How familiar works stand up to a state-of-the-art recording test
Certain works in the concert literature are ideal tests of a recording engineer's skills and consummate tests of one's stereo system. Records made with this in mind are often dubbed ''demonstration'' or simply ''demo'' disks: The newest inventions in reproduction technology are corralled into creating an optimum, well-balanced, distortion-free sound.
One piece that comes instantly to mind - a work that has a visceral impact as well as an aural felicitousness - is Carl Orff's ''Carmina Burana.'' Of late, the record companies have been devoting their latest technologies to it - ''digital,'' ''half-speed mastering,'' state-of-the-art ''analog processing,'' etc. - usually at higher than usual prices (as much as $17 or $18 a record).
Digital recording is the high-tech rage of the moment. When the idea of translating the sound impulses ''heard'' by a microphone into digital computer language became a practical reality (by way of the Soundstream Company), the method was used primarily as a means of reprocessing the old Caruso records and correcting - through a sophisticated computer program - the distortions inherent in the old method of yelling into a horn.
When several people who had actually worked with the legendary tenor heard the computer-translated results, they wept.They were finally hearing something very much like the voice they remembered.
When it became possible to translate microphone sounds into digital information, it eliminated such side-effects as tape hiss and distortion. True concert hall fidelity could at last be a reality.
The leader in this effort has been the small Telarc Company. To date, Telarc records are truly state-of-digital-art. Microphone setups in the sessions are few and simple - not for these folks 54 mikes to record a big choral work. As a result, the sound is unfussy, clean, and as well textured and balanced as the conductor makes it.
The Telarc recording of ''Carmina Burana,'' with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Shaw, is a handsome recording job indeed (Telarc DG 10056/7). The performance is very solid, not quite as pliant as one might always like, but fine nonetheless. Judith Blegen is the soprano soloist, tenor William Brown handles the treacherously high line with aplomb, and Hakan Hagegard is nigh ideal in the baritone's music.
Because Telarc stretches the performance out to three sides (no chance of pre-echo or unnatural-sounding climaxes here) Shaw and the Atlanta perform with brio Hindemith's ''Symphonic Metamorphosis on a Theme of Weber.'' In all, a set guaranteed to show off your stereo or make you want to get a better one.
On the other hand, RCA's digital line got off to a bad start with some merely adequate records pressed in the US on vinyl that sounded like sandpaper when played - and which defeated the entire venture. Now the pressing is done at Teldec as well, so one can listen comfortably to what RCA is up to sonically.
It is ''Carmina Burana,'' with the London Symphony under the direction of Eduardo Mata, and it is the height of elegance, pliancy, and vivid theatricality (ATC1 - 3925). Mata's work makes this my second choice for all versionsof ''Carmina'' currently available. The vocal trio is as fine as has yet been put to disk - a sublime Barbara Hendricks, an effortless John Aler (imagine making that high tenor line sound easy!), and the ebullient Mr. Hagegard in even better form than on the Shaw/Telarc set. The sound is natural and rather warm for digital (which tends, more often than not, to eliminate the surrounding sound of the room acoustics).
Angel recently committed Riccardo Muti's ''Carmina Burana'' to record (SZ - 37666) in analog sound - and it has a glow and a richness that digital has yet to achieve. It is said that when all-digital playback systems are finally available, the sound will be so radically different.
Unfortunately, Muti's reading is pedestrian - lunging at all the loud climactic moments, overextending the softer moments, and generally devoid of theatrical profile. His singers include the lovely Arlene Auger, an adequate Jonathan Summers, and the unpleasing tenor performance of John Van Kesteren.
Then there's the Mobil Fidelity Sound Lab, a small company in California that spends much if its time reprocessing original recordings by means of playing back the master tape at half speed while simultaneously cutting the lacquer that stamps out the final product. By this method a more precise replication of the original information is possible - i.e., less chance for distortion to become incorporated in the lacquermaking.
In the case of older recordings, noise reduction (Dolby) is also incorporated to reduce tape hiss to the minimum amount possible without interfering with the quality of the master. Columbia and RCA have gone all out in reprocessing older recordings this way. Mobile Fidelity relies mostly on newer product (and lots of rock and pop).
They have chosen the Andre Previn /Angel recording of ''Carmina Burana'' (MFSL 1-506) for their process. The sound is exceptional, and given the state of Angel's pressings, even now that they have switched plants, there is more to be heard in these grooves than any other Angel records (except EMI Toshiba). Sheila Armstrong, Gerald English, and Thomas Allen are the singers. Previn's sense of balance is fine, his ability to allow us to hear the variety of Orff's ''Carmina Burana'' beguiling, but the moments of high drama seem rather tepid in his hands.
Which brings us to my favorite ''Carmina Burana,'' the one that encompasses the piece in all its beauty, primitiveness, drama, and mood - Michael Tilson Thomas's account with the Cleveland Orchestra, recently half-speed mastered by Columbia (HM 43172).
This reading was my favorite when it was first released nearly 10 years ago and remains the most vital. Judith Blegen's singing of this music has yet to be equaled on disk, Kenneth Riegel handles the tenor line securely, Peter Binder is the competent baritone. The CBS pressings are far more reliable and less noisy than the product they make available today (except for their direct imports from West Germany, which are so labeled on the covers).