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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
L'Histoire du Soldat (1918) [29:57]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Rossiniana (1925) [22:58]
Ars Nova/Robert Mandell (Stravinsky)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Robert Zeller
rec. Carnegie Hall, 25 May 1956 (Stravinsky) and no date or location given (Respighi).
Experience Classicsonline

L'Histoire du Soldat is proudly announced front and back of this release, but this is in fact the Suite from that piece, which would otherwise have included a narrator and a good deal more incidental music. It would have been intriguing to read more about those involved with, and the circumstances of this recording, but aside from the session date and location the notes for this release only go into the genesis of L'Histoire du Soldat in its original form.

What the HDTT label does is source out-of-copyright analogue recordings on two or four track reel-to-reel tapes in the best condition possible. These are then 'painstakingly remastered with the finest state-of-the-art equipment and techniques available.' For audiophile enthusiasts there is a full list of equipment used in the remastering chain. The disc is presented in a DVD case, so a collection from this label will by default take a position separate from your other discs.

The recording is indeed a fascinating one. The 'presence' of the musicians is such that you get the feeling that they are in your living room with you, so close are they recorded. This is in contrast to my reference comparison, that directed by Stravinsky in 1961 with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble, available in Sony's massively indispensible 22 CD box; Works of Igor Stravinsky. This is still pretty direct and with a similar wide separation of some instruments, but with a rather larger acoustic. With the Ars Nova ensemble you get every throbbing resonance of the bass drum, a sense of every hair on the violinist's bow, and the grade and thickness of the clarinettist's reed down to the last millimetre. Snare drum and some of the other percussion is placed a little more sympathetically, and trumpet and trombone are also moved just far enough away from the microphones to prevent balance problems and distortion. There is one place, in the 11th second into track four, The Royal March, where the trumpet and bass drum together just push the limit over saturation, so this must have been one of the problems with engineering this piece in such a way. The bassoonist comes off less well in the balance and could have done with a little more 'oomph' by comparison with most of the other players. There is some mild tape hiss, but this only becomes apparent at high volume and is healthy evidence that the high frequencies haven't been filtered out of existence. Eagle-eared listeners will also notice a soft hum in the right channel which kicks in 3:24 into track three, the Pastorale. This seems absent elsewhere. There is also a nasty edit 0:52 into track 6, the Three Dances, where the violinist leaps to the right rather disturbingly. He leaps back at 2:01, no doubt due either to some chopping between takes, or sources.  
The performance occasionally lacks a little of the refinement and accuracy of Stravinsky's Columbia Chamber Ensemble players. The sheer jazzy swing they get in virtuoso numbers such as The Devil's Dance is priceless, but where the Columbia players evoke a Benny Goodman atmosphere of polished professionalism, the Ars Nova ensemble has a raw energy which seems to come closer to the Faustian concept of the piece as a whole. The musicians here certainly have the chops to deal with Stravinsky's often angular melodic figures and virtuosic passagework, but with such a close recording every slight blemish is cruelly exposed. These are remarkably few by the way - as I say, this is very much a crack ensemble, and as the makers say, you're not going to find this rare and gloriously tactile recording anywhere else, so fans of the piece and its evolution should be very much aware of this release. In short, audiophile collectors will get plenty of kicks from this recording, and with good stereo separation and accurate instrumental colour this is a model recording and performance for students and experts alike.

There is always a risk in dredging up old and forgotten recordings, that they are old and forgotten for a reason. This is clearly not the case with the Stravinsky, and is also almost not true of Robert Zeller's conducting of Respighi's Rossiniana. This is neither a bad recording or performance, though there are some funny artefacts which come through on this transfer. I seem to hear a bit of 'pumping' - the kind of effect one used to get playing Dolby B encoded tapes through Dolby C circuitry. The effect is not so extreme here, but I have a feeling that either a certain amount of compression has been used to cut down on noise of one kind or another, or that the original 4 track tape had less to offer in the way of a reliable upper register. Either way, the recording is good enough, but not quite as vivid and engaging as the Stravinsky. The same goes for the performance, which is a bit heavy going. Much of the thing sounds a bit measured and careful, and I miss the wit which can and should come through from places in this score. Zeller has a good feel for melodic shape however, and as you might expect from an orchestra which has the words 'Vienna' and 'opera' in its title, the soaring lines work well, and dance-like elements sound authentic, if not always entirely balletic. Where it all comes to life is in the Tarantella where the orchestra whoops up a storm. All in all, the Respighi is a fine filler for the Stravinsky, but won't be the main selling point for this release. No mention of the work or the recording is made in the inlay notes.

I am very enthusiastic about this initiative to revive old recordings. Like preserving old buildings, once they're gone, they're gone forever, so anyone who puts as much effort into restoring and releasing such unique treasures - warts and all - has to be applauded. These productions have an attractive handmade quality, though listings of movements and timings would be useful. I would challenge one arguable claim: '...your CD or DVD-A was individually 'burned' in order to realize superior sound quality to stamped, mass-produced versions...' Is this true? I'm no expert, but I would have thought differences in encoding and error-correction rates might have an effect, but not the technique used for storing the data. No matter, I've enjoyed this L'Histoire du Soldat greatly, and will no doubt be pointing it out as a reference in future.

Dominy Clements



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