Stravinsky: L'Histoire du Soldat (HQCD review)

Also, Respighi: Rossiniana. Robert Mandell, Ars Nova (Stravinsky); Robert Zeller, Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Respighi). HDTT.

First, a word: If you are a music listener who appreciates the sound of a recording as well as the performance, or if you are an audiophile who appreciates the sound above all, you might want to audition this disc. Indeed, if you are an audiophile by virtue of the megabucks you've spent on your playback system, you'll need to get this disc, if you don't already own it. Not to have it in your collection is reason enough to turn in your audiophile badge and go back to music listening on earbuds. Sonically, this is one of the handful of best recordings I've ever heard on CD. More on the sound in a moment.

Let's talk music.  Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote the music for C.F. Ramuz's parable L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) in 1918. The composer meant for the theatrical work "to be read, played or danced" by a small company of performers, but it actually works best as conductor Robert Mandell and the Ars Nova ensemble play it, instrumentally without dance or dialogue. The story it tells concerns a soldier trading his fiddle to the devil for a book that can predict the future and provide him his fortune. If you know the Faust legends, you can guess where that gets him.

Stravinsky scored the work for seven players, and here the Ars Nova septet features Stanley Drucker, clarinet; Cyrus Degal, bassoon; David Jandorf, trumpet; James Thompson, trombone; Morris Lanz, percussion; Herbert Sorkin, violin; and Reuben James, double bass. The music itself is more than a tad on the jazzy, raucous, Raggedy Annie side, typical of so many "modern" compositions of the early twentieth century. However, there is an infectious forward pulse to the music and some scintillating rhythms that the Ars Nova group are quick to exploit with their own slightly raucous, Raggedy Annie jazz style.

In addition to the Stravinsky piece, which lasts a little under half an hour, we get Rossiniana by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). As the title suggests, Rossiniana is an orchestral adaptation of works by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Respighi basing his four-movement suite on a number of fairly obscure Rossini piano pieces. The lushly Romantic compilation for orchestra is in stark contrast to the jazzy, small-scale Stravinsky piece. Although Rossiniana is not great music, and despite its being occasionally dark and somber, it can also be quite radiant and easy to digest; and with Robert Zeller and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, the performance sounds smoothly polished and richly rendered.

Now, about the sound, particularly in L'Histoire du Soldat. When you listen to music recorded as well as this is, you probably don't figure its engineers recorded it over half a century ago. But HDTT transferred the music to HQCD from a 2-track Westminster Sonotape originally made in 1956. Yes, 1956. It makes a person wonder if there have been any significant advances in sound reproduction in the last fifty years, digital 5.1 this or lossless 7.1 that notwithstanding. But back in 1956 the home-stereo industry was in its infancy, and audio engineers were doing their best to capture everything the new medium had to offer. As things went on, record companies would begin cutting corners, using far more microphones, limiting the dynamic range and frequency extremes, and editing the final sound of their recordings after the fact on mixing consoles. What a joy to go back to a sound that actually approximates a live occasion in every way.

What we get in the Stravinsky piece is excellent in every way, particularly in the localization of instruments. Is it fair, though, to compare a recording of only seven instruments to one of a complete orchestra? Maybe not, but that doesn't discount the fact that the recording provides a reach-out-and-touch-it realism that is hard to resist. Every instrument is well defined, the highs extended, the bass going through the floor, the midrange as revealing as possible, with no sign of edge, distortion, or strain anywhere. However, it's the transient response that handily wins the day, and if your speakers can reproduce the notes without too much overhang, you'll hear some of the most crisply articulated sound from any disc around. All the instruments have such a sense of lifelike accuracy about them, you'll be hard pressed to tell them from the real thing. The violin tone, the trumpet, and the percussion are especially thrilling.

The Respighi/Rossini music, recorded in 1964 and transferred to disc from a Westminster 4-track tape, is likewise good, the orchestral sound refined and expansive, among the best of its kind, if not quite so drop-dead gorgeous as the Stravinsky. Defects or drawbacks in either transfer? One might notice an occasional small pop here or there and a touch of momentary pre-echo, yet they are so minor as to be practically inconsequential. The Stravinsky and the Respighi tracks reflect audio quality of the highest order, a disc for all seasons...or all listeners as the case may be.

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1 comment:

  1. The Hi Rez downloads of this recording are just incredible. One of the most striking stereo recordings I have ever heard. Dynamic in the extreme. Highly recommended.


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