Recordings from Days of the Soviet Union/USSR

Home | Audio Magazine | Stereo Review magazine | Good Sound | Troubleshooting

From Russia with love, via the City of Angels, comes a fabulous press release: “Vast Historic/Artistic Audio & Video Archives Discovered by West for the First Time”. The Iron Curtain rises on seven massive buildings in Moscow housing a bonanza of live music performances, from 1930 to the present, on wax, shellac, acetate, vinyl, and tape, all “undergoing restoration.” They shall be released throughout the world on CD, coordinated by a Los Angeles organization called USSU Arts Group (for United States Soviet Union—an unfortunate designation, but the deal was done before the Evil Empire fell into smithereens). While the Soviets sat on this material for over 60 years, they deserve every accolade for keeping it in shape Here are over one million hours of concerts (continuously updated), recordings never before heard in the West—or, for that matter, in the East. Soviet musical life for the last six decades soon shall become an open book.

The archives contain primarily classical music, with further thousands of popular and folk-music programs from the various “republics”. The great artists appear frequently:

Richter, Rostropovich, Gilels, Oistrakh, Kogan, Svetlanov, Mravinsky, Rozhdestvensky, Kondrashin, and Shostakovich with his own piano music. And the Beethoven Quartet playing Beethoven! Less expected perhaps are performances by Yehudi Menuhin and Georges Enesco of the Bach Double Concerto, Teatro La Scala of Turandot with Birgit Nilsson, and a Verdi Requiem with von Karajan and Leontyne Price. For local interest there are concerts by visiting Americans, including Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, both of whom reportedly sing in Russian. The complete list awaits release, after proper cataloging with extensive USSU support.

[ In this humble writer’s opinion, simply the best string quartet of the mid-century, therefore never allowed outside the prison gates. Their Melodiya recordings, not easy to find, attest to this belief.]

Not only that, those clever Russkis have audio and video coverage of every Tchaikovsky competition since the first in 1958, which a Texan named Van Cliburn famously won. Here we are provided a door on musical history, not only previously unopened but never even imagined. Gratefully we may assess performances and performance traditions hither to unknown outside the now smelted-down Iron Curtain. Hard to believe and video too! The sound? We shall see, we shall see. Rather, hear.

Sole keeper of this trove is Ostankino, formerly called Gostelradio. To their everlasting credit, the management of what was once the world’s largest corporation, the Soviet State began in 1984 to refurbish its broadcast archives, doubtless already sniffing the dollar value. Cataloging and restoration operations were centralized into a new building with ex-military pilot Yuri Kornilov appointed to head a staff of 600 technicians and musicians. A supreme effort, on a grand scale, with no equivalent in the West.


Yet the newly revitalized Russia must still rely on the West for marketing expertise, hence the USSU Arts Group, brainchild of Sid Sharp, President, and Russo-Canadian Tristan Del, Chairman. So far USSU has infused several hundred thousand dollars just to get the ball rolling. While the ultimate profits accruing from this deal may be inestimable, the mind reels at the possibility of 300,000 CDs of great live performances. Multiple licenses will be granted, and several major labels have expressed interest, although USSU may retain their own marque. “And a label with 300,000 instant titles could flood the market,” as Kornilov offhandedly observed at a press conference in Los Angeles last October. “And of course we continue to record, so we have everything needed to be an incisive force in the record world.”

ABOVE: Melodiya was the state-owned major record company/label of the Soviet Union. It was established in 1964 as the All-Union Gramophone Record Firm of the USSR Ministry of Culture Melodiya. It utilized gigantic resources of numerous recording studios, manufacturing facilities throughout the USSR as well as a powerful centralized distribution and promotion system. The best selling format at the time was 33 1/3 and 45 RPM Vinyl records. As of 1973 Melodiya released some 1,200 gramophone records with the total circulation of 190-200 million per year and 1 million compact cassettes per year and was exporting its production into more than 70 countries.
After having disappeared from the market since 2004, Melodiya started rereleasing their recordings in 2006 and are quickly building up a formidable catalogue.

[Gos” means “Government “tel” and “radio” mean … well, the thing translates into PBS and NPR, our own government channels and guardians of political correctness. “Ostankino,” contrariwise, appears value-neutral: “kino” means “show,” and Ostan is just an area of Moscow where the transmitters are located. ]

[ I spoke to Sid Sharp about the project: “This is a most incredible thing, nothing else like it. For a month! practically lived in the archives. I didn’t think I was in this world!

“Melodiya has nothing to do with this, except that they once borrowed some tapes and refused to return them! We’re doing something that the whole musical world will think wonderful. I thank God that this is also an honest operation, completely aboveboard, and that we can make this material available, at last, in the best shape possible What we have here is a find like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Who is Sid Sharp? Well, no one really! I graduated from Curtis, played second fiddle in the Philadelphia for a while, then moved out here to LA and became concertmaster for Stokowski’s Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. And I have played in various local chamber groups, and of course in the movies and television— “LA Law’!”]

Kornilov set his collection’s worth at “many hundreds of millions of dollars?’ Less easy to guess is how much that investment could earn. But therein lies the true significance and utter fascination of this startling, historic, totally unforeseen development, which shall certainly provide a massive unlegislated, entirely voluntary transfer of cash from us to them.

Business arrangements and music aside, audio listeners may have reason to worry. How are they handling the sound? Sound restoration is a tricky business, with two principal branches: one preserving and/or archivally duplicating originals, the other disseminating authentic replications to the public. On the latter front, the major concern lately has been saleability, which translates into “quiet.” Noise has become the bane of most home music listeners, and CD teaches zero tolerance. Thus noise reduction is now considered paramount, sonic quality be damned. Shall the Russian masters be subjected to bourgeois reductionist strategies such as NoNoise, CEDAR, and Packburn? Apparently not. USSU and Ostankino instead have signed exclusive arrangements with Digi ton, a Russian start-up company, to assist restoration efforts. Digiton “applies state-of-the-art noise-reduction processes developed by the former USSR Defense Minis try,” apparently for use by the KGB in cleaning up surveillance tapes (all those nasty mikes in the walls).

One’s heart leaps at the possibility of superior, long-lasting sonic achievement— and drops again at the likelihood of abject failure by their scraping before the altar of background silence absent the music as well.

[ Earlier transfers from 78s sound far better than current ones because the latter are compressed, etiolated, and made musically uninvolving, although noticeably quieter.]

Ending on an upbeat note, results to date indicate a huge success for initial releases from another new Russian company, Champion, Ltd., the ubiquitous Tristian Del, Chairman. One record, entitled Anthology of Ameriean Music—’50s rock’n’roll—reportedly outsells all others by 20:1, once again demonstrating the irrepressible, native interest in all things American. I spoke with Tristan Del, in Moscow, via AT&T:

[ Instant connection.!] “Hallo?”

[ In a Russian accent:]

“Forgive, my Russian is poor, may we speak English?”

“Certainly. You say you know Russian?”

“No! Only my Russian, she is poor!”

“Oh! I see! Very funny!”

“Thank you! I shall drop the accent and announce that I represent the American magazine Stereophile. I imagine you have been deluged by calls recently.”

“Not so bad. Not many got through the filter. Congratulations. Who again are you, please?”

“I’m reporting for a magazine interested in sound. Music, too, but sound primarily.”

“Well, you are the first then!”

“Good! Let’s begin with a question of interest to readers: When did the Archives begin recording in stereo? And is the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in stereo?”

“Original tapes were mono, but when they hit the market you will hear stereo. We create it in such a way, as new technology affords. So when did actual stereo begin? Mid-’60s, early ‘70s.. . .Yes, Melodiya was earlier, but they solicited the international market. Domestically back then the Soviet Union was in mono. Actually I can’t be precise, the technicians I have spoken to on your behalf; some say aye, some say nay. There may be a pleasant surprise awaiting everyone.”

“Tristan, we have heard that the Soviets maintained vacuum-tube technology far longer than the West—well into the ‘70s, in fact—until a government edict enforced the Soviet solid-state era.”

“That may be correct, I have heard same. You must however understand the isolation that here was. And the poverty. If something was working, much cheaper to keep it going than change. Like your Model T! But in this case you mention, some government department must have decided they could earn more Western cash by changing over, just as more recently to digital.”

“I expect! Are you aware that many audio experts in the West regard tube sound well above transistor? And f that truly be so, then you sit on a tube-recorded legacy that lasted over a decade later than anything else?”

“Very interesting! No, I did not know. What you are saying is, things here may be even better than we think! But we have al ways been lucky. After the Freedom War our troops appropriated all the German equipment, very high quality then, a shining trophy! Simply extraordinary raw material, better than private companies anywhere owned for many years.”

“How can you reassure us that the current ad ministration realizes how to deal properly with the situation?”

