Saturday, March 29, 2014

Katzenberger Music Productions' 01 on CD/SACD Hybrid

"What are those speakers called, Opera? Yeah, you should be playing only opera on them if you're gonna call 'em that. No, I'm serious. Don't laugh. That's how I evaluate audio gear, by listening to sopranos only. Do you have any sopranos I can listen to? Okay, thanks. Hmmm. I don't know this music. I can't tell if these speakers are any good or not. I'm going to have to go back home and get my CDs."

Ah, my favorite show attendee from last year's AXPONA Show in Chicago. A short thin man in his seventies, this guy darted around my exhibit room like a hummingbird, nervously cradling his chin in his hand while he constantly shook his head. He made Dr. Sheldon Cooper seem like that Ty Webb guy in Caddyshack. He never came back with his music--I'm not even sure if he made it out of the parking lot of the hotel in one piece. As strange as that guy was, however, I still feel like I let him down by not having a proper recording of a soprano to wow him and make him buy my stuff. Now I do.

I've already previewed these new recordings from Katzenberger Music Productions of Germany, so you can read about their uniquely elegant packaging and overall approach to digital recordings. KMP specializes in the use of "natural sound recording and mixing techniques" to achieve an "organically pure sound quality." This means they focus on purist recording techniques and avoid filters, compression and other effects. While that almost sounds like KMP creates recordings that should remind you of your treasured Living Presences and RCA Shaded Dogs, modern digital recording technologies present a sharper, more focused and slightly distant perspective in comparison--sort of like 2L Recordings of Norway has done over the last couple of years. All of KMP's recordings, by the way, are 192kHz/24-bit and are also available as hi-rez downloads.

In 01, the first KMP recording, we are treated to a lovely survey of the Lied genre, a German musical form founded by Franz Schubert. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Hofling and pianist Grainne Dunne float through a slightly dreamy yet distinctly Teutonic program of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and Faure. The former composer is French, of course, but he quietly brought his own influences into the Lied catalog.

What I noticed first while listening to these lush, romantic pieces, is that the perspective is very relaxed and laid-back and, like I said, distant. You might be surprised by this placement--both performers sound like they are suspended in a large, almost liquid environment. It took me a minute or so to sort it out, but I eventually realized that this was a recording of two performers in a very large space--something that is confirmed in those thorough liner notes. In this recording you can hear those vast room boundaries defined with each shift into the high register. That's when you really appreciate that somewhat distant perspective--this is an extremely dynamic record and you should probably set your volume levels in advance.

This, of course, is all very good news. Listening to such a lovely voice--I've always preferred the more vulnerable, delicate sound of a mezzo-soprano to a soprano, especially when the work is in German--is a huge treat in its own way. With this recording, however, KMP has proven what a lot of people already know--a vocal recording without compression can be incredibly lifelike, and it's hard to imagine sometimes why anyone would want to do this differently. Once you start taking away those peaks and valleys, you've made the leap from "live" to "Memorex" and all the excitement is gone. This purist approach is equally welcome with the amazing Schimmel-Piano K 280 T--you can easily hear those wonderful spatial cues from the piano's soundboard that can be buried in the mix on inferior recordings.

That means, of course, that the very first release from Katzenberger is an unqualified hit, an instant sonic reference. I've already listened to 02 and 03 quite a number of times, and I can tell you that all three of these KMP are consistent spectacular, and for slightly different reasons. But it's safe to say that with 01, I feel like I now have the definitive trade show recording for those souls who need a soprano in order to hear the music.

All photos were taken from the Katzenberger Music Productions website.

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