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Positive Feedback ISSUE 38
july/august 2008


DDG Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz featuring Gustavo Dudamel - A Premier Review
by Robert H. Levi


Gustavo Dudamel, age 26, takes the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic this year! The orchestra, founded in 1919, is one of the world's best and performs primarily in the wondrous Disney Concert Hall in LA. Dudamel, an exclusive DDG artist, recorded this energetic Symphonie Fantastique, his first recording with the symphony. It was released via iTunes and is not available as transportable media. It is the FIRST downloaded album to make the Billboard Classics Top 10 List along with 9 regularly released CDs! Here's my take.

The Performance

High powered, dramatic, intense, and exciting are the first adjectives that come to mind here. The orchestra plays with top precision, particularly in the slow, moody passages. Dudamel tends to speed up quickly and brake sharply and the orchestra lags just a touch.

It almost gets out of control in the splendid finish as Dudamel goes into warp speed. This live recording is quite delicious and an emotional effort first and foremost. It reminds me of Bernstein's effort for Columbia, but with a bit less control and precision and a bit more energy…and that's saying quite a lot! It's worth every penny of $6 for the download for sure. Dudamel is an original wunderkind and is well worth following as he leads this orchestra over the coming years.

The Sonics

The recoding is only available as a 16 bit/128khz download and not in lossless form. By pulling it down on a dedicated Mac and copying it to a CDR, I played it on three reference systems. I treated it with L'Art du Son and demagnitized it before playing. I even tried a shot of negative ions! I got the very best results on the E.A.R. Acute Vacuum Tube CD Player that upsamples to 24/192, is loaded with Mullard NOS 6922 tubes, and cabled with Kubala-Sosna Emotion Balanced Interconnects. Other great expensive solid state CD players did not do as well with this downloaded CDR. Tubes still make CDs sound more musical whenever they are available.

The depth perspective is very good though not up to Telarc or RR standards. Right to left staging is excellent. Image height is very fine and overall imaging of the instruments is very good. Violins are very nice and a touch sweet though somewhat congealed into fewer instruments than are present. Very low grain structure is present and the performance has that live snap and vividness you want to hear. It was not bright or steely in any way and has a tape like sound versus typical cool CD neutrality or analog lushness.

But, even with massive upsampling, definition was lacking on a quality reference system. The definition that was present was mostly uncolored, but with little lushness or warmth present. The pervasive thinness and lack of body hurt the instrumental separation and sense of reality. An average CD from Telarc or DDG for that matter has more “there” to hear and enjoy. Bass is powerful and dynamic though more explosive than percussive. There are not enough bits here to make this sound like a tympani. I am very upset about this situation!

This is profit being put ahead of musicality. DDG puts more stock in quantity versus quality and it shows. Looking beyond this low sampling embarrassment, one must realize all DDG cares about is piracy and not making a great product in my opinion! This is the big flaw with downloading these great performances. The major producers don't want you to get something decent unless its material no one really cares about very much!

One must also wonder about the taste levels of the LA Philharmonic management that would allow such low quality. When we played back the recording for the first time on the original reference system, audiophiles present actually laughed at the trumpets saying they sounded like farts! This is what the LA Phil is seeking from its recordings? Mehta would never have allowed this!

We all know DDG used either DSD or 24 bit/196KHZ or higher to master this performance and will probably issue it later with correct sound mastering or transportable media of some type. This will give them a double dip. They get $6 now and $15+ later! Yikes! This kind of logic killed the business once. Shall we try it again? This is a business plan that won't work.

In Conclusion

The Symphonie Fantastique conducted by up and coming Gustavo Dudamel available exclusively via download from iTunes has rocked the charts. Its performance is almost inspiring and most exciting. The sound on this exclusive low res format is just semi satisfactory for reference systems and is really truly good enough only for earbuds. If you seek out an upsampling CD player, probably with tube output stage, you may help this a bit. This is a product demonstrating questionable sonic taste levels with a heaping load of corporate greed and should be purchased with this in mind. It's worth $6 from a just a performance perspective, but that's all folks.

Performance A

Sonics  C