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Delivers Compositions Performed, Recorded and Produced Impeccably on BD and SACD
Divertimenti are classical compositions traditionally for social functions. More lighthearted than most orchestral music, the genre has roots in 18th century chamber works. It's ironic that, more than 200 years later, a modern selection of Divertimenti is being served up for evaluation on new digital formats--practically the opposite of a social function. Those of us dabbling in high-resolution digital audio technology are, by definition, early adopters, analyzing the merits of sound quality alone with our gear. Another part of early adoption—as those of us who collect SACDs discovered—is the possibility of buying into a dying format. You play around on the razor's edge of new technology and sooner or later, you get cut. While it is hugely rewarding to explore high resolution digital audio on SACD, the format never fully took off, and lost what little support it had built at the major record labels. On the heels of SACD's failure to become the successor to CD, Sony introduced a format it hoped would become the successor to DVD: Blu-ray.
Now, an audio-only BD has been released that not only includes all the "flavors" of Blu- ray audio--DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD and lossless 24-bit/192 kHz PCM--but also includes a second disc. Yes, it's an SACD with both multichannel and stereo Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and CD (PCM 16-bit, 44.1kHz) layers. And of greater importance than the actual formats involved is the recording itself: inspired performances by Norway's overachieving TrondheimSolistene ensemble playing compositions of Britten, Bacewicz, Bjorklund and Bartók, most notably the latter's gorgeous Divertimento for Strings. The package delivers a unique opportunity to evaluate the formats and codecs, featuring a reference-quality recording. Kudos to Norway's progressive 2L label for producing such fine recordings on SACD and Blu-ray in a way that fully capitalizes on the advantages of both formats.
But before describing the sonic merits of each "flavor" of audio, let me say a few words about the compositions for those who may not be familiar with them. Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten is an unusual purely orchestral work from a British composer known more for stormier songs, serenades and operas. Britten's rare instrumental pieces are among his best works and I find Simple Symphony to be perhaps his lightest and most accessible--ideal for those listeners new to classical. The piece has four movements:
1. Boisterous Bourree
Grazyna Bacewicz is Poland's most important composer between Szymanowski and Lutoslawski. She was a very talented violinist who entered the Wieniawski competition in 1935 (the same year as the legendary David Oistrakh). Her orchestral compositions give special weight to the strings, which drive the dynamics of all her works. Bacewicz's Concerto for String Orchestra is a brilliant piece, given an electrifying performance by the National Philharmonic Orchestra Warsaw (Olympia OCD 392). While not as energized, the TrondheimSolistene deliver a remarkable reading:
Also included is a more recent work by the Norwegian Terje Bjorklund, who has been composing since about 1980 in the genre of "art music". His works are known for their lyricism and melody. Like Bacewicz, he develops and drives his compositions using strings above all. He uses chords and voicings that seem influenced by jazz. Carmina is a good introduction to his work, although his more famous compositions are Sarek and Morene.
The centerpiece and namesake of the recordings is Bela Bartók's Divertimento for Strings. Bartók's great gift was to incorporate Eastern European folk music into his compositions while making them sound fresh and modern. Strange as it may seem, he often accomplished that by emphasizing primitive, stripped down elements in his compositions. This evolutionary approach allowed him to stay true to his roots and to the great composers who came before him, while developing a relevant conception in the post-romantic era. In other words he stayed fresh in an era of revolutionary composers. Bartók is often described as the last and most original of the romantic composers. The Divertimento was composed at a particularly turbulent time for Bartók, who was avidly anti-Nazi when such a political stance in Hungary was becoming increasingly dangerous. (He subsequently immigrated to the U.S.) It was also a time when Bartók took his obsession with Hungarian and Romanian folk music to a new level by developing harmonic and melodic techniques to fully integrate these influences into his own compositions. These compositions are especially interesting to me personally because my grandparents are from Hungary (paternal grandfather) and Romania (maternal grandmother). But you don't need Eastern European roots to hear why Bartók's music is ingenious.
2L's notes perfectly describe the composition, so I'll quote directly from it: "In the Divertimento he convincingly succeeds in uniting folklore elements with radical, modernistic devices such as note clusters and multi-tonal passages. Craftsmanship alone is never allowed to determine the result, however--there is a principal musical idea behind every impulse. One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is the relationship between the movements' mutual expression. Bartók loved to juxtapose extremes and in this instance we encounter extremes in choice of tempi and length of musical subject: the stabbing rhythms of the outer movements are contrasted by the slow middle movement with its almost infinite linear interplay in which we seem to encounter the composer's passionate emotional life in its entirety." While this may seem daunting to classical newbies, I assure you that the pulse and beauty of the composition are easy to find. The movements are:
1. Allegro non troppo
Boisterous Yet Simple
From the first note of track one, Britten's Boisterous Bourree of his Simple Symphony, it is apparent that 2L has totally mastered the art of microphone placement and the audio engineering of massed strings. The label's founder, Morten Lindberg, graduated from a recording academy having already been credited with 45 recordings, including an award-winning performance of Grieg's work in 1994. One key to the success of his recording engineers is that all have a deep affinity for classical music and all play instruments themselves. Their ears are developed, their attention to detail is excellent and 2L succeeds where many recording engineers fail. 2L credits Digital eXtreme Definition (DXD) as the tool behind the project: "a professional audio format that brings 'analogue' qualities in 32-bit floating point at 352.8 kHz." The technology delivers an unprecedented 11.2896 Mbit/s per channel (that's four times the data rate of DSD--the technology behind SACD). According to 2L, this leaves headroom for editing and balancing before quantizing to DSD for SACD or PCM for Blu-ray.
So how do the various BD codecs compare to each other and to SACD? First I listened to the 24- bit/192 kHz 5.1 PCM track. I was quickly seduced by the heft of the strings, and palpability of individual instruments. Nowhere was this more impressive than in Bartók's composition, featuring dramatic shifts of volume, tone and tempi. The midrange liquidity was good, perhaps a touch too sweet and not analytic enough for my taste, but that is the result of the recording venue. I tend to like my recordings a touch drier. But this is a minor quibble. The stringed voicing's used by Bartók in fleshing out his melodic and harmonic ideas are disarming in the gorgeous resonances audible in the mix. The other compositions included were also rewarded careful listening. It didn't hurt to have recently upgraded my amp to VAC's Phi Beta 110i, and my center speaker to the B&W HTM1D, which is a perfect match with the 802Ds.
From the lossless PCM, I slid the SACD into my SCD-1 (Sony's flagship SACD player) and opted to hear the two-channel SACD layer. Although the multichannel mix was very tasteful and conservative in anchoring the audio up front, I was amazed at how the soundstage appeared more shrunken, narrow and shallow in two channel, despite the SACD 2.8 MHz performance. While I hardly noticed the ambient sounds of the multichannel mix, they clearly had a subconscious effect on my perception of the soundstage. In comparison to the multichannel PCM, the strings in two-channel SACD sounded muddied, and when a soloist played, the spotlighting was altered significantly. I soon found myself abandoning the two-channel mix, placing the SACD in the PS3 and accessing the multichannel content. Again I was rewarded with a fullness, heft and clarity that was previously missing.
Though I expected the multichannel SACD content to sound the best of all, it actually performed no better than the lossless PCM content. Perhaps that's because the DSD is converted to PCM and output via HDMI, thereby eliminating any practical advantages of SACD's 2.8 MHz sampling. The Dolby TrueHD track was defined, but I noticed it gave up a modicum of tonal realism compared to the PCM track. Overall there was a slightly different character to the massed strings and less extension on the highs, but it was an almost imperceptible difference. I know the theory that TrueHD is the same as PCM, but I did hear a difference. There was an even greater difference with the DTS-HD MA track. It seemed to be mastered at a slightly higher volume and the treble sounded a touch bloated and rolled off compared to the extended highs of the PCM. On the caboose, of course, was the CD layer included on the SACD. Not horrible, but I cannot understand listening to this content when 24/192 PCM is included. Maybe in the car?
The take-home message from 2L's Divertimenti release (aside from a heartfelt recommendation to buy this wonderful title) is that the "death" of SACD among major labels is not the end of high-resolution digital audio. On the contrary, Blu-ray delivers an excellent medium for 24-bit/192 kHz PCM multichannel audio that--at least on this title--trumps two-channel SACD, and appears comparable to multichannel SACD. Divertimenti is worth every penny. If 2L or any other label issues comparable BDs, I for one will be first in line to purchase such releases. Whether Blu-ray can make a name for itself as a viable audio format remains to be seen. But with this release it becomes clearer than ever: BD is not just for video.