Audiophile LPs - July-August 2002

It's been a while since we've covered vinyl at AUDIOPHILE AUDITION; sorry 'bout that. Some of the reasons were fewer new LP releases and reissues, greater difficulty in obtaining them due to limited quantity of pressings and some coming from Europe, and the fact that I only got my turntable set up properly again last month. Hadn't realized how much I had missed it until I sat down and really listened again. I have six new LPs this time and two, believe it or not, are Direct Discs! Never thought we would ever see that format again. Or the 45 rpm series from Classic.

In running extensive A/B comparisons of both stereo SACDs and xrcds with the Classic Records LP reissues, I am moved to amend a couple of my previous statements in disc reviews about the new formats finally equalling the best analog sources. Closer, similar, in-the-neighborhood-of, certainly. But not necessarily equalling. The vinyl medium still can have more blatant faults than SACD or DVD-A, but somehow that feeling of real musicians playing in a real space is nearly always stronger. And with the direct discs and 45 rpm discs even more so! I used a moded SOTA Star Sapphire with SME V arm, Cardas phono cable, and Transfiguration Spirit cartridge plus the Linn Linto phono preamp reviewed in this same issue.

PROKOFIEV: Symphonic Suite of Waltzes; Gypsy Fantasy - Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Schweiger - Cisco Music Records LP CLP 7002:

This 180 gram audiophile LP was the first recording for the Kansas City band and came out in l959. Thomas Frost, known for his work with Columbia Records, was the original producer. The six sections of the suite of waltzes come variously from Prokofiev's familiar Cinderella ballet, from his opera War and Peace, and one even from the several scores he wrote for Russian films. The Gypsy Fantasy filler is great fun as well. I still have a Melodiya LP of that one conducted by Golovanov which I picked up in the Soviet Union many years ago. Talk about an A/B comparison! It's like moving from a cylinder record to a multichannel Ambisonic spectacular. The original liner notes which are reproduced on the LP jacket strangely describe the suite from The Stone Flower ballet which is not included on this disc. Perhaps the reissue producers decided against it in favor of spreading out the grooves further for improved fidelity.

And it certainly meets a high standard in that department. The dynamic range is especially wide - who says LPs never could have wide dynamic range? The dance music of Prokofiev is some of his most approachable and full of achingly lovely melodies. After listening to this I was moved to search for my much-loved Sheffield direct disc of excerpts from his Romeo and Juliet - one of the finest symphonic recordings ever, in my estimation. The Cisco LP has one major advantage over that gem - it has some natural-sounding hall ambience. The Sheffield sounds like it was recorded in a giant Kleenex box (actually it was an MGM sound stage). The Cisco surfaces are also completely silent; so if you have one of those analog/MC front ends that brings out all the music in the grooves but also all the surface noise along with it, this one will especially please you. Purchase Here


MOZART: Symphony No. 35 in D Major, "Haffner;" FREIDRICH WITT: Symphony in C Major, "Jena" - 1) New Hampshire Festival orchestra/Thomas Nee; 2) Brussels Radio Orchestra/Hans Schweiger - Cisco Music Records LP CLP 7001:

Really heavy competition exists on record for this favorite Mozart symphony if you are considering only the musical performance aspects. But few would match the clean, natural and wide-range sonics of this audiophile 180-gram LP. It was recorded in l976 by two engineers who had also launched an ill-fated label specializing in four-channel open reel quadraphonic prerecoreded tapes. For this session they used a pair of omni AKG mikes and recorded direct to two-tracks. Much is made of this approach on many audiophile albums, but realistically it was/is imposed by the economics of the situation: Only the wealthy major labels could afford to record classical sessions multi-miked on 24 tracks or more and later mix them down, thus killing any hope of ever approaching a you-are there sonic impression.

The Mozart is a delight in both the performance and audio departments. The smaller forces of the New Hampshire band are more appropriate to the music than an overblown full symphony, and the hall acoustics are quite natural. I'm not set up for it at the moment but I can imagine that running this thru Dolby Pro Logic II will result in a very naturalistic surround field; since Cisco's vinyl surfaces are so dead quiet there will be no noise to be unduly brought to one's attention by the surround processing.

I wax less witty concerning the Witt work. Someone at Cisco seems to really like Maestro Schweiger. The notes say this is the very first release on vinyl of the l958 original recording. That can only mean it was released on stereo prerecorded open reel at that time, which was the year the first stereodiscs appeared. That followed several years during which the only way stereophiles could access the two-channel medium was by way of open reel tapes. I don't want to disparage the music, but just let me say it's not Mozart. If the sonics were the equal of the Mozart side of the disc, audiophile music lovers could easily forgive Witt's lack of just that. But though they are clean enough the sonics come thru as dated, and it sounds as though artificial reverb was added to an originally dry recording - similar to most Russian recordings until recent years. Having sold my tube preamp and gone all solid state, this recording sounded like I had now suddenly switched to an entry-level all vacuum tube system.  Purchase Here


Bennie Wallace - Moodsville (Wallace, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) - Groove Note LP GRV 1010-1 (includes bonus 45 rpm 12-inch):

Now this is an interesting recording approach. Most vinyl lovers wouldn't touch an LP mastered from digital with a ten-foot interconnect, but Groove Note usually release in several different audiophile media now - gold CD, SACD, and both 33 & 45 rpm LPs. This recording session was captured using DSD with custom ACDs and DACs by Ed Meitner, and recorded direct to two track DSD. Bernie Grundman mastered the LP & 45 from these DSD digital sources (I don't know if they were on tape or hard drive). So since DSD is the closest thing to the best analog to come along, the resultant vinyl should be pretty special, right? And it is. There's no possibility of making a comparison with an LP mastered from a direct-to two-track analog tape master so let's just say I have absolutely no complaint about the fidelity of this terrific jazz quartet album - and especially no complaint whatever about the three tracks repeated at 45 rpm on the bonus separate disc! Those have all the impact and richness of the very best 45 rpm direct discs of yore. You don't realize what's missing on the 33 1/3 LP until you go back to it after auditioning the 45. I felt as though my ancient Dual turntable and Shure cartridge had been brought back to life.

A good old RCA 44 ribbon mike was reserved for Wallace's sax and just as it often does the best job with human voice it gives us an almost holographic impression of his strong tenor tone as well as the more subtle breathiness and key sounds (though not at a distracting level). The eight tunes are nearly all the classic standards from such as Dizzy, Duke, Miles, Strayhorn and Porter. I'll indicate the three at 45 rpm with an asterisk: I'll Never Smile Again*, Con Alma, April in Paris, Milestones, When a Woman Loves a Man*, Love for Sale, My Little Brown Book, I Concentrate on You, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing* (this last one only on the 45 rpm).  Purchase Here


Jacintha - Lush Life (piano and string arrangements by Bill Conliffe; Dmitri Matheny, Flugelhorn; Anthony Wilson, guitar) - Groove Note LP GRV1011-1 (with bonus 45 rpm disc):

Most audiophiles are probably familiar with either this album or one of the earlier ones from "the Jacintha label" in Singapore. I believe it may now have been released in more different formats than any other audiophile album - even surpassing Miles' Kind of Blue which Sony has had us buying over and over over the years! It's on 44.1 CD, gold CD, SACD, 33 1/3 LP, 45 LP, and it was just released by JVC in their acclaimed xrcd series - which Kind of Blue hasn't been. That's kind of a record of a record, especially for one recorded just last year.

Jazz purists may not like this Jacintha session quite as well as her earlier ones because instead of a small group of top U.S. jazz players she is backed by a 12-piece string orchestra plus piano/bass/drums and three guest soloists. Frankie Marocco's accordion is nice on Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The tunes are also more into the pop genre than jazz vocal standards, but Cunliffe's arrangements are tasty and it never gets maudlin. Jacintha's lovely voice doesn't sound that different on the three bonus 45 rpm sides, but the strings come thru with greatly improved clarity, depth and resonance. Harlem Nocturne at 45 rpm is absolutely gorgeous. Tracks (* = 45 rpm): Boulevard of Broken Dreams*, Black Coffee*, Summertime, Lush Life, Manha de Carnival, The Shadow of Your Smile, When the World Was Young, September Song, Smile, (Harlem Nocturne is 45 rpm only).  Purchase Here


Wild Child Butler - APO 004 Direct Disc/180 gram LP:

Lazy Lester - APO 003 Direct Disc/180 gram LP:

Who would have thought we'd have direct disc new releases after all this time? But then who would have thought we'd have high end turntables and phono preamps breaking the $15K mark at this point either? Or even a mono-only moving coil cartridge for over $2? Since Chad Kassem had the former cutting lathes from Dave Wilson's label, it made sense to use it to record some of the many great blues artists coming to his Blue Heaven Studio via direct-to-disc right on the spot. No big production elements needed for this sort of raw roots music, and the only thing better than direct to two track is direct to those analog grooves. So here are two examples. No big production elements in their packaging either - just the same generic LP sleeve and no notes at all. (The illustrations here are the actual vinyl labels). Not being a big blues fan I can only say l found Wild Child Butler interesting listening, especially his harp work, which I've always dug. The natural reverberation of the 70 year-old converted church which is the studio comes thru cleanly via the direct disc method. Have to admit it's better than the SACD release which I reviewed earlier. With this sort of enhanced fidelity it's possible to bring such a performer right into your listening room - unlike, say, a symphony orchestra. The sameness of the six tracks became a bit much at one listening, but that's probably because as I said I'm not among the blues cogniscenti: Anyone Can Say They Love, Can You Use a Man?, My Baby Done Put Me Down, Weak in the Knees, Treat Me Like I Treat You, Forty Year Old Woman.

As for Lazy Lester, he was just a smidgen more raw than I was ready for. Sorry to say it, but he does sound like he lives up to his name. The voice is rough, the guitar accompaniment is very basic and much the same throughout the album - just not very polished. And all the roughness comes thru cleanly and clearly with the low noise direct disc approach. But I know that's exactly what some blues fanatics are looking for; so this is their album - go for it. Tracks: Riding in the Moonlight, Five Long Years, Blue Lester, Down Here in Prison, Nothin' in this World, You Do Something. Purchase Here

- All reviews: John Sunier     

2000 sealed European & Japanese Pressings unavailable for over a dozen years. Every purchaser of at least three LPs gets Mark Levinson's famous double-double-bass "Jazz At Longwharf" LP free!
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