Thursday, March 20, 2014

Columbia SAX 2556: Another Reference Recording

Columbia SAX 2556
Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite

George Szell, conductor
The Cleveland Orchestra

Pressing: Semi-circle (1st)

Condition: NM

BC 1290 A-1A
BC 1290 B-1A

Date first published: 1963

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 8/10

Price range: $41-337, mean $125 on popsike

Comments: After having given Fritz Reiner's RCA recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti's EMI recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra my recommendation as reference recordings, I have to add this one to the list as well. Szell's account of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is outstanding in all regards. Performance-wise, it is second to none. The Cleveland Orchestra is in top form here, and all sections - strings, winds, brass, percussion - contribute equally to the excellence of this recording. The sound quality on the SAX is also top notch. Though the surfaces aren't quite as silent as on the other two, the clarity, wide dynamic range, and very respectable treble and bass extension (though neither the Reiner nor the Szell have reign over the Muti in this regard) put this LP in a similar league. The presentation is more immediate than the Reiner, more similar to the Muti. Like the Muti, the Pictures is nicely rounded out with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.

I have yet to get my hands on the US Epic release (BC 1290), but that would be a worthy comparison. I would wager that the quality is similar, but I'd have to do the A/B test to know for certain. Judging from the price that this SAX goes for on the auction market, the Epic, with the same exact cover art, certainly would be the economical way to go.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

RCA LSC-2281 Szeryng's Best Brahms Concerto

RCA LSC-2281
Brahms Violin Concerto

Henryk Szeryng, violin
Pierre Monteux, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra

Pressing: 1S/1S

Condition: EX

Date first published: 1959

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 8/10

Price range: $27-369, mean $108 on popsike

Comments: Yes, Jascha Heifetz's RCA recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto may have been the more popular and better selling one at the time (this is just a hunch -- I don't have the actual numbers to prove this), but I've always found this performance by Henryk Szeryng with Monteux and the LSO to be the more musically and aurally satisfying interpretation. The violin is simply put, beautifully recorded, and you can just imagine Szeryng himself right there before you, center stage. The orchestra is well balanced with the soloist to my ears and provides an effective accompaniment.

Here's what Jonathan Valin has to say in the RCA Bible:

"Szeryng's Strad on thie Grand Prix du Disque winner has a dryish silvery tone that is a bit bright but still quite beautiful. The string choirs share the same rich, dryish sound. Transparency is fairly good too, although that ol' Kingsway Hall nemesis -- phase and reverb problems in the alto parts -- shows its face, occasionally thickening up textures at the back of the stage (and sometimes at the front, as well). Still, it is quite a bit better than passable sound, and I am happy to report that the performance is superb -- as good as my two other favorite Brahms Violin Concertos, the Heifetz/Reiner on TCA, and the Oistrakh/Klemperer on Angel/EMI. (By the bye, the Szigeti performance on Mercury is also very interesting. His seasick, wavering tone -- the result of Szigeti's age and illness - is hard to overlook, in spite of terrific accompaniment by Menges and the LSO. But if you can get past it, you'll discover that Szigeti's phrasing is quite wonderful. There are good reasons why this man's musicianship is so highly regarded.)"

This is one of the rarer ones in the RCA Living Stereo catalog, hence, the steeper price.  It has been issued on XRCD, though I haven't had the chance to compare it head to head with the original LP. On an off day, I found my current copy for 99 cents at the local goodwill store.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Deutsche Grammophon 136 211 Fricsay's Great Ballet from Opera

Deutsche Grammophon 136 211
Opera Ballets

Ferenc Fricsay, conductor
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

Pressing: Blue tulips, red stereo
Condition: EX


Date first published: 1961

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 8/10

Price Range: $28-133, mean $81 on popsike

Comments: This one came as quite a surprise.  I wasn't expecting one of these early red stereo label, blue tulips DG LPs to have stunning sound, but I was actually impressed when I dropped the needle on this one.  We have a program of ballet music from the opera, with Ferenc Fricsay at the helm of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.  This must have been a trend for the classical LP market at the time, because we have at least a few other contemporary releases including ones from RCA (LSC-2400 with Fistoulari and the PCO -- highly valuable and stunning in sound) and UK Columbia (SAX 2421 with Karajan and the BPO, definitely respectable sound).  The repertoire, not surprisingly, is similar between them:  music from Verdi's Aida is on all three albums, music from Ponchielli's La Gioconda is on the DG and Columbia, music from Mussorgsky's Khovantschina is on the RCA and the Columbia.  This one happens to have music from Gounod's Faust, which is always enjoyable, Verdi's Othello, and the Waltz and Polonaise from Tchaikovsky's Eugen Onegin, so by program alone, this DG album wins out in my book.  The performances are lively and energetic.  Who'd have thought that the Dance of the hours from La Gioconda would later be the focus of several parodies, including a Spike Jones spinoff and the Allen Sherman song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah"?  The album may not have quite the incredible sonics of the Fistoulari record, but it is no slouch either.  I heard a very nice, wide and deep soundstage with excellent dynamics, a pleasing treble, and decent bass.  As you can see, there is quite a wide price range on this one.  I picked mine up for $24 on Ebay, which I thought was reasonable, and if you look hard enough, you'll find it without burning a hole in your wallet.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

