Naxos Blu-ray Breakthrough

The world's largest classical label, Naxos of America, has released its first Blu-ray music package. The Virtual Haydn: Complete Works for Solo Keyboard contains three Blu-ray audio discs plus one three-hour Blu-ray videodisc that together hold 15 hours of music. All performances are by Tom Beghin, a baroque specialist and musicologist based at McGill University. Sound engineer Martha De Francisco, an Associate Professor at McGill, recorded the performances in high-resolution (24-bit/96kHz) PCM sound.

Beghin has recorded Haydn's music on seven modern replicas of historic keyboards ranging in age from a 1760s clavichord to a 1798 English grand piano. Three of the instruments—a 1755 harpsichord, a 1788 Tafelklavier, and a 1780 fortepiano—receive their performance premieres on The Virtual Haydn. For music lovers wishing to compare the sounds of different instruments playing music by a single composer, the project is a potential goldmine.

This collaboration between Naxos and McGill University's Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology allows audio playback in both 5.0-channel surround (DTS-HD) and hi-rez two-channel PCM. In the most novel feature of the Blu-ray videodisc, which contains three hours of HD video, viewers can shift Beghin's performances among nine "virtual rooms," each an aural replica of an actual room in which Haydn and other keyboard players of his era would have performed. At the same time, viewers can switch among the seven instruments, for a total of 63 (9 times 7) possible combinations. While this begins to sound like videogames for the Classical crowd, the brochure that accompanies the project contains many pages of detailed information by De Francisco and Wieslaw Woszczyk, James McGill Professor of Sound Recording, that explain the technical evolution and musical rationale for these 63 varieties of Haydn.

Klaus Heymann, founder and guiding light of Naxos, explains that although this one-off project came his way from McGill ready-made, Naxos "will definitely get into Blu-ray surround, sooner rather than later." Over the last few years Naxos has built up a library of hundreds of titles in surround-sound, most of them recorded at 20/44.1 or 24/44.1. Except for a smattering of SACD and DVD-Audio releases, which were discontinued due to poor sales, these surround masters have seen the light of day only as two-channel, 16-bit/44.1kHz "Red Book" CDs.

Naxos also plans to move to lossless downloads of surround-sound recordings, or "something better," in what Heymann calls "due course." What's not yet clear is how many future Naxos Blu-ray releases and lossless surround downloads will actually contain hi-rez audio, or if any of them will approach the 176.4 and 192kHz sampling rates now available on DVD-Rs from Reference, Chesky, and M•A Recordings. Blue Coast Records, too, is contemplating augmenting their current catalog of 100 or so 24/96 downloads with downloads at sampling rates of 176.4 or 192kHz.

In December, Naxos's studio head will meet with Johannes Mueller, whose MSM Studios in Munich has developed the Pure Audio Blu-ray format now used by 2L, the Norwegian hi-rez label. Custom-developed in Java programming, Pure Audio Blu-ray offers a standard feature set that allows 100% hi-def sound accessible without the player having to be connected to a video display (thank God). Thanks to user-friendly switching between the stereo and surround tracks that takes full advantage of the color-coded keys on Blu-ray players' remote controls, Pure Audio Blu-ray claims operation as simple as playing a CD. If Naxos can use Pure Audio Blu-ray as a medium for two-channel and surround recordings at resolutions of at least 24/88.2 or 24/96—or, ideally, 24/176.4 or 24/192—we have a lot to look forward to.