Monday, February 06, 2012

The ten best sounding organ recordings of all time!

Hello my süße, kleine Schweinehunde! Today I´m gonna talk about the best ever organ recordings - again from my very own point of view. This part of the classical recording industry sadly seems underrepresented, that´s one of the reasons why I´m gonna devote two seperate articles to it. It´s also one of my favourite classical genres and one can make me very happy with music such as this. I´m in no way a religious person, I just enjoy the sound of an organ which just happens to stand in churches mostly. An organ is also the most difficult musical instrument to record: not without reason this instrument is called "King of the instruments" (in Germany we call it "Queen"). The problem isn´t so much the organ itself but the room it stands in. You see, an organ and the room it occupies are one wholesome unit - an organ is built and engineered for this particular room, church or concert hall only. Which makes organ transplantation a rather difficult task: an organ that sounds perfect in a cathedral will probably sound truly awful inside a concert hall. Anyway, this "organ hobby" of mine started when a friend played one particular CD to me in 2003 and my quest for beautiful organ music has been continuing ever since. Organ music also was responsible for rediscovering my love for TELARC releases those years ago (the recording responsible is part of this list). Untypical for a German music lover I much prefer the romantic organs from France with their voluptious, orchestra-like sound instead of cold and mechanical recordings of Bach on fitting instruments (organs from the baroque period). The most famous romantic organs were built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, a french organ builder. Their sound is highly unique and immensely beautiful. Thankfully, several of these have been preserved in excellent condition without being changed too much by the historical renaissance in the mid-20th century. But to every rule or every taste there are exceptions, I will state them if necessary. But on with the show, shall we?

Only fitting that my first place goes to the recording of the 122 years old Cavaillé-Coll Organ at St. Ouen in Rouen with music by Louis Vierne. This recording from 1993 boasts the most stupendous stage impression you´ll ever hear on a 2-channel-recording. Dynamics are pristine and bass is plentiful - both are characteristics not surprising when one considers that it was built for a huge cathedral and that this organ shows a sonic characteristic typical for romantic organs. Interpretation by Michael Murray is flawless, albeit a bit slow and a bit too controlled: as always he seems to celebrate the notes he is playing. He always was one of the most transparent players in the world and it is quite apparent here (Ben van Oosten interprets these symphonies with more passion). This can be a bit distracting because sometimes he seems to loose himself in all the notes - but I love it anyway, it sounds just perfect and the interpretation still is impressive enough.

The same organ as above, this time on a new SACD with playing by Daniel Roth, himself titular organist at St. Sulpice in Paris (you know, the cathedral from "The DaVinci Code"). Just like the disc above the sonics present the organ in its most glorious light with warmth and colour - and stage. The latter is only a tad less impressive then on the recording above. Of interest are also the short improvisations Monsieur Roth does at the end of this disc: they serve to explain the different pipes and their resulting colour and sound. Highly recommended, I´d play the 2-channel SACD layer because it improves the stage further.

These three discs are highly expensive gems - but they are worth every penny. Never before has César Franck's work been recorded in its entirety, these three discs are the first to do so. The Goll-organ is brandnew and an extremely versatile instrument: it can be adjusted to play romantic material as well as baroque material - both with their particular requirements. What can I say, the sound of these discs is simply marvellous. Although it seems to exaggerate the "romantic sound" a bit, the warm sonic colour and timbre of the organ are wonderful and perfectly represented by those SACDs. Bass is plentiful and although the recording seems to loose resolution it does not, thanks to the astonishing engineering (the SACD layers are even better). These recordings have received many prizes and plenty of praise from critics - deservedly so. The interpretations by Hans-Eberhard Roß are lovely too although I cannot agree on everything he does (but that may have something to do with me being used to another style; see below). In any case this was a mammoth undertaking and it should be rewarding to anyone. Simply phenomenal recordings.

This is the organ I´ve described in my introduction: it´s the recording responsible for discovering organ music and also for rediscovering TELARC. At the time of the recording the organ was 100 years old and since it hadn´t been renovated for over 70 years everything us humans connect with old age has been preserved on this masterful recording by Jack Renner: this organ breathes, works, groans, creaks and uses pipes it´s not supposed to - it sounds like a beautiful, charming and powerful old lady reaching out for attention. The recording is surprisingly noisy and you can also hear the barker levers clicking and moving - but all of these seemingly important shortcomings doesn´t matter, it´s just the way the organ sounded at the time of the recording. I also find it very peculiar that this recording sounds so, well, "analogue" despite being recorded digitally. But why is this recording so perfect? Because it also boasts a stupendous amount of timbre, sonic colour, crispness - and a terrific bass! This dynamic and powerful bass is a thing on its own, it even has punch (which is almost impossible for an organ), it´s a Leviathan of power and might (responsible: the 32'' bombarde). The en chamade mounted spanish trumpets are lovely too even though they seem to be underrepresented slightly on this recording - although they´re still screaming at you. All other pipes seem to sound a tiny bit too crisp, the recorded stage appears to be too wide, every other recording of this beautiful and most beloved organ displays a smaller stage. Mr. Renner obviously made this organ a tad more impressive then it really is. But I don´t mind when the result is that perfect. Michael Murray's playing is equally perfect: again he seems to celebrate the notes though this time with so much loving care and plenty of emotions that every piece has its own inner suspense. To this day I haven´t heard any interpretation of César Franck that comes close to this one. Mr. Murray doesn´t do the errors all other organists seem to do with the Grande Piéce Symphonique, he does not get faster to fake musical suspense, he does not get slower either. Thank God he is no Marie-Claire Alain! In short: this recording makes it easy to get started with organ music and I´ll love it until the day I die.

This is the one baroque modelled organ I´ve talked about in my introduction. It´s a relatively new instrument and it showcases the thin and piercing sound baroque organs are famous for - perfect for the music of Johann-Sebastian Bach. BTW, this is the only recording of Bachs' organ music I can listen too. One reason is that the playing by Michael Murray is beautiful (the "celebrating" of notes again), the other reason can be found in its sound. This recording is so crystal clear withtout being brittle or tinny that it´s breathtaking: there is no discernable noise on this recording, just the pure pipe sound and the sound of the church the organ stands in. If one recording would deserve the adjective "pristine" then it would be this. There´s also plenty of deep bass and a tasty sonic bloom. Recorded by Robert Woods (founder of TELARC) in 1985 in Germany. Highly recommended if you want to hear the sound everyone talked about when describing the positive aspects of the CD format when it was introduced in 1982. It really showcases everything the format is capable of in the best possible way.

This organ... oh, wait, these organs (there are two) are impossible to capture. The organs in the gigantic Cologne cathedral were built in the '50s (the transept organ) and in the '90s (this second organ is hanging at one side of the nave 30 meters above the floor) by organ builder Klais and they have the close to impossible task of filling the largest gothic structure in the world with sound. The reverb tail alone takes roughly 13 (!) seconds to disappear completely and the sound inevitably ends up being confused and immensely airy. To record this is a daunting undertaking and while this recording fails a little of preserving the awe inspiring size of the cathedral it shows very well how these organs sound. To make it short, they are aggressive monsters! They burn a sonic firework that is hard to believe and if I wouldn´t have been there on several occasions myself I´d think that this recording would exaggerate. I can tell you, dear reader, these organs have plenty of colour, their range is vast, their dynamics are virtually unmatched. They´re able to reach ear-shattering volumes at one minute only to be so very gentle the next. The recording preserves all this as close as possible but sounds a bit too distant and too flat - that´s all. Everything else is there: the aggressiveness, the earthquake like bass, the almost piercing high frequencies and the timbre. The playing of titular organist Winfried Bönig could be better though, he likes to present "his" organ in the most spectacular light and while he succeeds at that he always plays too fast, the enormous room surrounding the organs simply cannot follow. Still, this is a lovely and impossible recording.

Another recording of an aggressive beast this SACD shows that a highly modified Cavaillé-Coll organ can still sound wonderfully unique. It occupies the probably most famous cathedral in the world: Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. This organ sounds metallic (with all the rust on the pipes) in the most positive sense, when it gets loud you almost fear that the pipes will explode because they attempt to blow away your ear. Still, the organ sounds warm like a typical romantic organ. This warmth, combined with plenty of possible aggressiveness results in a colourful and rightfully famous, wonderful sounding instrument. The recording captures this perfectly - even though sounding like being too closely miked, the reverb or the imaginary room of the cathedral seems to be missing a bit. One example are the spanish trumpets: on several occasions they are standing several meters in front of the organ which sounds a bit strange. But everything else... oh Boy! Wonderful... colour is plentiful, bass and dynamics too. This relatively dry recording shows something I´ve never heard before on an organ recording: one is able to pinpoint several pipes. Talk about staging... simply gorgeous. The dryness is reduced a bit on the SACD layer which also sounds a bit crisper.

Of the Symphony No. 8 by Charles-Marie Widor there doesn´t exist any superior recording in the whole wide world. Ben van Oosten is an expert with Widor's music and it is displayed to the max on this recording, he simply is perfect. The recorded sound could be a tiny bit better though. Organ recordings by MDG always display the typical sonic characteristic of diminished bass and pronounced treble that people all over the world connect with recordings coming from Germany. Admittedly, on this CD it´s not as severe as on others by the label from Detmold as it combines this sound with lovely staging and plenty of dynamics. Still, compared to my first two examples of perfect organ sound (it´s the same organ) it´s missing bass, volume and warmth. Thankfully this can be corrected and if one doesn´t want to do this it still serves as an example of an organ recorded with another sonic taste at the highest quality possible. There even might be some people who prefer this different taste even though I think it underepresents this mighty instrument. Anyway, it´s a wonderful recording.

Here we have another recording of the organ at St. Sernin in Toulouse. This one was done in 2002 by the small Dutch company festivo with engineering by Henk Jansen. Recording quality is perfect although a bit timid and not very spectacular compared to the recording above by Jack Renner with material by César Franck. This might have something to do with the fact that the organ was renovated in 1995, since then it partly seems to have lost its aggressive, colourful and thunderous sound on every recording I´ve heard. Staging is impeccable, this is just one example where this organ doesn´t sound as wide as on the recording from TELARC. I believe this to be its true sound although I don´t know for sure since I´ve never visited the basilica of St. Sernin myself. This release is part of five seperate CDs presenting the Pièces dans différent styles by Alexandre Guilmant, I own the first three discs and all sound alike, their quality is high and consistent. The organist Herman van Vliet could play a bit more fluid but it´s possible that I´m wrong about this since I´ve heard never an interpretation from another organist. Very recommended.

There it is again... the German sound from MDG... this time a bit more mid-centric without too much highs or lows. Still, staging is impressive, sonic colour and dynamics are too. The romantic organ (not "romantic" as in French romanticism) from 1855 looks beautiful and sounds beautiful, the recording captures this perfectly albeit a bit too friendly and not very engaging. But for music to be heard when you come home from a hard days work I can recommend this. The interpretation of Liszts' works by Michael Schönheit are equally friendly. This recording comes as an SACD - but don´t bother playing the SACD layer if you´re looking for enhanced frequency response, the frequency band beyond 22.050 Hz contains no information at all (apart from DSD quantization noise). You can also buy this at HDTracks - but the same is valid there. Apart from this still recommended.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The ten worst sounding classical recordings of all time!

Copyright by LIFE Magazine
After publishing my list of the ten best classical recordings of all time I´m now going to post the opposite: the worst sounding examples. Some of these are outright bad and I´m always wondering why the companies dare to release them. Sure, some (especially the older releases) contain impeccable performances by the orchestra and its conductor but some don´t even have a redeeming qualities like that. And I hate to say it: some recordings were made by TELARC which is - as I already stated before on numerous occasions - my most beloved label. Some people reading this newest article of mine will surely dislike me because many of these recordings are loved by many people... older people. I assume that the differences in sonic preferences are rooted in a clash of generations because I´ve noticed before that people coming from 50 years prior prefer a more forward sounding approach while I myself prefer a more balanced (or distanced if you will) sound. Please keep in mind that I don´t intend to hurt someone but on the other hand I don´t want to hide my opinion so be calm and bear with me. Anyway, the probable reason for this sound preference is that most recordings from the '50s & '60s weren´t recorded with present technology in mind, they were recorded in a way to counterbalance the flaws of vinyl. Transfer this sound to CD and you inadvertently encounter problems. I´ve said it before that I don´t care how old a recording is, with the right tools it can sound like a modern day recording. I know that this isn´t the correct way of "preserving" historic recordings but I really don´t care, I simply WANT to enjoy awesome music - and I cannot do so when it sounds horrible. So, dear companies: adapt this music to present day technology (CD or high resolution downloads) and don´t preserve the made-for-vinyl sound.

