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!


  1. I know it's a lot of extra work, but it would be fantastic to see photos of the album covers when you review them. I agree that those original labels are quite beautiful--though I would give a slight edge to ASDs. The whole package, though, label plus jacket just can't be beat! That said, anyone who would pay $6,000 for a copy of a record of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole is nuts. Plus: Lalo's Cello Concerto is more enjoyable!

    1. Some followers need to vote on the poll......

  2. PS Will you get the chance to compare some of the early pressings against later pressings? Collecting records is a great hobby, but it would be interesting to determine if the records were very different sonically. If not, one could save a ton by going for the red/black labels (or even the still later ones). Though I guess this gets to the heart of this hobby: If the Kogan Lalo is normally $2,000 for an original and $200 for a red/black AND there is negible sonic difference between the two, is it sensible to spend 10 times the money on the original? Assuming that $1,800 is significant sum to somebody.

    1. The differential is worse than 10 to 1 on these. The Kogan Beethoven VC went for over $10,000 recently. Without shipping, the Classics for Pleasure release of this might be had for $20. CFP 139 STEREO UK BEETHOVEN VIOLIN CONCERTO LEONID KOGAN SILVESTR
      I don't have this, but I expect the sound would be excellent on the CFP. At 500:1, I'll take the CFP which probably has some sonic advantages over the original.

      My Karajan Handel Water Music SAX postage stamp reissue has remarkable sound. Not quite as tight and strong as some later ASD pressings, but capable of throwing a very deep sound stage with some nice, nice, nice string sound. Very luscious recording with sound I've never heard the like of before. If some of these blue and silver up the ante more, that could be scary good. I hope I am wrong on this because I don't want to buy a bunch of records costing hundreds of dollars each. The early EMI reissues on other labels of SAX material is awfully, awfully good. The enhanced dynamics, bass definition, and instrumental definition on these reissue records is definitely a worthy, and possibly superior sonic adversary to the blue and silver SAX.