Respighi / Strauss – Pines of Rome / Don Juan / Kempe

More Orchestral Spectaculars

More Reviews and Commentaries for The Pines of Rome

  • With two top quality sides, we guarantee you’ve never heard The Pines of Rome sound remotely as good as it does here (unless you own one of killer Living Stereo LPs of the work)
  • This Readers Digest pressing of Kempe’s superb 1964 recording for Decca has glorious sound on both sides and plays reasonably quietly for any LP produced by this notoriously difficult label for audiophiles
  • There were only three performances with top quality audiophile sound, and our Wilkinson-engineered pressing here was right up there with the best we heard in our massive shootout
  • If you know anything about these works, you know that they have tons of top and bottom end, and it is the rare pressing that captures both
  • The texture and harmonic overtones of the strings are superb – as we listened we became completely immersed in the music on the record, transfixed by the remarkable virtuosity Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought to these difficult and demanding works 50 plus years ago

This shootout has been at least thirty years in the making — that’s how long I have been picking up these RDG sets, ever since my friend Robert Pincus turned me on to them all those years ago.

Around 2016 we surveyed the recordings of the work we had on hand, close to a dozen different performances I  think, and found them all wanting, save three: the Reiner (which is still on the TAS List), this Reader’s Digest pressing with Kempe (our second favorite, and a close second at that), and a London with Kertesz.

If a particular performance had any distortion or limitation problems in the higher frequencies, it was quickly rejected out of hand. Same with low end whomp and weight. On The Pines both are crucial.

No other pieces of music of which we are aware have so much going on up high and down low. This narrowed the field of potential Hot Stampers considerably. Great performances by top conductors could not get over these hurdles — high and low — time and time again.

For these reasons, it took us years to find the right recordings. We knew the Reiner would be hard to beat, but we kept trying record after record hoping that we could find one to wrest the crown away from what is widely considered the greatest recording of the works ever made.

The best pressings were doing everything right. There was plenty of top end, with virtually no harmonic distortion, and when I say plenty, I mean the right amount. Not many engineers managed to get all the highs correctly onto the tape, but Lewis Layton and Kenneth Wilkinson sure did.

So many recordings had screechy strings and horns. When the music would get loud — and the Pines gets very loud indeed, assuming the recording will let it — the sound would become unbearably harsh and unpleasant. This is the opposite of what should happen, and it was obvious that those recordings would not make it past the first round.

All three of the finalists could claim enthusiastic performances with powerful energy and top quality orchestral playing.

Kempe and Wilkinson’s Take

For The Pines, the main difference between our top two favorites is that this recording is a bit more modern, which may just be the difference between 1960 and 1964.

Our notes for side two read:

  • Rich, clear and present.
  • Great space. 
  • Performance is very lively. As the record played, we noted:
  • Really clear, big and open, weighty and spacious.

This is what we want in our orchestral dreadnaught recordings, and Kempe and Decca more than delivered.

For Don Juan, which takes up all of side one, this is certainly as good sounding a pressing as we have ever heard. We are no experts on this famous tone poem — we have yet to work through the many pressings and performances that we have of it, a dozen or so I would guess — but we know a good sounding record when we play one.

Our notes read:

  • Clear, really open and detailed. Great space.
  • Great weight. Solid, clear, and balanced.

This recording can certainly serve as a benchmark for when we finally get around to doing the shootout.

Transparency Is a Quality All Orchestral Recordings Must Have

Some recordings we played lacked transparency, as well as the relaxed sense of involvement that eases one’s ability to be tricked into thinking “you (really) are there.”

Transparency allows you to hear into a recording, reproducing the ambience and subtle musical cues and details that high-resolution analog is known for.

The famous 1977 Maazel recording for Decca, which was on the TAS List for a long time, suffered from a bad case of multi-miking and the transparency issue mentioned above. What do you expect from 1977?

It has been our experience that most Heavy Vinyl pressings being produced these days seem to be seriously Transparency Challenged. Lots of important musical information — the kind we hear on even second-rate vintage pressings — is simply not to be found.

Where is the space? The three-dimensional depth? If your stereo can reproduce these qualities — a big if, since even as recently as twenty years ago mine could not, at least not very well — you should have given up on these opaque and airless frauds years ago. 

The Real Deal

This vintage pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely 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 the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog 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 maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What the Best Sides of The Pines and Don Juan 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 1964
  • 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.

What We’re Listening For on The Pines and Don Juan

  • 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.
  • 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.

Better Front Ends Are Often Quieter

I would make the further point that the better your front end is, the less likely you are to have a problem with vinyl like this, which is the opposite of what many audiophiles believe to be the case. In other words, some of the cheaper tables and carts seem to make the surface noise more objectionable, not less. On the other hand, some pricey cartridges — the Benz line comes to mind — are consistently noisier than those by Dynavector, Lyra and others, in our experience anyway.

A Must Own Orchestral Showpiece

These wonderful tone poems — two of the greatest ever composed — should be part of any serious Classical Collection.

Others that belong in that category can be found here.

Our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale

This album is especially Difficult to ReproduceDo not attempt to play it on anything but the highest quality equipment.

Classical music is unquestionably the ultimate test for proper turntable / arm / cartridge setup. The Pines of Rome would be a superb choice for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like.

One of the reasons $10,000+ front ends exist is to play large scale, complex, difficult-to-reproduce music such as these two tones poems. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you choose to, it would surely be the kind of record that can show you the sound your tens of thousands of dollars has bought you.

It has been my experience that cheap tables (anything under $2k I would guess) more often than not collapse completely under the weight of a mighty record such as this. If you have one of those, this is probably not the record for you.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Don Juan

Side Two

Pines of Rome

 

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