Norwegian classical label 2L pulls out all the stops for Sonar, one of their premier blu-ray audio releases. A showcase for Norwegian harpist Ellen Sejersted Bodtker and composer Magnar Am, Sonar is also an excellent example of the label's immaculate recording technique and dedication to surround-sound audio.
"Vere Meininga" begins the album, and is a one-track concerto for harp and strings, but is still cleanly broken out into separate movements. The opening starts off delicate with harp solo joined by chamber strings, and this bleeds naturally into the spoken poem that gives the work its theme. The sound is definitely polytonal, but is also surprisingly accessible. The light instrumentation and peaceful prelude set the tone for intrigue rather than abrasion. And later in the piece, Am introduces more frenetic techniques and discord — through string sound effects and amplification on the harp — without capsizing the boat. It's a highly enjoyable work.
"Det Var Mjukt" is a short piece for harp and soprano and is effective as a sort of interlude on the disc. Arpeggiated harp accompanies a rather plaintive vocal line and creates a beautiful but pained ode to a remembered love.
"Dette Blanke No" treads similar waters to "Vere Meininga." It is another smaller format concerto, this time with the chamber strings replaced with a chamber vocal ensemble and soprano soloist. The spoken voice section helps carry a common thread from the first concerto. The interplay between the vocalists and the rather sparse harp sounds trade prominence around the sound field, and the whole experience is quite lovely. The unity between these three works is evident, creating a very rewarding and cohesive listening experience.
But just as interesting as the music is the presentation — both sonically and as a physical format — of the material. The surround-sound experience of the music becomes part of the performance, transforming it from a good recording to something that feels much more organic and present. The provided booklet contains microphone placement schematics for each piece, although it's hardly needed. This is one of the most clear and purposeful surround-sound experiences I've heard.
As the chamber orchestra on "Vere Meininga" displays, with their number fully encircling the sound field, followed by spoken voice coming from the rear speakers, you're treated to a depth of performance that we rarely hear outside of a live performance (and all too often, not even then). It's not a performance coming at you in one direction from a distant stage, but rather an experience of having it staged around you as an audience of one.
Although most people buying entertainment systems for their home wind up with 5.1 capabilities, we rarely hear much that takes full advantage of it. Movies give us a taste, but generally just with brief car noises or explosions that flash by. Music, though, seems a more rewarding use of the setup. And although surround-sound music recordings have been tried off and on for decades — quadrophonic sound, anyone? — it's never taken off as a practical and universal format. Hopefully as the uptake of blu-ray continues, surround-sound audio will finally become more than just a novelty.
The main blu-ray disc is audio only (save for the menus), and is presented in three different formats: 5.0 DTS HD Master Audio, 5.0 LPCM 24/96, and 2.0 LPCM 24/96. The HD track sounds exquisite and is easily the most full-sounding of the two surround options. The LPCM sounds clean, but seems a bit more muted and the sound field more flattened in comparison. It's still separated out, but not to the pronounced clarity of the DTS HD track.