The Reference Collection

By John J. Puccio

Anyone who has been collecting records for a long period of time, in my case over fifty years, is bound not only to have favorite performances but favorite-sounding performances as well. Here I've listed (alphabetically) a few of the many classical CDs I admire for their natural, realistic sonics, many of the discs as old as the first recordings I ever owned, and some as recent as the past year. As with any list chosen from thousands of the best products available, this one is quite personal, and, of course, since no one can claim to have heard everything, it's limited to my own experience, not secondhand advice.

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (Bruggen, Kuijkens, Bylsma, Leonhardt) Sony Japan
Of the numerous recordings of the Brandenburgs, this one from the mid Seventies, among the first using period instruments, is probably the smoothest, most truthful, and most well defined. Although it may not adhere to what we consider today the most-accurate period playing practice, the performances are certainly agreeable. Incidentally, I've seen the recording released on LP and CD under a variety of labels, from Philips, SEON, RCA, and now Sony. You can't beat the performers, either--Sigiswald and Wieland Kuijen, Lucy van Dael, Anner Bylsma, Frans Bruggen, Bob van Asperen, Gustav Leonhardt, and others--most of whom went on to further glory in the period-instruments field.

Bax: The Garden of Fand, November Woods, etc. (Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra) Lyrita
From 1968, Sir Adrian's Lyrita recordings of Arnold Bax's tone poems have long been favorites for lifelike orchestral sound, and no one has bettered the interpretations. Tintagel and November Woods are particular favorites, the latter virtually dripping dew from the trees.

Beethoven and Clement: Violin Concertos (Pine, violin; Serebrier, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) Cedille
Warm, smooth, spacious, these recordings are just a pleasure to listen to.

Britten's Orchestra: Young Person's Guide; Sinfonia da requiem; Four Sea Interludes (Stern, Kansas City Symphony). Reference Recordings
It's hard to go wrong with the sound of any Reference Recordings disc, but this latest from the company is about as dynamic and truthful as it gets.

Debussy: Orchestral Music (Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) Philips
The 1970s marked a golden age for several major record companies, including Philips, whose Concertgebouw recordings displayed some of the most pleasantly ambient hall bloom of anything ever put on disc. Listen especially to the "Images," and you'll hear a real orchestra in a real auditorium.

Handel: Messiah (Ohrwall, Members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra) Proprius/LIM
Quite simply, the finest-sounding vocal-orchestral recording I have ever heard.

Hanson Conducts Barber, Piston, Griffes & Others (Hanson, Eastman-Rochester Orchestra) Mercury
RCA's biggest competition for audiophile dominance in the late Fifties and early Sixties was from Mercury's "Living Presence" series, and the appearance of these Mercury stereo recordings on CD was a subject for rejoicing among music lovers. Start with Piston's "The Incredible Flutist" (Ballet Suite), and you'll see why.

Haydn: Baryton Divertimenti (The Esterhazy Machine) Smithsonian FoM
The good people at Smithsonian FoM recorded this trio of players as naturally, as warmly, as realistically as any small ensemble you'll hear.

Herold-Lanchbery: La Fille Mal Gardee (Lanchbery, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) Decca/LIM
I've owned this 1962 recording on London and Decca LP, Decca CD, and now on an audiophile remastering on Winston Ma's LIM, and the recording has never let me down for absolutely fidelity. It won't knock your socks off, but it will impress you with its warm, refined acoustics.

Holst: The Planets (Previn, London Symphony Orchestra) EMI/Hi-Q
Recorded by EMI in 1973, again during a golden age for record companies, this disc went directly to the top of the pile and has never fallen from it. The "Uranus" movement has long been a demo piece for my various stereo systems, with depth, transparency, and deep bass in abundance. The EMI disc sounded good; the Hi-Q remastering sounds even better.

Jazz at the Pawnshop (Arne Domnerus and friends) FIM/LIM
The folks at FIM remastered the original tapes of this classic jazz set to the best audiophile standands yet in this "Fifth and Ultimate Edition." It's very expensive, but to the dedicated audiophile, it may be worth it.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (Horenstein, London Symphony Orchestra) Unicorn
From 1970, this lovely recording will probably never win any prizes for its sound, yet I have always felt it was among the best, maybe THE best, sounding Mahler ever put to disc. It helps that Horenstein had a loving way with the music.

Massenet: Le Cid Ballet Music (Fremaux, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) Klavier/JVC
EMI originally issued this recording in their quadraphonic Studio Two line, and it has always sounded spectacular no matter the number of channels. In America, Klavier released it, and the edition I now own is a Klavier XRCD24 remastered by JVC. Despite its excellent performance, excellent dynamics, excellent impact, and excellent transparency, Klavier pulled the plug on it. I guess excellence isn't always as lucrative as it used to be.

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra) EMI Japan
When EMI was issuing Otto Klemperer's stereo recordings on LP from the mid Fifties to the early Seventies, I thought they sounded thin, bright, hard, and forward. But their latest incarnations on CD are almost universally fine, with detail and transparency galore. Needless to say, their remasterings from Japan are even more so. And for those folks who only think of Klemperer as heavy-handed, one listen to his Mendelssohn should change their minds.

Milhaud: La Creation du Monde; Weill: Suite from "The Threepenny Opera" (Weisberg, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble) Elektra Nonesuch
This 1973 release often passes under the radar, but for audiophiles it's been a favorite for a very long time. It simply does everything right, especially in the area of detail and definition.

Mozart: Three Divertimenti for Strings (Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields) Argo/FIM
This early recording from Marriner and the Academy has sounded good from the outset, but it's never sounded as good as in FIM's XR24 remastering. The first moment alone may leave your jaw on the floor, and the strings are among the most realistic ever recorded.

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 4 (Mutter, violin and conductor; London Philharmonic Orchestra) DG/JVC
The XRCD's sound is firmer, better focused, tauter, and crisper than DG's regular release, and the slightly close-up miking is extremely dynamic and well detailed. That Ms. Mutter's performances are first-rate is just icing on the cake.

Offenbach: Gaite Parisienne (Fiedler, Boston Pops Orchestra) RCA/JVC
My guess is that if you own an original LP of this celebrated 1954 RCA "Living Stereo" recording, it is probably worth a small fortune. It's one of the earliest stereo recordings ever made for the home, and it proves that there hasn't been a lot of improvement in the recording field since. In a word, the sound and performance are fabulous. The Japanese JVC remastering is in their XRCD series, and it only makes a good thing better.

Orchestral Spectaculars (Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra) Telarc
Over the years, the folks at Telarc have made any number of fine-sounding discs, and this one probably exemplifies their recording technique as well as any. It's big, wide-ranging, and reasonably spacious.

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (Previn, London Symphony Orchestra) EMI Japan
Some of the lushest, most-romantic music ever written in some of the lushest, most-romantic sound ever recorded. Enough said.

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances (Oue, Minnesota Orchestra) Reference Recordings
I can't imagine any audiophile being without this one. Not only do we get a dynamic performance, we get sound that is equally thrustful, accompanied by a beautifully balanced ambient bloom.

Romantic Russia (Solti, LSO) Decca/LIM
Here's a very dynamic, transparent recording of music by Glinka, Mussorgsky, and Borodin, done up in some of the most-exciting performances imaginable and remastered in LIM's K2 HD audiophile processing.

Rossini: Overtures (Orpheus Chamber Orchestra) DG
I have never been too keen on DG's sound, usually finding it too hard or too soft or too artificial or too something. Not so here. The DG engineers captured the Orpheus ensemble perfectly, with plenty of impact, range, and dimensionality.

Rossini: Overtures (Maag, Paris Conservatory Orchestra) Decca/HDTT
These transfers to CD from a 1958 Decca 4-track tape are about as dynamic, as clean, and as wide ranging as a recording can be. We're listening to genuine demo material here, from the big bass drum to the crystalline midrange to the sparkling highs.

Rossini: Sonate a quattro (Salvatore Accardo et al) Philips/LIM
LIM's audiophile remastering of this 1978 Philips recording is probably as close to the sound of the master tape as one can get. It's warm, resonant, realistic, and ultrasmooth.

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra; Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 "Organ" (Mester, Pasadena Symphony) AUracle Binaural
This binaural recording is rather unique, using a Neumann KU-100 "dummy head" microphone system, a replication of the human head for increased naturalness through headphones and an increased sense of depth through loudspeakers.  The result is superbly realistic sound.

Suppe: Overtures (Paray, Detroit Symphony Orchestra) Mercury
More from Mercury's "Living Presence" line, this one has all the qualities any music and sound lover could want, from the most-hushed silences to the loudest, most-undistorted crescendoes. Great stuff.

Stravinsky: L'Histoire du Soldat (Ars Nova) Westminster/HDTT
This may be the most impressive disc I've ever heard. Note its clarity, its transparency, its depth, its localization of instruments, its reach-out-and-touch-it realism. It's quite astonishing, actually.

The Sheffield/Leinsdorf Sessions, Volumes I and II (Leinsdorf, Los Angeles Philharmonic) Sheffield Lab
When Sheffield originally recorded and issued these Debussy, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Wagner performances direct-to-disc, they were about the best-sounding classical LP albums one could own, yet Sheffield would never quite match on compact disc the sound they produced on vinyl. However, the two gold CD editions they later released were still plenty good, even if the acoustic is a little dry. Dynamics are wide enough to blow your speakers open, so be careful.

Tchaikovsky: 1812 (Kunzel, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) Telarc/LIM
Telarc claims the cannon shots on this digital recording dip down as low as six cycles. In addition, the imaging is excellent. If you get the remastered LIM, things are sharper still.

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) Philharmonia Baroque Productions
Recording engineers have not always been kind to period-instruments ensembles, but not here. Recorded in the Scoring Studio at Skywalker Sound, the results provide just about everything you'd want in an audiophile disc: good clarity, good imaging, strong dynamics, and strong impact.

Walton: Facade; Lecocq: Mam'zelle Angot (Fistoulari, Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden) Decca/HDTT
Here's another amazing transfer from HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). Recorded by Decca in 1957, there is no way to tell it wasn't recorded today by one of the best audiophile companies in the business. Remarkable smoothness and transparency.

The Year Before Yesterday (Los Angeles Percussion Quartet) Sono Luminus
The disc features the LAPQ performing percussion music of Kraft, Naidoo, Griswold, Pereira, Schankler, and Deyoe. The sound is outstanding for its clarity, impact, air, transient response, and overall presence.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing for the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet II DAC/preamp/crossover, dual Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Ryan Ross, Contributor

I started listening to and studying classical music in earnest nearly three decades ago. This interest grew naturally out of my training as a pianist. I am now a musicologist by profession, specializing in British and other symphonic music of the 19th and 20th centuries. My scholarly work has been published in major music journals, as well as in other outlets. Current research focuses include twentieth-century symphonic historiography, and the music of Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold.

I am honored to contribute writings to Classical Candor. In an age where the classical recording industry is being subjected to such profound pressures and changes, it is more important than ever for those of us steeped in this cultural tradition to continue to foster its love and exposure. I hope that my readers can find value, no matter how modest, in what I offer here.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa