Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A tidal wave of streaming services

It's no secret that physical media is on the endangered species list for the serious collector. I don't mean that there aren't plenty of releases to tempt one into parting with a portion of one's paycheck, but it's difficult to find information about new issues and reissues. If you narrow that down to new reissues that aren't retreads of well known chestnuts of recorded history, it's even more difficult. If one leans toward desiring the best audio quality available, there's the question of high resolution audio and the various available formats (SACD or digital downloads and now BluRay audio). To date, there is not terribly much for those interested in "historical" classical recordings in "hi-rez". The situation is very much better for the historical Jazz collector, with many high quality SACD, downloads (from HDTracks among others) and newly mastered LPs to acquire. The debate as to hi-rez audio's true qualitative difference is raging on at quite a pitch these days. When this survey appeared, many were adamant that no difference could be heard at all, and to hell with all of that audiophile stuff. Of course, the variables involved are immense, from audio equipment to one's hearing and cognizance of what audio quality is, and perhaps a bit of patience as well. Recently Neil Young's Pono player was introduced and lambasted by many "critics" who have no idea (or could care less) what a DAC is. When it comes to streaming music services one must accept an even lower standard of quality, generally that of an mp3 file, give or take this or that improved compression scheme. Apple Music recently entered the fray, and reportedly they settled for a lower bitrate than Spotify or Google Play Music (256kbps). I tried Apple Music, and aside from the further restrictions that Apple forces one to accept (if you MANUALLY manage music on an IOS device, you can't even use the Apple music cloud to sync one's virtual library of selections!), I have found the quality pretty abysmal. Spotify's free tier of service is limited to 160kbps (subscribers get 320kbps).

Obviously, if one is already conscious of audio quality, and is hoping to bump up to hi-rez from CD quality, these mp3 quality services are not going to stand up to scrutiny. So, I thought I would try Tidal's premium service, which is double the price of their competitors if you want their "HIFI" quality (which is in 1411kbps Flac compression format) at $20 per month. Is it worth it? If you are using it primarily for car stereo use, or on a phone or tablet with a pair of standard issue earphones or earbuds, I would say no. However, add a good quality pair of headphones, or laptop/desktop computer with a DAC and now we're talking! Routing my laptop through my Apogee Duet, acting as a DAC, whether through my home system or my Oppo PM-3 headphones, the improvement was obvious when comparing the same tracks between Tidal HIFI and Google Play Music. I also compared Tidal tracks to various CDs that I own, and I must say there was no qualitative difference that I could tell.

Tidal's library is pretty deep, and there is much to keep one occupied searching for listening fodder. Ah, but here's the rub...their search system is, as I'm sad to say is true of ALL of these services, absolutely lousy for classical recordings!! When will we ever get a proper differentiation between "artist" and "composer"? It's a hopeless muddle between these warring factions, and all I can say is, happy hunting and searching! I'm not sure who to blame here, because the tags supplied with streaming titles seems to be set by the original record company, judging from the consistent repeated mistakes that crop up across all the services. Here's an example:

Yep, to compound (or perhaps obfuscate) this set's origins (it's a clone of the "History" label 10cd set which pilfers the fine transfer work of Mark Obert-Thorn from various previous issues), we have here Eugene Ormandy's doppelganger, Mr. Normandy! This mistake is repeated for every streaming service, and even appears on Youtube. Sure enough, this does NOT show up if one searches for "Ormandy"!

Perhaps Gerhard Hüsch would have taken this mis-spelling as a compliment? In any case, this title will be missing in action if a correctly spelled search is entered.

Whether one searches for Vaclav Talich or Václav Talich this wonderful series will still be missed:

You must search for "Talich Special Edition" in order to find them. There are many other Supraphon goodies where the ONLY artist tagged is the Czech Philharmonic, so a conductor search will not yield all of the results. It also took me quite a while to find a treasure trove of Archiphon titles, included nearly thirty by Otto Klemperer, many of which were never issued on CD by Archiphon, including this wonderful 1955 Concertgebouw concert which includes perhaps OK's best Mahler 4th Symphony. The whole series may be browsed by searching for "Klemperer Rarities".

This brings up another issue, which is the growing number of titles issued ONLY as downloadable or streaming releases. Archiphon is one label doing this, and Suprarphon is another. I'm going to make Supraphon the subject of another post, because there's a wonderful (and inexpensive) way to buy Flac downloads of Supraphon titles, but it involves using their Czech language site. Since it's nearly impossible to find most of the many treasures hidden in the streaming services, I recommend spending some time at Supraphon Online....the Flac downloads are cheaper that the mp3 versions from iTunes!

To sum up: I DO think it's worth the outlay for Tidal despite the searching horrors. The quality is finally such that it's a toss up between pulling the cd off the shelf or streaming, and eventually you'll find a huge number available titles from EMI, Archiphon, Preiser, Universal among other stables. Just hit the "favorite" button and you'll be able to find the fruits of your labors next time! The IOS and Android apps are pretty good, and one may download in full quality for offline listening. Unlike Spotify, once you remove a title from your mobile offline area, it IS actually deleted. Spotify doesn't seem to believe that you really want to remove an offline title, and it sits there taking up space unless you delete the whole app and re-install it.

One final minefield that the "historical" collector has to deal with with all streaming services is the large number of terrible quality needle-drop "transfers" of titles derived from EU sources, taking advantage of the 50 year limit on copyright. Often these have pretty original artwork, but terrible sonics. One plus on Tidal is that after the track list they (usually) identify the company supplying the album. As discouraging as this is, it beats putting out the money and ending up with a CD of this material!

Happy listening!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Carl Schuricht, Pt. 2. Brahms and tempo rubato.

Carl Schuricht's style in the works of Beethoven reflects, with some quirky exceptions, a classical approach to tempo. By the time of his 1957-58 French cycle these were often fairly swift tempi. One could say that his approach to orchestral balances, phrasing and voicing was reflective of the style he might have heard in his youth, and is reminiscent of that heard in the recordings of Felix Weingartner, Hans Pfitzner and Franz Schalk, where the brass in not allowed to overbalance the rest of the orchestra. In the case of Schuricht, he took the importance of audible voice leading up a few notches from that of his contemporaries. Indeed, one might have to look to certain mavericks like Yvgeny Mravinsky to find a kindred spirit in this regard. In Beethoven his approach to tempi, especially by 1950s, reflected more of a contemporary approach to the swiftness of tempi. Of course, one could say the influence was Arturo Toscanini. I don't suppose anyone was uninfluenced by the fiery Italian's style, so arguments could be made for and against. One of Schuricht's teachers was Max Reger, who himself was very much a modernist with more than a passing nod to traditionalism.

When it comes to romantic repertory, we meet quite a different Carl Schuricht. His Mendelssohn is rather classical, and his Schumann leans both towards classical and romantic styles. His Schumann is rather ruined for me by the massively overdone rewriting of his orchestration, reflecting the widespread attitude of that era that it needed improving. Mahler even published his re-orchestrated Schumann. Although Schuricht's Beethoven takes up some of Felix Weingartner's alterations, his Schumann is a more wholesale rewriting. In his last recording of the "Rhenish" symphony, included in this fine collection of his Concert Hall label recordings, seemingly everything is rewritten! Sometimes it's interesting, (listen to the solo strings at the :20 mark in the 3rd mvt. as heard here), but often it really breaks up the textures. Perhaps I'm unduly sensitive to this issue, dating back to my horror at first hearing the highly touted George Szell Schumann cycle, which features a wholesale and (for me) heavy-handed reworking of the 2nd symphony!

With Brahms, I feel Schuricht has found the best outlet for his combination of classicism and romanticism. Many would argue that he really brings the romanticism to the fore. Tempo rubato is no stranger to early recordings of the orchestral works of Brahms. If you listen to the records of Max Fiedler (listen here), Oscar Fried, and Herman Abendroth you'll hear both subtle and overt tempo modifications within sections and between sections. Even Willem Mengelberg sounds comparatively modern in this regard. Furtwängler is obviously a part of this tradition, and because the musical world seemed to need to "choose" between that exponent of the "modern" idea of unified tempi, Arturo Toscanini, and the mystical German, it's a familiar argument. Furtwängler's tempo modifications in Brahms tend to be more fluid, as often described, as if following the course of a river. More predictably he drives toward climaxes and builds the drama toward the ends of movements. Before one finds too many similarities, I would observe that Furtwängler favors a completely different orchestral balance from Schuricht. Balances are usually a function of the density of sonority sought by Furtwängler, and clarity, while not ignored, is not a priority. He's searching for the maximum contrast between the mysterious whispers to the most thundering, lightning bolt from the heavens cataclysms. If only we had modern recording technology to hear this! Schuricht's approach seems to incorporate tempo rubato in order to clarify the structure, and bring out musical contrasts. Is it a more cerebral style? Perhaps, but there's an vitality, earthiness and beautiful digging into the sonorities and colors of Brahms orchestration. He calls attention to Brahms' brilliance first and foremost. There has been some musicological discussion of the (unfortunately unrecorded) work of the conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), who directed performances that Brahms greatly admired with the Meiningen Court Orchestra. You can read excerpts of an article on this subject here. The consensus seems to be that Steinbach's interpretations utilized much of this style of tempo rubato. Herman Abendroth mentioned Steinbach as an influence to his own style. On the other hand, one of Steinbach's most prominent pupils, Fritz Busch, made a beautiful 1947 Danish State Radio Symphony recording, which is very much in a streamlined, unified tempo approach. Tradition and teachings are all fine to contemplate, but in the end one's temperament and musical personality is the filter through which all passes. Another important figure representing a more romantic style of interpretation was Hans von Bülow. Every generation has had it's battlefield between interpreters of different approaches, each hurling accusations at the other (or is it their fans doing so?), and each subsequent generation reacting both against the past and incorporating it. Perhaps I consider Schuricht important and fascinating because he seems to be joining two different "traditions" of interpretive style in one powerful combination. Being a slightly peripatetic figure, and from various accounts, a self-effacing personality, he didn't leave a school or legacy in the same sense that other towering figures did. He leaves us to discover for ourselves his quiet synthesis.

To get down to examples, I've taken a favorite from Schuricht's discography, the 1953 Decca recording of the 2nd Symphony, with the Vienna Philharmonic playing very beautifully and responsively! I would strongly recommend the purchase of this collection, or listen to it on Spotify or Google Music. There is a Youtube version of the entire recording, in sound that doesn't represent the full fidelity of the original (mono) recording.

To illustrate with some examples from the first movement, Schuricht begins at around quarter=100, but veers as high as quarter=120. Then, at around bar 54 (at the 1:30 mark) he suddenly bursts ahead to nearly a quarter=140! Breathless, and rather breathtaking. Is it appropriate? I leave that to the taste of the listener. Never fear, as he approaches the 2nd theme, at bar 95 (at :14 into the "clip" or 2:10 mark in the whole recording) he pulls back in a beautifully managed maneuver, to around a quarter=95. Beautifully managed in that he employs a very subtle hairpin crescendo (highlighted below), with a color that seduces us into accepting the tempo shift. I say subtle, because very often what we get is a very large hairpin crescendo which tends to overpower the transition.

The next example (at about 1:30 in the musical "clip" or 3:20 in the whole recording) shows one small example of Schuricht's care in voicing once again, highlighting the continuity of the violin line to the celli/bass in bars 129-30, and then a wildly personal dynamic modification in the form of a huge unwritten (and thrilling) crescendo by the brass in bar 135!

Many critics in 1953, and a few in the present day as well, find this performance to be too willful and pulled about. I find it effective, and effective in musical terms, rather than needing to make points by overly stressing the histrionic element. I find that Schuricht always leads me to hear something in this familiar score that I had not expected to hear, and brings a smile of recognition, especially with score in hand. The Decca CD set also includes several Brahms concerto recordings. The violin concerto, with Christian Ferras as soloist is a beautiful performance, which might have benefitted from a few retakes (the ensemble between conductor and soloist is a bit shaky in the first movement). No such concerns in the B flat concerto with Wilhelm Backhaus, who's playing I've rarely enjoyed so much on other recordings. And Schuricht provides a strong collaboration, bringing out many moments of interplay that are nearly always glossed over. All the more amazing that this was achieved within the confines of a monophonic recording.

Thanks to my friend Neil for providing the Schuricht autographs!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Carl Schuricht Pt. 1. A lifelong Beethoven journey.

I can't remember a time when the recorded legacy of Carl Schuricht (1880-1967) didn't fascinate me. He had the good fortune to live a long and exceptionally productive life and his career never lagged, despite holding no permanent position after World War 2. His many Polydor 78 rpm recordings were not widely available in the US, but during the years of his Decca recordings (1946-56), a wonderful selection of which is currently available on CD, the international release of these recordings resulted in his greatest period of recognition by the record collecting community. Apparently this wasn't quite enough to ensure his being a recognized visage by the concertgoers of the time in the states, as the following humorous incident reported by Don Tait as introduction to his perceptive review of the 1957-58 Beethoven Symphony cycle for EMI:

A friend of mine likes to tell about the time he went to hear Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic in Cleveland's Severance Hall during one of the Orchestra's first American tours. The players were on stage practicing when a figure came through the stage door and briskly approached the apron. The audience, thinking it was Schuricht who had never conducted in Cleveland before, broke into a storm of applause. It was the concertmaster. He and his colleagues tuned for a while and then fell silent, followed by the slightly chagrined audience; and after a moment another figure came on stage, welcomed by more applause strengthened this time by the conviction that it had to be Schuricht. But it was the librarian. Silence resettled over the orchestra and embarrassed audience, and then the stage door opened and yet another figure entered -- short, unprepossessing, white-haired. The twice-burned audience, thinking he must be yet another functionary (and didn't look magnetic enough to be a conductor), sat on its hands until it was sure who he was - and was even more embarrassed than before when it realized that it was letting Schuricht walk on stage in silence.

