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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 25 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 30
A new perspective on recording classical music
Arts & Entertainment
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A new perspective on recording classical music

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

I feel like I'm about to commit a mortal sin against all high fidelity enthusiasts around the world. One of the two surround-sound Blu-ray discs reviewed here has clearly abandoned all hope of achieving the 'holy grail' of sound recording, namely to re-produce in your home the sound you should hear at a good live performance. Instead the engineers have created something I have always wanted to hear: the sound you might experience while sitting in the middle of the players. My sin is that I like it!

No, it's not the only way I want to hear this music; it's not even my preferred way. But it IS exciting and different in a way that reveals, in its extreme clarity and intimacy, elements of the music I would not otherwise notice. At Columbia College in a class I took with Lionel Trilling, a student criticized D. H. Lawrence's point of view as 'adolescent.' Trilling, whose patrician manner had previously rather put me off, suddenly rose in my estimation when he replied, 'Let's not put down an adolescent point of view; it might have something to teach us!' Just so, I think these engineers, by abandoning traditional aims, have presented us with a new look at, say, the last movement from Beethoven 's 'Symphony No. 7.' Balances are pretty screwy, making me hear stuff from the brass, for instance, that I had previously missed. It's fun, hearing new things in over-familiar works.

Tacet
The recording company, Tacet (www.tacet.de), calls its process 'TACET Real Surround Sound.' The classical artists are described as the composers' 'assistants.' Thus, Beethoven's 'assistant' is conductor Wojciech Rajski of the Polish Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. This irreverent manner might be said to extend to the recording philosophy, which seems to embrace fun and excitement over proper decorum. Imagine sitting in the middle of the symphony orchestra for this Beethoven! The tempi are fast; the players are very together and intense; and you're getting more prominent woodwinds and brass than you've ever heard before in Beethoven. You're surrounded by string sound, and the tympani is in your lap! It's loud and damned exciting. The clarity of everything is astounding, even in the loudest passages.

The only exception I take to the sound is a slight over-brightness, giving us lots of buzzing high overtones and leaving us a little shy of the lowest frequencies. Those low sounds, however, are present in abundance in some of the many test tracks, as in track 2, which is that of a dynamite explosion. Likewise, track 3, a fantastic recording of a helicopter, has whomping bass and tremendous impact as the chopper seems to fly directly overhead!

This Blu-ray, by the way, is called 'More power and ideas - for your surround sound system!' (TACET B 154) It is 77 minutes long and, along with many short test tracks, contains moderately long excerpts from the above-mentioned Beethoven (plus part of the second movement from his 8th symphony), a piano selection from Ravel's 'Miroirs,' a complex choral selection by Bach, two animals from Saint-Saens' 'Carnival of Animals,' the 'presto' section from Bach's 'Brandenburg' Concerto No. 4, the 'presto' from Mozart's 'Divertimento in D,' and some especially lovely selections from chamber works such a Beethoven string quartet, and Schubert's 'Octet in F major.' The approach this company takes to surround sound is perfect for the intimacy of the chamber music presented. All the artists are excellent, especially pianist Markus Schirmer and the Auryn Quartet. The piano is writ large, with our ears nearly inside and under the lid...again different from concert sound but wildly interesting and fun, especially in the picture painting of Ravel's 'Une barque sur l'Ocean.'

Naxos
The second Blu-ray disc is a 5.1 DTS-HD surround recording of Berlioz' 'Harold en Italie' on Naxos NBD0042. The performance, with the Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin, is fine enough, but the sound is flawed in several ways. First of all, and most unforgiveable, is a constant very low-frequency rumble...so low that you would not hear it unless your system has, like mine, very good subwoofers. The more obvious flaw is that loud passages are muddied by what stereophiles like to call a 'traffic jam,' in which the sounds get messy instead of remaining clear (as they do in the TACET disc above). In fact, the overall sound lacks impact, especially if compared to the ancient RCA recording (originally on LP) of the same work with the Boston Symphony under Charles M√ľnch.

So, I highly recommend the TACET disc if you seek adventure in classical music sound, but I say take a pass on the Naxos Berlioz disc.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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