Copyright © 1998 by Fred Flaxman
When I first heard about a label called PopeMusic, I thought it would specialize in Christian music. But it turns out that it was named after a different Pope -- Gene Pope, to be exact -- and, although you will find classical, jazz and other music on these CDs, there doesn't seem to be anything more religious than the Canticle A Cappella Choir singing "Jesu, Dulcis Memoria." You are far more likely to encounter Russian "Pops," a Russian jazz trio or Lori Lieberman singing "Drive On."
Gene Pope is the multimedia wizard who started this CD company in 1993 after many years as an audio engineer, adman, film director and -- would you believe? -- racing car driver ("That let me conquer my fear.") His musical tastes seem to be as catholic as the name of his label, and he does seem totally unafraid to take the risks involved in starting and running his own creative business. Surely the only way to make a small fortune producing mostly classical compact discs... is to start with a large one.
Given Pope's background as an audio engineer, it is not surprising that PopeMusic specializes in audio, as well as performance, quality. Gene has even developed a trademarked process which he calls "Dynamic Fidelity" and which his publicists describe as "the next generation of digital music reproduction." Only two microphones are used, recording the sound directly to a Nagra digital tape recorder. Mastering is done with PopeMusic's proprietary jitter reduction techniques, and that is as much of a technical explanation as you are going to see here. What matters to me -- and, I presume, to you -- is how it sounds, and that is consistently top-notch.
I have eight PopeMusic CDs, not counting four samplers. All have deep Russian connections and most of them were recorded in Moscow. Mark Gorenstein conducts the Russian Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" in one release (PM1012-2), Alfred Schnittke's "Gogol Suite" and Tikhon Khrennikov's "Love for Love" in another (PM10007-2), "Russian Pops" in a third (PM1015-2), and Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" in a fourth (PMG2004-2). Naum Starkman, the Russian pianist who is heard in the Beethoven, is the piano soloist for two other classical PopeMusic CDs which I own: one devoted to music by Chopin (PMG2010-2), the other to Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons," the label's latest issue (PM 2017-2). Another PopeMusic classical CD features Misha Rachlevsky conducting the "Symphony Orchestra KREMLIN" -- as it is listed on the cover -- in music all based on Romeo and Juliet: Tchaikovsky's "Fantasy Overture," Prokofiev's ballet suites, and Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story."
That should give you a good idea of the musical content. But, with the exception of the Schnittke/Khrennikov CD -- featuring humorous, highly rhythmic, melodious compositions by two living Russian composers which even seasoned music lovers are not likely to have in their collections -- these recordings seem to duplicate a great deal of widely-available repertoire. What's the point? What makes these PopeMusic CDs unique? What is Gene Pope's mission?
"It is quite honestly a very personal mission," he admits. "I've always noticed that a truly inspiring artistic vision comes from personal and selfish needs and drives. I wanted to contribute something that would bring a smile of satisfaction to people... to 'share the vision' with as many people as possible. The uniqueness comes, I believe, from the approach. I really believe in the digital medium, just as I believed in the analog medium 25 years ago. Every medium has its problems, its pros and cons. By my wrestling with the problems inherent in the digital medium, I truly believe that I can make it rise to a level of personal listening involvement that can exceed the best that analog accomplished."
A series of coincidences led Pope to start PopeMusic. In 1988, while in Moscow shooting a documentary on the Moscow Circus before its fabled tour of the U.S., Gene became completely smitten by the intensity with which Russians approached their creative arts in this still-totalitarian society. "Without the notion of measuring success by money and possessions alone," Pope noted, the Russians came forth with "the purist creative expression I've ever seen. Such passion and devotion to the art!"
"Around the same time," he continued, "I was one of those who found the sound on most classical CDs to be completely uninvolving, grating, unmusical, undynamic -- all the usual problems we have now identified with the early days of the medium (and that continue today, particularly with the major labels)." Then, in 1992, his wife gave him a surprise birthday present -- a three-week trip back to a post-Communist Russia.
"Again, I was smitten," he told me, "particularly by the classical arts and performances. After meeting Mark Gorenstein and other artists, I decided to revive my recording efforts and do a 'test.'"
Pope has been "testing" and succeeding ever since, putting out one audiophile CD after another.
"I found I was a small fish in a huge pond with film directing," Gene confessed, "and I wanted more control over my 'canvas.' I really believed that I had a 'head' for the technical processes involved in digital audio, and that I could really make some improvements in the medium for everyone. It turned out I was very correct on all counts."
This pope may not be infallible, but , so far, he's coming pretty darn close.
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