AUROPHONIE and 2+2+2
Published on January 3, 2009
[For those new to to the 2+2+2 approach – a Swiss development licensed so far only by two record labels: MDG in Germany and Divox in Switzerland – it is the most logically-thought-out (in our opinion) of the alternative uses of the LFE and center channels, which are widely regarded as of minimal importance in the reproduction of music in surround. When SACD first came on the scene, the Telarc, DMP and Chesky labels all experimented with using either the LFE channel alone or with the center channel to feed speakers either overhead or on the left and right sides of the listening position at a height. Aurophonie improves on the enhancement offered by such uses of the additional channels by recording with a second set of stereo mikes above the normal frontal mikes. The LFE and center channels signals are then fed to left and right frontal speakers located directly over each of the normal left and right channel speakers, but suspended (or on a stand) at a height half the horizontal distance between the standard left and right speakers. They can also be mounted on the walls facing inward at about the same locations. These speakers don’t need to be of exactly the same quality as the front left and right speakers – they can be smaller mini-monitors (but they should roughly match in timbre). Yes, this is a tremendous bother to set up, but one hearing of a 2+2+2 disc (they are now all SACDs) so reproduced will demonstrate that it does indeed work. The whole soundfield becomes more realistic with the added height information, and the sweet spot is greatly enlarged…Ed.]
It is fair to say that in mono, stereo and even normal hi-res surround sound (everything being equal), dedicated listening in any of these formats has the potential to produce a noticeable “psycho-acoustic” struggle with all those nuances in the recorded music that reach the ears from one or more directions. To wit, a struggle to differentiate between low impact sounds and/or notes from high impact sounds/notes. Please consider the following as a mnemonic guide which in the end will also be the terms of comparison between the different sound system layers also recorded in these 2+2+2 hybrid discs:
LOW IMPACT INSTRUMENTS: violins, violas, flutes, bassoons.
HIGH IMPACT INSTRUMENTS: brasses, contrabasses, percussion.
LOW IMPACT NOTES: C5/c’’ – C6/c’’’ (high C) (same as high frequency sounds).
HIGH IMPACT NOTES: C2 (bellow 14 Hz) – C3/c (C major) (same as low frequency sounds).
The struggle is caused by a psycho-acoustic phenomenon called auditory masking which occurs when the ears perceive one set of sounds which are in turn affected by the presence of other sounds; masking of sounds can be simultaneous or non-simultaneous. Simultaneous masking occurs when a set of sounds are made inaudible by another “masker” set of sounds for the same duration as the original sound. If all the sounds have the same duration and originate from the same source (only one speaker for example) this masking will most likely prevent our ears to discern high frequency sounds, if and when the low frequency sounds are louder.
Sound masking affects the human physiological filters that distinguish one sound from another; these filters are in reality nothing but auditory listening channels and they apply specially to sound within critical bandwidths. The human brain detects sounds’ perceived frequencies and filters them into the appropriate critical bands depending whether they are high, mid or low frequency. All we can say is that a good ear is very selective and can perceive discreet sounds as they emanate from a source such as speakers. This means that the listener can distinguish between high, mid and low frequencies if and when enough sound is produced by the source or sources. Conversely the listener may not be able to discern, for example, high and mid-frequency sounds if the low frequency sounds overwhelm the higher frequencies.
For example, a sustained loud C major note (C3/c) on an organ pedal in most cases will totally mask a High C note (C6/c’’’) coming out of one speaker (in mono of course) while if properly recorded with multiple microphones and separated into two channels (stereo) both will likely be heard. However, if the recording is low in dynamics that same C3/c note will still overwhelm the C6/c’’’ (everything being equal) no matter what or how many speakers are used due to compression and suppression at both ends. The result will be all in the mid-range. This used to be the usual problem on cheap LP recordings and still can occur when bit-mapping hi-res sound from 24/192 kHz, 24/96 kHz and 24/48 kHz down to 16/44.1 kHz Red Book CDs.
