On NewYear’s Day, my daughter and her family came over to help ring in the new year. A couple of days earlier, my son-in-law had called and asked me if I would pick about five or so tunes that had some deeper level of meaning to me, or that would show off my system to good effect. Perhaps we could take a few moments at some point on New Year’s Day and have a listen? So, on New Year’s Eve, as we whiled away the hours waiting for the ball to drop, I opened the web application for my Euphony Summus Server and started to compile a playlist of music that I either really loved, or really sounded great on the system. In about an hour, I’d created a playlist that spanned multiple genres and had 99 tunes in it!
My son-in-law Andrew is actually beginning to show an interest in higher-end audio; he and my daughter Julie are both multi-instrumentalists, and played in a band for several years before they started to raise a family. When they arrived, we had a few hors d’oeuvres and adult beverages, then Andrew, Henry, and I went downstairs for about an hour to take a listen to the system. I placed Andrew in the most comfortable chair and in the sweet spot, in hopes of exposing him to a top-notch listening experience. We were joined shortly afterward by everyone else. Everything I played was from my digital file server; my digital playback is sounding better than ever since the addition of the Ethernet-to-fiber media conversion setup I recently implemented (see my article in Issue 153). We couldn’t possibly listen to all 99 tunes, so I skipped through the playlist, and often only played two-or-three-minute segments of lengthy or large-scale pieces.
As I skipped about, I was reminded of an anecdote that appeared in the pages of Stereophile magazine, in the issue a few years ago that contained a tribute following the passing of founder and longtime editor, J. Gordon Holt. In the anecdote, Stereophile had just hired the edgy and unrestrained gonzo writer Corey Greenberg, and he’d invited JGH over to take a listen to his system and hopefully offer his opinion on it. The two listened for several hours, in which Greenberg played full-length songs and musical selections; toward the end of the evening, he asked JGH for his thoughts on his system. “Oh, your system sounds great,” he responded, “but I have some very bad news for you. You’re not an audiophile.” When pressed by Greenberg on his assessment, JGH informed him that “audiophiles never listen to complete works, they only skim through the best parts!”
Both Andrew and Julie were impressed with the proceedings, but Andrew took a moment to express his astonishment at the level of realism he was hearing from the system, and how he’d never really heard reproduced music that gave one the impression that the performers were actually playing live in the room with you. Of course, I regaled him with my theories that good stereo systems are actually time machines, that can readily transport the listener back in time to the recording session and venue, regardless of when the recordings took place. In one of the pieces, you could hear the pianist, Paul Lewis, breathing as he played the sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn. Andrew was struck by how being able to clearly hear Lewis’s breathing helped him more realistically visualize the pianist and the piano in the soundfield. I told him that Lewis was almost as noteworthy for his heavy breathing as for his remarkably definitive performances of the works of Schubert, Beethoven, and Haydn.
This was an important moment for me to try and win converts for high-end audio, and besides, when I either retire or keel over, most of my most interesting equipment will go to Julie and Andrew anyway. We listened to and skimmed through about twenty different pieces, with plenty of listening left for another day. Or two, or three! I thought it would be interesting to share some of the music that I most often turn to for both sheer enjoyment and when I’m evaluating new equipment for a review.
First up was the second movement, Andante, of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, in a recording on Harmonia Mundi by Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov that features the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Teodor Currentzis. Shostakovich is among my favorite composers, and I love the brashness and power of his symphonies that are often mixed with equal parts of unrestrained joy and absolute despair. This second movement is uncharacteristically tender and emotional for an orchestral work by Shostakovich, and Melnikov’s idiomatic playing is beyond beautiful. The sound quality of this Harmonia Mundi recording is magnificent, especially for an uncompressed FLAC rip of a 16-bit/44.1 kHz WAV file. This music is so very calming, and the realism of the piano and orchestra is so very good, this is one of those tunes that I find myself almost uncontrollably punching the replay button on.
We then switched gears and listened to a couple of tracks from the excellent 24-bit/96 kHz Giles Martin remix of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, including the perpetually sunny George Harrison-penned “Here Comes The Sun” and the tune that immediately follows, John Lennon’s “Because.” “Here Comes The Sun” is always an absolute joy to listen to and can lift even the darkest spirits. Giles Martin’s remix provides some welcome clarity to the instrumentation and Harrison’s vocal, and Billy Preston’s synth embellishments literally bounce all over the soundstage. “Because” is the real treat; the multi-tracked voices of the four Beatles seem to float across the soundstage, and Martin’s new mix is revelatory. Andrew immediately commented on how the voices were so magically presented, and how hearing this version gave him an entirely new frame of reference for this classic music.
We stayed in The Beatles groove with two songs from the 24/96 Giles Martin remix of The Beatles (more commonly known as the White Album), Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and John Lennon’s “Julia.” In Giles Martin’s new remix, “Blackbird” is imbued with a staggeringly good level of clarity, and both McCartney’s vocal and his Martin D28 acoustic guitar are more clearly articulated here than on any previous version of this album. Lennon’s tribute to his late mother, “Julia,” is a powerfully emotional rollercoaster of a tune. Especially considering she abandoned him as a child (he was then raised by his aunt Mimi), and was only beginning to attempt to rebuild a relationship with her when she was killed in an automobile accident when John was only 17. His vocal and acoustic guitar are particularly well-served by Giles Martin’s new mix; this would mark the only time Lennon appeared unaccompanied by the other Beatles on any album by the group.
Next up was British jazz vocalist Claire Martin’s “Traveling Light” from her album He Never Mentioned Love on the Linn Records label; we listened to my DSD 64 rip from the SACD. Claire Martin’s been voted the UK’s top female jazz vocalist many times over the last couple of decades, and if you’re into jazz vocals, trust me — you know about her. This is another strictly acoustic venture, and the sound quality — as you would expect from Linn Records — is absolute ear candy. The depth of the acoustic bass will easily cause many less-capable loudspeakers to distort, but the recording captures the “woodiness” of the upright bass perfectly. And Claire Martin’s smoky-sweet alto is sheer perfection on this tune. (I apologize for the video link, it’s for the full album, I couldn’t find a YouTube link for the individual song.)
We moved on to an album of Haydn Piano Sonatas on the Harmonia Mundi label by British pianist Paul Lewis — yes, he’s the heavy breather from above. The file we listened to is a 16-bit/44.1 WAV file that’s been converted to an uncompressed FLAC. The track we chose is the second movement of the Sonata No. 49 in E flat major, the Andante Cantabile. Lewis’s Haydn is pretty darn-near definitive, and the recorded solo piano sound has an astounding level of realism for a rip of a CD-quality file. This is one of those disc’s that’s so very well recorded, Lewis’s piano is actually in your room; needless to say, my daughter Julie (who’s a classically trained pianist) was impressed by Lewis’s mastery of Haydn’s oeuvre. Andrew was taken not only by the excellence of the performance, but also by how Lewis’s breathing made the aural experience so very real.
Next up was “Missing” from Everything But The Girl’s record Amplified Heart, which is maybe one of the best sounding dance albums ever committed to tape. Tracy Thorn’s lilting and perfectly liquid vocal is completely captivating, and Ben Watt’s guitars, synths, and orchestration help create one of the most effectively contemplative mood pieces ever. Shockingly good sound for a 16/44.1 uncompressed FLAC rip of a CD, and even three-year-old Henry was moved to get up on the floor and do a little dance turn! If you ever need a synth/pop/vocal piece to show off your gear, you can’t do much better than this.
Back to the classical thing, we listened to a couple of tracks from Fritz Reiner’s 1955 recording of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste on RCA Living Stereo. We listened to my DSD 64 rip of the Acoustic Sounds SACD for this title, checking out the second movement Allegro and the following third movement Adagio. The Adagio is famously known for its inclusion in some of the more harrowing scenes of the movie adaptation of Steven King’s The Shining. These are truly outstanding recordings, and when I mentioned to Andrew that they were recorded in 1955, he expressed his disbelief that such an old recording could sound so impressively modern. And then he really shocked me with his next comment, where he told me that “Listening to it, you felt as though you were present in the orchestra hall.” That’s my boy — I’ll make an audiophile out of this kid yet! (Another apology for the YouTube video; only the full performance piece was available.)
We were getting close to running out of time, so we listened to another favorite, a 16/44.1 rip to uncompressed FLAC from Linda Ronstadt’s classic album Prisoner In Disguise. There are a lot of great tunes on this record, but one of my favorites is the duo track with Emmylou Harris, “The Sweetest Gift.” I first became aware of this song as a very young child; I’d sit in church on Sundays and look at the songs in the hymnal if I was tired of being yelled at by the backwoods Baptist preacher (we’re talking literally every Sunday of my young life). And spotted this tune there — imagine my surprise as a teenager, when I bought this LP and actually heard the song for the first time! Both Linda and Emmylou’s voices are angelic, and Emmylou’s guitar accompaniment is totally apropos; I get a little emotional every time I hear this — it really takes me back. Andrew and Julie were definitely impressed!
The last track we listened to (at least for this day) was an opera piece by the Russian coloratura soprano Olga Peretyatko, from her debut album, Rossini! Which is a superb collection of highlights from composer Gioachino Rossini’s many operas; the track I chose was “Uno voce poco fa,” which is from The Barber of Seville. The translation of the piece is “A voice from a little while ago,” and is sung by the opera’s female protagonist, Rosina, who thought she’d heard the voice of one of her many suitors. And how she’d do anything in her power to prevent any other woman from getting to him. Olga Peretyatko is one of the rising stars in modern opera, and her voice in this piece is nothing short of astounding — she has no problem hitting all the impossibly high notes demanded by the role. Another uncompressed FLAC rip from a 16/44.1 CD, but one of the most impressive sounding digital files in my entire library!
We skimmed through some other stuff; some jazz from Cyrus Chestnut, more vocals from Ella Fitzgerald and Patricia Barber, and some outstanding Ralph Vaughan Williams by the late Richard Hickox — maybe we’ll cover some of that in another installment. Till then, good listening!
All images courtesy of the author.