Europa Philharmonia Budapest (Cobra) – ‘Mozart Overtures Album I’ A DVD-Audio review by Nigel Pond

September 29, in DVD Audio, Titles

Hodie is another label that I discovered while carrying out research on DVD-Audio labels prior to the launch of High Fidelity Review and is the label for HD Studios based in Paris. HD Studios is a multi-faceted operation covering production, post-production, DVD-A (and more recently SACD) mastering and authoring. Hodie caught my eye not only because of the Latin name (“hodie” is Latin for “today”), but because its offerings are exclusively high resolution, and not just your standard 96kHz/24-bit “hi-res” but also 192kHz/24-bit stereo. In many ways they could be considered a European counterpart to Mark Waldrep’s AIX Media Group in the USA.

When I first contacted Steve Klee, Hodie’s Product Manager, back in 2001 their releases were not ready to ship, but in 2002 Steve kindly sent me a package containing all their releases up to that date. I selected from them at random and found Album I of their Mozart Overtures series in my hand. It turns out that this disc is an excellent introduction to Hodie and its philosophy.

All of Hodie’s releases to date feature French-Brazilian conductor Maximianno Cobra and the orchestra that he created in 1999, the Europa Philharmonia Budapest. Cobra’s credentials are impeccable – he has studied under some of the best teachers and at some of the best institutions in the world, including the Hochschule fьr Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna and the Sorbonne in Paris. His idea when founding the orchestra was “to create an ensemble which could make recordings using all the new possibilities of 21st century audiovisual technology.” Hodie is the perfect partner to fulfill that aim.

This disc contains four of Mozart’s opera Overtures: ‘Don Giovanni’, ‘La Clemenza di Tito’, ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ and ‘Cosм fan Tutte’, and the overture to the only real oratorio (azione sacra) that Mozart composed, ‘La Betulia Liberata’, based on the apocryphal Book of Judith. The total running time of the five overtures is only about 44 minutes but there are a number of formats to choose from. The DVD-A compatible side of the disc contains two MLP audio groups, 192kHz/24-bit stereo (referred to by Hodie as “Absolute Stereo Process”) and 96kHz/24-bit “6 Channel Surround” (“Pure Audio Process”). The flip side of the disc is DVD-Video compatible and contains Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 versions encoded at 48kHz/24-bit and a stereo LPCM version (48kHz/16-bit).

Whichever track you opt to listen to first, the aspect of this recording that will immediately grab your attention, particularly if you are familiar with any of the “authentic performance” recordings (those conducted by Roger Norrington, for example), is the tempo that Cobra employs – it is slower than any other interpretation that I am familiar with, particularly Norrington’s, which is considerably faster. Mr Cobra has researched this subject intensively for his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne and the booklet with the disc provides some insights, albeit in brief executive overview detail. There is even a website devoted to an analysis of the subject (http://www.tempusfoundation.org/) and Cobra’s thesis appears to have many followers. One of the problems with Mozart’s manuscripts is that he didn’t use metronome markings – the metronome was a later invention – those that are in the manuscripts are additions by his contemporaries, Czerny and Hummel. Cobra believes that the principles that apply to Beethoven’s markings should also apply to Mozart. Cobra’s thesis, in brief, appears to be that metronome movements should be set by analogy with the human pulse and therefore a metronome marking of “crotchet = 72” in 4/4 time means that the metronome is set to 72 but that the crotchet is actually 36. This results in significantly slower tempi. I am not a musicologist so I am not qualified to reach any conclusions about Cobra’s theory. Suffice it to say that it makes for very interesting reading and that the listener should be ready for a bit of a shock!

I decided to begin with the 192kHz/24-bit stereo MLP group, so I selected what I thought was that option from the DVD-Audio side’s audio menu, but the track menu for the 6.0 track came up. One of my pet peeves about menu design led to this anomaly – when you move between menu options, particularly when there are only two of them, it should be crystal clear which option you have selected. Because the stereo track appeared to be highlighted, I assumed that was the selected track – wrong! On the audio menu, grey “lowlighting” indicates the selection. The same is true for the other menus, but at least when you have more than one option it is a little clearer which has been selected – selections there are “bluelighted”. With the stereo track finally selected, I began my listening session.

The first things that hit me, and which I jotted down more than once in my notes, were the clarity, detail and fidelity of the 192kHz/24-bit stereo tracks. Instruments are clearly defined yet blend together perfectly. Maybe it was the slower tempo or a combination of that and the fidelity, but I was able to hear all the parts clearly – lower strings can sometimes end up “mushing” together, but there was no sign of that here. At 3’45” into the overture to ‘Don Giovanni’, there is a bassoon playing with the strings – it was well-defined without being obvious or too constricted. Cobra masters the dynamics and change of mood in this overture superbly. There are hints in the overture of the appearance of the statue of the Commendatore in the opera’s second act, but Cobra does well not to draw too much attention to them and ruin the drama.

The second track, the overture to ‘La Betulia liberata’, is a much darker and more melancholic piece, but again the clarity, particularly of the middle strings and woodwind, is notable. In the slow middle section you can almost hear horsehair on strings and the wind players’ breath. At around 6’48” the tempo quickens, but the detail is maintained. The overture to ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ is more well known than the previous track but the fidelity of the recording maintains the interest. I particularly liked the slow section beginning at 6’07”, where the somewhat sparse scoring is enhanced by the fidelity.

The overture to ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ is probably the most well known on the disc, but even the most jaded listener would have no problem hearing something new in this recording. Again the fidelity of the recording is excellent, and Cobra gets the dynamics just right. The overture to ‘Cosм fan Tutte’ completes the package and maintains the high standards of its predecessors. The section beginning at 3’35” is particularly beautiful – none of the instrumental parts seem to overpower the others, they are well defined but “play well together”.

As you might expect the soundstage from such a high fidelity recording is very full and instrument placement is easy to visualize. In short, I don’t think any two channel purist would be disappointed by the stereo track. Although in theory the fidelity of the 96kHz/24-bit multichannel track should suffer because of the lower sampling rate, it is very hard to tell them apart just by their fidelity. Hodie has taken a rather conservative approach to the extra channels, using them to add ambience, rather than play placement tricks with the listener. The effect is noticeable if you toggle between the audio groups, but it is not going to make you sit up and think “now where did that come from?”. I would have preferred something a little more aggressive, but the approach adopted by Hodie is in keeping with the overall audiophile quality of this side of the disc. Just out of curiosity I did a little system reconfiguration so that I could apply the L7 processing of my MC-12 to the stereo group. The results were very pleasing – certainly not as subtle as the Hodie multichannel version – and did not seem to suffer unduly from the additional a/d and d/a processing.

Turning to the DVD-Video compatible side of the disc, the stereo LPCM 48kHz/16-bit track certainly cannot compete in straight two-channel mode with the higher resolution version on the DVD-A side, but it is easier to apply digital processing and without the need for extra a/d and d/a conversions. The Dolby Digital and dts tracks were indistinguishable from one another. I assume they were produced from the same master (though I could find nothing on the disc’s packaging or on Hodie’s website to confirm this) as the multichannel MLP track as the use of the surround channels is similarly restrained in both of them. As with the DVD-A side, applying Lexicon processing to the LPCM track produced a more aggressive multichannel experience, but obviously not what the engineer had in mind.

If you expect to see any extras on this disc you will be sorely disappointed. On each side of the disc, the tracks are accompanied by the same static image. There are no “behind the scenes” details of the recording venue nor the techniques employed, both of which would have been of interest, nor is there any information on Cobra’s “tempo thesis”. Rather than awarding a High Fidelity Review “blue duck” for the supplementary content, I have awarded 1 out 10 – at least it is not a completely blank screen!

I thoroughly enjoyed this disc. It, and the others in the series, assuming they maintain the same quality (and I have no reason to believe they do not), would be an ideal introduction to high resolution audio for those who don’t yet understand what all the fuss is about, or for those lingering in two-channel mode, but looking to make the leap to multichannel – subtle enough to break you in gently but a rewarding experience nonetheless.

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