Rating: 9.6/ A+
Category: Classical Modern
Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LP at 45 rpm)
Mélanie Barney - organ
Frédéric Gagnon - principal and piccolo trumpet
Sylvain Lapointe - trumpet and flugelhorn
Marc-Antoine Corbeil - horn
Jason De Carufel - trombone and euphonium
Sylvain Arseneau - bass trombone
Enrico O. Dastous - arranger
Anne-Marie Sylvestre - director
René Laflamme - recording, 'mixing' and mastering engineer
Jean de la Durantaye - mastering assistant
Bernie Grundman - lacquer cutting engineer
Recorded March 22, 23, 25, and 26 2009
Microphones: Neumann U-67 (Vacuum-Tube)/ B&K 4003-130V
Recorder: Ampex 354 (Vacuum-Tube) Analog
Cables: Siltech & Shunyata
Pressed at RTI, California
Michel Bérard - Graphics
We capture the feeling... is Fidelio's registered slogan and that is exactly what I was contemplating doing last Saturday December 15 at the comfortable and acoustically friendly Pollack Hall, part of McGill University's Schulich School of Music situated in downtown Montreal, Québec. As luck would have it, we found a parking close by, allowing us the luxury of cherry picking our unreserved seats, as an 'audiophile-approved' 7th row, center aisle, brought us at eye level with the wondrous wind ensemble. The acoustically diffused and curved walls projected its 'sunny' hues towards us along with some minor back reinforcements that was encouraging to the eyes and ears; all this complemented by a full house capacity of six-hundred music lovers lending natural absorption and ambience to the concert. As the 56 - mainly young - musicians took to the stage, tuning their instruments into the typical 'cacophonous chorus' and confirming unaltered soundwaves were on the menu; it is always conforting to know that there are still some poor souls who do not depend on 'Auto-Tune' to make a living. A few moments later, maestro Jonathan Dagenais approaches the podium to conduct the Orchestre à Vents Non Identifié aka OVNI - a play on the french term for UFO - through a faithful transcription for wind ensemble of Holst's most famous work, the mighty orchestral suite The Planets.
Now unless you were brought up in a classical-oriented family, chances are you were more exposed to mainstream pop and rock than Mozart and co. Just like Moussorgsky's Tableaux d'une exposition from 1874 (orchestrated by Ravel in 1922) via Emerson, Lake & Palmer's 1971 progressive take on Pictures at an Exposition; Holst's The Planets can be viewed as a 'musical bridge' to other worlds. Indeed a typical path to expanding one's own musical universe often follows a continuum, spanning rock (or metal) to progressive (or prog-metal) to symphonic sci-fi soundtracks to modern 'grandiose-type' classical. Thus from Voivod's 1989 prog-metal breakthrough Nothingface [MCA Mechanic MCA 6326] to King Crimson via "The Devil's Triangle" from their 1970 LP In the Wake of Poseidon [Island ILPS 9127] to John Williams' 1977 Star Wars soundtrack [20th Century BTD 641-1/2] to James Horner's bombastic 1982 Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan [Atlantic SD 19363] and ultimately to the original war theme inspiration - Holst's The Planets dating back to 1916 no less. Along with Stravinsky's L'Oiseau de feu and Le Sacre du printemps from 1910 and 1913 respectfully as well as Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé from 1912 - all three commissionned by famous Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev - The Planets occupy a special place in history and lasting musical impact.
Initially written for piano duet for the first six movements with organ reserved for the last movement to evoke a more 'celestial' atmosphere; eventually the astrologically inspired work was turned into one galactic-sized symphonic suite. Contemporaneous with him, Schoenberg's symphonic influence can be felt up to a certain extent though the Brit nonetheless stays firmly planted in the tonal domain throughout the piece whereas the Aussie had already started exploring and pushing musical boundaries in the freer form of atonality, such as found in his Pierrot Lunaire from 1912. That the current version up for evaluation features - once more - the organ prominently throughout the score lends a kind of 'time-warp' feeling to the project. A short search over the net confirms that this 'wind' pairing has been exploited before on different levels and formats. Seven movements make up the suite. Of course we being the 'centre of the universe' in that distant modern era, Earth was not included nor was Pluto who would not show up until 1930. Then again would Holst have made space for it knowing that its punative stature would renegate it to dwarf planet hierarchy in the following century?
Audiophile record labels are far from a new phenomenon. At many times in the history of recording and delivering music there has been a few - mostly small - independant companies striving to improve the 'state of the art'. As early as the 1930s high fidelity become not only a marketing term but a worthy goal as Bell Laboratories, Western Electric, RCA Victor, Allan Blumlein and EMI tried their best to surpass each other in reaching higher 'realism' through moving coil cartridges, cutting lathes, microphone development and techniques and binaural sound. The advent of the Ampex magnetic tape recorder in 1948 and the Long Playing microgroove by Columbia the same year freed not only the artist's creativity but the sound engineer as well. Nearly ten years would pass before the first marketable stereophonic disk would be introduced to the general public. Independant New York based Audio Fidelity would be 'first up to bat' on this new and historic turning point. Everest and Mercury's original use of 35mm magnetic film also 'up the ante' with their 'Living Presence' series. In the following decades, labels such as Sheffield Lab, Telarc, Chesky (brothers) and Professor Keith O. Johnson's Reference Recordings just to name a few, carved out a reputation for producing purist recordings while gaining the respect of the audiophile community.
Fidelio Audio follows a similar path to 'hifi heaven'. Founded at the turn of the millennium by Montrealer and audio enthusiast René Laflamme who prior to that, had taken up courses in sound recording techniques while studying the saxophone. Around 1995 he furthered his passion by becoming an audio consultant with one of the top two high end boutiques of the province. From there, key meetings with manufacturers and leading field insiders led to modifying microphone capsules, tape recorders and tube-based gear. It was just a matter of time before 'amateur' recording gigs were brought to its logical conclusion giving birth to Fidelio records.
Sporting close to forty recordings spanning the classical, jazz and 'world' music repertoire, I find it is astonishingly productive for such a small and dedicated label; even more so in this age of dwindling CD sales. Despite this new reality that the music industry faces, it is encouraging that a 'non-major' is still capable of attracting talented musicians and stimulating enough interest in the medium as confirmed by the brisk sales I spotted at past hifi shows. Talking about medium, though largely available on CD or USB key, two of their titles can also be found on the good 'old' vinyl format. In fact it was my - mostly positive - first impressions of Anne Bisson's 2009 Blue Mind [Fidelio Music Inc. FALP025] that convince me to explore the present album under evaluation.
Organist Mélanie Barney early on showed a passion for the the great symphonic organ repertoire but equally for the more modern fare. Tango and organ transcriptions are part of her musical pedigree also. Distinguishing herself since 2002 not only on the organ but on the piano, she counts five releases to her resumé, the latest being 2012's The Power of the Organ 2 [Fidelio FACD037] - her first solo album. Her numerous recordings, participating and accompanying choirs and chamber ensembles have brought her to perform throughout Europe in such places as Belgium, France and Germany as well as in America.
Complementing her on this performance is the Buzz Brass quintet, a young dynamic ensemble from Montreal and active since 2002; comprising Frédéric Gagnon on principal and piccolo trumpet, Sylvain Lapointe on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marc-Antoine Corbeil on horn, Jason De Carufel on trombone and euphonium and Sylvain Arseneau on bass trombone. Arranger Enrico O. Dastous spent two years in collaboration with the ensemble to insure everything gelled together, rehearsing and working out all the minute details that such a project entails. After deep reflexion and mutual agreement between all parties, the chosen venue was in Montreal's beautiful Saint-Viateur d'Outremont church, where the 1913 organ built by the famous Sainte-Hyacinthe firm, Casavant Frères, still resides in good condition since a century. Comprising 37 stops, 3 keyboards and a pedal board; it has seen 4 additional stops plus modifications since its complete restoration in 1991. The highly praised Québec company has a long history dating back to 1879 when the brothers started building their first organ; since then close to 4000 have been built.
On the recording end, recording engineer René Laflamme was striving more towards a 'broadview' sound ensemble rather than a close proximity perspective; problem is, that the organ and brass were situated high up some fifty feet from the floor. On the other hand, installing his mic setup on the same plane as the protagonists would rob him of ambience and defeat one of his sound objectives. The solution, though not visually elegant in a church but certainly efficient was to rent a crane providing the utmost flexibility in mic placement. Accordingly the combination of a pair of B&K 4003 omnidirectional 130 volt condenser mics positioned some 30 feet from the musicians, were the main pickup while a pair of Neumann U 67 tube condensers switched in cardioid pattern served duty for added ensemble 'warmth' at a further 70 feet from the source. The B&K's, reputed for their instrument grade laboratory types, are extremely linear down to 10 Hz with high S/N ratio plus good dynamic capabilities while the larger capscule Neumann's are a perennial favourite dating back to the 1960s; their narrower 40 Hz to 16 kHz bandwidth notwithstanding, they are praised for their immense musicality and directionality versatility.
