Utter the words “early digital” and most audiophiles, even younger ones, will know exactly what you’re talking about. The term references sound lacking body and warmth, the fatiguing deficiency of dimensionality and tonal complexity that characterized digital encoding for much of its first commercial decade. This was the era when, invariably, someone would show up at the local audio society meeting wearing a DIGITAL SUCKS T-shirt. But those of us who were practicing audiophiles at the time remember one important exception, Telarc Records, a label that kindled a hope that the new technology would someday go beyond its undeniably impressive dynamic range, signal-to-noise ratio, bass power, and (once the compact disc arrived) convenience to deliver a more completely satisfying listening experience. Four of the LPs recorded by Telarc Records International of Cleveland between 1978 and 1981 are now available on 180-gram vinyl from the reissue label Craft Recordings.
By 1976, audio engineer Jack Renner and his partner, producer Robert Woods—two-classically-trained former music educators—recognized that the business they owned was at a critical juncture. Their record label, Advent Records, had a reputation for excellent sound quality but was clearly a “vanity” operation for professional musicians, releasing LPs of challenging contemporary music and recitals by little-known soloists that could reasonably be expected to sell only in small numbers. Renner and Woods longed to work with well-known artists in repertoire that would attract a general audience and with their brand now known as Telarc—the loudspeaker manufacturer Advent Corporation didn’t look favorably upon the name the pair had been employing—they managed to talk Lorin Maazel into participating in a direct-to-disc recording of the Cleveland Orchestra. They did two other such projects with organist Michael Murray, but it was apparent to the partners that selling a few thousand such records (per project) was another dead end, in terms of economic viability. It was then that an industry colleague urged them to investigate the work of a University of Utah electrical engineering professor named Thomas G. Stockham who had built his own digital tape recorder and was trying to market it.
Commercial digital recording had launched in Japan in the early 1970s, and the few imported LPs they’d heard hadn’t overly impressed Woods and Renner. Nonetheless, they arranged to meet with Dr. Stockham at the 1977 AES meeting in New York City and had a listen to his Soundstream recorder. They felt that the professor’s machine had promise and brashly told him that if he could improve the machine’s high frequency performance—the version they’d heard in NY cut off at 17.5kHz—they’d use it for a major project. Stockham happily obliged and Telarc was poised to make a splash with the first-ever digital recordings of large-scale music played by world-class orchestral musicians.
The quartet of Craft Recordings reissues includes three excellent choices from the early Telarc catalog—and there’s one inexplicable omission. Essential is Robert Shaw’s electrifying performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (the “B” side was music from Borodin’s Prince Igor), a record that was hard to avoid in audio stores for years. Craft also picked Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s album of Tchaikovsky orchestral favorites, Telarc’s best-selling recording of all time, that features the 1812 Overture with its sensationally recorded, cartridge-humiliating cannons. From Shaw/Atlanta as well is Carl Orff’s Carmina burana, the hour-long cantata spread over three LP sides with the fourth holding a performance of Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber by Paul Hindemith. The last early Telarc LP resurrected by Craft is a perfectly capable but unmemorable rendition of the four violin concertos from Vivaldi’s Le quattro stagioni performed by Joseph Silverstein, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster for 22 years, supported by Seiji Ozawa leading a small ensemble of BSO players.
Conspicuously absent is the very first Telarc digital recording, recorded in April of 1978, an album of Holst, Handel, and Bach from Frederick Fennell and the “Cleveland Symphonic Winds”—woodwind, brass, and percussion musicians players from the Cleveland Orchestra complemented by other area professionals. This was the perfect program with which to debut the technology: Cleveland native Fennell was famed for his epochal Mercury recordings with the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Renner was a big fan of Mercury’s three-microphone methodology. The result was a demo disc that even eclipsed Firebird in its audio salon ubiquity; one can only imagine how many loudspeakers were sold on the basis of the bass drum thwacks heard in the last movement of Holst’s First Suite in E flat for Military Band. Hopefully, there will an opportunity for Craft to reissue this title, assuming there are no legal barriers to its doing so.