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34 SACD & DVD-A Reviews
September 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Classical
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BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas; No. 21 “Waldstein,” No. 23 “Appassionata,” No. 26 “les adieux” – Mari Kodama, Piano – Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 024 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD

The fairly steady flow of multichannel SACD releases has given us quite a few excellent and interesting titles, but not much in terms of solo piano music has been released. I’m sure that some would argue the need for recording a solo instrument in surround sound, but well-recorded surround should offer a much more realistic presentation of the recording space and its acoustic. That said, I was really interested to hear what this disc had to offer.

As has been my experience with “audiophile” labels, sometimes the performance just doesn’t quite rise up to the standards of the otherwise excellent recording, so I really wasn’t expecting too much here in terms of performance values (A really good recent example is the BIS disc of the Grieg Piano Concerto, where the sound is fantastic, but the pianist gives a less than compelling performance). All the other Pentatone discs I have are in the RQR series, so they’ve all been uniformly excellent recordings with established performers.

One listen here immediately told me that my fears were totally unfounded – this is one of the best Beethoven Sonata recordings I’ve ever heard! Ms. Kodama’s playing is superb throughout – her timing, phrasing and intonation are absolutely drop-dead gorgeous – every aspect of the playing here is absolutely of the highest order. The recorded sound is every bit the match – this may be the very best recording of solo piano music I own, and the multichannel SACD offers a most convincing illusion of the piano right there in the room. I’ve listened to this disc countless times over the last month or so – it’s just so good that I can’t hear it often enough! Mari Kodama deserves a much wider audience for her work, and hopefully this disc will get the kind of exposure for her art to propel her to prominence.

The stereo and Redbook layers of this disc are also excellent, but the surround layer is the real highlight here. Hats off to Pentatone for another excellent offering! Very highly recommended! Purchase Here

- Tom Gibbs

HOLST: The Planets; GRAINGER: The Warriors – Philharmonia Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner, Conductor – Multichannel Hybrid SACD - DGG 471 634-2:

There’s been some recent controversy on some of the audiophile forums concerning Universal Music’s classical music SACDs and the inconsistency among their releases; some are remastered from the original recording into DSD, while others have used either the 24/96 or 24/44.1 existing digital data to transfer to DSD. While I do agree in principal that using the source material would probably (always?) yield the best results, some of these releases of recent vintage that were already well-recorded in either 24/96 or (heaven forbid) 24/44.1 sound really pretty great in their SACD incarnation (at least they haven’t been truncated to 16 bit). This recording uses the existing 24/44.1 data for the DSD transfer with spectacular results.

John Eliot Gardiner has never really been one of my favorite conductors; his regular use of the early-instrument approach, and his frequent forays into more authentic performance-style recordings have turned me off with their stark, jagged-edged performances (listen to his collection of Schumann symphonies for a good example). In total expectation of another massacre and with countless good versions of The Planets to choose from, I wasn’t really relishing this assignment. To my total surprise, this is an excellent recording, both in sound and performance, and the inclusion of the rarely played Grainger The Warriors makes this disc a valuable addition to my collection. John Eliot Gardiner has a personal connection to this music as well; his great uncle, Henry Balfour Gardiner, was a composer and patron of the arts and was instrumental in getting exposure for both the works of Holst and Grainger through a series of London concerts he funded in the early 1900s.

From a surround perspective, DGG did a really good job with this one; when toggling between the stereo and surround layers – the stereo presentation is excellent, but the surround mix just immerses you more into the music. Orchestral climaxes and percussive movements have awesome dynamic impact – soundwise this disc compares favorably with the best SACDs in my collection. The Grainger is a delight to listen to with its unusual orchestration (using three pianos) and deserves to be heard more often. Overall, this one’s a winner and gets the highest recommendations. Purchase Here

- Tom Gibbs

Una furtiva lagrima – Donizetti and Bellini Arias – Juan Diego Flórez, Tenor – Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Riccardo Frizza, Conductor – Decca 470 628-2 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD

Juan Diego Flórez is one of the rising stars in opera (some have compared him to a young Pavarotti) and has the perfect voice for the Bel Canto program chosen here; he hits the really high notes effortlessly while maintaining a purely lyrical quality. He receives truly splendid accompaniment from Riccardo Frizza and the Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and chorus, et al, who obviously posses a deep understanding of the bel canto oeuvre. The playing and singing is so superb throughout this 96/24 to DSD transfer – once again, I have no beef with the quality of the recording, and the surrounds are used to great effect. There’s very little to criticize here, and if you’re looking for near-definitive Donizetti and Bellini arias in sterling sound, this disc should be at the top of your list. Very highly recommended! Purchase Here

– Tom Gibbs

HILDEGARD VON BINGEN: 11,000 Virgins, Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula – Anonymous 4 – Harmonia Mundi HMU 807200 – Multichannel SACD:

Harmonia Mundi’s CDs have always been among the best-sounding, most naturally-recorded classical music discs available, and I was eager to hear their first batch of SACDs. This disc of chants and polyphony from Anonymous 4 seemed like a logical choice for the surround medium, and after having heard other really well-recorded discs of vocal music from Praga, Proprius and others, expected nothing but really good things from the HM SACDs. Unfortunately (and hopefully), this disc isn’t representative of what’s to come from Harmonia Mundi in the SACD arena.

It’s not that this is such a bad disc – it’s not, and not to take away anything from the original recording – the SACD just doesn’t add anything in terms of presentation to the listening experience. I was expecting to be transformed by the surround experience (as is usually the case in my recent experience); I just can’t see going the extra mile for the SACD if you already own the Redbook CD version. Purchase Here

- Tom Gibbs

GORDON GETTY: Joan of the Bells - Cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus & orchestra; PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2 - Delan, Chernov, Eric Ericson Ch. Choir/Russian National Orchestra/Alexander Vedernikov - Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD 5186 017:

This was quite a surprise to me. Getty is the scion of the J. Gordon Getty family and is very active in San Francisco's cultural life. He studied music at the San Francisco Conservatory and with private teachers and has had many of his composition published and performed. One of the recent ones was his choral-orchestral work based on the character of Falstaff, Plump Jack. In Joan of the Bells Getty has cast the Joan of Arc story as a myth, using some of the record of her trial and execution as a heretic. The cantata is in three parts: Judgement, Joan in her chamber, The Square at Rouen. The work is tonal and the words of the two excellent soloists and chorus intelligible and very moving.

The climax of the work comes when she is burned at the stake and in spite of the court having silenced any churchbells, loud bells from heaven are heard. The recording was made at a live concert in France and this section benefits tremendously from the realistic envelopment of the tumultous pealing bells, which has a vertical dimension to it even though height channels are not being used. Talk about a big finish! It's interesting also to hear Russian musicians playing Prokofiev's ballet. Seems a bit of an odd pairing of works, but perhaps the idea was that the unfortunate protagonists of both works were young girls. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

SIR LENNOX BERKELEY: Symphony No. 4; MICHAEL BERKELEY: The Garden of Earthly Delights; Cello Concerto - Alban Gerhardt, cello/BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox - Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5014:

Part of The Berkeley Edition on Chandos, this disc is unusual in being shared by father and son composers. The elder Berkeley, who died in l989, was a significant British composer who was on the staff of the BBC as well as a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music. The neo classical was his earliest interest and the influences of Ravel and Stravinsky were strong. Later in life - such as in this last of his four symphonies - he developed a more personal modern English style. His music is tonal, with strong melody and rich, often polyphonic harmonies. The Fourth Symphony of 1978 is in three movements and just under a half hour length. There is considerable contrapuntal development in the first, the longest of the three movements. In the Andante second movement Berkeley uses one of his favorite devices, variation form. The finale was described by the composer as “a kind of rondo.” This is the work’s premiere recording, as is true also of the two works by his son Michael.

The Cello Concerto comes from 1953 and has a light neoclassical feeling with some lovely cello solos. The more recent Garden of Earthly Delights was inspired by the famous Hieronymus Bosch triptych painting depicting in great and often bizarre detail “The Garden of Eden,” “Carnal Knowledge,” and “Hell.” Three linked musical tableaux express the composer’s reactions in general terms to the triptych. This is a semi-tonal atmospheric work with a large orchestra and unusual solo instruments - a violin, trombone and soprano sax, all three doubling on claves, rattles and tam-tams. There are also four additional percussionists. As you can probably imagine, the younger Berkeley has a field day with “Hell.” Too bad the option for graphics included in the original SACD specs has never been done, because it would be nice to have the whole Bosch bash (my favorite Renaissance painting too) up on the 16:9 screen in front of you while listening to this fascinating score. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Star Trek - Nemesis - Motion Picture Soundtrack Music by Jerry Goldsmith - stereo/multichannel SACD - Varese Sarabande 302 066 430 2:

While the movie itself was far from the best of the Star Trek series and may have in fact brought the series to its end, any soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith is going to be worth hearing, and this one stands up very well on its own. (Picard was his usual capable self, the story was OK, but the young Yul Brunnerish-appearing villain wasn’t quite villainish enough.) You won’t have had to see this specific Star Trek feature to dig the score - any one of the past ones will do. It’s got the thunderous action music, the dark mysterious music, the chilling frightening music, the lyrical personal music, the ship under attack music, the triumphant conclusion music. In fact if you have any familiarity at all with the past films, you’ll be like the Wagner fan who knows all the characters’ leitmotifs or the Mahler fan who can recall an hour and a half later the themes from the first movement which the composer brings back in the final movement. The reason is that Goldsmith wrote the original theme that accompanied the Enterprise when it was first seen on the screen, and he reprises it and many others during this score - which is his fifth for the Star Trek enterprise.

The “Hollywood Studio Orchestra” does a bang-up job under Goldsmith’s baton, the orchestrations are very creative and beautifully communicated with the 5.1 medium. All the members are listed on the last page of the booklet, which is unusual for any orchestra, but especially for soundtracks where normally there aren’t even credits for the orchestra itself or its conductor, if there even is an orchestra and not just a synthesizer. This was the first motion picture score to be recorded directly to DSD so it partakes of the futuristic theme fully. Purchase Here

- John Sunier


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