David Aspinall adjudicates a shoot-out between Reference Recordings' new "Mephisto" and the venerable RCA shaded dog, "Witches' Brew"
Waltz #1 Moussorgsky
Night on Bald Mountain
Yaga Franck The
Accursed Huntsman Dukas
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Macabre Malcolm Arnold
Tam O'Shanter JohannStrauss
Tam O'Shanter Moussorgsky Night on Bald
Mountain Saint Saëns Danse Macabre Humperdinck
Witches' Ride from "Hansel and Gretel" Liszt
The devil has all the best tunes, or so he would have us believe. The repertoire on this Reference Recordings release would not go far to further this bit of Mephistophelean mythology. True, Moussorgsky gave us one of the supreme examples of the orchestral miniature, and Dukas has kept his name alive with the clever Sorcerer, but the other estimable composers represented here register at something less than their best. At the final assize, Satan definitely won't be winning Best Original Score (although a case might be made for Special Effects).
My aesthetic reservations may now be shelved. This CD does not exist because of its spiritual depth. In as much as the devil's gift is descriptive, let us judge these efforts on a more superficial level. Apparently, Reference Recordings has no more elevated a motive than to raspberry the audiophile cognoscenti. As with the recent Oue/Minnesota Ports of Call and Pictures at an Exhibition, Mephisto is a direct assault on the RCA 'Living Stereo' pantheon. With Ports and Pictures, Oue took on Munch and Reiner. With Mephisto & Co., Oue, like Lucifer of old, sets his sights on the throne of the Most High - or most low, to be sonically specific - that renowned woofer wower, Witches' Brew. When one of my audiophile acquaintances sought to impress me with the spectacular verisimilitude of his new audio system, the first album he dove for from among 20,000 LPs was this famous Alexander Gibson collection from 1958, the first year of the Living Stereo era. And the first tweeter tweaker on that album my proud friend played me was Malcolm Arnold's Tam O'Shanter, which is one of four pieces the Gibson LP has in common with this new Oue CD. Of course, by featuring Mephisto and Bald Mountain, Oue has widened his sights to also include Reiner (Festival) and Leibowitz (The Power of the Orchestra).
A few generalities which will better orient the audiophile: my middle-fi equipment gave the Minnesota CD a more recessed image, resulting in, on the positive side, a massive sound with plenty of body and considerable atmosphere. On the negative side, the appointed ambiance means forte passages have a homogenized quality, which stands in marked contrast to the ultra-vivid presence of Gibson (for comparison I used the Classic Records' LP reissue and the London SPA LP Danse Macabre, which added Ansermet's Sorcerer). The soundstage immediacy of the Gibson disentangles Arnold's complex textures, which can sound like mayhem rather than music without the requisite inner clarity. This Witches' Brew supplies it in spades. Its clinical wonders were achieved in London's Kingsway Hall, with somewhat more detail but a rather less bewitched atmosphere than Kenneth Wilkinson achieved at the same venue. The RCA Arnold also benefits from the more natural rasp of its dominating brass, which, unfortunately for Oue, do not escape standard digital smearing. On the other hand, the more distant setting of the Minnesota Orchestra creates an air of mystery greatly enhancing the last section of Bald Mountain, most of Mephisto, and all of the Dukas. In short, and measuring strictly on the basis of sonic pleasure, I prefer the Reference CD in the quiet moments and the RCA recording in the climaxes. (Back to higher aesthetic values: I hope collectors who gleefully fork over $500.00+ for an original pressing of Brew will not begrudge $15.00 or so for a much stronger dose of diabolism - the Unicorn CD of Bernard Herrmann's The Devil and Devil Webster - a.k.a. All That Money Can Buy).
Now to the performances (do I hear a few audiophiliacs heading for a sandwich?). In Mephisto,Gibson and Oue saw off on the action highlights, but both get creamed by Reiner's Chicago wizards, who rip through the demonically difficult introduction without taking a breath. Yet, I think Oue shapes Liszt's delicious string swoons with more panache than either, especially Gibson (For what one critic/contemporary of Liszt described as the "ne plus ultra of weirdness and unbridled sensuality", swoons with panache should be minimum requirement). Sorcerer has been conducted more magically, but Oue out-apprentices Ansermet. The Danse Macabre is fairly foolproof - no clear decision here. But Bare Mountain needs more malevolence and ferocity than either Oue or Dutoit (moderns given outstanding recordings) can muster. As conductors go, they don't make pagans like they used to. Among those who gave us a blacker Night: Leibowitz, Reiner, Markevitch and Stokowski (in Fantasia and also Phase 4) - all get more demons per decibel than their modern descendants. Among the moderns, only Kunzel (on Telarc) has the necessary cast-off-all-restraints approach (after all, isn't that the satanic essence?), and he uses Stokowski's arrangement!
Reference Recordings have hedged their bets by including some interesting addenda. Liszt's alternate ending for Mephisto is here, Johann Strauss's Lucifer Polka, Liadov's Baba Yaga and Franck's The Accursed Huntsman (Le Chasseur Maudit). The latter, at 14+ minutes, is the longest track. Though the Minnesotans try, Chasseur is, alas, not top drawer César, frankly speaking.
Those who would hear how personally Liszt related to the contest of good and evil should try his Faust Symphony. Although it has received much more attention over the past 15 years, Faust's analog history was not distinguished. Beecham and Bernstein left us impassioned versions, but considering the work's stature - and here I heartily endorse Jim Svejda's judgment (in The Record Shelf Guide to the Classical Repertoire) that it may be Liszt's masterpiece - Faust is a shamefully neglected work. Try it, not the showoff Mephisto, if you associate Liszt with facility rather than profundity.
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