Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (XRCD24 review)

Also, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Benjamin Britten; London Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra. JVC XRCD 0226-2.

While upgrading to new and better hardware is always fun and most often rewarding, if one can afford it, the struggle to find suitable software--like audiophile LPs, tapes, CDs, or DVDs--to do the new equipment justice has long haunted the audiophile. Open-reel master tapes would seem to be the ideal answer but obviously impractical. Direct-to-disc and half-speed remastered LP recordings took up some of the slack in the old vinyl days, with gold discs taking their place early on in the compact-disc era. But now that the gold disc has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, one has fewer choices. 

Understand, during all the time I reviewed gold discs from Mobile Fidelity, Sheffield Labs, DCC, Chesky, Compact Classics, and the like, I often found improvements in the sound of the gold over their silver counterparts; but as I said time and again, they never convinced me it was actually the gold-foil that contributed to the sound’s betterment so much as it was their superior transfer engineering. The gold, I always figured, might have just added to the discs’ allure and justified their high price. Careful, expert, and time-consuming engineering of the tape to disc is where I considered the improvements to have come. This is where JVC, the Victor Corporation of Japan, entered the scene some years ago, followed by other companies like FIM/LIM and Hi-Q. The folks at JVC have eschewed the gold-plating route and gone with the best possible transference to silver disc, first remastering some of RCA’s best “Living Stereo” recordings and then doing some of Decca’s older product, such as here in their XRCD24 processing system.

Most of JVC’s choices have been consensus classics, and in the comparisons I’ve made with dozens of discs, I have found improvements--some slight, to be sure--in JVC’s product over the conventional equivalent. The folks at JVC have also packaged the product handsomely in Digipak-type foldout albums. Unfortunately, JVC have not eschewed the gold-disc price. They have been issuing exactly the same content as on the original LPs--no more, no less--and at a price almost double the cost of the conventional compact disc. Worth it? Not for most people, and, in fact, not for me if I didn’t already own the things I’ve gotten so far and didn’t already love each and every one of them. Let me just say I have not been entirely disappointed. The sonic improvements have ranged from barely audible, maybe not audible at all and only imagined, to clearly audible and extremely worthwhile. In most cases, the improvements have usually been in all-around smoothness, often in definition, and sometimes in dynamic impact, bass extension, and general tautness.

Yet it’s here that we run into the old audiophile vs. sceptic argument: The audiophile will argue that if you cannot hear the differences, it is because your equipment is not good enough to reveal them. Conversely, the sceptic will argue that if you hear differences, it’s because you want to hear the differences, especially if you’ve just laid out a chunk of cash for the new product.

My advice: Try one of these audiophile discs for yourself. Compare it to your old disc. If you hear no difference, take it back and never buy another one. It’s that simple. Here are a few JVC remasterings in which I have personally found some sonic improvement: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn (JMXR24004); Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (JVCXR-0225-2); Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (JVCXR-0224-2); and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade (JMCXR-0015), Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (JMCXR-0020), Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (JMCXR-0007), Respighi’s Pines of Rome (JMCXR-0008), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (JMCXR-0016), all with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Now to the subject at hand, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra:

Benjamin Britten wrote what he initially called The Instruments of the Orchestra for a school children’s film in 1946, basing his music on a hornpipe theme by Henry Purcell. The idea was to highlight and showcase each family of instruments in the symphony orchestra. It may seem overly simple to some listeners and perhaps even clumsily constructed, but it hit a chord with the public and continues to make for delightful listening, especially when presented so felicitously by the composer himself and the London Symphony Orchestra in this 1964 recording. Britten conducts the piece at a rather quick but enlivening pace, and it’s done without narration so you can better enjoy the music. Also on the disc we find Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Bridge being his mentor), played by the English Chamber Orchestra and recorded in 1968. The Decca disc’s inclusion of the Simple Symphony was not a part of the original Decca LP and is, therefore, absent on this JVC edition.

So how is JVC’s remastering of these Britten chestnuts? First, although I’d had the Decca disc for a very long  time, I had never really thought of it as an audiophile favorite before. It was always a good-sounding disc but nothing especially transparent or realistic in any audiophile way. Anyhow, when listening to an A-B comparison of the Decca with the JVC, the most noticeable differences showed up during the Young Person’s Guide in terms of the JVC’s very slightly greater smoothness. Whereas the original Decca disc sounded a tad glassy, steely, and hard, the JVC remastering seemed a touch softer, the edges delicately smoother, rounder, and easier on the ear. Other differences sounded more subtle, with the JVC remastering being perhaps a touch more dynamic overall and firmer in the bass.

Here’s the thing, though: My listening did not settle the matter of which disc was “best”; that is, which disc sounded more like the master tape. Usually, one can tell when a difference in sound is an improvement; it usually manifests itself, as I’ve said, in an increased clarity, resolution, dynamic contrast, bass tautness, etc., often along with increased smoothness. But without access to the master tape and direct A-B testing of the remastered product, one can never be sure. It is always possible, for instance, that in this case the JVC engineers simply softened the sound, either by intent or by accident, making it appear smoother and easier on the ear; or that they may have gotten it exactly right, duplicating the actual sound of the master tape. As I say, without my having access to the master tape, I can never know for sure. Therefore, “best” in this instance becomes a matter of which disc appears to a listener as preferable according to taste, not which one is more accurate, and for me that was the JVC by a slim margin.

The accompanying Frank Bridge Variations, however, reveal much less of a difference, indeed, practically none at all, and I daresay in a blind test I wouldn’t be able to tell the JVC remaster from the Decca original. Sonically, then, the disc’s coupling becomes moot.

So, would I recommend the JVC disc to anyone? No; it’s still too much an open question for me, the differences being too small on which to build a case. Besides, the disc is costly; it excludes the Simple Symphony found on the Decca disc; and the small, admittedly controversial sonic improvements I heard show up only in the Young Person’s Guide. Yes, I did enjoy the smoother sound of the JVC, but perhaps not enough to recommend one’s paying double the Decca disc’s price for it.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa