SUPREME LP RECORDINGS
CLASSICAL MUSIC-SMALL SCALE
CLASSICAL MUSIC-LARGE SCALE
The Complete Supreme Recordings List
The Demi-Gods-Descriptions & Awards
The Basic List-Descriptions & Awards
The Honorable Mentions List (and Some Descriptions)
These are my choices for the 25* finest sounding records ever made. Since this list is a serious effort on my part to be a true "Reference" for myself and others, I enlisted the help of a number of dedicated audiophiles to help me with these final rankings and classifications.
I realize that other audiophiles will disagree with some of my choices, but this is inevitable. If there are LPs that sound more real than these 25, and/or those in The Demi-Gods, I would certainly like to hear them.
To demonstrate my enthusiasm for these recordings, 14 of the 25 LPs within this classification received "awards" for the finest of their type.
*There are actually 26 recordings in The Divinity because 2 of the albums are "siblings" that couldn't be fairly separated from each other.
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 may have noticed a small change in text, it is not just their "imagination".
This LP originally came out as the Harmonia Mundi. It has also been on the TAS list for a number of years. The original pressing is definitely good enough to make this list on its own, but the ATR reissue* is even better.
It excels in every sonic parameter. It is very transparent, immediate, clean, natural and dynamic. The sound stage is large and the sound-floor is extremely low, allowing every last detail to be heard; including the harmonic structure and decay, tonal and dynamic complexity etc. This LP was a top contender for the designation of the finest "ancient music" LP.
There is one "fly-in-the-ointment" though. ATR put out an earlier non-180 gram pressing. It wasn't quite as good, but with one big exception. On Side Two, near the beginning, there is a long, quiet, solo flute section. It ends abruptly with multiple, loud cracks from a bull whip. (Yes, this LP is weird, but it's fun!) On the earlier (thin) ATR, the bull whip is so explosive it could almost give you a heart-attack. The later (180 gram) pressing compresses the whip, which compromises the "shock-effect". So, if you want to safely get rid of an obnoxious (and rich) relative or a former friend with a bad heart, or just play a trick, the earlier ATR may have still some utility.
This LP is rare and remember to feel the weight. This was usually the LP I play last during a rare demonstration of my own system. I wanted it to be my guest's final auditory memory. I can't compliment any record more than that.
As promised, I have compared the Speakers Corner Reissue of the "famous" (to audiophiles) Harmonia Mundi LP, "La Folia", with the original pressing (and, as well, to the earlier reissue(s) from ATR). La Folia is not only one of the best sounding records from Harmonia Mundi, it is one of the best sounding LPs ever made by anyone. This is why I placed it in my highest designation, "The Divinity". The only LP I found to be its engineering superior, in the "Ancient Music" genre, and/or from Harmonia Mundi, was "Ancient Greek Music", which is a musically inaccessible LP for most listeners. La Folia, in contrast, is usually considered a "fun" record.
Once again, the Speakers Corner reissue is outstanding, but the original pressing is even better; a little more immediate, transparent, detailed, dynamic, lower sound floor etc. Even worse, the ATR (180 gram) pressing is better than both of them (though it's extremely rare and almost impossible to find). The original pressing is also "dead quiet", as are almost every Harmonia Mundi LP I've ever heard, while the Speakers Corner reissues may have some problems in this area (see below).
The original pressings of La Folia now usually sell for a small premium, but I would still look for the original. It was a popular LP (for its type), so it shouldn't be that difficult to find one, in very good condition, for a reasonable price. (If you can ever find the "heavy" ATR, then consider yourself very lucky.)
Footnotes- The Speakers Corner is separated into "cuts", while the original pressing is not (nor is the ATR). It captures the great "explosion" on Side One, though it misses the full intensity of the "whip crack" on Side Two (as does every other pressing with the one exception of the original "thin" ATR).
Pressing Quality- This pressing had easily noticeable (and highly distracting) surface noise for the first minute or so on both sides. The seller informed me that this noise problem is now common with Speakers Corner reissues. If true, and my two experiences don't contradict his claim, then Speakers Corner must immediately rectify this. Such noise is completely unacceptable in 2012, especially considering the high retail prices of these reissues. Do not forget that LP pressing plants were capable of achieving quiet surfaces more than 50 years ago now, and then for just ordinary simple records, at normal prices.
This is another indispensable LP from Harmonia Mundi. It consists of Twelfth Century Polyphony from France. The four voices are all male and there are no instruments of any kind. The recording is in a church or cathedral with plenty of reverberation, but the voices are closely miked to reduce potential problems.
I find this record "indispensable" because this is the finest recording of mature, male voices I have ever heard, from counter-tenor to baritone. The sound is extremely natural and immediate. The voices have both power and refinement. The first echoes are so strong that sometimes the voices almost appear out of focus. This recording venue was also used on some other Harmonia Mundi LP's. You can tell this when you hear some birds chirping in the background during the quiet sections.
FURTHER NOTE: This same vocal group, Ensemble Organum, has another record that is truly unique. It is called Chants De L'eglise De Rome. The record number is HMC 1218.
The music actually predates Gregorian chants. It is also a series of chants, but this time with cantors (soloists) and an "ison" (a basso-profundo harmonic foundation). This was the first music ever known to be censored, because of the respective Jewish and Orthodox influences. The Gregorian chants were the pure, and relatively boring, replacements.
I feel this music is fascinating and almost hypnotic in its primal intensity. The basso-profundo, Antoine Sicot, has the most powerful lower notes I've ever heard, and his breath control is simply amazing; it almost sounds like he is "a human organ"! Unfortunately, the sound while very good, has just too much distortion to make this list; the powerful voices ended up overloading the microphones.
BACK TO AWARDS
This is a very special and amazing record, and in more than one way. First, the music is unique; actually dating back to Ancient Greece and even The Roman Empire! It is the only record I know of that attempts to recreate music from that period.
Secondly, there is no other "Ancient Music" LP that can equal its sonics. Its closest rival is the ATR La Folia, which is a little variable, and not quite as immediate. It is better than all the other Harmonia Mundi's I've listed, and that even includes the incredible Villancicos.
This record defines both "immediacy" and "completeness". The sound-floor is as low as it gets on an LP, which is the reason why you can hear everything, and also why it is simply "alive". It is also incredibly dynamic. Of course, even the best has flaws. In this case, there is some "pre-echo" at the beginning of side one. This LP is also on the TAS list.
PRESSINGS: The original pressings by Harmonia Mundi sound extremely similar, but there are very small differences between the earliest, which has a yellow, "Acropolis benefit announcement" in the upper left hand corner of the front jacket, and those that came later. The "Acropolis" pressings are a touch more immediate and dynamic.
The recent 180 gram reissue is also very similar, but it is cut a little lower, so it doesn't have quite the dynamic force and immediacy of any of the original pressings. Though the vinyl is slightly quieter on the "180 gram". It may also be a touch cleaner. In the end though: All of the pressings are recommended.
BACK TO AWARDS
This LP is very special. It is one of the very best made by Harmonia Mundi, which also means it is one of the very best period. The record consists of Spanish popular music from the 15th and 16th Centuries, with some "help" from Gregorio Paniagua, the group's leader.
The sound of the record is truly exceptional in every category; low-level detail, dynamics, transparency, immediacy, naturalness etc. In short, it is an extraordinary LP that is also fun to listen to. This is the type of LP that, for me, makes all the hassle, time and expense of putting (and keeping) an analog system together all worthwhile. This record is somewhat rare, and now, probably because of its position on this list, is in demand.
NOTE: All the pressings I've ever seen of this LP are from Germany. I don't know if there were any pressings from France. There is also now a 180 gram reissue, but I haven't heard it yet.
This is a phenomenal record. It's all male voices recorded, I assume, in a church. The sound is extremely natural, immediate and spacious. The harmonics are all there, as are the subtle dynamic inflections. The soundstage is also large and focused. In short, this LP does it all, and it is competitive with any choral record I've heard (on Side Two). However, on Side One, the sonics are not quite as good.
The problem will be finding the record. It was originally imported by Proprius, another well known audiophile label. The cover is a reproduction of the "Mona Lisa". "FG" is short for Finngospel.Top
The Swedish label Proprius has produced a number of well-known LPs, but this is one of, if not, their finest. It is a group of popular choral works, with soloists and an organ and harpsichord.
On Side One is Carissimi's Jefta. The 30 person choir is beautifully recorded, as are the soloists, except for the bass, who overloads the microphone for around the first five minutes. The organ's lower notes are also a little loose, but the harpsichord is incredibly well recorded. The only other problem is that the female choir is distorted during the last few minutes.
I am going into this much detail because all the rest is one of the finest recordings I've ever heard. The recording on Side Two is a bit more variable, especially the choir, but the soloist and choir in Hear my Prayer, by Felix Mendelssohn, is back up to the standards of Jefta and maybe even better!
This record is indispensable for those audiophile/music-lovers who want a natural, uncompressed and revealing recording of "full-toned" human voices in a large acoustical space. There was a reissue of this LP by ATR that is also superb, but not quite as good as the original Proprius. Both LPs are quite rare.
This is another stunning recording by Peter McGrath and the U.S. recording team. It is very immediate and extremely natural, pure and clean, even at higher volumes. The dynamic contrasts are excellent. The retrieval of detail of the soloist is so complete, that it could actually be uncomfortable hearing all the detailed intimacies of the breathing, and the shape and humidity of the mouth etc. There is also a large soundstage, with depth, plus superb focus of the instruments. I think this recording is one cut above the other outstanding chamber records by this team which were already put on this list.
The only other sonic competitor is the Bach/Timegate, which was also recorded by McGrath a few years earlier. The Bach still has a noticeable advantage in immediacy and the retrieval of inner detail and decays, but this is partially caused by it being recorded in a more live venue. Some listeners may actually prefer the Vivaldi, since the Bach may be too "up-front" and "in your face" for comfort.
The harpsichord is a very difficult instrument to record, and further, the recorded sound of the instrument has regularly gotten on my nerves when I have listened to it on its own. This LP proves that some of that sonic irritation has been caused by the recordings themselves. I was not even aware of this particular record label until I auditioned this 2 LP album.
Unlike other recordings of Bach's masterpiece, Cercle didn't attempt to squeeze all of the music on just one record, but the overall results are so phenomenal, they had to have used some other "tricks", which are: There were just two microphones; YBA recording equipment and they used no Dolby or any other form of manipulation or compression. This was a truly "minimalist" execution.
The sonics are like a top notch direct-to-disc, being super clean, very immediate and dynamic. The sound is focused and it doesn't change at different volumes or when the music becomes complex. The sound-floor is extremely low. This LP is the closest that I've heard to a real harpsichord in your own listening room. It might even be better than the two incredible Japanese RCA direct-to-disc piano records.
I realize this is a very rare album, but I have no choice, this set must be recognized for what it is, and it is definitely worth the effort and expense to find a copy, especially if the music is appealing. I've never seen one listed used.
ALTERNATIVES: There is another recording of the Goldberg Variations, on just 1 LP, that still sounds superb. It is Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 1C 065-99 710. The artist is Gustav Leonhardt, who may be the most acclaimed Harpsichord player in the last 40 years. This record should be much easier to find, but the sonics are not in the league of the Kiener. Reference Recordings also came out with a harpsichord record with music this time by the French composer, Rameau (RR-27). It is very good, but no where close to the Cercle.
BACK TO AWARDS
This is an excellent example of an "all-out" recording, being both a direct-to-disc and mastered at 45 RPM. The result is the finest piano recording I have yet heard, though there is some serious competition from Reference Recordings, Athena and others.
The sonics are outstanding, with the piano recorded very upfront, so it appears to be in the listening room itself. The dynamic gradations, transparency, detail retrieval and cleanness on peaks are all extraordinary. It is also natural sounding with an excellent sense of decay and a low sound-floor.
The performance will not equal a Schnabel, Gilels or Solomon, but it is still very competent and enjoyable. This record has been on the TAS list for years.
Check the condition, it could have been a store demonstrator.
BACK TO AWARDS
This may be the finest recording of any type, but I hesitate to say that because it is pointless and unfair to compare a recording of a large orchestra with a small, intimate chamber group. All I can say is that I have never heard any recording that is even more immediate and "alive" sounding. The inner detail, harmonic structure and dynamic shading are also unsurpassed.
The recording engineer was Peter McGrath, one of the most talented (and underrated) in the world. While I enjoy the performance, I realize that some "experts", or even amateurs, will feel it is not "world class", but that is irrelevant in this context.
Why haven't you heard of this LP? Well, The Absolute Sound (TAS) actually 'reviewed' it when it came out back in 1981, and it was panned, believe it or not. After that it was totally forgotten, because TAS back then had a lot of influence on audiophiles (including me).
I "discovered" this LP 10 years later by sheer accident. I then reread the TAS 'review' with a combination of shock and sadness. (In fact, I find that it is impossible to read the TAS 'review' and listen to this LP without losing all respect for the TAS 'reviewer'. TAS reviewed it again, a few issues later, with more positive results, but the reviewer incorrectly wrote that this is a digital recording, it isn't.)
If you are wondering who "Timegate" is; they are the same people who manufactured the (once popular) DCM Time Window speakers. It is tragic that their greatest achievement, this LP, was a critical failure. I was informed, in the early 1990s, that only 1,000 to 2,000 of these LPs were ever made, so they are rare. The price of this LP was quite cheap for years, but it's now usually expensive if its found on an auction. Good hunting.
Competitor- The one Chamber Orchestra LP that "competes" with the Bach is the Vivaldi Flute Concertos on Harmonia Mundi (USA), which was also recorded by Peter McGrath a few years later. It is more "laid back" and not as "immediate". There is also less inner detail, decay and echo, but it is extremely natural and full-bodied. Some listeners may even prefer it for that reason.
This exceedingly special Vivaldi record is also within The Divinity. See the description just above.
BACK TO AWARDS
A reader has compared the various pressings of this incredible LP. He has sent me the results over time, and I have reorganized and edited his three letters in an effort to make them more easily understandable. Here it is, with my bold:
"Interestingly, ALL 3 are different (even the labels). In order of what I presume is manufacture date, they show:
White cover (promo) has a White label with Black printing and,
Side 1 stamper mark is '1' (barely visible to left of EDP oval)
Side 2 stamper mark is 'S-2'
Blue cover #1 has an off-White label with Blue printing and,
Side 1 stamper mark is '2'
Side 2 stamper mark is 'S-3'
Blue cover #2 has a Blue label with Silver printing and,
Side 1 stamper mark is 'S-3' (inverted - written in the stamper normally, so backwards on the LP)
Side 2 stamper mark is 'S-4' (also inverted)
White Cover/label - 145 grams
Blue Cover #1 - 126 grams
Blue Cover #2 - 116 grams
Yes, they are all Masterdisk RL.
The 'S2' type marks that I'm referring to are close to either side of the EDP stamp (which is inside an oval). If you hold the Masterdisk RL mark at the 12:00 position, these are located at about 7 o'clock (a little more than 180 degrees). They are very lightly hand inscribed.
Here are my opinions on comparing the three of them...
As you know, the 'conventional wisdom' is that earlier stampers are better than later stampers. I have bought a lot of collections over the past 10 years and often have multiple copies of lp's and so have done quite a bit of comparing - just so I can decide which one to keep for myself. I find that usually earlier is better (assuming it's from the same master disk). However, there are a lot of exceptions, and in my opinion, this is one.
The differences are small here - without direct A/B comparison I don't think anyone could distinguish. But after much back and forth to the TT and lots of hand-wringing, here's my ideas about them:
The promo copy is definitely more full-bodied, for lack of a better term. The strings really bloom at the peaks. It almost as if this version is playing at a higher volume than the others, which of course is impossible, but that's how it feels. Because of the highly reverberant recording location, though, I think the body obscures some detail and the imaging is less precise than the other two copies. It's possible that on a top-level audio system the detail would be preserved. It is, for those who care, on slightly heavier vinyl.
Note- It is VERY possible (likely even), that this is the version which the original TAS reviewer would have received, and that resulted in the 'pan' review you mention!
Blue Cover #1 is the best to my ear (and with the limited system I'm on right now). It keeps most of the fullness of the promo version, while having a wider, much more defined soundstage and better 'space' between instruments. There is less aural overlap between the violins and cello/bass. It is easier to listen to. Mid-weight vinyl.
Blue cover #2 (the latest pressing) It's overall thinner and in a sense easier to understand, but it lacks a level of 'bloom' that the other two have and there is a small but noticeable reduction in that rosiny grind of the period string instruments. This actually might be the copy for people who really hate the reverb level here. (I suspect you may have heard from some people like that.) It may be the same actual weight vinyl, but it's a little floppier formulation than #1.
Of course, as you say, none of this really matters because it's hard enough to find any copy!"Top
This LP has phenomenal sonics. In fact, this may be the finest original (non-reissue) orchestral pressing I've ever heard from any label. The LP excels in every sonic area, but especially in dynamics and bass reproduction. The "soundstage" is also large and focused.
There are two potential non-sonic problems: First, the words and "music" are quite morbid and eerie; being concerned with disease, death and rats. This is not an LP you will play for "enjoyment". (In fact, a medal should be earned just to finish it.) Second, this LP has been on The Absolute Sound list for some time, and only a few pressings were ever made of this unusual work.
FURTHER: The other LPs in the tiny "Decca Head" series are also superb in sonics; the Messiaen, Henze, Musgrave etc. The Gerhard made the list because it is the most impressive, spectacular and demanding, though the Messiaen is close behind, and it is included within The Basic List.
This is one of the greatest orchestral LPs of all time. It is incredibly immediate, transparent, dynamic and has superb low-level and inner detail. The tonal balance is also very natural. The soundstage is somewhat upfront, which is its only noticeable "weakness". While the entire LP is special, one part is particularly noteworthy...
The harmonic texture, sense of presence and primal power of the lower brass in the "Catacombs" section (near the end of Side 1) is Unforgettable.
This is the record that replaced Albeniz's Suite Espanola (now in The Demi-Gods) as "the best orchestral LP I have ever heard". It has since lost that distinction itself, but it is still unique and indispensable. I've never seen this record recommended elsewhere or even reviewed. In fact, most "collectors" dismiss this record, just because it isn't an "Original". Their ignorance and prejudice will be the purchaser's gain.
Important- This LP also has the best recorded version of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite I've ever heard, but it's still not quite equal to the entire Firebird Ballet on Mercury (see below). It also not equal to the "Pictures" in sonics, which is why it is not listed in the title above.
Further- This LP is compared to the RCA/Chesky Power of the Orchestra, and the RCA/Reiner Classic Reissue (both records part of, and described in, The Basic List), with very interesting results.
Comparison-Mobile Fidelity Vs. EMI ASD 3645- I made this comparison after reading some letters from Phonogram, with all of them claiming that the original EMI pressing was superior to the Mobile reissue. Since the Mobile was already in The Divinity, an even better pressing of this recording -which is also easier to find- would be a highly desirable change of status indeed. Unfortunately, this is NOT the case.
The original EMI is truly excellent, one of the finest EMIs I have ever heard, and it's good enough to make The Basic List, but it's not the equal of the Mobile, let alone its superior. The Mobile is cleaner, more immediate and transparent, with better dynamics and it has a lower sound-floor, allowing more tiny details to be heard, not only of the music, but even the noises of the conductor and orchestra.
Bottom Line - One LP is "excellent", while the other is truly "great". It's a real shame that Mobile didn't make an UHQR version of the Muti/Pictures (and the Muti/Rite of Spring for that matter).
This is another instance of "reissue bias" trumping obvious technical superiority. Yes, most LP reissues don't equal the originals, but sometimes the reissues are actually as good or even better, and denying that reality is both self-defeating and ignorant.(8/03)
Recently (July 2019), a reader compared the MFSL pressing to a recent re-issue from Hi-Q (which I have not heard myself), and forwarded the results to me, with permission for me to share it. Here it is below, with some minor editing and my bold:"I had the Hi-Q Records pressing of this MFSL release (original master tapes and edited at Abbey Road), but Arthur Salvatore claimed this Mobile Fidelity release was the best sounding version... Doing a side by side comparison...(and) after playing the MoFi version right through and enjoying it, I dropped the needle on the last passage of Side Two of the Hi-Q version as a comparison.
Within seconds, I was thinking that something was definitely wrong with the sound. The MoFi has all the instruments in sharp focus, while the Hi-Q version has them defuse and smeared. A great deal of the inner detail was therefore lost and you finish up with tuneful noise rather than an orchestra full of instruments. The Hi-Q version also appears to have the top end rolled off, so all the hall ambience is missing and is far less dynamic. Given the price this (MFSL) pressing is now selling for (I bought an absolute mint copy for about US $ 20), this has become an absolute bargain."
This is a magnificent (2 LP) album, that should be in every record collection. In effect, it is the "highlights" of all the most famous Romantic ballets, by Tchaikovsky, Delibes etc.
The sound is exceptional in every way, and particularly outstanding in outer detail and dynamic qualities. The sound is also BIG, and the instruments actually seem as large as they are in real life.
The only problem that keeps this set from the very top is a noticeable hiss and veil that both obscures some low-level detail and removes the elusive "alive" quality that only the very finest LP's possess. It is similar to the problem the Mercury-Ravel had. However, the "hiss" is only obtrusive on Side One for some reason. The other 3 sides are quieter, and still retain the desirable qualities.
This is an indispensable album, even for those who normally shy away from "Classical Music", but it is no longer available new. There is also a 45 RPM version on 8 LPs, which I haven't heard. It should sound even better, but there is nothing they can do with the hiss.
A rare, original pressing of this album was going for $ 1,000 at one time. This reissue will almost undoubtedly sound much better, with the extra advantages of being considerably cheaper and brand new. Finally, there is even a beautiful booklet inside with color illustrations and descriptions of the ballets.
This LP has shocking sonics. It is very transparent, immediate, natural and huge sounding. The sound-floor is also very low. The dynamics are actually scary! In fact, Arcana would have been an excellent choice for the soundtrack of Godzilla!
I've made extensive comparisons (which wasn't "fun" with this music) with the other pressings of this recording. The Dutch/London Enterprise was the best, but the others, the English Decca/London's, were very close. The Decca/English will cost more, and with no advantage in sonics, but it is still worth purchasing in this instance.
Recent Comparison-London Enterprise Vs. King Super Analogue K18C-8208- Since the London Enterprise LP is in The Divinity, I couldn't resist purchasing this other, Japanese, reissue to make a comparison. You never know, right?
The two LPs were very similar, but the London Enterprise still had a very slight advantage in transparency, immediacy, inner detail and purity. The King sounded virtually exactly like I remember the early English pressings I heard. Checking the "dead wax" information indicated the reason for this sonic duplication. The King was "mastered" in England by Decca (1W) and was only pressed in Japan, but it is still a great sounding record.(8/03)
BAD VARESE NEWS: I also compared this LP to the Columbia record of Varese's music which is on the TAS list. The Columbia record is excellent, one of their finest sounding LPs ever, but it's not in the London's class, or even equal to the Nonesuch percussion music record below. The Columbia is just too "dry" and veiled to make this list, although its bass and dynamics are outstanding. (The sonic tastes and priorities of TAS appear to be very obvious, elementary and consistent.) However...
GOOD VARESE NEWS: There is another Varese record that does qualify for this list. It is Nonesuch H-71269. The sound is very immediate and it has explosive dynamics. It is far preferable to the Columbia above. It is not on the list yet because I don't want any more "avant-garde" LPs at this time.
This is the finest opera recording (sonically) I have ever heard. It has a unique combination of body, power, purity, naturalness and immediacy. This is especially true of the bass voice. The orchestra and space are also superbly recorded, and it retains its sonic strengths at high volumes. One section, at the very beginning, sounds like you are actually located in a opera house, because of its phenomenal illusion of depth.
Massenet also included some Spanish touches to this opera, which will please many listeners. This album is a little rare, but it is not in any demand. If you have a choice, get the Dutch pressings, though the earlier English are also outstanding.
RUNNER-UP- The closest competitor to the Massenet is The Egyptian Helen, by Richard Strauss, which was also recorded by Decca/London. The Strauss is another phenomenal recording, and it's even a little more immediate and pure sounding, which some listeners may prefer, but it doesn't have the cumulative, overall strengths of the Don Quichotte, which are unprecedented and unequalled.
BACK TO AWARDS
This is the finest record to ever originate from Mercury and one of the greatest records of all time. It is a contender for the title (and award) of "finest orchestral LP" and its dynamic qualities are even comparable to The Rite of Spring/Mobile (see "The Demi-Gods" below).
I can't hold back my excitement with this record. It has been years since I have been so impressed and mesmerized. I can actually say that if the "original" Mercurys sounded like this Classic Firebird (they absolutely don't), those records may actually be worth the hundreds of dollars that audiophiles have (foolishly) spent on them. From my skeptical and frugal perspective, I can't be more complimentary than that.
This LP has the usual Mercury strengths; a huge soundstage, with real depth and excellent focus, plus superb transparency and deep, tight bass, but there is much more. This time there is real "liquidity" and low-level detail. There is actual "presence and immediacy", totally unlike the two disappointing Mercurys discussed elsewhere.
The sounds, and the music, don't "dry up and die" at soft levels. There is superb retrieval of detail, both inner and outer, and the transients are fast, sharp and clean. Then there are the dynamic qualities, which are totally unprecedented in my experience.
The only downsides I can hear are the audible tape hiss, which is normal for this label, a slight lack of "refinement" and a bit of a "veil". So it is not quite as immediate as some of the other top LP's.
I would advise finding a copy, at virtually any price. This is the very rarest type of record, which, when played, actually has the capability to make the listener feel that...
The Rite of Spring/Mobile and the Firebird/Mercury Classic are the two most dynamic orchestral records that I have ever heard, but they have different dynamic strengths. The Mobile Fidelity is unique when it comes to the degree of its "ultimate dynamic levels" (or its "dynamic range"); it just gets louder and louder, from level to level, in a manner that is peerless.
The Mercury Classic is, in contrast, "explosive"; no other record goes from "soft to loud" as quickly, and with such force, intensity and power. (Sports Car Analogy: "Top speed" versus "Acceleration".)
The relative effects on the listener of these differences are: The Mobile Fidelity is "overwhelming", while the Mercury Classic is "shocking". I can't say which one is "better" or "more important". Remember that the musical compositions themselves both augmented and limited each LP. I feel both records should be recognized as transcendent (sui generis), and honored as such.
BACK TO AWARDS
These two LPs, both from RCA Japan, are the finest orchestral "demonstration" records I have ever heard. One of them is a direct-to-disc, but both of them are stunning. The reason I describe them as "demonstration" is that the music, varied but all "classical" and with orchestral instruments, was recorded specifically for the purposes of sonic evaluation.
The sonics of both are at the very top category, and competitive with any other orchestral record. The first LP consists of strictly shortened, well-known orchestral pieces that you will find in those typical packages which are marketed to people who aren't really serious about classical music, but still want some "classical music" in their homes. The only difference is in the sonics, of course.
The second LP has one side with an orchestral composition by a Japanese composer (Koichi Sugiyama) which was specifically designed for evaluation and demonstration. It even includes the musical score, with notes below it, indicating what you should be hearing! The other side has individual instruments, played first in a (dry) studio and then in a (reverberant) concert hall, once again for purposes of comparison and reference.
Both are very useful tools and have certain sections which are unforgettable. A number of the shortened works are better recorded than I have ever heard them: Such as the famous second movement of Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto (especially the solo guitar), and the even more famous beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Many listeners may find these records "second to none" in sonics. They are that good. They are not in any great demand as far as I know. Both of them are highly recommended.
RCA RVLE-2- There is a second volume of the Audio Symphony (Check up your sounds Vol. 2). It is also special, but it is not quite as natural, clean or spectacular as Vol 1. The music is not as interesting either. Desirable only for "completists" if you already have Vol. 1.
BACK TO AWARDS
Of all the many thousands of orchestral records I have auditioned in the last 30 plus years, on hundreds of different systems, this LP has the closest, overall sound to "a live performance" that I have ever experienced. It does have a number of close rivals, but none of them can equal its important, numerous and cumulative strengths, and/or has as few sonic weaknesses.
This masterpiece of audio engineering was originaly recorded by Decca's ace recording team, led by the late Kenneth Wilkinson. The recording was made in London, England in 1962. The mastering engineer of this reissue, for Chesky, was John Koopman.
It would be difficult to name this record's single greatest sonic attribute, but it is probably its unequalled purity, immediacy and transparency. In short: It is simply more "alive" than any other orchestral record.
The dynamic qualities are also at the highest level, with its dynamic shifts equaling, if not surpassing, any other LP I have yet heard. It doesn't have quite the dynamic "range" or "explosive" character of the two other Stravinsky records, both of which have already received "awards", but that is because this particular Stravinsky composition does not have the musical passages that allow such dynamic extremes to occur. It is also unperturbed at any volume level; always retaining its unique qualities.
Another easily noticeable strength, once again unprecedented, is its phenomenal reproduction of musical details; both inner and outer, and at both very soft and loud volume levels. This enables the unique characteristics of instruments to be heard in a manner never before experienced. For many listeners, this quality, by itself, will be an audiophile/musical revelation.
It also has a superb sense of space, and a large and focused image, but these qualities are matched by a number of other records, and they are not particularly noteworthy in themselves.
This record has one potential "problem area": It is recorded in a slightly "upfront" manner. This characteristic enhances its sense of "immediacy", but there is a sonic "price": The extra "richness and body" that come with a more "laid-back" recording are relatively absent. However, it is still very natural (and extremely neutral) for what it is; an upfront recording. This means that this record will not equally satisfy all listeners' tastes, if such an achievement is even possible.
