27 SACD & DVD-A Audio Reviews
June 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Mostly Classical

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) - for alto, tenor and large orchestra - Violeta Urmana, mezzo soprano/Michael Schade, tenor/Vienna Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez - DGG multichannel hybrid SACD 471 635-2:

This performance was recorded in the Musikverein in Vienna in l999. Mahler came up with a completely new structure for this work based on texts from the German translation of a Chinese anthology of poetry. It is really another Mahler symphony, though not called that, setting six lieder with alternating solo singers and full orchestra. The six titles are Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrows, The Lonely Man in Autumn, Of Youth, Of Beauty, The Drunkard in Spring and The Farewell. This final setting - Der Abschied - is almost as long as the other five that precede it, and is the culmination of the massive work. The libretto, with English translations, is of course included in the note booklet. The interpretation is precise and carefully delineated, as is Boulez’ style. The added transparency of the multichannel SACD sonics made the work a more moving experience for me than I have ever had with it. My only gripe was a sort of steely hardness in the louder notes of the tenor, which was apparent on both of my SACD players as well as on the CD layer. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D Major; Romances Nos. 1 & 2 for Violin and Orchestra - Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin/New York Philharmonic/Kurt Masur - DGG multichannel hybrid SACD 471 633-2:

Recorded during a live performance at Lincoln Center just last spring, this is an example of the sort of domestic recording project we will be seeing less and less of as the major labels cut back their activities to the bone. Mutter continues her Beethoven kick with this release, following on her successful traversal of all the Beethoven violin-piano sonatas for DGG and the video DVD of a couple of them. She performs the cadenzas originally played by Fritz Kreisler. Putting aside the question of whether or not we need yet another Beethoven Violin Concerto, hers is a dramatic and strongly-felt interpretation, and the surround SACD adds dimension and detail that is missing in other recordings of the work. Universal seems not be using the center channel on most of their classical multichannel SACDs. The violin sound is extremely clean and pure, and when Mutter occasionally loses the silky tone and becomes a bit strident, you hear it clearly. The two less-often-heard Romances are a nice filler for the concerto. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

ALAN HOVHANESS: Mysterious Mountain; Hymn to Glacier Peak, Mount St. Helens, Storm on Mount Wildcat - Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./Gerard Schwarz - Telarc Multichannel SACD 60604:

While not the first time the “mountain music” of Hovhaness has been collected as a CD theme, this one has to be the most spectacular. Especially to audiophiles for the last movement of the St. Helens Symphony in which the mountain blows its top musically. The late composer was one of the most prolific of American composers and he steadfastly followed his own voice without regard for the prevailing styles in composition. Many of his works were stimulated by nature and especially mountains. He also cultivated his musical roots in his native Armenia. The first three works here are actually his symphonies nos. 2, 66 and 50. The closing short storm piece was composed by Hovhaness when he was only 20 years old. Schwarz frequently championed the Seattle based composer during the time he conducted the Seattle Symphony, and now he is on the podium of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (so the presence of that band here is not to save money over recording in the U.S.). The original CD version of this recording was satisfying but the SACD version brings another whole level of clarity, detail and natural feeling of the concert hall.
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- John Sunier

It’s Mozart times two via the next pair of SACD discs...
MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A; SCHUBERT: Rondo in A for violin and strings; MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in D Minor - Vesko Eschkenazy, violin/Concertgebouw Ch. Orch./Marco Boni - Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 001:

This Mozart concerto is often called “The Turkish” and it was a hit in his day and still is. The cellos and basses in its third movement are called upon to play using the wood side of their bows, which may have been a first. The Schubert Rondo is the most familiar of his three extant works for violin and orchestra. Mendelssohn was only 13 when he penned his D Minor concerto in l822. It is of course a simpler work more a part of the Classical Period vs. his much later and much more famous Concerto in E Minor. Eschkenazy possesses a really lovely tone and the five-channel reproduction is top-flight. The soloist is perfectly centered even if you don't sit in the exact sweet spot. Purchase Here

MOZART: Piano Concertos in D Minor KV466 & C Minor KV 491 - Ana-Marija Markovina, piano/Sofia Soloists Music Society/Federico Longo - CMN (Classical Music Network) multichannel SACD 005 (Distr. By Qualiton):

Recorded in a concert hall in Sofia Bulgarian just last year, this sensitive interpretation of two major Mozart piano concertos features a Croatian pianist who displays a precise and uncluttered technique that is perfectly attuned to both the subtle refinements of these works and the subtleties newly revealed by the much higher resolution of the DSD format. Though in minor keys, both works begin with major intent in the form of 14 minute Allegro opening movements. The smaller orchestra allows hearing even more of Mozart’s delicate piano part and its interaction with the ensemble. The surround channels are fairly low level but effective in placing the listener in the concert hall if levels are correctly matched and your surround speakers are similar to the frontal speakers. The note booklet has a lengthy essay translated (maybe that’s the problem) from the German (or it could just be that) about...actually it’s such convoluted philosophical pontification I’m not sure I could even say what it’s about. Mozart and the Ms. Markovina are actually mentioned a couple places in it but it’s like they’re coming for air in a deluge of academic blather. Nevertheless the disc itself is an auspicious start for another new SACD label. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BIBER: Missa Salisburgensis - Musica Antique Cologne/Reinhard Goebel; Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh - Archiv Production multichannel SACD 471 632-2 (Universal Music):

This massive mass was the most important polychoral work of the entire Baroque period. It took place in Salzburg Cathedral (as the name implies) in 1682 as part of a celebration of the “papal state” of Salzburg as a center of Christianity for 1100 years. The archdiocese of Salzburg regarded itself as the focal point of Venetian and Roman tradition, and in this huge performance ritual eclipsed even the Venetian galas such as Monteverdi’s famous Vespers of 1610. Musicologists are not absolutely certain that Biber composed this work but on stylistic grounds it appears so. It was considered bad form to credit the actual creator of such liturgical works, almost as though the authorities wanted the masses to believe the work was handed down directly from God. The work is titled as a Mass and Motet in C Major. It has 53 separate parts, including two pipe organ parts, plus basso continuo. There are two vocal and string ensembles plus choirs of trumpets and drums - which in this recording made in London’s St. Paul Cathedral were placed some distance away at the end of the church. The brass, percussion and massed voices were all employed to their maximum during the big climaxes in service to the glory of God... and by deduction that of the great city-state of Salzburg. “Sound the drums; acclaim your Fatherland” are some of the words.

Three other works, which are not detailed in the note booklet and libretto, fill out the SACD, but they evidently date from the same l682 blowout: Sonata Sancti Polycarpi and two Sonatas, Nos. 5 and 12, for tromba, strings and organ. The Missa Salisburgensis is such a massive work that two separate early music ensembles were required to perform it for the recording. Both play authentic instruments of the period. The recording was made in l997 and very obviously with an eye to eventual release on a multichannel medium. With musicians and vocalists spread out widely all over St. Paul’s Cathedral, this is a perfect work for surround sound presentation. The sound of the various trumpets and brass is especially thrilling as you heard the reflection off the distant surfaces of the cathedral around you. This is one recording where some sort of synthesized height or overhead speaker feed would probably add a great deal of realism to the reproduction. In fact it’s unfortunate it wasn’t done with a deliberate vertical pickup as in Tom Jung’s wonderful Gaudeamus SACD. Archiv’s engineer’s only used a 4.0 setup, so the center channel and LFE channels could have become stereo height feeds. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

[I’m slipping this one onto the hi-res classical page because it does have a couple classical selections on it...Ed.]

Chick Corea - Rendezvous in New York - (with guests including: Terence Blanchard, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton, Avishai Cohen, Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez, Roy Haynes, Christian McBride, Bobby McFerren, John Patitucci, Joshua Redman, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Miroslav Vitous and more) - Stretch Records multichannel SACD SCD2-9041-2 (2 discs)(Distr. By Concord Records):

This very special album was the very first of Concord Records’ new SACD series, which is planned to total 30 releases before the year is out. It is a path-breaking effort both musically and technically. Dealing with the techy side first: It’s the first 16-track, all-DSD recording ever and at the time of its recording in December of 2001 was the largest DSD project ever. DSD converters from Ed Meitner and dCS were used. The recording engineers stated that the signal path up to the A/D converters was maintained with the greatest care in the analog domain to preserve the detail and quality of the intimate, warm and relaxing atmosphere of the unique jazz mecca - NYC’s Blue Note. The recordings took place at the jazz club over a three week period and almost 60 hours of material was recorded as DSD audio as well as hi-def video, using the 24p video format. Plans are to later release both standard DVDs and HDTV versions of the event, and perhaps also more SACDs.

The event was Corea’s 60th Birthday Party, and he celebrated it by inviting in some of the top jazz musicians in the business to perform with him during his Blue Note residency. Nine different lineups were heard, ranging from duos to small ensembles, with Corea at the center of the proceedings. Many other guests dropped by the Blue Note and played with Chick, but didn’t make the final album for various reasons - including Chaka Khan, Bela Fleck and Isaac Hayes. Corea spend months after the big event listening to all the tapes and trying to select at least one tune for the double album from each of the nine different groups. He felt every minute of the tapes were publishable but he had to get it down to a couple hours. He writes in the album notes “This birthday party was a spiritual high that I will never forget.”

The opening three tracks on the first disc are the due of Chick and the amazing Bobby McFerrin. The highlight is track 3 with their version of a medley of the familiar Concierto de Aranjuez main theme and Chick’s own Spain. McFerrin’s wit and whimsy is just magical; I love it when he comes up with a Mafia-ish guttural voice to proclaim “Dis is important stuff!” A quintet featuring the trumpet of Terence Blanchard is heard on a 16-minute medley of two Bud Powell originals, and vibist Gary Burton joins Chick for a glorious lyrical treatment of the Corea original from Return To Forever - Crystal Silence. On the second disc’s first track The Akoustic Band (which is just the trio of Chick, Dave Weckl and John Patitucci) play fresh and imaginative take on the familiar Autumn Leaves. Then the sextet Chick calls Origin does Armando’s Tango. The same medley of the two Spanish-flavored tunes done as a duo with McFerrin on the first SACD is next tackled together with second pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and it’s complete different but just as superb. The New Trio is the penultimate track here with Lifeline, and the album closes with a quartet featuring tenorman Michael Brecker with Chick on Part 1 of his Quartet No. 2.

The intense variety of this collection if staggering, and would not have been possible were it not for Corea’s experimental attitude about always trying new things in music. He has created or perfected many different subgenres of jazz and on the way won ten Grammy awards. This would be a must-have album in any format, but the SACD format beautifully succeeds at placing the listener right in the middle of the Blue Note to enjoy every creative note coming one’s way. It will be interesting eventually to experience the hi-def videos to compare; even with the best DTS 5.1 sound there’s little chance they could sonically match these SACDs, but perhaps the visual interest will compensate for that. Purchase Here

- John Henry

To experience hi-res without any special equipment, or if you spent so much on your present super-high-end CD front end that you can’t afford to consider either of the two new formats yet, there’s always JVC’s expensive but very impressive xrcds...
TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo & Juliet Overture-Fantasia; R. STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks - Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch - RCA/JVC xrcd2 JMCXR-0022:

Illustrated with the original LP cover art, here are two l961 Lewis Layton Victor Golden Age Living Stereo masters in the best sound they have ever had in any digital media. Second only to Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony in interpretive and sonic achievement for RCA, Munch and the Boston forces pump plenty of life into these classical chestnuts. The Romeo & Juliet main theme is one of the most famous classical melodies in the world. Till’s many merry pranks never seemed to be so realistically laid out before us in this programmatic work. Surprisingly this is its the very first release on any sort of CD (only the Reiner Till E. had been previously released). The warm and wonderful acoustics of Boston’s Symphony Hall are well preserved. If you have any sort of ambience extraction processing (not DSP boingerizers) you may find the creation of a workable surround field almost as convincing as with discrete hi-res multichannel. (The only thing better is the two-track prerecorded tape version, but then you’ll have some hiss to deal with.)
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor “Pathétique” - Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner - RCA/JVC xrcd2 JMCXR-0021:

Orchestral Hall, Chicago, in April of l957 was the place and time of this landmark session for RCA’s mikes. JVC’s fastidious attention to every step in the chain from the original two-channel analog master tapes to the final aluminum (they found gold inferior) CDs brings us closer to that time and place than have every before been possible in any digital media. This three-hanky four-movement work has always been my least favorite Tchaikovsky symphony for its unrestrained emotional outpouring of passionate grief. But Reiner keeps up interest throughout and the flawless playing of the Chicagoans rescues the work from the maudlin morass.
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- John Sunier

On to Hi-Res Reviews Conclusion - Part 3

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