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39 SACD & DVD-A Reviews
October 2003 - Part 2 of 3 - Classical
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*************HI-RES OF THE MONTH**************

Cantate Domino: Oscar's Motet Choir/Torsten Nilsson, Conductor; Marianne Mellnas, Soprano; Alf Linder, Organ - Proprius PRSACD 7762 - Hybrid Stereo SACD:

Anyone who has read any of my recent reviews here probably has already figured out that I'm a pretty big fan of just about anything on the Proprius label. So when I saw a recent thread on the Audio Asylum Hi-Rez Hiway forum referencing this benchmark recording on SACD, I immediately fired off an email to those good folks at Proprius, and had a copy at my desk in just a few days (many, many thanks to Trygge Palmqvyst). I've been listening to it pretty much nonstop for the last 48 hours or so, and I have to tell you – I'm mighty impressed.

For those handful of the uninitiated (what desert island have you been stranded on?) who might not be familiar with Cantate Domino, it's another one of those much-heralded "audiophile" recordings that has been made available in just about every known playback format envisioned by mankind. As far as I can count, I've only owned it in six different incarnations, so I haven't shelled out quite as much as many of you probably have in the never-ending quest for ultimate fidelity. Cantate Domino, unlike so many of the "audiophile" recordings, has held up considerably well since first released almost thirty years ago, and I never tire of hearing any of the material. For some of us, this disc very well may be our "grail," and I think the quest may have just ended. In my opinion, this new hybrid stereo SACD from Proprius eclipses any previous issue, and by a wide margin.

The Proprius-issued LP probably came as close as possible to offering the best representation of the original recording. I do not presently have access to LP playback, but have listened to the disc countless times under such conditions. The LP tended to offer the best midrange and voice presentation, and while playback was slightly congested during forte organ and brass passages, I've always regarded getting the voices right much more important than achieving ultimate full-tilt dynamic range. It also occurred to me that the difficulty my turntable experienced in extracting every ounce of fidelity from the LP might have had a lot to do with the original tapes probably just being overloaded by the source, and just shrugged it off.

When we entered the Redbook CD era and began to experience "perfect sound forever," I just happened into a local high-end boutique and spotted the original JVC CD pressing of Cantate Domino sitting there glittering on the shelf behind the counter – my eyes just about popped out of my head! I dug deep and forked over the thirty-five bucks – this was among the first handful of CDs I'd bought, and man, did I feel lucky! My first CD player, JVC's entry into the market, was a practically hand-built tank that I'd worked a second job nights for six months to buy. It was the only one I could afford, and was several hundred dollars less than Sony's available player. JVC Cantate Domino, JVC player – copascetic symbiosis, right? Wrong! Experiencing what I definitely considered one of my "desert island discs" on CD immediately left me cold and empty – a feeling soon to become commonplace in my Redbook CD listening regiment. Any of the selections on the disc that I'd previously felt were a bit "range restricted" (during LP playback) now had degenerated to flat-out distortion. Unbelievable!

Over an almost twenty-year odyssey since then, and through a variety of different playback systems, Redbook CD has, in my system, finally reached a relatively respectable level of fidelity. I've commented here before on my recent experience listening to Redbook CD on SACD players (for the last couple of years), and my impression has been that the DSD system imparts a much more listenable, more musical quality to standard CDs than any other stand-alone Redbook CD player ever has for me. Whenever I listened to my current CD version of Cantate Domino (a more recent Redbook version), I felt it sounded really pretty good, and much closer in spirit to my recollection of LP playback, with many of the same good and bad qualities present. Upon placing the new SACD in the tray and hitting play, I could scarcely have prepared myself for what I was about to hear.

Gone are any traces of congestion in any of the selections containing brass and/or organ. The title track, right out of the gate, and track seven Hosianna Davids son, both were always, always accompanied with full-tilt distortion in the brass intros, and at just about any playback level. The SACD just lets the music play, and the brass just sounds "brassy." At any playback level, I'm talking ears-bleeding, my wife pounding and screaming for me to please, please turn the music down! Organ passages have a new warmth imparted to them that just sounds so much more like a real organ, right there in your listening room. Sure, a couple of the organ tunes are a bit hokey, and we're not in Bach or Buxtehude territory, here, but what the hey! The bottom line is – everything here sounds just the way I always thought it should, and more.

The real glory here is in the vocal presentation, and I want to point out right away that the imaging presented by the SACD is phenomenal. Not only can you easily pick out the image position of the individual male and female vocalists (imaging was a tad more smeared on the LP, excessively so on Redbook CD), but the increase in image height and depth is dramatic. On tracks with prominent soprano solos, such as track 8 Frojda dig, du Kristi bud, and track 14 Mariae Wiegenleid, the dynamic range of the soloist always came close in the past to sending my amps into clipping. A long-time Magneplanar owner, I can't tell you how many tweeter fuses I've replaced playing back this disc. The SACD delivers the soloists in a real, palpable, in-your-room presence, with no evidence of strain or distortion.

When the last track, Irving Berlin's White Christmas plays, my wife has ritualistically commented over the last twenty years how "affected" the singing of these Swedes is in their pronunciation of this most American of Christmas standards. I have to tell you, the SACD presents all the vocals so clearly, no congestion, no digital haze – even White Christmas takes on an entirely previously unheard personality. I've heard so much more in this entire program that I've never heard before – the air and space around the voices is amazing in its realization. This music is so spiritual and life affirming for me that over the years I've revisited it often, but hearing this SACD is almost like hearing this music for the first time.

The promise of DSD and SACD is very close to being fully realized on this disc. As impressed as I was with Proprius' first SACD disc, Valkommen till varen (PRSACD 2025), this first reissue is equally impressive in every attribute. Very, very highly recommended, regardless of how many times you may have bought is disc in the past! Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

Bel Canto – Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini Arias and Scenes – Renée Fleming, Soprano – Orchestra of St. Luke’s /Patrick Summers, Conductor – Decca 470 621-2 – Multichannel Hybrid SACD:

This disc represents Renée Fleming’s first foray into a program devoted exclusively to Bel Canto arias and scenes, and should prove definitively to all that she can sing this repertory, and sing she does! If my review here last month of her DVD Video collaboration with Bryn Terfel, Under the Stars (which split the program between straight opera and Broadway showtunes), drew some comments about her ability to sing the Broadway repertory (I still think she nailed the Gershwin), her recital here should silence the critics and prove to all that she is one of this generation’s true divas.

The program here is split evenly between the three composers, each offering scenes from two operas. Fleming’s singing is fluid and effortless throughout, with splendidly sympathetic accompaniment from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and conductor Patrick Summers. Many poignant moments abound throughout the program, and are played with delicacy and grace by the forces from St. Luke’s. They also prove that they’re up to the task of handling the frequent dynamic contrasts of the works – the thunderous and fiery conclusion to the third selection from Bellini’s La Sonnambula is a good example of the excellent playing to be found here.

Sonically, this 24/48 PCM recording is beyond reproach, and immerses the listener in the soundfield, with Renée right up front where she belongs. Another superb offering from Universal/Decca, and if you’re a fan of Miss Fleming’s or the repertory, not to be missed. Very highly recommended! Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E Minor; BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor - Midori, v./Berlin Philharmonic/Mariss Jansons - Sony Classical multichannel SACD SS 87740:

Midori, now 32, began recording for Sony Classical at age 16 and her recording of Mozart works for violin and orchestra was the very first multichannel SACD issued by the label. In 2001 Musical America named her Instrumentalist of the Year. The recording of the popular Mendelssohn concerto here ties in with Midori’s fall tour of the U.S. and Canada on which she will be performing the work. The recent trend of live concert recordings is upheld with this hi-res issue, and it seems to add to the electricity present in the interpretation of all those involved. Plus, this being the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, you can be sure the audience is extremely quiet and no danger of applause between movements. The violin sounds larger than life but that’s a given on most concerto recordings today. Both its timbre and that of the instruments of the orchestra come thru with a clarity and naturalness that seem as though it should have some rumble and surface noise accompanying it - but it doesn’t. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 - Anne Sofie Von Otter, mezzo-soprano/Women’s Chorus of the Vienna Singverein/Vienna Boys’ Choir/Vienna Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez - Multichannel SACD - DGG 474 298-2 (2 discs):

This vast six-movement symphony is even more imposing than most of Mahler’s other symphonies. The titles for the movements went thru a number of changes but are generally listed now as: 1. What the Mountains Tell Me, 2. What the Flowers of the Meadow Tell Me, 3. What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me, 4. What Mankind Tells Me, 5. What the Angels Tell Me, 6. What Love Tells Me. The mezzo solos are in the 4th and 5th movements - the first Zarathustra’s Midnight Song from Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, and the latter a song from The Youth’s Magic Horn song cycle.

Von Otter’s voice is lovely in both. Boulez is less passionate and dramatic than Tilson Thomas (on the SF Symphony’s own label) in Mahler’s Third but his attention to small details is legendary. Boulez is Monsieur Le Directoir of his skilled musical forces whereas Thomas and his SF players/singers bring us a more personal and emotional Mahler. When combined with the heightened resolution of DVD/SACD plus surround sound one has the distinct impression with either that one is experiencing more of this work than has been possible before. With recordings like both of these among the over 1000 SACDs released so far, this audiophile format cannot be accused of giving us terrific recording quality and lousy performances, as J. Gordon Holt once observed of the early audiophile LP labels. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

SCHUMANN: Symphonies No. 1 ”Spring;” No. 3 “Rhenish” - Philharmonia Orchestra /Eliahu Inbal - Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD 4.0 5186 111:

We have here another of the “Remastered Quadro Recordings” with which this label began - and to which new 5.1 recordings have now been added. The four channel tapes date from 1971 and were never released as quadraphonic LPs due to the many inherent problems in the matrixed surround sound formats. Now they can be heard properly via SACD. Inbal is known for his recording of the complete Mahler Symphonies as well as the complete Beethoven Symphonies for the Denon label in the 80s.

The pairing of these two Schumann symphonies on one disc (plus Nos. 2 & 4 on another disc) is standard practice. I had such a pairing on a SACD stereo reissue from Epic featuring George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra so a comparison seemed in order. To give the stereo version a fighting chance I used the excellent Pro Logic II feature on my Sunfire preamp to create a pseudo-surround field. (I find on some stereo sources this actually produces a superior surround effect to many 5.1 discrete hi-res discs!) Szell is considered a master at this repertory and his recording of all four Schumann symphonies a classic, but I found on the interpretation level that Inbal’s version had more excitement and verve about it - and I don’t feel I was thrown by the improved sonics either. Add to that the greater depth, clarity, enhanced dynamic range, and real sense of the concert hall venue around you, and the Pentatone SACD comes out the winner easily. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Three releases from the German DVD-A label Nishimura...
Fireworks of Classic - Most Famous Classic Highlights - Czech Chamber Philharmonic/Klaus Linkel - Nishimura DVD-A L1 0524-2 131:

Tatsuo Nishimura is a freelance audio consultant in Germany. He worked for major audio firms and when DVD-Audio was first introduced founded his own recording company. He is a proponent of One-Point Recording - the direct opposite of the way most German labels (and many other major labels) record, with many mics close to the instruments and later mixed together. He uses five mics close together in the audience area of a hall, each feeding a single channel for 5.0, and is a believer in capturing the acoustic of the concert space. I auditioned for this issue the first three DVD-As sent to me from Dusseldorf and it is clear from spot-checking the later ones (which I will cover next month) that the stumbles in the first two below are later corrected.

This disc says DVD-Audio but I couldn’t get the DVD-A layer to play for me; that was a first. It did produce a brief high-volume burst of data something like users of DTS CDs are familiar with - it almost blew out my speakers. I was able to access both the multichannel DVD video 5.1 Dolby track as well as the separate stereo PCM track. There was no video display. The sound was hugely reverberant with the orchestra entirely too far away from the mics. It sounded something like playing back the Nimbus UHJ Ambisonic recordings in stereo only, but much worse. The program of 20 tracks assays most of the expected classical chestnuts such as the Turkish March, For Elise, William Tell Overture, The Swan, Flight of the Bumble Bee and so on. Oh boy. Something went quite wrong with this disc.

Organ New Dimensions = BACH: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, HANDEL: Organ Concerto No. 2 (arr. for solo organ), MENDELSSOHN: Sonata No. 6, BOELLMANN: Suite gothique, LISZT: Ave Maria von Arcadelt, VIERNE: Carillon de Westminster, FRANCK: Prelude, Fugue and Variation, WIDOR: Toccata from Symphony No. 5 - Bernard Leonardy at the organ of the Basilica of St. John in Saarbrucken - Nishamura PIAC-1002 DVD-A:

A fine program of show-off organ works and a fine instrument to boot. There is no Dolby Digital option on this disc as well as no onscreen display. When I tried to play it in my Sony 9000ES DVD/SACD player I only got an Error message. The DVD-Audio option appears to be entirely 5-channel linear PCM without the use of MLP. Probably the elimination of the on-screen display, Dolby 5.1 and the LFE channel made enough room that the MLP license did not have to be paid for this disc. Plus the sampling rate is 48K instead of the 96K maximum. Interesting.

At first I was moved to lower the level of my surrounds since they were much higher than the frontal speakers. Then I learned that this is actually three organs in one: The main organ is on the surrounds in the rear, with two smaller organs positioned front left and right. The Mendelssohn Sixth Organ Sonata is the major work on the disc. The performances are all top flight and the bombastic finale of the Gothic Suite of Boellmann - Peter, You Are the Rock - blew my socks off. This could be a knockout demo track for any audio show! If you don’t have full range surround speakers or a rear subwoofer, this entire disc would lose some impact in the deep bass end. I did hear a subtle amount of IM distortion on the surround channels during some of the organ registrations, which might have been due to overloading of my Celestion surrounds which only go down to about 70Hz.

Organ New Dimensions = All J. S. BACH Program: Concerto in G Major after Johann Ernst BWV 592; Partita on the Chorale Sei Gegrusset, Jesu Gutig BWV 768; Prelude & Fugue in F Major BWV 534; Pastorella in F Major BWV 590; Four Chorale Preludes; Piece for Organ BWV 572 - Bernard Leonardy at the Silbermann organ, Marmoutier - Nishimura DVDA-011:

Now things are getting together in Dusseldorf. This disc has all the expected options: Dolby Digital 5.1, onscreen display including extensive notes on the Silbermann organ, 48K/24bit 5.1 channel linear PCM without MLP, separate stereo linear PCM tracks both for playback in a DVD-A player and in a standard DVD video player (without use of Dolby AC-3). The pipe organ was played by Albert Schweitzer and has a fascinating history. The Bach program is varied and extremely well-played, with excellent sonic detail and natural reverberation in the cathedral. The feeling of vertical spaciousness was especially strong, even though with six-channel analog playback in my system, the height speakers are not in operation.

- John Sunier

PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky cantata; Pushkiniana (excerpts from Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin & Boris Godunov); Ghost of Hamlet’s Father; Dance of the Oprichniks from Ivan the Terrible - Irina Gelahova, mezzo-soprano/Stanislavsky Chorus/Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky - Naxos DVD-A 5.110015:

The cantata arranged by Prokofiev from his soundtrack music to the 1938 epic film on the 13th-century conflict between the Russians and Teutonic invaders has been an audiophile favorite for decades. The thrilling Fritz Reiner recording is a standard and is now on xrcd, but the added attraction of hi-res (48K) recording and discrete multichannel sound makes the music an even more compelling and enveloping experience in this authentically Russian performance. One can easily conjure with this music the epic images in widescreen color instead of the small screen, grainy black & white of the film (which had the worst sound imaginable). The Battle on the Ice is the high point of the seven movements and musically puts the listener in the midst of the conflict.

The filler items here are unique: Prokofiev was involved in three projects in connection with the centenary of the death of poet Alexander Pushkin. None of the projects was ever completed, but conductor Rozhdestvensky assembled a suite of movements using music from the aborted efforts. First are three excerpts from a film version of The Queen of Spades, next are four selections of incidental music for stage plays - Eugene Onegin and Boris Godunov. The closing two selections are first from music to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and then one selection f rom the planned film score to Ivan the Terrible, Part 3 - which was never made due to Stalin’s objections. Naxos DVD-As don’t offer a lot of on-screen extras but the note booklet is very complete, including a libretto for the four sections of Alexander Nevsky with vocal/choral parts.

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: Concerto No. 1 in F-flat minor; Francesca da Rimini - Olga Kern, piano/Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Seaman - Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807323:

It’s great to have Harmonia mundi joining the SACD camp with 14 multichannel releases right off the bat. Their recordings have been favorites of audiophiles for decades and now we can get even closer to the superb sonics for which they have been known. Olga Kern was the first woman in over 30 years to receive the gold medal at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. Her efforts were prominently featured in the documentary on the competition, available on a DVD which we reviewed. Her innate Russian intensity is perfect for this work, and the use of an American orchestra is to be commended. While her virtuosity is not lacking, the impressive climaxes are not quite as thrilling as some of the other recorded versions, but the addition of the hi-res surround sound involves the listener more fully. It is in the quieter and more lyrical sections where Kern’s delicacy is more convincing. She really shines in the third and final movement, with gorgeous passage work. The Rochester players and Seaman turn in an incendiary rendition of the suffering pair of lovers in Tchaikovsky’s dramatic tone poem. [NOTE: Release date will be November 11th] Purchase Here

- John Sunier

It’s Mozart Times Three with our next batch of SACDs...

MOZART: - Night Music = Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Adagio & Fugue in C minor; Menuet & Trio in C Major; Serenata Notturna in D Major, A Musical Joke - The English Concert/Andrew Manze - Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807280:

Don’t be confused by the lovely artwork on this disc of a setting for the Queen of the Night’s aria in The Magic Flute - there is nothing from that Mozart opera here. The general theme is, however, the composer’s “night music” as a term he frequently preferred to Serenade or Notturno. These were works for playing out of doors in the evening for friends or patrons - mostly light in nature but they could have a darker side. This summer Baroque violinist and early music star Manze took over the English Concert from its founder Trevor Pinnock, and since Manze already was recording for HM, that meant the ensemble will now be heard on this label instead of Archive.

Manze’s attention to detail and improvisatory freedom makes this perusal of the overly-familiar Little Night Music suite makes it sound like a work of more depth and deeper feeling that we might have before imagined. The C minor Adagio and Fugue is one of Mozart’s most serious and intense works. Originally for two keyboards, it is heard here in the composer’s later version for strings. The daring harmonies of the Adagio remind one more of late Beethoven than Mozart. Manze’s superb reading of A Musical Joke is a fitting conclusion to the disc, again with previously unnoticed details being brought forth. They involve crazy voicings and “illegal” changes of key which were intended to parody a bad composition as well as bad playing. I have several recordings of this work and I must say hearing it in this perceptive interpretation as well as in hi-res surround was as good as hearing it for the very first time. Not just due to this particular piece, nor am I suggesting that Trevor Pinnock was a bore, but I grok that Manze is going to be more fun. [NOTE: Release date will be October 14th] Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Symphonies No. 31 in D “Paris” & No. 38 in D “Prague” - Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Josef Krips - Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 119:

Another of the four-channel recordings made in the early 70s for Philips but never issued as quadraphonic LPs, these sessions were held in Amsterdam in l972 and 1973. Pentatone doesn’t attempt to turn the masters into 5.0 or 5.1 surround mixes but just converts the four analog channels to 4.0 DSD for the SACD. I doubt if the keenest ear would miss the center channel unless its absence was pointed out. The recordings were made towards the end of the life of the former conductor of the London Symphony, Vienna State Opera and San Francisco Symphony. He had conducted Concertgebouw performances of some of Mozart’s later symphonies and word was that these performances were so unforgettable that Philips decided to record all of them. These two symphonies are named after probably the two most beautiful cities in Europe, are both in the same key, and are therefore frequently paired on recordings. The Prague drops the clarinets used in the Paris Symphony but is more festive in mood. A most worthwhile addition to the multichannel library of great music.
Purchase Here

- John Sunier

MOZART: Requiem; Adagio & Fugue in C minor - Soloists/Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Charles Mackerras - LINN multichannel SACD CKD 211:

There are many versions of this work - one of the superb liturgical works in the repertory - including some in SACD. But this refined and musicologically accurate performance quickly takes a top rating. It uses the completed edition prepared by Harvard Professor Robert Levin seeking to make the music closer to what Mozart might have written himself rather than what his student Sussmayr as well as others penned after the composer’s death. It is not known exactly which portions of the score are actually Mozart’s music and which are primarily his students. Levin strove to preserve as much of Sussmayr’s music as possible while improving on it. Among the more subtle changes, the Osanna has been re-written in a more elaborate and interesting style, and the Lacrimosa has an Amen fugue added on which is based on a recently rediscovered fragment of Mozart’s own writing.

Mackerras and the chamber orchestra achieve clear textures and a lean sound with winds and brass more prominent than most interpretations of the Requiem. More details of the music are thus revealed. Any of the great requiems are perfect material for multichannel; it adds immensely to the experience. The recent standard CD version on Dorian that we reviewed also uses the Robert Levin edition, but I find Mackerras’ version to have a fuller, less spare sound - and not just due to the higher resolution and multichannel delivery. With an addition such as this to the growing classical hi-res discography, Linn matches their reputation for superb recording standards with a genuinely superb performance.

- John Sunier

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