Thursday, August 22, 2013

Columbia SAX 5254

SAX 5254

Mozart Violin Concertos Nos. 4 and 5

Nathan Milstein, violin
The Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing: ED1

Condition: NM

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $48-257, mean $149 on popsike

Comments: This album was published in 1965 and released in the U.S. as Angel 36007.  Notice how the matrix numbers on this SAX are in fact the same as the Angel stampers, which makes me wonder if this performance was recorded for U.S. Angel/Capitol and then repressed in the UK for EMI/Columbia.  Any insight into this question would be most welcome.  It would be interesting to be able to compare the Angel with the UK Columbia release.

Milstein's artistry and beautiful singing tone are the centerpiece of this record.  Here he performs and presumably directs (no conductor is listed) Mozart's 4th and 5th violin concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  The 4th violin concerto has always been my favorite of the five.  Both concertos are given wonderful performances. Milstein is placed center stage, and his violin at times takes on a lifelike quality on this recording.  If you listen very carefully, you can just make out Milstein's breathing just before he begins a new phrase.  I'm not sure if microphone placement was altered between the recording sessions of the two concertos, because the sound of the soloist and orchestra on Concerto No. 5 (side 2) seems to be a bit more recessed to my ears than on No. 4 (side 1), which sounded a bit more forward.  The sound stage is nice and wide, though again, more so on side 1 than on side 2.  I don't know if it was an issue with my pressing, but in spite of the vinyl visually appearing near mint, there was another discrepancy in the sound quality between side 1 and side 2, this time negative.  While the sound of both sides was very good, there was a significantly greater amount of distortion and lack of clarity when the orchestra crescendoed or played at louder volumes on side 1.  This was limited to the sound of the orchestra -- strings in particular -- and the sound of Milstein's violin was not affected by this.  At times, it was just too much and detracted from the enjoyment of the music.  This was not the case on side 2, which had no problems with clarity at any volume.  Winds had a remarkable clarity and were nicely separated from the strings in both concertos.  Overall, another of Nathan Milstein's fine stereo recordings, but the album would've been even better with improved sound quality as I mentioned before.

Reference recording:  Arthur Grumiaux, Colin Davis, LSO (Philips)


  1. My guess is that they simply released these in the US first and so used the Angel reference. SAX 2508 is also an Angel. The Blue and Silver label states “recording first published 1962”. I've got Angels with the typical YAX matrix number from Columbia SAX. With Angels, the number on the cover and the matrix number are almost identical. With Epic sourced releases, EMI Columbia often used the number from the Epic cover as the matrix (Epic had their own matrix numbers). Of course the Epic number was not used for the Matrix where Columbia did its own compilation and then there are instances where Columbia did not use the original Epic number and used a YAX numbered Matrix. I think all the SAX releases were at least cut and pressed by Columbia. I expect the rest may have been put together by Epic for Columbia, but this does not explain YAX matrices on the like of the Schumann 3 and Brahms 1 Szell LP's.

    Would the work parts/session tapes have been mastered in the UK for both the US Angel and Columbia SAX, and also Epic? Almost certainly with Epic, (Epic would not have sent session tapes to EMI Columbia). One wonders what on earth EMI was doing with US Angel as the sound is so different (bad).

    As far as playback distortion my copy was identical to the one reviewed. Again this could be a severe tracking test. I will take this on tour in the next month and to see how it tracks on other tables. For me it was much worse in the inner groove area, but few of these moments with massed strings existed at the end of side 1 so it was a small problem. I detected it earlier, but it was not as apparent. For me the worst part was thinking about Milstein's breathing. I thought I heard that a lot and that bothered me. My recommendation is to not listen for the breathing!

    This was recorded in June of 1963 and June of 1964, so it is not surprising the sides sound different. I would think this would have been recorded at Abbey Road, but perhaps one side was not. Side 1 is forward for an EMI/Columbia. Side 2 was a little more recessed than most. Some may like side 1 better as the Violin seems a little more up close and personal.

    1. Wow -- very interesting to hear that your musical experience was similar to my own. I guess it's not just an issue with my pressing or my cartridge.

      With regards to the Epic vs Columbia vs Angel pressings, I think the reason why some of the Epic recordings which were released by Columbia (e.g. Brahms 1 with Szell, Schumann 3) may be due to the fact that they may have been remastered or recut by EMI Columbia. Case in point is that some of these albums, although they have some of the same repertoire, do not have the exact same programs. Examples:

      SAX 2475: Schumann 1 and 4

      On Epic, this is BC 1039, which is Szell conducting Schumann 1 BUT with Manfred Overture, not Sym 4. SYm 4 was BC 1254, combined with Beethoven's 8th! So, there must've been some sort of shuffling around, and in order to do that, I imagine that EMI must've required the tapes.

      There are more instances of this. I mentioned before that Szell's recording of Beethoven's 7th is paired with Wagner's Tannhauser Overture on Columbia SAX. On Epic, the 7th is by itself on BC 1066.

    2. They may have gotten the absolute best tapes from Epic or perhaps something in between. EMI could have mastered them in the States too if Epic did not want them going over seas. From my reading of articles on the RCA reissues, there is a lot of in between.

  2. On my system this record is a 3.5 for sound. It probably sounds very close to the record under review based on similar distortion problems. Why the luke warm review? This is a very early transistor cut record to my ears. It is so bad in this regard that I suspect the final mix down from the session tapes was done with transistor equipment.

    The bad here is a lack of micro-dynamics. The instruments are not alive. I can hear the Milstein tone well enough, but it leaves we wanting more. This sound I suspect resides on the final tape mixed for this LP and possibly the session tapes. I'd previously thought the ASD releases were immune to this problem, but my color stamp reissue of Menuhin Elgar VC (ASD 2259) released in 1966 also has a similar sterile sound, albeit with more bass than the current Milstein. Color stamp pressings are usually great, which leads me to believe the issue is on the tape. Very early 2000 series and late three digit ASDs may have this issue.

    For me these sonics (despite the acceptable, but constrained presentation of the violin) leave me cold and get in the way of my Mozart mind. Perhaps some of the wit and charm of Mozart is also lost in the full orchestral treatment as opposed to original instruments.

    I am so hard on this record because, EMI's later pressings of material before and after this period often have splendid sonics. The SXLP 30000 issues before ~30145 retain much of the fine sonics of their originating Blue and Silver and Gold and Cream issues with arguably better bass (see end of this post). The second and third label ASD reissues of earlier material have similarly fine sonics. The black and white also are fine too with impressive bass and highs. The later color stamp with ring and big dog pressings of all these labels offer magnificent sound with improved noise floors and may also be excellent reissues of some of the late sixties and early 70' recordings. All of the above are dynamic, while the later Columbia are constrained. So, I am not a fan of the later Columbia stuff.

    I count a total of perhaps 8 reissues out of the later Columbia material some of which I will try to acquire along with some of the highly reviewed material from this site. Call me skeptical at this point.

    In the EMI family another great choice would be:
    ASD427 Mozart: Violin Concertos 4/5 PCO Vandernoot Ferras SREG2028 CFP 124 $800
    One certainly can can get the reissues of ASD427 at a more reasonable price. Its hard to say which would be better, but if the price were right I'd get the Regal (SREG).

    There is also LSC-2652 Heifetz with VC4 which Classic reissued.

    A far better record than the Milstein sonically is SXLP 30086 with Mozart VC3, Oistrakh. This is from the famous SAX 2304 Columbia. Everything is nice with some tube magic to the sound. The violin is beautiful and syrupy. Strings are extremely nice with good hall depth and excellent plucked string sound (the like of which I've only heard on EMI). One wishes for a slightly brighter perspective. I've got an original blue label and here is the slightly later blue label with ring which probably helps some in the treble area, but perhaps not quite the same as my own copy:

    I also have on hand the Testament reissue of SAX 2304 which unfortunately attempts to fully correct the high end of this recording. It succeeds and yet the musicality of the piece is greatly damaged and pretty much all of the superlatives above are lost. The Prokofiev VC2 from this recording may be had on SXLP30155p and would likely have a similar balance to the above SXLP pressing on youtube. Here is the first movement:

    1. Thank you again for all the helpful insight. I haven't gotten into the habit of giving half marks for my rating system but have seriously contemplated it. I may start giving or subtracting 0.5 as needed. Alternatively, I could switch to a 10 point scale, but that might just complicate matters.

      I think that has long been debate about which EMI pressings are the best. I don't have the answer to that question. With Deccas, for instance, it seems that later pressings, especially of the early releases, may have greater dynamic range due to a better cutter used by Decca. I don't know the story with EMI. You've stated that Beecham recordings released on later pressings sound excellent, and I've said that many of the early white/gold pressings in spite of being originals don't sound very good. So perhaps later pressings here may be the ones to get. Collectors, though, will always gravitate to the originals, no matter the sound quality, just for collecting sake.

      I'm glad you commented on the Oistrakh Mozart. I'll look for the SXLP and bypass the Testament reissue. I wonder how good the original blue/silver sounds but am afraid to dish out $500 for that.

    2. I wouldn't disagree with you for bumping this album down from a 4 to a 3.5 for sound. I think that some of these later Columbias are not as great sounding as the early and middle numbered albums.

    3. The Testament is not foolishly incompetent. It just alters the character too much and does not sound like a blue and silver at all. The Testament is an artful pressing, but it does not pay homage to the original sound and musically suffers as a result. Its somewhat dry transistor sound does not mate well with my system.

      On the Deccas, I've heard later are better, but I've not had much luck. My recent comment referencing Pulcinella on STS has been a pleasant surprise, but it keeps much of the tube sound which most of the later stuff does not. I've got a Richmond of the Magic Flute which is real late which is also great. Most of the reissue Decca stuff has been a disappointment.

      I guess I am in cloud nine with the EMI stuff because of the great potential. In my opinion the original tapes blow away the other labels. Blue and Silver pressings are amazing. Gold and Cream also impressive. Once you get into the later material and reissues it gets quite complex and that is the fun. They all are really nice with great bass and highs, but each is wonderfully different. With so many good records, the pressing/reissue possibilities are intriguing. Decca would be the next most interesting label and its relatively boring in comparison. After that you are left with perhaps Golden Imports for Mercury and 0.5 masters for RCA. Simple stuff in comparison to EMI.