March 02, 2023


Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 27. Walter Klien, piano; Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Vox. $16.99.

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Vox. $16.99.

     Forty or so years ago, as digital recording began to take over from analog, the transformation of recorded sound was by no means instantaneous or its success in all forms of music predetermined. The reason was that, while digital recordings of pop music were always fine – the music is largely formulaic and does not require a particularly wide dynamic range, and digital recording worked especially well for very loud sounds – classical music did not adapt readily to the new approach. Given its greater nuance and subtlety, its need for clarity of individual instruments as well as massed ones, the crucial importance of a very-soft-to-very-loud range of sounds, and the pesky insistence by audiophiles that recording quality could at times be a sufficient reason to choose one performance over another, classical music was pulled into the all-digital age with far more misgivings than pop music ever had. Given that classical music is a niche market, the weight of popular music was certain to tip the economic (if not artistic) balance toward digital recording rather quickly, even if classical-music listeners were left unsatisfied. So the triumph of digital was something of a foregone conclusion, whether classical-music audiences liked it or not.

     Many did not, believing that the richness and warmth of top-notch analog recordings could not be matched by even the finest digital ones. Objectively speaking, that was correct; but it was also irrelevant in the face of technological progress. Happily, over the years and decades, advancements in digital processing brought classical recordings to the same level as the best analog ones (or very nearly the same level); and in recent times, methods have been developed for re-processing excellent analog recordings in digital form, allowing those performances to re-enter circulation in the now-ubiquitous digital format while giving listeners who never had a chance to hear the originals an opportunity to find out what all the fuss was about.

     And that brings us to two new recordings on the revived Vox label – once synonymous with very wide-ranging repertoire in performances that were, to put it charitably, highly variable in quality. At their best, Vox recordings were at the summit of audio quality in their time – and even if performers were often second-tier rather than among the absolute best, the enhancement of performance quality through excellence of recorded presentation made the best Vox releases real gems.

     What made them so notable is quite evident on these CDs of Mozart from 1978 and Rachmaninoff from 1979. The Mozart concertos may not be in any sense historically informed, and the Rachmaninoff may not be played with the sumptuousness accorded this music by the world’s best orchestras – but the performances are well above average in quality, played with warmth and spirit and engagement, and the recordings (done by the much-praised Elite Recordings team of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz) really are exemplary. The CDs are stated to be “ultra high definition transcriptions,” so it is difficult to be sure how much of the recorded quality originated in the 1970s and how much is the result of painstaking updating. But one thing is certain: the transcriptions could not bring forth any sound or balance that was not already present in the original recordings. And that means that the inherent quality of production underlying these discs was very fine indeed – including a more echo-intensive sonic presence than is usual in digital recordings, and that gives a close parallel to the experience of listening to a concert-hall performance from a seat close to the stage. In the Mozart, the sound of Austrian pianist Walter Klien’s instrument is always noticeably in the forefront, but Klien comes across as first-among-equals rather than a full-scale counterbalance to the orchestra, as the piano often became in Romanic repertoire. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski paces the Minnesota Orchestra well, and if the ensemble does not quite have ideal precision and sectional balance all the time, it makes up for any minor flaws through the musicians’ comfort with the concertos and their apparent enjoyment of the music. The whole CD has lovely flow, with both concertos nicely paced – unrushed but never overly slow. The variations that make up the finale of No. 17 are especially delightful here.

     The Rachmaninoff symphony has a vast and brooding quality in Leonard Slatkin’s interpretation, and the expansiveness of the symphony is turned to its advantage instead of seeming overdone (although, irritatingly, Slatkin does not repeat the first movement’s exposition, which certainly lengthens this already-long movement but which produces greater balance for the symphony as a whole). The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra is not really an ideal ensemble for this broad, hyper-Romantic, sometimes nearly swooning material: it is a touch too clean and clear, just a bit on the thin side in the strings, so the music does not come across as being as weighty as it can (although some listeners will likely find this a positive element of the performance, not a negative). Slatkin does not hesitate to let the emotionalism of the music flow and even overflow, but he also knows when to keep things somewhat more restrained, as in his lovely handling of the Vocalise that is offered as an encore. The high quality of modern digital recordings is now taken for granted, and indeed they have become significantly better in recent years, to the point at which even the most serious audiophile can generally be satisfied with them. It did, however, take quite some time for digital audio to catch up to the best analog audio that preceded it. The chance to hear digital transcriptions of some of that older, top-quality audio, placed in the service of very fine musical performances like these, is a most welcome one.

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