Rossini: Overtures (HQCD review)

Semiramide, La gazza ladra, William Tell, La Cenerentola. HDTT HQCD168.

Back in the early Seventies when I first started reviewing music for various print publications, I recall recommending several collections of Rossini overtures on LP, most of which I would still recommend today: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA, Piero Gamba and the London Symphony on London-Decca, Peter Maag and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra on London-Decca, and the then-newly recorded set with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Philips. Since that time, we have had newer albums that are quite fetching from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG, from Chailly and the National Philharmonic on Decca, and from Roger Norrington and his period-instruments group, the London Classical Players, on EMI, among others.

I mention this at the outset because these recordings are not only still with us but one can find several of them in audiophile editions. The Gamba disc, for example, is now available from JVC on an XRCD remastering, and the Marriner is available not only in a complete three-disc set from Philips but in a single-disc compilation from PentaTone Classics remastered on SACD. But until the current appearance of the Maag recording from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), I do not believe it ever appeared on CD. If it did, it escaped me, to be sure.

Nevertheless, absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. And when this 1958 Maag recording finally arrived on disc in such good shape as we find it here, one can feel not just fondness but outright joy.

The contents of the original LP were always rather meager: a scant four overtures, about forty-two minutes total. But it was never the quantity that counted but the quality, and these interpretations were, and still are, among the best you will find. Things begin with Semiramide (1823), followed by Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829), La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie, 1817), and La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817). Now, you'd think Maag and his Paris Orchestra would approach the scores the way most conductors do: gung-ho and hell bent for leather. He doesn't. In fact, Maag displays a good deal of reserve, calculating his interpretations for the biggest payoff. For instance, in William Tell he keeps the opening sections in check, and then he builds the final segment into a most-exciting whirlwind, the conclusion carrying you away. Or in La Cenerentola after a few minutes of careful introduction, he takes you off to the races, almost leaving you breathless. And so it goes.

But let's talk about the sound. HDTT, as you may recall, is a small audiophile company specializing in transferring older recordings on commercially obtainable reel-to-reel tapes to high-quality CD-R's (and downloads). Their focus is to bring back forgotten classical titles in audiophile sound and to issue titles that no one has released in a long time. In the case of the Maag Rossini overture recording, they have a monopoly on the situation because you won't find Maag's overtures anywhere else. Nor would you want to, they are so good here.

This is the thing: When I first bought the Maag recording on LP, it was in the late Sixties, and Decca had already by then reissued it on their budget label, an American London Stereo Treasury as I remember. No matter, it sounded fine, with a big, pounding bass that would shake the rafters. Then I ordered the Decca LP from England and the difference in sound quality amazed me. Gone was the big bass, replaced by a cleaner midrange. All I could figure at the time was that apparently Decca had fiddled with the frequency response for the American market, upping the bass and softening the high end. However, while I greatly appreciated the Decca sound, frankly, I rather missed the bass. In any case, I sold both vinyl discs many years ago in anticipation of the recording finding its way to CD, which, of course, never happened. Until now. So when HDTT sent me their remastering of the overtures, I had not heard the performances in well over twenty years. Was I disappointed? Not on your life.

HDTT was kind enough to send me the recording in two formats to review:  one burned to a gold disc, the other to an HQ disc. In both instances (from a London-Decca 4-track tape), the sound is very dynamic, with a huge range and enormous impact; it has a solid, but not overly prominent deep bass; and it has a clear midrange response and an extended treble. If one listens at abnormally loud levels, one may notice a slight tape hiss in the background, a condition inherent to almost all tapes of fifty-plus years ago. At normal listening levels, though, even in the quietest passages, the tape hiss is practically inaudible. To the most sensitive ears, one might also detect a wisp of high-end distortion or a smidgeon of pre-echo, also inherent, no doubt, to the original tape and almost undetectable. In any case, the HQCD sounded best to me: smoother, firmer, and more stable than the sound on gold. The differences are not huge, but they are enough for the audiophile to probably opt for the HQ audio.

What we get is some of the purest sound around, demonstration material if there ever was any. You want to show off your audio equipment? These Rossini overtures (take your pick, but I'd start with La gazza ladra) will knock your listener's socks off (if that's their idea of a good time). Wonderful music; wonderful renditions of the music; wonderful sound.

As usual with HDTT, the company makes the music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from no-frills downloads to gold CD's to HQCD's. For details, visit http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

JJP

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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa