Monday, September 29, 2014

Reader Poll for the Week of September 30th, 2014

What is/are your favorite vinyl recording(s) of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4?

Please feel free to leave a comment with your response!




Sunday, September 28, 2014

Columbia SAX 2398: Klemperer's Fantastic Mendelssohn and Schumann

Columbia SAX 2398

Mendelssohn: "Italian" Symphony
Schumann: Symphony No. 4

Otto Klemperer, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ER2, semi-circle

Condition: NM

Date first published: 1961

YAX 603-9G
YAX 604-6G

Performance: 5/5

Sound: 4-4.5/5

Price range: $27-447 (mean $87) at

Comments: Finally, a SAX that does not disappoint.  These performances are classics in the catalog and are given excellent performances by Klemperer and the Philharmonia.  The semi-circle second pressing presents the music with vivid sound with a wide soundstage and very nice instrumental imaging.  It's tube sound without the tube vintage (as in very early FFSS Decca).  Wind textures are clear, and there's some decent bass on this one.  Okay, so there's a touch of distortion at the musical climaxes, but I found the recording so enjoyable overall that it didn't really bother me.  Soundwise, this recording outclasses the Szell SAX 2475.  Not surprising, considering that this one was actually recorded and not just pressed by EMI.  The blue/silver goes for a lot more than the semi-circle, but you will not go wrong with the second pressing.  Highly recommended. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

EMI HMV ASD 426: Kempe's Pricey Eroica


Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"

Rudolf Kempe, conductor
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1, white/gold

Condition: EX

Date first published: 1960

2YRA 1610-3
2YRA 1611-11

Performance: 7/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $62-474 (mean $275)

Comments: Rare and expensive are the words that best describe this Kempe recording of the Eroica with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Collectors may be pleased to know that it is an improvement over the Beethoven Overtures album, both in terms of performance and sound quality, though I would urge potential purchasers to keep their expectations low.  I love the opening measures to the first movement of the Eroica, especially when the E-flat major chords are played with a powerful and precise attack (as exemplified by Klemperer/Philharmonia, Bernstein/VPO, Markevitch/Symphony of the Air, Schuricht/PCO, Szell/Cleveland Orchestra).  Here, Kempe and the Berlin Philharmonic give what is to me one of the mushiest openings on record.  It didn't leave a good first impression.  Thankfully, things do get better from here on out.  The funeral march second movement is given an effectively somber reading, and enough momentum and excitement are generated in the third and fourth movements to keep things interesting.  The sound is warm, tubey, with more hall presence and reverberation that can at times muddy the orchestral textures.   

The investment, if you choose to view it that way, is mainly for Kempe die-hard collectors.  If you think $300 will buy you an audiophile demonstration record, you're wrong.  If you're looking for the reference Eroica on vinyl, check out my recommendations above for contenders.  Unfortunately, this was never reissued on the Concert Classics or Classics for Pleasure series.

EMI HMV ASD 267: Cluytens does the Beethoven 5


Beethoven Fifth Symphony, "Leonore" Overture No. 3

Andre Cluytens, conductor
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1, white/gold

Condition: EX

Date first published: 1958

2YRA 1044-13
2YRA 1045-10

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $30-253 (mean $102) on

Comments: Some of you might recall that Andre Cluytens actually beat out Herbert von Karajan to recording the first complete set of Beethoven's symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic in stereo.  EMI released many of these originally on the French EMI label*:

Pathe FALP 30231-9: 9 LP box set
ASDF 105/106: Symphonies #8-9
ASDF 107: Symphony #5
ASDF 110: Symphony #3
ASDF 140: Symphony #4
ASDF 172: Symphony #6
ASDF 173: Symphony #7
ASDF 194: Symphony #1

Symphonies #5 and 6 were released in the UK on the ASD series as ASD 267 and 433, and the rest were released as part of EMI's Classics for Pleasure series (CFP 187 (#1), 193 (#2), 40076 (#3), 40007 (#5, 8), 40017 (#6), 40018 (#7), 40019 (#9)), culminating in the complete 8 LP box set (CFP 48999).

Every Beethoven fan will have his or her own favorite recording(s) of the 5th, and the catalog is at no loss of options, analog or digital. My current vinyl picks include Carlos Kleiber and the VPO on DG, George Szell and the RCO on Philips, Lorin Maazel and the BPO on DG, and Antal Dorati and the LSO on Mercury.  This is a fine performance of the Beethoven 5th with excellent playing overall by the BPO.  My copy had some mild surface noise, as might be expected.  I found the orchestral sound to be warm and full.  Like many of these early tube stereo EMI recordings, the presentation is more distant, giving way to a soundstage that is deeper than wide.  Louder passages are marked by some mild distortion on this pressing.  Being a believer in the quality of the Classics for Pleasure budget reissues, I would wager that the CFP of this album (CFP 40007) would have cleaned up this extraneous noise and offered greater clarity and therefore might be the most economical and enjoyable way to hear this performance on vinyl.  If any readers have heard the CFP and can comment, I'd greatly appreciate it.

*Information regarding discography obtained from the website of Youngrok Lee

EMI HMV ASD 336: Kempe's Beethoven Overture Album


Beethoven Overtures

Rudolf Kempe, conductor
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1, white/gold

Condition: VG++ to EX

Date first published: 1958

2YRA 1069-9
2YRA 1070-1

Performance: 7/10

Sound: 6/10

Price range: $34-365 (mean $112) on

Comments:  Another Kempe rarity ... and another EMI letdown.  You'd think that a combination of a conductor like Kempe with an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic would result in a dynamite record.  Not exactly.  The performances here are okay.  They have their exciting moments, but they just lack the spirit and verve of contemporaneous vinyl recordings by the likes of Otto Klemperer, Ivan Markevitch (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), George Szell (Columbia/CBS) or Leonard Bernstein (DG, even though this was released a bit later in the 1970s).  As if the performance quality wasn't enough to make you think twice about making the big ticket investment, the sound on this recording is also problematic.  Everything sounds constricted, and textures are generally murky (the way you know that it's really bad is that even the EMI Testament CD remaster sounds this way ... I guess the engineers had little to work with to try to improve).  There is a good amount of distortion throughout the album, particularly in loud passages of music.  My thoughts: give this one a pass.  You can find better out there for less. 

One positive:  it does have a cool cover.

This being said, this LP had subsequent incarnations on vinyl.  There is a Regal reissue that might be worth exploring to see if sound is better (nothing to rescue the performances).  I'll defer to Miles to comment on whether a Concert Classics might exist.

Audio setup: VPI Aries 1 turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge, Parasound JC3 phono stage, Musical Fidelity M6i integrated amplifier, Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding speakers

Friday, September 26, 2014

Decca SXL 2134: Music of Berlioz

Decca SXL 2134

Music of Berlioz

Jean Martinon, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1

Condition: EX

Date first published: 1959

ZAL 4324-1K
ZAL 4325-1K

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 7/10 (8 for STS)

Price range: $28-211 (mean $107) on

Comments: Okay, I admit, I don't have the cleanest looking copy based on the photos (there's some wear to the back cover and some anti-Deccite wrote in black ink over the Decca logo on the label), but the vinyl plays perfectly and accurately reveals the sonic attributes of this record.  There are a number of Berlioz compilations out there (Munch on RCA LSC-2438, Cluytens on rare French EMI SAXF-207, Ansermet on Decca SXL 6165), but this one is one of the more collectible ones.  Basically, almost anything that Jean Martinon did for Decca in stereo is pretty collectible.  The performances with the PCO are at least good to very good, and hey, this is fun French music.  The Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust is one of my all time favorite Berlioz orchestral works (we did play this one for a regional high school orchestra concert in 1992 or 1993) and Martinon pulls it off nicely here.  Listening this morning, I was pretty pleased with the tubey sound quality (which, as with a lot of the early Deccas, still gives the recordings an "older" sound compared with the more "modern" sounding mid- to late Deccas) .  This is a dynamic album on both ends of the spectrum, and for the most part, Decca delivers.  The surface was pretty quiet, allowing me to appreciate low level detail.  Clarity was sacrificed only at the extremes, and I found the music to have its impact when needed.  A little more definition and depth of bass would be a bonus.  I'll have to check my collection to see if I have the STS reissue and whether or not any of these issues were subsequently resolved. 

According to Moon and Gray in FFSS, this album was given a 7 for performance and 8 for sound with a comment: "Good recording but mediocre orchestral playing".

For the budget buyers, you'll not regret picking up the London Blueback CS 6101.  The cover might not have the bizarre miniature caricature of Hector, but it's a small price to pay for the overall cheaper price of the record.  I found one about 6 months ago for $7.99 at the local record shop in pristine shape. 

Update (Meles): The ED5 style pressing of this LP on Stereo Treasury STS 15031 offers improved clarity and bass impact that gets the job done well. Please see our Decca Blueback Guide.

Audio setup: VPI Aries 1 turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge, Parasound JC3 phono stage, Musical Fidelity M6i integrated amplifier, Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding speakers

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Columbia SAX 2570: Klemperer's Beethoven Overtures

Columbia SAX 2570

Beethoven Overtures

Otto Klemperer, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ER1, semi-circle 1st

Condition: EX

Date first published: 1965 (but recordings from 1958-1960)

YAX 1192-2
YAX 1193-3

Performance: 9/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $25-439 (mean $52, outlier was a $439 single-side test pressing) on 

Comments: In addition to his reference Beethoven symphony cycle, Otto Klemperer also recorded two stereo LPs of Beethoven overtures on the Columbia SAX label.  SAX 2542 included the Leonore Overtures 1-3 and the Overture to Fidelio, while this album contained the Coriolan, Creatures of Prometheus, Egmont, King Stephen, and Consecration of the House.  The quality of these recordings is right on par with the symphonies, and the performances are powerful.  How does the sound hold up?  Pretty well, for the most part.  There is some mild surface noise to the LP, even on an LP in excellent condition with no visible marks, but this hardly gets in the way of the listening experience.  The presentation on my system is more distant, but the soundstage is reasonable wide and deep, and the overall sound is still quite rich and dynamic.  Bass extension is decent but could've used a little more impact.  I picked up some graininess to the strings and brass as well as a decrease in overall clarity in louder passages.  This was most notable for me in the final portion of the Egmont Overture.  However, if you've been following this blog, you know that this is no surprise for many of these golden age EMI recordings.  

Last year, I purchased the EMI/Warner Klemperer Beethoven box set and was very happy with this comprehensive compilation, since it included all of the symphonies (some with more than one recording) and overtures on 10 CDs.  The sound quality of the transfers is fabulous, and there is far more clarity to these than the originals. 

Of note, like the symphonies, many of the overtures conducted by Klemperer were reissued by EMI as part of its ASD series.  My experience is that these later pressings sounded quite a bit better than the original SAX releases, eliminating distortion and significantly improving clarity.  I'm pretty certain that my colleague Miles can testify to this, as he has also done A/B testing here.

Audio setup: VPI Aries 1 turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge, Parasound JC3 phono stage, Musical Fidelity M6i integrated amplifier, Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding speakers

Columbia SAX 2545: Szell conducts Richard Strauss

Columbia SAX 2545

Richard Strauss: Symphonia Domestica

George Szell, conductor
The Cleveland Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ER1, semi-circle first

Condition: VG++/EX

Date first published: 1964

YAX 1128-2E
YAX 1129-2E

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 6/10

Price range: $24-98 (mean $58) on

Comments: What an interesting concept ... to write a musical work depicting a day in the life of a family.  Quite a contrast from more adventurous themes as "Don Quixote", "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks", and my favorite, "Death and Transfiguration".  Nonetheless, and whether you like them or not, Richard Strauss knew how to communicate these images in the form of orchestral tone poems.  The Symphonia Domestica has seen less studio recording time compared to Strauss' other tone poems, as evidenced by, which lists 37 separate recordings for this work compared to 108 for Tod und Verklarung and 168 for Til Eulenspiegel.  This must have been one of the first stereo recordings released, the other one that I am aware of being Fritz Reiner's recording on RCA (released straight onto VICS-1104 without a Living Stereo incarnation).  The music is charming and the performance is quite lovely, though I have to admit, the day in the life of this family is perhaps a bit more tranquil than those of most other people I know.  The sound quality is what one would expect from a decent US Columbia recording (the US issue was MS 6627); remember, this was not recorded by EMI.  Don't expect much openness or naturalness to the orchestral sound here.  Dynamic range is also a bit restricted, though given the more lyrical nature of a good part of the music, I didn't mind it much.  I'd like to get my hands on the Reiner with the Chicago Symphony, which I would anticipate to sound superior in almost every aspect.  According to the RCA Bible, the VICS got a 10+ and Very Good rating, with the associated comments: "Another one of RP's favorites.  A bit dry but quite transparent sounding."

Audio setup: VPI Aries 1 turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge, Parasound JC3 phono stage, Musical Fidelity M6i integrated amplifier, Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding speakers

DG Originals 50 CD box set released ... with a cool trailer

Not meant in any way as an advertisement for DG, but I just thought some of you might appreciate the trailer video that accompanies the release of this DG "Originals" 50 CD collection.  It's got some black and white video footage of a number of well known DG artists of the golden age of stereo recording and shows a few clips of the record pressing process.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Decca SXL 6089: Kertesz and the Vienna Philharmonic take home the trophy

Decca SXL 6089

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "The Great C Major"

Istvan Kertesz, conductor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED2

Condition: NM

Date first published: 1964

ZAL 6147-6W
ZAL 6148-5W

Performance: 4.5/5

Sound: 4.5/5

Price range: $28-179 (mean $62) on

Comments: You're probably asking, "HOW many recordings of Schubert's Great is he going to review??  Enough already!" Okay, just one more, because so far, of the ones I've heard and reviewed on this site, this one has impressed me the most.  Of course, I haven't yet reviewed the famous Munch/BSO on RCA or the Karajan/BPO on DG, but I can say that compared to the Krips, Szell, and Kubelik, the clarity (finally, no distortion on this one!), dynamics, and hall ambience of this recording give it the best sound.  The presentation is also a little closer, so you feel like you are right up in the front rows rather than seated further back in the hall.  To me, that translated into greater detail, more impressive dynamics, and a more tangible sound overall.  Keep in mind, this is the second pressing (ED2, with "Made in England By" at the 11 o'clock position on the label), which I believe would equate to the wide band FFRR London pressing -- one that I believe often surpasses the sonic quality of the original FFSS (though I am pretty sure that some may differ on this).  If you can locate the London (CS 6381), you'll probably land yourself a better deal than getting the Decca, and I won't even go into the debate here about Decca vs London.  Unfortunately, the catalog number cut-off in the Moon and Gray book is CS 6350, so I can't provide you with any more insight on this LP from that source.  A very nice record.

Audio setup: VPI Aries 1 turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge, Parasound JC3 phono stage, Musical Fidelity M6i integrated amplifier, Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding speakers

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

EMI HMV ASD 325: Schubert's "Great", Round 3


Schubert: Symphony in C Major (The Great)

Rafael Kubelik, conductor
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1, white/gold

Condition: EX

Date first published: 1959

2YEA 174-2
2YEA 174-5

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 7/10

Price range: $40-211 (mean $128) on

Comments: Having alluded to this recording as an alternative recording of Schubert's "Great" in my previous post regarding Columbia SAX 2517, I decided that it was high time to take a closer listen.  The results were interesting.  From an interpretation standpoint, Kubelik and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra give us a decent performance, though I think my go-to vinyl recordings are still those of Munch and the BSO (RCA) or Krips and the LSO (Decca).  Soundwise, there was a touch of tube glow to the recording that provided it with a kiss of sonic warmth.  Presentation overall was a little more distant (mid-hall seating), though the sound nevertheless had an airiness to it.  Dynamic range was quite good, better than I would have expected, but the clarity of both the strings and the brass in the high octane fourth movement was diminished due to distortion -- the very same sort that I have found to plague all but the very best of these highly valuable golden age EMI recordings.  Gosh, and this recording came so close to being a winner.  That being said, if you can find this Kubelik LP (it's relatively rare with only 2 copies listed on popsike for 2014), it's still worth a listen, and if you can get over the distortion at the end, I'm pretty sure you will enjoy the overall ride. 

Audio setup: VPI Aries 1 turntable, JMW Memorial tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge, Parasound JC3 phono stage, Musical Fidelity M6i integrated amplifier, Von Schweikert VR2 floorstanding speakers

Argo ZRG 706: A Little Mozart with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields

Argo ZRG 706

Mozart: Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201, Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183

Neville marriner, director
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields

Pressing: UK, rectangle logo

Condition: NM

Date first published: 1972

ZRG 3645-1G
ZRG 3646-2G

Performance: 8/10

Sound: 8/10

Price range: No data on (less than $25)

Comments: Though I do like Klemperer's Mozart, I've found that I don't particularly like his interpretation of Symphony No. 25 (reviewed here and here), a work that a good number of people (including myself) seem to associate with the opening to the film Amadeus.  Klemperer's tempo in the first movement is a bit too frenetic for me, and I think that articulation is lost as a result.  Not to mention that the sound quality of that recording was pretty good but not great (my ears have admittedly evolved since that first review).  My colleague Miles followed up on this and asked me if I owned the Neville Marriner recording on Argo and if so, would I review it.  Happy to do so.  This LP pairs No. 25 with No. 29, and both are performed with the sort of precision, articulation, vitality, and musicality that we've come to expect from the ASMF.  In my book, this one trumps the Klemperer.  Strings, most notably the violins, are crisp.  Woodwinds are also nicely recorded with good imaging.  I had higher expectations for the horns, whose sound was slightly murky and less well defined that I would've liked (compare below with Harnoncourt's digital recording for Teldec/Warner).  Marriner and the ASMF also recorded these symphonies for EMI and Philips, and frankly they all sound pretty similar in terms of interpretation.  If I had to pick, I'd probably go with the one on Philips, but don't discount this first effort.  It's still a beautiful record and worth a spot in your collection.

In The Box With The Shaded Dog

Somehow Leonard Warren looks like
Sean Connery which is pretty cool.
I was never looking to blog on RCA as I have been on a big EMI kick for the last year.  After acquiring some EMI opera boxes cheap on eBay and listening to them, I recalled thinking in the distant past that RCA opera boxes had a lot of potentiaI, so I decided to play Verdi Hamlet first since I really had not heard that album and it was on display on my new record shelves.

Well, the Hamlet blew me away. It was not really better overall than the EMI, but in many ways it was superior. The high-frequency ambient air and detail was amazing and also the treble dynamics were astounding giving incredible clarity and dynamics to the voices.  I have been getting similar improvements with other LP's due to system changes, but I did not think the RCA sound would take off to this extent. And really the sound for my other RCA Shaded Dogs is not unexpectedly improved when I listen to familiar RCA LSC orchestral releases on the original and Classic Records pressings (I've got most of the originals and reissues). But with the Opera box sets the sound is unbelievably improved easily exceeding the best of the orchestral releases in my collection.

Briefly, for those who are up to date with my Taking the Sound Floor post the most recent changes have been with vacuum tubes associated with my phono stage, an Arthur Loesch design where I changed the 6GK5 tube from a Mullard to a Hitachi and I also changed a power supply tube from a very nice CBS 7025 to a Raytheon 5755 with a pin adapter. These two changes have given my system an incredible degree of clarity and energy turning previously bright and aggressive LP's into show piecesIt also appears that the upgrade to Black Gate capacitors and Schottky diodes in my subwoofer section have not just improved sound floor and noise floor in a general sense but also have improved noise that effects tube recordings (i.e. solid state noise). It seems that my system is reaping the benefits of excellent solid state control while veils have been removed from the sound presentation with the elimination of diode noise and the sound of electrolytic capacitors (the sound of solid state, in my opinion.) I did not expect this result from this upgrade thinking I would only see benefits to blackness of background, etc..  Contrary to my original expectations and goals (to make my tube system sound more solid state), these changes have been very friendly to tube recording.  The Taking the Sound Floor post is sorely in need of update now.

Elegantly dressed patrons fill the boxs of the Metropolitan Opera in 1898 -- sketch NYPL collection
So after that Hamlet, I kept playing more more RCA boxes and I was blown away by the sound and the performances. And so now we are going to have an entire series on the much neglected, "Lost", RCA boxes from the Golden Era. (The Golden Era for most classical labels starts with the advent of the stereo LP in 1958 for which most of the classical catalog was rerecorded with no expense spared using still advancing tube technology through until about 1964, which coincidentally was when the transistor started showing up in the recording chains of most labels.) I have acquired almost all of these RCA Shaded Dogs with the exceptions of orchestral music (as most of these are compilations of individual RCA LPs) and chamber music. I would like to have the chamber music but many of the titles are quite expensive.

