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Subject: More audiophile releases
From: Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 29 Jul 2017 18:52:12 -0700
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The postman brought more goodies.

On Blu-Ray Audio there are the Solti “Salome” and “Elektra.” These Decca opera blu-ray packages come with booklets that are, by current standards, lavish. They also come with a standard CD rendering of the new remasterings. So far, I’ve only listened to the Blu-Ray discs, but imagine that the standard CDs must benefit strongly from the remastering work, just as people were extremely enthusiastic about the Warner Callas reissues on CD that were also made available on SACD and high res download (Warner doesn’t seem to be into Blu-Ray audio at this point).

I have very high quality LP copies of both of these Solti Strauss operas and also the exceptionally good Speakers Corner reissue of the “Elektra” from a couple of years ago. For beauty of sound, that Speakers Corner is still probably my favorite, but in terms of sheer clarity and stunning dynamics, these Blu-Ray issues are tops. Both of these recordings have sounded fairly magnificent in any format in which they were issued, but the sense of clarity and presence is that of removing a veil between listener and performers. The big advantage is that you just plain hear more of what the performers are doing in terms of subtlety and nuance. This comes out particularly strongly in the Elektra/Klytemnestra confrontation as one hears more softness and warmth from Resnik as well as more variety of color from Nilsson.

The ability to “see” the performers on the stage in front of you is astonishing. It’s distinctly more so than on any recent recording, since recordings aren’t being made with that kind of specificity of localization of the performers any more.

The booklets have several recording session photos that I hadn’t seen before and hadn’t remembered from the LP booklets.  Two of my favorites: Nilsson sitting on an exercise bike pumping away between “Elektra” sessions. Another is Culshaw talking to Eberhard Wächter close up: the look on the producer’s face, regarding the handsome baritone, could be termed “appreciative” at least.

The Warner SACDs from Japan, of the Giulini “Don Giovanni,” Beecham “Carmen,” and Klemperer “Magic Flute” all show similar improvements in dynamics and clarity. In each case, the presence of the singers in one’s listening room is palpable and it benefits hearing the detail of the interpretation. The Giulini might have sounded yet a bit more open in sound had it been done in Kingsway Hall (where the Klemperer “Flute” was recorded) rather than Abbey Road. In 1959, EMI and Decca were having to battle for slots open in Kingsway Hall and both had very heavy recording schedules.  

The Salle Wagram’s big, open acoustic is very evident in the “Carmen” SACD release with a very broad stereo spread that easily stretches the full width of my listening room plus. The greater level of audible detail helps Victoria de los Angeles and, somewhat, Nicolai Gedda. It doesn’t particularly help the Micaela, Janine MIcheau, onetime prima donna of the Paris Opera, who sounds like she’s doing her best to sound 20 years younger than she is. The sound also conveys Beecham’s wonderful sexy swagger in this music.

Also on SACD is one of those frightfully expensive Esoteric releases, this time of the 1980 Abbado/DGG Verdi Requiem using La Scala forces with Ricciarelli, Verrett, Domingo and Ghiaurov as soloists.I recall that this recording was thrown together rather quickly when another set of sessions (a “Boheme” I believe - either Bernstein or Kleiber) was cancelled shortly before starting and the hall, orchestra, engineering team and some of the soloists were available.

Soundwise, there’s a certain murkiness and over-reverberant sound (particularly of the chorus) from the movie studio hall used. I wish I could read Japanese and understand exactly how Esoteric makes these SACD releases because I highly doubt they get access to the original tapes (of analog material).

But I find this performance beautifully conducted and shaped, maybe even better than Abbado’s later recordings of the work. There are a few lapses of intonation from Ricciarelli and (surprisingly) Ghiaurov that I was surprised to see make it onto the final cut. Ricciarelli is still near the top of her game, but lacking the purity and steadiness she had just a couple of years before. Verrett is clearly not the big, dark “prison warden mezzo” that this music seems to want but she’s cutting and intense and manages to adjust her timbre and phrasing to work very nicely with Ricciarelli in their duets. Domingo is in quite lovely form and produces the sort of pure head voice for the ‘Hostias” that I rarely heard from him. Ghiaurov is good but starting to slip and there are a couple of surprisingly rough attacks.

But in terms of the pacing and shaping of the work, this one is high on my list and approaches Toscanini.

For those promoting latter day vinyl, there is something of a truth to be faced. Yes, vinyl can sound wonderful. But to get high quality reproduction from analog LPs takes a hell of a lot bigger investment than it does to get high quality reproduction from CD. You need a really fine turntable, arm, pickup, phono preamp and a way to keep the records clean. To me, all nontrivial.

Anyway, for those who have forked out what is needed, there was a release late last year worth mentioning. It was a limited edition and may not be available from standard channels but these things always pop up on eBay or elsewhere.  Also not opera: it’s a rather remarkable issue of the four Brahms symphonies played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Rattle. This is not the same as the EMI/Warner CD set of these symphonies by Rattle and the BPO. This was from a set of concerts in which a total of two microphones, crossing each other in classic “Blümlein” pattern were placed about a meter behind and four meters above the conductor with their preamps fed directly into a Neumann V50 cutting lathe. So the recordings are direct to disc, 100% analog. 

The sound quality doesn’t immediately jump out at you with its clarity and depth, as some of the Kingsway Hall classic Decca recordings engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson did. You need to turn the volume up to full level, or they’ll sound a bit washed out. Once you get it right, you’re pulled right into the performance like few other recorded experiences I’ve had. You feel the sweep and soar of the string sections and the butterfly fullness of the Berlin horn players. You get every bit of salty tang out of the oboes and clear but ample sound of the clarinets. The performances have tremendous sweep and power and even when they’re slower than usual, as in the second movement of the fourth symphony, it’s fluid and delicate slowness, not dull and heavy.

They’re served up in lavish sleeves, booklet with high quality photos pressed onto thick paper, all very RCA Soria Series style.

Max Paley
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