In March, 1978, a friend took me to the campus of UCLA. He pointed to Royce Hall, where the LA Philharmonic made its recordings. Eager to look inside, I hustled across the quadrangle and walked through the door. In the entrance foyer I saw a snare drum, and facing it a music stand, a microphone, and a television monitor. Cables snaked across the floor. The music on the stand I recognized: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Stepping gingerly, I pushed open the door to the main hall. An enlarged stage was covered with risers, chairs and music stands, but no one was in sight—I had arrived at a coffee break.
Not wanting to be seen, I slipped up the stairs to the first balcony. And there I hid as the players filtered back into the hall and Mehta and the band resumed recording the symphony’s first movement. Long, gorgeous takes, and such sound! The floor underneath me shook.
This long-overdue 38-CD box set shows what a great partnership Mehta and the Philharmonic had. There’s not a bad recording in it, and I haven’t wanted to stop listening. The recordings were made between 1967 and 1978—precisely the period when analogue stereo was at its zenith—all of them in Royce Hall, and all under the supervision of top Decca producers and engineers.
The LA Philharmonic in those years was an ensemble coming into its own, with a sound that combined the impact and precision of the best American bands and some of the refinement of the best European ones. The strings, with their new-world chops, were capable of playing anything, even if the sound they produced occasionally fell short of the old-world patina you might hear in Vienna, Berlin, or Philadelphia. The wind players were all virtuosos, and behind them sat a resplendent brass section whose principals (save for a sonorous but, in the early years, rather uncouth solo tuba) were all top-drawer. The percussion, led by timpanist William Kraft, was splendid.
Under Mehta, who had become music director in 1962, the orchestra’s playing was unfailingly alert and committed; nobody phoned things in. It had energy and push, and something else—a combination of delicacy and voluptuousness that was, and remains, a hallmark of Mehta’s music making.
The orchestra’s home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was impossible for recordings, but Royce had potential. The main challenge facing Decca’s team was to keep the hall from drying out the Philharmonic’s lush sound. They placed wood panels and plastic sheeting over the parterre to prevent the seats from absorbing too much, but left the hall dry enough for complex textures to be heard in the repertory in which Mehta and the orchestra excelled: 19th- and 20th-century showpieces.
With their bright brass and formidable weight in the bass, these recordings sounded glorious on LP, and have been highly regarded by audiophiles ever since. Among the standouts, the 1971 Holst Planets, a demonstration disc for sure, and that Mahler Third I sat in on, recently reissued as an Analogue Productions SACD.
All but a handful have been newly mastered for this box. I started with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, which hurled me back to the winter of 1967–68, when the London LP pairing it with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night served as my introduction to the music of both these composers, and to this orchestra. At the end of a positively erotic reading, Mehta and the Angelenos hold the last, triumphant C major chord of the Scriabin an incredible 18 seconds. Compared with the constricted sound on the Australian Eloquence CD that’s been floating around for 20 years now, this seems more open and has greater depth.
There’s lots of Richard Strauss here, crowned by a great Alpine Symphony, all six Tchaikovsky symphonies, some militantly seductive Ravel, and a fabulous Bruckner Eighth. There’s also a thrilling, balls-out Rite of Spring from 1969, in which the seating the orchestra used for a couple of seasons (heavy brass on the left, horns on right) results in a noticeably different sonic picture. Another standout is the 1971 Varèse disc, featuring a brilliant Intégrales, one of the all-time great accounts of Arcana, and a landmark Ionisation.
Over the 11 years these discs document, Mehta grew, the orchestra grew, and Decca’s work went from being quite good to absolutely outstanding. The best years were the last three (1975–78), with A&R chief Ray Minshull in the pilot’s seat and the incomparable Jimmy Lock on the pots. They got the acoustic treatment right, the balances right, everything down to the snail on the thorn right.
From this heyday came the 1975 recording of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony—in fabulous sound, worth the price of the whole box—Ives’s Symphony No. 2, wonderful in the majestic pandemonium of its finale, and Dvořák’s Eighth and Ninth, boasting gorgeous textural detail throughout, with a captivating Wood Dove as filler for No. 8.
The 1976 sessions produced a Mahler 5 to rank with the best, the “counterpoint” in its final movement brilliantly clear. And 1977 brought the only recordings of John Williams’s Star Wars and Close Encounters suites worthy to sit on the shelf next to the master’s own. I admit this is one of my personal favorites in the box, as is the Scriabin, the Alpine Symphony, and of course that Mahler 3, perhaps because my heart is still beating there, somewhere up in the balcony.