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Historical Recordings and the Audiophile?


vmartell22
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Listening to Bruno Walter's 1930s Mahler 9th made me think about the audiophile's take on historical recordings. In this particular example, we are talking about a recording that is very much from its time of a performance for the ages (some disagree, of course, but that is a different discussion... will leave it for later...)

 

Obviously, no amount of remastering or high end equipment is gonna make the recording sound other than what it is - a 1930s recording... are you still up to playing it on your wonderful systems? I am gonna be, well, a little bit controversial - some will take exception - for that I apologize in advance. Once in a while I have seen in some audiophile sites, loving and enthusiastic endorsements and promotion of GREAT sounding recordings, that musically, well, while certainly not bad, are in general pretty forgettable.

 

Always worthier IMHO to play Walter's 1930 9th... or Furtwangler's war time Beethoven... or many other - my main taste is classical, but I assume there are many examples in other genres or styles...

 

What is your take ? are you convinced your system will make the most out of any recording no matter the vintage? OR do you avoid historical recordings since life is too short to listen to rough sound (and at least in classical, a more modern version is probably just as good)?

 

Thnx!

 

v

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This is an interesting and, I think, a nuanced and complicated topic.

 

My own musical tastes run to popular music of varied sorts recorded in the era of 78rpm platters and continuing into the postwar stereo era — jazz and R&B, lounge and exotica, surf guitar, garage rock. A lot of this music never made it to CD, or even to decent vinyl editions — but it's been shared widely online since the early days of digital music. For some of this stuff, I think you might legitimately wonder whether, for example, a 96kbps mono rip is about as good as it's going to get when the source is a scratched-up 45rpm single issued by some obscure blues label in 1954. In any case, that may be as good a copy as you're able to find online.

 

(Though as we speak, I'm going through the process of syncing my library with iTunes Match, for the first time since Apple boosted the track limit to 100K — and it's amazing how much of this obscure stuff can be matched with 256kbps AAC copies from the iTunes store.)

 

But where does this leave the computer audiophile? I can only answer for myself, and my only point of reference is my own experience of playing this kind of lo-fi music through a sort of minimalist entry-level hi-fi: assorted Apple hardware plugged straight, via headphone jack, into decent but decidedly entry-level stuff like Grado headphones and 1990s-vintage Cambridge SoundWorks amp/speakers. The results have been a lot more pleasing than one might expect. The playback equipment is good enough, especially in the mid- and vocal range, and "warm" enough (though I'm never quite sure what that means) to convey a palpable sense of the fire and vitality and soulfulness of the old performances. But it's also forgiving. There's probably something like high-end rolloff happening, which would be annoying in some listening situations but is a blessing in this context.

 

I imagine it's possible to design good audio equipment with a realistic (and tolerant) view of the range of source material that might be played through it -- from pristine vinyl and high-res digital files down to the latter-day equivalent of worn-out cassettes and barely-playable LPs. I read somewhere (maybe in the company's own PR material) that Audioengine tries to take this kind thing into account in designing its speaker systems. Complicated trade-offs involved here, I would guess. But I may be the sort of customer who would appreciate it.

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Listening to Bruno Walter's 1930s Mahler 9th made me think about the audiophile's take on historical recordings. In this particular example, we are talking about a recording that is very much from its time of a performance for the ages (some disagree, of course, but that is a different discussion... will leave it for later...)

 

Obviously, no amount of remastering or high end equipment is gonna make the recording sound other than what it is - a 1930s recording... are you still up to playing it on your wonderful systems? I am gonna be, well, a little bit controversial - some will take exception - for that I apologize in advance. Once in a while I have seen in some audiophile sites, loving and enthusiastic endorsements and promotion of GREAT sounding recordings, that musically, well, while certainly not bad, are in general pretty forgettable.

 

Always worthier IMHO to play Walter's 1930 9th... or Furtwangler's war time Beethoven... or many other - my main taste is classical, but I assume there are many examples in other genres or styles...

 

What is your take ? are you convinced your system will make the most out of any recording no matter the vintage? OR do you avoid historical recordings since life is too short to listen to rough sound (and at least in classical, a more modern version is probably just as good)?

 

Thnx!

