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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Rodeo (complete ballet) (1942) [24:49]
Dance Panels (1959) [26:17]
El Salón México (1936) [11:55]
Danzón Cubano (1942) [7:12]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 12-14 October 2012; 9-11 November 2012 (Rodeo), Max M. Fisher Music Center, Detroit, Michigan, USA
Sound: 24/96 PCM stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.0. Reviewed in stereo
NAXOS NBD0037 BD-A [70:11]

Given all the hoopla surrounding Universal’s ‘High Fidelity Pure Audio’ (HFPA) releases - see my review of the Decca War Requiem - it’s worth remembering that Naxos have been issuing high-resolution Blu-ray Audio discs (BD-As) for a while now. I was very impressed by the clear sonic gains of the Wit Mahler 8, although Dave Billinge was very critical of the multi-channel layer (review). Since then I’ve listened to the BD-A version of the marvellous Verdi ballet music CDs I reviewed a few years back, and while the difference in sound quality between that and the BD-A aren’t startling the latter is much better focused and more dynamic.
There’s a lot of internet chatter about HFPA, and at the time of writing Gimell are poised to release their first Blu-ray Audio disc - the Allegri Miserere and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli - recorded in 2005. The comprehensive package will include the basic CD plus downloadable high-res flacs and standard mp3s. As Universal are focusing on previously released analogue material their HFPAs will be stereo only, but as Naxos and others are concentrating on new releases they can offer a multi-channel option as well. This Copland collection - the CD has already been well reviewed on MusicWeb - is no exception.

I’ve always been inordinately fond of these rousing, quintessential American scores - especially as recorded by Leonard Bernstein and Copland himself - even though those old CBS releases sound pretty ropey now. As for Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony they make a great team, and this disc demonstrates just how far the orchestra have progressed under his tutelage. They sound supremely confident and at ease with themselves, and Rodeo shows them at their exuberant best. Ensemble is taut, the playing is full of character and the sonics are very good indeed.
As good as the vanilla 16-bit CD undoubtedly is, the extra ambience, weightier bass and great timbral sophistication of the high-res BD-A are just remarkable. Transients - especially in the more percussive episodes of Dance Panels - are crisp and clear without sounding bright or edgy. In short, one gets all the extra detail and excitement but without unwanted side-effects, and that’s just the way it should be. I can’t speak for the multi-channel mix, but I’d be surprised if it weren’t equally impressive.
Despite these sonic advantages when it comes to the performances themselves my affection for Lenny’s CBS recordings - especially his riotous, loose-limbed El Salón México - is undiminished. The latter really is a treasurable performance, and Slatkin and his fine players just can’t match it for sheer rhythmic verve. The same goes for Danzón Cubano, which lacks the last degree of sultriness and swagger. That said, it seems churlish to nit-pick when the performances are of such a high standard and the sound is this good. Indeed, if Naxos can keep this up we’ll be in for a real treat.
So what’s the catch? Well, the BD-A costs a bit more than the CD and you’ll need a Blu-ray drive or player to listen to it. Bear in mind that copy protection means that if you output the signal via TOSlink or coaxial cable it will be downsampled to 48kHz. The full 24/96 will only be available via the usual RCA connectors - fast disappearing from the latest Blu-ray players - or HDMI. How big a deal is that? Well, even at the lower rate a BD-A should still sound better than the original 44.1kHz CD. Besides, it’s the work length rather than the sampling frequency that seems to make the biggest difference.
Blu-ray Audio may not be the quantum leap the marketing men say it is, but it does offer demonstrable gains in terms of sound and extra content. Adding downloadable flacs and mp3s would be welcome; as I understand it the latter are the sort of add-ons that Universal have in mind for their HFPAs, and Naxos would do well to follow suit. Now all Universal need to do is sort out their chaotic release schedules, and Warner - with access to EMI’s extensive back catalogue - need to stop fiddling with USB sticks and wav files and get with the program. All this confusion is unhelpful, and jaded consumers simply won’t bother with BD-As unless it stops right now.
Sonically this Naxos BD-A is a worthwhile improvement over the CD; it’s reasonably priced, too.
Dan Morgan

Previous reviews (CD): John Whitmore ~~ Gwyn Parry-Jones ~~ Brian Reinhart