08 February, 2020

Buying Classical Records Deutsche Grammophon EMI Columbia

Mazeppa · Ungarische Fantasie · Ungarische Rhapsodien Nr. 4 Und Nr. 5 (Vinyl, LP, Stereo) album cover
Click pics to enlarge. Left: If anyone thinks DG's sound is bad, they will change their mind when they hear the Hungarian Fantasy on this album. Cherkassky's performance is perfect and the piano sound is resonant.

Talk Vinyl: Buying Classical Records, a Beginner's Guide, Part I
Introduction: What to Look For and What to Avoid
Labels: Deutsche Grammophon, Angel, Columbia

Amended 2/29: Horowitz, Stravinsky and Boulez added to Columbia  2/20: A lengthier discussion of EMI pianists and Beecham added; 2/13: 1) an excellent link posted under the "Inner Label" Bullet; 2) Herbert von Karajan and Rudolf Kempe added to EMI.

Attention: This shall be a long-running series. To facilitate your viewing all Parts and all Record Labels, I have created a blog label Classical Music - Buying Records. Just click and all posts so far in the series shall appear. The blog label is also in the sidebar (roll down).

Collecting Records is a Lifelong Hobby - for the vinyl junkie (less lofty but more appropriate name) there is nothing better than going through bins, frequently to the chagrin of significant others. There are different kinds of collectors - some only buy "collectible" items in demand that they know they can sell (for a profit); others just what they like (Like I, I hunt for particular artists, many obscure). There are a lot of well developed sites and societies for composers, but much less general information, understandable for the vast ocean that is Classical Music. This shall be a many-part series aimed at the beginner. I also came across this short article in goldmine magazine, but I think many of the prices quoted are seriously inflated. If you think collecting classical music can make you money, I'll tell you that is not so, unless you know what you are doing.

Konzert Für Violine Und Orchester D-dur Op. 61 album coverGeneral Guidelines
  • Don't Forget Digital For a serious classical listener, there is no getting away from Digital Recordings, which is everything made from the early 80's till now. Although we are analog die-hards, my friend Andy and I firmly believe that digital replay should sound very close to analog, and we don't understand why some audiophiles cannot make their digital system sound good enough. Practically, if I were to start anew, vinyl would be only for selected older recordings (the list is very long) of favorite works - and I'll have the rest in digital. And yes, I do still buy CDs.
  • New LPs If you are into classical music, congratulations! Unlike pop music, used classical LPs are usually in very good condition and not hard to come by. AVOID current re-issues, which are expensive and not as good sounding as the old ones (with few exceptions). Don't believe what you read in trade magazines, or Fremer. But, if you don't want to pay, we say, you have to get down on your knees (all the dollar bins are on the floor). Believe me, as one advances in years it gets harder.
  • Where to Find Them LP Stores Googling (including Yelp) will tell you what LP stores there are in your local area. Unless you are in a large city like NYC, you are not going to find any store with a large classical LP collection. Most LP stores sell pop and jazz and basically have no knowledge of classical music. But that could be your gain. Whenever I see a store, I go in and see. If they have dollar bins I'll go through those and sometimes I'll find something worthwhile. Used Bookstores Many used bookstores have a music section and some will sell LP. Recently in one I found many items, including an Arthur Grumiaux LP for $1 (should be more than $10). Thrift Stores Many thrift stores sell LPs and this can be serious hunting ground, especially around large cosmopolitan centers. Many Salvation Army and Goodwill stores have LPs, as do smaller charities. Ask Around Always ask your co-workers and friends if their families have records they want to get rid of. I have received more than a few. Internet Unless there is something you want badly, I'd not buy on the internet. Even if the price is right, the postage sucks.
  • The Right Attitude Believe me, I am qualified to talk about this. I have over 10,000 LPs. I steadily bought new LPs from the mid 1970's (when I started to get into classical music) to the mid eighties, when most LP sellers (New Yorkers will remember stores like Sam Goody and Record Hunter) closed their doors. The second wave started in the late 80's, when a humongous  number of LPs were dumped in favor of CDs, and I started buying used LPs like crazy. The LPs we are seeing now are mostly from older people who want to sell, or estates, and the number is still significant. This has lasted into the present day, but on a much smaller scale. As I ran out of space to house the collection, and as I evolve as a listener (it is true you learn till the day you die), I have realized many things. Here are some advice which I hope you will heed: 1) There is always something new under the sun and there is nothing you must have now; 2) Don't be a completist, you don't have to listen to every note Mozart wrote, or collect every single one of Heifetz's recordings; 3) choose carefully, don't binge buy, have patience; good things will come; 4) if you are starting out in classical music, even if you prefer analog, a subscription to a digital streaming service (not available in my days) will benefit you immensely in your quest (so as you can get acquainted with the music); 5) Consider buying a hard copy of All Music Guide to Classical Music, which is out of print but available used, a lot more convenient than using the computer; 6) as your collection will expand rapidly, develop a good filing habit. I personally suggest filing by record labels. Within a label, file composers alphabetically. Within a composer, use the order Symphonies, Concertos, Chamber and Solo works, lastly Choral works and Opera; 7) have an out bin for records that did not please you in either performance or sound (there will be many of those) and periodically give them to friends or donate them to charities (I donate to VVA). If you are a beginner, you may make mistakes but you can always re-acquire them.
  • What to Buy This is obviously very personal. As we are audiophiles, we tend to buy better sounding records, which does give more pleasure. Beginners should not immediately get into historical performances (they are available on streaming services and youtube anyway), no matter how great they are from what you have read, as many are seriously sonically compromised. Here are some advice: 1) Buy mostly single records rather than big box sets. While you'd certainly want all the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, you may not feel the same about the early Dvorak symphonies. And few conductors can excel through an entire series; 2) However, box sets are usually cheaper per disc and are a good way to learn, just do your research first before taking home many bulky boxes. You can take your time, that box will likely still be there next time you go; 3) Mostly avoid opera recordings - it is rather cumbersome to change sides all the time, which is why they are of no value; 4) if you like something, explore the composer's other works or other recordings of the performer(s) - this is where streaming comes in handy; 5) if you really like something, consider buying a different interpretation of it. No two recordings are alike. Again, streaming can come in handy.
  • What to Pay By this stage of my life, I don't want to nor need to pay more than a few dollars, and the majority of my new purchases are $1, sometimes even for a box! But perhaps beginners should browse too the regular bins, but I'd do research before buying anything over $5. In HK audio circles, buying is likened to paying tuition - you pay through your nose as a novice to get educated. Is there really any way to avoid that? I don't know, but with streaming I believe one can learn more than by owning.
  • INNER LABELS As junkies well know, the label and stamp on the LP tells us a lot of information on the age of the pressing (the older the better). For this article I am indebted to vinylbeat, which has an incredible number of pics, to which I link liberally. However, the site is not classically oriented, so there are gaping holes. Watson Records (UK) fills in some of this by giving the history and showing pics of Inner Labels of Decca, Columbia (UK) and HMV (EMI), but these are only UK labels. This excellent post also shows some inner labels. See below also for discogs.
  • Record Sleeve Covers are also important in giving a complete picture of the disc. There is no systemic exploration of this, but an indispensable tool is the vast discogs site. If you want to know more about an LP, use Google, fill in the label and artist and work AND the word "discogs" and the discogs link will show you not only the one you have, but also variants, and even value (not accurate but it gives you an idea). A must for any serious collector. It is also a huge marketplace. If you are curious about any record company, record sleeve artwork or inner label, discogs will tell/show you, just search!
  • MONO and STEREO Before the full adoption of Stereo, for many years companies issued both mono and stereo records, and as the word "stereo" or "mono" are not always there, they are easily confused. Keep in mind if the label says Long Play or LP, it is mono. The Mono and Stereo have the same catalogue number, but the prefix is different, e.g. Columbia ML (mono) and MS (stereo); RCA LM (mono) and LSC (stereo); Vanguard VRS (mono) and VSD (stereo)...In contrast to jazz or Beatles, if a classical record is available in stereo, the mono version is worth very little, usually dollar bin material. BUT, from a sonic viewpoint, if you have the right equipment, a great mono pressing can often sound better than a crappy stereo one. As an example, it is not uncommon to come across Heifetz' concerto performances in mono in the dollar bin. If his violin is what you want to hear, the mono is no less attractive than the stereo (though I have to say his supporting orchestras and conductors almost always turned in great, and unsung, support, which will shine in stereo). Ditto Arthur Rubinstein.
  • Thickness of Vinyl Older Vinyls are thicker, and sonically better. Many later vinyls, being wafer-thin, warp easily and are not very good sounding. Worst offender here is RCA, in their Dynaflex Red Seal and Victorla pressings.
  • Warpage This is not necessarily easy to assess. Generally, I find amusement when my needles can track (most) warped records, and I actually like to watch the needle go up an down like Sinbad's ship in Scheherazade. But sometimes not. The other day I got a Dylan John Wesley Harding for a dollar, and guess what, NONE of my cartridges could track it, not even close. It is not easy to spot a fatal impulse (even square wave) type of warpage, but that is collateral damage. This is to tell you there are disappointments in collecting, part and parcel of the game.
  • Electronically Re-channeled "Stereo" This is a horrible thing which usually compromises the sound. The info can be in very small prints, even inside on the label, so you better watch out. Companies that do quite a bit of this were usually budget labels like Monitor, Vox, Odyssey, Mercury Wing ((but these two usually spell it out clearly), and even Decca UK does it on their budget Eclipse label (stated on the back, top, close to the spine).
  • Quadraphonic Records For a period in the 70's there were many quadraphonically encoded LPs (Angel, Columbia, Supraphon etc), which failed to take off commercially (see wiki entry here). Somehow, I do think this muddles the sound for 2-channel playback. I'd avoid these.
  • Many Artists Recorded The Repertoire More Than Once Another thing to watch out is, given recordings started early in the mono era, by the time stereo came, the companies and the artists wanted to record again for stereo. Examples: Wilhelm Kempff recorded the Beethoven sonatas twice for DG, the first one in mono; Bruno Walter recorded the Brahms Symphonies with the NYPhil in mono, and again with the Columbia Symphony in Stereo; Otto Klemperer recorded with the Philharmonia 3 Beethoven symphonies in mono and a full cycle in stereo (the latter was also simultaneously issued in mono, which means there are 2 different mono versions for 3 symphonies, complicated!) If you are not sure, just refrain.
Sonatas & Partitas album cover
  • Record Clubs It is hard for millennials and the younger to believe we used to have Book and Record Clubs. These issued records from major labels at a discount, but also in a less lavish packaging. The best example is the International Preview Society. Take Milstein's seminal DG Bach Solo Violin box set (essential), the original DG (Germany) now costs significantly more than the IPS (Pressed in Italy); I personally find the Italian pressings quite decent, and I have both.
  • Re-Issue Labels I am not talking about the generally lousy and over-rated re-issues of today. There were many labels that specialized in re-issuing lesser known recordings from other, usually transcontinental European, companies. A good example is Musical Heritage Society, which actually lasted into the digital age (making CD's). For a collector, there are hard to find treasures there. e.g. I am a fan of certain French pianists like Annie D'Arco and Jeanne-Marie Darre and American violinist Oscar Shumsky, and MHS issued them all (in the case of Darre, Vanguard did that before MHS). But their quality vary, and unless you know what you are doing, better not buy as they are worth nothing on the market. Nonesuch also re-issued tons of European recordings. People know about the Unicorn Horenstein recordings, but few know that they released many early recordings of now-famous conductors like Gunter Wand and Pierre Boulez. As an esoterica, I grew up with the Nonesuch issue of Carl Schuricht's Hague Phil recording of Bruckner's 7th, and it is still meaningful to me. Again, generally, as they are worth nothing, don't buy them unless you know. More on Nonesuch later. Musically, another label to watch out for is Quintessence, which, despite their lower quality vinyl, did a great service to collectors by re-issuing many great recordings that have not been available for a long time, including many coveted and sonically resplendent recordings buried in the vaults of Reader's Digest, with excellent artists like Jascha Horenstein, Earl Wild, Rene Leibowitz etc. Chesky later also re-issued many of them in LP on better vinyl, and then CD; grab them when you see them). I shall deal with these labels later on in the series.
Below are the more Commonly Encountered Labels. Please note that aside from researching labels, I rely on my memory for artistic examples, so no doubt many will be left out.
This is not meant to be exhaustive. As things go along, I continue to
modify the article. I have deliberately not covered Opera.

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphonies 4, 5, 6 / MravinskyDeutsche Grammophon (wiki)
Commonly known as DG, is the Yellow Label. As the link mentioned, the earlier BIG Tulip (thicker) is more coveted than later Small Tulip. Many early DG recordings were issued in the US by Decca (US). DG's pre-classical music (baroque etc) label is called the Archiv, which because of scholarship, are usually even more lavishly packaged than DG.
  • Another DG subsidiary is Heliodor, which re-issued many of the older mono and early stereo recordings (like by the great Ferenc Fricsay) also. Early DG pressings and Archiv pressings are usually very good, but Heliodor, many of which were UK pressed, is at best a mixed bag (clicks and pops).
  • Most DG and Archiv records were pressed in Germany, but the UK is an exception - most of the DG's available in the UK were pressed in the UK, and they are inferior to the German pressings not only in sound, as they are usually noisy. I believe Canada pressed their DG's too, and I have a few. In general, aside from price concerns, I'd only opt for Germany pressings. In terms of recording quality, DG can be very good (especially their VPO ones) but many are a little bright, controversial in the eyes of the audiophile; also, the Berlin Philhamonie has always been a problematic space. Two audiophile favorites: Jochum's Carmina Burana (often seen) and Shura Cherkassky with BPO/Karajan's Hungarian Fantasy (not often seen).
  • Certain Record Clubs, like the IPS mentioned above, issued DG recordings pressed in Italy. The box is not lacquered and not as sturdy or beautiful, but I usually have no issue with the quality of the pressings, pretty good imho.
  • DG also re-issued many of their recordings and compilations in various budget series, ResonancePrivilege etc. Most of these are of reasonable quality but, if you are not in a hurry, wait for the original issues, which are ubiquitous.
  • DG is ubiquitous, easy to get second-hand, so avoid current DG re-issue LPs (they are lousy in sound and quality).
  • Early On In terms of artists, DG was dominated by Berlin PO/Karajan, who recorded many things more than one time. Usually the earlier analog version sounds better than the later digital ones. Karajan also sold more records than anyone, which is why we encounter him a lot more than others in the stable. Although I own many of his recordings (he is best in Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and the Second Viennese School), overall he is not my favorite. Personally I'd look out for recordings with the Vienna PO/Karl Bohm (almost all worthwhile) or Eugen Jochum (almost all worthwhile, Bruckner in particular; the audiophile favorite is Orff's Carmina Burana, often seen in the dollar bin; the Haydn London Symphonies with the LPO is also a classic set) and Ferenc Fricsay (who died young). Raphael Kubelik remains under-rated but his Schumann, Janacek, Dvorak, Mahler (of less hysterical, more gentle nature) and a late Beethoven cycles are all very good. In terms of pianists, DG is strong: Geza Anda (essential Bartok; great Chopin and Mozart), Frederich Gulda, Wilhelm Kempff (essential Beethoven, Bach, Schubert), Emil Gilels (essential Brahms, Beethoven, Grieg, everything really), Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Sviatoslav Richter (everything); When it comes to string soloists, early violinists like Joanna Martzy and Erica Morini fetch astronomical sums and basically you don't see them, so look instead for Wolfgang Schneiderhan (essential Beethoven concerto) and the few Christian Ferras and David Oistrakh recordings; and, oh, don't forget the great Henryk Szeryng's handful of recordings (a magnificent Berg Concerto and an excellent set of Bach Solo Violin Works); you can safely buy any of the great cellist Pierre Fournier's concerto or chamber music recordings. There are also a few early Mitislav Rostropovich recordings. In chamber music, I find the in-house Amadeus Quartet usually not to my taste. The later Melos Quartet was lackluster too.
  • Later On Except for some of the aforementioned artists who continued to make worthwhile recordings, into the late 70's and 80's things got progressively less interesting. Boston SO/Ozawa made many recordings, but few outstanding ones. Claudio Abbado was better in his earlier recordings (CSO/Mahler, LSO/Stravinsky etc) than in his later boring BPO tenure. Daniel Barenboim as conductor is not generally recommendable (same for his piano playing during the DG era). Most interesting, though idiosyncratic, are Carlos Kleiber, who made few recordings, and Leonard Bernstein in his sunset years (Mahler, Sibelius, Brahms etc). For string instrumentalists, Anne-Sophie Mutter was pretty good as a girl, but her mature recordings were largely not competitive imho, except in modern music, which she contributed to significantly. Violinist Gidon Kremer is idiosyncratic and not a fav, but his modern music recordings are good. A huge number of violinists are all good but not artistically outstanding (Itzhak Perlman, Pichas Zuckerman, Schlomo Mintz, Gil Shaham, all forgettable), Cellist Misha Maisky to me is just affected, and I cannot think of a single recording of his that I like. The best violin recording is likely Nathan Milstein's Bach Solo Violin Works. In piano, at least we have the great Martha Argerich (every record is good), some early (talented but idiosyncratic) Ivo Pogorelich and Christian Zimerman. Maurizio Pollini made some great early recordings (Chopin, Stravinsky, Berg) but got progressively bland later on. and I personally like the technically imperfect recordings by elderly Rudolf Serkin, and the late Horowitz series (Return to Moscow is often seen).
  • DG also issued some Eastern-Bloc and Russian recordings but not at all to the extent of EMI (an essential is Evgeny Mravinsky's Tchaikovsky).
    BIBER Mystery Sonatas Melkus Dreyfus
  • Archiv Because of scholarship, the LPs are usually even more lavishly packaged than DG. As I generally favor more modern interpretations of Baroque works for their historically informed practices (HIP, such as vibrato-less playing and lower tuning)), many of the recordings of the older artists, like Karl Richter, can sometimes (but not always; sometimes there is more grandeur) feel out of date, but as they are available cheap it is good to sample to see if you like them. But Archiv did have one great HIP ensemble - the now disbanded Reinhard Goebbel's Musica Antiqua Koln (almost all of their recordings are collectibles). The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock was also a reliable, middle-of-the-road HIP guide through baroque standard repertoire. Of course even among the older generations, there were outstanding artists. My favorites are the blind Organist Helmut Walcha, whose magisterial Bach survey is all you ever need (can your system handle organ?); pioneering baroque Violinist Eduard Melkus is unsung but his Biber and Bach are exceptional.
EMI Although I favor Decca/London recordings myself, no company is more important than EMI, but US collectors will encounter mostly Angel. Those who want to know the history of this company should read the link in Watson Records (UK).

  • Angel If you look at the labels, I'd say up to the Blue Label is pretty good. Later pressings vary all over the map, and certainly avoid the Digital DMM Remastered LPs.
  • In terms of conductors, EMI has had greater breath and depth than any rival. Straddling the mono age is Thomas Beecham (good stereo recordings of French music, bon bons, Berlioz and Strauss). Then came the great Otto Klemperer (with the Philharmonia at its prime), who recorded extensively (and most recordings are worthwhile), Andre Cluytens (in French repertoire, but he is actually excellent in German repertoire, as in his excellent Beethoven cycle), Adrian Boult (Elgar, Vaughn Williams, Holst, surprisingly good Wagner), John Barbirolli (Elgar, Brahms, Mahler) and Carlo Maria Giulini (a little sedate for younger listeners), but many other earlier and forgotten conductors are just as great, and I count Rudolph KempeConstantin Silvestri, Paul Kletzi (excellent Mahler), Carl Schuricht (excellent Bruckner 3, 8, 9 with the VPO), Nicolai Malko (brilliant Prokofiev) etc among them. And, yes, Malcolm Sargent was pretty reliable too. Herbert von Karajan also recorded extensively, first with the Philharmonia (very good Beethoven and Sibelius), then with the BPO (performance often better than the later DG ones, but the sound is sometimes over-reverberant - as in Bruckner's 4th and 8th). Much later on, EMI signed Eugen Jochum, who recorded with the LPO (a good Brahms cycle but the Beethoven cycle is not as good as his previous with the RCO). Later, there was Eugen Jochum excellent second complete Bruckner cycle with the Dresden Staatskapelle (acoustics a little reverberant). Then came the Philadelphia Orchestra with Ricardo Muti, who recorded a lot of mainstream repertoire. Except for his Prokofiev, I don't find them truly outstanding. Then, there are odd sets of merits: Kurt Sanderling's Beethoven cycle, Mitislav Rostropovich's Tchaikovsky cycle.
    Turangalîla Symphony (Vinyl, LP, Stereo, Quadraphonic) album cover
  • And then sonically there is the legendary series of recordings by the Bournemouth Symphony. First, under Louis Fremaux they produced an audiophile fave, (El Cid). Later, under Pavvo Berglund, much more substantial fare - Shostakovich and Sibelius recordings that are sonic spectaculars. Also, Andre Previn made many outstanding recordings (Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky ballets) with the London Symphony (Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony is well known to audiophiles). He was frequently produced/recorded by the 2 Christophers (Bishop/Parker), a guarantee of sonic excellence (this team worked on most of Boult and Giulini's recordings too).
  • In terms of String Players, Russian violinists David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein, and of course cellists Jacqueline Dupre and Paul Tortelier must be mentioned, and all of their recordings are good. I know, Itzhak Perlman recorded everything competently, but I always find him lacking somewhat in character. Yehudi Menuhin's output was uneven because he suffered from failing technique, but his heart was always in the right place. Mitislav Rostropovich made a few new recordings with EMI (Dvorak and great Prokofiev), and a lot of his Melodiya recordings were issued (see below).
  • In terms of pianists, EMI did not do so well: their older mono era had great pianists such as Edwin Fischer, Arthur Schnabel, Solomon, Walter Gieseking and Dinu Lipatti. Early on in the stereo era, Witold Malcuzinski and Emil Gilels made some fine records, and then there were the earlier recordings of Arrau (later for Philips) and of course those of Sviatoslav Richter (all worthwhile) and a few by the legendary Annie Fischer. Things got less interesting later on. Because they had the French Pathe division, EMI often had French pianists in their stable. One who recorded a lot was Aldo Ciccolini, who was always good but never great. Later on, Jean-Philippe Collard can be dismissed (I heard him in HK, one of the worst recitals I have ever heard). Alexis Weissenberg made many discs but his steely and objective manner was controversial (I don't mind it, and they are usually well recorded). And then there were Augustin Anievas, Christina Ortiz and latter Cecille Ousset, and all of them, while good, have sunken into near-oblivion. All these are dollar bin material. Some Russian pianists (usually favored by me) also got the limelight for a while, among them Andrei Gavrilov (very objective too) and Yuri Egorov.
    Concerto No. 1 In D Major - Concerto No.2 In D Minor (Vinyl, LP, Repress, Stereo) album cover
  • Capitol This US subsidiary of EMI is known for its excellent FDS (Full Dimension Sound) and mostly concentrate on American artists, the biggest names of which are conductor Leopold Stokowski and violinists Nathan Milstein and Michael Rabin (many issued later on Angel and Seraphim). All of their recordings are excellent. But I'd add the brilliant Hollywood String Quartet to my favs. Capitol usually has very good sound and pressings, but mono's are seen more often than stereo's.
  • Angel/Melodiya For a Russophile (in terms of music) such as me, EMI did classic music an immense service by issuing a HUGE number of Melodiya recordings, making us familiar with great Russian artists: Conductors Evgeny Mravinsky (Shostakovich etc), Kiril Kondarshin (a definitive Shostakovich cycle that unfortunately has subpar sound), Evgeny Svetlanov (usually so-so sound) and Gennady Rozhdestvensky (usually good sound), and innumerable Soviet instrumentalists (all very good). I probably have at least half of what they issued in this department. Keep in mind the inner labels don't look anything like their UK/Angel counterparts, but you can tell by the thickness and stiffness whether it is an earlier or later pressing (earliest is monochrome bright red, later with a Kremlin pic).
    Violin Concerto & Meditation (Vinyl, LP, Album, Stereo) album cover
  • Seraphim Collectors should also not dismiss Angel's budget label, as its catalogue is chock full of great performances. E.g., it is rare to see an Emil Kogan recording on Angel or Michael Rabin recordings on Capitol, but they come up relatively often in Seraphim, and you should grab them as soon as you see them. Many of the most famous Capitol's too are much more often seen on Seraphim than Capitol. Also, not a few EMI releases were issued first on Seraphim, and some of these are great. In particular, the recordings of under-rated Rudolph Kempe (a series of Richard Strauss with the Dresden Staatskapelle and an excellent Beethoven cycle with the Munich PO). In my experience, the brown/yellow duo-toned label is usually OK, the later off-white a matter of luck. For the same recording, you come across the Seraphim re-issue at least ten times more often than the original Angel or Capitol. Most Seraphim's should not be priced higher than $1. 
  • French and German EMI French Pathe and German Odeon were acquired by EMI, which also established in Germany the Electrola records. Many of the records produced by these continental divisions of EMI were not well known to the general American buyer and were available only as imports. Many records would say EMI but with a Pathe, Odeon or Electrola sticker over the EMI logo. French EMI in particular had many interesting older artists, such as Afred Cortot, Yves Nat, Marcelle Meyer etc, to name a few of my favorites. One well known series is the Référence series of historical performances. Angel only issued a small fraction of French EMI recordings.
Violin Concerto (Vinyl, LP, Stereo, Repress) album coverColumbia Masterworks is another headache to many audiophiles.
  • Their recordings could sound good in some (tubed usually) systems but often coarse in others. In the link provided, only look at the labels with the word "Masterworks" for guidance to inner labels. For me, up to the grey label is pretty good.
    Symphony No. 3 In E Flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”) (Vinyl, LP, Stereo, Repress) album cover
  • Artistically, Columbia is basically American artists and so, for a Europhile like me, one really has to cherry-pick. In terms of orchestral works, it is the big three. Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil are often challenging, but idiosyncratic, and given the wide choice out there, not a safe bet in core repertoire, but I'd pick their Mahler, Sibelius, Schumann and Haydn as amongst the best; after Bernstein, Pierre Boulez took over, and his particular modernism sometimes were interesting (very good Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern of course; also excellent Varese). Eugene Ormandy and Philadelphia Orchestra recorded just about everything, but mostly in a somewhat lush, homogenized way, and my picks are their Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. As for George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra, usually very well played and proper but lacking in soul, so aside from their Dvorak I like them as accompaniment for soloists (e.g. for pianists Rudolf Serkin, Leon Fleisher, and Robert Casadesus). None of them produced as many memorable recordings as Bruno Walter, whose mono or stereo recordings are mostly all worthwhile. The other important legacy is Igor Stravinsky, whose extensive recordings of his own works are excellent documents, and I usually find them highly worthwhile.
  • For soloists, their catalogue is pretty uneven. Better for pianists; the aforementioned three were the main staples, and they produced many classic work, along with the very good Gary Graffman (and too-light sounding Philip Entremont). And of course, there is the one-and-only Glenn Gould, a must in Bach. And the legendary Vladimir Horowitz, in his middle period, recorded a lot, and they are highly personal and idiosyncratic (essential Scarlatti and Scriabin; sample too his Chopin). In terms of violinists, an aged Zino Francesscati (kinda thin tone) still produced the most interesting recordings (the Beethoven with Bruno Walter is a classic). Columbia invested heavily in Issac Stern, recording everything, but the problem is that, while he was good enough, he was never more than that, and Jaime Laredo we don't even need to mention. Things improved with the digital age, as Cho-Ang Lin made many very good records, though he never caught on with the public, and in Yo-Yo Ma they finally had a star cellist, who recorded everything, and mostly well done, more interesting than the Columbia staple of years past, the rather matter-of-fact Leonard Rose. In chamber works, I like most things recorded by the Budapest Quartet.
    Symphony No.3  "Eroica" (Vinyl, LP, Stereo) album cover
  • Odyssey This is the budget label of Columbia, and like Seraphim, it is imho a very important label. In stereo recordings, the art work on the record sleeves are often better than the generally more four-square original issues. It re-issued virtually every recording of the great Bruno Walter, and almost all are worthwhile. Ditto Zino Francesscati's recordings. For the same recording, you come across the Odyssey re-issue at least ten times more often than the original Columbia, and they are usually $1. Odyssey also re-issued many mono recordings, which are generally less desirable. These are distinguished by their sleeves, which have few colors imposed on an austere white background.
  • Epic (wiki) This early Columbia label issued some of their early recordings, which can mostly be dismissed, but it also issued many early Dutch Philips recordings, which have some value (e.g. you see Arthur Grumiaux and Andre Navarra on Epic). Again, these are dollar bin material.
  • Columbia Special Products This is an odd duck, which for classical lovers can be mostly ignored were not for the occasional mono recordings of the great Dimitri Mitropolous or Robert Casadesus. One of my desert island disc is on this label, the incomparable piano duo Robert and Gaby Casadesus in Schubert. After decades and sampling most available versions, I have not come across a rival yet. I wish I have the original mono ML Columbia, which I have yet to come across.
This is the end of Part I. Part II shall explore Decca/London, Philips
and perhaps other labels.

Duo-Pianists album cover


  1. Excellent article, one of your best! I had spoken to you privately about my woes of sorting through various record labels to get to the 'good stuff'. These recommendations will be invaluable for myself and I am sure others as well.

    1. I have always wanted to do this, but it is quite daunting. I have updated this article already three times, and more are coming. The series shall be in many parts. Next Decca/London and Philips.

  2. Great, informative post! I'm listening to and being fascinated by Milstein's Bach: Works for solo violin right now.

    1. Oh, I am so glad you get to enjoy something! For me, the Milstein Bach is still a top version.

  3. Four days have passed since my comment and I think it's fair to say, I'm hooked now. Bach seems to be my gateway drug to classical music.
    That said, I'll definitely explore other artists from this post. And I'm looking forward to the next chapters.

    1. Great stuff! It has ALWAYS been said that there is NO perfect introduction to classical music. Everyone responds to different composers differently. Mine was really weird in a way. I started classical music with just the radio. At the time, the newspaper published a brief on highlights of the day and one listens accordingly. Soon, I got a cassette and taped many pieces. What really floored me then was Sibelius Violin Concerto and Tcahikovsky Symphony #4, just by chance.

      Try Bach's Violin Concertos, I never get tired of them. And the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites.

      Also, a lot of younger people prefer baroque music. Try playing the Italian Radio Emiglio Romagna, not through the official site, instead using Radio Garden. I can attest it was very good and the programming of much baroque music was to my liking. I also like the fun way one navigates in Radio Garden. Give it a try!


      Have fun and report back once in a while! :-)

    2. Well, to be perfectly honest my first contact was with 20th century composers. I come from an experimental music background so I started listening composers who were referenced in those circles: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, La Monte Young and the like. Then I skipped back a couple of centuries to Bach.

      Thanks for the Radio Garden link! It's too much fun to spin the globe around, but that part will probably wear off soon, so I can actually start listening to music and not just random snippets of sound. :)

      (To avoid any possible awkward situations, a disclosure is due: I'm the "dadaist poetry" guy with a different email address, that I use for public commenting, etc. Feel free to delete this part of my comment before publishing.)

    3. Oh wow, I thought dadaism was history, but it is alive! I am a fan of dadaist visual arts (where my knowledge is confined), like Max Ernst, but I tend to lump surrealism and futurism and any difficult to classify things together. Other favorites are like Dali, Brunel and Escher.

      When the minimalist came out, the downtown scene was quite exciting. Lots of record stores devoted to their music. I still like Riley's In C, a grandaddy piece.

      Have fun and thx for the comment again.

  4. Great series of articles on vinyls Doc! I am sure you are aware of, and I am sure you own them too, Japanese pressings of DG/DGG, Decca, Philips, etc., vinyls. What do you think of them? Are they different sonically?

    1. Thx for the encouragement. I aim to cover as many meaningful labels as possible. Actually, the smaller labels are even more interesting. Watch this space.

      The Japanese vinyls are curious things. In terms of vinyl quality, they are famous for being quiet and free of clicks and pops. But in terms of sound, frequently, they are a little subdued in dynamics and possibly a little rolled off. I'd not exaggerate these findings, but it is at the back of the mind.

      In general, it is almost always best to have the pressings from the country where the label originates, but don't let that stop you from buying other pressings. Someone in HK gave me a Japanese copy of the Carlos Kleiber Beethoven 5th on DG, and I have used it as a reference, though I have never compared it with a German pressing, which I only have in NY.

      One thing though, do NOT pay too much for a Japanese pressing. In japan, used vinyl is very reasonably priced.

      Japanese CDs are also different. Frequently a tad sharper than Western ones, but again here the quality of the plastic and coating is better (less scratch prone).

      I maintain in a balanced system Japanese LP or CD would sound OK, but there are people who swear they are so different as to be either superior or unplayable. ymmv.