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Bernstein waterfront HDTT9830

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
On the Waterfront – Symphonic Suite
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. 1961, transferred from a Columbia Records 15ips 2 track tape

Recently MWI reviewers were invited to download recordings from the HDTT website for review. I chose three collections that feature classic recordings that have been much-loved and familiar parts of my listening life for the best part of fifty years (reviews of the other two - Gould and Walton - will follow in coming days). So the question for me here was not about the music or the performances but how these transfers compare to existing formats and price points. The HDTT website has a useful link allowing potential purchasers to compare the available download formats. I opted for the 24/192 option for all three of the recordings which in the UK retails for 17.00 each.

Bernstein conducting his own suites from the film On the Waterfront and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in the orchestration by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal is a genuine classic. I have owned copies of these performances in just about every media and iteration since I first heard it in the mid 1970’s. HDTT where possible list the source they have used – usually commercial tapes rather than original studio masters. In this case they cite a 15ips 2 track tape released by Columbia Records in 1961.

The New York Philharmonic was on electric form for these sessions and these transfers reveal just how fine the original CBS recording was – something that the LP transfer I first encountered did not. Despite the quality and quantity of other versions in the intervening sixty years, this remains a version against which other performances must be measured and are often found wanting. There are a couple of quirks – quite why Bernstein omits the orchestral shouts of “mambo!” I have never understood. Such is this disc’s popularity that it has appeared in numerous couplings and versions from CBS/Sony over the years and even in Intense Media’s 10-disc “Milestones of a Legend” box.

The most recent version I have is from the seven-disc “Bernstein conducts Bernstein” set on Sony/RCA remastered in 2011. Those transfers really sound superb for a recording of that age. Direct comparison with the HDTT version reveals significantly more tape hiss on the latter. There is also some pre-echo/print-through audible at the very beginning of the Symphonic Dances. Those details aside the recording here sound very fine too – the sound-stage is very well defined and precise, the orchestral instruments – especially the all important percussion transients - are crisp and clean. The many dynamic and exciting climaxes in both works are handled without distortion or peaking. But so they are on the remastered CD. The HDTT release mimics the original LP (and the artwork is from the original LP too although the liner is brief and disappointing) so short measure at 40:44 – the single Sony disc also includes equally electric performances of the Candide Overture, Fancy Free Suite and Three Dance from On the Town. So significantly more music for around half the price. I have neither the technical expertise or the knowledge to enter the debate on whether this kind of transfer of these old recordings are technically “better” than other versions – if they are I cannot hear the difference.

I am no audiophile and the equipment I use is good but by no means high end. My experience of these new transfers reinforces the old saying of you can only get out as good as you put in. While I heartily recommend these performances, I cannot say that these transfers sound much ‘better’ at the price point they are offered than the most recent CDs taken from the studio masters.

Nick Barnard

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