Given all the hoopla surrounding Universal’s ‘High Fidelity
Pure Audio’ (HFPA) releases - see my review
of the Decca War Requiem - it’s worth remembering that
Naxos have been issuing high-resolution Blu-ray Audio discs (BD-As)
for a while now. I was very impressed by the clear sonic gains of
the Wit Mahler 8, although Dave Billinge was very critical of the
multi-channel layer (review).
Since then I’ve listened to the BD-A version of the marvellous
Verdi ballet music CDs I reviewed
a few years back, and while the difference in sound quality between
that and the BD-A aren’t startling the latter is much better
focused and more dynamic.
There’s a lot of internet chatter about HFPA, and at the time
of writing Gimell are poised to release their first Blu-ray Audio
disc - the Allegri Miserere and Palestrina's Missa Papae
Marcelli - recorded in 2005. The comprehensive package will include
the basic CD plus downloadable high-res flacs and standard mp3s. As
Universal are focusing on previously released analogue material their
HFPAs will be stereo only, but as Naxos and others are concentrating
on new releases they can offer a multi-channel option as well. This
Copland collection - the CD has already been well reviewed
on MusicWeb - is no exception.
I’ve always been inordinately fond of these rousing, quintessential
American scores - especially as recorded by Leonard Bernstein and
Copland himself - even though those old CBS releases sound pretty
ropey now. As for Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony they make a great
team, and this disc demonstrates just how far the orchestra have progressed
under his tutelage. They sound supremely confident and at ease with
themselves, and Rodeo shows them at their exuberant best. Ensemble
is taut, the playing is full of character and the sonics are very
As good as the vanilla 16-bit CD undoubtedly is, the extra ambience,
weightier bass and great timbral sophistication of the high-res BD-A
are just remarkable. Transients - especially in the more percussive
episodes of Dance Panels - are crisp and clear without sounding
bright or edgy. In short, one gets all the extra detail and excitement
but without unwanted side-effects, and that’s just the way it
should be. I can’t speak for the multi-channel mix, but I’d
be surprised if it weren’t equally impressive.
Despite these sonic advantages when it comes to the performances themselves
my affection for Lenny’s CBS recordings - especially his riotous,
loose-limbed El Salón México - is undiminished.
The latter really is a treasurable performance, and Slatkin and his
fine players just can’t match it for sheer rhythmic verve. The
same goes for Danzón Cubano, which lacks the last degree
of sultriness and swagger. That said, it seems churlish to nit-pick
when the performances are of such a high standard and the sound is
this good. Indeed, if Naxos can keep this up we’ll be in for
a real treat.
So what’s the catch? Well, the BD-A costs a bit more than the
CD and you’ll need a Blu-ray drive or player to listen to it.
Bear in mind that copy protection means that if you output the signal
via TOSlink or coaxial cable it will be downsampled to 48kHz. The
full 24/96 will only be available via the usual RCA connectors - fast
disappearing from the latest Blu-ray players - or HDMI. How big a
deal is that? Well, even at the lower rate a BD-A should still sound
better than the original 44.1kHz CD. Besides, it’s the work
length rather than the sampling frequency that seems to make the biggest
Blu-ray Audio may not be the quantum leap the marketing men say it
is, but it does offer demonstrable gains in terms of sound and extra
content. Adding downloadable flacs and mp3s would be welcome; as I
understand it the latter are the sort of add-ons that Universal have
in mind for their HFPAs, and Naxos would do well to follow suit. Now
all Universal need to do is sort out their chaotic release schedules,
and Warner - with access to EMI’s extensive back catalogue -
need to stop fiddling with USB sticks and wav files and get with the
program. All this confusion is unhelpful, and jaded consumers simply
won’t bother with BD-As unless it stops right now.
Sonically this Naxos BD-A is a worthwhile improvement over the CD;
it’s reasonably priced, too.
Previous reviews (CD): John
Whitmore ~~ Gwyn
Parry-Jones ~~ Brian