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30 Hi-Res Audio Reviews
May 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Classical
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****MULTICHANNEL OF THE MONTH****

BACH: The Four Great Toccatas and Fugues on the Four Antiphonal Organs of the Cathedral of Freiburg - played simultaneously from one console by E. Power Biggs - Sony Classical multichannel SACD SS 87983:

After the quadraphonic scare burned itself out in the 70s I saved about a half dozen quad LPs which had some interesting surround effects in spite of all the losses of separation due to the matrixing process. This program was one of them. I do have the Cantares processor which had an SQ decoder but didn’t have time to set it up to do an A/B. It’s hardly worth the effort because with the groove distortions and other artifacts common to the SQ LPs there is no way it could be the equal of this superb 5.1 remix from the original 4.0 tapes.

The four Bach works begin with the familiar T & F in D Minor, go on to the less-familiar “Dorian” in the same key, the one in F Major and then conclude with the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major. There are a number of great cathedrals around the world with multiple organs installed, but few with four of them, and all in excellent playing order as the one in Freiburg, Germany where Biggs recorded this surround sound spectacular in 1973. They crew had to record in the middle of the night to avoid street sounds, and the first night the police came because someone had reported all the lights on in the cathedral at 3 AM.

The church is 100 meters front to back and has a reverb time of six seconds, which is beautifully communicated by the 5.1 SACD re-mix. (It made me hanker for a multichannel SACD recorded in either SF’s Grace Cathedral or NYC’s St. John’s.) The layout of the four organs is not exactly conforming to squarish quad setup, so the producers “bent” the orientation into a square to enhance the antiphonal effects. The first organ is near the altar, the second behind it in the choir area, the third is in the midst of the congregation halfway along the length of the sanctuary, and the fourth organ is up in the gallery over the entrance to the cathedral.

Biggs points out in his notes how Bach made use of space - both in the rests in some of the massive passages to allow the reverberation of the cathedral to suspend the music in mid-air, and also in assigning different banks of pipes located at alternate sides of the organ to contrasting voices in the toccatas and fugues. Biggs enlarged on some of these spatial cues to send the different contrapuntal voices to different organs around the cathedral. So melodies may juggle around front to back, side to side or criss-crossing, resulting in a superb demonstration of a very creative use of surround sound which doesn’t destroy the musical sense a bit but actually ramps it up to exciting levels. The separation of the threads of the counterpoint in fact helps to clarify the music. I brings new life and freshness to the old chestnut of the T & F in D Minor. I recall it was often difficult to place the location of the sounds from the four organs on the quadraphonic LP - that problem doesn’t exist now! Some reviewers have knocked the reliance of the major labels in reissuing so much classical material from their vaults for the new multichannel formats rather than making new digital recordings. It’s true that some of such re-mix efforts for multichannel have not been very satisfying, but this one shows what can be done. Finally - after three decades - we are hearing substantially what Biggs himself heard in the Freiburg cathedral, and it is indeed a major pleasure for those of us partial to SSfM [Surround Sound for Music] ! Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Piano Concertos No. 9, K271 “Jeunehomme” & No. 25, K503 - Alfred Brendel, p./Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras - Philips multichannel SACD 470 616-2:

Bet I’m not the only one who had long thought the nickname for the K271 piano concerto written by the 21-year-old Mozart referred to it having been penned by the “young man” genius. When in fact it was the actual last name of a female French pianist for whom Mozart wrote the concerto! Being so early in his ouvre, this concerto has been recorded previously on the harpsichord, which is my personal preference. But Brendel does a fine job of delivering the delicate passages as well as making use of the piano’s greater emotional range in the unusual and extensive ten-minute long Rondo-Finale. This is the only one of his concertos in which Mozart allows the piano soloist to introduce the opening theme of the first movement. No. 25 is of course a more virtuosic work, and both concertos have extensive improvised cadenzas. The piano/orchestral balance is just right. I found these among the most enjoyable Mozart piano concerto recordings I have ever auditioned. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

La Folia 1490-1701 - Versions by CORELLI, MARAIS, MARTIN Y COLL., ORTIZ and ANONIMOS - Jordi Savall, violes de gambe, with sextet including guitar, theorbo, organ, claviorganum, harpsichord, triple harp, percussion, castanettes and cascabeles - Alia Vox stereo SACD AVSA 9805:

In the medieval/early music period it was fashionable to take a familiar melody and create both improvisations and written music based on it. The Dies Irae melody is one that many performers and composers used - and is still used in works of our time such as by Rachmaninoff and many others. L’homme armé was another melody used in many polyphonic masses. La Folia - a simple melody with a strong bass line - was originally a colorful dance tune to which peasants in the Middle Ages danced. Nobles and royalty would engage them to perform it at weddings and other celebrations in much the same way plantation owners in the 19th century U.S. South would retain slaves to dance to African-derived tunes and rhythms.

La Folia is thought to have originated in Portugal as early as the 15th century and it was familiar thru most of Europe by the 16th. While various songs were based on La Folia, Savall has here presented only instrumental works by a variety of composers. The first two serve as examples of the many other famous names who made use of this familiar tune - including both J.S. & CPE Bach, Allesandro Scarlatti and Vivaldi. It is fascinating to hear the different treatments of the same theme by different composers in this era when improvisation was almost as central to classical music as it is to jazz today. In fact, the SACD could be viewed as an early music version of jazz albums in which many different players improvise on the same jazz standard, such as How High the Moon. The detailed note booklet, printing, packaging and clean sonics of this hybrid stereo SACD display the high standards of this French early music label. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor - Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Hartmut Haenchen - Live recording at the Concertgebouw - PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 004:

There are some lovely views of Venice in and out of this SACD but no explanation why in the notes. I recall the film Death in Venice involved not only a Mahler figure but excerpts from his Fifth, so I suppose that’s the connection here. The composer never seemed satisfied with the work, which influenced by a study of Bach had employed more counterpoint than most of his symphonies, and was still polishing it up until three months before his death. This is new recording made in six channels in 2001 in the acclaimed acoustics of the Concertgebouw.

The Netherlands Philharmonic is one of the “other orchestras” that plays in the famed hall, and though there is no bio information on Haenchen he obviously is far from a Mahler newbie on the strength of this thrilling performance. In common with the Second, the Fifth opens with a funeral march and ends in a joyful mood. The third movement Scherzo, normally the shortest in a symphony, is here the longest by far of the five movements and the composer’s longest Scherzo. It plays with both ländler and waltz rhythms and is full of the emotional conflict between moods so typical of Mahler. The Rondo-Finale summons energy that was strained in the earlier movements and brings the work to a more optimistic conclusion. My favorite Mahler Fifth is Bernstein’s - the Columbia original is white hot but shows its sonic age in the many big climaxes, and the DGG is a bit more rounded off but still demonstrating the Bernstein dramatic edge. It’s only stereo and also showing its age, while Haenchen’s version seems to achieve drama partly thru an exciting performance and partly thru the excitement of placing the listener quite convincingly in the middle of the Concertgebouw. The upcoming SF Symphony Mahler Fifth may bump it, but for now this disc is a real achievement in the multichannel form. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Symphony No. 29 in A; Symphony No. 5 in B-flat “The Hague;” Serenade in D “Serenata notturna;” Serenade in G “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” - Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra/Marco Boni - PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 002:

Interesting that the above recording featured an orchestra other than the Concertgebouw playing in that famous hall, yet this features that organization’s chamber orchestra playing in a different hall - a church in Amsterdam. Perhaps it was felt a venue with less voluminous acoustics was more appropriate for the smaller sound of the chamber orchestra in Mozart. The sound has plenty of richness and body; the reverberation of the Fr. horns is especially strong in reflecting off the walls and giving a spacious feeling to the venue in multichannel. The 29th symphony is the first really mature Mozart symphony that receives regular public performance. No. 5 is a product of the eight-year-old Mozart and an amazing feat; though only about six minutes long it is full of very mature melodic development and variation, often in a difficult minor key. Of course the concluding Eine kleine Nachtmusik is at the top of Mozart’s Greatest Hits List, but takes on a very pleasant freshness in this surrounding serenade. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor; Nutcracker Suite - New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein - Sony Classical multichannel SACD SS 87982-6:

This is a sensible pairing of two Tchaikovsky works, but it turns out they were recorded 15 years apart. The Symphony comes from 1975, during the quad era, but the Nutcracker is from 1960, just after the stereodisc appeared on the scene and it is doubtful it was recorded multitrack. There are some rough edits in the symphony - one especially bad at 12:48 into the first movement. Tchaikovsky himself described the symphony as dealing with Fate, and its alternation of moods of melancholy and exultation are made to order for the Bernstein treatment. One can’t complain about the surround channels being too subtle on this one as on some other Sony Classical SACDs - those trumpets and cymbals come at you from the side/rear stronger than reflections would be in a typical concert hall. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Surprisingly the Nutcracker has a very similar multichannel mix and sound to the symphony - there is no hint that it is a much older recording. In both works the signals at the surrounds appear to be artificially created using digital reverb. Perhaps that’s why the trumpets and percussion seem to stand out more strongly. The alternation of the pizzicatti strings from side to side at the beginning of the Chinese Dance is much more graphic in surround than it was in stereo. If the Sony engineering staff is getting this good at creating 5.1 mixes out of even two-channel material (if that’s what these are), I’d hanker to hear some of those first stereo SACD releases of Bernstein, Szell and Walter re-done for multichannel. After all, the 4.0 mix of Jazz at the Pawnshop on F.I.M. Was quite successful, but that was originally recorded direct to two track with a Blumlein mike pickup and Columbia was using multimike techniques which should eliminate that type of pure L - R ambient information. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence; Serenade for Strings - Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra/Marco Boni - PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD 5186 009:

More Tchaikovsky, again in first-rate performance and sound. Originally composed for string sextet, the Souvenir of Florence is heard here in a string orchestra transcription by an arranger who is not identified. There’s no special program attached to the work - it is pure music just as the much-played Serenade for Strings. Both works have four movements, a variety of dance-like and more contemplative moods, and quotes of Russian themes here and there. The players are spread out in a sort of horseshoe arrangement and the surround gives a spatial distinction and clarity to the individual strings not heard on any two-channel version. As with the Eine kleine Nachtmusik above I didn’t mind a bit hearing the Serenade yet again, and I tend to be especially resistant to over chestnunting.Purchase Here

- John Sunier


HOLST: The Planets - Bruckner Orchester Linz/Mozart Choir Linz/Dennis Russell Davies - Chesky multichannel SACD234:

Oh boy, another Planets. And I see yet another SACD Planets is coming out next month too. Enough awready. But if by some strange coincidence you are reading this, have SACD playback facility and *don’t* have a Planets in the new format yet, you really couldn’t go wrong purchasing this one. I search for some of my other hi-res Planets but could only find Bernstein’s from 1973 that I reviewed last month. I must have like it so much that I deliberately misplaced the others... The Bernstein on Sony Classical, remixed from the original tapes recorded for quad, has a dramatic excitement that hasn’t palled over the intervening years. His opening Mars movement really sounds like we’re going to war. Well...oh, never mind.

This is not conductor Davies’ usual repertory though he also turns in a dramatic reading - just not quite a fiery as Bernstein’s. But the sonics and surround field are more transparent and dynamic for sure. The mystical Neptune movement shines brightly with its wordless women’s voices - I’m a pushover for that wonderful sound. The center channel is employed and there is nothing in the notes about the 5.1 alternative setup for side height information which Chesky used on previous SACDs, so perhaps they are no longer doing that. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

FRANZ SCHMIDT: Symphony No. 4 in C; Orchestral Music from “Notre Dame” - Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam/Yakov Kreizberg - PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD 5186 015:

PentaTone started off by remixing for SACD some fine four channel masters from Philips which were created for possible quad release in the 70s (see our past reviews by entering PentaTone in site search engine). I had remarked that the sense of their name - Penta indicating five something - didn’t fit the 4.0 discs. But now it does because this is one of a new series of recordings just made last year and using five channels of DSD.

The newly-appointed conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic remarks in his notes that Schmidt’s symphony is unjustly neglected, and he is trying to remedy with performances of the work in many locations. It is full of striking melodies and strong emotional content. Perhaps this beautifully-realized multichannel recording will help to spread the word of a work that should be in the core repertory. Schmidt regarded it as a requiem for the death of his young daughter. The Adagio movement is a sort of funeral march which carries the brunt of the lament with its slow, percussion-marked processional feeling. The same percussion sound used by composers such as Mahler and Messiaen to denote death or doom is used by Schmidt at the end of the Adagio - the tam-tam. The filler on the SACD is three excerpts from Schmidt’s ill-fated opera Notre Dame: an Introduction, Intermezzo and Carnival Music. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

SHOSTAKOVICH: Concerto No. 1 in C Minor for Piano, Trumpet & Strings; Concerto No;. 2 in F Major for Piano; USTVOLSKAYA: Concerto for Piano, Timpani & Strings - Ingrid Jacoby, p./Royal Philharmonic Orch./Sir Charles Mackerras - Dutton Laboratories multichannel SACD CDSA 4804:

Well, this SACD is quite a technical jump for Dutton, since their reputation so far has been made on the creating some of the most successful restorations of historical 78 rpm recordings to CD. These DSD sessions were made just last year and Tony Faulkner was the recording engineer. The acoustically famous Watford Town Hall was the venue. Jacoby has performed with leading orchestras of the U.S. and Europe and her previous Dutton SACD of Russian Piano Music was one of Gramophone’s “Choices of the Year” (I somehow missed that SACD). Mackerras will be of course familiar to most.

If your general impression of Shostakovich is one of rather depressing mood and hard-to-find melody, try on these two delightful piano concertos for size. They are full of great whistlable tunes and an almost French wit and lilt at times. The finale of the first actually gets rowdy, and the romantic main theme in the second concerto’s Andante movement is not easily forgotten. Ustvolskaya is a leading contemporary Russian composer who was close to Shostakovich, and composed her only piano concerto in the turbulent year of 1946. It has an unbalanced rythmic device heard thru most of the work, as well as intensely lyrical passages. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

CHOPIN: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor; Berceuse Op. 57; Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61; Two Nocturnes Op. 62; Three Waltzes Op. 64; Three Mazurkas Op. 59; Barcarolle Op. 60 - Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano - Decca multichannel SACD 470 608-2:

In this program which pianist-conductor Ashkenazy recorded in l999 in Finland, the organizing theme is works composed by Chopin late in his life. He had visited all of these forms earlier on and now had a more mature view of what he wanted to explore in them. The last of the Ballades is a difficult improvised-sounding work that, along with the other three, comes the closest to genuine tone poems. There is clearly a flow of story-telling going on, but the listener only gets the emotion of the story, not the specific details. The Polonaise-fantasie is a nearly 13-minute work, also full of disparate improvised-sounding sections. The first of the three waltzes will immediately be recognized as The Minute Waltz. Ashkenazy plays very well and Decca’s multichannel presentation is natural and free of the 30-foot-wide piano syndrome, but for my taste there are more exciting Chopin interpretations from other fingers. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 - Anna Tomowa-Sintow/Agnes Baltsa/Peter Schreier/Jose van Dam/Wiener Singverein/Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan - DGG multichannel SACD 471 640-2:

This began as a l976 recording session that was recorded in at least four channels, because Karajan never did any anything halfway. It may also be the same performance immortalized on the DGG video of the Ninth, I don’t have it at hand to compare. Now remixed as a 5.1 SACD it works quite well, lacking only the deeper bass extension that a more modern recording might display. That’s unfortunate since the tympani and bass drum play such an important part in the work. However, the vocal Ode to Joy final movement is thrilling, with a quartet of really excellent singers and perfect balance with each other and with the symphony. The chorus is also easier to understand than on many other Ninth final movements. There’s little need to analyze the work. I believe it’s the first multichannel SACD Ninth, Barenboim being some competition on DVD-A. Purchase Here
- John Sunier

JEAN-BAPTIST LULLY: “L’Orchestre Du Roi Soleil”= Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite; Le Divertissement Royal suite; Alceste suite - Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall - AliaVox Stereo SACD AVSA 9807:

Another extravagantly designed and package album from the French label. (I want to know why King Louis has his wig on but his shirt off in the cover painting.) No musician - even Wagner - received from his royal patron the financial, material and moral support that Lully did from Louis XIV. He had almost unlimited resources from which to create his works, and create he did. Being of Italian birth but French by adoption, Lully perfectly combined the musical cultures of the two. The King’s 24 Violins, organized by Lully, constituted the first orchestra in the modern meaning of the word. The composer also had plenty of other virtuoso musicians to work with: oboists, flutists, brass and keyboard players, lutenists and guitarists, and a variety of percussion. These three suites are collections of music Lully composed for various dance and operatic productions around 1670. Most of the movements are dance-based and many are extremely brief - only a bit over a minute. This is a colorful musical reflection of the gloire of King Louis XIV, who so loved music and dance that he spared nothing to mount these extravaganzas. The original recording was 96K PCM, then transferred to DSD for SACD release.Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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