Vinyl Stock Number: Victrola VICS-1002
Vinyl Stock Number: Victrola VICS-1139
These two new releases from Classic Records arrived together and are the first Victrola labeled ones I have seen. After listening to them and doing some background checking, it became apparent that they share a great deal of similarities, in nearly all respects. So they are being literally reviewed together and I mean as "together as I can make them".
Background research shows that both recordings were recorded in England in the early days of stereo recording, possibly as early as the fifties with English conductors, orchestras and engineers. Probably both were originally RCA property and later reverted to English Decca (known as London recordings in the U.S.A.) and then the property of BMG licensing in 1965, then Universal, next a French company and now ???. If you wonder why English Decca was doing all this work for the then U.S.A.'s RCA Company, I'll repeat what I've heard ever since I climbed out of my perambulator. RCA had "most of the great solo artists of the music world" including opera vocalists under contract. This started some selective and creative talent swapping between companies, notably English Decca and RCA. Briefly, English Decca (London) were then able to record more operas featuring other of the great opera stars and in return, RCA got completed master disk recordings of works, such as the two under review here before an exclusive use period of time by Decca, and sometimes with an eventual reverting to R.C.A.
In the "Penguin Stereo Record Guide Second Edition", published in the mid seventies in England, Morel's Swan Lake recording is listed as Decca SPA #224. A partial quote from the book, "Now reverting to the Decca label, it emerges as a vividly enjoyable disc, with excellent sound that does not date in the least. The acoustic is very slightly dry but it matches the keen, alert playing". This same book is quoted about a different performance, "On the older Decca disk [Decca SXL2285, London 6218] Fistoulari (conducting) is real ballet conducting, making this the finest Swan Lake selection in the catalog, particularly as the Decca recording is in this company's highest class of both richness and transparency." As I pared my LP collection a few years ago to approximately 2,500 this is the LP version I retained. This same book actually "does not specifically list" Boult's Rachmaninov Symphony #2 recording but mentions it briefly as an add-on notation. Partially quoted as, "There is also a recording by Boult with the LPO [#ECS 594 (probably a Decca number)] but this sounds pale beside the other versions although Boult's reading has plenty of character and impulse. The book lists as its first recommendation, with its very special "rosette appellation" Previn's version on HMV ASK 2889 (Angel S 36954) which I also kept and cherish. Quoted as, "Previn's newer HMV record sweeps the board; it is one of the outstanding Rachmaninov records (not just of this selection) in the catalogue."
The RCA Bible is a compendium of opinion on RCA Living Stereo records, second edition by Jonathan Valin. This loose-leaf book is an almost unbelievably valuable source of information about ALL aspects of the golden age of RCA recordings, artists, sound and performance evaluations and much more - if you don't have it, get it - highest possible personal recommendation. Quoting the RCA Bible results in both being listed as "Original Recordings" which simply means neither had been previously released in the U.S.A. as an RCA Living Stereo recording. In it's many reviews of Living Stereo recordings, fifty to one hundred words or more is a common review length. There are 43 sections in this superb book - it covers it all. I'm giving you three facts and let you tie them into my following personal reviews of the recordings. The "Golden Age" of RCA Living Stereo records was from 1958 through 1963. During this period there were many great performances by the greatest artists and as often as not, recorded with superior to almost great sound quality. Richard Mohr, producer with Lewis Layton, engineer earned a reputation for particularly fine recording of orchestral string sections. Producer Jack Pfeiffer was responsible in many ways for RCA's successes but I don't recall as much credit being given to him, as he deserved. Along about the end of 1963 RCA started using more and more transistorized recording equipment and introduced the infamous "Dynagroove" techniques to make the newer recordings sound better on cheaper or more common "hi-fis"; this was the beginning of the end of a truly "Golden Age" - albeit a brief age.
These and other Victrola pressings were not issued until 1963 or later and as a consequence more and more of the then new transistorized equipment was used throughout the recording and production chain. There is a very real limit on what any company can do to compensate for things such as that, Classic Records included. Many of us remember the relatively poor sound of much early solid-state equipment; it was kind of like very early CDs. Good specs and bass response did not compensate for other losses. (Note: contact Music Lovers, 3537 Epley Road, Cincinnati, OH 45247)
Finally, the nitty gritty, my brief review of the two recordings together and really together as they go hand in hand, remarkably, in nearly every aspect. Both performances are very good, not typical nor average, and just missing the top rung by an amount so small as to be meaningless to most listeners. A rhymatic vitality is at times more apparent in the other previously mentioned old recommendations from the "Penguin Guide" as well as my direct comparisons in late 2001 of these recordings now more than forty years old! Sound quality of the above mentioned older recordings are very roughly comparable overall to these newer Victrolas. They have a touch more lively sparkle in the treble range while the smoother Victrolas at times can be almost a bit bland though detailed, but with more and more extended bass. This noticeably improved bass quantity is often a bit muddy and indistinct. Overall the sound verdict is good, not excellent and not comparable with Classic's typical releases. Why not? It's probably as simple as what Classic had to work with. The "Golden Age" recordings typically used for Classic's best re-masterings and releases usually start with original or master tapes all done with the finest tubed gear. The Victrola releases started with probably much of the original preceding work done using early solid-state technology. It's to Classics credit they could turn out these recordings that I can be call "good", though I know they'd like them to be excellent or better like so many of their Living Stereo releases.
Interest should be very high for our readers if not now in possession of these two selections. Many people consider Swan Lake to be the greatest and most popular ballet music ever written. Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Coppelia are vying for runner-up in my not so humble opinion. The extremely popular Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 is not one of my top ten symphonic choices but it could easily be yours. Performances I rate as four out of a possible five stars while sound quality as a solid three.