There was nothing unprepossessing about Schuricht's music making, certainly! Of the many documented Beethoven performances, there is not a routine one to be heard, from his early Polydor versions of Nos. 1,3,4,6 & 7 from the 1930s and early 1940s to the final preserved broadcast recordings from the mid 1960s. Furtwängler is quoted as having commented "It cannot be performed better than that!" after hearing one of his performances of the Beethoven 5th Symphony. The 1957-8 cycle for EMI is in many ways the best of all, and it could be argued that this represents the highpoint of his commercial discography. The playing by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire is something to be cherished in this day of homogeneity and internationalism of orchestral styles. The horns will take the most getting used to, with their pronounced vibrato that might have one guessing that this is a Russian orchestra from that period (or earlier). The winds are not recorded in such a forward manner as was often characteristic of the classic Otto Klemperer Philharmonia recordings, but they really play in an unusually forward, colored and supported sound. One does regret that stereo was not yet standard for the French division of EMI. Only the 9th Symphony is in stereo. I seem to remember hearing that perhaps there was stereo equipment in place, and these tapes for possible later issue, were lost. The mono only release made this set an instant also-ran in the gramophone sweepstakes, taken over by a number of early stereo issues, including that of Andre Cluytens and the Berlin Philharmonic for EMI. The vitality of these interpretations is immense, and the lifetime of refinement of Schuricht's approach results in something that is, well...not overrefined! Some may take issue with some of the point making, but it's hard to argue that there is an uncared for or unheard nook and cranny of phrasing or orchestration. That this is apparent through the somewhat distant, compressed sonics is remarkable. I shouldn't overstate the sonic deficiencies, as they are perfectly able to convey the special qualities of the music making, especially in the latest CD version, included in EMI Icon series. The previous issue is by comparison, at a lower level and somewhat muffled. Just to take one example, I'd like to look closely at one extraordinary passage in the last movement of the Eroica. A short excerpt may be played from the link above the score, or the entirety of the movement may be heard here on Youtube, in what is not the greatest sounding transfer from an lp copy. The opening has a quirky emphasis (overemphasis?) of the difference between quarter and eighth notes, and a rather steep ritardando into the fermata. The passage I'd like to illustrate is at the 5:00 mark. Here is the page from the score, with my attempt at highlighting what Schuricht brings out in the texture, which nine times out of ten, is voiced toward the top voice only, or just left in homogenized form.

Something of the patient and painstaking approach Schuricht must have had in rehearsal can be heard on a rehearsal disc included in Vol. 2 of Haenssler Classics 30 CD collection of recordings with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart. Both of the these volumes add a great deal of repertory otherwise unrepresented on commercially issued recordings. At times the orchestra lets us down slightly (a spectacular bar early entry by the cymbal at the Mahler 3rd's first movement recap!), but at other times, their skill and enthusiasm is infectious, including a Beethoven 1st with superhuman nimbleness AND vitality among others. I think it's fascinating to compare the Beethoven performances in those volumes with those of the French cycle. The Eroica itself, in a 1952 Stuttgart rendition, is even more energetic than the the studio version, almost approaching Herman Scherchen tempi and manic-ness. I find that it is just a bit more off the rails in conception and execution, and indeed, the passage I've illustrated above is simply too jumbled to make the wonderful effect of clarity and voicing heard in the studio recording. By all means hear it and decide for yourself. I should mention that nearly all of the Haenssler collections are available over such streaming services as Spotify and Google Music. One bonus that one must purchase to enjoy is a bonus DVD in Vol. 1, which includes a precious film from 1957 of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, and an excellent 40 minute documentary film. I believe the Decca collection is also available for streaming, as well as some of the many Archiphon issues, some of which overlap the Haenssler collections. It's a bit frustrating for the collector who seeks out CD issues from Archiphon, who recently seems to be offering many issues ONLY as downloads or streaming. Included among these is a wonderful Schuricht Ein Heldenleben and an Otto Klemperer Concertgebouw concert from the mid 1950s with what may be his finest Mahler 4th.

I feel like I'm just scratching the surface here, so perhaps I will return with some more thoughts on Schuricht and his legacy soon. I would be remiss in not directing you to this indispensable resource, which has a list of cd issues (no complete discography as of yet) and an in progress concert list and chronology. Also well worth the visit is this short appreciation of Schuricht by Arthur Bloomfield.