RCA Living Stereo: The Decca Recordings (Part 1)
This post marks the first of a series that we will dedicate to the recordings that Decca made for RCA in the late 1950s to the early 1960s. Beginning with LSC-2077 (Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, Reiner/VPO), RCA issued several LPs recorded in Europe by Decca Records of London. According to Jonathan Valin in The RCA Bible:
"According to Decca producer Ray Minshull, who was kind enough to provide me with much useful information about RCA/Deccas, the deal between Decca and RCA was structured around distribution and talent. In return for loaning RCA some of their artists, Decca was empowered to distribute RCA recordings throughout the U.K. and Europe. In addition Decca agreed to record under license some of their own artists, in sessions paid for and sponsored by RCA, for release on the Red Seal label. (In time these recordings would revert back to Decca, which would then release the same material, usually under a different title, on their own labels.) Part of the deal stipulated that RCA was to build no pressing facilities of their own in Great Britain. After RCA violated this last stipulation by building a (short-lived) pressing plant in Durham, U.K., the agreement was terminated and all of the Decca-licensed material reverted to Decca. (Which means, among other things, that barring a new agreement with Decca you won't soon be seeing an RCA of Witches' Brew)."
These Decca-recorded RCA Living Stereo albums (some of which have previously been reviewed on this blog) have long been praised as some of the greatest performances and finest sounding records in the RCA and Decca classical catalogs. Let's take a closer listen.
RCA Living Stereo LSC-2077
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel, Death and Transfiguration
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/B1, Indianapolis)
RCA Bible rating*: Very good
Recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, these are wonderful performances of these two Strauss tone poems and may very well be my favorite interpretations of these works next to those of Klemperer on UK Columbia (SAX 2437). Sound quality is very good though perhaps not quite up to par with the very best Decca/RCA recordings. It's a dynamic record and plays without much distortion. The biggest criticism I have is that the bass is rather boomy. Brass occasionally sound a bit nasal. The hall acoustics aren't as open. Valin himself states that the recording is "typically Sofiensaal, meaning it is as tubby as a Bavarian burgher". This was subsequently released in the Decca Eclipse series (ECS 674), which, to my recollection, significantly improves upon the overall sound quality. The Decca sounds more natural and modern, has a lower sound floor, and is devoid of any thickness in the bass. It's also cheaper.
RCA Living Stereo LSC-2225
Alexander Gibson, conductor
New Symphony Orchestra of London
(3S/1S, A1/A2, Indianapolis)
RCA Bible rating: 10++/tops/excellent
Long considered one of the very top RCAs, earning a 10++/tops/excellent in Valin's book. It is also one of the rarer birds, and finding a 1s/1s pressing (the 3s/1s appears to be most common) in NM condition will cost you upwards of $300-400. Is the listening experience worth it? The performances are certainly exhilarating. While I have heard better versions of both Mussorgsky works, the Malcolm Arnold Tam O'Shanter Overture takes home the trophy here (what a fun piece of music!), and the Danse Macabre comes in a close second. The recording has tremendous dynamics and plenty of detail. Gorgeous midrange and treble and wonderful reproduction of string tone and winds. Expansive soundstage and very nice hall acoustics. Where things suffer, though, is in the bass, which, like the Reiner previously discussed above, has plenty of depth but is plain-out boomy and fuzzy. The recording is also subject to some distortion in loud orchestral tuttis (overloading of mikes?). For such an expensive LP, I find this a bit regrettable and argue that you might be better off hunting down one of the many reissues. Decca issued this as SPA175, which is probably the most affordable of all of them though may be harder to find in the US. I'd wager that sound quality is better than the original, but only a dedicated A/B comparison would reveal the truth. Classic Records put out 180g and 200g 33rpm (the last one being a 200g clear vinyl pressing that to my understanding was never made available until after Classic Records closed down operations) as well as 45rpm reissues. I have not heard any of the Classics but have been told that they are outstanding and resolve the distortion issues mentioned above (Meles rates the Classic an 9/10 for sound). Since they're out of print, you can expect to pay premium prices on these as well, though I'm sure less than you would for originals. If you are looking for the audiophile pressing, those would probably be my choice.
RCA Living Stereo LSC-2272
Prokofieff: Symphony No. 5
Jean Martinon, conductor
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
(1S/1S, A1/A2, Indianapolis)
RCA Bible rating: 10++/NR/excellent
The first of a series of RCA recordings with Jean Martinon and the PCO, recorded in Paris. Valin praises this recording and gives it his vote for the best performance of the Prokofiev Fifth (10++/NR/excellent).
Sonically speaking, however, I was a little disappointed after listening to the first movement, which was dynamic but in contrast to Valin's comments lacked clarity and detail to my ears. Things changed for the better in the second movement, during which I could begin to hear what Valin was saying about "bowing detail on strings and low bass have Mercury-like clarity." Winds were also very nicely reproduced with excellent imaging. In the third movement, though, strings again tended to sound thin and dry, much like they do on many of the Mercury recordings. The fourth movement, much like the second, ushers in better clarity, more detail, greater presence and transparency, and closes with an exciting, hair-raising finale. Reissued as Decca Eclipse ECS 593, which might be worth auditioning to see if it offers any sonic improvements on this great performance.
*The RCA Bible ratings are stated in the order of reviewer (Jim Mitchell's Catalogue / Tom Port / Jonathan Valin). If only one rating is present, it is Valin's. NR = not rated.