Feature Review: Speakers Corner LPs [Mozart & Bruckner/Eugen Jochum … Ravel & Berlioz/Crespin & Ansermet]

Written by: Rob Pennock

Symphony No.5 in B flat [Nowak edition]
Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)

Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
Eugen Jochum

Recorded 30 & 31 May 1964 at the Benedikter-Abtei Ottobeuren (Bruckner) and 11-13 December 1961 at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam (Mozart)

Philips PHS 2-991 (2 LPs)

Remastered at the Emil Berliner Studios, Berlin



Les Nuits d’été, Op.7

Régine Crespin (mezzo-soprano)

Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Ernest Ansermet

Recorded September 1963 at Victoria Hall, Geneva

Michael Bremner – Producer
James Lock – Recording Engineer

Decca SXL 6081

Remastered at Air Studios, London by Tony Hawkins & Ray Staff

Eugen Jochum and Bruckner are virtually synonymous. He made complete recordings of the symphonies for DG and EMI, and there are several live performances available. This Fifth dates from May 1964, and was issued in Europe coupled with organ works by Bruins, Daquin and J. S. Bach, while the American issue used by Speakers Corner featured Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony. Unfortunately – as happens here – it was not uncommon in the LP era for long slow movements to be split over two sides, presumably because it was felt that four sides (often with one very short for the scherzo) would represent poor value-for-money. With 2-LP sets this often left a blank side, for which a fill-up was needed, and one would have hoped that Speakers Corner would have rectified this totally unacceptable situation by jettisoning the Mozart, but the side-break remains, which makes these discs non-recommendable. Nor is the performance in the same class as Jochum’s valedictory live account with the same orchestra in 1984 (Tahra CD), which is slower, better played, and largely avoids the stop-start qualities of this earlier one. Alternatively, one can buy the LPs of Bernard Haitink’s performance with the same orchestra (also on Philips) for about one fifth of the price of these discs, and again get a much better performance.

Which brings us to Regine Crespin and Ernest Ansermet in Berlioz and Ravel, and a disc that is a milestone in the history of 180-gram re-masterings.

This has been a classic since its release in early 1964 and in the opening song of Shéhérazade it is easy to see why. Crespin’s tone is wonderfully languorous, she points the words beautifully, expands operatically in climaxes, the Suisse Romande Orchestra under Ansermet match her in terms of expressiveness at every turn. There is a sense of communication and rightness that makes these performances almost peerless.

The sound quality raises a number of questions. This Speakers Corner LP has been compared with what is called a wideband, grooved, Original Recording, Decca, derived from the first lacquers, mothers and stampers, which must be one of the first discs produced. For non-vinyl collectors this is gobbledegook, and many do not know how an LP is produced, or how to identify the lacquer numbers on a Decca disc. So, given the importance of this Speakers Corner LP, it seems the ideal place to give a brief explanation of what this means.

From 1958 to 1968, first-label Decca LPs featured (with a few exceptions from about SXL 6300 and SET 340 onwards) a 13mm-wide silver band above the spindle hole with the words Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound in large black capital letters on it. Around the label (15mm in from the edge) there was a clearly visible groove, and between 9.30 and 11.30 on the label edge there were the words “Original Recording By” in small upper-case silver letters. The second label for each disc is exactly the same as the first, with “Made In England By” replacing the afore-mentioned.

To make things easier a series of acronyms are used: WBG (wideband grooved), ED1 and ED2 (first or second label for SXLs), and EP1 and EP2 the same for SETs. On the run-off at the end of the LP side there are a series of letters and numbers. At 12 or 6 o’clock there is the matrix number, which for virtually all Decca stereo discs starts with ZAL, followed by a four-figure number that designates the master-tape, and a number followed by a single letter, which denotes the lacquer and Mastering Engineer. At about 9 o’clock there will be a number that designates the mother used and at 3 o’clock there will be one or two letters derived from the word BUCKINGHAM, where B is one and BA would be 19; this is the stamper number.

But what are lacquers, mothers, and stampers? In brief, the lacquer is cut from a master-tape, plated to form a master and then multiple metal mothers and stampers (which imprint the groove pattern) are derived from it.

It has often been pointed out (much to the consternation and disbelief of many first-label addicts) that the “Made in England” label sounds much the same as the first, and it is not difficult to see why. Once the master was discarded, the whole process started again, so the first mother and first stamper derived from a later lacquer should – all things being equal – sound exactly the same as those from the first, and so on down the chain.

In terms of SC SXL 6081, when compared with the original (with the first lacquer, mother and stamper numbers) it is clearly superior. When assessing the Maag/Mendelssohn and Ansermet/Sleeping Beauty discs from Speakers Corner (see links below) I thought that both were better than the originals, but listening to them again, it is clear that the Sleeping Beauty is superior to the Mendelssohn, because it has far greater midrange clarity and retains that indefinable quality that defines Decca SXL and SET LPs produced between 1958 and 1968, and one of the reasons for this is the letter K.

As mentioned above, the Decca matrix number ends in a number and letter, where the letter is the name of the Mastering Engineer, and K is Tony Hawkins, who has joined Speakers Corner to oversee production of its Decca LPs. People always think of renowned Decca engineers and producers, such as Kenneth Wilkinson and John Culshaw, but their team of ten Mastering Engineers played an equally important part in creating what remains the finest recorded sound ever produced, and to audiophiles Hawkins is a legend.

He is working with Ray Staff of Air Studios. The Sleeping Beauty and the Crespin disc was cut using a modified Studer A80 tape-deck (where an ex-Decca engineer has installed tape-head replay amplifiers, based on an original Decca design, with the addition of some modern components, which provides an extremely low noise tape replay system with a very clean sound). I am told that the mixing desk Air use utilises the smallest number of devices required to produce the best possible sound. The disc mastering system uses a standard Neumann VMS 80 lathe with an SX74 cutting head and Neumann SAL74 cutting amplifiers with a custom-made power supply, which gives a more controlled bass response. It is worth bearing-in-mind that all of these machines post-date SXL 6081 (with stereo Neumann cutting equipment the number refers to the date it was first produced) and are solid-state, as opposed to valve/tube, as found on the originals. But in what way does this affect the sound?

The original has excellent definition, silky string tone, Crespin’s voice has real presence and attack, and there is that previously mentioned indefinable something that characterises Decca sound that no other 180 gram remastering has captured. On the new disc all of these qualities are amplified. The woodwind are alarmingly realistic, the strings have more body, the image is more stable, Crespin’s voice now has startling, thrilling presence, fullness of tone and vibrancy, and, crucially, the bass is more extended and better-controlled, which means that the sound-stage has greater weight and power, without any loss of definition. The overall balance is slightly more forward, but the change is nowhere near as pronounced as on the solid-state remasterings done during the1970s by Decca themselves, and these new discs do sound valve generated.

It would be difficult to over-state the importance of this new Speakers Corner disc. When taken in conjunction with the Ansermet Sleeping Beauty, it confirms that Tony Hawkins and Air Studios are able to produce discs that surpass the Decca originals, which – with stereo LPs – has never happened before. For avid first-label collectors this will be of passing interest, but for those who are more concerned about sound, and trust their own ears (as opposed to what those with vested interests – such as dealers – tell them) they really have to be heard: they are that good.

Two further SXLs have been issued, which will be reviewed shortly. Kirsten Flagstad singing Sibelius (SXL 2030) and Ansermet conducting Bizet (SXL 2037), which brings us to another vital consideration – price. As mentioned when reviewing The Sleeping Beauty, originals cost serious money. The last copy of SXL 2037 to be auctioned fetched £370, the last pristine copy of SXL 2030 £80, and while the Crespin disc usually fetches the same as the Speakers Corner disc, they are rare. With regard to the CD transfer of SXL 6091, I borrowed a copy from a friend, but won’t embarrass Universal with a comparison.

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