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19.11.10

Side Notes: Mahler on Vinyl

This is music to my ears! The San Francisco Symphony is issuing its Mahler recordings—“The Mahler Project”—on Vinyl. A luxurious, one-off edition of 22 glistening 180g Virgin Vinyl LPs of the nine Symphonies, the Adagio from the Tenth, the early work “Das Klagende Lied” (not recorded as part of “The Mahler Project” but re-released alongside), “The Song of the Earth”, and most of the orchestral and orchestrated songs.

In a time of compressed dynamics, a race towards unwavering loudness and lowest common acceptable standards of sound quality (mass market music being turned into unsubtle muzak), these lacunae of unabashed audiophilia show that nothing is as heartening as the power of the market to show, produce, pinpoint niches of quality. And vinyl, deemed deader than dead after the introduction of the CD, is one of those lacunae. Production of LPs—as has been reasonably frequently reported here and there over the last five, ten years—has gone up considerably. Mint condition LPs of certain recordings and pressings fetch a premium price in a small but bustling market. And every HiFi equipment producer worth its salt has put high quality record players back into their lineup. You could, for example, listen to this Mahler set (assuming it reaches 600 advance orders) on the new Denon DP-A 100, the mid-luxury Direct Drive record player that the company released to mark its 100th birthday. Denon came into being in the time of records (shellac still, then), and to celebrate its centenary it goes back to the roots. Or on the clearaudio concept, a budget turntable with justified HiFi-ish ambitions that is so modern and sexy that it received the 2010 reddot design award.

It’s somewhat ironic, that vinyls play an—albeit incidental—part in the rediscovery of music with all its facets, nuance, and full dynamics, since part of the reason the CD was hailed when it was introduced was not just that it was unbreakable (hmmm), but that it offered greater dynamics. (Because there was no needle to jump out of the groves at hardy bass drum whacks.) But they are… and more so than that other audiophile niche—Super Audio CDs, which still have a reasonably healthy following in classical music [this SFS Mahler Cycle was issued on SACD, for example]—but isn’t treated with the same love, devotion and doesn’t reach across musical tastes as much.

There is much to be said about the sound of vinyl on a good system, but part of the pleasurable listening-experience to LPs is psychological. Like the slow-food movement (instead of on-the-go fillers), or a celebrating a good glass of superior wine or scotch (instead of swilling a Coors), or a carefully prepared pipe (instead of a hasty cigarette), there is an element of ceremony that is involved in placing a long playing record on a turntable, carefully positioning the needle, and then sitting down to listen. It is, by its physical nature, a more involved procedure that readies our concentration which in turn enhances our enjoyment. Even if the actual sound were the exact same from an LP and a (SA)CD, the experience would still be a rather different one. That added experience is what has led companies to re-issue high quality LPs of old classics or—like Tacet or Berlin Classics / Edel (since the 90s, actually)—produce batches of vinyl of select new titles.

And now the first wholly American Mahler Cycle* will be available on LP which is good news not just for the LP crowd (for all the resurgence it might be overstating to call them a ‘crowd’) but Mahler lovers since the “MTT” cycle is one of the finer ones out there. In WETA’s “American Cycle”, broadcast in November of last year, MTT recordings filled four slots (Second, Third, LvdE, and 9th, with the 6th and 1st being considered, too). In the final tally, three releases made it onto the “Best of Mahler” list: the Ninth for its supreme last movement, the Lied for being the only truly (male) satisfying version on SACD, and a Third distinguished by “gripping and detailed first and third movements, a moving, moaning Misterioso fourth movement, a superb chorus marvelously caught by the recording engineers, and a heart-wrenching finale.” The Second is notable not the least for the participation of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. For what it’s worth (usually not much, though in this case it accidentally confirms quality), the Third, Sixth, Seventh (not my favorite), and Eighth won a combined seven Grammies. Good stuff, on vinyl or shiny plastic, and of exciting symbolic value.



* Bernstein's Cycle on Sony includes a London Eighth and a Tel Aviv Lied. The Utah cycle with Maurice Abravanel could arguably be counted, since the Ottoman Empire-born Swiss Maestro had become a naturalized citizen in 1943.

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