The Moscow Sessions: From Russia with Love (Mar. 1988)

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by Bert Whyte and Lisa Sonne

After protracted negotiations with the Russian bureaucracy. Sheffield Lab pulled off quite a coup by making the fist-ever recordings of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra led by an American conductor. It was Sheffield's idea that the conductor, Lawrence Leighton Smith, would record Russian music with the Moscow group and that Dmitri Kitayenko, the resident conductor of that orchestra, would record American works. After raising funds through investors and from individuals and companies in the audio industry, the Moscow Sessions took place in August 1986.

Sheffield cofounder Lincoln Mayorga was on hand to produce the sessions, along with co-producer Lisa Sonne.

Also present were recording engineers Keith Johnson, who has done some remarkable work for Reference Recordings, and Stan Ricker, an old friend who worked with me on my Virgil Fox and Arthur Fiedler recordings. The Moscow Sessions were simultaneously recorded on a Studer analog tape ma chine (modified by John Curl) and on a JVC 900 digital recorder, the former for the LP releases and the latter for CDs.

The venue was the large broadcast hall used by U.S.S.R. state television and radio. It is important to note that many broadcast halls overseas are not studios in the same sense as they are in the U.S.; many have fairly spacious acoustics and could easily qualify as concert halls. One that comes to mind is the warm, wood-paneled hall of the Danish State Radio in Copenhagen. This Russian hall is somewhat similar.

Although the recording team would likely have wanted a hall that was a bit more reverberant, with proper miking it proved satisfactory.

Both Keith and Stan have told me that once the language and cultural barriers between the Russians and the Americans had been resolved, they got excellent cooperation from the engineers and technicians of the state TV and radio services. The state-owned Melodiya label, which handles all Russian recording, was heavily into multi miking, and Keith was told that in re cording the Moscow Philharmonic, Melodiya would have used 35 to 40 micro phones! (Now we know why so many of the recordings put out by Melodiya sound rather "compartmentalized.") Keith brought along some micro phones of his own design, and apparently the Russian engineers were very skeptical when they saw that he planned to use just eight to record the orchestra. However, after hearing play backs of the final mike setup, they were both intrigued and impressed.

Keith also employed his own custom built portable mixing console, eschewing the huge, multi-input console available in the Moscow studio.

The sessions yielded enough music for three releases, and the results are most interesting, to say the least. With Keith Johnson's relatively "purist" type of mike pickup, one can really hear the sonic qualities and musicianship of a major Russian orchestra for the first time. It is quite revelatory, with the string playing of a very high order, characterized by precision unison and ensemble work and a richly opulent tonal structure.

Sheffield has achieved a very stunning sonic picture of this great Russian orchestra. The sound is smooth and transparent yet strikingly detailed, with brazen brass and sharply accented percussion of great weight and impact.

The imaging and instrumental positioning are precise and stable, stage width and depth are impressive, and there is just enough ambience to give the over all sound a lovely bloom.

As for the conducting, there are two surprises here. One is the excellence of Lawrence Leighton Smith's performances of the Russian repertoire.

Smith is the conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, a good group but certainly not a major one. Nor is Smith considered one of the "top guns" in the conducting world. Nonetheless, his performances of works by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Glinka must be rated as outstanding. The other surprise is Dmitri Kitayenko, who had never conducted the American music he was to record for these sessions--nor had the Moscow Orchestra ever performed them! Kitayenko certainly displayed great empathy for Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Ives' "Unanswered Question," and Barber's "First Essay for Orchestra." He even gave a very sympathetic performance of Gershwin's rarely played "Lullaby." The string tones Kitayenko drew from his orchestra in these American works were quite ravishing.

The Moscow Sessions are available on three CDs or LPs, singly or as a complete set. (Cassette releases are also planned, though at press time Sheffield was still undecided about which master to use and what duplication process to employ.) The first recording (CD-25, TLP-25) contains Glinka's "Russland and Ludmilla Over ture," Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina Prelude," and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Sym phony; the second (CD-26, TLP-26) includes Barber's "First Essay for Orchestra," Piston's "Incredible Flutist (Ballet Suite)," and Shostakovich's First Symphony; the third (CD-27, TLP-27) offers Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Glazunov's "Valse de Concert in D," Griffes' "White Peacock," Gershwin's "Lullaby," Ives' "Unanswered Question," and Shostakovich's "Festive Overture." As a set, the recordings bear the numbers CD-1000 and TLP-1000.

All the recordings are very worth while, but if reasons of economy dictated that I choose just one, it would be CD-26. On it Smith provides a hugely dynamic, very propulsive performance of the Shostakovich, with a sound of vivid realism. On the same disc, Kitayenko does a marvelous job with the Piston; the sound is spectacular, especially with the members of the orchestra whistling, yelling, and stamping in the "Circus" section. Kitayenko's heartfelt traversal of the Barber is also memorable, ably abetted by the Sheffield engineers' richly embroidered sonic tapestry.

The Moscow Sessions must be judged a musical, sonic, and yes, even a cultural success.


The Moscow Sessions are the first Sheffield Lab releases that were not recorded direct-to-disc. Instead, both a digital master and an analog master were made simultaneously, the former for CDs and the latter for LPs. As a result, listeners can now make a true comparison between analog and digital mastering.

The Los Angeles Times said the CD releases were "three of the warmest, most natural-sounding CDs imaginable." Those involved in the recording, editing, and mastering of the tapes, however, lean toward the analog results--but not without a certain amount of debate.

Producer Lincoln Mayorga, an analog advocate, felt that Sheffield had to make the recordings in both analog and digital because of the historic importance of the project. "We don't yet have the perspective of time to know which really sounds better," he says.

"Additionally, we don't know yet how well the information on digital master tapes will store, whereas we have good analog master tapes that are 30 years old." Keith Johnson, engineer and equipment designer, prefers the analog product. Ideally, he would like to pull from "the best of both mediums, to combine the warmth and inner detail of the analog and the preciseness and sharpness of the digital to achieve faithful reproduction. In the large brass passages, like the fanfare of the Shostakovich," Johnson notes, "the digital best captured the brilliance and impact, but in the soft, subtle violin pas sages, like Gershwin's 'Lullaby,' the analog is by far the superior." Stan Ricker, second engineer, also sees advantages of both media but would opt for digital if forced to choose. From a business standpoint, he cites the "crises worldwide for top quality phonographs, the decline in vinyl quality, and the decrease in direct metal mastering facilities in the world." From an audio perspective, he favors "the speed stability, pitch accuracy, and dynamic range of digital. The hiss and pops of analog don't bother me very much, but in general the off pitch always has. There is also an increase in distortion that accompanies the de crease in radius as you play back an analog record."

above: Keith Johnson prefers the analog master, while Stan Ricker would pick the digital one if he had to make a choice.

Ricker points to the Glazunov "Valse" as a "good example of the strength of both areas--the introduction of the waltz is definitely more listenable on the analog, but toward the end, as the orchestra crescendos, the digital wipes out the analog with its dynamic range." Shirley Walker, an editor who took over for Mayorga when he had to leave on a concert tour, admits an emotional bias for analog. During the editing pro cess, she found digital "more fatiguing for hours of listening, because the playback of the stored memory is so degraded in sound quality." The advantage of digital, she acknowledges, is that it allows one to edit within the middle of a note and change levels between cuts, which is very difficult in analog editing. "Edits have to be smoother in digital, because you hear them in a different way than analog," Walker notes. With just one exception, the takes used for the final analog and digital versions of the sessions were the same, but "about 50% of the edits are slightly different, to take advantage of the relative merits of the two for mats." As Walker explains, "You know the broad areas you need to join--you just move the point at which you join them. Sometimes it's moved as much as a measure, sometimes within the space of one note." Doug Sax, production manager of the recordings and cofounder of Sheffield, still prefers analog, but notes, "Our philosophy will continue to be to run both formats as best we can, and to decide not before recording but afterwards which is the best. I am hoping there will be a time when I clearly prefer the digital as we work on improving the technology." At press time, Sax had not yet chosen whether the cassettes of the Moscow Sessions would be issued from the analog or the digital master, though he was leaning toward analog. Sheffield was holding off production, according to Sax, because "we are experimenting now with state-of-the-art, high-speed transfer on metal tape, with the virtue of durability, that could be sonically superior to one-on-one and sell for only a dollar or two more than the standard cassette. Since this is imminent and realizable, we would like to be the pioneers."


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