SUPREME LP RECORDINGS
THE BASIC LIST
ESSAYS & CONTROVERSIES
ESSAYS & CONTROVERSIESWHERE IS CASINO ROYALE?
The Supreme Recordings List
The Divinity-Descriptions & Awards
The Demi-Gods-Descriptions & Awards
The Basic List-Ancient Music & Small Scale Classical
The Basic List-Large Scale Orchestra & Opera
The Basic List-Pop/Jazz/Folk/Ethnic Music & Soundtracks
The Honorable Mentions List (and Some Descriptions)
A few of these records will end up in The Demi-Gods. It is even possible that a few might end up in The Honorable Mentions. In general, the LPs in this class have a slightly higher "sound-floor", and are not quite as "alive" sounding, as the records in the top two classes.
The descriptions haven't been altered since they were placed in this separate file, which means there will be references that no longer will make any sense. So...
CAVEAT: I may alter the descriptions of these entries. This can be based on a changed perspective, new and relevant information or if I feel I could just improve on the original description. So, if a reader thinks they have noticed a small change in text, it is not just their "imagination".
The records that are featured below are all still part of The Basic List. They are here because they have been, for one or more reasons, the catalyst and inspiration for some relevant subject or controversy (about recordings, pressings or audio reproduction) to be brought up and written about at greater length.
It didn't make the cut. In fact, it isn't even close to making The Honorable Mentions, and this observation comes after hearing more than a dozen different copies of the LP. In reality:
The only cut that is sonically noteworthy is "The Look of Love" (Side One, Cut Two), and even that (now famous) cut has easily noticeable problems.
The entire remainder of the LP (Colgems COSO-5005) is dry and pinched sounding. The ultra-highs are rolled off and there is a veil that varies from thin to thick. If all that wasn't enough, there is an audible distortion and the tonal balance, which favors the highs, is annoyingly unnatural, like most 1960's pop recordings. On the positive side, it has a larger than average soundstage and some deep, tight bass (TAS/Harry Pearson's predictable and simplistic priorities).
I can understand why someone would have been justifiably impressed with the one good cut of this record in the early 1970's, mainly due to its excellent reproduction of a female voice, but a large number of superior recordings have been produced since then. TAS/Harry Pearson still has this record listed in his "Best of the Bunch", which means he feels it is one of the 12 finest popular (non-classical) recordings of all time. This is, simply speaking, Ridiculous. I'm not even certain it could make the top 1000.
I don't know anyone who has purchased this record who wasn't ultimately disappointed with what they actually heard compared to what they expected; "audio nirvana". Don't join that club, unless you can get it really cheap. Then you can always sell it after your inevitable disillusionment and not include a further financial loss to your previous disappointment.
Readers will only find one version of Carl Orff's famous "Carmina Burana" on this list because of the serious sonic imperfections which are easily noticeable with all of the other original pressings.
I have heard all the well-known recordings: Previn, Muti and De Burgos on EMI; Stokowski on Capital; Dorati on Decca; Jochum on DGG; and Kegel on Philips (my overall favorite). Their common deficiencies* were caused by mastering this lengthy, dynamic and complex composition on only 2 LP sides, instead of an optimized (and costlier) 3 sides. Only the Telarc recording came out on 3 sides, but after purchasing this album, based on a TAS recommendation at the time, I discovered it had far too many "digital artifacts" to qualify. Then, unexpectedly...
A few years ago, Edition Phonix came out with a reissue of their popular (Kegel) Carmina Burana on 4-Sides! (who says Santa Claus doesn't exist?), which is now unfortunately "sold out". This reissue was never available in North America. The original pressings were released in "The West" by Philips many years ago. Through the kind help of a reader from Europe, I was fortunate to find a copy of this album, though with no outer jackets. The number is: (EPH-15).
The Kegel performance was actually recorded by the (former East) German label, Eterna. This reissue is on 180 gram vinyl, and was mastered and pressed by the same people who did the Decca reissues and the superb Orff operas discussed in The Basic List.
With only 15 minutes per side, this reissue should be "out of this world", and it is a big improvement over the original in almost every way; it is particularly cleaner and much more dynamic. Sadly, there are still some problems with homogenization within the chorus, especially at louder volumes (which is common), and the sound-floor is not quite as low as the other Orff reissues from this source. However, the solo voices and instruments are superbly captured, especially at softer volumes. This album is now in The Basic List.
*With only two LP sides, the engineers have a choice of getting either the loud or soft parts "right". For example, on the EMI/Muti (ASD 3900), they decided to optimize the famous opening section. The grooves almost look like the well-known Telarc/1912. Unfortunately, there's an unavoidable sonic price for this choice; all the softer parts, bunched together and seriously compressed, now sound "dead".
Around 20 years ago, I finally had the time and equipment to play all the records I had purchased and accumulated in the previous 7 years. My audiophile friends, knowing this, asked me to make a list of all the LPs that had "good sound", so they could save time and money by going straight to "the winners", and avoiding "the losers". I complied. I didn't get anything, except "good will", out of it myself, but I still kept that list for some reason, and it has ended up being a big help to me. While most of the records on the original list didn't make this more formidable list, many have, and this 2 LP album is one of them.
The sonics on this album are truly amazing. It is extremely immediate, pure and clean; to the point of being "stunning". The dynamic qualities are also superb, and there is incredible precision and detail. The sound is also very natural, with excellent harmonic structure, but this is a digital recording, with at least a few of the unavoidable problems. The decays are a little shortened, and the performance space is not fully developed, so it almost sounds like it was recorded in a small, dead studio. The (soprano) voice is also not as successful. It is decently captured, but it is veiled and there is an occasional strain at high volumes, plus it noticeably "drops out" at very soft volumes. This album would be in the top two classes if it weren't for these downsides, but it still makes The Basic List.
Erato apparently went to great lengths to optimize the sonics on this album, even mastering the music on 3 sides, instead of the usual 2 sides (the 4th side is blank). Their laudable efforts paid off and should be recognized. This same (very modern) composition was recorded years earlier by Columbia, and that LP was also conducted by Pierre Boulez himself, but the Columbia record has far inferior sonics in comparison.
This is a film that is now mainly remembered because the leading actress, Natalie Wood, died in a tragic boating accident just as the last scenes were being shot. The film deserves much better because it was ahead of its time; being the first to focus on the subject of "virtual reality", and it also had some unique special effects. It even dealt with experiences after death. The soundtrack is also special.
It is extremely immediate and dynamic, about as good as you will ever hear, and even superior to the Knussen/Unicorn LP. There is also outstanding retrieval of outer detail. The sound-floor is also low, but this is a digital recording, and you don't hear a satisfactory decay of the notes or a real good sense of the hall. Overall, a short but very unique recording and highly recommended. Soundtracks have unpredictable prices because of specialized collectors. Both the English and North American pressings are recommended.
COMPARISON- I don't like "ties", but I wasn't able to distinguish one clear "winner" in this category. The Boulez LP is less variable and it also has fewer sonic problems, but the Brainstorm LP is more demanding and "spectacular". It also has a few, fleeting, unforgettable moments where it almost reaches "sonic perfection". That was my dilemma.
ANOTHER DIGITAL SOUNDTRACK- One other digital soundtrack that really impressed me was Peter The Great. It is on the Silva Screen label; Film 006. The sound is too variable to make this list but, at its best, it is stunning, and in places you wouldn't expect, like the voices, strings and some percussive effects. There are a number of special and memorable moments on it. It is in The Honorable Mentions.