SAX 2408/9: Klemperer's Rare Bach Brandenburg Concertos

Columbia SAX 2408/9
Bach: Brandenburg Concertos

Pressing: ER1 (2nd)

Condition: NM

YAX 647-4
YAX 648-4
YAX 649-2
YAX 650-2
Date first published: 

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 8/10

Price Range: $28-362, mean $182 on popsike

Comments: When you think about Bach, Otto Klemperer is generally not the first name that comes to mind.  Nevertheless, do not let that bias deter you from considering this 2 LP set.  If you're expecting these Brandenburgs to sound the way the Klemperer does Beethoven or Brahms, you're mistaken.  These are not heavy-handed performances.  They are also not the quickest, but what really is remarkable about these them is their clarity.  I don't just mean clarity of sound, which is quite good on the LPs, but more so clarity of texture.  Each melodic line, each countermelody, can be heard clearly in these concertos, and I think that that is the trademark that Klemperer left on these recordings.  He admittedly takes his time with each concerto, but somehow, unless you've been listening to strictly modern HIP recordings and are used to brisk tempos, you don't seem to notice that much.  You just enjoy the music.
Unfortunately, these SAX LPs don't run cheaply.  I had to dish out some cash for these second pressings, though they were and still are in near mint condition.  Those on a budget, though, will be pleased to know that these have all been remastered on digital and can be purchased in a EMI (now Warner) boxed set from last year with other works by Handel, Haydn, and Gluck. 

CFP 124: Christian Ferras for the Budget Conscious

 EMI CFP 124
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A "The Turkish"

Christian Ferras, violin
Andre Vandernoot, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra

Pressing: Black/white label

Condition: NM

2YLA 1085-1
2YLA 1086-1
Date first published: 1961
Performance: 9/10

Sound: 7/10

Price Range: No data for CFP on popsike but should be purchasable under $15, ASD 427 ranges from $69-1,267, mean $505 on popsike

Comments:  This is the EMI CFP reissue of the coveted ASD 427, which as you can see from above, is one of the rarest and most valuable EMIs in existence.  Unless you happen to stumble across a copy at a garage sale, it is unlikely that you will spend any less than several hundred dollars on this album ... unless, of course, you decide to go for this CFP, which is where this review hopefully comes in handy.

Christian Ferras was in his prime when this recording was made. He produces a warm, robust tone on his instrument, and I have always enjoyed his performances on vinyl or CD.  There is, or at least was, a youtube video of a live performance of the Franck Violin Sonata with Ferras and pianist Pierre Barbizet that is definitely worth watching. If you are interested in exploring his art further, I'd strongly urge you to pick up the 4 CD budget boxed set on Brilliant Classics that covers some of his best work with piano accompaniment (mostly for Deutsche Grammophon).  Alternatively, there is a 2 CD set on Andromeda Classics entitled "Christian Ferras: The Columbia Recordings" that reissues some of his famous EMI concerto recordings.  The Mozart concertos are not on either of the two sets, and I have yet to locate this recording on CD.

Now on to this LP.  The performances of both concertos are solid and beautifully played.  Ferras is placed rather forward in the presentation, and thus you can hear him quite clearly, though I find that he is given precedence over the orchestra.  Strangely enough, the orchestra seems like it is squeezed into a small box behind the soloist, so that the soundstage is rather narrow.  In fact, I found myself asking whether this album was actually in mono rather than in stereo, but I was finally convinced that this is indeed a stereo issue.  Orchestral clarity is also not the greatest and sets this recording a bit lower on the rankings compared to other versions of the same concertos that I've enjoyed -- Grumiaux on Philips and Oistrakh on EMI, just to mention a couple.  Not major issues if you are dealing with a $5 record, but if you are considering the original, just think that you might be spending $500-1000 on this.  One might argue that I am listening to the reissue and not the original, but I have my doubts that the original white/gold reissue would solve these problems.  If anyone owns it, I would love to hear your thoughts.

So, if you are interested in the music and the performance -- which, hopefully, is our common goal -- then let me say that you will be perfectly satisfied with this budget reissue.  If you are looking for demonstration sound, look elsewhere.  I recall that the Oistrakh recording with the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI had an incredibly lifelike sound with a remarkably wide soundstage. 

London CS 6208: Ansermet's Bizet album

London CS 6208
Symphony in C Major
Jeux D'Enfants
La Jolie Fille de Perth Suite

Ernest Ansermet, conductor
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande

Pressing: Narrow band FFRR

Condition: EX

ZAL 5055-3L
ZAL 5056-2L

Date first published: 1961

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 8/10

Price range: $29-60, mean $40 on popsike 

Comments:  This is a delightful album of French music.  The Symphony in C Major, composed by Bizet at the ripe age of 17, is positively uplifting and very much in the classical style.  Jeux D'Enfants, a charming five movement suite, is considered by some to be Bizet's greatest work and very likely inspired subsequent "petite suites" by Debussy (Petite Suite) and Ravel (Ma Mere L'Oye).  The last work on the album, the suite from Le Jolie Fille de Perth, represents the musical selections hand-picked from Bizet's opera, which unfortunately never really made into the mainstream opera canon.  The sound of this narrow band FFRR is quite natural, with decent dynamic range and a sound stage that is deeper than wide.  Unfortunately, I don't have the FFSS or wideband FFRR for comparison, but perhaps my compatriot Miles can comment on this if he owns one of them.

Moon and Gray in FFSS give this album an 8 for performance and 8 for sound, for a total score of 16 out of 20.  I tend to agree.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

ASD 2783: Zukerman and Perlman do the Bach Double

ASD 2783
J.S. Bach:
Double Concerto in D Minor
Violin Concerto No. 2 in E
Violin Concerto in G Minor

Itzhak Perlman, violin
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
English Chamber Orchestra

Pressing: (most likely) black and white postage stamp

Condition: NM

2YEA 4341-2
2YEA 4342-3

Date first published: 1972

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: no popsike data

Comments: This was the first recording of the Bach Double Violin Concerto and solo Violin Concertos I'd ever heard back when I was in high school, and what an impression it made on me.  At the time, I was learning the Double Concerto with a friend, and I still remembering checking out the cassette from the library and being blown away by the performance.  By today's standards, this recording would be considered romantic and old-fashioned, considering that most baroque performances these days follow the path of "historically informed performances".  Needless to say, this Perlman and Zukerman recording is not a vibrato-free, period instrument recording.  This is full-toned, full vibrato Bach, and while this may no longer be in vogue, it sure was back then, and the soloists play the hell out of these pieces.  In all honesty, I have yet to find a recording of the Double Concerto that moves me more than this one.  Perlman and Zukerman split up the two solo violin concertos.  Of the two, I generally prefer the E major, but both are enjoyable.  That is, if you don't mind "old-school" Bach.

Some ten years later, I acquired the CD of this recording, and a few years after that, I managed to snatch up a copy of the LP.  Oddly enough, I found the LP a disappointment.  To begin with, in spite of the NM condition, there was some surface noise that could not be eradicated even after a cleaning on my VPI 16.5.  Secondly, although the sound is rich and full on both the cassette and CD, it sounds less so on the LP.  I have to really turn up the volume to get a decent listening level.  I find this surprising for an EMI pressing from the 1970s, which are usually quite excellent.  It's certainly possible that this may be an issue with my pressing only and that others could sound better.  In any case, the music is what's important here, and I can recommend that wholeheartedly.

ASD 422: Kubelik's excellent Borodin

ASD 422
Borodin: Polovtsian Dances, Symphony No. 2 in B Minor

Rafael Kubelik, conductor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: Semi-circle 2nd

Condition: NM

2YEA 429-4
2YEA 430-5

Date first published: 1961

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 8/10

Price range: $31-400, mean $155 on popsike

Comments:  Rafael Kubelik was definitely one of the "4 K's" of EMI, and nearly all of his early ASD stereo recordings fetch high prices.  You may be groaning to yourself, asking, "Another Russian album??"  Yes, another Russian album, because Russian orchestral music is fantastic.  On this LP, we have a fine pairing of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances and his Symphony No. 2 in B Minor.  Both are given dynamic performances.  There's a lot of competition for the Polovtsian Dances, not the least from the likes of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Columbia SAX 2490, reviewed here at, von Matacic and the Philharmonia (Columbia SAX 2327, reviewed here at, Georg Solti and the LSO (Decca SXL 6263), and Antal Dorati and the LSO (Mercury SR 90265), but this one holds up well.  There is less competition as far as the Symphony No. 2 is concerned, with Jean Martinon's account with the LSO (RCA LSC-2298, recorded by Decca) being the closest that I can think of.  This Kubelik record is quite enjoyable, and although I would not exactly describe the sound as "demonstration quality", it is an excellent example of these treasured tube recordings and worthy of a 5/5 from my perspective.  The soundstage is quite wide with nice imaging.  Bass doesn't quite get visceral but is respectable.  My measure for this is the timpani part leading up to and opening the General Dance movement of the Polovtsian Dances.

I was lucky to find my copy last year on Ebay and fortunately didn't have to break the bank to get it.  As you can see, I've got the second pressing and not the coveted white/gold first pressing, but in all honesty, I am perfectly satisfied.  If you can find a second pressing, pick it up with the confidence that you will be pleased with your acquisition!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Philips Hi-Fi Stereo 835 027: An Orchestral Potpourri with Jean Fournet

Philips Hi-Fi Stereo 835 027
Moussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain
Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia
Debussy: Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune
Dukas: L'apprenti sorcier

Jean Fournet, conductor

The Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam

Pressing: Dutch, plum 2nd
Condition: NM

Date first published: 1960?

Performance: 7/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $25-70, mean $35

Comments:  A fine program of orchestral favorites with French conductor Jean Fournet (who passed away in 2008 at the age of 95) leading the Royal Concertgebouw.  You don't hear a lot about Fournet these days, but he was a soft spoken and well respected maestro in his day and well known for his interpretations of the French symphonic repertoire.  This album is a relatively rare early Philips stereo recording and was also released in the US on the Epic label.  I have yet to find it reissued on digital.  Though the performances aren't exactly definitive or especially memorable, they are certainly enjoyable and worth a listen.  The sound quality has a tube flavor to it and is quite good, though a few points keep it from entering into the upper echelon of recordings.  With a slightly more laid back presentation and decent dynamics, the recording lacked a bit of transparency and openness.  I could also detect a loss of clarity in more dynamic passages.  These are minor issues, though, and should not stop you from seeking this record if you're a fan of the music, the conductor, the orchestra, or the label.   

EMI ASD 343: Another Kletzki Treasure

Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italien, Andante Cantabile
Glinka: Jota Aragonesa
Rimsky-Korsakov: "Tsar Sultan" Suite

Paul Kletzki, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing:  ED1 (white/gold)

Condition: NM


YAX 227-3
YAX 228-4

Date first published: 1959

Performance: 10/10

Sound: 9/10

Price range: $25-326, mean $134 on popsike

Comments:  This is another rare and outstanding release from one of the "4 K's" of EMI, blessed with the combination of a delightful program and glowing tube sound.  Listening to this album this morning for the first time in months -- and the first time on my current audio setup -- I was impressed by a number of different facets.  To begin with, surface noise was quite minimal, allowing subtleties of the music to really surface.  Secondly, the musical program varies greatly in terms of dynamic contrast, and the recording very nicely captures everything from the softest passages of the Andante Cantabile to the more energetic orchestral tuttis of the Capriccio Italien and Tsar Sultan Suite without any hint of distortion.  Overall, there is a warm and pleasing tube sound to the recording that adds a certain sonic magic.  As I have found on many of these early, valve EMI recordings, bass extension is quite decent.  This is not one that pops up frequently on Ebay, but if you can land a copy and are willing to dish out some dough, you won't be disappointed.  Most of the album was reissued on CD with EMI's Artist Profile series back in the 1990s, and this can be found used for relatively cheap.  It would be really nice to see Warner (which took over EMI last year) release all of Paul Kletzki's EMI recordings in a comprehensive Icons boxed set.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

SLPM 138 033 Maazel conducts Respighi, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korssakoff

Deutsche Grammophon
SLPM 138 033

Respighi: Pini di Roma
Mussorgsky: Eine Nacht auf dem Kahlen Berge
Rimsky-Korssakoff: Capriccio Espagnol

Lorin Maazel, conductor
Berliner Philharmoniker

Pressing: Blue tulips

Condition: NM

Date first published: 

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $29-41, mean $35 on popsike

Comments:  Another fine DG release from the young Lorin Maazel and the Berlin Philharmonic.  We have here three staples of the orchestral repertoire, each given polished readings.  The Pines of Rome, Maazel's first of at least three recordings of the work (the others being with the Cleveland Orchestra on Decca and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for Sony), is given a majestic reading, though it may not have quite the majesty as Reiner's classic RCA recording.  A Night on Bald Mountain is brisk in tempo but somehow seems to lack the visceral impact in comparison to some of my favorite recordings, such as Gibson's on RCA (Witches' Brew), von Matacic's on UK Columbia, Reiner's on RCA, and Solti's on Decca (Romantic Russia).   Capriccio Espagnol is given a spirited performance and may be the highlight of the album, but in terms of both interpretation and sound quality, it doesn't supplant Argenta's famous recording for Decca (Espana) or Szell's for Epic/UK Columbia.  The relatively weak bass of this recording may have contributed to the overall lack of sonic impact of the album.  Altogether a nice program but more gripping performances and recordings are available.