lrich Katzenberger is a man on a mission: to capture music in as pure a form as humanly possible. As the press kit for his trio of recordings phrases it, "Our goal is to capture the honest, live, natural concert-hall sound, without the addition of artificial compression and other effects that alter or manipulate the original audio." This is an ambitious goal to be sure. His methods involve recording in 24-bit/192kHz PCM using only the most minimal miking, then going straight to Blu-ray audio or high-res downloads (which he considers the best option sonically), or converting to DSD.
So far, Katzenberger has released three recordings. The first two, Katzenberger 01 and 02, were released on hybrid SACD. He feels (and I concur) that there can be a (slight -- my word, not his) loss of fidelity in the transfer of PCM to DSD that he finds goes against his stated goals. Finally, Katzenberger's releases come in booklet-style packaging with not only the disc but printed matter chock-full of information on the artists, the music and the recording techniques used.
Katzenberger 01, the initial release on SACD, features mezzo soprano Barbara Hofling and pianist Gráinne Dunne performing works by a diverse lot of composers: Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann to more modern ones such as Igor Gurney, Charles Villers Stanford, and Peter Warlock. Ive not spent enough time with this type of music to be able to speak definitively as to performances, but I can say that its obvious Hofling and Dunne have great passion for the numbers they perform. The sound, on the other hand, is more easily described. The piano and singer are centered, as one would have heard at the session. The venue's space is well rendered and the piano has a percussive quality, though to my ears it sounds just a bit recessed. Hoflings voice is clear and her phrasing concise, with excellent pitch, tone and suppleness.
Katzenberger 02 features harpist Anne-Sophie Bertrand playing solo works by Albeniz, Fauré, Bach, Mendelssohn, Handel, Jean Francaix, Elias Parish Alvars, Prokofiev and Debussy. Ive always had a soft spot for the harp, as it gives the feel of a piano but played with more hands, if that makes sense. This SACD, perhaps due to only having to capture a single instrument, offers a great sense of a real instrument playing in real space. There is an utter naturalness to the sound of the harp, from the fingers plucking the strings to the initial transient of each note, to the way those notes float off into space. As with the previous release, one can absorb the feeling Bertrand so obviously has.
Katzenberger 03 is different from the first two releases in a couple of important ways. First, there are both a Red Book CD as well as a Blu-ray Disc (of course, the 01 and 02 hybrid SACDs also offer CD and higher-resolution playback). Second, the performers are a jazz quartet made up of two tenor saxophones, bass and drums -- an odd lineup that will have its work cut out for it with no chordal harmonizing instrument. Yet this quartet works, thanks in large part to the two distinctive styles and tones of the saxophones, which create an interesting mix of sonic delights.
But it is the sound that will have you standing up to cheer. The Blu-ray Disc has stereo and two surround programs -- one for a full-range five-channel surround system, the other for two main speakers and three smaller ones. All are accessible via the color buttons on your remote, so you dont even need a TV. All tracks, stereo and surround, are in 24-bit/192kHz PCM.
Compared to the previous SACDs, the Blu-ray had a better live-in-the-studio feel. There was greater air, both within the room and around each instrument. Tone and timbre were more spot-on, although disc 02 was very, very close. The surround programs offered the most natural sound, although I found that the stereo was very good as well. But it was when I listened to the stereo Blu-Ray tracks followed by the CD that I really heard the full benefits of the higher resolution -- and Katzenbergers recording techniques. The CD was pretty darn good for Red Book, but just a pale imitation of the stereo or surround Blu-ray tracks. Its kind of like going from MP3 to vinyl. No matter the disc, due to the total lack of compression on the recordings youll want to turn up the volume a click or three to gain a more realistic sense of dynamic range, which is positively immense.
Did Ulrich Katzenberger succeed in his goal capturing "the honest, live, natural concert-hall sound"? Disc 01 sounds very good, and disc 02 is better still, but disc 03, where the music remains 24-bit/192kHz PCM from recording to storage, is the high point of Katzenberger's quest and a disc of true demonstration quality.
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