MALCOLM ARNOLD: Overtures = London Philharmonic/Arnold – Reference Recordings HRx 176.4K/24-bit DVD-R HR-48 (+ other formats)

by | Aug 5, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

MALCOLM ARNOLD: Overtures = Beckus the Danipratt; The Smoke; A Sussex Overture; The Fair Field; Commonwealth Christmas Overture – The London Philharmonic Orch./ Malcolm Arnold (rec. 1991) – Reference Recordings HRx 176.4K/24-bit WAV audio files on DVD-R, HR-48, 63:23 [2/2009] (Also avail. as RR-48CD standard CD, RR-48 double audiophile vinyl, HDtracks 88.2K/24-bit FLAC files, and Tape Project TP003 10½-inch open reel 15 ips tapes) [Some distr. by Allegro] *****:
This may be the current No. 1 audiophile classical album today, in a similar place as were the Sheffield albums of Wagner and Prokofiev back in direct-to-disc days. This expensive album (but not nearly as much as the Tape Project version) is a data DVD-R with WAV files intended to play on computers with the proper sound card or computer-based music servers. The instructions with it say flatly that “the DVD will not play on CD, SACD or DVD players.”  Wrong. It plays perfectly on my Oppo BDP-95, as well as other recent Oppos, Cambridge Audio decks and the PS Audio Perfect Wave. Reference Recordings has a page of more recent corrected notes here. There is also additional information at their web site.
If you don’t have one of these compatible decks and you purchase this 176.4K album, you will have to first load the WAV files on it to your computer or music server, and you may have to convert them from the higher sampling rate to 88.2K, which Reference Recordings says works better than conversion to 96K. It also says that the difference between the two rates is indistinguishable. Well, since I no longer possess the hearing extension I had in my twenties, the difference between 88.2/96K and 176.4K/192I is indistinguishable to me, frankly.  So—depending on age and budget—you may want to simply download the 88.2K/24-bit FLAC files from HDtracks at one-third the price and convert them.
A few more tech things before we get to the music: Some of the album notes as well as online notes state that everything on the so-far 20-album HRx series of WAV files on DVD-Rs comes from original digital masters. Also wrong. Both digital and analog tape masters were made of the Malcolm Arnold-conducted session in 1991. While the digital master was used for the standard (non-HDCD-encoded) compact disc release, the analog master tape—made on Keith Johnson’s famous modified forced-gap RTR open reel deck—was used for both the 1992 double-vinyl release as well as this HRx DVD-R.
This was a different sort of comparison than I’ve ever done before: the standard CD vs. the vinyl double album vs. the HRx WAV 176.4K audio files. Of course both of the hi-res album were a huge improvement over the standard 44.1K/15-bit CD. But my expectation of hearing a slight enhancement in the 176.4K audio vs. the vinyls was not met. They were quite similar, but the analog sonics of the vinyl had a bit more realism, depth, spatial location, and general musical values, in spite of over 22 minutes of grooves on the first of the four sides. (By the way, sides 2 and 3 are identical, since it was decided not to spread the grooves out that far to take up four separate sides.)
Arnold has long been one of my favorite British composers, and he was always known for being an excellent conductor of his own music. So in this album we have the best combination imaginable. He’s a master of orchestration; started out as a trumpet player in the symphony. He likes extremes of dynamics—sure to please audiophiles. You never really know what’s coming up next. And it’s all cleverly diatonic, with absolutely no suggestion that we’re running out of being able to create great music in the normal scale-wise fashion.
To my ears, The Smoke is the big hit of this album. A Cockney expression for any big city, but specifically London. It’s a sort of cityscape in sound, but part of it is also a nocturne. It has some strong jazz elements and a bit of roughness which befits the big city. In a central pianissimo section, one gets the picture of roaming thru deserted streets at night, with sudden blasts of music coming thru open doors here and there. The closing Christmas Overture is also fun, with this BBC commission’s rather similar central section which Arnold called his “Hollywood Christmas.”  Someone is tuning across various stations on a radio and one is playing Caribbean-sounding pop music clearly at odds with the general demeanor of the overture. Arnold had more a sense of humor than many British composers.
—John Sunier

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