The Tallis Scholars have made this highly specialised repertoire their own. They first recorded the Allegri and Palestrina for Gimell in 1980, a much-lauded disc that was subsequently reissued in 2000 (review
). Until now this new version, which dates from 2005, has been available as a standard CD from retailers or as a stereo/multi-channel download from Gimell’s website. Determined to keep pace with rapid changes in audio technology they now offer a range of downloads, from CD-quality - 16bit/44.1kHz files - to high-res 24/48 and 24/96 Studio Masters. There’s a wide variety of codecs as well (flac, alac, wma and mp3). It’s a good, all-embracing formula, as anyone who downloads from the likes of the Chandos Classical Shop will surely testify.
There’s no doubt that recorded music is struggling in this difficult climate; hence the launch last May of ‘High Fidelity Pure Audio’ (HFPA), which aims to breathe new life into an ailing industry. Audio cynics are quick to dismiss this strategy as nothing but greed - a way of reissuing old material and charging a premium for the privilege - or sheer desperation, driven by an unprecedented collapse in CD sales. Unpleasant and apocalyptic stuff, but are such views warranted?
My own experience of Blu-ray Audio discs - better known as BD-As - has been somewhat mixed. I’ve yet to hear any of the pioneering 2L releases, but I’ve reviewed several Naxos BD-As and the classic Decca War Requiem
from Universal Music Group (review
). The Naxos discs sell for slightly more than the equivalent CDs and as they are recent recordings they offer stereo and multi-channel options. The UMG back catalogue will be stereo only, but if that War Requiem
is anything to go by even vintage analogue recordings - properly re-mastered - could benefit from the Blu-ray treatment.
What is less clear is whether the mass market - as opposed to the niche, audiophile one - really wants another physical music carrier, despite its promise of high-quality sound. The DVD-Audio debacle and music-buyers’ indifference towards Super Audio would appear to support such an argument. As for downloads, many people seem content with lossy, low-res codecs such as mp3s, with only a handful prepared to pay a premium for high-res files from a growing number of websites. Now DSD downloads are appearing too, but the cost of these very large files and suitable DACs is prohibitive at the moment.
Gimell’s Steve Smith, who has produced all the Tallis Scholars’ recordings, takes the view that high-res audio is a logical extension of high-def video, and that those who already own Blu-ray-based home cinema kit will take to BD-A without a backward glance. I suspect supporters of DVD-A had the same idea, and we all know where that went. Moreover, I’m not convinced that most home cinema set-ups are optimised for music; those I’ve heard are better suited to the relentless crash-bang-wallop and grossly exaggerated spatial effects of The Dark Knight
rather than the demands of classical music.
Another concern with BD-As is the need for a TV screen or monitor in order to access menus and sub-menus. The marketing men insist that one just has to insert the disc and press play, so no visual assistance is required. That’s all very well with single-layer discs such as the Decca War Requiem
, but what about multi-layer discs such as this Gimell one? Well, I’m pleased to report they’ve solved that problem by linking audio options to the colour keys on your Blu-ray remote control. More on that later.
I was also very impressed to see that Gimell have opted for a multi-pronged approach here; not only do they include a standard CD, they also offer a number of download options on the BD-A. These are accessed by typing in the IP address of your Blu-ray player via a computer on your network. That’s a terrific idea, as it caters for just about every conceivable user, from those who want compact mp3s for a portable device to those seeking 24/96 files for playback via a PC/Mac and a suitable DAC.
This is the first time I’ve encountered the proprietary mshuttle, which allows one to access extra content via a PC/Mac, and I was surprised to find it didn’t work on my wired network at home. There’s a helpful on-screen note that explains your Blu-ray player’s BDLive setting needs to be enabled first, but that made no difference. Using my Mac’s Network Utility I keyed in the IP address and pinged to see if the player was indeed part of the network. It was found instantly. Happily this does not seem to be an issue with the disc, for mshuttle worked like a dream on a second network.
The extra content is displayed on a simple, uncluttered screen. I downloaded the pdf booklet first and then elected to download the zipped 24/96 flacs. This 1.47Gb file took around 20 minutes to download, which seems reasonable. The disc’s opening menu is also well laid out, with the usual ‘pad’ of numbered tracks and the audio set-up options on the right of the screen. Pressing the yellow key on my Blu-ray remote selected the desired PCM stereo layer, so that bit of lateral thinking has certainly paid off.
So, kudos to Gimell for covering all the bases. If the BD-A project is to succeed - and there are plenty of marketing hurdles still to overcome - this is surely the best way to go. With all that technical spiel out of the way I finally sat down and listened to the regular CD; while the standard of singing is exceptional I was none too impressed with the light, bright sound. There’s surprisingly little sense of this votive space, or of the divide between soloist and choir. Frankly, it sounds more like a digital recording from the 1980s than a very recent one.
With some trepidation I switched to the Blu-ray, and the difference was astonishing. Gone are the tiring digital edge and the flattened perspectives. In their place there’s a palpable warmth and a wonderful sense of the Merton chapel’s acoustic. Individual voices are more easily discerned - they have remarkable presence, too - and the antiphonal effects are simply breathtaking. Admittedly, high Renaissance polyphony isn’t my usual ‘beat’, but I found the radiant weave of this glorious music deeply affecting. I doubt the work’s empyrean splendour or the Tallis Scholars’ finely calibrated singing have ever been this well caught on record.
I had a similar experience with the War Requiem
, where the Blu-ray added much-needed three-dimensionality and air to the flat, rather confined CD sound. Apart from the more grateful sound of this Gimell Blu-ray there’s the immeasurable advantage of being drawn deep into a living, breathing performance. One’s ear is ravished by the smallest vocal nuance and one’s spirit lifted by the sheer loveliness of it all. If I were an agnostic where BD-A is concerned this track alone would be enough to make me a firm believer. Perhaps more important, it shows this rarefied repertoire in the best possible light and that can only win more converts to it in the end.
The ’hear through’ quality of this BD-A is even more apparent in Palestrina’s austerely beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater
. Under the direction of Peter Phillips these singers achieve a seamless line and purity of tone that’s just ravishing to behold. As for the recording it has a wonderful texture - as if the music itself were a fine fabric - a tactile quality I’ve only encountered on a handful of SACDs. Indeed, audiophiles who dismiss PCM in favour of DSD would do well to hear this recording. Remember how the critics likened the advent of CDs to the lifting of a veil? Given the grim sound of those early discs that was a tad fanciful, but this BD-A really is the genuine article.
Palestrina’s answer to those doubters at the Council of Trent is eloquently framed in his Missa Papae Marcelli
, the longest work on this disc. From the glowing strands of the Kyrie
through to a Benedictus
that falls like gentle rain and a radiant Agnus Dei
this is a performance that moves and breathes in the most natural and unfettered way. High loveliness is the only way to characterise this music and these musicians. The disc ends with a gorgeous interplay of voices in the motet Tu es Petrus
and the embellished Miserere
, where effortlessly pitched high Cs glitter like distant diadems in the raftered gloom.
Huzzahs all round, for this is an exceptional release. The Blu-ray demonstrates just how good high-res audio can be; if you don’t relish the idea of downloads then this is as good as it gets. High-res audio needn’t cost the earth either; the pre-order price of this BD-A is around £13, which compares favourably with the £14.99 and £17.99 that Gimell ask for their 24/96 stereo and surround flacs respectively. Linn’s 24/96 offerings - in stereo - are priced at £18.
Gimell have clearly put a lot of thought into their debut release, and if other labels follow suit the BD-A project deserves to succeed. I’m certainly a convert, but others - perhaps jaded by too many competing formats - could be harder to persuade.
Gimell’s first BD-A is a resounding success; a landmark in every way.