36 SACD & DVD-A Reviews
July-Aug. 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Classical
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We start the classical hi-res section this time with three new DVD-As from Naxos, who have just announced they plan to issue one DVD-A per month from now on...

SHOSTAKOVICH: Jazz Suites Nos. 1 & 2, The Bolt ballet suite, Tahiti Trot - Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky - Naxos DVD-A + Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1 - 5.110006:

Shostakovich may have had a terrible time of it trying to be a serious symphonic composer in the tradition of Beethoven to Mahler, but he did kick up his heels and have some fun occasionally, and this delightful disc presents some sparkling examples of that. As with many composers in the 20s and 30s, Shostakovich was fascinated by jazz and sought ways to “tame” it for symphonic presentation. A 1934 competition in Leningrad was just the ticket. It was designed to “elevate” jazz from music of the cafes and dance halls to more serious status. His first Jazz Suite was the result, consisting of a waltz, polka and a furiously swinging blues to wind things up. The longer Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra came four years later and has eight movements. One of them became a theme in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. In the suite from the Bolt ballet various foxtrots and tangos are trotted out as the music for the ballet’s villains - decadent capitalists. The closing Tahiti Trot is in fact an amazing Shostakovich arrangement of Tea for Two! The Russian State Orchestra obviously delights in this stuff and plays it for all it’s worth, and Naxos’ sound is crystal clear and impactful though only at 48K sampling rather than 96K. Horasho.

Here’s a new DVD-A navigation hassle: I wanted to compare the DTS and DVD-A layers, but there was no navigation choice to select one or the other - merely a notice on the screen saying “To audition this disc in DTS or DD, please set your DVD-Audio player to Video Mode and re-insert this disc.” That adjustment on my Toshiba 5700 is buried unbelieveably deeply in the navigation (under"Priority" rather than under Video or Audio) So it changed the audio option from multichannel analog to bitstream and I got Dolby Digital but still no DTS. Next I tried it on my Sony 9000 SACD/DVD-video-only player - without the DVD-A option the disc played as Dolby digital 5.1 and sounded surprisingly excellent in that data reduced form. (The player’s DD playback is superior to that of the Toshiba.) However, there was still no way I could figure out to access the DTS tracks!

- John Sunier

HOLST: The Planets; The Mystic Trumpeter Op. 18 (Scene for Soprano and Orchestra) - Claire Rutter, soprano/Ladies of the RSNO Chorus/Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd Jones - Naxos DVD-A + Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1 - 5.110004:

I think this makes five hi-res Planets so far - a surfeit of Holst to be expected considering the audiophile quality of much of his music. It’s a stirring and evocative performance of this very English music by the Scottish musicians. The surround channels add a great deal of natural hall ambience to the musical experience. The 18-minute filler item is a good choice in being also by Holst and almost unknown to audiences and collectors. Employing a Walt Whitman poem, the work sets the rapidly contrasting moods as the poet describes the variety of trumpet sounds he hears in his mind. The surround soundfield is natural and involving, but I was surprised to see it only used the minimum 44.1K sampling rate on all channels, the same as standard CDs except that the word rate is 24bit rather than CD’s 16bit. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

ELGAR: Symphony No. 3 (Sketches elaborated by Anthony Payne) - Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paul Daniel - Naxos DVD-A + Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1 - 5.110003:

The last work by the great British symphonist was left unfinished when he died in 1934. Now after all this time Elgar’s rough sketches have been brought to life in an elaboration by an Elgar scholar and composer in his own right. The result is the “new” Elgar symphony of four movements - three of them around a quarter-hour length and the second movement Scherzo only eight minutes. (Again, though recorded in l999 at 176K sampling rate on all channels, this DVD-A is 24bit 44.1K. ) The first movement - longest of the four - opens with a surging and memorable theme that later returns in other movements. The Scherzo uses a theme from Elgar’s opera Arthur, and other themes from that work appear later. Payne has a difficult time putting together the final movement since it was in the sketchiest shape. He had no idea what basic structure Elgar had in mind for the movement. He used his intuition to take some music from the composer’s own Nursery Suite to end the work. It is also difficult to assess whether or not the elaboration is a success or even the performance of the symphony since it hadn’t existed before. But it is a fascinating musical journey, presented best foot forward for study and conjecture, just as the competing completions of Mahler’s Tenth and other similar efforts. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Symphonies 39 and 41 “Jupiter” – Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Donald Runnicles, Conductor – St. Luke’s Collection SLC 3001 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s has released a number of really good recordings over recent years on a variety of labels (several really good Haydn discs on Telarc); here, they’ve followed the San Francisco Symphony’s lead and formed their own label, the St. Luke’s Collection. I was particularly excited to hear this first disc under the baton of new principal conductor Donald Runnicles, who also just happens to be the principal guest conductor of my local orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Although the choice of repertory for this debut recording is frequently replicated with numerous good performances available, the results here are splendid and well worth a listen.

