Delibes / Coppelia & Sylvia – London Vs. Decca

Hot Stamper Pressings that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Records We’ve Reviewed that Sound Their Best on the Right Reissue

Once again, the right Decca reissue blows the doors off the original London we played. This has lately become a pattern, but keep in mind it’s a pattern that’s reliable less than half the time, if memory is any guide. Many of the Decca reissues we’ve played over the last few years have failed badly in a head to head with their earlier-mastered and -pressed counterparts.

But the ones that beat all comers are the ones that stick in our minds and show up on our site.

Clearly a case of confirmation bias, but at least we know something about our own biases, and that puts us well ahead of the audiophile pack.

Record collectors and record collecting audiophiles will tell you it shouldn’t happen, but fools like us, who refuse to accept the prognostications of those supposedly “in the know,” have done the work and come up with the experimental data that’s proven them wrong again and again.

Sort of. We had one, and only one, pressing of the original London (CS 6185), and boy was it a mess — crude as crude can be. It sounded like an “old London record” — we’ve played them by the hundreds, if not thousands, so we know that sound fairly well by now — not the Decca engineered and mastered vintage collectible we know it to be.

Are there copies that sound better? Surely there are, but how are you going to find them? Are you going to shell out the going rate of $25-50 on ebay for one (or more) clean copies, only to find that it/they sound every bit as bad as the one we auditioned? The question answers itself.

If, however, you are one of the lucky few who has a nice London or Decca original of this recording, please let us send you this copy so that you can do the shootout for yourself. You may be shocked at how good this music can sound on the right pressing. And if your copy sounds better than ours we will be very shocked indeed. [This offer was only good while we had the record, and it is long gone at this point. We still remember the sound though!]

Production and Engineering

James Walker was the producer, Roy Wallace the engineer for these sessions from April of 1959 in Geneva’s glorious Victoria Hall. It’s yet another remarkable disc from the Golden Age of Vacuum Tube Recording.

The hall the Suisse Romande recorded in was possibly the best recording venue of its day, possibly of all time. More amazing sounding recordings were made there than in any other hall we know of. There is a solidity and richness to the sound beyond all others, yet clarity and transparency are not sacrificed in the least.

It’s as wide, deep and three-dimensional as any, which is of course all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the weight and power of the brass, combined with unerring timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section of the orchestra.


Side One

Coppelia – Highlights 
(six movements)

Side Two

Coppelia – Highlights
(3 movements, about the first third of the record)

Sylvia – Suite
(four movements)

Richard A. Kaplan, writing for Fanfare about the CD reissue had this to say:

“Coppélia and the Tchaikovsky ballets were all recorded in a span of about two years— Coppélia in 1957, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in 1958, and The Sleeping Beauty in 1959. All recorded in stereo and issued within two years of the introduction of the stereo LP, they did much to establish the reputation of Decca/London’s stereo recordings.

As it turned out, these four were the only full-length ballets Ansermet recorded. Coppélia has a special discographic distinction: it was one of the first batch of stereo LPs issued in the U.S. by London, and the very first instrumental multi-disc set, bearing the catalog number CSA-2201. (The second digit was the number of discs in the set; the third and fourth were sequentially assigned to sets as they were prepared for publication.) The two discs themselves bore the numbers CS-6002 and 6003, and were thus the second and third LPs in London’s stereo numerical system; CS-6001 was Peter Maag’s recording of Mendelssohn’s complete music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still considered by many connoisseurs to be among Decca/London’s greatest musical and sonic achievements [we include ourselves in its thrall — so rich and tubey).

Ansermet’s Coppélia, like the Tchaikovsky ballet recordings, brings out not only his best but also that of his orchestra. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was notoriously a less than top-rank ensemble, and yet in this music—some of it quite technically intricate—they play beautifully and flawlessly. [emphasis added]

In the Divertissement that makes up most of tableau III, much of the music is delicately scored, and practically all the flashy string-writing and exposed wind solos sound first-rate. If there is any fault to be found with this recording, it is that the sound is a bit bright; Decca was constantly tinkering with its stereo engineering. This becomes vividly clear with the beginning of the suite from Sylvia —recorded two years later—partway through disc 2; suddenly the sound is fuller and smoother, without the hint of an “edge” (some would just consider it high-frequency clarity) we hear in Coppélia . Ansermet plays the usual four excerpts: the “Prélude-Les chasseresses”; the “Intermezzo et Valse lente”; the famous “Pizzicati”; and the “Marche-Cortège de Bacchus.”

“To cut to the chase, then: this is one of the issues that represents Ansermet and the OSR at their best; while I’m hardly an authority on competing versions of Coppélia , I’d recommend this set to anyone as an example of one of the 20th-century’s great conductors doing what he did best.”

Artist Biography by James Reel

Léo Delibes was the first notable composer of ballet to emerge after the death of Rameau, the art of ballet composition having suffered a period of neglect in the interim. Delibes was the first to craft a full-length ballet score with the care and distinction already common among the best opera composers; not only could he produce buoyant, memorable tunes, but he delivered them in sparkling orchestrations.

His most important work, clearly, was for the stage, particularly [the] two 90-minute ballet scores. Their significance, beyond their own merits, is the direct influence they had on Tchaikovsky, whose mastery of the symphonic ballet owes everything to Coppélia and Sylvia.


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