Thursday, May 04, 2017

Classical recordings do not come much better than this


Warner Classic's 12 CD box of Louis Fremaux's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra recordings is a remarkable document. In an age of celebrity orchestras it provides a salutary reminder that a band does not have to be in the grandee league to sound great. And Fremaux's Massenet disc - a favourite of mine since its 1973 release - is a reminder that music does not need to be clever to be good. But there is also good and clever music in this box, notably John McCabe's Second Symphony. Sometimes I think I am becoming an old bore when I keep banging on about how recorded sound quality has got worse as technology has got better. Then I listen to these CBSO analogue recordings made by EMI between 1970 and 1978 and realise that I may be getting old but my ears are not deceiving me. Most of the sessions took place in the late-Victorian Great Hall of Birmingham University which has an extended reverberation time coupled with an endearing low frequency honk which would not be tolerated in today's designer concert halls with their politically correct acoustics. The producers are a roll call of EMI's great staff producers from the period including David Mottley and John Mordler. Listening to their work shows just how artificial and fatiguing today's close-miked sound has become. In the later Birmingham recordings the orchestra and hall acoustic blend into one cohesive and natural stereo image, whereas so many of today's productions sound as though they are assembled from the sonic equivalent of Lego bricks.

Considerable credit must go the much-derided Warner Classics for this new release. Despite selling in the UK for the astonishingly low price of around £2 a disc, all the recordings have been remastered from the original tapes. Given the budget price the documentation with full details of recording personnel, venue and session dates is laudable, and there is an excellent booklet essay from Richard Bratby who worked for the CBSO, albeit not in the Fremaux era. Richard's essay shows that given the right circumstances the new generation of music journalists can produce quality writing. Which sends me off message to muse about the current state of music writing.

When I worked for EMI Classics in the 1970s my fiefdom included sleeve notes and press releases. Back then, just like today, there were music journalists with super-size egos. But vigilant sub-editors and the absence of social media meant those giant egos were hidden from view, like the large part of the ice-berg that is under the water. Today the demise of sub-editors and the hegemony of unmoderated social media means those egos are free to run amok. And you only need to spend a few minutes on Facebook or Twitter to understand that when the super-size ego of a music journalist runs amok it is not a pretty sight. Now before anyone tells me that the ground rules for social media are different, let my explain that the problem is not social media per se. The real problem is that the hubris which is now the norm on social networks has permeated into all forms of everyday communication. The advent of social media may represent progress. But as auditioning these artistically and sonically outstanding Birmingham recordings from the 1970s reminds us, not all progress is a good thing.

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