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Subject: Re: Audiophile opera reissues
From: Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 7 Jun 2018 22:46:27 -0700
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The three Blu-Ray DVDs arrived today.

The booklets indicate that the digital mastering at 192 KHz/24-bit was done in 2016 at the Abbey Road studios by a Peter Cole. There is also a credit for “digital remastering” by the Universal Mexico marketing director, Victor Suzan Reed. I’m not sure what the difference is between Victor Suzan Reed’s “digital remastering” and the “analog to digital transfer at 192/26 made by Peter Cole at Abbey Road Studios.” Peter Cole is a different engineer that the one credited with doing the 96 KHz/24-bit remasterings we’ve otherwise seen (Solti Tristan, Elektra, Salome, Ring, Karajan Boheme, Butterfly, Tosca, etc). Some Blu-Ray Audio discs have had a choice of playback format; these are only DTS-MA 192/24.

They seem like a totally legit issue. Caveat: I’ve been sneezing all day and my ears might not be quite right. The sound is different from what I had expected. It’s very smooth, maybe too smooth. Compared with previous issues, there’s absolutely no audible tape hiss. The sound is very clear and close and voices, orchestra and chorus are all rendered with tremendous clarity and depth. But, maybe it’s just because I’m used to these recordings with tape hiss, it seems to me that something in the process has sucked the air out of these recordings. It could be my hearing today, the fact that I’m trying to listen to them at the end of a long, hard work day, or maybe I just need to get used to this different sound. It’s not that anything is missing in terms of detail or high frequencies in the music itself. I know that every previous incarnation of the “Mefistofele” (original LP, Ampex reel tape, previous CD issue) has had heavy tape hiss. One possibility is that, in the 20 or so years since the original digitizations of these tapes for CD, the hiss has increased to the point of needing more draconian processing, or that the tapes just plain lost more high frequency information. However, it is interesting that the somewhat darker sonics of these are markedly different from the other 96/24 issues we’ve gotten in mainstream releases of Decca operas, some of which were, if anything, almost too bright. My initial finding is that the ones that were most brightly lit to begin with - the “Manon Lescaut,” “Forza” and “Fanciulla” - come off best.

One thing that comes across loud and clear, particularly in such operas as “Mefistofele” and the 1955 “Turandot,” is what a magnificent group the Santa Cecilia chorus were at that time. On a par with Robert Shaw’s group in the US and the St. Hedwig’s Chorus in Berlin. These early stereo recordings capture the chorus extremely well. At their best, the Santa Cecilia orchestra could also do some splendid playing with a feel for the flow and weight of this music that sometimes “better” orchestras like the London Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic or Berlin Philharmonic couldn’t quite catch. But the Roman group are much more variable. However, they sound like the Berlin Philharmonic compared to the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino band heard in the “Gioconda” conducted by Gavazzeni with Cerquetti (and the Florence chorus can’t compare).

I do hear more nuance in the singing than I’ve heard before, although I have to admit that in my spot checks, I was zeroing in on Tebaldi rather than Del Monaco. The beginning of “L’altra notte” from “Mefistofele” is a bit strange, as though the voice were emanating from two different positions, which clears up as the aria proceeds. It sounds to me like this might be a different take of the aria from what we’ve had before, but very expressive, very pathetic. The beauty, steadiness of vibrato and wonderful legato in Tebaldi’s singing come across marvelously, as do the subtleties of sound coloration that I hadn’t always noticed before. I’m more aware of a girlishness and enjoyment of memory as she wanders into “Laggiu nel Soledad” in “Fanciulla del West” and with this sound I’m also aware of the degree to which Cornell MacNeil is a marvelous sounding block of wood compared to the aliveness and animation of Tebaldi.

I’ll have to listen more this weekend when my sinuses and ears might be in better shape.

The DVD authoring was done by White Paper Labs, who also did the authoring for the other sets that we’ve had available in the US (and elsewhere).

The little booklets have several recording session photos that I’ve never seen before in LP booklets, including one of Del Monaco and Bastianini recording “Forza” that is an impressive display of handsomeness.

Max Paley
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