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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem - “Grande Messe des Morts,” Op 5 (1837) (84.44)
Leopold Simoneau, tenor
New England Conservatory Chorus/Lorna Cook de Varon.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 27 April 1959
Notes in English with text in Latin and English translation.
Technical notes in English, Français, and Deutsch.
Remastered in DSD by John Newton, Soundmirror, Inc.
Hybrid SACD also playable on CD players.
3.0 and 2.0 stereo SACD tracks. 2.0 stereo cd tracks.
BMG RCA RED SEAL “LIVING STEREO” 82876 663732-2 (2) [39.13 + 45.31]

 


Comparison Recordings

Sir Colin Davis, Ronald Dowd, LSO and Chorus. (remastered at 96kHz) [ADD] Philips 464 689-2

Eliahu Inbal, Keith Lewis, Frankfurt RSO, ORF & NDR Choirs, Brilliant Classics 99999 [also at one time available on the Denon label]

James Levine, Luciano Pavarotti, BPO, Senff Chorus DG 429 724-2

Robert Spano, Frank Lopardo, Atlanta SO and Chorus Telarc SACD 60627

When I reviewed the Inbal recording, I gave it very high marks. This was largely because of the excellent recorded sound. I ranked the finely performed Munch rather low, again, because of poor recorded sound on that CD issue. But with this new DSD SACD re-mastering things have changed dramatically. Does the last now become first? Read on.

First it must be said that all of these recordings are really good. Any one would please you, would please Berlioz, would fully present the music. What follows is my opinion on ranking, and some may disagree.

First, if you love this music you must have the Colin Davis LSO recording on Philips. This recording attains a plateau of consistent beauty and emotional intensity not likely ever to be equalled, let alone surpassed. I think you will want the 96kHz re-mastering, although there is a little something of a trade-off: for increased clarity, and reduced hiss and distortion, the artefacts of digital restoration are barely audible to an ear such as mine which is trained to listen for them, although of course most people would never notice. But there are some who might prefer the earlier CD issue, hiss and distortion and all. Hiss creates an auditory illusion: when the ear hears a sound, if the upper partials are not present, but there is hiss present, the brain will pick out of the random frequencies of the hiss the missing upper partials and think it hears a full range sound. Thus hiss can create a spurious reality. Some even feel that hiss represents air movement and consequently speak of hissy recordings as having “air” (audio engineers use the term “air” usually in another context). There is no argument that the old fashioned analogue “noise clamp” hiss removal (a good example of this was the Decca LP issue of the sound-track from the Beecham film of “Tales of Hoffmann”) was disturbing. In sum, if you already have the earlier issue of the Davis recording, you may want to keep it, even if you buy the re-issue. You may want to listen to them both now and then.

Purely in terms of performance, with the Davis as a clear number one, the Munch/Boston is a very close second. In the Sanctus, Munch and Simoneau certainly are the equal of Davis and Dowd; and some will think exceed them. The careful sculpting of the emotional line is beautiful to behold throughout, but neither the chorus nor the listener are in danger of being frightened. It should not be a surprise that the London and Boston orchestras are so capable here; both orchestras worked closely with Pierre Monteux who learned his Berlioz in Paris from people who had worked with Berlioz. Both Davis and Munch had by the time of these recordings earned reputations as Berlioz specialists by performing and recording his complete oeuvre.

Number three is the Levine/Pavarotti/BPO version, in every way superb, with Inbal coming next and Spano last. All of these versions feature very good sound, but if realistic sound is your primary concern, then —

Purely in terms of sound, if you have a surround sound SACD player — and if sound is your criterion you surely will have — the Spano recording is clearly number one. There is no substitute for real high resolution surround sound with the offstage trumpets in the back of the hall and the realistic recreation of full concert hall acoustics in your listening space. Digital recording is especially kind to the soprano voice of large choruses bringing us a realism never before achieved. Munch comes a close second, with the clear delineation of the choral lines beautiful to behold, but there is no mistaking the audible congestion in the choral sopranos from the 1959 analogue electronics. You will want to use your surround sound encoder to provide derived rear channel information. But be warned; there is little on the first half of the Munch disk under 85 Hz; I found a 15 dB bass boost most helpful. In the Sanctus, the deep bass seems to come back, a good thing because of the quiet bass drum notes. Also, in the very quiet parts of the Munch recording one can hear traffic noises from outside the hall. Number three in sound is the Inbal, and a close number four is the Levine/Pavarotti/BPO disk.

My recommendation for those who want a balance of sound and performance on regular CD is, after the Davis/LSO recording, Munch and Levine. They are about equal in first position, with Spano and Inbal also about equal in the second spot.

As with most of the other Living Stereo SACD re-issues, if your religion prohibits you from ever owning an SACD player, you will still obtain noticeably better sound from the CD tracks on these re-mastered Hybrid SACD disks than you would hear from the previous CD-only issue. If you have the earlier Munch CD-only issue you may find it worth your while to replace it.

Paul Shoemaker

 

 

 



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