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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Franz von SUPPÉ (1819 - 1895)
Overtures:

The Beautiful Galatea (1865) [6'22]
Pique Dame (1864) [7'28]
Light Cavalry (1866) [6'26]
Poet and Peasant (1854) [9'24]
Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna (date uncertain) [7'32]
Boccaccio (1879) [6'48]
Daniel-François AUBER (1782 - 1871)
Overtures:

The Bronze Horse (1835) [6'49]
Fra Diavolo (1830) [7'31]
Masaniello (1828) [7'24]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Paul Paray
Rec. Cass Technical High School, Detroit, 29 November 1959 (Suppé), Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit, 4 April 1959 (Auber)
SACD reviewed as CD
MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 470 638-2 [65'44]

 

First, if youíre interested, a trio of little "essays" about SACD/CD compatibility and the advance of Mercury Living Presence into the SACD arena. Otherwise, please skip to the heading "The Review!"

The Question of Compatibility

This being the first SACD that Iíve clapped eyes on, I was naturally intrigued by the legend emblazoned across the u-card, "THIS DISC PLAYS ON ALL CD PLAYERS", supported by a sticker on the front declaring "PLAYS ON SACD AND CD PLAYERS". I canít resist a challenge like that, particularly when I have to meet it in order to actually review the disc, so I popped it into my personal CD player and pressed "Play". Guess what? It didnít play. Was the machine faulty? No - it plays all my many ordinary CDs with ease. For sheer devilment, I tried it in a cheap-and-cheerful domestic DVD player, which - sadly - is increasingly the average familyís "device of choice" for workaday music playback. No joy there, either, Iím afraid.

Alright, it does play on my main audio system, and also on the dinky little micro-machine perched on my desk and, for that matter, on my computerís CD-ROM drive. Still, thatís only a 60% success rate. Iíll let that be a warning to me: "compatibility ainít what itís cracked up to be; if you only want CD donít buy SACD". I know, it is an awful rhyme, but then I never claimed to be a Willie Wordsworth, did I?

The "True" Sound of Mercury Living Presence

Mercuryís avowed aim, as discussed in the booklet, is the same as ever it was: "to capture as accurately and completely as possible the true sound of the original tapes and film masters".

Everything depends on what you define as the "true sound". For the CD remasterings done in the 1990s, Mercury refurbished one of the machines used to make and replay the original recordings. Their argument then was that this enabled them to exactly recreate the signal that went into the original LP mastering process. The "true sound" was what came out of the original playback. There was never any question of "improving" or "refurbishing" the signal. Mercuryís philosophy dictated that the CD remastering should sound exactly the same - if the original sounded bad, then the CD should sound just as bad! Mercury did a straight A/B comparison between the results of their digital mastering and the original playback, and made sure that they sounded the same. All nice, neat and simple

The CD medium already boasted resolution, frequency response, dynamic range and headroom that were superior to the original Living Presence masters. Hence youíd think that doing the job again, using a medium of resolution etc. superior to CD, would be a complete waste of time. Youíd be right. However, somebody had moved the goalposts regarding the "True Sound"!

For the new SACD remasterings, Mercury turned to thoroughly modern tape playback equipment, substantially customised for maximum accuracy of information retrieval and carefully tweaked to mimic the original playback equalisation. This amounts to "improving" the sound, not by the use of filtering, equalisation, and other digital jiggery-pokery, but in effect by reducing the distortions introduced during playback on the original machines. The "True Sound" is now no longer what comes out of the playback loudspeakers, but what is on the master tape.

Of course, this means that those simple A/B comparisons are no longer possible, because the "A" is no longer a sound! Mercury say that they made "repeated comparisons both to playback of the original masters on an Ampex 300 machine previously belonging to Wilma Cozart Fine and to the original CD transfers which she herself had prepared". Thatís all well and good, but why? The "Ampex 300" and the "CD" playbacks had already been "certified" as identical during the CD remastering process, so it was surely pointless doing both comparisons.

Moreover, what would comparison of the new (SACD) mastering and old (CD) mastering prove? Either they sound the same, or they sound different. If there is to be any point to the exercise, we must assume that the latter is the desired outcome. If so, then what criteria of "fidelity" do they apply - how do you know that the new job is actually "better" than the old? And, if so, how much "better" is the "right amount" of "better"? Tricky one, that.

Of course, the answer is, "You donít know". Youíre no longer in the business of re-creating the "True Sound", but of subjective assessment of whether one sound is "better" than another. Mercury may be successful in their avowed aim, but now it is no longer possible - for them or us - to actually test the claim.

The Three-Channel Option

The disc encapsulates three versions of the recording. In addition to the standard CD audio - if you can get your player to play it! - there are two SACD versions: you get the choice of normal two-channel stereo and a version that enshrines the original Living Presence three-channel master recording. Let the unwary beware - this is not a "surround sound" option! If you try feeding the three-channel format through any surround sound processor, be prepared for some strange results.

Mercury, in moving from monaural to stereo, replaced the single Living Presence microphone not by the "crossed pair" that their principles most obviously suggested, but by a "line of three" - three omni-directional microphones arranged above and behind the conductor, to cover the left, centre and right of the sound-stage. The master tapes recorded each microphone separately, with the three channels being mixed down into two only when preparing the stereo production masters (LP or CD).

Here, the big advantage of the SACD format over CD is that Mercury can, for the first time, pass on to the listener the responsibility for balancing these three channels. If you choose this option, you must play the channels back through three front speakers (only): a normal stereo pair and a centre speaker. The speakers should be identical models - if you use a "centre channel" speaker that is different from (usually "smaller than") the main stereo pair, then you will get some distortion of the image due to the disparity of sensitivity, dispersion and frequency response. You will then need to adjust the relative level of the centre channel so that it nicely, but only just, "fills the hole" - anything more and the centre will "suck in" the sides! If your kit wonít let you do this, then the best option is to revert to the two-channel SACD version.

The Review!

Itís a sad fact of life that, as the years go by, the quality of recorded sound gets ever better, but our hearing becomes ever less able to appreciate the improvements. A well-recorded CD still sounds so wonderful to me that I hesitate to invest in anything "better", and so Iím likely to become "SACD-enabled" only when my current CD player finally gives up the ghost and I find that SACD capability comes as standard, whatever replacement I choose! So, here I am just considering the standard CD-audio option on this SACD. Iím relieved to say, that this does indeed sound identical to the original CD issue!

As befits its name, the Mercury "Living Presence" recording method has long been associated with astonishingly lifelike results. However, Iíve always had nagging doubts about the "line of three" microphone arrangement which, for reasons I wonít go into here, tends to "flatten" the front-to-back perspective. To some extent this is a movable feast, less or more pronounced depending on the exact recording configuration. In these particular recordings the "flattening" leans distinctly towards the "lesser" end of the "pronounced" spectrum.

As is typically the case, the headphones user will find that the strings are very immediate, spread right across the very front of the sound-field. The woodwind, although far from shy, do sound as though they are slightly behind the strings, whilst the horns seem to emanate from a very natural back left. Brass and percussion tend to sound too immediate, but in terms of sonic weight are balanced beautifully against the strings and woodwind. Even in the more boisterous tuttis - and there are plenty of those! - you can still hear the strings and woodwind a real treat.

In the quieter moments, the hissing of the original master tape makes its (living?) presence felt, but luckily it sounds very smooth and even, and Mercury have considerately maintained this background through the gaps between the items. In view of this, and of whatís happening "above" the hiss, even on headphones it is very easy to forget about it. Ah, but push the sound out through decent loudspeakers, and not only is the hiss less obtrusive, but also the feeling of the "living presence" of a real orchestra is immediately more convincing. Moreover, the crisp immediacy of the orchestral sound is not at the expense of ambient bloom and the feeling of a large volume of air within which the luscious sounds can breathe. Even with the slightly flattened perspective, this is a real top drawer sound recording by anybodyís standards.

The problem, for those of us who do not live in goatherdsí crofts on remote mountainsides, is that this is not neighbour-friendly. A reviewer once described these recordings as "life-enhancing". Iíd go further - turn up the wick and they are fully capable of waking the dead! Someone who does not know them might be hard-pressed to distinguish which of these overtures are by Suppé and which by Auber, though this is not because they lack character but because they share so many common - and commendable - characteristics. Those listeners who find monotony raising its ugly head only have themselves to blame: these nine overtures were never meant to be heard one after the other. But pick just one - any one - and listen, and youíll be bowled over by it. Guaranteed. How come? Good question. Whatís the answer?

Well, as I said, pick one. Letís start at the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start (ask Julie Andrews!). Suppéís The Beautiful Galatea thunders into your ears, all guns blazing! Itís not just the brute impact of the fortissimo tutti that impresses, but the ebullience, the swagger, the infectious "bounce" with which Paray invests the music, his Detroit players slashing with glinting sabres at the dotted rhythms of the equestrian galop. Yet, scarcely half a minute in, a solo horn calls lazily, woodwind are oscillating dreamily and spinning elaborate arabesques. Then, before youíve time to say "Ahh", meltingly intimate strings whisper the sweetest sentiments in your ears, and youíre glad you held onto that "Ahh" for a second. A bassoon, oozing throaty character, wakes up those winds. A sudden bang, and off they romp with another tune, chattering and twittering gaily. Thatís three belting good tunes in as many minutes! For good measure Paray, steering the tempo like a stallion, unerringly builds a climax that erupts with rumbustious heavy brass and crashing percussion that pin you to the back of your armchair. Paray resists any temptation to overcook the disarming waltz, which is played with beguiling simplicity. The tempo is eased back just so, nicely lining up the sights to trigger off a scintillating galop. Thereís more: further down the road the waltz returns, bashed out with cheerful and utterly unsophisticated gusto by the Detroit players!

OK, pick another one! Which one? Any one you like - every oneís a gem, alternating nifty nuances with the highest of spirits. Itís as if youíd gatecrashed the orchestraís annual party: everybodyís having an absolute whale of a time, and who can blame them, with so many cracking tunes and colourful effects around which to wrap their instruments? Is this all a bit too "uncritical"? Alright, take Light Cavalry. At about a minute and a half in, following the grandiose brass cavalcade, Paray launches the woodwindís stuttering pulse at such a lick that the violins can scarcely negotiate their convoluted lines. They do manage it, but it feels as if they only just succeed in hanging onto their scalpel-like executive precision. Iím sorry, but this is my one and only quibble; itís the one change of tempo that sounds forced, along with the corresponding wrench on the reins to yank it back for the tune that always reminds me of The Galloping Major. A mere minute later, Paray has already made up for this little lapse: the declamatory central episode, on ripe unison strings, is maintained at a sturdy pace that slips through into the return of the "Major" with all the ease of an oyster in white wine making its way down oneís gullet! Every other performance Iíve heard drags this tune out interminably.

So it goes on. Believe me, as far as undemanding but tuneful and colourful repertoire is concerned, this is as good as it gets. Paray and the Detroit orchestra are without peer, and the sound sends my ears into ecstasy. Daft as it might sound, if the SACD remastering sounds any "better" than this CD version, then I really donít want to hear it. At my age, I donít think my system could handle that much sheer, unalloyed pleasure. Iím happy to leave that experience to someone younger and more robust than I am.

Paul Serotsky

 



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