Hi-Rez Downloads Ring In the New Year

The Deutsche Grammophon webshop and HDtracks have special New Year's gifts for audiophiles: more CD-quality and high-resolution downloads.

DG's breakthrough comes as a special surprise. One of the first classical labels to offer 320kbps, DRM-free downloads, DG has now posted its first 50 CD-quality FLAC albums for downloading here.

First on the list is violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter's new, demonstration-quality CD of concertos by J.S. Bach and Sofia Gubaidulina. While the Bach will not replace other versions in the catalog, Mutter's take on Gubaidulina's In tempus praesens, written for her by the composer, is extraordinary. Giving a preview of what to expect when, in late February, she joins forces with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony to present the concerto's US debut, Mutter's violin soars amid trombones, tuba, contrabassoon, bells, gongs, cymbals, and other astounding percussion. Sometimes defiant, sometimes frighteningly aggressive, she extracts a breathtaking array of colors and emotions from her instrument before sweetening her sound for the cataclysmic climax. With the entire 33-minute Gubaidulina concerto available for the same price as a bargain CD, this is a must purchase. (If you attend next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you might hear me playing excerpts from this CD on systems that seem up to it.)

Especially exciting are a host of DG's recent concert recordings from New York and Los Angeles heretofore available only as 320kbps downloads. Esa-Pekka Salonen's Lutoslawski and Hillborg, an all-Reich extravaganza from the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel's LAPO Bartók and Berlioz, and a Shostakovich Cello Concerto with Lynn Harrell, accompanied by Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, are among the titles that especially whet my appetite.

Those looking for more traditional downloads from undeniably great artists can choose from Sviatoslav Richter's Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev; Boulez's Bartók and Mahler 8; the new La Bohème with Villazón and Netrebko (though I wouldn't ignore the Telarc alternative, led by Robert Spano); titles from Karajan's huge Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, and Strauss discography; Bernstein's Mahler 5 (hopefully remastered); and cello concertos from Rostropovich. And that's just a sampling of the first 50 titles, with more expected later in the year.

While CD-quality downloads are nothing new from David Chesky's HDtracks, the ability to download the Grammy-nominated Divertimenti, a collection of works for string orchestra from Norwegian label 2L (and recently praised by Kal Rubinson), as well as a host of other titles in hi-rez 24-bit/96kHz format at here, is something to cheer about. Some of the best titles from Reference Recordings and Chesky are also available in 24/96. (For the original 24/176.4 copies of Reference's master files, you need to purchase HRx discs directly from them.)

ECM and ECM New Series titles from Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, and Dave Holland have just appeared on HDtracks' trend-setting list of CD-quality downloads, some of them available as 24/96 files. Depending on whether Pentatone's SACD titles sound best at 24/88.2 or 24/96, those hi-rez downloads will soon join hi-rez recordings from the Chicago Symphony's CSO label, originally released on SACD.

"We're looking for any high-end–quality music label, whether it's independent or not," Chesky told Stereophile by phone. "The reason it takes us a long time to post the files is that the liner notes have to be scanned one by one. We work directly with the art directors to ensure that our customers get the entire product, not just the music.

"At first, HDtracks was like a club for independent labels, but now everybody wants to come on board. The musicians are pushing it, because they're enjoying music that isn't compressed, and are happy to see the liner notes."

Here's hoping that downloads from Blue Coast Records and Yarlung, two labels I've recently praised in Stereophile's "Industry Update," soon become available from HDtracks. With so much great music becoming available for download in hi-rez formats, 2009 promises to be a year that further transforms the music industry.