The Classic Records Reissues – Part 3

[Readers may find the introductory paragraphs to the first part of this continuing survey useful – Ed.]

LSC 1817 – Offenbach Gaîté Parisienne Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler. Producer: John Pfeiffer. Engineer: Leslie Chase. Recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston.

One would think that after the initial release and subsequent success of this amazing Gaîté Parisienne, that a re-recording by the same forces would seem redundant. Yet, four years after this 1954 stereo gem, RCA released the excellent, but not quite-as-fine, remake (LSC-2267). To my delight, Michael Hobson of Classic Records chose the earlier historical document as his Gaîté of choice. And what a stunner it is. The magnificence of this recording certainly belies its dawn-of-stereo lineage, with clarity and richness (the acoustic of Symphony Hall, Boston is revealed in all its glory) allied to a performance that is still at the top of the heap.

The Charles Munch-trained Boston orchestra (the Pops is the Boston Symphony Orchestra without principal players) sounds glorious with rich strings, shining brass and finely tuned woodwind. Even the Pops’ curmudgeonly Music Director cannot dampen the spirits of this wonderful compilation of Offenbach’s music; the music is taken from several of Offenbach’s works and was expertly cobbled together by Manuel Rosenthal for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.

The recording matches the playing in sparkle and brilliance. All registers of the orchestral instruments are caught superbly by the four microphones, which also pick up the ambiance and boundaries of the “chocolate box” hall.

This magnificent LP has garnered many deserving accolades because of its happy music making and superb sound, both of which represent what is best about RCA’s Living Stereo catalogue. This Fiedler/Pops is necessary for any collection.

LSC 2183 – “The Reiner Sound” Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Rapsodie Espagnole and Pavan for a Dead Princess by Ravel, and Isle of the Dead by Rachmaninov. Producer: Richard Mohr. Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago.

Fritz Reiner includes three very interesting pieces on LSC-2183. He chose well. The pieces highlight the greatness that is Fritz Reiner and his amazing Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As represented here, the “Reiner Sound” – rich, detailed and incredibly dynamic – is married unswervingly to honest interpretations of the highest musical caliber. Reiner is rarely surpassed in his RCA repertoire.

This quality brings me directly to Rapsodie Espagnole. Even when compared to the great Ansermet recording or Monteux’s exalted version (respectively, London’s CS 6024 and CS 6248), Reiner still reigns supreme – his Rapsodie is the most luscious and overtly romantic performance I know, executed with a surgeon’s precision and a swagger worthy of Bernstein at his best. All this elevated emotion is even more amazing when considering Reiner’s glowering yet somnolent demeanor. Still waters must run very deep.

The fabulous sonics are more than a match for the musical conception(s). The Isle of the Dead is given a beautifully spacious recording allowing the tension Reiner builds to flow over the listener in wave after wave of powerful orchestral sonority. The Ravel pieces showcase real transparency; in Prélude de la Nuit of Rapsodie Espagnole, inner voices orchestrated so masterfully by Ravel are heard with x-ray clarity while retaining their texture and natural timbre. I could imagine the second clarinetist hoping (praying) for a clear beat in order to match Clark Brody’s lead in the clarinet cadenzas. The same can be said for the lower strings at the opening Malagueña – no worries, though, as the microdynamics of the recording tell the tale of amazing ensemble playing. So it goes, ad infinitum, on this great LP. Certainly, another must have in this series.

LSC 2135 – Prokofiev Cinderella Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Hugo Rignold.

In her excellent liner notes, Rosalyn Krokover describes Prokofiev’s Cinderella as “tuneful and inventive”. If we compare these adjectives with those ascribed to the greatest of Prokofiev’s scores, Krokover’s description definitely damns with faint praise. As such, Cinderella is not top drawer Prokofiev, containing little of the melodiousness of Romeo and Juliet, the urbanity of the Classical Symphony or the charm of Peter and the Wolf. Rather, while enjoyable and full of the trademarks of Prokofiev’s unique orchestration, I would expect Cinderella to be more of a complete entertainment when the music is accompanying dancers.

That said, the recording is still worth owning due to the excellent performance of the Royal Opera Orchestra (clarinet and bassoon are superb) and some fine conducting by Hugo Rignold. True, there is some happenstance sour intonation in the highest register of the violins and the odd gaff in the woodwinds. However, the ladies and gentlemen seem to be enjoying themselves, and this quality is communicated through the speakers.

The recording is fine; the orchestra is stage forward and the soundfield wide but not deep. To wit, brass and percussion are also forward in the aural picture which gives the impression that their noses are pressed against a glass partition, in front of which, the rest of the orchestra resides! However, the instrumental timbre is faithful with the notable exception of some glare in the upper strings. Bass is deep but not as accurate as in other reissues in this series, no doubt due to the congestion.

Not a complete artistic success then, but a musical achievement worthy of the price of admission.

LSC 2222 – Debussy Iberia Ravel Alborada del Gracioso and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago.

Iberia is one of a few records that I would venture to call perfect. I know what you are thinking. The “P” word conjures up all sorts of responses in readers, the first of which is the reviewer is prone to hyperbole. Not so in this case, be assured. This RCA is a “perfect” synthesis of interpretation, playing and sound.

The recording is rich in timbre and detail, and is beautifully transparent, identifying the accurate placement of instruments and the boundaries of Orchestra Hall’s stage. Unlike LSC-2423 (see below), the soundfield is complete (depth and width) with the center boasting the CSO’s fabulous woodwind section.

As it seems to be on many great orchestral recordings, the percussion section steals the “audiophile” show. The percussionists’ playing in Iberia will amaze you with their crack ensemble and the way they accomplish quick changes in dynamics, these ranging from quiet delicacy to raw power. Reiner must have reveled in the sound of the castanets clicking merrily on his left and the different styles of tambourine technique employed by the section player on his right. I know I did. From the softest stroke of a soft mallet on suspended cymbal to the superb timpani sound, LSC-2222 is all that recorded percussion should be.

Reiner’s magnificent interpretations are vivid and exciting, offering a bent knee to the two great French composers. The “slow movement” of Iberia, Les Parfums de la Nuit, is played very delicately with sheen on the upper strings that caresses and glows. Fragrant it is. Interestingly, an odd, yet quite wonderful, feeling happens during the transition(s) to the final section, Le Matin d’un Jour de Fête. In its tutti rest, the orchestra seems very anxious to unleash the tension after Reiner’s absolute control over Parfums. Can “silent” energy or presence be recorded by microphones and heard through speakers?

The Ravel selections are equally well played. Adolf Herseth’s trumpet once again steals the show with spectacular feats of control during Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and incredibly fast triple tonguing in Alborada del Gracioso. Horns keep up with him, too.

LSC-2222 is one of the few records that transcends engineering, and simply allows Debussy, Ravel, Reiner and his orchestra to make our souls a richer place.

LSC 2423 – “Festival” Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Colas Breugnon Overture by Kabalevsky, Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and Marche Miniature, the Polovski March from Prince Igor by Borodin, A Night on Bare Mountain by Moussorgsky and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture. Producer: Richard Mohr. Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago.

As a collector and great admirer of the Living Stereo catalogue, I consider this another gem from the Leyton/Mohr vaults, here brought to life superbly by Classic Records. Reiner and the orchestra are in top form and highlighted by excellent recorded sound. Yet, if compared to the finest of the RCAs, Festival does not quite reach the top of Living Stereo’s tier. Interpretations are interesting but feel as though Reiner is on autopilot, seemingly impossible considering Reiner’s penchant for exacting standards in all things musical. Mindful of this slight caveat, the LP has many enjoyable qualities. After all, these are brilliant musicians at work, the music and technical standards of who are rarely bettered.

The Colas Breugnon Overture is a wonderful opener demonstrating the best of LSC-2423’s recorded sound, and the speedy Russlan and Ludmilla Overture is played brilliantly – the CSO strings would give Bolshoi players a run for their money. The pleasantries continue with a sparkling Marche Miniature and a heavily accented Polovski March. Unfortunately, Marche Slave remains a loud reminder that not all Tchaikovsky wrote glittered with gold! And with the exception of the all-important low brass (sounding weaker than is usual), A Night on Bare Mountain sounds suitably ferocious.

Sonically, Festival feeds some of our needs by extolling deep bass and extended highs. One slight drawback is a hole present in the middle of the soundstage (certainly not the only RCA to suffer this slight ignominy). While not detracting in the least from the listener’s overall enjoyment, the hole does illuminate the odd placement (right of center) of the woodwind section (other sections remain unscathed). In addition, transparency is not as refined as other recordings in this series with the resultant loss of clarity, especially in the midband of the tonal spectrum.

Nevertheless, all the instruments sound wonderful. In fact, Festival brings you some of the finest viola and timpani sound that you will hear on record. Listen to the second subject of the Glinka; the violas take the melody then sweep and swoon in the finest heart-on-sleeve Russian manner and, while taken on the ride, one can relish their burnished and resin-filled tone. The coda of Colas Breugnon highlights the stick technique of the timpanist; we are treated to gorgeous tone with left and right hand pressure heard easily from his hard mallets. Superb!

Consequently, although a few caveats remain, my opening remarks prevail – Festival is a gem and offers highly polished performances of Russian Romantic works. If the repertoire appeals to you, grab it.

To be continued…