Friday, August 22, 2008

Late-Summer Heavy Rotation

(1) Roy Orbison - All-Time Greatest Hits (MFSL)
This record seems to have a magnetic pull for audiophile labels: it was done on DCC with Steve Hoffman mastering it, and now it's out on Mobile Fidelity (mastered by Rob LoVerde and Shawn Britton). The MFSL release is louder than Hoffman's DCC set, but, when push comes to shove, both sound pretty darned good. As to the music: if you're not familiar with at least some of Orbison's tracks, then you're either a horrible space monster from the year 3000 or you're not paying attention. Great stuff. It doesn't need much commentary.

(2) Johann Sebastian Bach - Motetten (Hilliard Ensemble, ECM)
Most audiophile releases of pop records would die happy deaths if they could sound this good. The Hilliard Ensemble, despite doing one-voice-per-part, unaccompanied performances of these pieces, of which BWV 225, "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," is the showpiece, though BWV 227 receives its due, is intelligent and convincing in its interpretation. These motets are cornerstones of the Western canon (either individually, since, as the booklet notes, Richard Wagner had nice things to say about BWV 225), but they're durable enough to take a range of interpretations. ECM's sound is wonderful, though whether you want to pay ECM prices is up to you.

(3) Joe Pass - Virtuoso (Cisco/JVC XRCD)
This is a classic of the jazz guitar repertoire, and rightly so. The sound is pretty darned good, especially on something with reasonably good resolution and good treble response (e.g., Etymotics ER-4P, though the wood-bodied Grados, e.g., RS-2, sound nice with this stuff), and the performances are great. Coming in 1973, with fusion at the height of its power, this must have been like a kick in the teeth for all the right reasons.

(4) Bob Dylan - At Budokan (Columbia)
While the foregoing are pretty much unquestionably good records, Dylan's document of the 1978 tour is not so beloved (up there with Self-Portrait on the dislike-o-meter). Dylan's perpetual revising and reconsidering his tracks did not necessarily lead to lurching, Elvis-style rockers that never went out of their way to sound like the originals. Bad move, Bob. Fanatical fans don't seem like they're the first to like the idea of Vegas-tinted big-band interpretations of songs they know by heart. It's not as bad as you'd think, though. Some tracks, like "Shelter from the Storm," "Simple Twist of Fate," and "I Want You," come off looking pretty nice in their new clothes. Others could have done without Bob's ministrations and reorchestrations. Not for everyone.

(5) Steely Dan - Gaucho (DVD-A, MCA)
The Steely Dan remasters aren't universally beloved, but the DVD-A is generally liked. It was remastered for DVD-A back when the engineers couldn't do some of the standard tricks that they use on CDs. This isn't the Dan's best record, though I really dig it most of the time, but, sonically speaking, they were at the top of their game (with no DBX foul-ups like Katy Lied). It's a great hi-res release, but, unless you're more into sound than music, which, while soulless and horrible, is fine by me, don't start your Steely Dan collection with Gaucho in any format.

(6) The Louvin Brothers - When I Stop Dreaming: The Best Of (Razor and Tie)
Mastered by Steve Hoffman, this set appeals to a certain crowd. It should appeal to just about everyone. I'll admit that it sounds pretty darned good, but coming from serious art-music, what is audiophile for pop connoisseurs doesn't necessarily make the grade. Regardless, this is just good, old-fashioned country music (heavy on mandolin, which may or may not be your stringed instrument of choice). Their close harmony style might not be for everyone, but it cannot be denied that these guys were good. Really good, and that's from someone who isn't a big C&W fan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The bleeding edge of the 1957 Kempe Ring

After a missed visit by the UPS carrier and a late-evening visit to the local UPS facility, I have the Testament release of Rudolf Kempe's 1957 Covent Garden Ring. I have a final tomorrow in my criminal law class, so I really don't have the time or the inclination to sink my teeth deeply into this set.

My first impressions, however, are that this isn't a bad set. The 1957-vintage mono sound isn't terrible. Indeed, it sounds marginally better than the Orfeo release of Knappertsbusch's 1956 Bayreuth Ring. It's reasonably detailed and clear, though there is some hiss, so if that bothers you, then you really should consider something else.

The vocal and orchestral contributions? They definitely sound like a Golden Age cast and an orchestra directed by Rudolf Kempe. I don't know too much about the staging for the performances whence this set comes, so some of the balance issues remain mysterious to me. Not having Kempe's Rheingold excerpts from Les Introuvables du Ring, I cannot make much of a comparison, but if this set spurs some interest, maybe EMI will put that back out (much like they did with the Hotter/Nilsson/L.Ludwig Walküre scenes).

More as I have the time to develop it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

High fidelity recordings (if it's 1957)

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that audiophiles are weird.

Seriously. Go, at your first convenience (i.e., after finishing this post), and check out some of the major audiophile message boards. Did you know that a well-nigh unavailable West German pressing from 1985 of your favorite record is, hands down, the best nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Well, it is. So we're told. There's also a progression from the latest original-engineer remasters being the best to the ones from ten years ago to the ones from Japan to the ones from West Germany (If the MFSL/DCC issue from 1992 isn't the best). Or some such similar progression.

While I am certainly no fan of over-compressed, super-bright, and painfully loud recordings or botches passing themselves off as remasters, I am forced to say that, for 80% of music out there, it doesn't really matter. The Mobile Fidelity release of Who Are You by The Who (UDCD 561, June 1992) might be the best release of that record - and there is some debate - but that's not saying much. (I should note that "Sister Disco," "Trick of the Light," and the eponymous track are pretty enjoyable, but that's neither here nor there.) Releases such as this are, more or less, triage operations: they'll make the records sound as good as they can for people who care.

The two areas of music, however, where audiophile standards matter are, of course, jazz and serious art-music (i.e., classical). Scott La Faro's work with Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard in 1961 (Sunday at the Village Vanguard) should sound good. So should, for that matter, Pierre Fournier's traversal of the Bach cello suites. In the case of 'classical,' the dynamic range and various orchestral - and human - voices require engineering that would blow most "audiophile" pop releases out of the water. Put simply, where acoustic instruments matter so shall there also be first-rate recording work.

Now, this isn't a universal maxim, even among so-called "demonstration quality" records. Let's remember Zubin Mehta's LAPO Planets on Decca, which is spot-miked to the point of perversity, though some folks like to use it to show off their equipment. That's a noble-enough cause, especially in modern society, but let's not pretend it sounds natural or even particularly good. Of course, there are some records that get the treatment that deserve it, like Lovro von Matačić's 1967 Bruckner 7th with the Czech Philharmonic, which received the JVC XRCD24 treatment - though the set is Japanese and usually available only through specialty shops (though it's still cheaper here than in Europe). In other words, the baseline sound for 'classical' releases is very good, but "audiophile" recordings are more of a mixed bag.

Except in two cases: RCA's excellent Living Stereo reissue series and what of Decca's Mercury Living Presence project remains. Since UMG has been so slipshod with the Living Presence reissues (and since the redbook layers are identical), I'm just going to talk about the regular CD reissue series from the 1990s. They were supervised by Wilma Cozart Fine, who played a not-insubstantial role in the initial releases. The discs, which of them you can find is largely up to you - I've had good luck at various Barnes and Noble stores, are relatively cheap, mastered intelligently, and better than good. Now, whether or not you really have to have Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble playing a transcription of the finale from Rheingold is up to you, but there are some gems among the discs (Starker's Bach cello suites are well-regarded, and I'm a big fan of Byron Janis' Pictures at an Exhibition). The sound is as good as one could want.

Another instance of this is the RCA Living Stereo SACD rerelease series. I don't know if they went back and polished up the redbook mastering from the 1990s CD series, but, even if they didn't, it sounds great. Clearly, the producers and engineers cared about sound and capturing great conductors like Fritz Reiner and Charles Munch with ensembles like the CSO and the BSO. Pick up Munch's 1959 Saint-Saens 3rd symphony, and wait for the four-hands piano in the Maestoso (e.g., rehearsal figure S on p. 126 of the Int. Music Co. score). It's nice. The RCA catalog is full of moments like that, which is to say music that's played competently and recorded wonderfully. Of course, having Fritz Reiner and Charles Munch around never hurt anything or anyone.

The main draw for the RCA SACDs is, of course, the three-track SACD layer, which reproduces the three-track masters used to get the "Living Stereo" sound. Whether that's your thing is, necessarily, your decision. Frankly, the vagaries of multichannel sound have eluded me to date, not least because most stereo recordings do a pretty good job of creating a soundstage, and the Living Stereo (and Living Presence) stereo mixdowns do a better job than most. Really, reference-quality, at least to me, means that the vector doesn't get in the way of the information it communicates - i.e., transparency. While, if you take time to listen critically, the sound is pretty darned good, the Living Stereo and Living Presence sets have sound that doesn't get in the way.

To put it another way, they, as a consequence of not using thirty tracks, sound pretty natural.

They're also relatively cheap. Oh, glorious amortization, especially when it took place long before I was born.

Putting it all back together, the RCA Living Stereo sets - in particular - sound better than pretty much every pop release out there and a good number of 'classical' discs, they've got great conductors and ensembles, and they're priced to sell. If you're serious about audiophile-quality sound, you might as well start here (assuming you're into serious music), since these provide a good introduction (albeit a half-century old) to the idea.

Enough of my gassing, though.