Massenet / Le Cid / Fremaux / City of Birmingham Symphony

More of the music of Jules Massenet (1842-1912) 

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame

This is a record that clearly belongs on a Super Disc list; if Harry hadn’t already put it there we certainly would have. (We would love to compile a Super Disc list of our own, but unless you have just the right copy of whatever title you find on the list, you may not have anything like Super Disc sound quality, so why a list at all? It creates more problems for audiophiles than it solves.) 

Both sides of this TAS List disc contain audiophile Must Own Demonstration pieces, full of Tubey Magic, powerful dynamics, real depth, lifelike ambience, and uncannily accurate instrumental timbres, especially from the woodwinds. Add explosive dynamics and deep bass and you have yourself a genuine audiophile recording.

The sound is so rich you will not believe you are listening to an EMI. If more EMI records sounded like this we would be putting them on the site left and right. Unfortunately, in our experience the majority are thin, shrill and vague. Not so here!

Side One – Le Cid

A+++, so much bigger and livelier than the other copies we played. Huge size and scope, with an extended top, good texture to the strings, and lower strings that are rich and rosiny in the best tradition of vintage Deccas and RCAs.

This copy was the only one that really extended at both ends of the frequency spectrum. It’s got deep bass and open, clear highs like few records we have heard this year.

As it stands it is clearly a Demo Disc of real power. It’s smooth and natural, which means you can really turn it up if you want that front row center seat.

Side Two – Scenes Pittoresques / The Last Sleep of the Virgin

A+ to A++, good, just clearly not as good as this amazing side one. It’s big, rich and spacious — 3-D in fact — but the string tone is not as warm and textured as it should be. Which means it has some of that typical EMI String Sound one hears on their recordings.

Wonderful music, well played, with very good sound even on this side.

Other Pressings

The original Blueback pressing (CS 6058) of the Martinon performance we played was a complete disaster: shrill, with no top or bottom to speak of. Admittedly, we only had the one copy, so take it for what it’s worth. If you feel like taking a chance on one, make sure you can return it if it sounds as bad as the one we are describing.

However, the Stereo Treasury pressing of the above performance can be quite good.

Le Cid

The ballet suite from the second act of Massenet’s opera Le Cid is one of his best known and most highly regarded works for orchestra. The opera, set in twelfth century Spain, is a sweeping saga focusing on the exploits of Don Rodrigue (Le Cid) as he battles the Moors and fights for the woman he loves. In much the same way that Bizet suggested the sounds of Spain in his opera Carmen, Massenet uses colorful orchestration and striking dance rhythms to evoke the region’s unique flavor. The composer’s inventive use of percussion instruments is particularly striking, and no doubt reflects that fact that, earlier in his career, Massenet was a percussionist himself. The seven picturesque movements are: Castilane, Andalouse, Aragonaise, Aubade, Catalane, Madrilene, and Navarraise – Robert Barefield

Jules Massenet

Jules Massenet (1842—1912) was one of the more prolific of French operatic composers, but many of his works have been forgotten or, at best, remembered only for certain excerpts. Le Cid comes into this category, for performances of the complete opera are rare, although the ballet from it still retains its hold on the affections of the public. Justly so, for the music is tuneful, vivid and exotic, almost more Spanish than that of the Spaniards themselves — or so one is persuaded on hearing it. – From the liner notes.

Audio Issues

It’s clear to us that our stereo system loves this record. Let’s talk about why we think that might be.

Our system is fast, accurate and uncolored. We like to think of our speakers as the audiophile equivalent of studio monitors, showing us to the best of their ability exactly what is on the record, no more and no less.

When we play a modern record, it should sound modern. When we play a vintage Tubey Magical Living Stereo pressing such as this, we want to hear all the Tubey Magic, but we don’t want to hear more Tubey Magic than what is actually on the record. We don’t want to do what some audiophiles like to do, which is to make all their records sound the way they like all their records to sound.

They do that by having their system add in all their favorite colorations. We call that “My-Fi”, not “Hi-Fi”, and we’re having none of it.

If our system were more colored, or slower, or tubier, this record would not sound as good as it does. It’s already got plenty of richness, warmth, sweetness and Tubey Magic.

To take an obvious example, playing the average dry and grainy Joe Walsh record on our system is a fairly unpleasant experience. Some added warmth and richness, with maybe some upper-midrange suckout thrown in for good measure, would make it much more enjoyable. But then how would we know which Joe Walsh pressings aren’t too dry and grainy for our customers to enjoy?

We discussed some of these issues in another commentary:

Our Approach

We’ve put literally thousands of hours into our system and room in order to extract the maximum amount of information, musical and otherwise, from the records we play, or as close to the maximum as we can manage. Ours is as big and open as any system in an 18 by 20 by 8 room I’ve ever heard.

It’s also as free from colorations of any kind as we can possibly make it. We want to hear the record in its naked form; not the way we want it to sound, but the way it actually does sound. That way, when you get it home and play it yourself, it should sound very much like we described it.

If too much of the sound we hear is what our stereo is doing, not what the record is doing, how can we know what it will sound like on your system? We try to be as truthful and as critical as we can when describing the records we sell. Too much coloration in the system makes those tasks much more difficult, if not a practical impossibility.

We are convinced that the more time and energy you’ve put into your stereo over the years, decades even, the more likely it is that you will hear this wonderful record sound the way we heard it. And that will make it one helluva Demo Disc in your home too.

Speakers Corner Vs. Klavier

Speakers Corner did a very good version of this album on Heavy Vinyl back in the ’90s, which we highly recommended at the time. We wrote:

Finally a version of Le Cid that we can enjoy! Superb sound with a performance to match! No more suffering through the hi-fi-ish Doug Sax/ Acoustic Sounds rebutchering of the Fremaux on Klavier.

Audiophiles in droves bought into that one, apparently not noticing the overblown bass and spark-spark-sparkling top end. Thankfully we now have this Decca to demonstrate proper orchestral balance.

If your system needs boosted bass and highs keep the Klavier. If it doesn’t this Decca will allow you to forget about the sound and enjoy this lovely 

Would we still feel the same way about the remastered Decca pressing we used to like? Not as much, that’s for sure, a subject we discussed in this commentary.

Heavy Vinyl and the Loss of Transparency

So often when we revisit the remastered pressings we used to like on Heavy Vinyl we come away dumbfounded — what on earth were we thinking? These are not the droids sounds we are looking for. Perhaps our minds were clouded at the time.

Below are some thoughts from a recent classical listing that we hope will shed some light on our longstanding aversion to the sound of modern remasterings. (The Heavy Vinyl Scorecard in our Commentary sections has a great deal more on the subject as well.)

This original pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in a real concert hall, this is the record for you. It’s what Golden Age Recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — usually, not always to be sure — but new records do not, ever.

What is lost in these newly remastered recordings? Lots of things, but the most obvious and bothersome is TRANSPARENCY. Modern records are just so damn opaque. We can’s stand that sound. It drives us crazy. Important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate regular pressings — is simply nowhere to be found. That audiophiles as a whole — including those that pass themselves off as the champions of analog in the audio press — do not notice these failings does not speak well for either their equipment or their critical listening skills.

It is our contention that no one alive today makes records that sound as good as the ones we sell. Once you hear this Hot Stamper pressing, those 180 gram records you own may never sound right to you again. They sure don’t sound right to us, but we are in the enviable position of being able to play the best properly cleaned older pressings (reissues included) side by side with the new ones, where the faults of the current reissues become much more recognizable, even obvious. When you can hear them that way, head to head, there really is no comparison.

A Lost Cause

The wonderful vintage disc we are offering here will surely shame 100% of the Heavy Vinyl pressings ever made, as no Heavy Vinyl pressing — not one — has ever sounded especially transparent or spacious to us when played against the best Golden Age recordings, whether pressed back in the day or twenty years later.

Many of the major labels were producing superb classical records well into the ’70s. By the ’90s no one, and we really do mean no one, could manage to make a record that compares with them.

Precisely the reason we stopped carrying The Modern LP Pressing — it just can’t compete with good vintage vinyl, assuming that the vinyl in question has been properly mastered, pressed and cleaned.

This is of course something we would never assume — we clean the records and play them and that’s how we find out whether they are any good or not. There is no other way to do it — for any record from any era — despite what you may have read elsewhere.