I don't pretend to be the world authority on classical music -- I have a good basic collection of several hundred pieces by key composers from Beethoven to Lou Harrison to Vaughn Williams -- but there are a handful I have taken a particular shine to over the years. At the top of that list are Igor Stravinsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. So you can imagine my excitement recently to find surround sound recordings of some of their seminal works. In general I'm very happy these two releases, both of which seem to tap into the pulse of these works AND delivering a satisfying surround sound experience. Judging them against my personal benchmark favorite versions by esteemed conductors such as Ernest Ansermet and Pierre Monteux, these performances hold up very well and are a happy addition to my collection. That is until the time we get surround sound remixes of those seminal Ansermet and Monteux recordings from the 1950s, these new ones will suit me very well.
Stravinsky's seminal Rite of Spring and Firebird Suite are both powerful progressive works of music that revolutionized the classical music world back at the turn of the 20th century. Channel Classics has put fine performances of them both on one powerful 5.0 (no subwoofer channel) SACD that are full, lush and powerful. Stravinsky's compositions from this early 1900s period are really one of the birthplaces of modern progressive music; if you don't believe me, for one example, just go listen to some early Frank Zappa albums (Freak Out, Absolutely Free, etc.) and then listen to these Stravinsky pieces (and Petrouchka) and you'll hear how he gladly borrowed many musical ideas from the Maestro. Yes, I consider Stravinsky every bit as prog rock as King Crimson, perhaps more so since he arguably started the game.
While on one hand it might have been interesting to have heard this music in a more gimmicky surround mix -- given all the microphones that were used to make the recording (see photo) -- the mix that producer Jared Sacks opted for is mostly very natural. It presents a more or less stereo sound stage and relies on the surrounds to deliver the sense of room acoustics as the music reverberates around the Palace of Arts in Budapest, where it was recorded. This is never more apparent than in "The Augurs of Spring" movement early on in the Rite of Spring, where conductor Ivan Fischer drives the staccato pulses of the orchestra that almost soar over your head (when sitting in the sweet spot). Its very cool and makes for a compelling listening experience, one that will bear many repeated listens.
The Kirov Orchestra's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade is no less powerful yet is a very different work and recording. The surround mix on this recording is very simple, with a mostly stereo sound stage and use of the surrounds to deliver room ambiance. It is effective but not as dramatic as on the Stravinsky recording mentioned above. The good news is if you need a good version of the piece on SACD, this a generally excellent reading -- albeit a bit fast at certain points -- by conductor Valery Gergiev, delivering that heart-wrenching sensibility within these distinctly Russian melodies within that rings true to this listener. I don't know what it is about these Russian composers but these -- along with works by Glinka, Glazunov, Borodin an Tchaikovsky -- seem to tap into a deep rooted part of my musical DNA (my grandparents on my father's side were from the old country).
I'm pleased to add to this to my collection and may well be my go-to recording of Sheherazade until the time when they issue a surround sound remix of Ansermet's seminal recordings from the 1950s. I can dream, right?
Ok, now for my one gripe common to both of these releases: why go to the trouble of making a beautiful surround sound recording if you make that information unavailable on the packaging of your release? Of the two, both have the barest minimum of information indicating there is a surround mix on the discs. Neither has any written information about what went into making the surround mix in the booklets inside. Why? It is more than an oversight. It appears almost a conscious omission, perhaps to not confuse retailers? I'm sorry but this is a mistake folks. Consumers need to know this information when shopping for an album because there ARE listeners who want to hear the surround mixes. End of rant.
You can find the Stravinsky album online at places like Amazon. At the Channel Classics website you can even download the 5.1 DSD files! Pretty cool for those of you who have the ability to playback DSD files, eh? Downloadable surround sound music! The Rimsky Korsakov album is available online as well but appears to be out of print and thus commanding crazy prices ($425 on Amazon?? Really?). Keep looking around if you want to find this since I am sure its around. I got mine at Frys brand new last month for $16! That is more like it. Shop around for that one!!
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.