Album Title: Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4
Performers: George Szell/Cleveland Symphony Orchestra
Label and #:High Definition Tape Transfers HDCD158
Running time: 57'22"
Recorded: Transferred from a Columbia 4-track tape recorded in 1963

I remember hearing my first open reel tape recording at 10 years of age. We were living in Bermuda and one of my dad's customers, the island rep for Montgomery Ward, invited us for dinner one evening. I recall a lovely home right on the beach on Bermuda's north shore in the village of Somerset, a stack of equipment with soft blue lights (McIntosh) and a large open reel deck. The brand escapes me but the sound certainly lingers on in my increasingly murky memory. This was my first experience of true high fidelity sound and had a lasting impact on me. I can't remember the music we listened to but the sound was amazingly lifelike and transparent. I have heard open reel decks a few times over the years and have always been impressed with their truthfulness. Many folks sing the praises of SACD or high-rez downloads but I can't think of any other format that offers the perceived transparency and resolution of a good-quality analog tape.

Richard Witrak, avid collector of 2 and 4-track open reel tapes, has found a way to share many of the sonic joys of this almost forgotten format with the modern digital music lover. Via his firm High Definition Tape Transfers, Robert essentially takes an old tape and puts it through a painstaking remastering process, then issues it on a number of digital formats. You have a choice of 24/96 FLAC download, a 24/96 DVD-R, a standard CD-R or High Quality CD (HQCD), an enhanced CD-R made from special materials and dyes. Copyright is not an issue as all recordings Robert transfers are public domain. Be advised we're not talking the original master tape but a commercially issued tape recording. As some of these tapes are over 50 years old, ticks, pops and hiss can occasionally be heard.

When enquiring about reviewing some of Robert's transfers, he graciously sent me a trio of discs both in CD-R and 24/96 DVD-R formats. The first reviewed here is an oldie but goodie; George Szell's 1963 reading of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. I passed on the download as I have no way of easily playing back high-rez files on my computer - plus playback quality and user interface frankly ain't there yet in my opinion.

Szell's recording issued several years ago by Sony's Essential Classics budget label was the first Mahler CD I ever purchased. While I have come to prefer other interpretations (Eliahu Inbal's on Denon and more recently, Ivan Fischer's on Channel Classics), Szell's occupies a special place for me not unlike that first girlfriend. The Fourth is arguably Mahler's sunniest symphony and easiest to digest if coming to Mahler for the first time. Essentially it is a child's vision of heaven with of course some night terrors and a touch of bitter sarcasm but overall still a very upbeat and optimistic piece. It begins innocently enough with the sound of sleigh bells and ends with a soprano singing what in effect is a lullaby. What's not to like? Ah, but this is Mahler. There's no gain without a little pain. The pain in this case is an enormous climax in the beautiful third movement that will surely test your system's dynamic range and LF response. It's as though Mahler were crying out, "Why am I here? What's the point of all this?" After that outburst, all returns to calm and we continue on our happy journey.

I freely admit that I am primarily drawn to Mahler's darker works such as the Sixth and Ninth symphonies. Like many Mahlerites, I find these works immensely cathartic - an emotional cleansing if you will. Nevertheless, the Fourth's child-like innocence is charming and what keeps me coming back. Interpretation wise, Szell is very much from the "just the facts ma'm" school of conducting. There's little in the way of an interventionist such as Bernstein. In fact, after living with this recording for several years, it now comes across as a little too buttoned down and straight-faced. The lovely third movement marked "Peacefully, somewhat slowly" seems somewhat rushed and anxious when compared to Inbal or Fischer. When it comes to Szell in general, I think intricate Swiss clockwork ticking away the seconds with absolute precision. So perhaps there's a slight lack of humanity here but it is certainly well executed with remarkable textural clarity and the CSO do play their hearts out. Soprano Judith Raskin's performance in the last movement has always been a favorite as her singing expresses a child-like quality ideal for this work. Many other fine recordings have been marred by a matronly voice. Clearly this is not what Mahler intended.

Since the recording dates back to 1963, there are of course limitations in dynamic range and bottom-end response but it is a
model of clarity. Or so I thought until I heard the HDTT discs. Oh my, even with the CD-R version I noted stunning transparency and resolution. It completely blew away the Sony CD in every way, so much so that the latter is now on my local CD reseller's shelf. Playing the 24/96 DVD-R over my Samsung DVD player set to output a 24/96 stream to my Cullen-modified PS Audio DLIII DAC was mindblowing. Highs were more extended yet smoother; dimensionality was enhanced as was dynamic range. Interestingly when compared to Fischer's recent hybrid SACD release over a Sony SACD player and apart from the obvious extension at both ends and overall smoothness, the 46-year-old Szell seemed the more revealing and truthful, with greater apparent insight into the performance itself. I can only imagine what the tapes sound like played back on open reel decks.

Overall I think HDTT is on to something here. It's great news to music lovers that someone has found a way to share their passion of analog tape recordings of the past via today's digital technology. Do check out Robert's site. While you will find recordings that are currently available in other formats, you will discover some lost gems that await reissue. Stay tuned for further HDTT reviews. Highly recommended.