Thursday, March 03, 2005

Munch's Berlioz Requiem on SACD: Almost, but not quite

Charles Munch's RCA recording of the Berlioz Requiem is as commanding as you'd expect any recording of Munch conducting Berlioz to be. The Boston Symphony sounds great as usual, but the chorus is clearly singing English-inflected Latin. Good chorus, though.

This was never quite out of RCA's top drawer, sonically-speaking, though it has its moments. The SACD is quite obviously superior to the version on the now out-of-print "Munch Conducts Berlioz" 8-CD set. (The new 10-CD set apparently uses mostly the same transfers for duplicative material.) This is apparent at both ends of the frequency spectrum: for example, the light bass drum taps during the tenor solo sound deeper and more audible on the SACD, whereas on the CD you barely notice they're even being played. On the top end, the new disc is more open and far less edgy, especially when the chorus sings loudly, and more of the capacious Symphony Hall sound is captured.

One audio cavil: Leopold Simoneau's solo sounds undermixed on the SACD, whereas it's well balanced and clear as day on the CD. It looks as if (as with the Gershwin disc) Sound Mirror Studios, who did the remastering, lowered the center channel of the three-channel master. This gives the sound more stereo separation--in the CD, many of the woodwind passages are quite prominent as part of the center "ghost image" (making the section sound almost as if it had been recorded in mono) whereas on the SACD the spread is wider. I prefer the latter mix, except where it causes the imbalance in the tenor solo.

RCA was already starting to use more mikes by 1959, when this recording was made, and for this reason the imaging is a bit vague vis-a-vis the very early two-mike stereo recordings such as Reiner's Heldenleben or Fiedler's Gaite Parisienne. There, everything is in its proper place on the stage, and in spite of the inevitable "hole in the middle," the precise location of the instruments is easy to discern. Perhaps the results would've been better if the recording had been made in 1953 or '54.*

At any rate, the performance is at least competitive with the other stereo versions I've heard (including the Telarc conducted by Robert Shaw--talk about a bass drum!), and the sound is very obviously improved.


* The brief excerpt that's survived of the lost stereo version of Munch's Damnation of Faust (recorded in 1954) is sonically sensational--far superior, even on red book CD, to this SACD of the Requiem. C'est la vie.


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