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Monday, March 10, 2014

A CD Convert Holds Forth

From the Vault Dept.: Once upon a time, compact discs were a new and incredibly improbably technology. Let a grizzled record-scratcher remind you of the awe this thing inspired, with a piece I wrote in 1985.


OWNING MY FIRST CLASSICAL RECORD made me a philosopher. Nothing to do with the music: it was being hit on the nose with planned obsolescence, in this case the predictable fact that I would clumsily skate a weighty tone arm across a surface that seemed – still seems – as delicate as butter. A one-inch gash across the slow movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto left a sequence of whip cracks that I still anticipate whenever I hear the piece. Thus the ephemeral pleasure of the music itself was matched by the evanescent life of the record, and I replaced that disk (and many others) more than once.

I prayed for a record that wouldn’t wear out, and I’m now prepared to believe that those prayers have been answered. (My reservation is just a natural distrust of things that seem too good to be true.) I watched the introduction of compact discs with the same wariness with which I observed the hype about quadrophonic recordings a decade ago: back then I didn’t buy into it, but this time, only a few weeks ago, I did. I stopped buying digitally recorded records a couple of years ago in anticipation of CDs, and decided to wait until I could buy a player for less than $300.

Oh, sure, I resented those people over at the CD bins in the record stores: how dare they show off their consumerism so conspicuously, I muttered, fingering yet another doomed vinyl platter.

These days you’ll find me at the CD bins, too, smug with my new status, frustrated at the limited number of titles available – but that’s been changing.

I’ve read a lot of audiophile bitching about digital sound, and I grant those fellows their ruby-and-diamond ears. My ears are tempered by my budget, which hasn’t brought any component into the house that costs more than three bills. And therein lies the first poison dart of the CD technology: I’m used to phono cartridges that boost the high end a little, and this new machine is absolutely flat. My eyes gleam as I flash colored brochures before my wife whilst proselytizing about more power. But I’m not unhappy! I’m thrilled! The other night, too excited to sleep, I plugged a pair of headphones into the system and gloried in Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” It was like hearing it anew. No hiss No surface noise.

When enumerating the good points of CDs, such as increased dynamic range and therefore lack of compression – I find myself more impressed by what you don’t get: scratches, sticks, and other kinds of wear, and if there were no more advantage than that, I’d be happy. But I’ve been exploring CD versions of records I already know as records, and there are interesting differences.

One of the Japanese outfits (which are responsible for most of the CDs now available) has issued a number of Toscanini recordings. I got the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony, having long since worn out my LP of the same. At first, it’s surprising to hear all that hiss come out of the CD player, but you hear only what’s indigenous to the original 1953 recording. There’s more dynamic range than the LP offered, and, unlike the LP, it sounds the same each time I play it. As a bonus, you get Toscanini’s recording of the “Egmont” Overture, too. Other Toscanini CDs include Beethoven’s Sixth and Ninth Symphonies, and the Fifth is paired with Schubert’s “Unfinished.” (Here’s hoping the rest of Toscanini’s Beethoven becomes available. [It has.])

Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41 are paired, as are Mendelssohn’s 4 and 5. You’ll find Dvorak’s “New World” on a single disk (which, clocking in at about 35 minutes, would leave plenty of room for another piece), three of Respighi’s symphonic portraits and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures.”

RCA has been issuing other vintage recordings. I obtained the Beethoven and Brahms Violin Concertos with Heifetz as soloist – the specific answer to my prayers, as it was that version of the Brahms I destroyed so long ago. Both are on a single disk, taking advantage of the CD’s available 75 minutes of playing time. Again, the hiss comes as a surprise, but it’s inevitable in studio recordings from 1955 (a date not mentioned in the accompanying material: there are deceptively recent copyright dates, however).

Also from RCA is the original cast recording of “Sunday in the Park with George,” the CD of which reveals more splices than I heard on the record. I suppose that’s one of the prices you pay for superior sound quality, and it should set the engineers to finding less obtrusive splicing methods.

There has been some complaint from the audiophile magazines that miking technique must be improved. I’d agree. A Nonesuch recording of the Sequoia String Quartet playing Prokofiev sounds as if the microphones were thrust down the players’ throats, although the performances are crisp and sensitive, with a somewhat more romantic approach than the Novak Quartet, which for years was the only available record of those two quartets.

A Telarc recording of Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia,” Barber’s Adagio and music by Fauré, Satie and Grainger is a lesson in how to record a string ensemble; the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leonard Slatkin and, although the individual skill of the soloists in the VW isn’t on a par with the group in Sir Adrian Boult’s venerable ensemble, on the whole they give the pieces a wonderful lushness, which some contemporary groups shy away from.

Concord Jazz, a label that has specialized in swing-oriented sounds and consequently has attracted such artists as Woody Herman, Dave Brubeck and Rosemary Clooney, has maintained very high standards in recording and issue quality. One of their first CDs, the Scott Hamilton Quintet’s Second Set, is a tribute to the kind of quality you can get from an analog master transferred to CD. Recorded live, it has studio-quality sound, and the performances, as befit the talents of Scott and his group (including pianist John Bunch) are top-notch.

Metroland Magazine, 13 June 1985

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