Monday, September 2, 2013

Dog Fight: ASD 541 Sargent's Sibelius Saga

Sargent Conducts Sibelius: En Saga, The Swan of Tuonela, Finlandia, Karelia

Sargent, VPO

Performance: 5/5

Sound; 4.5/5

$50 WG, $5 other pressings

Dog Fight Pressing Comparison Series

Gold and Cream (GC) or White Gold (WG) below:
Listen En Saga:

Listen Karelia:
*{Sargent was a long standing friend of Sibelius and he programmed the Finnish masters music during the dark years of the 1950's and 60's when anti-Sibelius rhetoric was at its zenith. In England Sargent came in for a good deal of criticism from a small, but elite group of critics. It was said that he departed from the example of Kajanus in respect of tempo, dynamics and phrasing etc. Sargent remarked 'For some reason the Kajanus recordings used to be widely accepted as authoritive. They are nothing of the kind. Sibelius does not recognize them as such. I have that from Sibelius himself. Everytime I conducted one of his works I was slated in certain quarters because I didn't ape these repudiated discs, but got my readings direct from the scores'.
In 1963 Sargent recorded Sibelius with the Vienna P. O. He had conducted Finlandia all over the world. In 1950 his Sibelius was said to be the first ever performed in Santiago, Chile. The Vienna disc is still highly competitive. In 'The Swan of Tuonela' the Vienna strings are on top form with a fine cor anglais solo. Sargent gives a brisk account of the 'Karelia Suite'. En Saga can hold its head up with any other on record. The VPO can hardly have been familier with the music at this time, but it is wholly idiomatic and in my view Sargents finest Sibelius on record. }

When it comes to The Swan of Tuonela I am afraid I am in the Kajanus camp. Sargent's interpretation is very interesting, but you will want to have a more typical Swan too.

A sample semi-circle label (right):

Color Stamp, then Black and White (note ring)

This is the first of a series of postings I will do called Dog Fight comparing multiple pressings of the same LP, all of which have a dog on the label (or at least his master's voice in the grooves).  I have three pressings of this (the color stamp is in the mail). The pressings currently under review are the semi-circle and the black and white.

First up was En Saga on the semi-circle with delicate strings, a nice cello, with great brass and cymbals. The recording perspective here was very middle of hall and in fact I ended up turning my volume up a couple db higher than normal. Every instrument was clean and perfectly placed on the sound stage with great depth. Turning up the volume did not bring the sound forward.

Second was the Swan featuring beautifully delicate light drum rolls with depth and silky strings with most interesting plucking going on later in the piece. The cor anglais was very nice.

Next was the Swan again except with the black and white. I expected the black and white to be worse, but it sported stronger drum rolls and a bit more detail in the highs. Defintion may have been improved and yet the strings were more diffuse and less engaging.

Then I switched to side 2 and Finlandia. Here the flaws of the black and white were starkly apparent. With the semi-circle brass and cymbals were impressive and quite clean. Put on the black and white, and the tube dynamics are gone leaving the cymbals and brass distorted. The black and white dry string tone was painfully evident with this piece and I would attribute this to a lack of micro-dynamics. Instruments lost all there life and color from this loss of dynamic shadings. The semi-circle dominated the sonic proceedings here and exposed some major flaws that are likely going to be quite evident on any black and white reissue of tube material. Despite its deficiencies the black and white is a serviceable pressing.  I'll update when I receive my color stamp pressing.

Despite the success of the semi-circle, I can only rate it a 4 for sound. If I loved it, it would have had a 4.5. I fear the slightly more distant than normal recording perspective was likely the culprit. Very clean sound ruled on this disc except perhaps a touch of distortion when Finlandia was at full cry. I suspect the gold and cream pressing will put this into the love category so provisionally I am rating it 4.5. As much of the music is at lower levels, one will want a near mint pressing.

The LP under review and LSC 2366 Finlandia share the RCA's title piece so sonic comparison was in order. I used the Classic reissue as my five copies of the original shaded dog sounded listless in comparison. In short, the RCA delivered on brass dynamics and not much else. Mind you, this is a Decca recording and an RCA pressing. The Classic had gobs of bass also, but this could not make up for the complete lack of clarity on this recording. The ill defined RCA/Decca tube sound left the strings a mushy mess and depth was seemingly nonexistant in comparion to the EMI. If you like bad hi-fi, listen to the RCA (or Decca). If you like music, listen to the ASD. If you want to hear angels sing get the gold and cream.

*Direct quotes from The Sibelius Forum:


  1. Thanks for the in-depth review, Meles! It will be interesting indeed to see if the color postage stamp pressing lives up to the semi-circle standard or if it is at all an improvement over the black and white postage stamp. I don't have this ASD and may have to consider getting a copy based on this review and on the sound samples which you have provided.

    One of the observations I've made about some of these tube recordings is that sometimes the sound stage is quite deep (as in your middle of the hall seating) but not so wide. Is that the case here, too? It makes me wonder where they positioned the mikes. Funny thing is if and when you listen to the digital remasters, the sound stage is quite a bit wider. ???

    1. Plenty of width to the sound stage. The sound has a very good perspective just a shade more middle of the hall than most.

      I am unfamiliar with most of these works and they may grow on me. I do not love this disc and would be very tempted to join the anti-Sibelius rhetoric given the nature of Sargent's performances, but perhaps that is what makes this disc great. I suspect the exquisite beauty of a gold and cream pressing would work quite well for this disc and will have my eyes open for one.