Between 1996-1998, I made several trips visiting friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the kind of college town experience I had never had, going to school in Rochester, NY. I had become enamored by the food at Zingermann's Deli, including their breads. Another favorite was visiting the original Border's Book Store and a classical record shop. Specifically, it was called SKR Classical, and the "SKR" was their first shop, next door: just a college town record store called School Kids Records. That shop, in addition to Tower and even Borders provided ample space to find and purchase classical music. Finding the same around Cleveland was less easy, so every time I visited, I always came home with new CDs.
A recent project of mine has been to pull some CDs off my shelf and check on the rips I have in iTunes. "I know I must not have re-ripped all of these," I say, and I'm basically looking for CDs ripped at less than "lossless" levels. My original ripping was done at the default 160 kps rate, and then I re-did everything at various levels, either 320 kps for MP3s, somewhere around 225 kps at a variable rate with LAME (Lame ain't an MP3 encoder, but is), then later with some of the Apple options using .mp4 extensions. My thinking and listening habits have changed over the years. Now with a pretty revealing system, playing compressed MP3s when I have the originals available seems silly, if not foolish.
The CDs I recently pulled (in the 300s, following my numbering conventions) included some that had notches cut out of the sides (of the cases, not the CDs proper). This was done by stores to show you they were second-hand, usually, and offered at a discount. Three like this I am confident I purchased at SKR classical, likely in 1997, and all three are from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label:
- Jacques Champion de Chambonnières: Pièces de Clavecin performed by Skip Sempé on an original Flemish instrument in the Place de Vosges in Paris. It has almost 72 minutes of harpsichord music. During the quieter parts of the recording, you can hear birds chirping. The instrument is well-tuned (in whatever temperament was chosen) and the recorded sound is good, capturing a little bit of the room.
- Antonio Vivaldi: Concerti da camera, volume 1 performed by Camerata Köln. This 1989 release includes so-called chamber concertos with winds, including RV 94, 107, 99, 88, 105, etc. I found at the time that the performances didn't really compete with the Italian interpretations of Il Giardino Armonico, which would have come out 2-3 years later. Nevertheless, they aren't bad, and of course CK's members performed in Goebel's circle.
- Antoine Forqueray: Pièces de viol and pièces de clavecin. Performed by Jay Bernfeld and Skip Sempé.
These CDs would have gone each for 8.99 or 9.99 a piece in the racks. I am not sure, but at least during this visit, there were multiple copies of the DHM discs for sale as cut-outs. I am not out here to give full reviews of these albums, but at least give some commentary on them. I am there may be re-issues available, or else, electronic copies for sale, not to mention "cut outs" too. I ordered the CDs (above) in my own order of preference. Using my DAC with a digital volume control, I put the Chambonnières disc on at around '68' and find it is best for helping me imagine that Sempé and his colleague on theorbo (used as a continuo instrument on some tracks) are beyond a wall, performing in an ornate salon in a home with a tall window looking out upon the trees and fountains of the Place de Vosges. The uncountable trills and ornaments from Chambonnières music, in my mind, is somehow recalling rococo elements of gold leaf decorating the salon's walls. When Sempé releases his hands from the keyboard, it's evident to me that the instrument is against a wall near this window, and the recording setup used was meager. It captures the recital adequately, but without the clean studio sound, or obviously visuals that would help the music. Who knows what the room looked like; or even the instrument. Today's CDs tend to include more information about the harpsichords used. The music is bland to a point; some of it is very interesting and beautiful. Track 11's Chaconne sounds unmeasured in a way, with the richness of both the instrument and harmony on the lower half of the keyboard making for a beautiful sound. Other tracks tend to wander just a bit; and that's where I find a live performance helps. You look at the person, and can see their face, which tells best about what they're contributing to the music. Track 14's Paschalia really doesn't need this help; there's a richness born when Sempé plays with a partner; in this case, the partner is a lute, and it's one of the few times I've heard this combination. But wouldn't it all say more if we were in a period salon, sitting on period furniture, eating, perhaps, a French snack? Maybe so. The music is like good (but not superb) French champagne in spots; it is pretty and tastes good, but it lacks sufficient body or flavor. I compare this to one of Sempé's triumphs, his French Collection recording of "superstar" pieces. Those tracks shows off more flair, both musically, and through Sempé's technique.
At 73.5, the DAC best presents the ensemble in a far larger space than the Chambonnières was recorded. There's a larger sound stage going upward, and across, too. I may be influenced by the photo on the inside cover, but my stereo tells me that wasn't the orientation for the recording. In fact, the booklet reveals the recording was made in the depths of the recording studio owned by the German radio corporation in Cologne (the same space where Goebel & Co. made a number of their best recordings). Mary Utiger and Hajo Bä∫ are both good violinists, but the violin sound is a tad thin for my taste. The tempos are also too shy for my taste. They are polite and the shapes of phrases are very elegant; dynamic contrasts are overtly made to provide contrasts, but the energy and passion that IGA brought to the same music leave a bland impression overall. One of my favorite Vivaldi concertos is included, RV 107 in G minor for violin, flute, and oboe. Westermann is on oboe, Michael McGraw on bassoon and Karl Kaiser on transverse flute. These music professors can play just fine; I actually play this concerto the most, simply because it's another reading of a really well-admired work. This is simply the leisurely-outside with good food version of the concerto; IGA still for me offers the best reading, which needs nothing to enhance it.
The Forqueray disc is my least favorite of the bunch. The opening piece, a Allemande La Laborde is simply too timidly approached, I think. Sempé's instrument sounds thin, compared to the one used for Chambonnières, but his excellent touch comes through, nicely. It is instead Bernfeld's contribution I find lacking. His instrument is inadequately captured by the microphones, sounding far too quiet against the harpsichord. If it's accurate, then he sounds as if he's playing too lightly and timidly; if not, then they recording engineers would have done better to make the two performers more equal partners.
The tracks with Sempé alone are not bad; but they recording again sounds slightly thin and veiled.
In La Portugaise, I have a far better reading from the likes of L. Pianca (lute) and V. Ghielmi on lute from their album Pièces de caractère. The sound is more sympathetic to the instruments, and the viol playing is simply a notch (or two) above Bernfeld's. And it's a shame, perhaps, because Sempé is excellent in the more extrovert numbers like La Leclair or the deep-feeling ones like La Rameau. The final track "Jupiter" was better done as a harpsichord by piece Mitzi Meyerson on Virgin Veritas, despite her recording's use of an over-resonant space.