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.
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 Performance” CD).
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.