Classical Notes

The RCA Living Stereo Series

Bartok: Concerto For Orchestra, Music For Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Hungarian Sketches
    The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor
    RCA CD 09026-61504-2

Tchaikovsky and Brahms: Violin Concertos
    Jascha Heifetz, violin; The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor
    RCA CD 09026-61495-2

Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe
    The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch conducting
    RCA CD 09026-61846-2

Saint Saens: Symphony # 3 ("Organ")
Debussy: La Mer
Ibert: Escales
    The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch conducting
    RCA CD 09026-61500-2

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody # 2
Enesco: Roumanian Rhapsody # 1
Smetana: The Moldau and The Bartered Bride: Overture
Wagner: Overture and Venusberg Music from "Tannhauser" and Prelude to Act 3 of "Tristan and Isolde".
    RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air, Leopold Stokowski conducting
    RCA CD 09026-61503-2


treble clef graphic In the hotly contested field of recorded music marketing, superlatives abound: many companies claim to have the best artists, the finest sound, the most lavish packages, the most realistic ambiance and, most recently, the cleanest restorations. But throughout the history of classical recordings (and pop as well), one company is the undisputed master in one particular area. RCA is unquestionably the greatest recycler. And even in these times of ecological conscience, that's not intended as a compliment!

RCA's dubious honor stretches all the way back to Caruso, whose acoustic vocal tracks, in a precursor of modern sampling techniques, were still being grafted onto fresh electrical orchestral backgrounds and issued as "new" a decade after the great singer's death. The practice reached its apex with the most popular artist of the following generation, as many Toscanini performances found their way onto a half-dozen LPs, each with increasingly trendier graphics and progressively worse sound.

With the arrival of the CD, though, one would have assumed that a single definitive transfer would have been enough. After all, digitally pure sound is digitally pure sound, right? And yet, old habits die hard: barely a half-decade after its initial wave of CD reissues, RCA is at it again!

RCA's latest midprice series looks great in concept. Few logos or slogans thrill classical buffs as much as "Living Stereo." In anticipation of then as-yet unrealized multichannel playback, the series began in early 1954 with tapings in Boston and Chicago using two- and three-track 15 ips stereo decks which were run along with the mono master. The first retail results were released to great acclaim on open-reel tapes in 1955 and on LP in 1958. Collectors still avidly seek early stampers of these "shaded dog" LPs. For the new CD series, the stereo master tapes were played on the original decks through tubed electronics and sound wonderful.

The packaging, too, is designed to evoke the excitement of record collecting 35 years ago. The releases boast the original design, artwork and liner notes, all discretely modified to reflect the bonus tracks which expand the LP lineups to CD length. In an attempt to squeeze a small bit of visual grandeur out of the tiny format, the CD boxes on some volumes are reversed, so that the cover art occupies the 5.4 by 4.7 inch "back" and the square booklet cover is used for the content information. True, the detail hardly compares with the 12 by 12 originals, but it's a welcome step in the right direction of utilizing the reduced format to maximum advantage.

But looks aren't everything, and it's what's inside the fancy boxes that really counts. And it's there that the old RCA recycling demons return to haunt the new technology. The Stokowski program is new to CD and is a welcome characteristic example of his mastery of this colorful music. But nearly every other volume of the most attractive releases in the new "Living Stereo" series we've met before, and quite recently, too.

Take, for example, the Bartok disc. Fritz Reiner was a close friend of Bartok and arranged to commission the Concerto from the ill and destitute composer in 1943; it was Bartok's last major work and the ultimate distillation of his creative ethos. Reiner's performances are lean, powerful and precise and still sound magnificent. But they sounded just as good on RCA CD 60175-2-RC, issued in 1989.

In a similar vein are the Heifetz/Reiner readings of the Tchaikovsky and Brahms Violin Concerti. From his very first recordings as a teenager in 1917 (collected on Biddulph CD LAB-015), Heifetz combined blinding virtuosity with a cool, unemotional temperament, both of which he maintained with remarkable consistency to the very end of his career. His final recordings of these favorite concerti are genuine classics and worthy additions to the "Living Stereo" series. But they are already favorites of CD collectors on RCA CDs 5933-2-RC and RCD1-5402.

The Ravel Daphnis and Chloe by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony is another plum. When the Living Stereo CD series was first announced, many expected that this would be Munch's early 'sixties rerecording, one of his last and finest but which has eluded CD transfer so far. Issued on RCA LP LSC-2568, the performance was magnificent but the sound was as thin as the later Dynaflex pressings. Instead of restoring the glorious remake, though, RCA has reissued the very same 1955 taping as it had transferred to CD on 60469 just two years ago! Worse, the new CD runs a bare 54 minutes, whereas the earlier one boasted a fine companion piece – the Roussel Bacchus and Ariane Suite. That's progress?

Another definitive performance is Munch's Boston performance of the Saint-Saens Symphony # 3, the so-called "Organ Symphony." This work, too, was issued in 1991 as part of a Munch centennial mid-price series on CD 60817-2-RC, complemented by fine couplings by Poulenc and Franck. The filler for the "Living Stereo" reissue, though, is Debussy's La Mer, already available on 6719-2-RG.

The harsh reality is this: sentiment and glitzy packaging aside, CD collectors already have these fine performances. Surely RCA's vaults are deep enough to yield a few new treasures, such as Munch's Tchaikovsky, more of Reiner's Beethoven symphonies, or anything by Pierre Monteux.

The ultimate question, perhaps, is not how many times RCA intends to recycle the same stuff over and over (since, if history is a guide, the answer is obvious), but rather how many times classical buffs are willing to buy it.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1993 by Peter Gutmann

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