Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 1 - November 2001

We have such a stack of high-res discs to audition this month that it seems sensible to depart from two separate sections for the two new formats and organize them in more interesting sequences based on the music rather than the particular format.

I've discovered that some of the DVD-As do allow one to play them simply by repeatedly pressing the Play button without having to necessarily display the menu on a video screen. So at least on those my gripes last month are somewhat answered. I still find them endlessly frustrating to play, whether or not there is a video display. Some don't allow one to choose between the Dolby Digital DVD tracks and the DVD-A tracks, even when there is a screen display; they simply play back the DD tracks when inserted in a DVD-video-only player and the DVD-A tracks when played in a DVD-A-capable player. But that makes it impossible to compare the two formats if you have a player capable of both. So here is this month's mix of DVD Audios, Stereo SACDs and Multichannel SACDs. Next month I hope to cover some of the alternative track/speaker configurations from labels such as Chesky, D & G and Telarc.


James Taylor - Hourglass - Columbia CS 67912 multichannel SACD:

If you don't use a center channel in your surround system, you will be out of luck with the multichannel layer on this disc and forced to use the two-channel stereo mix. That's because the producer put Taylor's voice entirely on the center channel speaker - using the other front speakers and the surrounds for the back-up vocalists, keyboards, bass, guitars, drums, percussion and various guest artists. The results speak well for this approach - James in right there front and center with his very recognizable relaxed-sounding voice. His guests are quite a bunch and add a great deal of interest to the delightful arrangements. They include Yo Yo Ma, Stevie Wonder on harmonica, Mark O'Connor on fiddle, saxist Michael Brecker, Edgar Meyer on string bass, Branford Marsalis on sax and a pedal steel guitarist. The tunes are great: the political nostalgia of Line 'Em Up, the duet with Ma's cello on Another Day, and the innocent nostaliga of the closing Walking My Baby Back Home. I should admit I'm not really into pop vocalists or singer songwriters, but the combined attractions of the skillful arrangements and guest shots here plus the increased envelopment of the intelligent use of the five channels kept me listening from start to finish and following the lyrics as though it were an opera libretto - something I seldom do.

- John Sunier

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: West Side Story Suite, Serenade, Lonely Town, Make Our Garden Grow, New York New York - Joshua Bell, violin/Philharmonia Orch./David Zinman - Sony Classical SS 89358 multichannel SACD:

The two big works here are the special arrangement by William David Brown of the West Side Story Suite for violin and orchestra and Bernstein's Serenade for violin and orchestra - consisting of three movements inspired by characters in Plato's Symposium. The three short tunes from Bernstein musicals and operettas as also Brown's arrangements. Bell has a lovely tone and exciting approach to the music in all the works. I have several versions of the Bernstein Serenade, including one by Isaac Stern, and I think this one tops them all. It's not just due to the more compelling musical experience of the surround - it's almost as good listening in the two-channel mix included separately on the disc. The surrounds are used strictly for ambience; this was a studio recording made at Air Studios in the UK but as I recall those studios are in a converted church, so the acoustics are very natural. A fine disc that would have wide appeal to many different listeners and not just aficionados of classical violin/orchestra works.

- John Sunier


Buena Vista Social Club - The Players and Singers of the son de Cuba - Produced by Ry Cooder - World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-9 DVD-Audio:

You've surely heard by now the original CD version of this amazing session of roots Cuban music with the wizened old performers who have preserved their tradition for all these years. Many have also seen the German filmmaker's video/film documentary on the recording sessions and later tours of the U.S. And Europe by the musicians. Well, this multichannel DVD now gives you a chance to completely immerse yourself in this reiver of great Cuban music, and that goes for whether you choose the DVD-A 4.0 playback (no center channel) or the Dolby Digital 4.1 playback if you have no DVD-A facility as yet.

One of the "extras" here is a short video documentary on the recording sessions, narrated by Ry Cooder. Each of the 14 tracks also has a choice of several photos of that portion of the session, notes on the songs, and song credits. There are no onscreen English lyrics for the songs, which I found an odd omission, but the printed lyrics are found in the accompanying note booklet (which also boasts many photos of the musicians). Singer Ibrahim Ferrer sounds better than ever here, and pianist Ruben Gonzalez shines in Pueblo Nuevo and in his accompaniment on other tracks. The surround mix puts some percussion and rhythms guitar lightly on the surrounds - just enough to make the listener more involved in the Havana-style party. With the lyrics at hand one can really begin to bask in the warm embrace of this glorious music and its open-hearted senior music-makers. A masterpiece musical discovery for all to hear and experience.

- John Sunier

Steve Stevens - Flamenco A Go Go - DTS Entertainment DTS 5.1, DVD-A 2.0 & 5.1 - 01078-9-2:

Somewhat similar to the Estaban DVD-A I reviewed here last month, but I liked this one even better. Guitarist Stevens plays some tracks solo - doubling on keyboards here and there, some multi-tracked and playing all the instruments himself, and on others joins with from one to five other performers, including vocals on a couple tracks. The title tune with its driving dance beat was my least favorite, Our Man in Istanbul was suitably exotic in tone, and the fascinating Dementia was recorded live during a concert in Japan where the crowd sounds and synth effects make for an exciting and involving surround experience. Slick but involving guitar arrangements that would probably disgust true cante jondo aficionados but for the rest of us provide lots of surrounding musical fun.

- John Sunier


CHABRIER: Espana, Marche joyeuse, Habanera, Bourree fantasque; RAVEL: Valses nobles et sentimentales, Bolero - Lamoureux Concert Orchestra/Yutaka Sado - Erato DVD-A 8753 80073-9:

The bad news first: this comes in a standard CD jewel box case which must be caused no little confusion in stores. Next, there is no instruction or indication anywhere on the case, note booklet, actual DVD or the onscreen display as to how to choose between either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DVD-Audio 5.1 or 2.0. It defaults to DVD-A on DVD-A players and defaults to Dolby Digital on DVD Video-only players. The only way I could be sure it was playing back the higher-res DVD-A format was to check the display on the Pioneer player and see that it didn't say "Dolby Digital" up in the corner. There are both English and Japanese titles, and the default is Japanese. While there is a short interview with the conductor (the disc says interviews), there are no other extras and no graphics to accompany each movement or selection.

Now the good news: The young conductor (whose teacher was Seji Ozawa) speaks about his first meeting with the visiting Leonard Bernstein, and while it is short it gives one some insight into this unfamiliar podium personality. The best news is that both sonically and musically this is just about the best multi-channel classical DVD-A I've so far auditioned. The quartet of short Chabrier pieces fairly glow with enthusiasm and elan - even the chestnut Espana sounds fresh and interesting. The Ravel waltzes are one of the most enticing and artfully fashioned versions I've had the pleasure to hear. Even the Bolero is presented with enough snap to keep up one's auditory interest for the full quarter hour; of course the added realism of the percussion due to the surround aids involvement in the slowly evolving piece. There's also a perfect balance of hall ambience to frontal stage.

- John Sunier

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8 - Berlin Staatskapelle/Daniel Barenboim - Teldec DVD-A 8573 83062-9:

Continuing the complete Beethoven symphony series with Barenboim, these multichannel recordings were made in Berlin in l999 and were issued on stereo CDs around that time. Performances are first rate though some may prefer a bit more bite a la Toscanini or Bernstein. The same video interview with seen on the others in the series is on this one. The ambience on the surrrounds is fairly well balanced with the front soundstage and sounds surprising natural considering this was recorded in a radio studio - must have been a very large studio.

- John Sunier


WAGNER; Overtures & Preludes - Die Meistersinger, Overture & Venusberg Music from Tannhauser, Preludes to Acts I & III of Lohengrin, Flying Dutchman Overture, Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod - Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan - EMI Classics DVD-A 7243 4 92397 9 1:

This 4.0 DVD-A has been remastered from the original l973 four-channel analog tapes. Although the quadraphonic era was winding down by then, EMI was still recording multichannel just in case. The signals on the surrounds don't sound like artificial digital reverb but actual rearward reflected sound in a hall. But the transition from the front soundstage to the surrounds is still hardly seamless. I have heard ambience-recovery decoders such as Circle Surround do it better from two channel material, and of course Ambisonics can't be beat in this department. Also, the sampling rate is only 48K, not the maximum 96K for DVD-A 5.1.

The EMI series are all double-sided DVDs with Side A devoted to a choice between Dolby Digital surround or uncompressed PCM stereo, and Side B to the DVD-A options. Frankly I didn't feel any of these options were clearly superior to hearing the 44.1 CD of this album on a good system with some ambience recovery to the surround channels. This classic album has long been considered one of Karajan's best. The drama is at the forefront in all the overtures - even anti-Wagnerites would probably be stirred by these thrilling interpretations and superb orchestral finish - aided by the increased concert hall feeling of surround.

- John Sunier

RAVEL: Bolero, Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet), La Valse - Orchestre de Paris/Jean Martinon - EMI Classics DVD-A 4 92395 9-3:

Here's another l975 multichannel effort resuscitated for DVD Audio. Some other EMI material from this same period was also released on DTS 4.0 CDs not that long ago, perhaps even these same selections. The Bolero is not quite up to Sado's standards (see above) but I'm not sure whether that is due to the less precise playing/conducting of Martinon compared to Sado or to the somewhat dated sonics of the original tapes used here. The complete Daphnis ballet is good to have, and the automatic highlighting of each section of the ballet as they are being heard helps in giving more structure to the work while listening. Surround seems to make one more cognizant of the dancers' movements to the music you are hearing. The signals on the surrounds is quite clear and seems to have the proper ambient hall reflection information without exaggeration.

It was very frustrating to compare the Dolby Digital 4.0 format on Side A with the DVD-A 4.0 format on Side B. The video side of the disc worked fine (48K sampling rate) but it was difficult to get the DVD-A side to play back the multichannel tracks - it continually defaulted to stereo, as did another of the EMI discs.

- John Sunier

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