Monday, July 22, 2013

Uranienborg Vokalensemble's Song on Blu-ray Audio and Hybrid CD/SACD

As a secular person, I always experience some trepidation when approaching sacred music. While I've always responded favorably to pieces that were dedicated to the glory of God--the requiems of Mozart and Faure and the entire Arvo Part catalog, for example--I'm worried that I'm missing part of the message due to my agnostic stubborness. That said, I always wonder if the composers of sacred music strive to cross those boundaries by reaching those who should be untouched but can't help be moved by the beauty of such compositions.

Song, yet another stellar offering from 2L Recordings of Norway, makes no bones about its intent: "In words and music each track has a story to tell about man and his relationship to nature, his fellow man and to God." This collection of Norwegian choral music is performed beautifully by the Uranienborg Vokalensemble in yet another acoustically divine Norwegian church--this time in Uranienborg, Norway--and within the first few seconds of the opening track your beliefs are challenged by a stupendous sense of heavenly purpose. Choral works can be so breathtaking in their purity, but when Morten Lindberg of 2L has everything set up just right, that aforementioned stubborness tends to dissipate almost immediately.

Once again, delicacy is the key in this recording. The individual voices of the choir are so fleshed out, so complete and so shrouded in sweat and blood and inspiration that the music becomes utterly vivid and real. Listening to Song on my audio system--which is certainly way above average yet still a healthy stone's throw from state of the art--reminds me of my experience with one of the finest audio systems I've encountered. This happened a few years ago during CES in Vegas, where I was escorted to a beautiful rented mansion in a ritzy neighborhood. The speakers were well into the six-figure realm, and everything else was a flagship of some sort or another. The manufacturer who ran the demonstration chose a similar piece of choral music, and I was struck by how real it all sounded, how those pesky veils of artifice had been lifted and I closed my eyes and was instantly convinced that I was listening to a live performance. Song easily replicates this experience--and on a much more modest system. What would it sound like on that system in Vegas?

In an industry where the human voice is used as a reference for fidelity, how easy is it to accomplish this feat? I'll go out on a limb and say that it would be close to impossible to make Song sound bad. Even the Blu-ray player in my laptop can give a pretty fair account of this music with the tiny stock speakers. But what if you have a truly glorious system that's perfectly matched to this truly glorious music? I suspect that it will change you mind about a lot of things--especially the magnificent promise of Blu-ray audio and SACD.

When the entire choir contributes at once, you'll realize how special this recording is. So many choral works create a wall of voices in this context, like massed strings in an orchestra. It's a pleasing illusion, even comforting, but it won't sound like that autumn day in 2011 when Morten captured these moments in time. In Song, every voice is singular and detectable. With a decent audio system you can easily track each vocalist through the track to the point where you sense you know a little more about that person. That's what a great recording played on a great system will do--it will force observations that sound silly and fleeting and hyperbolic.

That's what music is supposed to do. It's supposed to reduce you to emotional rubble. Song succeeds admirably in this respect.

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