The Return of Orion Classics

Marquis Classics, a Toronto-based CD label specializing in classical, jazz, world, and crossover recordings, recently issued its second batch of "Orion Master Recordings." Drawn from the large classical catalog of the defunct Orion LP label, the CDs include prized rare recordings by Robert Silverman, Steven Staryk, Joel Krosnick, Leonid Kogan, and other fine artists.

Orion was the brainchild of Giveon Cornfield, who in the early 1960s started the Baroque Record Company of Canada. Baroque recorded a host of young Canadian artists who had not previously made recordings, including Silverman performing Copland (MAR 3112) and violinist Staryk playing an assortment of works (MAR 3111). Renowned visiting artists were also recorded, including flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who made no less than six recordings for Baroque Records, and violinist Kogan (MAR 3119). By the mid 1960s, when Everest Records began distributing Baroque in the US, some 120 classical titles had been released.

"They were all recorded on tape at 15ips," the 80-year-old Cornfield reported by phone from his home in Hawaii. "I used Sennheiser mikes, often paired with my favorite recorder, the Revox A-77. The good Lord blessed me with ears, so I was able to get some very good quality. We did not have adequate equipment for orchestral recordings, but with chamber music and solos, we did quite well."

Baroque morphed into Orion Master Recordings ca 1967–1968, soon after Cornfield left his brief stint as director of the classical division of Everest Records. Cornfield's first assignment for Everest was to record Mozart's complete four-hand piano works with Yaltah Menuhin, Yehudi's younger sister, and her husband Joel Ryce. The project enabled him to reconnect with the great violinist, whom he had first met when he was music director of a classical station in Montreal. Yehudi Menuhin offered Orion the imprint of the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation, which helped get its LPs into stores.

After incorporating the best of the Baroque catalog into Orion's, Cornfield continued to record such young, emerging artists as clarinetist Richard Stoltzman (who continues to amass an impressive catalog of contemporary music recordings on NMC Records), flutist Ransom Wilson, and cellist Joel Krosnick (MAR 3117). He also issued a number of LPs by Israeli artists. All in all, Cornfield recorded over 500 LPs, earning several Grand Prix du Disques, two "Recordings of Special Merit" from Stereo Review's Igor Kipnis, and, for Franz Liszt's Complete Works for Violin and Piano (MAR 3104), the Grand Prix International du Disque Liszt 1977.

Orion pressed LPs in lots of 500. If the company sold over a carton (25) of a single title in a year, that was seen as doing well. Selling out a first pressing was a big event. Ironically, Orion's biggest-selling recording was one of the half-dozen non-classical LPs in their huge catalog, a collection of torch songs by Anita Ellis. Even with eye-catching cover art by the great Al Hirschfeld, however, only a few thousand copies were sold. In the classical field, discs by Rampal and Vladimir Pleshakov's LP of the Dukas Piano Sonata sold very well (by Orion standards). Cornfield basically subsidized the label from his other income.

Everest Records distributed Orion in the US into the 1980s. Then came "perfect sound forever." "We continued until 1988," says Cornfield, "by which time vinyl was dead." Rather than go digital, Cornfield retired, made a half-hearted attempt to sell the label, and finally donated the archives to the University of Hawaii. Included with the archives were 45 lbs of review clippings. The donation was non-exclusive; Cornfield retained the right to reissue any of the recordings at a future date. He also published a book, Note-Perfect (Chaminade University Press), with a preface by Nicholas Slominsky, that tells the story of his 30-year history of making records.

Giveon's son Eitan, who could not be reached by press time, has taken charge of the Orion CD reissues. While information about the transfer rate and transfer equipment was not available, I did learn from Giveon that some transfers were made from the original edited tapes, and others from supposed mint copies of the Orion/Baroque LPs. The term "Orion Master Recordings" is in fact a misnomer, since Orion did not record direct-to-disc. Unknown at present is whether the noise reduction technology Eitan Cornfield enlisted to minimize LP surface noise has in any way degraded the original sound quality.

Auditioning the Staryk and Silverman CDs reveals that while Giveon Cornfield did a superb job of capturing the full range of Staryk's glorious-sounding Guarneri violin, the CD transfer seems to have been made from an LP with a fair amount of inner groove wear. (Either that, or the LP and/or stylus playing it were not adequately cleaned). On the fifth track, for example, the distortion on violin peaks and crescendos is excessive. Other cuts are thankfully far cleaner, making the recording quite desirable.

Robert Silverman's recording of rarely performed Copland sounds quite good, although John Atkinson's recent Silverman recording of Beethoven for Stereophile boasts a fatter, more naturally rich midrange and more air around the piano. Silverman reports that the recording was made on a tubed Revox G36. "The LP sounds pretty much like the CD," he says. "The wow and flutter are still evident in all their glory, as are the tape print-throughs." Regardless, the performance is priceless. Witness Copland's accolade, "He played it like he wrote it," and Stereo Review's assessment, "One of the most amazing displays of pianism I have heard in many a year."

The next batch of 10 Orion re-releases is expected in the summer or fall.