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.

MK

* 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).

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