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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1810) [36:14]
Artur Schnabel (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
rec. 24 March 1932, Abbey Road Studio No. 1

A few by now usual preliminaries regarding Pristine Audio’s new XR technology for those who’ve not previously encountered my reviews. XR is a claimed miracle of the transfer engineer’s art: go to their website for specifics. They claim that pre-1945 78s now have their audible upper frequency range increased from between 5-6 kHz to somewhere between 11-13 kHz actually going further, boldly announcing that these transfers render “all previous transfers and restorations … entirely obsolete.” Since the firm has been embarking on a wide programme of XR restorations this is a powerful claim. A modern recording of the work in question is taken and utilised as a reference file – as was the case in the bass-stiffening and percussion-enhancing in the famous Heward recording of the Moeran Symphony released on Divine Art. I’ve reviewed his XR work on Kathleen Long’s post-war, 78-based, Fauré Deccas (see review) which I liked, was disappointed by the Thibaud-Cortot Kreutzer sonata (see review), remained solidly ambivalent about the Weingartner Eroica (see review) and noted the interventionist implications of the piano work in Hüsch’s Schubert – though here the sonic improvements in immediacy were certainly apparent. I noted the famous VW conducted Sixth Symphony as another way of doing things transfer-wise (see review).
This is a famous recording and the most recent incarnation is on Naxos (see review). There are other transfers, prominently the Pearl set of all the Schnabel-Sargent concerto recordings on GEMM CDS9063 – allied to the fascinating Izler Solomon-conducted 1947 recording of the Fourth.   As before what’s most important is the nature of the transfer philosophies involved. Pearl retains the most surface noise but has a laudable clarity; Naxos is fine, with less surface but retained upper partials; one could go either way, dependent on one’s priorities. The XR offers a rigorously interventionist stance. Bass reinforcement has clearly been graphed onto the performance. The endemic wiriness captured in the original HMV has become tamed and solidified by the XR process. The piano spectrum has also been brought forward and more “clarified.” The process has smoothed out the orchestral attacks, some of which sounded brittle in the 78; the degree of warmth seems to equalise things downwards and to give the LPO greater solidity and warmth. Is it my imagination or do the horns sound more rustic on Naxos and Pearl, more cosmopolitan in the XR?  Schnabel’s monumentally coarse introduction to the finale also sounds smoothed over in the XR.
Once again XR is engaging in a war with the original recording, putting things to rights, changing perspectives, adjusting balances, and so on. If you can accommodate such an approach this transfer offers a quite radical solution. A more central recommendation however has to remain the Naxos; the Pearl offers discographic prizes of its own.
Jonathan Woolf


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