Monthly Archives: April 2015

Surround Sound Audio is Back – Part Two

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.

Carmen Bernstein

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.

Surround Sound Audio is Back – Part One

Well, it never really went away, but it’s been pushed way into the background, no pun intended. New releases from Audio Fidelity and Pentatone give me hope that there’s a new revolution in the making and like the Phoenix, surround will rise from its own ashes. In the 1970s there was a big push for Quad sound, a four channel system for vinyl that failed because the software just couldn’t cut it. Enter laser disc, followed by DVD and surround sound as surround sound became a must have item…for video! The combat between SACD and DVD-Audio brought forth a lot of surround sound discs, but Hybrid SACD never replaced CD, as it should have, and things have been low key for some time.

Enter Audio Fidelity with a slew of new SACD releases on hybrid discs that will play stereo on a regular CD player and stereo and surround on an SACD equipped machine. Most of the titles seem to be drawn from those that were previously out during the SACD-DVD Audio combat but some range back to the quad era. You can get the complete list here. The best sounding one is

Grover Washngton Winelight

Winelight, an easy listening jazz masterpiece from Grover Washington, Jr. Many surround sound discs use the extra channels just to capture the atmosphere of a studio or room but Winelight aggressively puts the listener in the middle of the action. The opening of the title song sets the stage. Electric bass guitar up front, guitar back right, some percussion back left, then solo sax up front and center. Elliott Scheiner is responsible for this amazing mix. If you’ve been around a while, it’s basically the same as the previously released DVD-Audio disc, but Audio Fidelity has said they added a few tweaks. It’s one crazy great sounding disc. All the instruments are sharply defined, the bass in particular has that focused sound that allows you to hear both the attack and the tone, a sound I find all too infrequently.  I’ll go so far are to say that Winelight, as Audio Fidelity presents it, is one of the best sounding jazz programs ever recorded. Ever.

I also received The Best of Bread and The Best of the Guess Who from Audio Fidelity, both from the quad era. They sounded really good, with the surrounds used a lot for backup vocals and less important musical lines. If you’re a fan of either band, you’re going to hear them with a greater clarity that brings them to new life. All of the SACD’s have original cover art, even the vinyl labels get sharply defined photos. Coming up soon from the label – a compilation Doors album, Labelle’s Nightbird, and Billy Joel’s Street Life Serenade. If you can only play stereo, you still need the Bread and Guess Who discs, because the stereo mastering from Steve Hoffman is so perfect.




Bach and the Organs of St. Michaelis Church Hamburg

I’ve raved in the past months over the quality of MDG recordings and in particular their organ sessions. Now MDG has outdone itself with a new release, –Johann Sebastian  Bach – The Organ Toccatas, a Hybrid Multichannel SACD. Christoph Schoener plays the organs of St. Michaelis-Church Hamburg. Yes, organs with an “s.” The magnificent edifice houses four separate organs that can be played from a central console. Looking at the cover photo, you can see the Great Organ towering over all and to the right and far away, the romantic  Concert Organ. To the left and out of sight, is the Baroque Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach organ, and above all in the ceiling, the Far-off organ. The history of the instruments and how they were recorded is covered thoroughly in the SACD booklet notes.  I am not set up for MDG’s 2+2+2 configuration which utilizes height channels so that vertical aspects of the sound field are correctly covered. It must be wonderful to hear that Far-off organ sound  from above. But the MDG system is compatible with 5.1 systems and gives one something of the aural wonders of this magnificent organ array.  the disc is also playable in stereo on any CD player, but this is one SACD you really want to hear in surround sound.

Bach Toccatas

The recording is parceled out to show off all the aspects of the organs. The most famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 and the so-called Dorian Toccata and Fugue in the same key are played on all the organs from the central console. The Toccata in E, BWV 566 is played on the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach organ, the Chorale Prelude “Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Ehr,” BWV 662, is played on the Concert Organ. Another chorale prelude is played on the Far-off Organ and the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C, BWV 564 and the Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540 are played on the Great Organ. The performances by Schoener are accurate and lively with colorfully chosen registrations. The sound is “you are there.” From the almost eerie and delicate sounds of the Far-off organ to the thundering roar of the combined organs, the recording is accurate and thrilling. It’s a tremendous feat of engineering and I’d not be surprised to see it listed as a Grammy nomination later this year. It would surely get my vote.


Mercury Living Presence Lives On

Mercury Living Presence LPs started in 1951 when the Mercury engineering team recorded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Rafael Kubelik performing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel orchestration.  They used but one microphone suspended over the orchestra and the sound came out naturally and with great presence. When stereo dawned, the microphones were upped to three, left, right, and center. Once they were adjusted, the levels were left in the hands of the performers.

Mercury Living Presence 3

The label was Mercury and it had its stable of regular performances. Antal Dorati led the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now known as the Minnesota Orchestra), and later on conducted the Philharmonia Hungarica and London Symphony Orchestra); Paul Paray led the Detroit Sympohny Orchestra; Howard Handson the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra; and Frederick Fennell the Eastman Wind Ensemble. There were some individual spots with other conductors – Walter Susskind, Anatole Fistoulari, and Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt led the London Symphony. After Dorati left Minneapolis, Mercury recorded with the orchestra’s new music director, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

The recordings were tremendously successful, setting standards for performance and recording that still exist. The Living Presence recordings were issued in two 50 plus CD boxes as Volumes 1 & 2, and now they have just issued Volume 3 (the final one), containing 53 CDs. You might think that this third box would be the “dregs.” You’d be totally wrong. Dorati has complete Brahms symphonies with the LSO, Tchaikovsky Sym 1, 2, 3, and 5 with the same orchestra. There’s also magnificent Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Rossini and Verdi overtures with Dorati.  Paray weighs in with the complete Schumann symphonies and absolutely magnificent readings of the Franck and Chausson symphonies, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Dvorak’s “New World,” and a splendid Sibelius Second Symphony.

Paray Mendelssohn Original

Paray Mendelssohn new

Hanson is represented with three volumes of “The Composer and his Orchestra,” a once in a lifetime recording of the two Bloch concerti grossi, and a scintillating  disc of Gershwin. There so much more, go here to see the complete listing.  Listening to all of these discs I was struck by the sound quality, always excellent, sometimes even better than that. Nice separation,  smooth high frequencies, focused, rumbling bass. And lots and lots of presence!

The set is not really expensive. You can pick it up for about $125 and that comes to only 2.35 per disc. Though a few have hit the streets in single CD editions it seems unlikely that all of the discs will ever be released separately. The only criticism I have is this: it’s perhaps right to say that the separate cardboard sleeves contain original art, but they are not the original covers. Until the later days of the series, the covers were immediately identified as Mercury Living Presence by the broad “Stereo Hi Fi” banner across the top, and the diagonal swash stating “Living Presence.” Since CD offers a greater playing time than LP, many of these albums contain more titles than the original so more words have to be edited in. The examples above will give you an idea, the original LP on top and the CD release (containing a Haydn symphony from a different LP)  on the bottom.



Two German Choral Works Popular in England

Throughout history, German composers did very well with their music in England, London in particular. Georg Friedrich Haendel even took up residence there, becoming George Frederic Handel (1685-1759).  The composer first enjoyed success in England as a composer of Italian Opera, opening three opera houses to perform his works. His oratorio, Alexander’s Feast, was a big success and Messiah an enormous one, so after Messiah, Handel stopped writing opera and concentrated on oratorio. But since he had opera in his blood, his oratorios were often dramatic with specific

Handel - Joshua

characters. Joshua is one of these. The oratorio tells the story of the Israelites after they came out of the wilderness.  They had to defeat and capture Jericho and win other battles. This work then is perhaps more military in character than others from Handel and uses both trumpets and horns n the scoring.  The new release on the Accent label is from a live performance at the 2014 Goettingen International Handel Festival and it’s quite a good one. Kenneth Carver is a solid Joshua and the other soloists, excepting Renata Pokupic, are all excellent. Pokopic sings in the old hooty oratorio style and her pitch is not sure, nor is her technique. The NDR Chor and festival chamber orchestra are marvelously precise and rich in tone. Conductor Laurence Cummings leads with vigor and authority. Highlights include the tumbling of those famous  walls and the ever-popular “See the Conquering Hero Comes.”

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) didn’t take up residence in England, but he did visit 10 times, and his music was both revered and loved. One of his works appropriate for this time of year is his second symphony, sometimes

Mendelssohn Gardner Sym 2

considered as an oratorio and called “Hymn of Praise.”  It has three purely instrumental movements which are then followed by a fourth which is suspiciously oratorio like. I chose to just enjoy it, without being too worried about the form. The newly released Chandos label SACD is quite lovely in exploring emotions intimate to grand. The three soloists are excellent as the City of Birmingham Chorus and Orchestra. Edward Gardner conducts and he’s becoming a maestro to watch. He wrings all of the true emotion out of this piece without every destroying Mendelssohn’s mercurial and lyric  melodies. The SACD sound is just right to give a sense of spaciousness without any loss of detail.  A neat and tidy performance of the Calm Sea and Prosperous Journey concert overture fills out the disc.