03 October, 2017

Great Performances on Vinyl

Editor's Note: Great Performances on Vinyl
Classical Music Recommendations
Letter from NYC (67): 2017 (6)

What are Favorite Recordings For?
Every audiophile has his favorite recordings. Some of these are for enjoyment, while others are used as "tools" to tweak his own system (and that of friends), even to booster his own ego ("in my system I can hear that subway rumble beneath Carnegie Hall/count three guitars in the backup band") or, worse, to put down another system ("yours can't"). We are good guys, but sometimes we, as audiophiles, do smile the occasional evil smile (to borrow from Sam Tellig)! I admit I do, usually when I take a few CD's to a very expensive system. And others do that to me!

OK, here we are not talking about the evil smile; rather, first I'd like to share with you some musical moments in my listening, great performances that make me realize how well the orchestra had carried out the intent of the conductor. This is only possible when the conductor was in great form, when the orchestra was thoroughly committed, and when it was captured well by the recording engineer, and when the system gets it right. So while these recordings have superb sound, the focus here is not on the recording quality per se, rather on why I found certain moments particularly illuminating. This would also give you some insight into how I listen.

The Perfect Crescendo, Noble Brass Utterance, Unshakable Bass Foundation and the Long Line

The Crescendo is one of the most basic aspects of music, yet often we don't really pay attention to how well or badly it is executed. In concert, I do get aroused by a particularly well executed one, but many lesser performances don't deliver this too well. On recordings, it per se had not been one of the things that perked up my ears, until I played the Live Mahler 5th (LPO/Tennstedt, EMI) CD on my 2 chassis Sony 16 bit TDA-1541 flagship CDP-R1/DAS/R1 (this was documented here). As described, I was dumbfounded by the beauty of that first PERFECT full orchestral crescendo after the opening trumpet fanfare. What truly fascinated me was that many other CDP's failed to reveal this. While the durations are exactly the same, I assure you there is an immense divide between the natural, grand Sony crescendo and most others, which gave the feeling of peaking prematurely (rather unmanly, don't you think?). The single CD may not be easy to get; however, you can get it in EMI's super-bargain Tennstedt Mahler box set, which contains all of his studio and live recordings (see this detailed review).

The well executed crescendo is a thrilling experience - as it is a short journey, it is not often that we get to smell the roses along the way, but when things do come together, when the calibration is precise, it is more than thrilling, it is spine-tingling. This is another reason why I prefer tube. For some reason, most ss gears just tighten up more and more as the orchestra swells.

Utter, not Shout Two days ago when we visited R we played another LP that I bought in the UK, the HMV Concert Classics Bruckner 4th (Philharmonia/Klemperer, EMI). It sounded so good that I had been playing this non-stop in my own system after I got home. As is usual for Klemperer's  EMI recordings, the sound is exemplary (but typical EMI/Angel sound, not quite as full in the bass as Decca/London). This is an unsentimental but ultimately monumental reading, conducted with a clear view of the long line. I gave a copy to Andy, and he loves it, citing in particular the feeling of one single climax for the symphony (early in the last movement). Though he has other idiosyncrasies, one of Klemperer's traits is to never editorialize, and so the playing here is very clean, though not at all sterile. The brass utterances are warm, purposeful and always patiently built up to great effect.

As for crescendos (and decrescendos), those in Bruckner are of a quite different kind from Mahler. There are so many of them and, coupled to the lack of tone painting and frequent woodwind and string stirrings, one doesn't quite listen in the same way. But when I did pay attention, the quality of the execution in dynamics was apparent.

Just as in Mahler, where some would not listen to anything other than Bernstein no matter how much he pulls the score one way or another, not everyone will warm to Klemperer's cooler ways. But if you do, the LP is not hard to get. In CD form, this reading is available in an excellent sounding bargain box set (which I have in HK). For an unusually insightful review of the set, go to musicweb-international.

Bass Foundation Just a few days ago, I played an LP I bought in the UK. Sibelius Finlandia (Halle/Barbirolli, EMI) has been a favorite LP of mine (the other pieces, especially a bewitching Pohjola's Daughter, are arguably even greater in performances) for decades and my US budget Seraphim copy is pretty worn out.

This time, on my reference horn system, I was stunned by several things I hadn't quite felt before. I doubt this is just because the UK LP is superior, it is rather because my listening ability and playback equipment have improved greatly over the years.

The Finlandia is a sweeping performance. The precisely calibrated playing. The crescendos are shorter than that one in the Mahler, but I experienced the same satisfaction. The purposeful winds and brass utterances, just as in Klemperer. And, even more than Klemperer, a superb bass foundation. As the music moves inexorably along, the sweeping bass foundation, though sometimes just felt rather than heard, is always there and comforting, like the presence of a Guardian Angel. This is as it should be. Interesting, my different preamps render this differently, and my Shindo Monbrisson excels. I'd write about this in detail in my next article.

The LP is not hard to get. At this moment in CD form it seems to be only available in the set pictured (here is a review by gramophone ).


And now I am going to mention two recordings that are a bit different. They did not shed as much insight on the audio interface for me as the above mentioned ones, but they are great in their own rights.

Simply Fizz During our visit to R, Andy brought along Simon's Chabrier Espana (OSR/Ansermet, London LP). It is a romp from start to finish, impeccably conducted and stylishly played, as is usual for this team in French repertoire. If you like (as I do) Offenbach's La Gaite Parisienne (my fav is Boston Pops/Fiedler, RCA), or the Bizet-Shchedrin Carmen Suite (my fav is an unsung dark horse, NSO Ukraine/Kuchar, Naxos), you will like this one even more.

Borderline Recording? Some time ago in a dollar bin I found the Dvorak "American" Quartet (Budapest Quartet, Columbia). The Quartet was paradoxically all-Russian by this time, and this was their almost never issued last recording. First violinist Roisman's tone is pretty lean, and when combined with Columbia's usual sound (on the aggressive side) will reveal the least of the system's bright aspects. Otherwise, the performance just kept growing on me - it is magnificently of one piece. Even the recording quality grows on me - it has great separation of the instruments and the individual timbers of the rest of the quartet are magnificently caught (particularly the viola). In a way, it is somewhat of a living dangerously, on the edge kind of thing, but highly satisfying. I found another copy and gave it to Andy, who also loves it. We took it to R's and the playback made us smile (no evil!). There is no CD, but you can easily buy this LP for very little money, though I just saw someone unconscionably asking for $255 on Amazon! The crazy world of discontinued recordings!

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