Decca: Supreme Stereophonic Legacy (UltraHD review)

Various composers and artists. FIM UHD 088 (4-disc box set).

British Decca is one of the oldest, most-prestigious, and most-innovative record companies in the world, producing classical, popular, jazz, even country-Western recordings since the 1920's. To help celebrate Decca's accomplishments, the audiophile company FIM (First Impression Music) have put together this four-disc box set of Decca stereo recordings, remastered in FIM's 32-bit Ultra High Definition PureFlection processing. The recordings represent some of Decca's best work of the past fifty-odd years, and the remasterings reflect some of the best sound possible with today's compact-disc technology. Along with a sturdy clothbound box, a hardbound book of Decca history, and another hardbound book of production notes and disc sleeves, the set makes an attractive package for the music lover and audiophile alike. An expensive but attractive package.

FIM owner, president, and producer Winston Ma tells us in an introduction to the set that the Decca name goes back to 1914 when Barnett Samuel and Sons introduced a portable gramophone they called the Decca Dulcephone. Shortly afterwards, they renamed the company The Decca Gramophone Co. Ltd., and in 1929 sold it to Edward Lewis. It wasn't long afterward that Decca Records Ltd. became the second-largest record company in the world, calling itself at the time "The Supreme Record Company" (and, thus, the present set's "Supreme Stereophonic Legacy" title). Wilfred S. Samuel created the actual name "Decca" by combining the word "Mecca" with the initial "D" of their logo "Dulcet" (or their trademark "Dulcephone"). Samuel figured "Decca" would be a good brand name for the company because almost anybody could pronounce it in almost any language. Clearly, the idea worked and the name stuck. For a few decades in the mid twentieth century, a conflict with American Decca caused a minor problem, resulting in the parent British company calling their American product "London Records," but things have settled back to "Decca" worldwide for these past many years.

As I say, FIM selected the tracks from among some of Decca's best stereo releases. What's more, if you have already collected any of FIM's previous remasterings, you will recognize the selections from their previous work. This time, however, the FIM folks have reassembled them and rereleased them to their latest audio standards. Here's the track listing;

Volume One (UHD 089)
1. Glinka: Overture - Russlan and Ludmilla (Solti, LSO)
2. Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor - Movement 1 (Lupu, Previn, LSO)
3. Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor - Movements 2 and 3 (Lupu, Previn, LSO)
4. Granados: Intermezzo from Goyescas (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
5. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 1, Valse (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
6. Bernstein Elmer: The Magnificent Seven (Stanley Black)
7. Strauss, Johann Jr.: Voices of Spring (Boskovsky, VPO)
8. Strauss, Johann Jr.: Perpetuum Mobile (Boskovsky, VPO)
9. Loewe: "I Could Have Danced All Night" (Edmundo Ros)
10. Di Capua: "O Sole Mio" (Pavarotti)

Volume Two (UHD 090)
1. Verdi: Aida - Gloria all Egitto (Carlo Franci)
2. Albeniz: Castilla (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
3. Albeniz: Austurias (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
4. Rimsky-Korsakoff: Capriccio Espagnol (Argenta, LSO)
5. Chabrier: Espana (Argenta, LSO)
6. Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain (Solti, LSO)
7. Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina - Prelude (Solti, LSO)
8. Bernstein, Leonard: On the Waterfront, Symphonic Suite (Stanley Black)
9. Rodgers: "I Whistle a Happy Tune" (Edmundo Ros)

Volume Three (UHD 091)
1. Strauss, Richard: Also Sprach Zarathustra - Prelude (Mehta, LAPO)
2. Falla: The Three Cornered Hat - Act 1 (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
3. Falla: Ritual Fire Dance (Burgos, New Philharmonia)
4. Verdi: Nabucco - Act 1, Gli arredi festivi (Carlo Franci)
5. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 2 - Tempo di Valse (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
6. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 2 - Andante non Troppo (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
7. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 2 - Allegro Moderato (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
8. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake - Act 3 - Danse Espagnole (Ansermet, O. Suisse Romande)
9. Herold/ Lanchbery: La Fille Mal Gardee - Introduction (Lanchbery, ROHO)
10. Herold/ Lanchbery: La Fille Mal Gardee - Pas-de-Deux (Lanchbery, ROHO)
11. Strauss, Johann, Jr. and Josef: Pizzicato Polka (Boskovsky, VPO)
12. Steiner: Gone with the Wind - Tara's Theme (Stanley Black)

Volume Four (UHD 092)
1. Bruch: Scottish Fantasia, Op. 46 - Movement 1 Oistrakh, Horenstein, LSO)
2. Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante - Movement 1 (Oistrakhs, Kondrashin, MPO)
3. Mozart: Divertimento L. 136 I. - Allegro (Marriner, ASMF)
4. Mozart: Divertimento L. 136 II. - Allegro (Marriner, ASMF)
5. Mozart: Divertimento L. 136 III. - Allegro (Marriner, ASMF)
6. Mozart: Serenata Notturna K.239 I. - Marcia (Marriner, ASMF)
7. Mozart: Serenata Notturna K.239 II. - Minuet (Marriner, ASMF)
8. Mozart: Serenata Notturna K.239 III. - Rondo (Marriner, ASMF)
9. Strauss, Johann Sr: Tivoli-Rutsch Waltz (Boskovsky, VPO)
10. Strauss, Johann Jr: Blue Danube (Boskovsky, VPO)
11. Rapee: Charmaine (Mantovani)

I suppose there is some rhyme or reason behind the grouping of the selections, but what that reasoning is, I could not discern. The pieces do not appear arranged by composer or conductor or even by composition or recording date. My guess is that the set's producers merely grouped the various items according to personal fancy. In any case, the music is so good and so well recorded and remastered, one need only sit back and enjoy it. Of course, it means not being able to hear too much of one thing, so except for the Mozart it's mainly bits and pieces and short works. But it makes picking out and playing back favorite items for relatively brief listening sessions quite easy. Or you might find a favorite disc among the four and replay it time and again. Who knows.

Sir Georg Solti
In my case, having reviewed this music before from FIM, it made picking favorites easy because of familiarity but hard because I really liked them all. Nevertheless, let me comment on just a few of the set's most outstanding tracks.

Sir Georg Solti's conducting could sometimes sound hard-driven, even frenetic, but when he was on, as he was here in selections from Glinka (Russlan and Ludmilla) and Mussorgsky (Night on the Bare Mountain) with the London Symphony Orchestra, he was electrifying.

For a while (too long a while), Decca experimented with a recording technique they called "Phase 4." It employed the use of about two hundred microphones per instrument and resulted in a sound that was strongly dynamic, ultra clear, flat, forward, compartmentalized, and anything but natural. However, no one could argue that it wasn't spectacular, and that's what we get in Stanley Black's rendition of Elmer Bernstein's theme from The Magnificent Seven, recorded with the London Festival Orchestra. The recording has a clarity and impact I guarantee will impress almost any listener.

Nobody did Johann Strauss Jr.'s music as well as Willi Boskovsky, especially in his recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, as we hear on Voices of Spring and Perpetuum Mobile. The grandness of the orchestra matches the grandness of the music, and the musical lilt is nigh-well perfect.

And so it goes, with each selection a little gem. Ataulfo Argenta's way with Rimsky-Korsakoff's Capriccio Espagnol and Emmanuel Chabrier's Espana is a joy to behold; John Lanchbery does up Herold's La Fille Mal Gardee better than anyone before or since; and Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields are as polished and precise as ever in Mozart's Divertimento and Serenata Notturna, with sound that Decca (on their Argo label) never topped. It's all a pleasure to hear.

Along with the four discs come two hardbound books measuring about 7 1/4" square. The first one contains four paper sleeves for the discs, with each disc slipped into its own static-proof jacket. Then, there are 108 glossy pages of technical information on the composers, the compositions, the original Decca recording processes, and the FIM remasterings. The second book is 264 pages long and chronicles a history of the Decca organization, its major artists, its labels, its products, and just about anything else you'd ever want to know about the company. The books strike me as well written and lavishly illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs.

Insofar as concerns the sound of FIM's remasterings, it's obviously excellent. Although, as I've mentioned, FIM had remastered and released these selections before, they went back and replicated them over again using their newest 32-bit UltraHD and PureFlection processing formats. According producer Winston Ma, this technology yields the highest degree of fidelity possible from a standard Red Book CD, so you can play the discs back on a regular CD player rather than use some exotic equipment. (OK, I know what you're thinking: If you can afford a set as costly as this one, you probably already own an exotic audio system. But that's beside the point.)

Anyway, I sat down and compared the sound of these new remasterings with the sound of many of the equivalent FIM discs I had in my library. This was fun for a few minutes until I recognized that I was hearing the same differences with every recording. The sound of the new transfers is smoother than that of the older ones. Sure, there is tremendous fidelity in both old and new, but the newer discs take some of the edge off the often brighter sound of the older ones. Not that there is anything wrong with the older transfers; they are certainly better than the original Decca releases; it's just that the new FIM product is that much easier on the ears, detailed yet ultraclean, clear, dynamic, and effortless.

Naturally, which sound one prefers may depend upon one's playback equipment. If your stereo system favors the high end, you may prefer FIM's new UltraHD masterings without question. If your system is at all soft or subdued, you might actually prefer the very slightly more forward sound of the older FIM issues. Personally, I preferred the newer sound, but without the master tapes with which to make comparisons, I have no way of knowing which transfers are the more accurate. Let's just say that if you have deep enough pockets, this "Decca: Supreme Stereophonic Legacy" box won't disappoint.


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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa