DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON STEREO LPs
Collectors of classical music on LP do not generally wax ecstatic over stereo records produced by the German Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG). I, however, do just that.
The supposed 'problem' with DGG stereo LPs
It's no secret that for many years stereo records made by the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft could not compete with their British or even Dutch counterparts when it came to full frequency range. Plunging into the stereo-adventure, the engineers at DGG from the very start limited the dynamic range of their records so as to realise what they called 'compatible stereo', suited for both stereo and mono cartridges. This means that a typical DGG record will more often than not - especially in larger orchestral works - lack solidity in the lowest register. How much of a problem this is, however, depends to a large extent on the equipment used by the listener. I for one have found the weakness of the lowest register on DGG-records to bother me only when using transistors for amplification. When using valves, the problem, at least to my ears, is as good as non-existent. What's more: amplification with valves helps me enjoy so much more the trademark 'sweet sound' that, in the sixties, made DGG famous the world over. DGG LPs from the golden years - 1958 to 1972 - almost always present a well integrated stereo sound, characterised by an almost uncanny precision of instrumental contours and timbres. It is this sweet and involving sound that LPs manufactured by British competitors often cannot match, their wider frequency range notwithstanding.
My purpose here
The best LPs made by the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft add extra sweetness and extra balance to that sweet and well-balanced sound sougth after by the valve enthusiast. So why is it, that many audiophile collectors snub DGG LPs? The one thing I can think of, the thing that might explain and even justify the angry spurning of DGG records, is the sad fact that after 1972, Deutsche Grammophon has, in fact, produced swathes of shoddy records: multi-miked abominations, pressed on thin, wobbly vinyl. The reputation of the company has been ruined by these products and has, in most audiophile quarters, still not been restored. For what it's worth, my purpose here is to open collectors' ears to stereo records manufactured by DGG in its heyday, that is: between 1958 en 1973, so that they may convince themselves of the outstanding quality of both recordings and discs.
1957: a small stable of artists starts recording in stereo
DGG engineers experimented with stereo for their 'Archiv' sublabel in 1956. Satisfied with the results and quite conscious of the fact that British and American competitors had already started recording in stereo a few years back, the powers that be at Deutsche Grammophon authorized the recording of a new stereophonic catalogue, starting 1957. As a matter of course, DGG used its small but excellent stable of artists that had brought the label to prominence during the fifties, with directors like Karl Böhm, Ferenc Fricsay, Eugen Jochum and Igor Markevitch, with singers like Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Ernst Haefliger, Irmgard Seefried, Maria Stader, Rita Streich and Eberhard Waechter, with soloists like Geza Anda, Wilhelm Kempff and Wolfgang Schneiderhan, ensembles like the Amadeus Quartet and with orchestras like the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.
'Das Wunder Karajan'
Over the years the company put more and more internationally famous artists under contract. At the beginning of the sixties Herbert von Karajan signed with DGG. Come 1963, critics and public were swept off their feet by his Beethoven-cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in stunning stereo and initially sold as a must-have, subscription-only boxed set of records. 'Das Wunder Karajan' ('Miracle Karajan'), as he had been dubbed during the Nazi-years, was hailed as the new maestro at DGG, and soon was given kind of a carte blanche. At DGG, Karajan was allowed to record almost anything, even if this meant side-tracking famous directors of the fifties - think of Eugen Jochum - or discontinuing stereo records made by the brilliant, lamented Ferenc Fricsay. What to make of Karajan? I say: let every collector find out for himself whether he takes to the typical 'Karajan-sound' the maestro and his favourite sound engineer, Günther Hermanns, created together. To the wary collector I will, in addition, point out that even audiophiles who do not like 'Herbert von Beethoven' often have discovered unexpected treasures sampling Karajan's recordings of more modern music, in particular Sibelius, Prokofiev and Bartok.
