Notes & Reviews:
"No detail appears to be overlooked...On CD, the recording is remarkably good, but Blu-ray adds so much more, even in stereo." BBC Music Magazine****
BBC Music Magazine
Following the exemplary lead of the Nonvegian 2L label, Naxos did not so much dip a toe as dive headlong into audio-only Blu-ray with the truly ground-breaking Virtual Haydn set. Now come four more discs, suggesting that Naxos's adoption of audio only Blu-ray is no flash in the pan.
Unlike the Krtual Haydn, these discs broadly retain the programme length of a CD, even though far more could be fitted onto a Blu-ray disc. Only the pairing of Dvofik's Sixth and Ninth Symphonies breaks the 80-minute barrier and then only by less than ten minutes. It is frustrating that the fillers from the CDs of the Dvofik Symphonies have been omitted here.
With that gripe out of the way, it is possible to celebrate the considerable riches of these discs. The jewel in the crown of Marin Alsop's survey of DvofLk's later symphonies is the Ninth. This performance really sits among the best in an incredibly crowded field, sounding as fresh as when Dvoidk put pen to paper. Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are almost as impressive in the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, despite these being very different beasts. No detail appears to be overlooked. IfAlsop's interpretation of the Sixth Symphony does not quite reach these exalted heights, it is still characterised by exceptionally fine playing from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
On CD, the recording is remarkably good, but Blu-ray adds so much more, even in stereo. There is a natural quality to the sound that becomes most apparent when returning to the flat artificiality of the CD version. For the Chopin discs, the piano is just as much to the fore on Blu-ray as on CD, yet sounds even more crystalline.
GramophoneThese audio-only Blu-ray discs combine 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio and stereo LPCM taken from 24-bit 88.2kHz original recordings and show Naxos as innovative as ever, leading the way in exploring technology.
Recorded live in Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, when played on a Blu-ray player and surround sound system they deliver not only riveting performances but a wonderful sense of space and presence. More please, Naxos!
MusicWeb International - Dave Billinge
The comments in my review of the companion Blu-ray Audio disc of Symphonies 6 and 9 apply here and should be read in conjunction with what follows. This new series from Naxos has a lot of potential in terms of production quality both as sound and in ease of use. Blu-ray video is not as simple in use as standard DVD, with lengthy loading times and labyrinthine menu systems. Unless player firmware is up to date some video discs will not play at all. Then there is the persistence of regional coding. None of these seem to apply to the audio carrier so Naxos's problem is only to reach a sufficiently large market and for that they must issue the right repertoire. On the draft schedule for the next few months, apart from the Chopin already issued, are Mahler, Szymanowski, Schubert, Schumann and Shostakovich discs: a typically eclectic collection. I think we have reason to look forward with confidence at least in the short term.
As for these two symphonies in particular, Marin Alsop is up against zero competition for recorded quality. There are SACD recordings from Ivan Fischer and George Szell, the former of No.8 and the latter of both 7 and 8 but given the lukewarm reviews of Fischer and the staggering price of the Szell - old stereo-only recordings given a face lift - they cannot weigh heavily. I must repeat that these issues so far have been state of the art. That alone is reason to buy them. It can be argued that performances of such reliability in terms of orchestral playing, the Baltimore Orchestra are very fine, and the lyrical nature of Alsop's direction provide much pleasure when actually listening.
Blu-rayDefinition.com - Lawrence Devoe
Marin Alsop, the principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has chosen to take on the symphonic cycle of Antonfn Dvorßk, one of the premier orchestral composers of the 19th century. Given the current plethora of Dvorßk recordings, this might be a risky undertaking. The two symphonies chosen here are among Dvorßk's last statements in this musical form. Both are well known and frequently recorded. Cutting to the chase, Dvorßk devotees are not going to discard their treasured Szell, Kertesz, Davis and Toscanini CDs. However, in the new world order, high resolution surround sound recordings of these orchestral staples are still quite uncommon.
Symphony No. 7 has the usual assortment of Dvorßk melodies and rhythmic excitement. Alsop catches the symphonic wave early in the turbulent first movement of this piece and moves her forces flawlessly to its concluding Allegro movement. Symphony No. 8 is a trickier piece of business since it keeps a number of cards under its sleeves until the last movement. This a true test of leadership from the conductor's podium as there is the tendency to let the orchestra free fall near the ending. Fortunately, Alsop avoids this trap, and conveys a very effective if not the seat of the pants reading, which makes for an exhilarating experience.
The soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio and has a somewhat distant perspective. In this case, it is more about overall sonic picture presentation than the highlighting of details. But this is what you will most likely hear in a good seat in a large orchestra hall. There is a pleasing naturalness in this recording's acoustic which is probably a reflection of judicious miking and equalization. Again, if you listen to live music, it is all about the warmth, and this coupling of Dvorßk's later symphonies delivers in spades.
The Definitive Word
This disc presents two enjoyable Dvorßk symphonic recordings in a realistic acoustic space. While not the last word in details or dynamics, it does an effective job of putting the listener in a large hall with an excellent symphony orchestra and world-class conductor. The Seventh Symphony could hold its own with previous recordings, while the Eighth lacks the frisson at the finale that gets the audience to jump to their collective feet in ovation. There is no current high resolution competition on Blu-ray.
Audiophile Audition - John Sunier
This and a second Blu-ray of two more Dvorßk symphonies are the latest in the series of audio-only Blu-rays which Naxos is releasing as their latest foray into hi-res surround formats - seeing as how they gave up quickly after a few SACD and DVD-Audio releases some time ago. The performances of all four symphonies are superb, and it is satisfying to have Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony in hi-res surround again, since her Brahms First Symphony was such a terrific winner on SACD and then the Second was limited to only standard CD.
The Seventh is the composer's most dramatic and dark symphony, but still full of lovely melody. It's long been my personal favorite of Dvorßk's, just as Beethoven's Seventh is my favorite of those symphonies. The Brahms influence on Dvorßk can be heard at many points, but it is usually mixed with the Czech folk flavor of so much of Dvorßk's music. Both symphonies have four movements, with the first two being about the same length and longer than the closing two movements.
No. 8 is from 1889 and is strong in a spirit of Bohemia. The first movement changes frequently from major to minor, as do many of Brahms' works. A graceful waltz is heard in the third movement, and the finale has a series of variations. The string section tone on both symphonies is especially rich and natural.
The playing is committed and beautifully rendered with the DTS lossless surround. I had to slightly raise the level on the surrounds. The original recordings were 24-bit but only 88.2K - a natural doubling of the 44.1K CD sampling rate. However, the fidelity is excellent, though I cannot say it is better than most SACDs. It is thoughtful of Naxos to provide for easy playback without having to use a video display at all.
Blu-ray.com - Jeffrey Kauffman
It's perhaps more than a little ironic that a Czech composer mentored by one of the most towering and iconic figures of 19th century German music should have helped, at least in part, to redefine what constituted "American" music. The 19th century saw the United States music establishment, and composers in particular, still under the considerable sway of the European tradition, and few writers, if any, had sought to develop a uniquely American voice which would speak to the heart of this still young nation's soul. But when Antonin Dvorßk first established himself as the leading symphonic interpreter of his native Czech musical source material, bringing a wealth of folk (or at least folklike) melodies to his oeuvre, and then, in a visit to the United States, wrote his most famous piece, his Ninth Symphony, he suddenly showed American composers how to draw upon their own intrinsic traditions to craft their own distinctive musical language. If Dvorßk's Ninth is still rather firmly in the European tradition, not yet full of the bracing vocabulary of Charles Ives or the charming Americana of Aaron Copland, it still augured a way forward for American composers.
The Ninth has become such a piece of international standard repertoire that the rest of Dvorßk's rather considerable, and often quite gorgeous, output is either forgotten or ignored. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony have been recording a Dvorßk Symphonic Cycle over the past several years, and the first two hi-def audio releases of that cycle have been released. Alsop is one of a growing number of women who have been able to forge impressive careers in a field long dominated by males. (In full disclosure mode, I should state I played under Alsop's baton at an Oregon Symphony Gospel Christmas performance where I was one of the featured pianists). Alsop has been Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony for a few years now (her contract was recently extended to 2015), and she's helped raise the group's profile with a series of well received recordings. If her Dvorßk cycle so far lacks a bit of fire sometimes, there are manifold pleasures to be had, and they're fully on display in this new release offering us Dvorßk's two immediate precursors to his famous Ninth.
Dvorßk was mentored by none other than Johannes Brahms, and the Brahmsian influence on Czechoslovokia's first "national" composer is nowhere more evident than in Dvorßk's Seventh Symphony in D minor. While there's no disputing the fact that Dvorßk heard a performance of Brahms' Third Symphony, and that gave him the inspiration for his Seventh, there's a perhaps more interesting question lurking just beneath the surface of this tumultuous piece. Did Dvorßk hobnob with Brahms sometime during 1884, when Brahms was crafting his final piece in the symphonic realm, his soaring Fourth Symphony in E minor? If not, Dvorßk must have picked up something in the ether, as Dvorßk's Seventh bears a certain stylistic and even at times thematic resemblance to the Brahms piece, perhaps even more than Brahms' Third. Alternately stormy and sunny, the Seventh is a piece of at times alarming contrasts, as if the composer were experiencing a manic depressive episode. It's all of course perfectly restrained in that late 19th century classical (albeit Romantic with a capital "r") way, but there's a surging intensity to this piece that makes it a perfect companion to the cloudy shores of Brahms' final symphony. Alsop misses some opportunity for intensity in the opening movement. She seems to be more at home with lyrical, expressive, even meditative, movements at times, and though her Seventh is perfectly professional, the first movement especially seems simply too restrained for its own good. The strengths of this performance are undoubtedly the Adagio, as well as the Brahmsian lower strings, which the Baltimore Symphony offers in resplendence.
Dvorßk took a 180 degree turn with his Eighth Symphony, and it receives a somewhat more natural interpretation from Alsop and her players. If the Seventh was resolutely Brahmsian, with sunlight glinting through ominous clouds, the Eighth is a piece more reflective of Dvorßk's lifelong quest to introduce audiences to his Czech homeland and its evocative music. This piece is imbued with the folk sounds of Bohemia and it might be seen as the composer's jauntiest work. Though Alsop's Allegretto Grazioso tends to emphasize the wistful aspects of the movement, and never in fact reaches anything approaching a real Molto Vivace, the rest of the Symphony is played with a good combination of force and nuance. Once again the Baltimore Symphony's strings especially sound wonderfully riched and burnished.
One of the problems in releasing a Dvorßk cycle, in hi-def or not, is that there is such a long history of releases which Alsop's readings will inevitably be compared to. Though his recordings are now a generation or more old, and were in fact the first complete recorded cycle of Dvorßk symphonies, Hungarian Istvßn KertTsz's readings of these pieces are often thought to be by many classical music aficionados the touchstone by which all other interpretations should be measured. While that's certainly debatable, the fact is KertTsz's recordings with the London Symphony (available on CD in a nice boxed set) show that Alsop is at least occasionally perhaps too measured in her approach to these works. Dvorßk is unquestionably a composer of classical restraint and architectural symmetry, but he also displays flashes of temperament and tumult that must be approached at a minimum with vigor if not vitriol. Sometimes being too respectful can make things sound slightly anemic. While Alsop brings a fine degree of intelligence and decorum to her interpretations, it might be time for her to let her hair down just a little and let her heart rather than her head lead the way through some of the most gorgeous and evocative music of the 19th century.
Naxos brings us these symphonies in often luscious lossless formats, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (24-bit/96kHz) and an LPCM 2.0 mix (also 24-bit/96kHz). Whatever passing qualms one may have about Alsop's interpretations of these beautiful works, one can't fault the playing of the Baltimore Symphony or, more importantly when it comes to audiophile releases, the recordings themselves. These are simply gorgeous sounding recordings, with the 5.1 perfectly spacious without sounding overly ambient. While dynamic range is somewhat limited due to Alsop's reserve, when moments like the timpani eruptions in the Eighth's opening movement do occur, they show that both mixes are capable of astounding fidelity even at extreme frequency registers. The dark string and wind sounds of both of these pieces are reproduced wonderfully here, with a deep and richly burnished sound that is both completely "accurate" in terms of the composer's soundworld, but also just plain ingratiating to listen to.
Overall Score and Recommendation
Both of these symphonies are unduly neglected in the wake of Dvorßk's more famous Ninth Symphony. The recordings here are stupendously effective, with brilliant fidelity and gorgeous ambience. Those with a long history with this composer may find occasional fault with Alsop's interpretations, but overall these are respectful and often glowing accounts of these beautiful works. Alsop may err on the side of caution a bit too much, especially with regard to the stormy Seventh Symphony, but she brings a finely tuned awareness to the architecture of both pieces, something which the Baltimore Symphony responds to accordingly. Recommended.
David's Review Corner - David Denton
For those who have top-end of the market audio equipment, this disc will come as a life enhancing experience that goes way outside the realms of a conventional CD.
If you have the option of surround-sound - the disc plays in both formats - you could well be sitting in Baltimore's Symphony Hall. I suppose we need Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Schoenberg's Gurrelieder to demonstrate this new sound carrier's potential, but here we can sit back and enjoy the refinement of tone, infinite detail, and that feeling of a tangible presence. Above all there is a 'freedom' around the sound that is new to us. Its release also brings the opportunity of revisiting performances I reviewed a few months ago on CD. At that juncture I detailed the many pitfalls that Alsop had so positively avoided. Having arrived at this 'clean sheet' we can then admire the way Marin Alsop structures the Seventh, as with a sure-footed tread we pass through so many changing tempos and mood swings, the drama inherent never undersold, particularly in the unsettling central trio to the scherzo. Alsop equally finds the sadness the composer intended, so much so that the symphony comes in complete contrast to the glowing warmth she brings to the Eighth. Not the outgoing and overtly loving warmth we found in the Barbirolli or Talich versions, but a more relaxed sense of endearment. The horns could have been more generous, but that apart the Baltimore orchestra was in fine form, and it is good to hear the golden quality of their upper strings.
Positive Feedback Online - Karl Lozier
Antonin Dvorak's compositions are popular world wide and particularly here in the United States possibly partly due to the fact that he lived in Middle America for a number of months and that obviously influenced some of his compositions (notably his Symphony No. 9, "From the New World").
Many musical experts believe that number seven with its dramatic passion predominating, is Dvorak's finest symphonic effort. Personally I really admire its third movement scherzo but overall I definitely listen more often to No.8. Here Naxos offers a pair of solid performances surpassing what I had anticipated with conductor Marin Alsop. Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony are definitely in sync here and can stand comparison with many if not most recorded performances I have heard. Whether it is due to the recording venue, the orchestra or the audio engineers I can not be sure, but the overall audio quality, while very acceptable, simply does not have quite the full, rich and enveloping sound quality of the above reviewed Blu-ray recordings that are or almost are, state of the current recording art. The Naxos recording offers value, excellent performances and their perhaps unique ability to be easily played without the need for a monitor or TV set to be used for setup. We hope that ability becomes more common with other companies soon.
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