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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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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