I am often asked why the older recordings are better. By older people usually mean the stereo orchestral and operatic recordings made between the late 1950s and early 1970s. I am not sure that I know the answer, but the observation is true in many respects, and recordings from the golden age of stereo continue to provide stiff competition to modern recordings. The venues and techniques used for some of these older recordings are documented and perhaps reveal the secret of their quality.
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Fritz Reiner
6 March 1954 : Orchestra Hall, Chicago
This recording was made on a single day and still sounds magnificent over 55 years later. It was made with only two spaced microphones. Sometimes the sound is a little edgy in the treble, probably as a result of the microphone type used, but this can easily be tamed. As can be seen, the stage in Chicago is wider than it is deep.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer
21/22 October 1957 : Kingsway Hall, London
Klemperer recorded all the Beethoven symphonies in stereo between 1957 and 1960. I find the Fourth Symphony to be the best of them all in terms of recorded sound. Kingsway Hall, which has now been demolished, had an open clear acoustic, with a sloping floor on which the players were arranged.
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Ballet
London Symphony Orchestra / Pierre Monteux
27-28 April 1959 : Kingsway Hall, London
This recording was also made in Kingsway Hall, the acoustics of which did vary somewhat, for reasons that were never quite clear, but which seem to have had something to do with the storerooms under the hall, which were sometimes empty and sometimes full. The interior of the hall was constructed with wood and plaster and at its best sounded very clear and clean, as here. Monteux was a fine conductor who had given the first performance of this score 47 years earlier.
Stravinsky: The Firebird
London Symphony Orchestra / Antal Dorati
7 June 1959 : Watford Town Hall
This Mercury 3-channel recording was made by the legendary Bob Fine, with three microphones in a hall on the northern outskirts of London, now called the Watford Colosseum. Similar in design to the Walthamstow Hall described below, the clear acoustics make things very easy for the engineer.
Brahms: Symphony No. 3
Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Bruno Walter
27 & 30 January, 1960 : American Legion Hall, Los Angeles
Like Klemperer, Walter recorded most of his repertoire in his last years, beginning in 1958 with the Beethoven symphonies. Many critics have dismissed these recordings, claiming that the orchestra was sub-standard, but I have never agreed. A small number of microphones was used with a relatively small orchestra arranged on the floor of the hall.
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Sinfonia of London / Sir John Barbirolli
17 May 1962 : TheTemple Church, London
To avoid traffic noise, this recording was made at night — by Neville Boyling who engineered many fine EMI recordings. The acoustics of the Temple Church were ideal for the work. Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro which accompanies it on the same LP or CD was recorded in Kingsway Hall in November 1962, as the Temple Church would not have been as appropriate for it. The picture above illustrates this session.
Verdi: Four Sacred Pieces
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus / Carlo Maria Giulini
10, 11, 12, & 13 December 1962 : Kingsway Hall, London
Clear and clean with an uncanny ability to project the sound of the silence in the rests, this recording was also made in Kingsway Hall and has a remarkable dynamic range for analog tape. The layout of the performers was similar to that used for the Vaughan Williams recording discussed below. The picture above does not come from this recording, but shows the hall with a chorus in the upper balcony (not used for this recording) and the orchestra on the floor of the hall.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Solti
spring and autumn of 1964 : Sofiensaal Vienna.
This was the third opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle to be recorded by Decca, and represents the highest recorded quality of the whole series. Vienna’s Sofiensaal, since destroyed by fire, was mostly used as a ballroom. The performers were spread over the floor of the large hall, with off-stage instruments recorded simultaneously in a smaller hall. The sound was judged entirely through the loudspeakers and carefully balanced in stereo on the spot.
Verdi: Don Carlos
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra / Giulini
18-31 August 1970 : Walthamstow Assembly Hall
As can be seen in the above photo, the wooden floor of the main hall of this art deco building is spacious — 97.5 ft.by 60ft. The orchestra has plenty of room and there were no ensemble problems between stage, orchestra and off-stage band.
Vaughan Williams: A Pilgrim’s Progress
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult
November 1970 and January 1971 : Kingsway Hall, London
I confess to having been a member the team that recorded these last two examples. Although more microphones were used in this recording than in earlier recordings in this hall, they were mixed direct to stereo. The orchestra is oriented in the opposite direction from those in the other Kingsway Hall photos shown here, with the soloists and small chorus on stage.
I have not posted any MP3 files because this format cannot do justice to the recordings discussed.
What do these recordings have in common?
1. The conductors were all well-routined and conducting their well-honed repertoire with orchestras that were used to working with them.
2. Mostly the recordings were not made in concert halls with the orchestra seated onstage. Large recording studios and halls allow the orchestra to be seated optimally on the open floor. In particular, the bass instruments gain in fundamental tone when on a solid floor rather than a hollow stage. Often the sections of the orchestra are separated more than they would be on a concert stage. This probably enables the sections to hear themselves better and play optimally, and undoubtedly enables one section to hear another well. When there are problems with ensemble caused by poor acoustics, the players complain loudly about not hearing each other, which was never the case in these recordings. Screens, that would look unsightly in a concert, were used to reflect the sound towards the microphones as necessary.
3. A small number of microphones was used, of a type that was designed in Germany and Austria around 1950 (M40, C12, U47, etc). These microphones do not have a flat frequency response, emphasizing the treble range on axis. When positioned carefully by ear (usually above the players) they produce a solid sound which has a strong fundamental tone.
4. The output of the microphones was mixed directly to stereo. Thus any problems would be noticed at the time of recording.
Does this answer the question? Maybe not, but it is humbling to note that digital technology, while it has enabled the public to hear better quality in the home, has not produced better recordings than those made before its introduction about 30 years ago.
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