Messiaen: L'Ascension (CD review)

Also, Ives: Orchestral Set Number 2. Leopold Stokowski, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT remastered.

This 1970 Decca release, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers), combines a very popular but somewhat controversial conductor with an equally popular but almost equally controversial recording format. I suspect that despite the high quality of the performance and sound, the listening public may still find the disc at least slightly suspect. Let me explain.

First, the conductor. English-born U.S. orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) established an enormous following with his often highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the basic classical repertoire. His long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his starring role in Disney's Fantasia didn't hurt his reputation, either. People then and now found his music making enormous entertaining. But it was sometimes this same eccentricity so many folks thought charming that at the same time annoyed other people. His unusual tempo changes, his stops and starts and pauses and elongations, could at times twist familiar music into something unbearable to dedicated classical music lovers. Add to that his own orchestral arrangements and transcriptions of well-known music, and it could be too much for some listeners.

Second, there was Decca's Phase 4 sound. Stokowski lived into his mid nineties, long enough to have made a number of stereo recordings for companies like RCA, EMI, and Decca. By the time of this Messiaen disc, Decca was well into their Phase 4 era. According to Decca, "Phase 4 was a special series of recordings from the '60s and '70s which presented music in spectacularly vivid sound." And according to Wikipedia, this sound "was characterised by an aggressive use of the highest and lowest frequencies and a daring use of tape saturation and out-of-phase sound to convey a lively and impactful hall ambiance, plus considerable bar-to-bar rebalancing by the recording staff of orchestral voices, known as 'spotlighting.' In the 1960s and 1970s, the company developed its 'Phase 4' process, which produced even greater sonic impact through even more interventionist engineering techniques." The fact is, Phase 4 sound used multi-miking to the extreme, often producing a close-up, compartmentalized sound field that dazzled some listeners with its clarity and detail yet exasperated others, especially audiophiles with its frequently unnatural perspective.

Leopold Stokowski
Fortunately, neither the performances on the program nor the sound on this HDTT remastering should concern Stokowski or Phase 4 critics. Both hold up pretty well.

First up on the agenda is L'Ascension ("The Ascension" of Christ into Heaven after the Resurrection) by the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). He wrote the orchestral suite between 1932-33, the composer describing its four brief movements as "meditations for orchestra." He labeled the sections "Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père" ("The majesty of Christ demanding its glory of the Father"), "Alleluias sereins d'une âme qui désire le ciel" ("Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven"), "Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale" ("Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal"), and "Prière du Christ montant vers son Père" ("Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father").

Stokowski handles the score with a characteristic élan, most often elevating it to graceful heights. It's fairly quiet music, yet it has a distinctive rhythmic drive, which the conductor invariably observes. The orchestra, always on its toes at a moment's notice, plays compellingly for the old man and, if anything, sounds almost too lush and luxuriant for the relative modesty of the music. Or perhaps it's just the richness of the Phase 4 sound that sometimes overwhelms the score. In any case, it's a lovely interpretation, with just the right mixture of wonder and inspiration to keep a listener transfixed.

The other item on the program is also a modern piece but quite different from the Messiaen. It's the Orchestral Set No. 2 by American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). He wrote it between 1915 and 1919, a three-movement suite based on musical reminiscences: "An Elegy to Our Forefathers," a kind of memory of Stephen Foster music; "The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People's Outdoor Meeting," memories of camp-revival meetings; and "From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day, The Voice of the People Again Arose," a recollection of the day news broke of the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyst for the U.S. entering World War I.

Here, Stokowski seems to relish in indulging the composer's eccentricities. The reading is crammed full of grand sweeps and dramatic gestures, the conductor capturing the atmospheric theatrics of Ives's vision of Americana. If the Messiaen work is spiritually uplifting, the Ives is just plain fun.

The only catch to the album: its length. The two pieces combined total just a little over thirty-five minutes. If that doesn't bother you, and it's quality of performance and sound over quantity of material, the length shouldn't be a problem.

Producer Tony d'Amato and engineer Arthur Lilley recorded the music for Decca Records at Kingsway Hall, London, in June 1970. HDTT remastered it in 2016 from a London 4-track tape, and they make it available in a wide number of formats, from CD and DVD to various HD digital downloads.

The remastered sound conveys all of the characteristics of Phase 4 described earlier, yet it exhibits a good deal of orchestral depth and warmth as well. The result is that the sonics may be a tad too close for comfort and too spotlighted, yet they also sound fairly natural, with the ambience of Kingsway Hall in ample evidence. While the strings tend to appear too hard and steely at times, it's only in isolated instances that it happens, the rest of time sounding just fine.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa