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Position:Staff Picks

Once again, we have asked our staff to pick their 10 favorites from among the many recordings they have encountered during the past year. We think you will agree that this is quite an eclectic list, and we hope that you find it useful. Enjoy!

Steven G. Baird

Although most audiophiles who have gotten onto the SACD bandwagon have applauded the onslaught of new labels that have adopted SACD, many of the new reissues I've heard in the format have had disappointing sound. I would have hoped for better sound from Concord, Blue Note, Fantasy and Verve for my jazz, for example, and I would have hoped that Universal insisted that their Deutsche Gramophone division go that extra step to, at last, give us that extra measure of excitement upon hearing some of their near-definitive classical music performances with sound to match. The Dutch label, Pentatone, consistently offers the best sounding classical reissues of the Philips recordings, but I would be hard-pressed to choose just one for this list. The ones I have heard have not disappointed me in the least, so my pick for the best new classical reissue of the yea r goes to all of the Pentatone Classics RQR reissues.

For the best-sounding jazz reissue this year, my award goes to Sony for the remarkable work their engineers in Japan did with Miles Davis' Some Day My Prince Will Come (Sony Japan SRGS 4544, single layer SACD, stereo only). Unfortunately, this release is not generally available in North America except through a few small importers at a higher than average price. I paid almost $43 for the copy that came to me from an importer in Canada. What is so special about this particular disk is that it produces a far more natural sound than any of the Davis SACD reissues Sony remastered here for the USA market. From a musical standpoint, this recording offers one of the very few instances in which the legendary tenor sax player Hank Mobley appeared with Miles.

Runners-up in this category are The Gene Harris Trio Plus One (Groove Note GRV1019-3, hybrid stereo) and The Sonny Clark Trio (Audio Fidelity AFZ 006, hybrid stereo). Both of these recordings should serve as examples to the major labels of just how good an analog to DSD transfer can sound. Groove Note had a far better sounding master tape than Steve Hoffman had for the Audio Fidelity reissue, but the music on each of these is most enjoyable.

For the best sounding pop/rock music reissues, I had so much hoped that I would have listed a few of the Bob Dylan SACD remasters here, but that will not happen (see Reissue Roundup). The new 30th anniversary reissue of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was, as reported earlier in my column, quite disappointing too, but, fear not: my recommendation this year is for the best sounding pop recording I might have ever heard in my life, and it's not an SACD.

This album has been a favorite of mine for almost thirty years. It first appeared in 1973 at the time that the artist was reaching the apex of his career. I don't doubt that there were many of his fans that, upon hearing the album, felt that the singer had abandoned them. Since the album offered his interpretations of some vintage tunes of the past--such as "For Me and My Gal" and "Making Whoopee" complete with a full orchestral accompaniment led by Gordon Jenkins--it was a far cry from the work that had made him famous, including "Everybody's Talkin'" from the film, Midnight Cowboy.

If you haven't already guessed, the album I'm referring to here is Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night and More (BMG/RCA UK 74321950272). The "and more" refers to some of the songs that Nilsson recorded during the original taping sessions that did not appear on the original single LP release. While there are several examples of contemporary artists who have tried their hand at the gold standards--Linda Ronstadt recorded three very successful albums with Nelson Riddle in the early eighties, and Rod Stewart recently tried but failed grotesquely--Nilsson reigns supreme, adding some humor, at times, to what must surely be his most completely enjoyable album (for adults).

The sound on this album can separate the men from the boys, the Rosinantes from the Legacies, or the tubes from the transistors, if you will. It seems to me that any song on it can best another of my all-time favorite reference tracks, "Corcovado" from Getz/Gilberto #2, in countless ways. It offers some of the most astonishing vocal transparency I've ever heard in a recording, but I'll confess here and now that on some other high-cost systems that have spun this disk, the magic just didn't come through.

There's more to the sound than just the utter transparency of Nilsson's voice (but that alone would be enough to rate it a perfect 10 for sound). Stick this one on your player to test your system for uncanny image specificity and a spatial expanse that will make your walls disappear--that is, if you've developed your audio system's ability to do its thing with finesse instead of an in-your-face sense of machismo. It'll help too if you've honed your listening skills to avoid the traps and pitfalls that many audiophiles fall into with regularity. Sure, there's a good bit of dynamics on it, but it's the micro-dynamics here and there that will put a smile on the face of a seasoned audiophile, and then some. This one's all about the little subtleties that distinguish the good from the great. Note that this is not the standard version of the album produced domestically, nor is it the Australian release that was renamed, As Time Goes By. This is the British import available online from any number of sources (try Amazon).

The Swedish recording company, Proprius, receives my most enthusiastic praise for the reissue of their very famous Cantate Domino (PRSACD 7762 hybrid stereo); it is my own personal record of the year. If you have been an audiophile for years, then you'll recall the influence this recording had on most of us back in 1976 when it first appeared as an LP. Using just a Revox A77 and a pair of Pearl TC4 microphones, recording engineer, Bertil Alving, produced an album that set the standard in natural ambiance for many. This new SACD release matches that original LP in tonal balance, but betters it in terms of its ability to reproduce authentically the dynamics and spatial correctness that were limitations of the tape-to-vinyl transfer. As such, I consider this recording to be the very best transfer of an original analog to DSD I have yet to hear. In my opinion it sets the standard by which all others should be judged.

I will be pleased to receive questions or comments from readers on any of the recordings in this article. You are welcomed to email me at stevegbaird@cox.net.

Joseph M. Cierniak

Last year I purchased I purchased all 10 of my favorite recordings from various "Used CDs/Records" shows held in the Baltimore/Washington area. For the year 2003 I included two "new" purchases with my favorites, the other eight selections being purchased at CD/Record shows. And just as last year there were deals out there you wouldn't believe! I've listed the various "used" prices I paid. So without further ado here's my listing of the 10 favorite recordings I purchased in 2003.

Chopin and Liszt Sonatas Alan Gambel, piano (Mapleshade CD #07382) New/Price--$15.00 or buy four and get each CD at $9.60--New. In my younger days I would have looked over the Mapleshade catalog, taking note of the tweak devices for sale and associated claims for these devices. The catalog would then have been then unceremoniously thrown into the wastebasket without my bothering to check out the recordings from this label. I would have been wrong. Oh, would I have been wrong!

Tweak devices and claims aside the recordings from Mapleshade define state-of-the-art two channel/stereo recording. I have yet to hear sound equaling that which comes off a Mapleshade CD. I don't know what is different about the 16-bit permutation chunks coming off the Mapleshade recordings, but different they are, and the result is sound closely approximating a live performance. The Liszt and Chopin Sonatas exemplify, 1 believe, two-channel sound so good that any improvement will be so incrementally small as to make it hardly noticeable! I don't know how Pierre Sprey (producer and recording engineer) does it but I don't have a problem with tweak devices and claims when the sound is this good. This is my number one choice for best CD in 2003.

The sonatas played here are by Liszt (Piano Sonata in B minor) and Chopin (Sonata No. 3, Op. 58 in B Minor), two lesser-played but wonderful compositions. The pianist (Alan Gampel) plays Liszt straightforward and clean. Liszt though is not Chopin, and in more ways than one. Liszt is flamboyant and there's all sorts of finger gymnastics and finger dancing in his composition. Pleasurable music and well played by Gampel. But Chopin is the big leagues of piano playing. I don't recall his name (old age) but I paraphrase what a concert pianist once said of Mozart: Other composers may write what looks like much more sophisticated and complex compositions with room for pianist to waver a bit with most not noticing. But just waver a bit with Mozart and you can drive a truck through the hole! Ditto for Chopin. That said, Gampel, in spite of his youth, does a creditable job with the Chopin. He doesn't waver but there's much more to Chop, much more. Only time will tell if Gampel enters the big leagues or remains at the triple A level. My feeling is he's a can't-miss prospect.

A quick comment about the piano used for this recording. It's a Fazioli (Model 278) concert grand. In addition to Pierre Sprey raving about the sound emanating from this instrument I had two friends (amateurs devoted to the piano) go into throes of ecstasy upon hearing the piano used in this recording. I'll take their word for the piano sound being better than that of any piano out there but the recording...

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