 

v

 

As I get older I find I appreciate the older recordings even more. Give me Walter, Klemperer, Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Mravisnky, Ancerl and Toscanini in less than perfect sound any day. I went through a phase where I collected the "audiophile" labels (you know the ones) but found in many cases the impact was skin deep. I often enjoyed the first couple of plays but over time went back to those recordings with less technical and sonic merit but more character. Was it a case of imprinting on these older versions? Not necessarily. I started collecting recordings in the early 1980's in college and the musical marketing machine pushed the latest Karajan, Bernstein and Solti and I rarely reach for these conductors now. My system has never sounded better but no matter how great it is Furtwangler's 1942 9th is still not going to sound anywhere close to "modern". That's okay, though. My brain does a great job of compensating for sonic defects. So to answer your question I do not think a great digital system will necessarily bring out any more details from a 1930's or 1940's mono recording. The recording equipment of the time was limited and we have what we have. I have found that I prefer masterings that do not futz with noise reduction. Give me the highest possible dynamics please.I have a nice vinyl rig and seem to prefer the historical recordings on LP with dedicated mono stylus. However, it's not a night and day difference and I've learned with historical recordings to just relax and enjoy the performance.

Digital System: Cybershaft 10MHz OCXO clock premium>Antelope Liveclock>RedNet D16>AES Cable>Mutec MC-3+ USB​>AES Cable>Schiit Yggy

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While I'm a big Furtwängler, Klemperer and Walter fan, I must admit I cannot really get any musical enjoyment for any recordings let's say before the late 1940s. Anything before that the sonic problems will spoil it for me. I still check them out for intellectual curiosity, but not for proper listening.

 

That said, with all the great new recordings we're having these days, I rarely feel the need to go back to very early recordings anyhow. My listening experience was greatly influenced by the historically informed performance movement, and I really cannot stand any music pre-Beethoven that is not played HIP (take Karl Richter's Bach for example). I found Haydn's symphonies boring for nearly all my life, but recently discovered a new freshness in some new recordings by smaller Italian ensembles. It's slightly different for the large scale romantic period, where the older recordings are still much more relevant (e.g. Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninov)

 

There clearly are cases where historic recordings are yet to be beaten , including Furtwängler's Brahms 1 (I have 5 different ones, all fantastic, and I haven't found a contemporary equivalent yet), and Tchaikovsky's piano concerto no. 1 in the legendary recording with Toscanini and Horowitz, to name just a few.

 

See also this blog entry: https://musicophilesblog.com/2015/05/24/brahms-1st-symphony-why-it-means-so-much-to-me/

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I really dislike spending money (not that I have a lot to do so) and I often ask myself whether I should have more than 3 interpretations of my favourite pieces...

But in spite of this I have quite a few "duplicates" in my music collection, and a tiny amount of these are well regarded historical performances.

 

Do I enjoy listening to them through my system?

Some of them sound perfectly nice in their limited kind of way and a few even sport more impact and immediateness that may modern recordings.

But I find others quite uncomfortable to listen to, but since the worse offenders sound much better through a monaural Tivoli tabletop radio which I feed through the headphone output of my computer I am considering EQ'ing the overall balance a bit.

 

My guess is that modern playback extends very far in the upper octaves and this makes them less tolerant of bright, harsh treble.

And to add insult to injury many contemporary speakers exaggerate the upper-mids and highs whilst opting a "colder" balance for an apparently "faster", "dryer" bass...

 

R

"Science draws the wave, poetry fills it with water" Teixeira de Pascoaes

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I totally forget that Bruno Walter recorded his legendary first act of Die Walküre in the 1930s when I listen to it. The playing is just so good that sound quality drops from my attention. I think somehow my brain reconstructs the signal to how it should sound.

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Well it would have to work that way, wouldn't it?

 

I remember reading someone's recollection of a visit to Georgia O'Keefe a long time ago, at her place in the remote Southwest. The high point of the evening was sitting down in the gathering dusk to listen to classical music on the phonograph -- Beethoven, I think. And apparently Ms. O'Keefe was very serious when it came to listening to music: you sat there and listened, no side-chat, no getting up for a snack, the recording was all-important.

 

Anyway when I read this story, I tried to imagine what kind of phonograph Georgia O'Keefe might have had up there in the mountains of New Mexico, sometime in the mid-20th-century, and what sort of platter she would have slipped onto it, what the actual sound would have been like. But in a weird sort of way, none of that could have mattered so much -- it was all about the music itself, and I can't imagine Ms. O'Keefe's engagement and absorption in that experience was any less intense than ours would be right now, regardless of the technical superiority of our audio systems and our music sources.

 

Which does kind of put things in perspective.

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Well it would have to work that way, wouldn't it?

 

I remember reading someone's recollection of a visit to Georgia O'Keefe a long time ago, at her place in the remote Southwest. The high point of the evening was sitting down in the gathering dusk to listen to classical music on the phonograph -- Beethoven, I think. And apparently Ms. O'Keefe was very serious when it came to listening to music: you sat there and listened, no side-chat, no getting up for a snack, the recording was all-important.

 

Anyway when I read this story, I tried to imagine what kind of phonograph Georgia O'Keefe might have had up there in the mountains of New Mexico, sometime in the mid-20th-century, and what sort of platter she would have slipped onto it, what the actual sound would have been like. But in a weird sort of way, none of that could have mattered so much -- it was all about the music itself, and I can't imagine Ms. O'Keefe's engagement and absorption in that experience was any less intense than ours would be right now, regardless of the technical superiority of our audio systems and our music sources.

 

Which does kind of put things in perspective.

 

Nice post. In the late forties, Georgia O'Keeffe spent several years restoring an old Spanish Colonial compound in Abiquiu, New Mexico, 50 miles north of Santa Fe. Fairly isolated. Evidently, she had a "high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lie in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention".

 

O'Keeffe_Home4.jpg

 

https://hearhereatnec.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/by-nell-shaw-cohenwritten-outside-of-nec-coursework/

1070957250_Imprimatur.NihilObstatSepia3Crop(2).jpg.2162a44365e84a5df7d456bf8026ed67.jpg

 

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The recordings from much of the '40's and before suffer from the lack of any high frequencies (above 8KHz or so). It wasn't until Decca's war time efforts (working on U-boat detection) which led to the post war ffrr first for 78's and then LP's that we moved into the era of hifi. That doesn't mean that the recordings of that era did not lack musical merit, but for me, the lack of high frequencies make them more difficult to listen to. I do particularly love the voices of the first golden era of Wagnerian singers, with Kirsten Flagstad, Frida Leider, and the great Lauritz Melchoir, who were all at their peaks in the pre hifi days.

 

The years of the '50's pre stereo had some wonderful recordings in full hifi mono. Many of the great artists recorded then never made it to the stereo era (Toscanini, Furtwangler, Lipatti, Neveu to name a few) but are captured in fine sound. My favorite recording of the Ring is by Clemens Krauss at Bayreuth in 1953 - with singers from the second golden era - the young Hans Hotter and Wolfgang Windgassen who are captured in stereo in the Solti Ring but also Martha Modl and Astrid Varney who didn't make it into the stereo era.

 

Larry

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  • 6 months later...

I don´t really care - it doesn´t sound like anything the modern audiophile labels would put out but it´s good in its own way and as long as you can still hear what they are playing it is fine. A lot of thé time the sound can be very good and clear anyway, almost like modern recordings. The playback system isn´t critical, what I found a bit funny was listening to those mono vocal recordings over iems - that has given me a strange audio sensation on a couple of occasions.

The really cool thing was hearing the stuff played on original shellacs - it had a stunning presence, energy and sense of timbre (recordings of Bjoerling and Pears plus some other things).

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To be honest, I would only listen to almost anything before the 40's only for historical interest, not for real listening enjoyment. About the only exception would be something like Robert Johnson - just voice and guitar at one mic - where the recording still does come through. One of the downsides of audiophilia is that the better your rig gets, the worse bad recordings sound (also modern ones). 

 

And even stuff from the 40's can be hard for me to listen to. I tend to do it only for something I really like - such as Charlie Parker - where there isn't an alternative. For classical, there's pretty much always a good performance from the late 50's or onward that sounds a lot better. 

 

Starting in the late 50's there are a lot of fantastic sounding recordings. I have no problem listening to those. 

Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>QuietPC Low Noise Server>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>Stack Audio Link II>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: Server with Audiolense RC>RPi4 or analog>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)+Schiit Freya>Kii Three .

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup.
Living Room/Kitchen: RPi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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