Why Classical Sound is Better These Days

Mike Silverton

[May 2002.]

In issue 136 of The Absolute Sound, Robert Harley tackles a topic that has fascinated me for years. Harley contends that classical recording has become better of late for a curiously ironic reason: A slow economy requires labels to cut production costs by giving up their 48-track digital machines, massive consoles, and microphones by the dozen for simpler techniques, i.e., a reversion to the good old days. Harley writes that recent, good-sounding classical recordings owe their success to two mics, with maybe another couple for spotlighting. Less is more. We’ll all drink to that.

In catching up on CDs I’d neglected owing to a move, I played two Deutsche Grammophon releases. In keeping with Harley’s point, the better-sounding features the music of Peter Lieberson performed by several ensembles, Oliver Knussen conducting (457 606-2). It’s a compilation of fairly recent tapings, the lattermost from ’98. The other is a two-disc homage to Mstislav Rostropovich (289 471 620-2), featuring “legendary recordings 1956 – 1978.” The program begins with a 1968 production of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, the venue, that city’s acoustically superb Jesus-Kristus-Kirche. I couldn’t get through a marvelous performance’s first movement, so outstandingly bad is the sound: two-dimensional, gritty, compressed. Point again well taken, though this multi-miked misery antedates Harley’s 48-track digital mulcher by years.

What a disservice to great musicians! But wait. Karajan, a superstar by any measure, had the final say. I understand that he routinely conducted events in the studio as well as on the podium. I suppose I’m suggesting (brace yourself, Bridget) that celebrated musicians contributed to what Harley correctly calls recording’s Dark Age.

And that’s the mystery. With great recordings from stereo’s early years as exemplars, why would superstars and their producers condone sonic dreck? Is this what they wanted posterity to hear? Is it possible, do you think, that they didn’t know any better? Does the audiophile have a firmer understanding of how a good recording should sound than — never mind the Dark Age’s techs — the interpreters themselves? I dwell on Karajan as among the more egregious. Leonard Bernstein was another. I recall a TV documentary about a recording session of — I’m pretty sure it was West Side Story — in which Bernstein directs the guy at the console to raise and lower certain orchestral sections and solos. You cannot do that sort of thing without a grove of microphones and the tracks that support them. And all through this dark period recording engineers like Marc Aubort turned out triumph after triumph, analogue and digital, minimally. His partner Joanna Nickrenz’s obituary occupies the last page of the TAS issue in which Harley’s editorial appears, as another, rather more painful irony. While I’ve no faith in an afterlife, I can say for a certainty that she dwelt in life on the side of the angels.

Harley’s contention that minimalist technique makes for better recordings cannot be gainsaid. Yet here’s where the picture becomes confused. In terms of cost-cutting, I’ve always understood that maximalism’s attraction relates to expense. Sit the musicians down, set up your microphones everywhichwhere, have the folks do their bits, take them off the clock and fuss over balances when all is said and done. Minimal technique involves getting balances right in real time: What you hear is what you’ll get on vinyl, silver, what-have-you. This can be painstaking, and, in the USA, at union scale. That’s less of a problem overseas, but still….

I would not swear in court to any of the conditions I’ve placed on Robert Harley’s good news. I cheer his editorial and the pleasures it’s about. So-so recordings still outnumber gems, but gems there are aplenty, there’s no denying that. I can only guess at what this must do to the anti-CD claque’s morale. (We’re all getting long in the tooth.)

And then, musicians. I remember one especially assertive Stereophile equipment reviewer (since departed) whose claim to authority lay in his musician’s trained ear. He played in an orchestra. His low opinion of an amp I rather liked raised hell in the letters column. The fellow’s credibility was further eroded by a systems feature in which one saw a photo of a humongous speaker system in a rather small listening room. I sometimes wonder whether musicians are any more reliable in the good-sound department than the music lovers who buy their recordings. I’m thinking of a top-drawer violinist some years back whose concerto releases pitted a five-story violin against a sandbox-size orchestra. With the violin next to your ear, I guess that’s the perspective. But I’m in the audience, in fact or in the sweet spot.

Thanks for your attention. I’m off now to listen to some nicely recorded discs.