Listening #127 Page 2

"After all this work on our mastering gear," Pete Hutchison said, "then I thought, What about the artwork? Most companies just get a clean copy of the original, scan it, and off they go. I chose to go back to the 1950s printing technique, letterpress, where each letter is an individual piece of type. So we rewrote all of the sleeve notes [to that purpose]. The card stock is all bespoke: I was rejecting a lot of stuff, a lot of card—and a lot of finished sleeves."

The cream-colored jackets for the three LPs that comprise Martzy's Bach recordings have the precise look and feel of British records from the 1960s. Even more impressive is the packaging for Electric's other currently available release: Mozart à Paris: 1763–1778, a seven-LP compilation originally released under EMI's Pathé imprint, and reckoned by some to be the rarest classical record in existence. That box's companion booklet was also re-created in letterpress on a Heidelberg cylinder press, with a silk-cord binding, the authentic material for which Hutchison found after searching London's more obscure haberdasheries.

As Hutchison said of the Martzy reissues, "Because of the expense of refurbishing all the equipment we've bought . . . well, it doesn't seem to make sense to cut corners on a record that costs ú300."

And there it is—the discontent you feared I might dispatch from otherwise sunny New York: the Electric Recording Company's three Johanna Martzy LPs will set you back ú300—at today's exchange rate, about $460. Apiece. Mozart à Paris sells for ú2400, which I cannot even bring myself to recalculate.


Hutchison was forthright in tying the high prices of his records to the very high costs associated with making them, most significantly the hundreds of thousands of pounds he spent locating, buying, shipping, and reconditioning the vintage mastering gear, a suite of equipment that would appear to make the Electric Recording Co. unique in this industry—although he hinted that, for future releases, "that may evolve." Prospective buyers must also consider the exponentially higher prices commanded by original copies of these LPs—as I write this, nearly $2000 per volume appears average for the Martzy, while a decent original copy of Mozart à Paris can't be had for less than five figures—and the fact that Electric is limiting production to just 300 copies per LP. As to the latter point, Hutchison said that his company is "selling the records gradually, a few allocations at a time. There's nothing more frustrating than wanting to buy a limited-edition something, only to find they've all been snapped up by dealers. So we're doing them by allocating a limited number a month, so that everyone who wants one will at least get a shot at it.

"It seems to be quite a mixed bag of people who are buying these recordings so far," he added. "Some people are new to them, and simply want to have and to hear them. Some people own the originals, and want a safety copy. I'm a bit miffed, though, that some people are buying them just to collect and not to play them."

That begs the questions: How has Hutchison chosen the titles that the Electric Recording Co. has reissued so far, and what will be their next project?

"It's really records that I like myself, that I have already owned. I think the only justification for making these records the way we do is to focus on [original] records that have a high residual value.

"It's about the music, about the importance and the rarity of the performance. It's about the sound, of course, but not in the typically audiophile way. With something like the Mozart à Paris, which can be brash on some selections, there would probably be a temptation, on the part of some audiophile-oriented labels and engineers, to 'fix' the sound, to EQ it to make it sound more acceptable to modern audiophiles. Our intention was to preserve, not to change."


Hutchison said that it's unlikely there will be more Martzy titles from Electric—"We're looking at doing only the most important of these rare recordings, although the Martzy Mendelssohn [Violin Concerto in e] might be a possibility"—but their first stereo reissue is imminent. "We just did the first stereo cut last week [in late March]: Leonid Kogan's Beethoven Violin Concerto with [Constantin] Silvestri [and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra], from the early '60s on Columbia. The lathe and the tape machine are from 1965. We'll be filming the actual cutting of the final acetate next week . . ."

Beyond reality
The clock-radio went off at 7am today, and I awoke to the sound, on NPR, of Nina Totenberg's self-satisfied delivery: a less-than-ideal start to the day. Then, after the news, I heard the opening of the fugue from Bach's Sonata 2 in a for Unaccompanied Violin, identified in back-cue as a recording by Midori. It was lightweight, forgettable, and, ultimately, disposable. Listening to it, I had the impression that someone had carved a mold in the shape of the notes in Bach's score and filled it with plastic. Pastel-colored plastic, at that. That finally drove me from my bed, and as I dressed I wondered, grumblingly, why a musician with so little passion for the Bach sonatas would bother to play them—and why anyone else would bother to record her doing so.

Later that day I took out the Electric Recording Company's edition of Johanna Martzy performing the same sonata and listened to it, twice. It was transcendent: beautiful and painful, colorful and relentless and right, but mostly relentless, mixing passion and intellect in the same strokes. Midori's recording had nothing—nothing—to do with this music.

I remembered that I'd heard Martzy's recording once before, in the late 1980s, at the home of a friend who owned a reissue pressing. But I was ignorant, lacking the depth of experience (and probably the sheer depth of being) that one hopes a listener might bring to this music. During the intervening years I fell for other recordings, being especially fond of Yehudi Menuhin's (1976) of the Ciaccona of the Partita 2 in d, and Nathan Milstein's mildly crazy Adagio from his recording (1975) of the Sonata 3 in C. But for now, at least, I can't even listen to those while Johanna's in the house.

And while that has mostly to do with Martzy's utterly singular performance, it also has something to do with the sound of the Electric Recording Co. discs, which present the listener with the living, breathing Johanna Martzy, in body and mind and spirit. It is more spiritualism than phonography. And, yes, it is a little creepy.

As a greater writer than I once said: This is how the thing is done.

Timbo in Oz's picture

Interesting thoughts Art,

I recently began learning the basics how to do location recordings for a local community/ arts FM station.

We use a single stereo capsule mike -a Rode NT4 - or a pair of NT5 Rodes. the capulses in each  are the same. The NT5s tend to be used in a close spaced version of ORTF IE 110 degrees away/apart, but on a standard stereo bar.

I have a love of coincident/near coincident stereo recordings.

While it is clearly impossible to get the same effect as live, i think it behoves recorders / engineers to not futz with the sound any more than necessary. We are NOT musicians and ascribing creativity to us is plain hubris.

In the popular genres the continutation of close mono miking mixes - once stereo came long - is a great pity IMO. The brief blip of unplugged recordings was telling, but most people no longer get how distant simple miking sounds.

Multi-miking is lossy - before we get to the recording media.


killersax's picture

While I have not heard Martzy's LP, I have listened to some of these performances in digital transfers, and I'm afraid I just don't get why they eclipse all other performances. I'm not saying they're not good--I like them a lot--but these profound works have inspired many great performances by many great artists, each of whom has something unique and individual to contribute. My personal favorites are Szigeti, Szerying and Hahn, but there are many others. Why do we want to anoint a single performance as the one that puts all the others in the shade? One musician's accomplishment does not diminish others'. Is there a bit of elitism going on when a writer enthuses over a very expensive and rare recording (I almost said "wine") that the rest of us can't afford?