La voie triomphale
see end of review for track listing
The Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces/Ole Kristian Ruud
rec. November 2011 and January 2012, Jar Church, Norway
Disc 1: Hybrid SACD (stereo & multi-channel 5.1, both DSD)
Disc 2: Pure Audio Blu-ray (24/192 PCM stereo & dts-HD Master Audio 5.1); downloadable mp3, wav and 24/96 flac files, booklet and cover art
2L-086-SABD [BD-A + SACD] [81:14]
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 2013 (review). 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 releases (review). 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 affecting.
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 [8:49]
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 [3:00]
Henri TOMASI (1901-1971)
Fanfares Liturgiques (1947): Annonciation [2:42]; Evangile [4:00]; Apocalypse (Scherzo) [3:26]; Procession du Vendredi-Saint [8:50]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Children’s Overture (1964) [5:27]
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