A new Golden age?

While looking into the history of the Kingsway Hall as a recording venue recently I came across David Pickett’s intriguing blog. David was a contributor, like myself, to Hi-Fi News & Record Review though our paths never crossed.

My Kingsway searches had lead me to David’s list of recordings from the ‘Golden age of stereo’ where he gently suggests that recordings from an era of roughly mid 50s to the 1970s, simply recorded with well rehearsed orchestras in good acoustics, will match anything produced today. His list bears repeating though I urge any reader to look at David’s blog for full descriptions of the recordings and venues.

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Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Reiner 1954 : Orchestra Hall, Chicago

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Philharmonia Orchestra/Klemperer 1957 : Kingsway Hall, London

Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Ballet
London Symphony Orchestra/Monteux 1959 : Kingsway Hall, London

Stravinsky: The Firebird
London Symphony Orchestra/Dorati 1959 : Watford Town Hall

Brahms: Symphony No.3
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Walter 1960 : American Legion Hall, Los Angeles

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Sinfonia of London/Barbirolli 1962 : TheTemple Church, London

Verdi: Four Sacred Pieces
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus/Giulini 1962 : Kingsway Hall, London

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Solti 1964 : Sofiensaal Vienna

Verdi: Don Carlos
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra/Giulini 1970 : Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Vaughan Williams: A Pilgrim’s Progress
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Boult 1970/1 : Kingsway Hall, London

Of David’s top ten I am already familiar with five and fully concur with the choice. To listen to his complete list I went back in my own library and begged or borrowed the best remastering and media I could find. (I have not been able to source or hear A Pilgrim’s Progress.)

These recordings are exceptional and come up gleaming with sympathetic remastering there has to be limitations in terms of magnetic tape limitations (hiss, saturation and absolute dynamic range) that remastering cannot overcome. There are good but of their time and it really is a nonsense to say they match the best of today’s recordings.

I thought it quite a challenge to find a top ten list of modern digital recordings that share these Golden age stereo qualities. In part because of the fundamental way large-scale classical music is now recorded, often in conjunction or during performance and often in concert-halls not spacious recording venues. (Just think of London Symphony Orchestra’s own recordings on its LSO Live label rather than all their recordings that would have appeared on Decca Records in the past.) ITo make it even harder I’ve tried to stick with the same or closely similar works.

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Strauss : Ein Alpensinfonie
Saito Kinen Orchestra/Harding 2012 : Kissei Bunka Hall, Matsumoto Japan

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Kissei Bunka Hall

Recorded in the 2,000 seat theatre of a prefecture conference facility, photographs from the recording session suggest a typical Decca tree with touch up miking. A massive sound, retaining detail through the loudest passages.

Ravel : Daphnis & Chloé
Rotterdam Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin 2014 : De Doelen Hall, Rotterdam

The BIS recording team delivers true unconstrained dynamics and extraordinary clarity while keeping a sizeable acoustic signature – the hall will seat about 1850 persons and was built in the 1960s.

Beethoven : Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Chailly completed 2011 : Leipzig Gewandhaus

Klemperer’s stereo cycle was recorded in dedicated recording venues Kingsway or Abbey Road. Though the Chailly cycle was recorded in a concert venue this is far from a patched live recording and was not made before an audience but using the concerthall as a recording venue.

Stravinsky : Rite of Spring/Firebird
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer 2010 : National Concert Hall, Palace of Arts, Budapest

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Palace of Arts, Budapest

A modern 1700-seater, Béla Bartók Hall is a traditional ‘shoebox’ and has a reputation for allowing instrumental clarity and was the work of the late acoustician Russell Johnson (Artec). (Native DSD recordings from this venue are of exceptional fidelity.)

Brahms : Symphonies Nos.3 & 4
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Mackerras 1997 : Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Early Telarc recordings with spaced mikes (much like early Mercury stereo) were not to my taste – true, the dynamic range was usually exceptional but it was the lack of a cohesive stereo image that disturbed. For this Scottish concert hall venue Jack Renner (Telarc) worked with Tony Faulkner to produce a dynamic, balanced sound from these smaller forces that works with the acoustic to produce a stable, tangible orchestral presence.

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Hallé/Elder 2012 : BBC Studios, MediaCity, Salford

Not the church venue enjoyed by Barbirolli but a purpose built modern TV studio – though you might think this would result in a featureless acoustic the reverberant yet highly detailed sound is to my ear exceptional.

Verdi: Four Sacred Pieces
Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnare et Romantique/Gardiner 1995 : All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London

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All Hallows

One of the oldest digital recordings I’ve chosen and not just because it features period instruments! All Hallows is a very resonant church acoustic that makes a major contribution to this performance. I’m not entriely convinced so lively an acoustic would have produced so good a sound from tape and vinyl replay. (The La Scala/Barenboim Reqiuem/Four Sacred pieces is of equal stature musically and of significantly better sound quality to the Guilini is you shun period instrument recordings.)

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
As there are no studio recordings of large-scale Wagnerian pieces it is almost impossible to find anything to compare with Solti’s Götterdämmerung. Nowadays there simply is no way to recoup the costs of a studio recording of this magnitude. My own preference here would be for a recording in Wagner’s own concert house – say, the Barenboim Bayreuth cycle recorded in 1991/2. It is however the antithesis of the Culshaw/Solti Ring recording.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Kristine Opolais, Thomas Hampson, Luca Pisaroni, Wiener Symphoniker/Zanetti 2013 : Wiener Konzerthaus

Not Don Carlo but a similarly scaled Verdi drama with warmth and clarity from the 1913 acoustics of Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

Bernstein: Candide Suite, etc
Minnesota Orchestra/Oue 1999 : Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis

I included this ‘wild card’ as I couldn’t find VW’s Pilgrim and wanted to end with what could be considered state-of-the-art orchestral recording today. Even though this recording is now nearly 20 years old it sets a standard for true dynamics, excellent clarity across the frequency range and real ‘feel’ for the acoustic qualities of the recording venue. It is also telling that this comes from the relatively small scale Reference Recordings – a company having more in common with the audiophile community than a big record label. It’s then sobering to realise that big-league classical recording labels are really a thing of the past.

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Audirvana 3.2

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The latest version of Audirvana was brought out over the holiday period with all the attendant excitement of a maintenance release. But on the contrary it has proved to be something of a major step forward, for this user at least, both in sound quality and usability. And much more so than the Ver2 to Ver3 ‘now we’ve got MQA’ release.

First is the addition of a new sample rate convertor in the form of SoX. Upsampling CD rips to drive my TEAC AI-301DA at 32/88.2 has made a massive improvement in sound quality. (Of course your mileage may differ.) The difference is to the note integrity, simple clarity and sheer listenability to my whole catalogue of CD rips – changes are not so great with true HD hi-res files but SoX has shifted the Redbook goalposts a major distance for me.

Some higher rate material has failed to play when upsampled to the theoretical 32/352.8 limit of the TEAC – the rate is shown as permissible in the SoX Preferences but no sound comes from the ampDAC unless I limit oversampling to a maximum of 192kHz. This is done in the Audio System Preferences section: ‘For bridge devices connected to a DAC’.

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A second major feature is the ability to benefit from Audirvana conversions on an unconnected Mac. Audirvana Plus 3.2 can now play to UPnP/DLNA network players. So I can finally use Audirvana Remote on my iPad to drive Audirvana Plus running on my iMac to feed my Auralic Aries Mini switched to UPnP mode (i.e. out of Lighting DS mode). Looking forward to hear some if not all of the advantages of the SoX oversampling I was in for a bit of a surprise – life is not all that stable for this combination but I’ll put that down to no longer having the Aries running on wired Ethernet but working wirelessly. There were some advantages in terms of detail resolution – the multi-tracked vocals on Christy Moore’s Ride On for folder.jpginstance – but there was a surprisingly bass light quality to the whole sound. I’m not used to hearing frequency balance changes when tinkering digitally and this has given me such a start that I’ve gone straight back to using Lighting DS on the Aries as a familiar stopgap before I start this all over again when the Devialet arrives…

In my office system all is well with CD rips and the limits on upsampling – I’ve never heard the little Tannoys singing quite so well. Though their days too are numbered as some real bookshelf speakers are being lined up for 2018.

 Update

Significant sound quality increases can be had driving the TEAC from Audirvana by upsampling everything through SoX to DSD128. I’ve used a -6dB volume reduction as I need to volume control with the very efficient Tannoys and the default A 7th order filter. 16/44.1 CDs never sounded better.