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it over here), in view of the fact that the label had also published, especially in its later years, recordings originally made by Philips, I explored the question: what is it that makes an authentic “Mercury Living Presence” recording?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.