The Hollywood String Quartet by W.D.
Wilma Cozart by Harold Lawrence
Recording in Russia by Harold Lawrence
Record Grading by Ron Penndorf
Recording Codes by Ron Penndorf
Reminiscence by Ron Penndorf
Demicello's Story by Ron Penndorf
Secret Delights of Old Record Jackets by W. D.
The fifties are now a long time ago. I am reminded of this every time I watch an old movie and find my attention wandering to the periphery, to the cars, the clothes, the haircuts, the food, the way everyone seems to be smoking. It all still looks familiar to those of us who were there, the changes we have undergone are too many to hold firmly in mind, and the image of those times begins to drift away now, with aides mémoires like photographs and records needed more than ever to help us hold on to the things our synapses can no longer manage. When a '49 Ford appears in my world now, in a Memorial Day parade, say, the shock of recognition is great and pleasurable, as with an old friend found again, but I am not carried back: I am placed all the more firmly in the present, more ancient than the beautiful old machine, and reminded that a half century has passed before my eyes.
I first heard string quartets in the fifties, from records and then in live performance. Listening to quartets in the fifties pretty much began and ended with the Budapest Quartet, those ubiquitous mad Russians of the phonograph and the concert hall. Unless you lived in New York and could hear distinguished locals like the Juilliard or the Kohon at will, or better yet, you were a student in Madison and could hear the last incarnation of the Pro Arte doing the Second Vienna School, the traveling Budapest or their records could seem to be just about it for much of the repertoire. In those days, unless you were a fairly radical quartet collector, there wasn't all that much to deal with; a few from Haydn and Mozart, maybe the complete Beethoven, some Brahms and Dvorák. Bartók was still pretty heavy going and Janácek was pretty much unknown. Actually, a taste for Beethoven was enough to lift one into the intelligentsia then, at least in the Midwest. But the genuinely serious eventually moved beyond the commercial hype and found beguiling things in the big city stores, maybe on Westminster or Concert Hall Society. There were competing Beethoven cycles to ponder and argue about, and there were French quartets claiming authority over Ravel and Debussy, Hungarians making the same claim for Bartók, Czechs for Dvorák, and there were respectable Americans putting the lie to it all, the Curtis or the Hollywood.
The Hollywood String Quartet. There was something oddly seductive about a serious chamber-music group with a name like that, something not quite respectable, something to do with that whiff of the movies. It didn't seem possible that a West-Coast-of-the-USA group could stand up to the Europeans in this rarefied repertory. These people only toured the western U.S., when they toured at all, and when they went abroad they went to New Zealand-New Zealand. Well, they played the Edinburgh Festival once, which only proved the rule. But some of us bought their records anyway, just for badness; and for the repertory. There was nowhere else to go if you wanted certain quartets by Creston or Villa-Lobos, or if the string sextet version of Verklärte Nacht obsessed you. It wasn't just the Tinseltown connection, but the avant-garde one, too, that lent the Hollywood that certain panache, that attractive air of disreputability. For getting the attention of incipient bohemian record collectors, this was the best PR in the world, and it was free.
The Hollywood String Quartet was formed in 1947 in, yes, Hollywood, by a group of film studio musicians, principals in the 20th Century Fox and the Warner Brothers orchestras. Felix Slatkin, who also earned distinction as a conductor, was the leader; his wife, Eleanor Aller, was cellist, Paul Shure, second violin, and Paul Robyn the original violist, to be replaced in 1954 by Alvin Dinkin. The quartet disbanded in 1961, and Slatkin died in 1963, only forty-seven years old-brief spans, much accomplished. But there was clearly more to it than that. Quartets don't get to be "legendary" just for doing a lot in a short time.
I suppose we should be wary of the casual presence of words like that on record jackets. But not this time. This quartet really does stand apart from the usual of the past fifty years or so, even when we allow for the occasionally extraordinary heights reached by some of the great quartets. Perhaps it is the feeling of making music just for the love of it that sings from these records, the feeling that this was a group of players at the highest level of instrumental proficiency, collectively bending their formidable wills to doing everything absolutely right musically, emotionally, and technically. Even when they reveal a degree of calculation, as in those moments when they deploy an exquisitely subtle rubato or portamento, the always-present sense of sweeping structural coherence suggests movements recorded in single takes, with the driving impulse continuous and deeply felt. This is the kind of stuff we don't get any more and didn't get much in the fifties either, when even during a good session, "legendary" quartets could commit terrible intonational sins to record with impunity, or patch together takes into a semblance of technical perfection totally devoid of continuity. Maybe it was that the early LP phonographs masked some of this. A fast-running turntable can make everything sound brilliant, and the modicum of noise that even the best of them added to the output surely could cover the splices nicely. There is none of this in the Hollywood's records. Even with the degree of variability inevitable during that decade of audio progress, with the rather brightly equalized early releases, these records played now on a musical system deliver the real thing: an image of an ideal performance of chamber music.
The Hollywood had style. For one thing, they had the distinction of being the first important quartet to include a woman. And they had other jobs. They didn't have to do this for money-very cool. Best of all, they were in the orchestras assembled to play some of the great film music of the thirties and forties. Aller had an extraordinary moment playing the beautifully expressive 'cello solo Steiner composed to accompany the desolate post-rape scene in Johnny Belinda. Aller and Robyn probably were in the Warner Brothers studio orchestra for Deutsch's super-atmospheric music for The Maltese Falcon, not to mention Korngold's fabulous scores for The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
It is often mentioned in reviews of the now many reissues of the Hollywood's records that chamber music was, for them, a family affair. Indeed, Slatkin and Aller were married, securely anchoring the quartet at both ends. And a significant number of their records (nine out of thirty-one compositions) include brother-in-law Victor Aller, as pianist. If all their records are not as good as they are, one would be tempted to say that those with Victor Aller are the best, so electrifying is he. But here's the rub: I believe it is impossible to distinguish among these records for quality. They are all that good, and surely one of the reasons they are so good is exactly that the quartet was a family affair. There is no competition for the spotlight here; the internal balances are always perfectly and delicately judged, with no feeling of the leader pulling or the 'cello pushing. Musical lines are set forth with clarity and just the right degree of tension to hold up the structure. There seemingly never was a better second violin, nor viola, a more harmonious dialogue.
So much for legends.
These players did not come from nowhere, although the usual sources
give no biographical information about any of them except Slatkin.
That may be enough to give us some notion of the background from
which sprang this quintessentially American quartet. Slatkin was
born in St. Louis, the locus of his son Leonard's triumphant career
as conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He began violin
studies at the age of six, subsequently trained at the Curtis
Institute under Zimbalist, and learned conducting there from Reiner.
This is a fine example of standard American training during the
first half of the century. American boy, probably of immigrant
parentage, goes to Curtis to get training from émigré
Europeans of great distinction. Zimbalist, a famous instrumentalist,
came out of the Auer school in St. Petersburg along with Heifetz
and just about everyone else who made a big career before and
between the wars. Nothing more need be said about conductor training
from Reiner. These connections suggest that young Slatkin probably
was identified as high-grade material, fit to be a general, not
a foot soldier. Leonard Slatkin's entry in Grove's reveals
that his great-uncle was the conductor and 'cellist Modest Altschuler,
famously the founder of the Russian Orchestra in New York at the
turn of the century and the conductor of premieres of Scriabin's
Poème de l'extase in 1908, and Prométhée,
le poème du feu in 1915. Slonimsky slyly says of the
latter event that it included an "unsuccessful attempt to
include the part of Luce (a color organ) prescribed by
Scriabin . . ." One wonders whether the thing blew up or
just fizzled out.
I was told once that Altschuler was uncle to the Allers and that Eleanor Aller had her first 'cello lessons from him. If so, we might be forgiven if we imagine the stories he might have told during lessons, and we might conclude that the Hollywood Quartet came quite naturally to both their classicism and their modernity through training and family history.
As for classicism, we hear in these records a mode of instrumental address that conveys a cultivated intonation, a consistent and balanced collective sound, a controlled but sharply limned approach to phrasing, and a projection of musical structure which values proportion on what might be called a human scale. This side of the Hollywood's nature is on display to great effect in their recordings of the late Beethoven Quartets and Grosse Fuge, where the essential inwardness of the works is conveyed through patient, loving projection of detail within a strong frame. Here their perfection is cameo-like: a perfection of small things, the world in a grain . . .
But surely modernity
was also a strong suit for them. Indeed, it is a prominent component
of their legend that they were pioneer performers of contemporary
repertory. Their revelatory playing of Prokofiev, Hindemith, and
Kodály, permitting no exaggeration, their subtle wit perfectly
scaled to chamber music, their X-ray way of clarifying and balancing
the musical lines-all this seems irreplaceable now, as if the
true lessons of modernity in quartet playing are still elusive.
The Villa-Lobos Sixth Quartet we actually have twice from them,
the second time around in stereo, but both treasurable. The earlier,
in the more brightly equalized sound, well conveys the Quartet's
biting phrasing in such contemporary music, while the later one,
somewhat warmer acoustically, gives a clearer view of the colors
they could imagine and project in a work in which color and imagination
are much of the essence.
In between, they gave us tastes of their way with Schubert (one of the great readings of the 'cello quintet), with Schumann (Victor Aller joining for a ringing performance of the E-flat Quintet), and a substantial helping of Brahms (the piano quintet, the piano quartets, the Second Quartet), all with a sort of heroic elegance conveyed with nineteenth-century gestures (such luftpausen, such portamento) so convincing as to make the listener fear the Hollywood had been possessed by spirits.
Interestingly, except for the Brahms piano quartets, we have no "complete" anythings from the Hollywood-no complete Beethoven, no complete Brahms or even Schumann.
Maybe they just didn't want to do things that way. It seems appropriate to a legend that it be left open-ended and that we be left free to imagine for ourselves the Hollywood's versions of Janácek, middle Beethoven, or even Carter.
Now that would be something.
These are the nineties, the fifties are long ago, and there have been no successors. We must be grateful for what we have. But wait. There is a rock group called Hollywood: the Quartet who are punk rockers, by all accounts. They may be booked via the Internet.
copyright 2001 by W.D. , RECOLLECTIONS
In a spring day in 1956, Wilma Cozart phoned to invite me to lunch. As recorded music director of WQXR, the radio station of The New York Times, I kept in close touch with record executives and producers. But meeting with the head of Mercury's classical division was always a special treat. Now in its fifth year, the Living Presence recording team was still making news in Detroit, Rochester and Minneapolis. Its Overture 1812 thundered its way into the homes of audiophiles; balletomanes thrilled to the first complete recordings of the original scores of Tchaikovsky's three masterworks, Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty; and Ruffles & Flourishes was about to dazzle visitors to the annual Audio Fair.
When Wilma suggested we meet at Blair House, I assumed she was going to bring me up to date on Mercury's recording plans. It proved to be more than that. In the dimly lit, subdued atmosphere of the 55th Street restaurant, she told me that David Hall was leaving the company and the post of music director was becoming available. Would I be interested in joining Mercury?
WQXR was located in the Times building on 43rd Street. I enjoyed being close to the newspaper business, smelling the newsprint as I walked through the revolving door each morning. I also enjoyed my work. But after seven years, I realized that I wanted to do more than make programs. As Wilma began outlining what the job of music director entailed, my excitement mounted.
came at a turning point in the history of recording. Stereo was
about to become a commercial reality. Two of the majors had released
magnetic tape recordings for the consumer market, although RCA's
binaural concept fell short of true stereo sound. EMI's engineers
were somewhat more successful: their recordings with the Philharmonia
Orchestra at least had a larger-than-mono, full-orchestra sound
Mercury had been experimenting with its own approach to stereo and was quietly making parallel recordings in mono and stereo under engineer C. Robert (Bob) Fine's supervision since 1954.
Over coffee, Wilma asked me whether I'd like to hear some of these unreleased recordings. She didn't have to twist my arm. Together we walked back to Mercury's offices on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, where Wilma introduced me to Bob Fine's "secret weapon", a three-track half-inch magnetic tape machine, built by Ampex to Fine's technical specifications.
The system was simplicity itself: in addition to the Ampex recorder, there were three McIntosh power amplifiers and three Altec Voice of the Theater loudspeakers with their impressive cellular mid- and upper- range tweeters.
The sound was riveting. Although I had auditioned all the previously released Mercury Living Presence recordings on the best available playback equipment, I was unprepared for what hit me. The impact was on several levels. At first, it was the sheer physical excitement of hearing the crisp sound of the snare drum in Fennell's Ruffles and Flourishes, captured in the resonant acoustics of the Eastman Theatre. Then there was the marvelous enveloping glow of the Detroit Symphony as it mounted its steady crescendo in the climax of Wagner's Siegfried's Rhine Journey. Finally, there was the esthetic thrill of being able to pinpoint the sound and position of individual instruments in the orchestra.
I remember returning to WQXR to face an afternoon of auditioning new releases in my tiny listening booth. What a letdown! It was like finishing a dinner prepared by a Cordon Bleu chef with a styrofoam cup of overbrewed coffee. I phoned Wilma the next day to tell her I'd made up my mind.
I arrived at Mercury Records in September 1956. Wilma and Bob had recently returned from their first overseas recording expedition, having produced recordings in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli and Hugh Weldon, and with the London Symphony conducted by Antal Dorati. Although I had attended many recording and editing sessions, I had never performed hands-on tape editing in a professional studio before. Nevertheless, Wilma wasted no time in assigning me the daunting task of editing the mono and stereo tapes of these sessions.
My Mercury baptism of fire consisted of editing the following recordings: with the Hallé Orchestra (Barbirolli); Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8, Bax's Garden of Fand, Elgar's Enigma Variations, Strauss' Die Fledermaus and other works: with the Hallé Orchestra (Weldon); Grieg's Piano Concerto, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, Borodin's Prince Igor Overture and On the Steppes of Central Asia, Chopin's Les Sylphides and Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain: and with the London Symphony (Dorati); Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 and Fingal's Cave Overture, Rimski-Korsakov's Coq d'Or Suite, Borodin's Polovetsian Dances and Mozart's Symphony No. 36 "Linz" and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Wilma had the tapes moved into my office. After a short orientation, she handed me a razor blade, a roll of Scotch splicing tape and an Editall splicing block, and said: "Harold, go to it. We need the edited masters by the end of next week."
I began to laugh, but there was something in her eyes that cut me short. She was only half-joking! Over the next few years, I learned that Wilma's production deadlines were not what you'd call "elastic".
In those first weeks at Mercury, I saw very little of Wilma, or, for that matter, anyone else. My days (and evenings) were spent poring over orchestral scores, listening and re-listening to "takes", and splicing tape. I quickly learned how to operate the Ampex machine and to "scrub" for editing points. I began to recognize the familiar sounds of orchestral instruments in unfamiliar settings: a trombone attack in slow motion became a gargantuan Bronx cheer, a first-violin entry the mewing of a large sick cat, and a rim shot the landing of a B-17 bomb load.
In those early days at Mercury, my heart was in my throat every time I lowered the single-edged blade onto the Editall. To add to my trepidation, Wilma told me that Antal Dorati would soon be in New York and wanted to audition the edited tapes of his sessions with the London Symphony.
I had never met Dorati, but I had heard stories about his legendary temper. During his tenure as music director of the Dallas Symphony, for example, the Hungarian-born maestro was conducting a rehearsal for a subscription concert. The hall was empty, except for some members of the Women's Committee seated in a box, probably relaxing after a leisurely lunch downtown. Dorati could hear the whispered conversation behind him and turned a couple of times to glare at the women. When this failed to stop the chatter, the infuriated conductor lifted the music stand and hurled it in the direction of the box. Although it fell short of its target, crashing into the hall's front seats, the women fled in terror and the rehearsal resumed without further interruption. What made this story even more remarkable was the fact that the music stand was made of heavy wood!
There were no such outbursts in the London Symphony recordings I was editing, but it was apparent that Dorati did not tolerate anything less than total attention from his musicians. During the Coq d'Or sessions, the first violins were having trouble with a descending chromatic passage. Dorati had them play it over and over again, delivering helpful instructions in his distinctively high-pitched voice. (Gervase de Peyer, who was then the London Symphony's principal clarinetist, said of Dorati's voice:"You can't escape from it. It'll follow you everywhere.") Nothing seemed to work. Sensing an impending explosion, the suave, experienced London Symphony leader (concertmaster) turned in his chair and said: "If you can't play it, don't." The next take was perfect. The unknown offending violinist had obviously mimed through the passage.
I had finished editing the LSO tapes with no time to spare when Wilma ushered Dorati into my office. All the out-takes were lined up on the wall in separate reels, just in case the conductor wanted to check them out.
The energetic-looking maestro greeted me with a broad smile and got right down to business. "Let's hear Coq d'Or", he said. While I was pleased with my efforts (all the splices were seamless), I was well aware that I had not supervised the sessions and I was therefore some what apprehensive. I pressed the start button and the room filled with the luxuriant Rimski- Korsakov orchestration. Throughout the playback, Dorati restlessly paced the room, reminding me of a Bengal tiger. I didn't know what to think. Was he displeased? At the end, he turned to me and said: "Fine!" Nothing more. Wilma and I each heaved a sigh of relief.
There were to be hundreds of hours of playbacks over the years when Dorati had a lot more to say. But that first encounter set the pattern for over ten years of a warm (sometimes hot) working relationship.
In addition to the English recordings, Wilma assigned me the task of editing a large batch of tapes dating back to November, 1955. These included Bartók's Second Suite (Dorati); Debussy's Iberia and La Mer; Chausson's Symphony; and a Wagner program (Paray); and Chadwick's Symphonic Sketches (Hanson). It was a logical introduction to my first assignment as musical supervisor at a Mercury Living Presence recording.
The date was October 20, 1956. It was to be Mercury's first recording in the just-completed Ford Auditorium, the Detroit Symphony's new home. The entire day was devoted to Paul Paray's large-scale Mass for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The hall posed a serious challenge to chief engineer Bob Fine. Acoustically dry, it was not shaped like the tried-and-true European-style concert hall with the classic shoe-box dimensions of a Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, or Vienna Konzerthaus. Instead, it was shallow and wide.
Wilma and I set up our control room in one of the lobbies off the stage. We had just finished taping a run-through of the "Kyrie" and Bob was lining up the beginning of the take for playback. Paray leaned forward in his chair, his huge orchestral score spread out before him on a low table. Concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff and other Detroiters hovered in the background. The room grew quiet. Suddenly, instead of the sonorous opening measures of the Mass, we were startled to hear Elvis Presley's recording of "You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog", blaring out of the Ford Auditorium's public-address loudspeakers in the ceiling.
People ran off in different directions in search of the house manager. The PA system eventually was doused. The house manager later explained, sheepishly, that his technical crew had just finished installing the speakers and they were running a test. Now that I think of it, that was the first recording I actually heard at a Mercury Living Presence session.
As in all of our sessions, a three-microphone pickup was used to record the Mass. Wilma and Bob together designed the basic setup. They had their work cut out for them - new hall, new repertoire, massive vocal and instrumental forces, and not much in the way of reverberation content.
To get started, they arbitrarily selected the height and angle of the center microphone. (Since stereo discs were not yet on the market, our initial release would be in mono only.) While Bob listened in the recording truck, tweaking his equipment all along, Wilma and I checked out the sound in the lobby. The low brass seemed to overpower the strings. Kettledrums sounded "mushy". We couldn't quite hear the flutes. But we distinctly heard Paray's shoes pounding the podium!
I recall how struck I was by the speed with which Wilma identified balance problems, as she aimed a fusillade of suggestions at Bob over the intercom:"Let's angle the trombones differently. We're not getting presence on the doublebasses; maybe we should lower the mike a few inches..."
Armed with these and other recommendations, Bob and a technician went into the hall to make those critical adjustments that would spell the difference between a merely adequate pickup and one that captured a realistic aural perspective.
Once the focal point was established for the center mike, Bob and Wilma set about locating the position of the two outriggers. At the end of the process, I asked Paray to conduct the loudest portion of the score so that we could determine our maximum levels. From that point on, control of dynamics was left strictly in the hands of the conductor.
I'm often asked to explain the duties of "musical supervisor", which is how my function was described in the Mercury liner notes. . . My primary responsibility was to "keep score" - to make sure that we had all the notes in the right places. I "slated" the takes and communicated directly with the conductor and orchestra members over a special intercom system. It was Mercury's policy to involve all the musical participants in the recording process. Of course, it couldn't be done without the conductor's permission, but we had no difficulty persuading our conductors to take the "open" approach. They did so willingly once they realized how much time would be saved. On rare occasions, when a situation demanded diplomacy, I would telephone the conductor for a private conversation.
Throughout each recording, Wilma sat at my side, not only following the score but keeping track of the amount of time we had left in the session, according to the musicians' union agreement. It was always fun to watch Wilma dealing with the orchestra's personnel manager. Stopwatch in hand, she knew precisely where we were at all times and could quote chapter and verse when there was a disagreement. After a while, personnel managers tended to ask her how much "record time" was left.
we're not getting the glockenspiel...Did you notice that? The
scale passage was uneven...let's not stop now, Harold. Keep going
until we've covered letter 'X'" Some people might call this
back-seat driving. But I didn't object, for very good reasons.
Wilma and I shared a common obsession: we wanted our recordings
to be second to none in terms of musical standards. Years later,
after I had taken over as general manager of the London Symphony,
the principal doublebass player and then chairman of the board
of the self-governing orchestra, paid us the highest compliment
a musician of his calibre could give to a recording team: "We've
made thousands of hours of recording for every possible label,
but no other company served our musical aims better than Mercury."
Back at Mercury's offices on 57th Street, I tackled the tapes we had just recorded. But since these were sessions which I had supervised musically, there was the added pleasure of assembling performances using my own session logs. Besides editing, Wilma had other plans for me. I became the Mercury chronicler, keeping written accounts of all our recording sessions. I wrote release information sheets, traveled around the country bearing tape previews of new recordings for presentations to distributors, salesmen (there were few if any women selling classical records in those dark days) and field representatives. While in town, Wilma would load me up at the end of the day with test pressings to review at home. (She did the same.) Even Bob Fine, who had his own business, Fine Recording, was assigned the task of spot-checking test pressings.
After seven years of working together, Wilma and Bob got married. An eminently sensible decision. Their professional lives were already closely intertwined and, as far as I could observe, they rarely got on each other's nerves. In fact, they entertained each other. Bob was continually in awe of Wilma's business acumen, drive and incredible determination; Wilma admired Bob's inventiveness, and his warm, affectionate nature. Mutual respect was there in abundance. They also wanted to build a family - an incredible desire in view of the fact that they were busier than ten people combined. Their union produced four boys in succession.
The marriage caused
nary a blip in the progress of the Mercury Living Presence catalog.
About the only perceptible change in Mercury's
operations was the fact that Wilma and Bob booked one double room instead of two singles when on the road.
Wilma retired from Mercury in February, 1964 to devote full time to her family. She could no longer handle her professional and personal responsibilities and do equal justice to both. In 1982, Bob Fine, the father of true classical three-channel stereo recording, died. But that was not the end of the Living Presence era. Philips Records invited Wilma Cozart Fine to supervise the restoration of the Living Presence stereo catalog. Personally, the years I spent with Wilma and Bob, helping to produce these fabled recordings, were golden in every sense of the word.
of Mercury Records in charge of the classical division until her
retirement in February 1964, Wilma Cozart was the driving force
behind the Living Presence catalog. Harold Lawrence joined Mercury
as music director in September 1956. In December 1967, he left
Mercury to become general manager of the London Symphony. After
thirteen years in orchestral management, Lawrence formed his own
recording and video production company based in Oakland, California.
Engineer C. Robert Fine, who created the single-microphone technique
and later the three-channel stereo technique for classical recording,
died in 1982. Cozart and Fine were married in 1957. The team of
Cozart, Fine and Lawrence worked together throughout the United
States, England and Europe, producing some of the finest Living
Presence albums in the annals of classical recording. )
2001 by Harold Lawrence, RECOLLECTIONS
In 1986, Sheffield Lab, the Santa Barbara recording firm, produced a series of recordings in Moscow, of U.S. and Russian orchestral music. The recording event marked the first time an American conductor had recorded with a Soviet orchestra. After two years of negotiations, Sheffield producer Lincoln Mayorga transported recording equipment from Southern California to Moscow for the sessions.
Twenty-four years earlier, another American record label, Mercury, had blazed trails for Western record companies when it became the first U.S. company to produce recordings of any kind inside the U.S.S.R. with its own musical and technical crew and equipment. A product of the "thaw" (the precursor of glasnost ), this project was four years in the making. Negotiations for it began in 1958, the year Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition and became a star of Beatles proportions in the Soviet Union.
Engineer C. Robert Fine, who developed the Mercury Living Presence recording technique, selected the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow as the site for the project - one of the label's most ambitious recording expeditions. As with all other Mercury on-location recordings, Fine arranged for his famous maroon-colored studio on wheels to be shipped from New York to Moscow.
It almost didn't make it. And along with it, the project.
The van had been shipped first from New York to Rotterdam. There a giant crane lifted it aboard a waiting Soviet freighter while representatives of Mercury and Philips (Mercury's European affiliate) observed the transfer from the dock. Next stop was the Soviet port of Vyborg, near Leningrad, where a Mercury recording engineer watched the truck nearly fall into the harbor after teetering for an agonizing few seconds on two wheels down the runway. The truck then traveled by rail to Moscow, eventually landing in the Moscow Customs Department in the heart of the Soviet capital where our team obtained clearance. Fine drove the van past the swirling domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, where we were questioned by a curious Moscow policeman puzzled by the Tomkins Cove license plate on the vehicle.
The arrival of the mobile recording unit at the stage entrance of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory immediately attracted onlookers. Word had obviously gotten around in audio, film and broadcasting circles. Muscovites peered inside the van door, looking at the foreign equipment: Ampex half-inch three-track tape machines, Westrex 35 mm magnetic film equipment, banks of amplifiers, monitor loudspeakers, and other strange-looking electronic gear.
Leader of the Moscow expedition was Wilma Cozart, Mercury's vice president in charge of the classical division. The U.S.S.R. project was one of a long list of news-making ventures for which she was responsible. During the previous eleven years, she had signed exclusive contracts with major U.S. symphony orchestras in Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis; with conductors Antal Dorati, Howard Hanson and Frederick Fennell; with violinist Henryk Szeryng, harpsichordist Rafael Puyana, the Romeros, Gina Bachauer and Byron Janis; and with the Eastman School of Music's Eastman Rochester Orchestra and Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble.
In 1956 (the year I left WQXR to join Mercury Records as music director) Cozart produced the label's first overseas recordings. Wherever Cozart went, Bob Fine's mobile recording unit was sure to be there. (Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart were married in 1957.)
Cozart's plans for Moscow were enterprising. They ranged from orchestral recordings by the Moscow Philharmonic and Moscow Radio Symphony conducted by Kyril Kondrashin and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, the Borodin String Quartet, the 80-piece Osipov Balalaika Orchestra, and a piano recital by Byron Janis, who was on tour in the Soviet Union at the time.
The sessions took place in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Three microphones set to an omni-directional pattern were placed along the apron of the stage. Cables ran from the concert hall to the recording truck parked in the driveway of the Conservatory, where Bob Fine and his assistant engineer, Robert Eberenz, presided. Another set of cables threaded their way to the fourth floor of the building, where a practice room had been converted to a control room equipped with three powerful Altec Voice of the Theater monitor speakers.
The Soviets provided the Mercury team with the help of several experienced audio personnel, including Raïsa, daughter of the legendary film director, Sergei Eisenstein. (When Fine attempted to help Raïsa move a heavy boom along the auditorium floor, she removed his hand firmly and said in English: "In Russia, women are equal!")
Unlike many other halls used by Mercury for its orchestral recordings, the seats in the Great Hall were nailed permanently to the floor. The musical forces therefore had to be deployed on the stage. But this posed no problem for the recording crew: the largest score to be recorded (Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto) fit easily into the space.
Recording began the evening of June 8, 1962 and continued through the early morning of June 17.
We took time off between sessions to visit the headquarters of the U.S.S.R. recording industry on Kachalova Street, halfway between Moscow State University and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. From this center flowed the decisions that resulted (in 1962) in an annual output of 1,200 new LP releases and more than 100 million records. In view of these impressive figures, one would not be surprised to see the offices of Fsyesayuznaya Studia Gramzapici bustling with activity. The activity was there all right, but in muted tones. Following the receptionist through the studios, we passed a trio of technicians surrounding an Ortofon cutter and exchanging whispered comments. In another, we caught a glimpse of a young woman in a white smock reading the meters of a Bruel and Kjaer Spectrum recorder. And we looked in on a quality-control worker gently lowering the pickup on a metal part.
The artist and repertory chief of the state recording industry was B.D. Vladimirsky, affable, soft-spoken, and, unlike most of his Western A & R counterparts, calm. He had every right to be. His roster included some of the world's top recording artists - Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, the Leningrad Philharmonic, and every Soviet artist and musical group of any importance on the world's classical record market - and Vladimirsky had no competition inside the Soviet Union.
A & R decisions were made in Moscow, in keeping with the centralized nature of the Soviet economy. In the fields of pop and folk music, however, local distributors made recommendations to Moscow Central for repertory and artists and often recorded special material on their own. As Russia is only one of 15 Soviet republics, a wide variety of non-Russian music was taped throughout the U.S.S.R., from Outer Mongolia to the Ukraine.
Stereo had not yet made much headway in the Soviet Union in 1962 and the state record industry had only recently manufactured its first consumer stereo player. Vladimirsky was unable to demonstrate - no cartridge.
The chief engineer of the U.S.S.R. Gramophone Recording Studios was A. I. Archinov, a gentle, balding, bespectacled man who spoke English fluently. For a man in charge of audio for the entire Soviet recording industry, it was surprising to learn that Archinov had visited the United States only once - in 1937! He was naturally eager to learn firsthand about the four and a half tons of audio equipment brought to Moscow in the recording truck.
Despite Archinov's travel restrictions, he and his colleagues were surprisingly well acquainted with the latest developments in the world of audio, as their many questions revealed. The authorities permitted him to make frequent trips to France, Denmark, West Germany and England, where he purchased quantities of new equipment for his studios. He also announced that the Soviets had now produced their own professional tape recorder, of which only 30 existed.
Conspicuous by its absence was equipment made in the U.S.A. The only American product we spotted was a roll of Scotch brand splicing tape. (Some Soviet tape editors still used ordinary cellophane tape!)
Most classical orchestral recording was then done in four cities: Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa and Riga. The best known halls, Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Leningrad's Philharmonic Hall, have high reputations. Archinov singled out a recording site in Riga which he and his team discovered. When we met him, he was planning to record Bach's Mass in B Minor in a spacious cathedral in the Latvian capital.
Soviet engineers at the time employed the MS system for their stereo recordings. Tape-to-disc transfers were made on Ortofon equipment, with 60 watts per channel driving the cutting mechanism. Two speaker systems were in operation: "ML" (Hungarian) and Pathé Marconi (French). disc playback amplifiers were 15 watts per channel.
Two artificial reverberation systems were used: one made in West Germany (an E.M.T. sheet reverberator) and a magnetic reverberator made in the SovietUnion.
The Soviet Union's entire output of classical records was pressed in four cities; Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa and Riga.
It would be interesting to me to compare the primitive state of audio in the U.S.S.R. when the Mercury recording truck first invaded the Soviet capital, with today's.
copyright 2001 by Harold Lawrence, RECOLLECTIONS
As important as the ability to judge the great performance or the excellent recording, is the ability to judge the condition of the record itself. That is, the ability to accurately grade records.
This skill, like the ability to hear the great performance or recording, is acquired. It is developed by combining a knowledge of record manufacturing techniques with hours of listening.
Since rare records now bring hundreds and even thousands of dollars, it has become critical to be able to tell a truly mint copy from a just good or excellent one.
Of course the highest price is commanded by the most perfect record, and, more importantly, minute increases in the quality of an already excellent record bring substantial increases in price. A truly superb copy demands a substantially greater price than just an excellent copy.
So it now becomes increasingly important to be able to determine the quality of a disq, and, more importantly, to be able to discriminate between minute differences in generally excellent records.
Defects-those characteristics which detract from the overall good condition of a disq -fall generally into two categories: factory defects, those which occur during the manufacture of the record, and defects brought about by either chemical or physical deterioration. In almost all cases, defects show themselves by the addition of noise to the recorded music, and it is the degree to which this noise detracts from the music and the quiet of a record that lessens the record's grade.
It is impossible to visually grade a record. It is absolutely necessary to listen to a record in order to evaluate it. Further, to most successfully grade a record, the record should be listened to on a system that is musical and yet reveals defects.
Record grading should be done at average listening volume. Grading records at a low volume might result in missing defects altogether and listening at too loud a volume might even show a slight tape hiss as objectionable.
Disqs must be graded with a fresh stylus. Even a slightly worn stylus can distort the grading process by adding to defect noise.
Once disqs have been evaluated, it is necessary to be able to rate them in relation to each other: to construct a scale.
I have chosen to grade records on a numerical scale ranging from 65 to 100. This numerical scale is more precise than the commonly used letter-system, allowing the measurement of those minute differences that translate into enormous price differences. It also avoids absurd and meaningless letter categories like Mint Minus, A Plus, B Plus Plus or C Minus Minus.
Roughly, a 65 grade record is a failure as a disq, and a 100 grade record is perfect. I have never seen or heard a perfect record, though a new mint copy of J.S. Bach's Sonatas for 'Cello and Harpsichord as performed by Janos Starker, 'cello, and Gyorgy Sebok, piano. (Mercury Golden Imports SRI 75104 ) comes close. Other possible examples of 9598 grade are a new, mint 1950s DGG Archive platter, an early stereo, new, mint, English Decca disq, a 1970s new, mint EMI record, and a late 1960s early 1970s new, mint Philips record.
Before grading records, it is necessary to clean them thoroughly. Most of the modern cleaning machines will do a good job when properly used. After cleaning I play the record. This playing will remove any slight residue not vacuumed off.
The record can now be visually graded. Though ultimately, a record must be played in order to evaluate it, it is possible to see some defects and the effects of physical or chemical deterioration.
It is important to use good light when visually grading records. I use a reflector spotlight in a lamp, which tightly focuses light on the disq. It is often necessary to move the record around under the light in order to properly place light on the record and to reduce glare. If a spot lamp is not available, indirect sunlight is a good source; however, direct sun often produces too much glare to effectively grade a record.
The most visible examples of physical deterioration are scratches. Of all the types of scratches, the most apparent and audible is the traumatic needle scratch, which occurs across the grooves. It appears as a trough, often with rough shoulders. If serious, it can easily be felt by running a finger sideways across the scratch. It is a general rule that if a scratch can be felt it can be heard. This type of scratch is heard as a fairly loud and repeated pop; its sound is fairly explosive, and it is among the most annoying and serious examples of physical deterioration. The severe scratch may throw the needle out of the groove. In extreme form, it may damage the stylus.
a scratch of this severity may be found groove-wise. It is more
difficult to see, though it often can be felt and usually is heard
as a loud pop. It also sometimes throws the needle out of the
groove. These scratches usually indicate that the record has not
been well taken care of and has been abused.
In recent years traumatic needle scratches have been reduced by the use of turntables with cuing devices and cartridges that track at light weights.
There are many less severe scratches. Their causes may vary from a light movement of the needle across the record, to hairline scratches caused by moving the record over a tiny piece of dirt while putting a record in or taking it out of its sleeve, or by moving the record itself across any dirty surface.
These hairline scratches are not always easily seen and often cannot be felt. When they can be felt, it is not by running the tip of the finger across the scratch, but rather by running the fingernail across them. Often they can be heard as gentle and recurring ticks. The ticks may be soft enough so that they may be masked by loud passages of music. They are particularly annoying because they may not be seen by casual inspection, yet they may go on as repeating ticks for minutes. They only show up through careful listening.
Scratches from the light movement of a needle across the record are more easily seen and heard. They fall between the traumatic scratch and the hairline scratch in severity. They can usually be felt and heard.
Though not as common as scratches, there are other types of traumatic physical deterioration that are regularly found on records.
The most irritating is the tight pattern of short hairline scratches and pits found on a record's surface. This pattern is most often found in about a 1/8" to 1/4" grouping. These scratches and pits are generally caused by a tiny piece of dirt being rubbed over and into the record surface. This usually happens when the record is moved over a flat, hard surface. Carelessly moving a record in and out of its sleeve or jacket, or moving a record across a table are the most common causes. This pattern of pits and scratches usually sounds as random, multiple ticks and pops, and, in its extreme form, it may throw the needle out of the groove. In its mild form it may be unusually hard to see, yet still sound.
Buff marks are light abrasions caused by slight contact between a record and a hard surface. Generally they are not heard but can be seen. They resemble brush marks, but are, in fact, bunches of light hairline scratches running parallel to each other. The lightest versions look like discolorations in the record plastic.
Buff marks may
also be found in a concentric or spiraling pattern. This is caused
by a record dropping on to another record when the records are
played on a changer turntable. Though they mar the record's appearance,
they are not serious and they usually cannot be heard. Another
common buff mark is the fingernail scratch, caused when one's
fingernail inadvertently moves across a record. Though this is
particularly annoying, generally it does not sound.
Small pits or divots may be found on a record. These are most frequently caused by a needle bouncing across the record's surface. If caused by a bouncing stylus they are found under the path of the tone arm. These pits or divots sound as explosive pops, and, if severe, they may not only throw the needle out of the groove but they may damage the stylus by bending the needle cantilever arm or, in extreme cases, by tearing the arm out of its mounting.
Careless and forceful contact between a record's surface and a blunt, hard surface can bend the record's lands over and into its grooves. This squashes the record's lands and grooves together. A record with this damage is usually unplayable. If, however, only a pin point part of the land is bent into the groove, the record can usually be played, but the needle may be thrown out of the groove.
Through extreme abuse or carelessness a record may become cracked. Often a stylus will play across the crack. However, there is constant danger of stylus damage when playing a record with a long crack-even a hairline one, for the grooves and lands on either side of the crack may not line up.
A record may be broken into pieces. This is terminal.
Though not a traumatic defect, excessive groove wear is a fairly common problem with older records. By modern standards the records of the 1950s and '60s were subjected to harsh everyday treatment. This is particularly true of the 1950s records, when record-changer arms often tracked at two to five times the weight of modern arms, and the osmium and sapphire needles of the time wore out rapidly and often were not replaced. It took little time to gouge important vinyl from the grooves, and ordinary, even careful, playing could severely wear a record.
Excessive groove wear is audible as a constant and annoying surface noise. This noise varies greatly in intensity and loudness. It may be a soft background noise or a noise loud enough to obscure the music, and it is often accompanied by the breakup of mid-range frequencies and, occasionally, by total musical distortion. This defect can be identified visually by its grayish sheen. It is probably a combination of roughened vinyl and vinyl dust.
A record with
constant, audible surface noise clearly is worn, and one with
loud noise and mid-range breakup is worn out.
In addition to being difficult to listen to because of the distraction of constant noise, these records are missing important information. They are ghosts of themselves and should not be used to judge the recording or performance quality of the new and mint original.
As records grow older, chemical deterioration becomes more and more of a problem.
The most common
form of chemical deterioration occurs in storage, through prolonged
contact between the record's surface and the record's inner sleeve.
Since their introduction in 1948, LP records have generally been stored in four different kinds of inner sleeves. They have been placed in paper inner sleeves, poly-plastic bag inner sleeves, paper inner sleeves with poly-plastic bag inserts, and glassine inner sleeves.
