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SACD REVIEWS for March/April 2001

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This month we continue our survey of SACD classical and jazz titles, in concert with the review of the Sony 9000ES SACD/DVD player also in this month's issue. With the player now completely broken in we can make some more definite observations about the extent to which this new format approaches sonic perfection. With the reissues that have been extensively reviewed for musical points before we will confine ourselves primarily to the sonic advantages over 44.1 CD, if any. For brand new releases more will be reported on the music side.

VIRGIL THOMSON: The Plow That Broke the Plains; The River - The Symphony of the Air/Leopold Stokowski - Vanguard Classics VSD 501: Continuing the series of Vanguard SACDs started last month with Songs of the Auvergne, this well-known pairing of a classic 1960 recording has seen an SBM CD reissue as well as an Analog Productions audiophile LP version. The suites are drawn from film scores which Thomson wrote for two late-30's documentary films. On the original CD the sonics were beginning to sound a bit tired. The audiophile vinyl brought out the sun on these musical landscapes, with greater detail and air around the instruments and more extended frequency and dynamic range. The SBM CD had some similar improvements but lost some of the air of the LP. Now the SACD is almost indistinguishable from the LP. My only gripe is what happened to Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale Suite, which was part of the Vanguard SBM CD? The same thing happened on the Copland and Gould SACD reviewed last month - the Vanguard CD included An American in Paris but it's not on the SACD! There's more data space on a SACD than a CD - why short-change us on what the CD contained?

- John Sunier

GOTTSCHALK: A Night in the Tropics; Grand Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra; MORTON GOULD: Latin American Symphonette - Reid Nibley, piano/Utah Symphony Orch./Maurice Abravanal - Vanguard Classics VSD 500: A wonderful trio of orchestral works redolent of the rhythms and melodies South of the Border. These classic Vanguard recordings have been around for almost 40 years now and still hold up beautifully, especially in this latest high resolution incarnation. There is simply more information here in every dimension than heard on the 44.1 CDs. There is more air around the players, more of a feeling of the venue, and the varied percussion instruments in much of this music stand out almost holographically compared to their reproduction on either CD or LP versions.

- John Sunier

 

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Candide Overture; Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront; Fancy Free Ballet - New York Philharmonic/Bernstein - Sony Classical SACD only SS 89043: The last time around of the frequent reissues of Bernstein's voluminous recorded repertory for Sony restored to high quality sonics these recordings which had sounded pretty awful on the original Columbia LPs. But now hearing some of them via the new SACD format takes us into a whole new region - restoring what the producers must have heard in the control booth at the original recording sessions! Never before have these exciting interpretations by the composer himself been heard with such clarity, detail and impact. One wants to dance right along with the dances, and according to Harvey Gizmo Ginsberg that's the only way to know you've got yourself the proper reproduction of the proper music.

- John Sunier

RICHARD STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks; Don Juan; Death and Transfiguration - The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell - Sony Classical SACD only SS 89037: Ditto the above for Szell's original Epic LPs as well as some recent reissues on Sony Classical's Original Masters series of CDs. The SACD brings out a whole new richness in these luxuriantly-orchestrated classics. I had to put on the reigning monarch of Don Juans - Reiner's on RCA Living Stereo CD. For the A/B comparison I played the CD via the MSB Link DAC using upsampling, and feeding my preamp via the Digital Antidote II. I figured that now that the Sony 9000ES was fully broken in it could stand being compared against this highly tweaked CD playback system. Both the CD and SACD were spun first on the Ultra Clarifier.

Both versions had a magnificently full and sensuous sound palette, and for my money Reiner still has the edge in the most exciting interpretation of my favorite here - Don Juan. However, there was more air and hall feeling with the SACD; everything was more three dimensional. The oboe solo in Don Juan sounded more like a real instrument on the SACD. In the major climaxes the sound was more muddled on the CD and the SACD had much greater resolution of details.

- John Sunier

 

Musique Francaise for Clarinet and Piano - Florent Heau, clarinet/Patrick Zygmanowski, piano - Lyrinx LYR 2195: A fine program with some of the loveliest pieces of music for this combination of instruments which has had such appeal for many French composers. It proceeds rather chronologically, starting with Chausson, then a lengthy clarinet sonata from Saint-Saens, Debussy's First Rhapsody, a Theme and Variations by Francaix, an Introduction and Rondo by Widor and finally a terminally tuneful sonata by Poulenc which has long been my personal favorite work for these two instruments. Clarinet was a solo instrument that never sounded quite right on LP for those of us susceptible to the minute speed variations which caused flutter and wow. On CD the instrument often sounds a bit dull and lifeless. Not so this SACD, which pulls back the sonic curtain on both piano and clarinet and brings them into your listening room. The tech notes from this French label point out the causes of harsh digital sound on 44.1 CDs and how SACD corrects that. The label uses the Brauner line of mikes and all-tube electronics in their original DSD recording.

- John Sunier

BOULEZ CONDUCTS RAVEL - Bolero, La Valse, Rapsodie Espagnole, Alborada del Gracioso, Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 - NY Philharmonic/Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez - Sony Classical SACD only SS 89121: I'm not one of the biggest fans of Boulez' interpretations, but the clarity and impact of this SACD carried me along with everything he did. The deepest bass rumblings of La Valse as so important to convey the dream-like doomed feeling Ravel wanted in this apotheosis of the waltz. Most recordings don't communicate that but this one does in spades! I had a Columbia CD of the complete Daphnis conducted by Boulez. It is so old it lacked any track numbers - one single track all the way through! With great difficulty I finally synced up the Sunrise section of the two discs. A loud noise of something in the hall getting dropped or knocked over confirmed that the two recordings were the same, at least in this section of the work. The strings on the CD are harsh and peaky - digititus at its worst. The orchestra sounded flat and opaque, with the shimmering impressionistic effects that Ravel created mostly missing. On the SACD they are they beautifully, and there is more deep bass extension just as in La Valse. The SACD has more depth, bloom, hall ambience, and the women's vocalise chorus now sounds much more like real singers rather than a track added with a synthesizer.

- John Sunier

 

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 - Jean-Claude Pennetier, p./Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orch./Serge Baudo - Lyrinx LYR 2186: These are probably the other two most-performed of the five Beethoven piano concertos after the most famous "Emperor" Concerto. I played both in college so have a strong connection to them. These are straightforward interpretations emphasizing the lyrical passages and shying away from the bombastic, though there are somewhat more exciting versions available. Pennetier's touch seems just perfect, but that may be because the SACD clarity lets one hear so much more of it than other previous recordings. The only other version I could find in my library at the moment was Rudolf Serkin's complete set for Telarc. His piano sounded absolutely horrendous next to Pennetier's on SACD. Serkin's sound was dull, wooden, airless, and yet tinny in the upper register vs. The Lyrinx piano sound. The orchestra sounded very good on both discs except for the Telarc lacking stage depth, which the SACD had in spades.

- John Sunier

CHOPIN: Sonata in B Flat minor; Scherzos Nos. 1 - 4 - Caroline Sageman, piano - Lyrinx LYR 2194: Again, I'm not sure if I'm being swayed by the clarity of the piano's reproduction on this SACD or if the young performer (unknown to me) is really that good. I recall a similar quandary when CDs were first introduced. Listening to piano recordings was such an improvement over LPs due to the complete absence of flutter and wow that even so-so performers sounded tremendous at first. Anyway, after a second listening I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to this young lady who in her eight similar photos in and on this album doesn't look like she could deliver the terrific performance she does of the Chopin Sonata. The Scherzos are also a nice disc companion that aren't often performed. This comes closer to having a real piano in your listening room than any recording I've heard before.

- John Sunier

 

MUSIC SACRA - Choir/Organ/Saxophone - Anders Paulsson, soprano sax; Mattias Wager, organ; The Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble - Opus 3 CD 19516: The 17 tracks on this lovely SACD encompass a well-programmed hour of liturgical choral and instrumental music. The 17-person mixed choir is highly skilled, with excellent intonation and enunciation. Their selections are mostly by Swedish composers and will be new to most ears. Organist Wager - recorded in a different church - performs two Bach works plus a closing anonymous early organums work. His Bach's Concerto in D Minor after Vivaldi is the main organ selection near the end of the program.

Probably inspired by the Officium albums on ECM in which Jan Garbarek played sax improvisations with a cappella choir, three of the vocal ensemble selections include saxophonist Paulsson. This is not something dictated by the record producer - the choir was already working with this leading soprano saxist who specialises in both classical and jazz. In one track - a prayer To the Mothers of Brazil - the saxophonist is joined by a percussionist. This unexpected sound fits smoothly into the choral setting and gives it a while new dimension. Both choir and organ are reproduced with utmost clarity, depth and "air." Though they are some distance away from the single stereo mike, the individual singers have an almost holographic presence in front of the listener. If you switch to the CD layer on the disc the choral sound becomes considerably more muddied and some of the "air" disappears into thin air.

- John Sunier

Benny Waters - Live at the Pawnshop (Waters, reeds; Bjorn Milder, piano; Goran Stachewsky, guitar; Goran Lind, bass; Krister Ohlsson, drums) - Opus 3 CD19911: This is not a new recording made at the Stockholm jazz club known to most audiophiles, but a historic taping made in l976. It serves as a remembrance and tribute not only to the late New Orleans jazzman who died three years ago but also to the esteemed Swedish jazz pianist Milder, who died 15 years ago. One of the principals in Opus 3 had heard Benny Waters at a jazz festival in Europe. Although expecting him to be a hoary New Orleans traditionalist, he turned out to be a versatile and very active multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who could really swing. He had played with King Oliver, Clarence Williams and Fletcher Henderson and was present in the latter's band when Louis Armstrong made his New York City debut. Ten tracks here of mostly standards: Summertime, Cherokee, Sophisticated Lady, I Can't Get Started, Indiana. The audience is more attentive than on the Proprius Jazz at the Pawnshop sessions, and the palpable presence of Waters at center stage borders on scary - whether or not you have a center channel speaker.

- John Henry

 

 

Mighty Sam McClain, vocals - Blues for the Soul (with nine piece band) - Telarc CD-83487-SA: Must admit I hadn't heard of Sam before but then I'm not heavily into the blues. McClain has been a big name in blues for the past seven years or so. He's recorded for the AudioQuest label and this is his first for Telarc, and it's a winner. Another win for McClain is the royalties he's picking up from the use of one of his songs in several episodes of the Ally McBeal TV series. In these dozen tracks - all McClain originals - he shows off not only his prodigious vocal command but also his appealing song-writing talents. This is smoothed off civilized blues, but that doesn't mean the down-home country grit isn't implied in every note. Seems to be a great deal more variety in the songs and moods here than most blues albums I've heard. Perhaps this is again the result of the higher resolving power of the SACD format; I don't know - most blues albums sounded muddy and muddled to me. I'm reminded of B.B. King as well as Jimmy Witherspoon when I hear McClain. His fine backup band is part of the musical equation too - with Barry Seleen on B-3 and Kevin Belz on guitar special standouts. The slam of the unique full-tilt B-3 sound comes across with great impact on this SACD.

- John Henry

John Pizzarelli - Kisses in the Rain - (Pizzarelli, vocals & guitar; Martin Pizzarelli, bass; Ray Kennedy, drums) - Telarc CD-83491-SA: Readers should know if they don't already that I take jazz vocalists in very small installments and really dig only a few. So I approach this excellent SACD with a beef about Pizzarelli, who did a couple of absolutely smashing guitar duo recordings with his dad Bucky, now concentrating on his vocals rather than his guitar work. It seems like a repeat to me of Earl Klugh and Nat Cole long before that (we lost a fantastic jazz pianist in that switch to pop vocals). Ignoring my beef, Pizzarelli has a small though honest and appealing voice that presents these 16 mostly standards in a smooth no-surprises sort of manner. I peg him as a sort of male version of Irene Krall, and I'm sure he's making some hearts of the opposite sex aflutter in much the same way. The delicate details of his voice and guitar work are presented with great presence via the DSD approach.

- John Henry

 

Jacintha - Autumn Leaves, The Songs of Johnny Mercer - Groove Note GRV1006-3: This jewel of an audiophile vocal jazz album has been released in LP (some tracks at 45 rpm), standard CD and gold CD versions, so it's only natural that now we have at hand the SACD version. It's not likely that many audio buffs are still unacquainted with this honey-toned Singapore vocalist. All 11 tracks are from the pen of Johnny Mercer, and her backup sextet includes tenor saxist Teddy Edwards.

The gold CD version comes out the cropper compared to the SACD, even with every tweak in the CD chain to squeeze the most out of the 44.1 format. So the LP and the SACD provided the A/B comparison here. They were very close, but the Super Audio had a more solid and deeper low bass extension and the high frequency sibilants on Jacintha's closely-miked voice were more extended - though not exaggerated as on many recordings. There was more presence on her voice on the SACD than on the LP; this seemed to counter the oft-held suspicion that moving coil cartridges exaggerate the higher frequencies. One would expect the LP to have slightly more presence. The electric guitar takes on a somewhat stronger feeling of a real instrument rather than just an electronic signal mixed into the band's sound. The breathing of Edwards on the sax also had more presence than on the LP.

- John Henry

McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster (piano/bass/drums) - Telarc CD-83488-SA: Tyner's distinctive orchestral all-over-the-keyboard approach to jazz piano has never been one of my favorite things but he has been a top performer in person and on recordings for almost 40 years now. Telarc has put him together with a great rhythm section here and I think the simpler instrumentation improves the clarity of his musical communication. Add to that the clarity of the DSD/SACD process and you have an album that will wig out his fans for certain. Eleven tracks, and seven of them are Tyner originals. One tune - I Want to Tell You 'Bout That - is presented twice: once with acoustic bass and another with electric bass. The sub-basement pitches of both come through with great detail - as well as the pronounced difference in timbre between the two (I'll take the acoustic anytime!). But in general I didn't find this particular SACD quite as much of a demo of what the format can do as with most of the others.

- John Henry

 

AUDIOPHILE REFERENCE IV - Various performers - First Impression Music FIM SACD 029: It's interesting to contrast what is selected for SACD samplers vs. what appeared on the first CD samplers, audiophile cassette samplers, stereodisc samplers, and so forth. The choices seem more subtle and less blatant now, and perhaps that is because SACD is a more subtle format that brings out small details ignored by the insufficient 44.1K sampling of standard CDs. Winston Ma of First Impression is one of the several label CEOs who has found DSD/SACD to have better resolution, musicality and fidelity. He chose these 16 selections to show up some of the qualities he heard; some of them don't even come from his own label.

The opening track is surprisingly a l972 recording of vocalist Esther Ofarims, but the quality is outstanding and her unique voice compelling. Another track is drawn from a Canadian production combining poetry and song and using a children's chorus plus actors and sound effects. It demonstrates the effectiveness of the SACD medium in separating several levels of sounds and in creating a wide and deep soundstage. A track from Antiphon Blues - saxist Arne Domnerus with pipe organ - bests the already excellent LP version, abounding in the ambience of the cathedral and the wide tonal range of the organ. The glories of choral music are sampled with a French Christmas song and one for soloist and choir, as well as two choruses from Handel's Messiah. For solo jazz vocals, tracks from both Jacintha and Ayoko Hosokawa are on the sampler. FIM is responsible for one of the many reissues of Jazz at the Pawnshop, and the High Life track from that audiophile favorite is on the sampler. In comparison with the original LPs I must report that in this case my well-worn LPs still have the edge. There is more air around the instruments on the LP version and the higher frequencies of the tambourine possess more presence. The closing track of the sampler is the All Star Percussion Ensemble's version of the Pachelbel Canon, making a smash windup to a fine sampler. By the way, the CD layer is HDCD encoded and this is a gold CD, so the sonic distance between the CD and SACD versions will be slightly reduced. Of course the improvements of the gold (if any) would affect both versions, but I have found that disc tweaks such as the Bedini Clarifier seem to make an even more pronounced enhancement of SACDs than standard CDs.

- John Sunier

The Bruce Katz Band - Three Feet Off the Ground (Bruce Katz, B 3 and piano; Julien Kasper, guitar; Blake Newman, bass; Ralph Rosen, drums) - AudioQuest Music AQ-SACD1056: The Hammond B-3 is at the forefront of this blues-based instrumental quartet. It formerly had more members and I suppose they just decided to stay with the "band" designation when they because a quartet. The 11 tunes are all by Katz, who shares one of them with his drummer. The album's title tune describes how Katz feels when he's wailing on his B-3 and the audience is grooving with him. This disc shows how even with funky, no frills music such as this the increased resolution draws the listener in more readily and increases enjoyment.

- John Henry

 

and last but not least...=

Flim & The BB's - TriCycle (Billy Barber, piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizers; Bill Berg, drums/percussion; Flim Johnson, 5 string Alembic basses & Oberheim synth.; Dick Oatts, alto, soprano and tenor sax, flute, clarinet) - DMP SACD-08: If an obsessive audiophile (is there another kind?) bought every version of this super-classic audiophile demo album he would have quite a collection by now. There was the original CD, mastered from a 2-track Mitsubishi digital recorder. (It used a 50.4K sampling rate instead of 44.1K or 48K.) Then there was an audiophile LP (not issued by DMP themselves - it wasn't very good), an audiophile cassette (still have it - not bad!), then a gold 20-bit SBM remastered CD and now this SACD. Whew!

I used the first track, the title tune, with its sudden loud transients of drums and piano together (and perhaps synthesizer?) that became a sort of jazz audiophile version of the "surprise" part of Haydn's Surprise Symphony. The untweaked (except for carbon fibre cones) Sony 9000ES with its analog SACD out feeding my preamp (via a very long Monster Cable interconnect) was matched against my Arcam CD transport (heavily weighted down and on Black Diamond cones on a thick MSB Iso-Plate base) feeding first a pair of the Monarchy SuperDrives in tandem, then the MSB DAC III with 96 upsampling, then into the Taddeo Digital Antidote II, and finally a pair of the Bybee P/C Solution interconnect filters feeding a short Nordost interconnect to my preamp. Got that? (I'll repeat it in my 9000ES review in case you missed it.)

Well, I didn't have the LP anymore so I started matching the plain aluminum CD against the SACD. Not even close. The CD sounded dulled, distant, opaque. Next came the gold CD - by the way, each of these was also spun on the Ultra Clarifier. The SACD disk is also gold, as are a number of the SACDs, I have noted. Now we're getting close, but still not there. The SACD was way ahead of the 44.1 gold in impact, deepest bass, and general resolution all around. It gave me a fresh new take on this wonderful album that I hadn't heard since the gold CD came out. I realized it's one of my favorites even though it is supposedly fusion jazz and I don't generally like fusion jazz. There's so many great original tunes and such a variety of sounds due to the imaginative synth work. In fact I would call this one of the most successful examples of synthesizer programming in recorded jazz even though it was done nearly 20 years ago. Take the electronic marimba sounds in the delightful Lunch Hour Wedding March - can't get enough of it! And if you're SACD-savy already, you have to get it too.

- John Sunier

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