As I get older, I find myself buying fewer and fewer recordings. Three hundred vinyl left over after culling a couple thousand, 600 CDs, 100 classical DVDs and 300 hours of digital copies of studio analog tapes should be sufficient for any sane individual. But then who said audiophiles are sane. I know of one collector with several thousand recordings who is still pursuing more.
In addition, all of the great performers from the past century are gone. While there are some excellent classical artists and orchestras around today, which, if any, can compare to Horowitz, Toscanini, Munch, Oistrach, etc. They had either direct contact with the composers or were taught by their students, and were brought up at a time when the artist had to mature before being brought into the concert hall. They also suffered through one or two world wars and a depression, and many were forced to flee their homelands for the safety of England and the USA. Artists truly have to suffer to mature their ability to transmit the musicís feelings.
The recording engineers also went through extensive training in microphone usage, placement and for the most part had both musical and electronics training. They werenít as bothered by the pencil pushers who these days demand impossible recording schedules to improve the bottom line. They also had the advantage of using tube microphones and analog recording equipment which passed a more musical and coherent signal than early digital, and electricity that wasnít screwed up by all of the noise being transmitted on the AC wiring these days. While analog added some background noise which was a drawback, it acted more effectively than digitalís dither to capture the lowest volume information that reproduces the air between instruments and the concert hall that makes recording more alive.
So what would make an old geezer like me spring for any new digital recordings by less than mature performers, recorded by engineers without any classical music background and done in digital? It would have to be an improvement in either sound quality or the addition of pristine video to see the performance as it was recorded. That leaves out CD or DAT, as 16/44 or 48 kHz recordings, while silent, just donít measure up to the best of analog, either through vinyl or especially analog master tapes. It also leaves out Laser Disc, video cassettes and DVDs, as they are recorded in either 16/48 or even worse, Dolby Digital or DTS.
Also, for the most part, even the better recording mediums of 24/88 or 96, or even 176 and 192 kHz, can still leave something to be desired if they are recorded in the typical modern dry concert hall by an engineer who doesnít understand the medium or the message, with a pencil pusher behind him counting out the minutes taken, and performers with unions requiring minimal recording times with time and a half for overtime. Some orchestras are overcoming these added expenses and the pencil pushers by recording, producing and selling their own recordings, cutting out the big money-sucking studios. In addition the recordings are being done in high definition surround of live concert performances with their added excitement and live ambiance.
Adding high definition video to the mix certainly adds sufficiently to the experience to make me think of purchasing a new recording by well regarded musicians. On the other hand, I have audiophile friends who abhor adding the video to the recording as they feel it distracts from the experience. This is due to the fact that the cinematographers feel that they have to move the camera image around every few seconds to keep the viewer awake, when in actuality no-one at a live classical concert darts his eyes around every few seconds from musician to musician. I personally donít find this offensive and actually like to see the soloists in action but understand that some individuals could be upset by the difference between the visual and aural image. Thus, to me, the optimal presentation available today and in the near future on disc will be Blu-ray 1080P video recordings either in 24-bit/96kHz PCM or DTS Master Audio 5.1 or 7.1 surround, especially for opera recordings and live orchestra concert performances.
Another possibility of course will be high definition downloads. Unhappily, at present all of the downloads Iíve been able to find are two channel, with the surrounds stripped out for just a small price difference than the original multi-channels, and with 88 or 96 kHz bit rates. And I refuse to spend $45 for a certain companyís 172 kHz multi-channel DVDís that can be stored and played back on a computer, much less $100 or more for another companyís analog tape recordings.
First, a caveat! I am not a music critic. My musical training consisted of French horn playing in high school in various local city orchestras and bands. I do not consider myself to be at the level of the reviewers on the music side of this magazine, but I do know what I enjoy and know what an orchestra should sound like in a concert hall, having played with many organizations, and having been to concerts at Bostonís Symphony Hall, New Yorkís Carnegie and Fisher, Viennaís Musikverein, Chicagoís, Denverís and Atlantaís and probably 20 others. Take my comments in that vein.
A classic example of orchestras doing their own recording and sales are two new recordings by the Boston Symphony with James Levine doing Ravelís Daphnis and Chloe and Brahms German Requiem in 5.1 DSD surround. They and others can be bought directly from the BSO for $17 each plus postage, with all funds going to support the orchestra. Interestingly, my favorite Daphnis had been the 1955 BSO recording with Charles Munch and favorite Brahms Requiem had been Levineís with the Chicago Symphony. These two have superseded them primarily for their sonics, which are some of the best Iíve heard on SACD, but also for their artistry. (Thank you James Levine for rescuing the BSO from the mediocrity of the past 25 years.)
Another set of outstanding SACDs done in concert is the Tillson Thomas, San Francisco Orchestra Mahler Cycle. Iíve reviewed a couple in previous articles and am purchasing them as I can afford, with each that Iíve purchased so far being well worth the funds. You can either buy them directly through the orchestra or at various stores such as Amazon.com, or can also download 24/96 two channel files at HD Tracks.
In addition, Maestro Thomas has taken over Leonard Bernsteinís teaching to the masses by producing an excellent series on various symphonies from Berlioz to Shostakovich which can be purchased on either DVD or Blu-ray for $25 each or the whole set of eight for $156 . Iíve seen two of them on satellite channel HDNET and they are excellent at least visually and sounded pretty good in Dolby Digital.
As far as Blu-ray recordings go, there is still a dearth of good classical recordings, most if not all being from European studios, and the majority of opera performances. The best so far seem to be coming from Medici Arts, a subsidiary of Euroarts, but are a mixed bag. They are concert recordings from German orchestras done in various venues recorded I believe for European Television, which still show classical performances in prime time.
The best of the lot is a recording of the Mahler Symphony # 2 with Pierre Boulez and the Staatskapelle Berlin, which unfortunately was released on DVD and the defunct HD-DVD. Luckily I picked up a copy on HD-DVD and have that playback capability on my home computer so I can hear it in full 24/96 surround. It is one of the best performances Iíve heard, the video and audio resolution is superb, it was recorded in a hall with superb acoustics, there are few coughs from the audience, and every person who has listened to it here has been bowled over. Unhappily they still havenít released it on Blu-ray.
Second best is another Mahler recording, the Third Symphony with Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. While the sound is almost as good as with the Boulez, the performance didnít make me dance around the room, compared to the Tillson Thomas discussed above. On the other hand the video definitely adds significantly to the audio enjoyment.
Next down the list is a truly budget recording. On one Blu-ray disc Medici has given us all five Beethoven piano concertos with Daniel Barenboim conducting and acting as soloist with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Unlike the previous recording with the Staatskapelle, this one was done at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr in the Jahrhundert Halle in Bochum. While the list price is $46, it can be purchased at Amazon.com for $33.49 with free shipping. Thatís all five Beethoven concertos with a very good orchestra and conductor-soloist. Unhappily, the recording venue is completely dead with almost no ambiance information, and the video is somewhat blurry possibly because it was originally recorded for the European television system and they had problems with the translation to ATSC, but the interpretation and playing are very good.
Finally at the bottom of my list from Medici is a Blu-ray of the Herbert Von Karajan Memorial Concert with Seiji Ozawa and Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Berlin Philharmonic doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Tchaikowski Symphony # 6, and the Bach Sarabande. While the performance was recorded in the Vienna Musikverein, one of, if not the best concert hall in the world, the recording is very dry with almost no ambiance. Ozawa is at his usual less than spectacular self, and even the high definition splendor of Ms. Mutterís dťcolletage is not enough to recommend this performance at $34 at Amazon.com.
My final offering for the day is the complete Ring Cycle of Wagner recorded at the Weimar National Theater with Carl St. Clair conducting the Staatskapelle Weimar. At $99 with shipping at Amazon.com, the four Blu-ray discs are reasonably priced. Unhappily, this is one of those modern performances with the Gods dressed up as 1950ís office workers. Not being a Wagner opera aficionado, I cannot comment on the performances, but the acoustics are pretty good and the orchestra is excellent.
Next month, I hope to report on the newest addition to my system, which seems to have completely cured my systemís electrical problems. More then.