Next I tried Valery Gergiev’s Live Vienna Philharmonic recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on Philips. I have this recording both as a hybrid SACD/CD and a CD. The CD sounded fine – crisp, clear, and powerful – but the SACD was noticeably cleaner with better separation. Playing the pizzicato third movement, the SACD sounded even more lucid and precise – as though the notes were starting and stopping with greater precision. When the finale began, the SACD gave a much keener impression of the front-to-back spatial positioning of the orchestral instruments – an effect that was both impressive yet not wholly to my liking. The heavy brass sounded a shade gruff and dry, and (confusingly) seemed to sit slightly forward of the violins. The bass drum and cymbals had considerable impact and power, but didn’t sound as though they were at the back of the stage. The acoustic felt a shade cramped. Although the sound was very dynamic, the music didn’t ‘expand’ as it got louder – and there was not much sense of the orchestra playing in a defined acoustic space.
Technically, the sound was good in terms of tone colours and dynamic contrasts, but the soundstage seemed a bit disjointed and lacking in cohesion, The CD gave a more integrated albeit rather more generalised sound. It reduced contrasts and made the balance between instruments appear more even. In a superficial way this was preferable, but there was no doubt that the SACD sounded more truthful and realistic. I felt the SACD version - even if it wasn’t perfect - was getting much closer to the actual sound the microphones had picked up. It had a very truthful, believable quality. What I’m saying here is that some of the ‘faults’ were to do with where the music had been recorded, and how the microphones had been placed. Recording live, it’s harder to get a perfect studio type balance. Had the engineers been able to, they’d almost certainly have moved the brass and percussion further back from the microphones – but in a live environment that’s not always possible or desirable, at lest for the audience on the night! The stage in Vienna’s Musikverein hall (where the recording was made) is fairly wide but not very deep. It’s quite a narrow stage, and with an audience present the acoustic would have become slightly cramped and dry, without much ambience or air: hence the apparent ‘closeness’ of the heavy brass and percussion.
Playing other SACDs confirmed these general findings. The SACD always had greater individuality and better separation compared to CD. With SACD, dynamics, clarity, and separation are enhanced over CD. From a recording engineer’s standpoint, there’s far less need to close-mike voices or instruments for them to be heard.
Next, I sampled Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recent live SACD recording of Handel’s Messiah, and again noted some inconsistencies in balance and tone. The sheer, unforced dynamic clarity of the sound was impressive, though the acoustic in which the recording was made did not exactly bathe the music is a sweet rosy glow. On the positive side, the sound had marvellous variation and range. Tone colours and micro-dynamics seemed to vary considerably, depending on the forces being used. In comparison, CD tended to sound the same all the time – and as a result it rarely surprised you. Once the music started, you’d know exactly how it was going to sound throughout. SACD showed more variation. As different singers or instrumentalists emerge, so the sound picture changed. The Messiah recording had some problems, but listening I once again felt I was hearing pretty much exactly what the microphones had picked up – for better and (sometimes) for worse.
The next SACD recording I tried was Bartok’s orchestral showpiece Concerto for Orchestra with Seji Ozawa conducting the Saito Kinen orchestra on Philips. This is yet another live recording, but here the acoustic proved more ample. Balances remained close, but not claustrophobically so.
Playing the second movement, I was impressed by the immediacy and sheer clarity of the sound. The instruments had real presence and superb tonal individuality. Bartok’s scoring is very imaginative and the constant pairing of different instruments creates an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colours and textures.
Ozawa previously recorded this work for Philips back in the early ‘90s with the Boston SO - a Bitstream recording that’s nicely balanced, smooth, and very natural. But good as it was, the new SACD version had much greater presence and fine detail. The way the instruments ‘projected’ made the CD seem ‘flat’ and un-involving.
SACD allowed you to hear exactly what was playing at any given moment. Its clarity meant that every strand was kept separate. It did not mush things up, nor did it make the music seem busier than it was. There was none of CD’s tendency to smear across the edges of notes, smoothing the sound but at the same time diminishing subtle shifts in rhythm and phrasing. It gave a very honest truthful sound. While some recordings appeared to lack ‘atmosphere’, this was not the fault of SACD.