Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Munch's Living Stereo Daphnis sounds best on...

Facing the prospective purchaser are at least four issues of Charles Munch's 1955 recording of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe (the complete ballet score): the Living Stereo CD, which dates from the mid-'90s, the JVC xrcd2, the recent RCA/BMG SACD, and the Classic LP reissue. There is also an older Chesky LP reissue which I haven't heard. Add to this the original LP pressings and assorted tapes and other reissues, and the situation is confusing, to say the least.

Let's cut to the (Leslie) chase: the Classic LP, among current reissues, is tops--bottoms, too: its low-end extension sets it apart from any of the three digital iterations, and the fine high-end detail is similarly in a class of its own. The score isn't what one would call a showoff kind of spectacular: its magic lies in the subtle orchestral colors and flourishes. Contrary to popular belief, digital tends to be as weak at this end of the dynamic spectrum as in the louder fare--at very low levels, digital noise increases markedly, with a concomitant loss of inner detail and life. The result, at its worst, can be flat and synthetic. While none of the digital versions of this recording could be said to fall into this category, neither does any succeed in fully conveying a realistic sense of the scoring.

Best amongst the three is probably the xrcd2, though it and the SACD have different strengths and weaknesses: the xrcd is at its best in delineating the varied orchestral strands and details; the SACD better conveys the weight of the orchestra. That said, the latter has a heavy, thick, opaque quality that seems to be common to certain of the first round of RCA SACD issues. This may be a result of poor judgment in terms of EQing, as opposed to an inherent weakness of the format: for example, I recently auditioned a sensational Columbia SACD of George Szell conducting Richard Strauss which has stunning transparency and detail--precisely those areas in which the RCA demonstrates its most severe shortcomings.



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