Category Archives: BLu-ray audio

More Magnificent Mendelssohn

Over half a year ago, I raved about Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Mendelssohn performances on the LSO Live label. Now along comes a disc containing the first and fourth symphonies and I am happy to report that it is just as fine as the previously released recordings. Once again the orchestra is the London Symphony and once again it pays magnificently, with refined, virtuoso abandon, and there’s an especially wonderful oddity in the performance of the first symphony. When the piece was first performed in England, Mendelssohn switched out the third movement, using the scherzo from his popular Octet, re-orchestrating it to include

mendelossoh-1-and-4-gardiner

wind parts. Gardiner includes this (as well as the regular third movement from the published score) and it is a total, Mercurial delight! This is the world of a A Midsummer Night’s Dream with strings and winds skittering around like elusive Will O’ the Wisps. The performance of the 4th “Italian” symphony is as good as I’ve heard, there’s beauty and elegance everywhere in the first three movements and the last one really strikes fire. The recorded sound is as good as it gets, whether you play the Blu-ray or SACD disc (both are included). A must buy and with the holidays not far away, perhaps a must gift. And now, speaking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s time for a Gardiner/LSO recording of that wonderful score.

Surrounded by Flutes

Those readers who follow regularly will know that I’m a big fan of surround sound, not just for theatrical blockbuster movies, but for music, too. When surround first came out it was often used to exaggerate direction by placing instrumental choirs and soloists in the rear channels when the music didn’t call for it. But there are a number of compositions that do require instrumentalists in locations other than the front. These include the Berlioz Requiem, with its four brass choirs placed in the corners of the church or Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Surround is indispensable to these compositions if they are to be heard correctly.

Shadow of Sirius

Now here comes Naxos with a Blu-ray collection of contemporary wind band pieces that all use surround to encompass an audience and heighten its listening experience. Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble has three concertino groups surrounding the audience; Joel Puckett’s Shadow of Serius – Concerto for Flute with Winds and Percussion, places very effective echo flutes all around the listening area; and John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire adds brilliant trumpet fanfares in the rear to the finale. The playing of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Jerry Junkin is all first rate and not only is the recording surround, it is also HD, recorded and delivered at 24 bits/96kHZ. It’s not always an easy listen (I welcomed the familiar jazz patterns in the 3rd movement of the Bryant composition) but always an exhilarating one.

 

Original RCA Quad Titles Available on Blu-ray from HDTT

I can think of few things more exciting in recording history than the RCA series of classic film scores with the National Philharmonic conducted by Charles Gerhardt. The National Philharmonic was the orchestra, Kenneth Wilkerson was the recording engineer and George Korngold, son of composer Erich Korngold, was the producer. I remember eagerly anticipating the next LP. Later on, the series was nicely transferred to CD, then transferred yet again with different covers. But back in the 70s many of the originals were recording in quadraphonic sound, which was all the rage. The 4-channel system was a failure on LP because there were too many technical problems involved, but a few titles were done on four-track reel to reel tape and these had far fewer difficulties. High Definition Tape Transfers has obtained some of these commercially recorded RCA quad titles and transferred them to Blu-ray disc with absolutely splendid results.

Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman

The best of three RCA quads I recently auditioned is The Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman. It’s a cliche but the sound really does seem to leap from the speakers. It’s lush, bold, brash and thoroughly captivating. There’s lots of ambiance in the rear channels throughout, but there are also some specific effects. Brilliant fanfares sound from the rear in the music from Prince Valiant. A ghostly Theremin peals forth from the rear in the music for Bride of Frankenstein, and the piano is mixed into the rear channels for music from The Philadelphia Story.

Another disc presents Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann with a more solid bass than the CDs possess, but this one uses the rears mostly for ambiance. Again, the strings are simply voluptuous. Last, there’s a recording of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This will split listeners into love/hate groups. In the early days of quad there was a lot of fooling around with the rear channels. Things settled down to having them reproduce ambiance but before that, compositions were often recorded with the orchestra in a circle around  the microphones. Nevsky is like that. You’re liable to hear a snare drum from the left front while the first trumpet is in the right rear. It’s not quite as distracting as you might think and certainly makes this the recording of the piece with the greatest clarity. I hope HDTT unearths more of these pioneering quad recordings as soon as possible.

HD Recordings are Out There – Here’s Exactly Where To Find Them

(It’s been pointed out that just to add to the confusion, some people say “High Resolution” instead of “High Definition.”)

I wrote a few days OK about AIX Records CEO Mark Waldrep and his war on mislabeled HD recordings, noting that though I agree with him 100 percent on the issue, he often skews his remarks to make it seem like there are only AIX HD recordings and just a few other labels, and that’s simply not so. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of HD recordings with higher bit and sampling rates and I’ll give you some links to find them. As far as downloads go, I’ll start with Mark’s iTrax, since he’s the one that got me going on this. At iTrax you can find all of the AIX catalog and a few other great labels like 2L. And of course, all AIX recordings are available as HD DVD-Audio discs. With surround channels yet.

Reference HRX

The very closest you can get to a master tape recording is HDx from Reference Recordings. These look like CDs but are really data discs that when played through a player such as the OPPO universal units, will decode the master tape digit for digit. You can’t get closer than that. Reference Recordings has the magnificent Eije Oue/Minnesota recordings to offer and I’ve said it before and will say it again, Oue’s version of Rahmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is the best in the catalog and one of the top ten best recorded discs of all time.  Now I find that Reference Recordings are handled internationally by Naxos and that brings me to ClassicsOnlineHD.LL, where you’ll find a huge number of HD titles on dozens of labels. If you prefer hard copies, you can look up the SACD and Blu-ray disc versions at the Naxos site. In addition to Reference Recordings, be sure to pay special attention to Chandos, BIS, Oehms, LSO Live, Pentatone, and Naxos own Blu-ray discs if you’re looking for the highest fi. If Naxos doesn’t have it, and you’re looking for classical downloads  try Linn Records or Eclassical. You’ll find some duplication with the Naxos site; competitive pricing might sway your buying decision. They all  have easy download methods, by the way. Both sites have many labels and are very transparent about bit and sampling rates used. Most of the Linn downloads are also available as 24bit/96kHz SACDs with surround tracks. And whatever you do, don’t miss out on the incredible line of recordings from MDG, which is to me sort of like the Reference Recordings of Europe, in short, the best and almost all true HD.

Naxos Blu Gliere

So is HDtracks, which is a good source for pop and jazz downloads, most of the time. The site is run by Chesky Records and the owners surely know what HD is, they record all of their own new recordings at higher bit and sample rates, but the major labels they deal with, in trying to have a site representative of all music, sometimes throw curves at them. Generally if you see a recording over 25 years old that is being called something above CD quality, it is being mislabeled.  But in general HDtracks is on the money these days, a recent 24bit/96kHz Bruce Springsteen compilation identifies the specific racks that were sourced from 16bit/44.1kHz masters and converted. A much appreciated example of transparency!

I’ve probably left a lot out here but the main thing I want you to take away is that there are great recordings out there and they are not all 50-year old classics. There are exciting recordings being done today, using higher bit and sampling rates that were not available 30 years ago. They will not be found in the MP3 camp. MP3 “quality” has set recorded sound back too many years to count, substituting quantity for quality. The 45 rpm records I owned 60 years ago probably sounded better.

HD Recordings are Out There – Lots of Them

I wonder if “LP” caused one tenth of the confusion back in the 50s that ‘HD” is causing now. The definition is really simple. An HD (high definition) recording is one where the original has been recorded with higher bit and sampling rates than a CD, which is 16 bit/44.1 kHz. So in a practical world it would mean that anything 24bit/48khz and up would be HD. The recording must also be delivered via an HD capable medium, i. e. SACD, Blu-ray disc, DVD-Audio, or digital download (CD, vinyl and reel to reel tape are not HD capable). Now here’s where the rub comes in. Many SD (standard definition) recordings sound absolutely great, and many have been up-sampled to the HD realm. Does that mean they’re HD? No! They are still SD recordings being served up in HD guise. Try this analogy. Say you have a pint of water. If you put it in a gallon bucket, you will still have a pint of water, though you can purify and alter, or even flavor it before you dump it in the oversize container. But it’s still a pint of water. In the same way an SD recording can be re-mastered with greater care than it originally received and it might even sound better for that care, but it will not be HD.

John Gorka

Mark Waldrep, the CEO, producer, and recording engineer of AIX records has made it his crusade to let everyone know that a large number of recordings that are sold as HD, simply are not. I’ve applauded his own 24bit/96kH discs (first DVD-Audio, now Blu-ray) as some of the best in the industry (John Gorka’s The Gypsy Life is my favorite), making full use of the higher rates and surround to boot. I also applaud his crusade to inform people about what’s doing on through his Real HD-Audio website. He’s even putting out a book and companion Blu-ray disc that will allow listeners to directly compare the same audio tracks in different samples ranging from MP3 on up.

Steven Wilson Hand Cannot Erase

But Mark’s rhetoric has gotten shrill and negative to me and he’s become somewhat quarrelsome and ego-centric about the whole issue, making it seem AT TIMES like there are no HD recordings except his own and those from 2L, and a few others. This just isn’t so, and that’s why I am here, to point you in the direction of some great HD discs and downloads. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. I’ll be back with a list on the next post, but in the meantime try the Steven Wilson Blu-ray pictured here on the kscope label. It’s surely HD and also surround, showing Wilson as a master of both. If you’re into audio and good music, stop reading about what’s being done wrong and revel in this disc. I’ll be back with more.