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.

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

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