BRAHMS: Fantasies, op. 116; Three Intermezzi, op. 117; Piano Pieces, op. 118; Piano Pieces, op. 119 – Elisabeth Leonskaja, piano – MDG

by | Nov 28, 2007 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Fantasies, op. 116; Three Intermezzi, op. 117; Piano Pieces, op. 118; Piano Pieces, op. 119 – Elisabeth Leonskaja, piano – MDG Multichannel SACD (with 2+2+2 option) 943 1349-2, 81:22 ***1/2:

I have been agonizing over this disc for days now. All of the later piano music by Brahms on one huge, jam-packed disc in Super Audio! Sounds too good to be true, and in a way it is, for in the end it is the sound that proves perplexing to me. The first time I put it on I was not happy with the surround. It seems to dissipate the piano and give each discrete channel a bit of a watering-down effect, making the piano as a whole sound, well, a bit thin in tone. It is almost as if in the general surround excitement the engineers spread the sound too much. I don’t know—even now I am of two minds about it. But I can say that listening to it on headphones as I am while writing this is much more accommodating. This is not a close recording by any means. I would say the headphone perspective is about center aisle in a good concert hall. You hear everything with crystal clarity (and to many people this is the very definition of a great recording) and can certainly admire the many felicities of Georgian Leonskaja’s dexterity and ability to command the keyboard, but I still miss a certain presence.

Maybe it’s because of the years of listening to studio recordings where the piano thuds away at your eardrums like a bass drum in a bathroom, or maybe it’s because the 1901 Steinway D used in this recording just isn’t up to the task. No—I think it is the way the sound was captured. But Leonskaja also pushes when she should pull in some of these pieces, and seems somewhat emotionally detached in many of them. At least I don’t hear this same kind of neutrality when I listen to Arthur Rubinstein (Brahms was his favorite composer), Richard Goode, Julius Katchen, or, pre-eminently, Radu Lupu.

But I also might grow used to this perspective and feel differently about it in a year or so. I do promise to keep trying. Leonskaja has the chops for this, and something to say, and this is a great deal to have all of this music on one disc, and the SA sounds very good when in stereo mode. Perhaps I will learn to accept the surround better over time, but I can’t make a definitive judgment about it as yet. So there it is.

— Steven Ritter

[This is one of many “2+2+2” releases from MD&G on both SACD and DVD-A. They feel that for music in surround the center and subwoofer channels are not important, and instead they use those two channels for left and right height mics/speakers high above the front left and right speakers. The signals are compatible in standard 5.1 playback.  We will shortly be featuring some feature review articles covering the 2+2+2 system and most of the discs using this alternative approach – which works well but takes some effort to set up…Ed.]

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