Hi-Res Audio Reviews
March 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - All Classical
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DVORAK: Slavonic Dances - Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer, Conductor - Philips 470601 - Multichannel Hybrid SACD:

Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances not only appear frequently on orchestra programs, but have heavy representation in the recorded catalog as well with over 30 choices currently available, some offering stiff competition to this collection. And while this disc may not be the last word based on performance values (too rapid tempi here, a bit sluggish there), Ivan Fischer and his forces from Budapest acquit themselves admirably, albeit taking what many would consider an alternative view of these works. This disc is inarguably, however, a near-reference quality hybrid multichannel SACD, offering splendid orchestral surround sound, at a relatively bargain price (I’ve seen it online for $14, and on the shelf for $15).

The surrounds are aggressive here, but not overdone and not pulling you too far into the orchestra. What we have here is a good representation of the recorded acoustic and a good feel for the size and depth of the hall, with lots of ambience -- pretty much how I think most audiophiles would like to hear hi-res orchestral recordings done. I’m really looking forward to getting the upcoming Dvorak 8th and 9th symphonies by these same forces -- if this recording is any indication, they should be breathtaking as well! Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

CHOPIN: The Four Ballades - Anita Chang, piano - Aix Records DVD-A, DD, & DTS plus video 80014:

This disc is a wonderful demonstration of just what high resolution plus surround sound can bring to recording even a solo instrument. The piano sound is superb, with great impact and natural timbre. I played a couple of these Ballades in recital in college, so I can appreciate the interpretive and virtuoso skills of Ms. Chang. She may not be well known but her performances are first class. All four pieces have a wider range of expression than most Chopin, with extremes of tempo and dynamics. They were intended to tell stories in sound; not specific stories but to give that feeling of a stirring tale of courage, treachery or whatever. While the session video is basically just a stationary camera focused on Ms. Chang and the keyboard, and there is no special effort at dramatic lighting or closeups, there is plenty to watch here.

While the DTS option is very good, when one switches to the MLP DVD-A option (which is 96K instead of the 48K of many DVD-As) the piano sound gains another level of sonic realism. Not only does the disc contain the session videos of all the music, plus both the DTS and Dolby options if you don’t yet have DVD-A playback, it also boasts the following extras: Biographies, Still Photo Gallery, Complete DVD/5.1 System Setup and Check, How to Use This Disc section, and a DVD-ROM section including web connection. Navigation is occasionally a bit of a challenge, but there’s lots here to navigate. (That’s what I keep telling people about this web site!) Purchase Here

- John Sunier

DVORAK: Symphony No. 9 “From the New World;” Symphony No. 8 in G Major - Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer - Philips multichannel hybrid SACD 470 617-2:

I think the New World might be the most-hi-res-recorded symphony so far. We’ve reviewed both the George Szell stereo reissue and the Nikolaus Harnoncourt Teldec DVD-A version. The Budapest orchestra may not have the standing of either the Cleveland Orchestra or the Concertgebouw, but I find this version the freshest interpretation of the big chestnut and most involving sonically. There’s a feeling almost as though the Budapest players are giving the overplayed work its premiere performance. The sense of the hall is strong and it doesn’t just sound like reverberation was fed to the surround channels as on some orchestral multichannel recordings. Plus you get another fine performance in the 8th, which doesn’t come with the Telarc disc, and though it does come with the Szell on Sony Classical it is only in stereo, not multichannel. And it’s good that Universal is starting to move toward hybrid releases in more of their SACDs. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

HAYDN: Piano Trios Nos. 1, 2 & 4 - The Pro Arte Trio - Aix Records DVD-A, DTS/DD 1340AX:

As Aix calls it, the music was recorded, mixed and mastered at 96/24/5.1, and by now most readers should know what all those numbers stand for. Aix has set a standard in recording new material in the highest resolution form rather than remixing recordings made some time ago or issuing only in two-channel stereo instead of multichannel. They even provide session videos on some of their disks, though not on this series which was recorded during a visit to Bucharest, Romania in 2001. CEO Mark Waldrep used a dozen stereo pairs of mikes throughout the Atheneum hall in Bucharest. Their signals were converted to 96K/24bit PCM and then fed to a Euphonix digital 24-track recorder. In post production the 24 tracks were mixed down to a high resolution Sonic Solutions workstation.

