Decca Sound: The Analogue Years

OK, this isn't jazz, but it's such a crazy bargain, I couldn't resist shouting it from my rooftop: Decca Sound, The Analogue Years 54 albums (and bits of several more) from the Decca label's heyday of classical recording (the mid-'50s to late-'70s), pressed in a boxed set of 50 CDs, selling for $129.

In case you're too stunned to do the math, that's $2.58 per disc. For the most part, the music is great (some of it unjustly obscure), the performances stellar, and the sound. . .surprisingly terrific. The box also includes a 200-page booklet that lays out the music, disc-by-disc and in alphabetical order by composer (eg, Bartók's Two Pictures and Suite No.1, Dorati and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Disc 7), and describes Decca's recording techniques in two illuminating essays and lots of diagrams and photos from the archives. (One of the essayists, Michael Gray, is a world-class music archivist as well as a former critic for The Absolute Sound.)

When stereo came along in the mid-to-late 1950s, the major labels coined catchy trademark slogans touting their presumptive glories. There were RCA's Living Stereo, Mercury's Living Presence, Columbia's 360 Sound—and Decca/London's Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound (a sequel to its mono-days' Full Frequency Range Recording), splashed on its covers as ffss< (or, in mono, ffrr). (And the disc-sleeves in the Decca Sound box are replicas of those covers, with liner notes.)

Audiophiles have long worshipped at the shrine of RCA and Mercury albums from that era, but Decca/London deserved the same treatment. It also offered a wider range of music and, often, superior interpretations. (The Chicago Symphony sounds far livelier under Solti on Decca than under Reiner on RCA.)

This collection isn't the stuff of a Classical 101 course. The music is almost entirely from the 19th and 20th centuries. There's no Bach, only one Beethoven and Brahms, but a lot of Dvorák, Kodaly, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns, and Sibelius, with smatterings of Bloch, Borodin, Britten, Enescu, Fauré, Franck, Glazunov, and Hindemith, to name a few. (Look up the full table of contents here.)

A lot of these discs sound more like SACDs than standard-issue stuff. They have huge dynamic range, tonal beauty, and a wide, deep soundstage. I did A/B comparisons with some of the albums that I have on original LP pressings—Chopin études by Ashkenazy, Shostakovich quartets by the Fitzwilliam, Debussy's sonata for flute, viola and harp by the Melos Ensembleéand, while the vinyl sounded better, the difference wasn't huge; in some cases, it will downright small.

It's rare enough to get discs this cheap from backwater labels sporting amateur orchestras. This collection contains some of the greatest conductors (Solti, Dorati, Mehta, Ansermet, Kertesz, Haitink, Maazel) leading some of the greatest orchestras (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, London, Royal Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam), with solos from some of the greatest musicians. (Check out Kyung Wha Chung playing the Stravinsky violin concerto under André Previn and the London Symphony.)

Buy this!

And now, somebody, do the same thing with the Concentus Musicus 1960s baroque albums on Telefunken.

otaku's picture

If I only wanted to splurge on one box, would you suggest this one or the MLP Collectors Edition?

otaku's picture

I have both. They are both great to listen to, but if I had to choose one it would be the Decca for it's much classier presentation.

volvic's picture

Figure out a way to get both; MLP has Starker, Bachauer and the great Antal Dorati, well worth the cost.  Decca has Curzon, Ashkenazy, Solti, Kertesz, the sound on both, I have been told is A1. I owe a lot to the IRS this year and two cars in need of repairs but will find a way to swing both.  I am still going through the Archiv box set I picked up in December, another great set btw.  

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

At a time of expensive audiophile vinyl and hi-rez download reissues, it's such a relief that labels are also mining their catalogues for affordable CD sets such as these.  

It's been a thrift store labour of love for several years to assemble mint vinyl DG, RCA, Mercury, Philips, Everest, DECCA/London, Columbia and Angel/EMI's of all these great classical recordings.  It's fun but difficult to build a comprehensive collection.  So, such CD sets provide welcome fill-ins and comparators.  

Sometimes, the CD sounds better than a mint vintage vinyl version.  Perhaps in remastering old recordings they have requalized towards greater neutrality, given that good modern gear is more neutral sounding than most vintage gear. Vintage DG vinyls in particular, even tulips, can sound quite tinny, whereas their CD's often sound warmer.  

But, as good as these new CD reissues are, it's still tough to beat the joy of walking into a thrift stores and finding a full box of mint RCA "Living Stereo" vinyls, somtimes still unopened in that thick loose plastic wrap they used in the 50's and 60's! One piece of advice, smell the cover before buying.  You don't want to bring home mouldy records and infect the rest of your collection.

DoggyDaddy's picture

"I owe a lot to the IRS this year and two cars in need of repairs but will find a way to swing both."

Damn straight!  In fact, purchases like this should be tax-deductible.

otaku's picture

Pulled the trigger on the Decca box. After I digest this set, I'll see if I still "need" the MLP also.

otaku's picture

Just got it today. Did they deliberately make the CD's look like those black-and-white cookies?