High Standards and “High Performance”

BMG Classics Takes the Next Step With Five Initial Releases

BY RAYMOND TUTTLE - Fanfare May/June 1999

About three years ago, Nat Johnson, senior producer of reissues at BMG Classics, began speak­ing to his colleagues about a proposed series of reissues that would pick up where Living Stereo leaves off (about 1963, chronologically speaking). He called it “High Performance” to reflect the high sonic and musical standards that the series was designed to represent. Johnson’s idea was to revisit the label’s exciting back-catalog of three- and four-track recordings, and four- and eight-track recordings made using the Soundstream™ process, which never had been heard to their best advantage. “Being a Boston boy,” he says, “I’ve always been partial to the fine sound of LPs made in Symphony Hall during the mid to late 1960s. That really was the golden age of recording. It was a logical transition, I thought, for BMG Classics to move from Fritz Reiner’s Chicago recordings to Martinon’s, for example. And I felt very strongly, as I still do, that technology is what drives our business, and that an audiophile series, which is how I presented it to Marketing, was overdue.” The technology to have been used for the proposed High Performance series involved 20-bit resolution, Cello electronics, and the Apogee UV22™ 24- to 16-bit downsarnpling system—equipment similar to what has been used for BMG’s Living Stereo reissues.

24/96 Technology

“The idea was kicked around for a while. Marketing didn’t really warm up to it at first, because they didn’t see a hook. About a year ago, we began hearing recordings made with Sonic Solutions’ new 24/96 technology. [The 24 refers to 24-bit resolution, a factor that governs dynamic range; higher resolution means softer softs and louder louds. The 96 refers to a 96-kilohertz sam­pling rate, which in turn is related to the breadth of the frequency response.] We were very impressed. Now we were hearing digital sound that approached the purity and clarity associated with analog recordings, without artifacts and other inhibiting factors. We asked ourselves how this tech­nology could be applied to our older recordings. The problem was that home CD players still rely on 16-bit resolution and 44.1 kilohertz sampling. However, I went to a Sonic Solutions seminar, and one of their representatives told me that they had developed a downsampling algorithm that allowed them to convert 24/96 recordings down to 16/44.1 in a single step while retaining most of the sonic advantages of the 24/96 technology. Naturally, I was very interested in this.”

Weiss Converters.

At the time, BMG had been using Weiss 20-bit converters. Johnson was impressed with the sound they produced, which was “smoother, sweeter, more natural, and more musical” than that of even the closest competition. Johnson asked whether Weiss might have a 24-bit converter in the works. In fact, Weiss was developing one, and Johnson decided that this was just what was needed to make High Performance 24/96 reissues a viable reality. He approached BMG’s marketing execu­tives with a revised proposal that would use Sonic Solutions’ and Weiss’s new technology. An in-house test, with a DCS converter in place of Weiss’s still unfinished product, convinced company executives that High Performance was now an idea worth exploring. Johnson rewrote his proposal, suggested initial repertoire, and, given the green light, then waited for the Weiss converter to arrive.

The initial estimate was that Weiss’s converter would be ready in the spring of 1998. The plan, then, was to launch High Performance in late January 1999. It so happened, however, that the high-precision crystal required to manufacture the converter was not giving the expected results, and so the finished converter was delayed. Summer went by, and Johnson began to worry that a January 1999 launch date was not going to be possible. Finally, Weiss’s converter arrived in New York in September, and, according to Johnson, it was barely out of the box before he and BMG’s engineers began testing it. The first tests, with Arthur Fiedler’s recording of Bizet-Shchedrin’s Carmen Ballet (one of the initial High Performance releases), wowed everyone within earshot. “So that’s how it all came about,” Johnson explains. “It was really just a fortunate coincidence that Sonic Solutions had a downsampling algorithm that worked, and that Danny Weiss was able to come through with a 24-bit converter shortly thereafter. It took a lot of work to get it to come together in our studio. It also took a lot of engineering know-how. We had to decide how we were going to monitor the sound, at what domain we were going to edit, and so on. It wasn’t as simple as just installing a couple pieces of new equipment.

K2 Laser Glass Mastering

“Since then, there have been other developments which I think are going to make the sound even more spectacular. One is the proposed use of the so-called K2 laser-cutting system at the plant. This system, developed in Japan , removes jitter, a subtle confound which has been part of CD manufacture at the glass mastering stage since the start of the CD era. Correcting jitter has been exceedingly expensive. When other companies have tried to do it, the results haven’t been that impressive. But I heard this new K2 technology just two weeks ago at a DVD seminar in Nashville . After listening to it, to my mind, there’s no question at all that the next round of High Performance CDs will be K2 mastered—the improvement is that remarkable. Also, Danny Weiss has just sent us a new upgrade to our UV22 system. We installed it just this afternoon, and I think Weiss has outdone himself. We finished working with Richard Westenberg’s recording of Messiah, which came from an 8-track Soundstream master, and I can tell you that my hands are still shaking; we never heard such awesome sound coming out of a 16-bit DAT, but there it is! There’s no question, as far as I am concerned, that this technology works. It’s a substantial leap forward. In my opinion, a lot of the problems that people have associated with digital sound—be it coldness, roughness, compression, or edginess—have just gone away. Now, perhaps most impres­sively, we have an enormous dynamic range. Suddenly, when the orchestra goes to fortissimo, you know it—the room just fills with sound! It’s wonderful to watch the expressions on the faces of the people who are hearing it. For me, the story is not so much the technology, which is nevertheless, indescribable, it’s the power and emotion of music, which have been restored to a great degree. A lot of the analog feeling is now in the digital.”

Johnson described how the initial High Performance releases were selected—a daunting task, given the amount of material that BMG has access to. “Marketing wanted us to focus as much as possible on releases that would be new to CD. We talked about recordings that people had wanted for a long time. One that kept coming up was Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops’s version of the Bizet-Shchedrin Carmen Ballet. Another was Bart6k’s Concerto for Orchestra with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leinsdorf’s name has come up many times over the years— now he will start to get his due. Another factor we considered was variety. We wanted the whole musical range for this series: solo piano, full orchestra, choral music, solo vocal music, and so on.

“It can be difficult to decide whether a recording comes up to standards, sonically. You see, with Living Stereo, it was a slightly different story. Living Stereo really announced the arrival of the stereo LP. Perhaps this will surprise some people, but it was not a hallmark of anything else that guaranteed super quality, even though we’ve tried to reissue the best-sounding Living Stereo mas­ters onto CD in the past several years. Nevertheless, some people still are disappointed in Living Stereo sound. That just reflects the reality of where the industry was in the late 1950s and early 1 960s. It can be very difficult to make a silk purse. . . believe me, we’ve tried, and I think we’ve been pretty successful, by and large. Consumers are willing to forgive shortcomings in sound because we’ve finally managed to reissue their favorite recording by Fritz Reiner, or whomever. There’s almost an emotional connection that people have with Living Stereo, more than with the Dynagroove era, which is included in the High Performance series. We decided, then, that we would be much more selective with High Performance. If something didn’t quite cut it, then we just weren’t going to compromise. We felt that this series had to live up to its name in every respect.

“It’s a big challenge for us, because there are some titles that are going to be included that ini­tially didn’t sound very good. The Porgy and Bess is a good example. It was a dog! It had so many editing and mixing problems that I realized that we were going to have to put a -lot of work into bringing it up to the standards set by the rest of the High Performance series. That was a tough one; it took two weeks to get the sound under control. Fortunately, we were able to do it. The engineer that I’ve been working with has been relentless. We did everything we could, and we needed to, because you can hear everything in the 24/96 domain because of its high-resolution sound. We were able to make changes, cosmetic adjustments, and editing repairs in a more sophisticated way than would have been possible with any other format. So, using the Sonic Solutions high-density editing system, and monitoring in 24/96, we were able to fix some of the really incredible problems in the original tapes, including a lot of terrible ticks on the original analog masters. And the tape had begun to fall apart too! But I really wanted this Porgy and Bess for the initial High Performance release because we’ve just had the Gershwin centennial, and because the CD that had been issued 10 years earlier by us did not sound very good-the sound now is light years better. And it’s a damn good performance.”

There are 13 High Performance releases projected for 1999. “We had no problem coming up with an initial wish list of 20. If we stick to that kind of release schedule, the series is essentially boundless, because we’re going from 1962—63 right up until the digital era. We have an enormous range of material to draw from. The discs will be mid priced, at the same level as Living Stereo. And we wanted the High Performance logo to be very distinctive—there’s no missing it, because it’s right on the front of the CD. It’s wonderfully simple, yet modem, without calling attention to itself. It’s a very nice artistic concept. Moreover, as with Living Stereo, we’re using original LP artwork.

Does this mean that the Living Stereo reissues are coming to an end? “It’s interesting that you should ask that. We’re actually promoting some of the Living Stereo releases right in the High Performance booklets, particularly those that feature musicians who appear in both of the series. I don’t know that it’s coming to an end. It’s not infinite, but we’re not there yet, although Living Stereo CDs aren’t being released at the volume that they were initially. But we still have some really nice releases scheduled. And the hope is that, before we come to an end of Living Stereo reissues, DVD audio will have made its presence known. Then we can start reissuing Living Stereo- all over again in DVD in pure 24/96, not downsampled.”

While BMG is marketing High Performance with an audiophile slant, there’s more to the series than that. Johnson says, “I hope that, while people want to know more about the 24/96 technology, the message that they are getting when they listen to these discs is that there’s a whole wonderful aspect of music that is being restored to the standard compact disc with High Performance. The power and emotion of the music—to me, that is the story.

Reviews

Reviews of the five initial High Performance releases follow. Several of the review copies I received were CD-R demos. While the CD-Rs accurately represent the finished sound quality, fin­ished booklets were not available for all of the releases, so I will confine my comments to the music and the sound alone.

Kitschy or clever? That’s the question I ask myself every time I hear Rodion Shehedrin’s Carmen Ballet, a strings and percussion arrangement of Georges Bizet’s thrice-familiar tunes (09026-63308-2; 67:58). Arthur Fiedler clearly responded to Shchedrin’s neon-lit colors and driving rhythms, which intensify Bizet’s music (concentrate of Carmen?) and, at the same time, tantalizing­ly distance it from the listener. The score offers abundant opportunities for an orchestra of virtuosos to shine, and the Boston Pops makes the most of them in this 1969 recording. It also gives recording engineers a chance to show their stuff. Just how good their “stuff” is was not readily apparent on the LPs I’ve heard of this Symphony Hall extravaganza. The High Performance CD draws back the sonic curtain to reveal detail that used to be partly or completely hidden. The crispness of the percussion instruments is greatly improved, and the strings are more realistic than ever. There are two addition­al works on the CD. The gentle mockery one might hear in Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet nearly turns violent in Shostakovich’s incidental music to Hamlet, which Fiedler and the Pops recorded a year earlier. Fiedler’s 20-minute selection includes 13 numbers in what appears to be chronological sequence, so listening to this suite gives one an overview of Shakespeare’s drama... as it might have been performed in an absurdist manner by the Keystone Kops. This might seem like light music, but Fiedler is aware of the deception and does not take it lightly. Again, the sound is superb The disc closes with Glazunov’s (not Dvorak’s!) Carnaval Overture, which was recorded at the same sessions as the Shostakovich. This overture was completely new to me, and it’s a White Russian delight that lives up to its festive title.

You know you’re hearing a great recording when it makes you listen with rapt attention to music you thought you knew well. Such is the case with Erich Leinsdorf’s Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of Bart6k’s Concerto for Orchestra (09026-63309-2; 61:34). Recorded in October 1962 (scary to think the work was less than 20 years old at the time!), it was the harbinger of a fruitful asso­ciation between the conductor, who recently had come to Boston from New York ’s Metropolitan Opera, and “The Aristocrat of Orchestras.” Leinsdorf’s approach to the score is thoughtful. He downplays its incipient morbidity and bitterness in favor of a subtle and very living sensuality. There’s even room for humor—a trace!—in the conductor’s interpretation. The High Performance CD brings out orchestral nuances not apparent on my “white dog” copy of the LP. (There was an earlier CD trans­fer, but I haven’t heard it.) Time and again I found myself saying, “1 never heard that before.” In spite of the clarity, the effect is not simply one of clinical precision, but one of precision coupled with warmth and emotion. Symphony Hall allows the musicians to bathe in their own luminous glow; sel­dom has a hall’s presence been so palpably and positively captured on a recording. Similar qualities light up the Concerto for Orchestra’s disc mate, Kodaly’s “Peacock” Variations. This work was recorded by almost the same team (recording engineer Anthony Salvatore replacing Lewis Layton) in 1964. Frankly, this piece often bores me. Leinsdorf, however, finds inspiration in his Austro­Hungarian heritage, and this time the “Peacock” and its plumage are impressive indeed.

It is appalling that Raymond Lewenthal’s Alkan recital has not been reissued until now (09026-63310-2; 65:25). Today, as 25 years ago, the rediscovery of “great” and “unjustly” forgotten com­posers is disconcertingly frequent, if we would believe their publicity machinery. But Charles­Valentin Alkan (1813—88-—crushed to death by a falling bookcase) is the real thing. Lewenthal’s 1964-65 New Yorkconcerts, which gave rise to this recording, created a minor popular and critical sensation, and if Alkan’s name is once again slipping into obscurity, blame it not on the music but on the dearth of pianists who understand that the word “virtuoso” refers not just to technique but to personality and showmanship. Le Festin d’Asope (Aesop’s Feast) squeezes 25 variations into little more than eight minutes; if the tune reminds you of The Inky Dinky Spider, then you’re ready to appreciate the cutting sarcasm in this work. Next comes a harmonically prophetic Barcarolle, and “Quasi-Faust,” a diabolically difficult movement from Alkan’s Grande Sonate. (At one point, Alkan demands that the pianist execute a nine-part fugato.) The fascinating Symphonie (numbers 4 through 7 in Alkan’s twelve Etudes dans les tons mineurs) is hardly less grueling, and it once again demon­strates the composer’s uncanny anticipation of musical styles yet unborn, which Lewenthal aptly describes as “Nostradamic.”

 

The disc closes with material from another treasured Lewenthal LP: Liszt’s Hexameron. This is a 20-minute set of variations on “ Suoni Ia tromba” from Bellini’s I Puritani. The deviation from normal is that the variations are by different composers, including Herz, Pixis, and Chopin. The strength of the melodic source keeps the work from descending into banality; indeed, this is one of those rare occasions when shallowness becomes profound.

Throughout the Alkan and the Liszt, Lewenthal’s playing is nothing short of delirious. It’s a fine match of eccentricities. As for the sound, comparison with my “white dog” LPs once again shows that the High Performance CD uncovers previously hidden subtleties. The dynamic range is impres­sively broad, and the realism of the piano’s tone, as heard here, is something that is exceedingly rare on CD. -

Sometimes good musicianship goes right over my head. I know I’ve heard Seiji Ozawa’s Stravinsky prior to receiving this High Performance CD (09026-63311-2; 69:27), but it didn’t make much of an impression on me until now. He recorded Petrushka with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969 (Michael Tilson Thomas was the pianist). The Rite of Spring and Fireworks were recorded in the previous year with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Brisk tempos and brittle rhythms make for a Petrushka that’s enjoyably objective and unsentimental. (Curiously, Ozawa misses the drum tattoo between Scenes I and II.) Ozawa’s Rite is emotionally powerful, yet the over­all impression it gives is one of chamber-music-like transparency. The High Performance technolo­gy plays no small part in convincing me that both of these recordings belong at the top of their respective piles.

 

Now it is easy to appreciate the extreme care Ozawa obviously took in preparing these works down to the last detail for RCA’s microphones. Spontaneous musicianship notwith­standing, nothing has been left to chance. The warmth of the analog originals is equally apparent. and marrying it to digital clarity and dynamic responsiveness results in sound that should gratify any audiophile. Fireworks, Stravinsky’s tasty morsel of Rimskiana, is surprisingly elusive on disc, and Ozawa’s Chicago recording, also taped in 1968, remains the finest I’ve ever heard. Its appearance on High Performance is similarly blessed with excellent sound.

As another demonstration of how the quality of the recorded sound can have an impact on the perceived quality of the musicianship itself, take the example of “Great Scenes from Porgy and Bess” (09026-63312-2; 47:49), which features the singing of Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and McHenry Boatwright. To be honest, I had found this recording to be less than the sum of its pieces. until now. The earlier RCA Victor Gold Seal CD was bland. It seemed to drain the life from the singing, which came across as operatic but not dramatic. What a surprise, then, to reac­quaint myself with this 26-year-old recording on a High Performance CD, and to find it vital and immensely involving. The only thing to regret is that more music wasn’t recorded. If that had been the case, however, then probably we wouldn’t have had a chance to hear Price singing songs from three different roles in the opera: Clara, Serena, and Bess. Her scene with Boatwright’s Crown is electrifying. William Warfield’s Porgy is no less fine, and John W. Bubbles is a seductive Sportin’ Life; never mind the happy dust: Bess doesn’t have a chance after hearing him sing “There’s a Boat that’s Leavin’ Soon for New York .” Skitch Henderson leads the RCA Victor Orchestra and Chorus with three parts Broadway to two parts Metropolitan Opera, but that’s fine with me, because this approach pays dividends. Johnson’s and reissue-engineer Michael Drexler’s hard work has literally transformed this recording back into a showpiece of glorious voices, committed drama, and thrilling recorded sound. Even if you’ve known earlier incarnations of it, you owe to yourself to acquire this one—it’s that good.