XRCDs and other Audiophile CDs - Nov. 2001

While we are continuing to focus on SACD and DVD-A, you can still achieve quite astounding results without jumping into new audio gear right away if you choose the series currently squeezing the maximum in fidelity out of that old 44.1K sampling rate - JVC's xrcd2! Seven new xrcd2 releases on tap this month, offering a change from the previous jazz reissues. This time they're partly classical (for the first time) and also leaning toward the pop and film music areas. Add on an unusual sampler from Winter & Winter which also sets very high sonic standards plus a new 24k gold limited-edition CD.


BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5; Coriolan Overture - Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner - JVC JMCXR-0005:

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7; Fidelio Overture - Chicago Symphony/Fritz Reiner - JVC JMCXR-0006:

What a surprise to see these Red Seal golden age recordings coming out on xrcd! They're super-classics that have been written about at length for years now. Red hot performances recorded with an impact that not many symphonic recordings can equal today. (Well, there are hardly any being made anymore anyway - all reissues.) The Seventh is my personal favorite of the nine, as I know it is of many others. Reiner may not stress the feeling of the dance as strongly here as some other conductors, but the impact is compelling nevertheless. The Fifth comes from a l959 session and the Seventh from l955 - both Living Stereo efforts of the superb team of Producer Lewis Layton and Engineer Richard Mohr.

I can't report on a comparison of the Classic Records LP reissues to these superb xrcd versions because my turntable is not yet set up properly following a recent move. But I recall that the last time I tried that with some of the early just plain xrcd jazz releases the sonic similarity was uncanny. I expect that using both the xrcds and the Classic LPs as test materials will in the end result in a further tweaking of both my CD and analog front ends for even better results in my new home.

- John Sunier


BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique - Boston Symphony/Charles Munch JVC JMCXR-0001:

SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 ("Organ") - Berj Zamkochian, organ/Zhigers & Litwin, pianos/Boston Symphony/Charles Munch - JVC JMCXR-0002:

Another pair of golden age Living Stereo recordings dating from the early 60's. Munch and the BSO made an unbeatable and synergistic combination in these spectacular French orchestral blowouts. In fact, the Saint-Saens' over-title was "A Stereo Spectacular," and that it was. But now it's more so in the super wide-dynamic and transparent re-processing achieved by the Japanese engineers and the painstaking CD-burning procedure that distinguishes the xrcd series. Boston Symphony Hall has a fine pipe organ, and corners didn't have to be cut in order to record the organ symphony, as has occurred with some of the alternate versions out there. Another enhancement of the series is an even better and safer plastic well to retain the CD and allow for its easy removal and replacement. (The initial series suffered from abrasive cardboard storage slots that could easily damage the CD's surface with sliding in and out.)

- John Sunier


HENRY MANCINI: Breakfast at Tiffany's - motion picture soundtrack - cond. By Henry Mancini - JVC JMCXR-0212-2:

One of Mancini's best and one of Audrey's best - now in sonics that are the best (probably the equal of the two new formats when heard on the top equipment). This was released as a Living Stereo effort towards the end of the golden age at RCA - 1960. A dozen tracks here - some wonderful swinging Mancini small group jazz and others typical Hollywood strings arrangements but still with the light and jazz-flavored Mancini musical touch. Of course we have Moon River and the title tune, the funky Loose Caboose, and a couple Latin-tinged numbers: Latin Golightly and a cha cha version of Moon River to close things out. In addition to reducing the original LP back liner to an unreadable four inches, four pages are also devoted to a complete listing of all musicians involved in the sessions, and that is in normal-sized text, thank you.

- John Sunier

HENRY MANCINI: Charade - motion picture soundtrack - Cond. By Henry Mancini - JVC JMCXR-0213-2:

Another Audrey Hepburn film score - this one also starred Gary Grant. Coming from l963 we are into the dreaded Dynagroove era at RCA, but JVC must surely have gone back to the original session tapes for this xrcd project because there isn't a hint of the strange EQ to which the mastering engineers subjected all Dynagroove recordings in a misguided effort to counteract distortions arising from LP cutting and tracking in playback. Sonics are just superb. The 13 tracks include several versions of the musical theme of the movie, including one vocal. There is some of the expected suspenseful/creeping-around movie music, but with Mancini's wit and swing it's never corny. His predilection for throwing in a couple Latin-y numbers is heard here again.

- John Sunier


Chet Atkins in Hollywood - Orch. Conducted by Dennis Farnon - JVC JMCXR-0214-2:

Talk about detailed session notes: the listing of musicians on this album even includes the fact that the session at Radio Recorders in Hollywood - on October 23 exactly 43 years ago to the day I write this - ran from 2:00 to 5:30 PM! Then they returned after dinner and worked from 8:00 to midnight. Boy did they accomplish a lot in that one day! This was at the time when rock groups hung out in similar studios all night for weeks and felt they'd accomplished something if they produced a few tracks for their next album.

Farnon was known for his many MOR albums, but he also did light classical as well as pop. The liner notes refer to Atkins' guitar sound being "gift-wrapped" in Farnon's warm string arrangements, and that pretty much tells the story. Continuing the movie soundtrack thrust of the above two xrcds, Atkins includes movie themes from Picnic and Limelight. He leans more toward a jazz genre in Let It Be Me and Waller's Jitterbug Waltz. The guitar is definitely in the sonic spotlight on all dozen tracks. While the mix is far from the natural acoustics of, say, a classical concerto for guitar and orchestra, it also is free of the silly left/right exaggerations of many of the early stereo recordings of the l958-60 period.

- John Sunier


The Anthony Wilson Trio - Our Gang (Wilson, guitar/Joe Bagg, Hammond B3/Mark Ferber, drums) - Groove Note GRV2008-2 Gold:

This new release was produced by Joe Harley, who also produces the current xrcd series. It's interesting it's gold when JVC's tech people found they got better results pressing on aluminum, but I find it's the first gold CD I could hold up to the light and not see through (it has black printing covering the label side). And I also find it's on a sonic level with the xrcds.

Wilson is a guitarist of today with not only amazing chops but also gangbuster writing abilities. He is the son of the famed (and under-appreciated) big band leader Gerald Wilson, appears with his father's band, in a nine-piece group and other ensembles. This album grew out of his love of a sort of Harlem barroom jazz exemplified by B3 virtuoso Jack McDuff's recordings with sax and guitar. His trio started along traditional lines but soon blossomed into a vehicle for Wilson's creative writing and arranging work. So three of tunes here, including the title one, are Wilson's, and his nearly ten-minute opus on the Beatles' I Want You is light years beyond the usual jazz variations-on-a tune. The eight tracks close out with a lovely version of Ellington's Prelude to a Kiss. B3-tickler Joe Bagg is no slouch here, and his pedal-shuffling will give your subwoofer(s) a run for their money if you have them. I'm personally a huge B3 fan - extending to really enjoying music of a funkier nature than I normally listen to as long as it has a B3 in there - and I don't believe I've ever felt more like the organ was there in the room with me than on this stellar audiophile CD.

- John Henry


Villa Medici - Born to Be Music - Special Edition Sampler from Winter&Winter -910 065-2 Gold:

Stefan Winter has made quite a mark in the music business with his distinctive album presentation of distinctive music characterized by his thinking "out of the box." (That packaging looks great, but he obviously hasn't heard about the problems JVC encountered with similar abrasive cardboard sleeves for the bare CDs - which they corrected in the present series.) I reviewed one of his most striking releases a few months ago here - Bach's Goldberg variations, interpreted and greatly enlarged-upon by a variety of performers ranging from vocal groups to synthesizers.

Anyway, the highest standards prevail in his choice of material as well as his approach to recording. Evidently nearly everything he has released has been recorded in one Italian villa near Lake Como, built in 1643. Its unique acoustics are compared to the sound a rare Strad. The 13 tracks on this sampler essay a variety of music that would fall into the chamber music category if categorization was demanded. Some feature solo instruments, such as the baroque cello in Bach's unaccompanied cello suites, or a classical accordionist in works of Scarlatti and Massenet. Schubert, Schumann and Brahms selections are heard, as well as some early music. There are some string trios and quartets, a duo of lute and gamba as well as of two accordions. The notes point out that while the original digital recordings range from 16-bit to 24-bit, the mastering for the CD was 24 bit and Super Bit Mapped. And that no processing was used on the original recordings. There is clearly more of a sense of the recording space coming thru on these samples than one normally hears in typical chamber music CDs. This is the sort of material I will look forward to trying out when I eventually do a shoot-out of the new Pro Logic II's ability to retrieve ambience out of two-channel originals vs. the older Circle Surround technology.

- John Sunier

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