SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

DEBUSSY: Preludes, Books I – II – Walter Gieseking, piano – Pristine Audio (plus comparison of CD, SACD & 48/24 FLAC files)

The classic EMI 1953-1954 Debussy Preludes with Walter Gieseking assume an added luster in this Pristine revival. [CD, SACD & 48/24 FLAC versions compared]

Published on June 12, 2013

DEBUSSY: Preludes, Books I – II – Walter Gieseking, piano – Pristine Audio (plus comparison of CD, SACD & 48/24 FLAC files)

DEBUSSY: Preludes, Books I – II – Walter Gieseking, piano – Pristine Audio standard CD-R PAKM 061, 69:34 [avail. in various formats at www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

How does one improve upon what has already passed as a “Great Recording of the Century”? Walter Gieseking (1895-1956), born in Lyon, France but German by temperament, became renowned for his exquisitely transparent touch and canny pedaling, a master of the French Impressionist repertory. Whether Gieseking’s “French” style could claim “authenticity” remains debatable, since Alfred Cortot’s inscriptions, for instance, occurred after his technique had deteriorated drastically. One might ask for the more sec Robert Casadesus readings to return to us for comparison. Gieseking recorded the complete Debussy Preludes for EMI 12-16 August 1953 (Book I) and 9-10 December 1954 (Book II). Critics complained that Gieseking’s piano tone sounded muddy, and that Gieseking, with his penchant for sight-reading, had often departed from Debussy’s printed notes. Prior to WW II, the Gieseking of the 1930s presented a volatile, impulsive interpreter, far afield of the “serene” master Walter Legge sold to the public via EMI. But Andrew Rose has brought a new spaciousness to the EMI inscriptions in these remasterings, even to the point of the pianist’s breathing – problems with his adenoids – while he executes one of the great feats of keyboard wizardry for posterity. At the time of their release, perhaps only the readings by E. Robert Schmitz could compete artistically. But even the severest critics could only marvel at Gieseking’s ability to pedal a phrase to infinite degrees of nuance in order to release the secrets in the music which he truly cherished. [One critic summarized the art of both Debussy and Gieseking as “expressing the inexpressible.”...Ed.]

There are too many special “moments” in these performances to enumerate them all, but the opening Delphic Dancers conveys an especial ethos, even given some rhythmic irregularities. So, too, Gieseking yields to the temptation to speed up the middle section of La cathedrale engloutie, although the majesty and “Wagnerian” mysticism of the piece rises and sinks with resonant power. The various “wind” pieces – Le vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest – offer a rare combination of measured tempos and underlying tension. The capricious side of Debussy does not escape Gieseking, as in La danse de Puck, General Lavine: eccentric, Minstrels, and La serenade interrompue—pieces in which Gieseking’s feathery touch and pearly play add a sardonic wit and vitality to the metric subtleties and parodies of which Debussy is capable. Voiles and Des pas sur la neige gain a new eeriness, a sense of anxiety and detached angst in their use of whole-tone scales or passing atonality. The energetic pieces, like La Puerta del Vina and Ondine evoke a vibrant color line in the keyboard similar to what Stokowski and Celibidache achieve in orchestral tissue. The more parlando exercises, such as Les collines d’Anacapri, Bruyeres, and La fille aux cheveux de lin exemplify Debussy’s incorporation of plainchant and Massenet’s pure melos into a new alchemy that Gieseking realizes with disarming simplicity of gesture. Gieseking’s art instills in us that sense of “a miracle of rare device” a true master can project. That the entire project may be subject to occasional objections we do not contest, but Gieseking provided a template for these preludes: vigorous, sensitive, and passionate, that has stood the test of time with honor. The new Pristine incarnation (in any format version) deserves to be included in any piano collector’s library.

—Gary Lemco


DEBUSSY: Preludes, Books I – II – Walter Gieseking, piano – Pristine Audio 48K/24-bit FLAC files burned to DVD-R,  69:34 [avail. in various formats at www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

(This will be mostly technical stuff for hi-res connoisseurs, so you fans of decent historical recordings of music needn’t read further.)  I was quite surprised to see that Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio had released his own remastering of the Debussy Preludes by Walter Gieseking, even though after many other reissues on theirs and other labels, EMI Classics had issued the Preludes as part of the non-quite-Complete Solo Piano Music of Debussy on SACD last year! (I don’t have any of the Debussy reissue CDs, but I do have a double-disc of Gieseking’s Ravel piano music of about the same vintage on the Allegro label. It is quite distorted on peaks and wooden-sounding.)

As you can see by the review, I was quite impressed by the improvement in the fidelity of these early 1950s mono recordings when issued in the SACD format.  Part of my interest was piqued by page 10 of the hardbound booklet of notes with them, which goes into detail on the steps that Simon Gibson and his crew at EMI went thru to bring their many years of experience remastering archive recordings from the original analog sources to release on SACD.  They checked all the notes on the original recording job files, played the tapes on their re-calibrated Studer A80 open reel tape machine, and used a Prism converter and SADiE Digital Audio Workstation to transfer the analog materials to 96K/24-bit digital audio files. They also decided whether or not to use CEDAR audio restoration software to get rid of any clicks, hiss or pops.  They then added recorded reverb in the spaces between tracks where before there was just paper leader tape. The final result was equalized and then converted to the required CD or DSD formats to master the hybrid SACDs.

In spite of all of this effort, Andrew Rose has clearly improved upon the first SACD in the EMI Debussy/Gieseking set, making me wish he also made the other three discs so available. Using the latest of various softwares which he calls “32-bit XR Remastering,” he laboriously goes thru the entire source material, not only controlling objectionable noise but also equalizing for the most pleasing and natural musical sonics. It is not revealed whether his source material was vinyl, tapes from EMI, or the EMI SACDs, but the original two LPs were released on the Columbia label, one for each Book.  I think one of the primary subtle enhancements here is Rose’s use of the Capstan software, which has only recently become available, and corrects for even the most minute speed variations in the original analog sources.  Remember how those audiophiles of us who were pianists or heavily into piano music appreciated even the first compact discs, in spite of their not equalling the overall sonics of vinyl? It was because of the rock-steady timing, which even the best lathes and turntables failed to provide. The pacing (if the original recording was digital) had absolutely no flutter or wow due to the timing clock which is an integral part of digital recording. Even some expensive turntables of the time had flutter and wow problems which were later improved by accessory speed control boxes which corrected the varying AC power. (I recall when I originally got my SOTA that had been acclaimed in the audio press; I said “This sounds terrible!”). I would be curious to know if they had replaced the falling weights used to operate the cutting lathes at EMI in the 1930s and ‘40s with electric motors by the time Gieseking was recording in the early ‘50s, but even the very best analog masterings can suffer from some slight speed variations.

Since the highest-res format that Pristine Audio offers customers is 48K/24-bit (with the escalation from 16-bit to 24-bit the main reason for the greatly enhanced fidelity), one cannot burn a standard CD-R with the hi-res downloads from their site.  You must burn the FLAC files to a DVD-R, either directly as FLAC files or converted to PCM,  WAV or AIFF files.  In the latter two cases you will be losing the hi-res resolution by conversion to 44.1K/16-bit audio files. My Oppo BDP-95 deck plays FLAC files, and the best sonics are achieved without having to make any conversions, so I just burned a DVD-R of the FLAC files. (I’m planning to stick with the physical discs.)  My Mac will not even play these files since Apple would like FLAC to just disappear, and the makers of a plug-in to play at least standard 44.1/16 FLAC files have not seen fit to issue an update to their software for the Mt. Lion OS. (There are more suggestions on the Pristine site.)

It wasn’t possible to do a quick A/B comparison of the EMI SACD with Pristine’s hi-res FLAC remasterings, because I needed to use the video display to navigate to the tracks on the DVD-R. (Next time I’ll just drag all the tracks over to burn, rather than leaving them in the folder, which evidently caused the problem.) I compared a number of the two dozen tracks between the two discs, on both my AKG K1000 headphones and my Von Scheikert left and right frontal speakers.  (Gary Lemco reviews the standard CDs on a one-box CD player.)  The SACD was nice, but next to the Pristine remasterings, the piano was rather wooden-sounding and somewhat opaque. There was little acoustic space around it, and some overtones to the music were missing. (Of course the CD layer on the hybrid SACD sounded even more wooden when I selected that layer.) Geiseking was known for the amazing dynamic range he could achieve in the Debussy piano music, and that is audible here, but not nearly as much as on Pristine’s remasterings. (As someone has observed, the French have been pissed that probably the greatest interpreter ever of Debussy’s piano music was in fact a German.)

On the EMI SACD there is considerable distortion to be heard on even the medium-volume-level notes of the Preludes, but on the Pristine remastering such distortion is only heard on the high volume peaks, not  almost continuously. There is a greater degree of dynamic range that frequently turns the piano into the closest approximation of an orchestra that any composer has ever achieved in his piano music. The sonics are not at all wooden, with a very natural ambience and clarity that, tho mono, sounds as if it could have been recorded recently rather than in the early ‘50s.  I don’t know if Gieseking was partial to the Steinway as most concert pianists are, but I can hear a bit of the steely Steinway treble that causes me to prefer Boesendorfers and Fasiolis on recordings that are well made.

To take a specific track, there is No. 16 in Book 2: “The Fairies are Exquisite Dancers.”  The EMI SACD has a great deal of distortion thruout, but in the Pristine 48/24 remastering it is nearly all gone, only being noticed on the extremely loud climaxes, and there is a slight depth apparent in the piano sound, missing on the SACD. (Pristine doesn’t offer this one in their Ambient Stereo option, which can add considerably to mono orchestral recordings.)

—John Sunier




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