No sooner had SONY reissued all of Boulez's CBS Stravinsky into a great 3-disc box set, at budget price, along comes this Dutton reissue of some of those with the New York Philharmonic, newly remastered for SACD, in 4-channel surround. This wonderful reissue deserves the highest praise, as it shows what glories can be heard when expert remastering technicians apply their magic. For the record, I listened to the SACD stereo layer and compared it directly with SONY's recent 24-bit remastering in their Masters series box set.
From the very first notes of Petroushka, my first reaction was, oh!, those cymbals are really splashy, almost to the point of a sizzle. Then trumpets rang out, seemingly a bit too raw. And were the violins a bit thin?
Stop. Eject. Grab the recently issued SONY CD box set, which utilizes their own 24-bit remastering. Begin Petroushka again, this time on SONY's CD. Ah, there was the more familiar relaxed, richly upholstered, but slightly diffuse sound. The cymbals still sound kind of splashy, but now not a bit of sizzle. They also aren't very clear. And the trumpets reveal the age of the recording just a bit, but they're farther back in the mix and seem to be a bit smoother, if not as well focused.
And the longer I listened, I realized this was sounding a bit boring. Where had the life and energy gone? And it was so muddy in the midrange, it compressed the dynamics. Worse, the 70s era spotlighting/highlighting was much more pronounced. The soundstage sounded contrived and not natural.
Stop. Eject. Back to the Dutton SACD. Once the ear adjusts to the more sharply focused and much cleaner sound picture, the startling presence of the orchestra laid out before you makes this a dramatic revelation. First, it has far more life and dynamics. And with that muddy midrange cleaned up, the level of inner detail and incisive articulation, revealed for the first time, is astonishing. And then there are the richly vibrant colors of individual instruments within the orchestra - a gorgeous flute, a rich, wooden clarinet, a gloriously textured violin. And the body and tonal purity of the trombone and horn sections is richly portrayed. And suddenly, this entire performance comes to life as never before. And while the recording still sounds its age a bit in places (yes, those cymbals are poorly recorded), it is far better than we've heard it before.
And, finally, I just knew - was absolutely certain - that the highlighting so prevalent in these recordings could be corrected with a careful ear in charge of the remastering. And so it is here - the soundstage and acoustic are much more natural now. Most of that highlighting is gone; and the orchestral groups are now placed more naturally in space within the hall. Any highlighting which remains now simply sounds more palpable. It's actually quite amazing.
And all this was with Petroushka, recorded in 1971. Skipping over Pulcinella for now and moving on to Scherzo Fantastique (recorded 4 years later), matters improve even more. This is certainly one of the very best performances of this piece ever recorded. The New York Phil plays with effortless virtuosity. And now it sounds better than many other recordings too. As a matter of fact, if I didn't know it, I wouldn't doubt for a moment that it was modern digital recording. It sure beats Chailly's newest recording for Decca in every category.
Finishing with Symphonies of Wind Instruments, I had previously thought Boulez was a little too refined in this work, making his wind band sound too refined for Stravinsky. Well, I was wrong. This Dutton remastering again brings the performance to life as never before. Being allowed to hear so much more inner detail, and with dynamics restored, it is a remarkable transformation. Now the clarinets bite like they should, and the brass sound like a brass band.
All that being said, this was such a remarkable improvement over other SONY efforts, I implore Dutton to select a few more of the best recordings of the era to apply their techniques. I can imagine some Leonard Bernstein and Ormandy recordings (and more Boulez) which would be granted new life on SACD. I don't mean to knock SONY. Most of their reissues are made for convenience, at a budget price, and provide collectors the opportunity to obtain long-forgotten or neglected recordings with minimal effort or expense on SONY's part. And we owe SONY a debt of gratitude for their continued efforts. But it is another whole world to hear what a real investment in these recordings can produce.