Albeniz / Suite Espanola / De Burgos – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Suite Espanola. 

Wow, is this record ever DYNAMIC! I would put it in the top 2 or 3 percent of the most dynamic recordings we have played over the course of the last twenty five years. It also has tons of DEPTH. The brass is at the far back of the stage, just exactly where they would be placed in the concert hall, which greatly adds to the realism of the recording.

The strings may not be quite as sweet as the best earlier Londons, but the trade off is well worth it when you hear a record with this kind of LIFE and so little distortion.

Note that careful VTA adjustment for a record with this kind of dynamic energy is a must. Having your front end carefully calibrated to this record is the only way to guarantee there is no distortion or shrillness in even the loudest passages.

What to Listen For (WTLF)

Clear castanets.

Big bass drum thwacks.

Crecendos that build to intense climaxes.

Rich strings (or as rich as they can be in 1969, a good ten years after the amazingly Tubey Magical recordings of the ’50s.

Heavy Vinyl

In 2011 we made the (usually pointless) effort to compare our London pressing to the 180 gram Speakers Corner reissue which we carried at the time. We noted simply that it “was a joke next to this copy.” We don’t have the reissue to play this time around but we are confident that the results of any comparison would be the same.

Mark Lehman in the Absolute Sound gave the ORG Heavy Vinyl remastering Five Stars, having this to say about the sound:

ORG’s 45rpm remastering is terrific (as indeed are all of the ORG vinyl reissues I’ve heard). Comparison with the late- 60s London LP on which the Suite first appeared reveals sharpened and clarified attacks and articulations, more tightly focused individual strands, fuller and warmer string choirs, more resonant brass, more pillowy air around flutes, clarinets, and oboes, and more nuance and opulence in the orchestral blends. The total effect is to make Albeniz’s composition even more sweeping, rhapsodic, richly hued, evocative, and involving—and that’s saying something, considering how good the sonics are on this recording’s first incarnation.

If only it were true! We readily admit we have never played the ORG pressing and have no plans to, but when has a Heavy Vinyl pressing ever had any of the qualities herein described, let alone in such abundance? Never in our experience, and our experience extends to hundreds and hundreds of them.

The Speakers Corner pressing earned a B grade from us, which makes it one of the best releases on that label (one out of ten or twenty would rate a B or better I would estimate). The Super Analogue remaster from the ’90s was a joke. I would give it an F if I were grading it today.

The only real competition to our Hot Stamper is going to be an original London. As always we guarantee our pressing will beat anything you have ever heard, including the ORG, the Super Analogue, the Speakers Corner, or whatever else you have, or your money back. This is a guarantee that, to our knowledge, no one else in the record business can or will make.



Further Reading

We have a number of entries in ourClassical Commentary series.

You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

Wilkinson and the Decca Tree

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.

Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”

See more of our Kenneth Wilkinson engineered records in stock