Sunday, January 23, 2005

Reiner's Pictures: A digital face-off



First up for audition in today's blizzard-induced stereo-listenin,' bagel-and-lox eatin' extravaganza is the RCA Living Stereo recording of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in its Ravel orchestration. Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.* This is one of the great classic recordings of the golden age of stereo. It has tremendous personal resonance for me, since it was the recording that first turned me on to the music. Check that: it was the recording that first turned me on to music, period, paragraph.

Taking into account the "imprinting" factor--where one favors the version that made the first positive impression--this recording is by acclamation one of the best-ever versions both musically and sonically. For me it's one of the top four or five Living Stereo recordings for sound quality, and one of the greatest recordings of an orchestral score ever made.

Sadly, it's never sounded like that on the little silver discs. Neither the first, mid-'80s iteration or the Living Stereo CD series version was up to snuff. Nor, surprisingly, was the JVC xrcd--for which my expectations were very high--or the Classic Records vinyl reissue, though it won the competition on points. In comparison to even a poorly-pressed Dynaflex LP of the '70s, these presentations were oddly dead and boxy, lacking the copious hall reverberation of the original in the huge orchestral perorations like the Bydlo section or the Great Gate, and seemingly rolled-off on top, so that the lighter portions of the score, like the Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, failed to sparkle as they should--and as they so gloriously do in the earlier analog iterations of the recording. So question number one upon release of the new Living Stereo SACD was whether a satisfactory job of restoration had been accomplished.


Chicago's Reiner: "I vant...to suck...your blood..."

In fact, the high-rez version is not quite there, though it gets decidedly closer than any other digital issue, and even, for once, improves upon the Classic LP reissue in many (though not all) respects. The high string partials are largely restored, the great Chicago brass growls menacingly as it should, and the hall sound, while not fully in evidence, is easier to discern. Finally, one can say that the merits that made the original recording so singularly appealing are back, albeit not particularly with a vengeance.

My receipt of a new DAC (digital/analog converter) for my stereo system--an outboard device that takes the place of its counterpart inside the player and (one hopes) improves its sound in the process--prompts some re-listening to the CD layers of many of the new hybrid SACD's from RCA and Mercury. Until the last few days I'd totally ignored the "red book" (conventional CD) layers of these discs in favor of the high-resolution SACD portion.

What of the CD layer of this Pictures disc? Does it score points over even the high-resolution portion, or is it back to the usual CD drawing board? Unlike the Mercuries, which utilize the old, '90s CD transfers for the red book layer of their SACDs, the RCA's are said to use the new transfers prepared for the high-resolution portion of the disc. Thus, it can safely be said that any differences one encounters between the two layers are attributable to differences in the formats.

Or differences in the performance of one's hardware.

And you thought this would be easy.

So how did the "low-rez" version do?

In one sense the CD lacks the smoothness and easy listenability of the SACD layer. In its place are more sharply-etched transient attacks and more fierce orchestral playing. (Yes, it's true: the impression given by the sonics can cast a new and different light on the musical performance; which of two conflicting versions is the "right" one can sometimes be a major conundrum.)


Here's old Fritz looking debonair...and still pissed.

The strings of the CD layer are ethereal, extended and non-brittle, and the brass has that characteristic etched quality, this to a far greater extent than the SACD layer. The red book layer strikes me as more in keeping with the general character of the original recordings as I grew up with them on LP records for so many years.

Even if I were blindfolded (smoking a cigarette and making a final request), I think I'd know that this is a CD and the other is an SACD: without labeling either as "better" or "worse," each has a characteristic sound; one could never be mistaken for the other. Unless, of course, one wasn't paying proper attention. Or worse yet, one's stereo is physically incapable of revealing those differences--a lack of resolution in the electronics, or the loudspeakers perhaps.

What, then, is that special sound of SACD that your equipment should be revealing to you? In fact, it's really neither fish nor fowl, animal or vegetable. It doesn't sound like analog, and it's missing most of the aural cues we associate with digital.

The main question before the house, however, is whether or not it sounds like music.

We'll leave that one open for discussion for awhile.

MK

* It should be mentioned that this disc is jam-packed with other Russian orchestral blockbusters, many of which approach the same exalted class of performance and recording as the Pictures. In order to keep this review to a sensible length, I've chosen to omit them from the discussion. As for how they sound, suffice it to say that most of the comments regarding the Pictures recording hold more or less true for the other pieces as well.



The cover art seen at the top of this review is the "revised" art first seen in the second, Living Stereo series CD version, loosely based on the original. The original (and in my opinion, superior) cover art is reproduced above.

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