Back to the Future

I have inadvertently joined a cult.  No, that’s not right.  Perhaps I should say that I have rejoined, for in the distant past I was more than an acolyte.  Here is what happened.  On an order form for review CDs, I saw a 14-disc set of recordings made in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the Berlin Philharmonic, with Wilhelm Furtwängler, on the Audite label (87.101).  Since I consider Furtwängler one of the greatest conductors who ever lived, I reflexively checked the item and placed my order.

Imagine my surprise when a large 13 x 13″ box arrived at my doorstep.  Had I ordered a large picture book from Amazon?  Not that I recalled.  Consumed by curiosity, I tore open the package to discover, to my great surprise, a packet of 14 LPs – that would be “long playing records” for those whose hair is not yet gray.  How could this be?  I went back and double checked the order form to discover in small type the “LP” designation, the only such one on the entire order form.

Coincidentally, I opened my Wall Street Journal (Friday, January 27, 2012) to an article written by my former VOA colleague, Eric Felten, titled “It’s Alive! Vinyl Makes a Comeback.” In it, he reports that, while CD sales fell by more than 5% last year, vinyl record sales grew more than 36%, even though the LP represents a tiny share of the market.  As an example, he offered the San Francisco Symphony package of Gustav Mahler’s complete symphonies on 22 LPs in a box costing $750.  The 500 sets have sold out.  To keep the significance of this in proportion, you should know that a classical music CD that sells 1000 copies worldwide is considered a bestseller.  Apparently, audiophiliacs, who consider analog sound superior to digital, are the audience for the new LPs.  This is an interesting development.

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To explore it, I had to remove piles of CDs off the dust cover of my ancient Bang and Olufsen record player, which required a generous application of Windex for cleaning.  Next, I had to get it turning, and then figure out how to stop the screeching buzz that it produced.  I discovered that grounding wire was not hooked up.  Finally, I was ready to play an LP.  As I removed it from its plastic sleeve, I was involuntarily overwhelmed with memories.  As Marcel Proust’s youth returned to him with the taste of a madeleine cake, so too did mine with a whiff of vinyl.

LPs were my introduction to classical music.  Because of the treasures they contained, they assumed for me an almost totemic significance.  I treated them as a mother might a newborn and created a series of solemn ceremonies for the occasions of their use.  Since these were frequent, my house took on a semi-liturgical aura.  I also became obsessed with the diamond cartridge weight: the more grams, the more potential damage to the grooves.  This meant that, every time I played an LP, I might be harming it.  I finally achieved some peace of mind with a cartridge that could track at 1 1/2 grams.

I also began collecting LPs in what some might consider an obsessive manner.  In my defense, I will say: how could anyone not wish to have more of something as wonderful as classical music?  Not even penury could daunt my pursuit.  I found a way around it.  In Manhattan, where I lived as an indigent actor, I discovered a number of music stores in which cut out records were sold.  These could be obtained for as little as a dollar.  When I was not consumed with work, which was almost always, I used to haunt these stores.  I found that, when feeling less than cheery, the successful purchase of a new piece of music on a bargain LP would considerably restore my spirits.  It was a great tonic.  Soon, I had 3000 of them.  I used to count my records, but that became too big a chore.  So I used to figure out, on average, how many LPs there were in a foot of shelf space.  Then I would take a tape measure, gauge the number of yards, and compute the estimated total.  I don’t know why I did this.

I was never separated from my records.  Wherever I moved, I took them with me.  Records are heavy, and I tore the handles off a number of suitcases carting them around.  When I relocated to Switzerland, my LPs were with me.  And therein lies a tale.  One afternoon, I entertained a Swiss industrialist at my home in Berne.  He was a music lover and became extremely interested in my collection.  He wondered if I might be willing to sell it.  Even then, Swiss francs were highly desirable, and I could almost hear them clinking in my coffers.  Also, this was the early era of the compact disc, and all the music I was reviewing for American magazines was now being delivered to me in that format.  One could easily see that the LP was living on borrowed time.

Yet, I hesitated.  Even in my wildest dreams, I did not imagine that the CD would be so successful that it would replicate most of what I had and go far beyond what I ever hoped to hear in terms of new repertory.  So I said no, and here I sit today, a somewhat poorer man, with the LP mother lode intact.  Years and years go by without my playing a record and, when I do, it is usually for purposes of research.  I long ago replaced my favorite LP recordings with CD versions of the same.  My CD collection now easily surpasses my records – the fruit of the last 25 years of writing reviews.

Nonetheless, as soon as I put the new Audite LP on the player, I was recidivisticly seized with apprehension as to where my antistatic brushes and protective fluids were.  Where was the tiny paintbrush, daubed in alcohol, with which I used to keep the diamond needle clean?  If I still possessed these, they were in the hidden recesses of some storage bin.  Could I proceed without them, with some possible harm occurring to the grooves?  Perhaps you find this silly, but I hope my history evokes some sympathy.  As the memories came flooding in, I also braced myself for the audible clicks and pops that were the bane of LPs.

I didn’t hear them.  What I heard was the warm, monophonic sound of great music in exalted performances.  Known for its feats of audio restoration, the Audite label must have used great care in casting its pristine, heavyweight 180-gram records because they are the quietest that I have experienced.  There were no impediments to immersing myself in the glories of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, Brahms’ Third, Schubert’s Eighth or Beethoven’s Sixth – the ones I have so far sampled.  Therefore, I very much look forward to Schubert’s Ninth, Brahms’s Fourth and Beethoven’s Third and Fifth, among the other delights offered in this set.  I should add that I am used to listening to Furtwängler recordings with a great deal of distortion, wow and flutter from the imperfect sources from which they were drawn. Audite took these recordings from the original RIAS master tapes (1947—1954) and, while they are not audiophile quality, they are rock steady and far better sounding than most Furtwängler recordings.  This, then, is a treasure.

The ceremonies have returned.  One cannot, as with a CD, pop a disk casually in its player and start vacuuming for an hour.  No one (meaning my children) can come bounding through the room because their percussive weight on the floor will make the cartridge bounce.  No, preparation must be made, ablutions performed, and time found.  The Bruckner Eighth Symphony, for example, is on four LP sides.  If you’re going to listen, you will pay attention.  You will observe the ritual.  This is serious.  The music is serious.  It is profound.  If you listen closely, it will take you so far out of yourself that you will never be the same.

Audite is also offering these recordings, along with some others, on a 12-CD set.  Yes, that makes it more convenient but, then, where would be the ceremony?


For an audio sampling of the Audite label discussed in Robert Reilly’s review, Crisis readers may wish to listen here.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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