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45 SACD & DVD-A Reviews!
November 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Classical (Beg.)
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***MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH***

RAVEL: Bolero, Pavane, Rapsodie espagnole, La Valse, Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, 5.0 re-mix of segment of Suite - Minnesota Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski - Mobile Fidelity multichannel SACD UDSACD 4002:

Since shortly after it first came out on a (at the time $3.99 as I recall) LP on Vox’ budget label Turnabout this l975 taping by the noted team of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz has been considered an audiophile gem. It was also part of a 4 LP set of the complete orchestral music of Ravel. A curtain of four Schoeps omni mics were used across the front of the orchestra, mixed down to to the two front channels. A pair of Schoeps cardioid -pattern mics were used in the back of the hall, and for the choral sections of the Daphnis score they picked up the choir which was situated there. Some of us still have the original vinyl, which was a quadraphonic QS-encoded disc which can be played back today with some (but not accurate) surround effects using Pro Logic II or the SQ decoder of the Cantares processor. Some of the music was also issued on audiophile LP by Reference Recordings, using only the front channels of the four-channel original tapes. Their reason for doing that was that previously those playing back the QS discs as two-channel were getting artifacts from the rear channels that were mixed in.

Mobile Fidelity and mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine decided to go back to the original tapes and do them right, preserving the 4.0 arrangement on DSD but this time without the compromises of matrixed quadrophonic systems nor those of trying to squeeze such a complex signal into the vinyl grooves with distortions entering in. I visited the studio during the remastering. Now with this discrete system listeners can finally hear what the four-channel half-inch tapes recorded in l975 actually preserved. The experimental 5.0 mix used Ambisonic algorithms to create an additional center channel signal from the phase information of the left and right channels, which is superior sonically to a simple summing of the L & R.

While the performances are superb, the orchestral forces are not quite up to the level of the Ravel recordings by Munch and Reiner, but with the exciting hi-res multichannel reproduction this is a perfect SACD to demonstrate the clear advantages of SSfM [Surround Sound for Music]. I discerned a slight digital steeliness in the massed strings of the orchestra at a few points, but not seriously annoying. The buildup of Bolero from its quiet beginnings to the smashing orchestral conclusion shows the terrific dynamic range of the format. The low-pitched mysterious rumblings of the opening of La Valse are communicated better than any other version I’ve heard. With surround the surrealistic and apocalyptic nature of this apotheosis of the Viennese waltz comes thru with an impact missing in most performances. Lastly, the choral entrance from the rear in Daphnis et Chloe is sure to regale your listeners being exposed to multichannel music. All things considered this is a fine demo showing - as do the many reissues from the Pentatone label - that recordings made way back in the quadraphonic period can sound just as good in multichannel hi-res as purpose-made new DSD recordings. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


French String Quartets, Auryn Series IX = RAVEL: Quartet; DEBUSSY: Quartet Op. 10; FAURE: Quartet - The Auryn Quartet - Tacet DVD-A D118:

The two impressionistic string quartets by the two best-known French composers of that style were paired up on LPs from the first appearance of that format. Since CDs can now hold up to 80 minutes and the two new formats even more, the Faure quartet has begun to also be included. Back in our January 2002 issue I reviewed another DVD-A with the same trio of lovely impressionistic quartets, as performed by the Guarneri Quartet. There’s a connection with the new version, since the members of the Auryn Quartet studied with the Guarneri for a time. This one, on the Surrounded By label, is a rich and satisfying performance in silky and very natural sound, with the players typically at the front stage and subtle hall reverberation on the surrounds.

The new Tacet takes a different tack, as do all of this German label’s DVD-As. The idea is that the multichannel format allows doing something different than just placing the musicians in front of the listener. So what producer Andreas Spreer has done here is to place the listener in the midst of the quartet, with the first and second violins at the left front and right front speakers respectively, the cello at the right surround and the viola at the left surround. This makes for a very involving listening session although the playing and sonics are not quite up to the smoothness and richness found in the Guarneri performances. I had some concern that the cello was on on of the surround channels and the disc is only 4.0, meaning no LFE channel. Since there is no bass management in the six channel analog mode on either the player or preamp I wonder if the lowest tones of the cello are being shortchanged on my surround mini-monitor which only goes down to around 70 Hz. (By the way, the Tacet disc proclaims that it offers “music only - no pictures” and the Surrounded By disc offers no Dolby Digital video compatibility.)

The note booklet has some interesting research on the subject of synaesthesia - the blending of various senses. It was stimulated by the frequent comments of both Debussy and Ravel referring to colors in music - although it is not known whether either of the composers was synaesthetic. It is now thought that all babies are synaesthetic and it is only later that the senses are separated in most people - but some retain an ability to sense colors in sounds, or smells in images, etc. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BELA BARTOK: Rhapsodies Nos. 1 & 2; Hungarian Folk Songs (3 different sets); Sonatina Sz. 55; Six Rumanian Folk Dances - Peter Csaba, violin/Peter Frankl, piano - Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 190:

This is the second volume of works for violin by Bartok on the Praga Digitals label but I don’t believe the first volume was SACD. The Rhapsody No. 2 is presented here in the first recording ever of the original version. Both Rhapsodies also exist as violin with orchestra works. The original folksongs arranged and transformed by Bartok in some of these works came from the thousands he and fellow folklorist-composer Kodaly collected throughout Hungary and Rumania using a primitive cylinder recorder. Other arrangers besides Bartok were involved - one of the three sets of folk songs was arranged by famed violinist Joseph Szigeti with Bartok. The sprightly Rumanian Folk Dances may be the most familiar to listeners as they are staples of violin-piano literature. These works are much more spare than the composer’s complex orchestral works such as The Miraculous Mandarin and the Concerto for Orchestra; they allow the somewhat exotic melodic and rhythmic turns of the folk music to stand out in strong relief. While the violin part occasionally is called upon to sound raw and edgy, its tone never becomes digitally annoying as with many 44.1K digital recordings. Only the most subtle use of the surrounds is made, as it should be for such chamber music. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


Murray Perahia Plays Bach = J. S. BACH: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major; Concerto for Flute, Violin and Clavier in A Minor; Italian Concerto in F Major - Perahia, p./Kenneth Sillito, violin/Jaime Martin, flute/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Perahia cond. - Sony Classical multichannel SACD-only SS 87326:

Chalk up another new release that struck me as just so-so in its original CD release but now in multichannel sound catches my ear and holds it. While I’m partial to Bach on the harpsichord, and especially in the Brandenburg No. 5, I find Perahia’s version well thought out and completely captivating. His purpose in bringing together these three works is to demonstrate Bach’s development of the keyboard concerto form in the late Baroque period. In the Brandenburg No. 5 he introduced the harpsichord as a solo instrument. He constructed the concerto for the trio of soloist instruments from three earlier works, and in the famous Italian Concerto for solo keyboard he combined an overture section in the French style with a solo concerto in the Italian fashion. After these works Bach went on to create the outstanding body of harpsichord concertos for one, two, three and four keyboards plus strings. The sonics on the solo concerto are especially to be commended - natural acoustics of the performance space, not too close miking of the piano, and most of all it doesn’t sound 30 feet wide! Perhaps this will be one of the major contributions of multichannel hi-res sound - fewer larger-than-life solo instruments on recordings! Purchase Here

- John Sunier

John Williams, guitar = RODRIGO: Concierto De Aranjuez; VILLA-LOBOS: Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra (English Chamber Orch./Daniel Barenboim); RODRIGO: Fantasia para un gentilhombre - English Chamber Orch./Sir Charles Groves - Sony Classical multichannel SACD-Only SS 90381:

The two Rodrigo guitar concertos here have been recorded many times by many performers. These recordings may have also been original made for possible quad LP release, because they date from l967 and l974. The point is there were multi-track masters available to make this 5.0 mix. The affecting melodies of both Rodrigo works are familiar to many listeners. Miles Davis’ collaboration with Gil Evans included the slow movement of the Concierto. The Villa Lobos Concerto was commission by Andre Segovia, has the feeling of Brazilian folk music without actually quoting any, and in it the composer kept the orchestral backing balanced back so as not to interfere with the subtle solo acoustic guitar. The surrounds are used sparingly but turn them off and everything collapses to the front, so they clearly provide a more realistic concerthall experience. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Don Giovanni - Highlights from the opera - Don Giovanni: Bo Skovhus; Il Commendatore: Janusz Monarcha; Donna Anna: Adrianne Pieczonka; Leporello: Renato Girolami - Hungarian Radio Chorus/Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia/Michael Halasz - Naxos DVD-A 5.110011:

Initially I was not excited about this new Naxos DVD-A because I saw that it only employed 44.1K in the 4.0 multichannel option and though it had a synopsis of the story of each act of the opera there were no translations either on the screen or in the booklet of the arias heard here. However, the soloists are all very good and the recording presents a convincing use of surround that sounds extremely detailed and realistically spatial. The most unusual effect is in the Ballroom Scene of Act I when many of the singers are behind the listener on the surrounds. The final scene with the Don being yanked off to perdition by the stone Commendatore is almost visual in its spatiality. Good job Naxos, just please use the DVD-A graphic options a bit more next time and give us some translations. Also, as with some other DVD-As, I was unable to access the DTS soundtrack option, even when played on a DVD-video-only player. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Organ Treasures = BACH: Toccata & Fugue in D minor, Jesu bleibet meine Freude, Sinfonia from Cantata 29, Air; FRANCK: Piece Heroique; IVES: Variations on America; PIERNE: Three Pieces Op. 29; KARG-ELERT: Valse Mignonne; WIDOR: Toccata from Organ Symphony No. 5 - Mattias Wager - Opus 3 multichannel SACD CD 22031:

This is one of the few 4.1 multichannel SACDS you will find and a first for Opus 3. They began their multichannel releases with 4.0 SACDs created from the Blumlein-array two-channel tape masters in their archives - the difference information going to the surrounds. When they began pure DSD recordings they stayed with 4.0, not feeling the center channel added anything and in fact could detract from a natural frontal stereo soundstage spread. However, this pipe organ in Hedvig Eleonora Church in Stockholm has two courses of 32-foot pipes and generates some very deep bass information. So producer-recording engineer Jan-Eric Persson employed the LFE channel for the first time. He used a Linkwitz-Riley crossover to feed the signal below 60Hz from the front mics to the LFE channel and suggests those with active subs set their crossovers somewhat higher to avoid affecting the match with the front channels.

The program has several popular organ works, but the Pierne three short pieces were unfamiliar to me, so was the delightful waltz by Karg-Elert - you don’t expect to hear a waltz on the pipe organ. While not as much an all-stops-out performance as, say, Virgil Fox would give, the Heroic Piece of Franck shakes the rafters with its big finish and immerses the listener in the voluminous yet detailed acoustics of the church. I believe this will become my favorite version of my favorite pipe organ work. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet- Fugue Around the Clock - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCSSA 19403:

From very large reedy sounds we switch to very small reedy sounds, but no less effective as far as musical communication in surround sound. One member of this Amsterdam-based recorder quartet is Daniel Bruggen who must be related in some way to Frans Bruggen, the recorder virtuoso now better know as a conductor of early music. The quartet has a unique collection of recorders and used 37 different ones during the course of this recording session. They play with amazing clarity and accuracy of pitch and tone - anyone who has ever tootled on a recorder knows that’s not an easy task. The quartet explores not just early music but also the Baroque and contemporary works, some which have been written especially for them. The ensemble came to fame in l981 when they won the Musica Antiqua Competition by challenging the competition’s rules with an unusual arrangement of a song by Stevie Wonder!

The idea of creating an album around the central musical device of the fugue is typical of the group’s cutting-edge sensibilities. The note booklet gives a concise 2 1/2-page history of the fugue and points out it is responsible for some of the greatest music in history. At the center of the program is their arrangement of Bach’s entire Concerto in D Minor after Vivaldi. The preceding works have prepared your ears and there really seems nothing lacking in the recorder quartet version. Other composers represented on the 21 tracks are Schubert, Handel, Palestrina, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Corelli and Shostakovich. Channel Classics seems to have followed the one-instrument-to-a-channel approach of Tacet Records, and it works very well here. Switching to the stereo mix from the multichannel produces a major aural deflation. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOUSSORGSKY (Arr. RAVEL): Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bare Mountain; Prelude to Khovanshchina; Gopak from Sorochintsy Fair - Vienna Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev - Philips multichannel SACD 470 619-2:

The classical SACD catalog has grown to the point that we are having some duplication of repertory. (Witness the several Mozart Requiems we have covered.) The first entry in the Exhibition was Charles MacKerras’ version with the New Philharmonia Orchestra on a Vanguard multichannel reissue. The original tapes for that came from 1973 quadraphonic masters and it was 4.0 channel. Good performance and sound, but Gergiev adds a special spark of excitement to his performances, amplified by this being a live performance recording, and lastly its a pure DVD recording from last year rather than 1973. So it moves to top position - at least until we audition another Pictures that just arrived from Pentatone.

Rather surprisingly the new SACD is also just 4.0 channels. What’s still to be said about this chestnut? The Reiner version - especially on xrcd - still holds its own in terms of total orchestral impact, and it sounds very good run thru Pro Logic II. But the clean and atmospheric naturalism of Gergiev’s live concert performance in discrete surround comes much closer to teleporting the listener to the concert hall where it took place. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

ARVO PÄRT: De Profundis = De Profundis, Miss Sillabica, Solfeggio, And one of the Pharisees, Cantate Domino, Summa, Seven Magnificat Antiphons, The Beatitudes, Magnificat - Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ & Dan Kennedy, percussion - Harmonia mundi HMU 807182:

In its original release this album became Pärt’s best-selling CD worldwide. It helped spread appreciation of his work as probably the best-known of the new minimal/spiritual Eastern European composers. His tintinnabuli style avoids linear tonality which modulates thru tension and release, and creates instead a steady-state tonality linked to medieval music. The title selection is one of his most passionate works, and includes both percussion and pipe organ (the rest on this disc being a cappella). Technically it has the strictest adherence to his tintinnabuli style, without more varied development. Solfeggio, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Ernie Kovacs but is a very early choral etude on the notes of the C Major scale. The Sillabica Mass illustrates the very close connection of the Latin words with the music - as the title suggests: syllable by syllable. It is as if the text itself composed the music. Pärt’s music depends on close attention to its subtleties since there is little of the usual developement and variation. Multichannel reproduction aids this tremendously. By the way, there is a complete translation in English, French and German. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

GRIEG: Holberg Suite; DVORAK: Serenade for Strings; ELGAR: Serenade for Strings - Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra/Conrad Van Alphen - Telarc multichannel SACD-60623:

All three of these works are central to the string orchestra literature and are often found in one another’s company on recordings. The Holberg Suite boasts some of Grieg loveliest melodies and has a French character - such as dance movements of Lully or Rameau. It only took Dvorak two weeks to write his masterpiece for strings; the charming five-movement work is also host to many ravishing melodies. Elgar’s Serenade is a bit more reticent. Its Larghetto movement may remind one of Wagner’s very un Wagnerian Siegfried Idyll but this is unmistakably British stuff. The analog-like sonics of DSD/SACD are highlighted in the sound of massed strings such as these. No hint of digititus here. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 - Vienna Philharmonic/Carlos Kleiber - DGG multichannel SACD 471 630-2:

These outstanding performances were recorded multichannel in l975 and 76. Many critics have considered this the finest Beethoven Fifth on record, so it is a perfect choice for multichannel hi-res reissue. It is 5.0, without the LFE channel. The performance captures the many changing moods of the famous symphony and never become staid or boring sounding as some interpretations. The knocking sounds of Fate at the door have an emotional feeling unlike most of the competition. An abundant energy comes thru - something like Bernstein’s but more refined somehow. The Seventh is not quite as impactful as the Fifth in either the performance or recording department, but it is close and a good companion choice for this release. The sonics hold up rather well considering the age of these originals - only lacking a bit in the deep bass end - but then the surround display makes that less noticeable than if it were just a stereo reissue. The note booklet reports that the master for the disc was PCM. That seems strange since the originals had to be analog tape and it would have been best to go straight from them to DSD. But many pop recordings go thru a PCM phase to make editing and EQ easier, and perhaps that is what was done here. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


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