SONY often has brilliant ideas when planning their budget box sets for their "Masters" series. They are not always well executed (see a separate post with examples of "ridiculous nonsense"). But here are two in which they did a pretty good job.
It was a great idea to gather together all of MTT's Gershwin recordings made over the years for CBS and RCA. But, alas, not quite all of them are here...SIGH. As is sometimes the downfall of the folks at SONY, they randomly, inexplicably and inexcusably, leave something out of what would otherwise have been a complete and comprehensive set. This one fails to include MTT's Rhapsody in Blue with the New World Symphony, which was part of his 1998 "New World Jazz" album for RCA.
Oh I know, there are already two Rhapsody in Blues included - one utilizing a piano roll played by Gershwin himself (which is absurdly fast) and another with MTT at the keyboard (with the LA Phil). So another version, again with MTT at the keyboard, might seem redundant. But wouldn't it have been nice to have ALL of his Gershwin included here?
Oh well, what is here are some very enjoyable recordings of Gershwin's popular works, coupled with some rarities. The first 2 discs are an exact duplication of RCA's 1998 2-fer entitled "The 100th Birthday Celebration", with the San Francisco Symphony. (That set was remarkable for not including Rhapsody in Blue at all! Omitting his most popular composition ever on a "birthday celebration" concert was inexplicable. Including the more adventurous Second Rhapsody was not unwelcome, however.) Discs 3 and 4 combine together all of MTT's CBS recordings, made with various orchestras (some rare for him), including the New York, Buffalo and L.A. Philharmonics, and the "Columbia Jazz Band" (for the Gershwin piano rolls). Discs 5 & 6 are the rarely recorded musicals - Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake, followed by a disc of vocal selections sung by Sarah Vaughan.
Especially valuable here is the set of overtures with the Buffalo Philharmonic. 4 of these were reissued in a DSD remastering in 2004. I found the sound of that release to be less than satisfactory, preferring the sound of the original release. Unusually, the DSD remastering softened the focus, giving it a somewhat fuzzy, relaxed, laid back semblance of the original which did not suit the music (or my stereo system). This 24bit remastering lies somewhere in between the 2, retaining some of the softer focus of the DSD, but with a bit more of the clarity and presence heard in the original. But I will emphasize that the differences are very subtle and may not be heard at all on less revealing stereo systems than mine.
Less valuable is MTT's cobbled-together Catfish Row suite from Porgy & Bess, which interpolates MTT's vocal arrangements of the tunes, sung here by Audra McDonald, soprano, and Brian Stokes Mitchell, baritone, within Gershwin's original piano and orchestra original. I personally would rather listen to the complete opera if I wanted the vocals, rather than hearing them interrupting Gershwin's wonderful orchestral suite.
Disc 4 exhibits some production errors in the documentation. Interspersed among the two Rhapsodies are solo piano arrangements made and played by MTT. However, the disc jacket and the "booklet" (which is nothing more than a reprint of the table of contents from the disc jackets) list the orchestra and conductor as being involved in several of these selections, when in fact they are only utilized on just the 2 rhapsodies.
Quibbles aside, it is glorious to have all of this material compiled in one tidy, inexpensive box. It will replace 8 separate discs on my bulging shelves - including a previous reissue on RCA's Classic Library series, which incidentally, DID include the New World Rhapsody in Blue (making it all the more reprehensible it was not included here). I will need to keep the New World Jazz disc anyway, for all its non-Gershwin items. So it's all good. But still....if only...
Next is another brilliant box set offering all of David Zinman's Beethoven, originally for the Arte Nova label. I bought this box hoping that SONY could improve the variable and often unappealing sound heard on those original Arte Nova releases. I appreciated Zinman's approach to the symphonies when they were first issued, but found the recording quality less than ideal. They suffer mostly from a sense of congestion and boxiness in an ill-defined acoustic.
Alas, these discs in SONY's reissued box are identical to those originals. Not only do they sound absolutely identical to the originals, my universal disc player "recognized" and remembered the discs when jumping back and forth from the originals to these SONY discs. It resumed play from where I had stopped on the corresponding disc, confirming they are identical. So, the only thing SONY did was compile them into a box and change the cover art.
Still, it is convenient to have all of Zinman's Beethoven in one, tidy box. I was able to replace 12 CDs with this box, freeing up even more much needed shelf space! Once again I was pleased to still hear these as being excellent performances of the Symphonies. The Overtures are not nearly as good. The Piano Concertos are so-so. And, incidentally, the Septet, which was originally coupled with the Triple Concerto on the Arte Nova release, has been excluded from this box (technically it wasn't "conducted" by Zinman, so they left it out). This is a pity; it is a glorious performance. And, exasperatingly, I now have to keep one of those original discs for this piece alone. Sigh...
Presumably, there was really nothing that could be done with the original recording quality, so they didn't try. I wish SONY wouldn't advertise their 24bit remastering if they don't actually do it. That being said, I can confirm that the symphonies sound pretty good (better than I remembered them being, actually). The Overtures sound absolutely horrible. They were recorded in 2005, several years after the symphonies (late 90s), and I'm at a loss as to why Arte Nova's sound got WORSE as they went along with the project. And they are no better in SONY's box (again, identical) - impossibly confused, congested, ill-focused, edgy and boomy at the same time. A complete mess.
All in all, this is a great Beethoven set, marred by variable (and far from state-of-the-art) sound. It's good to have, but is not the set I will return to first when in the mood for Beethoven. That will most often be Chailly/Gewandhausorchester on Decca and Vanska/Minnesota on BIS (in superlative SACD surround sound) for complete sets; a hand-picked few individual symphonies from Szell's Cleveland/CBS and Leinsdorf's Boston/RCA sets (both wonderfully remastered and reissued in SONY's budget Masters Series box sets); and, of course, Carlos Kleiber's 5th and 7th, with the Vienna Phil, every time. If only he had recorded a complete set with them...