Recording of October 1984: Saint-Saëns & Rachmaninoff Piano Works
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Bella Davidovich (pno), Concertgebouw Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi, cond.
Philips CD 410-052 2 (CD), 6514-164 (LP).
At last we're starting to realize some of the promise of CD from a major record company. This is the best CD recording I've heard yet from Philips. Both of these are virtuoso romantic works requiring a big piano sound and the stamina to produce it for 610 minutes at a stretch, which is probably why few lady pianists will tackle them. Bella Davidovich pulls these off with great aplomb.
To me, the Saint-Saëns is the better of the two, and is one of the truly great performances of this work. I grudgingly rate it as equal to my long-time favorite, the Rubinstein/Reiner performance on a 1958 RCA LP (LSC-2234), although I would have liked a little more TLC from Ms. Davidovich in the first movement. She seems a little rushed where an occasional lingering caress is indicated, but that is quibbling with what is a really rousing performance.
Most of the Rachmaninoff is superb, too; I suppose the only reason I felt parts of it to be too fast is my abiding fondness for the old Katchen/Boult version on London (originally CS-6153, reissued as STS-15406).
But that's not all. This, the first digitally mastered CD I have heard, is also the best-sounding Philips CD I have heard. Multimiked, of course, with the usual lack of depth and weird instrumental placements (flute on the far left), this is nonetheless one of the most high-powered recordings I've ever heard from a non-audiophile label. The dynamic range sounds positively staggering, yet measurements comparing it with the analog-disc release showed their average (RMS) volume range to be exactly the same. And the loudest parts on the CD are as effortless as only a digital fortissimo can be.
There's more. Instrumental balances are perfectthe piano does not dominatethere is no steely harness, and even the first violins playing full-out sound reasonably like massed violins. In short, this is but the second orchestral disc I have heard from a major company whose sound could help to justify the purchase of a CD player. (The other is the Stravinsky/Dorati Le Sacre du Printemps on London.)
There are some problems. The sound during full orchestral passages is vaguely muddy, and there are subtle little fuzzies underlying the massed-string sonorities. These things, along with the noticeably reduced steeliness compared with previous Philips releases, makes me wonder is this recording might not have been worked over a little between the original digital master and the CD transfer. Since there is not yet any such thing as a digital equalizer, such "adjusting" would have to be done with the signal in analog form, which means two additional steps from D to A and then A to D again.
My own personal feeling is that a little mud is preferable to a little stridency, so I would still rate a recording with these rousing performances as a surefire winner.
Listening to the LP release, the CD seemed to have slightly more extreme high end and notably better transient attacks, as well as better inner detailing, tighter and better-defined bass, cleaner fortissimos, and, of course, lower background noise (though our analog disc was an unusually quiet pressing). The massed violins on the analog version sounded sweeter than the CD but was missing some of the gutty edge I hear from the violin section at concerts. And for reasons not yet fully understood, the CD sounded as if it had substantially more dynamic range than the analog disc, although measurements failed to confirm that impression.
It is one of the few performances I've heard on CD during which I could not stay seated; I had to pace back and forth waving my arms. The endings just cry out for thunderous applause, and even though I know it would be cheating, I wish Philips had added it. If you have a CD player, you must get this; otherwise get the analog version. It's a humdinger! Unquestionably T-o-P) (Top-of-the-Pile, footnote 1).J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 1: For the benefit of new readers, "Top-of-the-Pile" designates a very good recording of a very good performancea recommended recording. The name reflects the fact that, at least among people who pile their records, the ones most often played are nearest the top.