The Future Is Here - Audio Still Rules
Blu-ray recordings may be video, audio or most commonly video plus audio. If the video is a distraction turn it off though I would suggest watching the video at least once; at times it can be interesting or entertaining. Naxos is again following up with more high definition (Blu-ray) audio only releases. For many listeners that will be a distinct improvement in audio quality if the HDMI digital output signal is used instead of the analog. That one cable carries everything including stereo or multi-channel audio in addition to the very high quality Blu-ray video signal. Greater clarity and a smoother treble will be noticed with many if not most home audio systems. So far this seems to be consistently true. Easier connection needing only one cable is appreciated by all. Sometimes new-fangled things are even easier to use while offering better quality, at least in the audio musical field.
An easy way to get into the beauty and audio and video qualities of Blu-ray releases is by getting a truly good player (a good start is important with many things in this old world). In this issue I will continue to use the moderately priced Oppo BDP-95 player for all the Blu-ray reviews, an over performing universal player; other players may be used for SACD recordings. Next item needed would be a very decent AV receiver such as by Onkyo, Integra, Denon and others that have multiple HDMI cable inputs and good digital or digital to analog connections and jump right in. Your newer television sets will have the correct and simple HDMI connections for simplified setup. The AV receiver will let you add surround sound easily. Remember that quality is more important than quantity in the long run. If possible, try to get an AV receiver that has an official manufacturers' list price of $1200 or even a bit more, particularly if you like to listen at fairly loud levels at times and with multichannel connected. If you like "an in the theater" atmosphere or feeling, multichannel will be necessary now or later.
Notice the generally favorable brief revues I write each issue? There are logical reasons for that to happen. Changes such as digital and HDMI connections have made pretty darn good audio to be easier for the manufacturers to give us and easier for us to put to use. Same is true for the video portion that we pretty well take for granted here. As you purchase and use some of my suggested performances you may notice that relatively unknown sources and performers are often doing a superb job and why not! Unlike many of the big professional outfits and famous performers they can and possibly do practice for many months on end, repeating the same music or performances. That can be the way for an individual, or group, chorus or orchestra to be discovered by being on these well done Blu-ray recordings! Pay attention, watch and listen to the possible stars of the near future in the comfort of your own listening and viewing room.
Verdi, Aida. Orchestra/Chorus: Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. ArtHaus Musik Blu-ray 108 040
Aida is one of the most famous operas ever performed and is often used as a prime example of so called 'Grand Opera' at its best. For non lovers of opera, Verdi is at times thought of as the "Beethoven" of opera. In other words if he is not the best, then who is? The lead female role is regarded as great as they come. The solos, many duets and ensembles are regarded as outstanding though at times the chorus may be off stage. Though the vocalists are the stars of this opera, well performed presentations of the ballet and the famous Triumphal March can be stunning. Here they come close with this fine Blu-ray version aided by the visual images. Though well known for spectacular presentations of this famous opera, other than the above mentioned scenes, this opera is actually a relatively small or almost intimate one. As such the music as presented by the vocalists including the fine chorus and the orchestra are of great importance here. They all are simply excellent and Mehta's command of the orchestra results in a fine listening experience. Fortunately the recording captures all in a fine Blu-ray recording that is definitely full range and seemingly very low in distortions. Famous as it is, I am not certain it is ideal for a newcomer's introduction to opera. For opera lovers, what a great sounding release this is.
Schubert, Complete Overtures. Orchestra: Prague Sinfonia. Conductor: Christian Benda. Naxos Hi Def Audio Blu-ray NBD0019
I must admit that I had no idea that Schubert had composed so many overtures. Listening to all one after the other, more than once, I somehow was not overly impressed. That is definitely a personal, a very personal decision to make. There are many overtures that I enjoy thoroughly though I realize that most are rather unique in some way or ways. To me, as pleasing as these are, there is a degree of sameness to them somehow. It is at least partly much the same or similar orchestration for all of them. I find not enough variety to satisfy me over a long listening session of mainly unfamiliar musical compositions. The adequately acceptable audio quality is a bit lacking in detail and in limited dynamic range but on the relaxing side for casual listening. With that caveat in mind, a recommendation can be given if the perhaps new selections are of interest. Newcomers to classical music are likely to be bored here.
Szymanowski, Symphonies Nos.1 and 2. Orchestra: Warsaw Philharmonic. Conductor: Antoni Wit. Naxos Hi Def Audio Blu-ray NBD0021
What a change from the preceding audio only Naxos recording. Almost a night and day difference is a good description. As is usual so far, with Naxos' fine efforts with Blu-ray audio only recordings, this and the preceding Schubert release were recorded in 24-bit, 88.2 kHz stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1 and presented in High Definition 24-bit, 96kHz sound quality. Almost everything here is at least a bit different, yes different from almost everything. For example, the Symphony No. 1 has only two movements, not the traditional four. Those two movements are not extra long ones as if to compensate. There are some definite hints of both Richard Strauss and Wagner to be heard here though not note by note copying of course.
Szymanowski eventually was quoted as saying "It is a contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster". I can live with that description from the composer. He should know, right? It is an almost forceful composition at times. There are some melodies and they can be quite loud in a contemporary manner though usually not aggressively so. Fortunately the Blu-ray audio recording, quite excellent, in no way exaggerates any hints of harshness or other distortions.
The orchestral performers are quite excellent and the recording reveals that clearly. There is much in the way of brass and percussion here; also captured cleanly down to the bottom of the bass range seemingly. The orchestral comments can be attributed to the Symphony No.2 also though there more solo instruments can be heard including both violin and viola though very little of the cello; the mellower cello often gets a bit lost surrounded by the full orchestra. The very different structure in the second symphony is not always noticed and may seem a great deal like the first. Though here the two movements are followed by six variations and a fugue!
These compositions are simply different than others though not too tough to handle, if you are a bit adventuresome, you may be rewarded. The audio quality is outstanding and this new release is definitely recommended and perhaps even for you newcomers to classical music.
The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan. Orchestra: Victoria. Chorus: Opera Australia. Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion. OperaAustralia Blu-ray OPOZ56015BD
The Mikado or the 'Town of Titipu' is an operetta in two acts by Arthur Sullivan with libretto by W S Gilbert. First performed in London in 1885, this production was first performed at the Sydney, Australia Opera House in 1985. It is kind of cute, definitely wacky at times if not quite crazy and typically loved immensely or barely tolerated by others. The music is appealing, the acting borderline and the enjoyment contagious. The costumes are eye-catching and quite outrageous and like no others. Here we have the 'Lord High Executioner' and another role is the 'Lord High Everything Else'. Those titles are unique and typical of everything contained herein. This comic operetta is a gem if not quite loved by all. Many believe it is an acquired taste. You need to try and find out for yourself probably. The music is quirky and fun while the audio quality is quite simply excellent. You may not play this regularly though, when music loving friends or audiophiles come to visit, you will be playing this, "The Mikado", with very high quality, high definition sound and excellent video added. Obviously a top recommendation, probably for newcomers as well as old timers wanting this version in the latest high quality sound.
Giovanni Pergolesi, Adriano In Siria. Orchestra: Accademia Bizantina. Conductor: Ottavio Dantone. Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7098 D
I either did a great deal of 'head scratching' or 'brain searching' with this release. It was probably worth it. The composer's name kept bugging me; somewhere in the depth of my cerebral cortex the thought, that name was waiting there to be reached. I was certain that I had never heard a composition by him and that he dated from around the Baroque period. I finally gave up and looked in one of my dusty 'reference' books, "Opera on Record". No listing there, though eventually I located him in some other reference books. No, I do not default to use of the internet. Compared to my favorite composer of that period, Telemann, and Vivaldi, Pergolesi did not have much time in which to become famous. He was born after Telemann and Vivaldi and after just 26 years, he died before they did. In a niche of Italian opera he had a very good reputation and earned it quickly.
The next surprise occurred while listening to this particularly fine release. Particularly fine, as the solo (and duet performers) had beautiful, rich and full voices, almost without exception; that was needed as there was almost nothing in the way big choral group passages. The sopranos were almost sounding as if some were altos and the relatively small orchestra often seemed to be bigger and with a very full and richly recorded middle range with no harsh or irritating passages. Then with little warning, all changed dramatically! It was as if another opera was inserted at the end of the act. And that is exactly what happened. It was composed just for that intermezzo purpose, was very different and evidently often inserted by Pergolesi.
