Various Responses

Written by: Compiled by The Classical Source (January 2008)

The review by Peter Joelson and the questions raised therein, together with Bill Anderson’s analysis, have prompted the following responses.

From Siva Oke, Somm:

I have now been able to speak with Arthur Ridgewell (the producer of Somm’s Vaughan Williams release). He is pleased to clarify a couple of questions raised in your review.

  • Arthur only made one copy of the acetates in his possession. These were for the “British Institute” as he calls it — whether this is one and the same as the “National Archive” I wouldn’t be sure. The person for whom he made the copy was one Patrick Saul who complained about the missing bars!

  • Yes you are right, the patch at the beginning of the third movement (the initial chords up to the entry of the cor anglais) became necessary because of the changeover of sides. The patch used was from the premiere of this work conducted by the composer (1943). I have to say that this information wasn’t deliberately left out of the booklet.

    From Alan Sanders, the writer of the booklet essay for Somm’s Vaughan Williams issue:

    Let me try and clarify the situation regarding this recording.

    As I write in my notes, the CD transfer derives from an LP acetate recorded by Eric Spain for Arthur Ridgewell. Spain had to turn the acetate over in order to record side 2, which is why the beginning of the third movement is missing.

    It is of course possible that somebody else recorded this performance off-air, but the fact that every version seems to have the same missing section suggests that they all derive from Arthur’s acetate. The fact that copies seem to have turned up all over the place (I was sent a copy by a Japanese collector some years ago) I can’t explain, since Arthur has always been very careful about making copies for other people.

    There seems to be a misunderstanding about the spurious recording. I didn’t wish to be too specific in my notes and my reference to a “national archive” refers not to the NSA but to the BBC. This recording is not the BBC’s own, but one sent to the Corporation by a donor, and it has also got into the hands of private collectors: it purports to be the 3/9/52 performance, but is quite different, quite unlike VW’s other recorded performances, and notably inferior. We don’t know who the conductor is in fact. Robert Matthew-Walker suggests that it is Sargent, but my own feeling is that Sir M would have produced something which was a good deal better and more idiomatic.

    Even recently efforts have been made to get the ‘wrong’ version published, and for some time I have been anxious to get the genuine article made generally available so as to prevent dissemination of the imposter. I now think that the mis-attributed version should be permanently buried, since it has no artistic or historic worth.

    As Siva has revealed, an excerpt from an incomplete recording of the Symphony’s 1943 premiere (also conducted by VW as you will know), has been used to supply the missing section of the third movement.

    I wasn’t responsible for Somm’s documentation, which I didn’t see before publication. I agree that the patch should have been mentioned somewhere, and if I’d known that it wasn’t going to be included in the supporting information (which is where it should have been) I would have mentioned it in my notes.

    The BBC authorised the issue of Dona nobis pacem.

    I hope this makes the situation clear.

    From Classical Source: Thanks to Siva and Alan for their speedy and revealing responses. As a footnote, Basil Cameron has been suggested as the conductor of the unidentified performance held by the BBC.

    There follows mail from Eric Spain, which was written before the ‘Romanza’ questions were asked:

    Dear Somm Records,

    You may not believe the main purpose of this email: Having just listened to your CD of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony conducted by the composer at the Royal Albert Hall back in 1952 I was reminded that I had made the original recording from the radio!

    As you can imagine I am both thrilled and fascinated to hear this recording again and, although it is over 50 years ago, I can well recognize some of the characteristics of the sound. I certainly did not expect that, one day, I would be getting this whole thing back on a small silver disc in Hong Kong where I now live!!!

    I thought that, just for the archive, you might like to know about what it was recorded on and some of the background to all this.

    I had been obsessed with making disc recording from about the time I was 16. I was evacuated from the London blitz and stayed with my cousin, Herbert Whitby – a radar researcher at Malvern – who had a similar obsession and was something of a genius in electronics and mechanics. However, there were no shellac discs available at that time: we recorded on celluloid!

    I started to design and make ‘the ultimate’ machine around 1949 whilst I was doing my National Service in the RAF. It developed into the machine that made these recordings which, I decided, had to be microgroove to be able to record the kind of music that I wanted: the Long Playing record had just hit the market.

