Ten Years of Hi-Fi
WHEN annus Domini MCMLVIII invades us, not long hence, we will have been in the long-playing record era for ten years or, as I calculate it, about twenty thousand audio-hours, a unit of measurement I just made up. It is self-explanatory, I am sure. My figures are based on an allowance of forty minutes of sound from every new recording released on vinyl at 33 1/3 rpm since Columbia copyrighted the trademark “Lp,”and, I may add, they are not in the least reliable. A few tentative questions to industry spokesmen have convinced me that nobody actually knows how many LPs have been issued in this astonishing decade, or at least nobody this side of the Library of Congress. And their tabulation for MCMLVIII cannot possibly be ready much ahead of MCMLX, not unless they’ve been working nights. My own statistics are derived from a brief intuitive flutter through several vintage copies of the Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog.
Such mathematical whimseys aside, there is no doubt that the sound engraved in thousandth-inch grooves on slow-turning vinylite since 1948 has done something of immense importance not only to the record industry but to the musical life of Americans in general. Its advent was not unheralded; the times were ripe.
Consider the situation of the record industry in 1948, to begin with. The preceding year had yielded the biggest sales in history, with a special boom in classical recordings (1947’s volume was not topped for eight years, despite microgroove). No one knows why. It was marked also by the beginning of the high-fidelity enthusiasm, and again no one knows why. The neatest explanation is that this was the year of the magnetic phono-pickup cartridge, offered simultaneously by General Electric and by Pickering and Company to fill the gap in the chain of equipment available to the venturesome home phonophile. Also there had begun to arrive here London-Decca’s astounding “ffrr” recordings, the byproduct of British wartime submarine sound research.
But the fact is that a widespread yearning for good in home music reproduction had slightly preceded both of these developments, and I know because I was swept up in it. What the magnetic cartridge and British Dccca’s glintingly realistic discs (still 78 rpm, remember) did was divert me from another prospect, and I am sure I was not alone in this. The other prospect was tape.
Tape is one medium of magnetic recording. The only other that ever threatened to rival it was wire. In the pre-war and war years, interest in America centered on wire. The Germans developed tape. I had seen and heard some captured German tape a little before the war’s end. It raced (thirty inches per second), it fluttered, and it showered black oxide dust, but its sonic fidelity was higher than any disc’s (until “ffrr” came along), and it offered continuous play, without four-minute breaks. After the war, American manufacturers, notably Minnesota Mining, went to work improving it, and there was much glamorous leakage about its potentialities. But it seemed both futuristic, so far as purchasable recorded music was concerned, and decidedly expensive. The arrival of magnetic cartridges won me, with many another, away from any waiting game. We wanted to get on with our listening.
The coming of the long-playing microgroove disc surprised many of the phonophiles of 1948, though it shouldn’t have. Victor had tried a non-microgroove variety of 33 1/3 rpm record in the middle 1930s. It didn’t work well (it was noisy and abraded metal styluses) and didn’t sell at all. But plastic 78s had been made, and the necessary additive was evident. CBS-Columbia foresaw it, and during the wars (one with the Axis, one with James Caesar Petrillo; both detrimental to record production) began making acetate masters — without halts except between movements of classical works — from which the future’s first-year LPs could be dubbed.
CBS’s research director, Peter Goldmark, and his associates put the finishing touches on LP microgroove in 1947 — it was an epochal year! — and the results were made public the following summer. First there was an offer to share the process with RCA Victor, which, for reasons probably sound but never made entirely clear, turned down the proposition and instead introduced the second new speed. 45 rpm. Upon this refusal, Columbia threw the process and its own processing facilities open to the rest of the industry, mostly in an attempt to win them to long-play. The early LPs, in general, were not very good. They could not compare in fidelity with the 78-rpm British Deccas, Deutsche Grammophons, and HMVs put forth during the same period.
What happened next I am sure even the guiding genii at Columbia did not really foresee. It settled the Speed War. It was that the recording tape, rather than becoming the rival of the disc record, became its source material. All at once, anyone who had $2000 could be a record company. The procedure was to buy a tape recorder, go to Vienna or Milan, assemble a knowledgeable group of musicians — who would work in those days for very small payment—and bring back a hitherto unrecorded masterpiece, which could be made here into disc masters by Columbia or by RCA Victor, which very soon entered this lucrative act. There was nothing reprehensible in this practice. The Continental musicians realized, in general, that they were venture-partners in shoestring operations. They went to work with a will.
What they achieved, apart from publicizing their names, was one of the first and initially important results of LP. They broadened the repertoire. Especially they extended it backward in time. Only a few Haydn symphonies (the “Bear,” the “Military,” the “Schoolmaster”) and a few Bach cantatas had to be taped to start a dependable surge of buying. At length, Vivaldi became commercial, and an entrepreneur could mention a Palestrina tape without being laughed out of the office. Westminster began recording all five-hundred-odd of the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti.
New companies appeared every day, or very nearly. There was something compulsive about being a recording impresario; everyone wanted to try it. Some tried it, indeed, on a one-shot basis, merely because there was an artist or a piece of music they wanted to have on records. Others were, of course, much more businesslike. Of the latter, several have long since outgrown the designation of “small” companies, though none have grown in size to rival the giants.
The truly small and transient companies very nearly all stuck to repertoire that could be considered offbeat, at that time anyway, and that required nothing much in the way of forces. One would make an album of the piano sonatas of J. C. Bach, another the chamber concerto for saxophone by Glazunov. The more ambitious outfits chose to focus mainly on works best described by saying they ought to have been in the standard repertoire but weren’t — works of the great composers which never had been recorded because it was always safer, for a big company, to produce another Tchaikovsky Fifth. Haydn, Bach, and Mozart received particular attention; there was always a public ready and waiting for three more Haydn quartets, a steady public if not a vast one.
The astute new companies took note of something else, too: the spreading awareness of high fidelity. They began to pay special attention to their microphoning, and to be very fussy about the disc-processing done for them by their huge competitors. Record buyers (and there must have been some reason for it) began to think of Westminster and Vanguard records, for example, as embodying higher fidelity than those of Columbia, which manufactured the smaller pair’s discs. Such companies also took care to list the proper playback equalization on their jackets, for people who had precision equipment. Some longestablished companies, notably Mercury, became alert to this and followed suit. For a long time, however, RCA Victor and Columbia stalwartly ignored the high-fidelity enthusiasm, on the ground that it was merely a lot of noise from a very few mouths. Not until word came in that Hermann Scherchen’s Haydn “Military" Symphony, with its clangor of bass drums and cymbals, was selling in the fifty-thousands for Westminster did the two major companies begin to revise their opinions. Since then, of course, the fi-frolic has been in full swing, as any record advertisement will make evident.
The growth of the small LP companies (nearly all the new firms made LPs only; the 45 across the years became the medium of popular music, the equivalent of the old single 78) also spurred the major manufacturers into some venturesomeness in repertoire, though the latter were restrained in some degree by their artist contracts. That is to say, if you want the Boston Symphony to record for you, you must stay with their concert repertoire. Hiring them to learn something from scratch is simply too expensive. However, circumstances arose that tamed the musical daring even of the smaller companies.
These were not local circumstances, nor musical, but nationwide and socio-economic. America suddenly decided to move into suburbs, build houses, raise families, and buy television sets. The center of recreational interest became the living room. The television set displaced the radio. But it could not entirely replace it. The radio had offered something for the ear which was not really missed till it was gone — music. Television is a bad musical medium and, in realization of this, hasn’t tried to be a musical medium at all. The recourse was to records.
Now the industry was selling to a new public, a really new one. The public that sent Westminster to initial success may not have known who Badura-Skoda was, and they weren’t familiar with the Mozart Twelfth Concerto. But they did know who Mozart was and probably they knew the Twentieth and Twentyseventh Concertos. So their shopping for the Twelfth was fairly shrewd and informed.
Of the new buyers, many have only lately heard of Mozart, and they have never heard at all of Sir Thomas Beecham or Bruno Walter. They want some Mozart because Skitch Henderson speaks well of him, and they want something good he wrote (what they always get is either the G Minor or the “Jupiter,” of course). As to which version they want, they have no doubt. It has not occurred to them that one man may conduct a symphony better than another. They want the newest recording, because it will be the most “hi-fi.”
This situation exists and for the time being constitutes a bonanza for record makers, if they can work fast enough. It has filled, and for a time will continue to fill, the catalogues with new, indifferently performed versions of musical staples. But it does not horrify me. The greenest listener (a description of me in 1933) with even an $89.50 “hi-fi” semiportable (which sounds better than what I had then) merely by listening will develop taste and perception if he has the necessary equipment between his ears.
There is another hazard which plagues some of my sound-purist friends, namely that the record companies will start tailoring their wares to sound impressive on cheap phonographs and dreadful on good ones. I doubt that this will happen, at least in the field of serious music. In the course of the decade, the industry has developed a breed of indispensable specialist, half-musician, halfengineer, to govern its recording procedures. Most members of this genre are young men; they have different titles but only one aim: good recording. A sales department attempting to corrupt one of them would have small chance of success; it could not even talk his language, let alone direct his mysterious endeavors.
Further, another musico-sonic eminence is under preparation for the select phonophile. Stereophony is icumen in. And, for some reason I have not yet identified, basically good recording is better distinguished in stereo recording than in singlechannel conventional recording. The stereo phenomenon deserves an article to itself. Here suffice it to say that it probably will not seriously affect the LP disc market for some years. The disc record is too convenient, and there are too many people whose musical conditioning has been through records — which is to say, they have no special preference for music from a lifelike, spread-out source over music from a single loudspeaker. Especially does this apply to the people who crave “mood" or background music, and these constitute a very sizable portion of LP buyers today. And stereo is much more expensive.
In a purely musical sense, the decade of tape and microgroove has seen an odd development, which I view with mixed feelings. This is the synthetically perfected performance. Tape can allow musicians to play undisturbed through a whole movement. That is good. But tape also can be — as disc masters could not — erased and spliced. The result has been that many musicians and recording directors now begin a session with the notion that the final recording will be a composite. This has an effect, indefinable but detectable, on the performing. At worst it takes the shape of emotional discontinuity. At best it makes it seem almost as if the players had rehearsed once too often, and had lost their spontaneity. I am not the only one who has been bothered by this. As I write, Sir Adrian Boult is making for Vanguard the nine Beethoven symphonies. And, at his own request, the tapes will run while he plays the works right through, without halts for remakes. What comes forth will be interesting to hear.
Beethovcen: Symphony No. 9, “Choral”
Bruno Walter conducting Frances Yeend, Martha Lipton, David Lloyd, Mack Harrell; Westminster Choir; New York Phi!harmonic Orchestra; Columbia ML5200: 12”
If I am not mistaken, this is the Walter version of the Ninth that Columbia has been selling for some years on three sides of two discs, with the Brahms Song of Fate occupying side four. In its remastering in onedisc format it becomes a real bargain, especially since the sound has been cleaned up in the process. It has the most majestic and second most exciting first movement of any Ninth on records, and its scherzo and adagio (split between sides here, of necessity) also are highly creditable. The finale, however, for my taste, is overdeiiberate and insufficiently militant. I don’t think Beethoven was asking us to approve human brotherhood as an ideal, I think he was telling us to go get it, or else.
Brittent Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Sir Adrian Boult conducting Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra; Westminster W-LAB-7057: 12”
This same performance of the Sea Scenes can be had also, at about one quarter the cost, on Westminster (non-LAB) 18601, which also contains the Young Person’s Guide and the Rossini-Britten Matinées and Soirées. The latter disc — which I have not heard — thus offers a bargain of content, and I suppose it is adequately recorded. The Laboratory Series disc is, of course, recorded better than adequately, the reproduction is startling in its purity. Midway between, if you’re interested. is London’s combination of the Peter Grimes excerpts and the Guide, by Van Beinum and the Concertgcbouw, in performances just a bit livelier than Boult’s. Best of all the recorded Sea Scenes was the Columbia version by Malcolm Sargent, now withdrawn.
Busoni: Sonata No. 2 in E Minor
Max Rostal, violin: Nel MewtonWood, piano; Westminster XWN-18126: 12”
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), perhaps best known to most of us as an arranger for the piano, was a Romantic adherent to Classical forms, as was Brahms. He was also, as this long, strong, and very beautiful sonata shows, a first-rate composer. Mostly the work is serene in mood, with here and there a little sturdy playfulness. The finale is almost BeethovEnian. Rostal and the late Mewton-Wood contrive a fine, big, vibrant tone, which has been reproduced with impressive accuracy.
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Vaughan Williams: Variations on a
Theme by Thomas Tallis
William Steinberg conducting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: Capitol P-8383: 12”
Steinberg’s Enigma is very much indeed like Toscanini’s, except that the sound is (tempus fugit) delectably newer, easier, richer. Without much hesitation I recommend this as the best current version of Sir Edward’s lovely piece of trickery. The Vaughan Williams work also is given here in a version which easily matches any competition. A splendid recording.
