Listening #76 Page 2

(That raises an interesting subject: One can't directly compare the G-style SPU 90th Anniversary with any A-style pickup head—or "normal" phono cartridge, for that matter—in one key regard: inner-groove distortion. All other things being equal, a G-style pickup head, properly installed in a 12" tonearm that can be adjusted to take advantage of the extra stylus-to-collet length, will exhibit a less severe departure from tangency as the stylus approaches and/or passes the innermost "null" point. Even scientists know that.)

I used the SPU 90th Anniversary with all of the impedance-appropriate transformers at my disposal, which themselves describe a distinct range from good to excellent in terms of the sonic presence and musical impact they can find in my records. What really struck me was that, in order to sound at or near its best in those regards, the 90th Anniversary didn't "need" my best trannie—at present, the Auditorium 23 Hommage T1. Yes, when I added the Hommage T1 to the system, the music-making took another step forward. And I suppose that, if the rest of my system were better still, I'd hear an even greater distinction. But the SPU 90th itself sounded so present, forceful, and downright vital that I wasn't left wondering what more I could get out of it.

It did, of course, sound like an SPU—a breed that differs from other phono cartridges in virtually the same ways in which good-quality low-power tube amps differ from their buffet-line cousins: It had more touch, texture, color, and sheer whomp than any standard-mount cartridge, of any price, you'd care to name. It was unignorable.

A good example: Mahler's Symphony 7 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (LP, Columbia M2S 739) was hair-raising with the SPU 90th Anniversary, or would have been if I had enough hair to raise. It's one thing to hear a recording of, say, a solo guitar or solo violin replayed with a superior sense of human touch; imagine, if you will, an entire orchestra similarly transformed during playback. Literally every instrument or instrument group, from the first violins to the tambourine—even the horns Mahler relies on so heavily from literally the fourth measure forward—sounded physically charged and emotionally electrified. The notion of force in the playing of the timpani at the opening of the third movement was a statement of fact, not a suggestion, and the woodwinds in the opening measures of the second movement, recalling a darker version of those in Mahler's Symphony 1, came to life in the room. Just as important, the SPU 90th Anniversary was the best I've heard at delivering low-frequency notes with all their rich timbral color intact—a quality that made the string basses early in the fourth movement especially captivating. Just as Bernstein's Mahler 7 sounds like a different piece of music compared to anyone else's recording, so does the experience of hearing an Ortofon SPU play it back differ from that with all standard pickups. And the SPU 90th Anniversary leads the way.

Again, a direct comparison to either the SPU Synergy or the Shindo SPU, both A-style, and samples of both of which I had on hand, wouldn't be quite fair. The 90th Anniversary had more detail than either, and while the Shindo had even more color (though only when used with the Hommage T1), the new model was livelier overall. And it did, indeed, sound cleaner on those records in my collection that have troublesome inner grooves.

Perhaps needless to say, the Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary, like all such pickup heads, is aimed at a smaller market than are most phono cartridges. But there seems to remain a large, and largely untapped, audience among those hobbyists who get the whole low-power amp thing but who haven't yet discovered just how immediate, exciting, and altogether superior the best phonograph components can make their system sound. And the SPU 90th Anniversary is easily, clearly among the best—not to mention an exceptionally good value. A winner!

You can see where this has been
I'll never forget my first trip to the British Museum, in the fall of 1990. From the Parthenon sculptures to Lindow Man, one exhibit after another coaxed the same astonished response: "I had no idea that that was here." But the greatest surprise of all was the Rosetta Stone: Not only was it there, but it was the first exhibit I saw, lacking in all pomp and protection, not far at all from the main entrance on Great Russell Street. And in those days, visitors really could walk right up and touch the thing, just like Walter Johnson's locker in the Hall of Fame. The experience left me awestruck—the Rosetta Stone, not Johnson's locker (though the latter is very cool, in its way).

Not long ago, another sort of Rosetta Stone was unearthed—one that will leave more than a few music lovers similarly awestruck. And it almost didn't happen, save for a chance e-mail conversation between a music scholar in the US and a biographer of violinist Jascha Heifetz in Russia: The former made an offhand reference to a mythic collection of 19th-century sound recordings thought by most Westerners to have disappeared in World War II; the latter said, essentially, They're stored in a building right up the street from me. Thus were the historic Julius Block cylinders uncovered in 2002, thanks largely to scholar John A. Maltese and biographer Galina Kopytova.

Julius H. Block, the son of a well-to-do merchant, was born in 1858 in what is now South Africa. He showed keen musical talent from an early age, but Block eventually gave up his dream of becoming a classical pianist and went to work for one of his family's businesses: an importing firm with offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The firm introduced a number of modern American and European inventions to Czarist Russia, most notably Thomas Edison's early cylinder phonograph, which was demonstrated to Block by the inventor himself.

Edison, of course, intended the phonograph as a dictating tool, but Block, whose reputations as a gifted amateur pianist and generous patron of the arts were on the rise, was among the few at the time who championed the device for a loftier calling. Thus, whenever a noted musician paid a visit to the Block home—say, for instance, the pianist and conductor Arthur Nikisch—said musician was persuaded to give an impromptu performance, so that Block could record a snippet on a wax cylinder (maximum recording time: 4 minutes). Consider that these recording soirées continued from 1889 through at least 1915, and that the list of subjects included pianist Josef Hoffman (at age 19), violinist Jascha Heifetz (at age 11!), composer Anton Arensky, and soprano Elena Gerhardt—not to mention writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy and his family—and you have some idea of the importance of the Julius Block Cylinders. Even Peter Tchaikovsky and the legendary Anton Rubinstein were guests of Block, though both limited their contributions to the spoken word.

The music conservationist Ward Marston had known of Block's work for some time: Fragments of the collection survived the war and made their way to disparate points of the globe, from which a handful have surfaced in recent years. So when John A. Maltese brought him the news that over 200 cylinders had been located, and offered him the opportunity to publish the recordings, Marston jumped at the chance. The pair, along with John Maltese pËre and Marston Records partner Scott Kessler, were invited by the Institute of Russian Literature to visit St. Petersburg in 2005, to transfer the cylinders to 24-bit digital files under the supervision of the Institute's own engineers—who, according to Marston, were technically adept and musically sensitive. Madame Kopytova even invited the Americans to stay as guests in her home.

First copies of The Dawn of Recording: The Julius Block Cylinders (Marston 53011-2) were shipped at Christmastime 2008. To quote the last word spoken at the very end of the third and last CD of this wonderful set: "Finally!"

Ward Marston used an appropriately light hand in editing noise from these priceless artifacts—the comprehensive and well-written booklet tells of clicks, pops, dropouts, and speed variations (the last being worst of all with pieces that are unknown to modern listeners or otherwise lacking in known key signatures)—and, as a consequence, this is not always easy listening. Marston himself recommends headphones. And patience. The rewards are at turns delightful, amusing, revelatory (especially hearing how a presumably typical violinist of the day approached a Bach Partita), harrowing, and always very worthwhile. One minute into the first of five Heifetz pieces, when you hear that famously deep, rich, utterly unmistakable vibrato being produced by an 11-year-old child, captured almost a century ago, you'll surely agree. You may even cry.

The project required time, talent, and a good deal of money. In addition to the aforementioned, this release was supported financially by Davyd Booth, Henry Fogel, Peter Greenleaf, the estate of John Stratton (Stephen R. Clarke, executor), the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, and the University of Georgia's Office of the Vice President for Research. Bravo, all, and God bless Ward Marston.


Freako's picture

Being far from a nationalist, but born and raised in Denmark, a thing which makes me feel rather privileged, I can't help feeling a bit of pride reading this great column. Surely, in a country this small, and with so few citizens, there has been quite many pioneers in a number of different areas. One of those you forgot to mention is Dynaudio, the speaker factory in Skanderborg, Denmark. The sound reproduction of the units developed at Dynaudio has to a large degree been known to be "true and honest" to whatever recordings they are fed. And I speak from experience.

Just sayin'