Those who have been on Mars for the past few years have missed some
intriguing audio developments. Chief among these is Blu-ray Audio
which, as the name implies, is Blu-ray video without the pictures.
The advantages of the format over CD are its vastly increased storage
capacity - allowing loads of extra content - and its ability to offer
24-bit/192kHz sound in both stereo and multi-channel. Impressed? Well,
that’s not all; thanks to a clever piece of embedded software
called mshuttle the bonus material can be accessed from a computer
on your network; all you need to do is type your Blu-ray player’s
IP address into your browser and it’s all there at your fingertips.
For good measure 2L offer a hybrid SACD as well, as indeed do others
who have signed up to the Pure Blu-ray Audio brand. Regrettably, Universal
Music Group (UMG) and Naxos take a rather more basic approach to BD-As,
as detailed in my recent article
‘Blu-ray Audio: gimmick or game-changer?’. I’ve
reviewed some UMG and Naxos titles, and while they have their virtues
I’m often left feeling short-changed. The exception must be
the classic Decca War Requiem, whose re-mastering for Blu-ray
is simply astounding (review).
Even more satisfying is Gimell’s debut BD-A of Allegri and Palestrina,
which is also MusicWeb International’s Recording of the Year
You may think that’s a bit cheeky, given that the original recording
has been around for a few years, but such are the sonic gains here
that nothing else would do. Not surprisingly Gimell, 2L and Sono Luminus
both subscribe to 2L's more inclusive and sophisticated Pure Blu-ray
Audio model, with its downloadable content and simple, intuitive user
interface. I can’t over-emphasise the importance of the latter,
which allows one to do away with a TV/monitor and select tracks and
audio options via the player’s remote control.
UMG’s High Fidelity Pure Audio (HFPA) model is antediluvian
by comparison, as I discovered with their Netrebko and Villazón
Meagre content, poorly designed menus and irritating oversights -
the discs start playing as soon as they are inserted - tend to spoil
one’s enjoyment of the music. That said, there are sonic improvements,
and that may be of more interest to potential buyers than clumsy presentation.
For me, though, the user experience is all part of the package. In
that respect the Gimell disc and 2L’s Nordic Sound sampler
were so much more elegant and enjoyable to use.
2L’s audiophile credentials are well deserved, and it’s
no surprise that their first BD-A - sourced from superb high-res masters
- dates from 2009. I can certainly vouch for both the technical and
artistic merits of their SACDs, one of which was among my Recordings
of the Year for 2007 (review).
Indeed, a track from that gorgeous collection is included in their
sampler. I had intended to review the latter, but as tantalising as
those titbits are - the vocal items especially - I was impatient to
get my teeth into something more substantial.
Originally scored for a wind band of two hundred Berlioz’s monumental
Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale surely qualifies
on that score. A public celebration of the 1830 revolution that brought
Louis-Philippe to power, the piece plays to the composer’s theatrical
strengths. That said, anyone used to the dark, drenching splendour
of the orchestral/choral version - Sir Colin Davis and Charles Dutoit
come to mind - may be a little disappointed by the relative lack of
weight here. Still, this Norwegian band plays with thrilling precision
and a lovely blend; Captain Pål W. Magnussen’s trombone
solo in Oraison it has a haunting purity that’s deeply
Purity is the operative word, for this recording - taken from very
high-res masters - has an accuracy of attack and timbre that is quite
remarkable. To put it another way, the notes have a well-defined shape
- a clear beginning and end - that adds immeasurably to the sense
of realism. This squeaky clean sound takes a little getting used to,
but after a while anything else - and that includes the DSD-encoded
SACD - seems almost too refulgent. Both are supremely satisfying,
but on a straight A/B comparison the PCM sound on the BD-A offers
even greater clarity and focus.
The rest of this collection confirms my initial impressions. The delightful
Saint-Saëns march is meltingly played - what rich sonorities
and crisply articulated drums - and how shiversome its oriental elements.
The Dukas Fanfare to his ballet La Péri, designed
to quell pre-performance chatter, is suitably arresting, while Milhaud’s
series of regional portraits is a joy from start to finish. Now jaunty,
now brooding, the piece is shot through with glowing colours, all
lovingly rendered by both the band and the recording. The cosmopolitan
whirl of Île-de-France is particularly attractive, while
the ease and jollity of Provence might just evoke memories
of an Ealing comedy.
This programme is well planned, so gravitas follows geniality, and
inwardness succeeds ebullience. The rich, velveteen writing of Tomasi’s
Fanfares Liturgiques is a perfect foil for the light, spring-heeled
Milhaud work. Tomasi’s textures and rhythms are very different
from anything that’s gone before, and the band clearly relishes
the challenge this music represents. Certainly the shimmering percussion
that underpins Procession du Vendredi-Saint caught me
by surprise. Conductor Ole Kristian Ruud shades and paces the music
very well; climaxes have appropriate scale and the sense of a cortege
passing by is artfully maintained.
I first heard this performance of Bozza’s Children’s
Overture as a 24/192 download from 2L’s website. At the
time I found it a little bright for my taste, but I now realise that
has more to do with the explicit nature of these PCM files than any
other elements in the recording chain. Having recalibrated my antennae
I enjoyed the bounce and brio of the piece rather more now than I
did then. Its smile-inducing touches and sense of fun make for an
upbeat finale. Some will prefer the soft edges of the SACD to the
etched sound of the BD-A, but at least this comprehensive package
allows listeners to choose what works best for them. Incidentally,
the audio files can be downloaded individually or as one zipped file;
the flac version of the latter transferred to my hard drive in less
than seven minutes, which is commendably quick.
I’m very impressed with Blu-ray Audio, especially when it’s
presented this well. The mshuttle feature is a pleasure to use and
the authoring in general leaves UMG and Naxos discs looking distinctly
shabby. Neither of those two includes high-res downloads, which is
particularly galling in this age of music on the move. Sensibly, 2L
offer both low- and high-res files; this means that you can transfer
your music to a cheap and cheerful device or one of the more expensive,
high-res-capable ones, such as Sony’s NWZ-ZX1 Walkman, the FiiO
X5 or Astell & Kern’s $2,000 AK240.
As the AK player confirms, quality comes at a price; this 2L release
is available online at between £15 and £20, which is more
than Gimell’s debut set (around £13). Naxos BD-As cost
even less - £8 or so - but then they offer no extras. The big
question, though, is do consumers want another physical format?
Discussions on the future of high-res audio at this year’s CES
in Las Vegas suggest this is still a niche market, whether it be downloads
or discs. As a staunch supporter of both SACD and high-res downloads
I need no persuading; perhaps Blu-ray Audio, which slots seamlessly
into home theatre systems, will appeal to a much broader market. Either
way 2L and their partners are best placed to take advantage of the
breakthrough, if and when it comes.
Maximum choice, elegantly packaged; Blu-ray Audio at its best.
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale, Op. 15 (1840):
Marche funèbre [16:18]; Oraison funèbre [6:58]; Apothèose
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Orient et Occident - Grande Marche, Op. 25 (1869) [7:43]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Fanfare pour précéder La Péri (1912) [2:04]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Suite Française, Op. 248 (1945): Normandie [1:39]; Bretagne
[4:06]; Île-de-France [1:53]; Alsace-Lorraine [4:20]; Provence
Henri TOMASI (1901-1971)
Fanfares Liturgiques (1947): Annonciation [2:42]; Evangile
[4:00]; Apocalypse (Scherzo) [3:26]; Procession du Vendredi-Saint
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Children’s Overture (1964) [5:27]