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Fwd: Article on Historic Reissues in Philly Newspaper

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This fairly large article was published today in the Philadelphia Inquirer's 
Sunday Arts & Entertainment section. The actual article had a sidebar with 6 
recommended NAXOs recordings. The URL for the article with photos is :



but I've also copied text below. I thought many of you - Lennick, Pomerory, 
etc might find it interesting.

Steve Ramm

Sunday, March 11, 2001  Go to: S M T W T F S  
E-mail the story | Plain-text for printing  

New life for old recordings, thanks to 2 area men 

Mark Obert-Thorn of North Wales has remastered 200 CDs worth of music for 
various labels. He tends to focus on instrumentalists. (Eric 
By David Patrick Stearns 

'I hear dead people."

You could say that especially in Philadelphia. More clearly than ever - and 
with no need for extrasensory powers - musical voices from the past are being 
kept alive behind two particular closed doors, one on a Victorian, tree-lined 
avenue in Swarthmore and the other in a spanking-new North Wales subdivision.

Ward Marston, a jazz pianist who also issues compact discs of long-dead opera 
stars from his Swarthmore home, and Mark Obert-Thorn, a cost-accounting 
specialist for Verizon who refurbishes Jascha Heifetz recordings in his North 
Wales den, would conventionally be called aural preservationists. But their 
admirers would call them rescuers of endangered musical species. Most of 
their output has been performances recorded since the advent of microphone 
recording in 1925, but they sometimes dip into the shadowy world of discs and 
cylinders made as early as 1901, when many now-classic composers were still 

Sometimes they publish recordings, by major musical artists, of which only a 
single known copy survives.

All of which may sound a bit arcane, except that Marston and Obert-Thorn, two 
of perhaps a half-dozen people in the world who do this kind of work, are key 
players in classical music's latest trendlet: the greatest recordings of the 
past, available in the best-ever sound at super-budget prices. Discs with 
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Enrico Caruso, Yehudi Menuhin, Leopold Stokowski, and 
other deceased giants - in big, bold, mesmerizing performances, as 
refurbished by Marston and Obert-Thorn - are selling as many as 30,000 copies 
each. That popularity is nothing mysterious.

"It's an approach to music that just doesn't exist now," said Obert-Thorn. 
"These recordings offer something people can't get anywhere else."

"I don't want to sound smug . . . but nowadays when I go to hear the 
Philadelphia Orchestra - and I go all the time - the climate is such that 
conductors do less and less with their own interpretation of the music," 
Marston said. "There's not much out there now that's of compelling interest."

Music lovers now need invest only $5 to $7 to hear extravagant musical 
personalities whom they've only read about. That's thanks mainly to 
Obert-Thorn's suggestion of such an endeavor to Naxos, the Hong Kong-based 
label that shook up the classical industry a decade ago with super-budget CDs 
made possible by low overhead and a huge international distribution system.

Although Obert-Thorn's friends give him grief about working for a budget 
label, he and Marston, as much as anyone else, labored for years to build the 
public's taste for recordings such as these. In 11 years, Obert-Thorn has 
remastered 200 CDs' worth of old material for any number of independent 
labels. Marston's own label has put out 34 discs. For other companies large 
and small, Marston has remastered a total of 500 CDs. He has won a Grammy 
award for best historic recording and was nominated three other times, 
including this year for RCA's huge Rubinstein Collection, for which he 
remastered all of pianist Artur Rubinstein's 78-r.p.m. recordings. 

Payment for each CD is $750 to $1,500, just enough to cover the cost of 
acquiring rare recordings and the esoteric technology to make them sound 
better. That degree of commitment doesn't go unrecognized. One of 
Obert-Thorn's admirers built a multipage Web site in his honor. Marston 
receives deeply grateful letters. "It's like applause," he said. "It keeps me 
wanting to do it."

That two such super-specialists emerged in a city where past and present meld 
is more than coincidence. One of the world's most idolized dead conductors is 
Stokowski, for 25 years the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. 
"And we happen to be next to Camden, which [because of a major RCA-Victor 
plant] was the center of the classical recording world in the teens and '20s. 
So there are many pressings of discs to be found," Obert-Thorn said.

Outwardly, the two remasterers would seem to have little in common. 
Obert-Thorn is a soft-spoken, reserved family man. The extroverted Marston 
lives in a bustling household full of friends and wisecracking assistants who 
help him live a high-functioning life despite being blind.

Their closeness in age - Obert-Thorn is 44, Marston 48 - is significant: 
They're just old enough to have caught wind of these artists as they were 
receding from public memory.

Both went to Williams College, in Massachusetts. Marston was a student there 
four years earlier, and his name was on the library checkout cards for all of 
Obert-Thorn's favorite recordings of long-dead artists. Then Obert-Thorn 
happened upon Marston's voice on WHYY-FM in the mid-1970s during a program 
about Stokowski. The former tracked down the latter, and they now manage to 
be friends, rivals and collaborators, bargaining with each other for 
different remastering projects and making trades out of their collections, 
since two climate-controlled basements full of 78s (Marston has 30,000; 
Obert-Thorn 5,000) are always better than one.

Luckily, they have complementary specialties. Obert-Thorn veers toward 
instrumentalists. Marston loves lost opera-singing traditions, even when that 
means wrestling with 13½-inch French discs that were made in 1912 and play at 
90 r.p.m., with the tone arm traveling from the center of the disc out to the 
edge. He also earned the world's gratitude by publishing a rare set of 
pristine test pressings of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde recorded live in 
London with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchoir, and roundly acclaimed as 
the best performance ever of the opera.

The two typify a noninvasive approach. Although all sorts of electronic fairy 
dust can be sprinkled on a recording to "improve" it, they prefer to make the 
best of what's in the grooves. That's lucky, since professional friendships 
are easily broken in this world, when last year's technological breakthrough 
becomes this year's bete noire.

Recording buffs who aren't building cyber-monuments to Obert-Thorn are 
sometimes out to demolish him. His antagonist these days is Michael Dutton, a 
seasoned record producer who has his budget-priced, historical label, Dutton 
Lab, in England. Dutton exemplifies the opposite restoration approach, using 
all manner of means (some are secret) to make recordings sound as if they 
were made yesterday.

Don't even think about disagreeing when Dutton is on the other end of a 
transatlantic phone line and starts questioning Obert-Thorn's authority: "Has 
he had formal training as an engineer? Where do his qualifications lie as a 

The less-incendiary, self-taught Obert-Thorn replies that refurbishing old 
recordings is a completely different skill from making new ones: "When you 
work with a historic recording, you have to work with what you're given 
there. You can't change a microphone placement."

Marston's main critic is himself. When a friend delivered a 78 transfer that 
was better than his own, Marston went into a crisis that resulted in a more 
conservative approach toward noise filtering: "I'm like an ex-smoker. I can't 
stand people who filter. You have to do some, but you first have to find out 
what [sound] is up there [in the high frequencies] first. I'm rabid about it!"

So it goes in the always uneasy meeting of archaic and current technology. 
Certain types of 78-r.p.m. styli are so rare you can only hope to send old 
ones to a small company in England that retips them. However, scratches and 
clicks can now be removed via the ultra-high-tech Cedar System, which doesn't 
filter but replaces the unwanted noise with a nanosecond sound sample taken 
from the recording. When such machines were $15,000, Obert-Thorn and Marston 
had to send their tapes off to New York for the Cedar treatment, guessing at 
knob settings. Now prices are down; they own one.

>From there, the procedure is fairly simple: Find good pressings of the 
recording, experiment with turntable speeds (many 78s are in fact 74s), find 
the stylus that best rides the grooves, edit together the breaks between 
sides, and maybe add a touch of reverberation (a technique to which Marston 
is a slow, hesitant convert) for performances that seem to have been recorded 
in a shoe box.

Like most retrospective arts, this one is haunted by the possibility that the 
past will run dry. How many more great recordings of the past are left to 
exhume? As far as commercial ones are concerned, not many.

But unpublished radio tapes keep turning up. One of pianist Mieczyslav 
Horszowski's best live recitals was found in a trash barrel at the Vatican. 
Pianist Ignaz Friedman recorded his entire repertoire for Australian radio 
during World War II, but the tapes were used as landfill in the building of a 
superhighway. Might those be excavated one day?

Naxos plans first-time publication of 1940s radio broadcasts that were 
sponsored by Standard Oil. Three unpublished live opera recordings from 
Buenos Aires have just been acquired by Marston, including a dream cast of 
Wagner's Parsifal, conducted in 1936 by the great Fritz Busch.

And who knows what future technological breakthroughs might keep music lovers 
repurchasing their favorite performances? Much of what is now available was 
unthinkable 15 years ago. Marston believes he will live to see a time when 
old Caruso recordings sound new. "Given what has happened over the years," he 
said, "I can't imagine why not."


David Patrick Stearns' e-mail address is dstearns@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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