You know that feeling when you discover a new musician, band, singer or orchestra… or, even better, a long-standing one that’s new to you but since they’re not actually new, there’s already a back-catalogue of treats to look forward to? Oh boy, is that a good feeling!
Here’s what makes it even better: when the recordings in question are on reel-to-reel tape. The ultimate double whammy – brilliant musicians, superlatively captured.
So allow me to introduce you to Italian cellist Enrico Dindo and his chamber orchestra, I Solisti di Pavia. But before we get down to proper introductions, let me just say that this is the second time that the Italian music label Open Reel Records has introduced me to a significant musical talent of which I was previously unaware. Consider my hat tipped and cap doffed in true gratitude.
First, there was the Russian pianist Eduard Kunz who, despite being widely acknowledged by those in-the-know as one of the world’s greats, remains relatively unknown in terms of global ‘fame’. Why? Because he chooses not to record, preferring instead the in-the-moment one-of-a-kind interplay of musicians and audience during live performances. After much persuasion, Kunz eventually made an exception for Marco Taio at Open Reel Records, inspired by Taio’s total commitment to, and expertise in, capturing the true essence of a live concert. You can read my review of the Kunz tape here. Thanks to which I now have the great pleasure of regularly listening to Kunz playing ‘live’ in my living room. The man is a true genius. I’ve since had the even greater delight of hearing him play live (I flew to Italy to do so and frankly would probably fly to the other side of the world to do so again – he’s that good). I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting him (he came across as warm, friendly and amazingly humble, given his significant talent). My partner says that Kunz has both elevated and ‘ruined’ piano music for her, since she can no longer listen to her previous favourites without thinking ‘it’s not a patch on Eduard’.
Now it seems Marco Taio has done it for me again, with Open Reel Records’ small but growing series of superb recordings from Enrico Dindo and I Solisti di Pavia. So let’s get down to those formal introductions…
When I first came across Open Reel Records at the Munich High End Show a few years ago, I was given a copy of the label’s Demo Reel 1 sampler. There are several stand-out tracks on that tape but the top two for me were a couple of baroque-style pieces by Haydn and Vivaldi, both played by a cellist I’d never heard of (Enrico Dindo). I have to admit that initially, I was drawn to those two tracks more by the quality of the recordings than anything else. There was something irresistible about the way they captured a feeling of ‘life’. Not just of live music, but Life with a capital ‘L’. Music-wise there were other things on that demo tape that were higher on my list, such as a live Thelonious Monk concert recording, and so those were the ones for which I placed my first order (you can read my review of ‘Thelonious Monk Live in Milan’ here). But something about the sound quality of the Haydn and Vivaldi kept nagging at me and so eventually, inevitably, I investigated further.
Born in Italy, Enrico Dindo began studying cello at the age of six then later graduated from the Giuseppe Verdi Music Conservatory of Turin. In 1987, at the age of just 22 he took up the role of principal cellist in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala Orchestra where he remained for more than a decade before embarking on a solo career, at which point, in 1997, he won the prestigious Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris.
Since then, Dindo has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras including the BBC Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, French National, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Tokyo Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has been an invited guest soloist at multiple concerts and music festivals around the globe. The list of conductors Dindo has played with makes for impressive reading and includes Riccardo Chailly, Riccardo Muti, Yuri Temirkanov and Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich, widely considered to be one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, wrote of Dindo, “he is a cellist of exceptional qualities, a complete artist and formed musician, with an extraordinary sound which flows as a splendid Italian voice”.
Currently, Dindo leads orchestras in Italy and Croatia and teaches at a number of Italian music institutions. Oh and he also records for Chandos and Decca. Interestingly, Open Reel Records, acting as producers, have made virtually all of his recordings for Decca.
I Solisti di Pavia
In 2001, Dindo founded the Italian chamber orchestra/string ensemble I Solisti di Pavia (‘the soloists of Pavia’, Pavia being in Italy’s Lombardy region), of which he remains the conductor and musical director. In 2002 they embarked on their first international tour and began recording on Italian label Velut Luna. Since then, the ensemble has gone from strength to strength and has become an important presence not only locally, but also nationally and internationally. In addition to its programme of concert appearances and world tours, the ensemble also records with Decca and of course Open Reel Records.
