Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 2 - May 2002

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Olu Dara - Neighborhoods - Atlantic multichannel DVD-A DVDA 83391-9:

A bit of information about singer/composer/guitarist Dara would have been helpful, especially considering all the space for extras that DVD-As boast. He gives thanks to the city of Natchez and his mother's last name is Jones, so Dara seems to be one who strongly identifies with things African. What is known by me is that he wrote or arranged all 11 of these tunes, that he plays not only cornet, harmonica and guitar but also something called a wooden horn - no further details on that. He has the assistance on some tracks of none other than Dr. John and Cassandra Wilson. Some of his songs reminded me of Taj Mahal. The disc's title tune is a good one, and as a film buff I also found the track subtitled At the Movie Show a kick. Lots of interesting percussion and backup singers spread around the surround tracks involve the listener in the album. Tracks: massamba, neighborhoods, herbman, strange things happen everyday, bell & ponce, I see the light, out on the rolling sea, bluebird, used to be, red ant, tree blues. This cat ain't got no truck wit' capitals...

- John Henry

John Williams, guitar - The Magic Box - (with Paul Clarvis, hand drums etc.; John Etheridge, acoustic steel guitar; Richard Harvey, flutes, whistles etc.; Chris Laurence, double bass; guests: Francis Beby & Samza, vocalists; African Children's Choir) - Sony Classical stereo SACD SS 89483:

Williams, Yo Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet all brought out world music oriented albums this month. Williams focuses on music involving the guitar in Africa. He points out that the history of the guitar is different there than in South America since in Africa were many plucked string instruments already whereas South America had none, so the population fully embraced the guitar. Among the instruments with which he plays on the 15 tracks are thumb piano, sanza, requinto guitar, balafon, bongos, tumba, accordion, Indian harmonium, tiple, djembe, Malagasy flute, panpipes, dulcimer, and the most complex and beautiful-sounding stringed instrument - the kora. Several of the tracks feature two guitars, but the title tune track is solo guitar. Williams reports his process of learning and performing this music often tested the limits of Western ideas of notation and rhythm. The clarity and improved soundstaging of the stereo SACD aids immensely in singling out and identifying the specific sounds and locations of the exotic African instruments.

- John Sunier

Here are a pair of 20th Century concert music blockbusters in DVD-A...

OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Turangalila Symphonie (complete) - Michel Beroff, piano; Jeanne Loriod, ondes martinot; London Sym. Orch./Andre Previn - EMI Classics multichannel 4.0 DVD-A 7243 4 92398 90:

This is one of a series of multichannel releases from EMI dating from the late 70s four-channel masters made for release on Angel's SQ-encoded LPs in the U.S. One side of the double-sided disc plays on any DVD video player, with 4.0-channel Dolby Digital format, while the other side plays as MLP-encoded four-channel DVD-Audio. It's certainly a quantum leap over the old SQ LPs, and the LFE and center channels are not really missed.

This is an unnervingly complex score - sort of a modern musical megalomaniacal creation such as Alexander Scriabin might have done at the turn of the previous century. Composed in the late 40s on a commission from Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the 80-minute epic work might be described as a sort of vast surrealistic tone painting in which love, death, pain, sensuality, ecstasy and gothic horrors all come together. The Catholic sensibility of most Messiaen works is not as strong here, but his ecstatic feeling is present as much as in any of his music. The orchestra has a large percussion section, and the piano, celeste, glockenspiel, vibes and the electronic instrument the Ondes Martinot combine to give what the composer calls his Gamelan sound - adding a unique tone color. There are ten main movements to the symphony, falling into three main groupings. The screen display for the work shows only the titles of each movement; there is no artwork or details on the music, which would seem beneficial since this is such a unique and rarely heard work.

- John Sunier

WILLIAM WALTON: Belshazzar's Feast, Symphony No. 2, Portsmouth Point Overture, Scapino Comedy Overture - John Shirley-Quirk, bar./London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Andre Previn - EMI Classics 4.0 DVD-A 9 92402 2:

Another quad era master resuscitated for DVD-A. The recordings from l972 and '74 were considered top flight in their day and with the improved discrete reproduction of the original four channels the popular British oratorio becomes an exciting experience indeed. The libretto of the old Testament story is in the booklet, but the enunciation of the choir and the high-res surround sonics are so good that most of the words can be clearly heard. (Though it could be I just have them memorized from having played bass drum in this in college.) There is one point that had my ears not believing what I heard: in the triumphant processional music after Belshazzar and his court meet their fate presaged by the hand writing on the wall, a short fanfare figuration is heard in the brass. Some idiot - either in the original quad mix or recently doing the reissue - crudely panned the passage briefly to the surround speakers, then back to the front. This is just the sort of thing that has the two-channel sticklers poking fun at surround sound for music. The short and brilliant Second Symphony and two energetic overtures fill out this most enjoyable disc.

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake (14 selections) The London Philharmonic/Don Jackson - Silverline multichannel DVD-A 86032-9:

Like most of the Silverline discs, this one includes not only 5.1 DVD-Audio but also 5.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital. In this case the addition of DTS plus the program length seems not to allow space for any special visuals such as stills from the ballet, etc. The playing is super-professional; this is not exactly sight-reading stuff for the London players after all. The energy of the dance suffuses the performance and with the 5.1 surround involves the listener more deeply. I heard surprisingly little difference between the DTS and the DVD-A layers on this disc. A lengthy struggle ensued when I attempted to access the Dolby Digital tracks on the DVD Video side of this double-sided disc. Neither of my DVD players would at first work; one played the first four seconds and then stopped. Finally I was able to get to continue. They seemed to have nothing to do with the onscreen display.

- John Sunier

Three Greatest Hits discs in multichannel DVD-A up next...

TCHAIKOVSKY CLASSICS - The London Philharmonic/Don Jackson - Excerpt from Piano Concerto No. 1, excerpt from Sym. No. 1, Andante Cantabile, Andantino from Sym. No. 2, Andante from Sym. No. 4, Excerpt from Romeo & Juliet Overture, Andante from Sym. 6, Waltz of the Flowers from Nutcracker Ballet, Menuet from Mozartiana Suite, Panorama from Sleeping Beauty, Excerpt from Swan Lake, None but the Lonely Heart, Excerpt from Sym. No. 5 in E Minor - DTS Entertainment 69286-01077-9-3:

Like the Silverline discs this one has both DTS and DVD-A layers. It also boasts a special 2.0 stereo Dolby Digital Mix. This must have been some sort of shared project with Silverline. These are good but not top-of-the list performances. One is enveloped with sections of the orchestra all around you. The disc would be ideal to give out to first-time home theater purchasers who get a combo DVD-V/DVD-A player, in the hopes it could convince them to start enjoying high-res music in surround without images up on the scene.

- John Sunier

GRIEG - Classical Masters Series - London Philharmonic/Don Jackson - Morning Mood, Gavotte & Sarabande from Holberg Suite, Last Spring, Norwegian March, Symphonic Dance No. 2, Evening in the Mountains, Norwegian Dance No. 2, At the Cradle, Sigurd Jorsalfar Prelude, Solveig's Song, Adagio from Piano Concerto, Notturno from Lyric Suite - Silverline DVD-A 86029 9:

Another composer's greatest hits collection, but with the added inducements of: four more channels of sound, choice of three different multichannel formats - DD, DTS or DVD-A, choice of on-screen program notes on each selection or a slide show of nature still photography. In reference to the latter I must repeat my beef about the strange programming of the photography. One image is superimposed over a another or part of another, but suddenly - not as a slow dissolve - and often not resulting in a pleasing composition. To someone who used to produce multi-image slide presentations, it reminds me of projector or programmer problems which put unintended images up on the screen. As with all the Silverline series, you can play the music without requiring the on-screen display. The surround is quite, well, surrounding. Playing is excellent and the program notes are useful for those HT fans for whom this might be one of the first music-only discs to which they are being exposed.

