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- To: Stevramm@xxxxxxx
- Subject: Article on Historic Reissues in Philly Newspaper
- From: Stevenramm@xxxxxxx
- Date: Sun, 11 Mar 2001 08:35:10 EST
- Full-name: Stevenramm
- Message-id: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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.
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
INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC
'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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