Supersounds (Fall 2003) - Classical SACD and CD

      Date posted: October 20, 2003

Magic & Tragic Mahler On SACD Malher 6 SACD

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”
Dallas Symphony & Chorus, Andrew Litton conductor,
Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano, Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano
Delos DS 3237 Stereo SACD

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 “Tragic”

Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor
Telarc 3SACD-60586 Surround (2 Hybrid SACDs, 1 CD)

Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Hartmut Haenchen, conductor
Pentatone Classics SACD PTC 5186 004

     Though Mahler was pretty big on contrasts, the first pair of symphonies seems to epitomize the extremes in their differences. The 2nd is all song and pastoral orchestration, with soloists and large chorus, while the 6th is starkly instrumental, militaristic, and quite a different musical experience. If the Resurrection ascends to the heights of Heaven, the Tragic explores something of a descent into the composer’s personal Hell.

     Both are big in concept, and hard to capture in recorded sound. Their dynamics and tonal breadth have yet to be fully heard from a reproduction system until now. At one time I had 14 Mahler 2nds (including 3 featuring the voice of Maureen Forrester), but since the last move the number has been culled to about half a dozen. Until now, my favourite has been the St. Louis/Slatkin performance with Forrester and Battle (Telarc CD-80081/82), with close followers on vinyl by Tennstedt and Bernstein (at Ely Cathedral).

     Certainly, this recent version, recorded in the wonderful Meyerson Hall in Dallas, makes it on grounds of sonic grandeur, and the performance is well shaped by Litton without the tempo and dynamic distortions some conductors seem to visit upon the work. It’s a fairly brisk reading, which I like, and the singers are excellent, though the Urlicht, beautifully sung by the unknown Petra Lang, seems a little overly languid in pace.

     Getting back to the sonic grandeur, engineer John Eargle has captured the sound of singers and orchestra with remarkable faithfulness and naturalness. Strings are not over-etched from overhead microphones, and the relative perspectives of the large forces arrayed for this concert recording are very accurately conveyed, especially in terms of depth of soundstage, especially with the offstage playing in the finale.

     However, the recording, made in 1998, is 20-bit digital, not native DSD (sampling rate not specified), and does not offer quite the clarity and detail of the more recent 6th, a true DSD/SACD recording. But I like its natural, warm sound, and realistic bass that is much like I’ve heard in concert halls.

     Hopefully, this recording has been re-released in multichannel SACD with better graphics and packaging. Putting 2 CDs stacked in a single case seems rather cheesy to me, especially in what is supposed to be a premium format.

     There are no such problems with the Zander 6th, which is a 3-disc set, the third a CD containing the movement-by-movement ruminations of the conductor on the symphony. Packaged in an appropriate double-hinged case, this Telarc SACD set comes with an informative booklet. The recordings were done in Watford Colosseum, which I assume is a new name for Watford Town Hall, the location of many great orchestral recordings over the years. Telarc’s Jack Renner was assisted by Tony Faulkner on the engineering side, with dCS ADCs, and a Genex 8500 DSD recorder was used to make the multichannel masters.

     With a recording team like this, you’d expect a lot, and here you get it, big time. Both Renner and Faulkner have made great Mahler recordings before, particular standouts being the former’s 1st and 2nd (Telarc DG 10066 LP, CD-80081/82), and the latter’s 4th for CBS/Sony (MK39072). These are all outstanding performances, too, conducted by Slatkin and Lorin Maazel, respectively.

     But this new SACD is to my ears the best Mahler recording ever. Zander’s reading has passion and impulsion, and the sound is simply amazing. The louder you play it, the better it sounds, and I didn’t have the advantage of discrete multichannel, listening through the Pioneer Elite DV-AX10, which preceded 5-channel SACD. However, I’ll take state-of-the-art 2-channel over mediocre multi any time. By the time we finally got to the “hammers of fate” in the finale, I was totally immersed in this immense symphonic conception. Zander has made it loom even larger by providing two finales, both the original and revised orchestrations, so you can have either two or three immense bass drum whacks to lift you out of your chair. This is the blockbuster recording of 2003, and I expect it will levitate quite a few Mahler fans in the future.

     Also notable is a Mahler 5th from Pentatone Classics (distributed in North America by Telarc), recorded by a group of ex-Philips producers and engineers who work under the name Polyhymnia after buying out the company’s technical resources. Also a concert recording in the Concertgebouw with the Netherlands Philharmonic under Hartmut Haenchen, this 5th is a little slower in pace than, say, Solti’s, but has great majesty, and immense sonic power, especially in the bass, where SACD once again shines. All you need are two or three subwoofers to go with your full-range speakers to get that bottom heft.

      Maestro Haenchen is unknown to me, and unprofiled in the liner notes, but the evidence of his ability is in the shaping of the performance, which is masterful, if a bit careful. If the 6th is tragic, the 5th can be said to be more angry in the early movements, this resolved by the sheer beauty of the Adagietto, and completed by a powerful Rondo-Finale. I find it a very satisfying performance and recording, though without quite the amazing presence of the Zander 6th. Again, SACD leads the way in capturing all of its sonic splendour through DPA and Neumann microphones, and Polyhymnia’s own custom preamps and, again, dCS ADCs. My only criticism is that there might be a few too many microphones, though the overall sense of depth is very much like being there.

Mellow Cello

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme; Andante Cantabile

Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto No. 1; Bruch: Kol Nidrei
Peter Wispelwey, cello; Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Daniel Sepec, leader
Channel Classics CCS SA 16501 Hybrid Multichannel SACD

Britten: Three Suites for Violincello
Peter Wispelwey, cello
Channel Classics CCS SA 17102 Hybrid Multichannel SACD

     Like the conductors noted above, Peter Wispelwey is hardly a household name. Young, he trained with Anner Bylsma, among others, while growing up in Amsterdam. He plays both “authentic and modern cello” with “a phenomenal technique” according to the bio in the Britten booklet. If these two discs are any indication, he is a rising star. His playing is straightforward and sensitive, and always in the service of the music. This is especially important in the Britten Suites, which harken back to those of Bach, but more audibly apparent in the well known works on the other disc.
I compared his readings of the Suites with those of Rostropovich (London Enterprise 417-309-1 LP), for whom they were written, and was very imnpressed: he is perhaps a little less romantic in approach, but his understanding and direct interpretation of the music might be preferred by some listeners.
Both discs sound stupendous, with very clear, open sound, with great dynamics in the Saint-Saens in particular. The Andante Cantabile has a lovely introspective quality that I’ve never heard quite so eloquently expressed before. Both discs are highly recommended.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder

The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981

Sony Classical Legacy S3K 87703 3 CD Set

     One of the things that came into my marriage almost 30 years ago was a battered, noisy LP of the first Glenn Gould Goldbergs. However, when I switched it to mono on the preamp, it was just listenable. The great virtue of this new set is the sonic restoration of that musically electric performance on the first CD. At 38:26, it is the young Gould’s virtuoso statement played at breakneck speed, while the 1981 version is much more reflective at 51:14. I prefer the later interpretation because it allows greater immersion into the music, and, of course, it leaves time for some beautiful phrasing by the pianist.

     Disc 2 is the 1981 performance, and comes from the original analog source tapes rather than the digital masters used for the original LP release. Its sound is crisper and more immediate, with a slightly warmer piano character. Thus, both readings are much improved sonically.
Disc 3 is a CBC interview with Tim Page, who compiled The Glenn Gould Reader, a fascinating collection of Gould’s brilliant and often eccentric writings about music and other subjects. I also interviewed Gould once for a CBC radio program I hosted and co-produced as part of a series on recording called From The Masters. I’m sure in Page’s case it was the same as with me, the interview, questions and answers, entirely scripted by Glenn, always the control freak, after a month or more of weekly late night phone calls. Once he knew what it was I wanted, he gave it to me, exactly as he wanted to say it. Most of the conversation was about the way he edited his recordings, and why. The “why”, of course, was that Glenn had to completely control every phrase and nuance of his playing, and later in his life meticulously recorded in short segments to get this level of adherence to his internal vision. By 1981 he had long ago abandoned live performances.

     With the Goldbergs the contrast between the two versions is that between the impulsive young virtuoso showing off and the older interpreter giving his insights into Bach’s mind. As Stephen Hawking has said, to understand the Universe is to know the mind of God. One could infer that God to Gould was J. S. Bach.
This set is very nicely packaged by Sony in plastic and paper foldout, but with a booklet that is somewhat awkward to read because it is glued to the left end of the package. Other than that, this is a wonderful set that everyone should own.

Andrew Marshall

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