Music in the Round #14

Looking back to see which of the multichannel discs I've reported on that have made a splash in the market, I detect an ominous trend. Most are reissues of classic performances, including all the RCA Living Stereo and the Mercury Living Presence SACDs, as well as a number of classic jazz and rock albums (including yet more editions of Kind of Blue, Dark Side of the Moon, and Brothers in Arms).

This phenomenon reveals a numbing conservatism on the part of producers and record buyers. Some listeners want to rediscover, by hearing them better, the awe they felt when they first heard these admittedly great recordings. That's not only a peculiarly "audiophile" experience, it's probably also characteristic of aging listeners who associate these records with significant events in their own pasts. Most music buyers wouldn't consider purchasing another copy of something they already have, regardless of blandishments brandished on the cover. But producers recognize the conservatism of those who do, and, considering the low cost of remastering to multichannel compared with the cost of recording and promoting new music, see reissues in multichannel sound as a no-brainer. This, along with retailers' understandable reluctance to stock two copies of the same album in different formats, contributes to keeping multichannel music out of the mainstream and virtually invisible to most record buyers.

The mass market—not our relatively tiny market of audiophiles—is what determines which technologies last. We must hope that whichever format survives the present and future wars has attractive "trickle-down" options for us. This is critical—grateful as I am for these reissues, they represent the cutting edge of neither sound quality nor modern music-making, and they condemn the high-end consumer to a life of musical antiquarianism. Of greater concern is that this keeps telling the record companies that the mass market doesn't care about multichannel sound, which, I'm sorry to say, seems to be only the truth. I'm an old enough fart to know that there's a gap between my own musical interests and those of most of the music-buying public. But whether or not I like a particular musical genre is irrelevant; to promote the new media, we need truly high-resolution, multichannel recordings of all types of music.

Here's where the DualDisc may have an impact, though I dislike how it has been managed so far (see this column in the May 2005 Stereophile). By pushing the market toward a single format, DualDisc has already put multichannel releases into many homes and increased public awareness of multichannel music. Thrust upon us by the needs of high-definition video, new multichannel media—HD DVD and Blu-ray—loom on the horizon, and they, too, can help. More and more consumers have some sort of surround system, and they will be indignant if their music-only recordings do not take advantage of it.

Faux 5.0
Fortunately some of us, the stream of classical multichannel releases continues. Among these, the most interesting and surprising are two SACD/CD hybrid discs from Water Lily Acoustics, an independent audiophile label run by recordist Kavi Alexander. These live recordings of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, under music director Yuri Temirkanov, are sorta-kinda multichannel. I first played Mahler's Symphony 5 (WLA-WS-76-SACD) on my city system, which was still kludgy at the time, and it sounded murky. The two-channel tracks were better, but the overall level was 6–10dB lower than the norm, and the sound was somewhat distant. The accompanying booklet explains that everything was recorded in two-channels: "This is a pure DSD recording done with a single pair of microphones arranged in the classic Blumlein configuration." There's no mention anywhere of multichannel. Same for the same forces' recording of Shostakovich's Symphony 7 (WLA-WS-77-SACD)—yet both discs have multichannel tracks complete with center and surround signals.

The solution, in response to some website postings, came from Robert Greene (The Abso!ute Sound's "REG"). The levels are low, said Greene, to allow for a wide dynamic range with no compression, in the full awareness that digital overload is absolute. Greene also mentioned "the surround sound, which was done via a method I developed myself." I asked for more, but as he plans to file for patent protection, all Greene would divulge was that his method "is based on a combination of acoustic and psychoacoustic principles...intended to enhance the realism of the Blumlein stereo without altering its essential integrity."

I then took the hybrid discs to my country place in Connecticut to play them through my multichannel system, which includes Paradigm Studio/60 loudspeakers. Both discs need to be played at fairly high volumes to hear the quietest parts, and demand a potent combination of amplifiers and speakers to cope with the loudest parts. That done, they sound full, warm, and a bit distant in overall presentation while packing a tremendous dynamic wallop. That Kavi Alexander placed his Blumlein pair well above the audience's ear level is apparent in multichannel playback, particularly in how the rear-seated brass and percussion emerge above the instruments in front. These recordings also have outstanding detail in the bass, particularly the timpani, bass drum, and double basses. Listen to the conclusion of the Adagietto of Mahler's Symphony 5 and you can hear the bow-on-string sound of the fiddles even as they fade to silence. At the other end of the dynamic scale, the drum-thwacks in the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony 7 and the orchestral climaxes in the Mahler's Stürmisch bewegt are completely without hash or compression. If your system is up to it, these recordings will sound very loud, but less than you might expect because we are so conditioned to associating creeping distortion with great loudness. Not here.

Robert Greene's 5.0-channel processing gives a wide, deep view into and over the orchestra, and pretty much demands five full-range speakers or very precise bass management. Considering their dynamic demands and the distribution of bass and ambience in the rear channels, these recordings will sound pretty muddy on a typical HT or two-channel minimonitor system. The performances themselves are good, especially the Shostakovich, though both are on the straitlaced side. While I found the sound powerful and seductive, I'd likely turn elsewhere for the music.

Nott, a new name
One place I'd turn is to a Mahler 5 from Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony (SACD, Tudor 7126). Nott, a young British conductor, has succeeded Horst Stein as the Bamberg's music director, and also leads Paris's Ensemble Inter/Contemporain. His reading of the work is far more flexible and nuanced than Temirkanov's, though his orchestra and this recording of it—up close, but with clarity and space—lack the weight so abundant on the Water Lily discs.

So it was no surprise to discover that Nott and the Bambergers are remarkably successful in Schubert's Symphonies 2 and 4 (SACD, Tudor 7142) and Bruckner's Symphony 3, 1873 ed. (SACD, Tudor 7133). Bruckner's symphonies, for all their size, need the same clarity of line required by Schubert and less of the mass fundamental to Mahler. The sound was clear, immediate, and well-balanced, with minimal but useful rear ambience, and fully revealed Nott's subtle sculpting. This series of discs has outstanding promise, especially if we can get to hear Nott's takes on more modern works.

A musical and sonic event
The faux multichannel from St. Petersburg and the discrete multichannel from Bamberg were recorded in actual concert halls and are both successful, but the most exciting recent symphonic recording I've heard was taped in a Berlin church. Frank Strobel's reconstruction of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky is trumpeted as the "World Premiere Recording" of the complete score composed for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film (SACD, Capriccio SACD 71 014). Unfortunately, the original soundtrack recording is overdubbed with speech and sound effects and is plagued by the technical limitations of overmodulation, distortion, wow, and compression. Temirkanov's 1993 recording for RCA was a noble attempt based on transcriptions from the original film, but without access to Prokofiev's original manuscript, notes, and sketches, which languished in Moscow's museums and archives. Prokofiev's cantata based on this music has long been available, but its scoring, to say nothing of the sequence and selection of passages, is quite different.


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