Thursday, November 03, 2005

Everything you never wanted to know about Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and couldn't imagine asking...

As I write this, I'm listening to one of my favorite albums, Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. This is a complete amalgam of two performances from 1959. It's justifiably considered one of the greatest of the RCA Living Stereo recordings, and quite possibly the best of the pop ones. Whatever one thinks of Belafonte the artist--and time has not treated him kindly (Louis Farrakhan was probably more of a genuine calypso artist fer chrissakes!)--it's a wonderfully spirited performance and quite a communal event in the hall.

It also happens to serve as the best example on record of the sound of the pre-renovation Carnegie Hall. Perhaps the very best is the stereo album on Vanguard of the Weavers reunion concert from 1961, which is mind-bogglingly realistic, but it's so short and the music so ephemeral...well, it hardly does justice to the building. The Belafonte, on the other hand, is two well-filled LP's long, not unlike the Judy Garland Carnegie album. That one is probably the ultimate pop performance ever taped there (including even the famous Benny Goodman concert of 1938, which was recorded onto disc, of course, not tape.) But the Garland concert, good as it sounds, has a bit of an electronic patina surrounding it--it's a tad artificial sounding, no doubt due to the fact that it was heavily amplified in the hall. In those situations, the microphones are not just picking up the live sounds of the performers, but their amplified sounds as well--not a recipe for good sound.

The Belafonte concert, on the other hand, employed only a small orchestra, which really didn't play much during the concert: Belafonte was mostly accompanied by a small group of solo musicians.

While the whole thing is something of a sonic miracle from the first downbeat on, the final number, the sing-along "Matilda," is the piece de resistance. You can hear the various sections of the house singing along as Belafonte summons them. When he asks for the whole lower floor, it's something of a sonic explosion--you can almost feel the floor vibrating as you used to be able to when the low frequencies thundered forth (or when a subway entered the station below!).

If you've got a good stereo that produces a reasonable stereo image--or even a decent pair of headphones--you can precisely place each section in the hall as they sing their "parts." Plus there's plenty of laughter, coughing, shouting, whistling...I mean, this thing virtually defines "Living Stereo."

I've written a piece for Audio Asylum on the various issues of the Belafonte Carnegie Hall Concert, reproduced below. It was actually solicited by one of the frequent requests on the forum for "which one should I buy?" If you're at all interested, I hope you'll find it of some use.


Just look around. Fine copies of the original LPs can be had for quite reasonable prices. If I recall correctly, I paid no more than $20-$25 for an excellent set of the original LPs.

As for the link to the $71 set of "1s" pressings, no one said there aren't people out there trying to get more money for their records. I recently saw a copy of the commemorative set RCA put out for the closing of the old Metropolitan Opera House for something like $600--this for a set that's worth about $3 at best. So there will always be auctions like this.

My evaluation of the Belafonte discs is as follows:

1. The original black dog RCA pressings: these can be gotten fairly noise-free in the $20-30 range. This was not a rare set, as it sold in huge numbers. The originals have an incredibly effortless presence, and instrumental and vocal timbres are immediate and realistic, with an almost total lack of harshness. This set is complete.

2. The German BMG CD reissue. It's hard to believe these CD's are copyrighted 1993, but so they are. They sound like a brand-new remastering, even though they're not. Highs are incredibly open and alive for a CD of any vintage, and the whole thing just jumps off the disc, with an incredible sense of you-are-there realism and a "busy-ness" to the sound that usually eludes CD's. These are not only the best CD's of this concert, they are among the best CD's I've heard—period. Only caveat is a little residual brightness, but I believe this to be inherent in the master tapes. It probably was corrected for in the original production master but appears here undisturbed. Available for $25 at CD Universe, this is an incredibly good set, and is note-complete.

3. The Classic 200g LP reissue. This is very close to being number 2, but lacks the high-end extension of the German CD issue. It sounds like these were EQ'd to sound like the original LP pressings, but it may be that the source tapes have lost a bit of life and the extended top of the original pressings. (It may be that the German discs, as is not unusual for foreign reissues, come from a set of copies of the original tapes that may have survived in better shape than the tapes used by Classic for their remaster. There is also a 45 rpm set which I haven't heard. If experience is any indicator, this should sound marginally superior to the "regular" 200g pressings, but probably not as good as the German CD's or the original black dogs. These pressings are all note-complete, and the cover art is an exact copy of the original. A lovely set if LP's are your thing.

4. The U.S.CD and the Hong Kong SACD. These are essentially one and the same: the HK SACD's are a dub of the tapes used for the RCA CD's or perhaps even a dub of a copy thereof. This is an abridged copy of the concert to fit on one disc: several selections and between-song patter are missing. The sound is representative of early CD's: hard and not especially open on top. Not horrible, but clearly a CD. The HK is essentially a waste of money: if you want an inferior, edited copy of the concert, you can just as easily waste your money on the U.S. CD. But why, oh, why, when the German CDs are so readily and inexpensively available?

5. NOT AUDITIONED: The original U.S. open-reel tape edition. If experience is any guide, these should be right up there with the original LP's, or possibly superior. I do have the second concert on open-reel, and it's a tad better than the excellent U.S. CD set of the second concert or the Classic 200g LP reissue.

Winner: the original black dog LP's in good condition.
Honorable mention: the German BMG CD 2-disc set.