Quintessential Quintessence

I had mentioned the Quintessence label in my last post (Power of the Orchestra), and wanted to give you an overview of this interesting reissue label. The Quintessence label was a product of Pickwick International, who produced budget reissues and special products from the existing catalogs of several major record companies, foremost among them Capitol records. Although they featured big name artists, the material offered them was B rate at best, usually from inferior production tapes. Original Master Recordings? I don't think so. Retailing these LPs for $1.99 at Woolworth and K-Mart, the label got a bad rap, and deserved it. Bad artwork and poor mastering on thin and noisy reground vinyl pretty much sealed their fate. But somewhere around 1978, someone had a brilliant idea. A new division to be named Quintessence, a classical label featuring "Critically acclaimed recordings of the basic repertoire which belong in every library of great music". "Oh, sounds real interesting". But that wasn't all. By some miracle, one of the major sources of material was the Reader's Digest catalog. "Ho hum", you say? Well, just in case you have been living under a rock, the Classical Division of Reader's Digest was overseen by Charles Gerhardt, who just happened to have on hand one of the greatest sound engineers ever. Kenneth E. Wilkinson, of Decca fame. The combined resources of both RCA and Decca at their disposal, their output featured the top conductors of the time (some might say of all time) with world renowned orchestras, recorded in the fabulous acoustics of Walthamstow Town Hall, and other select venues. Have I got your attention yet? Well, how about this: "Carefully remastered from the original master tapes, recut on the latest Neumann lathes and pressed on virgin vinyl." I knew you'd come around.

Shortly after the successful launch of the "Critics Choice" series, came "Classics for Joy" and finally "Stereo Sound Spectaculars". Based on their early success, they were able to licence top notch material from RCA Living Stereo, EMI, and other high end labels.

Here is a short list of the treasures that await you:

  • Earl Wild performing Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 1-4 with Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This set was issued by Reader's Digest as "The Romantic Rachmaninoff", which currently resides on TAS' Superdisc List.
  • Several of Morton Gould's Stereo Spectaculars for RCA Living Stereo such as his version of Ravel's "Bolero" and "Grofe's" Grand Canyon Suite or his Sibelius disc "Finlandia" and scintillating "Scheherazade".
  • Freccia's sonically stunning reading of "Fountains of Rome" and "Roman Festivals", or his superb interpretation of Berloz' "Symphonie Fantastique".
  • Boult's reading of Franck's "Symphony in D Minor" and Liszt's "Les Preludes" with the New Symphony Orchestra of London. Or his disc of Tchaikovsky's great ballet suites "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake".
  • A frothy disc of Beecham's "Favorite Overtures"
  • Arrau's Beethoven "Piano Concertos"
The choices are simply overwhelming, as is the sound on many of the releases. Liner notes are original critical notices given the original releases, and come complete with recording dates, location, and engineer.

The icing on the cake? These were originally sold for $7.95. In today's second hand market, they can easily be found for a dollar or two in mint condition.
Chesky Records tread on similar ground several years later in their initial vinyl reissue with mixed results. I urge you to search these out and give them a spin. They are one of the used record market's best kept secrets.

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