Happy New Year! Hope you spent last night enjoying your systems with a little glass of bubbly instead of spending a fortune on some party where you got drunk and made a complete fool out of yourself. I'll probably have been sitting in front of my projector watching that dumb ball drop in Times Square waiting for the first baby of the New Year to arrive. Hopefully the TV sound will have been off and I'll have been listening to some great recording.
Some of my spare time this month has been spent listening to a couple of series of recordings out of England. I'd rather report on great recordings from the US of A, but, except for some from Telarc and the Mahler series from the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tillson Thomas, there's very little in the way of American classical recordings. Matter of fact, I can't think of any other orchestral music from any country this side of the Atlantic in the last few years. Why is it that the American classical music recording industry, which in the 50's and 60's produced the best recordings in the world, has fallen to this point? One can only surmise, but its my belief that culture in this and the other American nations has gone to the lowest common denominator, thus there's no money to be made by the large recording companies, especially with the high costs associated with large classical ensembles.
Now don't get your dander up and write me letters that we are the home of jazz, the Broadway musical and cinematic music, because, while these are important musical genres, at least in my opinion they can't compare to a string quartet, never mind a symphony. Besides, name for me the last great musical that was born this side of the Atlantic, or the last great musical film score that will survive for any significant length of time, or even the last great jazz piece that people are humming. While its not my area of expertise, it appears that most of the great jazz recordings are being produced in Europe. So what does that leave us with: Brittany Spears, Ludicrous, and whoever else you want to list as hyped, electronically produced tripe. No wonder the Europeans consider us to be boorish uncultured backwoodsmen. Even if you go to XM or Sirius Satellite radio, they have 100 channels for pop music, with maybe one each for classical and the others mentioned above, and none for Folk music, another American product.
This lack of culture began way back in the 20's, but was pushed back for a while by the influx of European refuges before, during and after WW II.; namely the best and brightest conductors, soloists and orchestra players who rescued American culture for a period of time. Just think of Toscanini, Leinsdorf, Munch, Heifitz, Oistrach, and hundreds of others from the Golden Age of American Recordings, all foreign trained, the recordings of which we still revere and buy over and over again. Unhappily they don't seem to have left much of a legacy. Yes, there were the Bernsteins, Coplands, Hornes and Previns, and we do still have Michael Tillson Thomas, Levine, and Slatkin and we do still have some of the best orchestras in the world that could compare to anything in Europe, but where are their recordings. Except for their concertgoers, and the listeners to the few that do radio transcriptions, who's to know that they exist.
While some of the orchestras do still have children's programs where a small percentage of the local kids can get a taste of classical music, there are no recordings from them on the market that the kids can listen to and identify as their orchestra. Even then, at the several Thursday morning BSO children's concerts I've attended, while the hall has been pretty well packed with school children, few of the kids have truly paid attention to the music, except when they play some transcription of Beatles or Star Wars music. The Bernstein- NYP Children's concerts, which were broadcast nation-wide are a thing of the past. We have truly become the nation of the least common denominator for music.
Is There Any Way Out Of This?
First, there are things we as individuals can do. Work on and for the kids. After all, if we don't get them interested in good music, the next generation will be lost. Go to your local school committee meetings and demand that some of the exorbitant funds that are given to sports programs be given to music departments, and not just for the football marching band. Maybe, if you are a musician, offer to volunteer some of your free time to give some group lessons to kids who are interested. Maybe even donate any of your unused instruments to the music department.
We all have more CD's than we can ever listen to more than once. Donate them to your local public or school library, possibly with that extra CD player and headphones you have hanging around. Some of us have recording equipment available. Take a night out and record some of the local school concerts. Present them with a few copies of the recording or just give the original to one of the group's computer wizzes for copying. I've done all of the above and hope my local music situation has been improved for it.
Second, support you local music groups. While most of them in the US would be considered to be C or D class at best, (I know, I was in several local orchestras and bands in high school and thought them to be A quality at the time) they do act as breeding grounds for local talent, one of which may go on to be the next great musician. Go to the concerts, record them if asked, and donate to their drives.
The above will work from the base up. Now comes the tough part, getting the major orchestras of today to realize that the average person cannot afford their normal ticket prices, and the recording industry can't afford their exorbitant recording fees. Yes, it probably does cost significantly more to go to a rock concert or a sports event than attend a symphony, but people spend their money in other ridiculous ways. If any of you are on the board of directors of one of the major orchestras, see if you can get them to cut their charges for tickets for the bleachers. The Boston Smphony does it for some concerts. I remember as a high school student waiting in line in Symphony Hall on Friday mornings for a couple of hours to get a $2 rush ticket for the back of the second balcony. A couple of those concerts cemented my love of orchestral music.
Also, try to get the orchestra personnel to take salary cuts for recording sessions. Unhappily, at present it costs significantly more for a recording company to produce a CD, SACD, etc. than they will ever make on the sales. Again its a vicious circle. The less interest in the arts, the fewer recordings will be sold. The fewer recordings, the fewer people will be interested in the arts. More orchestras should be selling recordings of their live concerts, like San Francisco and several European orchestras. The recording costs are significantly less. Usually most orchestras do several concerts of the same pieces, so they can pick and choose from the best, and live concerts tend to produce more exciting and more live sounding reproductions.
In addition, most of them have hundreds of recording in their vaults of great concerts from the past done with the same microphones and equipment they used for their releases. It would cost them very little to open the vaults. Just think of the treasures in the Boston Symphony's Transcription Trust of every concert they've done since the 30's. G-d I'd love to have many of those compared to buying another Reiner Scherazade. With today's technology, they'd only have to transcribe the best once to hard drives, send out pamphlets with what's available, allow the buyers to pick and choose among the various offerings and allow the computers to make the copies. Place a generic photo on the front of the sleeve and maybe for a few extra dollars a copy of the original program notes, and voila, something that would be treasured by every buyer. Think of all the money they could make as they'd only need to produce the discs as orders came in. I'd even volunteer to do the transcribing just for the opportunity to hear the original master tapes or discs. Wouldn't you??
While there may be some problems with copyrights with soloists, and maybe some of the players would gripe about wanting a cut of the action, if all could be made to understand that their jobs would be made safer by a strengthened organization, this might become a reality. While I would like to take full credit for the above, I must confess that at least one orchestra has already come up with a similar solution. I am referring to the London Symphony Orchestra. Even if you don't agree that they're one of the best if not the best symphony orchestra out there today, at least go up to their web site to see how superb at least their advertising is. Compared to most American orchestra web pages, this one is laid out with all the information you'd ever want about the orchestra.
The best thing is that not only do they give brief descriptions of the recordings, but one can also listen to excerpts from the recordings, order either CD's at about $12 each or SACD's for $18 each or $27 for two disc sets or download for an ipod the complete recordings in not too bad bit rates. The whole catalog with links to the excerpts can be found by clicking here.
The major reason for looking there is the fact that they've started selling recordings of their best concerts of the seasons since 1998, both in standard CD and the last two seasons also in 5.1 SACD. One can order directly from the site, listen to small excerpts if one has a high-speed line, and if you do not want to order directly from them they list their distributors of the recordings. All of the profits go directly to the orchestra, so if you have problems feeding the worthless record companies who have been fleecing us for years with the exorbitant costs of discs, here is your chance to help a great orchestra and thumb your noses at the middlemen.
This surprised me as many of the recordings and performances I've heard by Haitink have been somewhat lackluster and studied. Here it is as if a lightening bolt had hit him, and the orchestra must have been high on caffeine for all of the performances. Every repeat and coda is taken so one is not short-changed as with so many other compilations. The soloists in both the Triple Concerto and the Ninth Symphony are all first rate and are recorded in perfect perspective to the orchestra. The London Symphony Chorus is also superb and one would almost think that they grew up speaking German.
The microphone view of the orchestra appears to be from about a quarter of the way down the hall. There is just enough ambience information to make one almost feel like one is attending the performance. There is minimal extraneous noise with only one or two coughs heard. Whether the Londoners don't have colds or are less prone to making noise compared to American audiences, or their recording engineers are more adept at being able to edit coughs, I'll leave to your imagination.
There is only one fly in the ointment. The Sixth Symphony, at least on my system has a very strange perspective. While listening, I felt that there was too much information coming from the rear channels on my 7.1 surround system. All of my speakers are perfectly matched horns and they are perfectly balanced with proper front to back perspective as all of the other recordings in this set and all other surround recordings sound perfect. But with the Sixth, it appears that the front channels have been reversed with the back ones, with the front left channel coming from the right rear, etc. Thus, when I turned my listening chair around I was surprised to get a beautiful presentation of the symphony with equal fidelity to the other recordings in the set. No other review of the set has mentioned this anomaly so I'm not sure whether my system is flawed or because on my system the speakers are all perfectly matched and therefore they bring out a flaw in the recording. Interestingly, the Second Symphony recorded at the same time and on the same SACD sounds normal.
Also the system actually sounded somewhat better listening to it using the four rear speakers as the fronts, with somewhat more feeling of depth and width compared to the main speakers. Guess I'll have to do some experimentation and see if the back of the room would actually be better for sound reproduction.
Anyway, all of this set and the four previous recordings purchased are excellent and well worth their cost, so much so that there's a purchase order in now for several more of them. So go up to the site and start evaluating and purchasing. You won't go wrong. Harmonia Mundi is distributing them in the US and mine were purchased through Elusive Disc.
The second set of recordings that have been listened to here over the past few weeks is 11 of a set of over 100 recordings on SACD by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra called the Royal Philharmonic Collection. They are being produced by Membran Music Limited of Hamburg, Germany from recordings done at the C.T.S Studios in London. These recordings were done mostly in the 90's and generally using an early digital multi-mic'ed system. Memebran appears to function much like Classic Records in the US, purchasing the rights to reproduce older recordings.
I don't know whether this set was originally recorded in poor surround sound or they've been played with to obtain surround channels, but I suspect the latter. They also rave about their use of " up to 48 carefully positioned microphones ensure that every instrument can be heard throughout the recording." Oh well, so much for minimalist microphone technique.
Anyway, of the 11 discs also bought through Elusive Disc for $11.95 each, most are good to excellent performances, with excellent conductors and soloists with average to below average sonics with passable ambiance recovery ( but from which of the 48 microphones I'm not sure). While they claim they're DSD recordings, unless they had one of the few Sony machines available back then I suspect they were 16-bit/44kHz that they transcribed to DSD. Anyway, unless the performances are to your liking, and there are certainly plenty of them giving a fairly large sampling of the classical repertoire, save your money and go to the London Symphony Orchestra site, or pick up some of the three channel SACD's of the RCA Golden Oldies being produced in excellent sound for the same price by Soundmirror of Boston, Ma.
Next month we'll be discussing a new professional CD, DVD-A DSD recorder with which I doing my latest project; transcribing about 150 DAT tapes to DVD-A discs. The majority of them are direct 16/48 copies of second-generation 15 ips master tapes from the Golden Era. Unhappily several of them are starting to develop dropouts so they must be saved. This is a cultural imperative, as I'll bet they are closer to the originals than many the record companies have saved.