This is a very famous recording of Ravel's massive ballet "Daphnis et Chloé". Charles Munch, famous for his interpretations of French masters, conducts the Boston Symphony. This reading of Ravel's work is known for the ultimate precision and timing of the orchestra - Munch literally hastes through the score with light speed; the orchestra follows with as much precision as possible, all the while protecting the works' cohesion. The sound... is a two-faced bitch. For sure, it´s marvellous for a recording that was made in 1955 - but it isn´t when viewed from today. Surprisingly, high frequencies above 10 kHz are present as are frequencies below 100 Hz. Detail, staging and perceived dynamics therefore aren´t that much of a problem, the sonic balance is. It sounds lovely with delicate bloom on low volumes but as soon as it gets louder the balance goes way off and the bloom turns into piercing shrillness, the sound 'screams' right at you and the music transforms itself into an example of exaggerated crispness. I´ve pictured the SACD here but it´ll sadly sound bad in any version.

This rightfully is one of the most famous recordings of all time and second on my list. Furthermore, this interpretation of Carl Orff's work "Carmina Burana" is the best I know. I especially adore Gerhard Stolze as the roasting swan and Gundula Janowitz singing "In Trutina" - both are simply breathtaking. Conducting, orchestra and choir are all top-notch... but... the sound... is so disappointing in every aspect that it´s shocking. This was recorded in 1967 and is the one rendition of the work that the composer himself authorized. That´s why it is a shame that it sounds the way it does; frequencies beyond 10 kHz or below 100 Hz are almost absent. Again we have a recording that was done with vinyl and its limitations in mind so the sound is hollow, thin and without impact or punch. Articulation of the soloists suffers, the choir sounds like performing in a garage and sometimes we can even observe severe distortions. On lower levels the resolution turns into muddiness only to shatter your ear the next second when the choir screams "Oh Fortuna" with brassy shrillness. What a disappointing waste.

The second recording from the DG on my list. And again, the performance is wonderful: Herbert von Karajan recorded Beethoven's famous Symphony No. 9 three times for the DG. To this day people still argue if this version from the 1963 is the best or the one from the '70s, both were released as SACDs and the first one is the one I´ll be reviewing today. As I said, the performance is indeed wonderful: energy, precision and playfullness are gorgeous traits of this rendition. I don´t know any of the other versiosn of this recording released before since I only own the SACD - but I can say that the SACD sounds like... sorry, shit. For one it´s noisy, treble is brittle and way too agressive, deep bass seems non-existent (even though it´s present, only diminished). The older CD version is supposed to sound better so one can argue that something during the most recent remastering went badly wrong. Thankfully there is a solution: a digital, high quality Equalizer like iZotope Ozone. With it you can 'correct' the errors that were made and the resulting sound is indeed very pleasing, dynamic and balanced, almost without high frequency noise. I´ll post my configuration below - but be aware that you´ll be destroying the integrity of the material! Oh, I used the SACD layer for my "remastering", I wanted to have the best quality so that my improvements wouldn´t have quality lowering result:

My "remastering" configuration for Deutsche Grammophon 474 605-2

I don´t know what went wrong with this recording but there isn´t much center information left (if you´d play it back on a surround system). The width of this recording is immense, it sounds as if someone used a "stereo-widening" DSP effect for this recording, I´ve rarely seen a classical recording which displays a characteristic as this, it´s even more disappointing when one knows who recorded this: Michael Bishop, at that time chief engineer for TELARC, who is a remarkable engineer and one of the best around. It´s one of the first DSD-recordings done in 1999, perhaps the inexperience with the new and untested recording format played a role. The performances however are lovely, it´s in fact the only version of "Pines of Rome" by Respighi I´m able to listen too. The "Fountains of Rome" and the "Metamorphosen" are wonderful too. Thankfully the sound can be "corrected" - but be advised again that you´d be destroying the material:

TELARC CD-80505. iZotope Ozone with 70% DSP strength

Another famous recording from the DG (463 650-2). But sadly not a very good performance (despite boasting a celebrated conductor) of this well loved work from Antonin Dvorak. The recording quality is dull and lifeless, again an example of a recording made for vinyl. Staging is both flat and compact at the same time. Not worth your time (I prefer Paavo Järvi's No. 9 on TELARC - superior in every way).

On this recording (TELARC CD-80681) nothing fits: sound & performance are surprisingly uneven. The latter is especially lackluster, I´ve never heard a more uninvolving version of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony. Here it should have been called "Ennuyeux" instead of "Pathétique". The sound quality is uninvolving too: the music sounds as if having a severe cold. The frequency reading reveals a deep "hole" at frequencies from 5.000 to 12.000 Hz and a "bump" at 15.000 Hz which results in a recording that sounds dull, lifeless, muddy and grainy - all at the same time. I don´t know how engineer Michael Bishop did this; maybe by placing the microphones in a peculiar way or by something else unkown to me, the result however is not enjoyable. BTW, he used this sound signature for quite some time with recordings of the Cincinnati Symphony / Pops Orchestra, though most of the time not as extreme as here and with clearly superior results. Maybe he wanted to reduce the reverb laden sound of earlier TELARC recordings or had some other goal unknown to me... anyway, on this recording he exaggerated whatever he was planning to do and the result saddens me deeply.

This SACD (TELARC SACD-60703, engineered by Robert Friedrich) shows the same sonic signature as the Järvi-recording above. Dull, lifeless and grainy. The SACD-layer reduces the grainyness somewhat but the dull sound remains - as if someone had put a woolen blanket over your loudspeakers. Equally disappointing is that this Boléro isn´t one of the best. For sure, this work is not worth the attention it normally receives (even Ravel thought so himself) but this tepid rendition is not recommended even if you like it or want to procreate to it. Timing is way off, the - usually perfect - orchestra is surprisingly uninspired. If it would be slow I´d understand at least partially why it´s so boring ('slow' was typical for the late Erich Kunzel) but it´s not. The best (and the longest Boléro) was conducted by Simon Rattle on an ok-sounding CD (EMI) which prooves that you can be slow and suspenseful at the same time. The other performances on this disc aren´t very good too although not as bad as the Boléro. Another disappointment.

Actually, the sound on this CD is lovely - if there wouldn´t be the vanishing right channel. When the music gets lower in amplitude the right channel almost disappears and disintegrates into distortions. When the orchestra gets louder the right channel comes back with full force - very disturbing. The performances are a mixed bag too: "La Valse" is uneven and flashy, the "Boléro" is ok but uninvolving while the "Rapsodie Espagnole" and the "Valses nobles et sentimentales" are simply gorgeous. The sound generally is fairly bass heavy which on occasion tends to distract from the works' careful orchestration; it also results in a rather tacky sounding "La Valse", it almost destroys the mixture of French / Spanish atmosphere so carefully fleshed out by Maurice Ravel. Especially disappointing when one considers that staging, precision, bloom and dynamics are perfectly captured and consistent - but only if the right channel decides to be present of course.

This CD actually isn´t that bad performance- and soundwise - if there wouldn´t be a unnerving amount of clicks and pops present in the recording. Engineered again by the wonderful Michael Bishop, this release shows the warm sound signature of the Bishop / Cincinnati pairing, only this time not as extreme as on the aforementionend releases. Still, besides sounding like a vinyl record this CD (TELARC CD-80683) showcases an overly warm sonic balance together with instruments noticeably varying size and place. As a result the staging is unnatural and every instrument seems to be blown up to huge proportions - but not at all times because it changes constantly which turns this release in combination with the clicks and pops into another disappointing experience.

I feel like I´m going to commit a crime now: this recording was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque by the French Académie Charles Cros in 1989. The sound would be marvellous if there wouldn´t be the aggressive high frequencies. This recording engineered for CD indeed sounds like the early CD players: harsh, strident and cold. It shows everything TELARC is famous for: precision, staging, timing, dynamics, wonderful timbre - but this time with an unpleasant and very disturbing amount of high frequency activity that almost sounds like distortions on the brink of becoming obvious. The performances however are remarkably perfect (if uplifting patriotic music is your thing). It´s a shame really because this recording could have been so well sounding, everything is there - but at the same time everything is exaggerated. I can only listen to it for a few minutes, after that time I have to turn it off because I´m getting a headache and my ears start to ring.

Concluding this little article I´d like to say that this time I won´t recommend buying these CDs - except you know exactly what you´re doing. In that case you´ll be listening to sometimes wonderful performances combined with disappointing sound quality. Sometimes the ills of these recordings can be "corrected" by simple means, most of the times they cannot. Personally I find it curious that the output quality of just one engineer (Michael Bishop) sometimes varies by this amount. He did so many wonderful recordings for TELARC (many are on my Best-of list) and then he also did the ones described here. Thankfully the pristine ones outnumber the not so perfect ones. It still tells me one thing: Never trust a famous name, even if you normally - like me - love his or her work. In any case, these releases are not recommended if you care about sound quality; therefore I´m giving these recordings my cold shoulder.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The ten best-sounding classical recordings of all time!

Today I´m gonna describe my personal selection of the ten best-sounding classical recordings of all time to you, dear reader. But first let me be clear about one thing: I´m not gonna list the usual suspects from magazines or people twice as old as I am... you won´t read about some ancient RCA Living Stereo recording here. Your typical audiophile may adore them; they sound well for their age (roughly 60 years) but like - sorry - crap when keeping present-day recordings in mind. You see, several recordings declared to be "reference recordings" are sometimes nothing more than recordings people dearly love because A) they were the first recordings actually sounding any good at times when none other did or B) people grew up with them and listened to them while they were teenagers and were developing their sonic taste. Or people attach some personal experience with them, I don´t know. You won´t find recordings like that on my list (except one). Naturally I myself have recordings I dearly love, recordings I bought when I was 14. Nevertheless, most of them do not sound very good even though my musical and sonic taste was developing at that time: even then I knew how to differentiate good from bad sound. I will continue this list with the ten worst sounding classical recordings, the ten best / worst souding organ recordings and the ten bestworst filmmusic recordings. But today I´m going to show you my personal selection of classical recordings... oh, before I forget: in case of SACDs I will only mention the 2-channel-high-resolution layer because I don´t listen to multichannel.


My most loved recording: it´s crisp, boasts an impeccable dynamic with correct and impressive timbre, the staging is most lovely. It was recorded in 2007 at the Woodruff Performing Arts Center in Atlanta by Michael Bishop. From what I´ve read this revenue is sonically extremely unsuited for an orchestra (!) so it´s especially surprising that this recording sounds THAT well. There isn´t much difference between the CD and SACD layer even though the SACD layer sounds a bit less harsh and grainy with improved staging. I dare not say anything about the interpretational qualities since this is the World Premiere Recording of Gandolfi's work - I can only say that I love everything about this recording, the music and its sound!


Again the same concert hall as above, again recorded by Michael Bishop ten years prior. The interpretation of "The Planets" by Yoel Levi of this well loved work by Gustav Holst isn´t the best but that doesn´t matter because I´m concentrating on the sound only - and the sound is marvellous! Dynamic differences (the loudest fortissimo vs. the lowest pianissimo) are roughly 50 dB (40 dB are already considered overkill for most people), your loudspeakers literally explode with energy when the orchestra unleashes its full force. Beside the dynamics the sound is a bit more voluptious at deeper frequencies compared to the recording above but the rest is on roughly the same level: crispness, precision, staging and timbre are all top-notch.

Of this lovely work by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams this is the only recording I personally know. The dynamics are similar to the CD above - without the natural bass dynamic of a typical TELARC recording of course. Balance is a bit on the crisper side but very pleasant, staging is wide and deep. Perfectly natural sound. Recorded in 2001 at All Saints Church in Tooting, London. Sadly I don´t know the CD number since I bought this in high-resolution on HighResAudio.


Marvellous, almost perfect and pristine. Staging is a wee bit small but instruments are at their correct size, dynamics are good, sonic balance generally is more on the warm side which supports the colourful orchestration of these famous Stravinsky works tremendously. The interpretation of "The Firebird" is one of the best and most powerful I know. This particular CD is the reason I fell in love with Paavo Järvis' conducting style. Recorded by Jack Renner in 2002 at Cincinnati Music Hall.

The compositions on this CD have been called 'cheap' or 'tacky' so many times that one cannot count this. Ottorino Respighi was regarded as a controversial composer during his time, many critics accused him of being too simple and ecclectic, especially when describing the highly erotic "Belkis, Queen of Sheba". Whatever they say, I love the music... and yes, you can call me tacky, I´d like that (I´ve actually played enough whores and femme fatales in order to be proud about that label). I also love the sound: it´s perhaps overly crisp (as always with Mr. Johnson's recordings) yet impressively dynamic. As usual with recordings from RR the timbre of this recording is breathtakingly colourful, you won´t find this on many other recordings. Conducted by Eiji Oue, released in 2001 first as an HDCD and finally on HDTracks - which is the version you should buy.

This is one of the first classical CDs I bought some 20 years ago (and the exception I mentionend in my introduction). The recording on this CD was done in 1976 and regarding its age it sounds fabulous and even when reviewed from today this CD holds up extremely well. The sound quality is not as good as Levi's recording of "The Planets" up above but it´s better then 90% of everything else that´s out there. Staging is wide, deep and natural, bass reaches extremely deep frequencies and dynamics are mindboggling for a recording this old. Timbre could be a bit better though but even then it´s crisp, defined and presents a huge range of sonic colours. BTW, the Enigma Variations on this disc doesn´t sound very good, they were made some years prior in much worse quality. Recording was done at Abbey Road Studios in London; sadly not many recordings made there hold up to the promise its reputation suggests. But this one does, it´s the exception from the rule. It´s also the definitive recorded performance of Holsts' massive work when viewed from an interpretational standpoint. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the premiere of "The Planets" when he was still a young man and he did the same many years later for this release. The orchestras' timing is impeccable, Boult is neither too fast nor too slow and he is able to master the works' extreme mood swings with flawless ease - this one for sure is an all time high in the history of recorded classical music.


An almost perfect recording. Made in 2002 (again in Atlanta) with engineering done by Jack Renner it is perhaps a tad too harsh, there is a hint of unpleasant or stiff sound to be observed. Still, dynamics are wonderful, staging is perfect (again). The music... well, it´s not for everyone. Jennifer Higdon for example sounds a bit stiff most of the time - combine this with an equally stiff sounding recording like this one and you´ll get a very demanding SACD. The SACD-layer makes everything a bit softer while keeping the definition, shows less "grain" and improves the stage impression (admittedly sounding a bit flat on the CD layer).

The only release from German institution Deutsche Grammophon in my list (most of the time recordings from the DG are o.k. but not mind-boggling, their sound is very "German", meaning a bit brittle). This one here shows the same overall frequency balance typical for DG recordings but combines this with lovely sonic colour, dynamics, timing and precision - and possibly the most superior performance of the 7th symphony by Beethoven ever preserved on tape. It´s one of those rare recordings done by Carlos Kleiber (who usually preferred a live audience instead of a recording venue) and it´s a true gem. I bought this version here on HDTracks which is the version you should buy also - the available CD doesn´t sound remotely as well as the high definition master experienced here.


