Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 2 - March 2002
click on any CD cover to go to that review
~~~ SACDs ~~~
Marina Domashenko, mezzo-soprano - CILEA: Adriana Lecouvreur: "Acerba volutta"/ST.-SAENS: Samson et Delilah: 3 Arias/MUSSORGSKY: Marfa's Fortune-Telling Scene from Khovantschina/RIMSKY-KOSAKOV: Arias from The Tsar's Bride and The Snow Maiden/PROKOFIEV: Alexandre Nevsky: From the Field of the Dead/PONCHIELLI: "Stella del marinar!" from La Giaconda/Verdi: "Stride la vampa" from Il Trovatore/BIZET: Carmen: 3 Arias/ROSSINI: "Crude sorte! Amor tiranno!" from L'italiana in Algeri/STRAUSS: "Ich lade gern mir Gaeste ein" from Die Fledermaus
Constantine Orbelian conducts Philharmonia of Russia
Delos Multichannel SACD DS-3285 57:45:
This is my second SACD to review, and a joy it is! The debut album for Siberian mezzo Marina Domashenko (b. 1974) reveals a versatile, strong singer, a blend of Marilyn Horne's intellectual power and sympathy and the sheer dynamism we find in Zinka Milanov. She made her American debut with the San Francisco Opera in June 2000 as Delilah to Domingo's Samson. She performed Carmen at the Prague National Theater's Japan Tour in 1999. She sang in Nevsky for Termirkanov in Athena and Venice in 2000.
What this album does is re-establish her most successful roles in a variety of languages, each eliciting her lyric and spinto powers. While her diction in French is not perfect, lacking some focus, it still has great nuance; her Russian excerpts are exemplary. The Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov arias have a brooding, impassioned, visionary intensity as required; the Girl's lament for the departed heroes in Prokofiev's 'scenic cantata' is lovingly haunted. The SACD channeling consistently creates an 'amphitheater' effect, with deep resonance in the basses. Domashenko is no stranger to chest-tone as well as a throaty or nasal projection: hear her variety of delivery in Ponchielli and the guttural effects in Carmen: the coy Habanera, the flighty Seguidilla, the ominous Card Scene. Her Azucena has great enunciation and a dark sense of impending fate. The Strauss excerpt is charming, reminding us that it's all a matter of taste. In short, an auspicious debut, with accompanying forces under Orbelian captured in stunning surround sound.
BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in B Flat, Op. 130 (with alternative sixth movement in place of normal Grosse Fugue, Op. 133) - The Lindsays - ASV stereo SACD - CD DCA 9117:
Striking contrasts mark this one of the composer's Late Quartets. The Lindsays play with an urgency and forceful style that reminds one that these are among Beethoven's last compositions before his death. At times their approach seems almost rough, but never inaccurate. I didn't sample the CD layer of this hybrid disc but my guess is that the 44.1 sampling rate would ensure that the rough edges of the string tone would be aurally annoying. Such is not the case with the SACD layer. I haven't been a frequent listener to any of the Beethoven quartets, early or late, but due to the impact produced by this SACD's exciting performance and transparent sound, I feel like getting all of them on SACD and auditioning them much more closely.
- John Sunier
Shifting Landscapes - JOHN ADAMS: Fearful Symmetries for Orchestra, The Chairman Dances; LEPO SUMERA: Symphony No. 2 - Symphony Orchestra of the Norrlands Opera/Kristian Järvi - CCn'C Records 01912 Multichannel SACD:
This is hands-down the best surround sound orchestral recording I have ever heard. Pardon my starting with the techy stuff since the music is so terrific too, but all two-channel diehards who think surround for music is absurd must hear this multichannel SACD on a properly set up system with identical speakers all the way around. I find it even images fantastically when you are outside the area bounded by the five main speakers - just like good Ambisonic playback. The acoustic perspective the label achieves seems to be right in the middle of the orchestra (and my surround speakers are equa-distant to me from the front trio of speakers) - the tubular bell in the Sumera symphony is uncanny in its presence. It appears to be towards the left rear of one's listening position. Somehow with this sort of music the center perspective works perfectly, involving the listener to the utmost. This German label seems to be leading the way in Europe with multichannel SACD recordings. They used the new Sonoma DSD recorder/editor plus A/D and D/A converters designed by Ed Meitner.
The music is equally fine - a pair of modern orchestral works growing out of the minimalist movement by creating what the liner note writer calls "a new sensuality of sound" free from the bounds of serial conformity. And both works sounds as though they could be by the same composer though in truth one hails from California and the other from Estonia. Adams' Fearful Symmetries is as symmetrical as its title indicates, but this is not the Philip Glass type of minimalism by any means. His orchestra, enlarged with synthesizer and saxophones, as well as his general sound-world, is similar to Adams' opera Nixon in China. The SACD then closes out with the composer's big hit from that opera, the foxtrot for orchestra The Chairman Dances. Sumera, who died in 2000, combines traditional and contemporary techniques in a music influenced by the landscapes and heritage of his country as well as its political struggles. His three-movement symphony is based on themes from an earlier violin-piano sonata by the composer and spins endless melodies in a fantasy-type of structure. Watch the counter because you may not be able to tell where Adams ends and Sumera begins.
- John Sunier
A pair of George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra classics that come alive for the first time in SACD...
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 In C Major "The Great;" Incidental Music of Rosamunde - Cleveland Orch./George Szell - Sony Classical stereo SACD SS 89342:
Prevailing musical opinion is the symphonies were not Schubert's forte. However, with the Ninth he showed 'em. It is surely up to the level of a Beethoven symphony. With its almost Bruckneresque repetition and huge architecture ameliorated by some glorious Schubertian melodies the work makes a strong impact under a conductor that doesn't drop the ball. And Szell doesn't. The earlier Sony Classical reissue series had included a number of Szell titles which were considerably enhanced over the original Epic LPs via improved remastering, but the improvement with SACD is yet another quantum step beyond those. Hard to believe these are l957 recordings, from the very beginning of the stereo era.
SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 in B Flat Major "Spring;" Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major "Rhenish;" Manfred Overture - The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell - Sony Classical stereo SACD SS 89381:
It was Schubert's Ninth which inspired Schumann to embark on writing his first symphony. He wanted to emulate the ideals of the Romantic symphony as did Schubert, creating a sort of orchestral fantasy. Schumann drafted his symphony in an incredible three days. It doesn't sound anything like the work of a chronically depressed man, and neither does the third - created during a high point in his life when he took a new position as music director of Dusseldorf on the Rhine River. The First opens with one of the most "up" themes of any symphony. Szell's interpretations of all four Schumann symphonies are among the best one could possibly find on record, and SACD's clarity brings them to us with a fidelity never before experienced.
- John Sunier
A pair of orchestral multichannel gems from Telarc...
ORFF: Carmina Burana - Soloists/Gwinnett Young Singers/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Donald Runnicles - Telarc multichannel SACD-60575:
One of the first stereo SACDs Telarc issued was their early Robert Shaw and Soundstream version of the Carmina Burana. I don't have that at hand and couldn't locate the original CD version so haven't done a comparison of recordings of this big 20th century chorus/orchestra favorite. But it's certainly a work with big sounds that can blossom forth with the envelopment of surround. There's no effort to put you in the middle of the orchestra here, but turning off the surrounds - or more fittingly switching layers on the hybrid disc - shows that even though the surround tracks don't draw attention to themselves, the stereo version sounds extremely flat and opaque in comparison. The use of the center channel places the soloists much more palpably in front of you than does the two-channel stereo mix.
TURINA: Danzas Fantasticas, Sinfonia Sevillana, La Procesion del Rocio; DEBUSSY: Iberia, from "Images for Orchestra" - Cincinnati Sym. Orch./Jesus Lopez-Cobos - Telarc multichannel SACD-60574:
An interesting idea, pairing up the French composer's impressionistic view of Spain with one of that country's more recent composers who also captured the Spanish flavor with great elan. The Turina works may not be as familiar to most as the Debussy standard. They almost sound like works of the same composer - the atmospheric/impressionistic element is just as strong with Turina as with Debussy. Each movement of the Seville Symphony describes some aspect of the town of the composer's birth. The closing tone poem Procesion del Rocio portrays a Catholic festival in Seville which passes thru the gypsy quarter, evoking a series of stylized gypsy dances.
Again, the surround channels only portray the hall ambiance and don't draw attention to themselves when levels are properly set. I switched between the multichannel and stereo layers at several spots and experienced similar flattening of the soundstage up to the front. Near the beginning of the last movement of Iberia, Le matin, there is a lovely passage with all the strings playing lower-pitched pizzicato. The stereo version minimized the effect greatly while the multichannel version blossomed out into the hall and gave a much richer feeling of the multiple strings being plucked.
- John Sunier
A New Series of reissues on SACD of some of Mark Levinson's superb analog tapes of the 1970s...(all share the same advertising cover)
J.S. BACH: The Art of Fugue - Charles Krigbaum, organ - Red Rose Music RRM 05 SACD:
New Haven Brass Quintet - Works of VIVALDI-BACH, HANDEL, SWEELINCK, HINDEMITH, DEBUSSY, IVES, HOMZY, 3 Beatles Encores - Red Rose Music RRM 04 SACD:
Eliot Fisk, guitar plays BACH: Partita No. 3 in E Major; Lute Suite in G; SCARLATTI: Five Sonatas - Red Rose Music RRM 06 SACD:
Bill Elgart, percussion - A Life - Movements: Birth, Sleep, Sense, Feeling, Thinking, Social, Ideological, Nirvana, Old Age, Death - Red Rose Music RRM 03 SACD:
Herb Pomeroy Big Band - Live at Sandy's - Red Rose Music RRM 09 SACD:
Levinson's modified Studer A80 recorder operated at 30 ips and used one-inch tape and highly tweaked tubed single point mikes were used for the most part. All recording venues were natural spaces rather than studios. The series of a variety of classical and jazz was first issued on audiophile LPs (some at 45 rpm), and in the late 80s they were reissued on CD on the Cello label. Now with SACD just about all the information on the original tapes can be experienced by the listener, even with modestly-priced playback. Levinson carefully mastered the tapes to DSD, pointing out that no conversion to PCM occurred at any point. He also chose to release the discs as single layer rather than hybrid SACD/CD versions. That's unusual because nearly all of the labels except Sony Music themselves issue hybrid discs. Levinson's stance is that the single layer discs make a closer match to the master recordings and are more enjoyable to listen to. All the recordings are of course two-channel.
The Bach work was the composer's final one before his death. In fact he left the final quadruple fugue unfinished, and most performers improvise a conclusion. Krigbaum just stops in mid-air, then concludes with a chorale-prelude which Bach had dictate to a relative while on his deathbed. The organ is a copy of a Baroque period tracker instrument and was recorded in the Dwight Chapel at Yale University.
The Brass Quintet album has long been a favorite of mine due to a track on it having been my original theme music for the radio version of AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - the Beatles' Penny Lane. The other 11 tracks on the disc are all equally fresh and tuneful material and are quite different from the sort of repertory one hears on most brass quintet albums. The brass arrangements of the four Ives songs and the four Hindemith madrigals are especially new to the ear and with the more distant miking of the ensemble the brass sound is more natural and euphonious than more closely-miked commercial brass CDs.
Eliot Fisk was taped early in his career - he's a top classical guitarist today. All of these works are of course transcriptions; the Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas work extremely well on guitar, as well as harp, accordion, what have you. Fisk recorded direct to a pair of mikes with no editing. His original 12-inch LP was released at 45 rpm speed and there was no room for the Bach Lute Suite with which he ended his session. Now there is room, and it's an inspired interpretation.
Bill Elgart's all-percussion album always seemed to me more audiophile demo material than real music to sit down and enjoy from start to finish. SACD has changed all that. The holographic presence of the performer in front of you and the precise spatial imaging of the panoply of percussion sounds brings a whole new appreciation to this courageous improvisation. The piece is generally extremely low level and subtle in its various sounds, but when Elgart cuts loose with the big drums or gongs one is well aware of it! I was surprised not to detect the slightest bit of tape print-thru which normally occurs with such loud sounds and years of storage. (Of course the wide tape, 30-inch speed and "tails-out" storage must have helped.) The dynamic range is really extreme - my kittens failed to appreciate it nearly as much as I did.
Herb Pomeroy was a fixture on the Boston jazz scene for many decades and a founding instructor at the Berklee School of Music. Levinson studied there beginning at age 14 (string bass) and got permission to record the band at club just outside Boston, with no PA system anywhere in sight. The band has five saxes, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass and drums. You hear everything - breath intake, feet keeping time, etc. Compare this to most commercial big band recordings - even the couple of SACD ones - and see which gives you more of an impression of real players playing in a real space. Tunes include two by Jacki Byard, one each by Ellington and Strayhorn, and pointing up a major difference from any commercial disc: two tracks labeled simply as "Unknown."
- John Sunier
Perfect Houseplants - New Folk Songs (Mark Lockheart, tenor & soprano sax; Huw Warren, keyboards & accordion; Dudly Philips, basses; Martin France, drums and electronic percussion; Pamela Thorby, recorders) - Linn Records AKD 165 SACD stereo:
Linn Records' first SACD is a winner - chamber jazz with plenty of life to it and some fascinating instrumental timbres what with the accordion and four tracks featuring the recorder. The great transparency of this recording highlights the unusual instrumental blendings beautifully. While in overview it may sound like fairly standard improvs on pop tunes or jazz originals, the sources for many of the tracks are actually the traditional music of East Anglia. The tune title Barford Angel comes from the nickname given a chap who played hammered dulcimer and bicycled from gig to gig with his instrument strapped to his back. I see the quartet has two previous recordings for Linn; must ask for them - whether SACD or not! 12 tracks: Pageant, Moving On, Holding Back, The Lighthouse, The Barford Angel, Bubbles, New Song Old Song, Dunwich & The Sea, Earl's Slog, Nancy, Mason, & Dixon.
- John Henry
Bennie Wallace, tenor sax (plus Mulgrew Miller, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) - Moodsville - Groove Note GRV1010-3 stereo SACD:
One of the finest straight ahead tenormen playing today plus one of the finest jazz pianists - this has to be a winning situation, especially with the super-high production standards of Groove Note and the spectacular clarity/fidelity of DSD recording. Wallace and Miller are right there in front of you, playing their hearts out. Listen to the gangbuster list of tunes they put together: I'll Never Smile Again, Con Alma, April in Paris, Milestones, When a Man Loves a Woman, Love for Sale, My Little Brown Book (by Strayhorn), I Concentrate on You, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing (another Strayhorn).
- John Henry
Jacintha - Lush Life - GROOVE NOTE Stereo SACD GRV1011 3:
The third album from the Singapore thrush has her delivering her intimate-sounding, perfectly enunciated and phrased vocals backed by a string section, harp, arrangements by her pianist Bill Cunliffe, and guest performers including the hot new guitarist Anthony Wilson, accordionist Frankie Marocco and Dmitri Matheny on Flugelhorn. Joe Harley is the producer and there is obviously an effort underway to ramp up the sex appeal quotient here - perhaps to compete with Diana Krall? I don't believe I've ever seen a CD that included in the liner notes two separate credits for makeup, and you get 15 photos of Jacintha - all in good taste. (Nothing like the topless violinist on a recent classical CD.) Cunliffe indicates his arrangements are influenced by some of the impressionistic devices used by Delius, Vaughn Williams and Rachmaninoff. The intent was to communicate a sort of haunting quality to these standards recorded by so many other singers. His arrangements as well as the balance of the players with Jacintha's voice ensure that even though her style is as far as one could get from an Ethel Merman-type belter, her delicate vocals come thru as though she was sitting in your lap.
