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Reviews: Boulez Conducts Stravinsky, Alexander Nevsky - in quad!

Pierre Boulez/New York Philharmonic

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Boulez Conducts Stravinsky - Petrushka / Pulcinella Suite

(Dutton Epoch - SACD)

It would be disingenuous to describe Petrushka as Stravinsky’s masterpiece - more or less everything the guy wrote was a masterpiece.But still there is something timelessly fascinating (not to mention fantastical) about the story of the loves, lives and petty squabbles of three puppets, and the sheer volume of available recordings of the piece suggests that Classical Gas isn’t the only one who thinks so.

This particular version was recorded in 1971, early into Pierre Boulez’s time with the New York Philharmonic.Released the following year within Columbia Masterworks’ newly minted quadraphonic line (cat #M 31076), it has remained largely unheard in that format ever since.Stereo renditions exist, and they’re fine.But the quad mix was Boulez’s definitive reading of the original, 1911, ballet (Stravinsky revised the piece in 1946), and the SACD’s crystalline transfer of the original 1971 quadraphonics is as breathtaking as the performance itself.

All of the drama, every ounce of sensitivity, all the emotions that Stravinsky poured into the piece finds a reciprocal echo in both the performance and the mix, and that latter is crucial because quadraphonic sound was capable of a lot more than just making the music come out of four channels.The right mix, as the liners to another of Masterworks’ Boulez LPs stated, “take[s] advantage of every available… resource in order to fulfil as completely as possible the music that we are privileged to record.”The wrong one, on the other hand, was just a jumble.

The thirty-five minute Petrushka is followed on the disc by three other Stravinsky pieces, realized by Boulez in 1975.Pulcinella Suite (1920), Symphonies of Wind Instruments (also 1920) and Scherzo Fantastique (1908) were all three recorded towards the end of the year, but unreleased until 1978, by which time quadraphonic sound was firmly on the way out (cat # M35105). Even among contemporary aficionados of the format, then, the recording probably slipped by unnoticed, a sad situation that is finally remedied here.

Again, stereo pressings of both pieces abound, most recently (or, at least, notably) within Sony’s box set celebration of the label’s long association with Boulez.The difference, however… it’s not night and day, by any means.But still there is a clarity and excitement to the quad mix that the stereo cannot replicate.And that despite the stereo layer on the hybrid disc likewise sounding fresher and fuller than any other pressing we have heard.

Eugene Ormandy/The Philadelphia Orchestra

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Prokofiev - Alexander Nevsky / Lieutenant Kijé - Suite, Op 60

(Dutton Historic - SACD)

Ormandy’s 1974/75 recording of Alexander Nevsky has justly been praised to the skies not only since it was released on vinyl in that latter year, but since it was first performed at the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia three years earlier.

One of Prokofiev’s darkest, and most dramatic works (it tells of the thirteenth century invasion of Novgorod by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire), Alexander Nevsky was originally composed as the soundtrack to Sergei Eisenstein’s movie of the same name.

Additional material, however, was swiftly added as Prokofiev realized that the demands of the movie could never satisfy his own ambitions for the piece; and, by the time the work premiered in 1939, it had far outgrown its original confines.

Just as Ormandy’s realization far exceeded any previous rendering of the piece.

Remastered, as usual, by the deft hands (and ears) of label founder Michael J Dutton, the SACD features both the stereo and the quadraphonic mixes of the original 1975 LP (RCA Red Seal ARLI 1151), and as great (and familiar) as the former is, it’s the quad that you need to hear.Thrilling throughout, anybody who has ever jumped as “Arise, Ye Russian People” explodes out of two speakers will be possibly airborne as it erupts out of four.And continues to erupt for its entire 2.20 duration.

As if Alexander Nevsky alone was not enough, the disc also includes Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, another soundtrack (for Feinzimmer’s 1933 movie of the same name), as remixed for quad on another Red Seal album. Two Favourite Musical Fables saw it paired with Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János (ARLI 1325).

A gentler piece, Lieutenant Kijé is the perfect companion to the often frenzied excitement of Alexander Nevsky, while a more subdued mix likewise allows the listener some much-needed relaxation.Seldom regarded among Prokofiev’s most significant works, despite the wild popularity of the fourth movement, “Troika,” Lieutenant Kijé nevertheless provides for a thoroughly enjoyable twenty minutes listening, jaunty even across the forebodingly titled finale, “The Burial of Kijé.”

Dutton’s careful shepherding of vintage surround sound has long been admired.The strength of these releases (and many more like them), however, require a fresh epithet, and a whole new era for audiophiles to enter.One that we must surely now describe as the second coming of quad.And Goldmine could not be happier.