Saturday, March 31, 2007

Wiener Blues

Apparently, there is another go-'round on the Wiener Philharmoniker's hiring practices.

Here's the "problem."
Here's the "critique."
Here's another view.
And, another.

To those who would complain, silly as they are, they should take it up with the Austrian Nationalrat or the Viennese arts commissars. Clearly, the Austrians don't have a problem with the Wiener Philharmoniker's hiring practices. This isn't an issue of bigotry, sorry Kinder; this is an issue of a "private" concert society deciding its composition for itself. In an afternoon, this problem could be solved. The Austrian authorities could impose a no-dual-membership requirement on the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra, unless they (i.e., the WSO members in charge of the WP) "liberalized" their hiring policies.

Again: it's culturally presumptuous to assume that American notions of hiring should be imposed on anyone else. The Austrians have a right to sort this out for themselves, and bigotry has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

More on headphones, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love graphs

I think I've covered my major listening source before, but it's probably high time to do it again. I like headphones. To my mind, if you can live with the reduced sound-stage, they provide better quality-per-dollar than speaker setups, especially with high-end headphones. There is also the portability and convenience thing. I live in a dorm room, though it's nice and comfy for one person, cramming in a high-quality speaker system would be difficult. Also, the overture to Don Giovanni - in high quality and at high volume - would not sit well with my colleagues.

Travel, for what it's worth, merits headphones. I rather like the idea of having Wagner, Mahler, Mozart, Bach, and the rest in my pocket as I soldier through the drudgery of extended travel. It probably isn't what any of them intended, but that's the shakes. Also, when working in the library, study-areas, or even my own room - it's nice to have headphones and the sense of isolation that they provide.

Now, I am probably just going to go through the headphones I use in order and make my comments there. I am also going to include some graphs and tables explaining the specific nature of the 'phones.

1. Grado SR225
These are my primary headphones. First, a word of caution about Grados: they are wildly divisive within the headphone aficionado community. Either you love the sound or you don't. John Grado, who took over the business from his uncle, Joseph Grado, makes headphones that he wants to make. Let's look at the frequency response table for the SR225s (compared to the new flagship Grado GS1000),

As you can see, the deep bass is slightly recessed, the mid-bass has a hump, back to recession for the midrange, and trebles are forward and bright. This is the Grado sound. However, what this graph can't show you is the naturalness and clarity in the reproduction of strings and woodwinds. Brass is bright and a little forward, too. The sound-stage is aggressive. You feel like you're on stage, or very close to it.

However, compared to the GS1000, they are a bit more laid-back. All Grados tend to be a little dry and (perhaps) cold. These don't sound like syrup. They are phones with a fast attack and quick fade. They are, for the lack of a better word, barnstormers.

These 'phones are often called the perfect rock 'phones. I would agree. For classical, or Kunstmusik, as it would seem more apropos to say, they work splendidly. They are airy, detailed, and bright (to the point of fatigue, if you aren't used to them). I like them for classical, going against prevailing Sennheiser-logic, because they are bright, forward, and fast. These are muscular 'phones, and they make their use known. John Grado has made it clear that he designs 'phones fun to listen to. If I wanted a bland, line-level reproduction, I'd skip reproduction and read an orchestral score.

Ergonomics-wise, they are not that great. They have foam bowl ear-pads, which can be a bit much, and a metal headband that compresses a little bit. I love these 'phones, but they are open-design (sound on both sides of the driver leaks in both directions), and they are best-suited to home listening.

2. Sennheiser PX 100
These might be the best portable open headphones on the market. They are light, comfortable, and fun to listen to - even over long periods of time. Let's begin by looking at the FR curve,

I've put the Sennheiser flagship HD 650 up there, too, so you can see some market comparison. They both have recessed bass (with a mid-bass hump), pretty flat mids, and treble all over the place. The Sennheiser house sound is a veiled, detailed one that most folks prefer for classical. I like Grado, but that's for my reasons above. The PX 100s are nice for portable listening, but they are open-design. That - in general - lends to airy sound, but it also allows for a lot bleed. These are not travel, noisy-place, or even really quiet place 'phones.

As far as classical, I confess that the Sennheiser sound doesn't do it for me. I like the PX 100s, and they are splendid cans. However, the veiled, laid-back sound just isn't impressive. I like my music to have a little impact, and I just don't get it from Sennheiser. However, that's my problem. For all I know, I could be way off and violating the vision of the composer.

Ultimately, these are detailed, precise, and portable headphones. They really can't compete with $300-500 headphones from Sennheiser or Grado, but they do their job beautifully.

3. Shure E2c
These are nice portable, in-ear monitors. They are not particularly popular with the headphone community, but I like them. I'll compare them to the flagship Shure E500,

They are bassy. That is obvious, as is the fact that the mids and trebles are a bit recessed. You can see that the drivers are pretty close, especially in the bass and mid-range. The E500 is a little smoother and less bright in the high trebles, but that's not the problem. For most listeners, the E2c is like listening to music through a tube. One look at their design, and you'll see why. I've never noticed it, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about such things. Frankly, for my tastes, most 'phones fall flat compared to the Grados.

Honestly, and this is just personal commentary, there is a tendency in the community to find faults with 'phones that don't match up the prevailing attitudes and tastes of the majority. Etymotics, for the moment, seem to the du jour (FOTM, anyone?) preference at a couple of websites. That's no slur, just a fact.

They are, also, maybe a little bland. For the bass and mid-range, they are pretty flat and fairly close to 0 dB. Their treble, recessed of the peak of 5 dB, isn't terribly forward. Shure talks about studio-quality sound, and I believe it (though I would never use these to master a record). However, a "kinda-sorta" boring sound just isn't for me. The 'phones provide good isolation, good sound (detailed but not clinical); however, I like the airy sound of the Grados and Sennheisers. These are my portable (all trades) 'phones, and I like them, but I doubt I'd listen to them if I could listen to the Sennheisers or Grados. Also, if you like to listen to music while you sleep (I do), these do a nice job for that.

Here are some links:

Grado SR 225. HeadRoom (a retailer I very much like), Grado Labs
Sennheiser PX 100. HeadRoom, Sennheiser
Shure E2c. HeadRoom, Shure

Monday, March 12, 2007

Here's hoping...

A.C. Douglas steps, to my mind, briefly out of character in praising Wieland Wagner's 1952 production of Meistersinger:

Whomever might have directed the Met's Meistersinger, I suspect he's no match for Wieland Wagner in that capacity, and much as I admire and am impressed with the Wagner conductor James Levine has lately become, he's no match for Knappertsbusch in that capacity — few conductors are — and Kna makes this score in its musical and dramatic totality come alive in a way that the experiencing of it was for me almost Damascene — so much so that I'm now for the first time contemplating purchasing a full score of Meistersinger, and immersing myself in it completely as I have with the other mature Wagner operas.

At first, I did a double-take, nearing a spit-take, when I saw that. However, a quick check of Vincent Vargas' helpful Wagner Operas site told me that 1956 was the premiere of the abstract, stylized Meistersinger that so enraged the Green Hill faithful. I suppose, then, that the 1952 Festspiele used an older production, but it's hard to imagine not using a modified version of the wartime production, since '51 was the inaugural postwar running.

Let's hope that's the case. It would really make waves were A.C. Douglas to praise Wieland's later work - especially given his public distaste for the progenitor of the "Eurotrash" Regietheater directors of the current age. Also, he might want to check out Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1943 recording at Bayreuth. The sound is passable, but not great at all, and there are some substantial lacunae. However, Furtwängler had a way with Wagner (and most composers) that was and is inimitable.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Von Karajan and the '51 Walküre

In Borders last week, I saw that Herbert von Karajan's 1951 EMI recording of Act 3 of Die Walküre has made its way back onto the market in a Great Recordings of the 20th Century release. Perhaps I'm wrong, but this release is - perhaps - a response to the 1955 Keilberth Ring on Testament. In any event, this is a splendid development. The number of golden age tapes lingering around the vaults of the major companies - especially those recording at Bayreuth -

Of course, the most famous issue from the 1951 Festspiele - the first after the war - is Furtwängler's incandescent Beethoven 9th. Knappertsbusch's Parsifal isn't far behind, but the 1962 Philips record is probably more famous. As I recall, and I am sure that someone will correct me, Von Karajan and Knappertsbusch split the Ring performances in '51. This Walküre has Astrid Varnay singing the eponymous role and Leonie Rysanek singing Sieglinde. Compared to Von Karajan's Deutsche Grammophon set, this is traditional Wagner.

No "chamber Wagner," not as though one could get away with that on the Green Hill before 1967, or - safely - 1976. In fact, compared to the light touch and stripped-down textures of the later recordings, the Bayreuth Walküre is thrilling and muscular. His timings are not much off Solti's benchmarks. This goes to prove my point that before 1965 (though I've long said 1975), Von Karajan was indeed das Wunder Karajan. There is, though, a terminus post quem where Von Karajan insisted on glossy sound and light textures. Of course, for Bruckner, that works fine; Wagner is a different beast.

This is, hopefully I think, the herald of re-releases coming from major labels. Testament's product is hobbled by a price tag that, shall we say, keeps Keilberth in the hands of the aficionados. After years of Wagner interpreted by those who have less than competence to do so, maybe it's time to bring the golden age back.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Unter Donner und Blitz

It seems another thrashing of the dead Wiener Philharmoniker horse is making its rounds. (Here and here)

Even your humble author has weighed in on the matter. I'm sorry, but unless the Viennese or Austrian authorities are willing to impose the change by legislation or by funding cuts to the Staatsoper (indirectly forcing the members to comply), there is simply nothing to be done. I might agree with this statement,

A decade after it supposedly committed itself to entering the 21st century, I believe that the Vienna Philharmonic has relinquished its claim to serious consideration as a dynamic cultural organization.

Not, though, because they don't like women at the desks or because they're too conservative. The first is unfortunate and not at all our way of doing things, but - alas - if the Austrian cultural czars were that bothered, they'd do something. Therefore, I conclude they aren't that bothered. The second? Give me a break.

No, I agree simply because I am not sure how in touch they are with the Mitteleuropa tradition with which they are so frequently associated. Their pre-1938 and post-1945 sounds differ; they've worked with a diverse crew of conductors; they've added and (undoubtedly) subtracted from their repertoire. Listen to the famous Bruno Walter recordings, i.e., the big two, and hear the Wiener Philharmoniker that made its name. Listen after 1945, and the voice is still there, just quieter. Ever quieter. To my mind, the tradition of central Europe that made the WP what it is claimed to be was lost or stored in a closet.

Also, the virtuoso American orchestras are proving that they are by no means second-rate. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, and - increasingly - the Los Angeles Philharmonic are showing themselves the equals or betters of their Teutonic colleagues. In fact, I might say that the Wiener Philharmoniker isn't a dynamic cultural force because it isn't conservative enough. It isn't the link to the past that it once was, and it doesn't have a reputation for innovation. They have dined out on the past more than they've actually provided a tangible link with it. If you are going to keep the past alive, you have to live in the past. Not just say, "Well, we have tradition." You have to live that tradition.

For better or for worse. That judgment is, necessarily, left to better minds than mine.

Better late than never

Your humble author has been called out, to wit:

Sieglinde comes out of hiding, announcing herself with a new design and a tag. The game: pick up the nearest book, turn to page 123, and copy the 5th, 6th and 7th sentences. The result:

"Thus the R2 also can be expressed as one minus the ratio of the sum of squared residuals to the total sum of squares: R2 = 1 - (SSR/TSS). Finally, the R2 of the regression of Y on the single regressor X is the square of the correlation coefficient between Y and X. The R2 ranges between zero and one."

That's from a swell read entitled Introduction to Econometrics, by James H. Stock and Mark W. Watson.

I tag Maury, Chalkenteros, and Mr. Patrick J. Smith.

Fair enough:

A week later when Sebastian came up for trial he was fined ten pounds. The newspapers reported it with painful prominence, one of them under the ironic headline: "Marquis's Son Unused to Wine." The magistrate said that it was only though the prompt action of the police that he was not up on a grave charge..."It is purely by good fortune that you do not bear the responsibility of a serious accident..."

From? Waugh's incomparable Brideshead Revisited. Concerning? One of the incidents that prompts Lord Sebastian Flyte's decline into (?) his own special brand holiness. I really should post my thoughts on Brideshead; I confess: I have spent more time with T.S. Eliot, Gore Vidal, and the plethora of social historians that make up my coursework these days than with Mr. Waugh.

Alex, though, should thank his lucky stars that my abstract algebra book is on the other side of my room.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Justified? Probably not.

This review, just posted to, mentions John Tomlinson's Hagen as a primary attractor to Haitink's Götterdämmerung. I wholeheartedly agree.

John Tomlinson's Hagen is a supremely nasty character--three-dimensional and utterly evil--and stunningly sung.

Frankly, that performance is the only good reason to buy the set. Tomlinson is, in my mind, the single greatest Wagnerian bass of modernity. In fact, you might say that the canon is Friedrich Schorr, Hans Hotter, and John Tomlinson. James Morris is boring, and that's generous. Theo Adam was, how does one say, off more than he was on; in fact, the 1967 Bayreuth Ring can count Adam as a serious liability.

Haitink's cycle is up against Levine and Barenboim. All things considered, Barenboim comes out first on all counts, Levine is a solid second, and Haitink straggles in at third. The final music-drama is worth the effort; otherwise, it is probably best to stick with Barenboim. Still, it's nice to see Tomlinson get the vast credit he deserves.