The Fifth Element #93 Page 2

JM: Now, the flip side of that question—and perhaps it's an unfair one: Of the household-name albums, the gold and platinum sellers you were mastering engineer for, which are your favorites for purely musical reasons? The household-name album from your back catalog that, with due respect to everything else, never fails to pull me into its musical orbit is Roxy Music's Avalon (CD, Virgin 5838712). And I revere Dawn Upshaw's recording of Górecki's Symphony 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta (CD, Nonesuch 79282)—but there's a limit to how frequently I can listen to it. It's rather sad!

BL: I've been privileged to work with Steve Reich on almost all of his Nonesuch releases. I love his music. Radio Rewrite is amazing; it's Reich's first work based on Western pop music—Radiohead, in fact [with Alan Pierson conducting the ensemble Alarm Will Sound; CD, Nonesuch 543123-2].

I'm a huge Elliott Carter fan. I love the many recordings I mastered for Nonesuch, especially the String Quartets 1 and 2 [with the Composers String Quartet; CD, Nonesuch 71249], and the Double Concerto for piano, harpsichord, and two chamber orchestras [with Paul Jacobs, harpsichord; Gilbert Kalish, piano; and Arthur Weisberg conducting the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; 4 CDs, Nonesuch 510893-2].

The amazing George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children [with Michael Dash, boy soprano; Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano; Arthur Weisberg, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; CD, Nonesuch 79149].

Gilbert Kalish's Charles Ives "Concord" Sonata is, regrettably, out of print; there is only one movement in the Teresa Sterne legacy boxed set. I also am especially impressed by the "Concord" I recently recorded and mastered, by Martin Perry [CD, Bridge 9390]. That's the world's first recording of John Kirkpatrick's final performing edition [1986]—check it out!

Others: Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape [CD, Sony 35130]; Pearl Jam, Vitalogy [CD, Epic 66900] and No Code [CD, Epic 4844482]; Radiohead, In Rainbows [CD, XL 60001]; Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine [CD, Sony BMG 503775].

And very dear to me is my 2012 remastering of Frank Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti [CD, Zappa ZR 3859].

JM: Thanks, Bob!

Decca Phase 4 Stereo Reconsidered
Phase 4 Stereo: Stereo Concert Series
Decca 002188302 (41 CDs). Limited edition boxed set.

The publicity for this cube of music calls it "A comprehensive 40 CD overview of some of the most sonically-spectacular albums ever made, from a period when Decca enjoyed a clear technological lead over its competitors."

That last bit is debatable. I think the categories in which Phase 4 led the field were album-cover art, fortuitous timing, gadgetry, and hype. Having a greater number of bright, shiny gadgets than the next guy doesn't necessarily make for a "technological lead," let alone a "clear" one.

Admittedly, back in their day (1961–1979), Phase 4 LPs stood out from the crowd of traditionally engineered classical LPs for their extreme—therefore unnatural—stereo separation, and their spotlighting of individual orchestral instruments. The Phase 4 recording system used a 20-channel mixer of Decca's own design to mix that many microphones to four-channel multitrack analog tape. They then balanced and mixed down the four-channel tape to the two-channel tape used as the master to cut the lacquers for release on stereo LP.

Back then, I wasn't all that sophisticated an audio listener by today's standards. My equipment was respectable: Marantz turntable, Audio-Technica cartridge, Japanese receiver, Fried Q/2 speakers. But my loudspeaker setup—on stands, nearly against the wall, with no toe-in—was more a matter of convenience than a search for the best soundstage.

The Phase 4 recordings of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Leopold Stokowski, New Philharmonia) and Dvorák's Symphony 9 (Antal Doráti, New Philharmonia) were among my favorite orchestral LPs. But even then, I thought that certain Deutsche Grammophon LPs, such as William Steinberg and the Boston Symphony's recording of Holst's The Planets—and especially Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian RSO's collection of Dvorák tone poems—had higher resolution, lower noise floors, and just plain more natural sound.

I think that, similarly, EMI was achieving better sound with less gadgetry (but also less to crow to the unwary about). Three EMI LPs of the era that sounded to me more natural than the average Phase 4 release were Elgar's Cello Concerto (Paul Tortelier, Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic), and two works by Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Boult, LPO), and Oxford Elegy (Sir David Willcocks, King's College Choir).

Today, I attribute many of the differences I then heard to the cumulative effect of the number of components and connections that each recorded sound had to pass through. Would you rather put up with the unavoidable noise and coloration of three 1960s-vintage mike preamps, or of 20? That said, many Phase 4 recordings remain treasurable for their performances.

Counting conductors, the Stereo Concert Series cube contains nine CDs led by Stokowski; five by Stanley Black; four by Doráti; three by Arthur Fiedler; two each by Bernard Herrmann, Henry Lewis, and Charles Munch; and one each by Major Rodney Bashford, Edward Downes, Anatole Fistoulari, Jean Fournet, Elgar Howarth, Erich Leinsdorf, Lorin Maazel, Eric Rogers, Miklós Rósza, and Robert Sharples.

There are also two solo programs: Paco Peña and his flamenco group, and pianist Ilana Vered in a CD compiled from her LP releases of Beethoven's Sonata 21, Op.53, "Waldstein"; Schubert's Fantasy in C, D.760, "Wanderer"; and Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka. Any way you slice it, it's a lot of music.

The presentation is a bit quirky. There's a good introduction to the history of Phase 4, and good discographic credits for each session. Each CD is in a miniature LP cover, but most CDs also include an entire additional LP's worth of music: Trying to read liner notes in miniature—and for only half the works on each disc—is a bit frustrating. Also, the CDs look like little 45rpm discs—why? Bueller? Bueller?

I can imagine this box delighting the right listener—most likely one who was a hi-fi hobbyist in the 1960s or '70s. However, I can't recommend it to everyone, because its virtue of providing a fair representation of Phase 4 Stereo's classical and classical-ish catalog is also its vice: The set presents works of genuine art side by side with kitsch.

Still, two of these discs contain my longtime personal reference performances of the works in question: Doráti's of Dvorák's Symphony 9, and Stokowski's uniquely amped-up orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures. More good news: Stokowski's Scheherazade is one that deep-catalog classical collectors will want to have. The same holds true for the Charles Munch selections, and for Leinsdorf's recording of Mahler's Symphony 1. Ivan Davis's recordings with the Royal Philharmonic of Liszt's Piano Concertos 1 and 2 (Edward Downes, conductor) and Rachmaninoff's Concerto 2 (Henry Lewis) more than earn their keep. All to the good.

Ilana Vered's solo recital? There's good news and bad news: great playing—but on a piano that did not belong in a recording studio in its then-state of repair. It sounds thunky to me, albeit in tune. Paco Peña's flamenco disc, recorded live in the studio, must have been quite an event had you been there, but it's not the kind of music I listen to a lot.

For me, these 41 discs fell out in a bell-curve distribution. The top third definitely held my interest; the middle third were okay to listen to; the bottom third—including the battle-reenactment bonus CD, Battle Stereo—had me asking, "What were they thinking?" I'd never before sat down and listened to Albert William Ketèlbey's In a Monastery Garden; my listening notes ask whether it's "the Anglo-Catholic version of the Mystic Moods Orchestra's Stormy Weekend." Eww-kay!

"What were they thinking?" is also what I thought about Sean Connery's bizarre narration of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and Ilana Vered's performance of Xinghai Xian's Yellow River Concerto. That said, Vered's Phase 4 recording of Mozart's Piano Concerto 21, with Lawrence Foster and the Royal Philharmonic, is unimpeachable.

There are lots of ballet scores, orchestral dances, and film scores, as well as song recitals by Eileen Farrell and by Robert Merrill. Some of the ballet performances have never been available (or not in complete form) on CD in the US, and the film scores are conducted by their composers. I get all that.

But, unlike the sets from Archiv Produktion and L'Oiseaux-Lyre, from which I think almost anyone would gain a lot, this mixed box accurately reflects both the love-it-or-hate-it aspect of Phase 4's programming and the reasons for the series' remarkable commercial success.

Now, when can we have SACD reissues of the Mystic Moods Orchestra's complete oeuvre? Paul Mauriat's "Love Is Blue," with a thunderstorm mixed in—I can hear it now...

. . . and Updated
The crowd-pleasing spirit of Decca's Phase 4 "stereo spectaculars" lives on in a new release from Norway's 2L label: Astrognosia (Knowledge of the Stars), a 1991 orchestral suite by Magne Amdahl (b. 1942), paired with Æsop: Amdahl's settings, for narrator and orchestra, of fables by Aesop. They're available in a two-disc set that includes both an SACD/CD and a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc (2L 2L-111-SABD), as well as a 24-bit/352.8kHz album-only download from HDtracks, and as MP3s from Amazon and iTunes.

Astrognosia is cleverly constructed, with a Prelude introducing the moon, followed by the four astrological houses of three zodiacal signs each; Interludes between the houses represent the phases of the moon. Pavane for the Moon is the other bookend, for a total of 17 brief movements spanning 28 minutes.

Astrognosia is a whole bunch of good, clean fun. The Prelude tells the whole story—the music is big-screen cinematic, with brass and percussion accents and sweeping strings that give a nostalgic World of Tomorrow feel. It immediately made me think of Fantastica, Russ Garcia's genre-defining 1959 LP of atomic-age/outer-space bachelor-pad music (footnote 2). The obvious orchestral comparison is to Holst's The Planets, but there's a lilting, slyly archaic feel to Amdahl's music that also calls to mind Arthur Bliss's A Colour Symphony (1922), and perhaps even the Respighi of Ancient Airs and Dances. (Bliss composed A Colour Symphony under the supervision of his teacher Vaughan Williams; if you haven't heard it, grab a copy.) Speaking of Phase 4 Stereo, Astrognosia's brassy, dynamic orchestrations also call to mind Stokowski's reimagining of Pictures at an Exhibition.

Astrognosia features the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Ingar Bergby, with Dennis Storhøi narrating Æsop in Norse. Made in the Jar Church, Norway, this is a fantastic recording that should immediately be drafted into service as audio-show demo material. Highly recommended, despite the high price ($34.99 list) and what may be the limited appeal of Æsop outside Norway. But I hope that boxed sets at fire-sale prices haven't so spoiled us that we're too stingy to support worthy new recordings.—John Marks

I regret to have to announce that this is the final installment of John Marks' popular "Fifth Element" column.

Back in the 1990s, record producer and audio writer John Marks offered me a report from a Consumer Electronics Show. Titled "Las Vegas on One Pair of Underpants," it outlined how he'd managed to cover the show after the airline had lost his luggage. The piece had me laughing, so when John subsequently approached me with an idea for a regular column in which he would write about audio components and recordings in equal measure, I was all ears. John's "The Fifth Element" premiered in our March 2001 issue, and in my welcome to him, in that issue's "As We See It," I asked him to describe his goal for the new column. Speaking of himself in the third person, he wrote:

"It is a commonplace to state that someone views audio equipment as only a means to an end, the end being music. John is different because he views music not just as an end in itself, but equally as a means of engendering spiritual growth in its hearers. If past forays are any yardstick, we can expect vibrant controversy after each installment of 'The Fifth Element.' A graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, John is up to the task of defending his views and himself."

Ever since, "The Fifth Element" has appeared in alternate issues of Stereophile—all 93 episodes can be found here—and there has indeed been "vibrant controversy" following the publication of each, as well as after each of John's occasional "As We See It" essays. His discovery last February, for example, that the SACD reissue of David Oistrakh playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra had been speeded up, generated more letters from readers than any other recent article or review. I was saddened, therefore, to receive an e-mail from John in August in which he informed me that he was resigning. "For quite some time, I have known that my life is seriously out of balance," he wrote. "It is time for me to change my focus. I want to engage with stimulating new challenges that can employ a wider range of my talents."

All of us at Stereophile wish John Marks well in his future endeavors. Although he will no longer be contributing to the magazine, he remains a valued member of our extended family.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Russ Garcia was a student of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's and a serious composer. When John Atkinson was working as a full-time musician in the 1970s, he relied on Garcia's orchestration handbook for arranging gigs. The book is still in print; JA still has his copy. However, Garcia is probably most famous as the arranger and conductor of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald's recording of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Listen to Fantastica here, or via streaming on Tidal.

c1ferrari's picture

beginning to know him. Good luck, jm!

Bon voyage,


jporter's picture

I am currently listening to Radio Rewrite based on his recommendation. Very cool.

Allen Fant's picture

Thank You! JM.