Reviewing Belafonte At Carnegie Hall: A 45 RPM Shoot Out!

Like lots of other audiophiles, I discovered this album by reading The Absolute Sound. I don’t know if I had ever heard of Harry Belafonte; well maybe I had heard of him, I knew who he was, but I just thought he was for old folks. Harry Pearson introduced me to this album and many other with his Super List for TAS a long time ago. Audiophiles of my generation, owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing this amazing recording to our attention.

An Incredible Performance and Recording

The Harry Belafonte At Carnegie Hall album is a recording of two benefit concerts Belafonte did at Carnegie Hall on April 19th and 20th in1959. It has been described by many different reviewers as “the quintessential Belafonte.” says it is, “The granddaddy of all live albums. This double-LP set captures the excitement of a Harry Belafonte concert at the height of his popularity.” You get to hear a very large group of musicians bring their wonderful energy backing Belafonte live on the stage, a live and engaged audience and all in wonderful vintage analog. The early pressing and the Classic Records’ 45 RPM single-sided 200-gram reissue has the kind of magical midrange that we associate with “RCA Living Stereo” LPs that were recorded with tube electronics and recorders.

One of the things that we reviewers talk about in product reviews but not in music reviews is scale, or put another way, how a live orchestra occupies space. On a good pressing or digital copy of this album, the orchestra should occupy real space. It should sound big and full, and you should be able to hear the sounds of the performance hall. The concert itself is divided into three parts: “Moods of the American Negro,” “In the Caribbean,” and “Around the World.” All of his hits are found on this recording including, “Day O,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Mama Look a Boo Boo,” and others. From calypso to folk songs, chain gang songs, spirituals, and songs from other places, this recording represents a veritable best-of-Belafonte. The sound of this album is so amazing, is the sound of this album but so is the whole concert.

Comparing the Recordings

So, I hope I have established that this is an incredible performance and recording. The first thing I need to say before I start this “45 RPM Shootout” is that I love the sound of most 45 rpm LPs, and second is that I hate the inconvenience of single-sided 45 rpm LPs. I already owned the Classic Records 45 rpm, single-sided eight LP version of this recording. So, why did I purchase the new Analogue Productions 45 rpm of Belafonte At Carnegie Hall?  It’s simple, the new one is not single-sided, and if I liked it better, it would be easy to sell the Classic Records’ version for three or four times more than I paid for the Analogue Productions’ version.

Let me also say that these are both great versions of this recording, and the comparison is not between equals when it comes to what it will cost you to own either of them. Chad Kassem of Analogue Productions has been more than fair with the pricing of the new 45 rpm version, and if you can find one the Classic Records’ versions that is NM- or better, it will probably cost you at least six or seven times more than the new Analogue Productions one.

When it comes to the quality of the packaging, it is also not a comparison of equals. The Classic Records version is a plain black box with a sticker label and eight LPs in plain sleeves that have stickers on them that say 1 of 8, 2 of 8 and so. The Analogue Productions version, on the other hand, comes in a strikingly high-quality, custom-designed slipcase box. LPs 1 and 2 are housed in a custom gatefold cover with the original studio photography that has been beautifully enhanced.

Now let’s compare the two in their technical details. First, they were both mastered from the original 3-track analog tapes. The CR version was mastered by Bernie Grundman, and the AP version was mastered by Yan K. Smith at Sterling Sound. The AP version was plated by Gary Salstrom, and the pressing was done at AP’s Quality Record Pressing plant. They both play at 45 rpm, but the CR is single sided. They both are on 200-gram vinyl, but QRP seems to be able to get the LPs flat where the CR versions weren’t usually. One other difference is that the AP version contains a fifth LP, sides nine and ten that includes Belafonte’s spoken introduction to the touching and tender song “Scarlet Ribbons” followed by an interesting orchestral overture.

Now we come to what to me is the most important comparison, which version enables me to most enjoy this wonderful performance more. The reason I worded it this way is that they are both so good, and I have no way of knowing which one sounds more like the original tapes or the original performance. I could easily live with either of these recordings as my only copy of this great performance.

The new 45 rpm AP version does have improvements over the older one from CR. It has more transparency with greater three-dimensionality and greater texture.  It also has greater image specificity, which has always been a strong point of this recording. The AP version has punchier and quicker bass. So, it sounds like the new AP version is better, and to most audiophiles, I think it would be. But wait a minute, the CR version also has its special qualities. It has a beautiful silky quality to the midrange and top-end. It also has better harmonics and richer tones. The bass is also fuller and more powerful.

So, which recording enabled me to enjoy this wonderful performance best? Well, that depends. On “Sylvie,” “Day O,” “Jamaica Farewell” and “Danny Boy,” I felt more engaged with the CR version. Yet, on “Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu,” “Paloma,” “Shenandoah,” and “Matilda,” I preferred the AP version. Of course, “Scarlet Letters” and the “Overture” are only available on the AP version.

Now, let me make it clear, if I didn’t already own the Classic Records 45 rpm box set,  I would never choose to pay at least six times more for it than for the Analogue Productions box set. I also think most audiophiles would prefer the AP box set even if they were the same price. I don’t have to make this choicer though, and ultimately I’ve decided to just keep both sets.

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