In order to insure that the vinyl version respects the latter's 'signature' sound; instead of sending a duplicate digital file to Bernie Grundman Studios and risking that his in-house D/A converter imposes its own signature, Laflamme chose to transfer the digital master to 2 track 1/4 inch analog tape at 15 ips on his vintage Ampex 354 tube recorder with no noise reduction. While some might argue this to be a 'less purist' approach, it not only enhanced the 'realism' of the recording but provided Bernie with an idealised source for cutting the master lacquer; technically no different than using a pure analog master tape. Because of the meticulous care involved in every step including the tape transfer, Laflamme opted for a 'straight flat cut' instead of any 'tweaking' prior or during the cutting. Naturally even Grundman's incredible tape machines and cutter heads as well as stampers, pressings and vinyl formulations will all impart to a certain degree there collective signatures to the original tape hopefully for the better. Contrary to the vast majority of digital (or analog) recordings, masterings and even lacquer cuttings, at no time was there any use of amplitude compression or limiting; in other words, Laflamme is either an audiophile optimist or dangerously likes to live on the edge! Needless to say, the huge dynamic range of the recording presented quite a challenge even for veteran mastering engineer par excellence Bernie Grundman. The choice of 45 rpm over 33 rpm was dictated in part by a 'cleaner' groove delineation on the four metal stampers leading in theory to superior vinyl pressings. These were done on 180 gram at RTI in California.
Having done my fair share of acoustic and live recordings including a few organ concerts, though admitttedly with less prestigious equipment, I can attest to the fact that this 'beast' of the musical kingdom is about the hardest instrument to record properly. About the only more demanding scenario is an opera with full orchestra; that and surprisingly even a simple duet of tenor and soprano accompanied by piano can really put to test, engineers and equipment alike. Next to that, recording a jazz trio or quartet is how shall I phrase it mildly? kindergarden level. Don't get me wrong, like any audiophile I love those gorgeous 'golden age' records but trust me; hire some great musicians, add a few good close mics and roll tape. If you get that wrong go straight to Rec.101. Coming back to the organ, recording is just one side of the problem; you have the other side of the coin to reckon with: the playback system. Both facets are taxed to the limit by the widest bandwidth reaching down to C0 or 16 Hz (even C-1 or 8 Hz in the rarest of breeds) with monstrous power and roughly 90 dB of dynamic range to tackle and as if that were not enough you have the natural reverberant acoustic that is part of the fabric, so you have your work cut out. For roughly twenty years, I was fortunate enough to attend close to 100 free organ concerts in a fine sounding chapel built in a private school close by.
The impressive Casavant instrument was maintained in top shape by one of the religious brothers still in residence and attracted acclaimed organist from across Canada and even Europe every now and then. Next to that, you will understand that any LP or CD will not even come close to the real thing. The 'closest' I got to a hint of the latter was a Calrec ambisonic sphere mic 'amateur' recording played on a pair of 1960s Electro Voice Patrician 800 with their awesome corner horn-loaded 30w 30-inch woofers.
Side surrounds consisted of a pair of huge DIY boxes sporting vintage 103 dB/1w 15-inch Electro-voice woofers. The combination of such a large 'array' of cone displacement was I must admit quite impressive. But back to the present...
The double-album is presented in a gatefold sleeve that houses each record individually. The carton stock is of good quality, smooth to the touch, well sized, folded and glued; making it superior to the many Analogue Productions' double 45 series of the past but not as deluxed as Music Matters, Ltd. or certain MoFis. Michel Bérard was responsible for the graphic's design. The front and back cover showcase the elegant central chandelier with the two Neumann U 67s perched on the standard stereo T-bar, lit over a black background from two very different angles; the back one giving the illusion of a metal crucifix reaching out to the light descending from heaven. Actually quite appropriate given the place and the program. In addition, the musical movements, musicians and a nomination for Album of the year in 2010 by the province's ADISQ award comittee are printed in white. Unfolding the inside: on the left are pictures of the Buzz Brass, organist Mélanie Barney and arranger Enrico O. Dastous, juxtaposed with their resumés over the dark background for continuity while on the right, a superb photo of the beautiful stained glass in the background with the organ keyboards centered at the bottom flanked symmetrically by the mighty pipes. The subdued warm lighting inviting us stop in and visit one evening. At the bottom, production and technical credits plus a short equipment list complete the picture.
