SIR EDWARD ELGAR: The Enigma Variations; Fantasia on Greensleeves; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite – Kansas City Sym./ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings 45 rpm 200-gm double-vinyl RM-2508 *****:
This is the latest 45 rpm vinyl release from the audiophile record label, and the recordings are also available on a multichannel SACD (at a lower price). The Kansas City Symphony with conductor Michael Stern (the son of Isaac Stern) has received acclaim previously for its Reference Recordings of The Tempest by Sullivan and Sibelius, and for “Britten’s Orchestra” (which also won a Grammy). The label brought in David Frost to produce the album; he won Grammies in 2005, 2009 and 2011 as Classical Producer of the Year. Grammy-winning engineer Keith O. Johnson was again in that role for this album.
The five movements of the satiric suite by Vaughan Williams are covered on both sides of the first of the vinyls here. The “Overture” is the most fantastically orchestrated and impressive as well as the longest of the movements, and the “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils” always strikes me just as satirically as its offbeat title. This version of Elgar’s familiar “Greensleeves” variations may the best one on recordings—absolutely spell-binding.
Elgar had a penchant for making mysterious remarks just to see what responses people would make. He also enjoyed creating secret elements to some of his compositions, and never revealed during his life just what the overlying theme of his Enigma Variations (in other words, the enigma) really was. Its 14 variations were originally identified only by initials or a nickname that stood for the friend of Elgar’s who was portrayed in the particular variation. Reference got a San Francisco artist to do a little drawing of each of the 14 variations and what or who they referred to. The work’s concluding “Finale” brings the variations to a tumultuous close, and since Reference stays away from the center label a good distance and there is only around 14 minutes maximum per side, fidelity is astounding.
Reference devotes a paragraph in their publicity to the half-speed mastering using in the production of this vinyl double album. That was a process much favored back in the ‘70s in audiophile vinyl and I don’t know if it is always used now in mastering vinyl. It plays back the original recording master at exactly half the normal speed and a sequenced cutting lathe is then timed to cut the master at exactly half the playback speed. This allows for cleaner reproduction and extended high end response.
Now to the 200-gram pressings: The idea here is that more mass of vinyl can reduce resonance effects during playback and create clearer sonics. There are some audiophiles who claim they can hear immediately the difference between 180-gram and 200-gram vinyl pressings. Nonsense. Perhaps they are hearing, if anything, the different sonics produced by the vertical tracking angle changing due to the thicker vinyl. One label even eschews 200-gram pressings in favor of 180, saying that the heavier vinyl can cause more warpage and pressing problems. Vinyl pressing specialists say too much stock is put into the weight of a vinyl disc. The quality and care put into the mastering, pressing and plating affects the final sound of an LP more than the weight of the record, though discs ordered at 180 or 200 grams may get more effort because they are considered as “audiophile” product. One expert feels that making sure the records are flat and stay that way is possible at weights as little as 140 grams. Nevertheless, this 200-gram Mastercut album is sure to impress listeners even if they own a less than super-high-end turntable system. Is it worth about $50 (cheaper than the ORG 45 rpms)? You decide.