I have to admit much of Haydn is instant snooze to me, but the energetic and spritely performances of these tuneful trios kept me alert from start to finish. All are three-movement works, and the Hungarian-flavored Rondo concluding the first trio is a real delight. The performers are tops and the “audience” mix of the three instruments is extremely natural with great presence and impact missing in most stereo recordings. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

GLIERE: Il’ya Murometz - Symphony No. 3 - London Symphony Orch./Leon Botstein - Telarc 5.1 multichannel SACD-60609:

In our January issue standard CD section I said: This one will surely be later issued in a SACD version by Telarc, but the 44.1 bit-mapped reduction from the original DSD masters is so good it will only seem inferior when the hi-res version is released. Here it is already and the improvement is substantial. The dense orchestral writing is now laid out with the greatest depth and delineation between instruments and sections, and the soundstage is spread around you in a super-Cinerama arc. This is the perfect score for such a spectacular sonic treatment! The notes have no indication of whether or not this is one of Telarc’s SACDs with a height signal mixed into the LFE channel, but the side-height feeds from my Sunfire preamp aided the sonic spectacle. So you won’t have to go back to the 44.1 review, here it is:

I remember first hearing this amazingly programmatic symphony in the mono two-LP version on Westminster conducted by Hermann Scherchen. A widescreen epic spectacular in sound, the four movement work tells the story of the 10th-century knight from Kiev and his sidekick Svyatogor. They fought the Mongol hordes and accomplished other heroic deeds, including beheading a supernatural creature called Solovei and thus saving Prince Vladimir. The first widescreen color film in the USSR in the late 50s was a re-telling of this favorite old Russian legend, with Solovei becoming a triple headed dragon. And what a big finish for both the symphony and Ilya - how many heroic tales end with the hero being turned to stone, I ask you? Hermann Scherchen did the first recording on LP of the complete symphony (reviewed by Gary Lemco - who dubbed it a cross between Berlioz and Scriabin - in a CD reissue in our Oct. 2002 issue). Stokowski later recorded a spectacular version in stereo but its epic length was seriously cut to fit a single LP. Botstein is a busy international conductor and music historian as well as president of New York’s Bard College. His version seems to be full length and it’s the most spectacular I’ve yet heard. The dynamic range is astounding, as are the details of the Rimsky-Korsakovian orchestrations. It’s fun to pick out the variations on the various characters and events’ themes, used in Wagnerian style. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

The first three SACDs from a promising new source of multichannel material...
VIVALDI: Flute Concertos - “La tempeste di mare,” “La notte,” and concertos in D, G, C minor and A Minor - Severino Gazzelloni, flute/I Musici - PentaTone Classics multichannel 4.0 SACD - PTC 5186 108 (Distr. By Telarc):

This is the first review of eight multichannel SACDs from a new Netherlands-based label, PentaTone, founded by three former executives of Philips Classics. (Penta - five - 5.1 channels - get it?) Except that these are not 5.1 channels but 4.0, since they date from the quadraphonic era of about 30 years ago. The label calls this the RQR Series, standing for Remastered Quadro Recordings. Philips saw the great advantages of multichannel recording and playback in the l970s and developed their own system of miking and mixing to use the four available channels to their greatest potential. These analog master tapes are of the highest quality and most have not been out of their boxes for three decades. Unfortunately, that era’s various competing quad playback formats for vinyl LPs were primitive and fraught with problems - all except JVC’s lost most of the separation between the individual channels and thus greatly compromised the surround effect (and so eventually did JVC's system with groove wear erasing the required super-high frequencies). There was also the groove distortion, surface noise and myriad other problems. Some labels, such as Vanguard and RCA, issued their quad classics on four-channel open reel tapes, with hiss and high cost being the remaining disadvantages. However, Philips did not do that.

Now, with multichannel SACD established and growing in acceptance, it’s a completely different situation, and these fine SSfM [Surround Sound for Music] recordings can finally deliver on their original promise. Great care was taken in converting the original tapes to DSD for SACD release. The original analog machines and test tapes were used and connected directly to the best DSD D-A encoders without using any other processing or EQ that might compromise the integrity of the original tapes. The original Philips engineers were involved to guarantee that the quality on the originals was maintained in the transfer to hi-res digital. Vanguard has already released a series of 4.0 multichannel SACDs made from quadraphonic masters of the 1970s, and Opus 3 among others has been recording all of their new multichannel SACDs without using the other two channels because they feel they are not required for creation of SSfM and putting sonic information in the center and LFE channels would compromise those users whose systems lack those channels. So PentaTone has refrained from re-mixing these originals to 5.1 channels, and I for one never missed the center or LFE in auditioning these SACDs.

For example, Gazzelloni’s flute is dead center via a better phantom center channel than one normally gets with standard CDs - due possibly to the original recordings being of such great fidelity plus the added resolving detail of the DSD process compared to 44.1 PCM. These recordings were made in Switzerland from 1968 thru1973. I Musici was probably the top early music performing group in the world during that time, and their virtuosity was unquestioned. They were not an original-instrument band, but for many listeners that is a plus and not a minus. Many recorded performances of such Vivaldi concertos are the equivalent of a sort of Baroque sonic wallpaper, but these six concertos really sparkle and sing. They’re not exactly pushing the impetuous Baroque approach of groups today such as Il Gardino Armonico, but they’ll keep you awake. The Tempest at Sea concerto is, along with his Four Seasons, one of Vivaldi’s best-known programmatic pieces - with its Presto movement depiction of the storm at sea. The Night concerto is the same as the Nightmare concerto featured on the Dorian Red Priest CD reviewed in our Classical section this month. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: The Four Horn Concertos; Rondo in E Flat KV371 - Alan Civil, horn/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner - PentaTone Classics multichannel 4.0 SACD - PTC 5186 105 (Distr. By Telarc):

Four channels & four horns - a perfect fit! The works are one of the gems of Mozart’s entire output - written originally for the natural horn without valves. Civil followed the great Dennis Brain with his recording of these works for Angel EMI - they were in stereo and greatly improved sound over the mono Brain set. Now we have gone a step further in sonic improvement, and these tapes made in l971 in the acoustically famed Walthamstow Town Hall are at state of the art level as far as my ears are concerned. The works are also a perfect choice for SSfM since the French horn is the only instrument that directs most of its sound energy away from the front of the orchestra - thus resulting in more reflectance off surfaces in the hall and more of a surrounding effect. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G - Stephen Kovacevich, p./BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis - PentaTone Classics multichannel 4.0 SACD - PTC 5186 101 (Distr. By Telarc):

A welcome pairing of the two “second-string” Beethoven piano concertos in superb performances. No. 2 is known for its lengthy (10 min.) and extremely moving central Adagio movement. No. 4 is considered by certain critics to be the pinnacle of the composer’s five piano concertos. Beethoven enlarged the size of the orchestra and rather than working with contrasts between the piano and full orchestra has them in more of a partnership. The massive opening movement of the Fourth (18 1/2 min.) is extremely lyrical and self absorbed. Brent Town Hall in London was the recording site in l974, and the phantom center image of the soloist couldn’t be better as long as one sits properly centered.

I vacillate in my opinion regarding the center channel in SSfM; while I agree it can add a presence to jazz and pop soloists and maintains a more pleasant soundstage for those sitting off to the right or left of the sweet spot, I also feel it can reduce the spatial realism of the frontal soundstage. Also, it’s the one speaker - for which those of us whose music systems also function as home theater systems - which is almost impossible to locate the same distance from the sweet spot as the other speakers. Mine is a foot further away on top of the RPTV, and I don’t want to use digital delay processing on the other four speakers to match up with it. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

RACHMANINOFF: Vespers Op. 37; Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom - The Prague Philharmonic Choir/Jaroslav Brych - Multichannel hybrid SACD Praga Digitals PRD 250 176:

This is a new DSD recording made in December of 2001 at St. Agnes Monastery in Prague, which has superb acoustics for this major Orthodox a cappella work by Rachmaninoff. You can close your eyes and feel you are in the church itself. Written for essentially a four-voice choir, it represents the Russian Orthodox prayer of hours practiced before Sunday and other religious holidays. The composer used the modal scales of the Orthodox church and attempted to closely follow the accents and syllabic flow of the Russian language. This was the second favorite of all his compositions - after The Bells. The disc is filled out with three excerpts from the earlier Liturgy, which is modelled on choral works of Tchaikovsky. The note booklet has complete translations of the works.

- John Sunier

RAMEAU: Pieces De Clavecin En Concerts - Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord; Rachel Podger, Baroque violin; Jonathan Manson, Viola da gamba - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 19002:

With this set of works of 1741 Rameau created an entirely new form of chamber music. Inspired by the earlier harpsichord music of Mondonville, he made the gamba and violin equal partners with the keyboard in creating a more varied and sophisticated style with subtle exchanges between the three instruments. His work in the theater is shown in dramatic touches in many of the movements which are usually three to a Concert. And also in the actual titles - such as La Timide, or L’Indiscrete. Pinnock has been one of the foremost harpsichordists internationally for many years and responsible for many recordings. It’s an honor to Channel Classics to have him on their label, and his performances are topflight and beautifully recorded in very natural frontal-favoring surround sound. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

A pair of hi-res discs featuring the solo harp close out this section...
The Romantic Harp - Yolanda Kondonassis - PUCCINI: Musetta’s Waltz; GRANDJANY: Rhapsodie; LECUONA: Malaguena; FAURE: Apres un reve; SALZEDO: Variations on a Theme in Ancient Style; Tango; DEBUSSY: Valse Romantique; ST.-SAENS: Fantaisie; PIERNE: Impromptu-Caprice - Telarc multichannel SACD 60581:

The fact this is the tenth recording for the label by the harpist is a testament both to her skills and to the great challenge her instrument provides to recordings of accurate fidelity. Telarc’s engineers are up to the task, and the wide dynamic and frequency range of the solo harp - not to mention the killer transients - are displayed in all their impact via the DSD process and surround sound. Ideas of passion, flirtation, hope and unpredictability inspired these selections which fit well into the Romantic harp theme of the album. Grandjany and Salzedo were master composer/performers of the concert harp, but many of the other selections were transcribed by Kondonassis for her regal-looking instrument. Purchase Here

DEBUSSY, GLINKA & OTHERS - Music for Solo Harp - CROFT: Sarabande & Ground; MATEO ALBENIZ: Sonata; 4 Old 17th Century Dances; HANDEL: Passacaglia; DUSSEK: 3 Movements; GLINKA: Variations on a Theme of Mozart; ISSAC ALBENIZ: Recuerdos de Viaje No. 6; DEBUSSY: Arabesque No. 1, The Maid with the Flaxen Hair - Ion Ivan Roncea, harp - Aix Records DVD-A, DD & DTS 1348AX:

Another of the recordings coming from the label’s ten-day jaunt to Bucharest, this series lacks the session videos of Aix’s earlier releases but boasts everything else from this more-for-the-money hi-res label. It appears than even less of the works here were originally written for the instrument - in fact perhaps all are transcriptions. The Croft piece may not be familiar by title or composer but will when you hear it. It could provide a perfect substitute for that awful and endlessly-repeated Pachelbel Canon. The Dussek work was probably a three-movement keyboard sonata originally, but its main title seems to have been omitted from the credits in the booklet - only the movement titles appear. The gorgeous Debussy Arabesque (can’t recall if the original was for harp or piano) nevertheless fits the harp like a glove. This and the Telarc harp disc provide an interesting comparison of the two hi-res formats even though none of the selections or performances are the same. Both are worthy of the serious attention of anyone fancying music for the solo harp (and perhaps owning a universal hi-res player), but in general the DVD-A comes out ahead - even on my non-modified, non-tweaked Toshiba player. There is just a touch more immediacy, openness and transparency to the sound, although the Telarc harp sound is very smooth and seemingly more “musical,” whatever that is. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

On to Hi-Res Reviews Conclusion - Part 3 -Jazz & Misc.

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