Saturday, October 10, 2015

Columbia SAX 2510: Szell conducts Beethoven's 7th

Columbia SAX 2510

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture

George Szell, conductor
The Cleveland Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1 (blue/silver)

Condition: NM-

Date first published: 1960

Stampers: YAX 1031-3, YAX 1032-1

Performance: 9/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $69-1130 (mean $535) on 

Comments: This is certainly one of the rarer and more valuable Szell SAX records (see Meles' post "Cream of the SAX Crop"), and one that I have been particularly curious to audition for some time now to find out ... is this LP really all that it is made out to be?

Well, for the purpose of science, I took the nosedive and did the experiment.  

I don't think I need to say much about the performance.  Szell's Beethoven cycle for Epic/CBS was one of the best cycles produced by an American (or any for that matter) orchestra in the 1950s-60s and continues to this day to be a reference set.  This 7th is excellent.

So, does the sound of the SAX match the performance?  If you are looking for the audiophile recording of these works, you may have to look elsewhere.  I'm not even sure I myself have identified the audiophile recording of Beethoven's 7th.  If you have previously enjoyed these Szell/CO performances and are looking for what could be the best pressing of these performances, then read further.  The YAX matrix numbers on this LP would indicate that UK Columbia remastered these from the US tapes.  In the US, Szell's recording of Beethoven's 7th filled both sides of Epic 1066 without the accompanying Wagner, so some extra work had to have been done to produce this SAX.  So, did EMI's engineers work any magic?  Listening first through speakers and then up close on my headphones, I was reasonably satisfied but not blown away with the result.  With regards to tonal fidelity, strings are a bit of a mixed bag.  Violins can sound a tad dry and occasionally more recessed on the left.  However, violas and cellos, particularly in the second movement of the Beethoven, have a much richer sonority.  Winds have excellent clarity and are quite beautifully imaged.  Bass is tight with good depth.  Dynamics are decent and communicate the conviction of these performances.  There is a touch of very mild distortion in louder passages in the Beethoven, but it doesn't get in the way of musical enjoyment.  One thing that I think the EMI engineers may have succeeded in doing is giving the orchestra a slightly more laid back presentation and capturing more hall acoustics.  Many of Szell's Epic/CBS records have a more immediate presentation and drier sound.  My own listening observations would have me believe that EMI changed this with its own remastered pressings.  However, I now know better than to expect a signature EMI sound from any of these Szell recordings.  It's simply not going to happen.  Why the Wagner is paired with the Beethoven is also unclear to me.

So, final verdict?  In my humble opinion, this LP is not worth its price in gold.  It's expensive, because it's rare.  I'm afraid I have to say that in my experience with these Szell SAX recordings, most of which contain outstanding performances and sell for a lot of money on Ebay, none of them are exceptional records and are overpriced.  For 1/10 the mean price of this LP or less, you can get the entire box set of 9 Beethoven symphonies on blue label Epic.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Readers' Poll Results: Beethoven's 1st and 8th Symphonies

Beethoven's 1st and 8th Symphonies

Fewer responses this week, but thank you to all of you that contributed your thoughts!

Symphony #1

Columbia SAX 2318
Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra

Epic BC 1292 (Columbia SAX 2493)
George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra

Fontana SFL 14084
Franz Konwitschny, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Heliodor 89 613
Ferenc Fricsay, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA LSC-2491 (or RCA SB-2127)
Pierre Monteux, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Symphony #8

Columbia SAX 2318
Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra

Epic BC 1254 (Columbia SAX 2565)
George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra

RCA LSC-2491 (or RCA SB-2127)
Pierre Monteux, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Monday, September 7, 2015

Reader's Poll: Beethoven's 1st and 8th Symphonies

What are your favorite vinyl performances and recordings of Beethoven's 1st and 8th Symphonies?

Please click on the comments link below to tell us your top choices.

Readers' Poll Results: Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Choral)

Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Choral)

Thanks to all our readers for their many responses this week!

Decca 6BB 121/2

Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

EMI ALP 1286/7 (mono)

Wilhelm Furtwangler, Orchestra and Chorus of the 1951 Bayreuth Festival

EMI CFP 142  (XLP 20001/2 mono)

Carl Schuricht, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra and Chorale
Elisabeth Brasseur

EMI CFP 40019 
(SXLP 30085 or ASDF 105/6)
Andre Cluytens, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Chorus of St. Hedwig's Cathedral, Berlin

Epic BSC 112 (Columbia SAX 2512/13)

George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra

Music for Pleasure MFP 2099/100
William Steinberg, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh

Reader's Digest RD-34 (7 LP box set)
Rene Leibowitz, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Reader's Poll: Your favorite Beethoven 9th Symphony ("Choral")

What are your favorite vinyl performances and recordings of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Choral)?

Please click on the comments link below to tell us your top choices.

Readers' Poll Results: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

Beethoven's 5th Symphony

Thanks to all our readers for their many responses this week!

Columbia ML 4009 (mono)

Bruno Walter, New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Decca LXT 2851 (mono)

Erich Kleiber, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 516

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

EMI CFP 40007

Andre Cluytens, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Fontana SFL 14083

Franz Konwitschny, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Philips 802 769 LY

George Szell, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Reader's Digest RD-34 (7 LP box set)
Rene Leibowitz, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Friday, August 28, 2015

Audio Nervosa and Matrices: The EMI Reissues Part 1

It had never occured to me to check whether some of my EMI made reissues are in fact later stampers from the same Gold & Cream ASD or Blue & Silver SAX mothers. I did not think this was possible, but commenters Tin Ear and AndyW have woken me up to this reality. As a result I just made a rather healthy purchase of World Record Club (WRC) reissues of some big time EMI Golden Age LP's. Before I listen, the disease of Audio Nervosa requires that I thoroughly compare the stampers on these LP's with the originals. For each I'll show the original vintage cover and the WRC covers which have the same awesome flipback EMI quality as the originals. I'll search Popsike for the original stampers. If it is a strike out on Popsike, then it will be up to our readers to tell the final tale.

A quick note on EMI pressing information for the uninitiated. We are working towards an in depth analysis like was done for Decca (see Resources upper right corner of all our pages). We have done EMI labels (Resources), but sadly our own ignorance of World Record Club led to their exclusion. 

In short for EMI including WRC, each record has a matrix number at 6 o'clock in the "dead wax" (the area in the vinyl at the end of each side that has what is called the lead out). Every EMI LP (infact most LPs from any label) will always have the leading string of characters on the label which identifies the recording. Technically this is the matrix number. The additional numbers after matrix number are the key information (often 1 digit with EMI). Just to confuse things collectors often refer to these numbers, with or without the long string, as "matrix". This "matrix" number corresponds to an actual physical lacquer which will have a unique sound. At 9 o'clock we have the number of the metal mother and usually only a few would be made at most from the impression of a given lacquer (1 is best). At 3 o'clock we have a stamper number. These go by a similar method to Decca's BUCKINGHAM except EMI uses GRAMOPHLTD, so an A would be a third stamper made from the mother, GA would be the 13 stamper and so on. The stamper is what actually pressed the LP. The mother would look roughly like a metal LP on one side. Some audiophile companies have done one step pressings (Water Lily comes to mind) where I believe the original impression of the lacquer is used to stamp out a limited run of LPs.

On with the show!:

ASD 460 Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel, Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream. Kempe, RPO $750 (Popsike) Matrix:
2YEA 577 - 2 / 2YEA 546 - 9

WRC ST 736 Matrix:
2YEA 577 - 2 / 2YEA 546 - 10
2-G/1-G (mother-stamper)

Less the nice ASD cover, the WRC has almost the same Matrix and at $37, 1/20th the price of the ASD. The WRC with the first stamper from the second mother on side 1 matches the ASD. On side 2, the first mother from the first stamper of matrix 10, nearly matches the original.

Side 1 of course is a Gold & Cream
pressing based on the stampers and the sound leaves no doubt (Hansel & Gretel rarely recorded). Side 2 matches it with a great Midsummer. This is not your typical Concert Classic SXLP reissue sound; a 9 for performance and a 9+ for tube sound of the first order that makes me a huge World Record Club fan! 

For Midsummer one can spring for the Decca or London with Maag, but the WRC more than holds its own versus this pricey competition. Strongly recommended.
ASD 494 Kodaly Hary Janos Suite, Tchaikovsky Suite 3, Gotovac - Kolo from Ero & Der Schem, Kempe, VPO,  $500 (Popsike) Matrix:
 2YVH  43-3   2YVH  44-1

WRC ST 763 Matrix:
 2YVH  43-5 2YVH  44-3
1-G/?-A (mother-stamper)

At $15, the later mastered WRC is the only reissue of the mighty ASD at 1/30th price.

This LP sounds like a Gold & Cream. However, Dorati's performance of the Hary Janos Suite on Mercury Living Presence betters this one by a wide margin. The 
sound here is a bit lean, with good textures and some congestion. On side 2, the Tchaikovsky Suite 3 may be the best tube sound version and frankly I've never heard of Gotovac until this LP and I like. Overall, a 9 for performance and 8+ for sound. Another great WRC.

For those who can't stand the up front Mercury sound, the WRC is compelling. Salvatore lists a Speakers Corner of the Hary Janos. I find Kertesz and the LSO's performance lacking enough on my Super Analogue that I cannot recommend it. I have the RFR Mercury and recommend seeking out the original FR pressing, but the RFR is good. The SACD of the Mercury recommended.

Checking in at over $500 is SAX 2517, a reissue of an Epic, Szell/Cleveland doing Schubert's Great. AQL gave this a sonic rating of 6 on this site for the original matrix:
BC 1009 A-2  BC 1009 B-2

WRC 627 dissapointingly is not the same:
BC 1009 A-3G  BC 1009 B-3G
2-A/1-A (mother-stamper)

The 3G is definitely a later pressing (common to see G after mid-sixties), but given the poor sound of the original, the World Record Club reissue at $15 may sound better at 1/35th the price.

From the first note, its clear the WRC is an excellent remaster. I've been listening to a number of fine Gold label Epic Szell recordings and this does very well, slightly ameoloriating the dry Epic sound, while also losing some fine detail. A 6+ for sound, but a 9 for performance as this arguably great interpretation sounds too austere.

In the final analysis, I don't have a strong Schubert 'The Great' recommendation. I have the Speakers Corner of the Decca Boult whose bass obliterates the original pressing, but the Boult is just not a strong recording. For those who must have Szell, I'd get the original Epic if your system will pass the finest tube detail. Otherwise the WRC under review may be the one.
Realizing that my entire shipment is not in hand and that this post is long enough we'll end part 1 with SAX 2394, Samson Francois' Ravel Piano Concerto in G and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. A recent copy of the Blue and Silver sold for $1700 with matrix:
YLX 1046 - 1 / YLX 1047 - 3

World Record Club ST 871:
YLX 1046 - 2 / YLX 1047 - 3
2-O/3-M (mother-stamper)

Almost identical, with perhaps not the best mother/stamper, the WRC at $30 and 1/60th the price is going to do well.
Sonically, side 1 delivers Blue and Silver sound with crisp dynamics. Performance 9, Sound 8+.  Side 2 is simply a tour de force sonically and musically. A perfect 10. Stunning musically and sonically in every way.

There is quite a bit of competition for this recording. Decca SXL 6411 (London CS 6633) has the Left Hand Concerto and is fairly stunning. The right pressing of the Linn Recut 5001 might be very fine with Katchen and Kertesz doing the Piano Concerto in G (Decca). Michellangeli on EMI also is very strong. Shaded Dog LSC 2271 with Munch BSO is another fine one. I'd recommend the London versions of the above LP's for those on a budget and Michellangeli on the Concert Classics SXLP reissue. Get them all. For the Left Hand, the WRC is a must. The best Blue and Silver SAX I've ever heard by a wide margin.

I'll update this post eventually with listening notes for each LP. Make sure you check notify near the comments window to keep abreast of the final sonic verdicts.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings Part 4

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings (Part 4)

In our last installment of this series on the Decca-recorded RCA Living Stereo albums, we conclude with two favorite Monteux and Martinon warhorses and a lesser known but superb Hugo Rignold.  

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2418
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Brahms: Haydn Variations
Pierre Monteux, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
(Classic Records 180g reissue)
Performance: 10/10
Sound: 8+/10
RCA Bible rating: 10+/NR/very good to excellent

My original 4S/2S shaded dog was plagued with distortion in essentially all loud musical passages, so it wasn't hard to prefer this Classic Records reissue, which resolves this problem and improves on other traits. Like many of the Classic Records, it is bright in sound, and the original was already on the brighter side.  Transparency, clarity, and dynamics on this reissue are excellent. Presentation is more immediate than on most of the other Decca/RCAs. Bass has plenty of impact and slam, particularly in the Enigma Variations.  According to The RCA Bible, Valin comments: "Though it was a bit bright the copy I heard sounded otherwise superb, with excellent mid texture, dynamic slam and low end weight. Thomas Simone of Recollections Quarterly calls it the most impressive combination of performance and sound that he has heard on an Elgar Enigma. I agree. GJC also highly commends the performance, but prefers the Decca-pressed RCA, SB-2108, for sonics."

