Rhapsodies: Music of Liszt, Enesco, and Smetana (XRCD/24 review)

Leopold Stokowski, RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24019. 

Many years ago I fell in love with Stokowski's vinyl recording of Smetana's "The Moldau" from Ma Vlast. RCA recorded it in 1960, and although I didn't get to know it until the late Sixties, I had forgotten it even existed until it showed up in RCA's "Living Stereo" line of CDs some thirty years later. In fact, I probably walked by the disc a half dozen times in my neighborhood record store before picking it up and noticing that "The Moldau" was even on it. What a revelation it was at the time. Not only is it still the finest "Moldau" I've ever heard, but Smetana's Bartered Bride Overture and the Hungarian and Roumanian Rhapsodies by Liszt and Enesco that accompany it are red-blooded, exciting, romantic, and heart-wrenchingly beautiful by turns. Then, when JVC (Victor Company of Japan) remastered it in their XRCD/24 line of audiophile discs, it was icing on the cake.

Of course, one has to understand that Stokowski took his usual liberties with the scores, pulling and shaping them to his own sometimes eccentric tastes. Purists might take one listen to the various pauses, tempo changes, and dynamic contrasts and begin tearing their hair out. But this was Stokowski; he was his own man to a fault. Yet none of the music on this disc sounds in any way distorted or wrong. Indeed, to my ears, having heard it for so long and then living with it again on the RCA CD reissue, it sounds entirely "right." Stokowski takes the "Moldau," for instance, at a relaxed yet enlivening pace, and while it may not perfectly capture the ebb and flow of the river it describes, it does communicate first and foremost a peaceful ease and then a rapture that transports the listener to an altogether different world than the mere living room. Isn't that what great music is all about?

Leopold Stokowski
Anyway, the occasion for this review is JVC's 2004 remastering of the disc in their XRCD/24 series of audiophile discs. They are expensive, and they offer short measure for the money, but they are unquestionably fine transfers. On RCA's "Living Stereo," the sound came up quite well, with a good stereo spread and a realistic orchestral depth. The top end appeared to me a mite suppressed, perhaps to reduce tape hiss, cutting off some of the music's ambient glow, but I found the effect an acceptable compromise. The JVC disc improves marginally on this situation, but there is a minor rub in my comparison. Since first buying the RCA on silver, I found it on a specially produced RCA gold disc, which was, to my ears, very slightly smoother than the RCA silver disc (and whether it was because of the gold plating or because of more-careful remastering is another question). So I made my comparison of the JVC XRCD to the improved RCA gold disc, and the JVC still came out on top.

The sound, always a bit warm and lush on the RCA, was even smoother in JVC's remastering, with a tad more bass presence and a fuller lower midrange. For this incremental improvement, however, one gives up the RCA's further coupling of Wagner's Tannhauser Overture and Tristan und Isolde Act III Prelude. Plus, you pay about twice the price for the JVC, if you can even find it anymore. Worth it? As always, I can't say because the sonic differences are so small, they would not be worth the money to a majority of listeners. For the connoisseur of such things, though, I'd suppose price is no object, and for me, because I consider this album one of the finest ever recorded, I'm crazy enough to spend almost anything on even presumed improvements.

Incidentally, the folks at RCA have also remastered the album in 3-channel SACD, which I haven't heard; but according to my friend John Sunier at Audiophile Audition, it sounds wider and more dimensional than the two-channel JVC XRCD product. I trust John's ear, so if you have a multichannel SACD system, that might be yet another way to go.


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