Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Classical - July-Aug. 2002
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We have some new DVD-Audio labels represented this issue, and some alternative ways to 5.1 of dealing with surround sound for music. I had been retaining a stack of original CDs to do A/B comparisons with both SACd and DVD-A releases - this in spite of the fact that aside from Sony's own releases (and Mark Levinson's) most SACDs are hybrid - with a 44.1 CD layer under the hi-res layer. The idea put out by more than one fellow audio writer was that one should never compare the standard CD underlayer with the SACD top layer because of degradation resulting from the laser shooting thru the upper layer. Well, Clay Swartz and I compared several hybrid SACDs for which I also had the original CD versions. In a couple cases they both were actually issued about the same time.

What we found is that invariably the CD underlayer on the hybrid SACD sounded superior to the original CD - sometimes astoundingly so. On the Telarc pipe organ disc reviewed below the original CD sounded restricted, compressed and dull next to the open and clean sound of the hybrid CD layer. Why is this? Can't say yet; if the same bit-mapping process used the original DSD master to make the CD version and they were both issued at the same time they shouldn't sound different.The SACD layer proved a further enhancement of course but not as major as you might expect. I'm going to continue these comparisons both ways to find out if there are some exceptions that go the other way.

Fellow audio writer (and former contributor to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION) Howard Ferstler claims in the current issue of The Sensible Sound that he equalized levels between a number of DVD videos with Dolby Digital tracks, the Dolby Digital tracks on DVD-Audios as well as their actual DVD-Audio MLP tracks, and the multichannel tracks on SACDs. His conclusion was that he heard no appreciable difference in the sound of any of these multichannel formats - finding Dolby Digital to be all he could ask for and wondering why we need two new formats. I've been doing comparisons on nearly every hi-res disc I review - to original CDs, to LPs (including 45 rpm & direct disc), to double-track stereo prerecorded open reel tapes, to audiophile cassettes, to xrcds, to gold CDs, to the DD tracks on the DVD-As. See this month's LP reviews for my views on LPs vs. the new formats, but concerning Ferstler's take on Dolby Digital vs. the new hi-res formats I can only say...Feh!

Don't miss the special links at the end of both parts of this section!

Would you believe - this early in the hi-res game - a shoot-out between two competing Brandenburg Concerto sets in multichannel sound?

BACH: The Brandenburg Concertos - English Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Somary - The Bach Guild/Vanguard Classics multichannel SACD (2 discs) - VSD 513/514:

BACH: The Brandenburg Concertos - Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Hudson, Robert Aldwinckle, Reinhold Friedrich & others - multichannel DVD-Audio - Tacet DVD 101:

The Vanguard 4.0 SACDs are now being finally being issued, something I have been awaiting for some time. They come from the quad era and are therefore only four channel, most were issued on open reel four-channel prerecorded tapes and some on SQ quad LPs. This set of the complete Brandenburgs was taped in l975 and the producers' intent was to put the listener on the conductor's podium.

The same acoustic perspective is achieved on the Tacet complete Brandenburgs, which also are just 4.0 channels. This German label has set high standards in their DVD-Audio classical releases; I find them on a par with the DVD-As coming from the A.I.X. and SurroundedBy labels. The entire 94-minute set of six concertos is fit onto a single disc, which of course also boasts a Dolby Digital 4.0 layer. However, there is no screen image aside from a listing of all the tracks and movements and as the disc plays the section being heard at any one time is highlighted something like being selected on a computer screen. Tacet has designed all their DVD-As to be simply popped into the player and heard without the usual folderol of video display and navigation. While it might be nice to have some still photos of the performers as on the SurroundedBy discs or even full motion video as on the AIX discs, I believe real music lovers might prefer the Tacet approach - especially if they don't even have a TV in the house!

If you're unfamiliar with this cornerstone of Bach's output, I suggest you enter it in a search engine and learn more. I recall this was the first major Bach work I became acquainted with as a youth, attracted by its sprightly, sunny tone and the great variety of instrumentation from one concerto to another. Some are like solo instrument with continuo while others are practically harpsichord concertos. The high Bach trumpets in one of the concertos perked my ears. I set up both sets on their respective players and switched back and forth between them. This is one of the first comparisons of similar music on the two formats where the DVD-A won out hands down. I'm afraid the l975 taping shows its age. It is somewhat rolled off and distant and is not aided by a rather pedestrian performance style. This was before more recent musicological research brought about more sprightly tempi for much Baroque and Classic period music and got away from an overly-respectful performance attitude. The Stuttgart performers display a highly attractive balance of authentic performance practice, faster tempi and a generally more fun approach to the concertos. They are aided by cleaner, crisper, higher resolution sonics that really put you into the middle of the performing ensemble. The label's slogan is Real Surround Sound and they mean it - the surrounds are not limited to subtle hall ambience here at all. This release gives me a much greater appreciation for the DVD-A format than I previously had. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

VILLA-LOBOS: Little Train of the Caipira; JOHN ANTILL: Corroboree; ALBERTO GINASTERA: Estancia & Panambi ballets - London Sym. Orch./Sir Eugene Goossens - Everest/Vanguard 3-channel! Multichannel SACD VSD 512:

Man, did this one ever have me in a tizzy trying to get my surrounds to work! I had only been auditioning two-channel material so far during the evening so I naturally thought there was a connection problem with my six channel analog preamp or the separate amp feeding the surround speakers, or even the rather primitive switch boxes I am temporarily using to switch between my two SACD and one DVD-A players. The SACD says multichannel on the jewel box front and back and on the actual disc. Sometimes my kittens like to disconnect cables at the surround speakers but this time both speakers were completely dead. After a long struggle replacing patch cords and tightening connections, I sat down in a big sweat and looked over the note booklet again. In very small print at the end of the section "A Note from the Producer" was the following: "The Everest title represented here is an original three-channel recording which can now be heard as it was originally done through the front three speakers of a multichannel speaker setup. We have not utilized the rear speakers at all on this remastering..."

Well, it's a whole new ball game with hi-res multichannel (or for those who remember the quadraphonic scare, the same game again), and it is inevitable that some missteps will occur. (For another one on the DVD-Audio side, see my review below of the Bach Magnificat). It is true that stereo was never intended by its inventor Alan Blumlein to be just two channels - three was his minimum intent. But he could only accommodate two channels in his 45/45 stereo record system, so stereo defaulted to two channels. Many early stereo discs and tapes were mixed down from three-channel masters. But the current meaning of "multichannel" as it is being used in both home theater and SSfM applications is a minimum of 4.0 channels - in other words, two front and two surrounds - not  three channels across the front! Such reissues should be clearly labeled three-channel or multichannel-front-only.

Grouse, grumble. But now to the music in question, which benefits from a wider and more specific soundstage as a result of the three channels: This was a super-classic Everest stereo LP hit in 1958, engineered by the late Bert Whyte. The one short opening track (the only one originating from 35mm film instead of tape) depicting the little steam train in the Brazilian jungle probably introduced millions of people to the exotic world of Villa-Lobos. Antill's aborigine ballet Corroboree was the ultimate classical exotica when it first appeared on an Everest LP. Because of its audiophile reputation Classic Records reissued it as part of their small 96K DVD series, but something went very wrong - the sonics were hissy and distorted. Nowhere near the quality of the original LP. Now it's done right on this SACD, and it's not just due to the additional channel in the middle. The two Ginastera ballets have also been that Argentine composer's calling card with most music lovers. Both are tuneful, energetic and rhythmically wild in spots - especially the concluding Malambo dance which blows the roof off the gauchos' barn. Although we now hear everything on the 44-year-old recording, there is an even more dynamic 4-year-old recording not seriously damaged by being on 44.1 CD, plus it offers for the very first time the complete scores from both ballets: London Sym./Gisele Ben-Dor (Conifer 75605). Your collection should have both. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BERLIOZ: Requiem (complete); MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 - Charles Bressler, tenor/Utah Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Maurice Abravanel - Vanguard Classics multichannel SACD (2 discs) VCS 507/508:

As I mentioned last month, I have been anxiously awaiting this SACD for some time. The original Vanguard quadraphonic tape of this performance - recorded in the Mormon Tabernacle in 1969 - was one of only a couple quad open reel tapes I really missed after selling my quad tape collection a few years back. Another part of my attraction to the music was that in college I sang bass in a public performance of the Requiem (with 16 tympani) conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos - I still have my tape of it. Also, I became interested in requiems in general through a former girlfriend who (aside from a few du rigor folk LPs of the era - Pete Seeger etc.) collected nothing but requiems. (The only one that came close to the drama of the Berlioz was the Verdi, in my estimation.)

There are a number of examples of composers composing specifically for spatial distribution of the performers, ranging from Giovanni Gabrieli to Henry Brant, but the Berlioz Requiem is the Beethoven Ninth of spatial music. So it's odd it wasn't included in the very first batch of multichannel SACDs. And while we're about it, wake up, Sony and give us those four-channel Gabrieli albums taped by E. Power Biggs and others! Speaking of organs, the Requiem's tenor soloist is instructed to sing from the high organ loft, and the two choruses are also separated spatially.

Four brass bands are arranged at the four points of the compass. I'll never forget at the Requiem performance by the Boston Symphony watching one of the four bands - consisting of four trumpets, four trombones and four tubas! - quietly assembling just behind a quartet of blue-haired dowagers in a box at the matinee performance. When the Rex Tremendae section hit the dozen brass players let loose a tremendae sound and ever since that image leaps to my mind whenever I hear the expression "nearly jumped out of my seat."

The performance is uniformly excellent. Not up to the dramatic heights of Leonard Bernstein understandably, but his is not in surround, and in fact a video I have of his that has only a mono track - horrors! The voluminous acoustics of the Tabernacle are well captured on the four channels, which are plenty. And there seems no serious loss of bass energy from not using the LFE channel - the 16 tymps are certainly there. Unfortunately, there is considerable distortion present, and not just in the tremendous climaxes. The original tapes clearly show their age. Perhaps the tape hiss (there was no consumer Dolby B then) on my quad tapes obscured some of the distortion, and now it is there in all its hi-res clarity. There was surely less energy preserved in the oxide of those tapes than exists on the master tapes - I recall one of the two reels required to hold the lengthy Requiem was .5 mil super-thin tape! So let's have a new six channel recording of this audiophile's requiem ASAP. Abravanel taped a complete Mahler cycle that received much acclaim. This later taping didn't suffer as much from the distortion. He also did a fine quad Mahler Third which I look forward to hearing on SACD soon.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

An important new DVD-Audio classical series from Tacet...

MOZART: The Four Flute Quartets - Wolfgang Schulz, flute/Gaede Trio - Tacet 4.0 24/96 DVD-A:

The German classical label is doing DVD-A right. Their discs can be played without video display, and they use anywhere from four to six channels as the music may call for. Since in this case there are four performers, one is placed spatially at each of the four speakers - the center and LFE are not used. Going clockwise from the left front we have flute, violin, viola and cello. The album's producer freely admits that Mozart never composed for the players sitting in a circle or facing each other with the listener in the middle, however he points out that Mozart knew neither the CD nor the DVD, and sound media are always synthetic products. Tacet's idea is to involve the listener in the music as though you were one of the performers yourself. I recall receiving an experimental cassette from the developers of the Sensaura surround process. It was recorded with a binaural dummy head for headphone playback, but what made it tremendously involving was that the dummy head was placed on a chair on stage with the players in the early music ensemble on either side of it and the audience in front. Headphone binaural is even better at a you are-there sonic impression than surround, so this acoustic perspective proved tremendously involving. Having a single instrument at each speaker location doesn't strain the abilities of the 5.1 medium (Ambisonics doesn't have that problem, but never mind...) and creates a similar solid location in space as does binaural. Tacet's creative use of this multichannel medium takes Mozart's lovely Baroque background music out of the soporific and into the energetic. And the playing is first rate. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MENDELSSOHN: Octet in E Major; Quartet in D Major Op. 44 No. 1 - Auryn Quartet; Minguet Quartet - multichannel SACD Tacet DVD 94:

The spatial layout for this Tacet disc is even more unusual than the Mozart flute quartets. Producer Andreas Spreer reports that he always felt stereo recordings of string octets missed the feeling a performer in the octet has of being part of a large orchestra. By spreading the instruments around in a circle - basically with one string quartet around one half of the circle and the other around the other half - the listener is right in the middle of the octet and there is a much more open sound. He likens this position to that enjoyed by the Mendelssohn family cat when they all got in a circle to play this brilliant composition of the 16-year old boy. As the listener turns his/her head around the circle each point of the compass has a string trio directly in front - the violins alternating with the lower-pitched instruments, the viola and cello. For the string quartet the players are no longer placed one to a speaker but spread across the front in normal positioning.

This has been my personal favorite Mendelssohn work most of my life. My favorite performance has been an old mono one from Toscanini in an expanded arrangement but the superb playing and in-the-room realism of this multichannel effort could easily replace that old classic in my estimation. The quartet is also exquisite, full of lovely tunes and perfect proportions. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

DUPRE: Six works; FRANCK: Grande Piece symphonique; WIDOR: Finale from Symphony No. 6 - Michael Murray at the organ of St. Sulpice, Paris - Telarc multichannel SACD-60516:

This was one of the first disc comparisons in which we discovered the hybrid CD layer sounded better than the separate CD version. Michael Murray has recorded a fine series of 29 exciting pipe organ recitals for Telarc but soundwise this one is the gem. St. Sulpice is second only to Notre Dame in size of the Paris cathedrals, and it contains a classical Cavaille-Coll organ which was the key instrument of the French Organ School. Only a decade ago was it was restored, and combined with the impressive acoustics of the interior space and the detailed resolution of the DSD recordings we have a gangbuster organ recording here!

Dupre named Langlais and Messiaen among his noted pupils. Many of his works are standard repertory today and shorter opnes are especially popular for postludes in church services. The lovely Cortete and Litany here is one of his gems. Murray has recorded the major Franck work before but this is the first time we get the whole nine yards. The suite is regarded as the prototype organ symphony. And talk about rousing postludes - the Widor organ symphony Finale is clearly just that.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

JERRY GOLDSMITH-RAY BRADBURY: Christus Apollo; Music for Orchestra; Fireworks - Anthony Hopkins, narrator/Eirian James, mezzo/London Voices/London Symphony/Jerry Goldsmith - Telarc multichannel SACD-60560:

All three of these works are quite a departure from your usual Goldsmith film score, but the title piece, Christus Apollo, is the most unusual and mind-twisting of all. Ray Bradbury's text, delivered reverently by Hopkins, imagines Christ saving not only everyone on earth but also all life in the entire universe. Can't say someone isn't thinking big here, but I think Jews, Buddhists, Unitarians and others who don't proselytize would find this sci-fi/Mormon message hard to accept. Another negative for me but perhaps not for others is the serial technique employed in both this work and the opening instrumental selection. In the notes Goldsmith says that during the time of both compositions he was in a period of intense personal suffering and felt tonal writing was not appropriate for his musical intent. However, I don't grok the emotional content with Goldsmith that Berg, for example, was able to convey in his serial works.

I did enjoy the closing work, subtitled Celebration of Los Angeles, which is tonal. The engineering throughout is spectacular and the surround adds a clarity and depth to the chorus as well as separating Hopkins and the vocal soloist from the choir and orchestra. Such path-breaking works are certainly to be preferred to yet another Four Seasons or Beethoven Fifth, but next time I feel like returning to Goldsmith I think I'll fill up my CD changer with five of his wonderful film soundtracks instead.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

HANDEL: Royal Fireworks Music (complete); Water Music Suite - English Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Somary - The Bach Guild 4.0 channel multichannel SACD VSD 510:

