Decca - a minority view

Reader be advised: talking about the Decca Record Company, at first I rant a bit against the, to my taste, often 'over-produced' Decca Sound, but then I do recommend some really outstanding stereo recordings of vocal music the company made 1954 through 1955. If you're absolutely convinced that you like the sound of Decca, please feel free to skip my rant and go directly to my recommendations - or skip these here musings altogether.

Here's a minority view. After listening, for decades now, to scores and scores of stereo records from the heyday of classical music on LP (1958 - 1972), I have time and again found that I don't particularly like the so called 'Decca Sound': the typical sound produced by prominent producers and engineers of the Decca Record Company. I find it to be often edgy, over-produced, and just plain wrong when compared to the experience of actual performances at the opera house or in the concert hall.

The typical Decca recording draws too much attention to itself

With woodwinds almost always too prominent and the vexing goings-on of continuous 'stereo production', the typical Decca record draws way too much attention to the recording as such, making it - for me, at least - very difficult to really appreciate music and interpretation. Decca records may be the stuff of engineering legend - and I'm sure they often are - but for me, their production values more often than not stand in the way of the relaxed enjoyment of classical music that I seek.

My purpose here

So, what I'm trying to do here, dear collectors, is to steer you away from investing too much of your valuable time and money in records manufactured by the Decca Record Company. This does not mean, of course, that you should spurn the label altogether. Rest assured: it wasn't all bad. During the fifties, Decca had some truly magnificent singers and conductors under contract. Furthermore, in the mid-fifties, real stereo 'production' was - thankfully - still quite a limited affair.

Which Decca records to collect?

What records by Decca should you be looking for then, when starting a collection of classical music on LPs? Personally, I would urge the beginning collector to seek out some truly magnificent recordings of vocal music made by Decca 1954 through 1955.

Experimental, simple stereo

In 1954 and 1955 Decca was still experimenting with stereophonic sound.
Recordings made during these two years were not overproduced at all. It would have been impossible, really, to over-produce anything during these formative years of stereo, since recordings had to be made using simple microphone set-ups and a rather robust stereo mixer that literally was one-of-a-kind.

During the first years of the new stereophonic technique, Decca staff typically set up their microphones in 'trees' of three. In every 'tree', one microphone was used to capture the left of the soundstage, one the right, one the middle. The stereo mixer in use was an experimental one, built by engineer Roy Wallace, Decca's pioneer of stereo. His mixer (the 'ST2') used two banks of three inputs, so that the machine could accommodate up to two 'trees' of microphones, or one tree and some supporting microphones, called 'outriggers' or 'spot-mikes.

Equipped with the simple design of the 'Decca tree' and the ST2 mixer, there was, during 1954-55, very little opportunity of intervening too much with the stereophonic sound as it was being caught on tape. Moreover: over-the-top interventionism was anathema to Decca producer Victor Olof, a man with a keen ear for balance. Olof passed his sensibilities on to his young assistant, Peter Andry. It was Andry who, at recording sessions of several important works, took it upon himself to supervise the production of stereo, while his boss looked after the mono. On most occassions, Roy Wallace acted as Peter Andry's stereo engineer. Honorable mention must further be made of the conductor-turned-producer James Walker, who, just like Olof and Andry, at the start of his carreer as a Decca producer strove to realise perfect balance, although, to be sure, he did like to tinker with the sound rather more. It was Walker, by the way, who produced Decca's very first stereo recordings of orchestral music in 1954.

In 1956 Victor Olof rather spectacularly left Decca to join one of its most important rivals, the British company His Masters Voice. Peter Andry quickly followed suit. After this defection, at the Decca Record Company soon John Culshaw was in charge of important stereo productions. Starting a little cautious in 1957 - as for instance his production of the Act III Walküre with Kirsten Flagstad shows - Culshaw, who really loved 'producing' sound to the hilt, went all-out in 1958, when he made the first installment (Rheingold) of what would become 'his' Ring of the Nibelung, in a new and typical, positively overblown sound.

