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Positive Feedback ISSUE 50
july/august 2010


Reference Recordings SACD and HRx
by Teresa Goodwin



Britten's Orchestra

Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Sinfonia da requiem, Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes". Michael Stern (conductor) Kansas City Symphony. A Prof. Johnson Recording - recorded June 5-6, 2009, Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri. Stereo (24/176.4 PCM) / Multichannel (24/88.2 PCM). Reference Recordings - RR-120SACD

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a symphonic tour-de-force and audio spectacular, featuring all sections of the symphony, separately and together. Based on a famous theme by Henry Purcell, Britten takes the ensemble apart, then reassembles it in a grand and jubilant finale. Dynamic range is extreme.

If you are new to orchestral music this gives you a rare opportunity to hear the tonal qualities and unique sound of each instrument. The variations are in the following sequence:

  1. Flutes and piccolo with harp accompaniment

  2. Oboes

  3. Clarinets

  4. Bassoons

  5. Violins

  6. Violas

  7. Cellos

  8. Double bases

  9. Harp

  10. Horns

  11. Trumpets

  12. Trombones and tuba

  13. Percussion

Excerpt from the program notes by Richard Freed:

"The timpani begin the final variation, and provide a ritornello linking the appearances of the other instruments: Bass drum with cymbals, tambourine with triangle, snare drum with wood block, xylophone, castanets with gong, and finally the whip. The entire percussion section then celebrates the end of the chain of variations, subsiding to permit the xylophone to lead into the fugue.

In this final section Britten puts his fragmented orchestra back together in the grandest style, beginning with piccolo, moving though the other instruments and choirs, and concluding with a glorious proclamation of the original Purcell theme by the brass as the woodwinds and string exult in the fugue theme and the percussion link the two in a celebratory finale."

This is not just a showcase for the orchestra and it's instruments but one of the finest musical compositions from the modern era. It is extremely enjoyable as pure music.

Britten was a dedicated pacifist, and the Sinfonia da requiem from 1940 is his musical plea for peace. It begins with stark and dramatic drumbeats that will be a test for even the finest sound systems, and builds to tremendous climaxes. This early work is regarded by many as the finest of all his orchestral scores.

The Four Sea Interludes, published as Op. 33a, are performed more frequency than the Passacaglia, Op. 33b. When both elements are performed together the Passacaglia is usually presented after the four Interludes, though sometimes placed in the opening position; there have also been performances based on the idea of integrating the Passacaglia, actually the grandest of the opera's interludes, into the concert sequence as the penultimate part of a set of five numbers, as on this SACD. This placement of the Passacaglia corresponds roughly to its position in the stage work itself, in which it separates the two scenes in Act III, though the sequence of the Four Sea Interludes as Op. 33a does not follow strictly the order in which the respective pieces occur in the opera.

  1. Dawn

  2. Sunday Morning

  3. Moonlight

  4. Passacaglia

  5. Storm

Reference Recordings has some stiff competition as all three works have previously been released on two Telarc Stereo/Multichannel DSD recorded SACDs with additional compositions. The "Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra" and "Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes", which is coupled with Elgar's Enigma Variations with Paavo Järvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. And "Sinfonia da requiem" from "Britannia" which also includes Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos. 1 & 4, Maxwell Davies's An Orkney Wedding, Turnage's Three Screaming Popes, and MacMillan's Britannia with Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The bass is very deep and realistic with plenty of impact in both the Telarc and Reference Recordings SACDs. The bass drum has the slam one hears live in concert and the double basses and cellos have the growl they do in real life. This is an area where most recordings miss the mark, however both Telarc and Reference Recordings are known for retaining all the low frequencies of the original event.

The Telarc has more weight in the lower frequencies and the Reference Recordings a little more clarity in the high frequencies with beautiful string tone, though not quite as smooth as the Telarc. Both are excellent but I think the Reference Recordings is my overall preference.

In "Sunday Morning" the church bells have more impact on Telarc however the Reference Recordings is still very spectacular. The Passacaglia is placed between Moonlight and Storm and is hauntingly beautiful, after hearing it included in the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes I cannot now live without it.

The performances are excellent as well, these three are clearly some of the best sounding and most exciting SACDs yet released.

The other British compositions on Britannia are superb so I recommend getting both Britannia and Britten's Orchestra.

I would pass on the Järvi Telarc SACD as his Peter Grimes Sea Interludes does not include the Passacaglia and the Elgar Enigma Variations is not one of the better performances.


rachmaninoff hrx cover


Symphonic Dances, Vocalise and Études–Tableaux. Eiji Oue (conductor) Minnesota Orchestra. A Prof. Johnson Recording. Reference Recordings 24 Bit 176.4kHz Music HRx HR-96
The "Symphonic Dances" in recent years have become one of Rachmaninoff’s most-performed scores. The five "Ètudes-Tableaux" (The Sea and the Seagulls, The Fair, Funeral March, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and March) were orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi from the brilliant originals for piano. "Vocalise" is one of the great classical melodies, and is hummable by everyone.

HRx's are high resolution audio WAV files on a DVD-R data disc. These files contain exact bit-for-bit copies of Reference Recordings’ master recordings. What one does is load the DVD-R into ones computer and import the files into their music player or server. I have iTunes and DVDs (unlike CDs) will not automatically open on my MAC Mini. The disc's icon appears on my desktop and I click on it to open up the music files and a jpg of the album cover artwork. To add the files into iTunes I double-click on the file name and it loads into iTunes and starts playing.

On my MAC Mini WAV files do not support album artwork so I convert them to 24/176.4 Apple Lossless (which is similar to FLAC) a lossless compressed format which saves about 40% of file space. Alternately you may want to convert them to 24/176.4 AIFF which is also an uncompressed file format.

After converting to 24/176.4 Apple Lossless I then add the album artwork and fill in any missing information from the "Info" tab. I usually compare at least one track between the WAV and Apple Lossless versions and then I delete the WAV versions as there is no need to have two giant files of the same music program. The WAV file is over 3GB and the Apple Lossless is just under 2GB. Of course I still have the WAV original if I ever need it on the DVD-R.

I had to play these files downsampled to 24/88.2 as the core audio in my MAC Mini has a maximum rate of 24/96. You can read more about this restriction in my review of Bryston's BDA-1 DAC  If in the future I have true 176.4kHz playback I will do a follow-up review.

I have listened for differences between the 24/176.4 WAV and the 24/176.4 Apple Lossless downsampled to 24/88.2 and several times I thought I heard a difference but I couldn't hear it when I tried again. Perhaps there is an audible difference with higher resolving equipment or Apple Lossless is really lossless? 

Four complimentary 24/176.4 HRx Downloads Courtesy of Reference Recordings are available from Computer Audiophile at the following two links:

Reference Recordings has a virtually unbroken history of making the finest possible high resolution recordings. They started with analog tape. They weren’t satisfied with early technology, 16 bit digital recordings, so soon began making HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) recordings, a process co-designed RR recording engineer Keith O. Johnson.

Currently they record at 24 bit 176.4 kHz. Like any quality recording company, they have long been frustrated by the limitations of consumer formats. No one but their recording and mastering team could hear the full beauty of their recordings! ALL of the consumer formats downgraded the true sound of the master tapes, either because of the limitations of the format itself or of the playback equipment. Computer music playback is the new frontier. The WAV files on HRx are exactly the same as their master recordings. As long as the playback system you use does not convert or corrupt the bits, they will sound as wonderful as the original masters.

Sonically this is easily the finest sounding version of the Symphonic Dances I have ever heard and one the best performances as well. The seldom recorded Respighi orchestration of Études–Tableaux was a major surprise and work I shall hold dear to my heart for a long time.

I also received an HRx Sampler which is only available to the press (so far) and was able do a three way comparison of Rimsky-Korsakov's Dance of the Tumblers with Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra from "Exotic Dances from the Opera" HR-71

  • The 24 Bit 176.4kHz from the HRx Sampler CD-R data disc downsampled by my computer to 88.2kHz

  • The 24 Bit 96kHz download from HDTracks

  • The SACD 2 channel stereo high resolution program.

I still like the SACD version the best, it is warmer and more lifelike, perhaps when I have true 176.4kHz playback sometime towards the end of this year when I review Bryston's upcoming Digital Music Player BDP-1 with the BDA-1 DAC the balance will tilt towards the 24 Bit 176.4kHz.

Prof. Johnson records most sessions in both analog and digital and to be fair the SACD is from the analog master rather than 176.4kHz digital master and that may have effected my perception of it being the best sounding as I tend to prefer the warmer sound of well made analog recordings. However the 176.4kHz HRx even downsampled to 88.2kHz is audibly superior to the 96kHz HDTracks download. Here is my review of the Exotic Dances from the Opera SACD:

This sampler also includes many selections from current and upcoming HRx DVD-R's and every selection was wonderful, musically and sonically. The HRx series while quite pricey offers the finest sound I have heard from Reference Recordings with the exception of the analog version of Exotic Dances from the Opera and that could be equipment related so I will revisit this issue once I am able to playback at full 176.4kHz resolution as I am sure they the sound will only get better!