Magazine article The Spectator

Music Matchless Mono

Magazine article The Spectator

Music Matchless Mono

Article excerpt

Record companies: if you insist on sending CDs to my home address without so much as a covering note or a press release, well, that's just fine by me. West Hill Radio Archives, I can't say I'd heard of you, but the discs of Toscanini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra that landed on my doormat last week were a lovely surprise, in more ways than one.

Toscanini refused to allow these concerts at the Queen's Hall in June 1935 to be recorded, but thank goodness HMV ignored him. In the case of Elgar's Enigma Variations the result is a revelation. Where Boult takes us on a bracing walk across the Malverns, the Italian maestro plunges us into a witches' sabbath worthy of Berlioz; you almost expect the din to be silenced by a church bell, as in the Symphonie fantastique.

The BBC woodwind don't sound happy at being made to sprint at such an incredible speed, but the audience love it. The final chord brings a roar of delight from the men in starched collars and ladies in feathered hats, and when I listened to the CD with a friend we felt like joining in. It was as if we were there in the hall, which was hit by a bomb during the Blitz, destroying not just the auditorium but also, by all accounts, an acoustic that no other London venue has come close to matching.

The special 'presence' of old recordings has only really struck me since I bought a pair of proper speakers a couple of months ago. (They're Monitor BX5s - the best 500 quid I've ever spent. ) It is easy to think of mono as a means of delivery you have to listen past, as it were - and it's certainly true that the hiss and crackle of the 1920s and 1930s can't easily be removed. All too often, vintage recordings are subjected to clumsy de-hissing by digital cowboys who scrape off tonal bloom as well as surface noise.

The secret is to reduce hiss only to the point where the original notes are undamaged, though it takes a master restorer to perform such microsurgery safely. Naxos, for example, employed the great Mark ObertThorn to filter Artur Schnabel's early 1930s Beethoven sonata cycle, which wasn't brilliantly engineered even by the standards of the time. Thanks to Obert-Thorn, it now sounds better than it ever did on vinyl; lots of the extraneous noise can't be cleaned away, but the neat trick of keeping the hiss going between movements paradoxically helps the listener screen it out. …

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