Best Audiophile Label Recordings—Classical (TAS 197)

Mark Lehman and the TAS staff

 

As originally published in The Absolute Sound, this article addressed three genres of music: Rock, Pop, and Folk; Classical; and Jazz. As a convenience for our online readers, we have broken the article into three parts—each covering one genre grouping. –Chris Martens

 

The TAS Buyers’ Guide would be incomplete without suggestions about which music to listen to on the great gear we’ve recommended. So on the following pages our editorial staff offers a three-part list of great recordings, a goodly sampling of fifty discs in each of three categories—rock/pop/folk, jazz, and classical—encompassing some of the best-sounding and most musically worthwhile LPs, CDs, and SACDs issued by “audiophile” labels or by mainstream label special series dedicated to audiophile values. Anyone who loves great music well recorded is sure to find many of these recommendations worth exploring.

 

A large portion—indeed a majority—of our recommendations are re-masterings of “classic” LPs. This shouldn’t be surprising: The “golden age” of recording began half a century ago and left us a great wealth of irreplaceable treasures. But we’ve also included many recent releases, for the “golden age” is by no means over (even if it seemed as if it were when glassy, hard-edged digital sound first took over).

Three formats are represented: vinyl (whether 33 1/3 or 45 rpm), conventional compact disc, and high-resolution discs including hybrid SACD and hybrid multichannel SACD as well as a sprinkling of DVD-A and more recent high-res formats (Blu-ray, etc.). Many of the items on our list are currently available from distributors like Music Direct, Acoustic Sounds, and Elusive Disc, but since audiophile releases are typically produced by small, specialty outfits and often pressed in small quantities, they tend to sell out quickly. Out of print issues, however, can usually be found on eBay, Amazon, and other sources of collectable recordings.

 

Classical

Bach, Cello Suites. Starker. Mercury-Speakers Corner (three 180g LPs) and Mercury (SACD).
Starker’s incisive performances of these intimate, introspective works for solo cello are famously wonderful. So is the sound.

 

Baltic Voices I. Hillier. Harmonia Mundi (SACD).
Music for mixed voices by six Baltic composers. Finely modulated and expressive performances; the recording, from a Tallinn church, has abundant “air.”

 

Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra. Boston, Leinsdorf. RCA (“High PerformanceCD). 
Few recordings offer a more realistic sonic picture, both in timbre and soundstage, of a full orchestra, and the Bostonians play with brilliance and panache.


Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra. Reiner, CSO. RCA-Classic Records (200g LP and SACD), JVC (CD).
Arguably the finest concertante work of the past century. Reiner’s and Chicago Symphony’s performance—in some of RCA’s finest sound—generates tremendous excitement.

 

Bartók, Divertimento for Strings. Barshai, Moscow Chamber Orchestra. King Super Analogue (180g LP).
Written just before the Second World War, this isn’t merely light and diverting; in the nightmarish second movement Bartók utters a riveting scream of horror at the coming catastrophe. The performance by Barshai and the MCO is perhaps the most powerful on disc.

 

Bartók, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Heisser, et al. Praga (multichannel SACD).
Bartok’s spiky and mysterious chamber music masterpiece in a thrilling performance vividly rendered in the surround sound it much deserves.

 

Beethoven, Kreutzer Sonata. Heifetz, Smith. RCA-Cisco (180g LP).
While Heifetz’s quick tempi and flawless technique sometimes seem like mere showing off, they rise to the level of poetry in Beethoven’s astonishingly original, rhythmically innovative sonata. Great sound, too.

 

Comments

David Matz -- Fri, 12/04/2009 - 00:12

Great article and list. Begs the question why some recordings are remastered and others aren't. Does anyone know why? What are the ecomomics of remastering?

Mark Haugen (not verified) -- Tue, 12/08/2009 - 12:22

There are many reasons, some of which are; the condition of the master tapes (tape deteriorates with time and improper storage, many of these recordings are now 60 years old!), the existance of the master tapes (some have been lost forever), the quaility of the original recording (not everyone expected it to be a classic at the time); the cooperation or lack of- from the present owner of the master tapes, the resonable (or not) economic expectations of the owner of the master tapes. and i am sure there are many others, such as the anticipated demand for the finished product vs the total cost (can we make a profit on this), time constraints, and lastly personal preference, but i think mostly it depends more on the first listed restrictions.

Mark

Chirs T. (not verified) -- Fri, 12/04/2009 - 21:59

NO direct quibble with anything here, but why is there such a late 19th and 20th century bias to the music?
Is that solely driven by the lack of great recordings of the A-list?
There are NO large scale works of any of the major composers at all.

Especially choral music, great on hi-end, is rather absent. At the very least, the Robert Shaw Brahms requiem comes to mind. What about Brahms piano concertos?
No Mozart, Haydn, Handel at all?
And while the wonderful cello suits by Bach are on the list, just ONE Bach, but multiple Bartoks? I am sorry, but the proportion there is wrong, unless there simply are no great Bach recordings.

I could go on at great length with examples, but the point is, that TAS's lists would imply the absence of any great recordings of so much of the musical A-list, that one must start thinking there is some strange skewing of preference in WHAT is being recorded, not HOW that was recorded or HOW performed.

Thanks!

Andrew Quint (not verified) -- Tue, 12/08/2009 - 12:09

As one of the TAS writers who contributed to the classical list, I agree with Chris that our list of recordings definitely favored a certain corner of the repertoire.

