Heresy: Why orchestral music sounds bad to me

Discussion in 'Classical Music' started by Hard 8, Mar 5, 2004.

  1. Hard 8

    Hard 8

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    I grew up in a household where my parents played classical/baroque music constantly. I like it pretty well and I've been to several concerts. Honestly, though, it's not really my thing. I like modern music of many types much better.

    Regardless, sometimes I like to play a classical CD on my stereo. My mom sends them to me as gifts and occasionially I'll buy one myself.

    I have had dozens of stereos, including vintage McIntosh/JBL systems, B&O stuff, Japanese equipment, and now my current system, which originates mainly in Denmark. I've had many turntables, many CD players. Nothing super high-end, but decent stuff.

    And harpischord, choral, chamber music, piano solos etc. (please forgive my abuse of the terminology), all sound very nice to me on a good stereo. Full orchestral music, however (assuming that's the correct term)... Well, here's my heresy:

    Music from a full orchestra pretty much always sounds flat to me on a nice stereo. The intruments all blend together and I get no sense of life or dynamics. I mean, sure, some tympani or a big crescendo will come rolling out nicely, but the overall body of the music, the presence of the orchestra, well, I just don't hear what I want from the stereo. And I'm not talking about just my own stereo. I haven't heard anything that really excited me on any system.

    Is it just me? Is it the recordings I'm playing? I don't know. I ask audiophile friends and they have actually agreed with me. I do see audiophiles raving about a given orchestral piece on CD, but have yet to hear one myself that impressed me.

    Beyond ripping me to shreds on this point, as may well happen, can anyone point me to an amazing recording of a full orchestra that is just about guaranteed to sound great on a nice stereo? I'd love to audition it at home. And if anyone agrees with me or can offer an explanation of the deficit I perceive (Is it the mixing? The mikes? What?), I'd love to hear that, too.

    Thanks and ... apologies to anyone I've incensed.

    Edit: I think my point is, when the number of instruments involved is great than X (X being maybe 10 or so) it all starts to flatten out and blend together. Come to think of it, this happens to me with pop music too. Speaking purely of sonics, it just sounds so much better to me to listen to only a few instruments at a given time.
     
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    Hard 8, Mar 5, 2004
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  2. Hard 8

    tones compulsive cantater

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    I don't think you'll ever upset anyone in the classical group with honest views, Hard8! We're all very different. And I don't think it's so heretical. After all, is this blending not what you hear in many concert halls? I think your point about number of instruments is a good one - the more there are, the greater the blending - and is this not what the composer intended, an overall sound? I have no problem with this. However, I also don't detect any lack of life and feeling. It's just a combined feeling, a unitary feeling, not a combined individual bits sort of feeling. What exactly is it that you're expecting and feel that is lacking? To hear every single instrument starkly etched in 3-D?

    Off the top of my head, an exciting big orchestra piece - Karajan's '62 Beethoven's 9th. Symphony, last (choral) movement - some of the most brilliant orchestral playing you'll ever hear.

    I'm primarily a baroque listener, so perhaps I'm a poor judge. You really need the big orchestra exponent GrahamN to give you the lowdown. Titian is also a big orchestra man. Mind you, both have distinctly superior systems, so their views may be conditioned by that.
     
    tones, Mar 5, 2004
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  3. Hard 8

    Hard 8

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    Excellent response, tones! You confirm my impressions, so I don't feel like such a tin ear after all. And your question is dead-on when you ask me whether I expected to hear "every single instrument starkly etched in 3-D."

    I guess it's maybe a question of adjusting expectations to suit the style, which is more of a sound-blending approach. (At the classical concerts I've attended the orchestral sound was, in fact, much like the sound I hear on a good stereo.) [Edit: But this "blended" sound does seem to undermine the entire rationale for a high-end system, to me.]

    But still, I am curious to hear the recordings that you mention, and any others that anyone recommends.
     
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    Hard 8, Mar 5, 2004
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  4. Hard 8

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Hard8:

    I actually agree with you. Chamber music, a harpsichord or piano solo, sound more or less OK in a top notch system, but I wouldn't say they sound well.

    When the timbres get more complex, one does sense something of a lack of resolution.

    I only listened to a system that conveyed orchestral music more or less right. I don't recall what it was, save that the speakers were the big JMLabs. But I listened to it in a very large room, say 6meters high and about 20 in length and 10 in width.

    I think the room made all the difference because you could actually play very loud, at realistic levels. Even so, it was NOT like an orchestra. It was more compressed, lacked space, sound was coarse and there was lack of resolution.

    I don't know if a system is capable of correctly reproducing what was recorded. But I think what was recorded is flawed in the first place.

    To begin with I don't think stereo - I mean, two channels - is enough (I'm not saying multi-channel is the way to go). And I think the recording technique is not subtle enough. I almost always find high treble grainy and coarse and transients to be rather dirty, in ANY system. And you simply CAN'T have good deep bass, because it simply needs to be played too loud for a normally sized room (for a 20 ou 30 Hertz wavelength to be actually heard it must be extremely loud).

    So I think you are right: simpler soundwaves can be well captured, and sound more or less all right. Large ensembles or large organs are very different from the real thing.

    Mind you. Even harpsichord is usually very badly rendered. I bought my system (after very careful consideration) in order to get voices, harpsichord and small organs right. Most recordings do not even come close. Modern ones are generally better.

    A good orchestra recording? Perhaps the Abbado/Polinni DGG Brahms piano concertos.
     
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    Rodrigo de Sá, Mar 6, 2004
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  5. Hard 8

    GrahamN

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    Hard8 - it sounds to me (from your 2nd post here) that you don't actually like the sound of an orchestra very much (i.e. from the comment that the sound you get at a live concert is simlar to that on a good stereo) - which is of course fine - we all have our crosses to bear ;) . I would say the whole point of the orchestral sound is to get that meld of instruments into a homogenous texture WHEN REQUIRED - which is then given highlights by individual instruments emerging as the composer wrote them. Mahler was of course the master of the 120+ piece-chamber orchestra ;) . The orchestral sound is then much more than the sum of its parts. This is of course why I so like Wagner, Strauss and the other heavy romantics. This balancing should of course be done by the conductor/players rather than by the playback hardware - if the hi-fi does it for you then you get a bland sameness about everything - and it all sounds like Mantovani.

    What RdS says is true, about reproduced orchestral sounds being compressed, lacking space etc wrt the real thing, but as with all hi-fi, the target to me is reducing the principal compromising factors to a level that's acceptable to suspend disbelief. Probably the thing that's hardest to get is the sence of a hall's ambience - our rooms are just not big enough to get the reverberation from all around that a good hall gives. The recording can capture that of the orginal venue and present it to us from the plane of the speakers, but you don't generally get the all round effect. Titian's uber-system is the closest I've heard to that, but it's still not stunning. If surround has a place in classical, this is it.

    A few things though that should be borne in mind.

    1) The amp must be able to cope with the dynamics. Although the overall level may be lower, classical (and particularly orchestral) has MUCH higher dynamic range than your average rock group. I was using a recording of Kodaly's Hary Janos (fairly typical early 20th cent music) at a hifi show once, and putting it on a Dynavector/Wilson Benesch system there was a readout of the power output on the amps. While the majority of the music was sitting at about the 0.2-1.0W level, as the end of the piece approached we got a few 10W readouts - then suddenly 160W for that final chord. I also have a recording of Mahler's 8th symphony I used to think was horribly recorded - dull, lifeless, muddled - until I started upgrading. Turned out my 25Wpc student system just packed up about half way in, and 150-200W was about required to cope with the big stuff. My current amp (100-120W Class A, short term (<10ms) current delivery >100A)

    2) The amp must be as open and airy as possible, but without artifical brightness (i.e. a tilted frequency response, which just gives the high frequencies an unnatural razor-wire edge), or losing the bottom end. I now get some of the most realistic orchestral sounds I've ever heard on my system. (Apparently the amp sounds similar to some of the megabucks Spectral jobs)

    3) The speakers MUST disappear - to allow you to forget there's a wall at the end of your room and let the music spread out before you. If you can hear where they are on a simple group, you stand no chance with a bigger group. The Meadowlark speakers I use make a big thing of phase coherence through the 1st order crossover. I'm not sure whether this really is the answer, but on most speakers I've listened to, there was definite muddiness and distortion in the mid high-frequency area that just made them sound boxy/tinny. I include the megabucks JMLabs I've heard in this group - although I've probably never heard them in a room big enough to let them sing. Panel speakers also do a good job, although realistic dynamics do start pushing them. At the bargain basement end, I had some Monitor Audio speakers that also did a much better job of disappearing than many others much more expensive.

    From what I've heard about the Nad Silverline series, you've got a good chance of coming up trumps.

    For good recordings, my favourite labels are Chandos and Hyperion. Excellent quality, although maybe a bit on the resonant side if you're after picking out individual instruments all the time. The conductor who is most likely to get the detail you're after is Pierre Boulez - although he's sometimes a bit dry. Simon Rattle is another detail addict, although I think he emphasises that to the detriment of the musical flow.

    For specific dynamic big orchestra recordings with a bit of life try:
    1) Bruckner 4, Berlin Phil, Wand (recent live recording, Feb 1 1998) - RCA 09026688392 (I think the same performance is also on Reference Recordings - I've seen that mentioned several times in HIfi mag equipment reviews)
    2) Hodaly Hary Janos, Budapest Fest Orch, Fischer Philips 462824
    3) Night on a Bare Mountain/Pictures by Mussorgsky/Stokowski, BBC Phil Bamert, Chandos CHAN 9445
    4) Mahler Symph 3, Berlin PO, Abbado/Larsson (Live, 11 Oct 1999), DG 471502-2
    5) Vaughan Williams Symph 2 (orig 1913 version), LSO, Hickox, Chandos CHAN 9902
    6) Sibelius Symph 5 (and Karelia Suite) CBSO, Oramo, Erato 8573-85822-2; his 2 is also supposed to be pretty exciting. Also try Symph 3, Lahti SO, Vanska, BIS CD-862 (generally on the slow side, but wonderfully characterful playing, although recording/hall may be a bit resonant for your tastes).
    ...and of course if you want to really stretch your system, that Mahler 8 (Tennstedt, LPO, EMI CDS 7476258).

    For sheer excitement in performance, though, apart from the Karajan Beethoven 9 (either the '62 tones mentioned above, or his equally good '77 recording), you can't beat Kleiber's Beethoven 5 and 7 (DG Originals 447-400-2, although I'm not convinces about the 1975/6 sound). There's also a fanstastic performance of Stravinsky's Firebird by Dorati/LSO from 1959 on Mercury 432-012-2

    I've used pretty much all those as demo/test discs, and they can sound pretty good (or bad)!
     
    GrahamN, Mar 6, 2004
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  6. Hard 8

    titian

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    Hard 8,
    I find it always nice to find people who are also quite critical towards the sound quality but IMO this shouldn't be the only criteria for loving a piece of music. :beer:
    Orchestral music is one of the most difficult music to reproduce because its timbre is very much more complex also because of the interaction of the different instruments with different characteristics in a closed room.
    They are hardly any hifi which can resolve this complexity in order to reproduce the sound of an orchestra like in a live concerts. :newbie:
    The fact that somebody can enjoy the music played buy a certain hifi system depends though also on how critical he is. :grrr: :boogie:
    If you cannot enjoy orchestral music with the equipment you mentioned and you really want to hear that music at home, then somehow you should get a much better system which mostly means spending loads of money. :lol: The problem is not only to have the money but also to purchase the right stuff that would satisfy your taste. Another problem could also be that even the best in the world could not satisfy you. :yikes: It depends also very much on your taste. For example if you like to have the sound of the orchestra like in the first row of the concert hall or where the conducter is , then you will search forever without finding anything.:nigel: If instead you are looking for something like sounds like to be in the 10th-20th row then they might be some hifi's which could give you a reasonable sound of that sort. :SCIDB:
    I don't think that giving you a list of very good sounding /recorded CDs will solve your problem. The weakest point of CDs (according to my experience) is the fact of having a bad orchestral detail, missing clearness and separation between the instrument. The vinyl is IMO in this field still ahead (especially if you have really very high quality equipment) but has other disadvantages which lots of people, with my understanding, are not willing to have. ;)
    Nevertheless I would add to the other great recommendations in this thread the complete recordings of the orchestral works of Sibelius with Neeme Järvi (BIS label).
    Actually this label has done excellent recordings. I also know that they are special audiophile recordings (limited series) which have very high quality of sound. I never bought any because I then prefer to purchase the 180g vinyl.

    I would suggest you to go for live concerts though. :)

    To conclude I must say that your critics about the poor sound quality reproduction of hifi systems when playing orchestral music were the same I had since I was 14-16. This unsatisfied feeling gave me the strenght to look forward and to find something with which I can be quite satisfied.
     
    titian, Mar 7, 2004
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  7. Hard 8

    Hard 8

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    Thanks for all the extremely thoughtful and illuminating responses. They make a lot of sense to me. Much to chew on. Now, the next time I want to buy a classical album, I'll review this thread for ideas! I appreciate your time.
     
    Hard 8, Mar 8, 2004
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