Strauss: Waltzes (HQCD review)

Antal Dorati, London Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HQCD139.

"Bracing" is how a friend described this 1966 album of Strauss waltzes to me many years ago. The disc contains five popular works by the "Waltz King," Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899), conducted with vim and vigor by Antal Dorati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

I think my friend's description put me off buying the album, though, since "bracing" was not exactly what I had in mind for this music. I have always been more attuned to the Viennese style embraced by conductors like Boskovsky, Reiner, Karajan, Ormandy, Bohm, and Kleiber, with their more lyrical, lilting, romantic manner. So, it was a delight finally to hear these Dorati performances, which are really quite a lot of fun, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) in splendid sound.

Dorati takes the opening "Blue Danube" at an enlivening pace and reminds one that this conductor's interpretation is not for dancing but for listening. After that, Dorati presents "Tales from the Vienna Woods" at a slightly more moderate tempo, yet it's still plenty animated. Expect no sentimentality here. Next, we hear "Voices of Spring," voices that are definitely not timid utterances but strong March winds and forceful April showers. This is not Strauss for the timid. Dorati's way with "Artist's Life" is in a similar vein, with the emphasis on robust execution over light rhythms. The program concludes with "Wine, Women and Song," which probably benefits most from the conductor's invigorating design, and, as they do in all the numbers, the LPO play wonderfully well. Interestingly, this final waltz also displays the most-substantial bass response, making it quite...bracing.

Decca recorded the album in their Phase 4 series, a multi-miking technique the company used for many of their recordings in the Sixties and early Seventies. Whether one likes or dislikes the sound turns out, as expected, to be a matter of one's personal listening taste. Many people seemed to love it for its dynamic qualities and its precise left-to-right imaging, while audio engineers, record producers, and orchestra conductors liked it because it gave them a good deal of flexibility after the fact for tweaking the final product. Many audiophiles, however, disliked Phase 4 because it provided so little orchestral depth and tended to pin instruments to the wall like so many museum specimens. One thing's sure, though: The aggressive nature of the Phase 4 recording works well with Dorati's assertive approach to Strauss's music.

The folks at HDTT, who transferred the music from a commercially available Decca Phase 4 tape, were kind enough to send me two copies of the recording for comparison, one burned to a gold CD, the other to an HQCD. I used two separate CD players (a Sony and a Philips) for quick comparisons, and because I have no remote for my preamp, I persuaded the Wife-O-Meter to volunteer her services to switch on the fly between the discs. In addition, I traded out the discs twice between the players to be sure I wasn't hearing any idiosyncrasies in the sound of the machines. Let me tell you in advance that, yes, I heard differences, small but distinct, with every change of disc.

Until now, I had always considered gold the best medium for CD reproduction, at least when pressed. But HQCD seems now the preferred new standard of quality. HDTT, who also sell blank HQCD's at their Web site for buyers wanting to burn their own material, say of the product: "HQCD, or High Quality Compact Disc, is a state-of-the-art disc made from special materials and dyes, ensuring the best possible data transfer rates during the data burning process. HQCD media discs repeatedly yield the best sound quality possible from digital transfers because of their low BLER (Block Error) rates and lowest possible jitter rates."

In comparing the two discs, to my ears and on my equipment the gold-disc transfer was less consistent in its sound, sometimes appearing slightly warmer and softer than the HQCD, sometimes harsher and less detailed. On the HQCD, the sound appeared routinely better focused, yet smoother, too. The string tone, especially, which the Phase 4 miking makes brighter and more forward than I like, seemed better tamed, more natural, on the HQCD. Finally, in matters of dynamics, the HQCD appeared to have the advantage as well, with a somewhat tauter, better-defined impact.

This is not to say, however, that everyone would hear or appreciate the same differences I observed, nor that they would like one more than the other. Indeed, both discs sounded excellent, and I'm sure that in blind tests some listeners would prefer the sound of the gold disc over the HQCD, for whatever reasons. Certainly, there was nothing wrong with the gold disc, and depending on the sound of one's playback equipment, the sound of one disc or the other might better complement it.

Anyway, I wouldn't suggest the Dorati album as an absolute first choice in this material; it's a little too vigorously out of the ordinary to be the only Johann Strauss in one's collection. Yet as a choice to accompany one of the more-conventional recordings listed from the conductors at the top of the article, I highly recommend it.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, blank HQCD discs, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at 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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa