Budget CDs just as outstanding as their vinyl originals. DG label preserves its historic archive
When compact discs first hit the market, two fears were commonly voiced: that black vinyl would become obsolete, and that the entire pre-digital-era catalog of recordings would vanish from the marketplace. The first fear was well grounded; the second wasn't, as Deutsche Grammophon's splendid new Galleria line of budget CDs amply demonstrates.
There is no question but that the relatively fragile black vinyl was doomed the moment the consumer had access to the more durable and damage-resistant CD. As for the burial of the analog stereo catalog, the issue was at first vague. In the initial frenzy of digital mania, it was cause for concern that all-digital recordings would be so in demand that nothing else would be acceptable to the consumer.
Then economic reality and archival expediency came together for the recording companies. The cost of new recordings has become prohibitive. Deteriorating master tapes were being transferred and restored digitally, in a process that became known as digital remastering.
And so to Galleria. DG has such an imposing list of performers, it is committing to digital recordings in an important way. Nevertheless, its analog catalog is rich, and once the decision was made to inaugurate this budget line, a clear market was waiting to give it a try. After all, the difference between a full-priced CD bought at a Tower Records sale for $12.99 and a Galleria release of three CDs for $25 is considerable, particularly since many of the CDs offer more than 65 minutes of music. (Most other companies have launched budget lines of their own, which will be discussed in these pages later.)
I have now studied 15 releases and can safely say that the quality of the DG transfers is outstanding - every bit as rich, well detailed, and warm as the vinyl had been, and in some cases, a definite improvement in terms of tape hiss and overall clarity of sound.
I cite as an example Herbert von Karajan's 1967 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's ``Scheherazade'' with the Berlin Philharmonic. What was a very good performance takes on an aural glamour on the CD transfer (419 063-2, 61 minutes) and makes it quite competitive with the best recorded ``Scheherazades,'' analog or digital. And on CD there is no variableness of pitch in Michel Schwalb'e's playing, which invariably occurred at the end of an LP side if the center hole was even minutely off center. It is paired with a rousing performance of Borodin's ``Polovtsian Dances.''
Carlo Maria Giulini's dazzling rendering of the Mussorgsky-Ravel ``Pictures at an Exhibi tion'' with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra loses none of its impact and remarkable detail on the CD transfer (415 844-2, 70 minutes). And with the addition of an excellent account of Ravel's ``Ma Mere l'Oye'' (``Mother Goose'') suite and the ``Rapsodie espagnole,'' both with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, this release becomes a study in several aspects of Ravel's muse that is both instructive and richly rewarding.
Another sonic blockbuster is Holst's ``The Planets,'' in a rousing, unfussy performance by the late William Steinberg and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (419 475-2, 55 minutes). The tempos were controversial at the time, but once heard, they altered one's perceptions of the piece altogether. I'm not sure that the filler, Ligeti's ``Lux aeterna,'' is right for Holst, but it's a brave try.
DG is releasing Karajan's '77 Berlin Philharmonic Beethoven symphony cycle, which will be the first budget cycle on CD. You might start with Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 5 and 8, with the ``Fidelio'' Overture (419 051-2, 62 minutes), or the stirring Ninth, with one of the strongest vocal quartets ever - Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Peter Schreier, and Jos'e van Dam (415 832-2, 67 minutes).
Another Beethoven cycle of note making its way on the Galleria label is legendary pianist Wilhelm Kempff playing the five piano concertos. The Fifth, subtitled ``Emperor Concerto,'' is paired with the final C minor, Op. 111 sonata (419 468-2, 63 minutes). The concerto performance is one of the best ever recorded; the CD transfer is, sad to say, disappointing. Nevertheless, to have the entire cycle on CD, even in compromised form, is cause for gratitude. A better sounding Beethoven/Kempff CD is devoted to the ``Pathetique'' (No. 8), ``Moonlight'' (No. 14), ``Pastoral'' (No. 15), and No. 24, all immensely satisfying performances.
Of the four concerto releases I heard, I was most struck by Sviatoslav Richter's quirky but fascinating journey, with Karajan and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, through Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto (419 068-2, 51 minutes). It's slow and dotes on every phrase, but somehow it is always a fascinating, often refreshing, look at a now-hackneyed work. And the five Rachmaninoff ``Preludes'' that are the filler have their moments of sheer hair-raising pianism.
Finally, a personal favorite - Rafael Kubelik's perusal of the complete Dvorak ``Slavonic Dances,'' Op. 46 and 72, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (419 056-2, 71 minutes). There is a special, unshowy, profound love for the music and the idiom, and to have the two original LPs on one CD is an added bonus.
In all, the Galleria label is a blazingly fine light on the CD landscape, and it guarantees so much of DG's remarkable analog catalog a place in the new sound technology.