1995 Records To Die For Page 10

Peter W. Mitchell

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto 2,The Isle of the Dead
Earl Wild, piano; Jascha Horenstein, RPO
Chesky Gold Series CG902 (CD). Charles Gerhardt, prod.; Kenneth Wilson, eng. ADD. TT: 50:32

SIBELIUS: Symphony 2
Sir John Barbirolli, RPO
Chesky Gold Series CG903 (CD). Charles Gerhardt, prod.; Kenneth Wilson, eng. ADD. TT: 44:22

Illness prevented me from participating in R2D4 last year, so my first entry this year is a two-disc recommendation. Recorded three decades ago in London's Walthamstow Town Hall by the Decca/London team of Gerhardt and Wilson, and released on Reader's Digest LPs custom-pressed by RCA, these great performances were among Chesky's first CD reissues.

In those CDs, the analog tape hiss was too prominent, and many harmonics seemed bright; perhaps the tape EQ was incorrect. Now Chesky has remastered these recordings from the original three-track tapes using 20-bit A/D, high-resolution dither, and gold CDs. Result: the hiss is softer, exposing more hall ambience and a much deeper soundstage. Instruments now seem fully rounded, and dynamics are staggering!

Wild's Rachmaninoff is famous, and this recording is by turns exciting, propulsive, lyrical, and thoughtful; the sound is excellent. Barbirolli acquired less fame, but as one of the century's great Sibelius interpreters, recognized the composer as a contemporary of Mahler (which he was). This Symphony 2 is a wrenching psychodrama whose final peroration is not a noble proclamation of victory, but a shattering affirmation of survival.

Today's best digital recordings are very good, so I can't honestly claim that a 32-year-old recording on pre-Dolby analog tape has "topnotch" sound. The sound is impressive, not beautiful; there are microphone colorations, and in loud peaks the strain of tape saturation. But when you hear the Sibelius, you won't think about sound. You'll be shaken by the performance, and grateful to Chesky for bringing it back. (X-4, Sibelius)

NIELSEN: Symphonies 3 & 5*
Leonard Bernstein, Royal Danish Orchestra, New York Philharmonic*
Sony SMK 47598 (CD only). John McClure, prod. Remastering: Louise de la Fuente, prod.; Richard King, eng. ADD. TT: 71:04

This recording made history. Sibelius was the only well-known Nordic composer, Nielsen an obscurity. Then Bernstein's recording of Symphony 3 put Nielsen on the musical map. New recordings of Nielsen's six symphonies have appeared regularly since, but Bernstein's are unsurpassed. He played this music with such thrilling conviction and flair that he seemed to have written it himself.

The sound of CBS's original reissue CD was flat, congested, and dynamically compressed. The Sony version, part of the Bernstein Royal Edition, was remastered from the original three-track tapes using 20-bit A/D and Super Bit Mapping. The result is one of the most radical transformations I've heard, revealing a much more detailed orchestral palette and a huge soundstage (especially if you have ambient-surround decoding).

Thomas J. Norton

JAMES HORNER: Sneakers (original soundtrack)
with Branford Marsalis, saxophones
Columbia CK 53146 (CD). James Horner, prod.; Shawn Murphy, eng. TT: 48:29

While Sneakers was hardly a great film, James Horner's score is captivating, with delightful touches throughout. Don't expect another Patriot Games here---Sneakers' mood is decidedly more laid-back, as is the recorded perspective.

The recording is superb, with dramatic space and depth---trademarks of music-scoring mixer Shawn Murphy, who has engineered many of Horner's film scores, including Patriot Games and the equally striking Glory. This is largely a straightforward orchestral score, recorded with an intelligent ear that puts to shame most mainstream classical recordings.

Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind ensemble
Mercury Living Presence 434 334-2 (CD only). Wilma Cozart, David Hall, rec. dirs.; Wilma Cozart, exec. prod.; C. Robert Fine, chief eng., tech. sup.; Robert Eberenz, eng. ADD. TT: 64:40

This CD is a remastering of two Mercury albums from the 1950s: Hands Across the Sea (1958) and Marching Along (1956). While Fennell's Eastman Winds play with their expected verve and precision on both, the recording quality on Marching (tracks 9-20) is rather pallid; the main offering here is Hands Across the Sea (1-8). With its superb dynamic range, snarling brass, and alarmingly tight and awesome bass drum, the recording could have been taped yesterday---the wall between the 1958 performers and the 1995 listener is paper-thin.

The nine marches in Hands---one from Sousa, the others from various Europeans---are all delights. And what audiophile can resist a march entitled "The Golden Ear"?