Tuesday, June 04, 2013

No surrender to MP3 ... but a peace agreement (2)

When last heard from (previous posting), I was banging on about MP3 downloads. My thesis up to that point was that, with marginal exceptions, MP3 represented a boon for spoken voice and electronic music available in no other format.

Now we must deal with the third category, acoustic music. That is, unamplified and unprocessed.

In my digs, that means -- mostly but not exclusively -- classical music.

While there's no question that MP3 bit condensation degrades sound quality, sometimes that doesn't matter much even for high-quality classical music.

That's often so with historical recordings. For those, a good free-download site is Liber Liber, based in Italy. As a certified audiophile, I'm not generally fond of old recordings, but for those who can overlook sonic deficiencies there are treasures to be found here. Even if you don't know Italian (and my own command of the language is primitive), it's easy to navigate and find whatever you are interested in.

For instance, I downloaded Bruckner's Symphony no. 8 (Sinfonia n° 8 in Do minore) with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler in ... wait for it ... 1944. Considering the time and place, it seems miraculous that such a performance was given at all, let alone recorded. Vienna, thankfully, was spared the destruction visited on Berlin despite the German occupation; still, nobody knew that at the time, and it must have been a harrowing period. I suppose it says something about the resilience of the human spirit that great art lived on.

I've only listened to it once, but I'm impressed how Furtwängler's famous tempo changes -- although in this case they seem subtle adjustments -- helped create performances that were organic, like a living breathing being.

What about modern MP3 recordings? The most fruitful source I've found is that derived from live performances at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The art palace was founded by the nouveau riche Ms. Stewart Gardner in the 19th century, partly as a gesture of contempt toward Boston's aristocracy ("where the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God"). But it's now part of Boston's cultural mainstream.

The Gardner museum has the clout to attract notable and up-and-coming musicians. I have been grateful to hear and download quite a few of their recordings, including fine performances by excellent but relatively little known string quartets -- the Belcea Quartet, the Orion String Quartet, and especially the remarkable Borromeo String Quartet.

But, to get back to our topic, what about the sound quality of these MP3s?


Well, they're not up to the standards of good "Red Book" (16-bit) CDs, let alone Super Audio CDs. At their best they can be enjoyed and appreciated. Instrumental timbres are often surprisingly realistic. But something is missing. It's like the difference between a gray-scale picture and a color picture. Or, for a different metaphor, the sound is "flat" as if projected on a two-dimensional screen instead of having front-to-back depth -- like looking at a scene with one eye rather than both.

Probably all this won't matter in a few years. Full-spectrum download software, such as FLAC, already exists. I don't understand how it works and, anyway, it's currently used only by a few companies for paid downloads. I'm not even sure most CD players can decode it. But I expect lossless downloads will become the standard. Meanwhile, enjoy what's there, however imperfect.

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