Stanley Black, the London Festival Orchestra. FIM XR24 070.
If you're of a certain age, you may remember the big to-do caused when Decca released its first "Phase 4" recordings during the early years of stereo in the late 1950's. While competitors RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence were miking their projects as simply as possible, usually using three-mike arrangements that still sound more realistic than anything made today, Decca decided to hang literally dozens of microphones all over the place, practically a mike for every instrument of an orchestra, and then mix them all down to two channels. The resultant sound was nothing like a person would hear in a concert hall, but it sure could impress the ear with its clinical accuracy.
I mention all this because the folks at First Impression Music have remastered one of these stereo extravaganzas, Film Spectacular! Volume II from 1963, using the state-of-the-art audiophile XRCD process pioneered by JVC. Although the new record is just as unrealistic in its presentation, it is even more stunning in its precision, focus, and dynamics than I recalled from the old days. However, according to FIM's producer, Winston Ma, in a refreshingly candid booklet note, it took a little cleaning up to get it to sound the way Winston remembered it. Let me quote what he has to say about the first time he listened to the original master tape Decca sent him: "...the sound was just awful! What we heard were two concentrated beams of sound energy directed from the centers of the cone drivers of the two speakers. There was nothing in the center fill or ambiance spread of the soundstage. The strings were a cluster of razors and the brass ear-piercing." Apparently, the Decca audio engineers back then had mixed down forty-eight channels to two and then brightened it all up to sound good on early, non-audiophile speakers. But with the help of engineer Paul Stubblebine, Winston used an electronic converter to fill in the center, re-record it, and then fine-tune the sound to modern standards.
To say they succeeded in their efforts would be an understatement. Even though the miking highlights every instrument and the overall sound picture is a bit forward for my taste, one cannot deny that there are few other recordings that match this one for absolute clarity. Forget a realistic setting or a natural tonal balance or anything like a normal stereo spread; this thing puts every instrument front and center in a kind of reach-out-and-touch-it approach. Absolute music purists may not like it, but anyone with a good stereo system will have a ball with it.
Like the album's sound, the contents are a tad iffy, too. Stanley Black plays eight selections of Academy Award-winning music in what may often seem overly romanticized, overly sentimental arrangements that take some of the bite out of the tunes. The main theme from Gone With the Wind and selections from My Fair Lady, for example, suffer the most, using a humming chorus almost too corny for any modern conductor to consider. But Lawrence of Arabia comes up pretty well and The Magnificent Seven is downright...magnificent. Indeed, The Magnificent Seven makes excellent demo material for anyone wanting to show off an audio system. Other tracks include On the Waterfront, Spellbound, Anthony & Cleopatra, and the drippy A Summer Place.
As always, the XRCD processing is impeccable, ensuring a clean, wide frequency and dynamic ranges; and the elaborate packaging in a clothbound case, with plastic booklet pages, and a static-free inner sleeve are attractive. In fairness, though, I prefer a simple Digipak; the business of the inner sleeve is tedious to deal with, and there is always the possibility of getting fingerprints on the disc trying to remove it from and replace it in its liner. In any case, remember that you pay a premium price for such luxuries, and the folks at FIM don't mean their discs for everyone.