- John Sunier

MENDELSSOHN - Classical Masters Series - The London Philharmonic/Don Jackson - Nocturne from Midsummer Night's Dream, Con Moto from Italian Sym., Andante from Reformation Sym., Menuetto from Sym. No. 1, Excerpt from Violin Concerto in E Minor, Hebrides Overture Excerpt, Menuetto & Trio from Sinfonia No. 8 for Strings, Adagio from Scottish Sym., Adagio Religioso from Sym. No. 2 - Silverline DVD-A 86030-9:

Ditto everything in the above review, except you'll probably find the Grieg collection provides better background music than Mendelssohn, if that's what you're looking for. Mendelssohn demands a bit more ear-attention.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Flos Campi, Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus," Fantasia on Greensleeves - Sally P. Lentz, viola/Utah Sym. Orch. & University of Utah Chamber Choir/Maurice Abravanel - Vanguard Classics stereo SACD VSD 505:

Some of the loveliest English music all on one disc here. VW's very British brand of Impressionism comes to the fore in these smaller works vs. his great symphonies. The composer had a special affinity for the string orchestra, featured in most of these works. The six-movement Flos Campi uses a solo viola and wordless choir with its small orchestra for a delightful evocative feeling. Vanguard's president Seymour Solomon mentions in the notes that some of these mid-60's tapes were three channel and others two, but that he decided to mix all of them to standard two-channel stereo to avoid the center channel going in and out, causing some users to think the disc was faulty. I couldn't tell which were which from speaker playback, but perhaps next time I listen to this I'll use headphones and perhaps the enhanced center image from the three-channel masters will be noticed.

- John Sunier

A pair of superb pianists next, in a bunch of superb piano concertos in SACD...

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3; SCRIABIN: Etudes; Liu Yang River - Lang Lang, piano/St. Petersburg Philharmonic/Yuri Temirkanov - Telarc multichannel SACD-60582:

Telarc announces this to be the first complete piano concerto recording released in multichannel SACD. It was recorded at a live Proms concert in Royal Albert Hall, London. Chinese pianist Lang Lang burst on the scene in l999 when he filled in for an ailing Andre Watts. He is only 19 and is already playing regularly with the world's major orchestras. This is an electrifying live performance, and this is the perfect one of the Rachmaninoff four piano concertos with which to electrify an audience. Some of the rapid-fire scalar passages seem almost inhuman. Not only does the multichannel surround capture the staging of the piano in front of the orchestra, but it also captures the almost over-powering audience applause at the end of the concerto - well-deserved as it is. The pianist performed the ten Scriabin Etudes in a concert at Oberlin College and opened and closed the set with my personal favorite Scriabin Etudes: Op. 2, No. 1 in C-sharp minor and Op. 65, No. 3 in G Major. Hearing the solo piano in multichannel surround reminds me of the hesitation many record labels had early in the stereo era to recording the piano in stereo. Two channel reproduction added immensely to the realism of piano recordings (as long as misguided micing didn't result in a 40-foot-wide piano); the same now goes for multichannel surround for solo piano.

BACH: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 - Murray Perahia, piano & conductor/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Sony Classical stereo SACD SS 89690:

Normally I'm partial to Bach concertos performed on the harpsichord rather than the modern piano, but Perahia is such a fine interpreter that I found this quartet of concertos a pleasure - especially in the crystalline sonics of stereo SACD. The works were recorded at the Air Studios in London and everything is balanced and placed to perfection. All the keyboard concertos are Bach borrowing from Bach - they existed as different instrumental works earlier and were adapted for keyboard and orchestra due to different needs during his stint in Leipzig. No. 6 in F Major, for example, will bring to mind the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, which it obviously is.

Stereo SACDs such as this (and the stereo mix on the above disc) seem to resolve a more solid center stage image of the solo instrument than most standard CDs. To my mind there's now even less reason for the center channel, which now can be employed along with the for-movies-only LFE channel to provide side/height-oriented channels that are far more appropriate to music reproduction in surround. Sony is now putting their stereo SACDs in a slide-on plastic cover (removed for the graphic above) which not only clearly designates the disc as stereo instead of multichannel but also on the rear warns that it is designed for SACD players only - meaning it is not a hybrid disc as offered by nearly all the other record labels. (But then the price was recently reduced to be closer to that of standard CDs vs. the hybrid discs.)

- John Sunier

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