Hi-Res Audio Reviews
February 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - All Classical
click on any cover to go to review

We’ll kick off the classical section of Hi-Res with some standards...
BRAHMS: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major; STRAVINSKY: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D - Hilary Hahn, v./Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner - Sony Classical multichannel SACD-Only SS 89649:

Hahn is a superb young violinist and brings a fresh view of the much performed Brahms Concerto as well as the less-often-heard Stravinsky. The latter is a neoclassical work with references to Bach. Both works are in the same key and both grew out lengthy collaboration between their composers and violinists who also arranged and composed on their own. Hahn discovered the Stravinsky on her own and has been playing it with many different symphonies so perhaps this great work will soon be heard more often in the concert hall. The recording itself is not one of Sony’s best multichannel SACD efforts. The surround channels are so low level and sound no better than I could achieve just by playing the stereo mix and switching on the ProLogic II option of my Sunfire preamp. In fact, unless my ears deceive me, the discrete surround tracks seem to have artificial reverb added that is not heard in the ProLogic II surround signal. In addition, at about 30 seconds into the initial movement of the Brahms concerto, the center channel abruptly cuts out for several seconds. This doesn’t occur with the two-channel mix version. Someone was asleep on the job here. Purchase Here

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor; TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo & Juliet Fantasty-Overture - The Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel - Telarc Stereo SACD SACD-60561:

Another in the short series of original 50K SoundStream digital masters that Telarc has recently transferred to DSD. In this way the best digital recording medium of its time can finally be heard as it sounded in the stereo, rather than data-reduced with losses down to 44.1K for standard CD release. Shostakovich’s “War Symphony” is the big work here and a heartfelt treatment it is, with plenty of opportunity to show off Telarc’s patented giant-bass-drum effect in the more bombastic passages. Sound is very clean and wide range - you probably wouldn’t suspect the originals date from over 20 years ago. However, I personally still prefer Leonard Bernstein’s all-stops-out version on Sony Classical. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Three Mozart Requiems at once - even though one is not hi-res it seemed appropriate to discuss all three at once since they arrived at once...
MOZART: Requiem in D Minor - Soloists/Berlin Philharmonic/Vienna Singverein/Herbert von Karajan - DGG multichannel hybrid SACD 471-639 2:

The first thing I noticed about this SACD is that, unlike most of the first release batch of SACDs from Universal, it is hybrid - with a standard CD layer. Bravo! Now that Sony will also soon be pressing hybrid discs for the first time (see our Audio News) there’s really no excuse for SACD-only discs which will only hamper the acceptance of the new format not only for those who haven’t upgraded to a SACD player yet but also for those who have one but would like to also be able to play the disc on their computer or in their car.

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 and it provides a strong contrast to the next two recordings which are new and thus informed by the musicological research that has occurred since 1975. Purchase Here

MOZART: Requiem in D Minor - Soloists/La Chapelle de Quebec/Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie - Dorian HDCD standard CD DOR-90310:

A worldwide choral event was staged one year after 9/11 - The "Rolling Requiem." Choruses around the world gave heartfelt public performances of the Mozart Requiem, all on the same day. This live recording made in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on September 20, 2001. It is well known that Mozart died before finishing the work and his student Sussmayr completed it. The score has been revised by noted Mozart scholar Robert D. Levin for this performance. He feels that basic materials for some of the sections which Sussmayr claimed he composed actually came from Mozart. The major changes are in the instrumental textures of the Benedictus section. The Quebec music ensembles had planned a tour of NYC and nearby cities a year in advance and as fate would have it the tour was for the second half of September 2001. Even more fateful was that the Mozart Requiem was on the program.

So here it is, in what seems a rather spare chamber music setting, but enhanced by the lovely acoustics of this concert hall. On the other hand there is an uplifting grace and lightness to the performance missing from the sumptuous Karajan version. HDCD decoding improves the subtle details of the lowest-level music and ProLogic II generates a reasonable surround field, but this still doesn’t match the clarity of the third Requiem (below), which is in multichannel SACD. However, chances are excellent that as soon as Dorian is able to finally launch their planned SACD releases, the Requiem will be among them.

MOZART: Requiem in D Minor; J. C. BACH: Introitus & Kyrie from Totenmesse - Soloists/Choir/Orchestra of the Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 18102:

This live recording also closely follows the tragedy of 9/11, taking place in October in the concert hall of Tilburg in Holland. The choir and orchestra is slightly larger than the above effort, and with the addition of multichannel DSD there is a richer and much more enveloping immersion in the music. However, the forces still retain their attractive chamber quality compared to the fullblown Karajan treatment. The performance seems to have a stronger emotional feeling to it engendered by adjacency to the international tragedy, just as did the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler Symphony performance/recording made a few days after 9/11. A nice filler on the disc - something not found on most Mozart Requiem recordings - are the two movements from J.C. Bach’s Mass.Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: The Piano Quartets KV 478 and 493 (The Gaede Trio Series Vol. VIII) - Gaede Trio (Daniel Gaede, Thomas Selditz, Andreas Greger)/ Markus Schirmer piano - Tacet multichannel DVD-A DVD D116 (55 mins.):

These two wonderful quartets have been audiophile touchstones ever since the Amadeus Quartet (three of them, anyway) and Clifford Curzon recorded them for Decca in the 1950s. Those performances were full of personality, charm and fire, and the sound (at the time) seemed alive and rich in color (today, it sounds a little harsh and aggressive). Along the way there have been fine recordings by many illustrious ensembles, on both modern and original instruments, of which the best purely in terms of sound may have been the musically limpid RCA version with the Guarneri Quartet and Artur Rubinstein.

Now, from the German audiophile label Tacet, comes a version that banishes the competition, combining the musical sparkle and sparkle of the early Decca version with the sumptuous sonic radiance of the RCA. The sound, in fact, is so clear and natural that it is like being in the room with the musicians. Operating at moderate speeds, the way the young Austrian pianist Markus Schirmer rolls out phrases as if they were pearls, the way he illuminates the music with a luminous inner elegance, and the way he occasionally adorns the music with ornaments of exceptional originality and delight, leaves no doubt that, for this one release at least, here is a major talent.

This is not to say that the very excellent Gaede Trio takes a mere supporting role, for they play as gloriously as on their Tacet recordings of Mozart’s String Trio, KV 563, and their extremely gorgeous transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

I reviewed the 44.1 CD version (numbered just plain 116), but it is hard to imagine anything more musically and sonically satisfying than this CD. Thomas Seedorf’s curious liner notes are quite endearing, especially in an English translation that seems like a gentle parody of German syntax.

[Ed.: I’ve just auditioned the surround DVD-A, and whether a listener would consider it more musically and sonically satisfying depends on how open they are to the alternative use of the acoustic space made by producer Andreas Spreer. He works from the idea that any sound-carrier is a synthetic product and feels that using the surround field to place the listener in the middle of the performance is more interesting and involving. Thus on the first of these quartets we have the viola at the center speaker, the piano on the right side, the violin on the left speaker and the cello on the left rear surround speaker. For the second quartet the violin/cello and the piano change places. Personally I’m beginning to get used to this, find it much more involving, and in fact find the standard frontal placement of instruments on other recordings a bit boring. But I can imagine some listeners might be freaked out.]

- Laurence Vittes


Starkland is the Boulder, Colorado-based label of Tod Dockstader and other pioneering experimental music composers. The label commissioned these 13 cutting-edge composers to each create a four or five-minute work that made full use of hi-res surround sound. Many of them had worked in quadraphonic mode before - a standard for tape music pioneered by Stockhausen, Cage and Varese. Of course there have been composers from the Gabrielis in Venice to Henry Brant today who compose especially for spatial effects, but this disc is the premiere of new music composed especially for consumer surround sound playback. The composers could choose whether they wished to use all six channels or just a four-channel quad setup. About half of them used the center channel, and perhaps that’s why the detailed note booklet includes an essay by Tom Holman on the significance of these composers stretching the boundaries of recorded sound thru exploring the new possibilities of surround on DVD-A.

Each selection is accompanied by a series of still photos connected with the work and usually a snapshot of the composer. The note booklet has a couple paragraphs on each composer and their work. The variety of approaches is breathtaking and all are worth hearing. Maggi Payne’s work processes the sounds of water into a monumental environmental sound-event. Lukas Ligeti multiples the sounds of an African balophone and other instruments into a fascinating enveloping mix. Dolden has a highly individual approach to composition of all his works: He writes out several hundred simultaneous parts on large manuscript paper. He then performs and records each one on an acoustic instrument, then digitally mixes together all the recorded parts - creating complex microtonal and microrhythmical relationships that an ensemble performing live could never achieve. His Twilight Dance was I felt the most exciting surround work on the disc. Meredith Monk closes out this unique disc with one of her patented a capella vocal ensemble pieces in surround. .Purchase Here

- John Sunier

FELDMAN: String Quartet No. 2. FLUX Quartet. Mode 112 (both 5CD and single stereo DVD PCM versions) (367:07):

Clocked at more than six hours, this has to be the longest work of chamber music ever written. You don’t listen to it as much as inhabit it. I’ve been playing the DVD-Audio version for a few days now. It is produced on a single DVD while the CDs are in a set of five. This string quartet contains many of Feldman’s trademark techniques: three or four note motives played over and over until he gets distracted and begins another of roughly equal emotional range; dynamics ranging from pianississimo to pianissimo, rarely attaining piano; rare and jarring moments of terror; languid moods that splash your toes like waves on a small lake. This is more performance art than chamber music, and sometimes it approaches the level of a masterly stunt. The fact that Feldman pulls it off and maintains interest for six hours is more remarkable than the work’s musical scope, which is not really that wide.

If you decide to get the DVD-A version, I don’t recommend playing it on a standard DVD player. I played mine on a two-year old Sanyo and neither the pause nor tracking buttons worked. I had better luck on my computer’s DVD-ROM player, whose software is smart enough to remember the last note played even if I remove the disc. This is an excellent piece to savor in your office as the day winds down. Listen to Feldman’s call and response between violins and the cello’s pizzicato, hypnotic and relentless for about twenty minutes. Watch it reappear in altered form a few hours later. His legatos are eerie and remotely mournful. This is true Gebrauchsmusik. Use it the way you want: as background music, music to travel across like an arctic tundra, music to make love to. You can even leave the room for a while and come back without missing much. Quirky and persistent, perhaps it is best described by Feldman: “It’s a fucking masterpiece.”

[Ed.: This is not really a DVD-A but a video DVD with two-channel PCM audio and no images. To quote what the notes actually say: One can experience the work uninterrupted - complete, with no need to change discs - on the DVD Edition; along with the thrilling realism of uncompressed 24-bit PCM sound. This audio-only DVD can be played on any DVD player (note: there are no visuals).]

--Peter Bates

WILLEM JETHS: “Bella Figura” - Onde for wind quintet, Bella Figura for cello solo, TIM/BA for piano and percussion, Chiasmos for piano trio - various performers - NorthWest Classics stereo SACD NWC 202090:

The first SACD I’ve auditioned from this interesting Dutch label seems to prove my contention that the added transparency of the DSD recording process makes it easier for the listener to really get into the more challenging new music heard for the first time. I think were it a standard CD-only, it would have ended up on my “write up only in emergency” stack of discs. Jeths’ primary interest is in seeking new sound color dimensions, and the increased resolution of SACDs certainly supports that. The woodwind work is a fun conversation among the various instruments, the solo cello piece got on my nerves, but the piano/percussion selection really caught my ear. Based on a five-note scale and the gamelan sounds of Indonesia, it mingles these sounds of the East with the piano representing the standard chromatic scale of the West. Meditative silences are contrasted with percussive explosions. I fantasized Bartok’s great piano/percussion work journeying to Bali. The label - which sounds like it is based in the U.S. Northwest but is actually in the Northwest of Europe - doesn’t yet have North American distribution, so try their web site:

- John Sunier

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA Works “Buenos Aires” - Carrefour Marimba Quartet & Per Arne Glorvigen, bandoneon - NorthWest Classics Stereo SACD 205275:

Now here’s a delightfully different take on the recycling of Piazzolla currently in favor. Next to the piano, the marimba has always been my favorite percussion instrument, and to set four of them to the exciting music of Piazzolla is near-genius - especially with such skilled classically-trained musicians as these. The marimba lineup even includes a newly-invented instrument: The Grubbophone uses bands of brass sheeting stretched over large resonators and creates a sound between that of the marimba and a doublebass, but at a lower range. The performers state that they like to play with the subtle and complex colors in a single vibration, and found that these ideas shed a new light on the music of Piazzolla. Bandoneonist Glorvigen was born in Norway, studied in Argentina and now works in Paris. His squeezebox was recorded with an extreme left-right separation of sound, which - accompanied by the clicking buttons and bellows sound effects - makes for an interesting spatial dimension to the music. The 11 tracks includes Piazzolla’s “Death of an Angel” suite and a version of one of the tracks from the album the composer recorded with vibist Gary Burton, but most of the selections are less-often-heard Piazzolla. Highest recommendation.

- John Sunier

HAYDN: Concerto in F Major, Concerto in G Major, Double Concerto in F Major - Godelieve Schrama, harp/Elisabeth Perry, v./Netherlands Radio Ch. Orch./Anthony Halstead - NorthWest Classics Stereo SACD NWC 206241:

The originals of these three concertos involved the harpsichord as the solo instrument, but Schrama has transcribed them for the harp as part of a continuing effort to extend the literature available to the very expressive instrument. She mentions the new musical views this provides, and that it is an enjoyable musical adventure. I couldn’t agree more, even though I love the harpsichord and own one. I wasn’t familiar with the double concerto - its byplay between violin and harp is an unexpected delight. The transcriptions seem not to miss much of the harmonic details in the originals, seeing as how the harp cannot play nearly as many notes at once. The instrument is also more difficult to record than the harpsichord, and the DSD process handles it without problem, including an extended low end without even a trace of distortion.

Hans Ruckers, The Musical Legacy - Historic instruments built by Andreas Ruckers The Elder, Joannes Daniel Dulcken, Joannes Couchet - Music of BULL, DE LASSO, FORQUERAY, COUPERIN, BACH, PEERSON, DU PHLY & others - Jos van Immerseel, harpsichord & virginal - NorthWest Classics Stereo SACD NWC 128390:

Ruckers and his family were to the harpsichord what Stradivari was to the development and perfection of the violin. The three harpsichords used for this recording are in the Vleeshuis Museum in Antwerp and date from a1650 original to l974 reconstructions of 1644 instruments. The pre-WWII harpsichords such as those played by Wanda Landowska were nothing like the historical instruments’ sound. In l970 a colloquium was held at the Vleeshuis concering “Problems of restoration of Antwerp harpsichords” which started a movement toward restoration of 18th century harpsichords so that their sounds could again be appreciated. The disc note booklet gives an overview of this work. The musical selections played on each of the three instruments were chosen to illustrate the sort of pieces that would be performed on them and which demonstrate their individual qualities to the best effect - just as done with sonic surveys of historic pipe organs.

All three are single-manual instruments - the Ruckers has heavy lines and mostly Italian and English music is performed on it, the Dulcken is more sleek and stylish - French music predominates on it. The portable virginal by Couchet is assigned shorter and simpler works by John Bull, and the familiar The Fall of the Leafe by Martin Peerson. The album producer felt that only with hi-res recording could the subtle differences in sound of these historic instruments be communicated. They were actually recorded both to 192K PCM on a Nagra D and at the same time to DSD on an Augan OMX-24. DCS converters were used and since the recordings were made in the museum the AKG K 1000 headphones were used for monitoring.

- John Sunier

On to Hi-Res Reviews Conclusion - Part 3 - Mostly Pop

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