Monday, August 28, 2017

Varèse's Ionisation

The visionary composer Edgard Varèse completed "Ionisation," perhaps the first masterpiece of percussion ensemble literature, in 1931. It was premiered in 1933 and recorded the following year, making it the first Varèse composition to be issued on records. It's a fiendishly difficult piece, especially so for the orchestral percussionists of the time. Conductor Nicolas Slonimsky recalled, "We engaged the percussion players from the New York Philharmonic, but it soon became clear that they could never master the rhythms. In desperation, we appealed to fellow composers to take over the task; to them the Varèsian asymmetry was child’s play." So Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Wallingford Reigger, William Schuman, and Varèse himself (on sirens) were among the percussionists in the Columbia studios.

Recording technology and record manufacturing techniques of the time couldn't do justice to the subtleties of "Ionisation." In addition, my copy of the original Columbia "royal blue" record is somewhat worn. I've cleaned up clicks, pops, and surface noise to the extent I could without compromising the sound of the instruments. The six-minute piece was split across two sides of the original record; I've joined them, but the "seam" is apparent. While I have heard more precise and eloquent performances of this groundbreaking piece, I love the spirit of this first recording, which shines through the limitations of the record.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Wolverines on Claxtonola

I recently acquired a rare record by Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, that midwestern jazz band that recorded for Gennett in 1924.  When I became interested in jazz as a teenager, the first jazz record I remember buying was a Milestone LP collection which had all of the Wolverines' sides with Bix. Over 40 years later, I still love this music.

Claxtonola was a small Iowa City label that operated from 1922 to 1925 or so. It drew material from Paramount and Gennett, and like many small labels that leased material from larger companies, they often used pseudonyms to disguise the artists. Thus Gennett 5454, with "Riverboat Shuffle" and "Susie" played by the Wolverine Orchestra, has as its equivalent Claxtonola 40339, by The Jazz Harmonizers.

The Ebay seller who listed this record was apparently not aware of its true nature - there was no mention of Bix or the Wolverines - so I was able to buy it for a very reasonable price, considering its rarity. It's a fairly worn record, with lots of surface noise, but the music is still quite audible and enjoyable. I won't post a transfer here, because anyone interested can find the music in much better sound elsewhere on the web. But I'm happy to have this rarity by one of my favorite early jazz musicians.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nikos Relias, Greek Clarinet Master

Today I present a 12" Columbia record in their "E" series of ethnic recordings. I'm not sure when this disc was recorded, but based on the label style, it was probably issued in the United States in 1925. It was likely recorded in New York, where the great clarinetist Nikos Relias (1892-1969) lived from 1907 to 1925. Relias is accompanied by Kostas (Gus) Papagika on cymbalon (hammered dulcimer) and Markos Sifneos on cello. Note that Papagika's last name is misspelled on the label.

Papagika was the husband and accompanist of his more-famous wife, the singer Marika Papagika. Cellist Sifneos frequently played and recorded with Mrs. Papagika as well. Relias had a long and colorful career, and was known as quite the entertainer in Greece. He composed the theme music for the national radio station that is still used today.

I don't know enough about traditional Greek music to say much about these pieces, except that they are complex and impressively played. Unfortunately, Sifneos' cello is practically inaudible. I tried to correct this with some EQ, but there was barely any low-frequency signal to boost.

Aryiticos Horos

O Loulios, Tsamicos

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Bach's Art of the Fugue - First Recording

In 1934, the Roth String Quartet made the first recording of Bach's mammoth Art of the Fugue, a set of 14 fugues and four two-voice canons, all based on the same thematic material. Bach didn't specify any particular instrumentation; the Roth version was arranged by composer Roy Harris and musicologist Mary Norton. Even without the canons, which weren't included in this first recording, the work runs to 19 12-inch record sides. Even many years later, this performance gets pretty good reviews, and it has given my much pleasure.

My set is a later pressing, from the first half of the 1940s. It's in very nice condition, with minimal surface noise, for the most part. Most of the fugues fit onto one record side, but a few run to two or even three sides. I've merged the parts digitally in those cases.

The longest of the fugues is "Contrapunctus XIV," and Bach left it unfinished, either by design or by chance. It's one of my favorite pieces of music; to me, the ending is a metaphor for the unfinished nature of our lives.

The members of the Roth String Quartet are Feri Roth, Jeno Antal, Ference Molnár, and Janos Scholz. They recorded Art of the Fugue in December, 1934.

