Albeniz: Suite Espanola (XRCD review)

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, New Philharmonia Orchestra. First Impression Music FIM XR24 068.

I have not hidden my admiration over the years for JVC's XRCD remasterings of classic RCA and Decca material. Their meticulous care and attention to detail cost a mint and probably don't represent the best value for the dollar, but for the audiophile looking to find the best possible sonic quality in compact discs, the XRCDs can hardly be beat. Unless you look to First Impression Music, which for many of its releases also utilizes the XRCD process.

To quote Winston Ma, head of First Impression Music: "FIM produces its own XRCD albums, manufactured by JVC, Japan. FIM distributes its own software catalog, including its own XRCD albums to more than thirty countries in the world and will continue to do so for years to come. There are three major companies producing XRCDs, namely JVC, TBM, and FIM. With the closure of JVC Disc America, JVC only distributes its own products in Japan and SE Asia. The other two labels continue doing their distribution as before."

Among FIM's very first XRCD releases was the XRCD/24 disc of the Suite Espanola by Spanish pianist and composer Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909). Recorded by Decca in 1967, it is one of the first things I considered an audiophile recording back in the old days when I was just getting started in the stereo field. Up until that time, I had loved and collected classical music, but I had not yet acquired a playback system worthy of exploiting the full potential of an audiophile disc. The Suite Espanola changed all that (along with my first good system of separate audio components in the late Sixties).

Albeniz first wrote the pieces we now call the Suite between 1906 and 1908 as parts of two piano cycles. Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos chose seven of the eight pieces of one cycle to do up in the orchestral transcriptions we have here, choosing to leave out a selection, "Cuba," that did not derive from his own country and substituting another Albeniz piano piece. The resultant orchestral set is light, frothy, folk-inflected, and totally delightful, suggesting the atmosphere of various places in Spain: Castilla, Asturias, Aragon, Cadiz, Sevilla, Granada, Cataluna, and Cordoba. More important to the audiophile, perhaps, the music contains an abundance of sonic effects to dazzle the ear, and it remains one of Decca's very best, most-realistic recordings.

Anyway, I first owned the performance on vinyl, then on regular CD, then on Decca's Classic CD label, and now on FIM's XRCD/24. But what is XRCD/24? Let me quote from the disc booklet: "What makes the XRCD-24 bit Super Analog so impressive: XRCD is a standard 'Red Book' CD and can be enjoyed on any CD player. For the first time ever a 24-bit digital signal is used as an essential part of the CD manufacturing process. A high-precision DVD K2 laser and K2 Rubidium Clock are used together to greatly improve CD glass mastering. Quality control from mastering through manufcturing ensures the original audio brilliance is maintained in the final XRCD." Yes, the CD is still a 16-bit transfer on disc, but it's done from a 24-bit signal, obtained from original master tapes, and put through an exacting process that would do any recording proud.

What's more, FIM does up the disc in the most elaborate packaging I think I've ever seen for a single disc, more impressive even than JVC's product. The outside of the case is clothbound, with a cutout center that reveals the first page of the enclosed booklet and the original album art. The pages of the interior booklet are thin, flexible plastic, not paper, and the disc itself is encased in a pocket reminiscent of an old-time 78-rpm record album, further enclosed in a static-proof sleeve. Sure, the FIM XRCDs cost a mint, but at least they look like they're worth it.

Nevertheless, looking expensive and sounding good are two different things, and one can only ascertain the actual worth of any disc by listening to it. All the bells and whistles in the world are not worth the price if the record doesn't sound appreciably better than the lower-cost product. And at over twice the price of Decca's own release, this one needed to come off sounding mighty good. Fortunately, it does, but the degree of difference may not be apparent to everyone, so the buyer must make up his own mind if the variances are worth the money.

In a side-by-side comparison of the FIM against the Decca, the FIM is a shade cleaner overall, with crisper, more-extended highs, a clearer midrange, greater fullness, and a tad stronger dynamics. More important, the FIM sound is better imaged across the speakers. The Decca often seems confined to the left, right, or center stage, whereas the FIM presents a wider, more-realistic orchestral spread. Put another way, the Decca, while still sounding good, appears a mite dull, lopsided, and constricted by comparison to the FIM.

Again, is the FIM worth the price, further considering that it contains only Albeniz's Suite Espanola, where the Decca also contains Manuel de Falla's El amor brujo and Enrique Granados's Intermezzo, a timing difference of thirty-seven vs. sixty-eight minutes? In those terms, you could say the FIM is four times more expensive than the Decca (double the price and half the content). The answer can only come from your own ears and pocketbook. If you don't consider your playback system of audiophile or near-audiophile quality and you don't have the money to spend extravagantly, don't even consider the FIM product. Heck, a person with an inexpensive or overbright system might actually prefer the softer, less-focused sound of the Decca disc.

On the other hand, if you want the very best, you pay for it. The differences in imaging alone would be reason enough for me to want the FIM.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 John 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 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 W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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.
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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa