High Definition Tape Transfers has discovered that, played back on a modified deck, the open reel issues dating from the 1950s and 1960s - including EMI’s Stereosonic tapes - contain a wealth of authentic and vivid analogue sound. I have also heard a transcription made by HDTT from a first generation Decca studio master for Gryphon Audio of Denmark, and it sparkles beyond all anticipations. You need to buy some very exclusive hi-hi to acquire this particular CD.
For an additional $15 HDTT will burn your CD at 1x speed onto a Taiyo Yuden blank with equipment chosen to reduce jitter and optimise the burning of the pits. Jitter refers to small but smearing timing differences in a digital signal. HDTT can supply a higher digital resolution of 24-bit 192 kHz sampling. This is sold as a DVD-A or as a FLAC Download (both of which require special equipment). The review disc is the “basic” $19.95 HDTT CD mastered from an open reel tape. It was compared to the EMI CD and to the vinyl LP - which, we assume, EMI made from a studio tape.
The EMI is an attractive mass-produced product with fine sleeve-notes, full data, and not a spelling mistake in sight. The HDTT is an enthusiast’s product. You’ve heard it said that a book cannot be judged by its cover; it seems that compact discs are much the same. One product is fast food; the other is in vivid stereo. The fact that EMI owns a tape copy at least one generation higher than HDTT does not flatter the self-styled world’s greatest recording organisation.
A shocking truth emerges. It transpires that the CD is capable of lifelike music sufficient to reproduce a symphony. Indeed, it reaches the quality level of my old LP. It is remarkable that HDTT have done it, but CD has still not caught up. Over these twenty-five years vinyl mastering and playback equipment have also progressed.
Technology serves art. What about the content? The music.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris of Jewish parents. He was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher embracing a pessimistic and atheistic view long before it was in vogue in Europe. He was an expert on the theatre and acoustics. Musically he became a virtuoso organist and a professor of music. His “Organ Symphony” is a melodic, emotional roller-coaster which I never tire of hearing. Its tunes are infectious. This version also serves as a hi-fi demo disc not only for its deep organ bass which, given serious loudspeakers, will shake your doors and windows. In true French style, the overtures are colourful lollipops. All benefit from this authentic and historic French style of orchestral playing. In the modern shrinking world, orchestral styles are converging, and more’s the pity. Here we have Gallic instruments and instincts; I can’t define it but I love it.
Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach, also French-born of Jewish descent, is best remembered for his operettas - ninety-nine in all! La Belle Hélène
, technically an opéra-bouffe, was premiered in 1864. Nietzsche declared him a greater genius than Wagner. Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s comic opera Fra Diavolo
), premièred in 1830, is based on the life of the bandit Michele Pezza who terrified residents of southern Italy in the years 1800-1806, when he died in Naples aged 35.
In summary, this is hugely enjoyable music which is deeply felt by the players in true Gallic style. Today’s performances are more note-perfect but less spontaneous; same with the sound. The recording justifies the theory of the bygone golden age of natural recording. The remastering by HDTT puts to EMI the question, why, oh, why are you the McDonalds of music, just like the other corporates?
To sample the very best modern recordings of the symphony, I turned to recent SACDs from two smaller labels. The complacent corporates don’t bother with this high resolution format. They will soon own the world by downloads having learned that convenience and empty quality claims win over the mass market. The serious collector should not overlook the following. The Grand Metropolitan Orchestra recorded the symphony in December 2005 in Quebec, Canada for ATMA Classique (SACD2 2331). The sound engineer was Anne-Marie Sylvestre. The engineering is so brilliant that I emailed the label to congratulate her. I’ve never done this before, or since but her achievement is astounding.
At around the same time the Finnish label Ondine issued the symphony. The live concert is played by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (ODE 1094-5), Once again this is a hybrid SACD playable on any CD player.
Sonically, the modern recordings have even more transparency, detail, open soundstage, deep bass so proving that engineering has actually progressed from the Golden Age. Orchestras have become more perfect but less caricatures. We now have so much choice on CD, it has never been more fun to collect records. My recommendation would probably be the fabulous Philadelphians; partly for the inspired compilation of the Saint-Saëns with Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva
and Poulenc’s concerto - three amazing pieces for organ and orchestra in one fabulous SACD.