|One year. It will be a year in January that I gained my official moonie badge. What incredible changes that year has brought! My son turned thirteen and with the usual teen syndrome came an increased interest in music, online gaming and girls. Although they are quite entertaining to watch, I'll spare you the last two and focus on the first. My son and subsequently my wife now use iPods and although I see the little buggers more as a necessity to carry music around than a desirable end for our hobby, I will be the first to admit that they are making music available as it never was before. Music enjoyment used to be my lonesome quest. Now it is spreading throughout the family, due in no small part to the equipment coming in and out the door obviously needing a lot of playing time. If you come unannounced, you are now just as likely to be hearing the Gorillaz or REM pouring from one of the systems in the house as you are a piano concerto by Mozart. I like this change.
Component reviewing also is becoming more of a family activity. The other members chime in when they hear a setup they like (or dislike - and I get many of those comments too!). Even my now four-year old daughter comes to join me on the couch to listen to "daddy music". Nothing beats that! It was only fair then that I should also learn how to assess gear using her Raffi recordings. To my surprise, some are technically quite good even though our singing along is far from pitch accurate and our timing quite uncertain. Still, we are having fun listening together and it is a dimension we forget far too often in this onanistic hobby of ours.
Gear came and went in 2007 as I suspect it will in 2008 but two components clearly stand out looking back one that never went back to its manufacturer and one that should not have.
If I could only bestow one 'Favorites' for 2007, it would go to the Ronin Paper Dipole speakers from Nomad Audio. These bamboo-clad open-baffled speakers proudly standing in our living room now have transformed my perception of how good music reproduction could get in a non-dedicated room. Their midrange transparency and utmost intimacy with the music is nothing short of breathtaking. Since my review published, the RPDs have continued to improve in two major ways. First, I have found that tilt angle has a significant impact on their tonal balance. Fine-tuning this setting allowed me to increase tonal density and address the slight discontinuity between upper midrange and lower treble when driving them with the McIntosh MA2275. The second improvement was a side effect of the Esoteric SA60 review, that machine needing tremendous break-in time. I played the IsoTek break-in CD on it nonstop for two weeks. When nobody was home, I ran the signal through the Musical Fidelity A5 amplifier and the Ronin speakers. As a result, the twin 10-inchers are now more supple and easier to drive, bringing more body to the bass without getting excessive. Another nice side benefit is that the RPDs can now successfully feed from the 4-ohm taps of the Mac for increased headroom while accepting a much broader range of amplifiers (even the Onix SP3 and its 37 watts do honorably now although at slightly more subdued listening levels). If you are looking for an engulfing sound that combines tonal density with the see-through quality of the best electrostatic panels, the RPDs will have you covered.
My second pick for 2007 is unquestionably the Italian Rudistor NX-33 balanced headphone amplifier - the one that should never have gone back to its distributor...
Over the period the NX-33 was in my system, it became obvious how this amplifier is not a recording engineer monitoring tool nor even a reviewer's tool. It has too much of a personality to allow proper evaluation of other gear. It is a musical instrument designed to provide as much enjoyment as possible by focusing on the flow and timbres, not the individual notes. The NX-33 was designed to take you into its musical realm and make you forget all about those pesky audiophile worries. I concluded the review with three words to best describe the NX-33 organic, involving and elegant. They still stand. With quite a few more reviews under my belt since, I realize just what a rare piece of gear the Rudistor really is. It may not be for head bangers and adrenaline junkies but when it comes down to tonal and timbral bliss, it takes no prisoners.
That's it for gear. A lot of very good equipment came through my system in 2007 but special recognitions are only as good as they are rare. I picked the two that redefined what I thought could be expected in a product category at a given price point.
There are also lots of great products that may not be components but they do participate in no small part to the overall performance level of a system. There are three I would like to recognize. Tweaks and accessories range from outrageously expensive and inefficient to cheap and truly effective, with everything in-between. I like to think of the following as true stars in the great tweaks for your dollar category.
The Sound-Quest Isol-Pads are one such product. At $25 per, they deliver 80% of the sonic improvement of the most elaborate vibration control devices at 1% of the cost. That's my type of return on investment! I have them under every single piece of gear and they have brought intelligibility and image sharpening to no small degree. I still have not found a piece of gear that did not benefit from their addition and can't recommend them strongly enough until you are ready to fork over the cash and settle down with a Grand Prix Audio Monaco rack.
My next special mention is for a piece of equipment that made Srajan's 'Best Of' list back in 2005 and still exceeds most of the competition when it comes to absolute transparency and neutrality in interconnects. I am talking about the Zu Cable Varials. They are no tone control and don't show forgiveness but if the rest of your system has nothing to ask forgiveness for, the floodgates open. It's like moving to row 5 in a concert hall coming from the second balcony. At less than $500 per 1m pair in a hobby where $3000 cables are legion, the Varials stand out as off-the-chart values.
Finally, my third and last recommendation will go to a piece of equipment I have not formally reviewed or written about but which brought at least as much improvement to my system as the Varials did (although in a very different fashion). I bought a quad of Mullard 12AX7s and two Mullard 12AT7s from Upscale Audio a couple months ago, to upgrade the preamp section of my McIntosh MA2275. The total cost of the upgrade ($470) equals the price of a pair of Varials and those NOS tubes brought a new sense of ease, space and richness to the midrange coupled with utmost transparency without harshness or dryness. The Mullards are all about credibility of voices and rich, believable, palpable, wet and warm timbres. At $100 a piece, the 12AX7s are not cheap but even at that price worth every penny. The 12AT7s are a tad more available and affordable but at $35 a tube, still an order of magnitude pricier than their Chinese equivalents - with good reason. Don't spend a fortune on multi-thousand-dollar cables until you have those bulbs in your tube preamp. Various versions are available online at slightly different prices but not all quality control and customer service is equal. You usually get what you pay for. When it comes to putting 30-year old tubes in your multi-thou amplifier, a few dollars difference probably aren't that critical but you be the judge.
2007 also stands out as a year when a lot of very good music came my way and although not all was classical, this is still the field where I feel most comfortable stepping out from the beaten paths. If you have an ear for slightly more adventurous music from the past, here are a few discs that have enjoyed a lot of playing this year.
|Callirhoé by Andre Cardinal Destouches - this re-creation by Herve Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel is probably the very best interpretation of music from the mid 1700s that I have ever heard [Glossa GES 921612-F]. The lost period between Lully and Rameau politically characterized by decadent regencies is mostly forgotten today and so are most of the composers who illuminated its days. Who now remembers Mouret, Collasse or Destouches? Only Campra's Requiem saved him from absolute anonymity. Destouches' work is probably the most worthy of resurrection of all the masters of his time and Callirhoé is a perfect example. As with all of Glossa's editions, recording quality is exceptional, balancing intimate perspectives of the musicians with a perfect rendition of the concert hall acoustics. A young counter tenor I had never heard before, Cyril Auvity, sings the part of Agenor. He is one of the most expressive Haute-Contres I have heard in recent years. The increased interest in Baroque music over the past 20 years has seen quite a number of new counter tenors appear on international stages and that's fantastic as that tessitura had almost disappeared. Unfortunately, many confuse mannerism with authenticity and technique with emotion. Cyril Auvity's refreshing interpretation is a good reminder of what the differences should be.
|To stay in the same period, the above-mentioned Requiem by Andre Campra is a must own. It is one of the most emotionally intense requiems ever composed, moving and deep but also full of light and hope. I don't think that level of pure abandon and faith was achieved again until Fauré's Requiem almost 200 years later. Mozart's Requiem is marred by far more sorrow but also a more egoistic and haunted vision of the pain of those staying behind. Campra's view of this Mass is pure faith put to music. There are two versions of this piece you can turn to without hesitation, Herreweghe's with La Chapelle Royale [Harmonia Mundi HMC901251] or Gardiner's with the English Baroque Soloists [Erato 2564-69848-0] - I do have a slight preference for Herreweghe's more emotionally committed version but the Monteverdi Choir with Gardiner is just too good to pass. Get both, you won't regret it.
|To continue with our exploration of French 17th century music, Paul Agnew and William Christie's recording of Campra's Salve Regina [Virgin Classics 7243 5 45720 2 9] is another cornerstone of an otherwise pretty limited discography. I have been lucky enough to hear Paul Agnew in a couple of recitals over the past few years. This disc is a faithful portray of all the complex harmonics of his voice and Anne-Marie Lasla's viole de gambe makes a sensuous and deep counterpoint to his exceptionally pure timbre. The Salve Regina is certainly not as immediately captivating as the Requiem but will bring you a deeper perspective on the music of this period. The same team also released a disc of Campra's Motets and although I don't own it yet, it certainly is on my list for this coming Christmas.
If you feel brave and manage to find a used copy of Jean-Joseph Mouret's Les Amours de Ragonde directed by Marc Minkowski (no longer available alone from Erato but now in a 4CD set titled Joyaux Baroques, 0927-41761-2, it also including music by Lully, Charpentier and Rameau), you will be treated to some of the more rustic music of the time. If Campra appealed to the spirit and emotions of an educated public, Ragonde is a playful farce meant to entertain a far broader audience. Ragonde is the only recording I am aware of that includes a 'Charivari'. In vernacular French, this word has evolved to mean any kind of disorganized and noisy manifestation but in those days, it had a more specific meaning that will give you a hint as to what this opera is all about:
"Charivari or shivaree was originally a French folk custom, a noisy mock serenade for newlyweds. It was also sometimes used as a form of social coercion, to force an as-yet-unmarried couple to wed. "Charivari" is the original French word, and is used in both English and French in Canada, while "shivaree" is used in the United States.
|"In charivari, people of the local community gather around to "celebrate" a marriage, usually one they regard as questionable, gathering outside the window of the couple. They bang metal implements or use other items to create noise in order to keep the couple awake all night. Sometimes they wear disguises or masks. The custom dates from the Middle Ages and originates from France where it was a regular custom after weddings. Later it became a form of protest against socially disapproved marriages, for example the marriage of widows before completing the socially acceptable period of mourning. In the early 1600s, the Council of Tours forbade charivari and threatened its practitioners with excommunication. Nevertheless, the custom continued in rural areas. Shivaree has been practiced at least in Ontario and Quebec in Canada as well as much of the United States. Some regional variants include "belling", "horning", and "serenading". It is mostly a product of the frontier and quickly dying out although there were many accounts in the early half of the 20th century." [Ref. Wikipedia]
|Changing centuries altogether, I can't let this opportunity pass without dropping a few more references of operas by my favorite Belgian composer, Andre Modeste Ernest Gretry. Gretry's mostly unknown treasures include Zemire et Azor [EMI 7 69701-2] with Mady Mesple. This nugget of late classical French culture is actually very close to the original folk tale that inspired Beauty and the Beast by Cocteau. If you've never seen this classic of 60s black and white French cinema, you owe it to yourself - the perspective Cocteau and Jean Marais bring to this drama has not aged one year and it is even available in the US and Canada from Criterion [BEA130] and was later made globally popular by Disney. With Gretry, you'll be privy to the original story but also some absolutely delightful arias and intense suspense. You might have more luck finding it used than new (although it is still in print, thanks to EMI's dedication to the French repertoire) and if you own or find an original, treasure it as a collectible.
|Gretry's most famous opera is probably Richard Coeur de Lion (Richard the Lion-Hearted) and a few versions have been released on CD. Unfortunately, the very best version is not available. It was broadcast once on French radio, never to be heard from again. Thanks to a tape deck and subsequent transfer to hard disk, I actually own a 'copy' of this broadcast but have no recollection of who was directing. All I know is that later releases of performances from Italy can't match the sheer fun of this radio event. Luckily, EMI seems determined to fight the abandon the French have put their operatic repertoire to and|
|released a combined CD with Richard and Le Devin du Village [EMI 0724357526623] which to my surprise are sung by most of the same crew I recorded on the radio, showing the same enthusiasm. I suspect the conductor might be the same too as some of the deliberate choices of tempi and instrumental effects are identical but there are enough differences to confirm that it is indeed a different performance. Yet this release by EMI is bar far the best way to enjoy this completely improbable rescue of the king by a small army led by Marguerite, Richard's longingly beloved. It is fun music, not to be taken serious for a minute and if you feel like singing along, be my guest. That's how it was done in the popular theaters of Paris back in the 1780s.
|I know my 'Favorites' is utterly biased and most of those discs will never earn any audiophile stamp of approval but this repertoire should not be allowed to die. Whenever I run into a label small or large releasing one of those pearls from the past (or even better, commissioning a new recording like Callirhoé), I can't help myself from spreading the word in the hope that dedicated music editors will continue to save those works condemned to oblivion by their own countries. One of those knights in white armor was Pierre Jourdan, director of the Imperial Theater in Compiegne who died this August. He will be dearly missed by those who enjoyed seeing this fine concert hall revived over the past two decades or so. I won't go through the whole list of lost operas Pierre Jourdan resurrected but we certainly owe him Saint-Saens' Henry VIII, Auber's Les Diamants de la Couronne and Gretry's La Jeunesse de Pierre le Grand among many others.
|To finish on a lighter note, I have a few good resolutions for 2008. You know the kind, heartfelt on January 1st, forgotten on January 8th:
And see you all a year from now to see how many of those resolutions.