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Positive Feedback ISSUE 67
Impex Vinyl Reissue - Beethoven Sonatas 8 and 10 for
Violin and Piano
Jascha Heifetz/Emanuel Bay. RCA LM-1914
The Beethoven sonatas are one of the warhorses of Western classical music. Virtually every classical music listener has heard these sonatas at one time or another and usually multiple times. Because of the popularity of these sonatas they have been recorded many, many times by most of the major violinists of the 20th century. Sometimes the violinist only recorded a few of the sonatas. Other violinists recorded all ten sonatas. Amongst the violinists that have recorded all ten of the sonatas there are a few of these sets that classical aficionados always talk about. These would be the Kreisler/Rupp set from the 1930s, the Grumiaux/Haskil and Heifetz/Bay sets from the 1950s, the Oistrakh/Oberon set from the 1960s, and the Perlman/Ashkenazy set from the 1970s. Each set has its strengths and weaknesses. No set contains ten absolutely perfect performances. However, if you selected the best performance for each sonata from these sets you could have your desert isle dream set. The particular performances that you chose would probably be different from mine. Personal taste has a lot to do with whether or not we like a particular performance.
While our personal tastes pretty much dictate whether we consider a performance to be excellent or just very good, there is more consensus between audiophiles as to whether the sound quality of a recording is excellent or just very good. Of the above five sets, four of them were recorded in the modern (tape recorder) era. These four are:
Grumiaux/Haskil recorded by Philips in mono.
Heifetz/Bay recorded by RCA in mono.
Oistrakh/Oberon recorded by Philips in stereo.
Perlman/Ashkenazy recorded by Decca/London in stereo.
If I asked my audiophile friends who had never heard these recordings to predict which of these four sets would have the most realistic sound—the closest to the "you are there at the venue" sound—most of them would select the Perlman/Ashkenazy set. Why? Because it was the most recent recording, it was recorded in stereo, and Decca/London was known for making excellent sounding LPs. These are all logical reasons. I, however, would choose the Heifetz/Bay. This is based on my experience listening to mono LPs. I have about 14 lineal feet (4.3 meters) of mono records. For orchestral works I prefer to listen to stereo. I like having the orchestra spread across the front wall of my listening room. For recordings of solo instruments, duets, and trios I prefer to listen to mono recordings. On many of my stereo recordings of a solo piano the image of the piano that appears in my listening room is 20 feet (6.1 meters) long and 10 feet tall (3.0 meters) tall. While spectacular, it is not realistic. What I want to recreate in my listening room is a sound that if I close my eyes makes me think that I am in the recording studio sitting in front of the musicians. This sensation of being at a live performance does not happen all that often. However, if it happens it is usually while playing a mono recording of 1, 2 or 3 instruments.
Between October 15 - 17, 1952 RCA recorded Heifetz and Bay performing Beethoven's Sonatas 3, 4, 6, 8, and 10. Sonatas 8 and 10 on LM-1914 are from these October sessions. These recordings were released as Plum Dogs. Of the Decca/London, Mercury, and RCA mono recordings that I have in my collection I much prefer the Plum Dog RCAs over the Decca/London and Mercury LPs from the same era, even after correcting for the different equalization curves. The Plum Dogs, to my ears, sound more like what I hear in the concert hall than either the Decca/Londons or Mercurys. The best example of this Plum Dog realism that I know of is LM-1701 Amahl and the Night Visitors. LM-1701 is a recording of the Christmas Eve 1951 live TV broadcast of Menotti's opera. At the beginning of the opera the Mother is at the back of the stage. As she starts to sing she slowly walks, by a slightly circuitous path, to the front of the stage. As she comes forward you know exactly where she is on the stage at all times—pinpoint spatial imaging. If you listen carefully you can hear her long robe brushing against the stage floor. Her voice has a presence that if you close your eyes makes you believe she is in your listening room. It is one of the most lifelike recordings that I own. I also have a number of recordings where I have the Plum Dog mono and the Shaded Dog stereo. The mono LPs, while they only have 1/3rd of the sound stage width of the stereo recording, actually have greater depth. Doing A-B-A comparisons between the Plum Dog mono and the Shaded Dog stereo, ignoring sound stage width, I find the sound of the Plum Dog to be more like being at the actual performance than the Shaded Dog. This is only true for the very early mono/stereo recordings pairs. As stereo recordings became more common RCA changed the way they recorded mono and the realism of the mono recordings disappeared.
So how does all of the above relate to the Impex reissue of LM-1914? Well, LM-1914 is one of those very realistic Plum Dog recordings. The piano and violin are properly proportioned—no exaggerated size. The limited width due to the recording being mono versus stereo is not noticeable unless you listen for it. All of the spatial depth cues are there. The tone and texture of the violin sounds the way a real violin sounds. When I listen to LM-1914 playing while in another room I can actual visualize Heifetz and Bay being in my listening room. This is one very well recorded LP. How does the reissue compare to the original Plum Dog? I don't have a copy of the original LM-1914. However, I do have a pretty clean copy of LM-1912 which contains Sonatas 3 and 6 from the same October 1952 recording sessions. The sound quality of the music between the original and the reissue are virtually identical. The master tapes have held up extremely well over the years. The difference in the quality of the vinyl used to press the LPs, however, is the difference between night and day. Modern vinyl is so much quieter than what was used sixty years ago. The music on the reissue arises out of a much darker background. Fine details that were lost in the background noise on the original Plum Dog can be heard on the reissue. The reissue is definitely a much better pressing.
The one thing I have not yet discussed is the performances of the two sonatas on LM-1914. As mentioned at the start of this review how a person perceives the quality of a performance is highly dependent on the person's personal preferences. Of all of the violinists who have ever been recorded, Heifetz is without question the technical wizard. Nobody before or since has played the violin with such technical proficiency. The majority of his listeners over the years have been mesmerized by his playing. A small minority, of which I am one, find Heifetz's playing to be technically perfect, but a bit on the cool, unemotional side. I would much rather listen to Fritz Kreisler than Heifetz. Kreisler would play sloppily at times, but his ability to convey emotions and sweep his audience along with him was legendary. That being said, I actual enjoyed listening to the two sonatas on LM-1914. Heifetz is still the perfect technician. However, I found these performances to be slightly warmer and more emotional than the majority of his recordings that I have heard. This slightly warmer performance plus the wonderfully realistic sound make this LP a must buy not only for both Heifetz lovers and music lovers, but also for audiophiles.