The Fifth Element #30

Morten Lauridsen's magisterial work for chorus and orchestra, Lux aeterna, appears in a fresh new recording, in truly excellent sound, on England's Hyperion label. The vocal ensemble Polyphony is accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia; both are led by Stephen Layton. Better yet, in addition to the CD-only version, there is a separate SACD/CD hybrid release (Hyperion SACDA67449), meaning that it is backwardly-compatible with CD players. Furthermore, the SACD layer contains a surround-sound program in addition to the stereo one.

Lux aeterna, composed in 1995–97, is a modern work of rare beauty, integrity, and accessibility. While Lux aeterna may superficially call to mind the works of other neo-Orthodox composers such as Arvo Part and Geoffrey Burgon, Lauridsen has a distinct style that draws on not only Medieval and Renaissance models, but Romantic and 20th-century ones as well (footnote 1). It is a gross oversimplification, but the best way I can think of to explain Lux aeterna to someone who has not heard it is to ask them to imagine Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem as reworked by Roy Harris or Aaron Copland—and with Latin lyrics. The ethos and the architecture of the two works are very similar. (If you're unfamiliar with Roy Harris, his Symphony 3 is a great place to start. Concise, evocative, and accessible, it is one of the gems of the American symphonic literature.)

The new recording invites comparison to the only other recording, by the work's dedicatees, Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale (RCM 19705), a CD I raved about in the September 2002 Stereophile (footnote 2). Even in its CD incarnation, the Hyperion recording sounds indisputably better. The RCM version is, in comparison, somewhat diffuse in focus—for which I am tempted to blame the use of the 16 microphones credited in its notes. But I wasn't there, and perhaps the acoustics of the recording venue called for that approach. The Hyperion release's sound is very clean, very focused and detailed, and has remarkable soundstage depth. Even more so as an SACD.

The musical approaches are nearly as different. The RCM version uses a large chorus and orchestra. The Hyperion uses only 30 singers and a chamber-sized orchestra. The gains are in clarity and articulation—the oboe and cello solos are gratifyingly present, and the opening of "O nata lux," the a cappella middle movement (of five), more obviously shows its indebtedness to plainchant. There is much to treasure in this recording. The flip side is that the smaller English forces cannot match the sheer strength in numbers and vocal blend of the Los Angeles effort. And perhaps, at a very few places, the sheer clarity of Hyperion's engineering works against the aura of numinousness on which the work thrives.

The bottom line is, if you aren't familiar with Lux aeterna, your life is the poorer for it. You do need a recording of it. The Los Angeles disc is perhaps the better all-around introduction, but I can't imagine a fan of the work not wanting to have the new Hyperion release. Not only the fresh interpretation, but also the wonderfully informative liner notes, will add immeasurably to your appreciation. (The Hyperion disc duplicates "O magnum mysterium"—very affectingly sung—and "Ave Maria" from the earlier one, and also includes Lauridsen's Madrigali: Six "Fire Songs" on Italian Renaissance Poems, and "Ubi caritas et amor.") If you own an SACD player and are frustrated by the lack of worthy new releases in the format, buying the Hyperion SACD is a no-brainer.

An English nobleman
Yes, yes, I know—a nonhereditary knighthood does not make you a peer. (Neither does a hereditary baronetcy, for that matter.) I was speaking in terms of nobility of character.

Sir John (Giovanni Battista) Barbirolli was born in London in 1899, but his family had a Continental musical background. Both his father and his grandfather had played in the orchestra at La Scala. Barbirolli first studied violin, but switched to cello at age seven, and was soon recognized as a very gifted player. At age 17 he gave his London debut recital while also serving as the youngest member of the Queen's Hall Orchestra. Later stints playing in the London Symphony Orchestra and in Thomas Beecham's Covent Garden Orchestra gave him an unusually firm grounding in the nuts and bolts of getting good sounds out of an orchestra.

By the time he was 27, Barbirolli had progressed from conducting opera orchestras on provincial tours to conducting the LSO. He was later appointed conductor of the Scottish Orchestra. Not a terribly long time later, and to the shock of the worldwide musical establishment, he was asked, at the ripe old age of 38, to succeed Arturo Toscanini as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, which he did. (Glowing endorsements from Kreisler and Rubinstein attesting to Barbirolli's sensitivity as a concerto accompanist probably didn't hurt.)

I don't spend a lot of time watching TV or videos, and most of my responses to classical-music videos have been of the "eh" variety. However, once in a blue moon, something really special arrives. Video Artists International, in association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and public broadcaster WGBH (footnote 3), has just released a DVD of Barbirolli's BSO concert of the evening of February 3, 1959, which was originally broadcast from Harvard's Sanders Theater, in Cambridge. This concert, together with earlier performances of the same program at Symphony Hall on January 30 and 31, made up Barbirolli's now-legendary first set of guest appearances with the BSO. If you have any interest at all in the art of orchestral conducting or in the history of the BSO, this DVD is a must-have.

The program includes Barbirolli's own An Elizabethan Suite, which he arranged from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book; Delius' sublime The Walk to the Paradise Garden, which is the Intermezzo from A Village Romeo and Juliet; Walton's Partita for Orchestra; and Brahms' Symphony 2. The first two works—plangent and autumnally luminous as only English music can be—in themselves justify the purchase of this DVD. Barbirolli, at age 59 and at the height of his powers, conducts with elegance, economy, and quietly unquestionable authority. Robert Ripley, for 40 years a BSO cellist, later wrote that the BSO's first rehearsal with Barbirolli was one of the most moving experiences of his musical life (footnote 4).

Both the black and white video and the main, mono soundtrack were sourced from a kinescope film. Nonetheless, the contrast is good, and there are no truly troubling motion artifacts. My only complaint is that some of the cross-fades take entirely too long, leaving the screen showing a nearly incomprehensible muddle.

Barbirolli's performances were apparently so consistent that, as an alternate audio track for the DVD, VAI was able to sync up the Sanders Theater video to the stereo, archival audio tape of the Symphony Hall Saturday-evening performance of three days earlier (January 31, 1959). That performance had been broadcast on radio live and—apparently—in stereo (see sidebar). I was not about to drive myself crazy trying to catch inconsistencies;suffice it to say that the default mono soundtrack is the real deal, and its sound is good enough to let you know that this is very special music making. And if you turn off the picture, you can enjoy the music in stereo.

Barbirolli returned to the BSO once again, for two weeks in 1964. He again conducted Delius' Paradise Garden, in an even more compelling interpretation, which briefly appeared on CDs pressed in Japan (apparently without the BSO's permission).

New and improved
In my March 2003 column, I enthusiastically wrote up the stylish and luscious-sounding Grace Design 901 headphone amplifier. Although pricey at $1500, it had the unusual capability to take a digital signal directly and convert it to analog using its onboard DAC. I characterized the 901's sound as refreshingly rich and full-bodied without being sludgy or lacking detail. In his August 2003 Follow-Up, John Atkinson essentially concurred.

As far as I can tell, the 901 did manage to attract a few fans outside its intended audience of professional engineers. However, within a very short time, a rival headphone amplifier, with an additional feature, swept the field—Benchmark's DAC-1, which won Stereophile's Editor's Choice Award for 2004. The DAC-1 differentiated itself by providing balanced and unbalanced volume-controlled analog outputs, which enabled it to act as a minimalist preamplifier. (It was also a third less expensive than the Grace 901.)

Benchmark's DAC-1 turned into an unlikely audiophile success story, no doubt aided in part by its money-back guarantee (when purchased from the factory or a participating dealer). Be that as it has been, please remember: I never said that the DAC-1 was my favorite DAC, only that I was unaware of anything retailing for less than $1000 that could match it. As JA commented, the DACs that sounded obviously better than the DAC-1 cost so much that you could buy a DAC-1 for what the sales tax on the more expensive unit would be.

Time marches on, companies improve their products, and Grace Design has not been napping. Their replacement for the 901 is the m902 (m for monitoring-series product, 902 for successor to the 901). The three most significant revisions to the 901 that the m902 incorporates are: the onboard DAC now handles sampling rates of up to 192kHz; unbalanced analog outputs, controlled by the front volume control, are now provided; and a cross-feed processing circuit is offered, to provide a headphone-listening experience that is more akin to listening with loudspeakers. (The cross-feed circuit, licensed from Jan Meier is commendably subtle in effect.)

Other changes include power-supply revisions and the provision of a USB digital input, in addition to S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and TosLink. (Unbalanced analog line-level inputs on RCA jacks are also provided. When the analog inputs are selected, the digital circuitry automatically powers down.) With all these improvements, that the m902's suggested retail price has increased only $200 over the 901's, to $1700, is commendable. And some people may be heartened to learn that the m902 is made in the USA and not elsewhere. The m902 comes with a five-year warranty.

Footnote 1: Lauridsen's musical tastes are small-c catholic. In a private e-mail he gave me permission to quote from, the former jazz flugelhorn player told me that Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Porgy and Bess (which I had told him I was listening to as I wrote my e-mail to him) was one of his "absolute favorite" recordings.

Footnote 2: And which for some months thereafter figured in several of John Atkinson's equipment reports. Indeed, JA went on to record Cantus' all-male interpretation of Lauridsen's motet-like "O magnum mysterium," released on Comfort and Joy: Volume I, available from this website's secure "Recordings" page.

Footnote 3: The GBH stands for Great Blue Hill, the geological feature south of Boston on which the station's transmission antennas have always stood.

Footnote 4: Quite a shock it was to scan the orchestral roster for this concert and see Joseph Silverstein, later the BSO's concertmaster, sitting at the last desk in the second violins. But it was 1959, after all. It's also a shock to see the violinists tapping their bows on the backs of their instruments to express approval. No one with a concert-quality instrument would do that today.