Sonically, this disc is nothing short of excellent. On first hearing, I thought the surrounds were perhaps a bit aggressive, but in switching between surround and stereo layers I reached a similar (though not quite as pronounced) conclusion as with my experience with the Proprius SACD – the multichannel mix essentially just replicates the recorded acoustic. Donald Runnicles possesses an excellent feel for how this music should be played, and the orchestra responds with lushness and power where appropriate, although the outer movement tempi might be a bit swift for some listeners. Orchestral climaxes were powerful and uncongested; this is no small feat for a 55-piece orchestra. Very highly recommended, and hopefully the first of many to come. Purchase Here

– Tom Gibbs

RICHARD STRAUSS: An Alpine Symphony; Suite From “Der Rosenkavalier” - Vienna Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann - DGG multichannel SACD-Only 471 636-2:

Recorded live in Vienna’s Musikverein, these are glorious performances recently recorded in thrilling multichannel sonics placing the listener right in the hall. Strauss’ play-by-play mountain-climbing scenario flows beautifully without seeming Germanically obsessed with small details that don’t really matter. All 17 sections of the work are given separate access tracks; thank you, Universal -- because I recall one of the first CDs I ever received for review back in 1983 was an Alpine Symphony on London entirely on a single track! The storm section provides an audiophile surround sound demo extraordinaire. The lush sound of the orchestra plus the clean extended resolution of the DSD recording puts to shame the other competing hi-res recording of the work - Rudolf Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden on an EMI Classics DVD-A. That one is harsh and opaque-sounding but has the disadvantage of being a 1973 four-channel recording re-mixed to DVD-A. The filler Rosenkavalier music is performed with perfect Viennese elan and took on new meaning for me after hearing Simon Rattle’s comments about its place among the apotheoses the Viennese waltz (See DVD-V reviews this month). Purchase Here

- John Sunier

AARON COPLAND: Appalachian Spring ballet suite; Billy the Kid ballet suite; Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo - London Symphony Orchestra/Aaron Copland - Sony Classical Stereo SACD-Only SS 89041:

This seems to be another earlier reissue I somehow missed. While the first year or two of stereo reissues on SACD from the Columbia vaults have met with big yawns from some of my colleagues, I have felt that most are valuable documents. They bring us classic recordings with a clarity and impact very close to the master tapes for the first time. When we have a disc like this one - the composer himself conducting one of the world’s greatest orchestras in his own famous works - the value of the offering is even higher.

Appalachian Spring is the work that brought Copland to the attention of most listeners and is still probably his most-performed work. Though the general impression would be that Copland achieved his patented American sound in music via quoting of numerous American folk melodies in the work, the truth is that only the Shaker hymn Tis the Gift To Be Simple is used. The rest were created from scratch by the composer. There is a chamber version of the work for 17 players, but with an orchestra of the quality of this one and reproduction of this high level, I find the full symphonic version much more pleasing. The Billy the Kid music is echt Copland as well, conjuring up the romanticized version of the historic West as though the soundtrack for a really great Western movie. No wonder so many film composers have so liberally lifted ideas from Copland in their own soundtrack music. The one thing that pegs these excellent recordings as not quite up to 2003 stereo standards is the lack of room-shaking low frequencies to the drums representing the numerous gunshots in the ballet score. The Rodeo episodes are more of the same and more than welcome. Highly recommended. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

VIVALDI: La Stravaganza - 12 Violin Concertos Op. 4 - Arte Dei Suonatori Baroque Orchestra/Rachel Podger - Channel Classics multichannel SACD SA 19503 (2 discs):

First let me allay some collectors’ fears - this isn’t the big set of which The Four Seasons is a part, so no danger of ending up with yet another unwanted version of that chestnut. This is more obscure Vivaldi, but due to his tremendous inventiveness, it probably won’t make you think of the jokes about the composer using stencils or rubber stamps to turn out his music. The twelve concertos are all but one three-movement works which open and close with an Allegro and have a slow movement in the middle. However, as with Domenico Scarlatti and his 550+ harpsichord sonatas, the imaginative variety of approaches to the same general musical form is staggering. Talk about programmatic music only coming to be in the Romantic Era...some of these movements could perfectly accompany film scenes of heaven and hell.

The early music ensemble Arte Dei Suonatorim employs archlute, theorbo, harpsichord, guitar and organ in addition to the strings. The group was founded in Poland a decade ago but has become more international in recent years. Their approach to the music strikes me as part of the new more enthusiastic approach to earlier music, though not quite as forceful or courting rawness of ensembles such as Il Guardino Armonico. Whether due to the instruments themselves, the performers’ style of playing or the purist DSD recording techniques of Channel Classics, there is never a hint of the steeliness of violin tone that causes some listeners to entirely eschew original instrument ensembles. The surround mix is sensibly ambient - the sort that doesn’t call attention to itself unless you switch it off and everything is sucked up to a 16 x 9-ratio aural window directly in front of you. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Valkommen Till Varen – Traditional Swedish Songs of Spring and Love – Stockholm Academic Male Chorus/Karin Winther, Conductor – Proprius PRSACD 2025 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:

I’ve been a lover of Proprius Records for nigh onto three decades now; though many see them as only an audiophile label, familiar with Jazz at the Pawnshop or maybe Cantate Domino, I dug much deeper into their catalog offerings and reveled in the amazing array of naturally-recorded choral and classical LPs. I still rate a handful of their albums as “Desert Island” discs, and their available selections on compact disc have continued in their tradition of offering well-recorded, naturally miked presentations of jazz, choral and classical music. I visit their website weekly, hoping to find older catalog entries long out-of-print made newly available, and when I recently saw this first SACD there, I got on the horn and begged for a review copy.

Although the music here, Traditional Swedish Songs of Spring and Love, probably seems somewhat lightweight fare, I’ve found it to be really quite enjoyable, bearing up well to repeat listening. This disc represents, for me, the finest recording of massed male voices I’ve ever heard, with a wide and deep soundstage and glorious sonics. The naturalness of the surround presentation takes this disc to the very top of my list of multichannel SACDs; over the course of my usual evaluations and switching between surround and stereo layers, I made a really striking discovery. The multichannel layer is really well-recorded, with superb ambience and hall information and excellent surround envelopment; switching to the stereo layer yielded no change in the sound at all, period! I got out of my chair and placed my ears right up to the surround speakers, just to make sure I wasn’t fooling myself – there was nothing there! I played this over and over again, using my wife as a guinea pig – she too was unable to correctly choose which layer was playing. The Redbook CD layer was also very good – but the SACD layers are phenomenal.

I give this disc my very highest recommendation without reservation and hope that it only signals more of the same to come from Proprius. Now I just need to step up my campaign of non-stop, shameless solicitation to them to get them to release more out-of-print catalog material (especially PROP 7770 Kor). Purchase Here.

– Tom Gibbs

RIMSKY-KORSAKOFF: Sheherazade; BORODIN: In the Steppes of Central Asia;BALAKIREV: Islamey - Kirov Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg/Valery Gergiev - Philips multichannel SACD 470 618 2:

Gergiev is a very exciting conductor who seems to have a great repor with Russian music and Russian musicians. (See review of the DVD-V on the conductor in our May issue.) The three works here constitute a fine program and the playing is superb. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be a SACD you would want to use to demonstrate what multichannel can do in the reproduction of the symphony orchestra. Something went a bit wrong in either the original recording in 2001 or in the multichannel mix for release. The recording facilities of the Marinsky Theatre were used, and perhaps that’s why this sounds like many of the Soviet recordings of the 70s and 80s. They tended to multimike aggressively in usually dead halls or studios and then add artificial reverb later in the mix. There is a compressed, opaque sort of sound with unnatural ambient information. The addition of the surround channels to the two-channel mix doesn’t help a bit in opening up the sound. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Staying in the Russian bag, we have a pair of hi-res Rachmaninoffs next...

