If you’re a regular follower of this blog you’ll know that I’m always on the lookout for new (or new to me, at least) record labels who are issuing music on tape. Several have recently been added to the R2R rambler’s listings of where to buy music on tape, and couple of those grabbed my attention so strongly that I thought they warranted further investigation: the Hungarian band Djabe who’ve been working with ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and who I wrote about last month in Discovering Djabe, and Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia, who are the subject of this ‘ere ramble.
I first spotted Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia on Facebook. Some of their early releases were of lesser known (or unknown to me) artists and so I didn’t take that much notice, though to be fair I’d heard good reports from a few other tape fans.
Then I clocked that they were releasing old Melodiya recordings – as officially licensed, authorised, master copies. Woah, hang on, how did I miss that?! Okay so this is something I’ve kept reasonably quiet about, but I and one or two good friends are really, really into Melodiya recordings. Why kept quiet? Well, for most of the 1970s, 80s and 90s Melodiya recordings were regarded here in the UK as cheap / budget, Soviet state-produced music and were sneered at, judged as producing poor quality vinyl, using antiquated production methods and so on… you get the gist of it. For my money, what it really boils down to is snobbery, whereby not only Melodiya but also Supraphon (the Czechoslovakian state label) and a few other ‘Eastern Bloc’ state record labels weren’t exactly coveted by the average Western audiophile or music collector – myself included to begin with, if I’m honest.
But then about ten years ago I stumbled upon a few Melodiya LPs and discovered, in spite of myself and contrary to popular opinion, that they were actually some of the most wonderful recordings I’d ever heard! For sure, the vinyl quality can be variable. But honestly, I’ve seen and heard awful vinyl from just about every record label out there at some point, so to single out Melodiya as a label whose pressing quality can be variable (sometimes very noisy) seems pretty unfair. But the recording quality? To my ears, that’s something else entirely.
And so, I collect Melodiya (and Supraphon) on vinyl with an appetite like no other label. In fact these are the only labels I’ll tend to buy on sight, no matter what the music is. One reason for that is the sheer quality of music in Soviet-era Russia. For starters, there were so many incredible Russian classical composers: Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev… add to that the many great musicians and conductors: Svetlanov, Kondrashin, Ashkenazy, Heifetz, Mravinsky, Temirkanov, Oistrakh, Kogan. I could go on, but for now I’ll just add that some of my most exciting recent discoveries in terms of outstanding contemporary musical artists – Eduard Kunz, Alena Baeva, Vadym Kholodenko, Narek Hakhnazaryan – were all born in the former Soviet Union and were schooled in one of the state’s outstanding musical conservatories.
So, a Russian reel-to-reel tape label has got quite a lot going for it for my money! Still, I was wary. Russian copyright laws are somewhat different to those of the West. There are plenty of ‘master copy’ tapes being sold on eBay and the likes, and while I’m sure that some of these are from good quality master tapes (most likely production or safety masters), many are clearly bogus and quite likely taken from CD or some such source.
So I decided to be a bit bold – blunt, even – and to ask the folks at Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia up front what their deal was. We exchanged emails then chatted via video conference. And then I was shown evidence of the agreement that they have with the Melodiya company. Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia is in fact one of a very small number of companies that are legally authorised to copy and release Melodiya master tapes.
Melodiya, by the way, is still in business, and it turns out that the grandfather of one of the two partners behind Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia actually owned Melodiya for 20 years in 1960s and 1970s. So that was me told!
Artem Anokin is the other partner, and it was mostly Artem I spoke with. He’s also the company’s chief engineer, and struck me as being a man who’s as diligent as he is passionate. He’s extremely keen to earn a reputation for producing genuine master copy tapes that are exclusive limited editions, expertly produced and beautifully packaged.
“In the realities of modern Russia, the music market is littered with copies of masters of dubious quality,” he explains. “Unfortunately, in around 90% of cases these are fakes recorded from digital sources” – which is why he’s so keen that Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia stands apart and is seen as something completely different.
So far there are 17 releases on the Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia label, of which five are Melodiya re-releases. Of the five Melodiya titles, three in particular are immediately going on my ‘to die for’ list: the 1959 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 performed by violin virtuoso Leonid Kogan with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, conducted by Constantin Silvestri (this was also released on EMI and on Classics For Pleasure in the UK); the 1967 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 performed by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov; and the 1965-66 recordings of Rachmaninov’s Island of the Dead Op. 29 and Three Russian Songs for Choir and Orchestra Op. 4, again featuring Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra and Сhoir of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR.
Now, I’m in two minds about whether I should be telling you any of this – since I suspect they might sell out pretty fast! Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia’s license agreement is for just 50 copies of each release in each format. There are four formats: cassette (€17), 7.5ips 4-track (€105), 7.5ips 2-track (€125), and 15ips 2-track (€275).
Each of the formats comes very handsomely packaged indeed. In the case of the R2R tapes, your money buys you not only the recording made onto brand new RecordingTheMasters tape, but also wonderfully produced artwork, a beautiful real wood box – and, with the 15ips tapes, a rather gorgeous hand-numbered metal reel. They’re all exceptionally reasonably priced too. So with just 50 copies of each title in each format I’d better not hang about…
Artem Anokin tells me that they plan to release another two albums soon. And, in addition to the coveted Melodiya re-isssues, Reel-To-Reel Tapes Russia also makes its own recordings – so this is an active label with a growing list of titles.
I for one will definitely be keeping a close eye on that list! You can check it for yourself at https://reel-to-reel-tapes-russia.com/en/catalogue – but don’t snap them all up before I get a chance, will you?!