This Eloquence set is cause for rejoicing. At long last, we have Solti's 1959 "World of Russia" recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on CD. As we all know, this program was duplicated, almost exactly, 7 years later with the LSO. (In London, Solti recorded Borodin's Polovtsian Dances in place of Mussorgsky's Dances of the Persian Slaves, as in Berlin). This Berlin recording was never issued at the time (for reasons never fully explained), and not until 1973 was it finally released on LP. Having not heard this recording since replacing my record player with a CD player in the mid-80s, I can say the CD reveals what might be the real reason it was withheld at the time. And, yes, it has to do with the recorded sound. More on this later...
Let's start with a bit of history, as I have ascertained it. (I welcome comments from others who have more details or corrections.) Even Decca is fuzzy on some of its facts regarding these early Solti recordings. For the LSO recording on Decca Legends, booklet writer Ivan March (of Gramophone and Penguin Guide fame) states: "Solti was to re-record much of this repertoire with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. These later performances are mellower...than the present LSO collection". Of course, it is well known the Berlin recording came FIRST, in 1959, followed by the LSO re-recording in 1966. And the Eloquence booklet writer (Raymond Tuttle) states, amusingly, "The 1956 recordings of Tchaikovsky Second and Fifth Symphonies...are his only recordings of them." Well, we all know Solti re-recorded the 5th in Chicago twice (in 1975 and again in 1987). But it's true, this is his only 2nd symphony recording.
The Berlin portion of this collection was previously released on CD in 2011 on a curious "FabFour" box set, entitled "Georg Solti and the Russian Soul". It also included the rest of what is found on this Eloquence set, plus 2 piano concertos (which are readily available on Decca CDs). That FabFour release was regrettably let down by poor remastering. It even listed the two 1956 Tchaikovsky Symphonies (with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra) as being mono, when in fact they are very early stereo. This 2nd Symphony has also been released on a Decca Legends CD, saddled with Solti's similar LSO program, entitled "Romantic Russia".
Ok, with that information under our belt, let's evaluate this Eloquence release. I am happy to report they have used the Legends 96hz/24bit remastering for the 2nd Symphony, as it sounds identical. They have newly remastered the 5th symphony and the entire Berlin concert. While the recording quality is not great, it is a vast improvement over the 2011 FabFour release. Listening to the FabFour, it sounds obvious they did not utilize original master tapes. They are not as clean or devoid of overload distortion as is the Eloquence remastering. They are also transferred at a very high level, exacerbating the poor sound. Indeed, the opening Glinka Overture has one grabbing for the remote while trying to cover your ears! The Eloquence is altogether more refined and listenable. Perhaps some of the upper frequencies have been filtered out, reducing just a bit of the color and sheer "presence" of the orchestra in softer passages (the Khovanshchina excerpts, for example). But the trade-off is that the Ruslan & Lyudmilla and Prince Igor Overtures can now be listened to at a realistic volume without excruciating distortion. Oh there's still some, but not nearly as much as on FabFour.
This concert, compared to the same works recorded in London, certainly shows that the Berliners softened Solti a bit. He does not (or perhaps could not) whip them up to the same ferocious energy level as he does with the LSO. The recording is also more refined, adding to this effect. It is fascinating to compare the two concerts. In the Glinka overture, for example, the timings are identical (5:00), but it sounds faster and much more frenetic in London; almost mellow in Berlin. The same with the Borodin overture. The Khovanshchina excerpts are gorgeous with both groups. Still, the recording is not great, even by 1959 standards. The sound overall is a bit "tubby", with a somewhat artificial acoustic (although it is not dry). There are hints of distortion here and there (nothing too serious) and there is no deep bass to speak of. However, most of the orchestral frequency range is acceptably full-bodied and warm.
So why was it never released at the time? Decca has never indicated any contractual or copyright issues - only that it was "held back to make room for the LSO program" (Raymond Tuttle writing in the Eloquence booklet). So we are to believe that Decca knew, in 1959, they would be re-recording this same program again in London 7 years in the future? Doubtful. I suspect the producers were not entirely satisfied with the recorded sound in Berlin. And I also suspect Solti may not have been terribly happy with the softening effect the Berlin Philharmonic had on his usual fiery style.
I'll not go into extensive detail regarding these readings of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. Quick observations include a ferocious 1st movement of the Second (today's string sections wouldn't dream, or be capable, of playing with this much energy or frenetic incisiveness of attack.) Also worth noting is the 1st movement of the Fifth as well - it is fresh and very exciting, not quite as hard-driven as is the Second Symphony. And the strings are quite impressive here - Solti drawing out the utmost richness, ardor and passion; it sounds as if there are hundreds of players. However, allowances must be made for the quality of the Paris Conservatory's wind sections. The double-reeds, in particular, often sound thin and sour and the brass are sometimes encouraged to produce more volume and power than they are capable of, becoming a bit raw. And for the 1956 stereo sound: even though it is stereo, it is rather 2-dimensional and harsh (especially in the Second Symphony). Without doubt, both of Solti's later Chicago recordings of the Fifth are preferable. Incidentally, this Serenade for Strings, with the Israel Philharmonic, is very impressive: exciting, fast and full of energy in movements 1, 2 & 4, and sweetly singing in the 3rd movement, with a gorgeous con sordino tone, the Israel strings producing a body of tone not usually associated with them during this period. The recording helps tremendously. If just a touch bright in fortissimos, it sounds better than I remember it on the previous Double Decca (although I did not compare them directly).
All that being said, this is an indispensable collection which will not involve too much duplication. If you already have the FabFour set, you will most certainly want to replace it. And for all Solti admirers, you will want to own this set. This is certainly the cream-of-the-crop of Eloquence Solti reissues coming our way this year.