These two familiar Handel works were both intended for outdoor performance and thus seem ideal for surround sound reproduction today. Both the peace accord that the Fireworks Music celebrated and the actual fireworks display itself were something of a bust, but the stirring music has captivated audiences for over 250 years. Somary returned to the original scoring for this complete version, eschewing the overblown versions by some conductors (such as Stokowski's, which has real fireworks on his Red Seal recording). The recordings, made for quad release, date from l973 and suffer none of the distortion heard in the Berlioz Requiem. Vanguard's approach even back then was to place the listener in the center of the ensemble much like the Tacet DVD-As. In the Water Music selections the main body of instruments is up front and the winds and some percussion are in the surround channels. Surround purists have dissed this type of thing, saying it might be appropriate for studio made pop recordings but not classical. Never mind, I'm beginning to like it and you may too. It helps greatly if all your speakers are matched and the same distance from your listening position. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

STRAVINSKY: Petrouchka (1911 version); The Firebird Suite (piano arr. by AGOSTI) - London Symphony/Sir Charles Mackerras; Robin McCabe, piano - Vanguard Classics 4.0 multichannel SACD VSD 506:

Vanguard President Seymour Solomon explains in the note booklet that during his label's 50-year history he has been involved in recordings using everything from mono to eight channels. This l973 session was one of the latter. The seats in Watford Town Hall were removed and the orchestra was mostly placed in a large semi-circle. However, the piano and percussion were placed to the rear, putting the listener in the center of the orchestra again. I have several versions of Petrouchka in my collection- Ansermet's is regarded as one of the best and was reissued by Classic on a gold audiophile CD. But it's no match for the detail and realism of this SACD SSfM [Surround Sound for Music] effort. Stravinsky's tone-painting of the noise and activity of the country fair at which the Petrouchka tale unwinds has never sounded so atmospheric, so Debussyian. A fine example of what surround can do for symphonic music. The Firebird filler is just that and nothing special. Only 12 minutes length, it doesn't even sound particularly multichannel.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The Sound of Glory - Great Hymns of Faith and Inspiration - Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Orchestra at Temple Square/Craig Jessop - Telarc multichannel SACD-60579:

No distortion to be heard in this new recording made in the Tabernacle. I suppose this massive space comes easily to mind of any producer thinking of a surround sound project. This takes its place among the over 150 recordings the Tabernacle Choir has made over the years. The magnificent Tabernacle pipe organ is of course also heard in this collection, played by three different organists. The 17 tracks all fall into the Praise the Lord category with a few holding out special praise for Country as well. Guess I needn't point up the temporal/historical significance of this release at this particular time. It definitely provides a perfect demo for SSfM detractors - just play them the multichannel mix of Battle Hymn of the Rrepublic or their favorite tune; then play it again from the SACD stereo mix layer. Everything collapses to a two-dimensional front sonic canvas. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

JOHN JENKINS: Fantasias & Airs - The Locke Consort - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 17602:

The consort consists of a pair of Baroque violins, a viola da gamba and a theorbo. Jenkins was a 17th century English composer and a theorbo player himself. Since the bass part in these fantasias fits the theorbo perfectly it is thought he wrote the part for himself to play, rather than using an organ as on an earlier series of fantasias. The fifteen four to six minute pieces here usually have broad openings and closings with a florid passage and a dance interlude in their midst. Fugal passages are minimized. The sonic perspective places the four string players in front with subtle hall ambience in the surrounds. In this case I find the stereo mix little different from the surround. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 - San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas - Multichannel SACD, 2 discs, San Francisco Symphony 821936-0001-2/Distributed by Delos:

The first entry of the SF Symphony's do-it-yourself record label came with an interactive video DVD. I'm not sure if that is supplied just to reviewers or part of the package. It is a well-done introduction to the album, boasting a video interview with Tilson Thomas and some of the orchestra members about recording Mahler, a bio of Thomas and a narrated bio of Mahler - with pictures, details about the Mahler recording project, the history of the SF Symphony and Davies concert hall, reviews of performances, and another video on the symphony.

The 2001 multichannel recording session began the very day after the September 11th disaster. Of course everything had been well-planned long before, so the recording went ahead, scheduled to be done during that week of live performances in Davies Symphony Hall. Everyone involved participated fully but not without difficulties in this defining moment in our history. It was coincidental that Mahler's Sixth is often subtitled The Tragic and is the most elegiac of all his symphonies - dealing as it's last movements do with poems about the death of innocent children - forseeing the later death of Mahler's own children. As the notes say, it reminds us of the part that great art can play in understanding our world.

