Record Labels We Love

Tchaikovsky / Piano Concerto #1 – Now That’s the Way a Piano Should Sound!

I don’t know of another recording of the work that gets the sound of the piano better. On the better copies the percussive quality of the instrument really comes through. It’s amazing how many piano recordings have poorly miked pianos. The badly recorded pianos are either too distant, lack proper reproduction of the lower registers, or somehow smear the pounding of the keys into a blurry mess.

Or is it a mastering issue?

A pressing issue?

To be honest, it’s probably all three.

On the best copies the rich texture of the strings is out of this world — you will have a very hard time finding a DG with better string tone. This record does not have the shortcomings of the average DG: it’s not hard, shrill, or sour.

DG made plenty of good records in the ’50s and ’60s, then proceeded to fall apart, like most labels did. This is one of their finest. It proves conclusively that at one time — 1962 to be exact — they clearly knew what they were doing.

Richter Owns the Work

Richter is brutal at the piano. He pounds the hell out of it, which is precisely what the work demands. Karajan, in contrast to his partner in all of this, has the orchestra play especially sweetly, the opposite of what you would expect from the man. Thankfully he is able to summon the brute power of the orchestra when called for. I’ve never been a fan of Karajan; I know of few of his recordings that are compelling. What his reputation as a great conductor is based on is frankly a mystery to me. Having said that, on this record he is wonderful. I cannot begin to fault his work here in any way.

The RCA

What’s shocking is how lifeless the famous Van Cliburn (LSC 2252) recording is. Granted we did not have ten copies to play, but the ones we did play were the smallest and most compressed classical recording we listened to all day. They went into the trade pile and we will never buy another.

This DG recording has little competition in terms of sonics. Furthermore, we feel strongly that it has no competition in terms of performance. It’s simply the best.

Most Copies Do Not Sound Good…

So What Else Is New?

My good friend Robert Pincus turned me on to this recording close to twenty years ago. Since then I’ve had the chance to audition dozens of clean copies of it and have found rather shocking amounts of pressing variablity. I was, naively of course, expecting to be able to find good copies to shoot out and offer on the site on a regular basis.

Much to our chagrin we discovered that many of the clean copies we were lucky enough to find tended to sound compressed, harsh, lacking in ambience, and missing the full weight of the piano, one of the qualities that makes this recording such an exceptionally powerful listening experience. This explains why our shootouts are so infrequent. Who knows when the next one will be. The record gods appear to be more and more capricious with each passing day.

Commentary and Background

These days, when the music of Tchaikovsky is among the most popular in the repertory, it is difficult to imagine the composer as a young man, known only to a limited public and trying valiantly to solve that most pressing of all problems for the budding artist—making a living. In 1874 he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and writing music criticism for a local journal. Those duties provided a modest income, but Tchaikovsky’s real interest lay in composition, and he was frustrated with the time they took from his creative work. He had already stolen enough hours to produce a sizeable body of music, but only Romeo and Juliet and the Symphony No. 2 had raised much enthusiasm.

At the end of the year, he began a piano concerto with the hope of having a success great enough to allow him to leave his irksome post at the Conservatory. By late December, he had largely sketched out the work, and, having only a limited technique as a pianist, he sought the advice of Nikolai Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory and an excellent player. Tchaikovsky reported on the interview in a letter:

On Christmas Eve 1874…Nikolai asked me…to play the Concerto in a classroom of the Conservatory. We agreed to it….I played through the first movement. Not a criticism, not a word. Rubinstein said nothing….I did not need any judgment on the artistic form of my work; there was question only about its mechanical details.
This silence of Rubinstein said much. It said to me at once: ‘Dear friend, how can I talk about details when I dislike your composition as a whole?’ But I kept my temper and played the Concerto through. Again, silence.

‘Well?’ I said, and stood up. There burst forth from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first; then he waxed hot, and at last he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts.

It appeared that my Concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages were so commonplace and awkward that they could not be improved; the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar. I had stolen this from that one and that from this one; so only two or three pages were good for anything, while the others should be wiped out or radically rewritten.

I cannot produce for you the main thing: the tone in which he said all this. An impartial bystander would necessarily have believed that I was a stupid, ignorant, conceited note-scratcher, who was so impudent as to show his scribble to a celebrated man.

Tchaikovsky was furious, and he stormed out of the classroom. He made only one change in the score: he obliterated the name of the original dedicatee—Nikolai Rubinstein—and substituted that of the virtuoso pianist Hans von Bülow, who was performing Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces across Europe. Bülow gladly accepted the dedication and wrote a letter of praise to Tchaikovsky as soon as he received the score:

The ideas are so original, so powerful; the details are so interesting, and though there are many of them they do not impair the clarity and unity of the work. The form is so mature, so ripe and distinguished in style; intention and labor are everywhere concealed. I would weary you if I were to enumerate all the characteristics of your work, characteristics which compel me to congratulate equally the composer and those who are destined to enjoy it.

After the scathing criticism from Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky was delighted to receive such a response, and he was further gratified when Bülow asked to program the premiere on his upcoming American tour. The Concerto created such a sensation when it was first heard, in Boston on October 25, 1875, that Bülow played it on 139 of his 172 concerts that season.

Such a success must at first have puzzled Rubinstein, but eventually he and Tchaikovsky reconciled their differences over the work. Tchaikovsky incorporated some of his suggestions in the 1889 revision, and Rubinstein not only accepted the Concerto, but eventually made it one of the staples of his performing repertory.

During the next four years, when Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, the Rococo Variations, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and, in 1877, met his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, he was not only successful enough to leave his teaching job to devote himself entirely to composition, but he also became recognized as one of the greatest composers of his day.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto opens with the familiar theme of the introduction, a sweeping melody nobly sung by violins and cellos above thunderous chords from the piano. After a brief cadenza for the soloist, the theme—which is not heard again anywhere in the Concerto—is presented a second time in an even grander setting. Following a decrescendo and a pause, the piano presents the snapping main theme. (Tchaikovsky said that this curious first theme was inspired by a tune he heard sung by a blind beggar at a street fair.)

Following a skillful discussion of the opening theme by piano and woodwinds, the clarinet announces the lyrical, bittersweet second theme. A smooth, complementary phrase is played by the violins. This complementary phrase and the snapping motive from the main theme are combined in the movement’s impassioned development section. The recapitulation returns the themes of the exposition in altered settings. (The oboe is awarded the second theme here.) An energetic cadenza and a coda derived from the second theme bring this splendid movement to a rousing close.

The simplicity of the second movement’s three-part structure (A–B–A) is augured by the purity of its opening—a languid melody wrapped in the silvery tones of the solo flute, accompanied by quiet, plucked chords from the strings. The piano takes over the theme, provides it with rippling decorations, and passes it on to the cellos. The center of the movement is of very different character, with a quick tempo and a swift, balletic melody. The languid theme and moonlit mood of the first section return to round out the movement.

The crisp rhythmic motive presented immediately at the beginning of the finale and then spun into a complete theme by the soloist dominates much of the last movement. In the theme’s vigorous full-orchestra guise, it has much of the spirit of a robust Cossack dance. To balance the impetuous vigor of this music, Tchaikovsky introduced a contrasting theme, a romantic melody first entrusted to the violins. The dancing Cossacks repeatedly advance upon this bit of tenderness, which shows a hardy determination to dominate the movement. The two themes contend, but it is the flying Cossacks who have the last word to bring this Concerto to an exhilarating close.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Tony Bennett / For Once In My Life – Frank Laico Knocks Another One Out of the Park

More Recordings by Frank Laico

Reviews and Commentaries for the Recordings of Frank Laico

Amazing vocal reproduction courtesy of the brilliant engineering of Frank Laico at his favorite studio (and ours), Columbia 30th Street studios

We are not big soundstage guys here at Better Records, but we can’t deny the appeal of the space to be found on a record as good as this

Everything that’s good about Vocal Recordings from the ’50s and ’60s is precisely what’s good about the sound of this record.

The huge studio the music was recorded in is captured faithfully here. The height, width and depth of the staging here are extraordinary. We are not big soundstage guys here at Better Records, but we can’t deny the appeal of the space to be found on a record as good as this.

Transparency and Tubey Magic are key to the sound of the orchestra and you will find both in abundance on these two sides.

On this record Mr. Tony Bennett himself will appear to be standing right in your listening room! The space of your stereo room will seem to expand in all directions in order to accommodate them, an illusion of course, but nevertheless a remarkably convincing one. (more…)

Stevie Ray Vaughan / Texas Flood – Forget Layered Depth and Pinpoint Imaging

More of the Music of Stevie Ray Vaughan

Hot Stamper Pressings of Electric Blues Albums

This copy gets Stevie’s room-filling guitar to sound about as rich and powerful as a recording of it can. When playing this record, first make sure the volume is good and loud. Now close your eyes and picture yourself in a blues club, with the volume ten times louder than your stereo will play. Electric Blues played at loud levels in a small club would sound pretty much like this album does, a bit messy but also real.  

If you’re one of those audiophiles who insists on precise soundstaging with layered depth and pinpoint imaging, forget it. That’s not in the cards. The producers and engineers were going for the “live in the studio” sound with this one (and most of his other albums it seems), which means it’s a bit of a jumble image-wise.

But that’s the way you would hear it performed live in a club, so where’s the harm? (more…)

Thelonious Monk ‎– Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington on OJC

Some OJC Pressings Sound Good, Some Don’t – This One Doesn’t

This title badly needed to be mastered with tubes, but that didn’t happen.

It’s another case of an OJC with Zero Tubey Magic.

You must as well be playing the CD.

I suppose if you have a super-tubey phono stage, you might be able to supply some of the Tubey Magic missing from this pressing, but then of course all your properly mastered records wouldn’t sound right, now would they?

FURTHER READING

Potentially Good Sounding OJC Pressings

Not Very Good Sounding OJC Pressings

U2 – War

More U2

  • More presence, clarity and resolution in the midrange, and less of the congested, dark sound we hear on so many of U2’s records
  • Full-bodied, smooth analog sound is key to the best pressings, and here it is on both sides
  • 5 stars: “Opening with the ominous, fiery protest of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” War immediately announces itself as U2’s most focused and hardest-rocking album to date. Blowing away the fuzzy, sonic indulgences of October with propulsive, martial rhythms and shards of guitar, War bristles with anger, despair, and above all, passion… U2 always aimed at greatness, but War was the first time they achieved it.”

When you get hold of a good pressing, War can be a surprisingly good sounding album; much better than The Joshua Tree (although that may not be saying much).

Many of the LPs we played were as dry and flat as a cassette. Not this copy, even though it had the same stampers as some of those that did not earn particularly good sonic grades.

The vocals were present and breathy, even silky on some songs. There was real clarity and resolution throughout the midrange, not the congested, dark sound we’ve heard on so many of the records from this band. (The ones that don’t sound thin and aggressive, that is.)

Our advice: Drop the needle on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” turn it up good and loud and get ready to rock. Check out the drums at the opening — they are right there. The drums on Joshua Tree sound like cardboard boxes covered in blankets. Not these.

You can thank producer Steve Lillywhite for the hard-driving sound on War. He keeps the sound simple, clean and punchy.

(more…)

An RCA Direct Disc with Bad Music & Bad Sound, Like Most Audiophile Albums from the ’70s

Hot Stamper Classical and Orchestral Pressings Available Now

More of the Music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Hey, the records being marketed to audiophiles these days may have second- and third-rate sound, but at least now they have good music That’s progress, right?

Sonic Grade: F

An awful Direct to Disc recording. Bad sound and pointless music.

This is the kind of crap we newbie audiophiles used to put up with back in the ’70s before we had anything resembling a clue.

It clearly belongs in only one place on our site: the Hall of Shame,

Actually, it also belongs on our complete list of Bad Sounding Audiophile Records

What Kind of Audio Fool Was I? The kind that would buy a record like this and expect it to have good music or good sound. Of course it had neither. Practically none of these kinds of records ever did. As clueless as i was, even back in the day I could tell that much.

But over the course of the last forty years I have been wrong about a great deal when it comes to records and audio.

You can read more about many of the things we got wrong under the heading: Live and Learn.

Because Audio Progress is real and anyone can achieve it.


FURTHER READING

Record Collecting for Audiophiles – 45 RPM Pressings

(more…)

Oscar Peterson – A Tribute To My Friends

More Oscar Peterson

  • An incredible sounding copy with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it throughout
  • Both of these sides are clean, clear and lively with a solid bottom end and lots of space around all of the players
  • “With the assistance of guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Niels Pedersen and drummer Martin Drew, Peterson sounds inspired on such themes as “Blueberry Hill,” “Stuffy,” “Cottontail” and even “A Tisket, a Tasket.” – All Music, 4 Stars

(more…)

Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale

More Stevie Wonder

More Soul, Blues and R&B

xxx

  • Finding the right balance between Tubey Magical Richness and Transparency is the trick, and we think this copy strikes that balance as well as any pressing we’ve heard
  • Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Haven’t Done Nothing were the big hits but the other tracks on the album are where the real Stevie Wonder MAGIC can be found
  • 4 1/2 stars [but we give it 5]: “The songs and arrangements are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin'”) to being bashful of it (“Too Shy to Say”) to knowing when it’s over (“It Ain’t No Use”).”
  • We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” but with less of an accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life. Fulfillingness’ First Finale is a good example of a record most audiophiles don’t know well but should.
  • If you’re a Stevie Wonder fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1974 is clearly one of his best, his two best in our opinion, just a tad behind his masterpiece, Inner Visions
  • The complete list of titles from 1974 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

We’re big fans of Stevie here at Better Records, but it’s always a challenge to find good sound for his albums. Tons of great songs here, including the ones everybody knows, Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Haven’t Done Nothing. Both sound WONDERFUL on this pressing.

But…

For the first time in my life, over the course of the last five years or so I’ve really gotten to know the album well, having found a CD at a local store to play in the car (and now I also have a cassette to play in my Walkman while working out).

I’ve listened to Fulfillingness’ First Finale scores of times. I now see that it is some of the best work Stevie Wonder ever did, right up there with Innervisions and ahead of any other Stevie Wonder album, including Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life.

The best songs on the album to my mind are the quieter, more heartfelt and emotional ones, not the rockers or funky workouts. My personal favorites on side one are: Smile Please. Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away, Too Shy to Say and Creepin’, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are all the songs that weren’t hits.

On side two the two slowest songs are the ones I now like best: It Ain’t No Use & They Won’t Go When I Go (famously and brilliantly covered by George Michael on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in 1990). (more…)

Ballet Music From The Opera – Listening for Smear and Compression

Hot Stamper Pressings of Living Stereo Recordings Available Now

200+ Reviews of Living Stereo Records

This Super Rare, Highly Collectible copy of LSC 2400 has vintage RCA Golden Age sound, for better and for worse. Even though the album was recorded by Decca, it’s got a heavy dose of Living Stereo Tubey Magic. There will never be a reissue of this record that even remotely captures the richness of the sound found here.  

And the hall is HUGE — so spacious and three-dimensional it’s almost shocking, especially if you’ve been playing the kind of dry, multi-miked modern recordings that the ’70s ushered in for London and RCA. (EMI is super spacious but much of that space is weird, coming from out of phase back channels folded in to the stereo mix. And often so mid-hall and distant. Not our sound, sorry.)

Side One

Big and lively. The Tubey Magic colorations are a bit much for us, with too much tube smear on the strings and brass to earn more than a single plus.

Side Two

Even bigger and more spacious, with some smear from compression of course, but the quiet passages are magical.


This Recording Is Good for Testing the Following Qualities:

Ambience, Size and Space

Compression 

Smear


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

More Classical and Orchestral Commentaries and Reviews

Tchaikovsky – Capriccio Italien / Ormandy

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

More of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

  • Dynamic, huge, lively, transparent and natural – with a record this good, your ability to suspend disbelief will require practically no effort at all
  • “Tchaikovsky possessed a remarkable talent for instrumentation, instinctively scoring his works to obtain a maximum variety of color and the widest possible range of tonal effects. His “Capriccio Italien”, vibrant with the raw colors of its Italian song and dance rhythms, is one of his most popular works and shows the composer’s complete mastery of orchestration.”
  • If you’re a fan of orchestral showpieces such as these, this is a Columbia from 1966 that belongs in your collection.
  • The complete list of titles from 1966 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

We’ve had copies of the album in the past, but they sure never sounded like this! From both an audiophile and music lover’s perspective, you would have a hard time finding a record that holds this much appeal to both groups.

The orchestra is big and rich, and there is lovely sheen to the strings. The piano is surrounded by plenty of space, with great depth to the hall. The weight and bite of the brass are near perfection. The top is extended and open. And the loud passages are big and stay smooth, with very little congestion even at the climax of the work. So LIFELIKE this way. (more…)