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Category:    Home > Reviews > Classical Music > Opera > Naxos Classical SACDs – Kronos Plays Holmgreen/Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos 1, 2, 3/Beethoven String Quartets/Carlo Ponti - Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (Penta Tone)/Brahms Symp. No. 4

Naxos Classical SACDs Wave # 3Kronos Plays Holmgreen, Beethoven Piano Sonatas No’s 1, 2, 3, Beethoven String Quartets, Carlo Ponti/Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Penta Tone),  Brahms Symphony No. 4 (Naxos SACDs)


CD Layer: B     DSD 2.0: B+     DSD 5.1: A-     Extras: B     Music:


Kronos Plays Holmgreen  B

Beethoven Piano Sonatas  A

Beethoven String Quartets  A

Pictures at an Exhibition  A

Brahm’s Symphony No. 4  A-



Unlike my previous reviews for the Naxos-distributed (and sometimes produced) SACD releases, this one took a bit longer, not for any other reason than the simple fact that I couldn’t stop listening to the material long enough to start writing!  It’s that good.  Of course, this particular wave includes some truly terrific material and in particular one of my favorite works – Pictures at an Exhibition. 


Check out our previous coverage of the Naxos catalogue:





Here we get some truly fabulous works, in particular I was interested in the recording of Pictures at an Exhibition, which features the Russian National Orchestra under the direction of Carlo Ponti, which raised my curiosity and expectations, even more so since I own and cherish my SACD copy of this masterpiece released through Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs under Leonard Slatkin’s guide, this of course is a recording from 1975, so it’s a bit more dated, but still an exceptional recording that has stood the test of time and remains one of the strongest SACDs on the market.  The Ponti recording took place in March of 2008 in Moscow and features Pictures at an Exhibition, plus Night on the Bare Mountain, the introduction to The Sorochinsky Fair, and two excerpts from Khovanshchina. 


Let me first begin by saying that Mobile Fidelity is not an easy studio to out-do, they certainly put the finest into their recordings and continue to raise the bar of excellence.  The Slatkin recording is a fine example of the work that can go into an older recording and bring the sonics to a whole new level in a format like SACD.  That being said, the Naxos release of Pictures is phenomenal.  Jaw-dropping.  Inspiring. Riveting.  Astonishing.  There are some truly fine recordings in the world and this one is full of emotion, Ponti’s handling of the content is calculated, articulate, raw, and passionate.  It’s evident by the handling of this material, especially an orchestral piece that is so demanding.  Pictures goes through such a wide range of emotions from start to finish and its dynamics are fully realized here.  I would easily say that this recording needs to be in the hands of any serious classical fan immediately, it’s that good! 


After such excitement from Mussorgsky I was eager to check out the two Beethoven pieces, especially since one release was the Piano Sonata’s Op.2 Nos. 1,2,3 and the other release was String Quartet’s Op. 59 No. 1 and Op. 18 No. 6.  Mari Kodama is featured here on piano and this is not her first entry on Naxos, she has several other Piano Sonata’s also released on SACD from this label. This particular recording took place in early 2008 in the Netherlands Concertboerderij Valthermond with recording producer Wilhelm Hellweg.  Kodama uses a Steinway & Sons D-274, which is a truly fantastic piano with versatility and remarkable tonal quality that accurately defines the best of the Piano Sonatas presented here. 


Here we get to experience the best that SACD has to offer even in a more minimal setting.  The piano can often be buried in so many mixes that feature other instruments; here we get the piano front and center with all the beauty of its range featured in a recording that finds each and every nuance of the instrument.  Kodama commands the pieces in excellent fashion with artistry, passion, and a true love of the material that shines through a wonderful, expressive, and emotional mix.  This is not a mix that is playful, it’s designed to simply capture the music in such a neutral and natural sense that it gets out of the way and just lets the music exist.


In contrast to this, we have the String Quartets performed by the Quartetto Italiano, which features Paolo Borciani (1st violin), Elisa Pegreffi (2nd violin), Piero Farulli (viola), and Franco Rossi (violoncello), which was recorded in the Musica Theatre in La Chaux de Fonds Switzerland.  This recording is from 1972 and has a more dated feel, yet is still surprisingly dynamic and sonically challenging as well, but also busier with more instruments in the mix and demonstrates some of the advanced writings Beethoven pieced together for quartets.  Featured here is String Quartet in F, Op. 59 No. 1 and String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18 No. 6.  Both demonstrate some of Beethoven’s finest writing and movements. 


Brahm’s Symphony No. 4 is a real highlight too, especially being from Pittsburgh and this recording featuring the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  It’s a shame that much of Brahm’s work is still underappreciated or unknown, but a release like this brings his name to the forefront where it belongs.  In addition to Symphony No. 4 is Hungarian Dances for Orchestra, which concludes part two of this release


Kronos Plays Holmgreen turns out to be the only disappointing release out of the bunch, although there is nothing wrong here on a technical side, but the performance is not exactly up my alley.  I really enjoy the Kronos Quartet and have enjoyed many of their outings, but this one left a lot to be desired.  The pieces chosen here are a little too experimental and abstract for my taste, but that’s just a preference. The SACD shines through with a truly remarkable mix that encompasses the listener with a full gamut of genius sound design and mixing.  Featured here is David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), Jeffrey Zeigler (cello), plus Paul Hillier (baritone vocals) and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, which is only appropriate for Holmgreen’s material. 



Track Listing:


Concerto Grosso (for string quartet and symphonic ensemble)

Moving Still (for baritone and string quartet)

Last Ground (for string quartet and ocean)


Like the previous titles released on SACD from Naxos on various labels, these are hybrid SACD’s capable of being played on both standard CD players and SACD players.  There are three audio layers, which feature a CD layer, DSD 2.0 layer, and a multi-channel DSD 5.1 layer.  Even the compressed CD layers are good mixes; in fact I started there for this review and was quite pleased with the overall performance.  There were times though when the mix definitely showed signs of fatigue and it was evident that much of the mix was being compromised.  Certain passages sound cluttered and are unable to articulate, especially when compared to the DSD tracks, which are both exceptional here.  While each of these titles offers slightly different sonics, the end result is nearly the same.  The DSD 2.0 tracks feel very faithful, natural, and present the material with a huge front soundstage that quickly surpasses the limitations of the CD layer.  There is more fidelity in this mix that showcases both the upper and lower range with a great balance overall. 


Likewise the DSD 5.1 mixes are impressive throughout and demonstrate a slightly deeper soundstage that fills the room a bit more.  These are not ‘playful’ mixes like you sometimes find on certain SACD releases; instead they are natural mixes that simply use the surround channels to help alleviate much of the ambient sound.  Because of that fact, the mix has more room to breathe and opens up more in the front allowing for more of the music to come through in a forward motion, which is a huge plus!  I give a slight advantage to the 5.1 mixes, but the 2.0 mixes will please just the same, especially for purists. 


Each title comes with a decently sized liner note that fully detail the recordings and provide great insight into these particular artists, which is a phenomenal bonus in addition to already terrific titles to own.  Classical fans usually need very little convincing when it comes to exceptional recordings and while many are slowly converting over to SACD, which is still a niche format, it shouldn’t take long for classical lovers to make the transition and these are just a handful of the fine titles available through Naxos, we continue to be amazed at their attention to detail and ability to release some of the finest works around, we’ll look forward to more and we know you will too!



-   Nate Goss


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