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Pops Caviar:
Alexander BORODIN
(1833 – 1887)
In the Steppes of Central Asia [7:42]; Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908) Russian Easter Festival Overture [13:22]; Alexander BORODIN Prince Igor: Overture [10:07]; Polovtsian Dances [11:03] (rec. 20-21 June 1957); Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903 – 1978) Gayane: Lullaby [4:57]; Lezghinka [2:48]; Dance of the Rose Maidens [2:03] Dance of the Kurds [1:58]; Sabre Dance [2:28] (rec. 23 May 1958); Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Tsar Saltan: The Flight of the Bumblebee [1:26] (rec. 30 May 1958) Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893) Eugene Onegin: Polonaise [4:34] (rec. 27 June 1958); The Sleeping Beauty: Waltz [4:32]; Aram KHACHATURIAN Masquerade Suite: Galop [2:40] (rec. 25 June 1959)
Boston Pops Orchestra/Arthur Fiedler
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston. recording dates see above.
BMG-RCA Red Seal 82876716182 SACD [69:40]

RCA Victor were early starters in the field of stereo recording. In late 1953 and early 1954 some two-channel tests recordings were made. Even though domestic stereo equipment didn’t exist at that time they went on to record some of their leading orchestras and artists, confident that one day the market would catch up. This it did in 1955 with the advent of stereo tape players and, finally, in 1958 when the stereo LP was launched. RCA Victor were in the front-line and presented their "Living Stereo" series which was state-of-the-art recording technology in those days. It is from that heritage that they are now releasing these recordings on SACD. The results are often stunning, considering that the originals were made 50 years ago. I have had some "Living Stereo" discs for review lately and been greatly impressed by the clarity, the dynamic range, the exact positioning of each instrument, the presence. The Fritz Reiner disc with excerpts from Salome and Elektra (review) is probably the most remarkable when it comes to lifelike reproduction. The present disc, with the somewhat cheap title "Pops Caviar", also has pinpoint clarity, enhanced no doubt by the original three-channel recording. Even the tiniest detail is audible. Both orchestra and technical staff had some field days when setting this down. The choice of repertoire was designed to show off the technique and the virtuoso orchestra. The percussion department must have had a ball. In the early days of home stereo listening, triangles, xylophones, snare-drums were favourites for showing off the new equipment. Let’s not forget either all those records with sound-effects: ping-pong playing, trains passing through the living-room etc. Later, in the sixties, the multi-microphone technique was introduced where, in extreme cases, literally every instrument was individually miked. Marques such as Phase 4 had the listener sitting in the middle of the orchestra with, in many cases, a distorted, highly unrealistic orchestral balance as an obvious consequence. It does RCA Victor credit that they never descended to gimmicks of that kind. What they produced was honest, although spectacular, recordings, intended to recreate the sound of an actual performance heard from a good seat in the recording venue. This seat was fairly close to the rostrum and a fortissimo could, and still can, hit you with tremendous power in the pit of the stomach.

Before the pianissimo start of Borodin’s atmospheric painting of Central Asia there is some rumble from the hall, probably not heard on the LPs with their inherent mechanical rumble. It doesn’t detract much though, and the wind instruments, entering one by one, are realistically caught and blend well in ensemble. However when the full orchestra play a certain hardness develops. The strings on their own have warmth and the woodwind is delicious, so it seems that the brass is the weak link here, not individually. The playing can’t be faulted per se but the full brass can and does become a mite overwhelming. This of course has to do with personal taste and also the listening equipment. When listening through headphones I got a much more positive impression.

Playing through the programme it was a pleasure to hear the Russian Easter Festival Overture again. It is a marvellous score, full of contrasts and colours and the recording captures every nuance. Fiedler plays it for all it’s worth: noble but thrilling. Back to Borodin again and Prince Igor. The overture is bold and the main theme sings, while the dances are alert. Nowadays one would have liked to have a chorus joining in to give the extra frisson. The five movements from Gayane are played with enormous gusto and the Sabre Dance is appropriately frightening. I am less enthusiastic about the Tchaikovsky pieces. The polonaise from Eugene Onegin has all the grandeur needed but it feels chilly and warmth is also ultimately missing from The Sleeping Beauty Waltz, although the strings sing well enough. Against that the reading, or the recording, is unnecessary aggressive. The concluding gallop from Masquerade is also cheeky and aggressive, but that is as it should be. The central clarinet solo comes as a balmy oasis but after this it is full throttle again.

In spite of some reservations this is a recommendable issue. What else is to be expected from this source? The presentation is up to RCA’s normal standards with notes on the music from the original LP documentation. There’s also a note about Arthur Fiedler, reminding us that his recording of Gade’s Jalousie was RCA’s first classical recording to sell more than one million copies. The documentation is completed by some technical notes. If the programme appeals to you, why not give it a chance? Be warned though that if you start with some of the heftier numbers it is wise to turn the volume down a bit, otherwise you may be blown out of your chair.

Göran Forsling



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