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Reviews: Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 - Maazel

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Reviews: 3
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Review by hiredfox January 13, 2010 (11 of 11 found this review helpful)
Performance:   
A question uppermost in the minds of many readers recently has been "Who in their right minds would buy any of the newly released Esoteric recordings at the mind-numbing price of £30 each (UK); even more elsewhere?"

For sure it won't be any of the brigade who have bought into the Naxos "stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap - never mind the quality just feel the width" ethos". And let's be clear, irrespective of the merits of (in this case) a 50 year-old recordings in their day, things have moved on and a re-release of old material is not going to reveal startlingly new insights into much recorded masterpieces. And, unfortunately as these discs are single-layer SACD stereo, it won't be anybody using a conventional CD player or SACD multi-channel set-up... so what in heaven's name are Esoteric up to? I'll return to this point later.

This particular recording was something of a landmark in its time, for much of the 1940's and 1950's Sibelius was little understood and his music rarely played outside Finland and a few English speaking countries but in the late 1950's and early 1960's his stock gradually rose across Europe, not least one can surmise because of his death in 1957. In the 1960's Bernstein and Maazel embarked on recording cycles of Sibelius' Symphonies and Tone Poems and Maazel's recording of the First Symphony was an immediate success and for many years was the disc to buy. Over the ensuing period of course there have been many, many recording cycles; in retrospect those by Vladimar Ashkenazy (RPO) and Colin Davies (BSO & LSO x 3) have stood out. Maazel has long since fallen by the wayside and until now pretty much forgotten.

As a 'child of the sixties' so to speak I remember this recording very well, it was the first Sibelius Symphony that I ever bought with genuinely earned money and it still sits gathering dust in the winter gloom of my hi-fi room. Isn't it amazing how a simple thing like Esoteric re-launching a recording 50 years later can so quickly cast one's mind back to those times in an instant? Another story for another day.

So how did I find this recording, 50 years on? Certainly no fresh insights, in any case every avenue has been explored subsequently but nevertheless a sparkling performance from the VPO as always technically flawless and with individual playing by section leaders at virtuoso levels, weaving their rich tapestry of tonal colours and textures across the stage. The architecture of Sibelius' Symphonies of Sound here revealed in all it's splendour. A splendid recording and a reminder that we have lost almost as much as we have gained over the years. A match certainly for any modern version.

Were that the end of the story, then you'd be forgiven for shrugging your shoulders and walking quietly away, but that is not the end of the story by any means.. No! Siree! Not by a very long way.

In the simplest terms possible for me to state, this is a masterly recording, an utterly astonishing and bewildering sonic tour-de-force which grabbed me by the throat, shook me around until I was senseless and threw me in a quivering heap in the corner. And it hadn't finished with me even then... the Karelia Suite was tacked on for good measure and I had to suffer those indignities over again.

We could not expect new insights into performance? Well, yes maybe we can after all. How come? With better recording and editing techniques Esoteric have turned a grand old master into a 21st century howitzer of a performance. This is the kind of recording that you wrap in a velvet purse and secrete away in your handbag or waistcoat pocket and peep at it guiltily in private moments at dinner parties just to reassure yourself you've not been dreaming all along. This is a recording you don't brag about to your pals especially as it cost you £30 and your erstwhile pal maybe all along has had light fingers.

But to get back to the question left to hangover, who would you buy this record? The answer is a no brainer, "Anybody who values ultimate sound quality above all, anybody who is fed up with the usual digital compromises. I'll get slayed for saying so but this is the most realistic and convincing orchestral recording I have ever heard, vinyl, CD or SACD bar nothing. You are there in the Sofiensaal in the 8th row. This is realism as you have never heard it before, take my word.

True collectors and music lovers owe a huge debt of gratitude to those engineers in Japan who created the idea of this label and have pursued their dream so successfully; especially Kazuie Sugimoto the mastering engineer. Whatever he eats for breakfast, I'd like some. Let's have no more nonsense about the price of these discs, even at £30 they are a bargain and in a different league all together to Living Presence and Living Stereo re-hash's as good as they are.

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Review by Jonty January 13, 2010 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I would agree with everything above except that the Esoteric discs are hybrid stereo and therefore do have an ordinary CD layer. There is no multi-channel layer as the original was stereo. Decca mixed directly to stereo at the recording sessions and didn't use the three channel system used by Mercury and RCA.

Maazel's performance is as fine as its reputation and the recording is wonderful. I am always amazed at the quality of the recording John Culshaw and Gordon Parry achieved in the Sofiensaal in the late fifties and sixties.

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Review by Jonalogic July 14, 2010 (8 of 10 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Wow!

Why do strange folk like me buy stupidly expensive SACD remasters of 40-50 year old analog recordings? Are we totally deranged? Yes, of course, that goes without saying, but anyway...

1) For great, classic performances or
2) For great old analogue sound
3) On a really good day, for both!

This one definitely falls into category 3. The sound and performance are beyond reproach.

Sonically, it's by far the best sounding of the Esoteric remasters. I know they haven't managed to get their hands on the masters, and this is from a DSD transfer. However, this one has a spooky mastertape quality. It's golden age Decca, lucid, present, vivid, with a locked-in stage and natural dynamic range.

And here's a rare thing- the cymbals shimmer, just like the real thing. When's the last time you heard THAT in a recording?

All this, plus the VPO on a good day, and a young Maazel with balls.

Not all the Esoterics merit their obscene pricetags. But this one does, in spades.

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