Culshaw really wanted recordings to outclass live performances - a crazy concept to be sure, but one that strangely enough seemed plausible to many critics and members of the record buying public when, at the end of the fifties, stereophonic sound was marketed as bringing 'new' and 'exciting' experiences. Sadly, in his quest for intimidating 'perfection', producer Culshaw was aided and abetted by the Decca engineers, who were a little too keen on constantly 'improving' their sound.

Looking out for affordable pressings

Now, shall we go on now to the recordings I would like to recommend? Not quite yet. Let me first spend a few words on different Decca pressings so as to help collectors who are on the look-out for affordable ones.

Decca in the US: the 'London' and 'Richmond' labels

Most of the recordings on my list of recommendations were, at the beginning of the stereo LP era, issued in the United States under the 'London' label. The British Decca Record Company was forced to use this alternative label because an American firm owned the trademark 'Decca' in the US. London LPs were manufactured in England and are, in fact, simply Decca records stamped with a 'London' label. This means London records sound as well (or as bad) as records that sport the 'Decca' label.
London records typically were given catalogue numbers prefixed with the letters OS or OSA. With an eye on the numerous affluent Americans who were from the start quite into everything 'stereo', Decca produced their London records in large quantities. They are therefore nowadays relatively easy to acquire, and often quite cheap. Collectors should pick them up whenever they can.

Now some of the Decca recordings that I recommend, were made available in the US relatively late: 1967 or after. They appeared either in the London budget Stereo Treasury Series (STS-prefix), or were issued in the ultra budget 'Richmond' series (prefixed SR or SRS). London STS pressings present a mixed bag: sometimes the LPs sound quite alright, sometimes truly awful. Richmond records are almost always iffy - if possible, I'd avoid them.

Decca in the UK

The recordings I recommend were, of course, also issued in the United Kingdom, as true 'Decca' products, bearing the company's name on the disc-label. First editions in the UK were sometimes published at the beginning of the stereo LP era, in the well-known and much sought after series prefixed SXL. Sometimes they appeared at a relatively late date - 1966 and after - on the Decca budget labels 'Ace of Diamonds' (prefix SDD) or 'Grand Opera Series' (GOS). Please note that SDD and GOS pressings are of the same high quality as the more expensive SXL.

If possible, collect SDD, GOS and OS, OSA editions

Original SXL editions can be crazy expensive, but SDD, GOS and OS, OSA or STS can normally be bought cheap. My advise to collectors is to steer clear of the overpriced SXLs and whenever possible go for SDD GOS, and OS, OSA editions, with some STS thrown in.


RECOMMENDED DECCA RECORDINGS OF VOCAL MUSIC, 1954-1955


Five batches

On, then, at last, to my list of recommended recordings of vocal works, made by Decca 1954 through 1955. As will become apparent,while compiling my list I have not entirely respected my own cut-off point; I smuggled in one recording from 1956, and one from 1957.

The recommended recordings are grouped into five batches. Per recording I first of all list: the year and month of recording; the recording venue; the recording producer ('Pr.') and stereo balance engineer ('Eng.'). The rest of the listing speaks for itself, I think


I. Suzanne Danco and Ernest Ansermet interpret French music, 1954

The first batch of worthwhile Decca recordings consists of stereo experiments from 1954, all made with the wonderful Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco and maestro Ernest Ansermet. Suzanne Danco (1911-2000) was one of the most versatile sopranos of the 20th century. Her command of different styles allowed her to perform songs, oratoria and opera ranging from Mozart to Stravinsky, Honegger, and Berg. Her career peaked in the forties and fifties, when recording techniques were rapidly improving. It is our luck that she frequently worked with Ernest Ansermet, the Swiss maestro with whom Roy Wallace recorded some of Decca's very first stereo experiments. Listen to Danco's impeccable diction and sure sense of style in the warm, well-balanced recordings listed below. They are are an absolute must for lovers of fine singing, especially in the French repertoire.

May, 1954; Victoria Hall, Geneva; James Walker Pr., Roy Wallace Eng.
Debussy: Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
Suzanne Danco (soprano); Nancy Wough &
Lise de Gontmollin (contraltos); L’Union Chorale de la Tour-de-Peilz; Suisse Romande Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet
*First US edition December 1959: London OSA 1104
*First UK edition February 1972: Decca SDD 314
Cover of SDD pictured in figure 1

Oct-Nov, 1954; Victoria Hall, Geneva; Peter Andry Pr., Roy Wallace Eng.
Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortilèges
Gisèle Bobillier, Suzanne Danco, Adrienne Migliette, Geneviève Touraine, Flore Wend (sopranos); Marie-Lise de Montmollin (mezzo-soprano), Juliette Bise
(contralto), Lucien Lovano
 (bass), Pierre Mollet (baritone) 
Hugues Cuénod (tenor); Geneva Motet Choir; Suisse Romande Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet
*First UK edition June 1960: Decca SXL 2212
*First US edition March 1968: Richmond SR 33086
Cover of SXL in figure 2

Oct-Nov, 1954; Victoria Hall, Geneva; Peter Andry Pr., Roy Wallace Eng.
Ravel: Shéhérazade
 & Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Suzanne Danco (soprano); Suisse Romande Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet
*First UK edition April 1971: Decca GOS 603 (both works on one unnumbered side)
*First US edition June 1972: London STS 15155-6 (part of a box-set)
The cover of the mono edition of this recording (LXT 5031, March 1955) is pictured in figure 3; the cover of the GOS 602-3 box in figure 15


II. Four Major Mozart Operas, recorded 1955 for the upcoming Jubilee

The second batch of recommended recordings consists of the four major Mozart operas, all recorded in 1955 and originally released in mono at the end of that year, so as to be available during the upcoming Mozart Jubilee of 1956. The recordings feature some of the greatest singers of the past century. Listen, for instance, to the sopranos Lisa della Casa and Hilde Gueden, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, tenors Anton Dermota and the under-recorded Léopold Simoneau: listen also to basses Cesare Siepi and Kurt Böhme and baritones Walter Berry and Alfred Poell. Let me make special mention of Suzanne Danco, who gives us her Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro. All recordings feature the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The operas are conducted by Karl Böhm (twice), Josef Krips, and the incomparable Erich Kleiber in his one and only stereo recording.
The recordings of Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni were hailed as masterful interpretations directly upon release and have since remained in the catalogue. The Così fan Tutte and Zauberflöte are still waiting for the acclaim they really deserve but are, at least, currently available again, after having been discontinued for quite some time.
Lovers of opera, be advised: all four recordings present an utterly relaxed and yet strangely incisive style of Mozart performance, now lost forever. These sets should be avidly sought out by all serious record collectors.

May 1955; Redoutensaal, Vienna; Peter Andry, James Brown Eng.
Mozart: Così fan tutte
Anton Dermota (tenor); Erich Kunz (baritone); Paul Schöffler (bass-baritone); Lisa Della Casa, Emmy Loose (sopranos); Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano); Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm
*First US edition November 1958: London OSA 1312
*First UK edition September 1967: Decca GOS 543-5
Cover of box GOS 543-5 pictured in figure 4. To avoid having to look at the sub-standard artwork of this box, I have decided to keep my stereo records in the sleeves of the mono edition: LXT 5107-9 (first published December 1955); figure 5 pictures the first of these.

May 1955; Redoutensaal, Vienna; Peter Andry Pr., James Brown Eng.
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
Kurt Böhme, Harald Pröglhöf (basses); Léopold Simoneau, Erich Majkut, August Jaresch (tenors); Paul Schöffler, Walter Berry (bass-baritones); Wilma Lipp, 
Hilde Gueden, Judith Hellwig, Emmy Loose (sopranos); Christa Ludwig, Hilde Rössl-Majdan (mezzo-sopranos); Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm
*First UK edition June 1960: Decca SXL 2215-17
*First US edition October 1967: Richmond SRS 63507
Cover of SXL-booklet in figure 6

