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The Capitol FDS Series
Part 1

Review by Leonard Norwitz
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LP Number: See below (out of print)

 

  Before there was RCA Living Stereo, believe it or not, there was great mono.  Mono LPs that impressed us then continue to do so now, a half-century later.  Here in the U.S., in their day, Mercury, Westminster and Capitol led the pack with serious efforts at faithful reproduction of "classical" music, with Columbia breathing hard on their heels.  Some RCA monos were pretty good, but on the whole their efforts were inconsistent.  Westminster records often originated in England, but were cut and pressed here.  London records, of course, were made entirely in the UK except for the jackets.  Among the best fully homegrown labels were Mercury Living Presence and Capitol Full Dimensional Sound.  Catchy marketing slogans, true, but they captured the imagination and our attention.

Played on modern equipment, which after all is not ideal for mono playback of phonograph records, many of these recordings achieve reach-out-and-touch-it effects that many stereo LPs often miss.  This article is the first of several planned retrospective looks at Capitol FDS.  Like Mercury, often employing lesser known artists and orchestras, this Avis of recording labels occasionally hit a bull's eye.  Below are just a few.

First, a few notes on pressings.  Capitol FDS recordings occur under one of three label designs, two of which where the cover art is generally identical.  The first two labels (shown here) are [a] the earlier dark green, with usually heavier and noisier vinyl, and [b] a dark green center with an outside three-quarter inch olive circle. My comparison studies indicate the dark green-labeled pressings usually contain more information, though they are rarely found in great shape. The third label employs the familiar blackish background with a large FDS logo at 9:00.  The most common of the labels is the second; the least, in my experience, is the third. In any case, unlike RCAs, which start with "1S", and Mercurys, which begin with "MF1", the pressing sequence on Capitol classical, pop, and jazz monos begins with "D1" followed by D2, D3, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals; Ibert: Divertissement. The Concert Arts Orchestra conducted by Felix Slatkin. Capitol P8270.

Back in the fifties and sixties, The Carnival of the Animals, along with the ever-popular Also Sprach Zarathustra and Holst's The Planets, was a favorite hi-fi demo piece.  “Carnival” eventually fell out of favor, no doubt because it was sidelined as music for children.  This is a little like dismissing Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker on musical grounds because it has become a Christmas family favorite, even though is one of the finest ballet scores ever composed.  Saint-Saëns' tongue-in-cheek score is not of such pedigree, but it is great fun, and should be revisited once in a while if only to keep one's musical prejudices in perspective.

Even though he was incredibly prolific, Saint-Saëns' popular reputation has devolved onto a handful of symphonic works like the Dance Macabre, Havanaise, and his Third "Organ" Symphony.  Compositions such as these clearly demonstrate that Saint-Saëns was no mean orchestrator; and The Carnival of the Animals shows off that talent to the nth degree.  In a work of about twenty minutes, Saint-Saëns presents musical portraits of one critter after another in his amusing and inventive bestiary.  It's hard to resist a laugh-out-loud when it dawns on us that his Tortoises are what we have come to know as Offenbach's Can-Can at a fraction of the tempo.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most beautiful, subtly scintillating sounds in all orchestral music is to be heard in the Aquarium.  You might know it from Terrence Malick's film Days of Heaven.

I am particularly fond of the Decca stereo version with Beatrice Lillie's wonderfully self-conscious narration of Ogden Nash's verses supported by Skitch Henderson's campy conducting.  Felix Slatkin and the Concert Arts take the piece a tad more seriously in a presentation without narration.  How dare he consider such silliness to stand as music!

Not that the mono Capitol has anything like the spatial possibilities of the Decca, but the instrumental timbres are amazingly spot-on, not least the double bass in The Elephant.  Nor might you have heard such a pair of solid pianos from an LP before.  I have this recording on both the willow and original FDS green labels, and either one is revelatory.

The uncredited cover art for this record represents one of the unsung benefits of the 12” LP.  Reminiscent of contemporary movie title art by the likes of Saul Bass, such detailed art is pointless on a 4” CD jewel box.  And Capitol's covers are among the very best of the genre.  Oh yes, the Ibert Divertissement is nothing to sneeze at either.

 

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Duets With The Spanish Guitar. Laurindo Almeida, guitar; Salli Terri, mezzo-soprano; Martin Ruderman, flute.  Capitol PAO 8406.

One of the most seductive accompanied guitar records ever produced, mono or stereo.  This is the pre-crossover Almeida, back when his approach was pure and his art undistracted by commerce.  He made several solo recordings for Capitol FDS that I plan to review in one swell foop in a forthcoming Enjoy the Music.com™ review.

In this album, Almeida alternates duets with Martin Ruderman on flute and Salli Terri, vocals.  (Ruderman and Terri later joined Almeida, along with Sanford Schonbach, viola, and Mitchell Lurie, clarinet, on one of Capitol's most enduring albums "Conversations With The Guitar," issued in mono and stereo--but not FDS mono.)  Ruderman's flute here is direct and uncorrupted--no overmiking,  no extra reverb, no Galway piping. The program is a wide-ranging, tasteful and satisfying collection of pieces from Latin America and Europe. The composers include big names and small: Fauré, Ravel, Villa-Lobos, Ibert, Chopin, Ovalle and Gossec, among others.  Ms. Terri's songs all emanate from pre-bossa-nova Brazil.

Salli Terri, whom Capitol favored with several LPs with Almeida, made her first significant recordings as a soloist with the Roger Wagner Chorale  (mentioned elsewhere in this review).  Entirely worth the price of admission is Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasilieras #5.  Originally scored for voice and eight cellos, it's heard here in an arrangement by the composer for duet with guitar.  Ms. Terri's ethereal pianissimo at the return of the wordless humming section gives new meaning to the overused expression "breathtaking."  Her rendering of three Brazilian songs by Ovalle, Tres Pontos de Santo, combines heartfelt delivery with an agile technique that leaves your mouth permanently wide open.

The vocals are not as purely recorded as I would have wished for, but the very modest reverb is suitable for the music, lending a mystical quality.  All three of the first label versions are good (the original green label with the olive outer ring--hereafter designated the “olive FDS” label, the FDS side logo, and the "Capitol" side logo).  The original olive FDS version, which also appears in a gatefold jacket, has a little less reverb compared to the FDS side logo, and is more nuanced in both guitar and voice.  The later "Capitol" side logo feels the most processed of the three.

 

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Romantic Chamber Music of Ravel, Debussy and Schönberg. Hollywood String Quartet; Ann Mason Stockton, harp; Arthur Gleghorn, flute; Mitchell Lurie, clarinet; Concert Arts Strings, Felix Slatkin, conductor.  Capitol P-8304.

This is one of those LPs you might be able to find for next to nothing simply because the cover art is so inauspicious [How's that for understatement!]  It might escape notice that the record features the legendary Hollywood String Quartet.  Ravel's delicate Introduction & Allegro is scored for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet; and Schonberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is here played in the original string sextet version. The present program is rounded out with Slatkin conducting the Concert Arts Strings with Ann Mason Stockton on harp in Debussy's swaying Danses Sacrée et Profane.

The Hollywood String Quartet had the honor of playing Verklärte Nacht for the earlier Arnold in his home in Beverly Hills in advance of this recording.  We are told he approved.  I do.  I first became acquainted with this most "romantic" of works in its orchestral arrangement. It was in this format I fell in love with its uncompromising sentiment and passion.  Though I've heard several recordings of this version, I prefer the sextet.  It is more poignant, more gripping, even if not as lush in the popular sense of the word.  There are a couple of fine recordings of the original version in stereo.  My personal favorite is with the incisive Marlboro Festival group on Columbia MS-6244.  The HSQ is the more delicate.  One should have both.

