November 2004 – Part 2 of 3 – Classical (beg.)
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J. S. BACH: St. John Passion (complete) – Soloists/Trinity Cathedral Choir and Baroque Orchestra/Eric Milnes – DTS Entertainment multichannel DTS (Only) 69286-01066-2 (2 discs – 53:16 & 57:51) ****:
This recording was made by the small classical label PGM and released by DTS. I must confess that it is not a new release, but I saw it reviewed elsewhere as such, and so requested and received it. DTS no longer issues DTS-only discs, but this is an excellent performance and recording which deserves to be heard since it is the only St. John Passion in multichannel. The venue was Portland Oregon’s large Episcopal cathedral, which has impressive acoustics. The recording date of the live concert performance was March of l996 and Schoeps mics and a Nagra-D four-channel 24-bit digital recorder were used. The six vocal soloists are uniformly good, especially Mark Bleeke as the Evangelist. And the realistic and detailed sonics don’t seem to be compromised by the DTS encoding process. There’s only one other con to be balanced against all these pros – no libretto is provided. In fact the list of the recitatives, solos and chorales is in such a small font it is almost impossible to read. So this would probably appeal mainly to those fans of SSfM with a DTS decoder who are also so familiar with the St. John Passion that they would already have an earlier recording of it in their collection – which presumably has a libretto.
– John Sunier
CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor; CARL LOEWE: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A – Mari Kodama, piano/Russian National Orhcestra/Kent Nagano – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 026, 60:08 ****:
The previous recordings for this label by Kodama have been exceptional, and this one encores her superb Beethoven piano sonatas recent release. The recording was made direct to DSD only last year in Moscow and is a clever pairing of two super-virutoso piano concertos back to back. The focus of the music and the sound is directly on the piano soloist and Kodama shines brilliantly. Her fleet high-speed passage work sounds perfect and near-impossible, yet the quieter lyrical passages sing with feeling. The Loewe concerto is far from an oddity. It’s almost continuous pianistic biziness is something to hear. The surround mix is very natural and involving in its capturing the ambience of the concert hall – a far cry from Russian-made recordings we’ve been hearing for year
– John Sunier
SHOSTAKOVICH: Hamlet (Music for the 1964 Film) – Russian Philharmonic/Dmitry Yablonsky – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110062, 62:28 ****:
A faction in Russia has looked toward the culture of the West since the 18th century. Of course Shakespeare was one of the important factors here, and Shostakovich wrote several works inspired by him. This is the first complete recording of the published score for the Russian film. It also includes an eight-movement suite the composer arranged from the score. This is not the first film music recording the Russian Philharmonic has performed, and the players seem to have a good feeling for the genre. There are 23 cues in total. The surround mix is concentrated on the frontal channels.
– John Sunier
Violin Concertos a go go…
SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in E Minor; Serenade in G Minor; CHRISTIAN SINDING: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Major; Romance in D Major – Henning Kraggerud, violin/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110056, 71:08 ****:
Again, interesting programming from Naxos – putting a standard of the violin concerto with a rarely-heard violin concerto, as well as a filler piece from each composer. You don’t have to wait thru a long orchestral introduction on the Sibelius, the lovely opening theme of the violin comes right in at the start. The lonely and haunting Nordic sound of the Sibelius is balanced with the lighter and more optimistic sound of the melodic Singing concerto. His ten-minute Romance ends the program in its first recording. The surround mix is 5.0 channel and puts the soloist dead center channel with only subtle hall ambience on the surrounds.
– John Sunier
Russian Violin Concertos = KHACHATURIAN: Violin Concerto in D Minor; PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D; GLAZUNOV: Violin Concerto in A Minor – Julia Fischer, violin/Russian National Orchestra/Yakov Kreizberg – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 059, 79:24 ****:
This is the first recording from young German violinist Fischer, but she has performed widely and has an affinity for these Russian concertos. She states in the notes that the Khachaturian has long been one of her personal favorites (as it has mine – though being a pianist his piano concerto is even more my favorite) and wonders why it has not become a concert staple of the concerto repertory. Khachaturian spins out some exotic melodies imbued in his Armenian culture and the strong rhythmic features of the work add to its energetic excitement. I don’t believe I have heard a better performance of it than Fischer’s, and with the hi-res surround sonics we have here a sure winner. The Prokofiev and Glazunov concertos prove excellent companions and also receive sparkling performances. As you can see by the time total, this disc is packed to the gills with great music. Recorded just this past May in Moscow, it is in state of the art sound too. You couldn’t go wrong with this one. If you’re curious to learn more about Julia, try www.juliafischer.com
– John Sunier
Midnight at Notre-Dame – Organ Transcriptions played by Olivier Latry. BACH: Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Mortify Us Through Your Goodness, Chanconne from Partita BWV 1004; MOZART: Adagio & Fugue in C Minor; WAGNER: Pilgrims Chorus,; BERLIOZ: Hungarian March; RACHMANINOFF: Prelude Op. 3 No. 2; PROKOFIEV: Toccata Op. 11 – DGG multichannel SACD 00289 474 8182 ****:
Good, this time the sampling listing for the 5.1 layer is 96K/24 rather than the 48K or 44.1I so many Universal hi-res discs have listed. Of course this means it was recorded PCM rather than DSD, but the sound is quite impressive anyway. The title of this disc is interesting in its pointing up the fact that most pipe organ recordings must be made in the middle of the night to avoid as much as possible the traffic and others sounds that could intrude during the daytime. As the back cover inscription puts it, recorded “while Paris slept.”
Transcriptions for pipe organ are usually great fun. The notes point out that the transcribing is not an easy task since the various organ manuals only encompass four and a half octaves whereas the piano has more than seven. So the pedals and various registrations most be used. Some of the top organists in Paris have contributed some of the transcriptions: Vlouis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé, and Jean Guillou. The Mozart work existed first for two piano and then a string quartet; it works well on the organ. The Prokofiev Toccata is rather a surprise and a most exciting transcription. The Bach selections don’t even sound like transcriptions since his music is so flexible and we have heard much of his music actually written for the organ. The complete specs of the Grand Organ of Notre-Dame are listed in the note booklet. A strong feeling of the cathedral acoustics is captured in the surround mix, and the dynamic range is extremely wide.
– John Sunier
A musical narrative based on the Gikeiki, a fictional biography of swordsman/bamboo flutist of the 12th century, Yoshitsune. Flutist Kagemeitsu has deciphered the flute scores of a composer contemporary to Yoshitsune to create this musical story of the life of Yoshitsune using music he might have played. It is evidently something like the re-creations of early Greek or Columbian music which musicologists have originated. The style seems closer to the ancient Gagaku court music than more modern Japanese folk music, and is mostly for solo unaccompanied bamboo flute, so this is a rather specialized disc for connisseurs of this sort of thing. The stories are narrated in Japanese but summarized in English in the notes. They read something like a samurai epic; Yoshitsune expends many efforts not to be killed by his stepbrother who is Shogun of Japan, and in the end when cornered in battle commits suicide. Buddhist influences are seen in the writing and philosophy, and in the final section a Buddhist priest is heard chanting a sutra with the flute music.
The recording is extremely clean and detailed; it is quite amazing what a variety of sounds can originate from the simple bamboo flute. On one page of the notes the disc’s produce Ono Seigen holds forth on the principles of Ki and Ma which are so important in both Japanese martial and healing arts. Ki is the invisible live energy that flows among humans and things, and in music Ma is the rests but it should be thought of as a container and not emptiness. His final observation is that multichannel DSD and Super Audio recordings capture the Ki and Ma so that the listener experiences feelings like those found in Zen spirits. Now that’s certainly a fresh viewpoint on the superiority of SACD!
[Czech Degenerate Music, Vol. IV] ERVÍN SCHULHOFF: Five Pieces for String Quartet; Concertino for Flute, Viola and Doublebass; Duo for Violin and Piano; Sextet for Two Violins, Two Violas and Two Cellos – Prazak Quartet, Kocian Quartet, Jiri Hudec double bass, Václav Kunt flute (piccolo) – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD, 66:38 ****:
I have long felt that the music of Schulhoff is some of the most interesting and worthy of rediscovery of all the composers who lost their lives in the Holocaust. This disc is another in the continuing series of albums on several labels resurrecting the forgotten music of these composers; Decca’s is perhaps the biggest series. Schulhoff’s symphonies and piano sonatas have been the focus of some previous discs but this one concentrates on this chamber music of the 1920s, mostly in a neo-classical style. The Five Pieces are based on dance forms such as the polka and waltz and are similar in feeling to the humorous style of Les Six of Paris. The Concertino opens in the style of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. The major work here is the String Sextet, written under the influence of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. The surrounds are subtle in their sonic enhancement.
Dream of the Orient – Concerto Köln/Werner Ehrhardt & Sarband/Vladimir Ivanoff – Archive multichannel SACD 474 992-2 ****:
I reviewed this back in May 2003 in its original CD release. As follows, followed by my comments on the new hi-res release: Now here’s a crossover effort of the best possible sort – one that brings together not only different musical cultures but also different periods in music history and different cultures in general – so valuable in these times of heavy focus on the Middle East. The title comes from the European and Western fascination with the Orient, which started in the time of Marco Polo. In this case the focus is more specifically on Turkey and its musical culture. One of the two instrumental ensembles here – Sarband – is described as a Turco-German group founded to demonstrate the links between European music and the musical cultures of Islam and the Jews. The Cologne ensemble specializes in 18th and early 19th century music using period instruments.
Both groups learned a great deal from their collaborations in performing not only classical works influenced by the exotic sounds of Turkish music, but also genuine Turkish works. The European performers played everything too precisely and at first the pieces didn’t flow as they should in oriental music. The Turkish players had a more relaxed idea about tempo as well and couldn’t understand having to stop playing for whole bars – which didn’t happen in Turkish music. Some of the selections here feature just one ensemble or the other, and others are the collaborations. Joseph Martin Kraus is well-represented; there are eight short ballet excerpts from his Turkish opera Soliman II. In Sussmayr’s Turkish Sinfonia, the musical battles between the European orchestra and the Turkish “janissary” percussion are staged in the first three short movements, but in the last movement the main orchestra seizes control. A thoroughly fascinating musical journey!
The 5.1 surround adds a new dimension to this music and is especially valuable in separating out the various exotic percussion instruments featured in some of the selections. Though recorded at only 48K/24, the soundfield is clean and detailed. I had just seen the film Amadeus again, and was reminded of the fascination with all things Turkish shown by the Viennese in that film. 5.1 made this already fascinating disc twice as fascinating!
– John Sunier
Having been first released in 1997 on standard CD, this is the 5.1 surround mix on SACD of the original PCM multi-track recordings. Universal still seems proud to proclaim in their notes that the sampling rate is only 44.1K – the same as standard CDs (although 24 bit). Rather than 96K, which would be the standard for DVD-A surround, and while not as good as pure DSD would certainly be superior to only 44.1K. This may be why in the louder climaxes of chorus and orchestra there is a hard glassy quality similar to most CD versions, which is not nearly as annoying on F.I.M.’s stereo SACD Messiah recorded in Sweden. There is also very difference between the stereo and multichannel discs, since the new Archiv has such a low level of information on the surrounds. The F.I.M. really gives a better impression of the cathedral where it was recorded.
But to the music: Messiah is amazing in that it has remained such a popular work with audiences everywhere for centuries now – probably the most familiar piece of liturgical music to the average man in the street. And this in spite of it being a seriously religious oratorio without characters and very little action. However, it is very theatrical, and in its early years was more frequently performed in theaters than in churches. Another advantage to the work is that it is normally performed in English rather than German or Latin. One aspect of the spiritual message might be responsible for the good feeling the public has for the oratorio. That is the quality of a generous and hopeful faith which believes in a loving God and is open to all believers – whereas Bach’s liturgical music concentrates heavily on the sufferings of Christ and the individual’s responsibility. Messiah is a strong statement of Christian doctrine, using 80 verses from scripture, and mostly from the Old Testament.
The life of Christ is presented mostly thru allusion and symbolism. The Passion, for example, is not described at all (sorry, Mel Gibson) but the theme of redemption is presented in one phrase from scripture. Audiences of Handel’s time were familiar with such references and would understand perfectly the intent of the message. The arias and chorus of the oratorio are very dramatic and many will be familiar to listeners even if they haven’t participated in one of those Sing Along Messiahs that have become so popular in recent years. There are at least a dozen different versions of the score, and McCreesh has used the Foundling Hospital Version of 1754, which was one of the last actually supervised by Handel himself. The vocal ensemble is smaller than most Messiah performances in the past have used and the words are more clearly understood in the choruses as a result. The pipe organ used is a bit larger than usually heard in such Baroque period music. The five soloists are uniformly excellent and the balances with chorus and orchestra are fine, but there’s little of the acoustic environment of All Saints Church in London heard with the low level on the surround channels, and possibly due to the low sampling rate. My Halellujahs go to either the stereo SACD on F.I.M. or the standard CD version on Telarc with Martin Pearlman conducting.
– John Sunier
L. A. LEBRUN: Oboe Concertos Vol. 2 – Concerto No. 3 in C Major; No. 5 in C Major; No. 6 in F Major; Encore: BEETHOVEN: Largo from F Major oboe concerto – Bart Schneemann, oboe/Radio Chamber Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 21404, 72:02 ****:
We reviewed Vol. 1 of this series in our May 2003 issue, but only as a standard CD. It appears we missed out on the SACD release of that disc, but my initial delight in this music is enhanced even more by the added realism and detail in the hi-res form on this one. Lebrun was a contemporary of Mozart and first oboeist in the famous Mannheim Orchestra. Like many composer-performers of that day, he needed material to show off his performing chops. The best solution was to write it himself, and he became a whiz at creating delightful, tuneful oboe concertos which partake of many of the revolutionary Mannheim innovations such as the “steamroller,” “sigh,” and “Mannheim Rocket.” The three concertos of this volume are constructed of an opening Allegro (at least 9 minutes long), a middle Adagio of half the length, and a concluding Rondo Allegro a bit longer. Highly recommended.
– John Sunier
RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major – Mihail Pletnev, piano/Russian National Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich – DGG multichannel SACD 477 060-2 (2 discs), 41:43, 29:31 ****:
Rostropovich is the only living dedicatee of a Prokofiev masterpiece (The Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra). Prokofiev was his friend and he finds more lyrical and romantic in his music than do most conductors. Rostropovich seeks in this coupling to explore the Russian soul as displayed in these two very different composers. (Looking at the timings one wonders why DGG didn’t just put both concertos on a single disc at 72 minutes?) The sample rate for the original PCM recordings was 48K/24bit.
Both concertos are superb and thrilling works and probably the best of each composer’s series of piano concertos. Both have also been recorded by their respective composers. But neither had available anything like the sonic picture these multichannel SACDs can transmit to listeners today. The Rachmaninoff 3rd has some serious competition from Volodos’ stereo-only SACD on Sony Classical with James Levine. Volodos brings a bit more drama to his interpretation and the piano sound is more distinctly set apart from the orchestra than in the Pletnev discs, but the surround option gives the newer version a more involving aspect. The Prokofiev concerto is well-played and recorded. Rostropovich does not rush tempi as a conductor, he allows the lyrical movements especially to sing.
– John Sunier
BRAHMS: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 in E Minor & 2 in F Major – Tilmann Wick, cello/ Pascal DeVoyon, piano – Audite multichannel SACD 92.516, 54:0 ****:
Brahms’ two cello sonatas were created about 20 years apart. In these works he experimented in unusual forms and sounds, and especially in the earlier sonata paid tribute to the genius of J.S. Bach. In fact the last movement of that sonata begins with an austere fugue subject which comes straight out of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The first sonata is in three movements, with the first running almost a quarter-hour; the second has four movements. The first originally had a fourth, Adagio, movement, but it has been lost. I was unfamiliar with the performers but both have recorded extensively and have much experience in the chamber music area. The balance of the two instruments is just right, and while it seems the surround channels wouldn’t add that much to the recording realism, they do. Turn off that rear stereo amp and everything collapses to a flat frontal soundstage that is not nearly as involving or realisitc. The piano also then sounds larger than life.
– John Sunier
MOZART: Clarinet Quintet in A K.581; Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano in E Flat “Kegelstatt-Trio” K 498 – Pascal Moragues, clarinet/Prazak Quartet/Frank Braley, piano/Vladimir Mendelssohn, viola – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 200, 50:24 ****:
Three different versions of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto followed on one another in SACD format recently, but I believe this is the first of the Clarinet Quintet. The instrument was not widely accepted at Mozart’s time but he took such a liking to it with works such as these that he soon promoted it in the public’s eye. It only took him three days to compose this work, which came some time before the concerto. But both were written for the clarinetist in the Vienna court orchestra, Anton Stadler. The Quintet’s four movements adopt the divertimento form to the needs of a solo instrument concerto. At a couple points in the score the clarinet assumes the role of a shepherd’s pipe to paint a pastoral scene musically. The Trio got the nickname “Skittles Trio” because Mozart is supposed to have composed it during only the time it took to play a game of skittles. The first movement of the 19-minute work presents its main theme 41 times in various guises. This is a 5.0 surround recording and places the instrumentalists clearly across the frontal soundstage with subtle reflections from the rear of the hall on the surrouneds.