Nikolai Medtner, Skazki | The Vinyl Anachronist

One of the most exciting things about reviewing 2L Recordings‘ new release of five Nikolai Medtner compositions for solo piano, other than the fascinating music itself, is being able to finally compare the CD and SACD layers of one of these Norwegian recordings. I’ve been reviewing most of 2L Recordings releases for much of the last decade, and so far I have commented on CDs, LPs and even Blu-ray audio discs. But I’ve never been able to listen to the SACD layer that comes with most 2L hybrid discs.

That’s because I’ve never gotten my hands on an SACD player before. Sure, I’ve heard the SACD format on numerous occasions, but mostly at audio shows, dealers and the homes of fellow audiophiles. While I own many, many hybrid CD/SACD titles, I’ve never been able to sit at home and do A/B comparisons. Now I can, thanks to the McIntosh MCD600 CD/SACD player that just arrived for review. The Mac is a digital Swiss Army knife–it has a great DAC as well, along with the usual cornucopia of features that come with most McIntosh products. But let’s get back to Nikolai Medtner and this fascinating new release, Skazki.

I’m not the familiar with the work of Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), a Russian composer who was a contemporary of one of my favorite composers–Sergei Prokofiev. Compared to Prokofiev, Medtner carries more over from the Romantic period of classical music. Where Prokofiev is angular and daunting, Medtner is sweeping and epic, with periodic dips into troubling and turbulent scales. These five pieces, performed brilliantly by pianist Gunnar Sama, captures the essence of compositions that were created during an exciting, transitional period of classical music. These five pieces act as sort of a bridge between lush, expansive world of music that existed at the end of the 19th century, and those atonal challenges that were gradually introduced after the turn of the century. It’s as if Medtner is just starting out across the bridge, waving enthusiastically to Prokofiev just ahead.

As for A/B comparisons between the CD and SACD layer–well, I’m not big on A/B comparisons. I listen to get swept away, not to analyze every sound I hear. That said, with the SACD layer I felt more air around the instruments, and a greater decay of those piano notes in that big warm Norwegian church. I usually go off the deep end when it comes to praising the sound of most 2L Recordings, and that’s just listening to the redbook CD layer. The SACD doesn’t represent a giant leap in sound quality–I suspect listening to the 5.1 surround layer would accomplish that with ease–but I do love the prospect of taking something I already love and making it just a little bit better.