Mozart / Grieg: Works for Two Pianos, Vol. II - the
Norwegian Label 2L Continues to Excel
It’s been about a year since my man David Robinson was spinning a new 2L release on his Oppo BDP-83SE. That release, Mozart-Grieg: Works for Two Pianos, Vol. II was described by DR as "spectacular in near-field listening." The comment came in the context of a fuller review of the Oppo. Indeed Mozart-Grieg: Works for Two Pianos, Vol. II is spectacular, and worthy of further belated review, especially now that Oppo has released its highest-end player yet, the BDP-95. This universal player features two specially optimized ES9018 DACs—one for two-channel and one for multi-channel analog output. I was bitten by the upgrade bug, bought the Oppo BDP-95 and sold my 83SE. This being a music review, however, I’ll stick to the shiny discs.
Blu-ray has arrived as a high-resolution audio-only format. The Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 proved that. But so did the excellent Divertimenti by the Nordic label 2L. Divertimenti was the first—and feared by me at least to be the last—Blu-ray/SACD package ever produced. The fears were soon put to rest as 2L released more outstanding recordings in both DSD for SACD and high bitrate lossless PCM for Blu-ray. The most recent of these is another Grieg recording, Grieg/Thommessen: Veslemoy Synsk, just released this week.
2L is unique in delivering a range of digital audio options in its releases for compatibility and for audiophiles to compare different formats on their systems. While not offering Dolby TrueHD or multi-channel PCM like the Divertimenti, Mozart-Grieg: Works for Two Pianos, Vol. II delivers a multi-channel 5.1 and two-channel hybrid SACD that includes a CD layer on one disc, while the second disc, a Blu-ray, disc includes the two-channel 24bit, 192kHz PCM and a 24bit, 192kHz 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.
Each of these versions is sourced from the same DXD recording. The main benefit of DXD is the optimal impulse response capable of capturing the ambiance around the instruments. 2L embraced this recording technology with its minimal microphone approach that simultaneously is both a throwback to and an advance over recording engineers from the golden age of classical labels like RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence.
The Blu-ray/SACD includes three piano duets—one by Mozart, another Mozart composition arranged by Grieg and a Grieg composition, Old Norwegian Melody with Variation. The works are performed by the Dena Piano Duo which joins the Norwegian pianist Tina Margareta Nilssen with her former instructor at the Universitat der Kunste in Berlin, Heide Gortz. Both pianists have been decorated and performed extensively in international recitals. After touring Europe together, playing several concert series and festivals, 2L released the duo's first volume of Mozart's Grieg arrangements in 2007 to critical acclaim. Volume one was a one-disc hybrid SACD release, in contrast to the dual disc SACD/Blu-ray offering for Vol II.
Grieg was for years criticized for his arrangements of Mozart's sonatas and Fantasia in C Minor. The critics hammered Grieg for being disrespectful of the earlier master and of "Norwegianizing" the compositions. But Grieg himself had the utmost respect for Mozart, referring to him as his "immortal master and childhood love". The Fantasia is one of the most harmonically complex of Mozart's works and Grieg became obsessed with refining the composition, which he arranged in 1876-1877.
Grieg's own composition included here, Old Norwegian Melody with Variations op. 51, is closely associated with Julius Rontgen, a long-term friend of Grieg's as well as a composer/pianist in his own right. Together, they performed the Mozart duets Grieg had arranged. The variations were composed to give the duo a new piece to perform based on the folk tune "Sjugur og Trollbrura". The variations are especially instructive because Grieg composes the different sections in the styles of his favorite predecessors. He translates the folk tune into the language of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Saint-saens and Mussorgsky.
Mozart-Grieg: Works for Two Pianos, Vol. II is 2L's second release that showed me the advantages of multi-channel. The first thing to notice in the multi-channel soundstage is that the rear channels are mastered at a higher level than most classical multi-channel recordings. While I enjoyed the emphasis of the rears, it may make classical buffs and two-channel purists very uncomfortable, not because of the level of reverberant sound, but because the direct sound emanating from the surrounds may be a little too jarring for some listeners. It will mesmerize you, however, if you enjoy the more intimate, close-mic'ed envelopment 2L achieves here. As Robinson himself said, "spectacular in near-field listening."
Another potential criticism of the recordings lies in the performances themselves. The Dena Piano Duo is a storied pair of performers but here they do not attack the pieces, even in the allegro sections. Instead, the performance is more laid back and I would go so far as to call it meditative or dreamy. While this is a mark against the performance of the Sonata, it allows the focal point to be the tonal purity of the pianos and the way the notes carry after the key is struck. Technically, the Sonata needs more life breathed into it by the duo. The largely legato articulation favored by Nilssen and Gortz tends to drag down the piece and mire it in the sustained tones of the instruments, but what a gorgeous sound it is! Purely from an audio standpoint I'd have to say the duo’s approach it's an advantage.
The Grieg arrangement to Mozart's C-Minor Fantasia is delivered in the accompanying piano, while the first piano plays closer to the strict Mozart interpretation. One can hear what the critics complained about as Grieg took some major harmonic liberties with the piece. No complaints about an overly legato performance here and the lively interplay creates more texture in the recording, which is resolved handsomely in the two channel and multi-channel modes, especially the multi-channel DSD.
The sustain as well as the "ping" of the mallets striking the strings, giving an air of the fingers on the keys, and resonating through the pianos—all is rendered realistically, as if two grand pianos are in the room. But the real centerpiece of the release is the Grieg composition, Old Norwegian Romance with Variations. Without meaning to over dramatize the recording, the way the Dena Piano Duo ingratiate the lyricism and sound of their instruments is as close to audio perfection as I have heard in a recording of a piano duo. The lush, midrange-heavy recording will plumb the limits of your speakers' ability to articulate nuance and tone.
No one who enjoys Mozart or Grieg and has a means to play SACD and/or Blu-ray should be without Mozart-Grieg: Works for Two Pianos, Vol. II. While I can't say the performance is the greatest for these particular compositions, the Dena Piano Duo certainly achieve a solid reading and the pieces are well worth exploring. The Norwegian label lends an air of authenticity and, with Norway in the news for a terrible tragedy, it is necessary to focus on the country’s triumphs: music certainly being one of them.
The packaging, in a standard two-disc Blu-ray case, is lovely with excellent artwork and a booklet describing the artists, pieces, composers and the label. As for the audio, it's lush, contemplative, sustained--even heavy at times—with palpable elements of the piano resonance. Beyond that, it's another amazing feat of audio engineering from 2L and my hat's off to them. I hope the label continues to produce more of these dual disc SACD/Blu-ray releases.