More of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
More Classical ‘Sleeper” Recordings with Demo Disc Sound
Credit must go to my good audiophile friend Robert Pincus for turning me on to the Readers Digest sets in general and this set in particular. Most of it is no better than decent, but the best records in the set are superb, as you can read in our older review below.
A SUPERB White Hot side one coupled with a better than Super Hot (A++ to A+++) side two, back to back on one disc, is a surprise indeed.This is only the second time a disc from a Reader’s Digest box set has made it to the site, and we’re continuing with more exciting orchestral music — Capriccio Espagnol (side two) and the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 (side one) are the two longest pieces on record 8 of the set, and both of them are knockouts on this pressing.
This is truly DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND! Records do not get much more spacious, open, transparent, rich and sweet. Kenneth Wilkinson was the man behind the board for many of these RDG recordings, this very one in fact, and as you will hear, he was pretty much in a league of his own as a recording engineer in the early days of stereo. This record should provide you with all the proof you need.
Play it up against the best of the RCAs, Londons and Mercs from the period and you will see what I mean. And of course it will completely DESTROY any pressing you may have on Heavy Vinyl, from any label, at any playback speed, of any music.
Living Stereo Sound
You may remember that recordings from these sets were reissued by Chesky back in the ’90s, with mediocre sound of course, as all their reissues are at best mediocre. We never carried any of them even when we were carrying audiophile reissues.
I remember the first time I heard some of the records from this Scheherazade set and was knocked out — here was Tubey Magical RCA Living Stereo sound at a fraction of the price the real RCAs were commanding (a price I confess I could not begin to afford).
The problem — and it’s still a problem, though not much of one if you have a high quality, properly set up front end — is the vinyl. These sets were produced cheaply in order to be priced affordably (under $20 for 10 LPs in a box!), and that means the best vinyl was simply not part of the budget. To find pressings that play even Mint Minus Minus is not easy, even today. Back then, before the advent of modern enzyme-based cleaning fluids and expensive record cleaning vacuum machinery, there was no way to get the vinyl to play even that well.
This copy plays a bit quieter than most at Mint Minus Minus to Mint Minus, about as quiet as a well cared for vintage Shaded Dog or Merc.
As you can imagine we did not have dozens of these sets with which to do our shootout. We had three, and this copy is clearly the overall winner of the group by a substantial margin.
A+++, White Hot Stamper sound! Hard to beat I say. Big stage, great ENERGY, lots of hall ambience and solid orchestral weight, textured strings — what more can you ask for?
This side was quite a bit richer and more Tubey Magical than most of the others we played, with solid body to the brass. With this kind of sound the music on this side works brilliantly. A top performances of all three works.
Side one consists of:
Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1 – Enesco
Songs of the Auvergne – Canteloube
The Bartered Bride: Overture – Smetana
A++ to A+++, better than Super Hot Stamper sound and a tremendously exciting performance to boot! Dynamic and lively sonics. More Tubey Magical richness coupled with transparency and plenty of top end, which is so critical to all the percussion in the piece, and not something you hear often on vintage recordings.
Not quite all the weight in the brass that we heard on side one, so we docked this side one half plus.
Side two consists of:
Capriccio Espagnol – Rimsky-Korsakov
Le Coq D’Or: March – Rimsky-Korsakov
This record will come in the original inner sleeve from the box set, and should probably be placed in a generic outer sleeve.
Capriccio Espagnol and the Romanian Rhapsody No. 1
Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34, is the common Western title for an orchestral work based on Spanish folk melodies and written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1887. Rimsky-Korsakov originally intended to write the work for a solo violin with orchestra, but later decided that a purely orchestral work would do better justice to the lively melodies.
The Capriccio consists of five movements and is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
The piece is often lauded for its orchestration, which features a large percussion section and many special techniques and articulations, such as in the fourth movement when the violinists, violists, and cellists are asked to imitate guitars (the violin and viola parts are marked “quasi guitara”). Despite the critical praise, Rimsky-Korsakov was annoyed that the other aspects of the piece were being ignored. In his autobiography, he wrote:
The opinion formed by both critics and the public, that the Capriccio is a magnificently orchestrated piece — is wrong. The Capriccio is a brilliant composition for the orchestra. The change of timbres, the felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas for instruments solo, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration. The Spanish themes, of dance character, furnished me with rich material for putting in use multiform orchestral effects. All in all, the Capriccio is undoubtedly a purely external piece, but vividly brilliant for all that. I was a little less successful in its third section (Alborada, in B-flat major), where the brasses somewhat drown the melodic designs of the woodwinds; but this is very easy to remedy, if the conductor will pay attention to it and moderate the indications of the shades of force in the brass instruments by replacing the fortissimo by a simple forte.
The two Romanian Rhapsodies, Op. 11, for orchestra, are George Enescu’s best-known compositions. They were both written in 1901, and first performed together in 1903. The two rhapsodies, and particularly the first, have long held a permanent place in the repertory of every major orchestra. They employ elements of lautareasca music, vivid Romanian rhythms, and an air of spontaneity. They exhibit exotic modal coloring, with some scales having ‘mobile’ thirds, sixths or sevenths, creating a shifting major/minor atmosphere, one of the characteristics of Romanian lautareasca music.
The Rhapsody No. 1 in A major is dedicated to the composer and pedagogue Bernard Crocé-Spinelli (a fellow-student with Enescu in André Gedalge’s counterpoint class at the Conservatoire),and is the better known of the two rhapsodies. The essence of this rhapsody is the dance. Enescu claimed that it was “just a few tunes thrown together without thinking about it”, but his surviving sketches show that he carefully worked out the order in which the melodies should appear, and the best instrumental setting for each one. It was completed on 14 August 1901, when Enescu was still only 19 years old.
The First Rhapsody is ebullient and outgoing. It begins by quoting the folk song “Am un leu si vreau sa-l beau” (variously translated as “I want to spend my money on drink”, “I have a coin, and I want a drink”, “I want to spend my shilling on drink”, or, more literally, “I have a leu and I want to drink”), which is played by oboes and clarinets. The tune was played by the Romani violinist Lae Chioru (Nicolae Filip), from whom Enescu had his first violin lessons at the age of 4, but there is some doubt whether Enescu actually remembered it from Chioru, since the tune had been in circulation in various collections printed as early as 1848 (alternative spelling: “Am un leu si vreau sa-l beu”), which Enescu could have consulted. This is soon replaced with a slower melody first introduced in the violins. As the work progresses, this tune grows faster and livelier to climax in a vibrant whirling folk dance.
Wilkie and the Decca Tree
Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.
Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.
You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.
Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:
I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.
Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”
Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.
Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:
Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.
Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.
His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.
On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”