Dear La Folia 9.

Russell Lichter

[April 2003.]

Dear La Folia,

How have I managed not to write in all these months? Where to begin my hair-raising adventures in Audiophilia?

Thinking back to my last missive and your parenthetical comment, I withheld the brand name of the DAC I was auditioning out of respect for La Folia’s then Madrigal sponsorship. Now it can be told! The mystery component is a Bel Canto DAC2. I feel this model to be somewhat more resolving than the DAC1.1 (the power-supply upgraded version of the DAC1), and I agree with Marc Mickelson’s overall conclusion in soundstage.com, that the main difference between the two is at the frequency extremes, which seem extended in the newer model. (The DAC2 is reportedly a completely new design, presumably including the audio output stage.) There’s a lot of hardware inside this little box. Put this puppy in a rack-size case with a 10mm thick anodized front panel, machined aluminum knobs and push buttons, some blue LEDs and a tasteful illuminated logo, and Bel Canto could get three times their current asking price.

I have also discovered the delights of a “new” CD transport, an Accuphase DP90. My “trusty” PS Audio Lambda had developed a bad case of intermittent hiccoughs that drove the DAC into the red zone of abysmal silence. Besides, I’ve always wanted a CD transport weighing nearly 50 pounds. The engineers tell us the only factor which can account for sonic differences among transports is jitter, and that may well be true. I can only say that the level of subjective improvement in image depth rendered by the DP90 was totally unexpected. And now for some music.

Cover of London 455247

Brahms: Solo Piano Music. Julius Katchen. Polygram Records 455247 (6 CDs). Available at ArkivMusic.

My interest in this pianist was sparked by a passage in Bruno Monsaingeon’s book, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, in which Richter related a pleasant evening spent in Paris with Julius Katchen and his wife. I had seen Katchen’s name here and there before, Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century, and so forth, but I’d never heard him play. That he is one of the great pianists there can be no doubt upon hearing any of his Brahms variations. I have listened to the three great sets often over the years and, as with most music, I do not have a multiplicity of performances for comparison, I thought I pretty much knew what they were about. Only to a limited degree, it turns out. Katchen’s playing is a revelation. Allowing us to experience music in a wholly new and unimagined way is one (and not the only one) of the remarkable gifts great musicians give us. More than interpretation and technique, there is a kind of intimacy, a humility in submitting to the composer’s voice, an authenticity. Even the “lightest” music can become profound in the hands of a great musician, to wit, Richter’s recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Stradivarius 33353.

Katchen is a musician of that stature. I never imagined the Handel, Paganini and Schumann variations could be so personal, so fresh, so full of delight and intelligence. As you know, piano variations are among my very favorite music. Brahms is not in the same spiritual league as Beethoven (who is?), but the Handel and Paganini variations are surely among the very greatest of this genre. (Next time maybe I’ll tell you about my impressions of the Reger and Godowsky variations.)

As for the sonatas, they are new to me, and I’ve nothing to compare. As is sometimes the way, I did not take to them on the first couple of auditions, but by the third hearing I was beginning to get it, and I’ve come to love them. They are not mature works, nor wholly Brahms’ own, owing much to earlier composers, and yet they’ve got Brahms’ irrepressible spark of genius. And Julius Katchen seems to understand all this. With some music, the performer can simply make all the difference in the world. I can readily imagine myself abandoning these sonatas if my introduction were through a lesser musician.

Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 453 & 488. Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony Op 110a. Christoph Soldan Classics LC 10074.

Remember how highly I praised a certain recording about a year ago of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony conducted by Pawel Przytocki? And then that CD of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto I received from Maestro Przytocki’s friend, Pawel Skrzypek, with the latter playing, and the former conducting? Imagine my surprise on hearing from Maestro Przytocki several weeks ago about a new CD he wanted to send. It arrived from Krakow this rainy afternoon. I am pleased for several reasons, mainly for the music itself, which is quite wonderful, but also for the CD’s production quality, in a wholly superior league to either of the others. This suggests that this conductor, who is still a young man, is gaining the recognition his superb musicianship deserves. It is a live recording, which makes it all the more special. Live recordings often have a quality, present here, that studio jobs lack. Can one really hear in a recording the excitement musicians feel in sharing the result of all their devotion and hard work with a live audience? Perhaps it’s only subjective.

Now, I am not a great fan of Shostakovich, my collection having been limited to three versions of his Preludes and Fugues for piano, but I flatter myself that I know great conducting when I hear it. Maestro Przytocki and the Cappella Istropolitana do an absolutely superb job performing this very serious major work, with acumen that never gets bogged down in emotion, yet gives Shostakovich’s music full emotional measure. You can tell from the very first bars that you’re in for something quite special.

Christoph Soldan, under whose auspices this CD was produced, is pianist for the two Mozart concertos. When I was new to the world of classical music, I remember thinking that “nobody understands Mozart,” including myself. I suppose any number of musicians have commented that Mozart’s music, deceptively simple to perform, is extremely difficult to understand. Even the great Richter thought so. And I’ve heard pianists, “foremost Mozart experts,” play the sonatas note-perfect yet leaving me somnolent in a matter of minutes. (I admit to loving Glenn Gould’s Mozart sonatas, though they obviously bear little relationship to the composer’s tempi, phrasing or dynamics. But at least they never bore.) I’ve always liked Geza Anda’s performance of the concertos for his comprehensive sensitivity and absence of indulgence, which in lesser musicians can lead to unjustified dramatic flights or sugary rubato. Soldan’s concerto performance is free of the latter, which in itself is high praise. His playing is dynamic, and I mean that in a special way. I sometimes have the sense with Mozart performances that the pianist is hesitant, almost afraid to play too dynamically for fear of withholding sufficient delicacy. Listening to Christoph Soldan’s playing is a delight; his is an articulation one might almost call masculine, if one understands the term as having little to do with the performer’s gender. More a matter of attitude. Soldan seems fully confident in the music’s structure to stand on its own, with the support of the superb Cappella Istropolitana under Maestro Przytocki’s baton.

Spring in New England, the muted love call of the lobster, the oysters skimming the waves. Wish I could be there. Be well.

Russell

[The editor lives in Maine. M.S.]