Berlioz and Mozart in Five Channel SACD

March 2002

by Edward Jay Epstein

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante in E-Hat Major, K364.
Concerto in D Major for Violin and Piano, KAnh.56.
Midori, violin;
Nobuko Imai, viola;
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor and piano;
NDR Sinfonieorchester.
Steven Epstein, producer;
Richard King, engineer.
Sony SACD 89488

Sony's choice of a relatively tame concerto for violin and viola as its first classical multichannel SACD is both surprising and refreshing. The real strength of SACD multichannel is not tracking the aural fireworks coming from all directions, like the cannon shots in the 1812 Overture, but to allow the listener to perceive the "air," or space, that is present in a concert hall. Here, producer Steven Epstein succeeds brilliantly in enhancing the ambient sound of Midori's delicate violin and Imai's darker-hued viola. (Mozart has the player retune the instrument, a technique known as scordatura, in the Sinfonia Concertante.) Creating a more natural space between the listener and the performers gives the instruments, especially Midori's violin, a remarkably palatable presence. This works extraordinarily well in the final Rondo, in which the violin and viola pursue each other in a chase that becomes absolutely thrilling.

Mozart never completed this violin and piano concerto. just 120 measures remain, and the work performed here was reconstructed by Philip Wilby. Both Midori and Eschenbach play it with great virtuosity, with the decaying reverberations of the piano adding greatly to the sonic illusion of real world space. The center channel, when used at all, is employed with wonderful subtlety in preparation for the violin's magical entry. Recorded directly through Sony's newly developed Sonoma DSD system, which allows the flexibility of editing and mixing eight tracks, this magnificent program demonstrates the potential of multichannel to change our perception of recorded music.

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique. "Love Scene" from Romeo et Juliette. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Paavo Arvi, conductor. Robert Wood, producer; Jack Renner, engineer. Telarc SACD 60578

Conceived as an orchestral expression of his own unrequited passion for actress Harriet Smithson, Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique unfolds as a series of images in an opium dream that slowly veers out of control. As conducted by Paavo Arvi on this Telarc dual-layer SACD, it's a consummate aural pleasure in both stereo and multi-channel versions. In the peaceful section of "Scene in the Country," when shepherds pipe back and forth to each other, I could not hear any enhancement in the multi-channel version. However, with the protagonist's imagined execution, "March to the Scaffold," the illusion of space is greatly expanded with surround. When I returned to stereo, the space collapsed, and sounded too confined for the music's creativity. In the "Dream of the Witches Sabbath" passage that follows, there is a swirl of demons, ghouls, rattling bones, screams, and other sound effects. The multi-channel fosters an involvement that the stereo version simply cannot match. Whether or not the listener wants such involvement is another issue, but this is certainly what Berlioz intended when he imagined the Symphonie performed by an orchestra of 250. The "Love Scene" from Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette is a sublime bonus on the disc.

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