Listen longer (which is no hardship in this instance) and you start to pick up on a smoothness that washes through proceedings, a subtle rounding to leading edges that eases the transition between and into notes, the passage through a phrase. Combine that with a rich and complex harmonic balance that gives those notes their true colour and length and you could be heading for the slow and syrupy end of the musical spectrum. But the Zanden’s ability to switch tempo between fast and slow, the jaunty quickstep of Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘Borderline’ and the measured, almost hymnal solemnity of the next track, ‘Paradise Hotel’, underlines the player’s effortless grasp of pace and just how wide the gap between “unforced” and “slow” really is – and conversely, just how musically destructive driven, clipped tempi are to musical expression. Instead, the Model 2500S builds its complex and beautifully layered harmonic structures on the superior temporal coherence common to filterless players. Notes and phrases are perfectly placed and weighted, bringing the performers and music both presence and substance, an innate sense of pace and the confidence to breathe.
But shaping notes is a risky business and no one ever gets off Scott free. The gentle rounding of leading edges that so aids the music’s easy ebb and flow is paid for not in the pace of progress but in the range of dramatic contrast available, the softening of sudden shifts in level or density, the music’s ability to startle or shock. Yet despite this, when it comes to musical expression, the Model 2500S retains the ability to hold your attention and surprise you too. My acid test when it comes to infusing a performance with dramatic tension is Barbirolli’s Tallis Fantasia. In the wrong hands (or on the wrong system) this music can be rendered twee – even quaint, but Sir John grabs it, the orchestra and the audience by the throat, with a reading redolent with menace and drama, stark contrasts and raw emotional power. Play it on the Zanden and you can’t miss the smoothness that takes the edge from some of the more dramatic shifts, but there’s also no missing the tension and menace either. The sense of presence is helped by the mid-hall perspective and a more tangible acoustic space than most players manage from this disc; setting the orchestra back behind the plane of the speakers is totally in keeping with the natural warmth of the Zanden’s balance. The pizzicato phrases from the basses, perched on a central riser are beautifully weighted and poised in space, the texture of the massed strings sustaining the tension which might be robbed by the diminished sense of immediacy that comes with increased distance. The startling swoop that presages the first theme loses impact, but the vibrant instrumental colours and associated emotive sweep carry the day. What you lose in drama you gain in emotional intensity, built on the layered harmonics and colours of the instruments. It’s a different reading to the one you’ll hear from the likes of Wadia or indeed, the four-box Zanden, but it’s no less powerful and has a subtly shaded beauty all of its own.
Other standard discs are handled with equal aplomb, the off-beat staccato chords that open the Count’s ‘Beaver Junction’ might lose a little of their stark, jagged asymmetry, but that’s soon forgotten by the infectious swing of the brass, the easy, loping beauty of the piano solo, the way the parts just fall into place. There’s a natural grace and shape to music from this machine that belies the mechanical/electronic complex that produces it. But I’m not using “natural” in the sense of “indivisible from nature”. Instead I’m referring to the instantly familiar patterns, pace and emphasis that gives the music shape, that fits the phrases together so perfectly, the way in which they overlap and follow one another. It’s a structural clarity, an effortless organization that makes the music easy to read. Zanden’s four-box player delivers that message on a noteby- note basis, its overall temporal and dynamic mastery creating a place for everything and keeping everything in its place. The 2500S reaches the same goal by a different route; one that involves less transparency, immediacy and micro-dynamic insight – but then you’d want something extra for your £38K wouldn’t you.
Take the Model 2500S’s lucid structural clarity and combine that with its rich, vibrant colours and the almost dismissive ease with which it grasps rhythmic variation and vocabulary, and you’ve got a smart weapon that’s targeted on the sheer wonder that’s within great music. If this player has a weakness then perhaps it’s an inability to plumb the deeper depths of the musical dark side, an editorial influence that might lead you away from Messian, Cohen or the bleaker Shostakovitch symphonies. But then, even old Leonard cracked the odd smile and deep inside I’m still an optimist at heart. If you want music to reach out and wrap you in the magic of its inner beauty then this player does a better job with CDs than anything else I’ve used, the message easily transcending the medium. It’s both infectious and beguiling and has an addictive quality, a bit like sugar – and just like sugar, the experience is oh so sweet…