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Why Does The Flagship of the PhilOrch's New Download Series Sound So Bad?


Why Does The Flagship of the PhilOrch's New Download Series Sound So Bad?

 By David Patrick Stearns

Inquirer Classical Music Critic

This time, the journey to the summit of Strauss' Alpine Symphony is obscured by fog and slowed by mud - which shouldn't happen when the trail guide is the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The orchestra's 2008 performance of the Strauss tone poem was highly acclaimed when recorded live in Verizon Hall; some even pinpointed the Alpine Symphony as the moment when current chief conductor Charles Dutoit claimed the Philadelphia Orchestra as his own.

But though the lavishly scored piece is the flagship release in the orchestra's reentry into the recording market on high-profile websites - with 35-plus titles that include Shostakovich conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, Beethoven symphonies led by Christoph Eschenbach, and distinguished guests such as Vladimir Jurowski and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos - one could argue that it should never have been released.

Many significant elements of it were lost in the performance's transition from the Kimmel Center to digital files. Whether on Amazon.com, emusic.com, Rhapsody or iTunes.com, the Fabulous Philadelphians are barely recognizable in the sound-compressed MP3s. Only on the higher-priced HDtracks website - where the FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec) file of the Alpine Symphony costs $17.98 - is the Dutoit version of the Philadelphia sound apparent.

Though the orchestra's emergence on such a wide retail platform is to be applauded, gatekeepers at various steps along the way - from the orchestra to the distributor IODA (which handles the majority of classical downloads) to the individual retailers - tend to be fatalistic. During numerous interviews, no clear solution emerged.

The orchestra could have expected recording challenges with Strauss' grand orchestration, which has never been easily captured. Compromise is likely to be particularly audible when so much sound is compressed into MP3 files, a medium suited more to pop music and recreational listening.

Also questionable is the presentation and price structure of the Philadelphia Orchestra downloads. Titles have less-than-sexy black-and-white covers; some of the most marketable conductors, such as Jurowski, don't rate cover photos that would make the albums more readily identifiable. One retailer, Amazon.com, charges full price - $8.99 - for a 30-minute performance of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, while Rhapsody sells an hour-long Bruckner symphony for $3.99 - and lists a certain Philadelphia Orchestra conductor as "Eugene Normandy."

"A lot of this is new territory," said Jeremy Rothman, the orchestra's vice president for artistic planning. "The retailers are still learning how to do things, and orchestras are still learning how to present themselves."

On the retail side, the activity borders on mind-boggling, with huge numbers of classical files being posted in a single stroke. Over the summer, 154 titles by the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein arrived on Amazon.com, some as short as 23 minutes (Strauss' Death and Tranfiguration) and sold at $8.99 - in contrast to the same price charged by Cantus Classics for most of the 387 complete operas it posted on Amazon over the last two years, all recordings that outlived their copyright.

Amid such traffic, attention to detail is bound to be lacking, along with any clear diagnosis of how Philadelphia's Alpine Symphony went so wrong, even by MP3 standards. Comparisons with other Alpine Symphony performances on MP3 are unflattering. Though the London Symphony Orchestra has long been hampered by its acoustically flat venue, the Barbican Centre, its version under Bernard Haitink has far more space and detail.

"I agree that there is a noticeable difference in LSO and Philly versions of the Alpine Symphony," said Rob Wetstone, vice president of content at emusic.com in an e-mail. "LSO's label, LSO Live, is definitely a bigger operation than Philly's; they produce and distribute physical CDs internationally . . . and I'm assuming have a considerably larger budget in terms of recording and mastering."

Oddly, the Beethoven symphony series conducted by Eschenbach - pre-Dutoit - is completely up to current MP3 standards, with much of the sonic gleam the Alpine Symphony lacks. Same thing for Sawallisch performances, though earlier this year, files posted on iTunes had the first few seconds of some movements cut off, a problem that has since been corrected. For the more complex Alpine Symphony problem, no post-release solutions were apparent.

One botched recording wouldn't be such an issue in years past, when the Philadelphia Orchestra was a leader in the classical market. Now, however, the orchestra is coming back from leadership crises - and with it, a public perception that it is in artistic decline. Though the consensus among local audiences is that Dutoit has maintained and even raised standards, communities beyond Philadelphia can only discover that through the electronic media.

Dutoit performances, in particular, require a full sound picture to reveal their worth: Though some conductors concentrate the music's meaning into nuanced shaping of individual phrases, Dutoit presents a phrase as just one element in a clean, clear cross section of orchestral sound. When the sound is obscured, a significant interpretive element is lacking. Missed notes - inevitable in live performances - loom more glaringly.

In not-for-quotation conversations, various experts portrayed the orchestra as being powerless over what happens to its sound files once they leave the distributor, since Amazon, Rhapsody, et al., encode and compress the files according to their own specifications. The lesson from the London Symphony Orchestra is that some acts of compression are more flattering than others. Is there artificial reverberation added to London's Alpine? Audiophiles frown upon such practices, but the end product beats Philadelphia's.

The Philadelphia Orchestra needs to insist on its own encoding, allowing for trial and error that may be necessary in music as complex as the Alpine Symphony. Changes may be necessary closer to the source. The excellent-sounding Eschenbach Beethoven symphony recordings were supervised by the Ondine label, which no longer records here. Differences in the current microphone setup couldn't be enumerated by orchestra officials on Wednesday. In any case, improvements are needed. (And are such dull, generic album covers necessary?)

The orchestra's electronic presence has always been crucial. These days, it's a matter of life and death.