Sep 16, 2013 07:18 PM EDT | James Inverne
Anyone who thinks that putting together these enormous box sets of great artists of yesteryear is simply a matter of grabbing some old recordings, putting them in a shiny new box and bunging them out at an expensive (well, sometimes) price point clearly hasn't been listening to the right box sets.
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For Sony producer Jon M. Samuels, it's a labor of love and one that can take years.
The American's "Original Jackets" collection of recordings of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz for Sony scooped a 2010 Gramophone award.
But, not finished with Horowitz, he has returned with an even more ambitious project, again for Sony: a mammoth, 41-CD set called Vladimir Horowitz--Live at Carnegie Hall. And Samuels has revealed exclusively to Classicalite the immense amount of work that went into the ground-breaking project.
First, the details. The recordings in the box fall mainly into four categories--the 1949-50 discs the pianist recorded that are housed at Yale University, the 1951-53 mono tapes made by RCA, 1965-68 stereo tapes made by Columbia Records and the 1975 stereo tapes recorded by RCA.
Sounds simple? The problems were legion and of a kind that only a top-level operator could fix.
Step forward Jon Samuels!
Here he is, with the story in his own words. We print this at some length because it's a gripping (for recording junkies) behind-the-curtain story of how a great project like this is pulled together--with blood, sweat and tears we shouldn't wonder.
"This is a project that I've worked on, on and off, for over four years. In some ways, though, I've actually worked on it for over 24 years. Permit me to explain.
In early 1989, I was asked by the distinguished music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, to compile a discography to be added to his soon to be published Vladimir Horowitz biography.
In order to do so properly, I needed to track down and listen to every surviving Horowitz recording I could find.
By September 1990, in part due to my Horowitz discography, I was hired by BMG (the successor to RCA) to remaster their historic recordings, including many of Horowitz's own. Over the next 13 years, I looked for every Horowitz recording I could find in the BMG vaults. Although it may be hard to believe, RCA did not keep paper records of what concerts they recorded of any artist, let alone Horowitz, so this turned out to be a monumental task. Among other things, I discovered that many of the unedited concert tapes no longer survived in their original form. At the time these recordings were made, no one thought of them as important historical documents worth preserving for posterity. Their purpose was simply as raw material for a final edited, released LP. Sadly, very often the original tapes were discarded after the edited masters were approved.
Still, I was able to find many bits and pieces, here and there. For example, I found part of one recital as tape 'padding' on an unrelated Horowitz tape. I also turned out to be very lucky; one day a friend and fellow record collector found LP test pressings of Horowitz's three 1950s recitals, unedited, and was kind enough to buy them for me.
In 2003, I remastered my first Horowitz' Carnegie Hall recital (from November 16, 1975) for BMG. In 2009, I produced a 70-CD set of the complete issued RCA and Columbia recordings for Sony Masterworks (the successor to BMG). In the process, I was asked to choose two live recitals for inclusion as bonus material. In order to do so, I had to carefully listen to all of the Horowitz recitals recorded by RCA and Columbia. I made copious and very detailed notes about every one of these recitals, including what was on each tape, where the edits were, what (if anything) was missing, what the proper playback equalization and mix should be and what technical flaws could be found on each tape. One of the recitals I chose for inclusion was the March 5, 1951 Carnegie Hall concert.
In the meantime, Sony planned to issue three complete Horowitz Carnegie Hall recital recordings owned by Yale University (Horowitz paid to have them recorded in the late 1940s and early 1950s direct-to-disc, and then donated the discs to Yale in the 1980s). Since I had remastered all five of the previously released CDs of 'Yale' material, I was asked to choose and remaster the three recitals to be included. Sony also thought it worthwhile to add all the previously released 'live' (but edited and incomplete) Horowitz concerts recorded in Carnegie Hall, and make a large set out of it. I recommended instead that they include all the live (and this time, unedited) Horowitz concerts recorded by RCA and Columbia. They didn't believe that such a project was possible, but I explained that I had already done a great deal of the necessary work back in 2009, so they agreed."
As Samuels admits, "I didn't know what I was letting myself in for."
The Yale discs in particular were among the most difficult to work with he had ever encountered, in a quarter-century in the business. And this is where it gets really fun for tech-heads.
Recorded on 12-inch, 78 rpm lacquers, each side started at a different speed from its companions, and ended at yet another speed. All had disc rumble, often severe, sometimes not (it's easier to fix when they're all the same). The 1949 lacquers were recorded with greatly reduced bass response (which, when you adjust, pushes up the disc rumble). The 1950 recital was noisy. The outer grooves of the discs had much better, and louder, sound than the inner grooves, making joins irritatingly difficult.
Just to make it more difficult still, the first side on all three recitals was engineered differently to the rest. In one of the 1949 discs, the microphone placement changed twice, and in another, there was one minute of "unbelievably obnoxious noises." And the Yale discs weren't alone in requiring the editing skill of a musically-attuned surgeon.
Samuels worked for months, years, right up to summer 2013.
"From March to July of this year, I worked 16 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week in order to finish tracking down, transferring, 'unediting,' patching, equalizing, correcting pitch fluctuations and mixing these concerts. I also supplied the stereo sound track to the bonus DVD, Horowitz on Television. I thought I would never finish!"
Finish he did, though. And his verdict?
"The results are amazing. Not so much for my work, but for Horowitz's playing. For here we hear him in his element, before a live audience. We hear the concerts exactly as he programmed them. We may not be literally able to attend an actual Horowitz recital anymore, but this is the next best thing--with a little imagination, we are there. We become part of the audience ourselves, and it's just thrilling. And that makes all of this worthwhile."
Samuels reserves special mention for one particular set of recordings which, he says, have revealed performances of incredible quality--the Yale recordings. Which proves the old adage: Don't just a book by its cover, or rather, don't judge a performance by its lacquers.
To really appreciate what Samuels achieved, he has provided "before and after" samples of some of the performances...
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