ONLINE - ISSUE 20
Water Lily Acoustics - Three DSD Masterpieces
Kavi Alexander, the owner and recording engineer of Water Lily Acoustics, prides himself on the fact that each of his recordings is a real-world acoustic presentation of a performance occurring at a specific time and place. Water Lily recordings attempt to provide an accurate, realistic portrayal of the recording venue via a two-channel playback system. Kavi's microphone technique is sometimes (in my opinion wrongfully) called minimalist. It is certainly purist—his recordings are strictly two-channel from beginning to end. What does this mean? It is quite simple: Only two microphones are used to capture the performance, usually in a Blumlein arrangement (closely-spaced figure-of-eight mics crossed at 90 degrees). The technique may be simple, but the recording engineer using it must be exceptionally, artfully talented if he is to truly capture the recorded space. Simply putting a couple of microphones in a room will not create the magical, real-life effect that the best of these recordings can deliver. Due to the trial-and-error approach with which these recordings must be made, most are released by small labels, for the simple reason that today, more then ever, time is money. Major record labels will not fork out the amount of cash required to pay a recording engineer to experiment with microphone placement. Multi-mic'ing is the quick, no-brain answer. Given the advancements in home recording studios, you could have a monkey place the microphones and still get acceptable results by modern commercial standards.
I consider Kavi Alexander to be a recording genius, along with the greats of years gone by. His latest three recordings, done in Russia, demonstrate why it is important to preserve this art form any way we can, because it offers such an astounding level of recorded realism. Kavi's recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, played by the world-renowned Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, is without question the most realistic-sounding classical recording I have in my collection, which includes contemporary performances as well as Mercury, Decca, and RCA recordings from the golden era of classical music—the 50s and 60s. I usually refrain from making such definitive statements, but in this case I stand by it one hundred percent. From the moment the DSD bits started flowing (this is a hybrid, surround-sound SACD), I instantly heard the exact size of the Saint Petersburg hall. I, the listener, was part of the audience, clapping to the arrival of the great orchestra (all three are live recordings). So eerie is the effect that I felt like offering a hankie to the gentleman coughing and sneezing a few rows ahead of me. Played back through my stunning Marten Dukes, the sheer size of the hall almost overwhelmed me as I anticipated the first note. Trust me, folks, I have never heard such realistic concert music in my home, or anyone else's. At the instant of that first trumpet note, I realized how hi-fi-sounding all of my Decca, RCA, and Mercury recordings were. Spectacular they may be, and great fun, but realistic, concert-hall performances they most definitely are not. (In case you're wondering, I do know what a symphonic concert sounds like—throughout my teenage years, my mother gave me yearly subscriptions to the Vienna Philharmonic.) I had goosebumps all over my body.
I am playing the recording as I write this, and I am having that ecstatic experience again. I am practically ducking for cover, as all hell is being unleashed in my room. Thunderous, monstrous, and unfailingly realistic bass is flowing into my body (my room measures flat to 18Hz, with the help of the awesome Velodyne DD-15 subwoofer). I am being taken for a joy ride comparable to an F-18 being launched off the Nimitz at 150 mph. This disc should not be missing from your collection, whether you are a classical music aficionado or not. The performance may not be quite as thrilling as that of, say, Bernstein on his 1980s DG release, but the recording more than makes up for it with its spectacularly realistic sound. Do you want to test your system's dynamics? This is the disc. Do you want to check its soundstaging, imaging, and definition? This is the disc. The only downside I can foresee is that your neighbors may not always agree with your volume level—this is a leasebreaker if ever there was one. To truly appreciate this recording, you must play it at realistic levels. (I find this to be particularly true with Mahler, who made great use of the symphony orchestra's devastating dynamics.) Absolutely no dynamic compression of any kind was used in making this recording, and if you play it at the proper levels, be sure that your system is up to it, or there may be times that you hear something amiss. I regret that I don't have a surround-sound system, as I would love to hear this disc in all of its five-channel glory.
This recording proves that you can extract authentic orchestral sound with only two microphones, if you have the expertise. Kavi does, and if you consider the fact that he had only one evening in which to make this recording, his accomplishment appears even more spectacular. Unlike the Oprah show, there were no second takes or mid-performance kaviar breaks. Kavi's setup had to be dead on, or there would have been no recording. Interestingly, he recorded the same symphony during the following evening's performance, this time using a Stellavox SM-8 quarter-inch two-track recorder at 15 ips (with a 10 ms time constant using BASF/EMTEC SM900 tape), again with no compression, eq-ing, or other processing. Curiously, he used two Perl cardioid microphone in an ORTF arrangement (widely-spaced omnidirectional mics) instead of his usual technique, although he placed the microphones only seven inches apart, and for all intents and purposes in the same location as the Blumlein pair he used the evening before. He used the built-in microphone preamps of the sensational Stellavox SM-8, which he feels is among the best mic preamps ever designed. The results will be available on LP later this year, in an all-analog edition. This will be something truly spectacular to look forward to!
My favorite of the three new Water Lilies is another direct-to-DSD recording, of Yevgeny Svetlanov's Piano Concerto in C Minor, with the Saint Petersburg Symphony conducted by Alxander Dimitriev and Vladimir Ovchinnikov on piano (WLA-WS-75-SACD). This is the most realistic recording of a piano concerto that I have ever heard, and I am a nut for piano concertos. Works by Grieg, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, and Brahms for piano and orchestra, to name just a few, somehow manage to stop time when I listen to them. I can now add Svetlanov to the list. Svetlanov wrote this concerto in 1976, when I was a five-year-old playing with Legos. It most closely resembles Grieg's piano concerto in its romantic nature. I am by no means implying that it is a similar piece—far from it. The piece's two movements are so wonderfully executed and orchestrated that they leave little to be desired. Perhaps the most important aspect of this recording is the fact that Kavi Alexander was at the helm. As a result, I now own a true reference recording, a masterpiece of sonic bliss. Recording a piano concerto is a real challenge to a recording engineer because the sound of the piano can so easily be overwhelmed by the sound of the enormous orchestra behind it. The typical recording engineer will do one of two things—spotlight the piano, thereby diminishing the size of the orchestra, or concentrate on the orchestra at the expense of the piano. Take for example, the RCA recording of Grieg's Piano Concerto in G. While this is an exceptional recording that allows me to appreciate a phenomenal work of art, compared to the Water Lily recording of the Svetlanov concerto, the piano is oversized and unrealistic. The same can be said of the RCA recording of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the wonderful Rubinstein. The dynamics are there, but here again the piano takes the lead and the orchestra is relegated to playing second fiddle.
On the Svetlanov recording, something truly astonishing happens in your listening room—you get a realistically sized and placed piano in front of an appropriately-sized orchestra. Neither overpowers the other. As the SACD's informative booklet says, this piano is not forty feet wide! It is a tribute to Kavi Alexander‘s knowledge and ingenuity that he was able to create such a realistic illusion. A friend visited me recently to listen to some of his CDs, and I decided to play him the aforementioned recordings of the Grieg and Brahms piano concertos, then the Svetlanov. I wanted to elicit comment from him, as he does not listen to much classical music (although he is a musician). He loved the Grieg and Brahms pieces, but he, too, felt that the Svetlanov recording was the most realistic of the three, thanks to what he called "the seemingly correct proportions of soloist to orchestra." While this recording is no slouch in terms of dynamics, it is not in the same league as the Mahler. Nevertheless, the opening of the second movement will send some serious bass lines through your room if you have a full-range system. I was unable to compare this recording to other performances of the Svetlanov concerto, as I don't have access to any. It is a wonderful, romantic piece that belongs in the same league as my other favorite piano concertos. It is also the best sounding.
This SACD also contains a performance of Skryabin's Third Symphony, another rarity of classical composition in a majestic performance. The piece is Tchaikovsky-esque, with definite character and a great deal of drive. It also is a sonic marvel, with lots of mountains and valleys, and the recording is yet another illustration of the benefit of using a well-placed two-microphone setup. Once again, the orchestra just sounds so real. Dynamic nuances are clearly audible. The soundstage and the beautiful, life-like colors will leave you gasping for more. The symphony is a vivid, even playful piece that begs to be listened to at realistic levels. If this is done, this recording, like the other Water Lilies, will throw the hammer at your head in the dynamics department. To my mind, it is here that Kavi Alexander's artful technique is at its best. It is simply stunning to hear, in 3D Technicolor, what two microphones can pick up from a well-placed location. The aforementioned Mercury, RCA, and Decca recordings may have spectacular sound, but they will also give you a reality check if you play them in direct comparison to these Water Lily gems.
The last of the three Water Lily SACDs presents a masterpiece performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony ("Leningrad"), by the stunning Saint Petersburg Symphony under the direction of Alexander Dimitriev, also recorded at the great hall in St. Petersburg. Shostakovich, like Mahler, is an acquired taste for me. I have only recently begun to get into his symphonies, which are very interesting to say the least. Though the playful, melodic, yet thought-provoking opening movement shows the beauty and finesse of which Shostakovich is capable, my favorite movement is the third, the Adagio, which clocks in at nearly fifteen minutes. Though the strings and flutes sound sweet and luscious, coughing interrupts the serpent-like flow of notes, as happens with all live recordings. As does NOT often happen, the width and depth of the orchestra can be clearly be seen and heard, with the hall stretching wall to wall and deep enough to make me think I needed to ask my across-the-street neighbors for permission to play the disc! This recoding, like the other two Water Lilies, is a hyper-realistic presentation of an orchestra playing in the great hall of Saint Petersburg. The instruments are lifelike and full-bodied. If they sound otherwise, you need to check your system, and if you think I am getting this effect because I use a tube amp (the E.A.R. 890), you should know that I did most of my listening with a 300-watt solid-state powerhouse here for review, and the full-bodied character of the sound was nearly identical with both amplifiers. All three of these Water Lily SACD are keepers. I suggest that you buy them even if you are not particularly interested in classical music, as all three are reference discs.
Water Lily Acoustics