Hanson Conducts Carpenter, Sessions, and Ives (CD review)
You may recall that HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) is the company that transfers older stereo recordings from the Fifties and early Sixties, recordings in the public domain, to compact disc and digital download. They do this with meticulous care, offer their handiwork in a variety of formats to meet most budgets in a form that most often sounds better than their commercially available tape and LP counterparts.
You may also know, especially if you are of an audiophile bent, that Mercury made some of the finest classical recordings of all time during the Fifties and Sixties, using simple microphone techniques and three-track tape, releasing their LP's and tapes under the Mercury Living Presence label. Today, collectors much prize these products. In fact, the Mercury recordings were so good that during the Eighties and Nineties Philips Classics painstakingly transferred them to CD and SACD from the original master tapes, including separate discs of the Carpenter, Sessions, and Ives performances gathered together here by HDTT. Which brings up the question: If these performances are already available on CD in such good shape, what's the point of this HDTT remaster, unless the sound is even better than Mercury provides or unless a person is looking for this particular combination of music? The answer is a little of both.
HDTT culled the three selections on this disc from several Mercury albums, the first item being Adventures in a Perambulator, a delightful suite by American composer John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951). Carpenter wrote the work in 1914 for the Chicago Symphony, using his own child, Ginny, as the inspiration for a day in the life of a baby. It's divided into six movements depicting various encounters the baby has as her nursemaid pushes her perambulator (baby carriage) around the city. The music is highly descriptive, charming, fun, and accessible, especially the way noted teacher, composer, and conductor Howard Hanson plays it with his accomplished Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. The performance is filled with vivacity and humor, my own favorite, the child's meeting with the hurdy-gurdy man, wonderfully colorful.
American teacher, critic, and composer Roger Sessions (1896-1985) wrote The Black Maskers, a suite in four movements for large symphony orchestra, in 1923, revising it in 1928. Sessions based his little tone poems on a Russian play by symbolist Leonid Andreyev, a play about the human spirit under attack from sinister and mysterious forces. It's a dark, moody, sometimes eccentric piece of music with a ton of melodramatic flourishes, the complete opposite in tone from the lighthearted Carpenter work yet almost as entertaining in its way. Maybe that, too, is thanks to Hanson, who does his best persuading us to take it all seriously and keep a straight face in the process.
The final piece on the disc is the Third Symphony, "The Camp Meeting," of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). People largely ignored Ives during his lifetime but toward the end started paying attention. For instance, Ives never had his Third Symphony, which he wrote in 1904 and revised many times over, performed until 1946; yet it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947. Critics praised Ives late in his life for combining old and new musical elements in what appear sometimes arbitrary ways. The Third Symphony, one his more-conservative works, contains throwbacks to folk songs and church hymns--the music attempting to evoke the spirit of a revival meeting--as well as the dissonances for which he would become famous. Ives had fun playing with traditional melodic music and often bizarre juxtapositions of radically modern, discursive music, with Hanson again having a field day with the work's many contradictions. (At times, listening to Ives's crazy-quilt concoctions is like playing a game of "Name That Tune.")
HDTT used Mercury 2-track tapes for the Carpenter and Sessions transfers and a 4-track tape for the Ives. Recorded at the Eastman Theater in Rochester, New York, in 1956 and 1957, the sound on all three pieces is vivid and alive, with a very wide stereo spread, brilliant transients, and deep bass. However, the 2-track sources sound superior for their greater clarity, air, and dynamics; they can appear a trifle bright in spots, but they make up for it in the extreme clarity of their presentations.
There's an obvious similarity of sound in the three selections, given that Mercury recorded them in the same place with the same orchestra at around the same time, so any differences we hear we can probably attribute to the transfer sources. In comparison to Mercury's own remastered CD's, the HDTT disc is distinctly better in the Carpenter and Sessions material, not as obvious in the Ives. Still, in my own comparisons, the HDTT selections were better defined, more or less, in all three works, and with greater left/right stereo separation to boot.
Believe me, this is absolutely remarkable sound for recordings made over half a century ago, sound that surpasses almost anything recorded today.
For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.