Tilson Thomas and the SF forces communicate the great emotional contrasts of Mahler's music successfully, and are aided by the more detailed and open sonics provided by both DSD and surround sound. Tilson Thomas talks to the orchestra in the video about proper interpretation of the many passages in Mahler which closely skirt the maudlin or corny - march tunes, popular melodies and so forth; and how the key is to take that just to the edge without going over it. Due to its elegiac nature the Sixth had previously been my least-listened-to Mahler symphony but I'm sure this discing will get more hearing in the future. The hammer blows which metaphorically strike down the hero of the symphony are directed by the composer to sound "like the stroke of an ax." These are heard with shocking vehemence which threatened my subwoofers. Although the tonmeisters involved in this recording are the same German crew as were on the symphony's recent series of Red Seal CDs, the overall sound is 100% improved. Perhaps the much greater resolution ability of DSD can better handle the multi-miking, multi-mixing approach which they insist on using. [I don't know if this is readily available in the shops; if not, check out the SF Symphony web site at ww.] Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BACH: Magnificat - Wachet aud, ruft uns die Stimme; Kimmst du non, Jesu; Ertot uns durch dein' Gute; Magnificat in D Major; Air for the G String; Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden; O Jesulein suß; Missa Brevis in A Major; Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen; Der Geist helft unserer Schwachheit auf; Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier; Prelude & Fugue in G Major; Nun danket all Gott - Susan Gritton & Lisa Milne, sopranos/Michael Chance, countertenor/Ian Bostridge, tenor/Michael George, bass/Choir of King's College Cambridge/The Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury, conductor and organ soloist - EMI Classics 4.0 channel DVD-A:

To title this DVD-A simply Magnificat is inadequate, to say the least. This disc contains over 152 minutes of music and covers a very wide range of Bach's liturgical music, including organ preludes, instrumental selections, duets, arias, motets, and chorales in addition to the half-hour-length Magnificat. Thanks to EMI for providing all these hidden extras, for making this striking, brand new 4.0 channel recording (1999-2000) rather than re-treading their 4.0 quad recordings from the 1970s, and for bringing it to us in glorious surround sound that places us in the midst of the King's College Chapel without being forced to sit on that venue's hard wood pews for 152+ minutes!

As with previous EMI DVD-As, this is a two-sided DVD. Side A is DVD video compatible with Dolby Digital 4.0 tracks as well as 24-bit PCM stereo. The only video display is the list of all the selections and the ability to select them with your remote on the screen if you wish. The B side is the A side - in other words, it contains the MLP-encoded 4.0 DVD-A tracks plus a 24-bit stereo mixdown. There are some serious discrepencies not only in the overall album title but in details such as the word bit length descriptions. In the booklet tech notes the recording is said to be a 20-bit hi-res recording - though the sample rate is not specificed. On the back cover of the jewel box it states that both the PCM stereo tracks and the DVD-A stereo tracks are 24-bit. How is it possible to expand the original 20-bit recording to 24-bits, I ask you?

Additionally, the booklet concludes with the following note: "Owing to current issues with the functionality of the 'Audio' button on DVD-Audio players, the DVD-Audio section of this disc has been created in such a way that the 'Group' button is used to switch between audio formats. On this disc, the stereo audio can be found in Group 1 and the surround sound audio in Group 2." Well. I checked not only the Integra player's remote but also all of the remotes in the room, and not a single one of them has a button labeled 'Group.' So what are they talking about? This is not the way to aid the public in embracing a new format.  Purchase Here

- John Sunier

***** For yet more constructive grousing about the new formats, visit the Audioholics web site for their article "DVD-Audio & SACD - The Royal Scam." Their intent is not to deter anyone from getting into the new formats, but to identify some of the shortcomings that may impact one's enjoyment of them. The author reports he is personally quite satisfied with DTS soundtracks, so he appears to be in the Howard Ferstler camp there. However I do find most of his points well taken, and hope the record labels and industry will pay attention and try to correct them:

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