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24-Bit Remasterings of Marvelous Performances from the 1970s and 1980s: A Treasure
on 26 June 2016
To my ear Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO) provide an extraordinarily beautiful interpretation of the Mozart Piano Concertos in this 2012, 24-bit remastering of Perahia’s performances from the 1970s and 1980s. If I had to pick one box set this would be it but as a Gramophone article put it some years back, many Mozart Piano Concerto cycles have been issued and there is no shortage of superb performances. While this is my favorite cycle I’ll mention two others I consider marvelous: Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a 1995 London Analogue to Digital Remastering and Brendel with Marriner/Academy of St Martin in the Fields on a 2009 Decca Remastering (10 CD Set: 480-2599) of performances from the 1970s and 1980s. I’m not persuaded that a “remastering” always means better sound – but in these two cases the sound is superb and the performances magnificent.
As of June, 2016, there are almost 80 reviews of this set, most extremely positive. Thus add the following:
1. While this box set is not an SACD set and SACD players are not cheap, if you greatly enjoy and listen to a lot of music recommend investing in a good SACD player. Prices range from $300 to $5,000 and up. I must watch my budget but as music is a top priority I paid approximately $1,000 for a Marantz SA8005 SACD player after doing a lot of comparison shopping and find it worth every penny. In terms of marginal value for someone who wanted an SACD player solely to play SACDs and CDs, I found the higher priced models could not come close to providing value for the extra money – and I probably could not have afforded them anyway. While there are a few exceptions, likely due to poor recording, a difficult venue acoustically, etc., SACDs generally offer significant audible improvement in clarity and detail. In addition, I now hear detail in my regular CDs that I had not heard before. While 24-bit remasterings are not as much of an upgrade as SACDs, they generally are a significant improvement over regular CDs and that is particularly the case with this 24-bit remastered set these Perahia/ECO performances originally released on Columbia Masterworks LPs and CDs. That triggers the question how do the newer performances on SACD compare with this set. I have some, but not all, of the individual SACD recordings from two series: Christian Zacharias/Orchestre De Chambre de Lausanne and Ronald Brautigam (with fortepiano)/Kölner Akademie. The additional clarity and detail on these SACDs is a plus but given the excellent quality of this Perahia Box Set (as well as the Brendel and Ashkenazy sets mentioned above) the marginal improvement is less than it will be when comparing many other non-SACDs to SACDs. One must then compare the performances. While the Zacharias and Brautigam performances are thoroughly enjoyable, and are worthy of being added to a collection of one who can afford to have five or more versions of one or more of these concertos, I find the Perahia, Brendel and Ashkenazy performances preferable to the extent that if I was only going to have one or two recordings I’d select the one or two from the Perahia, Brendel and Ashkenazy sets. Moreover, from at least some of Amazon’s partners one can currently get this Perahia and the Brendel box set for less than $30. That said, I found Zacharias’ performance of the 21st and 23rd to be magnificent – as enjoyable as any of the performances in the three box sets -- and also found Brautigam’s performance of the 24th to stand by itself – being as enjoyable as any in the box sets. Brautigam’s 24th comes with the 25th while Zacharias’ 21st comes with the 14th and 15th and his 23rd comes with the 5th and 8th.
2. Speaking of SACDs I’m only aware of one Perahia Mozart Piano Concerto SACD -- a Sony release containing the 20th and 27th. That SACD is magnificent but also very expensive. Also, unlike many SACDs on the market today, it will only play on an SACD player.
3. Many of the existing reviews provide very interesting information and perspectives. One I particularly agree with is “the balance between piano and orchestra is definitely weighted toward the soloist (but) nonetheless the contributions of both the English Chamber Orchestra and Perahia are ideal.” My bias is to have the soloist stand out – at least to some extent – that is at least arguably why concertos are called piano (or violin, trumpet, cello, etc.) concertos. In this context I note that a work by another composer I particularly enjoy is Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Julia Fischer has superb performances of the Mozart violin concertos on PentaTone SACDs but her performance of the Brahms violin concerto on PantaTone’s SACD is disappointing (to me at least) because, especially in the third movement, her violin playing almost seems to be in the background. However, if a listener prefers that the soloist not stand out from the rest of the orchestra this is a factor to consider in whether to purchase this box set.
4. Numerous reviewers compare this set to Brendel’s, some liking both, others finding Brendel’s notably superior. As mentioned I find both magnificent. I am not a musician and have no musical training. I listen to music for sheer enjoyment. While I hear differences – sometimes pronounced – between Perahia and Brendel, I noticed the following from two separate, very thoughtful, reviews: one notes that “while “Perahia’s playing is beautiful, his stylization is intrusive, overwhelming the nearly infinite subtlety of the Mozart concertos,” while Brendel is “much more cerebral, dryer, somewhat abstract.” The other reviewer comments “Perahia is all about tone, keeping it perfect – some may find this all the same or boring but when played as well as Perahia plays one can never have too much” but “still, if you are looking for a little more interpretation to jazz up the recordings Brendel’s set may be for you.” These are just snippets from two very informative and thoughtful reviews and I quote them only to illustrate how different listeners can perceive different performances. To me, both box sets are marvelous.
5. This 24-bit remastered set was issued in 2012. Its identifying information is 8-86919-14112-2 (on box set)/ASIN: B006XOBFB0. However, many of the reviews (on US Amazon’s site) date from before 2012 with the earliest review dated 30 August 2006. The Amazon UK site shows, as of June, 2016, both this (2012) box set and a 2006 box set with the following identifying information: 8-28768-72302-9 (on box set)/ASIN: B000GLKLCK. The picture of the 2006 box set shows that it is a Direct Stream Digital (DSD) remastering. Unfortunately I do not know what the distinguishing characteristics are between a DSD and 24-bit remastering – if anyone knows I – and I expect others – would greatly appreciate being informed. To add to my confusion I’ve noticed that most or all of my SACDs also state that they are “DSD” – but the 2006 box set does not indicate that it is also an SACD – and in fact there is no indication on the box or in the Amazon information that it is an SACD box set. As the first review of the 2012 24-bit remastered set is dated from 2006, it seems that on the US site at least Amazon may have merged the comments about these two box sets so they are shown together under the 2012 24-bit remastered box set. I noted that one
reviewer questioned numerous other reviewers if they knew if there was any difference between this 2012 24-bit remastered box set and the 2006 box set of Perahia remasterings; I don’t believe that question was answered, the answer appears to be 24-bit vs. DSD remasterings but unfortunately I cannot explain what the audible difference between the two remasterings is likely to be.
6. Some of the early reviewers commented about the unevenness – apparently at certain isolated points – of the remasterings which resulted in the tone of the orchestra jumping – “biting one’s ears off” as one reviewer put it. Many other reviewers found the remasterings to be excellent. I find the 24-bit remasterings to be excellent but add that although I have a reasonably elaborate system (KEF Reference speakers, etc.) I have always lived in an apartment and thus – if 6:00 is no sound, moving clockwise I rarely go beyond 9:00. Thus, if this is something that arises at higher volumes it is something I will likely never encounter – and that may hold true for other listeners who live in an apartment complex with neighbors. In addition, as these comments about occasional unevenness appear on the early reviews, it is possible that is an issue with the DSD remasterings but not the 24-bit remasterings.
Overall, I add my voice to the chorus singing the highest praise for this box set.