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Performance vs. Sound

The more one submerges oneself in the audiophile habit (or addiction) the more difficult it can become to determine the primacy of gear vs. music. On my side, I started with music, spent quite a lot of time focusing on the gear, and have over the past several years refocused on the music. It is not my intent to open up this discussion, which in any case has been argued and re-argued forever. This month I’d like to focus on the nature of the music itself, that is, what it is that we listen to on our systems.

After having spent much time questing for the “perfect sound,” I now find myself focused increasingly on the “right performance.” By this I mean that I will happily accept a loss of fidelity in a recording if it means a superior performance of the music in question. Some recordings to which I’ve been listening recently have driven that point home in a very effective way.

Michael Cuscuna’s Mosaic Records has released a set of Stan Getz recordings (Stan Getz: The 1953-54 Clef/Norgran Studio Sessions, Mosaic MRLP 3003 (four LPs) and also available, though not from Mosaic, on three CDs). The LPs are remastered from the mono master tapes (with one exception, a direct 78 rpm transfer for one song where the master tape was lost), and the fidelity of the recordings is as about good as it gets… for the era in which the recordings were made. However, whatever lack of fidelity exists on the vinyl is more than compensated for by the astonishing performances contained in this set. Getz was a master, and a perfectionist, and this is clearly transmitted in this set. Here, the quality of the performance is sufficient to render secondary issues of fidelity. I contrast this with, for example, the well-known Jazz at the Pawnshop album, which is an audiophile favorite. While I agree that the sound quality of this album can be superb, I have never been a big fan of the performance.

I draw the same parallel with certain versions of Mahler’s First Symphony, one of my favorite classical pieces. I recently acquired the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler Symphony series (in both SACD and vinyl), and while Tilson Thomas and the SFS do a very good job of interpreting this piece, and while the sound of the SACDs (haven’t listened to the vinyl yet) is astonishingly good, I still turn to a much earlier performance when I listen: Adrian Boult’s with the London Philharmonic (from around 1958, on the Everest label). It’s not that the SFS version is poor (it most certainly is not), but I have always found the London Philharmonic’s performance of the piece under Boult (not know to be an interpreter of Mahler) to be more engaging. And when I listen to music, it’s engagement that I want, over pure sound quality.

I am interested in hearing readers’ experiences with recordings where the performance is so superb that it makes issues of fidelity less important.





Image credit

The image used on the cover page for this article is from the Wikipedia article on the brain, and illustrates signal processing in the auditory system.

Readers' comments

    Too many to enumerate. Audiophiles are gaga by things like transparency, soundstaging, and detail. But, purity of tone is what slays the savage breast around here. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the aforementioned also, it pleases me to be able to tell you.

  • It’s an interesting question. I have only recently discovered that Pandora was unblocked from Australian access in the last year, and so have started exploring it and other streaming services as well. So: access to vast amounts of music, with some fidelity loss. I’ve also started exploring “hi res”, which is the opposite in both respects. I realize this it’s not quite what you meant Peter, but I can’t help feeling there’s some relevance.

  • Having re-read your piece, Peter, three come to mind without much effort:

    American composer Howard Hanson’s Sym no.2 “Romantic” and Lament for Beowolf for Orchestra and Chorus (Mercury Golden Imports). One I really wish did sound romantic, particularly the stirring Beowolf;
    Shostakovich Sym no.10 (USSR Melodiya/Angel). Very same thing altho it’s a bit better than the former;
    And for jazz, ALL of Branford Marsalis’ recordings for Columbia. Perhaps the last of great tenor sax players and composers as jazz, it seems to me, is a past tense artform. Too dull and compressed.

  • A little footnote: Peter mentions Jazz at The Pawnshop and I completely agree with his sentiments. What I am writing to tell you is that ALL of the Scandanavian labels of which “Pawnshop” is one (i.e. Proprius, BIS, Opus 3, ODIN, Finnadar, etc.) in my library have exceptional sound above their contemporaries. Must be that the weather keeps them inside so much. Not kidding about the sound. On the BIS Mi-Fi-Li, Symphonic Poem, the conductor and ensemble are pictured on the reverse in what appears to be the wing of an old castle. Two microphones appear on a stand overhead just in front of the ensemble. Turn it up and your ears are about where the conductor is standing. Turn it down some and your sitting about five rows back and that would be my preference. It is as real sounding in all dimensions as any recording I know of.

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