Jean Martinon, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. HDTT HQCD202.
Giselle, by French composer Adophe Adam (1803-1856), has been a staple of the Romantic ballet repertoire for almost 170 years (Adam premiered it 1841), and it seems as though Martinon's recording of it has been THE classic interpretation for almost as long. Actually, Martinon recorded his version in 1958, and the recording was around on LP continuously until the disappearance of vinyl. Then it showed up on a budget-priced London-Decca "Weekend Classics" compact disc, which has also been out of the catalogue for some time. But now the recording is available again in this recent CD from HDTT. More about the sound in a moment.
The story of Giselle has all the ingredients for great listening: a supernatural, melodramatic plot involving dead spirits and curses and such; a young hero and heroine in love; a cruel if not downright evil villainess; and an appropriately rousing yet sentimental finale. No one brought out the beauty or the excitement of this score better than Martinon and his thoroughly sympathetic group of French musicians.
People have made many cuts, additions, and changes to the ballet's working score over the years, and Martinon chose to use for this recording the short, Busser edition. It is really no more than an extended highlights suite, but it suffices nicely. In fact, the shorter score is probably best of all for home listening. At about 47 minutes, it has not only the advantage of conciseness but of continuity, presenting the work's best and most well-known music in a seamless medley. Besides, it fits nicely on a single compact disc. For those requiring the full score, I can recommend Fistoulari's old recording with the LSO (Mercury) and Bonynge's with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Decca), both in two-disc sets. They include almost every bit of music Adam ever wrote for the work, plus additional material he didn't write, and every possible repeat. However, in its longer form, much of it sounding like filler, the complete Giselle can quickly wear out its welcome.
But not Martinon's performance, which is warm and sweet and sympathetic, and, as I say, has the advantage of presenting the best bits of the score and fitting easily on a single CD. Indeed, the only disadvantage of this HDTT edition is that we lose the couplings found on the "Weekend Classics" disc. For the person only interested in the very best interpretation of the music, though, the loss may be insignificant.
Now, let's turn our attention to the sound. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is a small audiophile company specializing mainly in transferring older recordings from commercially available reel-to-reel tapes to high-quality CD-R's. Their focus is to bring back some forgotten classical titles in audiophile sound and also to issue titles that no one has released in a long time. Fair enough. But imagine my surprise when the Giselle album arrived, and it said on the booklet cover that HDTT had transferred the sound from a vinyl LP! What? A compact disc with audiophile ambitions that simply duplicates the sound of a fifty-year-old long-playing record? The HDTT company admitted that it was an unusual move on their part, but with Giselle they apparently felt the LP offered better sound than the tape. Uh huh. My first impression before listening to the CD was one of skepticism bordering on outright incredulity. It sounded suspiciously to me as if somebody was trying to rip somebody off. Then I gave the disc a spin.
The fact is, when Sony and Philips jointly introduced compact discs in the early Eighties, they promised a new world of sound, with digital bits duplicating every nuance of a master tape. Never happened. Many of us who had collected large LP record collections over the years were more than a little disappointed that the CD masterings of our favorite LP's didn't usually sound as good as the original LP's did. What many of us were willing to do, though, was put up with very slightly inferior sound for the distractions of the ticks and pops of even the quietest LP's. It seemed a fair trade-off. Then came high-definition CDs, things like XRCD, HDCD, K2HD, Superbit CD, etc., and the playing field started getting more even, with at least a few high-priced CD's beginning to sound as good as their LP counterparts.
In the case of Martinon's Giselle, the London "Weekend Classics" CD had never sounded to my ears as vibrant, as clear, or, most important, as dynamic as the old LP version of it had. Now from HDTT we get what is essentially the old LP on CD. Would it sound as vibrant as the LP had? Yes. As clear? Yes. As dynamic? Yes. But would it be quiet? Amazingly, yes. Within reason. Is it the best sound I've ever heard from a compact disc? No. But it ain't too shabby.
The fact is, the sound of the old Martinon analogue recording has always been every bit as good as that of most new digital releases. Perhaps it loses something in natural tonal balance and depth perception compared to today's very best efforts, but its frequency range, transient impact, breadth, and clarity are still first-rate. On the HDTT disc, tape hiss and surface noise from the LP is minimal, too, and should present no problem except to those shortsighted listeners who still cannot get beyond the letters "DDD" on every record they buy. And either HDTT got hold of the most-pristine LP copy of the music on the face of the planet, or they did a little number on it with their noise-reduction software.
Compared to the "Weekend Classics" CD, the new HDTT transfer packs more punch and adds a little more sparkle. The other comparison I made was to the Fistoulari/Mercury recording made around the same time (1959). Here, I thought the Mercury sound was a touch cleaner and more transparent and the stage depth more pronounced. But, again, the HDTT sonics had the greater impact. And there's just no getting by Martinon's performance.
Anyway, the folks at HDTT sell the Giselle recording in a variety of formats: a compact disc burned on a Gold CD-R; the HQCD (High Quality Compact Disc) reviewed here; a 24bit 96kHz resolution DVD; a regular CD; a 24bit 192kHz resolution Flac download; a 24bit 96kHz resolution Flac download; and several budget-priced variations of the physical disc depending on how much you want to pay for the art work and jewel box. For details you can refer to the HDTT Web site: http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php
The costs of these things seem reasonable when you consider how good they sound (regardless of how you feel about the source) and when you remember that at the moment the HDTT is the only CD version of the Martinon recording available new.
Oh, and for buyers worrying about copyright laws and whether HDTT is infringing on them, the company states on their Web site that they thoroughly research all the material they remaster to be sure it's in the public domain. So, yeah, everything is perfectly legal and aboveboard.
About the Author
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to email@example.com.
Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.