A Pristine Sound for Old Recordings

I try hard not to use this space to review or recommend specific items, but I must make an exception here. I have been listening recently to some genuine miracles of audio restoration - the work of a company called Pristine Audio. Pristine Audio uses digital technology to, in essence, re-create the frequencies that are missing or diminished on early recordings, thus coming much closer to a full sonic spectrum on recordings that have always, prior to this, sounded somewhat dim. In some cases, the transformation is truly great - bringing to life some extraordinary recorded performances that can now be appreciated much more fully than ever before. Three of these recordings are classics led by Willem Mengelberg, the great Dutch conductor.

Prime among them is Mengelberg's famous 1939 broadcast of Mahler's 4th Symphony. This performance will seem eccentric by today's standards - the lingering over the work's opening tune, including an over-the-top portamento in the strings, will strike listeners used to modern purity as shockingly personalized. But in 1904 Mengelberg sat in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, watching and listening as Mahler rehearsed that very symphony. Mengelberg made notes in his score reflecting what he heard. Mahler was noted for taking liberties with printed scores, whether his own or other composers', and so the freedom we find in this performance strikes me as authentic and connected directly to the composer himself. This is a famous recording, which has been issued on many labels, but never has the range of orchestral colors been reproduced as vividly as here. This is an essential piece of performance history, newly brought to life. The catalogue number is PASC 055.  This, like all of these recordings, can be obtained at www.pristineaudiodirect.com.

Another stunning disc is Mengelberg's 1940 performance, again with the Concertgebouw, of Franck's D Minor Symphony. This old warhorse, now almost vanished from the repertoire, comes thrillingly alive in this dramatic, intense, strongly inflected reading. The Concertgebouw plays brilliantly, sounding as if this music really means something important to them. Never does one feel they are just reading the notes. Rather, the performance bristles with energy, and with beauty. This is PASC 098.

And then there is Mengelberg's New York classic from 1928 - not a live performance like the other two, but a studio recording made at Carnegie Hall of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, a work dedicated to the conductor. This has always been treasured by Strauss lovers, and RCA did a pretty good transfer of it some years back. But this Pristine Audio version brings out a depth of color that I never knew was in the recording, and that is very important in Strauss. What makes this performance special is not the virtuosity of the playing - although there is plenty of that - but the tenderness and warmth of the love music. There is a nobility and an inner beauty that is often overlooked in splashier performances of Ein Heldenleben. Here, one feels the composer's heart speaking directly to the listener. It is extraordinarily moving. (PASC 104)

One fascinating rarity on Pristine Audio's list is a recording most of us never thought we'd hear, and one never available before. It is a performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony taken from a broadcast with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini, from 1935, and it is the only known recording of Toscanini conducting Bruckner. To say that this is an important piece of music performance history would be an understatement, though I must admit that to my taste Toscanini seems very far from having a genuine feel for this music. (One must also note the original source has been damaged, and there are some small chunks of music missing; PASC082). There is much, much more of historic interest and importance, all of it transferred to CD in a new way and with rich results - and I recommend browsing the Pristine Audio website.

March 31, 2008 10:38 AM | | Comments (2)



Excellent review though I would quibble with the opinion of the Toscanini Bruckner. I have never heard a more stunning, jawdropping and moving account of the Adagio and that includes all of the Furtwanglers.

I just went to the the Pristine Audio website's home page, and was delighted to see that it's quoting a review by you of one of their discs, Henry :-). (And also delighted to see that they offer their CDs as digital downloads in FLAC format entirely free of DRM restrictions. Good for them!)

But that's not why I was visiting the site. I went there to find out more about their restoration methods. The web site is pretty dense and jumbled, though, so I never found the answer to my question, which was:

How do they know whether they're restoring sounds and colors that were present in the original performances, as opposed to adding things that were never there?

It's an interesting philosophical question, if nothing else. In theory, it's resolvable, too. They could record a session with an orchestra using both historical and modern equipment, then apply their restoration techniques to the "historical" recording and see if it comes out sounding like the modern recording (and like their own memories of the session, for that matter).

Do you happen to know if they've done this?

I do not know any more of the details of their system than what is posted on their website.


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