Classical reference pieces

I’d like to start a long post about classical pieces I think are useful as reference works for evaluating audio gear. This is less about my favorites than about stuff I think helps assess what makes audio gear GOOD for classical music. As I’ve stated elsewhere, quality sound is great for all genres, but I think it particularly important for classical, which is all about tonality, timbre, transparency, and also imaging and ideally sound stage. I don’t want audio gear to be between me and the music; I want to hear music as it originally sounded when played. And ideally, I want to be able to close my eyes and distinguish each instrument and place them around the room.

I also think it helps if the music is well known, rather than obscure. It’s best if one has an idea already of what something should sound like. This means there usually are multiple high quality recordings. I’m selecting stuff I think is good, but obviously there are alternatives, and everyone has their favorite.

I don’t have the time to do this all at one sitting, so I’ll gradually add to to this post. But to start, let’s begin with the piece I use to test everything, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. If gear can’t reproduce the cello well, it’s worthless to me. And there should be zero coloration. Total transparency.

I actually prefer it on baroque cello, but the sound is a little different and thus perhaps not as good for reference purposes since it doesn’t quite sound like what most people are familiar with, which is the modern cello. Here’s an example on a baroque instrument:

Next, Bach piano. Pick anything, really, but I like the simplicity of much of it. Best way to savor the tones of the music. Here’s a track with a bonus, one of the most beautiful melodies ever composed by anyone, ever.

Now, put the piano and cello together, and you should have magic. This is boomier than the stuff I posted above.

Now let’s start to scale up: I dig Bach’s chamber music, where there’s more going on but not so much more where you can’t pick out every single instrument. And thanks to counter-point, they’re all more or less playing different things. Also, you can see why bass is important for classical: it’s there with the double bass and cellos, and it matters. Too much distorts the overall balance of the music, but too little and the music is lacking its heft and its power.

Speaking of bass:

Next up, voices, and then symphonies.

First, a single singer, tenor. This particular recording is exquisite.

For women, there are so many outstanding examples on youtube. I happen to really dig Mahler’s song Urlicht, and I like this because Nathalie Stutzmann’s voice is deeper and more interesting than most soprano coloraturas.

Elisabeth Kulman’s version also is amazing.

But if coloraturas you must, I recommend anything featuring Natalie Dessay. But on youtube, I really dig this, featuring Julie Fuchs, maybe because she’s awfully pretty. On Tidal etc track down Natalie Dessay’s version of the same music, Et Incarnatus Est. There’s a video on Youtube but I hate it, and the sound quality’s not what it should be to appreciate Dessay’s voice.

This glorious bit from Beethoven’s only opera has four voices, and I like to try to track all four as they weave in and out.

For strings I often test my gear using Beethoven’s late string quartets. What are those? Unearthly pieces he wrote after he had become completely deaf. They are astonishing works, and generally only tackled by really good players. Otherwise they’d wreck it. Here’s one. Check out the “Holy Song of Thanks” at 18:10.

For symphonies, let’s cut to the chase. Beethoven 9, which by the way is the reason why CDs have the capacity they do: Philips engineers wanted to make sure one could fit all of the 9th on one. This is terrific for reference purposes because 1) we’ve all heard it before and can compare and contrast. 2) there’s a huge dynamic range. 3) huge frequency range. 4) shitty headphones yield a wall of muddy sound. Good gear retains imaging, details, etc. Once at work I swapped with an office mate, my DT770s for his Beats. The Beats just produced a landslide of mud. Not the DT770s. And obviously, there are far better headphones out there than the DT770s, but that was a good lesson.

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PS if you want to learn about Beethoven’s Holy Song of Thanks (Heilge Dankgesang), check this out. You won’t regret it.

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