Why Stereophile Makes Recordings

This morning, John Atkinson passed along to me an e-mail he received from one of our most attentive correspondents—a reviewer, in fact, for an erstwhile competitor. We know that this particular writer ranks among our closest readers because an issue seldom comes out but that he writes an analysis of it, including, and down to, what he considers our excessive political correctness in choice of pronouns.

Today's missive included his comments concerning our latest CD, Rhapsody (see June 1997, pp.70-81). He hasn't yet heard it, but regards its main work, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, as a poor choice since the piece has already received many recordings. Apparently our colleague didn't read the June article as closely as has been his wont, since he ignores the fact that we commissioned a new orchestration for this project and engaged a pianist widely admired for his Gershwin interpretations. No matter, he has made his point: Rhapsody In Blue has received "umpteen" recordings. There would be little justification for unleashing another upon the world if we didn't consider that this one brought something special to the table.

In my, admittedly biased, opinion, it does. First, we have recorded a "chamber" Rhapsody—14 players gathered around the piano, much in the spirit of a Mozart concerto. Joe Cea's arrangement sounds intimate, rather than bloated, which I must confess the full orchestral version now seems to me. This is not inconsequential. Gershwin, the popular story goes, applied to Maurice Ravel for instruction in orchestration. Ravel turned him down, saying, "Were I to instruct you, you might someday become a second-rate Ravel, but you are already George Gershwin." In its full-blown scoring, Rhapsody has always struck me as perilously close to "second-rate" classical. There is no thematic or melodic development—at least not as defined by Beethoven. It's a piece that survives on charm, rhythmic architecture, and unabashedly great tunes. Our version, which removes the bombast, returns it to a more appropriate scale, say that of a Broadway pit orchestra.

Furthermore, we have included on the disc some of Earl Wild's rarely recorded transcriptions of Gershwin's songs, which are marvelous, as well as several of Hyperion Knight's own arrangements. Surely we deserve some credit for originality in programming, rather than simply trotting out another Concerto in F or An American In Paris pairing?

Our loyal correspondent has every right to his own opinion of our enterprise, of course. However, he goes on to describe the Stereophile article on the Rhapsody project as "a paroxysm of self-regard," asking, "Have you an in-house osteopath to repair the shoulder you forever dislocate patting yoursel[ves] on the back?"

The real question, as I understand it, is: "Why does Stereophile devote so much space to its recording projects?" Well, partially because we find them interesting. As audiophiles and music lovers, we are fascinated by the process of trying to capture lightning in a bottle—of giving permanence to something as elusive as the experience of live music.

Since we write about electronics that reproduce music and about recordings of that music itself, we feel it behooves us to comprehend the recording process. When you think about it, what's surprising is not that we produce recordings, but that we are the only audio magazine that does so. We would argue that this gives us, if not a more moral critical imperative, then certainly a more informed one.

Yet, we would merely be pompously posturing blowhards were we not to try to share what we learn in these projects. For example, even though I've been present in the studio when many records have been made, it was a new experience for me to sit in the chapel of the First United Methodist Church in downtown Albuquerque, filled with the anticipation of that evening's recording session, listening to the structure itself rustle, moan, and creak—so I wrote about it, hoping that at least one reader could share some of that frisson. Is that self-indulgent? Obviously I'm the wrong guy to ask, but more people have commented favorably on that article than on any other I've ever written.

We could present what we learn making our recordings in a series of tutorial articles describing how to record solo, chamber, and orchestral musicians in a reverberant environment. Personally, I'd find that format rather dry and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. By describing our projects as the adventures of human beings attempting to preserve the musical moment, we have hoped to present the information in as entertaining a manner as possible.

Yes, we devote space to our recording projects in order to promote their sales (footnote 1). In addition to what we learn and what we share, we record our CDs and LPs because we think they are musically worthwhile. While our learned friend may sneer at our motives and our choices, I believe we've perpetrated some great music upon the public: Robert Silverman's Liszt; the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's Appalachian Spring; Julie Landsman's Brahms Horn Trio; and, yes, Rhapsody in Blue—to name a scant few.

It would take an organization far more cynical than Stereophile to commit our resources and personnel to these projects merely in order to release recordings we weren't proud of. We are proud of them and would match our accomplishments, disc by disc, against those of any other small recording label in the world.

It would be nice if we even made some money on our recordings. So far, we can't complain. We've broken even or even made a little profit on each of our projects—partially because most of us do the work for free. We pay the musicians, of course, but most of the rest of us do it for the love of it. If we actually made real money at it, we could commit to even more ambitious projects. Talk about dreaming—someday I'd love to record Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand." Boy would we learn a lot doing that one!

So I put it to you. As we record new projects, should we continue our coverage of them in Stereophile? Or should we allow only those people who purchase the discs to learn about how we make them? And if you have purchased Rhapsody, drop us a line to let us know what you think of it.

Footnote 1: To purchase Rhapsody or any other of the Stereophile recordings, visit the secure " Recordings" page on this website.