February 1, 2009

The Top Recordings of 2008

Trondheimsolistene: Divertimenti
Bacewicz: Concerto for String Orchestra
Simple Symphony
2L 50, Hybrid Multichannel SACD/CD, BD.

Divertimenti is my choice for Top Recording of 2008. When I reviewed it in July, I noted that Norwegian label 2L had covered all the bases -- this would be a disc one would be able to experience anew as high-resolution formats expanded and became more commonplace. I recently fulfilled my own prophecy when I obtained a Panasonic Blu-ray player capable of playing Divertimenti’s the 24-bit/192kHz tracks.

Disc 1 of this two-disc set is a multichannel SACD/CD containing versions of the music recorded in CD stereo (16/44.1), DSD stereo (2.8224Mbit/s/ch), and DSD 5.1-channel surround (2.8224Mbit/s/ch). Disc 2 is a Blu-ray with Linear PCM (stereo, 5.1 surround, 24/192), DTS-HD Master Audio (5.1 surround, 24/192), Dolby TrueHD (5.1 surround, 24/192), and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (48kHz).

Though all of the higher-resolution multichannel mixes sound more transparent and airy than the "Red Book" versions, this recording sounds terrific in any of its many formats. The reason is probably 2L’s use of DXD processing. Morton Lindberg, CEO of 2L and producer of the label’s recordings, describes DXD thusly: "Digital eXtreme Definition is a professional audio format that brings ‘analogue’ qualities in 32-bit floating point at 352.8kHz. With DXD we preserve 11.2896 bit/s (four times the data of DSD). This leaves us headroom for editing and balancing before quantizing to DSD. Super Audio CD is the carrier that brings the pure quality to the domestic audience."

The result is a recording that has you-are-there presence without being in your face. The string sound is irresistibly sweet and airy -- like the ultimate analog recording that never, until now, could be heard because of analog’s inherent limitations. I know that times are tough and that every expense must be weighed, but this disc will give back more than enough joy and pleasure to justify its cost.

You can also download Divertimenti direct from 2L, or from www.HDtracks.com. The latter offers it only in 24/96 stereo; 2L offers the tracks in several formats, including FLAC 24/96 multichannel.

But if having the Top Recording of 2008 doesn’t satiate you terminal audiophiles, here are three more of the best recordings I heard last year.

Haydn: Symphonies 97, 102; Overture to "L’anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice"
Adám Fischer, Haydn Philharmonie.
MD&G 901-1462, Hybrid Multichannel SACD/CD.

The SACD format might still be underused, but it’s far from dead. The Chesky, Channel, and PentaTone labels now release exclusively on SACD/CD, and MD&G releases a good portion of its repertory on SACD/CD as well. MD&G has made some of the most wonderful-sounding recordings in the SACD catalog, and this one is an example of having gotten everything just right. The Austrian-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic, a chamber orchestra, sounds clean and bright, yet has what some might call an "analog glow." The soundstage depth is impressive, and all the instruments, whether near the front or the back of the stage, or whether playing softly or loudly, have singular presence. Add to these acoustic properties virtuoso performances that capture Haydn’s elegance and wit, and you have a winning disc all the way.

The Aliens: Luna
Direct download from Linn Records.com.

The music of the Aliens -- what’s left of the Beta Band, a popular Scottish group -- is usually described as upbeat, psychedelic pop. The music on their second album, Luna, is appealing and eclectic, sounding by turns like the Who, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and others, but the main ghosts in this machine are those of the Beatles. There are lots of sound and instrumental effects and tight harmony vocals, and never a dull moment. [This paragraph is paraphrased from my review in late 2008.]

The recording is as clean as can be, except for the occasional deliberate distortion. The sound is at times intimate, at times suggestive of vast spaces, but always with letter-perfect resolution and presence. Due to skillful phase shifting, the recording behaves in a very interesting and satisfactory manner when played back through a DSP surround-sound setting. Neural Surround was my favorite. For these aspects of this album, however, you’ll have to download it, or download and burn it to your own DVD; neither the commercially released CD nor Linn’s "CD Quality" download uses the same master as the 24/48. Hearing the hi-rez Luna will convert even those most skeptical about digital downloads.

Walter Becker: Circus Money
Direct download from WalterBecker.com.

I’ve always been a fan of Steely Dan, so I read SoundStage! writer Joe Taylor’s review in July of Walter Becker’s recent solo album, Circus Money, with great interest. About that time I was starting to get involved with music downloads and came across Becker’s website, which offers MP3 and FLAC downloads. I downloaded the latter version of Circus Money, converted it to AIFF to work with iTunes, and have been enjoying it ever since. I use it as an example of how much things have changed. In the not-so-distant "good old days," I’d buy a CD, then make a cassette copy for the car. With this one, I had no CD, but burned one from the file to play in the car.

This is one of the cleanest recordings I’ve ever heard. The first track, "Door Number Two," has vocals, guitar, and bass, all provided by Becker, as well as tenor sax, another guitar, piano, electronic keyboards, drums, and four backing singers. On paper, that sounds like a rock-music traffic jam, but in this download every line is clearly audible. I can hear right "into" this recording, and follow one of those lines all the way through a track without missing a note or nuance. Some might say that the recording borders on antiseptic, but I think it stops just short of that.

. . . Rad Bennett


footer.jpg (5527 bytes)