Contrapunctus I

Contrapunctus II

Contrapunctus III

Contrapunctus IV

Contrapunctus V

Contrapunctus VI

Contrapunctus VII

Contrapunctus VIII

Contrapunctus IX

Contrapunctus X

Contrapunctus XI

Contrapunctus XII

Contrapunctus XIII

Contrapunctus XIV

Friday, March 17, 2017

Banner 1928 Catalog Supplement

Banner was one of the "dime store labels" - it was the house label for the S.S. Kresge chain, although it was apparently made available to other discount stores as as well. Banner was part of the Plaza Records group, which included the Domino, Oriole, and Regal labels. Here's a monthly catalog supplement of new releases - there's no year listed, but all the records I checked were recorded in the spring or summer of 1928, so this must be the September, 1928 supplement. To today's record collectors, the most interesting records are probably the one "race" record listed, by New Orleans blues singer Lizzie Miles, and the "Hill-Billy Records" on the last page. (Although some of the dance records look pretty tasty, and the Original Indiana Five show up on 7084.) None of the artists are even listed for the hillbilly records, but in order, they are by The Lonesome Pine Twins, William Randolph, Ernest Stoneman, John Baltzell, William Randolph again, Ernest Stoneman again, John Baltzell again, Ernest Stoneman once again, and The Lonesome Pine Twins again.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Rachmaninoff on Edison

In an earlier post, I raved about the rich acoustic sound of Edison Diamond Discs. But as I delved further into these records, I became more puzzled over their inconsistency - some DDs really sound wonderful for their time; others are quite noisy. As I've gained knowledge about Edison discs, I've learned more about their variability. Edison experimented with different materials and manufacturing processes throughout the history of Diamond Discs, and some of them worked better than others. And I've learned about these records' susceptibility to moisture; the records' composite core tends to absorb moisture over time, with a deleterious impact on sound quality.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1919 Edison recording of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, spread across three record sides, has always something of a disappointment to me. Once I had a turntable capable of playing Diamond Discs, I eagerly searched for and acquired the Rachmaninoff discs, only to find the combination of surface noise and low recording level standing in the way of enjoying the music. The period of these discs' manufacture was not one of the Edison's best, in terms of sound quality.

But I have wanted to try my hand at transferring these records, so here is my attempt. I've joined the three sides together with crossfades, but it will be apparent when each new side starts. The beginning of each disc is pretty noisy, but the noise abates somewhat further down the groove - an unfortunately common characteristic of some eras of Diamond Discs.

The third side of the Second Rhapsodie, as the labels have it, includes Rachmaninoff's own cadenza, which subsequent pianists often include when performing the piece. The flip side of part three is a "Pastorale" by Scarlatti, as arranged by Carl Tausig. The picture to the right is from an Edison catalog called Music That Lives, from the early 1920s. It's a listing, with descriptions, of 300 of what the Edison organization considered their best records.

So, warts and all here is Rachmaninoff's 1919 recording of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Scarlatti's "Pastorale." I applied some declicking and a little noise reduction, but there are still passages that are practically inaudible above the surface noise.

Second Rhapsodie


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Artie Shaw on 7" Bell

The last ensemble Artie Shaw led was a version of the Gramercy Five (his name for all of his small groups) that he formed in 1953, and which lasted for about a year. This was an excellent band, composed of younger musicians who leaned toward modern jazz: Tal Farlow on guitar, Joe Roland on vibes, pianist Hank Jones (who was already something of a seasoned veteran by then), Tommy Potter on bass, and drummer Irv Kluger. The group recorded for several labels, including for Norman Granz's Clef/Verve. But the Gramercy Five's two Bell records, recorded in September, 1953, are in some ways their most unusual.

Bell (one of several labels which used that name over the years) issued conventional 10" 78s and 7" 45s, but they are most remembered for their odd, 7" microgroove 78s, which are kind of hybrids between regular 10" 78s and 45s. The labels and sleeves state, "Full length playing time equal to ten inch record," and "For Best Results Use L.P. Needle." So the question is - why make these odd little records? My theory is that these 7" 78s were issued so that younger record buyers who only had 78 RPM record players could buy the "cool" new 7" records, like their 45-buying friends.

In any case, this late Artie Shaw session is musically excellent, and the records sound pretty good. I'm somewhat in awe of Shaw's casual virtuosity here, and the other musicians play very well, especially Tal Farlow, who is particularly fluid and creative. Bell 1023, with "Besame Mucho" and "That Old Feeling," is pretty close to mint condition, while Bell 1027 - Shaw's original "Stop and Go Mambo" and "Tenderly" - is a little more worn.

Besame Mucho

That Old Feeling

Stop and Go Mambo