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Subject: Audiophile opera reissues
From: Max Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Max Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Wed, 10 Oct 2018 11:02:13 -0700
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It’s been a really busy couple of months with a lot of international work travel, so the blu-ray release of the Solti “Tannhäuser” sat around for a while before I could properly listen.

In its 5.1 surround mix, this is somewhat different from many “surround sound” recordings that use the rear channels for ambience and to create more of the recording hall’s acoustic in your listening space. This one is a for real surround recording with performing forces grouped all the way around you. Some will love that, some won’t. Those who don’t still have a high res stereo mix to listen to.

This also means that, to hear it properly, you need five speakers and amplification that are all pretty well matched. Two “main” speakers and channels of amplification with a smaller center or surround speakers really won’t convey what’s on this recording.

I find it magnificent. During the opening, one has a sense of moving through the complex layers of orchestral sound, hearing the totality but also hearing each component player’s contribution with x-ray clarity. Given the quality of the playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, this is quite an experience. When the women’s chorus comes in at the beginning of the Venusberg scene, they immerse the listener coming from all sides offstage. Venus (superb Christa Ludwig) and Tannhäuser (virile, handsome sounding young René Kollo) are lying together in the left center of the room, so clear in localization that you would swear you could see them. To sing his praise to Venus, Tannhäuser gets up and moves to the front and center stage, again with stunning clarity of localization.

Despite the staging, it doesn’t sound gimmicky. This is largely because the actual acoustic portrayed (Vienna Sofiensaal) is so clear and spacious and the recording producers took great pains to make sure the overall sound picture remains intact while allowing the directional detail.

I also have the surround sound mix on blu-ray of the Bernstein “Carmen” but haven’t listened to it yet. It will be interesting to see if it differs in any way from the multichannel Pentatone SACD set.

Two others (stereo only) that are annoyingly expensive but still of sufficient quality to be notable are the stereo SACD releases from Esoteric of the 1961 Decca Karajan/VPO “Otello” (Del Monaco, Tebaldi, Protti, etc.) and the 1982 (actually spread over quite a period of time) Carlos Kleiber Dresden “Tristan und Isolde” (M. Price, Kollo, Fassbaender, Fischer-Dieskau, Moll).

That Karajan “Otello” has always been a sound spectacular in any format, but the Esoteric release adds further richness and depth to the sound while rendering the voices and orchestra with astounding clarity.

Even more impressive, in some ways, is what they’ve done to that Kleiber “Tristan,” given that it was an early 80s digital recording. Hence, “remastering from the original analog tapes” doesn’t apply. This had to be all done in the digital domain. What they’ve managed to do is add depth and spaciousness to the sound without taking away any of the detail or clarity. I find the processing doesn’t sound in any way fake or unnatural but makes this recording much more agreeable to the ear. I’m impressed but not totally surprised, because Esoteric had managed to pull off something similar several years ago with their reissue of the Carlos Kleiber/VPO Brahms Fourth Symphony.

Esoteric issues tend to be done in limited batches and then when they’re gone, they’re gone. So if your wallet can handle it, try to move quickly.

Others sitting on the shelf that I haven’t gotten to yet include the Japanese Tower SACD issues of the Erich Kleiber/VPO “Nozze di Figaro” from 1955, the Decca Serafin/Santa Cecilia “Cavalleria” from 1959 with Simionato and Del Monaco and the Karajan/VPO “Butterfly” from 1973 with Freni, Pavarotti, Ludwig, etc.

Max Paley
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