Debussy: Snowflakes Are Dancing (CD review)

Tomita. RCA 09026-63588-2 (remastered).

The late Japanese composer and performer Isao Tomita (1932-2016), one of the pioneers of the musical synthesizer, made quite a splash in 1974 with his album of electronic music, "Snowflakes Are Dancing." RCA's rear-cover blurb states, "The blockbuster album that started it all...." But I rather suspect RCA forgot about Wendy Carlos, whose "Switched-on Bach" from 1968 predates "Snowflakes" by some years. Nevertheless, "Snowflakes" did strong business and continues to sound good in this remastered "High Performance" CD edition from RCA.

A series of short selections from the pen of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) make up the program. The selections translate well into the world of the Moog synthesizer probably because they were mostly written for solo piano. Besides "Snowflakes," there are such familiar tunes as "Reverie," "Clair de lune," "The Engulfed Cathedral," "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair," "Golliwog's Cakewalk," and others, plus a bonus track of "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" from Tomita's 1975 LP, "Firebird." Although I realize that all of the original piano selections were long ago adapted for full orchestra, Mr. Tomita and his synthesizer may have scored a success here by not trying to reproduce all the colors of the symphonic rainbow.

Isao Tomita
Drawbacks? Purists will say this isn't really Debussy, that Tomita takes too many liberties with the scores, that the original composer would not recognize his own music. Nevertheless, if it sounds good to you, take your chances and forget about the critics. My only quibble is that even with the bonus track, the album provides only a little over fifty minutes of material. So expect a short program.

Anyway, this disc is now a part of RCA's "High Performance" series, which the company remastered in Dolby Surround Sound using Weiss 24/96 technology back in the late 1990's. I'm not sure what criteria RCA used to decide which of their recordings to remaster in this line, though, because some of them have dubious sonic credentials. This recording, for example, sounds fine either with or without the new technology, yet I would hardly call it an album of audiophile material in any case.

A comparison of the new disc with its older incarnation reveals that the newer version is noticeably smoother, as expected, richer, warmer, and quieter, overall. There is also maybe a touch more high-end openness, albeit with a softer high-end, too, and very slightly wider dynamics. However, the new disc sounds less precisely localized, a tiny bit out of phase so to speak. It is not unpleasant, given the artificial nature of the music making to begin with, but I wonder if it has anything to do with the Dolby Surround encoding system that RCA used in the remastering. RCA tell us that the disc is compatible with regular two-channel stereo and monaural, but maybe not perfectly. I dunno.

In any case, "Snowflakes Are Dancing" is one of the few synthesizer albums I have had in my collection since its issue, and this newer edition does it no real harm.


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

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa