To be truthful, while this CD release deals with love themes, the way they are treated is more like traditional, low-key jazz than bedroom music. The performance is good, and Watters does know how to massage that trombone of his. The music here is truly enjoyable, in contrast to some of the music-faculty stuff Summit regularly sends to me to review.
Overall, the sound is on the dry side, but well imaged and spread out wide enough to let you know that the performers are not all lined up in a row behind the microphone. I applied some Yamaha jazz-club DSP and the result was actually borderline sensational. The processing worked with the dry recorded acoustics to give a very realistic perspective.
The early-release copy sent to me for review had compositions listed out of order on the back of the box. Summit has issued a recall for all unsold copies, and they sent me a letter indicating the proper order.
Grieg, Edvard: Symphonic Dances, Six Songs (for voice and orchestra), and Three orchestral pieces from Sigurd Jorsalfar. Recorded in 1992, at Stockholm Concert Hall. Engineer: Ralph Couzens. 72+ minutes. Chandos 10287.
As composers go, Grieg has never been considered to be right up there with the heavy hitters. He is mainly known for three works, and the ones performed here are not part of that repertoire. (Well, some of the melodies in the songs can be found in Peer Gynt.) Still, they are musically worthwhile and certainly show that the composer was both competent and artistically gifted.
While recorded 13 years ago, this disc still has sound that is fully up to date. The soundstage is wide in the Chandos tradition, and the imaging and perspective is right up there with the best. I applied several DSP tricks to enhance the presentation, and the best was the Classical/Opera mode available from my various Yamaha processors. That mode also managed to keep the centered soloist performing the six songs centered when listened to from off axis.
Haydn, Joseph: String Quartets, Op. 71. The Lindsays. Recorded in 2002, at Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth, Yorkshire, England. Engineer: Martin Haskell. 67+ minutes. ASV Gold 4012.
As the blurb sheet that came with this discs indicated, while Haydn's early quartets were composed for performance in small environments, the later ones (including the Opus 71) were designed to be performed in larger spaces. As such, the approach is broader in scale and with this particular work the idea is to get the attention of the audience immediately, and then never allow it to fade. Fortunately, the Lindsays manage to pull off a performance that does the material full justice.
As with other ASV/Lindsays recordings I have reviewed, the recording is exemplary, with fine, detailed sound and a soundstage that mimics a proper close-up listening perspective. (Sure, the work was composed for a larger than usual audience, but that does not mean that the rows towards the front would not contain the best seats in the house.) When it comes to using DSP for enhancing the two-channel soundstage, the Classical/Opera mode available from any of my Yamaha processors was the hands-down winner. It managed to add both depth and focus to the wide spread.
Shostakovich, Dmitry: Symphony Number Five and Symphony Number Nine. (Complete Symphonies, Volume 2.) The Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Conducted by Roman Kofman. Recorded in 2003, at Heilig-Kreuze-Kirche Bad Godesberg. Engineer: Werner Dabringhaus. 73+ minutes. MD&G 937 1202.
Shostakovich was arguably the most accomplished, "grand-scale" composer of the 20t" century. Yes, I know that Mahler extends into that era, as does Debussy, and certainly Copland, Richard Strauss, Vaughn Williams, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff qualify as superb composers of large-scale music. Indeed, if given the choice I would prefer to listen to many of Rachmaninoff's or Stravinsky's works than many of those composed by Shostakovich. However, I am not talking about preference as much as I am talking about greatness.
Shostakovich had to do something none of those others had to. He had to deal with a monolithic bureaucracy that had little appreciation for art and considered music to be nothing more than a means to some kind of dictated social end. (Stravinsky, Glazunov, and Rachmaninoff had all gotten out of Dodge, so to speak, after the 1917 Revolution, and while Prokofiev eventually returned to Russia after working in New York and Paris, in my opinion his music is not quite on the same level as that of Shostakovich.) That Shostakovich managed to turn out assorted masterpieces one after the other under such conditions puts him into a special class.
What we have here is one of his greatest works, plus an additional piece that is shorter and lighter in tone and perhaps a bit easier to listen to. The performance of the Fifth, perhaps the most notable symphony since Beethoven's own Fifth (yeah, I know that Beethoven's Ninth is great, too, and so are any number of Mahler symphonies), is superbly handled. It easily rivals the Scottish National Symphony version recorded oil the Chandos label way back in 1989 (8650) and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra version recorded on the Delos label in 1999 (DE3246).
The Shostakovich Ninth, while not comparable to Beethoven's Ninth by any means, is also wonderfully handled. While being a more intimate work than the Fifth, the engineering here manages deliver more reverb in the surround channels of the DVD-A release than what we have with the Fifth. Indeed, the reverb is a bit over the top and probably should have been dialed down considerably. (One explanation for this reverb-balance difference is that the two symphonies were recorded over five months apart.) In any case, this is a worthwhile performance of the Ninth, to say the least, and some surround freaks will revel in the sense of amplified hall space.
For me, one of the most interesting things about this material is the format, or rather the three formats. It is actually a two-disc set that has the above-noted DVD-A and Dolby Digital versions on one of them and a CD version on the other. The CD is very well recorded, indeed, and I would recommend it, along with the two mentioned above, automatically to anyone wanting a basic recording of the Fifth. Like all well-recorded stereo releases, it responded well to a variety of DSP emendations I applied via my Yamaha processors, with the Fifth technically fairing somewhat better than the more reverberant sounding Ninth. Actually, when it comes to the application of DSP emendations, my first choice would be the Delos release, which was recorded with Dolby Surround (two-channel matrixed) in mind. With DPL II decoding, that transcription sounds superb.
By far the most intriguing item, however, is the DVD-A disc. As usual with these releases, we have DVD-A tracks for those with DVD-A capable players, and then we also have the "alternate" 448 kbps Dolby Digital tracks (which essentially duplicate the musical material on the DVD-A tracks) for those who only have DVD video players. The playback options are: stereo (which basically duplicates the soundstaging and subjective audio quality of the accompanying compact disc), 5.1 surround (in both DVD-A and DD form), and what MD&G calls 2+2+2 Multi-channel Sound.
Now, let's first deal quickly with the stereo downmixed tracks. I realize that some will believe that a 96 kHz, 24-bit stereo recording will have it all over any PCM 44.1 kHz, 16-bit CD version, but the fact is that the more advanced DVD-A technology just does not give us an edge here. All you gain with DVD-A in two-channel form is a bandwidth extension into the supersonic realm and a S/N ratio that exceeds both the capabilities of most audio amplifiers and recording microphones. For this reason, the compact disc in the package sounds just as good as the two-channel DVD-A version. As for listening to Dolby Digital in two-channel form, well that just does not make sense. Why downmix the digitally reduced version on this disc when we have a perfectly fine, two-channel PCM disc included in the package?
That leaves us with surround sound. OK, the 5.1 release sounds fine, be it in either DVD-A or DD form. The CD version, given DSP treatment by my Yamaha processors sounded as good--different, yet as good--but that does not change the fact that the 5.1 version is a worthwhile item. (To be truthful, the Delos release noted above, given DPL II "music" decoding, sounds a bit better in terms of hall-space realism than either.) The DVD-A version has the high-tech edge, but to be truthful the DD version can subjectively hold its own with relative ease. The 448 kbps data reduction simply does not add up to increased audible distortion, less impact, or any other kind of negative anomaly that I could hear. Indeed, the technical/digital limitations of this program, if any exist in either DVD-A or DD form, are not going to be revealed by any audio system I can think of. Consequently, the good news is that any DVD video player, including even those sub-$100 jobs available at Best Buy or Circuit City, will deal with this 5.1 material well enough to be fully satisfactory.
OK, I should probably end the review here, but what about this 2+2+2 version that exists on the surround disc, both in DD and DVD-A form? Well, here things get a bit complex. Basically, the source material is the same as what we have with the 5.1 versions. There are no additional tracks.
What you can do to get 2+2+2 performance is first obtain a player with a six-channel output. (All DVD-A players have this feature, but only some DVD video-only players will, along with the requisite on-board DD decoding.) Once you have such a player hooked up to a processor with the requisite 6-channel analog inputs, you will then, according to the info within the booklet that comes with the disc, arrange for the center and subwoofer outputs to feed two up-front, "height" speakers. These height speakers should be mounted fairly high up above the left and right main speakers and will expand the soundstage and sense of hall space, adding additional depth and realism to the sound.
This kind of feature has been utilized before with some Telarc releases, but in that case there was only one height feed involved, and it got its info from just the LFE channel. (I should point out here that there is nothing stopping a recording engineer from recording a full-bandwidth signal on the LFE channel; the .1 nomenclature is just a PR tool.) With the Telarc approach (assuming they wanted any discrete center feed at all), the center channel remained the same: centered between the left and right mains.
In addition, Yamaha has a similar spatial-envelopment feature with some of its upscale receivers, although those two, front-mounted "effects-channel" speakers are digitally and primarily configured to simulate a faux sense of frontal depth from two-channel sources. They do not handle discrete information recorded on a disc. The MD&G approach, however, actually has discrete, full-bandwidth information that should be fed to those additional front speakers.
OK, so what is going on with this disc? How can we get height-channel information from those two channels when they normally are carrying center and subwoofer information for 5.1 playback?
First off, there is no independent low-bass information recorded on this disc's LFE channel. Rather, it is carrying full-bandwidth data that simulates a high-located hall reflection, just as with the Telarc approach. With a standard digital hookup to an outboard DD decoder, the LFE channel is low-pass filtered by the processor, which in this case means that what you hear from a subwoofer during 5.1 playback is just the bass part of that full-bandwidth "height" track. If you have other small satellites handling the left, right, and surround channels, you would also route their bass to the subwoofer channel with 5.1 playback.
However, you cannot shunt the bass to the subwoofer channel when using that channel as one of the two height channels, because then the probably small height speaker would be functioning both as a subwoofer and as a height speaker.
What this means is that when playing this disc you must have full-bandwidth left, right, and surround satellite speakers than can decently handle the low bass. There will be no subwoofer-only output available. All four must be processor configured as "large" speakers by the circuits in the multi-output player, and hopefully the subwoofer output from the player will not be low-pass filtered. (Some players may do this, but probably not, since recorded LFE is normally low-pass filtered during disc production and there is no need for the player to do it.)
There is no mention of this obvious requirement within the info booklet that comes with the disc, but at least in most cases the 6-channel analog inputs of typical processors and AV receivers have no high- and low-pass filtering at all. All six run full bandwidth. One exception I know of would be the Yamaha DSP-A1 processor amp that I reviewed in issue 72; it has full crossover control of its 6-channel analog inputs, with the subwoofer input always low-pass filtered at 90 Hz. Consequently, it cannot be configured for MD&G style 2+2+2 playback.
So, yes, the LFE channel can handle this source material and will function as a proper, full-bandwidth height channel with a standard 6-channel analog hookup, assuming a processor and player that will not low-pass filter the input. On the other hand, it will also function as a bass channel of sorts when a standard, 5.1 digital hookup is used and low-pass filtering is applied, although we have to remember that this recording has no LFE bass channel, per se.
Ironically, when using the subwoofer channel as a height channel, it is likely that there will be a slight overall loss in total low bass, because the height speaker would not be able to deliver the goods the same way a filtered subwoofer would when operating in the 5.1 mode. Opting for 2+2+2, with full-range speakers handling the left, center, and surround channels, and with the subwoofer temporarily bypassed, reduces the big woofer count from five to four.
The center feed is no less problematical. The height-channel signals are probably as much at home coming from the center channel as they would be coming from the second, full-bandwidth height channel. The soundstage blend handles both equally well. This would not be the case if there were a centered soloist, of course, but no such performer exists with this program material.
Consequently, when played 5.1 style the center feed works just fine coming from the center speaker, and when configured in 2+2+2 form it works well as height information in conjunction with the similar height info coming from the LFE channel. Unfortunately, there may still be an additional low bass loss, because with 5.1 playback the center bass normally is shunted to a subwoofer, whereas with 2+2+2 playback it stays with the small height speaker.
OK, so what are my problems with this approach? Well, potential bass-strength losses aside, while losing a true LFE input is no big deal with musical source material, we still lose our center channel. However, this is probably also no big deal, provided the left and right main speakers are oriented for workable soundstaging and the listener sits reasonably close to the sweet spot if he wants a realistic perspective.
Unfortunately, an additional problem is a big deal: we have to rig up some kind of hookup-switching feature whenever we play this disc, at least if we want 2+2+2 sound sometimes and 5.1 the rest of the time. To me, that too much trouble to fool with, and I recommend that enthusiasts skip the 2+2+2 option and listen 5.1 style. The disc sounds just fine that way--even the Dolby Digital tracks--and is certainly worth purchasing, even though there are several other couplings of these two symphonies available.
Ironically, if you want super-duper envelopment without the need for an outboard switching network, try the CD and use one of Yamaha's upscale receivers with those front "effects" channels mounted fairly high up. They can be engaged with a push of the button on the remote, and although the effect is done digitally by the processor, it can work very well. What's more, you still can have the center and subwoofer channels working.