EARLY in 1957, the makers of disc phonograph records and of machines to play them discovered, with a shock, that they had imperiled their hold on the future. Furthermore, they had done it as an act of pure myopia. What they had failed to see was the explosive consequences of letting recorded tape makers have first go at stereo. Many of the tape producers were subsidiaries of the disc companies, of course, and they had enjoyed a small clientele of high fidelity purists. Now, all at once, they had a giant-killer’s weapon thrust into their hands. Stereo tapes were as easy to make as monophonics, and the stereo concept proved self-propelling in public acceptance. Stereo tape became promptly, in fact, a popular musical medium. By the time the record companies shook themselves awake, they found that V-M and Webcor were making $150 stereo-tape home reproducers, and they were not making them in dozens or hundreds either, but in thousands. The record companies had to do something fast.
They did, and with crushing force. Gentlemen from the Albert Embankment and from Hollywood and Vine flew to New York, met in conventionally smoke-filled rooms, and announced, in the late summer of 1958, the stereo disc. (The technical means to make and play stereo discs had been at hand, though not perfected, for about twenty-five years.) Prices for stereo discs were set at about half what the same content would cost on 7.5-inches-per-second, two-track stereo tape. The tape boom subsided to a murmur, almost within months. Sales and output flagged together.
Now tape is making a lively comeback, which I think a good thing. In the long run, I am almost sure, magnetic recording will supplant electromechanical. There need be no hurry, but meanwhile we can make use of its present advantages. Chief among these — especially since stereo is here, because stereo disc grooves are delicate — is that recorded tape is wearproof. It is no secret that a great many tape recorder owners use their machines to copy, promptly, the contents of a disc, so as to keep the latter unmarred. The tape copy can be erased and re-recorded at will.
The main drive on behalf of prerecorded stereo tape, however, has come from the Ampex Corporation, and, I gather, mainly from Herbert L. Brown, its vice president in charge of home equipment. What Ampex has done is to go all out for fourtrack 7.5-inches-per-second recorded tape, which can be sold at the same music-per-minute price as a disc, and which sounds, if anything, a little better, especially after the tenth playing. Further, Ampex has got its competitors to join in selling four-track adapters for two-track recorders. And it has formed a sort of recorded tape combine called United Stereo Tapes, which does both processing and marketing. Fifteen record companies had joined at the time of this writing, mostly contributing stuff of limited interest: pop music with startling sonics. Latest joiners have been London, with a spate of fine operas, and Vanguard, with the Boult-Beethoven Third and Fifth Symphonies and the Egmonf and Coriolan Overtures, all for ten dollars. Here is something to watch.
Meanwhile, RCA Victor, abetted by Bell and Motorola, has confused the issue by putting forth a system featuring “Tapette” tape-loading cartridges, like home-movie packaged reels, easy to handle as disc records but playing at the slow speed of 3.75 inches per second. I have not heard any of these yet, so I will have to report on them later.
The main point is that tape is still with us.
Minstrel on a Peninsula
As last autumn ended, a family of beavers gave Richard Dyer-Bennet a birthday present. It was a fifteenfoot brook, right across his driveway. Since the noted singer of folk songs lives on a peninsula in a Western Massachusetts pond, which he owns, this effectively moated him in. When we went calling on him, partly to find out why a singer should become his own record company, he met us at the water‘s edge and guided us over the best steppingstones to his house, a brand-new dwelling in modern style, with an upswept livingroom ceiling. It serves as recording studio as well as home and has a soundproof control room next to the entrance hall. There is nothing stark about it, however, especially since it is vigorously inhabited by a wife, two daughters, a Weimaraner named Hopper, and three cats.
Dyer-Bennet, whose company has put forth its eighth LP record of Dyer-Bennet, is a tall, lean man, light-haired and aquiline in a familiar British way, who, in his middle forties, still plays a slashing game of tennis. He is an authority on folk music, but doesn’t like to be called a folk singer, since he isn‘t. DyerBennet LP 7, as evidence, consists of twelve Beethoven Irish and Scotch songs; and frequently Dyer-Bennet will juxtapose, in concert, a Schubert group, some Elizabethan lutanist songs, and I Ride an Old Paint. Audiences love this, which makes sense to him. He has no objection to folk singers who make folk songs folksy, but he himself prefers to treat them with respect.
