RCA Living Stereo SACDs: Round Four

The fourth round of RCA Red Seal Living Stereo hybrid SACD/CDs hit the literal and virtual shelves on February 7. [Kalman Rubinson wrote about the first batch here.—Ed.] Remastered from the original two- and three-channel master tapes using the DSD process, these 10 new SACDs present the material exactly as it was recorded, without equalization, filtering, or other tampering.

For the three-channel recordings, which were made with microphones placed in the left, center, and right of the hall, all three front channels of the SACD format are used. This allows audiophiles with multichannel systems to hear the music as it was heard by the engineers and musicians in the studio during playbacks of the original master tapes.

The project's remastering supervisor, John Newton of Soundmirror, Inc., extolled the reissues to Stereophile. "Since we work only from the original tapes, there are no generation losses. The DSD recording technique used to make the hybrid SACDs is almost perfectly transparent. The CD layer on the hybrid discs is produced with a sophisticated computer program that downconverts the stereo DSD program to the CD standard of 44.1kHz, 16-bits, and sounds much better than using a PCM A/D converter."

Newton also noted that, during the remastering process, the signal path was kept as short as possible. A Studer Aria analog tape recorder was connected with "premium" Siltech cables directly to dCS converters that encoded the signals to SACD's DSD data format. Newton emphasized that 21st-century analog tape playback is superior to that of the original analog tape recorders, whose playback sections "never had the performance of the record section." Audiophiles who proclaim their two-channel LP and multichannel SACD equipment to be of comparable quality—no easy assessment to make—will have the final say as to whether these RCA Living Stereo releases ever had it so good.

Of key interest to collectors is the SACD of Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and the Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette. According to Bob Moon, author of the classic London Decca reference book Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound, Munch/BSO recorded the Symphonie twice: in experimental two-channel in 1954, and in three-track in 1962. While the earlier performance was far superior both sonically and interpretively, its only Living Stereo release was as a mono LP. A stereo version of Munch's first traversal didn't see the light of day until the 1960s, on a release in RCA's sonically compromised Victrola budget line. The SACD reissue offers the opportunity to hear the master tapes of the initial stereo version (also available on LP from Classic Records), which Sony/BMG reissue producer Daniel Guss politely characterizes as "representing the early maturity of the relationship of Munch and the BSO," in near-optimal two-channel sound.

Two other releases offer bonuses. Virgil Fox's Encores, recorded in 1958, now includes Robert Schumann's Canon in B Minor, released on mono LP but omitted from the original Living Stereo pressings because of limitations of playing time. While the Schumann did appear on a 1993 Living Stereo CD, the sound of that version can't approach that of the new hybrid SACD. The disc also includes the first-ever release of Fox's RCA recording of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance march. While hardly the most thrilling track Fox ever recorded, it's finally available for all to hear. As for the pithy criticisms recently voiced by Brian Hartsell, noted authority on Living Stereo, that the original LPs were "emasculated bass-wise—they sound like a pipe organ that had a sex change," a very brief audition on a not-fully-broken-in SACD player suggests that the original engineers had not partaken of Viagra before rolling the tape.

The other bonuses, for those who treasure his performances, are found on Mario Lanza at His Best. The original CD included only those tracks from the original soundtrack recording of The Vagabond King that involved Lanza himself. The hybrid SACD restores three additional tracks from the LP: two with under-recorded soprano Judith Raskin, whose unforgettable solo on the Szell version of Mahler's Symphony 4 has warmed the hearts of countless music lovers, and a third with chorus. Also included is a never-before-issued instrumental with a vocal reprise by Lanza.

Of the remaining new issues, the hybrid SACD that combines Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's versions of Respighi's Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome with Debussy's La Mer commands attention. Hartsell calls the Respighi "one of the greatest of all RCA Living Stereo recordings for scale and dynamics." Many also think quite highly of another Reiner/CSO disc, Vienna, which features waltzes by Carl Maria von Weber and three Strausses: Johann Jr., Josef, and Richard. "It's like drinking the best coffee in the world in Vienna," Moon claims. "It also shows that Reiner had more heart than he was given credit for." And when it comes to violinist Jascha Heifetz joining Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony Orchestra of London in two-channel versions of Bruch's Violin Concerto 1 and Scottish Fantasy and Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto 5, opinions of superior sonics and performance are virtually unanimous: This is an indispensable release.

The other four SACD/CDs are Copland's Billy the Kid and Rodeo suites with Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, with Morton Gould and his Orchestra; Mendelssohn's Symphonies 4 and 5 ("Italian" and "Reformation") and the Scherzo from his Octet, with Munch/BSO; Pops Caviar, featuring Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in very-good-sounding renditions of familiar favorites by Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Khatchaturian, and Tchaikovsky; and four Beethoven piano sonatas from the great Chopin specialist Artur Rubinstein: the "Moonlight," "Pathétique," "Appassionata," and "Les Adieux."

Reissue producer Guss expects that Sony/BMG will release the next batch of Living Stereo hybrid SACDs in late summer or early fall 2006. Asked if all Living Stereo recordings will eventually make it onto the format, he replied, "Given the volatile state of the market, it is difficult to say with certainty just to what extent the hybrid SACD series will run. I think it's safe to say that as long as there is a demand for them, Sony/BMG will continue with the series."