Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 2 - February 2002

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~~~ Multichannel SACDs ~~~

The Coronation of King George II, 1727 - HANDEL'S Coronation Anthems and ceremonial music by PURCELL, BLOW, TALLIS, GIBBONS and others - Choir of The King's Consort/The King's Consort/Robert King - Hyperion SACDA67286 - 2 multichannel SACDs:

What a perfect choice for a musical surround experience. This pair of discs not only immerse the listener in the pomp and circumstance but due to the early music and the archaic words of the texts and chants also function as a sort of low-budget time travel vehicle. And the second SACD is free too!

Though the texts are in English, there are complete libretti for everything in the lavish note booklet. Much of the music used at the event was recycled from previous coronations, but Handel was commission to write not one but four coronation anthems, which are heard here. The most stirring is probably his Zadok the Priest - quintessential Handel with all flags flying.

The drama of the occasion allows for all sorts of natural surround effects that add a thrilling aspect to what otherwise would be a rather bland recital of early English choir music - not everyone's cuppa tea, so to speak. The effects include processions in and out of the cathedral, pealing bells (Westminster Abbey, separately recorded and mixed in at appropriate places), trumpet fanfares, and shouts of acclamation such as "God Save the King." One feels completely surrounded by the exultant crowd and part of the ceremony. This disc shows how surround can truly serve serious music without any gimmicks or exaggerations.

- John Sunier

GEORGE LLOYD: Cello Concerto; Orchestral Suite No. 1 from "The Serf" - Anthony Ross, cello/Albany Sym. Orch./David Alan Miller - Albany Records TROY 458 - multichannel SACD:

Albany's first SACD brings to SSfM two of the favorite works by a composer championed for years by the label as well as this orchestra. Lloyd's accessibly melodic and emotional music wasn't considered au courante in music academic circles for 20 years, so it was good the conductor's lifelong struggle to get his works heard had some assistance. Both of these works were composed about a year before the composer died in l998. The concerto - in one continuous movement - is a strongly emotional work lamenting the passing of a lost world, similar in intent to the Elgar cello concerto. The orchestral suite is a recycling of material from an opera on a medieval theme that Lloyd had written and had staged at age 25. Feeling the opera had some of his best music and failing to get it produced again, the composer wrote this seven-movement suite shortly before he died. The surround channels carry a fairly subtle impression of the rear portion of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall where the recording was made. Only in switching to the stereo mix is it clearly noticed that the sound becomes flatter and more opaque on the front channels. Switching then to the 44.1 CD layer increases that effect even more, with most of the hall feeling disappearing. This is how it should be done, but it puts more emphasis on the importance of having identical or nearly identical speakers all the way around.

- John Sunier

Global Percussion Network - "Rauk"- Compositions of Anders Astrand - Opus 3 CD 22011 - multichannel 5.1 SACD:

The Network is basically four percussionists playing both marimbas and vibraphones plus a fifth on some sort of percussion. Leader Anders Astrand had the l998 Opus 3 CD titled Live at Vatnajokul. His ensemble is rounded out on Walking Mallets with additions including piano, Thai gongs, flugelhorn and trumpet. The three-movement piece Rauk features solo vibes plus three percussionists and is named about tall limestone formations in Gotland Sweden.

This is the first multichannel SACD from Opus 3 that was recorded in discrete multichannel rather than being derived from the two-channel Blumlein-miking masters as their previous releases have. (Although again the center and LFE channels were not used - making this a 4.0 recording.) A great deal of planning and discussion between the musicians and recording engineer to determine the best way to employ surround with the ensemble. It was decided to arrange the instruments in a U shape so that the sound images extend all the way from the left surround speaker around the front to the right hand surround speaker. The reverberation of the hall is also in the surrounds. Most of the pieces are subtle, melodic and not at all the violent type of percussive sounds. I enjoyed Walking Mallets the most for its variety of textures and the matching of the marimbas and gongs with the percussive sounds of the piano. This disc would be a fine piece of evidence to show that the center and LFE channels are not important for SSfM.

- John Sunier

Far More Drums - Robert Hohner Percussion Ensemble - DMP SACD-10 - multichannel SACD:

Now unlike the previous percussion disc, this one is mostly non-melodic, providing a contrast to the previous Hohner CD on this label. There's still much variety of sounds however, and great surround demonstrations in the bargain. One of the most dramatic pieces is Russell Peck's Life-Off for nine identically-tuned bass drums. Ketiak is an instrumental work based on the different rhythms heard in the Balinese monkey chant. The opening Ogou Badagris was inspired by Haitian drumming and voodoo. In Staves the members of the ensemble take rhythmic ideas from West Side Story and the Rite of Spring as well as dance rhythms from cultures and blend them into one piece.

- John Sunier

Music of the Beatles performed by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, featuring The King's Singers - Telarc SACD-60540, multichannel SACD:

One of the most delightful and worthwhile Beatles tributes in many years! The sextet of The King's Singers is one of the most versatile vocal ensembles in the world, and what better material to have them turn their considerable talents to than the great songs of their fellow Brits the Beatles? The unusual balance of the sextet is due to the two countertenors plus two baritones. The collection of 16 tracks is divided rather evenly between the Pops playing strictly instrumental numbers such as the opening Eleanor Rigby, the singers performing together with the Pops, and to my thinking the best of all - The King's Singers a cappella. Their treatments of When I'm Sixty-Four, Octopus's Garden, and Eleanor Rigby are simply superb. It's not like a cover of the originals or just an obvious re-hashing of the music - they really get into the lyrics and don't just rely on their glorious well-trained voices - they interpret like mad. Their presentation of these songs lends support to the contention that Lennon & McCartney below right up there in the pop song pantheon with Gershwin, Kern and the others. The 5.1 surround spreads them out more widely and clearly on the frontal soundstage than you could possibly achieve with a CD version. In the numbers with the orchestra the delineation between the singers and the instrumentalists is easily sensed.

- John Sunier

The Film Music of Jerry Goldsmith - London Sym. Orch./Jerry Goldsmith cond. - Telarc SACD-60433, multichannel SACD:

Along with the 1812 Overture this was one of the first of the Telarc multichannel DSD extravaganzas. Quite a coup to get the person considered by many the greatest living composer of film music, plus the London Symphony, plus doing it in the new multichannel medium. He's received an Academy Award and 17 nominations. His musical invention seems limitless as he scores one film after another in often wildly contrasting styles, and seldom gets accused of recycling the same materials over and over.

Goldsmith arranged some medleys of his favorite themes for this album. Clever juxtaposition makes of the medleys mini-orchestral suites with contrasting movements. The 5.1 surround puts you in the movie theater with the music making skillful but not overly-obvious use of the surround channels. The film themes heard: Star Trek, The Sand Pebbles, Chinatown, Air Force One, A Patch of Blue, Poltergeist, Papillon, Basic Instinct, The Wind and the Lion, The Russian House, The Boys from Brazil, Sleeping with the Enemy, Medley of TV themes, Rudy, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Forever Young, MacArthur, Patton.

- John Sunier

OSCAR PETERSON & MICHEL LEGRAND: Trail of Dreams, A Canadian Suite - Oscar Peterson Quartet/The Michel Legrand Strings/Legrand - Telarc SACD-63300 - multichannel SACD:

Peterson has composed a lovely 12-movement suite that's a sort of musical travelogue to his native country. Legrand has arranged it for string orchestra backing Peterson's piano and quartet (Ulf Wakenius, guitar; Niels Henning-Orsted Pedersen, bass; Martin Drew, drums). In effect it's really another solo jazz performer with strings, but due to Legrand's swing arrangements the whole thing becomes quite a bit more than that. The music is straightforward, elegantly melodic and very accessible without skirting funk or fusion. The surround placement is more than the usual direct-front and hall reberb in the surrounds, and the note booklet includes a drawing to place all the performers spatially. The drums are on the left, piano center and guitarist Wakenius to the right, with the 13 string players behind the listener. You get the acoustic impression received by Legrand himself while conducting the ensemble, except that he was usually facing the strings. This lends a whole new listener involvement to the soloist & strings idea. A good multichannel demo to play for surround sound newbies. More transparency and fine detail than the original CD-only release, too.

Tracks: Open Spaces, Morning in Newfoundland, The Okanagan Valley, Dancetron, Ballad to PEI, Cookin' on the Trail, Banff the Beautiful, Lonesome Prairie, The French Fiddler, Harcourt Nights, Manitoba Minuet, Anthem to a New Land.

Monty Meets Sly and Robbie - Monty Alexander, piano and Melodica; Sly Dunbar, drums, rhythm and programming; Robbie Shakespeare, bass - Telarc SACD-63494, multichannel SACD:

This is an encore to the Monty Alexander stereo SACD I reviewed earlier covering the music of Bob Marley. The Caribbean jazz pianist did some very nice things with the reggae tunes - which normally I couldn't stand - and the panoply of various percussion was separated out sonically.

I find his new one twice as appealing due to its choice of great jazz classics - Sidewinder, Moanin' and Mercy, Mercy among them. And the combination of percussion, electronics, and the Melodica creates an infectious dance beat that makes it difficult to stay recumbent. The opening track would be a good one to demo to friends first the stereo layer and then the surround layer. What a difference! Some very tricky things are heard in the surround channels, all in good enveloping fun. Tracks are:  Chameleon, Monty's Groove, Soulful Strut, The In Crowd, Sidewinder, People Make the World Go Round, Kool Step, Moanin', Mercy Mercy, Hot Milk.

- John Sunier

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 - Philharmonia Orch./Benjamin Zander - Plus Zander Discusses Mahler's Fifth (separate CD) - Telarc 2SACD-60569:

The Fifth stands in the middle of Mahler's career and signifies a more individual and modern style in his symphonic explorations. It is full of strong emotional content as are all his works - a gigantic struggle between many conflicting elements is going on in this music. The powerful emotional thrust of Mahler is partly due to the complex orchestrations in his symphonies. As conductor Zander says in the 78-minute talk illustrated with music examples on the second CD (standard 44.1), most of the time the players are not playing all together, but when they do, you know it! Mahler's huge orchestral climaxes - sometimes involving extra basses or horns, anvils, cowbells, or having the wind and brass players raise the bells of their instruments into the air to project more strongly - have been for me a good test of clarity vs. distortion or muddiness in reproduction. This is where standard CDs fail often miserably, sounding opaque and hard. Not so with DSD/SACD, and especially with the added reflected sound information coming from the surrounds instead of mixed entirely into the front soundstage.

Zander's version is right up there with the best, and with the added involvement of the surround - which seems so appropriate for Mahler, whether or no there are off-stage trumpet calls etc. to make functional use of the surround - this becomes a most-have for Mahlerites. The bonus discussion disc is well done and would appeal to both music tenderfoots and experts. Zander divides his points into sections on The Orchestra, The Motives, The Structure, The Adagietto, The Scherzo, and Experiencing the Symphony.

- John Sunier

Vodka & Caviar - The Ultimate Russian Spectacular - KHACHATURIAN: Excerpts from Gayaneh Suite and Spartacus ballet, Masquerade Suite; BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances; TCHAIKOVSKY: Grand Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Waltzes from Swan Lake & Sleeping Beauty - Philharmonia of Russia/Constantine Orbelian - Delos DS 3288:

From this disc's title I originally thought it was a collection of Russian gypsy songs with lots of balalaikas and domras. As you can see above, I was wrong. It's a pop concert of Russian favs, delivered with the greatest gusto by this Moscow-based band, and its conductor is the first American to ever become a music director of a Russian classical ensemble. (Orbelian actually hails from the Russian community in San Francisco.) In the familiar Polovtsian Dances the choral part is handled by the Spiritual Revival Choir of Moscow. For me the Adagio from Spartacus was the highlight of the concert - one of the most gorgeous and affecting pieces of music for the ballet of the last century. The venue was the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, where so many spectacular recordings have been made over the years. The surrounds carry only the subtle hall signature.

- John Sunier

MARK O'CONNOR: The American Seasons; Strings & Threads Suite; Appalachia Waltz - O'Connor, violin/Metamorphosen Chamber Orch./Scott Yoo - Sony Classical SK 89660-2 multichannel SACD:

Roots-music virtuoso O'Connor is compared in the liner notes to Ives, Gershwin and Copland in being one of the few to translate the music of the ordinary people into orchestral garb. From a Nashville session player and country-style fiddler he has evolved into an acclaimed composer and performer of what he calls fiddle concertos. The first here follows the four movements thru the seasons of Vivaldi's original, but they also deal with stages in a person's life. "Seasons of an American Life" is the work's subtitle. There are folk and bluegrass elements and some occasional hefty dissonances in this different sort of crossover concerto. Strings & Threads boasts 13 short movements which are aligned to represent a sort of history of fiddle music in America. The closing Waltz is an arrangement for strings (without O'Connor) of the popular waltz which was heard on the Appalachian Journey album in a trio version and on Yo-Yo Ma's recent album in a solo cello version. The strings on this album are not being you as on the Peterson/Legrand SACD, but they are spread out in a wider and deeper soundstage than on the stereo version.

- John Sunier

Chuck Mangione - Everything for Love - Chesky SACD 228, multichannel:

The flugelhorn and muted trumpet of Mangione are joined by his septet of players on this album devoted to love songs of his own creation (except for Amazing Grace). Gerry Niewood on soprano and tenor sax is a standout soloist and sideman, and two keyboardists are featured. Mangione fans will be very pleased with this one, but others might wish there were more tunes from other sources to offer a bit more variety of sound and mood. This is one of Chesky's six-channel alternates to 5.1 surround, with the LFE and center front channels being used for fullrange left height and right height speakers. I'm not quite set up for that as yet, thought I will be shortly. The surround was just fine played back in 5.1 fashion, with well balanced low bass information coming across without using the LFE channel.