I have completed my initial audition of chamber music records, my own, the store's and even others. Sadly, I am disappointed, once again, with the results. I expected 2 or 3 times as many LPs to make the grade. The major labels I was most counting on in particular, Decca and EMI, never came through. I don't understand how a label which can master the recording of a full orchestra, let alone an opera, would not, at the same time, also have the capability to record a string quartet at the same sonic level. They must have a "B Team".
The label I was most impressed with, on a consistent basis, was Philips. This was true in almost every instance, but especially with the records by the Quartet Italiano and Beaux Art Trio. They didn't quite make this list, even The Honorable Mentions, but they were still good to excellent. Decca also had a few excellent LP's: Mozart's Piano Quartets-Previn; Borodin Quartet; Spohr-Octet etc. DGG wasn't that bad either, especially in modern, 20th Century repertoire.
What about "the finest chamber music LP"? I'm sorry to say that there wasn't an obvious ("no brainer") choice. In fact, not one of the chamber music records ended up in the top two classes, but there was still one recording that has continually impressed me, overall, more than any of the others: The Shostakovitch Quartets on Decca and also L'Oiseau`Lyre, so it "wins" by default.
However, the search for its replacement will go on. This is because I feel it is really important that all the records with "awards" should be in one of the top two classes.
NOTE: For purposes of consistency, I have (arbitrarily) limited "chamber music recordings" to those records with under 10 instruments. This is the reason why the superlative Bach/Timegate LP is not included within this category.
The original pressings of this recording are one of the great fantasies and myths of the "LP audiophile/collector world". They (both the London and the Decca) may be the most valuable (monetarily) of the entire London/Decca catalog, and that is saying a lot. The real reason for its hyper-demand is because serious collectors of obscure "Repertoire" are also looking for them, due to the fact that they contain some very rare music, specifically: Spanish Dances by Moszkowski.
What about the sonics of the original pressings? Well, we are in luck here, because around 20 years ago now (the early 1990's) I stumbled on an extremely rare, sealed BlueBack. I was literally in shock when I found it, thinking I was dreaming. Upon returning home, I found my closest audiophile friend waiting for me (Israel Blume, now of Coincident Speaker Technology). He begged me to hear the famous Espana right then. I hesitated at first, but I eventually obliged him.
We listened for a short while, and both of us became increasingly incredulous. Finally, my guest diplomatically asked me if there was something wrong with my system. I said no, and that I had just played my system the night before. I took the Argenta LP off before the end of Chabrier's Espana, and played the Ansermet version on the Decca Jubille label.
It is hard to describe how far superior it was to the Argenta/Blueback. We were both totally devastated. We now were realizing how much bullshit we had read (and believed) for years in the magazines (mainly TAS).
The feelings of betrayal and disillusionment are among the very worst experiences of human existence, but, in the long-run, this incident was actually liberating. Now, I (and Blume) never trust record 'reviewers' and 'experts', let alone used record dealers, any more, at least until they prove themselves otherwise.
However, this reissue's sonics are a different story. It is "night and day" better than the Blueback original I heard (and still have). It is now competitive with the Ansermet Chabrier LP above. (Espana is the only musical selection they share.) The Ansermet is still a little more immediate, cleaner, dynamic and with much better bass, but the Argenta has a slightly richer sound. I advise getting both records if you enjoy the music. This LP is still available new.
Note- I understand that there is also a King Super Analogue (Japanese) pressing of the Argenta Espana LP, but it is a very rare record and I haven't heard it.
THE ARGENTA SET: I also have listened (twice) to the entire Argenta Box Set. The sonics are variable, but none of the LPs are up to the standards of this list. They are too "old" sounding; veiled, dry and lacking the "bloom and alive" qualities of the better recordings. The sonics are still good to excellent, and the performances and music are unique and a must for lovers of Spanish music.
CAVEAT: One of the original Argenta/Spanish FFSS London LPs (CS 6130) is missing from this Argenta set, so this box set is not "complete" (no matter what you have heard from other sources).
"Espana", a Decca/London collection of light, classical "Spanish" favorites, has long been a popular recording, with many different pressings being released over the last six decades. It's well known to both audiophiles (TAS list) and serious collectors of rare repertoire (Moszkowski's "Spanish Dances"). In fact, an "original pressing" of this recording, a "BlueBack" (BB), still "sealed" when I purchased it, was one of the single most important records of my audio life. Why? Because it abruptly ended my positive bias for "original pressings" (in literally one afternoon more than 20 years ago now). Since then, I have closely kept track of any further reissues, or even mention, of this recording. This brings us to the present.
Presently, I have 3 different pressings of this recording to compare in a "shoot-out". This includes the same BB (still in mint condition) mentioned above, a 1990's reissue from Speakers Corner (already in The Supreme Recordings), and this most recent reissue from ORG. This is what I (and a visiting associate) observed when comparing this ORG reissue with the two pressings from the past...
The First Results- The ORG Espana was not as lively, extended or dynamic as the earlier Speakers Corner reissue. However, the ORG was a little quieter and cleaner. It was almost like the ORG was playing a little slower and with less intensity. My associate and I came to different conclusions (which is rare for us) when evaluating the original BB pressing. While both of still much preferred the Speakers Corner reissue to the BB, my associate actually preferred the BB over the ORG (he felt the BB was "more exciting"). However, I liked the ORG more, because the BlueBack's veiling, distortion, homogenization and higher sound-floor were an even greater musical/sonic compromise for me. (See Addendum below for more recent results.)
I later, on my own this time, made a second comparison, this time including the competing Mercury/Paray (SR90212) Chabrier recording (Classic Records Reissue), and the Decca/London/Ansermet (JB 10) Chabrier LP (also in The Supreme Recordings). This made it a 5 record shoot-out. I even recalibrated the speed of the Reference Lenco, for both 33 and 45 RPM, to make certain that no speed irregularities would influence the sonics.
The Second Results- The three Argenta/Espana records sounded almost exactly the same as before. The Mercury reissue sounded pretty good, actually better than I remembered, though this shouldn't be a surprise considering the many changes in my system since I last played it. However, the Mercury is still not in the same sonic league as the Speakers Corner Espana or the Ansermet/Chabrier. As for the Ansermet/Decca, it is still just as good as any of the Espana reissues, and it has the "bonus" of being an ALL Chabrier recording (like the Mercury/Paray), instead of an assortment of composers.
What to do? That depends on the goal. If the goal is to have just one pressing of the Argenta/Espana, with the best overall sonics, than I would get the Speakers Corner reissue. If the record(s) must be "new", then the ORG reissue will be very satisfactory, because it is still excellent, and even has advantages over the Speakers Corner (or any other pressing I've heard). If the goal is to get the best recording of "Espana", along with other popular works of Chabrier, then I would get the Ansermet/Decca/London. As for myself, I'm keeping them all, even the BlueBack. I enjoy having an alternative interpretation of Chabrier, and all three pressings of the Argenta/Espana have some advantages.
What "advantage" could the BlueBack possibly have? In sonic terms, absolutely nothing, but I can use the BB to prove to my "sceptics" that "original pressings" are sometimes highly overrated and, maybe, even a scam. It only takes a minute (or even less) of listening to end decades of prejudice for most listeners, if they are open minded, which tells you something.
My associate and I had a third "shootout" in early March 2015, after making certain that the speeds were correct, and a small though relevant change occurred in the rankings. My associate now feels that the ORG is almost as good as the Speakers Corner, and definitely better than the Blueback. So my associate ended up agreeing with my original assessment from a year ago.
Top Row (Left to Right) - Ansermet/Decca, Paray/Mercury Classic Records Reissue
Bottom Row (Left to Right) - Espana/Argenta- Original Pressing ("BlueBack"), Speakers Corner Reissue, ORG Reissue (2 LPS) 45 RPM
Left/Top- An Enlargement of the Original "BlueBack" Pressing with the original shrink wrap and price sticker,
Right/Bottom- A Close-Up of the Price Sticker ("SAM The Record Man's", Sale Price, $ 1.97)
This is the single most famous opera by an American composer, and it includes some of the most memorable melodies of the entire 20th Century. This album claimed to be the first "complete" recording of the opera.
The sonics are superb; very similar to Solti/Carmen set in quality, but with superior dynamics and a huge soundstage. I have compared the Decca with the London pressings and discovered the usual results: If the stampers are the same, the sonics are the same. No surprise. There is also a reissue from Speakers Corner. It may be better than any of the originals, but I haven't heard it yet.
I usually don't comment on the TAS list. The exceptions are when that list directly conflicts with, or it effects the price and the availability of, the recordings and pressings on this list. This, however, is an unusual situation.
This Porgy and Bess recording is not just on the basic TAS list, it is actually included among their "12 best Classical Recordings of all time". Is it really that good?
I obviously agree that it is an outstanding recording, or I wouldn't be listing it myself, but it is far from being "one of the dozen finest recordings". It will not make either "The Divinity" or "The Demi-Gods". It is not even the finest opera recording I've heard. The two Benjamin Britten operas, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, plus the Massenet/Don Quichotte, are in another league. Anyone can hear the difference in a minute, literally. They are all far more immediate, transparent, pure and delicate. They all have an "alive" quality that is never there with the Gershwin, which is veiled and homogenized in comparison.
It is not possible for me to rank LPs with an exact number, but if I did, Porgy and Bess, as good as it is, would not make the top 125.
BOTTOM LINE: Readers should not pay a large premium for this album with the hope and expectation of possessing "one of the very finest sounding LPs of all-time". You won't get what you thought you paid for.
WHILE I AM AT IT: There is another opera album that is on the TAS list that is also overrated and will not even make this list. I only mention it because I've seen it selling for "big money" (it is 4 LPs). It is: Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (Decca SET 514-7).
The sonics are very good, enough to make "The Honorable Mentions", but it is still relatively veiled, distorted, homogenized and compressed, especially during the crescendos. The "Coronation Scene" (Side One) is particularly disappointing. If you must have it, get the London pressing. At least you won't be paying big money for it. Further, the Boris Christoff/EMI alternative performance is a lot more dramatic and intense, although the sonics aren't quite as good overall as the Decca/London set.
Aida Recordings: I have auditioned most of the top rated Aida albums, and none of them were quite good enough to make this list, though all of them were excellent in their own ways.
The Von Karajan/Decca recording (Decca SXL 2167/9, London OSA 1313), the most notable of them all, had excellent dynamic qualities, a huge soundstage and natural body in the voices. The sound was still too veiled and homogenized. The EMI/Von Karajan (SLS 5205) was more transparent, but too lean and unnatural in tone. The now rare EMI/Mehta (SAN 929/3), with Birgit Nilsson, was transparent, clean and immediate, but the voices were strained. If I had to choose one, it would be the Decca/Von Karajan. The sound is still exceptional, and the performance has triumphed over the merciless test of time.
Wagner Opera Recordings: Unfortunately, there will be no Wagner operas on the list. Many of them have "excellent" sonics, good enought for "The Honorable Mentions", but none of them are truly "outstanding".
I listened to Georg Solti, on Decca/London, conducting The Ring Cycle, Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman and Tristan and Isolde. Tannhauser almost made it. It had tremendous transparency, dynamic intensity and immediacy, but it was also a bit dry, lean and had too much strain on the voices. The "atmosphere" was also inferior to all The Ring operas. Gotterdammerung was the finest set of the Ring cycle, but the sound was very variable.
I also auditioned the assorted Von Karajan, Karl Bohm and Eugene Jochum et al recordings on various labels. The Decca/Solti albums were sonically superior to all the others.
Mozart Opera Recordings: I haven't heard any Mozart opera albums that are good enough to make this list. Most of the finest performances were on EMI, Philips and DGG. There were also some early stereo recordings from Decca. I personally own (mainly) the EMI sets (Guilini, Klemperer and Bohm), but I have auditioned the various alternatives, which have been "for sale" in my (now former) store.
A number of Lyritas were reissued by the Musical Heritage Society, which is/was based in the United States. One of them, MHS 1198, Bax Symphony No. 6, was actually on the TAS "Super LP" list, and maybe it still is. I've heard a good number of these reissues over the year. They are all mediocre, including the recommended Bax.
They are noticeably veiled, distorted and compressed, especially compared to any of the original Lyritas pressed in England. It is quite similar to the usual differences between an English EMI and the American Angel equivalent.
Hearing these LPs was just one more reason why the TAS list lost its credibility for me, and for the many others who actually heard their recommendations.
This is the first RCA Classical recording to make this list, not including the Chesky's. Many of the famous original pressings, the Shaded Dogs, were "very good", especially considering that they were mastered and released from the late 1950's to middle 1960's.
However, they shared some common sonic problems that 'reviewers', "collectors" and, most of all, used record dealers do not like to admit to, or even discuss, but I will. (Very Important- These three groups that I just mentioned are decidedly not self-exclusive.)
Every single RCA LP mastered and pressed back in "the good old days", 1955-65, Classical, Jazz or Pop, was compromised by the cutting and mastering equipment that was used at the time.
While their equipment might have been the best available then, it is far inferior to what is available now. Just as those original records, when played back on a modern audio system, sound so much better than in the past, the same holds true when the original master tapes are played back on the updated and modernized tape and mastering components of today; the end result being (potentially) a far superior pressing.
They are noticeably rolled off at both frequency extremes;
they have a subtle (but still audible) distortion at all volume levels;
they are veiled and are rarely "immediate";
they sound homogenized at louder volumes;
the transients are blunted and rounded off;
they sound "compressed", even at lower volume levels;
and they have a (relatively) high "sound-floor", which obscures some low-level musical information (though their sound-floor is still lower than many of the Classic reissues and maybe all of the other pressings of their day, which is why their original fame is justified).
The Classic Reissues were supposed to address all of these problems, but the results were mixed, because their obvious sonic advantages have to be tempered with some of their own sonic problems.
However, despite these various problems, caused by the equipment of its day, the best of the RCAs still have better, more natural sonics than the best of their competition from that period. They also have quieter backgrounds, due to the use of (I assume) better quality vinyl.
This LP is one of Classic's early reissues. Unlike many of the others released at that time, it sounds natural and full bodied, along with the usual strengths of powerful dynamics, plus speed and precision. This is an English (Decca) import. The original RCA is worth a small fortune and it is extremely rare. This LP will sound a lot better and still cost a small fraction of the price of the original. The cover is stunning. This LP is no longer available new.
This brings us finally to the ultimate "Shaded Dog"...
Here it is: The most famous audiophile "classical" recording of all time, mainly thanks to The Absolute Sound, which has been hyping the original "Shaded (and/or "White") Dog" for around 25 years. It even received the "cover treatment" and a big article in issue 108.
At one time, the original pressings were going for hundreds of dollars. The prices have since steeply dropped, mainly because of the Classic reissue, but they are still selling for a large premium even today. Some questions are inevitable.
How good is the Classic reissue? Should you still pay the "premium" for an original pressing? What about the many competitive recordings to the Reiner/RCA? Let's take this step by step.
This reissue by Classic is mostly magnificent, but the sound is, once again, variable, based on which Side is being played. The sonics on Side One have the typical RCA strengths of a huge and focused soundstage. The dynamic qualities are also exceptional. However, the sound is "lean" in body and "dry" in harmonic content, compared to both the original and to what's on Side Two. The sound "fills in" a little by the second movement, but doesn't feel totally natural until you get to the 4th movement, where it all, finally, comes together.
The 4th movement is worth the (regular) price of the record alone. There is also some "pre-echo", barely audible on Side One, but it is obtrusive at the beginning of the 4th movement. Overall, the sonics on Side Two are basically as good as The Pines of Rome.
BOTTOM LINE: Scheherazade was one of the finest RCA "original recordings" made in the U.S. It has all their unique strengths, but with fewer, and less audible, weaknesses. It isn't RCA's "best classical recording", let alone "the best classical recording of all time", but the paralyzing sonics in the 4th movement might still make this a "must have" LP for many listeners.
REINER/ORIGINAL "SHADED/WHITE DOG"- These records are extremely variable in sound, from pressing to pressing, and even when the Stamper Number ("1S") is the same. I would advise to never purchase a copy without auditioning it first, or with some other "buyer protection", at least when there is "big money" at stake.
THE SONICS: I have heard a variety of these originals over the years, on a number of different systems. At their best, they are quite impressive and superior to the Classic reissue in "body" and harmonic content on Side One, and even, though to a lesser extent, on Side Two. They just sound more natural.
Other than that, they are noticeably inferior to the Classic reissue, sounding comparatively veiled, compressed, homogenized and distorted at all volume levels. The sonic gap is even larger when they are compared to a good number of other orchestral records on this list. In short, the original pressings, as good as they can be, do not make this (BASIC) list.
The best I can say about these records is that it is very probable that the finest of them do equal the typical sonic standards within The Honorable Mentions, because they still have some outstanding qualities, but their sonic weaknesses (rarely, if ever, mentioned by collectors and dealers-who are often the same people), are very noticeable. They do deserve recognition as one of the finest RCAs originating from their "Golden Period", but the standards of today are definitely higher.
CONCLUSION: I can believe and understand that this was one of the finest LPs when it came out in 1960, but why it still has such veneration more than 40 years later escapes me. There must be literally hundreds of orchestral records produced since then, that sound better than a good, typical original pressing. People who pay a premium for this LP are rarely buying "premium sound", period.
This Classic Reissue, unlike its "sister recordings" above ("The Pines" and "Pictures"), doesn't have any Mobiles, UHQRs, (second-generation) Cheskys or Decca Reissues to contend with. However, there were still plenty of other "regular records" that were available. I am fortunate to have heard virtually all the major (sonic) contenders:
REINER/CHESKY- This was one of the first (generation) Chesky reissues. It has good sound, but it is not as full-bodied and harmonically complete as "the originals". It is also veiled and compressed compared to the Classic, the better originals and some of the others. A real disappointment.
BEECHAM/EMI- Another legendary performance. The sound is also very good. It is large sized, dynamic and has good outer detail. The sound is somewhat unnatural in tone; with reduced warmth, bloom and weight, which is essential to the music. The background "tape hiss" is even more obtrusive than on the RCA, and there is also a slight, but noticeable, "brightness zone".
KLETZKI/EMI- The Penguin Record Guide likes this record, especially the performance. This has a slightly more natural tonal balance than the Beecham, but it is very compressed, with a small soundstage and it is also veiled. This seriously compromises the drama of the music.
ANSERMET/DECCA- I haven't heard this recording in a while. I remember it sounding "good", but it was never really "impressive". It had some tonal problems and it was also homogenized and distorted at times. I'll try to rehear it for verification.
MONTEAUX/DECCA- The sonics on my copy are very variable. The tonal balance is always very good, but the sound at the beginning of Side One is noticeably veiled and homogenized. The soundstage is also poorly captured, and with virtually no depth. However...
The sonics dramatically change by the 2nd movement. The sound is cleaner and more immediate and the entire soundstage opens up. The dynamic qualities are also superb in movements 2 to 4, and are actually competitive with the Reiner/RCA. A modern (180 gram) reissue of this recording would probably make this list. The original pressing of this recording was a RCA Shaded Dog-LSC-2208, even though the recording was engineered by Decca. I haven't heard this particular pressing at this time.
HAITINK/PHILIPS- Another LP that was top-rated in the (1977) Penguin Guide. The sound is very natural, clean and immediate. It is even better in those areas than the RCA Classic. However, the dynamics are seriously compromised and the soundstage is smaller and lacks focus. There is also insufficient "weight" to the sound.
This is one of those unusual situations where, "on paper", this record should almost "equal" the RCA/Reiner, but it doesn't come even remotely close to the Reiner in "real life" listening.
KONDRASHIN/PHILIPS- This was the last "Scheherazade LP Champion", according to the 1985 Penguin Record Guide, where both the performance and the sonics were considered in their final evaluation. They make a good case, because it not only improves on the Haitink/Philips' strengths, but it also has superior dynamics, especially in the critical brass section.
Sadly, it still doesn't have quite the phenomenal dynamic weight and volume of the RCA Classic, which is most noticeable in the climactic 4th movement. This is a real alternative otherwise, overall, because many listeners may even prefer the results on Side One and also the third movement at the beginning of Side Two.
MEHTA/DECCA- It had to happen one day: "The King is Dead, Long Live the King". (See the next listing.)
This recording was made in April, 1974, which was 14 years after the Reiner/RCA. It is the one, and only, recording of Scheherazade that I can safely say is superior (overall) sonically to the Classic Reissue. It is a considerable improvement over the original "Shaded Dog". Why TAS (and Editor Harry Pearson in particular, who usually went "bonkers" over the other Mehta/Decca/Los Angeles records) decided to totally ignore this LP, is just another audiophile "used record" mystery.
The Mehta is not cut as loud as the Classic reissue. The soundstage is not quite as large or as focused as the Reiner, but the Mehta is still exceptional in those areas.
It is superior to the RCA Classic in purity, transparency and immediacy. The sound-floor is lower, and there is a more natural texture to the instruments. Most importantly, this time it does retain the critical "dynamic weight" in the brass (though it still doesn't quite equal the Classic). In fact, the Mehta is even superior to the Classic, in dynamic shading, on Side One. The overall sound is just more "real" and "alive", while still retaining the vital dramatic qualities of the Classic, which, in turn, sounds somewhat "old" in comparison. This LP still has limited demand.
FURTHER: The Mehta English pressings are preferable to the Dutch, which are a little leaner and also not as powerful in comparison. This problem makes a more noticeable difference with this music.
I have strongly mixed feelings concerning the RCA Classic Reissue Series. On one hand, I am so very grateful that they became available in the first place. Many of these records would be impossible to find at any price and, most of the time, the sonics they delivered were excellent or better. The records were brand new too, with beautiful, glossy outer covers.
