A QSF Journey (HDCD review)

Quartet San Francisco. Reference Recordings RR-143.

It's always good news when Reference Recordings releases a new album. It's doubly good news when their chief engineer, Keith O. Johnson, does the recording. It's triply good news when they make it a studio production. And it's quadruply good news when the studio they make it in is the prestigious Skywalker Sound. That the content of the album is contemporary material played by the excellent Quartet San Francisco (QSF) is like the icing on the cake.

If I may quote from Wikipedia: "Quartet San Francisco is a non-traditional and eclectic string quartet led by violinist Jeremy Cohen. The group played their first concert in 2001 and has recorded five albums. Playing a wide range of music genres including jazz, blues, tango, swing, funk, and pop, the group challenges the traditional classical music foundation of the string quartet.

"Quartet San Francisco won a tango music competition in New York in 2004, and their albums have been nominated five times for Grammy Awards: three in the Best Classical Crossover Album category and two for Best Engineered Album, Classical."

The group's current members are Jeremy Cohen, violin; Joseph Christianson, violin; Chad Kaltinger, viola; and Andres Vera, cello. They are consummate performers and work harmoniously with one another to form one of the most-accomplished and most-versatile quartets in the business. On the present album they play what they call "the spirit of our time," twelve relatively new tunes running high to tangos, most of them written or arranged by Mr. Cohen.

Here's a rundown on the program:

Tango Eight (Cohen)
Fiesta! (Lipsky)
Tango Carnevale (Cohen)
Francini (Cohen)
Rhapsody in Bluegrass (Gershwin­Rouse, arr. Cohen)
La Heroi´na (Cohen)
How Sweet the Sound (Cohen)
Federico II (Sollima)
Al Colo´n (Cohen)
Jasmine Flower/Beautiful Scenery of Wuxi (traditional Chinese folk songs, arr. Cohen)
Toroi Bandi (Mongolian folk song, arr. Cohen)
Jambo (traditional African folk song, arr. Cohen)

Quartet San Francisco
The Argentine tango takes center stage in the first track, "Tango Eight," with lively rhythms introducing us to the QSF style. The quartet follows it with an even livelier tune called "Fiesta" by Helmut Lipsky that is quite exciting. For a change of pace, the group have chosen a more leisurely piece called "Tango Carnevale," which is a sort of slow tango. Cohen says he wrote it after spending evenings in the neighborhoods of Buenas Aires. It's lovely.

And so it goes. The QSF play wonderfully well together, seeming to sense one another's movements instinctively and moving together as a whole, yet all the while emphasizing the unique contributions of each member. Thus, although each of the four musicians is a distinct individual with his own style, the combined result is one of effortless unanimity. They play together separately and together simultaneously.

Favorites? Yes, twelve of them. However, if forced to choose just one, I'd say "Rhapsody in Bluegrass," a combination of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Ervin T. Rouse's bluegrass fiddle favorite "Orange Blossom Special." Classical, jazz, and bluegrass: What could be more natural, and what could go wrong? That nothing goes wrong and everything goes right is remarkable. "La Heroina" and "How Sweet the Sound" I also found effective in quite different ways, but to quibble about favorites in so entertaining an album would just be...quibbling.

Let's call this one of my favorite albums of the year and be done with it.

Producers Victor Ledin and Marina A. Ledin, executive producer Marcia Gordon Martin, and engineer Keith Johnson recorded the music at Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California in May 2018. As we might expect from a small ensemble in an ideal setting, their HDCD sound reproduction is as lifelike as one could want. The clarity is astonishingly good, the spacing exemplary, the air and ambience realistic, the dynamics strong. Perhaps some listeners might prefer a more distanced approach to the miking, but there is certainly a greater transparency to the QSF sonics with the slightly closer approach Reference Recordings has taken. Whatever, this is audiophile quality sound in almost every way.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa