A Delectable Journey To Sea Cliff…

A DELECTABLE JOURNEY TO SEA CLIFF: In the company of the cimbalom

By Nelson Brill


On today's tour through Room #2 (the smaller of Sea Cliff's listening rooms), the focus was upon Carl Marchisotto's newest loudspeaker design, the NOLA "KO" open baffle loudspeaker (MSRP $9800 per pair). With its thick walls and particular dimensions, Room #2's ambient qualities could be described as being effortlessly natural and effusive, where music is heard in delectable lissome fashion. Hearing the fundamentals and partials of individual notes (down to their essential tonal and textural qualities) is not uncommon in this room.

The "KO" was being partnered with McIntosh 2301 amplifiers; the battery powered tubed Veloce Platino-1 line stage; a front end of either the Emm Labs XDS-1 digital player or the VPI Classic 4 turntable; speaker and power cords from Nordost; interconnect cables from High Fidelity Cables; an Audio Magic Oracle 24 and several "Q" modular field generation devices from Quantum/Nordost. With a sly grin, HP produced a CD from his treasure trove of superb recordings, pulling out one of the fifty-one CD's contained in the new Mercury Living Presence Collector's Edition Boxed Set [Decca Records]. The CD we listened to was Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony in Zoltan Kodaly's "Hary Janos Suite."

Immediately, there was a kinetic vitality to the music that drew you into the drama and riveted you to your seat to relish every cymbal swipe and clarinet leap from the back of the stage. Here was an epic "Battle and Defeat of Napoleon" with the "KO" producing not only the depths of the bass drum with tactile ease, but impeccably demonstrating how this huge disc of skin were being struck and how its radiant thunder illuminated to the rear of Northrop Auditorium- all under the watchful ears of legendary recording producer, Wilma Cozart Fine. Similarly, the leaping chimes that commence the movement "Viennese Musical Clock" were portrayed in all their explosive metallic charm. Even more revealing was hearing the air between strikes of the individual chimes, as well as the verve and growing crescendo of the snare drum rattling underneath like a saber. Scampering strings, trumpet cat-calls and festive oboes frolic here; each instrument in its own cushion of space, deep in the prodigious layered soundstage that the modestly dimensioned KO produced.

Tones and timbres were rendered in superbly natural fashion and nothing proved this point more than taking a listen to the movement entitled "Song," a gorgeous sunrise of a movement, lit by the glowing colors of that wondrous stringed instrument from the Hungary-Slovak region: the cimbalom. The cimbalom is a relative of the dulcimer, and according to the research of Rene Clemencic (founder of the famous Clemencic Consort, whose LP on Harmonia Mundi entitled Danses Anciennes De Hongrie [HM 1003] is a superb recording of spirited music from Hungary and Transylvania in the 1600's) the cimbalom was inevitably found side by side with strings, cornets, trombones, lutes and harpsichords in bands playing at the feudal courts of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.


Modern Concert Cimbalom

Listening to the cascading colors of the cimbalom in the system in Room #2 was like sitting right next to it on stage. Each strike of its strings leaped forth from its wooden body with lush and immersive overtones that had great dynamic contrast and bladelike attack. At one point towards the end of the movement, the cimbalom emerged as a solo instrument with its lower notes plucked individually with such force that it almost toppled listeners in their chairs in Room #2. The movement ended with glistening strings, a lone clarinet's solemn call and the cimbalom acting like a bagpipe or drone by maintaining a steady plucking behind. The KO and its partnering electronics revealed this drama with an impeccable touch for dynamic contrast and shading, tonal balance and the mining of interstitial details and textures.

The qualities of the KO loudspeaker heard in Room #2 might best be summarized by reference to how producer Gene Lees, (in his linear notes to the incomparable recording, Getz/Gilberto [Verve LP 8545]), described Stan Getz's soulful tenor sound: "The air moves effortlessly past the reed. It is as if the air were not so much pushed out as allowed to flow out. The approach demands that the player have superb assurance and absolute control of his instrument." Likewise, sound naturally flows forth from this special KO loudspeaker. There is never a sense of sound being pushed forth mechanically or any other kind of mechanical intervention between the source and the listener. A final example of this quality was listening to Kodaly's Napoleon stride on stage in the final movements of the Hary Janos Suite. Napoleon's entrance is marked by a huge sliding trombone motif, comical and menacing all at once. This lone trombone blast and plummet to the depths of his register was heard in all of its resplendent, comic glory through the KO loudspeakers. There was no limitation or compression in any frequency range, from the trombone's highest perch to its lowest, metallic growl. The buoyancy and effortlessness in this presentation of a trombone tumbling several octaves in one fell (breathy) swoop was dazzling to hear in HP's current system.

Such was a slice of what was heard in Room #2 at Sea Cliff on this glorious afternoon with HP at the controls. As the final cimbalom note was lithely struck, I was left ravenously wishing for more!


~Nelson Brill