Recordings of November 1986: Chesky's First Releases
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Massimo Fraccia
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No.2 in c
Earl Wild, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein
Chesky? Massimo Fraccia? Is this a put-on?
No, it's not. Chesky is a new record company which, at a time when everyone is predicting the imminent demise of the LP, has just launched its first two LPs and is threatening to follow them with more.
David Chesky is a young composer/musician who, despite some impressive credentials in the classical music world, remains singularly unrenowned. But he is also a musical reactionary after my own heart, who feels that all the best performances of the so-called Romantic repertoire were done years ago and will probably never be equalled. But rather than just bitch about this in record reviews, he is doing something about it, by releasing some of those early, possibly definitive performances on the best-sounding recordings he knows how to produce.
According to Chesky's literature, these two discs were cut directly from the master tapes, without any kind of signal processing or equalization. I can see where he's coming from on this; the major record companies have given EQ a bad name among audiophiles. But I do not believe EQ to be intrinsically wrong, if used intelligently.
For example, the highly acclaimed Mercury Living Presence Series of LPs were all done with Telefunken U-49 microphones, whose high endlet us be blunt about itwas rough as hell. Those tapes could benefit from some corrective EQ, not to add "brilliance" to the highs, which was the reason for much of the EQ done by RCA and CBS during the past 20 years, but to compensate for what we know to have been flaws in the microphones. With Chesky's attitude toward equalization, all I can say is, it's fortunate that the master tapes for these two recordings didn't need to have their high ends tamed.
As for the performances? Well, I could hardly agree more with Chesky's choices for their first two releases. Earl Wild is one of the only pianists alive who doesn't feel that emotion and bathos are synonyms for Evil, and is willing to pour his heart into a performance of a work meant to be played that way in the first place. And it is obvious here that he and conductor Horenstein were of a single mind in this, their Rachmaninov Second. It soars, sings, and just tears you apart, leaving you feeling as limp and wrung-out as a damp rag. In short, this is a performance you'll never forget, and will listen to long after you've grown bored with the superior sound and lackluster readings of the latest hi-fi offerings of this work.
The Berlioz Fantastique has suffered even more than the Rachmaninov Second at the hands of bored conductors assigned to produce yet another sonic blockbuster for the audiophile crowd. This one does not seem to have been struck from that mould [sic].
As an orchestra conductor, Massimo Fraccia's name is hardly a household word (although I'm told he is fairly well known in Europe as an opera conductor). Perhaps that is the reason he does not seem to be at all bored by this much-overworked staple of the audiophile record business. His is a most exciting account of the Fantastique, playing it more for its high drama and impressive sonics than for its nightmarish aspects. The sound is not as full-bodied or nearly as high-powered as Telarc's lease-breaker, but I found it a much more satisfying reading, albeit a little on the fast side.
My all-time favorite Fantastique, the 1961 Beecham/RPO version on English HMV, has much slower tempos than the Fraccia, but is nonetheless the most grotesquely terrifying performance of the piece I have ever heard. Since it is long since black-diamonded, and I have never heard another that sounded remotely like it, I have no excuse for not rating the Chesky very highly.
Incidentally, Chesky follows what appears to be a record-company tradition of putting the disc side-break right in the middle of the third movement ("Scene in the Fields"). I still cannot understand why everyone does this. In the case of this performance, finishing the third movement on Side 1 would have still put the end of that movement about an inch out from the label, and since it is quiet all the way to the end, there is no way it could have caused inner-groove breakup.
I believe that these recordings were originally made for Readers' Digest, and the jackets credit the renowned Kenneth Wilkinson from Decca as mixing engineer and Charles Gerhardt as producer, a team that has made many very fine recordings. The sound on both is clearly multimiked, but instrumental spotting is minimal, and most of the pickup is apparently from a single, rather distant, stereo pair of mikes. The soundstage has impressive depth and spread.
Of these two, I found the Rachmaninov more to my taste, both sonically and interpretively, but Chesky deserves our support in their endeavor; you could search a long time to find better combinations of recording and performance than these. I'd suggest getting them both, to listen to in those unguarded moments when you crave music with your fi, rather than fi alone.J. Gordon Holt