Finally! It’s there! (what took them so long?)

Finally! At last! Alleluia! I’m done hoping (and hoping less and less) and I can hop and gambol… DG has reissued William Steinberg’s complete Beethoven Symphonies with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.



Here is why this is important (and the discographic story behind that publication):

These recordings had been made between 1962 and 1966 for the label Command Classics.  Command is somewhat forgotten, except by hyper-specialized fans of those things, and largely because, unlike, say, the labels Everest (see my discography of its CD- and other Hi-Fi reissues), Mercury or Vanguard, its classical catalog was badly let down by the CD labels. Why? One could only surmise (and rue) that the mastertapes were lost.

Which would have been (or would be) a huge loss. Because those mastertapes were no usual mastertapes; they were recorded by famous sound engineer and “father” of the Mercury Living Presence sound, C. Robert Fine.

The story is that, when things started to turn financially bad for Everest, only a few years after the launching of the label in 1958, they sold (in March 1961) their recording equipment and their famed 35mm three-track magnetic film to Fine, who had his own recording studio in New York and was then working principally with Mercury. Fine then put it to good use for Mercury (but Mercury’s Halcyon years were nearing to an end then) and Command, the label established in 1959 by Enoch Light (see a presentation and discography here).

Now, in the quasi-thesis I wrote on “Mercury Living Presence” and posted on Amazon some years ago (I really need to transfer it over here), in view of the fact that the label had also published, especially in its later years, recordings originally made by Philips, I explored the question: what is it that makes an authentic “Mercury Living Presence” recording?

And the answer to that was: C. Robert Fine (or his close assistants) and his remarkable use of a one-microphone pickup during the mono era, and three in the stereo era.

Now, the implication of that was that, if it was the presence of Fine or his close assistants and mic techniques that defined the “Mercury Living Presence” sound, then, by all means and intents, the recordings he made using the same mics and techniques for Command or any other label should be included in the canon of Mercury Living Presence recordings.

So here we are, back to Steinberg. Think what you will of the interpretations (I haven’t even started to listen to the set), but their importance is that they add an entry to the discography of Mercury.

And that’s why their absence on CD was intolerable. Where were those fine mastertapes (pun intended)? Who had them? Were they lost? Damaged beyond recognition?

One thing seems sure: not all of them were lost in 1988. That’s when MCA Classics, then the owner of the rights to those recordings, published on CD Steinberg’s Beethoven symphonies Nos. 2, 4 and 7 (and Leonore Overture No. 3), two separate CDs but part of the same set (as was MCA’s custom in that series), MCAD2-9810 A & B, barcode  076732981023. And the backcovers of those two discs stated explicitly (except for Symphony No. 2): “remixed and transferred to digital directly from original master 35mm magnetic film”.

MCA chose to release the other symphonies in the performances of Hermann Scherchen (1, 3, 6, 8), Pierre Monteux (9) and Artur Rodzinski (5), from the Westminster label (to which they also owned the rights), and I can’t complain, because I love those performances, particularly those of Scherchen. But that left opened the question of the 35mm film for the other Steinberg symphonies.

And I waited for the rest to show up, and the years piled, then the decades.

A ray of hope appeared in 2011: a Canadian label called XXI published the complete symphonies, XXI-CD 2 1750, barcode 722056175029. At last! I plunged on the set like the survivalist after a two-week trek in the Sahara desert without a bottle. Cruel disappointment: despite the imprimatur of apparent legitimacy represented by the reproduction of the Universal logo at the back of the set, it was all dubbed from LP (I see now that the transfers were done by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose own label, YSL, regularly earns accolades for its transfers of old recordings or live concerts). No! We don’t want those recordings dubbed for LPs that, if we are so desparate to hear them, we can always buy on the marketplace, we want transfers from the mastertapes, no surface noise, Fine’s original sound! And as one Amazon reviewer commented, “none of this is told or explained on the covers of this box set.”



So, at last, more than 30 years after the release of those two MCA CDs, we have them (I read at the back of CD 5: “Unfortunately, the original tapes for the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony could not be found. Therefore for the master a vinyl pressing had to be used”). What took them so long? Where were the tapes? No idea, I need to inquire.

Good liner notes to the DG set (there were none in the XXI reissue, just the label numbers of the original LP releases), on Steinberg, Command Classics and C. Robert Fine. But DG could have given Fine more typo prominence: other than in the liner notes, he is credited nowhere (he was in the XXI reissue).

I did a quick check on the sonics of the DG reissue in comparison to the earlier MCA release. Other than in the Second Symphony, where a certain harshness in the MCA sound has disappeared, and the Leonore 3 Overture, which benefits from more brightness in the new release, I don’t hear any significant difference. Review will come later.

6 thoughts on “Finally! It’s there! (what took them so long?)”

  1. Thanks for the review. I used to have the LP during the good old days, now half a century ago.


  2. There’s a reason why the notes to this set said they couldn’t locate the TAPES (not films) for the last movement of the 9th. Command routinely edited the film originals onto tapes. For one thing the film itself was very clumsy to edit, you would have to cut only at the sprocket holes. The film stock was also very expensive ($30 for ten minutes, and this was back in the 60s). So doing the edits on tape they could erase the film and re-use it. In a 1980 interview Bob Fine said to Richard Gradone:

    F: So, well, the 35 millimeter was of course that the advantages to the system were that “A” they were wider tracks running at higher speed. Film has a far better motion characteristic than the tape had. It was expensive. It was, you know, thirty dollars every ten minutes of recording stock.
    G: Is that why it’s not done today, or is it being done today?
    F: No it’s not being done today.
    G: If that’s the greatest medium —
    F: We felt that that wasn’t even a problem of recording because it, uh, we would not be cutting up all the film. So could re-bank it, clean it, and use it over again so eventually the initial investment costs went down. Mercury did it on that basis, and . . .
    G: I see.
    F: we did a lot of albums and, and we re-banked the film, then I built editing machines that would edit the
    film as tape to cut down the inconvenience of editing. Mercury had one. and Command had one for, for that.
    And, uh, anyhow it was, it still is, it was, it still is a fantastic sound…

    1. Thanks for the info, David – but I’m not sure I get it. If DG had claimed they couldn’t locate the film of the Finale of the 9th, then yes, fine, one could assume that Fine (no pun intended) had erased it after transfering the content to tape, and re-used it for something else. But the tapes? Re-using the film for something else doesn’t make the master tape disappear; so it must have disappeared for some other reason…

      If I recall, some of the Everest transfers made by Seymour Solomon in the 1990s claimed to be from the 35mm film, so if the claim is true, it means that those master films were kept. Also, in the case of Mercury, again if I recall all that I have read about the label, some of the transfers to CD made by Wilma Cozart Fine also claimed to be made from the 35mm film. Finally, the previous (partial) reissues of Steinberg’s Beethoven on MCA Classics of Symphonies 4 and 7 and Leonore 3 Overture also said “directly from original master 35mm film”. So in all those cases, unless the labels lied, one can suppose that the 35mm masters indeed were kept.

      In other cases, some may indeed have been lost, irretrievably damaged, or blanked and re-used. What your comment highlights is that we are not told, in the DG set, if (other than the missing Finale of the 9th) the transfers were made from master tapes or master film – or nth generation dubs. As I commented, a comparison between MCA and DG shows little difference – but that is valid only for those symphonies previously reissued by MCA. I haven’t checked if there are important sonic differences between 4 and 7 on the one hand, and the others, suggesting that the latter may derive from sources of lesser sonc quality. On the MCA transfers there wasindeed a significant sonic difference between Symphony No. 2 (“a certain harshness in the MCA sound”) and the two others. Things were improved in the DG reissue.

      Another thing that the loss of masters for the Finale of the 9th highlights, is that SO many masters from smaller labels from the early LP era are probably irretrievably lost as well. It’s a heartbreak to think of all those recordings that will never come back to us in state-of-the-art transfers and great sonics. But let’s be grateful that so much was kept.

      (PS: I hate it when a magazine sees fit to publish an interview entirely UNedited, with all the uhs and the ahs! Do they think it is for sake of not betraying the interviewee’s truthful intent?)

  3. I believe only one of the symphonies on MCA was said to be from 35mm film but I could be misremembering. In any case it was clear Everest saved the films, as they did not have the machinery developed later by Bob Fine for editing the film onto topes. So they edited the film itself, sometimes with mixed results (like that jarring edit going into the Great Gate on Sargent’s Pictures). I think Mercury saved more of the films than Command did, but they still re-used the films sometimes according to Fine. You are so right that DG should be upfront about what sources they used. Whatever they were, the Steinberg Nine have never sounded better. I hope they will complete the entire Command Classics series. I’d even snap up all the Enoch Light/percussion albums, that’s how crazy I am.

    (PS: The interview quoted isn’t from a magazine but from a doctoral thesis, so perhaps the author felt every uh and ah needed to be transcribed for utmost literal accuracy!)

    1. if you use your computer (I’m not sure that it works if you view on your smartphone) you can hover over the back cover images of the MCA releases which I’ve included in my post, and see that they claim 4, 7 and Leonore 3 Overture were “remixed and transferred to digital directly from original master 35mm magnetic film”. It sticks with my aural impression that, in those MCA reissues, there was more sonic harshness in their transfer of the Second Symphony. Yes I whish more Command recordings made it back – I’ll skip the Enoch Light albums, though!

      1. I miss Command Classics. Back in 1968 I bought my first Hammerklavier Barenboom’s on Command Classics (unfortunately never reissued)). Six months later I heard Schnabel’s but at that point in my development I didn’t like it.


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