By John J. Puccio
Which brings us to a secondary concern: namely, the choice of material to remaster. Often in my experience, companies have chosen products that sounded good but were of dubious quality in terms of performance. And sometimes vice versa. On the present recording, however, the mastering company K2HD (see below) has released two unqualified great performances using the K2 mastering process, and there’s hardly anything to complain about: We get two terrific performances in good, remastered sound. Well, “hardly” anything to complain about (see below for more on that).
Since its release in the mid 1970s, these Beethoven recordings by the late Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) have been considered by many classical-music critics as the gold standard for recordings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Ever since its days on vinyl, the Fifth in particular has long been my own go-to recording for this work.
In a brief booklet essay, music critic Peter Cosse writes “...in the world of recording there are three kinds of artist. One kind regards the medium as a permanent opportunity to place themselves and their musical comrades before the public. They treat discs as pages in an audio diary. A second, minute group turns its back. They refuse to document big musical occasions, insist on the impossibility of repeating the experience, and thus place all their faith in their listeners’ memories. A third group, also a rather small one, does not dismiss the medium altogether but is very, very choosy. Carlos Kleiber is one of these last… His all too infrequent Philharmonic Subscriptions Concerts in Vienna have each and every one set the musical world ablaze, and, like these performances of Beethoven here, left it in a state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.”
For those music lovers who may be unfamiliar with Maestro Kleiber, I should point out that he is widely regarded as a legendary conductor, one of the all-time greats. However, one of the reasons not everyone may have heard about him is that he made only nine studio recordings. Yes, nine. And two of them are included on this CD!
Producer Werner Mayer and engineer Hans-Peter Schweigmann recorded the Symphony No. 5 in March and April 1974 and No. 7 in November 1975 and January 1976 at the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. Then, in 1995 the folks at DG remastered both recordings and re-released them together on a single CD, followed a little later by another CD issue in their “Originals” line.
Finally, we have the K2HD remastering using K2 processing, which has been a part of JVC’s meticulous XRCD mastering program since 1987. K2HD in its current form is a development of Victor Studios, who describe it like this: “The development of K2 was started in response to calls from recording engineers in Victor Studio. They objected to the common idea that there was absolutely no change in sound quality no matter how many times the original data was copied when the music media is transferred from analog records across to digital CDs. Because digitalizing sound is encoded in combinations of zeros and ones. Although no changes occur in theory, the studio engineers claimed that there was a clear difference between the sound quality of the original master and the copied sub-master. So the engineers at JVCKENWOOD set about to clarify the reason for this. Subsequently, it was discovered that although the digital data was exactly the same, electrical distortion (jitter, rippling), etc. occurred when the data was being recorded and saved, which had an adverse effect when converting music played back in digital into analog, thereby proving that changes did occur in sound quality. An attempt by the two engineers to improve the changes in sound quality that occurred at this time led to the original version of K2, which was named the ‘K2 Interface.’
Efforts in creating high-quality sound of digital sources with K2, which started from a signal transmission system at a music content production studio, will continue to evolve and expand from being featured in playback equipment to the remastering of songs, cutting records, and more.”
Whatever that “more” means. Insofar as the K2HD remastering of Kleiber’s Beethoven is concerned, the sound is pretty good. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to note how well the original engineering held up. It might not be quite as transparent or as spacious as some other audiophile recordings, and there may be just a touch of hardness from time to time in the massed strings; but overall, it sounds pretty good in its remastered form.
For my listening, I placed the K2HD disc in one CD player and the regular CD in another, using my own, proprietary switching system (my wife) to move back and forth between the two. Results: the K2HD disc sounded better in almost every comparison, even when adjusted for differing playback levels (the K2HD plays a couple of decibels louder). The differences were small, to be sure, but discernable. The K2HD disc sounded clearer, with detail marginally more pointed, a light veil having been removed from in front of the speakers. In addition to slightly better transparency came a perceptible increase (although again a barely perceptible increase) in dynamic levels and impact. Nevertheless, without having the two discs side by side, I’m sure I would not have noticed any differences at all. And, incidentally, the improvement showed up even when I changed out the discs between the two CD players to be sure I wasn’t hearing the sound of the machines instead of the CD’s.
So, big differences? No. Differences worth paying up to three or four times more for the K2HD over the regular DG disc? Ah, there’s the rub, a question that only the buyer can answer. If you love the Kleiber performances (and you have the money to spend), you might want them in the very best possible sound, no matter how small the improvement.
And then there’s the problem of finding the disc, which may be an insurmountable difficulty in itself. K2HD released the product a few years back, it sold out quickly, and as of this writing it is hard to find. Even Elusive Disc has had it on back-order for the better part of a year. But what is success without a little effort? If I found it, so can you.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: