New Life for Living Stereo -- The classic RCA series re-mastered for digital and vinyl formats

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The contribution made to recording technology by the major American record labels during the 1950s is easily overlooked today. Companies such as RCA Victor, Columbia, and Capitol all had active record engineering groups (quite separate from the engineers who actually did the work in the studios); much of their activity focused on processes in the plant and developing better materials for plating and pressing LP discs.

These engineering groups also tackled problems in recording electronics and developed low-noise preamplifiers for their own proprietary consoles and transfer systems. RCA, in particular, was active in low-noise recording systems, and early in the stereo era developed a proprietary 30-ips record/playback equalization system that was truly outstanding.

Ironically, many of these improvements were not obvious to the end listener at the time. The vagaries of disc playback often hid them, and we have had to wait nearly 40 years for the CD to show us just how outstanding the original recordings were.

RCA Victor issued its first group of CDs from the Living Stereo series early 1993. As Mercury’s engineers did for their Living Presence series, the RCA engineers went back to the earliest source tapes and re-constituted the original tube electronics for making the transfers to digital.

I recently [ca. early 1993] chatted with John Pfeiffer, the producer for this ambitious reissue program. Pfeiffer’s distinguished career with RCA Records dates back to the 1940s, and his roles with the company have included both technological development and artist and repertoire liaison with such luminaries as Horowitz, Heifetz, and Piatigorsky. He was kind enough to fill me in on the overall project.

By the time the Living Stereo series is complete, it will include the very first RCA stereo recordings made in 1954 and will extend to recordings made in 1962. The original master recordings are carefully re viewed, and all edits are redone. In some cases, edits have been re-executed digitally to make better level matches between adjoining sections, but in no case has any digital method of noise reduction been used. Any damage due to faulty winding or storage conditions is carefully assessed so that proper restorative measures can be made. As you listen to these recordings, you will be amazed at how quiet most of them actually are; this is purely the result of superb early technology.

Original cover art has been used, and all CDs have been fleshed out so that playing times are well in excess of those of the original LP releases. Many of the works in the Living Stereo series have been previously re leased on CD, but every effort is made to avoid duplicating the couplings of previous CD releases. Here are some capsule reviews:

--The LP originals of RCA’s Living Stereo series lived up to their name in ways that weren’t originally apparent.--

Richard Strauss in High Fidelity -- The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, RCA VICTOR 09026-61494-2: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “Ein Heldenleben” were among the very first reel-to-reel stereo tapes issued by RCA in about 1955. There was a Reiner “Zarathustra” in the early ‘60s, but RCA has wisely used Reiner’s far better 1954 version. Both recordings on this disc were made direct to two-track stereo on quarter- inch tape with “minimal” miking, and the glorious ambience is that of the old Orchestra Hall before it was redone in the ‘60s.

A Hi-Fi Spectacular! -- The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, RCA VICTOR 09026-61500-2: The Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony (Symphony No. 3) was always one of RCA’s best high-fidelity demonstration discs, and this transfer shows it in all of its technical excellence. Listen for the “purr” of the 32-foot pedal Violone in softer sections of the final movement. This, along with the other works here, Debussy’s La Mer and Ibert’s “Escales,” were recorded between 1956 and 1959.

Brass & Percussion -- Morton Gould and His Symphonic Band, RCA VICTOR 09026-61255-2: This album of marches contains music mostly of Sousa, Goldman, and Gould. The marches are fresh, never stodgy, and as cleanly recorded as much of what is done today. The recording dates were from 1956 to 1959.

Dvorák & Walton Cello Concertos -- Gregor Piatigorsky, cello; The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, RCA VICTOR 09026-61498-2: Piatigorsky was the dedicatee of the beautiful Walton work, and for those of you who do not know it, this is as good an introduction as any. Recording dates were 1960 for the Dvorák and 1957 for the Walton.

Virgil Fox Encores -- Virgil Fox, the organ of Riverside Church in New York, RCA VICTOR 09026-61251-2: This is a collection of short compositions by Bach, Handel, Schumann, Mulet, and Widor that shows the unique skills of Fox as master of the “orchestral organ.” The sound is a bit dry, but that is the acoustical signature of Riverside Church. The range of the Aeolian-Skinner instrument is immense and is beautifully captured on this disc.

Hi-Fi Fiedler -- The Boston Pops Orchestra, Arthur Fiedler, RCA VICTOR 09026-61497-2: Here are popular works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Chabrier, and Liszt—all played with the special flair of Fiedler and beautifully recorded. Recording dates were 1956, 1958, and 1960.

RCA Victor is not as free with background data as Mercury has been, listing only recording producers, engineers, and dates in the CD booklets. It would be nice to have information on recording venues and any technical data that might be unique to a particular session.

As I write this (Summer 1993) , the second volley of releases in Victor’s Living Stereo series has been announced. From all reports, this series should be as successful as Mercury’s Living Presence releases, since both appeal essentially to the same devoted group of collectors.

There is a lesson here for other major labels. Capitol has some superb early material in their Full Dimensional Stereo series, MCA has the Command and Westminster catalogs to draw from, and Sony now has the Columbia catalog. The Everest catalog seems to be in limbo, which is a shame. And then there is the superb London Decca catalog of the late ‘50s.

It is one thing to have landmark performances available on CD and something al together different to have them packaged as facsimiles of the originals, transferred with the best that technology allows.

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Updated: Saturday, 2015-05-30 4:19 PST