Poulenc: Organ Concerto

COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: Linn
WORKS: Organ Concerto
CATALOGUE NO: CKD 180 CD/SACD hybrid
It used to be so simple, didn’t it? One 12cm silver disc, two channels of audio… it couldn’t last. But did we really see this coming?

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‘What would you like, sir? Straight CD, CD/SACD Hybrid, DVD-A or DVD-V? Stereo, 4.0, 5.0, 5.1… or 2+2+2?!’ The trouble is, all the discs look the same, and it’s often far from obvious exactly what you’re getting, or what your options are.

Take this new MAHLER Third from Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic (reviewed on CD in July) – a superb performance, and an excellent recording in stereo from the CD. In fact you may already have the SACD anyway, as in some countries DG is only selling this as a hybrid two-layer disc. So put it in your ordinary CD player and that’s how it behaves; offer it to an SACD or multi-format player, though, and the default mode is surround: five discrete channels of digital sound, and an acoustic that seems to open up behind you –as though someone just rebuilt your living room walls about twice as far away. It’s not just the ambience; there’s more detail and more air around the instruments. But here’s the bad news: if you’ve replaced your full-range stereo system with one of those elegant compromises designed principally for movie buffs – with smaller main, surround and centre speakers plus a subwoofer handling the lower-mid and bass frequencies, the bottom drops out of your Boulez. There’s no separate subwoofer feed: it’s 5.0 not 5.1, and you really need full-range speakers for the front pair, and preferably nothing too tiny at the back either if you’re going to appreciate the differences between CD and SACD.

That’s doubly true of BIBER’s Missa salisburgensis from Paul McCreesh (reviewed onCD in December 1998), with choirs of voices and instruments spread over a huge cathedral acoustic. This would be a great demonstration SACD; the first track happens almost entirely behind you, and when the full forces kick in across the vast 360° soundstage, it’s absolutely stunning. This time the subwoofer gets fed as well; it’s 5.1, but I’d hate to have tiny satellite speakers at the rear, as that’s where some of the performers are, not just ambience like the Mahler.

Gillian Weir’s recording of the POULENC Organ Concerto for Linn is another tricky customer; 5.1 with sub, but while the orchestra’s in front of you, the organ’s balanced behind you, and small satellite speakers won’t do it justice. There’s no such problem with Linn’s new recording of the MOZART Requiem in Robert Levin’s completion (reviewed on CD in June), since the ambience is only behind you here, and it’s a 4.1 mix: a sub but no centre channel required.

Two favourite Chandos recordings next. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’s original London Symphony and BRITTEN’s War Requiem were both beautifully atmospheric as stereo CDs, and are even more beautifully rendered on 5.0 SACD; everything opens up still further, with voices in the Britten extending well behind and beyond the speakers. But you need full-range speakers at the front to get the best of both discs, otherwise you’ll be driven into your SACD player’s menus to switch to the stereo CD layer and get your bass back.

Well, at least you can; that’s a major benefit of these hybrid two-layer discs. But my big beef is that there’s no graphic on the back of the packaging showing the surround layout for the SACD layer so that you can make an informed decision about how itgoing to work on your system. They do this for movies on DVD, so why not SACD?

With DVD-Audio some of the same issues surface, and others emerge to frustrate you. Annoyingly, some discs won’t play without switching on the TV for prompts, logos and track listings.

Again there are different approaches to surround sound. Take just three DVD-As from Naxos; GROFÉ’s Grand Canyon Suite is the full 5.1, everything on and working just fine (‘Power of Niagara’ rumbles ominously from the sub). VIVALDI’s Four Seasons, though, is 5.0 – no sub, not that it matters as much with these Baroque string textures – and the church acoustic has been beautifully caught. HOLST’s Planets is 4.1 – the sub’s back, and the centre channel is dispensed with; Naxos also exercises the option with DVD of having video stills: the planets plus track titles which you can see on TV while you’re listening.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s highly acclaimed MESSIAEN recording for Teldec sounds superb on DVD-A, a realistic piano in a large acoustic with quite a bit of information going to the rear speakers. It’s 5.0, so if you rely on your sub, the piano seems to shrink, but with DVD-A (like the hybrid two-layer SACDs), there’s a fallback option: you can select DVD-Video on your player, which carries full 5.1 sound in Dolby Digital format (like DVD movies). The trouble is that this mix can feel like a compromise, derived from the preferred DVD-A mix, and so far I haven’t found a single one which sounds as good. It’s not bad, mind, and certainly good enough for a movie-based DVD set-up with sub and satellite speakers, which would otherwise miss out on Aimard’s left hand.

There are other ways of using six channels of audio. Dabringhaus und Grimm is trying to pioneer what it calls 2+2+2 recording, where it uses the sub and centre channels to power an extra pair of speakers at the front, above the main pair, ‘for a truly three-dimensional listening perspective’. I haven’t tried it, and unless many more labels adopt it, I don’t think many others will either; but in the meantime MDG’s recordings of HANDEL’s Theodora and BEETHOVEN’s Missa solemnis replay very satisfactorily in 5.1, and the applause in the Handel puts you firmly in the audience.

The Tacet DVD-A of MENDELSSOHN’s Octet takes another approach; you’re in the middle of the ensemble, completely surrounded by the players: an unsettling experience.

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On the other hand Mode has done something not dissimilar, if a little less extreme, with the Flux Quartet’s recording of MORTON FELDMAN’s Second Quartet – all six hours of it on a single DVD instead of five CDs, achieved by producing an audio-only DVD-Video, mixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital. It’s mesmerising as the sounds seem to float in a semi-circle around you. When you think about what else you could squeeze on to a single silver disc like this, you hear in the rear speakers the sound of a whole new can of worms being opened.