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