For the uninitiated SACD and HDCD are high-resolution recording technologies based on the so-called Red Book CD. The latter has been with us since the early 1980s; Super Audio CD (SACD) since 1999. Sony was involved in the development of both, but High Definition Compatible Disc (HDCD) is the brainchild of Reference Recordings’ Keith O. Johnson. Surprisingly, HDCD has been a presence for some time – it was developed between 1986 and 1991 – yet it only offers 5,000 titles, compared with 6,000-plus for SACD. Ostensibly these two technologies – HDCD with its decoder and SACD with its unique sampling regime – are competing for the same prize: the very best recorded sound.
So, what do you need to play an HDCD? Like most SACDs (the hybrid ones at least) HDCD recordings can be auditioned on conventional players and computer drives. The Reference Recordings website claims that even on standard equipment the ‘sonic superiority (of HDCDs) will be evident’. However, to hear the system as the designer intended you will need a player equipped with an HDCD decoder. There aren’t many of those about, but you can also enjoy the full HDCD experience on your PC, using later versions of Windows Media Player and a 24-bit sound card. Interestingly, Microsoft has bought this technology but so far seems reluctant to promote it in any way.
To hear SACDs at their best – they are usually recorded in stereo and in surround sound – you will need a dedicated player, as there are no commercially available SACD transports to slot into your PC. And no, these players don’t cost the earth – the Sony SCD-XE597 retails for under £130 here in the UK – although high-end players can cost thousands. But what’s the point of all this extra hardware, given that sales of silver discs are plummeting and downloads are on the up? Well, if you’re happy with MP3s and you do most of your listening on the move rather than at home, not much. However, if you’re remotely interested in music reproduction at its best, then high-resolution audio is well worth investigating.
I make no bones about my preference for SACDs which, if well recorded, represent a high-water mark in terms of musical realism. In recent weeks a slew of remarkable SACDs from Audite and Fuga have reinforced my belief in that technology and made me even more curious to compare it with HDCD, touted on RR’s website as ‘the most accurate recording process ever invented’. Given that organ music has figured so prominently in my listening lately, I chose Organ Odyssey,
played on the Lay Family Concert Organ at Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas. Built in 1992, the Fisk Op. 100 is an impressive beast, with 66 voices, 84 ranks and 4,535 pipes; it’s unfamiliar to me, as is the organist Mary Preston.
First impressions aren’t everything, but looking at the disc’s track list I do feel less than an hour of music is very short measure, especially for a premium-price product. Furthermore, the programme is less than inspiring, with not one but two Widor ‘lollipops’, including the ubiquitous Toccata from the Fifth Symphony.
But that matters less if the playing and recording are up to par. And, for the record, I listened to this HDCD on both a standalone SACD player – the musical signal is upsampled via the normal CD circuitry – and on a high-spec PC using Windows Media Player 11 and a 24-bit sound card.
Karg-Elert’s improvisation on Martin Rinkart’s 17th
-century hymn ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ is certainly a spectacular opener, the organ’s deep bass surging around the hall to great effect. What is less appealing, though, is the tonal character of the organ, which sounds curiously ‘processed’ at times, with nothing much below the flute stops until you hit those monster pedals. Impressive? Yes, but in an exaggerated ‘hi-fi spectacular’ sense that won’t appeal to everyone. As for the playing, it doesn’t strike me as anything special, although in the Vierne piece the water sprites are certainly agile enough.
The recording is very clear and analytical, helped no doubt by a dry, rather airless acoustic. Indeed, those who like a ripe organ sound may find this all too desiccated for their tastes. And although the booklet points out ‘this is no ordinary church organ’ it sounds a bit more like one in the Mendelssohn Sonata.
Here Preston produces some lovely sounds, especially in the Allegro moderato, those floor-shaking pedals kept to a minimum. The Adagio is also rather beautiful, the organ’s upper registers sounding more natural than they do in the Karg-Elert. Now that’s what I was hoping for, a good, solid performance, sympathetically recorded. Certainly the forensic nature of this HDCD pays dividends in terms of minute detail – especially in the Andante – and for the first time I sensed my PC was close to being overwhelmed in the final Allegro, thanks to a tidal wave of bass.
Subtle this ain’t, but you can curtail the lowest frequencies a tad if you play this disc on a player that doesn’t have a decoder; they’re still there, but at least they won’t threaten your ears or equipment. Apart from my earlier reservations, I’m no closer to an assessment of HDCD itself. All I can say is that compared with the phenomenal Lakeuden Risti organ SACD from Fuga – review
– this HDCD sounds strangely disembodied. Yes, the frequency extremes are well captured – as is the detail – but this recording lacks the coherence and depth of the best SACDs. I suppose one could argue this has as much to do with the organ and the acoustics as with the recording process, but I just can’t shake the impression that HDCD ‘presents’ music in a way that is not entirely natural.
Having just put my neck on the block I was pleasantly surprised by Preston’s gentle, pellucid playing in the Andante sostenuto from Widor’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony.
Here the etched quality of the organ’s higher registers – not to mention their purity of tone – is just astonishing. And for once the deep bass that ends the work is weighty without being overpowering. Moving on, there is a delightful mix of high-lying detail and low-lying oomph in Ives’s quirky Variations on ‘America’.
The piece is full of wry humour and those unexpected – often dissonant – Ivesian moments that catch one by surprise. The galumphing figures are especially well executed, Preston’s articulation clear and unambiguous throughout. Most enjoyable.
Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur
is a long-time favourite of mine, and the old Decca recording – with Mary Preston’s namesake Simon at the organ of Westminster Cathedral – is intensely moving. Sadly, Ms Preston’s performance of that oft-played excerpt ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ is much too disjointed and prosaic to appeal to those who prefer their Messiaen suffused with a sense of awe and ecstasy. Here both the organ and the organist simply don’t come close to capturing the epiphanies of this great piece. Indeed, the final descending chords sound unbearably vulgar. After all that brashness it’s a relief to bask in the glow of American composer John La Montaine’s Even Song
, with its lovely bell-like figures and restrained bass. Not a particularly memorable piece, but pleasing nonetheless.
The Widor Toccata is one lollipop that’s been sucked down to the stick, and I so wish Preston had chosen something else with which to end this recital. That said, she makes a fair job of it, but again I had the strange sensation that there was very little music between frequency extremes. That’s fine if you want to impress your friends or give your woofers a workout, but I’ve seldom heard this warhorse sound so bright and brash. Clearly Preston can do much better than this – the Mendelssohn and the first Widor piece are played with real sensitivity and flair – and I’d be delighted to hear her play in a different setting. As for HDCD, the recording sounds much better when properly decoded; sadly, that ‘sonic superiority’ was not at all obvious on my SACD player.
As I said earlier, first impressions aren’t everything. However, I have to say this particular disc does not offer anything like the musical integrity and involvement of the well-recorded SACDs I’ve auditioned recently. I say ‘well recorded’ because it’s important to recognise that even the best technologies aren’t always employed to optimum effect. Ultimately, though, it’s about the music, and despite some fine individual performances this disc is just too variable to warrant a recommendation.