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Positive Feedback ISSUE 16
november/december 2004


Hi-Res reviews featuring our friends from Audiophile Audition

Selections from the 42 SACD & DVD-A Reviews for this month - November 2004

This time we review two more of the new RCA Living Stereo 3-channel SACDs and two more of the Nimbus 4-channel DVD-As plus two SACDs from Naxos.



MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 - Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado (rec. live) - DGG multichannel SACD 477 071-2 (2 discs) - 44:48, 24:44 5 Stars

Record live in the Berlin Philharmonie Hall in 1993, this is a magnificent performance full of electricity, played to a fare thee well by the organization many consider the world's top symphony orchestra. Though it may be said to have no specific program, the Fifth opens with a Funeral March and the rest of its 69-minute length is devoted to reflecting on, transcending and justifying what that march implies. (And why didn't DGG put the entire symphony on a single disc then, since they hold up to 80 minutes? If this is a two-discs-for-price-of-one album, then it doesn't really matter.) The march is one of two "orchestral songs" heard in the work; the other is the famous Adagietto movement—often performed separately. This is just about the most heart-rending version of that movement I have ever heard. The work's Rondo-Finale is a summation of all the contrasts found cheek-by-jowel in most Mahler symphonies—from desparation to the greatest exhaltation in seconds. The climaxes are searing in their power and impact. The surround audio is listed on the jewelbox as being only 44.1K/24 bit but it doesn't seem to hamper the transparency of the frontal channels. However, the surrounds don't carry much information about the hall acoustics. This is where the San Francisco Symphony Mahler series outshines competing surround recordings. That series hasn't gotten around to the Fifth yet but when they do they will have a challenge to surpass this highly recommended disc duo. John Sunier


HOLST: The Planets; The Mystic Trumpeter - Claire Rutter, Soprano, with the Ladies of the RSNO Chorus - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones, Conductor - Naxos 6.110004 - Multichannel Hybrid SACD - 69:00 3 Stars

This is the first of the Naxos SACDs I've had the opportunity to hear, and I was quite impressed with what I heard here. There are countless available versions of The Planets, and David Lloyd-Jones and the RSNO acquit themselves admirably with a bracing delivery of this old warhorse. The tempos might be a bit rapid in places for certain tastes (the breakneck speed of "Mars," for example), but the overall performance is excellent, and the enhanced resolution of the SACD medium helps lift this disc far above it's original Redbook issue.

This disc is a 5.1 release (most of their others have been 5.0), and the use of the subwoofer channel helps significantly in areas where the CD layer seems compressed and congested, such as massed brasses and percussion, which abound throughout. As far as hi-res Planets go, I think it's hard to top Gardiner on DG, but the inclusion of Holst's rarely performed "Mystic Trumpeter" adds significant value to an already striking disc. Recommended. Tom Gibbs


SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 "Organ" - MOUSSORGSKY - Pictures at an Exhibition - Daniel Chorzema, Organ (Saint-Saens) - Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart, Conductor - Pentatone PTC 5186 116 - Multichannel Hybrid SACD - 68:00, 2 Stars

Another of entatone's RQR releases (Remastered Quadro Recordings)—their excellent series of original Quad recordings from the mid-seventies—this disc pairs two more venerable chestnuts of which there are countless available choices to pick from. The recording quality is really quite good, but just didn't seem to pack the requisite orchestral heft that each of these pieces demand. I've been listening to the recent RCA Living Stereo SACDs quite a bit lately, and the near-definitive three-channel performances of these works by Munch (Saint-Saens) and Reiner (Moussorgsky) make these versions seem rather lacking by comparison. The value of the RQR series is that after thirty-or-so years, you finally get to hear these recordings in four-channel sound, as they were originally intended—and most of the releases so far have been superb—but the competition for your dollar is pretty stiff. At roughly the same price, I'd go for both RCAs, with generous additional music, to boot. Tom Gibbs


Baltic Voices 2 - Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier, Director - Harmonia Mundi HMU 807331 - Multichannel Hybrid SACD - 68:00, 5 Stars

This disc represents the third release on Harmonia Mundi by Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the results again are no less impressive. The choral compositions are, as on Baltic Voices 1, from contemporary Baltic composers, and include two world premieres among them. As with the previous two discs, the performances and recorded sound are absolutely stunning. Careful inspection of the liner notes this time around reveals that the disc was recorded, edited and mastered in DSD, with engineering assistance from Polyhymnia (That confirms my earlier suspicions about the superb sonic origins of these discs). Not to be missed—very highly recommended!! Tom Gibbs


BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2; Tragic Overture - Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hans Vonk, Conductor - Pentatone PTC 5186 042 - Multichannel Hybrid SACD - 59:00 4 Stars

This excellent offering from Pentatone and the recently departed Hans Vonk (RIP) is the only readily available Brahms 2 on SACD. The superb recording is all DSD, and provides an expansive soundstage and impressive recreation of the recorded acoustic. The performances are first-rate as well, and although Hans Vonk was not an extremely well-known conductor here in the US, if these recordings are at all representative of his mastery of the music, he'll be sorely missed.

Brahms' Second symphony has always been one of my guilty pleasures; while many prefer the drama provided by the First or Fourth symphonies, musically, there's so much to be gotten here. The serenity and impassioned majesty of the opening movement segues into the hauntingly mysterious second movement, followed by the lilting, almost waltz-like quality of the minuet and scherzo of the third movement; all is resolved by the unabashedly joyous finale.

Although the multichannel content of the recording is only listed as 5.0, I didn't find it to be at all lacking in bass, and orchestral climaxes had tremendous impact, especially in the dramatic Tragic Overture. Highly recommended. Tom Gibbs


BEETHOVEN / MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concertos - Victoria Mullova, Violin - Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner, Conductor - Philips 470 629-2 - Multichannel Hybrid SACD - 68:00 4 Stars

I got this disc at the same time as I also got the RCA Living Stereo SACD release with Jascha Heifetz that duplicated the program selection exactly, so it's been interesting comparing and contrasting the two discs. Whereas the RCA disc took more of a modern approach orchestrally, and also featured Heifetz' violin prominently in the center channel (on the Mendelssohn concerto), this disc from Philips featuring vioinist Victoria Mullova takes a completely different track musically. The center channel is completely absent here, which I'm not sure that I entirely like—although some have criticized it's usage on the RCA disc as sounding "unnatural," I found it to be quite effective, and would have liked to have heard Ms. Mullova a little more prominently featured in the middle. The Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique gives the music more of an "original instrument" delivery (versus the "big-band" sound of the RCAs), which again, I have not always felt served the music well, and has often seemed a bit thin and underwhelming, to say the least. Nothing could be further from the truth here, as the orchestral sound is very dynamic, with great impact on orchestral climaxes; strings are sweet and lush throughout. Ms. Mullova's violin tone is superb, even if a bit recessed in the mix—it sounds very much as it would in a live concert.

There's very little here in the way of information on the origins of the recording—which is unusual for Philips, who usually at least give information as to whether the recording is from a DSD original or not. Polyhymnia, who usually does such an incredible job for Philips, did not handle the session, so I suspect that a 24/96 PCM original tape was used; the sound is superb, regardless. I've never had any real appreciation for John Eliot Gardiner's conducting style, but he continues to impress me with every new release. Highly recommended. Tom Gibbs


TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique" - Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux, Conductor - RCA Living Stereo CRCA 61397 SA - Stereo SACD - 44:00 3 Stars

Of the two-dozen or so RCA Living Stereo titles I'd have chosen from for the initial release on SACD, this 1955 date with Monteux and the BSO would not have been among them. Not that it's a bad recording—although, personally, I find it pretty unexceptional in just about every respect—it's just that there are other RCAs (and Monteuxs, for sure) that should have merited inclusion. The nine other current RCA SACDs have blown me away, especially the three-channel offerings, and have left me frothing over what the next batch will contain (Pines of Rome? Sheherazade? The Reiner Sound?).

Again, it's not that this is such a bad disc—I just don't think its in the same league sonically as the other Living Stereo titles, and there are much more compelling Tchaik 6's out there (Mravinksky on DG, for example). I don't plan on getting rid of this disc anytime soon, but I don't foresee it in heavy rotation either. Tom Gibbs


Verdi and Puccini Arias - Leontyne Price, Soprano - Rome Opera House Orchestra/Oliverio de Fabritiis, Conductor - RCA Living Stereo CRCA 61395 SA - Multichannel Hybrid SACD - 46:00 4 Stars

This collection of Verdi and Puccini Arias is often referred to as the "Blue Album," and this new multichannel SACD from RCA Living Stereo gives it to us finally in all its glory. The program that Leontyne Price delivers is a near-perfect one, her vocal tone is flawless and the orchestral support is superb. For the first time we get to hear this album in its original three-channel incarnation; only the selections from "Il Trovatore" are in stereo, and are a slight disappointment, because they exhibit the same left-right quality so often heard in the older LSCs. Having Leontyne Price's voice anchored in the center channel is fabulous—if you're only listening to these discs in stereo, you don't know what you're missing! The program length is a bit on the short side, but what else would RCA have coupled this with? This is such an enjoyable disc, the playing time just passes way too quickly. A perfect introduction to opera for those who might be a little opera-squeamish. Not to be missed, and very highly recommended! Tom Gibbs


MAX STEINER: The Adventures of Mark Twain - score for the 1944 film, as restored by John Morgan - Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/William Stromberg - Naxos Film Music Classics multichannel SACD 6.110087 - 70:49 4 Stars

Another in the continuing Naxos series of new recordings of classic film scores, which could be seen as encoring the earlier efforts of Charles Gerhardt in making new recordings in state of the art sound with a larger orchestra than usually used on the original optical sound film tracks. Only now the state of the art is multichannel 5.0 SACD and since it is outrageously expensive to record such in the U.S., the Moscow players (as well as players in Prague) have become totally adept at performing these film scores with great gusto and technical skill.

I remember as a child seeing this movie and being very moved by its revealing that Samuel Clemens was born when Halley's Comet came, and that it returned when he died. There's cues for that among these 29 tracks, as well as others with titles like Pirates, Frogs, The Squirrel, Darn Coat Tails, Meeting General Grant, and Buggy Ride. Some of the use of bassoon and banjo for humor reminded me of Ferde Grofe's Mark Twain Suite. Whistling and some other special effects are part of the score. Steiner had come to the U.S. in l914, way before the group of German composers who were escaping WW II later on. He had studied with Mahler, and quickly picked up the American musical idiom. His biggest soundtrack success was Gone With the Wind. This film, which starred Frederic March as Twain, was quickly forgotten. (But I remembered it.) Too bad Naxos couldn't include a few minutes off the original film optical track at the end of the disc so one could hear what a tremendously different experience it is hearing the music in this richly orchestrated and restored surround sound form. The surround sonics are superb; this disc doesn't say anything on the jewel box about 41K or 48K sampling, so perhaps Mosfilm Studio is using higher-res gear at this point. While they didn't have surround in the theaters in l944 (except for Fantasia), it just seems more like a movie experience to have surround sound coming at you for a film score—especially in the big Finale where the chorus that's been waiting around the samovar all this time finally does its thing... John Sunier

Here are two more of the new Nimbus DVD-As with some unusual features...

Actual title: Surround Yourself With BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 2; Symphony No. 5 in C Minor; Symphony No. 6 in F Major "Pastoral" - The Hanover Band/Monica Huggett & Roy Goodman - Nimbus Records multichannel DVD-A, also DTS & PCM stereo NI 9004, 89:30 4 Stars

Goodman and the Hanover Band made over 100 recordings for Nimbus. They were among the first in presenting the orchestral music of Beethoven and his contemporaries in a form that Beethoven himself would recognize. Among the changes in such historical interpretation were often faster tempi, a lower pitch for the entire orchestra, a more intimate chamber music approach, and a different way of handling accents and dynamics. Most of the recordings here were made in the late 1980s and recorded in UHJ, the two-channel mixdown of Ambisonics surround. In these DVD-As Nimbus has chosen to forego Dolby Digital and offer only 4.0 DTS and standard two-channel PCM for those with only DVD video players. When played on a DVD-A player, the discs default to 4-channel MLP. No video display is required, but there is a short screen display of the titles of the various selections and movements. I was unable to access the DTS option with my one DVD video player, but using the PCM stereo option I was able to use Dolby Pro Logic II on the signal—which carries the original UHJ Ambisonic information. This produced a good center channel (Nimbus doesn't use that) as well as strong surround signals. They were not as clean and direct-sounding as the surround channels on the DVD-A option, but with the center produced a surround field nearly as well as the DVD-A layer. I haven't yet hooked up my Ambisonic UHJ decoder, but will report on that in future. Meanwhile, ProLogic II does a bang up job.

All the Beethoven performance are fresh-sounding and interesting to hear. Even the overplayed Fifth Symphony sounds less lugubrious and more musical than I recall hearing before. And you won't find 90 minutes of music on a single optical disc in either the standard CD or SACD worlds.

Actual title: Surround Yourself With American Classics SOUSA: 4 Marches; COPLAND: Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo - Four Dance Episodes; Appalachian Spring suite; SAMUEL BARBER: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Adagio for Strings - The Wallace Collection/John Wallace (in Marches); English Symphony Orchestra/William Boughton (Hu Kun, violin in Barber) - Nimbus Records multichannel DVD-A, also DTS & PCM stereo NI 9002, 91:20 4 Stars

These Brits really have the American idiom down pat. No complaints whatever about the way they handle these classics of 20th century American music. All three Copland works are played with the greatest ease and naturalness; I think I prefer them to Copland's own versions. Even the Sousa marches shine in stirring performances by the Wallace Collection brass players. Of course the hi-res sound is so much better. There's a terrific sense of depth and width to the soundstage. The glorious Barber concerto is given a fine treatment too, and that composer's popular Adagio for Strings brings the album to a melancholy conclusion. Odd that this series of DVD-As seems to offer so many sensible options to consumers and yet boasts almost none of the video elements which are so highly touted by the DVD-Audio camp as making their format superior to SACD. (Although SACD also has video possibilities; they just aren't being used.) In fact the Nimbus discs operate just fine without any video display whatever. John Sunier


POPOV: Symphony No. 1, Opus 7; SHOSTAKOVICH: Theme and Variations Opus 3 - Leon Bothstein, London Symphony Orchestra - Telarc Multichannel SACD-60642 4 Stars

This SACD has appeared like a bolt out of the blue. Popov (1904-1972), a contemporary of Shostakovich, is known in Europe for this auspicious First Symphony (1934), a gigantic 50-minute work at least as compelling as Shostakovich's impetuous First, which was composed ten years earlier. Its first movement is filled with innovative and sardonic themes that—although quirky—develop logically from each other, like the stanzas in a Mayakovsky poem. The muted moments come through on the SACD with excellent definition and timbre. I'm not that wild about the Largo, whose first part lingers in the halls of late Romanticism too long and lacks emotional depth. At about 12' it turns arch and discordant, as if a halcyon dream has soured, then drifts off, wispy regret evoked by a lone violin. With its declamatory use of horns and percussion, the finale reminds me of a middle Shostakovich symphony, like the Eighth or Tenth. Even the impish piccolos are there, taunting the listener with bouts of fancy. It features a two-minute finale. Popov went on to write six more symphonies, but none have the sweep and impact of this one. The second piece on this CD, Shostakovich's Theme and Variations (1922), is an utterly conventional student work done when he was sixteen. Composed in a mid-nineteenth century romantic style, it follows the Tchaikovsky/ Rimsky-Korsakov model fairly closely, with sweet repetitive melodies, four-square marching tunes, and a basic understanding of counterpoint. It will probably interest musical historians or completists more than those entranced by the Popov piece. (Outstanding surround immersion from Telarc aids in the first-time experience of this major Soviet work. And what a dynamic range!..Ed.) Peter Bates


Reviews reprinted with permission from Audiophile Audition