The most common inner sleeve used in the late 1950s and 1960s was the plain paper one. It was used by almost all the smaller companies and by most major ones. The poly-plastic bag sleeve was pioneered by Columbia, but was not as widely used as their paper one. The combination paper and poly-plastic bag was used by London and Angel records exclusively, and it was thought of as the finest of sleeves. Finally, the glassine sleeve was used in the early '50s by many labels, Mercury and RCA among them.
Of course inner sleeves were often discarded or lost, and their records then were placed alone in the outer jacket. Also, the earliest LPs were often placed by their manufacturers in jackets without any inner sleeve protection at all.
Chemical deterioration of vinyl records is caused by all types of record inner sleeves used in the 1950s and '60s except one.
In most cases, the deterioration can be seen as a light grayish sheen in the damaged area of the record. The sheen varies from an almost invisible lightening of the black vinyl, to an actual change in the record's color from black to grayish-white. This sheen is caused by chemical crazing, a microscopic roughening of the plastic. The more visible the grayish-white area, the more audible the deterioration.
When playing such a record the stylus produces a pffft sound as it passes through the damage. In an extreme case the noise can actually obscure the music. If the damage is slight, it may be inaudible.
Unfortunately, this chemical deterioration seems to continue even after the record has been removed from the offending sleeve. Fortunately, the deterioration can be slowed by a thorough cleaning. After cleaning, the record should be placed in a modern 'dry' plastic sleeve, returned to its outer sleeve, and stored in a cool dry place.
The severity of the deterioration and the way the deterioration shows itself, varies from one kind of sleeve to another.
The most severe deterioration is caused by paper inner sleeves with poly-bag inserts. Records stored in these sleeves often have their surfaces roughened at the point that the record touches the sleeve's glue seams. This often produces four lines of roughening, each along one of the glue seams. These lines are usually about 1/2" from the record edge and suggest a square. The paper-poly bag sleeves used by Westminster Records and Angel Records in the 1960s seem to be the worst offenders.
Plain paper inner sleeves also craze the record along the sleeve's glue seams. Most often there are two lines on opposite sides of the record, again about 1/2" from the record edge.
The plain poly-bag sleeve also crazes records. This crazing does not seem to be as severe as that left by paper-poly or plain paper sleeves. These imprints appear as a random pattern over the record's surface. In fact, the pattern is not random, but is determined by where the bag stuck to the surface of the record during storage. The pattern is often made up of squiggly lines that look like those on a relief map of hilly country. Late 1950s and '60s Columbia records are most often affected by this type of deterioration.
Records stored in glassine sleeves show no noticeable sign of chemical deterioration.
Record warpage is caused by heat. Excessive heat causes the plastic to lose its "memory" and so change its shape.
The most common source of heat that warps records is direct sunlight. Sunlight can easily heat up a record sufficiently to cause warpage. The black vinyl disq is particularly vulnerable outside its jacket.
Very hot days are also dangerous; then, a record may warp simply because of high air temperature, especially if the record is in a confined space that can heat up.
The other most
common cause of warpage is careless placement of the disq on,
or close to, heat-producing hardware-especially tube amplifiers.
There are two kinds of common record warps. The first and most visible is the "lip warp." This warp is found along the record's rim. It may vary from a gentle, almost imperceptible variation in the plane of the disq, to a sudden, dramatic dip. The gentler warp takes place over the entire circumference of the record; the sudden, more violent warp usually occurs over a shorter distance.
Occasionally, a record is found that is violently warped over its whole circumference. This is terminal.
A lip-warped record cannot be satisfactorily straightened.
The heat that causes the warp may also microscopically roughen, or craze, the record surface. This roughening causes the well-known pppfffft as the stylus passes through the damaged area.
A gentle 'lip warp' may be tracked without noticeable distortion of pitch or dynamics, but a violently lip-warped record will not only distort the music but may throw the stylus, arm and cartridge out of the record's warped groove.
The second kind of warp, the "dish warp," produces a disq that resembles a plate or bowl, the record edge being consistently higher or lower than its center. This warpage also is caused by excessive heat, and surface crazing is again possible. "Dish warps'"are generally less severe than "lip warps," though, as the stylus tracks the dish-warped record, some slight distortion might be heard. In a more severe dish warp the stylus may skip grooves.
"Dish warps" cannot be straightened. Happily, however, during playing, most turntable vacuum systems can straighten a gentle dish warp.
In both the "lip" and the "dish warp" excessive heat may also distort groove spacing and so cause the stylus to wobble as it passes through the damaged area.
Occasionally, a record may be found with both a "lip" and a "dish warp.'" If severe, this is a terminal condition.
Factory defects are those defects that occur during the manufacture of a record.
The most common factory defect is warpage. Both "dish warps" and "lip warps'"are found among factory-defective records. The factory warp was frequently caused by careless removal of the disq from the stamper before the record had cooled properly. In the 1950s and '60s factory warps were generally not very severe, since manufacturers guarded against them with some type of quality control. In fact, the problem of factory warpage, as well as all factory defects, varies directly with quality control. The better the quality control the fewer the defects. A warped 1950s or '60s DGG Archiv record was unknown. By contrast, the mass produced record of the '80s or '90s could easily be found warped. Indeed, by now a warp may no longer be looked on as a defect.
Lightweight records, those manufactured from the late '60s on, warped more easily than other records simply because they were thinner and so were more susceptible to heat.
From the 1960s on, the plastic shrink wrap used to seal records often caused the record to warp. In sealing a record in plastic shrink wrap, a thin plastic film was placed over the record jacket. The plastic wrap was then heated slightly. This heating shrunk the plastic wrap. If the shrink wrap was too tight, as it was heated, it caused the jacket and disq to twist. This warped the record. The heating itself could also cause the record to warp.
Finally, improper storage and shipment of records by the manufacturer often resulted in warpage.
As the record manufacturers' quality control lessened in the '70s and '80s, records began appearing with factory scratches. Unknown in the early decades of the LP, factory scratches became more and more common. They were the product of the careless handling of new records or, sadly, the blatant re-sealing and resale of known defective records. In the '70s and '80s all manner of scratches could be found on new records.
Though not the most common problem, it was one that could easily have been avoided.
A particularly irritating problem and one unique to record manufacturer is that of "vinyl pull" or "vinyl tear." This shows itself as a group of jagged pits usually concentrated in an area no bigger than 1/2 " in diameter. The tearing of bits of vinyl from record grooves occurs when a newly stamped record is forced from the stamper. In removing the record its surface is ruptured. The pits vary in size, but, because of their roughness, even tiny ones might sound loudly and damage the stylus. It is possible for them to throw the stylus out of the record groove The most common reason for the disq sticking to the stamper is improper use of mold release.
Another defect unique to record manufacture is non-fill. This defect shows itself as tiny pits in the record that are barely visible. They are most commonly found clustered on the record surface or, occasionally, along a groove wall. In both cases they sound-the cluster, as recurring ticks and pops, and the groove wise non-fill as a single loud zzztt. The cluster non-fill can be seen. It appears as tiny sparkles when light is bounced off the disq. Groove wise non-fill is often not visible to the eye.
A particularly annoying defect is the small bump. There are generally two types: the "bubble-bump" and the "bit-bump." The "bubble-bump" is a smallish bump over which grooves have been stamped. Though the stylus usually plays through the bump, it produces a gentle thump as it does. The thump may last from several to a half-dozen revolutions. This defect is especially irritating because it is found most often on the vintage RCA Red Seal and Mercury Living Presence records. It was often caused by stamper temperatures that were too high. The "bubble-bump" occurs when air is trapped beneath the record surface during pressing. The air pocket forms a gentle bump beneath the record grooves. The "bit-bump" is formed by a small chunk of vinyl embedded in the record surface, above the grooves. This vinyl chunk is often jagged and sounds as an explosive pop. It can throw the stylus out of its groove and may damage it. Both kinds of bumps are particularly irritating because, though tiny, they are very audible. They can ruin an otherwise perfect disq. In fact, they are so annoying that they discourage listening. Often a disq with this defect can still be found in otherwise immaculate, unplayed condition.
A plastic bit or chip may also be found stuck in the groove. This is heard as a single, explosive pop. It may throw the stylus out of the groove and is especially dangerous to the stylus. Generally the chip or bit cannot be seen.
Another factory defect is the "weak strike." Here, because of incorrect stamping pressures the platter is not cleanly or deeply stamped during manufacture. This defect cannot be seen and depending on the system, may or may not be heard. When it's audible the defect shows up as a fuzzy sounding mid and upper register. A tube system with a moving magnet cartridge and lineal tracking tonearm often will not reveal a 'weak strike.' A fresh stylus might also mask this defect.
In addition to incorrect stamping pressures, worn stampers may cause the "weak strike." Worn stampers more often produce platters that are aurally out of focus. When such a pressing is compared to a clean pressing it sounds vague and fuzzy.
The use of dirty stampers during manufacture is another annoying problem, because it could easily have been avoided by cleaning. This kind of carelessness became common in the mid-1960s and through the '70s and '80s, when the manufacturers exercised little quality control. A disq stamped from dirty stampers often has full sound but excessive surface noise. The surface noise may vary from a few ticks and pops to a constant hiss.
The quality of vinyl used in platter production also can effect the condition of a disq. Inferior or poorly mixed vinyl can produce platters with rough surfaces. The roughened surface, in turn, produces a constant background hiss. Though similar to tape hiss, it is louder and of lower pitch.
Some defects are peculiar to individual labels.
Many mid-sixties Mercury records display slightly mottled surfaces. This mottling is in fact a defect-surface etching. This etching produces ticks, pops, and some surface noise. The defect seems to be a result of poor pressing quality, and the deterioration of the vinyl over the years. Mercury records, pressed at Richmond, Indiana, often suffer from this problem. Surface mottling is especially annoying, because even with the fairly intrusive noise, these pressings usually have fine sound.
RCA Red Seal records
of the mid-sixties (Label No. 7) often were pressed of grainy
vinyl. This type of vinyl produces a rough surface, and the rough
surface in turn sounds as constant background noise. It is similar
to tape hiss but of a lower pitch. A record with this defect can
be identified visually, for the grains can be seen in the vinyl
by reflecting light off the surface of the record. This can be
most easily seen in the area of the lead-out groove.
The type of record with the most factory defects is the early-fifties Columbia Masterworks (Label No.1). These disqs can be regularly found to have 'bubble-bumps,' inner-groove distortion, and maybe a unique problem.
Before Columbia used hot cutters to master disqs, a slight ridge would often be found on the top of the groove wall after cutting. This small ridge was the product of cold-cutting. The slight shoulder was thrown up during the cutting process. If not careful when placing the needle into the first groove, it is possible to put the stylus down on the land, and then track the land, not the groove, all the way through the record. The stylus rides the land between the two ridges thrown up during cutting. A strange, but music-like sound is produced.
There are those defects which, though they occur occasionally, are quite noticeable.
Very noticeable, for instance, is a record label that is pressed into the record's inner grooves. Generally, these label-pressed-grooves are unplayable.
Sometimes a lead-in or lead-out groove is blocked; and consequently, will not operate properly. The blockage may be a result of poor pressing or of record wear. This problem can easily be overcome by hand queuing.
Sometimes a record may be pressed off-center. Depending on how off-center the record is, the disq may produce very slight 'wow' or it may be completely unplayable.
Once in a great while, a record will be found with a chipped edge. This is a result of bad pressing or careless handling. If chipped badly, the record's first grooves may be unplayable.
Unbelievably, a record may have no sound in the grooves. I have heard a Mercury Living Presence record with this problem. One of the Mercury ballet recordings in Harold Lawrence's collection has, in fact, a half-dozen grooves at the beginning of the first side that contain no sound.
Most defects detract from the good sound of a record, and all reduce a record's value and price.
Although judged by subjective standards, a record can be accurately graded. Serious grading, however, can only be done through playing.
I have chosen to play-grade and rank investment quality records on a numerical scale of 90-98. Theoretically, of course, a perfect record would be graded 100. The highest grade that I have ever given a record is 98.
What detracts from a record's perfect grade are its defects. The lowest grade for a record of investment quality is 90. A record graded 90 may have some occasional surface noise, usually the result of a fault in manufacture. In order to be of investment grade such a record must otherwise be an exceptional pressing, or a record of extraordinary sound. A 91-92 record may have some very occasional surface noise. But this noise must not be intrusive. When listening to a 93-94 grade record, the listener should be aware only of the music, though there may be a very occasional tick or pop. A 95-96 grade record is virtually flawless, the listener having to contrive to hear surface noise. As far as possible, a record graded 97 and 98 is flawless.
A new collector, or even a veteran collector not used to play-grading, will not automatically be able to make these judgments. Intelligent play-grading is an acquired skill like evaluating performance quality or recording quality. It is probable that the inexperienced play-grader will at first not even hear these subtle differences, and will give a 95 or above grade to a record that looks fresh and glossy-black.
2000 by Ron Penndorf, RECOLLECTIONS
Performance perspective: the way the performers are related to one another in space, through recording: e.g. the cellist is forward on the left with the pianist behind her and to the right, they are in exact scale.
Performance setting: the space in which the performance is given, and recorded; e.g. a concert hall, a recording-studio, a jazz club.
1a. I believe this to be one of the great records of the LP era.
1b. I believe this to be one of the great records of the 78 era.
2a. This recording captures the essence of stereo, the convincing 3-D model of the-performing-of-music.
2b. This recording, though monaural, suggests a convincing 3-D model of the-performing-of-music that is the essence of stereo.
3a. This is a successful multi-miked and mixed-down recording.
3b. This is a
successful minimally-miked recording.
4a. This recording presents a balanced performance perspective in a pleasing setting.
4b. This recording presents a balanced performance perspective in a pleasing and spacious setting.
4c. This recording presents a balanced performance perspective in a pleasing but smallish setting.
4d. This recording presents the performers in good scale.
4e. This recording realizes detail and yet presents a convincing whole.
4f. This recording clearly presents complex orchestral music.
4g. This recording is an extremely clean and clear presentation of a symphony orchestra.
4h. This is a recording with the soloist in realistic proportion to the accompanists.
4i. This recording presents a natural and pleasing string sound.
4j. This recording clearly presents complex chamber music.
4k. This recording is an extremely clean and clear presentation of a chamber ensemble.
4l. This recording is a convincing presentation of a string quartet.
4m. This recording is a convincing presentation of a piano trio.
4n. This recording is a convincing presentation of a jazz ensemble.
4o. This recording is a convincing presentation of a solo instrument with keyboard accompaniment.
4p. This recording presents an in-scale dynamic range and frequency response.
4q. This recording clearly presents complex choral music.
5a. This is a recording of convincing string quartet sound.
5b. This is a recording of convincing symphony orchestra sound.
5c. This is a recording of convincing piano sound.
5d. This is a recording of convincing solo instrument sound.
5e. This is a recording of convincing violin sound.
5f. This is a recording of convincing viola sound
5g. This is a recording of convincing cello sound.
5h. This is a recording of convincing harpsichord sound.
5i. This is a recording of convincing wind instrument sound.
5j. This is a recording of convincing brass instrument sound.
5k. This is a recording of convincing percussion sound.
5l. This is recording of convincing organ sound.
5m. This is a recording of convincing vocal sound.
copyright 2001 by Ron Penndorf, RECOLLECTIONS
In the fall of 1995, after putting it off for weeks, I finally went up to Ruby Peterson's house to look at some old records. Ruby, who is eighty-something and can best be described as a national treasure, had patiently called me several times to make this appointment. Her housemate of decades had recently died, and Ruby was now moving to an apartment next to Lake Merritt. "I have to be out by December 26th," she earnestly repeated.
Ruby's house was on The Alameda in the hills just north of Berkeley. "You can't miss it," she exhorted. "It's just the other side of the city limits sign. I'm back off the street and up quite a hill. I hope you can climb it."
Since an article about me appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, I've received many such calls: all of them had ended in goose chases.
The day was sunny and just a bit chilly. Ruby was right: you couldn't miss it and it was up quite a hill. The left side of the lot was a steep concrete drive ending in a substantial parking place, the right side a carefully tended Japanese garden rising fifty feet to the house.
"Huh," I mused.
The door, equipped with a substantial knocker, was big. Shortly after I knocked, it opened and Ruby appeared. Well groomed, she was intense and alert. "Mr. Penndorf?" she queried.
"Yes," I assured her and made the usual pleasantries. As we entered, my attention was at once drawn to a beautiful Japanese doll displayed in a delicate glass and wood case. Then my eyes darted to other Japanese antiques: prints, lacquered bowls, cabinets. There were many, and they all seemed to be well loved.
"The records are upstairs in the living room," Ruby remarked.
"Hmm," I muttered.
The house was tastefully appointed, but the living room showed no sign of any records; a grand piano surely, some low cabinets with drawers and more antiques, but no records
"They're in here," said Ruby as she moved toward the low cabinets. She pulled on the top-drawer handle, and the drawer facade became a door as the cabinet opened.
There were the records, neat row after row.
They're just mono," she apologized, and indeed they were-record after mono record of crisp white jackets, perfect, richly colored covers, and glossy, deep black disqs.
I sat down on the floor, suspicious that these records too were an illusion.
In the background my assistant and Ruby were engaged in conversation. Yes, Ruby was born in Canada. Oh yes, she had studied at the same school as Glenn Gould . . . "Of course some decades before." Horowitz? She had seen him when he first came here. "The 1920s, I think." She had learned to drive an automobile when she was seventy-two. "You shouldn't learn from a friend; best at a school-more professional, I think." She particularly liked Gieseking. "I love his Mozart, I . . ." She went on, but I was no longer listening. I was finding record after record of the Hollywood String Quartet, the Barylli Quartet, Walter Gieseking, Erica Morini, the Vienna Octet.
The records were new.
I think I heard, "I play piano, you know. Not so much any more . . . but I still play."
I came across an Antonio Janigro on Westminster.
I'd seen this record before. I was standing in the doorway of Campus Music in Madison in 1956. Janigro was on sale for $2.99 and he was being played over the store speaker. I loved the sound of his 'cello. I had to have that record. I walked into the shop and began browsing through the Westminster stock.
copyright 2001 by Ron Penndorf, RECOLLECTIONS
I knew I was supposed to like the Casals Bach 'Cello Suites, but I didn't.
The Suites had just been released on LP by Angel in its Great Recordings series, and Albert, my boss, assured me they were great-he remembered them from 78s. When I asked my 'cello teacher Bonnie Hampton, what her favorite performances on record were, she replied almost without thinking: "The Casals, Collin has the 78s." But what was easy to find and to hear were the Angel COLH LP dubs. I bought all three records and listened eagerly to all six suites.
They were terrible!.
Casals' sound was exactly what G.B. Shaw had described as "a bee buzzing in an empty stone jar." (Shaw didn't much like the 'cello.) Still, Albert assured me that they were great, and Bonnie remarked, again almost without thinking, that the LPs were probably better than the 78s. I found out later, in the early '80s that they weren't.
Only the 78 rpm mastering capture Casals totally-all LP masterings seem vague and dull. They somehow miss both the essence of Casals and the Suites.
The Suites are very much made up of dance movements, yet their texture is complex and full of counterpoint. Casals understands both their structure and their dance. In many of Casals' faster movements the listener finds himself instinctively moving to their rhythms. Yet Casals brings forth all the suggested counter-melodies. At times it seems he is playing as many as three different parts at once. And hearing the 78s the listener can sense Casals' zeal and fervor.
Apparently I'd heard the wrong Casals.
I find the Bach
Suites more spiritual than most religious works I've read and
I've devoted years of my life to the study of the Suites and have
the first five. The Sixth Suite is written for a five string 'cello, an instrument of Bach's time. And although I could play the Sixth Suite, I found its sound pinched and tight when played on a four string instrument-a result of playing much of the piece in the higher positions with half-stopped strings.
Just before I stopped playing, I bought a five-string 'cello, with the idea of learning the Sixth Suite on the instrument for which it was written. And one afternoon about that time, the auburn-haired Mary Kate Connor brought a five-string player to my apartment. She'd told me about him before: "You should hear this guy. He plays Bach on a five-string 'cello on Telegraph Avenue. I think he's good."
A few days later the 'cellist arrived at my door with M.K. Although from the street, he looked just like a regular person and after introductory pleasantries, he began removing his 'cello from its well-worn hard case. As he did, we talked about Bach and the instrument, which was a modern four-string that he'd had converted. The instrument was beautiful and well cared for. After tuning he asked what I wanted to hear. "Bach." I replied, expecting to hear the Sixth Suite. Instead he began to play the Partitia in d minor for Unaccompanied Violin. It is a difficult enough piece for the violin and I thought it was unplayable on the 'cello. Yet he played it perfectly. In the fast movements his fingers flashed over the fingerboard with ease, his bow moving in a graceful Baroque style. The slow movements were perfectly drawn out. When he finished, I was speechless. I had never heard or seen such musical virtuosity. I finally got out something like, "That's pretty good. It must be hard to play." After some talk about the score-his careful, loving transcription of the Urtext-he left.
I went to the Avenue several times hoping to see him, but I never heard or saw him again.
it that there are basketball players on playground courts in New
York City and L.A. who are better than the best of the NBA-but
simply not interested in the professional game.)
copyright 2001 by Ron Penndorf, RECOLLECTIONS
The secret delights of old record jackets: secret because they often require reconstruction, and need an accretion of history to reach their full resonance. Take, for example, MG50096 and MG50097, the first complete edition of the Ives violin sonatas. These Olympian Mercuries were released in the mid-fifties, just before stereo, in the superb little group of contemporary chamber music performances that featured Rafael Druian.
On first acquaintance, these covers seem subdued, even drab. Most of the space is taken up by a black and white photograph of Ives, with an apple green stripe on one record, a baked bean brown one on the other. The backs are plain, dense with notes in small print. Nothing obvious here, nothing eye-catchy, in fact, just about as unassuming as an LP jacket got. Yet reading these notes nearly forty years after they were written, looking again at the face on the cover, I shudder at the eerie sense of extraordinary distinction in this cardboard, a package worthy of its contents if ever there was one.
These elegant notes, telling of Ives' way of 'recomposing' popular tunes, take us straight to the heart of the matter. That the writer was Lou Harrison didn't mean much at the time to most of us. The sixties had not yet happened, after all, and we needed them to teach us about the kinds of things Harrison was already doing, inventing instruments and using found objects, Cornell-like, in his concerti for flower pots, washtubs and galvanized iron pails, and mixing Oriental instruments into Western ensembles. With ineffable charm, he tells us that the final movement of the Third Sonata "is a kind of perfection of the first; and in its high romantic moments, its frequently fluid melodies, and in the mastery of structure . . . it is remarkable, and will doubtless long survive the blushes I, for one, feel at Ives' selection in the final tune; for, actually, what other kind could he have used?"
And the cover, too: the image itself has the expressive power of great portraits, the eyes directly engaging the viewer, the left hand gripping a cane purposefully, the whole figure leaning out of the frame as if a great point has just been made, wittily, intelligently, vivaciously. The essence of Ives, this portrait has justly taken its place as the most famous and characteristic one we have.
But who in 1949 (when this picture was made) knew that W. Eugene Smith would come to be seen as the great tragic photographer of the century, a figure whose life and art would be examined nearly as closely as that of Ives himself. Now, we know the stories of his playing records in a tent on Guam for Ernie Pyle, records of Brahms and Bessie Smith, how he carried hundreds of records (78s!) wherever he went on assignment, how he thought of the photoessay (his invention) as essentially musical. And we know that he particularly loved the music of Ives.
Much of this material originally appeared in "RECOLLECTIONS Journal of Recorded Music." Back issues of the journal are available for US$15.00 at RECOLLECTIONS-by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
can also be found and browsed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive
of the New York Public Library, the Stanford Archive of Recorded
Sound and the Music Department of theChicago Public Library.