Sunday, February 7, 2016

Analogue Productions' New Brew: RCA's Devilish Decca Discs

The wait is over ... Analogue Productions (AP) has finally released the first two LPs in its new RCA/Decca Living Stereo reissue series.  For collectors, this may be an audiophile's dream come true for many reasons.  First, AP has chosen to reissue some of the finest sounding recordings in the RCA/Decca catalog (see RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4), including such sonics greats such as:

LSC-2077 Strauss: Til Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration
LSC-2225 Witches' Brew
LSC-2285 Walton: Facade, Lecocq: Mamzelle Angot
LSC-2298 Borodin: Symphony No. 2
LSC-2313 Venice
LSC-2327 Bizet: L'Arlesienne Suites, Chabrier: Espana
LSC-2336 Finlandia
LSC-2400 Ballet Music from the Opera
LSC-2405 Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
LSC-2449 Gounod: Faust Ballet Music, Bizet: Carmen Suite
LSC-6065 The Royal Ballet Gala Performances
LSC-6094 Iberia

Secondly, these are also some of the rarest and most valuable recordings in the RCA/Decca catalog, with originals still fetching prices in the hundreds (e.g. Witches' Brew, LSC-2449) to thousands (e.g. Royal Ballet Gala) of dollars.  Classic Records made some really great reissues in the 1990s and 2000s, but those are out of print and some fetch prices that are just as high.  Just try searching for Classic Records reissues of Royal Ballet Gala on E-bay ... and try buying a copy for less than $500-1000.  Well, thanks to Chad Kassem and the folks at AP for all their hard work in obtaining the original analog tapes and producing these reissues for the rest of us!   These are 33 1/3, 200-gram LPs pressed at Quality Record Pressings.  All but two of the releases were mastered from the original analog master tapes by Willem Makkee using a Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe.  APC 2327 and APC 6065 were mastered by Bernie Grundman, whom we know has a long history with these recordings.  It will be interesting to see how these releases affect the auction market for the originals and the Classic Records reissues, which have up until now dominated the market because of their rarity.

As soon as I heard about the subscription, I called up Acoustic Sounds to reserve one.  Even though it was the day just after the announcement, they were already down to number 69 in the numbered series, but I was happy nonetheless to take this.  That was back at the beginning of December.  Subscriptions have sold out.  Now we're into February, and the series has taken off, with two LPs being mailed out at a time.  I love that AP didn't wait until the end of the subscription to send out the real goodies (not that there are any duds in this series, but you know what I mean).  What better way to kick things than with Witches' Brew and the highly coveted LSC-2449?

My copies arrived in the mail today, and I am very happy to be able to share some thoughts with you ... 

Each record comes nicely sealed in plastic sleeves just like most of the AP releases pressed by QRP.  Upon opening the sleeve, I was already impressed by the weight and gloss of the album cover.  Similar to AP's other 200 gram reissues, this one comes in a thick, high-gloss cardboard cover ("original Stoughton Printing heavyweight tip-on jacket facsimiles" according to the inside pamphlet).  You can see how glossy he cover is in the photo I took to the left.  Both the front and back covers are essentially exact replicas of the original covers, except for the fine print at the bottom of the back cover.  As you can see, the pressing number is printed in gold at the top left of the back cover.  The LP itself is housed in a nice standard QRP protective sleeve.  Just for curiosity's sake, I decided to weigh the records on my digital scale, and interestingly, both measured in not at 200g but at exactly 180g.  I'm not sure this makes a huge sonic difference, though it might have an impact on VTA for those who adjust for the extra thickness of a 200g record.  I couldn't detect any visible imperfections on my copies.

And now for some sonic impressions:

APC 2449 (LSC-2449):  I have never owned the original but have reviewed the Classic Records 33 1/3 180 gram reissue, so I think my expectations for this AP reissue were -- perhaps unfairly -- high. After all, this is one of the rarest and most valuable RCA shaded dogs in the catalog.  The AP surfaces are extremely quiet, so you can really appreciate a great deal of low level detail on this recording.  The soundstage throughout is both wide and deep, and clarity and imaging are excellent.  Dynamic range is pretty impressive though the impact of orchestral tuttis is perhaps not quite as powerful as on my Classic 180g pressing during A/B comparison.  The Classic 180g also has brighter treble, which, to my ears, gives the music and performance more brilliance. The AP has less treble boost but could be interpreted as having a more natural overall balance.  My AP pressing, as pristine as it is, also seemed to have some issues with "wobble" at times.  This was most audible in musical passages in which strings or horns play long notes and sounds almost as if all them are playing with very slow and fat vibrato. First I though it might be an issue of pitch stability with my turntable, but the wobble was definitely absent during identical passages on my Classic Records pressing during the A/B comparison.  I may contact AP directly about this issue to see if there is an explanation.  Bottom line: if you don't own this album yet, this reissue is probably worth getting for $35, but if you've already got the original or Classic, hang on to it.  8+/10.

APC 2225 (LSC-2225) Witches' Brew:  I was particularly eager to hear this one, because, as those of you who have read my prior blog post, you know that while I very much liked the original shaded dog, there was definitely room for improvement.  It got an 8+/10 in my book.  Part of the problem had to do with the bass, which suffered from boominess and some distortion.  I can say that this AP reissue handily addresses this and the results are a marked improvement.  Not only is the bass tighter and cleaner but it has even greater depth and impact than on the original.  In addition, surfaces are super quiet, making for a black background that really allows for more clarity and detail to be appreciated.  Dynamics pack a huge punch.  Similar to the original shaded dog, the soundstaging on this album is stunning in its width and depth, and I dare say that it is even more "holographic" on the reissue.   Malcolm Arnold's rarely recorded Overture to Tam O'Shanter is definitely a sonic highlight of this album, particularly with its use of percussion.  Now I have not heard any of the Classic Records reissues -- and I know that my co-blogger Meles and my friend Ejeden have praised these in the past -- so I can't make a just comparison between the AP and these.  Perhaps Ejeden, whom I know also purchased a subscription, can comment on any differences between the two.  However, I can say that to my ears the AP reissue beats out the original and makes for an even more enjoyable listening experience.  10/10.

Thanks to Chad Kassem, Willem Makkee, Bernie Grundman, and the rest of the production team for making these treasures of the RCA/Decca catalog widely available once again.  This reissue series is off to a promising start, and I am looking forward to listening to the second batch.

Update (12/17/16):  AP subsequently recalled these pressings and replaced them in November 2016.  If you are interested, you can read my thoughts on the replacements here.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Readers' Poll: Claude Debussy's La Mer

What are your favorite vinyl performances and recordings of Claude Debussy's La Mer?

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

Readers' Poll Results: Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Well, thanks to an enthusiastic response this week, we have a pretty diverse list.  Berlioz himself would be proud.

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Chesky CR1
Massimo Freccia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Columbia SAX 2537
Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra

Decca 7659 (French Decca)
Carlos Paita, London Symphony Orchestra

Deutsche Grammophon ‎2530 358
Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra 

EMI/HMV ASD 399 (or Concert Classics SXLP 30295)
Sir Thomas Beecham, Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise

Jean Martinon, Orchestre National de L'O.R.T.F.

Philips A 00.123L (mono)
Willem Van Otterloo, Berlin Philharmonic

RCA Living Stereo LM-1900 (mono or Classic Records stereo)
RCA Living Stereo LSC-2608
Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra

RCA Living Stereo LSC-2362
Pierre Monteux, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Reference Recordings RR-11 (2 LP set)
Varujan Krojian, Utah Symphony Orchestra

Westminster WL-5268 (mono)
Hermann Scherchen, London Symphony Orchestra