_Composers – Stravinsky

The Said and the Unsaid – The Firebird on Mercury

More Reviews and Commentaries of The Firebird

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

For our shootout years ago of The Firebird we had three minty, potentially hot copies of the Mercury with Dorati, as well as our noisy ref. (We have a noisy reference copy for just about every major title by now. We have been doing these shootouts for a very long time. After thirty years in the record business we have accumulated a World Class collection of great sounding records that are just too noisy to sell. [As of 2022 this is no longer true. Our customers seem to be able to put up with the louder surface noise of some records if the price is right.] 

We had one FR pressing and two of the later pressings with the lighter label, the ones that most often come with Philips M2 stampers. This is how we described the winner:

So clear and ALIVE. Transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

Lifelike, immediate, front row center sound like few records you have ever heard.

Rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. This side really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy.

What we didn’t say — and what we never say in the listings — is what the second tier copies didn’t do as well as the shootout winner.

We used to. When you read the old Hall of Fame entries most of the time they mention the shortcomings that caused one side or another to be downgraded some amount, usually by something like a half to a full plus. Not all the top end, not all the bass, not as present, slightly smeary, slightly congested — the list of potential faults for any given pressing is long indeed. These are all the problems we listen for and it’s the rare copy that doesn’t suffer from one or more of them.

We decided years ago that it was better just to let you hear the two sides of the record for yourself and make your own judgments about the sound, rather than make clear to you what areas we felt needed improvement.

Consider this example. If on our system the bass was lacking compared to the very best, perhaps on your system the bass was fine, not an issue, good enough. Without the top copy to compare yours to, how would you know how much better the bass could possibly be?

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Stravinsky / The Firebird – Dorati

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Reviews and Commentaries for The Firebird

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  • One listen to either side of this pressing and you’ll see why this is one of the Top Mercury Titles of All Time
  • The Heavy Vinyl reissues – at 45 or 33, on one disc or four, makes no difference – barely begin to capture the energy and drive Dorati brings to the work
  • “The magic lies in the elaborate orchestration and the excitingly uneven rhythmic writing. Stravinsky changes the orchestration of his themes at each repetition, breaks them down into their constituent parts, pushes their accents across the bar-line, and moves them out of sync with their own accompaniments.”
  • 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.

Neither side has peak distortion or Inner Groove Distortion of any kind, which is rare for this exceptionally dynamic title in our experience.

Both sides are so clear, ALIVE, and transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

This pressing boasts rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. 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. (more…)

The Rite of Spring – Boy, Was We Ever Wrong

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Stravinsky

This is a VERY old and somewhat embarrassing commentary providing the evidence for just how Wrong We Were about the sound of Solti’s 1974 recording for Decca.

Here is what we had to say about the album in 2008:

This is an amazing recording, DEMO QUALITY SOUND, far better than the Decca heavy vinyl reissue that came out in the 2000s. [That part is no doubt true.]

This record is extremely dynamic; full of ambience; tonally correct; with tons of deep bass. Because it’s a more modern recording, it doesn’t have the Tubey Magic of some Golden Age originals, but it compensates for that shortcoming by being less distorted and “clean.” Some people may consider that more accurate. To be honest with you, I don’t know if that is in fact the case.

However, this record should not disappoint sonically and the performance is every bit as exciting and powerful as any you will find. The Chicago Symphony has the orchestral chops to make a work of this complexity sound effortless.

Skip forward to the present, roughly ten years later. We had three or four copies on hand to audition when we surveyed the work a couple of years ago in preparation for a big shootout.

The Solti did not make the cut. It was not even in the ballpark.

Our reasons are laid out in the post-it note you see to the left. We had three or four copies and even the best one still had the shortcomings you see listed, just to a lesser degree. (For more on the subject of opacity on record, click here and here.)

So in the eleven or twelve years from the time we played a pile of copies in 2008, to 2020 or thereabouts when we auditioned a new batch, this recording seems to have gotten a lot worse.

But that’s not what happened. We’re under no illusions now that the album did not always have these sonic shortcomings, shortcomings that existed from the day copies came off the presses in England, some with London labels, others with Decca labels.

We simply did not have the cleaning system or the playback system capable of showing us what was wrong with their sound, and how much better other recordings were than they were.

And Harry Pearson was fooled as well. The Decca (SXL 6691) is on the TAS List to this day. Other records that have no business being on anything called a Super Disc List can be found here. Our list of Demonstration Quality Orchestral Recordings can be found here.

You may be aware that Speakers Corner remastered this recording  in the ’90s. We carried it and recommended it highly back in the day when we offered those kinds of records. At some point, 2007 to be exact, we wised up. We asked ourselves why we were selling mediocre records instead of Better Records. Since we didn’t have a good answer, we stopped ordering them and proceeded to sell off our remaining stock.

In 2008 I had been seriously involved with the audio hobby for more than 30 years. I had been an audiophile record dealer for more than twenty.

I thought I knew what good sound was.

Clearly I had a lot to learn.

This is, once again, what progress in audio in all about. As your stereo improves, some records should get better, some should get worse. It’s the nature of the game for those of us who constantly strive to improve the quality of our cleaning and playback. We keep at it, as we have been for close to

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Stravinsky / The Firebird Suite on Speakers Corner

More on The Firebird

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

This is probably one of the better Speakers Corner Deccas.

We haven’t played a copy of this record in years, but back in the day we liked it, so let’s call it a “B” with the caveat that the older the review, the more likely we are to have changed our minds.

Not sure if we would still agree with what we wrote back in the ’90s when this record came out, but here it is anyway.

“Excellent sound with a wonderful performance from Ansermet.”

Currently our favorite Firebird is the original pressing on Mercury with Dorati conducting. Our opinion is very unlikely to change concerning the best combination of sound and performance. The record is simply a monster on the right pressing.

We have never heard an especially good sounding London or Decca of Ansermet’s performance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We tend to avoid judging records we have not played and we encourage the audiophile community to do the same.


As a general rule, this Heavy Vinyl pressing will fall short in most of the following areas:

Ambience, Size and Space

Compression 

Energy

Smear

Transparency


FURTHER READING

The sonic signature of the modern Heavy Vinyl Classical Reissue in Four Words: Diffuse, Washed Out, Veiled, and Vague.

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Stravinsky / The Firebird – Hard to Beat for Table Setup

Reviews and Commentaries for The Firebird on Mercury

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

White Hot Front Row Center sound – amazingly lifelike. One listen to either side and you’ll know this is one of the Top Mercury Titles of All Time. Dorati breathes life into the work as only he can.

So clear and ALIVE. Transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

Lifelike, immediate, front row center sound like few records you have ever heard.

Rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury.

These sides really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy. Some of our favorite (and not so favorite) Mercury classical and orchestral recordings can be found here.


Table Setup

This is an excellent record for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like. Classical music is really the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge setup (and evaluation). A huge and powerful recording such as this quickly separates the men from the boys when it comes to the highest orchestral reproduction.

Recordings of this quality are the reason $10,000+ front ends exist in the first place. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you do, this is the record that will show you what you got for your hard-earned dough.

Ideally you would want to work your setup magic at home with this record, then take it to a friend’s house and see if you can achieve the same results on his system. I’ve done this sort of thing for years. (Sadly, not so much anymore; nobody I know can play records like these the way we can. Playing and critically evaluating records all day, every day, year after year, you get pretty good at it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.)

Properly set VTA is especially critical on this record, as it is on most classical recordings. The smallest change will dramatically affect the timbre, texture and harmonic information of the strings, as well as the rest of instruments of the orchestra.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More VTA Advice

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Stravinsky / Le Sacre du Printemps – Speakers Corner Reviewed

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Stravinsky

We used to think this was one of the better Speakers Corner Deccas.

Having recently played the London pressing of the same performance, cut by Decca of course, we think we are almost certainly wrong about the quality of the sound, but who knows? Maybe Speakers Corner remastered the record properly and fixed its shortcomings.

Hah, just joking. In our experience that has never happened and we think it is very unlikely that it ever will.

Years ago we wrote the following:

Wow! What a performance! What dynamic full bodied sound! To be fair, I pulled out my original London, one of those awful mid-’70s English pressings that are never quiet, and yes, some of the ambience on the original is missing here on the new version, but everything else seems right: dynamics, tonality, the frequency extremes (including some pretty awesome deep bass).

Some of the above could be right, the parts about the tonality and such. Speakers Corner could have added some bass and lower midrange to make the sound less thin, and taken out some of the upper midrange to make the loud passages less blary, but it certainly doesn’t solve the most serious issues we had with the recording, which is the fact that it is opaque and flat, two qualities that are the death of orchestral music on vinyl.

Here are the notes we made for the London.

The two paragraphs you see reproduced below are also full of bad advice we had given out in the past:

1. Can’t be sure we would still feel that way but I’m guessing this is a good record if you can pick one up at a cheap price. 

2. If you have a quiet original, great, consider yourself lucky. As few of you have any copy at all, I recommend this one. The alternative is to miss Solti’s energetic performance and the precision of the Chicago Symphony, one of the few orchestras capable of making sense out of this complex and infuriating work. (At least it used to infuriate audiences. Now our modern ears can take a difficult work like this and appreciate the complex rhythms and atonality as the expression of a truly original mind.

This paragraph we would still agree with wholeheartedly:

This is not music to play while you are having dinner. This is music to engage the mind fully. It belongs in any collection. Yours in fact. Unless you have small speakers, in which case you would be wasting your money, as small speakers cannot begin to reproduce the power of this work in the hands of Solti and the CSO [or anybody else for that matter].


FURTHER READING

More music conducted by Georg Solti

Reviews and Commentaries for the Recordings of Kenneth Wilkinson

Best Orchestral Performances with Top Quality Sound

Well Recorded Classical Albums from The Core Collection Available Now

Today’s MoFi Disaster Is Pictures at an Exhibition

moussmofiMore of the music of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Reviews and Commentaries for Mussorgsky’s Music

Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame pressing and another MoFi LP reviewed and found seriously wanting.

The MoFi mastering of Pictures and The Firebird here are a joke. All that phony boosted top end makes the strings sound funny and causes mischief in virtually every other part of the orchestra as well. Not surprisingly, those boosted highs are missing from the real EMIs.

These are exactly the kind of unbearably bright strings that Stan Ricker seems to favor.

The proof? Find me a Mobile Fidelity classical record with that little SR/2 in the dead wax that does not have bright string tone. I have yet to hear one.

The last time I played a copy of MFSL 1-520 I found the sound so hi-fi-ish I couldn’t stand to be in the room with it for more than a minute. Of course the bass is jello as well. The EMI with the right stampers is worlds better.

(Warning: The domestic Angel regular version and the 45 are both awful.)

MoFi had a bad habit of making bright classical records. (More reviews here.) I suppose you could say they had a bad habit of making bright records in general. A few are dull, some are just right, but most of them are bright in one way or another. Dull playback equipment? An attempt to confuse detail with resolution?

Whatever the reasons, the more accurate and revealing your equipment becomes, the more obvious the shortcomings of Mobile Fidelity’s records will be. My tolerance for their phony EQ is at an all time low. But hey, that’s me.

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Stravinsky / Petrushka / Mehta – Not Recommended

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Imports on Decca & London

Reviews and Commentaries for Recordings by Decca

Sonic Grade: F 

A Hall of Shame Pressing and a Classical Record we can’t recommend.

We’re big fans of Decca/London Records in general, but in this case the sound and the performances are simply not acceptable.

We had three original UK pressed copies of CS 6554 and none of them sounded any good to us.

What’s worse, Mehta and the Los Angeles Phil play the work poorly. How this album got released in 1967 I have no idea.


A PUBLIC SERVICE

We play mediocre-to-bad sounding pressings so that you don’t have to, a public service from your record loving friends at Better Records.

You can find this one in our Hall of Shame, along with more than 350 others that — in our opinion — qualify as some of the worst sounding records ever made. (On some Hall of Shame records the sound is passable but the music is bad.  These are also records you can safely avoid.)

Note that most of the entries are audiophile remasterings of one kind or another. The reason for this is simple: we’ve gone through the all-too-often unpleasant experience of comparing them head to head with our best Hot Stamper pressings.

When you can hear them that way, up against an exceptionally good pressing, their flaws become that much more obvious and, frankly, that much less excusable.


Stravinsky / The Rite of Spring – The Ultimate Recording of the Work

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

More music conducted by Pierre Monteux

  • An outstanding Shaded Dog pressing with superb sound from start to finish
  • Perhaps the greatest performance ever, certainly our favorite for performance and sound – this is not an easy piece of music to record judging by how many awful sounding versions that exist — we should know, we played them
  • Monteux knows the work as well as anyone, he himself conducted the premier in 1913!
  • Mind boggling in its power to move the listener – a classic Decca Tree recording from 1956 by the master, Mr. Kenneth Wilkinson
  • There are about 100 orchestral recordings we’ve awarded the honor of having the Best Performances with Top Quality Sound, and this recording certainly deserve a place on that list, close to the top I would think

It takes us three years — and a lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck — to get a shootout like this going.

The tympani and bass drum on this recording have few equals in our experience. This is the way HUGE and POWERFUL drums sound in concert. Those of you who go to classical concerts regularly will recognize that sound immediately. You probably also know that finding Golden Age recordings with this kind of deep bass is unusual to say the least.

The space and dynamic power of these sides are really something to hear on this groundbreaking work. Lush when quiet, clear and undistorted when loud, not many copies of Rite of Spring can do what these two sides can.

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Debussy / Images for Orchestra / Ansermet – London Versus Decca

More of the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

More of the music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

  • INCREDIBLE Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it throughout this early London Wideband Stereo pressing
  • Our Shootout Winner here was exceptionally lively and dynamic – the RCA with Munch was slightly richer and sweeter, but you will find very little to fault in the sound of this record if you don’t have the right stampers for that one
  • And we’re eager to point out that the Decca pressings were not in the same sonic league as our best Londons, something that we run into on a regular basis but for some reason surprises audiophile record lovers to this very day, why we have no idea — all the pressings we play in our shootouts are mastered by Decca in England from the same tapes
  • There are about 100 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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