Halfway through the sixties, DGG engineers had successfully built up the desired catalogue of classical core repertory in stereophonic sound. The time had come to expand horizons, and staff did not hesitate. From 1966 till 1972 they made numerous wonderful recordings of 'modern' classical music, even adding some quite adventurous avant garde works to the catalogue. In their commitment to cut discs with modern works, the engineers at the company were happy to welcome, at the end of the sixties, new, helium-cooled groove-cutting heads. Advanced cutting techniques were just what they needed to capture the sometimes strange, often even exorbitant sound-world of contemporary classical music. Almost every record of modern music recorded by DGG in their golden years (1958-1972) should be considered collectible.
II. WHICH DGG RECORDS TO COLLECT? FIVE PERIODS
Let's get into the specifics of the actual records now. It is with great pleasure that, after years of collecting, listening and comparing, I present five distinct periods of stereo LP-production at DGG that I have been able to identify: 1958, 1959-60, 1960-1966, 1966-1969 and 1969-1972.
FIRST PERIOD: 1958
Experimental stereo, straight from the laboratory
Like their British counterparts Decca, HMV and Columbia, the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft presented their first stereophonic records to the public in September 1958. These records were still experimental products, as a distinctive double matrix-code makes clear. Examining the dead wax of DGG stereo records produced in the last four months of 1958, we get to look not only at the engraved catalogue number of the record, but also at an extra number, prefixed with the letters 'LAB'. This 'LAB' seems to be short for 'LABoratory', indicating that these pressings were still something of an experiment.
Figure 1: double 'misaligned' matrix-code
Figure 1 shows the dead wax of the earliest pressing of SLPEM 136 004 (Haydn Concertos). Both the LAB-number and the regular catalogue-number look like they were printed by a misaligned old typewriter.
The sleeves that held stereo records produced by DGG September through December 1958, are something very special indeed. First off, let me note that during the first years of mono-production, DGG had packaged its records in elaborate fold-out sleeves. The plastic inner sleeve of each fold-out was stitched to outer sleeve paper. At the end of the fifties these elaborate, expensive sleeves were still used for the prestigious 'Archiv' label, but had, for DGG records, been all but discontinued. To impress upon the public the rare and special quality of their new stereo product, the company brought back the stitched sleeves at the end of 1958, for stereo only. Figures 2 and 3 show what these stitched sleeves looked like. Figure 2 pictures the front of SLPEM 136 004, figure 3 the back.
Figure 2: front of 136 0004 SLPEM sleeve
On the front of the sleeve I will comment in the next paragraph; here, I'd like to focus on the back.
Figure 3: back of 136 004 SLPEM sleeve
Figure 3b presents a detail of the back of the 136 004 sleeve. It clearly shows part of the stitching that holds together inner and outer sleeve. Figure 3b also shows the printed date '9/58'. These digits informs us that the sleeve was printed September 1958.
Figure 3b: back of 136 004 SLPEM sleeve, detail with stitching and '9/58'
Intermezzo: sleeves dated at the back
Until at least April 1966 ('4/66'), DGG would continue to date their record sleeves at the back, always in the lower right corner. The date of each sleeve can be taken to also indicate when approximately the enclosed record was manufactured, but we have to be careful here. Since records were often produced in large stacks and could be stocked without their designated sleeves for quite some time, early pressings can sometimes be found in sleeves that were produced months or even years after the record was manufactured.
SECOND PERIOD: 1959 - 1960
Let's return to the sleeve-fronts produced in the last four months of 1958. These are actually quite similar to fronts of sleeves that were produced January 1959 through approximately June 1960. Figure 4 shows the front of SLPM 138 019 (Beethoven, Emperor concerto). Notice the characteristic DGG cartouche, proudly presenting the company name and listing the title of the recorded work, the names of the interpreters, as well as the catalogue number. At the base of the cartouche, dead centre, a small rectangle reads 'stereo'. To make sure record buyers got the message that this really was the exotic new thing called 'stereo', all records produced 1959-1960 sported a large red sticker, declaring the record to be 'stereo compatible'.
Figure 4: 138 019 SLPM sleeve, first edition
Figure 4b: detail of 138 019 SLPM sleeve, first edition, with red sticker
Records commonly found in sleeves produced during 1959-1960 sometimes present both the 'misaligned' matrix numbers known from 1958 productions, that is: in their dead wax we find not only the catalogue number but also a LAB-number, as previously shown in figure 1. More often than not, however, the dead wax of a record manufactured during 1959 and 1960 only has a 'misaligned' catalogue number. See for an example figure 5.
Figure 5: single 'misaligned' matrix-number
The sound of records produced 1958-1960
Now on to the most important question: how do records produced 1958-1960 actually sound? Before answering this all-important question, let me make it clear that I really am talking about 'records produced 1958-1960', meaning that I heap all records with ''misaligned' catalogue numbers together. For, in my experience, when it comes to sound, there is no difference at all between 'misaligned' records with or without a LAB-numeral. So - the sound. Here we have something to really get excited about: the sound of all 'misaligned' pressings does differ significantly from all later records pressed by DGG.
'Sparkling highs', and what to make of them
All 'misaligned' LPs give us more pronounced, I dare say more 'sparkling' highs. This characteristic comes to the fore especially in recordings of female voices, pianos, brass and woodwinds. To the question whether we should be swept away by the sound of these 'sparkling' pressings, I cannot with confidence answer in the affirmative. I have found that the overall sound picture of these records is, as might be expected with boosted high, decidedly less warm but also - and here's the rub! - far less integrated than I appreciate. So: even though it is of course quite fun to own some of the DGG LPs produced 1958-1960, I would recommend following the engineers at the company, who seem to have decided, somewhere during 1960, that their discs did, indeed, present a sound too sparkly, and started cutting their discs toward a better, warmer and especially more integrated sound image. This better sound we find on the famous DGG 'red stereo' LPs.
THIRD PERIOD: 1960-1966
For years now, collectors of stereo LPs have known that if you wanted to acquire a DGG LP, the so-called 'red stereo' editions were the ones to go for.
It is easy to see where the 'red stereo' editions get there name from. Take a look at figure 6.
Figure 6: 138 019 SLPM sleeve, second edition
Figure 6b: detail of 138 019 SLPM sleeve, second edition, with 'red stereo' at the base of the cartouche
Comparing the sleeves shown in figures 6 & 6b with 4 & 4b, it immediately becomes clear that the red of the 'stereo compatible' sticker in fig. 4 has 'wandered' (so to speak) into the stereo-rectangle at the base of the cartouche in fig. 6. How wonderful! The red hue, powerfully engulfing the word 'stereo', stands in striking contrast to the yellow of the cartouche.
'Red stereo' sleeves, produced 1960-1965
In 1960, with 'red stereo' in a rectangle the base of the yellow cartouche, a magnificent colour-scheme had been found. It would accord beautifully with all kinds of artwork on quite a lot of sleeves, in quite some years to come. To be sure, the famous 'red stereo' continued to be used well into 1965.
'Yellow bold stereo', 1965 and onwards
In the course of 1965 the colour of the 'stereo'-rectangle reverted back to the yellow of the cartouche, as shown in figures 7 and 7b.
Figure 7: SLPM 139 003
Figure 7b: detail of SLPM 139 003, with 'yellow bold stereo' at the base of the cartouche
Please note how, in figures 7 and 7b, the word 'stereo' in the rectangle is set in bold type. When we compare figures 7 & 7b with figures 4 & 4b, we can clearly see that the early 'yellow stereo' from 1958-1960 is quite different from the 'yellow bold stereo' of 1966 and onwards.
Records manufactured 1960-1966
It is at this point in my narrative that, suddenly, the date at the back of the sleeve becomes quite important. For this is the case: during 1965 and the first part of 1966, sleeves of the 'yellow bold stereo' type contained pressings that are, for all practical purposes, identical with pressings found in sleeves of the 'red stereo' type. These pressings were manufactured in large enough quantities to remain affordable, to-day, in the second hand market.
Records manufactured 1960-1966 may be identified, first, by a 'regular' (as opposed to a 'misaligned') engraving of the catalogue number in the dead wax, as shown in figure 8.
Figure 8: 'regular' matrix-number
Tulip-border with 'ALLE HERSTELLER'
Furthermore, pressings from the years 1960-1966, typically found in sleeves with 'red stereo' or 'yellow bold stereo dated at the back', all have a distinguishing copyright notice printed on the label of the record, beginning, at 1 o'clock, with the words 'ALLE HERSTELLER'. See figure 9 for a close-up.
Fig 9: close-up of 'Alle Hersteller'
In fact, the 'ALLE HERSTELLER' at 1 o'clock can be found on the disc-labels of all stereo records manufactured 1958 through 1965, and on some records manufactured in 1966.
FOURTH PERIOD: 1966 - 1969
1966: the production of mono stops; 'MADE IN GERMANY' is introduced
Sometime during 1966 DGG decided to stop the production of monaural LPs. Simultaneously, the production of stereo discs was cranked up to an unprecedented output, so as to cater for all those new customers who were more or less forced to convert to the 'stereo compatible' records the company had been promoting all along. As if to specifically welcome hosts and hosts of new international customers, the company changed the copyright notice on the labels of records from German ('ALLE HERSTELLER') to an English text. This text, still starting at 1 o'clock, begins with the words 'MADE IN GERMANY', as figure 10 shows.
Figure 10: close-up of 'Made in Germany'
Transistors introduced in the production chain
Collectors generally assume (or 'know') that by 1966 at the latest, most major record companies were using at least some transistors when recording music and pressing discs. Some like to think that 'ALLE HERSTELLER' discs have been manufactured with less transistors and more valves in the chain, and that discs 'MADE IN GERMANY' have been produced using more transistors and less valves. In all probability, this is true. But let me state this: the introduction of transistors in the chain of production should not be considered a bad thing at all.
A welcome tightening up of lower registers
Remembering that the 'problem' of DGG LPs, identified earlier on, was a somewhat attenuated lower register, we would do well to realise that transistors have a tendency to tighten lower registers up. So, far from being a bad thing, the introduction of transistors in the manufacturing chain of DGG LPs should, in fact, have improved their sound. To my ears, this is exactly what happened. Listen, for instance, to 'MADE IN GERMANY' pressings of SLPM 138 002/003 (Beethoven's 'Choral' symphony, conducted by Fricsay) and you will be boiled over by the sound, the more so when you compare these stunning records to the unimpressive 'ALLE HERSTELLER' pressings with the same catalogue number.
'MADE IN GERMANY' records should be considered very collectible
Even though records 'MADE IN GERMANY' were churned out in unprecedented numbers to meet the demands of customers forced to convert to stereo, DGG was able to maintain impeccable standards. This means that LPs 'MADE IN GERMANY', with which DGG effectively flooded the markets for classical music from 1966 till 1969, can and should be eagerly sought after. Every serious and unprejudiced collector, willing to trust his or her own ears, would do well to invest in these well-engineered discs.
The introduction of new cutting heads
If records 'MADE IN GERMANY' already are of a high quality thanks to the use of transistors in the production chain, the introduction of helium-cooled heads for groove-cutting further improved the sound of DGG pressings. The new cutting heads enabled the DGG engineers to cut more highs and more lows into the grooves - always, of course, within the limits set by their 'compatible stereo' format. As far as I can tell, the improved cutting technology was introduced at DGG sometime toward the end of the sixties. Since records 'MADE IN GERMANY' were manufactured 1966-1969, this means that at least some of the discs with this copyright notice have been cut with the new technology.
FIFTH PERIOD: 1969 - 1972
1969: the company shortens its name
In 1969, the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (abbreviated to DGG) shortened its name to Deutsche Grammophon (DG). Sleeves of course reflected this, as figures 11 and 11b show.
