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Records for equipment testing

...or better still, listening

Julian Ashbourn's choice

[Italian version]

I may have a slightly different approach to this topic than some of my esteemed TNT colleagues. I am not so interested in whether the lows are low or the highs high, or whether a particular recording is squeaky clean and buffed up till it shines like a diamond.
No, I am more interested in whether the recording puts a smile on my face, has me tapping my toes, makes me feel for the performer or composer, or otherwise gives me an unusual insight in to what was really happening at the time. A better system should ideally accentuate these characteristics, while a poorer quality system may attenuate them.
Therefore, I am slightly at odds with the "demonstration" or "evaluation" record concept. A well matched system should derive the maximum enjoyment from a broad range of recordings. However, it is true that familiar recordings more easily enable you to notice differences in the characteristics of hi-fi components.
I therefore offer some suggestions below, in no particular order of preference. This may be viewed as a living list and may be appended to as time goes by...

1] Mozart Clarinet Quintet and Oboe Quartet (The Gabrieli String Quartet - IMP PCD 810).

There is something about all the Mozart wind works which makes you feel alive and somewhat civilised. This recording is on a budget label and yet manages to capture the spirit of the pieces well. While it doesn't shout "hi-fi demonstration record", it also doesn't sound quite right if played on inferior equipment.

2] Beethoven Violin Concerto and Mozart Violin Concerto No.5 (Wolfgang Schneiderban and Berlin Philharmonic - DG447 403-2).

This is one of those recordings where everything seems to come together and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The artistry and performance of Schneiderban on these recordings is quite remarkable. The tone he manages to wring from the violin is both sweet and memorable in a way that leaves other recordings sounding flat. A well balanced system should allow this recording to really come to life.

3] Chopin Piano Concerto No.1 (Viktoria Postnikova - Audiophile Classics APL 101.502).

I have yet to find the perfect Concerto No.1. It is one of my favourite pieces and I have tried several recordings on both disk and CD but have never found the right one for me. Either the timing is not what I think it should be, the balance between orchestra and piano not quite right, or the playing leaving something to be desired. To be fair, this must be a nightmarish piece to learn and play, even for the most accomplished pianist. One day, I hope to find my perfect 'No.1', but in the meantime, I enjoy listening to this one more than most. It is a Russian recording where the orchestra plays with a liveliness consistent with the piece and Ms Postnikova manages to combine subtlety and dexterity as she flies up and down the keyboard. Chopin was of course an absolute master of the piano and this is reflected in his scoring for the instrument. I wish he could come back and show us how this piece should really be played.

4] Ellington at Newport (Duke Ellington and his Orchestra - CBS 450986-2).

This 1956 recording captures the spirit of the times. It captures the atmosphere of the Newport Jazz Festival. It captures the Ellington orchestra at a time of transition. And it captures a musician on form (Paul Gonsalves) who plays to the crowd in a way you will seldom hear. If his 27 chorus solo on 'Diminuendo' doesn't move you, then you may just have something missing. Sure, he wanders off mike and the sound balance may not be spot on, but this is an electric performance. The audience is very much a part of the recording, and if you ever wondered what part the drummer plays in a jazz line up, this will leave you in no doubt. For those that like to discuss timing, this is the record for you.

5] Billie's Best (Billie Holiday - Verve 513 943-2).

Life was not always kind to Billie Holiday and it played it's final trick on her right at the end. In spite of this, she conjured up some magical performances along the way and left us with a unique body of recorded work. When Billie recorded a song, it stayed recorded. Her unique phrasing and interpretation always brought something special to even the most familiar numbers. This remastered set spans recordings from between 1954 and 1959, a period when some would say her voice may have been past it's peak in terms of power and agility. However, she more than makes up for this in other ways. A good system will bring Billie into your front room with this one.

6] Jack Teagarden - That's a Serious Thing (Jack Teagarden - BMG 9986-2-RB).

Ok, I confess to a certain twinge of nostalgia, but this recording is valuable in so many ways. With cuts from the late 20s to the late 50s it captures an era and spirit of music making which we shall never see again. Big T himself was never destined to be a hugely successful bandleader or prolific songsmith, but when he blew his horn, you knew who it was and everybody listened. He was well liked and respected by his contempories, including Louis Armstrong who also features on two tracks. His gentle, good natured and playful work on the trombone no doubt reflected the man himself, but concealed a rare ability. No one ever blew the trombone like this before - and no one has since. He was also a natural singer as can be heard on some of these tracks. If your system transports you to Jack's world, as it should, then it is doing fine.

7] Bop Till You Drop (Ry Cooder - WB 7599-27398-2).

This record and the slightly later Borderline, capture a time of early digital recordings (which Mr.Cooder later revealed he hated the sound of) together with some good musicianship. It's sometimes hard to categorise Ry Cooder's work, but it is rarely without interest. Bop Till You Drop can make some systems struggle and sound a little muddled. On a well matched system though, there is a real sense of dynamics and some good music making. There is also some detail and layering of sounds which becomes more evident on a good system. Ry Cooder may be something of an acquired taste, but he has undoubtedly made an interesting mark on contemporary music.

8] Tell Mama (Etta James - Chess CHD 9269).

What can you say about Etta James? She has proved an enduring singer with a unique, instantly recognisable approach. This recording captures her at a time (1967) when she is riding high and in excellent form. The songs and arrangements may be a little predictable, but Etta's voice blows away any musical cobwebs with ease. Another toe-tapper, this recording will get your system up on it's hind legs if it has any inclination at all to do so. The title song itself is a priceless example of upbeat R&B performed with energy and distinction. If you are still thinking about hi-fi by the time it reaches the end, well it may be time for some therapy...

9] The Best of Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens (Camden CDN 1006).

You may consider it strange to find this CD sitting alongside Mozart and Chopin in my racks, but it demonstrates the ability, and indeed some would say purpose of music to represent snapshots of culture and time. Of all the music pouring out of South Africa in recent years, the Mahotella Queens with Mahlathini surely represent something special. This is music to put a smile on your face. When you feel the sheer energy and enthusiasm radiating from this disk, it is hard to believe you are listening to three grandmothers and a gentlemen who has been around longer than he would probably care to admit. The music is simple, unsophisticated, repititive even - but highly infectious. Some of the early cuts, such as Thokozile, will really give your system a work out. You might say that this is the exact opposite of the bland, technically excellent but musically sterile demonstration records so beloved of the established hi-fi fraternity. I know which one I would rather play...

10] Komi Republic State Chamber Choir (KPH CD 0001).

I bought this CD directly from the choir after listening to them sing in an unattractive modern church in Oxford. I saw some of the men standing around outside before the performance and thought they were street muggers. When they sang, I could hardly suppress my tears. Here was a group of ordinary men and women making a rare venture outside of their own country and singing in run down, poorly attended venues where nobody had ever heard of them. Their only musical support was an equally run down upright, badly tuned piano - no amplification, no clever electronic processing, no fancy lighting. When they opened their mouths, angels sang, you were instantly riveted to the spot and time stood still. There is something about Russian choirs that is truly unique. With music from Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, Rachmaninov and Varlamov, this is heavyweight material which gets to you in spite of the mediocre recording quality. It is not as good as the live performance, but, will test your systems ability to unravel harmonies and convey emotion.

That's about it for now. Watch this space.

© 2002 Copyright Julian Ashbourn - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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