Oscar Thompson, writing in the New York Sun, was beside himself. "All of the Toscanini magic was in the three performances of the evening. The slakeless care, the amazing equipoise of parts, the inerrable tracing of the essential lifeline of each composition, without either sacrificing or overstressing subsidiary voices; the cumulative momentum by which the music runs its allotted course with a rhythmic surety that loses all semblance of arbitrary pace; the organic growth in the revelation of structure, as if the last measure were predestined with the first, and the ignescent inner light, whereby the instruments are given an individual glow rather than merging in a welter of sound, all these played their familiar part in performances as personal as they were universal in the power and persuasion of their appeal."
Ignescent inner light, indeed.
Maybe Thompson's paragraph — note, please, that it's all of two sentences — slops over with gush, but if you couldn't come over all sweetness and light about NBC's 1937 Christmas night broadcast, then you were obviously the nastiest, Grinchiest Scrooge in town, a guy who snarled at kittens and stamped on bunnies. It was a kingly gift, begun six weeks earlier when Pierre Monteux, then Arthur Rodzinski, mounted the podium in RCA's newly refitted Studio 8-H to conduct the newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra on national radio. But that was just a warmup to the big event, which was Arturo Toscanini's first broadcast with his orchestra, on December 25, 1937.
The thought of today's networks doing anything remotely similar is laughable, albeit depressing. NBC had created the NBC Symphony Orchestra specifically for the septuagenerian Toscanini, who had recently stood down from the New York Philharmonic. His stature was unimpeachable, unassailable, Olympian. To secure him as the conductor of a radio orchestra took brazen chutzpah—an attribute that NBC czar David Sarnoff had in abundance. No expense was spared and no artistic corners were cut. The broadcasts were live concerts before a privileged and assiduously supervised audience, presented with minimal commercial interruptions. There was no pandering to unsophisticated listeners. The first program consisted of a Vivaldi concerto, the Mozart G Minor, and the Brahms First. One wonders if NBC considered tossing in a few Bing Crosby numbers just to goose the ratings. They probably knew that Toscanini would shoot them all, then himself, if they even whispered such a thing. As it turned out, there was no need: the December 25 broadcast drew in 20 million listeners—15.6 percent of the total US population. One wonders if even 1.56 percent of the 2012 population would bother with it. Probably not.
NBC's royal gift went on for 17 years. The Depression was followed by a cataclysmic World War that tapered off into a wary standoff between the War's two victors. By the time Toscanini led the orchestra for its last recording in June 1954 he was a TV veteran. The economically fragile America of his inaugural broadcast was now a global powerhouse, the richest nation in history, awash in cars and TVs and freeways and frozen foods and air conditioning and supermarkets and babies. (Including me; I was born just a few weeks after Toscanini's final NBC studio session.) American orchestras had skyrocketed to international acclaim, and the 1950s recording orgy was on: Reiner in Chicago, Szell in Cleveland, Munch in Boston, Ormandy in Philadelphia, with Bernstein in New York just around the corner.
Toscanini raised the barre for orchestral playing, not only in the US, but everywhere. Perhaps NBC violinist Samuel Antek said it best:
"With each heart-pounding timpani stroke in the opening bars of the Brahms First Symphony his baton beat became more powerfully insistent, his shoulders more strained and hunched as though buffeting a giant wind. His outstretched left arm spasmodically flailed the air, the cupped fingers pleading like a beseeching beggar. His face reddened, his muscles tightened, eyes and eyebrows constantly moving. As we in the violin section tore with our bows against our strings, I felt I was being sucked into a roaring maelstrom of sound—every bit of strength and skill called upon and strained into being. Bits of breath, muscle, and blood, never before used, were being drained from me. Like ships torn from their mooring in a stormy ocean, we bobbed and tossed, responding to these earnest, importuning gestures. With what a fierce new joy we played!
Playing with Toscanini was a musical rebirth. The clarity, intensity, and honesty of his musical vision—his own torment—was like a cleansing baptismal pool. Caught up in his force, your own indifference was washed away. You were not just a player, another musician, but an artist once more searching for long forgotten ideals and truths. You were curiously alive, and there was a purpose and self- fulfillment in your work. It was not a job, it was a calling."
All these years later, Toscanini's first broadcast remains breathtaking. Those who accuse Toscanini of being a slash-and-burn literalist can't have heard very much Toscanini; he was anything but. On that night he and his world-class players were giving their titanic all to the new venture. Everything about the performance is worth absorbing, including the pre-HIP Vivaldi concerto and its exemplary solo playing from concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff. The orchestra is magnificent, a modern-day "army of generals"—as Charles Burney famously described the Mannheim Court Orchestra. The Brahms First is unforgettable, richly luxuriant and passionate, its orchestral tone glowing despite the dual challenges presented by AM radio and Studio 8-H's dry acoustic. At its conclusion the oh-so genteel audience goes collectively nuts, so much so that the announcer is obliged to shout into the microphone in order to make himself heard.
NBC's glorious Christmas present has been handed down to posterity via 78 RPM transcription discs. I heartily recommend Andrew Rose's fine remastering, which presents the broadcast in its entirety, including the announcements and commentary. It aims to bring out as much of that ignescent inner light as possible, and I think it succeeds admirably within the limits imposed by age and medium. But how could it fail? Playing like this has no boundaries of time or space.
It wasn’t easy being Wolfgang Mozart. He was just a toddler when the Gods snickered and fastened a dead albatross around his itty-bitty neck. There was a label fluttering from the bird’s foot. Prodigy, it said. From that moment on Wolfgang lived in the crosshairs. Every smartass ambulance chaser in town went on full alert, eager to pounce on the first pimple that heralded the erstwhile Infant Phenomenon’s topple from his pedestal. Wolfgang fooled them all by earning himself a permanent seat on musical Olympus, right up there in the top row with biggest of the big guys. Cultural immortality comes at a price, however: Wolfgang would have to put up with an eternity of smartass ambulance chasers, such as the twitty musicologists who pored over his early opera La Finta Semplice and concluded that the young Mozart was woefully inadequate to the challenge of depicting adult emotions. You can just hear his exasperated sputter emanating from the Great Beyond: oh for Pete’s sake, guys, give it a rest! I was only twelve, dammit.
The trip home yesterday was nothing out of the ordinary but it seemed worse. I was bit more sensitized than usual, my nostrils twitching at the stench of urine baking on the sidewalk, my eyes averted from the phalanx of comatose winos, druggies, and crazies lining the sidewalks, my ears recoiling from the stressed blare of Van Ness drivers as they made a beeline for the freeway onramp a few blocks down. Street level San Francisco is no place to leave your heart. It's like picking your way through a festering trash dump staffed by escapees from the county nuthouse.
So in a way San Francisco lives up to its reputation as one of America's pitifully few showcase cities. It demonstrates in vividly unmistakable terms that the nation is circling the drain, sucked down into its own self-made vortex of ignorance, superstition, and economic malaise. Not a pretty picture.
Happily for me, I can go home. I can shut my front door and leave crumbling America behind, at least for a while. My house is a happy relic of an earlier age. It's sloppy and comfortable, a sprawling nest for a single man who is casual about frippery but passionate about his passions. Lots of books. CDs and LPs scattered and stacked and stored everywhere. Two rooms sport fancy stereo equipment. There are four or five—I forget how many at the moment—computers and their assorted periphernalia. The whole is cluttered but reasonably clean. I'm scrupulous about the kitchen, good about dusting, OK about vacuuming, lousy about the laundry.
For some folks, homecoming might mean mixing up a cocktail or pouring a glass of wine. Others might head for a shower. Still others might make a swan dive for the living-room couch and the remote. For me, the ritual takes place in my home office with its knockout headphone rig and a sound library that currently weighs in at 1.8 terabytes of lossless digital audio. Sennheiser HD 800s perched comfortably on my head, Audio Research DAC7 and Luxman P-1u headphone amp on and running, I make my choice for my welcome-home listening.
Invariably I select something from the great masters of the Western tradition. Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Mendelssohn, Bach, Handel, Schumann. I'll go about as far as Debussy, Sibelius, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff. But that's about it. If my listening is to include something contemporary or edgy, it will be at a different time of the day. Never at homecoming. Never first thing in the morning. Never right before bedtime, either. Those are the times when I require music that renews, reaffirms, reassures. I need an anchor.
How much of that need for anchoring and reassurance reflects the well-documented tendency for aging musicians to gravitate more and more to those essential classics? It's a very rare senior-citizen musician who retains much of the missionary zeal that may have characterized youthful years. Think back to Arthur Rubinstein, champion of contemporary composers galore—friend and interpreter of Debussy, Ravel, de Falla, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Villa-Lobos. He played those works throughout his long career. Clueless youngsters would diss the older Rubinstein for his conservative programming, unaware that he had introduced many of those now standard-repertory items. Toscanini's recorded legacy gets a lot of heat for the same uninformed reasons. The facts speak otherwise: Toscanini didn't start recording until he was well past fifty, when he shepherded the touring La Scala Orchestra through some acoustic shellac discs in the early 1920s. The bulk of his vast discography comes from his last two decades when he helmed the NBC Symphony. He was in his mid-eighties when he gave us a studio version of La Bohème with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce. Oh, how dull, how same-ol' same-ol', cry the ignorant. What they forget—or more likely just don't know—is that Toscanini conducted the world premiere of La Bohème, just as he premiered The Girl of the Golden West and Turandot, not to mention Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. When Toscanini recorded Verdi's Otello in 1947 for NBC, he was reaching back to his youth when he played the 'cello at the premiere, under Verdi's supervision. Toscanini conducted La Mer at NBC, capping a lifetime's experience with a work he had helped to establish in the repertory. Ditto Richard Strauss' tone poems. Ditto Wagner's late operas—it was Toscanini who brought them to Italy, and that took a lot of courage in those days. As late as 1938 the septuagenarian gave the premiere of Samuel Barber's ever-popular Adagio for Strings, and during WWII he introduced the Shostakovich Seventh to American audiences. (In all fairness I should point out that his initial enthusiasm for the work quickly cooled.) True, Toscanini had nothing but scorn for the Second Viennese School and showed absolutely no interest in the hot young things who started popping up in the later 1940s. Then again, he appears to have been mostly right about that. Heck, even Pierre Monteux, he of the impeccable contemporary cred with Le Sacre du Printemps, Petrushka, and Daphnis et Chloë in his C.V.—not to mention buckets of lesser fare—became mostly conservative in his old age, focusing on his beloved Wagner, Beethoven, Berlioz, Dvorak, and Elgar.
Or the obvious preference of concert audiences for traditional fare over the hottest and newest? A major symphony orchestra serves a wide variety of constituencies, and its mission certainly includes advocating and performing fresh stuff. But an orchestra is also a community resource and bears a responsibility to those who need those tested and trusted masterworks for their continued peace of mind and sustenance. While the average symphony program has been creeping ever more into the 20th century—lots of Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky, and the like—people still want to hear plenty of Mozart and Beethoven and Schumann and Schubert and Brahms and all that.
It's easy to dismiss such tastes as stodgy. But are they really? I'm a fairly enterprising musician and yet I reach for the Schubert when I need balm. Rather than specializing, I have become a sloppy generalist happy to roam over many centuries of musical heritage. But I come home to those core pieces. Perhaps it's nothing more complicated than seeking security amidst a failing culture. The pre-Anschluss Viennese heard the Mahler 9th for one last time just before the darkness enfolded them. It wasn't a very old work—only about thirty years old in 1938—but it represented what many no doubt viewed as a golden age, when there was still a Hapsburg empire and a feeling of order in their world.
It is said that a healthy society takes a generally dismissive attitude towards its past. Tinctoris cheerfully maligned music from before his early Renaissance days. Lutheran Germany retained a sliver of older church music but otherwise preferred to create anew every week, thus providing steady employment for armies of industrious municipal kapellmeisters and their minions. The eager audiences of Joseph II's Vienna snapped up new fare from Cimarosa, Piccini, Hasse, Mozart, Salieri, and more. Romantics heard music resolutely through their own auditory lens and had little if any patience for twitty authenticity. The composers they chose to elevate on pedestals were mostly 19th century—Beethoven in particular—or those 18th century worthies who could be massaged into a Romantic mindset, such as the Mozart of Don Giovanni or a Gothically-cast Bach. Only after the first World War did the Western world start rummaging through its own attic instead of shopping for new stuff. As long as a culture is healthy, the cutting edge is really the only edge. When decay sets in, however, it's the past that counts.
Enough talking. It's a shimmering summer day in San Francisco, August 2012. I want to focus on Mozart's B-flat Major Divertimento K 287. It's 235 years old. Good.
Sibelius gave us seven symphonies. There's not a dud in the bunch. Each is a world unto itself, each unmistakably the work of the same composer, but each unique in its approach to the genre, to the orchestra, to music itself. If music means anything at all to you, all seven are indispensable, essential, and irreplacable. Forget about Virgil Thomson's bitchy slap ("provincial beyond belief") and René Leibowitz's sour grapes ("the worst composer in the world.") Maybe there was a time when Sibelius was valued primarily by Finns and Anglophones, but those unenlightened days are long gone. Sibelius has taken his rightful place amongst the major symphonists, far too vital and important a composer to be pigeonholed as a mere nationalist. The Sibelius symphonies are mainstream musical lit, first-class stuff, masterpieces of the symphonic genre that transcend national boundaries or subtly demeaning labels.
In coming to grips with the cycle it might help to envision the symphonies in two broad groups. Symphonies 2–4 traverse an emotional landscape beginning with the heroic (#2), through the neo-classical (#3), then culminating in an enigmatic but pristine vision of absolute music (#4). Symphonies 5–6 then recapitulate the same journey, but now in more autumnal tones—#5 heroic, #6 neo-classical, #7 enigmatic. My little theory leaves Symphony No. 1 as odd man out, which I think suits the situation just fine; the Sibelius First is a jim-dandy symphony that yet wears an unmistakable Tchaikovskian garb.
Thus we have paired symphonies: 2 and 5, 3 and 6, 4 and 7. Their emotional temperatures suggest a strategy of starting with the most approachable of the bunch, which would be No. 2 in D Major and No. 5 in E-flat Major. As it turns out, Nos. 2 and 5 are typically most people's introductions to the Sibelius symphonies. In my case it was Symphony No. 2, brought to shimmering life by the luxuriant opulence of the Berlin Philharmonic, led by the then-young Finnish conductor Okko Kamu. I'm not 100% positive about this, but I'm pretty sure that I was bowled over by No. 5 next.
It took me a while to get around to the remaining symphonies. The Sixth was a happy discovery; it might not appeal to all listeners on first hearing, but few symphonies improve so dramatically with repeated encounters. Like a shy person who seems initially uninteresting but gradually reveals a sparkling and endearing personality, the Sibelius Sixth can easily wind up occupying a central place in one's heart, as well as providing the mind with endless occupation thanks to its elegant compression. The slender and graceful Third in C Major is often a latecomer for many listeners, perhaps encountered only at the end of one's Sibelian explorations. But I know of any number of musicians for whom the Sibelius Third is the most precious jewel of the cycle, no matter how infrequent its performances.
Now, then: about Symphony No. 4. Definitely not your first Sibelius symphony unless you're made of far sterner stuff than I. When Sibelius spoke of providing his listeners with cold, clear water, he was referring to this, the most starkly elemental and appallingly beautiful of his orchestral works. The Fourth is indisputably adult fare; there's nothing sugar-coated here, no mollifying gestures. Yet the work is far from glacial and hoar-frosted. An underlying vitality propels it along, even in those long hushed stillnesses, such as the cello solo in the first movement, that always seem to hover on the tipping point between water and ice. Even No. 7—which Sibelius called a fantasia instead of symphony until right before the premiere—is an easier nut to crack than No. 4. Yet neither symphony is inscrutable; each will reveal its glories with time and continued application.
I counsel against starting your Sibelian journey with Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. That's not to imply anything wrong, per se, with the work; to the contrary, it's filled with magic and makes a phenomenal impression. But it's probably heard best in hindsight as a precursor to the mature Sibelius of, say, the 5th or 3rd symphonies. If you're starting a Sibelius exploration from scratch, this might make for a worthwhile listening order: No. 5, No. 3, No. 2, No. 1, No. 6, No. 7, No. 4.
Be prepared to devoted some solid quality time to the journey. Nobody would presume to think that a single hearing of a Brahms symphony suffices to unwrap the work; ditto Sibelius. These are symphonies to be savored, to be heard and re-heard, to be thought about and mulled over and played through and talked about. Give yourself time.
Recordings: fortunately, there are plenty of superb ones out there. Even better, some of the very best come in complete sets. I don't pretend to know all of the available fare—but I have definitely put in my time and then some. Thus my thoughts on some of the big-league sets.
Osmo Vanska, Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)
Captured in pristine audio by Swedish label BIS, these remarkable performances from Finland's number-two orchestra are widely available in singles, in a box set, or as part of the immense complete Sibelius project. Light-footed, clear, precise, played and conducted with absolute commitment, they bound from strength to strength. Maybe the Lahtians don't have the string effulgence of the Berliners, the luminosity of the San Franciscans, or the Bostonians' sure technique. But they have a magic all their own and an inner vitality second to none. I should mention that Vanska appears to be recording a new Sibelius cycle, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra. Judging from the first volume (symphonies 2 and 5), it's going to be another hole-in-one, home-run, touchdown, [your choice of worn-out sports metaphor here.]
Leif Segerstam, Helsinki Philharmonic (Ondine)
Finland's number-one orchestra, led by a fine composer and sterling product of the world's finest state-supported music education system, and recorded by a gold-class label, this is a set that simply could not fail to please. Everything about it breathes class, refinement, and intelligence—all critical attributes for Sibelian success. The Seventh is particularly fine, but everything in this patrician set is worthy of attention. To add to the festivities, the box set also includes a superlative performance of Sibelius's early and beloved violin concerto.
Herbert Blomstedt, San Francisco Symphony (Decca)
Blomstedt's decade in San Francisco produced a glorious series of Decca recordings, none more compelling than his complete Sibelius cycle. If you still need convincing that Sibelius has slipped free of the nationalist ghetto, be advised that this is a Swedish-American conductor leading not only an American orchestra, but a West Coast one, and a relatively young one at that. There's nothing remotely secondhand here, no sense of a performance in translation. Blomstedt's sure command of his tonal forces and the orchestra's elegant virtuosity carry the day in what could well be the finest Sibelius cycle of them all. Fortunately, Decca has allowed this one to stay continuously in print—which is more than you can say for the bulk of the Blomstedt/SFS recordings, many of which are now best acquired via ArkivMusic's "ArkivCD" reprint program.
Colin Davis, Boston Symphony Orchestra (Decca/Philips)
Recorded in rich analog audio by Philips, this is a near-legendary set amongst audiophiles and Sibelians alike. The mighty BSO might have slipped a bit of late, but that wasn't the case in the mid-1970s when Sir Colin—who has these symphonies in his DNA—captured them at their Olympian best. Davis has recorded the Sibelius cycle at other times and in other places, but this is the one to get. Fortunately it has become easily available in a handy-dandy Decca/Philips "Collectors Edition" re-issue. Not to be missed.
