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JVC XRCD
Fritz Reiner and Chicago Symphony
Pines of Rome
Fountains of Rome

CD Stock Number: JMCXR-0008


Reference Recordings
Eiji Oue and Minesota Orchestra
Belkis, Queen of Sheba - Suite
Dance of the Gnomes
Pines of Rome

CD Stock Number: RR-95CD

 

By Gigi Krop
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

  At long last it’s Friday night... after a stressful week at work I take a few moments to sit outside, gaze up at the stars and watch the shimmering reflections in the canal behind my small condo. I think about times gone by; memories of laughter, fun times and lively music. The past is gone, but the music remains; and a special listening session awaits me. 

Sitting on my dinning room table are two boxes; the first contains a JVC XRCD recording of Ottorino Respichi’s Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome by the Chicago Symphony conducted by the talented Fritz Reiner (JMCXR-0008). It was recorded on October 24, 1959 at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and digitally remastered at JVC Mastering Center by mastering engineer Hiromichi Takiguchi. The second box conceals a brand new, just released HDCD by Reference Recordings. It is a recording of Ottorino Respichi’s beautiful ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba–Suite; and two poetic compositions Dance of the Gnomes and The Pines of Rome by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Que (RR-95CD). This performance was recorded on May 28-29, 2001, at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, MN engineered by Keith O. Johnson mastered by Paul Stubblebine. 

 

The mission: To compare these two exceptional CDs; the recording quality, the performance and the conductor’s interpretation of The Pines of Rome.  From the fertile mind of this restless music-lover arises a task of enormous proportions; a huge dilemma arises…how to best compare these fabulous recordings.

A solution is at hand - listen to these two CD’s on two different sound systems; a low-end system and a serious hi-end system. Read on, oh ye music-lover of little faith.  

 

Part I

Low-End System

 

I walk into my listening room/bedroom and gaze upon my meager sound system: A pair of Mordaunt Short, Pearl 25 Stereo Speakers, a Marantz Audio Console AC-500 (for those of you unfamiliar with this auspicious piece of equipment, a combination CD player, tuner and preamp) and a Parasound HCA 750A amplifier, on a Salamander rack, connected by Straightwire Interconnects and Monster Cable M-Series Speaker Cables with a Monster Cable Power Center HTC100CI.

 

RR-95CD - Reference Recording

First I load the Reference Recording version of The Pines of Rome into the Marantz console and play the first 8 tracks as a warm up. I chose this recording first because I like the artwork on the cover, a colorful rendering of the Queen of Sheba on a camel in the deserts of Egypt. I’ve had some past life experiences as a princess in Egypt; now I’m a princess in Miami…but back to the mission at hand.

The music plays and the first thing I notice is the wide and deep sound stage. In my overcrowded bedroom filled with furniture and exercise equipment, the speakers are set up at the foot of the bed thereby creating a sound stage so wide and deep you can literally sleep in it. The instruments sound sweet but muddy, probably as a result of the Marantz Console. I listen through the system and notice the sensitive, melancholy interpretation of the music by Eiji Oue. There is an ethereal quality to the music that captures the soul. The solo clarinet is oh so sweet and the music has such depth that I can hear the harmonics of the instrument and the various vibratory levels of each note. The deep, tight and wonderfully accurate bass and the clean, piercing highs transport me on a magic carpet of music to another place, to Rome in the 1930’s. As the music reaches a crescendo, the beauty of the music overcomes the bad room acoustics and system quality.

 

JMCXR008 – JVC XRCD

Next up is the JVC XRCD version of the same musical composition. The music begins to play, and I hear a huge difference even on my small system. The XRCD is louder and more energetic…I turn down the volume. The music sounds more intense, the recording appears to be up front and in your face, the staging of the instruments is more obvious and the bass is less intense then the Reference Recording. I recognize a familiar phrase a similar melody line…it reminds me of Tuesday Afternoon by the Moody Blues…

”The simple voices I hear, explain it all in a sigh. The trees are calling me near, got to find out why.”

Could it be the Pines of Rome calling to Justin Hayward?

The differences in the recording quality and style of the conductors are remarkably obvious. On the JVC XRCD the resonance of the solo clarinet is deeper and slightly warmer but is played with less feeling. All the instruments are more deeply voiced, and the bass is heavier. The staging of the instruments is more obvious, but the midrange is not as sweet as the RR. The sound is smoother and less detailed, so the muddiness is less obvious. Both CD’s present a wide and deep soundstage but Reiner’s interpretation seems to be less sensitive, the instruments are played with less emotion. The information that comes with the Chicago Symphony version indicates that there was no audience during this performance, the orchestra played and Maestro Reiner conducted for the pure purpose of making this recording. This could be a contributing factor for the low energy, and unemotional interpretation of the music (See Sidebar Two).

The obvious conclusion: the audience is an important part of the music. Listeners are needed to give inspiration to the musicians and the conductor. The interplay between listener and player is as important as the ability of the conductor, the talent of the musicians, the genius of the composer and the skill of the recording engineer. 

As for the recordings, on the low-end system I prefer the XRCD. It presents more sound and is more forgiving on a system that passes less information; the JVC is also less affected by room acoustics.

 

Intermezzo

Sunday morning the alarm goes off at 8AM. Am I crazy? Was I so bitten by the audio bug that I scheduled a listening session for 10AM in Plantation (West Fort Lauderdale)? I made a phone call and reschedule for 11:30 AM. At 10:30 AM, I drag my weary body from the silken comfort of my bed, throw on some clothes, grab my pad, pen and bag of CD’s and run out the door. As I climbed into my car, I remembered my digital camera. So I jogged back to my apartment, unplug the camera from the computer, removed the memory card from San Disc and attempt to insert the card into the camera. It won’t go in. I dig out the manual and study the instructions. Again I try to insert the card. I try sideways, upside down, backwards and inside out. No luck.  Finally, in a fit of frustration, I put the camera, manual and card in the case and run out the door. Now I’m late…so I drive like a maniac to Plantation and get lost. Finally I arrive at my destination. It is a beautiful house in a wooded area, the home of Alan Eichenbaum’s Audio Tweakers and land of hi-end audio excellence. Alan greets me with a hot cup of coffee. He escorts me to his specially built listening room filled with audio equipment extravaganza, a hi-end bonanza, the Ponderosa of Plantation awaits me. 

 

Part II

Hi-End System

I walk across the threshold of the Audio Tweakers sound room and enter another reality. The dimly lit room is beautifully decorated, filled with African art/artifacts and comfortable plush couches covered in leopard velvet upholstery. Oh, and did I mention the equipment. There looming in front of me like the New York City skyline stands a pair of 7 foot tall Pipedreams Model 18 stereo speakers separated by an Echo Busters sound treatment barrier. I gazed upon the four large and impressive wood cylinders that stand behind the speakers and say to myself, ”Gigi, you’re a blond now, and that gives you license to be ditsy. Go ahead and ask him.”

 

“Alan, what are those things?”

He smiles and replies, “Those are the subwoofers.” 

I answer, “Of course, how silly of me…but four?”

He replies, “Two for each speaker, but the second pair are really unnecessary…I barely hear a difference.”

“Alan, tell me about the rest of your system.”

He grabs the remote and drops his slender frame into a nearby leopard chair,

“The amplifier for the towers is the Danish made Gamut D200 at 200 watts per channel. The Plinius SA 250 Mark IV powers the bass; it is 250 watts of Class A power and the subwoofers are hooked up in parallel, two to each channel. “

I secretly think to myself, “I wonder if separate amplifiers would make a noticeable difference on the bass. But what could a ditsy blond possibly know about stuff like that.”

 

Alan continues, “The front end is a Forsell Air Reference Transport, a DCS Elgar decoder with a separate DCS Purcell Upsampler. (The front end does not decode HDCD.) The cabling is the Nordast Valhalla and the power conditioner is the P.S. Audio PS-600. I have two dedicated lines as the amplifiers require a lot of power.”

 

I think to myself, “Gee, what a surprise…judging by the size of those two amps and the heat generated by the Plinius SA 250, this system is probably responsible for the power shortage in San Francisco… Gigi, behave yourself. Admit it; the system is impressive, the equipment is gorgeous and you are a jealous bitch.”

The front and back walls of the room are glass block covered by various tube traps and acoustical panels.  I look around and notice tube traps and acoustical panels everywhere.

Alan explains, “This room used to be a car port; I closed it in and added the glass block.”

Gigi, “Why didn’t you build the sound treatment into the walls?”

“The walls are cement.”

I didn’t bother to ask about the glass block.

 

My host puts a CD in the transport and I plop myself down onto the white loveseat in front of the towers. Gorgeous music begins to play and in 10 seconds I ask, “Aren’t you sitting a little close to the speakers?”

“Nah, I close my eyes and they disappear.”

So, being a guest in this man’s listening room, I close my eyes and yes the speakers disappear, but they disappear to close for my liking. I get up and sit in the lounge chair behind the couch... now they disappear too far away.

Being a total gentleman, Alan moves the lounge chair closer. This still doesn’t work for me.

“Do you mind if I move the couch?”

“Not a problem.”

He helps me move the couch back about 6 inches further away from the speakers and I sit back down.

“Ah, that’s better. Shall we begin?

The owner of this beautiful system puts a Burmester Sampler CD in the Forsell transport and plays track 4, “Allegra Alta” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.”

The influence of Korsokov on Respighi is amazing, as I once again recognize a melody line that is similar to one the Moody Blues use in “Tuesday Afternoon”. “Alan, this melody reminds me of a Moody Blues Song.”

“Yes, I hear it.”

“Did you know that Rimsky-Korsakov was Respighi’s teacher?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Wow, what a coincidence that you chose to play this cut for me.”

 

Alan plays several CD’s and I notice that the system is rather forgiving; everything sounds fabulous: clean, detailed and transparent from Steely Dan to Rimsky-Korsakov.

 

RR-95CD –Reference Recording

OK, lets try the Reference Recording of The Pines of Rome first. I hand the CD to my cordial host and he places it on the transport. 

To say that this CD sounds incredible on this system is the understatement of the century. The muddiness is gone, the blurred imagery is gone, the soundstage is so deep, it extends further north then Gainesville. The music fills the room with lush midrange; heavenly, transparent highs and natural on-the-nose bass. The woodwinds are located at the back of the sound stage, incredibly sweet (like chocolate mousse) and ever so musical. When the music ascends in smooth crescendo, the various instrumental groups are easily discernable; each plays a subtly different melody line. Even in the low volume passages, the different instruments are clear and distinct. I can easily hear each and recognize every individual instrument, pinpoint its location and, in some cases, recognize the different style of the individual musicians. I attribute this fabulous musical experience to a combination of quality equipment, great acoustics, a fabulous conductor and orchestra and last but not least, the outstanding quality of the Reference Recording.

In the first movement of this beautiful musical composition, the Pines of the Villa Borghese, the brass instruments are rich and lively; they represent children at play. The Pines Near A Catacomb is solemn and mysterious as the ghosts of souls no longer of this world take center stage. A handful of notes by the piano and then the solo clarinet eases into the mix to be followed by the most natural sounding violins. In the second movement, Pines of the Janiculum, Respighi uses a phonograph recording to add an extra dimension to the music; the singing Nightingales are like another group of instruments. Today, it is common practice for musicians to use prerecorded music to fill in extra instruments and create unusual effects during a performance but Respighi’s use of a phonograph was extremely innovative. The last movement, The Pines of the Appian Way, uses an unusual instrument, the B-Flat Flugelhorn, to summon the soldiers of the past. Additional Brass instruments and an organ augment the instrumental mix, as the army of the Consul advances out of the past and into the present in a climax of trumpets, organ, strings and woodwinds.

As I listen, the clarinet soloist calls to me and, after a 3-year absence; I’m back in Rome strolling through the park, transported on the wings of music. The Pines of Rome speak to me of the beauty of nature and remind me that the elements of nature and humankind are all part of the eternal soul; the violins sing a sweet song of love that calls to my soul. The bass drum emerges from the depths of the sound stage; it is man/woman’s ego on a quest for domination over all that surrounds it. A crescendo in the music rises up and surrounds me, bringing a chill to my body as I experience the harmony of humankind with nature. The bass drum, tight and clean plays its rhythm in contradiction to the harmony of nature. It rises out of the music in opposition to the other instruments. For this is the dilemma of the human race: free will to choose between the good and beauty in nature and in our nature, and the evil of our ego.

What an incredible piece of music, rendered that much more so by this fabulous recording and so beautifully and lovingly interpreted by Oiji Qui and the Minnesota Orchestra.

 

XRCD - JMCXR-0008

According to the notes that accompany this CD, the JVC XRCD was recorded in 1959 by the RCA Victor Staff. They also say that RCA Victor’s engineers and technicians placed microphones on slender poles around and amongst the musicians, In a storage room in the basement the RCA Victor staff set up their equipment: two tape recorders; Lewis Layton’s control board, and Musical Director Richard Mohr’s intercom and score were on a table in the center of the room. A pair of speakers was set up against the far wall.

“Are you ready, Dr. Reiner?” asked Dick Mohr over the intercom. The maestro answered affirmatively and Mr. Mohr announced “Take One” the first of two level tests. They played the finale of Pines and a section of the Catacombs. Reiner noticed that a trombone was missing from the shelf, stage left. A break was announced. In the lobby, a section of steel fire curtain was lowered and screens placed against it at right angles. A single speaker was placed on a wooden table. A few feet away were three chairs for Reiner, Mohr and assistant. The tests were played back, notes made and suggestions made. Fifteen minutes later the missing trombone player is found, Reiner returns to the stage and the entire score is played.

The way I read the JVC notes, the original master tape as recorded above was transferred to a U-matic, 1630 format tape, PMCD, or DDP tape and shipped to the manufacturing plant where it is sent through JD’s Digital K2, which is a digital re-generator. The 20 bit digital signal is then transferred to a SONY PCM-9000, which stores the information on a magneto-optical disc. The magneto-optical disc is played back through the Digital K2 to eliminate jitter, and then converted to 16 bit using K2 super coding. The music is EFM encoded, and sent to the K2 Laser, which regenerates the EFM signal (eliminating time-based jitter) cutter. This process entails an amazing attention to detail to ensure the highest quality transfer from master tape to contact disc. “Every nuance of the performance is duplicated as it was recorded.” The way I see it, the people at JVC took the original master tape and re-mastered it on state-of-the-art digital equipment with excruciating attention to sonic detail. But, the original recording of this performance was made in a basement on equipment dating from 1959 and played back on one speaker in front of a steel fire curtain.

Whereas the notes on the Reference Recording CD are conspicuously lacking in information regarding the recording process, they do indicate that the Eiji Oue  concert was recorded on May 28-29, 2001. They also indicate that this CD is an HDCD recording with a 24 - bit sampling rate, therefore I can only guess that the original master tape was made on extremely high-quality, state-of-the-equipment and mastered on equally austere hi-tech equipment. Therefore, in all honestly I believe that the Reference Recording has a technical edge over the JVC XRCD.

(Perhaps a recording of a more recent concert would be more appropriate for comparison.)

With that said, it is time to listen to Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I hand the CD to the Audio Tweakers maestro, he places it on the Forsell transport and “away we go…”  

I notice that the music is more up front and more in your face; it is conducted with more strength, energy and exacting precision. This recording seems to emphasize the harmony of the instruments as opposed to their clarity and separateness (Maybe it is recorded with less microphones or the hall acoustic is a factor). The XRCD appears to smooth out the top level; the highs of the brass are not as piercing. In general the highs are transparent but the overall sound is warmer and the instrumentation is more subtle. The detail in the low volume sections is excellent but the hi-volume crescendos are not heart pounding as in the Reference Recording. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s interpretation is not as sensitive and sweet and there is less depth of feeling. The music is played with a feeling of WYSIWYG.  Here is the music, deal with it.

The crescendos are not as intense but the sound stage is deep, the bass is accurate and the violins are natural.

 

Conclusion

I think that the JVC recording is a fabulous recreation of a special performance by a great maestro and well-recognized orchestra. It is truly amazing how the engineers at JVC can take a 42 year old recording and reinterpret it into a digital format that can sound so good on a hi-end, state-of-the-art system. But, no matter how hi-tech the JVC remastering process may be, the age of the original recording; the antiquated equipment and recording style used to create the original master can’t help but effect the final outcome. Therefore it is unfair to compare a remastered recording of an old concert to a truly state-of-the-art recording of a recent concert. However, in doing so, I find that the overall quality of the Reference Recording is noticeably superior to the XRCD primarily in detail and dynamic range. From an aesthetic point of view, an orchestra and conductor need an audience to inspire their sensibilities and capture the soul of the music.

 

Side Bar One

Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna, July 9, 1879 and died in Rome on April 18, 1936. He was admitted to the Liceo Musicale as a violinist at the age of twelve. He studied composition with Torchi and Martucci in 1898 and became a composition pupil of Rimsky-Korsakoff in St. Petersburg in Berlin in 1902. In addition to his work as a composer, he was a virtuoso concert violinist and an extremely capable pianist. He became a professor of composition in 1913 at the Liceo di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he remained until his death. He is well known for the expressions of love in his “Roman Cycle” symphonic poems. These include The Fountains of Rome (1917); The Pines of Rome (1924); The Festivals of Rome (1928); and Church Windows (1827), four interpretations of beautiful stained glass church windows in Rome. Respighi combines medieval modes with skillful counterpoint, modern tonalities, harmonic devices and romantic lyricism along with his virtuoso skills in orchestration. He is one of the greatest masters of orchestration. 

Respighi traveled the world from the Far East to North America to the Middle East and the influence of his travels is apparent in his music.  Belkis, Queen of Sheba is a ballet composed in his final period, from 1930 till 1931. The Dance of the Gnomes was composed in 1920 and is based on a narrative poem by Carlo Clausetti. The Pines of Rome is perhaps, the most popular of Respighi’s compositions. Introduced in December 14, 1924 in Rome, it’s American premier was part of Toscanini’s debut concert with the New York Philharmonic 13 months later. The score required a large orchestra with an organ, an enlarged brass section and a special instrument called a buccine (actually there are 6 buccines). This brass instrument is an ancient Roman trumpet with a circular tube and a bell that rests on the performer’s shoulder. The four movements of The Pines correspond to various times of day from midday to dawn. According to Respighi, the goal of the pictorial elements of this piece is “to use nature as a point of departure, in order to recall memories and visions”. I think he fulfills this goal. Listen to these two remarkable CD’s and tell me what you think.  

 

Side Bar Two

Listening to Music Creatively

In his book, Listening to Music Creatively, Edwin John Stringham (former faculty member of Columbia University, Julliard School of Music, Union Theological Seminary and Queens College; Head of Music Department at U.S. Army University in Biarritz, France; guest professor at University of California and the University of Texas) talks about the art of creative listening. He says that the composer and musician spend their life acquiring knowledge, learning discipline and developing their ability to channel the creative flow of ideas.

“It would be wonderful, indeed, if the listener’s training were also a lifetime effort; unfortunately, formal training in listening skills is generally all too brief.”

Stringham says that creative listening is perfected through wide experience with a variety of music, good taste, artistic contemplation and development of one’s aesthetic susceptibility.

“When the listener wishes to compare one work with another, or one part of a composition with another part, or to sense the balancing of section with section, then the facilities of tonal memory and interest-span become important considerations. This is especially true when the problems of choice, critical evaluation and discrimination are at issue.”

Vernon Lee, in his book Music and Its Lovers, says that there are two kinds of listeners; there are the “listeners” those that enjoy the music for its intrinsic beauty, for music’s sake and there are the “hearers” those who use music to set off a series of dreamlike fantasies. Guess I’m a little of both. The interplay between creator (composer, performer, conductor) and the listener is known among professional aesthetics as aesthetic contemplation. It represents the giving and receiving of the musical experience.

IMHO, The reason that the JVC XRCD recording of The Pines of Rome is less involving and not as emotionally moving as the Reference Recording CD is attributable to a lack of aesthetic contemplation, i.e. there is no audience. Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony give their performance for the recording equipment; there are no listeners or hearers to provide the give and take of the musical experience.

 

Reference

Listening to Music Creatively, Edwin John Stringham; 1943,1946,1949, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.  

Special thanks: to Alan Eichenbaum of Audio Tweekers for the use of his sound room, to Seth Snyder (recording consultant to the stars) for his technical input, to the folks at Reference Recordings, to the people at JVC-XRCD; and to Ottorino Respighi for the music.

 

 

JVC XRCD (JMCXR-0008) Fritz Reiner and Chicago Symphony
Enjoyment: 85

Reference Recordings (RR-95CD) Eiji Oue and Minesota Orchestra
Enjoyment:  92

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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