This section focuses on great music, providing:
A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!
There’s a bass guitar riff which underpins this piece while the other musicians take a relaxed approach to timing. On the right system this is clearly intentional and skilfully done, and the piece hangs together beautifully. On the wrong system the timing is just vague; loose but not deliberately so; disconnected and slightly raucous.
The intro is in the style of a Romantic piano sonata. It might not be Beethoven but it’s rather better than the self-indulgent noodling that some systems make of it. On ‘Go Ahead’, on the right system, it’s clear that she is playing fast and loose with the rhythm, lesser systems just make it sound like she can’t keep up.
Very little melodic interest here; it’s all about the rhythm which should be insistent and propulsive and the harmony which is subtle. If the timing and tunefulness of the performance is compromised it loses the quality which holds your attention and makes it so compelling.
There is a wonderful sense of intimacy and yet vast space within this piece. It’s a contradiction which goes to the heart of the music. The solo should be expansive, not simply loud. If there is no sense of rhythmic intent (despite the South American origins of the music) or the harmony is bland and indistinct or the chorus sounds bored (probably because it has been shoved into the background), you might well dismiss this as not worth your attention. We think that would be a great shame.
Two things stand out on this track – the immense power and sonority of the piano and the subterranean depth of the bass guitar giving voice to Purcell’s famous ground bass. The problem being that, on the wrong system, neither is particularly connected to the other. It’s as though the musicians played their individual parts without hearing the others. Then the bass drags the piece down and the piano plods without the momentum or passion which is so evident when your system is really working well.
Welcome to dCS’s new Classical playlist. Each month here you’ll find a couple of the best new releases, alongside an older recording I think everyone should have in their life; although it’s also highly likely that from time to time I’ll deviate from that format, simply because the world of Classical recordings is too rich and historic not to occasionally go off-editorial-piste in the pursuit of worthwhile experiences.
For this month I’ve stuck to Plan A, though. So for my pair of new releases I’ve chosen the Elias’s Quartet’s new recording of Schumann Quartets Nos.2 and 3, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor from The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge: two albums which singled themselves out from the pack very swiftly for me. Read below to find out why.
My older recording was a slightly trickier decision on this particular occasion. After all, how to choose a first-playlist-worthy track from so many years of Classical listening? Ultimately, however, it had to be the first recording I ever heard on a high-end audio system: Christine Schäfer’s 1998 recording for Deutsche Grammophon of Mozart arias and Strauss orchestral songs, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado.
So, what were the circumstances of that first listen of Schäfer’s album? Well, the year was 1999, and the location a radio studio in the bowels of BBC Broadcasting House, where I had just begun my first post-university job as a broadcast assistant at BBC Radio 3. The producer I was working with that day was particularly in love with Schafer’s performance of the Strauss song, “Morgen”, and because he wanted me to be equally in love, he not only programmed it, but also got the studio manager to crank up the volume when it came on. So we listened in silence (not something we’d ever done before as a programme went out, because there were always constantly-shifting programme timings to be on top of) as that ravishing combination of repertoire and voice filled our ears. Almost twenty years later I can still see us sitting there, and there’s no question that part of the magic from my own perspective came from this also being my very first hearing of what those studio speakers – the first professional-level speakers I’d ever had access to – were capable of. Never before had recorded music sounded so vivid to my ears.
I should add that the whole album is sublime, so don’t just stop at “Morgen”.
Schumann wrote his three quartets as a birthday gift to his new bride, Clara Schumann, in 1842, in what would end up being a year of frenetic composition all centred around chamber works: in addition to those three quartets he also managed the Piano Quartet, the Piano Quintet and the Fantasiestucke piano trio, all within the space of nine months. The Elias Quartet’s new recording of the second and third quartets is very fine indeed. Think supple lines, beautiful nuancing, and engineering which allows the four instruments’ individual timbral characters to shine out to an almost tactile degree. We’ve chosen Quartet No.2 for our playlist, but you’ll also want to hear the fragile and tender-toned magic they’ve worked on No.3.
The Choir of St John’s, Cambridge, can get overshadowed by the fame of that of King’s College, Cambridge, just up the street. However this choir which counts star countertenor Iestyn Davies amongst its alumnae is one of the UK’s finest, and with its own distinctive sound: boy trebles as with King’s, but with a warmer overall tone; and indeed their director Andrew Nethsingha has very deliberately gone after a very human (for want of a better word) sound. A couple of years ago they launched a new, distinctive-looking imprint on Signum, which has been doing much for their wider reputation, and their latest release of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s unaccompanied Mass in G Minor shows them off at their very finest. Beautiful engineering puts the final polish on the overall magic, showing off their magnificent chapel acoustic to its full glory. The poppy on the cover artwork recognises that Vaughan Williams wrote both the mass, and the other choral liturgical works of his on this disc, directly after his experience as a wagon orderly during the First World War.
It is clear that Diana Krall is working here with some very fine musicians who play with real commitment, confident that they can rely on each other. It makes for a propulsive, energetic and memorable performance. But the timing is subtle and exacting. Some systems smear, for example, piano and percussion which can sound disconnected as if, once again, the performers are not paying proper attention. It’s the difference between an unforgettable night out or a so-so one, the sort where you might not want your money back but you won’t be talking about the gig for years afterwards.
We all have a soundtrack to our lives.
