In Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, one of the characters, Tom Buchanan, a rich man who's also a well-known polo player, says, "I've heard of making a garage out of a stable, but I'm the first man who ever made a stable out of a garage." Not to brag, but I'm doing the same thing. Whenever I find a quality LP recording of a piece I have on CD, I don't hesitiate to sell the CD and buy the LP. And when I find a better-quality recording, something closer to the original, I don't hesitate to trade in the old LP for a new one. It takes a lot of time to pursue this, not to mention a considerable investement of cash. Most people would, I am pretty sure, label me obsessed.The kindred spirit is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writing in his new memoir What I talk about when I talk about running. And talking of the same piece on LP and CD my photo shows three generations of a recording I couldn't possibly live without. The HMV LP of Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Sinfonia of London and the Allegri Quartet in music by Vaughan Williams and Elgar is one of the classics of the gramophone. This is passionate, heart-on-sleeve music-making captured in stunning stereo sound. Just listen to the Sinfonia of London's rich vibrato in the Elgar, and compare it with Roger Norrington's 'historically informed' alternative. There is simply no contest. Every track on the LP, which was produced by HMV's Victor Olof, is a masterpiece. But Vaughan William's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is up there with the best things ever committed to disc.
The LP seen above was released in 1963 (note the old-style HMV logo), and first transferred to CD in 1986. The original CD packaging, seen above, cleverly echoed the classic 1963 LP sleeve, but was, in fact, completely different. The works listing included two additional Elgar pieces, Elegy & Sospiri. These were recorded at a later date (1966) with a different orchestra and producer (Christopher Bishop) and added to fill the CD. The photo on the CD is from the same session as that on the LP, but it is a different angle and tighter on Sir John to allow for the smaller size picture. Both photos were taken by Godfrey MacDominic at the Kingsway Hall sessions for the Elgar Introduction and Allegro, and the Allegri Quartet are in the foreground. The reason why the sound is so outstanding is evident in these photos. There is a notable absence of microphones, with just one pair on a tripod high over the players visible to the right of the LP photo below.
The sessions for the LP took place in London in May 1962, with all except for those for the Tallis Fantasia held in the Kingsway Hall. The Tallis Fantasia session was held in the sonorous medieval Temple Church a week later. This venue was suggested by the American composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, who Sir John had known since since his years in New York - see link below. The Bernard Hermann website tells how -
Herrmann insisted that "it must be done in a stone building not a studio". So Herrmann suggested the Temple Church. The recording session was started at midnight to avoid traffic noise. According to Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composers widow): "Coats and bags and thermos flasks were piled round the effigies of Crusader Knights. Benny was there, listening to the balance, listening to the music, and the resulting record is by far the best ever made of the work."The sound from the Temple Church recording of the Tallis Fantasia is quite exceptional. But there is, to my knowledge, no visual record of how it was achieved. Perhaps because Godfrey MacDominic had already covered the Kingsway Hall sessions, there was no photographer in the Temple Church. For whatever reason, there are no photos of the session that produced one of the greatest recordings ever made.
In 2000, the CD of Sir John Barbirolli conducting English string music was re-released in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series, with the original LP sleeve as a thumb-nail image on the CD packaging. The disc is currently available from Amazon at mid-price, but I couldn't find it listed on the EMI Classics website. If you don't have this 'recording to die for' buy it quickly before it makes way for the next Libera release. And yes, the sleeve image on my iPod is from the original LP. Label me obsessed.
Read About 'Glorious John' in New York here. And about Haruki Murakami here and here.
Session photo credit Godfrey MacDominic & EMI. Header image (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk