SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
SACD & Other Hi-Res, Classical Part 2 of 3
Published on March 1, 2005
Published on March 1, 2005
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Here are three more new classical DualDiscs…
Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone – Ma, cello/Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra/Morricone – Sony Classical DualDisc SN 93472, 55:58 audio; 20:00 video ****:
The DVD side of the disc presents the entire audio program again but this time in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. There is a discography and a sort video titled Yo-Yo May Plays Ennio Morricone. It mostly shows the two musicians conferring about the scores for the various film themes in the program. An unusual video extra is the four short films by University of Southern California film students, which each match a live action story to one of the Morricone soundtrack selections. The idea was to show how important the proper music was to filmmaking. The first and last of the four I found the most interesting.
The 5 Browns – Program: Flight of the Bumble Bee, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, In the Hall of the Mt. King, BERNSTEIN: West Side Story scenes, RAVEL: La Valse, FRIEDMAN: Tabatiere a musique, RACHMANINOFF: Moments musicaux Op. 16 No. 4 & Elegie Op. 3, DEBUSSY: L’Isle joyeuse, PROKOFIEV: Sonata No. 3 in A minor, BOWEN: Toccata – RCA Red Seal DualDisc 82876-66007-2, 59:58 ****:
Unfortunately all 5 Browns don’t play simultaneously on every track – only the first three and the concluding Grieg favorite. The 2-Brown version of La Valse is a winner, and Ryan brings sparkle and fire to Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata. The Friedman and Bowen pieces are off the beaten track and very worthwhile hearing. I was surprised the audio side of the DualDisc was only standard CD, since RCA has issued a number of DVD-A recordings and wouldn’t want to snub the format as Sony has to do (but then Sony and BMG are now one and the same company, so that must explain it!). The video side presents the entire audio program in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, which is lots of fun with the 5-piano selections, and I doubt if the average person would find that much difference between it and a DVD-A 5.1 version.
Short music videos show the 5 Browns performing both Flight of the Bumble Bee and the very short excerpt from West Side Story. Finally there is an informal and informational video interview with the 5 Browns at home that reminded me of Edward R. Morrow’s celebrity home interviews. The 5 Browns are sure to make a very positive impression on piano repertory, pianos, piano lessons and classical music in general. They seem made to order to achieve a much-sought-after goal of getting young people more interested in classical music. Could it be they could even impact the terribly self-defeating elimination of music training and appreciation in the public schools?
Continuing with RCA/BMG product, here is the latest batch of Living Stereo 2 & 3-channel SACD reissues. Remember, it is highly suggested that your surround system have a center front channel as identical as possible to your left and right front speakers in order to realize the enhancement the third channel can provide …
I compared all of these (except for the original LPs which I don’t have). The Classic vinyl sounded very close to the SACD and in some ways the phantom center channel positioning of Heifetz was in better balance with the orchestra than the three-channel version – the same goes for the CD versions. Heifetz insisted on a rather prominent emphasis on his violin in the mix. However, the glorious silky timbre of his violin actually was more pleasing on either SACD layer than via the vinyl. It was pure pleasure to hear the highest notes of the instrument free from even the slightest digital distortions. The xrcd of the Sibelius suffered from a steely tone of the violin, as heard on the standard CD versions – and perhaps a bit worse due to the greater high end extension of the xrcd option. The orchestras also sounded rather amorphous in their placement of phantom center channel solo instruments other than the violin. With the two-channel SACD the instrumental placement was much more solid and accurate, and the general orchestral timbre was richer sounding. While there was no problem of a too-strong spotlighting of the violin on the two-channel xrcd, it sounded like two violins – one at each L & R speaker – whereas both SACD layers put the violin in dead center and only larger than life rather than morphed into two instruments. After sampling all three of these concertos repeatedly I now enjoy the tuneful Glazunov most of all; this concerto should be on more concert programs. It would be very well-received.
OFFENBACH: Gaite Parisienne; ROSSINI-RESPIGHI: La Boutique Fantasque – Boston Pops/Arthur Fiedler – RCA Red Seal Living Stereo SACD 82876-66419-2, 63:43 ****:
These iterations of l954 and 56 have been since their first releases among the most exciting recordings ever made by the Boston Pops; I feel right on a par with Fiedler’s Shchedrin Carmen Suite. The music is spectacular to begin with, coming from the terrific tune factories of Offenbach and Rossini respectively. And the recording, although only two and not three-channel, matches the material at hand. (Minor grouse: Since the stereo and surround layers are totally identical two-channel here, why not put a bit of L – R ambiance on the surround channels or feed it thru Dolby Pro Logic II so the “surround” really is surround, and to give those who prefer their music in surround an option
Comparing the SACD and the Classic Records vinyl I found very little difference again. If anything, perhaps a more secure feeling of speed constancy on the SACD during very slow sections, and a bit more forgiving big climaxes on the SACD vs. the LP. I don’t know if SoundMirror carried out some tweaks to their remastering process but I seem to hear greater clarity and transparency in this batch of SACD than I heard in the first. Still not as clean and forward-sounding as the Mercury SACDs, but those were recorded with an entirely different, much more close-miced approach.
RAVEL: Boléro, La Valse, Rapsodie espagnole; DEBUSSY: Images for Orchestra: Gigues/Ibéria/Rondes de printemps – Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch – RCA Red Seal Living Stereo 2 & 3-channel SACD, 73:37 ****:
Munch and French repertory were inseparable and these works – which originally took up a lot more than a single disc – were among his best interpretations of the two French composer’s impressionistic music. His Bolero won’t bore you to death; it certainly doesn’t sound like a tape loop but builds to a ferocious climax – as does Ravel’s deconstruction of the Waltz. I had thought Fritz Reiner’s La Valse was the one to have, but its breakneck tempo and schitzo interpretation are over the top for me – Munch is just rights. The three Ravel works were recorded in l955 and 56 in two channel only, with Images getting three-channel treatment in l957.
The Debussy work began life as a suite of pieces for two pianos, but he soon realized that his ideas could be more successfully carried out by the full symphony. Thus was created one of the most effective works of impressionistic mood and tone-painting in the repertory. The centerpiece is the longest section, depicting the soul of Spain in music – and perhaps better than any Spanish composer has done it. The third channel aids in clarifying the colorful orchestrations and solo flights of various instruments in the orchestra. It also provides a wider and deeper orchestral soundstage. The SACD compared to the standard old CD or the CD layer on this disc showed more finesse, a smoother sound and greater depth in the orchestra.
DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor; WM. WALTON: Cello Concerto – Gregor Piatigorsky, cello/Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch – RCA Red Seal Living Stereo 3-channel SACD82876-66375-2, 71:22 ****:
Heifetz’ partner in violin-cello works, Piatigorsky, recorded this classic performance of the Dvorak in l957. He also premiered the Walton Concerto and three years later recorded it for Victor. The three-channel reproduction is perfect for these concertos – Piatigorsky is placed with almost holographic realism front and center, with the BSO spread out wide and deep behind him. Quite a different sound experience from the venerable l930s mono Angel recording of the work by Pablo Casals! Walton wrote a glorious work for Piatigorsky, keeping in mind throughout an avoidance of covering up the less strong sound of the cello with two much orchestra. The work is really shaped as two slow movements with a center scherzo the composer described as “technically more spectacular.” It has a thoroughly modern yet accessible sound common to this composer who I have always felt was less stuffy than some of his countrymen.
I didn’t have the reissue LP but did have the fairly recent xrcd of the Dvorak to compare. It was easily surpassed by the two-channel SACD with a richer, smoother and less thin-sounding overall timbre. There was more depth and spatial information in the orchestra, and Piatigorsky was situated a bit to right of center and quite realistic in the two-channel option. In three channels the cello was much more strongly placed and centered. Plus you only got the Dvorak concerto on the xrcd.
This Rubinstein recording is appearing in the Living Stereo CD series for the first time. Not as long in playing time as the other SACD reissue, it appears there wasn’t anything appropriate to pair up with the concerto. It comes from very early in Victor’s stereo recording work – l954 – and before they moved to three-channel tape recorders to have more flexibility in mixing to the final stereo masters. I didn’t have a vinyl version on hand for comparison, but I figure one needn’t bother if it’s piano music – even a run-of-the-mill standard CD beats out the vinyl every time for me due to rock-steady speed accuracy.
It’s an exciting and satisfying performance of this major Brahms concerto, with Reiner and Rubinstein at their passionate best. The piano is centered all right phantom-wise, but it’s also on the left and right channels in a larger-than-life presentation that seems to be the standard for piano recordings unfortunately. Have to just get used to it, grouse grouse.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5; Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture. – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Daniele Gatti – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD, HMU 907381, 66:27 ****:
The Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture was written in 1869, nineteen years before the fifth symphony, and has come to be considered his “first masterpiece,” the piece that turned Tchaikovsky into TCHAIKOVSKY!! Based on the Shakespearean drama, the piece abounds with a handful of musical character sketches, and the energy of the piece develops with the action between these characters. The work, according to my 1935 Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “seems to glow and throb with youthful passion and tenderness.” A fair assessment, I’d say, and brought to life in this performance. Considering the piece as an early self portrait, this album leaves us with a snapshot of Tchaikovsky in first flower of creative mastery, with Romeo & Juliet his Portrait of the Artist, as it were, and another snapshot of the mature composer in Symphony #5, his Ulysses. Nice programming from the guys at Harmonia mundi.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, plays its collective fingers to the bone on this one, sounding quite well disciplined, and allowing Gatti to live up to his reputation as a contender for the title Best Conductor of his Generation. The orchestra is in fine fettle, and its abilities are well captured by the Harmonia mundi recording team. The acoustics are a little back in the hall for my taste, but not everyone likes to sit up close as I do. All in all, a fine recording of some nice music bringing the Tchaikovsky oeuvre up to date in pretty modern recording technology.
There is an irony here in that the Russian Tchaikovsky took trips to Italy to study both formal and folk music. He wrote pieces based on Italian melodies and stories. Romeo & Juliet is set in Italy. It seems he enjoyed Italy and wanted to absorb as much Italian culture as he could. It is almost as though he, himself, wanted to become more Italian. Gatti is an Italian who here is demonstrating his mastery of the Russian idiom, of the great Russian master’s music. So Gatti is trying to be more Russian, and offers us the work of a Russian who is trying to be more Italian. Just another of life’s little paradoxes.
This is a well-conceived, well-played, well-recorded offering of two of Tchaikovsky’s best works. Any Tchaikovsky devotée ought to get right to his computer and order this one from his favorite vendor. Consider it an obligation to keep classical music going.
[Max reviewed the original standard CD release, while I received the SACD version, so some comments on that aspect: The CD layer or the original CD sound OK until you audition the two-channel SACD – then it lacks all the “trimmings” – the subtle touches, the very gradual crescendos and decrescendos, etc. But the stereo SACD layer sounds completely flat and constricted in the big climaxes vs. the multichannel SACD option – which opens up the complexities and adds depth and width to the orchestral soundstage while providing a better feeling of the hall. (There’s little feeling of that with either two-channel option.) Even though my two-channel SACD player is modified and tweaked maximally, the stereo version can’t hold a candle to the multichannel SACD…Ed.]
TCHAIKOVSKY/KORNGOLD: Violin Concertos – Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin / Vienna Philharmonic (Tchaikovsky) – London Symphony Orchestra (Korngold) / Andre Previn, Conductor – Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 8742 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD * * * :
Most of the controversy generated by the naysayers tends to focus on the “liberties” she so “willfully” takes with the printed score. Come on – so very much of classical music performance is found in the interpretation, is it not? Otherwise we’d enjoy an endless parade of absolute cookie-cutter conductors and soloists (and we’d pray that they’re all Reiner, Heifetz or Rubinstein). To the naysayers, her phrasing, intonation and especially, her use of vibrato, are all dreadfully wrong. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Heifetz recently, and I’m not anywhere nearly ready to place Anne-Sophie in the pantheon beside him, but just because her playing is somewhat quirky and rather different, does that necessarily make it that bad?
For the record, my reference recording of each of these works is in fact the Heifetz version (Gil Shaham’s Korngold, also with Andre Previn, is a very close second). But this disc is a superb recording, both sonically and performance-wise. Previn conducts with a firm but fluid hand, and elicits superb playing from both the LSO and Vienna Philharmonic.
The recording, although sourced from a 24/96 original, is excellent, nonetheless, with astonishing clarity of sound and impressive orchestral climaxes – especially so in the final movement of the Korngold concerto. The multichannel presentation offers a superb sense of the recorded acoustic; the players are bathed in ambiance. Anne-Sophie’s violin, warts and all, is perfectly placed front and center, and doesn’t have that disembodied, larger-than-life sound so common with modern recordings that involve a soloist.
Swedish Folk Tunes from Dalecarlia arranged by Nils Lindberg / Uppsala Cathedral Choir / Milke Falck, Conductor / featuring Andrew Canning, organ / Proprius PRSACD 2032 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD *****:
Nils Lindberg drew his inspiration for these arrangements from the centuries-old and renowned folk music traditions of the Dalecarlia region of central Sweden. Much of the music here will ring familiar to many ears; quite a few composers have mined the musical riches of Dalecarlia in their compositions. And while the more pastoral presentations given the choral selections are frequently echoed in the organ settings, the variations for organ make full use of the range and contrasts available to the king of instruments. In other words, don’t let the quiet beauty of the choral arrangements lull you into turning the volume too far up!
The recordings are pure DSD and were engineered on Sonoma and Pyramix equipment, and the proof is in the listening! The choir is rendered with such amazing clarity – soundstage width and depth is superb, and you are literally and aurally transported to the church where the recordings were made. As with all other multichannel Proprius discs, switching between the 4.0 surround and stereo layers to discern any differences is almost an exercise in futility – it’s darn near impossible to tell the difference. It’s great for us proponents of multichannel listening, and serves only to reinforce my perception that a well-set-up surround system can offer superb and precise imaging. I’ve had regular correspondence with Proprius’ engineers, and they say it’s by design. And that’s great for all the stereo purists – they’ll get plenty of ambiance from two-channel systems as well. An excellent disc, and very highly recommended!
PAART: Triodion / Polyphony – Stephen Layton, Director / with Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ / Hyperion SACDA67375 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD * * * * *:
This excellent disc from Hyperion compiles choral works of a more recent vintage from Arvo Part, and contains no less than five world premiere recordings. With this collection, Part offers his return to a more conventional and harmonic style of composition. The disc occupied numerous “best of” lists last year, and was deservedly honored with the 2004 Gramophone Award for best choral recording. Part has been composing extensively in English recently – those texts represent five of the eight settings offered here.
I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with the music on this disc. Stephen Layton and Polyphony are superb here; the singing runs the full gamut of emotion, and every lover of choral music should find something here to please them. Christopher Bowers-Broadbent provides sympathetic accompaniment on organ on three selections, and countertenor David James provides a thrilling solo on My Heart’s in the Highlands.
The recording is also first-rate; I found the Multichannel SACD provided a quantum leap in sound over my already good Redbook CD version of this disc. The surrounds mainly served to add to the feeling of spaciousness and ambiance of the recording venue. As with any good recording of massed voices, the contrasts from really quiet to fortissimo are quite sudden and dramatic, and this disc will definitely serve as an excellent test of your system’s resolving power. Just don’t crank the volume too high – the consequences could be dire! Very highly recommended.
Haydn: Die Jahreszeiten [The Seasons] – Rene Jacobs, cond.; Marlis Petersen (sop.);Werner Gura (ten.); Dietrich Henschel (bar.);RIAS C. Ch; Freiburg Baroque Orch. HARMONIA MUNDI HMC901829.30 (2 SACD’s) *****
Based on the 18th century poem by James Thompson, celebrating Man’s relationship to the earth and its’ seasons, Haydn explores the sounds of nature: birdcalls, the wind and storm, as well as those associated with The Hunt, The Dance, the sounds of Man’s labor on the Earth. The interplay of orchestra, soloists and chorus is masterful…the composer is after all, Haydn, that eternal fountain of inspiration and affirmation. Boundless energy and humor are found . Die Jahreseiten seems to me as tightly composed as The Creation. No filler here..just one dazzling moment after another.
In most aspects of living, I subscribe to the view that “The enemy of success is perfection.” This is not the case with this recording. I cannot find any imperfection here . The orchestra, conductor, soloists and chorus are literally at one with this remarkable music. There is a freshness and spontaneity that is pervasive throughout the 125 minutes of the work. Nothing lets down. There is an inexorable drive to this performance, which seems totally in keeping with the spirit of the work. The intonation of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is flawless. For example, the horncalls and entire Hunt tableau in Autumn are spellbinding. The diction and phrasing of the RIAS Chamber Chorus is quite remarkable, while the three soloists seem ideal in voice and sympathy for this grand music.
If SACD high resolution sound is required to establish itself as a better portal to the soul of music, the quality of this reproduction will remind the listener of how remarkably sound at this level contributes to the ultimate musical experience.
SCHUBERT: Octet, D. 803, op. posth. 166 – Camerata Freden – Tacet DVD-A 133 (58 mins.):
The answer to the latter question is a definite no, as the eight musicians led by violinist Adrian Adlam (also Artistic Director of the Festival) show that the music need not fawn and curtsey as each of the famous themes make their appearances. Instead, the ensemble takes a wide-eyed approach keyed to the stream of instrumental beauty that Schubert has created. Eschewing familiar phrasing choices that seem to have chiseled in stone, according to the truth put down by renowned groups like the Vienna Octet, Adlam and his crew takes a more direct route and opens up whole new vistas.
And while Adlam shows almost superhuman strength and virtuosity in his demanding role (you can’t realize how much physical work this Octet is for the first violinist until you have attended a live performance), the excellence of the music making extends to each player. If you want to single out any of them, it would have to French hornist Ron Schaaper, who lights up the sky with his virtuosity, and cellist Michel Dispa, whose playing of the great solo in the theme and variations movement sweeps the recorded field.
Tacet’s sound by Andreas Speer and Roland Kistner is rich in timbral glory and clear as a bell, its excellent inner detail lacking only the last bit of definition (perhaps achieved by the Tacet Real Surround Sound on the DVD-Audio version). Oliver Buslau’s liner notes chronicle the theory and facts of the music’s composition in beautifully if straightforward written prose.
[Correct about the DVD-A version: And in addition the listener gets to sit in with the eight players! I know other publications have made fun of Tacet’s “Real Surround Sound” – in which the individual players in a chamber group are spaced equally around you. I don’t agree that this is a misuse of the acoustic space that can now be captured with recordings. I find it to be involving, edifying and educational. Almost none of us could afford to hire an ensemble to perform in our homes but these multichannel recordings are the next best thing. It’s important to have an identical or very similar center channel speaker to the other four, because Tacet makes use of the center channel for one of the instruments in all of these discs. And it is also important to have equal level on all five or six channels. (I find I have to reset levels when I switch between my DVD-A player and separate SACD player – an advantage of universal disc players!) In the case of the Octet the center channel is the viola, flanked by the first violin on the left front speaker and the cello on the right front. Then along the left side is the bassoon, with the clarinet on the right side. Finally, the second violin is placed at the left rear surround speaker, the doublebass at the right surround, and the French horn in between them directly to the rear…Ed.]
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60; Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 – Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vanska – BIS 1416 Multichannel Hybrid SACD (5.0 Surround Sound) CD 67:03****:
Recorded April and May 2004, this high-definition CD has a decided plus for the audiophile in its lifelike sonic spread, where with high-end equipment, you can enjoy the woodwinds&Mac226; emergent sound from behind you. The B-flat Major Symphony is fairly linear and literalist, until the last movement, when Vanska finally pulls out the stops for some unbuttoned Beethoven energies. The sforzati between strings and the tympani’s undercurrents are deftly captured. The slightly reduced orchestral forces maintain the Haydnesque parameters of Beethoven’s historical sound. The C Minor is taken rather briskly, no romantic lingering nor metaphysical straining for meaning. Again, I find the interpretation in the literalist tradition, with only a slight ritrard at the end of the Andante con moto that recalled for a moment, the Erich Kleiber approach. Nice touches in the Scherzo and its transition to the final Allegro, where the enhanced sound can add to the mystery of creation (and the repeat) and the harvest gleaned as C Minor yields to an ineluctable C Major triumph. Solid music-making but no revelations of interpretation.