Yet another quality that distinguishes the performing from the recorded arts occurred to me only recently: I think the average listener tends to approach the art of live music with a more open mindopened, that is, to the myriad emotional, intellectual, even spiritual possibilities contained within any performance. That was hammered home during a recent trip, with John Atkinson, to the Metropolitan Opera, for a performance of Wagner's Parsifal. The beautifully realized and decidedly contemporary productionsurely no one had ever seen a Parsifal such as thisaffected me in ways I couldn't have expected. It was my impression that others in the room felt the same.
But listeners regard recordings rather differently. Subconsciously, at least, we think of a good record as a sort of a pill, one that we hope will produce the same, desired effect every time we take it. (And when that favored record fails to elicit the beloved effect . . . well, then, there must be something wrong with the playback gear, mustn't there?)
That axiom has a similarly recentand remarkabletouchstone in my memory. Until now, I've found precious few LPs that work consistently well at much of anything; most are the vinyl equivalents of Benadryl, leaving me sleepy on some occasions, agitated on others.
Now I've found a more perfect pill. Sadly, it is the most expensive record in my collection (footnote 1). Happily, it is also, by far, the best, by any definition of the word that one could choose. That record is a new LP (ERC001), from a new reissue house called the Electric Recording Company (footnote 2), of a mono recording made by EMI in 1954: the Transylvania-born violinist Johanna Martzy, playing J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 10011006. (You get the six works if you buy all three of ERC's Martzy LPs.)
Johanna Martzy (19241979), a player of considerable but not epochal talent, performed for the tape neither very slowly nor very briskly. At times she seems to lean toward the latter, but I think that's just the sheer momentum of a player who not only knows but actually understands the score she's playing. The recording spaceat Abbey Road Studiosisn't the least bit sterile, and there appears to be a generous amount of space between instrument and microphone. Martzy's tone is good but not great: a bit dark overall, but not terribly rich per se, and at some moments actually a bit hard. Her vibrato is generous but not schmaltzy, her intonation is damn near perfect. Perhaps most crucial, Martzy approaches the Bach with a certain severity, suggesting not so much sterility as correctness. There isn't much lilt in even the liveliest of the dances: The performance seems bent on building a cathedral rather than plaiting daisies.
The recording manages, like none other in my experience, to communicate the nearly indescribable gravitas of the performance. Somehow, whether by luck or design, there is inscribed on this LP an unlikely yet perfect combination of room sound, spatial presence, tone, and sheer emotional intensity, all working together to create an eerie and beautiful and almost spiritual effect. Every time I play this record, I am struck, unsubtly, by the impression that Johanna Martzy, 34 years dead, is alive in the room with me. It is the most consistently moving, stirring, and ultimately real record I've ever heard. It is indeed a drug, manufactured to seemingly unparalleled standards of consistency.
Or, as I said to the empty room about two minutes into my first audition of the Sonata 1 in g: Mother of God . . .
The first cut
"The Martzy is slightly hypnotic, isn't it? Not too romantic, not too technical . . ."
So said the proprietor of the Electric Recording Company, a 46-year-old Londoner named Pete Hutchison. In 1991, Hutchison and a friend started an independent label called Peacefrog Records, which specializes in contemporary music. Peacefrog has enjoyed success with a number of recording artists, including the Swedish electronica band Little Dragon and the engagingly artsy cover act Nouvelle Vague, but Hutchisonwho inherited from his parents a love for classical music and a deep respect for the art of serious listeningeventually decided to form a new label of his own, dedicated to reissuing some of the rarest titles of the 20th century.
"When I started collecting records, 20-odd years ago, I started by buying reissues," Hutchison said. "But sometimes a friend would have the original, and whenever I'd hear such a thing, my reaction was: 'Wow, that's so differentand better!'"
Once he'd delved into the field, Hutchison concluded that other reissue companies fail to capture the sounds of monophonic LPs in particular, largely because those companies have failed to apply the same technology that was used to create the originals: more sad evidence of the Good enough is good enough attitude that prevails among contemporary recording engineers. Thus began an unusually expensive and time-consuming effort to equip a studio for faithfully re-creating the sounds of the world's most collectible classical records.
Working with former IBC Studios mastering engineer and current Abbey Road technical consultant Sean Davies and other specialists, Hutchison located and acquired a roomful of the most-sought-after studio gear from the 1950s and '60s, including a Lyrec TR18 mastering station with Lyrec SV8 lathe, a Neumann VMS 70 lathe, an Ortofon DS522 mono cutter head, an Ortofon DSS731 stereo cutter head, a rare EMI BTR2 (the monophonic British Tape Recorder that was used to make the Beatles' earliest commercial recordings), and other similarly expensive devices. Then, in early 2011, they began the even more expensive task of returning all of that equipment to as-new condition. "The mono lathe had been in Romania," Hutchison said, "but we needed to get the mono cutter heads repaired, and there's only one man in the world who can really do that, a gentleman in Italy. The Lyrec lathe had been sitting in a garage for two years, and was thoroughly rusty. Restoring that to perfect condition was a very long process." Fortunately, Sean Davies, now in his 70s, has for years maintained a collection of schematics and spare parts that most vintage enthusiasts would envy.
As Hutchison sees it, "Any record from that period, if you want to hear it right, the mastering has to be consistent with its era. And the fact is, records cut with a stereo cutter, operating in mono, just won't be the same. The groove looks different, because it is different. Our records sound the way they do because we use a true mono cutter head, and there isn't one single transistor anywhere in our circuitry. No one else can really make that claim.
"We also went through three pressing plants to get the best sound: Given the extremes we'd gone through by then, there was no other way. We started in the UK, then moved to a company in Holland, and one in Germany after that. That was a real learning curveamong other things, we learned that 180gm vinyl is not always best on certain pressing machinesand we eventually went back to Holland, where we have had the best results."
Of course, before an exceptional LP can be made, one must have in hand an exceptional tapeand in the case of Johanna Martzy's historic Bach recordings, Pete Hutchison claims a distinct advantage: "I have a contemporary label that's distributed by EMI; that helped give me access to the EMI titles. The [Martzy] tapes have been in the EMI archives all this time. They'd been reissued on LP before, on the Coup d'Archet label (footnote 3), but [not in] a real mono cut on all valve gear."
That brings us to the not-insignificant matter of packaging: a pitfall for even those companies with the greatest resources. (As you'll recall from the March 2013 "Listening," my disappointment with the mediocre sound of the recent boxed set of Beatles LPs was compounded by Apple's practice of scanningless than expertlythe artwork from the UK versions of those albums while using the construction and heavy-gauge card stock typical of contemporary US vinyl releases.) In what appears to be a first, the Electric Recording Co. has taken the extraordinary step of mating a historically correct approach to record mastering with a historically correct approach to their packaging.
Footnote 1: Luckily, I still have the "KICK ME" sign I acquired in time for the Lamm ML2.2 review.
Footnote 2: The Electric Recording Company, PO Box 38171, London W10 5WU, England, UK. Fax: (44) 207-575-3047. Web: www.theelectricrecordingco.com.
Footnote 3: These recordings have also been reissued as 2-CD set, Testament 1467, which lists for $41.98 and which ArkivMusic sells for $36.99Ed.