35 Hi-Res Audio Reviews
April 2003 - Part 3 of 3 - Classical (cont.)

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An Experimental "All-In-One" Disc

Our first classical hi-res offering is a highly unusual sample disc from the German DVD-A label Dabringhaus und Grimm (DG). They are the developers of the “2+2+2” surround alternative to 5.1 - which directs the channels normally used for the center and the LFE to a pair of matched speakers directly over the front left and right speakers (while retaining the surrounds as they are normally). As soon as we get our reference system re-adjusted to this standard I’ll review some of the 2+2+2 discs.

For now, I have at hand a hi-res demo disc of which only a few have been pressed. The intent is to provide an “All In One” super-hybrid disc which incorporates 1) MLP-processed 6-channel 96K DVD-A, 2) 5.1 Dolby Digital, 3) 6-channel uncompressed 48K PCM in both the 5.1 standard and the special 2+2+2 format, 4) Standard 44.1K PCM stereo CD. With the advent of universal-format players, the problem of making a decision between SACD and DVD-A has been reduced, and with this new disc it would be reduced further because DVD-As would be playable on standard CD players as hybrid SACDs now are. (DVD-As have previously not been compatible with playback on a standard CD player.)

In addition, DG now can provide their 2+2+2 surround to users who have certain DVD-video players but no DVD-audio player. They didn’t want to use Dolby Digital because of its lossy high data reduction. So they have included six channels of uncompressed linear PCM in the 2+2+2 configuration. However, unless I’ve missed something, this would seem to require a DVD-V player with built-in Dolby Digital decoding and therefore six analog out jacks. Otherwise a DVD player such as my Sony 9000ES has only stereo analog outs and couldn’t be used, and my Toshiba DVD-A player has six analog channels out, but they provide decoded MLP - with no way to select feeding them six channels of 48K uncompressed PCM. DG’s notes say “For playing on a DVD-Video player you simply press the ‘Audio’ button on your remote control and reproduction will change from the data reduced Dolby Digital to 6-channel PCM sound.” Not on either of my DVD-V players. I thought I might find a way to access the 6-ch. PCM by putting up the video navigation on my screen, but there is no video at all on this disc.

And the stereo CD layer would not play on either the Sony 9000ES, the Sony CE775 changer, or either of my Mac computers. It would play on the Toshiba player, but since that also has DVD-A playback it is beside the point. It appears that the All In One disc is a more serious playback challenge to many DVD players than are CD-Rs in earlier players. And while I understand DG’s thinking about wanting to expose their 2+2+2 surround to a wider audience by making it available not just via DVD-A players but also DVD-video players, it doesn’t seem to work on enough players to make the idea ready for prime time. However, the normal DVD-A version of this disc is issued simultaneously, and it’s excellent, so I’ll go ahead and review it below:

ROBERT SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto, Concert-Allegro with Introduction Op. 134, Introduction and Allegro appassionato Op. 92 - Christian Zacharias, piano & conductor/Lausanne Chamber Orchestra - DG Gold MDG 940 1033-5:

This standard DVD-A disc has both the DVD-A and uncompressed PCM versions of DG’s 2+2+2 surround - if you can access the later on your DVD V player. It doesn’t have the standard CD layer, however. This is a spirited collaboration between the pianist-conductor and the Lausanne players. Normally this conducting-from-the-keyboard approach is only done with earlier concertos. The two other Schumann works are rarely heard and the Op. 92 is just as lovely a piece as the concerto. The closing 13-minute movement of that work is a glorious and virtuoso piece with catchy melodies. The surround usage is not extreme but aids in the feeling of being situated in the concert hall, and the piano is clearly front and center.

- John Sunier

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3; Kindertotenlieder - San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas - Michelle DeYoung, mezzo soprano; Vance George, choral dir.; Women of the SFS Chorus; Pacific Boychoir; San Francisco Girls Chorus - San Francisco Symphony multichannel hybrid SACD 2-disc set 821936-0003-2 (Distr. By Delos):

The third in the Mahler Symphony series direct from the San Francisco Symphony’s own label follows on the heels of the well-received Sixth and First, also in SACD. They will be recording all nine Mahler symphonies, and just the Adagio of the Tenth, and all in SACD. The Third was recorded in September of last year and mezzo DeYoung is the superb soloist in the extremely touching Songs on the Deaths of Children. Mahler had written much of that work before he was even married and several years after completing the work his oldest daughter died of diptheria. Mahler had told Sibelius that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” and the Third is one of the best examples of this. The first movement - about a third of the entire work - begins gayly. It has some jaunty marches that quickly run head on into catastrophe. Though it first introduces themes that are later developed in the other five movements, it was actually composed last. The fifth movement has a choral section, with women’s voices singing lyrics from The Youth’s Magic Horn. The symphony ends, as did the Second, with a deeply felt adagio a half-hour in length. Passing thru much Sturm und Drang it does end triumphally. Tilson Thomas contributes greatly to his reputation as one of the world’s foremost Mahler interpreters with this ongoing series.

