Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 2 - November 2001

DEBUSSY: Preludes: Books I & II - Joan Rowland, piano - Surround By Entertainment DVD-A SBE 1002-9:

Jim Mageras of Surrounded By is perfectionist. He doesn't feel backwards compatibility with those having only DVD-Video players is as important for his discs as having the highest sampling rates for the high-res format and room for high quality still images and other visual extras that make the musical experience more valuable. So in a way he is doing what Sony Music has been doing from the start with their SACD-only discs - when everyone else was issuing hybrid two-layer discs that would play on standard CD players as well.

On this DVD-A, for example, the extras include from one to several images carefully selected to fit the subject of each one of Debussy's 24 imaginative little piano pieces. For example, for Puck's Dances, there's an engraving of Puck, or for Fireworks a couple drawings of fireworks at some sort of royal occasion. There is a section on How to Use This Disc, another of liner notes, a well done bio of Debussy complete with photos, a Meet the Artist section on pianist Rowland, and credits for the album. The images to fit each movement are called Objets d'Art. If you don't have a video display you can still play the disc just fine - the visuals are simply ignored and you can use the advance button on your remote to move from track to track if you wish. There is also a DVD-ROM layer with sheet music to print out and transcripts; however it is strictly PC platform so I couldn't access it on my Mac.

The performances? Superb, and a perfect choice for the new level of involvement possible in the music due to the added realism of surround. A solo piano may seem a strange choice for one of the first multichannel DVD-As, but back in quad days one of the most completely effective (and without the spatial gimmicks of most quad material) albums I owned was a quad open reel tape of solo piano - including works of Debussy. Now we have the advantages of rock-solid speed/timing, complete freedom from wow & flutter, no hiss, and a wider frequency response too. And at least one more channel on top of it. Having heard these supremely original keyboard tone-paintings while looking at the appropriate images - however obvious - has planted connections in my mind that will enhance any future hearings of them by other performers. In fact that just occurred as I reviewed a Walter Gieseking reissue CD of them.

- John Sunier

HOLST: The Planets, The Perfect Fool ballet music, Egdon Heath - London Symphony Orchestra/Andre Previn - EMI Classics DVD-A 4 92399 9:

Previn, with his early career in the Hollywood film scoring world plus his longtime British residence, is the perfect choice for one of the most cinematic works of the classical concert hall - the Planets. The opening Mars movement has probably accompanied more low-budget films and documentary warfare scenes than any other classical selection. Previn extracts the utmost drama out of this programmatic warhorse, from the lumbering crush of the opening, through the jaunty Jupiter movement, to the very ethereally surrounding strains of the women's voices in the closing Neptune movement.

The originals come from l974 and were issued on an Angel SQ quad LP. On the DVD-Video side of the disc the display shows the two front channels and the two rear. The enter button on the remote refused to advance tracks on either side of the disc - I had to use the chapter selection button instead. I was also completely unable to get the DVD-A side of the disc to play back multichannel - only stereo could be accessed. So I A/B'd the stereo Dolby Digital against the stereo DVD-A. The DD version was in comparison compressed-sounding, very restricted in dynamics, as though a great invisible weight were pressing down on the sound. There was also little feeling of the hall acoustics. The DVD-A 2.0 side however produced much greater dynamic range, more exciting peaks, more transparency, and the hall feeling was more pronounced.

- John Sunier

Bela Fleck - The BlueGrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 - Warner Bros. DVD-A 9 47332-9:

Fleck is surely the world's best-known banjoist. His music has strayed very far from traditional roots, though always great fun. For this session he assembled some of the more traditional players on his chosen instrument as well as guitars, fiddle, accordion and others. Not being a big bluegrass fan, the names that stood out for me were Vasar Clements, John Hartford, Tony Rice and Earl Scruggs. From the session photos it looks as though this was recorded in someone's living room or perhaps it's a recording studio with a fireplace, rug and sofas designed to look like a living room. Everyone is obviously having a great time at this informal jam, as shown by the photos that accompany each track on the disc. There are 18 tracks total, with many different players stepping forward to solo. The variety of approaches kept my interest from start to finish, and being strictly instrumental helped too since I realized it's the bluegrass vocal style that gets on my nerves, not the picking! The surround channels aren't reserved just for ambience by any means, but they don't call undue attention to themselves either. Accompanying figures and percussive sounds seem to be the main ingredient here. The mix puts the listener right in the middle of that living room full of good friends finger-pickin' to beat the band. The low string bass seems to be allocated to the LFE channel. This was such a pleasure I'm wondering what happened to Volume 1. I'm interested now even if it's not in multichannel.

- John Sunier


Willie Nelson - Night and Day - Surrounded By Entertainment DVD-A SBE 1001-9:

And here's another non-Dolby Digital DVD-A disc, from a label which makes that a practice on all their DVD-A releases. The producer alerts the listener to the fact that the stereo mixdown is standard 44.1K rather than 96K or 192K partly because Nelson was happy with it just the way it was, without remastering. It was decided that to put the band at the frontal soundstage in the surround mix and just allocate the surrounds for room ambience wouldn't contribute to the informal gathering feeling that Willie wanted for this session, so one is put right in the middle of the band and becomes part of the musical festivities.

As with the Bela Fleck disc this is all instrumental - a real departure for Willie (although I'm a great fan of his vocals too). The mood is somewhere between what you'd hear around the gypsy campfire of Django Reinhardt and Willie's Texas-cowboy campfire. His guitar sound is unique and seems to fit the music perfectly. His backup amounts to nearly two dozen top players. This really is surrounded by entertainment in a major way!

- John Sunier

Celebrating the Music of Weather Report - All-star players - Telarc DVDA-73473:

Probably the most successful group to come out of the jazz fusion movement was Weather Report. It's now the 30th anniversary of the formation of the supergroup, and producer Jason Miles (who produced many Miles Davis sessions) obtained a couple Weather Report alumni plus a long lineup of jazz Hall of-Famers to record this high-voltage tribute to the unique sound of the imaginative band. The producer wanted to show in the special arrangements how important Weather Report had been to their own development and to modern jazz in general. He also wanted to introduce the supergroup's music to a new generation. (The 44.1 CD version of this album came out back in February.)

Just a few of the jazz lights burning brightly here: Jay Beckenstein, soprano sax; Michael Brecker, tenor; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Steve Gadd, drums; Chuck Loeb, guitar; Andy Narell, steel drums; John Patitucci, bass; Joe Sample, piano; David Sanborn, alto; John Scofield, guitar. The 11 tracks start off with the group's superhit, Birdland. Other favorites include Mysterious Traveler, Man in the Green Shirt, and Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat. While this is not the actual Weather Report, the excitingly frersh arrangements and playing plus the high-res surround sound make this a DVD-A winner.

Telarc has taken an interesting departure from most DVD-As on this one: There is no Dolby Digital 5.1 or stereo track but there is a DTS 5.1 track. However, for highest resolution stereo playback they have included an uncompressed 192K PCM stereo track. Their section on channel and speaker setup shows the smaller side/height speakers that appeared on the notes with both 1812 Overture high-res albums, but there is no solid indication that they put a signal for them on the center channel. That channel seems to carry the expected front center information, and the LFE channel is certainly used to good effect for the very physical low bass of several of the arrangements.

- John Henry


Music for the Motherless Child - Martin Simpson, guitar; Wu Man, pipa - Water Lily Acoustics stereo WLA-CS-49 SACD:

Water Lily is known for its path-breaking musical meetings, and this latest East-West duo is an unexpected gem. The Chinese pipa is the closest instrument in that culture to our acoustic guitar, and the pairing of the two makes for some fascinating meditative and lyrical music. The pipa has a more banjo-like timbre than the style of guitar played by Simpson, but both play in an extremely tender and subtle manner, and their improvisations take us into a realm of almost cosmic world music. Even the A-Minor Blues track is basically meditative, though it does build as it progresses.. The last of their six tracks is an absolutely inspired set of variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. The two instruments are located near the left (guitar) and right front (pipa) speakers, but the increased resolution places them in your listening room with holographic realism.

- John Sunier

J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations - Jory Vinikour, harpsichord - Delos Multichannel SACD DS 3279 (2 discs):

A first in a couple departments: the first double-disc multichannel SACD album and the first multichannel SACD of a solo harpsichord. In observing all the repeats in the set of 30 variations, a timing of over 85 minutes is reached, and that is several minutes over the limit on both SACDs and standard CDs, so the second disc is required. Whether or not multichannel reproduction is required for the most realism of a rather subtle solo instrument such as the harpsichord would be dictated by the sophistication of one's playback gear I would think. The ambience of the hall carried on the surround channels is extremely low level and subtle. If the speakers are not all matched perfectly in construction and in level setting, I would say a pair of full range stereo speakers and a good stereo SACD might do the job better. If this were a DVD-Audio the multichannel would be even less impressive because of limitation to 96K sampling on all channels, vs. up to 192K on the stereo mix. (But then the stereo mix is an automatic mixdown from the multichannel, so that could be inferior too.)

The instrument is a superb modern copy of a 17th century Ruckers harpsichord. It has a rich and sweet timbre with great clarity. The theme that goes thru all the increasingly-complex variants seems to "sing" more than other harpsichord versions of the Goldberg I have heard; though perhaps that is partly due to the superb phrasing of performer Vinikour. The crystalline clarity of both the instrument and the recording process outlines beautifully the various twists and turns that the theme is subject to in Bach's masterpiece. This is why I prefer the original harpsichord version to the playing of Bach on the modern piano. (However, see the next review for a pianist who could bring it off in spite of all the odds against him...)

- John Sunier


BACH: Goldberg Variations - Glenn Gould, piano - Sony Classical SS 37779, Stereo SACD:

This was the second perusal of the Goldberg by Gould. The l981 session came many years after his first, which brought him to international attention for his quirky interpretations. His style with Bach is to imitate the detached and non-resonating sound of the harpsichord even though playing a modern grand piano with its sustaining pedal. It must be admitted he did it better than any other pianist. Many subtle details in his playing now come to the fore in the sonic magnifying class of SACD reproduction. Unfortunately, something else also comes to the fore - his notorious singing, humming and other noise-making. So one has the Hobson's choice of either muddy piano sound and muffled singing or great clarity of both piano and the singing sounds! I suppose the relative clarity of these unwanted sounds could be a great test for how resolving various audio components might be. Will have to try that sometime. I was getting tired anyway of that cash-register sound in Jazz at the Pawnshop's Lady Be Good...

- John Sunier

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3; Six solo pieces - Arcadi Volodos, piano/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ James Levine - Sony Classical stereo SACD SS 64384:

I reviewed this in the 44.1 CD version some months back. It's surely one of the most exciting and dynamic recorded versions of the Third Piano Concerto ever. The Russian pianist is truly a phenomenon. Since none of the Sony Music SACDs are hybrid (two-layer), and I couldn't lay my hands on my 44.1 CD version of this due to my move, I'm unable to report on an A/B shootout here. But I do remember the applause at the end of the live concerto recording didn't startle me as the applause on this one did. Applause is one of the best tests of audio realism, so that says something right there about the enhancements the SACD provides.

- John Sunier


BOCCHERINI: Stabat Mater; D'ASTORGA: Stabat Mater - Soloists/The King's Consort/Robert King - Hyperion stereo SACDA67108:

The sacred texts describing the sorrows of Mother Mary at Christ's crucifixtion have been set by composers over many centuries. In spite of their being described as the most desolate of liturgical texts, some glorious music has resulted, and two examples are heard on this disc. The 45-minute-length Boccherini work has 11 sections and many of them feature meltingly lovely duets for a pair of sopranos. The voices here are first rate. D'Astorga works in a wider pitch range in his Stabat Mater, including even solos for basso. The sweet melodic lines of the Boccherini are here tempered with a bit of chromaticism. With fewer voices plus the much great resolving power of DSD, the intelligibility of the words are greatly increased. Of course there is also an English translation of the Latin in the note booklet.

- John Sunier

Favorite Chinese Instrumentals - the Jing Ying Soloists - First Impressions FIM stereo SACD 037:

A most enjoyable collection of 15 instrumental selections of traditional Chinese music with varied solo instruments including the Erhu, Bawoo, Kuain, Zheng, pipa, xylophone and other percussion. The general tenor is very melodic and accessible - don't fear Chinese-opera-type sounds. The DSD reproduction brings out the exotic percussive sounds with the greatest transparency and clean transients.

- John Sunier


Test CD 4 - Depth of Image/Timbre/Dynamics - OPUS 3 multichannel (4.0) SACD 19420:

I've been using some of the previous Opus 3 test CDs for years for evaluating components. This was a fairly recent one in the standard CD version. (I wonder why this title wasn't changed to Test SACD?) It takes the Blumlein-miked two-channel recordings of all of these 17 tracks and extracts the L minus R difference information, putting it in the surround channels and bypassing the center and LFE channels.

Since the selections were originally chosen to highlight among other things Depth of Image, they are perfect for the addition of the surround ambience. The image depth is now even better than on the stereo versions. On some primarily solo sources such as singers Eric Bibb and Cyndee Peters there is not a great deal of ambient information on the surrounds, but on others such as the traditional jazz ensembles or the concert band, one cannot escape sensing the acoustic signature of the surrounding hall environment. Close listening demonstrates that some of the halls have a longer reverb time than others. This would probably not be a good SACD to demonstrate if your surround speakers are a completely different brand or design from your frontal speakers. I'm sure I'll be using this one to test multichannel SACD gear in the future. The selections are extremely varied in instrumentation, musically interesting - covering classical, jazz and folk - and well-played too.

- John Sunier

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