February 1, 2009
The Top Recordings of 2008
Bacewicz: Concerto for String Orchestra
Britten: Simple Symphony
2L 50, Hybrid Multichannel SACD/CD, BD.
Divertimenti is my choice for Top Recording of
2008. When I reviewed it in July, I noted that Norwegian label 2L had covered all the
bases -- this would be a disc one would be able to experience anew as high-resolution
formats expanded and became more commonplace. I recently fulfilled my own prophecy when I
obtained a Panasonic Blu-ray player capable of playing Divertimentis the
Disc 1 of this two-disc set is a multichannel SACD/CD
containing versions of the music recorded in CD stereo (16/44.1), DSD stereo
(2.8224Mbit/s/ch), and DSD 5.1-channel surround (2.8224Mbit/s/ch). Disc 2 is a Blu-ray
with Linear PCM (stereo, 5.1 surround, 24/192), DTS-HD Master Audio (5.1 surround,
24/192), Dolby TrueHD (5.1 surround, 24/192), and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (48kHz).
Though all of the higher-resolution multichannel mixes
sound more transparent and airy than the "Red Book" versions, this recording
sounds terrific in any of its many formats. The reason is probably 2Ls use of
DXD processing. Morton Lindberg, CEO of 2L and producer of the labels recordings,
describes DXD thusly: "Digital eXtreme Definition is a professional audio format that
brings analogue qualities in 32-bit floating point at 352.8kHz. With DXD we
preserve 11.2896 bit/s (four times the data of DSD). This leaves us headroom for editing
and balancing before quantizing to DSD. Super Audio CD is the carrier that brings the pure
quality to the domestic audience."
The result is a recording that has you-are-there presence
without being in your face. The string sound is irresistibly sweet and airy -- like the
ultimate analog recording that never, until now, could be heard because of analogs
inherent limitations. I know that times are tough and that every expense must be weighed,
but this disc will give back more than enough joy and pleasure to justify its cost.
You can also download Divertimenti direct from 2L,
or from www.HDtracks.com. The latter offers it only in 24/96 stereo; 2L offers the tracks
in several formats, including FLAC 24/96 multichannel.
But if having the Top Recording of 2008 doesnt
satiate you terminal audiophiles, here are three more of the best recordings I heard last
Haydn: Symphonies 97,
102; Overture to "Lanima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed
Adám Fischer, Haydn Philharmonie.
MD&G 901-1462, Hybrid Multichannel SACD/CD.
The SACD format might still be underused, but its far
from dead. The Chesky, Channel, and PentaTone labels now release exclusively on SACD/CD,
and MD&G releases a good portion of its repertory on SACD/CD as well. MD&G has
made some of the most wonderful-sounding recordings in the SACD catalog, and this one is
an example of having gotten everything just right. The Austrian-Hungarian Haydn
Philharmonic, a chamber orchestra, sounds clean and bright, yet has what some might call
an "analog glow." The soundstage depth is impressive, and all the instruments,
whether near the front or the back of the stage, or whether playing softly or loudly, have
singular presence. Add to these acoustic properties virtuoso performances that capture
Haydns elegance and wit, and you have a winning disc all the way.
The Aliens: Luna
Direct download from Linn
The music of the Aliens -- whats left of the Beta
Band, a popular Scottish group -- is usually described as upbeat, psychedelic pop. The
music on their second album, Luna, is appealing and eclectic, sounding by turns
like the Who, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and others, but the main ghosts in this machine are
those of the Beatles. There are lots of sound and instrumental effects and tight harmony
vocals, and never a dull moment. [This paragraph is paraphrased from my review in late
The recording is as clean as can be, except for the
occasional deliberate distortion. The sound is at times intimate, at times suggestive of
vast spaces, but always with letter-perfect resolution and presence. Due to skillful phase
shifting, the recording behaves in a very interesting and satisfactory manner when played
back through a DSP surround-sound setting. Neural Surround was my favorite. For these
aspects of this album, however, youll have to download it, or download and burn it
to your own DVD; neither the commercially released CD nor Linns "CD
Quality" download uses the same master as the 24/48. Hearing the hi-rez Luna
will convert even those most skeptical about digital downloads.
Walter Becker: Circus Money
Direct download from WalterBecker.com.
Ive always been a fan of Steely
Dan, so I read SoundStage! writer Joe Taylors review in July of Walter
Beckers recent solo album, Circus Money, with great interest. About that time
I was starting to get involved with music downloads and came across Beckers website,
which offers MP3 and FLAC downloads. I downloaded the latter version of Circus Money,
converted it to AIFF to work with iTunes, and have been enjoying it ever since. I use it
as an example of how much things have changed. In the not-so-distant "good old
days," Id buy a CD, then make a cassette copy for the car. With this one, I had
no CD, but burned one from the file to play in the car.
This is one of the cleanest recordings Ive ever
heard. The first track, "Door Number Two," has vocals, guitar, and bass, all
provided by Becker, as well as tenor sax, another guitar, piano, electronic keyboards,
drums, and four backing singers. On paper, that sounds like a rock-music traffic jam, but
in this download every line is clearly audible. I can hear right "into" this
recording, and follow one of those lines all the way through a track without missing a
note or nuance. Some might say that the recording borders on antiseptic, but I think it
stops just short of that.
. . . Rad Bennett