Hi-Res Audio Reviews
October 2002 - Part 2 of 3 Classical  
                   click on any cover to go directly to its review below                     


BILLY JOEL: Fantasies & Delusions - Music for solo piano - Richard Joo, piano - Sony Classical Columbia stereo SACD-only CS 85397:

Yes, this is not only the same pop singer-songwriter Billy Joel, but the same album I reviewed 11 months back in our Classical CDs section. Only now it’s an SACD-only release. Back then I felt the ten piano pieces were nearly all in the Romantic vein of Schubert and Schumann, sometimes seeming almost to be quoting from them. Yet others echoed a bit of Beethoven or Mozart. Three waltzes are perhaps influenced by Brahms and Chopin. I hadn’t heard the album since then and this time around I listened really closely, late at night. Also, my system is better tweaked now, including an extensive mod on my stereo SACD player, the Sony 9000ES. Back then the pieces sounded like forgettable, rather bloodless salon music. Now, whether due to the improved resolution, better playback quality or just increased familiarity with the music, Joel’s pieces still sound derivative, but now many of them sound like Rachmaninoff rather than Schumann! The emotional communication of the far-ranging dynamics is strong and I genuinely enjoyed them this time around. Well, being lazy I’ll just paste in here the rest of my original review to save your having to go to our search engine, OK?:

Joel selected a better pianist than himself to record the works and the session was held in Vienna because of the musical/philosophical connections for him. He alludes in his own notes to ghosts or spirits - that there is something in the atmosphere in Vienna that connects one to this sort of music. That connected me with the recordings by Rosemary Brown of some years back who claimed to have a string of famous composers such as Schubert and Beethoven dictate new piano pieces to her from the Beyond. Joel's pieces remind me strongly of Brown's - having many qualities undeniably of the particular composer in question but still sounding like that composer on a rather "off" day. The most original aspect of this CD is the cover art - an accurate imitation of the front of the G. Schirmer piano music collections which every piano student has carried around and struggled with.   Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BELA BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra; The Miraculous Mandarin - New York Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez - Sony Classical SACD only SS 87710:

The Concerto for Orchestra was considered one of the classical quadraphonic must-haves back in l972. I still have the SQ LP somewhere but couldn’t put my hands on it for this review. Thomas Shepard was the original producer and he tried to put the listener in the middle of the orchestra to spotlight even more than Bartok’s original score already did the various instrumental sections that are featured in this sort of successor to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I received an email from a reader who complained that this was basically a three-front-channels recording similar to the Everest surprise I covered a couple months back that was labeled multichannel but had absolutely no signal in the surrounds. However, I find the surround channels to be fairly normal for recent multichannel orchestral CDs that are not trying to put the listener in the middle of the band. Perhaps in mixing it was decided to minimize the exaggerated surround effects of the original four-channel tapes, keeping in mind that there are no longer serious losses of separation a la SQ and QS, since each channel is now discrete. The Concerto is right up there with the preferred choices of this exciting modern work and the surround makes it easier than ever to isolate the special sounds of each instrumental section even after they have been melded together for the big finish. The suite from the Mandarin ballet is a good introduction to a strange work steeped in a scenario of sex and death, but I prefer the recent CD version by the Lyon Orchestra that I review this issue in the Classical section.   Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Palladian Ensemble - Held By the Ears (Pamela Thorby, recorders; Rachel Podger, violin; Susanne Heinrich, bass viol; Wm. Carter, guitar/lute/theorbo) - Linn Stereo SACD CKD 168:

This sparkling hi-res disc stuck me as similar to the many chamber-ensemble Baroque albums on the Dorian label, but somehow it resonated with me even more successfully. Usually an entire album of such intimate early music is a stretch for my ears unless it features harpsichord prominently or the music of one of my favorite Baroque composers such as Zelenka or Scarlatti. Being entirely instrumental helped, as well as the fact that the Palladian Ensemble takes a dashing and exuberant approach to this music, not allowing themselves to be weighed down by overly hewing to academic/musicological correctness. In fact, the four players sound like they have spontaneous connections that reminds one of the interplay of the best jazz quartets. Add to this the repertory on this SACD, which is mostly music of an obscure Italian composer who was active in England in the 17th century - Nicola Matteis. The subtitle of this album comes from a contemporary description of one of the violin virtuoso/composer’s performances. He qualifies as creating some of the wildest music of the period - in a class with Gesualdo, Zelenka and Kuhnau. When they first began rehearsing some of his pieces, one of the Palladian players observed that it sounded a bit like rock n’ roll. Matteis was also known for his improvisation skills, his variations on folk tunes, and the immense volume of his compositions. The Palladians have chosen some of the very best and mixed them with anonymous and their own variations on various Scottish airs. A delightful musical discovery enhanced via the crystalline reproduction of this DSD recording.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier
Two Sides of Schubert in our next hi-res disc pair...

SCHUBERT: The Trout Quintet; Four Impromptus for piano solo D899 - Alvarez Quartet & Carmen Piazzini, p. - Tacet Multichannel DVD-Audio DVD 106:

An energetic and lively version of the familiar Schubert quintet, with a Frankfurt-based quartet and a near-anonymous pianist - whose solos were also familiar to me since I once played some of the Impromptus as a piano student. Tacet omitted any listing of the pianist on either the jewel box credits or in the note booklet, and neither is her photo included with the quartet’s inside - they’re standing in front of a piano! After much search I found a paragraph bio of her buried in the middle of the notes. If I were Carmen I’d be pizzed. Tacet dubs their DVD-As “Real Surround Sound.” What they mean is they are applying pop studio techniques to classical music in surround and not tying themselves to the conservative approach of putting the musicians up front and having only subtle ambience of the venue in the surround channels. There are even diagrams much as Telarc and others include with surround discs, showing the exact layout of mikes and instruments - or in this case of the listener’s head and the instruments. For the Quintet the piano is dead ahead in the center channel (woe to those anti-home-theater surround fans who lack a center channel). The violin occupies the left front, the viola the right front, the bass the left rear and the cello the right rear. You can’t help but become highly involved in the music this way. In some ways it is similar to binaural listening but without the headphones. So far I’ve found it fascinating and great classical demo material for newbies to SSfM [Surround Sound for Music].

However, the solo piano tracks by Ms. Piazzini employ an entirely different alignment that may seem just plain perverse to some listeners - the piano is directly behind you and the front three channels carry only the hall ambience. Producer Andreas Spreer argues among other things that this will be more appropriate if you have a DVD player in your car. Why? Because with a normal surround recording the piano would seem to be sitting on the hood of your car. Uh, huh. Well, one of the many advantages listed early in the game for the new multichannel media was the flexibility to use the six channels available in any way the producers/engineers/mixers might see fit. So let’s celebrate such initiative! At least I don’t have to change half of my amp and speaker connections plus moving speakers, as with some of the other hi-res alternatives to 5.1 (which I will eventually get to in upcoming issues).  Purchase Here

SCHUBERT: Sonata in E Major D.157 (unfinished), Sonata in G Major D.894, Der Mutter und der Bach (arr. by Liszt) - Arcadi Volodos, piano - Sony Classical Stereo SACD-only SS 89647:

Russian pianist Volodos has blazed a highly successful concert career since his New York debut in l996. His few recordings have won him awards and honors from many publications and organizations. We covered his Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 on SACD recently. This latest disc features three Schubert works which are not as virtuosic as Rachmaninoff but have their own unique nature. Although Liszt championed Schubert’s music and created this arrangement of one of his Schone Mullerin lieder, the thing to avoid is imposing Lisztian or Chopinesque virtuoso nuances onto Schubert. Volodos carries this out and allows the lovely and abundant Schubertian melodies to sing out. The G Major is Schubert’s longest sonata, of symphonic proportions, but Volodos holds it together from start to finish with unflagging forward motion. The piano sound is of great clarity and specificity not heard on most 44.1 CDs and the surrounding ambience is broad and natural. Playback via Pro Logic II imparts a very subtle improved image of the hall; I don’t see how a 5.1 version could be much better. An interesting acoustic note is that this was the very last recording made in the acclaimed “perfect acoustics” of Vienna’s Sofiensaal. It burned to the ground in August of 2001.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier
Romantic Piano Trios - CHOPIN: Trio in G Minor Op. 8; NIELS GADE: Novelletten for piano, violin, cello Op. 29; Trio in F Major Op. 42 - ABEGG Trio - Tacet DVD-Audio DVD D112:

The chamber works of Chopin have taken a back seat to his solo piano pieces, but this is an absolutely lovely trio that should be more heard than it is. Though an early work, it is the epitome of a skilled and polished Romantic period composition. Scriabin said of Chopin “almost from the first opus he was a complete composer, with a quite special individuality.” Danish composer Gade had more ties to Schumann and Mendelssohn’s styles than to Chopin’s and while his pieces here are full of affecting melody they seem rather second-string after Chopin. The ABEGG Trio has made more than 20 recordings and are topflight players. Tubed mikes were used for the most natural string tone, and like all DVD-As there is a Dolby Digital 5.1 layer if you don’t happen to have a DVD-A-capable player. There is a subtle but noticeable degradation of the string and piano tone if limited to this option.

Tacet’s spatial experimentation continues apace with this hi-res DVD. They refer to it as attempting to use the whole acoustic space for the musical experience, and they are certainly doing that. The violin here is on the left front, the cello on the right front, and the piano behind the listener. Producer Andreas Spreer says that most trio recordings group the two string instruments very close to the grand piano and the result is too little spatial presence and too similar information coming to the listener from the same direction. By placing the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand at the rear by itself, the full grandeur of its magnificent tone can come thru without competition from the two strings. (But if your surrounds are not full range or if you don’t have a rear subwoofer you won’t get that extra low bass heft due to the Bosendorfer’s additional keys. Actually Tacet doesn’t use the LFE channel, so my rear sub had no signal for it.) It’s an interesting effect for sure; at first I felt a bit like Lucy leaning against Schroeder’s piano, but after awhile it didn’t seem so topsy-turvy. Bear in mind the violin is not confined strictly to the left front channel nor the cello to the right - there is leakage to the center and opposite speakers, and the piano is already heard at a lower level from all three frontal speakers. So even playing the disc with the surrounds entirely off one has a pleasant enough balance of the three instruments - it just sounds as though the piano was miked rather distantly - something like most of the Nimbus piano recordings if you don’t play them back with Ambisonic decoding.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

J.S. BACH: Concertos, Vol. II = Violin Concerto in G Minor BWV1056, Concerto for oboe and violin in C Minor BVW 1060, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Concerto for 3 violins in D Major BWV 1064 - Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Hudson - Tacet DVD-Audio DVD D1111:

Originally founded by Karl Munchinger, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra has been around for well over a half century, made many recordings and toured the world extensively. This is a fine collection of six of the “hit” concertos of Bach, including three which are reconstructions based on his keyboard concertos for one, two and three harpsichords. The D Minor Concerto for 2 Violins is probably the most perfect work ever written for that instrumental combination, and it boasts a longish and very heartfelt center slow movement. The label’s plan to take multichannel reproduction of classical further than the typical players in front & ambience in back is realized even more extensively on this DVD. Not only is every single piece recorded with a slightly different assignment of individual instruments to individual channels, but in one case there are even changes during a piece! The first two concertos have the single solo violin in front with the orchestra proper laid out in a U pattern behind the listener. The balance of the various instruments in the orchestra is slightly changed between the two concertos. In the C Minor Concerto the violin solo is at left front, the oboe solo at right front, the rest of the violin section at the center speaker, the harpsichord behind and the bass group at the rear - centered between the viola and second violin. The most effective spatial layout of all is in the final concerto for 3 violins - a sort of Violin Summit. The three solo violins are assigned to the L, C and R frontal channels, with the orchestra itself again in a horseshoe pattern behind the listener. This is really effective and exciting when a theme is heard first from the right violin, then taken up by the center violin and finally joined by the left hand instrument. The change during a work happens in the second movement of the Concerto in E Major for one solo violin. In the first movement the orchestra sounds rather close and the violin soloist is more distant; the second movement moves the orchestra further away and brings the listener closer aurally to the solo violin to better hear the subtleties of this intimate movement. All these works - whether in multichannel or not - would never fit onto a standard CD - they run a total of 87 minutes. Only DVD allows the greater length.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier
JOHN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Elegy for Cello and Orchestra, Three Pieces for Solo Cello, Heartwood - Yo-Yo Ma, cello/Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles/John Williams - Sony Classical multichannel SACD-only SS 89670:

The overall album title here is “Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams.” The two musicians have been friends for years and have performed some of the standard cello concertos together in concert. The major work of the Cello Concerto here resulted from a suggestion of conductor Seiji Ozawa. It was first performed in l994 at Tanglewood and is in four non-stop movements. All of them provide plenty of opportunity for Ma’s virtuosity to be demonstrated. The second movement is a Blues, and Williams reports he was influenced by the ghosts of Ellington and Strayhorn in this section. The Elegy grew out of some of the material Williams had penned for the soundtrack of the movie Seven Years in Tibet, for which Ma was cello soloist. Both these works are less tonal and accessible than Williams’ film score music, but Ma’s glistening cello tones seem to hold things together. In Heartwood Williams was inspired partly by a collection of tree photographs given him by a friend, and partly by his memories of listening to the moody and impressionistic arrangements of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in the 30s and 40s. The surrounds provide a subtle feeling of the concert hall or studio - no details are given on the recording venue, and Ma’s cello is dead center. So I hope you’re not saddled with a center channel speaker whose timbre is entirely different from the other four main speakers - as so many are.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier
ROBERT SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 2 in C Major; Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, WEBER: Oberon Overture - The Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell - Sony Classical stereo SACD-only SS 89382:

This has been out for awhile but somehow I missed it when I first received its mate - the symphonies 1 & 3, also with Szell and the Cleveland. Some reviewers have dismissed these SACD stereo reissues of historic recordings from the archives, saying more new recordings should be made. That’s true but I would like to see both. Expenses of recording major orchestras in the U.S. have become exorbitant, and what current orchestra could surpass these gorgeous Szell iterations? The Epic LPs were never vinyl state-of-the-art, and the increased resolution of these DSD-processed l960 tapes sound like the sun has come out, sonically speaking - especially in the jovial and jaunting C Major symphony.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Zephyr: Voices Unbound - A Cappella Voices - Works of Morley, Janequin, Le Jeune, Wm. Schuman, Anon., and to lyrics of Shakespeare and Dorothy Parker - Aix Records DVD-A & V AIX 80012:

Again one cannot avoid being impressed by the work and effort that goes into each Aix Records DVD-A; no other label is giving purchasers so many options for their money, and these are all brand new recordings and videos - not recycled stuff from the past. This session in the Aix studio brought a dozen of the best singers on the West Coast to perform 23 a cappella selections ranging from early polyphony to a song by William Schuman using words of Walt Whitman. I usually begin auditioning by viewing the video side of the DVD, which is a complete video record of the entire concert. This one lacks a feature of some of the AIX discs with two different viewing angles for the video - such as the entire orchestra or just closeups of the conductor. However it does include two different “audio angle” choices - one that puts the listener in the audience as in a typical recording approach, and another that gives a “stage” presence - in this case surrounded by the circle of singers. You have a choice of either Dolby Digital 5.1 or stereo. I optioned for the former and found that seeing the singers performing - arrayed in a large circle - added a great deal of interest to this music which is not necessarily my first choice for listening - especially the predominately early music part of the program. The Dolby surround track was created and mixed in 24bit/96K from start to finish; it was so good I heard only minimal improvement in clarity with the 96K track on the DVD-A side of the disc, but on that side of the disc you had only a single still image for each selection and no more live action video to watch. Some of the “call and answer” play of voices in the madrigals was fun with the spatial displacement of the singers in the circle around the listener. I liked especially the four short songs to Dorothy Parker lyrics and the humorous sound effects and vocal percussion in Freddie Mercury’s “Seaside Rendezvous.” Seeing the smiles of the singers in performing this delightful track greatly enhanced the musical experience.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

First two DVD-As from an extensive new series recorded in Hungary...

MOZART: Symphony No. 25 KV 183 - Europa Philharmonia Budapest/Maximianno Cobra - Hodie DVD-A (no number):
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 - Soloists/Europa Philharmonia Budapest Orch. & Choir/Maximianno Cobra - Hodie DVD-A and V (2 discs, no number)

This is only the beginning of the new series from Hodie - the rest includes three DVDs of various Mozart overtures, which I plan to cover next issue. Packaging is in standard DVD-video boxes, and a booklet is enclosed in all the albums with an essay by French-Brazilian conductor Cobra on “Tempo, Space and Music.” The Europa Philharmonia Budapest Orchestra and Choir was founded by Cobra in l999 and brought together the elite of Hungary’s instrumental and vocal musicians. The Mozart receives here a spry and jovial treatment plus excellent sonics no matter which of the three options you choose for playback. The 51-minute running time exceeds other recordings of the work by several minutes, but it doesn’t sound draggy. The second side of the DVD is designed to play on all DVD players, and includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 plus Stereo PCM -- all three of these at 48K sampling rate. There is a single illustration for each movement and the artwork and titles change for each. Hodie refers to this as a slide show; I kept looking for more images but none appeared. The 48K DTS is very good and the 96K MLP six channel surround is somewhat better, but I would be hard put to identify a further improvement on the front channels only of the 192K sampling option.  Purchase Here

The Beethoven Ninth is a more major project all around. There are two discs - Disc 1 is double sided, with the 192K stereo option on one side and the 96K 6-channel surround option on the other side. Disc 2 boasts a 48K Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but on this the entire full motion widescreen video of the performance by the Philharmonia is seen. A multi-miked approach fed a 96-channel console and recorded onto a 48-track recorder. Conductor and producer Cobra wanted the aural effect of the listener being placed right in the middle of the orchestra. The studio was covered in black fabric so that the musicians and choir stand out starkly The camerawork is good, although all the performers seem to be bathed in a sort of reddish-yellow light. Sonic placement of solo instruments as well as vocal soloists doesn’t always agree with what is viewed on the screen. For example, at the start of the last movement Ode to Joy choral section the vocal soloist is on the left of the side screen, yet his voice is clearly heard from the front right speaker. The other over-riding and more major problem here is that this is the slowest Ninth I have ever heard. It almost sounds as though it is a rehearsal at half speed to work out all the details more easily. The choral climaxes of the Ode to Joy don’t seem joyful at the lugubrious tempo. One is tempted to get behind the orchestra and give them a push. The video disc also includes a beautifully-photographed PBS-style documentary on Beethoven’s life at the time of the composing of the Ninth, narrated by conductor Cobra in his inimitable thick accent and alternate English vocabulary. The overall notes for the entire set state that there is a similar documentary with each DVD album, but after a very thorough search of the Mozart symphony disc I failed to come up with one there. It may be there someplace but due to the continually frustrating navigation/programming of nearly all DVD-As it didn’t make itself apparent to me.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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