Ravel’s Bolero – Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
(Super Audio Compact Disc)
Music: A+ PCM CD: B+ DSD Stereo: A DSD
Multi-Channel: A+ Extras: C
Maurice Ravel was a French
composer, and one of the few that could combine melody in such a way that
reached right to the heart. His
compositions contain some of the most advanced harmonic writings. His ability to use harmonic shift, yet
balance out the melodies and tonal expressions are matched by very few,
especially being a composer going through the turn of the 20th
Century. Only Claude Debussy might be a
Obviously Ravel’s music
was an important part of the first half of the 20th Century bringing
to mind a period in time prior to both World Wars, and a time when music was
hopeful, sensual, erotic, and at the same time intoxicating. In November of 1974, one of the most
important recordings took place. That
would be Stanislaw Skrovaczewkski’s and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of
Ravel, which was released in 1975 by Vox.
The recording took place in Minnesota (University of Minnesota), which
is a better choice than Carnegie Hall, which is not particularly a good place
for microphone recording, despite its amazing acoustic design. At this time, quadraphonic recordings were
becoming popular, so this piece had always been though of with some sort of
surround setting to capture the actual live performance. Therefore, microphones were situated near
the front and rear of the hall in order to have the discrete channels capture
some ambience from different distances.
The choir was placed at the rear of the hall singing towards the stage,
which meant that the sound was coming from the front and rear and meeting in
the middle. Cardioid microphones
(heart-shaped pattern that picks up sound from all directions, except behind)
were placed near the rear of the hall, while four omni-directional microphones
were placed across the stage.
Already, we understand
that this recording was one of a kind, and it is no wonder that it has always
been a recording sought after by audiophiles.
Now, this landmark recording is available on yet another format,
SACD. The original master tapes were
recorded on 4-track ˝” analog tape, which was initially encoded with both
stereo and quadraphonic tracks, but only those with a decoder for the quad
tracks could get 4-discreet channels.
The only problem with this though was that the stereo mix had elements
from the quad mix, which gave a limited stereo effect by throwing in some of
the surround material, making the mix somewhat unbalanced. With this SACD though, we finally get all
4-channels discretely reproduced.
Resurrected now for the
SACD format by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, with their focus as it had always
been, to bring forth the best in sound and bringing the original master
recordings to life, it offers demonstration-caliber playback. This particular SACD takes the DSD signal
and using their Gain 2 (Greater Ambient Information Network) mastering system
allow for greater precision in the analog-to-digital transfer. This is also an Ultradisc UHR (Ultra
High-Resolution) Hybrid SACD, which preserves the DSD and CD layer and brings
forth its sonic integrity, allowing for the best in reproducing a pure capture
of the information.
Indeed there have been many
steps taken to deliver this recording with a superb attention to detail and
enthusiasm in recreating the original as well as the idea of a live
performance. Take away all the
technical jargon and lets just say that this SACD/CD sounds amazing! Amazing only does some justice. The CD tracks alone are exemplary, and
that’s without experiencing the SACD section.
Daphnis et Chloe (Suite 2)
Daphnis et Chloe (Suite 2: Segment, Chloe is Accosted) 5.0 mix
Bolero is a standout composition and its presentation on
SACD is nothing short of exhilarating and hypnotic. It is a lesson on swells as the entire piece emerges out of
nowhere, like a ghost. Instruments are
added, harmonies introduces, gracefully the song picks up and spreads more
sound. We become infatuated with its
grace. Its unwavering appetite to
seduce us, perhaps this is why the song has been so overused in film. A slave to its design we cannot help but
listen on, listening for each detail as the music becomes more intense, but
still subtle. Become louder and louder,
with even more instruments coming forth and various arrangements on the main
melody. The percussion is steady,
gently coming more into existence as time moves on. The channels bring this display into its full glory. Sound moves across the room, dancing like a
snake. Slithering this way, then that,
the mood never changes and we are still, just waiting and waiting. The song is a dance, a dance of life.
Pavane was written in 1899, and was one of Ravel’s early
successes. It was dedicated to the
Princesse de Polignac, which was then played all over in its original
piano-only version, which was later upgraded to a orchestral version by Ravel
himself. The piece is certainly
nostalgic and fits well with the rest of the sections. It is moody, but relaxed and brings forth a
sadder atmosphere as a follow up to Bolero.
The DSD Multi-Channel and Stereo mixes for this both demonstrate how a
quiet piece can still bring forth a strong dynamic range. Most people assume that only larger, more
aggressive pieces can show off a recording, but that is quite untrue. In fact, the subtlety here is one of the
occasions where (if you close your eyes) you never know where the sound is
coming from. The mix is balanced so
accurately that the sound never emerges stronger from any direction, therefore
the focus is dead center, making the experience quite realistic, if not
invigorating. Pavane is also the
shortest selection as well, running only 7-minutes.
Rapsodie espagnole will instantly make any listener think of some of
the arrangements and compositions made for some of the 1950’s melodramas. However, this selection was originally
designed out of Ravels interest in Hispanic things. Unlike the first two selections this one is more dynamic in
nature going from slow and subtle to faster and more intense. It also incorporates moments and melodies
that are very Spanish in nature, which brings to mind some of the ideas that were
used on soundtracks to two particular David Lean films, Lawrence of Arabia
(1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).
What this means is that a certain phrasing or melody line is used
randomly through the composition that upon hearing intentionally brings the listener
into the culture of that particular piece.
In Lawrence we have melodies that are deliberately Arabic,
whereas in Doctor Zhivago we have melodies that are Soviet in their
intent. Rapsodie espagnole
certainly moves around, with certain sections calling to mind Ravels interest
in the Spanish culture.
La Valse is the only Waltz here, with its original name
being Wien, which means Vienna.
Here we are given a sentimental look at Ravels compositions bringing a
very fleeting mood and certainly showing grace with a great deal of dynamic
undertones. This is perhaps the most
active selection on this disc, which powerfully penetrates through the mix,
either in Stereo or Multi-Channel.
There are two bonus tracks
included on this disc. Daphnis et
Chloe (Suite No. 2) runs approximately 17-minutes and then the following
track is the segment from Daphnis et Chloe entitled Chloe is Accosted,
which runs 4:33. This segment however
is remixed in 5.0 and is the finale movement, which essentially takes the
center channel and processes information from the left and right channels in
order to make a matrixed center and distributes the information across all
front three speakers.
There are three audio
options for this Hybrid SACD. With a
conventional CD player, the disc has a Stereo mix, which is quite good, but
nothing quite like the other two options:
DSD Stereo or DSD Multi-Channel.
In Stereo, you are essentially hearing what most heard back in the
quadraphonic recording, but without any surround activity. While this sounds good, the music is never
spacious and feels trapped. Once the
Multi-Channel mix is heard, very few listeners will find any need to go back to
Stereo. The Multi-Channel brings life
and energy back into each track, with sound escaping from all corners of the
room. Instruments now thrive in the
ability to move through the room. The
mix does not seem stuffy, but loose.
More ambience is picked up as well, bringing the listener into Carnegie
Hall, or at least close to it.
Not only are the
selections for this disc superb and not only is the actual recording of this
material a benchmark in quality, but the combination of those two elements make
its appearance on the SACD format a vital disc for anyone interested in higher
end audio and recording. If anyone
needed a place to start a serious SACD collection, let it begin here! The package includes original cover art and
liner notes as well as more notations on the recording and mastering. Information is also given on the conductor
and orchestra, plus Ravel background.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs is back in action, taking integrity up just
another notch the company is sure to flourish with its SACD lineup, what better
way to start their multi-channel releases than with this definitive recording
of Ravel’s work.
- Nate Goss