We are musicians and our model is sound
That photo shows from left to right Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tristan Murail and George Benjamin listening to a playback of their world premiere recording of Murail's piano concerto Le Désenchantement du monde (The demystification of the World). The concerto is one of three works on a new NEOS CD, the others are György Ligeti's Lontano for large orchestra and George Benjamin's Palimpsests for orchestra.
Tristan Murail was together with Gérard Grisey a pioneer of the spectralist movement, and it was Grisey who reminded his peers that "We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture". Andrew Clement's Guardian review of this new disc does full justice to the music. So in this post I want to focus on the sound captured on it; because just a few minutes of listening provides literally resounding confirmation that the musicians' model is indeed first and foremost sound. George Benjamin conducts all three works, and the orchestra is the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks playing in their primary concert venue, the acoustically blessed Herkulessaal in Munich's Residenz. NEOS is one of the few independent labels which have persevered with the SACD format - another is Jordi Savall's Alia Vox - and auditioning the SACD layer through my high-end system provided a timely reminder of just how good recorded sound can be if managed correctly.
Despite Gérard Grisey's assertion that we are musicians and our model is sound, classical music has always had a schizophrenic approach to sound. In the concert hall sound quality is god, to the extent that more than £300 million may be spent building an acoustically state of the art concert hall in London a few hundred yards from the acoustically imperfect but nevertheless sonically perfectly serviceable Barbican Hall. But many of those clamouring for a new hall delivering acoustic nirvana are record reviewers, and as recounted in an earlier post my past experience has been that some critics audition recordings on less than optimal audio systems. In fact a recent selfie on social media from a record reviewer included a glimpse of what looked suspiciously like a definitely sub-Barbican sound system. Which amused me as that writer is a staunch advocate of the new Rattle Hall. Sound quality, as opposed to performance quality, has become the Cinderella of record reviewing. Would a critic write a concert review without telling us where the performance took place? So how about the critics revealing the replay systems they use? Of course every critic cannot afford a high-end audio system; but it would be illuminating to at least know where the goal posts are.
The truly visceral SACD sound of this new NEOS disc does raise the important question of what is actually wrong with the compact disc format. The resurgence in vinyl sales is put down to a rejection of virtual formats and a return to physical media and collectability. But the CD is also a tactile and collectable format which avoids the problem of fragility that blights the LP. It is not a coincidence that in Japan, a country with a strong aesthetic sensibility and a canny approach to technology, 85% of recorded music sales are CDs compared with a global figure of 39%, and Japan has 6000 record stores compared with 1900 in the U.S.. Portability is the current must-have; but a digital file can be ripped from a CD for personal use in 90 seconds, thereby covering both physical and virtual bases. It should also be said however that the SACD encoding is definitely not the only reason for the sonic impact of Tristan Murail's Piano Concerto and the other works. Ripping the CD to AAC files provided an equally stunning but different sonic experience when replayed via the reductionist solution of my iPod Classic and AKG 451 headphones.
The three works by Tristan Murail, György Ligeti and George Benjamin were recorded at concerts given in 2012 as part of the venerable and esteemed Musica Viva - living music - series in Munich. Several threads link the music on this immensely rewarding new disc. One is that all three composers are in their unique ways more interested in sound than meaning. Another is that all three works provide much-needed reminders that neither the orchestra, nor superlative quality recorded sound, nor classical music itself is dead.
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