The records are stored in a 'pasticised-type' see-through sleeve with no paper backing. This is kinder to the vinyl than plain paper while stiffer and tighter than the rice-paper type used and sold by MoFi and seems to be the standard from most RTI and Analogue Productions since a while. Being tighter to remove and reinsert the LP, I worry that accumulated static may result with time. The label matches the black background cover with the Fidelio logo. Bernie chose a groove lateral spacing of 2 3/4 inches for sides A; 2 3/8 for B; 2 1/2 inches for side C and 1 7/8 inches for side D equivalent to 6 min./inch, 5.85 min./inch, 6 min./inch and 5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively; averaging 15 min./side for the first three sides while leaving sufficient dead wax not to cause any inner-groove distortion. Although 12 min./side is usually the recommended limit for 45 rpm, average cutting level and musical spectra content will play a factor; the fact that several movements are played at low amplitude levels will ease this constraint. The 180 gram heavy weight biscuits were both rigid, straight and perfectly centered. All four sides were flawlessly black with no scratches, blemishes or scuffing save for a light shallow transverse curved line over the second track and dead wax and a hint of 'thumprint' in the dead wax on side 4 which is nothing out of the ordinary or to worry about. The groove patterns are visually well defined and Bernie Grundman's signature is inscribed in full in the dead wax on all four sides as is usually the case with his 45 rpm cuttings making it more special.
Side A opens with "Mars the Bringer of War" and from the first seconds you can feel the low frequency organ pedal 'grounding' the work akin to the intro of Srauss' 1896 tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra which starts with a sustained double low C played by contrabassoon, double basses and organ. As the Buzz Brass initiate the military-esque riff from a distance, it is clear we are in for something special sonic wise. Not only is the interpretative combo seamless as if the organist's stops could somehow 'trigger' the brass ensemble and vice-versa at anytime but the instrumentation blend is also perfect, owing surely to Dastous' arrangements, Mélanie Barney's keen ear and subtle phrasing, numerous rehearsals and Laflamme's meticulous mic positioning and post-blending. The latter is particularly tricky when dealing with two quite different mic capsules, directional patterns and distances from the source. It is not uncommon that using more than two or three aligned mics brings not only desired flexibility but dreaded phase problems such as comb filtering or amplitute/frequency-dependent cancellations and reinforcements. I could not detect which pair of mics dominated and having not read the equipment lists I would have guessed it was only one great pair well positioned and I suppose that was one of his objectives. Deep defined 'realistic' low notes support the nice 'blattiness' of the brass, with the trumpets and horns occupying centre-right and showing brilliance while the trombones and euphonium more centre-left displaying realistic fullness in the power range of the lower mids. Fortissimos remained clean and cut through the whole time with no saturation or distortion in the peaks. Superb dynamic contrasts. Soundstage is well defined, impressively deep, focused with no 'hole in the centre' at anytime. Imaging is rather concert-like, i.e. with eyes closed at a concert, the left to right panning is natural but never pinpoint-exagerated like multi-mic studio productions.
There is just the right proportion of reflected ambience vs the direct sound. The perspective is less upfront than a typical 'Golden Age' Living Stereo or Mercury Living Presence recording even more so when using the Grundman-cut Classic Records reissue LPs as reference. This in part because the latter were cut 'hotter' than this record and most of those wonderful 2 and 3 track recordings were a bit brighter in tonal balance to begin with and despite some claims, I suspect that some of the RCA Living Stereo's had some form of mild compression or limiting ingrained. As such, you will have to turn up the volume knob a bit more to simulate equal 'loudness' levels. The tone and perspective reminds me more of the earliest - Jack Renner engineered - Telarc LPs which used the Soundstream Inc. digital system at the - superior to CD - 50 kHz sampling rate, but with a more natural bass rendering. This ever so slightly descending balance compensates to a certain degree for the discrepancy of listening to what in reality is a 360 degree rich soundfield squeezed into a 2 channel recording and reproduction in the home. One could say that this proximity vs distance debate is comparable to where one sits at live concerts. The 'Golden Age' era captured more the first row or conductor-podium point of vue while this Fidelio recording places you further, more towards the middle row seating. In any case it makes for a great 'overture'.
