Recording of December 1985: Respighi: Church Windows

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. The result was this recording, taped in the orchestra's usual performing hall: the Santa Ana High School auditorium.

When Pearson learned that the recording had been made, he decided—without having heard it—that this would be the one to get The Absolute Sound's funding. He had heard RR's Symphonie Fantastique, and was very fond of Church Windows, so why not? It was a wise choice.

I heard a short excerpt from the Church Windows master tape in Reference Recordings' room at CES two years ago, and was bowled over by the sound. At the time, I was told it was slated for release but that no target date had been set. That was the last I heard of it until my review copy arrived.

Shortly thereafter I got a phone call from HP, asking if I'd like to review Church Windows for The Absolute Sound. After I got up off the floor, I asked him why he didn't have one of his own reviewers do it. "Conflict of interest," was the reply. I would supposedly be impartial. After all those nice things HP has said about me in print? Heh, heh, heh, I thought, rubbing my hands with glee—Gotcha!

I agreed. And I like the recording. Like it? No, I think it's the best symphonic recording I have heard, bar none.

I have in my collection an antique Capitol 4-track prerecorded tape of Grofé's "Mississippi Suite," which I often play for people as an example of the kind of symphonic recording everyone should be doing. Setting it apart from the competition is the kind of orchestral weight and solidity usually heard only at a live concert. The cellos, trombones, and tuba sound as if they are actually playing with the orchestra rather than out in the foyer. Outside of that, unfortunately, "Mississippi Suite" is veiled, flat, and closed-in. RR's new "Church Windows" isn't.

Forget, for the moment, that this is some of Respighi's most sumptuously glorious music. Forget that the performance is superb. Just listen to the sound of the recording! The number of available symphonic recordings which have either the power or the heft of a live orchestra can be counted on the fingers of a damaged hand. This has both! The lower and lower-middle-range instruments are there, where they belong in the scale of things, and the foundation they lay for the rest of the instruments makes for some of the most full-bodied sound I have heard from any commercial recording. A full crescendo on this Reference Recording sounds absolutely monumental!

This is, quite simply, a stupendous recording of a probably-definitive performance. It makes RR's last symphonic effort (the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique) sound almost pallid by comparison. (Well, no one could call it pallid; "brash" might be a better word.)

Bravo, Keith Johnson and Tam Henderson and, of course, Harry Pearson, who didn't exactly make this happen, but helped make it easier to pay for. This you gotta buy. No ifs, ands, or buts.—J. Gordon Holt

jimtavegia's picture

Ordered a used CD of it today for $4.40 and $3.99 shipping.  Looking forward to a great listen. 

CarterBro's picture

Amazon didn't have any cheapos left, so I snagged a near mint from Acoustic Sounds and grabbed two more LPs while there to get fee shipping. 

PSBoy's picture

Any plans to offer this on vinyl?

dalethorn's picture

Got the CD from Amazon for $19 -plus --- for sound that good I'd pay double...

jimtavegia's picture

I listened to this very nice disc a number of times yesterday in 2 channel through my Pioneer Elite VSX 21 and with my Triangle Cometes.  I thought I noted some congestion in a number of high level passages that I though was a flaw in the recording.

This morning I listened on my other (main) system with a newer Denon HT reciever in 2 channel mode and through my old, refurbished, AR-58's and it sounded wonderful with no congestion.  The disc players are the same in both systems, so that was not part of the equation.

It told me that I may need to upgrade that nearly 20 year old Pioneer to something much better. 

It is an excellent recording for something from 1985 to be sure.  Thanks for the heads-up. 

Pro-Audio-Tech's picture

If you want to hear the ultimate expression of this wonderful music in your home you must listen to The Tape Project Master Tape copy. I have the 45RPM vinyl and it is no where near the Tape Project tape in it's realism, power and natural, "you are there" experience. I am also listening on a super high quality vinyl system that is four times the price of my tape deck.

I have other Reference Recordings tapes from the Tape Project, 'Exotic Dances From The Opera' just a wonderful bit of music and the sound is what I would have to describe as bombastic at times, only tape can accomplish this balance of top to bottom coherency and velvet tonality.

I also have the RR recording of 'Arnold Overtures' from The Tape Project, I do admit that I bought that tape because it was part of the subscription. I was not really a fan of the music, however upon listening to the tape I am a huge fan now!

Get thee a tape deck!

gmgraves2's picture

I bought this LP when it first came out almost 30 years ago. I still have it. I agree with everything JGH said about it, except one. I don't like the performance. Kieth Clark's tempi are much to slow and lugubrious and the ensemble playing is not the best. To hear "Church Windows" the way it's supposed to be played (as opposed to how it's supposed to sound), try to find a copy of "The Respighi Album" with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Columbia. Like much of Ormandy's discography, the "Church Windows" from this Columbia collection has only been released on CD once, as part  of a re-pairing on Sony's "Essential Classics" label circa 1998 where it is paired with some Scarlatti with Louis Lane and the Cleveland Orchestra. This CD is available from Amazon. It doesn't sound bad (recorded in the early '60's BEFORE Columbia discovered the 'forest of microphones' approach, so it is at least recorded with spaced omnis, I believe). The performance is electrifying, though, and it puts the Pacific Symphony performance to shame in my opinion. 

Organfox's picture

I listened again to the 45 rpm vinyl for the first time in perhaps 15 years, and it is indeed a sensational orchestral recording -- the tam-tam strike in St. Michael Archangel rivals the old Dorati monaural Mercury (which as I recall was a record that HP admired extravagantly and justly). And the organ pedals underpin the basses nicely in that movement. But when the organ -- a theatre organ, whether Robert-Morton or Wurlitzer I do not know, and apparently it no longer exists -- is called upon for its solo following a great orchestral crescendo in St. Gregory the Great, it provides one of the greatest anticlimaxes ever recorded. It has no brilliance or power, the winding and tuning are both uncertain, and it is not at all what Respighi expected and what Dorati got from the big instrument in Northrop Auditorium. It's a pity that the Crystal Cathedral wasn't available for the recording -- that would have been memorable.

DoggyDaddy's picture

"Forget, for the moment, that this is some of Respighi's most sumptuously glorious music. Forget that the performance is superb."  And while you're forgetting, you can forget that Respighi was a second-rater.