June 1955; Redoutensaal, Vienna; Peter Andry Pr., James Brown Eng.
Mozart, Don Giovanni
Fernando Corena, Cesare Siepi, Kurt Böhme (basses); Anton Dermota (tenor); Walter Berry (baritone); Suzanne Danco, Lisa Della Casa, Hilde Gueden (sopranos); Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Josef Krips
*First US edition September 1958: London OSA 1401
*First UK edition May 1959: Decca SXL 2117-20
Cover of SXL-box in figure 7

June 1955; Redoutensaal, Vienna; Peter Andry Pr., James Brown Eng.
Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro
Suzanne Danco, Lisa Della Casa, Anny Felbermayer, Hilde Gueden
(sopranos); Hilde Rössl-Majdan (mezzo-soprano); Alfred Poell (baritone); Fernando Corena, Harald Pröglhöf, Cesare Siepi
 (basses); Murray Dickie, Hugo Meyer-Welfing (tenors); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Erich Kleiber
*First US edition September 1958: London OSA 1402
*First UK edition: February 59: London SXL 2087-90
Cover of SXL-box in figure 8


III. The Ultimate Wagner Ring - Keilberth in Bayreuth, 1955, live

Having documented, during May and June 1955, an old, venerated and -alas!- already disappearing style of Mozart singing at the Vienna State Opera, the Decca engineers packed their bags and went to Bayreuth, where in July and August of the same year they caught a new style of Wagner interpretation on tape, recording the entire Ring des Nibelungen as conducted by Joseph Keilberth. Although serious copyright-issues had still to be cleared, the Decca crew enthusiastically threw itself into the the famed Festspielhaus. They used wo Decca trees: one in the pit, to capture the orchestra, and one attached to the above-stage lighting beams, to capture the voices. With this simple but effective outlay, producer Peter Andry and recording engineer Roy Wallace effectively recorded some of the finest Wagner singing of the 20th century in glorious stereophonic sound.

Buried in the archives

The unique 1955 stereo Ring was to remain buried in the archives for decades, not only because of seemingly unresolvable problems with copyright, but also because John Culshaw thoroughly disliked live recordings and wanted to make a whole new recording of the Ring, in the 'perfect' studio sound only he could produce. Well! Generations have been brought up on Culshaw's 1958-1965 studio production of the Ring, hating every minute of it, thinking Wagner was not for them. The Culshaw-Ring is, indeed, a clear example of over-produced Decca Sound at its worst. Not so the Keilberth Ring of 1955.

Resurrected by Testament

Lovers of classical music on vinyl are forever in debt to Testament Records, for this small company not only resurrected the 1955 Ring, it also released all four installments of the cycle on LP. Released for the first time in 2006 (both on LP and CD) the 1955 Ring caused quite a stir among critics and public alike, and rightly so. Some of the best Wagner interpreters of all time captured live, in glorious stereo? It truly was a dream come true. I dare say: dig deep into your bank account and acquire the Testament 19 LP set while it is still available. You can order directly from Testament at:
testament.co.uk/the-keilberth-ring-cycle
To be sure, acquiring this set is quite an investment to make, but if you love opera on LP, you will most certainly not regret it.

The all-star cast of the Keilberth 1955 Ring

The live recording of the Ring was made at the Festspielhaus of Bayreuth, during several rehearsals in July and August 1955. Let me highlight the most prominent performers of the cycle. The incomparable Astrid Varnay can be enjoyed as Brünnhilde. Bass-baritone Hans Hotter (recorded by Culshaw way past his prime) gives us a glorious Wotan and a fine Wanderer, singing at the absolute peak of his powers. Tenor Rudolf Lustig is Loge in this Ring, bass Gustav Neidlinger is Alberich, tenor Paul Kuen sings Mime, bass Ludwig Weber is Fasolt, bass Josef Greindl sings and Fafner and Hunding and Hagen, tenor Ramón Vinay interprets Siegmund, soprano Gré Brouwenstein gives us her Sieglinde and Gutrune, tenor Wolfgang Windgassen is Siegfried, under-recorded mezzo-soprano Maria von Ilosvay sings Erda and Waltraute, and baritone Hermann Uhde interprets Gunther.
I dare say: to be able to hear this dream cast in non-gimmicked, magnificent stereophonic sound is worth every penny!
The covers of the Testament LP sets are  pictured figures 9 through 12.

Culshaw, Solti and Wagner: what could have been (1957)

Now onto a final note on Solti's and Culshaw's Wagner. Do I think that this conductor's, this producer's Wagner is atrocious? In the affirmative I answer, but only if we are talking about the abominable Ring production of 1958-1965. There is, I'm glad to say, a glimpse of what could have been, had Culshaw not spun out of control.

The case is this. One of the main problems of the complete Culshaw Ring is that it comes over as a patchwork of bits and pieces. It seems as if the operas were recorded stop-and-start at the beck and call of the 'maestro producer', so as to create the ultimate, 'perfect' master tape. This way of doing things, however, was not necessarily to be expected. For in May 1957 Solti recorded Act III of Walküre with the legendary Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde, and at this so-called 'trial run' for a complete Ring, music was recorded in "enormously long 'takes'" of about 21 minutes - as Culshaw (always the self-serving propagandist) himself describes it, writing in the booklet accompanying the original record set, SXL 2031-2. In 1957, mr. Culshaw apparently had not yet completely gone over to the dark side of 'studio perfection'. He even stated emphatically, in said booklet: "No composer suffers more than Wagner in the process of recording small sections of music at a time, until each is virtually perfect, and then assembling the opera from the best of them." Quite.

So, in the end let me say this: should a serious record collector want to sample some of Solti's Wagner, as well he might, there is really only one way: he ought to seek out the non too expensive SXL 2031-2 (first published March 1959), or go for the even cheaper US edition OSA 1203 (f.p. September 1958). Listening to this set, recorded by engineer James Brown, our collector will not only enjoy a sound that is relatively close to a theatrical experience, he will also have the tremendous pleasure of being able to appreciate, in stereo, the great Kirsten Flagstad in what was, after all, her signature role.

I think I've made myself clear. Although the Act III Walküre recording hails from 1957 and hence really ought to be outside my purview here, I still recommend it, if only as a sample of 'what might have been'.
Figure 13 pictures the cover of the SXL-box.


IV. More French repertoire from Danco and Ansermet, 1955 and 1956

In October 1955 and one year later, in October 1956, Suzanne Danco took back to the studio to record some more French repertoire, maestro Ansermet conducting. In 1955, singing the Fauré Requiem, Danco was partnered by the great baritone Gérard Souzay in his only worthwhile stereo recording for Decca. In 1956 Danco sang in a most interesting 20th century work: Honegger's oratorium Le Roi David. Sadly enough, it was to be her last recording with the company. Although Danco would continue singing up to 1970 (when she retired from the stage) she stopped recording for Decca just before the stereo bandwagon really got underway. This, and the fact that she was not picked up by another major record label, probably explains why her exquisite performances seem to have been al but forgotten by the general record buying public.

The recording of the Requiem and to a lesser extent that of Le Roi David do have their fans, but they are, to my mind, not really appreciated enough. Needless to say, I think lovers of great singing and/or the French repertoire should avidly seek out both sets.

October 1955; Victoria Hall, Geneva; James Walker Pr., Roy Wallace Eng.
Fauré, Requiem
Suzanne Danco (soprano), Gérard Souzay (baritone), L’Union Chorale de la Tour-de-Peilz; Suisse Romande Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet
*First UK edition June 1960: Decca SXL 2211
*First US edition November 1960: London OS 25142
Cover of SXL in figure 14

October 1956; Victoria Hall, Geneva; James Walker Pr., Roy Wallace & James Brown Engs.
Honegger, Le Roi David
Suzanne Danco (soprano); Marie-Lise de Montmollin (mezzo-soprano); Michel Hamel (tenor); Stéphane Audel (narrator); Choeur des Jeunes de l’Église Nationale Vaudoise; Suisse Romande Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet
*First UK edition April 1971: Decca GOS 602-3
*First US edition June 1972: London STS 15155-56

 Cover of GOS-box in figure 15


V. A dream cast under Böhm interprets a Richard Strauss masterpiece, 1955

This is not really a batch, it's just one recording - but, wow, what a magnificent one it is!
During The Great War, Strauss composed Die Frau ohne Schatten, an opera containing some of his best music. The work at first had some difficulty finding its way into the repertoire, on account of the demanding casting and staging it requires, but today is almost universally recognized for what it is: probably Strauss' greatest opera composition. Current recognition of the work is in large part due to the tireless advocacy of conductor Karl Böhm, who recorded one of the finest interpretations of the work in 1955, with a true 'dream cast' of singers and players. Böhm and his people went quite far to get the opera commercially recorded, as I will briefly relate.

In November 1955 the Vienna State Opera House, heavily damaged during World War II, had finally been restored to its former glory. It re-opened for its first post-war season, presenting three operas, all celebrating the triumph of good over evil: Beethoven's Fidelio, Mozart's Zauberflöte, and, finally, Strauss' Frau ohne Schatten. The latter work was particularly beloved by director Karl Böhm, his cast and his orchestra and they very much wanted to record it for posterity. Decca however did not consider Die Frau ohne Schatten to be viable for commercial release, since the work, at the time, was not much appreciated outside Austria and Germany. Böhm and his cast were shocked to hear this and implored Decca' to record the work, even offering to waive fees, just to get their interpretation on record. In the end Decca, having just re-signed the Böhm-led Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave in, deciding to record the work as a sign of good faith. And so, on several freezing cold nights in November and December 1955, conductor, cast, chorus and orchestra assembled in the unheated recording venue to record the opera they all loved so much.

As soon as it became clear that Die Frau ohne Schatten was going to be committed to tape after all, Decca staff planned it to be a quick-as-possible production in mono only. However, producer Peter Andry decided to improvise a stereo registration as well. His stereo tapes had, eventually, to wait more than ten years before they were finally edited for release in Decca's Grand Opera Series.

How grateful we, lovers of opera, must be to the performers and to the Decca Record Company that in the end this recording was made after all, and also that, eventually, it became available in well-balanced, warm stereo sound! For here we have a cast that, according to many, has never been bettered, singing an edition of the composition with only those small cuts that had been sanctioned by the composer himself. Knowing that the State Opera ensemble that made this recording would soon after be broken up by Herbert von Karajan (seeking to cast more international stars), we have all the more reason to revel in this unique historical document.

Nov.-Dec. 1955; Vienna; Peter Andry Pr., Roy Wallace Eng.
Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten
Hans Hopf, Karl Terkal, Murray Dickie (tenors); Leonie Rysanek, Christel Goltz, Judith Hellwig, Emmy Loose (sopranos); Elizabeth Höngen, Hilde Rössl-Majdan (mezzo-sopranos); Kurt Böhme, Harald Pröglhöf, Oscar Czerwenka (basses); 
Paul Schöffler (bass-baritone); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm
*First UK edition April 1968: Decca GOS 554-7
*First US edition March 1969: Richmond SRS 64503
The cover of the GOS-box is pictured in figure 16. To avoid having to look at the sub-standard artwork of this box, I have decided to keep my stereo records in the box of the mono edition: LXT 5180-84 (f.p. April 1956); figure 17 pictures the stylish cover of this box.

Record-sleeves, as listed:

 

Fig. 1: SDD 314

Fig. 2: SXL 2212

Fig. 3: LXT 5031

Fig. 4: GOS 543-45



Fig 5: LXT 5107



Fig. 6: SXL 2215-7

Fig 7: SXL 2117-20



Fig 8: SXL 2087-90

Fig 9: Testament Rheingold

Fig 10: Testament Walkuere

Fig 11: Testament Siegfried

Fig 12: Testament Götterdämmerung

Fig 13: SXL 2031-2



Fig 14: SXL 2211

Fig 15: GOS 602-3



Fig 16: GOS 554-7

 

Fig 17: LXT 5180-4