    The turntable was a leftover from the late-1920s Western Electric sound-on-disk system that was in the storeroom of the Rialto cinema in Leicester Square where my father was the manager. It was an alloy 16 inch turntable with a lead filling around the edge. This was supported by a beautifully made central spindle that sat on one large ball bearing in a bush of phosphor-bronze. In the original, this was turned by a worm drive attached to the projector to, hopefully, maintain sync.. It was all immersed in an oil bath!

    I threw away the worm drive, used the turntable and the support ‘bath’ and made a belt drive from an induction motor all mounted on a very thick piece of duralumin. I also made the ‘lathe’ mechanism which comprised a fine, slowly turning worm drive that pushed along a rigid arm that held the cutter head. This was balanced with weights on a plate to give the right depth of cut. Rather crude but that was the way it was done.

    My cousin Herbert gave me the ‘balanced moving iron’ cutter head that he had made himself, with great love and care, from scratch. It had a resonance at about 6kHz which I damped with oil in the air gap and also built a simple equaliser to further subdue the resonance and to maintain the right frequency response over the audio band. Not up to
    ‘ffrr’ recordings at the time!

    I used sapphire stylii wrapped around with a fine copper heating wire which was necessary to make the quiet cut expected with LPs. The swarf was blown into the middle of the disk using my mother’s vacuum cleaner in reverse!

    The amplifier was a 15 watt ‘Williamson’ made famous by ‘Wireless World’. This was the most expensive part of the set-up as its high quality resulted from a huge output transformer driven by push-pull KT66s and plenty of negative feedback.

    The radio was either a very simple MF thing that had a good frequency response – including the 10kHz whistle – or it might have been an experimental FM receiver. The BBC started experimental transmissions to compare FM with AM on Band II at some point and I acquired a receiver that someone had made from ex-services wartime leftovers.

    My recording era fizzled out when I joined BBC television at Lyme Grove — but I often wish I had gone to Abbey Road instead!

    From Aaron Z. Snyder:

    Absolutely fascinating. His disc recorder was a modified VITAPHONE disc player! For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the long history of sound motion pictures, VITAPHONE was one of the two competing methods for making talkies in the late 20s. The other method was Fox’s optical sound-on-film. (That’s a very simplified version of history, but that’s what it boiled down to in the late 20s.) The recording/playback speed of the Vitaphone discs was 33.3 rpm because the gearing of the turntable to the projector just happened to work out that way. This takes into account the fact that each reel of film had a duration of about 10 minutes, so the Vitaphone disc required a similar duration. The stylus was more or less the standard one used for 78s.

    Needless to say, optical sound-on-film won out because of all the problems of using a physically separate soundtrack in the Vitaphone system. (If the film broke, blank frames had to be spliced in to keep the audio in sync with the film. That’s just one example of the problems with the system.) RCA’s initial attempt at long playing records in the early 30s perpetuated the 33.3 rpm speed for the short duration of their failed attempts. When Columbia revived the speed in 1948, but this time using a microgroove, RCA was left with “their pants down”, and thus did the most illogical thing: they created the 45 rpm disc with a playback time of a 78 rpm disc. Sheer idiocy!

    In any event, Mr Spain’s Email explains everything in detail. Sadly, Somm’s is a greatly-reduced version of the story, although I’m rather glad to find that Somm now really does deserve the benefit of the doubt, even though I feel they could have done a better job of restoring the sound.

    Oh, and as for the 1943 RVW 5th, many of us have been treated to incomplete recordings like that through the Elgar Society’s CDs of the Leech Collection recordings of live Elgar performances. None of us historical-performances junkies would ever be turned off by missing chunks. We might be frustrated, but still grateful for what exists.

    Finally, from Peter Joelson:

    As far as the ’43 recording is concerned, I reckon that a low price issue with two versions would sell very well.

    First have the extant bits with 4 tracks, then have a second version with the missing bits replaced with the ’52 recording. The best of both worlds. The filled-out version can change track whenever a splice is made, and the notes can give all the details.

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