- John Sunier

 ~~~ More Stereo SACDs ~~~

Miles Davis - Quiet Nights - Arranged and conducted by Gil Evans - Columbia/Legacy CD 65293:

This 1962 session produced by Teo Macero at Columbia was No. 4 in the series of superb collaborations between Evans and Davis, following a couple years after Sketches of Spain and carrying on some of the same rich orchestral sounds and influences of Spanish classical and folk music. The Quiet Nights title may give an impression this is sort of a Sketches of Brazil but it isn't - the idea is the more laid-back and subdued nature of the music. Much of it employs Miles' Harmon mute on his trumpet. More subtle music of this type benefits just as much from the increased resolution and clarity as do big climaxes and more brash sounds. An improvement in quality over previous CD versions was heard in the fancy Columbia package of all the Evans/Davis collaborations issued a few years back, but this one brings the listener more into the music than does the Quiet Nights disc in that set. Tracks: Song No. 2, One Upon a Summertime, Aos Pes da Cruz, Sony No. 1, Wait Til You See Her, Corcovado, Summer Night, The Time of the Barracudas.

- John Sunier

Willie Nelson - Stardust - Columbia/Legacy CS 65946:

Interesting that one of the biggest-selling albums ever for the country singer has been this l978 change-of-pace in which Nelson did an entire album of pop songs with which he had grown up. His straightforward, earnest and heartfelt delivery brings out the best in the Tin Pan Alley classics, and the very tasteful arrangements aid in the presentation greatly. What's to add? What a musical statement against the 99% crap that passes for pop and rock today! Nelson will probably rack up lots more sales with this great collection of great pop music heard with an immediacy we didn't have before SACD. (Really a contrast in my case because all I had was a pre-recorded cassette of this album!) The songs are: Stardust, Georgia on my Mind, Blue Skies, All of Me, Unchained Melody, September Song, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Moonlight in Vermont, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Someone to Watch Over Me.

- John Sunier

Manitas de Plata - Guitarra Flamenco - Vanguard Classics VSD 503 stereo SACD:

One of the greatest masters of flamenco guitar in a landmark l963 recording with singers Jose Reyes and Manero Baliardo on four of the ten tracks. This is the raw, real stuff of flamenco, putting the listener in the middle of the gypsy campfire scene. The entire heart and soul of this gypsy goes into his emotional music. The recording venue was a medieval chapel and the acoustics are perfect, both for the echoing castanets and shouts, as well as the increasing ability of SACD reproduction to preserve such subtle sound reflections. If your only exposure to such gypsy fire is the Gypsy Kings, get a load of the real thing with this disc. Selections: Bulerias, Granadinas, Tarantas, Alegrias del Cante, Sevillanas, Soleares gitanas, Levantes, Farruca, Jota, Tarantas II.

- John Sunier

COPLAND: Appalachian Spring Ballet; GOULD: Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra - London Sym. Orch./Walter Susskind - Everest/Omega VSD 504 - stereo SACD:

The Everest label produced a series of LPs that combined exciting performances with state of the art recording, including many using the 35mm mag tracks media. Omega has reissued a number of these on CD for which they resurrected and tweaked the original tape decks for playback. The results came close to the original LP pressings - close but no cigar. The SACD version surpasses the LPs, and with freedom from the bane of rumble, surface noise, inner-groove distortion etc. The Copland is up against plenty of competition but none with as good sonics, and while Gould's own version of his Spirituals on Mercury is more spirited, the sonics are cleaner and more luscious on this version.

- John Sunier

Two contrasts in modern jazz conclude our stereo SACDs this time...

Yuri Honing with large ensemble cond. By Henk Meutgeert - Memory Lane - Turtle Records TRSA0010 - stereo SACD:

Having no idea what to expect on this imported disc of unfamiliar Dutch musicians, I thought it was a vocalist of some sort. Instead we have a soprano and tenor sax soloist somewhat in the style of Paul Desmond, backed by a classically-oriented ensemble including French horn, violin, cello and flute and eight great tunes by such as Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Billy Joel! The disc's title comes from the fact that these are all tunes that were important to the Dutch saxist in his teens. He didn't want to do a sax-with-strings album but he did want to record something more accessible than his usual avant jazz improvisations. He and his two arrangers started with the French horn and added instrumental voices to give a pleasing backing yet one free of the cliches of many jazz-soloist-plus-ensemble sessions. Let me just say he met his goals - this is the best lighter-jazz album I've heard in a long time! Tunes: Prism, Infant Eyes, Chan's Song, Together, Hermitage, New York State of Mind, Sands, For Turiya.

- John Sunier

Misha Mengelberg Quartet - Four in One - (Mengelberg, piano; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Brad Jones, bass; Han Bennink, percussion) - Songlines SGL SA1535-5 stereo SACD:

Remaining in a Dutch mode, we have here one of the leading lights in the Amsterdam avant jazz scene. After reading an article about the active Dutch players in which Mengelberg was listed alongside Willem Breuker (which AUDAUD regulars will know I'm nuts about) I picked up a Mengelberg solo piano CD. Way too avant for me, except for the final track. However, in the environment of this SACD I find him very listenable. Dave Douglas is perhaps the most inventive trumpet player around jazz today and they make a terrific duo within this quartet. Douglas also produced the album and I find he can make the wildest sort of sounds work for me; perhaps he kept Mengelberg - sort of a Dutch Cecil Taylor - under control. And after all, you can't honk and caterwaul on a trumpet as on a sax! Three of the 11 tunes are by Monk and all the rest are Mengelberg originals. Must admit I didn't hear a huge difference between the CD and SACD layers on this disc. Tracks: Hypochristmutreefuzz, Reef, Kneebus, Die Berge schuetzen die Heimat, Four in One, Monk's Mood, Criss Cross, Blues after Piet, Kwela P'Kwana, We're Going Out for Italian, Poor Wheel.

- John Sunier

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