Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 1 of 3 - June 2002
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We're taking the "universal" hi-res route again this month and reporting on a mix of both SACD and DVD-Audio new discs. We have so many it's been divided into three separate pages instead of the usual two! The initial trickle of SACDs (aside from Sony) has now become a very steady stream, and the fitful startup of the DVD-A format seems to be going a bit more smoothly, with one label devoted entirely to reissues of worthwhile two-channel material from the past. Some DVD-A labels have even begun to release their standard CD and DVD versions simultaneously. Of course the SACD labels (aside from Sony again) wouldn't have to do that double inventory (which drives CD stores nuts) since hybrid SACDs (a standard CD layer underneath the hi-res layer) are the norm. See our May 29 Audio News for some of the latest on this subject.

As I'm writing this the half-dozen first multichannel Vanguard SACDs just arrived in the mail. I've been awaiting those for a long time - they include to my mind the best classical quadraphonic recordings made during that era. In four-channel open reel tape versions they settled the argument of whether SSfM [Surround Sound for Music] made any sense. Now we'll have them without tape hiss, noise, print-thru or rewinding. My report on them will be in the July-Aug. Issue.

FERDE GROFÉ: Grand Canyon Suite; Mississippi Suite, Niagara Falls Suite - Bournemouth Symphony Orch./William T. Stromberg - DVD-A/DTS & Dolby 5.1, Naxos 5.110002:

Naxos' second DVD-Audio release brings us a trio of works ranging from chestnut to not-before-recorded. Grofe is a good choice since all three of these works are a sort of Hollywood version of Respighi's Roman trilogy - colorful widescreen sonic spectaculars. The five familiar movements of the Grand Canyon Suite seem much more involving auditorily than any of the two-channel versions out there. The five Canyon landscape photos set the scene, but Naxos missed a natural not including some burros in the On the Trail photo. Also they ruined the nature photography with some crudely brushed-in storm clouds in more than one shot. Probably to tie in with the Cloudburst movement.

But then the music is the focus here - you can hear this fine disc without use of your TV screen to display the 13 paintings illustrating the various movements. It was recorded using 24 bit but only 48K instead of 96K sampling. However, sonics are clean and very wide range, with a natural, ungimmicked feeling of the hall in Dorset, UK where it was recorded. If you lack DVD-A playback, you won't find any additional video material using the Dolby Digital or DTS layers on the disc. Grofe's Mississippi Suite has always been a favorite of mine, and I love to play the jazz staple Daybreak, which is the lovely melody taken from the last movement - Mardi Gras. In the last movement of the Niagara Falls Suite - The Power of Niagara - Grofe seems to be attempting an American version of Mosolov's Iron Foundry. Mechanistic music at its mightiest. I can understand why this hasn't been recorded before...

- John Sunier

MOZART Requiem; J. C. BACH: Introitus and Kyrie from the Totenmesse - Soloists, choir and orchestras of the Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Valdhoven (in J.C. Bach - double choir and orch. of the Netherlands Bach Society) - multichannel SACD Channel Classics CCS SA 18102:

An intimate requiem, with the total performers involved, including the orchestra, I count as 41. The orchestra plays on period instruments and the score used was edited by a noted Mozart expert who had been artistic director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra for many years. Conductor Veldhoven is also a musicologist and has staged many authentic versions of Bach works. While not boasting the excitement of the barnstorming full modern orchestra and huge chorus - which in some performances makes one think you're hearing the Berlioz or Verdi Requiem instead of Mozart's - the clarity of the chamber music approach, when combined with the higher resolution of DSD and the natural envelopment of surround sound, makes this a very moving and affecting musical experience. The improved separation of the soloists from the rest of the ensemble and of the chorus from the instrumentalists adds immensely to the listener's involvement in the work. I didn't even want to get out one of the other more lavish (but two-channel) Mozart Requiem recordings to compare; this one was so satisfying. The note booklet says Live Recording, so I gather this was recorded during a public performance. If so, Dutch audiences are certainly quieter than most others I've heard. I once recorded a choral-orchestral performance binaurally sitting in the audience. Someone in an adjoining pew blew their noise frequently. No way that performance would ever be issued commercially.

- John Sunier

BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Suites Nos. 1, 2 & 3 for Cello Solo - Peter Wispelwey, cello - multichannel SACD - Channel Classics CCS SA 17102:

Solo cello in surround sound? Why?, you may ask. At the start of the stereo era many asked why record a solo instrument such as piano in stereo? It's not difficult to switch between the stereo mix and the surround tracks on this disc, and if your preamp/receiver allows it, to also switch the stereo mix to mono. Compare all three and see if you would still ask why bother. A definite feeling of a real instrument in a real space in front of you is achieved by the surround version that the stereo and mono cannot achieve. One should be completely unaware of the surrounds if all levels are properly set. There's no temptation for a gimmicky producer to place instruments in the surround channels because there aren't any other instruments.

Bach's great suites for unaccompanied cello of course come to mind when approaching the Britten work. But there are two other more recent homages intended by the British composer: to Shostakovich and Rostropovich. Both were sources of inspiration for Britten and he knew both musicians. Shostakovich's musical signature is woven into the Third Suite. The three contrasting suites are considered milestones in the literature for the cello, but I have to admit they are far from my favorite Britten works. I'd much rather hear the Bach Six again. But that may just be me; I'm going to sit down and give them another chance soon.

- John Sunier

A pair of vocal music collections on SACD multichannel...

Great Opera Choruses of WAGNER: from Tannhauser, Parsifal, Lohengrin & VERDI: from Aida, Nabucco - Soloists/Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno/St. Florian Boy's Choir/Bruckner Orchester Linz/Bernhard Klee, cond. - multichannel SACD - Chesky SACD230:

Some of the most thrilling music in grand opera is found in the choruses, and Wagner and Verdi are two of the composers who have written some of the most exciting such choruses. Two of those selected for this disc will be familiar to most - the Grand March from Aida, and the very familiar Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin. Often backstage or off-stage instruments or singers are prescribed for certain operas. On some of the Verdi selections a small instrumental ensemble called a Banda is placed high on the left side of the hall. The chorus from Act I of Parsifal is perfect for SSfM - it features off-stage brass and percussion coming from high on the sides, the angelic voices of children wafting in from the rear surrounds, and also bells. I remember the Grand March from Aida as an early stereo tape demo which was very impressive. Now in 5.1 its really impressive. The printed notes don't indicate whether this is one of Chesky's SACDs that also includes a layer with their use of the center and LFE channels for high near-front side channels. I'll have to try that out when I get my speakers Nos. 7 & 8 installed.

- John Sunier

Love & Lament - MONTEVERDI: Lamento della Ninfa/FRESCOBALDI: Toccata 2a in F/MAZZOCHI: Lamento di David/KAPSBERGER: Toccata Settima/CIAIA: Lamentatio Virginis in dispositione Filii de cruce/ROSSI: Settima Toccata/CARISSIMI: Historia di Jephte

Soloists/Ensemble Cappella Fiuralis/The Netherlands Bach Society/Siebe Henstra, harpsichord/Mike Fentross, theorbo (lute)/Pieter Dirksen, organ/Jos van Veldhoven, conductor - Channel Classics Multichannel CCS SACD 17002 72:53:

This disc reminds me of my college days, when participation in the collegium musicum was required, and courses in "Music Before 1750" attracted those who were a bit fatigued with the excesses of Wagner and Tchaikovsky. It offers a mixture of vocal, dramatic dialogues and instrumental soli, several of which are virtuoso compositions of the period c. 1635-1670. The vocal works are basically monodic in character, with intricacies in the basso continuo and affetti, passing dissonances and ornaments. Besides the emotionally-wrought work of Monteverdi, the most passionate and intricate offering is by Carissimi, his Story of Jeptha, which exploits two-soprano echo-effects (spatially effective in surround), as well as a six-voiced chorus utilizing complex, polyphonic harmonies in the service of a powerful lament for the Biblical daughter of the victorious general who must sacrifice her as an (ironic) tribute to God.

The purely instrumental sections are quite florid, easily forward-looking to Bach's style of ornamented, devotional polyphony. The organ toccata by Rossi has a number of mannerisms, including broken-style chords and long dissonances. Kapsberger's "lute" piece is for the chitaronne. His is a Venetian style, and he makes expert demands on the player, who must strum, pluck, makes runs of dissonances and employ colorful harmonics. Frescobaldi's toccata for harpsichord is an extended piece with trills, pedal points, imitative sections, rhythmic intricacies, and a stubborn basso ostinato. The lengthy meditation by Ciaia on the Virgin Mary's taking her crucified son off the cross is worthy of anything in Gesualdo, with anguished dissonances and an almost Mozartean sense of choral ensemble. For the musically adventurous, this splendidly mounted (and sounding) disc will have great appeal, especially since it fills out the period with some new masterworks.

--Gary Lemco

Marcelo Alvarez, tenor, in French Arias by MASSENET, OFFENBACH, DONIZETTI, GOUNOD, VERDI, MEYERBEER & ROSSINI - Orchestra and Chorus of the Nice Opera/Mark Elder - Sony Classical stereo SACD (only) SS 89650:

Surprised to see those Italian composers in this program of French arias? Turns out they were much performed, and still are, in France. Verdi actually wrote Don Carlos - from which an aria about the forest of Fontainebleau is heard here - on a commission from the Paris Opera. Hailing from Argentina (one of his earlier CDs is songs of Gardel), Alvarez has a rich and youthfully strong tenor voice that seems to strain less than most tenors I've heard. Perhaps that's just the improved resolution of the hi-res format. (Have to admit I'm not an operatic aficionado, but some logistical problems dictate my writing this review.) The balance of his voice with the orchestra and chorus is better delineated in DSD than most vocal soloists with orchestra. The two arias from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman are a delight when following the supplied libretto. Nice bite-sized pieces so I don't have to consume the whole thing... If I enjoyed this SACD opera lovers should adore it.

- John Sunier

A pair of Bachs in Hi-Res Surround are next...

BACH Organ Works - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Pastorale BWV590, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, We All Believe in One God, Prelude in E flat major BWV552/1, Come Now Saviour of the Heathen, Christ Our Lord to Jordan Came, Wake Awake for Night is Flying, Fugue in E flat major BWV 552/2 - Hans-Andre Stamm, performing on Trost organ in Waltershausen, Germany - 6.0 DVD-Audio/5.1 Dolby Digital/PCM 44.1 stereo/much video content - Pioneer Classics PC-11544D:

Quite a production we have here! Three Neumann directional mikes were used for the frontal channels and two Sennheiser omni mikes for the surrounds in the church. They were connected thru a Studer console to 24 bit/96K converters and recorded to hard disk without compression or artificial reverb. The DVD-A thus utilizes the highest resolution possible with surround - 24 bit/96K. The historic Baroque organ was recently refurbished, was first built in Bach's time and is thought to have been performed on by the composer. The performances are marvelous and marvelously reproduced - my subs were flailing unmercifully at some of the pedal notes when I had the level up full. Evidently the below 80 Hz or so frequencies picked up by the five mikes have been routed into the LFE channel.

The bonus features on this disc doesn't stop: they include a biography of the organist, liner notes, a glossary of musical terms, a history of the Baroque church and Trost organ, contemporary history about the selections, the organ registrations and other details and credits for the disc production. All these are text only, but you have also a choice of several options to occur while you listen to the music: Track listings of each movement, a slide show of the organ itself and the organist, or a running music analysis of each piece in text subtitles as the music progresses. Finally there is a most impressive full-motion video with DD 5.1 sound of Stamm's performance of the complete Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. My only grouse was that the audio default was to the PCM stereo tracks - probably done to protect speaker tweeters from the loud hash that would result if the user fed the Dolby Digital datastream directly into an analog input.

- John Sunier

BACH Classics - Sheep May Safely Graze, Badinerie from Orch. Suite No. 2, Adagio from Double Concerto, Passepied I & II from Suite No. 1, Air for G String, Chorale from Easter Cantata, Siciliano from Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Giant Fugue, Bouree I & II from Suite No. 2, Chorale from The Little Suite, Aria from Cantata No. 170, Sleepers Awake Chorale from Cantata No. 140 - London Philharmonic Orchestra/Don Jackson - DVD-A & DTS 5.1 - DTS Entertainment 01075-9-5:

This is another in the series of great composers' greatest hits which have been issued on both the Silverline and DTS labels, first in DTS only on CD, then higher-res DTS on DVD,and now with both DTS & DVD-A. There are no visual extras, just the listing on the screen of the dozen tracks. However, you don't need to access track selection on a video screen - you can just play the DVD-A with a display. The performances are workmanlike but easily surpassed in many other recordings by name bands. The real fly in the multichannel ointment is a rather serious distortion on the front three channels. I tried the disc on two different DVD-A players and the results were the same. Played at background music levels it wouldn't be noticed but at concert level it's definitely there. Being between processors for a short time I wasn't able to see if the distortion was also on the DTS front channels.

- John Sunier

Mannheim Steamroller and the London Symphony: Fresh Aire 8 by Chip Davis - Two-sided DVD, DVD-A side is 5.1 hi-res surround with stills; DVD-V side is full motion videos, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1 or PCM stereo. Plus separate CD. American Gramaphone Home Theatre Products AG9888-7:

It's not difficult enough to decide how to organize music reviews with the many wild crossover efforts afoot nowadays, but discs such as this one seem to fall between DVD-A Music and music video DVDs so it's anyone's guess how to categorize it technically speaking. I hadn't heard much about Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller for some years, but he hasn't been just sitting on his laurels acquired by nearly all of their past albums selling in the millions. He's stepped full force into all the possibilities of multimedia via DVD video and audio with the eighth in the long running series of eclectic albums presenting his original compositions and arrangements of other music in various styles. It all grew out of the rock on Baroque instruments approach of the very first Mannheim Steamroller LP.

The video side of this lavish disc held more interest for me than the DVD-A side, since the theme is so fascinating and the production pulls out all the stops to achieve maximum visual and musical impact. There are eight "movements" titled as whole "8 Topics of Infinity." The idea of discussing infinity comes from the resemblance of the number 8, laid on its side, to the symbol for infinity. The sections are Infinity in Philosophy (Aristotle and the Greeks), Infinity in Cosmology (The Big Bang), the Infinite Thinker (da Vinci), Infinity in Mathematics (Fractal designs), Infinity in Art (Waterfall), Infinity in the Wedding Band (Circle of Love), Infinity in Music (The Steamroller), and finally Infinity in Egyptian Afterlife (The Heart & Feather). Whew! The use of the 5.1 surround medium in all the surround formats is extensive and certainly not confined to just frontal soundstage with ambience on the surrounds! Far from it. And as expected the DVD-A layer is the highest resolution and clarity, although the DTS tracks sound awfully good with the videos.

The mix of light movie-oriented music with professorial discussions on each topic, costume-drama settings in the Greeks and da Vinci sections, and everything from experimental video art to mixes of live dancers and an animated steamroller character to amazing fractal designs hits the viewer as both strangely naive and innocent on one hand and full of intellectual and technical chutzpah on the other. It's best to see the video side first to understand what some of the strange sounds are on the DVD-A side. For example, there's one loud whoosh that roars from front to back which can almost make one think something has blown out in your equipment, but on the video side you find that is a flaming planet or perhaps comet flung thru the cosmos.

Then there is all the extras here - altogether there are over four hours of content on this disc! A printed "site map" is in the provided note booklet, and it has sections such as Professor's Notes, Chip's Creative Insight and Approach, Behind the Scenes (video interviews with some of the "professors"), Interactive, About This Disc, Greek Thinkers Suite, and so on. The discussions of each separate topic by the professors are especially fascinating - I was captivated by the one on fractals. Doesn't seem like anything more could be crammed into this dense package, does it? Well, there is. A second disc of the music only is provided as a CD with HDCD encoding. The idea is you can play that one in your car and walkman. Even if you have an HDCD decoder you're probably not going to play this on your home system, but the slight HDCD compression is perfect for playback on a cheap portable or in a noisy vehicle on the road - just as undecoded Dolbyized cassettes are/were.

- John Sunier

RAVEL - Retrospection - Prelude, Minuet on the name of Haydn, Pavane for a dead princess, Sonatine, The Tomb of Couperin, Valses nobles et sentimentales, In the Manner of Chabrier, In the Manner of Borodin, Postlude (1913) - Dejan Lazic, piano - multichannel SACD - Channel Classics CCS SA 17502:

The subtitle of this Ravel collection, Retrospection, is not explained, except that pianist Lazic has already recorded CDs with that title of works of Mozart and Chopin. Again, the multichannel (actually only 4.0 channel) reproduction of the solo instrument adds a depth and realism missing in most stereo versions. However, the timbre of Lazic's Steinway is not terrible pleasant and worse is his strange approach to Ravel - exaggerating various elements and speeding through some selections at breakneck tempi. Sorry, this is not my sort of Ravel by any means. Try Angela Hewitt, reviewed in Classical CDs this month, or the wonderful Walter Gieseking reissue on EMI Classics reviewed some months ago.

- John Sunier

Go on to Part 2 of June Hi-Res Reviews

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