Magazine article Gramophone

The Art of Vinyl: An Opera Box, a Picture Disc, New Artists and a Handful of Classic Reissues Reviewed by Peter Quantrill

Magazine article Gramophone

The Art of Vinyl: An Opera Box, a Picture Disc, New Artists and a Handful of Classic Reissues Reviewed by Peter Quantrill

Article excerpt

When Sony Classical announced a new Mozart/da Ponte cycle with the maverick Teodor Currentzis, all three operas were initially advertised with LP versions. Perhaps understandably, Figaro and Cost never made it to market on vinyl, but Sony has blown the budget on Don Giovanni, which retails at around 50 [pounds sterling]: a comparatively reasonable sum when you take into consideration the no-expense-spared production values. A matt black box has swanky if illegible black gloss titling. Inside are four 180gm LPs and a hefty booklet on thick, high-laminate paper, containing essays, synopsis and libretto in four languages.

As for the recording itself, on-stage microphones at the opera house in Perm catch every gasp and gabble and mutter --and on occasion some airy leggiero singing, especially from Kenneth Tarver as Don Ottavio--while from some Stygian depth beneath them, violins and oboe emerge distinct but distant. Hearing this, Walter Legge would have conniptions. A recent survey of LP buying habits found that a dismaying proportion of new LPs are bought and never played, destined to lean artlessly against coffee tables as cultural signifiers. This Don Giovanni may regrettably count among their number.

One sidebar of LP history that never took off in the classical world was the picture disc. Everyone from Manilow to Bananarama released their albums on limited-edition picture vinyl, but punk and metal bands went to town and came home again with apocalyptic fantasies in black and purple. The X-ray image of a lower spine and pelvis may appear tame by comparison, but the Warner Classics 'Record Store Day' release of Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto, played at its premiere by Mstislav Rostropovich, is a boutique piece of gramophone history. 'Roentgenizdat' published bootleg recordings on discarded X-ray film. Wisdom holds that picture discs sound worse--the wax layer on top of the image is susceptible to damage--not such a problem with a serviceable, in-house mono recording.

Deserving more than ornamental status is Telarc's return to vinyl with the soundtrack recording of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, originally recorded by the LSO and Sir Charles Mackerras for the 1986 film with designs by Maurice Sendak, and now reissued with the highly collectable catalogue number of TEL00001. As a further enticing, retro touch, the back cover is emblazoned with the company's old rider along the lines of 'This recording is so good it may blow up your hi-fi', which even in the early days of jittery and wallet-busting CD hardware I took to be a piece of canny marketing rather than a genuine warning. The performance itself challenges the LSO and Previn for top spot in my personal Nutcracker pantheon: effervescent, probably undanceable at points, with every brushstroke of Tchaikovsky's orchestration relished by both musicians and engineers.

After the DG reissue of Drumming (A/16), a new recording of Reich from LSO Live prompts me to observe how suited minimalism is to the LP carrier. Less because of the congruence of their hipster appeal than the almost-tangible presence of textures--wood, metal, string, and hands in the case of Clapping Music--that a well-pressed LP can deliver. The acoustic of LSO St Luke's lends just enough bloom to the LSO Percussion Ensemble without compromising the cumulative momentum of Sextet, making a fine complement to the much closer studio-engineered sound of the composer-led recording on Nonesuch.

Two new albums of piano music by Philip Glass present a study in contrasts. The '80th Anniversary Tribute' gathers material from several albums by Nicolas Horvath on the Grand Piano label, leading to awkward changes of acoustic and instrument from track to track. Horvath's touch is none too sensitive; even the gatefold is miscut. In every way, Vikingur Olafsson's new album of Etudes on DG is a classier production, ebbing and flowing without undue recourse to pedal. A DG reissue of the composer's Violin Concerto brings back one of the composer's most harmonically diverse and successful concert-hall works (coupled with the Concerto Grosso No 5 of Alfred Schnittke)--again, the pristine surfaces lend a beguiling sheen to the Vienna Philharmonic's backing, while Gidon Kremer's solo part benefits from a profile more sharply outlined than the original mastering for CD. …

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