Classical music - hires remasterings of analogue recordings

Hi all,

Over the last few years, we've seen the classical music majors (Universal and Warner) and some minors (notably Pentatone) release new editions of older classical records - leaving us in the fortunate position to be able to contrast and compare editions and marvel at the improvements (?). I've collected a fair few remasterings of recordings that I know well and love, to do exactly this. What I've found is that in some cases, the remasters can only be considered an improvement; in other cases, I struggle to hear anything, or worse, the remaster is different or worse than an earlier incarnation. I thought I'd share a few observations.

Warner classics / EMI

There is one series that I've found to be universally disappointing from a sound quality perspective, and that is EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series, from the 90s and early 00s. Under the ART (tm) label, EMI turned perfectly good CD editions into digital sounding mush, with artificial spotlighting of voices or solo instruments, heavy handed cedar (tm) noise reduction and artificial rebalancing to make up for the damage done. In all cases I was able to sample, the earlier CDs sounded much better - particularly severe casualties include Gieseking's mono Debussy, Beecham's La Boheme, Giulini's Don Giovanni, and particularly Rostropovitch 1977 recording of the Dvorak cello concerto.

There is good news, however: with their Callas, Perlman and Rostropovitch editions, Warner has taken significant steps to undo their legacy of bad remasters, and in almost all cases the results clearly surpass all earlier editions. The high point must be the recent 'legendary opera' series, also remastered at Abbey Road but in this case clearly by people who care - the transfers are fantastic and worth every penny.

Universal (Decca / Deutsche Grammophon)

Decca's remasters range from indifferent to good. In many cases, the hires editions that are being made available sound like they are the masters used for the Originals series, in the 90s. This series provided excellent sound and in many cases improved on earlier editions, with truthful balancing and no obvious noise reduction artefacts. There is a bit more clarity, and also a bit more tape noise (which is preferable to the alternative) - e.g. Karajan's Ring, Kempf's Beethoven. There are a few exceptions such as Kleiber's La Traviata, which gained some unwanted reverb, but overall this series could be trusted. The hires files - although they are not new in the strict sense - sound excellent as well, although the improvement to the CDs is so marginal that I wouldn't say they are worth the extra outlay.

New remasterings were done for several editions, including the Pavarotti and Sutherland boxes. I've listened to a few of these and found them to be generally good, although somewhat sloppy. For instance, the much needed transfer of Bonynge's second Lucia di Lammermoor sounds better than ever, but also has clearly audible tape cuts that weren't in any of the earlier CD editions and could easily have been edited out. 

Solti's Ring deserves its own paragraph - people may not agree with me but I think Decca got it right with their first CD issue, and messed up in 1997. The recent hires remastering improved on this somewhat but the first edition, digital artefacts and all, is the one to get.

Pentatone

Pentatone regularly releases surround sound remasters of older recordings by DG and Philips classics that were originally done in experimental surround. Even in stereo, these remasters sound great, often better than the CD editions. They are not commercially available as downloads, only in SACD.

Cheers

EJ

Original Post

Bernstein's Carmen is a quasi-live recording from the Met opera, in pretty good 1973 sound. A slowish, very dramatic, technicolor performance with two great leads, and Lenny on fire. DG released the hires files in December 2017, but the transfer itself is apparently from 2002. Pentatone remastered the original quadraphonic recording for its multichannel SACD release.

Cheers

EJ

This recording of Madama Butterfly is a must-hear for Price's dramatic, smoky, extrovert assumption of the role. She does colour her voice to sound more girlish, but not to the point where it detracts. Leinsdorf has received some flak over the years but I generally love his no-nonsense, to the point conducting - he never misses a point that needs to be made. The orchestra, put together by RCA in Rome because they felt Italian opera recorded in Italy would sell better, lacks any kind of characteristic, good or bad.

The first CD edition sounded bad - but the original three-track recording was done justice by an SACD issue in 2006, and the subsequent CD release that, I think, was based on the same master. I've never managed to get hold of the SACD, unfortunately, but there is now the hires download based on the SACD transfer (would be my guess - my download didn't come with any documentation). I've burned the hires files to a DVD, and the result far surpasses all CD releases so far.

 The transfer is natural and warm, with only a tiny edge in the treble and some very minor distortion betraying its early 60s provenance. Don't go here for your first Butterfly (try Gheorghiu or Freni for that), but definitely worth hearing especially in hires.

Cheers

EJ

The Trovatore that RCA taped in 1970 under Mehta, with Leontyne Price and Placido Domingo, has entered the annals as one of the best recordings ever of this popular opera. But not soundwise - the original recording had quite severe clipping distortion. This remaster doesn’t magically turn it into a great sounding record - some distortion remains - but it is now far more listenable than it has ever been.

cheers

EJ

Another golden oldie, a well preserved recording that was done injustice by EMI's ART terminal in 2002, but saved by a new remastering in 2016. Warner issued the newest edition via high-res pcm download and a deluxe CD issue, and, in Japan, via (stereo) SACD. I'm now listening to the SACD. The Japanese issue sounds the best of all editions, but it comes in a cheap jewel case. It does, however, come with full libretto in Italian and Japanese. 

Cheers

EJ

A new, 2017, remastering of Solti's controversial 1960 recording of Tristan und Isolde. It was made on request of Nilsson, with good reason - her interpretation hadn't fully matured yet but the voice was a thing of wonder. The rest of the performance never received good press, but with hindsight, that must be hard to uphold. With Windgassen unavailable, Fritz Uhl was Decca's only option, and he is a perfectly fine Tristan in the studio. A bit low key perhaps in Act III before Marke's arrival, when he redeems himself. Solti's conducting is colorful. Culshaw also did an excellent job on the recording, already in movie mode but without the silly FX that tainted so many of his later productions. This was the best sounding Tristan until Bernstein and Kleiber came along in the early 80s.

This new transfer is miraculous in its detail and warmth and leaves enough edge and a bit of tape hiss to avoid a dolby effect. Highly recommended.

Cheers

EJ

 

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