Bluebacks Revisited - Part 2
Blair Roger continues his survey of London Records' "Blueback" LPs
Preface: The L. A.
The downfall of the C2 actually proved to be its strength: a low gain phono circuit. I understand that the designer intended this pre-amp for use with his custom designed step-up transformer. It was unavailable but, by a stroke of luck, I had just purchased a pair of Brian Sowter's 7136X cartridge transformers and they seemed to suit the pre-amp and my Lyra Lydian cartridge quite well. Without the transformers, and with all the gain and volume pots wide open, the Lydian had enough kick to make the C2s sing with a sweetly seraphic voice. However, I could not live with this sound for long because of the lack of any sort of realistic dynamics. The 7136X transformers did the trick, forming a benign impedance bridge between cartridge and pre-amp, providing ample gain and dynamic headroom and, as entirely passive devices, allowing the true sound of the cartridge and vinyl to shine forth. At this time, I am convinced that the best tube phono reproduction circuits available to us are low gain (typically relegated by the audio press to the unglamorous role of moving-magnet compatibility) in conjunction with high quality step-up transformers.
This leads us, finally, to the Blueback reviews. What do these records have in common? Very little, particularly in terms of sound - as was so ably revealed by the L. A. Audio/Lyra Lydian/Sowter combination.
Ansermet, with his affinity for Russian composers, was no doubt a hands-down choice at Decca/London for this effort. Interestingly, they put the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra at his disposal rather than his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The politics behind that decision must have been fascinating, yet we can only speculate as to what actually occurred. Perhaps it had something to do with the solo violinist, Pierre Nerini, who is featured throughout. I cannot fault his performance; it is enchanting. However, this piece requires considerable virtuosity on the part of the orchestra - precise ensemble playing and a lot of exposed solo passages - and I am afraid this is where the performance really falls down.
Nerini is prominent sonically, yet remains integrated with the orchestra. The cellos have a lovely full midrange sound and there is terrific depth on the snare drum at the start of the march theme on side two. The triangle and tambourine are placed to the left and right respectively, towards the back of a gently curving soundspace. Here is a perfect example of the directionality of pickup pattern that the Neumann M-49 microphone exhibited with rising frequencies. Regrettably, the pressings made from the session masters also exhibit a tendency towards stridency and what we would now consider to be a slightly aggressive treble. My guess is that the session tapes might not have sounded quite like this, and that the Decca engineers altered the treble balance slightly to compensate for the average quality pick-up of the period, which would have rolled-off this edge. As you will see, however, this sonic deficiency was not present among all the Bluebacks.
Returning for the moment to the recording, the tutti in the final, climactic movement has an enjoyable dynamic weight and power. As always, Ansermet drives the orchestra forward with well-judged tempos that produce the sound of waves crashing on rocks. Unfortunately, there is a slight lack of clean ensemble playing. The clarinets are a bit ragged at critical moments and this keeps this particular recording from attaining the top rank. Apart from these slight flaws, it is a passionate, romantic performance.
Compared with Reiner's version on the RCA Classics re-issue label, I find the Chicago Symphony to sound much more languid, sanguine, and self-assured. The sound is altogether different: sweeter, softer and modern, making the Blueback sound vintage and boxy. From the moment the snare drum enters, deep to the left of centre, it is clear beyond doubt why Reiner's recording with the CSO is considered the definitive recorded version of Scheherazade [Along with Beecham's EMI recording, perhaps? Ed]. Reiner builds the orchestra to a climax in the final movement that is unambiguously sexual in intensity and resolution.
Fantastique (CS 6025)
The first two movements are beautifully and sensitively played, without the lurching tempos some contemporary conductors (such as Barenboim on CBS Masterworks MK 39859) find unavoidable. Skipping right to the action, we find astounding dynamics in the fourth movement (March to the Scaffold). The brass section is positively on fire, and clearly defined soloists populate the deep and wide soundspace. The listener is treated to some deliciously wicked pizzicatti passages, and the galloping tempo leads us to the heart-pounding coup de grace.
The Witches' Sabbath is a bizarre, swirling, opium-induced dream of a funeral. Argenta is in complete control of the furious tempo. There are incredible leaps and bounds in the music from the parody of the skeleton-like clarinets to the grotesquely demonic blasts from the brass section. Berlioz shows us to be quite the master of counterpoint, as the comic and the malevolent are juxtaposed in an irrational dream. The listener is swept along at such a break-neck pace that the slightly edgy sound is easily overlooked. This is a tremendously exciting and precise performance. I rate it very highly for the interpretation, if somewhat lower for its sound, which once again I attribute to the choice of the Neumann M-49 microphones and trade-offs at the cutting lathe. If you can find a good copy, you will be bowled-over by the mid-bass dynamics and the musicality of the performance. This one is worth seeking out.
Concerto in D major (op. 35) (CS 6011)
Alfredo Campoli, the featured soloist on this disk, is very prominent on the stage and presents us with a very romantic interpretation. He plays with the unforced, unhurried artistry of a master musician. This is a hedonistic exploration of the sonority, timbre, and tender harmonics of which certain violins in certain hands are capable. Spicatto passages are superbly executed and contrast delightfully with the big, big sound of the heroic opening theme, sympathetically supported by the LSO. Argenta never lets the tempo drag. Nevertheless, he allows the soloist fascinating liberties in the cadenza passages, which Campoli plays with an alternating sense of languor and urgency.
Campoli has an almost holographic presence between my Quad ESL-63s - just to the left of centre. His fingering is deft and delicate, and the purity of tone captured on this record is mesmerizing: rich, full, and resonant.
Argenta had a way of getting a huge sound and incredible drive out of an orchestra, without losing sight of the fine details. Despite the forward balance, the depth of the hall is still readily discernable when the woodwinds take their solos. The clarity throughout the concerto is that classic Blueback 'you are there' FFSS sound. I rate this as one of my favourite Bluebacks. I never seem to tire of it.
for Strings in E Major (Op. 22) (CS 6032)
Ensemble playing has its ragged moments under Kubelik's baton. Overall, this is a woody, resonant rendering marred only by a surprisingly boxy midrange and a touch of glare in the upper treble. A wider soundstage would be an asset. This is a very pleasant record but not one I would put on my 'must have' list.
Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra (Op. 48) and Mozart: Eine
Kleine Nachtmusik (K. 525) (CS 6066)
Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is presented in a wide, deep, brightly lit and slightly reverberant soundspace. The finely detailed score of the first movement is taken at a lightening pace highlighted by terrific dynamic contrasts. My notes say, 'Super front row dynamics'. This is a stunning piece of vinyl.
In the second movement, the first violin plays some of the sweetest melodies ever written for the instrument. They waft across the orchestra, and Solti allows a touch of rubato, which imparts a heavenly, romantic aura to the reading. Intonation and ensemble playing are near perfection and this is very pleasing to the ear. To effect the close, the sense of tension and excitement that Solti whips up in the finale is truly remarkable, revealing what a mature masterpiece this is when interpreted by the right hands.
The opening bars of Tchaikovsky's magnificent Serenade for Strings are full and glorious. There are truly magical moments where Tchaikovsky and Solti conspire to paint a landscape with a delicate feeling of melancholy that words cannot express. The orchestral sound is rich and creamy to the end. This is an incredibly good record and should be placed on your "must have" list.
To be continued
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