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Reviews: Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde - Klemperer

Reviews: 2

Review by mwgfrg September 27, 2010 (14 of 14 found this review helpful)
There has been a lot of recent discussion here on whether the Esoteric SACDs are worth the exalted price charged for them (something which only an individual purchaser can decide) and whether specific transfers are good (which shouldn't be as controversial as it appears to be). I have to confess that I almost always come down on the side that most of them are truly excellent, and where the original recordings were superb (the Ring; Sibelius Second; Kertesz New World; Ansermet's Falla) so is the Esoteric; where they were not but the performance was worth the best mastering possible (e.g. Kleiber's Brahms 4th Symphony) the Esoteric transfer is the best there has been; and where the master was never terrific and the performances are not great ones (Karajan's Brahms 3d and Dvorak 8th) it was Esoteric's mistake to bother and mine to assume it would be different than in the past. My comparisons are usually with the original and audiophile reissue LPs, and where I have them, the CDs.

Well, try this one. The original British and German EMI LPs were excellent, especially the British, and the Japanese HQCD is quite good also, but the Esoteric SACD transfer is astonishing, not just on the sound of the massed orchestra, but especially on the true to life quality of individual instruments and the solo voices. I listened to it twice back to back just for the sheer enjoyment of it, savoring every moment, something I probably never have done before with Das Lied. The performance is one of the great ones: Wunderlich and Ludwig are marvelous soloists and this, with his Mahler 2d and 9th Symphonies, is at the very top of any list of Klemperer's greatest performances. Worth it? To me, good lord yes!

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Review by Polarius T October 16, 2010 (14 of 17 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I wanted to be the first one to review this SACD release of one of my all-time favorite recordings, but was beat to the punch by a fellow listener.

For me, Klemperer's take of this masterpiece of Western classical music is one of the high points in the history of recorded music, surpassed only by Boulez's practically perfect recording of it on DG (also in SACD), and so I couldn't resist the temptation to sample how Esoteric's odd transfer method might impact the sonics derived from the record company's digital house copy of the mastertapes (which is what I assume the case to have been, as with all the other Esoteric issues to date). I don't know if the copy used for the DSD treatment was the one of the older ones stored at the UK EMI or the more recent 24/96 remastering by Toshiba Japan. At any rate, even though I have owned this recording in virtually all its incarnations, the comparison point was the latter, which to me presents the most impressive reproduction of the original tapes thus far (and hence I had kept it), far superior to the constricted and lifeless results of the (to me) frustrating EMI UK "ART" treatment and the otherwise compromised first-generation digital transfer.

Unlike with Esoteric's Mravinsky/Tchaikovsky release, which to my ears is a very successful job and excitingly vivid as a listening experience, I hesitate a little in giving any emphatic verdict on this one. To be sure, there are some improvements that upon careful listening at different sound pressure levels appear to be quite clear. These include slightly more precise image localization and depth perspective, and, especially, improved low-frequency definition and extension. Some of the low-frequency rumbles from the strings and percussion even in quiet passages made the paintings on my wall rattle, which doesn't happen on the otherwise very impressive Japan Toshiba version and which I suppose should then count as "objective" evidence of something like a better low-end definition and/or extended frequency range (although I am unsure as to how this could be possible to achieve, given the inherent limitations imposed by the transfer method and the source material). Similarly, and perhaps precisely because of such improvements, I thought the overall sonic impact was somewhat more lifelike and immediate, even though the differences to the very good Toshiba transfer are rather small and fine-grained. My feeling was also that the glorious voices of Ludwig and Wunderlich are now more vividly rendered in their spatial surroundings (this seemed to be more clearly the case with Wunderlich, whose voice, apart from the loudest passages where some congestion still mars the ability of his soaring highs to resound in the clearest and most natural manner, cuts and floats wonderfully through the air). Overall, however, the orchestral balances and imaging are not on par with the rather surprising Mravinsky/Tchaikovsky transfer with its excellent spread, better localization, and sheer physicality of the instruments that bring a thrilling life-like dimensionality and acoustic quality to the sound picture; but this is something that has to do more with the characteristics of the original recording than with the transfer itself. Similarly to the Mravinsky release, however, the orchestral string sound seems to be slightly "softened" or more "rounded" (for lack of a better description), which means that you can play the music louder at more realistic levels while still enjoying the now somewhat smoother and thus also more natural sound of the instruments in the fortissimo and tutti passages as well.

In sum, I would say the improvements expected with any DSD/SACD treatment are there and can also be enjoyed on a system (with transducers) capable of bringing them to light, but in all honesty the differences compared to a good-quality remastering of the original tapes (such as the 24-bit based by Toshiba Japan) are a matter of degree and never very drastic. For anyone looking to improve upon the ubiquitous EMI ART issue, however, this will be an obvious candidate to the extent one is willing to put up with the high price tag. Otherwise, the Japanese Toshiba (TOCE-13351 from 2006) provides a fine budget alternative that comes very close in just about every audible respect and may in most systems not even show that much difference. Yet the friends of this very special work and conductor will no doubt enthusiastically jump at the opportunity to get even that one last increment of improved sound quality no matter what.

My disc transport's eject/load times far exceed the length of reliable short-term aural memory (which some have set at 17 seconds...), and obviously, like most of us home listeners, I don't have the capability for double-blind testing. So the mere hesitations above should be enough to qualify any outright and unequivocal conclusions one might like to make based on the kind of perceptions just described. Whether it's worthwhile for a company like Esoteric to invest energies in what's not much more than a vanity project when they could be promoting something else instead, remains an open question in this time of industry crisis. Yet, based on other evidence, the Esoteric project seems to bring some more immediately recognizable results as well, which I'm sure many (I among them) are happy to welcome. I have three of the Esoterics by now, and, while I think maybe only one of them is definitely and absolutely something I would want to forever have permanently at my disposal no matter the cost, I will be willing to try out additional releases in this series if they will include performances as remarkable as this one. The EMI archives are a thrilling prospect, and I can't even begin to think what my reaction will be if one day an SACD or a DSD-mastered release of, say, another classic like Klemperer's "St. Matthew," which was better recorded to begin with, were to see daylight. Or any of his Bruckners, for that matter, which still today need to be given a decent digital treatment and would thus, sonically speaking, be a more urgent case in point calling for some skilled engineers' attention.

A related final note: the "HQ" ("High Quality") in the HQCDs (a "format" in which you can get for instance those Klemperer Bruckners today), just as the "SHM" ("Super High Material") in the SHM-CDs, does not indicate a new transfer but only a different material standard in the manufacturing of the plastic-coated aluminum disc, one that, to be sure, seems like a technical improvement on paper at least. It may or may not result in greater longevity and shelf-life of the physical product, but it has no impact whatsover on sound (even if the company marketing departments might like you to think otherwise). In fact, none of the "HQCDs" that I have seen or own myself are even based on the latest-generation remasterings but use earlier (often first-generation) 1980s' or early 1990s' digital transfers. (This is actually quite baffling, since far superior transfers would have been readily available in most of the cases.) You'll be much better off getting the newer 24-bit remastered Japan Toshiba reissues (or even their earlier 20-bit remasterings in the "Grandmaster" series -- it's really the engineer's skills and the working philosophy that matter the most, and they've been good in both), or even the more recent EMI ART remasterings of the same, if sound is your concern.

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