Why would anyone go to the trouble of remastering a 1961 recording of the New World Symphony by Istvan Kertesz when his splendid 1966 recording with the LSO, part of his complete Dvorak Symphonies set, has been widely available and a top recommendation for forty years? First there is the historical importance of the recording. This was the first outing for the 32 year old Kertesz with the DECCA label in a life tragically cut short by a drowning accident off the beach of Herzliya in 1973.
The second reason, and a much better one, is that this performance is far more revolutionary, profound and exciting than his later one, and lays claim to being the finest of all time, a desert island disc if ever there was one.
So let us focus first on what makes this recording so significant. It's not the most polished of performances and to be frank, the VPO was not at the time an orchestra of the very first rank. It's the passion, weight, sudden rhythmic changes and sparkling wit that mark it out for greatness. Rather than a long sequence of beautifully turned phrases, such as Karajan offers here and elsewhere, you have a madhouse full of flamboyant gestures tightly woven into a marvellously coherent whole. It shouldn't work but it does. Kertesz takes risks at every turn, delighting in some very rustic and occasionally ugly sounds from his orchestra, all in the service of a profound vision of early America which never fails to keep you on the edge of your seat. The deliciously slow tempo of the Largo, the vibrant blat of the trumpets, the rumbustuous fervor of the cellos and basses dancing like elephants near the end of the finale, the Jaws-like chords at the start of that movement that grip like Klemperer's Bruckner – all of these delight and amaze as soaring melodies turn suddenly to fantastic dances and sweeping tutti. There are many fine performances of the New World Symphony, but it's so hard to return to any of them after you've heard this one. They're too tame. It's quite unbelievable to me that this is a studio recording. How did he manage to whip up such excitement when playing to the microphone? Kertesz and the VPO do for Dvorak what Mravinsky and the Leningrad have done for Tchaikovsky.
My wife will give testament to how much I enjoyed this disc. She saw me air conducting and eventually dancing with my headphones clamped around my ears. When I put down my pen and move to the music, that's an infallible sign things are going well. This is not just a great performance, with sound to match, but the music itself is a masterpiece, perhaps more than any of us understood before Kertesz came along to show us why.
Fortunately producer Ray Minshull and engineer James Brown had the equipment and the skill to capture the fine acoustics of the Vienna Sofiensaal (DECCA's Vienna recording studio, originally a bath-house) for posterity. In particular, it is most unusual to hear the big drums captured so cleanly. Esoteric's producer Motoaki Ohmachi and JVC's mastering engineer Kazuie Sugimoto pulled out all the stops to make this disc serve full justice to the remarkable music making on display. Not only has this stereo recording been made available on a hybrid SACD, but Esoteric also offers this on 200g vinyl as part of DECCA's Master Sound Works "Limited Edition" series. I can only tell you the SACD version is absolutely top notch, capturing the rich color of the VPO in full flood with great clarity and resolution. The Redbook CD layer is superior to my London Weekend Classics CD (417 678-2 now out of print) in every way but you don't fork out the $59 for 40 minutes of music just to play the low resolution layer.The SACD comes in a beautiful package with notes in Japanese and English and an image of the original LP cover on the front. The point of this release and the others in the series is to show just what heights, both musically and sonically, the SACD medium is capable of reaching, leading perhaps to a corresponding increase in the sales of Esoteric SACD players. But it is also an indulgence for Esoteric Motoaki Ohmachi, a passionate and knowledgeable music lover and the driving force behind this initiative. At CES 2009 he asked me what recordings I'd like to see Esoteric remastering in the future. I volunteered Solti's Verdi Requiem, so if you ever see that on an Esoteric SACD or LP, you can thank me personally, or rather, we can both thank Motoaki Ohmachi and the good people of Esoteric.