Music is surely, amongst many other things, about life, expression and ideas. Musical ideas intertwine with our lives and this can lead to new possibilities and ways of looking at things. A melody, a solo, a chord change or a simple arrangement can give birth to feelings, thoughts and impressions of musical landscapes and tonal textures and colours that speak to us on a fundamental and rather earthy level, as well as inspiring us and helping us to better understand our world. It is an incredibly powerful force.
In the future I will be listing some tracks that you may or may not like. That’s what Playlists are all about. If they encourage you to check out the artists at a deeper level, then that would be great.
As a guitarist myself I thought I would start off with some electric players that have meant something to me. There will be more to come, as well as acoustic guitar players, vocalists, vocal groups, Bluegrass, Flamenco, Jazz, Fusion etc – as well as just about anything else that comes to mind. None of the lists come with any claims like being the best of this or that. It’s just music in some of its many forms. I hope you enjoy them.
Listen on Tidal https://tidal.com/playlist/cdbe0829-6f7f-4bad-a4ed-4728a14764db
Comments per track
A wonderfully understated performance from Sinatra. His exquisite sense of timing, the way he plays with rhythm but never loses the sense of forward motion, is a large part of his greatness. In a well set up system he works intimately with the piano and the orchestra’s involvement is surprisingly subtle. On other systems the piano noodles away to itself unconnected to the music, the orchestra swamps the rest when it plays and Sinatra’s timing isn’t exquisite, just listless.
A familiar sound at hi-fi shows, this one, and with good reason. There is real anger and emphatic playing in this track but on the wrong system it simply fails to come across. It opens with a percussion crescendo which can seem merely to get louder but to no good effect. On the right system the percussion builds with a real sense of increasing energy and urgency. Also the vocals (it’s spoken rather than sung) and playing are suffused with anger and awareness of great injustice, whereas some systems can make it sound like Masekela is simply reading from a list.
On the right system the build up to the entry of the main theme is skilfully and subtly crafted, the bass and piano are exquisitely timed and there is a real sense of jazz rhythm informed by enormous respect and understanding of Bach’s music. The instruments have proper mass and there’s a real sense of swing to the rhythm changes. If there’s little sense of note or tunefulness to the bass, and bass and piano feel disconnected, it becomes adequately, but not memorably, played.
This can sound tight and energetic, vigorous dance-making music which is hard to ignore – and why would you want to? Or it can sound disconnected, as if the musicians are not paying enough attention to each other.
In the wrong system the distinctive vocal style of these women and their a cappella songs will sound merely shouty, overwrought and tiresome. A well set up system, though, will reveal the remarkable depth of feeling and control that these singers bring to what is, in effect, tuneful yelling. One piece is fast and dynamic, the other lyrical. Both are extraordinary.
This is fairly typical of Senegalese popular music. It can sound plodding: the bass can dominate, but tunelessly, and the backing group can sound a bit bored. If it’s your introduction to world music, and you don’t see what people find in it, that might be why. On a good system everything gains life and vitality, the bass is less dominant and more tuneful and the vocals, including the backing group, are much more engaging and interesting to listen to.
Fonseca’s piano technique combines liquid phrasing with an emphatic, attacking and percussive style. It’s an interesting combination of opposites, complimented wonderfully by subtle and skilful percussion well-placed in an acoustic space. Some systems fail to convey any real sense of control or musicianship: the playing lacks finesse, the timing is off, and there’s an odd disconnect between the right and left hands. Oh, and the percussion ceases to have any real connection to the music.
Fragile vulnerability in the vocal, delivering heartbreaking lyrics. This song has real emotional impact elevating Rosanne Cash to one of the greats. If it’s nothing special, just another so-so torch song – pretty, but not memorable – then your system is depriving you of a real treat.
This Nonesuch CD, originally released in 2008, features Cooder spinning an epic yarn of a semi-fictitious America between the mid-’50s and the mid-’60s and completes the musical journey started with Chavez Revine and My Name is Buddy. This record is chock full of tasty percussion licks, environmental sounds and twangy guitar riffs. Those who loved the Little Village collaboration with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner will notice some familiar charts here…and Keltner is back on drums.The soundstage is huge, the acoustic instruments sound right and Cooder’s playing (and clever sense of humour) have never been better. The disc illustrates just how good 16/44.1 can be if done right.
A deceptively simple piece, the vocal part gives a powerful portrayal of menace and foreboding over an elegantly poised and measured piano accompaniment. Some systems fail to get any real feeling of dread across; there is no sense of purpose, a lack of tension between the parts. Loud sections are loud for no obvious reason becoming shouty and histrionic and the ending is just a wrap-up of the piece dissipating any sense of mystery or intrigue.
‘Inspired by Dusty Springfield’ says the cover and, indeed, the majority of the tracks on this album were originally made famous by the enigmatic Dusty. However, such is the unique quality of Ms Lynne’s voice that she easily makes each track her own. She has a deliciously sexy voice that, with excellent support from a small group of fine musicians, enables her to create the illusion that we are sharing some very intimate moments in her love life. The overall effect is mesmerising. The sound is demonstration class throughout. Originally recorded, at Ms Lynne’s request, by Phil Ramone on a high quality reel-to-reel tape recorder, the songs were then digitally mastered. The end result is magical both musically and sonically.
More significant liberties with the timing taken here. The clue is in the name – The Slow Motion Quintet. These are first class performers who know exactly how difficult it can be to play so slowly. Languid and luxurious or under-rehearsed and disjointed? If it sounds as though the musicians keep losing their place, then this piece will lose much of its charm.