Grammy Rewards Audiophile Efforts

Recordings that deliver the benefits of the high-resolution SACD format scored big at the 49th Grammy Awards Ceremony, held February 11, 2007 in Los Angeles. Telarc, which issues virtually all its classical titles and some jazz/blues releases in both DSD-native CD and hybrid SACD surround formats, won two Grammys in classical categories and three in jazz. SFS Media, the in-house label of the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, received two Grammys for the seventh release in its ongoing Mahler series of live, DSD-native hybrid surround SACDs. Last but not least, Harmonia Mundi, some of whose titles are available in DSD-native hybrid surround SACD, scored big with the gorgeous choral music of Arvo Pärt.

San Francisco Symphony's winner, Mahler's Symphony No.7, received Grammys for both Best Orchestral Recording and Best Classical Album. John Kieser, who recently graduated to general manager of San Francisco Symphony after years as director of operations and electronic media, credits some of the SFS Media label's success to its live concert recordings, which "give the performances an extra shot in the arm."

Kieser stresses that SFS Media's surround recording technique has evolved. The surround mix of the label's first hybrid SACD, Mahler Symphony No.6, lacked a center channel. "The Seventh better re-creates the live concert experience," he says, "and gets closer to how the sound feels in the hall."

Echoing the assessment of many Mahler aficionados, Kieser confesses that the Seventh was once his least favorite Mahler symphony. "It's a very enigmatic, tough work that takes some time to get used to. However, it reveals itself more after a lot of listening. After listening to it 25 times as part of my job, it has become one of my favorites. The reason we're so pleased is that Mahler Seven is not the kind of work that would normally attract a Grammy. That says something about the performance and recording."

Of Telarc's five Grammys, the late tenor saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker's Some Skunk Funk (Telarc Jazz), which was recorded as a hybrid surround SACD by WDR in Germany, won both Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Elgar: Enigma Variations; Britten: The Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra, Four Sea Interludes (Telarc), engineered by Michael Bishop, won Best Engineered Album, Classical. Five outstanding recordings in a year won veteran Telarc producer Elaine Martone Producer of the Year, Classical. Nancy Wilson's Turned to Blue (MCG Jazz), the label's sole CD-only release to win a Grammy, was not produced by Telarc itself.

Both San Francisco Media and Telarc have gone out on a limb with their commitment to SACD. When asked to address the myth, currently circulating among American audiophiles, that SACD is dead, the label's senior recording engineer, Michael Bishop, replied, "Why are people so ready to doom something that is better, and that is still doing the baby crawl? It's almost as if people want to be stuck with plain old vanilla CD or MP3 as the level of audio quality we're all willing to accept. If you can't stand for something better, then get out of the business."

Bishop, who succeeded Telarc's semi-retired co-founder Jack Renner as senior recording engineer three years ago, says the changes in Telarc's recording technique have been incremental. "Like anyone working at a craft, we're always looking at a better way to get things across. We've been fine-tuning since the first Telarc session in 1977, where I served as mastering engineer. I try different mike techniques, and am always on the lookout for better converters, better cable, and ultimate mike placement. I make a recording the way I like to make a recording, in ways that please me; we don't have a Grammy in mind when we go into a project."

Not one to shy away from controversy, Bishop states, "If the voters of the Academy thought that the recording I engineered was worthy of the Best Engineered, Classical Award, they should hear it in Surround. It blows away the CD. Classical recordings are not well represented in the Surround Sound category because members of that category's special screening committee listen over systems that favor compressed pop recordings. Non-compressed recordings with a wide dynamic range do not play that well on the speaker systems they use. I'm working on getting that changed, and am trying to getting more classical ears onto the committee." Despite such obstacles, however, it should be noted that SFS Media's recording of Mahler's perennially popular Symphony No.4 was nominated for Best Surround Sound Album, 2004.

Telarc's Elaine Martone rejoices that she has received "the most coveted award in my field," Classical Producer of the Year. Martone, who has been at Telarc since 1980 and produced some of its classical and jazz recordings since 1988, has been working toward the award for many years. "Music is about communicating," she says. "We all want to communicate and be communicated with. I have a clear intention of collaborating with people in the recording process, and that energy communicates to an audience."

Martone is vividly aware of acoustics, and of the dryness of the halls that Telarc has learned to enliven during the recording process. "The acoustics in a hall affect your feelings about a performance," she says. "It's very helpful to hear the exact same orchestra play in different spaces within a short span of time, because then you can factor in the acoustic."

She is also quite enthusiastic about the "visionary" work of Atlanta Symphony conductor Robert Spano, whose discs for Telarc and DG included three works that vied for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Spano's DG recording of Golijov's Ainadamar ultimately earned a total of three Grammys.

This year's Harmonia Mundi Grammy for Best Choral Performance for Paul Hillier and the Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir's recording of Arvo Pärt's Da Pacem is a first for veteran producer Robina Young's production department at Harmonia Mundi USA. As usual, HMU excels in capturing a natural church acoustic, making the best possible case for Pärt's transporting blend of orthodox Christianity and mystical reverence.

The work was also "Editor's Choice" in Gramophone, received highest ratings from Classics Today, and landed on The New York Times' "Recordings of the Year" and New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross's "Top 10 CDs for 2006."

Brad Michel, HMU's sound engineer, explains that Pärt's music was recorded in a beautiful church in Tallinn with five Schoeps microphones. The signal passed through Millennia HV3 pre-amplifiers and Meitner DSD converters before being recorded directly to the Pyramix DSD workstation. "The recording stayed in this domain (and on these drives) until the master files were transferred for production," he says. "While the label produced a few SACD reissues four or five years ago of some of our most popular CD titles (Anonymous 4, Andrew Manze Bach Concertos, etc), they were very carefully transferred to SACD format. To my ears, they exploit everything DSD has to offer. Our first new SACD/DSD recording was The English Consort with Andrew Manze's performance of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik made at Air Studios London. From that point on, all our SACDs were recorded in DSD. All editing of these projects is in DSD. The work is made easier because we do no processing, very little mixing, and there is no mastering stage."

None of these labels is a stranger to the Grammys. In addition to Telarc's five 2007 Grammy awards and 14 Grammy nominations, Telarc and its distributed labels, Heads Up and MCG Jazz, have over the years received an additional 50 Grammy Awards for performance, production, and engineering. Telarc has also been awarded France's Grand Prix du Disque and Diapason d'Or, Japan's Record of the Year, Germany's Audiophile CD of the Year, and Gramophone Magazine's 2004 Label of the Year.

The San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas Mahler series has so far received six Grammy nominations and two Grammy awards. The first disc released, Mahler Symphony No.6, won the Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance of 2002 and was also nominated for Best Classical Album. The combination of Mahler Symphony No.3 and Kindertotenlieder, featuring mezzo-soprano Michelle De Young subbing for Nathalie Stutzmann, won Best Classical Album of 2003. Mahler Symphony No.4 with soprano Laura Claycomb was nominated for Best Surround Sound Album of 2004. Previously, MTT and the San Francisco Symphony received two Grammys for BMG's redbook CDs of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet (1997) and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Firebird, and Persephone. As for awards abroad, Mahler Seven won Pizzicato's Supersonic Award (Luxembourg), Mahler One was nominated for an Edison award in the Netherlands, and Mahler Six made the Gramophone Awards 2002 Orchestral short list and received Joy Classic's Best Symphony Recording of the Year, 2003 (Japan).

Harmonia Mundi, which also received a MIDEM Chamber Music Award at Cannes this year for Trio Wanderer's recording of Brahms' Complete Piano Trios, previously won the Grammy 2004 Best Opera Recording Award for René Jacobs' Le Nozze di Figaro, which is available in hybrid SACD surround format. The same set scored an additional seven American and European awards, including Gramophone Record of the Year 2004. Jacobs previously won a MIDEM award for his recording of Handel's Saul, the same year that Harmonia Mundi received MIDEM Label of the Year, 2005. A third set from Jacobs, Handel's Rinaldo, won the 2004 Opera Award at MIDEM's predecessor, the Cannes Classical Awards. Alia Vox, a label distributed by Harmonia Mundi that issues recordings in both CD and hybrid SACD surround format, also scored big at MIDEM 2007 and 2006 for recordings by Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras, and their assorted ensembles. You can find the list of SACDs and DVDs from BIS, Harmonia Mundi, and Ondine that were nominated for and received 2007 MIDEM Awards here.