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Ludwig van Beethoven & Ottorino Respighl - Symphony No. 6 & The Pines of Rome Print E-mail
Tuesday, 19 December 2000

Beethoven, Respighi
Symphony No 6 in F Major. Op. 68, "Pastorale" + Pines of Rome
format: DVD-Audio
label: AIX Records
release year: 2001
performance: 9
sound 9
reviewed by: Richard Elen

ImageThis month, let’s look at another release from West Hollywood-based AIX Records. The album pairs Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with Respighi’s symphonic tone-poem, Pines of Rome. This disc continues the AIX tradition of offering as many value-added features as you can possibly imagine, resulting in a uniquely satisfying – and uniquely good value-for-money – overall result.

Here we have the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by their musical director Zdenek Macal, recorded in their own Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. I have not heard this orchestra before, but their performance of both works is exceptional, and the experience is enhanced, first by the 24/96 original recording, and second, interestingly enough, by the fact that you can watch them playing (on the DVD-Video side of the disc) a lot more easily than you would if you were there when they played.

The AIX approach to recording involves using the highest-quality gear the company can lay their hands on to record at 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling, which is what DVD-Audio was made for. AIX generally offers two 5.1 mixes, a "stage" mix which has the performers around you (which I like: DTS on the DVD-V side in this case), and an "audience" mix (MLP on the DVD-Audio side, Dolby Digital on the DVD-V side) which is more like (in this case) what you’d hear if you were sitting in the best seat in the house. Both mixes, of course, are sourced from the same multitrack recording, so even the "audience" mix has a clarity that you would be lucky to get if you were in the auditorium. Additionally, there is a stereo mix at 24/96 on the DVD-A side that can also be played on a DVD-V player. There is a commentary track, plus biographies, background information, A/V setup information, and much more, including DVD-ROM web access.

The video on the DVD-V side even has multiple video angles. For example, during the Respighi, you can choose between the multi-camera edited version and a view solely of the conductor. The edited video is reminiscent of a video of a rock concert, with the big difference that, unlike the average rock concert video, the camera crew on this classical performance knows where to aim when there’s a solo, so you can see the players performing all the major lines. And very good players they are, too. You can get "inside the orchestra" on this disc in a way that is quite impossible from a seat in the concert hall.

To my knowledge, nobody else is doing high-quality audio discs like this. The big difference, really, between a DVD-A disc and a DVD-V disc is that the first has audio as its focus and the second makes video the priority. The technologies are extremely similar. The DVD-A simply has the added capability of MLP multi-channel playback at the highest possible quality, with corresponding loss of moving picture capability. AIX is taking all the things we’ve come to expect on a DVD movie – director’s commentaries, bios, production information and so on – and couples them with multiple surround audio versions and a bunch of additional material for the best possible overall experience.

Talking of director’s commentaries, the Beethoven on this disc is accompanied by a spirited optional commentary (plus an introduction) from no less than Jamie Bernstein Thomas, classical writer, broadcaster and daughter of Leonard Bernstein. This is a real joy that made me suddenly realize that this disc would make an ideal music teaching aid. In the introduction, Bernstein Thomas is at pains to point out how we should not be tied down by the "pastoral" associations surrounding the work. In the commentary, however, she focuses almost entirely on what happens in the score, telling us when themes, with their many repetitions and alterations, appear and return. She even hums along with them when necessary and points out chord changes. She plays the pastoral associations for all they’re worth, particularly in the third movement, "Merry Gathering of the Peasants," the urban composer’s bucolic evocation of imagined country German life. Bernstein Thomas is obviously having fun doing the commentary, and the result will be great fun for the listeners of any age, kids especially. "Oh, a surprise chord there," she says at one point. "We thought we were going home but we didn’t!" Elsewhere, she points out, "Another false cadence . . . but there’s no anxiety, we all know we’re going to end up in B-Flat." At one point, she announces, "Here comes my favorite chord. Ah, that feels good!"

Meanwhile, on the Respighi, we get the maestro himself, Zdenek Macal, providing the introduction. On the commentary track, he discusses the art of conducting the work, while elaborating on his love of Italy and the Italian people. "Pines of Rome" is evidently a difficult work to conduct, with sections in 5/4 and passages where individual players have a lot of freedom to interpret their parts. There are also unusual features, such as distant trumpets and antiphonal brass sections (ideal for surround), where the onstage orchestra has to be kept down so as not to swamp the off-stage players, and the recording of a nightingale, played from tape by one of the percussionists.

Both performances are excellent, but the 1924 Respighi piece is my favorite of this inspired pairing. Written between the two other Rome-inspired works, "Fountains of Rome" and "Festivals of Rome," the composer uses techniques learned from the works of Debussy and others to paint four beautiful but very different sound pictures of how the pine trees highlight different aspects of Rome, one of my favorite cities. At times, you can hear the hot Italian midday sun beating down in the music, or the gentle summer night. In the final movement, you can really hear the lines of Roman Legionnaires marching to drums as they pass by us on their way along the Via Appia. Very moving, very visual and beautifully handled: the recording greatly outshines my original EMI vinyl version – the first classical record I ever bought.

I have a nasty suspicion that every AIX disc is going to be a must-have for me. This one certainly is, and I recommend it without reservation if you have any kind of DVD player.

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