AOM Logo July 1999

Bluebacks Revisited - Part 2
Blair Roger continues his survey of London Records' "Blueback" LPs

Blair Roger

Preface: The L. A. Audio Preamplifier
There are times when things audiophile just seem to come together in a fortuitous way that deepens our appreciation and understanding of music. While preparing this review, I was very fortunate to have a local audiophile come to my rescue by offering me the loan of a pair of extraordinary monoblock preamplifiers. When I told him that I had returned my long-term reference Sonic Frontiers Phono-1 to the manufacturer, he stepped into the breach with a rather obscure, but superb, pair of Danish pre-amplifiers, the C2 by L. A. Audio. For those readers unfamiliar with the marque (and, sadly, that may be the majority of you) I can tell you that these are tube units, using 12AT7s of the highest quality. Unlike the classic conrad-johnson Premier 7, for example, the power supplies are housed in the left and right chassis and not separated from the amplifiers by an umbilical cord. They are true dual mono amplification devices. Remarkably, even with the volume control full up on both the preamp and the Jadis Orchestra power amp, these units were absolutely silent without a hint of microphonics or pings when the stepped attenuators were turned. This held true over the entire two months I left them powered-up in my system.

The downfall of the C2 actually proved to be its strength: a low gain phono circuit. I understand that the designer intended this pre-amp for use with his custom designed step-up transformer. It was unavailable but, by a stroke of luck, I had just purchased a pair of Brian Sowter's 7136X cartridge transformers and they seemed to suit the pre-amp and my Lyra Lydian cartridge quite well. Without the transformers, and with all the gain and volume pots wide open, the Lydian had enough kick to make the C2s sing with a sweetly seraphic voice. However, I could not live with this sound for long because of the lack of any sort of realistic dynamics. The 7136X transformers did the trick, forming a benign impedance bridge between cartridge and pre-amp, providing ample gain and dynamic headroom and, as entirely passive devices, allowing the true sound of the cartridge and vinyl to shine forth. At this time, I am convinced that the best tube phono reproduction circuits available to us are low gain (typically relegated by the audio press to the unglamorous role of moving-magnet compatibility) in conjunction with high quality step-up transformers.

This leads us, finally, to the Blueback reviews. What do these records have in common? Very little, particularly in terms of sound - as was so ably revealed by the L. A. Audio/Lyra Lydian/Sowter combination.

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Scheherazade (CS 6018)
This Russian Romantic blockbuster was a natural choice for Decca/London to issue among some of the earliest FFSS Bluebacks. The music has wide appeal because it is easily accessible without being simplistic. It is the sort of thing you can indulge in without the guilt of listening to kitsch. Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration is almost unbelievably rich, varied, thoroughly entertaining, delighting the imagination. The melodies are diverse and uncannily memorable. I can believe that quite a few Briarwood pipes were lit and savoured over this LP when it first appeared in the mid 1950s.

Ansermet, with his affinity for Russian composers, was no doubt a hands-down choice at Decca/London for this effort. Interestingly, they put the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra at his disposal rather than his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The politics behind that decision must have been fascinating, yet we can only speculate as to what actually occurred. Perhaps it had something to do with the solo violinist, Pierre Nerini, who is featured throughout. I cannot fault his performance; it is enchanting. However, this piece requires considerable virtuosity on the part of the orchestra - precise ensemble playing and a lot of exposed solo passages - and I am afraid this is where the performance really falls down.

Nerini is prominent sonically, yet remains integrated with the orchestra. The cellos have a lovely full midrange sound and there is terrific depth on the snare drum at the start of the march theme on side two. The triangle and tambourine are placed to the left and right respectively, towards the back of a gently curving soundspace. Here is a perfect example of the directionality of pickup pattern that the Neumann M-49 microphone exhibited with rising frequencies. Regrettably, the pressings made from the session masters also exhibit a tendency towards stridency and what we would now consider to be a slightly aggressive treble. My guess is that the session tapes might not have sounded quite like this, and that the Decca engineers altered the treble balance slightly to compensate for the average quality pick-up of the period, which would have rolled-off this edge. As you will see, however, this sonic deficiency was not present among all the Bluebacks.

Returning for the moment to the recording, the tutti in the final, climactic movement has an enjoyable dynamic weight and power. As always, Ansermet drives the orchestra forward with well-judged tempos that produce the sound of waves crashing on rocks. Unfortunately, there is a slight lack of clean ensemble playing. The clarinets are a bit ragged at critical moments and this keeps this particular recording from attaining the top rank. Apart from these slight flaws, it is a passionate, romantic performance.

Compared with Reiner's version on the RCA Classics re-issue label, I find the Chicago Symphony to sound much more languid, sanguine, and self-assured. The sound is altogether different: sweeter, softer and modern, making the Blueback sound vintage and boxy. From the moment the snare drum enters, deep to the left of centre, it is clear beyond doubt why Reiner's recording with the CSO is considered the definitive recorded version of Scheherazade [Along with Beecham's EMI recording, perhaps? Ed]. Reiner builds the orchestra to a climax in the final movement that is unambiguously sexual in intensity and resolution.

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Symphonie Fantastique (CS 6025)
Again, a sonic blockbuster from the popular classical repertoire, but this one has a special cachet: the conductor is the legendary Ataulfo Argenta. As a fascinating aside, the liner notes indicate that he "met a tragic death via a motor accident [January 1958] shortly after having completed this recording". How shrewd of Decca/London to have engaged the maestro for this recording! The Paris Conservatoire Orchestra was also a clever choice. They have the music down cold and play with Gallic pride much in evidence. Sonic perspective is close-up and the dynamic range and contrasts are considerable for the period.

The first two movements are beautifully and sensitively played, without the lurching tempos some contemporary conductors (such as Barenboim on CBS Masterworks MK 39859) find unavoidable. Skipping right to the action, we find astounding dynamics in the fourth movement (March to the Scaffold). The brass section is positively on fire, and clearly defined soloists populate the deep and wide soundspace. The listener is treated to some deliciously wicked pizzicatti passages, and the galloping tempo leads us to the heart-pounding coup de grace.

The Witches' Sabbath is a bizarre, swirling, opium-induced dream of a funeral. Argenta is in complete control of the furious tempo. There are incredible leaps and bounds in the music from the parody of the skeleton-like clarinets to the grotesquely demonic blasts from the brass section. Berlioz shows us to be quite the master of counterpoint, as the comic and the malevolent are juxtaposed in an irrational dream. The listener is swept along at such a break-neck pace that the slightly edgy sound is easily overlooked. This is a tremendously exciting and precise performance. I rate it very highly for the interpretation, if somewhat lower for its sound, which once again I attribute to the choice of the Neumann M-49 microphones and trade-offs at the cutting lathe. If you can find a good copy, you will be bowled-over by the mid-bass dynamics and the musicality of the performance. This one is worth seeking out.

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Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major (op. 35) (CS 6011)
I love the sound of this recording by Argenta and the London Symphony Orchestra. The massed strings are soft and sweet and they balance perfectly with the full, rich dynamics of the brass and woodwinds. It sounds as if this LP was recorded with Neumann M-50s perhaps, as it differs so remarkably from Ansermet's Scheherazade (CS 6018).

Alfredo Campoli, the featured soloist on this disk, is very prominent on the stage and presents us with a very romantic interpretation. He plays with the unforced, unhurried artistry of a master musician. This is a hedonistic exploration of the sonority, timbre, and tender harmonics of which certain violins in certain hands are capable. Spicatto passages are superbly executed and contrast delightfully with the big, big sound of the heroic opening theme, sympathetically supported by the LSO. Argenta never lets the tempo drag. Nevertheless, he allows the soloist fascinating liberties in the cadenza passages, which Campoli plays with an alternating sense of languor and urgency.

Campoli has an almost holographic presence between my Quad ESL-63s - just to the left of centre. His fingering is deft and delicate, and the purity of tone captured on this record is mesmerizing: rich, full, and resonant.

Argenta had a way of getting a huge sound and incredible drive out of an orchestra, without losing sight of the fine details. Despite the forward balance, the depth of the hall is still readily discernable when the woodwinds take their solos. The clarity throughout the concerto is that classic Blueback 'you are there' FFSS sound. I rate this as one of my favourite Bluebacks. I never seem to tire of it.

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Dvorak: Serenade for Strings in E Major (Op. 22) (CS 6032)
This is a rapturous composition by Dvorak, and conductor Kubelik is very much at home with the Slavic roots of the music. The performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra flows serenely and confidently, although it lacks the drive and dynamism one would expect from some other well-known conductor/orchestra combinations.

Ensemble playing has its ragged moments under Kubelik's baton. Overall, this is a woody, resonant rendering marred only by a surprisingly boxy midrange and a touch of glare in the upper treble. A wider soundstage would be an asset. This is a very pleasant record but not one I would put on my 'must have' list.

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Tchaikovsky: Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra (Op. 48) and Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (K. 525) (CS 6066)
Could it be that better conductors get better sound engineers? Alternatively, do they just know how to get a better sound from an orchestra? Georg Solti conducts the same Israel Philharmonic that sounded lackluster under Kubelik's direction - it is hard to believe that this is the same orchestra! The sound is superb from beginning to end, as are the performances.

Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is presented in a wide, deep, brightly lit and slightly reverberant soundspace. The finely detailed score of the first movement is taken at a lightening pace highlighted by terrific dynamic contrasts. My notes say, 'Super front row dynamics'. This is a stunning piece of vinyl.

In the second movement, the first violin plays some of the sweetest melodies ever written for the instrument. They waft across the orchestra, and Solti allows a touch of rubato, which imparts a heavenly, romantic aura to the reading. Intonation and ensemble playing are near perfection and this is very pleasing to the ear. To effect the close, the sense of tension and excitement that Solti whips up in the finale is truly remarkable, revealing what a mature masterpiece this is when interpreted by the right hands.

The opening bars of Tchaikovsky's magnificent Serenade for Strings are full and glorious. There are truly magical moments where Tchaikovsky and Solti conspire to paint a landscape with a delicate feeling of melancholy that words cannot express. The orchestral sound is rich and creamy to the end. This is an incredibly good record and should be placed on your "must have" list.

To be continued…

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