ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

December 1, 2002

Being Grateful for Kenneth Wilkinson, Reader's Digest, Chesky, and MartinLogan

I’m sitting here at the computer keyboard 10 days before Thanksgiving, feeling very grateful for my life as a music and video critic. Rather than just giving thanks once a year, I have taken to doing it every day. This action may not make the bad things of life go away, but it certainly makes them seem a lot less significant. Puts them in their place, as it were. For if the truth be known, I have a lot more to be grateful for than to be angry at.

These thoughts all started because I am thinning out my CD collection. There is simply no more space in my small house for shelves, especially since I am making way for a widescreen television. The solution then is to part with those recordings I have not listened to in three or four years. I figure if it has been that long, it is liable to go a lot longer, and they must be items I really do not need. Better to give them to friends or libraries where people can enjoy them. Along the way, I decided to listen to the "keepers" and this week, when this piece was due, I found myself in the middle of the Chesky classical catalog.

Now, Chesky has made some new classical recordings over the past 20 years, but the bulk of the catalog was transferred from masters originally released by Reader’s Digest in the 1960s. I discovered these treasures on vinyl back then, and tried to get people to listen to them. Most are engineered by Kenneth E. Wilkinson, who recorded close up, letting you listen from the podium, much as if you were the conductor or soloist. Thanks to Reader’s Digest backing, the best artists of the day were chronicled in his exciting mixes. Sir John Barbirolli did his best Sibelius second symphony recording for the series, and Jascha Horenstein made many of his last recordings for Reader’s Digest, notably a near-perfect Brahms first symphony and some scintillating readings of waltzes by Johann Strauss II. Though Malcolm Frager recorded the Schumann piano concerto, and Gina Bachauer essayed the Brahms second concerto, Earl Wild was the "house" pianist. He recorded distinguished performances of all the Rachmaninoff concertos, the MacDowell second, Chopin first, Grieg, Tchaikovsky first, Liszt first, and some others I have probably left out. Wilkinson captured them all perfectly. René Leibowitz turned in one of the best Beethoven symphony cycles in the catalog, as well as exciting recordings of much of the French repertory, and some German works. In addition, there was memorable music-making from Massimo Freccia, Sir Adrian Boult, and Oscar Danon.

The orchestras were largely English: the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony, and the Philharmonia. There was not a dog performance among these discs, and they were immaculately engineered by Wilkinson and produced by Charles Gerhardt. What a team! And now I was able to hear them again, on my beloved MartinLogan electrostatic speakers, renowned for their clarity and transparency. Although a big wave of gratitude washed over me, it was momentarily dispelled by this thought, Gee, these are just right for SACD! I wonder if Chesky will tackle that project.

You see, I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have to work hard at gratitude. My life is terrific, but my mind wants to tell me otherwise. At least I try for the right mindset, and was quickly back in gratitude mode, thinking about how wonderful it was to be listening to such an amazing group of recordings under such optimum conditions, thanks to Kenneth Wilkinson, Reader’s Digest, Chesky, and MartinLogan, not to mention all the performers. Being a music critic is no way to get rich, but it does sometimes provide goosebumps and many incredible experiences. I am one lucky person to get to do what I like for a living!

...Rad Bennett

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