A Collector's Item by W. D.
Early Development of the LP by Ron Penndorf
The Records in the Picasso Covers by Ron Penndorf
Columbia Masterworks Demonstration Kits by Ron Penndorf
For every collector, there is a record that stands for everything totally insane about record collecting. This is the one for which nothing less will do than owning every copy, all the copies in the world, if that were possible; the one for which the idea of the perfect copy is reserved: not just unplayed and unblemished, not merely clean and unworn, but a child of the right matrix, stamped on a day the ingenious craftsman knew the joy of creation and every move was true. We never give up hope that the next one we find will be the very one we know must be out there: the perfect copy of the most superb recording of the greatest performance of the most wonderful music, just waiting to be found.
For some time now my own hopes have been focused on a slightly odd, perhaps throwaway production of the pre-stereo fifties, LM1913, Delibes' Sylvia andCoppélia, played by 'members' of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Pierre Monteux. I found my first copy in an unlikely used record shop in Albuquerque devoted mainly to country music, but with a box of dollar apiece 'as is' disqs tucked under the counter. It did not look promising, a battered and scarred old campaigner, with its jacket in tatters and worn, gray, dirty grooves. But it was Monteux, and we do not leave Monteux in 'as is' bins.
Listening to this record was not pleasurable in the obvious ways. Its condition prevented a clear projection of the performance as recorded, while the underlying sound betrayed an irritating harshness and a cramped acoustic space, rather like looking at the orchestra through the wrong end of a telescope. And yet, in spite of these obstacles, or maybe because of them, I could not escape the feeling that what I was hearing was a musical performance of the greatest distinction, with qualities perfectly suited to the nature of the music being played, and with an energy so apt and concentrated that even this overfamiliar music took on an aura of freshness and revelatory power. If only it were a perfect copy.
I began to buy every copy of this mysteriously fetching record that came to my attention, and I managed to acquire four good copies before long and, incidentally, before the supply seemed inexplicably to run out. I had even begun to think that this was a rather common item: it had gone through two versions of the shaded dog label, been reissued in a three- record catch-all ballet box (LM6113), and even in dreadful fake stereo as RCA Camden CCV 5030. Were I more than usually paranoid for a record collector, I would have thought someone else was chasing along the same track, getting to the bins or the phone one step ahead of me. I calmed myself with the sweet thought that perhaps I had found the last four good copies in the world, and maybe one of them was the perfect copy. At least I could now stop and listen at leisure to my four precious records perhaps to find that the sound was not so poor as I had first feared. I could even hope that my four records would provide a basis for an extended technical consideration of the relative merits of different stampers, earlier and later pressings, and the like.
Alas, it was not to be so. After many long bouts of hard listening and determined attempts at systematic comparison, what became clear was that I could not tell E4 RP8108-13S A1 from E4 RP8108 3S B2, or anything in between (My copies are E4 RP8108-13S A1/E4 RP8109-5S A5; -5S A1/ -1S A2; -15S A1/-9S A2 and -3S B2/-6S A1). Although it is true that at times one sounded better than, or at least different from another, the harder I tried to keep these perceptions sharp in my mind, the less steady did they hold. In fact, the differences came to seem as easily attributable to the temperature of my power conditioner or the effect of humidity on my cantilever bushings as to differences in the grooves. But this is not the end of the story. For whatever reason, be it the condition of my four "good" copies, or my cantilever bushings, on a good night this was, unmistakably, a DEVASTATING record. So much so, in fact, that, at times, everything patently imperfect about whichever copy I was listening to just fell away, and the recording became . . . perfect. Huge setting, silken string sound, brilliant brass, and all the rest. The kind of mono that makes stereo seem presumptuous and irrelevant.
