A terrific trip back into the Mercury Living Presence vaults
Bob Zeidler | Charlton, MA United States | 11/23/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Some good things - REALLY good things - are happening with the advent of the hybrid SACD (which I believe to be the long-term medium of choice for classical music lovers). BMG has gone back into its early-stereo-days vaults for some treasures (initially, 10 releases) from the beginnings of the Living Stereo days. And now Decca/Philips has done likewise with the Mercury Living Presence vaults. This Byron Janis/Antal Dorati Rachmaninoff collection (one of approximately six such Mercury Living Presence hybrid SACDs released so far) is as good as it gets for fans of Sergei Rachmaninoff's piano concerti.
Rachmaninoff wrote four concerti for the instrument, but the middle two, as on this release, are by far the best known (and best loved) of the four. For many years, the 2nd Piano Concerto, largely thanks to its "Full Moon and Empty Arms" theme in the final movement, was more popular with audiences and listeners than the 3rd. But, thanks largely to the dramatized travails of the Australian pianist David Helfgott in the movie "Shine," the race, as it were, is much closer. The 3rd definitely places much higher technical demands on the soloist, and in any event has always been my preference of the two.
Byron Janis, at his prime (as he is in these performances), was one of the finest pianists of his generation. (If the latest generation of classical music listeners is unfamiliar with his abilities, it certainly isn't due to the magnificent support that the Mercury label provided for him through most of those years. More likely, the unfamiliarity is due to a very steep decline in his concertizing activities once he was stricken with psoriatic arthritis in the early '70s.) A prodigious technician, Janis was also able to infuse his playing with finely-honed lyricism when called for; he was definitely not a subscriber to today's "Bang Bang" (or "Clang Clang" if you will) school of pianism. (Interestingly, he was the first private student that Vladimir Horowitz took on [and Horowitz only had a few such students]. While he undoubtedly learned well from Horowitz, I believe that his ability to combine technical prowess with lyricism was innate.)
I don't know that there are any better performances of these two popular works. I've heard many (and own a bunch of those I've heard), but when I noticed that Decca/Philips included these performances in their initial hybrid SACD release package, I scarfed up this disc in a heartbeat. The sound, even in just the "redbook" CD layer, is literally like "being there," thanks to the magnificent job that the engineers have done in transferring the master tapes to this new medium. To my ears, it is as if the sessions had been taped last week. To your ears, perhaps, you'll be satisfied that the recording quality lacks nothing as compared with current releases.
Dorati gives Janis warmly detailed and wonderfully played support, from both the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra) in the 2nd concerto and the London Symphony Orchestra in the 3rd concerto. Remarkably, there is no discernible difference in either the orchestras' abilities (a tribute to Dorati) or the ambient sound (a tribute to the skilled Mercury team, led by Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart Fine). I could only detect that the LSO had its violas in front of the cellos on the right, and in their more usual seating for the Minneapolis sessions. Beyond that, I doubt anyone could tell the difference.
The album is nicely rounded out with two Rachmaninoff preludes, including the famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor.
The booklet, save for technical updates describing the transfer-to-SACD process and an update on Janis's activities to the present, faithfully duplicates the original text and artwork. The text includes a perceptive essay on the concerti by Arthur Loesser, who had been, as a youth, at the world premiere performance of the 3rd Piano Concerto when Rachmaninoff performed it in New York in 1909, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra. Within a week, give or take, Rachmaninoff again performed it in New York, this time with the New York Philharmonic led by Gustav Mahler (an event well-documented in Mahler anecdote history by virtue of the pains that Mahler took in preparing the orchestra while Rachmaninoff waited patiently). Loesser's notes suggest that he only attended the Damrosch-led performance, and not the Mahler-led one. I dare say, had it been my allowance, I know which one I'd pick.
I also dare say that, if you pick these Janis/Dorati performances, you won't be disappointed.
Excellent performances in SACD format
Doug - Haydn Fan | California | 07/09/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"These are outstanding performances, with SACD helping to reveal more of the original LPs breathtaking analog sound.
The original reviewer needs no help in answering the comment, but it does remind me of people who throw a gasket when they spot sediment in their wine. For two decades enologists were taught to do all sorts of things to produce a stable clear product. And the wines ended up stripped and denuded, with little aroma and less flavor. But they could sit on store shelves in the direct sunlight and not go bad. (Not that it mattered.) Only in the last couple decades has this insanity been - grudgingly by the monied interests who view wine as just a variety of alcohol - turned around.
You can filter the life out of music, too, or you can present it unfiltered. The choice is yours. Tape hiss CAN be too high, but not always. The trick is finding a liveable balance, and not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Attempting to remove everything flattens out the particulars. And hiss exists for the good reason that clarinets sound astonishingly airy and beautiful when not doblyied and digitalized to death - practically any stereo Enoch Light LP reveals vastly better, life-like clarinets than anything DG has EVER done; yet such old-fashioned recordings are in too many circles today looked down on as crude and hoplessly antideluvian.
Modern digital DG recording, as mentioned in the comment, may be uncompressed, which can be quite exciting, but that's not always helpful, especially when you the listener constantly adjust the volume when noise levels shoot up and down like a yo-yo. (See the opening of the Boulez Mahler 1st, for example.)
Modern digital recordings are incredibly convenient, but they've still a long way to go, even in the SACD format, before they produce sounds as listenable as the best of long ago. Certain companies do a wonderful job, and produce very musical and natural recordings. But far too often it's like comparing soft cotton (analog) to sandpaper (digital). And let's not even go near IPODs!