Classical vinyl

Classical vinyl

1812 Weldon LP

1812 Overture + more: George Welson, Philharmonia Orchestra Columbia Stereo 1963 A bizarre pairing of E type, conductor and the 1812. Was he showing off? (Discogs for sale £2 to £20)

This is a flit over the surface of a huge area of albums that I know little about, and which most secondhand shops steer clear of.

The American collector’s magazine and guide, Goldmine stated that 98% of classical records, LPs and EPs and the few singles, are essentially worthless. The argument is that classical hi-fi enthusiasts were the first stereo buyers, the first (only?) quadrophonic buyers, the early compact disc adopters, and that classical repertoire pretty quickly got onto CD, and Herbert von Karajan was the first major CD promoter with Deutsche Grammophon (DGG). This extends to SACD. A friend was scoffing about how short-lived the SACD format was. Really? Go to Foyles in London with its huge classical department. You’ll find ranks of recent and new SACDs from specialist labels like Chandos and BIS.

Then classics are continually re-recorded with better equipment, so in higher fidelity. It also means that choosing a version of a popular piece like the 1812 Overture is a minefield with vast numbers of versions.

Also so much classical music was issued on budget labels, or as mail order box sets, which are mostly worthless. It’s also true that classical collectors rarely if ever go below “Excellent” condition, so anything less is unlikely to sell. While a “very good” or “good” hard rock, soul or punk record powers on, the quiet passages in classical suffer from hiss and crackle you would not notice on raucous music.

There is a story about the guy with high-end hi-fi who invites you to listen to a record on his £20,000 system. I say ‘his’ rather than the non-gender biased ‘they’ because the person will be male. He drops the stylus on the lead-in track on the vinyl, ‘What do you hear?’ he asks. ‘Nothing,’ you reply puzzled. ‘Exactly! No hiss. No crackle! Perfection!’  Then when the music begins he talks over it explaining the advantages of his valve amplifier over solid state.

It sounds snobby but I believe that the average classical collector will run to more expensive equipment than the average rock collector. The stylus rarely if ever plays 45s, so can be tracked at a lighter weight, causing less wear on the record. HMV stereo LPs had a warning for the non-elite with three speed decks:

IMG_5560

The stylus will rarely be lifted and dropped to select tracks as whole sides will be listened to.  It’s unlikely that the record will be played at parties with people dancing in the room. It will never have seen an auto-changer. There’s less chance that joints were rolled on the sleeves … a store owner told me he had a regular customer who was a police dog handler who came in with his sniffer dog. It immediately ran to the psych section and started barking.

That’s why full-price classical records tend to be in better average condition, and why a collector will eschew anything less than ‘excellent.’

Ravel Bernstein LP

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major: Leonard Bernstein, 1958 /59

However, for me (knowing little about it), the 1958 version of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G by Leonard Bernstein, piano and conducting, on CBS trounces all subsequent versions. It’s one of many examples where performance / interpretation outweighs a more modern microphone or digital recording, and it was recorded in the same NYC 30th Street studio as Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. I’ve been obsessed with this for years … the LP is my wife’s mono copy which she bought before we met. I’ve tried half a dozen versions, but none have Bernstein’s “feel” for me (and remember I know very little about classical music). I used to play the second movement to relax audiences before talks without saying what it was. I was astonished when someone came up at the end and said ‘I’m glad you played the Bernstein version. it’s the best.’ It’s not worth much. Discogs had it from £2 to £8.

I’d strongly dispute that 98% worthless figure for the UK. Many classical records have been carefully looked after, and near-mint examples on premium labels (never the low “budget” labels, though EMI and Decca mid-price reissues are good quality) sell in charity shops for £2.99 to £6.99 in pleasant cathedral / abbey towns like Salisbury, Sherborne or Cirencester and they turn over stock with regularity. 

Oxfam specialist music shops for classical music have select rarer discs at up to £20 or £30. Soundtracks which happen to be classical music are collectable.

The Whale Tavener

The Whale: John Taverner 1970

Some modern stuff, like John Tavener’s The Whale on Apple (£40 in the 2020 guide) and his Celtic Requiem (£80) are worth money. With due deference to John Tavener, the value is down to this:

The Whale centre

The Whale was on the Beatles’ iconic Apple label. That’s why I bought it, in Munich in 1971. It was sealed and in a cut out box for a couple of pounds. My copy is as Near Mint as you can get. Played only once.

Then there’s John Williams conducting The Planets before he, um, borrowed heavily from it for Star Wars, which is definitely collectable. Philip Glass, unike traditional classical composers, gets into Rare Record Guide in the £15 to £30 area.

EMI and Decca were originally based largely on classical sales. Joseph Lockwood, arriving at EMI in 1954 was responsible for the shift towards the popular end, but even a decade later, classical was a major revenue earner. Royalty figures for the first quarter of 1964 show how much of EMI’s total revenue was still from classical music (The Oldie, February 2012):

The Beatles £46,982 10s 4d
Cliff Richard £18, 847 15s 9d
Dave Clark Five £13, 535 16s 10d
Herbert von Karajan £10,903 7s 8d
Maria Callas £10,022 9s 9d
The Shadows £7,760 3s 6d
D Fischer-Dieskau £7,165 17s 3d
Otto Klemperer £6,234 7s 5d

Cliff Richard was therefore earning more than any individual Beatle, at least in that quarter. The classical bias is even more than it looks. Herbert von Karajan was already working mainly with Deutsche Grammophon and his main work with EMI was back-catalogue from pre-1957. On the other hand, maybe there were a handful of major classical earners compared to a much longer list of popular music recipients.

Record Collector magazine addressed the issue of classical value in February 2011. It’s not that classical are worthless; it’s that they’re not listed in Rare Record Guide and there is no equivalent publication for classical music. They’re very difficult to value as there isn’t such a definable market. Discogs.com has been adding more classical in recent years so is the best resource.

Certain soloists and conductors are valued, and early stereo is valued because they were so carefully processed and pressed. Examples from eBay regularly show prices of £100 or more for rare items. The collectable labels in the UK are British: HMV, dark blue Columbia, Decca. For HMV, white / gold labels double the price over later pressings (which are red). Early stereo is important. Some of the most expensive of all are by French composers on the HMV label, pressed in France. Like rock collectors, first pressings are more valued.

The Plantes Sargent x 2

The Planets: Sir Malcolm Sargent / BBC Symphony Orchestra, HMV 1958

Even popular sellers like Sir Malcolm Sargent’s The Planets with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1958, long available on CD, have some value. It’s a disc I’ve seen many times and EMI probably kept pressing copies for decades, judging by the colour variation on the sleeves. (I had one, I picked up another for my son).

The Planets Sargent white
The Planets, Sir Malcolm Sargent, 1958 HMV ASD 269, original white label

The Planets 1958 Sargant

The Planets, Sir Malcolm Sargent, 1958 HMV ASD 269. Later red label, stereo, excellent

Look at some prices.

Discogs 2020:

LOWEST: £7.50
MEDIAN: £13.00
HIGHEST: £22.00

Sellers in 2020 have it from £5.99 to £28.00. The ones illustrated on Discogs are white label … my copy is red. Few sellers mention the label colour, but those on the page are all labelled “1st.”

Two shops I regularly visit put good classical on one side. Once a month, a classical specialist comes in and checks them over. I’ve discussed it with him, and he listed the collectable labels above for me. He told me that in the UK there is little market for CBS Masterworks (oh! Bernstein!), nor for Deutsche Grammophon. They’re excellent pressings but don’t excite British collectors.

In contrast, Goldmine in the USA in 2017 listed high-value DGG and US Columbia (i.e. European CBS)  albums, and described them as the two most collected labels:

For many people, collectors and otherwise, DG is the most familiar classical label in the world, and the most collected as well, a status which is very well-deserved status. In terms of performance, the best of the label’s output can be compared favourably with that of any of its rivals.True, many collectors feel that the actual sound quality pales in comparison with various rival concerns (RCA Red Seal, London/Decca, the UK’s EMI family), but in terms of performance, DG cannot be beat.|
Dave Thompson, Goldmine 23 October 2018

Therein lies the rub. If a classical collector is seeking performance then the CD version does the job. If it’s some esoteric vinyl quality that’s being sought, then RCA, Decca and EMI are more highly rated.

Johanna Martzy VA Ravel etc

Johanna Martzy, Jean Antonietti, Dika Newlin, Yaltah Menuhin and Michael Mann: Maurice Ravel etc . DGG. Mono, LPEM 19126, 1958

The one above is a kind of DGG compilation, 1958 and still mono. Goldmine rates it at $800 … and while Rare Record Guide uses ‘mint’ as its top category, Goldmine uses a more practical ‘near mint’ as its top category.

DGG also release mind-boggling box sets such as the von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic Complete Beethoven Vol 1-20 which occupies 87 CDs. Think of that on vinyl. You couldn’t lift it. One you do see is von Karajan’s Beethoven Symphonies, a box set with 8 LPs from 1962 (reissued with various front sleeve designs). This makes the “anti-DGG” case.

R-3731745-1479053199-9766.jpeg

Beethoven: 9 Symphoniem: Herbert von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic, DGG 1962, 8 album set.

Eight DGG LPs? Over to Discogs:

Lowest:  £7.60
Median:  £32.70
Highest:  £62.59

None of the high-priced ones on sale (£5.99 to £103) in August 2020 are from UK sellers.

The illustrated LP below  ticks the right boxes: early stereo (1963), collectable label (HMV), major conductor and orchestra (Colin Davis / Philharmonia), star soloist (Yehudi Menuhin), major composer but lesser known so rarer work (Berlioz, Harold in Italy). It even has a good cover picture. Discogs doesn’t list sales history, but it has 15 on sale ranging from £5 to £46. They’re virtually all “near mint.” The highest UK sellers price it at £40, and £36. (August 2020).

Berlioz Harold in Italy copy

Berlioz, Harold in Italy. Colin Davis, Yehudi Menuhin, HMV 1963

I bought DGG’s six LP Avant Garde 2 box set when a department store closed down its record section in the early 70s. It was very cheap. It got mildly battered from being used to hold a row of LPs from falling over (by me). it’s sturdy.

avant garde 2

Box set cover

avant garde vol 2 6 LPs

Six LPs in restrained DGG designs

I thought it would be valuable one day. I can’t say I’ve listened right through, though Stockhausen’s Telemusik / Mixtur was heavily used as sound effects in theatre shows we did. I just checked Discogs. £39 lowest to £136 highest. You do get six LPs for that, and the adverts say “looks unplayed,” “Looks mint” and “looks new.” On the other hand, Goldmine reckons $300 to $400, given the greater interest in DGG in America.

It’s a market that’s going up. By 2016, more and more were being priced at £5 to £10 even in charity shops. There is that issue though: Remember – classical LPs are of no interest whatsoever below Near Mint / Excellent condition.

See the page Case Study: Leonid Kogan which shows the stellar heights certain classical values get to, soaring past all but a few popular albums.

The Electric Recording Co specializes in remastering classical and jazz LPs meticulously on valve equipment from the original tapes. They reproduce every tiniest aspect of the original packaging too. It doesn’t come cheap … £350 for an LP, £1450 for a Mozart 7 LP box set.  

SEE ALSO:

  • Classical 7″ – Singles and EPs
  • Case Study: Leonid Kogan