The Berlin Philharmonic's Direct-To-Disc Brahms Symphonic Cycle Conducted By Sir Simon Rattle

The just released (November 18, 2016) six LP box set of the four Brahms symphonies recorded direct-to-disc performed by Sir Simon Rattle and The Berlin Philharmonic before a live Philharmonie audience is as meticulously produced and presented as its existence is unlikely.

Proposing to a distinguished orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic and its conductor, a logistically, artistically and technically complex and risky project like this one would be improbable in any year, but forty years into the digital recording era, it’s miraculous, though their agreeing to it is even more so.

The last time the orchestra recorded direct to disc was seventy years ago, before the advent of magnetic recording tape. These were the first D2D recordings ever made in this home of the Berlin Philharmonic, the construction of which began in 1960 and was completed three years later. It is a pioneering, much copied proscenium-free design with “vineyard-style” seating.

The almost half-ton Neumann VMS-80 lathe had to be carefully transported from the Emil Berliner Studios to the concert hall, which fortunately was but a third of a mile away. Once there it had to be re-calibrated and readied for the schedule, which consisted of the four Brahms symphonies performed twice within a two-week period.

The general rehearsal was also cut to disc, giving the producers three shots to get perfectly recorded sides, both technically and of course musically. Following rehearsal experiments, recording producer Rainer Maillard chose to hang one meter behind and four and a half meters above the conductor’s head, a single crossed pair of Sennheiser MKH800 Twin condenser microphones in a classic Blumlein array.

Of course neither the notes played nor the instrumental balance could be adjusted once they had been committed to lacquer. What’s more, unlike when cutting from tape, mastering engineer Maarten DeBoer could not make use of a preview head to “tell” the lathe how to adjust the groove pitch for louder, more dynamic passages, so he was left to do it manually by anticipating what was coming. Set the pitch too wide, too often and you run out of real estate. Set it too narrow and you risk groove overlap.

Now add the pressure of having to replace the lacquer and start cutting “live” between movements and you begin to appreciate the high stakes for everyone involved. A red light on the podium visible only to the Maestro was his signal to cue the orchestra. After a series of rehearsals, the time between lacquer changes was reduced to but a few seconds, which, according to the annotation felt like “…an eternity to the participants…”.

In between lacquers, according to the annotation, “Sir Simon bridged the time dabbing his foreheard”. The audience was never alerted to any of this “….in order to prevent psychological pressure from inadvertently increasing the tickle in the throat of cough-prone listeners.”

Speaking of which, my first play through the six sides I didn’t notice a cough or a creaking seat until the first movement of Symphony Nr. 4, which was the second side of the fifth LP. In fact, I listened before reading any of the notes and wasn’t aware these were “live” in front of an audience recordings until the applause at the end of the first symphony.

The second listen through I heard a few more coughs but they are so down in level that they are easy to miss. The lack of extraneous audience noise was yet another remarkable aspect of this production.

Another was that unlike many “live in concert” recordings that I’ve heard, this one does not sound like a radio broadcast, probably in part because of the microphone placement and pattern and in part because of audience discipline even if they were unaware of the recording.

What else could it be? I had for many years a twentieth row center subscription seat to The New York Philharmonic and sometimes around me it sounded like a hospital ward. Audience noise will not distract from your enjoyment of these recorded performances.

A great deal more fascinating and pressure producing backstory exists around the orchestra’s history with the composer, but I’m going to leave that for what I hope in Stereophile will be a somewhat different look at this box.

The Presentation

The packaging is equal to the lavishly produced RCA Victor Soria series sets (named after the producer Dorle Soria) from the ‘late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The six LPs and hard covered book are housed in a notably sturdy canvas-clad (or canvas-like) box. The records are each in a plastic-lined sleeve that’s in a “library green” outer sleeve, the color of which well-complements the box’s pale green color. The hard covered seventy two-page book follows the canvas motif and is of equal high quality in terms of the paper stock, layout, printing and especially the content in both German and English.

High quality photos are affixed to the page paper as in the old Soria series, which allows the use of really attractive paper stock. The look and feel of the book is “old school” excellence.

The book begins with a page for each of the four symphonies. Each piece gets a long, single paragraph descriptive “play by play” to the right of which is a listing giving the year of its composition, the first performance, date and who conducted what orchestra, as well as the Berlin Philharmonic’s first performance and who conducted, followed by the instrumentation.

