New Classical XRCDs -  Jan. 2002

The Japanese Victor folks have moved into the classical genre with their highly successful series of enhanced CDs which come closer to the sound of the original master tapes than anything else in the standard 44.1K digital realm. They elected to start at the top, by delving into the series of Victor Living Stereo recordings made between about l955 and l960, and especially six of those featuring Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The original LPs from this series have sold for as much as $1500 each if in mint condition. The RCA pre-recorded two-track tapes of some of these titles still can astound listeners today - especially in their amazing preservation of concert hall ambience. Classic Records has remastered a number of the recordings on LP, including some at 45 rpm. They have also been reissued by BMG/RCA in several forms over the years and some have been briefly available as imported Japanese gold CDs.

Reiner and the Chicagoans were at the peak of their form during this period. The taskmaster Hungarian conductor was able to whip his charges into an often astonishing display of ensemble virtuosity. In combination with the expertise of recording team Lewis Layton and Richard Mohr - responsible for most of these - the Reiner/Chicago recordings have held their own over the years as those most beloved by audiophiles as well as discerning listeners who gave little thought to niceties of sonics. This band may not come with the reputation of say, the Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw or BSO, but somehow their competing versions of some of these classics sound a bit dull next to the electricity generated by Reiner and his players and preserved on the master tapes for these 45 or so years.

It's difficult to think what I might add to the volumes already written about all of these recordings, but I'll make a stab at it:

THE REINER SOUND - RAVEL: Rapsodie espangole, Pavan for a Dead Princess, RACHMANINOFF: Isle of the Dead - JMC XR-0215-2:

A good place to start with is this, one of the most popular in the entire series of Living Stereo Reiner/Chicago recordings. The name could have been put on almost any of the recordings, but I suppose the main idea here was the way Reiner could put across the evocative orchestral tone painting of appropriate composers, and Ravel and Rachmaninoff certainly qualify. There is the connection of the two works with Dead in the their titles, but that is balanced by the very much alive and energetic Spanish Rhapsody. The Rachmaninoff work attempts to be an aural impression of the famous Bocklin painting of the same name. The dark colors of the work are a strong contrast to the brightness of the Rapsodie.

DEBUSSY: Iberia; RAVEL: Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, Alborada del gracioso - JMCXR-0216-2:

More super-charged orchestral Spanishness here, again created by a French composer - this time Debussy. The three-movement work brims with sun drenched impressions of things Iberian. Ravel's Morning Song of the Dandy that closes the CD is almost like a fourth movement of Iberia. In between, the captivating lilt and melodies of Ravel's eight waltzes are a welcome alternative to the Viennese schmaltz/waltz.

DVORAK: New World Symphony - JVCXR-0013:

I've been hearing this chestnut more frequently that I wanted to recently for some reason. However, Reiner is not afraid to bring out the magnificence of the Ninth and the glorious sonics captivate the ears even against one's better judgement. Not wanting to depart from the packaging of the original LPs - the original cover art and back liner notes are reproduced with each xrcd - this one has no filler to the 39-minute symphony in spite of well over 30 minutes of space remaining unused on the CD.

BARTOK: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Hungarian Sketches - JMCXR-0012:

Reiner gets deeply into his Hungarian gestalt in these two Bartok works, and with thrilling results. The Music for Strings is not easy to perform without risks of sounding rather colorless, but Reiner's version of this quintessential "night music" shines brightly with the unique sound-world that Bartok created with his unusual instrumentation and harmonies. The Sketches are orchestrations of some of the composer's piano pieces, with tone colors only suggested on the keyboard now coming to brilliant orchestral life.

RICHARD STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra - JMCXR-0011:

This recording has certainly seen a variety of formats, including a half speed-mastered LP, open reel tape and even Mobile Fidelity cassette. Never has the opening (popularized by its use in the Kubrick film 2001) sounded quite as impressive as on this xrcd2 disc. Even the original LP version as well as Classic's suffer from surface noise and rumble at the very beginning which detract from the effect of the rumbling pipe organ pedal, and of course all the bugaboos of LP reproduction are bypassed here, with only a modicum of hiss from the original tapes. Even that hiss is separated clearly from the music and not mixed in with it as on many CD reissues of older source material. This time the work is only 34 minutes, but what a 34 minutes! And I ask you, what could you possibly follow Also Sprach with anyway? The original back liner notes are reproduced; get out your magnifying glasses.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto - Jascha Heifetz, violin/Chicago Sym./Reiner - JMCXR 0009:

Another definitive version of a classic. Not as overplayed as the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, though. Heifetz is unequaled in this. His violin sounds larger than life, but then so do the solo instruments in most concerto recordings. There are no English notes with the CD for some reason, and program length is only 29 minutes.


MENDELSSOHN: Concerto in E Minor; PROKOFIEFF: Concerto in G Minor - Jascha Heifetz/Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch - JMCXR-0010:

This time we get two violin concertos - probably the most-played one of all and one that should be heard more - from the alternately lyric and acerbic Russian. Both were recorded in the same Orchestral Hall home of the Chicago Symphony during a tour by the BSO. John Pfeiffer produced the sessions. If you don't have the Mendelssohn in your collection as yet - which would be fairly surprising - you cannot go wrong musically with this one, and the sound can't be beat in the 44.1K world. Again, no English liner notes.

DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor - Gregor Piatigorsky, cello/Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch - JMCXR-0014:

While Pablo Casals' original version of this classic - originally recorded in the 78s era - is regarded as pretty definitive, the subtle beauties of this enduringly wonderful work demand better sonic dress. Piatigorsky has a somewhat more refined delivery than Casals and the Boston Symphony sound is a perfect match for him. The 1960 recording, made in Boston's Symphony Hall, is sumptuous and exhibits details never heard before, even on the LP version. I would say it could be the definitive stereo version of the Dvorak. While Dvorak's New World can quickly sound Old Hat, for me that never happens with the Cello Concerto.

- John Sunier

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