The evolution of Decca Sound


Emmanuel Chabrier

RGENTA España · Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto


Felix Mendelssohn

MAAG Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream · Symphony 3


Maurice Ravel

MONTEUX Ravel: Daphnis et Chloë · Elgar: Enigma Variations


Richard Wagner

NILSSON: Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - scenes


Giacomo Puccini

TEBALDI Puccini: La fanciulla del West – highlights



VIENNA OCTET Mendelssohn: Octet · Beethoven: Septet


Jacques Ibert

MARTINON Ibert: Divertissement · Borodin 2


Manuel de Falla

ANSERMET Falla: El sombrero des tres picos


Gustav Holst

KARAJAN Holst: The Planets


Joseph Haydn



Antonín Dvorák

KERTÉSZ Dvorák: New World Symphony · Symphony 8


Sergei Rachmaninov

ASHKENAZY Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto 3 Piano Sonata 2


Benjamin Britten

BRITTEN War Requiem



KATCHEN Bartók & Prokofiev 3 · Ravel


Mikhail Glinka

SOLTI Romantic Russia · Suppé 4 Overtures


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

MARRINER Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings · Souvenir de Florence


Johann Sebastian Bach

MÜNCHINGER Bach: Magnificat · Cantatas 10 & 140



CURZON Mozart: Piano Concertos 20 & 27


Edgard Varèse

MEHTA Varèse · Ives 2


Gustav Mahler

SOLTI Mahler 8


Ludwig van Beethoven

LUPU Beethoven: Moonlight, Pathétique & Waldstein Sonatas


Giacomo Puccini

PAVAROTTI Puccini: Turandot – highlights


Kyung Wha Chung

CHUNG Bruch & Mendelssohn Concertos



DOHNÁNYI Schoenberg, Berg & Webern


Anton Bruckner

BÖHM Bruckner 4


Enrique Granados

LARROCHA Granados: Goyescas · Falla: Noches en los jardines de España


Ottorino Respighi

MAAZEL Respighi: Feste Romane · Pini di Roma · Rimsky-Korsakov


Leos Janácek

MACKERRAS Janácek: Sinfonietta, Tara Bulba The Cunning Little Vixen Suite


Camille Saint-Saëns

ROGÉ Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 2, 4 & 5



BOSKOVSKY: New Year’s Day Concert 1979


Dmitri Shostakovich

HAITINK Shostakovich 5 & 9



SUTHERLAND Live from Lincoln Center


Igor Stravinsky

DORATI Stravinsky: L’Oiseau de feu · Le Sacre du printemps


Johann Sebastian Bach

SCHIFF Bach: Goldberg Variations


Jean Sibelius

ASHKENAZY Sibelius 1 Mussorgsky: Pictures at an exhibition


Maurice Ravel

DUTOIT Ravel: Ma Mère l’oye · Boléro


Richard Strauss

BLOMSTEDT R. Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie


PAVAROTTI The Three Tenors in Concert 1990


Wiliam Walton




PICKETT Susato: Danserie


Henry Purcell

HOGWOOD Purcell: Dido and Aeneas



BARTOLI Italian Songs


Olivier Messiaen

CHAILLY Messiaen: Turangalîla-symphonie


Ludwig van Beethoven

TAKÁCS QUARTET Beethoven: Quartets opp.95, 130 & 133



BELL Barber & Walton Concertos



FLEMING Opera scenes


Ute Lemper

LEMPER Berlin Cabaret Songs


Giovanni Pergolesi

ROUSSET Pergolesi: Stabat Mater


Johannes Brahms

FREIRE Brahms: Piano Concerto 1 · Schumann: Carnaval


Ludwig van Beethoven

JANSEN Britten & Beethoven Violin Concertos


by Michael Gray


What distinguishes one recording from another? Clearly the musical score and the artists who realise that score in living sound are of paramount importance. But what about those behind the scenes whose talent, energy and creativeness in the art of sound recording convey that performance to the listener at home? This is their story — the story of The Decca Sound.


Decca Records, of course, existed before The Decca Sound. With the acquisition in 1937 by Decca’s Sir Edward Lewis of Crystalate Records and its West Hampstead Studios, the company also acquired the services of a number of experienced sound and electrical engineers, and in particular one whose name was Arthur Charles Haddy (1906–89). From the time he left school at the age of sixteen, Haddy had been fascinated by the then-new techniques of wireless broadcasting and electronics. After stints with radio engineer C.F. Elwell and telephone work with Western Electric, Haddy arrived at Crystalate in 1929 to build and then operate its first electrical recording equipment. Eight years later, and now under the Decca umbrella, Haddy constructed a new moving coil disc cutter at West Hampstead, a unit capable of preserving high frequencies up to 7,000 Hz on a 78 rpm disc. It was the first step in creating what we know and appreciate today as The Decca Sound.


Crystalate’s recording studio was located in West Hampstead’s former town hall. Measuring some forty-five feet wide, sixty feet long and with a domed ceiling some thirty-five feet above the floor made of pitch-pine, it was the locale for the vast majority of Decca’s popular music recording and small-ensemble classical sessions. What’s more, it exactly fitted Haddy’s definition of an ideal recording venue, a hall in which an orchestra could be placed on the floor of the auditorium to take ideal advantage of equal reverberation periods picked by recording microphones from all sides of the venue. Haddy and the Decca team were not, of course, the first to attempt to build a widerange recording system; in America and on the Continent, other engineers were also working on techniques to improve the sound of gramophone records. But the outbreak of World War II on 3 September 1939 brought all this to a halt; while Decca continued to make records during the war, all research and development was now directed to purely military objectives. Among its fruits was the famous Decca Radar system, which revolutionised the safety of maritime commerce. One of those war-time objectives came at the request of Coastal Command, which sought Decca’s expertise to train air crews to distinguish the distinctive, but very high-frequency sounds made by German and British submarines. “That meant high fidelity”, Haddy recalled in an interview in 1951, “and the chance to conduct all necessary experiments under the best possible conditions. We went all out on it, in a way that probably would have taken years in peace time.” The resulting unit, again built around a moving-coil driving element, was flat in frequency response from 40 to 15,000 Hz. “High Fidelity” had been an American advertising slogan for more than a decade. Now the Decca team in Britain was ready to use real Hi-Fi gear developed for the war effort to make that phrase a reality.


The first opportunity to do this came on Thursday 8 June 1944, when Haddy and his Decca associates, using a trio of Films and Equipment RK-2 condenser microphones, recorded their first “High Fidelity” undertaking, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 with Sidney Beer’s National Symphony Orchestra, issued without fanfare on five Decca 12-inch discs in the autumn of 1944. Although still on 78s, all of the elements of The Decca Sound — wide-range microphones, microphone mixer, disc-cutter, and a simple but elegant microphone placement in a recording-friendly venue — were at last in place.


More Kingsway orchestral sessions followed in the autumn of 1944. In June 1945, Decca formally introduced its new recording process, dubbed “Full Frequency Range Recording” by Decca’s American-born engineer Harvey Schwartz (who also developed the Decola). In 1946, artists from continental Europe joined the Decca programme, recruited by Maurice Rosengarten, Decca’s Swiss agent: Charles Munch from Paris, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra under Eduard van Beinum, and Decca veteran Ernest Ansermet, whose December 1946 recording of Stravinsky’s Petrushka was to become the world-wide calling-card for FFRR and The Decca Sound. The Decca Sound was now also being created on the Continent: sessions in Amsterdam came first in September 1946, then followed Rome in July 1947, Paris’s Maison de la Mutualité in May 1948, and what would become the venue for many of Decca’s most famous recordings, Victoria Hall in Geneva, in June 1949. Thanks to engineer Cyril Windebank, Decca was now able to begin to switch from recording on cumbersome wax discs to less fragile lacquer discs, an innovation that permitted the company to issue the first FFRR LP records for the American market in the summer of 1949.


Good as they were, these new LPs were still monaural. Since the 1920s, the goal of recording and reproducing sound for two ears had occupied laboratory experimenters in America, Britain and Europe. Acoustic theory developed then described two different techniques: one, dubbed binaural, was intended to imitate the arrival of sound waves around the human head, and was intended to be ideally reproduced through headphones. The other, stereophonic reproduction, implied the use of more than two recording channels to create a full sound field heard through loudspeakers.


Haddy was well aware of both theories and, at the end of 1951, had also become aware, through the offices of Decca’s classical producer Victor Olof, of the work of Lawrence Savage, who had been working since the mid-1940s on a two-channel recording system using an artificial head consisting of three microphones, one facing forward, the other two at 70º angles from the centre pickup. A series of meetings and demonstrations of the Savage gear were arranged during 1952, and early in 1953, after a crucial meeting attended by Decca Chairman Sir Edward Lewis, the Decca team received the go-ahead to bring the Savage system and its accompanying rights into the West Hampstead laboratory.


Several of the crucial components of the Savage gear had been built from Savage’s patent application by a twenty-five-year-old engineer named RoyWallace, who had been working on and off with the system since 1942. In March 1953, Haddy, who was on the outlook for exceptional engineering talent, invited Wallace to join Decca to further develop Savage’s ideas, and in particular to devise an effective way to record two channels of sound onto a flat disc, first using Savage’s “channelling” system, and then with a new “single-side band” system that proved to be so effective that in late 1953 Haddy asked Wallace to start experiments at recording sessions in the West Hampstead recording room, beginning with a session on 23 December 1953 with Mantovani’s orchestra.


Wallace had by that time abandoned the artificial head entirely. In a 1997 interview, he described the replacement design he had devised: “I just bolted a couple of shortish pieces of Dexion uprights together in the shape of the letter T and put out … three [Neumann directional] M49 microphones left, centre and right on the baffle”, with the centre microphone eight inches in advance of the left and right pickups separated from each other by 24 inches. When Arthur Haddy saw the results, he is said to have exclaimed: “It looks like a bloody Christmas tree.”


The “Tree” was a remarkable achievement, satisfying the need for a pickup mixing the centre channel into the signals from the left and right microphones, and created a dramatic, “3-D” aural picture when reproduced via loudspeakers. With Haddy pushing to transfer this new technique from the laboratory to actual recording sessions, Wallace set about dismantling two Decca mono microphone mixers to fabricate a single new, two-channel, six-input mixer to record what Haddy was calling “Binaural” at Decca’s spring recording sessions with Ernest Ansermet’s Suisse Romande orchestra. Armed with a new Ampex twochannel tape recorder, Haddy, Wallace, Brown and other members of the Decca crew arrived in Geneva on 12 May. The first piece to be recorded was Rimsky- Korsakov’s “Antar” Symphony on 13 May. After capturing the entire first movement on tape, Haddy and the crew waited for Ansermet’s reaction. It was all they could have hoped for. “This is utterly magnificent. It is wonderful. It’s just as if I was standing at my desk.”


Making BN recordings now became not only an engineering experiment, but a production priority: from the end of 1954 until the middle of 1957,Wallace, Brown and other engineers made more than 400 BN masters in Vienna, Rome, Florence, Paris, Geneva, and Belgrade. Two new primary Trees were now in service. One used baffled Neumann omnidirectional M-50 microphones, the other an “open” Tree arrayed with three-directional Neumann KM- 56 microphones. A third and short-lived Tree with omni-directional Neumann KM-53 microphones captured two historical performances heard in this set: España, engineered by Gordon Parry, and the classic recording of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, recorded by Cyril Windebank in Kingsway Hall in February 1957. For consistency of pickup, the microphones on all of these Decca Trees were permanently “set” onto their respective frameworks. Depending on the repertoire and recording location, a Tree was normally elevated between ten and eleven feet above the conductor’s podium. In addition to this physical placement, Decca’s balance engineers could also alter the loudness of each of its three microphones and add bass and treble equalisation to their signals, while still maintaining the overall character of The Decca Sound.


 Making two-channel gramophone records, formerly the province of the recording laboratory, was now on the horizon, with Arthur Haddy again playing a key role in establishing the 45/45 standard which the record industry would adopt in 1958 and which would, on Decca discs, be dubbed “FFSS” (Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound). Given the chance at last for twochannel recording that consumers could hear (Haddy had before stereo LP wisely refused to allow any Decca “BN” to be reproduced via pre-recorded tape), it was opera recording, and in particular the style of opera recording John Culshaw’s “Sonicstage” technique envisioned, that became the driver pushing forward Wallace’s design and construction of new, more elaborate and more flexible microphone mixers, culminating in 1964 with “STORM 64”, which provided the portability, signal processing, and capability to feed up to four tracks of magnetic tapes and which continued to be used on Decca sessions for more than twenty years.


One final step remained to complete the sonic picture of The Decca Sound, however. With the purchase of Crystalate in 1937, Decca had also acquired skills of two other veteran engineers: one was Arthur Lilley (1916–82), who assisted Haddy in the development of recording equipment and, after service in World War II, recorded many of Decca’s popular artists at West Hampstead, including Frank Chacksfield and Mantovani. In the 1960s, Lilley would regularly appear behind the mixing desk of Decca’s American-oriented Phase 4 LPs.


The other engineer was second in seniority to Arthur Haddy — his name was Kenneth E. Wilkinson (1912-2004), and though he had other responsibilities in the West Hampstead studios, his principal job was as a balance engineer, taking the controls at dozens of Decca sessions in London’s Kingsway Hall, Walthamstow Assembly Hall and, in the early 1950s, in Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw.


Wilkinson continued on the mono mixing desk later into the 1950s, but in the spring of 1958, he asked for a shift from the mono control room to the stereo room, and Haddy agreed. Returning to his experience in mono, Wilkinson immediately added a pair of “Outrigger” microphones to the far left and right of the Tree, combining them in the mixer to build a wide-screen “ picture” that we know today as the mature Decca Sound. In 1959, he introduced the first of a series of newTrees, or “Heads”, that assembled a trio of his preferred M-50 microphones into a single compact unit. Within a few years, and after further experimentation, the Head morphed again, returning to the older, wider “open” microphone placement and regaining the name of the Decca Tree.


Wilkinson continued on the stereo mixing desk for the next twenty years, gradually reducing his assignments as a new generation of engineers joined the Decca team. Trained by him in the Decca Tree + Outriggers + discrete orchestral “spot” microphone technique, they balanced sessions not only for Decca itself, but also for its sister labels Argo and L’Oiseau-Lyre, and for important clients, such as American Reader’s Digest and Britain’s Lyrita.


The 1970s saw the peak of Decca’s recording activity via analogue tape onto vinyl disc, and the resulting sound recordings arguably represent the summit of its achievements using these mature technologies. This was also a decade in which a fundamental change in the way sound could be recorded emerged, using not the “analogue” of an electronic signal imprinted on magnetic tape, but the digitally coded version of that signal, which was impervious to the electrical and mechanical shortcomings of standard analogue tape recording.


Since 1965, Arthur Haddy — in tandem with Horst Redlich of Decca’s German partner Teldec — had been working on twelve-inch mechanical videodisc. In 1972, Decca brought in former BBC engineers R.W. Baycliff and Tony Griffiths to further develop the system in a small research and development unit. The team continued to further refine the system, but abandoned its commercialisation when the competing Philips electronic laser disc won out in the marketplace.


The digital-video R&D work, however, had shown the possibility, already demonstrated by the Japanese firm Denon, that digital encoding could also be employed to record audio alone. Tests to that end soon began. As Griffiths related in a 1979 interview: “We did tests in our studios, we had an orchestral session and other sessions which we recorded digitally and direct and analogue, and with Dolby and without Dolby, and using FM”. Further tests in November 1976 compared the digital results from a borrowed BBC digital recorder, operating with 13-bit encoding with a bandwidth of just 15 kHz, to a directcut LP made at the same time. The comparisons showed no statistical difference between the two recordings.


Knowing the performance a 13-bit system could provide, Griffiths and his team received approval to design and build their own, improved, analogue-to-digital converter, using a converted IVC (International Video Corporation) one-inch video recorder to accept its PCM (pulse code modulation) encoded signals, 100% redundantly encoded to prevent signal loss due to purely magnetic or mechanical problems with the IVC’s helically scanned transport. Confident that improvements in analogue-to-digital conversion would happen soon, and convinced that “professional headroom” in production and editing required a higher bitrate, all the original Decca equipment was designed to accept 18-bit signals over a 48-kHz bandwidth. Over the following fifteen years, the wisdom of those decisions was to be vindicated again and again.


A visit to an audio trade show in late 1977 showed a complete absence of offthe- shelf gear anywhere comparable to what Decca had already conceived. Armed once again with approval from Decca management, work set about in January 1978 to build the first prototype recording system. In March the first machine was ready, in May the second was completed. On 21 and 22 June 1978 in London’s Kingsway Hall, where Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra were recording two Mozart piano concertos, the machines quietly made Decca’s first digital session recording.


Only one further step was needed before the Decca digital system could be formally introduced at sessions, and that was the essential development of a reliable, easy-touse editing system. This involved the ingenious employment of a low-bandwidth analogue signal imprinted along with the PCM digital signal, by which an editor would identify the portions to be edited together, then mark those points and allow the Decca system to make the quick cross-fades to accomplish the edit in the digital domain. In November 1978, the editor was ready for duty; on 5 December, the recording system was taken to Vienna, where it was used to record Mendelssohn’s “Italian’ Symphony in the Sofiensaal with the Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph von Dohnányi. On the evenings of 30 and 31 December and on NewYear’s Day 1979, the Philharmonic’s famous New Year’s Concerts were captured by Decca and became Decca’s first digital LPs.


The next year, Decca was bought and merged into the PolyGram family of labels, while maintaining both its artistic and engineering independence. Until the sharp contraction of the entire classical record industry in the late 1990s, Decca went on to build more IVC transports for use on location and in the Decca Recording Centre and introduced ADRM (analogue to digital remastering) to bring Decca’s analogue treasures onto the CDs introduced in 1981. By 1992, the company had developed and provided to their PolyGram partners both an all-digital 8-channel mixer and a Decca-built optical recorder. It was a technical heritage “made at Decca” that Arthur Haddy would have been proud of.


Still, it was also characteristic of Arthur Haddy not to overestimate the role played by equipment in the creation of The Decca Sound. No, he would say, gear is important, but not as important as the quality of the recording hall and the relationship between Decca’s engineers and musical staff. Then and later, these staff had the support of dozens of other less celebrated, but no less important, team members, building, modifying and maintaining recording equipment, copying, storing and cataloging tapes, and transferring the sounds from these tapes onto FFRR and FFSS records, and today onto Compact Discs. Many of the engineers represented here, including Philip Siney, the last of the Decca engineering team remaining at the Decca Recording Centre before its closure in 1997, have moved on to new musical challenges, taking with them the Decca style and sound first created by their predecessors more than a half-century ago. This set is a tribute to their work, to the art and craft of all those who participated in the Decca enterprise, and to the extraordinary talent of the artists they recorded to make, together, The Decca Sound.


A Note on the Recordings

The recordings chosen for this set represent just a few of the many treasures of the Decca catalogue. Many were made in Decca’s most famous recording venue in London, Kingsway Hall, represented here in analogue recordings from 1956 (with Ataúlfo Argenta, engineered by Gordon Parry), 1957 (Peter Maag’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, engineered by Cyril Windebank), 1958 (Pierre Monteux’s “Enigma’ Variations, recorded with a Decca Tree and outriggers), Pierre Monteux’s 1959 Daphnis et Chloé, recorded by Alan Reeve using a Decca Tree, an outrigger pair, and a single chorus microphone, and 1963’s War Requiem, recorded by Kenneth Wilkinson using seventeen separate microphones to capture completely the complexity of Britten’s choral, vocal and orchestral scoring. Kingsway Hall remained Decca’s favoured London recording studio until its closure in 1984, and is the locale of several other, later, recordings in this set, most engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson.


Decca’s purpose-built studio in Vienna’s Sofiensaal appears here in extracts from John Culshaw’s production of Wagner’s Ring, balanced by Decca’s Gordon Parry and James Brown, in recordings made between 1958 and 1965. Through the 1960s, Parry and Brown made dozens more recordings in the Sofiensaal; on complex orchestral sessions and for operas, they shared the mixing load between them, one man for the orchestra, the other for the singers. This style of teamwork continued into the digital era, when James Lock assumed Wilkinson’s role as the senior balance engineer after the latter’s retirement in 1980. Lock made records wherever Decca joined its artists to make music. In this set, he appears on the mixing desk on records made in Cleveland’s Masonic Hall, in Detroit in 1981 recording Igor Stravinsky with Antal Dorati, and in Los Angeles’ Royce Hall recording Zubin Mehta’s performances of music by Varèse and Charles Ives.


During the 1970s, Lock was joined by younger engineers, including John Dunkerley, Simon Eadon, and John Pellowe, all of whom were mentored by both him and Kenneth Wilkinson. The 1980s heralded the arrival of an even younger generation of engineers including Neil Hutchinson, Jonathan Stokes, and Philip Siney (who works almost exclusively for Decca to this day). All these talented engineers maintain the recording principles established by their illustrious predecessors, celebrating the tradition of The Decca Sound that has remained as vital and exciting as when it was first created more than fifty years ago.




by Raymond McGill



A fifty-CD set cannot claim to be truly comprehensive in documenting the history of a record company as rich and diverse as Decca. From the first classical release in 1929 (Sea Drift by Delius with Roy Henderson as soloist) to the present day, Decca has been an all-round pioneer. The repertory which the company has recorded over the years spans more than a millenium and ranges from plainchant and other early music through to a healthy exploration of contemporary music and living composers.


In 1934 a US subsidiary, Decca Records Inc., was established in New York. It became independent during World War II, so a new label, London Gramophone Corporation, was set up in 1947 to distribute and market records in the USA. (From the 1930s to the end of the 1970s a broad range of pop music accounted for a very substantial part of the output of the company — with records from such legendary names as Vera Lynn, Tom Jones, The Rolling Stones and The Moody Blues.)


Another key element underpinning the excellence that the name Decca came to represent was the company’s pursuit of the very highest standards in technological research and development in capturing sound for the consumer. This collection of CDs represents a selection of what are generally regarded as some of the finest recordings of classical music from the Decca catalogue, from the earliest days of stereo to recent digital releases — recordings which have received critical acclaim both technically and artistically and which reflect an artist roster of some of the greatest names in the classical world from the 1950s to the present day. The majority of the discs are presented as original albums, with their accompanying cover art. Some of the earlier releases, however, while of suitable playing time for LP, are rather short by today’s standards, and thus “bonus” repertory featuring the same artist has been added; in one or two cases two complete original LPs now constitute a full CD.


Throughout its history Decca has fostered many long-term, and very often exclusive, artist relationships. Among the exclusive artists — both past and present — represented in this set are Ernest Ansermet, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Cecilia Bartoli, Riccardo Chailly, Clifford Curzon, Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Sir Georg Solti and Joan Sutherland.


The artists and repertory

A record company cannot exist without artists, and artists cannot exist without repertory. It is the skill in marrying these two elements and achieving a fine balance between them that defines the A. & R. policy of any record company. At Decca, that policy has been in the hands of a small but highly influential group of executives from the early days of 78 rpm discs throughout the LP era and into the digital age and releases on CD.


In the years before World War II, Decca’s classical output was very small-scale — many of the 1930s classical releases originated from the German Polydor catalogue, to which Decca had acquired British distribution rights. Although Ernest Ansermet (1883–1969) had recorded a selection of Handel’s Concerti grossi, op.6, with what was called the Decca String Orchestra as early as September 1929, it was not until seventeen years later, in December 1946, that he made his first recordings for Decca with the London Philhamonic Orchestra — Stravinsky’s Petrushka and L’Oiseau de feu suite. Ansermet had founded L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 and conducted it until his retirement in 1966, so the majority of his recordings were made with the Swiss ensemble, in Geneva’s Victoria Hall, which is renowned for its acoustic — commencing with La Mer in February 1947. For many years their recordings of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky led the field, and today many collectors still prefer Ansermet’s interpretations and recordings to other more recent versions. The recording of Falla’s El sombrero des tres picos included here is Ansermet’s 1961 stereo version (there is an earlier mono recording dating from 1952), with a substantial bonus in the shape of Debussy’s Images for orchestra, recorded in the same year. When Ansermet died in 1969, his death left a large void in the French orchestral repertory.


Ansermet’s close contemporary, the American conductor of French birth Pierre Monteux (1875–1964), had conducted the premieres of many early-twentieth-century masterpieces including Petrushka, Le Sacre du printemps, Jeux and Daphnis et Chloé. He had recorded Sacre and Petrushka with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra for Decca in November 1956, and in April 1959 he recorded a complete Daphnis with the London Symphony Orchestra (in 1961, at the age of eighty-six, he would sign a twenty-five-year contract as their chief conductor). This recording quickly achieved cult status and was regarded as a demonstration-quality disc. No less successful was his recording of an English masterpiece, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations (recorded by Decca as part of the RCA/Decca agreement in place at that time).


The London Symphony Orchestra was engaged regularly for Decca sessions (usually in Kingsway Hall) from the late 1950s to the 70s, and the 1956 LP entitled “España” is a demonstration-quality disc from the early days of stereo. The orchestra is directed by the highly talented young Spaniard Ataúlfo Argenta (1913–1958), who tragically died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Coupled with “España” is Alfredo Campoli’s recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (Campoli recorded regularly for Decca at this time). Swiss conductor Peter Maag (1919–2001) was an eminent Mozartian and also conducted a lot of early-Romantic repertory; his Mendelssohn recordings with the LSO are wonderful testimony to this. Jean Martinon (1910–1976) was not an exclusive Decca artist, but his small yet distinguished discography includes an acclaimed 1958 recording of Borodin’s Symphony No.2 with the LSO. It is included in this set as the bonus on his disc of French works recorded in June 1960 with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.


Geneva was also the location for recordings made with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and Karl Münchinger from 1949 until they moved to their home city in 1963. Conductor and orchestra achieved widespread fame for their sensitive interpretations of Bach and attracted many leading singers of the day. (Münchinger also recorded with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic on various occasions.)


Hungarian-born István Kertész (1929–1973) made his LSO debut in 1960 and was principal conductor of the orchestra between 1965 and 1968. His wide repertory embraced music from Mozart to Bartók, and he was particularly noted for his recordings of Dvorˇák; his complete cycle of the symphonies represents one of the greatest symphonic cycles in the Decca catalogue. His legendary account of the Eighth Symphony is coupled here with his first-ever recording for Decca, made in Vienna in 1961 — Dvorˇák’s “New World” Symphony, regarded by many as finer than the LSO remake on the complete set.


The search for a successor to the Ansermet–Suisse Romande association was still on. It was declared over when another Swiss conductor, Charles Dutoit, who had been appointed Chief Conductor of L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 1977, embarked on a series of recordings of Ravel and Debussy orchestral works, starting with a complete Daphnis in August 1980. These recordings set new standards and quickly achieved international acclaim both musically and technically. Dutoit also embarked on a major Berlioz project which culminated in Les Troyens in 1993 (only the second-ever studio recording of Berlioz’s epic). Dutoit was no stranger to Decca in 1980, having already made a number of recordings with London orchestras and other Decca artist, notably Kyung-Wha Chung and Pascal Rogé. Chung had shot to international fame with her debut recording for Decca: the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concertos with André Previn and the LSO. The CD in this set is her classic interpretation of Bruch’s G minor Concerto and Scottish Fantasy, to which Mendelssohn’s concerto with Dutoit and the OSM is added as a substantial bonus. Dutoit’s Ravel recordings include the two piano concertos with French stylist Pascal Rogé, recorded in May 1983. Rogé was signed to Decca in 1969, and his cycle of Saint-Saëns concertos with Dutoit (recorded 1978–79) quickly became a top recommendation.


One of Pascal Rogé’s teachers was the American pianist Julius Katchen (1926–1969). Katchen had first recorded for Decca in October 1949 and, over a period of twenty years until his early death, he made a large number of recordings, including most of Brahms’s works which involve piano. He also played and recorded Gershwin with great aplomb, and his recordings of the Bartók, Prokofiev and Ravel concertos have long been admired. He is accompanied by the LSO and Kertész in these celebrated recordings.


The man in charge of the A. & R. department in London during the 1940s was Harry Sarton; at this time he was responsible for both classical and popular recordings and remained in this position until his sudden death on 1 April 1951. Victor Olof worked as a freelance producer during this time, becoming a full-time member of staff as Decca began to expand its recording programme after World War II and make more and more recordings abroad as the result of Decca’s Swiss distributor, Maurice Rosengarten, offering to fund recordings in return for a royalty on worldwide sales. (Rosengarten was the driving force behind the international classical recording schedule until his death in 1975.) Olof remained at Decca until June 1956, when he resigned to take up an offer at EMI. (His assistant at Decca was Peter Andry, who moved to EMI with him.)


11 November 1946 saw the arrival of the now-legendary John Culshaw (1924–1980), who was initially engaged for work in the publicity department. He would soon set Decca on course as a major force in the international classical recording world and, within a few years, would almost singlehandedly establish Decca as the preeminent opera company. As a young producer he worked on a variety of mainly UK recordings, although these were often with established artists of the calibre of Kathleen Ferrier, Clifford Curzon and Benjamin Britten. In January 1953 Culshaw left Decca to join Capitol records — although as Decca distributed Capitol at this time, he was still linked to the company. Shortly before Culshaw’s departure, in late 1952, James Walker joined Decca (he also appeared on the label from time to time as a conductor).


When, in January 1947, Maurice Rosengarten signed a one-page contract with a young Hungarian pianist who had earlier won the Geneva piano competition and was engaged to accompany violinist Georg Kulenkampff in sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms, nobody could have anticipated the impact of this decision. The pianist’s name: Georg Solti. Later that year Solti made his first orchestral recording: a 78 rpm disc of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture with the Zurich Tonhalle orchestra. These recordings marked the start of an exclusive contract with Decca that would last fifty years until Solti’s death in September 1997. (His final concerts, a few weeks before his sudden death, were performances of Mahler’s Symphony No.5 with the Zurich orchestra, and a CD was released by way of a tenth-anniversary tribute in 2007.) Solti’s first recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was made in August 1949 (Haydn’s Symphony No.103 with Culshaw as producer) — the start of a long association with that orchestra which would result in many fine recordings, including a cycle of Haydn’s twelve London Symphonies in the 1990s.


Bringing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to Decca was another Rosengarten coup. June 1950 marked the start of a long and illustrious series of recordings, when leading Mozartian Josef Krips recorded Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the Großer Saal of the Musikverein. September of that year brought Act Two of Die Meistersinger, conducted by Knappertsbusch, to disc (Acts One & Three followed in September 1951). Both operas were produced by Victor Olof with Cyril Windebank as engineer. The early 1950s also brought live recordings from the Bayreuth Festival (in 1951 and 1953), with Culshaw as producer and Kenneth Wilkinson as engineer. A further advantage in having the Vienna Philharmonic on the label was the possibility of recording chamber music with a flexible ensemble of players drawn from the orchestra — hence the distinguished series of recordings with those members of the orchestra who made up the Vienna Octet, and with other combinations of players.


Culshaw’s return to Decca in 1955 marked the start of the legendary era that also saw the arrival of a very talented young engineer called Gordon Parry. Culshaw had already worked with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and he was keen to continue the association. 1955 saw the recording of The Little Sweep (with Parry as engineer), and for the next twenty years Decca would record all the composer’s major works, winning a new international audience for the composer through his recordings. The 1958 recording of Peter Grimes proved a resounding success, but this was outdone five years later when the War Requiem created nothing less than a sensation — artistically, technically and commercially.


Britten was also a sympathetic interpreter of other composers in his dual roles as pianist and conductor, and Mozart was one composer with whom he felt a particular affinity. Amongst his Mozart recordings is one featured here, in which he accompanied Clifford Curzon with the English Chamber Orchestra in Piano Concertos 20 and 27 in Snape in September 1970. Curzon had been a Decca artist since 1937 and famously loathed the recording process. Ever the perfectionist, he revisited key works in the recording studio, and the present recording of Concerto No.27 was his third attempt at the piece. He approved it for release on condition that he could revisit it again in the studio, a wish that was granted but not realised, and this recording was published as a posthumous tribute when Curzon died in 1982.


Another pianist who dislikes the recording process to the extent that he has publicly declared he will not record again is Radu Lupu, signed to Decca after winning the 1969 Leeds International Piano Competition. Lupu’s discography is dominated by recordings of the Viennese classics which have achieved reference status. 1969 also saw the first release on Decca of an LP of Spanish pieces by Alicia de Larrocha, who was born in Barcelona. A musician of wide sympathies, her interpretations of Granados, Albéniz and Falla are regarded as definitive.


In 1954 Christopher Raeburn (1928–2009) joined the publicity department, following the same route as Culshaw had taken in 1946. In 1955 he left Decca to take up a Leverhulme Scholarship to research Mozart in Vienna and rejoined the label as a producer in January 1958. Another member of the Decca team during this period was Erik Smith (1931–2004), son of the conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (Smith was part of the team until 1967, when he moved to Philips, where he would remain until his formal retirement in 1991). The other key figure in the A. & R. department at this time was Ray Minshull (1934–2007). Minshull arrived at Decca in October 1957 and remained with the company until his retirement in 1994; in 1967 he succeeded Culshaw as manager of the classical division; in 1981 he was appointed Executive Vice-president. In the United States, Decca’s classical arm was called London Records; having started work in Decca’s London offices, Canadian Terence (Terry) McEwen (1929–1998) moved to New York in 1959 to run the label.


Both Culshaw and Parry were ardent Wagnerites. By way of a prelude to a much bigger project, May 1957 brought Solti to the Sofiensaal to record Die Walküre Act Three (with Flagstad as Brünnhilde). The following month, Solti recorded his first complete opera: Richard Strauss’s Arabella — the first in a series of Strauss operas that would culminate in the multi-award-winning recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten released in 1992. But history was about to be made when Decca embarked on the first-ever studio recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a project that occupied Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as Culshaw, Parry and the rest of the Decca team on and off from September 1958 until November 1965. With a stellar cast that would be impossible to assemble anywhere today and including the incompararble Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, it’s almost impossible now, more than fifty years since the release of Das Rheingold, to fully appreciate the impact that this recording must have made, and it’s no surprise that what quickly became known as “The Solti Ring” is arguably the most famous classical recording in the history of the gramophone.


Throughout all this time Solti was building an ever-growing international building an ever-growing international reputation, and his recordings with London orchestras attracted very favourable attention — not least the album with the LSO entitled Romantic Russia, a demonstration-quality orchestral showcase if ever there was one! In 1969 Solti took up his appointment as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a position he would hold until 1991, when he was named Music Director Laureate. It was during Solti’s first European tour with the CSO in 1971 that their Mahler Symphony No.8 was recorded (in the Sofiensaal) — another recording which has rarely been matched, let alone surpassed.


Solti’s appointment to Chicago was also the time when Decca began to expand its recording activities in North America in general. The company had already started recording in Los Angeles in 1967 (at Royce Hall, University of California), announcing that the Los Angeles Philharmonic had become “The first American orchestra to be exclusively contracted by a British recording company”, and recordings were made there on a regular basis until 1980, many while Zubin Mehta was Music Director of the orchestra. The recordings of large-scale latenineteenth- and early-twentieth-century repertory soon won accolades for their spectacular sonic qualities. Other North American recordings were made in Washington (1972–75) and Detroit (1978–84), where another senior Hungarian, Antal Dorati, made a series of outstanding recordings of Messiaen, Copland, and Stravinsky. One of the longest periods of recording activity with an American orchestra was centred around Cleveland where, between 1973 and 1997 Lorin Maazel, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Christoph von Dohnányi recorded on a regular basis.


One of the most successful recording partnerships in America was the one with Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony. Over a period of eight years (1987–95), a succession of discs of Nielsen, Sibelius and Richard Strauss won awards and plaudits for outstanding recordings allied to music-making of profound integrity. Baltimore featured in the recording plans of the 1990s, and American violinist Joshua Bell ,who was an exclusive Decca artist between 1986 and 1996, recorded Barber and Walton there with David Zinman. A more recent addition to the Decca violin roster is the outstanding Dutch player Janine Jansen, whose novel 2009 coupling of Beethoven and Britten is the most recent inclusion in this set and deploys all the traditional virtues of The Decca Sound.


Decca’s preferred venue in Vienna was the Sofiensaal, which was originally a spa and then a ballroom. It was the only venue to be fitted with a permanent Decca control room and was in use from 1955 until Solti’s last Vienna Wagner recording, Lohengrin, was completed in 1986. Decca’s recordings in Vienna included many symphonic recordings as well as opera, and between 1959 and 1965 Herbert von Karajan made a series of recordings there. His recording of a work then still very much the “property” of English conductors, The Planets, was a particularly successful enterprise. Later years would produce a hugely successful Madama Butterfly with Karajan conducting Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.


Veteran Karl Böhm made only a few recordings for Decca, but his 1973 account of Bruckner’s Symphony No.4 became an instant classic which many still regard as definitive. Willi Boskovsky had already made a number of recordings of music by the Strauss family when he led the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1979 New Year’s Concert — Decca’s first commercial release of a digital recording on LP. Decca’s series of award-winning recordings of Janácˇek operas made in Vienna between 1976 and 1982 with Sir Charles Mackerras brought the composer to a truly international audience for the first time. Likewise Christoph von Dohnányi’s advocacy of music by the members of the Second Viennese School produced some outstanding recordings of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern from Vienna and, later, Cleveland.


Another great European ensemble, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, has enjoyed an association with Decca ever since its second Music Director, Eduard van Beinum, recorded for the label. Van Beinum was appointed to the orchestra in 1945 and remained there until his death from a heart attack during a rehearsal on 13 April 1959. He also conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1949 to 1951 and made a small number of recordings with both orchestras. Decca’s association with the Concertgebouw was renewed when Bernard Haitink embarked on his Shostakovich cycle (1977–84), which was divided between the Concertgebouw and LPO. When Haitink left Amsterdam in 1988, his successor — just the fifth Music Director of the orchestra in its hundred-year history — was an Italian, Riccardo Chailly.


Chailly had first recorded for Decca ten years earlier (a complete Guglielmo Tell ) and had signed an exclusive contract in 1982. Recordings in Bologna, Berlin (Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Amsterdam produced cycles of Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms and Schumann symphonies, Italian opera and twentieth-century masterpieces. Chailly’s 1994 recording of Messiaen’s monumental Turangalîla-symphonie benefits from the wonderful acoustic of the Grote Zaal, one of the world’s great concert halls, and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (signed to Decca in 1989) plays the taxing piano part with tremendous flair and aplomb. In 2005 Chailly became Music Director of one of the world’s oldest orchestras, the Leipzig Gewandhaus (which he first conducted in 1986 at Salzburg). His recorded repertory in Leipzig so far has focused on Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the recordings of the Brahms piano concertos made at concerts in 2005 (No.2) and 2006 (No.1) were given the highest accolade when Gramophone magazine named the disc “Record of the Year” in 2007. The pianist is Brazilian Nelson Freire, who signed to Decca in 2001 and is widely acclaimed for his interpretations of Chopin and Schumann, as well as other Romantics.


Opera has dominated Decca’s releases since the early 1950s. It was in November 1949 that Renata Tebaldi made her first recordings for the label (a recital of arias with the Suisse Romande under Alberto Erede) — recordings which marked the start of an exclusive association that lasted until 1973 and resulted in more than twenty complete recordings of mainly Puccini and Verdi operas, many of which remain first choices today. In many of her recordings Tebaldi’s tenor partner is Mario del Monaco, and they can be heard in this set in the CD devoted to highlights of Decca’s only recording of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Made in Rome (the location for many of Decca’s recordings of Italian opera) in 1958, it has rarely been out of the catalogue.


Ten years after Tebaldi first signed to Decca, in 1959, the label released a debut recital from a young singer who had already appeared on the Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre label and who would very soon be known as “La Stupenda”. Joan Sutherland had shot to international acclaim in February of that year with Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden, and her exclusive association with Decca lasted until her final recording in 1988. Two other singers with whom Joan Sutherland began to work during the 1960s in the concert hall, theatre and recording studio are legendary names: Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti. This powerhouse vocal trio was united under the musical direction of Richard Bonynge in March 1981 for what was one of the then rare occasions when Decca recorded “live” to capture the thrills of the concert billed as: Sutherland · Horne · Pavarotti — Live from Lincoln Center.


Pavarotti had first recorded for Decca in 1964, when he set down an EP of Verdi and Puccini arias, and in 1966 he joined forces with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge for his first complete opera (Beatrice di Tenda). Six years later, in 1972, Pavarotti and Sutherland were joined by Montserrat Caballé and Zubin Mehta for the legendary recoding of Turandot made in Kingsway Hall. The tenor aria “Nessun dorma” was not yet Pavarotti’s “signature aria” — that would happen nearly twenty years later when it was used extensively for the 1990 World Cup. The concert that took place in Rome on 7 July, the evening before the final of the competition, brought together “The Three Tenors” — José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti — and Zubin Mehta for a concert recorded live and rushreleased by Decca. The concert quickly became the biggest-selling classical recording of all time.


In June 1988 a young Roman mezzosoprano discovered by Christopher Raeburn made her first recordings for the label: Cecilia Bartoli, who would soon become one of Decca’s biggest vocal stars, burst upon the international scene with her recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia and a Rossini recital. More recitals and complete opera recordings would follow in the years ahead, helping to establish Bartoli as one of the greatest names of her generation. The recital of Italian songs included here was made in 1992 and has the incomparable András Schiff as pianist. Schiff had made his debut on Decca in 1978 with two discs by composers with whom he would be inextricably linked throughout his career both on record and in the concert hall: Bach and Schubert. His 1982 recording of the Goldberg Variations was quickly hailed as a classic and helped consolidate his international reputation. More Hungarian artists joined Decca in 1988, when the Takács Quartet signed an exclusive contract that lasted more than ten years and resulted in award-winning cycles of Bartók (1996) and Beethoven (2001–04).


Throughout the 1990s the vocal roster continued to grow, and in December 1995 Decca’s new head of A. & R., Evans Mirageas, signed American soprano Renée Fleming to an exclusive contract. Fleming worked with Solti on a number of occasions, and in 1996 recorded the CD of operatic scenes included here which showcases her many and varied roles, under his expert guidance.


It is not just singers who have dominated Decca’s artist roster since the advent of stereo; while the late Sir Georg Solti’s fiftyyear exclusivity with the label remains unchallenged, March 2013 will mark fifty years since Vladimir Ashkenazy made his first recording for the label — Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3, a recording which has never been out of the catalogue. This was the start of an association that would result in one of the biggest and most wide-ranging discographies of any pianist in the history of recording. As Ashkenazy’s interest in conducting developed in the early 1970s, he began to expand his discography further as a conductor. Rachmaninov has always been central to Ashkenazy’s music-making: in addition to recording all the solo works as well as the works for piano and orchestra, he has produced an outstanding set of Rachmaninov orchestral works with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Sibelius is another composer for whom he has had a life-long passion, and his cycle of the symphonies with the Philharmonia has been a top recommendation since its first release. Complementing Sibelius’s Symphony No.1 is Ashkenazy’s orchestration of one of the cornerstones of Russian piano literature, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition — a work Ashkenazy the pianist has recorded twice and performed numerous times.


1993 saw the first releases in an hugely ambitious Decca project which was masterminded by producer Michael Haas, the driving force behind the Entartete Musik series featuring music suppressed by the Third Reich. This project rediscovered a vast amount of opera, symphonic music, instrumental pieces and songs, many of which had not been heard for many years and had never been recorded. German singer Ute Lemper had first appeared on Decca’s “New Line” series of releases in the late 1980s, when her recordings of Kurt Weill created a sensation, so she was the obvious choice for the 1996 album of Berlin Cabaret songs in the Entartete Musik project.


A set entitled The Decca Sound is not confined to “pure” Decca releases, and there are several recordings in this set which first appeared on Decca’s sister labels Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre and Argo. The equipment used for these recordings was usually the same as that employed on the majority of Decca sessions, and many of the engineers and producers worked across all labels and musical genres.




Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre was originally created in 1932 as a music-publishing venture by an Australian businesswoman and devotee of Baroque music, Louise Hanson-Dyer. The business was expanded to include recordings, and in 1953 Decca took on their distribution. 1970 saw Decca acquire the label outright, and in 1973 Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music made their first recording (Arne: Eight Overtures). This was released as part of the Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre “Florilegium” series — a name which was in use until the late 1980s. Hogwood and The AAM recorded extensively, and their discography includes the complete Mozart symphonies, many Vivaldi concertos, works by J.S. Bach, and Purcell theatre music. From the end of the 1970s throughout the 1980s, the driving force and guiding light behind the immense success of the label was Peter Wadland (1946–92). The 1992 recording of Purcell’s masterpiece Dido and Aeneas features several singers closely linked with the label, who also appear on many other recordings: Emma Kirkby, Catherine Bott, David Thomas and John Mark Ainsley.


Music from even earlier eras was being explored and presented on L’Oiseau-Lyre by Philip Pickett and The New London Consort, who signed to the label in 1985. An album of Dances from Terpsichore by Praetorius was followed by a recording of the original Medieval Carmina burana, The Pigrimage to Santiago and, in 1991, Susato.


In 1989 the young French harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset joined the L’Oiseau-Lyre roster for a series of recordings of French harpsichord music, Bach solo works and harpsichord concertos. Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were joined by two more singers from Decca’s fine exclusive roster, soprano Barbara Bonney and countertenor Andreas Scholl, for the best-selling 1999 recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Salve Regina.




The Argo Record Company was founded by Harley Usill and Alex Herbage in 1951. July 1952 saw the release of the first five LPs, and in 1957 Decca acquired Argo. Organ, choral and English music were the dominant strands of repertory on the label, and a wealth of organ music was recorded by Simon Preston and, later, Peter Hurford (whose discography includes Bach’s complete organ works), while King’s and St John’s College Choirs dominated choral music releases throughout the 1960s and beyond, producing recordings that are still highly regarded today.


Argo was also home to many recordings by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Neville Marriner, whose repertory ranged from Baroque music to Stravinsky and Tippett. Their first recordings for Argo were made in 1964; Marriner had made his first recordings with ASMIF for L’Oiseau- Lyre in March 1961. At the end of the 1980s Argo underwent a revival with a new generation of artists, and while the original musical strands were revisited and explored anew, American music was now added. A new series of choral recordings were initiated with the addition of Winchester Cathedral Choir and David Hill, with the Waynflete Singers and, when an orchestra was needed, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. New recordings were also made with King’s College Choir.

© Raymond McGill




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