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The Decca/London Mono LPs
Volume 2

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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  Just over one year ago, I unofficially began my survey of Decca/London mono recordings with the Vaughan Williams symphonies. To do that catalogue justice could be a life's work, but I'll content myself, and perhaps tease my readers, with a few at a time.Herewith are seven previews of vocal, orchestral and piano recordings.

 

Labeling

But first we should get the nomenclature mandala out of the way: "London" was the U.S. surrogate for English Decca. "Decca" was just one of two or three U.S. labels for Deutsche Gramophone. "Angel" was the U.S. label for E.M.I. United States Angel records were pressed by Capitol.English "Angel" records derive from E.M.I. originals.E.M.I. used the same familiar dog listening to "his master's voice" as did RCA.And some recordings that appeared on RCA were also released on English Decca (but not London).But you knew all that, right?

The logo, ffrr "full frequency range recording" appears on both the Decca and London mono labels and also on later Decca & London stereo recordings.Decca's first stereo records, however, were the prized ffss "full frequency stereophonic sound. "And, just to keep us on our toes, some Decca ffss recordings were released in the U.S. only as London stereo ffrr.

Not all Decca recordings, mono or stereo, made it to the U.S. as Londons, and some Londons were not released on Decca in the U.K. Providing the publication series is similar, the sonic differences you can expect between a Decca and its London counterpart are trivial to non-existent compared to those from different generations — just as there are fewer differences between a 1S and a 2S Living Stereo RCA than between a Living Stereo and a Dynagroove edition of the same recording. I have on good authority that, generally, since the U.S. and U.K. editions were contracted to hit the street on the same day, the Londons were actually the first ones pressed in order to get to the U.S. at the appointed hour. That revelation should raise some eyebrows.

The first London monos are usually prefixed "LL." The later ones, "CM."Some CMs are reissues, some are originals — just as some Mercury RFRs are reissues and some are originals. The way to be certain is to look for the letter "R" immediately following the matrix information at 6:00 at the bottom of the disc label. By the way, all the information around the lead-out groove area is identical in every respect for both London and Decca. Very handy!

I shall make an effort to use "London" when I am referring to the label and "Decca" when I am referring to the production. I have also included ARL numbers, which appear just below the disc label and help identify the original recording, regardless of the record catalog number. With apologies to my overseas readers, I will provide catalog information and cover art for the U.S. release (for the most part) — except for this installment, which is absent any cover art: It seems I have misplaced all these records for the moment and they are therefore unavailable for photography.

 

Renata Tebaldi: "Recital of Songs and Arias" Vol. 2. Giorgio Favaretto, piano
London 5394 [ARL-3757/3758]

Gentle, lyrical, lesser known pieces by Mozart, Bellini, Respighi, Rossini, Handel, Tosti, Mascagni, and Alessandro Scarlatti. My favorite is by a composer previously unfamiliar to me, Vincenzo Davico, who published a set of Tuscan Folksongs in 1947.One of these, "O luna che fa' lume" concludes the program. The song is delicate and absolutely ravishing, and by itself worth the price of admission. Tebaldi is a little formal from the outset, but either she gets better or I warm up to her in this varied and unusual recital for piano and voice.

The recording is one of those unfussy, natural perspective feats of Decca engineering, and qualifies as one of the best vocal LPs of serious concert music, mono or stereo. Decca beautifully captures Tebaldi’s voice with just enough distance to give her voice the opportunity to bloom without any sense of strain or electronic resonance. Since the black label London does not include the "R" after the lead-out serial number, we can assume this is the original edition. (see also Tebaldi's first recital album, London LL-1571.)

 

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A Festival of Lessons and Carols. King's College Chapel, Christmas Eve, 1958. Directed by David Willcocks
London 5523 [ARG-2127/2128]

It is scary at times when a good mono recording exceeds what we imagine to be the limits of stereo in terms of depth and space. The present unassuming title does this so well that even the most resolute spatialist will eventually have to give in to its magic. Much of this effect, of course, is due to its being a live performance at a church concert, the likes of which studio efforts couldn't match and wouldn't try to.A choir of 16 boys and 14 men from King's College, Cambridge participate in a Christmas Eve cantata derived from eclectic sources, including J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, plus a host of traditional carols. The arrangements are conservative, to be sure, but heartfelt and spiritually infectious. Interspersed among the 11 carols in this somewhat abbreviated version of the actual service, there are seven brief readings ("lessons") read by various members of the choir and introduced by the King's College Provost. A subtle and beautiful record.

 

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Graziella Sciutti Recital. Graziella Sciutti, soprano. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Argeo Quadri, cond.
London 5617 [ARL5065/5066]

Not to be confused with Grizabella, the glamour cat, Ms. Sciutti was nevertheless quite a looker, and as it happens an interesting and arresting singer. She made her debut in 1950 as a concert singer, but soon found her place in operatic roles such as Susanna (Figaro), Frasquita (Carmen) and Despina (Cosi). The present recording was made in 1961. The mono version offers the soprano in a convincing and responsive vocal projection, with plenty of body and delicate shadings; the stereo counterpart, OS 25244, is an ffss, and while more spacious and in some ways more detailed than the mono, the voice is not as dynamic, luscious, or tangible.

Ms. Sciutti brings a fresh style to these gems, as if discovering them for the first time, as do we along with her. Think of her as the mid-century counterpart to something between a Kathleen Battle and a Cecilia Bartoli. Argeo Quadri's sensitive accompaniment caresses these familiar melodies with exquisite tenderness. The music here is taken from The Barber of Seville (Rossini), The Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale (Donizetti), The Capulets & Montagues (Bellini), and Cosi fan tutte, Figaro, and two concert arias (Mozart). By the way, Ms. Sciutti was active at least until 2003 as an opera director.

 

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Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe. London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Pierre Monteux, cond.
London CM-9028 [ARL-4504/4505]

Delicate shades of constantly changing color are what Daphnis et Chloe is all about. So subtle are these changes that for much of the piece there is the feeling that time is standing still — a curious paradox for a ballet score. The name Pierre Monteux is synonymous with control. His objective: nuance of expression and clarity of orchestral textures in order to bring out the melodic line where you might have thought all was merely sensation. He never lets the orchestra run away with itself, which some may feel he takes to extremes as "pandemonium" breaks loose, or is intended to, in the finale. Others, however, may find that such control lends a sense of suppressed eroticism.

This performance exists as a stereo version; however, be warned about the London Treasury edition, which is veiled and compressed in comparison to the mono.

 

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Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Julius Katchen, piano.
London CM 9272 [ARL-5005/06]

It is possible that you are as yet unfamiliar with this music; if so, this is a state of affairs that should be corrected ASAP. Not only is the Op. 120 THE masterpiece in this form [he said, categorically, Bach's "Goldbergs" notwithstanding], the Diabelli is representative of Beethoven's thinking about an extended piece for any instrument, ensemble, or orchestra. The 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli runs over 45 minutes without interruption. There are no breaks for ends of movements, only the natural ending of a variation — the longest paragraph of its kind until that time. Indeed, some of the variations move so seamlessly from one to the next that you are hardly aware of it. At the risk of preaching to the converted, I think it fair to say that you haven't yet qualified as a true music aficionado until you embrace the Diabelli, an extraordinary work that will challenge you intellectually as well as engage you emotionally.

I only discovered Katchen's performance last month, and I feel secure in nominating it as one of the better Diabellis. I mention my coming to this LP so late only because I already have a number of other fine recordings including, among others, Alfred Brendel on Turnabout/Decca and Steven Bishop on Philips, and had always felt myself content. I bought this one because of the excellence of Katchen's Brahms solo piano recordings and his performance of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto with Gamba for Decca. Still, I was not expecting the range of discovery that he brings to this demanding work.

 

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Von Suppé: Overtures of Franz von Suppé: Poet and Peasant; Pique Dame; Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna; Light Cavalry. London Philharmonic Orchestra / Georg Solti, cond.
London LL-352 [ARL-743/744]

"So that's where that tune is from!" is the oft-heard cry on encountering a Suppé overture. We may not know the title, but his once very popular music is certainly familiar. Light Cavalry has become a cliché, something like the William Tell Overture. Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna has a title we could mistake for Strauss: Musically there is a not too distant relationship, Suppé being the waltz king's immediate popular predecessor in German operetta. The Overture to his Poet and Peasant, a sort of opera for orchestra in miniature with more than a touch of Verdi, is probably his best-known piece. This record has an ancient pedigree, to say nothing of a photograph of a young Georg Solti that might be worth the price of the record. Solti is in his element here: fiery but in control, next to which the otherwise sonically voluptuous NSOL/Agoult performances on RCA LM-2134 are tame. The sonics of my red label "R" pressing are terrific, with all the trimmings: dynamic, wide bandwidth, big stage.

 

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Elgar: Falstaff, Symphonic Study, Op. 68. London Symphony Orchestra / Anthony Collins, cond.
London LL 1011 [ARL-2051/2052]

It was Sir Adrian Boult's performance of Falstaff with the London Philharmonic on EMI that Mobile Fidelity picked out for what I recall was their first classical reissue (and a 2-LP set at that). Mobile Fidelity no doubt believed that its luscious orchestral textures, expansive dynamics and superlative sonics would seduce audiophiles into longhair. And as a performance, it ain't shabby, either. Putting aside comparison between the EMI original and the MFSL reissue, let's cut right to the Collins Decca mono. Anthony Collins and Boult could hardly be further apart in their attitudes about what this piece is about. Boult focuses on the swagger; Collins’ Falstaff is as much turbulent as corpulent. There is more dynamism from Collins — as his readings often possess — compared to just about anyone. This can make the music's architecture a little harder to assess, but Elgar's sense of line can be elusive anyhow. So in a way the question is: Do you want to know where you are in the music, why you're there, and where you're going, or do you want to have one hell of a good time getting there, wherever that is? The Decca has a treble that will knock your socks off: incredibly crisp, metallic percussion, plus a sweet string sound, but missing the awesome bass of the EMI.

 

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