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?
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: