Sunday, January 23, 2005

Reiner's Pictures: A digital face-off

First up for audition in today's blizzard-induced stereo-listenin,' bagel-and-lox eatin' extravaganza is the RCA Living Stereo recording of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in its Ravel orchestration. Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.* This is one of the great classic recordings of the golden age of stereo. It has tremendous personal resonance for me, since it was the recording that first turned me on to the music. Check that: it was the recording that first turned me on to music, period, paragraph.

Taking into account the "imprinting" factor--where one favors the version that made the first positive impression--this recording is by acclamation one of the best-ever versions both musically and sonically. For me it's one of the top four or five Living Stereo recordings for sound quality, and one of the greatest recordings of an orchestral score ever made.

Sadly, it's never sounded like that on the little silver discs. Neither the first, mid-'80s iteration or the Living Stereo CD series version was up to snuff. Nor, surprisingly, was the JVC xrcd--for which my expectations were very high--or the Classic Records vinyl reissue, though it won the competition on points. In comparison to even a poorly-pressed Dynaflex LP of the '70s, these presentations were oddly dead and boxy, lacking the copious hall reverberation of the original in the huge orchestral perorations like the Bydlo section or the Great Gate, and seemingly rolled-off on top, so that the lighter portions of the score, like the Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, failed to sparkle as they should--and as they so gloriously do in the earlier analog iterations of the recording. So question number one upon release of the new Living Stereo SACD was whether a satisfactory job of restoration had been accomplished.

Chicago's Reiner: "I suck...your blood..."

In fact, the high-rez version is not quite there, though it gets decidedly closer than any other digital issue, and even, for once, improves upon the Classic LP reissue in many (though not all) respects. The high string partials are largely restored, the great Chicago brass growls menacingly as it should, and the hall sound, while not fully in evidence, is easier to discern. Finally, one can say that the merits that made the original recording so singularly appealing are back, albeit not particularly with a vengeance.

My receipt of a new DAC (digital/analog converter) for my stereo system--an outboard device that takes the place of its counterpart inside the player and (one hopes) improves its sound in the process--prompts some re-listening to the CD layers of many of the new hybrid SACD's from RCA and Mercury. Until the last few days I'd totally ignored the "red book" (conventional CD) layers of these discs in favor of the high-resolution SACD portion.

What of the CD layer of this Pictures disc? Does it score points over even the high-resolution portion, or is it back to the usual CD drawing board? Unlike the Mercuries, which utilize the old, '90s CD transfers for the red book layer of their SACDs, the RCA's are said to use the new transfers prepared for the high-resolution portion of the disc. Thus, it can safely be said that any differences one encounters between the two layers are attributable to differences in the formats.

Or differences in the performance of one's hardware.

And you thought this would be easy.

So how did the "low-rez" version do?

In one sense the CD lacks the smoothness and easy listenability of the SACD layer. In its place are more sharply-etched transient attacks and more fierce orchestral playing. (Yes, it's true: the impression given by the sonics can cast a new and different light on the musical performance; which of two conflicting versions is the "right" one can sometimes be a major conundrum.)

Here's old Fritz looking debonair...and still pissed.

The strings of the CD layer are ethereal, extended and non-brittle, and the brass has that characteristic etched quality, this to a far greater extent than the SACD layer. The red book layer strikes me as more in keeping with the general character of the original recordings as I grew up with them on LP records for so many years.

Even if I were blindfolded (smoking a cigarette and making a final request), I think I'd know that this is a CD and the other is an SACD: without labeling either as "better" or "worse," each has a characteristic sound; one could never be mistaken for the other. Unless, of course, one wasn't paying proper attention. Or worse yet, one's stereo is physically incapable of revealing those differences--a lack of resolution in the electronics, or the loudspeakers perhaps.

What, then, is that special sound of SACD that your equipment should be revealing to you? In fact, it's really neither fish nor fowl, animal or vegetable. It doesn't sound like analog, and it's missing most of the aural cues we associate with digital.

The main question before the house, however, is whether or not it sounds like music.

We'll leave that one open for discussion for awhile.


* It should be mentioned that this disc is jam-packed with other Russian orchestral blockbusters, many of which approach the same exalted class of performance and recording as the Pictures. In order to keep this review to a sensible length, I've chosen to omit them from the discussion. As for how they sound, suffice it to say that most of the comments regarding the Pictures recording hold more or less true for the other pieces as well.

The cover art seen at the top of this review is the "revised" art first seen in the second, Living Stereo series CD version, loosely based on the original. The original (and in my opinion, superior) cover art is reproduced above.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Paray's Chabrier on Mercury Living Presence: Lookin' for fun and feelin' groovies

The justifiably famous early stereo recording of Paul Paray conducting French music including Chabrier's Espana has been issued by Universal in their Mercury Living Presence SACD series. Paray's Espana is also one of the LP's released by Classic Records, a company that specializes in high-quality audiophile reissues of classical and jazz material primarily of the 1950's and '60s.

Paray was of course Mercury's "French specialist," and while I generally prefer RCA's Charles Munch in the same repertoire, Paray could at times be the more energetic and (superficially) exciting conductor. Certainly his Espana is generally acknowledged to be among the greatest on record; while it's unquestionably a high-voltage reading, if pressed for a choice, I'd have to go with Artaulfo Argenta's on Decca: a classic performance in vivid sonics by a tragically short-lived conductor.*

I absolutely flipped over the LP** when I first played it. For one thing--and I know this is a crude criterion for judging records--it has some of the hugest dynamics ever inscribed onto a vinyl disc. I mean, you can read it and feel it in the grooves (not that I spend a large portion of my life reading and feeling record grooves, mind you). It's so loud at the climaxes as to border on frightening. The high and low frequencies are maximally extended and the whole thing is concert-hall realistic.

The SACD, I'm sorry to report, is a total stiff.*** It's so lacking in any of the qualities that impressed me about the LP that it almost seems as if the engineers made a mistake of some kind (getting out of bed in the morning perhaps having been the first and most egregious).

Paul Paray: poor man's Charles Munch?

I confess to not having A-B'd the two items in question, but I have in fact done what I always prefer to do: sit down at different times and listen to the respective discs all the way through. My experience has led me to find that switching back and forth from one disc to the other tends to mask rather than reveal differences. I also feel I have a reasonably good audio memory, which helps.

I regret not being able to recommend this disc in its Super Audio form: a real shame, since it's one of the true glories of the Living Presence catalog. Perhaps next time...if there is a next time.

Meanwhile, support vinyl and make yourself gleefully happy: order a copy of the Classic LP reissue post haste.


* Though I've yet to hear a CD iteration that doesn't make my fillings hurt; the Speaker's Corner LP reissue is the one to own.

** One has to do this in order to play Side 2, by the way.

*** By no means a finding common to all the Mercs thus far released on SACD. I'll eventually be reporting on other releases that far surpass this one in faithfulness to the original source and all-around audio satori.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Why Roger Federer is my number 1 tennis player

When it comes to men’s professional tennis, I have been lost in the wilderness for the past few years. All of my favorite players of past years have long since retired, and although I have had plenty of favorites since—from Richard Krajicek to Pat Rafter to Gustavo Kuerten-- none of them has inspired lasting enthusiasm. Krajicek and Rafter came the closest, because, although they also played often from the baseline, they played serve-volley tennis enough to keep me really interested. But Krajicek’s career was plagued by injuries and he retired for good a couple of years ago.

Pat Rafter was much the same, and it made me sad that he never won Wimbledon because he came so close. And his career, like that of Krajicek, came to an early end due to injuries.

Of course, Kuerten isn’t even remotely a serve-volley player. He is the sort of player who, to quote Fred Stolle, only comes to the net to shake hands with his opponent at the end of the match. But I love his personality and his ground strokes.

However, let it be known that I am a serve-volley enthusiast. Yes, I admire a player with a big serve, but what I want to see is someone who follows that serve to the net and volleys his way to winning the point. He doesn’t have to serve and volley on every point, but the more the better.

My revered favorite in this regard is Stefan Edberg. With Edberg, there was never any surprise. He served, went to the net, and the opponent either passed him or had to cope with a volley. And what a volley it was—forehand, backhand, half-volley, it didn’t matter. They were all sweet. And if it came to groundstrokes, Edberg had a backhand that was a pleasure to see-- unless you were on the other side of the net, of course. Best of all, Stefan Edberg was an elegant player, handsome, gentlemanly, and exquisite in form.

After Edberg, I had an unhappy love affair with 1991 Wimbledon champion Michael Stich. I can’t think of a prettier player to watch when he had his head on straight. His Wimbledon final against Becker was a thing of beauty, as was his 1993 Masters championship victory against Pete Sampras. I can’t think of a player with more beautiful form and a more brittle mental constitution than Stich. When injuries forced him to retire in 1997, I found it something of a relief, even though I missed his beautiful serve and almost as beautiful volley. I never missed the tantrums and the racket-throwing at all, of course.

And after that, I wandered in the desert until Roger Federer came along. Could I really fall for a tennis player with a pony-tail and a nose like Bob Hope? Oh yes, I could. Obviously, he’s not a pure serve-and-volley player like Edberg, but he’s an all-court player in the best sense of the word—what Michael Stich might have been if he had been a harder worker and not such a basket case mentally, or a Pat Rafter who could play well on clay. And he’s smart, well-disciplined, and a gentleman. I mean, this kid is really smart—smart enough to win three grand slams and eleven tournments in 2004 without the benefit of a coach, and also smart enough to go out and woo Tony Roche to be his coach for 2005. Can Roger Federer improve? Obviously, he thinks so. He has already won his first ATP tour title of 2005 (in Doha) and clobbered Andy Roddick in the final of the exhibition tournament in Kyooyang the week before the Australian Open. Will he defend his Aussie title successfully? I hope so, and I’m having great fun watching him try.

God, it’s nice to be out of the wilderness and enjoying tennis again!

Rumpole's greatest triumph: Worth waiting for?

John Mortimer’s free-spirited barrister Horace Rumpole, self-proclaimed “Old Bailey hack,” has been around for many years now, both in print and in a series of dramatizations on PBS’s “Mystery” series (with the late Leo McKern as Rumpole). Anyone who is familiar with Rumpole knows that his finest hour was his victory in the case of the Penge Bungalow murders, which he carried on “alone and without a leader.” No more details of the case were ever given, however, until now, when Mortimer tells the Penge Bungalow murders story in novel form.

All the rest of the Rumpole saga has appeared in the form of short stories, and the Penge Bungalow case, although greater in length, still has a short story feel. The aging Rumpole sits in his room in Chambers writing his memoirs, with obligatory appearances by such old friends as Claude Erskine-Brown, Mizz Liz Probert, and Soapy-Sam Ballard, Rumpole’s current head of chambers. Of course, Rumpole’s wife Hilda is very much in evidence, as well, and in this novel we learn how Rumpole met his wife and what form their courtship took. Indeed, one of the pleasures of The Penge Bungalow Murders is that we experience Rumpole’s first meeting with a number of continuing characters: Mr. Bernard, the solicitor who often sends him briefs and helps him with his investigations, the numerous members of the Timson clan, who supply Rumpole with so much of his work, and, of course, Hilda, a.k.a. “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” without whom the Rumpole stories would lose much of their savor. We also meet Rumpole’s first head of chambers, C.H. Wystan, father of Hilda, Albert Handyside, Rumpole’s first clerk, and T.C. Rowley, Rumpole’s pupil master at Number 4 Equity Court, also known as Uncle Tom. It will surprise no one to learn that Uncle Tom was practicing his golf in chambers even when Rumpole was a “white wig,” a novice barrister.

However, the focus of the novel is the story of the Penge Bungalow murders, the killing of two former RAF flyers after a reunion celebration. The son of one of the victims is the alleged killer, and C.H. Wystan has been briefed for the defense. Somehow, young Rumpole gets a brief as Wystan’s junior in the case, and the fun begins. The presumption of innocence, the “golden thread” that runs through all the Rumpole stories, is very much in evidence here. Wystan, convinced his client is guilty, only wants to go through the motions, while Rumpole is hot to prove the client’s innocence. No one will be surprised at the outcome, but it’s fun getting there, as always.

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders is painless reading, and Rumpole fans will enjoy having various odd corners of their Rumpole knowledge filled in at last. Great literature it is not—the Rumpole formula is very much in evidence—but it’s a fun read nevertheless. The only shame is that Leo McKern is not around to bring this story to life on the screen as he did with most of the earlier ones.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Munch's Symphonie: Bad is good and good is bad and never the twain shall meet

I thought I'd try it again after several years to make sure my mind wasn't playing tricks on me. It wasn't

The recording at hand is the CD issue of Charles Munch's famous recording of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, the older (1954), more famous recording. For some reason, on which I can only speculate, all digital and analog reissues of this recording have sounded deadly dull, opaque, lifeless, and lacking in high frequency extension. All but one.

The only one that lived up to its reputation as one of the classic RCA Living Stereo recordings was...get this*...the original CD release of the mid-'80s.

Smile and say "cheese!"

That release came packaged with the Munch recording of the Berlioz Requiem, almost as filler, really--the headline item was the Requiem, not the Symphonie. The latter was there to flesh out the second CD.

Well, let me tell you, folks, my ears weren't deceiving me--it still sounds great, far, far greater than either the Living Stereo CD, the version on the 8-disc "Munch Conducts Berlioz" box set, or even the Classic LP reissue, oh, surprise of surprises. For all I know (I don't), it may be the best-sounding issue of this recording ever to see the light of day.

The variable here apparently is source material: the source tapes used for the original CD transfer are more lively, more extended on top, more extended on bottom, more of just about everything that gives a recording a sense of life. They breathe.

Black mark? Yes, of course, there's always one, isn't there? There's a very severe tape dropout on the right channel that intermittently plauges this release throughout. As for why this tape was never again apparently used for any subsequent reissues, this may well be the smoking gun. There's also some prominent tape hiss. Can I live with all this in the interest of better sound down the road apiece? You betcha.

My guess is that the tape used for this initial CD set may have been several generations down from the studio master--a production or protection copy of some kind, as was often the case with the original CD releases of the '80s. These were often "thrown together" out of whatever tape sources the engineers could lay their hands on. In this case, by some bizarre happy accident, the "bad" tapes were good and the good tapes were...bad.

Long live the bad tapes.


* Literally, if you can. Frankly, I couldn't even find a scan of the mid-'80s CD cover art on the net. As you can see by his expression in the mug shots, Berlioz isn't too damned happy about it either.

Hector Berlioz or Monty Python cartoon man?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Munch's Living Stereo Daphnis sounds best on...

Facing the prospective purchaser are at least four issues of Charles Munch's 1955 recording of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe (the complete ballet score): the Living Stereo CD, which dates from the mid-'90s, the JVC xrcd2, the recent RCA/BMG SACD, and the Classic LP reissue. There is also an older Chesky LP reissue which I haven't heard. Add to this the original LP pressings and assorted tapes and other reissues, and the situation is confusing, to say the least.

Let's cut to the (Leslie) chase: the Classic LP, among current reissues, is tops--bottoms, too: its low-end extension sets it apart from any of the three digital iterations, and the fine high-end detail is similarly in a class of its own. The score isn't what one would call a showoff kind of spectacular: its magic lies in the subtle orchestral colors and flourishes. Contrary to popular belief, digital tends to be as weak at this end of the dynamic spectrum as in the louder fare--at very low levels, digital noise increases markedly, with a concomitant loss of inner detail and life. The result, at its worst, can be flat and synthetic. While none of the digital versions of this recording could be said to fall into this category, neither does any succeed in fully conveying a realistic sense of the scoring.

Best amongst the three is probably the xrcd2, though it and the SACD have different strengths and weaknesses: the xrcd is at its best in delineating the varied orchestral strands and details; the SACD better conveys the weight of the orchestra. That said, the latter has a heavy, thick, opaque quality that seems to be common to certain of the first round of RCA SACD issues. This may be a result of poor judgment in terms of EQing, as opposed to an inherent weakness of the format: for example, I recently auditioned a sensational Columbia SACD of George Szell conducting Richard Strauss which has stunning transparency and detail--precisely those areas in which the RCA demonstrates its most severe shortcomings.