Random Noise 28

[Random Noise 27, along with earlier columns, can be found in StereoTimes.com’s archives. Random Noise has and will continue to traffic in domestic audio and recorded sound. M.S.]

Mike Silverton

[May 2011.]

In RN 27 I argued that good sound begins and ends with superior production values and that good-sounding recordings are in the minority, medium notwithstanding. To pose an obvious question: How do we judge greatness without mediocrities with which to compare? More exactly, I took a position philovinylites scorn: that the compact disc is not the ill-sounding mass-market calamity this historically obstreperous claque holds it to be. At my request, Derrick Moss (AurumAcoustics.com), the designer of my Integris CDP, adds thoughts of his own:

I don’t know the stats, but I’d estimate that the CD’s Red Book standard more than adequately captures 95% of all recordings, perhaps even 99-plus by sheer volume of sales. A huge number of recordings would not benefit from a higher-rez standard simply because their production values are so poor. I’d wager that half the recordings out there are of barely 8-bit quality! Putting any of these on SACD or Blu-ray or other present or future high-rez media is pointless if the only reason to do so is to enhance the recording’s quality. Yes, Red Book’s 16/44 resolution is an antiquated system with 1970s roots. We can do better today. However, the industry’s music-production side too often falls short of Red Book criteria.

As for end-users, it’s an audiophile niche within a niche capable of enjoying anything superior to Red Book performance. Globally, we’re talking about mere thousands among a billion or so music consumers. That’s a tiny market. Although CD sales are a tenth of what they used to be, it isn’t because of pressure from high-rez competition but rather from people much more interested in highly compressed, low-res, portable music collections.

I’d also wager that few of those who have gone or intend to go to high-rez have been getting the most out of their CD collections. It’s easy to want a newer, stronger drug, and most audiophiles and retailers are just lazy enough to go that route. The harder, more rewarding work entails room acoustics, system set-up and optimization. Those of us who do what is necessary are hearing CD performance that many high-rez adopters would probably envy.

I’m not saying that high-rez media aren’t capable of outdoing CD. Allowing for several ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ and ‘do not pass go untils,’ they are. But don’t sell the CD short. Just as vinyl has taken on a second life, this compact disc is far from ready to die. I’m keeping mine and buying more.

If two bits make a quarter, do eight bits make a buck?

Derrick’s comments about shabby production values surely connect to my having found so many CDs wanting. As a techno-boob, it never occurred to me that inept utilization of the Red Book’s potential might account for at least some of the disappointments. The mention of which brings us to this: Logic does insist that if one great-sounding CD exists — and there exist a great many more than one — then it’s not the medium but rather its shabby implementation, at least in some measure.

In 1987, as part of a bargain-priced series, the Moss Music Group issued three CDs in cheesy paper jackets of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral works, with the Minnesota Orchestra (later to become the Minneapolis Symphony), conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The all-important production was in the hands of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz, a.k.a. Elite Recordings, who taped and edited these splendid performances in the mid-Seventies (MMG / Vox Prima MWCD 7140, 7142, 7144). Much against the philovinylitic grain, I heard the Ravel discs as a rock-solid confirmation of the CD’s preeminence in the Upward & Onward Scramble, and do still.

Back when the majors took pride in their classical lists, engineers whose names we now venerate had a feel for minimalist recording technique. And then, alas, the Barbarian Swarm: excessive multitracking of purely acoustic music as an easy alternative to painstaking microphone placement, let alone, largely in pop, overdubbing’s embalming effects. The consuming masses seemed — and seem — not to care, whereas we not so happy few care to the point of affliction.

As a reviewer, I receive complimentary copies of discs I think might be interesting, along with some I’d never think of requesting. Red Barber, the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, would describe my enviable position as “sitting in the catbird seat.”

Music lovers buy discs they want to hear. Again limiting one’s remarks to production values, if these discs come recommended by journalists whose opinions we respect and they indeed prove rewarding, all to the good. But if one buys something cold, on an impulse perhaps, and it plays to the ear like rutting hyenas, anger obtains. As a free-lance reviewer — no deadlines to meet — like any true-blue audiophile, I want every disc that comes my way to be well recorded. One is poised to admire and praise, which made me all the more curious to know what Derrick meant by his 8-bit comment. He returns:

There is no major shortfall in today’s digital recording gear any more than with analog gear. Even when down-converting a 24-bit recording to Red Book, the potential remains excellent. The problems look mainly to weaknesses. There are numerous instances where people make poor choices, at least by an audiophile’s measure. Recordings are configured to please a mass audience.

In other words, if a great sounding CD is a 10 out of 10, how many are less than a 10? If you re-release a 5/10 on SACD, does it become a 15/10? It takes a lot of commitment and work to produce a recording sonically superior to CD, which is to say, a recording the technical demands of which are simply too big to fit on a compact disc. While I don’t deny the existence of state-of-the-art specimens, they are too few in number to persuade me to chase them down. In other words, audiophiles would be ecstatic if the recording side of the industry could more frequently utilize to its fullest potential the system they’ve been working with for years.

Conversely, many audiophiles haven’t done what they might to hear CDs at their best. There’s a lot of compromised equipment and sub-stellar listening rooms out there. To advocate that a higher-rez source is the solution throws the baby out with the bathwater. For better or worse, we exist in a free market and the free market’s will is always right. To be right in a minority is to be wrong. I’m sure there are books that expand upon this theme.

As a final blow to this harried old nag, I received a CD from Italy which, out of kindness, I decline to identify. Presumably for the prestige of it all, the players or their producer chose to record in a Bugatti garage. The outcome, of course, is dead on arrival. The violins, violas, cellos and double-bass might as well have been steel-strung cookie tins. For the double-bass, a galvanized wash tub perhaps.

In life-affirming contrast, a two-disc set of six gallant-style concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for two each of horns and flutes, six violins, two each of violas and cellos, and double-bass, with harpsichord soloist. The handsome packaging includes photos of the unidentified venue: an open area surfaced in wood, the back wall irregularly paneled as befits a well designed acoustic space — probably an auditorium or concert hall. The sound is elegant: warm and inviting. As my remarks center on sound, I’ll mention all too briefly that the music is a delight. (Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Sei concerti per il cembalo concertanto, Wq 43, Harmonia Mundi HMC 902083 84.)

I’m sure the hapless Italian team used recording gear equal to that of the Freiburger Baroque Orchestra’s crew. While I appreciate Derrick’s observations about shortfall implementation of adequate gear, here, an utterly inappropriate venue is the obvious pitfall.

A few more examples of well-made recordings

A recently released Decca (B0015311-02) begins with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with jazz pianist Stefano Bollani, Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig; Andrew Cornall, producer; Philip Siney, engineer. It’s such a pleasure to hear a performance and production the equal in excellence. I went to the shelves for A Gershwin Concert, a Chesky reissue (CD 56, released in 1991) originally produced in 1962 by Charles Gerhardt and recorded by the inestimable Kenneth Wilkinson. Pianist Raymond Lewenthal takes a less swinging approach, albeit as rewarding, with Oscar Danon conducting the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. After all these years, the sound remains remarkably impressive. Enesco’s First Rumanian Rhapsody, an enduring pleasure, is one of the fillers. The recent Decca should be easy to find, the old Chesky less so, but more than worth the hunt.

***

With its long list of edge-dwelling jazz and jazz-inflected improvisation, Russell Summers’ Nuscope label has long been a favorite for the music’s unorthodoxies as well as for Summers’ devotion to superior production values, including the art on his handsome inserts. The disc in question is something of a Nuscope fluke in that it falls within the precincts of classical’s avant-garde, New York School. Louis Goldstein here performs Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, a composition for solo piano. Frank Martin’s exemplary recording, editing and mastering expose the luminosity that dwells among the notes (Nuscope CD 1024).

Annotator Laurie Schulman describes the music’s “leisurely pace, spare textures, intense expressivity and shimmering pedal effects [virtually suspending] all sense of time.” The pianist remarks that “[no] other 20th-century composer treated composition like Feldman. He had a unique way of spinning out ideas, using the musical elements of pitch, duration & timbre to create musical form.” With respect to command, Goldstein’s distribution of phrasing, dynamic and pace is impeccable. Hildegard Kleeb’s longer performance (71:33 compared with Goldstein’s 67:15) takes a more Romantic route, likewise gorgeously recorded in 1990 by Peter Pfister in Zürich (hatNOW Series 6076, released in 1991). I’d be reluctant to surrender either disc. For yet another recommended performance, you might want to look into pianist Markus Hinterhäuser’s performance on col legno WWE 1CD 31886, released in 1995.

***

In an earlier column I recommended the 27, largely two-disc volumes of Bach’s church cantatas on the Soli Deo Gloria label, distributed in the US by Naxos. You can add to that another enthusiastic, as it happens far less spendy recommendation: 16 CDs of Bach’s organ works performed by Ton Koopman on eight period-appropriate European organs. Warner Classics & Jazz 2564 69281 7 is a mid-line reissue of full-price Teldec CDs dating from ’94, ’96, ’98 and ’99, Adriaan Verstijnen, recording engineer. Founder and conductor of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Koopman’s reputation for insightful interpretations of Baroque-period music rests with equal weight on his keyboard prowess. In his notes Koopman mentions Bach’s exploitation of the organ’s coloristic effects as well as the speed with which Bach’s feet negotiated pedals. Given the sparkling virtuosity of Koopman’s performances, it’s difficult to believe that, according to his own testimony, he cannot keep pace. One wonders. In any event, $100 buys an attractively packaged, thoughtfully annotated, and most of all, invaluable set.

***

Franz Josef Haydn’s six Opus 33 string quartets inspired Mozart to compose a set he dedicated to the older composer. Beethoven was also an admirer. What else is there to say? On two CDs, the Opus 33 comprises volume eight of the Auryn Quartet’s superbly performed and recorded Haydn readings. I’ve mentioned these Tacet Auryn CDs as among the discs I play often for no reason other than the pleasure of it. I often return to the Auryn’s Tacet performances, on four double-disc sets, of Beethoven’s quartets as well. Producer-recordist Andreas Spreer and his old Neumann and Telefunken mics are to be cherished, as is this spirited, note-perfect quartet (Tacet 168).

***

A most welcome reissue: hat[now]ART 157, at 40:44, Morton Feldman’s relatively brief Clarinet and String Quartet, composed in 1983. Feldman’s épater-les-bourgeois provocations take a remarkably gentle route: skeletal, near-repetitious, and above all, quiet modules in which ravishing sonorities steal the scene. The 1994 digital recording in a Swiss church is a luminous delight. Ib Hausmann, clarinet; Pellegrini Quartet: Antonio Pellegrini, Thomas Hofer, violins; Charlotte Geselbracht, viola; Helmut Menzler, cello. Four short, much earlier compositions for clarinet and string quartet complete this warmly recommended program. Art Lange’s notes are especially fine.