J. Gordon Holt

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J. Gordon Holt Posted: Dec 17, 2012 Published: May 01, 1963 5 comments
[Note - this article is from the May, 1963 issue of Stereophile]

Many readers have asked why we don't maintain a permanent listing in each issue of The Stereophile of those components that we feel to be the best available, with or without qualification.

So, we are following our readers' suggestion, and will list in each issue groups of components which, at publication time, we feel are ones from which our readers would be well advised to assemble their systems. The list will change from time to time, as new products appear, old ones are obsoleted, or manufacturers change their quality control standards. Components will be added to or dropped from the list without advance notice if we see adequate reason for doing so, but each change in the list will be explained in the magazine at the time the change is made.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Feb 01, 2011 Published: Apr 01, 1989 1 comments
It is often said that anyone with a recorder and a couple of microphones can record an orchestra. It's true, assuming you can get permission to do it (another story entirely). But that statement fails to address an important question: "How well?"

The rudiments of any skill can be learned from books. Practice can develop a fair level of competence. Beyond competence, however, the student is governed by his genes and/or family environment, depending on which theory of human potential you subscribe to. Whatever the reason, some practitioners of both disciplines never seem able to transcend mere competence, while others go on to become legends in their own times. John Eargle, chief recording engineer for Delos Records and producer of this fascinating recording, may or may not qualify as a legend, but he is obviously 'way past "a fair level of competence."

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Aug 04, 2014 Published: Aug 01, 1984 6 comments
884rotm.ssph.jpgSaint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals
Ravel: Mother Goose Suite

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, cond.
Philips CD 400-016 2 (CD).

The whimsical Carnival, with its nose-thumbing at Saint-Saëns' contemporaries (eg a lugubrious "Can-Can" and a stately cello rendition of Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs, from The Damnation of Faust), is given a delightful treatment here, and put on one of the best-sounding CDs I've heard to date from a major record company.

Philips has been less up-front about the roots of its CDs than most other record manufacturers, If fact, they have been downright sneaky about it. This release—billed prominently on the CD jacket as a "Digital Recording"—sounds very much as if it was analog-mastered. The is certainly nothing Philips should ashamed of, because this is a better-sounding recording than most digitally mastered ones.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Apr 15, 2014 Published: Aug 01, 1985 6 comments
885rotm.250.jpgMozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Posthorn Serenade
Prague Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras conducting.
Telarc CD 80108 (CD). Robert Woods, prod., Jack Renner, eng. DDD.

Holt's First Law of Recording states: "The better the performance, the worse the recording—and vice versa." It's true; really fine recordings of superb musical performances are so rare that the discovery of one such gem is cause for rejoicing. Well, you can rejoice: this is one of them.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Nov 13, 2013 Published: Aug 01, 1986 1 comments
886rotmjgh.1.jpgStravinsky: The Firebird (1910 Suite)
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf
Sheffield Lab Direct-to-Disc Lab 24 (LP). Lincoln Mayorga, prod.; Doug Sax, James Boyk, engs.

For some reason, Stereophile didn't receive an early pressing of Sheffield's latest orchestral recording, their first since the Wagner and Prokofiev discs back in 1977. So, guess where my review copy of this finally came from? From Harry Pearson, that's who. How did this come about? Well, I had seen a passing comment in The Absolute Sound to the effect that HP didn't like the recording, and since I was favorably impressed with what I'd heard of it at the last two Consumer Electronics Shows, I phoned HP to ask what he didn't like about it. "Dull high end, closed-in sound, not enough spaciousness" was the reply. Thank you, I said. Several days later, a copy of the disc arrived, postmarked Sea Cliff, NY.

