Dear La Folia 8.

Russell Lichter

[November 2002.]

Dear La Folia,

Your Webmaster’s formatting proclivities have got me hesitating to use italics for fear of seeing them in bold face, which to my eye is a blot on the typographic landscape, obtrusive in sentences and suitable only for titles. I used to work in the high-end part of the industry both in Los Angeles and San Francisco, back when there were such things as type shops, and Bill Gates was worth only a few hundred million. I was known as a master of the kern. Advertising moguls with matching pen-and-pencil sets used to fly in from the Coast, your coast, to buy me expensive dinners and consult on typefaces and layouts. However (here we go), “de gustibus non est disputandum,” as Tristram Shandy says. [The Internet may be a new thing, but La Folia’s Editorial Bench has been around for a while. At least one of us has worked in a digital type foundry and is intimate with the intricacies of designing and developing type for the computer screen. If this were a printed mag, we would be using italic where we now intentionally use bold italic. It’s just that italic on your monitor (and at this point size) looks weak, and La Folia prefers legibility over adhering to the well-intentioned rules of another medium. G.C.C.]

Lately I have been having fun playing around with a new DAC. In retrospect, I think I have tended to place the ability to resolve detail at the top of the audiophile heap. Now, this is indeed a matter of taste. Some victims of this hobby will go for tonal accuracy. Others will judge the excellence of a component on the vicissitudes of rock-n’-roll CDs exclusively (which I compare to driving a Testa Rossa downtown to evaluate its performance). And still others would rather buy that two-inch-diameter AC power cord for $4000 than squander half that amount to upgrade their old CD player. Me, I listen for detail, and when a component lets me hear something I’ve never heard before on familiar material, it’s a keeper. (By the way, you’ll be pleased to know I am almost finished paying off my preamplifier.) And this little beauty (not to name any names) has given a number of my CDs a startlingly new lease on life. [Whence this reluctance to name names is a mystery to me. Ed.] Just last night I dropped on the Mercury Living Presence release of Byron Janis doing the Rachmaninov Second and Third Piano Concertos (MLP 432 759-2). As you know, I am a great fan of MLP, and have heard this recording countless times. It’s a stunner. But last night was something else again. True enough, there were sounds here and there I’d never heard before (amazing in its own right), but the overall sense of presence, the tactile layering of the orchestra and piano was in a whole new league. I may actually be approaching satisfaction with my stereo, at least for awhile. And by the way, if you haven’t heard this Rach Third, you haven’t lived. Definitely on my short list of the greatest recordings of all time.

Of course, you know me, skeptical to the dotting of the final “i” about perceived aural differences. Hell, maybe it’s not the DAC, just the flaxseed oil I’ve started taking. Or the onset of the rainy season increasing air density. One audiophile was reported to have said it’s all in the cables, and come to think of it I’m not sure that I haven’t had my Moonglo connected reverse polarity these months gone. Epistemology was never my strong suit. What I do know is that on the goose-bump scale, ten being a really good seat at a live performance, last night we’re looking at a solid eight-five.

Anyhow, for many of us the seemingly endless messing about with components is ultimately about two things: music, and approaching the thrill of hearing it live. But I admit, I have an element of componentophilia in my makeup (which hasn’t a thing to do with sound quality). My particular weakness is CD transports. I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul … but I won’t relate the details of a near-miss purchasing an Accuphase transport. It would set a bad example for the young. Meanwhile, my trusty Lambda keeps perking right along after a decade of use, its glass eye capable of tracking like no tomorrow, and with one of the lowest jitter figures around.

Nietzsche once said something about learning more from the mistakes of great men than the successes of lesser men. Pompous, what? But there is a truth there, and Sviatoslav Richter, the old man recorded in performance, lovingly, by Live Classics, is a case in point. I have a couple of these discs (LCL472, LCL421), music of Prokofiev, Scriabin, Ravel and Bach, in which the musicianship, so it seems to me, goes beyond issues of technical ability and execution to something simple and sincere and full of ripeness. I cannot say these are the greatest performances on record, but certainly they are among the great experiences I’ve had with recorded music. No, the old fingers may not have the power and suppleness of Richter in his prime, when he could knock off a trill in the Hammerklavier that would make your arm hairs stand on end, but he’s so present and so much in love with the music that it’s a special privilege.

As you can see, I am no longer listening exclusively to the Sibelius symphonies, though I continue to turn to them frequently for solace and sanity. But there has certainly been a lot of Richter on the menu. I’ve never been quite the same since watching Richter, the Enigma. Did you know he recorded both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (RCA Gold Seal GD60949)? Wonderful performances executed with great respect for the music, facility and originality. They ring so true, so unencumbered. I used to think of Richter as a Beethoven specialist. Then I heard his recording of the Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux and Preludes, surely one of the greatest recordings of the last century. And then again, there’s his Haydn and his Prokofiev.

Hope you’re all doing splendidly up there in the Editorial Aerie.

[In fact, Richter taped at least three WTC accounts, a studio set in 1972 and live dates from 1969 and 1973. W.M.]