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Telarc Firebird Vinyl Reissue

02-16-2019 | By Robert H. Levi | Issue 102

Telarc Stereo TEL00005. 33.3 RPM, 180 gram vinyl. Retail $24.98. Robert Shaw conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus for this recording of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite paired with Borodin's Polovetsian Dances.

Igor Stravinsky

The Firebird:  Introduction

The Firebird:  The Firebird and Her Dance

The Firebird:  Round Dance of the Princesses

The Firebird:  Infernal Dance of King Kastchei

The Firebird:  Berceuse

The Firebird:  Finale

Aleksandr Borodin

Prince Igor: Overture

Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances

Warning! You are about to read a negative review. If this offends you in any way, you have a relative that works at Craft Records or Concord, or you already bought the reissue LP and expected a miracle, please stop reading now.

In 2005, Telarc merged with Concord, and the Telarc catalog was shuttered soon thereafter. This was a real tragedy for audiophiles and music lovers, as the Telarc recordings were spectacular, and their SACDs were world-class. The outstanding Telarc tapes have been well cared for, though it has taken 13 years for any to be reissued on vinyl. Five Telarc vinyl reissues have now been released by Craft Records, pressed in Germany at Optimal on 180 gram black vinyl. For the list of titles go here:  https://store.craftrecordings.com/collections/classical.

Being interested in Telarc LPs, since I have a number of original releases in my collection, I purchased my copy of The Firebird at Acoustic Sounds, which is where I buy many of my LPs. Acoustic Sounds and their LP pressing arm, QRP, had nothing to do with the production of these records. 

I recently read a review in another publication, one that reviewed all of these Telarc LP reissues, and concluded that the reissues were superior to the original Telarc releases. They certainly should be. ALL of them were initially 50kHz Soundstream digital recordings, and we have upsampling and analog-sounding digital devices today never dreamed of when these digital tapes were made into LPs initially. 

Unfortunately, in the case of the Firebird LP reissue, the original vintage pressing is unabashedly, unmistakably more detailed, dynamic, and realistic in every way I know as an audiophile and music lover.

The three LPs that I compared. In the middle is the original 1978 Telarc, glossy cover, with the two copies of the new reissue flanking it. Both new issues are non-glossy covers (photograph by Bob Levi).

Positive Feedback, when notified of my findings, wanted to be sure that I didn't just have a bad LP. They purchased a second reissue copy of The Firebird from Amazon, and asked me to double-check my initial findings by comparing a second copy to the one I bought for the review. I would do a second comparison of this reissue LP to my 1978 original, just to be sure.

After the second copy arrived, I did the comparison one more time. And again, there were no differences between either of the two sample reissues, played on two different turntable systems. Neither one competed with the original. The original 1978 pressing was just as quiet as the 180 gram reissues. The original was also pressed in Germany, back in the day on lighter 150 gram vinyl.

Why would the reissue not compete with an original, also recorded digitally? Why would another music critic and reviewer in a different publication get it wrong, at least as far as my ears are concerned?

I can only make an educated guess regarding the production of the Telarc reissue. Whoever cut the reissue lacquer did not have the skill or the daring of the original engineer. Telarc always reduced the volume of its software to retain as much headroom for its bold sonics and dynamic range. Guess what? As far as I can tell, it sounds like the reissues, pressed on much heavier vinyl, have been dialed back at least another 3-4 dBs from the already dialed-back originals! Background definition, center fill, bass response, massed instruments, and large choral sections all suffer.

Also, German pressing plants often polish the work parts they do not create themselves to lower the noise floor. After all, they have a reputation to uphold. Sounds to me like the mild blurring and lack of focus that I'm hearing with both copies of the reissue may be just the results of a bit too much polishing. The combination of these production errors, and possibly a few more, result in very good, but not special or superior reissues. They do not in any way, shape, or form eclipse the original Telarc LP.

I have always wondered if music reviewers used top-notch playback gear to evaluate releases. It is very rare for a music reviewer to reveal his vinyl (or digital) playback gear. In this case, the reviewer in question revealed utilizing what I would consider to be a lesser high-output moving coil cartridge for evaluating and comparing the Firebird and other Telarc reissues to their originals. I frankly do not believe that the cartridge mentioned by this reviewer has the required definition, dynamics, or subtleties needed to make this kind of a qualitative assessment.

I utilized several cartridges for comparative evaluation, including the Grado Epoch at $12,000, the Stein Music Aventurin Benz LPS at $6500, and the Grado Aeon at $6000. All revealed the original Telarc as being superior to the reissue, virtually instantly. For my own amusement, I compared the recordings on the excellent but inexpensive Ortofon 2M Black Cartridge, priced at $755, and the outcome was the same as the very expensive moving coil/MI cartridges revealed. In this latter case, I used the magnetically propelled and levitated MAG-LEV ML1 turntable that is state-of-the-art quiet, as it has no traditional motor. (I heard that MAG-LEV will have their own room at AXPONA 2019!)

Here is the kicker! I could not find an original Firebird used LP, even in the very best condition that cost more than the reissue! Come on Craft/Concord, get your act together! The geniuses at Telarc created musical masterpieces representing their sky-high production and taste levels. If you dare to reissue on LP their magnificent recordings with less than the best care and production values, you will have to answer to reviewers like me who will hold you accountable.

Performance = A

Reissue Record = B-