One example should suffice. María Dueñas is DGG’s hot new violin talent and, as such is being heavily promoted by the label. It’s a familiar scenario and one that both perks my interest and fires my natural cynicism. Pretty boy/girl given recording contract and seductive cover shot: it’s not exactly a new sales strategy, especially in recent years. So streaming her recent Beethoven Violin Concerto recording (with Honeck and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra – definitely the artistic equivalent of DGG wheeling out the big guns) was the perfect opportunity to assess the situation and puncture (or embrace) the hype. The 96/24 stream was initially disappointing with a flattened perspective, opaque textures and a distinctly granular, processed feel that undermined the coherence of both performance and soundstage, the articulation and intent of the solo playing. Inserting the Aardvark was akin to switching on the lights and pulling back the net curtains that hung in front of the stage. It wasn’t just the improvement in presence, immediacy, instrumental colour and texture, all of which contributed to a more vivid and credible presentation. It wasn’t just the increased warmth, weight, body and dimensionality it brought to the orchestral sound. It was mainly about the way that the orchestral playing and the soloist locked together to create a single musical whole. A lot of that is down to improvements in time and phase integrity, but it’s down to a pretty dramatic improvement in dynamic graduation and discrimination too. Honeck’s commanding presence became apparent, while the sense of the orchestra acting as a single, multi-facetted organism, the fluidity of the solo playing, the phrasing and rhythmic accents emerged for the first time.
The new big thing?
So, am I sold on Ms. Dueñas? Well, I’d buy a ticket, but on this showing she’s got a way to go before she challenges the likes of Batiashvili, Shoji or Baeva – or the establishment figures (Oistrakh, Mutter, Heifetz et al). But the point here is not whether the Aardvark transformed this into a world beating performance (impossible) or recording (unlikely) but the fact that now I’m better informed about Ms. Dueñas’ potential. I know about this recording, I know what I think and why I think it. I have a view on her (in my opinion laboured and slightly stilted) cadenza, on Honeck’s (arguably overly) measured tempo, especially in the 3rd Movement and on a style of playing that is fluid but lacking intensity and the sharper ‘corners’ that this music demands. ‘Trying too hard’ might be one conclusion, but room to develop’ or poorly served by the recording’ might be others. But this is now a discussion to be had – which it certainly wasn’t before the Aardvark stuck its snout into proceedings.
If the acid test of audio performance is musical access then the Aardvark qualifies with distinction. In my system, it elevates the sound of streamed music to put it on a par with most stored files and that is both no mean achievement and a goal I was beginning to consider unachievable. After my success with the Wadax, applying the Aardvark to the Roon Nucleus and B.audio B.DPR EX streaming input were obvious steps. In each case the cost differential is more of a challenge, especially with the Nucleus, but still the Aardvark acquitted itself with aplomb. In each, the elevation in musical quality easily justified the price, banishing the thin, disjointed, floaty and insubstantial character that so often undermines streamed music and file reply.