Deutsche Grammophon's 'Originals' sound great Reissues: These digital transfers provide good reasons to buy new copies of old favorites.

Classical Sounds

February 25, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

One of the frustrations of the CD age is the repeated reissue, deletion and reissue of recordings from the LP era. Many listeners find themselves buying the same performances again and again because of new couplings and more attractive packing and, most importantly, in hope of more truthful transfers from the original analogue master tapes.

The last of these promises often proves more than a chimera, however. New computer technology has made possible retrieving more information from master tapes, and the reissues in RCA's "Living Stereo" and Philips' "Mercury Living Presence" series sound almost as good as new LPs on excellent playback equipment. The latest in this series of improved digital transfers of analogue masters is Deutsche Grammophon's "The Originals," mid-priced, reissued recordings dating from the middle 1950s until the early '70s and featuring such heavyweights from the DG roster as conductor Herbert von Karajan, pianists Wilhelm Kempff and Geza Anda, and violinist David Oistrakh.

The good news is that these new reissues sound terrific: There is almost none of the quasi-metallic scraping and dry, air-between-the-notes sound that so irritated listeners when the new digital technology emerged in the middle 1980s.

The bad news is that listeners may find themselves, yet once more, buying new copies of their favorite recordings.

To take one example, compare the new transfer of the Karajan-Berlin Philharmonic Schumann Symphony No. 1 (coupled with Brahms' Symphony No. 1) to the 1990 transfer. The opening horn call is more clearly focused, not shrill as in the 1990 transfer, and the fanfare that follows has the solidity and richness of the 1972 LP issue.

Concerto recordings fare particularly well in this series. The first CD reissues of some of DG's famous concerto recordings tended to overemphasize the soloist at the expense of the orchestra. In DG's 1985 transfer of Sviatoslav Richter's famous 1959 recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, for example, the great pianist's opening chords sounded uncharacteristically percussive, and the orchestral framework supplied by conductor Stanislas Wislocki and the Warsaw Philharmonic all but disappeared.

In "The Originals" reissue (in which the Rachmaninoff is coupled with the Richter-Karajan Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1), the piano's opening chords have the irresistible resonance that has always been a feature of this pianist's playing, and the orchestra has an increased presence that reminds the listener why many aficionados consider this performance head and shoulders above others.

Besides refurbished sound, one of the best things about this series is the return of several great performances to the catalog. The reissue of Martha Argerich's 1961 debut recital, for example, includes a tender, melting Chopin Barcarole that should illuminate the benighted listeners who think of Argerich merely as a pianistic tigress.

David Oistrakh recorded the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos many times. But in terms of physical mastery, good recorded sound and interpretive ripeness, his 1954 DG recordings with Franz Konwitschny and the Dresden State Orchestra (combined here with the violinist's 1961 performances the Bach violin concertos) probably represent the violinist at his best.

And while Evgeny Mravinsky's early 1960s recordings of Tchaikovsky's Symphonies Nos. 4-6 with the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Philharmonic have been available from time to time, "The Originals" make accessible on CD for the first time the Leningrad's 1956 set, which startled the West with its demonstration of a Soviet orchestra equal to the best in Berlin, Boston or Chicago. Mravinsky's Symphony No. 5 is similar to the one recorded a few years later, and his No. 6 ("Pathetique") may be even more searing.

But the major revelation is the Symphony No. 4, which is conducted by the then-44-year-old Kurt Sanderling. Anyone familiar with Sanderling's current interpretations -- in which fires are banked and tempos are slow (sometimes to the point of interminableness) -- will be astonished by the high-tension atmosphere, velocity and ferocious personal commitment of this performance.

This is not to say that everything in "The Originals" is wonderful. It would have been nice to have more long-out-of-print recordings from the 1950s and 1960s (such as Anda's Schumann and Pierre Fournier's Dvorak) and fewer recordings from the early 1970s.

And some of DG's choices are questionable. Richter's Rachmaninoff Second, for example, should have been reissued with his great performance of Prokofiev's Fifth Concerto, instead of the tepid Tchaikovsky First Concerto that resulted from his 1963 collaboration with Karajan.

But we need not quibble. What we really need from DG are more of "The Originals."

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