Romantic Russia (K2HD review)

Music of Glinka, Mussorgsky, and Borodin. Sir Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. LIM K2HD 043.

Back in the glory days of audiophiledom, the late Sixties to the late Eighties, before home theater, 5.1 surround sound, and digital everything, things were different. Independent hi-fi shops thrived, the major record companies released dozens of new recordings each month from the world's top orchestras, and superstar conductors ruled. Among these star conductors were Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Bernard Haitink, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Sir Neville Marriner, Andre Previn, Leopold Stokowski, and the subject of our review today, maybe the biggest star of them all, Sir Georg Solti. These conductors almost never failed to provide the listener with fun and excitement aplenty, and the record companies often recorded them spectacularly. Especially Decca and their superstar, Solti, be it with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, or here with the London Symphony. So, I greatly looked forward to hearing what one of our own day's audiophile record companies, FIM/LIM, could do remastering an old favorite album of mine, Solti's Romantic Russia.

The program, recorded in 1966, includes some of the best performances available in the popular Russian repertoire. Solti was at the top of his form in the rousing opening number, Mikhail Glinka's Russlan and Ludmila overture, as stirring and energetic an interpretation as any ever made. Indeed, it's a wonder the LSO strings didn't either catch fire and burn or simply snap off the instruments, the affair is so impassioned. Then comes Modest Mussorgsky's prelude to Khovanshchina, a calm respite from the rigors of the preceding track.

Still, the centerpiece of the album is Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain, in the arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that people most commonly hear on record. Of course, many nonclassical fans probably know the piece from Leopold Stokowski's arrangement in Disney's Fantasia, but that's neither here nor there. Solti goes with the Rimsky-Korsakov adaptation, as scary and evocative in its first half and delicate and serene in its conclusion as any other. I've always thought Solti's reading was one of the most-powerful ever recorded, making this Witches' Sabbath of evil spirits a truly frightening and wholly exhilarating experience.

The program concludes with Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor overture and "Polovtsian Dances" in renderings perhaps only surpassed by Sir Thomas Beecham's (EMI). In the "Dances," the LSO chorus help Solti out with some thrilling singing. Again, Solti whips up a frenzy, yet he never overlooks the more-sensitive moments of the score. I count this disc, along with Solti's Mahler and Wagner, as one of the high points of his long recording career.

Now, to the LIM remastering. Way back when I first bought the music on LP, the sound always struck me as more than a bit forward and harsh. When Decca first transferred it to CD, the sound appeared a little smoother but still somewhat glassy. In the later CD, which I had on hand for this comparison--a 96 kHz, 24-bit digital remaster from the late Nineties that Decca issued in their "Legends" series--the sound was better than ever, milder and warmer. But this new K2 HD remastering from LIM is in a class of its own.

First, I listened through the entire LIM album (LIM is a label of FIM, First Impression Music), remastered in LIM's elaborately advanced K2 HD format (a 24-bit, 100K Hz mastering process on 99.9999% silver), and what I heard pleased me no end. Then I put the older, Decca disc in another player and started comparing the two albums side by side. This time the LIM disc not only pleased me, it practically overwhelmed me. You have to understand that the Decca engineers captured a wide-ranging sound here, with a broad stereo spread and reasonably good stage depth, which both discs reproduce well enough. But on the Decca disc the upper strings that I thought were smoother than ever sounded more shrill than on the LIM disc, while the overall Decca response sounded consistently softer.

On the LIM disc, I heard more detail than on the Decca, without being bright or edgy. I heard a better, quicker transient response; a greater dynamic impact, especially in the percussion; a better balance among the frequencies; better transparency in the midrange; and more dimensionality. It even seemed that the LIM sound was wider across the sound stage, something that surely must have been my imagination, but who cares how it works.

Two notes, though, before closing: With the LIM you pay a high price for quality sound, and you don't get the added music Decca put on their regular CD, Solti's 1956 rendering of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony, a somewhat quirky but sympathetic work, full of life. What you do get with the LIM remastering besides the improved sound is some of the company's most stunningly beautiful packaging. Like most of FIM/LIM's releases, this one comes in a hardbound foldout container, like a book, with bound booklet notes, an inner sleeve for the disc, and a protective liner for the disc as well. But unlike some of FIM/LIM's early designs that featured a cutout front, this one uses a solid, glossy front cover, richly illustrated with the Decca album's original art work. Interestingly, the packaging is thinner, too, a welcome benefit for a crowded shelf.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent review - thanks for really comparing different masters!


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

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.

Mission Statement

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa