Listening #155

Please don't tell her I said this, but lately, my wife has been getting twitchy about my records. Twitchy as in: She wants me to sell them. Or at least some of them.

I have only myself to blame. For years, I have shared with her my every joy that came of finding, at a lawn sale or garage sale or on eBay or at a record store whose proprietors "had no idea what this thing is worth," some rare and valuable treasure. And therein lay another facet of my problem: As often as I would rejoice at the music I was poised to enjoy, or the sheer pleasure of acquiring something rare and well made, I would roll, pig-like, in the pleasure of the thing's potential monetary value. Old Testament–style dark clouds fill the sky outside my window even as I type this.

There are sexist stereotypes, and there are behavioral quirks that manifest in different ways, depending on gender. It is with the latter in mind that I offer this observation: A woman with a practical, frugal nature can withstand hearing the rhetorical question Do you know how much I can get for this thing? only so many times before she demands, Then go get it!

Because I regard my wife and my daughter as my two greatest blessings, with music in a distant but nonetheless deeply appreciated third place, I decided to act, howsoever smally. I set about culling from my collection those records that are light in rotation, and for which I might reasonably expect to get a good price. As it turned out, my appraisals hinged not only on market value, but on whether that value was determined by acclaim for a given record's musical content or by acclaim for the quality of its sound.

And I came to realize, almost by accident: Those records in my collection whose values are determined by their sonic and musical worths are, for me, literally indispensable. For example, I discovered on my classical shelves some original Decca SXLs I'd forgotten were there, and most of whose origins I can't recall. I sat down to play a few, intending only to grade them for possible sale, and wound up staying up half the night. The most stunning of the lot—a wide-band, deep-groove pressing (footnote 1) of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op.31, sung by Peter Pears, with the composer conducting the Boyd Neel String Orchestra (Decca SXL 6110)—required a second listening before I finally trudged off to bed. How could I part with such a thing? I can imagine no Decca SXLs, no Blue Notes, and very few EMI ASD-series records with which one should ever, ever part.

By contrast, about a third of all my RCA Living Stereo discs and all but two of my Mercury Living Presence records are outa here.

But . . . big bass drums!
While a considerable majority of Decca's classical records succeed on the basis of both sound and musical content, there appear to be many RCA releases that fail almost equally in those same two respects. With regard to the former, and while acknowledging the existence, in the Living Stereo series, of some well-balanced, colorful, and spatially very accomplished recordings, at least as many others are opaque and unclear—a few are downright fuzzy—and none delivers the clarity of touch found in the vast majority of Decca ffss records. None.

As far as music is concerned, and despite a roster of artists including some of the finest soloists of their day—violinist Jascha Heifetz chief among them—few purely orchestral recordings in the RCA Living Stereo catalog are worth dying for, owing to a lack of conductors in that label's employ who were artistically distinguished as opposed to merely technically capable. Consult virtually any well-sourced list of the 20th century's greatest conductors and you'll find names associated with Deutsche Grammophon, EMI (including Columbia UK), Columbia, Decca, Philips, and one or two smaller and comparatively newer labels. But among RCA recording artists, only Arturo Toscanini appears on more than one or two such lists, and even then, with qualifications withholding praise for his artistic point of view. And Toscanini never recorded in stereo, Living or otherwise.

When I was in my 30s, I searched out and bought a fair number of RCA Living Stereo LPs because they'd been praised by audio critics (but far less often by music critics). I readily admit to being impressed with the sound of most but not all of those recordings—even then, I couldn't help wondering how anyone could regard the rag-tag collection The Reiner Sound as a good recording, let alone a great one—until I heard the far better-sounding classical LPs made by Decca and EMI. And as the years went by and I discovered recordings made by Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber, Rudolf Kempe, Ferenc Fricsay, Sir John Barbirolli, and, above all, Wilhelm Furtwängler . . . well, let's just say it isn't often I feel compelled to turn to the Reiner version of anything, perhaps other than Strauss's Salome excerpts or Bart¢k's Concerto for Orchestra. (And for those times when I am in the mood for Reiner's brand of tightly controlled, highly polished, turn-on-a-dime orchestral sound, George Szell did it better. A lot better.)

But those RCA records, though urged on me by audiophiles, weren't nearly as bad as audiophile recordings. Indeed, for enthusiasts who value spatial performance far more than I do, and who aren't dismayed when pizzicato strings don't sound as though their appearance in the air resulted from any sort of physical labor, Living Stereo LPs and even CDs are perfectly fine: different strokes, and all that. And as for audiophile recordings, you can rest assured that I have now purged my collection of Dick Schory's Music for Bang Baaroom and Harp (an RCA Living Stereo record—of course) and other such leavings.

Speaking of which: Let me remind you of the ninny who, after being bullied and conned into buying, in 1985, a copy of The Sheffield Track Record, needed almost an entire year before he could admit that, a) its grooves were encoded with some of the worst music ever committed to vinyl, and b) the recording itself wasn't even all that good. Then, in a fit of anger directly proportional to the amount of time spent in self-delusion, this poor fool made a show of trying to fold it in half before stuffing the piece of shit down the garbage chute of his apartment building—only to learn, 30 years later, that surviving copies sell for $119 (footnote 2). On the other hand, destroying a copy of The Sheffield Track Record is likely, for some, to generate $119 worth of pleasure.

But wait: Did I say $119? I did—and that was a single instance, for a sealed copy. Typically, you can find a copy of that rare, limited-edition, grooved turd for less than $40: the price of a couple of cosmopolitans, sans tip, at the St. Regis Hotel bar. On the other hand, original copies of Pathé's Mozart à Paris, by conductor Fernand Oubradous et al, famously reissued by the Electric Recording Company, sell for nearly $12,000; mint original mono copies of The Beatles sometimes break the four-figure barrier; and an original LP copy of Sonny Rollins's debut recording, a copy of which I recently followed on eBay with silly hope, sold last week for $1328. Why? Because those are LPs filled with great music—LPs that, secondarily, also happen to be good or at least distinctive recordings. The Sheffield Track Record, by contrast, is blandly lame product presented in slightly-better-than-average sound. The majority of RCA Living Stereo records are good-but-not-breathtakingly-great performances of standard-repertoire classical music in sound that is often better than average but still shy of the best.

The image of the hair-shirted, he-man anti-audiophile endures, and I'm sufficiently capable of self-flattery that I have, at times, cultivated such an image for myself. But it enjoys even less justification than I suspected: A surprising number of my most beloved records sound good in spite of themselves. For instance, whenever I want to show someone that I like him or her, I put on Contact High with the Godz (LP, ESP 1036), the 1966 debut by proto-punk band the Godz. Nothing says "I like you, I trust you, I want you to hear something that will really expand your idea of what folk music is all about" than Contact High. The selections on that LP are innocent, charming, sung and played with an almost shocking degree of incompetence—and surprisingly well recorded. This very rare record is apparently most rare in its stereo form, which I own—and intend to keep.

Before my box of for-sale LPs went out the door, I triple-checked it for records I might actually love. I needn't have: It was love-free. To me, it was now just a box of polyvinyl chloride and paper and card stock. To someone else, it may be the stuff of dreams. My wife and I certainly hope so.

Allnic on the Western Front
I was glad to see, on the cover of our October issue, an audio amplifier designed around an otherwise underappreciated power tube: the reliably luminous 845 directly heated triode. Props to my longtime friend and colleague Herb Reichert for singing the praises of the Line Magnetic LM-518IA integrated amplifier, and for being second to none in his ability to express delight in a pastime too often purged of same. (I'm reminded of the line by songwriter Andy Partridge: "Don't let the loveless ones sell you a world wrapped in gray.")

Footnote 1: This refers not to the record groove, but to a groove within the label area on each side of the record.

Footnote 2: That would be me.


calaf's picture

"few purely orchestral recordings in the RCA Living Stereo catalog are worth dying for, owing to a lack of conductors in that label's employ who were artistically distinguished as opposed to merely technically capable"

Wow! Nice to see a music writer (of Stereophile of all things) telling it like it is, finally... Bravo!

JennMartin's picture

Thanks for it! I (nearly totally) agree with you. I do like some of the Reiner recordings because I'm, among other things, a trombonist, and I'm (happily) required by law to love the CSO low brass. And in regard to Mercury, I find too much of the music pedestrian and much of the sound too dry and lifeless. When they got it right, they REALLY got it right, however. And much of the legacy of my conducting mentor, Frederick Fennell, is on that label, so I collect all of those, in all of the various incarnations. Best wishes to you and yours, Jenn Martin

dalethorn's picture

Some of those old conductors (Szell, Reiner, Karajan...) seemed to me to often be in a hurry to get home, although other conductors (Mehta, Solti...) sometimes over-dramatize the material. I'm hoping someday we may be able to electronically change the tempo of a recording without changing the pitch, and store that setting on our playback machines for future plays.

DH's picture

And I mostly agree with you. The two solo tracks are pretty good test recordings for drumming, but, on the other hand, I have better ones for audio testing.
Too bad I didn't read this column a week ago. At least I didn't pay much for the download....

davai531's picture

For what it's worth, the download would have been made from the safety tape on an analog tape machine that Sheffield Labs would make when recording a direct to disc performance. A vastly inferior sound to the direct to disc recording on the LP.

C. Stuart Schellberg's picture

I once fantasized organizing my collection by category. There would be a sub-section entitled "In case of bad company", for all the room-clearing selections. Will I now pull out my copy of "Contact High with the Godz" to see if it actually "sounds" good? Nah. I favor Godz 2, for the evidence that you really could write a great rock song with just one chord ("Radar Eyes"). Lester Bangs once wrote that the better the Godz got technically, the worse they got musically. Given that I paid a lot of money for "Godzundheit", I wish I'd taken the advice to heart. That you would name-drop the Godz in an article about audiophile recordings has visions dancing about in my head, concerning people being offended by associating such heathens with their passion. On this Christmas eve, a sweeter thought I cannot imagine. Pax tecum.