Comparing Witches’ Brew on RCA with Danse Macabre on Decca from Way Back in the Day


This commentary was written a very long time ago so caveat lector.

The Decca reissue above just happens to have the material found on one of the most famous and sought-after Shaded Dog pressings in the world, Witches’ Brew (shown below), along with one track added, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, conducted by Ansermet. (As a budget reissue they felt they needed to give you more music in order to get you to buy performances that were no longer current.)

The Decca pressing is tonally much more natural from top to bottom. I used to think that it was the best way to hear the music on Witches’ Brew. Like so much of what happens in the world of records, it is and it isn’t.

Huh?, you say. Okay, here is what I mean. We played a handful of Witches’ Brews over the last year or two, and most of them left a lot to be desired. More than that — most of them were just plain awful. One, and only one, lived up to the hype that surrounds the record. It was so big and so powerful that I would have had no trouble ranking it with the five best sounding classical recordings I’ve ever heard. It was a real WOW moment when the needle hit the groove on that one.

witchesThis later Decca pressing is made from a copy tape, but it’s CORRECTLY mastered from that tape and therefore sounds worlds better than most originals and all the heavy vinyl reissues. This record I can play and enjoy. Those I cannot.

Side Two

Mephisto Waltz sounds about as good as it can considering the source tapes that were used. It’s rich, spacious and huge but does have some smear. The tonality is correct and that alone puts it well ahead of the pack. We call it A++, Super Hot.

Side One

If you compare the Danse Macabre here with the same work on the earlier pressings one thing that jumps out clearly is how CLEAN the top end of this pressing is and how DISTORTED it is on even the best originals. The old cutter systems were a bit crude up top and this pressing will show you just how crude they were (assuming you have an original, not an easy record to come by these days).

That said, we graded this side one A+ to A++, a step below side two. Yes, it’s tonally correct and has a clean top, but it is also somewhat recessed and not nearly as lively as the best originals. (Gnomus is not very good here I regret to say.)

In Summary

A mixed bag of sonic qualities, no doubt about it. We would love to find these wonderful performances mastered correctly and on quiet vinyl, but that combination has proven to be much more difficult than we thought it would be. This pressing gets you most of the way there. Most of the others we have tried have been painfully bad, so we would have to say, all things considered, this is a good record that you should consider giving a spin.

The Music

As for the music, I have long held that the Danse Macabre on this album is the best performance of it ever put to tape. I probably still agree with that, but so much of the material on this record is amazingly good that that’s actually kind of a left-handed compliment. The entire side one is outstanding from start to finish: the excerpt from Pictures at an Exhibition and the complete A Night on Bare Mountain are both played with a kind of energy and requisite orchestral technical quality that makes these pieces come alive right in your living room.

Only the Arnold piece on this record is not particularly inspiring, although it does have excellent sound. All in all, an amazing mix of warhorses and obscurities given a fresh reading by Alexander Gibson and the New Symphony Orchestra of London.

Leave a Reply