How he became a record company is part and parcel of why and how he became a singer. He was born in Leicester, son of an officer in the regular British army. There was no musical tradition in the family, but his grandmother used to bring him music boxes, perhaps partly because she liked to watch his procedure with them. (This was before he was six.) He would crank them sedulously until he learned the tunes, be they by Handel, Rossini, or Anonymous. Then they became his for the humming. As far as Dyer-Bennet knows, he has never forgotten a tune he memorized.
After World War I, his father retired and moved first to British Columbia and then to California. It was at this point that Dick, eleven, learned by heart — he couldn’t read music — the whole role of Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. His fate was getting clearer, though not to him. “My chief interest in college was sports,” he says. “What I really wanted to be was a professional soccer player. My coach at the San Francisco Olympics Club thought he could place me with the Glasgow Rangers.”
Alas for the Glasgow Rangers. “At a Christmas party when I was a sophomore,” Dyer-Bennet recounts, “I met Gertrude Wheeler Beckman, a singing teacher who almost ran my life for the next few years. In half a night’s talking she persuaded me to change all my studies and begin a basic music course. She also convinced me that I must go to Sweden and hear Sven Scholander. Scholander did for the lute song the same kind of thing Landowska did for the harpsichord and Segovia for the guitar. I tried to get a job on a freighter, but there was a strike on. Just then, however, I received a small legacy from England — a hundred pounds. This got me to Stockholm, and to Scholander, who was seventy-five and hadn’t sung in years. He consented to, though his lute strings were all broken; he had to send a messenger for some new ones. Then he sang me The Golden Vanity, sitting in a chair, as if conversing. It was a magical thing.
“I saw him several times more. Then I worked my way back through Scandinavia and Great Britain. In Wales I sang in churches, union halls, even grocery stores. Back in California I quit school, because now I could read Goethe for myself, you know.”
A folkplus art-song career was not easy to build. There were terrible times in night clubs, eased at one point by the warm friendship of Huddy (“Leadbelly”) Ledbetter, who gave pretty Mrs. Dyer-Bennet dreadful instructions on how to deal with mashers. Finally there was a venture into Town Hall, and mounted police had to be called out to control the crowd. Naturally, Carnegie Hall was next stop. The huge hall filled, and at the recital’s end an almost speechless Melvene Dyer-Bennet broke into her husband’s dressing room to announce that right behind her was North America’s leading impresario, Sol Hurok, anxious to talk business. The tribulations were over.
Dyer-Bennet recorded for Harvard Vocarium, Keynote, Folkways, Stinson, Concert Hall, Decca, Vox, and Remington, and has nothing against any of them. “Still,” he says, “if there is anything worth while in what I do, I’d like to leave it in sensible shape; not cut apart and reassembled. I’m not sure you make any more money running your own record company than working for other people, but you do have the last word. I like to write my own commentaries, too.
“There is one singer other than me that I’d like to record: my friend Aksel SchiØtz, the Danish tenor, who is the best person in the world to sing the wonderful songs of the eighteenth-century Swede Carl Michael Bellmann; real treasures we never have a chance to hear. I’ve learned the guitar accompaniment, just on the chance that we may get to this.”
When we made our way out, the beaver stream had shrunk to a trickle. Dyer-Bennet left us there, swinging his flashlight and humming something. It wasn‘t familiar, so it was probably by Bellmann.
What‘s New — And Timeless?
During the LP decade it became fashionable for disc collectors and critics to assail the record companies periodically for their failure to put and keep before the public sundry old recordings of great historic or artistic merit. This has always seemed to me a little unfair. Most of the companies, both large and small, have done a pretty good (and, I am sure, unprofitable) job of supplying ancient rarities. Little outfits like Eterna, Scala, and Heritage continue to keep available an impressive array of famous vocal recitals. The bigger producers, in the main, have offered their classic reprints only for a limited time. This has been in part because of international licensing restrictions, in part because of a reasonable assumption that, when a rarity has been exposed on the market for three or four years, anyone who wanted it will have it.
Anyway, the effort never really comes to a halt; the companies have budgets to watch, but they also have some artistic conscience. Currently, the liveliest endeavor is Angel’s “Great Recordings of the Century,” which had a vital infusion of new, old musical elixir at year’s end. Items that comprised this, all bright in recording legend, include the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals version of the Beethoven Archduke Trio; Cortot in fourteen Chopin waltzes; Schnabel playing the Mozart Twenty-First Concerto with Sargent and the Twenty-Seventh with Barbirolli; and three truly memorable Wagner Ring collaborations by Frieda Leider, Lauritz Melchior, and Friedrich Schorr, with Leo Blech and Robert Heger conducting. Two sets are from Götterdämmerung, one from Walküre.
The Great Recordings of the Century project was conceived in 1956 by a man named Jacques Feiser, a producer for Electrical and Musical industries, Ltd., which owns HMV, English Columbia, Angel, and Capitol, along with several Continental subsidiaries. The EMI executives liked his idea and gave him a free hand. Leiser thereupon hired René Sauré, of the Chatou Studios in Paris, who went to work on the old matrices from the vaults. His reprocessing has seemed to me astonishingly good and illustrative of something 78 collectors have known since high fidelity invaded us — that there was a lot more sound in latterday 78s than the pickups of the 1930s could evoke. Especially impressive was the job he did on the SchnabelGalliera Emperor Concerto, not yet issued here. He says that in rerecording he alters the reproduction curve a little, probably to bring out the bass and high treble components, but that he adds no artificial reverberation. Bravo for him, and may his labors continue.
The first Gravures Illustres (that was their name in France) came out just before EMI bought Capitol in America and combined it with Angel. In the ensuing fluster, the reprint project was shuttled aside. Now the first, or 1958, fist is on sale again, together with the new additions. It has in it such delights as the Busch Players’ Brandenburg Concertos; Claudia Muzio’s Italian opera arias; Edwin Fischer at the Bach Keyboard Concertos 1, 4, and 5; and Schnabel playing the Schubert B-flat Sonata. There are also four Casals discs. Not stereo, hardly high fidelity; just fine music.
Beethoven: Six Quartets, Opus 18
The Budapest Quartet; Columbia AI3S606 (stereo) and A13L-262: three records Beethoven’s quartets are, at least in some part, autobiographical statements. Beethoven, at thirty-one, when he wrote Opus 18, was a successful young man around Vienna, confident and proud, sometimes gay. Now, inside any young genius there is surely a strain of question and melancholy, later to come to the fore. What the Budapests have done is to delve for this in the young Beethoven. Since they are unerring artists, they have been successful and, to my perception, wrong. The dark taproot in the personality is not yet well grown enough to be interesting, whereas the brave floweringabove is interesting. Yet this aspect is bypassed. Maybe it is a matter of the players’ ages; the last time they recorded Opus 18, they did it very differently. I have to admit that iny main reaction is aversion. I am sure that when the Budapests come to Opera 127-135 we will have sublimity beyond complaint, but Beethoven was in his fifties then.
Schubert: The Trout Quintet
Clifford Curzon, piano; members of the Vienna Octet; London CS-6090 (stereo) As a matter of fact, two Trouts came out lately and almost simultaneously, the other one being an Angel version by Hephzibah Menuhin and the Amadeus Quartet. Miss Menuhin is pretty good, but the Amadeus players are not, especially when they get into the trout variations. Anyway, they are up against competition which is probably unbeatable. Curzon and the Viennese have this thing really by heart: every sweet languor and flashing cleverness and thumping jollity. And the way Willi Boskovsky can fiddle up a picture of a trout in the shallows with about three strokes of a bow remains something lastingly incomprehensible to me.
Smetana: My Fatherland
Rafael Kubelik conducting Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; London 2202 This is the first stereophonic Ala Vlast, and a good one. Kubelik does not make the Moldau flow quite as sweetly as Vaclav Talich did once, but he makes no errors, and Smetana does the rest. The orchestra sounds fine, though I am told the members were not at ease with Kubelik. J have always the feeling that he would do better if he did not work so hard.
Weber; Overtures (two versions)
Ernest Ansermet conducting Suisse Romande Orchestra; London CS-6074 (stereo)
Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; Angel S-35754 (stereo) and 35754
The overtures in common here are Euryanthe, Ruler of the Spirits, Abu Hassan, Freischiitz, Preciosa, and Oberon. All are rousers, great fun, and put across with appropriately vivid sonic fidelity. Now, the problem: 1 think Ansermet gets a little more wallop into his playings, but the Angel disc offers one more overture, Jubel. Two thirds of this is dull, but the end consists of the best symphonic setting of Heil dir im Siegerkranz (My Country, ‘ Tis of Thee) I have heard. It only lasts one verse, though. I would get the London.