Haydn: the first purchase
At the time of writing, Open Reel Records’ catalogue offers three recordings of Dindo and I Solisti di Pavia (with a fourth on the way). Confession: I got one, then another, then another. So let’s take them in order of purchase.
CONCERTO – HAYDN
I Solisti di Pavia
The Haydn recording was the first of the three to wind its way to Somerset and into the loving clutches of my Studer. The piece in question is the Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb/1, which was composed around 1761-65 for Haydn’s long-time friend Joseph Franz Weigl, the principal cellist of Prince Nicolaus’s Esterházy Orchestra. According to Wikipedia, the work was presumed lost until 1961, when musicologist Oldřich Pulkert discovered a copy of the score at the Prague National Museum. Apparently some doubts have been raised about its authenticity, though most experts believe that Haydn did in fact compose it.
Either way, no word of a lie, I’ve played this tape more than any other Open Reel Records recording, including the Thelonius Monk. It’s my go-to tape when I have visiting high-end audio editors or reviewers over, or indeed anyone curious about the re-emergence of tape. It never fails to achieve the desired effect: “OMG,” as chin hits floor.
The recording was made in November 2008 in the Auditorium della BPL in Lodi, near Milan in Italy. Open Reel Records’ Marco Taio was the man at the helm, using Schoeps MTSC 6 Mk4 and CMC6 Mk2 microphones. Since discovering Open Reel Records a couple of years back I’ve become a huge fan of Marco’s work, but here he really excels himself.
What this recording does in spades is to capture a sense of the air and the acoustic space as well as, if not better than, any recording I’ve heard previously (or indeed since). Talk about audio nirvana! If this tape doesn’t elevate you there, then I fear that nothing will. The acoustics of the venue and the texture and timbre of the instruments are as realistic as it’s possible to imagine, yet the soundstage isn’t remotely overblown. On the contrary, it’s of an entirely natural scale and has an equally organic timbre.
From the front to the rear of the stage, you can place the musicians quite precisely. Their every movement is perceptible: a shift of a foot here, a shuffle in a chair there, a sharp intake of breath perhaps – yet none of this is intrusive, just spine-tinglingly alive. As is the way in which the hall reflects the sound back towards the audience. Amazing. You will never have felt more involved, or more like you are actually there in the audience. I fully appreciate that this is a vastly over-used statement in audio world, but seriously, trust me on this one.
From first listen I was utterly seduced by the sound quality of the recording, to the point that if you only ever buy one master tape copy, this one would be my recommendation. But then as I listened again and again, gradually I became aware that it wasn’t just the recording that was blowing me away. The ensemble’s musicianship, lyrical playing and rendering of the score was absolutely first-class. So much so that I needed to hear more. Cue tape 2…
Next up: a bit of Vivaldi
CONCERTOS – VIVALDI
I Solisti di Pavia
Having barely had the Haydn off my Studer for a month or so when the Vivaldi arrived, I could hardly contain my excitement. Also recorded in 2008, this time the venue was Pavia’s Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. The tape features three complete concerti: Concerto for strings in A major / RV 158, Cello concerto in G major / RV 413 and Concerto for two cellos in G minor / RV 531.
Again, Enrico Dindo plays lead cello as well as conducting the orchestra. Taking up first cello duties on the third piece is I Solisti de Pavia’s excellent Jacopo Di Tonno.
All three pieces are a joy to listen to – typical Vivaldi, if you like that sort of thing (which I do). Each piece is quite short. The first is only around 8 minutes long but it’s 8 minutes of sheer pleasure to my ears: an exquisite performance in a magnificent venue, stunningly captured. I can clearly hear that the space is smaller and more intimate than the venue for the Haydn concert – the acoustics are ‘drier’. The musicians play with moving lyricism and clearly possess a deep understanding of the music: that particular level of understanding from which the physical mechanics of playing a piece become utterly effortless, leaving the musicians completely free to focus on sensing every detail of the music and delivering a deeply felt performance. This becomes particularly apparent in the way that the harpsichord playing at the rear of the orchestra forms a kind of conversation with the cello at the front.
In contrast to that delicacy, the third piece (the Concerto for two cellos) is a powerful and spirited one, magnificently performed with full blood. Actually it reminds me of some of the Russian composers of the late nineteenth century. Again, joyous on every level. So I can’t stop now, can I? Open Reel Records has a third tape featuring Dindo and I Solisti di Pavia and clearly I’m going to have to have it.
Piazzolla: in for a tango
SEASONS – ASTOR PIAZZOLLA
I Solisti di Pavia
Unable to resist hearing more of Dindo and I Solisti di Pavia, I leapt into the unknown with the third tape. This was a composition that was completely new to me, by a composer I’d never heard of. And it was a real departure from the classical and baroque styles of Haydn and Vivaldi. In fact this was distinctly modern music. A bit of digging around online revealed that ‘Seasons’ is in fact ‘Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas’ or ‘The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’, a set of four tango compositions written by twentieth century composer Ástor Piazzolla. A bit of Googling revealed that they were originally conceived and treated as different compositions rather than one suite, although Piazzolla performed them together from time to time. By giving the adjective porteño, referring to those born in the Argentine capital, Piazzolla refers specifically to the four seasons in Buenos Aires.
Certainly it’s a far cry from Vivaldi’s famous treatment of the subject. This is very much twentieth century music with highly dynamic swings from light to dark, percussive bowing and almost discordant ‘wails and moans’. And yet for me, the four pieces are just as effective as Vivaldi’s in conjuring up a strongly felt sense of each of the seasons (even though I’ve never been to Buenos Aires).
Studying the sleeve notes (okay, case notes – since the packaging of tapes is necessarily more rugged than that of vinyl), I realise that, like the Haydn concert, this recording was also made at the Auditorium della BPL in Lodi. Then I notice the date: 2nd November 2008 – the exact same night as the Haydn. Which explains why I’m once again in a state of total rapture over the acoustics, the soundstage, the tonality, texture, timbre… So I’m assuming that ‘Seasons’ was the evening’s main event (and can’t help chuckling at the thought of Haydn being asked to be Piazzolla’s warm-up man!).
And this is where I have to come clean, put my hands in the air and surrender my earlier position on a subject that’s an important one to those of us who are investing in reel-to-reel tape. In terms of the music available on tape, obviously most mainstream music hasn’t been recorded on analogue tape since the early 80s. Therefore the current tape supply offers a choice between older analogue recordings that are re-released as master copies, or brand new original analogue recordings of contemporary artists in various genres. The latter are all made by a small number of specialist, independent music labels including Open Reel Records, Chasing the Dragon, Opus 3 and STS Digital (yes, it’s a curious choice of name). But since we’re not talking about large, rich music corporations here, the contemporary artists in question aren’t typically your big names.
So here comes the confession: my earlier position was to consider this a compromise. When I first discovered the world of tape and leapt into it with both feet, what excited me most was hearing some of my all-time favourites in full master tape quality, from Thelonious Monk to The Band. Then (and only then), because I’d fallen head over heels with the sublime sound quality of tape, was I willing to start listening to some of the more contemporary recordings. But I approached them wearing my audiophile hat rather than my music lover hat, ready to focus more on the sound quality than on the music. I was willing to give the music a go, but what I was really after was the work of the recording engineers in those specialist, independent music labels who really know what they’re doing and who do it superbly. As it turns out, however, there is no compromise. Yes, these incredible recordings tick all of my audiophile boxes – plus a few I didn’t even know I had. And yes, these ‘unknown’ (to me) artists are also music to my music-loving ears.
Now that’s what I call a win-win situation. Reel-to-reel tape: the gift that just keeps on giving!