Based on my cover photo file count that is 30 titles and 84 actual discs not counting any later RCA on Dynagroove, etc. (with many being selected by the Metropolitan Opera.) No other site has all of these titles and covers and even the RCA Bible does not have reviews on nine of them. Another Miles to Mozart first. These reviews will be primarily sound based reviews with some general comments on performance (sorry Opera lovers I do not have double digit copies of all the versions of these pieces as I am more of an audiophile Opera lover). 

Before getting to our first handful of box reviews. I’ll make some general comments on this series of Opera and choral works. First, the performances generally range from excellent to legendary. At the time of these recordings many were already bemoaning the decline of opera and claimed the older singers were the best.
Metropolitan Opera House 1937
Things have not gotten better in the last 50 years. RCA went all out on these recordings and had awesome singers at their disposal. RCA took many of the stars from the Metropolitan Opera to Europe to record, creating unique casts of stars only heard on LP. Apparently Columbia had exclusive recording rights with the Met, but RCA had exclusive rights to many of the stars, and this combined with the much cheaper recording costs in Europe (no American Federation of Musicians union, meant there were very few recordings of the superior Metropolitan Opera.) The average quality was even higher than Decca/London, the most prolific opera label with excellent recording quality to boot (the London blueback sound).

Massive Stage Opening at the Metropolitan Opera House
Those familiar with the RCA classical living stereo series know how pressing variations can be a big issue for sound quality (often you have to have the right stamper). Quite a few of the classical releases have sound that just is not good on any pressing. For Opera, based on my collection, things are much better. Everything sounds at least very good. And why do these LP's as a group sound consistently so good? I would propose that there were a host of factors:
1.     Each recording was an expensive premium effort on the part of RCA covering multiple LP's. They had more days to record and get the sound right.
2.     The high cost of the LP's (most over $100 each in today’s dollars) reduced the sales greatly so the stampers are always very close to the mother stamper.
3.     Often the LP's were played much less than single LP's and therefore are in great condition. The boxes also helped keep the LP's in better shape and less dusty.
4.    The original box buyers probably tended to have nicer playback equipment than the typical single LP consumer. This combined with the limited sales meant that RCA did not have to deal with returned LP's and adjust the later pressings to remove bass so the stylus would not jump out of the groove.
5.     Many of these recording were done in Europe either by Decca/London (the most valuable shaded dogs were ones recorded by Decca) or by RCA in Europe. The RCA recordings would have involved different equipment as the AC voltage is 220 in Europe (not to mention whole 50 Hz versus 60 Hz hum thing.) RCA invested heavily in there Rome recording operation with audible results.

All of the above make for quite a combination of performance and sound. Through my initial survey through these records I have yet to hear a bad one. Unlike the original list price of these boxes, the going prices are quite low. Demand is low still for some reason (some of the Decca and EMI Golden Age opera boxes are crazy money, $$$$) and the supply of NM copies is really good. The patient buyer may be able to acquire most of these for $15 a box or less with US collectors ideally positioned since shipping within the US is quite cheap. (The shoe is on the other foot for yours truly with EMI opera where shipping of a box is typically $25 or more.)

Before one goes out to buy one of these boxes there is a question of which pressing. All pressings sound good to these ears (RCA did not screw up these high price endeavors even with later pressings), but there are differences. Generally, the earliest releases have a more bloomy tube sound with incredible upper treble dynamics and air and a nice sound, that is a bit more diffuse.  The later pressings and later releases bring the dynamics down into the midrange while still maintaining good treble dynamics. There is more drive to the sound and I would prefer the later pressings marginally as a group (later shaded dog, white dog, and even red seal). I have a few very satisfying red seal pressings so do not hesitate to try them as they are often very low in price. That being said, the bloom on the earliest pressings and recordings is quite lovely on the right system and can add some magic to the voices which are critical for Opera. Also, to be sure, a huge part of the sound of some of the earliest RCA is the fact they are dual track recordings (only two recording tracks with two main microphones and a few helper microphones. Also noteworthy on all RCA is the sound of special effects are on lines with the Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular approach.) I have been an original pressing Nazi in most of my RCA Golden Era Living Stereo Shaded Dog collecting, so my views on the later pressings are based on just a few copies and comparisons. I’ll update this section as my views evolved during the series of reviews. No need to wait for my reviews before you snap up any deals.

And now the reviews. This first set has the ones with which I have had magic moments.


Wagner: Die Walkure

London Symphony Orchestra, Leinsdorf Conductor
Nilsson, Gorr, Vickers, London, Ward, Brouwenstein

Decca recorded this for RCA in 1963 and later reissued on Decca Ace of Diamonds and on CD. Considered by the Amazon reviewers to be a reference performance and I concur. I particularly like the orchestration. The opening overture gives me goose bumps (I also like this music for the silent acting by Nicole Kidman in the movie Birth). Ride of the Valkyries on side 8 is amazing and with the opera you get the Valkyries singing/screaming for some hair raising sound. I love Leinsdorf's conducting. The more controlled tube sound of this later shaded dog recording is a perfect match for the music where drive and bass extension are most welcome. The RCA Bible under rates this LP as Very Good/Excellent, "suffers from a bit too much reverberance on voice." This five record set sold for $336 in today's dollars ($42 in 1963.) You might not get this for as little as $10, but it is a deal at any price. This was a Soria release (LDS prefix) and so has a very durable box if not the most attractive and the records have a red Soria label.The Skira (from Italy) produced liner notes are weak for a Soria release. I would not bother seeking out the Ace of Diamonds version except at bargain prices. Simply some of the best sound I've heard and a great performance and cast.


Verdi: La Traviata

Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Prevetalli Conductor
Moffo, Tucker, Merrill

An RCA recording from 1961 recorded by the team of Mohr and Layton of RCA fame. Well the performance here may even be more respected then the above Wagner. Rave reviews on Amazon and be sure to watch the above clip of Anna Moffo (amazing beauty and performance). Another excellent sounding recording. By this time Mohr and Layton had finished their polishing of the production process and yet RCA mastering was still evolving so this record has a more immediate, airy sound then the later Rome efforts. You can really hear Moffo moving around on the stage. The RCA Bible grossly under rates this LP as Fair to Good. It is excellent at the very least. My copy might be a bit lean in the bass, but that seems as much the orchestration as anything. The sound is full and brilliant and Anna Moffo really belts it out. Later pressings of this LSC Shaded Dog might garner interesting sonic results for those who wish for more bass drive and less bloom. I would still value the shaded dog higher in value, but do grab a later pressing (white dog or red seal) if the condition is perfect and the price is low. This sold for a modest $144 in today's dollars ($18 in 1961), well worth the price of this legendary performance with amazing sound.


Rossini: Barber of Seville

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Leinsdorf Conductor
Merrill, Peters, Tozzi, Valleti, Corena

A rare treat is this recording of the Metropolitan Opera due to the expense of recording opera in the United States. Robert Merrill shines here and definitely watch the amazing video clip of Merrill as Figaro above. The Amazonians also favor the vintage EMI stereo release with Callas. This performance has a very theatrical feel (as does the clip above) that seems most appropriate for this Opera Buffo comedy.The bloom and airiness of the early RCA tube sound is well nigh perfect with no want for bass extension. The recording quality seems very well attuned to the performance and I love it and the performance. This might be the best sounding RCA opera recording and is an absolute triumph for the Metropolitan Opera. The RCA Bible was unable to review this record, so only here on Miles to Mozart will you see a review. The earliest boxes will have a nice metal clasp as pictured. I doubt rival EMI's original Blue and Silver pressing of SAX 2266-68 ($300) would match this sonically, but the later SLS-853 would make some interesting sounds. This sold for $192 in today's dollars ($24 in 1959). At probably one tenth the price of the EMI or less why would you buy anything else?


Puccini: Tosca

Vienna State Opera and Chorus, Karajan Conductor
Price, Taddei, Steffano

Decca recorded this for RCA in 1963. The Amazonians love Price and Karajan and many prefer this to the Callas 1955 Tosca (mono). I am not a big fan of Callas and much prefer Leontyne Price (see her doing Tosca in the video clip above.) Side 3 is a revelation with incredible conducting and bass drive to the sound and voices. Jonathon Valin states in the RCA Bible "I don't think I've heard a Vienna recording with more beautiful string tone or better mid and low end clout (Excellent)." I also have a German pressing which is an absolute joke compared to the US Soria. Deccaphiles can get this on the much later London OSA-1284, but I doubt the sound is an improvement. The Soria Skira booklet is nothing to right home about, but is still light years ahead of rival Decca. I'd categorically recommend this if I hadn't just bought another RCA Tosca (review follows).


Puccini: Tosca

Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Leinsdorf Conductor
Milanov, Bjoerling, and Warren

RCA recorded this in 1957 before the stereo LP existed. Milanov was well known for her role as Tosca performing it at the Metropolitan Opera for over 30 years. The Callas debate rages on Amazon (but neither the above Price Tosca or this one mention each other.) For some this is their favorite Tosca and I may be one of them. Bass is adequate, but when matching up with side 3 on the Karajan/Price Tosca we do not have the same drive in the performance or the sound. However, with the earlier RCA (dual track recording) we have a wonderful delicacy to the sound with lively highs and extremely dynamic voices.  The chorus sounds very distant in comparison to the Karajan, but is wonderful with detail.  Jussi Bjoerling's Cavaradossi is out standing. Horns have a nice texture. The earlier RCA even has a relatively quiet background for such and old recording. Zinka Milanov sounds very powerful and dignified in this role. People complain about Milanov being shrill and wobbly in spots, but I think this is the recording which is very dynamic and requires tremendous treble dynamics to bring out the full power of Milanov, a real screamer. The screams and sound affects are great.  On side 4 is where this Tosca pulls away from the above Soria. The sound and voices are just amazing. Wonderful bloom and air.  I love Milanov. The horns and brass very detailed and nice if not the last word in power. The aura of this recording is amazing. Bjoerling just pegs it on side 4 and their is a whole to the performance that is greater than the sum of its parts. The RCA Bible under rates this recording as very good/excellent stating "Rich and luminous in the midrange and deep, warm, and powerful in the bass...imaging is not as realistic as RCA's later recordings--only a rudimentary attempt is made to follow the singer's movement on stage." I have the rival London Blue Back with Tebaldi and a tube pressed Japanese Super Analogue (nicer sound floor) of the recording. Both RCA destroy the Decca releases. Both RCA Tosca releases are a must buy. The Milanov Tosca is on 5 sides with a bonus sixth side of highlights which is equally amazing, so buy both. I picked this up recently for $15 and I am so glad that I did.


Berlioz: Requiem

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Munch Conductor
Leopold Simoneau, Tenor

Mohr and Layton recorded this in 1959 bringing the orchestra down in front of the stage and placing the chorus onstage and brass 40 feet up in the balconies to the side of the stage. Munch is quite the Berlioz conductor and I'd also recommend his Romeo and Juliet (review coming soon) and Harold in Italy on RCA LSC(sound a little more problematic.) The Skira booklet claims it is one of 200 first edition copies and has nice color photos pasted within. This is an impressive sounding recording and the Amazonians generally rave about the performance and sound on CD. I recently acquired this and had low expectations as the RCA Bible grossly under rates this as Fair, "Choirs are overmodulated, strings are thinned out and very left/right, brass are disembodied, and ambiance .. well it's every where." The strings are fine (perhaps not as lush as the usual living strings, but probably better balanced in level,) The brass is supposed to be other worldly as Berlioz placed brass bands at the four corners of the orchestra. I find the recording to be quite successful with a large sound that is appropriately impressive. There is wonderful ambiance which if anything lends a heavenly aura to the sound. This may be the best Boston recording I've heard as instead of weak bass, we have the most wonderful deep bass hits that are completely defined in space by all the hall queues. This bass is magnificent and I fell like a pig wallowing in it. Some of the best bass I've heard recorded because of this quality. Dr. Munch gives us god like performance and sound. Valin and his Bible can go straight to hell.