Electric Recording Company Unleashes Mighty Mahler's 9th Symphony

If you think audio reviewers can be grouchy, search opinions of this performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony, his final complete work before passing away at age 51.

Some consider this is great, essential rendering while others call it "second rate", "lacking in conviction, and bettered by just about every other recording from Bernstein to Walter to Pee Wee Herman. No, Pee Wee didn't conduct this piece, but had he, that particular reviewer probably would have said it was better than this one by John Barbirolli conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Classical music aficionados I know are big fans of both the conductor and this performance. One told me that only a passionate man like Barbirolli could properly express Mahler's intentions, and that's what the reviewers say who are big fans of this recording. "His best Mahler" one writes.

And clearly the vinyl buying public is equally enthusiastic because used copies of this superb stereo recording, when you can find one, are relatively expensive, which is one indicator The Electric Recording Company uses to choose what to release on vinyl cut from original master tapes on its fully restored valve (tube) cutting system.

In 1963 Barbirolli conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at home in a performance of this symphony that so moved members of the orchestra (which supposedly at that point was not particularly Mahler-friendly) that it requested a recording, even though the Berlin was signed to DGG. In fact the orchestra members were unanimous in requesting the recording and as subsequent live performances demonstrated, so was the German public.

A deal was struck and a year after the original performance the orchestra was permitted to record this symphony with Barbirolli with EMI engineers at the board (or desk as they call it in the UK). The resulting sonics are unlike anything heard from DGG back then.

While many love to soak in the distant, reverberant and elegant DGG sound, this recording, produced January, 1964 in the Jesus-Christuskirche, a modern venue in the suburb of Dahlem in five three hour sessions has an intimate, yet spacious and rich mid-to-front of hall balance.

It's funny reading the CD reviews that claim the latest CD reissue is smooth and warm compared to the original CD, which was less than inviting. That's now, but back then the first CD was probably declared a "sonic revelation" compared to the "old vinyl" version. That's how it was back them.

I've not heard an original but this one is sonically magnificent tonally and spatially. The strings, brass and woodwinds are vividly rendered in three-dimensions. The second movement's horns are particular rich and well- burnished and the fourth movement, which is all about lush strings, are swoon-inducing. Mahler died before he could hear this symphony performed.

The Electric Recording Company maintains its packaging perfection, spreading the work over three sides, with each record getting the full ERC treatment: that means fold over covers, "old school" printing and all of ERC's accoutrements. Most importantly, Record Industry's flat profile pressings are now fully realized.

While the earlier ERC releases were very good, these two records were physically and sonically perfect. The set is limited to 300 copies and it's costly. You can buy the records separately to spread the financial pain. The first LP in the set costs approximately $450, while the single-sided second LP costs around $390.

Expensive? Yes. Outrageous? Perhaps, but originals are hard to come by. I found only two copies on Popsike, one selling in 2005 for $106 and the other selling for $405 in 2004.

There's a copy on Ebay right now (2/25/15), auction ending around 7PM. Good luck! Otherwise there's this pricey, but pristine reissue, sure to also become a collector's item.

The sound is rich, transparent and everything it's claimed to be by those extolling its sonic and musical virtues. You will never hear 1950s-60's era Berlin Philharmonic so intimately and lovingly recorded in a performance the orchestra insisted upon documenting to vinyl.

COMMENTS
Andrew L's picture

EMIs own re-issue of this classic recording on their budget CfP label is worth seeking out. Having compared it with an original ASD a friend once owned, the differences were insignificant. The CfP should be nearer the $30 mark for a good copy.

Wymax's picture

if the record companies prioritized availability over exclusivity. Music should be made available to all, not just to the well-heeled.

cgh's picture

I don't purport to understand all of the nuances one's faced with when setting a price for a piece of merchandise like this. Perhaps it is pricing in future expectations of price based on collect-ability and appreciation? Modulo this component there must be some "frequency / severity" calculus going on along the continuum of 100 copies for $1 versus 1 copy for $100. The most expensive aspect is the recording, which already happened, no? It would be nice to see a label recording new classical and pressing them. I was just having this conversation with my audio group. DG is doing it. A couple others. Very few. If you're doing for the money you're brain damaged. This is a labor of love. There's either good new pressings of old poor recordings or mediocre pressings of newer recordings. (It would be nothing short of amazing if Eicher pressed the last five years worth of classical and jazz he's released on CD). Maybe my perceived value of a dollar doesn't equal the average dollar but I can't imagine the economics of ERC versus EMC being too different: they both suck! I'm guessing nobody is in this for the money (assuming we have the same definition of "money").

By most measures I am fortunate to have the ability (and have the scars) to comfortably buy this album in addition to the whole catalogue several times over without batting an eye lash. My normal run rate for music purchasing averages a couple hundred dollars a month, often vinyl, with the occasional pop for the expensive pressings. For whatever reason I find myself always browsing the ERC catalog when I get the emails but never buying.

Best,
carey

zzcorey's picture

that is just as good and gobs cheaper, and no ones lifetime is long enough to get thru it all, what a waste of money, unless you are buying a museum piece to frame (velvet underground unpeeled banana, beatles butcher etc) this kind of pricing is just pure stupidity. I'm sure the 1%ers who buy it don't care though.

mauidj's picture

......I'll take a couple to go along with my Peter Lik photos!

Paul Boudreau's picture

There was an interesting article about him in a recent New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/business/peter-liks-recipe-for-success...

Jim Tavegia's picture

You know I am a fan of this vinyl resurgence, but $800 for 2 lps is beyond ridiculous. If they deemed this work important, they must think it must be important to only about 300 well healed patrons. I do understand the fixed costs to make the recording and that must be spread out through the production run, but really, they don't believe they could sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies? That seems odd to me given that sales of $30-$50 lps is quite high these days. I would think that this set for $100 would sell quite well, unfortunately only 300 folks world wide will hear it. That doesn't make any marketing sense to me. Maybe if 275 sit on their shelves they will get it.

Pablo's picture

Just bought a CFP edition in M- condition off Discogs for £5. Would love the ERC edition ( I have the Bach Partitas and they are glorious) but can't stretch there at the moment. As regards pricing of ERC editions these are obsessive releases and must cost an arm and a leg to produce. My Dad always cautioned me against "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing". Good but expensive advice....

Martin's picture

If possible, let people know in a postscript to the review if all the copies sell. Or even how many are sold in the first three months.
Would be really interesting to know if they sell.
I can tell you if it was something I really liked, I'd pay the cost in a minute.
If say someone did the Rolling Stones "Rolling Stones No. 2" and "12 X 5" and "Out of our heads" like this, to this level of quality using the original master tapes and the stereo master tapes for the Chess stuff, I would have no hesitation in paying two or three hundred dollars per LP.

It is a labour of love. I love the Music Matters Jazz reissues, but I can't see them making any money out of it.

miniguy7's picture

Yes it is a magnificent and totally committed performance and one of a small handful of the best orchestral recordings I have, and it's only the CfP reissue. I wonder how much better the ERC is.

Michael Fremer's picture
Please keep everything here in proper perspective: these guys have invested well over $100,000 and three years of their time and effort to buy and have restored the complete Ortofon vintage tubed cutting suite (video on my YouTube channel and embedded in story on this site). They have this facility in a London tech building that can't be inexpensive to lease. They are not a large well-funded corporation, yet they have invested more money in their suite than Abbey Road Studios has invested in its mastering suite in DECADES. And Abbey Road Studios is owned by a large corporation. So keep that in mind. Those costs must be amortized into these releases. The cover art and "old school" printing must cost many times what even the high quality work done at Stoughton Press costs using more modern techniques. But the ERC folks are dedicated to producing jackets as close as possible to the original. So yes, these are very expensive, and they are aimed mostly at the super affluent Asian market where most of the originals are sold—and many of those on Ebay and elsewhere sell for as much if not more than these reissues.

In a market-based economy you charge what you feel the market can bear. By now ERC knows if their business plan is viable.

As commenters have said, there is a CfP reissue that's supposed to be very good and you could find a copy for very little $$$$. That being the case, be glad that ERC is making you aware of great recordings and performances you might otherwise not have been aware of....

juenh77's picture

I think it is great that there are still companies like ERC, Speaker's Corner, Hi-Q, ORG and others that still release classical music vinyl. There are a lot of great new releases in SACD, both stereo and multichannel but I still love to hear classical lps. I also have SACDs and Blu Ray Audio discs and sounds great, no doubt about it, but most of the cosidered greatest recordings of all time were originally released in vinyl, so I think it is worthwhile. Digital is more convenient due to the duration of the pieces, you don't need to turn the record over, if you want to hear a complete opera, you have to deal with two, three or four lps. But the vinyl opera box sets are extremely beautiful, they look great in any collection, and the big libretto is another plus. I hope more opera were released in the future, SC has amazing editions of Wagner's Parsifal, Strauss Elektra and Bernstein's Carmen, but I know there are really expensive.
I can't afford the ERC editions, but I'm glad that this titles are available in pristine editions

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

With thrift store vinyl hunting you sometimes score a big haul - walk in just after someone dumped off dead Grandpa's stuff - and never get around to listening to the records. You catalogue them, shelve them and tell yourself you'll listen soon.

And then a year goes by, and you read an article like this one........ Hold it! Wait a minute! That cover art looks familiar! So you start scanning the old EMI section of your collection and, HOLY CRAP, THERE THEY ARE! The originals from 1964 in mint condition!

Well, well. To date, my reference has always been Haitink's version with the Concertgebouw on Philips. Pure, clean, insightful. But Barbirolli's version is in a different class - like Ellington's band; tight but loose. Struggle, surrendering to acceptance and entropy; the story of life - it's OK, you've done your best, but now it's time to go.

As for the sonics, stunning! So much depth and space around each instrument, with realistic dynamics and decay. Recorded with a Decca Tree?

This is why I love this hobby. Truth and beauty creeps on you when least expected. Thanks Mikey for jogging my memory.

cgh's picture

... to limit supply and set pricing for Asia in the presence of clear demand (I bit my tongue on this earlier). I get all of the nuances of the intangibles and real asset value distortion going on in audio-space with the wealth kurtosis of the demographic and the panicked "flight to quality" drive of recent Asian cashflows (the latter benefiting any off-mainland assets such as Manhattan and Dubai real estate development most). Nevermind the ethical and almost moralistic undertones of the audiophile movement to bring the music to the people via more palatable economics - the fact that so much of this is tantamount to an Ebay Hail Mary is an affront to the ethos. Dammit Fremer! I've watched you lose your stuff for lesser causes! I saw you get mad recently at a respondent that suggested that vinyl sales are partly explained by trying to make a hipster fashion statement (note: my paraphrase from memory). Well, they're not incorrect! People are buying $hitty pressings to put in their Ikea shelving in their exposed brick Hoboken sublets in an attempt to get laid. C'mon man! Help us get some fair pricing! You're like a hedge fund or Goldman: you bring liquidity to the market!!!! What they give up in premium I'll repay in volume... I promise you that! This is one part rational man and one part one-percenter guilt, shaken not stirred, calling on you to take a stand against the oppressive tyrannies of audiophile pricing. Unless this is about patriotism? Perhaps in lieu of diluting the Chinese dollar reserve via the impossible task our federal reserve faces you plan to syphon every last yuan until exactly 300 copies of Mahler's 9th have makes landfall in China proper and we have tipped the international tables on this BRIC superpower! Ah ha! The game's afoot, sir! I surrender my position in the name of G7 loyalty, fervent domestic patriotism, turgid jingoism (if you'll forgive the superfluousness), and promise to fully back this gambit. Just know that at my next audio meeting Mahler's 9th will be played from a noisy 156.7 gram pressing with a hole eccentric to the spindle to tune of 5mm and that, despite this most reprehensible offense, the SRA is at the correct angle despite the VTA. :-)

vince's picture

We live in a capitalist society. Buyers and sellers meet and exchange goods, services and money. People collect all kinds of things, jewelry, cars, records and baseball cards for example, These things vary in value. I find little point in complaining to Car and Driver that the Porsche race car they just reviewed has an asking price is too much for me to spend. Same goes for the fellow at the jewelry store. So I purchase used cars and skip the jewelry. Some buyers do, apparently, have the money to purchase million dollar cars and thousand dollar record albums. Not all products are marketed to all people.

Never-the-less, I enjoy reading about the latest race car, the turn table I will never be able to afford and even records that are most costly than any others in my collection. The story behind many of these products is, in itself, very interesting and worth the read.

Mikey, please carry on. Please continue to provide us a steady diet of interesting analog related things. I enjoy reading nearly everything and I enjoy purchasing a few of those things.

myheroiscoltrane's picture

... Because I'm sittin here listening to the Music Matters Maiden Voyage, and it's awesome!

BTW, does ERC let you keep the review copy, or do you have to return/buy it?

cgh's picture

Vince, I have no issue shelling out mid to high five figures for an amplifier or speakers. I get that. I'm paying for parts, labor, R&D, and marketing. I also know it is a depreciating asset that loses almost half it's value the second I take ownership of it and it's performance will be roughly J-curved in time. That is the nature of a real asset purchased for the purpose of consumption.

That's a different commodification and value proposition than re-issuing vinyl at price points that don't fall within any meaningful (*average*) expectation of value. Sometimes this happens with equipment right out of the gate but they don't last long imo (they usually get slammed in the reviews). Equipment takes years of r&d, brand recognition, and establishing price points to climb. Therefore, their valuation today is a function of past data. Something like this is likely encoding an expectation about future realized prices in an attempt to realize higher prices today. Which is fine, it's an attempt to transform part of the present value of a real asset into an investment for appreciation (or to hold its value) as opposed to one for consumption, which will lose value. Nobody should be surprised when people talk about it critically, though.

Again, maybe this frequency/severity math has been dialed by the people at ERC and they are happy with how it's all going. This doesn't make total sense for me though since I would think this is a labor of love and not some JayZ/Beyonce perfume venture.

I think I said this in another thread: my Columbia reissue Kogan is very good. I'd love to have another pressing but the increase in quality needs to at least support the over 10x price increase; unless I am mixing up concepts around consumption versus investment appreciation.

vince's picture

Thanks for the response. I understand where you're at. I am not likely to purchase these records either. They seem pricey to me as well. Especially when you consider that I am a casual consumer of classical music. However, I really appreciate what they are doing. I really like reading about somebody taking a significant risk to pursue a dream, especially a dream that I relate to (my own reproduction chain is 100% indirectly heated tubes and I would love to go to directly heated tubes). I wish them the very best of luck. And I wish that they would hit on some musical styles that I appreciate more than classical music, namely jazz and blues. At that point the high cost of these (probably) very collectible records may become more acceptable and I may actually make a purchase or two. No, I am not especially well heeled (my Porsche is a used Boxster ;), but I am very impressed with the concept (and it is not easy to score an 11 on Mikey's reviews. And two 11's, I don't know if I have seen that before!).

Rayman's picture

Just bought a $700 power cord for my phono Pre.
The whole system is improved.
Is it $670 better a $30 powercord?

Yes!!

akhan13's picture

I'm a huge John Barbirolli fan from way back. His Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar & Vaughan Williams symphonic cycles are stupendous interpretations. Highly recommended. But to pay $800 for 2 lps. Looks like they don't want this performance to be heard but only by a handful of consumers. Than they complain that the music business is down!

faskenite's picture

Based on the cd versions I have heard, this is a distinctive and highly enjoyable performance. I have never heard the original vinyl in proper circumstances. But let's do the math. This is a three sided LP of a work that can run 80 minutes, with a (magnificent) first movement that can clock in at half an hour. How are the volume levels and dynamics on the new ERC pressings?
PS Another poster's comments about Classics for Pleasure UK EMI reissues as a good economical source of great EMI's is right on the money, as it were. A great way to get at least a decent copy of the otherwise outrageously expensive stereo Markevitch Rite of Spring, for example, or Cluytens' early stereo Ravel.

calaf's picture

$800 buy you three years of Tidal subscription, a very good season ticket with any major US symphony, all Living Stereo, Mercury, HMM, Decca box-sets released in recent years, or 77' of a decent performance of Mahler 9.

AnalogPlanet is one of my favourite blogs, and I appreciate what you are doing to promote vinyl resurgence, but I don't think that dignifying a ridiculously overpriced issue with a review is a good way to further the cause.

Michael Fremer's picture
You need to put into context the expense to which this company went to create the cutting chain. Had they let an existing mastering house cut lacquers and had they printed jackets the usual way and had they pressing thousands, they'd be able to sell these for the usual amount. But that was not their business model. They chose to do something else. I'm not judging their business model in writing these reviews. And I don't think this series hurts the vinyl revival. And I don't think it helps either. It is what it is.
Michael Fremer's picture
I am reporting, you are deciding. When those of you complaining about the crazy pricing invest $100K+ and 3 years of your time setting up and restoring a vintage all-tubed cutting system, you can license and press titles and sell them for however much you wish.

In any case, I am just here to report not to judge the ERC business model. They meticulously produce a very limited production item and charge a great deal of money for it. That is their model.

When they first announced the company I told them I'd be happy to review the records and buy them but would need an accommodation price to be able to afford them.

They chose to send me promos that I get to keep. I am grateful for that BUT I review them as I review all of the records reviewed here, whether promos (some) or records I buy (many).

You will have to be the judge of my honesty but does anyone really think I'd sell my credibility for $800?

These records are "ridiculously" priced if you don't take into consideration the cost of creating the mastering chain that greatly contributes to the final sonics. It would be much easier to license the titles and have Abbey Road cut lacquers using their solid state chain.

It would be interesting to compare those with these. I have taken a test pressing of the Kogan Beethoven Violin Concerto to audio shows and people are left mesmerized.

PeterPani's picture

with ERC's work. I will not buy it (I would love the Mozart a Paris Box), because I cannot afford. But I appreciate that the are doing an all analog tubed chain. I think, nobody else is doing the all tubed way in these days, except them. If interest continues - maybe other producers will go this way, too. And in some years other will use tubed chains again (I would have paid double price if Abbey would have used a tubed reel-to-reel machine for the recent Mono Box - it makes all the last difference to the originals). If in future we might see all analog tubed cutted records, then we may say: ERC was the leader of the band.

Wymax's picture

http://www.tacet.de/main/seite1.php?language=en&filename=lp.php&layout=v...

I have some of them, and they don't cost an arm, a leg, and your lunch.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...we stopped and talked to a guy washing his Porsche convertible. (Yes, we're in a warm part of North America.) He said that people sometimes flick their cigarette buts into his car when he stops at a light with the top down.

Martin's picture

I would jump for.
Cost no object if it's done at this standard.

thomoz's picture

The meanest review I've read in recent memory. The writer rips Barbirolli a new exhaust pot:

http://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-8427/

I got a big laugh out of it. I am actually now hunting down a cost-effective copy of the performance.

volvic's picture

I have his 5th and have to admit that it is not the best rendition I have. I would still put Karajan over all others; both his 9th that he recorded in the 80's are superb. I also love the Walter from the late 30's as well. Also superb are the Haitink, Solti and Bernstein versions of which I have. I think this project as mentioned earlier, by this company is a labor of love, and that love would have to be matched by the prospective buyer, so if you love Barbirolli and your world revolves around this performance than by all means go for it. For me to dish money for something this high it would have to be a performance that is a "desert island", one of a kind recording that has moved me to tears. I can suggest a few if they want my opinion.

Rayman's picture

1. Best Mahler Recording
2. Best Performance
3. Best Production from ERC
4. Will increase in value to $? in just a few months.
5. Mahler arguably one of the best composer
6. Arguably his best work.

I'm all in on this one!

bassrome's picture

Does the fact that ERC reissued the Barbirolli Mahler 9 on vinyl preclude a possibility of any other company reissuing it? Do they have sole licensing? Testament seems to reissue EMIs for the violin fetishists and I can figure out what reasoning Hi-Q has for their EMI reissues. I've been hoping for a reissue of the Barbirolli and I would also love to see the Schuricht Bruckner 8.

Meles's picture

My understanding is that they ERC has secured the rights to the 60 best titles (best in their eyes means probably the most expensive.) Plenty of sonic leftovers for Hi-Q, but probably not some of the greater performance/sound combos. Eventually those rights will expire unless EMI made a very poor business decision. ERC is going to make a lot of money given the current market on many of these LPs (plenty of originals sell for $500 to $10,000).

They are to be commended for bringing these to the public in such a high quality manner and I expect are setting new standards for what can be done with reissuing vinyl. Eventually, this will trickle down to the masses and eventually someone will reissue these titles once the license expires.

Most reissues done by EMI are excellent with their own sonic strengths and weaknesses versus the originals. (Well, I hate the mastering done on the 2nd EMI Columbia SAX label, semi-circle magic notes). The EMI box set SLS 851 also includes Mahler 6 and goes for $100 or so, the Classics for Pleasure CFP mentioned above essentially is an even later pressing. Originals of the Barbirolli Mahler 9 can go as high as $1000.

I must warn buyers of EMI ASD, SAX, and Decca for that matter that you do not get what you pay for with these originals. There seem to be a lot of collectors (Asian perhaps) that seem to want every single ASD, SAX, AND SXL. This really skews the market to some extent as rarity (supply) becomes a much bigger determinate of the price of these LPs. You can get an idea of the amount of price distortion created by these completest collectors by comparing Decca SXL prices versus the corresponding London CS prices (10:1 differential.) They're are very valid reasons for this craze because the right LPs on these labels are very special in their original incarnation. That ERC has endeavored to match these originals is amazing.

On this release I would expect the ERC to exceed the original. Remember ERC has one rig and in theory it matches the sound of EMI mastering at one point in time. The originals in most cases were probably not cut with the exactly same equipment over the first five years of the stereo golden age as EMI would have been evolving their process. In my own collection, I've found the late ASD500s and most of the ASD600s to be rather poor performers. If you have to have one ERC this sounds like a great one to get, but I hope to land one of the EMI produced reissues myself.

Jazzfan62's picture

This is the same as $50,000 turntables to me, or the crazy expensive record stand from a while back. Some can afford the ridiculous, some can't and there are others that can afford it but refuse to entertain it. I gloss over this stuff, laugh it off and forget about it. There are some things I personally cannot support even though I have the resources. $800 records are in that pool. But hey, why criticize someone that can make money at it....more power to them.

madfloyd's picture

Is it typical that it takes a while for someone new to classical music to get into Mahler?

I ask because I have purchased some ERC stuff and have been enjoying classical music for about 2 years or so. So far I gravitate to Stravinsky, Rismky-Korsakov, Ravel, some Tchaikovsky, Greig and a few others that aren't coming to mind.

But Mahler hasn't connected with me... yet and I don't know why...

scottarichards's picture

Not really a major point but Mr. Fremer's review might be read by some to indicate that the Jesus-Christus-Kirche was somehow unique to this recording. Or at least different than the common DGG recording venue in Berlin at the time. That would be incorrect. If only to clarify, this locale was the DGG (as they were then known) preferred recording locale from at least the early 50's through the mid-60's (when the Philharmonie, opened in 1963, started being used) but they still used it well into the digital era. And, of course, many other companies have used it too.

Most of Fricsay's RIAS Symphony recordings were made there as well as his first-ever stereo release of Beethoven's 9th with the BPO. As was Karajan's famous 1962 complete Beethoven cycle and Furtwaengler's 1951 Schubert 9th, a great performance and arguably the best recorded sound the conductor ever received under studio conditions. Just a few examples; there are many, many more.

Michael Fremer's picture
I didn't mean to suggest the venue was unique for the BP...just mentioning it. The sound EMI got there was very different from what the DGG engineers got on the Von Karajan Beethoven cycle!
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