The Classic Records Reissues – Part 1

What would we audiophiles do without our top ten lists? At the distant end of this series, Audiophilia will publish a ranking of our favourite Classic Records reissues. From the quality of the selections auditioned thus far, the task is proving to be a daunting, yet compelling, one.

The Importance of Being Earnest

I could kick myself! When first hearing the reissues, I realized very quickly that I had squandered a first-hand resource. While a student in London, one of my flute professors was the great Harold Clarke. Mr. Clarke was one of the principal flutes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (along with Wilfred Smith) during the fifties and early sixties. Yes, he played on Ansermet’s Royal Ballet Gala! Regretfully, Mr. Clarke died several years ago. Now I realize how silly it was during my lessons to be asking him questions about style, sound and interpretation, when I could have been asking him for really important information such as orchestra placement, soundstage, recording techniques, microphone setup, and the idiosyncrasies of Kingsway!

— Anthony Kershaw

The Passion according to St. Michael

Much has been written about the Classic Records catalogue, most of it very complimentary. Of course, there are always audiophiles who enjoy a negative prod. Alas, these reissues have not been spared. I’m sure you’ve read the criticisms: Solid-state mastering using inexpensive equipment, very short playing times, and much of the repertoire not of the front rank. Oh well, you can’t please all… My advice – listen, for contained within, is auditory illusion at its finest.

Owner Michael Hobson has made a significant contribution to our audio world. Finally, the greatest recordings from the golden era of stereo are available with original cover art, pressed on 180 gram vinyl, and, best of all, mastered from the original RCA tapes under the loving care of phenom, Bernie Grundman. In only four years, Messrs. Hobson and Grundman have turned our beloved vinyl world on its head.

This continuing survey of the Classic Records reissues will not deal with the felicities and subtleties of comparison with the late, great, original RCA shaded dogs. Why dredge up an overly-discussed non-starter? Mint condition originals are hard to come by, and thus are prohibitively – some would say hideously – expensive. If you have them in mint condition, keep them. Many are statements of the art. Instead of comparison, my preference is to take a leisurely tour of many of these wonderful reissues – reissues that have been a boon to audiophiles unfamiliar with the glories of vinyl playback.

Let’s begin, then, with one of the greatest orchestral performances captured by a stereo microphone…

LSC-1934 LSC 1934 – Bartók Concerto for Orchestra Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago.

If not definitive, Fritz Reiner’s magnificent traversal of the Concerto for Orchestra is most surely indispensable. Here you will discover orchestral playing at its finest, with a conductor’s interpretation that is rich in style, excitement and depth. Happily, Reiner had a pivotal role in earning the commission for Bartók when the composer was in poor financial and physical health. This excited Bartók greatly, who completed his new masterpiece in a mere six weeks! The resulting Concerto for Orchestra is considered by many to be the greatest orchestral work of the twentieth century.

The Classic Records reissue is something special. The sound is rich and harmonically – lifelike, enticing the listener with its transparency. One can “see” across the shallow stage of Orchestra Hall, Chicago, with groups of instruments laid bare under complete scrutiny. This clarity of purpose takes the auditory senses for a most pleasurable ride.

This sensational music calls for delicacy and power, and the recording is successful in rendering all dynamic gradations faithfully. The only example of “riding the gain” comes in the first movement – that granitic power-house of a tutti chord at rehearsal number 396 (Boosey and Hawkes score). The sound diminishes severely in relation to the huge crescendo that precedes it. Other than this one minor caveat, RCA’s historical document is as one would dream. Musically, Reiner and his magnificent Chicago creation will thrill you like few others.

LSC 2185 – Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3 in a minor, Op. 44 Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

The English orchestral world of the late fifties and early sixties was dominated by Otto Klemperer’s Philharmonia, Sir Thomas Beecham’s personally-funded Royal Philharmonic, and the London Symphony Orchestra, under Pierre Monteux. Seemingly, there would not be room for anyone else. This recording seems to underline the ranking. On this evidence, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the always underrated Sir Adrian Boult, competes well, but does not match the exalted level of the other orchestras.

In both Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 and Rimsky’s Russian Easter Overture, the LPO acquits itself quite admirably. Boult’s interpretation is cultured, typical of this most aristocratic of conductors. But, therein lies a thorny problem. As an audiophile, I wallowed in the luscious soundstage, the eerie way the percussion snaps to attention, the clear control of the deep bass and the richness of the orchestral sound. However, as a lover of large-scale orchestral music, it did not excite. From experience, both the Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov need to be energized. At times there is precious little else! Sadly, Boult and the boys are at the mercy of his quintessential politeness. To be fair, however, some may prefer this less histrionic approach.

The Rachmaninov symphony is full of lovely melodies and demonstrates orchestration typical of his style. Under Boult, the first movement meanders quite nicely, with the strident opening followed by a song-like second subject. During the restless development, string effects such as col legno and pizzicato are captured with a reality that amazes. As my Benz Glider dug its way gently through the grooves, the sound blossomed, painting a rich portrait of Rachmaninov’s Hollywood-like tone.

Imaging is the audiophile highlight of the pretty, slow movement. The cor anglais solo is placed to perfection, just right of center, which is echoed later by the oboe. Wonderful realism here. The timbre of all the woodwinds is memorable throughout, as are the strings. Especially memorable is the resonant whine of the viola section. I continue to admire this instrument’s tone as imitated by these reissues – a sound that I have not heard replicated near as accurately on compact disc.

With the Scherzo and Finale, the pulse finally gets racing. The excitement is helped by Rachmaninov’s formula writing – brassy outbursts supplanted by the requisite fugue. Here and there are slips in intonation, and there is a wonderful tuba gaffe. These are minor discrepancies in an otherwise good execution.

When considering only the performance, I must count it among the weaker of Classic Records’ reissues. As a recording, though, it continues the very high standard of the British RCAs.

LSC-2322 LSC 2322 – Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 and Ballet Suite from the Age of Gold London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Martinon. Producer: James Walker. Recording Engineer: Alan Reeve. Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London.

A powerful feeling of ineptness can greet musicians when performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Technically, it is extremely difficult, and contains a musical sophistication that is quite staggering. The symphony was offered to the jury of the Leningrad Conservatory as his graduation exercise! Even today, the wealth of invention continues to amaze, more so when one recognizes that young Shostakovich’s unique musical voice was already formed – a voice that continued to speak and develop in all his work, one representative of the essence of the gigantic struggles of the Soviet people.

This particular recording of the work is splendid. In fact, Jean Martinon and the London Symphony Orchestra present one of the finest renditions. Their personification of style, interpretation and ensemble are a trinity of near perfection. From the opening clarinet solo (Gervase de Peyer, perhaps?) to the closing orchestral fortissimos, the late fifties LSO shines gloriously. Strings have a beautiful golden sheen, woodwinds glow and brass resonate thrillingly. And the recording – simply spectacular! The Decca-sourced RCA displays Kingsway Hall to perfection, with its requisite Holborn/Aldwych “tube” rumble. By this account, London Transport were on time, the regular deep growling adding visceral pleasure to the audiophile need quotient.

As a filler, the Ballet Suite from The Age of Gold is representative of Shostakovich at his sarcastic best. The piquant orchestration is, again, performed with reckless abandon by the virtuosos of the London Symphony, with the famous oblique-styled Polka played especially well.

James Walker and Alan Reeve get the somewhat tricky acoustics of Kingsway just right. Imaging and the soundstage are exemplary, both adding to the splendor of the presentation. This is an example of what art as recorded sound should strive to be. A triumph for all participants.

LSC-2400 LSC 2400 – Ballet Music from the Opera Music by Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Rossini and Mussorgsky Paris Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Anatole Fistoulari. Producer: Ray Minshull. Recording Engineer: Kenneth Wilkinson.

This dynamite recording starts quite gently. The Dance of the Moorish Slaves from Aida is delicate and filigree playing from an orchestra in peak condition. The Paris Conservatoire Orchestra boasted some famous principals (Rampal, included), but suffered a reputation for producing ragged ensemble playing. On this day, though, Rumanian conductor, Anatole Fistoulari, coaxed fabulous performances from the Parisians.

The Verdi selections continue with the Triumphal March, also from Aida. It receives a spectacular performance that almost convinces me of its musical worth. The antiphonal trumpets are recorded very well, especially their boulevard-wide vibrato. Its flavour is magnificent in its gaudiness and emphasizes the grand nature of the opera. Next, the Aida ballet music is restless in style and performed with the utmost virtuosity. Like much of Verdi’s orchestration, one could mistake it simply as “banda” music. This assumption is incorrect. The sophistication of Verdi’s music grows while the listener enjoys its implied simplicity.

The recording is one of the finest from the Classic Records library. The string tone is vibrant, the tactile sense of bow on string sounding rich and very sensual. Macro and micro dynamics are represented truthfully, with percussion instruments adding to the wonderful overall effect. Placement of instruments is pinpoint within the large soundstage, and unison woodwinds and upper strings are separated easily by space and timbre. All this, while blending ensemble specifically as the composer intended. Lack of transparency is not an issue, as the natural decay between the instrument sections is captured perfectly. Yes, the air between instruments is actually felt for the ear to enjoy – a must for this audiophile if the recording is to be considered successful.

Fistoulari and the orchestra continue to work their magic on what follows. Saint-Saëns’ Bacchanale, from Samson and Delilah, is suitably seedy. The listener is treated to a fabulous opening with the musical spotlight on solo oboe and horns. Later, the percussionists add their ubiquitous energy, rhythm, colour, and excitement, with the bass drum especially well-focused. The two selections from Rossini’s William Tell (thankfully, not the overture) are performed with great musicality. Articulation is controlled well, adding an élan that implies real greatness in the music. And while all of the previous ballet selections are played superbly, it is the excerpt from Mussorgsky’s Khovanschchina that bears repeated listening. The Dance of the Persian Slaves has that unmistakable Russian flavour, seasoned with a hint of Baghdad. The opening cor anglais melody is suitably pathetic, accompanied effectively by solo strings. Lovely.

Again, the recording is in perfect harmony with the playing. When the violins reprise the opening melody of Khovanschina, the great lineage of RCA/Decca recording teams comes to the fore. Here, one finds the happy marriage of beautiful art and brilliant science. And although playing time is very short, you will not find a more musical half hour.

LSC-2419 LSC 2419 – Dvorák Slavonic Dances London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean Martinon. Producer: Michael Williamson. Recording Engineer: Kenneth Wilkinson. Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London.

This reissue’s success is the opposite of LSC 2185. After months of listening, I admit to having the highest expectations from the Classic catalogue. The consistency of the product has been marvelous. Thus, it came as a disappointment that the justly-famous LSC 2419 performances came wrapped in merely good sound. Definitely not on a par with the many others I have heard. Problems, no doubt, that lay squarely at the feet of the original. Most problematical is the bass. The Kingsway depiction of the LSO bass section is opaque at best, downright muddy at worst. Also, the upper strings have a stridency that would not go amiss in a digital environment. So not to attribute these inconsistencies to the vagaries of vinyl pressing, I auditioned two copies on three different systems. I noted the same results.

All of this is no matter, really, as one could purchase this reissue for the quality of the performances alone. Truly, these Slavonic Dances are mini-masterpieces performed with the greatest panache and virtuosity by Jean Martinon and the London Symphony Orchestra. Bohemian rhythms are inflected to perfection, somewhat of a surprise when realizing the recording’s Anglo-French source. Martinon makes a special case for the disparate sections of each dance. As such, they are exciting in their characterizations within fast and slow tempos. Martinon emphasizes the lilt and destroys the notion of overemphasis that caricatures many performances.

Although the Dances are a mixed bag sonically, the great playing and Martinon’s interpretation are most worthy of an audition.

To be continued…