“Well, the answer is reflective of what’s going on overall. This has suddenly become a forward-looking nation. We learn to utilize resources jointly, with experts in the US and worldwide. So we look to the West for marketing and other services. Yet Russians have long history of bringing sound to the masses. You ask about Champion, Ltd.? That is effective free-market successor to Melodiya. Not the studio recording operation, but the distribution system. It rapidly has become the largest label in CIS. Advertisements on TV! Unheard-of before! Discount coupons in newspapers! All your capitalist improvements! We utilize now every method of any Western record company.

“Melodiya was under severe constraints, had to keep records down to the price of bread, limited exports to West, no marketing skillfully. Champion starts with clean slate. No nonsense, plus we treat artists and heirs— the whole copyright area—fairly, unlike Melodiya. We assign royalties properly, even though not obligated by Soviet law. Some system! State socialism means stealing some thing from everyone. I understand you have election soon about this same big government thing?

“Also radical new technologies be developed. We have truly gifted scientific minds, used to work for defense industry, now into sphere of market and some of them work on sound process.

“Yes, like you say, too often considerations of noise take precedence over sound. But the noises in live broadcasts! Coughing! We succeed in separating music from all external interference Makes pure-sounding and clean as a whistle.

“NoNoise from Sonic Solutions? Yes, it does not work well. Lose quality! We do much better than rest of Europe, or your country, in this department. Must remember, tradition of music very old here. How to judge results? Well, may I be so bold? Let the consumer decide!

“In reply to your objection, the tendency in America, perhaps also in Europe, has been to transfer old masters onto some form of digital, then indeed toss them out. If nothing else, to save valuable shelf space. Dreadful decision! That shall never happen here. Russians have respect for history, even if not al ways correctly reported! Our music masters are protected by new laws. National Treasure!”

“What about this new company called Digiton?”

“Oh, another private group, do our best work! Develop special algorithms. You imply, West has no reason to expect modern sound from Russia. In reply, look at space program! Some shoddy effect, eh? Do you imagine us incapable? Now we have New Russia, reinvigorated, supported strictly by extraordinary employee effort. Not the case earlier, as you can imagine. I should add, wholly willing employee effort.

“What else does Digiton do? Design and manufacture latest, I should say futurist equipment for radio and TV stations. Quite advanced! You have no idea what the last two, three years have produced here with application of scientific skills to private sector. We worked up from simple consumer de vices and down from military program. Always applying native diligence. Remember, Russia be largest country on earth and very proud of that fact, rather like your Texas, and we may brag but also we produce.

“Digiton works too on automating broad cast stations so may be operated more easily throughout wide expanse. And radio still be larger here than TV due to territory, so we have many roving audio journalists, you might say. And need to clean up their telephone calls from other zones. This is done with an expertise that exceeds, if I may say, yours in the West.

“USSU? They have sent cataloging help only, not latest American recording technology. We have actually no idea what that might be! Russians use German and Dutch equipment mostly, very little Japanese or American. And some Hungarian. What? Yes, the

Hungarians have always produced really good sound, even while under Soviet domination. They have history! Largely unknown in the West, but we use them, yes.

“Why was Gostelradio name-changed to Ostankino?”

“So Gostelradio means Communist System. No one here believes that stuff any more, never did in fact. Only dupes in Cuba and Berkeley fell for it, and at Harvard! Russians know better! It was an alien imposition, I won’t say by whom. Now thankfully over. Read underground, if you wish to know causes.”

“What is this Anthology of American Music that sells so well?”

“Has made much money for us! In fact subsidized half our whole restoration effort! Simply this, your earliest rock and roll artists, nothing classical, but what we call ‘classic’. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis...uh..”

“Buddy Holly!”

“Buddy Holly? No, licensing problems there, but all in good time. But Aretha Franklin, the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las. . .Your early American artists, especially your very early ones, are universally beloved and renowned in Russia.”

“And for good reason!”

“Yes, musically you speak. But beyond that they constitute a part of Americana never allowed over here at the time, at the tragic depths of the cold war. These artists were totally forbidden and arrive only through the scratchiest, most desperate means. You recall, there was not even cassette tape back then. Yet they were heard, however dimly, and their voices, their sound, their message of freedom guided a path to young people, however dimly. If youth here had also known of forthright contemporary American opposition to Communist oppression [Senator McCarthy], they might have taken heart and overthrown the regime earlier, or died trying.

“And yes, our Anthology of American Music has vastly outsold Paul McCartney too, to answer your question. He was Melodiya, we are the Champion!”

---- --

Prev. | Next

Top of Page   All Related Articles    Home

Updated: Saturday, 2015-04-18 18:24 PST