Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, highlights (24K Gold CD review)

Anatole Fistoulari, Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. HDTT remastered.

Who says audiophile CD's are dead? Mobile Fidelity, Sheffield Labs, and JVC may not produce many, or any, classical discs anymore; and FIM, Hi-Q, and Classical Compact Discs have apparently gone away forever. But we still have HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) going as strong as ever and offering their products in more formats than you can shake a stick at, if that's your idea of a good time. With this release it's Maestro Anatole Fistoulari and the Concertgebouw Orchestra's celebrated 1961 Decca highlights recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, remastered by HDTT.

I have a special affection for Fistoulari's Swan Lake because it was the first recording of Tchaikovsky's ballet I ever owned. Notwithstanding the fact that it was only a highlights collection and not the complete score--it would be several more years before I began buying complete sets of the work--I never did find one I liked better than Fistoulari's.

When CD's entered the scene in the early 1980's, I figured Decca would surely remaster it for the new medium, the recording being a classic and all. But it never happened. I sold the vinyl and waited in vain for the next twenty years for a CD. Then, in 2007 I found that Decca's Australia branch had finally issued it on their Eloquence label, so I snatched it up. It was OK, but it didn't sound quite as good as I had remembered from the old LP days. So, yeah, when I saw that HDTT had remastered it, I was more than happy.

Anatole Fistoulari
Now, to the work itself: According to most musicologists, in 1875 Petrovich Begiche, director of the Moscow Imperial Theaters, commissioned the Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) to write the music for the ballet we now know as Swan Lake. He premiered it in 1877, and it was to become the first of the composer's big three ballets, with The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty following some years later. Today, we take Swan Lake for granted as one of the greatest of all ballets, possibly THE greatest, but initially it flopped. The dancers complained they couldn't dance to the music, the conductor couldn't handle the tunes, and critics mostly panned it. It would not be until 1895, a few years after the composer's death, that the ballet's popularity would begin to soar in a revival.

The story of Swan Lake supposedly began as a little number called The Lake of the Swans that Tchaikovsky wrote for his family in 1871. Then, when he received Begiche's commission, Tchaikovsky added a few Russian and German folk tales, with the general plot based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus. One prominent point about Tchaikovsky writing the piece is that critics today consider it the first ballet composed by a writer who had previously worked almost exclusively in the symphonic field. Thus, if Swan Lake sounds more "symphonic" in structure, composition, and themes than earlier ballets, there is a reason.

Swan Lake tells a story in four acts of a young man, Prince Siegfried, whose mother insists that it's time he finds a bride and marry. No sooner said than he chances upon a beautiful young woman, Odette, with whom he falls in love. However, as fate would have it, an evil magician has put her and her attendants under a spell whereby they may only be human at night but turn into swans by day. Naturally, it is only a true and unfailing love that can save her.

The thing you have to accept about Fistoulari's conducting of the score, however, is that he approaches it from more of a symphonic standpoint than a balletic one, which is in keeping with what I mentioned earlier. You'll find broad symphonic lines here, an emphasis on dramatic Romantic effects, and some instrumentation Tchaikovsky didn't write but would probably have approved. In any case, it's the results that count, and you won't find a more exciting, more vigorous, more passionate, or more lovely account of the ballet than Fistoulari's.

Producer Ray Minshull and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson recorded the music for Decca at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in February 1961. HDTT transferred the recording from a 15ips tape to DSD256, and from there onto the format reviewed here, a 24K gold compact disc.

Naturally, I used the Decca Eloquence CD as a basis for comparison, and it didn't fare as well as the HDTT product. The new HDTT disc outperformed it by a small margin on almost every level. It sounds smoother, rounder, fuller, more dynamic, and better detailed. The Eloquence disc sounds slightly brighter and harsher by comparison, and with less impact. The fact is, this Decca recording always displayed the Concertgebouw at its best. The hall gives the orchestra a healthy but not overly prominent bloom, and while later Philips recordings may have gotten a bit more depth from the ensemble, the Decca engineers managed a pretty good sense of perspective and place, even with their usual multi-miking. Now, the folks at HDTT have made a good recording sound better than ever. And, yes, the HDTT comes closer to what I remember from long ago than the Eloquence disc ever did.

For more information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

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

1 comment:

  1. Hi John -

    Enjoyed your review of Fistoulari's Swan Lake excerpts. Now if Decca/Universal or HDTT would give us a CD release of his 1975 recording of the complete score with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, originally on London Phase 4. It's a terrific performance with surprisingly good sonics that are less gimmicky than usual from this source.

    I dowloaded this recording on Spotify.

    ReplyDelete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa