SACD REVIEWS - May 2001, Pt. 1 of 2 - All Classical
Continuing our survey of both SACD-only and hybrid discs begun a year ago and continued the last three months, we have 19 reviews this time. The more that we listen to this "digital done right" format the more we appreciate the subtle and not-so-subtle sonic details that were simply not present on standard 44.1 CDs. And that's doing A/B comparisons with CD playback on the Sony 9000ES, which when properly broken in achieves really outstanding 44.1 CD playback quality. While I'm waiting with baited breath for either the Philips or Sony multichannel player so I can finally audition the stack of multichannel SACDs at hand, I beg to differ violently with the fellow audio writer and former contributor to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION who stated recently in another publication that he thought two-channel SACD was "a cruel joke played on consumers" by the record labels involved.
STRAVINSKY: The Firebird Suite; BORODIN: Overture & Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Robert Shaw - Telarc SACD-60039:
MOUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain - The Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel - Telarc SACD-60042:
Both of these album were mainstay LP albums of the early Telarc years, before CDs and long before the current high resolution formats. They were both recorded in l978 using Thomas Stockham's unique Soundstream digital recording system, which was based on a 50kHz sampling rate vs. The 44.1K rate later adopted for the introduction of the compact disc in l983. With LPs there were many compromises in mastering the analog discs from the digital masters. When CDs came in it was just about as bad because although the digital recording could now remain in the digital mode from master to user, the discrepancy between the 50K and 44.1K sampling rates required awkward sample-rate conversion that produced nasty artifacts.
With the over 100KHz frequency response of the DSD technology it was easy to convert the SoundStream masters to DSD. So now for the first time the 25KHz high frequency response of the originals can be transmitted to SACD without serious losses. Even the 44.1 CD layer on this SACD sounds better than the previous Telarc CDs due to the improved sample rate conversion inherent in going thru the DSD format to get to the CD master.
There are three different Firebirds on SACD reviewed this month for some reason. Though he was known primarily as a choral conductor, Robert Shaw's brilliant performance of the Stravinsky work is a marvel, and with the increased resolution of SACD it shines with a brilliance it didn't before have. Of the three versions, this would clearly be the one to have from an audiophile standpoint. The smashing opening of King Kastchei's Infernal Dance - an audiophile demo gem for Telarc ever since their first 7-inch demo mono LP in the 50's - hits the listener right in the solar plexus. The feeling of Atlanta's Symphony Hall is palpable, whereas on the CD version there's just a nebulous space. The familiar, exotically melodic music from Prince Igor is enlivened by this being the version of the popular Polovtsian Dances with the chorus singing in the original Russian. The clarity and spatial spread of the choral voices is a testament to SACD's higher resolution capabilities.
Moussorgsky' Pictures has also been an audiophile warhorse for a long time. I remember discovering it first in Toscanini's colorful interpretation. Here again Telarc has one of its most popular albums, also originating from l978. The opening Night on Bald Mountain is another dynamic, demo-quality performance and recording. The greater involvement in the music provided by SACD makes this old warhorse a pleasure to hear again instead of a punishment. It's as though all the pictures in this exhibition had fogged-up glass on their frames and the DSD process has applied Glass Wax liberally - allowing us to experience all the fine details clearly for the first time.
On Broadway - Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra - Telarc SACD CD-80498-SA:
Again, you have here symphonic performances/arrangements that are a bit more lavish and polished than one hears coming from the pit at a Broadway show. Yet the CD version of this disc devoted to music from fairly recent efforts on the Broadway boards left me cold. I felt it was just that Kunzel's many Telarc albums have more of a stereo demo image in my mind than music I would seek out for sheer musical enjoyment.
Now hearing the higher res SACD version of the album I appreciate much more the intriguing arrangements and demo-quality dynamic performances by Kunzel and his crew. This is very good playing and extremely good recording that can again serve as great demo material for any audio system with an SACD player. What's even more noticeable though is the paucity of melodic invention in nearly all of these 18 tracks from such shows as Miss Saigon, The Lion King, City of Angels, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Rent, Grand Hotel, Les Miserables and others. The ragtime imitations from both the show of that name and the Titanic musical are catchy little items, but in general most of these tunes don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Kern, Rodgers, Gershwin, Weill, Porter and company. Thanks to Telarc for using the distinctive rounded-corner SACD jewel box. Its hinges are still the weak point of the case but at least there is less chance of mixing up SACDs and standard CDs as with the standard jewel-box-in-a-cardboard-sleeve that Sony Music employs.
- John Sunier
BERNARD HERMANN - The Film Scores = The Man Who Knew Too Much: Prelude; Psycho Suite; Marnie Suite; North by Northwest: Overture; Vertigo Suite; Torn Curtain; Fahrenheit 451 Suite Strings, Harp & Percussion; Taxi Driver: A Night-Piece for Orchestra - Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen - Sony Classical SACD SS 62700:
The LA Philharmonic has put an emphasis on great film scores in its programs of the last several years - a sensible and appropriate step considering its locality. And it would be difficult to find a greater creator of film music in Hollywood than Bernard Hermann. So this l996 original CD was dedicated to the late composer. These are a bit more symphonic and highly polished treatments than one normally gets on either an original soundtrack album or some of the recreations of film music by orchestras such as the Prague Philharmonic or Moscow Radio Symphony, good as those are. I would say Salonen's is more on a level with the famous Victor Red Seal film music series conducted by Charles Gerhardt. The suite arrangements are especially attractive, giving one a mini score of highlight themes that's more in depth than just a three-minute run through the title music but less repetitious and tedious than many CDs devoted entirely to a single soundtrack. The Psycho and Fahrenheit 451 suites are standouts in this collection.
Just as with more standard symphonic fare, the SACD trumped the CD version in clarity of details in the colorful orchestrations, in expansion of the stereo soundstage, and in "air" around and separation of the individual sections and instruments. There also seemed to be a more extended low bass end. (I also have a pre-recorded DAT of this album, probably a pre release tape send to me. My DAT player is currently packed away during my move, so a comparison was not possible, but it is probably a 44.1 K DAT so would sound identical to the CD. A comparison with the higher sampling rate of DSD/SACD would only make sense if the DAT was recorded at the optional 48K sampling rate, which was hearable vs. 44.1 on most material.)
- John Sunier
MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major "Titan" - New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein - Sony Classical SACD SS7069:
While many critics have praised Bernstein's second time through the Mahler symphonies - for DGG - I continue to prefer his first discing of the massive works for the Columbia label, now Sony Classical. They seem to my ears to possess a vitality and excitement that is missing from the more polished and flowing DGG set. Unfortunately the original LPs were pretty awful and the first attempts at CD reissues lost a lot of the impact of the master tapes - sounding opaque and flat. Not so this magnificent remastering for SACD. The orchestra never sounded better, and as with many of the even earlier Golden Age RCA Living Stereo reissues, one can hardly believe that the original tapes date from the middle 1960s. Any previous annoying distortion, compression, and hiss is gone and the music shines with a gem-like clarity that I'm sure would have pleased the composer himself. The funeral march of the forest animals bearing the hunter creates an almost visual - and in widescreen color at that - image in your mind's eye. Bravo Bernstein and SACD!
- John Sunier
MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" - Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano/Petra Lang, mezzo/Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Andrew Litton - Delos SACD 3237 (2 discs):
The first SACD release from Delos had two surprises for me. First, I expected it would be a multichannel SACD due to the label's early commitment to mastering in multichannel form to be ready for any future release format. Instead the album is stereo only. It does employ Delos' own VR2 matrix surround process, which should provide some surround soundfield if you have any sort of matrix decoder (I look forward to trying this one when the first component with Pro Logic II comes through my door.) Second, it was surprising to encounter a double-disc album crammed into a single-SACD disc jewel box. The two discs are simply stuck, the top one not at all securely, on the single center expansion holder. I had thought that the SACD medium allowed for more than the 80 minute maximum of today's 44.1 CDs. Perhaps the thought was to retain the CD compatibility of this hybrid disc (only the Sony Music SACDs are SACD-only) by putting the first movement of the symphony on a separate 23-minute disc. I don't know the cost of this album - I presume it's not 2 X $25 = $50.
While the performance doesn't push aside my favorites - Bernstein on Sony Classical and Kaplan on MCA - it is heart-felt and satisfying. The complexities of the score are laid out with astounding clarity but the work still flows beautifully through Mahler's contrasting emotional states. The dynamic range becomes especially astounding at several points - this is first row center acoustics.
A couple of packaging beefs though: Sony is using the old familiar CD jewel box to house the actual SACDs, and the SACD logo on the side of the box is extremely small, thus causing possible confusion with one's collection of 44.1 CDs. I already accidentally switched the two formats of one album - even on the actual SACD label the DSD designation is very subtle, and the actual 44.1 CD also carried a DSD logo! (In fact lots of standard CDs now sport the prominent DSD label since it is being used to master an increasing number of recordings which are then issued as 44.1 CDs using Sony's Super Bit Mapping.) Next, the jewel box is slid - some might say glued - into a thin cardboard sleeve open at both sides. The problem is that the jewel box has that thick tape along the top edge - it doesn't have any printing on it since it wouldn't be visible. So why have it? Since it makes the box so snug inside the sleeve that I had to use long-nose pliers on a couple of them to extricate the jewel boxes, in the process tearing the cardboard sleeve. (I would just trash the outside sleeve as I do with many of the ECM CDs that come with it, but then there would be even less to identify the contents as SACD rather than CD format.) It seems self-defeating enough that all Sony SACDs so far are not hybrid two-layer format, let's at least have them in the same heavier, rounded-edge jewel boxes most of the other labels are using! Grump grump.
- John Sunier
RACHMANINOFF: Concerto No. 3 in E Minor - Arcadi Volodos, p./Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine; RACHMANINOFF: 6 solo piano works - Volodos - Sony Classical SACD SS 64384:
Even a fairly modest classical collection probably includes the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, probably with Horowitz, Cliburn or even the composer himself (recently reissued on Naxos). It's one of the greats of the piano concerto repertory, combining gorgeous melody and with astonishing technical hurdles that test the top virtuosi. And it's not so overplayed that it grates on the ear like the Second Concerto or Tchaikovsky's First. Volodos deserves without a doubt to be in the company of the above-mentioned virtuosi of the keyboard. His technical mastery is balanced with great emotional communication. As Horowitz had done, he has created some brilliant piano transcriptions that few other pianists would dare play. Volodos' previous two albums for Sony Classical were big hits and this one followed their pattern in its CD version. Now here it is via DSD, with the live performance placing the listener more convincingly in the Berlin concert hall than ever before. The first of the six solo pieces is Volodos' transcription of the lovely slow movement of the Rachmaninoff Cello-Piano Sonata. He also plays a Serenade, a Romance, the Etude-Tableaux in C-Sharp Minor and three Preludes.
- John Sunier
MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 (two movts.); WALTON: Partita for Orchestra; STRAVINSKY: Firebird Suite - The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell - Sony Classical SACD SS 89415:
These originals date from l959, early in the stereo era. Firebird Number Two for this month turns out to be typically precise a la Szell, not as richly limned as Robert Shaw's but also not as dry as old Igor himself (see below). It's probably not the prime attraction of this SACD, which would be the other two works. For the non-extended two-movement all-Mahler version of his No. 10, Szell's is one of the best. Very moving and elegiac; the subtle soft passages here communicate so much more when they're not lost in noise or shadowy sonics. The Walton Partita was a favorite of Szell's. It's a highly original three-movement work ending in a brilliant Burlesque Gigue. The entire piece has a very happy demeanor to it not found in many symphonic works today. One can only smile at its conclusion - especially in the rich and detailed sonics provided by this DSDing.
- John Sunier
STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; The Firebird Suite - Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky - Sony Classical SACD SS 89062:
These l960 sessions conducted by the composer have been issued and reissued countless times and written about at length. They are among the best-known examples in recording history of composers conducting their own works so that listeners can appreciate exactly how the creator of the works wanted them to sound. The general feeling has been that Stravinsky wanted great preciseness, with very clean delineation of every detail in his scores. It was also felt that the resulting LPs and CDs, while interesting in a musicological way, were rather thin and meager-sounding in the sonic department. Well, I can't imagine any listener calling the sound quality of this SACD thin! Now we are finally hearing what Stravinsky was trying to get out of his crack symphony soloists assembled for these sessions in New York and Hollywood. True, it's not as full and richly exotic as Shaw's Telarc SACD, but meager it's not. The opening slam of King Katschei's Dance will set you back just as effectively as Shaw's or Dorati's on Mercury. This is a milestone in symphonic recording that should be in any classical collection alongside other more recent versions of both works.
- John Sunier
VERDI: Requiem - Amara, Forrester, Tucker, London/Philadelphia Orchestra/Westminster Choir/Eugene Ormandy - Sony Classical SACD SS 707:
This recording from l964 has been one of the great Verdi Requiems in the catalog over the years. The four soloists are absolutely tops and Ormandy and his Philadelphians deliver both the drama and the lyricism of this very impressive operatic-leaning liturgical music. With SACD the soloists have amazing presence and the individual members of the choir are differentiated much more clearly than with the 44.1K CD version. But the real sonic thrill comes with all three sudden appearances of the Dies irae Judgement Day music. Wow. With the extended dynamics and undistorted transients the impact is enough to wake the dead. That's in fact what it's supposed to be doing. This was taped prior to the quad scare, so there's no four channel version of this to issue on multichannel SACD. That's unfortunate, because works this huge in sound - even if they don't have the brass-in-the-balcony of Berlioz' Requiem - could really benefit from discrete surround.
- John Sunier
Continue on to Part 2 of SACD Reviews
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