14. James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1990

Holst - The Planets (Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1990)

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This is a superficial reading (not a lot of profundity here, folks), but boy is it enjoyable. It’s tremendously exciting. This is the version to play if you to want to be impressed. But you won’t want to try to impress any of your hi-fi friends with it, because the mastering on this recording is horrible. All the transients (i.e., the quick loud bits) have been curtailed so there’s a loudness ceiling and nothing goes above it. (See the Wikipedia article on the Loudness war for a better explanation.) Good performance. Bad mastering. Very bad mastering.

As for individual movements, there’s not a lot to report. In “Mars”, a trumpet plays a bad note at 1:36 and the same trumpet gets a bit lost from 1:39-1:41, but that’s about it for anything I’d call (wait for it…) noteworthy.

“Saturn” is pretty good, apart from some sloppy playing in a few places (4:58, 5:20), and someone plays a sour note in “Uranus” (1:01).

But honestly, I’m nitpicking for no decent reason.

This is fun, fun, fun.

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6 thoughts on “14. James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1990

  1. John R. Lewis III March 10, 2015 / 6:41 am

    Regarding your complaint about the dynamic limitations of this recording, may I ask if you were auditioning the CD, or an MP3?

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    • Peter March 10, 2015 / 9:29 am

      CD.

      I’ll give you graphic demonstration of why the Levine recording is a shocker in the audio department.

      Here’s how Dutoit’s “Mars” looks in an audio editing program:

      Holst - The Planets - Mars (Dutoit)

      If you’re not familiar with what audio looks like, the blue part of the image is the music. The narrow parts of blue is when the music is quiet. So the taller the blue area, the louder the music.

      You can see with Dutoit’s recording that are no restrictions on the dynamic range. The music is free to be as loud as it wants.

      Now, with the Levine recording you can immediately see the difference:

      Holst - The Planets - Mars (Levine)

      The volume’s been cranked right up for the whole thing. As a result, the loud stuff is restricted – it isn’t allowed to go above the maximum volume in CDs.

      This “hitting the volume ceiling and staying there” scenario is very common in pop music, but very rare in classical music. (Note to the Producers: The Planets is not pop music, guys.)

      The Levine Planets is actually the first (and only) recording of the work I’ve come across where the dynamic range has been restricted. That, for me, is a big no-no.

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  2. John R. Lewis III March 10, 2015 / 12:56 pm

    Many thanks for your explanation.

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  3. Tad Ulrich April 2, 2016 / 6:26 am

    For whatever reason, my Levine Mars more closely resembles Dutoit’s in my audio editing software, though your point is still well taken. The biggest issue I have is the extreme variance in volume between the very soft passages and the loudest. like more than 25 db! But since I do audio editing, I boost the audio in those sections by roughly 6 db. Certain sections throughout the program require mid range and bass boosting as well (ala Dutoit). If you do some of these things you can vastly improve the dynamics and overall quality of the program.

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    • Peter April 2, 2016 / 9:46 am

      Howdy, Tad.

      The audio editing software I used was Sony Sound Forge, and the audio files were FLACs ripped from the CDs. I wondered why the Levine would look different in the software you used, so I opened Levine’s “Mars” in two other audio programs, AVS Audio Editor and Audacity.

      Here’s how Levine’s “Mars” looks in AVS Audio Editor:

      The Planets – “Mars” (Levine)
      Holst - The Planets - Mars (Levine) (AVS Audio Editor)

      And here it is in Audacity:

      The Planets – “Mars” (Levine)
      Holst - The Planets - Mars (Levine) (Audacity)

      I don’t know what program you used, but in both those screenshots I see a restricted dynamic range (the loud parts have all been flattened). I may have mentioned this before, but to restrict the loudest parts of classical music prompts me to say, “Please don’t do that”. It’s the kind of thing that makes me go “Grrr”.

      Grrr.

      Admittedly, the Levine recording does sound terribly exciting, but the audio engineering messes about with the natural dynamic range of the music, and that, for me, is close to unforgivable in recording classical music.

      So marks off for Levine’s recording. (I’ll look at Levine’s recording sternly and say, “You’ll stay at number 14 on the list until you’ve thought about what you’ve done.”)

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  4. wonderboy September 20, 2016 / 5:10 pm

    another one i need to hear completely, heard good things about :)

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