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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Accidental Stereo
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium-Personages with Long Ears-The Cuckoo in the Heart of the Woods (1886) [4:10]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1913): Introduction [3:28]: Games of the Rival Tribes [4:05]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 Pathétique (1893) [44:02]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Boléro (1928) [13:30]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cockaigne Overture (In London Town), Op.40: conclusion only (1900-01) [4:47]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (Saint-Saëns, Stravinsky)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky (Tchaikovsky, Ravel)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Elgar (Elgar)
rec. 1929, Academy of Music, Philadelphia (Saint-Saëns, Stravinsky); 1930, Symphony Hall, Boston (Tchaikovsky, Ravel); April 1933, Abbey Road No.1 Studio, London (Elgar)

The very rare cases of pre-war ‘accidental stereo’ first came to light 30 years ago when it was realized that two 78rpm recording turntables were very occasionally run from their own separate microphones. When both issued sides could be located – these are the only ones to have been traced – and properly synchronized (not an easy matter) the result was a purely unintended ‘stereo’ effect.

The examples were recorded between 1929 and 1933. To demonstrate the difference between mono and accidental stereo, this release takes three opportunities to switch decisively between them, starting in one and then switching to the other. This especially, though not uniquely, impressive in the case of Koussevitzky’s 1930 Pathétique. It had been believed that the fourth side of this set was an example of two different takes and that could be an example of the stereo effect, but it turns out not to be the case: mislabeling caused the confusion and the sides are in fact identical. Both the extracts from the Rite of Spring, recorded just a few days earlier in the Academy of Music, are in stereo and stay so. The switching occurs in the Tchaikovsky and Ravel’s Bolero. There’s no question that, quite clearly, no one in 1929 would have expected to hear the selections from Carnival of the Animals like this. However, conversely, looking back in time, few would expect to be able, via synchronization, to hear the gorgeous sounds here, so full of spatial depth, in Stokowski and the Philadelphia’s reading.

Koussevitzky’s reading of the Pathétique was, famously, one of his calling cards. Anyone who has read Becoming a Musician, the autobiography of violist George Norwood Humphrey, a long-time member of the Boston Symphony, will know how hard a taskmaster Koussevitzky was, but the listener, removed by 85 years from the blood, sweat and tears of Symphony Hall rehearsals - and the often bitter post-concert reprisals – can but wonder at this highly personalized, galvanizing reading. The whole of the second movement is in stereo, the whole of the finale in mono. The first and third movements switch from one to the other. It’s especially effective when going from mono to stereo, as in the opening movement. His driving account of Boléro, which was recorded at the same time as the Tchaikovsky, makes an impression almost as impressive. Finally there is the Elgar’s conducting of his Cockaigne overture, or rather its last 78rpm side where once again the depth is the startling factor, the sound very plausibly open.

For those unconvinced by the concept of unintended consequences this disc offers no more than the aural truth in its frank unveiling of a recording phenomenon that has preserved some gramophonic classics in staggeringly good sound.

Jonathan Woolf



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