Mozart, Grieg: Werke für zwei Klaviere, Tina Margarete Nilssen & Heidi Görtz, pianos

 (2L Records 2L57SABD)


 February, 2011

When I requested a review disc or two from Morten Lindberg, owner and chief recording engineer of the Norwegian company Lindberg Lyd AS, I was surprised to receive more than half a dozen discs presenting a range of music far wider than my original request for “some solo piano music,” nor did I expect to encounter such an extraordinary level of sound craftsmanship. (For those who might be curious, “Lyd” translates to “sound”, and “AS” stands for “Aksje Selskap” which is roughly equivalent to our “Company”.) From a technical standpoint, all of these discs are extraordinary and impressive. I chose this particular one because it contains a Mozart two-piano sonata I love, K.448. I first encountered this sonata in the documentary film, Richter: The Enigma, where it was filmed being played by Sviatoslav Richter and Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. I know of no other piano piece that so bristles with the sheer delight and inventiveness of genius, nor one so noteworthy for its almost improvisatory interplay between the performers. You can see how much fun Richter and Britten were having performing this effervescent music for that fortunate audience in Suffolk.

2L recordings are all edited, mixed and mastered in DXD format (which stands for Digital eXtreme Definition). An article by Mr Lindberg states, “Digital eXtreme Definition is a professional audio format that brings "analogue" qualities in 32 bit floating point at 352.8 kHz. DXD preserves 11.2896 Mbit/s (4 times the data of DSD). This leaves headroom for editing and balancing before quantizing to DSD.” That is to say, DXD is a high-resolution PCM format equivalent to 11,289,600 (32 x 352,800) bits per second, four times standard SACD resolution. Native DXD format is maintained until the distribution stage when it is dithered to produce the Redbook CD layer and quantized to DSD (2.8224Mbit/s) for the SACD layer of the hybrid disc.

This particular recording includes a second, Blu-Ray, disc that contains both surround sound versions, and a high-definition stereo version of this music. The high definition stereo layer is quantized from 32/352.8 to 24/192 as are the 5.1 surround channels. 7.1 surround is limited to 24/96. Each channel is separately mastered from discrete mixes. The article notes that there is a clearly perceivable loss in audio quality when reducing 32/352.8 (DXD) to 16/44 (Redbook) PCM. It goes on, provocatively, “We find DSD, as used in the SACD format, somewhat different in colour from PCM; in some mysterious way DSD is softer and more beautiful but slightly less detailed… I personally prefer extremely high resolution PCM over the DSD and I would claim that DSD is not transparent. But it all comes down to what the sound from your speakers can do to your body and mind. I find that the placement of microphones has an infinitely more important role in the final experience of music, than the difference between HiRes PCM and DSD. Sometimes a lie can be more beautiful than the truth!” I have certainly heard Redbook CD piano recordings that were as finely wrought and detailed as the 2L CD layer, but rarely, if ever, a recording so dynamic, with such rich, extended bass, such crystalline clarity, and such luscious transients on hammer attacks. It is one of the most convincing piano recordings of my experience. Mr Lindberg’s meticulous engineering also pays off in imaging that is stable and precise, creating an exciting sense of presence and scale, with a unique palpability.

I, alas, am stuck in the audio dark ages of Redbook PCM, unable to experience either the DSD layer, the high definition layer, or the surround sound layers—this last an area of special interest to Lindberg since 1990 (he won a Grammy for it in 2009). Based on the incredibly dynamic and opulent sound of the Redbook CD layer, these formats must really be something!

I sent an early draft of this review to Morten Lindberg so that he could check it for technical accuracy (a procedure I always follow when my review includes significant amounts of technical information). His response, from which I quote at length, was to point out that the technical matters I discuss—DXD, HiRes PCM, DSD and so forth—while accurate as far as they went, were not the primary reason for the exceptional sound of 2L recordings. “The sonic qualities are created in the recording venue… What we insist upon in the recording phase is time. We usually spend from four to six days of recording on a 60-minute repertoire. In credit of the musicians I need to say that this is not in need of getting the score right, but in order to bring forward the right mood and dimensions. On most projects the entire first day is spent bringing the dimensions down from a 1500-person hall to the proximity encountered on a home-visit to your living room. The challenge of this process is to get the volume down, keeping the intensity and energy up, without being intrusive. There is no method available today to reproduce the exact perception of attending a live performance. That leaves us with the art of illusion when it comes to recording music. As recording engineers and producers we need to do exactly the same as any good musician—interpret the music and the composer's intentions and adapt to the media where we perform." It is gratifying to have my long-standing opinion confirmed yet again: that the most important factor in a truly fine recording is the skill and aesthetic judgment of the engineer. Those of you who, like me, are devotees of the old Mercury Living Presence recordings will appreciate the point.

In addition to Mozart’s brilliant and exuberant D major sonata, there are two other works for two pianos on this disc, Edvard Grieg’s Altnorwegische Romanze mit Variationen, and Mozart’s Fantasie for solo piano, K.475, as reworked by Grieg for two pianos. Now, I like Grieg’s piano music; it makes me feel good. Richter’s recording of Grieg’s Lyriske Stykker (Stradivarius STR 33353), for example, is one of my most precious discs and, in my opinion, one of Richter’s finest performances. I find the Romanze and variations characteristically evocative and unpretentious, music firmly rooted in the natural world, music that fosters a calm and a peaceful mind, and as variations highly original and inventive, brilliant at times. But I am less taken with Grieg’s expanded version of Mozart’s Fantasie. A fact that leaves me somewhat ill at ease since, it turns out, this has been the response of most critics over the decades. (I’m always uneasy when I find myself in agreement with the critics.) In 1886 an influential Norwegian writer named Karl Lindgren called Grieg’s adaptation a “joke”. This rather misses the point altogether since Grieg loved and revered Mozart’s music. I can only add that I’ve yet to understand and grasp the aesthetics of Grieg’s version, but unlike the critics, I do not thrive on negative judgments. It is an interesting and impressive effort which I admittedly don’t understand and about which I’ve not formed a final judgment.

Finally, the two pianists on this recording, Tina Margarete Nilssen and Heidi Görtz, do a wonderful job, fully capturing the lyric beauty of Grieg and the brilliance and exuberant energy of Mozart. I’ve heard many Mozart keyboard performances that were virtuosic, precise and dynamic, yet that left me uninspired. Not so this duo. Their handling of the K.448 is pure joy from beginning to end!