SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
Classical Hi-Res Reviews, Pt. 2
Published on May 1, 2005
46 Hi-Res Reviews
*****Multichannel Disc of the Month***** LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Mass – Jerry Hadley, tenor/Soloists of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble/Radio Choir Berlin/State and Cathedral Choir Berlin/Deutsches Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Kent Nagano – Harmonia mundi HMC 801840.41 (2 discs), 1 hr. 46 min. ****:
I reviewed this in its original CD form last October and at the end of the review said: “Again, this would be a very suitable work for multichannel reproduction, and perhaps HM will eventually release it as such.” Well, here it is. I think I’ll be lazy and just give you my original review below, but let me first address the advantage of the multichannel version: Huge. Due to both the more subtle details of the performance coming thru due to the higher resolution audio, the surround field involves the listener more in the work – almost as though you were participating. The actions of the Celebrant are now more dramatic and emotional, especially when he smashes the objects on the altar and jumps up to dance on it. The entire work opens with a four-channel tape playing voices singing an antiphon, and they are reproduced via the four corner speakers of one’s surround system. This effect returns later with non-taped singers and spoken word at individual speakers. Bongo drums on the surrounds introduce one section that is rock-based. Just before that a plaintive oboe moves spatially around the performing space. One rock section opens with a drum set heard from the rear. I had never before really gotten in tune with this Bernstein theater work even though I admired its audacity, and I even had the quad LP set. Now on multichannel SACD I would put it right up there with Candide and West Side Story, and so I’ve made it our Multichannel Disc of the Month.
[Review of CD:] Bernstein’s theater piece was composed in memory of John Kennedy and premiered in l971. It elicited considerable negative discussion from conservative voices in liturgical music for its alleged sacrilegious slant. The libretto mixes texts by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz with parts of the Roman Catholic Mass – which Jewish Bernstein found especially theatrical. The “Celebrant’s” (Jerry Hadley) faith is strong and pure at the beginning, but beset by corruption, misuse of power and human misery he questions his faith. Though nearly renouncing it, at the end he joins other believers in praise of God. The work is indeed extremely theatrical and mixes classical, rock, pop and Broadway – used such forces (in addition to a large orchestra) as a marching band, mixed chorus, children’s chorus, dancers and a rock band. In some ways it is redolent of the 60s but in others it retains a very up-to-date take on the place of spirituality in our society today.
This is the first complete recording of the work since Bernstein’s original for Columbia done shortly after the premiere. That one was a unique experience both in its original LP form (It was available in SQ quad) as well as its later CD reissue. But it takes a back seat to Nagano’s much brighter and brasher treatment of the work. There is a special enthusiasm felt in the new recording that even tops that of the Bernstein-conducted original. Grammy-winner Hadley is perfect in his role. Recorded in connection with live performances in Berlin, the effect of this very American work on the German audiences seems to have been some powerful schnapps for all concerned. A video of the performance wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Area 31 – DAVID CHESKY: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; The Girl from Guatemala; Concerto for Flute and Orchestra – Tom Chiu, violin; Wonjung Kim, soprano; Jeffrey Khaner, flute/Area 31 Ensemble/Anthony Aibel – Chesky Records multichannel SACD288, 56:31 ***:
The Area 31 Ensemble after which the new SACD is titled is made up of members from 13 different countries. They are devoted to performing and recording new works challenging the assumed confines of modern composition. All three of Chesky’s works here do just that in various ways, and as a result are not as tonal or accessible as some of his previous works, although a jazz sensibility adds interest. The Violin Concerto is undeniably virtuosic, with the soloist’s part treated something like a jazz solo. Different styles and influences are heard in the concerto, including Latin and Brazilian rhythms. The shorter Girl from Guatemala sets a poem by Cuban poet Jose Marti and is an ode to unrequited love sung in the super-emotional flamenco style by Korean soprano Kim.
Chesky’s Flute Concerto in a pastoral mood resonated best with me. In the three-movement work Latin and Brazilian rhythms are again heard, as well as Baroque and Flamenco in the first movement. The middle movement is an adagio evocative of Argentine tango, while the finale is a sprightly romp full of Latin tunes and flavor. Performances and recording are first quality.
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: Transfigured Night; Chamber Symphony Op. 9 – Bavarian State Orchestra/Zubin Mehta – Farao Classics multichannel SACD S 108 044, 54:15 ****:
Originally written for a sextet of two viiolins, two violas and two cellos, Verklärte Nacht was arranged by the composer for string orchestra in l943. It is a highly chromatic but still tonal work created before Schoenberg developed his 12-tone system of composition. A translation of the Richard Dehmel poem on which the instrumental work is based appears in the note booklet in three languages. It concerns a young couple in love walking in the moonlite woods. The woman confesses to the man that she is pregnant but not by him. The man then speaks and tells her not to let that burden her soul – that he accepts her regardless. This point is marked in the score with a glorious transition from minor to major as though the moon comes out from behind a cloud.
The Chamber Symphony is still tonal but stretching the tonal system about as far as it could go. Written for only 15 instruments, it was composed by Schoenberg at the same time Mahler was working on his Symphony of a Thousand – his Eighth. Schoenberg wanted to divorce himself from ornamentation, and he kept his symphony to the bare essentials. The work is under 22 minutes length. Excellent playing on both selections; the strings on the Transfigured Night are silky natural-sounding even on peaks that often get harsh with 44.1 reproduction. The surround channels are used minimally.
ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E Major – Saito Kinen Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa – Philips multichannel SACD 470 657-2, 66:33 ****:
A fine example of Bruckner’s heroic symphonic structures, the Seventh is in the usual four long movements (except for the Scherzo). It start off with a long tremolo, a favorite Bruckner device. A long and noble melody is heard next, which the composer said came to him in a dream – although it quotes part his own Mass in D Minor! The Adagio was the composer’s funeral composition for Richard Wagner and it marks the first time Wagner tubas were used in a symphonic work. There are four of them plus a bass tuba, for a very rich and very low end sound. The finale is related to the opening movement and is a big symphonic movement introducing a hymn-like melody. The symphony very first theme returns at the end for a fulfilling conclusion. The way Bruckner worked with repetition is different from all other composers. At times he seems to be almost prophesying Philip Glass in getting the most emotion possible out of a repeated passage, and then just when you are about ready to say uncle there is a tension-releasing progression to a new section. He’s quite different from Mahler in this regard. There are no notes on the Saito Kinen Orchestra but as I recall it one of the major ones in Japan and Ozawa has a close relationship with it. Their playing is polished and expressive, but I find Gunter Wand and Bernard Haitink more emotional and exciting. The multichannel sonics are enveloping and effective.
Fiddler Tam – The Music of THOMAS ERSKINE, 6th Earl of KELLIE: Overture in C, Death is now myh only Treasure, Quartet in C Minor, The Lover’s Message, Overture in B Flat “The Maid of the Mill,” Quartet in A, Trio Sonata No. 5 in E, Lord Kelly’s Reel, Trio Sonata No. 6 in G – Concerto Caledonia/David McGuinness (Mhairi Lawson, soprano soloist) – Linn multichannel SACD CKD 240, 76:49 ****:
Concerto Caledonia is Scotland’s leading Baroque ensemble, and in their third disc for Linn they concentrate on the works of Kellie, or “Fiddler Tam” as he was best known in the 18th century. This is the first recording devoted entirely to his music. A contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, he studied at Mannheim with Stamitz and was one of the first to use the Mannheim style with its dramatic “steamroller” crescendos. His instrumental works on this disc struck me as sounding much like Mozart. The Maid of the Mill Overture was his big hit in London. Of the two songs featuring the soprano voice, The Lover’s Message has some double entendre in its text, and the concert aria Death is now my only Treasure is tied in with Masonic rituals in which he was, like Mozart, very active. The ensemble plays with great elan and the sonics are crystalline, but the levels on the surround channels are so low as to not be there at all.
DVORAK: New World Symphony (No. 9 in E Minor); Carnival Overture; SMETANA: The Bartered Bride: Overture; WEINBERGER: Polka & Fugue from Schwanda – Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner – RCA Red Seal 3-channel/2-channel SACD 82876-66376-2, 64:09 ****:
The RCA/BMG series of Living Stereo remasterings to SACD continues. While not overall quite up to the standards of the Mercury Living Presence reissues, they seem to be getting better each batch. Only the New World Symphony was originally recorded on three-channel tape, so the other three selections are two channel stereo. The recordings dates were 1955 to 1957. What can be said about a warhorse like The New World Symphony that hasn’t already been said? And what can be said about the fresh and exciting experience Reiner and his Chicago players make out of this warhorse? It’s hard to beat. The three fillers are long time Living Stereo and pop concert favorites too. Really is a stretch to realize that these recordings are a half-century old now!
East Meets West – “Extensions 2” – FRANCIS MIROGLIO: Extensions 2; ALAIN LOUVIER: Shima; Candrakala; GEORGES APERGHIS: Krptogramma – Les Percussions de Strasbourg – Pentatone 4.0 channel SACD, RQR Series, PTC 5186 156, 80:05 **:
Another of the recordings made by Philips in the early 70s with plans originally to release on quadraphonic disc, but then it was realized the available formats were not really viable and the tapes stayed shelved until today when Pentatone is resurrecting them, retaining their 4-channel setup, and issuing on surround SACD. I don’t if the six-man Strasbourg percussion ensemble still exists, but in l972 they toured extensively and had more than 400 different percussion instruments at their disposal, plus had made 21 recordings so far. They premiere many compositions in the growing repertory of percussion-only, and that includes Krptogramma heard on this disc.
This is pretty specialized music that could not be said to have general appeal, but if you’re into percussion there are some fascinating sounds here, and the surround option aids in separating out the sometimes subtle variety of sounds. The two Louvier works are based on Hindu rhyhms; only metal perecussion instruments are used. Kryptogramma was inspired by cryptograms which hide information behind a text or number sequence. It is constructed from rhythms taken from classical masterpieces and then codified to render them indecipherable. Still with me? Well, you get the idea. If you don’t have a sub woofer or really full-range speakers this one will fall flat.
MIKLOS ROZSA: Three Choral Suites = Ben-Hur; Quo Vadis; King of Kings – Mormon Tabernacle Choir/Craig Jessop, dir.; Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel – Telarc multichannel SACD-60631, 61:54 ****:
These three motion pictures were among the finest film scores of leading Hollywood composer Rozsa. He had begun planning to arrange portions of the music from the three into choral suites but died before it could be completed. Friends, pupils and admirers completed the work and this is the world premiere of the suites. Presenting them in surround sound seems most appropriate since that is the theatrical film experience for music soundtracks today.
The Hungarian composer had sung as a youngster in the famous Gewandhaus choir and he developed a sense of vocal design, writing songs and motets early in his composing career. Rozsa did his first film score in l936 in England, and in l940, while working on The Thief of Baghdad the entire production was moved to Hollywood due to the war and he began his long career there. He won his first Academy Award for the music to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which used the theremin. It was at MGM in the 1950s that he wrote the monumental scores for the three films in these choral suites.
The Ben Hur and King of Kings scores were arranged and reconstructed by Daniel Robbins and the Quo Vadis suite was conceived by Christopher Palmer but involved three others including conductor Kunzel in bringing it to life. The first two suites have six sections and The King of Kings has nine plus an occasional spoken voice for whom I could not find a credit. The sections describe some of the key scenes in the epic films, such as Rowing of the Galley Slaves, Parade of the Charioteers, Ave Caesar March, etc. King of Kings has more religious titles such as Nativity, Herod’s Feaste, Pieta. It’s interesting that the last movement of both the Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis suites has the same title: Miracle and Finale. These are world preimiere recordings of all three suites.
The technical information states that the Cincinnati Pops were recorded at Music Hall in Cincinnati and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was recorded in Maurice Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. So it is obvious the choir was not present when the orchestral sections were recorded, and the two were mixed together iin post-production. The choice of a smaller hall than the voluminous Mormon Tabernacle where the choir usually performs is also obvious – when blended together on the final 5.1 mix the two entirely different acoustics would be fighting one another and generating a very confusing surround soundfield to the listener! The first entrance of the 360-voice choir is from the surround channels in Ben-Hur and definitely draws attention to itself. Most of their contributions are of the “oo, ahhh” sort of backing, but occasional words are heard, but not important enough to provide a libretto in the note booklet. Rozsa’s music has a highly individual sound to it – a sort of exotic tinge that seems to fit it well to most any exotic subject on the screen. The same signature is heard in much of his abstract concert music as well. My personal favorite of the three scores here was Ben-Hur, but I am of two minds about presenting the three scores together since some listeners could well come away with the impression that Rozsa writes almost the same music over again for each film.
SAINT-SAENS: Piano Concertos, Vol. II = No. 3 in E Flat Major; No. 5 in F Major Anna Malikova, piano/WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne/ Thomas Sanderling – Audite multichannel SACD 92.510, 60:56 ****:
The five piano concertos of St.-Saens are not frequently heard and that is a shame in view of the endless repeats of the Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Schumann warhorses. They are all well-composed examples of the best of French instrumental music of the later 19th century and full of lovely melodies that would appeal greatly to concert audiences. I hadn’t enjoyed any of them for some time and it was a pleasure to have these two concertos in enveloping hi-res surround. I don’t know how we missed out on Vol. I but plan to check into that.
Brian Bloom talks in his Denon receiver review this issue about the people who often prefer the stereo mix on SACDs to the multichannel. I admit I seldom check either the CD or stereo options anymore because I always hear about the same thing in comparison. I really can’t imagine why anyone with five properly matched and located speakers would prefer the stereo mix to the multichannel mix! On these concertos the two-channel option is excellent and there is little one would miss. However, when switching to the multichannel option the soundstage takes on a depth and breadth it didn’t have, and the piano is better separated from the sound of the orchestra. There’s much more “air” around everything. The piano still sounds too wide but that’s a given.
The first movement of the Third Concerto is so bombastic one might almost think the composer was humorously depicting a lion or elephant from his Carnival of the Animals. It’s slow movement is rather brooding, but the finale is a colorful showpiece for the soloist. The Fifth Concerto is sometimes subtitled “Egyptian Concerto” because that is where it was composed. St.-Saens frequently spent time in North Africa, which had started when he was a child with a medical problems. He indicated the middle movement was a sort of tour of the Orient. One theme in it is a Nubian love song which the composer had heard boatmen on the Nile sing. The opening and closing movements are however thoroughly French. Orchestration is very colorful, with solos originating in the winds and strings.
DEBUSSY: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Nocturnes; La Mer; Berceuse heroique – Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi – Telarc multichannel SACD-60617, 64:15 ****:
The earlier standard CD issue of this album was excellent, so I was looking forward to the SACD release, and was not disappointed. Järvi won awards with an earlier all-Ravel album, and the all-Debussy was a natural followup. The three standard Debussy works are well-presented and the rarely-heard Berceuse is a good choice to wrap up the program. The atmospheric aspect of these works is aided tremendously by surround sound reproduction. I find it especially captivating in the Sirens final section of the Nocturnes due to the chorus coming in with their wordless vocalise (which I seem to prefer to sung words). Järvi’s Sea in La Mer strikes me as calmer than that on some competing recordings, but the surround field involves the listener more fully and I’m sure some would prefer his interpretation (perhaps those more prone to sea-sickness…).
EDWARD ELGAR: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B Minor; RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Lark Ascending – Hilary Hahn, violin/London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis – DGG multichannel SACD 00289 474 8732, 66:10 ****:
The long, long orchestral introduction before the solo viiolin ever enters in the Elgar harks back to Classical period concertos and is probably the last great violin concerto to have such a buildup. The very romantic and emotional concerto is formally dedicated to Fritz Kreisler but Elgar wrote “our concerto” to the daughter of his friend painter Sir John Millais. Both she and Elgar’s wife were named Alice. (Wonder what Elgar’s wife thought of all this?) Anyway, the work is lush and poignantly melodic, with nice solos for the violin. It is considered second only to the Berg Violin Concerto in its autobiographical status, as Elgar poured himself into it. A poem about the lark inspired Vaughan Williams in his 16-minute “concerto” for violin and orchestra. The music combinese etherealness with poignancy. The hi-res sound insures that the wonderful string tone of the London Symphony is preserved in all its beauty. Hahn’s violin really does seem to float and soar above the impressionistic orchestral background. Another winner for her; but why does she in all the attractive photos in the note booklet still look about age 15?
– John Sunier
Five higher-res xrcds [yes – we know: they’re still 44.1/16 PCM but no denying they do sound better!] – the first three derived from Decca label classics and the last two from RCA Victor – bring this part to a close =
HOLST: The Planets – Los Angeles Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta – Decca/JVC xrcd 24 JVCXR-228-2, 49:26 ***:
In this new trio of xrcds JVC has finally dispensed with the Japanese notes and given us sections covering details of the music itself, credits on the recording and xrcd credits, the usual explanation of the xrcd process, and in this case a summary of the history of Decca, the famous Decca “tree” mic setup and of these three recording projects specifically. The reproduction of the back-of-jacket notes continues, but as before at only about 4 inches square it is impossible to read. This was a l971 recording made in UCLA’s Royce Hall and is regarded as one of the more spectacular Planets on record.
A chestnut such as this demands some comparisons, but I had to scour my hi-res collection before finally finding one other interpretation – Leonard Bernstein’s on Sony Classical, made about the same time – 1973. (I guess I was protecting myself from Planets overexposure.) So I thought this would be a fair comparison. Well, fidelity-wise I must say JVC did a commendable job – or perhaps Sony did a poor job converting the Bernstein tapes to SACD. There was no clear winner in sonics though both are extremely wide range in both dynamics and frequency response. The JVC run thru ProLogic II sounded just about as effective in surround as did the Sony which was mixed for multichannel. In fact in the final Neptune the Mystic movement with the women’s choral voices, the two-channel xrcd held sway with a more mystical and surrounding effect. However, overall Bernstein clearly had the edge over Mehta in bringing out the most energy and drama from the music. Plus you get one of the most exciting versions of the most exciting orchestral music of Benjamin Britten – his Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.
Ruggiero Ricci, violin = SARASATE: Carmen Fantasie; Ziegeunerweisen; SAINT-SAENS: Havanaise; Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso – with the London Symphony Orchestra cond. by Pierino Gamba – Decca/JVC xrcd 24 JVCXR-0227-2 38:39 ****:
Ahah! It IS possible to get a pleasing non-fillings-loosening solo violin sound with the obsolescent 44.1/16-bit CD technology. It just takes a lot of serious effort in production, using a really excellent original analog recording (made in 1960), a highly modified digital player that doesn’t sound anything like most CD players sounded a decade ago, and a $30 price tag on the disc. The liner notes are again in English but I was surprised not even a paragraph was devoted to the art of violinist Ricci, who many aficionados of violin virtuosi greatly prefer to Heifetz. His performances of these four showoff violin and orchestra gems are nothing short of stunning, and the London Symphony provides high-voltage backing. The violin sounds larger than life but so do all recordings of violin concertos – and these are just mini-concertos. If you have high quality CD playback, don’t want to fuss with decoders or universal disc players at this juncture, and are a pushover for virtuoso violinists, this xrcd has your name on it!
ROSSINI Overtures – The Thieving Magpie; The Silken Ladder, The Barber of Seville; Semiramide; William Tell – London Symphony Orchestra/Pierino Gamba – Decca/JVC xrcd 24 JVCXR-0229-2, 44:29 ****:
Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London in 1960 by Decca, this is a white-hot version of all five of the overtures that makes even the overly-familiar ones sound fresh and glorious. Don’t think I ever enjoyed hearing the William Tell Overture so much since I listened to the Lone Ranger as a kid. Things get off to a martial-sounding start with the Thieving Magpie. Awfully witty and optimistic music for an opera story in which a serving maid is tortured and put to death on suspicion of having stolen a pearl necklace! No wonder we don’t hear Rossini’s operas much anymore, but his overtures will never be ignored if they’re always played like this. I know I have some of these in other versions on both SACD and LP but I found the xrcd such attractive listening I didn’t even both with a comparison.
– John Sunier
OTTORINO RESPIGHI: Pines of Rome; Fountains of Rome – Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner – RCA Victor/JVC xrcd JMCXR-0008, 37:04 ****:
There was little doubt that JVC would get around to this Reiner ringer eventually in their perusual of the Living Stereo Victor masters. The works have been hi-fi demo material since the LP was introduced. I remember trying to blow out the house with Toscanini’s vivid version of these widescreen scores to epic movies that never were. I recall my Newcomb integrated amp was really struggling to power my home-built corner horn at the conclusion of The Pines of the Appian Way.
Then about 1960 came the RCA stereo LP of this recording conducted by Fritz Reiner. As I recall, it was either $3.98 or $4.98. Now here we are again, 45 years later and about $25 added. No, it doesn’t either look or sound quite the same. It’s shrunk, for one thing. The neatly bound little book actually looks like a shrunken version of my copy of the Toscanini ablum, which had some lovely black & white photos of the eight places depicted in Respighi’s music. Either JVC is doing a better job of reducing the original album liner notes to 4 1/4 inches wide or my eyes are getting better, because I could actually read them this time and they’re most interesting. The sonics? State of the Art for 44.1K PCM certainly, and if you have a highly tweaked CD player you’ll be in heaven. But if you had a mint copy of the original vinyl and a good turntable setup, the vinyl would probably be the winner.
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D Op. 77 – Henryk Szeryng, violin/London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux – RCA Victor/JVC JM-XR24021, 39:18 ****:
Was a bit disappointed to see that all the notes included in the xrcd are again in Japanese. Some recent xrcds had readable notes in English and I thought that was the new system. The art of Henryk Szeryng is highly prized by many discerning fans of the violin, considerably above the Heifetzs and Sterns. This 1958 recording made by RCA in London’s Kingsway Hall by recording engineer Kenneth Wilkinson is considered one of the classic violin concerto recordings ever. This concerto is not as overplayed as some of the others and I found it very enjoyable to hear again. The xrcd transfer provides a rich orchestral soundstage with the violin spotlit front and center. My only complaint is a touch of high end digital steeliness in the louder violin notes – at least on my gear (although it does incorporate tube amps which tend to reduce such artifacts).
– above reviews: John Sunier