Record companies: if you insist on sending CDs to my home address without so much as a covering note or a press release, well, that’s just fine by me. West Hill Radio Archives, I can’t say I’d heard of you, but the discs of Toscanini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra that landed on my doormat last week were a lovely surprise, in more ways than one.
Toscanini refused to allow these concerts at the Queen’s Hall in June 1935 to be recorded, but thank goodness HMV ignored him. In the case of Elgar’s Enigma Variations the result is a revelation. Where Boult takes us on a bracing walk across the Malverns, the Italian maestro plunges us into a witches’ sabbath worthy of Berlioz; you almost expect the din to be silenced by a church bell, as in the Symphonie fantastique. The BBC woodwind don’t sound happy at being made to sprint at such an incredible speed, but the audience love it. The final chord brings a roar of delight from the men in starched collars and ladies in feathered hats, and when I listened to the CD with a friend we felt like joining in. It was as if we were there in the hall, which was hit by a bomb during the Blitz, destroying not just the auditorium but also, by all accounts, an acoustic that no other London venue has come close to matching.
The special ‘presence’ of old recordings has only really struck me since I bought a pair of proper speakers a couple of months ago. (They’re Monitor BX5s — the best 500 quid I’ve ever spent.) It is easy to think of mono as a means of delivery you have to listen past, as it were — and it’s certainly true that the hiss and crackle of the 1920s and 1930s can’t easily be removed. All too often, vintage recordings are subjected to clumsy de-hissing by digital cowboys who scrape off tonal bloom as well as surface noise.
The secret is to reduce hiss only to the point where the original notes are undamaged, though it takes a master restorer to perform such microsurgery safely. Naxos, for example, employed the great Mark Obert-Thorn to filter Artur Schnabel’s early 1930s Beethoven sonata cycle, which wasn’t brilliantly engineered even by the standards of the time. Thanks to Obert-Thorn, it now sounds better than it ever did on vinyl; lots of the extraneous noise can’t be cleaned away, but the neat trick of keeping the hiss going between movements paradoxically helps the listener screen it out.
The source material for Toscanini’s concerts at the Queen’s Hall was of better quality, however, and West Hill’s expert new restoration removes nearly all traces of interference without flattening the colour. Looking back, the summer of 1935 marked the beginning of a golden era of mono recording that peaked during the brief heyday of the mono LP in the Fifties. As my local record dealer put it, ‘a single, deliciously placed microphone could achieve miracles, especially in the hands of Decca’.
He suggested listening again to Bruno Walter’s 1952 recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. I did, and it was a painfully moving experience. The combination of good speakers and superior remastering brought that extra ‘presence’ to Kathleen Ferrier’s voice, making it impossible to forget that, as she sang farewell, she knew she was dying of cancer. Yes, the strings still sounded dry — but, as in many late mono recordings, the engineers created an illusion of space to rival high-quality stereo. Quite how they did so is a bit of a mystery: the point is hotly debated by audiophiles, some of whom insist — wrongly, in my opinion — that the magic works better with vinyl.
The main reason to listen to mono recordings, of course, is that it’s the only way to hear great musicians such as Cortot, Rachmaninov, Kreisler, Furtwängler, Toscanini — or Callas in her prime. However, there’s also a case for listening to the best mono just for its own sake. Would Wilhelm Kempff’s intimate first Beethoven sonata cycle work better in stereo? Would Beecham’s 1956 La Bohème, with Victoria de los Angeles as Mimi and Jussi Björling as Rodolfo? I don’t think so. Their spontaneity, partly the result of performing under pressure, is inextricable from the lovely mono sound, which is at the same time more coherent and more forgiving than early stereo. But don’t take my word for it: listen for yourselves. In a collapsing CD market, even the finest recordings are dirt cheap these days.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012