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Brief Impressions:  High Definition Tape Transfer’s DSD256 of Bernstein Conducts and the DSD128 of Bernstein's Stravinsky/Debussy

05-26-2020 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 110

Ye Olde Editor in the midst of holy smoke and fine drink...  (portrait by John Robinson)

Time for a quick shout-out for two recordings from HDTT:  one, a wonderful Quad DSD (DSD256) recording that you should be aware of, while the other is of a remarkable Double DSD (DSD128) album. Both belong in your DSD download library, amigos!

The audio context, sketched...

My comments on these two recordings were based upon listening via our reference office system here at PF Central. It consists of the following:

The wondrous Vinnie Rossi L2i SE Integrated Amplifier (image courtesy of Vinnie Rossi)

A Dell Precision 7920 Tower Workstation/Windows 10 Professional…a real firebreather, with Dual Intel Xeon Silver six-core CPUs, 64GB ECC RAM, 4TB RAID 1, 4K video, Blu Ray RW optical drive, etc., etc.…using JRiver's Media Center 26, piped to either an iFi Pro iDSD (DSD512 capable), or the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC (DSD256 capable, currently) with a Kubala-Sosna Realization USB cable. (Our secondary Dell Precision 7600 Tower Workstation acts as a music and file server for the LAN's array of USB hard drives.) Thence the signal flowed along the killer TARA Labs Zero Evolution XLR interconnects to the really splendid Vinnie Rossi L2i Signature Edition Hybrid Integrated Amplifier (beautiful 300B input tubes; two only MOSFET output devices) with 100 WPC @ 8 ohms. Finally, the waters flowed via the knock-out TARA Labs Omega Concerto SP speaker cables to a pair of Focal Sopra 1 Monitor Loudspeakers on their dedicated floor stands.

Focal's delicious Sopra 1 Monitor Speakers on their dedicated stands (image courtesy of Focal Naim America)

I can assure you that this is a relatively compact system that reaches you by the soul, and reveals real audio glories. It made the qualities of Bob Witrak's production work quite evident to me.

Having said all of this by way of introduction, on to Bernstein.

Bernstein in action

The Bernstein Conducts is an album featuring Lennie's two great works for the movies, West Side Story and On the Waterfront. Each is featured on its own single track, for a total of two long tracks on the download.

West Side Story is the familiar and haunting tale of love in NYC…Romeo and Juliet transferred to the environs of New Jack City. If you don't know it, then hie thee to see it! (On Blu Ray, the best version is the Criterion Collection edition.)

Alternately bold, brash, and explosive, or filled with romance, melancholy, and longing, the music pulses with an unmistakably NYC American drive. It cannot be mistaken for anything else; it could not have arisen anywhere but in this wild, impulse, and frenetic people and their culture(s), unique in all the world.

Creative fire…but filled with danger and darkness.

On the Waterfront, a compositional project that Bernstein was not exactly excited by, nevertheless turned out a darkly melancholy, highly textured, and (as usual) punchily dynamic musical framework for the immortal film by Elia Kazan, with Marlon Brando in the lead.

In both of these tracks, Bernstein's conducting of the New York Philharmonic is powerful, with bold and muscular articulation of his musical ideas. The dynamics are remarkable, the recording having captured the quiet moments and the sudden orchestral shouts with equal facility.

The transparency of the DSD256 ($26) is inarguably first-rate, with orchestra details clearly manifest. Imaging is greatly benefited by the Quad DSD transfer. And soundstaging? Wait until you hear the three-dimensional sense of the hall in these albums!

If you love Bernstein…and I do…then this a real run-don't-walk addition to your DSD library.

And another:  I have listened to the Bernstein Rite a number of times via the playback chain that I detailed for you above. Over the decades, I have listened to it dozens of times:  LP, CD, SACD, and now DSD downloads in even higher resolution. This HDTT first features the 1958 Columbia recording of Bernstein performing Le Sacré with the New York Philharmonic, transferred from 15 IPS half-track tape to Double DSD (DSD128, $22), which is the version that I'm commenting on. (Other file types and resolutions are available from HDTT, as well.)

Igor Stravinsky (public domain)

The second program features Debussy's La Mer. This leads to a combination that combines wild pagan fire and ritual with a dreamy impressionistic composition about the great waters of the ocean. You can go crazy…and then you can mellow out!

Contemporary cartoon of the Parisian response to Le Sacré in 1913 (public domain)

The stories are told of the fierce response to the premiere performances in Paris in 1913, that troublous and monumental year of creative eruption, to be followed within months by the horrors of a bloodbath that gashed the world and still leaves us reeling, over 100 years later.

The newspapers had a field day in 1913… (public domain)

I can say that this is a really brilliant recording and transfer! I wasn't familiar with this particular album, but Bernstein and the NYP did what may be the finest performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that I can remember. Incredible passion, deep feeling, terrifying brooding, and driving dynamics all rolled up into 34+ minutes of breathtaking music…you can see why initial audiences might have rioted! I was quite struck by this album from the opening seconds…Bernstein and company pull you into the pagan setting of the composition, and refuse to let you go until the virgin sacrifice collapses at the end of the work. And the transparency and detail of the recording put you front-and-center in the midst of this pounding masterpiece.


Note that the La Mer performance and recording are from 1965, also via Columbia. Once again, Bernstein and company perform this work, which I adore…as I do the works of all of the impressionists…with energy and sensitivity. I am very pleased with Bernstein's pacing of La Mer, which is neither too fast (Scylla) nor too slow (Charybdis). Wonderful clarity, great expressiveness of emotion, and a sonic presentation that connects you with the lovely, dreaming melancholy and deep feeling of Debussy.

Scylla the monster (public domain)

This DSD128 recording of Bernstein and Debussy has certainly become one of my references for orchestral music at that resolution. I salute Bob Witrak for the quality of the transfer…it's really another example of world-class audio engineering from HDTT.

"The Angel Who Listens" (drawing by Dan Zimmerman)

What more can I say? Both of these DSD downloads have Ye Olde Editor's highest recommendation, most enthusiastically!

Do yourselves a favor, amigos….