Dvorák • Symphony No.8 (No.4) in G major, Scherzo Capriccioso

London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész conducting
Decca/Speakers Corner SXL6044
Single 180-gram LP



Strauss • Elektra

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti conducting
Decca/Speakers Corner 354-5
Double 180-gram LP set



by Roy Gregory | December 13, 2012

he challenge facing any reissue house lies in selecting titles that will sell. Superb sonics or reputation are not enough; any reissue must capture the imagination of enough members of the public to fund the enterprise. On the face of it, that makes Speakers Corner’s selection of the Solti Elektra, a double-disc opera set, a high-risk gamble. After all, in the subset of record buyers who listen to classical music, opera buffs are a further subset -- and a pretty small one at that. Nor would Elektra rate at the top of many operatic popularity polls.

But you don’t stay in business as long as Speakers Corner without learning a thing or two about your audience and the market in general. Within the Japanese and German markets, certain subsections of the opera repertoire enjoy a special popularity. Japanese label King Super Analogue successfully reissued the entire Solti/Wagner Ring and here we see another Solti tour de force given a 180-gram makeover. But Speakers Corner have hedged their bets even further. Not only is the single-act Elektra a double (as opposed to triple) album, the Decca recording is also the undisputed first choice in terms of the performance. To paraphrase the billboards, "Birgit Nilssohn is Elektra!"

A typically bloody Greek tragedy, full of revenge, much wailing and rending of garments, the spilling of much blood and the obligatory deaths of the principle characters -- not to mention the almost mandatory mistaken identity and adultery -- the melodrama is heightened under Solti’s direction with numerous superimposed sound effects, a technique that not everybody will approve of, but which reflects both the demands of the score and the nature of the drama itself. It certainly makes for electrifying listening -- if you’ll excuse the pun. The resulting sound, a triumph for producer John Culshaw, is explosively dynamic with the kind of holographic spatial coherence, the sense of actors on a stage, their placement and movement that only opera recordings seem to achieve.

I have two original sets in my collection, an early wide-band and a later narrow-band, and the Speakers Corner reissue bests them both. The later pressing is easily dispatched, and while the earlier one offers greater immediacy and sheer jump than the reissue, the Speakers Corner pressing more than makes up for them with its sheer refinement and instrumental weight and presence. Nilssohn’s naturally bright tone can get edgy on the Decca (it is an edgy role), but the smoothness of the 180-gram discs elevates the dramatic impact of her singing, preventing any breakup from intruding on the performance. It’s especially welcome throughout the recognition scene (where Orestes finally realizes that this is his own sister in front of him), in which Nilssohn tries to soften her strident tone, so appropriate to the hysteria of the rest of the play. Less comfortable here, her odd flat note and lack of security are again helped out by the additional body and tonal purity of the heavier discs, as opposed to the slightly etched clarity of the Deccas, which leave her flaws all too clearly revealed. The results might be more accurate, but the Speakers Corner is more convincing, more dramatic and ultimately more satisfying. Throw in a perfect facsimile of the original box and libretto and this reissue has neatly stepped in at the top of my own Elektra playlist.

That said, there’s no question that, despite the sonic and musical brilliance of this set, it’s an unlikely impulse purchase. You’ll either be familiar with Elektra or you won’t, but either way you’ll know whether this is an essential addition to your collection or not. There are certainly easier ways to dip your toe in operatic waters, but for the diehard fan, this box set will be a welcome release indeed.

In stark contrast, the Dvorák symphonic cycle recorded in the early ‘60s by the young István Kertész and the LSO has long been one of the musical jewels in the Decca catalog’s crown. The compositions are extremely popular, while the readings are expressive, energetic, exciting and beautifully judged throughout. This disc is one of the stars of the show. The vivid and spacious sound is at once sumptuous and explosively impressive, while the pairing of the (opening) Scherzo Capriccioso followed by the 8th Symphony makes this an even more concert-like experience. So no qualms whatsoever over the choice of material; the only questions are whether Speakers Corner have accessed good enough tapes and whether or not they’ve done their normal superb job on the cutting and pressing. The answer to both is a resounding "yes," and I suspect that this disc is about to rise to the top of their best-sellers list, carried there by a combination of the superb musical quality and the popular, entertaining and accessible program.

My original copy is a fairly undistinguished, narrow-band 4/5, although it does have the distinction of being a New Malden pressing, indicated by the "shoulders" that flank the label. These are more often found on Argo pressings. I’ve always liked the sound of the New Malden pressings, finding it warmer and more substantial than some Decca pressings, and this one is no exception. Interestingly, my original (purchased in 1975) actually uses the RIAA rather than the Decca EQ curve. Despite its lowly standing in the great pantheon of collectability, the sound is remarkable for its presence, energy, natural orchestral perspective and sheer musical drive, qualities that suite this dramatic and melodic music perfectly. In comparison, the Speakers Corner (which is cut at a slightly lower level) matches the presence and energy of the original, but is more detailed, more refined and offers quieter surfaces in the bargain. While neither has the reach-out-and-touch stereo definition of some Decca recordings, the Speakers Corner delivers noticeably better focus and separation, coupled to its greater bottom-end transparency and definition. Bass textures and placement are clearer, percussion is even more explosive and more precisely placed, making this an excellent value reissue.

Secondhand examples are pretty plentiful, reflecting the popularity of the original disc, and are comparatively cheap by early Decca standards, but the Speakers Corner offers a risk-free alternative that it’s hard to ignore. However, in addition to the individual album, which should be a staple in any classical collection, I’d also make a case for seeking out the box set of the complete cycle. This was available in at least two versions, Decca D6D7 and SXLD 6515-21, mainly dating from the early ‘70s. The boxes normally contain later pressings, but as secondhand buys they offer the appeal that several of the seven discs may well be virtually or completely unplayed. They are also available at seriously attractive prices, giving you the perfect opportunity to delve into these spectacular readings of the Dvorák canon. Then, having settled on your favorites, you can seek out the earlier single pressings for even better sound.

István Kertész died in 1973, at the tragically early age of 43, in a swimming accident while on holiday. These wonderful recordings stand as testament to just what the world of classical music lost with his passing, but also allow us to marvel at his technical mastery and also his emotional connection with this music -- none more so than with the remarkable 8th Symphony.

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