HECTOR BERLIOZ: The Damnation of Faust – Boston Sym. Orch./Tanglewood Festival Chorus/soloists /Seiji Ozawa – Pentatone multichannel (4.0 RQR Series) SACD PTC 5186 212 (two discs) [Distr. by Naxos] (3/10/15) 122:10 ****:
Pentatone has done a spectacular job with their “Remastered Classics” series, featuring several important, landmark recordings from the quadraphonic tapes from the 1960s through early 1980s. This was a fascinating – though not fully successful – audiophile venture at the time. “Quadraphonic”, sometimes referred to as “Quadrasonic” sound was similar to what we now call surround sound. It used four channels in which speakers are positioned at the four corners of the listening space, reproducing signals that were – for the most part – independent of one another. Quadraphonic audio was the earliest consumer product in surround sound and thousands of quadraphonic recordings were made during the 1970s.
It turned into a marketing failure due to many technical problems and format incompatibilities. Quadraphonic audio vinyls were more expensive to produce than standard two-channel stereo. Playback required special phono cartridges, additional speakers and specially-designed decoders and amplifiers, although I did have my setup and remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever!
The thing about this format was that – problems notwithstanding – the audio recordings made and the sounds produced were pretty impressive and filled a space well (especially with works such as the present one) It was, however, predictably artificial and unrealistic compared to the actual orchestral hall experience. This particular series looks fabulous and includes not just the present very impressive recording but also Ozawa’s Symphonie fantastique with Boston and Michael Tilson Thomas’s Le Sacre du Printemps, among other gems. Pentatone also has a very keen marketing department as all of the album packages have a similar “trademark” look and are packaged with impressively ‘solid’ booklets.
As to this performance, it is really good. Seiji Ozawa had just begun his nearly thirty-year tenure as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1973 when Deutsche Grammophon captured the young conductor’s rendition of La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24, in multichannel sound.
I grew up being a huge Seiji Ozawa fan and had the good fortune to see him live many times. At the time he was a bit of a “rock star” among conductors for his occasionally flamboyant, atypical attire and his equally attention-getting podium gestures which I remember fondly including broad, sweeping arm motions and – once in a while – cues that landed with him jumping up. It was either a visual treat, a spectacle for the audience or a distraction for purists. Audiences typically found him and the BSO to be one of the best shows in town and deservedly so.
While Ozawa played just about every kind of music with the Bostonians in his amazing tenure, he was always at his best with the big, dramatic, loud works, such as the ‘Damnation.’ I have heard a few different renditions of this four-part “dramatic legend” but this is, for me, one of the best. It is – thanks to Berlioz’s masterful orchestrations – beautiful and poignant in places and frighteningly intense in others. Just listen to scenes nineteen: “Pandemonium” and twenty: “In Heaven” for sheer contrast as well as some audiophile bliss. (Go ahead – turn it up.)
The sound quality on these SACDs is wonderful and, by all accounts, this was one of Ozawa’s finest moments with his orchestra that, at the time, was correctly considered one of the “top five.” I endorse this release fully for both its historical value as well as the sound quality and – once again – the whole series looks fantastic and I am going to seek out more.