DECCA 00218830 (41 disks)

It was in 1961 that London, the American subsidiary of Decca, introduced their Phase 4 recordings. At the time, the interest was high in audiophiles stereo and the label wanted to produce recordings of great sonic impact. They had a 20-channel mixing board that gave them great flexibility in balances. Apparently these were mixed down to four channels, eventually to two stereo channels. It is unfortunate the four-channel versions weren't issued on SACD, which surely would have made the end result more interesting. Initial releases in the series were intended to show off stereo, with many percussive effects, but in 1964 it was decided to focus on classical music. Producer Tony D'Amato was in charge, and many famous conductors participated. Most of he recordings were well received—in spite of the fact that audio often was not very effective musically—although it did display the Phase 4 concept.

This new box contains 41 CDs in individual jackets each with a cove of the original LP. Original LP liner notes are included although you probably will need a magnifying glass to read them. By today' standards, audio quality on most of the Phase 4 releases is not outstanding. Massed strings usually are steely and rather harsh, there is little resonance, dynamics are exaggerated, and supporting instruments often are in the front when they should remain a part of the ensemble

.A few CDs contain original LP content, but most combine music from two LPs. Often CD covers do not even list all of the music. An example, Stokowski's CD of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 that also includes the Glazunov Violin Concerto played by Sylvia Marcovici from a Royal Festival Hall concert in 1973. Another example is Stokowski's Scheherazade CD that also include the conductor's arbitrary interpretation of Capriccio Espagnol and Borodin's Polovtsian Dances. You will not be aware of these simply by looking at the jackets. Here are comments on some of the releases:.

Leopold Stokowski's feature a terrific issue of his own transcriptions of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain with demonstration quality audio. The disk of Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony and Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 is valuable as they are the Maestro's only recordings of this music, with scoring additions by the conductor. Stokowski's's Bach transcriptions with the Czech Philharmonic is outstanding, and it also contains his transcriptions of works by Duparc, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and others. Least effective of his recordings is the Wagner collection. In spite of the first-class playing, engineering brings out orchestral detail that should remain in. the background. Antal Dorati's Dvorak and Orff are not well recorded: steely, close-up strings, exaggerated dynamics; however, his Respighi is excellent sonically. I've heard that sessions with Charles Munch were rather stormy, With the exception of Gaite Parisienne, performances are sometimes untidy, surprising for this conductor. Lorin Maazel's Francesca da Rimini and De ah and Transfiguration are two of the best-recorded works in this set, and he also conducts Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 with his then wife, Israeli Margalit, who also has a solo disk. Pianist Ivan Davis is heard in the two Liszt concertos and probably he longest performance ever 37+ min) of Rachmannoff's Concerto No. 2. Leinsdorf's Mahler Symphony 1 also is among the finest, most natural sounding issues in this series.

Leading singers of the era are featured, a superb disk of Broadway songs sung by Eileen Farrell with rich choral and orchestral accompaniment, American songs arranged for baritone, chorus and large orchestra are sung by Robert Merrill, highlights from Carmen sung by Marilyn Horne, incongruously coupled with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique conducted by her then husband, Henry Lewis (a dismal performance, poorly recorded). A 2-disk set of the complete Swan Lake with Anatole Fistoulari and the London Symphony is a major disappointment in both performance and sound. The conductor's 1961 recording of excerpts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is infinitely superior. It is difficult to believe that Phase 4, which touts spectacular sound, could issue a recording such as this LSO release with its muddy bass and lack of dynamic range. .

A delightful account of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra featuring Sean Connery, then at the height of his James Bond fame, as narrator. Originally this was to be conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, but he could not cope with the up-dated (and very comic) script), so Antal Dorati stepped in and did a superb job. And this recording is one of the best-sounding in the Phase 4 series. Not mentioned on the jacket is that it also include's Prokofiev's Lt. Kije suite.

For audio display purposes, it disk called Battle Stereo features lots of left and right, gunshots, muskets, advancing troops, cannon and battle sounds. A Paco Peña disk offers vivid flamenco sounds, Miklos Rozsa's score for Ben Hur is given grandiose treatment and, best of all, the spectacular Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann long has been one of my favorite audio display disks, with its scintillating percussion, organ and unique scoring.

A 124-page booklet accompanies the set. This gives complete recoding information.and essays about the history of Phase 4. Collectors will find his an intriguing set, and the disks are budget-priced. It is unlikely any of these will be issued separately.

R.E.B. (Februay 2015)