_Composers – Dukas

Witches’ Brew on Classic Records and How Crazy Wrong We Were

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More Reviews and Commentaries for Witches’ Brew

Below you will find our old review for the Classic Records’ pressing. I obviously did not like it.

However, in moving to Georgia this year (2022), I was digging through some old catalogs from the early Nineties, and something I read in one of them chilled me to the bone. There it was in black and white: my rave review for the Classic Witches’ Brew. Here it is on the front page of the catalog, along with at least one other record that I would be embarrassed to sell today: the OJC pressing of Saxophone Colossus.

As soon as I find my review in the old catalog, I will post it. I can hardly believe I wrote it, but I did. I wrote all my catalogs back then, so the extent of my incompetence is undeniable.

Below you will find our old commentary detailing the shortcomings of the Classic, a record I liked just fine in 1994, but whose sound I would find intolerable less than ten years later.

I thought my stereo was awesome in 1994, but it should be obvious to anyone that I could not have been more wrong. The Dunning-Kruger effect is real, and I clearly suffered from it. IN 1994 I had been a fairly dedicated audiophile for more than twenty years, and a strongly opiniated audiophile record dealer who took pride in his curated offerings for seven of those years. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Looking back, I clearly had a lot to learn. We did our first shootout ten years later, and that’s when our real education began.


Our Old Review

Please to enjoy.

If this isn’t the perfect example of a Pass/Fail record, I don’t know what would be.

I’ve long held that the remastering of this album is nothing less than a crime against music lovers and audiophiles of every stripe. Boosting the bass and highs and adding transistory harshness is the last thing in the world that Witches’ Brew needed.

At the risk of insulting some of you out there, if you think the Classic Records version of this album sounds good, your system must be some combination of low-rez, dull and bass shy, or you must like really hi-fi-ish sound.

There is no way that that record should ever sound good on a full-range system that’s reasonably revealing and tonally accurate.

I’ve heard this record played by people attempting to demonstrate the brilliant sound of their system, a demonstration which nearly caused blood to run from my ears. All the while they stood there with a big grin on their face, so pleased with the sound.

I don’t understand how anyone can put up with that kind of sound, but obviously people do.  People like lots of things I don’t like, and the Classic record is just one more to add to that list. 

Classic Records pressings may have been mastered by one of the greats, Bernie Grundman, but he was well past his prime, as we explain here.

More Classic Bashing

Classic Records ruined this album, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has played their classical reissues.

Their version is dramatically more aggressive than the Shaded Dogs we’ve played.

The strings are exceptionally shrill and screechy even by Classic’s standards. True, the original is not the smoothest, sweetest recording Decca ever made, but what Classic did was take Decca’s sound and amplify its shortcomings.

(The other poster boy for shrill strings is Classic’s remastering of LSC 1806. A review will be coming eventually.)

Apparently, most audiophiles (including audiophile record reviewers) have never heard a top quality classical recording. If they had, Classic Records would have gone out of business immediately after producing their first three Living Stereo titles, all of which were dreadful and labeled as such by us way back in 1994. I’m not sure why the rest of the audiophile community was so easily fooled, but I can say that we weren’t, at least when it came to their classical releases.

We admit to having made plenty of mistaken judgments about their jazz and rock, and we have the We Was Wrong entries to prove it.

With every improvement we’ve made to our system over the years, their records have managed to sound progressively worse. (This is pretty much true for all Heavy Vinyl pressings, another good reason for our decision to stop buying them in 2007.) That ought to tell you something.

Better audio stops hiding the shortcomings of bad records. At the same time, and much more importantly, better audio reveals more and more of the strengths and beauty of good records.

Which of course begs the question of what actually is a good record — what it is that makes one record good and another bad — but luckily for you, dear reader, you are actually on a site that has much to say about those very issues.

There are scores of commentaries on the site about the huge improvements in audio available to the discerning (and well-healed) audiophile. It’s the reason Hot Stampers can and do sound dramatically better than their Heavy Vinyl or Audiophile counterparts: because your stereo is good enough to show you the difference.

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Saint-Saens – The Best Danse Macabre on Record

More of the music of Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

More of the music of Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

More of the music of Emmanual Chabrier (1841-1894)

Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Danse Macabre, the second piece on the second side, is the heart of the album and its raison d’être for us. This is where the real fireworks can be found, although that’s not really fair as there are fireworks aplenty on both sides.

What we have here is the best Danse Macabre we have ever played.

We have always been fans of Gibson’s performance on the legendary Witches’ Brew. As good as that recording may be, this one is clearly superior in practically every way — it’s bigger, clearer, richer, more resolving, more spacious, more real and, to my surprise, more EXCITING and involving.

If you own a copy of LSC 2225, hopefully not the awful Classic pressing, you need to hear what Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have accomplished.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas)

This piece opens the side. There is depth and richness to beat the band, as well as clarity and tonal correctness that let you forget the recording and just enjoy the music.

A superb performance as well, as good as any we know of. And the sound is the equal of the best recordings we’ve played.

Espana. Rhapsody For Orchestra (Chabrier)

As good as Fremaux is, I think the Ansermet (CS 6438) might still have the edge, but both are so good that it might just come down to a matter of taste. You cannot go wrong with either.

And now we actually prefer the famous Argenta recording for Decca that’s on the TAS List, CS 6006.

Side One

Bolero (Ravel)

Comparable to our longtime favorite for sound and performance with Ansermet, we cannot say which one we would prefer without doing quite a bit more critical listening, a luxury we do not have at the moment.

We can tell you this: Turn it up and it really comes to life like LIVE MUSIC. It’s big, wide and believable.

This side one was far and away the best we played. 

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy)

Transparency, depth and space were superb on this side, allowing that “you are there” feeling to take hold in the mind. The best copies like this one had plenty of all three.

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Ravel and Ansermet Produce The Best Bolero on Vinyl

More Classical and Orchestral Recordings

More Music Conducted by Ernest Ansermet

Best Orchestral Performances with Top Quality Sound

The sound is clear, with wonderful depth to the stage.

As a rule, the classic ’50s and ’60s recordings of Ansermet and the Suisse Romande in Victoria Hall are as big and rich as any you may have ever heard.

These recordings may just be the ideal blend of clarity and richness, with depth and spaciousness that will put to shame 98% of the classical recordings ever made.

Side One

Bolero (Ravel)

Tubey and clear, with both the snare and the flute coming from so far back in the hall! OUTSTANDING energy and dynamic power.

Turn it up and it really comes to life like LIVE MUSIC. It’s big, wide and believable. We loved it!

Side Two

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas)

ZERO compression. ZERO distortion when loud. Which means it has ZERO compressor distortion, something not five out of a hundred Golden Age recordings can claim. Nice extended top too.

There is depth and richness to beat the band, as well as clarity and tonal correctness that let you forget the recording and just enjoy the music. This piece is not quite as transparent as the Ravel, but still has earned every one of its Three Pluses.

The timbre of the brass is right on the money. As we have noted before, the brass of the Suisse Romande is some of the best to have ever been committed to analog tape.

Again, this side had OUTSTANDING energy and dynamic power the likes of which we think you may never have heard.

La Valse (Ravel)

Boasting some of the best sound of the three works we played on this copy. Again, with that wondrously huge hall adding a sense of space that will allow your speakers to disappear. The performers are not too close, which is very much in keeping with live music.

In his tribute to Ravel after the composer’s death in 1937, Paul Landormy described the work as follows:

“….the most unexpected of the compositions of Ravel, revealing to us heretofore unexpected depths of Romanticism, power, vigor, and rapture in this musician whose expression is usually limited to the manifestations of an essentially classical genius.”

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Saint-Saens / Chabrier / Danse Macabre / Espana and More

More of the music of Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

More of the music of Emmanual Chabrier (1841-1894)

  • This EMI import pressing boasts Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from start to finish
  • Both sides here are BIGGER and RICHER than any other we played – they’re super clean and clear, tonally correct from top to bottom, and have all of the weight of the orchestra down low (not to mention some of the loveliest orchestral music reproduction we’ve ever heard)
  • If you want a classical record to TEST your system and DEMO your system, you will have a hard time finding a better pressing than this very copy!
  • This Demo Disc Quality recording should be part of any serious Orchestral Music Collection. Others that belong in that category can be found here.
  • There are about 150 orchestral recordings we’ve awarded the honor of offering the Best Performances with the Highest Quality Sound, and this record certainly deserve a place on that list.

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Ravel / Dukas et al. – Works by Ravel, Honegger and Dukas / Ansermet

More Classical and Orchestral Recordings

More Music Conducted by Ernest Ansermet

  • This spectacular Demo Disc recording is big, clear, rich, dynamic, transparent and energetic – here you will find some of the best orchestral Hot Stamper sound we offer
  • With so many quiet passages, records that play better than Mint Minus Minus are tough to come by in this world – this one is exceptional indeed
  • The sound of the orchestra is dramatically richer and sweeter than you will hear on most pressings — what else would you expect from Decca’s engineers and the Suisse Romande?

The sound is clear, with wonderful depth to the stage. As a rule, the classic ’50s and ’60s recordings of Ansermet and the Suisse Romande in Victoria Hall are as big and rich as any you may have ever heard. These recordings may just be the ideal blend of clarity and richness, with depth and spaciousness that will put to shame 98% of the classical recordings ever made. (more…)

Mussorgsky / Danse Infernale – Our Favorite Night On Bald Mountain

More of the Music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Reviews and Commentaries for Mussorgsky’s Music

  • Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades on both sides make this the best sounding batch of Orchestral Showpieces on DG we have ever played, thanks at least in part to the conducting skills of Arthur Fiedler
  • After a two year hiatus, our favorite performance of Night on Bald Mountain is back, and it’s guaranteed to blow your mind (and maybe a woofer or two)
  • Side one also boasts an excellent Danse Macabre, with a powerful finish that may remind you of the thrill of live orchestral music
  • Side two contains a wonderfully exciting Sorcerer’s Apprentice
  • Both sides are clear and transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling
  • Watch your levels – this pressing is dramatically more DYNAMIC than most Golden Age recordings
  • More Classical ‘Sleeper” Recordings we’ve discovered with Demo Disc Sound

If you like Orchestral Spectaculars, have we got the record for you!

This pressing clearly has DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND — not in every way, but in some important ways. The ENERGY of both the sound and the performances of these barnburning showpieces is truly awesome. Fiedler brings this music to LIFE like no other conductor we have heard.

This pressing boasts relatively rich, sweet strings, especially for a Deutsche Grammophon LP. Both sides really get quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy (and the reason it is so hard to find a copy that plays better than Mint Minus Minus. We do have a quieter copy with lower grades if you are interested though.) (more…)

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

danse

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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.

Witches’ Brew / Gibson – Reviewed in 2007

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DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND, of a sort. As I’ve said elsewhere on the site, this is not my idea of natural tonality.

As for the music, I have long held that the Danse Macabre on this album is the best ever. I probably still agree with that [not anymore, here’s a better one], 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 2 is outstanding from start to finish.

The excerpt on side 1 from Pictures at an Exhibition and the complete A Night on Bare Mountain are both played with a kind of energy and 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 group of warhorses given a fresh reading by Alexander Gibson and the New Symphony Orchestra of London.

This is an Older Classical/Orchestral Review

Most of the older reviews you see are for records that did not go through the shootout process, the revolutionary approach to finding better sounding pressings we started developing in the early 2000s and have since turned into a veritable science.

We found the records you see in these older listings by cleaning and playing a pressing or two of the album, which we then described and priced based on how good the sound and surfaces were. (For out Hot Stamper listings, the Sonic Grades and Vinyl Playgrades are listed separately.)

We were often wrong back in those days, something we have no reason to hide. Audio equipment and record cleaning technologies have come a long way since those darker days, a subject we discuss here.

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Rossini-Respighi / La Boutique Fantasque / Solti – Reviewed in 2010

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

This London Mono Radio Promotion Copy is a stunner! DEMO QUALITY SOUND.

They even knew it back then — it was given the Hi-Fi Record Of The Month award! This orchestration and the sound of this music is ideal for audiophile listening.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that closes out side two has slightly better sound by the way — it’s quite good.

Sibelius, Liszt, Dukas et al. – A Lousy London Phase 4 LP

More of the Music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Jean Sibelius

Sonic Grade: F

While preparing for a Finlandia shootout recently, we happened to drop the needle on this album, a 1977 Phase 4 recording made in Kingsway Hall and engineered by Arthur Lilley. We could hardly believe how bad it sounded. The multi-miking is the worst I have ever heard!

We like lots of Phase 4 recordings — especially those of Bernard Herrmann — but this is definitely not one of them. 

Are they all bad? Who can say? We sure aren’t going to be wasting any more time and money on the album in order to find out, I can tell you that.

The Obsession soundtrack is a dog as well. Audiophiles looking for good sound are best advised to avoid them both.