An Appreciation -Columbia Legacy

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The Columbia Masterworks legacy of 78 rpm recordings is a vast opus of interesting, diverse and complex recordings - many of which are very well recorded and highly collectable.

Although the Columbia Masterworks label is seen as the poor cousin to RCA Victor – in many cases, Columbia drove a great deal of the innovation in the American recording scene during the 78 and LP eras.  In relation to Columbia recording endeavors, Grove’s “Music Online” notes “much attention was given to contemporary music, with the first recordings of Berg’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (conducted by the composer), both in 1940, and a number of recordings of modern American music (notably works by black composers), as well as recordings of works by Stravinsky under his own direction, and no fewer than 69 American musicals.” 1

This isn’t to say that RCA didn’t make interesting repertory choices itself – but nor did Columbia stick to the old and familiar as was the case with RCA. You’ll be hard pushed to find the usual standard compositions of Beethoven or Mozart in the Columbia catalogues verbatim as you can with the Victor catalog.

As part of my research for this book I accessed as many of the recordings mentioned within as was possible – either from 78 rpms from public or private collections (including my own) or via online sources. It is true to say that some recordings by Columbia were poorly recorded and in my opinion, are not worthy of collecting except for perhaps curiosity sake. In such cases, I have appended reviewer’s negative comments to these recordings.

Many contemporary reviewers held many Columbia recordings in high esteem. A selection of recordings below is but a small example of what contemporary reviewers thought. I consider these recordings worthy of collecting.

Set M-136 - “An excellent recording” Time Magazine, 1930

Set M-314 - “…Technically and artistically these are records of which Columbia may well be proud, an album set that will honor any collection…” Gramophone Supplement

Set M-319 - “…luscious, richly recorded version…” Gramophone Supplement 1938

Set M-330 - “…matchless recording…” Gramophone Supplement 1938

Set M-372 - “…Crystal clear recording and beautifully clean playing make this set one of the most rewarding in the Columbia catalogue…” Gramophone Supplement 1944

Set M-400 - “…The recording is beyond reproach…” Gramophone Supplement 1944

Set M-429 - “…The recording is breathtaking in its clarity and realism, and the performance is without equal…” Gramophone Supplement 1945

Set M-467 - “…Though there are deficiencies in the performance of this quartet, notably a too-sensuous tone, the recording is remarkable for its clarity and balance…” Gramophone Supplement 1945

Set M-500 - “…extraordinarily brilliant job of recording… one of the major gramophonic achievements of a major Beethoven work…” Gramophone Supplement 1945

Set M-562 - “…The recording is bright and open, and the singers voices emerge with clarity and realism…” Gramophone Supplement 1945

Set M-657 - “… Vibrantly and brilliantly recorded…”

Set M-326 - “…The recording is beyond reproach. In fact, it is one of the best piano recordings in the entire Columbia catalogue…”

I’d also like to draw your attention to a few which I feel are worth collecting for reasons of musicality, interpretation and sheer technical excellence. I’m sure I’ll find criticism with my selection – but as with all selections of this nature – they are personal.

At the top of my list is the Rodzinski recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 [MM-520 -11866-D-11870-D] In particular, the Largo movement is worth listening to more than once. One reviewer at the time wrote: “Columbia’s engineers have given superbly transparent recording worthy of the performance, recording that astonishes by the verisimilitude with which it reproduces such “difficult” instruments as celesta and tympani. Here is what may well turn out to be Shostakovich’s major composition in performance and recording of the very first rank.” 2

First Movement - Symphony No. 5 (Shostakovich)

Another top rate performance is Songs by Poulenc and Ravel [MM-958 -73100-D-73105-D] featuring Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc as performers. [MM-951 -73137-D-73139-D] is another good performance of a Poulenc piece expertly recorded.

As mentioned earlier, Columbia wasn’t afraid to record unusual works by not-so-well-known composers – Poulenc included. Milhaud was another composer whose works received considerable attention by Columbia’s engineers.

One of my favorites is [MM-704 -72242-D- 72245-D] of his First Symphony. The writer of a recent survey of Milhaud on records from the Classic Record Collector magazine stated, “the recorded performance of the Symphony is magnificent; indeed, this composer-conductor account has always convinced me that it is one of the very greatest French symphonies of the twentieth century.” 3 If you manage to find a copy of this rare Columbia set, I highly recommend purchasing it. It is highly sort after.

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Another important recording not to be overlooked is [MM-469 -11615-D-11620-D] The first ever recording of this Mahler Symphony. As noted by an online reviewer “This is a great performance by any standard. By no means does it sound dated or old fashioned. Plenty of heft and intensity and an astonishing freshness, as if Mitropoulos knew that the record he was making was important in the world of recorded music… The only draw back is that it is acoustically dry, with not much reverberation and it is lean on the bass. Fortunately todays audio equipment will allow you to add more reverberation and more bass. A little tweaking and it sounds good.” 4

Another fine performance from Rodzinski is [MM-665 -12505-D-12508-D] of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4. In particular, listen to the third and fourth movements a few times if you find a copy of this very well recorded and performed recording. The wind instruments (and string playing for that matter) at the start of the second and third movements is very clear and played very well. 5

First Movement - Symphony No. 4 (Sibelius)

Second Movement - Symphony No. 4 (Sibelius)

Third Movement - Symphony No. 4 (Sibelius)

Fourth Movement - Symphony No. 4 (Sibelius)

Another set of records worth collecting is the Juilliard String Quartet’s Bartok series from the early 1950’s. [Sets MM-882; MM-883; MX-331; MM-884; MM-885; MM-886] 6 An editorial review of these performance from Amazon.com notes, “The young players’ technical, intellectual, and emotional command of these extremely difficult, problematic works is astounding. Bartok’s musical language, so closely tied to his native Hungarian idiom, seems to come to them naturally. They handle his complicated, constantly changing rhythms with consummate ease and bring out the character and the wildly contrasting moods and emotions of the music with deeply felt expressiveness, from the obsessive dances-unbridled but always controlled-to the heartbreaking lamentations of the last quartet, written on the eve of World War II. Listeners familiar only with the group’s later constellations of players may be surprised at the purity, warmth, and homogeneity of its sound (the two violinists are almost indistinguishable), and at the moderate, expansive tempos, despite the Quartet’s reputation for speed and high-voltage tension, allowing time and repose to give loving attention to details and expression to every note.” 7 These recordings are considerably rare. They are hard to come by. It would appear that MX 331 is possibly the rarest of the sets.

Also, If you get the chance to collect X-329 [12154-D-12155-D] – you’ll find some great music, recorded and conducted well by Eugene Ormandy featuring music from the film, Louisiana Story by Virgil Thomson. Particularly fine is the Passacaglia and Fugue – recorded well, although the final crescendo is somewhat muddy.

Pastorale - Louisiana Story (Thomson)

In the examples above, I’ve focussed on sets which were recorded in the US – but a few sets recorded in Europe (and released under the Masterworks label) are worthy of particular attention as well.

One of these favorites is [MOP-15 -11497-D-11504-D] featuring Henri Tomasi conducting a exceptional interpretation of Orpheus. Alice Raveau singing the part of Orphée in this almost complete opera is amazing. Opera on Record (Hutchinson: 1979) noted the following about Raveau’s singing in this recording: “No voice ever poured itself into the music with greater purity and passion … The line seems to be flooded with intense, burnished tone, yet at the same time the flood is disciplined and directed by the placing of every syllable.” If collecting good examples of singing is part of your collecting scope – I highly recommend this set. It isn’t rare which is a bonus. I often see it appearing on auction lists and online via Ebay. Most sellers however- do not understand what a great little set this is and underrate its value because of its ‘high-brow’ status.

A quick word on record formats is needed for the collector new to Columbia. Most major record companies released their record sets in a variety of formats. 8 A little history on how this came about might be helpful though. Initially, the major manufacturers of phonograms; (usually the same manufacturers of the records); created turntables which played one record – one side at a time. Each side of the record had to be manually flipped over. During the late 1920’s, the development of the automatic record changer made it easier to listen to a semi-continuous selection of music. As noted on a website describing record changers, “record albums were made in different sequences by different companies, to be played on the different changers each company made.” 9

The sequencing of an album set was therefore available in a variety of formats to suit the different record changers available on the market. In the US, three common types of record changers were available for M, AM and MM sets.

In Australia; (where incidentally the first record changer was invented); most record sets were published as M and MM. In the UK, the major record companies released their sets as M and MM, (often called “Auto coupling”.

The three most popular formats that Columbia used and released were:

M – Selections of music which required more than one record side were continued on the ‘B’ side (or flip side) of the record. After completion of each side of the record, the record had to be picked up from the turntable and turned over manually by the listener. The side sequence was for example:

  • Record 1, Sides 1 and 2; 
  • Record 2, Sides 3 and 4;
  • Record 3, Sides 5 and 6

AM – The “AM” series of albums was made in the “slide-automatic sequence” for the throw-off type of record changer. The side sequence was:

  • Record 1, Sides 1 and 4;
  • Record 2, Sides 2 and 5; 

  • Record 3, Sides 3 and 6

MM – The “MM” series of albums (or DM for RCA recordings) was made in the “drop-automatic sequence” for the drop type of record changer. The drop sequence was:

  • Record 1, Sides 1 and 6;
  • Record 2, Sides 2 and 5; 
  • Record 3, Sides 3 and 4

Columbia Masterworks released most of their album sets in two formats – which were commonly referred to as Manual (M) and Drop Manual (MM) formats. Some sets were also released in an (AM) format – Slide Automatic – which were used on special record changing mechanism machines.

Generally speaking, AM sequenced sets were not as popular as the standard M or MM formats. Also, towards the end of the 78 rpm era – Columbia released most of its later sets in the MM format and the new LP format only. As a general rule, AM sets are often rarer than the standard M and MM formats. And on a final note on formats, it’s worth noting that some later M series sets were also released on black vinylite 78s with the prefix ‘V’ or ‘VM’. The Columbia examples are far rarer than the RCA vinylite sets as a general rule.

It is also worth pointing out that the later Col. Masterworks sets are also generally rarer than the equivalent RCA later sets – particularly from MM 800 and MX 300 onwards. I suggest the following possible reasons for this:

By mid 1952, Columbia had all but ceased releasing the majority of Masterwork 78rpm records opting for their LP and EP equivalents. (For example, no symphonic work was available in the 1952 catalog in 78rpm format and only 1 – 78 rpm sonata set was available from over 80 sonatas listed at the time. And as a point of interest, this one listing for a sonata in the 1952 catalog comes from a very early set M-231!) RCA, however, continued producing 78s for longer due to their reluctance to adopt the LP format (and)

Fewer 78rpm Masterwork sets (if available) were sold compared with LP and EP sales of the same set. Take-up of the LP format for ‘classical’ recordings was particularly advanced by 1952 in American, Australian and European markets. It had also quickly become the accepted standard format for classical works by reviewers, radio broadcasters and the discerning consumer.

These factors led to the early ‘death’ of the Masterworks 78rpm album as it was known. It seems that by mid 1952, the 78rpm ‘MM’ series was all but finished and only limited sets were published as 78s from M-1000 onwards. This is clearly evident with only a handful of MM and MX sets available in the 1952-1953 Columbia Catalog, for example.

The ‘MX’ series, it appears, had also ceased by this time, finishing at MX-355 – and the remaining two-record sets issued on 78rpm after that point – were released under the general ‘MM’ series instead. See MM-1020, MM-1034, MM-1076 and MM-1077 as examples.

With the introduction of the microgroove formats of the LP and EP, the 78rpm format was quickly phased out for Masterwork sets. This occurred rapidly for all sets roughly after M-1000. With the exception of a handful of issued 78rpm sets after this point, (roughly 16), all Masterwork sets were issued in the LP and EP formats up to and beyond the very last 78rpm set of M-1111 – the point at which this discography finishes. 10

Interestingly, by M-771; although there are earlier, sporadic examples; the standard “M” format was phased out in preference of the “MM” format. It would appear that consumers were opting for the “MM” format over the “M” format as record players featuring turntables equipped with automatic record changers were becoming more common.

By the time the MM Masterworks series reached the early 800’s, all 78rpm sets were issued in MM format only with no M format issues available.

Even though this discography deals with 78rpm sets, I chose to list EP issued sets (which were the equivalent of the non-existent – 78rpm sets found between M-999 and M-1100) as a short appendix. This was done for continuity purposes. You can access those pages here and here.

I would like to pay particular thanks to Michel Ruppli for his invaluable research, assistance and patience in helping me find many “missing” sets. His additional information regarding some matrix numbers was also extremely helpful. His comprehensive knowledge on the Columbia Masterworks legacy is remarkable. Many thanks Michel. I’d also like to thank Frank Forman for his tireless attention to errors in my drafts and for guidance on many ‘problematic’ entries that took hours to unravel.

I also wish to personally thank James North for his tireless work in helping me figure out the complicated mess of sets from M-1000 onwards. His knowledge on Columbia Masterwork recordings and his access to Sony Archives enabled me to ‘complete’ this work. Many of the New York Philharmonic dates and matrixes come from his meticulously researched book: New York Philharmonic: The Authorized Recordings 1917 – 2005: A Discography; Scarecrow Press; 2006; Lanham.

I highly recommend this book.

Also, finally, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Richard Kaplan. I gratefully acknowledge him granting me access to his private and unpublished Columbia Masterworks album set listing.

And finally, if you’re reading this book for the first time and want to locate a particular recording, I suggest you start your search one of two ways:

(1) Use the links at the top of this discography to locate the set you’re after (or)

(2) Skim through the discography until you find the set you want paying particular attention to the set numbers randomly on each page

S. Hopper | May 2013

References:

  1. Ray Burford and Dave Laing. “Columbia.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 17 Mar. 2010
  2. Gramophone Record Supplement; October, 1942; Page 8
  3. Classic Record Collector; Winter 2009; Robert Matthew-Walker; Page 25
  4. http://rateyourmusic.com/release/album/gustav_mahler
  5. Recording no longer available...
  6. Hear excepts of these recordings at: http://www.amazon.com
  7. Ibid
  8. See introduction for a description of the various types of record formats issued by Columbia
  9. http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/changers.htm
  10. See essay for a brief discussion on the end of the MM era
© S.Hopper 2010-2015 - Webspace kindly provided and funded by the 78rpm Collectors' Community - The recordings used on this educational site are for illustrative purposes.