Yesterday I posted information on Audio Fidelity’s surge to bring back quad recordings of pop music as they were originally recorded, sometimes tweaked. Today I am looking at classical music and the Pentatone label. Pentatone was founded in 2001 by former Philips engineers and has established itself in 14 years as a major source for classical music. It has been pro multichannel surround from the beginning. Almost all of the label’s new recordings have been multichannel. Only a few radio broadcasts to commemorate conductor Hans Vonk have been regular stereo. Pentatone has also been releasing Philips recordings form the quad era, presenting them in the original four channels without giving in to the temptation to remix them to 5.1. The rear channels on all of Pentatone’s issues so far have been used for hall ambiance and reverberation, making the front images sound more three-dimensional. Now, the label has started releasing DG quad recordings and we discover that DG had an entirely different take on surround sound, at least with opera.
Two of the initial Pentatone-DG releases are operas and both use the rear channels as much for dramatic effect as for ambiance. Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable version of Bizet’s Carmen features a world class Carmen in Marilyn Horne and a great supporting cast including James McCracken (Don Jose) and Tom Krause (Escamillo). The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra plays like the best orchestra in the world for Bernstein. The recording was always good but surround makes it better, if controversial. The overall sound is much more open and transparent, allowing one to catch more details in the scoring. But dramatic action uses the surrounds in ways that will delight some listeners (myself included) and alienate others. The offstage effects make sense. In Act II, Don Jose enters form the rear and the offstage trumpets are heard from behind, too. The children’s chorus in Act I comes in from the back, goes to the front stage, then out again. But in Act III, Scene 2, the bullring is placed in the rear so that the full chorus is heard there, which might be extreme for some listeners. I love it. In the other opera release, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, the chorus seems rooted in the back channels as well as a few of the “Americana” instruments, such as banjo. Both of these sets, by the way, are are presented as handsome hard cover books, containing the full libretto and historic photographs. The discs slip into sleeves inside of the back and front covers. I found both wonderful and imginative improvements over the original stereo sets.