Monday, May 1, 2017

Franz von Suppé; Daniel Auber - Overtures (Paul Paray)


Composer: Franz von Suppé; Daniel Auber
  1. Suppé - Die schöne Galathee (The Beautiful Galatea), operetta: Overture
  2. Suppé - Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), operetta: Overture
  3. Suppé - Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry), operetta: Overture
  4. Suppé - Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant), overture for orchestra
  5. Suppé - Morgen, Mittag, und Abend in Wien (Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna): Overture
  6. Suppé - Boccaccio, oder Der Prinz von Palermo (Boccaccio, or the Prince of Palermo), operetta: Overture
  7. Auber - Le cheval de bronze (The Bronze Horse), opera: Overture
  8. Auber - Fra Diavolo, ou L'hôtellerie de Terracine (Fra Diavolo, or The Inn of Terracina), opera: Overture
  9. Auber - La muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) ("Masaniello"), opera: Overture

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Paul Paray, conductor
Date: 1959
Label: Mercury



It’s a sad fact of life that, as the years go by, the quality of recorded sound gets ever better, but our hearing becomes ever less able to appreciate the improvements. A well-recorded CD still sounds so wonderful to me that I hesitate to invest in anything "better", and so I’m likely to become "SACD-enabled" only when my current CD player finally gives up the ghost and I find that SACD capability comes as standard, whatever replacement I choose! So, here I am just considering the standard CD-audio option on this SACD. I’m relieved to say, that this does indeed sound identical to the original CD issue!

As befits its name, the Mercury "Living Presence" recording method has long been associated with astonishingly lifelike results. However, I’ve always had nagging doubts about the "line of three" microphone arrangement which, for reasons I won’t go into here, tends to "flatten" the front-to-back perspective. To some extent this is a movable feast, less or more pronounced depending on the exact recording configuration. In these particular recordings the "flattening" leans distinctly towards the "lesser" end of the "pronounced" spectrum.

As is typically the case, the headphones user will find that the strings are very immediate, spread right across the very front of the sound-field. The woodwind, although far from shy, do sound as though they are slightly behind the strings, whilst the horns seem to emanate from a very natural back left. Brass and percussion tend to sound too immediate, but in terms of sonic weight are balanced beautifully against the strings and woodwind. Even in the more boisterous tuttis - and there are plenty of those! - you can still hear the strings and woodwind a real treat.

In the quieter moments, the hissing of the original master tape makes its (living?) presence felt, but luckily it sounds very smooth and even, and Mercury have considerately maintained this background through the gaps between the items. In view of this, and of what’s happening "above" the hiss, even on headphones it is very easy to forget about it. Ah, but push the sound out through decent loudspeakers, and not only is the hiss less obtrusive, but also the feeling of the "living presence" of a real orchestra is immediately more convincing. Moreover, the crisp immediacy of the orchestral sound is not at the expense of ambient bloom and the feeling of a large volume of air within which the luscious sounds can breathe. Even with the slightly flattened perspective, this is a real top drawer sound recording by anybody’s standards.

The problem, for those of us who do not live in goatherds’ crofts on remote mountainsides, is that this is not neighbour-friendly. A reviewer once described these recordings as "life-enhancing". I’d go further - turn up the wick and they are fully capable of waking the dead! Someone who does not know them might be hard-pressed to distinguish which of these overtures are by Suppé and which by Auber, though this is not because they lack character but because they share so many common - and commendable - characteristics. Those listeners who find monotony raising its ugly head only have themselves to blame: these nine overtures were never meant to be heard one after the other. But pick just one - any one - and listen, and you’ll be bowled over by it. Guaranteed. How come? Good question. What’s the answer?

Well, as I said, pick one. Let’s start at the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start (ask Julie Andrews!). Suppé’s The Beautiful Galatea thunders into your ears, all guns blazing! It’s not just the brute impact of the fortissimo tutti that impresses, but the ebullience, the swagger, the infectious "bounce" with which Paray invests the music, his Detroit players slashing with glinting sabres at the dotted rhythms of the equestrian galop. Yet, scarcely half a minute in, a solo horn calls lazily, woodwind are oscillating dreamily and spinning elaborate arabesques. Then, before you’ve time to say "Ahh", meltingly intimate strings whisper the sweetest sentiments in your ears, and you’re glad you held onto that "Ahh" for a second. A bassoon, oozing throaty character, wakes up those winds. A sudden bang, and off they romp with another tune, chattering and twittering gaily. That’s three belting good tunes in as many minutes! For good measure Paray, steering the tempo like a stallion, unerringly builds a climax that erupts with rumbustious heavy brass and crashing percussion that pin you to the back of your armchair. Paray resists any temptation to overcook the disarming waltz, which is played with beguiling simplicity. The tempo is eased back just so, nicely lining up the sights to trigger off a scintillating galop. There’s more: further down the road the waltz returns, bashed out with cheerful and utterly unsophisticated gusto by the Detroit players!

OK, pick another one! Which one? Any one you like - every one’s a gem, alternating nifty nuances with the highest of spirits. It’s as if you’d gatecrashed the orchestra’s annual party: everybody’s having an absolute whale of a time, and who can blame them, with so many cracking tunes and colourful effects around which to wrap their instruments? Is this all a bit too "uncritical"? Alright, take Light Cavalry. At about a minute and a half in, following the grandiose brass cavalcade, Paray launches the woodwind’s stuttering pulse at such a lick that the violins can scarcely negotiate their convoluted lines. They do manage it, but it feels as if they only just succeed in hanging onto their scalpel-like executive precision. I’m sorry, but this is my one and only quibble; it’s the one change of tempo that sounds forced, along with the corresponding wrench on the reins to yank it back for the tune that always reminds me of The Galloping Major. A mere minute later, Paray has already made up for this little lapse: the declamatory central episode, on ripe unison strings, is maintained at a sturdy pace that slips through into the return of the "Major" with all the ease of an oyster in white wine making its way down one’s gullet! Every other performance I’ve heard drags this tune out interminably.

So it goes on. Believe me, as far as undemanding but tuneful and colourful repertoire is concerned, this is as good as it gets. Paray and the Detroit orchestra are without peer, and the sound sends my ears into ecstasy. Daft as it might sound, if the SACD remastering sounds any "better" than this CD version, then I really don’t want to hear it. At my age, I don’t think my system could handle that much sheer, unalloyed pleasure. I’m happy to leave that experience to someone younger and more robust than I am.

-- Paul Serotsky, MusicWeb International

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Franz von Suppé (18 April 1819 – 21 May 1895) was an Austrian composer of light operas from the Kingdom of Dalmatia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now part of Croatia). A composer and conductor of the Romantic period, he is notable for his four dozen operettas. Although the bulk of Suppé's operas have sunk into relative obscurity, the overtures  have survived and some of them have been used in all sorts of soundtracks for films, cartoons, advertisements, and so on, in addition to being frequently played at symphonic "pops" concerts.


Paul Paray (24 May 1886 – 10 October 1979) was a French conductor, organist and composer. He is best remembered in the United States for being the resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade and made numerous recordings for Mercury Records' "Living Presence" series. Paray specialized in the French symphonic literature. One of his most renowned recordings, made in October 1957, is that of the Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 in C minor "Organ".


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