In the magazine this week I’ve written about spectacular new advances in the art of remastering vintage classical recordings. Many restoration engineers are removing hiss and correcting pitch so that historic performances are no longer muffled or distorted. But one of them stands out from the rest: Andrew Rose, whose Pristine Classical label is more interventionist than others. In particular it uses something called ambient stereo to spread the mono output between speakers. This yields a more lifelike sound than the original microphones were able to capture. In many cases the results are astonishing.
The Spectator and Pristine have put together a terrific offer for our existing and new subscribers – visit new.spectator.co.uk/pristine and log in with your web ID for a free download. Here are some of my top recommendations. NB: you won’t find them on Spotify. All the recordings are available as CDs, though they’re not included in the subscription offer.
Schnabel’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas. A single free download won’t get you all 32 sonatas – but, trust me, it’s worth investing in the whole set. This is the first and most famous cycle of the sonatas, recorded at Abbey Road in the mid 1930s. Artur Schnabel combined interpretative daring – his motto was ‘safety last’ – with a magisterial grasp of argument and structure. Only in the ‘Hammerklavier’ are wrong notes obtrusive (but this, too, is indispensable for the vast arc of the slow movement). These records have been remastered many times, but so far only Rose has managed to remove surface noise in a way that reveals the tiny gradations of colour that make this the Beethoven cycle.
Furtwängler’s La Scala Ring Cycle: Wagnerians will never agree which is the ‘best’ recording of this epic, but Wilhelm Furtwängler’s admirers – including Pope Francis – generally prefer this live 1950 recording to the 1953 Rome version, which was broadcast unstaged and lacks ‘the smell of the theatre’. Unfortunately the La Scala Ring sounded lousy. No longer. Pristine has ‘done wonders’ for this recording, according to Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise. Kirsten Flagstad’s Brünnhilde is on fire (literally, at the end of Götterdämmerung); Furtwängler races and slows the pulse of the score as only he knew how. Again, a free download won’t cover this, so splash out.
Horenstein conducts Brahms and Bruch: Pristine carries a torch for Jascha Horenstein, and quite right, too. The Brahms First with the LSO from 1962 makes the tricky gear-changes in the finale appear effortless, ending in a blaze of glory that’s all the more thrilling because it seems inevitable. The Bruch Scottish Fantasy was mugged up by David Oistrakh at the last minute but you’d never guess: his sound is rich and bouncy. Horenstein’s command of structure convinces me that this is a stronger piece than Bruch’s famous violin concerto. ‘It’s “Coming Through the Rye” composed by a genius’, says a friend of mine, who makes me put it on every time he visits. (Bruch wasn’t a genius, but never mind.)
Fürtwangler’s 1942 Beethoven Ninth: Here is the maestro’s most hair-raising reading of the Ninth. The Berlin Phil really dig into the score, their nerves shredded by the war and (possibly) the presence of Hitler in the audience. The soloists and choir sing as if their lives depend on it. There are other fine remasterings of this concert, but ambient stereo gives Pristine’s the edge.
Casals’ Bach Cello Suites: If you’re familiar with EMI’s muddy rendering of these landmark 1936-9 recordings you may wonder if you’re hearing the same performances. You are. ‘Nothing prepared me for the possibilities lying hidden in the grooves,’ says Rose. Much missing detail is exposed by this clean-up, which gives us a stronger sense of Pablo Casals’ noble phrasing. Also, pitch corrections reveal that his technique was more secure than you’d assume from listening to the original records.
The Busch Quartet’s Late Beethoven: Another legend of the gramophone. Despite old-fashioned portamento and moments of wobbly intonation, the Busch String Quartet capture the spirit of Opp. 127-135 with special intensity. And now we no longer have to listen through the crackle – or put up with the flatness of zealously de-hissed remasterings. Ambient stereo, especially through headphones, makes for easier listening, though these cerebral and quirky masterpieces are anything but ‘easy listening’.
Callas’s ‘Medea’: This one makes the cut because, although Cherubini is no one’s idea of a great composer, Medea was one of Maria Callas’s signature roles – ‘the sorceress playing a sorceress’, as one critic put it. This 1959 live radio recording from Covent Garden was celebrated despite its mediocre sound. Here, however, Rose is working from recently unearthed BBC tapes of vastly higher quality. It’s a new release and a Callas-obsessed friend of mine went into rhapsodies when he heard it.
The Hollywood’s Schubert String Quintet: This quartet was made up of players from the movie studios, yet there’s nothing lush or melodramatic about their reading of one of Schubert’s most sublime creations, in which they were joined by the cellist Kurt Reher. The leader, Felix Slatkin, plays with wonderful refinement with just a smattering of portamento. I’ve always loved my Testament CD of this recording, some of the most perfectly balanced chamber playing I’ve ever heard. Andrew Rose worked on the remastering for his own personal pleasure and it’s superior in every way to the Testament. One for the desert island.