Foremost among the misses this year was the reissue of Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. This being one of my favorite albums of all time, I have investigated nearly every digital version that I have been able to find. Several years ago I awarded the British reissue CD of this album by citing it as one of my top recommendations for that year. My hope here was to determine whether this new domestic release could top it.
I'll dispense with a review of the album here, as it is unlikely that anyone interested in Nilsson's music doesn't know that this is a modern but conventional interpretation of vintage popular tunes. What I had failed to mention about the recording in my prior review is, though, that the order in which the songs appear do so in a manner that suggests a chronological presentation of a love relationship from its beginning to a time significantly past its end. Nilsson must have had a sense that the tune, "As Time Goes By," carried a useful message to those suffering through a lost love.
The newly remastered domestic version is a considerable step backwards compared to the British release, both in terms of its sound and its packaging. While the tonal qualities of the sound on this new release are excellent, it does not approach the overall presentation that I have found on the British copy. As with most current domestic releases, there is a notable increase in compression that has an effect on the micro-dynamics that one finds throughout the album. An example of this would be in the relationship of orchestral sounds to the singer's voice. This newest version changes the perspective of these components in a negative way: brass instruments protrude enough to mask some of the transparency of Harry's voice. These brass instruments (and the violins, too) seem to have been equalized to reduce any potential sonic glare as well. This impedes on the open, airy sense of the album unnecessarily. In short, the older British release still sounds closer to the ideal of listening to live music, whereas the new USA release leaves no doubt that one is listening to a recording.
Adding insult to injury, the USA release merely tacks the five "bonus" tracks onto the end. My guess is that the British (and Australian, too) engineers and producers had an appreciation of the importance to both Harry Nilsson and Gordon Jenkins, the orchestra director and arranger, that "As Time Goes By" remains as the last song that's presented to the listener. In these versions, the additional tracks follow the original LP release except that the additional songs are placed before the ending tune. Not only does this arrangement seem more practical, it strengthens the concept of the album. It is evident that these extra songs did not appear on the original album so that the recording could be limited to one LP; these time constraints, of course, need not be a consideration for the CD.
As for the packaging concerns, these will be of some importance to avid collectors too. The earlier British release provides an almost exact replica of the original album gatefold jacket in full color; the new USA release provides all of the same features that appear on the British, but it uses no color at all, and it shows that some editing in Photoshop was used to move segments of the artwork to different pages in the booklet. This gives it a disjointed look. Admittedly, these decisions will not be important to anyone who does not need the authentic look of the other release, but the artwork as it was originally displayed is more tasteful. The bottom line is that my hopes for an even better sounding album were dashed by both its sound and presentation.
This is the year that Zubin Mehta turned 70. In commemoration of this event, Universal Music released two boxed sets, one a 6-CD set containing a potpourri of the works of more modern composers and the other, being reviewed here, is a 5-CD box representing all of the maestro's Tchaikovsky recordings for Decca/London (Universal/Decca 475 7315). When I had begun developing an interest in classical music nearly 40 years ago, my very first recording of the 1812 and Romeo and Juliet Overtures appeared on a London record that featured Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the performances on that LP are in this set. As a young, inexperienced classical music listener, my reactions to these performances led me to proclaim Zubin Mehta as my favorite conductor. To this day, there is an assortment of Mehta recordings that remain among my favorites, partly because I find his conducting to show a bit more elan than his contemporaries, and partly because I prefer the sound that Decca's recording team often produced for him.
Many years later, I had already subscribed to the audiophile notion that the British Decca pressings were superior to the ones appearing on the London label here, so, upon release of the Decca boxed set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies I ordered my copy from a dealer in London who had been an advertiser in Gramophone. You will find all 6 of the symphonies here, as you will all of the other well-known Tchaikovsky compositions. As I recall, that set of the symphonies was excellent sounding, and with extraordinarily quiet surfaces for Decca records. All of those other works included in this box set are new to me, even though they had been recorded as early as 1972. The booklet that comes in this set provides a complete listing of all recording dates for these performances. Only two locations are listed, Royce Hall at UCLA where the recordings with the Los Angeles Philharmonic were made, and Manin Auditorium in Tel Aviv where the Israel Philharmonic records most of its music. All selections except the ballet suites and Capriccio Italien were recorded in Los Angeles. Even though the majority of the recordings are converted from analog tapes, I was surprised to read that four of the recordings were 100% digital. The surprise for me comes in the fact that the earliest of these digital recordings were made in 1977, which is much sooner than I had thought that Decca's recording process had made the transition.
The critics haven't proclaimed any of Mehta's interpretations of these well-known works to be among the best on record, but two of these symphony performances in particular, the Fourth and the Sixth, can, in my estimation, hold their own against many of those highly regarded performances; the sound quality is excellent on them too. The First and Second Symphonies are, perhaps, a little weaker than some competing recordings, but these are quite effective at revealing the weaknesses in Tchaikovsky's earlier compositions. The two other symphonies and most of the other orchestral pieces that I have, so far, auditioned are better than most (I have not had the time to try the two major ballet works included: Swan Lake and The Nutcracker Suite).
The sound quality on this set is variable, as could be expected. Since the time frame spans more than a decade, and employs a variety of recording personnel at the two locations, I don't view this as particularly detrimental. In fact, it is fair to say that the sound quality is fairly typical of the Decca/London recordings from the period. The Romeo and Juliet holds up well, given that it is the earliest of these recordings. I recommend this set with the above caveats.
I will be reviewing several SACD recordings from Opus 3, RCA and Pentatone in the next edition of this column. Meanwhile, and as always, I look forward to receiving your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Title Annotation:||A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night|
|Author:||Baird, Steve G.|
|Article Type:||Sound recording review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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