Dear La Folia 12.

Russell Lichter

[September 2003.]

Dear La Folia,

It’s been a day here at the station. Ask me why.

I don’t know that a month has elapsed in the past five years without periods of audiophile anguish over imaging. There are many factors that go into creating the illusion of live music that can be qualified, though we all have our priorities. I know a guy who likes monaural sound, who finds stereo “unnatural,” and is fanatical about tonal accuracy. In telling him of the wonders of the current audio scene, I mentioned the existence of $2,000 cables, mechanical diodes that give physics the raspberry, and how “neutrality” has become a dirty word. For me, as I’ve said before, imaging is uppermost. Numerous speaker repositionings, custom-made fiberglass sound panels, an executive-style audiophile chair: Nothing achieved neighbor Dave’s rock-solid, deep, effortless, pinpoint imaging. Good Lord, and he wasn’t even using an Accuphase transport, 57-nines virgin monocrystal copper cables, or NOS tubes in his older-model Modulus preamp. The endless “improvements” we make in our stereos remind me of those gas-saving devices I used to see in the Warshawsky Automotive catalog. I calculated that if you installed enough of these gadgets, a single tankful would last indefinitely.

Various experts’ solutions over the years have included changing my equipment rack, my preamp, my power amp, the way I amplify, my isolation devices, my cables, my DAC, my transport, and of course my loudspeakers. Everything, in fact, at one time or another, has been impugned with such certitude that what common sense I had was seriously tried. As we know, snake oil was invented long before Thomas Edison scratched his head at the dinner table, but our modern audio industry has made it their own. The painful truth is that the highly opinionated salesmen who work in the audio industry are … salesmen. There are refreshing exceptions, but for the most part the objective is to convince you to buy something. Well, I did not buy a new rack, new cables, new isolation devices. Those things I did buy I did not expect to, as they indeed did not improve my stereo’s imaging.

The wise audiophile is not defeated by this sort of thing, but he will pause to pay off his debts before acquiring new ones. This I am doing. Well, maybe. It all depends on the performance of a pair of Amphion monitors I am hoping to try in situ. A transformation of my otherwise decent system into one that images like gangbusters would both gratify immensely and trigger my charge card’s deployment.

Almost two months ago I bought an unabridged copy of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. It’s a slow read. My Harry Potter-besotted acquaintances look at me as if I’ve dropped a few marbles. But Boswell’s Johnson holds a strange fascination and has so occupied my time that I’ve no panegyrics on music with which to entertain you. However, while wading through Boswell’s (and Johnson’s) elaborate syntax, my mind has been distracted from the imaging problem. I have discovered certain recordings that seem, however improbably, particularly suited as background music to this book. I’m guessing that Stephen King or J.K. Rowling would elicit a different selection of music. In case you’re considering a sojourn into 18th-century literature, here are a few musical items to accompany your reading.

Cover of Naxos 8554480 Cover of Naxos 8554481

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies are in two volumes, Naxos 554480/554481. From an engineering standpoint, they depart from any Naxos solo piano recording I’ve heard. The technique is reminiscent of ProPiano’s “Pianists Perspective,” an attempt to recreate the piano sound as the performer himself would hear it. The microphones seem to have been placed on either side of the piano, creating an immense keyboard between the loudspeakers. The recording is dynamic and detailed, the vast image perfect for not paying attention to while reading Boswell.

Jenö Jandó is a pianist of unusually large repertoire and considerable talent. I’ve always found his performances clean, technically excellent and free of indulgence and pomposity. All things considered, there is little in these recordings to fault. One does find, as one finds with all but the greatest performances, the occasional lapse, the note or passage that is merely played, understanding and context seemingly absent. This sort of thing invariably catches the attention and is, however unfairly, a disappointment, no less for its being a commonplace. The story goes that Dinu Lipatti would spend years studying a single concerto, which explains how, no matter how closely you listen to his playing, each and every note is musically and emotionally perfect. This approach to music-making was probably never widespread and seems sadly anachronistic in this era of sex kittens posing with their violins and culture-by-proxy. The music itself, of course, is not Années de pèlerinage or Études d’exécution transcendante, yet as easy to approach as the rhapsodies are, I find them superb examples of Liszt’s genius. And besides, who could read a book during the “Vallée d’Obermann”?

Cover of RCA 60586

One other CD that’s been getting a lot of play chez Lichter is Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony with André Previn and the LSO (RCA 60586). This beauty came to me as a gift and, truth be told, concentrated listening to its evocative tonal painting is a blissful and heartwarming experience. I didn’t give it the attention it deserves for some time after it arrived, and it’s not the kind of music to grab one’s interest by way of dynamics or drama. But having come to love its uncluttered freedom of spirit, it has for me the capacity to soothe.

Does Boswell’s 1,500-page biography of a great man of letters ruffle the spirit? In a peculiar way, yes. It recalls those lines from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” — “… there is no spot that does not see you. You must change your life.” One of Dr Johnson’s more endearing traits is his courage in the face of adversity, and it is this greatness of spirit, this honesty, that ignites the lantern of self-examination.

Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece is somehow a perfect accompaniment to this book. I’ve over 500 pages to go, so I’d best say goodbye.