Sunday, September 16, 2012

Further Adventures in Blu-Ray Audio: Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations from 2L Recordings

Morton Lindberg of 2L Recordings in Norway has been sending me quite a few of his new releases on the Blu-ray Audio format, and that has presented me with a dilemma. When I received my first Blu-ray audio disc for review, Patricia Barber's Modern Cool (which you can read here), I had to figure out how I was going to play a Blu-ray disc. I didn't have a player per se, but I realized that I did have a Blu-ray transport built into my laptop. All I needed was an outboard DAC--which I no longer had. The Wavelength DAC I used last year for my Blue Computer Solutions music server project was on loan, and I had already returned it. All I had left was a Sound Blaster external sound card, which offered decent sound quality (roughly the equivalent of a mid-fi Denon CD/DVD player I had on hand), but nothing approaching the musical beauty of the tubed Wavelength.

I was all set to wait for the new Unison Research outboard DAC that's scheduled to appear soon, but a delay in manufacturing has put that product on the back burner for a few more months. So the last handful of Blu-ray Audio discs I've reviewed have been performed on the laptop/sound card combination, hardly an optimal solution sound-wise. Since my brother Mat, my partner in Blue Computer Solutions, has been borrowing the Sound Blaster to continue work on his music server, I've been struggling to find a way to listen to all of these new Blu-ray discs. I've been looking at solutions such as the Oppo BDP-95 univeral player, which plays just about every optical disc known to mankind, but I balked at spending a grand just to hear a format I may or may not embrace.

Finally, Mat offered an intriguing compromise: "Why don't you just go down to Wal-Mart and buy a cheap Blu-ray player? You can get one for like $59." I had no idea Blu-ray player prices had sunk so low, so I started shopping around a found a cheap Panasonic player at the local Target for $75. It was the last one they had in stock. I took it home, plugged it in...and nothing happened. No power. I returned it for a full refund and pondered my next step. While grocery shopping at my local H-E-B, I checked out their electronics section and found a modest little Samsung on sale for $68.

Again, I took it home and struggled with getting it to work. The LED display kept saying "SETUP," and evidently I needed to hook the player up to a monitor so that I could view the various menus and get everything set up for simple audio playback. I longed for the days when you bought a CD player, inserted a disc and started listening to music. And unlike the Panasonic player, the Samsung didn't even include batteries for the remote, which was needed to program the player. I was getting frustrated with my Blu-ray adventure.

In my eight years in the telecommunications industry, we had something we called PFM. The P stood for "pure," the M stood for "magic" and I'll let you figure out what the F stands for. We used this term whenever we were troubleshooting and everything just started working right out of the clear blue for no particular reason. Well, after three tries of turning the player off and on, pressing play and letting the disc initialize (which takes a lot longer on a Blu-Ray player than on a garden-variety CD player), music starting flowing into the room.

The disc I had inserted was Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations, something Morton Lindberg had sent to me at least a couple of months ago. I didn't have an immediate point of reference for the overall sound quality, so I couldn't tell you whether or not the Samsung player was better, worse or equal to my old Wavelength/laptop set-up. But I did notice that Ola Gjeilo's piano sounded quiet, smooth and very relaxed, all the usual earmarks of high-quality, hi-rez digital audio. This soothing, easy-going sound didn't obscure detail, either; all of the wonderful decay of Gjeilo's singular notes were preserved, and while the placement of the piano was set far back into the soundstage, I could still hear all of the spatial cues from the recording venue (the Sofienberg Church in Oslo, Norway.)

Mr. Gjeilo, a young Norwegian pianist who began his composition studies at Julliard in 2001, calls Piano Improvistaions a sequel to his 2007 2L recording Stone Rose and notes that "improvisation is where my heart is." While many such improvisations can have the impression of riding along the edge of creativity, susceptible to trains of thought that can derail musical coherence, Gjeilo keeps these selections unusually tight and organized. It's hard to believe that these pieces weren't carefully orchestrated in advance. He judiciously avoids dissonance and concentrates on studied musical beauty that prizes melody, imagery and solace. I first listened to this generous 2-disc set on a rare rainy Sunday afternoon in Central Texas, and it was the perfect companion.

The sound quality is nothing short of superb, as I expect of Morton Lindberg and 2L, and is enhanced by the majestic Steinway Model D that Gjeilo used for this recording. "It's the best grand piano I have ever experienced," he says in the liner notes. "Just incredible." All of these serendipitous factors--the piano, the extraordinary acoustics of the church, and Morton's visionary skills as a recording engineer and producer--add to one of the most worthwhile solo piano recordings I own.

As far as my technical compromises go in terms of this new and somewhat exciting digital format, I look forward to making improvements to my playback equipment so that I can do justice to these recordings. Morton has enabled me to make more cautious and informative comparisons in the future by supplying me with both the LP and Blu-ray versions of at least a couple of his new titles. Since my analog playback capabilities have increased exponentially with the addition of the Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge and the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier, two of the finest pieces in their respective categories that I've ever used, I can hopefully add more insight into the sheer genius of the 2L recordings. Until then, this $68 Samsung Blu-ray player ain't half-bad.

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