Overtures in Hi-Fi (CD review)

Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Adam, Herold, Reznicek, Suppe, Nicolai, Auber. Albert Wolff, Orchestre de L'Opera-Comique, Paris and Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. Decca Eloquence 480 2385 (2-disc set).

First, the only bad news: Decca made two of these recordings a few years before the widespread use of stereo. Thus, we get a couple of pieces in monaural sound, the rest in stereo. Now, the good news: All of the music sounds extremely good and is worth an audition.

Overtures in Hi-Fi is one of several two-disc sets of older material Decca are releasing on the "Eloquence" label out of Australia. This is a blessing for those of us who enjoy the Decca sound of the Fifties and Sixties and a double blessing at the more-than-reasonable price point we find the album. Now, on to the content.

Although the French maestro Albert Wolff (1884-1970) may not have been one of the most well-known conductors of his generation, he did record a number of basic items from the French repertoire for Decca, thanks largely I suppose to his work with the orchestras represented in this set, the Orchestre de L'Opera-Comique and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. The two discs include sixteen items, all of which Wolff presents with an elegant verve and excitement.

The program begins with the overtures to La Princess Jaune ("The Yellow Princess") by Camille Saint-Saens and Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz, these particular overtures being rather odd choices to start things off because they're both in mono from 1951. You see, nowhere on the front or back covers nor in the booklet itself do the folks at Decca mention the words "mono" or "stereo" at all, so unless the casual buyer looked closely at the fine print to notice that two of the selections came from the very early Fifties, the buyer would have no idea there were any items in monaural at all. Then, to be confronted with the two mono recordings right off the bat might prove a little discouraging. Fortunately, the performances are so animated, their sheer energy alone would probably win over a listener; but, still, it makes one wonder what the Decca producers were thinking. Maybe because they are the only tracks representing Wolff's work with the Orchestre de L'Opera-Comique the producers thought it would be logical to include them chronologically first. I dunno.

From here on, we get the rest of the program in stereo, with overtures to Le Corsaire, Le roi Lear, Le carnaval romain, and Les francs-juges by Berlioz and Si j'etais roi by Adolphe Adam, which brings the first disc to a rousing close. You'll find these Berlioz selections some of the most energetic and spirited versions you'll hear from anyone, with wonderfully judged tempos, rhythms, and dynamic contrasts. The set is almost worth the asking price just for these tracks alone.

Disc two opens with Ferdinand Herold's Zampa, a particular crowd pleaser, which forces the listener again to question why Decca didn't begin the proceedings with it back on disc one. Under Wolff, Zampa has almost too much energy, but that's no doubt what Herold wanted and certainly what audiences expect. Wolff's interpretation of things has all the pompous, aggressive swagger you'd expect of the opera's infamous pirate protagonist.

Next is music I've known from childhood, the overture to Donna Dianna by Emil Nikolaus Reznicek. This is because the old radio and TV program Sergeant Preston of the Yukon used it throughout their shows, and I was an ardent fan. Wolff brings back memories, and I still can't listen to the main tune without thinking of swirling snowdrifts and high adventure. "Well, King, this case is closed."

And so it goes, through Pique Dame by Franz von Suppe; Die Lustigen von Windsor by Otto Nicolai; and Le Domino noir, Masaniello, Le cheval de bronze, Fra diavolo, and Les diamants de la couronne by Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber. Of these, Fra diavolo stands out for me because of its special confidence and verve. Wolff handles it beautifully.

With 144 minutes of music on the two discs, the set surely counts as a great value, whether you appreciate the occasional mono selections or not.

Decca recorded the music at La Maison de la Mutualite, Paris between 1951 and 1957, using some of their best producers (John Culshaw, Victor Olof, and James Walker) and engineers (Kenneth Wilkinson, James Brown, Roy Wallace, and Ken Cress). Mono or not, the sound is typical early Fifties Decca, meaning it has good body, presence, definition, and dimensionality, made before the company began using 800 microphones for each recording session. There is little or no background noise when listening to these selections at a normal volume level. Turned higher, one notices a small degree of hiss. Highs sound especially well extended, even in the two mono selections. In the stereo numbers, the left-right spread is wide, the bass is powerful, and the imaging is fairly realistic. With strong dynamics and a reasonably clean transient response, the sound comes across as quite lifelike.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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