Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Give 'em the spirit

Edward Elgar is one of the first composers who really paid attention to recording technology, and he left an impressive recording legacy. This new four-disc set from Somm digs deep into his private library of test pressings, and comes up with some real gems, plus more than a few amazing surprises.

Having a recording engineer's name on the cover of a CD doesn't happen too often, but it should perhaps happen more often. Lani Spahr is the hero here, along with Elgar, of course, a fine conductor as well as composer. Of course we shouldn't forget the excellent musicians of the top London orchestras (or the 'recording' orchestras that I would imagine included a big subset of the same players), and two superb soloists: cellist Beatrice Harrison, and the 16-year old violinist Yehudi Menuhin. But it's Spahr who finds the best sides from Elgar's personal library, a significant research accomplishment requiring superb musicality and excellent memory. As well, Spahr utilizes state-of-the-art audio processing to make music from the 1920s and 30s sound fresh and alive, sounding better than they have any right to sound. This is a new generation of archival re-issues, and it deserves a hearing, even from those of us who haven't specialized in this area in the past.

Let's set the stage. Here is a fabulous video of Sir Edward Elgar conducting The London Symphony Orchestra in the first of his Pomp and Circumstances marches. This is from 1931, around the time of the inauguration of the HMV Studios. We know this room best, of course, as Studio 1 at Abbey Road.

Here is the young Yehudi Menuhin recording the Violin Concerto. The date is July 14, 1932.

And here's the same room, 32 years later in 1964. The youngest of the Beatles, George, is 6 years older than Yehudi, at 22! What an amazing history this place has.

The entire Violin Concerto isn't here; rather we hear never-before released 78-sides of portions of the first 3 movements. What we do hear is more of the astounding mastery of Menuhin, and a surprisingly full-sounding LSO, led with assurance by Elgar. Having alternate takes available not only provides context for the final version we know so well, but also gives you some insight into the technical constraints the musicians were working under. The First Symphony is complete. We've heard portions of this recording made at Kingsway Hall in November 1930 before, but Spahr replaces takes in each movement, re-editing the symphony after the fact.  I'll pass on a close comparison of the two versions - that would take a real Elgar recordings geek - but I will say this: Elgar's own version of this symphony is outstanding, and today's conductors should pay more attention to his tempi and his lack of sentimentality. So many sound flabby after this.

So the re-mastered mono recordings on discs 3 and 4 are impressive; they sound rich and full, relatively speaking, and they provide a vital, living link to a great master and days gone by. But we're all really here for the stereo, right? It's accidental stereo, but a real stereo nevertheless. You'll remember the scene from the Pomp and Circumstances video at the beginning of this review, where the recording technician readies the wax matrix cutting table and phones down to the studio (at 0:50). It turns out that occasionally very careful HMV producers rigged up a second disc recorder connected to a separate microphone. This is classic belt-and-suspenders behaviour, but considering the many things that could go wrong with the recording process between the studio and the manufacturing facility, I'm sure it came in handy more than a few times. Having to cut longer works into chunks of less than 5 minutes was enough of a problem; re-assembling a large orchestra to do re-takes of a ruined segment because of a technical glitch wouldn't fly.

It was the recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn who first thought of using the audio processing software Capstan from Celemony to synchronize the same music recorded on two different machines and microphones, in effect creating left and right stereo channels. This resulted in the Pristine Classical disc Accidental Stereo, with music from early electrical recordings of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, Saint-Saens and Elgar. With Obert-Thorn's successful model, Spahr was able to dig up quite a few matched pairs from the Elgar archive that might have come from separate microphones. The software does the bulk of the work, but Spahr had to do a lot of manual tweeking as well, and there was no guarantee that the result would be stereo. Beginning with two matrices of the same music which seem to be from two different machines, after all the synchronization there might be no stereo separation. That indicates that the two matrices shared the same microphone.

The stereo separation can be quite stunning. Spahr, in classic stereo demonstration mode, includes a section of the Cockaigne Overture with a transition from mono to stereo, and it's an amazing opening-up, like Dorothy going from black-and-white to Technicolor Oz. The stereo effect is similarly full and real in the Cello Concerto, though the cello itself is set somewhat to the left, since the microphone placement wasn't designed with stereo sound in mind. Beatrice Harrison is the amazing cellist. I've listened quite a few times to these various takes, in mono and in stereo, but I often forgot about the circumstances, and just let the music carry me away. Terry King, who provides illuminating liner notes about the Cello Concerto recording, quotes something Elgar said to Harrison that really resonates with me; I think it says something very profound about Elgar as a musician and a person that he said this to Harrison just before a take:

“Give it ‘em, Beatrice, give it ‘em. Don’t mind about the notes or anything. Give ‘em the spirit.”

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