Holst The Planets
Buzz Brass Mélanie Barney organ
Fidelio Music FALP028
Format: Vinyl (Two 180 gram LPs @ 45 rpm)
Review By Claude Lemaire
capture the feeling... is Fidelio's registered slogan and that is
exactly what I was contemplating doing last Saturday December 15 at the
comfortable and acoustically friendly Pollack Hall, part of McGill University's
Schulich School of Music situated in downtown Montreal, Québec. As luck would
have it, we found a parking close by, allowing us the luxury of cherry picking
our unreserved seats, as an 'audiophile-approved' 7th row, center aisle, brought
us at eye level with the wondrous wind ensemble. The acoustically diffused and
curved walls projected its 'sunny' hues towards us along with some minor
back reinforcements that was encouraging to the eyes and ears; all this
complemented by a full house capacity of six-hundred music lovers lending
natural absorption and ambience to the concert. As the 56 - mainly young -
musicians took to the stage, tuning their instruments into the typical
'cacophonous chorus' and confirming unaltered sound waves were on the menu; it is
always comforting to know that there are still some poor souls who do not depend
on 'Auto-Tune' to make a living. A few moments later, maestro Jonathan Dagenais
approaches the podium to conduct the Orchestre à Vents Non Identifié aka OVNI
- a play on the French term for UFO - through a faithful transcription for wind
ensemble of Holst's most famous work, the mighty orchestral suite The
unless you were brought up in a classical-oriented family, chances are you were
more exposed to mainstream pop and rock than Mozart and co. Just like
Moussorgsky's Tableaux d'une exposition
from 1874 (orchestrated by Ravel in 1922) via Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1971
progressive take on Pictures at an Exposition;
Holst's The Planets can be viewed
as a 'musical bridge' to other worlds. Indeed a typical path to expanding one's
own musical universe often follows a continuum, spanning rock (or metal) to
progressive (or prog-metal) to symphonic sci-fi soundtracks to modern
'grandiose-type' classical. Thus from Voivod's 1989 prog-metal breakthrough Nothingface
[MCA Mechanic MCA 6326] to King Crimson via "The Devil's Triangle"
from their 1970 LP In the Wake of Poseidon [Island
ILPS 9127] to John Williams' 1977 Star Wars
soundtrack [20th Century BTD 641-1/2] to James Horner's bombastic
1982 Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan [Atlantic
SD 19363] and ultimately to the original war
theme inspiration - Holst's The
Planets dating back to 1916 no less. Along with Stravinsky's L'Oiseau
de feu and Le Sacre du printemps
from 1910 and 1913 respectfully as well as Ravel's Daphnis
et Chloé from 1912 - all three commissioned by famous Ballets Russes
founder Sergei Diaghilev -- The Planets occupy
a special place in history and lasting musical impact.
Initially written for piano duet for the first six movements
with organ reserved for the last movement to evoke a more 'celestial'
atmosphere; eventually the astrologically inspired work was turned into one
galactic-sized symphonic suite. Contemporaneous with him, Schoenberg's symphonic
influence can be felt up to a certain extent though the Brit nonetheless stays
firmly planted in the tonal domain throughout the piece whereas the Aussie had
already started exploring and pushing musical boundaries in the freer form of
atonality, such as found in his Pierrot
Lunaire from 1912. That the current version up for evaluation
features -- once more -- the organ prominently throughout the score lends a kind
of 'time-warp' feeling to the project. A short search over the net confirms that
this 'wind' pairing has been exploited before on different levels and formats.
Seven movements make up the suite. Of course we
being the 'centre of the universe' in that distant modern era, Earth was not
included nor was Pluto who would not show up until 1930. Then again would Holst
have made space for it knowing that its punitive stature would relegate it to
dwarf planet hierarchy in the following century?
Audiophile record labels are far from a new phenomenon. At
many times in the history of recording and delivering music there have been a
few - mostly small -- independent companies striving to improve the 'state of
the art'. As early as the 1930s high fidelity
become not only a marketing term but a worthy goal as Bell Laboratories, Western
Electric, RCA Victor, Allan Blumlein and EMI tried their best to surpass each
other in reaching higher 'realism' through moving coil cartridges, cutting
lathes, microphone development and techniques and binaural sound. The advent of
the Ampex magnetic tape recorder in 1948 and the Long Playing microgroove by
Columbia the same year freed not only the artist's creativity but the sound
engineer as well. Nearly ten years would pass before the first marketable
stereophonic disk would be introduced to the general public. Independent New
York based Audio Fidelity would be 'first up to bat' on this new and historic
turning point. Everest and Mercury's original use of 35mm magnetic film also 'up
the ante' with their 'Living Presence' series. In the following decades, labels
such as Sheffield Lab, Telarc, Chesky (brothers) and Professor Keith O.
Johnson's Reference Recordings just to name a few, carved out a reputation for
producing purist recordings while gaining the respect of the audiophile
Fidelio Audio follows a similar path to 'hi-fi heaven'.
Founded at the turn of the millennium by Montrealer and audio enthusiast René
LaFlamme who prior to that, had taken up courses in sound recording techniques
while studying the saxophone. Around 1995 he furthered his passion by becoming
an audio consultant with one of the top two high end boutiques of the province.
From there, key meetings with manufacturers and leading field insiders led to
modifying microphone capsules, tape recorders and tube-based gear. It was just a
matter of time before 'amateur' recording gigs were brought to its logical
conclusion giving birth to Fidelio records.
Sporting close to forty recordings spanning the classical,
jazz and 'world' music repertoire, I find it is astonishingly productive for
such a small and dedicated label; even more so in this age of dwindling CD
sales. Despite this new reality that the music industry faces, it is encouraging
that a 'non-major' is still capable of attracting talented musicians and
stimulating enough interest in the medium as confirmed by the brisk sales I
spotted at past hi-fi shows. Talking about medium, though largely available on
CD or USB key, two of their titles can also be found on the good 'old' vinyl
format. In fact it was my - mostly positive - first impressions of Anne Bisson's
2009 Blue Mind [Fidelio Music Inc.
FALP025] that convince me to explore the present album under evaluation.
Organist Mélanie Barney early on showed a passion for the
great symphonic organ repertoire but equally for the more modern fare. Tango and
organ transcriptions are part of her musical pedigree also. Distinguishing
herself since 2002 not only on the organ but on the piano, she counts five
releases to her résumé, the latest being 2012's The
Power of the Organ 2 [Fidelio FACD037] - her first solo album. Her
numerous recordings, participating and accompanying choirs and chamber ensembles
have brought her to perform throughout Europe in such places as Belgium, France
and Germany as well as in America.
Complementing her on this performance is the Buzz Brass
quintet, a young dynamic ensemble from Montreal and active since 2002;
comprising Frédéric Gagnon on principal and piccolo trumpet, Sylvain Lapointe
on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marc-Antoine Corbeil on horn, Jason De Carufel on
trombone and euphonium and Sylvain Arseneau on bass trombone. Arranger Enrico O.
Dastous spent two years in collaboration with the ensemble to insure everything
gelled together, rehearsing and working out all the minute details that such a
project entails. After deep reflection and mutual agreement between all parties,
the chosen venue was in Montreal's beautiful Saint-Viateur d'Outremont church,
where the 1913 organ built by the famous Sainte-Hyacinthe firm, Casavant Frères,
still resides in good condition since a century. Comprising 37 stops, 3
keyboards and a pedal board; it has seen 4 additional stops plus modifications
since its complete restoration in 1991. The highly praised Québec company has a
long history dating back to 1879 when the brothers started building their first
organ; since then close to 4000 have been built.
On the recording end, recording engineer René LaFlamme was
striving more towards a 'broadview' sound ensemble rather than a close proximity
perspective; problem is, that the organ and brass were situated high up some
fifty feet from the floor. On the other hand, installing his microphone setup on
the same plane as the protagonists would rob him of ambience and defeat one of
his sound objectives. The solution, though not visually elegant in a church but
certainly efficient was to rent a crane providing the utmost flexibility in mic
placement. Accordingly the combination of a pair of B&K 4003 omnidirectional
130 volt condenser mics positioned some 30 feet from the musicians, were the
main pickup while a pair of Neumann U 67 tube condensers switched in cardioid
pattern served duty for added ensemble 'warmth' at a further 70 feet from the
source. The B&K's, reputed for their instrument grade laboratory types, are
extremely linear down to 10 Hz with high S/N ratio plus good dynamic
capabilities while the larger capsule Neumann's are a perennial favorite dating
back to the 1960s; their narrower 40 Hz to 16 kHz bandwidth notwithstanding,
they are praised for their immense musicality and directionality versatility.
Each pair of mics were fed to its respective (modified)
Millennia M2-B. This two channel transformerless tube mic preamp is reputed to
be highly transparent to the source with just a hint of tube 'warmth sweetening'
as opposed to other competitive designs sporting a more overt 'honey
coloration'. The circuit consists of a Class A triode fully differential
topology with a high voltage of 350 V and no 'pads' for improved transparency
and dynamics. The stock 12AX7's and 12AU7's were replaced by superior sounding
Telefunken and Mullard NOS versions elevating Fidelio's preamp to another level.
Both set of outputs were later 'balanced' proportionately during the
mixing/mastering stage by LaFlamme and Jean de la Durantaye. The M2-B's analog
outputs were converted to digital via a DCS 905 A/D to 24-bit/96kHz resolution
before being upsampled to DSD with the DCS Scarlatti following Fidelio's X2HD
In order to insure that the vinyl version respects the
latter's 'signature' sound; instead of sending a duplicate digital file to
Bernie Grundman Studios and risking that his in-house D/A converter imposes its
own signature, LaFlamme chose to transfer the digital master to 2 track 1/4 inch
analog tape at 15 ips on his vintage Ampex 354 tube recorder with no noise
reduction. While some might argue this to be a 'less purist' approach, it not
only enhanced the 'realism' of the recording but provided Bernie with an
idealized source for cutting the master lacquer; technically no different than
using a pure analog master tape. Because of the meticulous care involved in
every step including the tape transfer, LaFlamme opted for a 'straight flat cut'
instead of any 'tweaking' prior or during the cutting. Naturally even Grundman's
incredible tape machines and cutter heads as well as stampers, pressings and
vinyl formulations will all impart to a certain degree their collective
signatures to the original tape hopefully for the better. Contrary to the vast
majority of digital (or analog) recordings, masterings and even lacquer
cuttings, at no time was there any use of amplitude compression or limiting; in
other words, LaFlamme is either an audiophile optimist or dangerously likes to
live on the edge! Needless to say, the huge dynamic range of the recording
presented quite a challenge even for veteran mastering engineer par excellence
Bernie Grundman. The choice of 45 rpm over 33 rpm was dictated in part by a
'cleaner' groove delineation on the four metal stampers leading in theory to
superior vinyl pressings. These were done on 180 gram at RTI in California.
Having done my fair share of acoustic and live recordings
including a few organ concerts, though admittedly with less prestigious
equipment, I can attest to the fact that this 'beast' of the musical kingdom is
about the hardest instrument to record properly. About the only more demanding
scenario is an opera with full orchestra; that and surprisingly even a simple
duet of tenor and soprano accompanied by piano can really put to test, engineers
and equipment alike. Next to that, recording a jazz trio or quartet is how shall
I phrase it mildly? Kindergarten level. Don't get me wrong, like any audiophile
I love those gorgeous 'golden age' records but trust me; hire some great
musicians, add a few good close mics and roll tape. If you get that wrong go
straight to Rec.101. Coming back to the organ, recording is just one side of the
problem; you have the other side of the coin to reckon with: the playback
system. Both facets are taxed to the limit by the widest bandwidth reaching down
to C0 or 16 Hz (even C-1 or 8 Hz in the rarest of breeds) with monstrous power
and roughly 90 dB of dynamic range to tackle and as if that were not enough you
have the natural reverberant acoustic that is part of the fabric, so you have
your work cut out. For roughly twenty years, I was fortunate enough to attend
close to 100 free organ concerts in a fine sounding chapel built in a private
school close by.
The impressive Casavant instrument was maintained in top shape
by one of the religious brothers still in residence and attracted acclaimed
organist from across Canada and even Europe every now and then. Next to that,
you will understand that any LP or CD will not even come close to the real
thing. The 'closest' I got to a hint of the latter was a Calrec
Ambisonic sphere mic 'amateur' recording played on a pair of 1960s Electro Voice
Patrician 800 with their awesome corner horn-loaded 30w 30-inch woofers.
Side surrounds consisted of a pair of huge DIY boxes sporting
vintage 103 dB/1w 15-inch Electro-voice woofers. The combination of such a large
'array' of cone displacement was I must admit quite impressive. But back to the
The double-album is presented in a gatefold sleeve that houses
each record individually. The carton stock is of good quality, smooth to the
touch, well sized, folded and glued; making it superior to the many Analogue
Productions' double 45 series of the past but not as deluxe as Music Matters,
Ltd. or certain Mo-Fis. The front and back cover showcase the elegant central
chandelier with the two Neumann U 67s perched on the standard stereo T-bar, lit
over a black background from two very different angles; the back one giving the
illusion of a metal crucifix reaching out to the light descending from heaven.
Actually it is quite appropriate given the place and the program. In addition,
the musical movements, musicians and a nomination for Album of the year in 2010
by the province's ADISQ award committee are printed in white. Unfolding the
inside: on the left are pictures of the Buzz Brass, organist Mélanie Barney and
arranger Enrico O. Dastous, juxtaposed with their resumés over the dark
background for continuity while on the right, a superb photo of the beautiful
stained glass in the background with the organ keyboards centered at the bottom
flanked symmetrically by the mighty pipes. The subdued warm lighting inviting us
stop in and visit one evening. At the bottom, production and technical credits
plus a short equipment list complete the picture.
The records are stored in a 'pasticised-type' see-through
sleeve with no paper backing. This is kinder to the vinyl than plain paper while
stiffer and tighter than the rice-paper type used and sold by MoFi and seems to
be the standard from most RTI and Analogue Productions since a while. Being
tighter to remove and reinsert the LP, I worry that accumulated static may
result with time. The label matches the black background cover with the Fidelio
logo. Bernie chose a groove lateral spacing of 2.75 inches for sides A; 2 3/8
for B; 2.5 inches for side C and 1 7/8 inches for side D equivalent to 6
min./inch, 5.85 min./inch, 6 min./inch and 5 min./inch of linear cutting
displacement respectively; averaging 15 min./side for the first three sides
while leaving sufficient dead wax not to cause any inner-groove distortion.
Although 12 min./side is usually the recommended limit for 45 rpm, average
cutting level and musical spectra content will play a factor; the fact that
several movements are played at low amplitude levels will ease this constraint.
The 180 gram heavy weight biscuits were rigid, straight and perfectly centered.
All four sides were flawlessly black with no scratches, blemishes or scuffing
save for a light shallow transverse curved line over the second track and dead
wax and a hint of 'thumprint' in the dead wax on side 4 which is nothing out of
the ordinary or to worry about. The groove patterns are visually well defined
and Bernie Grundman's signature is inscribed in full in the dead wax on all four
sides as is usually the case with his 45 rpm cuttings making it more special.
Side A opens with "Mars the Bringer of War" and from
the first seconds you can feel the low frequency organ pedal 'grounding' the
work akin to the intro of Srauss' 1896 tone poem Also
Sprach Zarathustra which starts with a sustained double low C played
by contrabassoon, double basses and organ. As the Buzz Brass initiate the
military-esque riff from a distance, it is clear we are in for something special
sonic wise. Not only is the interpretative combo seamless as if the organist's
stops could somehow 'trigger' the brass ensemble and vice-versa at any time but
the instrumentation blend is also perfect, owing surely to Dastous arrangements,
Mélanie Barney's keen ear and subtle phrasing, numerous rehearsals and
LaFlamme’s meticulous mic positioning and post-blending. The latter is
particularly tricky when dealing with two quite different mic capsules,
directional patterns and distances from the source. It is not uncommon that
using more than two or three aligned mics brings not only desired flexibility
but dreaded phase problems such as comb filtering or
amplitude/frequency-dependent cancellations and reinforcements. I could not
detect which pair of mics dominated and having not read the equipment lists I
would have guessed it was only one great pair well positioned and I suppose that
was one of his objectives. Deep defined 'realistic' low notes support the nice 'blattiness'
of the brass, with the trumpets and horns occupying center-right and showing
brilliance while the trombones and euphonium more center-left displaying
realistic fullness in the power range of the lower mids. Fortissimos remained
clean and cut through the whole time with no saturation or distortion in the
peaks. Superb dynamic contrasts. Soundstage is well defined, impressively deep,
focused with no 'hole in the centre' at any time. Imaging is rather
concert-like, i.e. with eyes closed at a concert; the left to right panning is
natural but never pinpoint-exaggerated like multi-mic studio productions.
There is just the right proportion of reflected ambience vs
the direct sound. The perspective is less upfront than a typical 'Golden Age'
Living Stereo or Mercury Living Presence recording even more so when using the
Grundman-cut Classic Records reissue LPs as reference. This in part because the
latter were cut 'hotter' than this record and most of those wonderful 2 and 3
track recordings were a bit brighter in tonal balance to begin with and despite
some claims, I suspect that some of the RCA LSs had some form of mild
compression or limiting ingrained. As such, you will have to turn up the volume
knob a bit more to simulate equal 'loudness' levels. The tone and perspective
reminds me more of the earliest - Jack Renner engineered - Telarc LPs which used
the Soundstream Inc. digital system at the - superior to CD - 50 kHz sampling
rate, but with a more natural bass rendering. This ever so slightly descending
balance compensates to a certain degree for the discrepancy of listening to what
in reality is a 360 degree rich soundfield squeezed into a 2 channel recording
and reproduction in the home. One could say that this proximity versus distance
debate is comparable to where one sits at live concerts. The 'Golden Age' era
captured more the first row or conductor-podium point of view while this Fidelio
recording places you further, more towards the middle row seating. In any case
it makes for a great 'overture'.
"Venus, the Bringer of Peace" which follows the
cataclysmic coda of "Mars" is felt by everyone as a welcomed relief
and remains one of the all-time big contrast in large scale music. On this
second track the levels are vastly much lower as it should be when experiencing
the live unamplified event. The vinyl is extremely quiet save for a few
micro-ticks just to remind one that this is still a mechanical playback and not
a CD or digital file. There is very low hiss noise most probably stemming from
the analog tape but no worse than the noise floor from the organ's bellows that
I've witness many times at the live venue. The deep pedal notes are not only
heard but felt even with my 8-inchers limited to -3 dB @ 27 Hz, sounding most
natural and the closest to live organ sound I have heard on LP or CD.
Throughout, the pitch stayed precise denoting no offset in the pressing and no
wow and flutter caused by the analog recording and playback gear.
"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" opens Side B. The
perspective seems a touch closer with the brass more direct in intensity.
Timbres are spot on with great bite yet warm also; a difficult balance to strike
indeed. Although "Mars" is surely the 'show-stopper' demo favorite,
"Mercury" is to my taste the best sounding movement of the album and
"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" follows and the
perspective seems to be a bit further. Some ticks appear more obtrusive on this
vinyl side perhaps because of the large dynamic range pushing the formats
vulnerabilities to the limit.
Side C starts with "Saturn", the Bringer of Old
Age". The pressing is dead silent which is all the more impressive given
the extremely low recorded levels. It is very refreshing and courageous on
Fidelio's part to choose not to apply any compression whatsoever in the chain
which explains in part the non-fatiguing sound that comes mostly from good live
acoustic performances in great venues. There is almost a softness to the
presentation but not to be misconstrued for any dullness or lack of detail. How
unfortunate that this is rather the minority instead of the majority of
releases. Superb interpretation and integration of both group of 'winds'. A
truly stunning soundstage with perfect left to right imaging.
"Uranus, the Magician"'s intro recalls that of
Tchaicovsky's 1880 Capricio Italien, Op.45.
As well, Dvorák's 1893 New World Symphony,
seems to resonate throughout the movement. Outstanding bite and 'blattiness'
from the horns and trombones. Low end grunt from the organ intertwined with that
from the Buzz. Never before have I heard timbres rendered so naturally. The
organ's delicate pianissimo highs are underlined by sustained deep pedal notes.
Dynamic contrasts combined with tons of tone. Rare exquisite tonal balance
making this movement up there with "Mercury" as top choices for hi-fi
shows. Only during two fortissimos did I experience a hint of smearing; hard to
say if this was recorded related or rather system dependent for it could be just
a case of cartridge mis-tracking on my part.
"Neptune, the Mystic" closes the work on side D. It
is the most quiet of all the planets. The noise floor of the mics, tube preamp,
analog tape and even the vinyl's own are incredibly low in level, comparable to
the faint rush of a well-designed tube amp. Too bad that there are recurring
ticks that distract a bit from the awesome beauty of this last movement and
recording. Hard to pinpoint if these are caused by the pressing plant or
impurities embedded in the stamper. For those allergic to ticks, you could
always opt for the CD [FACD028] or USB key [FACD028 96 24] but I doubt that you
would get the extra realism that the vinyl LP brings. Sometimes it happens that
less is not more. In past
mastering projects, I have confirmed with a colleague that even a 'straight flat
cut' sourced from a 16-bit/44kHz digital CD-R master brings added texture,
realism and 'fun factor' to the table. That said it is frustratingly difficult
to expect CD-like silence from what I consider to be one of the most dynamic LP
cuttings to spin on my platter. Without doing any measurements, I would wager we
are close to a 60 dB window with pianissimo levels approaching -55 dB VU
supposing a +5 dB VU headroom.
In conclusion Fidelio has a winner on their hands. Hats off to
everyone involve in this project. Engineer René LaFlamme has outdone himself on
this one, combining many - often times - conflicting attributes that we find in
real life but that most engineers have trouble transferring onto our platters,
be they analog or digital. So, does it sound exactly like the real thing? Of
course not but it is without doubt the best organ recording I have heard and I
am confident in saying that as good as my system is, there is always room for
improvement in the future. So I have not heard the limits of this recording, but
rather the limits of my system that imposed itself on the former.
Do not make the mistake of passing over this LP because of the
use of digital encoding/decoding in the chain; if left in the dark regarding the
recording process, I could easily be swayed in believing this was an all analog
LP. In a web world of hyperbole, where the word 'Reference' is brandished as
often as 'Rare!' on EBay, this one truly does holds its own with the best RCA
Living Stereo's, Mercury's and Decca's and is up there with the finest Reference
Recordings in classical music. Do you detect just a bit of 'healthy' jealousy?
Oh and to come back full circle to my concert and Fidelio's
'raison d'être'. Yes they captured the
feeling all right.
Now then, anybody have an old pair of Patrician 800's or
30-inchers for sale?