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A triumph of surround sound recording
"Whatever the woes of the classical recording industry, listeners can evidently continue to count on small, creative labels to come through with choice new offerings. One such company, the German label Tacet, seems to specialise in the extraordinary, in terms of both performance and recorded sound.
Some weeks back I wrote admiringly in this column about their discs of keyboard works by J. S. Bach played on the piano by Valentin Koroliov. Many further listenings have intensified my feeling that his recorded accounts of Books I and II of The Well- Tempered Clavier are second to none. Recently I obtained several more Tacet releases, including surround-sound DVD recordings of more music by Bach, a single-disc set of the Brandenburg Concertos and another of the motets. This is the same performance (by Matthias Jung conducting the Saechsisches Vocalensemble) discussed here recently in its stereo version. I have also begun to investigate Tacet′s series of recordings by the Auryn String Quartet, but more about those in a future column. The idea of recording the Brandenburg Concertos in surround sound initially struck me as dubious, especially since Tacet had clearly conceived this disc with the idea of demonstrating the technology. Different microphone placements were used for different concertos so that in the First Concerto, for example, a natural perspective is created by placing the entire orchestra in front of the listener with the rear speakers creating ambience. In the Second Concerto the solo violin is front left, the solo flute front right, the oboe back left, and the trumpet back right, with the remaining instruments in the middle. This kind of fiddling with space and balance has produced sonic monstrosities in the past. Long-time listeners will still recall with a groan the ping-pong effects perpetrated by the engineers of early stereo recordings, and the bizarre and unconvincing distortions of normal perspective inflicted on listeners by some of the quadraphonic recordings released during the 1970s. But I had no such feelings of something potentially interesting gone wrong while listening to these Brandenburgs, despite the fact that only one of the six recordings claims to resemble anything that might be heard in a concert setting.
When listening to the Surround Sound recording of the First Concerto, the notes promise that you are sitting in the wonderful church in the village of Goenningen and listening to the Baroque acoustics. Conditions in that church would have to be ideal indeed for a listener to hear the music with the clarity and warmth that it has in this recording. Everything is clearly and naturally audible, but there is a feeling of perfect balancing and blending that I′ve rarely experienced even in good multi-channel recordings of Baroque music. Given the technology that we have now, I don′t know how it could be improved upon.
Any illusion of being in a conventional performance space disappears while listening to the other five concertos, but it is replaced by a very different and often thrilling kind of listening experience, that of being surrounded by the musicians as they play. It may sound like the height of artificiality to have the violin, flute, oboe, and trumpet coming at you from four different directions as you listen to the Second Concerto, but the engineers have managed it in a way that creates the illusion that no chilly electronic channeling has been done. There is no feeling that the soloists have been highlighted in the recording process. The music envelops you completely and every player seems positioned naturally in the complex of sound.
The recordings of the Fourth and Fifth concertos also draw strong attention to the special recording technique Tacet uses for this disc. Both place the soloists in front of and the orchestra behind the listener. I was a little skeptical as the fugal third movement of the Fourth Concerto began, with the two opening voice entries coming from squarely behind me and the sonic space spreading to the front of the room only with the entries of the solo flutes and violin. But my doubts quickly disappeared as the performance continued. The passage following the violin solo, where the texture becomes so busy that the instruments seem to be playing themselves just to express their energy and high spirits, is thrilling when heard in this detail. Once again, despite the configuration of the players there is a real sense of ensemble, and the music gives no impression of being laid out on a dissecting table. It′s alive and very healthy.
The performances in themselves are terrific. Many listeners may wonder if they really need another recorded set of the Brandenburgs, especially with such gems as those by Pinnock/English Concert, Savall/Le Concert des Nations, and the Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin possibly already on their shelves. The answer is: yes, there is always room in any collection for a disc like this one. The Stuttgart Kammerorchester have made many fine recordings of Bach′s music under the baton of Karl Muenchinger, including an Art of Fugue to treasure. Here, it is in leaner, springier and more cleanly focussed form than it was in its Decca days. Benjamin Hudson, who leads them in these performances, favours tempos that are fast but never rushed. The instruments sound like modern ones, but the textures have the clarity of those heard in period instrument performances, so quickly-paced movements can really fly without sounding strained. The final movement of the Third Concerto is taken at an extremely fast tempo, but there is no feeling of the music being rushed; it is just irresistibly exciting.
The recording of the Fifth Concerto, with the harpsichord in front and the orchestra in back, could have been a disaster if Super Harpsichord, heard in so many recordings of this piece, had appeared here. But the harpsichord used is a delicate-sounding instrument whose sonority is absorbed naturally into the ensemble.
I played this disc on a Sony DVD player using a Yamaha RX-V740 6.1 surround sound system, the same one I use for DVD movies, and the results were quite stunning."
Ung-aang Talay

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