"Venus, the Bringer of Peace" which follows the cataclysmic coda of "Mars" is felt by everyone as a welcomed relief and remains one of the all time big contrast in large scale music. On this second track the levels are vastly much lower as it should be when experiencing the live unamplified event. The vinyl is extremely quiet save for a few micro-ticks just to remind one that this is still a mechanical playback and not a CD or digital file. There is very low hiss noise most probably stemming from the analog tape but no worse than the noise floor from the organ's bellows that I've witness many times at the live venue. The deep pedal notes are not only heard but felt even with my 8-inchers limited to -3 dB @ 27 Hz, sounding most natural and the closest to live organ sound I have heard on LP or CD. Throughout, the pitch stayed precise denoting no offset in the pressing and no wow and flutter caused by the analog recording and playback gear.
"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" opens Side B. The perspective seems a touch closer with the brass more direct in intensity. Timbres are spot on with great bite yet warm also; a difficult balance to strike indeed. Although "Mars" is surely the 'show-stopper' demo favourite, "Mercury" is to my taste the best sounding movement of the album and as demo-worthy.
"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" follows and the perspective seems to be a bit further. Some ticks appear more obtrusive on this vinyl side perhaps because of the large dynamic range pushing the formats vulnerabilities to the limit.
Side C starts with "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age". The pressing is dead silent which is all the more impressive given the extremely low recorded levels. It is very refreshing and courageous on Fidelio's part to choose not to apply any compression whatsoever in the chain which explains in part the non-fatiguing sound that comes mostly from good live acoustic performances in great venues. There is almost a softness to the presentation but not to be misconstrued for any dullness or lack of detail. How unfortunate that this is rather the minority instead of the majority of releases. Superb interpretation and integration of both group of 'winds'. Stunning soundstage dept with perfect left to right imaging.
"Uranus, the Magician"'s intro recalls that of Tchaicovsky's 1880 Capricio Italien, Op.45. As well, Dvorák's 1893 New World Symphony, seems to resonate throughout the movement. Outstanding bite and 'blattiness' from the horns and trombones. Low end grunt from the organ intertwined with that from the Buzz. Never before have I heard timbres rendered so naturally. The organ's delicate pianissimo highs are underlined by sustained deep pedal notes. Dynamic contrasts combined with tons of tone. Rare exquisite tonal balance making this movement up there with "Mercury" as top choices for hifi shows. Only during two fortissimos did I experience a hint of smearing; hard to say if this was recorded related or rather system dependant for it could be just a case of cartridge mistracking on my part.
"Neptune, the Mystic" closes the work on side D. It is the most quiet of all the planets. The noise floor of the mics, tube preamp, analog tape and even the vinyl's own are incredibly low in level, comparable to the faint rush of a well designed tube amp. Too bad that there are recurring ticks that distract a bit from the awesome beauty of this last movement and recording. Hard to pinpoint if these are caused by the pressing plant or impurities embedded in the stamper. For those allergic to ticks, you could always opt for the CD [FACD028] or USB key [FACD028 96 24] but I doubt that you would get the extra realism that the vinyl LP brings. Sometimes it happens that less is not more. In past mastering projects, I have confirmed with a colleague that even a 'straight flat cut' sourced from a 16/44 digital CD-R master brings added texture, realism and 'fun factor' to the table. That said it is frustratingly difficult to expect CD-like silence from what I consider to be one of the most dynamic LP cuttings to spin on my platter. Without doing any measurements, I would wager we are close to a 60 dB window with pianissimo levels approaching -55 dB VU supposing a +5 dB VU headroom.
In conclusion Fidelio has a winner on their hands. Hats off to everyone involve in this project. Engineer René Laflamme has outdone himself on this one, combining many - often times - conflicting attributes that we find in real life but that most engineers have trouble transferring onto our platters, be they analog or digital. So, does it sound exactly like the real thing? Of course not but it is without doubt the best organ recording I have heard and I am confident in saying that as good as my system is, there is always room for improvement in the future. So I have not heard the limits of this recording, but rather the limits of my system that imposed itself on the former.
Do not make the mistake of passing over this LP because of the use of digital encoding/decoding in the chain; if left in the dark regarding the recording process, I could easily be swayed in believing this was an all analog LP. In a web world of hyperbole, where the word 'Reference' is brandished as often as 'Rare!' on Ebay, this one truly does holds its own with the best RCA Living Stereo's, Mercury's and Decca's and is up there with the finest Reference Recordings in classical music. Do you detect just a bit of 'healthy' jealousy? You betcha.
Oh and to come back full circle to my concert and Fidelio's 'raison d'être'. Yes they captured the feeling all right.
Now then, anybody have an old pair of Patrician 800's or 30-inchers for sale?