For most people, listening to an all-digital compact disc after being accustomed to the sound of analog discs or tape is like looking through a familiar window that has just been washed for the first time in years. The most impressive thing about the sound is what you don't hear -- the quality of the silence.
Until now, every medium for recording sound has added its own coloration to the signal: pops, clicks and scratches from discs, background hiss from tapes. But with the new discs, the absence of such noise is so complete for a moment, until the music starts, that you wonder whether the stereo's been turned on.
For the immediate future, the most serious problem will be that of available repertoire in CD. The music I most want to hear on a compact disc is Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that I have never heard in a sonically satisfactory recording. Its demand for total background silence in soft passages has never been met to my satisfaction; the crisp crackles of its percussive transients always lost a little in the passage through microphones and loudspeakers. CD seems to be the ideal medium for this music, and my guess is that it will be years before a recording company gets around to it.
For the moment, they're busy with two kinds of music: the classical top-40, which already exists in many satisfactory recordings; and big-orchestra sonic spectaculars, which are supposed to show off the strengths of the new medium. Actually, this is not the best kind of music for CD, whose real strength lies in its background silence, but the corporate executives of recording companies tend to think in clich,es, usually of a generation ago.
Among the top-40 items I've heard on CD are Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony, performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Delos D/CD 3015); Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" by Gerard Schwarz and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with Elmar Oliveira as violin soloist (Delos D/CD 3007); a collection of overtures played by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra (Philips 400 071-2); and highlights from Handel's "Messiah," with the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood (Oiseau-Lyre 400 086-2). A prime big-orchestra showpiece is the "Alpine" Symphony of Richard Strauss, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 400 039-2).
And there are some discs that fall neatly into both categories, top-40 and sonic spectacular -- notably the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony (London- Decca 400 051-2) and the three most popular Richard Strauss tone poems, "Don Juan," "Till Eulenspiegel" and "Death and Transfiguration," performed by Antal Dorati and the Detroit Symphony (London- Decca 400 085-2).
Most of these performances (and their recorded sound) are competitive with other recordings if not clearly superior (though there is a soprano on the "Messiah" highlights that I could not recommend in any circumstances). In compact disc, for the moment, most have a monopoly position. The problem, really, is the cost of these dics, which is more than twice the already inflated prices of standard formats.
The chief justification for such a cost is that a compact disc is a lifetime investment; it costs more, but with reasonably careful handling it will last indefinitely. But is any of these discs a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Can we expect that nothing better, in sound or in performance, will come along in the next few years? Most of the work on these records is pretty good, and the odds are that nobody will do the "Alpine" Symphony better than Von Karajan for quite a while. But the "Alpine" Symphony is really a curiosity to be heard once or twice, then trotted out to show guests what your sound system can do. In Tchaikowsky's Fifth or "The Four Seasons," high-level competition will come along rapidly. If you do casual or impulse shopping up in the $20 range, try the John Williams collection or Solti's "Pictures." But don't be surprised if competitive versions come along in the near future.
Of the compact discs I've heard so far, two have the staying power to justify an investment of this size: Schubert's "Trout" Quintet featuring pianist Alfred Brendel and the Cleveland Quartet (Philips 400 078-2) and Dvorak's Serenades in E and D minor, Op. 22 and 44, performed by Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the- Fields (Philips 400 020-2). These are records that I want to have around for the rest of my life. No matter who else records this music, or how well, I cannot imagine that either of these discs will wear out its welcome. HOW IT WORKS -- The compact disc -- developed jointly by Philips and Sony -- involves a completely new principle of sound- recording based on computer technology. Sound is translated into binary numbers encoded in microscopic patterns (like the bar graphs now familiar in supermarkets). They are decoded and converted back into sound through a laser scanner in the playback apparatus. Playback equipment (which does the work of turntable and cartridge in a traditional stereo system) is roughly the size of a tape cassette deck. It plugs into a stereo component system's auxiliary input exactly as though it were a standard turntable, and the operating controls are simple to master. Cost of playback units ranges from about $800 to $1,500. Cost of compact discs runs about $15 to $20, depending on the discounts offered by a particular dealer.