Review: a classical musical masterclass from UltraAnalogue Recordings

About six months ago I penned my first review of a tape from Toronto-based UltraAnalogue Recordings, Shostakovich Cello Sonata & Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. To say that I enjoyed myself would be an understatement (have I mentioned how much I love my job?) and so it was only a matter of time before I went back for more. The Shostakovich was a recording of cello and piano, and here we have a selection of pieces for violin and piano.

As with all of UltraAnalogue’s recordings, this one was made live in proprietor Ed Pong’s own concert hall (which also doubles up as his swimming pool!). For my previous review I chatted at length with Ed about his recording process and if you missed that piece or fancy a refresher, check out Putting the ‘ultra’ into analogue: introducing Canada-based UltraAnalogue Recordings.

Microphone preamp

Pong’s recording process is one of extreme simplicity: just two microphones are plugged into a stunningly beautiful bespoke microphone preamp, which in turn connects up to a bespoke outboard recording amplifier on a Studer A80. The resulting master tape is then copied to create a ‘running master’, using a second A80 which is also equipped with bespoke recording and playback amplifiers. The original master is then stored for safekeeping and all tapes sold to customers are made on a one-to-one basis from the ‘running master’, again using the second customized A80.

A word on those ‘bespoke’ amplifiers (microphone preamp, tape recorder, tape reproduction): they are all designed by valve and tape doyen Tony Ma, using classic Western Electric valves. Think pure silver wiring, no capacitors, transformers also wound from pure silver wire – essentially a set-up that is about the purest I know of. If there’s one thing I’m getting to know about Ed Pong, it’s that he’s not a man to compromise (except that his home concert hall doubles as a swimming pool of course – so perhaps he occasionally compromises on interior separates!).

Introducing the musicians

The duo of musicians on this recording are Tatsuki Narita (violin) and Yun-Yang Lee (piano).

Narita was born in Japan in 1992 and began violin studies at the age of three. In 2006 (at age 14) he won first prize in the 60th Student Music Concours in Japan, and went on to collect several more awards that year – a habit that he has continued to this day, regularly winning top awards both in his native Japan and on the international stage. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, let’s add one more detail: Narita plays a sublime 1738 Guarneri del Gesu violin.

Born in Taiwan, Yun-Yang Lee began playing piano at age six. At 17 he became the youngest ever person to graduate with a major in piano from the Conservatoire de Paris, winning with a unanimous vote. Lee is another winner of many competitions, both at home and abroad.

Yun-Yang Lee (left) & Tatsuki Narita (right)

On with the ‘danse’…

The recording comprises five pieces, which collectively showcase the musicians, the instruments and the recording itself.

It could be said, however, and with absolutely no disrespect to Yun-Yang Lee, that this tape is primarily a celebration of the violin. While the repertoire is carefully and sensitively chosen to showcase both performers, there’s little doubt that the real majesty on show here is the violin (I have my thoughts about why this might be the case – more rambling on which later).

First up is Camille Saint-Saëns’ popular Danse Macabre. Initially conceived as a song, Saint-Saëns later reworked the piece as a tone poem, replacing the vocal with a solo violin. A bit of research reveals that it was also originally written for violin and (small) orchestra, but I think it’s ideal for this duo and I never felt I was missing anything orchestra-wise. That’s the beauty of this tape: it’s so well considered and arranged. The two musicians play perfectly together. They perform a dance, as the piece suggests, interweaving together so fluidly.

Tatsuki Narita

Narita’s violin is without doubt the standout focus: the violin part in the piece (supposedly played by the devil) is played with a madness, mania, despair. It’s heart-wrenchingly aching. It’s a superb opener to the tape. You can’t ignore this music – it’s short (around 8 minutes) yet attention-grabbing, arresting and challenging. Beautiful yet desperate. It may well tear your heart and soul open, make you bleed, but you’ll be glad of the pain. Finally, I know what people mean when they speak of ‘good pain’.

Following the Saint-Saëns is the first of two pieces by Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate, perhaps his most famous piece, Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, Gypsy Airs. Unsurprisingly this piece has a distinctly Spanish flavour to it, and a gypsy air at that. For some reason it reminds me of watching old black and white, silent movies. The musicians set such a vivid scene and paint an almost cinematographic image in my listening room. The clarity of the soundstage is crystal, and the transparency truly see-through. Again, the piece is magnificent showpiece for the violin and Narita does not disappoint. The wonderfully rare and famous Guarneri del Gesu breathes music into my room, I can feel its age, the wood, the bow, the strings, the finger-board even as Narita bashes, plucks and taps at the strings. Like the Danse Macabre, Zigeunerweisen is a highly entertaining, almost pyrotechnic journey. Just two tracks in and I’m fully charged, like a battery at 100%.

The third piece is by Ernest Bloch. Called Nigun, (Improvisation), it’s the central portion of his three-part Baal Shem or Three Pictures from Hassidic Life, a composition about an ancient mystical Jewish movement in the 18th century. It continues perfectly where the first two pieces left off, brimming with passion, despair, wretchedness, turbulent emotion. Unlike the previous two pieces this one was written specifically for piano and solo violin (rather than for an orchestra), so here it’s being performed in its natural state. Lee’s piano lays the perfect foundation for Narita’s violin. Almost like a canvas, Lee presents the context, the foundation, the background, while Narita paints upon it with vivid strokes and with passion. Extreme passion.

In the fourth piece we return Sarasate, but now there’s a change of mood. Introduction and Tarantella Op. 43 is very dancey, so connects well with the first two dance-based pieces, but this one is not fraught or turbulent. Also written specifically for violin and piano, the piece perfectly showcases the exuberant yet sensitive players and begins to cosset the listener, ready for the finale.

The fifth and final piece is the Méditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. Everything that comes before this piece is exciting, like being being at a party and it’s your party and everyone’s having the time of their lives. And then this piece comes in and relaxes and settles the soul. Like it’s the end of the evening and all your friends are hugging you goodbye and thanking you for a wonderful time, and you sit in your favourite armchair with one final drink feeling the glow of good times and the anticipation of sinking into your bed for a sound night’s sleep. It soothes, it’s beautiful, it’s masterfully performed and a wonderful way to close this tape.

Sonically speaking (with specific reference to recording violin)

Narita and Lee are clearly very accomplished musicians, and Narita’s violin, the sensationally rare 1738 Guarneri del Gesu (considerably more rare than a Stradivarius), really is something special. But credit for the incredible sound of this tape must also go to the recording process, and particularly to UltraAnalogue’s Ed Pong.

Pong has a deep love of musical instruments and, as I touched on in that abovementioned previous ramble, he is even crafting a violin himself. Pong sent me some video footage of his own violin getting a road test by the supremely talented Xiang Yu. Yu was making a comparison between Pong’s violin and a Stradivarius. Now, I’ve seen posts in various places online suggesting that an ‘expert panel’ can’t tell a modern violin from a Stradivarius. Twaddle! Watching Pong’s video, which was recorded on an iPhone, it’s clearly obvious to me which is the Stradivarius (which isn’t to put down Ed Pong’s instrument – it sounds excellent, but a Stradivarius is a Stradivarius and you can hear the depth and colour of the old instrument). In that same footage, Yu then picks up a selection of bows, and you know what? You can clearly hear the differences between the bows. So, to anyone who claims they can’t hear the difference between a Stradivarius and a modern violin, I’d politely suggest they avoid investing too much money in their audio system as it would be wasted on them! Anyway, my point in all of this is that Ed Pong has a deeper-then-usual appreciation of how a violin should sound. He comes at it not just as a recording engineer, but also a luthier, and I think that makes all the difference.

Revisiting the NAB vs. CCIR equalization question

I’m going to head off on a bit of a ‘by the way’ tangent here (as ramblers tend to). If you read my recent review of Lyn Stanley’s Moonlight Sessions then you may recall that I was able to compare two versions of that recording, one with CCIR equalization and the other with NAB. In that case, the CCIR recording sounded truly excellent and was particularly strong on clarity and detail. But then the NAB version totally blew my socks off, being less startlingly clear and less overtly detailed, but with a flesh-and-blood natural realness that left me reeling (no pun intended).

So when I happened to mentioned this to Ed Pong, he advised that he records his original masters in NAB, because he feels that the character of violins sounds more natural when recorded in NAB, with a fuller, warmer mid-bass and sweeter highs. If the customer can play NAB, then Ed would suggest opting for this, to be closer to the original master. But, since not every R2R deck can, he offers his copies to customers in both/either EQ format. Time for another direct comparison then… I got one of each.

UltraAnalogue’s customised Studer A80s

Again, my experience was similar that that with the Lyn Stanley recording. I found the CCIR version brighter. CCIR boosts the treble more on a recording and therefore rolls it off more on replay. That’s why if you play a CCIR tape on a NAB machine it will sound bright, because the treble boost is being insufficiently attenuated on replay. In this case, there are a number of other factors which I imagine have a bearing. First, Ed Pong records at quite a high recording level (fluxivity) of 396nWb/m (I’m in the process of drafting an article on that very subject, so if you’re not 100% sure about this whole area, watch this space!). And second, the sound of a violin can push the boundaries at the upper end of the frequency range. So here, when the violin and piano are played fortissimo (loud), they are really ‘in your face’ and there are moments, for me, where they almost tend towards a bit of glare and harshness. (I say ‘for me’ because I’m aware of my own sonic tastes and preferences, yet fully appreciate that they are mine and that those of others may differ).

But when I switch over to the NAB version, these peaks don’t push my sonic boundaries at all. I’m in my happy place. The recording sounds sublime and so very, utterly, natural. On the one hand there’s still that exciting edge-of-the-seatness and yet at the same time there’s a gentle, comfortable feeling of stunningly natural tonal colour. That sense of occasionally reaching a little too close to a sonic boundary that I had with the CCIR version is gone, and so when Narita makes that violin soar as he does in so many places on this tape, it’s like listening to angels. Truly, it’s heavenly. I genuinely don’t think I’ve heard a more ‘violiny’ violin recording ever (I realize nobody’s likely to quote me on that, since it’s not the most eloquent thing you’ll ever read in a review, but hey, the way it is for me, is the way it is!). So now I know what a 300-year old Guarneri del Gesu sounds like in my living room. This is a good thing.

With the Lyn Stanley review, I was careful to suspend judgement on the CCIR versus NAB issue, knowing full well that all things audio tend not to be black and white and that much depends on a multitude of factors. But now, two comparisons in, I suspect I’m leaning towards being a ‘NAB man’. Then again, I’m also fully aware that the minute one makes these kinds of pronouncements, something invariably comes along to make you eat your words. So let’s see. I’m open…

Summing it all up

I’ve had an exciting ride with this tape and I’d say there are three key factors involved…

First, I can’t recall ever hearing a more realistic recording of violin and piano anywhere. And to hear such a magnificent recording of such prestigious and hallowed instruments (that 300-year old Guarneri del Gesu) is an honour and a privilege. I’ll listen to this tape over and over again.

Second, I got to re-test my earlier impressions about the difference between NAB and CCIR equalization. To be honest I was once again surprised at the degree of that difference, so much so that I am now sold. I’m 100% a NAB man. (At least for now, until/unless proved otherwise!).

And third, this tape is about what makes me love music, love my work, love life so much! It’s all about passion. Not a ‘life is great and everything’s coming up roses’ kind of passion. No, this tape is all about a turbulent soul. One that lives on the edge, pushes to the limit and strives to live life to the maximum, experiencing the most it can. By the time the tape ends you’ll be hard pushed to accept that all you’ve done is spent a mere 30 minutes with your hi-fi system. You’ll have been on a journey so emotive, so involved, so full of spirit, and feel so exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure, you’ll swear you’ve been bounced between heaven and hell for half a lifetime. In a good way.

Saint-Saens-Danse Macabre, Sarasate-Zigeunerweisen, Bloch-Nigun, Sarasate-Introduction & Tarantella, Meditation
Tatsuki Narita (violin) & Yun-Yang Lee (piano)