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CD: Symmetry Systems

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 K.466 [33:00]
Piano Concerto No. 27 K.595 [32:06]
Clifford Curzon (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten.
rec. The Snape, Maltings, Suffolk, September 1970. ADD
ESOTERIC ESD90014 [65:18]
Experience Classicsonline

It is my fate to début* as a reviewer on Musicweb International with a decline pretty much certain; downhill all the way. It is not my fault. This disc is perfection, an anomaly which has broken Holt’s Law.
J. Gordon Holt, a founding editor of Stereophile stated that the sonic quality of a record was inversely proportional to its musical worth. He observed that a Heifetz or a Gould gets recorded on a hissing domestic tape deck in mono whilst the audiophile labels issue direct-cut masters of John Smith playing an Asian percussion symphony coupled with eight tracks of his soprano wife with her uncle on the piano. Where were CBS and RCA looking when high-fidelity started in the 1950s?
Now the British Decca company was another matter – a fact which is no secret to collectors. On vinyl, during the golden era of the 1960s and 1970s, the sound was incredible but Holt’s Law always prevails. Decca was usually let down by vinyl pressing that progressed little from shellac. Audiophiles used to curse the pressing plant - said to be in New Malden.
So how can I prove the provocative claim to have the ultimate record as the subject of my first Musicweb review? Simple! A record is a combination of its programme content, its artistic performance, and as a plastic artefact, its production quality – in other words its engineering or sound merit. As I have stated, in the history of the gramophone a combination of the Laws of Murphy, Sod, and Holt something is always less than perfect. No record gets five points from the Luxembourg jury under all three parameters.
It is all about the music, as you know, and under programme content, are you going to give four-and-a-half stars to these two piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus: “Could have tried harder?” or “Too many notes!” Yes, well, the truth is that the scores simply fell from Heaven, whether or not one agrees with Salieri’s alleged observation that God had wasted the talent. Cinq points to Mozart for the disc’s “programme content”. Can’t get the tunes out of my head!
Now who can best perform it? If you die and go to Heaven try Clifford Curzon and Ben Britten. See if they can come down to the studio with the ECO sometime next month. Five points for assembling the dream team, then, and do not demote Britten as a conductor just because he is better known as a composer.
What about the sound quality? “The studio” was The Maltings in Snape, a barley barn in Suffolk converted by Arup Associates into one of the finest concert-halls in the world in terms of acoustics. The performances were taped by Kenneth Wilkinson, one of the engineers who created the Decca sound.
Alas, the records were poorly pressed. Many of the tapes are now on CD and although I am not amongst those audiophiles who dislike the 16-bit format it is a glass ceiling which limits the detail and dynamics, the ambience and acoustics, the transients and tempos, the contrasts of timbre and the subtleties of musicians interacting. For this we need the audio equivalent of High Definition plasma screens. Enter SACD, DVD-audio and maybe Blue Ray in the future.
Japan’s TEAC Corporation has long worked to perfect 16-bit sound and under its Esoteric company makes very high-precision and expensive players compatible with SACD and DVD. The newer formats are largely ignored by mainstream labels but used by those who strive for perfection. This suggested to TEAC the idea to produce hybrid CD/SACD issues which went on sale in Japan a few years ago. As a music-lover, the company’s president, Mr Motoaki Ohmachi, decided to feature great heritage recordings. The first projects with RCA involved Günter Wand conducting the symphonies of Beethoven and Bruckner. As licensed limited editions, I can now only mention them in passing. They sold out very quickly in Japan. And yes, they are amazing. The third issue was a single CD/hybrid/SACD comprising Beethoven overtures conducted by Sir Colin Davis; a few copies remain.
I will mention that I am fortunate to possess what may be the record reviewer’s ideal system comprising Esoteric’s CD/SACD player, valve amplifier, and matched Tannoys - which TEAC have distributed in Japan for over twenty years. I live almost down the road from the Tannoy factory. Many studios voice their productions on Tannoy monitors which using the unique “dual concentric” drivers - basically unchanged since 1946!
Reverting to TEAC’s software, we hear rumours of repertoire in the pipeline but already announced are two more tapes from Decca: the Dvořák New World Symphony (Kertesz) and Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat (Ansermet). Here’s the link.
You’ve discovered the price. At US$60 these are hardly cheap thrills, but thrilling they are. The Mozart is simply etched into my brain; after one playing I can’t stop humming the tunes. You can’t order through the record trade; they are distributed by TEAC and their UK agent is Symmetry Systems, a Hi-Fi Distributor. I understand that the price here in Britain will be £29.95 including VAT.
Many of these discs will be purchased to show off Hi-Fi systems and they are 95% as good on CD players but the music will prove infectious. Mozart’s joy is what the world needs now. Music is the message from TEAC; hi-fi is the medium. With Holt’s Law broken, this is one of the most sublime and supreme accomplishments of the recording angel.
Jack Lawson

* Editor's Note: this review actually appeared as Jack's second review on MWI.


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