It has been nearly eight years since Nippon Columbia introduced the first digital recordings, on its specially created Denon label. While the Denon catalogue has grown steadily and now lists nearly 200 discs, Western companies have come into the digital picture only in the last year or two, and in this area some enterprising smaller companies have taken the lead.
Indeed, only two of the industry giants -- RCA and London/Decca -- have entered this field so far; RCA has issued only a single digital LP to date, London about a half-dozen.
While Vanguard has begun a digital recording program, using the SONY PCM system, none of its digital "product" has reached the market so far -- nor have any of the English Unicorn digital discs, made with the same process, reached our shores. The latest addition to the active list here is the California-based Delos, whose initial digital release comprises three stunning brass-oriented discs, all recorded in New York in the Stockham Soundstream process (the same system used by RCA, Telarc, Chalfont and Varese Sarabande) and superbly pressed by JVC in Japan.
Not surprisingly, most of the Western digital recordings have focused on orchestral material rather than the chamber music that constitutes the largest segment of the Denon catalogue. Denon's own initial release, back in 1972, was a "Pictures at an Exhibition," and such colorfully scored material surely makes the most dramatic case for the new process, but it is no less impressive to hear an absolutely undistorted piano or flute. One of the latest Denon releases is a program played by the Taffanel Wind Quintet of Paris (OX-7161-ND). Here the delicious interplay in quintets by Reicha (E-Flat, Op. 88, No. 2) and Danzi (G minor, Op. 56, No. 2), Rossini's Quartet No. 6 in F and a Vivaldi Sonata in G minor for flute, oboe and bassoon is so realistically captured that the slight but charming fare becomes downright irresistible.
The performances are as outstanding as the sound quality. It has been suggested that many listeners (and among them several reviewers) have been so carried away by the marvelous sound of digital recordings that they have tended to overestimate the musical worth of the respective productions. There is near-unanimous agreement, however, that the entire digital phenomenon has been remarkably free of gimmickry, and in general has placed a heartening emphasis on solid musical values. The Taffanel Quintet program is a brilliant case in point, and so is each of the initial Delos digital discs, all of which would be worth having for the fine performances, even if the sound were less spectacular than it is.
On DMS 3001, the redoubtable Gerard Schwarz performs as both soloist and conductor (of the Y Chamber Symphony, resident at the 92nd Street YM/YWHA in New York) in the Trumpet Concertos of Hayden and Hummel, surely the two most popular and respected of all such works.These are immensely enjoyable performances. Schwarz's tone is a little "rounder" and warmer than that of the ubiquitous Maurice Andre (at least as heard here), his own cadenza for the Hayden is as tasteful as it is brilliant, and the hand-picked ensemble shows both enthusiasm and style.
The same personnel -- plus a whole bunch of additional trumpeters -- may be heard on DMS 3002, an intriguing package of earlier material presented under the heading "The Sound of Trumpets." Here we have Johann Ernst Altenburg's concise but grand Concerto in D major for seven trumpets and timpani; Biber's more expansive and still grander "St. Polycarp" Sonata in C major for eight trumpets, timpani and continuo; Vivaldi's Concerto in C for two piccolo trumpets and strings, and familiar solo showpieces by Torelli (Sonate a cinque in G major) and Telemann (Concerto in D major). The Biber in particular, with its two antiphonal groups of four trumpets each, is a knockout.
Finally, on DMS 3000, the American Brass Quintet plays an assortment of Renaissance, Elizabethan and Baroque music, ranging from pieces by Guivanni and Andrea Gabrieli to a Battle Suite by Samuel Scheidt to excerpts from Bach's Art of the Fugue to arrangements of songs and dances by Weelkes, Morley, Dowland, et al. This sort of program has been offered many times, and almost always with more than moderate success, but never in such handsome, spacious and altogether live sound as here.
One of the striking features of this sound is its apparently unrestricted dynamic range, which, while thrilling in its realism, calls for some caution in playback. Not in the Taffanel Quintet program or any of the chamber music for strings Denon has given us, but in showy orchestral material and even the Biber and Altenburg items recorded by Schwarz on Delos, with their dramatic timpani thrusts, some of the stunning transients can send the output meter needles jumping up to a level that could mean clipping or a speaker blowout in modest systems -- or even in some sophisticated ones. The power-handling capacity of your speakers, in particular, should be kept in mind and the volume level adjusted accordingly.
The new Delos discs are not cheap. The list price is a hefty $17.98 each -- not a small sum when good quality LPs may be had for as little as $3.98 and both RCA and London are offering digital discs for $9.98. But, in terms of pressing quality, neither of the $9.98 lines compares with these impeccable pressings from JVC. RCA is said to be considering having all its future digital releases pressed in Japan, which may mean a higher price; the next digital releases from Chalfont and Varese Darabande will also be pressed by JVC but will cost a couple of dollars less than Delos. One might hope for a leveling off to the $15 price of Denon, whose pressings are fully comparable with JVC's, but the sonic splendor achievable through digital recording is fully realized only if we have the quality of pressings that only the Japanese seem able to provide at present.