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Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, May 2011

Even more than Berlioz’s Requiem or Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis, Corigliano’s massive “Circus Maximus” (with its stage band, its surround band, and its marching band) builds directionality into its musical argument. It demands surround-sound playback—and I was therefore frustrated when Naxos published it as a two-channel CD without a multichannel equivalent. I’ve been waiting hopefully for a follow-up; and now that Naxos has apparently abandoned SACD and DVD-A and joined the Blu-ray audio movement, the other shoe has dropped and we can experience this performance as the composer intended.

But will you actually enjoy the experience? Well, it’s hard for a splashy work called Circus Maximus—especially one that opens with offstage trumpet fanfares—not to summon up images of Respighi’s Feste Romane, which begins with its own “Circus Maximus.” And while the connections between the works are not terribly profound, they are more than superficial. Both play the high drama of the Roman circus off against quiet scenes of twilight and moments of prayer; and, of course, both employ the most garish effects to knock out their listeners. This piece certainly doesn’t aim to plumb emotional depths in the way that Corigliano’s First Symphony does; and if you’re allergic to the Roman Triology’s aesthetic, you probably won’t appreciate the sheer chutzpah of Circus Maximus.

Then, too, there is something unnerving in the programmatic premise of the piece. By superimposing the brutality of the Roman circus on our own sadistic popular culture (“the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens”), Corigliano sees his work as a commentary on “this massive and glamorous barbarity.” But what exactly is the commentary? The work, after all, serves to “embody” that barbarity as much as to critique it; that is, like Varèse (whose spirit is also evoked), Corigliano asks us to glory in sheer musical aggression. Is this intended to create a kind of self-consciousness that brings us up short? Or are we simply supposed to live with the contradiction?

Still, for those who can get beyond the ideological ambiguity, what a glorious series of sounds Corigliano produces—some ear-shattering, some gentle (the first of the two “Night Music” movements), some mournful (the saxophone quartet in the second movement), some whimsical (the opening of the second, more urban, of the two “Night Musics”). As Simmons aptly put it, “Corigliano seems to possess a limitless imagination for creating musical ‘special effects,’ and Circus Maximus…provides the opportunity for him to give full rein to this gift.” Then, too, that sonic imagination is coupled with a strong sense of architecture: The piece, in eight continuous movements, lasts nearly 36 minutes—but once you buy into the basic musical premises, it will grip your attention.

Gazebo Dances, an altogether lighter piece, grows out of fond nostalgia for the town-park band concerts of yesteryear. It’s a bit anticlimactic after “Circus Maximus,” but it’s such a consistent delight that it quickly draws you in. Superlative sound and first-rate performances, too. If you’ve got the right spirit (and, of course, the equipment to handle it), strongly recommended.

Chris Martens
The Perfect Vision (AVguide), March 2011

What is fascinating about this piece is that Corigliano composed Circus Maximus with the explicit intent that it be performed in the round (in this case, in the Bass Concert Hall in Austin, TX). Thus, over the course of the performance, listeners will hear a large stage band in the front of the hall, a marching band that starts out at the rear of the hall, and a smaller “Surround Band,” which features small clusters of instruments placed above, behind, and to the sides of the audience.

In Circus Maximus, Corigliano invites comparisons between the Circus Maximus of Rome in decline with today’s media excesses where, as Corigliano says, “many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as those mobs of imperial Rome who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show.” The result is a striking piece of music that is, by turns, beautiful, savage, and strange, and at times a bit unnerving.

Andrew Quint
Fanfare, March 2011

This program is the first music-only Blu-ray release from Naxos; when the busiest classical record label on the planet decides to take a particular technical direction, it behooves us to take note. Naxos has previously issued both SACDs and DVD-Audio discs but has fallen silent for some time, as far as a high-resolution product is concerned. DVD-Audio is gone and SACD, despite the fierce loyalty of a relatively small base of enthusiasts (like me), hasn’t moved beyond the category of a niche product. Blu-ray movies, of course, have been selling like hotcakes to a wide audience and it follows that there are a hell of a lot of Blu-ray players out there. The technology also provides a medium for state-of-the-art music reproduction, and Naxos now joins a number of more obscure labels including 2L, AIX, and Surround Records to provide us with a specimen of what could become the dominant physical carrier of high-resolution digital music.

Significantly, Naxos has not chosen a “sonic spectacular” warhorse to introduce the new format—another Planets, Carmina Burana, or 1812—but instead offers the first recording of a major work by an important contemporary composer. John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 3 for large wind ensemble, “Circus Maximus,” composed in 2004, is certainly the right stuff to show off the possibilities of an audiophile medium. The piece considers the similarities between the appetite in ancient Rome for spectacle of ever-increasing extremity and the media-driven, lowest-common-denominator reality-show entertainment culture of our own day. The composer observes in his liner note: “Many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as the mobs of imperial Rome, who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show.”

Corigliano’s technique involves settling on an “architecture” for a piece before actually developing specific musical materials. The Circus Maximus was, of course, Rome’s enormous outdoor public entertainment venue and the composer wanted his work to “justify the encirclement of the audience by musicians, so that they were in the center of an arena.” His “Circus Maximus” is scored for a typical concert wind ensemble positioned onstage, in front of the listener, plus a substantial “surround band” deployed quite specifically around the hall. (The notes reproduce a diagram for positioning the instruments as published in the G. Schirmer score.)

The 35-minute composition consists of eight sections that run continuously. “Introitus” opens with fanfares from 11 trumpets located around the perimeter of the auditorium’s first tier, soon joined by the onstage players. This attention-grabbing movement leads to “Screen/Siren”—a quartet of saxophones plus string bass placed distantly and emitting plaintive, beckoning cries, a song sung in a tritone-laden harmonic milieu. This is rudely interrupted by “Channel Surfing,” as hyperactive music seems to come from every direction. In the manner of Mahler’s Seventh, there are two contrasted “Night Music” sections, one evoking a dangerous backwoods—wild animals howl—and the second an energetic nocturnal urban environment. Then comes the “Circus Maximus” itself: “Exuberant voices merge into chaos and a frenzy of overstatement,” in the words of the composer. Relief follows in the form of a “Prayer” that possesses a degree of harmonic uncertainty but always seems to have a IV to I resolution as the favored destination. “Coda: Veritas” reprises the first section’s fanfares, building to an almost unbearably intense unison note for all the trumpets, terminated by the firing of a 12-gauge shotgun. (Thoughtfully, Corigliano suggests in the printed score that a performing organization may want to hire “a licensed pyrotechnician,” rather than entrust the operation of the firearm to an everyday percussionist.)

The multichannel audio program, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, is virtually mandatory for a full appreciation of a work in which the spatial deployment of the performers is critical. (In the “Circus Maximus” section, a marching band actually moves through the cacophony produced by the other considerable forces.) Producer Stephen Epstein and engineer Richard King—both have worked for Sony Classical—have created an incredible sonic experience that may change your outlook in terms of the level of visceral excitement achievable with large-scale repertoire in a home listening environment.

Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances, composed originally for piano four-hands, is a much earlier work. There have actually been six previous recordings of the version for band. The four brief movements are inspired by a turn-of-the-last-century concert-band-in-the-park ethos. The composer describes the opening Overture as “Rossini-like”—I hear the Bernstein of Candide. There’s an off-kilter Waltz and a wistful Adagio that reaches a troubled climax. An exuberant Tarantella ends this affable piece, which is surely within the capabilities of most college bands and maybe even a few ambitious high school groups. Delightful stuff.

Rad Bennett, March 2011

Musical Performance
Sound Quality
Overall Enjoyment

Full of fanfares, sound effects, and a band marching up and down the aisles, this music, like Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, simply must have surround sound to be fully effective. The music is a vision of Circus Maximus, where the Romans held chariot races and allowed humans to be devoured by lions. “Just another Sunday show,” writes Corigliano in his program notes. Logistically the piece involves a stage band, a surround band, and a marching band. The locations of these and other instruments, such as the saxophone quartet and bass that are heard in the second movement, “Screen/siren,” are provided on a chart laid out with clarity in the notes. Exotic percussion instruments are the norm, and the work ends with a resounding gunshot. Being surrounded by this immersive music is a lot of fun, and it’s a darned good demonstration piece for your surround system. Be warned that the dynamic range of the recording is very wide: hushed passages are barely audible, while the louder ones are of the lease-breaking variety. Junkin’s readings are alert and precise, and he brings a sense of lyricism to the more melodic Gazebo Dances that round out the disc. The two-channel recording here seems ridiculously narrow and restricted by comparison.

Dave Billinge
MusicWeb International, January 2011

There are two distinct issues with this disc: the music and the recording. Readers of MusicWeb International want to know what to expect from two unknown works by a rarely heard composer. Your reviewer would however be failing in his duty if he did not herald the arrival of a ‘new’ format for music.

The music first. The symphony is scored for a large wind-band which is detailed in the insert giving not only instrumentation but a diagram of its distribution around the large auditorium at the University of Texas. As it is the composer’s intention that we are surrounded by the players and impacted from all angles, the DTS Master soundtrack is the one to hear. The opening leaps out from behind the listener and much of the first three movements come from discrete groups of musicians placed behind and to the sides. The work fully deserves the title ‘symphony’ because the themes announced in the early stages are developed extensively in proper symphonic style culminating in recalls of earlier music near the end. Corigliano writes about his wish to draw parallels between the shows at the Ancient Roman Circus Maximus and the current preoccupation with an increasingly intrusive media pandering to the lowest common denominator through ‘reality’ shows. Whilst we may not feed the religious to the lions, we do seem to watch public humiliation with greater and greater relish. The idea also gave him the excuse he sought to surround his audience with performers. For me the music works quite well and is certainly not hard to enjoy even if it is a bit nerve-racking awaiting the next unexpectedly angled assault. The two Night Music movements are reminiscent of Mahler’s pairing in the Seventh Symphony with their fierce activity but here the two nights are of nature and of the city. Night Music 1 is atmospheric but more than just sound-effects because it is thematically linked to what has gone before, particularly the ‘primitive calls’ heard in the Introitus. Night Music 2 serves as a scherzo for his Symphony, full of dance rhythms and punctuated by fierce outbursts culminating in a climax of quite devastating impact. This is followed by the reflective Prayer and a short but dramatic coda Veritas. The work closes with a gun-shot for which detailed instructions are given in the score, just in case anyone should try to use the ‘wrong’ gun! The Gazebo Dances are orchestrated from a set of piano four-hand pieces and scored for a more normal wind-band. They are very agreeable with the easy charm of Malcolm Arnold’s light music and as beautifully recorded as the main work.

To focus on the recording and the medium. This is not the first music issue on Blu-Ray but it is the first from mass-market leaders Naxos and they have announced several more including four Dvořák symphonies. Clearly they are seriously testing out the market for a medium which will not play on anything except a Blu-Ray-capable player, thus the notice on the packaging about it not working on a CD or standard DVD player. Given that the classical market is a tiny fraction of the CD market, that modern classical music is a fraction of that fraction, and finally that Blu-Ray is a fraction of the DVD market, Naxos have set themselves a huge task to sell more than a handful of any one disc in this series. This 2006 recording was made in 24-bit 88.2 kHz and this fact is emblazoned across the top of the cover as if it mattered. What you hear is not 24-bit / 88.2 kHz, that was the digital format for the failed DVD-Audio market, but DTS High Definition Master Audio and that provides 24-bit 96 kHz in 6 channels: 5 surround and one for the subwoofer if you have one. Naxos made a series of DVD-A discs a few years back, thus the present recording format; then they tried out SACD—yet another format. Both failed because few people had the equipment to play the discs and Naxos withdrew from that market. Blu-Ray is different because it is possible to play these music-only discs on any Blu-Ray video equipped home cinema system. How many people will purchase both the latest Hollywood blockbuster and John Corigliano’s latest symphony remains to be seen! This particular issue is very well recorded indeed. I would go so far as to say it is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Since the music demands actual surround distribution of forces the use of the extra channels is not merely self indulgence by the engineers. The dynamic range on the disc is little short of frightening. If you do not jump when the music starts you have not turned the volume up far enough and you will not hear the quietest passages, of which there are plenty. Why the disc requests contact with the internet I do not know. I tried saying yes and no for two playings and detected no change in facilities. Maybe someone somewhere in Naxos marketing has noted the fact that I played the disc. I will be very interested to hear the Dvořák symphonies which make very different, much subtler, demands on a surround recording.

Lawrence Devoe, November 2010

The Performance

John Corigliano is one of the preeminent composers of our time. I first became familiar with his unique musical voice through the opera “The Ghosts of Versailles” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991 and the Symphony No.1 which memorialized victims of the AIDS epidemic.  The two works on this surround-sound high resolution Blu-ray disc span his composing career: Gazebo Dances (1972) and Symphony No. 3, Circus Maximus (2006).  The recording features Jerry Junkin conducting the University of Texas Wind Ensemble.

Circus Maximus, the major piece presented here, is in 8 contrasting movements lasting 35 minutes. Corigliano’s program notes reveal that the inspiration for this work stems from the barbarity of ancient Rome, the location of the original Circus Maximus.  It opens with a brass fanfare (Introitus) which highlights a “surround band” as well as a proscenium wind orchestra.  Fortunately for the listener, the surround effects are used judiciously in the other movements culminating in a marching band sequence that moves through the listening space in the climactic movement 6 (Circus Maximus). The use of contrasting musical styles is quite effective in conveying the mood of each movement. Movements 3 and 4, entitled Night Music I and Night Music II, are different studies in the reflective “night music” of the impressionist era (Night Music I) and the hustling night scenes of contemporary urban life (Night Music II). The  aggressive and craggy Circus Maximus leads into Prayer (Movement 7) which presents an introspective theme of great beauty.  The finale, Veritas, or Truth, recalls the opening Introitus.

Gazebo Dances, the accompanying piece, was originally written for a piano four-hands and has been transcribed for a wind ensemble.  It has 4 movements: Overture, Waltz, Adagio, and Tarantella. As Corigliano states in the program guide, “The title Gazebo Dances was suggested by the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the American countryside where public band concerts were given on summer evenings early last century.”  Each movement harkens back to a different style. “Overture” has clear neoclassical roots, recalling Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. “Waltz” is a quirky and rarely three-quarter time movement with obvious  overtones of Dmitri Shostakovitch.  “Adagio” has a Coplandesque soothing melody.  “Tarantella” looks back to the composer’s Italian roots and gives the piece a rollicking finish.

Audio Quality

The soundtrack is in DTS-HD Master Audio (88.2kHz/24-bit) 5.1 and it is clear that this piece was written with both the surround and high resolution medium in mind.  The surround effects are limited to Circus Maximus and, as mentioned earlier, are used sparingly but to great impact. I have heard pieces in which surround sound gives equal partnership to all speakers.  The so-called “sonic immersion” of such recordings has usually just given me “sonic fatigue.” This is nicely avoided here.

The mantel of conducting symphonic band music has nicely passed from the legendary Frederick Fennell to Jerry Junkin.  Although this is  my first hearing of the the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, it appears that they have been finely honed to a high degree of professionalism.  Intonation was spot on and given the complex sonorities of Circus Maximus, the brass section acquit themselves extremely well.

Supplemental Materials

There are no supplemental interviews, just trailers for other videos in this series.

The Definitive Word


This is sonically spectacular music, particularly the Circus Maximus. Further, this performance must qualify as definitive, given the composer’s involvement with the project. The cinematic qualities of the title piece are not surprising given Corigliano’s success in composing for motion pictures.  This is not a criticism as some of the best composers of the last century, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, and Villa-Lobos,  turned in some of their finest efforts for the silver screen. This is the first Blu-ray audio-only release that I have the opportunity to hear. Given the exemplary sound reproduction and the ability to use surround-sound in a tasteful rather than garish manner, I would hope that more will follow.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, November 2010

Circus Maximus is almost an example of a musical composition (contemporary of course) designed specifically to musically “test” an audio system. The testing is really severe at times and includes multi- channel surround sound and powerful feelable extended bass response that should tickle any audiophile’s fancy. This may be the first time that I thought it necessary to really take care of listening levels. Please try to understand that if you are using relatively low power amplifiers, that is not safer; they are more likely to be pushed into severe overload with brief bursts of powerful highly distorted notes and at times even far beyond the normal musical and output ranges. A really good more powerful amplifier might simply make the sound louder but not distorted. The first movement of Circus Maximus features some very unexpected powerful bursts of music and so do many of the other movements. At the other extreme, the movements entitled “Night Music” and “Prayer” are subtle in the extreme at times. I am not attempting to explain this unique composition. Do not expect to hear a continuation of Corigliano’s score for “The Red Violin”. Some music lovers will find much more pleasure with the more conventional “Gazebo Dances”. In any event Naxos proves that they can put out clean and clear powerful sound levels in surround sound and full audio range that at least equals any that I have heard to date. Even on that basis, recommendation has to be awarded while we hope for equal treatment of more traditional compositions.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

‘The sound you hear will be ultimately governed by your listening room, we can only help to achieve it’s potential’. Words of an audio guru in the early days of the LP era that did not deter those who spend a small fortune in seeking the Holy Grail of sound reproduction. Naxos now take them one step closer. With improvements obtainable from a conventional CD having almost ground to a halt, Naxos look towards the availability of storing much more detailed audio information on new generation Blu-ray Audio discs. Here is the pioneering release. Does it work? Well, for a start, the disc enjoys the massive and spectacular sounds generated by the American composer, John Corigliano, in his portrayal of the debauched enjoyment at the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome. It was released on CD and reviewed in March 2009 [Naxos CD 8.559601], so we have the possibility of comparing both versions. My first experiment linked up a top-end of the market Sony Blue-ray disc player with a Panasonic compact shelf system, only to find I enjoyed the CD version better. Then onto one of those audaciously expensive integrated TV/Audio systems in its rosewood cabinet and satellite speakers, and there was nothing much to choose between the two versions. Finally the Sony player was channelled into equipment manufactured by Quad in the UK, and bingo, there it was, a quantum leap forward, the results so spectacular we are in a new and exciting audio world. So there you have it. If you already have genuine high quality audio equipment, you would very happily pay the price to enjoy this stunning high impact Blu-ray version. Will the difference apply, for instance, to a piano or a string quartet disc? Only time will tell, but I hope Naxos will continue the ‘experiment’.

Jeffrey Kauffman, October 2010

John Corigliano may well be one of the greatest composers you’ve never heard of. Despite being the proud winner of both the Pulitzer Prize (for his Second Symphony) and an Academy Award (for his score to The Red Violin), and enjoying an incredibly successful and long career that stretches back to his days as Associate Producer of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts, Corigliano has yet to really erupt into the mainstream audience’s consciousness. Instead he remains an iconic figure to an elite few who have come to recognize his achievements as second to none, especially in the post-Bernstein landscape of American composition. Corigliano can be alternately bombastic, layering dissonant strata of massed sound that at times are very reminiscent of the iconoclastic Edgard Varèse, and then turn around and deliver wholly (or at least mostly wholly) diatonic lyricism that harkens back to the 18th and 19th century. (In the unintentional irony department, vis a vis Varèse, it’s interesting to note that Corigliano’s highly acclaimed score to the Hugh Hudson Pacino starrer Revolution was never given an official soundtrack release, until niche label Varèse Sarabande—named, at least in part, after the composer—finally granted it a special release last year). This new Naxos audio Blu-ray is an astounding collection of sonorities, all the more remarkable in that both of the large scale pieces contained on it, the Third Symphony, otherwise known as Circus Maximus, and Gazebo Dances, are orchestrated for wind ensemble (though truth be told Corigliano also utilizes a plethora of percussion and, lest anyone be dozing, the occasional shotgun blast).

Corigliano takes an architectural approach to his composition, not only in the scores themselves, which are frequently assembled out of blocks of sound, but also in the inspiration which lights his compositional muse. As he states in his very interesting liner notes to this release, “For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material. In this case, the shape was influenced by a desire to write a piece in which the entire work is conceived spatially. But I started simply wondering what dramtic premise would justify the encirclement of the audience by musicians, so that they were in the center of an arena. This started my imagination going, and quite suddenly a title appeared in my mind: Circus Maximus.”

That quote should set audiophile heart (and ears) aflutter, for it points to a composer completely aware of what surround sound can deliver. But even that hint fails to completely prepare the listener for the outrageously effective panoply of sounds that at times almost assaults the ears throughout Circus Maximus. Divided into eight sections, which are played without pause, this piece is an encyclopedia of brilliant wind writing. At times we have plaintive shrieks which are almost reminiscent of the screaming violins of Herrmann’s Psycho score. At other times tubas fart unceremoniously. In the second movement, saxophones emit a bluesy jazz riff while various instruments declaim from every imaginable corner.

The bulk of Circus Maximus operates within a tonality pushing world that elevates sonority above traditional melody and harmony. That said, Corigliano can deliver some achingly lyrical moments as well, as he does in the almost chorale sounding Prayer which utilizes a succession of “Amen” plagal cadences (IV-I) to increasingly dramatic effect. But a lot of Circus Maximus plays like Varèse in ancient Roman times, with weird sound effects and huge constructs of sound crashing together, making impenetrable edifices.

Circus Maximus is going to be a wet dream of sorts for surround sound aficionados. Instruments dart to and fro, Corigliano actually has discrete bands moving through the soundfield, and the listener is constantly kept off guard as to what is going to happen next, and from where. The musical content may in fact be rather recondite, especially to those less schooled in the vagaries of modern compositional technique, but the actual experience of just hearing all these incredible sounds appear in startling spatial array is magical.

Much more accessible is the second piece on this disc, a sort of suite called Gazebo Dances. Corigliano originally wrote these as four handers for two of his pianist friends, but later orchestrated them for concert band. (Another version for orchestra is also available, but not included on this disc). This is a relatively early work of Corigliano’s, from 1972, and as such it shows the brashness and flash of youth. But it’s inerrantly appealing, from its Rossini influenced Overture to the very fun Tarantella finale. While this suite doesn’t really provide the sonic overload that Circus Maximus does, it’s much easier to listen to, and those unfamiliar with Corigliano’s often pungent style may well want to start their trip to the circus with this little stopover at the park gazebo.

Video Quality

Though there is video of a sort, it’s simply an MPEG-2 encoded menu screen which features the Naxos logo interspersed with the Blu-ray logo. There are track listings and the two audio options available which you can toggle to with your remote. You can also independently choose either of the lossless audio options with the colored buttons on your remote.

Audio Quality

Wow. Zowie. Astounding. There simply aren’t enough adjectives to describe this amazing audio Blu-ray, delivered with two lossless audio options, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (24 bit/88.2 kHz) or LPCM 2.0. (It should be noted my display actually showed 96 kHz when I was playing the disc). Corigliano composed Circus Maximus with space in mind, and it shows in virtually every note. This is one of the most amazingly visceral surround tracks I’ve ever experienced. Just put aside for a moment the track’s splendid lucidity and absolute clarity, with impeccable dynamic range and fidelity throughout all frequencies. For once we get actual surround intelligence when it comes to the spatial organization of the music. Corigliano includes a chart of the massive wind ensemble (and accompanying instruments) he scored for, and it helps to realize the overwhelming number of players included on this recording. Add in a marching band, which evidently does indeed march, and the soundfield is literally bristling with activity. The musical content of Circus Maximus may throw less adventurous listeners for a bit of a loop, but I can’t imagine anyone, even sequestered souls who haven’t ventured into anything post-Brahms, not being amazed by the clarity and immersion of this absolutely stellar recording.

Special Features and Extras

The insert booklet is a nice tri-fold printed on glossy stock which includes a chart of the musicians and some very interesting musings from Corigliano himself.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Take a chance on some modern music, and experience what a surround recording actually can deliver, especially when it’s a recording of music which has been composed with a heightened awareness of space and movement. Corigliano certainly deserves a much wider audience, and my ardent wish is that this new audio Blu-ray helps to make that happen. Very highly recommended.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, October 2010

This is the first of a new series of audio-only (The 2L label calls it Pure Audio) Blu-rays which Naxos plans to issue on a regular basis as their hi-res replacement for SACD and DVD-Audio which they issued briefly and then discontinued. Upcoming Blu-ray releases include four Dvorak Symphonies, the two Chopin piano concerti, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2. There is a single Blu-ray disc, which of course will not play on standard DVD players, CD or SACD players. The Naxos audio-only Blu-rays do not offer a second SACD disc of the same material as do the 2L Blu-rays. Both the lossless DTS-HD option for surround and the PCM alternative for stereo are 96K/24-bit sound to offer what Naxos called “absolute sound fidelity.” (Although the program notes are headed “88.2 kHz,” so there seems to be some discrepancy here.)

John Corigliano is one of the leading American composers and also a professor of music. He scored the films Altered States, Revolution, and The Red Violin, and his Symphony No. 2 earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. “The Naked Carmen,” a 1970 satirical LP he co-produced, is a favorite of many collectors. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles has been performed by the Met and the Chicago Opera.

For Circus Maximus Corigliano created a 35-minute surround sound piece in which the audience becomes the center of the activity, and he says “Blu-ray finally offers the means to make this possible…” (He is misinformed.) He also says the disc should be played loud, and some of it certainly is. The work is in eight short movements and was inspired by the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, which was the largest arena in the world for nearly 1000 years. In the work he draws a parallel between the decadence of later Rome and modern times. He compares the violence and humiliation on our 500+ TV channels which entertain many, to the carnage Romans enjoyed every day at the Circus Maximus. One of the work’s movements is even titled “Channel surfing.” The climactic “Circus Maximus” movement is a sort of 21st-century Charles Ives effort, with themes from all the other movements crowding together in a loud cacaphony, plus a marching band at the rear coming down the aisles toward the center. The work is designed to comment on the massive barbarity of the Circus Maximus and does a good job of that. That doesn’t mean I especially want to experience it again.

The four movements of the Gazebo Dances was more fun. Its title was suggested by the gazebos in the midst of parks in small towns thruout America, where lighter entertainment including village bands used to perform. The movements are titled “Overture,” “Waltz,” “Adagio” and “Tarantella.” The U. of Texas Wind Ensemble are super-expert at their craft—no wonder they have won acclaim as one of the top wind bands around today. Their Bells for Stokowski CD for Reference Recordings has garnered many awards.

So what do I think sonically of the audio-only Blu-ray approach? The surround sound is great, but not necessarily better than a good SACD. It’s a larger package and at $20 retail will be more expensive than some SACDs are available for in some quarters. But by this time—due to the illogical actions of Sony and other factors—more warm bodies out there own Blu-ray players than SACD players, so I can understand Naxo’s thinking. Also, most people actually sit down in one place to view a Blu-ray, and that could change the way they listen to hi-res music in surround. I’m looking forward more strongly to some of the upcoming Blu-ray audio-only releases and wondering if other labels will ever participate.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, October 2010

John Corgliano – Circus Maximus is not a new Blu Spec CD but an audio-only recording by the composer whose motion picture work includes The Red Violin and Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), delivering another powerful recording with The University Of Texas Wind Ensemble with Jerry Junkin conducting. The 2004 work runs 35:43 and is yet another smart, powerful piece by Corgliano and up to his best work. Gazebo Dances for Band (written in 1972) is also performed.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group