Linda Rosenthal – ‘Oh! That Stradivarius’ An SACD review by Brett Rudolph

If the name Stradivarius rings a bell somewhere in your mind, you might appreciate what drew me to this album. Looking through the list of available SACDs, this one title appealed to me on many different levels and therefore afforded not only the chance to learn more about what the SACD format held in store, but also what the most famous violin maker created in his instrument.

That said, there is far more to making music than a violin valued at over three million dollars and the pieces of music written with the intention of being played upon such an instrument. For example, it wasn’t until I had obtained a copy of this SACD, that I found out the woman who is featured soloist was something of a work of art in her own right. Linda Rosenthal is an accomplished violinist who has lived and prospered in Alaska since 1969; not only has she recorded several other titles, but has also taught her craft to students and performed her music worldwide.

This disc was produced by Joe Hartley and includes a hand picked group of musicians to accompany Linda Rosenthal and her renditions of the work of various composers upon her legendary violin. It includes other famous musicians such as Lisa Bergman, Bill Cunliffe, Anthony Wilson, Darek ‘Oles’ Olezkiewicz and Peter Donald, so what better test of a new format?

Before I go further, let me first say that the performance upon this disc is stereo only, although it is a hybrid SACD which means it will also work in a conventional CD player. The live recording was acquired direct to the Sony Direct Stream Digital System, what they call ‘Advanced Intelligent Tape’. The advantage of this method is that there is no need to remix and/or re-master a previously recorded work; the performance has already been captured with the technology that forms the core of the SACD format, DSD.

Reviewing this album was an enlightening experience. Taking the advice of people I know well, I decided to listen to the CD version of the work before the SACD version. While I know that there are supposed to be many improvements in the newer format, I have also learnt that after listening to the SACD rendering, you are unlikely to ever want to go back to the CD version, although in the case of this piece, I am not entirely sure that it is true…

The standard Red-book CD layer – as I mentioned earlier – benefited from the session being recorded by the new Sony equipment and it definitely possesses a character that I haven’t heard in many CDs, other than those that were recorded with the audiophile in mind. The soundstage is open and expansive and the sound of Linda Rosenthal playing that piece of history is nothing short of breathtaking. Though perhaps, the CD layer doesn’t allow you to feel the vibrations of the strings in your heart and soul, it does allow you to sense, feel and almost taste the music as it was played and recorded.

One of the good things about the CD version is that you are able to place the instruments in the soundstage exactly where they were when recorded. The Stradivarius is directly in the center of the soundstage or occasionally, a little to the right. The piano is always to the left and the bass and percussion to the rear. On track four, ‘Theme from Limelight and Tara’s Theme from Gone with The Wind’, you can feel the energy of the music and the delicate balance between piano and violin with the other musicians, making the experience seem even more magical.

Without a doubt, the SACD version demonstrates why there is so much pressure to finalize some sort of higher definition format. While the CD version gave subtle hints of the recording’s potential, the SACD layer elevated those hints to the level of a real-world sonic performance. The added clarity made the difference between a fine recording and a recording that seems to come alive as you listen to it.

The first track set the stage for what I thought would be a wonderful album; I felt that everything was balanced and well recorded, everyone was playing in harmony and their placements seemed ideal. But, soon after, I found that while the SACD version did bring the violin and Linda Rosenthal’s ability to life, it also introduced other, less desirable elements. Starting with the second track, it soon became apparent that the violin was off center (to the right), perhaps on purpose, but it wasn’t something that could be heard in the CD version.

Since the title of the album is ‘Oh! That Stradivarius’, I had expected the violin to take center stage. However, in the SACD version, the piano, which I felt was played with as much talent as the violin, detracted from the overall sense of the music. No longer part of the background, it seemed too forward and it tended to move one’s attention away from the violin. Perhaps it is due in part to the volume at which the piano was recorded; but there were times when it seemed to overwhelm the soundstage.

On track four, which I mentioned in the CD section of the review, once again I found the violin to be unmistakably off-center and the piano to be far too prominent. While the mix definitely shows how wonderful the recording and playback of an SACD can be, it also demonstrates how important it is that the recording and mixing be produced to perfection, even the slightest flaws become noticeable.

In summary, while I won’t claim this is the best SACD I have ever heard, it certainly does give a sense of the greatness of both the instruments and the musicians involved. Though marred by some arrangement and volume issues, the disc unquestionably brings to life the notes played on all the instruments – especially the piano and violin. I wouldn’t suggest you run out and buy this album, but if you want a taste of what SACD is all about, it is definitely worth a listen.