My "big disappointment" is solely based on my high expectations. I expected even more. Why? Because I had read, for more than 20 years, that these were supposed to be "the finest recordings ever made". They weren't.
To clarify matters: I don't place the main blame on any of the people at Classic, or RCA for that matter, despite the fact that engineering misjudgements were made by both of them. Instead, I put the main blame on the audio magazines, especially TAS. They have, for more than two decades, promoted the original pressings with no restraint and without any serious second thoughts or dissenting opinions (Robert E. Greene excluded).
With a scenario that depressingly repeated the famous fable, The Emperor's New Clothes, they created an entire market out of nothing, which still exists today, completely based on their continual, grossly inflated, self-serving*, descriptions of the sonic "quality" of those records.
Of course, after their first purchase, the buyers had no one but themselves to blame, because any "good" Decca/London or EMI etc., pressed from the late 1960's on, was superior to almost any of the original RCAs. (Further- Many, if not most, of the recent reissues of these same EMIs and Deccas, from virtually all the sources, are even better.)
This same promotion "formula" was then used for creating similar markets in original Mercurys, London "Bluebacks", Decca "2000s" and now some of the early EMIs.
*It is no coincidence that many, if not most, of the so-called record "reviewers" who originally promoted and hyped these "original pressings" LPs, were also (moonlighting) used record dealers, who had previously stockpiled the very same records that they were now creating an artificial demand for in their articles and "reviews".
The RCA recording team still did an exceptional job, when everything is considered. 20 of the Classic Reissues have already made this list, with 5 of those within the top two categories. However, 3 of those 5 are "non-classical", and only one of the two remaining reissues was actually recorded by the RCA recording team; Song of the Nightingale. That is my choice for the very finest classical recording ever made by RCA. (NOTE- The Royal Ballet album, within The Divinity, was recorded by Decca for RCA.)
Ultimately, RCA did a better (initial) job, than any of their competitiors, in both mastering and pressing their records during the early days of stereo (1955-65). However, it turns out that Decca (and Mercury) actually had better recordings to work with, and eventually they caught up and surpassed RCA in the final product they offered to the public. For Decca, that didn't happen until the late 1960's, when they changed their cutting heads. For Mercury, it took Classic Records to reveal their high intrinsic quality, but only in 3 of their 6 total releases.
One of the most satisfying EMI recordings, especially when both the performance and the sonics are taken into account. I originally thought that this place would be taken by the Mehta/Decca recording that is also on the TAS list ("Best of the Bunch" no less), but that was not to be the case. (See below)
I've been impressed with this recording since the first time I heard it, something like 30 years ago now. It is excellent, or even better, in every sonic area. It has a large and focused soundstage, with a tremendous sense of depth. The instruments sound natural and with body. They each have a sense of space and don't homogenize at louder volumes. There is both outer and inner detail, so the instruments retain their color and character.
The dynamic qualities of this LP are especially notable; being both soft and powerful when called for. This gives the performance true dramatic impact. This is really noticeable in Mars and Saturn, where it counts the most. The sound-floor is low, but it's not "really low". I have heard both early and later pressings, and I don't recall a significant difference between them.
COMPARISONS: The sound-floor on the Previn/EMI is not quite as low as the Solti/Mobile, which is also a bit more pure and refined. The Solti also retains more of the low-level information and detail that you would hear in a live performance, plus its deep bass at the end of Saturn is much more powerful. That is why the Solti may be somewhere in the top two classes while the Previn will stay in The Basic List. The Mehta/Decca comparison is a lot more complicated.
In August 2014, I posted an article (see below) arguing that there were proven sonic problems with EMI (UK) pressings, concluding with the hope that someone would finally come out with quality reissues to address this issue. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to me, there was already a company fulfilling my wish. When I found this out, I immediately purchased one of their reissues (used), which was fortunately one of my favorite EMI recordings and, even better, one of the exact recordings I mentioned in the article. I have now compared this reissue with my UK "Original" pressing twice, once by myself and once with an associate present. This is what we observed:
The results were mixed. The HI-Q was usually a little better in detail, purity and speed, but there were problems in the first two minutes of Mars and the sound became hard during some crescendos. There was also some noticeable wow during Venus and the beginning of Saturn, though it wasn't serious. The sound improved in the later cuts, as though the mastering amplifiers were warming up, but the EMI was still better at reproducing tension (Mars), which could mean it had a lower sound-floor. So, sometimes the HI-Q was better and sometimes the original EMI was better. Overall, both my associate and I preferred the original EMI because of its greater sonic consistency, meaning that its problems less often brought attention to themselves. Bottom Line- The HI-Q is quite good, but I strongly believe that an even better reissue is still possible, hopefully at 45 RPM (3 or 4 sides).
While I prefer the performance of the Previn/EMI recording, the Solti/Mobile Fidelity is still a little better in the sonics department, most of the time.
The sonics of the numerous pressings of this recording are extremely variable. This sonic variability even extends to the different movements themselves. Sadly; No one pressing is the best in every sonic attribute. In fact, if it was possible to make a "Frankenstein copy" of these pressings, by somehow combining all the cumulative sonic strengths in just one record, the resulting LP would make The Basic List, or maybe even higher. However, we must live with reality.
Here are the details as to (almost) all of the different pressings:
"Early" English- The Mehta/Planets was recorded in 1971, so, when I write "early", this means the pressings from the early 1970's. These are some of the worst sounding pressings of them all; being both homogenized, veiled and relatively compressed. They will have a stamper with "1W" on them. I have also directly verified that the early English Decca's are as bad as the early English London's, when I, and two speaker manufacturers, compared one of them with a (noticeably superior) Canadian pressing. (See the anecdote below.)
"Late" English- From the late 1970's. The logo on the inside label will look a little more "modern", and the vinyl should be a little "blacker". The stamper should be at least "3W" or higher. The sound is more immediate, cleaner, more detailed, less homogenized and (critically) more dynamic, than the early English. This is the pressing, along with the Canadian, that has the "overwhelming Uranus", that was previously described in the Solti/Mobile entry. This is the most satisfying pressing, overall, that I have heard, though the Speakers Corner Reissue is superior in every way, but one.
Dutch- This pressing is similar to the recent Speakers Corner reissue below, but it is leaner in the mid and upper bass. It is also compressed.
American- I haven't heard this in a while, but it was noticeably homogenized, veiled and compressed compared to the Late English and Canadian.
Canadian- This is noticeably superior to the early English, but not quite as good as the later English, though it's very close. It is clean, transparent, dynamic and immediate. It is the second best pressing, and it also has the "overwhelming Uranus". It will be rare and hard to find, even within Canada. Why is it so surprisingly good? I was informed that it was mastered with tube amplifiers.
King Super Analogue- This pressing is quiet, but it has a less natural tonal balance and it is also relatively homogenized and compressed. Another disappointment.
Speakers Corner- This pressing is more transparent, natural, immediate, detailed, and cleaner than any of the above, with the exception of the Dutch. It also has a lower sound-floor, which allows the listener to hear more inner details; like the individual doubles basses and Mehta whispering instructions etc. It is now competitive with both the Solti and Previn in all these areas, but there is:
The "bad news" is that the Speakers Corner Reissue is not nearly as dynamic as either the Late English or Canadian pressings, especially in Uranus, but even in Mars.
The "overwhelming" quality that I previously described above (which is its greatest strength) is now seriously compromised, and so is, along with it, the primary "drama" of the music. It almost sounds like someone was at the volume control, with the goal of frustrating the listener by lowering the volume at all the most dramatic moments. Accordingly, I still prefer the Late English and Canadian in overall sonics. What a dissatisfying turn of events.
Both the Solti/Mobile and the Previn/EMI are still far superior to any one particular Mehta/Decca pressing. Let me count the ways, and there are so many that I may miss some on my first attempt:
With the sole exception of the Speakers Corner Reissue, the Mobile and EMI both have a much lower sound-floor, allowing a lot more information to be heard, including inner details and the harmonic structure and decay of the instruments. They are also cleaner, more natural and much less homogenized, particularly at higher volume levels.
The Mehta's sense of "performance space" is also not nearly as obvious, especially the depth, the separation of instruments and the layers of the orchestra. They are also more satisfyingly dynamic during both Mars and Saturn movements, but not during Uranus, which is the Mehta's one "strong suit".
The Speakers Corner Reissue is competitive with both these records, but...
Then there are the dynamic contrasts: The Mehta/Speakers Corner, which sounds noticeably compressed in comparison with two of its own alternative pressings, is even that much more compressed when it is compared with either the Mobile or the EMI. This fatal flaw alone disqualifies it.
I, and a number of audiophile friends, have gone to great lengths to find the best pressing of this recording. Why? Because according to TAS (Harry Pearson), this is "one of the 12 best classical records of all time in sonics". That is also the reason why I have taken the time to audition and describe all the different pressings. What have we concluded after almost 10 years of searching and auditioning:
1. This is not "one of the 12 finest sounding classical records" of all time; literally hundreds are equal or superior.
2. This is not even the best sounding recording of The Planets.
3. This is not even the finest sounding recording of Zubin Mehta with the Los Angeles Symphony. Scheherazade is better, and the stunning Varese recording, listed in The Divinity, is in another sonic world.
4. The only "really special" movement is Uranus, and it's "special" on just two of the many pressings.
5. This record is one of the "great myths" of the record world. It would be the No. 1 myth, but that "distinction" is permanently owned by Mercury SR90144 (with Casino Royale a close second).
I may have spent more time finding the best version of this recording than any other LP (with one possible exception, Albeniz/Decca/Suite Espanola). So far (see the Link below for my history with this recording for confirmation), it's been almost all frustration and disappointment. Well, there has finally been a positive development. I, and one of my associates, spent part of an evening comparing the two best pressings of the Mehta/Planets from the past, to the latest pressing from ORG (which I've had for two years, unlistened to until now). The results were easy to observe and report on:
The ORG is a good improvement over the previous "champion" (in most respects); the Speakers Corner Reissue. As for the "original" London (which the late Harry Pearson went crazy over 20+ years ago), mastered and pressed in England (and the best copy of the many I've had), it actually sounded defective in comparison to the ORG. In short, if you want the best pressing of this recording, the ORG is your only choice. It's the only one I've heard that does full justice to the recording (including "Uranus"), though "Saturn" is still compressed compared to the EMI/Previn. However, I now (finally) realize that this "defect" is obviously in the original recording and not a mastering/pressing problem.
Accordingly, unlike all the previous pressings, even including the earlier reissues, the ORG enters The Basic List of The Supreme Recordings, though it doesn't have the immediacy and aliveness to enter the higher categories. Quick description- It is noticeably cleaner, quieter, more natural and detailed than any previous pressing, especially those from London/Decca. It also has a slightly larger and more focused image, but this is a subtle improvement. The surfaces are mostly ultra-quiet, which is the norm with this company, though the 2nd LP had an unusual amount of surface noise and other problems, on both sides. (Cleaning helped a little, but a visible inspection exposed some surprising pressing defects, the first I've experienced from ORG.)
ORG has done extraordinary well in its reissues, with the Mehta/Planets being its most important achievement, since it proved to be superior to both the original pressings and the best of the earlier audiophile reissues. Next comes a comparison with another recording with a large assortment of pressings. This time the competition will be even tougher, because the recording itself is superior, providing more opportunities for mistakes.
Holst/Planets LP Comparisons
ORG (Original Recordings Group) Website
Top - Original UK London Pressing
Bottom Row (Left to Right) - Speakers Corner Reissue, ORG Reissue (2 LPS) 45 RPM
Like HI-FI A LA ESPANOLA (and Casino Royale), the presence of this record at the very top of any serious list of "the finest sounding LPs" is beyond my comprehension. Together, they are the two most overrated classical records that I am aware of. I freely admit that both records have some sonic strengths and that both sound "good", but that is still far short from sounding "great".
As with the Mercury LP, the audiophile "press" has had nothing but continual praise for all the different Mehta/Planets, with only an extremely rare mention of the variability of the pressings. Such timidity and incompetence make them consistently useless to serious audiophiles.
I have always felt, and still do, that Harry Pearson is uncompromised when it comes to software, even with all the petty, industry politics. He has criticized the used record dealers in direct terms, and when no one else would. I can only speculate that he may either have a problem hearing what I am describing or is totally unaware of the truly finest records, because discovering them is an extremely time consuming process. (He has no excuse with the Previn/EMI, it was his own previous recommendation that led me to it.) Associating only, or even mainly, with "admirers" and "yes men" doesn't help either.
I encourage readers to audition as many of the above mentioned LPs as possible, and then to make up their own minds.
And now I would like to reveal the details of an experience that was critical in forming my, and my audiophile's friend's, views on the issue of pressings and credibility.
Up until 1993, I, along with everyone I knew, believed in the superiority of Decca pressings over their equivalent London pressings. Now, we hadn't made the comparisons ourselves, but everything we had read, by the people who had claimed to have made the comparisons, pointed to that one, simple conclusion. To us, it was virtually "an absolute truth".
Then came the experience that shattered our (dogmatic) minds with regards to pressings, labels, the audio magazines and, most of all, "the record reviewers/collectors". The day started off in an innocent manner. We didn't expect anything to shock us, especially concerning records, because we met for a totally different reason...
My two friends came over to hear my latest modification of the Wilson WATT speakers. One of them brought over a few of his favorite and most familiar records. One of those records was a Decca, Early Pressing, of Holst's The Planets, conducted by Zubin Mehta. (The London pressing of this same recording had recently been placed on the TAS list.)
I had never seen the Decca Mehta/Planets before, and neither did my other friend. I owned a copy of the Canadian pressing at the time, which I thought was quite good, while my other friend didn't own any copy of Mehta's Planets. We decided to listen to the Decca Planets after evaluating what I had done to the WATTS with my own records first, which were previously chosen.
So, after a lengthy audition, and a pizza break, it was time to put on the Decca Planets. From the beginning you could hear that it was obviously an excellent record, but I sensed that something was "wrong". I had just recently played my own (Canadian) pressing and I remembered being more impressed with it. This didn't make any sense to me so, after a polite period of time, I suggested listening to my own pressing and my two friends humored me. Our audiophile lives were about to change...
Within 15 seconds of playing the Canadian Planets, we were all in collective shock. You didn't have to be an "expert" to hear the obvious superiority of the Canadian pressing! It was so much more transparent, cleaner, detailed and dynamic, that any non-audiophile could easily hear the improvement. My friend, who owned the Decca pressing, just stared blankly into space, and kept saying to himself: "How can this be?, How can this be?"
The owner even offered to trade his Decca for my Canadian pressing, but I refused. Then we discussed the many, profound implications of what we had just heard:
Not only was a Canadian pressing superior to an English pressing, this English pressing was a Decca, and this Decca was an "Original". We had heard, read and believed, for years, that Decca pressings were the finest, period. Now we had discovered, with the incontrovertible evidence of our own experience, that this "Rule" was not true, and that the proponents of this "Rule" were either liars or incompetents. We had seen "The Emperor Naked", and we could never go back to being innocent, true believers again.
A short time later, my other friend (who had no Mehta Planets), found a London pressing that was pressed in England, but with a late stamper. It turned out to be a little better than the Canadian pressing, making it the best of the three.
Then the two of us started comparing as many Deccas as we could find with their London counterparts. We first quickly discovered (actually confirmed) that the later pressings were usually superior, or at least equal, to their earlier equivalents, regardless of the label. This "confirmed" what we had experienced with the (sealed, Blueback) Argenta "Espana" record a couple of years earlier. (See "Espana" anecdote above.)
When the Deccas and Londons were both the same pressing vintage, with the same or similar stampers, it was almost always "a tie", with any differences being essentially insignificant, and we are "very picky people". That's not all. We also researched the history of London and Decca engineering. There wasn't even the slightest evidence that any "changes" were ever made to either record label during either the masterings or the pressings.
In fact, the producers and engineers, within their books and interviews, all claimed that both labels were produced exactly the same (with the sole exception of the Phase Fours). In fact, if Decca hadn't lost the rights to their own name in North America in the first place, all of the records would have been labeled Decca and there never would have been any "Londons".
The conclusion we made, based strictly on the hard evidence, was simple and inescapable:
Addendum: I can now even offer some official and documented proof of Decca/London Equality:
To my great surprise (and disappointment), there was one very promising Klavier reissue that didn't meet the standards of this list. This is the Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony" with Fremaux (KS 526). To make matters even worse, I haven't been able to find any other LP of the Organ Symphony that makes it either.
Below are the results of the auditions of "the contenders":
Fremaux/Klavier- This is transparent and immediate, with excellent dynamics and power, but it is more noticeably "tipped up" than the other Klavier records. Even worse, it gets bright and edgy when it becomes loud, which is often.
Mehta/London- This is similar in sonics to the Planets, which was probably recorded in the same place (Royce Hall) at around the same time. It sounds "excellent", but it is slighlty veiled and there is not enough inner detail. The sound-floor is a little high and the recording space is masked. There are still excellent dynamic contrasts, natural body and the organ is also very powerful. It homogenizes at high volumes, but it also doesn't strain or distort like most of the others. This is still a very good choice overall and it is listed in The Honorable Mentions.
I compared a Decca to a London pressing, and there were trade-offs. The Decca was a little more immediate and dynamic, while the London was a little more full-bodied, quieter and cleaner.
Martinon/EMI- This (Greensleeves reissue) has two other short works on it. It is more transparent, cleaner and detailed than the Mehta, at least at low volumes, and it also has a lower sound-floor. Sadly, as soon as it gets loud, it starts to noticeably distort and also becomes lean and edgy. It doesn't have a sense of weight and power like the Mehta. The real sonic "highlight" on this LP is the Danse Macabre at the end of Side Two.
Munch/RCA- This has a good sized soundstage, plus the usual RCA focus. It also has "body", but it is noticeably veiled, distorts at higher volumes and is overly resonant. The highs are also rolled off, so it sounds "old" in comparison to most of the other recordings. Finally, it doesn't have the weight and power of the Mehta. I have a "16S" pressing, so maybe an earlier copy would sound better.
Paray/Mercury- The Golden Import version of this recording is the worst reissue I have ever heard from this label. It was distorted, rolled off, unnatural etc. I can't say even one thing good about it. It was also the first Golden Import I ever heard (around 1975), and it prejudiced me for years with this label. I've auditioned several copies of it since then, with the same result. The original pressing isn't very good either, though it does have deep bass.
Barenboim/DGG- This record was much better than I remember. It is immediate, clean and natural. There is good inner detail and it is quite dynamic; actually competitive to the Fremaux in its strengths. It doesn't distort as much when it gets loud, and there is great energy in the organ, except for in the deep bass, which is rolled off.
The main problem is the multi-miking and highlighting, which makes the image shift and sound unnatural. If this isn't a serious concern, this will be the first choice for most listeners, though I can understand some listeners still preferring the Mehta. This record even received a "Rosette" from the Penguin Record Guide, mainly because of the performance.
Bernstein?/Mobile- This is overly dry, veiled and unnatural sounding, like almost all Columbia recordings.
Ansermet/Decca- This is veiled and homogenized. There is not enough energy in the organ either. The King Super Analogue reissue has the same problems.
Here is a short, popular, 35 minute composition, with plenty of dramatic and spectacular moments. There have been numerous recordings, by all the major labels, and not even one of them is "outstanding". This reminds me of the Also Sprach Zarathustra scenario, discussed at length in The Honorable Mentions. They both have prominent organs in them. Another focus for "conspiracy buffs"?
The most important experience for an audiophile (and true scientists for that matter) is one of "surprise", because this means you were wrong about something, and are now open to learn something new and unexpected. In my case, it was the assumption that all the Decca Phase Four records were superior to their London counterparts, particularly if they were both pressed in the U.K.
I now know better. Here are the details...
During a listening session in 2011, one of my associates and I decided to listen to the Ben Hur/Rozsa recording, and I chose the Decca (PFS 4394) pressing, because it was supposedly common knowledge (and not just hearsay) that Decca added "equalization" to their London (Phase Four) pressings, supposedly to satisfy North American "tastes". However, when listening to the Decca, both of us were a little disappointed, so we decided, out of curiosity, to also hear the London (SPC 21166) pressing, even though we both believed it would sound worse.
Well, to make a long story short, we were both almost stunned to discover that the London sounded better than the Decca; it was more dynamic, with more body and it was also a little cleaner. We could still hear some equalization "artifacts" on the London, but they were relatively subtle compared to the more obvious improvements. The bottom line- We both much preferred the London pressing overall.
What does this experience mean? Once again, this proves that other factors are much more important to the actual sound quality than the simple label name "Decca". In this instance, the Decca was a "2V" UK pressing, while the London was a "2W" UK pressing. This result then is consistent* with my exhaustive evaluation of other Decca/London classical records over the years**, in which a "W" pressing was preferable to all the others, with the one important exception of the "G" pressings.
My advice then, when it comes to Decca and London Phase Four records, is exactly the same as with the "ordinary" Decca/London Classical LPs: Always look for "G" pressings first, and then "W". Avoid all the others, unless you have no other choice, because having the music is always more important and, besides, "G" and/or "W" didn't master every single Decca recording.
*Importantly, I only looked at the deadwax pressing information as I wrote this article, which is now many months after our actual listening comparison. This makes it a (deadwax) "blind test".
**For more information on this subject, I would read this article: Decca Versus London, which is part of a large file discussing Classical Music records from many famous labels.Top
I realize that making such an accusation is not something to be done lightly, which is why it took me almost two decades to finally discuss this issue in public. A critical opinion, especially when it is originated, requires hard evidence if possible, which can be verified by others, at least with common and shared observations, and I will provide it. My thesis is simple: I believe that EMI's UK masterings and pressings (while still far superior to the U.S. "Angels") were inferior to both Decca and (even) Nimbus, when these labels had access to the exact same recording (which is the only true and relevant test). Here is the evidence which I found convincing:
Lyrita's story is well known to lovers of modern (20th century) classical music composed in the UK. They were a small, specialist independent record company, but only did the marketing and planning. The recordings themselves were made by Decca, who had the highest standards at the time. The original (early) masterings and pressings were also done by Decca, on behalf of Lyrita. Later on, Nimbus (another small UK label) took over those same duties after Decca switched to their (parent company Polygram's) Dutch pressing plant to replace their own. Eventually, Nimbus also closed their own pressing plant, and EMI ended up being the (final) source for Lyrita pressings.
Thus we have the ideal situation where we can compare pressings from three different sources, all from the same country. Further, as far as we know, none of the sources had any inherent technical advantage over the others, since the owner of the recordings (Lyrita) was a fourth party, also located in the UK. There is even more good news: It also just so happened that Lyrita was given a lot of attention by Harry Pearson (formerly of The Absolute Sound), so audiophiles also purchased these pressings and, of course, eventually compared them to each other once they realized there was a sonic difference between them. So, was there a consensus in regard to sound quality?
Yes. The Decca pressings are considered to be the best of the three, while Nimbus takes second place and EMI takes third. However, since most of these comparisons were initially made by "collectors" (actually moonlighting dealers), who have proved to be unreliable due to monetary and egotistical considerations, I decided to make my own direct comparisons, and offer my own observations (backed up by some fellow listeners). I was fortunate to have been a Lyrita dealer for a number of years, and I was also a used record dealer as well, so I had access to plenty of different pressings of numerous Lyrita recordings. My/our findings...
As it turns out, we were in basic agreement with the "collectors" this time, though with a small divergence. I felt that there wasn't much of a difference between the Decca and the Nimbus pressings. The Decca pressings had a slight advantage in "body", while the Nimbus pressings had a slight advantage in immediacy and purity. Still, there was one unanimous consensus; the EMI pressings were the worst of the lot. (Though, to be fair, the EMI Lyrita pressings were still quite good, and I would not avoid them, especially if you are looking for a specific recording.)
This time we are going to be more specific. Back in 1965, EMI made recordings of some very modern music. One recording (Messiaen, Boulez and Koechlin) was mastered, pressed and released in the UK as ASD 639. It wasn't out for long, discontinued and seemingly forgotten. Then, 10 years later, Argo (owned by Decca) decided to come out with their own series of "Modern Music" records and, the details unknown to me, they ended up somehow with the rights of the earlier EMI recording(s). So ASD 639 was then re-mastered, pressed and released as Argo ZRG 756. The later Argo pressing even received some unexpected attention, once again, from Harry Pearson, who placed it in his "Super Discs" list (which is how I became aware of it).
So, once again, we have that ultra-rare situation where a recording was mastered and pressed by both EMI and Decca (Argo). Unlike the Lyrita scenario however, I've never heard (or read) of anyone comparing the EMI to the Argo, I assume because the original EMI is now a pretty rare LP. That's not a problem in this instance because I was able to make the comparison myself!
Fortunately, I had an acquaintance (a classical music professor and composer) who had a huge collection of (mainly obscure) 20th century music. Even better, he decided to convert as many of his records as possible to CDs, and he chose my store (in the 1990's) to sell-off his replaced records. And, of course, one of the records just happened to be the EMI in question; ASD 639 (in mint condition). By the time I received his EMI, I also had the equivalent Argo, so a direct comparison was eventually conducted, though this time all by myself. (The atonal music was so unappealing to my normal listening group, they wanted no part of the experiment.) So, what happened this time?
The EMI was again "pretty good" (like the EMI Lyritas), but the Argo was noticeably superior (more immediate and dynamic, purer etc). In fact, the degree of sonic superiority was much larger than with the Lyrita reissues. I didn't put 2 + 2 together at the time, even though I eventually made a second EMI/Argo comparison, though this time I am not as certain of the details (since it was only a confirmation). (I believe it was Roberto Gerhard's "Don Quixote" and "First Symphony": EMI ASD 613/Argo ZRG 752.) In any event, the final results were basically the same; the Argo was again noticeably superior to the EMI.
Now I've never made a "big deal" about these negative EMI findings, but recent events have made me realize that they are now highly relevant. How and why? I strongly believe that these findings provide an important opportunity which is now being overlooked by all of our current LP ReIssue companies. Let me explain...
For more than 20 years now, there have been serious reissues of a variety of famous, popular and even some rare LPs (with varying success). After the obvious titles came out (first from RCA and then the other majors), it appeared that almost every record label had representative reissues, but that is not true. EMI has seen its early (1950's string) classical records reissued (which had average sonics), but not its famous ("blockbuster") orchestral recordings from the later 1960's and 1970's (with a few exceptions from Alto). However, as I have argued above, it is exactly these recordings that have the greatest potential to reach new sonic heights, because they never had anything other than "second rate" reproduction in the first place. My request then to the LP reissuers is simple:
The largest and most important reissue "gold mine" existing today, without a doubt, is from EMI. They have the majority of the neglected sonic blockbusters, and these same neglected recordings also have the greatest proven potential for sonic improvement. While I realize that some odd RCA, Decca and Mercury recordings still require reissues, EMI has dozens*, if not hundreds, of top-notch recordings which have been overlooked*. Maybe EMI itself is to blame for this neglect, but it would be an audiophile and musical tragedy if these outstanding recordings (for sonics, music and performance) were never heard at their very best.
My hope is that this short essay may finally influence someone who has the capability to actually start, and finish, this project, whatever the hurdles. If done right, the final results, I guarantee, will be well worth it.
*Very Short List: The Planets/Previn; Pictures at an Exhibition/Muti; Rite of Spring/Muti; Shostakovich 11/Berglund; Corroboree/Lanchberry; Das Lied Von Der Erde/Klemperer; Beethoven Symphonies/Jochum.
A knowledgeable reader sent me some intersting information (and confirmation) concerning my EMI observations above. I felt it must be shared. There's some minor editing and my bold:
"If you check the ASD 639 just mentioned, you'll see the Messiaen has the old-style metal-type - suggesting it was cut with EMI's older/original? stereo equipment (the mono ALP2092 has both sides 'new-style' and is obviously 'faster' - with more inner-clarity). There are vast swathes of EMI 'stereo duds' up to 1965 which clearly are distorted/dirty in sound due to that factor...and with considerable inconsistencies between closely dated masterings. EMI also introduced a 'de-esser' circuit in late 1968 - to make sharp transients less 'hot' when mastered onto disc."Top
The Complete List of THE SUPREME RECORDINGS
The Descriptions and Awards of THE DIVINITY
The Descriptions, Awards and Essay of THE DEMI-GODS
The Descriptions and Award of THE BASIC LIST-ANCIENT MUSIC & SMALL SCALE CLASSICAL
The Descriptions of THE BASIC LIST-LARGE SCALE ORCHESTRA & OPERA
The Descriptions of THE BASIC LIST-POP/JAZZ/FOLK/ETHNIC MUSIC & SOUNDTRACKS
Some Descriptions and Essays of THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
The Alphabetized Classical Music Supreme Recordings
Purchasing Used Classical Records
The Reference Components
THE RECENT FILE
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