Recording of August 1984: Saint-Saëns & Ravel Orchestral Works

884rotm.ssph.jpgSaint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals
Ravel: Mother Goose Suite

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, cond.
Philips CD 400-016 2 (CD).

The whimsical Carnival, with its nose-thumbing at Saint-Saëns' contemporaries (eg a lugubrious "Can-Can" and a stately cello rendition of Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs, from The Damnation of Faust), is given a delightful treatment here, and put on one of the best-sounding CDs I've heard to date from a major record company.

Philips has been less up-front about the roots of its CDs than most other record manufacturers, If fact, they have been downright sneaky about it. This release—billed prominently on the CD jacket as a "Digital Recording"—sounds very much as if it was analog-mastered. The is certainly nothing Philips should ashamed of, because this is a better-sounding recording than most digitally mastered ones. I can complain about the strange "wholpy" sound of the xylophone in "Fossils," bit otherwise the recording has depth, very good instrumental balances (a nice mixing job!), and a lovely feeling of delicacy combined with immense power when the need arises. But dammit, there is still the traditional emphasis on the first violins, which have the apparently obligatory (if slight) steely edge.

Previn's Mother Goose Suite doesn't have quite dreamy sensuousness of the old Koussevitsky on 78s (re-released in mono on RCA LM-1012) or even on the 1960s Ansermet on London, but the combination of generally lovely sound and an excellent performance is just too much to resist.

In other words, this is one of the best releases on CD to date. Highly recommended.—J. Gordon Holt

hollowman's picture

It's a good move for Stereophile to post now-classic recording reviews ... and an important reason for doing so is that others can conveniently comment about them in this Comments section.
While classical CDs have been spared the madness of the "loudness war", I can confidently say that "remasters" or re-releases of classical early digital/CD has not really brought about any important changes I can detect. E.g., Deutsche Grammaphon* has re-badged older stuff with claims like "Original-Bit Image" and Sony/others re-released older (first/second gen.) CDs with SBM or 20-bit (or higher).
I can't hear any difference .... and I'm hardly an objectivist.
Rather, for PLAYBACK of early digital, new/improved gear/equipment can make important differences (as JA has noted) ... and of course, the quality of recording engineering is perhaps most important of all ... yeah, even in the early digital days there were excellent mikes, preamps, ... and even recorders/encoders: I think Soundstream and Decca were at 50kHz in the late '70s!
As far as the musical performance and sound engineering ... I think this has generally been improving ... perhaps because performers and can listen to older recordings and use them as references and metrics... to improve the art and science ... but don't ask anyone to prove that ;)

* DG, with some of their Eloquence series re-masters, took a huge step back ... Eloquence was electronic ambient processing ... sounds awful, and they didn't just apply it to early mono ... but even many modern stereo recordings, too!

dalethorn's picture

This might seem like a silly question, but in recordings that have been reissued with some of the 'hiss' removed, is there any chance that some ambiance has disappeared, or phase changes occurred?

volvic's picture

Previn recorded a lot during the 70's & 80's and made some very good recordings this being one of them. The sound is very good although as I have said before not the best with today's modern recording and mixing techniques, which have improved the quality of CD's especially in the last 15 years. In regards to hollowman's comments I can only say having owned the original CD releases and the later reissues in particular the DG Originals reissues that there IS a difference. I find the tape hiss on the reissues to be gone but also where before the music was behind my speakers, with the reissues the sound is more forward and more in front of my speakers. In some instances this has improved the sound others not. The same holds true with some of my jazz CD's. I sensed that shift with manufacturers of CD players as well. My Linn Karik/Numerik combo and YBA CD1A Typically push the sound behind the speakers whereas my newer Ikemi pushes it forward. Which is better I suppose is based on one's tastes but I do prefer the sound of the earlier releases/machines, I find the newer forward sound through CD sometimes too loud and too tiring other times it clears up an older cloudy first pressing. Yes, I know call me crazy. But I found with classical the reissues sounded way different from the original releases. It's what makes our hobby so interesting.

hollowman's picture

The re-issue sound diff. may be simple EQing ...
My recent re-evals of old CDs, and finding them sounding much better that I originally believed, was a bit of a "revelation". Over the past few decades, new/improved digital techniques (mastering skills, etc.) as well as, of course, newer/tighter-spec'd electronics should make modern recordings sound importantly better ... right??? ... after all, haven't word clocks and jitter-reduction circuits improved over the past four decades? (see Note *** below)
My delusions are perhaps not unsurprising: one gets a bit brainwashed with hype and marketing ... HDCD, XRCD, SBM, Original-Bit Image, etc. I own several of these ... have gone back for a re-listen ... and found them only slightly better (e.g., Reference Recording CDs w/ and w/o HDCD same-music compare tracks).
Lately, I've been looking more at liner-note details such as recording engineer, recording hall, equipment used (if listed). So if you see names like Tony Faulkner or Simon Eadon (Decca) on your classical recording, chances are it'll be very-"audiophile"-sounding no matter how old.

I haven't heard too much DSD or high-rez PCM to comment on this domain of modern digital vs. "old" digital.

DIY improvements to CDs:

Ripping to computer or iPad, etc....and playing files does make "the CD" sound better ;)
Also, back in my experimental days, ripping and burning on to HQ CD-R, like Kodak Gold or Verbatim, or using green pens and buffing tweaks, did make for some improvements.
Playing a WAV or FLAC/losseless rip of a CD, in a decent system (or portable device) is my sonic standard these days.

Note ***:
JVC's XRCD process is supposed to address CD mastering and manufacturing, every step of the way. Their literature goes into great length as to how XRCD uses high-quality power supplies and precision word clocks ... and the XRCD disc itself (the polycarbonate plastic disc) is supposed to be better than cheap mass-market stuff (so no need to re-burn your own!).
All that said, I found XRCD disappointing: Not significantly (even subtly) better ... and sometimes WORSE than the std. commercial release: e.g., the 2000 XRCD of Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms was dynamically compressed (victim of loudness war). The 2003 SACD of that album was about as bad...louDSD. Oh Brother!
The orig. 1985 CD release was better ... recently, Mobile Fidelity has finally released a good, UNLOUD remaster of Brothers ...

hollowman's picture

Not really a Previn fan ... but he does have his moments ... while I haven't heard the above Saint-Saëns, a super-sounding Previn recording (errr ... grandpa calls 'em CDs) from 1985 is Walton/Elgar Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma/London Symphony Orchestra Orchestra. Engineer: Simon Eadon. All-digital recording.

volvic's picture

I agree on computer audio making CD's sound better, have said it here many times; one Mac Pro or Mini, Stello U3 good USB cable and digital cable and a good DAC like a Moon or Ayre and you have a playback system that trounces most CD players. Also have a few DSD CD reissues and they are better than the original releases by a huge margin.

I have this Elgar/Walton recording heard it last week and concur great recording. I remember purchasing a Handel Fireworks recording by Previn in the 80's and it was horrible but his HOlst/Planets, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Vaughn Williams are very good indeed. Even have a recording from the 80's of him playing and conducting Mozart piano concertos and it is a lovely recording. I own his Midsummer Night's Dream on EMI and think it is one of the finest renditions on disc - in my opinion even betters Klemperer's version.