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The 10 best-of-class multichannel discs.

A brief update of the current multichannel situation: DVD-A material of merit for five-channel may be difficult to find. New releases in the DVD-A format are dwindling, but SACD still offers a reasonable selection. Some labels continue to sell SACDs for around $20-$24 in a dual-inventory mode (LSO Live, Channel Classics, Hyperion, Telarc). Making the price difference even bigger, a CD stereo version could drop below $13 when on sale, though the SACDs may hardly move. Among the big four, Sony/BMG and DGG/Philips/Decca are issuing SACDs for their limited catalog of new classical releases, although I see no releases for January and February. Warner exited the new recording market for classical music last year, while Naxos ceased production of DVD-A and SACD formats, although they may still be recording in it..

On a more hopeful note, the core classicists such as Albany, BIS, CPO, and Dacapo have retained their single-inventory SACD distribution channels with no price increase. Many single-inventory labels are available for $13-$16 on sale and in multiple sets or reissues; prices can dip to $10 on SACD. It was reported that new manufacturing processes have been developed to cut production costs (http://www.audaud.com/article.php?ArticleID=2219) although it is not clear from the article what percentage of CD production is at the new plants.

Other labels are single-inventory, but they charge a price surcharge for a new SACD over a CD release from the same month's release list. Harmonia Mundi and Ondine charge $2 more and Chandos, charges, believe it or not, $9 more. As reported in Stereophile, high SACD overseas demand has been the catalyst (http://stereophile.com/news/012907harm/) for the continued production of SACD. The article stated that 15 to 20% of Harmonia Mundi's total sales were of SACD, although it is not clear how many of those sales were by people who would have been just as happy to have a CD and save $2.00. The article also reports that the UK and USA are not places that have high SACD demand. It is also not clear how many people purchase a SACD to play in two channels because they believe it sounds better as opposed to how many people actually use the multichannel tracks.

Correct setup of an SACD-based system continues to be very problematic. Few know that they must set the primitive bass management inside the universal player manually and using the numbers for distance determined by the automatic adjustment systems (or old-time measuring tape) of their new AV receiver. While it is possible to adjust the crossover frequency to a subwoofer on a modern AV receiver, you are likely stuck with 80 Hz on your SACD player. Also note that some older AV receivers require you to adjust the gain offset separately for the six analog inputs and the multichannel inputs coming off the digital SPDIF cable. The six-cable analog lashup presents further problems given that the eight outputs (including the two-channel mix outputs) are at the back of the player. I doubt whether even 30% of the systems set up to play SACDs are actually set up correctly.

Technology incorporating HDMI 1.2a (or HDMI 1.3) eliminates all these problems with SACD with one digital cable, but as I write this only a few AV receivers have the HDMI 1.2a input and no SACD players have the HDMI 1.2a output. Large-scale production of equipment that can deal with SACD digital data streams may not be out to the 3rd quarter.

Even if the SACD player is connected correctly, reproduction of five-channel sound is a murky affair. The ITU configuration is the sole viable conduit for listening to these disks until Trinnov's technology gains affordability. Furthermore, excellent equalization is needed even when the speakers are in ITU. Of the equalization systems I have examined, only the Audyssey Sound Equalizer ($2000) is satisfactory. I have yet to test a receiver that can control the low-end with the aplomb of the Audyssey while doing as little harm as possible above 400 Hz (a full test of the Audyssey on the way). After the Trinnov left my lab, I worked hard to recreate a facsimile with an AV receiver and optimal speaker placement, but was disappointed with the results--you have to follow the rules exactly to achieve the performance described below. Only when the Audyssey came in was I satisfied that the system was good enough to review the sound of the SACDs and DVD-As with the speakers in the ITU position.

Including the price of the Audyssey, I have a hard time coming up with a complete five-channel system under $5,000 that will reproduce the full five-channel effect correctly. Without consuming a massive footprint, a DSP crossover-based mini monitor/ subwoofer system is required, which will take the price beyond $10,000. Phase Technology's DARTs is an example of a 5-channel system that has DSP-based crossovers and Audyssey built in: it starts at $10,000. Monitoring speakers designed for the pro market (the ones they used when they produced the disk) may take you closer to the $3,500 mark, but you have to deal with the looks and limited optimal seating area as a result of the directional characteristics of a pro speaker (pro speakers are designed to focus sound at the mix engineer and producer sitting at the mixing console in a smallish mix room)

The obvious question is whether $5,000 is better spent in a two-channel pair of speakers that might include the Audyssey (which is still a bargain even in two-channel mode compared the competition) dependent on your room and its presently deployed room treatment. I spent a lot of time going from my optimized 5-channel system in my big room and the NHT Xd in a smaller room, and at the moment I suggest going two-channel below $6,000 (the price of the Xd). Although my SACD selections below offer impressive sound quality, they are limited in number. The average SACD has low levels of center channel information; such a CD may sound little better than if reproduced in stereo with the front speakers facing into the room.

SACDs are a better source of ambiance than a synthesis in Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo 6. I would not pay an extra $5-$10 per disk for this privilege, but if the disks are on hand from a single-inventory purchase, you can try them in a suboptimal multichannel system. I'm assuming that you have a dual-use two-channel / multi-channel setup with good speakers on the left and right and the test in the lifestyle category. Kill the center channel under the TV using the bass management in the SACD player (your video is unaffected since it comes in with the SPDIF cable). Do not angle the front and left speakers towards you as you would when playing SACDs in the ITU configuration. Try the rears no matter how far they are off the ITU circle and experiment with the sound relative to the two-channel mix of the SACD. Also try lowering the rear level to prevent localizing it; this, however, is not a straightforward process on the majority of AV receivers and can prove to be a hassle when you want to restore the level for movies. If your receiver is one of the very few with five ADCs to encode the SACD player's 5.1 analog signal, it is a matter of personal taste whether to engage the EQ on your AV receiver when playing SACDs. The Audyssey and Trinnov have 8 channels of ADC-DAC pairs, which in part explains the price of these units.

I'm using the DV-SP502 Onkyo Universal player as the front end of my listening system and the Onkyo AV TX-SR502 receiver as a power amplifier in the rear. I listened to the sound quality with both the Trinnov Optimizer and the Audyssey MultEQ sound equalizer. The Pioneer VSX-72TXS receiver functioned as level control for the SACD to Audyssey interface (note: Audyssey cautions against attaching the SACD player to the sound equalizer directly). I could not try the Pioneer VSX-72TXS internal EQ system to see whether acceptable results could be achieved without the Audyssey, because it only has two ADCs for the stereo inputs. The speakers are the Phase Technology 3.3IIs up front and 6.1s in the rear.

All my selections below have full center channel except the Chesky.

Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Symphony no 1 in D major "Titan". Conductor: Benjamin Zander with the Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI Abbey Road Studio 1, London, England. Disc two: Benjamin Zander expounds on the musical material. Telarc Super Audio Hybrid CD 2SACD 60628

This is the best of the bunch from Telarc reviewed here because this is the only one with a world-class orchestra and Abbey Road is a better recording venue than the halls in Cincinnati or Atlanta. Indeed, this is the place to start if you want to hear what properly recorded five-channel can do when reproduced as the mix studio was configured.

With so many fine renditions of the Mahler 1st under great conductors with their home orchestras, it is hard for Zander to compete. Nonetheless, this is a solid performance given the odds against him. Horn sound appears to hit the rear wall of the stage. The remaining brass is not harsh even at fortissimo. The bowing of the double basses is clear, with the position of the bass section clearly deployed at the rear of the hall. Upper strings have good spread across the front of the stage and are cleanly recorded with no edge. The mushy and ill-defined sound of what appears to be creamy strings is not evident here. The woodwinds across center stage are not localizable to the speaker--especially take note of the well differentiated woodwind sound in the third movement.

Some of the thematic material in the Songs of a Wayfarer is common with the first symphony, making them an ideal coupling. The natural voice has no localization to the front speakers. Presented in perspective from the stage, there are no signs of close miking and the associated sibilance. The diction is excellent. Unlike many five-channel recordings that place the voice in the left-, right-, and center-channels, the vocalist does not sound oversized here.

The disc does not replicate the live experience, though it approaches the experience with a combination of a wide array two-dimensional (length and depth) sound stage and clear definition of individual instruments and massed strings or brass. The bonus disc, with an 80-minute analysis of the Mahler 1st, highlights Zander's grasp of the music. Zander uses more of a college lecture style than Bernstein, but it is effective

I went back to my collection of Telarc Zander SACDs and tried Mahler 3rd, but found its weak center disappointing. Absolutely maddening was the placement of the boys choir of the fourth movement in the rear channels.

Beethoven: Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92; Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93

Daniel Barenboim, Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra. Studio no 1, RIAS Studios, Berlin. Teldec DVD-A 8573-83062-9 May 1999. Theses are staples of the Staatskapelle Orchestra, who provide electrifying performances despite the hundreds of times they have played the symphonies. Barenboim carves an identity and avoids cloning Furtwangler. That said, this recording will not be to the taste of aficionados of performance practice. Other symphonies in the Barenboim cycle are more willfully conducted, especially the Ninth.

As one of the first multi-channel releases (circa 1999), Pioneer rolled it out at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 1999 as one of three classical demo discs for its inaugural DVD-A. I remember being impressed at CES, with the large room and big Pioneer speakers (not available is this country) in the ITU configuration. Eight years later, I remain surprised that it still takes a big room and complex setup to unearth this disc's magic. I am also surprised that it is competitive with the latest material for 2007.

Obviously, this is not a hi-fi test piece. The violins are divided across the stage. Good detail, akin to sitting close to the stage, but still sweet with reasonable stage spread. The recording captures a violin section, not a blob of sound. Some localization occurs to the left and right channels. Woodwinds are centered and clearly differentiated. Brass is less prominent than in my other selections, but the scoring is also less dense. Double-bass is somewhat depressed, but the double-bass section is still articulated well and does not have a one-note sound quality to it. Timpani are the least successfully captured.

I was not as taken with the recording of the Ninth Symphony. It is very left and right with the voices stuck inside one or the other speaker. Barenboim's eccentric interpretation was also not to my taste. Being an early DVD-A, these Teldecs assumed one would bring up a menu on a TV to make selections. If you simply wanted to play the disk, the start button needs to be depressed twice.

Britten: Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34; Peter Grimes: Sea Interludes (4), Op. 33a. Elgar; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 "Enigma" Paavo Jarvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Venue: Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. Telarc Super Audio Hybrid CD TLC 60660

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is an ideal test vehicle for the entire system. On this disc the bass is dead flat, resulting in remarkable timpani, trombone, tuba, and double bass. The double bass and lower percussion put any equalization system through its paces and will show any problems in the main channel subwoofer match (96.5% of you with subwoofers will find out that you have problems). Listen for how well each note of the double bass matches the others in level as the score puts the instruments through its passes. Imaging on the timpani is admirable--you can clearly hear the stick hit the drum head. You can also hear the quality of the different sticks used and the strike force. Those with bad subwoofers/satellite interfaces will not be able to hear this as these effects are just in the range of your slow crossovers. Winds are highlighted a bit more than is desirable. Great American brass tradition, a byproduct of the halcyon days of concert bands, is evident in the orchestra and is well-captured by Telarc. The disc is more localized into speakers than Zander's Mahler, which sounds more like a live performance from the very front of the stage as opposed to row H for the Mahler.

For some reason, this disc wants to be turned up in level to bring out detail, but can do that very cleanly at triple-forte. There is no leakage to rear when the speakers are ideally placed in ITU; if not, the right side bass may be heard in the right rear.

Jarvi conducts the international style of Britten well, but the Elgar is not as easy to pull off. It is not that you need a British orchestra and conductor to do the Enigma Variations well, but the conductor and musicians need to be well versed in the Elgar idiom and aesthetic, including having played both symphonies and the concertos in the regular season. The Elgar is recorded further back (row L), a more typical example of the Telarc perspective.

Great Film Fantasies: John Williams: Star Wars; Harry Potter. Howard Shore: The Lord of the Rings. Erich Kunzel conducts the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra from the Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio. Telarc Super Audio Hybrid CD SACD 60664. This edition has a similar sound to that of the Britten, but should appeal to a broader audience. The musicians are more responsive to Kunzel than they are to Jarvi in the studio. You can hear this in the more relaxed string tone. As would be expected for this repertoire, Telarc provides a closer perspective than is typical for them. Cellos are somewhat muted relative to the brass behind them but the section does not localize into the right speaker. The horns are surprisingly positioned to the right of the brass and the horn section lacks the disembodied sound as if their bells are pointed away from the audience. Some dryness is noticeable at the end of a movement when one would expect more hall decay. Instruments do not stick out of the rear channels as one might expect in a film music multichannel disc. This is a natural perspective that treats the film music as legitimate craft that does not need the film to support it.

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78; Pushkiniana Suite (compiled by Rozhdestvensky). Dmitry Yablonsky, conductor; Irina Gelakhova (Mezzo Soprano). Russian State Symphony Orchestra with the Stanslavsky Chorus. Studio No 5 Russian State TV and Radio Company Moscow. Naxos DVD-A 5.110015

Dmitri Shostakovich: Hamlet, (complete film score) Op. 116. Conductor: Dmitry Yablonsky/Russian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Studio No 5 Russian State TV and Radio Company Moscow. Naxos Super Audio Hybrid CD NXS 6110062.

You may have some recordings by this group were you an inveterate collector of Naxos CDs. Nothing in the stereo CD recording foreshadows how good the multi-channel tracks are if you acquire the SACD or DVD-A version of the disks. Naxos triple-sources (SACD, DVD-A and CD) and the five-channel stuff is twice the price, so sales have been slow. Naxos has ended production of the multi-channel disks but the material is floating around. You can find the SACDs and DVD-As at bargain prices if you look at web sites specializing in cut-out CDs, but they still appear to be in print and available from traditional web sources. Not all Naxos discs are in both formats. The Shostakovich was produced six months (February 2003) later than the Prokofiev with the same performers, producers, and hall. The Shostakovich is widely distributed in all three formats, but the Prokofiev is a DVD-A only.

The performance of the Alexander Nevsky is very good, if less polished Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The rest of the material, if not first recordings, are the only ones with major distribution at the moment. The chorus is not nearly as clear as in Telarc SACD issues with chorus (minimal center channels alias) and the text is not heard distinctly. Dynamic contrasts, however, are well presented and the chorus's tonality is absolutely unchanged with double-forte.

The Prokofiev Pushkiniana is amazingly good with excellent string tone. Alexander Nevsky with the big chorus is not as well recorded perhaps because of changes in the orchestra seating to accommodate the chorus. Not surprisingly, the Shostakovich is very similar in sound, but just shy of the Pushkiniana.

This recording has great dynamics and deep bass. The image spreads across more evenly from left to right than any other disk reviewed here. The speakers are least localizable with these recordings. Violas really penetrate in the center. Strings do not localize to left and right, although they do hang around the left and right parts of the stage. On close listening, you can hear bows on strings and the body of instruments. Despite all the details, the string tone is warm with space and air. The brass are not harsh and not localizable to speaker. The disk captures the Russian orchestral sound. Winds may be a little larger than life.

I assume that Naxos still records in multi-channel and one hopes the demand for SACD in certain countries as well as lower production costs will allow them to release some new material. Unfortunately, given the low price of stereo, Naxos discs dual-inventory is going to be a requirement and that may be an issue that is to hard for the company to overcome.

David Chesky: Concerto for Violin; The Girl from Guatemala; Concerto for Flute. Toro Chiu (Violin), Wonjung Kim (Soprano), Jeffrey Khaner (Flute), Conductor: Anthony Aibel, Orchestra Area 31 Chesky Super Audio Hybrid CD SACD288 David Chesky likes to explain the origins and influences of his works, which are in fact very unique and original. Why he feels the need to be so blabby in words when the music speaks for itself I do not understand. While his idiom sounds simple, it is hard to unlock without repeated hearings as is the case for all path-defining composers. Spending the time to memorize his works does have its rewards. His style is ideally suited for a chamber-sized orchestra. It is hard to describe music without trying to cite its relationship to other compositions. The rhythmic patterns are complex, but not of the repetitious minimalist type. The harmonic language is clear, lacking the soupy chromatics characteristic of some neo-romantics. The orchestration is lean and is perhaps the signature Chesky attribute.

Anyone interested in modern tonal music should purchase this disc. It also deserves its place here because of the world-class multi-channel sound and is the best four-channel recording known to me. The violin soloist centers well. I had to repeatedly check that the recording was missing the center channel. The wide separation between the two speakers without any clear localization to the speakers is something that only occurs rarely. Despite the excellent results in four channels, the woodwinds wind up in left and right channels area more than they should.

The rears are vital with the center missing. Pull the plug on them and the front collapses back to stereo which, of course, is what you are left with. No free lunch with respect to the rear-channel placement. Violate ITU and the special magic up front evaporates. Also, the matching of the tonal between the front and the rear is critical without the center channel. Taking room acoustics into account, you may still need an excellent equalization system even if you have matched speakers.

Ignoring the special attributes of multi-channel recording leave us with very natural tonality. The transparency without an edgy electronic sound is the highlight. The solo violin in the concerto is impressive, with no artificial highlighting. This is aided by the scoring and the compact orchestra. Lots of dynamics and deep bass are in the score. The flute concerto demonstrates how to record the instrument with its harmonics intact so it does not sound like a sine wave generator with an edge. Highly-pitched percussion are also naturally recorded with none of the kitchen sink clanging that multi-miking of the percussion section causes. The tonal aspects are maintained in two channels, so you are not deprived in the absence of an optimal four-channel setup.

Don Gillis: Portrait of a Frontier Town; The Alamo; Symphony no 7 "Saga of A Prairie School". Conductor: Ian Hobson Sinfonia Varsovia (Polish Chamber Orchestra). Studio $1 of Polish Radio. Albany Super Audio Hybrid CD Troy833.

Albany is a label that can bankrupt a CD collector with an interest in American music of the 20th Century. The company has issued a multitude of single-inventory SACDs with no price increase. Unfortunately, those SACDs were stereo. This is their first five-channel CD. I picked this one up through the Arkiv Music web site for $11 during a promotional sale (I am slowly discovering sources of classical CDs that replace Tower Records, although the web site is still up as I write this. I have had success with some other sources, but no other site comes close to the Tower Records' search engine except hbdirect).

Don Gillis composed American light music (you can tell from the titles of the works) in the manner of Ferde Grofe and Richard Russell Bennett (Victory at Sea) but the works are not of the same quality, which, judging from other reviews of this music, puts me in the minority. Throughout the music, one catches snatches of thematic material reminiscent of other composers. I do not know if these are intentional quotes. He definitely quotes the Vigil Thompson's theme from his Symphony on a Hymn Tune. It is not clear whether he wanted to put his take on developing the theme with a less sophisticated approach or was simply unaware of the Thompson.

My opinion is not shared by the excellent pianist Ian Hobson, who has taken up the baton. The orchestra is the Sinfonia Varsovia of Poland, who claim Krzsztof Penderecki as their current music director. This is a solid group under the leadership of Hobson and should they should not be confused with the second-tier, eastern block orchestras that dot the Naxos landscape. Engineering for the disk was done by the Poles Lech Ducdik and Gabriela Blicharz. The Poles have unlocked the secrets of recording in five channels. The only string quartet recording I could find that made an improvement in five channels was also a Polish production. Note elsewhere that the Russians appear to have also got the hang of recording well in five channels.

