VARÈSE: Arcana. BARTÓK: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin HINDEMITH: Suite from Noblissima Visione.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Jean Martinon, cond.
BMG/RCA 63315 (ADD) (M) TT: 60:19 

The history of RCA (Victor) Records has been a chequered one since the birth of acoustic recordings in the 1920s. Less than a decade later, in collaboration with Bell Laboratories, the "Nipper" label had developed a two-track sound system for a tone-arm with two heads. But the ongoing Depression -- by then worldwide -- forced its shelving. When Columbia (later CBS, now Sony) Records came out with Peter Goldmark's 33-rpm Long-Playing Record, Victor countered with a red-vinyl 45-rpm disc, smaller in diameter but with a big hole in the center. Like a donut crossed with a matzoh, it became classical music's Edsel.

The 1950s, though, with the introduction of stereo, were a golden decade for "the shaded-dog label" as it came to be called), anchored by Fritz Reiner in Chicago, Charles Munch and Arthur Fiedler in Boston, freelancing Leopold Stokowski, and octogenarian Arturo Toscanini's last hurrah. RCA Victor's vinyl LPs and stereodiscs scratched as easily as everyone else's, but were sonic pacesetters nonetheless -- so long as post-session mixing and cutting didn't trash the handiwork of producer Richard Mohr and his engineer, Lewis Layton. "Living Stereo" reissues on CD confirm the primacy of their originals.

"Living Stereo" parameters were reconfigured in the '60s, however, for slimmer, cheaper-to-produce stereodiscs that RCA dubbed "Dynagroove." By then Erich Leinsdorf had succeeded Munch in Boston, Reiner had been replaced by Jean Martinon, Toscanini was dead (even more tragically, so was his annointed successor Guido Cantelli, at age 36, in a plane crash near Paris). Stokowski was still freelancing but nonexclusively on discs. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra had returned to the fold after 24 years on CBS, but the Academy of Music defied everyone's ability to record state-of-the-art stereo. Fiedler was still Pops-ing in Boston, although RCA kept Morton Gould as an insurance policy, guest conducting Saturday Night Popular Concerts in Chicago for Monday recording.

Before Martinon finished a turbulent five-year tenure in the spring of 1968, RCA had pretty much replaced him with Seiji Ozawa, the orchestra's summer music-director at Ravinia Park, north of the city. London/Decca had a contract with Georg Solti ("Sir" came later, I think stultifyingly), who took over in 1969. Deutsche rammophon and EMI both signed Solti's colleague, principal conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. RCA issued Solti's Verdi Requiem down the line, but that was the last. Except for reissues, the Chicago Symphony never again graced the label.

But ah, the quality of those reissues in the '90s, once the late Jack Pfeiffer got back mastertapes from the corporate hacks who'd been cranking out budget-price counterfeits. Now, to close out the 20th century, BMG is excavating RCA's 1960s archives for a "High Performance/Audiophile" series of medium-priced CDs. At the same time, ironically, German-owned BMG is downsizing the RCA logo and downplaying the RCA sources.

Like "Living Stereo," "High Performance/Audiophile" features original cover art and annotations where possible, but employs a new digital sampling-rate called "24/96" -- four more than "20-bit" recently introduced. 24/96 discs, however, cannot be played with full effect on current CD-players, configured to reproduce 16/44. This last is the sampling-rate from 1983 that conductor Herbert von Karajan urged Sony to adopt prematurely.

So, what does "24/96? sound like on a good contemporary system? A compendium of three Martinon recordings gives one a mouth-watering incentive to wait for future playback-systems that will reveal the full potential.

When, midway in his Chicago tenure, Martinon recorded Edgard Varèse's bone-crunching, barn-burning, roof-raising Arcana on March 21, 1966 (see London's new Varèse collection for more on the music), prefatory concert performances left everyone slack-jawed. On records, the music had been championed only by Robert Craft, with an unrehearsed pick-up orchestra on Columbia/CBS, and by Zubin Mehta, with the Los Angeles Phil on London -- a sonic wonder at the time but, not to mince words, dirtily played. Martinon's version became both a pacesetter and a bellwether, even on a flimsy, warpage-prone, vinyl "Dynagroove" disc with inner- groove distortion problems.

Newly scrubbed and remastered, it reveals a lot of what was heard live in Orchestra Hall but never before on discs, beggaring Boulez's mid-'70s version with the NY Phil on CBS (more untidiness and approximate intonation), and bettering Riccardo Chailly's almost prettifying performance on London with the Amsterdam Orchestra. On BMG, one hears a volcanic descendant of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, still to be beaten but not likely, and I say this as someone unexcited by many of Martinon's concerts during a tenure, if truth be told, held together by the youthful Ozawa's summer visits.

The playing in Bartók's Mandarin suite at the end of Martinon's fourth season, and in Hindemith's Noblissima Visione (from a ballet about St. Francis of Assisi) at the start of his last one, is a tribute to Reiner's indoctrination. Solos by trumpeter Adolph Herseth (still playing first today at the age 80+), clarinetist Clark Brody, and flutist Donald Peck are simultaneously poetic and virtuosic, while the reading develops menacingly after a squarish start. It lacks, however, the pervasive eroticism of Reiner's as remembered from concert performances, which George Marek, RCA's Uriah Heepish a-&-r director, opted not to preserve. Hindemith fares altogether better; his deep-running didacticism struck a chord in Martinon's own complex personality.

To sum up, BMG's 24/96 "High Performance" sound is as good as RCA's "Living Stereo," albeit from sonic originals of lesser quality than the best by Reiner, Mohr, and Layton. Partly to blame was a "renovation" of Orchestra Hall in 1965 that dessicated it acoustically as a recording venue. In the autumn of 1966 RCA retreated to the Shriners' Medinah Temple, still on Michigan Avenue but north of the Chicago River, where London recorded subsequently. For SDs by Ozawa along with Giulini, EMI shopped around, although DGG still recorded Giulini in Orchestra Hall by moving the players off the stage and into the hall, and added reverb back in Europe to the mixdown.

R.D. (Dec. 2000)