Dana Winner – ‘Unforgettable’ An SACD review by Stuart M. Robinson

Unforgettable’ is Dana Winner’s second SACD release, it is the follow-up to ‘Licht en Liefde’, an outstanding disc we featured a couple of months ago. Unlike ‘Licht en Liefde’, which was aimed at the northern European Flemish market, ‘Unforgettable’ is a truly international title and therefore sung almost entirely in English.

The album was recorded in 2001 at Galaxy Studios, Belgium, where Dana’s previous SACD was created. This alone bodes well, as does the presence of many for those who worked on ‘Licht en Liefde’ – the Galaxy Symphony Orchestra for example, but most importantly Wilfried Van Baelen, who produced and engineered both discs.

Unforgettable’ is a collection of cover versions, popular and widely recognised songs with the possible exception of ‘Never Never Never, Grande Grande Grande’ a bi-lingual duet performed with Frank Galan, a popular artist in the Netherlands and Germany who models his style on his idol Julio Iglesias (who co-wrote this piece). It’s a hybrid SACD release, so there are both Red-book 44.1kHz 16-bit and DSD layers. What’s more, there is also a multi-channel surround mix, which is what I’ll be concentrating on for most of this review.

The songs are diverse in style, from Streisand’s ‘Woman in Love’ to Cat Stevens’ ‘Morning has Broken’ and ABBA’s ‘Winner Takes it All’, but all have a common theme; the need for a strong and competent vocalist to carry each song – ‘Old and Wise’ has no impact either emotionally or technically if warbled by someone who can barely hold a tune. As you may already know if you’ve read the Licht en Liefde’ review, Dana is far more than just a competent singer, she’s got an outstanding voice, so it looks like we’re in for a treat.

I did approach the album’s first track with some trepidation however as it’s a cover of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Moonlight Shadow’, originally sung by the unmistakable Maggie Reilly on the 1983 album ‘Crisis’. I’m something of an Oldfield aficionado and have yet to hear any of his pieces performed by other artists in a way I have enjoyed, yet Dana Winner manages to become the exception to that rule. The track wins me over because it doesn’t try to imitate the Oldfield style; in fact it starts slowly (too slowly) and gently, things only really coming alive after the first chorus. Dana dwells on the last line of the chorus a fraction too long, but I’m probably being horrendously picky by even raising that aspect because it’s an outstanding rendition of a difficult piece. This sets the tone for the remainder of the disc – the songs are interpretations of the originals rather than imitations.

Another influential factor on my acceptance of ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is that from the outset, one is struck by what is a first-rate recording and surround mix; the soundstage presence of both Winner and instrumentalists is breathtaking.

The disc’s second track, ‘I’ll Always Be There’ boasts a fantastic sense of orchestral power and force during the chorus bridge, Dana anchored dead centre with her choral accompaniment stretching around the room, although not in an unnatural manner. The surround mix places the listener towards the front of an imaginary auditorium rather than in the midst of the performers, which often results in an unnatural presentation. Later in the album ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’ also boasts an orchestration to be proud of, in fact the performers throw everything they have into the track, to the point where anything not nailed down in your listening room is also likely to shake, rattle or roll… probably onto the floor! I think the technical term is “Oomph”.

When it comes to evaluating Dana’s vocal abilities, most listeners are likely to turn to the Streisand track, largely because of its familiarity and the demands that it places upon a performer who must have both wide tonal and dynamic ranges to do it any justice at all. What’s amazing is that as far as I’m concerned, Winner actually outperforms Streisand, the ‘Unforgettable’ rendition has greater precision and the diction is far clearer, the line “It’s a right I defend’ being more apparent, for example.

Let Your Love Flow’, the track immediately following comes as something of a shock to the system, but only because of the sudden change in mood, this is an upbeat orchestration of the Bellamy Brothers original with a vibrant horn section and jazz piano, but doesn’t afford Winner the opportunity to convey any emotion, which is one of her particular strengths as is demonstrated by ‘You Needed Me’, for example.

There’s a deliberate change of mixing convention for the disc’s only duet, both Dana and Frank Galan are reproduced by the front left and right channels, not by the centre, which is strangely underused during this particular track. In a way, this does help the two performers’ voices gel more convincingly than if one were in the centre, especially as in many systems that particular channel may be served by an inferior loudspeaker with inherently different tonal qualities.

Dana is back dead centre for ‘Vincent’, a pure, unsullied rendition in which she is accompanied only by acoustic guitars, bass and subtle synthesised background chords. It’s an intimate and uncoloured performance much like ‘Morning has Broken’ which follows later, one that really does demonstrate the fidelity of the disc and the quality of the production as a whole.

The subsequent track also places great emphasis on Dana’s solo vocals, but a modicum of processing has been applied to give her voice a warmer tone, one of only a few occasions on the entire disc. The processing also serves to create some artificial surround reverb, which was probably its intent, giving the track a more enveloping presentation, especially as the backing vocals have also been treated in a similar way. Not the most purist approach admittedly, but one that works remarkably well and without particularly obvious side effects. If it were not for the preceding track, I doubt the minor colouration of Dana’s voice would be apparent.

With ‘Morning Has Broken’, ‘Snowbird’ and ‘Just When I Needed You Most’ the album takes a gentler turn, the latter being my favourite of the three. The intonations of Dana’s voice have a wistful, longing quality that is wholly befitting the song, as is the expansive string orchestration.

The only track that doesn’t entirely work for me is ‘Winner Takes it All’ (originally from ‘Supertrouper’, 1980), the reason being that Dana’s accent is just a tad too similar to that of Agnetha Fдltskog, the song’s original lead vocalist, an act that it is almost impossible to follow. ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ on the other hand, is so changed from John Denver’s rendition as to be a different proposition entirely.

Old and Wise’ is the perfect ending, a powerful, albeit controlled lead vocal and another huge orchestration that really does sum up this disc to a tee: great songs, fantastic performances from all concerned and production values that are second to none, I just wish there was a more obvious ending, rather than a gentle fade… although perhaps the lack of a definitive conclusion also adds to the magic.

As you’ve probably already surmised given my obvious enthusiasm and the biblical length of this review, the fidelity of ‘Unforgettable’ is outstanding, in fact I really can’t find fault with any aspect of the disc’s reproduction. There is none of the harsh high frequency hash that plagues so many SACD releases, the orchestra has all the presence one would expect at a live event and throughout the entire disc Dana’s forward, at times delicate, at times strong vocals are crystal clear. There’s ample low-end too, although not unnaturally so. The surround mix isn’t terribly inventive yet there is enough surround information in the form of ambience, wrapped vocals or the occasional discrete event to keep those channels busy. Listening to the stereo track is dull in comparison.

A word of warning however, ‘Unforgettable’ won’t work in surround if you have a puny centre loudspeaker because so much use is made of that channel. It is called upon to convey Dana’s lead vocals throughout the entire disc with the exception of that one track, so its fidelity and integration with your front left/right pair will have a huge bearing on how convincing an experience this disc becomes.

In a sea of mediocre SACD releases, this release really is a winner, if you’ll pardon the deliberate and obvious closing pun. The production alone deserves to be the recipient of the highest praise, as does Dana’s performance. Put the two together and the result really is ‘Unforgettable’.