Figure 11: sleeve with 'Deutsche Grammophon' instead of 'Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft'
Figure 11b: detail of 'Deutsche Grammophon' in cartouche
1969: a new record-label is introduced
Towards the end of 1969, the characteristic tulip-border that had been printed on record-labels since 1949, was unceremoniously replaced by a new, unadorned blue-white borderline. Curiously, at the same time the copyright notice in English was switched back to German: 'MADE IN GERMANY' was replaced, at 1 o'clock, by a notice beginning with the word 'URHEBER-'. See figure 11.
Figure 11: close-up of 'Urheber-'
A very important 'groove'
It is very important to know, that up to the oil crisis of 1973, the blue-white bordered 'URHEBER'-pressings of DGG were pressed in accordance with the high quality standards established by the company during the sixties. A closer listen to hundreds of records has taught me that 'URHEBER'-pressings showing a characteristic 'groove' at approximately 1 cm from the spindle-hole, are of the same, nay, better quality than records 'MADE IN GERMANY'. To appreciate what 'groove' I mean, please compare figure 12, where the groove is situated between 'slpm' and '139', with figure 13, where it is situated between 'made in' and '139'.
Figure 12: grooved 'Made in Germany'
Figure 13: grooved 'Urheber"
'Grooved URHEBER pressings': the best of the bunch!
What distinguishes 'grooved URHEBER pressings' from 'pressings MADE IN GERMANY' is the fact that all URHEBER-discs were cut using helium-cooled cutting heads, whereas this is only the case for some discs MADE IN GERMANY. This means that, in fact, 'grooved URHEBER-pressings' are the finest discs ever cut by Deutsche Grammophon. Unprejudiced listening to grooved URHEBER-pressings will bear out the truth of this statement!
A last look at sleeves
'Grooved URHEBER pressings' are typically found in sleeves of the undated 'yellow bold stereo' type. Collectors should, however, make sure, that the sleeves of this type show a distinctive 'double circle' in the cartouche. This 'double circle' indicates stereo, and is located at the upper right corner of the cartouche, in or next to the catalogue number. You can easily spot the 'double circle' in figures 2, 4, 6, 7, 7b, 11 and the close-up in figure 14, below.
Figure 14: sleeve of 2530 146, detail with 'double circle' in upper right corner of cartouche
Best known stereo series
The 'double circle' was in use from 1958 until approximately 1973, and is found on the sleeves of all important DGG stereo series, of which the best known are:
- 136 000 SLPEM
- 138 000 SLPM
- 139 000 SLPM
Requiem: 1973 and after
The disappearance of the 'double circle' on sleeves to a large extent coincides with the disappearance of the 'grooved URHEBER pressings'. Collectors should, however, be aware of the fact that quite a lot of undated sleeves that do show the 'double circle' may contain non-grooved records. The non-grooved discs, shoddy to begin with, got worse from 1973 on. As stated earlier on, sub-standard records manufactured after 1972 are the main reason why DGG is spurned by so many collectors - especially those unfortunate enough to grow up with the extremely floppy DG records of the eighties. As to the question why standards collapsed so soon after the 1969-1972 peak in production, a few explanations have been put forward. Perhaps, as some have put it, the oil crisis of 1973 is mainly to blame. There is truth in this assumption, but I think that we should also look at the de facto take-over of DG by Dutch Philips, after the creation of PolyGram in 1972. Let's not go there; let us, instead, regain our focus on the wonderful records Deutsche Grammophon manufactured during the heyday of its stereo production, 1958 through 1972.
Acquire and enjoy!
To end on a positive note, let me take you back to the superb grooved URHEBER-pressings one more time. The thought that loads and loads of these pressings have, over the past decades, been scorned by European collectors and relegated to dustbins or thrown into containers destined for connoisseurs in many an Asian country - this thought could sadden us, but it really shouldn't, since scores and scores of these wonderful discs still remain in shops and collections, waiting to be properly appreciated by the discerning audiophile. So in summa I say: go out and acquire & enjoy these wonderful records !
Beautiful artwork ...
Modern music, not to be missed...
Let's wax ecstatic!