Tracks: The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Black Coffee, Summertime, Lush Life, Manha de Carneval, The Shadow of Your Smile, When We Were Young, September Song, Harlem Nocturne, Smile.
The Miles Davis Sextet - Jazz at the Plaza (with John Coltrane, tenor; Cannonball Adderley, alto; Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums) - Columbia/Legacy CS 85245 stereo SACD:
This live session is a highlight in the set of the complete recordings of Davis & Coltrane on this label. The year was l958 and the famous Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel in New York probably never had such a stellar jazz group before or since. The occasion was a party for the jazz press in NYC. Being at the dawn of the stereo era it sounds like the musicians were a bit confused about which of the mikes they should stay near, since both Davis and Coltrane tend to wan der off make now and then. Somehow with the depth and clarity of SACD this becomes even more annoying than it would be on a 44.1 CD.
There are only four tracks so everyone gets plenty of chances to stretch out and do some great soloing. Bill Evans had replaced Red Garland in the group and was soon to be replaced by Wynton Kelly himself. The pianist was central in helping to make the ensemble one to be long remembered in the history of jazz. Just a half year after this event the same musicians recorded the classic Kind of Blue. (See below) Tracks: If I Were a Bell, Oleo, My Funny Valentine, Straight No Chaser.
- John Henry
Here's two multichannel hi-res albums from sources we thought were just two-channel. How's that possible??
Jazz at the Pawnshop - Arne Domnerus, sax; Bengt Hallberg, piano; Georg Riedel, bass; Egil Johansen, drums; Lars Erstrand, vibes - First Impression Music multichannel SACD M034 (2 discs):
Audio perfectionist Winston Ma has provided audio buffs with many well-selected audiophile CDs. Some of these were released in different formats simultaneously, such as HDCD and xrcd, for comparison. The classic Jazz at the Pawnshop was one of these. Now at the same time as releasing the high-res SACD Ma decided to go a step further and have a multichannel version created out of the original two-channel tapes - something like Opus 3 Records has been doing with their original Blumlein-miked two-channel tapes. However, a number of mikes were used in the live recording at Stampen, so mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine had to carefully extract the L - R ambient information and feed it to the surround channels. He didn't use artificial reverb so the acoustics are very natural. It's only 4.0, with no center or LFE channel used. By the way, the 44.1 CD layer of this hybrid disc is encoded HDCD - I think that's pretty unique!
The main effect is an even greater listener involvement in the music-making, because the murmur of the eating and drinking crowd is now all around you instead of just up front mixed in with the musicians. The note booklet even points out some specific words you can pick out if you speak Swedish. On less than the best two-channel playback gear, the original Jazz at the Pawnshop can quickly cause listener fatigue because it is an effort to aurally pick out the music from the audience hubbub. With even the cheapest multichannel SACD player and modest speakers all around, I can't see that being a problem with this multichanneled version. I usually have used the last portion of the Lady Be Good track on the original Proprius LPs to set proper VTA with my tone arm, so I'm more than familiar with that track. I must report that as close as two-channel SACD can come to the original LP version of classic recordings, the sax and the drums on the multichannel CD just don't have the presence and impact they do on the LP. Strangely, the very next track, Here's to That Rainy Day, has plenty of presence on the sax similar to the LP. Perhaps with repeated playing of the one section to set VTA I've somehow distorted the grooves of the LP.
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (with Cannonball Adderly, alto; John Coltrane, tenor; Wynton Kelly, piano (tr. 2 only); Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums) - Columbia Legacy multichannel SACD CS 64935:
This jazz classic has surely been bought in many different versions by even more audiophiles and collectors than Jazz at the Pawnshop and is undeniably modern jazz of a higher level. This album was created shortly after Wynton Kelly had replaced Bill Evans in the Davis group, but Davis brought Evans back for this session realizing he would be more appropriate. It was surprisingly the first time the players had encountered the music, and Miles normally went for only one take on everything. The only second take was on Flamenco Sketches - sort of a preview of the coming Sketches of Spain session with Gil Evans. The original LP used that take, but the first take is just as good with entirely different solos by everyone. It is the bonus track on recent reissues, including this one. The end result is, as the liner says, "a defining moment in 20th century music."
Well, now Sony Music is inviting us to buy it again. Even the rear liner notes begin "Why another reissue of Kind of Blue?" Should you bite? If you have the original LP, either the 33 or 45 rpm Classic Records vinyl version or the earlier stereo SACD release from Columbia, probably not. The original tapes of the two 1959 sessions were recorded three track on one-inch tape - a popular format at the time. Problems on one side of the original LP due to a slow-running recorder were corrected on recent reissues, but the multichannel remix sounds as though it is just taking the L - C difference/ambient information and porting it to the left surround channel plus porting the R - C ambient information to the right surround channel. The surrounds are extremely subtle except for a few of the louder trumpet passages. I would think that either ProLogic II or Circle Surround would create just as good and perhaps a better surround field, though I didn't have time to try it.
- John Henry
Some great blues times two, and the first is multichannel...
Junior Wells - Come On In This House - Telarc multichannel SACD-63395:
I recall reviewing the original CD version of this album several years ago. Though I'm not heavily into blues I found it great fun. And it's twice as much fun with those three additional channels. Wells is a fine Chicago bluesman with plenty of raw Delta blues showing up in his style. He also plays the harmonica with a vengeance - he calls it his "Mississippi saxophone." Wells has six guest slide guitarists sitting in with him on this session, plus his regular acoustic guitarist Tab Benoit, pianist Jon Cleary and his bassist and drummer. My favorites were the lament Why Are People Like That?, The classic blues You Better Watch Yourself, and the hilarious exchange with his guitarist on She Wants to Sell My Monkey. I listened closely to that last tune to determine if it was a coded drug song, but I think you'll agree that it's really about selling a monkey...
Tracks: What My Momma Told Me/That's All Right, Why Are People Like That?, Trust My Baby, Million Years Blues, Give Me One Reason, Ships on the Ocean, She Wants to Sell My Monkey, So Glad You're Mine, Mystery Train, I'm Gonna Move to Kansas City, Kingfish Blues, You Better Watch Yourself, Come On In This House, The Goat.
Harry Big Daddy Hypolite - Louisiana Country Boy - Analogue Productions Originals APO 2016 stereo SACD:
Another elder blues person given a chance to reach a whole new audience with a great audiophile recording from Chad Kassem's Salina, Kansas record label. Hypolite played with Clifton Chenier and now wants to tell people about his Creole French heritage via the blues. As he does on this SACD with gusto. He plays both acoustic and electric guitar and his quintet is the highly rhythmic guitar/B3/bass & drums combo. His guitarist Jimmy D. Lane also plays dobro on some tracks and Hammond-man Big John Amaro can really swing that B3. The session features four Zydeco tunes which Chenier popularized, a half dozen of the other tunes are from Hypolite himself. Tracks: The Sun Is Shining, Milk Cow Blues, Colinda, Someday, Wine Spodee-O-Dee, For Better or Worse, Just a Little Bit, You Used to Call Me, Hog For You Baby, Louisiana Country Boy, Big Bad Girl, I'm Coming Home.
- John Henry
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