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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 - 1921)
Symphony #3 in c, Op 78 "Organ Symphony" (1886) [34.46]
Berj Zamkochian, organ at Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
Bernard Zhigera, Leo Litwin, pianos
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, 6 April 1959 by Lewis Layton. AAD
Remastered at JVC, Yokohama, Japan, by Hiromichi Takeguchi.
Notes in Japanese.
Technical notes in English. Photos of conductor, engineers, and equipment.
RCA/BMG JMCXR-002 [34.46]

Comparison recordings:
Munch, Zamkochian, Boston Symphony Orchestra [ADD] RCA Victor 5750-2-RC
Martinon, Gavoty, ORTF Orchestra [ADD] EMI CZS 7 62643 2

This work is a luxurious tone poem with the orchestra representing expectant and later exultant mankind, and the pipe organ cast appropriately in the role of Almighty God. While Munch and Martinon are both equally sacrosanct as high priests of French music, the fact is that in this case Munchís God is bigger than Martinonís. This work was premiered just months before the death of Liszt, so he probably never heard it, but he would have loved it as the vindication of everything he tried to accomplish.

This recording is a technically improved release of a recording which has been available for nearly 40 years, one of the earliest stereo recordings of the work and one of the best recordings of anything ever done. Until I heard this version I never cared for the work, and in general I have not encountered a recording by anyone else that I ever wanted to listen to a second time.

Behind and beyond the hype (and premium price), this is still a regular CD, playable in any CD player, in what is now known as 44/16 (or 16/44 if you prefer) sound. JVCís XRCD technique is similar in operation to Sonyís Super Bit Map or Mobile Fidelityís UHR in that it is a clever way of maximising the resulting CD sound by improving various steps in the mastering process, beginning in this case with a 20bit remastering of the original tapes using the restored original recorders. The marketing people count on the public making the assumption that this will result in the best reproduction, however there is no good reason to think so. It is true for most amateur recorders that the tapes sound best played back on the original machine, but with professional equipment my assumption is that the tape would sound better on completely new state-of-the-art equipment. Otherwise the deficiencies of the original 45-year-old machines are simply multiplied by two instead of being compensated as would be possible with new equipment. Also, all this care in remastering was lavished on a duplicate master tape, hence my rating of "AAD" for this release (the packaging contains no SPARS code). Perhaps RCA would simply not allow their precious master out of their vault to cross the ocean to Japan, even to a related company.

Be that as it may, the remaining steps in the mastering process are carried out utilising improved procedures, the final downsampling from 20 bit to 16 bit being done as cleverly as possible with what are called "noise shaping" routines, and which also include carefully calculated amounts of "dither." If these quantities are adjusted to fit the frequency content of the music, a cleaner disk could be, and is, produced, which is still playable on an ordinary player. The HDCD system uses a more complicated and more far-reaching approach which requires a special circuit in the player to obtain the full advantage.

My first test of this disk was with my "D" system which features a 15-year-old Sanyo amplifier of indifferent quality with a 5-channel equaliser, and Teac 5" (13cm) speakers in plain wood/hardboard boxes. This is the system I use for listening to music quietly in bed, and I played the original issue immediately beforehand and afterwards without changing any settings. On this system I noticed no particular improvement in sound, indeed almost no difference in sound at all, between the two disks other than the original RCA issue seemed to have a slightly greater [sic!] dynamic range while the newer JVC issue had a slightly lower background noise level. When auditioned on my "A" system, I could hear a slight, but only a slight, improvement in distortion level, but now no difference in the noise level. Also I noticed there is more information in the rear channels when played through a surround sound decoder in the JVC version suggesting greater phase accuracy and less inter-channel cross-talk than in the original RCA, this being perhaps the real advantage of utilising the original tape machine for mastering.

Numerical analysis and visual comparison of the waveform on an oscilloscope confirmed that the dynamic range is greater on the earlier release, as my ears had told me. However in the earlier release the waveform showed evidence of a limiter in use whereas the new release showed no such distortion of the wave form. What this means is that on repeated comparison listening at high volume levels on the very finest audio equipment, one would become aware of lower distortion, less fatigue, and greater orchestral detail in the louder passages on the XRCD mastering. It also suggests that a future release of this master on a real 20Bit DVD-Audio would offer a substantial improvement in sound quality. Iím first in line to buy a copy!

Also it must be pointed out that this disk is packaged in a cardboard/plastic sleeve which is 3/8" (1cm) taller than a standard jewelcase, so it wonít fit on my CD shelves and maybe not on yours. (It is presumptuous of the producers to expect us to shelve it with our DVD-audios in their tall cases.) And on the original RCA issue the Poulenc Concerto and Franckís Chausseur Maudit were included on the same disk at a lower price; if you have that disk you have not merely a better bargain, but possibly superior sound as well, at least as far as you can hear it on modestly priced audio equipment.

Paul Shoemaker

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