In the year or less since its debut, Pickwick's Quintessence label has established itself as not merely a worthwhile "bargain" label, but a reliable symbol of quality - of excellence, in fact, in terms of both musical and sonic standards. When we consider that the Quintessence catalogue so far is made up almost entirely of thrice-familiar orchestral titles, the very sort of thing that is available a hundred times over from every celebrated conductor, the level maintained here becomes even more impressive.
R. Peter Munves, who created the series, not only had the resourcefulness to get the cream of the material RCA recorded for the Reader's Digest mail-order series as well as some choice items deleted by RCA itself and EMI, but he also got hold of RCA's Jack Adelman and other technicians who produced reissues which in many cases surpass the brilliance of the respective original discs. The pressings themselves are uniformly clean and quiet, too; only the annotation leaves something to be desired, but this cannot detract from the aural splendor so dependably offered at a list price of $3.98.
Now the first batch of Quintessence cassettes has arrived, and these are possibly even more stunning, in that they compare more closely with the quality of the discs than most expensive cassettes do, and these are priced at only $4.98. They are all "Dolbyed," all exceptionally clean and wide-ranging, and should go far toward winning cassette converts among the most demanding listeners. (In this case, no annotative shortcomings to complain about, since there are no notes at all with the cassettes.)
In May I welcomed Quintessence's disc reissue of Solomon's magnificent performances of the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos, both with Herbert Menges conducting the Philharmonia; the cassette edition even more assuredly sweeps the field of pairings of these works in this format; it's P4C-7055. Jascha Horenstein's majestic stereo remake of Dvorak's New World Symphony, with the Royal Philharmonic, also goes to the top of the list among cassette versions (P4C-7001).
Also outstanding are Sir Adrian Boult's aristocratic accounts of the Franck Symphony and Liszt's Les Preludes (P4C-7050); Charles Munch's superb readings of the Bizet Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini (P4C-7048); Vaclav Neumann's enchanting Fucik program with the Czech Philharmonic on P4C-7038; Rene Leibowitz's Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition (P4C-7059), and Constantin Silvestri's irresistible assortment of Enesco (Romanian Rhapsody No. 1), Ravel (Rapsodie espangnole), Khachaturian (three dances from Gayaneh ) and Prokofiev (Love for Three Oranges Suite) with the improbable but sensational collaboration of the Vienna Philharmonic (P4C-7070).
Leibowitz's Pictures (with the Royal Philharmonic) is a recording that circulated here about 15 years ago on RCA; it did not stay in the catalogue long, but had some enthusiastic reviews. It is a smashing performance, the sound does not show its age at all, and Leibowitz's own arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain, which is packaged with it, is strikingly different from both the Rimsky-Korsakov and Stokowski versions - quite intriguing in its own right. A further bonus is a first-rate performance of Saint-Saens's Danse macabre, with a Parisian orchestra, which was not issued by RCA. This is definitely the Pictures to have on cassette, and a reasonable contender for first honors among disc editions, too, as PMC-7059.
The standard Rimsky-Korsakov edition of Bald Mountain, is part of a splendid collection of Russian music played by the Philharmonia under Lovro von Matacic, in which the other pieces are Rimsky's Russian Easter Overture and the Overture, Polovtsi March and Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor. No chorus in the dances, but the Girls' Dance is included (p4C-7067).
Another eminently satisfying Russian package is the pairing of Rimsky's Capriccio espagnol and Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien, both recorded 20 years ago by Kiril Kondrashin (whose U.S. appearances for next season were cancelled recently) and the handpicked RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. The original Red Seal release, LM-2323, was a favourite demonstration disc for years, but the sound suffered when RCA remastered the recordings for its Victrola label; as remastered now on Quintessence disc PMC-7063, the original glory is more than restored. This may be short weight for a cassette (p4c-7063), but for this quality at this price there is little room for complaint.