Original first US edition (pressed by RCA) and released by Philips in 1962. FR1/RFR-2 I (Indianapolis) stampers. Catalog Number: PHS 900-000. Late US edition (pressed by Columbia) and released by Philips with same catalog numbers. Original late Dutch edition released by Philips. Catalog Number: 835 474 LY. Recorded: July 1961 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, by C.R. Fine. Production: Harold Lawrence.
If I could hear only one master tape (er, film), this would be it. There is just something special about this recording, the only one the Mercury team made for Philips using the 35mm equipment they purchased from Everest. Similar to the best 35MM Mercury titles (Ravel Paray SR-90313 comes to mind), it has astounding air and effortlessness. The music is, of course, well-known and well-analyzed by others more qualified than me, so I’m not going to cover it here (see my review philosophy).
Piano is notoriously difficult to get right on record. Muddy, thin, woolly, twinkle-y, warble-y, out of tune — take your pick, such problems show up in the majority of solo, chamber, and orchestral records. This one has no such problems. It sounds natural, full, and harmonically complex, like the real thing. And it is dynamic. Perhaps because of the advantages 35MM magnetic film affords, the piano is positively enormous when played loudly. Too big, actually, but undeniably engaging.
Unfortunately, as with all things in this life, nothing is perfect, and this record has one, gigantic, fatal flaw, which shows up in all the pressings except the later Dutch Philips. Due to the program length and wide groove spacing needed to capture everything in its full-bandwidth glory, the ending of Side 2 has serious inner groove distortion problems–at least with my Technics EPA-100 and Rega RB-250 pivoted tonearms (linear tracker owners could be in luck). If there was ever a recording that deserved to be reissued as a 2LP set, this is it! For now, we have only single LP versions.
This record sold a ton of copies and was pressed in many editions. Since the recording is so good, all four pressings I own sound outstanding, with only the later Columbia-pressed copy sounding anything less than audiophile.
The original, first RCA pressing is out of this world, which makes sense, since this was essentially a Mercury production and RCA was accustomed to pressing their finest discs. It has air! Tone! Guts! Boundless life! My copy is very clean and obviously was not played much by its former owner. Top end extension is extraordinary, although it does have a hint of aggression in highs (Mercury sound). It has lots of “tubey magic,” and is harmonically rich.
The Speakers Corner reissue is like the RCA pressing, only less of it. By most measures, it is a blockbuster record. Dynamic, clean and balanced. However, compared directly to the RCA pressing, it is missing some tone, air, and guts. It is less transparent. Piano notes lack some body and are a little boxed in. Again, criticizing the sound on this reissue is like complaining the Hope Diamond isn’t big enough. We should all be so lucky to own a record that sounds as good as this one does!
As for other pressings, the late Dutch Philips I have on hand is also very nice. Maybe a little too nice, if you know what I mean. It is missing some dynamic range, transparency, tone, and guts. It is also slightly veiled compared to RCA. The later Columbia pressing is comparatively ragged. It has some tone in there but is missing air. It also has a higher noise floor than the others. It sounds like a good 2-eye Columbia pressing. Nothing special, but not as bad as I imagined.
The reissue vinyl is impressive. Just less than perfectly flat and centered. Quiet surfaces. No ticks, pops, scratches, or other imperfections. The cover is nice quality as well. Laminated front and back, printed on heavy stock. My only complaint? Most of the typefaces used in the dramatic cover graphics are incorrect and don’t match the original. Even the Philips logo and Mercury’s iconic spine text are off. At first glance, it’s difficult to notice what’s “wrong,” but after looking at it for a second or two, it’s clear. Wish they had matched the typefaces! Kudos to Speakers Corner, however, for choosing the correct variation of the banner at the top of the front cover. The later Columbia-pressed edition includes only a single “35MM” logo, while the original RCA-pressed edition has two. Given the impact the 35MM process had on the sound, I think it deserves two, minimum!
At $30, this Speakers Corner reissue is an easy recommendation. Buy it new and immediately enjoy this very special recording. Over time, as you encounter the plentiful supply of originals in used record shops (check eBay), look for a clean RCA pressing (with “FR1/RFR2” in dead wax). You can probably get one for less than $20 given the supply. If you have a conventional pivot tonearm and want to avoid hearing any trace of inner groove distortion, get a NM Dutch Philips for less than $10. The upside of its narrow groove spacing is its immunity to this problem. The downside is less bass.