The other sonic implication, also related to its forward recording perspective, is that this LP may have a little "edge" on some systems, namely those systems that have tonal balance tendencies in that direction. If this occurs, I can assure the listener that it is system related. I know, because I experienced this myself over an extended period of time, not only with my own, but with other peoples' systems. Keep in mind: This record has no "fat", or any other "forgiving" attribute, which can aid a system to sound "good".
This LP will simply reflect and expose the basic nature, strengths and limitations of the audio system it is played on; for better or worse.
Caveat- Some (or even all) of the pressings of this record are "out of phase" compared to most classical records; Decca/London, EMI, Philips etc. So the listener may have to reverse the system's phase to hear this LP at its very best.
This record has never received a "rave review", let alone been "highly recommended", by anyone within the entire audiophile press. This isn't simply due to an innocent oversight or common incompetence, which has been the rule within that community for years. (Even Chesky themselves don't know how good this record is. They were actually surprised when an audiophile friend of mine told them that their Petrouchka was the best record he had ever heard.)
Readers should never forget that most of the "record reviewers" in the mainstream audio press are also "record collectors", and (moonlighting) used record dealers, both of whom couldn't care less about this record. Why?
Without either the "prestige" of ownership (read "rarity"), and/or the potential profit, neither group will have any serious interest in such a record. (Note- Record "collectors" feel the same way about "reissues" as the Taliban feel about women in bikinis.) This is a very fortunate turn of events, because this LP would now be an extremely expensive "collector's item" otherwise.
This record must totally "blow you away", particularly Side Two. If it doesn't, there is a serious problem with your audio system.
This record is the ultimate test of any serious audio system's full capabilities; from its tonal balance and sense of immediacy and transparency, to its dynamic proficiency, to its retrieval of tiny, fine and subtle details. This only makes sense, because, besides the obvious, pure musical and visceral enjoyment inherent in its playback, that is what the definition, and purpose, of "the finest orchestral record" should be: "THE ULTIMATE TEST".
Closure- Some readers, with really good memories, will remember my earlier promise that Chesky would get their "revenge" for the "defeat" of their Pictures at an Exhibition LP by its Mobile Fidelity rival. Well, this is it. This is the LP that took the "title" of "the finest orchestral record" from the Mobile Fidelity/Muti/Pictures. It has held it ever since, and it will take a "real killer" to replace it.
Unfortunately, a reader informed me that all of his pressings have the same defect on Side One. It is a concave bubble which is audible for a couple of revolutions. My own personal play copy does NOT have this problem, and I have no idea about my (sealed) backup. My associaties' and friends' copies are also fine, so it would appear that this problem is confined to only some of the pressings. Still, readers should look for it, or ask about it, before purchasing a copy.
Actually, I feel every serious audiophile should have this LP in their collection, as a "reference", even if the copy has this minor defect. It's that special. Just don't overpay for it if it's defective.
BACK TO AWARDSTop
This is a now long-forgotten record from a small series of direct-to-discs by RCA Japan. The sound on all of them is exceptional, and this is one of their best efforts. It is amazing in every sonic parameter: purity, immediacy, precision, dynamics, harmonic completeness etc.
The most demanding cut is Avalon, which is at the beginning of Side One. This LP is not in big demand. I will be checking out the others in this series. Some serious, experienced audiophiles I know feel that this is the best audiophile LP ever made, of any type.
CAVEAT: There is another LP in this same series that is truly unique. It is Trackin', by Lew Tabackin (RDC-3). It is not only a direct-to-disc, but a 45 R.P.M. to boot! In theory, it should be the finest LP ever made. Sadly, this is not the case. Tabackin's saxophone is as good as it gets, with incredible immediacy and no feeling of compression, but the jazz group is all homogenized within the center, almost like mono, and the bass is very ill-defined. A major disappointment.
This is a very famous album of course. The new pressing is superior in almost every way to the originals, with the exception of a slight loss of low-level information; decay, harmonics, space etc. Usually that would cause me to prefer the original. However, this Classic reissue is far superior in every other sonic area and also has all the further advantages that come with being brand new, so I have no choice but to recommend this album over any of the originals, and I have heard them all, almost to the point of nausea.
This is the second of two "live" albums by Harry Belafonte and this time he has a variety of other performers with him: Odetta, Miriam Makeba and The Chad Mitchell Trio.
The sonics on this two-LP recording are very similar to the first: Stunning. The hall and soundstage are superbly captured; both huge and focused. Belafonte's voice and body are so natural and immediate, it almost sounds like he is in the listening room. This is also true of the other performers. (Only one song is required to hear these very rare qualities: "Suzanne" on Side One.) The only downsides are that the chorus and clapping aren't quite as natural and clean. The early, original pressings were incredible too, and even better in a few areas, but, overall, this reissue is preferable.
COMPARISONS- The closest competitor I have heard to these two albums is the famous Weavers LP, which is also on this list and was also recorded in Carnegie Hall. The Weavers is more variable in sound and not quite as clean during loud passages. It is recorded much more upfront, and doesn't capture the space nearly as well. However, at its very best ("Rambling Boy"), it does equal the RCA/Belafonte sonic achievement.
Finally- These two Belafonte albums are virtual sonic clones. If I was forced to choose between them though, I feel that the second ("Returns") album may be a little more natural and full-bodied.
BACK TO AWARDS
This was the first direct-to disc LP to join this list, as well as one of the most famous, rarest, most successful and most expensive. Generally, direct-to-discs LP's were almost as disappointing as they were popular in the early to mid Eighties. The music was rarely interesting and even the sonics, while superb in most cases, often did not transcend what ordinary tape-to-disc LPs had already accomplished. (However, I am going to re-listen to as many as possible to see if system improvements have changed things.)
This record was an important exception. The music, Duke Ellington's most famous compositions (but not his performances), was interesting and the recording was simply extraordinary. It was very transparent, natural, immediate, clean and very dynamic and alive sounding. This is what the proponents of direct-to-disc had always promised, and now they had finally delivered.
It didn't take long before the demand for this LP became insatiable. As a direct-to-disc LP, not many copies were (or even could be) made, so it sold out quickly and soon became an expensive "collector's item". It was also on the TAS list for many years, creating even greater demand for it. If you have to have one direct-to-disc record, this is it.
Two other jazz records require special recognition. One is Midnight Sugar on the Three Blind Mice label, which is incredibly immediate and dynamic (especially the piano on Cut One/Side One). The other is Swing Sessions by Eiji Kitamura, on RCA, which is also a direct-to-disc. It is very natural, detailed and dynamic, though laid-back. Both were recorded and pressed in Japan.
Some listeners might even prefer one of these superb recordings to the For Duke, which I still found to be just a little more complete, natural, alive and real.
BACK TO AWARDS
This was the second "direct-to-disc" made by Howard for Sheffield Lab. It is far superior in sonics to their first effort (Sheffield Lab-20), which was titled "The Track Record". This record was also the second direct-to-disc LP to make this list.
This award is a no-brainer, because the record is phenomenal in every way, with the obvious exception that the music is simple and repetitive (but it's still more interesting than their first LP). No other rock/pop record ever made even approaches the "super sonics" of this LP, and that includes the other superb issues from Sheffield Lab themselves.
This LP is amazingly clean and dynamic, with the most uncompressed and least distorted rock climaxes (especially drums) I've ever heard. Its sense of immediacy and presence are also extraordinary. This record is an indispensable reference in these sonic parameters.
There is also a later 180-gram pressing that should be even better, but I haven't heard it.
EXPLANATION: I would have liked to place many more Rock/Pop recordings on this list. This is impossible because of a basic, inescapable fact that we all know: Most rock records were, and still are, very poorly recorded and very few can even be described as "good", which is still not nearly good enough to make this list. I require "outstanding" and there won't be any compromises.
BACK TO AWARDS
This music is an interesting and unique blend of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-American, with plenty of variety. It has percussion, horns and vocals, plus some Brazilian instruments. Because of my inability to characterize the music in any type of "conventional category", plus its sound quality, I felt I had to create a special category for it to receive its proper recognition.
The sound on this record is absolutely breathtaking in its immediacy and dynamic qualities. It is extremely natural, with an incredible amount of depth, and has a "large sound". It also has a very low sound-floor, and with plenty of inner and outer details. The recording perspective is actually somewhat "laid back", in contrast to being upfront, which is what most people expect when they see "immediate".
BACK TO AWARDS
A fascinating record, once again based on the traditions and culture of the Bon-pos, who practice the earliest Tibetan religion, Bon. They use "singing bowls" to aid them in meditation, contemplation, exorcism and other religious purposes.
The bowls themselves look simple, but they were made of an alloy of 8 metals, and great craftsmanship was required to make them. Their sound is unique, and can be further altered by striking the bowl in a different location and/or placing something in or around the bowl (like varying amounts of water).
The sonics on the record are remarkable. The sound-floor is so low, that it is "spooky". No matter how soft the sound becomes, it still sounds "alive". In fact, this record may be the closest I've heard to a "live feed" or "live sound".
This LP provides an ultimate test for how low the sound-floor actually is of a component or a system. The decays are extremely long, with the sound of one bowl flowing in the next bowl. These are mainly subtle sounds, but there is "dynamic intensity" during even the softest strikes.
The only sonic problem I can hear is an occasional overload on some of the loudest passages. This is especially noticeable at the beginning of Side Two, with its very loud chanting, which was extremely hazardous to the performer's vocal chords.
Saydisc is a small, independent English label, which produces records of very unusual music and sounds. This LP will be tough to find, but it is worth it for musical, cultural, sonic and maybe even spiritual reasons.
The Complete List of THE SUPREME RECORDINGS
The Descriptions, Awards and Essay of THE DEMI-GODS
The Descriptions, Awards and Essays 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
The Descriptions, Award and Essays of THE BASIC LIST-ESSAYS & CONTROVERSIES
The Descriptions and Essays of THE HONORABLE MENTIONS
The Alphabetized Classical Music Supreme Recordings
Purchasing Used Classical Records
THE RECENT FILE
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