RACHMANINOFF: Vespers - St. Petersburg Chamber Choir/Nikolai Korniev - Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 027:

Four or five different hi-res versions of The Planets are to be expected by this time in the new era of successors to the 44.1 CD. But a competing Rachmaninoff Vespers already? That’s highly unusual. Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to create a new choral liturgical work; the Russian Orthodox religion didn’t allow instrumental music at all and tightly controlled the type of choral music used in services. Rachmaninoff admired the Tchaikovsky work, The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and decided to try his hand at the form. The Vespers or “All Night Vigil” was the magnificent result. There are 14 different sections, prayers or chants. The harmonic and melodic expression is of course far beyond the monodic or simple polyphony normally practiced in the Orthodox Church, but the Vespers were designed primarily for concert hall performance.

The competing hi-res version was that on Praga Digital with the Prague Philharmonic Choir, which we reviewed in our March Hi-Res section. It exhibits more of the somewhat nasal, strident vocal quality or Eastern European folk singing, the balance seems to be toward the treble with little bass support. And the ambient feeling is not strong. The new Pentatone 5.0 version has a much richer vocal blend with both more female voices and more bass and baritone support in the lower regions. Although the enunciation is not as precisely heard as on the Praga disc- but then how many of us speak Russian anyway... Da, Purchase Here

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor; Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini - Warner Haas, piano/Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eliahu Inbal - Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 114:

Oh boy - standards up the wazoo... Can’t say I approached this disc with great enthusiasm. But before the first movement was over I was sold on both a thrilling performance and outstanding 4.0 sound - right up to Pentatone’s highest standards in all their multichannel SACDs, whether from new or older source material. These are again from the batch of quadraphonic tapings which Philips made in the early 70s but decided not to release on the technically problematic SQ or QS four-channel LP systems. They date from l974 but one would never know it (unlike some of the EMI DVD-A reissues from the same period). Not much to add about the music except that both Haas and Inbal approach these works with enthusiasm and good taste and one is left with no objections at all to hearing them yet again. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

HANDEL: Organ Concertos Vol. 3 - Nos. 7, 9, 10 & 12 - Daniel Chorzempa, organist/Concerto Amsterdam/Jaap Schroder - Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 109:

This is the third volume in a series of four which we began reviewing in our April issue hi-res section. There are some slight differences from the earlier concertos in that Handel lifted and adapted more of the music from his earlier works, as Bach and others frequently did. The Seventh Concerto in B Flat is well-known both for its being the only one written for a larger organ of two manuals and foot pedals, and also for its opening section which clearly is derived from the composer’s Hallelujah Chorus. These are l975 quad recordings brought to new multichannel life but kept in their original 4.0 channel form. The set will be completed soon with Nos. 14, 15 & 16 so collectors can end up with four discs in four channels - Sweet Sixteen Handel! Purchase Here

- John Sunier

LEONARD BERNSTEIN & STEPHEN SONDHEIM: West Side Story - Kiri Te Kanawa/Jose Carreras/Tatiana Troyanos/Kurt Ollmann/Marilyn Horne; Orchestra and Chorus cond. By Leonard Bernstein - DGG multichannel SACD-Only 471 631-2:

This was the l984 production in which Bernstein re-thought his smash Broadway success in more operatic terms. After all, both West Side Story and Candide have been performed frequently in opera and operetta houses, and seldom have the boundaries between Broadway show and opera been so fuzzed out as in both of these works. Some of the songs make considerable vocal demands on singers, which operatic voices can better handle musically at least. The orchestra here is also larger than any Broadway show could provide, and some sections of the score have been added and modified.

However, Bernstein’s choice of singers seems illogical on many counts. All have accents of some sort, each of a different ethnic origin and none appropriate for the role they are singing. For example, Spanish-accented Carreras sings the role of Tony, who is the native New Yorker. Whereas a standard American vocalist sings the role of the Puerto Rican Bernardo. There is also a sort of operatic stylization and artificiality about the vocal performances. Compared to the original cast Columbia CD or LP with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera and others, the operatic production sounds lame and corny. The voices on the well-recorded original album sound like they really could be kids on the West Side; while those on the operatic re-do, no way! The creative use of the multichannel medium adds interest in this newer version, but in songs such as Sargent Krupke the humor falls completely flat compared to the original cast version. Delivery, accent and timing is completely off. I think I’ll keep my MasterSound Limited Edition Gold CD and run it thru my Pro Logic II processing for a more enjoyable not to mention more nostalgic musical experience. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

[Be sure to also see the MAHLER Fifth Symphony EMI DVD-A with Simon Rattle reviewed in this month’s DVD Video section!]

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