Now, going into hi-res multichannel recordings that C3/c note will have more reverberation time while coming out of several speakers, especially if an adequate subwoofer is present. The high pitch C6/c’’’ note will definitely be heard out of one of the speakers. Is not that our ears are the ultimate filters given that audio systems will normally also act as sound filters. Sound intensity in the recording chain (the input) and in the output chain (the speaker or speakers) has varying intensity levels which are filtered by design in hardware and also has a masking effect.
Theoretically the more sound channels/speakers combinations one is able to configure the more discrete sounds one will be able to hear. On the other end one sound recording channel and one speaker combination (monophonic systems) will most likely produce the highest of all possible masking in sound, and the sound will be a rather amorphous mass with no clear definition. This is due to the physical effects of both compression and suppression of sound to fit all the original bandwidth into a bandwidth that can be reproduced by low-res systems. Musical playback systems that can create their own acoustics coupled to the naturally recorded acoustics and can correctly render the recorded sound in its full dimensionality (or near full dimensionality) defined by the x, y and z axes, will in the end sound better to the good listener. 2+2+2 recording technology, in my opinion, has the potential to acoustically transport the listener to the very site of the sound event. That is, a virtual space that would enable us to experience a greater and more vivid spatial dimension that in the end minimizes to almost nothing the dreaded sound masking of high, mid and low frequencies.
Five MDG 2+2+2 hybrid (dist. by Koch Entertainment) recordings were auditioned not only for artistic content but also the sound characteristics of each one of the embedded layers heard in turn on my reference system according to a criteria that I deemed the most appropriate to audiophiles. The results were as follows:
In my reference system the two top speakers’ tweeters have to sit according to my calculations after MDG’s formula 70 inches (2.1 meters) off the floor for a virtual 6 ft. sound tower and the sound is absolutely overwhelming in its tonal clarity, transparency and what I would call fidelity – a not in-your-face sound – with a clear and extremely focused dimensionality. What I hear is the precise layering of the sound throughout the whole range of the instruments of the orchestra and/or the solo instrument.
This sound technology has the ability to create its own 3D acoustics irrespective of the true acoustics – in this case of my own listening room. The sound is reproduced in the front four speakers in such a way that when combined with the rear speakers places the listener (no matter the actual size of the room) not up front near the sound source but in the back of a virtual hall. The sound that reaches us is for the most part fully rounded just hanging in the air in perfect balance – we call this hair. Acousticians refer to this effect as “sound hanging in the spandrels of a hall.” In this sense I am inside the musical envelope for a more “active” kind of listening, and not just listening, but listening “for” something. This makes me not only a good listener but emotionally a better listener.
It’s not easy to explicate 3D sound, one has to experience it to be able to relate to it and the closest example it comes to my mind right now is that of an IMAX theatre’s audio system. Now, on to the specific disc reviews:
BRAHMS: Early Piano Works, Vol. 1 – Hardy Rittner – MDG Multi-channel 2+2+2 Hybrid, MDG 904 1494-6, 66:53; Performance ***** Sound ***** [Distr. by Koch]:
Works included on Vol. 1 – Johann Baptist Streicher piano (1851)
– Sonata No. 2 op. 2 in F-sharp minor (1852)
– Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann op. 9 in F-sharp minor (1854)
– Ballades (4) op. 10 (1854)
Works included on Vol. 2 – Ignaz Bösendorfer Grand Piano (1849/50)
– Sonata No. 1 op. 1 in C major (1853)
– Sonata No. 3 op. 5 in F minor (1853)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote all these works by the age of 21 on a burst of creative genius while being mentored by another well-established composer/music critic and his wife, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann respectively. All the above works have been recorded countless times in the past but none as far as I know in any hi-res format and/or period keyboard instruments such as those Brahms himself used. From the first chords of these two hi-res 2+2+2 discs the captivating and mesmerizing sound of a Streicher fortepiano on one and a Bösendorfer Grand Piano on the other grabbed my attention. Hardy Rittner, the pianist, just sounded different and “right” at the same time and in total control of both pianos having despite the need for a different keyboard technique which is required by these pianos’ Viennese action, one much different from modern pianos.
The trim, tightly focused 3D sound on these two discs was absolutely captivating with the bass chords’ harpsichord-like sound of the Streicher providing a baroque-like foundation to the music. Namely, a light bass that lacks heft but provides a beautiful and still substantial sound to make the music more believable than ever – fresh, clear and transparent. On the other hand the Bösendorfer sings, and not with a tiny voice but with great depth and power and the sound is open and transparent although at times harsh and down-to-earth and the ideal solution for the 1st and 3rd sonatas. In the end there is no whole arm banging whatsoever to make these two pianos sound bigger than they really are.
Rittner lets his Streicher fortepiano on Vol. 1 sing sweetly and constantly with his light touch reveling in its warmth and makes a powerful case for this period instrument’s finer dark and sometimes somber sound. His fluid approach to tempos and a keen ear for Brahms’ melodic accents in the often dense Beethoven-like scoring is achingly beautiful. Rittner is a young pianist with some remarkable and thoroughly romantic sensibility, he seems perfectly at ease with Brahms by allowing the sounds to linger seemingly forever in an addictive and alluring way with poetry and tenderness – in his hands the fortepiano becomes one great symphonic instrument. Streicher fortepianos are noted for their extremely sensitive keyboard, that is, sensitive to the player’s touch – which requires much finesse on execution and are well suited with its Romantic breadth to such visionary works as the 2nd sonata and the Variations Op. 9.
The No. 2 Sonata in F-sharp minor op. 2 was completed by Brahms in 1852 at the early age of nineteen and Beethoven is everywhere. The first movement marked Allegro non troppo ma energico is an early example of Brahms’ incursions into musical logic’s “developmental variations” for which he was so praised by Schumann. He took as a model Beethoven’s No. 31 Op. 110 Piano Sonata, his penultimate one. The 2nd movement Allegro con espressione and the 3rd Scherzo-Allegro were developed by Brahms from an identical “motivic core” which clearly reminds us of Liszt’s “thematic transformations” and also of the central ideas of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the No. 32 Op. 111. The grandiose exuberance of these two movements is aggressively delivered by Rittner with a rather demonic abandon. The last movement: Finale. Introduzione – Allegro non troppo e rubato begins with a visionary and colorful early “impressionistic” introduction that eventually develops into a cascade of sounds in pp and ppp at the end – a sound treat on the 2+2+2 option – where every tiny nuance is clearly heard.
The Variations in F-sharp minor Op. 9 (1854) were based on a theme by his friend Robert Schumann and dedicated to his wife. This is beautifully romantic and mystical music that may even speak of an unrequited love (for Clara Wieck Schumann?). These variations are well noted for their contrapuntal mastery and metaphysical sounds, and they reflect Brahms’ earlier encounters with J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations especially Var. No. 8 (a canon), Var. No. 10 (a short fuguetta with canon) and Var. 25 the “Chopin variation.” The number of times I have heard (live and/or recorded) these Brahms’ variations boggles the mind, all different and many artificial, on the other hand Rittner’s realization is just perfect and I dare say definitive for its clear, delicate and transparent execution. It was written for a pianoforte and played on one, and that might be the reason for that very subjective perfection or excellence.
The Ballades Op. 10 date to 1854 and were dedicated to his friend Julius Otto Grimm. The four Ballades are arranged in two pairs of two, the members of each pair being scored in parallel keys: No. 1 in D minor and the No. 2 in D major, while No.3 and No. 4 are in B minor and B major respectively. In the early 1800s composers began to experiment with freely borrowing chords from the parallel keys, these new theoretical exercises creating sound effects that exalt “mood” changes.
For example, the switching in Ballade No. 1 in D minor to a D major in No. 2 produces a “brightening” feeling effect on the music of the No. 2 when contrasted with that of No. 1. The dark No. 3 Ballade markedly being noted by the bass chords (with its exquisite sound) and an ethereal mid section that in the end fades out into ppp to the bright No. 4, which is also thought to be a homage to his friend Robert Schumann.
