Bernstein's "Rhapsody in Blue"/ "An American In Paris" Sourced From Three Track Master

Taking a break from High End Munich coverage (of which there's a lot more to come), makes time for Analog Spark's recent reissue of Bernstein Conducts Rhapsody in Blue/American In Paris (Columbia MS 6091).

This was the first "classical" album I'd ever bought, partly because I was familiar with both pieces, and partly because they both were stereo spectaculars issued at the dawn of the stereo LP era.

Analogue Productions reissued a few years ago the well-regarded Fiedler/Boston Pops/Earl Wild performances recorded in 1960 in Boston's Symphony Hall by Lewis Layton for RCA, that like this recording, was reissued, cut by Ryan K.Smith using the original three track master tape.

These are two "definitive" pairings of the two Gershwin works, though sonically and interpretively they are very different. The RCA was recorded at Symphony Hall and has a sonic "hall sound" grandeur lacking in the Columbia Records version that was recorded in the St George Hotel Ballroom, Brooklyn, NY on December 15th 1958 ("Rhapsody..") and June, 23, 1959 ("An American In Paris").

Columbia used the venue often during the early days of stereo, including for Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" recorded in 1958. Obviously the room was chosen for sonics and size and the results are very good but the venue is not fabled Symphony Hall in Boston!

Nonetheless, the Bernstein recording is quite good, in part because of the era's simple miking and basic recording gear. And while the original was a thrilling example of the new stereophony, the ambience always sounded somewhat exaggerated, with Bernstein's piano almost waterlogged. Was that in the recording or was it added in the mastering or during the three track to two track mixdown?

Based on this new record cut from a new mixdown from the three track master to two track tape (I may have misstated the process in the news item), I'd say it was added somewhere because the Analog Spark reissue is not nearly as reverberant as the original and so to my ears at least, sounds more realistic and pleasurable, though if you look at the spindle marks on my original that original's over-reverant backdrop didn't stop me from playing it incessantly!.

Yet the original's reverberant field also added a touch of overall warmth (or distance) that the reissue cut by Ryan K. Smith lacks. Like the "West Side Story" Analog Spark reissue, this one too can sound slightly hard and clinical, but it is so subtle it will be system-dependent. It's also possible that both sound that way because that was the Columbia "house sound" of the era. The original is more watery sounding but in some ways easier on the ears.

Don't get me wrong: the new reissue offers far greater clarity, detail, timbral accuracy, transient accuracy, instrumental focus and transparency, particularly on the piano, which sounds murky and indistinct on the original and is well-focused on the reissue. The reissue offers a truer sense of the room acoustic. You feel as if you are in the room as opposed to being in "Davy's Locker". The reissue is 100% better in every way.

The comparison between Earl Wild and the Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler and Bernstein and either The Columbia Symphony Orchestra ("Rhapsody In Blue") or The New York Philharmonic ("American In Paris") conducted by Bernstein could not be more stark.

While in that review I called Bernstein's interpretations more "dramatic", I take it back. That is the wrong word. Bernstein's interpretations are more stately and subtle. Wild and Fielder swing for the seats, aiming to please the crowds. Nothing makes that more clear than a comparison of the "Rhapsody In Blue" finale. Bernstein almost throws it away. Fiedler goes for an over the top, explosive crescendo. One rendition is elegant, the other borders on "entertainment", yet I love both of them: the more buttoned-down Bernstein for its sophistication, the over the top Fiedler for its somewhat exaggerated swagger.

I wouldn't be without either of these reissues, both of which better the originals and for similar reasons of clarity, dynamics, transparency and more realistic, less exaggerated ambience. The key to both is to not play them unrealistically loud.

For late night listening with a mind's eye on New York in the elegant granite-slabbed 1920's, these pieces can't be beat even though in the Bernstein's annotation by Charles Burr he writes "It is not technically an "important" piece of music; it set no repeatable example and has no prosperous children."

I'd say that well defines "singular" and both of these reissues are not only recommended, I'd say they are essential. This one is yet another winner from Analog Spark. It would be instructive to compare this slab of vinyl to the 15 IPS 1/2 track version sourced from the same tape (or another mixdown down at around the same time) available for more than ten times the price from Horsch House in Germany.

Auric G's picture

but this one looks/sounds worthy of 'add to cart'. And slightly off topic, but what happened to the music matters 33 blue note reissues? Two a month on a consistent basis, and then nothing?

fetuso's picture

I agree on the music matters. There are not enough of the 33's. The 45's sound great, but it's just too much flipping. The 33's also sound great and you can actually listen and relax for a bit.

BOBo's picture

Thanks Michael. Rhapsody is my favorite American Composition and I enjoy listening to the many variations. I always felt the same way about the Columbia original. I will be certain to check out this new release based on your recommendation.

dcbingaman's picture

So when will someone step up and issue this one in 3-channel (MQA or 96khz/ 24 bit PCM) so we can hear what it Bernstein really sounded like in the hall ? Mix down to 2 channels is always a compromise.

Martin's picture

Yup, will get this one.
have always liked the pieces, but only have them.... on... digital.....

thomoz's picture

They may have not done it with their 1958-68 stereo jazz titles but Columbia was FREQUENTLY guilty of slathering extra echo on their pop (stereo Byrds lps in particular) and stereo classical titles of the same era, presumably to fill in the phantom center on wide-stereo, 3 & 4 track mixdowns . . . or warm up a too-dry stereo recording.

I thought I was the only person who found this eccentricity annoying until Steve Hoffman brought it up in his discussion forum one day. He thought it was ridiculous too.

Bob Levin's picture

Ironically, I found a NOS Time Life copy of Fiedler's version from the '70's or '80's still in shrink at Goodwill for a buck, last week.
Not as exiting as finding an original 6 eye Columbia of the Bernstein, but the sound knocks the Living Stereo SACD on its' ass!
It's now my go-to copy for showing friends how much better it sounds in analog.

Brown Sound's picture

I love the sound of this re-issue! I currently have a beat up thrift store copy on vinyl from the 70's and the remastered version of the CD. I don't have the SACD for comparison, but this new pressing certainly knocks it out of the park, sound wise. This and the West Side Story re-issue from Analog Spark were excellent recommendations. Thx Mikey!