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06/23/2003 8:20p ET
Brett Rudolph - Reviewer
This is perhaps one of the first choral a cappella works, that I can truly say left me somewhat speechless. Though the repertoire Chanticleer performs on this album is all in foreign languages, there is no doubt to the meaning or sincerity both of the music itself and those performing it. The entire album is somewhat of an enigma in that, not only does it seem that the group is made up of male and female members, but that it was recorded in a studio at Skywalker Ranch rather than a large cathedral.
Louis Botto, a graduate student in musicology at a Bay Area college, found in his studies that many of the works from the Medieval and Renaissance periods were no longer being performed before audiences. In order to keep these works and the vocal artistry from becoming lost, he formed a group of all male vocalists, the traditional format, around a dining room table in 1978. While the group has undergone many changes over the years, its mission remains largely unchanged, “to perform a diverse and innovative repertoire, reaching audiences worldwide through live concerts, electronic media and education.”
Since it’s humble beginnings, the group has become known worldwide. It is no longer a part-time occupation for its members; instead it is a full-time job. Their concerts and albums have been extremely well received and in 2000, their CD, Colors of Love, won a Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance (with or without a conductor).
Magnificat, the subject of this review, was on the Billboard Classical charts in 2000, the same year they won their Grammy Award. In fact, it remained on the charts for a total of 15 weeks reaching the number 4 spot during that time. A great achievement for an album such as this one.
The album was recorded at Skywalker Ranch in California. Long known for its production of extremely precise and detailed recordings, it was the perfect choice for this project. The technology and skill used at their recording facility allows the listener the uncanny experience of hearing a recording that could easily have been made in a cathedral. The fact that it wasn't is a testament to the sound recording, mixing and engineering that went into this album.
The album I got for review is available from Teldec Records, part of Warner Music Group Company, and is on DVD-A. This format, allows for some unique functionality that other formats don’t provide, somewhat like SACD. While you do need to have a DVD player to enjoy the disc, there are three different formats available, PCM, Dolby Digital and DVD-A (MLP). These are listed in the order of their relative fidelity as you will soon see, however, for the purpose of this review, I will start with the Dolby Digital version first.
Dolby Digital allows the disc to include up to five independent channels of music plus a dedicated LFE (Low Frequency Effect) channel, which is used for a subwoofer. This particular album makes use of all these different channels in its presentation. Although unlike many, Dolby Digital surround recordings it doesn’t attempt to put the music around you, but rather immerse you in the experience itself. There is a great deal of attention paid to creating the correct ambience in the room.
Two of the best examples occur within the first two tracks of the album. The first is the traditional Gregorian Chant of “Ave Maria”. Rather then the full force of the a cappella talents of Chanticleer, it is somewhat of a sparse solemn performance representing a true presentation of the Gregorian philosophy on music. However, the use of all the channels allows the music to seemingly hang in the air, as though it would in any cathedral. While the soundstage is expansive, it has enough detail to locate the performers making it a very realistic experience.
The second of the two tracks is “Ave Maria, Mater Dei,”. Unlike the somewhat sparse presentation of the Gregorian Chant, this work relies on the full presence of the group. The midrange, where most of the male vocal range is found is extremely full-bodied and lifelike. With the addition of the surrounds, rather then overpowering the listener by the increased volume created by a greater number of performers, it draws them further into the listening experience. While perhaps some of the more subtle bass and treble tonality is overpowered in this piece by the midrange, it isn’t missed listening to the cut overall.
One other extremely well done track is number four, “Strabrat virgo Maria.” One thing I find important to note about this particular track is that no matter how loud or soft the passages, the fidelity remained constant. While normally louder music can sound better, in this case, the softer music was every bit as good. In fact, once again, one reason for this is that the surrounds added the timing and placement information so well that I never felt as though it should sound any differently.
Before moving to the other formats on this disc, I need to make one comment about the Dolby Digital version on this disc. Unfortunately there seemed to be some slight glitch. Although initially you are able to select a particular selection from the disc, once you do so, you get lost in the twilight zone till the disc's conclusion. By this, I mean there is no way to get back to the original menu that I found. I could only switch tracks by actually hitting the skip button on the remote. I did try this on several DVD players and found the same results, so don’t think it’s just your player; it seems to be a technical issue.
The other two formats available on the disc are the DVD-A (Meridian Lossless Packaging) format which is a high fidelity format, and PCM, the same type of signal that CDs contain. While I could do a review of the PCM version, it really is nothing more then a down-mixed version of the surround sound of MLP. Therefore, unless you want to listen to the disc in stereo only or have no means to play either the Dolby Digital or MLP versions, I would suggest not using it. While it doesn’t sound bad overall, The MLP version is a better choice.
The final version available on this disc is the DVD-A version. This represents the highest fidelity format available today on DVD and uses a format called MLP to capture all the recorded information without losing anything in the process of digitalizing it. While I am not going to argue its technical merits, I will tell you that on this disc, it offers an exceptional reproduction of the material. It is a far more richly detailed experience than its Dolby Digital counterpart. The changes in volume are far less distracting between tracks.
The first track, “Ave Maria” once again has that same haunting melody, however, with the added fidelity come slight nuances in the vocalist performances that are more readily heard. Although the Dolby Digital version is lifelike, this one offers a far more palpable sound. It is as though you are not only seeing the painting, but watching as the artist creates its beauty and texture.
Another great track is number 3, “Magnigicat,” the title track of the album. The vocal performance is outstanding by all the performers. What makes the track even more amazing is that through the use of reverb, the recording offers great sense of ambience. The timing and spatial information offers the listener a glimpse into the past, to what would be perhaps the ideal place for the performance of this particular piece. It is a great example of musical and technical excellence.
I could go on almost forever about the various tracks on this disc but, rather then do that, I am going to end this part of the review with comments on track seven, “Regina Caeli Laetare”. This work has a very rich, almost surreal feel about it, especially when you consider that it was recorded in a studio. What makes the piece even more impressive is the play between the different vocal ranges. Alto, tenor, soprano, baritone, and more, they all become one, and yet at times you can hear the playing between them to create a very rich picture in one’s mind.
There is another note I must make about the DVD-A version of this disc. Unlike my remarks concerning the Dolby Digital trap (the inability to manually switch songs), there is not only the ability to change between tracks, but they are extremely well labeled. These labels come not only in the form of titles on the screen, but actual paintings from various sources, which add to the music itself. In addition, getting back to the main menu requires no more then the push of a button, making the experience much more enjoyable.
Aside from the music, the disc doesn’t offer many additional features, which are sometimes available on other DVD-A releases. There is a selection to view some of the history of Chanticleer, an excerpt from another release, credits and finally a place to see some of the other offerings that are available from Teldec Records. There is certainly nothing that bears mentioning on its own, although the excerpt is sort of entertaining.
In short, this is an absolutely wonderful example of just how good a DVD-A or even Dolby Digital recording can be. Not only is the performance of Chanticleer phenomenal, but the skill and technology that Skywalker Ranch and the recording crew involved in the creation of this disc used was outstanding. If you doubt why surround sound and the DVD-A format are making waves in the classical world, you owe it to yourself to listen to this disc. You might just become a fan of the format by listening to what a well done album can sound like.
Copyright © 2002-2003 Matthew Rowe. All rights reserved.
Released: September 25, 2001
Matthew Alber/ Christopher Fritzche/
Jeffrey Keim/ Philip Wilder:
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