Album Title: J. S. Bach: Cello Suite No.5 in C minor, BWV 1011 / Zoltán Kodály: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8 / György Sándor Ligeti: Sonata for Solo Cello
Performer: Camden Shaw, cello
Label: Unipheye Music UM-0206
Format: 24bit/192kHz SMRD (Studio Master Reference Disc)
Playing time: 23’00" / 40’44"
Recorded: July/September 2009

Behold. This cellist will be the best amongst equals in the years to come. Despite Janos Starker’s definitive 1970 Tokyo recording of the Kodaly sonata, Camden Shaw exemplifies profound understanding and proficient mastery of this musically and technically challenging masterpiece of the cello repertoire. It took Starker some thirty years to perfect his interpretation of the work from when he first played it for the composer at the age of 15 in 1939, then again in 1967 shortly before Kodály’s death. Kodály told Starker: "If you correct the retard in the third movement, it will be the Bible performance."

In-between those years, Starker had been making numerous recordings which benchmarked his artistic progression. This includes the 1948 Paris 78RPM record that received the Grand Prix du Disque; and the 1950 and 1956 New York recordings on LP. The 1970 Japanese recording is regarded as Starker’s finest version—with the omission of the arpeggiation in the third movement faithfully restored at last—and it was digitally transferred to CD by Delos [D/CD 1015]. It was my ultimate reference recording. Yet with his musical maturity,Shaw who is only 21 left me speechless .

Composed in 1915, its creator prophesied for his Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello, Op.8 that "in 25 years no cellist will be accepted who has not played it." By 1956, the sonata had become obligatory for the Casals Competition in Mexico City. The innovative compositional technique demands unorthodox skills from the cellists and also extends the tonal range and sonic effects of the instrument. As Starker commented: "Kodály uses the cello from top to bottom. All the fingers are busy. Three fingers are playing the melodic ideas while the others are plucking chords. The use of the thumb is also highly inventive. Ponticello is a new technique on the cello." Yet the beauty of Starker’s interpretation is that the listener will not be drawn to the technicalities. Instead one is carried on a musical journey to the heart of historical Hungary.

Although the sonata retains a certain academic ambience and is not as ‘colorful’ as Kodály’s orchestral works, fragments from the first two movements do echo his romantic Song from Hary Janos Suite and the third movement is reminiscent of the Dances of Galánta and Marosszék Dances. And Shaw shares the same sensitivity to the tempo and rhythmic pulse of the Hungarian folk idiom. His rubato maintains an improvisatory freedom that gives life to the vernacular phrasing and the song-like motives in general. Then he adds dynamics to the accelerando passages. The ornamented details are never rushed but well articulated. The staccato theme in the third movement arguably has more dynamic shadings and contrasting layering than Starker's. Shaw indeed took to heart "the depth of feeling and sincerity of the composition despite its obvious virtuosity" as he comments in the liner notes.

For an easy frame of reference, the Sonata for Solo Cello by Ligeti could be called the Romanian version of the Kodály though it is more concise and evinces a modern twist in the second movement yet shows no lenience in virtuoso prerequisites at all. Again Shaw is breathtakingly convincing in demonstrating the musical disparity—lyrical versus capricious—of the two movements.

The sonic quality of the above two works bears witness to the ultra-high resolution studio master recording as far as seems technically possible. Shaw was using a falsely labeled 1744 Albani that was speculated to be an older instrument made by a lesser known Italian maker around 1680. Shaw knows best how to summon the depth and slightly dark tone from the instrument to invoke the Hungarian and Romanian folkloric atmosphere instantaneously.

Incidentally, I was not trying to skip the Bach Cello Suite No.5. Not that I have doubts about Shaw’s rendition of the "heavy emotional implication" of "the darkest and most brooding of all the six suites.". With the pseudo viola da gamba sound still fresh in my mind from the Michael Kevin Jones album, I just couldn’t adjust to this ultra-high resolution in macro proximity. Shaw has chosen a much faster tempo for good reason. Between performer and engineer, they must work together to strike the right balance between fluidity within a less airy ambience; and layered details within the speed limit.

I expressed my concern to Ira Segall, the engineer and owner of the label. "I like the Bach less, somehow the sound of the cello is drier, the sonority not as rich, making the flow less fluid. Was that recorded on a different day? Even the 'snapping noises' of the bowing and Mr. Shaw's breathing are more pronounced. Were the microphones set at closer range? I personally prefer Bach with more ambience or reverb + hall effect. I tried to play it on a tube amp to add some 'sonic distortion and artificial ambience' but it's still not as warm as the Kodály or Ligeti. Maybe tomorrow I'll try to play back on iTunes with some hall effects equalization."

Ira replied: "The three works were all done on different days! Very interesting/good discernment on your part! Very interestingly, everything was set precisely the same; the only thing that I can remark on was that the day we did the Bach, the humidity was much higher."

I’m glad that I didn’t forget to ask Ira what playback software he’d recommend for SMRD data files. "I prefer a professional recording program but anything that plays the format back is good. I do find that many programs do sound different—sometimes with varying tonal balance—so that it comes down to choosing one after much comparative effort like any other piece of gear. I use the program that I record with Adobe Audition."

Frederic Beudot has warned that iTunes was lousy for serious high-resolution playback in his extremely enlightening review of the Weiss Firewire DAC. My favorite program is Amadeus II but my Mac Book Pro was confiscated by my daughter since her PC broke down. I have iTunes and Windows Media Player on my new Acer Aspire 5810T notebook and I thought iTunes the lesser of two evils. (Thanks to new technology, this notebook is amazingly quiet, super low heat and I run the data files from a USB flash drive.) The minute I played the Bach over Adobe Audition, my concern was alleviated by 50%. Not only was the tone an edge warmer and the sonority richer, most noticeably the bass became much deeper as though a subwoofer had been turned on. And I just played it straight without any filtering effects.

In audioland, curiosity never kills a man. When I started applying Adobe Audition filters to the Bach, I got the kind of Bach sound I fancy. Playing through various audio systems from tube to class D, I could tailor make the ambience with synergizing effects from either Room Ambience or Bigger Room Ambience under Reverb, and Room Ambience 1 or Great Hall under Studio Reverb. These filters worked like magic with the Kodály and Ligeti by adding a somber and melancholic resonance. Worrying that I might be showing disrespect to the artist and the engineer, I cautiously shared my findings with Ira:

"I’m taking a more cautious stance in writing the cello review and have spent the whole day trying out different ways of ‘fine tuning’ (forgive me) the sound to my personal taste. Unlike the Mendelssohn/Debussy album, I’m not 100% with you on the cello album. The ultra-high resolution draws too much attention to the solo instrument and the techniques that are called upon to execute the work. This prevents me from enjoying the bigger picture ‘from a distance’. I feel I’m physically too close to the cello and the cellist. But there’s no doubt that Mr. Shaw is a brilliant musician – if I could just stay back a little bit farther. As you said, there’s no right or wrong, some people will enjoy the immediacy.

So forgive me Ira, I might have done something that I shouldn’t have, which is manipulating your recording with the many reverb effects on Adobe Audition. As of now, I like the many effects ranging from hall effects to room ambience. I hope my actions are not showing disrespect for the artist or the engineer but a new angle to appreciate SMRD. With your pristine recording, a consumer can fine-tune the sound to his/her acoustic environment. With any other recordings preloaded with ambience or reverb (sometimes too much), we won’t need more but we cannot remove them. They are carved in stone and we are stuck! But your SMRD gives us endless options – in case someone needs them."

Ira responded: "Of course David, I would not want you to hold back or keep truths hidden at all. As goes disrespect to the engineer by manipulating the recording, I have two thoughts: one is that, again as we have said in previous exchanges, for me art is to evoke reaction (sometimes followed by action). In that definition, I have been successful; you initially reacted to the work and then your action was to manipulate it. My second thought is that while as a painter, I would think it less likely that you would take one of my canvases home and as a reaction to it, over-paint some parts to better suit what you may want it to be, once a copy of my recordings is obtained by a listener/consumer, it is out of my hands and the second circle of art—reaction/action—will occur.

I would be less than the accumulation of the emotional/spiritual work that I am on a path with and have done with myself if I did not see the beauty, the very human reaction/interaction in what you say that you have done and simply see it as a collaborative work now that you and I have created together. I have no other choice because these are recorded copies in raw data form. I have no idea who or how many have done something similar with them. David, it is what it is and I do not see your experimentation at all as disrespect. I know that in the end it is done with respect for my initial work/art."

Come to think of it, my action of experimenting with reverb filters is no more radical than playing back a Red Book format CD with an upsampling DAC or choosing ultra-linear mode for dynamic impact or triode mode for musicality on a tube amp. In  essence, the initial work of art still has to be of admirable quality. And this Unipheye recording definitely has such a quality in abundance. 

Format note: Due to the huge file size of the 24bit/192kHz .wav data files, this new Unipheye recording arrived in two Scratch Amour Inkjet Archival Gold DVD-Rs. These are data-only discs and not playable in any disc players but intended to be uploaded to a computer or music server. In addition, Unipheye Music offers alternative formats including an even higher resolution 32bit/192kHz SMRD, a studio-burnt 300-year archival gold CD-R playable on any CD players and as many as eight formats/grades of downloads from the highest 24Bit/192kHz FLAC (2GB) down to the lowest 128kbps/44.1kHz Mp3 (57.9MB). Retail prices vary from $53 for the SMRD (32 or 24Bit), $24 for the gold CD-R to $29 for the top FLAC download and $14 for the basic Mp3. On their well-organized website, you can sample the eight movements in 320kbps/44.1kHz Mp3. They even have a file test page where you can verify compatibility with your computer.