Consider the music. The selections are from Delibes' two great ballets: Coppélia, based on a typically creepy story by E.T.A. Hoffmann about living dolls, and Sylvia, a mythological story with nymphs, lovestruck shepherds and wild bacchantes. To give an idea of the pop status these ballets have achieved, I need only mention that the immortal "Waltz of the Hours" is featured in Coppélia, while Sylvia is the source of the never-to-be-forgotten "Pizzicato Polka." Both were composed for the Paris Opera, as Delibes moved up from the disreputable milieu of the Bouffes Parisiens (Offenbach's theater) and the Théâtre-Lyrique, where, as a young man, he had established himself as a composer of theater music. These are big ballets with lots of numbers for the corps de ballet, pas de deux, character dances, pageants, marches, czardas, mazurkas, and in Coppélia, a lead role danced en travestie. Indeed, Tchaikovsky is said to have made rueful remarks about them.
And consider the historical context. The two works are separated by five years, the Franco-Prussian War, the four-month seige of Paris, the end of the Second Empire, the suppression of the Paris Commune with 33,000 dead, mainly killed by the French army. The successful opening run of Coppélia was actually cut short by the war, during which the choreographer St. Leon died of a heart attack, and the original Swanhilda succumbed to malnutrition. And, perhaps not incidentally, the birth of Pierre Monteux in 1875.
Monteux, although he might not have liked to admit it, turns out to have been the arguably preeminent conductor of ballet in the first half of the twentieth century, on more evidence than the records. I need not rehearse the usual litany of Monteux premieres to support that notion. But even if we were confined to the evidence of the records, a persuasive case could be made. Others have recorded more complete versions of the great classical ballets, but Monteux' excerpts seem to me to be worth more than all the complete versions I have heard. Why should this be so?
Well, the answer to that question lies at the heart of my obsession with perfect copies of LM1913. The bald technical facts are revealed in the notes for LM6113: "Sylvia was recorded on December 30, and 31, 1953 in Symphony Hall, Boston and Coppélia on December 2 and 4, 1953 in RCA Victor's studio in the Manhattan Center, New York. A single condenser microphone was used in both recordings, placed approximately 17 feet above and behind the conductor's podium." Here is a glimpse, through a few selections from two quintessentially French ballets, of Monteux' way with music we do not normally expect to hear in great performances. But this is exactly what we are given here: great performances by an apparently reduced contingent of the Boston Symphony, led by the Master, and recorded in such a way that the greatness of the performances is self-evident. This should be enough, I suppose, to satisfy the criteria for collectibility, but it is not enough to put off the devils of obsession. It is as if all the associations brought to mind by this conductor and this music as they are revealed through this record, images of Degas, Manet and Pissarro, all the improbabilities of ballet, the divine nuttiness of the dance (and of record collecting), combine in a demonic, laughing pursuit of the hapless collector's soul. Just listen (if you can find a copy) to the mock march, the Cortège de Bacchus, with which Monteux closes his suite from Sylvia: hear the impossibly cocky trumpet fanfares, the delicious shimmers of cymbals, the incomparable sense of holiday and circus, as the strutting bacchantes toss garlands and wave their thyrses at you.
Maybe there are differences among my four pressings after all. I will keep trying to hear them. Maybe these are my four desert island records. Simplifies the choice, doesn't it?
2001 by WD, RECOLLECTIONS
of the Long Playing record are too obvious to require extended
comment. They minimize interruption and inconvenience: permit
more logical and complete presentation of the music idea, reduce
space requirements and represent an economy in expense that is
decidedly worth considering."1
Thus, the 1930 RCA Victor Catalogue introduced their LP record, the 'Program Transcription.' This new kind of record was RCA's hope for restoring their market. By 1930, radio and the depression had reduced RCA's and all record companies' sales. The 'Program Transcription' was 12" in diameter, revolved at 33-1/3 RPM, had fine grooves (.0045 inch) that were closely spaced, and was made of a flexible plastic called 'Victrolac.' It carried up to 'three times' the playing time of a 12" 78, had quiet surfaces, and was to be played with a 1.5 mil RCA Chromium Orange Needle.
"Yet when these revolutionary discs appeared in record stores, they failed miserably to rejuvenate the doddering record industry. The fact that the new discs, in the beginning, were all dubbed from standard Victor records and did not have as much volume as the regular ones proved an immediate draw back. Complaints of consistent pitch wavers, probably caused by slow speed motors not running steadily, were voiced on all sides. Deterioration in tone quality was particularly marked in the last half of these records."2
With more development the records improved. Grooves were spaced wider, at the expense of playing time, and direct recording was done. Still the disqs did not sell and they were dis- continued in 1934. However, RCA's experiments with long-playing records continued, and it was rumored that they would reintroduce the disqs in 1941. "Victor in conjunction with the National Broadcasting Company had developed fine grooved transcriptions, the recording techniques of which, according to one sound engineer, laid the basis for fine grooved, or 'microgrooved' records as Columbia has chosen to call them."3 The lack of proper reproduction equipment was probably why the disqs were not produced.
"Principal among the new interlocking developments that have been successfully demonstrated by technicians but have not become available to purchasers of reproduction equipment are the following: 1. a smooth material disc, which is not used to grind the point of the needle to fit the groove, but designed for an absolute minimum of friction; 2. a practical dynamic pick up of greatly refined moving parts, with lowered pressure and a permanent jeweled point of considerably smaller diameter than in use; 3. recording with a very fine groove which will give positive 'side wall' drive to the stylus point mentioned above; recording at a lower overall volume level made possible by the quietness of a really smooth record surface."4 Before these advances could be marketed, World War II stopped all further development at RCA.
Meanwhile, by December 1939, Columbia records had been "recording all its sessions on standard groove 33 1/3 rpm master 'safeties' sixteen inches in diameter. During the first year, the 'safeties' were simply filed away after the session and used only when repair work was necessary on the 78s. By the end of 1940 all takes were incised on 33 1/3 sixteen inch disqs and then transferred later to 78 rpm records."5 By playing around with these safeties, Dr. Peter Goldmark and Columbia engineers, before World War II, were able to get fifteen minutes of music to a side of a 33-1/3 RPM record. Work slowed, but continued through the war, and at the war's end in 1945, Goldmark and his staff were hard at work on the LP.
"Goldmark assigned individual researchers to individual problems-cutting motor and stylus design, pickup design, turntable design, amplifier, radius equalization. The 33 1/3 speed had been established before work began and it already had become clear that a very narrow groove, something like the .003 inch groove finally adopted would be necessary to record twenty two minutes of music to a side."6 Goldmark decided on twenty-two minutes a side after an analysis of major musical compositions showed that 95 percent of the symphonic works considered would take less than forty-five minutes playing time. "The need for narrow grooves dictated a highly resilient material for the record itself, because the effective tracking pressure of a small stylus on a narrow groove is far greater than the effective tracking pressure of a large stylus on a wide groove. Research had already demonstrated that the laminated composition disc used by Columbia for standard records was not tough enough for Lp duty, but vinylite compounds and modifications of existing cutting lathes, and with a cutting motor and stylus of their own devising, Goldmark's crew within three months had produced a serviceable microgroove record that would play up to sixteen minutes a side and then inched up minute by minute."7
By 1947 they had a record containing twenty-two minutes of roughly the same quality sound from beginning to end. However, Columbia, like RCA in the 1930s, had the problem "of increasing the playing time of the disc while retaining the high frequencies."8 The problem was solved largely by William Bachman who, while previously working for General Electric, had designed the G.E. VR cartridge.
"It was more difficult to cut high frequencies onto an Lp than a 78 for the simple reason that the record turned more slowly. Half way through a 78 rpm record, about thirty one inches of groove pass under the stylus each second; half way through a 33 1/3 rpm record, roughly fourteen inches of groove pass before t