Fantasy in C, Op.17
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26
John Lill (piano)
Recorded 11-13 December 2003 in Henry Wood Hall, London
[This review is of newly recorded analogue material issued on 180-gram vinyl]
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: January 2005
CD No: GREEN ROOM PRODUCTIONS
Two 180-gram LPs; analogue masters
Producer: John Boyden
Engineer: Tony Faulkner
Duration: 76 minutes
This issue is potentially of immense importance to the classical recording industry. For the first time in almost 20 years a UK-based classical company has recorded new material in both digital (CD) and analogue (LP) sound; the former is available on Classics for Pleasure. Because of this I shall devote a substantial part of this article – with no disrespect to John Lill – to a comparative evaluation of analogue and digital sound.
John Lill is often associated with the works of Beethoven; he has recorded the concertos twice, with Alexander Gibson (Classics for Pleasure) and Walter Weller (Chandos), and the complete sonatas (ASV). He has also recorded all of Rachmaninov’s piano music and Prokofiev’s sonatas. Nevertheless his discography remains small, so any new discs are welcome and here he turns to the mercurial genius of Robert Schumann.
Taking them in reverse order of playing, Faschingsschwank aus Wien starts strongly with an animated left-hand and Lill maintains the tempo in the second theme, but at this idea’s second appearance the rhythmic tread and phrasing become very literal and its tolling bell-like quality is not revealed. Michelangeli in a 1959 BBC performance finds more colour and dynamic variation here as he does throughout the movement; by comparison Lill sounds one-dimensional. In the second movement ‘Romance’ Lill’s playing is elegiac but misses the sense of questioning longing; as in the first movement he appears to be caught within the bar-lines. The ‘Scherzino’ lacks animation and micro dynamic contrast and the ‘Intermezzo’ needs more disciplined attack. In the chorale-like start to ‘Finale’ the tempo is fast, but the piano doesn’t sing and the finger-work is uneven. So a powerful but monochromatic performance, Michelangeli offers far more here and his technique is also superior.
In Kinderszenen we hear the same generalised approach, with the added problem that Lill’s tempos are consistently leisurely and his lack of concentration means that most of the slower pieces sound tired as opposed to melancholic. Like Michelangeli in Faschingsschwank, Annie Fischer (EMI) employs a far wider tonal, dynamic and expressive range without ever destroying the music’s flow and line: she really does make the piano sing.
The Fantasy receives a more convincing performance. The first movement’s opening has sweep and power, and although the second subject could be more expressive, Lill’s refusal to make exaggerated tempo changes does give the movement a convincing integrity. And even if the sense of imagination that Perahia finds here eludes Lill, the playing has directness and conviction. This directness works well in the opening swagger of the second movement march, but as the volume drops to mf the phrasing and rhythm lose shape and the whole movement suffers from a lack of precise rhythmic control and line. My reaction to the final movement will, I suspect, change with my mood! Lill’s tempo is the slowest I have heard and while this gives the music dignity and breadth, I’m not convinced that it conveys the underlying sense of passionate spirituality that Claudio Arrau (BBC Legends) or Maurizio Pollini (DG) find. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that Lill sounds as though he is imposing his will on the music rather than idiomatically interpreting it; however, if you like your Schumann ‘big’, this approach might appeal.
When we come to the LPs’ recording quality things are much simpler: the LPs are significantly better than the CD. When digital recordings started appearing on LP, in 1979, analogue remained superior, as it was when CDs appeared in 1983 – and nothing has changed. As the sleeve notes makes clear, until recently classical producers had, for some reason, unlike their rock, pop and jazz counterparts, largely turned their back on analogue sound. The reasons for this are complex and a detailed discussion is beyond this review’s scope. However, mix together the marketing power of multinationals and their relationship with the classical-review industry in the ‘eighties, the downgrading of LP production standards from 1979 onwards, the then poor quality of even top-end hi-fi, the user friendliness of CDs and a bit of “it’s new so it must be better” wishful-thinking and you get some idea of why digital sound swept the classical board.
Nevertheless to this day there are a substantial number of audiophiles and music-lovers who maintain that analogue is superior and their number is growing. In response to this, companies producing 180/200 gram re-mastering of stereo ‘golden age’ recordings – 1956 to 1975 – have sprung up all around the world, but up until now no-one in the classical field has dared to record in analogue.
Enter Tony Faulkner’s company Green Room Productions, which records in both analogue and digital formats. The question for many readers will be why they should seek to restart a dead medium. Is this refusal to kneel at the altar of digital sound a piece of quaint nostalgia, or are there good audio reasons for it?
The answer to this question is, as already stated, very simple: good analogue is and always has been superior to digital sound whether on re-mastering or new recording. As the sleeve-notes record, at the recording sessions everyone including John Lill was amazed at how much better the analogue session master was than the digital equivalent. The reasons for this superiority are complex, but on the technical front Green Room use only two tracks (two mikes in other words), modernised Studer 10-inch tape-decks and modern valve amplification. The pressing company RTI use cutting heads which can cope with an uncompressed dynamic range on the production master-tape and the use of 180 gram vinyl; shorter playing-sides should further improve dynamic range, bass response, pitch stability and eliminate hiss. In terms of home listening, today there are turntable/arm/cartridge combos, amplifiers, speakers and cables which will reveal far more of the information on an LP, new or old, than ever before. This produces sound which has definition, bloom, sparkle, resonance and richness, an ability to reproduce a proper sense of acoustic space and sound and a natural sense of presence, instrumental timbre and flow. The tiring block-like construction of digital sound is entirely absent, as is its glossy artificiality.
All of these qualities can be heard on these Lill LPs. At all times the piano has more bloom, its attack and presence are effortlessly conveyed, the entire tonal range has natural sparkle, body and resonance, and the acoustic is tangible. The dynamic range is also greater in both micro and macro terms and this helps give a far greater impression of that elusive pianistic quality, touch. The CFP CD is good but its sound is more forced and the acoustic is a slightly reverberant nothingness in which the piano is suspended, and as with all CDs the sound lacks naturalness and flow.
Classical Source’s editor, Colin Anderson, was at the December 2003 sessions and he told me that the analogue master, as played-back then, exactly caught the sound of the heard-live piano, which had been rebuilt and tuned according to John Lill’s wishes. To vinyl aficionados this will come as no surprise, whether you listen to Ashkenazy in Rachmaninov in 1973 on Decca, or the then Stephen Bishop in Brahms in 1968 on Philips, or Kentner in Liszt in 1963 on EMI – you will hear piano sound which has all of the qualities mentioned above and very importantly you will actually be able to tell in blind comparisons which pianist is playing by the nature of the piano sound they produce – something CDs struggle to do.
Am I exaggerating the superiority of analogue sound? No. I hold musical evenings when friends bring round 78s, LPs, DVDs, VCs and CDs, and even those who have been brought up in the digital era admit that whether it be orchestra, piano, chamber ensembles or the human voice, analogue sound is better, the word that is used over and over again is “natural”. Some months ago I interviewed Mike Hudson, the President of Classic Records, the world’s largest producer of 180/200-gram re-mastering. He said that when LPs are reproduced properly they have a strange, almost indefinable, quality – which digital sound cannot emulate.
Tony Faulkner is planning to make more analogue LPs, and music-lovers can only hope that these succeed and that magazines that ignore reviewing LPs will devote some space to them. It seems a pity that when you can buy turntable combos ranging from £120 to £30,000 you can’t use them to play new classical LPs. Certainly in an ideal world a whole new series of LPs would become available. I would be fascinated to hear a new opera recording using only two or three mikes and modern equipment. Having listened only recently to Richard Hickox’s “Billy Budd” on Chandos (recorded in 2000) and Britten’s own 1968 version on Decca LPs, the sense of depth, perspective, internal and overall balance, vocal and instrumental timbre and acoustic signature on the Britten are superior; the sound breathes in a way that is completely beyond the Chandos or any digital recording.
It is also worth noting that whether you are comparing analogue and digital on a turntable/arm/combo costing £20,000 and a similarly priced multi-box CD player, or on equipment costing £400, then the difference is still apparent. Certainly it is true that the more expensive the equipment then the superiority of analogue becomes ever more apparent, but at whatever price it is still there.
Finally I would urge those who have no knowledge of LPs, or who have been persuaded to ditch vinyl, to try and listen to these Lill/Green Room LPs. In the classical market, analogue recording may almost be dead, but that shouldn’t be the case: analogue is simply better and companies such as Green Room deserve support.