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Reiner's Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition - a Brilliant New Transfer

11-08-2023 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 130

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT 1957 2023 (DSD256, DXD "Redux") HERE

Just superb - you owe it to yourself to get this!

This recording from December 7, 1957, in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, is a world treasure. It is among the earliest stereo recordings released on LP (1958) and it has been an audiophile classic ever since—for good reason! Recorded by the great RCA recording team of Lewis Layton (recording engineer) and Richard Mohr (producer), this recording captures the full majesty of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the true excellence lies in the inimitable aesthetic sensibilities of conductor Fritz Reiner. 

The recording has seen multiple reissues over the years, and several very high resolution vinyl reissues such as the 1994 180 gram LP reissue from Classic Records (not as good as I'd hoped), followed by their 45rpm releases in both double-sided and 4x single-sided vinyl (decidedly better sounding and excellent in every way), a 2014 Analog Productions SACD release, followed by a 2017 2x 45rpm 180 gram vinyl release from Analog Productions (using the acquired Classic Records metal work?). I've had these reissues and others in my music library over the years, constantly seeking the highest resolution, best audio quality replay I could obtain.

But I no longer have my vinyl due to downsizing (long story, see HERE), so I've been hoping to find a superlative digital release of this album. 

And now that superlative digital reissue has arrived.

High Definition Tape Transfers obtained access to a 15ips 2-track tape copy that Bob Witrak thought sounded exceptionally good (it does!) and has just released a superb DSD256/DXD reissue from that tape copy. I've been listening to it for the past two days, comparing it to alterative digital reissues in my library: an earlier HDTT DSD256 reissue from a different source tape, the 2004 RCA SACD, the 2014 AP SACD, and CD.

In my listening, this new HDDT release has the greatest transparency, detail, natural timber, and dynamic range of any of these alternatives. It is audibly superior. Of all the other versions I've listened to, the AP SACD is the next most compelling reissue sonically. But the HDTT has superior clarity and transparency, with more extended and delicate highs, sharper transient attacks, and greater dynamic range. For fun, I listened through the "Gnomus" track across four different releases moving from this new HDTT Redux release, to the early HDTT release, to the AP SACD release, to the standard CD. As you might expect I will say, with each listen I felt another step removed from the performance. Sonically superb in this new HDTT DSD256 or DXD Redux release, excellent but slightly softened (just lacking that crystal clarity) in the 2014 AP SACD release, and pretty far removed with the standard CD release.

If you already have the AP SACD release, I can't in good conscience encourage you to re-purchase—the AP is very very good. (Of course, I would do so. This recording is so well worth the very best replay possible.) But if all you have is the CD release, be aware that there is sooo much information that you are missing by comparison to the HDTT DSD256 or DXD release. It is simply superb. HDDT has knocked this out of the park. Well done!

The Redux reissue and why it is so much better.

HDTT originally released a reissue of Pictures in 2018, together with A Night on Bare Mountain. This Redux release uses a different tape as the source tape for this transfer. The original 2018 source tape was a 2-tack tape, but not all 2-track tapes are the same. With this Redux reissue, Bob Witrak was able to gain access to a better source. 

Second, since 2018, Bob has changed his process for transferring from tape. He now makes the transfer to DSD256 using a Merging Technologies Hapi A/D converter for the most high resolution copy he can obtain with current technology. With some tapes (like the recent jazz release of 5 by Monk 5), he is able is able to release that direct to DSD256 transfer in a "Pure DSD256" release with no further post-processing. But with many of these vintage tapes, there is some amount of clean-up needed before release in order to deliver the most enjoyable listening experience. I trust Bob's judgement in these matters. The result speaks for itself.

What happened to A Night on Bare Mountain?

I was disappointed that Reiner's performance of A Night on Bare Mountain could not be included in this release. Bob tells me that he searched in vain for a similar 2-track tape for the Bare Mountain recording, but could not find one. He didn't want to couple the existing transfer of Bare Mountain with this new transfer of Pictures, so, for now, the Reiner Bare Mountain is no longer in the HDTT catalog. Hopefully, a similarly superior tape will surface and Reiner's excellent performance of that work will return.