Moving now on to Vol. 2, Rittner plays a Bösendorfer Grand Piano (1849/50) where he lets us see Brahms in a new light with his passionate immersion into the music and his superb keyboard technique attuned to an instrument with a different sound, a sound he understands and nurtures exceedingly well. There is no rambling in Rittner’s playing especially given the intricacies of the 3rd sonata, and he goes from the beginning to the point without hesitation for a virtuosic and sensitive performance. What distinguishes Rittner from the lot is his rock-solid keyboard playing and the Bösendorfer simply rings out sounds on the glorious side – specially when heard on the 2+2+2 option with a much narrowed focused sound – this is not a 30 ft. wide stage sound! The high frequency notes just seem to hang high-up on the air on the ceiling’s rafters rather than on the floor speakers, as we normally hear them.
Both the 1st and 3rd are thoroughly infused with Beethoven’s glorious Symphony No. 5’s first movement theme – yes, that one before the first fermata. It appears both in the Andante and the Scherzo movements of the 1st sonata (T-2 & 3 respectively), and in the 3rd sonata on the Allegro maestoso and Intermezzo movements (T-5 & 7 respectively). In the lyrical sections of the 1st and 3rd piano sonatas (T-2 and T-6) with both movements marked Andante, Rittner plays beautifully and with much romantic passion and feeling. And on the 3rd sonata the flow of music is just plain exquisite, especially in the dance-like third Scherzo movement (T-7). The Andante of the 1st sonata was inspired by a love song, Verstohlen geht der Mond auf (Stealthily rises the moon). The 3rd sonata is unusually large with five movements rather than the traditional four; it was scored within a free Romantic structure but still respecting strict older classical music structures and spirit.
The three sonatas sound much like symphonies for piano, full of bravura passages, colorful structures while very intimate in sections and supremely romantic in nature. They show a young composer’s melodious and harmonically attractive inclinations which will in the end culminate as a very accomplished symphonist. If we really want to begin to understand Brahms’ later life symphonic works we must thoroughly listen to these piano sonatas. Furthermore, with some indulgence on my part I would call these three sonatas “symphonic piano variations on a theme by Beethoven.” Brahms would do something similar with Haydn later on as well, but for full orchestra.
The great hazard confronting today’s pianists when performing these early Brahms piano works is to find an instrument with a light action like those for which he wrote all these pieces. I dare say a modern grand piano is not necessarily the best of all solutions whence the music was scored for a light Viennese grand piano. Rittner’s solution to utilize period instruments just like the one Brahms used and was familiar with is perhaps the greatest asset of these two discs. Everything else, from the artistic performance to the recorded sound, hinges on that decision. Bravo for Rittner and the piano collector (pianist Gert Hecher) for keeping a tradition alive!
We should be thankful to Rittner for what are perhaps the definitive Piano Sonata No. 2 and 3 as well as the Variations on a Theme by Schumann all noted for their clear and warm execution (there is no unsavory puff on them) which should clear some Brahms diehard listener’s ears due to to these two magnificent period pianos. These two recordings are essential to Brahms’s music lovers, especially for the tightly focused and radiant sound in the 2+2+2 option, and the enlightened keyboard playing as well.
MOZART: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 – Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne/Christian Zacharias – MDG Multichannel 2+2+2 Hybrid, MDG 940 1488-6, 58:15; Performance ***** Sound ***** [Distr. by Koch]:
Two piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) are included on this disc, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G major, KV 453 (Tracks 1-4) and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 18 in B-flat major, KV 456 (Tracks 5-7). The two Mozart works included in this multi-channel 2+2+2 disc were recorded at the Métropole, Lausanne on March 28, 30 and 31, 2007 with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and Christian Zacharias fulfilling both roles of conductor and piano soloist. It seems clear from the beginning that Zacharias’ intention is to make music of the “Mozart” kind by letting the music happen in the easiest possible way and not forcing anything, for a bravura performance on the merits of its un-adulterated simplicity and graceful pacing. Artistically speaking these can very well be considered reference performances on the strength of their finely paced tempi, and here we must consider all the tempo related markings that one must execute when playing Mozart.
He was so finely tuned in his perception of harmony and melody (he was a good student of Gluck’s music) that he differentiated at least 17 adagio gradations, more than 40 for andantes and also more than 40 for allegros. A gradation refers to the music’s tempi (the harmonic rhythm) from the slowest to the fastest and their most immediate effect on the string’s bowing (up and down bowing that is), and the conductor’s overall beat pacing. Zacharias’ conducting and keyboard performance shows in a convincing way his understanding of Mozart’s piano music – especially in the No. 17, the most famous of his 27 piano concertos, a melancholic and romantic piece that betrays the sentimental side of Mozart. A long time ago somebody likened this concerto’s Andante and Allegro movements (Tracks 2-3) to birds singing. To me this is the ultimate music of infatuation next to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music in this difficult piano concerto is just about as sublime as one can get and Zacharias and his orchestra show their devotion to Mozart’s spirit with their inspired concept “performing” rather than creating an “interpretation” – a fine distinction, but I think a valid one.
The No. 18 Concerto is totally different in nature than the No. 17 and no less difficult to realize with the piano mostly in a concertante fashion, just being an integral part of the dramatic “symphonic” idea of the work. Zacharias projects in this sense a stolid kind of music which fits very well with the grandiose “symphonic” subject matter. And concomitant with this monumental realization is an extraordinary calm mood which is unique in some of Mozart’s music and utterly removed from the frivolities of opera, his favorite medium of expression.
Final words: there is something magical about this disc that involves both the 2+2+2 sound and the playing – a must for audiophiles and Mozart lovers.
ARP-SCHNITGER-ORGEL NORDEN VOL. 2: Bach un seine norddeutschen Vorbilder: Böhm-Buxtehude–Reincken – Agnes Luchterhandt & Thiemo Janssen, organists – MDG Hybrid Multichannel 2+2+2 MDG-906-1502-6, 76:10; Performance ***** Sound ***** [Distr. by Koch]:
Both organists on this their second volume utilizing the same Arp-Schnitger organ, are in total control of this instrument with their virtuoso keyboard work. Their treatment of this organ’s mean-tone temperament produces in their hands both tension and variation in the music because cadences always sound different in one of the dominant keys. This disc contains 15 tracks from the following Baroque composers: Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), Johann Adam Reincken (1643-1722), Georg Böhm (1661-1733) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The first volume was reviewed on April 16, 2008.
Buxtehude’s Toccata in F major (T-4) is a piece that merits particular attention because of its inscribed antiphonal effects, a common trait amongst German Baroque musicians. The stereophonic effects which are obtained by the organist by way of powerful and colorful registrations make this a particularly festive piece. On the other hand J.S. Bach’s Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (T-5) is an exquisitely poetic and almost Romantic piece which requires the organist to impart much expression to the broken chords of the beginning which continue to the end with many descending motifs. Here the adagio structure of the music is evident as well as the mastery of the organist on his instrument – to pace it to a slow andante verging on the mystical and ethereal.
Both organists excel on the multiple chorales present on this disc which were so prevalent in Baroque organ music – Bruckner was the master organist with these chorales – which are characterized by their great lyrical intensity. For example, Böhm’s Vater unser im Himmelreich (T-13) is profoundly played by the organist in such a way that, in a very positive manner, could shake the very foundations of our souls with a quasi-operatic solo part that underlines the expressive effect of this aria. Böhms’ other work on T-12 Jesu, du bist allzu schöne is also a very beautiful piece that amply shows the many exquisite solo registers of this organ.
On the other hand the last work, Bach’s well known Toccata and Fugue in D minor (T-15) is powerfully different from what we normally hear – think here of E. Power Biggs – and also very dramatic in nature due to the organist expressive manipulation of this organ’s mean-tone temperament which can produce powerful dissonances. These dissonances make this version rather slow and in a way it does not seem to go anywhere, but that’s where the beauty of this realization lies. More than one listening of this piece will show not only the great keyboard technique of the organist but also that which we often say about Bach’s music: one can go almost anywhere with a masterpiece – and all of that with a work that had its origins in the violin!
The Arp-Schnitger organ with its lean, refined, agile fast mechanical action embodies the epitome of Baroque organ building and what makes it different from the other great Silberman organs of the same period is that they were tuned to a mild A=440 Hz. The Silbermans were almost always pitched around a very bright A=480 Hz. Still, with the 2+2+2 option we can definitely make windows rattle – pipe organs like to do that, right? This disc and its companion Vol. 1 need to be heard often to fully appreciate the glorious sound of this precious pipe organ – my highest recommendation.
PÉTERIS VASKS: Piano Trio “Episodi e Canto perpetuo” and Piano Quartet – Trio Parnassus and Avri Levitan (viola) – MDG Multi-channel 2+2+2 Hybrid, MDG 903 1513-6, 65:15; Performance ***** Sound ***** [Distr. by Koch]:
Péteris Vasks was born in 1946 in Aizpute, Latvia, the son of a Baptist pastor. The two major works included on this hi-res disc are (1) a Piano Trio “Episodi e Canto perpetuo” (1985) dedicated to Olivier Messiaen (Tracks 1-8), and (2) a Piano Quartet (2001/02). In the beginning, the genesis of Vasks’ music was grounded in the music created by his intellectual mentors, Lutoslawski, Penderecki and Crumb; however, and progressively, later in life he drifted much towards a folkloristic and quasi-religious music which is also represented by Part, Gorecki, Kancheli and Gubaidulina. It is evident that Vasks’ music contains much folkloric Latvian music, especially in the piano quartet. These two works are highly programmatic in their structure, and it is also evident that his intentions were to remark on the at times brutal, though romantically lyrical relationships, that link human beings to nature. The beauty of all life forms and the ecological symbiosis that exists between and betwixt them is musically nurtured by Vasks – albeit to emphasize their obvious destruction both morally and environmentally. This is his musical message in his own words, he wrote the piano trio, Episodi e Canto perpetuo, to depict a “…painful journey through misery, disappointment and suffering towards love, which is the main focus of the Canto.”
I would call Vasks’ music “kronos type” with high religious minimalist overtones; he seems to have a clear comfort zone musically speaking while being able to create his own vocabulary with music written here for strings and piano. The Episodi e Canto perpetuo is a good “kronos type” musical example and all it takes is to listen to the first dissonant entrances of the piano repeatedly executing a major chord. This soon progresses into a for the most part tonal work, until it comes back in the Misterioso (second movement) to an obvious Messiaen-type musical excursion into the mystical to impart a “holy minimalist” tone to the music. Vasks knows well how to build his musical climaxes by mixing the tonal and the atonal, to then relax and subsequently bring back his music to make us aware of his keen sense of drama. He can do this over and over again without repetitions of the thematic kind.
He accomplishes this in the Piano Quartet by means of a prominent ostinato that unifies many Latvian folkloric melodies throughout the six movements. An interesting characteristic of each movement beginning with the second is that each one of these five movements begins at the climax of the preceding contrasting movement. Vasks’ music architecture is a highly contorted mix, at times brutal and overwhelming, driven by relentless rhythms and what can be interpreted as pent-up anger. Tension is always beneath the surface much like in Gubaidulinas’ works with an almost religious tone that creeps everywhere in chorales all grounded in build ups, releases and reflection. All in all there are also glimpses especially in the Piano Quartet of a subtle lyrical and romantic aura that produces some ethereal sounds that recall melancholic and mellow moods. For some reason all of this reminds me of the Dawn section of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes.
In the end this is very difficult music to perform, given the brutal and at the same time lyrical tone, and the Trio Parnasus plus Avri Levitan with the extra viola part accomplish this well beyond expectations. This is difficult music to listen to but is worth the trouble – it is definitely 20th going into 21st Century music. In re: to the hi-res sound all I would like to say is that it is of reference quality in the 2+2+2 option, clear, transparent and life-like with its very focused presence. If you like new music this is one highly recommended disc. [And all these MDG SACDs may be listened to alternately as either stereo or 5.0/5.1 normal surround; they are compatible, leaving it up to the listener…Ed.]
— John Nemaric (all reviews)