Hot Stamper Pressings Featuring the Violin
What to Listen For – Side to Side Differences
This listing is at least ten years old, perhaps even fifteen.
WHITE HOT Stamper sound for the Bruch side of this original RCA Shaded Dog, one of the best Heifetz concerto titles of all time. (I’m trying to think of a Heifetz title that sounds better and coming up blank.)
[As of 2023 we know of a couple so stay tuned.]
This was our shootout winner on side two, beating all comers, earning our highest grade, the full Three Pluses (our blue ribbon, gold medal, and best in show all wrapped into one). The sound is nothing short of DEMO DISC QUALITY.
If you want to demonstrate the magic of Living Stereo recordings, jump right to the second movement of the Bruch. The sonority of the massed strings is to die for. When Heifetz enters, the immediacy of his violin further adds to the transcendental quality of the experience. Sonically and musically it doesn’t get much better than this, on Living Stereo or anywhere else.
The violin is captured beautifully on side two. More importantly there is a lovely lyricism in Heifetz’s playing which suits Bruch’s Romantic work perfectly. I know of no better performance.
The performance of the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 is also wonderful, but the sound is not. Want proof that two sides of the same record can have vastly different sound? Here it is. Note how oversized the violin on side one is, how smeary the orchestra, how little texture there is to anything in the soundfield. This side one is no Hot Stamper.
And yet somehow side two won our shootout with the best sound we have ever heard for the Bruch. Go figure.
Side Two – Bruch / Scottish Fantasy
A+++, White Hot Stamper sound!
Pay special attention to the richness of the lower strings, a sonic quality that is not nearly as pronounced on side one as it is here on side two. The violin is also more present on this side. There’s lots of space around it, and the orchestra manages to stay uncongested in the loud sections for the most part (some congestion is heard on even the best Living Stereo records).
[Not so much anymore — we’ve made a lot of audio progress in the last 15 years!]
The energy, transparency and overall sweetness of the sound could not be beat! It’s the clear winner.
Having played more than a dozen Shaded Dogs of this album over the years, we would note that the sound on this side two is a bit dry as is almost always the case.
The Bruch brings to mind some of Tchaikovsky’s works. It’s so sweet and melodic, it completely draws you into its world of sound. This is a work of unsurpassed beauty, music that belongs in any serious music collection.
Side One – Vieuxtemps / Concerto No. 5
A or so. Lovely Romantic music that’s much better than I remember it from our last shootout.
I’ve commented often over the years of the benefits to be gained from listening to classical music regularly. Once a week is a good rule of thumb I would say. I love rock and roll, jazz and all the rest of it, but there is something about classical music that restores a certain balance in your musical life that can’t be accomplished by other means. It grounds your listening experience to something perhaps less immediately gratifying but deeper and more enriching over time. Once habituated, the effect on one’s mood is not hard to recognize.
Of course it should be pointed out that the average classical record is a sonic disaster. There are many excellent pressings of rock and jazz, but when it comes to classical music, being so much more difficult to record (and reproduce!), the choices are substantially more narrow. Most of what passed for good classical sound when I was coming up in audio — the DGs, EMIs, Sheffields and other audiophile pressings — are hard to listen to on the modern equipment of today.
I would say we audition at least five records for every one we think might pass muster in a future shootout, and we’re pulling only from the labels we know to be good. I wouldn’t even take the time to play the average Angel, Columbia or DG, or EMI for that matter. The losers vastly outweigh the winners, and there are only so many hours in a day. Who has the time?
All that said, it should be clear that assembling a top quality classical collection requires much more in the way of resources — money and time — than it would for any other genre of music. We are happy to do the work for you — our best classical pressings are amazing in every way — potentially saving you a lifetime of work… at a price of course.
It should go without saying that this original pressing kills the Classic reissue, and the Classic version is one of the better Classics. Still, it’s no match for the real thing, not even close.
The Classic is airless, smeary and low-rez, which means that all the subtleties of the music and the performance will be much more difficult to appreciate. For $30 it’s not a bad record. I dare say that were you to hear this copy it would be all but impossible to sit through the Classic ever again. (That might be true for all Classic records — once you hear the real thing it’s hard to take them seriously.)
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.”
The Scottish Fantasy in E-flat major, Op. 46, is a composition for violin and orchestra by Max Bruch. Completed in 1880, it was dedicated to the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate.
It is a four movement fantasy on Scottish folk melodies. The fourth movement includes a sprightly arrangement of “Hey Tuttie Tatie”, which is the tune in the patriotic anthem “Scots Wha Hae” (with lyrics by Robert Burns). The first movement is built on a tune variously identified as “Auld Rob Morris” or “Through the Wood Laddie”. This tune also appears at the end of the second and fourth movements. The second movement is built around “The Dusty Miller”, and the third on “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie”.
In paying homage to Scottish tradition (although the composer never visited Scotland), Bruch’s composition gives a prominent place to the harp in the instrumental accompaniment to the violin.
The Scottish Fantasy is one of the several signature pieces by Bruch which are still widely heard today, along with the first violin concerto and the Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra.