Sunday, 23 March 2014

One out, Ten in

Felsted L 89003 front

Vivaldi 6 Concertos for flute, strings & b.c. Op.10
Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute),
Robert Veyron-Lacroix (harpsichord),
Louis de Froment Instrumental Ensemble
Felsted L 89003
(rec. 1953/54?, Paris?, issued September 1954)

It’s no good – much as I try to declutter the Cave, which is mainly what’s kept me from here (once again, many apologies), more floods in. I’ve not been ruthless enough – after several trips to the dump, there are still piles of ancient hi-fi and computer bits, books I’ve not looked at in 30 years, endless runs of magazines… And, of course, for every disc that goes out, an order of magnitude more comes in. But La Grumpy is pleased with my progress. And she has always generously indulged my endless purchases and acquisitions, such as this nice and little-known LP, bought recently from France.

Stuff does go out. For several years I’ve been selling surplus CDs online – a couple a month, usually (often, not even that many). That’s far too slow to make a dent in the Cave, so I’ve started giving discs (78s and LPs too) to our national sound archive. Some people will be surprised to learn that it doesn’t already ‘have everything’. It receives some new releases, yes, from some record companies, as voluntary donations; but many, it has to buy, since Britain has no statutory legal deposit of audio-visual material, unlike printed material. This was one of the subjects discussed on Friday 21st March at Keeping Tracks, a symposium on ‘music and archives in the digital age’ organized by the British Library in London. One presentation, by Trond Valberg and Lars Gaustad of Norway’s National Library, left us all green. Get this: they not only do have statutory legal deposit of audio-visual material, they also receive original master recordings from record companies!

What’s that got to do with this post? Well, I’d much rather you could enjoy this LP remastered from the original tape than from my pre-loved pressing, even though it has come up pretty well, thanks (as ever) to Brian Davies’ marvellous software. What are companies like Universal, Sony or Warner – none of which attended the symposium or, I gather, have bothered to respond to the British Library’s overtures about digital archiving – going to do with material which they’re unlikely ever to remaster digitally and sell? Does anyone at Universal, which now owns Decca, publisher of this LP, know about it or where the master tape is?

In fact, who recorded the master? In August 1954, The Gramophone reported the launch of Felsted, a subsidiary label of Decca carrying material licensed from France and falling into three categories, ‘Serious, Jazz and Swing and Authentic Dance Rhythms… The serious music… will feature both Classical and Modern music.’ Felsted lasted into the 1960s but its programme of ‘Serious’ music soon fizzled out, amounting to just seven 12-inch LPs and one 10-inch. I’ve only come across three or four for sale, of which I’ve managed to buy this and one other (I was outbid on a third).

Felsted masters were apparently licensed from the French label Classic. Rampal certainly recorded for Classic: I own a 78 of Bach’s solo Partita BWV 1013 played by him, which I plan to transfer and share once I get the Cave wired for 78 playback; and I’m sure that the famous Pierrot lunaire, in which he plays under René Leibowitz, must have been recorded by Classic, as were Berg’s Chamber Concerto, also conducted by Leibowitz (both can now be heard on a Japanese Green Door CD), and other works of the Second Viennese School.

Thing is, I’ve found no Classic issue of this Vivaldi Op.10 LP – although it has been confused with a slightly later Vox recording by Rampal and Froment, which was reissued by Tecval on a budget Tuxedo Music CD. And no Classic issue of Pierrot seems to be documented, either. Who now owns the Classic catalogue, anyway, which is stuffed of fascinating and important, pioneering recordings (we need a Classic discography)? It could be Universal Music France – but then you might expect this to have turned up in Accord’s 8-CD box of early concerto recordings by Rampal (get it and its companion chamber music box – they’re both fabulous). Maybe no one owns it… In which case, could Decca here in Britain be sitting on the only reliably locatable (copy) master tape?

Sorry, I’ve been rabbiting on, and it’s time to cut to the recording itself (6 fully tagged mono FLACs, in a .rar file, here). As soon as I put it on, I knew it was a good ’un, despite the technical problems. These include very audible pre-echo, edits, drop-outs (of which the worst is at 2:21-ish in Concerto No.2) and a high hum. The second movement of Concerto No.6 has been scalped (4:05); and the balance is unrealistic, with the flute close enough for us to hear a lot of key-work and pad-smacks - and the harpsichord’s even closer. I’m too lazy to download the score but I’m sure I hear misreadings here and there (at 4:27 in No.2, is that really the right note at the top of the upward phrase?); and in places Veyron-Lacroix slightly over-elaborates the continuo, at one point adding Dart-like canonic responses to the flute part.

Felsted L 89003 back

[For some reason, the sleeve bills Concerto No.3,
‘Il Cardellino’ (or ‘Gardellino’, ‘The Goldfinch’),
as being in G, when it’s in D – isn’t it?]

But the vitality and freshness (and, in No.5, tender delicacy) of everyone’s playing more than make up for all that. And I like being able to hear Rampal clearly, since his virtuosity is so breath-taking, debonair and well suited to the music. In October 1954, The Gramophone rightly praised Rampal but was a little sniffy about the ensemble’s ‘stinginess in numbers’ and ‘prosaic … style’ (incidentally, why was de Froment not credited as conductor? Maybe he didn’t?). To me, now, the ensemble’s small size and ‘prosaic’ playing sound prophetic, a reminder that performance practices varied more in the past than melioristic accounts of the 1970s & ’80s baroque boom would have us believe. And we can only know that by hearing these old records.

So: national libraries of the world, unite and dig this stuff out from under the dogs in the mangers; you have nothing to lose but simplistic conceptions of the past. I’m not suggesting that record company archives should be expropriated. But what if, instead of collecting mainly pressed discs (test and published), national libraries and archives were allowed to remaster the unloved, forgotten productions of their countries’ record labels, so that music-loving readers, researchers and discographers could enjoy them (only in reading rooms or on the institutions’  intranets) free of the dirt and damage of decades, in sound which does justice to their often surprising and delightful contents?

Oh, and I almost forgot – this was the first complete recording of Op.10 and it includes the first recordings I can trace of No.2 and No.6.