It was a short selection and not quite a real two for one deal; it is discussed in the liner notes and revealed to anyone that might have read those notes before playing the fine recording. Of course the next act of Adriano came on immediately after that surprise intermezzo. Paying attention to the time period and what goes with that (harpsichord, not piano and so on), it is easy to recommend this release to any and all that this review interests; it is a bit different.
Rimsky-Korsakov, Le Coq d'Or (The golden Cockerel). Orchestra de Paris. Conductor: Kent Nagano. Chorus: Mariinsky Theater St. Petersburg. ArtHaus Musik Blu-ray 108 053
One of the most famous and popular Russian composers, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was particularly well known and loved for his orchestration and colorful compositions. Many recordings of his most popular compositions are often "treated or glamorized" by some conductors to enhance what needs no enhancing. This beautiful recording is proof positive of that fact. I have never seen any of his theater productions before this and must say the beauty is almost overwhelming and exquisitely crowned by the sometimes subtly and other times not so subtly colorful music. Positive-Feedback is mainly concerned with music of all kinds or types recorded as faithfully as possible and played back faithfully also. Here the faithful video reproduction must be mentioned for its beauty also. So far each time I played this great recording I got immersed in it and simply enjoyed rather finding fault with any aspect of the audio quality. So, before I play it again I shall simply say, "buy it and enjoy" whether you are a jaded long time classical music lover or a relative newcomer. This is an updated release of a well known earlier release and of course now in Blu-ray. The audio quality is not to be faulted though no attempt has been made to make it spectacular, just realistic. Enjoy, enjoy and hopefully enjoy some more of this most enjoyable Russian opera even if you are not usually an opera lover.
Home theater loudspeaker upgrade.
I purchased my first pair of audiophile or music lover's quality loudspeakers fifty-five years ago. I have done quite a bit of component and music reviews for almost forty-five of those years. Quite some time ago I decided to have a separate system for my video plus audio, a so called home theater system. Even so, I have kept in mind that system would be the only system needed by many of our readers for audio only or plus video. I have deliberately kept the total manufacture's list prices for the entire system including all cables to less than twenty-thousand dollars. Over the past few years it has become obvious that I have to do more and more multi-channel reviews such as the now popular Blu-ray recordings. As I have upgraded the home theater system components the past two years except for the loudspeakers. I have now chosen the upgraded loudspeakers and am still under my maximum total cost limit.
My left and right front channel pair of loudspeakers are now the relatively new Carl Marchisotto's "Boxer models" as reviewed by others here in PFO. They each have a fine 6.5 inch woofer/mid-range laminated cone in a compact rear vented attractive enclosure. That is topped off with a truly excellent silk soft dome tweeter, one per enclosure. Upper bass response is fine and with the middle ranges (where music lives) the result is full, rich detailed and powerful. Of course the deepest bass range is weak though satisfying enough for many listeners and will easily tolerate loud listening levels with a solid response and detail.
Carl evidently gave a great deal of thought to the center channel model, the "Announcer model". Listening through many sessions now including this issue's reviews backed up Marchisotto's thinking completely. Using the same drivers as the "Boxers", here the center channel model use two of the bass/midrange drivers flanking the same tweeter and sealing the cabinet. There is no venting or port here though there is a noticeable increase in sensitivity resulting in playing more loudly (3dB) for any given input strength. It is believed that dialogue is enhanced in this design. The official measured bass response does not extend quite as deeply as do the Boxers though is seldom apparent. This well designed trio blends together almost perfectly and offers powerful, rich and detailed audio quality far exceeding its size and price range. I am using them in a bookshelf cabinet arrangement with no problem using Herbie's isolating footers and the center channel mounted above the TV and slightly angled down. Carl's Thunderbolt subwoofers naturally mate just fine with these loudspeakers. They do not have the most deep bass output nor play the loudest. Their design does offer amplification and well controlled light subwoofer cones that blend beautifully with great detail with the loudspeakers covering the adjacent higher ranges almost seamlessly at the crossover area, something not often thought about. Do remember, designer Carl Marchisotto is a real classical music lover and he does care. A well done trio you have created here Carl.
Will it be possible to create some really small model to use in the surround areas that can create ambiance at reasonable price to complete our home theaters?
Boxer: $1500 pair 15.5"x 8 x11.5"
Announcer: $1500 each 19"x 8 x12"