Music in the Round #13

The ongoing reissues of Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo recordings, have been the signal successes of the SACD format. Despite having been recorded in only (!) three channels, these releases have given us very good justifications for going beyond two-channel stereo to get as unrestricted a hearing as possible of live performances.

The first batch of Living Stereos were more of an ear-opener for me than were the first Living Presences—with the possible exception of Stravinsky's The Firebird, as performed by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra. There are two reasons for that. First, clarity and detail were the hallmarks of most of the earlier Living Presence releases on LP and CD, while the Living Stereos gained a lot more of those qualities from their SACD remasterings. (The RCAs' persistent forte remains the harmonic integrity of the instruments and the spaciousness of the ensemble sound.) Second, the first batch of Living Presence SACDs suffered from a surprising amount of tape hiss. Sure, I'd rather have the hiss than throw the high-frequency baby out with the bathwater. Nonetheless, and considering the repertoire, the RCAs are more likely to be on my evening playlist than those first Mercurys.

But after two soul-satisfying batches of RCAs, the second batch of Mercury SACDs is a triumph. Although there are only five, they cover a wide range of program material in remarkable sound. Tape noise is no longer obtrusive; I heard it only when I tried to. In addition—and this must be due to these particular original masters—the transparency of the Mercurys is now supported by a wider, deeper soundstage, as well as by instrumental voicings as convincing as the RCAs.

Beginning with the least impressive and working up: The disc containing the contents of the original LPs Screamers and March Time, plus some additional tracks, by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble (Mercury 475 6619), provides a better view of the acoustics of the Eastman Theater than before. I never thought it the most sympathetic recording venue, but its dry clarity seems to suit Fennell's precise, snappy approach. The original 35mm magnetic film masters of Screamers were transferred on a specially modified film recorder to 24-bit/192kHz PCM before conversion to DSD, while the rest of the material was transferred directly to DSD using modified Studer transports feeding dCS electronics, as were the earlier releases in this series. The barely noticeable hiss had a softer quality on the film-derived tracks. All of this was just fine, although I found the program better when sampled à la carte than played through at one sitting.

Antal Dorati's LPs of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies 1–6 and the Enescu Romanian Rhapsody 1 were among the most exciting recordings I knew, back when I was getting my feet wet in classical music. Snappy, dynamic, and with some nice cimbalom solos, they still sound exciting in their SACD reincarnation (Mercury 475 6185), but lack the more stylistic pacing of modern renditions such as those by Ivan Fischer (Philips 456 570-2). Still, in the face of such brilliant performances and spaciousness of sound, it's hard not to smile.

Cellist János Starker's set of the Bach Solo Cello Suites is one of the glories of the Mercury repertoire and of the first batch of Living Presence SACDs. His disc of the Dvorák Cello Concerto, Bruch's Kol Nidre, and Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme is equally excellent, and with even more impressive sound (Mercury 475 6608). The Dvorák and Bruch are from 35mm masters, the Tchaikovsky from ½" tape. Starker's cello is as warm, palpable, and centered as on the Bach solo pieces, but here he is surrounded and supported by the LSO under, again, Dorati. Big, romantic gestures characterize these performances, and big is the right word for the sound, with the instruments spread widely and well beyond the left and right speakers. Full is another appropriate adjective for the sound of both soloist and orchestra. There are too many competitive recordings of the Dvorák and the Tchaikovsky to declare this one better than all, but none sound much better, and none are accompanied by such an outstanding performance of the Bruch.

Mercury has given us another extended program by combining Byron Janis and Kyril Kondrashin's recording of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto 3 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 1, along with Janis performing a number of solo pieces by Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Pinto (Mercury 475 6607). Boy, do I remember the original LPs of these concertos! Mercury had trucked their equipment to Moscow to make the first location recordings in the USSR by an American company. But wait—what's happened to the "35mm" banner across the top of the booklet? Unfortunately, the 35mm originals could not be located; all the tracks on this disc are from ½" tape originals. Not to worry—as on the Starker-Dorati SACD, the three-channel sound is phenomenal. Janis's piano is appropriately percussive and pearly in these brilliant performances. The sound of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall is of course different from the venues Mercury frequented in Detroit, Minneapolis, and London (to say nothing of Rochester), with a long decay and great warmth in the bass. I grew up on the Prokofiev, and it's still as special as ever. Bravo.

Last and furthest from least is the rerelease of Balalaika Favorites, for decades an audiophile bonbon. Well, it's not just for audiophiles—this album was the clear favorite among my nonaudiophile friends from the first pluck on the SACD's first track (Mercury 475 6610). The program is primarily traditional, familiar to many, and yet, no one has heard it in as clear and immediate a presentation unless in person. Distinguishing the domras from the balalaikas from the gooslis was no problem for my Western ears (the shepherds' horns are like nothing else), but the burnished ambience of Tchaikovsky Hall is worthy of equal billing with the performers. This may be the best tool yet for demonstrating that more information conveyed through more discrete channels simply delivers more music. Switch to either of the two-channel tracks (which, on their own, ain't chopped liver) and see what you lose.

Muddle in the middle again
Listening to these wonderful reissues over a pretty decent sound system is so very satisfying that I bit the bullet by expanding my main system to multichannel and by optimizing my original multichannel system. Acoustic treatments have made for substantial improvement in the country house, and now there are three matching Paradigm Studio/60 v.3 speakers for the left, center, and right channels. I've relegated the Studio/60 v.2s to the rear channels, where they share duties with the Magnepan MGMC1s. Now, one might think that using a Studio/60 v.2 in the center between two Studio/60 v.3s would have given a pretty consistent sound across the front (although tests with pink noise made the differences audible). Even so, I was unprepared for the improvements in soundstage size and stability wrought by upgrading to three closely matched speakers.

Of course, pink-noise signals can still distinguish differences among the three v.3s, but the center is no more different from the left or right than they are from each other. After all, they sit in different positions in the room and interact with room acoustics somewhat differently. If I restrict the bandwidth of the pink noise, it becomes apparent that the only discernible distinctions are in the sub-200Hz range, as the left and right Studio/60s are closer to the side walls and the center Studio/60 is slightly closer to the wall behind it. But when I listened to a female voice, by gum, she sounded the same from whichever channel I sent her to. The musical result, especially with the three-channel RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence SACDs, was an enhanced soundstage of greatly increased width and not, as one might assume, greater center fill.

None of this is too surprising, but the experience triggered further thoughts about center-channel speakers. If three identical speakers can only approximate an exact match, what hope is there for a seamless soundstage with an unmatched center speaker, especially one with an entirely different dispersion pattern? In the home theater world, around the limits of which I carefully tiptoe, the market demands that even well-respected high-end manufacturers design center speakers with a horizontal orientation to accommodate the presence of a large video display directly in front of the listener's sweet spot. But there are reasons that almost all successful stereo (and mono) speakers have vertical arrays. Any time two sound sources—especially when separated by more than one wavelength—send signals into the same acoustic space, there will be interaction between the sounds and, depending on the distances from the sources to the room boundaries and listeners, those interactions will result in nulls and peaks in local sound pressure that did not exist in the original signal.

This interaction occurs with drivers in the same box, as most crossovers permit a fairly wide overlap between drivers in a system. Optimizing dispersion is one of the engineer's responsibilities and encompasses driver selection, enclosure size and shape, and crossover design. But with vertically arrayed drivers, dispersion in the lateral plane is usually wider and more smooth than in the vertical plane. The value of this is that we listen with our ears at roughly the same horizontal level when seated and attentive, even though we may turn from side to side. Stand up or slouch to the floor and, behold, things sound different. Now, turn that box on its side and you may stand or sit as you wish, but any horizontal head movement exposes you to significant variations in frequency response. (Were you just scanning the liner notes?)