Karajan's ground-breaking 1960 stereo Decca Fledermaus
In a stunning 21st century XR-remastering
*We assume these two are pseudonyms - "oh my god no" and "beef assault" (beef and salt?) if you read them out loud...
Update: We've been reliably informed that: " “Omar Godknow” is Christopher Raeburn (one of the producers and eventually head of Decca Opera Recordings) and “B. Fasolt” is Terry McEwen, who ran Decca/London’s New York office."
From another correspondent: "[B. Fasolt ]is an anagram of the words "Fat slob" in referring to the Decca's man in the USA - Terry McEwen, later to become General Manager of the San Francisco Opera. The unkind description referred to his rather bulky size. I only ever met him once, a not very memorable experience and he came across as rather grand and with his bulk always seemed to be next to you in a room. His gift for recognising voices can be found on a number of Sutherland/Bonynge recordings where one can hear for example early disc appearances by Samuel Ramey and James Morris, even Horne and Pavarotti. Raeburn was very nice and was the most musically artistic of the Decca team."
REVIEW Original LP issue (excerpt)
Yet another Fledermaus! A dashing, spirited and exuberant Fledermaus which offers some surprises as well. As on the Columbia version of 1955, Karajan again conducts. But here we have Hilde Gueden (as on the Krauss/Decca set of nine years ago) as Rosalinde; and Erika Köth as Adele. The men are very good without in all cases knocking out their opposite numbers. But I am not quite persuaded yet that this Rosalinde or this Adele are going to make me forget my allegiance to La Schwarzkopf and the slightly neater and sweeter Rita Streich in these roles. But Miss Gueden, if she has not quite the same swooping and flouncing grace, is very good indeed at all testing points: "Mein Herr was dachten sic von mir?" and the Czardas. Perhaps there is not quite so much manner in her acting. Or it may be that there are far more "production touches" in general in this new set than in the older one, so that she does not seem so dominating a lady. For instance, when the pretended French Marquis arrives at the party music is playing very faintly in a distant room and as he comes in, unmistakably, there steals on the air a faint faint snatch of La Marseillaise!
The great thing perhaps to emphasise is that this is a very lively peformance of Die Fledermaus itself and the spirit, acting and atmosphere really come streaming across the footlights. The stereo is that much preferable, but both seem to me brilliant.
P. H-W. - The Gramophone, November 1960 (link)
Notes on the recordings:
This recording of Die Fledermaus was chosen by Decca to launch a premium-price opera label, and in its original release included a sequence at the end of the second act, Prince Orlofsky's Gala Ball, in which a series of Decca's star singers not otherwise involved in the recording perform a series of songs, including Summertime, I Could Have Danced All Night, Anything You Can Do, and others. Although this sequence appears on subsequent Decca CD issues, it was excluded from their 1962 SXL issue and is omitted here - as the Gramophone critic noted in 1960, for some listeners it would surely constitute "a very considerable disruption of the kind of mood so far established". It can be found, together with the ballet music and a collection of earlier Strauss recordings by Karajan on Pristine PACO070.
My initial aim in this new transfer and 32-bit XR-remastering was simply to see what 21st century technology might bring to a superb, but now 51-year-old recording, if anything. I was delighted to discover the answer was "quite a lot" - more immediacy, vibrancy and sense of dimension that really does breathe new life to a classic. I also noted carefully the pitching, as Viennese tunings traditionally tend to be slightly sharper than the standard A4=440Hz. The recording came off the Decca LPs at A=449.24, but close analysis of residual electrical hum suggested an original tuning of A=445.67, and my restoration therefore adopts this pitch.
Karajan's 1960 Decca Fledermaus: The start of a revolution in stereo sound
A Pristine Classical Newsletter Editorial
Although stereo recording had been around on an increasingly regular basis at Decca, albeit not at every recording session, from late 1955 (their first full stereo recording was actually made a year earlier in 1954 and has never been issued) onwards, the launch of a new premium opera label in 1960 and the choice of the ever-popular Die Fledermaus to begin it must have encouraged them to really pull out all the stops.
With no less than three producers and two sound engineers working on the project, this was clearly no ordinary recording. And because there's a lot of dialogue and stage acting involved between the musical numbers, a good deal of work must have been put into the creation of the sonic illusions required for stereo drama, at a time when nobody had ever attempted much if any of any of this kind of thing.
Innovation in this kind of field in the UK had often been developed by the BBC - who were later to be the driving force behind NICAM stereo TV broadcasts, digital radio, teletext and other such innovations. But back in 1960 they were still two years away from their first experimental stereo FM transmissions, and everything operated strictly in mono. In fact, regular stereo radio broadcasts for British listeners were still more than a decade away, beginning in 1971, and an outlet for stereo drama wasn't available until 1973.
Radio drama (and its 1960s sibling, drama recorded for LP) is a curious beast. It was often said in the BBC Radio Drama department that the "pictures" on radio were far better than those on TV or film - because the listener was able to create them in his or her head and was thus not restricted to the imagination - and budget - of the set-designers and film director.
By 1960 radio drama in its mono incarnation had been around for a good number of years, and there would have been an enormous amount of expertise to draw upon when producing opera or operetta stage performances for record. But as soon as you throw the concept of stereo into the mix you have to start writing a new rule book - the old way of working in many cases simply no longer applies.
For a start off you're now working very much in three dimensions - yet recording on a virtual "stage" with invisible props and no scenery. A performer walking "past the listener" needs to have left-right perspective as well as front-back perspective - and if they're required to climb stairs whilst performing this needs to sound convincing too, even though stereo doesn't strictly allow for any vertical sonic illusion. Thus the days of simply standing in front of a single microphone and reading ones lines were over - enter instead the new age of complex sonic illusion.
All of this would be much easier if it was simply a matter of recording dialogue - or just the music. But additionally we have to make sure that the positioning of singers matches properly where they were when they were speaking a few moments ago. We also have to consider the acoustic and the staging - moving sometimes rapidly from intimate conversation to big musical numbers yet making sense of this to a sightless listener. Assuming (and I would assume so) that dialogue and musical numbers were not necessarily recorded together, this makes for some pretty complicated and tricky recording production.
Say, for example, a character is involved in a conversation whilst standing and walking to and fro. Perhaps we hear them approach us slightly as they move across the sound-stage. When the orchestra fires up and the character starts singing fifteen seconds later, should they be in the same spot and with the same perspective in which we heard them before? And if they are, but the music is being recorded four days before the speech, how do we get this to knit together so as to convince the listener that they're hearing a continuous performance, even though it took eight days to record? Not easy when all you have is perhaps three or four stereo tape machines to record onto and mix together.
It's no surprise that as a result the occasional edit is obvious, especially in the dialogue, due to the new difficulties of working in stereo. The simple but sudden changing of a voice position in the soundstage, halfway through a sentence, is an instant giveaway. Yet what strikes me most when listening to this stereo Fledermaus is just how well it was done and how successfully-produced it was, at a time when the people involved would have had little experience in this kind of thing, and with some limited resources - I spotted that the "exploding coffee machine" in Act 3 came from the same gunfire sound effect recording Decca had used a couple of years earlier to represent "cannon fire" in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, albeit with less reverberation added!
Some twenty years ago I spend a month or two on a sound engineering training attachment to the BBC's Radio Drama unit. In well-equipped modern drama studios, complete with multi-surfaced staircases, anechoic chamber, gravel, sand and concrete to walk on, highly experienced production teams spent their working lives creating the same kind of stereo drama illusions Decca were working on in 1960 (albeit without the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to worry about).
The main acting took place in front of a large stereo microphone point, with floor markings to help the actors remember where they were supposed to be, both to the left and right of the microphone and to the front or back. A conversation taking place between two characters whilst drinking tea, for example, would require me (as head of tea-cup rattling and other assorted 'spot effects') to creep up behind them in my sock feet, holding appropriate tea cups and spoons and, now on my knees, hold and rattle the sound effect props at precisely the position where the actors' hands would have been had they been drinking tea rather than holding their scripts. It all involved a lot of squeezing in and out of people, whilst trying to work in a confined space and at a precise spot located a foot or two below their mouths!
None of this sort of thing would have been necessary in the mono era of radio drama in 1960. A separate microphone off to one side, or even in another room, would be just fine for spot effects; other sound effects were played in on 45rpm vinyl discs specially recorded by the BBC. If a character moved to centre stage whilst talking it didn't matter from which direction he approached when working in mono - all you'd hear would be a combination of increased volume and decreased ambience around him. Stereo required all sorts of new thinking and planning, and to marry this successfully to music, without the benefits of multitrack tape, computer editing, or even prior experience, is an enormous undertaking when the results are going to be so high profile.
So hats off to Decca in this regard - they did a brilliant job. Of course they had some of the finest in the business working on this project - even today, half a century later, it still sounds good. And now, in this new 32-bit Pristine XR remastering it sounds incredible. Crisp, clean, clear, and with added depth and dimension, you'd think it was recorded yesterday - a testament both to brilliant musicianship and a fantastic recording team, and an astonishingly beautiful marriage of all this with modern music restoration and remastering technology!
Andrew Rose, 2 December 2011
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