57 xrcd, SACD & DVD-A Reviews
April 2004 – Part 2 of 3 – Classical
click on any cover to go directly to its review
Since we started the jazz section with the xrcd reviews, we’ll continue with two more xrcds to start off the classical hi-res section for this month…
KHACHATURIAN: Masquerade Suite; KABALEVSKY: The Comedians – RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Kiril Kondrashin – RCA Victor/JVC xrcd24 JM-XR24014 (33 min.):
This Lewis Layton-engineered Living Stereo stereo session took place in NYC in 1958 – the year the new stereodisc was first introduced. I recall being captivated by the optimistic, catchy tunefulness of both of these high-energy suites when I auditioned and programmed them at the public radio station at which I worked. These are brilliant gems of Soviet-era music, originally written as stage music for plays; the ten movements of the Comedians race by (some under one minute) with a breathless gaiety that Kondrashin plays to the hilt. He was the first Soviet conductor to move to the U.S. and became an overnite sensation with the Van Cliburn/ Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto recording. When CDs came out I enjoyed the RCA CD of this music, and much much later I reviewed and have enjoyed the Classic Records vinyl reissue of the same original masters. Of course I had to compare it with the new xrcd. I found the differences extremely subtle, as I had with other similar A/B auditions. In this latest xrcd 24 upgrade JVC really makes the old dog of the 44.1K CD format stand up, bark, do somersaults – you name it.
I found the xrcd to have a somewhat more pristine sonic than the LP reissue, but not the sort of too-much-scrubbed-away sound that poorly-made CDs often have compared to analog. The bass end was nearly identical in both formats. There was no loss of detail at all. There was also a greater extension in the extreme high end on xrcd, and a total freedom from even the most subtle vinyl groove distortions, as well as no surface noise whatever. The hiss level was completely unnoticeable. However, the LP still had a slight edge in the noisier climaxes of the music and in painting a somewhat more realistically holographic orchestral soundstage. But I would say if you have given up on vinyl and have a high quality CD player, by all means get the xrcd, even though it comes in at nearly $1 a minute. (As I recall that was also the case with the early pre-recorded two-track stereotapes.)
– John Sunier
TCHAIKOVSKY: Capriccio Italien; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Capriccio Espagnol – RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Kiril Kondrashin –
RCA Victor/JVC xrcd24 JM-XR24013 (31 min.):
Another Living Stereo RCA effort with the same forces from the same time, this pairing is a familiar one from LP days, running about 15 minutes per side. Kondrashin’s fiery, dramatic style was perfect for these two show-off Russian orchestral gems. In some ways he reminds me of the current hot Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. Perhaps it’s the astounding clarity, wide dynamic range, and freedom from distortions of this reprocessing, but without even digging out some of the previous successes with this pairing (such as the Boston Pops on a Crystal Clear direct disc) I find this one to knock the competition out of the ballpark. Actually the sonics had me thinking Shaded Dog vinyl or at least Classic Records’ reissue and I was completely shocked when the Tchaikovsky Capriccio suddenly turned into the Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio – I was all primed to get up and turn the LP over at the halfway mark!
– John Sunier
More xrcd reviews this month in Part 1!
*****MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH*****
PUCCINI: La Bohème. — Angela Gheorghiu (Mimi), Roberto Alagna (Rudolfo), Elisabetta Scano (Musetta), Simon Keenlyside (Marcello), Roberto de Candia (Schaunard), and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Colline); Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, and Coro di voci bianche del Teatro alla Scala e del Conservatoriao “G. Verdi” di Milano, Roberto Gabbiani, chorus master; Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Riccardo Chailly, conductor — Decca multichannel SACD 470 614-2 DSA2.
From the beginning I was nearly struck dumb by the overall excellence of this recording. It is, finally, what we were promised from the industry twenty years back: superlative recording engineering, breathtaking singing, superb orchestral playing, holographic imaging, and clarity of detail up and down the audio range as I have never quite heard them before. When I popped this recording, known as the Gheorghiu-Alagna-La Scala/Chailly La Bohème, into my friendly CD player my tray of surprises became my tray of astonishment. I wheeled my listening chair into the sweet spot in my “lab” and the thrills and chills started running up and down my spine, while a sly smile made its way onto my face.
There are some who say that SACD is only marginally better than a well-engineered 20 bit standard CD. I most vigorously disagree. Not only is there better clarity and detail throughout the audio band, there is improved string tone without the barriers and brickwall filters of 44 kHz/16 bit PCM recordings. With SACD (at 192 kHz/24 bit DSD) there is greater headroom, making sudden spikes (like bass drum shots) easier to handle. And there is greater ability to follow singers as they walk around the soundfield; left to right, and front to back. The echo and decay of the natural recording venue offer greater clues of location than the artificial method of merely lowering the gain. This album uses the new SACD multichannel technology in service of the music. It raises the bar for the whole industry.
The cast sings with the kind of ease and confidence we’ve come to expect of La Scala performers. In the first act, after all the exposition and introductory arias, when the lovers finally meet and tell each other their life stories, the ravishing voices of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna (who are husband and wife in truth) are captured in such a manner that not only can we grasp their technical excellence, but we hear in an instant they are young people’s voices. These extra textual impressions are a function of the new technology. Then, when Alagna (Rudolfo) hits and holds the high note just a beat or two longer than usual, going for a little extra volume while trying to convince Gheorghiu (Mimi) of his love, it is more believable. As it is more believable, it engages our feelings. As it engages our feelings, it helps us toward the teleological suspension of disbelief, and suddenly we identify with the young lovers, and suddenly our chests swell with the rush of first love. And the art of the singers, together with the new multichannel technology, makes grandfatherly me re-experience, for the moment, my youthful ardor, my adolescent longing. If this isn’t what opera is all about, what audio is all about, I’m wasting my time writing this, and you, gentle reader, are wasting yours reading it.
Of course for us to experience the ecstasy of first love, and the agony of loss at Mimi’s demise, we need the resources of La Scala and Decca Records, and a pretty good multichannel music system. To me such resources are one of the wonders of living in the 21st century, along with modern medicine, modern travel, modern communications, etc. Just yesterday I spoke with a guy in Valleta, on the island of Malta. It was like talking cross-town.
To be successful, everything about this recording needed a whole string of things to go right. They did. The lead singers sang extraordinarily; the choruses under Roberto Gabbiani rose to the excellent standard; the orchestra played with inspiration; indeed, the whole enterprise under Maestro Chailly’s scholarly eye concerning past performance practices, went well. The recording team managed to get it right, capturing every subtle little nuance just so. This must have been an elating project to be in on. (I wonder what Sir Winston would have said about ending a sentence with two prepositions.) I think everyone involved deserves a couple of “Good jobs” and an “attaboy.” Maybe a cookie. How is that said in Italian?
If you haven’t got a surround-sound rig, but you’re an opera-lover, this recording ought to convince you. It is a hybrid recording, so you can play it in standard CD – I can’t wait to listen to it on headphones. You can also listen to it in SACD stereo, or in SACD multichannel. In case you are wondering if I find this album good enough to be “Recommended,” I haven’t world enough or time to express how highly I’d recommend it. If you like opera, if you’ve ever wondered what opera is all about, if you like Puccini, run, don’t walk, to your favorite vendor and order this one today. This minute. Do it now. You won’t be sorry. And tell ‘em Max Dudious sent you.
SCHUBERT: String Quartet D 94, String Quintet D 956. – Prañák Quartet/Marc Coppey, cello – Praga Stereo SACD, PRD/DSD 250 191:
This recording by the Prañák Quartet (Václav Remes and Vlastimil Holek, violins; Josef KlusoÁ, viola; Michal KaÁka, cello; & Marc Coppey, cello D 956) doesn’t quite do it for me. I’m sure the musicians have played these works many times. Oh they see the larger picture, play all the notes beautifully, follow the dynamic instructions from soft to loud, but there is something missing. I may be stretching a bit here, so forgive me. What is, for me, lacking is a sense of tension building and released. This tension and release is, in the mature Schubert works, a thumbprint upon his compositions as his six year battle with illness drew to an end. Schubert died of syphilis, which was like dying of AIDS in 19th century Europe. Nice people (and album notes) never spoke of it. But by 1980 scholars agreed on the cause of his death.
At a summer festival years ago, I heard Pinchas Zuckerman lead a group through Schubert’s Cello Quintet D 956. It seemed, particularly in the 2nd movement, that he stretched the notes out interminably. Not only did they swell with extreme poignancy, rise and fall, but they held on noticeably longer than I’d ever heard them played before. Zuckerman, on the lead violin, seemed to have the notion such a performance would lend the work greater weltschmerz (world-pain, or world-weariness). He held the long notes heartbreakingly long enough to bring beads of perspiration to his brow, and bring the large veins in his neck and forehead to bulging. His playing was always under consummate control, and mixed with the sweat I thought I saw tears. But maybe the whole thing was a projection of my own, my first-time realization that this work was so elegiac, so suffused with Schubert’s oncoming demise, so much a mourning of his own death. As Sergei Rachmaninov said, upon being informed that he was dying from cancer; “My dear hands. Farewell, my poor hands.” The Cello Quintet, I feel, was Schubert’s way of saying the same.
The Quartet in D major, D 94, was written when Schubert was a student and drew jeers from musicologists for generations as a minor work. It has outlived this early judgment and is now seen as ebullient and having the vitality worthy of Haydn. It is a charming piece, like many of the pieces written by the young Schubert. It does seem to look backward to the classicism of Mozart and Beethoven, rather than forward to the “Romanticism” of the Cello Quintet. It is a good example of Schubert’s juvenilia and demonstrates how talented and competent a musician he was at age seventeen. The Prañák Quartet’s approach to this work I find much more to my taste.
What we have here are two performances, one I liked, the other I have some reservations about. My hesitation about this reading of the Cello Quintet is one of subtlety in performance. Many listeners would find this reading just fine, maybe prefer it to a more maudlin approach. Actually, but for this detail, the choice not to stretch out the somber passages for a few more beats, I would find this performance one that hits all of the themes of the music with great panache. Maybe I’m searching for an ideal that exists only in my mind. It’s like the anecdote from Citizen Kane, when one of Kane’s lieutenants remembers seeing a beautiful woman on a streetcar decades before, and comments, “Not a day in my life has gone by that I haven’t thought of her.” When I hear the Cello Quintet I can’t help thinking of Pinky Zuckerman sweating and weeping his way through the most riveting second movement. This one doesn’t do it for me. Recommended to those who’d know.
– Max Dudious
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Symphony No. 2 in D Major – Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado – DGG DVD-Audio B0001462-19:
I know the music is supposed to always come first, but I couldn’t help noticing on the back of the jewel box where it said Newly Remastered for DVD Audio, and in the little two-column chart which most Universal DVD-As have, where it said both the multichannel and stereo audio options were 96 kHz/24bit. Good news! Perhaps Universal is hearing audiophiles who have complained about the 44.1K or 48K sampling on previous releases (as well as with other labels such as Naxos). Now they should go the full monty and offer 192K on the two-channel option. That at least puts the format on a fair level with SACD.
Comparison of this disc with similar orchestral DVD-As at 44.1 and 48K sampling rates showed a slight but very hearable improvement in transparency and detail. The performances of these light and good-natured early Beethoven symphonies are to the manner born; couldn’t ask for a better orchestra, and their former conductor was in great form for these recordings made in March of 2000. There’s a small photo gallery of Abbado in action, but otherwise the many possibilities of visual extras offered by the DVD-A format are not taken advantage of.
– John Sunier
A pair of very different Mahler recordings next…
MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 – Laura Claycomb, soprano/San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas – San Francisco Symphony multichannel SACD 821936-0004-2:
The latest in the very-well-received series of Mahler symphony SACDs was recorded before a live audience in Davies Hall in September of last year. It shows Mahler in a more positive mood than usual and the lyrics sung in the finale are from a Bavarian folk song called Heaven is Hung with Violins. Its design and orchestration is simpler and more direct than most of Mahler’s symphonies, making it a good place for the Mahler neophyte to begin. Nevertheless Tilson Thomas doesn’t miss any chance for pointing up the drama in the score. The recording is spacious and finely-detailed. Hearing any of this series, as well the earlier Telarc recordings also made in Davis Hall, one wonders what the complaints about its acoustics were. The booklet accompanying the disc in the slip-sleeve is larger and classier than the usual booklet that must fit into the smaller dimensions of the jewel box itself. It also includes the complete English translation of the song in the Finale – thank you.
– John Sunier
MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (Transcription for piano four hands by Bruno Walter) – Prague Piano Duo – Praga Digital stereo SACD PRD/DSD 250 197:
Bruno Walter knew Mahler personally and was present at the 1894 premiere of this symphony. Piano reductions of such works was the primary way of disseminating the music to a larger public. Walter created such reductions for Mahler’s first two symphonies and even played them with the composer at one point. (The publisher of the first edition forgot to list Walter as the transcriptor!) As with other transcriptions of symphonies for piano – such as Liszt’s of Beethoven symphonies – it appears at first a totally impossible task to reduce all those complex parts to a single keyboard. But necessity is the mother of invention and it was done – very well indeed. The same goes for this Mahler piano version – a world premiere recording – and having four hands at the single keyboard helps quite a bit. A skilled husband-and-wife team such as the Prague Duo ensures that there will be no serious collisions of hands in the process. The clean and wide range two-channel reproduction also assists in the experience. It might be a bit much to expect a piano reduction of, say, Mahler’s 8th or 9th, but with the 1st it’s a first-rate success.
– John Sunier
Tchaikovsky leads off our next two hi-reses…
TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1; RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in G-flat Major, Moment Musical in E-flat Minor, Daisies, Prelude in G Major, Oriental Sketch, Melodie in E Major; RACHMANINOFF-VOLODOS: Concert Paraphrase on Polka italienne – Arcadi Volodos, p./Berlin Philharmonic/Seiji Ozawa – Sony Classical multichannel SACD SH 93067:
Ah yes, another Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. But if you don’t have one yet in hi-res, this is the one to get. Volodos pulls out all the virtuoso stops and then some, and the sonics are sumptuous. The Berlin Philharmonic again plus SACD – how could you lose? The remainder of the disc is a piano recital of Rachmaninoff works by Volodos, ending with his spectacular arrangement of one of the composer’s short piano encores.
– John Sunier
TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence; VERDI: String Quartet in E Minor – Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Candida Thompson, leader – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 21504:
We just reviewed another hi-res Souvenir de Florence recently and here’s another already. Both hail from musical hotbed Amsterdam and both are terrific performances in matching surround sound. The primary difference I heard was that the earlier release – on PentaTone with the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra – is pitched an entire musical step higher. (At first I thought the cause might be due to the Philips analog tapes from the 70s being played back at the wrong speed, but then I realized this was a new 5.0 DSD recording made in 2002.) In spite of its name, the richly melodious Souvenir has a third movement full of Russian folk themes.
The Sinfonietta string players are superbly accurate and play with real emotion too – a combination one doesn’t always get nowadays. The 5.0 surround sound spreads out the string section and adds considerable interest to the music vs. the stereo version. The Verdi work has no credit for an arranger or transcriber, so I gather it is primarily a matter of doubling/tripling up on the four string parts of the original quartet (the ensemble has under two dozen members). It was the only instrumental work of his entire opera.
– John Sunier
Now for a battle of the hi-res Ninths…
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor – Tomowa-Sintow/Baltsa/Schreier/van Dam/Vienna Singverein/Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert Von Karajan – DGG multichannel SACD 471-640-2:
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor – Dunleavy/Bishop/Gould/Miles/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Donald Runnicles – Telarc multichannel SACD-60603:
The Ninth has been involved in the technical side of audio for a very long time. When complete classical works were first beginning to be committed to wax masters for 78 rpm release (entirely in Europe) Beethoven’s Ninth was among the first works chosen for such semi-immortality. When the compact disc was first developed with a capacity of less than the 70 minutes or so required to hold the Ninth, Sony’s founder sent it back to the drawing boards – demanding that the maximum length be enlarged to include his favorite classical work. Additionally, the complex massed sounds of the four soloists, chorus and full orchestra in the climaxes of the ecstatic final Ode to Joy are similar in the demands they make on the recording process to those of the big moments in Mahler symphonies. Ordinary 44.1K CD technology, for example, always clots up and becomes opaque-sounding when all hell (or heaven) breaks loose in these works.
The Karajan entry was recorded in l977 on analog tape, but thinking ahead, the maestro insisted on multitrack recording of all of his music, so now it can be issued in both hi-res formats as well as 5.1 soundtracks on his many music videos. The soloists are superb and hi-res-capable Karajan fans will definitely want to have this disc, but next to the Telarc competition it sounds closed-in and overly dense. Scottish-born Runnicles is the ASO’s Principal Guest Conductor and also directs the San Francisco Opera and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in NYC. He turns in an exciting and fresh-sounding performance. The sonics are also fresh, detailed, and effectively enveloping in 5.0 surround. The depth of the soundstage offers separation of the soloists in front and the chorus behind to an extent not heard in other choral/orchestral hi-res discs I have auditioned. Recording engineer Michael Bishop has had plenty of experience micing such large aggregations for surround for previous Telarc releases, and this one brings all his experience to bear on a masterpiece of DSD surround sound. Most highly recommended!
– John Sunier
RAVEL: Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe; Pavan for a Dead Princess; La Valse; Mother Goose Suite (Five Nursery Songs); Bolero – Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi – Telarc multichannel SACD-60601:
Almost a Ravel’s Greatest Hits album, these are such good interpretations and sonics that it raises the disc above that sort of thing. The second suite from his ballet Daphnis et Chloe has only three sections: it opens with the glorious Daybreak tone-painting (which I once used as the sign-on theme of a classical station I managed), closing with the boisterous General Dance. The stylized Grecian version of the Daphnis and Chloe story was what Ravel had in mind, and he conjured up the sensuous fantasy world with his usual precision touch. The five movements of Mother Goose take us to another fantasy world. The detailed and transparent sonics allow the listener to focus on the myriad precise elements which Ravel has assembled to give an overall impression of a “wash” of sound-painting – when at basis it is very carefully planned and organized. The subtle building up of sounds in Bolero are more front-and-center than most recordings of the work, making it seem less hackneyed and repetitious. While La Valse is beautifully played, it lacks the dark and threatening aspect which builds as the work develops in some of the competing recordings. Nevertheless this is a fine survey of Ravel that should appeal to a wide audience, including those delving into the composer for the first time.
– John Sunier
A series from Chandos of Vaughan Williams symphonies next…
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A London Symphony (Sym. No. 2); BUTTERWORTH: The Banks of Green Willow: Idyll – London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5001:
This world premiere recording of the original 1913 version of the symphony is something like the DVD video sets which feature the Director’s Cut. After the first performance of the symphony in March 1914 the composer felt moved to revise the work three times, and the last version of 1933 is the one we have so far known as the London Symphony. The original score is fully 20 minutes longer, with a more leisurely approach full of mystery and wistfulness. Many of the composer’s friends regretted the cuts in the original symphony, which were supposed to give the work more structural coherence. H. G. Wells spoke of the visions of the passing of Old England in the Andante Epilogue of the work, and is much stronger in the original version. At 61 minutes this now becomes a very major work. A deep interest in folk music of the British Isles held by Vaughan Williams throughout his life is heard in nearly all of his works. Though the composer wanted to separate himself from descriptive music, the quality of mysteriousness is amply communicated in this impressionistic work, and aptly detailed in the rich multichannel envelopment the Chandos engineers have provided.
– John Sunier
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor; Mass in G Minor; Six Choral Songs to be Sung in Time of War – Richard Hickox Singers/London Symphony Chorus/London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5003:
The Fourth of VW’s is just the opposite of Mahler’s Fourth in his catalog; it is his most dissonant and hard-edged symphony. Dating from l935, many naturally thought the work was stimulated by the increasing pall hanging over Europe in the years leading up to the WW II, but the composer denied that emphatically. He said it simply occurred to him like that, and during one of the rehearsals he stated, “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.” It emulates Beethoven’s Fifth in some of its design. The Scherzo offers some respite from the disturbing element of the music; it has a robust folk dance-like feeling. The Choral Songs are inspired by WW II, are for chorus with orchestra and date from l939-40 using words from Shelley. the six songs are of: Courage, Liberty, Healing, Victory, Pity/Peace/Love, the New Age.
This is the work’s premiere recording. VW’s Mass is the earliest work here, dating from 1920-21, and is sung a capella. Composed for two choirs who had both revived works of early composers such as Tallis and Byrd, VW looked back on that 16th century polyphonic style while using 20th century vocabulary. According to Nicolas Slonimsky this view of VW’s compositional approach could well be applied to his entire oeuvre, which the annotator sees as a combination of Tudor era modalities with the sparkling tonalities of modern times. The clarity of the voices on both choral works comes across impressively, probably due in part to the composer’s skill in choral writing and partly due to the depth and transparency of Chandos’ DSD sonics.
– John Sunier
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D Major; Prelude and Fugue in C minor; Valiant-for-Truth, The Pilgrim Pavement; Hymn-tune Prelude on Sony 13 by Orlando Gibbons; The 23rd Psalm – Carys Lane, soprano/Ian Watson & Malcolm Hicks, organ/Richard Hickox Singers/London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5004:
VW had an ambivalent attitude toward religion, but he had started as a church organist and in editing publication of a book of English hymns he became fascinated by Tudor composers such as Tallis and Gibbons and began to show influences of their music in his works such as the lovely Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. He worked for many years on an opera on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and some of the themes from this unfinished work ended up in his Fifth Symphony. The work is radiant and positive in feeling, offering a change of pace after the difficult Fourth Symphony. The slow movement is especially expressive, incorporates the voice of the Pilgrim, and concludes in a contemplative mood. The organ Prelude and Fugue dates from his early church organist period. The two works featuring soprano Carys Lane plus the string orchestra Prelude on a theme of Gibbons are all premiere recordings. The entire VW series on Chandos SACD has our highest commendation.
– John Sunier