Revinylization #6: Acoustic Sounds Bach & Vivaldi Reissues

I'm not in perfect agreement with my colleagues and friends who believe that RCA's Living Stereo LPs from the late 1950s and '60s are the best-sounding commercial classical recordings ever made. To me, the Decca SXL catalog outshines them sonically, in addition to showcasing the talents of an even greater roster of artists. But that's not to say I'm immune to their charms.

The RCA catalog contains some real gems.

Like some of you, my interest in RCA classical LPs was spurred by the writings of the late Harry Pearson, founder of the magazine The Absolute Sound. But by the time I began my own search, the titles Pearson pushed—Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's recordings of Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade (LSC-2446), Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (LSC1806), and Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite (LSC-2150), to name just three—were difficult if not impossible to find. There were however lots of other great RCAs out there, many in shockingly good condition (footnote 1), and while at first I longed for the validation that comes with assembling a library of critically recommended titles, I soon learned the far greater pleasure of developing my own critical judgment.

Even so, in the 1980s, when I found my own copy of Vittorio Emanuele and Società Corelli's 1960 recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (RCA LSC-2424), my first response was one of mild insecurity: This can't really be as good a record as I think it is—can it? After all, no one else in the audiophile press seemed to have noticed it, and to make matters worse, the production and engineering team of Richard Mohr and Lewis Layton, whom we were told were responsible for all the great classical RCAs, was nowhere to be seen. In fact, this dry-sounding and starkly vivid Vivaldi recording was made in Italy, of all places.

The original LP has now been reissued by Analogue Productions on 200gm vinyl, mastered at Sterling Sound by Ryan K. Smith and stamped at Quality Record Pressings. I compared my review copy of the AS release to my 1S/1S original and found the two to be very, very close; if anything, I believe most listeners would prefer the AS reissue for its very slightly more rounded-off sound, which sacrifices nothing of the original's presence yet pulls the dry sound back an inch or two from the brink of brightness. Also, the reissue has a somewhat wider dynamic range: After matching its volume to the original during a quiet passage, forte passages on the reissue seemed to go louder than on the original. All around, a well-done reissue of a recording that deserves your love.

Speaking of Fritz Reiner: In 1953, when he became the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Reiner installed as principal cellist his fellow Hungarian-American János Starker, then only 30. (The two remained close until, as legend has it, Starker played the clam of all clams during a performance, in response to which the conductor threw his baton with such force that it broke in two.) During a long and storied career, Starker made five recordings of the Bach solo cello suites, beginning in the 1940s with a set for the Hungarian-owned (and ironically named) Period Records. His second set, recorded in mono for UK Columbia, was released in 1959, while his third was recorded in stereo for Mercury Records and released in 1966.


That last one, long a favorite among audiophiles for its superb engineering by master recordist Robert Fine, was reissued on high-quality vinyl in the not-distant past—and now has come in for even grander treatment, also by Analogue Productions: a six-LP box set (AAPC 3-9016-45), mastered at 45rpm from the first-generation, ½" masters and pressed on 200gm vinyl, all under the supervision of Thomas Fine, son of Robert and Wilma Cozart Fine (apart from which, reissue credits are as above). The price is $150 per set.

Compared to an approximately 15-year-old reissue of the original three-LP Mercury set (SR3-9016), the new six-LP box has the same abundance of rich tone and believable texture, along with superb musical momentum and flow. But here those qualities are enhanced by a larger sense of scale—much larger, in fact—and a greater sense of player and instrument being present between and in front of the loudspeakers. The effect is almost overwhelming.

Musically/artistically, I prefer the 1959 recordings for Starker's somewhat more "romantic" approach, if one can say such a thing about performances of baroque music. As an example, I'd point to his playing in the heavily double- and triple-stopped Sarabande of the E-flat suite: In the 1959 recording, Starker's bowing is more halting, tentative, and, to my ears, thoughtful: effects that heighten the contrast when he shifts into the first of the two Bourrées that follow. In the 1966 performance, the Sarabande sounds bolder and altogether more modern—which, for some listeners, may put this music across more effectively. But no matter how you look at it, there's no arguing with the sound: It is not without reason that these recordings have enchanted audiophiles for decades, and to enjoy the new AS set on a good system is as close as one can get to being in Fine Recording's Ballroom Studio A with one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. Highly recommended.

Footnote 1: Here as elsewhere, I cannot pass up the chance to remind you: These superb-sounding used records were sold and played during an era when the vast majority of phonograph styli in use were spherical—not elliptical or any of the other more complex profiles that we are told are musts for minimizing record wear.

Jack L's picture

....... an era when the vast majority of phonograph styli in use were spherical..." quoted Art.

Yes, I fully concur what Art said.

I found quite a few pre-owned 50-60s classical music LPs which I own sound so OPEN, natural & enjoying vs so many later cut LPs when I play them with an old cheapy Audio Technica MM cartridge with conical stylus.

This make me think again if elliptical stylus too "good" to track oldie LPs??

Listening is believing

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... classical music records typically had better playback equipment - conical stylus, or not - than the average listener. Likewise, such records may not have seen as frequent use as, for example, a disc by Elvis or Sinatra or of show tunes.

AD was an admitted addict of the second harmonic sauce.
As Shure has shown, a conical stylus will exhibit the highest levels of second harmonic distortion.
At one time, JGH preferred the Stanton 681A with a conical stylus to the 681EE with an elliptical stylus.

Jack L's picture


Me too, another addict lover of 2nd & even orders of harmonics.

Why? Maybe due to our brain's masking effect which accepts 2nd & even orders of harmonics & kinda rejects odd harmonics.

Since triodes & single ended class A amplifiers produce mainly 2nd & even orders of harmonics, which sound so musical to the ear, I only love listening to these 2 combination.

Commercial endorsement: USD125,000 Audio Note Japn "Kegon" stereo class A single-ended power amp using 2x2x300B output power triodes 17W+17W only. I love its sound bigtime !! I hate its price though.

I am very curious how Shure can verify its statement that a conical
stylus will produce predominantly 2nd harmonic distortion. ????

I agreed conical stylus tracks very well particularly on old timeer LPs, retrieving excellent sound. My old Audio Technica MM cartridge with conical stylus works with my oldies just fine!

Listening is believing

Jack L

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Parasound JC1+ have even order harmonics ....... They can be biased to 25W class-A :-) .........

Jack L's picture

....... biased to 25W class-A :-)" quoted V Haranath


Sorry, I disagree.

JC1+ is built with bipolar junction solid state devices, e.g. J-FETs, MOS-FETs which get signal transfer curves with kinks or 'knees' which make them non-linear. Such non=linearity becomes a bottleneck for music signal transfer. I have to check its total harmonic distortion analysis chart to find out its 2nd & higher even orders of distortion.

Only triode tubes get linear signal transfer curves withOUT any kinks or 'knees'. That explain why triode sounds so musical so enjoyable vs sold state devices. It produce predominantly 2nd & high even orders of distortion. Therefore it sounds better to our ears.

Biasing to class A is to eliminate the cross-over distortion on the signal caused by class AB or B amplification topology, & will therefore sound much better than class AB, or class B. But it does not mean to produce predominantly 2nd & other even harmonic distortion because of class A!

But such class A amplification needs much much larger bias current, & therefore gets very hot, risking blowing up the bipolar devices for exceeding the device max allowable heat dissipation. That's why all class A amplification only produce much much lower output power to save the life of the output solid state devices, e.g. MOS-FETs.

Biasing to class A alone does not warrant any 2nd & higher even orders of distortion.

Critical ears can tell the difference.

Listening is believing

Jack L

MhtLion's picture

Where can I buy Starker for $150? I only see $180 from two places..

low2midhifi's picture

My collection of RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence is not the largest, but I have kept nearly all my acquisitions. Whatever their shortcomings, these recordings have a grainy but vivid sonic texture. I am not a purist, as I collect these recordings on the CD/SACD formats and not on vinyl.

Here are two favorites.

I stumbled upon this SACD by chance when Chicago's Symphony Center still had its dedicated retail storefront right on Michigan Avenue:

This Mercury Living Presence has Minneapolis SO and London SO recordings directed by Antal Dorati. The Prince Igor Overture recording on this CD stands among the finest recordings I have heard from any epoch:'s picture

If you want your vinyl to sound like the way it did back in the day, try a Shure M44 cart with the N44G stylus (.6 mil conical,tracks .75 to 1.5g.) or the N44-7 (.7 mil, tracks 1.5 to 3g) Good quality versions of both are available from Jico. Back then, Shure was making 25,000 of these carts per DAY and most of the jukeboxes in the US used them. And they sound good...