Album Title: Mendelssohn: String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13 / Debussy: String Quartet in G minor Op.10
Performer: Joel Link, violin; Bryan Lee, violin; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello
Label: Unipheye Music UM-0205
Playing time: 30’53” / 25’56”
Format: SMRD (Studio Master Reference Disc)
Recorded: May 10 + 11, 2009

The biggest challenge of writing music reviews is not to get too emotionally involved. Yet music is about emotional involvement. Before I drown myself in sentimental quick sand, some facts. Today's double-disc album is not the usual CD, SACD or Blu-ray but a Studio Master Reference Disc or SMRD for short. The two DVD discs arrive in a DVD box with liner notes. But don’t try to play them in your usual DVD players. They are one-to-one copies of DVD-Rs encoded with 24Bit/192kHz .wav files directly burnt from the studio master hard-drive. They are intended to be uploaded to your PC or music server before being played through your audio system – high resolution studio quality master reproduction at your home so to speak.

In addition to that, Unipheye Music offers alternative formats including an even higher resolution 32bit/192kHz SMRD, a studio-burnt 300-year archival gold CD-R playable on any CD players and as many as eight formats/grades of downloads from the highest 24Bit/192kHz FLAC (2GB) down to the lowest 128kbps/44.1kHz Mp3 (57.9MB). Retail price varies from $53 for the SMRD (32 or 24Bit), $24 for the gold CD-R to $29 for the top FLAC download and $14 for the basic Mp3. On their well organized website, you can sample the eight movements in 320kbps/44.1kHz Mp3. They even have a File Test page where you can verify compatibility with your computer.

What computer should I use? My desktop PC has installed a Creative Audigy SoundBlaster capable of only 24Bit/96kHz. That ruled itself out. I checked my LG E-500 notebook again. While doing the NuForce Icon review, I had thought it was AC’97 capable only of 24Bit/96kHz. I was wrong. It’s better than that. (No wonder I didn’t find any sonic improvement with the USB DAC of the Icon.) It is in fact "HD Audio" ready, meaning the sound card hardware is integrated with the Intel High Definition Audio codec. Although the Intel specification tops at 32Bit/192kHz for two channels and 32Bit/96kHz for up to 8 channels, not all hardware manufacturers implement its full capability. To my delight, the LG E500 supports 24Bit/192kHz and fit in perfectly with the Unipheye SMRD. My Intel MacBook Pro also has Intel High Definition Audio hardware but I couldn’t confirm whether it’s 24Bit or 32Bit. So I used the LG for this exercise. For those who do not have an HD Audio ready computer, the April Music Stello DA-100 would be the logical choice. For the more budget-minded, an outboard HD ready sound card like the Creative E-MU 0202 USB audio interface with 24Bit/192kHz D-to-A and A-to-D converter (Cirrus Logic CS4392) is worth investigating. Retailing for around $100, its specs trump most USB DACs in that price bracket.

Next would be uploading to the LG notebook. Before I did that, I played the tracks directly from the DVD-R. I knew I was not supposed to do that but I wanted to try and see how bad it would be. The answer was almost instantaneous. It’s really bad. Imaging was flat and everything was lifeless. Copying the data files to hard disk was simple. Audiophile psychology urged me to defrag the disk first. But better still, I copied the files onto a brand-new 8GB USB flash drive. No moving parts during data processing. One more thing, I fully charged the notebook battery and ran it free of household AC garbage. I set the power management to turn off the monitor after 2 minutes to cut off video interference, just like the 'audio only' feature on universal players. What else? The playback software. My preference is iTunes. So I added the tracks to the program and could play through the entire repertoire, monitor track timing and even set the equalizer to Classical just for experimental purposes. Although I left that in Flat for most of the time, I found the iTunes equalizer set to Classical quite effective at boosting the lower octaves.

Next would be choosing the right audio system. Recently I fell in love with the Denon DP-59L + Denon DL-302 MC cartridge + KingRex PREference + NuForce Reference 9 V2 SE + Dynaudio Facette while doing the Stravinsky Ballets LP review. With those music-perfect and sonically ideal memories still fresh in my head, I decided to use the same system to assess this other extreme form of digital source material. Connection was accomplished with the Audience Conductor stereo mini-jack-to-RCA interconnect plugging into the audio/digital output (headphone socket) of the LG notebook. Before I turn this article into an audio review, let me shift focus back onto the music now.

It so happens that both works are atypical of their composers’ styles. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor is Beethovenian in scope and ambition. The dramatic opening movement is as intense as the emotionally charged "Adagio" that follows. My favorite is the folkdance-reminiscent "Intermezzo". To my ears it’s so Slavonic that it could be easily confused with a Dvorak “Dumka” movement. The final movement is rich in contrasts with a feverish fugato and a lyrical rendition of the composer’s early song "Frage" (Question) that leads on to a hymn-like ending.

Debussy on the other hand found himself at a transitional stage with his G minor String Quartet of 1893 and took another year before finding his trademark style in Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. I’m personally attracted to the fluttering pizzicatos in the "Scherzo" which ostensibly mimics the Javanese gamelan music the composer had heard at the Paris Exhibition a few years prior. The "Andantino" is adorned with endearing passion and traceable harmonic debts to the Russian school of specifically Tchaikovsky and Borodin. Unusual for Debussy, the cyclic metamorphosis of thematic material is beautiful throughout, skillfully camouflaged and less noticeable in the third movement. The finale movement gradually turns eruptive with its angular harmony, perhaps pointing the way for Janáček.

The musicians here display a resolute approach in their interpretation. Their unshakable dedication is further reinforced by the recording's sonic excellence to compliment each other in such a perfect way as to best be summarized as ‘purified’. The emotional and passionate movements stop being entangled emotional strands but emotional tangles unraveled. There’s certainly a cool-mindedness about this yet strangely enough, the feelings were even more touching because I felt like I was being invited to sit next to the musicians witnessing their intimate dialogue in person. The soundstage was appropriately proportionate, not wide but deeply set back to denote intimacy, not immediacy. The recording engineer definitely gave priority to the quartet as a group rather than individual musicians. Here you won’t hear audiophiliac point-source localizing but musical coherence and natural balance that are focused on interactions and collaboration. Yet the texture of the different string instruments is delicately refined and naturally tactile. It’s high definition of another class. The background is utterly quiet. The timbre and sonority are real and pure, spotlessly clean and without any hardness or grain. It has the right amount of airiness free of artificial ambience. That made the intricate layering of Debussy “Andantino” a real ear-opener.

After enjoying the music for days, I started to wonder who these musicians might be. (Yes, I have the habit of letting the music speak to me before reading the liner notes.) My guess was they had to be well into their thirties and the group itself collaborated together for ten years. I was totally wrong. The four young musicians (allow me to call them LLSS Quartet for future reference) Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Camden Shaw were between the age of nineteen and twenty when captured here and entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2005 or 2006 on merit-based full-tuition scholarships. Although they have many years of experience in solo and chamber performance, I still have to say that the maturity in these interpretatiosn is phenomenal and disproportionate to their actual ages. While the liner notes contain detailed biographies, there are no program notes on the repertoire. First I thought whether it wouldn’t be nice if these talented musicians shared with us their feelings about the works they performed. But then they have already done so through their music. What makes it more incredible is the fact that these recordings are unedited without cutting or splicing within one movement. The selected movements were recorded intact from beginning to end and used in their pristine entirety.  

Time to introduce Ira Norman Segall, recording engineer and founder of Unipheye Music. Ira was born to a musical family and has the privilege of listening to real musicians in person. His father Irving J. Segall was a Curtis Institute graduate and life-time member of the viola section of the Philadelphia Orchestra during Eugene Ormandy’s era. Ira himself is a world percussionist who plays not only the conventional Western drum kit but a variety of exotic percussion instruments from around the globe. Also, he was a former Philadelphia Orchestra recording engineer. “All my life I had the privilege of hearing fine string instruments in a much more intimate environment, at home, without the reverberations of some concert halls or the enormous size of such an environment. An opportunity to hear the very real, very natural tone and texture of these glorious instruments. It is this sort of intimacy, a rare experience , which I hope to be able to share with the listener.”

I am glad that I read this after I put down my audition notes. It became a genuine testimonial that Ira has achieved his goal. As further supporting evidence, I pulled out two comparative recordings to verify my findings. But first, how did Ira do it? As a musician and recording engineer, he has mastered the no-gimmick approach naturally. "Our recordings are made with two microphones and no EQ, no dynamic devices of any sort and typically with no editing. Two microphones plugged right into the preamplifiers, then the A/D converter. This recording was realized on 10 and 11May 2009. It was recorded directly to PCM at 192kHz.”"

My Debussy comparison was to the youthful 1992 interpretation of the Hagen Quartett [DGG 437 836-2]. Based on the 21Bit 4D recording technique and Authentic Bit Imaging mixing, this was once one of my favorite quartet recordings. By comparison, it casts a much wider soundstage which is less three-dimensional however and too upfront. The imaging is inflated and somehow veiled due to artificial air. The exaggerated sonic ambience also clouds my judgment of the interpretation. The Hagen Quartett appears to be more emotional and dynamically more contrasted. That’s why I called their interpretation ‘youthful’ despite the quartet's 10-year tenure at the time (second violinist Rainer Schmidt was new though and had joined later.) Their ‘full-blooded’ sound is almost too grand for an intimate quartet.

The Mendelssohn comparison was provided by the veteran ensemble of no less than the Cleveland Quartet with their celebrated 1986 recording on Telarc [CD-80142]. It's very slick and flawless playing throughout. Yet again Telarc's sonic picture is wider but flatter whereas the Unipheye recording presents the LLSS Quartet in their most flattering light. They are subtler yet more crystalline as though their emotions were distilled or cryo-treated for a lack of a better analogy. There is less tension but more soul searching in their second movement. The Cleveland handles the "Intermezzo" with good humor and is well paced. The LLSS Quartet gives it a nostalgic shade and thanks to the revealing sonic quality, the staccatos are uncluttered and more palpable. Pay special attention to the cello pizzicato at 00:37 in the final movement. That’s not a technical flaw on the musician’s part but a sudden forceful transient with long reverberating tail that is hard to sustain smoothly and capture perfectly. Most engineers would have done some beautifying edits but not Ira. It's this kind of truthful approach to art that makes this recording so human and real. To insure that my audition finding was not one-time fortunate happenstance with one system, I hooked the LG notebook into a totally different system of Dared DV-6C hybrid amp and Klipsch Synergy F2. With a tint of valve bloom and warmth added, the Unipheye signature sound remained unaltered for the same purity and intimacy from a $1,000 setup.

I have long accepted the fact that a live performance is a live performance and recorded music the art of illusion. This Unipheye SMRD album moves the twain closer together.