SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
* “Divertimenti” – BRITTEN: Simple Symphony; GRAZYNA BACEWICZ: Concerto for String Orchestra; TERJE BJORKLUND: Carmina; BARTOK: Divertimento for Strings – Trondheim Soloists/Øyvind Gimse – 2L
Published on June 9, 2008
This dual disc album, which comes in a standard Blu-ray sleeve, is quite a landmark. There has been talk in the audiophile rumor mills about a possible audio-only Blu-ray disc now that Blu-ray has won out over HD DVD as the one and only HD disc format. Well, leave it to this enterprising little Norwegian SACD label to introduce the first one!
First, the music. The theme of divertimenti suggests lighter and optimistic-sounding chamber works which historically have been performed for special large-group social occasions. In the case of these discs the program is four works for string orchestra, and although the closing Bartok work isn’t that optimistic sounding it is lighter than much of his music and certainly energetic in design. The program opens with the extremely light and tune worthy four-movement Simple Symphony of Britten, which used eight tunes from the composer’s childhood. In between the Britten and Bartok are two works which will be new to most listeners. Bacewicz, who lived until 1969, was a Polish woman composer and violinist. Her three-movement Concerto shows the musical influence of countryman Szymanowski and has a modern edginess, but is quite accessible tonally. Carmina translates simply as Songs, and is a lovely, generally soft piece revealing the modern jazz leanings of its Norwegian composer. It was transcribed especially for this recording from an original work written for string quartet. The Trondheim Soloists were founded in 1988 and have made over 25 recordings already. Their musicianship is at the highest level, shown by the rich and precise ensemble sound the string players achieve. The recording’s superior spatiality adds to ones’ appreciation of all the music by clearly positioning the string players around the soundstage. Together with 2L’s expert recording technique and the fine acoustics of the church venue, I would say this is the finest string orchestra program I have ever heard on a recording.
Now to the dizzying variety of formats this dual disc package offers: 2L is one of the few labels recording all of their masters to DXD – which stands for an enhanced version of the DSD format usually used in SACD production. Digital eXtreme Definition preserves the signals at four times the data rate of DSD, allowing for extra headroom before mastering the final product. However, DXD works with PCM recording and editing gear, simplifying production. The exact same DXD source files of this entire string orchestra program were converted to the eight different formats(!) provided on these two optical discs. This audiophile label doesn’t cut corners technically-speaking! Founder and chief engineer Morten Lindberg keeps the highest possible standards.
The first disc is a hybrid SACD with the usual three options: Multichannel 5.1 DSD, Stereo DSD and standard 44.1K/16-bit CD format. The second disc is the first Blu-ray audio-only disc. It has five options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Uncompressed PCM 5.1 and Uncompressed PCM 2.0. All of these are at 192K per channel and are 24-bit word length. Lastly, there is an old-fashioned standard Dolby Digital 5.1 option, which is at 48K and who knows what bit rate. Whew! (I find the enhancement of 192K or 176K over 96K is so minimal as to be not worth it. Two-channel fans who don’t appreciate SACD have the option of 96K stereo on DVD-Rs such as HDTT offers and on a growing number of downloads.)
Having two separate discs in this package enables playing them in sync – one in a Blu-ray player and the other in a SACD or universal player – which is exactly what I did. I switched back and forth repeatedly between the various options on each disc. This was not an easy task due to having to start each selection over when I changed the format on one of the discs, and the different options were not all at the same volume level – some were far louder than others. (That could well be happening in my playback setup rather than on the recordings.)
What did I hear? Frankly, almost no appreciable differences between all the 5.1 options except for the original Dolby 5.1, which was very slightly less transparent than the rest. I seemed to find myself returning to the DTS-HD the most, but that could have been due to the uncompressed PCM 5.1 being at a much lower level and having to raise its volume each time.
So, what does this prove? I feel it supports my contention that multichannel SACD retains its status as the perfect format for hi-res surround sound, and there is absolutely no reason to switch to an entirely new format of audio-only Blu-ray! The SACD disc offers the advantages of an optional stereo version and playback on any CD player anywhere, whereas Blu-ray requires (at present anyway) a video display to navigate, a long delay before hearing anything, and no playback on CD players. Blu-ray is an image & sound format; in fact, listening in depth to this wonderful string orchestra I was most anxious to view them on the screen in hi-def, performing at least one movement from one of these works. With 50 GB on each Blu-ray disc, there’s certainly plenty of room for such a short video, similar to what some labels were doing with Enhanced CDs – but seem to have given up on lately. My thanks goes out to 2L for offering this comparison opportunity. On the Blu-ray: Very nice; but no cigar. (I’m sure the terrific SACD will be offered separately by 2L.)
- John Sunier