Okko Kamu and Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic and the Helsinki Radio Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon)
Karajan was a Sibelian second to none with the greatest orchestra of them all at his disposal. You've got Gerd Seifert et al soaring to heaven in the "swan theme" in the finale of the Fifth, you've got string playing beyond belief in the Fourth, you've got a bleakly introverted Seventh that must have struck a deeply responsive chord in the surprisingly private Herbert von Karajan. But best of all is the Sixth. It's obvious that Karajan utterly cherished it. Each one of his three recordings—with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1955, then in Berlin in 1967 and 1980—is a precious jewel, but I give overall pride of place to the 1967 traversal, my all-time favorite performance of one of my all-time favorite symphonies. Karajan protegé Okko Kamu got his chance to steer the Berliners through the radiantly romantic Symphony No. 2 in D Major. It was my first performance of my first Sibelius symphony, so I'm hard-pressed to approach it objectively. I'll just say that it rocks and leave it at that. For symphonies 1 & 3 Kamu helmed the Helsinki Radio Symphony—and they made a fine job of it, too. I'll allow that they're not the Berlin Philharmonic. But what the hell: sometimes even the Berlin Philharmonic isn't the Berlin Philharmonic, if you get my drift.
I don't usually troll the newspapers for recipes. Once in a while something catches my eye, in this case a "healthy eating" recipe in one of our major metropolitan dailies. You know the kind of recipe I mean—it looks crisp and snappy in the accompanying photo, but when you actually make the thing it turns out to be about as interesting as a week-old English muffin. This particular dish promises utter ennui at the dinner table, consisting as it does of cooked cannelli beans mixed with summer squash that's been sautéed with a bit of garlic and some chopped tomato, the whole dumped over rice or pasta or whatnot.
Mixed veggies on rice, in other words. That's what almost every healthy-eating recipe comes down to. Mixed veggies on rice. Thus a purveyor of such drab fare is likely to strain every nerve in the (futile) pursuit of sexing it up. One strategy is to invade the spice cabinet with mad little cries of joy, snatching every container in sight and going on a mix-'n'-match orgy. Nowadays that almost always seems to involve rendering the dish so fiery with chilies that only a robot could eat it without developing hiccups. Or else it goes all curry.
As far as I'm concerned that's dirty pool. It's still mixed veggies on rice, even if the thing is dissolving your dinnerware and threatening to etch a crater in your dining room rable. Ditto the curry with its infinitude of vapors and hints of Kipling and all that. Mixed veggies on rice.
The counter-approach is to complicate, fuss, and refine the preparation. That's the tack taken by this particular recipe. Something like a full column of newsprint was devoted to the cooking of the cannelli beans. To soak or not to soak? Picking through the beans to remove duds. Making up a bouquet garni composed of items so arcane as would have Julia Child scratching her head and muttering: oh surely they can't really NEED that, can they? Cutting the summer squash into geometrically perfect cubes. Timing the cooking of the garlic down to the microsecond. And of course there's the tomato ritual—run it over a flame for a bit to soften the skin, which is then carefully removed with a surgery-sharp paring knife, after which the tomato is split lengthwise and the seeds removed, then chopped into meticulous pieces. At least they didn't go into that popular rigamarole about grilling a red pepper over mesquite and removing its skin and all that.
Now, I'm not dissing the recipe or all the fuss. I'm sure it results in a dandy pile of mixed veggies on rice. I haven't the slightest doubt that it would be a far sight better than chopping up a few zuccini, opening a can each of cooked cannelli beans and chopped tomatoes, and letting it go at that. But would it be that much better? Enough to turn a culinary wave of the hand into a good hour's worth of kitchen toil?
Probably not. Yet on the whole I'm in sympathy with the hour's worth of kitchen toil, at least in principle. It's precisely that fussy detail, that drive to delve deeper that divides the pros from the dilettantes. When you're a professional, good enough is the enemy of the good. That's as true in preparing mixed veggies on rice for dinner as it is in preparing the Eroica for Carnegie Hall. Artistry is all about thoroughness, depth and breadth, and an unwillingness to settle for the adequate.
I am reminded of a 15th-century letter from one duke to another about hiring Josquin des Prez for court service. The writer spoke candidly. Prepare yourself for some sharp pains in the keester, he warned. Josquin is a diva, he's expensive, he's moody, and managing him is like herding a cat. On the other hand, he will give you music fit for the gods themselves. Your choice. It's to the inquiring duke's credit that he chose excellence over convenience, hired Josquin, and thus earned himself a footnote in music history.
Also to be found in music history is the unmistakable evidence that talent is all very well and good, but true artistry comes only with hard work and discipline. I have recently re-read Robert Osborne's fine biography of conductor Herbert von Karajan, and I was struck by Karajan's overall introversion and solitary habits, despite his wealth, power, and lavish surroundings. A friend once pointed out that while Karajan's glamorous wife was out on the town amidst a flock of dazzled paparazzi, Herbert was most likely at home alone in his bathrobe, sprawled on the floor and studying a score. That sort of thing crops up repeatedly whenever you start looking closely into the lives of fine artists; you find monastic dedication and unquestioning commitment to excellence. Oh, whatever is conspicuously absent.
So bully for the intricate mixed veggies on rice. I can't say I'm planning on making the recipe. We must pick our battles, and food-for-immortality just isn't one of mine. But whereas another musician might view the writing of a program note as a chore to be dispatched with minimal bother, I'll go the distance and then some. Recently I've been working with a composer on the program note for an important premiere. The shift from the usual two-way editing process (me, editor) to three-way (me, composer, editor) increases the complexity logarithmically rather than arithmetically. The versions are flying about like so many feathers in a pillow factory. May blessings rain upon Microsoft Word's superb change-tracking and reviewing features. I hope I'm not being too much of a pain, e-mailed the composer recently. Not at all, I replied, and I wasn't just being courteous. Striving for the best is never a pain. It's what we do.
If you're any kind of connoisseur of things symphonic, undoubtedly you're well versed in the magisterial Dvořák Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, one of the towering landmarks of the late Romantic. If you're not, then hop to it. Nobody should miss out on the Dvořák Seventh; it's just too good. May I direct you to the recent recording from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, on Channel Classics? Nobody—and I mean nobody, not even Szell or Mackerras or Bernstein—reaches the innermost heart of the thing as does Fisher and his gold-medal ensemble. That's especially the case in the last movement, a wicket so notoriously sticky that it has misled some commentators into blaming the writing for perceived shortcomings. Fisher settles that misconception: there's nothing wrong with the writing.
Yet the Seventh isn't Dvořák's first symphony in D Minor. Honor of place goes to the relatively unknown and unsung Symphony No. 4, Op. 13, written in 1873 during a volcanically productive period in Dvořák's career. Note that it dates three years before Brahms rebooted the symphonic genre as a going thing with his C Minor Symphony of 1876. I bring this up only to counter the common shibboleth that the wave of nationalist symphonies à la Nielsen and Sibelius and Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, etc etc and so forth and so on, was engendered solely by the splashy success of the Brahms First. While it's true enough that the Brahms C Minor encouraged symphonic production throughout Europe and (eventually) America, it isn't as though a bunch of quaintly-costumed guys were huddled in their respective corners, clutching their unpublished manuscripts and muttering when oh when are you going to cough up the damn thing, Johannes, so our symphonies can get a hearing? The truth of the situation, as always, was messier, broader, less conveniently sound-byte-ish.
That said, the Dvořák Fourth fits the sound byte pretty well. Even though it dates from 1873, its premiere waited until 1892, and only then after Dvořák had made revisions 1887-88 in anticipation of a (cancelled) performance by the London Philharmonic. After the twenty-year-old symphony's belated April 1892 unveiling in Prague, the journal Dalibor had this to say:
The Symphony in D minor is one of those delightful creations of a chosen genius in which carefree youthfulness may be seen, but in which every trace contains the germ of future strength, nobility, and individuality.
That's a pretty fair assessment on the whole, but it overstates the so-called youthful shortcomings; Dvořák was 32, recently married, and hardly inexperienced. It was his fourth symphony, after all, and comes almost immediately on the heels of the masterfully-constructed Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, not to mention being contemporary with the popular Opus 11 Romance in F Minor for violin and piano. It's not baby Dvořák, in other words. It's the real deal, a full-length (40 minutes or so) symphony for full-sized orchestra.
That's not to say that it's perfect. I'll be the first to admit that the finale creaks a bit. It's a rather sprawling Rondo hobbled by a squarish and repetitive theme that might work for an epigrammatic Schumann piano piece but which seems woefully unsuited to symphonic development. Commentators who think of the third-movement Scherzo as inhabiting an isolated gestalt are probably reacting more to its origin as a separate orchestral piece rather than anything overt in the music. Personally I think it fits beautifully, a vintage Dvořákian dance movement such as one finds in the Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies. Another commentarial favorite is to point out the similarity between the Pilgrim's Chorus in Lohengrin and the main theme of the second movement—but I wonder if that observation has been passed around blindly from writer to writer without anybody taking a close look at the thing. I find the resemblance to be fleeting and coincidental. Nor do I hear much of anything Wagnerian about the symphony in general beyond those second-movement resemblances. Maybe I'm being obtuse. For what it's worth, the only really palpable influence I hear in the Dvořák Fourth is Schubert, particularly the C Major Symphony. The first movement is pure-bred, unadulterated Dvořák—a dark and turbulent main theme contrasting with a luminous waltz for a second subject, the yin-yan balance perfectly maintained throughout.
Enough with the gab. Let's talk about hearing the thing. The situation for recordings is excellent with one important caveat: the 4th is rarely encountered outside of complete Dvořák symphony sets, rather than being programmed just for itself on a single. So I'm not going to be recommending any performances that can be obtained on a single CD, but some just might be reachable via a download, should that be your desire. However, I should point out that most of the complete sets are available at very reasonable prices, in which 6 some-odd CDs are priced as 2 or 3. So don't jump to any conclusions about retail strategies. On to those recordings about which I can speak.
It should come as no surprise that the Czech Philharmonic has given us a fair number of sets—this is their home turf, after all. Of those, the two shepherded by Vaclav Neumann surely have pride of place. The first, dating from the early 1970s, has recently been released in a superbly remastered edition from Supraphon. The second is the 1987 digital edition (also on Supraphon) that has been widely available since its introduction. Both are superlative, but the latter is no mere remake; one might be hard-pressed to recognize the two as performed by the same conductor and orchestra. Both renditions of the Fourth are excellent; overall I give the nod to the 1971 outing over the 1987. It's a gentle performance, particularly in the scherzo, but I also really dig the orchestra's loving treatment of the ecstatic waltz-like second theme in the first movement.
Another orchestra with multiple Dvořák cycles under the belt is the London Symphony Orchestra, with two sets made in the mid-1960s that are both A-plus contenders. Witold Rowicki was not all that well-known of a conductor, but the evidence of this cycle ranks him amongst the very finest. Originally recorded by Philips and now released by Decca, the set leaps nimbly from strength to strength. To my mind this is the ideal scherzo movement, not too driving, but filled with spunk and energy. To be sure, the main theme of the scherzo sounds just a bit like a recruiting song (I….want to be in the Naaaa…vyyy) but that's just fine with me. Then there's the other LSO set, the whopper of them all, to date the Dvořák cycle to end all Dvořák cycles, led by the glorious (and tragically short-lived) István Kertész in London's acoustically splendid Kingsway Hall, and captured by Decca's ace engineer Kenneth Wilkinson. No other performance gets the radiant glory of the first movement's waltz like Kertész, and unlike almost every other performance, this one makes the last movement hang together, mostly I think via sheer energy and an ear resolutely trained on the longest possible phrases. I find Kertész's approach to the scherzo perhaps a bit militaristic and driving, but it's still a whale of a joyride, and the sweet intimacy of the second movement is perfectly captured.
The Berlin Philharmonic has certainly put down its share of Dvořák symphonies, but for most folks, Berlin + Dvořák = Rafael Kubelik. His lofty renditions from the 1970s stand tall as beacons of superb orchestra playing (of course) and sterling musicianship. That said, I'm not crazy about most of the Fourth—it's kind of muscular and square on the whole—saving the Andante, which is incomparable.
One other performance worth mentioning is the indefatigable Neeme Järvi at the head of the Royal Scottish National, an early digital production from Chandos that was originally released on a big pile of single CDs and is now available in a handy-dandy box set. It's quite a good Fourth on the whole, certainly well-played by an orchestra that could run brusque and even harsh on occasion, with significantly more nuanced and sensitive leadership than I usually associate with Järvi. I'm not sure that I cotton to the luxuriant ritard with which Järvi slides the band into the first movement waltz theme—not out of any printed-page scruples but because I think it drains the lyrical energy—but that's nitpicking. The humming energy of their third-movement Scherzo, not to mention some dynamite horn playing, elevates this relatively overlooked recording to the front ranks.
I may be a busy beaver from September through May, but in the lazy summer months I have time to take on amusing and not terribly important projects. In addition to buffing up my record library and seeing to a few minor household issues, I have been having a fine time for several days now by deepening my relationship with Richard Strauss' breakthrough tone poem Don Juan. The piece has become such an integral repertory item that it's easy to forget that it established Strauss as a big-league contender. The Lisztian symphonic poem proved to be the ideal vehicle for Strauss' protean imagination, so he left behind his erstwhile persona as a late classicist and devoted himself to weaving vivid musical tapestries. Even though Don Juan wasn't technically his first foray into the genre (that honor belongs to Macbeth), it was Opus 20 that made Strauss a star.
And with good reason. Other than a few murky passages—he wasn't yet the sublime orchestrator that he would become—Don Juan is perfectly paced and brilliantly executed. To me one of its finest attributes is the attractiveness of its main character. Strauss inherited that from his primary source, Nikolaus Lenau's eponymous and unfinished poem about the fabled seducer of women. Unlike Da Ponte's Don Giovanni, Lenau's Don Juan Tenorio is neither amoral nor dragged down to hell. Instead he's a guy who looks for love in all the wrong places, and in far too many of them. Despairing of ever achieving his heart's desire, the Don more or less commits suicide by deliberately dropping his guard during a duel. In setting the story, Strauss wisely avoided blatant pictorialism (there is no stated program) and instead focused entirely on character. The Don is joyous, athletic, almost adolescent, but from time to time he displays intimations of a future majestic nobility. He's a lover, not a fighter. Most of Don Juan is about love, however momentary and ephemeral, and shies away from overt violence or notions of retribution. It's a sweet-tempered piece of music, often radiantly optimistic, and just as often breathtakingly beautiful.
It's no casual walk in the park for its players. It just about kicked the band's butt the first time around, but it didn't take all that long for everybody to get the thing in hand. Don Juan is a staple nowadays, a popular concert-hall showpiece, and is available in umpty-million recordings.
I know only a fraction of that umpty-million, but I have a few thoughts to offer. A really bad Don Juan is a rarity, but there are those that distinguish themselves for various reasons, not all of them positive.
1951: Herbert von Karajan conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI)
The second of Karajan's five recordings of Don Juan is the standout. An earlier 1943 performance with the Concertgebouw offers exquisite violin playing but mostly demonstrates just how smitten the young Karajan was with Furtwängler. This 1951 Don Juan was Karajan's maiden LP voyage with the Philharmonia, and he was out to make magic. He succeeded. EMI's early-50s audio is perhaps a bit jangly, but in some ways that suits the performance, which is vibrant, energetic, muscular, flamboyant, heart-rending, and thrilling. It's guaranteed to be a revelation to anyone who associates Karajan with coiffed, lacquered, and air-conditioned orchestral textures. That was later. This was earlier. In 1951 HvK was a lanky sexpot at the head of a crackerjack orchestra, in a great venue (London's Kingsway Hall), recording with the trailblazing producer Walter Legge. Other than the edgy sound, I have nothing but praise for this performance. None of Karajan's later Don Juans—Vienna 1959, then Berlin in 1973 and 1983—come anywhere near the fire, fleetness, suppleness, and exuberance of this, a no-brainer contender for the winner's circle of all-time great Don Juans.
1950: Pierre Monteux conducts the San Francisco Symphony (Standard Hour Broadcast, issued on Music & Arts)
Monteux's live Standard Hour broadcast, available only as part of a 13-CD set, isn't likely to be on many radars, but it has something precious to offer despite its so-so audio quality. Over the previous fifteen years Monteux had buffed the SFS into a lean, mean, fighting machine. It was a flexible instrument capable of following him just about anywhere. Sometimes—as happens several times in this performance—that meant leaping headlong off a cliff as their irrepressibly ebullient Maître whipped up the tempo past any human hope of accuracy. Monteux's seasoned crew faked it with the gusto that comes only with practice. But there was more to Monteux than lightning and quicksilver. He was an authentic master musician who had the self-confidence to give full rein to his best players, and no member of the San Francisco Symphony enjoyed Monteux's sincere regard more than principal oboist Merrill Remington. The middle section of Don Juan is devoted to a meltingly beautiful oboe solo that develops gradually into a duet with the clarinet. Monteux simply steps out of Remington's way and lets him play his heart out. The solo that emerges is luminous, aching with yearning, always fresh, and apparently spontaneous. For me, it is the Don Juan oboe solo to end all Don Juan oboe solos. Thirteen years later Remington repeated the solo during Josef Krips' inaugural concert as the SFS's new music director. Remington could still play the spots off the thing, but this time around he was under much stricter supervision. He plays well enough, but since Krips doesn't give him much leeway, it's a pale reflection of a former glory. The Krips performance isn't commercially available, by the way.
1951: Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra (RCA)
It shouldn't be surprising to hear that Toscanini's Don Juan comes off like a modern-day performance, rhythmically exact, technically pristine, flawless in intonation and overall execution. It is also resolutely no-nonsense, and that shouldn't be surprising, either. Toscanini is one of the very few conductors who keeps the tempo rock-steady at five bars after B, a coquettish moment that will be repeated tranquillo four bars later. Most conductors let up on the gas the first time around as well, but not the Maestro. Strauss didn't mark a tranquillo at five after B so there won't be a tranquillo at five after B, maledicta! However, Toscanini's tempo for the main theme (right at the beginning) is relatively slow, at least compared to Karajan and Monteux. It doesn't sound slow, however, thanks to the incisiveness of the orchestra's attack and the crystal-clarity of the rhythms. This is a doggone fine Don Juan. I can't say I love it, but I sure admire it. Robert Bloom plays the oboe solo well enough, but it's overall a bit drab, especially compared to Remington's sorcery. I know of only one oboist who really gives Remington a run for his money. I'll identify him a bit farther along.
1954: Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA)
Amongst record afficionados this is one of the legendary Don Juan performances. Bully for record afficionados. But I don't care for it. This isn't Lenau's Don Juan, nor do I think it's the one Strauss envisioned, either. This guy strikes me as much more in the Mozart/Da Ponte mold, a thoroughgoing asshole who lives without compassion and who richly deserves every moment of the hellfire that is his destiny. That's no fault of the orchestra's; they play superbly, and the very early stereo recording has held up rather well despite an audibly degraded master tape. It's just an aggressive and sometimes mean-spirited approach to the piece, cold and powerful rather than sparkling and passionate. Vintage Reiner, in other words.
1957: William Steinberg conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Capitol/EMI)
Pittsburgh was Reiner's orchestra before it was Steinberg's, and I think even as late as 1957 a lingering aura of Reiner surliness remained. Steinberg was a far less intimidating conductor than Reiner, and he was also far less imaginative. The end result is a corporate-sounding Don Juan that is redeemed by Pittsburgh's pride and joy: the best brass section on the planet. In quite a few orchestras the horns approximate or even bobble Strauss's intricate arabesques, but not in Pittsburgh. They nail everything with the steely authority of a Zippo lighter being snapped shut after lighting up a Chesterfield. They glow like the burnished chrome on a 1959 Caddy Eldorado. The Pittsburgh brass is among the very few to avoid bungling the afterbeat staccato chord 11 bars after V (the leadup to the reprise, or recapitulation if you are so misguided as to think that Don Juan is in sonata form.) Most of the time it just sounds like a fart. But the Pittsburgh boys get it perfectly, every note just right, allowing it just enough length so it's a chord and not a belch. It's the brass that distinguishes the Steinberg/Pittsburgh recording; without that, it's little more than middling.
1990: Herbert Blomstedt conducts the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)
For me the all-around recording of choice is Herbert Blomstedt in San Francisco, on Decca. It has just about everything that I hold dear—elegance, vivacity, power, imagination, passion, pacing. The audio is exemplary, Blomstedt's leadership is faultless, and the orchestra's technical prowess is beyond question. By a very cool coincidence, it's another San Francisco principal—this time William Bennett—who conjures up a bewitching oboe solo to rival Remington's. The SFS brass section is just as authoritative as Pittsburgh's; they get the 'fart' chord just right as well. The winds are to die for. The strings are elegant and silky, but—here's my one downcheck—they're a little thin. That was an SFS shortcoming back in those days. It's not an issue any more; nowadays the SFS is blessed with glorious strings to match the rest of its exemplary self. Well, the SFS has made multiple recordings of quite a few works, so…hmmmmm….maybe….
Dipping that first toe into the audio stream can be a daunting challenge. I have a friend who has been frozen at water's edge for some time; he's wary, a little scared, and more than a little intimidated. It was his misfortune to launch his voyage by reading several issues of The Absolute Sound, one of the two leading high-end audio mags. TAS could scare the stuffings out of anyone. I'm a regular reader and thus accustomed to the Dadaist prices peppered throughout your basic TAS issue, but even now there are times when I sit there aghast at the obscene extravagance on display. Even though both TAS and Stereophile make it a point to cover equipment at realistic price points, as a rule the cover stories are about insanely expensive gear. Thus the questing neophyte may well get the impression that stark choices await: go for high-end audio, or pay for a college education; buy a great stereo, or buy a house.
Audiophiles—and I include myself—aren't always as helpful as we might be. Too often we're in show-off mode, eager to wow our guest with our latest acquisitions. That can be fun but is hardly any way to treat people who are understandably cautious about getting too involved. Usually it just scares folks off.
Even worse, such insensitivity ignores the most basic fact of high-end audio, which is that the lion's share of the improvement happens at the first stage of the process, at quite modest prices. Recently I put that philosophy into practice and gave my friend a demonstration of what an enormous difference can be had at a realistic price.
We went from a price of $0 to $400, no more. I restricted our goal to his favorite way to listen, which is via headphones plugged into his laptop. At $0 we began with his standard issue iPod earbuds. We plugged those into the headphone jack of my desktop computer, and he listened through them for a while. Nothing really all that wrong with the sound; it's muddy from overemphasized low midrange and upper bass, but that can help to mask the unpleasant artifacts produced by highly compressed mp3 files, not to mention the restricted response of the earbuds themselves, not to mention the humdrum DAC and amp built into a computer.
Then came the leap: I replaced the earbuds with Sennheiser HD600 headphones, available from Amazon for $399.95. A computer's built-in amp is just barely up to the challenge of driving Senn 600s to sufficient volume, but it can be done. More to the point, the improvement in sound was stupendous—from muddy and artificial to alive and vibrant. That's because the change crossed the boundary between ordinary and high-end audio, that all-important first step, the one that makes all the difference. The Senn HD 600 isn't the latest word in posh headphones; in fact, it's several generations removed from being Sennheiser's glamour puss. But it's still one whale of a headphone, it's still in production, and at its current $400 price point it's probably the sweetest deal in all high-end audio.
The point having been made, I gave him a demonstration of what happens when you climb the headphone audio ladder to a very high point: $9000 worth of headphone listening by way of Sennheiser HD 800 headphones, Cardas and Nordost cables, Luxman P-1u headphone amp, Audio Research DAC7, Musical Fidelity V-Link II. Naturally there is a dramatic improvement; nobody could miss it. But it isn't the quantum leap represented by the shift from white earbuds to the Senneiser HD 600s, nowhere near. The higher you go on the audio scale the more subtle become the improvements. It was that $0 to $400 that mattered; the remaining $8600 was all about fine-tuning, tweaking, spiffing up, detailing, and polishing.
And that's just not worth it to any number of people—a very sensible position to take, in my humble opinion. Since that first step is about 80% the way to the top, it's joyously achievable by any number of folks, and it's the 80% that counts. The industry magazines stumble badly in referring to it as "Entry Level", a subtly demeaning term that smacks of adolescence, novitiate, and probation. Entry Level, my foot. It's almost the whole mountain.
Maybe the industry mags should treat their so-called "Entry Level" as mainline, and include a short section called "The Last Mile" for the insanely expensive stuff. Then, with any luck, the high-end audio industry might stop scaring off most of its potential customers.
Every once in a while I protest—ever more feebly, I realize—that I'm not really an audiophile. That I'm just a guy with a discriminating ear, a mitochondrial devotion to music, and enough disposable income (and the legitimate tax deduction) to make high-end audio my hobby. That I'm fussy about a lot of things, including sound. That I have a techie itch that is nicely scratched by gear that partakes in producing sound once it's placed and plugged and interconnected.
But who am I kidding? Add up all the above and you have a bonafide, card-carrying, registered audiophile. That's it: no shilly-shallying about, no waffling, no beating around the bush. I'm the real deal. Yet there are times when I shudder a bit at the very word: audiophile. At best it sounds woefully middle-aged and geeky. At worst it hints darkly of pedophile or concomitant Greekified terms with sickly overtones. The noun form is even worse: audiophilia. That one sounds downright creepy, offputting, unsanitary even.
How sad. It's not me that's creepy and offputting. It's that damn word. Here I dwell, a fine upstanding professional gentleman, happy in my utterly charming and postcard-ready pre-Earthquake San Francisco Victorian house, blessed with not one, but two admirable audio rigs. The larger getup resides in the living room, anchored by lordly Bowers & Wilkins 803D speakers. The smaller, in my home office, is a world-class headphone station anchored by glorious Sennheiser HD 800s, fed by a you've-got-to-be-kidding-or-deranged-exp
As flocks of birds know instinctively the moment to rise in a body and begin a migratory journey, my internal clock says Now and I realize it's time to rearrange my audio furniture. That isn't to say that I toss the whole thing about wantonly. The broad outlines are fixed: no matter what, the 803Ds remain in the living room and the 805's in the office. That's a simple matter of necessity, not to mention sanity. Since the speakers stay put, so do the amplifiers: the NAD M3 for the living room, the Arcam D70 for the office. Each is perfectly suited for its assigned task. But just about everything else has been grist for my restlessness and hobbyist mill.
