Album Title: Piano Music in a Church - F. Chopin / C. Debussy
Performer: Endre Hegedus
Label: Tone-Pearls Records (also available as 16/44 FLAC download or 24/88 Wav files on  DVD)
Playing time: 41'
Recorded: St. Patrick’s Church, Kenmare, Ireland. October 8th & 9th, 2008

I like to find out about small record companies, especially those with something to say, something they believe in firmly enough to engage on a very uncertain commercial venture. You won’t do smaller and more start-up than the one-recording Tone-Pearls Records company but they do have a deeply rooted belief - that they can make CDs sound more natural than they ever have; not SACD, not even hi-definition files (although they do offer 24/88 Wav files as well) but good ol' CD.

The first half of the Tone-Pearls Records story will be easier to grasp than the second so let me start with the easier one. Tone-Pearls believes in the superiority of analog to convey musicality. I am not going to contradict them on that point. I am spending way too much time with vinyl lately to even dream of arguing. But, they also recognize the superiority of digital when it comes to being the preferred medium by which sound gets disseminated.

Their approach thus is to take what each technology has to offer, starting with analog recording through a reel-to-reel Nagra IVS TC and a single pair of AKG C414 limited edition microphones. The master tape is then played back through an Apogee Rosetta AD to create the digital masters; the operation was done twice, once at 16bit/44kHz for the CD master and another time at 24bit/88kHz for the high resolution master. To avoid the quality issues that arise with CD stamping from a glass master and the multiple conversions necessary for industrial production of CDs, the master file is then burnt individually on Kodak Archive Gold CDs with a Plextor Premium II writer at the highest quality setting available. Tone-Pearls claims an average block error rate on their CD-R of about 1% the industry standard (less than 3 vs. 200). 

Tone-Pearls Records has a second secret when it comes to natural tone and musicality - the famous pearls their company is named after. You can read about them on their website and find out in many words and few details what those instruments are about: “Based on the recognized principles of tone transformation, we created an instrument, the so-called Tone-Pearls. Tone-Pearls may establish a more direct and intimate connection to music. Metaphorically we may say: musical instruments and human ear will be extended in space by the effect of Tone-Pearls; thus, they might be considered —in this respect— as musical instruments.”

Six months ago I would have ignored this claim as just another marketing hype. After living with Frank Tchang’s resonators for half a year, today I am a lot less inclined to dismiss Laslo Gaal’s work on tone and acoustics. At this stage, the pearls are not available for sale or test so their effect will have to be taken on faith. Yet nothing on this CD indicates that they are not doing exactly what their creator says - although nothing ensures either that they have anything to do with the end result.

And after all, the means do not matter nearly as much as the result. From where I sit, the result is truly superb. Before I talk about Endre Hegedus’ interpretation, I’ll finish the technical aspects by saying that this CD is as rich sounding, dynamic and beautifully scaled as the very best I have heard. Hi-resolution files from master tapes, when well done, still trump what CD can achieve but as far as CDs go, this is as organic, natural and spectacular as it sonically gets. Whether pearls, minimalist approach, R2R or a mix of the three, there is a lot of merit to the method that was used for this recording.

But it would be of little value if the performance was not up to par. Although I did not know Endre Hegedus, he proves to be a pianist of great talent. His Chopin is at times fast and diabolical but also subject to deep reverie when called for. The lyrical passages drag you into the music like very few versions I know. Fazil Say’s devilish fingers can go faster still but he reaches not the level of poetry Hegedus demonstrates here.

I usually don’t fall for Debussy’s piano music but the selection here is easy to listen to and enchanting. Le Petit Negre (1909) is pure ragtime and I would have bet on Gershwin, not Debussy had you asked me who composed it. Part of the seduction of this disc derives from the extreme intimacy generated by a Steinway D Grand recorded in a tiny stone church. The two microphones convey the full sense of scale of the piano and its gigantic dynamic abilities while preserving the ambiance yet clearly show also the boundaries and slightly matt acoustics of the recording space.

After listening to this CD which combines Hegedus’ musical talent and Tone-Pearls' unique and convincing recording technology, my only regret is to not having had access to their high-definition FLAC files. Considering how natural the CD sounds, hi-rez must be truly stunning. The real question now is, how long until the next release?