Early Days of the Classical LP

Posted by Rubin Meisel, October 11, 2011 04:05pm | Post a Comment
On June 21st, 1948, CBS engineer Dr. Peter Goldmark introduced the new Columbia long playing record at a press conference. In the previous 15 years, there had been attempts to make a commercially viable long play album with no success. As with the concurrent development of television, the post-war boom made the project commercially viable. 33 1/3 rpm was considered the optimum speed to play the 12 inch long play microgrove records. And being made of a new plastic called vinylite they were virtually unbreakable. For shorter pieces and recitals, there were 10 inch records, but these only survived till the 1950s.
The new LP was considered a huge leap forward for listening to pre-recorded Classical music. A pop song took, on average, two or three minutes to play, which was just perfect for a 10 or 12 inch 78 rpm record. A symphony required up to 5 or 6 records on 78 rpm and had to be changed 10 to 12 times with the music often interrupted in the middle of a musical phrase. There were automatic 78 rpm record changers, but they were clunky and could damage your records. You also had to account for the amount of storage space needed for the brittle, breakable shellac 78s. The most dramatic part of Goldmark’s demonstration was when he was photographed holding a few dozen LPs while the equivalent in 78s were stacked six feet high next to him.
The introduction of the LP was not without controversy. Columbia’s great rival RCA Victor was developing its own system of 7” short playing vinyl records that played at 45 rpm. RCA engineers insisted that quality control problems with LPs would doom it. This started what was to be known as “The War of the Speeds” in which both companies spent a ton of money on print ads to woo the public before RCA conceded and converted to LP. When it was settled, it set up the paradigm that lasted for nearly 40 years: LP for albums, 45s for pop singles.

The LP created a sudden demand for classical recordings. Columbia and RCA, besides putting their new recordings on LP, transferred their classic recordings from 78s. Retailers like Sam Goody sold LP turntable attachments that could be attached to an existing standard record player. Steel or fiber needles and heavyweight tone arms couldn’t play LP microgrove records, so you needed to buy needles with precious stones like sapphire or diamond tips and a tonearm that could track lightly.

RCA and Columbia, who dominated classical in the 78 era, could not fill the demand for classical LPs. The first big new player to enter the market was English Decca. Since there was a well-known label that was once allied with them, Decca USA, they created an American division, London Records. They were one of the first companies that promoted HI-Fi with their recording system ffr (Full frequency recording), which captured low and high frequencies that were not captured before. They had a strong roaster of artists led by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, whose recordings of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy were considered definitive. Pianist Wilhelm Backhaus was perhaps the most eminent of living German pianists. Erich Kleiber, Eduard Van Beinum, and Clemens Krauss, celebrated in Europe but not well known in America, handled the Austro/German repertoire. London had perhaps it greatest success with a series with Puccini and Verdi operas sung by soprano Renata Tebaldi, often partnered by the charismatic tenor Mario Del Monaco.

American Decca mostly concerned itself with pop music and soundtracks, but they got into the act with guitarist Andres Segovia. They were also the American distributors for Deutsche Grammophon, which was hardly the preeminent label it was to become. With post-war sensitivities, the origin of the recordings were in small type.

The other new player was Mercury Records from Chicago. Mercury was primarily a pop company who had hits with Frankie Laine and Patti Page, but they started a classical series called Olympian in 1951 and hired record critic David Hall to run it. Their first recording was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with the Chicago Symphony under Rafael Kubelik. MG 5000 was so astonishingly realistic that a critic reviewing it said it was like listening to a "living presence" and not a recording, which became the motto for Mercury Classics. After fifty or so records, they made their famous first recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with conductor Antal Dorati, which features cannon and church bells that helped sell thousand of HI-Fi sets.

The major minor players in the early days of the classical boom were a far more colorful lot. Here are some of the major minors:

Vox - George Mendelssohn, a distant descendent of the composer and a conductor who emigrated from Hungary, wanted to explore repertoire (particularly Chamber and Instrumental music) that was untouched and major performers like conductors Otto Klemperer and Jascha Horenstein, and pianists Noaves, Wuhrer, and Horowiszki, to build up a huge catalog. He marketed many of them in the bargain two and three LP Vox Box. They also had eminent scholars like Joseph Braunstein to write extensive liner notes. Vox, unlike the other indies, had a half century life.

RemingtonDon Gabor (no relation), another Hungarian émigré who had worked at an RCA pressing plant, created Remington in 1949. Gabor felt that what RCA and Columbia were charging for an LP --  $5.95 (2011 equivalent more than $40) -- was too high for the average consumer and he developed a $2.99, no-frills label. Since post-war musicians in Vienna were mostly impoverished, he was able to make dozens of recordings there for next to nothing. Remington’s early pressing though microgroove were pressed using brittle material that were noisy. They also had tiny 78-style labels that he was able to buy up in surplus. A few years later, Gabor created the super budget label Plymouth to sell at records at $1.99 with even less production value. They did manage to release a performance of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas by the great composer and violinist Georges Enesco, which are worth a small fortune in the used market.

Westminster – The classiest of the indies they featured superb sound and packaging under the musical supervision of yet another Hungarian -- the demanding R. Kurt List, a music critic and conductor. Besides launching the careers of pianists Paul Badura Skoda and Jorge Demus, the label took the eminent 60-year-old German conductor Hermann Scherchen (who was virtually unknown in America) and turned him into a cult figure with his many recordings of Bach and Haydn. They also helped revive the career of a famed Polish/American conductor who got blackballed in America for fighting with orchestra boards in New York and Chicago.

Vanguard – Two recent Columbia graduates Seymour and Maynard Solomon had a love for FolkMusic and Early Classical Music. They went to Vienna and recorded Bach, Vivaldi, Tartini, and other Baroque minor masters. They made a number of recordings with counter tenor and conductor Alfred Deller that introduced so many to Purcell and other English early music composers. The bulwark of these recordings were conducted by the Austrian Felix Prohaska and an Italian Mario Rossi. The Solomon brothers, to their everlasting credit, recorded the blacklisted The Weavers and Paul Robeson when no one else would touch them.

Cetra - Italian recording company recorded most of the Italian operatic repertoire during the forties and the early-fifties. Music executive Dorle Soria got the rights to release them in America. Most of the performances were idiomatic and a little rough but most of this stuff couldn’t be gotten any other way. Soria also launched the Angel label when EMI Columbia separated from American Columbia. Angel had the good fortune to have among its first releases the recordings of Maria Callas. Angel was eventually absorbed into Capitol/EMI.

There are other minor minors like Bruno, Allegro, and Period, who specialized in bringing out recordings from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Allegro got into trouble for putting out the entire Wagner Ring, pirated from the 1953 Bayreuth Festival, under artist pseudonyms. Haydn Society, as the name would indicate, specialized in Haydn with forays into Mozart and was run by the great Haydn expert H.C. Robbins Landon when he was barely out of his teens.

Classical music had a 30% share of the LP market in the early '50s. Additionally, Broadway shows and Light Classical like Kostelanetz and Mantovani were put out by Classical labels. Every large city had its classical stores but New York had the most. Sam Goody’s, The Record Hunter, Liberty Music, and King Karol all battled it out in Midtown Manhattan.

As a teenager in the late-1960s, I saw the tail end of this amazing subculture. In the '80s, I got to meet the men who started the LP business. They themselves were hardly classical buffs or, for that matter, music buffs, but they were great businessmen who knew their customers. Each store complimented each, and they had the inventory and the staff to make them a destination for their customers. It was a special time and place.

Relevant Tags

Classical (24), Classical Music (31), Columbia (2), Vinylite (1), Peter Goldmark (1), 78s (8), Rca Victor (3), Sam Goody (1), Decca (1), Hi-fi (1), Ravel (2), Stravinsky (4), Debussy (4), Puccini (3), Verdi (1), Deutsche Grammophon (3), Mercury (1), Frankie Lane (1), Patti Page (3), Mussorgsky (2), Tchaikovsky (5), Vox (1), Remington (1), Bach (5), George Enesco (1), Haydn (3), Vanguard (1), Vivadi (1), Percell (1), The Weavers (1), Paul Robeson (7), Maria Callas (2), Cetra (1), Angel (3), Emi (1), Wagner (2), Mozart (7), Kostelanetz (1), Mantovani (4), King Karol (2), Sam Goody's (1), The Record Hunter (1), Liberty Music (1), 1950s (25), 1960s (0)