Decca’s legendary Phase 4 series started off in 1961 with a number of gimmicky titles designed to showcase their bold new approach to stereo. The company had already set new sonic standards with their Ernest Ansermet/Orchestre de la Suisse Romande recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s; those pioneering efforts, reissued countless times, sound wonderful in their most recent re-masters. In contrast to that emphasis on high seriousness – both musical and technical – Phase 4 was aimed at a broader, less demanding audience in search of aural excitement and adventure. Indeed, the word ‘Spectacular’ appeared in both the Phase 4 logo and in several album titles.
In 1964 Decca launched their Phase 4 Concert Series with a string of safe bets. These included Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite with Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra (PFS 4036) and an all-Tchaikovsky disc from the same ensemble conducted by Robert ‘Bob’ Sharples (PFS 4044). The LFO, a mainstay of the Phase 4 project, was set up in the 1950s as Decca’s ‘house orchestra’. Meanwhile, as composers, arrangers and band leaders both Sharples and Black had an established reputation that made them an ideal ‘bridge’ between the light catalogue and the more serious one. Black is particularly well represented in this new Decca box; Sharples leads the charge in the bonus disc, Battle Stereo (PFS 4034).
Once the Concert Series had gained traction Decca introduced some heavyweight conductors, among them Antal Doráti, Leopold Stokowski, Arthur Fiedler and Bernard Herrmann; they hired high-profile orchestras too, notably the Royal Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia and the London Symphony. Even their roster of soloists improved, with mezzo Marilyn Horne singing excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen, violinist Ruggiero Ricci in Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos, and pianist Ilana Vered in Mozart, Stravinsky and the faddish Yellow River Concerto.
So, what was special about Phase 4, which came to an end in the late 1970s? Decca made use of 10-channel recording equipment – later increased to 20 channels – that allowed a great deal of aural manipulation; this wasn’t confined to the simple ‘ping-pong’ effect of passing sounds from one speaker to the other – stereo was still a novelty in the early 1960s – but extended to spatial trickery as well. The results were mixed to say the least, and in later years Phase 4 became a synonym for weird balances and all manner of sonic silliness. In mitigation collectors agree that the quality of Phase 4 pressings was better – and more consistent - than most.
Many of these Phase 4 releases have appeared on CD over the years - Decca even released a Phase 4 Experience sampler – so this nicely packaged tribute set is long overdue. The discs and chunky booklet - contained in a sturdy, top-loading box – are presented in replica LP sleeves. That includes the notes on the back, which are all but impossible to read without a magnifying glass. (I created PDFs, which are a doddle to read on-screen.) Like most things from the 1960s the Phase 4 artwork is terribly dated; indeed, the designers seem to have run riot with their Big Book of Funky Fonts. As for some of the album titles – The Immortal Works of Ketèlbey, for instance – they’re somewhat cheesy. Still, it’s all good fun, and a nostalgia trip to boot.
Several of the original LP programmes – such as the Sousa marches – are reprised exactly on the corresponding CDs. That’s fine in selected cases, but in others Decca have combined programmes to make full use of the silver disc’s longer playing times. Some of the choices are a little odd; for example, Horne’s Carmen is now bundled with Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, her then hubby Henry Lewis the only common link. The upside is that the CD plays for 84:22, which is at the very edge of the Red Book spec. Others spin for 70 minutes or more.
Rather curiously the LPs of Herrmann conducting his Hitchcock scores (CD 18) and Miklós Rózsa his music for Ben Hur (CD 29) aren’t listed in the US catalogue as being part of the Concert Series; ambiguities aside, both discs - highly regarded by lovers of the genre - are most welcome here. And if film music, show tunes and themed compilations don’t appeal there’s always the option of something more substantial; this includes Doráti’s Carmina Burana (CD 8), Anatole Fistoulari’s Swan Lake (CDs 15/16), a Mahler First from Erich Leinsdorf (CD 23) and a Beethoven Ninth under Stokowski (CD 30). The series even dabbled in the more accessible bits of Ives and Messiaen; only Ives is represented in this box (CD 12).
Rather than dip into this set in a random fashion or give each disc a capsule review we plan to publish eight instalments of five reviews each; these will appear on Fridays, starting 3 October 2014. Readers will be alerted to the latest tranche via the ‘New and Recent Articles’ section of MusicWeb International’s home page; I will flag them up on my Twitter feed as well.
Enjoy the ride!
Contents & Review Links
CD 1 Sousa Marches
CD 2 Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris & Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Black/Herrmann)
CD 3 Khachaturian: Spartacus, Masquerade & Gayaneh Suites (Black)
CD 4 Spectacular Dances for Orchestra (Black)
CD 5 Ravel: Bolero; Borodin: Polovtsian Dances; Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol; Tchaikovsky: Capriccio italien (Black)
CD 6 Liszt: Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto 2 (Davis)
CD 7 Dvorak & Kodaly (Doráti)
CD 8 Orff: Carmina Burana (Doráti)
CD 9 Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf; Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Doráti)
CD 10 Respighi: La boutique fantasque (Doráti)
CD 11 The Magnificent Voice of Eileen Farrell
CD 12 Fiedler Encores
CD 13 Gershwin Overtures (Fiedler)
CD 14 Johann Strauss II: Waltzes; Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite (Fiedler)
CD 15/16 Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake (Fistoulari)
CD 17 Tchaikovsky & Mendelssohn Violin Concertos (Ricci)
CD 18 The Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers (Herrmann)
CD 19 The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann (Herrmann)
CD 20 Bizet: Carmen (excerpts); Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Horne/Lewis)
CD 21 Beethoven: Symphony No. 6; Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Lewis)
CD 22 Strauss: Tod und Verklärung; Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto 3 (Margarlit/Maazel)
CD 23 Mahler: Symphony No. 1 (Leinsdorf)
CD 24 Americana (Black)
CD 25 Bizet: Carmen & L'Arlésienne Suites (Munch)
CD 26 Offenbach: Gaîté parisienne; Respighi: Pines & Fountains of Rome (Munch)
CD 27 Flamenco puro ‘live’ (Peña)
CD 28 The Immortal Works of Ketèlbey & Violin Favourites (Rogers/Sakonov)
CD 29 Rózsa: Ben Hur (Rózsa)
CD 30 Beethoven: Egmont overture, Symphony 9 (Stokowski)
CD 31 Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Ballet des sylphs; Ravel: Fanfare from ‘L'éventail de Jeanne’ (Stokowski)
CD 32 Mussorgsky orch. Stokowski; Tchaikovsky: 1812 overture (Stokowski)
CD 33 Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Capriccio espagnol; Borodin: Polovtsian Dances (Stokowski)
CD 34 Tchaikovsky: Symphony 5; Glazunov: Violin Concerto (Stokowski)
CD 35 Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet (Stokowski)
CD 36 Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Stokowski)
CD 37 Stokowski plays Wagner
CD 38 Stokowski: Orchestral Transcriptions
CD 39 Yellow River Concerto; Mozart: Piano Concerto 21 (Vered)
CD 40 Beethoven: Piano Sonata ‘Waldstein’; Schubert: ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy; Stravinsky: Petrouchka (Vered)
CD 41 Battle Stereo (Sharples)