Monthly Archives: March 2011

Karajan and Boult’s Quadraphonic Wagner on EMI

As an enthusiast of quadraphonic sound, the 1970’s on EMI/HMV were the golden age. By far the best SQ quad sound I’ve heard comes from their records of this era, particularly those engineered by Christopher Palmer and Christopher Bishop (for example, the Elgar Coronation Ode). But the BPO was in on the act under HvK as well, and many of his 1970’s EMI records provide excellent examples of four channel sound — not to mention the Berliners being at the top of their game.

HvK recorded the Wagner preludes and overtures many times, including two volumes with EMI in quadraphonic in 1974/75. The engineers were unfortunately not the two Christophers, but rather HvK’s usual EMI team of Glotz and Gülich. The performances themselves are stunning, Wagnerian richness in all its opulence, and with the unmatched power of the BPO driving the drama home.

The sonics are interesting to a further degree. I am comparing a U.S. quadraphonic Golden Clouds label 37097, with a Japanese Toshiba EAC-80149, straight stereo. The U.S. quad pressing is roomier, with more of sense of space as the big choruses open up, particularly in the unparalleled reading of the Tannhäuser Overture and Bacchanale. The sound is bass-heavy, as HvK wanted it to be, but the opulence of the strings and horns warm into a genuinely enveloping sound that represents the best of what quadraphonic was — though in contrast to the Toshiba pressing, there is a lack of clean delineation in sound, a homogeneity that HvK’s critics always harped on. Switching between the true SQ decoder on my Sansui 7001 and the “synthesizer surround” function, the brightness perks up, but the three-dimensionality evaporates. And the treble boosts in an uncomfortable way.

Switch to the Toshiba pressing. Gliding silence in the opening of Tannhäuser, but fast-forward to the castanets in the Bacchanale and some of the warmth is gone; in comparison this is almost too clinical, and not without depth — this record is certainly more vivid in the instrumental sectional separation. I have no idea how the master tapes were manipulated in these different pressings but the results are distinctly different in their effect. How the engineers moved between the four channel masters and two channel issues was surely a puzzle (including how they were converted to CD, where many of these recordings come up sounding completely flat). It also seems clear in this case, as with other Toshibas, that the vinyl is simply of superior grade and the surface noise approaches a very impressive zero. It is a rare case where I genuinely can’t choose between the two pressings, and regard them almost as different performances because of the way the reproduce, in four channel or in stereo.

Of the U.K. HMV pressings of these Karajan recordings I have only the Vol. 2 to compare, unfortunately, so can’t directly speak to the dramatic contrasts of Tannhäuser. But in general it is noteworthy that the quadraphonic effect is superior to the U.S. EMI/Angel, in a sense a melding of the stereo Toshiba’s clarity and the EMI quad’s warmth. This is a first pressing, color dog-in-stamp label, and in Meistersinger, for example, the much maligned homogeneity is nowhere to be heard; the melodic line flows seamlessly but not without clarity and distinctness with the emphases on each dramatic turn. (Though that U.S. press has something of a “boom” to it that isn’t here either.) I’ve been actively searching for a Vol. 1 pressing of this same U.K. quad label, to compare that stunning Bacchanale to the two others I describe above.

By way of comparison I turn to Boult, who also recorded the Wagner preludes on EMI/HMV during this same era. His different style is immediately apparent, more straightforward, more even in string phrasing; less emotive than HvK’s soaring crescendos, booming timpani, and heart-wrenching descrescendos, as in the finale to the Meistersinger Overture here. In contrast Boult is noble but decidedly un-Germanic. As I’ve written about his interpretations of other German romantics including Brahms in the Haydn Variations, he feels almost to be channeling Elgar: broad, deep, but ultimately restrained and at key moments, understated.

The pressing I’m listening to here illustrates the best quadraphonic sound of all examples I’ve discussed, which is something of a surprise given that it is a German EMI “Quadraphonie” pressing, 063-02-274. In my experience these German quad pressings do not typically manifest the best of four-channel sound. But as all of this goes to show, the various iterations of this era’s recordings, in and out of four or two-channel, and with varying qualities of vinyl, produced markedly different results. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. The sound genuinely surrounds, and the sense of space is in a completely different category than traditional two-speaker listening. The performances do not match Karajan for drama or excitement, but they inhabit their own distinct, memorable world and are delivered with unparalleled sonics.

A last mention. Backtracking from the quadraphonic era to the early days of stereo, I pulled out my DGG Kubelik record of the Siegfried Idyll (best there is, by the way) which also features some of the shared works on the HvK EMI discs and Boult’s. (The details: DGG 136-228, 1963 recording). I searched long and hard to find a first Hersteller pressing, and one with no noise at all. It could be said that comparing the depth and richness of these early 180 gram pressings to quadraphonic magic is unfair. Listening to this Meistersinger is a very different experience, but the clarity and richness of the BPO is every bid as opulent and redolent as in the 1975 version under their future director. Kubelik finds a blend of Boult’s directness and HvK’s romanticism, which was of course not so much his as it was his orchestra’s, the legacy of Furtwängler and everyone who came before. Culture matters, and just as no orchestra will ever play Johann Strauss as the Vienna Philharmonic, no orchestra will ever play Wagner like Berlin. It is in their musical DNA, their interpretive culture, and the recordings let us share in that genetic, interpretive process.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

I knew this work from childhood, in the classic Heifetz version from RCA. As I’ve grown into a more mature critic, my opinions have migrated.

Mutter/KarajanFor a long time I was under the spell of Karajan and Mutter, who dig into the work with a serioso unmatched by the field. The tempi are slower, but perhaps the drama more exposed. And there is the overwhelming sound of the BPO, in all its richness, capturing every nuance of sonic dimension. But not the emotion. We are firmly in HvK’s world, with Mutter, but in comparison to several others….it is lacking.

Campoli, with Boult. An English touch, somehow both rich and light; Elgarian. Noble, not Germanic and heavy in its impact. Campoli’s tone delves deeper than Perlman or Francescatti, and Boult manages an ebb and flow that keeps the music flowing in a dramatic, but also delightful way with the accompaniment. There is less symphonic weight here compared to Karajan, but more storytelling. In the London Stereo Treasury pressing, there is also far more sonic depth and richness than the DGG digital press with HvK. It is astoundingly vivid. As with many of these later orange label reissues. This will not go into the eBay pile. And it presents a contrast not just with Mutter, but with Milstein, whose EMI I only recently got to know. Campoli appears to be available on CD only in an out-of-print specialty release. Hard to believe.

So now to Milstein. His EMI recordings were not issued early on CD, when I worked at Tower Records, and on LP they are among the most difficult to acquire. (He re-recorded the concerto with Claudio Abbado years later, in a much less compelling reading.) My copy of the EMI is a US Angel pressing, the prized Triangle stamper. Sound is absolutely pristene, with less surface noise than either the Campoli or the Mutter from later decades, though less sonic depth than the Campoli. Milstein floats with his light vibrato, a bit much at times perhaps, but ultimately conveying an elegance that blends with the drama of the work. This is a positively seductive reading, the violin tone drawing one in like a lover….in a way that that those of us who are vulnerable to the beauty of sound makes us literally weep. The second movement is a personal appeal, not a performance. There is a reason Milstein is different.

And then in the final movement he zips along…as capable of showing joy and exuberance as he is the intangibles of internal emotion.

I played this for my father some weeks ago, who raised me on the Classics, and he too was stunned. He knows the work but is not in the business of criticism. He knew nothing of Milstein. But after it passed all he had to say was “Bravo.”

Rhapsody in Blue

As a classically trained pianist, I drifted into jazz under the influence of a wonderful teacher, Diana Allen, who played with Glenn Miller and many of the best swing orchestras in the 1950s. She taught me to love jazz. And ragtime, and swing. The closest I ever got to professional performance of a major work was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which carpal tunnel ultimately kept me from. But I went through the score and the recorded works like nothing I’d done before.

I’m revisiting it now as I’m thinning out my LP collection and listened to a recording of Slatkin doing Catfish Row (one of the only available versions on vinyl) that I ultimately found disappointing. I knew there was another one — and digging through the iPod found the James Levine DGG chamber version, which has not only a fantastic Catfish, but the best Rhapsody on record. It is the “jazz band” version, not the overblown Ferde Grofe re-orchestration popularized by Bernstein in his famed CBS version. Why not let us hear those saxophones, like the composer intended? Likewise Previn’s sonically gorgeous EMI recording with the LSO, which I am revisiting on 45rpm special issue. It’s too smooth (and no saxes). But maybe that’s my bias speaking, as a ragtimer.

What Levine ultimately gets right is not just the saxes, but the jazzy tone. Or, to put it better, the half-jazzy tone. Gershwin was living in the musical middle world of Scott Joplin, my favorite American composer. Like Joplin, Gershwin was not quite trying to write jazz in the classical idiom…or classical in the jazz idiom. He was splitting the difference, as do all great musical innovators. Haydn/Mozart, by example. Or the variations of Brahms on Haydn, which I’ve blogged about here before. Or Vaughan Williams on Tallis.

But back to Gershwin. Like Joplin, he can be played like he is a modern American Grieg or Liszt. This is too much what Lenny does, as dramatic and sonically super it all is. Or Previn, to a lesser degree of Romantic pretension. Gershwin is not Grieg or Liszt. He wants to swing just as Joplin wanted to dance the cakewalk. So I say no to Joshua Rifkin playing Joplin like he is Bach; but also to Dick Hyman playing him as though he is on the hurdy-gurdy. There is a middle way. It is distinctly American.

Levine’s Gershwin finds this. There is a jazzy flutter to the rhythm, but a dramatic structure to the pianism. Those trombones come in with ruffle, but also with precision. It’s jazzy, and it swings. But it is still a consistent, disciplined thing, a Classical work in that very traditional sense. And he nails the iconic finale in a discrete, and swinging way that puts the big-band versions to shame.

Yet, every note was down on the page; this was not improvisational jazz. It was, in its own way, classical music…or a half-breed of these two.

It reminds us that even the great Duke Ellington wrote out his solos note-by-note for his soloists. And Joplin, the American Schumann…though not entirely…the categories are complicated. This is an American idiom, and Levine nails it more than anyone on record, at least in the Rhapsody. I’d be infinitely curiously to hear him perform some solo Gershwin tunes, as Previn has to great effect. As he reaches his retirement, let’s commend Maestro Levine for getting Gershwin right.