Actually, my “gift” was just a used LP (sorry if you were expecting something monumental). But what a disc: a pretty much pristine copy of Fritz Reiner leading the Chicago Symphony in performances of Debussy’s Iberia and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Alborada del Gracioso (RCA LSC 2222). It’s even a very early “shaded dog” pressing (3/1S). And what a price: fifty cents! Yes, four bits for a disc for which I would have surely paid a lot more had it been on my very short “records to find” list. Of course, just because an LP isn’t on my list doesn’t mean I’m inactive on the vinyl acquisition front. I mean, how the heck do you think I’ve accumulated well over 10,000 of the buggers?
Before you jump to any unsavory conclusions, I can tell you that no one died or was otherwise maimed, injured or threatened in the process of my securing this LP. And I’m sure not writing this piece as a “gloat-a-thon”. My own ratio of extraordinary used record finds to mediocre/pathetic is about the same as my odds of being named the next leader of North Korea. Was it simply a twist of fate that conferred such good fortune upon me? Or was it a celestial reward for my exemplary character and clean living? Hmm….
I don’t know about you, but I’m ever the optimist when it comes to foraging for LPs. I’ve rooted around at garage sales, estate sales, the used record bins at the Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc. until my fingers were encrusted with, well, whatever it is that encrusts old and mistreated records—yuck. All of this effort expended in the hope that I may find something I’ve actually been looking for (rare) or something that might be interesting (far more common). But I keep at—albeit in pretty much desultory manner—because very occasionally I find a really good record. When I say “really good”, I’m not necessarily talking about scarfing those obscure audiophile or collector discs that, according to internet sources, typically command greenback prices in the triple or even quadruple digits, although that’s happened. The fact is, since I keep everything I buy, market value is a fascinating curiosity rather than an intrinsic factor driving my collecting habit. My interest is strictly in musical content, not “investment potential” — although I’m really not sure how much inherent investment potential there is in vinyl, since no one to my knowledge has developed the sophisticated financial instruments seemingly necessary to fully exploit the vinyl market, e.g.: LP futures, LP derivatives, etc.
Now you may ask: “What does old Darryl have against the various online sources?” My answer is that I frequently use online sources because I can get exactly what I want, the folks I deal with are always reliable when it comes to grading (or making good when an item’s not up to snuff), I save heaps of time, and probably gallons of hand disinfectant. But, alas, being a cheapish sort of cuss, online record hunting is not particularly cost-effective—especially when it comes to the rarer discs. So the primal urge to stalk and occasionally bag a much-wanted disc in the dim, mysterious jungles of used article emporiums will not be suppressed.
To get back to my miraculous story, I happened to stop by my local library just after Christmas to check out the small box of about fifty LPs that resides in the used book room. These records typically fall into one or more of the following categories: unappealing (to me) music, massively scratched/abused, or records already in my collection—and which are usually in far better condition. However, every once in a while I’ve found some interesting records that only required a good cleaning to strut their stuff. I mean at fifty cents a pop I won’t exactly be relegating myself to a cat food diet, so I can afford to take an extravagant flier now and then.
In the case of Iberia, I actually passed by the record once, vaguely thinking that I surely already owned a copy. But, as nothing else in the box seemed remotely interesting, I stopped to take a second look, given that a duplicate disc at four bits is easier to swallow than a duplicate for which I shell out real paper legal tender to the tune of $10 or $20. So I went for the eyeball inspection and found, as is frequently the case, that the LP had no inner sleeve, which many times spells “d-o-o-m” with a capital D. However, this record looked as if it was in really good shape: no Freddie Kruger-like gashes, not very dirty, and no spindle marks. I pause here to say that I give my own visual inspections only partial credence: some outwardly pristine records I’ve picked up turned out to be absolute turds, while others with apparent scratches and/or scuffs turned out to be wonder discs. But it makes me feel good, so I go through the motions. The result of this particular perusal was “why not?,” so I rooted around in my pocket for the purchase price and forked it over into the ever open hand of the lady at the front desk.
