Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff

[Louis Klonsky appears in La Folia 1:2 as the first of what we hope will become a large and growing number of guest reviewers. Needless to say, the opinions expressed are those of the writer. Should you like to participate, please write the editor. On, now, to the exotic. Our own experience of binaural sound via headphones leaves us with the impression that we need to hear more before arriving at a judgment of its merits and flaws...]

Louis Klonsky

[June 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:2.]

STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; RACHMANINOFF: Symphonic Dances. Pasadena Symphony, Jorge Mester (cond.). Newport Classic AURACLE NCAU 10002 [DDD], 70:32.

I am generally not the adventurous sort, tending to abide by Voltaire’s alleged remark that “marriage is the only adventure for the cowardly.” My idea of “goin’ crazy” is not to rewind a video before returning. So imagine my excitement of potential aural adventure when I recently read several articles extolling the virtues “binaural sound.” Who needs a safari in Kenya when one can explore this “new” technology in the safe confines of your living room?

For those who have not heard of binaural recording, I suggest you visit the site “www.binaural.com.” It is well laid out and has everything that one could ask for in describing this well established technique. For those not inclined for additional cyberspace travel, or too loyal to leave here, I quote a teaser from the site:

“The binaural experience is striking, and requires no special equipment besides stereo headphones and binaural recordings. While binaural doesn’t depend on the highest fidelity to achieve its amazing realism, the better the playback equipment and headphones, the better will be the sound. On the other hand, the simplest ear-buds and a portable CD player can provide plenty of binaural thrills! The listener is placed exactly where the performance or sound originated, with sounds localized in a 360-degree sphere around one. The live ambiance of the hall in which a musical performance takes place is preserved more precisely than with an expensive multi-speaker surround sound system.”

Aside from additional general information, the site contained hosannas from numerous reviews. Well, despite some skepticism, this looked like the perfect adventure for me. After several nervous minutes of beady-eyed perusal of their catalog, I finally made my choice. I exchanged $25+ of plastic money for a recording of “The Rite of Spring” and “Symphonic Dances.” The selection was based on repertory and anticipated sonic splendor. Truthfully, I was not primarily listening for performance. A current denizen of California, I wanted the experience.

Production values of the CD were top-drawer. The CD was gold-pressed. “The Rite” was divided into 14 cues, based on the ballet. Fine notes about both compositions by Alan Rich. Short essays on the Pasadena Symphony and its venerable conductor, Jorge Mester. A complete listing of the 100+ members of the orchestra. Finally, a few details about the equipment and how the recording was made.

Usually an occupant rear-row balcony seats, before placing my headphones on, I tried to prepare myself for this “front-row center” performance by cleaning my ears and putting on a suit and tie. Actually, since the insert described the recording as centered “twenty feet behind and ten feet ABOVE Maestro Mester,” perhaps a Superman costume would have been more appropriate. Lights down, eyes closed, the concert began.…

After several minutes of listening, the main impression was of the great spatial ambiance of the recording. Instruments really seemed to come from all over a wide sound stage, in their true relative positions. The Double Basses in particular, sounded like they were located beyond the headphones. Orchestral textures were extremely clear, even in the most complex passages. When compared to other recordings of “The Rite,” e.g., Boulez on DGG, the binaural sound was far clearer (actually, almost too dry) and pin-point accurate in its imaging. However, despite this remarkable feature, something seemed missing.

While not a performance or interpretation to replace anyone’s favorite(s) of “The Rite,” e.g., Boulez on Columbia-Sony or DGG, the participants did a fine job. For some reason though, the interpretation never seemed to take off. While the strings were a tad thin, orchestral balance and rhythmic precision were right on, there was some impressive playing by woodwinds and brass and tempos did not drag. Something, however, was flat. The same perception occurred with the “Symphonic Dances.” Deciding to switch to a more familiar acoustic venue for me, I removed my suit and tie and tried the CD on my speakers.

The mystery was cleared up by the arrival of the “The Dances of the Young Girls,” i.e., the second cue. Proper playback apparently requires adjustment of the volume control about 20% higher than any CD I’ve encountered. Making this adjustment gave a more realistic level to the sound reproduction and added a great deal of “life” to the performance. The enclosed notes do state: “Adjustment of your equipment’s volume control may be necessary.” Usually on encountering that warning (shades of Telarc), the assumption is to turn down the volume in preparation for the dynamic onslaught. Apparently not in this case.

Comparison of playback on speakers vs. headphones, indicated that some of the advantages of the headphones sound stage were lost, but overall the outstanding clarity, depth and imaging generally come through. The binaural web site gives suggestions about binaural playback with regular speakers, but I left mine in their usual position.

So overall, I guess I got what I asked for. “Experience” accomplished. For those in the mood to explore along these lines, give the site a try and pick something according to musical tastes. Certainly, this CD is a good place to begin. For those looking for interpretation as a primary criteria, then I cannot recommend this CD over many available others. The above mentioned Boulez recordings or Stravinsky’s own on Columbia-Sony for “The Rite” and Previn’s for the “Symphonic Dances” are good, but not unique, superior choices. In any event, for myself, it’s back to returning unwound videos for those wild and crazy times ahead.