Next up is a provocative, remarkably detailed essay (especially given that all of this occurred before there were recording devices) called “Constellations”, which provides a far reaching look at the composer’s life, times, work and contemporaries (Wagner and Bruckner among others, and of course always in the shadows, Beethoven).

Written by Wolfgang Sandberger, Director of the Brahms institute at the Jusikhochschule Lubeck, the essay had me simultaneously thinking of academia and “Entertainment Tonight”—and I mean that in a good way.

That’s followed by Wolfgang Stähr’s essay, which provides a fascinating history of the close relationship between Brahms and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as how the orchestra’s conductors over the years have fared interpreting and bringing to musical life the four symphonies. As the author puts it “For the Berliner Philharmoniker, its self-perception, its aesthetic, its stylistic and, in the broadest sense, its culturally defined identity, the four symphonies (and four concertos), of Johannes Brahms have always been indespensible, right from the beginning, a seal of approval and certificate of authenticity: are the Philharmonic still the Philharmonic? For the orchestra’s principal conductors, however, the interpretation of Brahms also became the equivalent of an initiation ritual, a final exam and a patent of nobility.”

And you thought Maestro Rattle at the podium was dabbing his forehead worrying about the cutting stylus creating the lead in groove before he lowers the baton?

Finally, before the credits and the names of all of the orchestra members, there’s an essay by co-producer Rainer Maillard providing the direct to disc rationale and explaining the process and the problems that occurred during the production, including one side for which none of the three recordings was found to be useable and so, for that side, an analog backup tape was used. Which side was it? I’ll have to go back and listen for it!

No, it’s not Rick Rubin!

The Four Brahms Symphonies

I write about classical music with a great deal of trepidation—though not as much as Brahms obviously had about writing symphonies.! He didn’t attempt his first until he was well into his career and fame. Once he starting writing, he took his time finishing it—fifteen years.

However, I go back a long way with Brahms. In 1979 when I worked on “Animalympics” I chose the for the Flamingo skater Dorie Turnell’s performance (at 18:48), a section of the third movement of Brahm’s Fourth Symphony.

I chose it because I knew it well along with the other three, thanks to my “go to” box set Bruno Walter Conducts The Orchestral Music of Brahms (Columbia M4S 615) with the west coast version of the Columbia Symphony released in 1960. The Concertmaster, Israel Baker played with Heifetz, Menuhin, Glen Gould and Tom Waits, while Harold Dicterow the principal second violinist, was long a member of the L.A. Philharmonic and his son Glenn was, for many years, concertmaster when I had my subscription to The New York Philharmonic.

However, my favorite among the four is the fourth. It is Brahms’ symphonic pinnacle in terms of its composition but more so from the perspective of a casual classical listener (I plead guilty), it’s the most dramatic, immediately memorable and easiest to follow. If you want to hear it taken apart, Leonard Bernstein does a great job of it in this YouTube audio transcription of a Book-of-the Month Club record in which he also outlines how poorly the fourth symphony was received by many and why. If you want to understand how a symphony is constructed using the fourth as a roadmap, please listen!

Interestingly, in 2008 Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded before a live audience another Brahms symphony cycle. It would be interesting to compare the two musically and sonically but I didn’t in preparing for this review.

There are dozens of Brahms symphonic cycles on record and CD and there are those who have gone through them and have opinions about which is best. That wouldn’t be me. But this is not about finding the best interpretation. This is about what is without a doubt a very fine performance recorded direct-to-disc, which sets it apart from all of the others.

The Sound

In choosing to record a symphony orchestra with but a single stereo pair of microphones, the producer is attempting to correctly present the orchestra spatially in three-dimensions. In other words, you should be able to sit down, put on one of these sides, and assuming your system is reasonably time and phase coherent, experience the sensation of orchestral near “virtual reality” with but two stereo speakers.

The surround sound people will tell you they own that space, but as long as you’re willing to ignore (though not completely) the missing rear hall reverberant cues and the audience appearing behind the orchestra as opposed to your being seated in the audience, you’ll experience through these six records a thrilling illusion of having an orchestra playing before you.

As in the picture, the orchestra is laid out sonically in an intimate “U” shape with the first and second violins opposite his left and right ears. To get the most here don’t be afraid to crank it up a bit. At full tilt a symphony orchestra can easily produce 100dB or more.

If you listen at too low a level the sound can be somewhat washed out and even at sufficiently high SPLs if I have any criticism of the recording it’s that instrumental harmonics can be somewhat less than fully fleshed out, though the balance of what’s there is superb and helps create a coherent tonal picture.

The ear and the microphone don’t hear things identically, which is where spot mics come in, but they mess with timing and phase and produce incoherent and artificially “inflated” pictures.

In some ways I’m reminded of Keith O. Johnson recordings: the spread is fifth row wide, but the perspective is more mid-hall.

The sonic thrill here then is the fleshed out image three dimensionality and the transient delicacy.

You “see” the strings and “feel” the textures in a very physical way. Brahms’ Third Symphony is his most disturbing and conflicted and when he uses the strings to sound the alarm, you’ll feel it.

However, if you’re expecting the vivid, super-transparent, “widescreen” K.E. Wilkinson Kingsway Hall type recordings, you won’t get them here. Those are sonically thrilling but hardly what you really hear live, especially in a hall that lacks a proscenium type stage.

Instead of stage-rear reflections, there’s an open, dark space behind the orchestra, which intensifies the image and staging three-dimensionality, as does what sounds like a hall with generally fast reverb times with a fast clean decay. If that’s wrong, please let me know. I’ve never been there.

However, I’ve certainly seen many concerts at now Geffen Hall and elsewhere and this recorded sound is in some ways more like what you hear “live” than are many hall recordings produced to create a less natural, but more intimate and “entertaining” effect. If that’s what you’re used to, you may have to acclimate your ears to this sound. Of course no microphone or recording can produce an identical experience to “live”, but getting the spatial cues on target really helps! If you were to ask me for the recording’s main shortcoming it would be less than full transparency, but then I’m not familiar with the chosen Sennheiser microphone.

I’d like to hear an engineer or two chime in especially after hearing this set, the announcement of which got some online critics exercised. My favorite:
“Such a bizarre and dogmatic concept... purism for purism's sake... entirely driven by marketing...
It's like setting up a huge view camera and making a contact print, and pretending that this is the "true" representation of the subject.
Unfortunately, music is only capable of generating or changing a mood or emotion, so bringing that about often requires editing, and tweaking the sound, etc...
On the other hand, here we are, talking about it.. so they've already won..!!”

In other words, attending a live performance can’t generate moods and emotions because it’s not edited? And live performances are also “bizarre and dogmatic concepts”.

Here’s another “fan”:
“Yes, I saw that a week or two ago and was repulsed not so much by the price (which is extortionate) as the implication that recording in this fashion will give superior results to using the best digital techniques available for capturing the performances.

When Berlin Philharmonic started its own in-house label, I thought this was a lovely opportunity to bring reference quality recordings to the dwindling classical music audience at decent prices by cutting out the middle man rather than a profit driven highly exclusive, expensive packaging based commercial venture.

Shame on them...”

Yikes!

Vinyl

Things got off to a rough start as there were a few instances of the kind of tearing sound associated with “non-fill”. Fortunately there were only two short ones. Otherwise the pressings were flat quiet, and concentric. I don’t know where these were pressed but I’m assuming Optimal.

Conclusion

To be able to get a Brahms symphonic cycle performed by one of the world’s great orchestras and distinguished conductors, recorded AAA D2D minimally miked is no small miracle. That it was recorded live in performance makes it more vital. The performances are not cautious or tepid because lacquers were being cut and the intrusion of extraneous audience produced noises is mimimal to mostly non-existent..

I wonder how the members of the orchestra feel about this set. Or whether the Maestro is happy with the performances and their being committed to vinyl live, without edits. And I wonder what is the producers’ and cutting engineer’s honest assessment of the sonic results. You can be sure that along with the analog tape “safety” copy, the performances were digitally recorded (perhaps I’m wrong). If so, I’d sure like to hear those too.

I hope to find out if I can arrange interviews with any of the principals. If so, they will appear in Analog Corner in Stereophile.

This is an expensive, but seriously well-done box set and while people can argue about what is the best Brahms cycle (some say its Claudio Abaddo’s with the Berlin Philharmonic), this is the only one done D2D and if eliminating the digits matters at all to you, here you go! And I hear you: “If you can’t tell which side is from tape, what’s the point of D2D”? Well I wasn’t listening for the tape, I was too busy enjoying the music, and that’s the main point. Isn’t it? The set is limited to 1833 copies, which is the year of Brahms's birth.

COMMENTS
Jumping Bean's picture

I'm sure it's just a typo, but Brahms was born in 1833, not 1883.

Anton D's picture

Holy cow! That means 59 less copies?

Anton D's picture

Tell them you deserve a finder's fee!

It should be a fun set.

Analog Scott's picture

What orshestral LPs would you consider better sounding and why?

Kirby's picture

https://www.berliner-philharmoniker-recordings.com/rattle-brahms-vinyl.html Here's a link to their web site. Make sure to watch the video trailer on the making of this recording. A little out of my price range but great to see they are still making some recordings this way.

richard-liu's picture

Thanks for the informative review. Here some comments:
1. You surely mean Musikhochschule Lubeck ("M" instead of "J").
2. The analog backups were made on a Studer C37 on RMG Studiomaster 911 tape.
3. The concerts were not recorded digitally with single-point microphoning. Some experiments have been made with that technique, but there are as yet no plans for a commercial product using it.
4. According to information in the accompanying book, the black-and-white photos of the concerts and the recording studio are all analog, made with a Leica R6 on Ilford Delta 3200 film.

Points 2 and 3 are paraphrases of answers that I received from Felix Feustel of Berliner Philharmonic Records to my questions on these points.

If you have access to the Digital Concert Hall (https://www.digitalconcerthall.com) you can find the concerts from which the masters were made in the archives; however, I don't know to what extent a direct comparison with the LP's would be possible, let alone conclusive.

I first heard the Berliner Philharmoniker live on Nov. 9, 1976 in Chicago. Karajan conducted Brahms 4 and 2. Since then I have heard the orchestra live many times, in Vienna, Salzburg, Lucerne and Berlin. To my ears, these recordings truthfully convey the orchestra's characteristic sound, especially the sensitive balance among the instrumental groups produced by players listening and reacting to each other and the "air" around the orchestra.

dcbingaman's picture

I have heard many concerts from Berlin via their Digital-Concert-Hall streaming app on my Oppo BDP105D. They are all outstanding performances, the video is in HD and the sound is better than it has any right to be given streaming bit-rate limitations. A subscription is available on-line for about $120 a year. Well worth the ticket price, (about two live concerts in my city).

While these D2D recordings are undoubtably good, an even better source are the HD / DTS Master Audio encoded 5.1 recordings available from this label on Blu-Ray disc. So far they have released Beethoven, Sibelius, Schubert and Schumann cycles. ALL are incredible recordings, and with apologies to Mr. Fremer, outclass ANY stereo recordings of any orchestra I have ever heard.

As a subscriber to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), I can tell you that stereo recordings just can't capture the nuance and scope of a life performance of a full orchestra from pianissimo to full chat. These Berliner Philharmoniker 5.1 recordings, when reproduced on a highend MCH system (mine is a Meridian-based system), come remarkably close. You really do feel the extent of the Hall and the reverb of the basses. Highly recommended.

richard-liu's picture

In addition to the Beethoven, Sibelius, Schubert and Schumann cycles the cassette of Claudio Abbado's last concert with the orchestra also contains such a Blu-ray disc and a code to download the master audio files.

I think the general tenor of this thread is, there exists a non-empty set of regular concert-goers for whom recorded music is not an end in itself but sustenance between live concerts. Each of us must decide how much time and money will be devoted to attending live concerts and how much to reproducing recorded music. Since coming to Basel, Switzerland in 1978 with the system I assembled while studying in the US, I have spent much more time and money to attend live performances than I have to evaluate and acquire new sound reproduction equipment. Since CD's began replacing LP's I've been planning to replace my portable CD player "real soon now" with something more worthy of the Accuphase E-202 integrated amp and the B&W DM7 speakers which I have maintained and used since 1976, resp. 1979. Regularly I convince myself that I "really should" get a Blu-ray player for the Blu-ray discs included in the Berliner Philharmoniker cassettes, if only to listen to them on my existing system. And then I succumb to inertia, the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest and a body in motion to remain in motion. Ordering tickets to the Easter, Summer and Piano festivals in Lucerne and the Easter Festival of the Berliner Philharmoniker (now in Baden Baden, previously in Salzburg) takes precedence over evaluating CD and Blu-ray players, DAC's, etc., and I inevitably find my system (other components: Revox A77 tape recorder/player, Thorens TD 125 Mk II turntable, SME 3009 Series III tonearm, Ortofon MC20 cartridge, STAX SR-X and AKG K1000 headphones, late 2011 Apple MacBook Pro 17" connected to the Tuner input of the amplifier) "good enough". This is the context in which I acquired the LP's of the Schumann and Brahms symphonies, the former in addition to the cassette of CD's, Blu-ray discs and various other "goodies."

