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Positive Feedback ISSUE 1
june/july 2002


The Vinyl Cheapskate
by Roger S. Gordon

CES 2002 - Vinylwise

There are numerous pleasures associated with attending the CES convention in Las Vegas: seeing old friends, making new friends, seeing, hearing, and fondling expensive equipment, eating good food, and of course, buying music. One of the reasons for getting to the CES early on the first day is to hit the Alexis Park Ballroom and the other rooms where music (vinyl and CD) is being sold at discount. Most of the major audiophile mail order companies are there, as well as many of the small audiophile labels. The sellers only have limited stock, so you have to get there before they sell out. This is especially true for the used vinyl. So, with cash in one hand and plastic in the other, I jumped into the fray and emerged with what I hoped would be vinyl to die for. Upon returning home several days later—wiser, poorer, and heavier (the buffets in Las Vegas are truly excellent!), I proceeded to put my vinyl acquisitions on the turntable.

First up was a reissue of Decca SXL 6529, Holst, The Planets, Zubin Mehta, Los Angeles Philharmonic. This reissue has been out for some time, but I had put off getting a copy as I already had two copies of the original London CS6734. This recording is arguably the finest Planets ever recorded. The performance and the sonics are superb. Its only competition would be Stokowski’s Capitol recording with the LA Philharmonic, though I have not yet found a Capitol pressing that sounds as good as the London. So it was with great anticipation that I put the needle down on the Decca reissue. The opening strains of the first movement, Mars, filled my room. The performance was everything that I remembered it to be, but there was something missing. The hairs on the back of my neck weren’t tingling like they usually do when I hear this movement. I quickly put on one of my CS6734s. Ahh, there were the tingles. Wonderful music. Back onto the turntable went the Decca. Uh oh, the highs are missing. Back on the turntable went my second copy of CS 6734. Lots of high-frequency energy. The piccolos pierced my skull like shrieking banshees, just as they should. The previous week I had attended a San Diego Symphony performance of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is scored for two piccolos and two flutes. The piccolos shrieked even louder in the concert hall than they did on the CS6734s, so I knew the CS6734s were closer to the real sound. Have the master tapes, which are only thirty years old, lost their highs? It does happen, sooner with some tape brands than others. Decca SXL 6529 was a severe disappointment. I wish I could get my money back.

Next on the turntable was a reissue of Westminster WST 14003, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra. I have enjoyed many Westminster recordings over the years, both mono and stereo, and was looking forward to this one. I thought it a curious choice, though, as this performance had never stood out amongst the multitude of Scheherazades in my collection. Scherchen is very collectible in Japan—could this be the reason for the reissue? I played the first side, then I played my original WST 14003. The reissue vinyl is quieter and the dynamics are slightly better, but I thought I detected bleed-through at several points. (Bleed-through is what happens when a master tape is stored, unplayed, for a long time. The strong magnet signals recorded on a very dynamic section transfer, in part, to the tape on either side of it on the reel. If the signals on that adjacent winding are also strong, you won’t hear the bleed-through, as it will be masked, but if the music is quiet, you will hear the bleed-through underneath the soft passage.) After playing the reissue several times, the bleed-through became more noticeable. While the mastering of the reissue is better than the original and the vinyl is quieter, the master tape has deteriorated over time, and I prefer my original WST 14003 to the reissue, despite the original’s shortcomings.

After two duds in a row, I needed a winner to revive my flagging spirits, so I put on the Classic Records reissue of Everest SDBR-3003, Antill, Corroboree, Eugene Goossens, London Symphony Orchestra. I have always been a fan of Everest recordings, and was very sorry when DCC Compact Classics stopped reissuing them. Classic Records, however, has a difference reissue philosophy than DCC. DCC reissued the Everest recordings for their performances, but Classic reissues them primarily for their sonics. Thus, the Antill was a no-brainer—it is one of the most sonically spectacular of all of the Everest recordings. Ten seconds into the opening cut, you know why Classic Records reissued this. Wonderful sound. Fun music. My first-pressing original Everest (silver/turquoise label with wooden dowel) does not sound this dynamic, nor is the vinyl this quiet. A winner at last!

With my sonic palette cleansed, I moved on to another European reissue, EMI SAX 2342, Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 3 and Final’s Cave Overture, Otto Klemperer, Philharmonic Orchestra. This is one of my favorite recordings of Final’s Cave (The Hebrides Overture), which I have on Angel S 35880. The reissue is clean, quiet, and dynamic, a joy to hear. However, is it worth $30, when you can buy S 35880, one of the better-sounding Angels, for $1? A close call. The EMI reissue sounds better, but many collectors could live quite happily with a clean copy of the Angel and spend their $30 more profitably elsewhere.

The next LP I put on my turntable was not a reissue, but a first release of music recorded years ago. Over the years, Cisco Music of Los Angeles, in conjunction with King Music of Japan, has re-released many of the famous London/Decca recordings. Now, independent of King, Cisco is re-releasing recordings from the Urania catalog. Urania, a small audiophile label in the 1950s, made super-sounding recordings for the time. The company issued fewer than 100 stereo LPs before folding in late 1959. The label was acquired by Connoisseur Records (no relation to Connoisseur Society), which re-released much of the Urania catalog on poor-sounding budget LPs. The first Cisco release (CLP 7001) combines a recording from Urania’s catalog that was never released, Freidrich Witt, Symphony in C, Hans Schweiger, Brussels Radio Orchestra (recorded in 1959) with a non-Urania recording, Mozart, Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner"), Thomas Nee, New Hampshire Festival Orchestra (recorded in 1976 and originally released as Hammer Records SD-150). The Witt piece was originally attributed to Beethoven when an unsigned manuscript was found in 1909. After a second manuscript was found, signed by Witt, it was properly attributed. The mistake in attribution is understandable, since the structure of the symphony is pure Beethoven, though Witt’s themes mimic Franz Joseph Haydn. It is a shame that the piece is seldom performed or recorded because of the plagiarism. This is a very nice performance, with audiophile-quality sound. The Mozart also has excellent sound. The performance is quite good, better than one would expect from a no-name conductor and orchestra. I would give it a B+, but it is not world class. I still prefer my less-than-sonically-stunning recordings by Walter and Beecham.

The second release from Cisco (CLP 7002) is another Urania recording, Prokofiev, Symphonic Suite of Waltzes and excerpts from the Stone Flower Ballet, Hans Schweiger, Kansas City Philharmonic. This was originally released as Urania USD 1030, later reissued by Connoisseur Records as US 5130. This was the first recording of the Symphonic Suite for Waltzes, which had been given its first American performance a few weeks earlier by the same conductor and orchestra. I wonder what machinations of the Cold War resulted in a regional orchestra obtaining the right to perform the American premiere of a work of one of the century’s greatest composers. If only the dead could talk! The Symphonic Suite of Waltzes is made up of waltzes extracted from six of Prokofiev’s previous works. Two will be instantly recognizable—the ones from the ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. The other four are from very obscure works, including two film scores. Still, Prokofiev is Prokofiev. This is a minor work, but very enjoyable, and it should be heard more often. The Stone Flower excerpt—also known as the "Gypsy Fantasy" because they comprise the Gypsy Dance, Severin’s Dance, Dance of the Gypsy Girl, and Mass Dance–are heard more often than the Symphonic Suite of Waltzes, but still not as often as they should be. This is fun music. The sound of the original Urania release was quite good—equal to any of the RCAs or Mercurys being issued at the time. I compared the reissue to my Urania original, and much prefer the reissue. It is quieter, more dynamic, and sounds more like a real performance. A definite keeper.

Selling substantial numbers of reissue LPs from the Mercury, London/Decca, and RCA catalogs is difficult. Selling reissue LPs from lesser-known labels is a real gamble. For Cisco to stick their financial neck out with these two LPs is very courageous. If you are a vinyl collector, I would urge you to buy both of them. I doubt you have a copy of the Witt in your collection. If you don’t, you need it. It is also unlikely that you have many performances of the Prokofiev works. You also need these. Support Cisco so that they will bring out more recordings from the Urania catalog. We need to hear these performances again.

Being on a roll now, I put on the LP that I had the greatest expectations for, Classic Records’ 45rpm reissue of RCA LSC-2341, Saint-Saens, Symphony No. 3, Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Saint-Saens Third, the "Organ Symphony," is a real crowd pleaser. You have to hear it in a live performance to really appreciate it. When I heard it live for the first time a few years ago, I was sitting in the sixth row, just right of center. As the orchestra swung into the finale, I could see the expressions on the faces of the orchestra members. They were loving this music as much as the audience. As the final chord died away, the audience exploded in applause, as did the orchestra members themselves. After the conductor called for quiet, the orchestra replayed the last five minutes of the symphony. As the last chord ended, the audience and orchestra again exploded into applause. What an exhilarating experience!

The Munch/BSO recording has always been my favorite performance of the work. I have listened to every recording I could get my hands on, including the sonic spectacular from Telarc, but none has been as emotionally satisfying as my 2S/6S Shaded Dog. I love the performance, despite the fact that there are problems with the sonics. As the sound volume increases, the music congests. This is particularly true at the finale, when the loud volume and the inner groove distortion combine to make the sound a mishmash of loud noise. The Classic Records 45rpm reissue is comprised of four single-sided records, one movement on each LP. With the music stretched over four sides, the grooves do not run into the inner part of the LP, thus there is no inner-groove distortion. In addition, the faster speed allows for greater dynamics; the record moves faster, and imparts more energy to the stylus. These improvements alone would have been worth the price, but the best part of this reissue is that even in the loudest parts, the music does not congeal. Even at the finale, where every instrument is playing FFFF, each instrument, each individual line of music, is clearly discernible. At last I can hear the music almost as it sounds in the concert hall. Happiness! I turned off the system and went to sleep with dreams of glorious sound in my head.

The next evening, with fond memories of the previous evening’s glorious conclusion, I played my last acquisition from CES 2002, Classic Records’ 45rpm reissue of RCA LSC-1992, Beethoven, Violin Concerto, Jascha Heifetz, Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Beethoven Violin Concerto is not nearly as dynamic as the Saint-Saens Third. While I had expected the 45rpm reissue of the Third to sound much better than the original Shaded Dog, I did not know what, if anything, to expect from the Beethoven. I played my original 9S/7S Shaded Dog, then played the 45rpm reissue. It was no contest. The 45rpm sounded so much more like what I hear in the concert hall. A few weeks later, a couple came over for dinner. They asked if they could hear some Beethoven. I played the 45rpm Violin Concerto. Ten seconds after Heifetz made his entrance, the wife nudged her husband and exclaimed, "Listen to that. It sounds like a real violin." It’s close, in fact the closest I have heard in my system. I guess I am going to have to buy Classic’s other current 45rpm reissues.

CES 2002 was a mixed success as far as vinyl acquisitions were concerned–a couple of disappointments, but also a some real successes. I hope Cisco sells enough of their new series to bring out more of the Urania catalog. I also hope Classic Records continues with their 45rpm series. Wonderful music! I can’t wait until CES 2003….