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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 10 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 02
New life given to three famous recordings
Arts & Entertainment
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New life given to three famous recordings

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

An 87-year old friend, upon hearing one of these Blu-ray Audio-only discs, said, 'It's like audio in 3-D!' To be sure, the relatively flat landscape of stereo sound gets a kick in the pants and seems to jump out into the room, even though these new discs limit themselves to a 2.0 stereo format. The clarity is so much greater than on an ordinary CD that all special clues are enhanced, giving the sound an airy openness. (This is without any help from the rear speakers.)

Take for instance this disc of Carlos Kleiber conducting Beethoven's 5th and 7th symphonies, originally recorded in 1975 and 1976, respectively, on the Deutsche Gramophon label. Choosing the 2.0 DTS Master Audio format (from the three formats offered, all limited to two channels), I am indeed amazed at the detail and life-like quality of the orchestral sound (even if it sounds rather more like we're at the conductor's podium than in a seat out in the audience).

Any recording is limited, of course, by both the talents of the recording engineers and by the equipment and venue being used. One can only think that the microphones employed had greatly improved in the nearly two years between these two recordings, with the early 1975 recording of the 5th symphony suffering from what I would call a traffic jam in the louder passages. The orchestral fortissimos can't seem to make it through without things sounding slightly messy, which is in contrast to the beautiful clarity of the softer moments. The late 1976 recording of the 7th symphony doesn't seem to have this problem.

Let me say, for those unfamiliar with these famous performances, that this is high-powered Beethoven, aiming for excitement and drama above all else. Think conductors Furtwangler or Klemperer on about nine caffé lattes! The quieter, reflective moments are given their due; but true, I think, to Beethoven's nature, it's the dramatic contrasts of dynamics and emotions that get most effective attention. I love this approach when it is this well done, but it's not the only way I want to hear Beethoven.

The third resurrected recording being considered here is Herbert von Karajan's 1973 recording of Mahler's 5th symphony. At first I was blown away by this disc's sonics, but on further listening and in comparing it to others, I have come to regard the recorded sound as just plain weird. It has extreme dynamic range, but there is the same traffic jam problem as mentioned above. A great deal of room resonance (too much, to my ears) gives the orchestra a distant aura and muddies the sound in the most complex passages. The bottom octave (bass drum, bass violins, etc.) sounds exaggerated and disconnected from the rest of the orchestra.

Pardon me if I go off the deep end here and suggest that a significant part of the blame lies in the lap of the revered Herbert von Karajan. Immediately after listening to this complete 75-minute recording, I played the last movement of the superb Blu-ray Disc from the Lucerne Festival under Claudio Abbado. Even given the vast improvement in the more modern recording equipment, I could not fail to be struck by Abbado's superior mastery of Mahler's polyphony. The messy passages in the von Karajan disc were utterly clear and much more exciting under Abbado. (I cannot praise too highly the entire Mahler series of Blu-ray Discs from the Lucerne Festival, both artistically and sonically. They have forced me to completely re-evaluate Mahler as a composer.)

A friend in San Francisco had a couple of criticisms of the new offerings that I strongly support:

'The only thing I find unforgivable was the lack of multichannel tracks in addition to just the 2-channel tracks. Why can't they include the multichannel track on the Blu-ray Audio of the Karajan Beethoven 9th and the Kleiber Beethoven 5th and 7th when they are readily available on the (earlier-issued) SACD? I heard that the head honcho in charge of the Blu-ray Audio is a 2-channel lover and I'm fine with that, but at the very least the multichannel option should've been offered.'

This omission cannot be blamed on lack of space. My friend went on to suggest inclusion of the score, which would turn pages or scroll along with the music. Now THAT would be something! The inclusion of the score would really highlight that this is a new and unique medium.

Bear in mind that the above new audio-only Blu-ray Discs are old recordings. I shall review a couple exciting NEW recordings in this new format in the near future, both worthy operatic recitals by two of today's greatest tenors.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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