PHI CD 182: BRITISH CHORAL TRADITION VOLUME ONE
HMV & COLUMBIA RECORDINGS 1907-1934
Royal Choral Society/Royal Albert Hall Orch.
Recorded Royal Albert Hall Cond. H. L. Balfour R. Arnold Grier - organ
 Lift up your heads (Handel)
The Philharmonic Choir Cond. C. Kennedy Scott
George Thalben-Ball - organ Recorded Queens Hall
 Psalm 148 (Holst)  Evening hymn (Gardiner)
Handel Festival Choir 12 June 1926 Crystal Palace Orch. Rec. Crystal Palace
Walter G. Hedgcock - organ (3,500 performers) Cond. Sir Henry J Wood
 Behold the Lamb of God (Handel) - Postlude omitted
Nonconformist Choir Union Festival 26 June 1926, 2,620 voices with the
Festival Orch & Organ. Cond. Frank Idle F.R.A.M. Rec. Crystal Palace
Walter G. Hedgcock - organ
 Sing Alleluia Forth (Eric H Thiman)
 Hallelujah Amen - Judas Maccabeus (Handel)
Leeds Festival Choir Cond. Albert Coates St John's Wood Church, London
 Mater Ora Filium (Arnold Bax) Rec. 28/10/25.
Leeds Festival Choir London Symphony Orch. & Organ
Recorded Leeds Town Hall Cond. Sir Hugh Allen
 Et Resurrexit (Beethoven Mass in D) Rec. 5/10/28.
Sheffield Choir Directed by Sir Henry Coward
 I am Alpha (Stainer) with organ, Wesley's Chapel, London
 Hail Bright Abode (Wagner) with orch/organ Rec. 25/5/26.
60 selected voices from the Leeds Festival Choir 1907 & Orchestra
Rec. City Road Studios, London Cond. Mr H.A. Fricker F.R.C.O. of Leeds
 And the glory of the Lord (Handel)
The Leeds Festival Choir with the London Philharmonic Orch.
Directed by Sir Thomas Beecham October 1934 Rec. Leeds Town Hall
 Prince Igor (Borodin) Choral Dance No.17. Polovtsienne
 Mass in G Minor (Mozart) KV.427 - Qui Tollis.
The New Symphony Orchestra & Royal Choral Soc. with organ
Recorded Royal Albert Hall, London Cond. Malcolm Sargent
 Blessed are the men who fear Him Elijah (Mendelssohn)
Rec.20/10/28. H.M.V. - C. 1669.
 Thanks be to God Elijah (Mendelssohn)
Keith Falkner - soloist Rec. 20/10/28.
 Amen Chorus (Handel) Royal Albert Hall Orchestra with organ
TOTAL PLAYING TIME: 77.00
This is the first in a series of CDs called The British Choral Tradition, the series to start with will concentrate on recordings from the first half of the twentieth century. The second CD in the series will be Beecham's 1927 Messiah, and the third devoted to cathedral choirs of the 1920s & 1930s, these will be issued in the summer of 2003. If anyone has any recordings or photographs which may be of interest for this series please do contact me. Martin Monkman, Amphion Recordings.
Sir Thomas Beecham & Sir Malcolm Sargent
Choral Societies have been inextricably linked with the development of the Gramophone probably because they posed a challenge, thus something of that element will be evident on this disc. Equally, in selecting the sides to include, we have not confined ourselves to individual societies in the accepted sense. To do so would have meant our omitting, for instance, a better example of the remarkable and unique Handel Festival records made at the very dawn of what from 1925 was described as 'electrical' i.e. microphone recording; which, incidentally, was a totally new recording system never formally launched in order to safeguard retail sales of 'old' acoustic process records!
We have not hesitated therefore to include this and the Nonconformist Choir Union Festival both held at the Crystal Palace in 1926 as well as items from Leeds Triennial Festivals. No doubt each of these choirs would be made up from members of much smaller local groups. But we have gone back nearly twenty years earlier; to the Leeds Festival Choir (1907) recorded on a visit to London when "60 Selected voices" were committed to wax via the recording horn. Compared with other records made at that time this is a major accomplishment from the gramophone's earliest years.
On a smaller scale Sir Henry Coward's Sheffield Festival Choir was claimed to have set a new standard when it was formed towards the end of the 19th c., and later famously toured in both hemispheres. They initially performed for H.M.V. and at the introduction of electrical recording, transferred to Columbia. Here they were recorded at the Petty France Studio, and later in Wesley's Chapel. Alas commercial pressures, it would seem, prevented them from recording the great works, these being the performances on which they had built their reputation.
The advent of electric recording in mid-1925 caused major reorganisation at the Gramophone Company's Hayes plant. But in October of that year something even more significant took place when Albert Coates shepherded 250 members of the Leeds Festival Choir into St. John's Church, St. John's Wood, London to record, under his direction, Arnold Bax's Mater Ora Filium, down a landline, via the Gerrard telephone exchange, to newly acquired premises in Charing Cross Road. Here recording machines stood ready to take the sound and whilst the results reveal technical imperfections in this infant process it was developed and regularly used even after a mobile recording unit was commissioned in the spring of 1927. The records, issued, with misgivings, languished in the catalogue but fleetingly.
