Confessions of a Marginal Man

[Signor Scardanelli resides under lock and key in a tower mere steps from La Folia’s editorial suites. He composed the following for The Abso!ute Sound as a defense of the compact disc, proof enough of madness, we should think. Preaching the CD’s merits in TAS is rather like setting up as a pork butcher in Mecca. As the reader is probably aware, that fine publication fell on hard times, from which it emerges, it delights us to report. Be that as it may, Scardanelli requests that we salvage some of his unpublished TAS work, which we agree to do largely in the spirit of amusement in which English gentry visited Bethlem Royal Hospital, better know as Bedlam. Excepting the two jazz CDs with which Scardanelli concludes his remarks, the discs he mentions are not recent releases. Quite the opposite!]

Confessions of a Marginal Man

Signor Scardanelli

[March 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:1.]

Marginality occurs, of course, within contexts. While your reporter is certainly an audiophile, he sports a smudged pedigree. [For the TAS article, Scardanelli lists Editor Silverton’s system, in his confusion, thinking it his. For that system’s present configuration, see “Why Madrigal?” immediately above]. One, I would sooner part with a lung than any of its cherished components, and two, their summed tickets buy a new car. Not a Bentley maybe, but the point’s certainly there to impale the faint of heart.

While I am without question my fancy-pants sound system’s love slave, there are aspects to high-end behavior to which I’ve never succumbed. Indeed, they strike me as cultish – items of faith and exclusivity. The first of these is tubes. I recently visited a friend who reviews high-end hardware for another publication. [Scardanelli’s fantasizing. We do not let him out. – Ed.] With regard to music, he’s a man of taste and sound judgment. (How could it be otherwise – we like so many of the same things!) He wanted me to hear a pair of digital separates he’s writing about. With tubes, of course. I had my own dark purpose: to recalibrate my opinion of tube-powered amplification. The gear in question is all [brand name bleeped as a gesture of goodwill – Ed.]. He runs dual mono amps recently upgraded and a dual-chassis preamp, along with plug-ins of like swank. Briefly, the [bleep! – Ed.] stuff impresses me as the aural correlative of chewy caramel centers, which, delightful under chocolate, are elsewhere anomalous. I’d brought a Telarc set of Brahms symphonies [CD 804-50, three discs plus a “bonus” interview disc, currently available], Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: nicely recorded, first-rate examples of the period-authenticity school (which has been on the move of late from the distant to recent past, usually with interesting, if controversial, results, but that’s another story). The strings especially ravished the heart. Such color! Such texture! Indeed yes, but at something’s expense, for the test of which I requested a Deutsche Grammophon CD of Anne Sophie von Otter’s Grieg Lieder recital, with Bengt Forsberg, piano, a disc of so-so sonic accomplishments whose qualities I’m familiar with [437 521-2, currently available]. There is was, that lovely, chewy caramel center. I wondered to myself – I was, after all, a guest – how someone can comment on the audible qualities of a product under review if his reference hardware so obviously intervenes. However romantically golden, mists impede clear vision. I am being disingenuous, of course. Many audiophiles relish euphonious effects.

And yet, were it a matter of life or death, I could probably co-exist with tubed components. Not all are so mellifluously distorting as this. What I reject outright is the second of the high end’s articles of faith: vinyl’s supremacy over silver. It never made sense to me. But I see that I’ve mislaid the emphasis. Let us return rather to what a great many philovinylite writers and their approving public condemn as the CD medium’s birth defects. And to do that, one simply goes to his shelves and looks for early examples that, when he played them on a far less revealing system, seemed to belie the litany. Would they still? Don’t touch that dial!

Best, however, to begin with a glossary. A sound system reveals itself in these areas (as conversational aspects of an essentially seamless totality): resolution, transparency, timbral verisimilitude, soundstage dimension, dynamic subtlety and stretch. I’ll try to define these in the only terms I know, those of an enthusiast.

Resolution: the ability to hear events of whatever loudness and pitch as meticulously delineated rather than a meld or, worse, gritty mass.

Transparency: like pornography, difficult to define but easy to recognize. Call it opacity’s opposite, or resolution’s twin. One “sees through” the music to the venue’s air and space. Transparency contributes substantially to one’s the sense of “thereness.”

Timbral verisimilitude: the colors and textures are those of the recording or, better still, those of the performers themselves, rather than of one’s system, the mention of which, however, conjures that cherished quality, “musicality.” To remount one’s hobbyhorse, is it a sound system’s job to contribute actively to “musicality,” which the uncharitably disposed denigrate as coloration, or is it rather the system’s task to provide an open window to a recording’s essentials?

Soundstage dimension: one’s perception of a venue’s space, and of equal importance, of location within that space. (Another, sometimes-mentioned aspect is soundstage height. This one has always eluded me.)

And finally, dynamic: we sometimes forget that dynamic entails a miniature as well as monumental aspect. Some writers speak usefully of microdynamic. A system’s dynamic capability contributes to one’s perception of gradation, however minute, the perception of which presumes the absence of obfuscating noise. For the software’s part, the given for these benisons is a good recording. (In discussions of this kind, we speak of acoustic music performed simultaneously rather than as a studio laminate. I’m troubled by hardware reviewers who evaluate products otherwise.)

My first golden oldie occupies a defunct label, MMG (Moss Music Group). MCD 10006 features oboist-composer Heinz Holliger, his harpist wife, Ursula Holliger, and Michael Gielen conducting the Cincinnati Symphony. [Essex Entertainment took over Moss Music’s catalog. The program appears currently in a two-disc VoxBox, CDX 5136, along with other works by Strauss, and scenes from Berg’s Lulu, with Kathleen Battle. Unhappily, the VoxBox too will soon be history. Attention, buyers! – Ed.] Little known in this country, Gielen is a fine interpreter of 20th-century repertoire. To make matters yet better, this is an Elite Recordings production, which to the knowing discophile promises much and usually delivers. Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz are quite simply up there with the best. I spoke with Marc [He didn’t. – Ed.] and, yes, this is a digital recording, 1983, on an early silver disc, its release date ’84, the year following the CD’s début. On that evidence alone, a philovinylite jury would surely vote “guilty.” (Analog masters, including Elite’s, have found their way onto silver. Thus my reason for asking Marc [Not! - Ed.] how he recorded these sessions. He thought originally it must have been analog. Joanna refreshed his memory: the recording is digital, the device a JVC 900.)

To return to the jury room, guilty of what? Taking matters a step at a time, I treasure the disc for the music and its performance. Richard Strauss composed his Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra of 1945-6 at the behest of a visiting G.I., John de Lancie, who in civilian life played first oboe for the Philadelphia Orchestra. This seemingly bucolic trifle, written in Strauss’s signature faux-ancien style, expresses for me, as it were in code, the composer’s tragic sense of loss and displacement far more effectively than the overtly elegiac Metamorphosen. The other work on this MMG disc, the late Witold Lutos>awski’s remarkable Double Concerto for Oboe and Harp of 1980, addresses our century’s esthetic concerns in uncompromisingly vanguard terms. (I list Heinz Holliger as oboist-composer. Under the second hat, he’s responsible for what I hear as one of our age’s masterworks, The Scardanelli Cycle, available as a two-disc ECM set, 437 441-2 and as three-disc set of a larger ten-disc collection on Beyer-Cadenza entitled Atelier Schola Cantorum, featuring the long-since dissolved Schola Cantorum Stuttgart under the direction of its regular conductor, Clytus Gottwald, CAD 800 891/2/3/4/5/6/7/8, more about which later.) I played the MMG several times through, straining to detect those crimes against art and artisanship with which the digital medium’s charged. I don’t hear them. One especially assertive philovinylite, a highly regarded writer on matters audiophilic, allows as how the compact disc’s improved over time. As egress from the corner into which this claque painted itself? The consumer gear is certainly better. No quarrel there. I had to return a Theta Data III transport for service [again Scardanelli fantasizes; in the interest of safety, we do not permit him the use of electrical outlets – Ed.] and used in its place an old, near-top-of-the-line Denon player, the DCD 3520. Hell’s bells, what a mess! A collapsed soundfield’s departed charms returned with my standby Data II, which I’d lent to a friend who wanted to check it out as a video-disc player. [Scardanelli has no friends – Ed.]

While we’re on the subject, I’ve two other VoxBoxes I treasure of Aubort’s splendid work: a two-disc set with Leonard Slatkin, and the St Louis Symphony and Chorus entitled Prokofiev, The Film Music [CDX 5021], consisting of top-quality performances of Ivan the Terrible, Op.116, the familiar and widely recorded concert cantata version of Alexander Nevsky, Op.78, and the Lieutenant Kizheh Symphonic Suite, Op.60. In terms of personal discovery, this next I treasure for Aubort’s mid-70s recording of the American avant-gardiste, Lucia Dlugoszewsky’s, Fire Fragile Flight. Her music is like none other, and Joel Thome’s direction of the Orchestra of Our Time [CDX 5144], in a program that includes Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with soprano Maureen McNally, two works by Luigi Dallapiccola, one each by Pierre Boulez and Henri Pousseur, George Crumb’s Night Music I, with mezzo Jan de Gaetani, and Luciano Berio’s orchestration of Kurt Weill’s Suraybaya Johnny, with mezzo Johanna Albrecht, serves as a most agreeable and inexpensive introduction, if such be required, to some first-rate modernist music. I’m thinking particularly of the Boulez (an early Dlugoszewsky proponent), the lady herself, Pousseur, and Crumb performances.

Further proof of the pudding came recommended, ironically enough, by as sincere a philovinylite as exists, Victor Goldstein, a courtly, old-worldly gent well known to New York-area audiophiles. This is a Philips four-disc set, 412 141-2, Mozart / The Great Sonatas for Piano and Violin, with Walter Klien and Arthur Grumiaux. The digitally recorded sessions date from ’81-’82; the release, from ’85. One again strains to detect departures from rectitude. There’s the piano and there’s the violin sounding exactly like 1) a piano, and 2) a violin. Philips didn’t credit its teckies in those days. Bravo, Anonymous! We hear the pair as if in the room. Were the sessions recorded last week rather than fifteen-plus years ago, would I be aware, say, of greater resolution, transparency and dynamic detail? Perhaps, though I find the speculation unproductive. The Mozart set’s sound is entirely satisfactory. It isn’t a question of “No cigar, my socks are still on,” so much as one of good, better, best – of steps along excellence toward perfection. [We do in fact permit Scardanelli the use of socks and undergarments; belts, not. – Ed.]

Our philovinylite claqueur says that the LP does the better job with music’s harmonic complexities. It does something, yes, but it’s not, as I hear matters, what he thinks. My reluctance to swallow the sacramental wafer stems from my sustaining suspicion of a theology’s Luddite-for-its-own-sake leanings. How easy, for one thing, to set oneself apart from the Great Unwashed. There’s no exam or entry requirement, excepting what one spends as an earnest of sincerity. For the truest-blue of believers, the CD is a sinister, mass-market scam, and I do not exaggerate. It’s a case, I suspect, of a soi-disant Elect protecting the Altar against the incursions of knuckle-walking hordes. The Elect’s self-elevation would be the more convincing were the recordings they celebrate less banal. [Scardanelli listens in the main to nesting pigeons and faulty plumbing. – Ed.] Enough of that. I look forward to spending my time here [In La Folia, as it happens; Scardanelli rarely knows where he is – Ed.] recommending mostly new art music, along with some arty jazz, on a viable rather than nostalgia-driven medium, for which try a recent hatART jazz release of pianist Myra Melford and percussionist Han Bennink entitled Eleven Ghosts. The American Melford, a well known and widely recorded improviser of imagination and daring, engages in dialog with a no less resourceful European percussionist on, in these instances, metals, wood and skins. I will mention but three numbers, all of them fanciful turns on convention. Early in the program we hear the duo’s way with Leroy Carr’s heart-touching How Long Blues. The pianist and percussionist state the theme, albeit fancifully, thence to leap into seizures of sorts – she, hers; he, his, and how they meet is a treat – to return at the end to the plummily blusey theme. Scott Joplin’s iconic Maple Leaf Rag receives a similar, though far more subtle and grin-provoking make-over. This one I play for company. [Another flight of imagination. We permit Scardanelli no visitors. – Ed.] Between these, Melford offers her own And Now Some Blues, and though it is surely and moodily that, the stretch begins characteristically out of joint with an assaultive percussion passage. Titles like The First Mess and Another Mess give some idea of the inspired insouciance knocking at Art’s door. The excellent Peter Pfister recorded these meticulously detailed wonders in Zürich in early 1994. In digital, naturally, in what sounds to me his signature direct-to-two-track method, though the notes do not say. (Cadence / NorthCountry, Cadence Bldg., Redwood, NY 13679-9612, distributes Hat Hut Records in the USA.

A gentleman named Tony Reif operates Songlines, a jazz label of forward-facing demeanor, out of Vancouver, British Columbia (1003-2323 W. 2nd St., Canada V6K 1J4, treif@songlines.com). A number of Songlines releases track New York developments; others visit elsewhere, as in Nancali, featuring François Houle, clarinet, and Benoit Belbecq, piano. The disc is remarkably in several respects. Both players engage in (to use the term of choice) extended technique. Belbecq, for significant example, works within the piano, as well as at the keys. In art music, the usage has a history, beginning, I believe, with Henry Cowell. In jazz it is rare. In view of Nancali’s adventuresome mindset, rarer still is the atmosphere of delicate calm informing the disc entire. While there’s much here to entice the ear, there’s naught to vex your maiden aunt. Remarkable, too, is the ease of transition between avant-garde rustles, flutters and sighs, and the duo’s never less than elegant way (given the disc’s other-worldly spirit) with conventional music making. A beautifully transparent recording, engineered in France by Jean Taxis and Dominique Samarcq, is fittingly intimate.

Scardanelli, The Tower, Tübingen-on-Hudson