45 Hi-Res Reviews This Month!
BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique – Vienna Philharmonic/Sir Colin Davis – Philips DVD-A B0003347-19, about 56 min. ***:
Davis is known as a master Berlioz interpreter, and has recorded most of his works for Philips CDs. This is a 5.0 surround recording, with the both the surround and stereo options at the same sampling rate as CDs – 44.1K. What is also odd is that the stereo option – normally a higher resolution than the surround – is also the same word length as CDs – 16-bit; whereas the surround mix is 24-bit. Go figure. Also, most standard CDs (with a 80 minute max limit) contain another Berlioz or associated work as filler to the Fantastic Symphony. Being a DVD, this disc has 90 minutes or more capacity but features only the Symphony.
My fav Fantastic Symphony on both LP and CD has been the Chesky reissues of Massimo Freccia conducting the Royal Philharmonic in a 1962 taping produced by the Gerhardt/Wilkinson team. Davis has more distant micing but a more spread out orchestral soundstage, as well as impression of the hall environment. Freccia is much more dramatic and often crazed-sounding – as befits Berlioz’ program of a drugged-out rejected lover’s hallucinations. Davis keeps things generally polite except in the big climaxes which do properly roar. Part of the laid-back impression might be due to the contrast between the upfront Mercury-style micing of the RCA/Chesky reissue and the distant, atmospheric pickup of the Philips DVD-A. But it often sounds as if some Viennese shlag was dolloped on top of Berlioz’ strong musical café. In the fifth and final movement – the Witches’ Sabbath – the orchestral bells are prominent in the surround channels and really startled me when they began to peal. That’s some thing not possible for the stereo CD, but I think I’ll stick with it and possibly turn on the ProLogic II option next time I audition it. The Chesky CD also contains the very best version of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan I’ve heard, and I’m a big Don Juan collector.
– John Sunier
MOZART: Requiem in D Minor – Soloists/Berlin Philharmonic/ Vienna Singverein/Herbert von Karajan – DGG DVD-A B0003115-19, 53:19 ****:
We reviewed this in its SACD version about two years ago, Here: It’s interesting that it took all that time to also release it on DVD-A. It does say “Newly mastered for DVD-Audio.” but it sounds just about the same to me as the SACD. The DVD-A is 96K/24-bit for both the stereo and surround, which surely benefits the fidelity – instead of the 44.1 or 48K which some Universal DVD-As are.
This is a 1975 master that obviously was recorded in four channel sound though by that time quadraphonic had bit the dust. It has been remixed for 5.1 surround very effectively with a good feeling of the Philharmonie hall in Berlin and better spatial separation of the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra than one would ever get with standard 44.1 CD. It’s a big and impressive performance with a big and impressive sound to match. The stolid perfection of Karajan’s approach is appropriate for this serious work but it is not informed by the musicological research that has occurred since 1975.
– John Sunier
BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 – Vienna Philharmonic/ Carlos Kleiber – DGG DVD-Audio B0003116-19, 72:27 *****:
These outstanding performances were recorded multichannel quad in l975 and 76. Many critics have considered this the finest Beethoven Fifth on record, so it is a perfect choice for multichannel hi-res reissue. It is 5.0, without the LFE channel. The performance captures the many changing moods of the famous symphony and never become staid or boring sounding as some interpretations. The knocking sounds of Fate at the door have an emotional feeling unlike most of the competition. An abundant energy comes thru – something like Bernstein’s but more refined somehow. The Seventh is not quite as impactful as the Fifth in either the performance or recording department, but it is close and a good companion choice for this release. The sonics hold up rather well considering the age of these originals – only lacking a bit in the deep bass end – but then the surround display makes that less noticeable than if it were just a stereo reissue. The note booklet reports that the master for the disc was PCM. That seems strange since the originals had to be analog tape and it would have been best to go straight from them to DSD. But many pop recordings go thru a PCM phase to make editing and EQ easier, and perhaps that is what was done here.
As with the Karajan Mozart Requiem, we reviewed the SACD version of this back in 2003 – Here, to be exact.
As with the Karajan, the hi-res limit of 96K/24-bit was used for the surround mix, and although 192K could have been offered for the stereo mix it also is 96K. This one also states on the jewelbox “Newly mastered for DVD-Audio.” Well, I did a thorough A/B comparison of the SACD and DVD-A, and as I have mentioned I have a really good quality DVD-A player now and can switch back and forth with my remote. This is an advantage of having separate players for each format – couldn’t do this with a universal player. The down side is that I found there are slight differences in channel balance between the two players, so I have to re-adjust the levels with my pair of channel-ID test discs each time. In the past when comparing the sonic quality of the two formats – though it’s difficult to know if the entire chain of disc production is really identical – I always preferred the SACD for its more musical, analog-like attributes. But this time I found the two discs absolutely identical to my ears when the channels were properly balanced.
– John Sunier
The Tube Only Violin – Works of TCHAIKOVSKY, BERIOT, YSAYE, ELGAR, MASSENET, SCHEDRIN, DRIGO, SCHUBERT, MOSZKOWSKI, SCHUMANN, KREISLER, HELLMESBERGER, PONCE – Daniel Gaede, violin/Xuesu Liu, piano/Polish Chamber Philharmonic/Wojciech Rajski – Tacet multichannel SACD – S 117, 65:04 ****:
German label Tacet began their hi-res releasing with only DVD-A, but recently have been reissuing many of their DVD-A albums as well as brand new ones in a SACD series. Label CEO and engineer Andreas Spreer has, like many other recording engineers, been interested in vacuum tube microphones for some time. He decided a few years back to make an all-tube LP, using tube mics such as the Neumann U47, tube amps powering the cutter, and so on thru the chain. This is now his third Tube Only recording, and of course all three are now on CD or one of the hi-res formats. So since there isn’t any tubed SACD-mastering gear, this disc is not quite as all tube as its predecessor, but benefits from the synergistic combination of solo violin and tube microphones. One of the most annoying sounds when recorded with normal digital gear can be the violin’s special timbre. Even though the SACD format reduces that artifact greatly, I am still hearing some violin discs that suffer from a bit of digititus, and I believe it to be due to the solid-state mics and mixers being used early in the recording chain.
Gaede has a lovely tone to begin with and it is beautifully captured on this disc. The surround mix is subtle but adds to the realism of the two soloists on the frontal soundstage. (This is not one of the one-player-per-speaker hi-res discs which Tacet has also done.) If you have tubes anywhere in your playback system it certainly won’t hurt the rich and very musical sonics of this disc. Usually such a program of violin-piano encores would be the same old same old, but aside from Ave Maria and the Mediation from Thais most of these 15 selections are a bit unusual and all are delightful to hear. The Kreisler work is a short three-movement concerto in the style of Vivaldi, heard with the Polish Chamber Orchestra, and in the Hellmesberger Romanze the two performers are joined by three guest violinists. The subtitle of the disc is “Captivating Violin Pieces,” and that about sums it up.
– John Sunier
Our next two SACDs get brassy…
Music for Organ, Brass and Timpani = Works of G. GABRIELI, R. STRAUSS, BACH, HANDEL, RACHMANINOFF, MONTEVERDI & MUSSORGSKY – Anthony Newman, organ/Graham Ashton Brass Ensemble/Ducan Patton, tympani – Sonoma Records multichannel SACD SAC-001 ****:
This special project was financed by Sony’s SACD division to demonstrate the sonic advantages of the technology. It’s director David Kawakami reports that people are always asking him what is the best-sounding classical SACD? He said there are many good ones but he had to say the best is yet to be done. Now he feels it has. All the electronics and mics are listed, including Sony’s Sonoma DSD Digital Audio Recorder/Editor – hence the name under which the disc has been issued (and hopefully some more are in the future). Ed Meitner’s famed AD8 & DAB Mk IV DSD convertors were also used, plus mics by DPA, B&K and Shoeps and speakers by B&W and REL plus Chord power amps.
Producer Steven Epstein (winner of 12 Grammys) felt that short of hiring a full symphony orchestra the most sound with the greatest dynamic and frequency range, plus the best acoustic space for surround sound, would be recording some of these spectacular works for pipe organ with brass and timpani. He chose the largest strictly mechanical (tracker) organ in New YorK City – the Mander Organ at St. Ignatius Loyola Church – which has 5000 pipes, is 45 feet high and weights 30 tones. It was installed in l993.
The organist is Anthony Newman – no stranger to pipe organ music collectors. The brass ensemble boasts ten performers. Little diagrams in the note booklet indicate the positioning of the brass and timpani for the various selections – they were moved around depending on the effect wanted in the music. Newman arranged the Bach selections which are taken from four of his cantatas, and Graham Ashton did the rest of the arranging – sometimes reducing a giant brass ensemble such as in the Strauss to his smaller grouping. (One of the trombonists is the versatile Jim Pugh, whose big band has recorded for DMP SACDs and whose name frequently shows up as arranger on various projects.)
St. Ignatius has a five to six-second reverb time which sounds especially effective in the three canzons by Giovanni Gabrieli which were originally composed for the earliest well-known celebration of music in surround, in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The opening Strauss “Entry of the Knights of St. John” is a real rouser with the additional brass not at all missed. The familiar Overture from The Royal Fireworks Music also works superbly in the reverberant environment. The Great Gate at Kiev from Pictures an an Exhibition has been arranged for everything from full orchestra down to solo guitar, but I would have to observe that this version for organ, brass and timp achieves the maximum impact from the minimum number of players involved, and provides a smashing full-blown conclusion to this spectacular multichannel SACD. (It would have been our Multichannel Disc of the Month this issue, but the Alsop Brahms First performance just blew me away in addition to its great SACD sonics.) David Kawakami’s note to me with this disc said Play This Loud! and I did. So should you. [If you have trouble finding it, try www.superaudiocenter.com]
– John Sunier
Romantic Music for Brass = MENDELSSOHN: Quartet No. 1 in E Flat Major; EWALD: Quintet No. 3 in D Flat Major; OSKAR BöHME: Sextet for Brass in E Flat Minor – Center City Brass Quintet (with Jack Sutte, trumpet in Sextet) – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5023, 56:04 ****:
Mendelssohn’s string quartet arranged for Brass Quintet is heard here in its very first recording. The only 20-year-old Mendelssohn was trying to emulate the quartet approach of Beethoven but to take it further than the famous late quartets. The other brass works are from German composers who made their name in Russia. Ewald wrote a whole series of brass quintets; this one seeks to achieve the lyrical approach of Schumann’s chamber music – not an easy task considering he was working with five brass instruments! Both it and the Bohme work have melodies that sound like Russian folk songs but are probably original. I was unfamiliar with this quintet, but their playing is unassailable and that goes also for the immersing surround provided by Chandos engineers.
– John Sunier
VIVALDI: Six Flute Concertos Op. 10; Concertos in C Major & A Minor for sopranino recorder – Daniel Rothert, treble & sopranino recorder & flute/Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl – Naxos DVD-A/DD/DTS 5.110008, 67:27 ****:
The Opus 10 flute concertos are some of the Red Priest’s most familiar selections. The first three even have subtitles – Storm at Sea, The Night, and The Goldfinch. An American early music ensemble even calls itself La tempesta di mare. Five of the six concertos are played on treble recorder with No. 3 heard on the higher-pitched sopranino recorder. Rothert is originally from Ghana and was adopted by a German family. His recorder skills are immense – never a hint of an off-pitch note, which so easily can occur on the demanding instrument. The balance with the orchestra is just right – the surrounds providing a feeling of the concert hall and no more. These performances are not in the abandoned style of Il Guardino Armonico or Red Priest but neither are they the dry and monotonous academic style of some of the first Vivaldi recordings. These eight concertos are a very worthwhile addition to the sparse catalog of classical DVD-Audio discs.
– John Sunier
VIVALDI: Eight Concerti for Violin, Strings and Continuo from Op. 7 – Salvatore Accardo, violin/I Musici – Pentatone multichannel RQR (4.0) SACD PTC 5186 130, 74:23 ****:
Originally recorded for quadraphonic release in Switzerland in l975, this is another in Pentatone’s original series of SACDs from tapes that were never produced as quad LPs at the time due to both the iffy technology and by that time the bottom dropping out of the quad business. As with all the others in the series, one really doesn’t miss the other two channels. Accardo is dead center and the Italian string ensemble spread out behind him. String tone is lovely; I’ve been so spoiled by the freedom from digititus on violin tone via hi-res sources that I can hardly stand to listen to standard CDs involving violin soloists anymore – in spite of my tube amps. How to distinguish these eight concertos from the over 230 which Vivaldi wrote? I wish I knew, but they are clearly from the Red Priest (whether he was using his stencils or not…) and don’t sound overly-familiar to me. Oh, I know how to distinguish them – they’re NOT the Four Seasons…
– John Sunier
ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau (Fantasy for Orchestra); Symphony in D Minor – Czech Philharmonic Orchestra /Antony Beaumont – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5022, 70:35 ****:
Zemlinsky was an important figure in late Romantic music in Vienna, but may be more remembered by some more for his having been thrown over by girlfriend Alma Schindler for another Jew who had also converted to Christianity in the face of strong anti-Semitism there – Mahler. The symphony for his graduation work at the Vienna Conservatory. He used in it the Brahmsian technique of developing variations, and mixed serious symphonic structure with music theater dramatics. Its Adagio third movement is more serious and doleful, with a colorfully-orchestrated Finale things to a jubilant closure. The Jungfrau Fantasy of a decade later is really more of a tone poem than a symphony. The influences of both his membership in the Masons and an interest in color symbolism show up in the three-movement work, which has become among the composer’s best-known. The rich orchestrations and density of both large-scale works risk sounding overstuffed with less than hi-res reproduction, but the clean and widely soundstaged sonics here give the listener full access to Zemlinsky’s art – especially in the surround mix.
– John Sunier
RODRIGO: Concierto de Aranjuez; Concierto Andaluz; VIVALDI: Concerto in B Minor for Four Guitars; Concerto for Two Guitars; Concerto in C for Guitar – The Romeros, guitars/San Antonio Symphony Orchestra/Victor Alessandro – Mercury Living Presence three-channel SACD 475 6184, 76:47 ****:
This gem of performances and sonics has probably been awaited by numerous SACD-ready fans of Mercury Living Presence. The original session, using a three-track Ampex, was held in San Antonio in l967. All four talented members of the Romero Family were involved in the performances: Father Celedonio and sons Celin, Pepe and Angel. The Concierto Andaluz for Four Guitars had just been written that year after it was commissioned by the Romeros. The oldest of the sons, Angel, was the soloist in the familiar Concierto de Aranjuez and with all the version of that very popular work, his remains among my favorites.
The three Vivaldi concertos were on a separate Mercury LP originally, but as with the CD reissues of the series they have been included on this SACD. Of course Vivaldi didn’t write works for four guitars, but the B Minor Concerto here was transcribed from his Concerto for Four Violins and Orchestra. The other two Vivaldi concertos were transcribed from originals for one and two mandolins and orchestra. Father Celedonio is the soloist in the single guitar concerto and the double concerto features Pepe and Celin. The staging of the guitars in front of the listener is much more definite with the three channel reproduction – whether just a single guitar as with the Aranjuez work or with all four instruments spread out around the soundstage. Sound is generally excellent except for a slight edginess in a few spots revealing the age of the recordings.
HOWARD HANSON: Symphony No. 1 (Nordic); Symphony No. 2 (Romantic); Song of Democracy – Eastman School of Music Chorus (in Song only)/Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson – Mercury Living Presence three-channel SACD 475 6181, 66:40 ****:
Hanson was not only a fine composer but also a conductor, supporter of modern music, and director of the Eastman School of Music. In spite of his openness to the avantgarde in music, he himself wrote in a strongly Romantic style and felt that in the end it would grow and be accepted in America even though at the time the international academic serial approach was de rigor for most serious composers. Hanson’s prophesy of sixty years ago has come true, and thus his music as well as that of other 20th century composers who wrote in the Romantic style is today being appreciated in the concert hall and on recordings.
These three-channel recordings made in l957 and 58 are excellent examples. The Nordic Symphony was written during Hanson’s studies in Rome at the American Academy. It was the first of his seven symphonies. The same basic motives and thematic intervals are worked with in all three movements. The Second Symphony is also in three movements and has strong connections between the movements. The gorgeous main theme is announced in the first movement on four French horns and developed during the movement. In the third movement the theme returns in the same way but sounding even more Romantic and sonorous. Hanson intended for the work to be young in spirit, and this movement is the theme for the public radio series Music From Interlochen, featuring young performers.
Hanson excelled in works for chorus and orchestra, and in his Song of Democracy set to music two excerpts from Walt Whitman concerning “an old man’s thoughts of school” and “the ship of Democracy.” I treasured for years a mono Mercury LP of the Symphony No. 1, not even knowing it was also available in stereo. Now not only can I enjoy it with two more channels of reproduction added, but with another whole album “filler!” These are fine interpretations which stand up remarkably well, keeping in mind the Eastman Orchestra is not exactly BSO-level and the age of the tapes.
– John Sunier
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on Greensleeves; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; In the Fen Country; Concerto Grosso – New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110053, 60:48 ****:
Take French Impressionism in music filtered thru British culture, add a bunch of English folk songs and the composing chops of one of the top English composers of his generation and you have the Vaughan Williams works in this collection. The short but lovely Greensleeves Fantasia and the longer Fantasia on a theme from the 17th century English composer Talllis are the two best-known works of the composer. Both receive top-rate performances by the New Zealand performers. I compared the Tallis Fantasy with the Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis Sym. Soundstream-mastered SACD on Telarc and found the Naxos to benefit from deeper and richer bottom end, as well as smoother massed string timbre. Whether the latter is the result of performance values or sonic values I’m not certain. Another factor here is that the Naxos is multichannel and the Telarc just stereo. The overall quality of both performances are equally good.
The early symphonic impression In the Fed Country strikes me as similar to Delius but with more structure to it. An English horn solo is strongly featured, and the folk song quality is predominant. The Concerto Grosso was originally composed for a school association orchestra of some 400 string players. The work was designed for three levels of technical skill, but that needn’t concern the listener except that you may recall the fact when you hear the opening of the second of the five short movements – Burlesca Ostinata – which is scored for open strings for players who haven’t yet mastered fingering.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major; KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major – Anne-Sophie Mütter, violin/Vienna Philharmonic & London Symphony cond. by André Previn – DGG multichannel SACD 00289 474 8742, 58:50 ****:
An artful and unexpected pairing of concertos from the most famous new husband and wife team in classical music today. The Tchaikovsky was recorded during a live concert though the notes don’t reveal where. The live situation seems to give it an extra spark and another contributor might be Mütter’s own admission that her playing of contemporary works has informed her interpretation of the overly-familiar Tchaikovsky concerto. Not to mention that the pair’s recent May/December marriage might be a factor.
Korngold fashioned his lovely concerto out of themes from some of his movie scores. Previn has recorded many of these in the past and is very familiar with the composer’s approach. Korngold was perhaps the pacesetter in establishing Hollywood film scores as late Romantic style with Wagnerian leitmotifs. Previn observes that even for music for a Mexican scene or an Errol Flynn derring-do, “you always felt Vienna was just around the corner.” The surrounds provide ambience, with a more realistic feeling in the live concert recording, as expected. Mütter’s violin is big and front and center, but pleasing in timbre and no more overblown than on most concerto recordings – which of course never sound anything like the balances one hears live in the concert hall.
– John Sunier
CHOPIN: Nocturnes (complete); Impromptus Nos. 1, 2 & 3; Fantasie-Impromptu in C Sharp Minor – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion multichannel SACD (2 discs) 67371/2, 132:53 ****:
This is not music to demonstrate dynamic range. Chopin’s Nocturnes show the composer at his most intimate and should be played softly, as Canadian pianist Hewitt does. She also feels that most performances of the works are far too slow, and comparing the composer’s own metronome markings caused her to take some of the them at a fast tempo which she feels adds more life and poetry to the music. She plays the magnificent Fazioli piano, which seems to be vying with the Bosendorfer as the SOTA concert grand for performance and recording today. Perhaps part of it is the lower general volume level, but the piano doesn’t sound 40-feet wide here as on so many wrongly-miced piano recordings. It actually sounds like a normal concert grand. Hewitt brings out the mysterious and often haunting quality in some of the Nocturnes. She also wrote all the analyses of the works in the note booklet, and they are considerably more interesting reading than many such notes on the music. The familiar Fantasie-Impromptu brings the collection to a close.
– John Sunier