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"Remaster Craftsman"

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Sun-Sentinel, 22 August 2004

In the recording industry's infancy, the voices of artists such as Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, Beniamino Gigli, Nellie Melba and Tito Schipa provided music aficionados with their first exposure to opera.

Yet the sound emerging from these primitive recordings was often a tinny, ghostly reflection of what these singers sounded like in the flesh. And today, the scratchy surfaces of the era's fragile shellac 78s bear the pops and clicks of intervening decades, requiring immense patience and concentration from listeners.

With the advent of the digital era, celebrated musicians of the early 20th century have gotten a new lease on life. And no one has done more to make their artistry sing again than remastering wizard Ward Marston.

For three decades now, the Pennsylvania native has provided a bridge to our musical past. Marston is a sonic magician, hailed for his restorations of antique, often intractable historical recordings. With 500 CDs worth of material released to date, his work has garnered international acclaim and several honors including a Grammy and Gramophone Award.

"You want to get the sound as natural as possible," said Marston, from his home outside of Philadelphia. "I listen to as much live music as I can to keep the sound of real music in my ear. I always try to make the record sound like music -- not like records."

Much as art experts repair damaged paintings and film historians refurbish deteriorating movies, Marston is the acknowledged leader in the field of audio restoration, approaching the task with the precision and meticulous concentration of a master surgeon. The presence, immediacy and striking amount of sonic detail that emerge from Marston's remastered work are little short of astonishing.

In Marston's second go-round restoring Caruso's complete recordings for the Naxos label, the Italian tenor's vibrant voice fairly leaps out of the speakers with impact, dynamic nuance and tonal subtleties that could only be guessed at previously. Other sonic excavation work has brought soprano Nellie Melba, violinist Maud Powell and tenor Tito Schipa to an entirely new generation of music collectors.

The fact that the 52-year-old opera fan has been blind since birth has been only a modest impediment to his work. Marston admits it may have enhanced his legendary ear for pitch and intonation, but claims no special qualities over his sighted colleagues.

"I think it's probably true that I can focus my attention perhaps more," he said. "But I'm the only blind person doing this, and there's plenty of other people with eyesight doing great transfer work, too."

Cache of Caruso

Marston's fascination with the artists on historical recordings came at a very young age, when the 5-year-old unearthed a cache of Caruso 78s at his great-uncle's house. Marston said he will never forget the moment when he played the first Caruso aria. "I was absolutely enthralled," he recalls. "It was like I was immediately transported to a different place. It really took me into another world. I wanted to know more about this kind of singing."

Marston's uncle was an avid collector with hundreds of 78s. Soon young Ward was delving into arias and songs sung by John McCormack, Tetrazzini, Amelita Galli-Curci, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Tita Ruffo.

When he was 8, his uncle gave Ward his entire collection, and the boy scoured thrift shops for more. "I was fortunate in that I grew up at a time when the LP was replacing the 78 and people were discarding them," he says. Marston's musical interest quickly expanded to orchestral music, especially performances led by the great Leopold Stokowski, who has remained a favorite.

Honing his craft

Marston's hobby took on a practical application and charted his future while he was attending Williams College in Massachusetts, where he earned his history degree. Working at the college classical radio station, he became frustrated by the difficulties in playing old recordings of extended works.

"I wanted to play 78s," he recalls. "I tried to figure out a way to join the sides together so I could play an entire symphony without flipping the records over every four minutes." Rather than the standard tape-splicing method, Marston used a stereo tape recorder, putting one 78 on one channel and the next on the other. He then overlapped the two to achieve seamless side joins and ensure uninterrupted musical continuity without jarring interruptions.

After graduation, Marston produced and engineered a comprehensive 58-show series on Philadelphia public radio, Stokowski: The Philadelphia Years. Early work doing transfers for the International Piano Archive on the Desmar label led to retooling Budapest String Quartet performances for CBS. Marston honed his craft over the six years he worked for The Franklin Mint, when the organization was putting out elaborate boxed sets of classical, jazz, folk and country. After the Mint got out of the music business, Marston was able to freelance for other companies. His reputation spread and his remasterings began to receive accolades from critics and music historians.

Though the majority of his work is done as a freelancer for a host of labels including Naxos, Andante, Pearl and BMG/RCA, Marston has increasingly devoted his efforts to his own eponymous label, launched in 1997 with business partner Scott Kessler.

Averaging about 10 releases a year, Marston Records is the ne plus ultra of historical music labels. In addition to boasting Marston's nonpareil transfer work, each release is handsomely produced with a generous array of archival photos and comprehensive notes.

Among the more than 50 releases to date are discs devoted to singers such as Marcel Journet, Claire Croiza and Johanna Gadski, pianist Josef Hofmann, and the French Pathé Company's pioneering series of complete opera recordings begun in 1911. Most fascinating of all is The Edison Voice Trials. Recorded as tests for the inventor's cylinder recording system, these auditions of long-forgotten singers from 1912 and 1913 are astonishing for their vividness and detail.

Niche market

Compared to the mega-numbers of Norah Jones and Eminem, Marston's sales will always seem relatively minute. A thousand units is a good average, he says, with popular releases like the Hofmann discs and Edison Trials going as high as 2,500 -- "fabulous" numbers for a niche label.

Having recently lost their distributor, harmonia mundi, Marston and Kessler now do their own marketing through a subscriber list and their elegant Web site (marstonrecords.com).

Marston is excited about several new projects, including the complete recordings of pianist Leopold Godowsky and mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia.

He stresses that the reason for his label's existence is not to ring up massive sales but to put rare performances out there for the general public.

"We can keep going as long as we decide we want to," he says. "Right now it really is a labor of love."

A jazz pianist who plays private dates with his own dance band, Marston is somewhat comparable to the finest of the artists he has restored to life: a painstaking perfectionist who is always seeking to improve his own best efforts.

"It's a lot of work and there's a lot of subjective processing that has to go on," he says. "How should a recording sound? How much tinkering should I do? How much of an interventionist should I be? My ideas change from day to day."

Though he is rarely completely satisfied, Marston takes pride in his work on the recent Andante set, which restored Stokowski's complete Wagner recordings to the public.

"I worked very hard and spent long hours," he recalls. "I don't think I could have done any better. I think I did my best."

© Copyright 2004 Sun-Sentinel Company


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