Thank you Harry, but I must disagree with you about this recording.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jun 17, 2014 Published: Dec 01, 1984 3 comments
1284rotm.promo.jpgBeethoven: Symphony 9 in d, Op.125 ("Choral")
Berlin Staatskapelle and Rundfunkchor, Otmar Suitner, cond.; Dietrich Knothe, chorus master; Magdaléna Hajóssyová, soprano; Uta Priew, contralto; Eberhard Büchner, tenor; Manfred Schenk, bass.
Denon CD383C7-7021 (CD).

This is a positively stunning performance, abetted by one of the best-sounding orchestral recordings on CD to date.

I have long felt that the best reading of Beethoven's Ninth ever committed to records was an antique Columbia 78 set with the Vienna Philharmonic and Felix Weingartner (later released on an abominable-sounding LP: SL-165). I almost hate to day it, because the oldest idols die the hardest, but Suitner's is better! This is a monumental, consummately joyous Ninth that leaves the listener with a wonderful feeling of elation. If the orchestral playing is at times a little less than world-class and a couple of the soloists not quite up to star level, so what? This may well be the definitive Ninth on CD, both interpretively and sonically.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Mar 18, 2014 Published: Dec 01, 1985 9 comments
rotm1285.p.pngRespighi: Church Windows
The Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Keith Clark conducting.
Reference Recordings RR-15 (LP). Tam Henderson, prod.; Keith Johnson, eng. AAA

Some years ago, Harry Pearson, editor and publisher of That Other Magazine, announced his intention to help finance production of a no-holds-barred symphonic recording. The only question was, who would produce it?

Reference Recordings' Tam Henderson assures me he did not have HP's grant in mind when he conspired with the Pacific Symphony's conductor to record "something" in the Crystal Cathedral, a huge barn of a place in Santa Ana, CA. When that hall, graced by a large, romantic-sounding pipe organ and superb acoustics, proved to be unavailable because of some legal wrangle, the idea of recording something big and romantic for orchestra and pipe organ refused to go away.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: May 28, 2010 Published: Dec 28, 1989 0 comments
Sonic Booms
Steam Locomotives, Jet Fighter Aircraft, Military Exercise (with live ammunition), WWII Aircraft, Comic Relief I & II, West Mountain Inn, Diesel Train, Steam Train with Rain & Thunder
Bainbridge BCD6276 (CD only). Produced & mixed by Brad S. Miller. DDD. TT: 58:00
J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jul 11, 2013 Published: Feb 11, 1984 6 comments
BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata in G, Op.96
ENESCU: Violin Sonata No.3, Op.25 (In Rumanian Style)

David Abel, violin, Julie Steinberg, piano
Wilson Audio W-8315 (LP). David Wilson, prod., eng. AAA.

Oh, what a breath of fresh air this is! An audiophile recording of real music that isn't bombastic, overblown, or high-powered.

Imagine, if you can, a private recital in your own home by two consummate artists who play these works for their own delight as much as for yours. Imagine sound so completely and disarmingly natural that after 30 seconds you're unaware it's reproduced. That's what this record is all about.

I could rhapsodize endlessly about this record, but I won't. Suffice it to say that if you think there's even a remote chance you'll like this music, you will be positively mesmerized by this recording of it . . .

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Sep 03, 2014 Published: Jan 01, 1984 2 comments
rotm184.pjil.jpgDebussy: Three Nocturnes; Jeux
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Bernard Haitink conducting.
Philips ACD 400-023-2 (CD).

This is the first classical CD I have heard that was originally mastered on analog tape, and the sound is quite different from what I'm accustomed to hearing from the silver discs.

I had read so many critics' complaints about excessive background (tape) hiss from analog-mastered CDs that I was fully prepared to be appalled. I wasn't. Perhaps my speakers (Watkins WE-1s as of now) are smoother than what some other critics listen to, perhaps I prefer a more subdued high end than some, but I did not find hiss to be a problem with this Philips disc. Yes, it is audible at high listening levels, but it is not a ssss, it is a hhhh, like the sound of a very gentle rain far off in the background. I have heard worse hiss from microphone preamps.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jun 09, 2014 Published: Jan 01, 1985 1 comments
Performance Recordings is the closest thing to a one-man label. James Boyk is president, A&R director, musical director, recording engineer, production manager, jacket notes author, and the star performer. He is also Artist in Residence and lecturer in music and engineering (specifically sound recording and reproduction) at Cal Tech. And he happens to be one of digital's most ardent detractors, having conducted, and widely publicized, several controlled listening tests that proved to his satisfaction that digital recordings are destructive to musical sound. (I will not question his methodology or conclusions here; suffice it to say that James is as stalwartly pro-analog and anti-digital as it is possible to be.)
J. Gordon Holt Posted: Oct 24, 2013 Published: Jun 01, 1987 0 comments
Copland: Appalachian Spring (Suite), Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, An Outdoor Overture (CD only)
Pacific Symphony Orchestra/Clark/Marni Nixon (soprano)
Reference Recordings LP RR-2 and CD RR-22CD. Tam Henderson, prod.; Keith Johnson, eng.

This is unquestionably one of the best recordings Reference Recordings has done. The sound of the LP is up-front and quite bright, giving the orchestra that peculiarly nasal quality I usually associate with small French orchestras. There is truly remarkable detail and naturalness here; I was about to write that the recording makes the orchestra sound very small and pinched in Appalachian Spring when I noticed on the record jacket that this is the "Original version for 13 instruments." Okay, so I know what it costs to hire musicians in the US, but I still prefer the version of this work scored for full, bombastic, overblown 108-piece symphony orchestra. The 13 instruments are superbly balanced, though—even the piano, which is usually (and wrongfully) relegated to behind the orchestra. About a half a block behind it.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Sep 10, 2014 Published: Nov 01, 1983 4 comments
1183rotm.250.jpgRimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner conducting.
RCA ".5 Series" ARP1-W27 (LP).

In case you didn't already know, ".5" is RCA's name for their half-speed-–mastered line of audiophile LPs, whose releases to date have included many recordings, as well as some real gems, from their archive of older stereo recordings.

Their choice of old recordings is interesting to say the least, as it shows a side of RCA's classical division that we thought had atrophied and blown away many years ago: musical judgment. Instead of going for their most sonically spectacular tapes from yesteryear, the choices here were clearly made on the basis of musical performance first, with sound as a secondary consideration.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Oct 21, 2014 Published: Oct 01, 1983 2 comments
Billy Joel: The Stranger
CBS CD 35DP2 (CD) and JC34987 (digitally mastered, CX-encoded LP).

This is one of four recordings we now have on hand in both the CD and digital-mastered LP formats, and all reviews of these will be parallel reviews. In the case of the CBS discs, there is no "conventional" version, as all of their recent LP releases are CX-encoded. Thus, I will be comparing decoded CXed CBS LPs (footnote 1) with their CD equivalents.

J. Gordon Holt Posted: Jul 08, 2014 Published: Oct 01, 1984 3 comments
1084rotmjgh.jpgSaint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No.2
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Bella Davidovich (pno), Concertgebouw Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi, cond.
Philips CD 410-052 2 (CD), 6514-164 (LP).

At last we're starting to realize some of the promise of CD from a major record company. This is the best CD recording I've heard yet from Philips. Both of these are virtuoso romantic works requiring a big piano sound and the stamina to produce it for 6–10 minutes at a stretch, which is probably why few lady pianists will tackle them. Bella Davidovich pulls these off with great aplomb.

To me, the Saint-Saëns is the better of the two, and is one of the truly great performances of this work. I grudgingly rate it as equal to my long-time favorite, the Rubinstein/Reiner performance on a 1958 RCA LP (LSC-2234), although I would have liked a little more TLC from Ms. Davidovich in the first movement. She seems a little rushed where an occasional lingering caress is indicated, but that is quibbling with what is a really rousing performance.

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