BACK IN THE 1950s the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch and the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner made some outstanding recordings for RCA. While material from a quarter-century ago would ordinarily begin to call for consideration in the "historical reissue" category, RCA has been demonstrating in its "Point 5" series of half-speed remasterings that items of this vintage can qualify as "audiophile editions," and the magnificent job done with Reiner's "Pictures at an Exhibition" is perhaps the most stunning example so far.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra may have recorded the Mussorgsky/Ravel showpiece more times than any other piece of music. Back in April 1951 Rafael Kubelik, near the end of his first season as the orchestra's music director, made the classic recording that launched Mercury's famous single-microphone "Olympian" series and helped initiate the concept of "high fidelity" on microgroove. Reiner's recording, in December 1957, was followed by those under Seiji Ozawa (also on RCA), Carlo Maria Giulini (Deutsche Grammophon) and, most recently, Sir Georg Solti (London Digital). While the lifelike sound given Solti is remarkable in its own right, none of the stereo versions seemed to rival the impact of the old Kubelik--until now.
What seemed a solid but unexceptional "Pictures" on LSC-2201 has been so thoroughly revivified in "Point 5" (ATL1-4268) that it must be regarded now as a serious contender for top honors among all current recordings of this work. The sound has been opened up so richly and spaciously that the performance itself may be heard in a new light, and now seems more probing, more involved, more sympathetic and more brilliant than any other. Each individual "picture" is fully characterized, yet without a trace of self-consciousness, and the final glory is incomparably convincing because of the subtle and sure hand with which Reiner was always able to avoid the pitfalls of empty bombast.
Since we don't expect "Pictures" to be spread over a full disc anymore (especially at the "Point 5" price), I had hoped RCA might give us a filler this time--perhaps the "1812" or, better yet, Reiner's superb realization of the Polka and Fugue from Weinberger's "Schwanda"--but there is none. Surely both the Tchaikovsky and the Weinberger will come in further remasterings of the Reiner treasury; in the meantime, no one who hears this "Pictures" is likely to regard it as a short-weight or overpriced.
The latest Munch recording to receive "Point 5" revivification is his 1959 account of the Berlioz Requiem. It is less spectacularly successful than the Reiner "Pictures," but still eminently worthwhile. In Munch's later recording of the Requiem, with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (reissued recently in Deutsche Grammophon's Privilege series, 2726.050), the German chorus outsings that of the New England Conservatory, but the orchestra doesn't touch the Bostonians, and Peter Schreier, for all his elegance, doesn't match the stylishness of Leopold Simoneau on RCA.
The Boston recording exhibited a degree of congestion in the "Tuba mirum" when it was originally issued in RCA's deluxe Soria Series, and this remained in the Victrola reissue (VICS-6043). It is not entirely gone in the "Point 5" edition (ATL2-4269), but the remastering has succeeded in smoothing out some of the rough spots without taking the bite out of the performance. This is definitely the version to have for optimum enjoyment.
Audio enhancement of a different sort is offered in a series of Deutsche Grammophon discs from Japan, available here through Polygram Special Imports. In this case quite recent recordings, all of which were of demonstration quality to begin with, have been remastered and transferred to 12-inch 45-rpm discs. This is what Alan Silver was doing when he founded his Connoisseur Society 20 years ago, and Denon has also put out some 12-inch 45s. As a demonstration of the difference that can be made, try Claudio Abbado's performance of "The Rite of Spring" with the London Symphony Orchestra (28GG 003). This level of vividness makes this reissue as appropriate as any brand-new recording as a tribute to Stravinsky's 100th birthday.