Review by Jonalogic July 25, 2010 (2 of 4 found this review helpful)
|If you read my reviews, you will probably know that I have a tendency to go weak in the knees and swoon when faced with late 50s/early 60s Szell recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra. All rules are made to be broken, however, and this recording certainly blows the game wide open.
Szell seems curiously distanced and unsympathetic throughout . The playing is immaculate as ever, of course, but the ‘soul’ seems to have wandered off for a cup of tea. The result is often under-characterised, metronomic and – frankly – not too exciting. Even orchestral fireworks like the finale, frantic farandole from l’Arlesienne fail to achieve lift-off. That’s a real surprise.
The sound is pretty good, but the real problem here is that you can do a lot better on all these pieces. Take the Mussorgsky/Ravel ‘Pictures’- a real piece of orchestral fireworks if ever there was one. Even on SACD, we have real heavy-hitting competition. I took the time to listen to the present recording, followed by:
1) The Reiner/CSO on Living Stereo - produced and recorded by the great Mohr/Layton team.
2) The RPO/Leibowitz on Analogue Productions - ‘The Power of the Orchestra’ originally another Shaded Dog, but produced and recorded by the immortal Gerhardt/Kenneth Wilkinson (Decca) team.
3) Slatkin/St Louis on Mobile Fidelty - originally a Vanguard, I suspect, produced and recorded by Aubort/Nickrenz of Elite Recordings.
No, these teams and names may not mean much to some folk but, trust me, these are three of the head honchos in producing and recording during the ‘Golden Age’ of analogue sound.
Basically, Szell and the Cleveland cannot live in this company. In a piece which must evoke different imagery and moods for each picture, his reading is critically under-characterised. All three of the above performances are notably superior in this respect, and are accompanied – amongst other pieces – by equally convincing readings of ‘Night on a bare/bald mountain’ (the Rimsky version for Slatkin and Reiner, a quite outrageous and startling custom version on Leibowitz.)
What’s more, sonically, all these three recordings show the recording engineers at the very top of their game. All the recordings sound great, but in quite different ways in terms of how they present orchestras playing in a real acoustic space. In fact, listening to all of them in quick succession turns out to be something of a masterclass in recording styles and sound quality.
So, having gone this far, let’s give some personal recommendations for golden-age ‘Pictures’ on SACD:
1) Best all-rounder, sound and performance- The Reiner on Living Stereo: refined playing, vivid performances and accompanied by a great collection of Russian classics; this is also the cheapest and most readily available recording- in fact, at the time of writing, they’re virtually giving away this great SACD on either side of the pond. So, two fine shaded doggies- Festival (LSC 2423) and Pictures (LSC 2201) for small change- a no-brainer!
2) The wackiest and furthest off the beaten track– Leibowitz on Analogue Productions; you can get this from audiophile outlets in the States.
3) The best sound quality – and by quite a long way, even in this exalted company – the Slatkin on MoFi . But I’m afraid you may have to pay an eye-watering price.
All three will make you happy. So, there you have it. All complaints to my dog, please.
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