The multichannel surround is topflight, bringing successfully to my mind the environment of Davies auditorium in San Francisco - especially with my side-height speakers in operation. It appears the Symphony did the right thing to launch their own label and to do it via multichannel SACD. They had help from Sony, who loaned them the equipment and consultants to record in the new format. Their previous recent CDs for BMG had amazingly poor sound, even though some won Grammys. It surprises me that the same producer is still involved and the same forest of microphones seems to be used. Perhaps the major difference is in recording to multichannel DSD - it shows that the multi-miking approach can sometimes result in great recordings. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal - “The Gents” - Diapente Viol Consort/Peter Dijkstra, conductor/Siebe Henstra, organ - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS-18902 75:33:

The Gents is a group of Dutch male singers founded in 1999 by its young conductor Peter Dijkstra. For this album, they present polyphonic, Catholic liturgical music and homophonic settings for the evolving English anthem. We have one organ solo, of William Byrd's "A Fancie in C Major," which illustrates the facility of Byrd's populist style. We also have one instrumental rendering of an originally vocal motet, Robert Whyte's Christie, qui lux es est dies, as well as some meditative pieces by Anthony Holborne. The most notable of the Renaissance polyphonists, Thomas Tallis, has but one item, Salvator mundi, which in its severity and economy of style proclaims the ethos of the Anglican Church. A new sound to auditors of "music before 1750" will be Alfonso Ferrabosco I and II, Italians who transposed their gifts to a pre-Baroque sumptuousness.

The names of Thomas Weelkes, Edward Johnson, and Robert Parsons will likewise be familiar to those who gravitate to early motets and madrigals, the singularly austere beauty of English liturgy. I must confess that I spent some time at the San Antonio Early Music Festival some years ago, where Paul Hilliard and his ilk performed these works for a week straight, until it began to sound terribly alike. Even given the joys of Channel Classic’s fine hi-res surround sound, the aural similitudes might be taken sparingly by some listeners. Not my cup of tea, but impressively mounted. Purchase Here

--Gary Lemco

HOLST: The Planets; BRITTEN: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes - New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein - Sony Classical multichannel SACD SS 87981:

Dating from l971 and l973 respectively, these original Columbia Masterworks were probably recorded four channel for release as SQ quadraphonic LPs, though I don’t recall either title. They have been remixed for 5.1 with some center channel information but no LFE signal that I can hear. Being almost a quarter-century old, the analog recordings don’t equal what can be accomplished recording direct to multichannel DSD today, but they certainly sound better than they ever have before. There is no lack of recorded Planets whirling out there, but the Bernstein touch insures the maximum excitement and impact out of Holst’s hoary heavenly suite. The four interludes from the opera Peter Grimes have long been my favorite music of Benjamin Britten. It’s some of the most gutsy and dramatic music of the British composer. Bernstein stresses the evocative tone-painting and emotional content of the pieces depicting Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm. The surrounds are limited to a subtle ambience that nevertheless sounds genuine and not simulated via digital reverb. The CD reproduces the cover art from both original separate LP issues. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in E Flat Major D568; Six Moments musicaux D780 - Mitsuko Uchida - Philips multichannel hybrid SACD 470 603-2:

Good to see Universal is doing at least some of their SACDs as hybrids instead of SACD-only. (I reviewed the standard CD issue of this one back in our November 2002 issue.) This earlier four-movement Schubert sonata began as a three-movement piece in D Flat Major but it is felt someone told Schubert no publisher would want a sonata in five flats - too difficult to read. The first movement is upbeat and happy, and the entire sonata is full of innocently beautiful melodies, though without the emotional depth of his later piano sonatas. Schubert was busy writing his song cycles during the same period he composed the Moments musicaux - they can be thought of as similar to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Uchida has a precisely expressive touch and the piano sound is rich and detailed. I attended a piano recital in a hall at Reed College last week, sitting some distance further back than I normally do. I was struck by how much of the sound coming to my ears was reflected off the walls, ceiling and floor of the acoustically hard but well-balanced auditorium. That is the sonic information that well-recorded surround such as on this disc is trying to preserve and deliver. It’s not perfect yet but it helps a great deal. One thing that bothered me - as on most piano recordings - was the 30-foot-wide piano syndrome. I would think that one of the advantages of multichannel reproduction was to finally create a natural-sized grand piano in the middle of the soundstage rather than stretched across it. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

RICHARD STRAUSS: A Hero’s Life; Four Last Songs - Gitta-Maria Sjoberg, soprano/Odense Symphony Orchestra/Jan Wagner - Silverline DVD-A 288119-9:

The packaging of this album betrays Silverline’s lack of experience with classical releases - most of their catalog being in the popular field. Even though Ein Heldenleben has long been an audiophile favorite, the DVD’s spine identifies the album with only the composer’s name and the orchestra - not the selections. Even on the front the titles of the two pieces are in the smallest size type. It is also disconcerting to go to open the note booklet inside and discover that there is none - meaning no English translation of the lovely Strauss songs with orchestra. There is some background on the music in the on-screen information that can be navigated to manually, but no lyrics at all. The songs concern an elderly couple looking back on their lives with nostalgia. The titles are Springtime, September, Going to Sleep, and In the Glow of Sunset. Sjoberg has a strong and beautiful voice and the orchestra is commendable. The six sections of A Hero’s Life are divided into separate chapters on the disc with titles for each one, aiding understanding of the very programmatic work. While Wagner’s performance doesn’t match the interpretive heights of Fritz Reiner’s, the very natural surround field and clarity (which surpass even the xrcd version of the Reiner interpretation) add an aural involvement not usually experience with mere stereo. Strauss’ use of percussion seems more natural and realistic than heard on two-channel symphonic recordings - whether hi-res or not. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Frontline News Coming Up: Battle of the Hi-Res Waltzes...
RAVEL: La Valse; Mother Goose Suite; Menuet antique - New York Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez - Sony Classical multichannel SACD (only) SS 87979:

Since these masters date from l974, they were probably four-channel tapes made for possible SQ quad release on LP at that time. But they have been remixed for 5.1 multichannel. The disc is not your usual Ravel program; it has the composer’s first published work - the Menuet, one of his most impressionistic works - the apotheosis of the waltz, La Valse, and the major piece is his delicate and atmospheric suite based on his children’s piano pieces. Boulez is a perfect choice for Ravel since he’s a stickler for preciseness - just as was the composer, and yet can maintain the overall “wash” of sensual sound which was also Ravel’s goal.

I had on hand two other hi-res versions of La Valse (my fav shorter Ravel piece), and found it interesting that all three of these were originally taped between 1974 and 1977. I began with the well-known Minnesota Orchestra/Skrowaczewski double-disc DAD 96K DVD from Classic Records - with the acclaimed engineering of Joanna Nickrenz & Marc Aubort. This set, along with the Gershwin set from the same sources, was probably the most successful sonically of the few classical 96K DADs that were released. Since it is only hi-res stereo, I compared it with the stereo mix on the Boulez SACD, and thus was playing both discs on the same two channel player - my modified Sony 9000ES. The La Valse performance is excellent and its bass drum whacks are much more dramatic than either of the competing versions. However, the orchestra sounds smaller than the other two, with less depth perspective and spatiality. Compared to the third version - Martinon’s - the Minnesota forces had a smoother and more refined sound. I also tried the DAD via ProLogic II so I could compare it to the multichannel SACD. Yes, that provided a pleasing feeling of being in the hall but the SACD still had the edge on the DAD.

The third La Valse was Jean Martinon’s with Orchestre de Paris. The EMI Classics DVD-A is titled Ravel Bolero and was reviewed here previously. The masters for this one were also designed for SQ quad release and I believe actually were issued on LP back then (1977). The major work on the disc is the complete Daphnis et Chloe ballet. So this was also a 4.0 master and EMI kept it strictly in that form for the DVD-A reissue instead of remixing to 5.1. There is a good feeling of the concert hall but the orchestra sounds more coarse and constricted than on the other two La Valses. The sonics have a somewhat processed sound to them, as though some type of noise reduction was used to minimize tape hiss on the masters. The tambourine, for example, is very muffled compared to its sound on the other two versions. In general this is not the fastidious Ravel but instead the unbuttoned Ravel. Yet, though the conclusion of La Valse is supposed to be in the horror-movie vein, Martinon’s big finish is decidedly un -scary compared to the other two. The new Boulez SACD wins hands down, with a crisp clarity, more exciting dynamics, and a better integration of the surround field with the frontal soundstage. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

ROSSINI: Famous Overtures = The Barber of Seville, The Italian in Algiers, La cambiale di matrimonio, La scala di seta, Tancredi, Il Signor Burschino, The Turk in Italy, L’inganno felice - Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner - Pentatone Classics multichannel (4.0) SACD PTC 5186 106 (Distr. By Telarc):

We seem to be repeatedly visiting the year 1974 in surround sound... These are more four-channel masters intended by Philips for release on quad LPs - but these never were. The disc is another in the new label’s RQR (Remastered Quadro Recordings) series which allows surround buffs to enjoy these multichannel recordings properly for the first time. The LFE channel was of course designed for movie sound effects and never for music so we can pretty much forget about it, but the center channel is never missed on any of these superb recordings. Rossini followed the same basic structure for all of the overtures to his many operas, but they never bore the listener - being full of bounce, humor and vitality. The acoustics of Brent Town Hall in London provide a perfect surrounding for the production and preservation of these enticing and spirited sounds. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

TELEMANN: Tafelmusik (Sel. From Parts I & II) - Overture-Suite in E Minor, Quartet in G Major, Trio in E Flat Major, Conclusion in E Minor, Quartet in D Minor - Florilegium/Walter van Hauwe, recorder (in D Minor Quartet) - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 19102:

The early music ensemble Florilegium has been around for a dozen years and is considered one of Britain’s outstanding period instrument groups. They concentrate on the period from the Baroque thru the early Romantic, and naturally Telemann - one of the most popular composers towards the end of the Baroque - is going to be a part of their repertory. This is their 13th recording for the Amsterdam-based label, in which they are joined by Dutch recorder virtuoso van Hauwe - who is also doubles as a coach in interpretive matters for both early and contemporary music.

Telemann was adept at marketing the music he created for his posts at several churches and elsewhere. He published his editions, advertised them and sought subscribers for his collections. The first collection to gain attention throughout Europe was his “Music for the Table” series from which the works on this disc are selected. One of the attractions of these works is their elegant mix of the French dance-movement style with more stolid Germanic forms. The opening Suite is in the French Overture style and more tonally imaginative than much music of the Baroque. Channel Classics employs a very subtle use of the surrounds, but they carry genuine hall (in this case church) ambience and are clearly not artificially generated. Thus if your system has similar speakers all around (and is properly balanced with the R.S. sound-level meter), you should get a very natural and seamless aural picture of the entire space in which the music is made. Purchase Here

Our Next Story: a Royal Fireworks Battle...
HANDEL: Music for the Royal Fireworks; Water Music - 3 Suites - Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman - Telarc multichannel SACD 60594:

OK, we all know the story about King George I barging down the Thames to Handel’s music, right? (If not, look it up in Google.) So let’s barge straight into the audiophile fray with an A/B comparison with the previous version of these two chestnuts as issued on DVD-Audio vs. SACD. The larger of the two super-jewel-boxes is from EMI Classics, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. (We also reviewed this previously - check out our site search engine to find.) To begin with, the PCM version is at a possible disadvantage since it dates from 1977. Evidently as late as that EMI was still taping some material in four channels with the possibility of release on quadraphonic LP; as I recall quad was pretty dead in the water by then - not making much music. So what we have on the DVD-A are very strident trumpets and a rather edgey-sounding orchestra in general. Though the surround action is strong, there is little feeling of the hall - it almost sounds outdoors, which in a way would be more appropriate considering the original performances of the music. The tempi are entirely different than on the Pearlman version - some movements are taken much slower and others much faster. The overall pitch is also higher here, which is probably due to the Baroque lower pitch (i.e.: A:415 instead of A:440) used by the Pearlman period instrument band. This exacerbates the already strident sonic quality on the DVD-A.

The newly-DSD-recorded Telarc multichannel version has a fuller sound, the string section is sweeter and more silky, and there is a better balance between the brass and strings - whereas on the Mackerras version the brass section overrides everything. The entrance of the horns in the third movement of the F Major suite actually stands out more than with the Mackerras because the brass hasn’t previously been so prominent. (This was the English composition to introduce horns into the orchestra.) The unusual sound of the serpent is added to reinforce the bass line as per Baroque practice. The Pearlman possesses an overall more musical sonic plus more interior detail, and a better spatial spread around the listening room. However, it sounds completely indoors, not out. There’s nobody barging down the Thames here. The only fillip I missed in the Royal Fireworks was something that would seem to be right up Telarc’s sound effect alley: dubbed-in real fireworks in the closing Menuets, as heard on Leopold Stokowski’s Living Stereo Victor recording of years back (which has never been reissued by Classic Records - you’d think that would be an audiophile must-have)! Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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