Path to Epiphany (2005) Metaxas Concert Sampler

by | Apr 8, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Path to Epiphany (2005) – Metaxas Concert Sampler

Video featuring 19 Australian jazz, classical and folk performers
Studio: Kostas Metaxas Recordings [www.metaxas.com]
Video: Downconverted from HD to 16:9 widescreen
Audio: PCM stereo from purist analog tape originals
Length: 2 hours 19 minutes
Rating: ****


Performers (one complete selection each):
Sam Keevers & Jamie Oehler
Benaud Trio (movt. Dvorak “Dumky” Trio)
Mike Nock Trio
Merlyn Quaife, soprano
Leigh Barker Quintet
Tailem Quartet (Haydn “Fifths” Quartet)
Ailison Wedding, vocals
Duo Sol (violin & piano)
Jenny Game-Lopata Quintet
Johanna Selleck (cond. a piano quartet)
Aaron Searle Quintet
Zulya Kamalova (Russian folk music)
Peter Knight Sextet
Sun Rae (piano & string quartet)
Allan Browne Quintet
Hopkins, Gander & Sario (piano trio)
Mountain Ash (folk music ens.)
Daniel Gassin Trio (piano trio)
Julien Wilson Trio (sax/accordion/guitar)

We’ve reviewed some of the previous audio-only DVDs from Metaxas Audio – an Australian audio guru and modifier of Stellavox portable recorders (the other Swiss-made professional recorder besides Nagra and not made since the late 1980s). Kostas Metaxas found that none of the equivalent professional digital recorders matched the sound quality of his modified Stellavoxs SM8 and TD9.  In an evolution somewhat similar to the California label Aix Records, Metaxas has upgraded the video aspect of his purist recordings to the point that these 19 selections were all shot on hi-def 1920 x 1080i video and then Downconverted to 720 x 576i widescreen for this DVD. (They had to be severely compressed to fit all on one DVD but the Australian producer is all ready now for the new hi-def DVD formats.)  The image quality was quite hi-def on both my 53-inch Pioneer RPTV and on my iMac when set at Normal Screen. However, when I enlarged to fill the 20-inch iMac LCD screen it became a bit soft focus. The performers are mostly shot from some distance away and often from above – as seen in this insert frame of the Mike Nock Trio. This necessitates the mics being set mostly some distance away, out of the picture area, but that fits in fine with the purist recording goals. The venue for the videos is all the same, the high-ceilinged BMW EDGE concert auditorium in Melbourne’s Federation Square. Some of the videos are shot in daytime and others at night. The videos are a co-production between Metaxas and the mostly Australian musicians, sharing revenues on a 50/50 basis.

It is the audio side of the equation that is the primary focus of Kostas Metaxas. His KM ultra-resolution “Purist Recordings” are miked in stereo using omni B & K 4135 reference mikes feeding directly (no mixer) into heavily-modified Stellavox SM8 recorders running at 15 ips tape speed. He describes the procedure as the same as recordings were made in the late 50s/early 60s during the Golden Years of stereo recording. Other Neumann and Earthworks mikes are sometimes used, and Metaxas bought a large quantity of BASF 468 1/4-inch tape. (For a time there no one on the planet was manufacturing blank recording tape any longer, but there is now a factory back in operation.)  He feels that the combination of purist stereo miking and the modified Stellavox produces some of the most transparent recording quality in the world. No compression, limiting, added reverberation or EQ is used.

Of course for DVD playback the purist analog tapes must still be converted in a computer to either 48K of 96K PCM.  Metaxas strove to reduce the inevitable losses as much as possible.  He found that whenever any processing or adjustments were done while in the digital domain the pristine sonics of the analog original was seriously compromised. (Could that be why so many standard CDs still sound so poor?)  So he uses only the direct-thru path to convert his analog tapes to PCM, not even fading in and out at the beginning and end of selections. (This is painfully obvious at the conclusion of each selection when one hears one or two loud claps from one person before the sound is suddenly cut off – evidently the recording engineer applauding!)

My comments on the recording qualities of the previous audio-only DVDs we reviewed two years ago apply as well to these videos:  1) MAR04;  2) MAY04; 3) SEP04.   I’m not sure I agree with the comparison to the Golden Age recordings such as the Living Stereos, since those were nearly all symphony orchestras and extremely close-miked on the soloists when there were any.  Metaxas’ piano trio recordings – whether classical or jazz piano trios – certainly don’t suffer from 50-foot-wide grand pianos like Rubinstein in Living Stereo.  The Metaxas chamber ensembles are very cleanly reproduced, with extremely natural ambiance of the large recording space. The quietest notes have a naturalness and never sound brought up in level via compression techniques as on most recordings. A few of the soloists do sound somewhat off-mike, such as the soprano, where no mikes are visible in the video.  But when the jazz vocalists have a mike directly in front of them the balance is more such as we are accustomed to. Being partial to surround sound for music, I tried the ProLogic II option on my Sunfire preamp.  I have to admit the pristine sonic “bloom” of Metaxas’ analog stereo recordings suffered and I returned to a direct two-channel feed.  The realism of center-placed instruments is often uncanny in spite of the phantom center channel approach (if you sit fairly centered of course).

The five classical selections – one is rather a third-stream effort – are well-performed, more distantly recorded and more solidly placed and spaced out on the stereo soundstage than the average commercial recording. The jazz selections, which are the preponderance of the collection, are nearly all rather introspective original tunes and improvisations in something akin to the ECM label style of Scandinavian spareness – only in this case it’s Southern Australian spareness. The playing is all on a high level of creativity and a number of unusual instrumental touches and combinations assure plenty of variety. Two of the ensembles have accordion, one has marimba and unusual percussion and another quintet with a front line of trumpet and sax has a Vietnamese koto-like instrument in a solo.

Before receiving the final DVD pressing I was sent a DVD-R of the disc. It played fine on my Integra 10.5 universal player, but strangely the final pressing refused to play there, although it plays fine on a Toshiba DVD player and in both my Macs. Some confusion in keeping notes about the different selections was engendered by changes in the programming between the two discs.  After some comparison I began to understand why certain selections were edited out of the final collection. One, for example, was a very spare, slow, but beautiful piano trio improvisation, except that the pianist seemed to be doing a Keith Jarrett parody – head down over the keyboard, nose almost touching the keys.  I would have frankly also lost the soprano in the Puccini aria, but aside from that one I found all the selections most enjoyable, and after all there is always the chapter advance button.

– John Sunier

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