classical audiophile labels

5 Records You Should Own: Classical Audiophile Labels

By Rad Bennett

classical audiophile labels

I’ve been asked to get into digital reproduction and modern companies that purvey the highest fi in their productions – the Living Presence, Living Stereo, Full Dimensional Sound, and beyond, of today. I decided to do it by labels.

First up with me has to be one of my top picks, Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, MDG for short. MDG is a German company founded by Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm in 1978. From the beginning the two partners have concentrated on the latest formats that will allow them to offer the best recorded sound. Their mission statement, found at the beginning of each recording’s booklet, states all clearly:

All MDG recordings are produced in the natural acoustics of specially chosen concert halls. It goes without saying that our audiophile label refrains from any sort of sound modifying manipulation with reverberation, sound filters, or limiters.

We aim at genuine reproduction with precise depth gradation, original dynamics, and natural tone colors. It is thus that each work acquires its musically appropriate spatial dimension and that the artistic interpretation attains to the greatest possible naturalness and vividness.”

I can attest that MDG has lived up to those lofty goals. The company has a sampler out called Diablo (MDG 906 157-7 that is both Blu-ray and SACD. There are 28 musical examples on it, ranging from solo piano through mammoth pipe organs to full orchestras. And there’s not one cut that doesn’t deserve a five-star rating. I can think of no other sampler that deserves that kind of accolade. By the way, Diablo also has ear boggling test tones and signals (all accurate as well).

Since the advent of SACD and DVD-Audio, MDG has released most of its titles in one of those formats. They phased out DVD-Audio years ago, as the format itself seemed to lose the battle with SACD. Their SACD discs are hybrid; you have a stereo Redbook layer plus an HD layer that is multichannel. MDG is big on multi-channel though not as we usually think of it here in the U. S. Rather than a 5.1 configuration, MDG has come up with one they call 2+2+2. That’s left and right front and rear, plus two height channels. Wizards that they are, Dabringhaus and Grimm have made this system compatible with the more widely used 5.1 systems that exist in the U. S.

Of course we’ve gone crazy now with Dolby Atmos and a seemingly kazillion rear and height channels. But most of us have the basic 5.1, for adding speakers, amps, and controllers can be an expensive proposition. To my ear, MDG has gotten everything just right as it is.

MDG looks in its own back yard for most of its performers and halls so as you make friends with this label you will also discover some wonderful musicians not well known in the U. S. But that’s just icing on the cake, everything with MDG is a win-win situation. Did I mention the wonderfully annotated booklets and the drop dead gorgeous art?

MDG recordings are readily available at Amazon.com and here’s a link to their website to get you started at hearing some of the most breathtaking audiophile recordings in the universe.

classical audiophile labelsBach: The Organ Toccatas. Christoph Schoener, Organs of St. Michaelis-Church Hamburg. MDG 949 1893-6.

This is not the first quadraphonic expedition to capture the four organs at St. Michaelis but it is surely the best one, and one of best MDG quadraphonic statements in its catalog.

Back in the quad days of the 70s, CBS and E Power Biggs recorded pretty much the same repertory at this cavernous church, but it came out gimmicky and more of a circus act than a musical one. Though the coupled organs are not arranged in a square, CBS recorded each with a separate microphone which gave one that impression. If you have lots of money you can check by purchasing the Sony 4-channel SACD reissue which is rare and pricey. But MDGs picture is much more accurate and a heck of a lot better at reproducing the real sound of this mammoth venue. Werner Dabringhaus provides an intricate description of the location and their goals in recording it. One of the organs is an echo instrument way up high in the vaulted ceiling. That must be stupendous if you’re using MDSGs 2+2+2 system. Come to think of it, almost all organs have pipes way above head level so any organ would no doubt benefit from MDG’s perspective recordings. But no fear, the disc sounds amazing in 5.1, too. There’s even a special stereo mix for those without multi-channel capability.

The performances are sturdy and fairly fast, the registrations highly imaginative. There is a little blurring but that’s due to the long reverberation time, recorded with uncanny realism. Wde dynamic range yet realistic. Needless to say, lots of bass.

Further explorations: The same organs and organist in music of Max Reger (MDG 949 1919-6)

 

MDG Respighi BlunierRespighiTrittico botticelliano; Tre Corali di J. S. Bach; Pines of Rome. Beethoven Orchester Bonn; Stefan Blunier, conductor. MDG 937 1677-6.

Here’s an example of MDG finding excellence in its own back yard. The Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn is the equal of just about any A list orchestra, yet it records for no major label. But it does record for MDG, often and well. Its Swiss conductor is a master of wide ranging repertory. He is equally at home with Respighi, Stravinsky, or Beethoven and is in the middle of a complete cycle of symphonies by the latter (his first two discs have been simply marvelous).

The Respighi disc contains what has become my favorite version of Pines of Rome. It is played beautifully by every member of the orchestra and the recording has a very wide, but very natural dynamic range. The softest sounds are like whispers but won’t be obliterated by your air conditioner. The louder sounds are true fff from the orchestra without any electronic assistance. The percussion at the end of the final movement (those marching Roman legions) is cleaner and clearer than on any recording I’ve heard (and I’ve heard at least two dozen or so).

On this and most orchestral, chamber music, and solo instrument recordings, MDG sessions use the rear channels just to provide ambience and a sense of space. This also increases the presence of the front channels. Once in a while something will happen in the rears but only when it makes sense. In Pines the extra brass instruments sound from the sides and rear which is exactly how some performers handle these parts. And it is sure is exciting.

The Botticelli Tryptych is an appealing companion piece. The Mercurial opening of “La Primavera” hearkens back to the opening of Pines…logical since it was written only three years later; and it’s still not too often that we can hear all three of the pieces inspired by one of Italy’s greatest artists as a set, rather than separately. Respighi arranged a lot of Bach for orchestra and the three chorales are quite and spiritual in feeling. You will enjoy these lesser works but return to the Pines often.

Further explorations: from Blunier and the Beethoven Orchestra – Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, coupled with the piano four hands version (MDG 930 1908-6); Beethoven: Symphonies 8 and 6 (MDG 937 1883-6).

 

MDG Brahms Hardy RittnerBrahms: Complete Piano Music Vol 4. Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Klavierstucke, Op. 75; Scherzo, Op. 4; Waltzes, Op. 39. Hardy Rittner, piano. MDG 904 1810.

MDG releases a lot of solo instrument recordings, but they often do it with a twist, having the music played on instruments that are contemporary with the composer’s lifetime. This disc, for instance was recorded on an 1846 Boesendorfer, an 1856 Streicher, and a 1868 Streicher & Sohn. The MDG recording is so clean that you can clearly hear the slight differences among these instruments, none of them sounding as percussive as our modern Steinway beasts.

Hardy Rittner is a young German pianist who marries his love for music and tremendous technique with a historical curiosity for doing things accurately. He plays with passion and sensitivity, capturing the brooding nature of this music in all its nuances. He also provides most interesting notes on the instruments used in the recordings.

The disc was recorded in the Mozartsaal of the Imberger Foundation in Salzburg, which has a very warm but clear acoustic. By the way, MDG always provides information on the halls where recordings are made, especially welcome information since their recordings nail the sound of that particular hall so perfectly.

Further explorations: Vols 1-3 of Rittner’s Brahms series (MDG 904 1494-6, 1538-6, 1680-6); Rittner’s recording of Chopin’s Etudes (MDG 904 1747) and his recording of Brahms first piano concerto (904 1699-6).

 

classical audiophile labelsMozart: Piano Concerto 24 in C Minor and Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major. Christian Zacharias, piano and conductor, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. MDG 940 1737.

Mozart’s piano concertos are pinnacles of achievement. The slow movements of the last six are “died and gone to heaven” affairs. Such beauty boggles the mind while warming the heart. Christian Zacharias is a pianist who knows every nook and cranny of this music and can convincingly convey his ideas not only to his own fingers but to the members of his chamber orchestra as well. Zacharias was music director in Lausanne for 13 years, stepping down in 2013, and his hand in glove relationship with the orchestra stands as unique and enviable.

MDG has recorded Zacharias and the Lausanne players in their home hall, the Metropole in Lausanne. The Lausanne Chamber Orchestra is a bit larger than some organizations called chamber, their picture on the booklet here bears that out (there are three double basses showing). Their sound is warm and yet very clean and clear. Zacharias makes no pretense to historical accuracy as far as the instruments go; these are modern instrument performances. He does, however, pay special attention to correct performance practices in playing Mozart. All of the ornamentation is correctly done.

Surround here is used for ambience only. You won’t notice it at all unless you turn it off. The balance between piano and orchestra is perfect; one can hear those lovely conversations between winds and piano with absolute clarity.

Further explorations: MDG recorded all of the concertos in 2+2+2 sound, you should try to hear them all, since each is a masterpiece. Also the Chopin piano concertos (MDG 340 1267-6)

 

MDG Liszt SchoheitLiszt: Organ Works, Vol. 1: Prelude & Fugue on B-A-C-H; Prelude and Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” Three Bach Chorales; Bach: Passacaglia in C Minor. Michael Schoenheit, organ. MDG 906 1334-6.

I’ll cycle this column out with another organ recording. It’s only one organ this time, but what a monster! The Merseburg Cathedral organ was, according to the notes, the first large romantic instrument in Germany, consecrated in 1855. It was nearly ruined with improper repair but just recently has been restored to its former glory. This treatment is appropriate as the instrument has great historic significance. List’s B-A-C-H work received its premiere on that instrument as did other Liszt works. The history is covered completely in the copious program notes.

Though he didn’t program his music that much, Liszt revered Bach and chose to emulate him in a few large works that have come down through history as impressive music of the Romantic period. This disc is very interesting in presenting not only Liszt’s final version of “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” but an earlier prelude written for piano by Liszt and then arranged for organ by Alexander Winterberger. The program closes with Bach’s mighty Passacaglia in C Minor as registered by Johann Gottlob Toefer.

The initial sounds come through the front channels here, while the surrounds convey the the reflections and enormous reverberate decay. It’s as if the air around the listener was alive with activity, just as it would be were he standing in the enormous church itself. Be warned that there are some very loud bass tones on this recording. Those with subwoofers will revel, but others might proceed with some degree of caution.

Further explorations: Volume 2 (MDG 906 1352) and any of the many organ recordings in the MDG catalog. For my money, MDG records the “king of instruments” with greater accuracy than labels that that are solely devoted to the instrument.

So, there are five recordings that I, as both music lover and audiophile, would surely not want to be without. And it is the beginning of an adventure. MDG has dozens upon dozens of other recordings just as good in its catalog (remember that sampler!) and keeps releasing approximately four new ones a month.