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.

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