Ravel: Bolero (XRCD review)

Also, Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2; Pavane pour une infante defunte. Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQSRCD22.

I suppose everybody has a favorite recording period. Often it's the era one grew up in. For me, it is the analogue stereo years of approximately 1954-1982. Of course, digital recordings came along some time before their introduction on compact disc, but we'll leave that technicality out of the equation. Understand, I am not suggesting that I don't like most of today's digital recordings; engineers have refined the process considerably over time, and most of them sound just fine. But I don't necessarily find contemporary digital recordings any better than the analogue recordings of yesterday. Then, you add in the great conductors whom we don't seem to have replaced these days and the fact that audiophile companies like Hi-Q, FIM, and HDTT have remastered so many great recordings of my favorite period, and you get superior products in terms of both performance and sound. It's a way of having my cake and eating it, too.

Anyway, what we've got here is an XRCD24 remaster of a late-Seventies recording by Maestro Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra. Previn, too, was a part of a "Golden Era," leading the LSO from 1968-1979 in some of their finest work. It's no accident that the folks at Hi-Q have chosen to remaster yet another of Previn's LSO recordings for their catalogue.

The program begins with the ubiquitous Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The dancer Ida Rubinstein had asked Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of six pieces of music from composer Isaac Albéniz, but Ravel learned that orchestral arrangements of the works already existed and copyrights prevented him from doing anything more. So he decided to write a completely new piece based on the Spanish bolero dance. While on vacation he played a melody with one finger, asking his friend Gustave Samazeuilh, "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can." Initially, he called the piece "Fandango," but he soon changed its title to "Boléro." It has since become Ravel's most-famous work.

Most recordings of Bolero last between twelve and eighteen minutes. The score indicates a Tempo di Bolero, moderato assai ("tempo of a bolero, very moderate"), and the composer preferred it fairly slow and steady. In a 1931 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ravel went so far as to say the piece lasts seventeen minutes. He would even criticize conductors who took it too fast (Toscanini was a famous example, the composer and conductor butting heads over Toscanini's thirteen-minute recording) or conductors who speeded up toward the end. I mention this because Previn's recording lasts just a few seconds over seventeen minutes. By comparison to many other modern recordings, it sounds a little leisurely, but it's apparently close to what Ravel wanted. Previn is quite steady throughout the piece as well, always maintaining a sinuous gait. Not that it matters, but I think the performance would have pleased the composer.

Ravel described the suites from his ballet Daphnis et Chloe (premiered in 1912) as "symphonic fragments." Certainly, he employs a very large orchestra to convey his music, a pastoral romance-adventure relating the story of the goatherd Daphnis and his beloved Chloe. Previn brings out all of the music's sensuous nature, making it sound as beautiful as I've ever heard it.

The final piece on the program is Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte, which he originally wrote for piano in 1899 but began orchestrating in 1910 as relaxation from his work on Daphnis. Under Previn, the music (based on the slow, stately rhythms of a Renaissance court dance) is gentle, sweet, lyrical, and appropriately melancholy. Yet it never lingers long on sentimentality nor overstays its welcome by being too slow. In fact, Previn does it up as nicely as anyone.

As usual, the folks at Hi-Q provide a premium product with premium packaging: a glossy, hard cardboard-and-plastic Digipak-type container, the booklet notes sewn book-like into the center, the disc fastened to the inside back cover.

Drawbacks? Yes, naturally there are issues with all audiophile recordings, and they usually have to do with cost. In this case, the disc price is almost twice what you would pay for an ordinary CD, and the disc contains only about forty-one minutes of music. That's darned near a buck a minute, so the discs are not for everyone. Nor do they provide sound that is twice as good as an ordinary CD, whatever your definition of good sound happens to be. Yet the Hi-Q disc does offer good performances by a top-notch conductor and orchestra, and it does sound marginally better than its regular-issue counterpart. As I always tell people in these instances, if you know and like the music, already know and like the recording, have deep pockets, and an above-average stereo system, you might want to consider an upgrade to the remastered product. Otherwise, you might be better off sticking with what you've got.

Producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Suvi Raj Grubb recorded Bolero in June 1979 at London's Kingsway Hall. EMI's two Christophers--Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker--produced and engineered the Daphnis and Pavane tracks in July 1978 at Abbey Road Studio No. 1.

Hi-Q remastered the music from EMI's original analogue master tapes using JVC's XRCD 24-bit processing and K2 technology and then transferred the remastering to a standard Red Book CD that one can play on any standard CD player. Compared to the regular CD version of the recording, the XRCD displays more all-around transparency and air, more-extended highs and lows, and a slightly greater sense of impact and transient quickness. There's an excellent sense of depth, too, the added clarity of the XRCD processing making it more obvious than on the regular-issue CD. In other words, yes, the extra money does buy you better sound; not night-and-day better sound but definitely clearer, more-dynamic sound. It's sound probably closer to that of the master tape than found on the regular CD. But, as I say, whether small improvements are worth the money depends on the buyer's priorities.

You can find Hi-Q products at any number of on-line marketplaces, but you'll find some of the best prices at Elusive Disc: http://www.elusivedisc.com/


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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