As I have remarked several times before on these pages, the 1950s have a very strong claim to have been the greatest single decade in the history of classical recordings.
It was a period when many of the greatest and most individually characterful musicians of an older generation were still productive in the studio. Just limiting ourselves to high-profile conductors, Ansermet (d. 1969), Barbirolli (d. 1970), Beecham (d. 1961), Furtwängler (d. 1954), the elder Kleiber (d. 1956), Klemperer (d. 1973), Knappertsbusch (d. 1965), Mitropoulos (d. 1960), Monteux (d. 1964), Munch (d. 1968), Reiner (d. 1963), Stokowski (d. 1977), Szell (d. 1970), Toscanini (d. 1957) and Walter (d. 1962) all made memorable and sometimes definitive 1950s recordings. In so doing, they also often - albeit unconsciously - performed the valuable service of passing on an older performing tradition to posterity.
They did so, moreover, in sound for which we need to make surprisingly few or no allowances. A number of technological advances in the early 1950s had transformed the quality of recordings out of all recognition almost overnight. The best illustration of that fact is that, even to this day, the sound itself is frequently the overt selling point of re-released material. In just the past few years, for instance, we've seen a couple of hefty boxes collecting together many of the RCA Living Stereo
discs and another two that showcase recordings made under the Mercury Living Presence
banner. Sound engineering achievements on this side of the Atlantic haven't been ignored either, with various attractive collections re-marketed under the title of The Decca Sound
The New York-based Everest Records label, operational as an independent concern for just a few years after its foundation in 1958, was another company characterised by its use of novel technical means to achieve high quality recordings. See here
for a useful overview. Its publicity boasted at the time that the "remarkable EVEREST sound on this record is the result of a revolutionary new method of magnetic recording developed by EVEREST utilizing 35 mm magnetic film". It went on to claim to have produced, thereby, "distortion free, perfect... EVEREST sound, a sound that has been acclaimed as superb by critics and record enthusiasts throughout the world."
That "perfect" sound is not in itself any guarantee of artistic
quality, but the company's A&R team also seems to have possessed a knack for snapping up and then getting the best out of some very talented performers, often taking advantage of brief windows of opportunity between their long-term contracts. Their most stellar signing was Stokowski, who ultimately produced no fewer than eleven Everest LPs over a two year period. These include a Francesca da Rimini
(Everest CD 7519003, HDTT HDCD141
and Everest Omega EVC 9037
) that remains, to many listeners, unsurpassed to this day. If the company's other artists never quite achieved - or, perhaps, never actually sought - that degree of popular fame, they were rarely less than an expert bunch. They included, among others, Sir Adrian Boult, Josef Krips, William Steinberg, Sir Malcolm Sargent and the underrated Walter Susskind.
Everest was able to take opportunistic advantage of the Sir Eugene Goossens' public discomfiture after he had pleaded guilty, in 1956, to a charge of possessing pornography. They signed him up, no doubt at a bargain rate, for a November 1958 recording of Scheherazade.
Even if he had not recorded this version, Goossens would be remembered as the first conductor to set Rimsky-Korsakov's popular warhorse down in an electrical - if abbreviated - recording (1929). The 1958 version was recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London and employed the London Symphony Orchestra. Their notably fine account benefits considerably from leader Hugh Maguire's silken yet passionate depiction of the eponymous heroine. While some of Everest's later releases were to stray off the more usually beaten track, in its first year of operation the company was probably anxious to establish its bona fides
with some basic core repertoire - and this is an interpretation to match. There is nothing extreme or outré here, just a very well played and involving account, now digitally re-mastered from the original tapes and coming up as fresh as paint. Goossens' artistry and his technical skill - along, no doubt, with that "revolutionary new method of magnetic recording" - ensure that even congested passages emerge with great clarity and that often-obscured detail can be properly appreciated. A tremendously exciting account of the final episodes of the Baghdad festival and the shipwreck would, in a live performance, surely have brought the house down.
My second Everest reissue features the same orchestra in the same venue, but recorded eight months later. Needless to say, Hugh Maguire was still the LSO's leader at the time and delivers a sensitive and idiomatic performance of the solo violin part in Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben
. The conductor on this occasion is another name hardly heard of these days, Leopold Ludwig. This is a recording that is particularly interesting from the point of view of its sound, though not in the sense previously discussed. I listened several times to this CD at "normal" volume and I confess that it made little impact - and that was not because I consider that Ein Heldenleben
needs the most modern sound to do it justice: one of my very favourite versions derives, in fact, from a BBC regional orchestra heard in nothing more special than reasonably good, mid-1970s vintage radio studio quality (BBC Legends BBCL 4262-2, see here
). No, this was one of those discs that one occasionally encounters where just a slight tweak of the volume upwards transforms the whole listening experience. What now emerged was a carefully controlled account that, while superficially sounding rather penny plain and sober, was revealed, with just a touch of the controls, as a deeply thoughtful musical experience. It is impeccably directed and beautifully performed by the accomplished London players. I am fortunate enough to live in a detached and double-glazed house, so that increasing the volume isn't going to annoy the neighbours. I implore you, though: if you aren't able to do anything else, you should plug some headphones into your system and crank up the volume to get the most out of this impressive release.
Marketed at a highly attractive price point, with the original documentation contained in the booklet and Everest's 1950s artwork on their covers, these re-releases are, along with their more ambitiously presented Living Stereo
and Living Presence
counterparts, yet another reminder of how much wonderful music-making was taking place in - and survives from - that incredible decade of recording history.
Previous reviews: Scheherazade
~~ Ein Heldenleben
Masterwork Index: Scheherazade
~~ Ein Heldenleben
Everest Records review