AOM Logo March 1999

Bluebacks Revisited - Part 1
Blair Roger begins his survey of London Records' "Blueback" LPs

Blair Roger

It is nearly half a century since a number of recording companies decided to issue LPs in two-channel stereo. They have stood the test of time. The fact that stereo LPs are still with us today indicates the value and validity of a medium that emerged, largely thanks to Decca's Kenneth Wilkinson, in a state upon which improvement has proved difficult.

Wilkie, as he was affectionately nicknamed, was Decca's chief engineer in the late forties, and was responsible for developing their long-playing, 33 1/3 R.P.M. record (a feat he accomplished in less than three months!). This involved the laborious transcription of 78 R.P.M. disks onto LP masters, a method so successful, it paved the way for the acceptance of long-playing stereo records by the public.

Neumann M-49 Microphone

It is evident that Decca was experimenting with stereo recording in the early 1950s. According to producer John Culshaw in his book, Putting the Record Straight, the earliest sessions were recorded in both mono and stereo, initially using a simple crossed microphone technique primarily as a ruse designed to pre-empt orchestral musicians from demanding higher pay for recording in stereo. With the development of a mixing console, Wilkinson was able to introduce the Decca 'tree' which consisted of three microphones on a horizontal, T-shaped frame. The left and right outriggers were about one meter apart, while the central microphone projected slightly ahead of them toward the musicians. Acoustic tile baffles were placed between the microphones, and the whole assembly was suspended about four meters above the front of the orchestra. Wilkinson initially tried Neumann M-49 directional cardioid microphones, but by 1959 dropped the ever-shrinking baffles and replaced them exclusively with omnidirectional M-50 Neumanns. He suggests shrewdly that the excellent stereo sound he achieved with this setup was the result of two main factors: the omnidirectional microphones picked up the hall ambience superbly and the response of the Neumanns at higher frequencies actually became somewhat directional, allowing excellent imaging without the need for spot microphones or multi-tracking.

By the mid-1950s all the major record companies, along with a number of smaller players like Mercury and Everest, were racing to get their stereo records to the buying public. Decca was fortunate to have a number of big-name European conductors and orchestras available to them. And with excellent recording sites like Kingsway Hall, they exploited their superior position to the hilt. Their choice of repertoire for the first couple of years was biased heavily towards well-known orchestral works meant to appeal to the widest segment of the classical record-buying public. Given the overall quality of the productions, I cannot fault their decision.

Why Decca decided to press the so-called 'bluebacks' for North American consumption at the same time as they were issuing the Decca SXL 2000 stereo pressings of the same performances, is somewhat a mystery. Some collectors feel that the early Deccas are superior while others argue that the FFSS (Full Frequency Stereo Sound) bluebacks are their equal. It is clear that the pressings differ and that bluebacks probably cost less to produce. We do know that the covers were printed in the United States to save production costs. By current standards, they are a quality product: thick vinyl, typically well centered, featuring thoughtful, readable liner notes. Even the sleeves are special. They are a superior, standard two-piece design with considerable information about the handling and appreciation of stereo recordings. Above all, they sound good today because Decca had the foresight or good fortune to record using the RIAA correction curve, which has become the accepted standard for vinyl replay.

How I Listen to Early Bluebacks
If you are the sort of person who favours records with pinpoint imaging and lots of depth, bluebacks can frustrate. Getting the most out of them might require a couple of changes to your listening setup. First, angle your speakers in towards the listening position at 45 degrees. Move your chair closer, so that you are on the speaker axis. When you are in exactly the right spot, which you will discover through a little fine-tuning, the stereo image will snap into focus and you will feel that you are floating over the front of the stage at the microphone position.

Early bluebacks were recorded with microphones that had a 6dB rise towards their specified frequency limit of 16kHz. On some systems, this could make them sound a little bright. I don't find this to be any problem at all with my Quad ESL-63 Monitors. Substituting a dynamic speaker did make this treble emphasis difficult for me to accept. Your tolerance for tonal balances could be different. I do think these records have been maligned as intolerably bright and peaky, yet on a well-balanced system, they were delightful. A Lyra Lydian cartridge, Sonic Frontiers Phono-1 phono stage, Well-Tempered Turntable and arm, Jadis Orchestra integrated amplifier, NBS cables, and Quad electrostatics performed the task admirably.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream (CS 6001)
Mendelssohn and Shakespeare. What an incredible combination! The two geniuses are brought together under the baton of Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony Orchestra accompanying the Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Also featured are the exquisite solo voices of Jennifer Vyvyan and Marion Lowe.