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2419
Dvorak: Slavonic Dances
Jean Martinon, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A1, Indianapolis)
Performance: 9/10
Sound: 8/10
RCA Bible rating: 10+/NR/good to very good

This 1S/1S shaded dog has a great dynamic range with powerful orchestral tuttis. A few flaws, however, prevent this from entering into the top echelon. First, staging is quite left-dominant, with the violins sounding like a great big presence on the far left, while violas and cellos sound recessed on the right. Imaging lacks the precision of many of its Decca/RCA contemporaries, and this is most noticeable here in the lack of focus in the winds and brass. While upper string tone and texture is quite rich, there is less body to textures in the lower midrange to bass. Bass does have slam but is lacking in definition. These considerations aside, the disc is still highly enjoyable. I'm curious to know if the Classic Records reissue improves on these issues.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2485
Delibes: Sylvia & Coppelia
Hugo Rignold, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A1, Indianapolis)
Performance: 10/10
Sound: 8+/10
RCA Bible rating: 10+/NR/very good to excellent

I remember the first time I heard this playing on my friend Ejeden's system and thinking, wow, that sounds damn good! Fortunately, I happened to stumble across a clean copy at a bookstore in New Orleans, where a former collector had decided to sell off most of his classical record collection. This is one of those hidden gems in the RCA catalog. It doesn't show up all that often on the auction market (about 4-5 times per year) and when it does, it doesn't even sell for lots of money (popsike shows a range of $24-129, mean $54), but don't let that deceive you. This recording is excellent. Transparent, well-textured, and very nicely staged with big dynamics and great bass depth and definition. The performances are highly enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

EMI ASD 513: Russian and French Ballet Music


Russian and French Ballet Music

Efrem Kurtz, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1

Condition: NM-

Date first published: 1963

Stampers: 2YEA 697-2, 2YEA 698-1

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 9/10

Price range: $47-286 (mean $155) on

Comments:  Another gorgeous sounding gold/cream ASD recording from the company of Efrem Kurtz and the Philharmonia.  The performances are top notch, and the sound is some of the best I've heard from the golden age tube recording era.  I'd even go as far as to say that this recording of Gounod's ballet music from Faust rivals the legendary Decca/RCA recording with Alexander Gibson and the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden (LSC-2449).  Tonal fidelity and textures are excellent all around, with rich and resonant strings and full-bodied winds and brass.  Transparency is simply superb.  Beautiful midrange with taut, deep bass and a sparkling treble.  Combine all of this with holographic soundstaging, solid imaging, powerful dynamics without a trace of distortion, and plenty of fine level detail (you can even hear a musician's cough in the middle of Faust), and you have yourself another EMI winner.  Highly recommended. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reader's Poll: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

What are your favorite vinyl performances and recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony?

Please click on the comments link below to tell us your top choices.

Reader's Poll Results: Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (Eroica)

Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (Eroica)

Thanks to all our readers for their many responses this week!

Columbia (UK) SAX 2364 (or EMI ASD 2564)
Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra

EMI ALP 1060
Wilhelm Furtwangler, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

EMI CFP 40076
Andre Cluytens, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Carl Schuricht, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra

Epic BC 1001 (or Columbia SAX 2577)
George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra

Pierre Monteux, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Reader's Digest RD-34 (7 LP box set)
Rene Leibowitz, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings Part 3

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings (Part 3)

Part 3 of our ongoing series on the Decca-recorded RCA shaded dogs continues with some of the really outstanding orchestral recordings by conductors Jean Martinon, Raymond Agoult, Anatole Fistoulari, and Alexander Gibson.  

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2322
Shostakovich: The Age of Gold Ballet Suite, Symphony No. 1
Jean Martinon, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
(6S/5S, A1/A1, Rockaway)
Performance: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
RCA Bible rating*: 10++/NR/very good

In my humble opinion, not just one of the best Decca/RCA collaborations but also one of the best RCA Living Stereo records. This one has just about all the characteristics to make it a real winner. Combine top notch performances by the LSO and Martinon with excellent clarity and imaging, beautiful midrange textures, and powerful dynamics. While perhaps not the final word on depth, bass here is tight, well-defined, and undistorted. Valin adds in The RCA Bible: "Dynamic, wonderfully textured, and quite three-dimensional, this disc's only flaws are a smidgen of dryness in the strings, a slight overall opacity, and a bit of spotlighting on brass & winds. (The bass is also a bit over-reverberant in the 3rd movement.)" Original against original, I actually find this marginally more impressive overall than Witches' Brew.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2326
Clair de Lune
Raymond Agoult, conductor
London Proms Symphony
(Classic Records 180g)
Performance: 8/10
Sound: 8/10
RCA Bible rating: 10+/tops/very good

A lovely recording of tranquil and romantic musical chestnuts, sensitively played.  I previously owned an original shaded dog in ratty VG condition but unfortunately sold it before I could commit its sonic qualities to memory.  The Classic Records 180g reissue (picked up used but NM for $20) has a lower noise floor and excellent transparency, enabling plenty of fine detail to be revealed (e.g. pages turning, occasional chair creaking on stage).  Very nice midrange textures.  String tone is lush and resonant, though violins can exhibit a little brightness in certain louder passages.  Not exactly the album to demonstrate the power of your hi-fi system but rather one to test its musicality.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2400
Ballet Music from the Opera
Anatole Fistoulari, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A1, Indianapolis)
(Classic Records 180g reissue)
Performance: 10/10
Sound: 9+/10
RCA Bible rating: 10++/NR/excellent

Another one of my top RCAs and reference recordings and easily the best sounding recording of ballet music from the opera (see also Fricsay/BRSO and Karajan/Philharmonia). The transparency and realism of this recording are incredible. Gorgeously reproduced midband complemented by well-extended highs and lows (low-end bass can occasionally become over-reverberant, as in the conclusion of the high-energy Samson and Delilah). High-impact dynamics with plenty of slam also make for a highly enjoyable listen. So how is the Classic Records reissue? My A/B comparison reveals that the Classic has blacker backgrounds, improved clarity, and more controlled bass but is noticeably brighter and lacking in tube warmth. Hall acoustics are also better conveyed on the original shaded dog. Price range for an original runs $22-762 (mean $122), making it one of the more costly RCAs. The out of print Classic Records reissue is also no slouch: $32-211 (mean $94). My recommendation: hold out for an original -- it's got that extra tube magic!

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2405
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5, Karelia Suite
Alexander Gibson, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A1, Indianapolis)
Performance: 9
Sound: 8+
RCA Bible rating: 10++/NR/very good

One of the best sounding analog recordings (maybe the best) of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony and Karelia Suite:  transparent, beautifully textured, dynamic, with an expansive soundstage. Clearly better than the Karajan SAX (semi-circle pressing) that I own. I have yet to hear the Karajan DG 138 793, Maazel Decca SXL 6236, and Bernstein CBS 73152, but I'd wager that none of these are in the same league. Solid-state Colin Davis on Philips has always been a reference recording for performance. The LP boasts a very low noise floor, good low-level detail, very decent dynamics, and deep and controlled bass, but I find that it just lacks the more natural balance, staging, and hall acoustics of the tube-recorded RCA.  

Concise thoughts from the RCA Bible: "Typical Decca goodie.  Large, notably transparent, well-scaled "stage" in which the orchestra is set back farther than the usual Decca/RCA.  Not the last word on immediacy or dynamics or deep bass." 

*The RCA Bible ratings are stated in the order of reviewer (Jim Mitchell's Catalogue / Tom Port / Jonathan Valin). If only one rating is present, it is Valin's. NR = not rated.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Reader's Poll: Your favorite Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (Eroica)

What are your favorite vinyl performances and recordings of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (Eroica)?

Please click on the comments link below to tell us your top choices.

Reader Poll Results: Beethoven's 6th Symphony (Pastoral)

Beethoven's 6th Symphony (Pastoral)

Though we didn't receive an overwhelming number of responses, our readers who did participate in the poll recommended the following vinyl recordings:

Columbia (UK) SAX 2260 (or EMI ASD 2565)
Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra

Columbia (US) MS 6012 (six-eye pressing)
Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Andre Cluytens, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Epic BC 1249 (or Columbia SAX 2549)
George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra

Reader's Digest RD-34 (7 LP box set)
Rene Leibowitz, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Thursday, August 13, 2015

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings Part 2

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings
(Part 2)

We continue our ongoing survey of the Decca-recorded RCA shaded dogs with more from conductor Jean Martinon and the first of three highly sought after recordings from French-born American conductor Jean Morel.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2288
Prokofieff: Symphony No. 7, Russian Overture
Jean Martinon, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A1, Indianapolis)
Performance: 9/10
Sound: 7+/10
RCA Bible rating*: 10++/NR/very good

Another beautiful performance from Martinon and the PCO, recorded at the Maison de la Mutualité.  Valin comments: "As for the sound, the low end, I'll concede, could be a mite fuller and better defined (as it is on this disc's companion piece, the Prokofiev Fifth [LSC 2272], once again with Martinon and the PCO). But the slight lack of low end power should not be allowed to obscure this recording's manifold sonic virtues.  Fidelity, clarity, imaging, and midband texture are all top-notch.  Strings are particularly sweet with less edge than I'm used to hearing on Paris recordings.  And centerfill is excellent.  Plus there is enough low end pop on tuttis to satisfy this listener."  I'd have to agree with most of the above statements.  A few minor points aside, the 1s/1s shaded dog is quite impressive.  I really like the soundstaging on this one, and the imaging, as Valin says, is excellent.  The midrange and treble are blessed with that tube magic.  Bass is deep but at its lowest end suffers from boominess and distortion.  Released in the UK as RCA SB-2061 and VICS-1207 and reissued on the Decca Eclipse series as ECS 619.  Reissued by Classic Records, which my colleagues Meles describes as "slightly clinical/clean but engaging" with "sweet highs", "good bass rumble", and "nice definition on the low strings".  He gives it a 7/10 for sound.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2298
Borodin: Symphony No. 2
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol
Jean Martinon, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
(Classic Records 180g)
Performance: 9/10
Sound: 8+/10
RCA Bible rating: 10++/fabulous/fair to good (original shaded dog)

With regards to the original shaded dog, The RCA Bible says: "Midband transparency, detail, dynamics and texture are very good (especially in the first two movements of the Borodin), although the strings and brass do have a persistent cold, hard edge to them which becomes downright unpleasant on tuttis.  The main trouble here, as Sid Marks correctly noted, is the low end.  The Kinsgway bass is simply distorted.  While the defect is less apparent at the start of the Borodin Second (the first two movements of which actually contain several deep, well-defined fiddle passages), it gets progressively worse as the record proceeds.  By the third movement string bass lines and drum strikes are simply swamped by resonance and overmodulation.  (The problem persists on the first part of the Capriccio on side two).  As lively as it is, the midrange isn't sweet and persuasive enough to make me overlook the muddy bass.  (The Tsar Sultan on side two is quite good, however.)  GJC** notes that the Decca-pressed English RCA is markedly superior, curing many of the RCA's woes."  I just highlighted that last sentence, because this could be the clue that the UK release might be the vintage pressing to seek out.  I have owned the original shaded dog, but this Classic Records 180g reissue is significantly better.  The noise floor is much improved, revealing more low level detail and improving overall transparency.  Dynamics and clarity are excellent, and gone is the troubled low end heard on the original, replaced with a far tighter, deeper, and undistorted bass.  String tone may be just a tad bright in certain louder passages but in general does not have that cold and steely edge that Valin describes.  Winds and brass are clear and beautifully imaged and textured.  These are wonderful performances and from my perspective, this is the audiophile pressing of this recording to own.  

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2327
Bizet: L'Arlesienne Suites 1 and 2
Chabrier: Espana, Marche Joyeuse
Jean Morel, conductor
Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden
(3S/1S, A2/B2, Indianapolis)
Performance: 8/10
Sound: 8/10
RCA Bible rating: 10++/NR/good

One of my favorite Living Stereo covers and a wonderful disc. The performances are delightful. This recording boasts a beautiful, detailed midrange and holographic soundstaging on my tube-based system. Presentation is a little more laid back (mid-hall). My main qualm is that the very fine performance of Chabrier's Espana lacks the dynamics and treble extension of contemporary recordings by Paray/DSO (Mercury) and Ansermet/OSR (Decca/London) and thereby has less sparkle (Valin calls it "bloodless"). That aside, there are many sonic virtues to enjoy in the Bizet and Marche Joyeuse, among them richer string tone, full-bodied brass, and better highs. Bass, not surprisingly, can occasionally sound muddy and overall could use better definition and depth. Chief competition is likely to come from the Classic Records reissues, which I have not yet heard but is likely to reveal improvements in the bass department. Any insight into either the 33rpm or the 45rpm pressings would be very welcome.

*The RCA Bible ratings are stated in the order of reviewer (Jim Mitchell's Catalogue / Tom Port / Jonathan Valin). If only one rating is present, it is Valin's. NR = not rated.

**GJC stands for the late Professor Jerry Canter, who formerly owned and ran The Classical Collector web site, specializing in mail and internet classical LP sales. I had the privilege of knowing Jerry back in the mid-2000s when I was a medical student. I used to drive up to his home in the north suburbs of Chicago and spend a couple of hours browsing through his LPs and CDs for sale (at least the ones I could afford at the time) as well as his huge personal collection, which occupied the better space of his basement. I remember he told me that he had made an effort to collect all of the EMI ASD recordings. One day, he pulled out a NM gold/cream copy of EMI ASD 313 (Markevitch conducting Le Sacre du Printemps) and told me, chuckling, that this was one of his rarest LPs and that he had put down a good amount of cash to acquire it. (It was not for sale, of course.) He was very kind and generous and would let me pick out records and sample them on his hi-fi system (which, if I recall correctly, consisted of a top of the line direct drive Technics turntable fitted with a Grado Reference cartridge ... I am struggling to remember what comprised his amplification -- possibly a McIntosh valve power amp -- but remember that he had two monitor speakers set up on stands on either side of his desk). It may not have been common knowledge, but Jerry also enjoyed playing jazz piano. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

EMI ASDQ 5274: The Italian pressing of the rare ASD 313


Stravinsky: La Sagra della Primavera

Igor Markevitch, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing: Italian, ED1, gold/green

Condition: NM-

Date first published: 1960?

Stampers: 2YEA 264-9, 2YEA 265-12

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $35-158 (mean $66) on [ASD 313 $15-1,010, mean $312]

Comments: Given the forbiddingly high price of the original UK EMI ASD 313, I took a chance a couple of years ago on this Italian pressing of the same album that shares the same cover art and has a gold/green rather than gold/cream label.  The matrix numbers bear the the same UK 2YEA prefix, though the stamper numbers are a little high up there.  I'm find that rather interesting, considering that this is one of the rarest EMI gold/creams in existence and I have never seen a semi-circle pressing -- how many copies of this did they press?  In any case, this is one of those legendary analog recordings of Le Sacre du Printemps, and one for which Markevitch would always be remembered.  (Apparently, he also recorded this with the Philharmonia in mono in 1951 -- the Testament CD reissue contains both versions).  The performance is excellent and has plenty of raw savagery to it.  For me, it's a three-way tie between the Markevitch, the Dorati (Mercury), and the Bernstein (CBS) for best performance on vinyl.  This recording definitely leans towards warmth.  The soundstage is rather cavernous -- not particularly wide but very deep and lacking in openness.  Treble sounds rolled off.  It's a dynamic album but these aforementioned qualities subtract from its overall impact, and for a work like this, impact is critical to the listening experience.  A word of advice:  get the EMI Classics for Pleasure (CFP 129) with the black/white label.  Same 2YEA stampers.  Markedly improved with a more open, transparent sound, better treble extension, and great dynamics.  Cost?  I got mine for $1.50.

Monday, August 10, 2015

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings Part 1

RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings (Part 1)

This post marks the first of a series that we will dedicate to the recordings that Decca made for RCA in the late 1950s to the early 1960s.  Beginning with LSC-2077 (Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, Reiner/VPO), RCA issued several LPs recorded in Europe by Decca Records of London.  According to Jonathan Valin in The RCA Bible:

"According to Decca producer Ray Minshull, who was kind enough to provide me with much useful information about RCA/Deccas, the deal between Decca and RCA was structured around distribution and talent.  In return for loaning RCA some of their artists, Decca was empowered to distribute RCA recordings throughout the U.K. and Europe.  In addition Decca agreed to record under license some of their own artists, in sessions paid for and sponsored by RCA, for release on the Red Seal label.  (In time these recordings would revert back to Decca, which would then release the same material, usually under a different title, on their own labels.)  Part of the deal stipulated that RCA was to build no pressing facilities of their own in Great Britain.  After RCA violated this last stipulation by building a (short-lived) pressing plant in Durham, U.K., the agreement was terminated and all of the Decca-licensed material reverted to Decca.  (Which means, among other things, that barring a new agreement with Decca you won't soon be seeing an RCA of Witches' Brew)." 

These Decca-recorded RCA Living Stereo albums (some of which have previously been reviewed on this blog) have long been praised as some of the greatest performances and finest sounding records in the RCA and Decca classical catalogs.  Let's take a closer listen.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2077
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/B1, Indianapolis)
Performance: 9/10
Sound: 7/10
RCA Bible rating*: Very good

Recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, these are wonderful performances of these two Strauss tone poems and may very well be my favorite interpretations of these works next to those of Klemperer on UK Columbia (SAX 2437). Sound quality is very good though perhaps not quite up to par with the very best Decca/RCA recordings. It's a dynamic record and plays without much distortion. The biggest criticism I have is that the bass is rather boomy. Brass occasionally sound a bit nasal. The hall acoustics aren't as open.  Valin himself states that the recording is "typically Sofiensaal, meaning it is as tubby as a Bavarian burgher". This was subsequently released in the Decca Eclipse series (ECS 674), which, to my recollection, significantly improves upon the overall sound quality. The Decca sounds more natural and modern, has a lower sound floor, and is devoid of any thickness in the bass. It's also cheaper.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2225
Witches' Brew
Alexander Gibson, conductor
New Symphony Orchestra of London
(3S/1S, A1/A2, Indianapolis)
Performance: 9/10
Sound: 8+/10
RCA Bible rating: 10++/tops/excellent

Long considered one of the very top RCAs, earning a 10++/tops/excellent in Valin's book. It is also one of the rarer birds, and finding a 1s/1s pressing (the 3s/1s appears to be most common) in NM condition will cost you upwards of $300-400. Is the listening experience worth it? The performances are certainly exhilarating. While I have heard better versions of both Mussorgsky works, the Malcolm Arnold Tam O'Shanter Overture takes home the trophy here (what a fun piece of music!), and the Danse Macabre comes in a close second. The recording has tremendous dynamics and plenty of detail. Gorgeous midrange and treble and wonderful reproduction of string tone and winds. Expansive soundstage and very nice hall acoustics. Where things suffer, though, is in the bass, which, like the Reiner previously discussed above, has plenty of depth but is plain-out boomy and fuzzy. The recording is also subject to some distortion in loud orchestral tuttis (overloading of mikes?). For such an expensive LP, I find this a bit regrettable and argue that you might be better off hunting down one of the many reissues. Decca issued this as SPA175, which is probably the most affordable of all of them though may be harder to find in the US. I'd wager that sound quality is better than the original, but only a dedicated A/B comparison would reveal the truth. Classic Records put out 180g and 200g 33rpm (the last one being a 200g clear vinyl pressing that to my understanding was never made available until after Classic Records closed down operations) as well as 45rpm reissues. I have not heard any of the Classics but have been told that they are outstanding and resolve the distortion issues mentioned above (Meles rates the Classic an 9/10 for sound). Since they're out of print, you can expect to pay premium prices on these as well, though I'm sure less than you would for originals. If you are looking for the audiophile pressing, those would probably be my choice.

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2272
Prokofieff: Symphony No. 5
Jean Martinon, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A2, Indianapolis)
Performance: 9/10
Sound: 7/10
RCA Bible rating: 10++/NR/excellent

The first of a series of RCA recordings with Jean Martinon and the PCO, recorded in Paris. Valin praises this recording and gives it his vote for the best performance of the Prokofiev Fifth (10++/NR/excellent). 
Sonically speaking, however, I was a little disappointed after listening to the first movement, which was dynamic but in contrast to Valin's comments lacked clarity and detail to my ears. Things changed for the better in the second movement, during which I could begin to hear what Valin was saying about "bowing detail on strings and low bass have Mercury-like clarity." Winds were also very nicely reproduced with excellent imaging. In the third movement, though, strings again tended to sound thin and dry, much like they do on many of the Mercury recordings. The fourth movement, much like the second, ushers in better clarity, more detail, greater presence and transparency, and closes with an exciting, hair-raising finale. Reissued as Decca Eclipse ECS 593, which might be worth auditioning to see if it offers any sonic improvements on this great performance.

*The RCA Bible ratings are stated in the order of reviewer (Jim Mitchell's Catalogue / Tom Port / Jonathan Valin). If only one rating is present, it is Valin's. NR = not rated.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reader Poll: Your Favorite Beethoven Symphonies

Reader's Poll

Over the next 9 weeks, we will be surveying readers for their favorite analog performances and recordings of each of the Beethoven symphonies. Favorites can be for interpretation, sound, or both. To respond, just click on the comments link at the bottom of this post. The cumulative results of this reader's poll will be summarized and posted at the end. To start off this series, we'll begin by asking: 

What are your favorite vinyl recordings of Beethoven's 6th Symphony (Pastoral)?

EMI HMV ASD 443: English Ballet Music


English Ballet Music

Sir Malcolm Sargent, conductor
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1

Condition: NM-

Date first published: 1961

Stampers: 2YEA 527-3, 2YEA 528-4

Performance: 9/10

Sound: 9/10

Price range: $25-74 (mean $42) on

Comments: One of the very first gold and cream ASDs I ever purchased back in 2004 and one of my favorite in terms of repertoire and sound.  This is a charming program of British ballet music, with works by Holst, Walton, and Britten (never knew that Britten's Simple Symphony was considered ballet music until I read in the liner notes that it was used in 1944 by Walter Gore "as the basis of a light-hearted, gently sentimental one-act ballet about the pleasures of the seaside").  Plenty of tube-y goodness here, with a beautiful midrange, sweet and extended treble, and good bass depth.  String tone is rich, and the pizzicati in the second movement of the Simple Symphony are crisp with a nice resonance.  Great ambience retrieval and a wide and deep soundstage give you the feeling that you're sitting mid-hall.  Contemporary competition in terms of recordings for the Walton Facade include the famous Decca-recorded and audiophile favorite RCA Living Stereo LSC-2285 (or UK RCA SB-2039).  Not one of the pricier ASDs but don't let that fool you -- it's a gem.