A tribute to a fabulous recording - Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes'
I've mentioned a few times this wonderful and pioneering stereophonic recording from 1958, recorded in the second year of the stereophonic era. Even if you know nothing about the format of opera, or don't think you like opera (I'm not a great fan of opera myself) this is the one to have. The performance is conducted by the composer and the recording atmosphere is simply fabulous. These early Decca recordings hooked me on audio in my teens - the first I bought was the 1969 Billy Bud. I wanted to create speakers that would put me right there in the recording venue and make those voices sound as if they really were in front of me, in my listening room. So I'm looking forward to taking you back half a century to north London to the performance conducted by the composer himself. It is absolutely certain that if the same cast, orchestra and composer could be assembled today in the same hall, probably using the same microphones, modern digital recording would offer a technically superior sound. If you know the recording as well as I do, you'll be all too aware of its occasional technical blemishes. Nevertheless, it is what it is and the atmosphere forgives the limitation of the 50s technology. Perhaps we can look at those little foibles later.
I mentioned recently that Decca records - specifically producer John Culshaw - consciously set about using the possibilities of the then novel idea of the stereophonic L-R width to create on playback at home a really absorbing experience. That was in stark contrast to stereo demonstration disks of the era with their blatant L-R ping-pong effects. We'll cover them another time. We can also hear that by 1961 and Noah's Flood just three years later - there had been a significant improvement in recording quality.
About twenty years ago when Decca had their analogue tape archive in North London, I visited them and specifically asked to see the original 10.5" Peter Grimes NAB tape reels. We wandered along what seemed like mile after mile of archived tapes all neatly arranged on shelves and eventually found them. I just had to hold one. At the time the only way of editing was to take a razor blade to the master tape (or a second or later generation of it) and once the cut was made, it was permanent. If I recall correctly, there were notes on the box mentioning that there were indeed numerous edits and that some of them, held together with by-then thirty year old sticky tape were very fragile indeed. So the master tape itself, believed to be first generation had been physically spliced with great skill within weeks of the recording. What I had in my hand was a time capsule of a recording venue from the very earliest days of stereo. Many of those involved are no longer alive, so this is my long overdue tribute to them*. (Tape editing and digitisation is another story for another time).
The original tape to digital transfer was made in 1985, and it wasn't my friend who did that one - but it surely would have been on a Studer A80. I don't recall what digital format it was transferred to: Decca had pioneered the use of digital audio to videotape but having been taken over, probably fell into line with Philips corporation-wide policies and procedures. It really doesn't matter - the fact is the old tapes were transferred to digital before they faded away and we lost this beautiful performance.
This week I found that Amazon were offering a '96kHz, 24 bit' version of Grimes which has arrived. On a quick listen, I can't hear any difference between than and my original 44kHz, 16 bit version, nor would I expect to: the limiting factor by far is the analogue tapes from half a century ago. The twin CD package doesn't include the libretto, so if you are interested in buying, I'd strongly recommend the original full price if still available just for the libretto. What I'd rather have had for the money is the skilful use of modern digital noise reduction to remove one or two noise artefacts which, when you know the recording well, are audible. They are most likely to be the result of tape storage issues: you have to nurse old analogue tapes which by their very nature, start to self erase from the second they are recorded.
So that sets the scene. Now to have a look at the layout of the recording stage on the next post ...
* I've just remembered that I used Peter Grimes as a demo piece at the old Penta/Ramada hi-fi show in London many years ago - probably mid 90s. One member of the audience came over to me and said that he'd actually been present at the recording thirty five years previously and the whole experience was so emotive that he just hadn't been able to bring himself to re-live it on record. We were both lost for words. He said some very kind things about the sound (I think it was either C7ES2s or HL5s) and on he went. I should have asked for his name.
Alan A. Shaw
Harbeth Audio UK