Magazine article Gramophone

Decca's Phase 4 Returns: James Jolly on Decca's Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series Box, Two Symphony Cycles and a Trio of Fine Reissues

Magazine article Gramophone

Decca's Phase 4 Returns: James Jolly on Decca's Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series Box, Two Symphony Cycles and a Trio of Fine Reissues

Article excerpt

Decca's Phase 4 Stereo was an interesting initiative launched in 1961 that exploited multichannel recording (first in 10 tracks and then in 20). Initially it was used for pop music and sound-effect discs (exploiting the full width of the stereo picture, so ping-pong balls would bounce between the speakers or things would shoot across the 'gap'), but in 1964 classical music received the treatment and a 'Concert Series' was launched. And now Decca has issued a box of 41 CDs drawn from this rich catalogue.

In terms of musical aesthetics, Phase 4 marked a new departure in which fidelity to the concert-hall experience (as championed by, say, Mercury Living Presence with its simple microphone arrangement) was replaced by something much more 'artificial' and interventionist--the requirement for the conductor to balance the sound in situ was no longer so pressing, as the many channels could be remixed later in an additional stage in the process.

Phase 4 was steered with colossal energy by Tony D'Amato, a New Yorker of Italian extraction, who must have been very persuasive as he managed to sign a group of conductors who not only 'got' the concept but entered wholeheartedly into the process. Musicians of the stature of Antal Dorati, Erich Leinsdorf, Charles Munch, Anatole Fistoulari and Leopold Stokowski were soon recording for the label and, as one of the Phase 4 producers Tim McDonald reveals in his lively and enormously entertaining note, 'D'Amato's classical releases began to outsell [Decca's] own label!' But Phase 4 also engaged conductors such as Stanley Black and Bernard Herrmann, who are best remembered for their work in the fields of dance, jazz and film, yet who proved very fine in the lighter classical repertoire (Herrmann was a noted champion of new music and had conducted the premieres of works by Ives, Malipiero, Myaskovsky, Rubbra and others). Another conductor from the 'lighter' music field who was persuaded to record for the label was Arthur Fiedler of Boston Pops fame.

The bulk of the repertoire D'Amato opted for tended to be highly coloured, often rhythmically exciting and sat towards the lighter end of classical--the kind of music you might hear at outdoor summer concerts or pops-type events. It's music that is popular for a very good reason: it's simply great fun to listen to.

It's worth pointing out immediately that the effects employed by the Phase 4 engineers (invariably Arthurs Lilley and Bannister) are musical and generally pretty tasteful. The result is a little like watching a film in 3D: sometimes instruments seem to float out of the orchestra, but rarely distractingly so. (If you listen with headphones, things will obviously strike you with even more immediacy.)

Disc 13, 'The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann' (engineered by Arthur Lilley in Kingsway Hall in 1973) is stunningly recorded and while the sound is certainly not realistic in concert-hall terms, it presents a glorious aural picture. The percussion in The Day the Earth Stood Still positively glistens and the mood of anticipation is evoked with a real master's touch. The slightly drier sound of Decca's West Hampstead Studio No 3 suits Psycho perfectly on a collection of 'Great Movie Thrillers' (Herrmann swapping the NPO for the LPO here). Scores for Mamie, North by Northwest and Vertigo complete the disc. Staying with film, Miklos Rozsa conducts music from his own luscious score for Ben-Hur in a terrific recording (the de luxe brass section of the National Philharmonic is heard to magnificent effect in a Walthamstow Town Hall recording engineered by Stanley Goodall).

Colour certainly spills out of a Khachaturian collection from Stanley Black (Spartacus and Masquerade suites), beautifully played by the LSO. And Black's Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris), supplemented by Herrmann conducting the 'Igot rhythm'' Variations, has lashings of atmosphere and fizz; the Phase 4 engineering certainly comes into its own here. …

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