Now when I got home I gave the record a thorough rub-a-dub-dub with the old reliable V.P.I. 16.5 record cleaning machine, which, if you’ve ever heard one, also performs an admirable imitation of an F-22 jet engine. Then I checked my database and found, somewhat to my surprise, that the Reiner/CSO Iberia happened to be a record I didn’t own, in either the original LSC release or a reissue. And yes, I’m that much of a nerd that I’ve committed my collection to a database. The fact is that I’ve got an awful lot of records and I’m frankly long past the point of overloading my on-board bio-memory server with the contents of my collection. It turns out RCA reissued some of the Ravel material on a Victrola record I happen to have (VICS 1199), but not Debussy’s Iberia, which was reissued on another Victrola disc I don’t own (VICS 1025). I was delighted at my good fortune and for a brief moment I thought I could faintly hear the echo of heavenly choirs!
I guess I never picked up a copy of Iberia partially because I already had any number of versions of these works lurking in my collection, even though the program always appealed to me. Further contributing to the record’s absence in my hoard was the fact that Iberia discs in good condition typically fetch some serious coin—and if you’ve participated in the used vinyl market you already know that “good condition” can mean anything from indistinguishable from new to indistinguishable as a vinyl disc per se. And so I didn’t think it was especially worthwhile to pursue this LP; yet another instance of my judgment, reasoning, and memory conspiring to deprive me of musical bliss.
But enough of the acquisition saga … The real value of my self-given gift was evident from the moment the stylus hit the record. All of these works are given magical performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by their sourpuss disciplinarian conductor, Fritz Reiner—especially the Spanish stuff. I don’t know a better way of describing it other than saying these folks captured the atmosphere, the flavor, if you will, of the Spain imagined in the music of Debussy and Ravel. I say “imagined” because Debussy spent a total of a few hours in Spain, while Ravel, even though he was part Basque, was an archetypal Frenchman if ever there was one. Nevertheless, these two guys composed Spanish music that even the Spanish praise for its authenticity. How did they do it? In fact, when you think about it, how do you explain the exquisite execution of these pieces by an orchestra from the heart of the great American Midwest, conducted by an Hungarian who happened to be a deal ringer for Bela Lugosi? Talk about imagination! The truth is that I’ve never fully cottoned to the idea that idiosyncratic performances of “national music” are best achieved by conductors and/or orchestras that share the nationality of the composer. I’m not saying it may not help, but here’s proof that it’s certainly not necessary.
In terms of sound, Iberia is basically everything you’d expect from RCA’s much ballyhooed golden years, thanks to their legendary engineer, Lewis Layton. Are we talking about transparency, top-to-bottom frequency response, and a natural perspective (no excessive highlighting)? Check. Percussion thwacks, realistically clacking castanets, and overall impact? Yup. Delicacy? You betcha. Sheer “like being there” involvement? Bingo. All-in-all this is a quintessential demonstration LP if ever there was one. However, I must emphasize that none of the standard audiophile drool generating traits would be worthy of getting excited about if the performances weren’t so doggone riveting. Iberia is a disc that demands to be heard in full; to chop it up into sound bite sized pieces is almost sacrilegious. Sure, stunning sonics are a big plus, but for my money (even half a buck), great sound can never compensate for inane content, downright incompetence, or a simply boring performance. No worries on any of those fronts here: if Debussy’s and Ravel’s ideas of Spanish music appeal to you, the Reiner/CSO Iberia is a must own.
So there you have it: patience, persistence, and (mostly) dumb luck rewarded! But the moral of this holiday story is that occasionally—occasionally, mind you—the trips to the local library, Goodwill, etc. as well as the odd dumpster immersion session can turn up some stuff that you may actually want. And it might not hurt to write that letter to Santa. Happy New Year!
About the Author
Darryl Lindberg is a retired executive living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although he gets a good deal of exposure to live music via season subscriptions to Santa Fe’s various opera, orchestral, and chamber music groups, Darryl believes a great sound system is the only practical means invented by modern technology to experience the work of long gone (i.e., sleeping with the fishes) or simply inaccessible artists and their performances—at least in his current temporal existence. And he has plenty of software to stimulate his auditory contemplations, given that he’s amassed and continually adding to a vinyl collection of well over 10,000 records. Audio being a hobby (this is the Part-Time Audiophile, right?), Darryl spends much of his non-listening time volunteering for various worthy—depending on your point of view—organizations. In addition, he hosts a weekly program, “Tuesday Night at the Opera,” on Santa Fe’s public radio station, KSFR (7:00-10:00p.m. Mountain Time; streaming live on www.ksfr.org, if you’re interested). Further background may be obtained from his parole officer.