For many years it was an article of faith with many listeners that each and
every record had a precisely correct listening level. With the benefit of 20/20
hindsight you can see that this might have more to do with the high-powered! low-efficiency systems prevalent at the time, as well as the quality of the vinyl.
The best current speaker systems, with their much more even spectral balance and lower levels of stored energy, are far less volume dependent as well as
much more satisfying at lower levels.
But I recently encountered another example of this phenomenon. Paying
my first visit to the newly refurbished Festival Hall, the first half of the concert featured
Violin Concerto, surely one of the most romantically lush and richly hued of compositions. Yet, following on from the
Coq d’Or, the scaled back orchestra (Rimsky did like to augment his orchestral nether
regions) balanced against the solo instrument, sounded flat and bland, the soloist thin and reedy, the whole lacking sweep and drama. Oh dear,
I thought, row CC is clearly not the place to be. F or G would have been more like it.
But after the interval we were treated to a fantastic performance of
the Tanayev 4th Symphony — with the orchestra restored to something approaching the scale of its Rimsky complement, and unrestrained by the
niceties of not swamping a soloist. CC was just fine for this, the music easily
filling the hall, the orchestra having more than enough power and substance to bridge
the dynamic compression” so evident in the Tchaikovsky, even in the quieter passages.
So next time your system sounds a little flat
and you are reaching for the volume control, just thank your lucky stars that art doesn’t have to
follow life — or vice versa. And I’ll thank mine that the next Concerto I’ll be hearing at the Festival
Hall involves Martha Argerich doing her worst to a very large piano.