The Overture is Mendelssohn's opus 21, written in 1826 when he was only seventeen years old. The complete suite of incidental pieces followed sixteen years later, a commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia to accompany a production to be performed at Potsdam in October of 1843.

Peter Maag's reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream has a full, rich orchestral sound with superb depth. The ensemble playing is precise, controlled, and rhythmic, while still conveying a feeling of supernatural mystery and giddy delight. The woodwind passages are a real torture test, but the agile principals of the LSO are equal to the demands of the filigree score. The result is magic that transports the mind and spirit.

Mendelssohn excels at painting visual images with music. Whether it is the wispy presence of sprites or the braying of a donkey, all is within his technical reach. Maag is constantly on the precarious crest of the rhythmic wave, driving the music forward with a feeling of inevitability. The vocal interlude, You spotted snakes, sung by Jennifer Vyvyan and the ROHO female chorus, is a delectable confection of whimsy, which for me, was the highlight of this outstanding record. Much to his credit, Maag performs the Wedding March in a theatrical but unsentimental fashion. The incidental music concludes with the chorus and Vyvyan intoning Shakespeare's benediction couplet:

First, rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note:
Hand in hand, with fairey grace,
Will we sing and bless this place.

The play is at an end. All is well and the listener enchanted.

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España (CS 6006)
Here we have the near-mythical Ataulfo Argenta conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a program of Hispanic-inspired music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Granados, Chabrier, and Moszkowski. The disk begins with a spirited reading of Capriccio Espagnol. The strengths of the blueback recordings become immediately apparent: a sense of spaciousness, real depth, and a warm ambience without spotlighting or stereo 'effects'. The listener is placed in the front third of the hall and the sense of perspective is excellent. The snare drum is positioned well behind the first violin and the overtones of the cymbals and shimmering triangles are immediately noticeable far back in the percussion section. Explosive contrasts of percussion and winds are featured, riding along on the pulsing rhythmic accompaniment of plucked strings. Argenta is at his best with this kind of music and the richly dramatic nature of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration makes this a natural choice for early stereo release.

Andalusia by Granados is given an understated, contemplative treatment, a welcome relief from the excitement of the opening number.

On side two, Chabrier's España Rhapsody is performed in a frothy style with the recording adding plenty of kick in the bass. The listener will enjoy the verve and swing of the interplay between burnished brass and exuberant percussion. There's lots of depth here and plenty of width, with the offstage placement of a tambourine on the left. There's a feeling of joyous, carefree celebration in this music and the cut is fun from start to finish.

When I compared this performance with the 1965 Decca recording Ansermet Conducts Chabrier (SXL 6168), my preference was for the later version. Ansermet is able to get more expressive, detailed playing out of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the unnamed Decca engineers decided to go for broke on this spectacular recording.

Back to Espana and Moszkowski's Spanish Dances. Some will say that these tracks are just filler when compared to the gale force extravaganzas that preceded them. Personally, I think they are a welcome relief. Here we can take the time to appreciate Argenta's understanding of the music and his interpretive stance. By the final dance, the orchestra sound a little weary, rushed off its feet, no doubt, by the constraints of a London (UK) recording schedule.

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Viennese Bon-Bons (CS 6008)
This is the first of a series of recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's concerts, this one dating from 1958. They form what I would call a sub-genre of the bluebacks, as I am sure there are many aficionados who specifically seek them out. Willi Boskovsky is on the podium directing the orchestra while leading on violin as Johann Strauss did himself, in the same hall, the famed Vienna Sofiensal. In fact, the listener can tell easily by the orchestral image on the recording that this is the shallow, narrow, squared-off stage unique to that venue. The wistful liner notes tell us that the hall was built as a Turkish bath and swimming pool but as the Viennese had little interest in winter bathing it was converted to a seasonal concert hall. I'm certainly glad that someone noticed the exceptional acoustic and cancelled the steam bath.

We are greeted by popping champagne corks on left and right that will take the newcomer by surprise. The waltz tempi are elegant, bathed in a glowing patina of Old World gentility. Pizzicato Polka reveals subtle layering of delightful pizzicato and bell effects and the all-male orchestra plays with deft precision and evident affection for the music. Ensemble playing in the strings is flawless. Do you like whipped cream on your sachertorte? If so, you will love this record.

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Petrushka (CS 6009)
Stravinsky set this melancholy and violent folktale (fleshed out by Alexander Benois) to music for a Ballets Russes production in 1911. The plot is simple. At a Shrovetide fair in St. Petersburg, an Oriental Charlatan entertains the crowd by animating three marionettes: a cruel Moor, a mindless ballerina and Petrushka, a puppet endowed with human feelings. A love triangle develops and the ballerina spurns Petrushka and pursues the brutish Moor who eventually kills his rival. The Charlatan shows the horrified crowd that Petrushka was stuffed with sawdust but flees in terror as Petrushka's ghost floats above the stage, grimacing at him. Life is short, brutal and then you die! Who could fail to identify with the plight of Petrushka?

The score is an astounding combination of bitonality and polyrhythms, both presenting a considerable challenge for the performers. Ansermet has a superb grasp of the material and real zest for presenting the piece as a coherent entity. This is a disjointed world of surreal, primitive symbols presented in brief, vivid episodes to suit the action on stage. Ansermet was a master interpreter of ballet scores with a particular fondness for Russian music. Anyone who has heard his Le Sacre du Printemps rehearsal recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande will know what a passionate, driving, taskmaster he was. Intriguingly, it is Ansermet himself who wrote the liner notes for this album.

During auditioning, I noted that the two clarinets playing in the clarino register in the passage called The Bear were painfully out of tune. Optimistically, I take the view that Ansermet wanted them to be slightly out of tune with each other to emphasize the pathos and pain of the episode. This is the level of intensity Stravinsky's music demands - controlled chaos.

The engineering is first rate with explosive dynamics from top to bottom in a deep, three-dimensional and transparent soundstage. This is one of the very best bluebacks. Be warned that the re-issue on Athena has a totally different equalization that changes the FFSS sound, much for the worse.

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Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2 (CS 6059)
This recording of the Second Concerto (Opus 63, dating from 1934), made five years after the composer's death in 1953, features the Russophile Ansermet and the OSR supporting a young and cocky Ruggiero Ricci. A lesser-known work, from the middle period of Prokofiev's career, it is genuinely challenging. Heaps of surprising melodic and rhythmic turns are included to enhance the smack of political satire. Plenty of peculiar percussion effects and an odd interlude with castanets add to the overall cynical effect. I often had the feeling during the performance that Ricci skipped a couple of rehearsals and that the orchestra is struggling valiantly to manage the score. Further, one massive tape edit in the first movement is impossible to ignore. However, music lovers looking for violin pyrotechnics will not be disappointed.

The program of the Second Violin Concerto has puzzled me since I heard a recording by Isaac Stern and Eugene Ormandy in the 1960s. I still can't say that I've figured it out. The opening moments in G minor certainly bring to mind falling into a deep, troubled sleep. The rapid-fire episodes that follow, complete with sirens and spine-tingling spider effects, conjure up dark images of an attempted escape from Stalin's secret police. In the truest sense, this is a fantastic showpiece for the soloist. It is full of sardonic melodies that stick like bugs to flypaper. Enjoy the close-up, deep and focused Decca/London FFSS sound.

The First Violin Concerto (Opus 19, from 1914) flaunts a young composer of a certain genius, flexing his significant powers of invention. Styles change quickly - one moment it is lyrical and ethereal, the next, diabolical and acidic. The second movement Scherzo is particularly daring in its demands on the soloist. Orchestration is carefully controlled, so that the ensemble and soloist conspire together in developing the wonderful themes. This performance is brilliant. Ansermet's band is better rehearsed and sure-footed here. Ricci is in familiar territory and his violin is prominent and slightly to the left of the stage. The range of sounds he gets from his instrument is thrilling and he really has a chance to strut his virtuosity. As such, CS 6059 is a must-have for fans of both Ricci and Prokofiev.

To be continued…

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