SAX 2261 and my first sonic experiment with SAX pressings*
Columbia SAX 2261
Moussorgsky-Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Pressing: UK, ES1 (blue/silver)
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.
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.