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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




 

DIATRIBES AND DIGRESSIONS

IT MAY BE HI-FI BUT IS IT MUSIC?

Not an original title for a piece and not an original subject for discussion, but as our respected webmaster has been urging me for years to put my experiences with hi-fi on paper, now seems as good a time as any.

So to which camp do I belong? I was about to say that I must confess to being of the hi-fi persuasion, but dammit, what is there to "confess". Thereís nothing at all wrong as far as I can see with simply trying to reproduce music as realistically as possible, and even if there were something reprehensible about it, heaven knows we pay a mighty high price for the privilege of trying. Of course, hi-fi clearly means different things to different people. For those such as myself whose interest is almost exclusively classical music, the objectives are surely straightforward as, I think Quad, neatly summed it up some years ago with their slogan "the closest approach to the original sound". Folk with different interests, say electronic music, may have totally different criteria. After all, with studio produced electronic music who knows what the original sound was, apart from the performers and recording engineers. So therefore it is not so unreasonable that enthusiasts for that particular medium may wish to tune it to suit their own ideas. For them presumably, the ability of their sound system to rearrange the sound balance is positively desirable, and somewhere along the way Joe Public seems to have come to associate hi-fi exclusively with such gizmos as graphic equalisers, tone controls, and other add-ons. The fact that these positively militate against truly accurate reproduction has unfortunately been overlooked.

In my case, apart from the very early years when I didnít even know what a live orchestra sounded like, it has been a desire to achieve Quadís definition of that very simplest of ideals which has motivated my particular interest. I suppose it was the advent of stereo which first started me off down what has subsequently proved to be a very testing, costly, but ultimately rewarding route. Costly mainly because, like so many hi-fi virgins, I hadnít a clue as to the best way to go about it and my inexperience was exacerbated by the delusion of youth that I didnít need advice from anyone older. Many years and countless "upgrades" later I now have the experience to avoid at least some of the pitfalls, although with so many illusions still being hyped and marketed by makers of hardware, software and often assisted by the more irresponsible journalists, Iím sure that the potential for further blunders still lies ahead.

So what have I learned. On reflection not much in view of the vast sums squandered, vast that is relative to my fairly modest fiscal status.

Rule 1: Experience the real sound which you will be trying to reproduce. It's amazing how many people will pass judgement on the quality of a recording without having the faintest notion of how it should sound. Clearly only the very fortunate or the idle rich can ever experience the live sound of all the top orchestras, or the characteristics of all the worldís great concert halls, but even one orchestra and one hall can give some meaningful reference by which to judge.

Rule 2: Try to start with a balanced sound system in which all the links in the chain are of roughly comparable quality.

Rule 3: Apart from secondary items such as cables and supports, which in my experience really can make a difference, do not upgrade one part of the system at a time, regardless of the solicitations of the more unscrupulous hi-fi dealers.

They know, as I found out for myself the hard way, that although you will perceive a degree of improvement initially, it will almost always be accompanied by subsequent awareness of a limitation elsewhere in the system which had not previously been apparent.

Rule 4: Never make a small change. If youíre going to upgrade make it a big one, and make it across the board. If funds are limited either wait until you can afford it or better still, if like me you have a low threshold of patience, do not overlook the availability of second-hand kit which at new prices would otherwise be beyond your reach. Premium quality equipment will not be redundant after six months and will still be hard to beat after six years, and large savings are to made from those who have more money than sense and who change equipment in response to fashion or fallacy.

Rule 5: Find a good dealer and, yes, they do exist. One who most importantly will give you a constructive demonstration, and then allow you to re-evaluate the products in your own home, and if necessary allow you to make changes from your original selection. Your own room and furnishings have a major influence on how any equipment will sound.

The ability to demonstrate a broad range of equipment demands substantial investment by the dealer, and their provision of a good and thorough demonstration is also expensive. Because this quality of service is not cheap to provide, a good dealerís price may not match that obtainable by mail order or through the internet, but in my opinion it is reprehensible to steal a dealerís time and knowledge and then save yourself a few pounds by buying cheaper elsewhere. It is also potentially self defeating as, should a problem subsequently arise or you decide eventually to upgrade again, then that dealer will probably, and quite rightly, tell you to take a hike.

