Music and Recording Features

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Robert Baird Posted: Oct 10, 2012 9 comments
It's the first rule of being a stereophile: sound quality is serious business. Simon Gibson, one of the engineers at Abbey Road Studios who worked on EMI's new Signature Collection of hybrid SACD/CDs, knows the drill: remaster and change the sound of a much-loved classical recording from the label's glorious back catalog and you risk becoming a target of blogs and forums. Gibson's aware that the more hallowed the recording, the more quickly knives come out at the mention of remastering.
Jason Victor Serinus Posted: Aug 25, 2012 3 comments
Photo of the author in Bayreuth: Paul Hyde

For audiophiles, the acoustic of the Bayreuth Festspielhause in Germany, home of the annual festival of Richard Wagner's operas, vies with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and Vienna's Musikverein as one of the most fabled for recording as well as listening. As a participant in the Music Critics of North America 2012 institute at the Festival, I had the opportunity to not only explore the venue from a near-ideal seat in Row 25 Center, but to also visit the fabled "covered pit" from which many of the greatest Wagner conductors of the last 136 years have led exalted performances.

Robert Baird Posted: Aug 21, 2012 Published: Sep 01, 2012 3 comments
"We tried to do some work between the legs of . . .

"Ummmm . . . that sounds weird."

Rock musicians—do they ever think about anything but sex?

Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson chuckles. He explains that what he meant to say was that he, singer-bassist Geddy Lee, and the exalted, formerly mustachioed object of Planet Earth's most fervent drummer cult, Neil Peart, were trying to write songs during a break in a recent tour.

Robert Deutsch Posted: Aug 20, 2012 0 comments
I'm a great fan of the musical theater: musicals, operetta, and opera, more-or-less in that order. A typical summer vacation for my wife and me involves driving from Toronto to the East Coast, stopping off to see musicals (and some plays) at places like the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, , and the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, ME. The Glimmerglass summer opera festival, near Cooperstown, NY, is not far from the route we usually take, but I never thought of visiting it because my impression has been that they specialize in performances of modern and obscure operas, which are not quite our cup of tea.

My discovery of the fact that Glimmerglass has greatly expanded the range of its offerings came about through sheer serendipity. . .

John Marks Posted: Aug 09, 2012 0 comments
Don't waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Fantasy Symphony Season competition, announced in this column in February, has been a smashing success—as far as I'm concerned, it's the most worthwhile write-in competition yet. The 13 winning entries and one hors-concours laureate are posted in the follow-up to February's column on Stereophile's website. The update lists the compositions in each winning Fantasy Symphony Season entry. I created a spreadsheet to determine the most popular composers and works in the winning entries.

Robert Baird Posted: Jul 10, 2012 1 comments
It is perhaps the most cherished tale from hi-fi's primordial past: In 1951—when music was first being recorded on magnetic tape, when the use of much-improved microphones became a mix of science and art, and when Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, was still a little nipper, years away from his first martini (though I wouldn't swear to that)—the team of Robert (Bob) and Wilma Cozart Fine began to build a legendary catalog of recordings of classical music. It eventually included the work of conductors Rafael Kubelik, Antal Doráti, and Frederick Fennell; the Chicago and Minneapolis symphony orchestras; the pianists Byron Janis and Gina Bachauer; and the cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and János Starker—all released with often wildly colorful covers under the still-evocative title of Mercury Living Presence.
Jason Victor Serinus Posted: May 19, 2012 17 comments
If any single voice was synonymous with the flowering of the LP era, it was that of German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The great artist's death at his home in Bavaria on Friday, May 18, 10 days short of his 87th birthday, sets the final seal on an age in which art song, oratorio, and opera received equal respect from record companies and the listening public.

Equally adept at all three disciplines, Fischer-Dieskau became perhaps the most recorded baritone in history. There was a period in which nary a month went by without another LP from Fischer-Dieskau on which he sang either solo or in ensemble. Even today, when so many recordings have gone out of print, and large number of LPs have never been remastered for CD, arkivmusic.com lists no less than 490 titles that include Fischer-Dieskau's voice. The most recent release, a four-SACD remastered compilation of some of the monaural Schubert lieder (art song) recordings he made with pianists Gerald Moore and Karl Engel early in his career, became available on the website on May 8. Its 39 performances are but a fraction of the Schubert recordings he made in his five decades before the microphone.

Steve Guttenberg Posted: May 03, 2012 0 comments
Photo: Aiyana Elliott

Even when Loudon Wainwright III (left in photo with Ramblin' Jack Elliot) was a young man he was writing autobiographical songs, and his old themes of family, sex, and death resonate more deeply on his new record, Older Than My Old Man Now. He usually performs solo, armed with just an acoustic guitar or a banjo, but most of his recordings present more heavily produced versions of LWIII's music. When I chatted with LWIII in late April I wanted to explore that dichotomy and how those transformations take place.

David Lander Posted: Apr 20, 2012 0 comments
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 470pp. Hardcover, $34.95.

One night in 1942, Billie Holiday was singing at a Los Angeles nightclub. Between sets, she crossed the street to have a drink with Norman Granz. She was in tears because some black friends who had come to hear her had been turned away.

Robert Baird Posted: Jan 07, 2012 0 comments
Up on the old church altar, under the ceiling's massive and ornate wooden arches, in front of an array of stained glass whose center panel has been replaced with a modern rendering of a trio of bluesmen, singer and harmonica player Phil Wiggins and singer-guitarist Corey Harris are nearing the end of their set. Wiggins pauses, looks at his watch, and smiles.

"Time flies when you're playing blues in a church."

Robert Baird Posted: Dec 20, 2011 5 comments
For the musically prolific, releasing too many records too close together can be problematic or worse. Just because you can make a record every week in your home studio doesn't mean you should. The impulse to commit every golden thought and performance to tape without self-editing or even pausing to reflect screams narcissism run amok. Asking listeners—even dedicated fans—to then buy and spend time listening to half-baked nonsense that might have become something, given more time and care, is a sure career destroyer. There's truth in the old saw about building demand, avoiding saturation, and creating a hunger among the listening public. Most critical of all, despite downloads, piracy, and Lady Gaga's pointy hats and eggshell entrances, the old Hollywoodism still applies: while spontaneity may sound like a radical idea, you're only as good as your last album.
Sam Tellig Posted: Sep 22, 2011 1 comments
Kurt Sanderling died on September 17 in Berlin, just two days shy of his 99th birthday—of "old age," according to his eldest son Stefan. Sanderling was the last of a generation of conductors displaced by Hitler—an exodus that included Otto Klemperer, Josef Krips, Sir George Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Bruno Walter, who all went West. (Never mind that Klemperer had converted to Catholicism and that Krips was half-Jewish.) Sanderling fled East, to the Soviet Union.
Robert Baird Posted: Sep 15, 2011 0 comments
Big bands died out back in the 1950s, right? They went away when the jitterbug faded and folks began dancing to music other than swing? And then real jazz fans departed when the bebop soloists came along and made big-band players look clumsy and quaint?
Robert Baird Posted: Jul 08, 2011 1 comments
"Sometimes I can evoke the breathless rush of feeling that I experienced the first time that I ever really heard Robert Johnson's music. Sometimes a note will suggest just a hint of the realms of emotion that opened up to me in that moment, the sense of utter wonder, the shattering revelation."—Peter Guralnick, from Searching for Robert Johnson (New York: Dutton Obelisk, 1989)

It's an experience that all true blues fans need to savor. Fly into Memphis, drive south on US 61, into Coahoma County, Mississippi, down to the Delta, down to Robert Johnson country. There, on one of those steamy nights when the moon is full and fog, or maybe restless spirits, rise from the cotton fields, you can drive down to his two graves, in two churchyards nearly within sight of each other. You can sit in the dark and listen to the trains that were his constant mode of transportation. And on the way back to Clarksdale, the Delta burgh where Bessie Smith passed, you can go down to the crossroads and judge for yourself. Romantics say you can feel, smell, and even hear Robert Johnson's music, if not his desperate deal, still hanging in the humid Mississippi air.

Robert Baird Posted: Jun 06, 2011 1 comments
To write about music, you must first come to terms with your fanboy urges. You must brush off the fairy dust and see your heroes for who they really are—a picture that in many cases is all too human. Yet that first blush of idolatry is an experience you never quite forget, no matter how many times you interview a person.

There was a time, back in the St. Elmo's Fire 1980s, when Steve Earle's first album, Guitar Town, was an object of abject slobbery for a generation of rock critics. Turning a near-mint LP copy of that album over in his hands, Earle begins to reminisce about a record that changed Nashville and country-rock music and, for many, remains his undisputed career masterpiece.

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