The instrumental textures are very clear. Ambience from the rear channels is not at all obvious. You have to pull the plug to hear the improvement and the improvement is at the front of the stage, indicative of the early hall reflections. The string tone is smooth, which highlight the first-rate technique of the engineers and orchestra. The double basses have a deep rich bottom. The trombones are clearly at the rear of the soundstage and their power is evident when they are allowed to cut loose. Hobson is careful not to allow the brass to go over the edge and become harsh. As Berlioz said, never encourage the brass. Winds are strongly centered. Make no mistake, this recording uses the three-channel panning law. Horns are presented in golden brown acoustic that is very distinct from the bass on the other side of the stage. Percussion is very clear. The triangle and xylophone do not sound like something clanging in your kitchen; however, the percussion does appear to be spot miked, although this is done with great finesse. The dynamics of this recording are of special interest because of the smooth separation across all dynamic markings. It is not just pp or ff. The closer perspective results in less depth of image than some Telarcs.

Debussy: Children's Corner; Petite suite for Piano 4 hands. Conductor: Jean Martinon. ORTF National Orchestra. DTS Entertainment DTS encoded DVD (no video at all) 71021-51037-2-3

This 1998 release of a 1974 SQ multi-channel is in DTS format. It decodes on any AV receiver connected to any DVD player with an SPDIF output. No need to worry about six cables then or now. One wonders why we needed the SACD or DVD-A at all, although this disc, like the DVD-A, cannot be played on a CD player. A word of caution: if you accidentally try to play this on a CD, the CD starts to play the disk with a series of ugly-sounding pulses.

This re-issue demonstrates that a world-class conductor and orchestra sounds better than second-rate ones even if when recorded with the fanciest new microphones and hard drive recorders. These performances leave little doubt why the complete Debussy by Martinon have been a fixture in the catalog since they were first recorded

I have no idea how the full center channel was derived since the original is four channels, but the results are excellent. The orchestra is recorded in close perspective. The recording is much cleaner than the two-channel EMI reissue of this material. Decoding the two-channel re-issue to five with Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo 6 results in nothing like what we get from this discrete five-channel disk. The analog source is a little less clean than the best digital, but the balance is very good, although one can hear Dolby A noise reduction artifacts, especially on high percussion. The string sound is warm, but does not rise to the depth of the pure digital recording discussed elsewhere in this article, again perhaps a result of the analog tape recorder with Dolby A noise reduction. The winds sound nice and plumpy. Percussion is up in level relative to the rest of the orchestra and some leakage can occur to the rear. Depending how the rear speakers are positioned, the disk may have too much ambiance with the sound stage moving in front of the speakers. There is good spread of strings across the stage and the double basses are tight. Horns glow with the sound hitting the rear wall clearly delineated. The harp also comes through well.

Availability of the disk is limited since DTS did not renew its license with EMI. One hopes that EMI will re-issue in SACD its extensive multi-channel library from the 1970s, filled with great performances like this, but I am not hopeful.

Shostakovich: Symphony no 8 in C minor, Op. 65. Conductor: Paavo Berglund, Russian National Orchestra. Running Time: 66 min. 29 sec. Studio 5, State Broadcasting, Moscow. Recorded: 06/2005. Pentatone.

Pentatone commands over $20 for a single SACD. I got this one from Arkiv Music for $15, showing even Pentatone is starting to break price.

The Russian National Orchestra is not the same orchestra as the Russian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of the aforementioned Naxos. Both are based in Moscow, among a gaggle of five major orchestras. The recording studio appears to be the same one used by Naxos, but the recording team is different. This SACD is part of a projected Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Russian National Orchestra under different conductors for each CD. With Mariss Jansons, Bernard Haitink, and Maxim Shostakovich complete cycles on sale for under $80, it is hard to justify collecting this series except if five-channel sound is mission critical. I found the performance slow and without the depth of the best recordings.

The recording is clean and open, yet has the perspective of sitting in a hall. The dynamic contrasts are sharp and but the sweet airy strings are more constricted to the speakers than in the Naxos. I do not understand why so much is concentrated in the left and right, since the center is at full level on this disc (Pentatone reissues of four-channel material from the 1970s have no center unlike the DTS release discussed above). The double bass sound is realistic and the overall string sound has greater detail than the bunch reviewed here except the Naxos. The percussion is veiled. The grand entrance of timpani and bass drum at the end of the third movement is soggy. The brass are have good depth, but are stuck in the right speaker. The woodwinds are centered, however.
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Title Annotation:THE MUSIC
Author:Rich, David A.
Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:May 1, 2007
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