BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in c; Symphony No. 7 in A – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Carlos Kleiber – DGG 479 1106 Pure Audio stereo-only Blu-ray (PCM 2.0, DTS MA HD 2.0, Dolby TrueHD, 24 bit/96K), 72:27 [Distr. by Universal] *****:
This is the first of a batch of newly-remastered recordings from DGG in the Pure Audio Blu-ray format. I am not sure where DGG—actually Universal, as these will cross labels—plans on going with this. I think it does signal the death knell for the SACD format among the majors, and it’s not hard to see why. SACD never attained, except among aficionados like those who read this website, to any sort of market saturation. Indeed, in speaking to my older sons, now in their ‘30s, and both classical music fans (though that is primary for only one of them) the idea of high quality sound is simply not registering with them at all. And it would be a mistake to consider even this website as placing an emphasis on sound alone—editor Sunier I believe would be the first to admit that if a performance is substandard all the great sound will do is magnify the flaws. But for those recordings that are great, like the one under consideration, great sound magnifies the virtues, and for those of us interested in the best possible audio experience, the results can be quite thrilling.
But to my original point, the younger generation is not displaying that much interest in terrific sound; with the predominance of MP3s being taking from online sources—though the format is changing—and the very nature of today’s pop music, it doesn’t seem to be that much of a consideration. One can hope that this will not impede future developments of audiophile sound, and at least this new release, and others like it, show a token effort at spreading the audiophile gospel. But as I have opined before, the major labels are quite fickle in this regard, so we shall see how all goes. But the obvious saturation element of Blu-ray into the general marketplace tempts them, at least for now, to try and take advantage of it.
Four quibbles however: 1) I do hope that they will not continue to package Blu-ray audio-only discs in big Blu-ray video disc plastic containers. Those interested in Blu-ray audio want something the same size as their CD and SACD cases in order to be able to file them properly. These large cases simply won’t work. 2) With the exception of only one disc I am reviewing, and that is on a different label than this DGG batch I just received, these are not surround sound remasterings, and they could have been. Of course I guess you can argue that a decent receiver with its many options will allow you to “create” a surround sound effect from the older recordings, like this one here, as easily as the label could have done—maybe. But I remember when sitting in the recording session for Golijov’s Ainadamar with Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra around mid-2006 or so, the DGG engineers commented on how they were listening to the SACD track in surround sound, and how magnificent it was. DGG never released that recording on SACD, but the format is available internally, and several of the discs in this new batch are newer recordings than it, so why the surround sound option wasn’t included is beyond me. Why release a Blu-ray Pure Audio High Definition product without taking complete advantage of the format? This leads to 3) the price for these is not cheap. Since the recordings are simply remasterings of sometimes very old issues, I am not sure why $20—on Amazon at least—is reasonable, especially since the technology has not been realized to its fullest potential, as in No. 2. And finally, not really a complaint but an observation, the market for automobile music has never been higher, with the newer model cars and trucks offering all sorts of media options for your driving pleasure. At least most SACD discs were hybrids, and allowed those recordings to be played on regular CD players. Will most vehicles now sport Blu-ray players instead, also able to play regular CDs? Time will tell.
So the high-def music market is still very much in a state of flux, as it has been for a while. The lesser labels—actually the bigger ones if you are a classical music fan—are releasing quite a large number of SACDs still, though some have succumbed to market pressure. I do have to wonder if the Blu-ray siren will tempt them away. I suspect so, if the format continues to develop, and better still, sell. So what happens with it is a concern to all readers of this website. And I must admit that most of the time I find the DTS MA sound to be the equal of SACD. But not always—if push comes to shove, the finest examples of surround sound technology are still to be found on SACDs, and at this point I still consider it to be the superior technology. But things change don’t they? [It’s interesting that Naxos announced originally they were going to issue two Pure Audio Blu-rays per month, but they’ve only been doing one…Ed.]
So what about this recording? It came out back in 1975 when I was in college. It simply bowled everyone over then, the first modern interpretation of this piece—though still shorn of period instrument influences—and showed us how exciting and relevant Beethoven could be. It was widely acclaimed, perhaps more so than any other single release of any classical piece ever, as the best ever, and I have heard little since to change that opinion. The Seventh is different; though it is still in the top ten, and one of the best ever, it does not quite live up to the blazing Fifth. Even so, this remains one of the most desirable couplings in all of music.
I listened to an A-B comparison with the “Originals” standard CD release, and generally speaking the CD is brighter, a little more airy (with a tad echo), and like so many DGG recordings, you can hear the bass very well without necessarily being able to feel it. The Blu-ray options do not entirely mitigate this issue, which shows that the original engineering was pretty true to form. But each of the three Blu-ray formats do add a degree of presence not found on the original album—which was always a fine recording—or the CD. The PCM option is the least satisfactory, though not objectionable, though it too is quite different—surprisingly so—from the CD release. Curiously, to me at least, the Dolby TrueHD selection provided the most palpably resonant experience of the three, certainly the loudest, though at some sacrifice to the spatial aspects of the recording which do open up on the DTS MA option. It’s this last which proves the most satisfactory in my opinion, and I suspect it will for most people.
Should you get this? It’s not as easy an answer as you might think. If you love great sound and this recording in particular you will probably want it, though if this had never come out I would probably be sailing along quite happily with the “Originals” CD release. I never got ahold of the SACD/CD hybrid released in 2003 which is still available for about three dollars less than this one, so it could be a viable alternative to the Blu-ray, and I sincerely doubt the sound is any better here. But if you enjoy riding the waves of a possible future you surely will want to acquire this, and as I said, the performances are incandescent.