SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E Flat – Christine Brewer and other soloists/City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus & Youth Chorus/London Sym. Chorus/Toronto Children’s Chorus/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Simon Rattle – EMI Classics
Published on March 25, 2007
This is part of an interesting series of so-called “Extended Audio Discs” EMI released last year. The idea is along similar lines to the Monster Music series of hi-res DVDs + CDs, except that this is just one DVD. [See our review of another Mahler Symphony conducted by Sir Rattle, using a superior double-disc solution.] Although running only 90 minutes, some of the Extended Audio Discs run as long as eight hours on two DVDs. There is no DVD-Audio option – the other discs are simply two-channel linear PCM at 48K sampling rate. This seems to be the only one offering both DTS 5.1 surround and DD 5.1 surround plus the PCM Stereo. The thinking is to make the disc playable on any DVD player, rather than requiring a special DVD-A or universal disc player for the utmost fidelity. (However, offering only one uncompressed format, and that one only 48K and two-channel, the disc just barely makes it into our Hi-Res section on the technical level, although the sound is impressive.)
A number of other options are offered on this disc: You can select subtitles in English, French or German, and whether or not the libretto for the symphony is displayed onscreen. The note booklet lists only the movements and timings of the work, nothing else. I first watched the 13-minute 16:9 widescreen video documentary, which is basically an introduction by Sir Rattle, with musical examples from the rehearsals of the symphony. It ends with a sizeable chunk of the stirring conclusion of the work.
Then I moved on to the complete two-part symphony. This is Mahler’s sprawling diptych, with the first third being a joyous engine of praise based on the medieval chant Veni, Creator Spiritus, and the final two-thirds a setting of the final part of the Faust/Marguerita story, with an emphasis on the spiritual aspects. The first thing I noticed was that the libretto text was displayed in the upper left-hand corner of the screen as reversed-out white type on a completely black background – no artwork behind as appeared on many DVD-Audio discs showing the lyrics. It gave me some concern over owners of plasma and CRT displays, because when high-contrast material is displayed for a long period of time as a still, it could burn in on the display. Fortunately, the longest movement in the symphony is just short of seven minutes, so perhaps the producers of the album had in mind that the length wasn’t long enough to produce a burn-in. Having a 56″ DLP display, I didn’t have to worry about it.
Since the previous Mahler symphony recording by Rattle was No. 5 (see above) and not No. 8, I turned for a comparison to the Mahler 8th DVD-A with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca. Although I had been most impressed by the sonics of the DTS 5.1 option on the EMI release, I found the DVD-A reproduction of the Decca DVD much richer, fuller, more spread out, and having a greater feeling of hall acoustics – almost as if the surround channels hadn’t really been working on the EMI disc. Whether this is due to the different relative layouts of orchestra, chorus and soloists, the different micing techniques used, or the better resolution of the 48K DVD-Audio, I cannot say. The Decca DVD also has the options of lower resolution 44.1K DVD-A as well as Dolby Digital 5.1. (Few of the Universal DVD-As ever used the 96K surround option.) While the first of those lowered the transparency of the sonics a touch and the Dolby lowered it considerably, the overall richness and envelopment vs. the EMI disc remained. So perhaps the original performances and/or micing are the key to the differences I heard.
– John Sunier