Author Topic: What are your recording “acid tests”?  (Read 690 times)

Offline erikwilson7

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What are your recording “acid tests”?
« on: January 02, 2022, 04:51:49 PM »
Here’s an interesting thing I just thought about.

What are some of your “acid test” moments or specific moments you look out for in a recording?

Here’s mine off the top of my head (keep in mind I’m a percussionist):

M1: I. Big crash when it opens up near the end, clear timpani strokes, raucous horn trill; III. Audible tam strokes, slight change in tempo for the klezmer stuff; IV. Loud tam hits at the start of the development, exciting but coherent ending
M2: I. Col legno strings, solid balanced wall of brass at the climax and don’t slow down too much; III. Just enough sarcasm in the woodwinds; V. Great horn playing, balanced choir and organ, LOUD bells, audiblr tam smashes
M3: I. Sexy trombone playing (I want to hear those naughty dive bomb sound effects around the 4-minute mark), big tam smashes (there are 2), audible timpani solo, audible horn section at the very end; II. Audible rute; III. Audible tam alternating with cymbals at the end; VI: just not too slow
M4: I. big tam smash at the climax (often overlooked); IV. A soprano who is both excellent and not overly characterized, also must fit the boyish tone but not too literally (just as Mahler described)
M5: I. Audible timpani solo, epic low brass playing; II. Precise playing but let loose, big ol’ tam smash at the end; IV. Keep the tempo flowing; V. Don’t slow down at the end, dammit! (Except the Pesante in the brass chorale)
M6: I. loud crisp timpani playing in order to hear the rhythmic motifs, audible but faint cowbells in the middle; A. Great horn playing, loud cowbells; S. Don’t drag the tempo but keep it heavy; IV. Audible low bells, keep me on the edge of my seat and let ‘er rip
M7: I. Good harping in the middle, audible snare at the end; II. Audible offstage cowbells, great horn playing; III. Loud pizz snap; V. Consistently audible and crisp timpani playing, noticeable fluctuations of tempo, great trumpet playing, audible tams, very loud bells and cowbells at the end (Bernstein, Kubelík, Chailly, etc.)
M8: I. Audible deep bells, full sounding choir, good trombone playing when the fugues start; II. Great soloists, great horn playing at the beginning (Nagano!), loud cymbals and tam at the end
M9: I. Great horn playing, great low brass at the climax, very loud tam hit, audible low bells; II. Noticeable fluctuations in tempo; III. Great trumpet playing, audible snare roll (the one and only!), noticeable accelerations at the end

It seems I really look for Mahler’s “special effects.”
« Last Edit: January 02, 2022, 11:45:32 PM by erikwilson7 »

Offline erikwilson7

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #1 on: January 02, 2022, 04:58:15 PM »
I should clarify: this is just what I really listen out for every time. A recording doesn’t need to have all these things in order for me to like it.
Of course I listen to other aspects of the music too.

Offline erikwilson7

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #2 on: January 03, 2022, 03:13:39 AM »
I’m just referring to Mahler symphonies. This is all very informal too, just the specific things I look out for in recordings. What specific passages or moments do you pay particular attention to when listening? Which moments are particularly important for you?

That’s my list above. Not expecting anyone to come up with something like that, but I’m curious what other people’s moments in the Mahler symphonies are.
« Last Edit: January 03, 2022, 03:20:04 AM by erikwilson7 »

Offline sbugala

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #3 on: January 03, 2022, 04:37:44 PM »
Erik,
    You've done a great job articulating some of what I look for. Essentially, I want those moments where I feel Mahler calls for emphasis. Stuff that gets missed or toned down loses me. Some of my remarks will refer more to overall tone, rather than specific moments.

To your list I'll add a few thoughts:
I want the quiet moments of M1 in the first movement as mysterious and weird as possible. And like you mentioned good raucous  trills from the horns (and in the second movement, too). I want giddiness and joy in that dash to the close of the movement. I look for a good "swing" to the 2nd and 3rd movements in their respective dances.

You nailed most of the important stuff for M2. I look for tension and a crushing climax to the third movement that should stun even those who know the work. The last movement should have a shattering climax before that stretch with the great flute solo....but followed by a beautiful, comforting chord. I think that's one of the one two punches in music.

The Third Symphony should have all those guttural brass sounds in the first movement. There should always be an awesome balance between the guttural, the delicate, and the heaven-reaching moments. The third movement should have beautiful delicacy with those posthorn solos...contrasted and the weird stuff. The climax should shock with the weird sounds of night coming alive: harps, clarinets, brass.

One specific thing I look for is that super weird horn note in the first movement that Szell's recording nails perfectly. Phantasmagoric. Everything is sailing along and then that strange note.

That's enough for now. That was a cool idea for a post.

Offline barryguerrero

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #4 on: January 03, 2022, 08:21:17 PM »
My first step is  - to the best of my ability - is to remove all the sycophantic stuff: the who's and where's, and all that good stuff. It would best if we could judge ALL of these recordings 'blind folded'. No names - big ones or otherwise. In other words, an attempt to remove all prejudices.

From there, I try to judge things as a 'gesamtkunstwerk' of orchestral execution; balances; conductor insights; lack of conductor falling into 'sand traps', and sound quality - all of that in relation to what the composer actually wrote on the page (something that the vast majority of people know way too little about).

As a side note, I try to find the best play-back volume for each and every recording. I don't leave my volume knob at the some place everyday - that doesn't work.

Offline erikwilson7

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #5 on: January 03, 2022, 09:16:29 PM »
sbugala,

Excellent stuff. I'm loving to hear what specific moments are so key for us. It helps me shape my own understanding. I listed / described most of the technical bits, and you laid out things that have to do with style, phrasing, and tone. It's great stuff, and reminds me that I should be looking for that stuff more often than I tend to.

Barry,

I really like what you said about playback volume because it's super important. And that goes for all forms of music too (though of course classical is the most apparent). Interestingly enough, I had a Spotify playlist on shuffle yesterday and Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" came on. It was nearly inaudibly quiet compared to the rest of the songs in the playlist! Most of all I found it fascinating. Songs today have so much higher of a base volume. I do wonder how that translates to classical, though I'm sure it's much less apparent.
As a slightly related side note, have you ever heard of the "Loudness War"? Volume and loudness are different things, but the Loudness War is essentially the trend of increasing audio levels in modern recordings. This only really became possible with digital recording, but was conceptually introduced with Phil Spector's wall-of-sound idea (think of the extremely dense textures of "The Long and Winding Road"). Nowadays, some digital music is pushed to the limit of nearly clipping and some music contains purposeful distortion (and not just guitars!), especially in the rhythm section. It also greatly reduces dynamic range. This hardly includes classical music, but I found it interesting nonetheless. A lot of modern remasterings tend to increase the loudness levels too. I was recently appalled by the release of a remaster of Muse's 2001 album Origin of Symmetry.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

Offline sbugala

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #6 on: January 03, 2022, 10:25:37 PM »
It's cool stuff. Another thing I like from M2 is I want (what I think is the piccolo) in the 3rd movement a few minutes in to have an almost EKG "flatline" sound. Obviously Mahler had no idea what that sounded like...but we do...and I like the parallel. Ditto for the dying note of M9, movement I.

I like good "sobbing" from the brass during the despairing music of M5, movement II. Good glorious music afterward, followed by it all being cut off prematurely by going back into the maelstrom is essential. I want that third movement to have a balance between a nearly out of control dance...with moments of loneliness/solitude.

The Sixth Symphony should have a good, baleful horns in the "wah wah wah wah" tones in the scherzo. I don't think that part could be overdone. And like you said, keep it moving...but be heavy.


Offline barryguerrero

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #7 on: January 04, 2022, 07:52:23 AM »
Erik, I'm all too familiar with what you're talking about. Because of the mediocre equipment used, and the super long speaker cable lines that are a necessity, classical music sounds like it's almost under water in every single record store on the planet. Then you put on almost anything pop/rock, and it comes flying out of the speakers. If you turn the classical music up so that you can hear the soft parts, then everybody complains about the really loud bits. Record stores and the crappy stereo equipment in them, are simply a poor environment to try to listen to classical. I think some of that has to do with really poor stereo imaging too. It's like everything is cancelling everything else out. Anyway, I know exactly what you mean.

Offline ChrisH

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #8 on: January 04, 2022, 01:58:01 PM »
Trumpets and brass are the one of the main things I listen too. How they play as a section, their intonation, do they blend, articulation, and how they fit in to the overall texture and color of whats happening in the music.

Some specifics:
 When Mahler asks for distance in the brass, is that followed? Do they move closer or farther as Mahler states. Think, posthorn solo in the 3rd, off stage trumpets in the 1st movement of M1.

The moonlit section of M7, first movement. The trumpets play these false arpeggios fanfares, culminating in a 'climax' where trumpet meets triangle then hand off to the flute. These two sounds, trumpet and triangle, must match. Rarely do they.

In the Mahler 5, all of the articulations when the trumpets and trombones are playing low in their registers in the first two movements. How fat the tuba is at the start of the 2nd movement, and how clean the triple tonguing is. The intonation of the brass during the climax of the movements, and how much 'core sound' we are getting. It's hard to play loud and have a good core sound.

The posthorn in M3 should not drag, it show flow. In my experience, if Joe Alessi is playing the trombone solo, it should be an excellent recording. With the trombone solo, the articulation and intonation of the low notes is super important. The climax in the last movement should sound like an organ.

Overall, I really like recordings that do a good job of capturing the crazy, whirling, stormy sections, while giving fair shake to the wonderful moments of calm, and introspection. They are so effective.

Lots of good stuff here from everyone. Great topic, Erik!

Offline barryguerrero

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #9 on: January 05, 2022, 03:13:14 AM »
I really like that the van Zweden/Dallas S.O. M3 has Joe Allesi doing the trombone solo (as a guest or sub).

Offline Roland Flessner

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #10 on: January 10, 2022, 08:35:11 PM »
I'll be glad to mention some of my acid tests. First, let's address the tamtam situation.

I used to want to hear a big crash, the louder the better, but I've moderated this desire. What I like to hear these days in a loud part is a deep, powerful, complex sound that extends into the bass range. Good example: De Waart/Minnesota at the eruption in M1-IV. (Keep in mind that Mahler marked this part only forte.) In some cases I'm OK with a loud tamtam that is not so prominent, almost as much felt as heard, woven into the texture.

In M4-I, the tamtam is marked fortissimo at the climax, yet until then it's been making more of a bell sound. Therefore, I think a big smash is out of place, though it should be powerful and prominent. I'll say the same about M7-V, as regards a bell sound.

In softer parts (M1-III, M4-II, M7-II [this list could be much longer], a deep, mysterious, shuddering sound is what this doctor ordered.

Moving on to tempo, Mahler always left detailed instructions and I'm really annoyed when conductors ignore them. Some examples:

M9-1: In bar 129, the cellos play three ascending pickup notes, then continue with the lead melodic part for several bars. At bar 130, Mahler calls for an abruptly slower tempo ("Plötzlich sehr mässig und zurückhaltend"). Many conductors slow down before the bar line, which ruins the effect.

M9-2: Leading up to bar 523, the dance has become increasingly frantic, and the horns are playing their ascending four sixteenth notes absurdly fast. At the bar line, however, Mahler wrote "Tempo 1. subito," indicating an abrupt return to the opening Ländler tempo. Many conductors make that transition gradual, slowing down for several bars before landing at 523, thereby ruining one of the the composer's best jokes.

As Eric said, a performance that flunks these tests is not necessarily a bad one, but I maintain a special regard for those that pass.

Offline erikwilson7

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #11 on: January 10, 2022, 08:59:58 PM »
Roland, for me that was some very fascinating stuff you mentioned about the tam-tam moments. Of course myself being a percussionist (and a younger guy at that) I want my big exciting smashes. But what you said about the importance of both context and the blending of texture really resonated with me (no pun intended).

Because of that, I'm beginning to think some of the big moments like the one at the end of the trombone solo in M3-I, the one at the climax of M4-I, and the one at the ending climax of M5-II should be felt more than heard. I was always bummed about the Chailly cycle recordings always letting me down at the first and third moments I just mentioned, but perhaps that was intentional (especially when Chailly, a percussionist, nails pretty much every other detail in his cycle). And I was also always a bit let down in the studio Kubelík M4 when the tam is lost in the texture at the big moment, but like you said maybe the textural blend is intentional because the moment works regardless.

And then, like you said, there are always moments that call for more impact than "feel," like the big one in M9-I.

I do still think the two big hits in M1-IV should have a louder attack, only because it's sort of a call and response with the cymbal clashes (Mahler echoed this idea again at the end of M3-III). But what you said is also totally valid and I'm going to take it into deep consideration going forward as I pick apart recordings.

Thanks for saying that, seriously. Great stuff.

Offline Roland Flessner

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #12 on: January 11, 2022, 10:14:22 PM »
Thanks for your kind words, Eric!

Our tastes and preferences evolve over time. That's one reason my CD shelves are a roach motel; I can't get rid of recordings I don't like because one day I may change my mind.

The last time I went through an M5 obsession, I was favorably impressed with Bertini, a recording I had thought uninteresting previously. Though we must allow for slightly murky SQ, it's a strong performance all the way through. At the big climax in II, it's also an example of a tamtam that, while perhaps not as prominent as it should be, is both powerful and well integrated into the texture.

As a non-Mahlerian example, I'm very fond of the Jansons/Pittsburgh Shostakovich 8. I just think it's a high water mark for both a compelling performance and excellent SQ. As the second Scherzo reaches its ferocious climax, clobbering the bass drum and tamtam fff three times, it is a cathartic moment. The tamtam is extremely powerful, yet doesn't scream; something being held in reserve. It sounds like a physically large instrument, whether or not it really was.

Also on the subject of Shostakovich, several years ago the Harris Theater here in Chicago presented a chamber version of the 15th Symphony. Sounds like a crazy idea, but it worked surprisingly well. (All the percussion parts were intact.) In the last movement, those quiet strokes on the tamtam were wonderful: deep, mysterious, and atmospheric. The instrument in question was a Zildjian, no larger than a 36, possibly a bit smaller.

Offline erikwilson7

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Re: What are your recording “acid tests”?
« Reply #13 on: January 14, 2022, 04:34:25 AM »
Roland, I just checked the score for M4-I and you’re totally right about the tam-tam at the climax. It’s funny how recordings can change our expectations of what the music is supposed to sound like… until we look at the score.

That tam part is doing the bell-thing like you said at mf, and everything around it is building in volume. At the downbeat of the climax, the tam is at ff… but so is the rest of the orchestra including the woodwinds! And it’s not accented either, so you’re right in that a big smash would be out of place. In fact, the following instruments are marked even louder than the tam at fff: bassoons, horns, timpani, and high strings. The tam is indeed supposed to be a part of the overall darkening of the texture.

Thanks for causing me to look more into this! Totally reshapes my understanding of this moment.

 

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