February 1, 2008
SACDs and CDs
Someone recently asked me why I dont review CDs. What the four letters in SACD stand for is "Super Audio Compact Disc." PentaTone, the record label based in the Netherlands that issues recordings only on SACD, puts it this way: SA-CD, which might make the point more clearly. When Sony began issuing SACDs, some of its titles contained only advanced-resolution tracks, which meant they would not play at all in a regular CD player. I havent seen one of those in a long time. Now, almost all SACDs released are actually SACD/CDs, or hybrid discs, which contain a layer of standard CD audio in addition to their high-resolution two-channel and/or multichannel tracks. And because these discs are usually mastered with some care, the CD tracks sound good, too. But if youre devoted to CDs "Red Book" 16-bit/44.1kHz standard, weve started a new column, to rotate on a quarterly basis with "Radical Sounds" and "Keepers." From what has trickled down to me from the recent Consumer Electronics Show and the Internet, more changes in the priorities of formats are coming, probably before the end of 2008, as CD and SACD give way to downloaded music files.
Grainger: The Warriors; Irish Tune from County
Derry; Danish Folk-Music Suite; Hill-Songs 1 & 2; Beautiful
Fresh Flower; Colleen Dhas
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was born in Melbourne, Australia, so its entirely appropriate that that citys orchestra record a program of his music. Grainger frequently used folk songs in his compositions, and his music is complex -- he loved to experiment with sound, much in the manner of Charles Ives. His music is as full of tremendous energy as was the man himself. I remember when he came to the University of North Carolina to play the first movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto and to conduct a few of his own works, and though then in his 70s, he bounded on and off the stage like a crazed gazelle as he went back and forth to check balances in the hall. The performances here are letter perfect and in the right spirit. But this disc appears in this column is because of its sound. The recording was made in 1989 and has only now been remastered for multichannel SACD, but I had no idea it was that old until I read the program notes. The sound is large and lush, with commanding bass, yet the many exotic instruments in these scores -- vibraphone, harmonium, xylophone, gong, and, in The Warriors, three pianos -- all come through with amazing clarity and presence. The soundstage is deep, but the instruments playing at the back of it have commanding presence. The two-channel tracks are quite acceptable, but dont do complete justice to Graingers intricate, colorful scoring. If you have multichannel equipment, youll want to hear this disc many times over.
Roy Harris: Symphonies 8 ("San Francisco") &
9; Memories of a Childs Sunday
Roy Harris (1898-1979) is considered a founder of the American school of symphonic composition. I once heard a discussion of American music in which it was concluded that while American music comprises many different elements, the main one held in common is that of energy. The word certainly applies to these bustling works, with their skittering contrapuntal passages and broad melodies punctuated by pungent rhythmic figures. Conductor David Alan Miller understands this music inside out, and his Albany players respond to his direction with clean, virtuoso playing. This recording did not start life as multichannel. It was upsampled by Frederick Hohman at Zarex in a proprietary system that converts it to DSD. Then, a six-channel mix was derived from the original master using the stereo phase relationships to extract center, surround, and LFE tracks. If this disc is a typical example of the results, the system works very well. The multichannel tracks have admirable presence and are clean as the proverbial whistle. The recording was made in the fabled Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York. It sounds like a fairly dry hall that contributes little of its own ambience, making the music sound very transparent. The level on the SACD is low; youll need to crank it up more than usual, but when you do, it rocks.
Prokofiev: Symphony 5; Ode to the End of the
Prokofievs Fifth Symphony is extraordinary music, but typical of the composer in its blend of lyric and rhythmic elements. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski grasps all facets of the Russian composers music, and the fine Russian National Orchestra responds to his direction splendidly. The flittering rhythms of the second movement are mercurial in a Russian way, and the long lines of the main melody in the third are lyrical to a fault. The strings sound rich and play virtuosically; the brass can be mellow, yet snarl when asked to do so. It all adds up to a five-star recording of this work, and the recording helps. Its spacious yet detailed, with good stereo separation up front and just the right amount of rear ambience. One easily perceives the stage depth: the woodwinds are center and back a little, the brass and percussion behind them, yet all have equal presence. The Symphony 5 was recorded in concert, with patches inserted later to replace passages marred by applause. The recording of the Ode to the End of the War (referring to World War II) was made without audience, and does a great job of conveying Prokofievs exotic scoring for wind band, eight double basses, eight harps, four pianos, and percussion. The percussion have a field day, the engineers accurately documenting every solid thud of bass drum, every shimmer of struck cymbal, every entrance of the deliberately intrusive snare. It is, in short an ideal recording that I dont think anything could improve.
Howard Shore: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of
the King -- The Complete Recordings
This is the third and final installment in Reprises recordings of the complete music from The Lord of the Rings films. The only other film project of similar scope is the music for the six Star Wars films, all composed by John Williams. Because so much music was composed for each Rings film, it has taken three CDs and one DVD-Audio disc to contain the music of each of the first two chapters of the trilogy, and now, for The Return of the King, no fewer than four CDs and a double-sided DVD-A. This last volume is laid out like the others: The CDs are contained in a four-disc foldout inside a box of leatherette. As in the preceding sets, the DVD-A perches, not all that securely, on a hub on the inside of the box lid. The DVD-A contains all the music found on the CDs, but in glorious 5.1-channel MLP sound. Whether solo flute or full orchestra with chorus, the sound is magnificent, with excellent definition and focus. The bass is singularly well focused in addition to being ample, and the surround channels add great warmth without calling attention to themselves. The percussion instruments have great bite without ever sounding shrill or distorted -- quite an accomplishment. This set makes me wish that all big orchestral soundtracks were released in hi-rez surround sound. The Star Wars soundtracks, in particular, seem to cry out for such deluxe treatment.
Haydn: Symphonies 97 & 102; Overture
"Lanima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice"
Lets hope that this, conductor Adám Fischers second Haydn release on MDG, means that there will be an ongoing series of the symphonies. This time Fischer has chosen two of the composers happiest symphonies, both in major keys, and his performances bubble over with good humor. The prestos are exceptionally fleet, at tempos that would find some orchestras scrambling for notes. But in the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic everything remains precise, no matter the speed -- this is some of the cleanest playing I have heard from an orchestra. The recording is exceptionally clean, too, with good stage width and depth and remarkable dynamic range. Take the Menuetto of Symphony 97: The strings echo the first statement of the theme note for note, but pianissimo. The woodwinds play their solos and duets from a space clearly tucked in slightly behind the strings; the brass and timpani (with their surprising early entrance) interject from a space a little farther back. All instruments have good presence. The two-channel tracks are crisp and clean; the multichannel ones add just a little ambience in the rear channels to make the sound up front more three-dimensional. The vivacious overture is a neat bonus. This disc is a winner all the way.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is very fortunate to have Donald Runnicles as principal guest conductor. For my money, he often turns in the best performances, outshining even those of music director Robert Spano. Telarc seems aware of this, as they have divided their recordings of the orchestra about equally between the two young maestros. In this collection, Runnicles offers an exceptionally varied menu of British compositions, ranging from two of Elgars noble Pomp and Circumstance marches to the strident Three Screaming Popes by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Benjamin Brittens Sinfonia da Requiem, perhaps the best-known work after the Elgar, is given a taut, dramatic reading that is among the best on disc. As usual, the Telarc production team has come up with sound that is just right, with a stage depth that is particularly impressive. James MacMillans Britannia is a singularly complex work scored for a wide variety of percussion instruments, including car horns and referees whistles. The engineers have handled them with accuracy and ease. In fact, if you want to hear how important transparency can be to a great recording, the MacMillan offers ample opportunity for the engineering to shine alongside the virtuoso playing.
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