The other day, with a few clicks on my computer keyboard, I traveled in time to 1943. On November 28th of that year, Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony in orchestral excerpts from the Wagner operas. A remastering of the performance is available from the Web site Pristine Classical, which offers historic recordings in various downloadable formats. I selected a CD-quality version, paid with a credit card, and within minutes had gone into the golden age of radio. Ben Grauer, whose cosmopolitan-Everyman voice epitomizes the era, spoke for a few moments, introducing the program as the “General Motors Symphony of the Air” (or “Ahre,” as he put it). Then the Prelude to Act III of “Die Meistersinger” began, in strikingly vivid sound, the cellos lamenting with rounded tone. Few recordings from the period before magnetic tape have such presence. The well-drilled brilliance of the NBC orchestra comes through, as does Toscanini’s passion for Wagner, whom the Nazis had tried to annex as propaganda, and whom the Maestro was imperiously taking back.
The man who runs Pristine Classical is Andrew Rose, a British-born audio expert who works in a French village. A few years ago, he helped to expose fake CDs by the late British pianist Joyce Hatto, demonstrating that they were digitally manipulated copies of other pianists’ work. Rose’s technique isn’t entirely free of digital hocus-pocus; he reëqualizes old disks to give them a more lifelike sound, using more recent recordings of the same repertory as reference points. Crackle and hiss drop away; the bass grows richer, the treble less shrill. You get a sense of air around the music, of a concert-hall ambience. Rose admits that the process, which he developed two and a half years ago, is a tricky one. “It’s a powerful, potentially dangerous way of approaching a recording,” he told me. Some purists insist that the imperfections of the original should be left intact; others say that Rose applies his method indiscriminately.
Yet the gain is substantial. In the case of the Toscanini broadcast, Rose has pushed the old tape past the border at which an artifact becomes a living document. Hooked on the sensation, I spent days browsing Pristine’s archives, relishing the newly robust sound of such classic recordings as Bruno Walter’s 1952 “Das Lied von der Erde,” with Kathleen Ferrier; Willem Mengelberg’s 1939 version of Mahler’s Fourth, probably as close as we can get to Mahler himself conducting; and Mengelberg’s swaggering 1941 take on Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben.” Rose has also reworked some early jazz and blues tracks; Skip James delivers “Devil Got My Woman” with spooky immediacy, twanging strings and all. The whole time, I felt a degree of psychic unease. How far will the cleansing of history go? Will it be possible to enhance Caruso so that he sounds as if he’d been recorded yesterday? Fortunately, Rose leaves enough extraneous noise to remind us of the remoteness of the past.
By now everyone is accustomed to extracting music from the Internet, but until recently the only practicable online format was the MP3, which compresses the original in the interest of saving space. For a long time, music sites supplied MP3s that transmitted data at a hundred and twenty-eight kilobits per second; this omits about ninety per cent of the data found on a CD. Everything came out sounding a little scrawny—not so bad if you’re getting the Sex Pistols but unfortunate for Mahler. The latest hard drives can accommodate hundreds of gigabytes of information, meaning that file size is less of a concern. And classical listeners can finally shop online without fear of having their Mahler emasculated. Internet-based labels like Pristine let you choose among higher-quality MP3s, “lossless” files (nothing is lost from the CD), and versions that exceed the CD standard. HDtracks.com, which has ties to many leading independent labels, presents a similar range of wares. Several organizations that maintain their own labels—the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Tallis Scholars—offer high-end downloads. And Deutsche Grammophon now sells lossless files in its online shop.
At HDtracks, I secured the recent Harmonia Mundi release “Song of Songs,” in which the British choral group Stile Antico sings Renaissance settings of the Songs of Solomon. Having admired the CD, I now had the equivalent of a studio master tape: twenty-four-bit audio sampled at a rate of eighty-eight thousand slices per second. The elegant entangling of voices seemed clearer, though I can’t say that the difference was staggering. The staggering thing is the music itself: an immaculately engineered recording of pure-voiced singers, bringing to life several of the loveliest compositions of the past thousand years. Clemens non Papa’s radiant motet “Ego Flos Campi”—“I am a flower of the field and a lily of the valley”—is around four hundred and sixty years old, and if Toscanini’s Wagner undermines our sense of the distance of the past Clemens obliterates it. Early on, the tenors extend the word “valley” in a string of eighth notes, a quickening of the line that leads to a more luxurious stasis. In whatever format, it is perhaps the most ravishing sound I have heard this year.
For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t. The Internet has removed that distinction. Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle. Video and audio stream in from around the world. The other day, I watched Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger,” in an interestingly horrible new production from the Paris Opéra (courtesy of the European arts channel Arte); took in Mahler’s Ninth at the Proms (courtesy of BBC 3); and then bought a virtual seat in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which had an HD video of Simon Rattle conducting Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, the agility of the camerawork outdoing the robotic “Great Performances” standard. (Berlin’s harp-cam is especially cool.)
But these meandering journeys across the Internet soundscape can be taxing. The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes. Putting on an old-fashioned disk and letting it play to the end restores a measure of sanity. This may explain why the archaic LP is enjoying an odd surge of popularity among younger listeners: it’s a modest rebellion against the tyranny of instant access.
Despite the fact that I now have forty days and eighteen hours of music on my computer, enough to outlast the Flood, I keep returning to a stack of favorite disks that I keep next to my stereo. I’m listening to “Simple Lines of Enquiry,” an immense, glacial, hypnotic piano work by the Canadian composer Ann Southam, on Centrediscs; a survey of the starkly eloquent harpsichord music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, with Glen Wilson, on Naxos; and “The Little Match Girl Passion,” a compilation of choral music by the American composer David Lang, on Harmonia Mundi. Lang is a hard-driving minimalist who has lately taken an introspective turn. The principal work on the CD interweaves Hans Christian Andersen’s tale with the Gospel According to Matthew. In “For Love Is Strong,” pairs of voices slowly chant the title phrase while the rest of the chorus unfurls similes culled from the Song of Songs—“like the morning, like the moon, like the sun, like an army with banners,” and so on. This is the text that captivated Clemens non Papa half a millennium ago. Lang’s serene, limber music breathes much the same air, even if its angular repetitions are pure New York. The album ends with a hauntingly spare setting of lines adapted from Ecclesiastes: “People come and people go / the earth goes on and on.”
[Via The New Yorker]