Churn chez Scott has been at maximum intensity in the case of DACs, or digital-to-analog converters. That's not as silly as it sounds. A DAC is the heart and soul of a modern-day sound system. That will come as news to any number of folks, given that most people never give their DACs a second thought, if indeed they give them a thought at all. And yet DACs do most of the musical heavy lifting for us nowadays. DACs transform heartless binary data into analog audio signals that can then be fed into an amplifier—hence to our speakers or headphones or earbuds. Ergo, if they screw up, everything downstream is screwed accordingly. Conversely, if they sing ecstatically, there's a chance that their effulgence might suffice to glorify the downstream audio chain. DACs are ubiquitous workhorses in our lives. We all have a bevy of them whether we know it or not: we have them in our cell phones, our televisions, our clock radios, our home stereos, our computers and iPads. No DAC, no sound: that's the long and short of it, or perhaps I should say the 1 and 0 of it. Without DACs, the digital revolution would have taken place in utter silence—and in the dark as well, since digital video also requires a DAC to turn digits into image.
Becoming a DAC connoisseur, a.k.a. snob, is one of those distinctions that separate the audiophile from your basic ordinary Joe. Or, less charitably put, it's the dividing line between normal people and raving fruitcake nutjob stereo wackos. Instead of accepting whatever DACs lurk hither and yon, the discriminating audiophile, a.k.a. fruitcake nutjob, goes forth to seek the DAC that will satisfy his oh-so demanding ear (and don't even try railing about the pronoun gender: audiophilia is a guy thing, dammit) or at least his pathetic need for pointless self-validation (a guy thing, right?). Regular Joe makes do with the DAC in his CD player or TV or even computer (God forbid) and doesn't even suspect that digital Nirvana might lie at his fingertips, if only he were to wise up, wake up, and pony up. Then again, Regular Joe might be inclined to ignore all that. Regular Joe might have all the common sense. But we audiophiles (OK, I said we) have all the fun.
Thus my DAC tango: acquiring new ones, shifting current ones about, and selling off those which no longer suit my polished tile Foglesongy dance floor. I've gone through quite a few of the puppies—and will undoubtedly go through more—in the quest for just that right something, that ephemeral je ne sais quoi, that silkiness or blackness or there-ness or this-ness or that-ness that will convince me that I have reached my auditory/erotic plateau of the moment. Pundits may speak mournfully of audiophilia nervosa, but those stupid slobs are talking through their hats. We're not talking here about dissatisfaction or disease or unhappiness. Nope. It's all about hope and belief: hope that an improvement, however subtle, can be made, and belief that Product X will provide that improvement. I suppose one could define such aspirations as tanha, the existential struggle with life's grim realities so perfectly expressed by the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths. Or not. Let's get real here: It's just not that lofty. It's about having fun, eeking out just a bit more oomph, squeezing out a bit more pizzazz. It's play, as in sandbox, as in electric trains, as in baseball cards and stamps and coins and comic books and model cars. Guys, remember? We're all a bunch of snips and snails and puppydog tails. And bully for us.
Thus DACs carted from box to office to living room back to office and back to box and off to wherever. Last summer I assembled what could only be dubbed the headphone rig to challenge the gods themselves. My office computer—acting as a transport only, never allowed to so much look cross-eyed at bonafide musical material—output via USB into a Musical Fidelity V-Link, an ingenious gizmo that slaps a computer's USB output into a well-behaved and musical stream worthy of an audiophile's lofty equipment. Hence to a Bryston BDA-1, a true-bred aristocrat amongst DACs. From the Bryston to my aforesaid insanely expensive Luxman P-1u headphone amp, then to the Sennheiser HD 800s. There's just no beating a rig like that. It was so good, in fact, that it was showing up my "big" system in the living room. So I promoted the Bryston to the living room, where it booted out a fine Benchmark DAC-1, a sterling piece of audio engineering that offended only in being just a tad clinical to my ridiculously fussy ear. My royal favor settled on the subtle but unmistakable warmth of the Bryston, so it became the living room DAC and began serving happily in those relatively elevated surroundings.
That left me without a truly right DAC for my home office. I sold the Benchmark for a fair price and for a while used an Apogee Duet II for my home-office DAC. But the Apogee's service was transitional, and we both knew it. Miscasting, to say the least: the Apogee is at its best going in the opposite direction—i.e., as an ADC that turns cassette tapes and LPs into digital formats. For a while I tried using a HeadRoom Ultra Desktop Amp, with its spiffy DAC stage, for my office stereo, but that just wasn't going to wash for long. I like the HeadRoom, but it just isn't sonically in the Bryston's class. Not many DACs are. The HeadRoom is admirable, but it is a tad grainy, a tad clinical, a tad hard-edged.
Around these parts, that last sobriquet—hard-edged—is a item's express ticket to the "for sale" list. Just as I cannot abide clinical-sounding pianos (meaning that the entire pianistic output of Asia is so much woodworking to me) I vastly prefer audio equipment that evinces at least some semblance of personality. Coloration, some cry. Distortion, others accuse. Maybe, I reply. But audio gear is made by people, and people have tastes and likes and dislikes and biases and emotions. Audio gear can't be utterly, completely, absolutely neutral. Or maybe it can be—but I wouldn't want anything to do with such gear, any more than I would want a completely neutral piano.
Listening isn't quite as one-way or passive as some might think. There's an active aspect in that our ears are all tuned just a little differently, in that we all hear things a bit differently, in that we all react to certain stimuli in certain ways and to others in others. A perfectly neutral wire is acceptable only to perfectly neutral people. So forget that. Given that I was avoiding listening to my exquisite Sennheiser headphones and Luxman amp, all because of that hard edge the HeadRoom was throwing into the mix, I knew that change was mandated. My audiophile's alarm clock went off and rang Now. Birds migrate. I went shopping.
75 Prosper Street welcomes an Acoustic Research DAC7, a much more "musical" instrument in the classic sense of the word—silky, refined, without unnecessary and gratuitous hard edges. It's got spunk. It's got personality. It's a pricier DAC than the Bryston, but all in all the two are on about equal footing in the Social Register. As if I were going to venture downmarket; fat chance. That's the thing about audiophiles: we just don't ever trade down. And yes, I said "we". It's not just that I protest too much. It's that I know perfectly well that I'm not fooling anybody, including myself.