to the max: The heroic Wanderer-Fantasie of Schubert and the Liszt impressions of themes from Don Giovanni among them. But he doesn’t gloss over the lyrical qualities of the quieter pieces such as the Chopin Nocturne either.Nothing seems to faze him; he sounds almost like a young Horowitz. The note booklet is full of color photos of the pianist – he’s getting the full promotional treatment from his label. But he deserves it.

- John Sunier

Fiedler cond. Marches in Hi-FiMarches In Hi-Fi – Boston Pops Orchestra / Arthur Fiedler, Conductor – JVC JM-XR24020 – XRCD-24 Disc – 45 minutes ****:

Another superb remastering of a classic RCA Living Stereo disc by JVC on XRCD, this disc is Arthur Fiedler at his best. Among the very best of the XRCD-24 discs I’ve heard, this disc offers an exceptional presentation of the music, and is, without a doubt, the finest available digital-disc version of this classic.

Now, the bad news: as good as this disc is, it didn’t impress me anywhere nearly as much as the recent batch of RCA Living Stereo SACDs did. And at thirty-plus bucks a pop for the XRCD, I’d probably hold out to see if this gem gets released on SACD by RCA anytime soon (probably with generous bonus material, and at a very attractive price). Let your wallet be your guide.

– Tom Gibbs

Stokowski - Rhapsodies xrcdStokowski – Rhapsodies =
LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor; ENESCO: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A; SMETANA: The Moldau; Overture to The Bartered Bride – RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski – RCA Living Stereo/JVC xrcd JM-XR24019, 40:11 ****:

This was Stoky’s most popular Living Stereo album – a great example of his interpretations of Romantic period orchestral works. The recordings were made in l960. They were also reissued in l993 on CD, paired up with two Wagner selections recorded in l961, making the total time on the CD 75:29 (vs. 40 minutes in the xrcd version which duplicates the programming of the original LP). These are colorful works to start with and the Stokowski touch ensures they will be even more colorful. The big hit from Smetana’s Ma Vlast suite is probably one of the very best versions of his musical portrait of the river that flows thru Prague and the Czech countryside. The sonics are definitely enhanced over the CD version – more detail, cleaner, wider range and more alive with greater impact. I’m not a great Wagner fan so I wouldn’t miss the two selections on the CD not provided on the xrcd, but if I paid cash for this disc I might give some thought to the music costing just a bit under $1 a minute.

- John Sunier

Philippe Saisse Trio xrcdReady To Go – Philippe Saisse Acoustique Trio featuring Kelli Sae – JVC SVCD 1047 – XRCD-24 Disc – 49 minutes **:

I have a hard time categorizing this disc – is it contemporary jazz, or is it Europop? It reminded me a great deal of what the Crusaders were attempting on their string of albums throughout the late seventies and early eighties (i.e., Street Life), only minus the stellar instrumentation and infectiously delicious grooves that populated that classic body of work. I listened to this disc repeatedly, and regardless of how I tried, I could never quite succumb to the soulless groove this album attempts to deliver.

Sonically, the album was quite good, though I’m not sure where the trio gets its “Acoustique” bent, with all the sampling and synth layering going on here. Maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea – I’d definitely try this one, if possible, before antying up the thirty-plus bucks.

– Tom Gibbs




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