Bizet-Shchedrin / Carmen Ballet Suite / Rozhdestvensky – Our 4+ Shootout Winner from 2019

xxxxx

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

Unbelievable Shootout Winning Demo Disc quality sound throughout — QUADRUPLE PLUS (A++++) on the first side and Triple Plus (A+++) on the second. Side one has by far the better music – it’s where the most exciting, most percussive movements can be found – and this pressing, with Beyond White Hot sound for that side, is guaranteed to be bigger and more lively than you ever imagined (because that’s how we felt about it, hence the fourth plus).

Please note: we award the Four Plus (A++++) grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale shown above. We rarely find records with this kind of sound, just a few times a year at most — this is the only one on the site at this time.

Both sides show up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear this copy you will know why we gave side one that fourth plus!

This Angle Melodiya pressing of Bizet’s Carmen, rearranged by Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin for strings and 47 percussion instruments, has two incredible sides. Demo Quality Sound barely begins to do it justice. If you have the system to play it, this copy is a KNOCKOUT.

But boy is it a difficult record to reproduce. You better have everything working right when you play this one — it’s guaranteed to bring practically any audiophile system to its knees. Speed, resolving power and freedom from distortion are what this record needs to sound its best. Is your system up to it? There’s only one way to find out.

And if you have any peaky audiophile wire or equipment in your system, the kind that is full of detail but calls attention to itself, you are in big trouble with a record like this. More than anything this is a record that rewards your system’s neutrality.

What amazing sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1968
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

Two Amazing Sides

The mastering EQ is close to perfection, with correct tonality from top to bottom. It’s surprisingly rich and smooth. Transparency and top end extension were the best we heard all day. The timpani have the weight and whomp of the real thing, and they’re way at the back where they should be. This side sounds like Live Music. Can’t argue with the sound here — it’s As Good As It Gets.

Testing

This is a superb Demonstration disc, but it is also an excellent Test disc. The sound of the best copies is rich, full-bodied, incredibly spacious, and exceptionally extended up top. There is a prodigious amount of musical information spread across the soundstage, much of it difficult to reproduce.

Musicians are banging on so many different percussive devices (often at the far back of the stage, or, even better, far back and left or right) that getting each one’s sonic character to clearly come through is a challenge — and when you’ve met it, a thrill. If you’ve done your homework, this is the kind of record that can show you what you’ve accomplished.

On the best copies the strings have wonderful texture and sheen. If your system isn’t up to it (or you have a copy with a problem in this area), the strings might sound a little shrill and possibly grainy as well, but I’m here to tell you that the sound on the best copies is just fine with respect to string tone and timbre. You will need to look elsewhere for the problem.

What We Listen For on The Carmen Ballet Suite

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

A Good Angel?

This is a domestic Capitol/Angel release. The recording was originally made in the USSR by Melodiya. That’s two strikes against it right off the bat. Angel records are some of the worst sounding records we have ever heard. So few sound any good that have practically given up trying to find them. (The one major exception: Milstein’s records, most especially on the blue label.)

This album is the rare exception to the Bad Angel rule. I honestly can’t think of another modern Angel pressing that sounds as good as this one, when you actually have a good one. Many copies are bright in the upper-midrange, sounding as nasally and artificial as a bad Mercury or London. Many lack weight down low. This is a serious problem, as the lower strings and heavier percussion play a crucial role in balancing out the upper strings and lighter percussion. Without weight down low the sound will be skewed upwards in an artificial way.

If your copy has either of these problems don’t use it to set up or tweak anything in your system. Use one of our Hot Stampers, the hotter the better.

Famous in its Day

The Carmen Ballet Suite was deservedly famous in audiophile circles back in the ’70s. Even with the dubious equipment that a high-end stereo store might be running, this record would still sound shockingly good. It has so much “life” to it, so many interesting colors, and above all such three-dimensional spaciousness, it can make even bad transistor equipment, which is pretty much all there was back then, sound good. (The store I frequented carried the classic tube Audio Research electronics — that’s where I bought mine — but most stores were all transistor, and high-power transistors at that, not a sound I care to revisit. Would love to hear my SP3-A-1 again though!)

Wikipedia’s Entry

Carmen Suite is a one-act ballet written in 1967 by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, based on a libretto and choreographed by Alberto Alonso. The music, taken from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet and arranged for strings and percussion, is not a 19th century pastiche but rather “a creative meeting of the minds,” as Shchedrin put it, with Bizet’s melodies reclothed in a variety of fresh instrumental colors (including the frequent use of percussion), set to new rhythms and often phrased with a great deal of sly wit.

Initially banned by the Soviet hierarchy as “disrespectful” to the opera for precisely these qualities, the ballet has since become Shchedrin’s best-known work and has remained popular in the West as what reviewer James Sanderson of allmusic.com calls “an iconoclastic but highly entertaining retelling of Bizet’s opera.”

Composition

The idea for Carmen Suite originated with Shchedrin’s wife, Bolshoi Theater ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. In 1964, she asked composer Dmitri Shostakovich to compose a ballet on the story of Carmen, since, Shchedrin said, they were both on good terms with him. Shostakovich “gently but firmly refused,” Plisetskaya remembers. “I’m afraid of Bizet,” he told her half-jokingly. “Everyone is so used to the opera that whatever you write, you’ll disappoint them.” He suggested that perhaps Shchedrin could “come up with something special” to fulfill her request. Instead, she went to Aram Khachaturian, the composer of the ballets Gayane and Spartacus, but “things never went beyond talking.” Shchedrin added that Khachaturian told Plisetskaya, “Why you need me? You have a composer at home, ask him!” It was then, he said, that she asked him to write the music.

In late 1966, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba stopped in Moscow during its Soviet tour. Pliesetskaya’s mother attended its performances and encouraged her to go. Eventually, Plisetskaya approached the company’s choreographer, Alberto Alonso, and told him of her desire for a Carmen ballet. Alonso developed the libretto and worked with Ballet Nacional dancers on the choreography, then flew to Moscow to teach the work to Plisetskaya. Shchedrin watched her initial rehearsals with Alonso and agreed to write music for the ballet.

However, as much as he struggled to write an original score for this project, Shchedrin found he could not extricate the story from the music that French composer Georges Bizet wrote for his opera of the same name—a score Shchedrin called “fantastic, one of the best in the whole history of music.” Eventually, Shchedrin decided to exploit this connection in what he called “a creative meeting of the minds.” With Shostakovich’s words in mind, Shchedrin said, “I had to combine … something fresh … with these famous melodies.” From this motive came the idea to use just strings and percussion for the instrumentation “because then it is a totally modern combination.” His intent was to give homage to what Bizet had done and acknowledge the universality of his music in telling the story of Carmen while adding his own ideas to the work. In this way, Andrew Lindemann Malone writes in his description of the ballet, Shchedrin positioned him on a creative middle ground, “making himself if not an equal partner at least something above the level of arranger.”

Toward this end, Shchedrin set Bizet’s melodies with a number of clever and unexpected rhythmic twists and subtler changes in notes and chords. This gives the impression of simultaneously recognizing something familiar and being surprised in hearing something slightly distorted about it. Some melodies are “combined for ‘found’ counterpoint,” Malone writes, others interrupted and still more left unaccompanied where Shchedrin assumes the listener knows both music and story all too well. An instance of the last mentioned, Malone writes, is “when a big whipped-up climax in the Torero scene leads to nothing but the lowest percussion, pumping quietly, merrily, and obliviously along.” He also adds a number of humorous touches, such as the off-color use of the Farandole from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne and the sudden, unexpected hesitations in the Toreador Song. None of these changes obfuscate either the general melodic curves of Bizet’s music—all the familiar tunes are easily recognizable—or the intricacies of the plot.

Shchedrin’s orchestration proved equally unexpected and creative. Eschewing the full orchestra of Bizet for one of strings and an enlarged percussion section, he “boldly overhauled” the orchestral sound, as Sanderson phrases it, with a greatly widened timbrel range enhancing the sharpened rhythms and sudden hairpin turns in phrasing and mood. The Habanera, Malone says, is introduced “in a bouncy duet” for vibraphone and tympani, while various percussion instruments accentuate separate notes in the “Changing of the Guard” scene to “unexpectedly rattle” the melodic line.” The full extent of Shchedrin’s emendations and their faithfulness to Bizet and the story, Malone writes, are both shown in the finale of the ballet: “melodies get twisted, thrown to exotic percussion, and otherwise trampled, but the resulting music, with its passionate climax and coda of distant bells and pizzicato strings, still has gravity and depth, due both to Bizet and to Shchedrin’s interventions.”

Wikipedia’s Entry

A standard string orchestra of violins, violas, cellos, double bases is augmented by a percussion battery of four members, who play the following:

Player 1: marimba, vibraphone, castanets, three cowbells, four bongos, bells, snare drum, guiro

Player 2: vibraphone, marimba, snare drum, tambourine, two woodblocks, claves, triangle, guiro

Player 3: hand bells, crot, maracas, whip, snare drum, choclo, guiro, three tplbl, bass drum, tam-tam, snare drum, triangle

Player 4: cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, hi-hat, triangle, tambourine, tom-tom, timpani

Two factors influenced Shchedrin in choosing this instrumentation. The first, he said in an interview with BBC Music Magazine, was that, “to be [as] totally far [as possible]” from Bizet’s scoring for the opera, he wanted an ensemble “without brass and woodwind … that gave me many possibilities” for timbral vareity. The second was the high level of string and percussion players then available in the Bolshoi orchestra.

Tops for Table Tweaking

The recording has tremendous transients and dynamics as well; be prepared to have trouble tracking it. In that respect it’s a prime candidate for table, cartridge and system tweaking. (I once adjusted my anti-skate while playing this very album, at the time dialing it in to a “T”. Over the years I’ve found that the best test for fine anti-skate adjustment is massed strings, and not just at the end of a side but right at the beginning too. When you have all the rosiny texture, the high-end harmonic extension, the least shrillness and the widest and deepest staging, you are there, assuming that tracking weight, azimuth and VTA are correct as well. Four variables to mess with is admittedly a bitch, but having the right record to test with is absolutely critical as well. Maybe we should call it five variables.)

And if I only had one record to bring to someone’s house in order to evaluate their equipment, this would certainly be a top choice. If you can make this record sound the way it should, your stereo is cookin’. If you are having problems, this record will show them to you in surprisingly short order.

Alto Heavy Vinyl

Alto records did this title on 180 gram more than a decade ago, and it was a COMPLETE DISASTER. Those of you who were getting catalogs from us in the ’90s when that record came around were warned not to buy it. I was lucky enough to own a very good original pressing of it at the time, which of course made it all too easy to recognize just how poorly the new pressing had been mastered. No criticisms of the quality of the mastering were offered in the audiophile press however, not that I saw anyway. And every major audiophile record dealer carried it. Funny how some things never change.