Alto and their companion label, Regis, (both a division of Musical Concepts) are budget labels which reissue recordings from other labels, similar to Brilliant Classics. They tend to draw from the ASV, Pickwick, Vox, Collins and Varese Sarabande labels. Absurdly, Alto and Regis often duplicate one another's titles. Weird, being that they derive from the same parent company. Most of their releases boast being newly remastered by their very own remastering technician, Paul Arden-Taylor. I own a few of these titles and find some of their efforts worthwhile (some rarities from the Melodyia label, for example) and others to be subtle at best. However, this Copland title on Alto draws from the Mercury label and is a dramatic sonic alteration from Mercury's CDs.
In theory, it was a great idea for Alto to gather together Antal Dorati's classic Mercury recordings of Copland's 3 ballets onto one disc. Previous Mercury CDs have them split up between 2 discs, as two different orchestras and recording dates were involved. Alas, so much for Alto's great idea - there's bad news about this release.
I hadn't listened to the Mercury Copland CDs in quite some time but I remembered them being spectacular - some of the very best in that entire series. As I began listening to this Alto CD (beginning with Billy The Kid), I was amazed at how lyrical and smooth it was. And the absence of background noise was striking. But as we approached the Mexican Dance and on to the Gun Battle, I was alarmed that this sounded nothing like a Mercury recording, nor did it have any of the vibrancy and energy that Dorati achieved at the helm of the LSO. The feeling pervaded into Appalachian Spring, where everything was lovely, but curiously lifeless and flat.
Baffled, I got out the original Mercury CDs to confirm these are the same recordings. They are. So I played the Mercury Billy the Kid, and - WOW! Immediately I was struck with what Mercury is known for, that sense of "you are there" realism. There was immediately a subtle bit of tape hiss, but also an audible sense of spaciousness and a clear defining of the large space in which the orchestra played. This sense of realism was completely absent on the Alto. And as the music began to play, it suddenly sprang to life and the sound blossomed into the huge acoustic with majesty, drama, splendor and sparkle. It was as if the LSO suddenly woke up from its slumber. It sounded absolutely wonderful.
Going back to the Alto, it is apparent that their remastering process set out to eliminate the tape hiss. And in so doing, it has stifled the dynamic range and a good deal of the treble frequencies. Another casualty is a significant muffling of detail and collapse of soundstage; it now sounds cramped and congested. Examples: the piccolo solo in Billy The Kid sounds like it was played behind a blanket. On Mercury, it lit up the acoustic with an airy, singing, wooden tone not heard on Alto. Likewise, the trombone and piano "duet" which follows it was muddied back in the mix so that it was difficult to hear them distinctly. Back to Mercury and the trombone sang out with a golden tone, the piano now placed clearly behind it - yet utterly defined in space. And the drums in the Gun Battle were so completely uneventful on Alto - the impact of mallet on drum head muffled, sounding like a "thud". They were frighteningly real on Mercury with hair-raising impact and realism. And so it continued throughout the remainder of the program.
As Dorati's complete Billy The Kid and Appalachian Spring ballets are among the glories of recorded music, it is appalling and unforgivable what Alto has done with these master tapes. Their remastering has smothered the life out of them. I can't imagine any sound system, no matter how modest or unforgiving, benefiting from this type of sonic degradation. I suppose if someone is adamantly opposed to hearing any hint of tape hiss, then this might be for you. But for everyone else, this CD is to be avoided.
Another example of deleterious remastering efforts by Musical Concepts' Paul Arden-Taylor, under the budget labels Alto and Regis, can be found on a spectacular collection of Turina orchestral works, conducted by Enrique Batiz. One can only wonder, once again, why this label insists on meddling with a good thing. (Just witness the disastrous results on their recent reissue of Dorati's Mercury Copland ballets - see above). This Turina disc is less dramatic a degradation than heard on the Copland reissue; but nonetheless, it is not in any way successful.
This program was originally a 1994 IMG Records (part of the Pickwick Group) release from the legendary Brian Culverhouse (notably of Varese Sarabande fame). The original recording is typical of Culverhouse - bold, glitteringly "present" and absolutely thrilling. Enrique Batiz is a perfect conductor to match the sonics. However, in their remastering efforts, Regis has apparently attempted to tame it a bit for some reason (it didn't need it). It is subtly less bright and less realistically "present". But most detrimentally obvious, it is now not clean. It sounds to be slightly distorted, strained and less focused. The result is an unmistakable brashness and roughness - a more abrasive listening experience than the original. Not pleasant. I scratch my head wondering how Mr. Arden-Taylor hears this as an "improvement", or even an acceptable result. Going back to the original IMG CD, one hears the aural equivalent of cleaning the streaky film from a dirty window - it is clear as a bell, with effortless dynamics and sounds absolutely splendid.
The more I hear of Paul Arden-Taylor's remastering, the more I intensely dislike them. I will avoid these Alto and Regis reissues in the future, no matter how rare the repertoire might be. In most cases, the originals can be found on Amazon from their many, splendid Marketplace sellers. The extra effort of seeking them out is well worth it. (Here's a pic of the original IMG release.)