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CLASSICAL  June 2006

CLASSICAL June 2006

Subject:

A Year with Classical Vinyl

From:

John Smyth <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 14 Jun 2006 19:02:30 -0700

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text/plain

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I've been listening to Classical music on vinyl Lp records for the past
year and I've been loving every minute of it.  The are literally millions
of Classical Lps out there; generally speaking they tend to be well kept
and production values are very high.  Turntables are very good nowadays,
with great vibration isolation; modern cartridges are very sensitive and
dynamic, and needles are shaped to retrieve just the musical information,
minimizing contact with the part of the grooves that produce the dreaded
pops and clicks.  Compared to CD, Lp renders strings that are sweet,
bass that is (astonishingly) deep and tight, textures that are
well-delineated, (the ability to hear unison harp and tympani or unison
celli and bassoon as two separate instruments), and-though I don't know
how to put it into words-quicksilver passages seem more alive, more all
of a piece.  I went all the way and bought a record vacuum cleaner as
well: once the record is cleaned with the appropriate fluid, a vacuum
sucks the fluid and all the dirt out of the grooves, yielding-I kid you
not-CD quiet surfaces.  You can build your own if you want.  My turntable
also comes with a center clamp and peripheral ring which flatten the
record against the platter.  Neat.

RECORDS: You will be delighted to know that the "big four"-generally
speaking-Philips, Decca (US=London), EMI (US =Angel), and DG are class
acts all the way, great recordings and quality pressings, with Angel
yielding maybe 80/90% of the sound of its British "original." I can't
really tell a difference between London and Decca.  If you want Decca's
or EMI's you'll probably have to buy from online retailers or Ebay.  It
is my experience that it is not necessary to purchase London's, Angel's,
DG's or Philips' online because so many were imported or pressed in the
US.  Just be patient, most titles show up locally.  There is enough
artistry and titles available on these four labels alone to entertain
yourself for a lifetime and issues are readily available in mostly
near-mint condition.  Luckily, quality control remained a constant
from the earliest pressings of these companies to the end of the Lp
era.  (Though some quibble about this.)

My favorite conductor "discovered" on vinyl is Ansermet on London/Decca.
His Stravinsky "Petrushka" is absolutely irresistible and his sense of
Rhythm!  The Suisse Romande Orchestra produces a sound I've not heard
in modern ensembles: tart and unhomogenized.  Some performances, as old
as ' 58, sound so new and freshly-minted.  I look forward to working my
way through Ansemet's Ravel, Debussy, Albeniz, and Stravinsky.  The
original Ansermet Deccas can go for hundreds of dollars, yet the US
London's of the same material go for pennies.

What of US pressings?  Most of my collection as a college student was
made up of late Columbia and RCA, probably the worst-quality pressings
ever.  These pressings, along with my $60 Soundesign turntable are
probably what defined everything I hated about Lps before the introduction
of CDs!  Noisy surfaces, no bass, thin strings..  Early Columbias however,
called "6-eyes," tend to be collectable, as they are warmer-sounding,
not to mention the artists-Walter, early Bernstein, early Ormandy!
Early RCA's called "Shaded Dogs" tend to be very collectable for both
the artistry-Munch, Reiner-and amazing sound.  You would be surprised,
however, at how easy it is to find many of the early Columbias, RCAs and
Mercury Living Presence for that matter, at your local thrift, or in a
neighbor's garage.  Have patience and look around before you buy on line.
Bruno Walter's work with Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner
have been particularly satisfying and refreshing listens.  He infuses
every phrase, every note with a sweetness that is hard to describe.  As
a general rule, the quality of early US pressings of RCA, Columbia and
MLP was very good early on, but everything went downhill from there.

INDEPENDENTS: Nonesuch and Vox can be viewed as the Chandos and Hyperion
of the vinyl age, filling in the gaps with obscure chamber music and
solo material, and serving up the works of the lesser-known composers,
Modern, Eastern European or Russian.  The Nonesuch pressings and recordings
are particularly good and can be had for pennies.  Vox recordings are
excellent as well, but the pressings are variable in that it's hard to
find quiet issues.  One of the gems and miracles of the analog/vinyl age
has to be the Vox Skrowaczewski Ravel Complete Orchestral Works-the
interpretations are so alive and the recording is beyond belief.  Lyrita
pressings, (UK) served the well-known and lesser-know composers or the
British Isles, from Bax to Holst.  I prefer the Lyrita Bax Symphonic
cycle over all others.  Lyritas are hard to find in the US and can be
relatively expensive, from $10 and up.  I was delighted to find that
Supraphon and Hungaroton offer much of the Eastern Europeans as well,
from Janacek and Martinu to Novak.  Pressings aren't that good, but a
US company called "Pro Arte" made many a good repressing of the Eastern
European companies' classics.

DIGITAL RECORDS vs CDs: It's been fascinating.  I like digital records
much better than their CD counterparts.  One of the most amazing examples
is Tennstedt's Mahler 8th on EMI: The digital Lp places the chorus,
soloists and orchestra where they are supposed to be, while on CD the
placement of forces is vague.  The sound is warmer, the soundstage larger
and textures are much more fleshed out.  The "majors" pressed records
into early '91, I was surprised to discover.  The latest pressing I own
is Bernstein's Candide on DG in '91, one of the last ever pressed as
routine.

MODERN AUDIOPHILE RE-PRESSINGS: Many early Decca's, RCA's and Mercury
Living Presence are so sought-after that they go for hundreds and hundreds
of dollars.  Ansermet's Petrushka or Walter's Brahms 4th with the Columbia
symphony (6-eye stereo) are examples.  These and many more have been
re-pressed from the original master tapes with equipment that is better
than what was available to begin with.  The "Speaker's Corner" company
is but one example.  Collectors swear by the originals, but I find the
repressings to be much more open and spacious.  In any case, it's nice
to know that us mortals can own the rare and immortal performances as
well for a lot less money.  Their companies re-release an average of
40 of the "most sought-after" Classical recordings a year.  So much
for vinyl being dead!

John Smyth
Sacramento,  CA

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