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Why Classical Sound is Better These Days

by Mike Silverton

In issue 136 of The Absolute Sound, Robert Harley tackled a topic that has fascinated me for years. Harley contended 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.

Reprinted with permission from La Folia Online Music Review
Copyright 1998-2003. All rights reserved.
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of FAME - 2003 Award List

The following 25 recordings have been elected to the CLASSICAL RECORDING INDUSTRY HALL of FAME. They are listed in random order:

1. Prokofiev-10 scenes from "Romeo and Juliet". Czech Philharmonic
Orchestra/Karel Ancerl. Recorded by Supraphon (Prague 8/59). CD# Supraphon SU

2. Beethoven-"Missa Solemnis". Lois Marshall, Nan Merriman, Eugene Conley, Robert Shaw Chorale/NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini. Recorded by RCA (New York 3-30/31 & 4-2/1953). CD# RCA 74321-55837-2.

3. Puccini-"Tosca". Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Milan La Scala Orchestra/ Victor de Sabata. Recorded by EMI (Milan 8/53). CD# EMI CMS 567756 2.

4. Wagner-"Der Ring des Nibelungen". Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kirsten
Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir
Georg Solti. Recorded by Decca (Vienna 1958-65). CD# Decca 455 555 2.

5. Johann Strauss Jr.-"Blue Danube Waltz" arranged for solo piano by Adolf Schulz-Evler. Josef Lhevinne (piano). Recorded by RCA (1928). CD# Naxos 8.110681.

6. FANTASIA- Original Soundtrack. Music by Beethoven, Dukas, Mussorgsky, Ponchielli, Schubert, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky. Walt Disney Studio Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski. Recorded 1938-9. CD# Disney 860 007.

7. Eileen Farrell-"Song Recital" with George Trovillo (piano) and "Arias"with Philharmonia Orchestra/Thomas Schippers. Recorded by EMI (1957). CD# Testament SBT 1073.

8. J.S. Bach-"6 Suites for solo cello". Pablo Casals (cello). Recorded by HMV (1936-9). CD# 7243 566215 2 7.

9. Beethoven-"32 sonatas for solo piano". Artur Schnabel (piano). Recorded by HMV (London 1930's). CD# EMI References 0777 763765 2 3. Also being re issued by Naxos in 2003.

10. Elgar-"Cello Concerto". Jacqueline du Pré (cello), "Sea Pictures", Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano). London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli. Recorded by EMI (London 1965). CD# EMI 7243 556219 2 4.

11. Schubert-"Winterreise". Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano). Recorded by Decca (London 10/63). CD# Decca 466 382 2.

12. Wagner-"Tristan and Isolde". Kirsten Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Josef Greindl, Rudolf Schock. Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwangler. Recorded by EMI (London 6/52). CD# EMI 7243 567621 2.

13. Bizet-"The Pearl Fishers". Duet "Au fond du temple saint". Jussi Bjorling (tenor), Robert Merrill (baritone). RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Renato Cellini. Recorded by RCA (New York 1/3/1951). CD# RCA 74321-63468-2.

14. Berlioz-"Harold in Italy". William Primrose (viola), Boston Symphony
Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky. Recorded by RCA (Boston 11/28/1944). CD# Dutton CDEA5013.

15. Fauré-"Requiem". Victoria de los Angeles, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/André Cluytens.
Recorded by EMI (Paris 1962). CD# EMI 7243 566894 2 8.

16. Beethoven-"Symphony #5". Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber. Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon (Vienna 1974). CD# DG 447 400 2.

17. J.S. Bach-"Goldberg Variations". Glenn Gould (piano). Recorded by
Columbia (New York 1955). CD# Sony S3K87703.

18. Grieg-"20 Lyric pieces for piano". Emil Gilels (piano). Recorded by
Deutsche Grammophon (Berlin 6/74). CD# DG 449 721 2.

19. Mendelssohn-"Symphony #3 (Scottish) and Fingal's Cave Overture". London Symphony Orchestra/Peter Maag. Recorded by Decca (London 4/60). CD# Decca 443 578 2.

20. Sibelius- "Violin Concerto". Jascha Heifetz (violin), Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Walter Hendl. Recorded by RCA (Chicago 1959). CD# RCA 74321-63470-2.

21. Kreisler-"Henryk Szeryng performs music of Fritz Kreisler". Henryk
Szeryng (violin), Charles Reiner (piano). Recorded by Mercury (New York 1/63). CD# Mercury 434 351 2.

22. Mahler-"Symphony #4". Jo Vincent (soprano), Concertgebouw
Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg. Recorded by the Dutch Radio (Amsterdam 1939). CD# Philips Dutch Masters 462 096 2.

23. Mahler-"Das Lied von der Erde". Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Julius
Patzak (tenor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter. Recorded by Decca (Vienna 5/52). CD# Decca 466 576 2.

24. Bartok-"The 6 string quartets". Emerson String Quartet. Recorded by
Deutsche Grammophon (1988). CD# DG 423 657 2.

25. Hugo Wolf-"22 lieder". Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Wilhelm
Furtwangler (piano). Recorded by EMI (Salzburg 8/12/53). CD# EMI 7243 567570

Over 200 individuals sent in nominations for the 2003 awards. More than 70 record companies from around the world sent in recordings for consideration. Thank you all!

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