The microphone ensured that public performances on a grand scale were also ready quarry and H.M.V., following an unproductive initial session at the 1925 Carol Concert in the Royal Albert Hall, made just two sides which passed the technical and wear tests, at the traditional Royal Choral Society Messiah on the first Saturday of 1926. This superb record marked the beginning of a long association with the society, then over 800 voices strong, which lasted long after the novelty of making such technically risky records began to fade at the end of the '20s.
Columbia, not to be outdone, recorded items from what turned out to be the last Handel Festival at which Sir Henry J. Wood attempted to command unmanageable numbers in a cavernous building. The Columbia recording experts and the primitive equipment were close to being defeated as we hear, but this is indeed a piece of musical history - captured, but only just.
Everything about the Leeds performances was on a big scale by practically any standards, not least because of the day-long programmes. The Festival Choir of nearly three hundred, at a public performance in 1928, conducted by Sir Hugh Allen are joined by the full force of the London Symphony Orchestra supported by the organ thundering in the background. Sheer exhaustion must have been the lot of all concerned, not least the audience. Beecham, who was contracted to Columbia, was not recorded at Leeds until after the 1931 E.M.I. merger. That year and in 1934 some further recording was done but under studio conditions and no audience present.
Although the label gives no clue, it is certain that Dr. George Thalben-Ball made his first record on an instrument other than that in the Temple Church, in July 1927, at London's Queens Hall where the Philharmonic Choir recorded under the direction of Charles Kennedy Scott. Such lack of labelling detail is not uncommon and we hope that further information will be revealed as this collection brings back echoes of a long vanished age.
Gramophone Recording 1900-1930
From the setting up of the Gramophone Company's London offices and studio in the late 19th Century right through to the mid-'twenties little changed in the way recordings were made. The sound of the voice or musical instrument would be directed onto a prepared revolving wax disc via single or multiple trumpets, suspended into the recording room, having a sensitive receiving diaphragm at the narrow end which was mounted in the style of the cutter of a lathe.
The sensitivity of this equipment could be slightly affected by the diaphragm used and in many ways recording experts were skilled in their art, indeed it is said that visual examination alone would determine whether a recorded wax could go on to production as a sample pressing prior to approval for commercial issue. The incommodious studios and restricted frequency range of the machines normally made for difficulties in recording all but severely reduced ensembles and at that practically always within the confines of the studio itself. However, some early and brave attempts were made to extend these limitations and from time to time courage was rewarded.
All this changed when in 1924 two researchers, Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison of the Western Electric Company of America achieved recording by microphone, commonly known as electric recording. This was not a 'first' because two British pioneers Hon. Lionel Guest and Captain H.O. Merriman had made an electric recording of sorts, at the Unknown Warrior service at Westminster Abbey in 1920, using the output of telephone mouthpieces relayed by wire to a primitive cutter in a van outside. Columbia sold some copies for charity but the results were puny. Radio was by now quite well known to the public and it was becoming more and more clear that the Gramophone was, by comparison, a poor thing. The Gramophone companies saw that if they did not equip themselves to record electrically they would be rapidly left behind. So the change was made and from 1925 it was at last possible to connect, via G.P.O. telephone circuits, public buildings in London (and up to about thirty or so miles beyond) to recording machines located centrally. This opened up an eldorado and many fine records were made from public performances at remote locations. The advanced and fully- integrated system was very sensitive indeed and could in fact put more onto a record than the primitive wind-up gramophones would ever hope to get out. This caused serious problems because the steel needles of the time would literally carve through complex sound waves and electric recordings could wear out very quickly indeed. For instance, timpani or the lower pedal notes of a large organ were very prone to giving 'heavy tracking' so that a test called the 'wear test' was devised by the Gramophone Company as a form of quality control.
This consisted of playing the test pressing over and over, sometimes with multiple tone arms, until first sign of wear was seen. If this was lower than the set standard the record, whatever its artistic merit, could not go forward for production unless it were made an exception by top-level management. During a live recording there was only one way to avoid failure; this involved the recording engineers being advised by a controller with the score before him, to slice off the lower frequencies using the basic adjustment provided on the amplifier. However, a failed disc could be rescued from oblivion by playing it through in the transfer room and copying it onto another wax with the offending dynamics modified. This method was, it seems, generally only used by H.M.V. and the sound quality is often whistly. Yet, some Royal Choral Society records and many others too, were rescued thus to avoid unproductive and, hence, embarrassing sessions of the difficult-to-repeat variety. In the late '20's the Alan Blumlein, moving coil cutter head, developed by him under the auspices of Columbia, enabled better controlled recordings and at the formation of E.M.I. this device was progressively incorporated into H.M.V. recorders.
© Colin Charnley, October, 2002