AnalogJ's picture

"While these D2D recordings are undoubtably good, an even better source are the HD / DTS Master Audio encoded 5.1 recordings available from this label on Blu-Ray disc. So far they have released Beethoven, Sibelius, Schubert and Schumann cycles. ALL are incredible recordings, and with apologies to Mr. Fremer, outclass ANY stereo recordings of any orchestra I have ever heard.

As a subscriber to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO), I can tell you that stereo recordings just can't capture the nuance and scope of a life performance of a full orchestra from pianissimo to full chat."

Wait. With respect, how do you know this?? As you haven't heard these new ones, I know you're prescient. Are you talking about the possibility of surround sound vs. stereo, having the hall information literally around you? Or having close microphone placement so that it sounds like you are in the orchestra?

The latter has never been my preference for orchestral listening (unless I'm playing in the orchestra).

dcbingaman's picture

First, you are correct, I am incredibly prescient, (ask Kal R.), and second, in my experience, a stereo recording of an orchestra sounds little like what I experience live in a real hall. I have heard hundreds of them. I base my comment on my experience on this hall and this orchestra, because each of the 5.1 Blu-Ray discs I cited also ships with two channel CD's of the same performances. I have listened and compared them both.

Too many 2-channel audiophiles assume that surround recording is a haphazard exercise in excess to enhance "spaciness", when nothing could be further from the truth. A well-done 5.1 recording uses a 5-microphone Decca tree arrangement with three forward facing mikes and two reversed mikes facing out into the hall to capture the direct sound and the hall ambience in one phase space SIMULTANEOUSLY. It is entirely analogous to the Blumlien crossed cardioid technique, but captures much more information. This is what is recorded on the Berliner Philharmoniker surround sound discs. You really need to hear one of these recordings with all channels at 96Khz / 24 bit to appreciate it.

The stereo mix is enjoyable but, in my humble but prescient opinion, it will always be a pale imitation of the real event or a 5.1 channel facsimile, at least for large-scale orchestra recordings. The information density of an orchestra is much greater and thereby much more stressing of the entire recording and reproduction chain than a 5-piece Jazz band. More channels are needed to convey more information. This is simply intuitive obvious, and can be proven mathematically. Hence my comment. I have empirical evidence.

audiotom's picture

Brahams D2D vinyl or Mozart 225 cd complete boxset + $200

Analog Scott's picture

IMO the idea is patently absurd and ultimately profoundly misguided. How often do you hear conversations after an actual concert about the sound of the reverb behind one's head? This idea of live music as a reference has lead to a massive collective audiophile snipe hunt with two waring factions obsessed over who has the right idea of what a snipe really is. Ironically there is such a simple question to ask of any playback experience. How much did you like the SQ. everything else is snipe meat.

dcbingaman's picture

A very fair point...our after concert conversations are usually about the piece, performance and where to go for a good bottle of Barolo and a late supper, in that order. The hall sound is never something I'd even think about. HOWEVER, and this is an important point, my most enjoyable experiences in classical music listening are always in Powell Hall, (the home of the SLSO). The Hall acoustics are intrinsically linked to the performance. (BTW, my seats are 20 rows back in the Center Parquet usually in the center of the hall).

I think, however, the relationship of the venue to the performance maybe somewhat unique to acoustic classical music. In contrast, in multi-track recording of popular music (which is largely electronic), and most jazz performances, there really is no "there" there, although the recording engineers and editors try to create an image that satisfies their taste and sells records. "Acoustic Realism" in that sense, is an illusion for almost all non-acoustic multi-track recordings - sonic CGI if you will.

So what constitutes "Sound Quality" for these recordings ? Is it how much you enjoy the artist or the song ?? I can tell you with confidence that I get a bigger a kick out of JJ Cale's "They Call Me the Breeze" when I'm going 120 mph down the road in my Corvette with the radio blasting, than when I listen to the same cut in my sound room. It is all about creating an illusion. Musical CGI.

This leads me to my final point. Audiophiles fret endlessly about the dying of the high end audio culture and wonder why the millennial generation doesn't "get it" when it comes to high fidelity. The reason, I think, is that for the non-acoustic music they listen to, they are just as well served by the "sound quality" they get from an iPhone and a set of Bluetooth-linked earbuds as anything that has appeared in Stereophile in the last 50 years. "Sound Quality" for Millennials does not mean the same thing as it does for us 50 and 60-something's.

The great boom in high end audio started in the 1960's and 1970's around, predominately, acoustic classical music. As classical music listenership has fallen, so has the perceived need for high-end audio in the marketplace. For most other forms of music, high end audio is massive overkill. Classical music, however, requires it.

This gets back to my point - the best systems for enjoying classical music TODAY, conform to the ITU 5.1 standard in both recording and in playback. Ask nearly any Maestro or classical recording engineer worth his salt and he will tell you the same thing. If the high end has a future - it will be in, MULTI-CHANNEL digital classical recordings. Every other kind of music is adequately served by what is now mainstream stereo technology in the form of a iPhone. That is what the market is telling us and that is where we are inevitably headed.

Vinyl, while a great medium, is an entertaining anachronism for most listeners, (and this is coming from a guy with four turntables, a Koetsu Urushi and a Miyajima Shilabe). Its resurgence is heartening for us old audiophiles, but it is well past its expiration date and as the sorry history of SQ, QS and Quad recordings showed in the 1970's, it is incompatible with multi-channel recording.

Analog Scott's picture

1. The concert venue is extremely important to the sound quality of a live concert. However, it's about how the music sounds in the venue. It seems many audiophiles get all excited just by hearing the ambient noise of a concert hall. That is not what great concert halls are about.
2. Do you really think that all studio recordings are just as well served by an iphone as they are by a high end system with a high end vinyl front end? I do not. I very much enjoy the benefits of all the great audiophile gear when listening to Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. I don't agree that they are just as well served by an iphone.

dcbingaman's picture

No, I don't think so, but it is becoming apparent that the vast majority of music consumers do.

(BTW, the multi-channel SACD's of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are terrific recordings....)

I can also tell you that, based on my experience as a Board member of my local NPR affiliate, over 80% of ALL listening (music, news, etc.) in the USA is done inside an automobile. The dashboard is the most valuable real estate in the music equipment world.

Interestingly, for high end automobiles, it is increasingly going multi-channel, (MCH).

Analog Scott's picture

The vast majority of music consumers have always settled for crap sound. AM radios, console systems, rack systems, walkmans, Cassette tapes for the car ect etc etc. This is nothing new. Audiophilia has always been a niche market among music consumers and, much like classical music, has always been declared neer death since it's inception.

Im not a fan of the remixed multi-channel versions of the classic rock albums. I find them to be gimmicky.

Neward Thelman's picture

All of this is a bit like some holy man coming back to earth. It really is. Moses, Budda, Mohamed - any of them. Reappearing - presumably from heaven.

Why? Cause the odds of - as you, Mr. Fremer put it - a direct to disk recording being made this far along into the digital age, this point into the 21st century, by a massively unlikely source such as the tech-crazed Berlin Phil [after all, this was Karajan's orchestra, which was devoted to among the most synthetic, multi-miked, multi-tracked, electronically processed classical recordings made - remember Karajan's statement that with digital recording, "all else is gaslight"] - those odds are pretty much a gazillion against any such thing occuring.

PLUS - recording using a 2 mic setup. Holy crap! DG, which had such a long contract with the BPO, regarded anything other than a forest of mics as being moronically unexceptable. I spoke to their main tonemeister Gunther Breast back in the day, and his reaction to my suggestion of using a simple mic setup was as if I'd told him the earth was flat - and then insisted that he send a few killobucks to The Flat earth Society.

I still can't believe they made this recording.

What I can believe, tho, is the - trying to be tactful here - expectedly goofy reactions of guys posting here arguing for the superiority of multi-channel digital audio.

I swear - it's posts such as these [you can go to audiosasylum to find more, uh, "intelligence" such as this] that leave me feeling as tho I'm the only smart human left on the planet, with super-high IQ.

There's no point in arguing whether some digital format's superior or not. The point is that a recording project using the very epitome of analogue art and science has just been pursued and made available for public access. THAT'S THE POINT.

This site - Mike Fremer's site - is dedicated to the special virtues of analogue recorded sound. Whether 5.1 digital surround or whatever is superior or not - IS IRRELEVANT.

Still reeling, tho. They really went all the way. Blumlein mic array. With the BPO! Just unbelievable.

And, almost as unbelievable is the following:

"I had for many years a twentieth row center subscription seat to The New York Philharmonic...".

What? Hwut??

You? Fremer? Mr. Rock and Roll critic? Mr. Whap-Thump, 3-chord-max, geeetawr, drums, no-other-form-but-songs, dumb-assed rock and roll ---- you HWUT?

Well, I guess that with your hyper active lifestyle you needed a nice place at which to take a nap. Expensive way to get some sleep, tho.

feinstei's picture

Just Received:
The new Brahms Symphonies Direct-to-Disc LP set from the Berlin Philharmonic

I had the privilege today of receiving probably the most expensive box set that I've ever bought (well, besides the Esoteric SACD's of the Solti Ring cycle), the 2014 direct-to-disc 6 LP set of the 4 Brahms symphonies conducted by Simon Rattle, the principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (one only can hope that he matures in the same way as his predecessor Furtwangler). I paid about $600 for it and ordered it directly from the Berlin Philharmonic store. I took more than 6 weeks to get to the U.S. (apparently, it was held up in German customs due to the Christmas "rush"). However, unlike some others who have gotten damaged sets, mine arrived in perfect condition (probably due to the fact that it was cold outside and thus the vinyl didn't warp).

The presentation of the set is magnificent with a beautifully illustrated hard-cover book about Brahms, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the difficulties of recording live-concerts using the direct-to-disc process. They obviously went through hell and back in order to get a releasable product. The liner notes were scholarly and well-researched. There were several art prints included.. The presentation was reminiscent of the wonderful RCA Victor Soria Series box sets of the 1960s. Absolutely flawless.

The vinyl was pressed beautifully. No warps at all. Very quiet. Obviously no tape hiss either!!!

The sound had a lifelike stereo image due to the fact that it was recorded with two Sennheiser mikes hung above the conductor's platform. The dynamic range of the recording was NOT a high-point and the whole recording sounded a bit dynamically "flat". This is probably because the engineers and producer had to be extremely conservative during the recording of the three live concerts so that the stylus cutting the master in real-time wouldn't jump out of the groove and ruin the recording. Remember, they only had 3 chances (one dress-rehearsal and two actual performances) to get the recording right. In addition, these were one of the first recordings made in the Berlin Philharmonic's new concert hall. It's possible that the engineers weren't familiar enough with the new venue to record with more aggressive dynamics. If these discs had managed to capture the dynamic range of the orchestra correctly, then these records would have been the best LP's that I've ever listened to. The imaging was perfect, the tonal qualities of the instruments were perfect, the "separation" of instruments (e.g. can I hear the first violins placed properly in the stereo image versus the second violins versus the violas etc) in the complex audio picture was the best I've ever heard (this is one of the recognized "strengths" of direct-to-disc recording).

Would I buy more direct-to-disc LP's at premium prices? Yes! I think that as the engineering team who captured these recordings get more experience in the hall and using the direct-to-disc process, that they will get better in terms of dynamic range. In addition, the packaging had "no expense spared" quality to it. A real throwback to the golden days of 1960's LP box sets. They were pressed beautifully too. These records lived up to their "hype" except in the area of dynamic range. I congratulate the Berlin Philharmonic for producing such as magnificent set and for exploring the forgotten art of direct-to-disc recording, even if the results weren't absolutely perfect this time.....

mem916's picture

I received my set (961/1200) a few days ago.
I've only managed to listen to 3 sides so far. Really disappointed in the sound. I was expecting something special but it's just not engaging. Most any Cisco, Classic Records, or Speakers Corner reissue sounds significantly better. I know they worked really hard on these. Hopefully their next project will come out better. Not sure where the Ortiz but I suspect the microphones, or perhaps the amplifier on the cutting head is a the culprit.

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