NOTE: This article was originally planned as a follow-up to my review in Listener magazine of Reiner/Chicago XRCD2 releases. The introductory comments below in italics appeared with that first article in slightly different form.
These RCA Living Stereos from producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton are both sonic and artistic gems, and have long been audiophile icons. The RCA team of Mohr and Layton captured the warmly rich, spacious sonics of early Living Stereos principally in two great venues: Boston's Symphony Hall and Orchestra Hall in Chicago. These five recordings represent well the sound of the Boston Symphony at its recorded best.
RCA also had the finest talent to work with. While Mercury -- RCA's major rival in the great recorded sound sweepstakes -- had fine conductors such as Antal Dorati and Paul Paray pulling good -- often great -- performances from second-tier orchestras in Minneapolis and Detroit, RCA had arguably the country's two greatest ensembles. (For me, there's no argument!) Charles Munch, Boston's fiery and flamboyant conductor, was especially celebrated for his interpretations of French music from Berlioz onward. In Chicago, Fritz Reiner delivered authoritative readings of the central Germanic repertoire and many different nationalities and periods as well.
The highly prized original Living Stereo LPs have had numerous reincarnations: budget-label LPs, full- and budget-priced commercial CDs, remastered audiophile-quality LPs and CDs from Chesky and Classic Records. Those various editions have been argued over endlessly in the pages of audiophile magazines, and I don't propose to cover that ground again. I own various originals and reissues, and in preparing for this review I revisited them all. Here's how it boils down: the original RCA LPs in decent condition still deliver the most emotionally involving listening experience. Trouble is, if you don't already have them, your chances of finding them are slim, and prices will most likely be exorbitant. Both the Chesky and Classic LPs are very good, and if you're not comparing them directly with the originals, they are very satisfying. Those companies' CDs are also good. The BMG CD reissues -- especially those that came out early in the digital era-- are generally pretty poor, tending to the shrill and flat.
If you have the original or reissued LPs, there's no pressing reason to buy these new CDs. If you're all digital, however, JVC has done you a service. Taken on their own terms, without reference to the LPs, these are excellent-sounding discs. They convey musical texture with clarity and very good dynamic range, and occasionally surprise me with previously unnoticed microdetail. As usual, the XRCD2 processing makes a strong case for the possibilities of the standard 16-bit/44.1 kHz CD format. For instance, they are better than most of the classical SACD reissues I've heard.
The 1955 Munch/BSO Symphonie Fantastique has been on most lists of collectible RCA Living Stereo LPs, and it has been reissued on 180-gram Classic Records LP. Considering those precedents, XRCD2 Executive Producer Joe Harley deserves all the more credit for choosing to reissue the superior 1962 recording by the same forces.
Munch was widely celebrated as the pre-eminent Berlioz conductor of his day, and this Fantastique shows why. His just pacing and affectionate phrasing give the slow first (entitled "Dreams, Reveries") and third ("In the Country") movements a glowing warmth, and the waltz rhythms of the second movement, "A Ball,” project exactly the right sense of abandon falling just short of delirium. I wish Munch had included the cornet parts in that movement, as he did later in a 1968 EMI recording with the Orchestre de Paris, but that is a minor quibble.
But what sets this performance above any other is the astonishing synergy of Munch and the Bostonians in the two final movements, "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath." (And let's face it folks -- those two made-for-demo movements are all that lots of listeners ever play of this piece!) This fiery take-no-prisoners tour de force represents Munch at his charismatic best. He demands impossible playing from the orchestra, and the Boston musicians respond with incredible drama, ensemble precision and instrumental color. With its brilliance of interpretation and execution, this one makes my short list of best orchestral recordings of all time.
The Living Stereo sound is worthy of the performance. Kudos to JVC's remastering engineers for their success in capturing the tonal warmth, sense of venue and sheer dynamic excitement of this great performance. By comparison, my copy of LSC 2608,despite a bit of groove wear, sounds even more harmonically voluptuous than this XRCD2 release, but my beloved LP does not equal the CD's deep bass, dynamics and recovery of detail. Anyone who loves the music of Berlioz and/or great orchestral playing should own this performance.
The creative synergy of conductor, orchestra and engineer produced another winner in this near-definitive recording of the popular "Organ" Symphony. There is no lack of good recordings of this warhorse, and several of them have a more "sonic blockbuster" presentation of the organ and percussion. My own favorits include Paul Paray's fierce version with the Detroit Symphony on Mercury Living Presence and Myung-Whun Chung’s lovely, idiomatic reading with the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille on DGG. Fine as those are, Munch and the BSO, with organist Berj Zamkochian, represent for this listener the most naturally flowing, simply beautiful recording this music has ever received.
Hearing it occasionally over the years, I was never particularly fond of Munch's La Mer. But after playing it repeatedly in preparation for this review, I have begun to perceive the performance differently. Typically, Munch is at his best when he takes a dramatic, emotionally charged approach, as with the aforementioned Berlioz. The dramatic, powerful approach can certainly be applied to La Mer, as many conductors including Toscanini, Reiner and Szell have demonstrated in their recordings.
Munch opts for a different but equally valid interpretation. Like Ansermet and Giulini -- to name a couple of personal favorites -- Munch emphasizes Debussy's Impressionism, the music's ethereal, transparent delicacy. The BSO responds with complete ensemble transparency and subtle phrasing, which the recorded sound captures very well. Listening with the room darkened except for the glow of tubes, I now find this La Mer absolutely captivating.
Munch the firebrand is back with Ports of Call. Ibert’s 3-movement crowd pleaser, only about 15 minutes long, brings out the conductor's penchant for color and excitement. The mood of the music progresses from the opening calm of "Rome-Palermo" to increasingly lively episodes. Ibert uses "local color" to characterize the various locations evoked here -- a tarantella for Palermo, a sinuous "Arabian" oboe melody (gorgeously rendered by the great Ralph Gomberg) for "Tunis-Nefta," tambourine and castanets for "Valencia." I know of no better-played and recorded performance.
The Franck Symphony in D minorhas always struck me as owing as much to the German as to the French symphonic heritage. In fact, the composer I often think of when listening to this craggy work is Anton Bruckner. Perhaps that association accounts for my long admiration for the later RCA recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux. Monteux's somber reading, powerfully executed by the CSO, seems to develop architecturally, one phrase building upon the last.
In contrast, Munch brings to the work a touch of lightness, even fantasy, reveling in the beauty of every small detail as the symphony progresses. That is not to say that his reading lacks coherence. Rather, it is almost as if in this performance the musical structure emerges before us from the accumulation of beautiful phrases -- the way a Monet coalesces to reveal its structure as you back away from the canvas. Franck has never been thought of as an Impressionist, but Munch seems to make him an honorary member of the group.
The Monteux and Munch recordings are also revealing of the differences between the magnificent Chicago and Boston orchestras. Perhaps the most significant difference is in the sounds of the two brass sections. The Chicagoans play with a sense of virtually unlimited power and a sonority tending toward dark. With Boston the brass plays with a brighter sonority and whiplash attack. Which do I prefer? The one I'm listening to.
Finally, we move from France to Germany. Like any conductor of a major orchestra, Munch frequently played the Germanic repertoire -- Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann et al. This Eroica is a fine example of his approach to Beethoven. It is very French -- lucid, elegant, intellectual -- rather than somber and profound. With the dazzling virtuosity of the BSO, it is a pleasure to listen to from start to finish. No one will ever mistake this for Furtwaëngler or Klemperer; Munch is not aiming for spiritual profundity. If you like your Beethoven clear and propulsive, you should hear this performance.
Documenting as they do one of the great artistic and technical collaborations of the last half-century, these recordings are both musically and historically significant. The meticulous XRCD2 processing has resulted in digital transfers of wonderful clarity and impact. I don't plan to relinquish any of these, even though I have fine LPs of four of these recordings. As a guide to consumers, I would rank the desirability of these five CDs in the order of this discussion, from the essential, definitive Berlioz to the straightforward, clear-headed Beethoven. I must mention that these premium-priced CDs, based on the formats of the original LPs, offer rather short measure in these days of 75 minute discs. But given the greatness of the music making and the brilliant capturing of the Living Stereo sound, they are easily worth the price.