I criticized SONY, quite harshly, last year for their ridiculously misguided, senseless, ungenerous 2-disc reissue (2013) of just some of Boulez's CBS Stravinsky recordings. On that set, they gave us a cobbled-together sampler of his BBC Symphony Orchestra Firebird Suite, his NY Phil Petroushka, and his Cleveland Rite of Spring - all of which had been reissued (and remastered) several times before. Total playing time for the 2 discs was a meager 91 minutes. It made no sense whatsoever, as there were more of these recordings which had not been reissued since their first CD incarnation, and long out-of-print.
This year, someone at SONY had the brilliant idea to revisit this body of recordings and do it right. In so doing, they have given us all of the above, PLUS Boulez's remaining, long-neglected recordings. The new entries in this 3-disc box set are, at long last, Boulez's complete Firebird ballet with the New York Philharmonic, plus Song of the Nightingale, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Pulcinella Suite and Scherzo Fantastique, all with the same orchestra. Also included are the Suites #1 and 2 with the Ensemble Intercontemporain.
All of this material has been (reportedly) newly remastered in SONY's ubiquitous 24-bit High Resolution Audio process. I am eager to compare them to earlier releases - particularly the complete Firebird with the NY Phil. That original CD was released in 1987 and sorely needed remastering (I doubt original master tapes had been used). I will be interested to hear how 30 years of technological advances have improved its sound. Also, there was a 2005 single-disc release in SONY's Classic Library series, which was remastered in DSD. I found the sound on that CD surprisingly awful, and I'm hoping this new issue in 24-bit (12 years later) has improved on that attempt as well.
I can report that the sound is uniformly very satisfactory in this box set. It is subtly cleaner than before, a bit less "thick" in the midrange, and has a more tangible presence than on previous issues. But, sadly, there remains the muddiness in the midrange; and obvious spotlighting, so typical of CBS recordings of the era, is still evident - especially in the New York sessions. This was my biggest complaint of the 2005 DSD remastering. I had hoped they might have taken the time to minimize some of that obvious knob-twiddling from the original processing. But, be that as it may, it doesn't detract too badly - the ear does eventually adjust to the unnaturalness of it. And, to be fair, it's not quite as outrageously applied as heard in many of those infamous Decca Phase-Four recordings from the early 70s.
And above all, there is undeniably something so "right" about Boulez's methodical, weighty adherence to the score that lends the perfect amount of primitive earthiness to early Stravinsky. And perhaps the spotlighting does enhance that feeling somehow, especially in the Rite.
Regardless of the recording faults (which would certainly be unthinkable in more modern recordings), this is a terrific box set. It is cause for celebration having all of these recordings once again available, in the best possible sound, conveniently contained in a handy, inexpensive box. Well done, SONY!
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