Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Our opera recording legacy: shot to hell

Having just listened to Act I of the reel-to-reel tape edition of the glorious RCA recording of Aida (Price, Vickers, Solti, et al.), I decided, just for fun, to pop the CD's into the machine and give them a listen. This would be the 3-disc London set released in the mid-'80s--the full-priced set. (Decca has since re-released this as a budget-priced *twofer*--about one-third the price! And the sound of the twofer may be better. But I'll get to that anon.)

According to my possibly faulty recollection, the CD's were grossly inferior to the tapes (of which I previously had the highlights), with a sharp attenuation of the high frequencies.

My CD player is now set up to perfection. I recently discovered that I had moved its AC plug from the wall socket into a power strip when I was working on a telephone jack in that vicinity; seems I had forgotten to move the CD player's AC plug *back* into the direct wall socket, where it always has sounded *distinctly* better--I kid you not. A hard-edged glare to the sound was thereby completely removed; I'd spent several months trying to figure out how to further tweak my CD player in order to get rid of the sonic annoyances, not realizing that a simple replacement of the plug to the wall socket would've solved the problem in two seconds. Live and learn.

Anyway, the CD player can now display any disc in its best light. If it's a good CD, it'll sound good on this system. If it's bad, it'll sound bad. If it's spectacular--and there are more than a few--it'll sound spectacular.

You know the punch line. The CD's of the Solti Aida were in fact shorn of their highest frequencies. This is not one of these subtle differences that only audiophiles with "golden ears" and $40,000 systems can hear. A 90-year-old guy with his hearing intact could hear this on his Victrola (assuming it plays CD's).

Why this is the case I do not know. My guess is that it was a "creative" choice: the Solti Aida was always known to sound extremely "hot" in the high frequencies; the brass was said to be over-recorded and obtrusive. Of course, this was *Solti's* creative choice (and/or possibly that of Lewis Layton, one of the greatest of the great engineers), which should have been -- but wasn't -- respected.

The other possibility is that something happened to the RCA mastertapes during their residence at Decca. All RCA issues that I've heard -- the open reel tapes, both highlights and complete, and the complete LP shaded dog set -- sound great, and have their high frequencies intact.

Same goes for the first Decca LP's. These are the ones with the cover art that featured Price in full costume with one of her '60s-style hair-do's, standing next to an Egyptian column. Unfortunately I was unable to find any scanned art for this set on the Internet. The bottom line is that these LP's sounded superb, in every way the equal of the RCA shaded dogs.

This set was manufactured by Decca/London until the early '70s, at which point it was replaced by LP's featuring the cover art featuring Price with '70s-style Afro and flowing dashiki.

This was the first issue of the Solti Aida where the high frequencies were attenuated. I've heard the LP's but not the cassettes, which were popular back then. I assume they were essentially the same as the LP's.

The next major issue of the Solti Aida was the first CD edition in the mid '80s--the full-priced three-disc set. These sound as if the same source material was used in their mastering, indicating that when Decca first issued the LP set described above (Price-with-Afro), they made a new set of masters which were then used for the first CD set, which shared the Afro cover art with the LP's.

The next set issued by Decca was the budget-priced twofer. (They were able to fit it on two discs by making a split during the Triumphal Scene; the earlier CD set was sequenced so that the discs broke at the conclusions of acts, which necessitated three CD's.) That issue has yellowish nondescript abstract cover art.

I've heard this set only via an .mp3 download. While it doesn't sound as bright as the original sets, it does sound more open and livelier than the "bad" sets. Of course, it's very difficult to make any definitive determination on the sound quality even via a fairly high bitrate .mp3 download. I'd have to rate the sound of the newest set as "inconclusive"

Believe it or not, both of the CD sets appear to still be in print! The three-disc set is far higher-priced than the twofer and may not sound as good. Go figure.

Just so you don't think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill here, let me just state that I consider this recording a very important document of some great singers and a famous conductor, and it should be heard in its proper sound. The same, unfortunately, goes for the Price/Karajan Tosca, which similarly lost its highest frequencies at Decca around the same time as the Solti Aida. There are further examples, some more blatant than others, but the fact remains that a huge number of recordings aren't being heard as they should be heard.

There have been some positive signs. The Living Stereo series on CD was a praiseworthy effort by RCA to present older recordings -- including opera -- in their best light. A few are so good (the Leinsdorf Tosca and Lucia) that they rival the original LP's. Unfortunately, not all of the recordings have been as worthy of the effort as the Solti Aida. Certain of the reissue programs of the other majors have not generally been of the same high standard, including the Decca Classic Sound/Legends series and the EMI Great Recordings of the Century. Conversely, Philips and DG have done some very nice work on their reissue projects, often limited only by the disfigurements of the CD format itself -- something worthy of another essay or two. While there are no hard and fast rules, the sad truth is that a very high percentage of our recorded opera legacy is not being properly presented to the buying public.



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At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Bill dudman said...

i have just finished listening to the 4T open reel reording of Aida, yes it is bright but very exciting!

Bill dudman


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