Channel Classics: Audiophile Nirvana

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

The old audiophile dilemma used to be recordings of cutting-edge quality ÔmPpled with sight-read performances of cold, rolled war-horse. Not even warmed-over war-horse. Well, start rejoicing, folks: Jared Sacks, the engineer/producer of Holland’s Channel Classics, is now sending us Early Musique that is unusual and off-beat, superbly performed and even more/most superbestly (?) recorded.

And reminded this here audiophile/recording engineer of a fundamental lesson. For Audiophilia 101: You can’t judge a microphone — or a loudspeaker — by itself. I.E.: you have to listen to the beast through other electronics. In this case Mr/Mynherr Sacks employs the popular Bruel & Kjaer 4003 mics: high-voltage electrets with a nickel diaphragm. I’ve felt for some years that these mics always sounded very clean/undistorted, but somehow on the cold and clinical side. As compared with, say, the Neumanns or Schoeps. Robbing the music of its natural bloom and warmth, perhaps. Well, besides the B&Ks, Sacks uses the Prism digital converter and the Genex optical disc recorder. Well surprise, surprise — the B&Ks don’t sound cold and chilly no more! Perhaps the blame was not in the mics after all, but the converters and recorders they’re plugged into. We always gotta watch that stuff.

Interestingly this “house sound” is consistent in several different locations and with different sized groups, including antique organs. As usual , the human voice/voices and baroque organs provide a range of timbres that are dead giveaways of recording quality. As to voices, Jos van Veldhoven has drilled the Choir of the Netherlands Bach Society and the Choir & Cappella Figuralis to a precision that would do credit to the late Robert Shaw — no small compliment indeed.

Christmas in July: Angels & Shepherds a 17th Century Christmas Channel Classics CCS 15198 (1999)

The Cappella Figuralis consists of 8 singers plus 8 instrumentalists — the usual sized group employed for weddings, funerals and Saturday Vespers services in German Lutheran churches. The Bach Society choir contains 20 singers, representing a full-sized choir used by the City Cantor for major religious feasts. These are not dry, academic performances that “smell of the lamp.” With impeccable enunciation in German, Latin and Dutch, these singers and instrumentalists spring, dance and trill through the Italian and German musical styles from the beginnings of the century with Michael Praetorius and Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck — and including his son Dirk Janzoon Sweelinck — to a concluding motet by Andreas Hammerschmidt, one of Heinrich Schütz’ favorite pupils. This latter has a gravitas and resonant flow similar to parts of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Consider your stocking well stuffed indeed!

J.S. BACH: Klavieruebung III Leo van Doeselaar (organ) Choir of the Netherlands Bach Society Channel Classics CCS 13498 (1998)

These 2 CDs are of compelling interest on several fronts, recorded with the same basic gear as above, but this time in St Walburgiskerk, Zutphen. This is the Bach Great Organ Mass, quite serviceably played by van Doeselaar. The producers realized that the listener today would probably not be familiar with the chorales, unlike the 18th Century Lutheran. So each choral is sung a cappella in its earliest published form. Next, a choral setting: by Praetorius, Schütz, Schein, Scheidt or Hassler precedes the actual Bach setting on the organ.

The l643 Bader organ at St Walburgiskerk was constructed, or enlarged at a time when Calvinist Dutch Reformed churches we trying to get a hand on the relatively new practice of congregational singing. In 1641 Constantijn Huygens wrote about unaccompanied psalm singing: “an ugly snoring sound [which] sounded more like howling or screaming than human singing.” The small organs used in the previous Latin rite alternated with the choir or sounded by themselves for improvised interludes.

The Bader organ, restored by Riel in 1995, is modeled on the big Hamburg organs. It’s large enough and loud enough to support and lead congregational singing. But it lacks the tonal blend and refinement of the Schnitger organs of a generation later. Interestingly, many of the solo stops were modeled on the wind instruments of the town bands. It’s also tuned in a form of unequal temperament and pitched at A=443 Hz probably all too familiar to Kantor Bach. So the Early Music audiophile is well served indeed!

Saints & Sinners: 17rh Century Musical Dialogues Cappella Figuralis (Jos van Veldhoven) Channel Classics CCS 12498 (1998)

Here we have the chamber Figuralis Chor in Latin sacred dialogues with a Monteverdian basso continuo accompaniment which seemed to be very popular for sacred concerts. The best known composer is Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He’s joined by luminaries like Augustin Pfleger, Servaes de Koninck Carel Hacquart and Benedictus a Sancto Josepho. Here’s virtuoso solo and ensemble singing of the first rank. If you enjoy Monteverdi instrumental and choral madrigals, consider yourself well rewarded.