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This time around, Tom and I thought it would be fun to compare two recordings of music that was originally written for ballet but has gained fame in concert halls and some notable recordings, Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. The Telarc label recently released a new recording featuring the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Jarvi (Telarc CD-60597), while the RCA label recently resurrected and remastered a recording featuring Michael Tilson-Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Red Seal 82876-59424-2).

Following our standard protocol, Tom and I have refrained from discussing these two recordings with each other and have done our listening and writing completely independently. Because this is an odd-numbered issue, I will lead off with my findings and then Tom will present things from his perspective.

KWN: Although Tom always complains when I am brief, I just can't help it. This is not music that I find myself listening to with strict attention to the niceties of performance and interpretation; rather, it is music that I simply put on every once in a while to enjoy (and to chuckle as I hear parts that John Williams must have listened to very carefully indeed ...) for the sheer sonic splendor of it all.

And that, folks, means that it was not at all hard to pick a winner. The Telarc recording is clearly better. The sound is more natural in terms of timbre and perspective. The RCA is pretty good, but the Telarc is simply outstanding. Switching back and forth between them, I was impressed that whereas the Telarc recording made me feel as though I were listening to the orchestra, the RCA sounded like a recording, especially in those passage where a particular instrument had a prominent part. On the Telarc recording, that instrument would remain in its proper place, but on the RCA, it would be given an extra prominence in the mix.

Given the quality difference between the two recordings, and my strong preference for the sound of the Telarc, there is not much more that I believe would be of any value to report. Many audiophiles may remember the Sheffield direct disc featuring Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a wonderful release that introduced many audiophiles to this spectacular score. Given the technical restrictions of cutting direct-to disc, Sheffield was able to present only a small portion of the score, maybe 30 minutes or so. Both these new releases feature more than 70 minutes of music. Hooray for progress!

TL: I feel a little guilty preferring the "standard" CD of Tilson Thomas' version to Jarvi's SACD of Romeo and Juliet. Shouldn't I be championing the new technology?

I own about twenty SACDs (about half of them Mahler), but I don't have, nor am I planning to get a surround-sound system. I don't have the room, think there is an adequate amount of material, "listen" to enough movies, or desire to spend the money to do it right. I do have inexpensive Sony SACD player, and even though it doesn't come anywhere close to sounding as "analog" as its proponents proclaim, I'll grant it does sound like "super" CD. The SACD layer of the Jarvi disc sounds much, much better than the plain CD layer, and maybe the multi-channel layer sounds even better (but I'll never know). But it's weird; the Jarvi has this kind of one-note treble that ruins the disc. It's much, much worse on the plain CD layer than the stereo SACD layer, but it is still disturbing. Even though the overall recording is quite impressive (especially the thunderous bass response), this anomaly spoils it.

It's a shame, because Jarvi injects a youthfulness, especially in the dance sections, that has been missing in many modern versions I've heard. And the recording stresses the importance of the subterranean percussion sounds, which makes me realize how important these instruments are in Prokofiev"s scoring. But again, the strange treble sound ruins the recording. I wish it were as well recorded as the MTT--then it would be quite a competition. Jarvi's version is fantastic, but I am an audiophile, and if I'm going to listen to a modern version of Romeo and Juliet that is going to spend time on my system instead of the Maazel Decca LP set, it better sound pretty darn good.

And it would be a great deal easier to compare it to the outstanding recording burned on the RCA CD, which does deserve its playing time. MTT's extended suite is excellent. When listening to this CD I sense a level of excitement that is just not there on the Jarvi disc. It also helps that it is a very, very good recording. Not only is the percussion is as lifelike as can be; the entire orchestra is spread out across the soundstage in a very realistic fashion, with excellent separation of instruments and their sections. But I'm a sucker--I could listen over and over again to track number 4, "The Quarrel," just to hear the chimes enter my listening room. But this type of event happens repeatedly throughout the piece, and I listened to this CD about five times all the way through after I was done with the comparison. I don't know if I'm ever going to listen to the Jarvi again.
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Title Annotation:The Music
Author:East, Kevin
Publication:Sensible Sound
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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