Classical CD Reviews
45 SACD and DVD-A Hi-Res Reviews, Pt. 1 Classical beg.
Published on April 1, 2005
45 & Reviews This Month!
********MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH ********
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor; Tragic Overture; Academic Festival Overture – London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop – multichannel SACD Naxos 6.110077, 72:42 *****:
American female conductor Alsop has been garnering many positive reviews lately and fully deserves them. She is principle conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony now, after having directed the Colorado Symphony for a decade, and she guest conducts all over the world. At her first concert with the London Phil five years ago she included the Brahms First on the program, so her masterful grasp of the score is not unexpected. This 5.0-channel recording was made just last year. (I notice Naxos no longer lists what sampling rate and word length was used in recording – as Universal still does – causing eagle-eyed audio buffs to ask why they use similar resolution to ordinary CDs rather than the 96K-24-bit that is easily available.)
Anyway, whatever technical specs used, this is a magnificently-captured sonic experience in both the two-channel and 5.0-channel options. The orchestra is of course one of the world’s best and they are surely very well acquainted with the work. Alsop is building a reputation is one of the best interpreters of Brahms around. She gives us the freshest-sounding Brahms symphony I have heard in a long time, and the wide dynamic range and high resolution of SACD convey her efforts skillfully. The transitions and general flow of the performance make it an exhilarating experience I recall once loaning my prized Red Seal CD of Gunther Wand conducting the Brahms First to a collector (and fellow reviewer) who was trying to collect every recorded Brahms First that existed. Well, pitting Wand against Marin Alsop’s version left Wand wanting. And it wasn’t just because of the opaque and flat-sounding stereo CD reproduction vs. the transparent, open and terrifically-detailed sonics of the SACD. Just compare the CD layer of this disc with the 5.0 surround option. I can imagine those curmudgeons – who say there is no need for increased resolution and if God meant us to listen to music in surround we would have four or five ears – eating their word lengths.
The two familiar Brahms overtures are delivered with just as much energy and impact as the Symphony. Alsop studied with Leonard Bernstein, among others, and I think I hear that in the white-hot emotional excitement of her approach to these works. This disc is a gold standard Grammy-ready winner for Naxos, at a time when the major labels (who sell a fraction of the classical discs that Naxos does) are doing almost nothing but tired, continually repackaged reissues. For a recorded interview with Marin Alsop about her special approach to conducting Brahms, Go Here: http://www.naxos/com/marin/brahms-symphonies
– John Sunier
BRAHMS: The Four Symphonies – WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne/Semyon Bychkov – Avie MultiChannel SACD, AV 2051 (3 discs) 49:33; 42:13; 77:50 (avail. at ArkivMusic.com)****:
Recorded last year, this survey of the four Brahms symphonies by Semyon Bychkov (b. 1952) captures the Russian conductor’s eliciting visceral response from his Cologne orchestra, whose post he assumed in 1997. The approach has something of Celibidache’s expansiveness, respecting the repeats in the opening movements, and compelling a warm and luminous tone in the string and wind parts. Audiophiles who have a surround-sound system will luxuriate in orchestral tissue that wends its way at the sides and from behind the fixed point of engagement, approximating what Bychkov experiences as a conductor.
From the dimensions Bychkov achieves in the C Minor and D Major symphonies, I first thought I would hear a sonic patina modeled after Furtwaengler. Instead, I find Bychkov’s style more reminiscent of Solti or Mravinsky, but without the cold detachment. What Bychkov does communicate is a fierce energy that has a supple and elastic rhythmic flexibility, even a bit errant – in the manner of Mitropoulos. The leisurely almost self-indulgent pace of the D Major Symphony has one hearing allusions to Beethoven’s Patrorale Symphony, bucolic and sunny. The more tonally and affectively ambiguous F Major Symphony enjoys a muscular sensibility, although the Poco allegretto hints at wistful mystery. I find the E Minor perhaps the most literal of the readings, with Bychkov’s eschewing any distortion of the lines to effect a romantic ethos. The C Minor merges Beethoven’s dramatic flourishes with an urge to songfulness, qualities Bychkov invites throughout. All the Brahms slow movements seem to bask in a kind of effluvium. Avie didn’t include the usual Brahms accoutrements, the Haydn Variations and the overtures, because this was produced for video and they were not recorded. But the set is mid-priced – about the same as two SACDs would normally be. These are dynamic, and intelligent readings in gorgeous surround sound.
SOUSA/GOLDMAN/GOULD: Brass & Percussion – Morton Gould and his Symphonic Band – RCA Living Stereo 82876-66371-2 – Multichannel (3 channel) and Stereo SACD, 78 min. *****:
SOUSA: Fennell conducts Sousa – Eastman Wind Ensemble/ Frederick Fennell, Conductor – Mercury Living Presence 475 6182 – Multichannel (3 channel) SACD, 73 min. ****:
What we have here is a veritable boatload (more like a Titanic) of symphonic march music, mostly from John Philip Sousa, but with notable pieces by Goldman and Morton Gould thrown in for good measure. These two discs offer about as extensive a collection of well-known pieces in this repertory as you’re likely to find, along with a few lesser-known gems thrown in for good measure, and should pretty much satisfy any needs you might ever have for percussion and wind-based marching music. You’ll definitely have no problems putting together a mix disc for your local Fourth of July fireworks celebration at the very least.
Morton Gould’s disc on RCA Living Stereo is more of a “greatest hits” collection, and starts off with a rousing rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever; all of the famous marches follow, including Semper Fidelis, Hands Across the Sea, National Emblem, Washington Post, El Capitan – you name it, it’s here. While all these are given spectacular readings, the real stars here are the lesser-known works, such as Gould’s own Parade for Percussion and the nearly thirteen-minute Jericho, with its intricate interplay between percussive and woodwind elements. While much of this disc is brash pomp, there’s so much more to be heard here, and it’s particularly exciting to hear much of it for the first time in its original three-channel sound. Gould’s tour-de-force arrangement of the classic Dixie has the band’s playing alternately intimately and at full-bore, and is almost alone worth the price of admission to this disc.
The Frederick Fennell disc on Mercury Living Presence, like the above set, gives us these performances for the first time ever in their original three-channel incarnations, and the experience is both welcomed and refreshing to hear! And there’s very little overlap of material between this excellent all-Sousa disc and RCA’s Gould, which makes this a perfect companion. Most of the material here is culled from Sousa’s less often played works; notable exceptions would be the title track, Sound Off, along with Manhattan Beach and The Liberty Bell (perhaps best known as the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus). This is marching music for men who like their marches, and it’s played as usual by Fennell and the Eastman ensemble with gusto and bravado, and has never before sounded quite so good.
A preponderance of marching is offered on each of these excellent discs, and from a sound perspective, they’re very comparable. Both offer superb sound, especially in their multichannel incarnations; each captures an excellent representation of the recorded acoustic. About half of the Gould disc is stereo-only, albeit exceptionally well-recorded vintage stereo. If I could only pick one, I’d lean towards the Gould disc on RCA – it offers an eclectic mix of tunes and features many of the really big hits, and offers much more in terms of dynamic contrasts in the playing. The Fennell disc, while still exceptionally satisfying, offers such an extreme dose of full-tilt march music – let’s face it, it gets a little intense for extended listening. Oh, what the heck, get them both – these are the last Sousa and march discs you’ll ever need!
— Tom Gibbs
J.S. BACH Cantatas – Thomas Quasthoff, Bass-baritone/Berlin Baroque Soloists/Rainer Kussmaul, Director / Members of the RIAS Chamber Choir/Daniel Reuss, Chorus Master – Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 5052 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD, 50 min. ****:
Jurgen Otten, who wrote the liner notes for this collection of cantatas, suggests that the more than two-hundred odd secular and sacred choral pieces composed by J.S. Bach have been “marginalized” in their relative importance in Bach’s canon by performers and conductors. They all seem to be infinitely more interested in programming his mass, either of the passions or any of a number of his more frequently played instrumental pieces. I have to admit, I’ve had precious little exposure to Bach’s cantatas, but based on what I’ve heard with this excellent disc, I’m beginning to wonder what might have hindered me from digging further into them.
The three cantatas presented here provide an exceptional vehicle for the remarkable voice of bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who essentially goes it solo throughout the early movements of each, and is joined in each cantata’s finale by members of the always excellent RIAS Chamber Choir. The Berlin Baroque Soloists, a period instrument group, provides superb support – the most remarkable aspect of the entire affair is just how vital the instrumental accompaniment is to each cantata. There’s an instantaneous sense of familiarity to all of the musical proceedings – they thoroughly enhanced my enjoyment of the overall presentation. Oboist Albrecht Mayer takes several extended solo turns in the first and third cantatas, and Director Rainer Kussmaul adds some excellent violin work to the second of the three pieces.
Sound quality, while derived from a PCM master, is first rate. This disc would serve as a perfect introduction to Bach’s many cantatas. Very highly recommended.
— Tom Gibbs
J. S. BACH: Die Kunst der Fugue – Hesperion XX/Jordi Savall – Alia Vox Multichannel SACD B0000017L2 (2 discs) **:
For many years Wanda Landowska was the reigning interpreter of the Bach keyboard repertoire. One day she was discussing how to perform a piece with one of her contemporaries. They disagreed; tempers flared. The argument grew hotter and hotter until Landowska finally snapped, “You play it your way, dear, and I’ll perform it his.”
The desire to recover Bach’s sound has always struck me as a dubious undertaking, since he was never satisfied with the results achieved under his direct supervision. The composer left behind dozens of letters complaining about the quality and quantity of players available to him at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
In the case of “Die Kunst der Fuge”, we aren’t certain about precisely how many fugues there are, since there are several ways to count them, or the order in which they are to be played. We can’t even be sure that Bach wanted this composition to be known by this title. These and other points have exercised musicologists for the past eighty years.
The choice of instruments for this work is unknown. For decades it has been the province of pianists, although the score does not specify keyboard performance. The justification for the present performance is an effort to reach back to the source: “there has not yet. . . been any attempt to recreate this music with an instrumentation based on an ensemble of viola da gamba and wind instruments of the period. . . This consort of viols is the only ensemble which allows a faithful reading of the original text and optimal realization in sound, since the transparency and clarity of the articulation on these instruments allows a very balanced perception of the different voices without one part obscuring the others.” So writes Jordi Savall, who contributes to the group on soprano viole de gamba.
These are bold words. Alas, the performance is quite modest. Instruments enter off cue, with uncertain and conflicting tempi, and play off-pitch. The very impressive assembly of period instruments does not compensate for the disorder that ensues. Far from a better understanding of the composer’s intention, I was unable to follow the development of the piece at all.
I am well aware than tuning in Bach’s time was not the same as our own, but I feel confident that he would insist that his players adhere to some standard. The result of this muddled, haphazard musicianship is chaos. Instead of a pinnacle in Western art we have an early rehearsal. This may well be the way Bach would have heard the composition, had he lived long enough for the St. Thomas musicians to play it.
History, Sartre wrote, is a game we play upon the past. In my lifetime we have had Bach exalted by Glenn Gould and reduced to elevator music by Muzak. I am confident, therefore, that Bach will survive this awkward attempt at resurrection.
— H. Richard Weiner
BACH: Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069; Oboe Concerto with Strings and Basso Continuo, BWV 1059; Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067 (arr. Utkin) – Alexei Utkin, oboe Hermitage Chamber Orchestra – Caro Mitis multichannel SACD, DSD CM 0012004, 59:15 ****:
The third of a series of arrangements of Bach staples for oboe virtuoso Alexei Utkin–soloist with the Moscow Virtuoso Chamber Orchestra since 1982–now the director of the Hermitage Chamber Orchestra, which he established in 2000. Reedy and piercing in tone, more like Heinz Holliger’s sound than that of Harold Gomberg, Utkin’s oboe makes some exquisite ensemble with his Heritage players in 2003 in brilliant and enhanced digital acoustics. The Concerto BWV 1059 is an imaginative and lyrical reconstruction that splices the Sinfonia from Cantata 156 (better known as the A-flat Major Largo from the F Minor Klavier Concerto) into its lulling sequence. The B Minor Suite simply replaces the flute solos with Utkin’s lithe and sinewy oboe, making the alternately stately and dancing movements a bit darker in color but still as compelling. The D Major Suite is played for its broad French strokes and colossal pomp. Intimacy, character, and resplendent charm ingratiate this album in its entirety, an eminently lyrical salute to the meeting of learned counterpoint with modern sound reproduction. A happy album!
Sempre Libera – Anna Netrebko, Soprano/Mahler Chamber Orchestra/ Claudio Abbado – Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 8812 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD, 69 min. ****:
Anna Netrebko is every record company executive’s dream. First of all, she has an amazing voice that gets only even more ravishing with the passage of time, she has poise, charm and an almost magnetic charisma. And the icing – she’s stunningly beautiful – a marketer’s vision if ever there was one in this time of both declining record sales and waning interest in classical music in general. The disc’s accompanying booklet has quite a few color photos included, both from rehearsals and publicity shots – her transformation from relatively innocent looking singer to diva/goddess/media vixen is indeed remarkable to behold. And no doubt, the superb marketing effort has in no small part been responsible for her meteoric rise – but that voice, and oh, what a voice! This superb disc of Bel Canto arias, her second effort, only helps to firmly cement her position near the top of today’s current crop of sopranos.
Highlights abound here, and her growing mastery of the Italian opera form are abundantly evident – the Bellini arias are spectacular; her singing in “Ah! Non creada mirarti” from La Sonnambula is breathtakingly beautiful. I Puritani’s “O rendetemi la speme” is also achingly rendered. But when she hits a series of sustained E flats effortlessly in the title track as Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata, only then do you get a real sense of the sheer intensity and level of her vocal artistry. The need for the intensive marketing effort has been rendered moot at this point– it’s no longer necessary because this lady can deliver the goods, witnessed by her effortless and fluid navigation of several octaves repeatedly throughout the proceedings. Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra provide superb and sympathetic support.
Sound quality is, as usual from Deutsche Grammophon, excellent, despite being sourced from a PCM original. Ms. Netrebko’s sumptuous voice is anchored by the center channel throughout the recital, but don’t be too tempted to crank the volume too much in the quieter passages – as with most opera recitals, the dynamic contrasts can be quite startling at numerous points along the way. Not to be missed – we’re witnessing a rising star here approaching her zenith, and trust me – it’s spectacular!
— Tom Gibbs
HANDEL Arias – Renée Fleming, Soprano – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Harry Bicket – Decca 475 6186 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD, 70 min. *****:
First of all, I’ll admit – I’m not a huge fan of most Baroque period opera, and was looking forward to the review process for this disc of Handel arias with a certain amount of trepidation. I am, however, a huge fan of Renée Fleming’s body of work – so with relative ease I put aside any misgivings I might have had about the work in question. Good thing, because this disc is not only a remarkable performance – technically, it’s one of the best-sounding opera recordings I’ve ever heard, period.
The packaging for this disc was very well done – Renée Fleming looks not only simply beautiful in all the photos, but very regal as well – quite fitting for one of this generations’ premiere sopranos. Years ago in the very first Stereophile “Desert Island Disc” issue, Larry Archibald made the comment that in his experience, beautifully photographed albums always sounded superb. And as relatively uninformed as that comment has always seemed to me, I’ve almost always found it to be true, and this disc is no exception. From the moment the very first notes fill the air, it’s abundantly obvious that this disc is something very special.
Closer inspection of the liner notes reveal that this is indeed an original DSD recording. As often as I’ve pontificated (in these very pages, no less) about how great- sounding I find most transfers of PCM to SACD, this disc blows them all away, and in every aspect of the presentation! There’s just so much more of the feeling of being in the presence of a live recital – there’s so much more air, and much more of a sense of palpability to the vocal and instrumental textures. At increased volume levels, there’s very little of the sense of strain that I often encounter with PCM-transferred material; there’s a much greater sense of increased dynamics here – and an overall effortlessness to the presentation. As good as the two other Universal Music vocal SACD discs (both PCM transfers) I reviewed for this issue sound, this disc is an order of merit higher than those in every regard.
Ms. Fleming handles (heh, heh) the material with aplomb, and highlights are too numerous to detail. This disc also employs historically informed instrumentation provided by Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which suits the music perfectly. If you’re a fan of the opera music of Handel, or a fan of Renée Fleming, or just enjoy listening to very well-recorded music, then this disc is for you!
— Tom Gibbs
“Poeme” = SAINT-SAENS: Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Op. 28; Havanaise, Op. 83; LALO: Guitare; CHAUSSON: Poeme, Op. 25; KREISLER: Sicilienne et Rigaudon; La Precieuse; BERLIOZ: Reverie et Caprice, Op. 8; RAVEL: Tzigane – Akiko Suwanai, violin Chalres Dutoit conducts Philharmonia Orchestra – Philips multichannel SACD 475 6189, 68:08 (Distrib. Universal)*** 1/2:
A lovely lady plays lovely, Gallic staples of the virtuoso violin repertoire. The album includes no information about Suwanai’s pedigree and pedagogy, but she sports a wonderful Stradivarius 1714 instrument, upon which she lavishes a broad brush, perhaps even overplaying sentimental phrases, as in the coda to the Havanaise. Certainly Heifetz would not be fond of her stretched tempos for Chausson’s evocative Poeme, which is almost four minutes longer than his own version. The Kreisler pieces claim Francouer and Couperin, respectively, as their inspirators, but their elegant patina is Kreisler’s own ersatz application of French tastes. The SACD audiophile will luxuriate in the Poeme, whose various wind colors appear at different points in the listening room. The Berlioz piece remains an ungainly curio, a favorite of the old master Joseph Szigeti. Suwanai’s tone is rich and on point, but she gives each piece a Hollywood luster that for me lacks visceral excitement. What’s that song, “I’m too sexy. . .?” The Tzigane may raise a few hairs on listener’s arms and napes, but I will continue to listen to my preferred Heifetz, Grumiaux and Francescatti renditions of these showpieces.
GUBAIDULINA: The Canticle of the Sun; Peludes for Violoncello Solo; In Croce for cello and bajan-Pieter Wispelway, Violoncello/ The Prometheus Ensemble/ Collegium Vocale Gent, Daniel Reuss, conductor – Channel Classics multichannel SACD – CCS SA 20904 ****:
Intensely compelling yet often puzzling music, ‘Canticle’ is a hybrid piece scored for ‘cello,percussion ensemble and chamber choir.
Born in 1931 in Tartarstan, Sofia Gubaidulina, working most of her life in virtual isolation, wrote The Canticle of the Sun in 1997 for the 70th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich. Its 40 minutes of music range from the deeply brooding to the sublimely ecstatic. It is often reminiscent of the music of Messiaen.
‘Canticle’ is in 4 parts lasting ~40 minutes. The first is dedicated to the sun and moon, the second to the Creator of the 4 elements of the Earth, the third to Life, the fourth to Death. The ‘cellos role is that of a high priest delivering Devotionals, punctuated by percussion and chamber choir. The piece may be considered a concerto for cello with percussion and choir. It is strikingly arresting ,unpredictable and beautifully crafted. The virtuoso performance by Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelway is superbly abetted by the Prometheus ensemble and the Colegium Vocale Gent.
The demands upon the soloist are unique. The entire range of the cello is exploited by the composer. In addition, the cellist becomes percussionist using the cello as a drum as well as performing on a variety of percussion instruments. For the new listener this music is demanding, yet enormously rewarding. Front and center concentration with frequent track replays are necessary to acquire necessary familiarity.
The range of sound evoked by the Canticle is only equaled by the dynamic range of this high resoloution recording. The clarity and sound staging are astonishing. Recorded at De Singel. Antwerp, Belgium in October 2003 by C. Jared Sachs, co-producer for Channel Classics with Pieter Wispelway, this is a sensational recording of a highly innovative, musically demanding and fulfilling work. It is recorded in Channel Classics’ multi layer format.
The remaining works, Preludes for solo cello and In Croce for cello and bajan, are excellent illustrations of Gubaidulina’s unique language for cello, Warmly recommended as an adventure into the world of a most individual musical voice.
— Ronald Legum
ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI: The Cecilian Vespers – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGregan, conductor; and Philharmonia Chorale, Bruce Lamott, director; Susanne Ryden and Dominique Labelle, sopranos; Ryland Angel, countertenor; Michael Slattery, tenor; Neal Davies, baritone and cantor – Multichannel SACD – AVIE AV 0048 2:10:41***:
These musically challenging pieces receive a sympathetic performance from Music America’s 2004 Ensemble of the Year. The principal detraction is the recording technique, which placed microphones so close to the soloists that their occasional difficulties were highlighted to a distracting degree, while the chorus and orchestra sounded quite distant.
Both Ryden and Labelle acquit themselves admirably, although their breathing patterns are exposed far more clearly on disc than a live audience would experience. Several sections are severely demanding, and these sopranos have considerable technical skill. The countertenor’s technical abilities are not sufficient in some passages, and his difficulties become distracting. Again, the recording shows these problems more prominently than a concertgoer would note. Slattery has a better time with the tenor part, and Davies is admirable in the lower register.
The chorus is very good, but the recording perspective was such that it could have been recorded in another venue, or at another time, than the soloists. The orchestra suffers from the same problem: although the sound levels are reasonably balanced, the instrumental component is often not as clear or easily followed as the singing.
Altogether, these musicians are skillful and their performance is praiseworthy; however, there is never a sense the performers are enjoying themselves. That is a matter which cannot be ameliorated by the recording technician. Music, sacred or profane, should communicate excitement. This double album is full of good work, but is not fun.
— H. Richard Weiner
GUSTAV MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection;” Totenfeier (orig. 2nd movt. of sym.) – Melanie Diener, soprano/Petra Lang, mezzo/Prague Philharmonic Choir/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly – Decca multichannel (Totenfeier stereo only) DVD-Audio B0003345-19, 111:37 ****:
Mahler has been considered a natural for surround sound reproduction since Vanguard issued the Third Symphony back in quadraphonic days on 4-channel open reel. Hi-res reproduction also benefits the complex Mahlerian orchestrations more than your run-of-the-mill symphonic works. Although Mahler’s Fourth is often considered the best introduction to the composer for neophytes, I’ve always felt the Second is a more compelling and ecstatic work that should make a strong impression. My favorite of the multichannel Mahlers coming out regularly is – as regular readers know – the San Francisco Symphony series with Michael Tilson Thomas.
An interesting comparison of that recent SACD with this DVD-A: Both have a strong impression of the venue, and of course the Concertgebouw is the better space by any reckoning, so that’s one in favor of the DVD-A. Clarity and orchestral soundstage and balance is quite similar between the two. Chailly starts right off with more drama and tension than MTT and maintains this high degree of orchestral angst throughout. MTT on the other hand begins more subdued so that his equally massive climaxes seem to carry more weight. The two soloists also strike me as equally good – their soaring voices in the sixth and final movement never sounding as ethereal and as separated from the choir and orchestra in previous two-channel versions. This culminating peroration of overwhelming spiritual fervor can be experienced more fully with either of these hi-res discs in surround than anything but the best live performance.
Totenfeier is a strictly orchestral work and was the original version of the symphony’s Andante second movement, before Mahler edited down the piece to about half of its length. Hearing the piece for the first time I have to agree strongly with Mahler’s decision to hack away at it. There is simply too much working over of the main themes to sustain its 23-minute length. In order to hear the work I had to play it on my Macintosh, because it could not be accessed at all on my DVD-A player and on my DVD-V player I could press Enter at the proper track in the on-screen menu, but nothing ever played. Just another slight programming frustration with DVD-As. There is no video material to speak of with the disc – just a half dozen photos of Chailly and a portrait of Mahler, plus the usual list of movements. (Which since it remains on screen for the full 111 minutes of the disc might leave a permanent impression on your plasma display if you don’t turn it off.)
– John Sunier
Surround Yourself With Enrico Caruso – The Essential Operatic Recordings – 50 Arias and Ensembles recorded between 1905-1920 – Nimbus DVD-A NI 9006, 3 hours 23 minutes, ****:
How could there possibly be recordings of Caruso in surround sound? You might well ask. Well, the Nimbus label has been a pioneer in Ambisonic recording since 1972. Most of their discs were issued in the two-channel encoded mixdown of Ambisonics called UHJ, which plays back as fairly normal stereo (though with more reverberation than standard recordings) but can be decoded with the proper decoder (such as provided on high end Meridian preamps) to a very convincing surround field. Nimbus got into the historical vocal reissues genre about 20 years ago. They took the unprecedented approach of simply playing the most perfect original 78s they could find on a beautifully restored acoustic gramophone with a big “morning glory” horn. Situated at one end of their own studio, they set up their Ambisonic mic system at the other end and recorded the gramophone without any noise reduction or digital manipulation of the signal. 120 CDs in the Prima Voce collection were issued, and this is the first on DVD.
On DVD-A players you get a four-channel (no center) signal at 88.2 K, 20 bit. With standard DVD-V players you have a choice between 4 channel DTS at 48K, 24 bit or stereo PCM at 48 K, 16 bit. The stereo PCM is encoded with UHJ Ambisonics, so with the proper decoder you can recreate the 4-channel original. If like most users you lack a decoder, you will find that Dolby ProLogic II and Circle Surround do a pretty good job of creating surround channels. (If you have a DVD-Audio player or universal player these discs will default to the DVD-A layer and make it impossible to access the DTS option for comparison.)
OK, does this bringing of century-old acoustic recordings into the 21st century world of surround sound make any sense? Well, yes it does. Even the undecoded PCM feeds sound much more pleasant than those over-processed Soundstream experiments with the Caruso 78s, and to my ears I would rather hear the bit of surface noise present here and get more of the actual tenor’s great voice than the many CD reissues which have overused digital noise reduction gear to reduce noise but lose music frequencies in the bargain. Adding the natural and spacious ambience of the Nimbus studio at Wyastone Estate is clearly better than adding digital reverb to these very dry acoustic recordings in which the singers had to sidle right up to the long recording horn and practically yell into it. Nimbus certainly gives the Caruso collector a lot for his money here – almost 3 1/2 hours of Caruso discs, and featuring some of the other great historic singers such as De Luca, Farrar, Schumann-Heink and Tetrazzini. The DVD is recorded on both sides in order to provide the lengthy program. I discovered an interesting fact looking over the timings of each track: I had thought 12-inch 78s were limited to four minutes on a side, yet there are some selections here that time out at over five minutes! Some of the recordings total as many as four from the same opera, almost a highlights program of Rigoletto, Aida, or what have you. The note booklet has a readable four-page essay on Caruso, his voice and recordings.
— John Sunier
Surround Yourself With Hindustani Ragas – Performances by Hariprasad Chaurasia, flute; Buddhadev Das Gupta, sarod; Asad Ali Shan, rudra vina; Salamat Ali Khan, vocal; Imrat Khan, surbahar & sitar; Ram Narayan, sarangi; Shivkumar Sharma, santur; Padma Talwakar, vocal – Nimbus DVD-A NI 9008, 188:40 ****:
Another most unusual offering from Nimbus, again in a choice of 4 channel DTS, 2- channel PCM, or 4-channel MLP (DVD-A). (No Dolby option is included.) The label’s world music producer began recording Ambisonically some of the greatest performers of Indian Classical Music in l987, in a series of concerts at Nimbus headquarters estate in the UK. This substantial disc offers a sampling of different instruments, styles and performers from the series. It’s great length – again using both sides of the DVD – may serve as a reminder of the all-night concerts that are a given in India. A 20-page booklet accompanies the DVD and serves almost as a primer in Hindustani music. I began listening to recordings of Ravi Shankar and others back before the Indian music popularity of the mid-60s, but I never really grasped some of the basic principles until reading this booklet while listening to the selections. There have also been some fascinating developments in the the music since the 60s. Unexpected instruments such as the guitar, santur and violin have been incorporated into the music. The santur or dulcimer/cimbalom surprised me because being played with mallets it is not capable of bending the notes and sliding from one to another as can the sarod, sitar and the human voice. But skilled performers on the instrument have created ways to give an impression similar to the traditional instruments.
I also did not fully appreciate the central role of the human voice in Indian music. In fact, the instrumental tradition is supposed to imitate or reflect the inflections of the vocals. I was familiar with the rapid rhythmic vocal exchanges of tabla drummers, but the varieties of vocal sounds from singers such as Salamat Ali Khan and his two sons, as heard on this disc, are quite amazing. One section of syncopated exchanges between the vocalists sounded to me like nothing so much as Clark Terry’s Mumbling! The final one of the eight selections features the flute and was my favorite of the series, reminding me of an experimental film I once did to a soundtrack of Indian flute. There is not a great deal of signal on the surrounds – just enough to bring the performers in front of you out from a flat two-dimensional soundstage right into your listening room. Again, I can’t report on the DTS option but the MLP tracks are superb in exposing the listener to minute details of the performances which may have been missed in earlier listening to standard stereo recordings of Indian music – thus making the music sound boring or at best much more difficult to “get into.”
– John Sunier