47 SACD & DVD-A Reviews This Month
May 2004 – Part 2 of 3 – Classical (beg.)
click on any cover to go directly to its review
The frequency of hi-res disc releases has certainly been stepped up recently. Even with our reviewing more of them each month than any other publication web or print we are beginning to get a bit behind schedule. I noticed one of the following discs had a January release date – horrors! We’ll try to catch up on some of the backlog his month. One interesting indication of the increased activity is the simultaneous receipt here of three different SACD releases of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces (see below)! SACD still has the edge over the DVD-A camp in the classical repertory, and is holding its own in jazz too with massive release schedules from both Concord and Fantasy, as well as several new small jazz labels. The growing popularity of universal disc players seems to be the solution to the hi-res format war, just as turntables that played both 45s and 33s solved that former format war in the 1950s. – Ed.
We’ll begin with some modern music in hi-res sound…
MORTON GOULD: Symphony No. 2 “On Marching Tunes;” JOHN HARBISON: Cello Concerto; GABRIEL IAN GOULD: Watercolors; STEVEN STUCKY: Son et Lumiere – David Finckel, cello/Robert Sheena, Eng. horn (Watercolors) /Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller – Albany stereo SACD TROY605:
The Albany forces have brought us a fine quartet of contemporary and near-contemporary works by American composers, and in transparent sonics of such detail that one can revel in the new sounds being presented. There are some elements of similarity among the works. They mostly feature a large orchestra with an especially active percussion section. Gould’s symphony is refreshingly direct and down-to-earth compared to the other works. This witty composer started working in silent movie-houses, then radio, film and TV; he was adept at clear communication with his audiences. His symphony was premiered in l944, so the whole concept of the catchy marching tunes can be understood. Harbison’s cello concerto was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and has elements of the East-meets-West about it, melded with the composer’s own individual take on modern compositional styles. Stucky’s “sound and light” title refers to the outdoor evening spectacles in Europe which used special lighting effects and music mixed with dramatic readings about the history of a place. The music attempts to replicate flashes and flickerings of light impressionistically in the orchestra.
JENNIFER HIGDON: City Scape; Concerto for Orchestra – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano – Telarc multichannel SACD SACD-60620:
Both works here are world premiere recordings of the music of the Atlanta-born composer. She will be familiar already to many collectors from the recent Telarc SACD titled “Rainbow Body,” which featured her work “blue cathedral.” Her colorful orchestral writing is full of energy and builds to ecstatic climaxes. Conductor Spano reports that her music as immediate appeal but deepens with every hearing. Ned Rorem observed that if he had to name 12 important American composers today, Higdon would be among them.
Memories of her childhood in Atlanta as well as her impressions of the present-day bustling city inspired her City Scape. It has three movements titled: SkyLine, river sings a song to trees, and Peachtree Street. (Higdon evidently has an iffy relationship with capitals.) Her Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for their centennial. It is obvious she had Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in the back of her mind here. The five-movement work has an arch form similar to Bartok’s, and it makes use of virtuoso passages from the various principal players as well as sections of the orchestra – including one movement just for the famous Philadelphia string section. This is beautifully-crafted and accessible music which demonstrates that there are plenty of possibilities in total music without having to go serial. Telarc’s rich and enveloping hi-res surround helps the discovery process along.
A competing trio of multichannel Liszt Pilgrimages, from Dutch, German & French SACD labels…
LISZT: Années de Pelerinage: Italie – Yoram Ish-Hurwitz, piano – Turtle Records multichannel SACD TRS0017:
LISZT: Années de Pelerinage: Italie – Thomas Hizlberger, playing a 1873 Steingraeber Flügel “Liszt Piano” – Cybele multichannel SACD 150.302:
LISZT: Années de Pelerinage: I = Suisse, II = Italie, III = Roma – Muza Rubackyté, piano – Lyrinx LYR 2216 (3 SACDs boxed set):
What an embarrassment of riches we have here! In fact a fourth Annees has come out this month on 44.1 CD from the Mirare label. First to the music itself: Aside from Liszt’s sonata “After Reading Dante” – contained in the second of the Annees – I had never paid much attention to this piano cycle which the composer added to and rearranged over much of his life. But the clarity with which SACD brings out the subtle tonal colors of the piano, as well as the discipline of comparing the three versions, has resulted in my becoming much more interested in the work as a whole. It is much more than merely a musical diary of the composer’s travels and relationships with two women. (My only hands-on experience with Liszt when I majored in piano was a couple of the Hungarian Rhapsodies.)
Pianist Ish-Hurwitz compares the three steps to heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Hell, Purgatory & Paradise) to Liszt’s triptych: Nature for the first year, Love and Art for the second, and God for the third. The travels in Switzerland and Italy were in the company of his youthful love, Marie d’Agoult, and the third year – in holy Rome – was with Carolyne Wittgenstein. All of the pieces are unlikely to get the criticism that Liszt created them only to show off his virtuosity at the keyboard. That may fit some of his other piano music, but these are highly individualistic works which cover a great range from lyrical and quiet to highly dramatic. Some are quite serious and others display a sense of humor. The nine pieces of the Swiss year describe some Swiss locations such as the chapel of William Tell, Lake Wallenstein and elsewhere. His By a Spring frequently stands alone in recital programs as an early impressionistic view of water that may remind listeners of Ravel or Debussy. A Swiss folk song is quoted in Homesickness. Some of the pieces were inspired by painting or sculpture: Sposalizio, which opens the second year collection, was stimulated by the Raphael painting Marriage of the Virgin. Three sonnets by Petrach are the piano version of an earlier work for soprano and piano. The famous Sonata After Reading Dante is a powerful work which unfolds in the style of improvisation. Seven selections make up this section as well as the final year in Rome. It’s big hit is Fountains of the Villa d’Este, another extremely impressionistic piece dealing with water. Christian spirituality is strong in these pieces which constitute meditations, funeral elegies, evocations of the angelus bells, and a final prayer.
The second year in Italy seems to be the most-frequently recorded and performed of the three sections of the composer’s sentimental journey. Lithuanian-Russian pianist Rubackyte stresses the lyrical and beautiful sound in her complete recording of the cycle, but her piano is reproduced with an oversized sonic image – as are the majority of piano recordings. It is probably due to her instrument being more closely miked than with the other two SACDs. Her version of the Italie section gives us three additional pieces not found in the two other discs: t he Supplement: Venice & Naples includes Gondoliera, Canzone, and a Tarantella.
Thomas Hitzlberger plays a piano specially built for Liszt and considered state of the art at its time. The composer played it the last time only a few days before his death, and it has held up remarkably well to the present day with some restoration work. It has a special “earthy” sound and in major climaxes sounds a bit twangy, but combined with Hitzlberger’s damn-the-torpedoes playing it seems to conjure up the spirit of the composer at the keyboard. In spite of his very dramatic interpretations, the playing time on most of the seven selections is longer in Hitzlberger’s case than the other two performers – by over two minutes in the Dante Sonata. The Cybele SACD also benefits from the most transparent sonics of the three, imparting an almost eerie feeling of the vibrating bass strings of the Liszt piano. The sonic picture is of a normal-sized piano pinpointed at right center, almost a holographic sound image. By the way, I compared all three discs first on my highly-tweaked Sony 9000 player which is only two channel SACD, later going to my entry-level multichannel Sony SACD player. While one wouldn’t think solo piano would benefit that much from surround sound, all three discs sounded much better, more involving and realistic on the multichannel player. The Turtle SACD pianist was about halfway between the performance style of the other two competitors and fidelity-wise was very close to that of the Cybele SACD. So if you are one for completeness, go for the Lyrinx set; if not, Hitzlberger on Cybele is your man!
Exciting Russian music in hi-res surround on our next pair of discs…
STRAVINSKY: Suite from The Soldier’s Tale; Ragtime; Petit Choral; Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in E-Flat; Concerto in D for String Orchestra (1946); Suites Nos. 1 & 2 for small orchestra – German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen/Paavo Jarvi – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 046:
Conductor Jarvi says in his notes to this jam-packed Stravinsky collection that he has wanted to record just these chamber works for most of his life. He likes Stravinsky because of his originality, finding his music fresher than much of what is written today (I’ll second that). He says that in spite of Stravinsky having lived for some time in America he was basically Russian-European, and he feels his Bremen chamber orchestra (he just became its Artistic Director) better understands the European tradition and turns in “a less mechanical conception” than would an American orchestra.
The Soldier’s Tale leads off the album in its strictly instrumental version. Eleven portions of the suite are heard, then Stravinsky’s Ragtime for 11 instruments is inserted (sounding like a continuation of The Soldier’s Tale) and things are brought to a close with the 46-second-long Little Chorale from The Soldier’s Tale. The two Suites for small orchestra are lighter Stravinsky, almost in the vein of the Shostakovich ballet suites. They each have four movements with titles such as Balalaika, Polka and Galop. But although you can usually discern where the Shostakovich pop concert bon bons are going, Stravinsky ‘s are a consistent surprise. And yes, things do sound less mechanical and more lyrical, as if the patented quirky Stravinskian rhythms are second nature to the players and don’t to be overly emphasized. The more modest orchestral forces are given very specific spatial locations onstage in Pentatone’s 5.0 mix.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; SHCHEDRIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Marc-André Hamelin/BBC Scottish Symphony Orch./Andrew Litton – Hyperion multichannel SACDA67425:
The latest addition to Hyperion’s growing library of piano concertos is a big winner in all departments: music, performance and hi-res sound. Shostakovich’s First Concerto started life as a concerto for trumpet. It was the first piano concerto of any importance to come out of Soviet-era Russia. The year was 1933. Quite unlike most Russian piano concertos, it has been compared to Ravel’s and even Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The second concerto of 1957 is also of an energetic and lighter nature, especially in the opening and closing movements. It was written for his son Maxim and fits into what the Soviets referred to as a Youth Concerto – for use in the nation’s pedagogic system. Rodion Shchedrin is one of the most interesting Russian ex-pat composers today. His 1966 concerto is serialized but good, and just one of six piano concertos he has penned. The energy and absence of doubt found in much of Prokofiev is heard in this work. The finale is subtitled Contrasts and that it is, sounding like flicking the radio dial thru a variety of musical styles, including some themes from the earlier movements. Shchedrin, who I once interviewed, doesn’t regard himself as an avant-gardist but he clearly has a wildly experimental streak.
Two of the greatest requiems in music are next…
VERDI: Messa da requiem – Renee Fleming, sop./Olga Borodina, mezzo/Andrea Bocelli, tenor/Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, bass/Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg/Valery Gergiev – Philips multichannel DVD-A B0001571-19:
The hottest Russian conductor of the moment tackles one of the two most dramatic requiems in the literature (the other is the Berlioz) with an international cast. He has a Russian orchestra, an American soprano, and Italians for the tenor and bass solo parts. He describes the work as both very Italian and very international. One section in most requiems is an addition to the standard Catholic mass – that is the Dies irae (Judgement Day). That hellfire and brimstone medieval text was the excuse for both Berlioz and Verdi to pull out all the stops and make audiences shiver in their boots. (Faure was one of the few to leave this section out.) Verdi starts it with a series of loud whacks on the tympani and operatic-like exchanges between the soloists during the nine sections of the Dies irae, which is by far the longest portion of the work. Its violent opening returns near the end in the Libera me section. Gergiev is a master at getting fired-up performances out of his players, and this is the perfect work to fire them up for!
The recording venue was All Hollows church in London, and the four-channel mix is at 48K/20 bit. It helps to separate the soloists from the chorus and orchestra both laterally and in soundstage depth. However, in the big climaxes such as in the Dies irae the proceedings became very edgy, with an overriding metallic distortion that sounds something like IM distortion to me. But when I compared with the Robert Shaw Telarc CD version of the Requiem I heard a similar distortion in the climaxes. Whether this is simply due to the massive sound of the massive assembled forces or the recording I am not sure. Would using the maximum DVD-A multichannel sampling rate of 96K have improved matters? I don’t know. There’s a photo gallery and discography on screen but not other extras provided.
FAURÉ: Messe de Requiem; FAURÉ-MESSAGER: Messe des pecheurs de Villerville – Agnes Mellon, sop./Peter Kooy, bar./La Chapelle Royale/Les Petits Chanteurs de St.-Louis/Ensemble Musique Oblique/Philippe Herreweghe – Harmonia mundi stereo SACD HMC 80129:
One of the classic recordings from the HM vaults, this sensitive and touching interpretation of the “quiet” requiem, led by Herreweghe, dates from 1988. Faure intended to get away from the conventional dramatic requiem treatment. The composer regarded death as a happy deliverance and arranged the seven sections so as to portray just that – leaving out the Dies irae. The Sanctus section is gloriously melodic, and the closing portion is titled “In paradisum.”
This recording uses the 1893 version of the score, which is Faure’s original more chamber-like concept. Most of the previous recordings of it have used the full symphonic version. The smaller forces emphasize the work’s sensitive and delicate feeling and the voices are easier to understand as you follow the libretto in the printed booklet. Bravo HM for bringing this gem to us in hi-res stereo. I found Pro Logic II to give it a convincing surround field that would be difficult for most listeners to distinguish from a genuine discrete surround format.
A trio of hi-res Mozart discs next…
MOZART: Sonata in C minor; Sonata in E Flat Major; Fantasie in C Minor; Suite in C Major, Gigue in G Major; Ten Variations on a Theme of Gluck in G Major – Andreas Staier, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMC 801815:
In the 1780s Mozart was a very successful keyboard virtuoso in Vienna and elsewhere. His solo keyboard works were the product of a great virtuoso pianist written for his own performances – similar to the situation with Liszt and Rachmaninoff later on. The Fantasia is one of Mozart’s most important solo piano works and far ahead of its time in design and sound. Though it was composed later than the C Minor Sonata, it serves as an excellent prologue to that work. In its seemingly improvised style it stands out as very different from the other works in this collection. The E Flat Major Sonata is the only one Mozart began with a slow movement. The C Major Suite was left unfinished; it shows the composer’s interest in Bach and Handel’s music. The 13-minute Variations on an arietta from Gluck began as an improvisation by Mozart during a concert at which it is thought Gluck was in the audience. The Singspiel “The Pilgrim from Mecca” was the source of the rather simple theme which results in Mozart’s many witty variations.
MOZART: Sonata in E Flat Major; Six Variations on G Minor on a French song; Sonata in C Major; Sonata in E Minor; 12 Variations in G Major on the French song “La Bergere Celimene.” – Fabrizio Cipriani, violin/Sergio Ciomei, fortepiano – Northwest Classics multichannel SACD NWC 303136:
The violin/piano duo from Genoa have been performing together from childhood, and pianist Ciomei is accompanist for Cecilia Bartoli on concert tours. Cipriani plays a copy of Paganini’s Guarneri violin and Ciomei here plays on two different fortepianos from a collection in the Netherlands – dated 1785 and 1815. The liner notes indicate that noises of the action, knee levers and leather involved in the fortepianos has not been edited out. They point out that the use of keyboard instruments built both during and after Mozart’s life is meant to be in agreement with the use of more modern keyboards in the decades following the composer’s death. The sounds are not distracting in the least and this slight bending of strict authenticity in early music performance actually adds much interest to the music. The clarity of the SACD reproduction allows us to appreciate the different sonorities of the two fortepianos, and the balance with the violin seems more equitable than versions using modern day pianos.
MOZART: Flute Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Concerto for Flute, Harp & Orchestra – Patrick Gallois, flute/Fabrice Pierre, harp/Roderick Shaw, harpsichord/Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Patrick Gallois & Katarina Andrasson, directors – Naxos multichannel DVD-A 5.110055:
By now most music lovers are aware that the flute was not the favorite instrument of Herr Mozart. The two flute concertos were among the works commissioned by a wealthy doctor who was also an amateur flutist. Being Mozart, there is no loss of melodic invention and lovely design and texture of the concertos he created for this disliked instrument. Both have three movements, starting with an Allegro, a slow movement in the center and ending with a Rondo movement. The Flute and Harp Concerto resulted from another commission – this time an amateur flutist with a harpist daughter. The soloists are superb and these performances are as good as any I have heard on recordings previously. A 48K sampling rate was used, an improvement over the 44.1 Red Book rate used on some earlier Naxos DVD-As. There are also DTS and Dolby Digital options for those without DVD-A players. No visual extras – just the movement titles over suitable art backgrounds. The surround effect is subtle but reproduction is clean and spacious.
Now five Haydn works on two hi-res discs…
HAYDN: Symphonies: No. 22 “The Philosopher;” No. 44 “Mourning;” No. 64 “Tempora Mutantur” – Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra/Marco Boni – Pentatone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 016:
Tempora Mutantur? Where did that Haydn symphony nickname come from? The notes do say it is an apocryphal title. From Notre Dame University’s handy Latin translation web site I get that it either means “a change in the weather” or “don’t get your knickers in a twist.” (However, the instructions did say “enter words, press Enter, cross your fingers.”) Well, Haydn had a good sense of humor, so…
The Philosopher Symphony demonstrates this in its examples of the composer playing around with the “surprise” element which he put to such good use later on. The early work is structured similarly to a church sonata and it was the first symphony in which Haydn used the English horn. No. 44 is considered one of his Sturm-und-Drang symphonies, with the use of minor keys, extreme dynamic contrasts, large intervals and other dramatic touches. The 64th is not frequently heard because it is part of a group of about 20 symphonies which are overshadowed by the less conventional symphonies nos. 45 thru 47 and the later Paris Symphonies (82-87). Meaning there’s not much weather to report. Pentatone lives up to its name with the excellent five-channel surround of this series (as opposed to their also-excellent 4.0 RQR series derived from quad-era Philips masters).
HAYDN: English Sonatas: C Major H. XVI:50; E-flat Major H. XVI:52; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major – Dejan Lazic, p./Klassische Philharmonie Bonn/Herbert Beissel – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 19703:
Yugoslavian pianist Lazic is also a clarinetist and composer and has several previous Channel Classics discs in his discography. He wrote a portion of the note booklet, comparing and contrasting the works he plays of late Haydn and early Beethoven. He points out that they both lived in a time when while it was important to follow prescribed musical rules, musical artists were also expected to be able to improvise freely, such as in the cadenza of the Beethoven concerto.The two piano sonatas were composed in succession but contrast greatly. The C Major is in a galant style and very pianistic, while the E Flat Major is almost orchestrally conceived. In Lazic’s careful hands both sonatas took on more depth, variety and interest than I am used to giving to Haydn sonatas (having had to memorize one for a recital once). The Beethoven Piano Concerto is a thrilling live performance with an original cadenza improvised by Lazic himself. This is probably the least-heard of the five piano concertos and very pleasant to hear again in such a natural, hi-res, surrounding form.
J. S. BACH: The Complete Orchestral Suites = No. 1 in C Major, No. 2 in B Minor, No. 3 in D Major, No. 4 in D Major – Boston Baroque, performing on period instruments/Martin Pearlman – Telarc multichannel SACD-60619:
The Boston Baroque was founded over a quarter century ago and is considered one of the top period instrument ensembles in the U.S. In the latest of their over a dozen recordings for Telarc the group celebrates their 30th anniversary season as well as their first U.S. tour – performing the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. Pearlman explained that Bach never assembled the four suites into a single finished volume and their numbering is not Bach’s. Scholarship research has indicated that the second was really the last one composed and the fourth was the earliest. So the works are presented on the new SACD in the revised chronological order of 4, 1, 3 & 2. Pearlman has also adjusted balances of strings with the solo flute in the second suite, and focused more strongly on the different French dance forms which make up most of the movements of the suites. All four works have a much more balletic and airy feeling with the 26 players than heard with some of the past discings by larger symphonic forces, and Telarc’s superb 5.0 surround displays all of them with the utmost clarity.
Ah hah! A definite shoot-out between the new formats is on tap next!
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 – Konstantin Scherbakov, p./Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky – Naxos multichannel DVD-A 5.110013:
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 – Konstantin Scherbakov, p./Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky – Naxos multichannel SACD 6.110013:
One of a series of DVD-As Naxos has been issuing from this source, recorded in the Moscow State Broadcasting studios and issued at mostly a 48K sampling rate for both the stereo and surround mixes. All offer not only Dolby Digital but a DTS option for those without DVD-A players. However, there are no other visual extras except for the movement and selection titles over still artwork. Fortunately, all the discs now start out immediately by just pressing play if you have no video display. Both concertos are rousing versions; Rachmaninov and Russian players – can’t go completely wrong, right? The piano is well-integrated with the orchestra – not overly spot-lit or sounding too closely-miked. However, once again it’s too darn wide…It’s interesting that this phenomenon is troubling me even more now with multichannel than it did with stereo.
A/B Comparison: The heading above is not a typo – notice the first disc is a DVD-A and the one below a SACD. Both arrived simultaneously from Naxos, so here’s an opportunity for a quick format shootout. I played both on entry-level players in the $300-$400 range, synced up the discs and switched from my sweet spot using my Zektor remote control six-channel switch. Since the center and surrounds need to be raised in level slightly for the DVD-A playback over the SACD to match up, that was also carried out. The two at first sounded almost identical, but further listening showed a noticeably greater transparency and “air” was present on one of the sources. I honestly had forgotten which LED on the switch was which player so it was if not a blind test at least one with serious near-sightedness. One artifact I heard was a greater emphasis on the deep bass on on the less transparent format, almost as if some sub-woofer-frequency notes were being artificially generated. The other option didn’t lack for low end – it just sounded more balanced. To be sure, I left the switch set at the more transparent source and manually hit pause on the SACD player. That was it. Next time I do this I would like to be comparing a 96K DVD-A with a multichannel SACD.
– John Sunier