Ever since Michael J. Dutton began remastering some of Charles Gerhardt's 1970s-era RCA Classic Film Scores recordings for SACD, I've been hoping he'd also do Gerhardt's two albums of John Williams scores. And at last he has tackled the first one of those, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind Suites, recorded in 1977.
Before I even began listening, I was excited to see Gerhardt's liner notes from the original LP reprinted in the SACD booklet. I had not read them before, as they were not included in the 1989 RCA Victor CD release. And it was fascinating to be reminded this album was recorded the same year as the original Star Wars soundtrack (1977). Gerhardt explains that not only did he know John Williams, but he was present during some of the recording sessions with the LSO for the film. And he immediately knew he wanted to record this music himself, even if an original soundtrack album was released. Soon after, Williams compiled a concert suite of music from the film. Gerhardt consulted with Mr. Williams directly and asked him to rescore the suite using the original orchestration for large orchestra that he employed for the original score, rather than the "condensed" version for standard orchestra he created for the concert suite. And that is what is recorded here - utilizing 11 woodwinds, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 harps, piano, celesta, full percussion, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos and 6 basses.
He also worked with John Williams on compiling the 21-minute suite from Close Encounters, which constitutes virtually the entire last sequence of the film, along with several earlier sequences.
For this new Vocalion reissue, in addition to the stereo SACD and CD layers, there is also a multi-channel quad mix as well - which Dutton describes on the back cover merely as "remixed in Quadraphonic from the original multitrack tapes". For the record, as always, I listen to 2-channel, stereo SACD. I do not use extra speakers other than the standard stereo pair.
And now to the sound.
This recording has been one of my favorites ever since I began collecting CDs back in the mid/late 1980s. Over the years, though, as I've upgraded my stereo system with higher quality and more sophisticated (and revealing) components and cables, it became increasingly apparent that RCA's "Dolby Surround" remastering process for CD, which was used for the entire Classic Film Scores series, was not ideal. The sound tended to be murky and bass-heavy. This Star Wars recording in particular also sounded a bit unfocused and not quite clean in the upper range - a clear indicator that the original master tapes had not been used. There are also numerous crude edits/splices (notably in "Princess Leia") which were never repaired and remain glaringly obvious on CD. I know exactly where they are and wince every time those sections of music arrive during listening.
I have not experienced night-and-day improvements in previous Vocalion SACD reissues of the Classic Film Scores (7 of them thus far). SONY had completely remastered all 12 of them for CD in 2010, with considerable success in cleaning them up. And compared to those, Dutton's remasters are very similar - even on SACD. However, SONY neglected the Star Wars recordings (which came several years later and were not technically part of the original series) and never reissued them. The sound on this new Vocalion SACD over the original RCA CD reveals similar significant improvements.
As a matter of fact, the sound is so glorious I concluded I must have been remembering the old RCA CD sounding worse than it really was. There was simply no way this SACD could be that much better, right? So I dutifully loaded the RCA CD into the disc player and pressed play. And I was astonished how tubby and congested the soundstage was. The midrange is murky, just as I remembered, and there is a glarey, "cupped-hands" quality - which, to be honest, is not entirely eliminated on the SACD. But it has been minimized.
The most appreciable improvement is how much clearer and well-focused the orchestra sounds on the SACD. There is a spaciousness to the acoustic which allows the orchestra room to breathe. And the violins are cleaner and thus even more lovely - infused with air and imbued with silky sweetness.
And lo and behold, those edits are all but gone. If you listen very carefully for them, which I did, yes they are there. But they've been so skillfully corrected, they're virtually inaudible.
After revisiting the CD and hearing again how tubby it sounds, going back to the SACD I can hear a bit of it there too. There is not the completely effortless expanse of sound (especially in the mid range) you hear on modern digital recordings. It could still be more open, more dynamic, and have more sparkle on top. However, the extent to which the original has been cleaned up is simply miraculous.
The good news continues with what hasn't changed. The rich tonality of the orchestra remains intact, as does the gorgeous acoustic. Sometimes cleaning up the soundstage and increasing clarity to this magnitude can result in a reduction in warmth, with a residual leanness to the sound. I actually hear that very consequence on SONY's remastering of the original series. While the sound is cleaned up to an amazing extent, some of the warmth and richness is lost. Not so here. The vibrancy of orchestral colors and body of sound are enhanced. And at the same time, textures are clarified as well. There is a realism here which simply was not revealed on the original CD.
As to dynamics, they too remain about the same as before. There still sounds to be quite a bit of analog compression, typical of the era. However, the performance is not stifled and Gerhardt's gifts on the podium shine through.
The Star Wars suite recorded here differs from the one commonly played today, as published by Hal Leonard in the John Williams Signature Edition, not only in orchestration (as noted above) but in content as well. We get "Little People" and "The Battle", which were later dropped and replaced with "Yoda's Theme" and "The Imperial March". Also unique to Gerhardt's recording is an additional selection not included in either version of the suite - the short (2-minute) scherzo, "Here They Come". Gerhardt asked Williams to add it because he thought it was "brilliant". And brilliant it most certainly is. Conversely, Zubin Mehta, who also recorded the original version of the suite with the LA Phil for Decca, in the same month and year as Gerhardt (December, 1977), doesn't include the little scherzo, but instead adds "Cantina Band".
Interpretively, differences are notable. While both conductors bring a symphonic grandeur and a bit of extra gravitas to this music, Mehta is characteristically more melodramatic, with wider dynamics and more pronounced tempo extremes. For example, he inexplicably rushes his way mercilessly through "Princess Leia". Listening to this recording again after all these years brought back many fond memories. Not only of how momentous the recording was - bringing John Williams's music into the concert hall, conducted by Zubin Mehta no less, somehow helped to "legitimize" him as a composer; but even more, I was reminded how great the Los Angeles Philharmonic used to be, back when they still had character. There's no denying they played with charisma under Mehta. And what a fantastic recording this was, and is to this day.
Gerhardt, on the other hand, is more natural. He's exciting everywhere it needs to be but also more fervent. For example, he holds the tempo steady in "Princess Leia" with breadth and ardor, culminating in an overwhelmingly moving climax. He draws more passion from his strings, while Mehta's are more intense. And elsewhere, the sense of spectacle Gerhardt elicits is positively cinematic.
In the end, I'd conclude that Mehta sounds like Mehta and Gerhardt sounds like John Williams. (And both are compliments.)
Sadly, Dutton seems to have abandoned the Classic Film Scores series for SACD release. (The last one to appear was in 2020.) But I am eternally grateful he jumped ahead to this Star Wars recording, as it desperately needed a new remastering. And what a remarkable achievement it is. The follow-up recording, an equally fabulous suite from Return of the Jedi, would be the most logical next project. However as it was recorded digitally in 1983, it may not benefit nearly as much from an SACD application. (And even on CD, it sounds much better than Star Wars did.) But I can hope it will eventually come anyway.
Postscript: For unknown reasons, most Dutton/Vocalion releases are not readily available in the U.S. and are hard to find and extremely expensive. On Amazon, for example, they are only available from one Marketplace seller - Dutton/Epoch itself - absurdly priced and with an outrageous shipping fee added ($9.99). It's as if Dutton doesn't want to sell his product in America. Whatever. Happily, Presto Classical in England has them, reasonably priced and shipped inexpensively. They usually arrive in 7-10 days. Problem solved.