JOHN CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus (Symphony No. 3 for large wind ensemble); Gazebo Dances for band – The University of Texas Wind Ensemble/ Jerry Junkin – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or PCM 2.0) NBD0008, 53 min. No region code ****:
This is the first of a new series of audio-only (The 2L label calls it Pure Audio) Blu-rays which Naxos plans to issue on a regular basis as their hi-res replacement for SACD and DVD-Audio which they issued briefly and then discontinued. Upcoming Blu-ray releases include four Dvorak Symphonies, the two Chopin piano concerti, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2. There is a single Blu-ray disc, which of course will not play on standard DVD players, CD or SACD players. The Naxos audio-only Blu-rays do not offer a second SACD disc of the same material as do the 2L Blu-rays. Both the lossless DTS-HD option for surround and the PCM alternative for stereo are 96K/24-bit sound to offer what Naxos called “absolute sound fidelity.” (Although the program notes are headed “88.2 kHz,” so there seems to be some discrepancy here.)
John Corigliano is one of the leading American composers and also a professor of music. He scored the films Altered States, Revolution, and The Red Violin, and his Symphony No. 2 earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. “The Naked Carmen,” a 1970 satirical LP he co-produced, is a favorite of many collectors. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles has been performed by the Met and the Chicago Opera.
For Circus Maximus Corigliano created a 35-minute surround sound piece in which the audience becomes the center of the activity, and he says “Blu-ray finally offers the means to make this possible…” (He is misinformed.) He also says the disc should be played loud, and some of it certainly is. The work is in eight short movements and was inspired by the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, which was the largest arena in the world for nearly 1000 years. In the work he draws a parallel between the decadence of later Rome and modern times. He compares the violence and humiliation on our 500+ TV channels which entertain many, to the carnage Romans enjoyed every day at the Circus Maximus. One of the work’s movements is even titled “Channel surfing.” The climactic “Circus Maximus” movement is a sort of 21st-century Charles Ives effort, with themes from all the other movements crowding together in a loud cacaphony, plus a marching band at the rear coming down the aisles toward the center. The work is designed to comment on the massive barbarity of the Circus Maximus and does a good job of that. That doesn’t mean I especially want to experience it again.
The four movements of the Gazebo Dances was more fun. Its title was suggested by the gazebos in the midst of parks in small towns thruout America, where lighter entertainment including village bands used to perform. The movements are titled “Overture,” “Waltz,” “Adagio” and “Tarantella.” The U. of Texas Wind Ensemble are super-expert at their craft – no wonder they have won acclaim as one of the top wind bands around today. Their Bells for Stokowski CD for Reference Recordings has garnered many awards.
So what do I think sonically of the audio-only Blu-ray approach? The surround sound is great, but not necessarily better than a good SACD. It’s a larger package and at $20 retail will be more expensive than some SACDs are available for in some quarters. But by this time – due to the illogical actions of Sony and other factors – more warm bodies out there own Blu-ray players than SACD players, so I can understand Naxo’s thinking. Also, most people actually sit down in one place to view a Blu-ray, and that could change the way they listen to hi-res music in surround. I’m looking forward more strongly to some of the upcoming Blu-ray audio-only releases and wondering if other labels will ever participate.
— John Sunier