Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie; Also sprach Zarathustra

COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Eine Alpensinfonie; Also sprach Zarathustra
PERFORMER: Dresden Staatskapelle/Rudolf Kempe
CATALOGUE NO: DVA 4 92396 9
While the hardware merchants and record companies fight over the supremacy of the rival DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) formats as the successor to CD, the consumer is understandably confused and happy to sit on the fence until prices come down or one format wins over the other. The new releases here represent a compromise of sorts, with EMI, an advocate of DVD-A, issuing a series of double-sided discs that use the new format on one side and DVD-Video on the other, and Berlin Classics producing sound-only video DVDs. The idea, presumably, is to appeal to the growing number of households with surround-sound home cinema setups.

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Most of EMI’s first batch of discs feature classic recordings from the Seventies that need little further recommendation as performances: famous sonic blockbusters such as Previn’s Planets, Turangalîla and Belshazzar’s Feast, Kempe’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Mackerras’s edition of the Fireworks Music using 26 oboes, 14 bassoons and so on. They were made at a time when multi-tracking had become the norm and when early experiments in surround sound, such as quadraphonics, were all the rage. The original tapes have been reconfigured into four-channel sound (though a PCM stereo layer is also provided for those without the suitable speaker setup) and even in the DVD-V version come up with remarkable clarity. The engineers have erred on the side of caution in the balance of the sound sent to the rear, ‘surround’ speakers, giving a natural concert-hall acoustic rather than the sense of being in among the musicians. The only exceptions to this are the balancing of ‘off-stage’ elements, such as the four brass bands in Belshazzar, which overwhelm as they should.

One much more recent recording to appear in this double-sided format is Rattle’s acclaimed Berlin Mahler Ten, diffused into the full six-channel capability of DVD amplification (ie with the addition of the low frequency and centre strands), and magnificent it sounds. While the CD was pretty good, its stereo balance now feels aurally flat, even brash by comparison. It’s much easier to pinpoint where exactly sounds are coming from and there’s an extra bloom, a greater sense of reality to the instrumental timbres.

Berlin Classics has also issued a number of audio-only DVDs, which are basically video DVDs without pictures (apart from the on-screen menus and tracklisting navigation common to all the releases under discussion). Most are East German performances recorded in the Seventies and diffused into four-channel surround sound. Unlike the EMI releases, however, the results are more variable, with a less subtle use of the rear channels. Tape hiss is obvious in the Verdi Requiem, which sounds muddy and unwieldy, especially in the Dies irae. A 1980 Beethoven Nine is better, if rather lumberingly conducted by Blomstedt. Best of all, though, is Rudolf Kempe conducting Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite: fiery performances indeed, with the Dresden Staatskapelle at its most stunning.

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NB Discs not playable on a CD player