In this second installment of a multi-part article, we look at the various sources for high-resolution downloadable music from labels large and small, and offer a few sound bets for the audiophile in your life. In this article we explore some recent releases from Cedille Records, a unique non-profit label dedicated to championing the music of Chicago-based artists.
Cedille offers world-class performances, affordable titles and high-resolution downloads. Spend time at their site, cedillerecords.org – sign up for their free sampler CDs, and get on their mailing list for free downloads. Best of all, you can purchase their music four ways: as a CD, MP3, iTunes AAC, or as 24-bit FLAC files. Their catalog is extensive and all the recordings I sampled were carefully recorded, with a warm sense of musicality and outstanding performances. Cedille’s catalog is large, with varied performers and selections. Below, we look at a few recent favorite releases.
“Violin Lullabies”: According to Cedille, “The album is violinist Rachel Barton Pine's original concept, inspired by the birth of her first child in September 2011. She could find no existing collection of classical violin lullaby scores and or any compilation recordings. So, she set about gathering sheet music from libraries around the world, amassing a collection of 150 lullaby scores. Recorded with Pine on violin and Matthew Hagle on piano, “Violin Lullabies” features 25 lullabies by some of the world’s greatest composers: Schubert, Fauré, Strauss and Ravel, including George Gershwin’s "Summertime " from Porgy and Bess and the famous "Brahms’s Lullaby." This disc isn’t limited to those trying to get small children to go to sleep, but a relaxing and beautifully performed collection of lullabies for all ages.
This set of duets struck us as sublime, with surprises such as the Berceuse from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird’,” something I wouldn’t have imagined as a lullaby given its tension, but it works in this context. The performances are perfect, drawing attention to the music, the tenor, and without the show-me histrionics of a lesser talent. Not only did the selections prove intriguing, the sequence allowed each selection to complement each other and support the thematic construct.
On a side note on Saturday, January 25, 2014, Pine was asked to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award from the GRAMMYs on behalf of violinist Maud Powell (1867–1920). With this award Powell became the first female instrumentalist of any genre to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the GRAMMYs.
“Out of Africa… and Around the World:” According to Cedille, “Multi-award winning guitarist Denis Azabagic invites listeners into a realm where world, folk, and classical music intersect on ‘Out of Africa . . . and Around the World,’ the Bosnia-born, Chicago-based virtuoso’s first solo album on Cedille Records.” This release of solo guitar music is another surprise, and deserves much attention. We found it to be a worthy performance, quiet and yet precise, with hints of world music present in a familiar yet unexpected way. World music is a wide-open genre, and it seems almost any music that doesn’t seem to fit into other categories is often lumped into the world music bucket. Azabagic’s attention to the material is fitting, and deftly weaves a net that allows listeners to imagine aural landscapes with no definable center, where the imagination can wander. Highly recommended.
“Delights & Dances:” This is the Chicago Sinfonietta’s first recording with its new music director, conductor Mei-Ann Chen. According to Cedille, “The Chicago Sinfonietta, a standard-bearer for racial diversity in the orchestral world, works its magic through a one-of-kind program featuring music for string quartet and orchestra, with guest artists, the Harlem Quartet.” The album takes its title from Michael Abels’ witty, soulful, and infectiously rhythmic “Delights & Dances,” which receives its world premiere recording. The greatly admired contemporary African-American composer wrote the work for the Harlem Quartet, an ensemble of first-place laureates of the Sphinx Competition for outstanding young black and Latino string players.”
Lofty words, but accurate, for this is an outstanding and energetic recording that swings, from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” “Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra,” this performance is both achingly beautiful, triumphant, balanced by heartache and menace. A world premiere recording, this reinterpretation of Bernstein’s classic took us quite by surprise. Abel’s title piece, “Delights & Dances,” has the feel of a romp, free and spirited, with infectious rhythms. Like Benjamin Lees’ “Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra,” both pieces were surprises to us. They were new discoveries, and exactly the reason a label like Cedille can find its way into your heart. The pairing of Lees’ work and Bernstein was fortuitous; there were times when we swore we could hear hints of West Side Story in it. Delights and Dances proved an even more chameleon like experience, shifting gears, energy, and tempo; as soon as it feels like you know the work, and what to expect next, it surprises you, and suddenly it feels like you’re on a new road. The performances are exemplary; impassioned in their commitment to the material, and make you feel you’re having fun, enjoying the ride with a smile to boot. Highly recommended.
Other recent releases include “The Soviet Experience Volume IV,” the final installment in the Pacifica Quartet's four-volume CD survey of the complete Shostakovich string quartets. “The Soviet Experience: String Quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and his Contemporaries” seems a perfect counterpart to the Sochi Winter Olympics. We felt that if there was ever a recording that calls out for some frozen vodka on a cold winter night, this is it. We also listened to Volume III, which provided a better understanding of the cycle.
Can’t make up your mind about which titles to purchase? One neat option is called “Cedille on a Stick” which offers every title in their catalog as MP3 files for one reasonable price, putting a new spin on “Desert Island Discs,” in this case, without the limitations. I asked Cedille’s Bill Maylone about the various sampling rate and bit-depth of their recordings, assuming that over the years they changed equipment and software to take advantages of advances in recording technology, which in fact his response proved out.
Maylone replied, “The vast majority of our releases only exist as CD-Quality (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) FLAC files. Here's why: From 1989 (the label's inception) until about 2000, all of our recording and editing equipment was capable of 16-bit resolution, and since we were recording specifically for CD release this made sense. Around 2000 we invested in recording equipment that was capable of higher resolution, but at that time we were still a CD-release label, as downloads didn't become the phenomenon they are until a few years later. Once we had the capability in place we did begin to record masters at 24-bit resolution, but still at 44.1 kHz, since there's no advantage to recording at a higher sample rate when releasing only on CD (there are, however, advantages to the greater bit-depth in the editing and mastering process). Finally in about 2010 we began recording some projects at 96 kHz, and shortly after that we made that our standard practice. With a couple of exceptions, all Cedille releases beginning with catalog number 123 are available as 24-bit, 96 kHz FLAC files. Incidentally, all recordings made since day one come from digital masters, so we have no analog recordings to remaster.”
In the recordings I’ve sampled from Cedille, the audio quality was exemplary, and while audiophiles love to argue about the value of high-bit recordings, some studies and listeners conclude that a properly mastered CD quality is difficult if not impossible to identify from a high-bit recording. Others are convinced they can hear a difference without any question. Either way, since Cedille’s titles are carefully recorded, this wasn’t a question for us. Of course we would love to see more brief technical descriptions of how the recordings and mixes were made to accompany the downloads. As high-res heats up, the provenance of recordings and engineering and mastering details are proving to be important in reassuring listeners that they are truly getting their money's worth.
I was curious about the sound quality of their earliest recordings, and Cedille supplied me with their inaugural recording, Dmitry Paperno plays Russian Piano Music CDR_90000_001, and the title sounded wonderful. Recorded in 1989 at 16 bit depth, and 44.1kHz sampling rate, it served as a reminder that technology discussions should always be set aside so that the music, performance, engineering technique, integrity, and sensitivity of all involved are all that matter. Played on the Oppo BDP-105 Audiophile Universal Blu-Ray player, Paperno’s interpretation of the material was a sublime discovery.
We think Cedille is unique, and a true gem in the way its supports the Chicago music community. The recordings are consistently first-rate, the price for music is extremely reasonable, and the variety of formats makes it easy to choose. With high-resolution growing in popularity, Cedille prices their titles aggressively, so listeners can take a chance on music they might not ordinarily purchase if priced higher, and best of all the sonic signature is exemplary, these are rich, rewarding recordings, played with passion. With Sony's huge publishing push, the success of folks like HD Tracks, Linn Records, AIX, Naxos, and many other sources for high-resolution tracks, Cedille is uniquely positioned to utilize its substantial catalog.
If you are curious about the classical music industry – we found the text of a lecture given by Cedille Founder/President James Ginsburg on “the current state of the trends in the record business as seen from the classical perspective” a great read. The text can be found here: http://cedillerecords.org/music/ClassicalTrends.php
Cedille Records is unique, with a mix of traditional programming, but allowing idiosyncratic and exciting debuts as well. Best of all, as a non-profit each purchase you make allows musicians to make music free from the constraints of a typical for-profit record label model, and with titles that go beyond the warhorses we know and love.
Harris Fogel and Nancy Burlan, posted 2/28/2014
For more information on Cedille Records visit: www.cedillerecords.org