Another fantastic release in this 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. 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.
Despite all of this, however, this CD is simply fabulous. The performances are sensational, with superb playing in all departments of the Oregon Symphony. (They are every bit the equal of the equally fabulous Seattle Symphony). And the music! Piston's 7th, Hanson's 4th, Gould's Stringmusic - all great stuff which deserves to be recorded more often. It's astonishing this repertoire is so rarely recorded. (Piston's 7th, in particular, is a magnificent work). So Pentatone continues to provide an invaluable service with innovative programs not often found elsewhere. And I am most grateful for that.
And there is no denying the sound on this CD is excellent in every way. And we can not take that for granted. For example, the sound on their recent 4 CDs of Beethoven Piano Concertos with Inon Barnatan is average at best, and degrades into a know-twiddling, glarey mess in the final sections of the Choral Fantasy. Fortunately, the sound in Oregon is another matter altogether. Indeed, as much as I hate to admit it, I hardly miss the fact it's not SACD.
This disc is highly recommended.