SONaR

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Åm
LABELS: 2L
WORKS: SONaR: Concerto for harp and strings; Concerto for harp and angels etc
PERFORMER: Bødtker (harp); Oslo Kammersolister; Grex Vocalis/Carl Høgset
CATALOGUE NO: 2L 51 SABD

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It was inevitable that, sooner or later, audio only recordings would start to appear on Blu-ray discs. The rationale is simple: over the coming years, Blu-ray will replace existing DVD and audio players. On current DVD players, audio tends to be sacrificed for picture quality, but this need not be the case with Blu-ray. Therefore, for those wanting the highest quality surround-sound audio, with or without pictures, Blu-ray is a logical step.

The only problem is that, while SACD and DVD-A had only limited success in popular music and jazz, numerous classical SACDs are released each month, so there is an established and successful format. In recognition of this, these very smart-looking first five Blu-ray audio-only discs from the enterprising Norwegian label 2L each include an additional hybrid SACD with a conventional CD layer.

In other words, unless you still hanker for vinyl, all the bases are covered. Moreover, this makes possible a direct comparison between the various incarnations, though without a spare £4,500 for Denon’s universal player when it appears later this year, this is also an exercise in virtuoso remote control juggling!

So, what are the differences between Blu-ray and SACD for the listener? Well, it is not a difference of quality. Blu-ray is not fundamentally better, or worse, than SACD in terms of sound (though timings of tracks are not displayed as conveniently). Rather it is a matter of emphasis or colour.

Morten Lindberg (the founder of 2L) finds that SACD is ‘softer and more beautiful [than Blu-ray], but slightly less detailed’ and expresses a slight preference for the new format. However, he acknowledges that factors such as microphone placings for the recording, and the listener’s speakers are more important, which is as well, as my impressions only partially matched his.

On the hand, take the disc entitled SONaR, which features the harpist Ellen Sejersted Bødtker in three sublimely beautiful works by magnar åm. It is true that, on SACD, Det var mjukt (I awoke), a song for soprano and harp, has a slightly more veiled quality than the Blu-ray disc, but, paradoxically, there is a little more edge to the sound as well.

This is more apparent in the exposed sections of the harp concerto, Vere meininga (Be the purpose), in the attack of notes being played quietly, whether by Bødtker, or the string players of the Oslo Kammersolister. Whatever the individual impressions of the technology, the mesmerising Dette blanke no, a concerto for ‘harp and angels’, with its sustained vocal lines and filling of acoustic space, underlines the sense of alternate hues.

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Here, the Blu-ray is marginally warmer in sound, but switching between formats is the audio equivalent of noting the differences in adjacent blocks of a paint colour chart. They are both breathtaking. Like Lindberg, with gun to head, I would marginally favour the Blu-ray versions of these discs, but certainly not at the expense of existing SACDs. Few, if any, would perceive the differences unless experienced side by side, and the more important thing is that, as SACD or Blu-ray, these are stunning performances of hypnotic music. Christopher Dingle