Friday, December 31, 2004

Ella's Irving Berlin Song Book back on LP

Back in the LP catalog after at least 20 years is Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book, now issued by Speakers Corner, a German firm, on deluxe 180g pressings. Everything about the original U.S. release of 1958 has been duplicated, including the gatefold cover art, the liner notes, and the labels. This is the fifth volume of Ella's Song Book series to be so issued: preceding it were the Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, and George and Ira Gershwin volumes.


Though in many ways the weakest of the series, the familiar assets of Ella's beautiful voice and the savvy arrangements, in this case by Paul Weston, are fully in evidence. Sonically there have always been problems: though originally issued in stereo, Ella's voice is well-recorded, but the orchestra is for some reason hard and steely in the top frequencies. Though the transfer here is flawless and the pressings immaculately clean and vibrant, there's little that can be done to tame that aggressive high end without damaging the musical content. And so it remains.

Speakers Corner will probably next tackle the Arlen volume, one of the strongest of the Song Books; then it's a question of the two single LP's: the Mercer and the Kern. At that point, they will have restored to vinyl all the Ella Song Books. Caveat emptor: the Gershwin box set is already out of print and fetching sums in the $250 range. Smart shoppers will buy the Speakers Corner Ella Song Book reissues before they become scarce.


Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Fiedler's Gaite Parisienne on xrcd: close, but no cigar

Just so you don't think I'm being biased about the sound of the xrcd's vs. the SACD's (because I might be trying to justify a big, expensive purchase--though I think you already know me better than that), the xrcd2 of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops' version of the Offenbach Gaite Parisienne, one of the most famous of all the Living Stereo recordings, has some serious problems regarding drop-outs in the left channel. There's a hint of this when the disc is played on the speakers, but it's blatantly obvious on headphones, and ruins some pretty important moments in the score. The drop-outs are by no means constant, but they tend to pop up at the worst moments (as these things seem inevitably to do).

The regular RCA Living Stereo CD was always very good; it never had any problems of this nature that I recall, so I can only assume the two releases used different source material. Which was closer to (or actually was) the original session tapes I'm not sure--it's hard or impossible to tell by listening to the CD's. If I had to guess, I'd wager the xrcd uses the first-generation source because it narrowly beats the RCA on fine detail. It's surprising that two different tapes would be used, because this was originally a two-, not three-track recording, meaning there was no two-channel mixdown tape from the three-channel master.*

Offenbach: is this man's hair on upside-down?

In terms of listenability, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the drop-out problem rules the xrcd out of court. But it is a noticeable flaw, and a factor in evaluating the results. It's really too bad, because the xrcd otherwise sounds better: more open on top, with more instrumental detail and more musically accurate timbres.

All things considered, the best currently-available issue of this recording is the Classic LP reissue, which does not seem to have the dropouts and is superior in fidelity to both the Living Stereo CD and the JVC xrcd. There is also an earlier LP reissue on the Chesky label, remaining copies of which still occasionally pop up from time to time at Acoustic Sounds. That reissue was made using an Ampex tape deck with tubed electronics (unlike the Classic disc), and has been very highly-reviewed, though I haven't heard it.

Good news! Listeners will soon have a fifth choice: the Fiedler Gaite Parisienne will be one of the forthcoming hybrid SACD releases in RCA's January schedule. We should all be looking forward to this breathlessly, with the hope that it finally will represent a digital issue of this recording worthy of its status as one of the great sonic blockbusters of all time.

Added January 28, 2005:

I've just had the pleasure of hearing the SACD of this recording for the first time, and let me tell you that it's a masterpiece. It zowies both the xrcd and the old Living Stereo CD, and even the Classic LP reissue. In fact, it reminded me of why I considered this at one time among the greatest recordings ever made. The material may be slight, but the achievement isn't. A bravura piece of work from RCA and SoundMirror Studios, who did the engineering and mastering work.


* This resulted in a lot of Living Stereo recordings that essentially had two sets of masters: one set of three-track session tapes (the first-generation source), and one set of two-track mixed masters (the second-generation source, from which a lot of the Living Stereo CD's were mastered, it's been claimed).

Friday, December 24, 2004

RCA's Living Stereo Bartok: Which to buy?

Those faced with the pressing decision of the day--whether to buy the recently-issued RCA SACD of the Fritz Reiner Bartok Concerto for Orchestra or the much more expensive JVC xrcd now have an answer: read on.

I cannot fathom why it should be that a lower-resolution medium should produce superior sound, but so it is: the xrcd has the SACD beat on every sonic point you can imagine. The only way in which the SACD is superior is in its ability to separate the strands of the orchestra--the strings sound like a group of individual string players working together; the xrcd strings are more of a massed force. Is this musically meaningful? Not particularly, and not to me.

The SACD has several problems: it is weak in the midange and upper bass, which causes the orchestra to sound relatively anemic. There seems to be plenty of energy in the highs, but they take center stage, which should not be the case. The xrcd sounds more like the real thing.

Whether the transfer engineers (SoundMirror) have somehow improperly equalized the SACD is an open question. In a recent edition of The Absolute Sound, they make certain statements regarding how the Living Stereo master tapes should be equalized which may be debatable. Apparently there were a number of different EQ profiles used in the making of the original recordings, and some guesswork was involved on the part of the transfer men. I'm not sure they've made the proper choice in every case, and the recording under question may provide evidence to that effect.


Monday, December 20, 2004

JVC: working miracles with old tapes

It may not be the most enduring music ever to bear the RCA Living Stereo banner, but JVC has applied its xrcd24 process to these 46-year-old tapes with stunning results.

Arthur Fiedler's Marches in Hi-Fi was never considered one of Living Stereo's finest moments: it was produced and engineered, respectively, by the famous team of Richard Mohr and Lewis Layton; but in careers marked mostly by hits, this one was a miss. The original Shaded Dog LP's were poor relations to such primo titles as the Offenbach Gaite Parisienne of 1954, or the various vividly-recorded Gershwin LP's. Even when RCA tried to revive it for compact disc early in their Living Stereo series, it was sonically something of a dog. Not Shaded.

I don't know exactly what the JVC engineers have done to get the results here: they claim only to take the greatest pains to assure quality control in the transfer and mastering process, and they state that the latest and most advanced hardware is used. There's no wizardry or knob-twiddling involved. Nothing added. Nothing taken away.

What has resulted is one of the great-sounding CD's in my experience, quite possibly the best of all. It not only buries all previous iterations of this title, it also knocks the recently-issued Fennell Sousa SACD in the Mercury Living Presence series right out of the park. It's a staggering testimonial to what can be done with the standard red book compact disc using the best of today's technology and the sharpest of ears.

This is a wildly expensive disc, like all the other xrcd's. I'm tempted to say "too expensive," but if ever a CD was worth $27 street price, this is it. I've already played it three times as much as most other "audiophile" discs in my travels. The math works out in its favor.

If your budget and curiosity allow you to purchase only one of the xrcd's, let this be the one. The unfortunate result is that it'll sell you on the rest of the series, and then there's no turning back.

Absolutely magnificent. A stunner in every sonic respect. And most impressive of all, completely unrecognizable vis-a-vis its previous incarnations. Who knew? Me, I'm going back to listen to it again.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Heifetz, Sibelius, and navel oranges

The original Living Stereo LP issue of this mind-boggling, blockbuster recording contains only the Sibelius Violin Concerto (approximately 26 minutes in length).

The JVC xrcd ($27 street price) duplicates this issuance, with a running time of only 26 minutes.

The forthcoming SACD ($9 street price) will contain the Sibelius, the Glazunov, and the Prokofiev Concerti, with an undetermined but much longer running time!

That having been said, the xrcd sounds like a million dollars--the most diaphanous, luscious tone I've ever heard from Heifetz' instrument (except possibly for the similarly-priced Classic LP reissue--but I must admit that the xrcd is closer in all the musically-important ways than I would ever have thought possible).*

You can literally hear Heifetz taking a deep breath a few seconds before his second entrance in the first movement. That particular sound is not of musical interest, I know, but just one of the elements that goes into placing the listener in the acoustical space in which the performance is taking place.

I don't weigh my music at the checkout counter. It's not a bag of navel oranges.

My headphones (and my head) eagerly await the SACD.


*There are, in fact, a couple of instances of static, for which JVC apologizes, and which are artifacts on the master tape. Either this gem wasn't properly stored over the last half-century, or else Lewis Layton was human after all.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Britten does Britten does xrcd: The Young Person's Guide

This is yet another beauty--the first of several items from the Decca catalog JVC has been licensed to release on xrcd. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is magnificently-recorded (1963); the performance is also beautifully-played by the LSO, though I find Britten's conducting a bit slack and underpowered. I also miss the narration (it would've been nice to have him do it [he could've "tracked" it]), though it does allow one to hear niceties of the orchestration usually missed in narrated versions. The accompanying Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is really lovely, and if anything even better-recorded (1966).

In comparison to other versions of the YPG, I find the Slatkin LP reissue (Capitol) a bit of a disappointment, especially for such a legendary recording: miked too close-up; most competitive, I think, would be the Fiedler (RCA Living Stereo), narrated by Hugh Downs, also a magnificent recording: stronger in the bass, but more "colored" and overtly spectacular than the Britten, which I feel is more transparent and natural. JVC is demonstrating a lot of imagination in selecting the items to be reissued: no doubt they could've chosen to release the Fiedler, given their extended Living Stereo project, but this one was smartly-chosen.

Very highly-recommended, in whatever form.


Thursday, December 16, 2004

The best-sounding CD I ever did hear

My one-sentence reaction to the JVC xrcd24 of the Kondrashin Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien and the Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol is as follows:

Holy mother of JEEE-zus!

Folks, take it from me: this one's got it all. Oodles of hall reverberation (courtesy of the gloriously oodly reverberant Manhattan Center) from which musical sounds of sheer realism emerge unscathed. All variety of percussion bonging and clanging all over the damned place. Effortlessly excellent in every way the common garden-variety CD tends not to be.

"LIVING Stereo?" You betcha.

This one is, technically-speaking, a regular ol' CD which will play on all machines. It's the greatest piece of five-inch polycarbonate I've ever heard. The fact that it costs around $27 from most vendors should not frighten you away: I firmly believe that you cannot live without this thing. Price-wise, give it the following break: it comes all the way from Japan, and is manufactured by highly-paid Japanese labor. Not only the sound, but the packaging--tiny hardcover book style--is beyond classy.

On a scale of one to five stars, this one gets an eight-and-a-half.

Among other reputable establishmemts, you may purchase it here:

The kindly folks at Elusive Disc


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

JVC's xrcd24's: the Shaded Dogs given a run for their money

The third iteration of xrcd releases--the so-called xrcd24's--is easily the best. The original xrcd's and the xrcd2's were very good but a little cold and threadbare. The few 24's (for 24-bit) I've heard are super: every bit as good as can be expected given the state of the digital art. I can hardly imagine the SACD's sounding better, though I have no direct comparison available at this point. But the xrcd's, though of "normal" CD 16-bit resolution, appear to be "voiced" more closely to the sound of the Living Stereo LP's. The Kabalevsky "Comedians" disc (Kondrashin and the "RCA Symphony," taped at the Manhattan Center in 1958) is very competitive with the Classic LP reissue, and far superior to the Living Stereo CD of around five years ago.

Great, great discs, assuming one has the system to appreciate them, though I feel most of their superiority will be evident even on modest setups.


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Furtwaengler's uniquely unidiomatic Otello

Verdi: Otello. Vinay, Martinis, Schoeffler; Furtwaengler, cond. Vienna Philharmonic Orch. & Chorus (EMI All429: 2 CD's, recorded in 1951 at the Salzburg Festival)

Furtwaengler's 1951 Salzburg performance of Verdi's Otello isn't exactly to the manner born. Nor is the singing ideal from the technical standpoint; but the cast collaborates magnificently to bring Furtwaengler's conception of the score to life. Just compare the exquisitely detailed performance of Vinay to his straitjacketed work for Toscanini, and there you have in a nutshell the difference between the two conductors.

Before listening to this performance, one needs to throw any preconceived notions about "idiomatic" Italian opera out the window. Toscanini's Otello is most emphatically that: Toscanini's. In the Furtwaengler performance, however, the conductor's ego is subjugated to the composer's/author's. The drama springs forth from the page as if it's happening for the very first time.

It's one of the most dramatically gripping performances of opera I've ever heard.


Saturday, December 04, 2004

The xbox and me: work in progress

I bought an xbox.

What's an xbox? Er, for those of you who just landed on this planet, it's the Microsoft video game system. It's like a Sony Playstation 2, but better. This according to the technician at the hospital's hyperbaric facility who has Playstation, xbox, and Nintendo. She obviously knows whereof she speaks.

The xbox package came with two games: an NCAA football game (yecch, I hate football, though who knows--maybe it'll grow on me) and Top Spin, a tennis game. I also ordered MVP 2004 (a baseball game) and NBA Live 2005 (guess).

The thing took three minutes to hook up. Being an electronics whiz tends to give one a false sense of hope.

I started with the tennis game. It has all the famous tennis players. I decided to be a male player, for obvious reasons. My opponent would also be male, I decided. Don't want to take advantage of the weaker sex, you know.

I checked the manual to see how to serve the ball and how to swing at it. Well, the serving came fast, the swinging not so fast. Except that I kept serving so hard that the ball was constantly out of bounds. I lost game after game.

Top Spin allows the player to express various emotions of his choice, including exasperated and pissed off. Seeing as how my opponent seemed fairly confident and self-assured, I chose pissed off. Nothing like realism.

On to baseball. Giants vs. Mets at Shea Stadium. Where the hell is Barry Bonds? Did they not pay his licensing fee?

It took me a couple of hours to figure out that when you play by yourself, you're one of the two teams: you pitch while the computer hits; you hit while the computer pitches. Totally ingenious, really.

Four innings: Mets (computer) 34, Giants (me) 2. I got the two runs on a HR, I think by pressing the "swing" button accidentally when I fell off my chair.

The NBA game was Da Bomb (that means "good" in the game-playing world). I played games like the 1950's All-Stars against today's Knicks, meaning I had guys like Bob Cousy and George Mikan on the one side, and lots of guys I never heard of on the other side. I was the Knicks, and I did O.K., losing 65-31. That's with five-minute quarters, not the regulation 12. (You can set the length of the quarters.)

The announcer is Marv Albert. Some guy I never heard of (Marv keeps referring to him as The Czar, but I don't think it's Nicholas II) does the color commentary, which generally consists of things like, "The Knicks need to rethink their defensive strategy--the zone defense doesn't seem to be working for them." No shit, Sherlock.

All told, I'm having a massive amount of fun. However, the fun will soon wear off if the losing doesn't stop. Maybe if I had my guys shoot up some "clear"...


Friday, December 03, 2004

Ella's Gershwin on CD: not S'wonderful

There's an interesting conundrum regarding the sonics of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book, the greatest (and biggest) of the albums in the series. This one was originally five LP's plus a 7-inch EP (duplicated precisely in the gorgeous Speakers Corner LP reissue); art prints; hardcover book. One of the century's landmark achievements, and quite possibly the greatest record album ever.

The separate CD issue, which postdated the complete Song Book box set, sounds ear-bleedingly bright and brassy--too much high-end. The Speakers Corner LP reissue is more like it--possibly from the same source material, but less aggressively EQ'd.

It's mentioned in the technical notes to the separate issue that the studio master tapes of the Gershwin set are lost. Hard to believe but apparently true.

I'd estimate the source material used for the box set is at least one, possibly two generations down from that used for the separate set. That means there's considerably more tape hiss. There also seems to be some "sweetening" applied to the signal, meaning a high-end cut and a bit of echo enveloping everything, voice and orchestra. I'd guess these were the production or cutting masters used to create the original LP's.

Since the separate issue is less monkeyed-with and closer to the "lost" session tapes, one would automatically assume it's best. The problem here is the EQ'ing issue. Verve has chosen either to EQ it extremely brightly on the high-end, or at least left some very bright tapes alone, without trying to compensate for their flaws.

The Gershwin set is very pleasant and listenable on the box set. Still, I can't escape the annoying feeling that there's information missing here: fine detail and real (as opposed to phony, applied) ambient sound.

The good news is that on the box set version you don't have to deal with that explosive high-end, and this makes the recording easier to listen to.

Which to prefer? My head tells me the separate issue, because it's closer to the master. My heart tells me the box set, because it sounds more like music.

I'm glad to have both, but I must tell you I've rarely heard two transfers of the same recording sound so wildly different. With the strides made in digital, and particularly the CD format, since the box set was issued in 1993, it would be interesting to hear what a current transfer from the "sweetened" tapes used for the box set would sound like--say, in SACD format. I won't hold my breath, of course.

All said, the monumental Speakers Corner LP reissue is still easily the best way to see and hear Ella's Gershwin Song Book in the here and now. And the notes are actually big enough to be legible, too. You should see the tiny replica of the book included with the CD box set. It's about 2-1/2 inches by 2 inches, and made me laugh out loud.