Oh, this one is a very famous recording. One of the first digital recordings ever the 1812 overture introduced TELARC to the spotlight with a bang in 1978 - literally! It features real cannons and in true TELARC fashion they were recorded without being dynamically compressed. Back in 1978 TELARC was forced to release their recordings on vinyl, the CD was not yet available. The wish to avoid dynamic compression on the cannons with their brutal signal peaks not only prompted problems for cutting the vinyl master, it also caused the needle of the turntable to jump when it encountered these peaks upon playback. If that didn´t happen there was a high probability that the listener wrecked his/her loudspeakers: the amplifier couldn´t handle the extreme jumps in dynamics and was driven into harsh clipping which in turn destroyed the loudspeakers. As you might have already guessed, the dynamics are great throughout, the staging is wide and correct (depth could be a bit better though) while sonic colour and timbre could be a bit better (compared to the more recent recordings it seems to lack a tiny bit of colour). The overall sound however is so well rendered that this recording is still able to compete against present day recordings. As I said, this release was done digitally in 1978 with the gorgeous Soundstream recorder with engineering by Jack Renner at Cincinnati Music Hall. I also advise you to have a listen to "Wellington's Victory" by Beethoven - even though critcs hate it it´s still good fun: you´ll find lots of cannons, pistols and muskets firing in this piece and yes, that may be a bit distracting but Beethoven actually intended it that way (as proven by the works' orchestration). To my knowledge this is the only recording of Beethoven's piece in existence done the way the composer intended it to be performed. Both works have been interpretated better before, as typical for the wonderful Erich Kunzel the overall result sounds a bit bored. Nevermind, this is an extremely well sounding recording to scare your neighbours with. Released as two separate CDs before (CD-80041 & CD-80079).


The last recording of the Mozart-symphony-cycle Mackerras did for Telarc is the one with the most superior sound. Voluptious, relatively forward but not very crisp. On mediocre equipment it´ll sound mellow, boring and dull. But on good equipment it will sound crisp with a lot of microdynamics and impeccable staging (some instruments seem to be too big, this could be attributed solely to the fact that only two mics were used). Dynamics aren´t much of an issue here since it´s 'only' a chamber orchestra. Still, some pieces require short reaction times by the playback equipment, necessitating perfect microdynamic capabilities. Recorded in Prague by Jack Renner in 1990.

As you can see I adore many recordings released by TELARC. Most of them seem to have the most natural dynamic or frequency balance of all recording companies. When they entered the business in the late '70s they weren´t exactly loved. Reviewers 30 years ago accused them of preferring sound quality over interpretation and that their recordings had too much bass. Too much bass? That was indeed the major criticism about their sound: a preference for deep frequencies. The reasons were of course very different because at those times other companies were diminishing deep frequency power in order for the music to be able to easily fit the numerous limitations of the carrier medium vinyl. Therefore the then usual analogue recordings were engineered that way from the start with the result that people became accustomed to that tinny sound. TELARC did not adhere to peoples' expectations, effectively producing discs with then unheard dynamics and a (natural) sonic balance many were not accustomed to. Engineering especially for vinyl is also the reason why early CDs sounded so awful - only because companies used the very same masters for technically perfect CDs - even when they were originally intended for countering numerous defects of vinyl media only. It took the classical majors and their engineers a few years for adjusting their sound, in the '70s and '80s they hadn´t seen the advantages of CD yet, they were still compensating for the flaws of vinyl. TELARC was different however: they recorded digitally from the start (with a handful of exceptions) and they always strived to get the best out of the new technology.
Sadly, those days are over. TELARC was acquired in 2005 by the Concorde Music Group and in 2009 their staff was reduced, many people (including their engineers) were laid off. Contracts with the Cincinnati Symphony / Pops Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony were cancelled or not renewed, they focus mostly on Jazz recordings now (which is what Concorde mostly deals with). Today TELARC exists in name only, the company that challenged the majors and had the best sound is all but gone. Jack Renner has retired from engineering but Michael Bishop continues to record. But the above recordings still exist and they will do so for quite some time - although not on SACD: I recommend buying their SACDs now that they are so cheap and before they are completely phased out. Grab all those CD/SACDs on Amazon, you won´t regret it. Or go buy some releases on HDTracks - you won´t regret that either (No, I´m not getting any compensation for this :)).

Last update: 01.12.2012
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