Rules one, four and five are probably the most important.

I make no apology for mentioning for the benefit of anyone in the West Midlands of the UK, that I count myself lucky many years ago to have discovered Music Matters at Solihull. They have unfailingly provided first rate service and excellent value over several upgrades as my circumstances have improved. Their service at times has included money-saving advice not to make changes which may have seemed attractive, but which with hindsight have been shown to be ill judged. Although undoubtedly there are other good dealers within the region, as long as they continue to earn my business, theyíll get it, (my sole connection being that of a satisfied customer).

So much then for the equipment, but what about the music.

As I mentioned before, when I first rambled off down the hi-fi trail I had no experience of listening live to the classical music which nowadays represents about 95% of my interest.

It therefore came as a welcome surprise on my first visit to a concert in the Town Hall at Birmingham, to find that the sound of the CBSOís oboe bore a very close resemblance to that same sound as reproduced by the Decca cartridge I was then using. Yes I know that the comparison should really be the other way round, but the experience came as quite a revelation, as was the accompanying awareness that the rest of the orchestra did not replicate nearly as closely the sound to which I was accustomed. Nor was there the apprehension with the live orchestra of the clicks, hops, and splutters which were then a regular, albeit unpredictable, part of my "hi-fi experience". From this you may rightly conclude that even at that time I had no great affection for LPs, even if they were the only viable alternative to either FM Radio or the recordings I made from radio using a treasured Nakamichi cassette deck.

The advent of CD therefore was a red-letter day for me, although I still recall the sobering effect some years later of hearing, once again in Birmingham Town Hall, Simon Rattle and the CBSO performing the Mahler Second Symphony, having that same day purchased and played their recording of the same work. Oh dear. It was immediately and painfully clear that even the major advance represented for me by CD over LP was still a massive remove from the real thing.

At this point perhaps I should perhaps amplify my position regarding analogue sound and, in particular, LPs.

Basically I have no reservations regarding analogue recordings, indeed some of my favourite discs are analogue in origin. Nor would I claim that the actual sound quality of CD is superior to that of the equivalent black disc. No, my objection to LP is solely directed towards the, crackles, pops, and other extraneous rubbish that comes with the product, as well as the intrinsic flaws such as pre-echo and end of side distortion. And despite listening to several fairly expensive analogue systems, I still find that these intrusions are present to an unacceptable degree. This is not to ignore the problems inherent in CD, some examples of which have been abominable. However, in recent years I have been fortunate enough to be able to create a CD based stereo system the cost of which not very long ago would have represented a yearís income. The resulting improvement along with the major advances which seem to have taken place in the recording and production of CDs themselves have now brought me much closer to the, letís- not- kid- ourselves still unattainable, sound of live music. In addition I am currently having my listening room extended at a cost not far short of that of the equipment itself in the hope of further improving my listening pleasure. At the moment multi-channel sound offers no temptation as my interest is only in music rather than films, and those, albeit modest installations Iíve heard have been totally unappealing. Cost too is a major deterrent, not to mention the fiasco of competing hardware and software that the recording industry has currently created.

My music collection numbers around nine hundred CDs, and a mere ten opera and ballet DVDs, which I doubt will ever exceed more than thirty or so. The size therefore is by no means large and is only growing slowly as, despite spending much time searching the orchestral and instrumental byways, I find it increasingly difficult to discover works of more than superficial appeal. Perhaps using Sibelius and Shostakovich as yardsticks is too severe a test, although in recent years some British composers as well as those from the Baltic States and Scandinavia have proved very rewarding.

The modesty of my collection contrasts dramatically with that of my friend Steve whose collection of CDs numbers well over five thousand, but which are played on a fairly ancient

B&O system.

Interestingly, although our total expenditures are roughly similar, and must represent for people of our means a commitment bordering on the obsessive, if one compares the relative cost of hardware to disc, whereas the figure for my system is around £50/disc, his is probably nearer £0.40/disc.

Not surprisingly each of us thinks that the other is mad, and weíre both probably right.

The builder who is currently extending my listening area inadvertently described me recently, and perhaps over-kindly, as "eccentric", and Iím happy to plead guilty to that.

Needless to say both Steve and I think that the other has their priorities totally wrong and, having only just worked out the £50/disc cost for the purpose of this article, I must admit to being somewhat shaken by it. However, I feel that my basic justification for such apparent profligacy is still tenable. For, while my listening experience is still far short of the live concert hall, I also avoid the less desirable but unavoidable supplements to that venue: the coughers, programme rustlers, digital watches, mobile phones and worst of all, the premature clappers.

All too often I have attended concerts where the breathtakingly delicate final moments of a work such as, say the Mahler Ninth, have been utterly shattered by insensitive cretins who canít wait to start clapping and bravo-ing.

Within milliseconds therefore, bliss becomes brutally transformed into something not far short of murderous rage.

Some audiences are better than others, and perhaps I am unusual in finding such fragility in the magic woven by a performance which should be allowed to simply decay gently into space, but for me there needs to be only one vandal to destroy the spell. Furthermore, even with a perfect performance, and an audience of saints, you wonít get to hear a work live many times for your £50.

Even so, despite the sixteen versions of the Symphonie Fantastique, ten complete cycles of the Beethoven Symphonies and numerous other duplications, triplications, quadruplications and so on, the £0.40/disc of Steveís collection is undeniably impressive in terms of value for money.

Or is it? You see, from my "eccentric" point of view there is rather more to it than mere cost effectiveness. For me personally the two principal elements are the purely quantitative amount of pleasure experienced regardless of cost considerations, and the extent to which we all vary in terms of our tolerance and response to extraneous influences. This I hope will be illustrated by the following anecdote:

Some years ago I was a member of a "Gramophone Society". The concept of various people from often diverse backgrounds and tastes joining together on a regular basis to listen to recordings may strike some of you as quaint, to put it mildly. However, many societies are still active, and for a number of very good reasons. The membership is no more diverse than that of a concert audience, and not everyone has the facilities at home to simply sit with like- minded companions enjoying music which the spouse or partner or kids may detest. The other reason in my case was that, as a regular member, you frequently find yourself forced to listen to works which otherwise you might avoid, often erroneously. It was by this means that I first encountered Schubert, and what an oversight he had been. It is also possible to meet people who, starting from the shared interest, subsequently become true friends. But the real point of this digression is that through the society I encountered people whose enjoyment of music was on a totally different basis from my own. The most memorable event in this context was when one evening the programme was presented, as was often the case, by one of our own members. Now this was in the dark days of LP, and one particular disc sounded as if the stylus was struggling its way through treacle saturated with granulated sugar. To my ears the sound was indescribably bad, and at its conclusion our presenter, a delightful man, had the grace to apologise for the poor quality, but then added with disarming sincerityÖ" but with such wonderful music it doesnít really matter, does it".

I was stunned, then baffled, incredulous, furious; had he really not heard how horrible it was. But then I realised that he truly had not. To him it was simply wonderful music and, as that realisation sank in, how I envied him his ability to ignore the irrelevant and focus on the true substance. Since then I have encountered others similarly blessed to varying degrees with immunity from the extraneous.

However, enviable and admirable though I find this trait, to my regret I do not possess it, but presumably to some extent Steve does, because when playing discs on his system, although I am always aware of a great sense of loss he is clearly impervious to any deficiency. When he visits me however, he normally seems equally impervious to the extra presence and detail revealed in even his own recordings. Except that is when the extra detail exposes something negative such as the tube trains present in many of the old Kingsway Hall recordings. In these instances he then claims with breathtaking conviction that his previous lack of awareness is irrefutable evidence of my folly in having a system which is too revealing! And infuriatingly, Iíd have to agree that up to a point he is right, with gain there can indeed be pain.

So: it may be hi-fi but is it music? Inevitably in the final analysis it must surely all depend on the individual listener.

In that case what is the purpose of this article? The answer is as an attempt to set the record straight ( no pun intended), because it does seem to me that far too many of the people who are blessed to hear only the music, far from being grateful for their gift assume a quite unjustified condescension towards we the less privileged. This is what caused the initially defensive tone of my opening paragraph. They appear to have an unwarranted smugness, similar to that of sayÖÖ.. slow drivers and early risers, but letís not complicate matters by starting on those topics!

May I wish you all enjoyable listening, however you take you pleasure.

David Dyer.


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