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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade Op. 35, Symphonic Suite
Norman Carol (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 1972
DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 4.0 surround, reviewed in surround
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [47:05]
 
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Bach’s Greatest Fugues - Scored for Double Orchestra
St. Anne Fugue in E flat, Little Fugue in G minor,
Fugue in D, Great Fugue in G minor,
Fugue in A minor, Fugue in C Minor, Fugue in C
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 1973
DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 4.0 surround, reviewed in surround
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [40:46]

These recordings first emerged during the music industry’s ill-fated attempt to market surround sound in the early 1970s. So spectacular was its failure that the CD, introduced a decade later, was all but condemned to a stereo-only existence. At the heart of the problem was competition between incompatible technologies for quadraphonically encoding gramophone records: most notably, the CBS SQ system, and the CD-4 system used by RCA. The vast majority of consumers stood back, either not caring or hoping in vain for a victor. For well-heeled collectors, however, there was another option – discrete quadraphonic tapes that could be played on 4-channel open reel machines. It is from two such tapes that the current review material is drawn; more on that later.

The CBS/RCA interplay is also musically relevant here since Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded for RCA over the periods 1936-42 and 1968-80, and for CBS/Columbia from 1944 to 1968. There was much duplication of standard repertoire, and Scheherazade was recorded three times during the LP era: in 1953 (mono), 1962 (stereo), and this 1972 quadraphonic effort. Competition between the latter two versions is now rather moot since Sony Music own the recordings of both companies, but statistically at least the 1962 CBS performance has had the greater airing through numerous reissues. There appears to be just one release on CD of the 1972 performance, in stereo, under the RCA Classical Navigator series.

My impressions of this Scheherazade were of Ormandy being wilful and unsubtle, offset by superb orchestral playing. Curious to sample other opinion, a quick scout through several Penguin Guides revealed nothing on either the RCA or CBS versions. Even the American Record Guide, a staunch Ormandy supporter, in its 2004 Russian music overview could only remark on his “unnecessary cut” in the third movement of the 1962 recording. (Not, by the way, in this 1972 RCA.) Perhaps the most telling view I found was Peter Gammond’s in Music on Record (1962), positing that Ormandy "pulls and tugs away unmercifully" in the 1953 Columbia. Was history repeating, I thought? Recent opinion on the 1962 CBS has been more favourable, including on this site here and here. In the final analysis, though, nothing counts more than loyalty, and legions of Ormandy followers will undoubtedly welcome the re-birth of this 1972 Scheherazade in its original sonic format. As one keenly interested in the history of recorded music, so do I.

The second review disc is a transfer of Ormandy’s RCA Bach’s Greatest Fugues collection, which appears to have had an even more evanescent existence. Recorded quadraphonically in 1973, it was another reprise of his CBS work. The “plump and gaudy” orchestrations were mostly by Ormandy and Arthur Harris, rather than Stokowski’s more famous ones. Intended to showcase sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I’m sure these pieces made good concert fare for eager young audiences, but how well do they work for home listening? Quite well, as it happens, although one cringes at the thought of these often banal, pass-the-parcel arrangements in the hands of a lesser orchestra. While Bach emerges unscathed, thankfully, one is nevertheless left to ponder of what interest this disc is, musically, to other than Ormandy enthusiasts when there are much better arrangements to be had.

I’m guessing, though, it’s the sound that will interest most readers. HDTT releases have been generally well received on this site, with surveys here and here. Much of the material they process comes from consumer formats, such as the 4-track tapes used for these Ormandy transfers. In all probability, these tapes followed the same manufacturing path as the equivalent LPs up to the point where separate production masters were needed to suit each format. While this meant the buyer was getting a copy of the studio master, it was at best a copy of a copy, but more likely a generation or so beyond that. In the digital world, this doesn’t matter, as binary data can theoretically be replicated forever. In the analogue world, however, each new tape copy increases noise, distortion and compression, not to mention the other tape bogeys of dropout, print-through and physical aging.

So, does HDTT’s “high definition” in this case mean a digital copy of the actual tape, warts and all, or does it mean taking the listener much closer to the original source?

It’s immediately apparent these HDTT discs don’t sound like the commercial 4-track tapes I’ve known. Everything’s remarkably fresh and firm, free of just about every undesirable artefact. On closer listening, though, I did wonder where the noise floor had gone - not only an absence of tape hiss, but very little ambient sound at all. The music didn’t fade away naturally – below a certain threshold, it just vanished. If indeed the HDTT treatment is removing low-level signal, many of the sonic impurities would go as well, contributing to the overall impression of cleanness. With purity of sound in mind, then, perhaps HD in this case means “highly distilled”.

Heard quadraphonically, these recordings are great fun. Yes, that assertive RCA sound is still there, but now seems like an old friend. It’s all truly “surround” with sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra placed in different parts of the room. I recall this was originally frowned upon by the purists who believed the objective was to have the listener in normal concert position with only ambient sound from the rear. Much as with current opinion on the performances themselves, however, time and nostalgia soften the critical edge.

As noted at the beginning, BD-A discs were provided for review, which enable the original 4.0 quadraphonic sound to be played through a home movie or surround system. HDTT also offer a 4.0 FLAC digital download, as well as several other download and physical media options, including a standard CD. For stereo replay, if that is your preference, the BD-A disc also offers a 2.0 option, but I’d hesitate to recommend this more expensive format over CD, given that research has indicated listeners can’t tell the difference between standard and high resolution audio, despite what they may fervently believe.

In any format, neither release seems particularly good value, considering the short playing times and premium prices. Postage aside, the packaged versions of the BD-A and CD are $24.99 and $19.99 respectively, while the budget CD is $7.99, but you’ll need to provide your own jewel case, and download the liner notes and cover art for it. Also, as a note of caution, neither of the BD-A discs I received would load in my regular blu-ray player, which is an older model but up-to-date in firmware upgrades. I had to make alternative arrangements to conduct this review.
 
The dressing-up and transfer of nth generation pre-recorded tapes to digital media necessarily involves some compromises, and HDTT on the whole do a fine job. One hopes at some time in the future that Sony Music, as Pentatone do with the old Polygram catalogue, release these performances, and others of the era, from the original quadraphonic masters. Until that happens, the HDTT discs will do nicely.

Des Hutchinson



 

 




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