Friday, December 03, 2004

Ella's Gershwin on CD: not S'wonderful

There's an interesting conundrum regarding the sonics of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book, the greatest (and biggest) of the albums in the series. This one was originally five LP's plus a 7-inch EP (duplicated precisely in the gorgeous Speakers Corner LP reissue); art prints; hardcover book. One of the century's landmark achievements, and quite possibly the greatest record album ever.

The separate CD issue, which postdated the complete Song Book box set, sounds ear-bleedingly bright and brassy--too much high-end. The Speakers Corner LP reissue is more like it--possibly from the same source material, but less aggressively EQ'd.

It's mentioned in the technical notes to the separate issue that the studio master tapes of the Gershwin set are lost. Hard to believe but apparently true.

I'd estimate the source material used for the box set is at least one, possibly two generations down from that used for the separate set. That means there's considerably more tape hiss. There also seems to be some "sweetening" applied to the signal, meaning a high-end cut and a bit of echo enveloping everything, voice and orchestra. I'd guess these were the production or cutting masters used to create the original LP's.

Since the separate issue is less monkeyed-with and closer to the "lost" session tapes, one would automatically assume it's best. The problem here is the EQ'ing issue. Verve has chosen either to EQ it extremely brightly on the high-end, or at least left some very bright tapes alone, without trying to compensate for their flaws.

The Gershwin set is very pleasant and listenable on the box set. Still, I can't escape the annoying feeling that there's information missing here: fine detail and real (as opposed to phony, applied) ambient sound.

The good news is that on the box set version you don't have to deal with that explosive high-end, and this makes the recording easier to listen to.

Which to prefer? My head tells me the separate issue, because it's closer to the master. My heart tells me the box set, because it sounds more like music.

I'm glad to have both, but I must tell you I've rarely heard two transfers of the same recording sound so wildly different. With the strides made in digital, and particularly the CD format, since the box set was issued in 1993, it would be interesting to hear what a current transfer from the "sweetened" tapes used for the box set would sound like--say, in SACD format. I won't hold my breath, of course.

All said, the monumental Speakers Corner LP reissue is still easily the best way to see and hear Ella's Gershwin Song Book in the here and now. And the notes are actually big enough to be legible, too. You should see the tiny replica of the book included with the CD box set. It's about 2-1/2 inches by 2 inches, and made me laugh out loud.



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