50 Years of Vox Recordings

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

In 1959, during my second semester at the University of Michigan, I shared a dormitory room with a classical music enthusiast from Ohio named... Well, I had better not divulge his name for fear of incriminating the guilty.

Alan, I'll call him, was so in love with great music that he could enjoy a superb recorded performance regardless of the sound quality. He particularly admired the great opera voices of the past, and would listen to these on 78 r.p.m. recordings which were so full of scratches and ticks that I myself couldn't hear the music for the noise.

The University of Michigan library still had a number of these old records back then. I'm sure they don't any more because most - if not all - of them were undoubtedly found missing sometime after Alan graduated. You see Alan "borrowed" these records without ever checking them out... or returning them, for that matter. Rain or shine, he wore an oversized trench coat every time he went to the library. Afterwards he rationalized that no one else appreciated these recordings, and the library was switching to LPs anyway.

Alan majored in linguistics and was planning to be a professor. I wonder what university - or penitentiary - he is in now.

Like Alan, I love the classics. But I'm not willing to (1) steal them, or (2) put up with bad sound to hear good music. I collect compositions, not performances, and I generally prefer new digital CDs to tapes, LPs or 78s which are reissued on CD. As a result, there are several tracks on the 50th Anniversary 3-CD set from Vox (CD3X 3036) which, although not scratchy like the 78s Alan tortured me with 37 years ago, are not exactly music to my ears. Nevertheless, the great majority of the cuts in this collection have been transferred with acceptable sound, and for those who are more interested in musical performance and recording history than I am, these CDs are a great buy.

The first CD has four seconds under 80 minutes of music on it, including excerpts from historic recordings by Otto Klemperer, Alfred Brendel, Grant Johannesen, Guiomar Novaes, Vlado Perlemuter and Jascha Horenstein. CDs 2 and 3 also weigh in at close to 80 minutes each.

The second CD is devoted to orchestras and includes the Cincinnati, Minnesota, Rochester Philharmonic, Atlanta, Saint Louis, Baltimore, Utah, Dallas and London symphonies. The music includes the familiar Grieg "Norwegian Dance, Op. 35, No. 1", and Alfven's "Swedish Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 19," and the much less familiar "Sinfonia India" by Chavez and the "Fourth of July" from the "Holidays Symphony" by Charles Ives.

Disc No. 3 features violinist Aaron Rosand playing Wieniaski, Michael Ponti playing Scriabin, Anthony Newman playing Bach and Erich Kunzel conducting Sousa. No one can criticize this collection for lacking variety! But it does, dear Alan, lack opera.

If you have a CD changer, these discs will prevent you from getting any exercise at all for almost four straight hours. This special VOXBOX also makes a good gift for someone you are trying to introduce to classical music, filled as it is with one delightful, immediately accessible, fast-paced excerpt after another.

And there's a bonus: The discs are accompanied by an attractive brochure with a fascinating text by Richard Freed on "Fifty Years of Vox: A Feisty Independent with a Sense of Mission." In it Freed tells the story of George H. de Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who founded the label. Mendelssohn, as he was called for short, was an indirect descendant of the famous composer.

A chance encounter between the Vox president and conductor Otto Klemperer in the company's early years quickly became the stuff of legend, Freed writes. When the two ran into each other in Los Angeles, Klemperer asked Mendelssohn about the sales of his recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Mendelssohn assured the famous conductor that the record was doing quite well, Freed continues, but Klemperer wanted to see for himself, so they went to a near-by record shop. As there were no self-help browser bins in those days, they approached a clerk, and Klemperer, without identifying himself, asked if the store had the Beethoven Fifth conducted by Klemperer. The clerk said he didn't think so, but that he did have the same symphony conducted by Toscanini and Bruno Walter.

"No, no" Klemperer said. "I really want it with Klemperer."

"Well, let's see; we have it also by Weingartner and Koussevitzky."

Klemperer persisted, and when the clerk ran out of alternatives he asked, "When we have all these better recordings, why do you insist on Klemperer?" The conductor then drew himself up to his very imposing full height, scowled down at the clerk, and declared, "I want Klemperer - because I AM Klemperer!" "Of course," the clerk said sarcastically, "and I suppose that's Beethoven standing next to you."

"Beethoven?" Klemperer said, his fierceness dissipated. "No, that's not Beethoven; that's Mendelssohn." Whereupon, as George Mendelssohn smiled in amazed disbelief, the clerk, suddenly drained of his composure, turned to him and said: "I've always loved your Wedding March."

Well, I have never pinched a scratchy, poppy 78 for myself from the University of Michigan Library, but I'll steal a good story for my readers wherever I can find one!

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