Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Embarking on a journey!

Today marks the official beginning of my journey to chronicle the Columbia SAX series of classical audiophile recordings produced by EMI in the late 1950s to 1960s.  Over the last two months, I have the fortune of acquiring 95 of the 200+ records in this series which is coveted for its world-renowned artists (count no fewer than Herbert von Karajan, Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Lovro von Matacic, Alceo Galliera, George Szell, Annie Fischer, Nathan Milstein, Leonid Kogan, David Oistrakh, Pierre Fournier, the Jullliard String Quartet, Charles Rosen, Hans Richter-Haaser, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Claudio Arrau, and many others among its roster), valve recordings, elegant labels (particularly the first pressing turquoise and silver labels), and overall high production quality with beautifully designed and laminated covers.  I read on one website that the Columbia SAX series might be considered the "Rolls Royce" of audiophile classical records.  That is not meant to place these albums above the famous Decca SXL or HMV ASD series, both of which are among the most highly collectible classical records out there.  Nevertheless, this is no joke, because some of the rarest SAXes -- especially those of the Russian violinist Leonid Kogan -- have fetched prices in the 4 digits on Ebay.  Prime example, on January 12th, 2013, three Kogan originals -- SAX 2386, SAX 2323, and SAX 2307 -- each sold for $3000.  In December, a first pressing of Kogan's recording of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, SAX 2329, sold for $6169.  Now that might not be the equivalent value of a brand new or even vintage Rolls, but it is a heck of a lot of dough to lay down for a vinyl LP.  God forbid that the buyer even listens to the record at that price, lest it result in depreciation in its value!

ES1: first pressing turqouise/silver
ER1: second pressing
ER2: third pressing

In any case, I have had my eye on this series of records for some time, and through a series of purchases, I have picked up as many as I could reasonably afford.  This is an ongoing process, but I'd like to take the time to share with you my thoughts on these records as I listen to them.  I'm going to start with my earliest album in the series -- SAX 2252, Emil Gilels performing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, which also happens to be the first SAX -- and move in order of the catalog listing.  I will try to provide high quality images of the cover art and labels, taken at home by myself with a Canon T2i digital SLR.  I'll also try to add as much information about the performance and recording as I can, including the stamper numbers.

I will be listening to these records at home on my Rega RP6 turntable outfitted with a Denon DL-110 high-output moving coil cartridge amplified by either 1) a Musical Fidelity Mi6 integrated amplifier powering Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding loudspeakers, or 2) a PS Audio GCHA headphone amplifier powering a pair of Beyerdynamic T1 headphones.  Perhaps not the definitive setup, but a decent one nevertheless, to evaluate these recordings.  My plan is to give my own rating of the performance as well as the sound quality on a 1-5 scale, 5 being the highest score.  Keep in mind, I am no music critic or sound engineer, so these are my own objective and subjective assessments.

SAX 2386:  one of the valuable Kogan records
I would like to take the time to acknowledge the website of Youngrok Lee, who provides a very nice description of the Columbia SAX label and includes a comprehensive discography of the label with album cover art.  This was one of the sources which inspired me to seek out these records in the first place, and I would like to thank Mr. Lee for all his hard work in creating this discography. 

If you have your own insight to add about any of these records/recordings, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment on the blog.  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Szell on SAX

Okay, if you haven't already noticed by the change of the album covers, I'm on a George Szell high.  Lately, as I've been revisiting my vinyl library and acquiring some new LPs, I've come to really appreciate the genius of his art.  He may not have been the friendliest of conductors on the podium, but he brought such a degree of precision to the Cleveland Orchestra and transformed it into one hell of an ensemble during his tenure.  I've been collecting his UK pressings on the Columbia/EMI SAX label, which are some of the rarest (and, sadly, equally expensive) and finest classical records, particularly his classical repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, etc).  I've been interested for some time in whether his UK pressings were indeed superior to the ones pressed by US Columbia and Epic back here at home.  Now, I'll be able to find out, since I have both the UK and US pressings of a few of his albums.  I haven't had the chance to sit down and do a fair side by side comparison, but I hope to do so and report back.  I'd like to attribute the fantastic cover art images to two sources: Classical Vinyl, a wonderful UK dealer of fine classical records, and Youngrok Lee, who has a web site dedicated to Columbia SAX records.

If any of you readers have some insight to share on the topic of Columbia SAX recordings, please feel free to leave comments.  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Dusting off some classic audiophile reading ...

In response to a dedicated follower, I thought I'd spill the beans and say that I've been fortunate enough to acquire copies of three "legendary" tomes of audiophile reading: 

1. The RCA Bible, by Jonathan Valin
2. The Golden Age of RCA, by James Mitchell
3. Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound, by Moon & Gray

These books have been out of print for several years and have been collectors' items themselves (the RCA Bible is available through for $250!).  After some hard searching and the invaluable help of my sister, who was amazingly able to pull some strings to help out her obsessed brother, I was able to land copies of all three without paying a dime.  Over the ensuing weeks to months, I will do my best to share some of the wisdom and passages from these volumes.  For those who have a passion for collecting audiophile classical records from the "golden age", I sincerely hope that you enjoy this reading.