And the death of SACD continues.
Just as Pentatone is abandoning the format and switching to CD-only releases, mid-stream, Chandos follows suit with this second in the series of Korngold works. The first (featuring the Symphony in F#) was SACD, but this one is not. Similarly, Pentatone has done the same thing with their "Aspects of America" series with the Oregon Symphony. The first two releases were SACD, but the newest one is CD-only.
It's bad enough we are losing multi-channel and the higher-quality DSD recording format, but it's a stab to the collector that it's happening arbitrarily, without regard for continuity of ongoing projects. And it gets worse. Chandos continues to charge full-premium price for their CD-only releases. At least Pentatone is giving a substantial price-break for theirs.
Yes, I'm complaining.
However, it cannot be denied this release is outstanding. The Violin Concerto moves along with flowing tempos and natural musical expression. Violinist Andrew Haveron's playing is mercifully free of the fussy over-emoting and nauseating portamentos so many violinists insist on slathering on this music. The radiant recording highlights his rich, colorful and expressive tone beautifully. His playing reminds me of the wonderful, and sadly underrated, Henryk Szeryng. And John Wilson gives us endless amounts of delicious inner-details from the orchestra which normally go by without notice. The wonderful Sextet which follows is a substantial work, lasting a full 31 minutes (longer even than the Concerto). It is gloriously played by members of Wilson's own Sinfonia of London (which also features Andrew Haveron as 1st violin). The sound all through is remarkably good - airy, spacious and colorful. It's certainly better than some recent CD-only releases from this label.
Yes, CD still has life in it. And this one is exceptional. Despite the absence of multi-channel SACD, and it being proffered at full premium price, I can't help but recommend it heartily.
UPDATE: May 2020
The temptation to acquire the new SONY (2020) box set of Gerhardt's Classic Film Scores proved too great to resist and I now have had the opportunity to compare the sound to previous issues.
I used just one disc from the box set for comparison purposes - The Lost Horizon. I chose this particular recording because I have on hand not only both previous RCA/SONY issues, but also the 2017 Dutton/Vocalion SACD.
I started by comparing the 2011 SONY remastering to the new box set, because I believe the new box set has not been newly remastered and is thus an exact reissue of the 2011 release. Going back and forth many times, track by track, I conclude that for all intents and purposes the sound is indeed the same. Transfer volume levels and dynamic range are identical. However, there were times when I thought I heard subtle differences. I had to go back and forth several times to determine if I was imagining it. And I can't definitively say for sure one way or the other. But I thought I could hear more inner-details here and there, plus slightly more potent organ pedal tones (on track 2) on the 2011 issue. Conversely, were the strings just slightly sweeter on the newer CD in the box? Moving upstairs to a different CD player with a headphone jack (using a good pair of Sennheiser headphones), I simply cannot say with certainty that there are any differences whatsoever.
Next I listened to Dutton's 2017 SACD release - in stereo SACD. Now I can say for certain I hear subtle improvements over the two SONY CDs. But not as much as I was expecting. The primary improvement heard on the SACD (again in 2-channel, not 4), is in the atmosphere and ambiance of the hall acoustic. It is better defined and more spacious. But in all other aspects, the sound is very, very close. This surprised me and might help explain why SONY did not attempt another remastering effort for the new box set. If even the extremely skilled technicians at Dutton could provide only a subtle improvement, at least in 2-channel mode, SONY can't be faulted for not taking another stab at it. The benefit of the Dutton SACD, of course, is the ability to hear it in 4-channel surround sound, as it was originally recorded.
Finally, I dusted off the original 1989 RCA "Dolby Surround" CD. Here is a completely different sound from all three newer reissues. And it is not subtle. It is more laid back, smoother, richer, darker, more bass-heavy and less detailed. Dynamic range seems compressed as well. I suspect the original master tapes were not utilized for these initial CD releases. It is the aural equivalent of a blanket having been thrown over the sound. Yet, it does smooth over most of the technical flaws in the recording itself, which was likely very beneficial to early CD playback capabilities of the time. It reminds me of those RCA Gold Seal reissues from the 90s, which tended to be smooth and...well... "golden", but not particularly detailed or dynamic.
To summarize, it is a nice convenience having all 12 discs gathered together in one box, and at such a reasonable price. It is a pity, however, SONY did not also include Gerhardt's Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores, and the two discs of John Williams's Star Wars trilogy (plus Close Encounters Suite). SONY did not reissue these in 2011 either, thus they've never been remastered after the initial 1989 CD release. (Note: Return of the Jedi was recorded digitally, in 1983.) This new box also has the significant drawback of not including a booklet or liner notes of any kind. But for those who don't already own the 2011 individual releases, this is self-recommending.
As a hopeless completest, I am keeping both collections on my shelves - along with the 1980's originals AND the Dutton SACDs, as they become available. (There have been 5 titles released thus far.) And it's worth noting, Dutton is harvesting individual tracks form the aforementioned Spectacular World album as fillers, when appropriate, for these SACDs. I hope they will resurrect the Star Wars recordings next, as they are the highlight of the entire series, both in performance and recorded sound.
After a disappointing CD which began my year (John Wilson's redundant revisiting the music of Eric Coates with the BBC Philharmonic), I am thrilled to hear the spark of inspiration return to his music-making for these two newest releases. He's back with his own, hand-picked ensemble, with which he recorded his Copland series: the fabulous Sinfonia of London. It is also cause for celebration that Chandos has seen fit to issue these on SACD, with much improved sound over the aforementioned CD-only Coates. (And thankfully, the poor sound they produced for Lortie's Saint-Saens' Piano Concertos has been banished.)
In a recent interview with BBC Music Magazine, John Wilson commented that he loves working with the Sinfonia of London, which was established primarily for recording projects, because "they can sight-read anything!" It's refreshing to hear a conductor actually admit his orchestra is essentially sight-reading a recording project - it happens all the time, all across the world, more often than not. But here, the resultant Korngold Symphony reflects that very fact in a most positive way. It is the most spontaneous-sounding reading of it I have ever heard. The entire work bursts forth with boundless energy, joy and a rhapsodic sense of discovery. I suspect many of these musicians had never played it before, and they obviously enjoyed the experience. And make no mistake, Wilson's leadership is a wonder to behold. In particular, his perfectly chosen, rather swift tempos gather much momentum, and at last allow this music to flow free with passionate, rhapsodic, musical abandon. Frankly, after his ho-hum Coates recording, I had my doubts he could bring off this difficult symphony, especially with a studio band. But its excellence simply erases all memory of that earlier, unnecessary endeavor.
The couplings are merely that, and they are most enjoyable.
The French Collection, Escales, is mostly all dessert, and we deserve that from time to time! But we do get at least one real rarity: Maurice Durufle's Trois Danses. I had not heard this before and was astonished at how accomplished an orchestral work it is - not only in its creativity, but its magnificent orchestration. Why isn't this piece recorded more often? Saint-Saens's Spinning Wheel, while not exactly a rarity, is not all that often programmed, and is a real treat. The title piece (Ibert) is beautifully executed. Again, the sense of freshness, from a group which likely has never played it before, shines through - culminating in a thrilling climax.
One ideally would have wanted a little more imagination and innovation in programming the rest of this concert. But I suppose I shouldn't complain. Other selections include Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole (thrillingly played), along with the ubiquitous Debussy Faun, Chabrier Espana, and Massenet Meditation from Thais.
I am happy to report the recorded sound in both discs is absolutely splendid. The acoustics of the Church of S. Augustine, London, provide a lovely perspective, which is at once atmospheric and detailed; and climaxes expand magnificently. The slight congestion heard in some recent Chandos CDs is mercifully not present here. There really is something to be said for the DSD recording technology's superiority over PCM (for CD).
I look forward to the next Korngold installment from these forces. And there is also a disc of Respighi in the works. We should snap up each and every SACD that comes around. Their numbers are dwindling lately.
I took a chance on this set - I've always greatly admired the Seattle Symphony. And I like much of Dutilleux's music, but have never quite loved it. Well...until now. I am in constant awe of the orchestration - the orchestral colors and effects, brilliantly utilized always at the service of the music. And the music itself is so innovative, imaginative, musically enriching and interesting, I simply cannot stop listening to it. These performances are absolutely phenomenal in every conceivable way.
This orchestra has always been good. And it has always had the extraordinary advantage of having a hall with great acoustics which resulted in sensational recorded sound (oh, those Delos discs in the 80s and 90s with Gerard Schwarz!). But as good as Schwarz was, Ludovic Morlot has elevated this group to another league altogether (at least based upon listening to these glorious Dutilleux recordings), as do the acoustics in its current hall (which opened in 1998).
If I've previously been left with the impression that Maestro Morlot sounds a little too cautious on record (specifically with his Stravinsky series with this orchestra), this Dutilleux set is another matter altogether. It is just superlative. It features playing of the utmost accomplishment, refinement, effortless virtuosity and commanding dynamics. The strings in particular, have developed into a world-class group, with burnished, singing tone, unanimity of ensemble, precision of articulation, and a powerful body of sound. The magnificent solo playing from the principals in all sections, also, is beyond reproach. And there is no denying the accomplishment of Maestro Morlot in this, his crowning achievement so far (at least on record) with this orchestra. Dutilleux has never had a stronger, more understanding, capable and passionate champion than this.
Topping it off is atmospheric, yet very clear recorded sound on the symphony's own label. It captures the hall's acoustics superbly, at a perfect perspective, which is laid back behind the speakers in a most realistic way, but also more "present" than the old Delos recordings, providing thrilling impact. The acoustic is airier, with wide open spaces, expanding magnificently in crescendos.
Amazingly, these are "live" recordings. One would never know it simply by listening, as there is no audience noise whatsoever (they must have been so enthralled they forgot all about coughing), and mercifully, there is no applause. Amazing, too, simply because of the quality of the sound and the perfection of the playing.
After acquiring this set, I was lucky enough to find a copy of the out-of-print Arte Nova set from the early 2000s (reissued on SONY's 2009 Un Siecle En France series - also out-of-print). It is fascinating to discover Hans Graf finding more sheer energy and delicate internal orchestral details in all of this music, aided by a more analytical recording. However, the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine isn't as polished as the Seattle Symphony. And the recorded sound is not as refined, sounding more matter-of-fact and less sumptuous. But it is a compelling alternative to the more colorful, atmospheric Seattle performances. I found myself admiring the compositional genius of the composer listening to Graf, and loving the music with Morlot.
Both violinists in the Violin Concerto (L'arbre des songes) are excellent. Olivier Charlier (with Graf) takes swifter tempos, and his sweetly singing tone brings a satisfyingly lyrical approach. However, Augustin Hadelich in Seattle, is very much his equal, bringing more variety of tonal colors and articulation. And Morlot's orchestral contribution is more potent and dramatic.
Best of all, however, (at least in the 2nd Symphony), is Bychkov's glorious 1994 Philips recording with the Orchestre de Paris. I admit to having never listened to this CD before now, even though it's been on my shelves for decades. And it is simply a revelation. Tempos are more moving and energetic, to great advantage. And along with the magnificent playing from the Paris orchestra, Bychkov brings a granitic weight and drama to this music, which sounds absolutely authoritative. And like Graf, Bychkov is less intoxicating than Morlot, and brings out more of the structure and forward momentum, along with all the orchestral color. In the end, Bychkov gives us the best of both worlds and it is a pity he recorded only one disc of Dutilleux. It is simply addictive and the Philips recording is stunning.
Should I temper my original assessment of the Seattle Symphony's achievement after hearing the competition? No. Coming back to it again, it is still fabulous. There is no denying the Seattle Symphony is a force to be reckoned with these days. And considering the superb recorded sound their own label produces in their own hall, it simply doesn't get any better than this.
Another in the series. But sadly Pentatone denies us multi-Channel SACD. This is CD-only. And that's the new norm, apparently.
We all knew it was coming...eventually. But it's always a sad and shocking day when it actually happens. I have noticed many of Pentatone's new releases are offered in standard PCM CD only, beginning last Fall (2019). Seeing this trend continuing into 2020, I reached out Pentatone to inquire why. They thoughtfully responded to me with a lengthy emailed explanation.
According to Pentatone, they are no longer issuing most of their new releases on SACD, citing higher production costs, distributor reluctance due to high retail pricing, and a dramatic decline in consumer sales. Only a very few big productions of "huge orchestral works which will benefit the most from surround sound" will be recorded in DSD and released on SACD; everything else will be standard stereo PCM CD. The silver lining is they anticipate offering their CD-only titles at lower prices going forward.
And while I understand all this, it is a pity they chose to change course mid-flight. An example is the subject of this review. This series of "Americana" discs from the wonderful Oregon Symphony began on multi-channel SACD with "Spirit of America" in 2014, followed by "Aspects of America" in 2018. And now in 2020, a second "Aspects" title suddenly appears in standard stereo CD-only. Apparently they determined this particular big production was not worthy of multi-channel SACD.
It's an absolute shame to see a label such as Pentatone struggle and forced to adapt to the times just to keep afloat. And yes I'm complaining. But more than that, I'm mourning the inevitable loss of a higher-quality format such as SACD. Pentatone promises they will begin delivering high-resolution downloads to replace SACD. So be it for those who go for that. And too bad for the rest of us who don't.
Despite all of this, this is a wonderful concert - not only because of the excellence of the performances, but because of the inexplicable rarity of repertoire. Piston's 7th, Hanson's 4th, Gould's Stringmusic - all great stuff which deserves to be recorded more often. So Pentatone continues, at least for now, providing us an invaluable service with innovative programs not often found elsewhere. And I am grateful for that. But still, it's an absolute pity they are arbitrarily cutting us off from SACDs without regard for continuity.
But we'd better get used to it. Along with Pentatone, I'm seeing similar indicators from the other two leading producers of Classical SACD. Chandos is releasing more and more new titles on standard stereo CD-only, and BIS is releasing fewer and fewer titles all across the board.
After a rather sea-sick experience trying to listen to Laurent Korcia slip and slide his way through the Korngold Violin Concerto (also on Naive), I decided to give him another chance with this enticing 2-CD Bartok set. Mercifully, his Bartok is free from unnecessary portamentos, but this recording has its own set of problems.
Disc One starts with the 2nd Concerto, which is quite good, very well played by soloist and orchestra alike. However, it is a Live recording and the acoustic sounds a bit artificial and unnatural. Balances are not quite natural either. I found the recorded sound to be quite distracting, actually.
Then things get worse in the trio, "Contrasts", where we encounter clarinetist Michel Portal playing with vibrato! Eee-gads! I thought that was long ago abandoned after enduring the inexplicable popularity of the granddaddy of queasy clarinet playing, Richard Stoltzman. But apparently Michel Portal comes from the same stock (they are close in age, 77 and 84, respectively). Or perhaps he's making a bad attempt at imitating Benny Goodman (the jazz clarinetist who commissioned the piece). In any event, in Classical music, it simply sounds ickie. For an infinitely superior recording of this piece, one need look no further than David Shifrin's wonderful 1992 reading on Delos. One is immediately rewarded with infinitely more tasteful musicianship and highly accomplished playing.
The Sonatas on disc 2 are better. The solo violin piece is competently executed but unexceptional. Best by far in the set is the Violin/Piano Sonata #1, with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who interjects some muscle into the proceedings and we finally hear some Bartokian bite. Naive's sound improves as the number of players is reduced.
I have experienced some very fine recordings from Naive. But sadly this isn't one of them.
SONY's latest batch of box sets brings some interesting finds. This one is a useful collection of de Larrocha's Mozart Concerto sessions with Colin Davis. They are enjoyable and musical, as one would expect from these two. But with such enormous competition, in the end, they are not really distinctive. I would probably place the blame at the hands of the conductor rather than the pianist.
Some comments now about the sound. SONY no longer displays the ubiquitous 24-bit logo on these newest box sets. And indeed, comparing Concertos #21 and 23 to a previous reissue on RCA's 2002 "Sound Dimension" series, in which 24/96 remastering was used, the recorded sound in this box is definitely - and obviously - different. These are presumably exact duplicates of the original release, with no remastering techniques applied. In this instance, there are pros and cons to each. The 24-bit Sound Dimension CD is more open, brighter and transferred at a higher volume level. But it's also rather strident on violin tone, and some unnatural highlighting in orchestral detail is more obvious. In contrast, the sound in this new box is mellower, smoother, warmer and not quite as lively. So depending on your stereo system, it could be beneficial - or not. (I actually find many in that Sound Dimension series to be strident and harsh.) Comparing Disc 6 (works for Two Pianos, with Andre Previn, which is the best of the bunch included here), with the original release, they are identical - further confirming no remastering has been applied.
Overall, I found the sound in this set to be pleasant in a laid back way, a little too dark for Mozart, and the piano sounds a bit boxy - as if the lid is closed. I can't help but think the 24-bit remaster process would almost certainly have greatly benefited these recordings, likely bringing a bit of extra life and presence to them - which they need. But, alas...we'll never know.
All in all, this is a nice set for de Larrocha fans, and/or if you like your Mozart very traditional, warmly Romantic and mellow, rather than incisive. To my ear, it's very much Colin Davis's Mozart.
I stumbled upon this CD quite by accident. I love Kristof Barati's playing and this release instantly caught my eye.
Setting aside the rather odd cover and distinctly second-rate origins (Saphir productions?), this is a disheartening - and wildly overpriced - release. It is bare-bones in the extreme. The disc is an on-demand CD-R, there is no printed booklet, just an empty paper insert with a track listing of sorts - and even that is wrong. The front cover at least gets the composers right. The track listing does not. It ascribes the Ravel selections to Francoise Choveaux for some very odd reason. But rest assured it is indeed the Ravel Sonata #2 in G. The release date, according to Amazon, is 2011 - but Saphir productions doesn't bother with providing any recording/performance dates or location details.
But, let's back up a step. Shockingly, the CD arrived in a jewel case which had been hermetically sealed, fused shut. Literally. I had to break it apart with a hammer and chisel. Literally. I have collected over 8,000 CDs and never, ever have I encountered such a thing. Once I managed to get the product out (not without tearing the paper insert and cutting up my fingers, by the way), mercifully the CD-R plays just fine.
At this point, I wasn't expecting much from the recording itself (and actually expected it to not play at all). But much to my surprise, the playing and sound are sensational! The Ravel alone is worth all the trouble. It is a fabulous performance, and is actually better than Barati's 2014 remake of it, with a different pianist, for Brilliant Classics (on a CD entitled French Violin Sonatas). This reading has all the characteristics I love in Barati's playing. He displays the effortless ease of Heifetz, with the fabulous technique and un-fussy musicianship of Szeryng, along with the richly singing lines of Perlman. He really is an amazing player, and he puts his heart and soul into this Ravel. It is more spontaneous, energetic, musically involving and better recorded than the aforementioned Brilliant remake.
The Bartok Sonata for solo violin also comes off well, perfectly executed, with just the right amount of Bartokian spikiness and musical insight.
The final work, for solo piano, was one I initially thought was rather out of place here. But in the end, I enjoyed it immensely. I am familiar with several orchestral works by English composer York Bowen (all on Chandos), but this Piano Sonata was new to me. And what an immensely imaginative and engaging work it is, brilliantly played here by pianist Severin Von Eckardstein.
Best of all, even in the sometimes unreliable CD-R format, the recorded sound throughout is excellent. The instrumentalists are naturally placed within a warm acoustic, it is clean and clear, and showcases Barati's rich, gorgeous, wooden sound. It also captures a realistic and natural piano sound, something which most major labels inexplicably have consistent trouble accomplishing.
In sum, if Amazon would cut the price of this release in half, and ensure it is enclosed in a normal jewel case that one can actually get into, this disc would be very highly recommended without reservation. As it stands, though, it is astonishingly overpriced, given its mediocre production values. But anyone who is a fan of Kristof Barati, as am I, do not miss it. The Ravel, in particular, is absolutely thrilling.
This is an intriguing set. First, I was not familiar with the Miro Quartet. And, second, I was a bit confused that I wasn't seeing the SACD logo on this box set from Pentatone - the label which specializes in SACD. But I took a chance on this attractive set of complete Beethoven Quartets and have been pleasantly surprised. To say I highly recommend it without reservation is an understatement. But I'd also like to clarify what Pentatone is offering here.
These are not original Pentatone recordings, nor are they SACD multi-channel hybrid. In fact, I've noticed a lot of new releases from Pentatone are no longer in SACD format. I have no idea why that would be, but I am most dismayed to see it happen. And indeed, this Beethoven box is a PCM, CD-only release. They were recorded over many years, dating from as early as 2004 and as late as 2019, and at various locations. Most were originally released on Miro Quartet's own label (and at times on other small, independent labels here and there). There is no mention that Pentatone has performed any remastering. Thus they appear to be straight reissues.
That being said, however, one would hardly know they are not newly recorded Pentatone SACDs. They sound uniformly excellent - so good in fact, that many times while listening, I checked the indicator light on my SACD player to confirm they were indeed CD rather than SACD. And the playing is simply marvelous. I will not go into great detail about these performances, other than to say the Miro Quartet plays Beethoven exactly as I like it - with generally moving tempos (usually on the quick side, often on the very quick side), crisp articulation, and superb expressiveness without overly emoting.
And there is something else which is exceptional here: the variety of the Miro's playing is endlessly fascinating and musically interesting. Specifically, their ability to vary their levels and intensity of vibrato, from the barest hint, to full-on passion. Likewise, their tonal color varies accordingly, as the music demands. Astonishingly, this always comes as a unified, interpretive execution of the group as a whole.
And finally, there is a sweetness to the sound of this group's playing (especially from the 1st violin) which is a constant joy to listen to. And the cellist's playing is superbly characterful without ever becoming gruff, which is heard far too often in this music. The performances are filled with a boundless sense of joy, spontaneity and discovery.
Given that Pentatone felt these recordings were worthy of reissuing on their own label, they must be special. And special they are. Do not hesitate to acquire this wonderful set. It has provided me hours and hours of pure pleasure, with nary a complaint.
At first, I was thoroughly disappointed with this box set. How could SONY give us just 4 symphonies and the Cello Concerto and nothing else? Where's the ubiquitous, much desired Festive Overture? Where are the Ballet Suites that came as couplings with the individual CD releases in the Essential Classics series? Well, much to my surprise, I discovered that those couplings were all conducted by Kostelanetz, not Ormandy. Apparently Ormandy didn't record more Shostakovich than this for CBS/Columbia. And I can't find that he EVER recorded Festive Overture!
Once these quibbles have been dismissed, what remains is an impressive 3-disc set. Ormandy's First Symphony remains unsurpassed. And the Cello Concerto, with Rostropovich, was its World Premier Recording (1960). Both are legendary, and sound exceptionally good for their vintage. Symphonies 5 & 10 are classic Ormandy, and are thus self-recommending. The 4th was recorded just 2 years after its premier in Moscow and brings with it immense authenticity and authority.
Still, SONY surely could have done better by including Ormandy's RCA recordings of the later symphonies, along with his RCA remake of the 5th - since SONY possess both the CBS and RCA catalogs and often commingles them in other compilations. But alas, SONY doesn't always give us everything we want!
Nor does SONY find the need to provide fresh remasterings any more. The 24-bit logo has vanished from all of these new box sets and they appear to be exact reissues of previous releases. Still, it is invaluable to have them available again, conveniently assembled in these handsome box sets. And at the price, I suppose we shouldn't complain. Too much.