Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 (HQCD review)

Also, Piano Sonata No. 22. Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD278.

It was several years ago that I reviewed a remastering of this recording from JVC in their XRCD series of audiophile discs. There, I found the sound, recorded more than half a century ago, rock solid. Not like most of today's classical recordings that to me can appear misty, cloudy, fuzzy, excessively soft, or, even more likely, overly hard. With the exception of a touch of background noise, this older recording from JVC sounded just right, especially the piano, which was strong and steady in an unexaggerated way. The JVC XRCD issues, however, are expensive, no matter how much pleasure they provide. Which is where this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) release comes in. It's almost identical in sound quality with the JVC product but at a much lower cost.

Anyway, Sviatoslav Richter was a legend in Communist Russia before the Soviet government allowed him to record in the West. When he did begin recording in America, among the companies he worked for was RCA in their "Living Stereo" series, one of the best places for any artist to record at the time. In the present recording, backed by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Richter brings a robust vitality to this first of Beethoven's five piano concertos. The fact is, I hadn't really thought about Richter's recording much in quite a while until hearing it on the JVC release. It had been many, many years since I had last listened to it, and I hadn't remembered it being so thoroughly Romantic or so thoroughly powerful as it is, nor had I remembered how lovely and embracing the slow movement could be under Richter. He produces a vivacious opening movement, a meltingly beautiful slow movement, and a sparkling conclusion.

Perhaps it's just that Richter brings out the best in the music, I don't know. Going back and listening to relatively newer recordings by pianists Stephen Kovacevich with conductor Colin Davis on Philips and Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink on Sony, also favorites, I found them good but not so dynamic or persuasive as Richter.

The companion piece on the disc, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 22, also comes off in a most vigorous and dramatic fashion. Richter's way with the keyboard is both precise and incisive, making each note sound out loudly, clearly, purposefully. As with the Concerto, the Sonata offers a most impressive performance and makes a worthy coupling.

Sviatoslav Richter
Producers Max Wilcox and Peter Dellheim and engineers John Crawford and Lewis Layton recorded the music at Boston Symphony Hall (Concerto) and Webster Hall, NY (Sonata) in November 1960. HDTT transferred the recording to CD from an RCA 4-track tape.

I have sometimes found Munch and the Boston Symphony sounding thin, steely, and hard in their early RCA releases, but not really here. There may be a touch of hardness to the sound but nothing thin or bright about this recording. It is, if anything, darkly aggressive and absolutely stable, well complementing Richter's sturdy, energetic, and wholly realistic piano.

As I mentioned above, I had reviewed this recording several years before, remastered by JVC in their XRCD audiophile line and found the sound excellent in almost every way except for a bit of bass noise and a small degree of hardness. With this HDTT remastering (on an HQCD), there is no bass noise and more warmth than hardness. For comparison purposes, I put both discs into separate players and switched back and forth; to double check, I swapped out the discs and played them in the opposite machines. The bass noise was definitely on the JVC disc, not the HDTT. Of course, it's not possible for me to tell if the noise was in the original master tape and JVC transferred it directly to disc that way; or whether JVC's usually immaculate XRCD mastering introduced the noise; or whether RCA eliminated the noise from the four-track tape HDTT used; or whether HDTT eliminated the noise themselves from this disc transfer. What I do know is that the HDTT is quiet, with no apparent side effects.

In practically every other way, it's difficult to differentiate between the HDTT and JVC products. Maybe the JVC is a touch clearer (the HDTT having a very slight, almost unnoticeable degree of fuzz around the notes), and maybe the HDTT is a tad more dynamic (the impact is certainly strong). The main thing to know is that the HDTT disc costs about half or less (depending on the format you choose) the price of the rather expensive JVC product, making the HDTT clearly the superior bargain.

Anyway, the HDTT sonics are big and full, with plenty of zip and zoom (old audiophile talk), and lots of depth, dimensionality, and natural hall ambience. It's one of HDTT's best-sounding discs, and that's saying quite a lot, given that HDTT has successfully remastered any number of very fine recordings.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

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.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa