Saturday, January 03, 2009
Music of the spheres
My recent Tales from the Vienna Woods post prompted me to listen again to the double LP set shown above of Willi Boskovsky directing the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1979 new year's day concert. This Decca release was important for two reasons. It was the last new year concert that Boskovsky led before he retired, and it was the first digital recording released by a major European classical label.
The first commercial digital audio recording hardware was marketed by Soundstream in 1976, and early recordings using their system were released by RCA and Telarc. In the UK both Decca and EMI used their own very talented in-house research and development teams at West Hampstead and Hayes respectively to develop digital recorders. EMI's team were based in their famous Central Research Laboratories at Hayes where Alan Blumlein had developed stereo recording and Isaac Schoenberg had developed the first generation 405 line TV system used by the BBC.
After leaving the BBC I worked for EMI in Hayes in the mid-1970s on audio projects, and also, bizarrely, was seconded to write the promotional material for EMI's pioneering brain scanner. Hayes was a fascinating place to work, not least because our offices were in a superb 1930s art deco building by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners. Now it has all gone. EMI is lost to the venture capitalists. The Hayes site has been levelled by property speculators to feed the voracious appetite of nearby Heathrow airport. The EMI pension fund has gone to arbitration by the government regulator.
Such was the rivalry between Decca and EMI in the 1970s that a race developed to be the first to release a digitally recorded classical LP. Decca won with their live recording made in the Grosser Musikvereinsaal on January 1st 1979, which was rushed into the shops just a few months after the concert. In the early days editing was very tricky in the digital domain, and the live nature of the Vienna concert with no re-takes made it ideal for fast-tracking. There were no edits between the tracks, and Boskovsky's linking announcements (in German in those days) were left in adding to the live atmosphere. Until almost the day of release it was uncertain if the digital version would be used, and the Decca sleeve artwork made no mention of the fact that the master was digitally encoded. The silver rosette, seen in the top right of my photo, was stuck onto the sleeve at the last moment, and a loose insert gives details of the digital recording process.
By 1979 I was working for EMI's International Classical Division in Portman Square. I remember buying a copy of the Decca Vienna recording from the HMV shop round the corner in Oxford Street, taking it home, playing it and thinking - wow! Before writing this article I played the LPs again on my high-end system comprising Thorens TD 125 turntable with SME Series IIIS tone arm and Audio-Technica AT-F3 cartridge, Arcam 10 amplifier with moving-coil phono card, and Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 speakers. Thirty years later my reaction listening to the LPs is - wow! There is a warmth of sound, a totally credible stereo image extending beyond the speakers, a transient attack, and an extended bass that is still rarely found in today's CDs.
I don't have a CD transfer of the 1979 concert, but reviews elsewhere suggest the result was not a total success. But I did listen to RCA's live recording of the 1996 new year's day concert (nla) with Lorin Maazel conducting the VPO on CD. I was no longer at the concert, I was just listening to a pair of speakers. Whereas the orchestra under Boskovsky really make the music dance, under Maazel (and also under Barenboim in 2009) it just sounds like another project being dutifully 'delivered' (or swimming pool paid for).
With Decca first past the post EMI had to concentrate on face-saving. In July 1979 André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded Debussy's Images and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in No.1 Studio, Abbey Road. The producer was Suvi Raj Grubb. Previn's long-standing producer Christopher Bishop had quit EMI to manage the Philharmonia Orchestra shortly before the recording. Suvi was born in south India and died in Pune in 1999. Today he is remembered for his work with Daniel Barenboim and Jaqueline du Pré. But, he was also the person about who Herbert von Karajan asked at a recording session in the early 1960s - "Who is that black man over there?" There is a fascinating document about Suvi Raj Grubb which touches on the key subject of race and ethnicity in classical music here.
At the 1979 Debussy sessions the EMI proprietary digital recorder seen below was used. Editing was difficult, so complete takes were used when possible. The released version has less than ten edits, compared with more than fifty for a typical LP of the day. The LP, which is seen at the foot of the article, was a November 1979 release, complete with digital logo top right and explanatory copy (by me) on the reverse. The quality of the LSO's playing and engineer Christopher Parker's sound means that thirty years on the recording is still in the catalogue, with the addition of the Nocturnes which were recorded in 1983.
To support the release, and to explain why EMI lagged some months behind Decca, I was deputed to produce the advertisement seen above. This did not feature on any of my subsequent CVs. The fact that Previn looks like a used-car (auto?) salesman is bad enough. But the copy (which may, hopefully, be illegible) is even more embarassing. The fact is that Decca had won hands-down. They were the first to market a digital classical LP, they had chosen far more appropriate repertoire to showcase it, and the sound they had produced was stunning. Now, please can I have my EMI pension?
Anyone remember Direct Metal Mastering?
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