Published on April 1, 2004
3 Special Features This Month: 13 Vinyl Reviews; April Fools Music Humor; National Recording Registry Additions
|13 Audiophile Vinyl Reviews|
Well, too much time has again passed since our last survey of another hi-res format (one that’s been around much longer): audiophile vinyl. We find it interesting that a number of recent audiophile reissues have been mono, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sound great. Also that some vinyl releases are being tied in with simultaneous SACD releases of the same material. Our first review is of a lavish package from Germany of three important Mercury Living Presence gems of 20th Century music.
Since analog sources for vinyl playback can have an even greater variation in sonic quality than optical disc players, here again is a list of equipment used for these reviews: SOTA Star vacuum turntable with SME-V tonearm with Sumiko mod & Transfiguration Spirit MC cartridge, SOTA clamp, Grado phono preamp, MapleShade Big Footers, MSB IsoPlate, Arcici bladder base, Jena Labs and Cardas cables, VPI record cleaning machine.
The Living Presence of 20th-Century Music on Mercury Records
Sold as 3-LP boxed set from Speakers Corner Records, Germany:
ALBAN BERG: Wozzeck suite; Lulu suite – Helga Pilarezyk, soprano/London Symphony?antal Dorati – Mercury SR-90278
“Vienna 1908-1914” – SCHOENBERG: Five Pieces for Orchestra; WEBERN: Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 10; BERG: Three Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6 – London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati – Mercury SR-90316
GUNTHER SCHULLER: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959); PAUL FETLER: Contrasts for Orchestra (1958) – Minneapolis Symphony/Antal Dorati – Mercury SR-90282:
When I first heard about this new three-disc audiophile package I was somewhat surprised at the choice for the first reissue by Speakers Corner of some of the acclaimed recordings from the Mercury archives. But once I got into it I understand better the appeal of this set, especially realizing it is designed for an international audience of audio buffs, not just for North America. Even for those of us who – like myself – are not especially drawn to dodecaphonic music, these recordings are accepted as masterful presentations of some of the most important contemporary music on disc. Since so much of this music relies on tonal colors and subtle variations in instrumentation rather than the expected devices of tonal music, it demands the highest sonic quality or it falls quite flat. The originals of these Mercury LPs command stiff prices in the collectors’ market due to the quality of both their performances and sound as well as their rarity.
The three LPs are pressed and the jackets printed, to look exactly like the original Mercury releases, even to blurbs on the back of the jackets for other Mercury releases of the time – which was 1960 thru 1962. The three jackets slip into a handsome black case with chrome lettering and the set is accompanied by a 12-inch-square 16-page illustrated booklet on the music and recordings. There are photos of some of the equipment used, such as the 35mm film recorder used for two of these three albums, and the Mercury van which was shipped to Europe for recording sessions in Britain, Russia and elsewhere. A complete history of the Mercury label is featured. Unfortunately, the beautifully printed booklet lacks librettos for the vocal works on the Berg album, but as I recall there weren’t any furnished with the original discs either. (There is a short summary in English of the lyrics.)
I started with the all-Berg disc, since I regard this composer as the only follower of Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique who was consistently able to wring compelling emotional communication out of the strict Germanic/Fascist/academic brand of atonalism which in my view strangled serious music composing for three-quarters of a century – until the last decade or so. Having as his subjects two such intense and shocking personalties as Buechner’s woeful soldier Wozzeck and Wedekind’s courtesan Lulu certainly made it easier for Berg to communicate the emotional fire required. Some conventional tonal techniques appear here and there in the scores, making them more appealing to the uninitiated. I personally find both operas fascinating to hear or see performed, and I am not an opera fan. (I recall seeing a sometime-singer acquaintance of mine’s debut at the San Francisco Opera where he played one of Lulu’s many lovers. After entering her room he got to sing one line before she shot him and then he had to continuing lying on the floor thru the entire remainder of that act…)
The two suites exist because conductor Hermann Scherchen suggested to Berg he put together a selection of excerpts from his operas. The two suites – along with the composer’s ravishing Violin Concerto – have made him one of the most famous atonalists of all. The Wozzeck score opens and closes with march rhythms; at the beginning they are a soldier’s march and at the end a rocking-horse rhythm for the child of Wozzeck and his mistress who continues to play whilst his playmates rush off to see the body of his mother who has been killed by Wozzeck, who then drowns himself. The five movements of the Lulu Suite are out of order from the actual opera in order to create a better symphonic structure. The conclusion is shockingly emphatic, with Lulu’s scream as she is killed by Jack the Ripper. The 35mm-recorded sonics are exemplary, with every instrumental and vocal detail etched with the greatest transparency.
On the second LP the three composers who are synonymous with serial music are contrasted via each of their sets of similarly-titled orchestral pieces. Schoenberg – the teacher – is the most verbose, though his work starts out with a movement just over a minute in length. But such brevity is nothing compared to his pupil Webern, whose five pieces range between 25 seconds and 80 seconds each. This is amazingly data-reduced music which makes the most concise statement imaginable, using the most diverse tonal colors possible from the symphony orchestra (though admittedly with some unexpected additions such as a mandolin). Again, at least for my ears, the Berg is the music here that really communicates something. The 35mm approach was also used to excellent effect on this recording – every instrumental sound is there in the boldest clarity. It will be interesting to compare this vinyl repressing with the eventual SACD reissue from Universal – especially if the new format discs make use of the original three-channel Mercury masters. That could provide a sonic edge that could overshadow even these superb analog discs – at least for those whose center channel speaker closely matches in timbre that of their front left and right. (Mercury mixed the center channel feed of the original masters equally into the left and right channels for the final stereo mix, and they didn’t have the benefit of anything like Michael Gerzon’s/Meridian’s Tri-Field Processing for doing that.)
With the third disc in this tripartite set we move up about five decades to the late l950s. Gunther Schuller as been involved in the blending of jazz and classical for many decades, as well as conducting some exciting recordings of standard symphonic repertory. In his Seven Studies Schuller followed in the footsteps of Mussorgsky and others by being inspired musically by paintings – in this case the unique and whimsical creations of Swiss artist Paul Klee. The basic design or colors of the original painting were his starting stimulus for some of the pieces, while others try to depict a painting’s general mood or play around with the title of the painting. Antique Harmonies has sombre tonal qualities as does the painting in question. Abstract Trio’s tunes are given to various trios of instruments ranging around the orchestra. Little Blue Devil shows the composer’s affinity for jazz – in blues form in this case, Twittering Machine does exactly that and Arab Village paints a picture of a sun-baked settlement in the African desert. An Eerie Moment provides just that, and the closing Pastorale conveys its laid-back nature with slow woodwind lines that seem to hover.
The Fetler work is probably not only the least-known but also the least-regarded composition in this set. I’m not familiar with any other recordings of this composer’s work. Yet somehow it seems to me the most accessible and enjoyable of all the works. I hadn’t heard it in many years and found it fresh and invigorating listening. Partaking of a flexible tonal universe but not strictly serialized, the four-movement work is described by its composer as a non-traditional symphony. The crux of the work is a four-note “shape” which is used in various formulations thruout the work, giving the listener a sort of aural handle to hold onto. The general feeling is an optimistic one, in contrast to the German composers’ tortured emotions.
Though recorded earlier than the other two discs and using standard three-track analog tape rather than 35mm film, sonics are clean and hi-res on this disc and hold their own against the more advanced technology. Surface noise is extremely low on all of these Speakers Corner reissues. There is no groove-guard raised surface on the rims, and I noticed that the occasional Mercury practice of continuing the inside grooves up dangerously close to the label was continued on a couple of these sides just as it probably had been on the original issues. (Running into a series of these caused me to finally remove my weight-tripped end-of-side tonearm lifter.)
A pair of Capitol Full Dimensional Sound reissues from Cisco…
DVORAK: Violin Concerto in A Minor; GLAZOUNOV: Violin Concerto in A Minor – Nathan Milstein, violin/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg – Capitol/Cisco SP8382:
Milstein was a terrific soloist who was somewhat eclipsed by Heifetz. These are two of his best concerto recordings, both performance-wise and sonically. Coming from a Slavic background he felt strongly for both works, and in fact had played the Glazounov at his debut under Stokowski in l929. While the Dvorak is a standard, the Glazounov is not and it is good to have it on this disc. Both works are full of glorious melody which stands out in the silky timbral framework which was a standard with Capitol’s engineers during this period. There is not the specificity of the Mercury Living Presence approach by any means, but the warm and glowing sound fabric seems totally appropriate to this music.
BRITTEN: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; DOHNANYI: Variations on a Nursery Tune – Victor Aller, piano/Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra/Felix Slatkin – Capitol/Cisco SP8373:
This was, I believe, the first stereo discing of the familiar Britten work illustrating the different instruments of the orchestra. Dating as it does from 1957 meant that it was probably one of the first classical stereo LPs offered after the format was introduced via the Audio Fidelity label in l958. High Fidelity magazine raved about the recording back then, mentioning its “auditorium spaciousness.” I think there are other recorded versions now that compete heavily with this one, including Britten’s own – just reissued on xrcd. My favorite on this classic LP has always been the “B” side work for piano and orchestra (it’s not really a piano concerto). And that mainly for its wonderful humor in introducing the nursery tune in question. The work starts off with a long and portentous introduction that seems to set the scene from something massively serious to come. Instead the theme we finally get is what we know as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star – as played by perhaps a young piano pupil who just learned the simple melody last week. It’s almost like a concerto written especially for a Hoffnung Music Festival. This is a delightful version of the work, and the rich and warm Capitol sonics are well-preserved in a quiet-surfaced pressing.
A pair of double-disc audiophile reissues from a new source…
The Ray Brown Trio featuring Gene Harris – Soular Energy – Concord/Pure Audiophile Records PA-002 (2) [firstname.lastname@example.org 816-361-2713]:
This is the same Ray Brown album which has been issued on stereo SACD by Groove Note, half-speed mastered by Stan Ricker – the perfect choice of this new audiophile label since he is a bassist himself. The drummer on this session was Gerryck King and there were two special guests on the session: guitarist Emily Remler and tenor saxist Red Holloway. The session date was August l984 in San Francisco. Only one tune was worked out in advance, so this is a free and easy jam with a great amount of spontaneity. We already reviewed the SACD, so how does this lavish double-LP version measure up? Well, first of all it provides four tracks not found on the original Concord release nor the Groove Note SACD. First is an alternate take on that one tune that was worked out in advance – Mistreated but Undefeated Blues. Then two more alternate takes: on Cry Me a River and Take the A Train. The final rousing added track features Brown and pianist Harris together with Harry Sweets Edison on trumpet, Red Holloway on sax and drummer Jeff Hamilton in the Ma Rainey blues CC Rider.
Second, you get two blue-tinted vinyl discs – something we haven’t seen much of since the days of vinyl’s place as the major recorded media. And they must have found a solution to the problem that made those colored discs always noisier than the lampblack vinyl discs. Because these sides are very quiet. Third, you get a substantial package here, with good-sized photos of the players and plenty of notes you don’t need to squint to read, plus commendable exercise getting up and down to change and turn over the four sides of this album, as well as cleaning it on your record cleaning machine – either before playing at all or after the first playing as per the idea of the initial playing knocking off the “burrs” from the press.
Lastly, how do the listening experiences differ? Very little. Perhaps if I had one of those $10K-area turntable/arm/cartridge systems the scale might tip a bit further in favor of the analog medium, but with my perfectly respectable setup here is what I hear in A/B comparisons (thanks be to Sunfire’s remote control making such comparisons a snap): A somewhat cleaner and more extended frequency response from the SACD, as well as a lower noise floor in extremely quiet passages (only worth consideration with classical chamber music – not this type of material). With the LPs – no loss at all of bass heft and extension in the sound of Brown’s instrument at its lowest register, and an added impression of the actual physical dimensions and size of both the bass and the piano. This latter quality gave the two instruments a more 3D realism on the soundstage than the SACD. This realism was enhanced even further by feeding the two-channel signal thru Dolby Pro Logic II. Doing the same with the stereo SACD also improved the realism but not nearly as stunningly as when the source was the analog LP.
First eight tracks: Exactly Like You, Cry Me a River, Teach Me Tonight, Take the A Train, Mistreated but Undefeated Blues, That’s All, Easy Does It, Sweet Georgia Brown
Burton, Corea, Metheny, Haynes, Holland – Like Minds – Concord/Pure Audiophile Records PA-003 (2) [email@example.com 816-361-2713]:
Now I’m wondering if all of these repressings are on blue vinyl, because under the disc number on the back of the jacket is a white space hand-lettered “Blue Promo.” The original session here was more recent, dating from l998 according to the lengthy note booklet insert by Gary Burton. Pat Metheny and Chick Corea communicated with him via email about doing a recording together. This Concord album was the result. Burton wanted to honor the tune-writing abilities of both Corea and Metheny, and he asked each of them to contribute one new tune especially for the session. Pat’s result is Elucidation and Chick’s is Futures. In fact the only tunes not by the band’s members are Gershwin’s Soon, and the closing bonus track by Milt Jackson. Pure Audiophile’s CEO Dennis Cassidy used the two-channel master from Concord for this vinyl offering rather than the multichannel masters from which Concord has been issuing their SACD series. He again got Stan Ricker to handle the half-speed mastering and Record Technology did the plating and pressings.
The album has a nice chamber music sort of sound without any horns present. Burton’s readily-identifiable vibraphone sound blends beautifully with the piano of Corea and guitar of Metheny. Bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes are no slouches either. Metheny called the sort of interchange going on during the session among these jazz giants nothing short of “awesome.” They truly did have Like Minds. Sonics are clean and intimate, with a considerably more natural reproduction of the piano than heard on most 44.1 CDs. Tracks: Question and Answer, Elucidation, Windows, Futures, Like Minds, Country Roads, Tears of Rain, Soon, For a Thousand Years, Straight Up and Down, Bag’s Groove.
Now for some fond mono memories…
June Christy – Something Cool (with Peter Rugolo and his Orchestra) – Capitol/Cisco mono T516:
We’re whisked back to l954 and unique voice of June Christy, who came to fame via warbling with the Stan Kenton band. This was her Big Album, and a well-scratched copy is probably in the collection of a number of us of a certain age if we kept our vinyl all these years. Christy’s voice is just as fresh-sounding today as it was then, and Rugolo’s arrangements are coolly jazzy without detracting from the vocals. One really doesn’t miss stereo at all. This is a nostalgic kick and half! The one tune that stands out as completely different from the others is Kurt Weill’s Lonely House from his Street Scene; it’s certainly a different interpretation than, say, Lotte Lenya’s but worth hearing anyway. Tracks: I’m Thrilled, the Night We Called It a Day, This Time the Dream’s On Me, Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, Midnight Sun, Something Cool, I Should Care, Lonely House, It Could Happen to You, A Stranger Called the Blues, I’ll Take Romance.
Lester Young – The President Plays (with the Oscar Peterson Trio) – Norgran Records/Speakers Corner mono 1054:
This session with the tenor sax great occurred in l952 under the aegis of Norman Granz who had presented Prez successfully at many of his famous Jazz at the Philharmonic jams. Here instead of being part of a big band, Young is playing as part of just a quintet – with J. C. Heard on drums joining the Peterson Trio – with Barney Kessel on guitar. Lester’s terrific improvisations stand out in even bolder relief as a result, and being only in mono doesn’t seem to dim them a bit! He starts off with the sort of tune that let him wail on an extended blues without worrying about 2 1/2-minute or 4-minute limits of the old 78s or radio play – it’s called Ad Lib Blues. The musician was in fairly bad shape by this time, much as Billy Holiday (who had given him the “President” nickname) in her last recordings. But he sounded hot anyway. In fact, I had never really paid that much attention to Lester Young, but the astounding presence and impact of his improvisations on this half-century-old recording convinced me that he fully deserved all his terms in office.
Tracks: Ad Lib Blues, Just You Just Me, Tea for Two, Indiana, I Can’t Get Started, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Almost Like Being in Love, There Will Never Be Another You.
LA4 – Just Friends (Laurindo Almeida, Bud Shank, Ray Brown, Jeff Hamilton) – Concord/Groove Note Audiophile LP:
This short 35 minute 1978 session (which we’ve already reviewed in its Groove Note stereo SACD version) by the chamber jazz quartet opens with a delightful arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in C Minor and closes with a polite but swinging version of Chick Corea’s gem Spain. The ensemble built around guitarist Almeida was considered “jazz light” and after leaving he group reedman Shank referred to it as the “LA snore.” Actually, the tracks that were my favorites were the ones with Shank on flute instead of alto sax but none of these five tracks feature that instrument – which blended beautifully with Almedia’s Spanish guitar. I said in that review that the improved SACD resolution allowed hearing even more (soundwise if not lengthwise) of what’s on the original tapes.
Well, get ready for hearing even more than that, because not only are these four limited edition vinyl sides superbly mastered by Bernie Grundman, but they are all at 45 rpm speed for that last bit of sonic advantage that in my book can only be equaled or surpassed in two-channel reproduction by the best direct-disc recording. The short total length of the album fits perfectly into the reduced time available at the higher speed. In fact, the first of the four sides totals nearly 11 1/2 minutes, which I believe is a record for 45 rpm – the others are seven or eight minutes length. The hit of the collection for me is the closing Chick Corea classic Spain. You won’t mind getting up more frequently because the sonic pleasures of this album make a little extra effort well worth it.
Tracks: Nouveau Bach, Carinhoso, Just Friends, Love Medley: Love for Sale/Love Walked In, Spain.
LOUIS & BEBE BARRON: Forbidden Planet – Original Soundtrack of the MGM Film – GNP-Crescendo/Moving Image Entertainment (Italy) MIE 008:
The audiophile vinyl craze is also happening in Europe, but instead of (or in addition to) issuing hi-res repressings of great classical masters there seems to be a fascination with Hollywood pop culture which is exhibited by our last three vinyl reviews this month. For this one it’s cheesy 1956 sci-fi and for the last two it’s music from TV series of the 1960s.
Forbidden Planet – which starred Anne Francis, Walter Pidgeon and Leslie Nielsen – is famous for introducing the world to Robbie the Robot. Plus it is the source of the name of one of high-end audio’s most famous brands – taken from the name of the long-dead advanced civilization who built the giant power-source complex on which Forbidden Planet depends: the Krell. the 23 cues here take you pretty much thru the whole movie, with themes for Professor Morbius, Robie, the Monster of the ID, and some ancient Krell music. However, this is not the usual sort of big sci-fi symphonic score (of which Leith Steven’s wonderful Destination Moon still holds a thrill for me). Instead it was created by the Barrons – a sadistic married couple who enjoyed soldering up little audio nightmares of electronic parts in an effort to get them to grunt and squeal winsomely. The idea was similar to what Leon Theremin had experimented with in Russia in 1919 to create the electronic instrument called after himself (and later heard in not a few sci-fi films itself). The Barrons recorded these various electronic sounds on tape and they became the entire musical score for Forbidden Planet.
The “Electronic Tonalities” work beautifully with the movie but become a bit tiring on their own; one side at a time is more than enough listening. Although the visual presentation is top-flight – with a big double-fold album and many somewhat faded color stills from the film on the inside – there is some surface noise that made me think perhaps the CD version of this score is preferable and somehow more fittingly electronic in nature. Still, there is the nostalgia aspect to this for some of us and it’s great to handle and admire this hefty LP package.
Original TV Soundtrack – Star Trek – “The Cage” & “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (from the original pilots) – Music by Alexander Courage – GNP-Crescendo/Moving Image Entertainment MIE 009:
Much music has been released on LP and CD from the Star Trek series, as well as from the various feature films (“Nemisis” is even available on SACD). But somehow the music for the original two pilots for the series has not been released until now. I didn’t even know there were two pilots; I recall seeing The Cage, which starred a different actor from Shatner, but wasn’t aware of the other. Courage created the scores for such features as Some Like it Hot, Hello Dolly, and Papillon. While created for the pilots, some this music was later used in various Star Trek episodes, so it will sound quite familiar to most listeners. Courage is especially good at whipping up the seductive music to accompany the various attractive females into whose sectors Capt. Kirk boldly goes.
The liner notes mention that “you may encounter some hiss or distortion due to the condition of the original tapes.” Well, give them thumbs up on honesty. I heard plenty of the overly-familiar artifacts of analog tape recording – dropouts, bad splices, tape physically distorted and pulling away from the heads, etc. With the excellent pressings and a good playback system these bugaboos are even more excruciating to someone who has spent years dealing with them. The notes say “the music is paramount,” but then why bother with the expense and effort of the audiophile vinyl treatment?
The Best of Mission: Impossible – Music from the Original TV Soundtracks, composed by Lalo Schifrin and John E. Davis – GNP-Crescendo/Moving Image Entertainment MIE 010:
The situation with the Star Trek album is similar here, except that the tapes seem to be in a bit better shape. I presume both of these albums were released as CDs by Neil Norman’s label which specializes in such TV music. There are several short “suites” constructed out of cues from specific episodes of Mission: Impossible: The Contender, Submarine, The Killer, Takeover, Underground, The Plague, The Bayou, The Cattle King, Deadly Harvest, and Church Bells in Bogota. The final track is a six-minute version of the Mission Impossible theme with its composer Schifrin conducting the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. I wasn’t familiar with composer John Davis, but his tracks don’t come up to the quality of Schifrin’s. The double-fold packaging comes with some nice group shots of the various casts of the series, and its fans who are also analog freaks will probably want to have this one. While others might want to put a match to it. (Get it? The opening credits… oh, never mind.) The best thing for me visually about the album was the big announcement in caps on the bottom of the front cover: CONTAINS VARIOUS RECORDINGS NEVER BEFORE RELEASED! Uh huh…
If you want any of these three LPs, the source would be one of the several online audiophile vinyl outlets or www.cometrecords.com
– Reviews by John Sunier