Poulene: Stabat Mater and Le Bal Masqué
Louis Frémaux conducting Jacqueline Brumaire, soprano; chorus; Concerts Colonne Orchestra (in Stabat Mater): Pierre Bernac, baritone; Francis Poulenc, piano; instrumentalists of Théâtre Rational de l’Opéra; Westminster XWN-18422: 12” Written in 1951, Stabat Mater seems to me beyond dispute a genuine masterpiece of devotional music. Here are no startling effects, but a simple, genuine poignancy, furthered by consummate musical workmanship; one is strongly reminded of Couperin’s Tenebrae Services. The performance is appropriately skilled and earnest, and the recording all one could desire. Le Bal Masqué (1932), by contrast, is pure flippancy: witty musical settings of rather gruesome little nonsense poems by André Gide. It is trivial, but no matter; one buys this record for the overside.
Sibelius: Quartet in D Minor, “Voces Intimae”
Grieg: Quartet in G Minor
Budapest String Quartet; Columbia ML5202: 12”
Sibelius died recently; it is a happy coincidence that the world’s leading quartet should have chosen now to give us a new and lambent playing of the sole work he wrote for their instruments. Some critics belittle it.
I cannot understand why. It is in the Beethoven idiom and, like nearly all Sibelius, has a touch of landscape in it; it is a self-search by a man who was in tune with his setting. Its only trouble is, perhaps, that it discovers no trouble, no matter how deep it delves. What is bad about that? The Budapests have paired it well with the Grieg, which delves not at all but offers folk feeling in gay Classical mold. The sound reproduction is worthy of the artists.
Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
Karl Böhm conducting Leonie Rysanek, Christel Goltz, Paul Schöffler, Kurt Bohme, other soloists; I Senna Stale Opera chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; London XLL-A-46: five 12”
The Lady with No Shadow is the first of the “late” Strauss operas, and may have discouraged people from attending its successors: it makes no concessions at all to the listener. It is enormously long — ten sides in this splendid recording. Based on the fairy tale of a sprite-princess who is married to a human monarch and who wants to win her shadow (that is, human reality), it embodies a sort of dramatized dialectic on the nature of human virtue. Strauss uses leitmotivs (London diagrams them in its fine booklet) to illustrate this, and you must follow these to get the drift. The excitement is all philosophical, but it is there. For me the trouble is that the people, sprite or human, are not very real. However, some of the singing is magnificent, and the nobility of the ideas is seizing.
Strauss: Horn Concertos No. 1 and No.2
Dennis Brain, horn; Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; Angel 35496: 12”
Here we have Richard Strauss, son of a horn player, in one concerto written in 1883 and another composed in 1943. The earlier is prime Romantic and enormously virluosic; the later is strictly Strauss, Neoclassical, much more restrained, and more absorbing. Neither offered any difficulty to the late Dennis Brain (killed driving back from Edinburgh to London last autumn), who made golden game of both in this inimitable legacy. It is a treasure.
Igor Stravinsky conducting Vera Zorina, narrator; Richard Robinson, tenor: Westminster Choir: New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Columbia ML-5196: 12” When Stravinsky (1934) wanted to be gentle, no one could be gentler. And no sweeter proposition of the need to be needed need be written than this dulcet account of Persephone stolen to the Underworld, lost in timeless dolor, then summoned back to initiate the annual marvel of springtime. The composer conducts eloquently, and the sound is fine.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Fritz Reiner conducting Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor LM-2129: 12”
I wish I could resent (on behalf of other performers) the way Heifetz takes over this concerto and makes it his, but I cannot. Perhaps this is the challenge Tchaikovsky built into the work. If so, it is met here beyond cavil; the performer seems to exhaust all the possibilities. The orchestra and engineers abet him faultlessly. This may be a definitive version.
Richard Dyer-Bennet: Folksongs
Richard Dyer-Bennet, tenor, with Spanish guitar: Dyer-Bennet Records-3: 12”
The high points of this recital, faultless in sound and taste, are Lilliburlero, circa 1688, one of the best political rebel songs ever written; Charlie Is My Darling, a Jacobite rival; and a boastful German student drinkingsong about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, the glory properly being accorded to die Kosaken. There is much else, including a very good Go Down, Moses.