ONLINE - ISSUE 9
Cantate Domino, Oscars Motet Choir/Torsten Nillson, Conductor,
with Marianne Mellnas, Soprano; Alf Linder, Organ
A Review by Tom Gibbs
Ive always been a really big fan of just about anything on the Proprius label. So when I saw a recent thread on the Audio Asylum Hi-Rez Hiway forum (http://www.audioasylum.com/forums/hirez/bbs.html) referencing this benchmark recording on SACD, I immediately fired off an email to those good folks at Proprius, and had a copy at my desk in just a few days (many, many thanks to Tryggve Palmqvist). I've been listening to it pretty much non-stop for the last 72 hours or so, and I have to tell you I'm mighty impressed.
For those handful of the uninitiated (what desert island have you been stranded on?) who might not be familiar with Cantate Domino, it's another one of those much-heralded "audiophile" recordings that has been made available in just about every known playback format envisioned by mankind. As far as I can count, I've only owned it in six different incarnations, so I haven't shelled out quite as much dinero as many of you probably have in the never-ending quest for ultimate fidelity. Cantate Domino, unlike so many of the "audiophile" recordings, has held up considerably well since first released almost thirty years ago, and has served as one of my benchmark recordings for choral and vocal reproduction. For some of us, this disc very well may be our "grail," and I think the quest may have just ended. In my opinion, this new hybrid stereo SACD from Proprius eclipses any previous issue, and by a wide margin.
The Proprius issued LP probably came as close as possible to offering the best representation of the original recording. My current system does not allow for LP playback, but Ive listened to the disc countless times under such conditions. The LP tended to offer the best midrange and voice presentation, and while playback was slightly congested, especially during selections containing forte organ and brass passages, I've always regarded getting the voices right much more important than achieving ultimate full-tilt dynamic range. Over the years it also occurred to me that the difficulty my turntable experienced in extracting every ounce of fidelity from the LP might have had a lot to do with the original tapes probably just being overloaded by the source, and so just shrugged it off.
Lets step back in time, when we entered the Redbook CD era, and began to experience "perfect sound forever." I just happened into a local high-end boutique and spotted the original JVC CD pressing of Cantate Domino sitting there glittering on the shelf behind the counter my eyes just about popped out of my head! I dug deep and forked over the thirty-five bucks this was among the first handful of CDs I'd bought, and man, I was pumped! My first CD player, JVC's entry into the market, was a practically hand-built tank that I'd worked a second job nights for six months to buy. It was the only one I could afford, and was several hundred dollars less than Sony's available player. JVC Cantate Domino, JVC player copascetic symbiosis, right? Wrong! Experiencing what I definitely considered one of my "desert island discs" on CD immediately left me cold and empty a feeling soon to become commonplace in my Redbook CD listening regimen. Any of the selections on the disc that I'd previously felt were a bit "range restricted" (during LP playback) now had degenerated to flat-out distortion. Unbelievable!
Over an almost twenty-year odyssey since then, and through a variety of different playback systems, Redbook CD has, in my system, finally reached a relatively respectable level of fidelity. All of my recent experience listening to Redbook CD has been on SACD players for the last couple of years. My current impression is that the DSD system imparts a much more listenable, more musical quality to standard CDs than any other stand-alone Redbook CD player ever has for me. Whenever I listened to my current CD version of Cantate Domino (a more recent Redbook version), I felt it sounded really pretty good, and much closer in spirit to my recollection of LP playback, with many of the same good and bad qualities present. Upon placing the new SACD in the tray and hitting play, I could scarcely have prepared myself for what I was about to hear.
Gone are any traces of congestion in any of the selections containing brass and/or organ. The title track, right out of the gate, and track seven "Hosianna Davids son," both were always, always accompanied with full-tilt distortion in the brass intros, and at just about any playback level. The SACD just lets the music play, and the brass just sounds "brassy." At any playback level, I'm talking ears-bleeding, my wife upstairs pounding and screaming for me to please, please turn the music down! Organ passages have a new warmth imparted to them that just sounds so much more like a real organ, right there in your listening room. Sure, a couple of the organ tunes are a bit hokey, and we're not in Bach or Buxtehude territory, here, but what the hey! The bottom line is everything here sounds just the way I always thought it should, and more. Nowhere is there the slightest hint of tape overload.
The real glory here is in the vocal presentation, and I want to point out right away that the imaging presented by the SACD is phenomenal. Not only can you easily pick out the image position of the individual male and female vocalists (imaging was a tad more smeared on the LP, excessively so on Redbook CD), but the increase in image height and depth is dramatic. On tracks with prominent soprano solos, such as track 8 "Frojda dig, du Kristi bud," and track 14 "Mariae Wiegenleid," the dynamic range of the soloist always came close in the past to sending my amps into clipping. As a long-time, old-school Magneplanar owner, I can't tell you how many tweeter fuses I've replaced during playback of this disc. The SACD delivers the soloists in a real, palpable, in-your-room presence, with no evidence of strain or distortion.
When the last track, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" plays, my wife has ritualistically commented over the last twenty years how "affected" the singing of these Swedes is in their pronunciation of this most American of Christmas standards. I have to tell you, the SACD presents all the vocals so clearly, with no congestion, no digital haze even "White Christmas" takes on an entirely previously unheard personality. I've heard so much more in this entire program that I've never heard before the air and space around the voices is amazing in its realization. This music is so spiritual and life affirming for me that over the years I've revisited it often, but hearing this SACD is almost like hearing this music for the first time.
Theres this almost "urban legend" surrounding this disc regarding the background noise present in the recording, and how on truly revealing high-end systems during LP playback, on a few of the tracks you can clearly discern traffic noises from outside the recording location. Listening to both the original JVC and later Proprius Redbook CD versions, one can hear occasional traces of said noise, but the SACD lays everything bare for all to hear, and on just about every track. Im still not quite certain if its traffic were hearing perhaps as more hear the SACD, a new generation of debate will proceed. Im much more taken by the excellent capture and presentation of the recorded acoustic and the music-making found in the interior of the recording location.
The promise of DSD and SACD is very close to being fully realized on this disc. As impressed as I was with Proprius' first SACD disc, Valkommen till varen (PRSACD 2025), this first reissue is equally impressive in every attribute. Very, very highly recommended, regardless of how many times you may have bought is disc in the past!