No more exquisite interpretations of the Debussy and Ravel exist on record--this despite the much superior sonics on L'Oiseau Lyre SOL 60048 and the brilliant playing of the Melos Ensemble or DGG with Nicanor Zabaleta (harp) and the Paul Kuentz Ensemble.  Capitol reissued the present program with more appropriate cover art, titled Intimate Music of Ravel, Debussy, and Schönberg, with the same catalogue number.  It's an FDS side logo edition, but more than serviceable.  I suspect it's quite rare.

 

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Morton Gould: Fall River Legend. Leonard Bernstein: Facsimile.  The Ballet Theatre Orchestra conducted by Joseph Levine. Capitol P8320.

The cover art grabs our attention immediately.  The music and performance do not disappoint.  Both ballet scores represent mid-century Americana such as we might recognize from the music of Aaron Copland — only, for a change, it is not Aaron Copland.  Fall River Legend is so vividly characterized that we can easily imagine the narrative without seeing the ballet.  It bustles when we first meet the Bordens, gradually and ominously morphing into Lizzie's helter-skelter mayhem.  Gould misses out on the tragic implications of the story, keeping things on a relatively blithe and hectic plane.  Coincidentally, Facsimile makes a good follow-up to the lighter FRL; and you might want to give them at least one listen as two movements of the same piece.

Bernstein's Facsimile, not to be confused with the more popular Fancy Free, is easily confused with Fancy Free, but only, I think, because of all the "F" words.  They share little in common thematically or musically.  The former is a relatively introverted etude on loneliness, the latter an extroverted romp of three sailors on leave. Fancy Free became the source for On The Town, which is easily confused with Wonderful Town, which is derived from My Sister Eileen, a collection of stories that were first published in the 1930s in The New Yorker, which evolved into a play, then a film, then the musical--the latter two both with Rosalind Russell.  The stories were about a pair of sisters who emigrated to the hubbub of New York City from a quiet life in Ohio (from whence the song of the same title.).  The music for both "Towns" was written by Bernstein with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Not that any of this has anything to do with Facsimile, except that it afforded me the opportunity to explicate one of my favorite musical quagmires.

One of the interesting things from a historical perspective about this mono LP is how the artists are heralded.  Note that the entire cover art is given to the Fall River Legend for obvious artistic reasons.  The Bernstein is given second billing in a smaller font and less beckoning color.  Need we say more?

 

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Folk Songs of the New World. The Roger Wagner Chorale with Harve Presnell, Salli Terri and Marilyn Horne.  Capitol FDS P8324.

Check out those soloists: Harve Presnell, later from the movie "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and more seriously in the Cohen Bros' Fargo; and Salli Terri (who appears in the Duets With the Spanish Guitar, reviewed above). She co-arranged these familiar songs with Mr. Wagner. And then there's the simply ab-fab Marilynn [sic.] Horne.  We hear Ms. Horne only in the plaintive ballad He's Gone Away, but it is only one of the many vocal highlights in this album.  Other songs include: Black is the Color, I Wonder as I Wander, On Top of Old Smokey, Shenandoah, Streets of Laredo, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and--no kidding--I've Been Working on the Railroad.  That program probably couldn't be performed today with a straight face.

Like the other recordings in the Capitol FDS series with the Roger Wagner Chorale (especially Folk Songs of the Frontier, FDS P8332) this is a pretty fine demo record.  Unlike your garden variety demo, this one has an unprocessed presentation so uncharacteristic of the medium that you will wonder why recording producers generally eschew the practice.  The answer is simple and yet elusive: dynamic range.

A small choral group such as the Roger Wagner Chorale has just the right constitution for a recording, requiring little if any compression or fudging at any stage once the microphones are placed.  Mid-fifties tube microphones and wide-band analog tape did full justice to the medium.

The arrangements are something of a hoot--not the slightest bit authentic, no matter what your definition of that might be.  The singing style is what you might call "disciplined," which was very much in vogue in the fifties and sixties for youthful choral groups.  Imagine determination mixed with enthusiasm; that's Roger Wagner.

 

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