One important reason for this has been the musical preferences of the Founding Fathers of the High End, many of who are still very active as listeners and reviewers. The most obvious example is our own Harry Pearson, who isn’t ashamed to admit that he’s besotted by “power Music”—large-scale orchestral material from Berlioz to Shostakovich (with, of course, some outliers, typically younger composers writing in a Neo-Romantic style.) If you want to see a pretty consistent musical sensibility in evidence, just pull out one of Harry’s Super Disk Lists from 20 or 25 years ago.

We’ve evolved considerably over the last 10 years, with much more chamber music, vocal music, and opera. But many audiophile labels understandably want to service an established constituency with reissues of well-regarded (deservedly or not) Golden Age symphonic recordings, and newer recordings of that same kind of music. One can hope that the recordings that are recognized as audiophile classics a generation from now will include some of the programs of Classical and Baroque period material that we’ve enthused about in recent years. Though that begs the question as to what it will mean to be a “record label” a generation or two from now!

Andrew Quint (not verified) -- Tue, 12/08/2009 - 12:25

As one of the TAS writers who contributed titles to the classical list, I couldn't agree with Chris T. more. For "historical" reasons, audiophile recordings have definitely favored a certain corner of the repertoire.

One important reason for this has been the musical preferences of the Founding Fathers of the High End, many of whom are still very active as listeners and reviewers at the current time. The most obvious example is our own Harry Pearson, who isn't ashamed to admit that he's besotted by "Power Music"—large-scale orchestral repertoire from Berlioz to Shostakovich (with of course, some outliers, typically younger composers writing in a neo-Romantic style.) If you want to see a pretty consistent musical sensibility in evidence, just pull out one of Harry's "Super Disk Lists" from 20 or 25 years ago. We've improved substantially, in terms of the variety of what we're reviewing over the last 10 years—much more chamber music, vocal music, and opera. But many audiophile labels understandably want to service an established constituency, with reissues of well-regarded (deservedly or not) Golden Age symphonic recordings, and newer recordings of that same kind of music. One can hope that the recordings that are promoted as audiophile classics a generation from now will include some of the programs of Classical and Baroque period material we've enthused about in recent years. Though that begs the question as to what it will mean to be a "record label" a generation from now!

Christ T. (not verified) -- Wed, 12/16/2009 - 03:21

Andrew, thanks.

That does explain it. I was beginning to wonder if the types of works I mentioned simply lacked the audio quality for inclusion in this type of list.
I do accept that these lists, when looked at from the point fo view of the type of music is chosen, will be subjective.
I do alsol however, believe in the audiophile judgement of the contributors, and that any of the entries are worth a listen for their sonic merits. And most of it is also worthy material, if not necessarily my preference.

Just having listened to the wonderful Richter List Piano Concertos 1 & 2 on Mercury, ther is another one for the list. A long time ago, one of TAS writers (can't remember who that was now), wrote that for these works, this performance would probably not be bettered for sonics and musicality, and I think that is still true. (I believe it was a W.C. Fine recording?).

Now, where is that Superdisc List worthy Christmas Oratorio, or Mass in B Minor?? I do hope there is one.
As for power music, I often take out any of the Reference Recording Organ CDS, only to regret that NO speaker system out there can truly do a 32' Diapason or Gloriosa!

Cheers!

Andrew Quint (not verified) -- Fri, 01/01/2010 - 16:57

Do you do SACD? There's a Christmas Oratorio on Channel Classics, from The Netherlands Bach Society with glorious sound. Also, extraordinary packaging, including a velvet covered slipcase!
AQ

Chris T. (not verified) -- Fri, 01/08/2010 - 10:43

Andrew,
Having just spent part of the Christmas holidays in Leipzig, where I was able to hear the Thomas choir perform the 6 cantatas (in the original Nikolai and Thomas churches on the actual original performance days - cantata 6 on Jan. 6), I will definitely have to look into SACD and this recording. One more reason to consider the SACD format...

Thanks for the tip!

Andrew Quint (not verified) -- Sun, 01/17/2010 - 04:09

I'm envious of your Leipzig experience. Like you, I do try to take in concerts whenever possible when I travel, especially if there's a famous venue (like the Thomaskirche!) or an acoustically remarkable space, for which it would be useful to have a point of reference in terms of the absolute sound. We've got a family wedding in the Czech Republic coming up next summer, near Brno, Janacek's home town. We'll make it to Prague too, and I've got some halls there that I hope to hear some music in.

gerard french (not verified) -- Thu, 01/21/2010 - 08:23

If you think that old europe has something to bring in music have a ear for s a c d from channel classic .MY favorite label without any contest .you could begin with le recent Raphael PODGER haydn mozart .A fantastic sounding record from the artist and the sound engineer

Chris T. (not verified) -- Thu, 01/28/2010 - 22:53

Andrew, hope you enjoy your stay in Brunn (I use the old Austrian its easier to say...) and in Prague. There will surely be great music and sound there.

In case you make it up to Dresden from Prague (which is not too far) then, you would surely end up visiting the rebuilt "Frauenkirche". Around the time of the rededication, I saw an interview with the church's pastor, who unforms us that the best sound to be heard from the new organ is on the balcony in the 2nd row pew, of course center seats...

BTW, I forgot to mention earlier, that the Christmas Oratorio had its 275th anniversary this holiday season, thus the original day-and-location performances.
Seeing as this is a multi-anniversary year for musical central Europe, you are in the right spot this summer for plenty of concerts:
Bach & Handel: 325th birthday
Schumann & Chopin: 200th birthday

DD (not verified) -- Sun, 12/06/2009 - 06:07

What, none on the fantastic SACD's and LPs recently issues by Esoteric? The Falla 'Three Cornered Hat' is outstanding in its SACD format and even better in the LP version.

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