Leon Fleisher is one of my favourite pianists. I've written a handful reviews on individual releases over the years, and do not plan to convince anyone of what I can only hope everyone knows already: that this is a must-have set if ever there was one. Suffice to say I ordered this set from France so I'd have it earlier (been perusing it for almost two months now). More to the point, anyone who doesn't yet own any or all of Fleisher's recordings, this box set plus the Vanguard discs, as Hank Drake notes (don't forget the earlier - that is, 1982 - recording of the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand with Sergiu Comissiona, also on Vanguard, my favourite of all, but certainly along with the one with Ozawa included here, as well as Samson FranÁois/André Cluytens, Julius Katchen/István Kertész and Robert Casadesus/Eugene Ormandy) is the ideal place to start.
In which case I recommend you stop reading, click the "buy" botton, yes, just completely ignore the following - it is strictly for those who, like me, have owned the LPs and every digital incarnation of everything this box contains (with the exception of the Hindemith, which has either never been issued on CD, or that I've missed), and I mean everything from the LPs over Lani Spahr's private remasterings from open reel tapes to the French United Archive and Arkivmusic releases.
Now, weren't we all hoping this set would contain all-new DSD remasterings from the original analogue master tapes? Well, it sure doesn't say so anywhere on or in the box. In fact, it remains unclear which of these remasterings are new (production year as well as copyright is said to be 2013, not that one could deduce much from this), and where they're not, which have been used. The best I can offer are subjective comparisons I made on state-of-the-art equipment (trying to decide which versions to rip and include in my playlists to use at home).
On the whole, the remasterings in this box sound as good or better than prior releases. There are exceptions, however. Ironically, the 2008 Mozart Concerto recordings sound less spatious and realistic, even slightly dull compared to the regular CD - and I would be suprised if this title were remastered at all (more likely a straight digital copy, and indeed, the sonic difference dwindles some once one rips the content of both discs). All the other digital (DDD) recordings are, believe it or not, audibly improved over the original CDs (the left hand solo, chamber and concerto repertoire), something I really did not expect. Most likely thanks to improved noise-shaping software. The differences aren't always slight at all (fascinating, confusing, disturbing - you name it...). Most importantly, however, the Franz Schmidt Quintet now comes without those digital glitches that once almost killed an audiophile transport of mine - the disc quit playing, but wouldn't quit whirring, literally had to pull the plug (mind you, a CD of which I had several copies, all scratch-free, not one playing back properly to the end, got to keep them all for free, nice customer service on Amazon's part, but then, I had to wait until now to be able and listen to the Quintet to the very end...).
The great Grieg and Schumann Concerti, of which the DSD-remastered "Great Performances" CD sounds hard as nails in comparison (frankly, one of the most disappointing modern remasterings of anything), finally have some body and natural harmonics.
All the Beethoven Concerti are clearly remastered and sound better than ever. Having said that, the remasterings of the 3rd and 4th (included here twice) are not identical to the DSD remastering for the "Great Performances" CD, but since there are sonic plusses and minuses to either (there's isn't merely greater low-level resolution to the "Great Performances" CD, but one can hear e.g. tape splices - as during, of all places, the first-movement candenza in the 4th - that have always made me wonder if the same analogue source tape was used as for all other releases. If I had to guess, I'd say it's the only release going back to the original analogue master, but that the original may be showing signs of deterioration, and that the others may be based a production master copy), I'm undecided which remastering I like better, but believe most people will prefer the less revealing but "cleaner" remastering included in the box set here. All in all, the piano sounds so much more full-bodied in either, with much (!) more orchestral detail to be heard than in the cheapo releases and re-issues from the eighties and nineties - even compared to the original LPs (of which I still own a pretty run-down and a virtually pristine set) - that I feel like nit-picking. I mean, finally, they got the transfer of the "Emperor" Concerto right!
The to me all-important Brahms Concerti (how I love those!) sound different from the 1997 20-Bit-SBM remasterings (the Masterworks Heritage double-CD), less low-level resolution and all that comes with it (including less realistic phase response) - keep the old CDs if you own them (and/or audiophile equipement), otherwise nothing worth obsessing over. Ironically, the mono items contained therein (the Brahms Waltzes and Händel Variations) are sonically improved here (sometimes I wonder if there's some sort of troll working at Sony eternally trying to figure out how to sell us each and every scrap of music they've ever recorded or acquired as many times as is (in)humanly possible...).
The Mozart 25th Concerto sounds curiously different from all previous releases. I probably like the remastering included in the DSD-remastered Szell Mozart box set best (yeah, I know, wouldn't we all have bet they're using the same remastering, but no...), but the one included here reveals a Mozartian gracefulness that made me think, in passing, that I was hearing this recording for the first time (and that - probably because of that additional sense of spontaneity - reminded me that I had not listened to Szell's live in Tokyo in 1970 concert for a while).
I'd expected the 1954 Schubert to be the exact same remastering as the United Archives release, and maybe it is and the difference is due to the funny black disc the French use, be that as it may, the recording sounds better (less dry, more luminous, percussive in a more realistic way) here. The 1963 Schubert items sound so different from the earlier CD release, as well as the LP, it's frankly confusing. The A Major Sonata in particular sounds fuller-bodied if a bit wooden, less charming and graceful (Fleisher's take on it admittedly being gloomier than some, e.g. Solomon). I was unhappy with the earlier remastering, but don't find the new one so convincing either, and the sonic difference is such that one wonders what it sounded like in real. The LP probably comes closest to sounding realistic in this particular case (although I've always thought there's a lack of weight there, which they may have been trying to improve via equalization here). The interpretation, of course, is such a fine one.
To end this with, all the items thus far only included (in digital redbook format, that is) in the Philips "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" set or the half dozen Arkivmusic discs (from five years ago) sound better here than ever.
Quite good quality pressings, by the way. Having said that, I'll rip them all and have them read out and clocked by an external studio clock, trying to glean as much information and sonic integrity from these recordings as I can. Would be something to have all this on SACD or better yet, as high-resolution downloads tapped directly from the source. But then, how long have we been waiting for this complete album collection of all the Epic, Columbia and Sony releases? I'd frankly started wondering if I'd live to see/hear it...
Greetings from Switzerland, David.