Also, A Night on Bald Mountain, and others. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA SACD 82876-61394-2.
Many record companies continue to see something in Super Audio Compact Discs because even RCA jumped into the fray a number of years back with an SACD collection of their old “Living Stereo” recordings of the Fifties and Sixties. The idea is that some recording companies made many of these old recordings originally with microphones to the left, center, and right of the stage, the three channels subsequently mixed down into two-channel stereo. With the availability of multiple channels of sound on SACDs, the companies can now utilize the original mixes of three front channels to the fullest. And for those of us who don’t own an SACD player, most of these discs are hybrids, meaning there is also a regular two-channel layer that one can play on any regular CD machine. The theory is that companies can remaster the regular two-channel layer and make it sound even better than what they previously provided, as the folks at RCA have supposedly done in their “Living Stereo” series, the sound remastered via DSD, Direct Stream Digital.
Well, yes, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, RCA did slightly improve the sound of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Maestro Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The highs no longer sound quite so bright or hard-edged. However, I also happened to have on hand the audiophile-remastered JVC disc of the same Mussorgsky recording, and I found the JVC smoother still, with a marginally greater depth of image. But that’s another story. The differences among the two-channel renderings on the three discs are really so small that I doubt most people would notice them except on direct comparison, let alone care. So I suppose the point is mostly moot unless you really, really love the performance, which I do, and then you want only the very best version of it.
The main thing about this whole affair is that Reiner’s 1957 interpretation of the Mussorgsky work is still the best one available, each “picture” an elegant little masterpiece, and RCA’s SACD edition has certain advantages over its regular competition. The SACD sounds good in two-channel stereo, with wonderful detailing and range, if not quite so good as the higher-priced JVC. It offers three-channel performance for those able to play it back that way. And coupled with it you’ll find the additional goodies that also come on the regular RCA release: Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Marche miniature, Borodin’s Polovtsian March, Tchaikovsky’s March slave, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, all of them filled with the color and excitement you’d expect from Reiner performances.
Don’t you hate decisions? I’m glad it’s not my job to make them for you. But for myself alone, I can’t think of a better Mussorgsky Pictures than Reiner’s.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: