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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 1 (July-August 1950)

Gramophone Notes

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Gramophone Notes

The importation and marketing of records of serious music in New Zealand is a curious and interesting business. Potentially, there is a very large sale for serious recordings but the distributing agents do not advertize their wares, and at the moment, no publicity—in print at any rate—is given to such records except through dealers' lists. A substantial printed catalogue of local issues is in existence. But owing mainly to import restrictions (a point I shall elaborate further on) over here, and, to a slight extent, production difficulties in Australia where the discs are normally processed, it has become a quite unreliable guide to what is actually available. Against this, there are fairly regular arrivals of imported English recordings which are nominally additions to the local catalogue, but unless you know a friendly dealer who will give ample warning of the arrival of new releases, you will very likely miss some good issues, since once the original stocks are sold there is little hope of getting replacements.

Gone are the days when you could walk into a record shop serene in the knowledge that any record listed in the local catalogue could be, either obtained from stock or got from the warehouse within a day or so. During recent years demand for records of good music has exceeded stipply, and in a country like New Zealand on the outside edge of the world, this is a serious matter. There are still some people, of course, who cherish a prejudice against recorded music, but it is undeniable that without recordings important categories of music could never be heard here. We have a National Orchestra certainly, but any devotee of orchestral music could name dozens of works which our orchestra, for sheer lack of numbers, is not yet able to play. Chamber music is slightly more accessible, but there is still not enough of it to satisfy the serious listener; as for opera and choral music, the point does not need labouring.

In the early 1930's the doom of the gramophone was confidently prophesied. Radio was invading every home. Who was going to spend precious money on records or radiograms when the best records could be heard well reproduced from a broadcasting station? Sales of records dropped considerably in those days, and it was only the more strong-minded music lover who realized that even the best radio set with a wide coverage of stations was no true substitute for a wellchosen, personal record collection. The turning-point came just before the war, with the introduction of a detached turntable which could be plugged into any radio set. If was now possible to have electrical reproduction of one's own recordings without the heavy expense of a full scale radiogram. From that time on, sales of ‘classical’ records began to rise, and the rapidly increasing scope of the gramophone catalogue gave promise of a golden age to come. Better and cheaper reproduction increased demand, and recording companies added quickly to their lists of works. But in 1938, the very year when the tide of demand began to turn, the importation of records was restricted. And unfortunately for us the annual supply of records remains, to this day, battened down to 1938 values.

Black and white wood cut of seated woman surrounded by a butterfly, flowers and L.P. records, by E. Mervyn Taylor.

All this, it must be remembered, went on without any kind of advertizing or publicity for records (for why should importers advertize what they can't get?); and here we are with an immense appetite fed with only the most meagre rations. Unless people are in regular touch with their dealers they have little chance of knowing what new records are being issued. It is quite mistaken to suppose that any attractive recording heard on the radio can subsequently be bought at your local shop.

The actual technique of recording has been improving by leaps and bounds. Around 1926 we were startled by the first successful records made by the electrical process; and truly amazing they were, compared with the results from the old acoustic method. The next advance, roughly a decade later, came with the introduction of what was known as the dynamic microphone—an innovation which coincided with the great slump in record sales of the mid-'thirties, and so passed unnoticed except by enthusiasts. There was a further advance, which may conveniently be dated from the end of the war, when even more page 21 page 22 startling progress towards realism was made by recordings of extended frequency. All these improvements were accompanied by the advent of light-weight pickups, improved speaker units, and a flood of records made under the improved process.

Now from America comes news of the next great innovation in recorded music—the production of long-playing ‘microgroove’ discs which contain almost half an hour's music on a single 12in. side. The capacity of these new recordings (playing at 33 1–3 revolutions a minute as against the present standard of 78) can best be gauged by the fact that American buyers, with the proper equipment to play the wonder records, can now hear the whole of La Bohème on two 12in. discs, and the whole of the Bach B minor Mass on three! Furthermore these discs are practically unbreakable, being made of plastic.

There are murmurs of the introduction to the New Zealand market of playing units adjustable to the low speed for microgroove discs, so that the wise buyer will eventually fee able to play his normal records as well as the new long-playing ones when they become available. But I should emphasize that there is so far no indication that we will get such records here in the near future. (At the moment of writing, they have not yet been marketed in Great Britain.)

These random notes on records and reproduction are an introduction to a regular page of criticism which will appear in Design Review. I propose to review more interesting records of serious music as they become available in New Zealand. But although it may be tantalizing I think we should also look at a few of the best recordings which aren't released here, recordings such as the new French Tales of Hoffman, for example.

I am aware that criticism of this kind is, of necessity, personal; it would be pointless and insipid if it were otherwise. And I am aware that ‘the only part of music that really matters is the part that you cannot write about’. But if we take the quality of the music for granted, and look into the quality of reproduction and the standard of performance. I think these short notes will at least have the virtue of publishing a little of what is being recorded and examining how it is being done.

The most appealing vocal record I have heard for some time might easily be overlooked because of the unfamiliarity of titles and artist. It is a small HMV disc; number DA page 23 page break 1913, and contains El miror de la maja, by Granados, and Hablame de Amores, by Fuste, sung by a soprano with the fine-sounding name of Victoria de los Angeles. This singer appears to be the only serious Spanish artist to become known internationally since the establishment of Franco's Government. She has broadcast for the BBC and recently made one guest appearance at Covent Garden as Mimi in La Bohème. As to her excellence there will be no two opinions, and her supremely musicianly singing of two haunting songs is allied to a most glorious voice. Gerald Moore, sounding as though he had played nothing but Spanish music all his life, accompanies her. The only other los Angeles record available here at the moment is of two dramatic arias from Falla's opera, La Vida Breve (HMV DB 6702). This is on a much larger scale and seems to me to establish her as a great singer. The music is of memorable beauty.

A new recording of Mozart's last and perhaps greatest symphony (that in C major, K.551, generally called ‘the Jupiter’) has arrived to join the existing versions by Bruno Walter and Sir Thomas Beecham. The latest set is in the ‘plum label’ HMV category and is thus cheaper in price than the other two. The performance by the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Bohm is a good one, which comes to life after a slightly disappointing first movement. The symphony goes comfortably on to seven sides—the last side has an unusually deliberate rendering of the Impresario overture. If you want a good average performance you should be well satisfied with this; but if you want the best, even though it costs more, you should try to hear the Bruno Walter recording, made just before the war with the same orchestra. It may seem heresy to say so, but Sir Thomas Beecham's version of this symphony is dull as a recording and even, in some respects, as a performance. Numbers of the new Bohm set are HMV C7759/62 (automatic sequence only).

Black and white wood cut by E. Mervyn Taylor of musical instruments.