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Impressions:  Ilya Itin, Debussy, Preludes Books I and II in Quad DSD [UPDATED]

09-11-2016 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 87

Ilya Itin Debussy Preludes I cover

[UPDATED VERSION with new purchase links for NativeDSD.com included at the end of the review.]

For quite a while now I've been sitting on an advance copy of an important Quad DSD recording, waiting for it to be released commercially. Now, I'm glad to say, the time has come…at last!

The album is music by Debussy, one of my favorite composers, his Preludes Books I and II. This is a two-album set, one for each book. Ilya Itin, a brilliant contract artist with Steinway, is the pianist; the Grammy-winning team of Thom Moore and Robert Friedrich handled the production work and audio engineering for Jonathan Tinn and David Rawn's new label, Wave Kinetics Records. Ilya had been brought to Jonathan Tinn's attention by David, who is a good friend of Jonathan's, an audiophile, and a pianist in his own right. The recording was done at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. The session featured a split feed of the analog stereo mix output in two directions:  One was sent directly to a Merging Technologies Hapi A/D and thence on to a Pyramix workstation; the other went to an Ampex ATR-102 running at 30 IPS. The direct-to-Quad-DSD side of the ledger is the subject of my comments here. The pure analog at 30 IPS will be used to produce a 45 RPM set of LPs for those preferring that format. Either way, you have state-of-the-art production work.

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Ilya Itin, Study No. 1, by Dan Zimmerman

A little background…

Debussy is a particular favorite composer in my musical world. His music takes me inward, to contemplation, meditation, and melancholy, which is somewhere around home for me in this age of the world. I have a number of recordings of Debussy on various formats, ranging from LP to SACD to DVD-A to CD, with a variety of performers. Heretofore, my favorite artist for the Preludes I and II had likely been Joan Rowland's Surrounded by Debussy, Preludes: Book I & II on Surrounded by Entertainment DVD-A, a recording done in 2000, which I usually listen to in stereo mode…PCM at 96kHz in two-channel. I had always liked Rowland's feel for the emotion that I've always sensed at the heart of Debussy. That's why I kept returning to this recording over the years, despite my real distaste for its PCM format.

Jonathan Tinn told me about his intention to do the Preludes I and II well in advance of the recording project, with his usual infectious enthusiasm. "David, this is going to be amazing!" Knowing him as I do, I was bloody sure of that. More, my love for Debussy would pull me in no matter what.

Debussy portrait by Donald Sheridan

Claude Debussy:  A portrait by Donald Sheridan (open use permitted by copyright owner)

But then he told me that he intended to bring in Thom Moore and Robert Friedrich, two brilliant Grammy winners whose work over the years had earned my deep and enthusiastic respect. Better and much better:  The recording would be done direct to Quad DSD via Merging Technologies, as well as in a pure analog feed and 45 RPM LP format.

Right on!

But I had to admit that I had never heard of Ilya Itin before, much less heard him. Jonathan told me that he was with Steinway, and that the recording would be done in the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. Connection made:  It turns out that Joan Rowland's earlier recording of these same works had also been done on a Steinway, and had also been recorded in the Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC.

Ain't synchronicity something?

Zimmerman_Itin#2-150

Ilya Itin, Study No. 2, by Dan Zimmerman

Wave Kinetics' vision for this project was ambitious, since it was actually taking the time and spending the money to do things really right in both the analog and digital domains. I was particularly interested in hearing how Itin's performance would fare in a direct-to-Quad-DSD feed, one that I knew would send us the stereo mix of the microphone feeds.

It's a fundamentally different audio experience, you see, to be listening to mic feeds in our listening rooms.

The sound of the Quad hand clapping…

I knew that the Merging Technologies analog-to-digital converters were superb. I have had experience with both the larger and more expandable Horus and the compact Hapi units, and knew how fine the quality of the Quad DSD files that they produced were…I had done transfers with the Horus myself. But you always wonder how a given recording project will turn out, even with the best people at the controls.

No worries, though! When I was given an advance copy of the recording by Jonathan…which was of Book II of the preludes, the first composition finished, in a single large .DFF file with no track splices…I immediately put it on our reference stereo system here with the Merging Technologies NADAC MC-8 and gave it a whirl.

Caramba! My best hopes were outstripped by the outstanding quality of this recording. To start with, Ilya Itin the finest, most nuanced performance of Preludes Book II that I can remember hearing to that point in time. His pacing avoids both extremes:  Either too languid a reading (more like Joan Rowland, say), or too driven a pace. Itin is contemplative without losing muscularity and power, and does an exceptional job of interpreting Debussy's score. He can meditate without losing himself in reverie, and go within without losing the without. The flow of the compositions from quiet poesis to massive dynamics; the emotions within Debussy's creative vision expressed with such feeling were exceptionally moving to me. Every connoisseur will have their own sense of what "is" is, but my take is that Ilya Itin has Debussy dead to rights in this performance. By comparison, my previous preference for Rowland was revealed to be a preference that needed to be corrected. This is how we educate our sensibilities…cf. Hebrews 5:14, for those interested.

Ilya Itin Debussy Preludes II cover

I listened to Itin's performance dozens of times over the following months. When Wave Kinetics Records sent along the final versions of both Book I and Book II, with all track splices done, final notes completed, and in .DSF format, I continued my repeated listenings of Itin's work. (Yes, I really do love Debussy that much.) My impression of the exceptional merit of this performance only grew, and was confirmed in my mind.

Additionally, the Quad DSD production and recording that Thom Moore and Robert Friedrich did was riveting in its astonishingly revealing quality. Unlike the DVD-A of Rowland, with some of the edge, glare, flatness, and congested dynamics that I had lived with because…well, DVD-A…Quad DSD's ability to deliver the stereo mix in all of its glory was brilliant. By comparison, Rowland's PCM-based recording was embarrassed by the incredible transparency, easy, organic musicality, dynamics, lack of congestion or glare, harmonic rightness, and the exceptional sense of the Steinway in space. Quad DSD does real silence (which is not "nothing"); it also explodes with the surprising eruptions that the Preludes sometimes spring upon you. (For example, check out track three in Preludes Book II, "La Puerta del Vino"…watch your volume!) Remember, too, that Rowland was recorded in 2000 on a Steinway in the same Academy of Arts and Letters hall in New York City that Itin was recorded in. The differences in performance and in the recording are pretty much night-and-day to my ears. And there was no comparison with other alternatives that I know, either for performance, or for the light-years-ahead fineness of the production and format.

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Ilya Itin, Study No. 3, by Dan Zimmerman

La fin de la matière…

My conclusion?

Simple, really:  That Wave Kinetics Records two-album set was truly the finest, most right-on performance of Debussy's Preludes I have ever heard, with the most outstanding production and audio engineering of a solo piano that I've ever experienced. Frankly, I consider it to be worthy of a Grammy, for both its performance and for its production values. I hope that Wave Kinetics Records pursues this recognition for its sterling work here.

Regardless of whether you're listing to Ilya Itin's Debussy Preludes on a major full-range system, or via headphones, or anything in between, you'll hear what I mean. This is a true world-class reference album, a modern classic in our own time.

Those of you who have Quad DSD playback will definitely want to add this to your collection; you'll listen to it again and again. Debussy lovers, attend:  Ilya Itin is a brilliant artist! And if you don't have Quad DSD playback capabilities yet, what the hell are you waiting for?! Given the proliferation of Quad DSD playback over the past several years, there is no excuse for you live without this supreme audiophile reference format. These two album downloads all by themselves justify making an upgrade…but there are many more Quad DSD recordings available now, as well.

breeze.thru.head.zim

Do yourself a huge favor:  Purchase these albums ASAP, sit in a comfortable chair with your favorite adult beverage, and let Debussy's Preludes flow through you as you've never experienced them before….

Price:  USD $39.98 per album; two album set in Quad DSD

Source:  Wave Kinetics Records

Purchase and download sites:  Acoustic Sounds SuperHirez.com HERE.

Purchase at NativeDSD.com:  Volume 1 HERE and Volume 2 HERE.

[All photographs courtesy of Wave Kinetics Records and SuperHirez.com; drawings by Dan Zimmerman of Positive Feedback; painting of Debussy as cited.]

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