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Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896) [31.53]
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, (1898) [43.39]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Recorded at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois, USA, March 6-8, 1954 ADD
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français.
Restored to 2.0 stereo utilising the DSD system by Soundmirror, Inc.
Hybrid SACD playable on CD players and SACD players.

RCA/BMG - LIVING STEREO - 82876-61389-2 [75.40]

Comparison Recordings:
Kempe, Staatskapelle Dresden [ADD] EMI CMS 7 64346 2
Op 40, Zubin Mehta, LAPO, Decca LP CS6608

There are a half dozen or so recordings which sit upon the landscape like magnificent mountain peaks, landmarks it is said; works of art where the skill in the recording technique artistically speaking is equally as remarkable as the music and the performance they present. Some of them are now out of copyright and should be entrusted to great museums to be preserved along with the Picassos and the Rembrandts. But, now that this is possible, why not publish them as well so everyone can have a copy? And, really, what better way to preserve them?

The story I heard about this recording session is that after the Heldenleben recording was completed RCA had been rehearsing, adjusting microphones, and recording all morning on the 8th of March and no one was satisfied with the results on Zarathustra so far. The engineers left for lunch, intending to begin recording again when they returned. Reiner and the orchestra were tired and wanted to call it a day, so Reiner said, letís just do it, the concertmaster walked over and pushed the start button on the recorder and they played the work straight through. When the engineers returned from lunch, the musicians had gone home, and this astonishing recording was "in the can."

The work was not well known so when it was released on monophonic hi-fi LP it didnít make much impact (this was years before 2001). But when it was released as a 7Ĺ"-per-second two channel stereo tape every hi-fi demonstration set-up of the time included it. It came out on stereo disk and again gained a legendary popularity. But RCA decided it was primitive and hissy and lacking in the deep bass range and had Reiner re-record the work in its then state-of-the-art stereo sound. This performance was released on LP and was pretty good but not outstanding, but was for a long time the only one of the two you could buy. Relatively recently, RCA realised that the older tape was better and utilising digital tape hiss reduction methods, cleaned it up released it on CD. Now here it is in a new, virtually perfect digital version of the restored original master on SACD!

The Kempe Zarathustra boasts a broader undistorted frequency range and is close competition for the Reiner, but by comparison lacks a little of the drama, sweep, concentration, and realistic orchestral perspective of the Chicago version. Some orchestral balances in the Kempe version are a bit odd, suggesting perhaps one too many microphones. The violin solo is superbly played, however. Kempeís newer analogue sound is an advantage; in fact this was a four channel master and could be issued some day as a surround sound DVD-Audio. The Karajan version is good, too; itís the one used in the sound track to 2001.

Zarathustra is at times almost Stravinskian in the transparency and starkness of is orchestration, whereas Heldenleben is more often lush and heavy by contrast, and this may be why Reinerís Heldenleben is less notable, showing up, more than at any time in Zarathustra, that this is a 50 year old recording. Reiner is at its best in sections 1, 4, and 5, but is a little too dignified to build on the satire of the "critics" section. My preferred version has always been with Zubin Mehta and the LAPO on Decca, part of a series with this conductor and orchestra which in my mind ranks comparable to the series with Reiner and the CSO in terms of the number of great recordings which issued from it, including a superlative Alpine Symphony and Holst Planets; but unfortunately not many of these Decca recordings ever made it to CD and I donít think any are currently available. Mehtaís later digital remakes with other orchestras have been uniformly disappointing. I also enjoyed the Antal Dorati/Minnesota Orchestra version of Heldenleben. But my current favourite Heldenleben is, again, from the complete Strauss orchestral collection by Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Reiner conducted at Dresden where a number of Strauss premiers were held. The Kempe recordings are somewhat reserved and balanced, recorded with rich detail ó the violin solo is, again, the best Iíve ever heard ó differing from these "high energy" American versions which can tend at times to be overly monumental.

Some recording engineers of my acquaintance have reservations about DSD, while others I donít know praise it to the skies. Sony is able to collect a large licensing fee for its use, so it must have some virtues. I suspect like many new things there are some bugs in the system to be worked out and oneís enthusiasm depends on his experiences with it. This series of RCA Living Stereo restorations on SACD is the finest use of DSD Iíve encountered. In every case where Iíve been able to compare, the CD tracks on these Living Stereo hybrid SACD are very noticeably superior to the previous CD-only releases, so even if you already own the CD and donít own an SACD player, you may still want to buy this disk. But keep in mind that none of the tracks on this disk will play on a Sony DDU 1621 DVD ROM computer player.

Paul Shoemaker

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