Holst – The Planets – Testing with Mars and Saturn

More Gustav Holst

More The Planets

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

Mars on the first side and Saturn on the second present serious challenges for any vinyl pressings you may own. Generally speaking, the White Hot copies tend to have a bit more top end extension, and/or more lower end weight. Let’s get to the specifics of the two movements we feel are the best test for The Planets as a whole.

The War Test — Side One

War, the first movement, has the string players “bouncing” their bows upside down to create the effect you hear. It’s not fingers plucking the strings; it’s the wood of the bows bouncing on the strings. The quality of that technique is so obvious and correct sounding on the good copies and so blurry and indistinct on the bad ones that you could almost judge the whole first side by that sound alone. When it’s right it’s really right. 

And of course the players are spread out wider and the soundfield is so much more transparent when these types of sonic qualities are brought out. This bouncing bow test makes it easy to separate the better copies from the also-rans when it comes to smear, resolution, transparency and the like.

The Saturn Test — Side Two

This was the real revelation in our recent shootout (2013). We had on hand performances by Steinberg on DG, Previn and Boult on EMI, as well as Mehta and Karajan on London — well known and highly regarded Golden Age recordings one and all. (I gave up on the Solti with the London Phil years ago; that opaque later London sound just won’t cut it on the more resolving stereo we have now.) None of the above could match either the performance or the sound of Saturn on the EMI by Previn and the LSO.

The brass is so BIG and POWERFUL on EMI’s recording that other orchestras and recordings frankly pale in comparison. Until I heard one of our top EMI pressings show me brass with this kind of weight and energy, I simply had no idea it was even possible to play the work this powerfully. The lower brass comes in, builds, gaining volume and weight, then calms down, but soon returns and builds relentlessly, ever and ever louder. Eventually the trumpets break out, blasting their way forward and above the melee the heavier brass has created below.

Quite honestly I have never heard anything like it, and I heard this work performed live in late 2012! In live performance the members of the brass section, being at the back of the stage, were at least 100 feet away from me, perhaps more. When playing the best EMI pressings the brass were right there in front of me, eight to ten feet away. In a way this is of course unnatural, but that fact takes nothing away from the subjective power of the experience.

Only the conductor can stand at the podium, but the EMI producers and engineers (the two Christophers in this case) have managed to put the listener, at least in this movement, right there with him.

The EMI Sound

EMI’s are usually recorded so as to produce a mid-hall perspective, which is somewhat distant for our taste. That’s just not our sound. We prefer the Front Row Center seats (especially at these prices). That said, when an EMI from the ’70s is recorded, mastered and pressed properly, it actually sounds more like the real thing, more like a live performance of orchestral music in a concert hall.

It’s uncanny how real the best copies of this record sound. For a recording of The Planets it has no equal in our experience.

The Performances

For audiophiles who love the work but are disappointed by most performances (a group that includes us to be sure), the good sound found on this copy is coupled with a superb performance. The best pressings of this record truly deserve their place on the TAS List. This 1974 release is widely considered one of the great recordings of The Planets. Previn is simply outstanding throughout. He’s not going after effects, he’s making all the pieces fit.

Of course it trounces the Mehta recording that many audiophiles, HP included, are seemingly enamored with (see the notes below). We certainly never have been. EMI knows how to make an orchestra sound like a seamless whole, unlike the Decca recording engineers who appear to take perverse pride in awkwardly spotlighting every section. (Was it a Phase 4 experiment gone wrong? That’s my guess.)

And the average London or Decca pressing of The Planets is lackluster, so opaque and smeary it’s barely second-rate, a fact that most audiophile record collectors have failed to appreciate since it first appeared on Harry’s Super Disc list.

VTA

Accurate VTA Adjustment for classical records is critical to their proper reproduction. If you do not have an arm that allows you to easily adjust its VTA, then you will just have to do it the hard way (which normally means loosening a set screw and moving the arm up and down until you get lucky with the right height).

Yes, it may be time consuming, it may even be a major pain in the ass, but there is no question in my mind that you will hear a dramatic improvement in the sound of your classical records once you have learned to precisely adjust the VTA for each and every one of them. We heard the improvement on this record, and do pretty much on all the classical LPs we play. (All records really.) VTA is not a corner you should be cutting. Its careful adjustment is critical. Of course, so are anti-skate, azimuth and tracking weight. Our Audio Advice section (found under the heading of Commentary on every page) has a fair amount on turntable setup which might be worth checking out.

The Planets

This magnificent work – The Planets – remains fresh forever and can be listened to over and over without wearing out, comparable in this quality only to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Holst borrowed generously from Beethoven, Haydn, Wagner, Debussy, Liszt, Bruckner, Elgar, Sibelius and Rossini, merging these influences with consummate skill to create a sense of grandeur and universality. This is one of the earliest and most successful works to treat a large orchestra as a collection of small ensembles, with percussion, the harp, and certain repeated rhythmic figures unifying the movements into the perception of a whole. Holst has captured perfectly the fascination of astrology with its grand vision of heavenly phenomena on the hugest scale mirrored in the everyday activities of human beings. – Paul Shoemaker

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 — not often, and certainly not always — 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’t 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 group — including those that pass themselves off as 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 is capable of making records that sound as good as the vintage 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 newer ones. This allows the faults of the current reissues to become much more recognizable, to the point of actually being quite obvious. When you can hear the different pressings 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 read elsewhere.


A few years ago we cracked open the Speakers Corner pressing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan in order to see how it would fare when played head to head with a pair of wonderful sounding Londons we were shooting out a while back. Here’s what we heard when comparing the three records.

Soundstaging

The soundstage, never much of a concern to us at here at Better Records but nevertheless instructive in this case, shrinks roughly 25% with the new pressing; depth and ambience are reduced about the same amount. Similar and even more problematical losses can be heard in the area of top end extension.

But what really bothered us was this: The sound was just so VAGUE.

The Cloud

There was a cloud of musical instruments, some here, some there, but they were very hard to SEE. On the Londons we played they were clear. You could point to each and every one. On this pressing pointing to the specific location of any instrument or sections of instruments would be practically impossible.

Case in point: the snare drum, which on this recording is located toward the back of the stage, roughly halfway between dead center and the far left of the hall. As soon as we heard it on the reissue we recognized how blurry and smeary it was relative to the clarity and immediacy it had had on the earlier London pressings. I’m not sure how else to describe it – diffuse, washed out, veiled; whatever it is, it’s vague.

This particular Heavy Vinyl reissue is more or less tonally correct, which is not something you can say about many reissues these days. In that respect it’s tolerable and even enjoyable on some level. I guess for thirty bucks that’s about the most you can hope for.

The D Word

But… when I hear this kind of sound only one word comes to mind, a terrible word, a word that makes us recoil in shock and horror. That word is DUB. This reissue is made from copy tapes.

Copies in analog or copies in digital, who knows?, but it sure ain’t the master tape we’re hearing, of that we can be fairly certain. How else to explain such mediocrity of sound?

Yes, the cutting systems being used to master these vintage recordings aren’t very good; that seems safe to say. Are the tapes too old and worn? Is the vinyl of today simply not capable of storing the kind of musical sound we find so often in pressings from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s?

If and When

To all these questions and more we have but one answer: we don’t know. We know we don’t like the sound of very many of these modern reissues and I guess that’s probably all that we need to know about them.

If someone ever figures out how to make a good sounding modern reissue we’ll ask them how they did it. Until then it strikes us that the question is moot.

Back in 2011 we stopped carrying Heavy Vinyl and other Audiophile LPs of all kinds. So many of them don’t even sound thisgood, and these days this kind of sound just bores us to tears.