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Positive Feedback ISSUE 15
september/october 2004


More From Mobile Fidelity - Holst's The Planets
by Roger S. Gordon


Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has released another recording in its multi-channel surround series of classical music. MoFi is reissuing Vox/Turnabout recordings from the 1970s that were originally recorded in four-channel Quad sound. The reissues are being remastered by the one of the original recording engineers, Marc Aubort. The first recordings in the series were reviewed in PFO Issue 14. The latest is The Planets, by Gustav Holst, recorded in 1975 with Walter Susskind conducting the St. Louis Symphony. The Planets is part of the standard orchestral repertoire, one of those warhorses that everyone knows and loves because it is great music. Every great conductor, and many a lesser one, has recorded it, so the choice of performances is extensive. If you are looking for the definitive performance, many would say that you should get one of the recordings by Sir Adrian Boult. He conducted the world premiere in the 1920s, and recorded the piece five times. Others would argue for Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, or possibly Herbert von Karajan with either the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic.

Musical performances are a matter of taste. What I think is a blockbuster performance you may find not so great. With that caveat, my preference for the "must have" Planets recording would be either the 1956 performance with Stokowski and the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the 1971 performance with Mehta and the same orchestra. The London/Decca Mehta recording was a sonic blockbuster when it was released, and I would venture to say that it is still the most highly sought-after vinyl recording of the piece. I have three copies of London CS6734, and would not part with any of them. The Stokowski recording does not have the reputation of the Mehta, but it has been in the EMI/Capital/Angel catalog for forty-eight years. How many recordings can you think of that have been in the catalog for forty-eight years?

How do the Stokowski (EMI 7-2435-67469-2) and Mehta (Decca 289 467 418-2 and 289 452 910-2) recordings, in their red book CD incarnations, compare to the new MoFi reissue? The Stokowski performance was recorded in the early days of stereo recording. Remember, stereo LPs were not even issued until 1958, although Stokowski had been experimenting with stereo recordings since the 1930s. Stokowski was a great innovator, always experimenting, always trying new things. He recorded the soundtrack to Fantasia in three-channel stereo in 1938! The stereo effect on the EMI CD is quite good—it is not ping pong stereo—but the recording equipment used in 1956 was not as good as that used in the 1970s. Thus, while the CD sounds perfectly acceptable, and is in fact equal to that of many CDs being issued today, it is not a sonic blockbuster.

The Mehta recording comes in two flavors. One (289 467 418-2) is in "AMSI" (Ambient Surround Imaging), which means that Decca has played with the digits to get a more spectacular, spacious sound. The sound is more dynamic, more grab-you-by-the-throat, but a lot of inner detail is lost. For driving down the freeway, the AMSI version would be fine, but not in the quiet of your home, where you can appreciate the subtle nuances of a performance. How does the conventionally mastered (289 452 910-2) Mehta CD sound? Very good to excellent. The dynamics of the master tape clearly come through. Details are not quite as clear as on the original vinyl, but the emotion of the performance is there. While the Mehta sounds much better than the Stokowski, but it is not a blockbuster either.

MoFi is known for superior sonics, and this reissue is no different. The music emerges from a black background. Every subtle detail can be heard. I am certain that all of the information that was on the master tape is on the CD. I say this because I have the original Turnabout LP. Through the grunge caused by indifferent mastering and pressing, I can hear a superb recording. I don’t hear any details that are not on the SACD.  However, I don’t find the dynamic contrasts on the MoFi to be as great as the ones on the Mehta recording. I suspect that the tremendous volume swings written into the music were not captured on the master tape, and thus could not be reproduced on the MoFi reissue.

Where does that leave you as a buyer? If sound quality or multi-channel is at the top of your list, buy the MoFi. If you are willing to sacrifice sound quality for performance and greater dynamics, buy the Mehta. If you already own a CD of The Planets and want to hear another interpretation, buy the Stokowski. Or buy all three. Each is worth owning. Roger S. Gordon