The Decca Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series

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The Decca Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series

The 1960s were a time for major change, and not necessarily for the better in the classical recording industry. After nearly a decade that is frequently described as the Golden Age of Recording, led by Mercury Living Presence, RCA Living Stereo, and British Decca, record producers, especially in America, were eager to maximize the effects achievable with stereo sound. RCA replaced Living Stereo with Dynagroove and Decca’s American subsidiary (London Records) initiated Phase 4 in 1962 with popular and crossover releases, and eventually in 1964 with classical music on the Stereo Concert Series. Phase 4’s popular bestsellers made a big initial splash. Its more controversial classical releases ran parallel with but were completely separate from Decca’s highly regarded classical division, which at the time was making formidable recordings like the Solti Ring.

The design was to make more spectacular recordings that emphasized stereo directional effects and added variable amounts of artificial reverb. American producer Tony D’Amato never claimed to be interested in recreating a purist concert hall experience. Decca’s instrument for achieving more blatantly flashy recordings was a massive 20-channel mixing console capable of manipulating the listening experience by highlighting soloists, instruments, and instrumental groups within the sound field. This spotlighting was seemingly random in nature and had little to do with musical values. Some recordings sounded outrageous, and others were reasonably realistic.

Arthur Lilley and Arthur Bannister were Phase 4’s principal engineers. Bannister was generally more aggressive in the way he manipulated the sound. Lilley’s recordings are usually more tolerable for purists, and some are outstanding. Perhaps the most perverse aspect of the Phase 4 phenomenon was the fact that many of these recordings were made in Kingsway Hall, where they converted the best sounding recording venue in the world into something that was totally unrecognizable.

Phase 4’s big name conductors were Leopold Stokowski, Antal Doráti, and Charles Munch. Other major conductors like Lorin Maazel, Erich Leinsdorf, Anatole Fistoulari, and Arthur Fiedler made a few recordings for the label. Unfortunately, many releases featuring mediocre conductors like Henry Lewis juxtaposed manipulated sound and horrid performances. The ubiquitous Stanley Black was basically a crossover artist who churned out numerous faceless collections of popular warhorses. Film music provided the high point of the Phase 4 Concert Series, because Bernard Herrmann’s unique orchestrations do not require a concert hall perspective to sound good. In fact, Phase 4 technology at its best is ideal for Herrmann’s music.

Because Phase 4 Concert Series releases have appealed to some audiophiles—and because tracking down individual releases can prove to be frustrating, time-consuming, and costly—it seems appropriate that an anthology would save listeners time and money while including some  previously unavailable (and valuable) recordings. A new 41-CD box set, Phase 4 Concert Series showcases many aspects of Phase 4 technology in repertoire ranging from the ridiculous (Yellow River Concerto) to the sublime (the Herrmann recordings). While reviewing this box set, I will primarily focus on the leading conductors, and some other individual selections, for better or worse.

Leopold Stokowski (9 CDs) was Phase 4’s superstar conductor. His charisma was undeniable in the concert hall, but that was not always apparent in his recordings, especially late in his career. Subjective conducting is fine, but when Stokowski actually changed the music or the orchestration, he usually went too far. The concept of a conductor, no matter how gifted, changing the instrumentation of composers like Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov is ridiculous. Therefore, his straight repertoire recordings are frequently curiosities, in contrast to his symphonic syntheses and orchestrations, which are frequently brilliant, and no one could conduct them like Stokowski.

Thus, his Phase 4 versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a collection of Wagner bleeding chunks, Glazunov’s Violin Concerto, and other shorter works are variably interesting, but none of them could be first recommendations. Scheherazade is an exception that cannot be denied. It doesn’t compare to Reiner (RCA) as an interpretation, but it is an excellent alternative version because of Stokowski’s special brand of orchestral color. Stokowski’s symphonic syntheses (Boris Godunov), orchestrations (Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain), and transcriptions (Bach and others) are one of a kind as recorded here where the Phase 4 treatment often complements the music. Stokowski’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is so radically different from Ravel’s suave and sophisticated version that it almost seems as if Stokowski deliberately attempted to avoid duplicating any aspect of Ravel’s instrumentation. The result is not in the same class as Ravel’s masterpiece, but it is effective primarily because it sounds more authentically Russian. The Boris Godunov synthesis is essentially a stunningly orchestrated tone poem that sounds so gorgeous that it is regrettable that Stokowski never recorded his Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal syntheses on Phase 4. The Bach transcriptions showcase Stokowski’s emphasis on organ-like sonorities and the lower registers of the orchestra.

Doráti (4 CDs) and Munch (2 CDs) provide the most consistent musical value in this collection. Doráti has no losers. His “New World” Symphony is lean, muscular, and propulsive (no surprise there), much like his excellent Mercury recordings of Dvorak’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Some might feel that Doráti overdrives the music, but I like his dramatic approach. The sound is a little hard-edged, and the triangles blur and ring annoyingly in the third movement. Doráti’s best selling Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are arguably the finest recorded versions of both works. The narration (by Sean Connery) with an updated text for Peter and the Wolf works amazingly well. He is slightly tongue-in-cheek in an immediately appealing way with Peter and the Wolf and more straightforward in the Young Person’s Guide. The sound (engineered by Lilley) is sensational, with good balance between the narrator and the orchestra, and Connery is dead center between the speakers.

Doráti’s Háry János and Lieutenant Kijé Suites are both excellent, but he is competing with Reiner (RCA) in Lieutenant Kijé and himself (Mercury) in Háry János. Reiner clearly has a much better orchestra, and in Háry János Mercury’s sound is more immediate and better focused. Doráti’s recordings of the Rossini-Respighi La Boutique Fantasque and Rossiniana make a perfect coupling, and are the best kept secrets in this collection. La Boutique Fantasque crackles with excitement and rhythmic verve, undoubtedly enhanced by Doráti’s ballet experience. Rossiniana is even more surprising. In Doráti’s hands, this virtually unknown four movement, 26-minute work sounds like a major piece of music that is almost symphonic in scope. The sound (again engineered by Lilley) serves the music perfectly. Doráti’s no-nonsense Carmina Burana has always ranked with the best. For this major project, Kenneth Wilkinson, the engineering guru responsible for Decca’s Kingsway Hall sound, joined Lilley in what is to my knowledge his only Phase 4 recording. The aural perspective is more distant than usual with Phase 4. The soloists, chorus, and orchestra are well balanced and there is no objectionable spotlighting. Doráti leads a remarkably detailed and finely nuanced performance.

It is a pleasure to hear Munch’s Carmen and L’Arlésienne Suites in such sparkling sound. Munch’s Gaîté Parisienne rivals Fiedler (RCA), but he unaccountably omits the brief coda following the “Barcarolle.” The Pines and Fountains of Rome seem like odd repertoire for Munch, and his interpretations have received some criticism, but I like them. The “Pines of the Appian Way” is the slowest I have ever heard, but this actually increases its cumulative impact.

Fiedler’s three Phase 4 CDs include a sluggish selection of popular encores, a typical Boston Pops collection of Gershwin’s music, and a nicely done selection of Strauss waltzes. Stanley Black’s warhorses (4 CDs) are as noisy as they are mediocre, except for surprisingly credible and well-recorded suites from Khachaturian’s Spartacus, Masquerade, and Gayaneh with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Several other recordings require comment in the interest of presenting an accurate picture of this collection. Henry Lewis’ Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony, Beethoven Sixth Symphony, Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, and Strauss Till Eulenspiegel sound soporific, and that may be charitable. Lorin Maazel made some good Strauss and Tchaikovsky recordings, but his Death and Transfiguration and Francesca da Rimini are totally misguided. Ilana Vared’s CD featuring Yellow River Concerto and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 may be the oddest coupling ever recorded. A group of Sousa marches played by the Band of the Grenadier Guards is okay, but cannot compare to Frederick Fennell’s Mercury series. Erich Leinsdorf’s Mahler First Symphony is quite good, but his RCA recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is preferable. A gorgeous-sounding collection of the popular music of Albert Ketelbey conducted by Eric Rogers with admirable restraint is a major surprise.

Based on his Mercury recordings of Adam’s Giselle and Delibes’s Sylvia, Anatole Fistoulari would seem to be a good choice for a complete Swan Lake, but there are problems. Bannister is the engineer, so there is some unacceptably aggressive spotlighting of solo instruments. Violinist Ruggiero Ricci and several woodwind soloists are miked so closely that they sound almost as loud as the full orchestral climaxes. Fistoulari conducts a very animated performance, but the brass section of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is overextended at times. The whole thing sounds a little relentless.

The Herrmann recordings are so well known that it is difficult to imagine many audiophiles that don’t already own them. In addition, the Mobile Fidelity version of The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann sounds better in terms of clarity and inner detail, both of which are critical with Herrmann’s orchestrations. Music from the Great Hitchcock Thrillers has also been previously released on CD. Miklós Rózsa’s extended suite from Ben-Hur is less widely known among audiophiles. Rózsa includes all of the best music without being redundant. The high-level resolution of the large performing forces in the finale is stunning.  

The fairly standard packaging of Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series is reasonably attractive. The colorful square box contains 41 sleeves with the original covers, but that can be confusing. The CD contents have been expanded and mixed so that the only way you can see exactly what is on an individual disc is to look at the complete list of CD contents in the program notes. The booklet also contains several essays on Phase 4 technology and the artists.

These recordings are extremely variable in musical quality and sound. Nearly half are terrible, but the rest vary from good to sensational. The Stokowski CDs are a microcosm of Phase 4 as a whole. The Doráti and Munch recordings are all musically worthwhile, and the Herrmann collections are definitive and irreplaceable. Phase 4 may be the antithesis of a realistic representation of what you will hear in the concert hall, but despite that, many audiophiles reserve a special place in their collections for the best of these recordings. Call them the ultimate audiophile guilty pleasure.