RCA Victrola was a budget label introduced by RCA Victor in the early 1960s to reissue classical recordings originally issued on the RCA Victor "Red Seal" label. The name "Victrola" came from the early console phonographs marketed by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Many of RCA Victrola's discs included the historic "Living Stereo" series first released in 1958, using triple channel stereophonic tapes from as early as 1954. There were also some first stereo releases of recordings that previously been available only in monaural versions. For several years, Victrola released both stereophonic and monaural versions of many albums.
The label began in 1962 with VIC-1001, a monaural album featuring Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in historic performances of Elgar's Enigma Variations and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn. This was followed by excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, conducted by Jean Morel, released in both stereo (VICS-1002) and monaural (VIC-1002) versions.
Most of the early releases were issued in stereo and monaural sound, and included recordings by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Münch and Pierre Monteux, the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. There were also recordings conducted by Morton Gould and Leopold Stokowski, usually with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, which was actually the Symphony of the Air. Among the most noteworthy of the releases were Munch's performances of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Debussy's La Mer, and Reiner's remarkable 1954 recording of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. Victrola also issued Arthur Fiedler's first stereo recording, a 1954 recording of Gaîté Parisienne, Manuel Rosenthal's ballet based on the music of Jacques Offenbach.
In 1967, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini, Victrola began an ambitious project of reissuing most of Toscanini's approved recordings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly from the 1940s and early 1950s. The albums featured some of the famous photographs by Robert Hupka of Toscanini in rehearsal. Victrola also reissued Toscanini's highly-acclaimed 1936 recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Initially, only monaural versions were issued. Then, in an attempt to satisfy fans of stereo, a number of "electronic stereo" versions were issued; generally, these were less than satisfactory because the tapes seldom had high enough fidelity to justify the separation of highs and lows, changes in equalization for each channel, or use of out-of-phase effects. Remarkably, for the time, the record liner notes included the dates and locations that the recordings were made.
Victrola also went well back into the RCA Victor archives to issue tributes to various operatic singers, as well as groups of singers. They also reissued complete operas, including Erich Leinsdorf's famous Rome sessions, which began with the 1957 stereo recording of Puccini's Tosca with Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, and Leonard Warren. One of the more important reissues on the Victrola label was the 1932 live recording of Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
Victrola released a number of compilations of operatic recordings, taken mostly from 78-rpm "Red Seal" discs. RCA had an extensive collection of recordings by famous opera singers, going back to its beginnings as the Victor Talking Machine Company in the early 1900s. The most famous recordings were by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso; all of his recordings were made by the acoustical recording process before Victor began commercial electrical recording in 1925. There were a number of Victrola albums devoted to a single singer such as Caruso, Richard Crooks, Lawrence Tibbett, Rosa Ponselle, Ezio Pinza, John McCormack, Titta Ruffo, Amelita Galli-Curci, Lauritz Melchior, and Kirsten Flagstad, as well as compilations devoted to the French, German, and Italian operas. Although these albums were released before the advent of digital remastering, great care was taken to achieve the best possible sound through various electronic processes available in the 1960s and 1970s. Actually, some of Caruso's recordings were among the first to be digitally remastered, using a ground-breaking process developed by Thomas G. Stockham at the University of Utah, and RCA began a project to reissue all of Caruso's recordings on the RCA Red Seal label.
Most Victrola LP releases beginning in the early 1970s were issued on RCA's ill-fated "Dynaflex" format, which used thinner, lighter-weight discs. This cost-cutting effort frustrated many record collectors of the time, especially since some of the discs had an audible rumble when played on better quality phonographs. Despite RCA's claims to the contrary, these records could warp over time and the company eventually abandoned the process.
Some of the Victrola albums were later reissued on audio cassettes and CDs, but the label was eventually replaced by RCA Victor Gold Seal, which continued with digitally remastered historic performances, including the complete Toscanini recordings released by RCA Victor and the complete Rachmaninoff recordings issued by Edison Records and RCA Victor. (In 1973, when the Rachmaninoff collections were first released on Red Seal LPs, RCA reported that it had frequently utilized record collectors to provide vintage recordings because its own archives are incomplete.) One of the more impressive, later Victrola reissues on cassette and CD was the 1973 uncut performance of Rachmaninoff's second symphony by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Most new CD and cassette issues on the Victrola label beginning in the late 1980s consisted of stereo recordings of mostly standard symphonic and instrumental works drawn from former Red Seal issues. The fairly short lived Silver Seal label also offered bargain priced CD issues of the standard classical repertoire.
With the 2004 merger of BMG (the parent company of RCA Victor recordings) and Sony (the parent company of Columbia recordings), RCA Victrola, as well as RCA Camden, and Silver Seal were abandoned as active labels. Some of these recordings can still be found on various websites. Sony, however, continues to reissue historic recordings from both RCA and Columbia catalogues.
- RCA Victrola liner notes
- Wikipedia article on the "Symphony of the Air"
- RCA Victrola catalogue
- Review by Robert E. Nylund
- Sony BMG website