Thursday, February 28, 2013

What's playing in my car?

Okay, let's face it.  We all have busy days, and we can't all just sit at home in front of our stereo systems listening to fine music.  Well, most of us can't, at least!  A great deal of my music listening happens en route to and from work in my Honda, and while it's not exactly equipped with high-end audio equipment, it suits its purpose.  I remember a passage from Robert Harley's The Complete Guide to High-End Audio in which he says that he also listens to a great deal of music in his car and that when you're in that setting, you just has to lower your expectations.  Okay, you might not get that sense of spatial separation of instruments and wide soundstage, BUT if the music grabs you, that's all that matters, right?

Here's what has been playing in my car this week:

Rudolf Kempe was one the great, in my opinion highly underrated, conductors of the 20th century.  Record collectors know that his early stereo LP recordings for EMI HMV are highly collectible in their original white/gold label pressings.  His interpretations and recordings of Richard Strauss have been critically acclaimed and may be considered the reference recordings by many.  I picked up this one used at a local classical CD shop and haven't regretted it one bit.  My favorite is track 2, "Tod und Verklarung" (Death and Transfiguration).


This album is, simply put, beautiful.  It may be the finest pairing and performance of French cello music I've ever heard.  Anne Gastinel has such a lovely tone on her instrument, and Claire Desert serves as a perfectly sensitive musical partner on the piano.  The Franck cello sonata (transcribed from the violin sonata) has very quickly become one of my favorite sonatas for stringed instrument.  I love the opening drama of the Debussy cello sonata and the playfulness of the Poulenc.  This was a BBC Music chamber recording of the month in 2012.    
 There are so many recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies that it may be hard to choose which ones to keep.  I had this struggle last year when I, in a Tchaikovsky phase, picked up seven different Tchaikovsky symphony recordings, including singles from Tugan Sokhiev, Kiril Karabits, Carlo Maria Giulini, and George Szell, and the boxed sets from Mariss Jansons on Chandos, Riccardo Muti on Brilliant Classics, and another one on Brilliant Classics starring conductors Fedoseyev, Rozhdestvensky, and Simonov.  This one is a classic and is considered by many to be the finest recording of 4-6 ever.  Listening to it, you can tell that the orchestra is playing it's heart out.  Tell me if you can find a more exciting interpretation!

I discovered Jorge Federico Osorio only last year, when I read a number of reviews in Fanfare on his latest recording for Cedille.  Being a huge fan of Debussy's piano works, I picked up this CD used on Amazon.com.  It's been a real joy to listen to this pianist.  The sound he creates on the piano is perfect for these works and is very nicely captured by the recording engineers.  I'd say that it has an intimate sound to it, so that you feel that Osorio is playing for just you.  Great for the evening drive home!

From "Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound" ...

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned that I had the real fortune of acquiring a copy of Robert Moon's and Michael Gray's long out-of-print book, "Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound:  A Discography and History of Early London/Decca Stereo Classical Instrumental and Chamber Music Recordings (1956-1963) on Records and Compact Discs".  I won't go into detail as to how I got a copy, but my family and closest friends know that it was not just a stroke of good luck but attributable to the invaluable help of my younger sister.  So thanks to her, I am able to periodically share with you some of the wisdom which is contained in this book.

The book was published in 1990 and has something of a cult following among classical audiophiles.  It is organized into a series of chapters including:

1.  About the Authors
2. Preface and Acknowledgements
3. FFSS and How It Grew
4. Stereo and the Modern Orchestra
5. Reverberation and Microphone Placing for Stereo Recording
6. The Record Ratings and Discography
7. Ratings
8. The Best Records
9. Records vs. Compact Discs
10. Labelography
11. Labels and Pressings
12. The Artists
13. Bibliography

The total length of the book is 83 pages.  I find the beginning sections on the history of FFSS and London/Decca recordings to be very interesting, and they serve to really provide some background on the way that London/Decca recordings were recorded and produced.  My favorite sections, though, have to be the Ratings as well as The Best Records.  The ratings are given a grade for both Performance and Sound, with a scale from 1 (bad) to 10 (excellent).  The highest combined rating is 20, and according to the authors, there are 5 such records.  These are:

CS 6028/SXL 2260 -- Argenta conducting Falla El Retablo de Mases Pedro, Harpsichord Concerto
CS 6079/SXL 2136 -- Ansermet conducting Debussy's La Boite a Jou Joux and Printemps
CS 6191/SXL 2246 -- Maag conducting Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 and Hebrides Overture
CS 6252/SXL 2313 -- Lanchbery conducting Herold-Lanchbery's La Fille Mal Garde
CS 6337/SXL 6035 -- Oistrakh performing Hindemith's Violin Concerto and Bruch's Scottish Fantasy

There are several that fall within the range of 13-19.  Of course, these are subjective gradings, and I can't say that I agree with all of them.  There is at least one or two records which I think are great which don't get high ratings here.  The authors, though, make an important statement, though, which is that every pressing of a record is different.  No two are identical, so two different individuals' listening experiences may be totally different.  Also, playback equipment ranges greatly, so this can also contribute to differences of opinion.  The highest scoring records are described in more detail in The Best Records section, and I'll be pointing out some of these in future posts.

Next, in my From "Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound" series, I'll share with you the authors' opinions on FFSS vs. FFRR!  Stay tuned!

The Facts on SAX: Turquoise/silver vs Red semi-circle labels

There is an understanding among classical record collectors that among the Columbia/EMI SAX series, the first pressings with the turquoise/silver (T/S) labels are superior to the second pressing red semi-circle (SC) labels, which are superior to the magic note (MN) postage stamp third pressing labels.  Whether someone has truly sat down to do a blind A/B test, I do not know.  I don't yet own the same album in both a T/S and SC pressing, but I do have the same album in a SC and a MN pressing (SAX 2393, Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Incidental Music conducted by Otto Klemperer).  Both on cursory listening sound great, but I have yet to critically compare the two.  For starters, though, I wanted to ask whether there was an actual difference in the vinyl on which these different issues were pressed.  It seemed to me when holding the records that the T/S pressings were subjectively heaver than the SC or MN pressings, so tonight I decided to weigh a few of them on my postal scale.  Results:

Turquoise/silver pressing:

SAX 2278:  170g
SAX 2279:  160g
SAX 2280:  150g
SAX 2285:  155g
SAX 2289:  150g
SAX 2303:  140g
SAX 2315:  140g
SAX 2322:  140g
SAX 2357:  150g

Red semi/circle pressing:

SAX 2276:  160g
SAX 2318:  140g
SAX 2323:  140g
SAX 2379:  135g
SAX 5284:  135g

My conclusions based on these results are:

1. There is no consistent difference in WEIGHT between the T/S and SC pressings.  It may be that the heaviest weight T/S pressing is heavier than the heaviest SC pressing.  It may be that the mean weight of the T/S pressings may be slightly heavier than the SC pressings.  However, it is apparent to me that there are T/S pressings weighing the same as SC pressings, and SC pressings weighing the same as some heavier T/S pressings.  Of course, one cannot truly conclude that just because a record is heavier, it sounds better.

2. There is no significant difference in weights in the SC pressings, even if the SC was the FIRST pressing of a particular SAX record.  Case in point, the first pressing of SAX 5284 -- George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in Brahms 2nd symphony and Tragic Overture -- was a red semi-circle pressing.  As you can see, its weight was just the same as a second pressing red semi-circle issue of SAX 2379.  So, no, the first pressings of SAX albums after 2537 which are SC are not heavier than the SC reissues of the T/S.

I believe that the last SAX album issued as a T/S pressing was SAX 2538, which is Handel's Dettingen Te Deum, conducted by Wolfgang Gonnenwein.  Following this is SAX 2539, which is Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in Bohemian Carnival, only issued as a SC.  INTERESTINGLY, though, SAX 2537 -- Klemperer conducting Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique -- was only released as a red SC, so despite the fact that 2538 was the last T/S, there is NO T/S to my knowledge of SAX 2537.

So, for those of you who are interested, I hope that this small experiment helped to clarify some questions.  The BLIND sound test is still the gold standard of comparison between these pressings, in my opinion.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Follow-up

Just as I finished writing that last post on SAX 2261, I discovered this:

https://soundcloud.com/audiohound/mussorgsky-from-sax-2261


There is an uploaded sound clip of the record!  I just spot checked it, and it turns out that it sounds pretty much the same as my pressing.  Loss of clarity during the loud passages.  So perhaps this is just an issue with the record!!

Upon re-listening to the Maazel recording of Pictures (SAX 2484), there is also some loss of clarity during some of the loud passages.  It still sounds a lot better than SAX 2261, though.  If someone out there has a good explanation for the distortion in the dynamic passages, please share your wisdom with me! 

Columbia SAX 2261

SAX 2261 and my first sonic experiment with SAX pressings*



Columbia SAX 2261
Moussorgsky-Ravel:  Pictures at an Exhibition

Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing:  UK, ES1 (blue/silver)


Stampers:

YAX 61-11
YAX 62-8

Condition:  NM


Performance:  8/10


Sound:  7/10


Comments:


Prior to having purchased this album from the UK, this album was near the top of my wish list for the Columbia SAX series.  I found a photo of the cover on Youngrok Lee's website and thought that it had to have been one of the most elegant classical record covers I'd ever seen.  The British sure knew how to make fantastic classical records of very high production quality in the 1950s-1960s!  I thought that this record must've been pretty hard to get a hold of, but after scouring around the web and Ebay, I managed to acquire not one but actually two copies.  It turns out that this record shows up on Ebay every couple of months or maybe even more frequently than that.  As we speak, there are three copies up for auction on Ebay.  So why did I get two copies, you might ask.  Did I have to put down some serious dough to do so??


Well, to begin with, Pictures has got to be one of my all-time favorite works for full orchestra.  I love the recurring Promenade theme.  I love the diverse, colorful musical caricatures that conjure up a myriad of images in my head when I listen to each one of them.  When I played violin in the non-music major orchestra (ironically enough, also called Phiharmonia) at Northwestern University, we did an all-Russian concert in 1998 which concluded with the Great Gate of Kiev, so the piece has a special place in my heart.  I have several interpretations on both vinyl and LP, and each of them is unique in its own way.  Reiner's recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA Living Stereo (LSC-2201) is a classic.  Sonically fantastic with a great performance.  Then there's Antal Dorati's recording with the Minneapolis Orchestra on Mercury Living Presence (SR 90217), also a very dynamic record with a solid performance.  Ernest Ansermet did his own version with the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on London/Decca (CS 6177/SXL 2042), but frankly, it never left much of an impression on me.  On the Columbia SAX label, there are actually TWO other recordings of Pictures, one with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (borrowed from the US Epic Records), SAX 2556, and one with Lorin Maazel conducting the Philharmonia, SAX 2484.  The Szell is very good (Sony reissued this on CD in the 2000s with 24-bit remastering ... it's worth getting for a bargain if you can't get it on vinyl), but the Maazel was a surprise.  I was not expecting this record to impress me, because I had downloaded a digital copy from Arkivmusic, and it honestly didn't do much for me.  However, I was pleasantly shocked to find this album to be quite stunning.  Great range of dynamics all around.  With Pictures, I think you just have to have superb sonics and large frequence range to really provide that visceral concert hall experience in your living room.  In the same vein, I was recently blown away by Riccardo Muti's recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra from the late 1970s on EMI (ASD 3645).  Paired with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, this album also has some stunning moments.


So, onto this recording!  The performance has been considered to be one of the classics of the Golden Age of classical recordings.  You may notice, however, that I only rated it 3/5 for its sound quality.  I have to admit, I was disappointed.  Let me explain.  Last year, I purchased the complete EMI recordings of Karajan on CD in an 88 CD boxed set.  It had this Pictures recording on one of the first CDs in the set, and that served as my initial frame of reference for comparison.  The digital remastering was definitely enjoyable, with very good clarity and dynamic range.  I was even more eager to hear what it would sound like on vinyl.  All in all, there are some very dynamic moments on SAX 2261, BUT the record happens to have this phenomenon whereby during very dynamic passages (especially during the Great Gate of Kiev), the sound gets blurred and distorted.  Clarity, which is generally present on much of the record, is lost and obscured by a grainy, fuzzy sound.  You can only imagine how disappointed I was, not only because I put down some decent money to get this copy, but also because I had such high expectations for this record.  I called up some folks to find out what could be the issue and was told that this could be any number of things.  Condition of the record.  This shouldn't have been a problem, since the vinyl was essentially perfect in appearance -- no hairlines, no scuffs, no scratches, shiny and pristine.  Pressing.  Certainly could be the cause, but who knows?  SO, I managed to get a hold of a second copy at a lower price, and lo and behold, the stampers were identical.  (As a side note, I found it interesting that on my first copy, both the front and back covers of the outer sleeve were laminated, while on the second copy, only the front was laminated.)  Sonically, the second copy was NEARLY IDENTICAL to the first.  There was the same loss of clarity as well as blurriness and distortion during the very dynamic passages.  In fact, I could hardly tell the difference between the two, though my original copy may have been slightly better.  Again, disappointment.  Okay, so perhaps this is not surprising considering that the two copies came from the same stampers.  Sadly, I couldn't compare two different stampers, which is probably the best experiment to conduct, but I unless I can find a different pressing for a bargain, I'm not about to embark on this costly experiment again.  This leaves issues with either the way this was recorded by the engineers or issues with my audio equipment setup.  Since the digital remastering does not have any of this loss of clarity, I think it's same to assume that the recording engineers didn't flub this up.  I suppose that my turntable cartridge and phono stage may not be good enough to resolve ALL the detail on this album, but I'm not convinced that this is really the problem, since for their price range they do very nice things with just about everything else.  My thought is that this may be a pressing issue.  Perhaps, the way the lacquers were cut didn't permit the record to have a wide enough dynamic range.  This is supposedly the case with some of the early FFSS London/Deccas, whose later pressings reportedly have an improved dynamic range.  I'm not sure I'll ever find the answer.  If you have this record and do NOT have this problem, please let me know!


Regardless, I'm very happy to own this record and do not regret having purchased it.  It's still mostly enjoyable to listen to, and the cover is a work of art on its own.

 
Karajan re-recorded Pictures with the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1960s.  This one is probably his more famous interpretation of the work, but I haven't yet had the privilege to hear it on vinyl.

* I actually skipped SAX 2259 to get to this one for this post, but I will come back to it.


Addendum 10/14/14


Having just upgraded my cartridge to the Lyra Kleos, I decided to give this LP a spin again, this time listening with more critical ears via Beyerdynamic T1 headphones amplified with a Schiit Lyr to get some tube magic in there.  Yes, the distortion issue was still present on the record, but when you put that aside, the rest of the album is sonically quite stunning.  Dynamics are quite awesome, and there is remarkably natural presence to the recording, features which lead me to bump up my sonic rating from 3 to 4.  It may be that a tube based amplification system might give this LP the best chance of revealing its wonders.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Columbia SAX 2252



Columbia SAX 2252
Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto

Emil Gilels, piano
Leopold Ludwig, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing:  ES1

Stampers:
Side 1 YAX 8-12
Side 2 YAX 9-10

Condition:  EX

Performance:  7/10
Sound:  6/10

Comments:
This is the very first record in the Columbia SAX series.  I have discovered that the earliest SAX records came in covers that were laminated on both the front and back.  This is in contrast to some of the later releases, which were laminated on only the front side.  All of these covers were printed by Garrod & Lofthouse, Ltd.  This cover is quite elegant, if I may say so.  The performance here is also great but not my personal reference recording.  As far as vinyl recordings go, I think I still prefer either Wilhelm Kempf on DGG or Hans Richter-Haaser on EMI/Columbia (SAX 2422).  The sound on this recording is pretty decent but not as great as some of the best SAXes I've heard.  Surfaces are pretty quiet on my copy.  Listening to this recording, you get the feeling that you are sitting a number of rows back in the concert hall.  The sound of the piano is lovely and blends in well with the orchestra.  Clarity of the recording overall could be better, as there is some murkiness in the strings.  This is a majestic start (no pun intended) to the SAX series.  Gilels would go on to re-record the Beethoven concertos with George Szell in the late 1960s.

Addendum 10/12/14:  On repeat listening to this album, I found myself less enchanted with the sound than I did previously.  This time I also allowed myself to listen through very revealing headphones.  The album has frequent distortion, more so on side 1 than on side 2, and this significantly detracted from the enjoyment, at least to my ears.  Good performance, but not one of the better sounding SAXes.