The Decca Sound

More than 50 years ago, Decca, the renowned UK recording company, ushered in the stereophonic era with its trademark “FFSS” (or “full frequency spectrum sound”) classical LPs. The Decca Sound is a limited-edition box of six LP reissues selected for their outstanding performances and, well, their sound. Unlike the 140g British-stamped predecessors, these new 180g vinyl heavyweights are minted in Czechoslovakia. Four are analog recordings, while two stem from digital originals and make their vinyl debut.  A souvenir booklet on Decca’s fascinating history of making great recordings completes the box.

The oldest analog recording, The Golden Ring, offers well-known excerpts from Wagner’s operatic ring cycle performed by Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. I’m immediately struck by the record’s silent surfaces (never one of Decca’s strong points) and brilliant, bright, orchestral sound. The final scene of Das Rheingold, complete with anvil splitting and the gods’ entry into Valhalla, conveys the huge soundstage and dynamic range achieved by producer John Culshaw and his studio magicians. Remember, this excerpt was taped in 1958.

The excellent sonic signature is consistently maintained throughout the other analog recordings. Ernest Ansermet and his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande give a pulse-pounding rendition of de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat featuring authentic Flamenco effects. Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy and sympathetically supported by maestro Anatole Fistoulari and the London Symphony Orchestra, is as good a reading as this romantic work gets. There is nigh-perfect balance between piano and orchestra; listen to the heart-on-a-sleeve second movement adagio.  The LP also sports the most natural sound balance of the bunch. The final analog entry showcases Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra delivering two Respighi blockbusters, The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. These evocative images of ancient and modern Rome generate a massive wall of sound without swamping excellent instrumental details.  Superb handling of the dynamic extremes rightly earns the LP perennial audiophile-favorite status.

When Decca went to all-digital recording consoles in the 1980s, it continued to issue LPs cut from digital masters. However, newer technology never guarantees better sound, and many early digital-era LPs suffer from excessive glare, a trait shared by their CD counterparts. Fortunately, the news is better concerning the two digitally sourced LPs here. Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra generate a hell-for-leather rendering of Messaien’s massive Turangalila Symphony, with strong contributions from piano virtuoso Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  Young violin star Janine Jansen’s takes on Beethoven’s warhorse concerto and Britten’s modern classic hold their own against stiff competition.

In comparing the contents of the box to the original LPs of the analog recordings and to the CDs of the digital editions, the analog reissues are reasonably accurate facsimiles of the originals. However, their much quieter surfaces enable more detail to come through. The digitally sourced LPs improve upon the previous CD releases in terms of warmth and ambience.

Limited-edition deluxe box sets are all-or-nothing propositions. Should classical lovers drop more than $100 on The Decca Sound? On the basis of the four analog recordings alone, yes. If you don’t have the originals, you would have to shell out far more money to get pristine first-stamper pressings. And even if you already own the original records, they’re not “heavy” vinyl or don’t possess noise-free surfaces. Besides, all of these records offer head-of-the-list performances of works that should be in every classical library.  —Lawrence Devoe

De Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat/La Vida Breve (Ansermet/Orchestre de la Suisse Romande)

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (Ashkenazy/Fistoulari/London Symphony Orchestra)

Respighi: Feste Romane/Pini di Roma (Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra)

Wagner: The Golden Ring (Various soloists/Solti/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra)

Messaien: Turangalila –Symphonie (Chailly/Thibaudet/Harada/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major; Britten: Violin Concerto (Jansen/Jaarvi/Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/London Symphony Orchestra)

Universal, 180g 6LP box set